In 2009, after 25 years of civil war the Sri Lankan government achieved final military victory over the LTTE (also known as the Tamil Tigers). But with hundreds of thousands of people displaced and as many as 40,000 people may have been killed in the final phase of the conflict alone.
The end of the war has not seen the widespread reconciliation that many hoped for, and in fact ethnic and religious tensions have risen noticeably in 2013, with for example several attacks on Islamic mosques by Buddhist gangs.
David Cameron’s recent visit to Sri Lanka threw an international spotlight on the tensions simmering across the country. After hearing stories from civilians caught up in the war and its aftermath, the Prime Minister said:
One organisation working to bring long-term peace in Sri Lanka is our partner the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR). Their aim is to build a united Sri Lanka guided by compassion, justice and equal respect for diversity. CPBR’s approach is to select groups that can make a powerful impact on the conflict and to work with them, enabling them to gradually expand through widespread networking to make their shared vision come true. They do this by organising inter-faith dialogue groups, inter-community activities and public discussions with people and religious leaders from all religious and ethnic groups in Sri Lanka –Sinhalese and Tamil, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist.
They are also educating young people through their Young Visionaries programme, training them to become leaders in conflict transformation. By focusing on young people, they aim to prevent ethnic tensions passing on to the next generation.
Voices of Image is one project set up by CPBR, for young people, which uses the power of photography as a tool to capture the various cultures, ethnicities and voices throughout the country. This is bringing communities together through understanding. The project has been very successful so far, and Danniel’s story below is just one of many demonstrating the power and impact of CPBR’s peacebuilding activities.
Danniel is a Tamil Christian from the up-country Estate community. He and 16 other Voice of Image (VOI) members from Anuradapura and Siripura travelled to the east to participate in the photography exhibition organised by Kattankudy VOI members. It was arranged that they would stay in the house of a community leader in this predominantly Muslim village. None of the youths had been to Kattankudy before and they were not very familiar with the culture.
Danniel, coming from Hatton where there are escalating tensions between Muslims and Tamils, was wary of spending four days in this Muslim-only village. He was unsure what to expect from the people there.
On his first day, returning home from the exhibition centre, Danniel met a young Muslim boy, who was a neighbour of his host family. As both Muslims and Tamils speak the same language, it was easy for Daniel to befriend this boy, a 15-year-old named Sibly, who was very curious about the visitors who had come to their village from afar. They talked about what they shared and what made them different. Every day when Daniel came back from working at the exhibition centre, he spent time talking and learning with Sibly. Being of the same age, they shared many common interests – perhaps Muslims were not so different.
Danniel wanted to explore the village, but he was scared, as he was not sure how well he and his friends would be received by the Muslim community. Sibly volunteered to take Danniel and his Sinhala and Tamil friends to explore. He showed them the neighbourhood and Kattankudy beach. When they returned, Sibly’s father was waiting outside their house and Sibly introduced them. The father invited Daniel and his friends to his humble home, which he supported with the daily wages he earned doing physical labour. They all sat on the floor and enjoyed tea, sweets and fruits. Some of the Sinhalese VOI members from Anuradhapura and Siripura didn’t speak Tamil, but the members who did helped them, and everyone talked about Voice of Image and the important role they each play in their communities to promote peace through photography.
Soon it was time to leave. As they left, Sibly’s mother gave Danniel a mat she had made, as a parting gift. Danniel offered to pay for it, but she refused to take any money. “I don’t speak Sinhala,” she began, “but with your help I spoke with these Sinhala boys. Thank you.” With tears in their eyes, both parents hugged and bid goodbye to the youths from the different ethnic-religious communities. Danniel, who had lost his mother when he was small, felt so close to Sibly’s mother, almost as if he had met his second mother.
He proudly shared this story with his fellow Hindu and Christian Tamil friends back in Hatton, emphasising how the friendship he developed with this Muslim boy had changed his views about other Muslims. Despite the ethnic and religious differences and the language barrier, ‘We experienced love, warmth and generosity during the few hours we spent there – and the best tea I have ever tasted!’ he said. He is still keeping in touch with Sibly and his family over the phone.
Organisations like CPBR are vital for preventing another outbreak of violence. They are providing crucial projects, particularly for children and young people to teach them about different ethnicities. Through this, they are bridging divisions while empowering and educating communities to work for peace. This peace is incredibly fragile and it is imperative that reconciliation is supported in order to a firmer foundation of peace and to prevent any more violent outbreaks. Urgent support is needed to CPBR and the great work they are carrying out in Sri Lanka.