The Sarvodaya Movement: Moving Toward Reconciliation in Sri Lanka


– Welcome to the Berkeley Center, I’m Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow here, I work primarily on the links between religion and development, the Berkeley Center, I’ve been here actually since
it started about 12 years ago, it’s an unusual center, it reports directly to the
president of the University, and is very intra-disciplinary, so we have political science, the School of Foreign Service, anthropology, theology, et cetera, all represented here, and public health, we’re very interested
in public health issues, so you’re also the home of the World Face Development Dialogue, which is a small NGO born
in a very unlikely place, which is the World Bank, coming out of the
realization by the president of the World Bank Jim Woolfenden in 1998, that the hostility between the world’s of development and religion which was manifested particularly in the Jubilee Debt Campaign, but also on environmental
issues made very little sense, since the two communities of religion, very broadly and development really were the main advocates for the
poor and for fighting poverty, and yet it made no sense for
them to be in opposition. So that is the work of this institution, welcome, we have lots of documents for anyone who is looking for something to read, and you’re also of course welcome
to be on our mailing list, it’s a great pleasure
for me today to introduce Doctor Vinya Ariyaratne, who is an old friend and colleague, and a remarkable individual, celebrated by many international prizes, Certainly, I guess one
of his reward is to sit on many different
committees and commissions, sort of the go-to person, so he’s here in the context of a remarkable Sri Lankan institution, Sarvodaya, one of the best known of the NGOs that work from a very authentic base, our initial interest and
we first started working with Sarvodaya when I was
still at the World Bank, was in the organization in its
Buddhist and Gandhian values, which very deliberately have shaped its ethos from the very beginning, but we were also very interested in it’s very creative approaches to development issues
and later to conflict, to disaster relief after the tsunami, to virtually any one of the dimensions that you could see reflected in the sustainable development goals, so Sarvodaya has been a model, and it is also a model
of one of the topics we were actually talking about yesterday, which is a very topical and central issue, or even two, which is the front lines, in other words there is a sense that there are global approaches intellectual, academic, et cetera, to the goals that we have sat, but also to the challenges, but it’s far too difficult and far too rare to see the real experience that, from people working on
the problems directly, and how does that feed in, an Sarvodaya I think is
an outstanding example. So here’s how we are going to do today, Doctor Vinya is going to
speak maybe 20 minutes, focusing particularly on the
challenges today in Sri Lanka, but he may bring in some of the history of how he
and Sarvodaya got there, which parenthetically on
the Berkeley Center website is an interview with Vinya, which essentially traces his trajectory, and how he got where he is today, so I recommend it. Then Susan Hayward, who is both Georgetown, she is now well into her PhD, but she also has headed and has inspired and led the religion department at the US Institute of Peace, for many years I would say, and she and I are also co-conspirators, we worked together on a book on the topic on women religion and peace, which gives you some clue as
to some of our prospective, so Susan will comment and bring her own extensive experience in
working both with Sri Lanka, with Buddhism, and particularly since
she’s focused on Myanmar, perhaps on some of the
links people are concerned about with what’s happening
in that subregion, and then we’ll open it up and have a chance for conversations. The event is being recorded, you can see the camera there, and they will capture what is said here, and it will be on the website, so that several people who
wanted to be here but couldn’t, will have the chance to participate, so let’s welcome Doctor Vinya Ariyaratne. (audience applauds) – Thank you Kathleen for
that nice introduction, hi everyone, may you live long in our Sri
Lankan singular language, I’m deeply honored to be here
at the Berkeley Center today, I have had a long relationship
as Katherine mentioned, with Katherine as with some
of the work of the center, so today I thought I would
very briefly share with you, I’m not sure how much you know about the country context in Sri Lanka, I know some of you have been extensively working in Sri Lanka, 20 or 30 years ago as volunteers, and some have been involved
professionally with our work, as we have a diplomat who has had extensive experience in Sri Lanka, Ambassador Schaffer, and so I just would like to
pitch my initial presentation to give you an idea of where we are now, how we have got here
and some of the changes, so the lessons learnt I think we can draw from what I present to you, and also in the discussion
that’s going to follow. So for those of you who know
very little about Sri Lanka, we are a small country
with a mixed population, having ethnic groups belonging
to different communities, and then multi religious country, where of course the
Buddhists are the majority. So if you look at the conflict, because the broader context in which I’m making my presentation, is the conflict where the country is now, so the rules of the conflict or even, the solution to the conflict can be dated back to pre-colonial times, and we were under colonial
rule for nearly 400 years, and then we gained independence after about a 140 years of British rule in 1948, and as a nation I must confess
that we have not been able to find a system of governance
that would unite the country, and that could have prevented the bloody war which lasted
for nearly three decades, 26 years, the violent phases starting in 1983. So the war came to an end in 2009, May 2009, and we had intervening
period between 2009 and 2015, I distinguish that period From what has happened after January 2015, because there has been a
change in the government, and a lot of things
have changed since then. So the conflict if you
trace back in the history, starting from the early
part of the century, to 2019 with different
forms and manifestations of the conflict from
violent to non-violent but tensions rising between communities, and this is in this context that the Sarvodaya
movement was born in 1958, exactly 60 years ago. And as Katherine mentioned the founder and the pioneers of the movement were very much inspired by the
Buddhist and Gandhian thinking, being a nation which has
newly gained independence, they wanted to find
alternate ways of meeting the needs of the people and
the Buddhist philosophy, and the Gandhian movement at
that time were very inspiring, philosophies to draw
from in defining a path that is suitable to the local
conditions in Sri Lanka. So the name Sarvodaya was
coined by Mahatma Gandhi, so the literal meaning
is awakening of all, and the Buddhist approach to meeting the needs of people by sharing, what we call Dharma was given
a new meaning by the founders, and (speaks in foriegn language), and (speaks in foriegn
language) means labor, sharing labor is (speaks
in foriegn language) but we broaden the concept of not just sharing your labor
but also your intellect, your time and your compassion with everybody in the community, and that was the cornerstone
on which the entire movement’s activities, the
development model was built, so it was a very holistic philosophy, we thought development should be not just about economic development
or social development, but it should encompass spiritual moral and cultural development as well, so from the very beginning of the movement and the spiritual dimension was very much an integral
part of its work, and also it was very universal
in terms of its approach, starting with the individual we have to look at the needs of the family, then the needs of the community, whether they are rural
or urban communities, and then looking at
the country as a whole, and also looking globally that
we need to awaken ourselves, so it was a very broad philosophy. So since 1958 the
movement has evolved from a very small beginning of this group of students and teachers
who went to a very backwards so called economically backwards village, and also a community which
was considered low caste, in 1958 they started development work on this philosophy and
then continued to work as a completely voluntary
movement for 20 long years, and in 1970s it got a kind
of organizational form, and evolved to become a
large organization supporting this movement with a complex
organizational structure, with 12 legally independent bodies specializing in different
aspects of development. So we are celebrating
our 60th anniversary, this year in December we are going to have a big function and this is
also kind of buildup to that, and we want to celebrate
the 60th anniversary also with our friends in the United States, because for the last 30
years an entity known as Sarvodaya USA started
by Dr. Andy Mason’s father, 30 years ago is a small entity supporting our work back in Sri Lanka, so we thought that it was most appropriate we have a few events in DC
while I’m here this week to celebrate the 60th anniversary as well. But the philosophy was very simple, the notion that every
individual can awaken themselves and also the community
with their own resources was the foundation on which
the movement was built. And then we supported collectively the initiatives of communities
who asked for assistance, so with that we developed a certain model, I will not go into the model itself, it’s all in our website also, but it was a gradual process of development with the community, starting with changing
the mindset together, changing the consciousness, and then evolving
organizational structures within the community in the form of a community organization
and then that organization is run democratically through constitution and we get them legally incorporated under the law of Sri Lanka, and then they start
having economic programs, so it’s a very integrated holistic model which has evolved through practice, we didn’t start with the model and then start implementing
in the community, but this evolved as an integrated model, and average time for a community to go through this process
may be three to five years. So over the years we have
reached about 15,000 villages and they have evolved
a supporting structure, organizational structure
with specialized units, some are specializing in community health, some are specializing in micro-finance, some are specializing in legal aid, to support this work in these 15,000
communities in the country, by the way Sri Lanka has
about 38,000 villages, so we have a presence in about
two thirds of the villages, and this is over a period of 60 years, it’s not that every community is that the advanced development, no but they are in the process of going through this
integrated development process. So we tried to fulfill what we called the 10 basic human needs of a community through community action, so largely it is the local
resources are mobilized and also we of course got development assistance
from formal institutions, bilateral donors including USA, IB, and also UN agencies
and private foundations, but always the external
assistance was to complement what was being done by the
communities themselves, so their self-reliance was not undermined, and we were not making them dependent. So at the moment we have a
presence throughout the country and in every district we have 25 administrative districts in Sri Lanka, we have a small team of
paid full-time workers supported by hundreds and
thousands of volunteers, so this is a network, and trust activities
parallel to the government, and we have the outreach to the
remotest areas of Sri Lanka. So the movement has evolved
with a lot of changes over a period I have marked up to 2008 because that’s the time we celebrated the 50th anniversary and
embarked on a different path, because by then Sri Lanka had become a middle income country, so we didn’t have to deliver all the kinds of basic services that we were
delivering to the services, because the government
now has the capability, the government has the money, it should have been that
the communities demand those services from the government
and we make the linkages, so the 50th anniversary was
a departing point for us. So we have those 12
separate legal entities, and now I would like to directly go in to the main part of my presentation, that is as you probably all know, Sri Lanka had a war, the violence really started in 1983, and it escalated, and at different times
we have had ceasefires, cessation of hostilities, where the government tried to negotiate with the separatist group, but all ceasefires failed, longest have been the
ceasefire signed in 2001, after there was a government change, however the war restarted in 2006, and in 2009. So the impact, anywhere between 60,000 to
100,000 lives were lost, largely civilians, these are also contested, then service personnel, more than 23,000 were killed, and about 60,000 wounded, and 27,000 LTTE fighters who were also young people who belong to Sri Lanka, there are our own young generation, they also died, and there were 12,000
Tigers who were captured, some of them were underaged soldiers, and there was a huge
impact on the economy, but the most important
thing is the war came to an end through militarily means, not like in Northern Ireland, through a peace treaty, so this is a significant
development in the war. So the impact of the war, of course the theater
of the war was mainly in the north and east but it had an impact throughout the country, although geographically
and socially the impact had been uneven in different
parts of the country. Current status, we are now nine years since the war ended, and significant progress
has been made in Sri Lanka, to infrastructure development
people being resettled, however there is slow
progress towards literacy, the root causes that led to the war, so therefore I can say
that we are a country, we are a post-war country but not a post-conflict country as yet, because we have not addressed some of the root causes of the conflict. There was a change in
the government in 2005 after 10 years of rule
by the previous president who was given the
leadership to end the war, and since 2015 we have seen a
lot of positive developments, with regard to reconciliation, but they are still
inadequate in my opinion and we need to go a
really, really long way before we can have sustainable
peace in Sri Lanka. So our approach, what is Sarvodaya’s
approach to reconciliation? We have had disasters in Sri Lanka both what we call human made man-made disasters as well as natural disasters, so Sarvodaya is a national
voluntary organization, national society organization with huge volunteer network
have always been mobilized to assist whenever there
are disasters in Sri Lanka. So we adopted what we
called the 5R approach, first is of course the relief, you have to go to the places
where the disaster happened and immediately respond to
the needs of the people. Then you’re trying to, when the situation stabilizes your trying to create some normal survival setting having some permanent
structures and so on, then of course the legal structural phase, and then what we call reconciliation, that’s the healing that has to happen, even during the tsunami of
2004 there was terrible trauma, so the nature of trauma is different from a natural disaster, to an armed conflict, but still you have to address that, and then as a nation how do we reconcile. Then finally how do we reawaken ourselves, how do we put ourselves in the path of sustainable development. So this is the model that
we have been following, so we tried at every
stage of this conflict, we were leading the humanitarian effort, so we built up that ability to intervene even at the political level, through our action at the community level. So that is the advantage
that Sarvodaya had while working on the
ground we had legitimacy, we could have then demanded
to be able to speak out on the issues that different communities in Sri Lanka were facing, so we maintained strict neutrality during the course of the war, so even at the height of the war LTTE did not obstruct our work, government forces didn’t
obstruct our work, until of course the
official inquest was made from all organizations
including the international NGOs and ICRC to leave the war, the last area of the war we were there, and all the local workers, we never planted expatriates, or Colombo, leaders from
Colombo to work in those areas, so it’s a movement which evolved through this type of
mobilization over the years. Now we of course have an
analysis on this situation, war is only one element
of the kin of violence we see in our society, there is a lot of
violence towards yourself, we have one of the highest
suicide rates in the world, why is that, we proclaim ourselves to be a country practicing Theravada Buddhism, but we see a lot of violence happening, so we see that poverty and powerlessness, and also young people particularly seeing no future for themselves, not having economic opportunities through a culture of violence, so we have to address
in a very holistic way. So we thought our approach
would be threefold, one is that we have to address the conflict at the
level of consciousness, what we mean by consciousness is how we think about ourselves, Our identity, our spiritual lives, our interactions with others, we speak different languages in Sri Lanka, communities don’t have much interaction because they don’t learn
the other language, as a Sinhalese I can probably communicate with a Tamil patient very basic in a basic way make
diagnosis and give treatment, but I can’t express myself fully in Tamil, and I never learned Tamil, but 30 years later both my
children had to learn Tamil, so things changed in a positive direction, but it was too late. So from that negative consciousness, to lack of opportunities for young people in terms of pursuing a career, pursuing economic opportunities, so that was a big problem, so how do we address
the economic dimension? Then even if you have a
positive consciousness and a healthy economic system, still if you don’t have a good governance system then there won’t be peace. So we tried to work on
all these three spheres in a coordinated manner during the war as well as after the conflict, so when there was a long period of cessation of hostilities, we were able to actually try out some of the most creative things to really sustain peace in Sri Lanka, one was of course mass
mobilization of people in peace meditations
throughout the country, when there was also fighting, we were able to we believed that they were not consciousness, having some energy to impact the war would really help in the peace process. So peace marches to various
big gatherings involving people from the North as well as in the south, and even in Colombo to demonstrate that there is mass support for peace, we brought about 200,000 people, and they all participated
in this kind of programs. So it was really to reach the
hearts and minds of people who were kept apart because
of the war for two decades. So when people were talking about the political
solution for the conflict, we were talking about
a threefold solution, one is the consciousness solution, economic solution, and of course the political solution, so we have had a lot of practical
activities on the ground to really on one hand bring
different communities together into religious dialogues, language learning programs, fast track interactions
with youth and so on, and also somehow addressing the economy determinants
from the resources we had, by pressing the government to offer more economic
opportunities for young people. Then trying to really get the people to think about the
political solution as well, a solution that doesn’t come
from the political leaders, but something that can be brought from the people themselves. So we tried to really develop an indigenous approach towards
peace and reconciliation, and we did a lot of activities, youth engagement and so on, during this intervening period, I’m talking about the period before 2015, because there was no fighting, but there was also no big commitment from the government
towards reconciliation. So for us reconciliation really meant rebuilding relationships, first within yourselves, there’s a lot of hatred, a lot of grievances also, because people have lost their loved ones, in some brutal way, there are many thousands of
disappeared in Sri Lanka, mothers particularly want the closure, they want to know what
happened to their loved ones, so you have to deal with the past, how do you bring a justice system that is not really driven
by just political leaders, but people’s fears, so I think there has to be justice done. So we adopted this slightly
different approach, so we were trying to work with the people in the local context get
them to understand sometimes very complex things like accountability doesn’t mean anything
at the community level if you really put it in
the technical language. So we also wanted to highlight
the positives through means of people who were merely trying to bring reconciliation
at the local level, call them unsung heroes, there are hundreds and thousands, usually only the negative stories are being captured by the media, so we tried to capture those
stories and then move forward. So when there was a space with a change of government in 2015, government adopted this framework, actually those of you
who were working in peace and reconciliation know this framework, the four pillars of reconciliation, truth, preparation, justice
and and non-recurrence, so we tried to fit it into our framework, but it’s truth, here is
psychosocial reconciliation, you have to know what happened
in very plain language, and what can you do about it, you can’t bring back to life a person who is missing or dead, but you can do justice
by really trying to help that family now what is left with economic preparation or other means. Then you can also work on justice to political reconciliation, and the ultimate result
of that would be that there won’t be another war in Sri Lanka. So, since 2015 we had a
whole portfolio of activities trying to address
psychosocial reconciliation, economic reconciliation and
political reconciliation, here we also supported the government to come up with accountability mechanisms, there had been commissions appointed, the reports are there, like the Lessons Learned and
Reconciliation Commission, all what you required was a
commitment from the state, commitment from the government
to implement those things, so we were trying to also participate in some of the national consultations, and really supported the government to implement those recommendations. So last few years we have
really tried to create and expand that space
using the democratic space that was created since the
change of the government, people didn’t any longer
fear speaking out, because there was no threat of you being abducted and killed, so we use that space, and really went around
the country and created this new movement called the
Deshodaya National Reawakening, and tried to meet the
guidance of our founder and leader Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, clearly started a press dialogue. Then, just as a start to our discussion, there has also been growing, I don’t want to call it extremism, because I don’t think that
it’s extremism in that sense, what is being publicized
is the extreme dimension, but there’s a lot of activism
amongst the Buddhist monks, sometimes in very violent forms, and we have to deal with that, so how do you engage in a constructive way in this situation? So we tried direct engagement, because there are also Buddhist monks and other religious leaders who
are actually truly committed to the original teachings
of their religion, because I don’t think that you can say that a certain religion can
be interpreted violently, I think that you are really
not practicing that religion, so here we tried to engage
with the Buddhist monks, in a context where there was no war, but there were people who were still trying to incite violence and really ride on the
emotions of insecurity, experienced by all communities, because there is no
clear solution in sight. And then also inter-religious dialogues, during the intervening years there were of course new tensions
that were coming up, Sinhalese and Muslims
tensions were also rising and there were very unfortunate incidents, but they didn’t spread, because there were leaders
who really intervened early, we didn’t have early warning systems in Sri Lanka which we
are working on right now, but we were able to really serve as firewalls in preventing
the violence from spreading, so I think we have seen
significant results but still we must also
admit that we haven’t been able to prevent some
of the most unfortunate incidents that happened during the last three years in Sri Lanka. So the inter-faith peace
building dimension, we are working with some organizations like Kavanagh Center, before we work on inter-faith, you have to start on intra-faith, a new dialogue on how we see Buddhist teachings in the present context, how do we see Islamic teachings
in the present context, so even quietly promoting that dialogue without any problem, because if you get too much expose there you’ll be branded as a traitor, and they’ll do all kinds of things, and you didn’t want to be
part of that conversation. Another approach that we adopted was what we called need based mobilization of religious leaders, as you all know, when there’s a disaster, people really go to religious
places of worship for shelter, whether it’s Buddhist,
Christian, Hindu, or Islamic, they always Provide
services to the people, But they don’t know how to
do it in a scientific way, so we were approached by the
Walpola Rahula Institute, it is a Buddhist
organization that was founded by a very scholarly monk a long time ago, and they are really trying to
teach to the society the very core teachings of Buddhism in
a very, very inclusive way, and doing remarkably well
in their communications with building a constituency from true Buddhist reconciliation, and they requested us shall we do a disaster preparedness
and management course, formal course for Buddhist monks, and we responded and we designed the course with some experts, and these monks also being
from disaster villages, there was a terrible flax disaster, and they had first hand experience, so they were so committed, from first day of training to how to plan the basic facilities, water, sanitation and so on were given, and then we move on to social healing. So can we have different entry points to mobilize the Buddhist monks and also other religious leaders, and then within those
programs we can discuss current issues about reconciliation. So after 60 years where are we now? So some of my Sri Lankan
colleagues may not agree, but Sri Lanka is in a major social, economic and political crisis, some of the expectations that we had since the change of the government didn’t really get fulfilled, particularly, and then there are very
positive things happened in terms of constitutional changes to hold government
institutions more accountable by having independent
commissions and so on, but bribery and corruption, the incidence hasn’t gone down, and also there has been terrible violations in terms of
financial regulations and also some corruption
at a very high level, and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, there was a bond issue, in which the government lost billions, and the people are also
suffering economically, there is a drought
right now affecting more than half a million
people in certain areas, they don’t get their basic services, even while the politicians are
getting all their comforts, and their salaries also
getting an increase and so on. So the 2015 political changes hasn’t led to resolving the crisis, and political structures
and leaders continue to work on their self interest
not in the public interest. So we are thinking of a new approach that can bring civilian
society in a new way, it is kind of a movement that wants a positive political power
formation in Sri Lanka, so it has to be a movement to create a new political
culture in Sri Lanka, and particularly the professionals and the younger generation
has to take the lead, and the initial program
that I mentioned earlier which is the governance
program that is taking action, and also we are trying to get connected with several other citizens initiatives, and last couple of months we have been working on
direct community action, local action, there are people exercising
their sovereignty directly, they’re even trying to identify based on leaders from younger
generations who can take a more proactive role in addressing some of the issues related to governance, and looking at forming partnerships with other like-minded
organizations who would like to see a new political and
economic set up in Sri Lanka, and working towards an
inclusive national agenda, a people’s agenda, and then can we come up
with a new constitution, there has been a formal
constitution process which has now stalled, and after spending months and months, and the Parliament has
enormous amount of resources, the electoral process
can be also different, can young leaders get into to the elected bodies, and professionals get into politics in a very inclusive way, so we are working on all these
different activities now, and we think that the local government layer is a very important governance layer to start this action, so we are at the moment concentrating on local government bodies to set up citizens watchdog, what we call shadow local
government authorities, we have had a local government
election very recently, and it was held in a new electoral system, based on wards, that each ward, which is about a population
of 2000 to 3000 people, they have a representative, so you can hold that representative accountable to your own community, but people are not exercising their right, so now we are trying to
get these local government as the first level of People’s action and then hold them accountable, starting with identifying young leaders who will then cover the entire country, and who will go through a
leadership development program for which we have just formed
another Institute called the Sarvodaya Institute
of Higher Learning, we would like it to be a
university in the future, we have a beautiful campus, but the whole development
model is very different, it’s not going to be a
university where students will just follow courses
to get a certificate, but the entire learning
or most of the learning will happen in the community
based on community needs, working with the community to find solutions to their problems, instead of a panel of professors final interviewing and giving the degree, the community will interview the student and they will judge whether the student has successfully found a solution to their problems and that kind of model. So we need a new dealership for Sri Lanka, and we are very hopeful
that this institute can bring together
these different elements of consciousness, economics and power, so we have worked out 16
different areas of learning, experiential learning, based on which we’ll be developing
the educational programs. So that’s the overview, and I’ll be very happy to
answer any of your questions, thank you. (audience applauds) – Hello and thank you very much Vinya, it’s always a treat to be in conversation with Vinya whether the
microphones are on or off. So I’m just going to offer a
few remarks by way of response, and then hopefully to also
bridge us into some discussion and questions and answers with Vinya about what Sarvodaya is doing and about the current context in Sri Lanka, and in particular about
the interest that I bring, which is at the intersection of peace and violence and religion, and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I first met Vinya actually
I think it was 2006 when I was in Sri Lanka
working as a graduate student, an earlier iteration of
me as a graduate student, and what led me to Sri
Lanka in the first place, was precisely this
intersection of religion and violence and peace, and Sri Lanka in particular lured me in I think for some of the same reasons that you might be interested in Sri Lanka that brought
you to this context, which is trying to make sense of the relationship between
Buddhism and the state, and Buddhism and exclusionary politics, and Buddhism and what appeared to be the legitimization of
violence in Sri Lanka, it was curious to me as well as somebody who is studying this
as a global phenomenon, because for me it presented
a counter argument or a counterexample to the common narratives you hear in this field, that are simplistic, that link monotheistic traditions as more prone to political
manipulation and violence, and the Dharmic faiths as peaceful and any example of that is
just an aberration of the norm. So I wanted to, I was lured to Sri Lanka
because I anticipated that the relationship between religion,
state, violence and peace is far more complex than
just about the content, or the substance or the ideologies of different religious traditions. And indeed how Buddhism
manifests in Sri Lanka, in this sort of simplistic
popular narrative is that you have the two poles, right, so you have the specter of
violent Buddhist activism, or what is sometimes referred to as Buddhist nationalism
or Buddhist extremism in its different forms
during the colonial era, postcolonial era, and particularly during
the midst of the war, and in most recent forms
with Bodu Bala Sena, which means the Buddhist Power Movement and some of its activities
during the Rajapakse regime, and its potential
revitalization in recent years or other forms of it that
have been anti-minority, that have been mobilized against the peace process and so on. You have that presented on one side, and then on the other
side you have Sarvodaya, or you have particular Buddhist monks who are involved in
defending minority rights, or in advocating against the state, or in mobilizing in support
of Rajapakse’s peace process, or peace processes of the past, and they’re present capacity two poles, but of course the reality, not surprisingly is that
it’s far more complex than that when you get on
the ground in Sri Lanka and try to disentangle and understand what Buddhist interests and Buddhist actors and
Buddhist institutions, what interests they have
that they’re bringing to how they mobilize in response to issues of justice and violence, and the states responsibilities, including political, social
and religious responsibilities, responsibilities and
how it manages religion. So I think Vinya
presentation starts to get a little bit of highlighting
some of that complexity, but I hope we can talk about it a little bit more in the discussion. Sri Lanka in the current situation faces incredible challenges, a couple of them being that you’re trying to promote reconciliation in
the midst of ongoing conflict, as Vinya said it’s a post-war but it’s not a post-conflict state, and in fact there are
new forms of conflict that have arisen since the
formal end of the war in 2009. Not only that, you’re also trying to advance peace, and to create a political settlement to address some of these drivers of conflict in the
absence of a peace treaty, which at its very best, what you have with a peace treaty is not the end of conflict, but you at least have a
roadmap for how you’re going to move forward and a framework of agreements about how
you’re gonna move forward, and mutual recognition of
what are some of the needs politically and economically and socially that created the conflict
in the first place, and it needed to be transformed in order to get to a situation
of sustainable peace. But when you don’t have that, when the war is ended
through military means, and you don’t have that
kind of a framework, and you have new forms
of conflict arising, then how do you move
forward in trying to one, come to an agreement about
what those drivers are, and then two, move
forward to address them. And then let me add a third one too, which is just the challenges
of history in Sri Lanka with respect to trying to
address reconciliation and peace, because of course as Vinya mentioned, Sri Lanka is a graveyard failed past peace processes and failed
reconciliation processes, truth telling, truth commissions, attempts to create
different state structures in order to address
issues of accountability for both the conflict with the LTTE, but also prior to that
the conflict in the south with youth led Marxists for the JDP. And yet, despite multiple myriad processes of reconciliation that
have been led by the state, that have been pushed
forward by civil society, you still don’t have many fields, you don’t have a great deal of progress on reconciliation and actually
transforming these drivers, so there’s a certain level
of fatigue and cynicism, and I think sometimes a concern, you can correct me if you
disagree with this Vinya, but a concern that we are running out of creative options of
how to address this, we have come up with
really great solutions in the past and they haven’t worked, so what do we do that’s new and different? And then with respect to the Buddhist activism in recent years, violent Buddhist activism, with the resurgence of it, one wonders about what is
the connection between that and some of the lack of progress on some of these reform efforts, or the stymied opportunity
of hope that emerged in 2015 with a new election, there has as Vinya mentioned, in the post-war context
from 2009 till 2015, there was what many called
the permissive environment for some of these forms
of violent Buddhist or exclusionary Buddhist
activism to mobilize, and then there was an
immediate aftermath in 2015, something of a crackdown against that, where some of the leaders
of it were imprisoned, and there was much more
action by political leaders and security actors to try to clamp down on some of those activities, but you’re seeing what some
would call the re-emergence of a permissive environment for some of those movements to mobilize. And of course the easy
answer to that is that these movements, sometimes call Sinhala
Buddhist national movements are a salient means to
mobilize electorally, and that’s how they’ve been used in the past by political leaders to mobilize community
across identity lines in ways that they benefit
from when the campaigns come. And certainly there is some truth there, but I think the reality is
far more complex than that, and the question remains, are there concerns, very real concerns, and maybe even legitimate concerns that are being raised or reflected by some of these movements that need to be addressed
on their own merit, not just sort of dismissed
by interpreting all of them as primarily just a political
instrumentalist tool that is used in order to garner votes, and so that would be a
question I would give to Vinya to understand a little bit, even looking at particular
moments in the recent past, like last year’s violence in Kandy that happened in March 2018, where some of the Buddhist
activists mobilized in violence against the Muslim community. Why did that happen in the deeper sense of what are some of these
drivers that can be addressed through the kinds of
the vision of the kind of people’s movement that
you have presented here, and how are they linked to or not, to some of the spinning of the wheels of the efforts of reform
over the past few years. I can just say just briefly, because Katherine set me up for this in terms of the connections with transnational Buddhist
activist movements, yes there are similarities, and there are very real relationships between groups and movements in Sri Lanka and those in Myanmar, and to an extent as well in Thailand, which come from the
Theravada Buddhist world, and there are some similarities in terms of their narratives, particularly about Islam, about the responsibility of the state, responsibility of the state viz a viz protecting Buddhism and
propagating Buddhism, and the role of Buddhism
in the constitution itself, because you also have constitutional reform discussions taking place
in those countries as well, you have similarities in terms of some of the tactics that are used, particularly a focus on
legislative activism, so advocating around
particular passages of laws that are seen to be answers to some of these interesting
concerns of the groups, similar tactics in terms of the use of social media and so on, but I also wouldn’t want to overstate the ways in which these
movements are feeding into and mutually driving one another, and the sense of a
transnational movement as such, there are certainly
relationships between them, but they also are mobilizing, there’s a lot of differences in the ways in which they mobilize and the interests that they bring, and there’s not a whole
lot of thick relationship, I think between the different movements, just a couple of figures here and there who are kind of egging each other on an a way or voting for each other. One thing that I think is really
remarkable about Sarvodaya. and you’ve seen it here, is the way in which it
really brings a holistic approach to addressing
some of these issues, it bridges a lot of the traditional silos that we face in this field, so looking at the connection between the material and the spiritual, and understanding how
they can mutually support and drive one another in positive ways, and ways of social progress, or in less positive ways. Bringing together the development, and the peace and the nexus between the two issues of
governance at state level, and social relationships
at a more local level, and I think it reflects as well of course Buddhist teachings in a way, and origination and the ways
in which these different factors mutually support
and drive one another, and you can’t address these
issues in a linear way, first we do development, then we do peace, and we do peace and that
leads to development, first we address the state issues and then the social issues, or we do the social issues
and then that will lead to top-down or bottom-up, but recognizing that all of these, they’re mutually
constitutive and they need to be addressed together in parallel and they will mutually drive one another. The big question for me is, as I look to your vision of what you want to move forward with Vinya, in creating a people’s movement, it’s incredibly important, because as we know, there has been a lot of
inter-ethnic and interrelationship movement building in the past, or activities that have
bridged communities, and in many places there have long been very healthy relationships
between different castes, religious, ethnic, gender and communities that have remained resilient even in the midst of all of this, or there has been the reparation of some of those relationships. But often times that work
to bridge horizontally has not translated into a transformation of the vertical relationship, of the state itself and the
ways in which the state acts, so as to fragment society. And so the big question I have for you is, how will this new people’s
movement operate differently from the attempts in the
past to create similar kinds of local people led movements
to promote reconciliation, or to promote democratic governance, or to empower local governments. There were, especially during the
Norwegian facilitative process, between 2002 and 2006, there were a great deal of efforts to try to mobilize that kind of movement, what have we learned
about why those fell apart when the state decided to resume war, or are there ways in which
those did have lasting impact that you plan to build on
with your people’s movement, so that would be one of the last questions I think I will put to you before we go and have a larger
discussion with the group, thank you. – Thank you.
(audience applauds) Can I speak from here, I think you can hear right? So it’s very tough, but I’ll start with the big question, the last big question, it’s not to really create
a new people’s movement, what we have noticed with the space that had been created from 2015, on one hand there has
been a disillusionment that civil society mobilized itself and then support a cause, not a candidate, a cause, this is the direction in which our country should move forward, and the agenda then
taken by the politicians, and then they affect the change, so once they are in power
then they don’t deliver, so there is no point in creating another people’s movement
to convince them. So we have a bit of a
challenging situation now, as you all know, unlike
in the United States, where I think from the
voter population less than 50% vote for the president, electing the president, in Sri Lanka, it’s always above 75 or even 80% of the people vote, though people are poor, they feel that the right of franchise is such an important thing
and they exercise that. So here people really believe
in the electoral system, and the 2015 change if you look at it, it was a bloodless kind of revolution, because it was a very
authoritarian regime, and then it was having a very iron fist in controlling media and so many things, so I think people really
expected the new government, which was a coalition
government for the first time in the post independent
history of Sri Lanka, the two contending opposing
parties came together and promised the people they
will deliver on certain things. So people have lost faith, now every year this electoral
register is updated, now this year it was
found that in Sri Lanka, usually our fertility
rate is actually low, because of that the number
that gets added every year, those who pass 18 years is about 300,000, or probably 400,000, this year, the young people, a significant percentage
didn’t register to be voters, which is a very alarming thing, so what we were thinking, and there were different
analyses on this situation, so the young people are losing faith because they don’t see the elected officials delivering on their promises, and at the same time when
people are suffering, they are more interested in
increasing their salaries, ordering chairs which are sometimes costing more than 600,000 Rupees that’s about $5000, per chair, for their provincial Council assemblies, so one thing is to restore that faith, and also show that people themselves can have different options, particularly when getting elected to the four layers of government. So we have had this collection, the local government election
in March for the first time, because of this ward system, people, young leaders, women who were never a
part of political parties, I think more than 50% got elected who had no membership in
the political parties, although some of the parties mobilized these popular activists at local level under their party
banner they contested and won, but more than 2000 women entered the local government authorities, and a large number of
young people entered. So they can affect the change, so instead of waiting
for the other traditional political parties and elected representatives to affect the change, now they can do them at
the local government level, so that’s the difference, but we need the people’s
mobilization to support them, so we would expect in the next election, parliamentary election even, can professionals and other
truly community-based leaders, can they lead us on the ground, lead us on the soil, can they run and get
elected on a common agenda, there has to be a roadmap for the country which everyone can agree on, so that is where the conditions are now being directed to, so I think we only need
to create the conditions and there are a lot of
dialogues happening, we don’t have much access to formal media, one of the biggest challenges in Sri Lanka is that the media institutions, the government media is
controlled by of course the ruling coalition parties, and they will only give voice
to their political opinion, and then the private media channels are also aligned to
different political parties, so people really don’t have much voice in the mainstream media, but the social media is
being used very effectively to give an ordinary voice, of course it’s also being abused, and we had during the riots in Kandy, even Facebook was shut down, and the Facebook administrators had to come to Sri Lanka to
negotiate with the government, and now a lot of these hate
postings have been removed. But people are using social
media very effectively, so what I see now is in this gloomy situation, a lot of new creative
things are happening, and even for example, the new complexities that have been brought to the discussion, for example I am a Sinhalese, I am a Buddhist, and I think that Buddhism
really offers many solutions to all the different challenges
that we face in our lives, as we face in our economy even, but the thing is if you use that as a
tool for electoral gains, then that definitely distorts the picture. For example now, there is a certain, there is a Buddhist monk who is now telling that Buddha was born in Sri Lanka, I’m just citing an example of how new complexity is being brought, which is in my opinion totally absurd, it’s not about whether the Buddha was born in Sri Lanka or India, it’s the doctrine of the
Dharma which is important, whether you follow that, now there is division even
amongst the Buddhists on that, but certain Buddhists who really would like to see that
the theory be proved, because they think that then you have more stature for
the Buddhist community. So to answer your question
about how can we then make this naturally occurring
horizontal relationships that are built to affect
the vertical integration, the only way is through
a political change, where the people themselves have access and are also in control. So I would say that in that process, if we could have a very constructive and healthy dialogue on
constitutional reforms, a developmental agenda for the country, it is possible, it’s happening, and I’m very optimistic that
by the time when there has to be a decision made on
the form of government or form of leaders that we
want to have in our country, this new alternative image, I don’t know exactly in what form, but it’s not just an intuitive feeling, but from the evidence that we see now, the healthy discussions that are going on, nothing short of that
will solve our problem. – Let’s open up for
questions or discussion. Yeah, exactly what you’re about to do, if you could introduce yourself
before asking a question. – I’m Teresita Schaffer, I was ambassador in Sri
Lanka from 1992 to 1995, I now teach as an adjunct
of course in diplomacy at the School of Foreign Service, and I wanted to thank Dr. Vinya for his wonderful presentation, I knew his father when I was in Sri Lanka, and had met him on an earlier occasion, so this is a real treat. I’m gonna sound like somebody
of very conventional thinking, but I think some of the
conventional ideas have power, and you run a great
risk if you ignore them. And there are a couple of things in particular that didn’t
figure in your presentation, but I think are gonna have to figure in the solution to Sri Lanka’s
problems if there is one. One is, the strength of the identity idea, and we’re all having our noses
rubbed in that very concept, in particular in the United States, I recall that Sarvodaya
made a point of saying that membership was open to people from any religious background
or from any ethnic background, that doesn’t entirely solve the problem, because if you have the preponderance of your population saying I am first and foremost a
Sinhala Buddhist or a Tamil that wants to consider that
Sri Lankan Tamils are a nation, that’s not gonna be enough to give them a means of communicating, so how do you deal with that? Second and related question, it was my perception during
my three years in Sri Lanka that everyone on that island, felt like an oppressed minority. The Tamil community hated it when you refer to them as a minority, but they were numerically
a minority in Sri Lanka, the Sinhala Buddhists would say this is the only Sinhala Buddhist
country in the world, and sitting next to us there are all these other Tamils in India. Again, how do you get past this idea that I am part of an oppressed minority, and Andy is part of an oppressed minority and we have to go at each
other because of that, there’s other things you could say, the sad thing is that Sri Lanka has done so many things right, everybody can read, you’re never out of sight
of a health facility, but this political thing, they haven’t ever quite
been able to get right. – Thank you Teresita, yes, I agree with you, the Sinhala Buddhists
really feel threatened, they think that we are a minority when you consider the
bigger geographical region, we are a regional minority, and then every other
community is trying to get us, and also to make things worse, certain evidence has also shown, say like the fertility differentials between different communities, that Muslims have a higher fertility rate, so we’ll be a minority in
maybe 50 years or 60 years, which is a myth actually, scientifically it cannot be, but you are right, the people tried and, and particularly the politicians thrive on this identity opinions of community, but I think now we have passed that stage and paid a huge price for that, not that it’s not there, I think that for example
in the Tamil community, overwhelming majority of the ordinary Tamil people do not want another war, they’ll be the first to stand
against a separatist movement, we know that’s the
situation on the ground, at the same time, even the younger generations, they are not hardened on this, they want a Sri Lankan identity, so there’s a stronger
voice now coming out, it’s expressed in arts, it’s expressed in music, that’s the hope that I see, even though I don’t now belong
to the younger generation, but I work with these young people who don’t have that kind of very exclusive Sinhala Buddhist
isolationist kind of mindset, so there is a hope, but we have a long way to go, it has to be supported
by the larger structures, that is where we are failing, because the politicians still
thrive on these differences. So I wouldn’t say that Sarvodaya has been able to provide a platform, I don’t think we are having
membership in that sense, but our work itself is
bringing people together, and also the workers themselves are belonging to all communities. The other thing that I
would like to say is that, if the state structures, particularly law and order, and if you can guarantee
the rights of everyone under the judicial system, then I think half of
the problem is solved. Here we could see, although I think is connected to one of the questions you raised, the violence we had in the past, although it was very unfortunate, we could see the justice
system working and operating, and because of that, again the confidence in the
justice system was restored, and even some of the
leading Buddhist monks, were in imprisoned, so despite of course
many appeals being made, but ordinary people
didn’t get to the streets and demanded their release, because they all felt that, the rule of law has to be applied equally to every citizen in the country, so I think that way I would say if state structures can be strengthened, and people demand accountability this problem could be overcome. – [Susan] Let me take a few questions, hear from as many people as possible. Sally? – Sally King, I’m teaching part-time at the Department of Theology here at Georgetown, I wanted to ask, it sounds like the
organization’s direction and also public face
from what you say seems to be shifting more in the
direction of political work, and I’m wondering how that
effects the established, if my perception is correct, the established face of Sarvodaya as such a unifying organization that represents everyone
and brings people together, and by definition politics
tends to be rather oppositional, and I heard you speaking about working on political issues through
dialogue and this kind of thing, so still trying to bring people together, but it must be clear that
you favor certain politicians and aren’t so fond of other politicians, so I just wondered how you work with this apparent necessity to work
on these political issues as some of the root causes
of all the problems. And yet at the same
time to represent unity. – [Vinya] Yes. – [Wendy] Others? Matt? – [Matt] Yeah, so I’m Matt Reagan, I’m a PhD student at Maryland, so I’m actually interested in framing the movement as a Buddhist movement, so a lot of the program reminded
me of this time movement, somewhat defunct now, called santiaso, that had a very community
centered development model, some development, right development, but at the same time they
had religious positions that made them, put them into conflict
with religious authorities, and eventually a lot of the Sinhala who worked with them were defrocked, so what’s the position I
guess the movement within the Sri Lankan religious authority, is this sort of you do your thing, we’ll do our thing, it’s not a totally religious organization, just religious people doing it, or is there a more complex dynamic? – Did you have a question? – My name’s (mumbles) and I’m Sri Lankan, I work at the World Bank, and I was formally an
(mumbles off microphone) Thank you Doctor Vinya for that lecture, I really appreciated it, my question is regarding Buddhism, and about the fact that
in Sri Lanka the emphasis is on the rights as opposed to the metaphysical
examination of the teachings, to derive from my own life when I was in Sri Lanka before any
major exam my mom took me to the temple and we did the Buddhas and I had the strings
attached and all of that, and then I come to America and then I take a class on Buddhism,
Taoism and Confucianism, and that was the first time
I have the chance ironically to examine the Buddhist text in detail and realize what a goldmine it was, not just in terms of religion, but providing you with the ammunition to better in my professional life, in my academic career and how the whole notion of identity is anathema to Buddhism, the premise of the is that the notion of identity itself is the
major stumbling block. So why I’m confused is that we claim to be this Buddhist country and so forth, in it’s more sacrosanct form, but when I go to these Buddhist
sermons back in Sri Lanka, none of the major Buddhist monks spoke about Buddhism in this manner, there was never an examination of the metaphysical dimension of Buddhism, everything was either rights-based or a very materialistic, very
simplistic approach to things, can you explain why this is, and secondly why this
time the top echelons of the Buddhist clergy have been reluctant to push the religious
establishment in that direction, could you explain in that regard, and then I also found it very startling that after the Kandy violence, but the Buddhist authorities
they didn’t release, they didn’t give a communication
explicitly denouncing what happened in Kandy, they didn’t, and that was absolutely shocking to me. – Okay those are three
really great questions, and we have about five minutes available. – Sally, I think before I could even have the authority to
publicly talk like this, within the organization this was the biggest internal dialogue on this, so actually how we were doing
it incrementally from 2010, getting involved in governance issues, and we were not at all
even attacked compared to some of the other organizations which were also advocating
for governance reforms, constitutional reforms and
accountability and so on, why? Because we were very careful
not to lose that legacy, the positive identity of Sarvodaya, as a Buddhist inspired organization which was very inclusive, we were very careful not to lose that, because if we lose that then I don’t think we can build anything new. So the governance program
are really engaging in hard-core political
issues was done along with all the other work
that we were doing, except that we had to reduce the kind of direct service delivery
work that we were doing, so some communities were not receiving the same kind of services
that we used to provide, for example in areas where there was lack of clean drinking water, we didn’t have the capacity, because there was no
donor funding also coming, being a middle income country, and last 20 years the major donor funding came for conflict-related work, not on basic development, but we were able to survive, where so many other development organizations had to wind up, so I think we maintained
that delicate balance, there is a risk, but I am of the opinion that
we have to take this risk, because otherwise the
country has no future, unless we really address the
structural issues related to the political form and
the structure of the economy, I don’t think we can really find justice. So your point is very valid, we are very conscious of that, and when it comes to
the electoral process, we will not be a part of it, it will have to be an independent collective movement in itself, because even legally or morally we can’t get involved in power politics. However, let that political front
be decided collectively by others, also while working, but we’ll continue to actually
have new leaders identified who can be taking that challenge, but we need political
reforms in Sri Lanka, which cannot be done only
through civil society action. So I’ll come to Matt’s, Actually Matt, the issue is that these Buddhist monks, unfortunately that generation of very progressive
Buddhist scholarly monks, who also were really practicing Buddhist philosophy in their own settings, that generation is gone now, unfortunately the next
generation of Buddhist monks, there are a few still in the system, didn’t really inherit that pure Dharma from their predecessors, and got entangled in the
political structures, and the government which got elected to power wanted to have that patronage, but also giving patronage
to Buddhist monks, including the higher levels
in the Sinhala hierarchy. But I think of course we were
engaging with (mumbles) even, actually after the Kandy incident, I personally went there, he (mumbles) participated
in our discussions also with Muslim leaders
at a very critical time, so they will engage, but they don’t want to
make public positions, but how could we then
have senior Buddhist monks without any fear really taking a position, the right position based on Dharma. We have a long way to go, I believe that it will happen, we have to constantly work with them, one of the challenges of the system of how you get elected to
those positions is complicated, you know how it is, how the Pope get elected kind of thing, so it’s complex, but within those restrictions I see very progressive
senior Buddhist monks, even from the three Nikihas, and some of the lay scholars and lay leaders also engaging with them, and there’s hope, so hopefully we will be able
to have a new generation of Buddhist monks who
will be very well equipped in terms of meeting the new
challenges of the country. Then Johann, the problem I think you
described very well, and also the solution, how can your classmate left in Sri Lanka, how can he get that
realization that you got here, so I think it’s the school system, the education system, which has to change, and now there’s a lot of discussion on introducing religious studies, also in addition to learning
about your own religion, and also again there are
a lot of youth groups now who are trying to redefine the approach to religious education, even Buddhist education, and there are now social
media websites like (mumbles), and young people are
engaged in that discussion. The leadership has to come from the lay leaders and the Buddhist monks, I think that movement is happening, I would say that maybe
within three to five years we will see a new discourse happening, practicing what we call engaged Buddhism, being there, individuals as well, not just in organizations, so I’m very optimistic that this is an important transition and it has been a difficult transition, there was a very restricted
monolithic approach to our post-conflict
management in Sri Lanka, which opened up in 2015, so now I think there is space
to work out a new direction, and these things that are happening, different initiatives that are happening in different places, will move in the right direction to develop a new roadmap for Sri Lanka. – Well that’s an
optimistic note to end on, we could go on for a long time I think, this has opened up so
many issues and new ways of looking at some of the questions we’re all wrestling with, so I wanna thank you Vinya, it’s always a joy to hear
from you and to see you, and Susan, for your very thoughtful and informed and informative comments, I think we’ve come away very enriched, and we thank you and hope
to continue the discussion. – Thank you. (audience applauds)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *