Sharif Abdullah on Sri Lanka

D.J. Mitchell photo.
D.J. Mitchell photo.

Dr. Sharif Abdullah, Executive Director of the Commonway Instutute in Portland, Oregon, is currently on the ground in Sri Lanka.  He offers this perspective:

In a recent article, the fair and objective “International Crisis Group” (ICG) laid out the problem of the continuing war in Sri Lanka and its devastating consequences for civilians trapped by both sides in the fighting.  (You can read the article by Lakhdar Brahimi here.  For a recent “Conflict Risk Alert” on the Sri Lanka humanitarian crisis by ICG, click here.)

However, calling on the parties that have been so committed to violence to end their mutually destructive campaigns is a plea that will fall upon deaf ears.  It will not be heard.

Both the Government and the Tamil Tigers have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to injure or kill civilians in order to achieve short-sighted aims.  I see no evidence that this will change.  The over 70,000 war dead in Sri Lanka were not killed by accident – they were killed by INTENTION.  That intention to commit acts of violence, on both sides, continues.


The Southern part of Sri Lanka is currently gripped by blood-lust.  The drums of war drown out all reason.  This is similar to what gripped America at the start of the Iraq War.  And, like the Americans, once the blood-lust wears off and the Sinhalese people see the true cost of this war, they will question whether what was gained was worth our young men and women, our treasury and our souls.

The war in Iraq bankrupted America .  It is the leading cause of our catastrophic economic free-fall to the bottom.  We are seeing a tidal wave of soldiers returning from Iraq with broken bodies, broken spirits and broken souls.  Drug abuse, suicide, broken families, post-traumatic stress — we are paying the price for our arrogance.  This is the price of yielding to the blood-lust.  After the orgy comes the hangover.

The war in Sri Lanka is bankrupting this country, financially and spiritually.

The blood-lust of the South is mirrored by maniacal martyrdom in the North. Sitting on ever-shrinking territory in the North, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) appear gripped with a fanatical fatalism – a willingness to not only martyr themselves, but also sacrifice up to 150,000 of their fellow Tamils.  Under the guise of “protection”, they imprison these trapped innocents, turning them into unwilling pawns, negotiating points and human shields.


Unfortunately, this situation is not unique.  The deplorable situation for civilians here in the Sri Lanka war zone is played out all around the world.  On every continent, governments have shown themselves to be at odds with the people they allegedly govern.  People like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Al-Bashir in the Sudan, or Kim Jong-il in North Korea are but three examples among many, examples of leaders willing to sacrifice their own citizens as pawns in a mad chess game. Increasingly, government is the problem, not the solution.


In this context, international helping agencies often become the enablers of government violence, greed and waste.  Here in Sri Lanka , the government attempts to borrow over a billion dollars from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after spending over a billion dollars on war and violence.

For their part, the LTTE has collected hundreds of millions of dollars from the worldwide Tamil diaspora. Instead of investing these funds for the uplift of the Tamil people, they invested in ever-increasing war and violence.

Both government and insurgent share the same attitude:

“We’ll buy what we want (war, violence, corruption), and beg for what we need (food, water, shelter and education for our citizens).”

The reason I call this a “paradox” is this: what does a compassionate person do, when faced with human need?  Yes, governments in Zimbabwe , Sudan , Sri Lanka and elsewhere OUGHT to feed their people, but DON’T.  It falls upon strangers to do so.  And, these same compassionate groups become targets of criticism and violence when they point out that they are doing what the governments will not.  (The Sri Lankan Defense Minister recently lashed out at international aid groups.  For his comments, click here.


But how?  How do you change a government (or an insurgency) that has no intention to change?  How do you change more than the personalities – how do you change the SYSTEM of governance itself?

In the past, the answer to this question was simple: get guns and wage a violent revolution, a struggle for “liberation.”  History teaches that the violent insurgents become the next violent government, willing to oppress its own citizens.

Something that I state often in my conflict resolution classes: “Whatever tool you are willing to use against your ‘enemy’ is the same tool you will eventually use against your friend’.”

If asking government to change doesn’t work, and violence is out of the question (for spiritual, moral and practical reasons), what do we do?


The basic problem is that our “leaders” act as though they are not in RELATIONSHIP with their citizens. They act out of EXCLUSIVITY.

We can ask them to change. (The success rate on that is not high.) Or, WE CAN CHANGE OURSELVES.

Right now, people around the world are creating a new, alternative governing and economic structures. Rather than relying on our past “-isms” (either “capitalism” or “communism”), people are waking up to the need to create NEW, human scale institutions, grounded in universal principles of love, compassion, sharing, humility and inclusivity.  These new forms are not threats to the existing forms of governance – they are supplements.

Around the world, people are looking for ways to deepen democracy by including previously excluded voices (including ethnic and religious minorities, as well as socially/culturally unpopular groups).  People are learning that exclusion and domination of others is the recipe for violent reaction.  People are learning that, by coming together, we can harness the power most overlooked by traditional governments – the power of the human spirit.

Around the world, people are building new institutions of economic relationship.  We are learning that practicing a “relational economics” yields results that are not only economically fair but also spiritually satisfying.  People are learning that there is more to life than money.

My job, here in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, is to observe, strengthen and catalyze these transformations.

We humans are awakening to some fundamental realities:

  • Our “Motherland” is the entire Earth, not one little tiny corner of it.
  • Our “Family” is the entire human species, and all other species, combined.  There are no “Others”.
  • Our “task” is to carry out the teachings of our wisdom teachers (including Jesus and the Buddha), to NOT CAUSE HARM TO ANY SENTIENT BEING, ESPECIALLY HUMAN BEINGS.  Our wisdom teachers have told us that there are ALWAYS alternatives to violence.  But, it is hard to hear this when the blood-lust is ringing in our collective ears.

The Commonway approach focuses on the long term.  In the current context, we are reduced to asking the parties not to do what’s right, but to do the least amount of harm as they follow their own selfish interests.

Twenty years ago, we watched the collapse of Communism as a political and economic entity.  Now, we watch the collapse of Capitalism.  I firmly believe that the Commonway approach represents the next evolutionary step in human governance and represents a deepening of democracy and the creation of a relational form of economics.

In closing, I quote “Father Bero”, the mythical “high lama” from the 1930’s classic movie “Lost Horizon”. (If you haven’t seen the restored version of this film, it’s time to update your Netflix cue!)  I quoted this text in a message from Sri Lanka two or three years ago – it’s still relevant.

“What madness there is, what blindness, what unintelligent leadership!  A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity, crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. Â A time must come when this orgy will spend itself, when brutality and the lust for power will perish by its own sword. When that day comes, the world must look for a new life, a way of life based on one simple rule: be kind.

When the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.”Â  –Father Bero, the High Lama in “Lost Horizon”.

[Reminder: the “Christian” ethic is also the “Buddhist” ethic, the “Muslim” ethic”¦]