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COMMEMORATIVE SPEECH

“A DOVE SITS ON MY SHOULDER” By Jehan Perera

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am privileged to address you today as a peace worker from distant Sri Lanka at a time when world politics is shadowed by the global war against terrorism, the effects of which extend to all parts of the world and to everyone, including you in Japan. The governments of the most powerful countries are on the same side in this war against terrorism, although some of them, such as the Government of Japan, have more nuanced positions on the issue of terrorism than others. This global war against terrorism that took shape after the attack on the World Trade Center building in the United States on September 11, 2001 has had its impact on smaller countries and smaller conflicts, such as those in Sri Lanka.

In my country the post 9/11 international environment at first yielded a positive change. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who had taken up arms against the Sri Lankan state, and had used terrorism as one of their modes of warfare, declared a unilateral ceasefire in December 2001, just 3 months after the attack. This shift was reciprocated by the government at that time headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. And the Government of Norway enabled a formal Ceasefire Agreement to be facilitated between the Government and the LTTE.

Today, unfortunately, the Ceasefire Agreement is no longer in existence and the members of the government that signed the ceasefire agreement are today in the opposition. The Ceasefire Agreement has been abrogated by the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in January 2008. But the blame for this end to this ceasefire cannot be put on the Sri Lankan government alone. The foundations of the Ceasefire were weakened five years earlier when the LTTE walked out of peace talks in March 2003 and also refused to attend the Tokyo donor conference that was hosted by the Government of Japan in July 2003.

Even as I address you today, as was pointed out in the opening ceremony, the war in Sri Lanka has intensified. According to findings by Uppsala University in Sweden, in 2007 there were four major wars in the world. Uppsala University defined major war to be that in which more than 1000 battlefield deaths took place in a year. The Sri Lankan conflict was one of those four. And it only followed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently, the government claimed that in the past 2 years 11,000 rebel soldiers had been killed by the Sri Lankan government. Even if this figure is exaggerated, when you add to that the number of government soldiers who have died as well as civilians who have been killed, we can see that the figure will easily be more than 1000.

In the present round of warfare it appears that the Sri Lankan government has the advantage. Government forces are today at the outskirts of the rebel capital of Kilinochchi in the north. The government has already captured all of the eastern territory and half of the northern territory that the rebels once held. But now with the rebels concentrated in the remaining half of the north that they once controlled almost fully, the most ferocious phase of the war is likely to commence. The situation of the civilian population in that part of the country is very terrible. The LTTE has not permitted civilians to come out. They are instead keeping them in there where they forcibly recruit them into their army and also possibly use them as human shields when the government army starts coming in. The people of that area now do not have access to even international humanitarian support, as the government told the international aid workers to leave that area temporarily as the government could not guarantee their safety. So we can imagine what the plight of civilians would be.

DIFFERENT CLIMATE

The Sri Lankan government today appears to believe that what was not possible over the past 25 years will be possible. The reason is that the government has special advantages at this time. The biggest advantage, I think, is that the government is headed by a leadership that says that the war must be won at any price. It is a very determined government. But the cost is also very high. It includes a lot of financial expenditures. It includes a tolerance for large scale loss of life and violations of human rights. It includes abductions, targeted killings and the mass displacement of civilians from their homes. With every victory, also the hubris of nationalism adds to the anxieties of the minorities in our country.

Another important advantage that the government has this time is the changed international environment. It is the relative silence of the international community to the war that is being fought in my country. The most powerful countries of the world, including the United States, China, India, Pakistan and Iran are supporting the Sri Lankan militarily. Although Japan is not supporting Sri Lanka militarily, Japan continues to provide high level economic assistance, which can take the pressure off the government and its budget because the Japanese aid is coming in.

Although neither Sri Lanka nor the LTTE are key actors in the international global war, it can be seen that the events that are taking place in Sri Lanka are influenced by the global war against terrorism. Many prominent features of the global war against terrorism are found in Sri Lanka, including the violation of human rights with impunity, the arrest of people and disappearance of people. What is happening in the global scene in the war against terrorism is also happening in Sri Lanka, and the message that those who are not with us are against us. The message of global war against terrorism is also repeated in Sri Lanka, and those who do not support the war are therefore said to be traitors.

The other critical impact of the global war against terrorism is the deterrent action that the international community is taking against fund raising and arms purchases by the rebel group. There have been crackdowns on LTTE cells working internationally, operatives of the LTTE have been arrested internationally and LTTE front organisations banned. The LTTE itself has been banned in many countries, including the United States, Canada and the entirety of the EU. This has had a crippling effect on the LTTE and may account for its weakness or its apparent weakness at this time.
Due in part to global developments, the asymmetry that exists between the state and a rebel organisation has increased to a level that many in Sri Lanka think that war can be a solution to the conflict. There is now a growing confidence within the government, and within the larger society, that a military solution is at last possible after 25 years. But along with military victories has come the pride of ethnic nationalism. And this itself makes the ethnic conflict worse because the minorities start to feel threatened and fearful. Public opinion polls that have been carried out in my country also show a growing polarization with members of the ethnic majority supporting the war and saying that first there must be a military solution, second a political solution. Whereas the members of the ethnic minority say first there must be a political solution, then the war can stop.

WHISPERING DOVE

So far I have given a very brief overview of the war in Sri Lanka and the two entities I have referred to as the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. Explaining what this conflict is what I have been doing both in foreign countries and in my own country. I have to explain this conflict to my own people what actually this conflict is about. My work for peace began over 25 years ago, when I undertook research on the ethnic conflict as a student in university. From 1984 onwards, since I wrote my first newspaper article, I have addressed the issue of the ethnic conflict and its peaceful resolution through meeting the media, through writing to newspapers, through seminars, workshops and by taking part in public protest peace marches.

Today I work for the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka (NPC), an organisation that is non-partisan and multi-ethnic. All ethnic groups are in my organization. I am a part of a group of civil society activists who set up this organisation in 1995 to facilitate a people's movement for peace, because our intention was to support the initiatives for peace taken by the political leaders to explain to the people of Sri Lanka why political reforms are necessary and why negotiations are necessary to solve the problem.

My work for peace, however, began before I joined this organisation. It began, as I said, when I returned from the United States where I did my undergraduate studies and commenced my studies on the ethnic conflict. I tried to explain to Sinhalese why a large section of the Tamil people was opposing the Sri Lankan state. I wrote to the Sinhalese people who are the majority in my country. I wrote to them as a Sinhalese trying to explain to Sinhalese with an understanding of how Sinhalese think and how Sinhalese feel.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of reading the Sinhala language reader when I was in grade 2. I was reading it in the presence of my parents. I read the story of King Dutugemunu, one of the great hero kings of Sinhalese history. The story began with the prince trying to sleep on his bed, but he was not sleeping stretched out, he was sleeping crouched and bent without stretching out. His mother came and asked him, “Son, why are you sleeping crouched and bent? You should stretch out.” And then the prince replied, “I cannot stretch out and sleep because below me is the great ocean and above me are the Tamils”.

The story that I was reading out aloud went on to say that the prince said he would go and fight against the Tamils, and that his mother warned him and said that that was a very dangerous thing to do because the Tamils are a wicked people. This was the moment when my own mother intervened. She told me not to believe this story. She told me that the Tamil people were not wicked, and that in fact my best friend's step father was a Tamil. She also told me we had many other Tamil friends of our family. One of them was Senator S Nadesan, a former member of Sri Lanka’s upper house of Parliament, and also one of our greatest human rights lawyers. I learnt from him the other side of what many Sinhalese saw as Tamil terrorism. I saw that the State itself could terrorise people and discriminate against them. I saw that one person's terrorist could be another person's freedom fighter.

The memory of what my mother said, of what Senator Nadesan said, is the dove that I have referred to as the title of my speech. This is the dove that today whispers to me. Not only what they said, but what many others have told me, and some that I cannot remember because it has sunk into my subconscious mind. During my young days I read a lot, and the novelists who influenced me greatly were the great Russian novelists. I grew up at a time when the Soviet Union was selling books cheap in Sri Lanka. The great Russian novels were being sold at a bookshop, and I used to collect my money and go there every month or so to buy those books. Two books that had a big impact on me were The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky and Resurrection by Tolstoy.

In The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters is asked “Will you build the happiness of the world upon the tears of a single child?” And he says “no.” But today in my country, tens of thousands of children are in refugee camps and thousands of children have been forcibly recruited by the LTTE to be child soldiers. The belief on both sides is that war will finally bring peace and liberation from war.

The other book that influenced me is Resurrection by Tolstoy, which tells the story of a man who goes to Siberia to live in the frozen wastelands so that he can help to rebuild the life of a woman he has put into difficulty who has been put into prison and who took the wrong path. Sadly, today I see in my country a certain satisfaction when large numbers of soldiers, rebel soldiers, are being killed. Because it is believed that they have taken to the wrong path. Instead of accompanying them, trying to save them, we are killing them. But these are all sons and daughters of our country who took a wrong path. There is a belief that those who join the militancy cannot be changed, that terrorists cannot be changed. And therefore until they are eliminated there will be no peace.

The dove on my shoulder tells me another message. Many years ago, I visited the north of my country where the war is now being fought very ferociously. I went to the residence of a Catholic Bishop, Rayappu Joseph. One evening I came across a book there. This book was a long letter to the people of the United States written by the Catholic Bishops of that country that was titled “The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response.” The publication date was May 1983. As we know, the 1980s was a time of great division and tension in the world because of the cold war. There was the ever-present threat of nuclear war. There was a feeling in the United States that the Soviet Union was a threat to peace, and President Ronald Reagan even called it the “Evil Empire.”

But this is what the Catholic Bishops said. They said, “as Bishops, we are concerned with issues that go beyond diplomatic requirements. It is of some value to keep raising in the realm of the political debate, truths which ground our involvement in the affairs of nations and peoples. Diplomatic dialogue usually sees the other as a potential or real adversary. Soviet behaviour in some instances merit the adjective reprehensible, but the Soviet people and their leaders are human beings created in the image and likeness of God.”

“To believe we are condemned in the future only to what has been the past is to under-estimate both our human capacity and potential for creative diplomacy and God's action in our midst which can open the way to changes we could barely imagine. We do not intend to foster illusory ideas that the road ahead in superpower relations will be devoid of tension or that peace will be easily achieved. But we do warn against “hardness of heart” which can close us or others to the changes needed to make the future different from the past.” Very soon, changes began to occur in the Soviet Union. In Sri Lanka we need to shed that hardness of heart that the Bishops warned their people against. My dove constantly tells me that we need to work with the faith that what has happened in other parts of the world is also possible in Sri Lanka.

ETHNIC CONFLICT

Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict is today one of the world's longest running insurgencies. More than 25 years. At one level it is a problem caused by the attempt of a section of the people to divide the country and establish their own separate state. The LTTE claims to represent the aspirations for self-determination and for separation of the 12 percent of the Tamils, who live concentrated in the north and east of the country. On the other hand, the Sinhalese people who live mostly in the west, south and centre and constitute about 75 percent of the population are totally opposed to the division of Sri Lanka, which they see as a small island and their one and only country, unlike the Tamils who also live in very large numbers in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

In 1982 I went to a rural Sinhalese village to conduct my research and stayed in the home of a farmer. He gave me the front room of his house to stay in. It was like an annex, so that when he closed the door I had a separate apartment to myself. One day, I asked him to explain what this ethnic conflict was about because I was doing research as a student. He said it was very easy to explain. He said, “You are my guest and I have given you the front room of my house. You can stay in it for as long as you like.” I said, “I am very happy. Thank you for giving me the room.” Then he said, “Suppose that after living here, staying with me for six months you suddenly announced that this front room now belonged to you.” I replied that that would be a wrong thing to do, to say that the room is my room and not his. Then he said that this was what the Tamils are doing to us, the Sinhalese.

The Sinhalese people have a written history that goes back 2500 years, and of which they are very proud of. And it was written down over 1500 years ago by Buddhist monks. One of the important themes of this history is that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese and Buddhist country, and that it was subjected to repeated invasions from Tamils who came from South India. Like the farmer who let me stay in his front room, many Sinhalese see Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese country. Recently one of the high ranking military officers in my country publicly said, “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities in them and we treat them like our own...We being the majority in the country, 75%, we will never give in as we have the right to protect the country...We are a strong nation...They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, to demand undue things.”

With battlefield success, the Sri Lankan military is now very assertive and public in its statements. However, the emphasis in this statement about the strength of the Sinhalese about being a strong nation may be masking another fear among the Sinhalese. Some scholars have referred to the Sinhalese people as a majority with a minority complex. This is on account of the Sinhalese feeling vulnerable within the larger South Asian context. The Sinhalese people remember their history as a living one. They may be 75 % in the island of Sri Lanka, but in the South Indian region they are a very small minority when compared to Tamils of Tamil Nadu, where there are 80 million Tamils, a number that dwarfs the 15 million Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.

There is also an awareness of the role that big power politics played in Sri Lanka’s conflict. How India supported the Tamil militancy when it was growing in strength in the early 1980’s. At that time, there was the cold war going on between the United States and the Soviet Union. India took the side of the Soviet Union. Sri Lanka felt closer to the Western countries. India had a concern that Sri Lanka might give out one of its harbours, a big harbor of Trincomale, to the Americans and therefore probably wanted to control Sri Lanka. They can try to control it by fanning the ethnic insurgencies in Sri Lanka and supporting Tamil insurgence. However after that there was fallout between India and Tamil militants because India finally sent a peacekeeping army to Sri Lanka. But the peacekeeping army started to fight finally with Tamil Tigers. (And it all ended when) In revenge, the Tamil Tigers sent a suicide bomber to India and assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian Prime Minister who had sent the peacekeeping army to Sri Lanka.

The Sinhalese feel themselves to be threatened. Not only are they the majority in Sri Lanka, they also feel threatened in the region. But in the same way, the Tamil people are also feeling very threatened. They see themselves as dominated in Parliament in politics by the 75 % Sinhalese majority. They are 12 %. When it comes to a decision regarding something that can benefit Sinhalese or something that might benefit the Tamils, it is always the case that the Sinhalese will win because they have 75% of the population, 75% of the places in the parliament. Some of the landmark decisions that have made the Tamil people very upset and alienated are the issues of denying citizenship right to Tamil workers, migrant workers, who came a hundred years ago to Sri Lanka, denying Tamil the status of a official language making the Sinhala the only official language in 1956. These problems have been changed today, 40, 50 years later. But the basic problem remains that sometimes the laws that are made are not implemented and sometimes the laws are not changed at all.

There is also a third group of people, I have not spoken about so far, who feel threatened in Sri Lanka. These are the Muslim people who make up about 8 percent of the population, compared to the Sinhalese 75 percent and Tamil 12 percent. They also feel they are threatened because in 1990 all of the Muslims who were living in the North where the Tamil people live were sent out, expelled, ethnically cleansed by the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers felt that the Muslims might be a fifth column, they might be not loyal to the Tamils, and that they would give information to the army, so they expelled them. The Muslims fear that this can happen to them again if the Tamil should ever get power in part of the country. But on the other hand, their political leaders are also unhappy with what the Sinhalese are saying, such as when the Sinhalese say that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala country and the minorities should not make undue demands. The Muslim leaders have said that this is wrong and that Muslims are not second class.

PEACE BUILDING

Experience both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world make it evident that when the path of violence is taken there is no natural end. It doesn’t end naturally and there is only escalation. Stopping the spiral of violence requires a conscious act of will and a strategy for de-escalation. It requires rationality to see that the course of violence is hurting everyone, including one's own side. It requires a vision that the peace process will lead to the good of everyone. And it calls for faith that people and institutions will change. One of the greatest challenges in peacemaking is to see the opponent in a new light, as having part of the truth, that is necessary to bring the wholeness of peace, because we, all of us, see only our part of truth. When we engage in dialogue with one another more, the truth comes in and then we have a higher truth. That is the advantage of dialogue as against suppressing the view points of others.

In Sri Lanka, the thought forms and values of reconciliation, compassion and forgiveness are there in the people. This is one of the great assets that we can use in peace building. Even in the midst of military battles with sometimes hundreds dying in a single day. The people, Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, have been able to co-exist peacefully for the last 20 years. They have been living peacefully even though the war is going on. On the other hand, in ethnically divided societies obtaining the support of the ethnic majority has been a way to win power. Morality and principles of good governance, although spoken for public consumption, give way when an election is around. Over seventy years ago in Germany, Hitler created an enemy of the Jews and mobilized the support of the German population to come to power. In the face of racist politics that makes smaller ethnic communities the villains, those who speak of dialogue, inclusion and compromise find themselves being excluded. The demagogues shout about race and religion and that they are being threatened and make the opponents seem to be traitors.

If the political leaders do not have compassion and understanding as their foundations they will misuse their power and make the people of their own country suffer. Today, over 200,000 Tamil people have been made refugees due to the escalating fighting. They are living under trees and in improvised shelters. They are running from place to place to escape the fighting. There is also the targeting of civilians for brutal execution by extra-judicial means both by government-led forces as well as the LTTE. But it seems that those in authority take these deaths in stride as they see it as a necessary cost of the war.

However, the likelihood of peace and justice coming through this strategy is extremely remote if not totally impossible. The Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh who in 1969 led a Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks, who is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has written: “My experience with several wars in Vietnam has led me to the firm belief that terrorism cannot be removed by force and that deep listening is more important than bombs. Terrorism is born from wrong perceptions. The terrorists have wrong perceptions about themselves. They have wrong perceptions about us. That is why they want to destroy us, to punish us.”

But it is not only those who fight against the government who need to be addressed in this way. It is not only the terrorists; it is also those in the governments. The Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh says: “Like us, political leaders have positive seeds and negative seeds. They may be surrounded by people who do not water the good seeds in them. Their advisers continue to water the seeds of fear, craving, anger and violence in them. We need ways to get in touch with our political leaders and help them.” He wrote these words in response to the present global war against terrorism. These words are also applicable to what is happening today in Sri Lanka.

Obtaining conditions of peace in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and politically vibrant country requires a measure of consensus not only within the largest community, but also between different communities. It is very unlikely that a solution that is imposed by force of arms upon the Tamil people will lead to peace because the Tamil people have been struggling for over 50, 60 years for their political rights, and until they get them, they will continue to want to struggle in some form or the other even if it is not possible any more in war.

INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY

The day I flew to Japan, my organization joined several other organizations in a public protest against the culture of impunity where even those who are human rights defenders are being attacked. In the past two and a half years there have been killings of about 15 media workers in my country and assaults of several others. Even at this time a senior human rights lawyer has been physically attacked and his house bombed. This attack highlights the dangerous trend of intimidation and interference in the country’s legal processes and the broader assault on human rights, good governance, accountability and integrity in public life. My organisation joined with several others to publicly demonstrate and say NO to violence.

The dove who sits on my shoulder also speaks to me that there is a lot of support for us deep within the people who yearn for peace with justice to all. Two days before I took the flight to Japan, I was invited by my daughter’s school, St Bridget’s Convent, for a religious service. This religious service was to pray for the children who are in the Montessori who are now going to join the Primary School. My daughter is one of them. But in that service, what was very moving was not once but twice the children of the school were asked to pray, to make this prayer. The prayer was “Dear God, we ask you to look after the children of the north and east, who have lost their mummies and daddies.” This was very moving because it showed that deep in the south of my country there is still concern among the people for the plight of those who are in the north and east.

I like to conclude with the words of Thich Nhat Hanh. He says, “We may be clear about the need for change in our country. But we need the courage to express ourselves even when the majority is going in the opposite direction. We should be supported by our loved ones and by our colleagues who agree with us. A change of direction can only happen when there is collective awakening. Individuals and small groups can spark a change in consciousness.” My dove whispers in my ear that there is hope, that the lessons that we are learning are lessons that are applicable not only to Sri Lanka but also to the world, the world that is today embroiled in our increasing war against terrorism, a war that we see no end to.

I thank you for this time you have given, and I also thank the people of Sakai who have chosen to show solidarity with my country and through showing solidarity with my country have shown solidarity with all those who are struggling and working for peace in the world.
Thank you.

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