Photo courtesy of World of the Written Word

Today is the International Day of Living Together in Peace

According to Greek legend, Sisyphus has the wretched task of rolling a huge boulder up a hill. Just as he gets to the top, the boulder comes tumbling down and Sisyphus begins his labours all over again, continuing for eternity. But what if, as he climbs up that hill, Sisyphus actually believes that this time he can reach the top instead of having the boulder fall back down?

Sri Lanka’s peace builders and activists striving for a pluralistic society where people accept, respect and appreciate each other’s differences must surely be like the Sisyphus who believes that this time he will succeed.

The UN General Assembly declared May 16 as the International Day of Living Together in Peace. “The Day aims to uphold the desire to live and act together, united in differences and diversity, in order to build a sustainable world of peace, solidarity and harmony. The Day invites countries to further promote reconciliation to help to ensure peace and sustainable development, including by working with communities, faith leaders and other relevant actors, through reconciliatory measures and acts of service and by encouraging forgiveness and compassion among individuals,” according to the UN.

The Constitution of UNESCO states that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed. “Peace is not merely the absence of conflict, but also requires a positive, dynamic participatory process, in which dialogue is encouraged and conflicts are resolved in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation,” said the UN’s Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace, adopted in 1999.

“The Declaration also recognizes that to fulfil such an aspiration, there is a need to eliminate all forms of discrimination and intolerance, including those based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.”

Harvard educated Dr. Jehan Perera is a veteran peace builder who has been at this seemingly impossible and often thankless task for the past 26 years as one of the founders of the National Peace Council (NPC). NPC has been working tirelessly facing many challenges and obstacles to promote the causes of peace, reconciliation and justice through awareness and advocacy workshops, seminars, exchange visits, social cohesion building and conflict mitigation activities. NPC acts as a peace making facilitator at community level with its District Inter Religious Committees that provide a platform for discussion and mediation to prevent the escalation of ethnic and religious tension. Dr. Perera speaks about the country’s prospects for sustainable peace and why he keeps hitting hit his head against a brick wall.

When you talk to older people, they say that Sri Lankans of different religions and ethnicities used to live in peace and harmony. Today we are a very fractured society. What do you think are the main reasons for us to have come to this situation?

We were a fractured society even earlier, living as separate nations in particular parts of the country with distinct identities. The difference is that there was no need for each community to mobilise against the other. There was no need to capture political power. Our situation is the outcome of the democratic system we inherited. Even before independence there were signs of the division. When negotiations for India’s independence began in the 1930s people saw it coming here as well. The Sinhala elites thought independence was within sight and wanted it as soon as possible. The Tamils could see they would be disadvantaged and that the Sinhalese would have the upper hand. In 1936 we were given universal franchise to elect members to the State Council. There were seven Ministries comprising  seven elected representatives in each who could elect their Minister. The Sinhalese arranged themselves in such a way that they had the majority in every committee. Then they could elect Sinhalese as Ministers, which they did, which led to the “Pan Sinhala Ministry.” That’s where the Tamil demand for 50 per cent representation came although at that time the Sinhalese were 65 per cent of population. This demand was rejected and the writing was on the wall; politics was divided according to ethnic lines.

Living together in unity and peace means accepting differences and having the ability to listen to and respect others. Do you think that peace in Sri Lanka is an unattainable concept?  

It is a challenge certainly but this is also true for other parts of the world; it depicts the universality  of human problems. We have had only 70 years to forge an united nation after 500 years of colonial rule and before that, living as different kingdoms. It is not enough because nation building is a long process. I have confidence it will be fruitful. We, in this generation, must do as much as we can to build on positive features for the present generation to carry on. Up to the end of the civil war, from 1956 onwards, the main parties have actively undermined each other when one of them was trying to reach a compromise to end the ethnic conflict through a mutually acceptable political solution. I believe that today we have come to a point that if the government in power puts forward a solution acceptable to minorities, the opposition will not be against it. There will be support from all parties, so in that sense we have progressed.

Is seems that the messages you put forward 26 years ago are the same ones you are advocating now. Has anything changed?

When we started 26 years ago, the main thought was we should have a regional power sharing system to stop the permanent majority dominating the permanent minorities from the centre. That message continues. There is a need for power sharing. But there are also two new ones – respecting the multi ethnic and pluralistic nature of society and dealing with the past. Power sharing will not resolve these issues because people’s attitudes and mindset have to be changed for a truly pluralistic and multi ethnic state. Majority communities in any area tend to oppress or marginalise minorities who live among them. We push for the right of each community to its own culture and traditions, in keeping with international human rights standards that the whole world has accepted. No single culture can claim to have the first place; it cannot be enshrined in law because all are special and all are equal. Also, in order to move forward we have to address what has happened in the past and ensure justice for all those who have suffered as a result of the war.

The constitution of UNESCO says that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. What can we as Sri Lankans do to achieve this goal?

The NPC and I have been working to create awareness and educate people on the values and mechanisms needed to live together in society including the need for mutual respect, protecting human rights, being mindful of the other and looking after the well-being of everyone and not just the majority or the minority. Education is extremely important because the peaceful life we all seek begins in the minds of human beings.

Martin Luther King said that peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the presence of justice. How can we ensure justice to people who face injustice on a daily basis?

A good society will have standard prescriptions of good governance. Chief among them would be a system of checks and balances and separation of powers so that no one institution is more powerful than the other. No one institution should be judge, jury and executioner. In a  democracy, the voice of every person has to be heard and taken into account. The endeavor to ensure equal assets – material, intellectual and spiritual – has to be a conscious state policy. For example, there should be more direct taxation to promote equity through distribution on wealth. Much of our taxes are indirect ones paid equally by both rich and poor on all goods including food. Taxes should focus on income and wealth as happens in Scandinavian counties.

NGOs have an important role to play in bringing about a peaceful society due to the inadequacies of government initiatives but the space for carrying out their work is shrinking daily. How can civil society fight back?

NGOs either fill gaps in society or take on issues that no one else is taking on. NGOs fight for unpopular causes such as rights of minorities be they ethnic, religious or sexual. They don’t have mass support because they deal with marginalized people. The Government is elected with mass support and is armed with legal instruments of power, so NGOs are vulnerable and that is why enlightened political leaders who have mass support must stand up for NGOs. The protection of NGO space cannot be done by NGOs alone. The international community must remind governments of the responsibilities they have agreed to when signing international covenants that protect civil society, democracy and human rights. Number 16 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, for example, calls for peace, justice and strong institutions. The Government has accepted that it is part of the international community and gets benefits from it so it is required to follow those commitments. I also believe that NGOs, and peace building organizations in particular, need to be mindful that they have to work as much as possible with the State where it is possible because the State has a greater reach throughout the country and access to the grassroots as well as the media. NGOs can have influence over state officials by discussing issues rather than working in isolation. We include State officials in our work so that they can gain the skills and knowledge necessary to promote social harmony as well as economic prosperity. However, NGOs also have to challenge the Government when it is necessary to ensure that it abides by its responsibilities.

You have been working towards this seemingly unattainable goal for 26 years. Why do you keep hitting your head against a brick wall?  

The reason I took to this work is that I saw there was a problem in our society that most people were unable to understand, many people were unwilling to accept and few people were going to tackle. This need continues and my work continues. What sustains me is the belief that the situation has improved with the end of the war and that it can and must improve further. I feel that my work is contributing to this process. I am encouraged by the support we get from the groups and the people we work with; they want to live in peace with their fellow citizens of different ethnicities and religions and they are committed to taking the message forward. During the war it was easy for people to misunderstand our work as being supportive of the LTTE and forces trying to divide country because we promoted power sharing. But now there are only democratic parties in operation and that suspicion is gone. People are more willing to listen. We also have support from international community.

What price have you had to pay for dedicating your life to this endeavour instead of making a lot of money with your Harvard education?

When I was deciding on my career path I believed that I could make a more significant contribution to Sri Lanka, my own country, than to the rest of the world. My ethos was and is that I should work for the betterment of others and not only for myself. I saw an area that was not being sufficiently addressed and where I could make a value added contribution. The price has been paid by my family members to whom it is clear that they could have had a better lifestyle if I had taken a different path. I sometimes look back and wonder if I could have done it differently but what has to happen has happened and every moment is a new one with new possibilities.

Watch some video excerpts below: