By Satyagraha Reporter
Since last year the World Conference on Religions for Peace (WCRP) has taken the initiative to bring together some of the most senior leaders of the various religions in Sri Lanka. This little beautiful island has been bleeding for the past just under 50 years with internal strife.
The Island consisting of 430 Km by 225 Km and having a population of just about 20 million people comprises of 74% Sinhala population and 18.1% Tamil population. It has a 91% literacy rate and an unemployment rate of 10%. My visit to this little Jewel was indeed captivating. While every street was lined with heavily armed army personnel, I did not see a single traffic officer, a person begging or a homeless person. We traveled by car from Colombo to Trincomalee and not once did a vehicle hoot in anger, no nasty remarks were thrown out of the passing vehicles and no crashes were witnessed.
On this scenic drive, we saw the roads lined with beautiful houses and flanked by rich paddy fields, rubber plantations, tea plantations, vegetable gardens and cattle. The little villages were lined with little shops selling goods for local consumption. There were cooperative shops such as milk cooperatives selling a variety of diary products. There was no glitterati of wealthy mansions. All homes were well built and maintained.
However the scene changed as we approached the Northern Province. Here there were ruined deserted homes, mud houses, temporary shelters occupied by the military and civilians were few and far between. We heard that a large number of people had fled from the conflict and sought asylum in other countries. We heard from people that there was free education. Even tertiary education was not only free but students received a stipend while in tertiary institutions. We visited a refugee camp where one of the monks brought out some sweets for distribution to the children. The children came to him in organized formation. When one child was offered a sweet she indicated that she already had one but pointed out another child who did not have a sweet. Children were all wearing fairly neat and good clothes and there was no filth or garbage to be seen in the bustling neighbourhood.
Yet there is immense tragedy and pain to be seen in the faces of the people. We met the Governor of Kandy and he lost a close relative in the war when his vehicle hit a landmine. We met others who spoke of similar tragedies in their families. Everyone was yearning for peace but everyone felt disempowered and helpless.
In the midst of this feeling of hopelessness, senior religious leaders of diverse faiths from around the world—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian—launched the groundbreaking Religions for Peace Inter-religious Council (IRC)–Sri Lanka in Kandy and war-torn Trincomalee on 28 April and 30 April 2008, respectively.
The organizers, World Conference on Religions for Peace is the world’s largest and most representative multi-religious coalition. The 19-member Religions for Peace IRC–Sri Lanka becomes the country’s most representative multi-religious body and includes senior Buddhist leaders from the South and senior Tamil religious leaders from the North.
All the leaders expressed their commitment to peace and to finding a nonviolent solution. Time will tell how much of influence these leaders have over their warring constituencies. No doubt this island needs to be saved from disaster. The deserted farms would mean less food production, the bombed countryside means environmental degradation and the lost lives will leave a lasting scar on the legacy of a people who can achieve so much.
The international delegation at the meeting included members of the Religions for Peace World Council, His Holiness Tep Vong, Great Supreme Patriarch, Kingdom of Cambodia, and Bishop Gunnar J. Stålsett, Moderator, Religions for Peace European Council of Religious Leaders; Religions for Peace Honorary Presidents Ms. Ela Gandhi, Dr. M. Din Syamsuddin, Chairman, Muhammadiyah; and Religions for Peace International Trustee Rev. Norio Sakai, Chairman Emeritus, Rissho Kosei-kai. They were supported by Rev. Kyoichi Sugino, Religions for Peace Director of Inter-religious Council Development and Field Coordination. All the leaders appealed for nonviolent solutions to the problem faced by the minority population.
The Sri Lankan delegation was inclusive and comprised of Most Ven. Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddharatha Maha Nayake Thero, Malwatte Maha Nikaya, Kandy; Most Ven. Udugama Sri Buddharakkitha Maha Nayake Thero, Asgiri Maha Nikaya, Kandy; Karthikeja Santhirasegara Sarma, International Secretary, Hindu Priest Organization, Jaffna; Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed Rizwe, President, All Ceylon Jamiyattul Ulama’s Association, Colombo; Neelakandan Kandiah, Honorary General Secretary, All Ceylon Hindu Congress; and Bishop Dr. Joseph Vianney Fernando, Bishop of Kandy, President, Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka. A formidable group of religious leaders.
Private negotiations and a series of public consultations with senior leaders of major religious communities, the government and the LTTE have been initiated. A historic statement was issued by Mahanayakes (Buddhist high priests) in support of peace, accepting Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, and calling for solidarity from the international community. May peace prevail!