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Preparing For Northern Elections And Winning Hearts And Minds

Jehan Perera – colombo telegraph

Jehan Perera

The A9 highway that bisects the Northern Province and leads to its capital of Jaffna would be the best advertisement for the government in its election campaign to win the provincial council elections scheduled to be held in September. The dramatic improvement in the highway and the network of roads that connect to it have enhanced the quality of life to all who make use of them, be they the businessman or landless labourer, northerner or southerner.  But the A9 highway, which was once called the highway of death on account of the thousands of lives it consumed during the war, also shows why the government cannot win those forthcoming elections unless there is a change of course.

The huge military checkpoint at Omanthai, which was once the border between government and LTTE-controlled territories in the north, still stands like an ageing dinosaur. All vehicles traversing the road at this point have to stop to be checked.  At the best it means getting out of one’s vehicle and giving one’s identity card and vehicle number to be written down in a register.  But sometimes it can mean having one’s bags poked and opened for inspection.  Passengers in private vehicles are usually spared the hassle of getting down to be checked, but those travelling by bus have to disembark and line up to be checked. This war-time practice serves as a reminder of the war and the division of the country.

A police officer who flagged down our vehicle and requested a short ride was present when this exercise took place.  He explained that the roots, or is it seeds, of militancy still remained in the people of the North and needed to be guaded against.  The visible surveillance serves as a reminder to them that the government is watching and it is better to keep out of trouble.  Viewed from the other side the visible presence of the military in the North is a constant reminder to the people that they are mistrusted and being treated differently.  It also sends a harsh message that the North is still not fully integrated with the rest of the country, remains a potential threat, and hence it is under a state of military occupation, even if largely benign.

Military Presence

The large military presence in the Northern and Eastern provinces, even after the war, has been a source of grievance to the people living in those parts. The issue of the military presence has re-emerged in full force due to the government’s decision to acquire over 6000 acres of prime land in the Jaffna peninsula to set up a regional military headquarters.  It is reported that as many as 25 Grama Niladari divisions (which means more than 25 villages) will be affected.  Thousands of people will be affected, with an estimated 29,000 still in camps for the displaced.  The military has said that this land is being acquired under relevant law, and this is done in other parts of the country also.  But given the large territory and population that will be affected, and the lack of transparency in military affairs, it has also given rise to fears of army-sponsored Sinhalese settlements in the North.

It is noteworthy that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission has recommended the de-militarisation of the north and the full restoration of civilian administration.  The two resolutions passed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and again in 2013 call upon the government to implement the constructive recommendations of the LLRC.  The LLRC was very specific on this issue, especially in regard to land issues, which is at the heart of people’s sense of belonging and security.  The LLRC said that many people who were displaced in the war had lost their title deeds and other documents proving their ownership or rights to use the land.  It recommended an expert and civil administration to restore to the people what had been theirs.  It also said that land policy should not be used to effect artificial changes in demography and the ethnic composition of the population.

The refusal of the military authorities to permit the Leader of the Opposition and a delegation of opposition parliamentarians from entering the area to see the situation for themselves is bound to send an adverse message to the Tamil people and to the international community about the ground realities in the north.  It highlights the lack of transparency that accompanies military affairs, which is why the military is unsuited to engage in civilian affairs. Unfortunately the indications of a shift in government policy towards the demilitarization of the north are bleak at the present time.  The government has recently added a second compulsory checkpoint in the North in addition to the one at Omanthai.  This is one at Elephant Pass at the entry/exit point of the Jaffna peninsula.  This latest checkpoint was announced a few days ago in the context of the sudden upsurge of politically motivated violence in the North which saw events organized by opposition parties broken up allegedly by security personnel in civilian attire.

Government Concern

The acts of violence that have started taking place against opposition activities in the North, as occurred with the Uthayan newspaper and TNA meetings, can be a harbinger of things to come.  The government’s determination to win the Northern Provincial elections reflects the government’s concern that it will pave the way to political and international challenges with the establishment of an opposition Tamil-led administration with a democratic mandate.  So far the government’s chief response to its local and international critics has been that it is the sole elected authority in the country entitled to speak on behalf of all the people.  Every time it wins an election it reminds its detractors that whatever they may say, it has the democratic sanction of the people.  An opposition and Tamil led provincial administration in the North would have a corresponding legitimacy to speak on behalf of the people who elected it.

Already two constituent parties of the government have expressed their opposition to these elections being held.   The All Ceylon Muslim League headed by Minister Rishard Bathiuddin has objected to the elections being held until all war-displaced Muslims are resettled in the Northern Province.  The National Freedom Front headed by Minister Wimal Weerawansa has stated that these elections can lead to an outcome that is detrimental to the country’s unity.  He has also said that the system of provincial councils should be scrapped and replaced by district councils.  Interestingly, President Rajapaksa himself articulated this vision of district-based devolution several years ago until local and international pressure caused him to withdraw from this position.  It is possible that views such as these are being floated to justify a postponement of the elections.

However, too much is at stake for the government to now seek to either abolish the provincial council system or postpone the promised September elections.  The President’s promise to hold the elections by September this year is noted in too many international documents, such as the joint communiqué signed by the Prime Minister of Japan and President Rajapaksa following his visit in March to Japan, and also in the UN Human Rights resolution on Sri Lanka which was also passed by a large majority of countries in March this year.  With the provincial elections to be held in September, there is still time for the government to make the shift that would make it more attractive to the northern voters.  De-militarisation of the North would come as the first priority accompanied by the resettlement of displaced people in their own lands.

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Role Of Religion And Religious Men In The Method Of Reconciliation

Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalarathana thero

Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalarathana thero

There is perhaps total consensus that religion is one of the major factors that exerts influences on the people: nurturing, moulding, and contributing to the development of their character. But religion by itself is not able to exert this influence. This happens depending on how it is communicated to the people. This religious communication is done by the religious men. Therefore, in discussing the issue of reconciliation, which involves both inter-religion and inter-religious harmony, the role of religious men has to be examined very carefully.

There are many religions in the world, and among them there are a number of world religions. I am not focusing my attention on all religions and all religious men, but on Buddhism and the Buddhist monks. This is mainly because I am a member of the community of Buddhist monks.

Buddhism is one of the world religions. It has influenced peoples of different nations and cultures throughout a very long period of over two and a half millenniums. From ancient times Buddhism has served as a reconciliatory force bringing together different factions divided on various grounds and issues: political, ethnic, social, economic, and so on. Sri Lanka itself bears evidence to this. It is with the introduction of Buddhism that the country became united and commenced its forward march to progress in all spheres of life. The world history shows similar histories in countries like Myanmar, Korea and Japan. This shows that Buddhism is a teaching that unites people. It is very necessary to understand this factor when communicating Buddhism.

There are certain factors that contribute to make Buddhism a unifying force. Basically one has to understand that Buddhism is for the ending conflict and for establishing peace. In Buddhist technical terminology these two objectives are explained as dukkha and its nirodha, which means cessation. Dukkha, usually translated into English as suffering, is in fact a term impregnated with different nuances of meaning. The term ‘Dukkha’ covers all human problems: pain, discontentment, dissatisfaction, dejection, conflict and so on. Hence, Buddhism can by simply explained as a teaching dealing with ‘human problems’. Though nonhumans, including animals, are not left out, the main focus is on the human being and his problems. This has to be born in mind when communicating the Buddhist teachings.

While Buddha claims that his teachings present an assured way of completely terminating and bringing about the cessation of all human problems, he explains how difficult it is to attain this state. This is the highest ideal; yet there are states below this ideal level which are harmonious, peaceful, and satisfying. While Buddha says that he presents an assured way to peace, he does not say that what he says is the only truth. He knows very well that if he said so, that will lead to conflicts and disputes. Such a claim would not be conducive to the peace, harmony, and well-being of the masses for which he urged his clergy of disciples to disseminate his teachings. Such a claim would be very divisive; leading to religious fundamentalism and even leading to destructive wars as evidenced by history.

The Buddha spoke about the separate identity of Buddhism. Yet he never attempted to impose Buddhist identity on other religions. Instead, he strove firmly to keep the masses in the track of religion without using discriminatory methods to veer them away from non-religion, especially pure materialism which denies all morals and ethics. In one of the very well-known discourses in the Majjhima-nikaya, namely, the Alagaddupama Sutta, he makes the following insightful observations:

“Some learn the teaching only for the sake of criticizing others and for winning debates, and they do not experience the good for the sake of which they learned the teaching. Those teachings, being wrongly grasped by them, conduce to their harm and suffering for a long time”.

To explain this wrong grasping of the religious teachings and consequent harm that befalls, he cites the simile of one who wrongly grasps a snake by the tail. When grasped in the wrong manner, the person who grasps it is bitten by the snake which causes his death. This is quite an effective simile to all religious men who wrongly grasp religious teachings, perhaps being inspired and urged by misconceived ideas.

Such grasping nullifies the purpose for which religions are preached. Religions are for unity, harmony peace, understanding, trust, and so on. It is mostly through wrong communication by over-enthusiastic, perhaps, well-meaning communicators of religious teachings that religions turn into destructive forces. The Buddha said in the already quoted discourses, that religion should be considered as a ‘raft’ that helps to tide over the numerous problems of life, or dukkha, as Buddhism puts it. One is admonished not to carry the religion on his head, or to load it on his shoulder, but to use it as a device to solve problems.

It is just blind and dogmatic clinging to religion that makes one veer towards religious fundamentalism, decrying all other religions, and communicating religious teachings in the wrong way, inciting the ‘faithful masses’ to all kinds of destructive and disruptive activities. This is happening all over the world.

Religious communicators have to perform their role with caution and insight, without being tempted and misled by personal considerations. Religion should not be made a political instrument nor should religious men become politicians or tools of politicians. It is true that it is very difficult to be above politics in the present political contexts. All have political views, mental inclination towards a particular political system, political views etc. But such views and inclinations should not be mixed up with religious teachings, especially with Buddhist teachings. The Buddha was never a politician, though he presented a political theory for the good of everyone to assure all the enjoyment of all main human rights and privileges.

Emperor Asoka of India adopted such a tolerant religious policy that was conducive to forge unity among all peoples of different faiths. He explicitly stated in his Edicts that one who disparages other religions is disparaging his own religion. Politicians should not entice religious men to serve their political needs. Such an attitude is very harmful in the long run. This makes the Buddhist monk’s role as communicator of the Buddha teaching a very tricky and a difficult task.

Religious men should realize that their task is to bring about unity among those who are divided. This role of the clergy, communicators of the teaching of the Buddha, has been very vibrantly described in a discourse called the Samannaphala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. This description explains the proper way such bhikhus should use their speech and says that “he should be one to be relied on, dependable, not a deceiver of the world, …a reconciler of those who are disunited and one who encourages those who are united, one who is delighting the unity and concord, and speaking up for peace”. Such should be the role of a good religious teacher.

This very clearly shows how Buddhism serves reconciliation and how a monk should work for the reconciliation of the divided if they really wish to be the sons of the Buddha. When the Buddha sent out the first sixty missionaries to communicate his new founded teaching, he requested them to preach the teachings for the good, well-being, and happiness of all.

This, ‘happiness for the many’ does not mean the happiness of the majority. Those who wish to follow fundamentalism and also wish to work under particular political directions could interpret this admonition in this narrow sense. But, the Buddha has made it very clear that all our actions have to be for the good of oneself and for the good of others. This morality goes far beyond the ‘narrow’ political interpretation of democracy. Buddhism is a democratic teaching, but this democracy does not mean the imposition of the majority view on the minority.

There is no question that the Teaching of the Buddha, his Dhamma, should be for the good and benefit of all. Buddha has shown that this could be done by getting hold of the dhamma in the proper manner, not as a political slogan, not as a propagandist cry, but as a message of peace and harmony. The Buddha has intervened not as a political negotiator but as a spiritual teacher to avert war between clans. It is well known that when the two clans, the Sakyans and the Koliyans, arrayed themselves, fully armed, to wage war against each other over the issue of sharing water of the Rohini river, the Buddha intervened and explained the futility and dangers that follow war. His attempt was to drive sense into warring parties and reconcile, and advice them not to act in a partisan manner that would further ignite the issue.

The Dhamma communicators have a duty to protect the Dhamma. But the protection of Buddhism should not be extended to the imposition of Buddhist identity and sentiments on other religions and religious men. Desecrating Buddhism and showing violent disrepute to Buddhism has to be stopped, and the members of the Sangha have a duty to do so. But this has to be done not by using force, violent behavior, and engaging in disruptive activities, but in a Buddhist way; in a peaceful way. If Buddhist clergy takes the law into their hands, totally disregard natural justice, rule of law and such other basic principles, the whole society will gradually break down, plunging the whole country into darkness and into a miserable state. To protect Buddhism is to live according to Dhamma. Living according to Dhamma itself is an inbuilt kind of protection for those who follow the Dhamma.

Religion is not the only factor of conflict and disunity. There are many other factors. So, in a multi- religious, multi-ethnic society beset with such conflicting issues, all are stakeholders in this process of reconciliation.

It is not only the majority population that bears the responsibility of working for unity and harmony. All minorities are duty bound to cooperate and integrate themselves with the majority. And, of course, the majority merely on the ground of the majority, should not try to dominate or impose their will on the majority or deprive the minorities of their due. Extremism and fundamentalism should be shunned by all, including the minorities. The majority should behave in a way that will not make minorities feel that they are being oppressed and deprived of their legitimate dues. Similarly, the minorities should not make undue demands and use their minority positions as a ruse to gain extra mileage.

It is in this state of conflicts that religion and religious men of moderate thinking and views can effectively play their roles. While properly communicating the essence of the respective teachings to devotes, they should specially impress upon the politicians regarding the role they also should play as ‘reconcilers’. If politicians fail to play their role properly, but use religion and religious men to achieve their own ends, then the whole process of reconciliation is bound to fail. With this observation, I conclude.

Thank you very much for your patient hearing.

*Ven. Prof.  Bellanwila Wimalarathana thero, Chancellor, Sri Jayewardenepura University. Speech delivered by Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalarathana thero at the National Conference ‘the Role of Religion in Reconciliation’ on July 23, 2013.  

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Feasible Part Of The Senior Sri Lankans In Resurrecting Democracy And Justice

prof_Laksiri_fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Seniors in different societies play different roles. Some years back when I first came across the name (Japan) Silver Volunteers (JSV), I wondered which ‘Silva’ had founded that organization in Japan. No, I was mistaken hearing the indistinct pronunciation. It was not Silva but Silver to mean, in our parlance, ‘grey haired’ generation. These JSV people even go overseas for voluntary work and had come to Sri Lanka as well. This generation in Japan exceeds 20 per cent of the population. In Sri Lanka this group is reaching 10 per cent, to mean the generation of over 60s.

What I am trying to say does not necessarily depend on the size of the group, but their experience, knowledge and unique capacity as seniors. In Australia, National Seniors Australia is a large non-profit making organization working for the welfare and recreation of the seniors. I am not even thinking of that kind of an organization. In Belgium, some seniors are running a hidden-camera TV comedy called ‘Benidorm Bastards’ which is of course humorous and also critical of hypocrisy in society. During the Vietnam War some seniors in the US took to the streets and protested alongside the young against that despicable war. In recent times, again the American seniors are voicing their protest against the insufficient Medicare system among other issues.

There were few senior citizens’ organizations in Sri Lanka few years back but except for one or two, others were not involved in social or political issues. Seniors today are also a sector most hit by the current inflation, financial scams, electricity rate hike without any direct concessions given on the part of the government, unlike in many other countries under similar circumstances. They are a sector most neglected.

However, more than the role of such organizations or such issues, what I am proposing here is a role for the seniors who were prominent in public life in the past, either in the public or the private sector as administrators, professionals, academics or even politicians, in defending the country’s diminishing international profile by fighting against violence, corruption and communalism and standing for democracy and justice. This would be a great service for defending the country’s deteriorating democracy, human rights and justice and fairness to all individuals and communities. If someone asks me if I am referring to the elite, yes, I am referring to them without neglecting some of the seniors coming from the working class or the trade union movement.

Seniors undoubtedly can play a major role in resurrecting democracy and on the issues of justice. They were born before or just after the independence (1948) in an atmosphere of much hope and promise for the country’s progress and development. They have experienced the best traditions of this country either in liberal or left politics within all communities; the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims. They entertained differences of opinion, at times heated ones, and knew how to resolve them through dialogue and negotiations. They have had much exposure to the international trends during the Vietnam War, the student’s movements in the 1960s, the collapse of communism and debates on colonialism or the non-aligned movement. Their views by and large are not tainted by narrow East West conflict, nationalism or completely self-centred ethnic or religious interests while conscious about justice in all these issues and areas. They are not narrow nationalist but may be enlightened patriots. They are in essence an enlightened generation although at times had to serve the country or different regimes almost suppressing their genuine views or true conscience some being public servants or judicial officers.

At retirement and without other obligations, they are now free from most of these encumbrances except what they choose voluntarily. In essence they are free. They also may be largely free from family obligations or worries on financial matters except perhaps on health. This is their strength. They can be brave. They can be quite a ‘nuisance’ to a tyrannical regime which is the case in Sri Lanka today. Becoming at least a ‘nuisance’ is a profound non-violent method of struggle.

I have seen some of them writing to this forum as well as to others on public issues of national importance expressing their genuine and frank opinions. Although they have not expressed the same opinion, they have aired their opposition to the three main scourges of this country; violence, corruption and communalism. There are other issues that they have touched upon such as inter-communal justice or injustice. Some of these senior writers are: Rajasingham Narendran, RMB Senanayake, Latheef Farook, Savitri Goonesekere, Jayantha Dhanapala, Austin Fernando, S Sivathasan, CV Wigneswaran, SL Gunasekera, Chandra Jayaratne, Lal Wijenayake and Charitha Ratwatte to mention a few but not in a particular order. I have mentioned their names without their titles. There are others who have always been vocal like Basil Fernando or Jehan Perera perhaps among the seniors, and others who are young that I don’t intend to mention.

My main concern however would be about many others who could make a definitive contribution if they express their views or determination. They should organize. I beg to mention few names with their indulgence. Some of these are Bradman Weerakoon, Seelan Kadirgamar, Kumari Jayawardena, Laksiri Jayasuriya, Godfrey Gunatilleke, Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, Ranjith Amerasinghe, Lloyd Fernando, Chandrasena Maliyadda and KHJ Wijayadasa. I mention KHJ Wijayadasa with some gratification as he was one of my teachers who taught briefly at St Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa, but first inspired me to learn beyond a textbook. They and many others particularly from the Tamil and Muslim communities could play an important role in collectively inspiring the younger generations to fight for democracy and social justice and particularly against corruption, violence and communalism in society. I should also mention another name and that is former President Chandrika Kumaratunga whose contribution to a collective of seniors would be immensely useful.

I have also noticed many commentators to this forum in pseudonyms but appear to be seniors judging from the rapid ‘intrusions’ that they make. I am not referring to the few ‘regime defenders’ but to others who can come in their real names as much as possible and make a collective contribution. Alter all seniors have nothing much to lose, except perhaps their ‘self-inflicted chains.’ I am not proposing anything adventurous but to become an ‘intellectual nuisance’ to the regime and its acolytes. They all do not need to write, but they can get together and write petitions or statements and perhaps gather and mark their protests on issues relevant to democracy and human rights or holding a placard or poster. They can become a bigger nuisance that way. The government would not dare to do anything to the respected seniors, hopefully.

The strength of the seniors is also shown by the LLRC Report. If not for their vast experience, empathy for genuine human grievances, enlightened and democratic values the Report could not have received the national and international acclamation. Those commission members are an example for the others. Seniors should refuse any service to this brutal and tyrannical regime. Even if they have any ‘duty to perform’ it should be in the independent spirit like demonstrated by the LLRC. This regime should be starved of all intellectual support from the academia, public servants or professionals. It should be starved to extinction.

Let me finish this article with this story. People of Geneva every year celebrate a festival called L’Escalade in mid-December. It is about a victory over the invasion of the army of Savoy to subjugate Geneva in 1602. There are many versions to the story or the festival. It is popularly said however that when the hostile army invaded the city, the seniors first asked the youth to withdraw to the jungle for safety. When the troops entered the city they were happy because only the seniors were to be seen with women. Then they started celebrating the victory. Women in the meanwhile were cooking a large cauldron of soup. The seniors created nuisance by cracking jokes and ridiculing the troops. With the help of the seniors, the women then poured boiling soup over the celebrating troops. They were confused and disoriented. Then the city youth came and chased away the invaders. There were no soldiers in Geneva, but free men and women. This shows the power of the seniors and of course women which I forgot to specially mention in the article being a man perhaps.

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