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"Notes from the Field": 
Journal Entry #7: 
Wars, Rumors of Wars, Changes in Wars 
 

Howdy--

I apologize for not providing more information on what I’ve been doing here in Sri Lanka and on the war, but this has been an incredibly volatile time for this country, and for the Sarvodaya organization. There are a lot of things going on that I’m not really at liberty to discuss.  Also, the entire country is under an Emergency Proclamation that prohibits all conversations about the war and about peace. (Technically, this e-mail is in violation of the Emergency Proclamation, but since I violate it every opportunity I get, it’s not really a problem.  I think getting arrested because we’re talking about peace would be pretty cool.)

The News: Two weeks ago, the Tamil Tigers staged a stunning attack on an Army fort guarding Elephant Pass, the major land link for the Jaffna Peninsula. With the taking of Elephant Pass, the Peninsula is effectively cut off from the rest of the island.

Losing the fort at Elephant Pass was a stunning blow to the already demoralized Sri Lankan army.  The 40,000 Sri Lankan soldiers guarding Jaffna seem already resigned to defeat, while the Tigers are methodically working their way closer to the city of 300,000.  There are reports that the government troops retreated from Elephant Pass into Jaffna using civilians (Tamil) as human shields to prevent the Tigers from shelling their positions.

The situation in Jaffna is particularly difficult for the government position, since there is no reliable way to evacuate the soldiers (the Tigers have shot down government planes and sunk government ships before.)

As of 2:00 pm Sri Lanka time today (15 May 2000), CNN reports the Tiger fighters within 1/2 mile of Jaffna, with small groups penetrating the government lines and within the city itself.  Government sources claim that the Tigers are shelling civilian areas.

The Rumors:

With no reliable source of news here (unless one has access to the Web), rumors and speculation abound.  Some of the more reliable (or at least persistent) rumors include:

The Sri Lanka government has asked the Indian government’s assistance in evacuating the 40,000 Sri Lankan soldiers trapped in Jaffna.  (Both India and Sri Lanka deny this -- but a little too loudly.)

Prabakaran, the head of the Tamil Tigers, has offered peace talks if the Sri Lanka military voluntarily withdraws from Jaffna.   (No one trusts him.)

As a part of the Emergency Proclamation, the government asked all of the temples to gather and pray for Prabakaran’s death.  (I have this from very reliable sources.)  So far, Mr. Prabakaran seems to be in the best of health.

The Speculations:

There could be significant turmoil throughout the country when Jaffna falls.  One possibility includes uprisings against Tamil populations throughout the island.  I think the Tigers are timing their final assault to coincide with the Vesak, the Buddha's birthday, this wednesday.

Another possibility is a resurgence of a second separatist movement, this one in the South, agitated by a political group called JVP.  (The last time there was a JVP uprising, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans were killed and thousands of others were placed under arrest.)  This is a very real possibility; JVP is known in the past to take advantage of times of government weakness for their advantage.

What Sarvodaya is Doing:

In the face of this, the Sarvodaya/Commonway Partnership is doing a number of things:

Meetings with all of Sarvodaya’s leadership to reinvigorate the Peace Initiative and to guard against ethnic uprisings;

Developing a theory of the conflict that will allow us to elevate beyond the issues as presently framed;

Developing a “third force” for peace that will bring fresh ideas to the peace process.

As I mentioned before, the government has banned all talk and activities dealing with both war and peace, so the large scale peace meditations previously sponsored by Sarvodaya are now out of the question.

I have been advocating for small-scale activities to take place in thousands of Sarvodaya locations all around the island.  I have been calling these gatherings “emotional shramadanas” (or “emotional shared labor”), bringing together Tamils and Sinhalese in small gatherings to start their own healing process.

 My Travels:

My island traveling will take me first to the South, to the Matara district, a JVP stronghold.  I will be witnessing an “emotional shramadana” while there, as well as meeting with young people organized into Sarvodaya “Peace Brigades”.

Next week, I will travel North, to the ancient cities of Anuradapura and Pollonaruwa, then into the Tamil city of Trincomalee.  (The last time I tried to visit Trincomalee, the Tigers attacked the government positions, driving tens of thousands of refugees south.)

The Nexus:

It really feels like things are drawing to a head here.  These times feel like an incredible nexus of crisis, conflict and opportunity.  I think it’s safe to say that no one knows what the next few days and weeks will bring.

One thing is certain for me; that neither the government nor the Tigers have the answer.  Sarvodaya is the only group with both the nonviolent philosophy and the reach into the villages, towns and cities that can serve as a credible counter-force to violence, hatred and despair.

I am working on an analysis of the war and a course of action for Sarvodaya.  More information on this will be available on the Commonway website in the next few days; I will send you the link when its ready.

Peace,

Sharif
 
 
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