This brief is our recent visit to Sri Lanka, a fascinating and complex island. We left Bangalore on Saturday, September 11th. Despite the infamous travel date, our direct flight from Bangalore to Colombo, a short 1 hour and 20 minute ride, was uneventful. There seemed to be no additional security at either of the airports.
Our host for the visit was Father Ebenezer, a Methodist priest who heads the National Christian Council (NCC). NCC is a Sri Lankan NGO that brings together Christian-based organisations in Sri Lanka and is also doing a lot of inter-faith work in Sri Lanka. Father Ebenezer and his colleagues had planned a trip that would take us by van from Colombo across the entire island to the northeast, with visits to Trincomalee, Batticoloa and surrounding areas.
The purpose of our trip was to visit some of the projects NCC is sponsoring to promote peace in the northeast region. But first, you need to know something about Sri Lanka to put it all in context.
Until the 16th century, Sri Lanka was a land of kingdoms. The Dutch were the first colonisers to arrive in 1505 and, after successfully exploiting the cinnamon and spice trade, were followed by the Dutch in 1658, and finally the British in 1796. Large numbers of British settlers came in 1832 and the coffee trade became the backbone of the colonial economy. The British could not persuade the Sinhalese to work on the plantations so they brought in large numbers of Tamil workers from South India. When crop disease wiped out the coffee plantations, the British switched over to tea.
Sri Lanka (then know as Ceylon) became independent in February 1948, 6 months after Indian Independence. Sri Lanka boasts the world’s first female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was elected in 1960. In 1972, Sri Lanka became the country’s official name.
Sri Lankan People
Sri Lanka’s 19.8 million people are comprised of three major ethnic groups: the Sinhalese (74%), the Tamils (18%) and the Muslims (9%). Minority groups include Veddas (a tribal group believed to be the first inhabitants of Sri Lanka) and Burghers, who are descendants of the European colonial settlers.
Buddhists represent about 70% of the population. Buddhism first came to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC when Mahinda, the son of the Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka came to the island to spread Buddhist teachings. There are two schools of Buddhism: Theravada (practised in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and parts of South Vietnam) and Mahayana (practised in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and also among Chinese Buddhists).
According to legend, Buddha visited Sri Lanka three times. Adam’s Peak, in the hill country, has been known as Sri Pada or the “Sacred Footprint”, left by Buddha as he headed towards paradise. It is also believed that Adam’s Peak was the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven.
In recent times, a more militant Buddhism has appeared in Sri Lanka, based on the belief that Sri Lanka should be a bastion of Buddhism in its purest form. Some Buddhist monks are among the country’s least tolerant people when it comes to compromise with the Tamils.
Although the source of the Sinhalese-Tamil difficulties dates back to the 1950s (when Sri Lanka’s official languages were at issue), it was the enactment of two pieces of legislation in the 1970s that saw the beginnings of the violence that has continued for over 30 years. One piece of legislation limited Tamil numbers in universities and the other was the declaration of Buddhism as the state religion.
The Tamil reaction was immediate. After a state of emergency was declared in the Tamil areas, left-wing tamils started fighting for an independent Tamil state called Eelam, meaning “precious land”. Thus was founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers. The area the Tamils claimed for the independent state of Eelam was the Northern and Eastern Provinces, about one-third of the island. Tamils clearly made up the majority in the Northern Province but in eastern Sri Lanka, Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils were about equal in number.
In 1983, 13 members of an army patrol were massacred by militant Tamils in the Jaffna region. This led to several days of rampages by the Sinhalese, leading to the death of between 400 and 2000 Tamils and massive destruction of property. Thousands of Tamils fled to safer, Tamil-majority areas. Many left Sri Lanka altogether. At the same time, many Sinhalese moved out of Jaffna and other areas dominated by the Tamils.
Revenge attacks continued and there were several large-scale massacres during this time. The government did little to stop the violence. In the early 1980s, the Indian equivalent of the CIA trained and armed Tamil militant factions on Indian soil and, in 1987 the Sri Lankan president made a deal with India to provide an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to disarm the Tamil rebels and keep the peace in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The IPKF eventually alienated both sides, attempting to isolate the LTTE by promoting and arming other Tamil rebel groups. The Sinhalese feared Indian influence and considered the deal harmful to non-Tamils in the East. The IPKF withdrew in 1990, with the LTTE agreeing to a cease-fire to ensure their departure, but the war between the LTTE and the government began again shortly after the IPKF withdrawal.
The war reached a new peak in 1991 after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a female LTTE suicide bomber. After a failed round of peace talks in 1995, the army invaded the Jaffna peninsula and huge numbers of inhabitants left the area.
In late 2000, a Norwegian peace mission led by Erik Solheim was invited to bring both sides to the negotiating table. Both sides were ready. The government was approaching bankruptcy and morale was at an all-time low after an LTTE attack on the airport destroyed half of the Sri Lankan airlines fleet. The LTTE had sunk to forcibly recruiting women and children to replace the 20,000 forces who had been killed in the conflict. In December 2001, a “permanent” cease-fire was officially declared after new presidential elections and peace talks resumed in February 2002. A year later, the LTTE suspended their participation in the peace talks, claiming they were being marginalised. In March 2004, a renegade LTTE commander known as Karuna led a split within the LTTE and went underground with his supporters. Amidst allegations that Karuna was supported by the government, the LTTE discontinued regular meetings with government. Peace talks are still stalled, despite further Norwegian intervention to revive them.
The conflict in Sri Lanka is not just between Tamils and Sinhalese. Violence has also shaken the Tamil and Muslim communities in the northeast. In 1985, Tamil militants killed a number of Sri Lankan Muslims in the northwest. Militancy increased within the Muslim community, triggering a wave of Tamil-Muslim clashes. In 1990, Muslims suffered attacks from the LTTE, including the killing of 147 worshippers in a mosque at Kattankudy and the expulsion of all Muslims from the north. Unable to provide adequate protection, the government created a Muslim Home Guard, an armed civil defence force. This fed into the spiral of violence, with reprisal killings carried out against Muslim and Tamil civilians by the LTTE and the Home Guard respectively. A fragile peace currently exists between the Muslim and Tamil communities in the northeast.
The result of the 30 years of conflict has left 60,000 people dead, more than half a million people displaced and countless numbers of physically and psychologically scarred children and adults.
There are so many impressions but this is getting to be a long “brief” so I will relate some of the highlights.
Before going to the northeast, we stopped in Kandy for one night. Kandy is best known for the Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple that houses Sri Lanka’s most sacred relic, the tooth of Buddha. The tooth is said to have been snatched from the flames of the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 543 BC and was smuggled into Sri Lanka during the 4th century AD, hidden in the hair of a princess. The tooth is carefully guarded in a shrine in the centre of the temple, encased in gold layered boxes. The tooth is shown once every 7 years for 2 hours a day for 10 days. The next presentation is in 2008 so reserve your tickets now!
Trincomalee (known as “Trinco”)
For me, the highlight of this trip was a visit to the Peace Nursery. Set up as a pilot project by the Methodist Church, the nursery brings together children between the ages of 3 and 6 from the three ethnic groups – Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese. When we arrived, we were greeted by all of the children, some of whom presented us with the traditional welcome garland of flowers around our necks (they had to be lifted by their teachers to reach our necks!). They also sang us a well-rehearsed song about butterflies, with fluttering arm movements and sweet voices!
Another highlight of our time in Trincomalee was a dinner meeting with a human rights lawyer who is fighting for people whose rights were violated during the conflict. Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of prisoners by police and security forces was common. It is estimated that around 18,000 people were arrested under emergency regulations from January to November 2000. The vast majority were Tamil, some of whom were ordered detained without trial for more than two years. Reports of sexual violence against women by security forces are numerous. Rape was a commonly used weapon of war.
A 45-minute ferry ride from Trincomalee took us to the Muthur peninsula, a primarily Muslim area deeply affected by war in which there is considerable tension between the Tamil and Muslim communities. Muthur is also a border region between Government controlled areas and LTTE controlled areas. We first visited a Muslim school full of hundreds of well-behaved children (that is, until I showed them the photos I had taken with my digital camera…I was almost the cause of another riot in Muthur!).
We were greeted by the smallest children, lined up in two rows who, after we had received our welcome garlands, threw flower petals at us as we walked to the meeting room. It was another touching experience with children in Sri Lanka.
The headmaster of the school is also a member of the Muthur Peace Committee, an inter-faith committee organised by the NCC. Following our visit to the school, we met with members of the Committee, comprising Muslims, Tamils and local police personnel. They are all working together to promote peace and co-operation in Muthur. Particularly touching participants were two Tamil youths who had recently left the LTTE and are now working for peace in their community.
Here we had a most memorable meeting with about 30 Tamils from a small village. They had just returned to their village, having left 20 years ago when the conflict was at its worst. Resettlement is a fragile process in Sri Lanka. This particular village is sandwiched between a Muslim community and an LTTE-controlled area. If any violence breaks out, the villagers will be caught in the middle. When I asked (through an interpreter) why they had come back, the response was “because it is our home”. They are slowly re-building their lives with scarce resources.
We also visited the Jummah Mosque at Kathankudy, where in 1990 a brutal attack by Tamil rebels killed 147 worshippers. The LTTE denied any role in the massacre. The mosque was rebuilt but one wall riddled with bullet holes remains untouched as a reminder.
Outside, the graves of the victims are in a single row, surrounded by white stones as a memorial to the boys and men who were killed.
On the drive back to our hosts for the night, we stopped at an LTTE graveyard. We were curious that the graveyard existed at all, since most Tamils are Hindu and bodies are burned on funeral pyres rather than buried. We were told that bodies of LTTE members are buried in martyrdom. The graveyard is a cruel testimony to lives lost.
We stayed overnight at the home of Father Arul and his wife Valentina. Father Arul is a Methodist priest working in a small town near Batticoloa. The Methodist church across the road doubles as an ashram. In the evening, we joined some youths who get together up to three times a day to sing and pray. As the sun set, we sat in a concrete circle filled with sand, listening to their beautiful voices, truly moved by their smiling faces and gentleness. We found out that they are all orphans whose parents were killed during the conflict.
Our last morning in the northeast was an experience I will never forget. Father Arul had arranged for us to meet a group of 20 youths, all of whom had been child-soldiers in the LTTE. In addition to the physical and psychological problems they face, they lost years of education and have no skills. Each one of them stood up, said their name and age and how long they had been in the LTTE. The oldest was 23, the youngest was 15. The time they had been in the LTTE ranged from 3-8 years. The four youngest were back at school. The others were at home. None was working.
When I asked how they imagined their future, only two spoke. Both said that they just hoped they would be able to find a job to support their families. One boy had lost an eye. A girl told us that her legs were damaged and she was worried about being able to work. All of the girls had short hair. In a country where long hair is the norm, the haircuts they received when they were released from the LTTE are an additional stigma that they carry with them. Father Arul and his colleagues are just beginning to work with these young people, hoping to be able to provide psychological support and vocational training.
Our trip was so rich and emotional. I hope I have succeeded in sharing some of these feelings with you. We leave for Bangladesh in two weeks to attend a one-week seminar on gender-based violence in the region. In the meantime, I will be in Bangalore, still shopping for furniture…