Thoughts on Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence: Remarks at WCY 2014

World Conference of Youth 2014: Colombo, Sri Lanka

World Conference on Youth 2014: Colombo, Sri Lanka

When I was invited to speak at World Conference on Youth 2014, being held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this week, I accepted on one condition: that I don’t have to ‘clear’ my remarks with anyone before delivering. (This precaution was necessary as the host government of Sri Lanka is not known for its capacity to accommodate divergent or dissenting points of view.)

The organisers — Ministry of Youth Affairs & Skills Development —  kept their word, and I just spoke at a session on Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence. The theme is apt, especially in view of forthcoming fifth anniversary of the end of Sri Lanks civil war.

Alas, we had no opportunity to discuss any of the speeches due to sessions starting late. But I was able to engage several youth delegates, both from Sri Lanka and around the world, who apparently shared my idealism.

Here then is the text of my remarks (slightly ad-libbed during delivery):

Knotted gun sculpture at UN Headquarters in New York, made by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd - Photo by Dhara Gunawardene, 2011

Knotted gun sculpture at UN Headquarters in New York, made by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd – Photo by Dhara Gunawardene, 2011

Theme: Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence

Remarks by Nalaka Gunawardene

Science writer, columnist and blogger          

I thank the organisers for this opportunity.

Participating today reminds me of the IDEALISM, HOPE & PASSION with which I took part in similar events in my own youth – which was not that long ago!

In particular, I remember two instances:

A quarter century ago, as an undergraduate, I took part in an Asian regional Model United Nations conference held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The topic assigned to our group was VIOLENCE WITHIN AND BETWEEN SOCIETIES.

In all eagerness, we explored big questions such as:

  • Do we humans have an evolutionary inclination for aggression and violence?
  • What socio-economic factors trigger youth unrest and insurrection?
  • How does culture aggravate or mitigate conflicts?

For several days, a few dozen of us from across Asia discussed and debated this and other key concerns.

Five years later, as a young journalist, I had the opportunity to attend the World Youth Leadership Summit, held at the UN headquarters in New York. In the fall of 1995, around 200 of us from around the world came together to discuss the state of the world – and our role in shaping its future!

Again, a key topic that occupied our minds was the RISING VIOLENCE WITHIN OUR SOCIETIES. Not just civil wars and crime — but also INSTITUTIONALISED DISCRIMINATION and STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE.

These discussions enhanced my understanding of violence, which has become more SOPHISTICATED and INSIDIOUS in today’s world.

STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE as a concept was introduced in 1969 by the Norwegian sociologist and peace researcher Johan Galtung. He defined it as: “any form of violence where some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs”.

There are many examples of STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE in our societies. Among them:

  • institutionalized elitism;
  • ethno-centrism;
  • racism;
  • sexism; and
  • nationalism

STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE affects people differently in various social structures, and is closely linked to SOCIAL INJUSTICE.

So, in a broad sense, campaigns for HUMAN RIGHTS & SOCIAL JUSTICE are attempts to resist – and ideally, reduce – structural violence. These mass movements include:

  • the CIVIL RIGHTS movement in the US;
  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS movement worldwide;
  • ANTI-APARTHEID struggles in South Africa;
  • current global efforts to reduce absolute POVERTY; and
  • the on-going struggle for recognizing rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.

While fewer people are dying today in conflicts between nations, or even those within nations, we cannot rejoice: we still have many faces of STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE and SYSTEMIC VIOLENCE.

So did we save the world in the Fall of 1995 through all our eager and idealistic discussions at the UN Headquarters?

No, we didn’t. Our world is still an UNJUST, UNFAIR and UNSAFE place for too many human beings.

But experiences and exposure like that probably SAVED ME – from becoming an uncritical and unquestioning peddler of the dominant narrative. It opened my mind – to question rhetoric and spin, coming from governments, UN agencies and even civil society.

That is probably the greatest benefit of conferences like this:

  • opening of our minds;
  • deepening of our understanding & empathy; and
  • broadening of our perspectives.

I wish I could tell you that Sri Lanka offers a fine example of post-war RECONCILIATION. But our reality is actually more complex and complicated.

Five years ago this month, we witnessed the end of Sri Lanka’s CIVIL WAR which last for over 25 years. As a diverse nation and a pluralistic society, our people felt many different emotions about that defining moment.

One sentiment most of us shared was a HUGE SENSE OF RELIEF. And some of us also felt a huge sense of RESPONSIBILITY –

  • for HOW the war was ended; and
  • the enormous rebuilding and healing that had to be done.

Five Years later…

The factors that led to the violent conflict still remain largely unaddressed. These include concerns about governance, political power sharing, and economic benefit sharing – issues that youth feel strongly about.

In the past 40 years – in my lifetime – similar concerns have triggered two other youth insurrections in Sri Lanka — in 1971 and in the late 1980s. Both were suppressed violently by the state in the name of law and order. The scars of those wounds have not yet healed either.

In this sense, many of us have three layers of scars from recent violence. And we realise, belatedly, how HEALING involves more our HEARTS than our MINDS.

We know that PEACE is much more than the simple absence of hostility. Likewise, RECONCILIATION entails much more than a mere co-existence of groups who were once engaged in a conflict.

RECONCILIATION cannot be decreed by leaders……or legislated by governments. Technocratic solutions are helpful — but not sufficient — to achieve RECONCILIATION.

Progressive state policies can nurture RECONCILIATION — but in the end, TRUE HEALING must spring from all of us… individually and collectively.

It’s not EASY, and it’s not always POPULAR. But it’s a worthy goal to aspire to!

Building SUSTAINABLE PEACE requires time, effort – as well as a switch in our mindset. We must face HARD TRUTHS, acknowledge them, and hopefully, FORGIVE…

There is cultural conditioning that stands in the way. Historically, many societies have glorified war, weaponry and combat. AGGRESSION is often seen as a sign of strength…and of masculinity.

With this inertia of history and culture…can we replace confrontation and conflict with cooperation and collaboration?

The religious case for this is well known. But I hesitate to invoke religions as they have inspired so much hatred and violence.

In recent years, we have seen a growing body of scientific evidence and theories that argue that COLLABORATION HAS A GREATER SURVIVAL VALUE than aggression.

This is contrary to the long held Darwinian notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’. It now appears that virtues like KINDNESS, GENEROSITY and SHARING are more than just moral choices: they are useful EVOLUTIONARY TRAITS too!

The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello has been studying the EVOLUTION OF TOLERANCE & TRUST among human beings and the role it plays in today’s societies. He and other researchers have drawn attention to the evolutionary benefits of COLLABORATION and ALTRUISM.

There is no consensus yet among experts. Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and sociologists keep debating about:

  • individual selection vs. group selection in evolution; and
  • whether aggression or collaboration has key survival value.

As Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson summed it up in his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth:

“The human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be.”

So our big challenge is: How to tame our worst evolutionary baggage, and instead bring out our best as a species?

I don’t have any quick answer. But this is among the questions we must all keep asking – and keep looking for practical, thoughtful answers.

Dear friends,

It’s easier to have abundant IDEALISM, HOPE & PASSION when you’re 18 or 25 or even 30. It’s harder to retain these values when you’re approaching 50 — as I am, now. But I keep trying!

I wish you stimulating conversations. I hope you’ll find enough common ground — while not forcing any artificial consensus!

Thank you.

 

Video: Sri Lanka’s Lost Generations: Systems Ecologist Ranil Senanayake on genepool implications of insurrection & war


Last year, I read an uncommon book with an unusually long title written by an unorthodox author.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right and Here I am Stuck in the Middle again: 30 years of attempting policy change in Sri Lanka was an author-published volume by systems ecologist Dr Ranil Senanayake. In it, he collected some of his more noteworthy media articles and non-technical writing on forestry, biodiversity, agriculture, conservation and the broader issues of sustainable development, published over three decades.

In his Epilogue, I came across one of the most chilling passages I read that year: “It has been commented that this nation twice removed from its gene pool the genes for activism. In 1971 the government ‘removed’ up to 20,000 or more of the educated. Those who attended university, demonstrated interest in radical politics, were young or unemployed were singled out for liquidation. The next programme was in the late 1980s when over 40,000 were ‘removed’ with hardly a word being uttered in protest on any international stage…These people never passed their genes on. Genetically speaking, we removed from our race a large percentage of the traits for high intellectual potential and activism. Metaphorically it has become the time of the bottom feeders to manifest themselves as intellectuals and leaders.”

I touched on this when I filmed a long interview with Ranil (now published on Groundviews.org: read Part 1 and Part 2). Here is the short video I edited, where his expressions match the gravity of his concerns:

Reproduced below is the full transcript of this short video (11 mins). My questions posed to him have been paraphrased on-screen; his spoken answers are verbatim.

You can debate Ranil’s views either on this blog, or on Groundviews where this video is also published.

Sri Lanka’s Lost Generations: Ranil Senanayake Speaks

An Eye for an Eye?

See, in 1971 and in the late 80s, when we heard these so called JVP revolution. We went out and we killed first 20,00 mass of men, more or less. And the second time, about 40,000. Young people, children of this country. Why? Because they were a threat to the established government of this country.

Now, I can see that if there is indeed a revolution, a country must respond. But responding in this brutal manner because the response was not merely a military response, it was a response of pure terrorism. It was terrorised the whole nation.

Collateral Damage?

One story that I can share with you is that a senior person who was involved in this, in the control, at a table made the statement that “If 10% of the people that we destroy were hardcore JVPers we would have broken the back of the revolution”. This totally horrified me. It, it…I was depressed for weeks when I heard that.

It meant 90% of those people they killed were innocent. Their only ‘crime’ was they were young, they were educated and they had the fire of youth in them.

I, as a person, said I could not live in a country that kills its own people — own children — for its survival and I left, I went away for sometime. I wrote a poem which Hon Lakshman Jayakody read into the Parliament, into the Hansard, pointing out where we were going wrong, in this case.

What Have We Done?

But worse, what that action brought was the REMOVAL from our gene pool of the genes for intellect, education. The genes for revolution. The genes that would drive people forward; the genes that produced people who would fight and die for a country, for a nation. We removed this and as from my genetics, as an geneticist, you remove 60,000 children from a population as small as ours, you are taking away a large ocean of the cleverest of our population. And we shot ourselves in the foot.

This is karma vipaka, as the Buddha says. For the action ghastly action, for the action of taking away of our youth, killing our youth, removing them from our gene pool, we will have to suffer the fate of having a gene pool, well, you see what we have today…

We ALL live with the consequences…

Unfortunately, there is something else, as a Sri Lankan and as a Buddhist, which I find loathsome and that is — when ever somebody dies for whatever reason even a murderer, it is our tradition to give a dana (alms giving). First, a week after they deceased, then a month and annually. We have lost 60,000 children for our own society, for maintaining our status quo. Has anyone EVER given a Dane to these people who have departed? Up to today, no!

So is it a surprise that as a nation we suffer what we suffer? We are responsible for that and yet uptodate we are not willing to accept the responsibility for the actions we did. I think that is something that we have to deal with. Sri Lankans will have to deal with in the future to come. Because, as Buddha says, karma vipaka — for every action there is a reaction. And for that action, look what we have today.

On Sri Lanka’s Separatist War…

The separatism that came after the youth insurrection was again something that was building up for sometime. It was the similar, shall we say almost parallel, political moment that happened in the North. Where the separatism when they were talking about it on a political platform then descended into a violent struggle, if you want to call it.

I think it was, it is still pointless, but I think what most people fail to realise is that it is rooted in our history. It’s rooted in 3,000 years of history. And that is why it is so difficult for us to deal with the subject of finding a common ground, to deal with the subject of extending our hands out, to deal with the subject of trying to understand the other position, because unfortunately we are still rooted in these many, many years, thousands of years of history.

Breaking Free of History’s Grip?

It is indeed, it should be the task of the leaders and the politicians to bring us into the modern age. To demonstrate that that history is past, that we have to now forge something into the future. That involves all of us.

But our shallow politicians have chosen otherwise, from both areas, from both sectors. They have chosen division as their power, division as their source of strength, because as I told you , because of the past history this is the easiest, this is the least common denominator — this is the easiest place to go to, it’s the shallowest political refuge.

And that’s what politicians from both sides have been doing. Not looking at the future, not working towards bringing us into the future but dragging us back into the past and opening up the old wounds and the old fears that we brought along with this for all these years and capitalising on them, from both sides.

Aren’t we ALL immigrants on the island of Lanka?

Indeed, you are absolutely right! Humanity has been wandering around this planet for thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of years. People have come and people have gone. I mean, this whole question of I came first or you came first is spurious at best, I mean, this is just the refuge of a cheap politician to say I came first, you came later, you came first, I came first, this is all ridiculous…

Prisoners of Our Fathers’ Hopes & Fears?

We are prisoners of our own constructs. Or, as the song goes, “We are indeed prisoners of our father’s hopes and fears.”

Fears. Fears is where the politicians move to. Fear is what they use as their tool of power. We are trapped in this thing and until that fear is removed, and until we are educated into understanding where we are, and we are educated into understanding that there is nothing lost, in treating another human being as equal and as a brother, we are lost.

We are a nation of people who claim to live by the words of the Buddha. If we do, this would never come about. Never. So it shows as a nation a loss, it shows as a nation, that we have failed to live up to what we claim we are – Buddhists…

Dr Ranil Senanayake
Interviewed by Nalaka Gunawardene
Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 19 March 2012

Released online: June 2012
Dr Ranil Senanayake Online profile

No copyright restriction.This video may be used by anyone, anywhere.