Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Volunteer's Thoughts

By ~ Melanie Wathugala

Some of you may know that I’ve been working in Sri Lanka for the past few months. Some of you may also know that there was a 30 year war in Sri Lanka that only officially ended in 2009.

Growing up in America, I honestly didn’t know much about the conflict. My parents didn’t talk about it and I suppose we visited the country during the more peaceful times since I never witnessed any violence. I started to really learn about it around only 2011, actually, when certain groups were talking about genocide in Sri Lanka… but that’s a different story.

Anyway, the gist of the war (in oversimplified words!!) is that there are multiple ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, with the Sinhala being the majority. (Usually people say there are Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim people –which doesn’t totally make sense to me…) After the British left, they got a lot of the government positions and there was even an Act passed that made Sinhala the official language. Basically the minorities weren’t treated as well and the LTTE formed. This was a terrorist group that wanted part of the country for the Tamil people. Lots of killings happened from the government’s side and the LTTE’s side. That’s war for you.

That brings us to now --- what are people doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again? At some point Sinhala and Tamil are official languages (I think and something about English being a linker), and there are various policies/programs like,demilitarizing the police, and creating new highways, that I think are supposed to help the country heal.

Sri Lanka Unites (SLU), run by “youth” (under 30), is aiming for reconciliation through their Future Leaders Conference. I found out about it since the SLU’s National Director and Volunteer Coordinator dropped by The Asia Foundation and asked us to volunteer if we were interested. My boss here was okay with it and boom, suddenly I was a volunteer for SLU (accidentally bypassing the application process, whoops).

I don’t speak Sinhala very well, though I can understand a fair amount, and I can only say a few phrases in Tamil. That was probably my biggest challenge at the conference. But let me back it up a bit and tell you the general schedule.

On Tuesday, August 26, around 10:30 pm the girls buses left from Colombo – after like two tea stops, we made it to the school in Ampara around 6 am.  The school is where we ate, slept (on mats in empty classrooms), bathed (when there was water),played sports, and watched performances. The kids started arriving at noon so I had a bit of time to shower and nap. From then on we had a packed schedule.Volunteer meetings were at 6:30 am. By 9 we were bused a couple kilometers away to a big hall for “sessions” which were like lectures on future careers, leadership,making changes. Then we came back for lunch, bused back for an afternoon session and then started sports back at the school around 4:30. I’ll admit I don’t think I lasted any entire session without taking a small nap. Something about the heat in there…

The sports were like relay games and other things that required teamwork.

Then we had some time to take a wash and eat dinner before watching some teams perform (like a skit or a song) about the theme of the day.And it ended with “entertainment” which meant the kids getting to dance or watching performances. We slept around midnight.

So, my team (“beware, beware, Batticoloa Bandits!” – that’sour cheer) was 17 people. Four girls, thirteen boys. (Parents of girls are less likely to send them to an overnight conference?) Most of them spoke Tamil and all I could say at this point is like “My name is… How are you?” (Enda peer…Eppadi suham?) so that was probably the most challenging thing for me. I wanted to be able to learn a lot about their lives and connect with them and encourage them to talk to each other but mostly I asked basic questions about their ages,and if they had siblings. Still the ones that knew a bit of English and the ones that figured out I could understand Sinhala made an effort to talk to me.Sometimes I even explained the game/activity first in English and then a co-volunteer would translate.

I was watching all of them carefully the first afternoon and whole next day, wondering how well they are communicating with each other and if they had any prejudices about other ethnicities/regions. After the first sports day, when I went to shower, the water ran out, so I had to wait while a truck came to fill the tank. So, I was pretty late to dinner. By the time I got there, the kids had mostly eaten and they were all talking excited and greeted me “Melanie Akka!! We were waiting!” and taking pictures of each other and trying to add me on Facebook. I was so surprised. What happened while I was gone? Was it the sports? The long wait for a shower?

Of course there were some kids who were still very quiet but by the last day they were all counting each other (instead of me counting them all the time to make sure we weren’t missing anyone) and even the quietest one (he was adorable) could be seen cheering loudly for our team. I had never been any kind of camp counselor before so that was pretty amazing.

I thought the program they had for the kids was really great for five days. Also, considering the water and electricity restrictions… it was amazing. They did their best to have it in all three languages – even setting up headphones to hear real time translations for every seat in the hall. Unfortunately, wires running along the floor under rows of movable plastic chairs was unlikely to stay intact and I feel like a lot of equipment got damaged just from people getting to their seats. When they did actual speeches in all three languages, it got very long, so that was also a bit hard.But of course worth it for people to understand. I believe there were more Tamil speakers at this conference (I could be wrong) so I was surprised when sometimes Tamil wasn’t immediately there but I think overall it was good.

They had a career panel where students had questions about how to get into a certain field and the panelist tried to give concrete advice that wasn’t just like go study and apply to jobs/schools, but like volunteer for this specific organization and build your experience in this specific way.They had a social media section talking a bit about how many Sri Lankans just accept every request they get. (I don’t remember if I fell asleep and missed it but I thought he should have talked about how social media could be used to create awareness on issues and not only to be “safe.”)

They had sessions on leadership, making change, and what reconciliation is. I like the points they made about it being a continuous process of healing, repairing, and transforming. There was also this great analogy of like the British leaving being like having new shoes that cut us but we keep it on and ignore the wound since we’re excited about having new shoes(independence). There was also a good point about how reconciliation of communities is different than reconstruction…

There was a forum theatre. Apparently the point of this is to act out some social situations that have “problems.” The kids then had a chance to take the place of one of the actors and change the scene to make it what they think is better. The point is to make them think about things they see happening and think about how they can change this in real life. The first series of acts was about a girl who didn’t want to go to school. On the way there, she was harassed by a man standing unnecessarily close to her on the bus with the conductor just telling her if she doesn’t like it to take a three-wheeler. Then at the school, she was told to stay behind and work on a failed test. There was a boy who was interested in her, and previously they were friendly (I think?) but she didn’t want to talk to him or get his help on the test. Despite her protests and clear “go away!s” he dragged her off stage and it was clear what was going on. This was hard to watch but what was harder was the reaction in the audience. During the bus scene AND during the rape scene people were cheering/jeering. At first I thought I had misunderstood (this play was in Sinhala) but no, I hadn’t. It was extremely uncomfortable for me and I realized that this could easily happen with some audiences in America as well. I was told later (when I was ranting about this) that perhaps laughter is the way to deal with something that is a real situation that people see and don’t know what to do about it. At that moment, the director didn’t yell at the kids,just saying, this could have been your Amma, Nangi, Achchi (mom, little sister,grandma). He told us later he didn’t want to suck the energy out of the room…To make up for this there was a presentation the next day about sexual harassment (including street harassment) which I hope has planted seeds in to the students’ heads about how just because these things always happen, does not mean that’s the way it should be or has to be. No one talks about these issues so I hope they will start to ask questions at least.

Some moments where I felt like really glad this conference existed were during the last days’ cheers in the hall. When people would shout“Who are we?” and everyone would answer “SRI LANKA” I felt like…damn. These kids (many of them prefects) will hopefully continue their leadership with this idea of one country that needs to work together to heal. Also impressive is that there is now a Congo Unites based on SLU.

Maybe people will argue that we should be pushing these ideas on current politicians and leaders and I am sure there are movements for that. But part of what’s so important about getting the youth aware of these current issues and excited about positive change is that these are literally the future leaders. Also, I believe the way Sri Lanka’s demographics are changing, these youth are an increasing percentage of the population in Sri Lanka. Some speaker said, it’s like when the young people started wearing jeans and older people thought it was weird but now everyone wears them. Sometimes the youth can teach their parents about new ideas since they are not already set in certain modes of thinking.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sri Lanka Unites Responds to Important Questions

First and foremost we want to thank everyone for taking the time to engage with us in a conversation. In the past we have been dismayed at how our nation is plagued by a tendency among people to make judgements about each others efforts and discredit them based on various assumptions. We thank Dinudu for taking the higher ground and giving us an opportunity to address certain perceptions and clarify our approach. We have been working tirelessly for seven years. At times it feels much easier to write an article or a blog on our frustrations on the current state of affairs than actually attempting to do something about them, considering how daunting they seem.. In fact, the former often seems to gain more of fan base and receive more applause from segments of the urban elite than actual action and demonstrable progress. Yet, since such recognition and applause are not what motivates us, we strive to work harder to see sustainable change. Sri Lanka deserves better, we are better that what we have become and therefore we focus on investing in a new generation. In the following weeks we will take time away from work to engage in such Q and A with anyone who is willing to engage. We believe many actors have to play their role in reconciliation. In that journey we are determined to play our part. Here are our responses to the questions raised by Mr. Dinidu de Alwis.

Question 1) Does Sri Lanka Unites accept that civilian deaths occurred during the final phases of the war, that both the LTTE and the GoSL are responsible for these deaths, and hence an impartial - be it local or international - investigation should be carried out to find answers, identify those responsible in the entire command structure, and punish where necessary?

Sri Lanka Unites believes that authentic and sustainable reconciliation is not possible without justice and equality. This is a fundamental requirement for reconciliation. Our understanding of reconciliation is based on the Hebrew root word ‘Tikuum Olam’ which means a triune process of HEAL - REPAIR AND TRANSFORM. In order to HEAL the impact of ethnic division, the civil war, and the lost lives, we must first acknowledge the evils that have committed by all stakeholders. This cannot be swept under the rug. History has proven that grievances ignored will eventually destroy the potential for a sustainable peace. Therefore having independent local or international investigations to bring major perpetrators to justice along with the exercise of restorative justice mechanisms to bring the common man to a place of healing is of paramount importance. As a youth movement, and as part of Sri Lankan civil society, SLU understands that it has no authority or influence to set up independent inquires. Expecting such from a civil society organization, especially a movement of essentially youth volunteers, is inconceivable. However, we are in the process of setting up communal restorative justice mechanisms connecting our reconciliation centre in Matara , Mullaitivu and the upcoming one in the East.

REPAIRing the structures involves ensuring that those wounds do not reoccur in today's society and ensuring a resistance towards structural violence. TRANSFORMATION lies in the process of creating a national identity and a sense of belonging and ownership of all our people. A environment where no one is placed in a situation where they feel they are ‘second class citizens’ because of their ethnicity , religion, gender, or socio-economic standing. A dream that is far from the current scenario, but an ideal certainly worth working towards.

In regard to civilian deaths during the final stages of the war, we are convinced that many innocent civilians died during the war. Not just because we read it in the news but because we have been actively involved in the North and East for over seven years. We have over 200 students in our reconciliation centre in Mullaitivu and thousands of members in the region, many of whom have lost at least one family member or friend during the war. We are constantly engaged in helping them rebuild their lives by investing in their education and now working on trauma counselling programs for those who seek it. We don't believe in making statements from Colombo. We have been part of these communities for over 5 years and established ourselves in the community as trusted partners for over two years.

Question 2) Does Sri Lanka Unites understand that true reconciliation can not be achieved until and unless the loved ones of those who've been killed and made to disappear, both at the hands of the LTTE and the GoSL, have answers, found through a process such as mentioned above? We believe that reconciliation is not possible in a society where prejudices and misconceptions across ethnic lines thrive. This is as important as pursuing the component of justice. Administering justice does not guarantee reconciliation. Punitive justice measures at times leave communities further apart. Therefore we believe in creating an environment where a new generation of Sri Lankan leaders have an opportunity to interact, understand and grow with communities that were once viewed as enemies. Over the past 5 years our research has shown us that over 70% of Sri Lankan youth don't have a friend outside their community. Many in Sinhala-only communities still believe “Tamil = terrorist”, many believe that this is a “Sinhala Buddhist land” and everyone else is a second-class citizen. There are many Tamils who believe that all Sinhalese are racists and nationalists. This is the reality of the grassroots and this creates a dangerous climate for any attempts of pursuing justice and reconciliation. The longer we keep these communities apart, the deeper the hate and higher the chance for animosity to rise. Therefore we believe in the importance of investing in the next generation - expanding their worldview to challenge the flawed notions and broad assumptions such as Tamil = Terrorist , Sinhala = Racist and Muslim = Radical. These interactions help students change their mindsets and have a broader worldview and be willing to judge people by the content of their character and not by the community they belong to. Every 18 years since independence Sri Lanka has seen massive blood shed. This has been along ethnic lines, socio-economic lines or religious lines. Young people have been manipulated by extremist factions to demonize an entire group of people and choose violence as their only option. It is the young who have been brainwashed, used as tools of violence, and left with futures ruined. We at Sri Lanka Unites believe that investing in the youth to resist extremist notions, make wiser non-violent choices, and invest their energy in peace and reconciliation, is vital for change. If we don't help them direct their attention to positive ends they too will end up being prey to the next group of extremists that require them to pursue violence.
Reconciliation takes a generation and we are investing in a generation to lead us there. It doesn't happen over night and it doesn't happen just because justice is administered. It will most certainly help but it will not promise result. We invest in a generation that might be the future leaders of the this country who would break the current political deadlock, ethno-centric, triumphalist bickering politics and lead our nation to true justice and reconciliation. A generation that will have the political will to not ignore grievances and administer justice. A new generation of Sri Lankans who will build a nation of meritocracy and equality.

Question 3) Does Sri Lanka Unite accept and admit that the roots of the ethnic conflict and the call for a separate state did not stem from mere misunderstandings, but from a systematic treatment of Tamil people in the North as second class citizens by the Sri Lankan State, and that some of these root issues are yet to be addressed?

We believe that war is an outward manifestation of deeper problems. The Tamil community and other minority groups have been suppressed and many of these grievances go unheard even unto this day. While violent uprising was never justified, which at the end of the day left these groups on a worse footing, we see these grievances as the root causes of the war. For the Sinhalese community who experienced much hardship in the colonial era, while not justified, used colonial hurt and discrimination as an excuse to set themselves as the ‘superior’ citizens of our country.

We address these issues through the conference, through our all island tours, and our mentoring and leadership sessions. There is not one Sri Lanka Unites member who believes the end of war = the end of conflict. The issues of legitimate grievances, understanding another perspective and working together for each others rights has been a fundamental message of the movement. We are engaging grassroots communities and youth that never hear such perspectives and have never known facts beyond what was given to them by extremist political factions from their own community.

One of our key young leaders from Hambantota recently made a speech where he declared that he aspires to be a parliamentarian. He went on to state that before SLU, his passion was to serve “his Sinhala Buddhist people” from his village in Belliatta. Yet, his passion now is to serve all Sri Lankan people, he wants to fight for the rights of communities in Kepa, in Mullaituvu - a community that lost their lands after the war, and a community that he has visited on numerous occasions through SLU. Our students don't just acknowledge grievances and write an article about it, they seek to find ways they can do something about it. They walk the talk and that is what gives us hope for the future.

Question 4) Does Sri Lanka Unites accept and admit that civilian administration has not yet been set up in the North, that there is continued militarisation in the region, that the Northern Provincial Council has not been given the legal, financial and administrative space to govern its own people, that there is continued large scale harassment and violation of personal liberties of the people of the North, that the involvement of the State and the military in the affairs of the people of the North is incomparable to any other province in the country, and that these continue to be serious hindrances for the healing that is needed for a people after dealing with three decades of civil war?

We believe that civilian rule in all of Sri Lanka is essential for sustainable peace and equality.
We have made our position clear to many military personnel , but also admit that we do not fully know, nor do we have access to intelligence information on, justifiable threats for military presence.
Regardless, we believe five years after war is ample time to begin a process of demilitarisation in the North and East. We also believe in the importance of a meaningful decentralization of decision-making powers, so that the people in local areas have much more say in determining and shaping their own future, in electing the people that govern them, and deliver development, rather than settle for solutions that are determined, designed and implemented from far away. This is a crucial step towards building trust among communities and also to build a better foundation for reconciliation.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Triumph of Friendships Over Ethnic Divisions

Hasith Sanjaya from Kegalle
He is Tamil and comes from Jaffna in North; and he is a Kegalle lad from the town nestled between the central highlands and western southern plains and Sinhalese to the core. His uncle was allegedly shot by the Sinhalese Army; and his father has been part of the naval force that fought the LTTE. They could not have been any farther apart from each other. Yet theirs is a friendship that could make for an interesting movie and is the harbinger of the sustainable peace in the island country of Sri Lanka after three decades of bloody war.

It was in 2010 that they first meet each other there was a huge barrier of hate between them perpetuated by decades of violence where communities knew no other emotions towards each other. Also the language barrier was not of much help. For Sanjay from Kegalle it was for the first time to meet a Tamil in person and shake hands with him. For Thilak as well this was the first opportunity to meet a Sinhalese person of his age. Before this, Thilak’s heart was filled only with negative emotions conditioned by the years of conflict.

“In my village every home has lost at least a member as LTTE had made it compulsory to join the organization. My mother had lost her brother so she was angry,” said Thilak, he is from Kondavil. “My father was in Navy and one of his arms were damaged during the final war against LTTE. But still he always made a point to tell me that not all Tamils are bad,” said Sanjay in Sinhalese with an innocence peculiar to his age. 

Thilak Lakshaya from Jaffna

So the chance meeting during the second edition of the Future Leaders’ Conference (FLC) did not make them fast friends immediately. Rather when Sanjay went home after the conference and started talking on phone, which considering the language barrier was a herculean task. Later Sanjay visited Thilak family in Jaffna and his mom went to the extent of writing a letter in Tamil. “Sanjay’s mother did not know Tamil, but still she wrote a letter to me in Tamil and calls me on my Birthday,” Thilak said underlining how easy it is to be friend with someone. “My father never believed in reconciliation but once he visited Sanjay’s home their opinions have also changed,” added Thilak. Sanjay chipped in, “My family has visited them in Jaffna and now we are family friends. Our siblings also get along like house on fire.” It is the first time for Sanjay’s family in Jaffna – that has been one of the main theaters during the war. “Till I was five years old I lived in Trincomalee and only saw the sufferings of my own people, but it was during the FLC that I came across the stories about the loss suffered by people pitted against us,” added Sanjay. 

Now both of them are ready to strengthen their friendship more by working on their language skills. “I can understand and speak a bit of English. So we do not express freely because of the language barrier and we are only managing. But now I intend to brush up my English,” Sanjay said, as Thilak smiled back.  

With an air of finality, Sanjay added, “You do not have to look at ethnicity or religion to become good friends.” Coming from the mouth of the 20 year olds, the emotions augur well for Sri Lanka’s future.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Five Years of Building Hope and Reconciliation

“Those who have lost their near and dear ones during the three decades of the long war please step forward to the line.” As the question was asked, everyone present in the hall took a step forward and stood facing each other. They belonged to all the communities of the rainbow country that Sri Lanka is with all its diversity.

The final question was part of the Freedom Writers’ game enacted during the Teachers’ Training Programme by Sri Lanka Unites during the ongoing 5-day Future Leaders’ Conference. The realization that the protracted violence had inflicted all the communities has to begin with the teachers, who can then mentor their students. Violent social conflict often results in all side having the victim‘s mentality and restricts the ability to be considerate towards the sufferings of the other community. Conflict parties often ignore that Social conflict is often struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power and resources, in which the aim is to neutralize, injure or eliminate each other.

 The final question was enough to drive home the point that it was Sri Lanka as a country that was adversely affected and not just one community. The game will soon be replicated for the 450 students from 20 districts across the island nation as part of the Sri Lanka Unites reconciliation movement. So far over 2000 students have participated in the Freedom Writers’ Game and several times like during the FLC-04 in Jaffna the game ended on high emotional notes with students from different communities stood in two rows facing each other. It is in each other’s eyes, that they find the shadows of pain created by the violence.

On the day of arrival, one could see the students huddled within their school groups and hesitant to mingle with the students from other schools. But within two days with their new found friends and they have gelled with each other pretty well and are learning to play as a team despite differences, pick each other up when in need and pat each other’s back when someone do well. They have learned the value of team work and communication through untangling human knot, established trust among themselves by meandering through the maze blind folded as one of their own guide them through and appreciated how everyone in the society was linked through Web.

Human knot is an amazing game which not only act as an ice-breaker but the team mates also get the message that even though they did not create the problem in the first place, they need to work collectively to overcome complex problems. Blind maze underlines the importance of two-way communication as a team member steers his/her blindfolded team members to overcome the obstacles without touching them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Call for sustainable peace is loud from every part of Sri Lanka

He hails from Beliatta village down south of Sri Lanka and one that has seen at least one funeral during the time of the war that reached its end in 2009. He himself has lost two of his cousins to the bloody war that raged for nearly three decades. It was in this backdrop that Akila Mayuranga Hettiarachchi, got in touch with Sri Lanka Unites (SLU), seeking to piece together the fragmented Sri Lankan society to steer it towards sustainable peace

It was barely a year after the war ended and his impression about Future Leaders’ Conference (FLC) was that it was a conference to groom future leaders. Even when he attended the mentoring before FLC-2, he thought that reconciliation was a far-fetched idea. After all, he came from a village which mostly comprised of Sinhalese Buddhists and has never seen a person of different community leaving there.

 His main motivation to attend FLC-3 was to get new friends. He did not have hatred towards the Tamil, but he did not want to be part of Teams named after regions like Jaffna Giants or Kegalle Kohawks. He had, in fact, come with nine other friends of his, who had to be part of these teams. “I managed to get into Galle Gladiators and my friends went to the teams named after Tamil inhabited regions. Initial two days everybody was sticking to their community groups. But by the last day my school friends virtually forgot me as they became good friends with students from other region,” said Akila.

Since then he has been associated with SLU and has even contributed to the Champions of Change project and has collaborated with local schools to undertake small community development projects. “Since that time I have come in touch with 600-700 students and have been able to convince them about the need of reconciliation in the society to bring communal harmony,” Akila added with a shy smile. He aspires to go to Japan and study motor engineering or become a pilot. “I want to become financially independent so that I can get into politics and work towards united Sri Lanka,” he elaborated.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Conflict Diaries from Colombo

Conflict has been often seen from the perspective of the parties involved. But sometimes even those not in conflict zone bear the brunt of it.

When the Pearl Island has been seething from the nearly three decades long war, the national capital Colombo was also not left unscathed. The Central Bank Bombing in 1996, followed by the Bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1997 in Colombo has been etched in the memories of the population, especially the generation that grew under the shadows of the conflict. Hasara Lieyanage, in his teens during the time of war, can recall the incidents vividly.

Talking about the Central Bank Bombing, he says, “It was insane. After the initial explosion another truck carrying several hundred kilograms of explosives rammed into the building. The glass building shattered and while many were killed several others were rendered sightless.” The blast had left 91 people dead and 1400 others injured. Over a 100 people went blind due to the glass shreds.

He himself has had close shave on three occasions and in one incident it was a fortuitous crossing of road that saved his life. Recalling the days he said: “That was ominous times. I know many of my friends parents had precautionary decisions not to travel together in the same vehicle, so in case of an incident at least one of them survives.” It was these experiences that drove Hasara to move outside his comfort zone and do his bit in the re-building of post conflict society in Sri Lanka.

He was introduced to Sri Lanka Unites by a friend and then he went on to attend the Future Leaders’ Conference-4 afterwards there was no turning back. “I had friends earlier from all ethnicities, but I had never met somebody who has been directly affected in the war zone. At FLC-4, my team had this Tamil student who had lost his/her family member in the war and had seen a lot of victims,” said Hasara, adding, “That boy was scared of Sinhalese people and in fact, we were the first Sinhalese people with whom he had actually interacted.” “This just highlighted that how we really needed to work on building the social fabric of the country to achieve harmony,” he reflected.

He continues to be associated with Sri Lanka Unites and wants to take the message of giving peace a chance to as many people as possible.