Why am I here?

More from DJ Mitchell in Sri Lanka

“If you’re wondering what I’m doing in Sri Lanka, you’re not alone. I wonder myself sometimes.

I’m in the midst of an 18-day visit in support the latest Peace Initiative of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. You may know Sarvodaya from its tsunami relief work—it rebuilt thousands of homes, dug wells, and provided food, water, and sanitation for tens of thousands of victims throughout Sri Lanka. It’s a grassroots organization that has been helping the poorest of the poor in Sri Lanka since 1958, and has thousands of volunteers throughout the island. Sarvodaya has since its inception worked to relieve the underlying conditions that led to war, and in 1999 it began to take an active role in the peace process.”

“My role in that process is analysis and planning. I work with the Sarvodaya leadership to understand the current situation and identify ways it can be changed. I came back this time because of the recent political crisis. Though the country almost returned to war, this may provide an opportunity to finally create a political solution that will be a first step in ending the conflict that has raged since 1983.

On February 22, 2002, the Government and the LTTE signed a Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) that brought an end to 18 years of persistent war that killed over 60,000 people—mostly civilians. Sarvodaya’s 2001 initiative, “90 Days to Stop the Violence,” was instrumental in creating an environment in which the cease fire could take effect. Unfortunately, rather than proceed toward a jointly-negotiated political settlement, the two sides became stalemated, and the past few months saw a steady increase in attacks and assassinations on both sides.

Two weeks ago, the country reached the brink of war. There were regular attacks against the military, and a government-allied party had called a hartal, or general strike, in the eastern city of Trincomalee—enforced by gangs of thugs who beat up anyone that resisted.

As one Tamil man described the situation in Trinco, “It was very bad. We asked our politicians for help, but they did nothing. We asked the police for help, but nothing happened. In desperation, I called Sarvodaya and asked they could help us… In a matter of hours, the hartal was called off.”

Sarvodaya also joined with community leaders to call for a return to the CFA. Although the violence has not stopped completely, it has been reduced, and the two sides have agreed to meet for talks in Geneva. The war has been averted… for now.

We don’t have high hopes for the outcome of the talks. It is likely that the two sides will agree to a temporary return to the CFA. It is unlikely they will break the stalemate and move toward a political solution.

Sarvodaya has therefore planned two major peace initiatives. The first is a massive pace meditation called “Spiritual Gathering for Universal Peace Consciousness.” It will include over 1,000,000 participants in Anuradhapura on October 2, 2006. The event will be co-organized with Alliance for a New Humanity and jointly led by Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne and Dr. Deepak Chopra. It will be carried live on local TV—as far as I know, there are no international agreements for coverage in place, but I’m sure Sarvodaya would welcome a broader audience.

The second is an Initiative for a People’s Constitution, which will begin with gatherings of representatives from across Sri Lanka, including the Government, LTTE, political parties, business groups, religious leaders, peace groups, academics, artists, women’s groups, and grassroots community leaders. We will work with each group to articulate the vision for Sri Lanka’s political future, and then integrate these into a Declaration of Common Vision that we hope will provide the basis for a mutually acceptable political solution. A People’s Constitutional Convention will be convened on December 2, 2006.

I first came to Sri Lanka seeking new ways to be of service. Over the years, I’ve seen some of the suffering caused by the war. I’ve been to villages where every family had lost someone to the violence. I shook the rubber hand of a ten-year-old boy who’d mistakenly picked up a booby trap. I’ve listened to the shelling, talked to the refugees, and seen photos of atrocities that are difficult to comprehend.

In the process, I came to a deep personal conviction that this war must end. I don’t know for sure that what we’re doing will end it, but I believe we have a chance. In any case, I believe we’re moving in the right direction. It seems strange to me that an accountant of my background would be doing this work, but I’ve stopped questioning it. I consider it a gift, because nothing I have ever done has given me the feeling of connectedness I get when I’m working toward this goal.”

[tags] Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya[/tags]

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