Dr. Jehan Perera
CONTRIBUTORS TO SOCIAL HARMONY
Dr. Jehan Perera Dr. Perera is the Executive Director and a founding member of
the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. He is also a visiting academic in the Conflict and Peace Studies Programme of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo. He further renders his service as a resource person in community-based transitional justice processes. He engages in preventing extremist violence programmes by involving the capacity building of participants. He is also a political analyst and columnist for national newspapers and websites focusing on inter-ethnic reconciliation and peacebuilding.
Dr. Perera has completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Harvard College and Bachelor of Laws degree from the Open University of Sri Lanka. Further, he has completed his Juris Doctor degree from the prestigious Harvard Law School, USA.
Dove’s Whisper: Article requested for www.journo.lk, on personal experience during professional career in advancing national integration and peace in Sri Lanka.
In 1995 a new president was elected who had campaigned on the basis of a peace platform. President Chandrika Kumaratunga entered into negotiations with the Tamil Tigers to reach a political solution with them that would end the war. I was aware that this was not the first time that a government leader had tried to solve the problem peacefully. There had been multiple attempts both before and after the war began, and indeed, one of the earliest was by President Kumaratunga’s own father, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike who got assassinated by a Buddhist monk in the midst of such negotiations in 1956.
Together with seven other civil society activists I became one of the founder members of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka (NPC) with the mission to take the message to the people that the solution to the ethnic conflict was through dialogue and political reform and not through war and a military solution. Since 1996 I have been working full time at NPC and since 2005 its executive director. From its inception NPC has stood for a negotiated solution to the ethnic conflict, in which the pluralist nature of its communities needs to be taken into account. In societies that are multi ethnic, the system of government needs to make every community included so that it has a hand in the state.
Democracy is not sufficient if it only represents the majority opinion. There needs to be consultation with all so that all views are represented in the state. Democracy is not only a matter of the majority deciding, but also of the incorporation of the vision of ethnic and religious minorities into national policy making. During the years of war NPC had to steer a difficult and, indeed, life threatening path between the demands of the government and the Tamil Tigers on the one hand, and between the strongly held views of the general population themselves who were, and continue to be, divided on ethnic and religious lines.
In 2001, I visited the north of the country and stayed at the residence of the late Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph. One evening I came across a book that gave me a new hope and the resolve to look for openings for change. This book was a long letter to the people of the United States by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States of America titled The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, A Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, (May 1983).
As we know, the 1980s were a time of great division and tension in the world. The cold war was continuing and there was the ever-present threat of nuclear war. The Catholic Bishops of the United States were fully aware of the nature of the Soviet Union, the threat it posed to the United States, and the antipathies it aroused in the American people. In fact, President Ronald Reagan had just described the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.”
As Bishops they wrote, “We are concerned with issues which go beyond diplomatic requirements. It is of some value to keep raising in the realm of the political debate, truths which ground our involvement in the affairs of nations and peoples. Diplomatic dialogue usually sees the other as a potential or real adversary. Soviet behaviour in some cases merits the adjective reprehensible, but the Soviet people and their leaders are human beings created in the image and likeness of God.”
“To believe we are condemned in the future only to what has been the past of US-Soviet relations is to under-estimate both our human potential for creative diplomacy and God’s action in our midst which can open the way to changes we could barely imagine. We do not intend to foster illusory ideas that the road ahead in superpower relations will be devoid of tension or that peace will be easily achieved. But we do warn against “hardness of heart” which can close us or others to the changes needed to make the future different from the past.” Not even five years after the US bishops wrote this pastoral letter, their predictions began to come true. Change began to occur within the Soviet Union.
In Sri Lanka too we need to shed that hardness of heart. The war ended in 2009 on the military battlefield with the elimination of the Tamil Tiger leadership and at the cost of over a hundred thousand civilian lives. There is still no political solution to the ethnic conflict and the political representatives of the ethnic and religious minorities continue to demand justice. We need to be unwavering in our commitment to equal rights for all citizens and equal dignity for all communities. We need to work with the faith that what was possible in other parts of the world, where protracted conflicts came to an end, is also possible in our country. A bold step is needed to move from stagnation to hope.