As many as 60,000 people, most of them civilians, have died in the Sri Lankan civil war between Tamil separatists and the government. A million more have become refugees from military campaigns and from violence on both sides.
In response, Gandhi Peace Prize winner Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne has launched an effort to bring peace to this troubled island. In mid-August, Ariyaratne invited people from throughout Sri Lanka to join him at a park in the nation's capitol for prayer and meditation. When I received word of this effort, I knew I had to attend.
“War will never bring peace,” Ariyaratne told reporters as he announced his plans. The August 29th peace march would be the first of 50 sponsored by his organization, he said. The marches would demonstrate the Sri Lankan people's desire for peace and would build a nonviolent, popular movement to end the fighting.
Ariyaratne is the founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a grassroots community development organization that combines Buddhist philosophy with Gandhian methods. This peace initiative marks a new era for the Sarvodaya organization, which has never before mobilized its supporters for a particular national cause. Founded in 1958 to counter the top-down industrialization model of economic development, Sarvodaya has been successfully promoting alternative development in villages for over 40 years.
Ariyaratne is one of the country's best-known figures. He has been recognized internationally, receiving awards from nations as diverse as Belgium and Japan. In 1996, he was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize in recognition of his work. Sarvodaya is active in nearly one-third of Sri Lanka's 33,000 rural villages, where it organizes communities to develop water supplies, preschools, and even village banks (See “A Village Revolution,” YES! Winter 1997/1998). In the past, Ariyaratne has avoided politics, preferring instead to focus on the spiritual, social, and economic development of Sri Lanka's poor, rural villages.
Ending the terror
The purpose of the group prayer and meditation, according to the Sarvodaya announcement, was “to raise the spiritual consciousness of people and thereby direct their minds toward national unity and ending the terrors of violence and war.”
The announcement promised over 100,000 people would participate, but doubts about the numbers
surfaced early. Three dollars for a bus trip across the country is a lot of money for someone who may earn less than $40 per month. Sarvodaya had hoped to subsidize transportation for many of the attendees, but going into the event, they had raised only 70 percent of their target. Executive director Vinya Ariyaratne, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne's son, told me he expected a little more than 70,000 to participate – still a significant number in a nation of 18 million.
“We know from past events how many that area of the park will hold,” Vinya said. “If it's full, we've got about 90,000 people.”
Government and political leaders voiced their public support for the event, but some expressed private doubts that meditation would accomplish anything. The National Peace Council, an independent coalition of peace organizations, warned against unrealistic expectations for a quick end to the fighting.
Still, the excitement of the Sarvodaya organizers was palpable as the final preparations were made. Participants were instructed to dress in white and walk in silent meditation from four points in the city to its central park. Red Cross and Sarvodaya Shanti Sena (Peace Brigade) volunteers were recruited to maintain order and attend to first aid.
The day of the event, buses filled with white-clad people headed for Colombo from various parts of the country. I arrived at the park with several other foreign volunteers. As we watched the crowds marching toward the park, it suddenly began to rain. Great clouds of steam drifted across the roadway. Since the weather had been unseasonably dry, few of the participants had brought umbrellas. Those who hadn't got soaked in the downpour. When the rain stopped, the sun came out and those with umbrellas used them against the sweltering heat.
Still they came. By the beginning of the event, the designated area was full. So was the middle area, behind the great Buddha statue. The crowd had spilled over into the far area. Money or no money, rain or no rain, preliminary estimates suggested that 150,000 people had come to ask for peace – the police would later put the number at 170,000. Many carried signs telling where they'd come from: Kegalle, Anuradhapura, far-off Batticaloa. The entire nation was truly represented, in numbers that far exceeded anyone's expectations.
When the crowd had assembled, A.T. Ariyaratne addressed them briefly. “Put away your umbrellas,” he said. “If you are afraid of rain, if you are afraid of the sun, if you are afraid of bombs, if you are afraid of dying, then don't go to make peace.” I assume he was alluding to a prominent, moderate Tamil politician whose assassination several weeks earlier had shaken the nation; the man's pro-peace stance had apparently offended those committed to a military solution.
Bringing peace to Sri Lanka
The civil war in Sri Lanka began over 16 years ago when a group of Tamil separatists, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), began fighting the government for a separate state. Citing widespread discrimination and human rights violations by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, the LTTE has been calling for an independent nation where ethnic Tamils can live in peace – though critics say that such a state would have a nondemocratic LTTE government.
The Sri Lankan government opposes such a division and has tried with some success to strengthen human rights standards and win over the Tamil populace. Yet a series of failed agreements and cease-fires have left both the government and the LTTE wary of peace negotiations. While conditions have improved under the current leadership, peace still appears out of reach.
The government's official policy is to defeat the LTTE militarily, a strategy it refers to as “war for peace” – and a task that has so far eluded them. The military successfully regained Jaffna, the LTTE's former stronghold, in 1996, but the LTTE retreated to the jungles, where it continues its attacks against government and civilian targets.
Responding to the violence
The awareness that peacemaking can be a dangerous occupation was always in the back of my mind. Vinya Ariyaratne opened the event on behalf of “not only those present, but also those hundreds of thousands who wanted to attend but could not.” Blessings were offered by one of the nation's highest-ranking Buddhist monks, as well as by representatives from the Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Ba'hai minorities. During an hour-long guided meditation, Ariyaratne challenged the participants to set aside violence and class divisions. He asked each participant to recognize his or her unity with all other beings, human and nonhuman, and to “discard violence, discard even race and religion” to unite for peace. The two-hour event concluded with a traditional Sri Lankan song asking for plentiful rains, a prosperous rice crop, and a just government.
As A.T. Ariyaratne greeted participants after the event, one reporter asked whether he seriously believed a meditation, even one as large as this one, could affect LTTE leaders, who are believed to be hiding in the jungles of northern Sri Lanka. “Spiritual energy is powerful,” Ariyaratne replied. “A meditation like this could affect people in Iceland!”
The meditation was a response not only to the war against the LTTE, but to the problems of violence throughout society, Vinya added. “There is also a war in the south,” he said. “More Sri Lankan youth are killed by [non-war-related] violence than are killed in the war in the north and east.” Peace, he noted, is not only a political process. It requires reconciliation and changed attitudes. Sarvodaya, which has been changing attitudes for 40 years, is now bringing its skills and resources to bear on the violence in Sri Lanka.
The next morning, I sat in the tropical predawn, reflecting on what I'd witnessed the preceding day. What moved me most is that they came. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans, Sinhalese, Tamils, and Moors. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Ba'hais. For two hours, at least, this fractured nation was united – united in the desire for peace, something so basic and yet so elusive, something many Westerners take for granted.
Ariyaratne plans to follow up the event with a series of smaller peace marches across the country, culminating in a huge peace event that would include over a million participants. He told me privately that he also hopes to send a delegation to lead a peace march within LTTE-controlled territory in the north.
With no distinct political agenda, some observers question how effective this initiative will be. But Ariyaratne believes that if political leaders are influenced to work for peace, they will create solutions that work. And no solution will work without the support of the people. Ariyaratne hopes to bring peace not through political initiatives, but by seeking peace as a goal in itself.
D.J. Mitchell is a freelance writer and small business consultant in Los Angeles. He lived in Sri Lanka as a Sarvodaya volunteer from 1993-1995 and has returned several times for work and research. For more information about Sarvodaya or the peace meditations, contact Sarvodaya USA, c/o Judy & Steve West, 153 Fourth St., St. James, NY, 11780; .