A Sri Lankan 'side event' in Geneva with a difference

| by Kapila Gunasekera

( March 24, 2014, Geneva, Sri Lanka Guardian) The meeting rooms at the Palais des Nations in Geneva have been reverberating with pro-LTTE rhetoric during the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council sessions which are now underway.

Meetings on human rights, conflicts, sexual violence among other issues, have been discussed in these corridors by many parties and players who are using all possible means to strengthen the resolution on Sri Lanka which is sponsored by the United States. Loud voices, rising passions, tears, gory details of the conflict, academic discussions…these rooms have seen them all.

It is in this backdrop, a young, professional group of people of Sri Lanka, in origin or nationality, cutting across ethnicity, language and religion, gathered under the umbrella of the International Buddhist Foundation in Geneva on 21st March 2014 to pass on an alternative narrative: The message of forgiveness and compassion. A message of hope and reconciliation. A message to heal a wounded nation and its people, emerging from a thirty year conflict.

The occasion was the screening of a 47 minute documentary titled ‘The Last Phase'.

Dr. Chandra Pinnagoda, Founder of International Buddhist Foundation (IBF), introducing the film said "the IBF considers that any war is brutal, but even as this film depicts the brutality of the war that spanned almost three decades in Sri Lanka, on the other hand it shows how humanity still emerges from unexpected corners to quench the flames of hatred at the height of a major conflict".

The film, which was then shown, detailed the lives of two former LTTE combatants, told from the point of view of Jeyawadani, a former female combatant, who grew up with the doctrine of the said group in ‘Sencholai’ and spent her youth in the medical wing of this group, participating in many of the terrorists attacks. Married to a former Sea combatant, they both take turns sharing the story of their childhood, youth, their marriage, the birth of their three children and the years leading to the final phase of the conflict and its aftermath. The film very succinctly conveys the tale of the couple, who having spent a majority of their lives with the terrorists gradually become disillusioned and finally renounced violence to lead a quiet, civilian life. A couple, who is alive and living together today due to the valiant efforts of unknown soldiers and medical staff among others. The film, which is by no means a match to the gory images, screaming and the dramatic narration of the Channel 4 ‘No Fire Zone’ series, depicts the transition in the lives of the Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity, the people, who had been in the midst of it all, seen and experienced the rigours of war and suffering. The people, who are longing for normalcy and true reconciliation coming from within, and not imposed from outside by others.

As the credits of the documentary rolled, the atmosphere in the room was mellow with the audience visibly moved by Jeyawadani’s account and her true story.

Mr. Roshan De Silva, from the Committee for United Sri Lanka of Switzerland, which was associated with the International Buddhist Foundation in organizing the event, and who also moderated the Q and A sessions, in his opening remarks said of the documentary screened that there was a message which everyone should take from it. He asked if more time should be wasted in trying to find the ultimate truth which he said may not actually be possible as the two sides would continue to hang on to their own narrative of what happened. He called on the gathering to ponder on the future of the country and the generations to come.

Mr. Silva also said that having watched the film for the first time, he was stuck by its message for reconciliation. Having visited Sri Lanka recently, he said the time was right for the people to work towards peace as the war was over it was only appropriate for the people to reap its dividends.

When the floor was opened for comments from the audience consisting of Sri Lankan and non-Sri Lankans, a young Sri Lankan gentleman, said that Sri Lankans, living in Sri Lanka and abroad have been victims of the war from various perspectives. He said it was time to strengthen the reconciliation without apportioning blame on one another. Having lost his uncle in the conflict he said, such incidents of the past should not be allowed to affect the young generation, including those who have grown up abroad. He also called for a forum to hear the ‘second narrative’ which neither propagates the Government’s stance or the pro-LTTE lobby’s propaganda.

Endorsing his views, De Silva said it was “time for people like us, the moderates to take the lead and use the ‘bottom-up’ approach rather than the ‘top-down’ approach in dealing with this issue”. He also said it was important for the people in Sri Lanka to decide what they want rather than be told by those living outside the country, what they should have. He also said that all expatriate Sri Lankans should focus their strengths together to make it a much bigger force by working together to achieve reconciliation.

Mr. S. V. Kirubaharan, a human rights activist, who has been identified with the LTTE, commenting said that even though he was not living in Sri Lanka, he has relatives living in the North and East of the country. He said there was a systematic ‘Sinhalisation’ across these areas and there were status of Lord Buddha in areas that were predominantly Tamil areas. He also said that the arms struggle was a result of a 30 year non-violent struggle, which was to address the Tamil grievances. It was only because they did not receive redress that they took up arms.

Dr. Pinnagoda, responded by saying that during his student days almost 60 years ago, there were 05 Tamils, 3 Sinhalese, and 01 Muslim in his batch (Chemistry Special) at the University of Ceylon. He said that his room-mate, who was a Tamil, was a close friend with whom he shared his food and the two also exchanged clothes. “We all had detached the labels of ethnicity pasted on us at birth” he added. He further said that the Tamil friend went on to become a successful teacher who was revered by his Sinhalese Buddhist pupils in the school that he taught. “Such was the harmony and understanding among us and with compassion, we are able to re-live the life again” he said.

Expressing his views, Mr. Tharmalingam Logeswaran, President of the Hindu-Buddhist Association, expressed his views on the futility of the 30 year conflict and said, “using a small difference between communities in our motherland, a terrorist war in the name of freedom was conducted as an attempt to suppress us, and bringing shame”. He said, “it is regretted to note that in this modern world, human rights laws are supporting terrorists and people functioning against humanity, and such weaknesses are encouraging terrorists and allowing them to violate the human rights and other rights of the people leading them towards grief and destruction”. He then said, “I also humbly request everyone to assist our Government in every way, as it has enabled all communities to live in peace and dignity”.
Dr. Pinnagoa added that while everyone had a painful past association due to the protracted conflict in Sri Lanka, “we should not continue to live in the past” but look to the future.

A representative from the on-line news website ‘Tamil Guardian’ said that the TNA which canvassed on a platform of accountability in the conflict was given a huge mandate by the people of the north, and therefore, they the issue of accountability has to be addressed.

De Silva responded by saying that while it was legitimate to make such a request, any accountability process had to be done within Sri Lanka. He said while the earlier way would be for outsiders to intervene and address this issue, it was always better for those who are living on the ground and aware of the ground realities to address them rather than from outside.

Adding to De Silva’s comment, a young Sri Lankan girl said that she had grown up in the UK and had Tamil friends but did not feel or see any difference among each other. Commenting on the comments by Mr. Kirubakaran, who spoke about the ‘systematic Sinhalisation’ and erecting status of Lord Buddha in such areas that were predominantly occupied by Tamils, areas asked what was so wrong about trying to integrate the north and the other parts of the country together. She elaborated by saying that as she has lived in the UK, she said integration among the various communities and nationalities in UK and in many other countries across the world was common and posed a rhetorical question asking ‘so what is so wrong about the Sinhalese going to the North and the Tamils moving to the South and integrating with each other’.

During Mr. Kirubaharan’s second intervention, in support of the Tamil Guardian’s accountability issue, by referring to both the Secretary General’s IRP and High Commissioner’s Report, expressed the view that Sri Lanka is ignoring the findings of serious violations of human rights contained therein and also reiterated that the mandate given to the NPC as a rejection of the Central Government’s reconciliation process, without accountability.

In reply Dr. Pinnagoda gave his opinion, from his personal experience, about the strings attached to extra- budgetary financing sources to the UN System by donors, and the consequent limitations on the thoroughness, as well as, various inclinations of such reports.

Replying to the second remark about the mandate given to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), Dr. Pinnagoda said those Northern Province voters deserve to recognize, at least, the fact that the human rights of their children, who were denied access to education in schools for 30 years, has been restored by establishing peace in the Country.

Taking the floor, a Sri Lankan gentleman from London observed that the hatred and animosity among some of the members of the older generation remained. He called on them to desist from passing that hatred onto the next generation and the generations after that. “There are multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious communities across the world, and it is time that Sri Lankans living in Sri Lanka and abroad also embrace this trend”. He said the previous generations had caused enough grief and it was time for the younger generations to work towards reconciliation from the grass root levels and to help and support each other.

A member of the audience, who did not identify himself, spoke of his pride at learning of the high academic achievements of Tamil students in the North despite the hardships they have had to endure during the conflict and the fact that the province was also doing well in economic and other areas of development.

De Silva and Dr. Pinnagoda concluding the event called on all those present to walk the path of compassion and achieve reconciliation as one country and wound up rising and jointly reciting “Lord, Let my Nation awaken to that Heaven of Freedom” with the acclamation of a round of applause from the entire audience.

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