By Shanika Sriyananda
Q: What motivated you to speak out for a firmer reconciliation process?
A: After the end of the war in May 2009, I eagerly anticipated a genuine process of reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils. I had hope because before the war began, I had seen how Sinhalese and Tamils had lived in harmony.
People from my generation had close Tamil relatives. In the Eastern Province both communities lived together peacefully. I come from such a generation, where there were no ethnic differences.
As the conflict progressed, these harmonious relationships grew strained. My elder brother Nandasena, a police officer, was killed by the LTTE in the Maha Oya attack. Sometimes, I think that some of those LTTEers might have been the children of those who lived peacefully with us in our villages. Therefore, I had hopes for reconciliation so both communities could live together once again.
My mentor, the Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera, was the country’s first Buddhist monk to enter a university. A Tamil gentleman named Saravanamuttu Thangaraja sponsored his entire university education while most Sinhalese opposed him pursuing undergraduate studies, which they thought was not appropriate for Buddhist monks.
I can still remember what Ven. Rahula Thera said when Mr. Thangaraja died. He said: “I didn’t cry when my father died but I couldn’t bear the death of Mr. Thangaraja.” These sentiments will also exist among Tamils. This is why I had high hopes for reconciliation in the post-war era.
Q: Why did you wait until so many years after the war to speak out?
A:When the war was going on there was no space to speak about loving kindness. Once a war is over there is always room to promote harmony. I started doing it in my capacity as someone who spreads the message of Lord Buddha on non-violence and loving kindness to humanity. I did it through small video clips of five to six minutes in length, which were uploaded on YouTube. I can remember I did my first video with a very simple video recorder.
If someone visited the war memorial, he or she will definitely speak out for reconciliation. It shows the number of military personnel who were killed due to the war since 1981. The number kept on increasing. My brother’s name is also there and when I go there and see the names after his name, I feel that if the war could have ended before my brother was killed we could have saved his life and the lives of thousands of others as well.
Thousands of people died during the war but unfortunately people are still not united as both Sinhalese and Tamils are still living in two different realities. The war victory was highlighted everywhere but the reality of how nearly 300,000 Tamil people were living in IDP camps was not shown too much to the people in the South. Tamils in those camps were exposed to deadly fighting and ran for their life for over three years. They returned to safety empty-handed. They were there for three years undergoing several hardships. But this was not properly shown to the people of the South.
At the same time the Tamils in the North were not made aware of how the poverty-stricken people in the South lived in their villages without access to basic facilities.
Q: Do you blame the media?
A: I don’t blame the media but I’m unhappy with the media for not portraying the realities of both communities. Especially the electronic media could have regular programs about those IDPS. What I want to say is that stories about IDPs could have given a better picture to the people in the rest of the country in order for them to change their views about the conflict and the Tamil people.
Q: Do you think that this misunderstanding will lead to another conflict?
A: I don’t think so but there are forces which are trying to take advantage of it. Throughout our history, since 1948, on average after seven years we have had conflicts, most of which have led to bloodshed. Can you tell me another country where people die like this? Which country can afford to lose its human capital like this? Unfortunately we have not yet learnt our lesson even after thousands of people have sacrificed their lives in those conflicts.
Q: Some tried to brand the recent clashes between students at Jaffna University as race riots.
A: Yes, fortunately it didn’t happened but some segments tried to fuel it. Here I think the media is mainly responsible for blowing it up. Clashes between students groups are normal in all universities. The clash in Jaffna University should not have been blown up to that magnitude. I think there should be serious discussions about the role of the media in reporting these sensitive issues. The media has great power to change people’s perspective as it has wide coverage.
I think the clashes happened because both Sinhalese and Tamil students have little knowledge about each other and their respective cultures and religions. As long as this situation prevails, conflicts may erupt at any time as there is poor understanding between them.
Q: Sinhalese students from Jaffna University say that they were attacked and humiliated several times by members of the Tamil Student’s Union.
A: I strongly believe that the winners need to be humble but not the losers. The Sinhalese became victorious when they won the war. When they are in the North, they are perceived as winners. Whether the Tamils have supported the LTTE or not, today they think that they are the losers. So Sinhalese students have to remember this always.
If Jaffna has a unique culture, it is a Sri Lankan culture and not an Indian one. Jaffna is still a sensitive area due to misunderstanding between the two communities. These issues have to be handled carefully in a way that does not hurt the people of the North otherwise the two communities will grow further apart. The Sinhalese students at Jaffna University could have been educated about the sensitivity of these issues and had their ceremonies in a humble way that did not offend others.
Q: You reiterated the need to spread the message of the Buddha. Isn’t this the responsibility of Buddhist monks?
A: Yes, it is the responsibility of Buddhist monks. That is why I strongly believe that it is high time Buddhist monks step away from their role as Dhamma preachers and chanters of pririth. We need to be peace-builders by taking the message of non-violence and loving kindness to the four corners of the country. I think all other religious leaders can join in to promote peace. They need to play a more practical role in bringing all ethnic groups of this country together through religion.
Q: Does this mean that the forums formed with the participation of religious dignitaries to bring religious harmony were not fruitful?
A: The need of the hour is to reconcile two communities that were once divided. Therefore, all religious leaders in the country should come out of their traditional roles and lead people towards ethnic harmony. I doubt if high-profile religious leaders properly understand their role in reconciling people and helping them iron out their differences.
Karaniyamettasutta, the Lord Buddha’s words on loving kindness, will be the best guide, especially for Buddhist monks, to adjust their role in reconciling Sinhalese and Tamils.
According to the Sutta, loving kindness should be spread to all human beings, regardless of cast or creed. It says, like a mother’s untitled-4protective love for her only child, it has to be extended to all beings. While Buddhist dignitaries have a bigger role in spreading this message, Buddhists also have to contribute to spreading loving kindness to other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.
I want to highlight that this is not to convert anyone to Buddhism but to put the teachings of Lord Buddha into practice to create a peaceful future for Sri Lanka.
Q: The Government says it is committed towards reconciliation but do you think the people of this country too have a responsibility?
A: Yes, they too have a great responsibility in this endeavour. What I want to highlight is that as the peace-loving people of this country, we have to make a start without waiting until the Government brings forth reconciliation. In our own capacities we can practice what Lord Buddha said. He said, “Go to needy people and work for them.”
Q: How can ordinary people come forward and spread the Buddha’s message when some Buddhist priests are attacking some religions and provoking people?
A: That is why I say all segments of people in this country need to go through a healing process. Everyone, from the general public and the military to the media, clergy and politicians, needs to be healed as they have been directly or indirectly exposed to violence. There are still wounds in their minds and they suffer psychologically.
After being exposed to war-related pictures and videos through the newspapers and TV, those who were not directly involved in the war are also not mentally sound. I have met some people who say they have some disorders – sleep deprivation and stress. Most of them are ex-soldiers and those who have lived in border villages that were constantly attacked by the LTTE. They are psychologically disturbed. Some are suffering from some hidden mental disorder and become aggressive most of the time. This is because the whole country was exposed to horrific scenes from the war, such as heaps of dead bodies and suicide bomb explosions. After the war, the family life of most of those affected by the war was on the rocks and they behaved violently. Therefore, all the people in the country, including those who watched the war on the TV, need to be healed.
Sometimes I still recall the scene of a soldier recovering a woman’s head from a roof after a bomb blast. It haunts my mind. However, as a country, we can’t suffer any more and can’t lose any more valuable lives which could be utilised to develop the country.
The war-affected areas have been developed with infrastructure facilities like roads and bridges, but the authorities have failed to identify the real issues and heal the minds of the people. Until the entire nation, which was bombarded with war-related stories, heals psychologically, it is a daunting task for any Government to prevent future conflicts. I think the media needs to be a part of the healing process first.
Q: Once again you blame the media. Why?
A: Yes, because it, mainly the electronic media, has the power to reach millions of people at once. Some media institutions, including the State-run media, have become popular because of their war coverage. They sold the war daily while having a competition to be the first to report stories from the battlefields in the North. People gradually got used to seeing those horrific stories.
The war ended in 2009 but still most media personnel tried to promote their TV channels by showing stories filled with violence to regain viewers who stopped tuning in after the end of the war. There are some incidents of running such disturbing news stories on TV. The best example was the behaviour of a TV reporter, who recorded how a Buddhist monk was committing suicide by setting himself fire on him in a protest to stop the slaughter of cows. Instead of attempting to save the life of the monk, the reporter videoed the entire episode and the TV channel carried the horrific scene of the monk being engulfed in flames. Is this responsible media behaviour? If such an incident took place 20 years ago, the reporter would be the first to save the monk’s life.
I feel sympathetic towards those reporters. They also need to heal their minds which have gotten used to reporting violent news stories. The authorities that are responsible for the media need to create a new media culture to change the structure of reporting.
Q: How can the media engage in promoting reconciliation when some Buddhist organisations promote and engage in violence?
A: This is why I said the entire nation needs to go through a healing process. Here the Buddhist monks and other religious priests are no exceptions as they too have directly or indirectly been exposed to war. Their minds also need to be cleansed. They should redefine their roles so that they do not promote and spread anger and violence.
As Buddhist monks who are the true followers of the Lord Buddha, we should not limit our preaching and service to the Sinhalese. It should be made to all people in Sri Lanka and to the world. Regardless of cast or creed, it should be given to all human beings.
Q: There are claims that new Buddha statues are being placed in the North. What are your views on this?
A: I am against having Buddha statues in new places in the North. There is no need to have Buddha statues in the North where there are no Buddhist devotees. If somebody keeps a Buddha statue in a predominantly Hindu area and if one person out of 100,000 people throws a stone at the statue, the blame falls on the entire Hindu population. These kinds of acts will create unnecessary conflict. Again I reiterate the need for understanding and responsible action in addressing sensitive issues like religion and culture.
Q: They say the Buddha statues are being placed there for soldiers to worship.
A: The soldiers can have Buddha statues in their camps but not at junctions where there are no Buddhists. Those who placed the statues show their power and those who stone or damage the statues also show their power but ultimately the Lord Buddha’s statue becomes the subject of a conflict.
We need to be more intelligent, after losing so many valuable lives and suffering destruction due to a prolonged war, to stop anything that will lead to another conflict. We cannot afford to go back to a bloodstained era. We need to develop this small island in the future.
The commandos of the military are brave. The LTTE cadres were also brave and committed. The country lost those brave and dedicated youth, the commandos and the LTTE cadres, who could be used as assets to develop the country. Due to the mistakes of the short-sighted and power-hungry leaders of past generations they both fought each other and died. They sacrificed their youth in an unwanted war created by people who had different dreams. We should be wise now to stop the same mistake being repeated in the future.
Q: The Government claims that its priority is reconciliation. What do you have to say?
A: I am happy and again I have hopes for a true reconciliation process. But I have my doubts whether the Government has understood the need for reconciliation properly. I am also happy that this Government does not create ethnic unrest. I should commend it.
However, the present Government, as I see it, is more interested in pleasing the international community than in genuinely committing to reconciliation. Nelson Mandela tried to solve the problems among the ethnic groups in his country and was not concerned about the international community. He genuinely worked towards reconciling the people of his country. He brought in drastic changes in the system and didn’t answer to worries or queries from Geneva.
Q: Do you think Tamil political parties also have a significant role to play in the reconciliation process?
A: Yes, they have a vital role to play as the desire for reconciliation needs to come from all communities. Both Sinhalese and Tamil politicians need to abandon their petty political agendas to address the need of the hour – reconciliation.
I strongly believe that the Tamil politicians will understand the need for genuine reconciliation and will provide support in this endeavour.