The visit of the GTF delegation and the publicity that their visit has generated has aroused the ire of some of their compatriot groups in the west who have been following a more confrontational course to keep Sri Lanka in the international spotlight. They have issued a joint statement stating that “As representatives of the Tamil Diaspora, we have learned through media sources about the recent initiative by a section of the Sinhala-Buddhist clergy and southern civic society. It is unfortunate that these groups have begun discussions with a selected and limited representatives of the Tamil Diaspora. This engagement, primarily with the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), which now represents only a few individuals of the Tamil Diaspora, does not fully capture the unified voices of the organizations that collectively represent our community. It is important to note that the GTF no longer holds the representation it once did.”
The GTF members have made no claim to represent the entirety of the Tamil Diaspora and this would not matter either, as they are not negotiating with the government for a political solution. Rather they are seen as bringing goodwill and seeking to build bridges. According to the local organisers of the visit and their own testimony, the GTF members have had a warm welcome in Sri Lanka wherever they have been. This has included Kandy where they met with the highest ranking Buddhist prelates, the Mahanayakes of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, visited the most sacred Temple of the Tooth which was once bombed by the LTTE. The members of the GTF diaspora group have also met with other religious clergy and civil society representatives in Jaffna, Colombo and in the next day or two in Batticaloa. In their meetings with civil society members there was no sense of distancing, no tension and no suspicion. This is indeed the way it should be, as the national anthem itself affirms—“children of one mother.”
The present would be the ideal time for a reconciliation process to take off into a stable and long lasting political solution. The terrible economic crisis that the majority of people have fallen victim to has made them realise that ethnic conflict is not a priority, but getting the country rid of economic corruption, pillage and class privilege is. In Jaffna these days, the hotels are filled with people of Sri Lankan origin who have returned from the Diaspora to visit their families and friends. The restaurants are also filled with them. Despite being pricey and out of reach of the ordinary Sri Lankan wage earner, those living in Sri Lanka can enjoy the fare in those restaurants with their relatives from the Diaspora.
What has been special about the GTF visit to Sri Lanka is that they have been engaging with senior Buddhist clergy for about a year. Even though it is a Diaspora group that campaigned for the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, the GTF members held talks with the Mahanayake Theras of the two main chapters and visited the Temple of the Tooth. In a joint statement with the Buddhist clergy they said, “We have been engaging nearly for a year with the intention of promoting understanding and peace among all the different communities in Sri Lanka. The preliminary structured engagement in Nagarkot (Nepal) in April 2023 helped us see each other’s point of view and jointly create a framework to start this national conversation. We arrived at the ‘Himalaya Declaration’ to guide the continuation of this important first-of-its-kind initiative in Sri Lanka and the Diaspora communities.” This is an important document as it represents an agreement between the two sides, and not just an extremist wish list of one side which is much easier to come by.
The joint statement produced through dialogue between the GTF and Buddhist clergy is a well-crafted document. It captures the spirit of what needs to be done to bring Sri Lanka to a state of unity through justice and reconciliation. The joint statement which is given the name of Himalaya Declaration (the venue of their meeting in Nepal) calls for:
* Preserving and promoting the pluralistic character of the country where no community feels threatened about losing its identity and pride of place.
* Overcoming the economic crisis, selecting an appropriate development model which encourages local production, facilitating involvement and investment from overseas Sri Lankans and others, ensuring the country is in a growth trajectory and making Sri Lanka firmly a middle-income country.
* Arriving at a new constitution that guarantees individual and collective rights and promotes equality and equal citizenship among all peoples, ensures accountable institutions and guarantees adequate devolution of powers to the provinces, and until such time focus on the faithful implementation of provisions of sharing of powers in the existing constitution.
* Devolving power in a united and undivided country, accepting the religious, cultural, and other identities of people and respecting those identities, and working towards establishing trust between ethnic groups and religious groups.
* Envision a Sri Lanka that is reconciled and committed to learning from its past and creating measures including accountability to ensure that such suffering never occur again.
* Complying with bilateral and multilateral treaties and international obligations, taking steps to follow independent and dynamic foreign policy, and ensuring the country takes its pride of place among the democratic, peaceful, and prosperous nations of the world.
The Buddhist monks who have been giving leadership to the engagement with GTF have included Ven Prof. Pallekande Ratanasara and Ven Madampagama Assaji who took a principled and courageous stand upholding the rights of those of the Islamic faith to bury their dead during the Covid pandemic when the government of the day took the callous and totally unscientific decision to forcibly cremate those who had died of Covid. It also includes Ven Kalupahana Piyaratana who was a member of the Human Rights Commission. The engagement in Nepal, facilitated by Visaka Dharmadasa who was nominated for the collective Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 as part of the group, 1000 Peace Women Across the Globe, helped to create the common ground for the meeting of minds between the group of key Tamil Diaspora members and the Buddhist clergy.
The high point of the GTF visit to Sri Lanka was the joint meeting between them, the participating Buddhist clergy and President Ranil Wickremesinghe. This meeting received a great deal of media coverage through the active involvement of the presidential media unit. At the meeting the president had assured the group of his support to their efforts to promote peacebuilding and reconciliation. This assurance would give reassurance to those who are like-minded that their work has the blessings of the country’s highest political authority. However, there is no getting away from the need for the political leadership to put its shoulder to the wheel rather than leave it to others to perform the Sisyphean task of pushing the boulder up the mountain. The government needs to give the political leadership to set up the institutions of state power and construct methods of ensuring justice which are embedded in the law.
For the past three years the Tamil farmers and herdsmen in Batticaloa have been complaining that the grazing land on which their cattle find fodder are being taken over for cultivating corn by Sinhala settlers. It is said that the grazing land was allocated by the government in a cabinet decision in 2011. However, since 2020, Sinhala settlers from Polonnaruwa have been annexing the pasture for corn cultivation. The conflicting permissions have caused tensions. Former Vice Chancellor of Eastern University, Prof Thangamuthu Jayasingam who now practices a lawyer for the Tamil farmers has confirmed that more than 80 cattle have been stolen, slaughtered or electrocuted on the ground since the visit of the president to Batticaloa two months ago. The total loss is said to be around 160 cattle. He has stated that “This unjust situation runs amidst and despite the establishment of two police posts, around October 7, 2023, just before the visit by the Honorable President to Batticaloa, and his declaration on 8th October 2023, to provide justice to these people at Chenkaladi.”
Prof Jayasingam has also noted that “The eviction ordered by the Magistrates Court of some of the intruders, 13 in number, in November 2013 and undertaking by the Mahaweli authority to evict of all intruders in the Court of Appeal in July 2022 have not taken place. Nothing has been effectively achieved and it does suggest the ignorance or incompetence of the governance and the administration or its policy to undermine justice for the minorities.” A similar unsettled situation on the ground exists in the north as well where the president ordered an end to the takeover of land on the basis that ancient Buddhist archaeological remains have been discovered in various places. When the words of the President, the highest executive, are not met with deeds on the ground the people will invariably lose faith in the system. Further when the orders of the court of law also are not implemented, and the police fail to act, they lose faith entirely. It is in such situations that violence emerges. Words need to be followed by deeds, or the spirit of goodwill and reconciliation that is in the air will not bring a solution to the problems on Ground Zero. The gazetting of the grazing areas by a presidential directive as per the 2011 cabinet paper may be a start to reconcile.