Friday, December 26, 2008

Response to "Christmas in Sri Lanka 2008

Dear Ruki

Merry Christmas
I'm glad you managed to to spend it with you family

Unfortunately i had to be here at work in Anuradhapura and could not be with my family.
It was interesting to note that even here in Anuradhapura, despite being a Sinhalese Buddhist majority town the Christmas lights were shinning bright, and and to my pleasant surprise I even saw a Sri Lankan Santa Clause dressed in red, prancing in the main street of Anuradhapura as I ate my Christmas kothu rotti.

I read you reflections with interest, but also with some difference. I found what you had written to be very thought and emotion provoking - which has led me to contribute to this forum. Forgive me if what I have to say is somewhat lengthy but I feel it to be important all the same.

Ruki wrote:
- There were prayers for the rulers and the military that they will soon bring about an end to the conflict with their ongoing military operations, which is on the verge of “victory”.

- But there were no prayers for a negotiated, just, political solution that will meet aspirations of all communities.

I share you sentiment in agreeing that it is very saddening that we are at war. Living here you cannot escape this awareness. In fact this conflict is heartbreaking for anyone who is aware, as I'm sure many readers here will agree.

However, to me, your writing omits the fact that there "are" prayers by many Sri Lankan's for a peaceful end to this conflict - i can vouch for at least one person (myself) but know of many many more who have this very prayer. What you report is the lack of guided prayer on these topics by the Minister of your service perhaps, rather than the prayer that exists in the mind of ordinary people - a much more difficult thing for one to profess to know. I challenge everyone who reads Ground views to write in if they have themselves had a prayer to the end of violence, or knows of others who feel this way - i'm sure it is many in number.

When I talk to the public about what they want it is most definitely "peace" and not "violence". I live amongst many casualties of war here in the North of the so called "South". However there is a strong belief that, amongst the people with whom I talk, that the LTTE will "not give up their armed fight" for a separate state at any cost, and that a ceasefire without commitment will only lead to re-arming and further violent conflict. This is the only reason why they support the government military stance.

Whilst living here it has saddened me to learn at close hands that the civilians in the LTTE controlled areas are "erroneously" led to believe that "the Sinhalese" want to wipe out the entire Tamil race. One trip down to the capital of Sri Lanka and it is plainly obvious that this is not the case, as Tamil will be the main language one can hear being expressed in many areas of Colombo, however, the people of the Wanni do not realise this until they become the fortunate few who are able to leave (only to find that they cannot return without being at risk of conscription to the LTTE).

We know about this misconception because patients who are casualties of war are often treated in Anuradhapura hospital and they express these erroneous and hurtful views to the doctors treating them, often fighting hard to save their lives. Of course these civilians themselves are not to blame, because under Prabakaran's LTTE regime this is what they are led to believe.

There was incident not too long ago (within the last 6 months) where a Tamil patient from the Wanni was transferred (which is a common occurrence) for treatment of a traumatic injury and despite several hours of surgery and intensive care they eventually succumbed for medical reasons. However, the family member that accompanied them from the Wanni was adamant that medical care was withheld and their relation was killed because they were a Tamil. The consultant spent a very long time trying to convince the bystander that this was not the case - despite being in a very busy hospital and having other pressures, for the very reason that it was important to them they they did not have this wrong view that the Sinhalese are trying to kill the Tamil people, however, this these efforts were sadly in vain as there was no changing this deep seated view that had likely been the result of much brainwashing.


I am not claiming there are no hardships faced by Tamil people in Sri Lanka today (scrutiny at checkpoints, which in some cases is clear harassment, being just one example of a difficulties faced by Tamils living in Sri Lanka at present), after all I could never know what it is to be a Tamil person in Sri Lanka. At the same time I also know that there is very little positive light being given to the ethnic harmony that also exists despite this ongoing conflict, at least in my experience. I have had the pleasure of working alongside people of all ethnic minorities in this country since i arrived here 3 years ago, and even in Anuradhapura, which is so close to the conflict. For the last 2 years I have had Tamil co-workers who were all clearly treated with equality to the Sinhalese Majority and other Ethnic minorities, as one would expected (but perhaps may not realise).

I was privileged to be able to offer a Puja at the local Kovil with both Sinhalese and Tamil colleagues together in Anuradhapura only a few months back. Here the the Hindu priest told us that he has been offering puja's and serving the community for years, and certainly throughout this conflict. What was heartening for me to hear was that he had such a good relationship with the local "Harmaduruwo" (Buddhist Priest), where he said that if there was ever a need they could freely call upon one another. The greatest conflict he had received was pressure from other Hindu priests residing the North of Sri Lanka who criticised him for maintaining his support of a Hindu Temple in a Sinhala predominant area, despite not having any trouble from this community. This was saddening to hear as such pressure only encourages separation rather than unity, however, it was pleasant to see his courage in doing what he felt was right.

I would like to re-iterate for this forum that the Sinhalese "does not" want to "exterminate" the Tamil people as Tamil people in the Wanni have been led to believe in order to continue fighting this war for the LTTE. This ideology is not only erroneous, but it is extremely damaging to all communities.

In my personal experience of working in this region, the only real threat of physical harm that has come to both me and my Tamil colleagues was when the LTTE planted a bomb in the local Anuradhapura "pola" (community market) back in February this year, which was luckily defused before it caused any damage.

Don't get me wrong, as far as I'm concerned "any" form of war or physical violence is terrible and a real mess- and I have always been a proponent of non-violence as you know. Anyone working in the medical sphere knows that the human destruction of military or guerilla/terrorist warfare is terribly devastating. I also agree that more thought and action can be done to help those who are casualties of war.


However, if feel the current conflict in Sri Lanka should always be presented as function of the conflict between two sides. A lack of attention to the terrible conditions the civilians in LTTE controlled areas have to face because of the LTTE is unbalanced reporting and also unfair to these poor civilians who do not have the benefit of getting their message out in a forum like groundviews. Where is the reports of the plight of families who have to give up not one but two children to be LTTE cadres? Or those who cannot return (even medical officers) who are at fear of being forcibly conscripted. These people cannot voice their opinion for fear of their own lives and their families lives. However, I feel I never read much of these people's plight at these sort of forums, sadly.

Ruki wrote:

- There were no prayers or mention of hundreds of thousands of displaced, men, women and children, with inadequate shelter, food, medicine, education, water and sanitation.

- There were no prayers for children and adults conscripted as soldiers, their families.

I agree that there should be prayers for these people, and publicly so.


I think writing about the conflict is a very difficult thing and I commend you Ruki to have the courage to write what you "feel", and I do believe this the piece your wrote here is primarily about "feelings"

So in response I have shared some of my thoughts and "feelings".

My main criticism of "feeling-based" writing (including my own piece of writing here) is that what ends up being presented is a usually a one sided argument.

One sided arguments run the risk of further to deepen the divide between "us" and "them" (whichever side, or view, you support) instead of realising the beauty of the oneness that we are all bound by.

I believe the media, including "groundviews" has a very important role to play in generating peace, by being as balanced as possible. The provision of the website to make comment and provide feedback is commendable. Thank you to the organisers for creating this platform. However the balance is only as good as the diversity of contribution so I encourage all with differing opinions to present their view as I am weary of reading the same viewpoints over and over, and I am sure there are other who feel the same.

I thank you for your patients with my "reflections", and will leave you with the best Chirstmas prayer that I can think of to achieve decreasing the divide between "us" and "them" in favour or peace for all.

I pray that we don't project only "despair" in our current situation as this will only lead to more despair,
Instead I pray that we start look for the light in the current situation,
As "difficult" as it may be because of the scars that we bear, and because of how dark it may currently seem,
And I pray for us to build upon what we good we have, no matter how little it may seem.
We should not look to blame others, but look for solutions for ourselves
Including the simple acknowledgement of the goodwill that exists in our communities are this very moment in time
I assure you that this goodwill is there- we just need to nurture it further
Only then as community we can find and promote lasting peace in Sri Lanka

God Bless
Om Shanti
Theruwan Saranai

Merry Christmas
Bishan - 25/12/08

“Nonviolence is a weapon of the strong”

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

“Whenever you have truth it must be given with love, or the message and the messenger will be rejected”

(quotes by Mahatma Gandhi)

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that"

“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.”

(Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Christmas in Sri Lanka 2008

This post is a letter that I wrote to Ruki Fernando a human rights activist who posted an article on Ground views which was about his thought over Christmas this year. His writing was both thought and emotion provoking for me which lead me to write the subsequent article, which covers not just Christmas in Sri Lanka this year, but many thoughts I have about the conflict.

First I will present his article
My response will follow

Ruki wrote:-

Christmas 2008 in Sri Lanka- Ruki Fernando

Its Christmas day. For a change, I was at home with my family.

Early morning, I went for Christmas Mass in my parish. Many years ago, I had been active in the church, as a student and teacher in the Sunday School, as an Alter Server and in the Young Christian Students Movement. But I had not gone to my parish for a long time, though I have been visiting and staying in churches all over Sri Lanka, especially in the war ravaged North. I thought I will go today, as it was Christmas, also because of my family.

Unlike most people, I didn’t go to the crib in the Church. But I did have images of Jesus being born in a cattle shed 2008 years ago. That Mary was compelled to give birth to Jesus away from her home, as she and Joseph were forced to leave her hometown, while she was pregnant, due to an order of the rulers of that time.

I sat quietly in the church and said a silent prayer for the baby that I saw few weeks ago in Menik Farm, Vavuniya. She would be 40 days today. She had no name when I visited her. A baby born as her parents fled the advancing Army in Vanni. A baby who is forced to live in a mosquito infested, muddy and murky camp, as her parents are not allowed to live with their relatives, but confined to a defacto prison by the military, even though they are not charged with any crime.

The Christmas Mass was taking longer than the usual Sunday service, many prayers and long preaching by the priest.

There were prayers for the rulers and the military that they will soon bring about an end to the conflict with their ongoing military operations, which is on the verge of “victory”.

But there were no prayers for a negotiated, just, political solution that will meet aspirations of all communities.

There was no mention of a call for ceasefire by the two Anglican Bishops and three Catholic Bishops.

There were no prayers or mention of hundreds of thousands of displaced, men, women and children, with inadequate shelter, food, medicine, education, water and sanitation.

There were no prayers for children and adults conscripted as soldiers, their families.

There were no prayers for families of disappeared, those killed.

No remembering churches that were shelled and bombed, as they offered shelter to people fleeing the war, and no prayers for priests killed and disappeared as they were helping the war affected.

No remembering those tortured, those being detained merely on suspicion in inhumane conditions, worse than conditions that some animals are kept.

I wondered whether I was living in the same country, whether I was part of “one Catholic Church”.

Amidst my frustration and gloom, some gave me hope and inspiration.

A Catholic sister told me a while ago that she and a priest had shared about the plight of the displaced in the North during a Christmas Mass and asked people for their prayers and donations. People had donated more than Rs. 50,000.

After the mass, I visited three journalists being detained, one of who had written about children being conscripted as child soldiers just before he was detained. I went with a diplomat attached to an embassy in Colombo; she brought chocolates, and stood patiently in the sun with me for close to an hour, while waiting to get in. I will remember the smiles of the people we met and chatted briefly.

I also remembered the wife of one of the journalists, with who I had been in close contact. What would Christmas mean to her? What Christmas greetings, what Christmas gift could I offer her? Will my usual greeting, “Happy Christmas” have any meaning to her?

I met some Catholic sisters who were coming from the prison as I was about to go in. Several other priests - Anglican, Methodist and Catholic – as well as some other friends, who had got my text message, also told me they will visit detainees in the coming days.

So this is Christmas in Sri Lanka, 2008 December.

I could not help reflecting that if Jesus was to be born in Sri Lanka, he would not be born in the Church I went for the Christmas Mass.

It is possible though that Jesus might be born in a Church in the battle zones in the North, that offers shelter to people fleeing bombing and shelling from the sky and around them. Or probably in the prison I visited. Or in the house of a family member of a disappeared. Or amongst the hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

Happy Christmas from Sri Lanka.

Ruki Fernando