A Discussion with Visaka Dharmadasa, Chairperson of the Association of War Affected Women

November 26, 2010

Background: During this exchange with Michael Bodakowski and Katherine Marshall in November of 2010, Visaka Dharmadasa discusses her work to build sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. She recounts how she came to establish the organizations Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action and the Association of War Affected Women after her own son was declared missing-in-action. Describing the role of the Catholic Church in building bridges in Sri Lanka, Ms. Dharmadasa highlights the universal religious values that can lead opposing groups to peace. She also reflects on the impact of the 2004 tsunami on Sri Lanka and stresses the gaps in aid coordination that detracted from relief efforts. Throughout, she highlights the importance of making space for women in both peacebuilding and democratic processes. Through the Association of War Affected Women, she is working to train women to run for political office, thus both reducing the problem of invisibility among female peace workers and increasing the influence women have on drafting legislation that protects their rights.

How did you come to do the work you do?

I am the only child of a mixed marriage: my mother is a Catholic Burghers and my father is a Sinhalese Buddhist from the central part of the country. I was married once before, so am in my second marriage. I have three boys. In 1998, on the twenty-seventh of September, my second son was reported missing-in-action. At this point, my life took a major turn. Before my son was reported missing, I had been doing some social work with women, looking at the conflict to see how it had affected them, and trying to take some action on their behalf. But when my son, who was a military officer, was reported missing-in-action, that was the day that I realized that the war had come to my doorstep. So there I was, with that experience, trying to learn the fate of my son, as well as that of all of the others who had gone missing in our conflict. Yet at the same time, I am working to build a sustainable peace in the country.

Can you elaborate on the work of the Association of War Affected Women? Where does it work, who does it work for, and what programs does it do?

I first established an organization called Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action. We soon came to see that unless and until there is sustainable peace in the country, there will be many more mothers like us, so I founded The Association of War Affected Women; I am the founding chair. Our initial work was to try to bring women from across the divide to work together towards peace. We have held important dialogue processes, not only with women, but also with men who are influential within the government of Sri Lanka. The main area of work during the conflict was just trying to bring both sides of the divide together. We could do our work in large part because of the Catholic Church in northeastern Sri Lanka, which had built trust between the opposing sides of the conflict. Through the facilitation of the Church, we were increasingly able to get opposing sides to come together.

Also, as mothers, we developed our Signature Campaign and demanded the right to life. With this campaign, which was started on Mother’s Day 2001, we were able to enter the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] areas. The connections we built with the LTTE helped in important ways to open the doors to greater understanding, and led, finally, to a ceasefire. We were seven women, and our work with the LTTE was the backbone of the effort to broker the ceasefire.

While we were working on peace, bridge building, and reconciliation, we also became involved in the effort to introduce and advance UN Resolution 1325, on women, peace, and security. At the moment we are training women to run for political office; we believe that for sustainable peace, it is extremely important that democratic institutions are strengthened and that women play a central role in the process.

In the Sri Lankan context, what does development mean for you and your organization?

Broadly, it is good to distinguish two are areas of development—economic and physical development, and mental development. Each is equally important for human development. When we speak with women about money and sustainable development, we of course speak about economic development and livelihoods, but we also speak about values. The biggest problem that Sri Lanka faces right now is the undermining of values. If you respect values, then many other things can be put to right, but if you lose values, you have lost everything.

I saw that you have also done some work with child soldiers?

Though work with child soldiers is not our specialization, we really wanted to do something. I had contact with youth who were involved in the conflict for a long time, but to ensure their safety, we did not want to speak with them directly. Now, since the war is over, I have initiated a small project to prevent minors from becoming involved in warfare. Those who force children to fight are really robbing their childhood; it is an unpardonable crime.

Our research focused on girls who had been soldiers when they were young, and what led them to be soldiers, with the main goal of prevention. I had seen LTTE camps where there were 1,500 young girls. The leaders said they had boys as well, and when I asked why they are using girls as child soldiers, the excuse the LTTE gave is that they were taking care of them, and that the children wanted to help. It is a very complex issue, not only in Sri Lanka, but also in other countries.

There is one example that I will never forget: a conversation with Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf before she became the president of Liberia. She told me about a young boy who was captured by the military. The military, she said, grilled the boy to find out everything he knew about the rebels and their movements. Through one hour of yelling at and pressing the boy, the boy said nothing. They finally came to realize that the boy was dumb and deaf. It is such a crime to use a child with special needs in war.

You are also part of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders?

Yes, I am a member. It is natural given the nature of our work that we want to make connections, to share our experiences, and learn from other women. A strength of the network is that it creates a collaborative voice; one example is that we can come together, advocate, and write letters to initiate change.

In December 2010, I was invited by FOKUS (a Norwegian women’s organization), to Bogota, Colombia to attend a conference the tenth anniversary of UN resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. I focused on the situation in Sri Lanka moving forward, and how to best incorporate UN Resolution 1325.

What about your collaboration with the Catholic Church?

The point that I always make is that if it had not been for the Church, there would have been far more hunger in the northeastern part of Sri Lanka. They were one of the only institutions that provided the people with food, as well as a safe shelter. The women could come in from LTTE-controlled areas to the Church at 10 p.m., under agreed security processes, if they had a problem and needed assistance. It was the one space that was open for them, that provided food and shelter, and kept the population alive.

I personally went to the Catholic Church to ask for help in making connections to speak with the LTTE.

Were the efforts of the Catholic Church institutionalized (that is, part of a general policy) or did the assistance arise from specific needs and circumstances?

The efforts were driven by specific needs. There was not a strategy. They were there and the people needed them badly, so they acted. Caritas as an institution is there working on projects such as building houses, but that has only been true since the security situation has settled. When the going was tough, the Church responded as individual human beings who reached out to help others.

How have faith and religion affected the work that you do more broadly?

I have been speaking with Dr. Nobert Ropers, a conflict resolution specialist and a director of the Berghof Foundation of Germany. Also, looking at Sri Lanka, and also the world since 9/ 11, one has to look critically at the path we have taken: Have we really seen results? I have thought deeply, and challenge myself on where we have gone as a people. The world is faced with greater problems than it has before. All of us, of any religion or faith, as human beings do believe in something above us. It may be a spirit, or some may not even give a name to it; we all as human beings believe in something that is greater than us, and which controls us. I believe that faith is the only thing that can really right the wrongs that have been done. If we are going to find lasting solutions, working through faith is the only way that people can truly believe in what has to be done.

All religions have a crucial role to play. I believe that the central role of religion is for unity and to keep people happy. It is not to divide people; there cannot be competition between religions. It is like having one address, but we are mailing through different post boxes.

Women have a particular role to play. We have often heard women describe security, and the way they see it is that security comes through making their enemy secure. If your enemy is secure, they will be your enemy no more. The Lord Buddha said that hatred will never be mitigated by hatred—it is only thorough compassion that you can put an end to hatred. It is not only in Buddhism, but also Christianity, and I think Islam as well; all religions say that compassion is the only way forward.

What are the religious realities in Sri Lanka? How does the idea of unity and cooperation between religions work on a practical level?

Unfortunately, small segments of every religion have extremists. My clear view, one I would like to have on record, is that the people who are extremists do not know their religion, and have not read their scriptures properly. When some people do not understand their faith, they try to build an image that is bigger than what it is, and it becomes different than its true meaning. A few Sri Lankans say that they are trying to safeguard Buddhism, but I say that they are not really Buddhist. Buddhism is a way of life; you can practice any religion and still be a Buddhist. Buddhism is very open. You can go to a church, pray five times in a mosque, and still be a very good Buddhist. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, there are a few people who are Buddhist in its true sense, some are also in robes (I do not call them monks) for specific reasons of greed. Because of greed, they are manipulating the teachings of Buddhism. So there is a challenge. But because the vast majority of Buddhists are open and honest, most temples are places of refuge.

We also have a new Cardinal, Malcolm Ranjith, who was recently appointed to the position. We are seeing a revival of the Catholic Church. There are significant Hindu, Christian, and Muslim populations.

I think Sri Lanka is fertile ground to start a good dialogue. There have been many attempts at interfaith dialogue, and I think the YWCA may be planning one, but overall, a properly planned and executed interfaith dialogue in Sri Lanka is necessary, and up until now, is lacking. The seeds of reconciliation will come through religion—it has to come through religion.

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

The biggest challenge is the president of Sri Lanka, who does not understand the ground realities. He thinks that because the war is won, everything is rosy. He does not understand that there were genuine causes behind the war, and that those causes still remain. The biggest challenge we face is to make the person that has executive powers [the president] understand that the war may be over, but the conflict itself is very much alive. Up to now—and it is more than 18 months since guns were silenced—the government has yet to look into finding lasting solutions. Sri Lanka needs a political solution based on power sharing, but we have yet to start on that path.

What are religious leaders doing for peace building? Have they been successful?

Frankly, they have not done much. The Buddhist temples have a lot of influence, and they have not done much. The Catholic Church is the one that has taken some initiative, but then they were accused of helping the Tamil Tigers because they were speaking with all sides for peace.

It is extremely important that the priests of all religions engage. They have the time, the wealth, and the people with them, but they have done little. They could have prevented conflict, and still, now again they can. That is why it is extremely important to work with them.

Can you speak about the different roles Buddhist monks played in the Sri Lankan conflict?

Buddhist monks were involved in the party that really led the conflict. They were called the “monks of war,” about whom Al Jazeera has made a film. But of course, there were Buddhist monks that worked with us on initiatives for peace.

Religious leaders typically hold a level of trust vis-à-vis their communities. Have religious leaders in Sri Lanka breached this trust through their very different roles during the conflict? If so, how can that legacy be overcome?

Religious leaders have not really breached the trust of their own communities; they have, however, with outside communities. Religious leaders therefore need to start to reach out across communities, and repair the trust that has been broken outside of their immediate following. For most Sri Lankans, religion is of the utmost importance, so you cannot breach that relationship. Even if the behavior of one religious leader is not proper, the next religious leader can restart the process and work for peace. Across religions, work up to now has been very limited; work across religions therefore is a must for reconciliation.

In one program, called Healing Minds, we brought together religious leaders from different traditions, in three regions—Jaffna, the Eastern Province, and in Anuradhapura—to enter into dialogue. This was in 2003-2004. I believe it was very successful. For some it was the first time that they met leaders of other faiths; they had much to talk about. I find that there are limited spaces for that kind of dialogue. In large interfaith dialogues that have taken place with hundreds of people, there isn’t the opportunity to interact with others and make friends; but if you are together for a few days, and are a small enough group, then you find a space to build friendships, and that is what we need.

How did the experiences of different faith groups, particularly for women, differ throughout the conflict? Are they different today?

My husband says we [women] are like water in a glass. We could take the shape of anything, and that is the strength that we can bring to the peace negotiations. For women of all faiths, life is extremely important, and especially the lives of their family members. Women can connect with each other, no matter which faith they are from, and that is one area that is under explored.

Women have a distinct voice to bring to the negotiating table. Until now, that space has not been open for women. The biggest challenge that we face is to market the value that women can bring to the table, and that is a very difficult task. We are thinking of marketing strategies for this.

The common thinking is that women are too emotional and that they will give in to much, and that they should not be involved in hard security issues, which is men’s business. That is the glass ceiling that we need to break through. That is why, as I said before, we need to bring forth how women define security, to make your enemy secure so that your enemy will not be an enemy anymore. That is exactly the way of thinking we are trying to pursue. We need to promote a paradigm shift from post-9/11, to a new way of thinking. It has now been nearly 10 years since 9/11, and where have we gone? Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Sri Lanka, have we moved forward? We have lost lives, and we have lost property, and we have not progressed an inch.

If we want to move forward, we have to find another way. I believe that we can no longer afford to make our enemy feel insecure. If you look at a cobra, for example, a cobra stings because it feels insecure. In general, I believe security and reconciliation offer the best roads forward.

Are faith-inspired actors working towards gender equality in development?

Broadly speaking, there are indeed challenges. In Sri Lanka today, very little work is really being done, especially for women in northeastern parts of the country who are facing challenges of basic survival. The economy is in shambles and the cost of living is high, creating huge challenges for the whole country. In the north and east, the biggest challenges concern lack of sustainable livelihoods and protection, due to the militarization of the area.

I cannot comment specifically as to whether there are any faith dimensions to these challenges. I can tell you frankly, however, that during the conflict, it was faith that kept the people alive. Faith was all that they had; they believed in God, and that is how they could survive. Right now, apart from Caritas which is doing a significant amount of work, I do not see much being done by the temples and churches. Buddhist temples are not organized at all to deliver to the people. The Buddhist temples operate in one way: You give to the temple, but the temple does not give anything to society in return. We have to start a discussion on that.

Looking at Hindu and Muslim institutions, I do not know much, but the Catholics are doing a lot for the people.

How did the tsunami change the situation concerning your work, and what development legacies remain?

The tsunami was a great shock; for that reason it did open a space for Sri Lanka to find a lasting solution—or at least to start—because it enabled the LTTE and the government soldiers to come together and save lives. They had been killing each other, but they came together to save lives. But the humanitarian assistance money, which came into the country in billions of dollars, prevented long term cooperation. The reality became competition over who was going to get the money, and they started fighting again. Unlike Aceh, the two sides could not find a lasting solution.

For my personal work, the tsunami had a big impact, and not only on my work, but everybody’s peace work. Again, this was because of the money coming in. Oxfam, which was supporting us logistically to run our office, told us that if we did not focus on tsunami recovery, they could no longer give us money. We had the backbone to tell Oxfam that we did not want their money, because our primary focus was peacebuilding, not tsunami recovery. We said that we would do tsunami recovery as a secondary activity, but that our primary focus would remain on peace building.

We were unique, however. Most organizations could not say no to the money. The tsunami and the recovery period—and the way that international NGOs behaved during this period—is also, in a way, indirectly responsible for where Sri Lanka is today as far as conflict resolution is concerned. They all took money for tsunami recovery and completely ignored the peace process. That is a very big lesson we have to learn and understand. The tsunami was a onetime disaster, but the conflict was a long-term problem that needed a solution; instead, peace building and conflict resolution were essentially ignored.

What is the education landscape in Sri Lanka, and how does faith-inspired education fit into the overall picture?

In Sri Lanka, education institutions are built upon faith. We have schools and colleges, and all were run by missionaries initially. We have always had Buddhist schools, and presently there are Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian schools. All faiths play a role in basic education in the country, and all these faith-based educational institutions were present during our 30-year war. We need to look more closely into the experiences and roles of all these educational institutions.

What other kinds of institutions working on development have faith links or inspiration? What categories do you see? What are the best among them? Which are the weakest?

The National Peace Council did hold an interfaith dialogue, which was done with a Japanese monk. They held a high-level interfaith meeting in New York. I was also invited to an interfaith dialogue in Colombo that was organized by a group of religious leaders of all faiths. This dialogue brought together nuns from different religions.

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

I belong mainly to the women’s, human rights, and civil society networks; the networks are not necessarily faith-based, but many have worked on issues related to faith. I am on the National Peace Council where we are working on interfaith dialogues. On my website, you will also see that we have three priests and monks as advisors to our organization.

I very much want to continue my exploration into what women can bring to peacebuilding, especially as related to faith; it is extremely important to bringing sustainable peace to the world. The UN was established 60 years ago, but unfortunately with all of their money and manpower, they have not been able to achieve the very goals for which the UN was established. What has gone wrong? Engaging women is a crucial part, and that is why Resolution 1325 came into existence. But can the resolution solve the problem? Or is there something else that is common to everybody? The answer, I think, may well be religion. Thus, a question is: How can women and religion can work together for peace?

How about coordination around the tsunami specifically? What have been the lessons learned?

A lot of lessons have to be learned from how Sri Lanka responded to the tsunami. However, I also must tell you that the people affected by the tsunami survived for two long days because of the fact that the Sri Lankan public, from all walks of life, were there to help them. It was not an organized body or a government institution in the early stages of the recovery, but just the people who helped other people. I am proud of my country for the fact that they showed hospitality and generosity to others in need, regardless of religion, caste, or creed. People took whatever they had to give to others, even if they themselves would have to go without a meal. Up to 72 miles away from ocean, the shelves of stores were empty; there was no bread or jam, as those were easy to take and donate, and did not require any cooking. That is how people survived, and it was something unique to Sri Lanka. But, then the money started pouring in, and that really changed it all.

Lack of coordination became a key problem, a large issue. Sri Lanka was not equipped for a disaster of that scale. The coordination was very bad. Even the PTOMS, the Post-Tsunami Organizational Management Structure, could have been the basis for peace building with the LTTE, but we lost opportunities. I cannot even blame the Government of Sri Lanka for that; it was rather our inexperience. It was a learning experience for everyone.

We had good drinking water two-kilometers away. For five dollars we could have had delivered it, but instead they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on emergency airlifts of water from abroad. They even shipped in Coca-Cola from Europe. A central organization, whether the UN or the International Committee of the Red Cross, should play a central coordinating role. China had also sent chicken, and on the packaging there was a chicken clearly drawn on the bag, but since people could not read Chinese, they did not use it. This is just a simple example. The funds that come in need to be in a central place, and channeled for necessities. The waste of food that we saw, the mix-up of priorities, and Sri Lanka returning to war, might not have happened if more effective aid coordination had been in place. We have lessons to learn.

Cash-for-work programs were ridiculous, and made more problems for the country. The portable housing that was brought in was made for Nordic countries, and not a tropical country like Sri Lanka; it all was a waste. There should be a central authority that knows the situation, and will channel aid appropriately, manage recruitment, etc.

Did you witness faith-inspired actors involved in networking and coordination around the tsunami relief efforts?

The tsunami reinforced people’s belief in their faith. In the areas struck by the tsunami, it is only the religious statues that remained immediately post tsunami. It was really amazing. Whether it was a two foot statue, or a five foot statue near the ocean, they all remained. Statues of and temples to the Lord Buddha, Hindu idols, and churches remained intact, even when surrounding houses were destroyed completely. It was because those institutions remained intact, that they were the ones who gave refuge to people. All the temples and churches along the coast opened their doors, and that reinforced the people’s faith. It was really amazing. Soon after the Tsunami, as I said before, the people were housed in temples, churches, and mosques; also later there were initiatives of rebuilding done by many religious entities. In fact, the Caritas played again a very crucial role in rebuilding.

To what extent did the government and international organizations coordinate with faith-inspired actors working on the ground?

I do not know of many instances where the Government of Sri Lanka cooperated with faith based organizations in recovery. Once the money came in, the government wanted all of the money to be with them. As we know from all religions, absolute power corrupts absolutely—and I think money also corrupts absolutely. That is why I think a central located body should have had control of the money. There was too much unaccounted for, unaudited flows of taxpayers’ money.

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

Religion is like a main power switch to a building; it can play a very vital role, but we have yet to fully explore the power it can offer. As I said earlier, sixty years down the road since establishing the UN, we have not fulfilled or achieved the very goals for which it was established. The question we must ask is: What is lacking? What is the one language that everybody speaks? It is a power above you. I can remember a Baha’i banner that said “religion is for unity.” That is absolutely true. You don’t fight to safeguard your religion; you cannot protect your religion with a sword. If you are using a sword, then you are not religious.

Also, you cannot convert a person. To me, the whole phobia around conversion is built on a myth.

I will finish with a story a Catholic priest told me.

There was a priest who was converting everyone in his village, but he found out that he could not convert his cook. So he called the cook, took him to the river and dipped him three times. He said, “You are no longer Lakshman, you are Joseph now.” The cook responded, “No, I am Lakshman,” and the priest replied, “No, you are Joseph. I baptized you and you are Joseph.”

Then, after a few months, the priest said to the cook, “Look here, the Bishop is coming tomorrow, and it is Friday, so remember not to make meat; you have to make fish.” The next day, the Bishop came, and on the lunch table was a big turkey. The priest turned to the cook and asked why he had made a turkey, when he had told him specifically to make fish? The cook said, “Sir, my lord, I took the turkey to the river and dipped it trice, and called it a fish.”

This story shows that you cannot convert people. That is why the phobia of conversion is a myth to me. It does not matter which God you pray to; your values are the most important thing. Values need to be the beginning of the conversation.

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