A mission to Wanni

Print edition : February 27, 1999

A delegation of leaders belonging to various faiths from southern Sri Lanka visits the Wanni region, which is under LTTE control, to gauge the mood of the Tamil people there.

THE continuing conflict in Sri Lanka has given rise to a feeling of despair among moderate sections of both Sinhalas and Tamils. This silent majority has in recent times become increasingly frustrated over the failure of the parties to the dispute to take any initiatives aimed at ushering in peace through negotiations. Although paying lip-service to the ideal of peace has become a political ritual, the reality is that there have been no meaningful peace initiatives. Several inter-related factors, such as the intransigence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the upgrading of the military machine of the Government, difficulties in forging a political consensus in southern Sri Lanka, and the widening chasm between the ruling People's Alliance and the principal Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), have led people to conclude that the conflict will grind on inexorably and that there is no solution in sight.

Given such a despondent mood, even a minor initiative aimed at breaking the deadlock would, and should, be hailed as a worthwhile effort. One such initiative was witnessed on February 10. A delegation of 21 priests belonging to various faiths, all of them from the South, ventured into the Wanni region in the North, which is under LTTE control, and exchanged views with an LTTE delegation at Mallavi near Mankulam. In the past there have been meetings between Buddhist and Christian priests on the one hand and LTTE representatives on the other, but the February 10 meeting is considered far more significant owing to the size and composition of the contingent from the South.

There are three Nikayes or divisions among the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka - the Shyamopali Nikaye (popularly known as the Siam Nikaye), the Amarapura Nikaye and the Ramanna Nikaye. The chief priest of these Nikayes are called Mahanayake Thero and those who are second in the hierarchy are known as Anunayake Thero. The delegation that went to Wanni included the three Anunayakes: Udugama Buddharakitha (Shyamopali Nikaye), Thalalle Dhammalokha (Amarapura Nikaye) and Madithiyavela Vijithasena (Ramanna Nikaye). All three are also members of the Samastha Lanka Pevidi Sanvidhanaya, a Buddhist group.

Among the other members of the delegation were Prof. Kumburugamuva Vajira, former Vice-Chancellor of the Buddhism and Pali University; Athureliya Indraratne, Adviser to the Buddha Sasana Ministry; Malcolm Ranjith, the Catholic Bishop of Ratnapura and secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference; Kenneth Fernando, the Anglican Bishop of the Colombo diocese; and Prof. Tissa Vitarana, former Director of the Medical Research Institute and currently a consultant to the Ministry of Scientific Affairs and chairperson of the National Alliance of Peace, a grouping of nearly 200 organisations.

The LTTE delegation included Thamilchelvan and Karikalan, the chief and deputy chief respectively of its political wing. Both were members of the LTTE delegation that held discussions with the Sri Lankan Government delegation between January 8 and April 18, 1995. Interestingly, both Thamilchelvan and Karikalan were married recently - the former to a member from the LTTE propaganda unit and the latter to a cadre of the LTTE medical unit. The weddings were arranged by the LTTE's "marriage bureau", which acts as a match-maker for eligible "Tigers" and "Tigresses", who, however, have no say in the choice of their partners. LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran is normally the chief guest at the weddings, which are organised as mass weddings.

The delegation from the South had obtained permission to visit a Catholic church at Madhu in LTTE-controlled territory. The fact that Buddhist priests visited a place of worship of another faith is seen as a gesture symbolic of greater inter-faith acceptance. After visiting the church, the delegation toured the LTTE-controlled areas. It paid specific attention to the plight of the Tamil refugees displaced by the war. The highlight of the trip, however, was the meeting with the LTTE representatives. The visit and the meeting received wide publicity in the Colombo-based media.

In fact, there was speculation that the visit was made possible by the Sri Lankan Government. The fact that the authorities permitted such a high-profile, multi-faith delegation to visit LTTE-held territory and meet representatives of the organisation conveyed the impression that the Government was utilising the occasion to gauge whether the LTTE was amenable to holding serious negotiations. Some people felt that the Government was merely encouraging the clergy to create a climate conducive to peace moves through such missions. The state-controlled media covered the visit extensively; an editorial in a state-owned newspaper welcomed the visit and described it as a prelude to talks with the Tigers. It appeared that this coverage reflected at least to a certain extent the Government's stand.

However, the members of the delegation from the South vehemently denied that they had the Government's backing. "The only contact we had with the Government was when we sought permission to visit these areas," said a spokesperson for the delegation.

SPECIFIC political issues were not raised during the discussion. The talks related to general issues of a humanitarian nature. The visit had two objectives: to see at first hand the living conditions in the LTTE-controlled territories and assess the mood of the people, and dispel the notion that is widespread among the Tamil people that the Sinhala people, the Buddhist clergy in particular, are opposed to a negotiated settlement of the conflict. The delegation will present a report to President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe.

The Buddhist priests raised with the LTTE the issue of the attack on the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic) in Kandy by the Tigers last year (Frontline, March 6, 1998). Political negotiators may have hesitated to confront the LTTE on the issue, but the Buddhist priests were not constrained. The LTTE representatives reportedly expressed regret over the attack on the temple, which is considered to be one of the most hallowed Buddhist shrines. They claimed that many Hindu and Christian places of worship in the Tamil areas had been attacked during the ongoing war.

The religious dignitaries said that no place of worship should ever be attacked since such attacks only weakened the chances of peace. They asked the LTTE not to attack any place of worship. The LTTE representatives reportedly assured them that they would not. It is, however, too early to say if the LTTE will abide by its assurance. There is a perception that the LTTE, which came in for severe criticism following the Kandy attack, may have decided - even before it gave this assurance - that it would not attack places of worship. What is significant, however, is that the LTTE admitted to being responsible for the attack on the Dalada Maligawa temple: the LTTE has not been known to take responsibility for such attacks.

There was a frank exchange of views and a first-hand assessment of the mood of the people. In the perception of the religious leaders, the people were tired of the war and wanted genuine and lasting peace - peace negotiated within the framework of a united Sri Lanka and not according to the dictates of the separatists. More important, the LTTE representatives stated unequivocally that they did not want the war to continue. "The youth of the land - both Sinhala and Tamil - are unnecessarily sacrificing their lives because of the war," one of them said. The LTTE in fact claimed that the war had dragged on only because the Government had not responded to the LTTE's peace overtures.

The delegation summed up its visit by emphasising the necessity and the possibility of ushering in peace. Public statements attributed to respected Buddhist prelates have the power to influence opinion among the Sinhala people. In what was perhaps a tactically sound move, the Christian clergy took the back seat and allowed the Buddhist leaders to be in the spotlight. A few years ago Bishop Fernando was criticised by some Buddhist hardliners for meeting LTTE leaders, but if there is any such criticism this time it appears to be muted because senior members of the Buddhist clergy were involved in the excercise. More such visits may well be on the cards. At the very least, continuous efforts of this nature will help reduce tensions and remove suspicions between the two sides. With careful planning, the religious leaders may even play a useful role in facilitating negotiations.

THE visit undoubtedly strengthened the peace movement in Sri Lanka. Encouraged by the mission, the National Peace Alliance is planning a 20,000-person march for peace in Colombo on February 26. The demonstration is expected to bring pressure on both the Government and the Opposition to cooperate with each other in enabling negotiations for peace. A consensus among the Sinhala people in the South is seen as a pre-requisite for commencing serious talks with the LTTE.

The objectives of, and the attempts by, the peace campaigners in general and the religious leaders in particular are to be commended; however, there are doubts about the LTTE's sincerity in the matter. It is possible that the LTTE merely wants to buy time by conveying the impression that it is ready for peace talks. This is not the first time that the LTTE has evinced a desire for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The Tigers are always ready to 'talk' but never to 'negotiate' seriously. There is a lot of scepticism about whether the LTTE will ever renounce the goal of a Tamil Eelam and negotiate a political settlement within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. But even if there are doubts about the LTTE's bona fides, no opportunity for a negotiated peace settlement should be ignored.

In that context the recent visit by the religious leaders is certainly a commendable initiative. It may not yield spectacular results immediately, but such efforts have tremendous long-term potential. Constructive engagement with the LTTE to involve it in dialogue - at whatever level - is a worthwhile exercise. The benefits of the visit may not be appreciated by some sections of the people, but with time these negative perceptions may change. The most immediate consequences of this praiseworthy North-South dialogue in Sri Lanka are that it helped probe and explore the LTTE mindset and strengthen the momentum for peace.

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