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COMMONWAY'S WORK IN SRI LANKA: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
 
     
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(NOTE:  In November and December of 1999, the Fetzer Institute supported a visit to Sri Lanka by a team assembled by Commonway.  The purpose of the visit was to evaluate and support the Peace Initiative of Sarvodaya. What follows is a brief overview of the Commonway findings and work in Sri Lanka during that team visit. )

What is the history of the war in Sri Lanka? How did it start?

Historically, there have been two ethnic groups on the island.  Sinhalese have been the largest, located in the center, west and south.  Center of kingdom was in the central highlands of Kandy.  Presently, they comprise about 70% of the population.

Tamils are next, in the north and east.  They are ethnically aligned with Tamils in India, roughly 30 miles away.

There is a small number of Veddahs on the island, a Stone Age group located in the center of the island.  They are not critical to our understanding of the conflict.

The Sinhalese and Tamils lived in relative peace for centuries.  They traded with each other, intermarried, had conflicts and worked them out.  The original name for island, Serendib, meant “place of happy occurrences”.

The roots of present conflict (as with most of the present “ethnic” conflict on the planet) was in colonization.  British colonization threw together two very different cultures, without providing any means to reconcile the differences. The only common denominator between the two cultures was British rule.  At one point, the British forcibly moved tens of thousands of Tamils from their traditional base in the North to the center of the island, the heart of the traditional Sinhalese kingdom, with no thought of the long-term consequences.  The British withdrew from Sri Lanka at same time as Indian independence, leaving the same culture and power vacuum that the Indian sub-continent has experienced.

As long as there was an external force dominating both ethnic groups, the island appeared peaceful.  This peace was illusory, as subsequent events demonstrated.

Added to the conflict caused by colonialism is the pressure toward urbanization, caused by changing world economic structures.  Millions of people gravitate toward cities, where they hope to find “jobs” and a better life.  Most are disappointed.  (Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world, and (I have heard) the highest for women.)

Lastly, the Sri Lankan conflict is fueled by the fact that “men with guns” exploit any societal conflict.  While there are people on both sides of the Sri Lanka conflict that honestly believe that warfare will solve their problems, there are many, many others who recognize that the continuation of conflict is the continuation of their power. They have no intention to resolve the conflict; they continue in power by maintaining the conflict.  In order to resolve the conflict, alternative pathways to power must be found.

Ethnic conflicts generally have atrocities on all sides; the Sri Lanka conflict is no different.  Acts of terrorism (by both the Tamil Tigers and the government soldiers) have polarized both populations and clouds the search for peace.  Neither side has “clean hands”, or occupies some moral high ground over the other.

You are working with an organization called Sarvodaya.  Many of us in the West are not familiar with this organization.

“Sarvodaya” is a Sanskrit word that means “everybody wakes up”.  It is for the enlightenment and development of all Sri Lankans, especially those who are the least powerful in the society.

Sarvodaya was started 40 years ago by Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, referred to by many as “the living Gandhi”.  It is a spiritually-oriented self-help development organization, mobilizing tens of thousands of people to create homes, water projects, solar energy, pre-school programs, legal services, women’s projects, child welfare agencies, food production,  Grameen-style village banks, and more.  Dr. Ariyaratne, known as “Ari” to his friends, has adopted a clearly non-Western approach to development.  (For more information on Dr. Ariyaratne, click here:   Ari Biography .  For more information on Sarvodaya, click here:  Sarvodaya .)

Sarvodaya’s involvement with the civil/ethnic conflict reached an important turning point in 1999.  Dr. Ariyaratne announced a major “Peace Initiative” for the island, inviting 100,000 people to participate in a Peace Meditation.  The ultimate goal of the Peace Initiative is to change the consciousness for the support of war on the island, making the continued conduct of war impossible.

Almost 200,000 people responded to his request, creating the world’s single largest gathering for peace in the decade.  (For more on the Peace Initiative, click here:   Sarvodaya Peace March Unifies Sri Lanka .)

The Peace Initiative has been continuing, with regional gatherings of up to 12,000 participants.  Commonway has been assisting in the conceptualization, strategy and tactics for the Peace Initiative.
 

How successful were you in field testing the Philosophy of Inclusivity?  How vigorous is the Philosophy of Inclusivity?  Is it possible to adapt the Philosophy of Inclusivity to actual war conditions?

The Philosophy of Inclusivity is just that -- a philosophy.  While it has been successfully tested in conditions bringing together ethnic groups that were potential adversaries (Anglos and Latinos in the small towns surrounding Portland; blacks and whites in various settings in America; people of different socioeconomic classes), this is the first time an attempt has been made to apply the Philosophy of Inclusivity to an entire nation in the midst of a shooting war.

Everyone talks about inclusivity (calling it by various names including the Golden Rule, community, transmodernity, new tribalism, etc).  There are very few organizations that are actively field-testing the philosophy of inclusivity by bringing together actual and potential adversaries in real-life conditions, in their conflict environments.

The field-testing of the philosophy of inclusivity was greatly aided by the fact that Commonway was working with and for Sarvodaya, an organization whose philosophy already matches the Philosophy of Inclusivity.  Rather than being seen as a foreign concept, inclusivity was welcomed as a complimentary philosophy.  Another benefit of working with Sarvodaya is that it is such a large organization, any work by Commonway can be diffused quickly throughout the entire society.  No other organization in Sri Lanka has this ability -- not even the Sri Lankan government.

Can Sarvodaya’s goal work?  Is it possible to build and nurture a “field of peace” that can transcend war?

The answer to this question is a cautious “yes”.

In August of 1999, Dr. Ariyaratne announced a bold new peace initiative.  His goal is to change the consciousness of war, by having one million people regularly meditating for peace.  Through a program of peace meditations, his goal is to end the war by changing the field of human thought, what he calls the “psychosphere”.

Based on my understanding of the power and effects of meditation, I believe that it is possible for a million people meditating to stop the war.  However, in order to do so, it will be necessary to have a more rigorous psycho-spiritual program than a one hour meditation every few weeks.  As demonstrated by the work of Sheldrake, Dossey and others, the “field” is created and nurtured by repetitive thoughts.  There must be more activities, in more areas, to create a large enough “field” to eliminate the “field of war”.  Therefore, I believe that it is both necessary and possible to expand the psycho-spiritual program.

This expansion, however, cannot happen without a coherent program of activities, supported by foundations committed to bringing peace to the world.

You have said that it is impossible, by definition, to “win” an ethnic war, short of genocide. What are the possibilities for peace in the context of an active civil/ethnic war?  Is it possible to elevate the conflict beyond ethnicity?  Is it possible to heal old hurts in such a way to build a dynamic new society?

The conflict in Sri Lanka is not really a civil war or an ethnic war.  It’s a little of both, with some other things through in for good measure.   Ethnicity is a confusing issue, not a defining one.

I believe it is possible to heal the old hurts, specifically using techniques Commonway has developed in other contexts.  We can transcend the pain.  We can transcend the IDENTIFICATION with pain, without losing the essence of what it means to be Tamil, Sinhalese or Sri Lankan.

At this moment in time, peace in Sri Lanka has the greatest chance of success.  Sarvodaya has fully focused its attention and resources on ending the war.  The combatants themselves seem tired, and may be looking for ways out.  And, there seems to be renewed interest in peace-making.

Can Sarvodaya set up an “innovation diffusion effect” over an entire island in the midst of a war?

Many of the concepts of the West, especially those involved with “New Age” or “new thought” ideas, have never been tested outside of the narrow confines of white, middle-class, “New Age” America.

One of these concepts, the “innovation diffusion effect” (a research-based form of the “100th Monkey” concept), says that a new idea takes hold in a population when it is adopted by 5-15% of a population.  Is this true when the innovation is trying to spread across cultural boundaries?  Class differences?  What if an identifiable ethnic group sees the innovation as a direct threat to their identity?  Does an innovation spread in an “ancient” culture the same way as in a relatively “young” culture like America?

All of these questions will be addressed by observing the process of  the “innovation” of nonviolent peace being diffused throughout the island of Sri Lanka.  (Islands make wonderful social laboratories.)  Because this is a very different context for observing the effects of innovation diffusion, the Sri Lanka experience is valuable in the lessons that it offers, regardless of its success.

The war in Sri Lanka pits two ethnic/spiritual groups against each other.  Is there a way, using the strengths in both spiritual paths, to raise the consciousness of both to transform the war?

If a spiritual way is found to end the conflict, it probably will not be catalyzed by the clergy on either side.  While there are clear and powerful spiritual leaders calling for an end to violence, there are others who seem to derive their power from the continuation of conflict.

Many of the religious leaders on both sides are heavily committed to the conflict.  I initially found this difficult to accept, given the fact that Buddhists make up the majority of the population.  However, it may be in the very nature of “religion” to ignore the message of its founder, even a message of nonviolence and inclusivity so clear and profound as that of the Buddha.

What are the promises and pitfalls of the Sri Lankan style (Gandhi-style) of personal leadership in the context of 21st Century realities?

Dr. Ariyaratne’s charismatic leadership has been the single most important factor creating and holding together the Sarvodaya organization.  On the other hand, it is necessary to transcend the charismatic leadership model; Sarvodaya is just too big, too complex and too unwieldy for any one person to lead.  Given the fact that Ari will not live forever, Sarvodaya’s current steps to transcend from personal leadership to visionary organization is vitally important.

An example of the pitfalls of the organization with a charismatic leader is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which ceased to be an effective force for change with the death of Martin Luther King.

Through Dr. Ariyaratne’s leadership, Sarvodaya has begun the transit from charismatic leadership to a decentralized leadership.  Ari remains the heart and soul of Sarvodaya, along with being the principal articulator of Sarvodaya’s principles and values.  His son, Vinya Ariyaratne, is the new Executive Director, building a new management group that reflects 21st Century realities.  Commonway is assisting in this transition.

What can Westerners learn about foreign policy from a modern, Gandhi-style, grassroots nonviolent peace campaign?

In the recent Kosovo crisis, the West completely ignored the work and activities of Ibrahim Rusova, the local nonviolent peace leader, in favor of war and massive bombing.  They did this because Western diplomats basically don’t treat nonviolence as anything other than a tactic, definitely not an effective political philosophy.  Another example of this is the large-scale nonviolent movement of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myamar (Burma).  While Western governments give lip service to her courageous stand for nonviolence, they do not provide money or resources for her movement to succeed.  They argue that they do not want to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries.  (The same governments do not hesitate to supply money and resources to support or oppose violent insurgent movements.  Apparently, they do not wish to “meddle” with peace.)

Unfortunately, many Western foundations follow the same course.  The power of nonviolence to create profound change is hampered by a lack of funding.   There is no “Peace Chest” the way that combatants have “War Chests” available to wage conflict.

A successful peace initiative in Sri Lanka can help support the concept of nonviolence as a potent philosophy elsewhere.

How can Western foundations contribute to the possibilities of peace?

Through Commonway’s involvement in Sri Lanka, Fetzer has already greatly increased the possibilities of peace on the island.  The three most important contributions to the Peace Initiative are:

· helping Sarvodaya reconceptualize the Peace Initiative.  This involved holding top-level brainstorming sessions on peace with Sarvodaya workers.
· Helping Sarvodaya move from charismatic leadership to a decentralized leadership where everyone within the organization holds the vision for Sarvodaya’s future.  This involved training for Sarvodaya senior managers in basic managerial issues, developing internal communications and increasing Sarvodaya’s organizational intelligence.
· Developing ways for Westerners to contribute to the Sri Lanka peace process through Sarvodaya and Commonway.  This includes participation in the Commonway team and the possibility directly involving Westerners in the peace efforts.

At this critical time in the peace process, the most important need for Sarvodaya’s peace efforts is a stable and adequate source of funding.  With this, they will be able to work toward peace in a more powerful, organized and methodical way.
 

What do you see as the reasons for Fetzer to be involved in a shooting war literally on the other side of the planet?  How do you see foundations like Fetzer increasing the possibilities of real peace in a world that seems to be increasingly at war?

Imagine this:  you are a Program Officer at Fetzer.  It’s the Fifties.  You get a phone call from a guy named Martin Luther King.  “I need Fetzer’s help in changing the nature of our society by dismantling the system of state-sponsored racism and discrimination.  We are going to change the nature of our society and heal our relationships with each other.  Our children will come to live in a profoundly different society.”

You ask him how he intends to do this.

He answers:  “Some of us are going to go downtown and order sandwiches and Cokes.  Others are going to ride the bus. “

Based on this, would you help him?  Or would you think he was a nut and hang up on him?

Fetzer’s focus on promoting peace, social healing and the transformation of human consciousness is well known.  Working to end the war in Sri Lanka is both a continuation and an expansion of that focus.

Sri Lanka involves moving beyond the peace conversations into field applications for peace activities.

Commonway is nurturing peace by changing consciousness.  However, we are attempting to catalyze a SPECIFIC change in consciousness.  Not a vague “everybody should love each other and get along”.  Changing from the consciousness of exclusivity: “I am Separate” to the consciousness of inclusivity: “We are One”.
 
 
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