Monday, November 10, 2008

A very inspiring speech

I just finished watching Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. It was pretty amazing. The whole thing was amazing to be honest, how he ploughed on through it all, through the competitive primary elections with Hillary Clinton, and beyond the tough and rigorous battle of the main campaign. So many people doubted him due to his race, and his relative inexperience as a politician, but despite this he backed himself and, supported by his family and followers, he made it.

He has sent a very important message to the world. One man can make a difference and “you can” make it if you believe in yourself, and you can make a difference.

Barack Obama may not on the surface have achieved anything yet, in office that is to say, however, but if you look deeper he has already achieved something great by lifting the hopes of so many people not just in America but around the world – including myself. Amazing!

This has motivated me to write a letter to the editor of the Sri Lankan newspapers to see how this historic event can positively shape our outlook toward the situation here:-

Dear Sir / Madam

After watching the US elections I have become very inspired in what can be achieved within a nation. The message of Barack Obama has given me hope that anything can be achieved if you feel strongly enough about what you are trying to achieve. Obama’s acceptance speech was highly commendable and we can all learn from it. In particular it gives me hope in humanity that a world leader who poses so much personal power can put a Nation ahead of his own ego. As Barack Obama said in his speech:-

“But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to - it belongs to you.”

Whilst I was wholly impressed and inspired by the acceptance of victory by Obama, the winner in the political race, I was perhaps even more moved by the gravity of McCain’s concession speech which really sets up America as a nation to be the overall winner in time to come. Below are some poignant extracts from his concession speech:-

“This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.”

“Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain.”
“I urge all Americans ... I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”

“Tonight - tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama - whether they supported me or Senator Obama.”

“I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president. And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.”

To me the words of McCain really pulled on the positive common goals that he shared with Obama without bickering about the differences they had. Even more valiant is the fact that he encouraged his supporters to have a positive outlook for the good of the nation despite the loss of the candidate they voted for and believed in.

I think the real challenges in life come not in dealing with success but in managing defeat, and the way that McCain dealt with his defeat was admirable. Despite a fierce battle having being fought, the stance of both men at the end of it, is focussed toward looking forward for the good of the nation, for the people and ideals that they are meant to be representing , and it sets the stage for the country to prosper.

Both these men, Barack Obama, and John McCain, had choices in how they interpreted the event of Obama winning the election, and in my opinion they both chose the high road – Obama by choosing to look at his victory not as an individual triumph against a fierce competitor, but rather as the success of an ideology that he represented through popular vote, and McCain by putting aside his personal loss for sake of the progress and prosperity of the nation.

These men could just as easily have chosen one of many available lower roads. Obama could have spoken of the dirty campaign tactics that McCain used in the election campaign, or McCain could have spoken how the American Public was robbed from a victory that was theirs, and urged his supporters to not to give up as they will be able to battle it out again in the next election. But they both chose the good of the country and the nation that they represented in the words that they used.

Sri Lanka

When I think of Sri Lanka I earnestly hope that we will learn from these very powerful examples of leadership that have fallen before us in this week.

Right now this country is fighting a bloody war. The government claims to be only a short distance from the military defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), a terrorist organization that claims to represent the Tamil people of Sri Lanka but has been categorical in the elimination of any other Tamil groups. Both parties believe that they are fighting for “their people”.

In recent times the cycle of violence has escalated with increasing civilian targeted terrorist bombs in the South and aerial attacks by the forces in the North Despite this seemingly helpless situation, I believe there are still positives things that can be done right now despite this trail of destruction that has been put in front of us, such as examine our own hearts and mind in their capacity for creating an environment of real peace.

For example we could consider one potential future and examine how we would embrace lasting peace. Let us say the prediction of the government actually came true and there was a “military defeat of the LTTE” as what occurred in the East last year. Would this actually be “the eradication of terrorism” as the media puts it, and more importantly would this be synonymous with the end of conflict?

My thoughts are that it would not, and these more important things such as ending conflict is a much more complicated process which need the issues that lead to the terrorism in the first place to be addressed, such as the plight of the Tamil people.

My question is would the leaders here be able to have the strength of character and concern for the future well being of all citizens and people to tackle this situation in the most skilful manner.

Let us examine two potential scenarios of how political leaders and terrorist leaders might react upon a hypothetical defeat of the LTTE, fully acknowledging that a multitude of possibilities might occur. The purpose of this role-play is to consider what feelings of peace are created by different potential attitudes and messages that Sri Lankan political leaders could take.

Scenario 1

Would President Mahinda Rajapaksa state that they have now unified the country and terrorism has been eradicated. That the Tamil people can now rest assured that they will rebuild the North as they are already starting to in the East, and now we will live as a unified Sri Lanka, and go on to thank the military for their tireless efforts in defending the country?

Will Ranil Wickramesinghe continue to state that the government has bled the country’s economy in irresponsibly fight a war and mismanaging funds?

Would the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) leadership state that it is good riddance to terrorism and it should be never allowed to rear its ugly head again?

Will the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya party) say that the sacred Buddhist way should never be allowed to be put in this much jeopardy again, and may the triple gem bless our new found terrorist free Lanka?

Will the message of the LTTE supporters whose voices will be free to be projected overseas continue with messages saying that the cause of the Tamil people will never be defeated despite a temporary military setback. Will they then claim the North is not really a free state but a Military state where the citizens continue to suffer problems with human rights, only now from a Sinhalese army rather than a Tamil speaking LTTE?

Will the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) walk out of parliament stating this country has been witness to gross genocide and military dictatorship and refuse to accept that northern state as now under democratic rule?

Will the conflict continue to rumble unresolved because there has been no real acknowledgement of the reason for the terrorism in the first place.
Will the dissatisfaction continue to prevail amongst the majority of Tamils for a feeling that their true plight of living as a minority has neither been acknowledged properly nor pledged to be corrected? Will they feel comfort in the knowledge that they live in a country where there is a lack of basic of human rights for anyone who is not connected with money or power? And in particular will they feel comforatable knowing that even though this lack of basic human rights, for those not “connected” , does not operate along racial lines , it will still somehow affect them more by being a minority and unless specific policy is introduced to protect them from this inevitable consequencde they will be subject to the tyranny of the majority.


Perhaps will we see something similar to what we have witnessed in USA a land where already they are starting to put dreams of action into place, such as with strategies for the energy crisis (see

Scenario 2

Imagine if we see President Mahinda Rajapakse start with a speech that addresses us in three languages “Ayubowan, Vannakam, and Greetings to you all” showing that the head of state represents a unified state. He then addresses the plight of all Sri Lankan people for all they have suffered, and in particular the Tamil people of the North who have suffered for years in ways that that many other parts of the island cannot understand, and will only come to realise in years to come, and perhaps never fully understand.

He then goes on to apologise for all the civilians who have suffered, whether it was because of terrorist bombs, and forced child recruitment, suicide bombing, evictions, at the hand of the LTTE, or for aerial attacks and military offensives at the hand of the government. Following this he thanks the military for their protection and sacrifices, but also offers thoughts for the terrorists who were fighting for what they believed was right because of a ideology that they were immersed in and not free to challenge.

He understands that LTTE supporters have had an intense distrust of the government because of this terrible military conflict over the past 25 years, but from this day onwards things will change. He vows to rebuild this trust. Without the confines of terrorist rule and with the freedom that democracy brings they will too taste the fruits of opportunity, and the protection of being an equal Sri Lankan citizen. The Tamil people will be embraced into society for the brothers and sisters that they are, and will be valued by the majority Sinhalese and other minorities for the rich cultural diversity that they provide to the diverse mix that makes Sri Lanka the strength that it is today. It can be even stronger tomorrow with this kind of collaboration of communities.

In addition to this, perhaps he will then go on to add more to his newly made pledge to rebuild trust by making the following statement to the Tamil people.

“We as a nation, and I as a individual, express my deepest sympathies to all the innocent civilians who have lost their lives in this terrible conflict. I am also sorry for all the armed personnel who have lost their lives doing what either they believed in or what they were ordered to do or forced to do.

I am also sorry for those innocent Tamil civilians who lost their lives in the thousands in 1983, and apologise for the state not stepping in to stop this immediately. This was a mistake which was inexcusable and it will never happen again in the new united Sri Lanka that we must all forge together from this day on.

I am sorry for the thousands of Muslim refugees who were forced to leave Jaffna with a day’s notice by the LTTE and continue to live in camps waiting to return to their homelands, I hope you will now be able to do this.

I am sorry to all the innocent Tamil civilians who have felt harassed by the increased scrutiny that they have undergone in recent time in suspicion for being LTTE terrorists. Again we will make steps that this will not happen in the future.

I send out my sympathies in recognition of your suffering.”

Perhaps then the President follows on by saying we must now start working together as a nation, beyond ethnic religious and language barriers, and makes amends to this by inciting a prayer in all the different languages and different religions by different religious leaders.

With regards to the north we must recognise our promises during the many years of negotiations to offer the Tamil people of the North their due respect and autonomy with a political solution that empowers them.

With regards to the other leaders:

Again given the hypothetical military defeat of the LTTE in the North, imagine if Velupillai Prabakaran would think of what could ultimately lead to the salvation of the people he claims to support and tells his supporters that they must now change tactics from the military path as a strategy as it will no longer bring peace to the Tamils of Sri Lanka or the North. Now that the territory was in the hands of the government and that they have pledged to grant due power and authority to the Tamil people, we must accept this and work within this system to fight for our rights.

“I fought until the end to deliver what I promised, but too many have died and we must now not think of this as defeat, but a victory for our people, because by struggling so hard the Tamil cause has gained so much recognition we will never experience a situation like in 1983, or 1977 or 1957 again. Because of my movement and your efforts we have created an awareness of the plight of the Tamils in this country and we have fought against this. Now we must work together peacefully and respect all that have died in the process. Never give up the struggle to maintain your rights as a minority, but please just as I now have to look at non military means of effecting change, you must do the same – it is the way forward for our future generations.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has apologised for the serious events against our people in the past and pledged to make this country a truly multicultural one where a Tamil person can feel a true sense of belonging whilst represented by government, and this will be backed up by legislation and constitution changes to embody these words. This has never been delivered to us in such sincerity before and we must embrace this new opportunity to make this new age of Sri Lanka an incredibly prosperous one for Tamils as well as all Sri Lankans.

I also apologize to all Sri Lankan citizens for the bloodshed and suffering that occured at the hands of my organisation, including child conscription, assasinations and civilian bombings. I was only doing what I felt the government had forced us to do. However, I now know that these methods were wrong and will face the consequences of my actions in the name of my people”

Imagine if the UNP opposition leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe, also chose the high road by saying that “I would like to congratulate Mahinda Rajapakse in his relentless journey to bring this country to peace in the best way he could manage. Now is not the time to bicker about different approaches we have had to achieving the same solution of peace. We now have a situation where there is no direct military conflict or war, and we have a chance to work together to create a prosperous Sri Lanka which is multi cultural, multi lingual and multi religious and we should use this to create the economic paradise that this country should already represent. This is where my skills lie and I will work together with Mr Mahinda Rajapakse in the months to come for the economic prosperity of the country and it’s people, to ensure that we make use of this crucial opportunity rather than fight about small matters.”

Also imagine if the JVP say that that in supporting the sovereignty of Sri Lanka we have to recognise the current military defeat of the LTTE as only the first step in preventing future terrorism by joining together and embracing the sentiments of President Rajapakse and the opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe by truly respecting all citizens of this country in the same way, and providing equal rights to all, the poor as well as the rich, and the minorities as well as the majority.

Will the JHU say they would like to like to commend the words of peace being spoken by President and other political leaders. They have great hope for peace in this country and that we must work had to respect diversity and equality just as the Buddhist doctrine encourages, to see things the way that they are.

“We must also try to ensure that no group should be disadvantaged and we must never again realise a situation where so many citizens of this country have been put in a position where they are routinely forced to break the first precept of Buddhism (thou shalt not kill another being) as they have been the case throughout the last 25 years of war. We must also in the true spirit of Buddhism completely put aside ego, and greed for power, in the name of what is right for the country.

Also we Buddhist monks should not maintain our membership with orthodox clergy and hold a position as a minister, for it entails power that is beyond what is humanly possible to resist clinging and craving and is not conducive to the Buddhist doctrine that we have ordained to practice. The fact that other religions also place people in positions of power for the maintenance of the religion is of no consequence. However it is very important that the Buddhist virtues in this country are safeguarded so we will entrust in lay representatives. I will lead the way but announcing my “disrobing” from the Sangha in order to continue on the JHU as a true politician who is in close association with the Sangha but no longer a direct affiliate. I do this in honour of the Sangha, Dhamma and of course the Buddha.”

Imagine if the TNA offer their condolences for all Sri Lankans who have lost life in the recent battles of the north and all Tamils civilian who they primarily represent, followed by a vision for the future. Will they pledge their co-operation with the government in trying to rebuild Jaffna and the entire North as well as be key players in the power sharing that will ensure in this region?

Does all this sound like a situation where we can have peace not just in name but a lasting and enduring peace, supported by all Sri Lankans not just on this island but Sri Lankans abroad who have been responsible for so much funding of this war as well.

Does the notion of lasting peace in Sri Lanka, or one step further even, a multi cultural, muti lingual, multi religious and economically prosperous Sri Lanka sound too incredible a dream to believe? Well look it this way – what about a black man being the president of the USA; a country that was the leader of slavery only a few centuries prior and where institutional segregation thrived as late as in the 1960s.

When I suggested to some Sri Lankan citizens, like myself, the notion that the political leaders of Sri Lanka could co-operate, at least verbally, for the good of the nation at a pivotal and crucial time such as after a military defeat of the LTTE, just as the American leaders did after a crucial election just recently, the response was “this will never happen in Sri Lanka”.

When we look at the two scenarios that have been presented above it does look somewhat incredible for the second option to come true. The phrase “The Audacity of Hope”, the title of Barack Obama’s book, comes to mind.

Leaders of Sri Lanka – why not collaborate for the goal of Peace?

Perhaps at this point in time the leaders I mentioned will not be able to come together in the name of improving the country because it means conceding the ideals that they have been representing wholeheartedly during the time of war.

But at the same time we can ask “why not now”? What reasons would there be for President Rajapaksa not to use a military defeat of the LTTE in the North as a good opportunity to apologise for the atrocities of the 1983 riots and also a chance to pledge specifically to make an effort that a unified state would mean that Tamils are ensured to have equal rights?

In considering why the leader don’t just collaborate to achieve peace for the peole that they represent another reason is that the voting public would make it too difficult to do. For example if President Rajapaksa made an apology to the Tamil people for the riots of 1983, as suggested in the hypothetical example, and a majority of voter felt that this was not appropriate then this good gesture of the President will actually threaten his existence. Only if the public create a climate of positivity for this kind of statement will it be possible. Similarly if Mr Prabakaran sent out a strong message to their supporters that they were going to give up their armes and enter into the democratic political mainstream, they may suffer a lack of support if they didn’t agree with this move, because they have been promised more, such as a separate state with two thirds of the island’s coastline at the very least, and if this was the case his support would be cut.

If we, the public, care to look more closely at the political leaders we may notice that their choices also are often not as clear-cut as we think. They are really in the hot seats that we the public put them in.

If we, the public, demand “peace” and allow deviation from the previous party line, then we will give the current leaders more freedom to make more skilful choices of sustainable Peace. If we, the public, have a narrow minded, short-sighted viewpoint then these same leaders will be forced to stick with the status quo for fear of loosing power and we will miss out on innovative new strategies to bring Peace to our country.

Thus when we look at peace in Sri Lanka, we must realise the choice is not just in the hands of the politicians, but the choice is also ours. When we look in the mirror in the morning and ask “why there is still conflict in this country?” –we are usually quick to blame political leaders, military, terrorists. However, in reality we are also to blame, just as a famous quote by Martin Luther King describes it:

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Yes we can change ourselves and our views, but why do we so often not choose to do so?

Also considering the analogy of facing the mirror in the morning and asking the question , “how are we ever going to solve this problem and find lasting peace for our beautiful multicultural island and see it and the people within it prosper?” the flip side is also true. The answer is usually right there starring back at us, and hopefully smiling too.

The only things we need to achieve peace, at least in “our” hearts is that we have to 1) want it, 2) we have to believe it is possible to achieve, and 3) we have to understand that “everyone” needs to contribute in some way, even if it is only in an ideological way.

Let’s make Peace in Sri Lanka a reality, we can get there if we all want it enough and are willing to work together and believe it is possible.

Bishan Rajapakse

Figure 1
These pictures are taken within the last 6 month where a group of Sinhalese Buddhists went to offer a Puja with Tamil Hindus in one of our Ancient cities only kilometres from the conflict. Within the last 6 month period prior to this there had been multiple terrorist attacks on civilians. To the north of here there was military offensives. The Hindu priest tells us that 90% of the people who come there are Sinhalese – there is no problem at a community level. He also goes on to say that the Buddhist monk from across the road has always been a great support to him.

This alone shows that Peace is already in the hearts and minds of Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka. This movement of co-operation and understanding only needs to be strengthened. It is possible, it can happen, and it “will happen” – will you be behind the movement or simply critical of it?

(i won't put the pictures of the people faces because I haven't asked for permission to post their photos on the internet, but hopefully the temple and fruit display the moment adequately)

To Blog or Not to Blog

Thank you for being patient with reading my previous article about reflections on Barack Obama gaining the US presidency and what implications this could have for Peace in Sri Lanka. It was a collection of my views at that point in time. I probably will not send the article as a letter to the editor like I stated in the article as it was too long, and perhaps I was slightly "chicken", and i'd have to read the papers daily to look at what reaction, or lack of reaction it would cause. Instead I have published it here on my Peace blog.

I apologise if I have offended with my words or ideas, but I would love the idea to improve my ideas by getting your feedback and knowing your response to what I have said. This has not been easy to write and for me it has taken a lot of courage –I as the same of you, please lend me your thoughts and feedback. This is the only way to progress as individuals and as a society. Action, contemplation, and education re-action.

Even though this is a blog that nobody in particular reads, I have realised that I am very self-conscious and sensitive about what I write here. This is reflected in the fact that I haven’t posted and entry since March 2008 and now it is November 2008. Despite the lack of entry there has been so much that I have wanted to write and post here in the last 6 months.

Why not write more in this blog?

I guess there are several reasons for my self-conscious and sensitivity in writing this blog. One reason is my current busy schedule and horrible addiction to perfectionism regarding what I write (even though it may not show in the quality of the writing). However, it goes much further and deeper than that. One of the things that holds me back from posting things like this is that “Peace” in “Sri Lanka” is a very hot topic, that is also emotionally charged topic.

Also it's a topic where you know people are going disagree with your viewpoint, or certain aspects of your viewpoint, and the people disagreeing may be very close to you - friends or even family. This is particularly difficult because we love our family and friends, even if we don’t always share their ideas or stances on issues. However, we also “believe” what we “believe” and if we don’t express it we will never be able to challenge what we think to be write and believe to be wrong.

The other thing is that sometimes I worry about expressing views on a public forum. At the beginning of the year I held a candle for peace outside Fort railway station along with other peace supporters. I even gave my comments for a private TV station about how I believed in the concepts of piece and non violence. However since them people who have seen this item have suspected that I am a terrorist supporter which is not the case.

Finally it is very difficult to know “all” the facts necessary to hold an absolutely accurate viewpoint. Even if all the facts were known the direction in which we viewed these facts could completely change their message and meaning.

So really what is left then – will we ever really know the truth? The truths behind the conflict is what I’ve been striving to find for 2 and a half years since coming back to Sri Lanka, and before that on and off for my entire adult life. However the more I know about the situation, the less I feel I know.

But strangely the more I know about the situation, the more I care about it, and the more I realise that the truths of the past are nowhere nearly as important as the ways we handle the present moment. Right now it is November 10th 2008 – Peace is really within our grasp. The sooner we realise this in ourselves by letting go of our fears, prejudices and anger, the sooner we will see actual peace in the communities we love and cherish.

2008 can see peace in Sri Lanka if we all want it badly enough. Do you want it badly? Then believe it is possible and let it “truly” exist at least in your heart. It may not come easily, but with practice it can.

God bless, Theruwan Sarani, Om Shanthi, Ishallah, Shalom
Or plain old “let’s hope”