Sri Lanka: the land of smiling faces, beautiful tea fields and warm beaches. To the tourist, it’s a paradise on earth. Those who don’t know her history might take it for just that: a paradise on earth. The first foreign persons on the island now know as Sri Lanka, affectionately called it Serindib. This means “The Land of Happy Surprising Events”.
The Island of Sri Lanka (located in the Indian Ocean) consists of two major ethnic groups, The Sinhalese and the Tamils. In its history, the men of both groups preferred to marry the women of the opposite group. Because of this, any native Sri Lankan researching her/his roots would almost never find that their ancestry was exclusively Sinhalese or Tamil.
Both ethnic groups got along with each other until approximately 1800, when the British colonized the island. The British favored the Tamil peoples and did more trade with them. It was thought that the Tamils were more intelligent and easier to deal with than the Sinhalese.
In 1978, Sri Lanka was granted its independence. Left behind, was the Parliamentary model of democracy. The Tamils (mainly in the north and east) had been mostly in power. However, Sinhalese could now outvote the Tamils because they outnumbered them.
With the years following, the Sinhalese were now performing a sort of ethnic cleansing. The oppression of the Tamils was rising and they were being continuously harassed. Tamil men wore earrings on both ears as a sign of their ethnicity.
In 1983 there was a period known as “Black July”. Many Tamils were violently treated, killed and exiled. Ethnic cleansing was at its all-time high. There was one group of Tamils that pushed back: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The State Of Tamil Naduwas created in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
Headed by Mr. Velupillai Pirapaharan, the LTTE were considered the most efficient and organized “terrorist” group in the world. Their military consisted of four sections, the army, air force, navy and the suicide squad. Their navy owned boats that were invisible to radar. Their army is very well trained and hardened. For their suicide bombers, the LTTE had developed a “suicide jacket”. This is a jacket that would not set off a metal detector, and even if you frisked the person you would not know they were carrying enough explosives to kill a dozen people easily. When the LTTE would capture POW’s, they would often drain all of the blood out of them to use in their blood banks.
In August of 1999, the Sarvodaya organization started its Peace Initiative in Sri Lanka, calling for 100 000 people to join in a peace meditation; 200 000 people showed up. Commonway is assisting Sarvodaya with its Peace Initiative by providing overall logistic support and philosophical grounding, theory, strategies and tactical advice to Sarvodaya on its peace initiative. In November of 1999, Commonway sent a team of people to assist Sarvodaya in its peace initiative.
A plan was devised for the peace initiative. To make peace in this war-torn island, Commonway and Sarvodaya figured they needed to do five things. First, they had to shift the psycho-sphere of the people. They tried to show the people that, in some way, they all shared the same thoughts. They asked people of all religions and ethnicities to come to a mass meditation wearing only white. Through guided meditation (lead by Dr. Ariyaratne, the head of Sarvodaya) a situation was created where all of the people’s thoughts were attuned. They were trying to show the people that this war was on the level of humanity, not religion or ethnicity.
Second, they had to “change the story” and create a vision. They tried to change the story that people lived on a daily basis and how they rationalized their behavior. They wanted to show that the problem is violence and the conditions that nurture and support it. They were de-legitimizing violence all together in the minds of the people. Their main goal in this stage was to spread the belief that peace is inevitable, creating a vision that included all parties.
Third, the leadership of the people was empowered. Having their own vision, they began to lead, and when the people lead the leaders will follow. The story began to shift, about what the war was about, and soldiers began to desert. By this time, both armies had deserting soldiers and a hard time recruiting.
Fourth, they taught the people to ignore the leaders, media and pundits. By doing this they would look to each other for answers and explanations. They wouldn’t look to the media and propaganda
to explain current events.
Fifth, they had to expect a miracle. In December 2001 a cease-fire was signed between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Nobody had a clue that this would happen. Not Sarvodaya, Commonway or the Norwegian government who had been aiding in the mediation. All anyone knows is that there was a major peace breakout in the hearts and minds of the people before the signing of the cease-fire.
Since December 2001, no civilians have been killed (except by landmines). There have been only 2 incidents involving the LTTE and Sri Lankan government and neither was in violation of the cease-fire. In one, the Norwegian mediators neglected to pass a message on to the Sri Lankan government from the LTTE. The message was that the LTTE was moving a flotilla of ships through Sri Lankan territory. The Sri Lankan army fired on the ships, not knowing that they had sought permission to move through this area. The president of the LTTE and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka immediately went on the air together and reported to the nation that it was not a cease-fire violation, only a mistake.
Commonway and Sarvodaya are currently working to “expand the consciousness of peace” by holding more mass meditations. They are also running the “village to village link-up programme”. Villagers from the south are going to villages in the north to help repair the damage done during the war. They are also building roads between villages to that commute will be easier, allowing more trade between the peoples.
One of the main goals of the “village to village link-up programme” is to bring villagers of different ethnic, religious and language groups together. This will help people to overcome their fear, anger, animosity and prejudice of each other, while providing opportunities for people to express caring, concern and loving-kindness toward each other. The slogan of the link-up programme is “village to village; heart to heart”.
Sarvodaya and Commonway have done an excellent job in planning this peace initiative. They are taking the first step of experimenting with mass conflict resolution. Taking a path that has worked in the war-torn island of Sri Lanka, I hope they can continue to inspire people around the world to begin looking at their regions and the possibilities of making a world that works for all.