Traditional solutions for modern day problems
When the people of Elpitiya are faced with a problem, they come together to discuss it and find a solution together. They believe that it is this simple concept that holds the key to solving problems and avoiding conflicts within their community.
The concept is called Ã¢Â€Â˜Direct Democracy’, a traditional method that can be applied to any community, but is particularly effective in small rural settlements home to different ethnic groups. The inhabitants of Elpitiya are primarily Singhalese but there is also a large Tamil plantation community. The threat of communal tension is always high, like it is elsewhere on the island – a direct and tragic consequence of the conflict that has been raging on between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for over two decades.
The Elpitiya villagers gather at a people’s forum twice a month at the Sri Sarananada temple. One burning issue at present is the need for a place of worship for the Hindu Tamils. The Kovil in the village is in a severe state of disrepair and cannot be used, leaving this group with a feeling that they lack something vital in terms of their cultural identity. The Tamils of Elpitiya have been schooled in the Sinhala medium and have lived amongst mainly Singhalese people all their lives. They have therefore had few opportunities to fully practice their culture. To bring such an issue to the attention of the forum, a representative must put it forward and propose what should be done about it. In this case, a member of the Tamil community expressed the urgent need for the Kovil to be reconstructed with a priest in attendance.
The people’s forum initiative is not restricted to Elpitiya alone. Over 50 others have been established all over the island, supported primarily by Sarvadoya, but also the National Peace Council, Foundation for Co-Existence (FCE) and the National Anti War Front (NAWF). The basic principle is to encourage communities to develop the capacity to solve disputes, by identifying participants from the respective communities and improving their leadership skills. These are the individuals who will be responsible for guiding peaceful and constructive negotiations during the forum meetings. This is essentially what power sharing is about – and even applies to federalism. Although these terms are considered unpatriotic and have been branded as Western concepts in recent times, they have in fact been in existence all over Asia for centuries.
In Elpitiya, the People’s Forum initiative has noticeably improved the problematic relations between the Tamil and Singhalese communities. There is now dialogue between them and the construction of the Kovil is about to commence. Furthermore, it was decided that the whole community should be involved in the planning and construction process in order to increase awareness of minority concerns, to change attitudes and perceptions which will eventually help to create a more tolerant and diverse community in which men, women and children of all backgrounds can live and work together in peace. It may be a while until this happens but the very crucial first step has been taken.
By Nia Charpentier
Listen to a podcast of this story at http://radio.voicesofpeace.lk/page.php?0/v/298