Sitting on the grass as far as I could see, 650,000 people made the biggest silence I ever heard. As the silence deepened, I thought: This is the sound of bombs and landmines not exploding, of rockets not launched, and machine guns laid aside. It is possible for us all.
In war-torn Sri Lanka, this was Peace Samadhi Day, March 15, 2002, perhaps the largest meditation for peace in the history of the world. Organized by the nongovernmental Sarvodaya movement, the meditation both supported the cease-fire recently negotiated with Norwegian help between the Sinhalese-identified Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger secessionist party, and celebrated the launching of Sarvodaya’s “village-to-village, heart-to-heart” Link-Up program.
As I walked among the white-clad people who filled the paths to the great stupas and the grounds of the ancient, sacred city of Anuradhapura, I could not tell from which side of Sri Lanka’s civil war these pilgrims came. No placards or shouted slogans proclaimed their identities. Only place names on the parked buses gave a clue. They came from Hindu Tamil and Buddhist Sinhalese areas that had been pitted against each other for the last 19 years.
Power struggles between the Sinhalese and Tamils are rooted in historic waves of invasion and foreign occupation on this island nation (formerly called Ceylon) off the tip of India. Since Independence in 1948, the Sinhalese majority has controlled the government and promoted policies favoring Sinhalese such as making Sinhala the only official language and giving state support to Buddhism. Hindu Tamils have grown increasingly resentful, and in 1983 Tamil Tigers ambushed and killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers, setting off full-scale riots in which hundreds of Tamils died and more than 100,000 fled the country. Ever since then, violence and retaliation have fed each other. By 2001, more than 65,000 people had died in this war. Over 700,000 more had been forced from their homes. The economy is wrecked and a generation of Sri Lankans has been traumatized.
Late last year, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected on a pro-peace mandate. In February, with Norwegian assistance, he signed a cease-fire agreement with Tamil leaders. Previous peace negotiations failed in 1987, 1989, and 1995, and today, Sri Lanka’s president is leery of recognizing the Tamil separatists. Nevertheless, this June, the government and Tamil Tiger leaders may begin negotiations in Thailand.
What role has Sarvodaya played in this outbreak of peace? It is difficult to prove a direct link, but a report prepared in collaboration with the Norwegian Agency for Overseas Development by Professor K. T. Silva provides a clue. “When ethnic violence spread in several areas ... some of the local Sarvodaya leaders appealed to the residents not to join demonstrations or street riots. … In some instances, they gave protection to estate [plantation] residents who were Sinhalese and were vulnerable to attack by agitated mobs. As a result, only a few incidents were reported in estates covered by the project while law and order rapidly deteriorated in the surrounding areas.” Perhaps the Sarvodaya movement’s 44 years of bringing conflict-resolution skills and economic development to more than half of Sri Lanka’s villages have indeed helped to shift the balance in favor of peace.
Making peace, two villages at a time
On Peace Samadhi Day (samadhi means “conscious awareness”), Sarvodaya followers are ceremonially inaugurating the Link-Up program near an ancient bodhi tree. A thousand villages in the more devastated Tamil areas are paired with a thousand in the Sinhalese areas. The latter will bring materials and skilled and unskilled labor so that both parties can work together to rebuild homes, schools, wells, toilets, and places of worship destroyed in the fighting.
To symbolize this partnership, a village from each side had been selected, and after the temple bell is rung—at the precise moment when bells rang out across Sri Lanka—young people from each of these two villages come forward. They bear round trays of special festive food that they have prepared, and they feed each other. Then the plates are passed among the rest of us gathered here. Even if the cease-fire is sabotaged or the peace talks fail, I want to remember that taste of sweet rice and coconut. It tells me that this is what we really want most of all: to stop the fighting and feed each other.
Over the last year and a half, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, Sarvodaya’s founder, has convened public peace meditations to change the “psychosphere.” These gatherings let ordinary people demonstrate and deepen their desire to end the war. Sarvodaya—the name means “everybody wakes up”—is a Buddhist-inspired community development movement active in over 12,000 villages in all parts of this island republic. Its campaign for peace, moving into high gear with the fragile but promising cease-fire, aims to restore not only interethnic harmony, but also the basic necessities for economic well-being. These two are inseparable in Sarvodayan eyes, along with respect for the land and for the human spirit.
Sarvodaya’s peace plan includes development strategies for the dry zones, the most economically hard-pressed areas of Sri Lanka. It features locally generated energy as well as sustainable irrigation, soil renewal, and the community-controlled microcredit schemes that the movement has pioneered in the last decade. The aim of the movement is a “no poverty, no affluence” society to reduce the disparity between rich and poor brought about by late capitalism and corporate globalization. The priority placed on care for the land reminds me that “a safe and beautiful environment” is the very first of Sarvodaya’s Basic Human Needs. (See page 55.)
A 500-year peace plan
Peace does not happen with the signing of documents; the effects of war continue to fester far into the future, often to erupt again in violence. Sarvodayans point out that the seeds of Sri Lanka’s civil war were planted 500 years ago with European colonization, and estimates that healing will require an equal amount of time. So the peace plan extends over the next 500 years: five years to put dry-zone development measures in place; ten years to resettle all the refugees; 50 years to achieve the lowest poverty rate in the world and abolish Sri Lanka’s standing army. The vision continues beyond that. By 2100, Sri Lanka becomes “the first country to eliminate poverty, both economic and spiritual.” By the year 2500, “Global climate warming may cause changes to Sri Lankan environment; but because of the history of working together over hundreds of years, these changes will not be disasters. In 500 years, people might be living on other planets; however, Sri Lanka will remain their image of Paradise on Earth.I think of the tightrope walker who, to maintain her balance and move steadily forward, must raise her eyes and keep looking ahead. When we raise our eyes to look forward in our work for peace and justice, when we feel our connections to future generations, we can remain steady and determined despite the immediate challenges we face. My friends in the Sarvodaya Movement have shown that we ordinary humans are capable of that.