Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Peace from the People

There's something rather strange about hearing "Frosty the Snowman" belting out on a loudspeaker when it's 90 degrees outside, or seeing a skinny Santa dancing to the tune of Baila (local Sinhalese music) at one of Colombo's shopping centres.

Over Christmas, TV and radio stations played Daniel O'Donnell Christmas classics or Boney M's "Mary's Boy Child". Hotels were festooned with elaborate decorations; some of the largest resembling Santa's grotto. One of the most romantic festive images was the lights glimmering in the trees beside the majestic Galle fort as the sun set over the Indian Ocean.

Christmas is quite a big deal in Sri Lanka - a strange paradox considering that Christians account for only around 8 percent of the population. Everyone seems to enjoy shopping and putting up decorations. The question is whether this is a sign of the deadly clutches of globalisation or something else.

For a country that's sometimes classified as racist, the privileges afforded to the main minority communities (Muslim and Christian) speak well of historical tolerance and acceptance. You only have to look at the various places of worship and public holidays given for different religions, not to mention traditional attempts by the establishment to engage and include minorities. But somewhere along the line, this tolerance has been skewed and abused.

Reflecting back on 2007, I remember a December seminar in Colombo entitled "The Aceh Story: Insights". Here representatives from Indonesia - members of the government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), academics and Aceh Monitoring Mission personnel - shared their experiences of the Aceh peace process with members of Sri Lankan civil society, in the hope of deriving lessons that could be applied here.

It was the first time in a long while that grassroots groups representing all the island's religions and ethnic configurations had came together under one roof with the aim of building peace. Buddhist monks from the south sat side by side with Tamil social activists from the north and Muslim farmers from the east.

They argued and deliberated for two days to identify some action points for moving forward on a path of peace, respect and understanding. One monk told me at the end: "We have to work together and support each other in order to make this a reality. No one can afford to give up this responsibility and miss this opportunity."

Looking back at 2007 and forward to 2008 - the 60th anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence - there are undoubtedly mixed feelings. For some there is despair, and for others hope. But for the majority, there is uncertainty.

Uncertainty because there are many factors clouding the prospects for a prosperous Sri Lanka: the rising cost of living; deteriorating security; increased corruption; and the growing arrogance of politicians who seem to feel they're beyond the remit of the law. In one recent incident, a minister tried to show his might at a national TV station by attacking the news director for not broadcasting his speech.

There's despair because, despite all the New Year messages of peace, 2008 started with a political assassination, a bomb attack and the straw that broke the camel's back - the annulment of the ceasefire, which could lead to untold suffering.

But there is still hope if you consider the people at the grassroots, like those at the Aceh seminar. They've been on the receiving end of the conflict. Yet they're increasingly waking up to the failures of leadership in addressing pressing issues, not to mention the corruption, abuse of power and lies. And they are becoming aware of their duties.

It is not the elite in Colombo, nor those who claim to represent the people, nor those living safely 'in exile' out of the country who must shoulder the responsibility. It is the grassroots movement that needs to work for peace.

These true people's representatives must push for the respect and understanding of differences and diversity that could move Sri Lanka out of the ideological cesspit and political stalemate of the last 30 years. Those who are genuinely interested in the welfare of others and can work on the basis of a unified community need to raise their game.

Therein lies the challenge for many of us in the humanitarian community. Instead of preaching from the moral high ground or adopting naive political positions, it's high time we got more involved with the grassroots. Why don't we find out what Sri Lankans think rather than assume we know what they want?

The Aceh seminar taught me that, for most Sri Lankans, peace is about greater economic empowerment, better health care and education for their children. It's also about understanding and accepting culture and diversity, alongside equality and freedom of expression.
How do we translate this into practical action? Should we support more inter-cultural programmes to bring communities together by solving waste problems, or boosting alternative energy or microfinance? Is it about organising sports matches for youth and then channelling their energy into community projects? Or is it simply about establishing a platform for people to share ideas and work out how to put them into practice?

What's clear is that Sri Lanka needs some answers pretty quickly. You could describe the situation as a rubber-band effect, in which the country has been stretched about as far as it can go, and the only options are to snap or go back to the middle.
Either way, 2008 has to be a turning point, with Sri Lanka's people taking measures to sort out their own problem. The future is no longer "out there", but in their hands. They've been bitten on too many occasions, and it's high time they bit back.

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