Church Finds Peace in Tsunami-Ravaged Sri Lanka?

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Despite the death and devastation the Dec. 26 tsunami wrought in Sri Lanka and other Indian Ocean nations, Church leaders say the catastrophe could boost the stalled peace process and bring about greater unity in the ethnically divided nation.

“It is certainly a golden opportunity to strengthen the peace process. I should say, this is a silver lining over the tsunami cloud,” said Bishop Kingsley Swampillai of Trincomalee-Batticaloa, whose diocese on the east coast of Sri Lanka was battered by the tsunami.

Speaking to the Register on Feb. 4 — Sri Lanka’s Independence Day — Bishop Swampillai said, “This disaster could lead us to positive developments, and the peace process could be reinforced.”

According to data released by the Sri Lankan government Feb. 2, the tsunami has claimed more than 31,000 lives. More than 6,300 people are still missing and half a million people are homeless, the government said. However, non-governmental relief workers, including Church officials, estimate the casualty figure is much higher and report that more than a million people were displaced.

The catastrophe struck the island nation as it was enjoying relatively peaceful times following the 2002 cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels who control northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. However, the fragile peace process initiated by Norwegian mediators has been stalled since April 2003, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam withdrew from negotiations, citing “slow implementation” of decisions made in six rounds of peace talks with the government.

More than 65,000 lives have been lost and nearly 2 million people have been displaced since 1983, when the Liberation Tigers took the path of armed conflict against the domination of the Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority. Ethnic Tamils, concentrated in the eastern and northern parts of Sri Lanka, account for 18% of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people, while Sinhala-speaking Buddhists comprise 70% of the population.

Barriers Broken

“The tsunami has broken the barriers and wiped out the hatred between the Tamils and Sinhala people in a big way,” said Bishop Swampillai from his Tamil-majority diocese. Soon after the tsunami, he said, even Buddhist monks came with truckloads of relief material to help the Tamils in the east. “This is a very good sign for peace,” the bishop said.

Earlier, Archbishop Oswald Gomis of Colombo, the most senior Church leader in Sri Lanka, expressed similar sentiments, that the tsunami is a “providential call” to peace.

In an interview at his office Jan. 26, Archbishop Gomis said “the immediate reaction has been very positive” for the stalled peace process.

“The immediate cry on all sides was to forget political differences — racial and ethnic — and let us unite in this tragedy. Or rather let this tragedy unite us so that we could build up as one family and grow up as one nation,” said Archbishop Gomis, whose Colombo Archdiocese accounts for more than half of the 1 million Catholics in Sri Lanka.

During his tsunami relief work, Archbishop Gomis said he visited several Tamil areas under Liberation Tiger control and found the Tamil population “really positive and appreciative of what the armed forces have done for them.” Many said they were moved by the army personnel sharing their meals with the people, even though the Tamils generally treat the government soldiers as “hostile” to them, the archbishop reported.

Similarly, Archbishop Gomis continued, armed forces in the northern township of Jaffna “have been helped by the LTTE cadres during the tsunami. These good encounters could be made use of for the future.”

“We hope the goodwill that has come out will grow,” Archbishop Gomis said. Discussions are currently under way between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers for greater coordination in the tsunami relief and rehabilitation work in the “uncleared areas” of the country that are controlled by the Liberation Tigers.

Meanwhile, the Tamil rebels said at the end of January that they were putting their “struggle for autonomy on hold” and are prepared to collaborate with the government to ensure the rebuilding of the tsunami-battered areas under Liberation Tiger control on the east coast, which witnessed the worst devastation.

Resettlement

Amid the goodwill and positive overtures from protagonists in the prolonged ethnic conflict, Jehan Perera, a leading Catholic activist, has hailed the proposal of the international community, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, to link the resettlement of tsunami victims with the resettlement of those displaced by the ethnic war.

“The international community wishes to encourage the parties to the conflict to move back into the peace process. They have expressed their satisfaction about how rapidly the government and other parties responded to the tsunami,” said Perera, media director of the National Peace Council, which is backed by all of the nation’s major religious bodies, including the Catholic Church.

However, Bishop Swampillai cautioned, although the “animosity and hostility” has been set aside for the time being, it is time for “positive efforts” in order “not to let the goodwill degenerate.”

Said Bishop Swampillai, “This is an occasion to work together and build greater understanding.”

Anto Akkara writes

from New Delhi, India.

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