A Discussion with Olcott Gunasekera, President, Dharmavijaya Foundation, Sri Lanka

With: Olcott Gunasekera

December 13, 2010

Background: This discussion, conducted by telephone between Michael Bodakowski and Mr. Olcott Gunasekera was finalized following an email exchange in February 2011, and served as background for a consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 10-11, 2011. Stressing that historical conflict in Sri Lanka arises more from colonial policies than from religion or ethnicity, Mr. Gunasekera recounts his experience on issues of faith and development in Sri Lanka. He highlighted the work of two Buddhist-inspired organizations: the Dharmavijaya Foundation, which works through a network of Dharmavijaya Societies at temples to promote equitable development, and Red Lotus, created following the tsunami to provide coordinated disaster relief. He notes that during this time monks were particularly effective as first responders. Mr. Gunasekera also reflects on proselytizing and the way that it colors contemporary conversations around faith and development in Sri Lanka.

What path has led you to your present work?

My vision and inspiration have come both from my parents, and through my close association with the temple. My family heritage is one of devout Buddhism and vegetarianism for the past three or four generations, at least. Buddhism has always had a strong influence on my life. It shapes how I live my life, day to day and year to year. I am married with two children; we are all vegetarians, largely because of our religious conviction. The first precept of Buddhism is non-killing.

My schooling was secular, and my religious background came from the temple; I attended the dhamma schools for religious studies, and government schools for my secular education. Although today religion is a compulsory subject in government schools, when I was a student in the 1950s it was not. I attended the university from 1953 to 1957, and graduated with a first class in history; in 1993 I resumed my studies, taking a course in Pali and Buddhist studies, earning an MA degree. I also attended the Stanford Executive Program at the Stanford Business School, Palo Alto, California in 1975 and am a member of the Stanford Alumni. I am a management consultant by profession and am a fellow of the Sri Lanka Institute of Management.

My professional career began in 1958, when I joined the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service, after taking the entrance examination. I was in government service from 1958 to 1973 and retired in 1973 on abolition of the Ceylon Civil Service. I was appointed by the Government as the Chairman of the newly established Cooperative Management Services Centre immediately upon retirement and served in that position until 1980. In my government service, at one point I was the Government Agent for the entire Eastern province (1964-65), the highest position in the district; so I am particularly familiar with the issues in that area.

From 1980-1991, I worked continuously with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Regional Office, based in Bangkok, Thailand, as a consultant working on cooperatives, marketing and credit. I had experience in that field since 1970, first as Commissioner of Cooperative Development and then as Chairman, Cooperative Management Services Centre. Since it was a regional appointment, I traveled widely in the South and Southeast Asia regions. Since 1998, I have been working very intensively on two issues, alcohol and tobacco, at both the international and national levels.

Thus, overall, I have been engaging in social work beginning with my days in university and government service, as well as with other service organizations (I am presently chairman of four organizations). Apart from the Dharmavijaya Foundation, I am chairman of the Alcohol and Drug Information Center, the Sri Lanka National Federation on Smoking and Health, and I have also been appointed by the president of Sri Lanka to the Presidential Steering Committee to commemorate the 2600th anniversary of the enlightenment of the Buddha, which will be in 2011.

Also, following the 2004 tsunami, a Global Buddhist Conference was held (March 2005) in Sri Lanka on “Buddhist Humanitarian Services in a Post-Tsunami Context;” as a result of the conference, an organization called Red Lotus was formed (of which I am chairman), in similar style to the Red Cross and Red Crescent. It has just been incorporated by Act of Parliament in 2011.

I am currently closely associated as well with the World Health Organization (WHO) on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the first global public health treaty. At present 172 of the 192 member nations representing 87 percent of the world’s population are Parties to the Treaty. In the negotiation of that treaty, six meetings were held in Geneva, and inter sessional meetings in the regional office for Southeast Asia (SEARO); I represented civil society (not the government), as a member of the Framework Convention Alliance (FCA). The FCA has membership from 80 to 90 countries with over 300 members, and is accredited to the WHO. At one stage I was the vice chairman of the FCA. I was recently in Uruguay for a meeting of the Conference of Parties of the FCTC. This was the fourth Conference of Parties that has been meeting biennially to take important policy decisions regarding the implementation of the FCTC.

On alcohol, there have been recent developments as well. In May 2010, the WHO approved a global strategy on alcohol, as alcohol and tobacco are the key factors that have been identified as a leading cause of non-communicable diseases, and also poverty. Through my research in Sri Lanka, I have found that families spend a lot of money on tobacco and alcohol, money which should be spent on their family’s development. The Dharmavijaya Foundation also works on related issues, as they are in line with the Buddhist precepts we follow. The Dharmavijaya Foundation organized a seminar for high government officials on ‘The FCTC: Present status and obligations’ to advocate for necessary policy changes (held on 22 December 2010).

Tell us more about the Dharmavijaya Foundation. What is its mission, where does it work, who does it work for, and what programs does it do?

We started working on the Dharmavijaya Foundation in 1977, and in 1979 it was incorporated by an Act of Parliament. I was the first president, and now, following several other presidents, I am again the president of the Foundation.

The word Dharmavijaya is derived from the Edicts of Emperor Asoka, who changed his policy from ‘Victory by War’ (dikvijaya) to ‘Victory by Righteousness’ (dharmavijaya). Reading from the incorporation statement, the general objective is to “Promote the total development of man, both spiritually and physically, with the application of Buddhist principles to economic development and thereby establish a Righteous Society.” We have a board of 30 trustees, chosen to the board by consensus, which include lawyers, accountants, government servants, social workers, private sector representatives, accountants, engineers, among others. It is a group of people who are experts in their own field, and have recognition in civil society in Sri Lanka.

The underlying principles of the Dharmavijaya Foundation are based on the five precepts contained in Buddhism, which are acceptable to all religious traditions as needed to build a harmonious society. Though our values are based in Buddhist principles, we work with other organizations and faiths. Our principles, which are also in the Act of Incorporation, are: 1) to be of service to the community; and 2) to practice one’s religion and observe the ethical principles contained in the Five Precepts, namely, (i) to abstain from the taking of life and to practice loving kindness to all living beings (ii) to abstain from taking what is not given and to practice generosity; (iii) to abstain from immoderation in sensual pleasures and to practice self-restraint; (iv) to abstain from speaking falsehoods, slandering, harsh speech and idle talk and to practice truthfulness; and (v) to abstain from taking intoxicating drinks and to develop mindfulness. These are what we consider the basic principles of a good society, and they are the main thrust of our organization.

We work throughout the country; our work is not limited to Colombo. At the moment we have 440 Dharmavijaya societies. These societies are based at temples, and the chief monk of each temple is the president of the society. Each society runs its own program in its local area. We also have trustee board meetings every Thursday at 5 o’clock (This week we shall be having our 1135th meeting) where we discuss different matters and issues pertaining to our programs.

We look at a wide range of development issues from the Buddhist point of view. We have held many meetings with the Buddhist monks, and we present to the government what the meeting participants collectively believe are the best solutions to the country’s challenges.

What specific programs do you have?

Our work aims to achieve what we call the “total development of man;” there are four focus areas: education, health, economic, and moral. International development institutions, such as the World Bank, tend to focus on an economic development model, looking at capital and income, and then on human development areas, including literacy, health, and malnutrition, having as indicators of GNP, literacy rate, and life expectancy. Moral development, however, is still largely neglected. That is why in some countries there are very high standards of living, but if you look at family life and other moral aspects, they are not as developed as we would like to have.

We give equal emphasis to all four aspects of development. In our education programs we provide scholarships for needy children, give funds for Reading Centers, pre-schools and nurseries, emphasize the importance of home-based early childhood development, and bhikkhu (monk) education. In the health program we give emphasis to improving nutrition, holding health care days, eye-care, promotion of vegetarianism and healthy life, and conducting blood donation programs. We are at present working on a special program to reduce kidney disease, which has become a major health issue in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. We are publishing a book on a healthy diet, based on some of the work emerging from oncology studies; the book presents vegetarianism as a healthy diet, which we promote. We also have close links with the Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine (PCRM) based in Washington, D.C., which promotes a healthy vegetarian diet.

Under our economic development programming, we work on poverty alleviation and control of alcoholism and addiction to drugs (including tobacco). Under promoting moral development, we support moral education through Dhamma schools, and as I am a member of the Buddhist Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Education, we engage directly on policy issues pertaining to the teaching of Buddhism in schools. The programs of the Dharmavijaya Foundation are implemented at the grassroots level through the Dharmavijaya Societies located at the temple. Through the work of the Foundation, I am engaged in issues at both the grassroots and the national policy level.

Also, as president of the Sri Lankan National Federation on Health, I have organized special seminars/workshops, to which high level officials are invited: seminars/workshops include, ‘One Year after the enactment of the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) Act’; ‘Two Years after NATA’; ‘The FCTC-Present Status-Obligations’.

What are the greatest legacies of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict on development, and what are the major challenges to securing peace and stability?

As I have said, our interpretation of development focuses on four areas: education, health, economic, and morality. Looking at the legacies, to use that word, I will begin with the negative, and in many ways the most visible: corruption in almost every walk of life. This is a legacy of any war in any country, and Sri Lanka is no exception. There is crime and violence as well (as is the case in most countries having protracted internal wars), though the government has stemmed it to a large extent. Then there is the problem of internally displaced persons, among the Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil communities; the Muslims and the Sinhalese people in the north had to flee under pressure from the LTTE. The Tamils too have fled their homes to Colombo. With the end of the war the number of IDPs soared but it is now down to manageable proportions.

After 20 to 30 years of war, security in the country had deteriorated. I used to drive my car all alone to Jaffna and return to Colombo; that was in the 1960s. In the 1970s, also, the situation was okay, and then the situation deteriorated quickly. There was fear throughout the conflict period. Now however, once again much of country is returning to normal.

There also is a societal polarization, due in large measure to schools being segregated according to language. Education has to be used as a tool to bring communities together and to inculcate values. It is a long term process. The most important aspect is to build confidence among all groups living in Sri Lanka and to develop a new ethos as Sri Lankans. You may have heard the President of Sri Lanka when he spoke at the end of the war in May 2009. He said that there were no longer minority or majority groups in Sri Lanka; the only divisions are those who love the country and those who do not. The present mess is a legacy of the divide and rule policy of the British colonial time. Divisions in society are direct consequences of British rule, and we are still struggling to get out of them.

Taking the previous challenges into consideration, then, perhaps most important is the issue of language. I was once the Commissioner of official languages, a department that was created in 1956. Politicizing the language issue was a factor that exacerbated racial tension in the country. My recommendation at that time, (and even now, in my evidence presented before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission), is that it is important to have a three languages policy—the mother tongue, a second language (Sinhala or Tamil), and English as an international language. I have been writing to the government that every officer in government service at the managerial level should have to take a mandatory language training in either Sinhala or Tamil (whichever is not their mother tongue), so that they are able to talk and communicate freely with all members of Sri Lankan society.

Language training is an area in which the Dharmavijaya Foundation has been working. We have been providing funds for Tamil teachers at Buddhist institutions where the monks get trained. If any education institution wants to teach Tamil, we were providing their monthly stipends. I have recommended that the English and Sinhala/Tamil language teachers in schools be made proficient in Sinhala/Tamil through added incentives. We should be aiming at three language proficient citizens by 2020.

Another legacy of the conflict is soldiers who have lost their limbs. The Dharmavijaya Foundation has special funds, including a disaster relief fund, and a Disabled Services Personnel fund. As one of our programs, we have a Clothes Bank and a Health Needs Bank to meet emergencies both man-made and natural. We have been assisting in war torn areas, especially on education.

I also participated in an interfaith dialogue in India, to find a solution to our post-conflict development and reconciliation challenges.

What do you see as the role of faith-inspired actors in peacebuilding in Sri Lanka?

Peace really has to be in the hearts and minds of people, and peace creation is an important area of work for faith-inspired actors. War or any kind of conflict first starts in a person’s mind; that is where Buddhism comes in in a very big way. The philosophy of Buddhism is to develop one’s mind, so that there is no conflict within ourselves, or with the outside world. In this respect, all faith-inspired actors involved in peacebuilding have to concentrate on developing proper values, so that human beings learn to live with loving kindness and compassion towards all living beings. I think it was Christ who mentioned that we all have red blood; even though on the outside we may be black, white or yellow, we are the same color inside.

On the other hand, while faith-based organizations are active in Sri Lanka, they are also creating problems in some instances. Sometimes we find, not only in Sri Lanka but in other countries where I have been as well, that some organizations have a hidden agenda of conversion; this creates problems. Statements by certain organizations (Peoples of the Buddhist World: A Christian Prayer Guide, Paul Hattaway) and also some statements by the Pope are creating religious tensions;

“With the Church throughout the world, the Church in Asia will cross the threshold of the Third Christian Millennium marveling at all that God has worked from those beginnings until now, and strong in the knowledge that just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent." (John Paul II, Address to the Sixth Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), Manila (15 January 1995), 11: Insegnamenti XVIII, 1 (1995), 159.)

Traditional religions are considered under attack and hence the tensions. Inter-faith dialogue and multi-culturalism in a pluralist society are the tools that are being used by some organizations in the campaign of harvesting of souls in Asia.

Sri Lanka has never had any kind of religious war over its long history. Conflicts have not been based on ethnicity either. What we experience now is a direct result of the divide and rule policies of the British. To give one example of divide and rule: in 1963 I was Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Education. At that time, according to statistics available, the number of schools that had classes that could send students to the university were 28 in the Jaffna district, and 33 for the rest of Sri Lanka. As such, higher secondary schools were accessible only to a very small percentage of the population living or studying outside the Jaffna peninsula. As a consequence the number of Tamils in the government service was disproportionate to their numbers. With universal suffrage and independence, policy adjustments were made which subsequently had an effect on their privileged position.

After that reform, there were an increasing number of secondary schools that were opened to rectify past injustice, and there was greater competition for government postings; the tensions in society became largely economic. The Tamils were losing some of the privileges they enjoyed under colonial rule; it was really an economic issue that took on an ethnic coloring.

So when you say faith-inspired actors in peacebuilding, they have a special duty to build understanding, compassion, kindness, and generosity, which are human values, and more generally to make the different actors to care for everyone as human beings. No government can change the hearts and minds of people by Acts of Parliament; that is the role of faith-inspired organizations.

You say that the cause of the conflict was largely due to divide and rule. However, the different groups to the conflict did largely come from different religious groups. Today, moving forward, are there faith aspects that need to be addressed?

Historically, Buddhism has been in this country for more than 2,500 years, Christianity came after 1505, and Islam came shortly before that. We have to understand, (and the Catholic Church also understands this), that Sri Lanka has nearly 70 percent Buddhist population; this gives the country its character and its cultural background. Historically there was never any kind of religious conflict; we have long traditions of respect for other religions. The Portuguese colonial rulers brought the Catholic Church, the Dutch brought the Dutch Reformed Church, The British brought the Anglican Church, then the Muslims came as traders; and they all lived here together. Only from time to time was there any relatively minor and short-lived religious conflict.

But now we have a big new Christian evangelizing movement, mainly from U.S., and some feel that this is American funding that is designed to destabilize Sri Lanka. The Assemblies of God, and other new sects have come and they are creating problems in our country. We do not want to hide that. It is also a problem for the Catholic Church, which is concerned about the active proselytizing of the new churches and the tensions that they can create.

Faith-based organizations have their role to play, but they themselves can contribute to conflict, and that is something we have to take note of.

What were the implications of the tsunami for your work? How did you respond?

I was attending a function in Matale, which is in the hilly terrain in the center of the country, and all of a sudden, we heard the story that the sea was coming on to the land. No one believed it at first. When I returned to the capital on the twenty-seventh of December, I called for an emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Dharmavijaya Foundation and we sent an email to all our colleagues and friends outside of Sri Lanka. For the first time we were able to draw large scale support from temples abroad, amounting to more than 58 million rupees. We did a lot of reconstruction work; we built more than 100 houses and we assisted many families to restart their life by providing bicycles and other equipment. Container loads of stuff were received and distributed. We have been involved in the tsunami work from 2005 onwards, until 2008-9.

Stemming from our tsunami experience, we formed the Red Lotus humanitarian service organization, of which I am currently the chairman. Red Lotus organization, being focused on disaster management, can respond better and quicker to the immediate and long-term effects of disasters. We aim to bring professionalism to development and disaster relief work. Dharmavijaya Foundation is a member of Red Lotus. Red Lotus collaborates with the Government Ministry of Disaster Management.

What lessons have you and your organizations learned from the tsunami response? How have they informed the work of the Red Lotus organization?

Red Lotus came into being in 2007, as a direct and immediate response to the tsunami. However, much of the initial work was done through partner organizations. The constitution was developed and agreed upon by a subcommittee appointed for that purpose at an international conference held in March 2005. The Red Lotus, inter alia, has developed and tested a five to six day program to train volunteers in disaster management attached to temples. We found that after the tsunami that Buddhist monks were working relentlessly to save people and provide safe refuge. We found it unbelievable how hard they worked. They gave refuge in the temples to people of any faith. During any disaster, the state comes late, and people spontaneously help themselves; the Buddhist temples and monks showed an extraordinary spontaneity in their response in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami.

We are working to develop a program to help support the temples and monks, with disaster leadership training, first aid, and counseling training. We also help them to link themselves with other organizations that have expertise in certain fields. For example, we worked with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society and St. John’s Ambulance in providing more intense training on first aid.

Following the tsunami, we found that there was no reliable humanitarian organization working on Buddhist principles and some of the assistance was channeled through the International Red Cross society, which had no formal links with Buddhist temples. Red Lotus hopes to continue assisting in building the foundations for better coordination; however, there is still much to learn about preparing for disasters. The government has increased its response capacity; there is the newly formed Ministry of Disaster Management, and I recently visited the government nerve center designed to coordinate disaster relief. As a country, we are better prepared now.

What is your relationship with the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies?

We do not yet have an official relationship. We were awaiting the incorporation by an Act of Parliament for a new organization. The last stage in parliament is complete, and we are close to finalizing complete incorporation. I have visited the Red Cross Museum in Geneva, but we do not yet have an official agreement. Once we are on our own feet, we can discuss with them on equal terms.

How do you see the main gender issues in Sri Lanka? What are the faith dimensions, and are faith-inspired actors successfully working towards gender equality in development?

From my faith, Buddhism, gender is not a problem as such. The head of the family unit is normally the mother. Some of the gender issues we see in the West are not relevant to Sri Lanka. For instance gender equality as interpreted in the West is not relevant to us. In the family the husband and wife have specific roles, duties and responsibilities. The concept of women’s liberation is an alien concept to Buddhism. Men and women are equal partners in building a happy family.

In Buddhism all genders are treated equally and could attain deliverance from sansaric life or salvation whether male or female. We are all equal in that respect. The Buddha did not give recognition to caste or did not consider being born as a woman a burden to the family or society. Although the physical differences were there, the highest level of enlightenment was achieved by developing one’s mind. However, it should be noted that there is a Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs.

There is also a role that we have to play as parents. In Buddhism we are called first teachers; we teach the newborn child basic lessons on how to eat, for example. All of the initial lessons are very important; both the husband and wife fill these roles. There is no gender distinction in education. There are even more female graduates than males. In the administrative service, now there are females at the highest levels, including secretary to ministries. It takes time, however, to correct historical and cultural legacies; you cannot overnight have equal gender representation in Parliament, but as education is open to all, all Sri Lankans can aspire to be whatever they want, in both the public and private sectors.

I know that gender is seen as a significant issue in the Western world, but some of the issues that are perceived are really not here in Sri Lanka. Western educated elitist women, however, might say that yes, there are gender issues.

What types of interfaith work are most active and effective in Sri Lanka?

There were two or three organizations working on interfaith initiatives; they were called multi-cultural or multi-religious organizations. I was in the Hindu Buddhist Society, trying to work on issues common to both faiths. I also was a committee member representing Buddhism that worked on a Project to provide commentaries to the Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the point of view of the four major religions in Sri Lanka, namely, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. The project was published by the Sri Lanka Foundation under the title “Human Rights and Religions in Sri Lanka” (first published in 1998).

Recently I have been working more on alcohol and tobacco, and that is a topic that I hope to bring up at the consultation in Dhaka; faith-inspired development actors tend to be concerned with the quality of human life. The quality of life is being denigrated because of alcohol and tobacco, and I wish to refer to the double standards of countries where these trans-national industries are located, both in the developed and developing countries, e.g. India is a major alcohol producer. This is an area where faiths can work together.

I have had meetings with religious leaders of many faiths on alcohol and tobacco control, and the adverse effects on development, particularly on poverty alleviation. I want all faiths to come together on this, and to work towards a better quality of life for all human beings.

I see the conversion and proselytizing issue as very destructive to interfaith relations. If we think of all faiths coming together to improve the quality of human life, we may be successful; but if we are interested in increasing statistical numbers of any one of the faiths, we will lead ourselves to conflict. We do not need more conflict in this part of the world; there is already enough. We have to safeguard ourselves from conflict and destructive forces through interfaith work.

What networks do you belong to or do you know of and how are these helpful?

By invitation, I have been working on an international level on alcohol and tobacco. The invitations are from the WHO (Geneva) and the Southeast Asia Regional Office (New Delhi), the Framework Convention Alliance on Tobacco Control (with its office in Washington, D.C.) and the IOGT International (with its office in Sweden; it is the largest international non-governmental organization working in the field of alcohol and seeks to promote a lifestyle free of alcohol and other drugs). At one time I was the Chairman of the IOGT Regional Council for South and Southeast Asia. Concerning interfaith work, I have been working with Quaker Peace and Service; they had a special program on non-violence education, especially on conflict resolution. There was a South Asia gathering held in Sri Lanka in 1993 with participants from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and a follow up meeting in 1994 in Bangladesh. I have been attending coordination meetings on relief work in war torn areas convened by UNICEF as well.

What kinds of issues would you like to see addressed during the consultation? What are the most important gaps in knowledge at the intersection of faith and development?

I hope the group will discuss responses to poverty and poverty links to alcohol and tobacco. We should also discuss interfaith relations and common approaches to poverty reduction.

Next year in September 2011, there will be a UN Summit on non-communicable diseases, and we will be discussing the four major causes of non-communicable diseases: alcohol; tobacco; fatty diet; and lack of exercise. The four issues have strong faith links. The major international development bodies are interested in reducing non-communicable diseases, but I have seen very little work done by faith-inspired organizations on trying to get across the message to their own groups, on both the health hazards and its economic impact, especially on continued poverty.

As I said earlier, we have to build confidence among the different faith-inspired organizations and their actors; a challenge before us is how to build confidence in the context of disharmony and suspicion due to the spate of unethical conversions, exploiting poverty, sickness and other traumatic conditions.

There are many INGOs, some of which are faith inspired. There are also foreign funded local faith-inspired organizations. Many of them are from Catholic, Christian and Islam faiths. Comparatively these are well funded with adequate staffing compared to local faith-inspired Buddhist and Hindu organizations that have no foreign donor contacts. The playing field is not even, leading to many tensions. The real priorities also get distorted because the local recipients of so-called “development money” have to work in consonance with the priorities of the donor agencies. There should be greater discussion on the preservation of national identities and the social and cultural heritage of individual countries. Because of its 2,500 years Buddhist tradition there are unique features in Sri Lanka’s culture and traditions which needs to be preserved for human enrichment. This too is a matter for discussion.

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