The Power of Graciousness: Treading the middle-path in post-war Sri Lanka
Photo courtesy The Economist, Truth and consequences
I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist.
I am willing to fight for peace.
Nothing will end war unless the people
themselves refuse to go to war.
This government inherited a very complex challenge with the LTTE so focused on the mission of creating Eelam using any means possible, with terror as its central strategy.
At the same time, I do not stand in judgment on Prabhakran for starting this movement as he probably had just cause at the time and I even do not judge the use of force and violence to make a point, like Mandela did to get the attention of the Apartheid government in South Africa of their unjust policies. I do, however, abhor what Prabhakaran did as a ruthless leader who did not value any life in his quest to achieve his goal.
LTTE had clearly showed that they were not interested in talking for a settlement. It was all or nothing. This government unlike any other before simply resolved on its own single vision – destroy the LTTE at any cost.
LTTE being a terrorist organization had no bounds in meeting its ends, but the government has to be accountable. Therein lies the problem. War is horrific and any war will have atrocities committed where even civilians are hurt.
Lessons from History
One does not have to look far in history to see this. The very countries that accuse Sri Lanka of war crimes as allied forces during the Second World War performed air raids on civilian populations in Europe and Japan and many other atrocities on the ground. These have been defined crimes by some historians and yet not a single allied government official or a soldier was held accountable as they believed that they were conducting a just war against Hitler and his friends for defensive reasons.
Later, the USA was tainted forever by the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam war. US soldiers killed close to 500 unarmed citizens in South Vietnam, mostly women and children on March 16, 1968. Some of the victims were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, maimed, and some of the bodies were found mutilated. Of the 26 US soldiers initially charged with criminal offences or war-crimes for actions at My Lai, only one was convicted. He served four and a half months of his two-year sentence. This was a huge crime, but who knows what those young men who committed these crimes were going through on the ground in this horrific war?.
We are all seeing in graphic details the more recent collateral damage the western allies are committing in pursuing Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I am not saying Sri Lanka should be absolved from the allegations, but these are complex issues to debate and do not have black and white answers. As such, Sri Lanka has to open up for a skillful discussion both internally and internationally and seek a fair hearing from the world.
Understanding the West
As such, the Sri Lankan government did not have to run for cover in meeting war crimes allegations with nations who know about collateral damage in war so well.
To do this with skill, Sri Lanka needs to understand the west better from a philosophical point of view to address its allegations, whether or not they are spurred on by the strong Diaspora.
The western worldview was formed over the last 400 years after Bacon, Descartes, Newton among many others took the power away from the church and the glorification of a transcendental god. They linked knowledge to power and transformed study of nature empirically. Things are black or white.
This created a very objective world with no room for subjectivity. The mind and physical reality are separate. Only humans have the capacity for rational thought and action and giving meaning to the world. We also know in reality that here there is a grading for this ‘human’ based on where they were born and live starting from the first to the third world. So, the western construction of human identity, based on social and economic class (colours and races are now getting mixed) makes them patriarchal leading to the kind of finger wagging that goes on at the ‘lower class’ humans in the third world.
So, when the third world Sri Lanka wins a battle with the most ruthless of terrorists in the world, there is bewilderment – they need to know how and what was the cost of this victory. They seek to know whether the rules were broken and if they were, they seek accountability for them. The irony is that these rules are different for the first world as they deem the judge to be above the rules, hence the double standard.
Sri Lanka does not have to flinch in any way to face the world in this instance as it has got leverage from ending this war. It was telling when last week the international agencies Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Services upgraded its rating on Sri Lanka’s debt to a B+. Also the US 1 billion dollar bond issue of the Sri Lankan government has been oversubscribed 7.5 times to US 7.5 billion dollars.
As such, we have to put things in perspective and respect, for instance the US Congress threatening to cut of foreign aid to Sri Lanka, amounting to about $13 million and not harangue them about it. That is their decision and more Sri Lanka becomes independent as the economy grows, better it is to be gracious and act in dignity.
Sri Lanka being so small, yet strategic, has value in who we are, value in its position and what we do and its potential and as such cannot afford to have enemies. Sri Lanka has to learn to be skillful at the geopolitical game and that requires objectivity, expertise, experience and not emotional jingoism.
That is exactly why the Sri Lankan government needs to create the spaces for a dialogue and discussion for these difficult conversations, first locally and then internationally.
Facing the Dilemmas
If I think about the war in context of my own beliefs and values, as a person brought up with Buddhist teachings, I faced a dilemma. The first contradiction was, how can I cling to the ideal of peace, when the other party did not want peace?.
That dilemma led to the violation of the very precept that Buddhist teaching is founded on – killing another being.
On the other hand allowing my-self to entertain killing to attain peace was liberating, as I experienced the LTTE terror when bombs blew in Colombo. Now that the war is over I know how palpable the LTTE terror was and feel that freedom from fear which pervaded my entire being weighing me down. As such, this violation of the first precept has alleviated suffering for many, since the end of the war.
Yet, I do acknowledge and lament the innocent lives that were lost not only to the bombs that went off around the country but all those in the Wanni and the North in the process.
This is an extremely complex issue that needs to be addressed with compassion and empathy for everyone who is now deemed a perpetrator and also all the victims as the so called perpetrators are victims too.
Space for Dialogue
I reiterate the government then has to create wide spaces and a lot of room for dialogue on this topic, as we have to now begin shifting gears from the war to peace, violence to non violence and commence on a new era of development for Sri Lanka.
This is especially important as, violence has now become commonplace in the country, as it bore results whether it was the early victories for the LTTE, everything in between and now this victory for the government. Jaques Ellul in his book Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective has written
“First law of violence is continuity. Once you start violence you cannot get away from it. Violence has brought clear visible results; how then to go back to a way of acting that certainly looks ineffectual and seems to promise very doubtful results? “
That is why hearing Groundviews was blocked tugged at my heart, even though I was not surprised as there has been a pattern of fear of people voicing their opinion, if they do not tow the official line. This fear, as we all know, has even led to lives being taken from those who have asked questions and put forward a different point of view, confirming Ellul’s assertion.
Spaces like Groundviews allows for those multiple dissenting or assenting voices to be aired in the open and safely for many and give the government many insights into the ground situation whether it is within the country, with the Diaspora or the international community. This is the only way we can end this cycle of violence that is in everyone’s hearts and minds.
Challenges for the Government
Governing Sri Lanka now must be most challenging at the moment. I wonder how the leaders are dealing with the conflicting advice they must be getting or all the issues of running the country and also to work towards a national reconciliation and to rebuild.
This is the very time then to open up and listen skillfully to all kinds of views, and use conflict in these dialogues deliberately to protect decision making options and power.
Government also has a great opportunity to use these diverse and opposing views to structure the political environment to maximize the dissonance constructively paving the way for informed decision making.
Yet I empathize with the decision makers and wonder what suffering and paranoia dictates decisions to stop the dialogue and discussion. I wonder what fearful extremist thoughts lead to these actions?. These times require introspection from the leaders, reflection and contemplation and great skill in thoughtful action.
Inquiring through a Buddhist Perspective
Even though Groundviews was back on line a day later, I want to explore the mindsets that provoke these kinds of decisions from a Buddhist perspective.
First of all, we have to accept that an educated society is bound to have dissension. To add to that, it is the age of knowledge and information with news flowing into every corner of this country and the world. Locally, this is a good thing as now many more people are participating in the affairs of this country bringing in a certain creativity that fuels development in a sustainable manner both to society and nature around us. Internationally, this confirms the interconnected and interlinked nature of the world. What happens here impacts the entire world too.
Obviously, these kinds of decision to oppose dissenting views whether by shutting out Groundviews or attacking newspaper offices or TV stations or sadly killing journalist come from a place of deep fear and paranoia and mistrust. How do we address this suffering of fears from a Buddhist point of view?
The Noble Truths
We also know conflict is a part of our human condition, as with suffering, the first noble truth of the Buddha. There is certainly suffering arising from differences in opinions and then we cause much more suffering in the way we handle these differences.
If we examine Buddha’s parable of the two arrows found in the Samyutta-nikaya, xxxvi.6 (the Sallatha Sutta) it states
When afflicted with a feeling of pain those who lack inner awareness sorrow, grieve and lament, beating their breasts and becoming distraught. So they feel two pains, physical and mental. It is just like being shot with an arrow, and right afterwards being shot with a second one, so that they feel two arrows
Buddha explained the distinction between these two pains – an affliction – in this case a written opinion in Groundviews that aroused pain and fear in the mind on the one hand, and, on the other, the suffering that came from this pain and fear, — to frustrate and agonize them which led to the unskillful action of blocking the site.
It is important to make this distinction, as many first arrows are bound to keep coming at us and they are not within our control. The second arrow is within our control. We become the victims first, if we allow the second arrow to manifest and then victimize others.
It is fear of losing power and position that manifests itself for the political leaders through the first arrow that drive the decisions that end up leading to conflict.
The Buddha said, they lead to the Akusalamulas (unhealthy roots of action) – Lobha (greed), Dosa (hate and resentment), Moha (delusion and self centered action) and these interact in the minds of the aggressor in turn leading to actions that lead to more fear and paranoia. So, there is no end to this cycle. It just escalates, ending with the mightier with the power of swords and guns winning for the short term, but it increases their fear further. How sustainable is that ?.
If the Sri Lankan leaders can take some time to trace the origins of their fears testing the akusalamulas, they may be able to break this cycle and become much more skillful at governing a people that are intelligent and informed and Sri Lanka can lead the way in balancing the virtues of metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), muditha (sympathetic joy) and upekka (equanimity).
Buddha tied his Dhamma together through the concept of patticcasamuppada (dependent origination) which tells us everything is interconnected and interlinked. So, if we trace far back enough, we may be able to link the chain of thoughts and feelings that brought us to this level of fear and paranoia. This also means that every word we speak, action we take has some sort of an impact somewhere.
In this inquiry, our leaders may identify the suffering that leads to despair that leads to greed to stay in power leading to fear and resentment of people who question policies and decisions and that can arise from delusion that, their lives and positions are permanent and that nothing changes based on a self centered action.
Buddha’s second noble truth states there is no need to despair as nothing is permanent. Whether it’s anger in our hearts, guns blazing in a battle, the wrath of the west or an article in Groundviews espousing an opinion contradictory to the government’s, all these will lose energy and change with the next minute, a new day and the next, people will forget and move onto new things.
End of suffering can arise then from the cessation of clinging forming the third noble truth. Buddha tells us that clinging to power and position can lead to more suffering and conflict so let go, detach as the other way is a losing battle.
As such, an article that may seem defamatory, it may be wiser to read it for what it is, as those opinions themselves are impermanent, learn from it, inquire deeper into why such an opinion is coming forth, reflect, respond skillfully, take action to address the issue, let go and move on as there will be another opinion that is lobbed that needs thoughtful action again.
Handling differences unskillfully because of clinging causes suffering for so many, in fact an entire nation and imagine the bad karma of killing for a difference in opinion.
The fourth noble truth provides a middle path to live by through the noble eightfold pathway which is divided into wisdom (right understanding and thought), morality (right speech, action and livelihood) and meditation (right effort, mindfulness and concentration). Yet, this is not a dogma, nor an ideology, just a way of life that will bring peace and harmony to self and others.
Putting a Mirror on Self
This then is about putting a mirror on self first, as my thought will lead to a feeling then to a thought that will lead to action. The contemplative action will have a tremendous impact on my-self first, people around me, the world and the universe.
Leaders have even a larger moral responsibility as every word, every little action has tremendous energy to impact so many. So, should they not be mindful of what they say and do, as it could mean happiness for so many or much suffering if it comes from a place of the akusalamulas ?.
Sri Lanka can Show the Way
A nation that is called Dhammadveepa should lead the way to transform this complex and competitive world clinging to an ideology of materialisms and consumerism through the mantra “growth is great” as all this is bringing out the worst in us humans leading to war and the akusalamulas in the process. This then leads to a slow destruction of the world, way before its time.
Sri Lanka has such a wonderful opportunity to be much more skillful and show its true Buddhist colours as a secular nation after winning a brutal war. As a martial artist I also believe in defense and defeating the enemy, when non-violence is impracticable or had failed after many peace talks with the LTTE and even a greater violence would have continued if the war was not ended.
Then the defeat of the LTTE was for all peace loving people, be it Thamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher, Sinhala and others in this country and for the world. Then there has to be magnanimity in victory and most of all to acknowledge that every person living in this country has a say, has an opinion as they are here by choice, as they too love this country as much as anyone else. This is the true middle path.
May all beings be well and happy!