“I was lucky enough to work in Sri Lanka during a period of relative peace from 2003 to 2006, leaving just before the escalation of the conflict which has culminated with the situation we see today. Back then was a time for hope and I remember the regular sight of coachloads of Buddhist pilgrims travelling through the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) controlled areas to visit religious sites in Jaffna. There was a genuine feeling within the Tamil and Sinhala communities that a peaceful solution could be found but I was to return two years later to find a very different situation. Tensions ran high and leaders on both sides fuelled the tension. NGOs and foreign aid workers were treated with suspicion, visas were restricted and delayed for no reason and I was unable to visit Kilinochi – a place where I had previously spent three years travelling freely.
On the one hand, the government celebrates its military successes and the weakening of its enemy, yet on the other, it erodes the freedom of civil society and the space within which to work and express free opinion. Speaking to some of the contacts I still have there, the sense is that the creation of ‘The Select Committee of Parliament’ to investigate NGOs is to limit this space further and create a sense of fear amongst those who are trying to protect basic human rights and bring peace and integrity back to Sri Lanka. One friend said to me that, ‘three years ago people were ready for change but now the country has gone back 50 years’. That is certainly how I felt when I was last there and the situation has only worsened since then. The recent murder of a leading journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunga, within a high security zone; the ransacking of a TV station; and the new registry guidelines for NGOs, all indicate a continuing spiral of oppression. News that the government in Sri Lanka is tightening the screws on NGOs to “ regularise and monitor the disbursement of funds” has been met with dismay by peacebuilding organisations who see it as a “fishing expedition” to identify NGOs that are challenging the state ideology.
Whilst many in the Sinhala community support the war, there are others in the South who are determined to let the northern and eastern Tamils know that there are Sinhala-Buddhists that disagree with what is happening. Peacebuilders in Sri Lanka are steadfast in their commitment and as one said, “This is our country. We are believing a religion which is promoting non-violence and compassion. At least we have to be here to protect the seeds of respect, dignity and justice, otherwise, when the time comes, nobody will be here to plant those seeds and maybe seeds will be not here. Maybe we can’t do anymore in this vicious moment … at least we are doing what we can do within limited space.”
Tom Gillhespy, Head of International Programmes.