New Internationalist

Flowers on the razor wire

Issue 381

Can a nonviolent army of trained civilians bring peace to conflict zones? Chris Richards reports from Sri Lanka on the peace movement’s new frontier.

There were only 16 on the first night – each a parent who slept fitfully in the dirt outside the army camp, waiting to glimpse their child inside. Each remembered the last time that they had heard their children’s voices – laughing in the warmth of the coastal night air, eating popcorn with friends around the figurines of four-armed Vishnus, blue Krishnas and the elephant heads of chubby Ganesh that adorned the walls of the Hindu Temple. For this was the Temple Festival – the biggest celebration in the Tamil calendar in the eastern city of Batticaloa. And on this August night in 2003, the Tamil Tigers scooped up their sleeping children – 26 in all – leaving the parents without a chance even to say good-bye.

This is not new. Abducting children from the Temple Festivals that take place on Sri Lanka’s eastern coastline – around 300 each year – remains a primary recruitment method for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Inside the Temples drums beat until early morning as the Swami throws frangipani petals in homage to the Hindu Gods. Outside, parents talk with friends until dawn as their children sleep on the beach. They are easy targets.

Officially there have been no acts of war in Sri Lanka since the ceasefire signed on 22 February 2002: a suspension of the 19 years of civil war in which the LTTE fought the Sinhalese-dominated Government for control of the country’s north and northeast. Yet, just as children are still being recruited into the LTTE, the symbols of conflict remain everywhere. Army trucks hurtle towards the east and north. The soldiers they offload stand poised in every town and village street nursing AK-47s. Military strongholds – both Tamil and Sinhalese – are being freshly sandbagged in preparation for attack. And with the passage of every day, coil upon new coil of razor wire is appearing, row upon shiny row.

‘All the sides know about is how to fight war. They are experts in war, not in peace. It takes some time for them to make the transition to a new way of thinking,’ explains William Knox. Knox – an ex-lawyer whose practice is now peace – has worked in Sri Lanka for over a decade, and is the Project Director for the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) in Sri Lanka.

In terms of the sources of the country’s conflict, that new way of thinking need not be so different. The Tamils still want an independent State – Eelam. Officially their chances are remote. Indeed, if the hardline Buddhists get their way, the LTTE will be forever cast as terrorists who should take no part in government – blocked from such things as the administration of tsunami aid for the land they now informally control. As a consequence, millions of dollars urgently needed for the redevelopment of the eastern coastline devastated by the tsunami last year are – at the time of writing – still lying idle in the bank.

However, in practice the Tamils nearly have their homeland. Travelling from the south to the north, it feels like the country has already been separated. Businesses have no main offices in the north; major trade is confined to non-Tamil areas. The LTTE even collect taxes. Yet while they position themselves to administrate, the LTTE are, and always will be, an army. Until Eelam is formally acknowledged and proper elections can be held, the LTTE will be entrenched as a military dictatorship ready for war, not peace. And children will continue to be recruited into their ranks.

UNICEF recorded 3,516 cases of children abducted by the LTTE in the two and a half years after the ceasefire was signed. They are thought to be just a portion of the total.1 An estimated 60 per cent of the LTTE’s ranks are below the age of 18 – 30 per cent of them girls. Some are as young as eight. Once recruited, they are subjected to rigorous training and learn to handle weapons, including landmines and bombs.

A price too high

Each Tamil parent knows that this is the price they are expected to pay: a child to fight for ‘the movement’. Some pay that price willingly, particularly during the war. As William Knox explains, Tamils say it is one of the only ways they can address the entrenched discrimination that they and their children face: ‘When you talk about child recruitment, part of the equation is the structural violence that makes this possible. Government jobs are mainly given to Sinhalese. Job-creating businesses are scarce in the north and northeast. Moving south is not an option – Tamils don’t speak the language, which results in further discrimination.’

Yet other parents object. Each of the 16 parents outside the LTTE army camp believes that the price is too high. First they protest to the guards with words of reason. Then they object by their presence outside the camp – a persistent visible reminder to the soldiers inside.

Next day they are joined by others from their village: nearly 40 more parents who have undertaken the 20-kilometre walk. They too take their places outside the wire fences. ‘Then the political head of the Tamils for the region just appeared,’ remembers Atif Hameed. ‘He told me his parents cried too when he joined the movement as a youth.’

Atif Hameed is one of the field-team members of the NP. When a well-connected activist told the local NP team about the abductions, Atif and one of his colleagues drove with her to the children’s village. ‘Slowly – little by little – we made connections with the affected parents.’ Frustrated and fearful, they asked the activist and the NP to accompany them to the LTTE camp without having a visible presence. This they did. Then, when the regional head of the LTTE arrived, Atif and his colleague negotiated with him. ‘He was initially angry, demanding: “Who gave you permission to work in this area?” So we talked to him for 40 minutes. In the end he wanted to speak directly to the relatives, and asked us to leave.’ The NP withdrew to the village. After talking with the regional head, the parents returned there too. Their children were released the same day.

This is not what I had expected. I had understood the NP to be a professional civilian army directly intervening in conflict as and when it arose – striding out amongst the soldiers into the gunfire, to use words, not weapons, to end a dispute. I had envisaged a team of international activists heroically saving the civilian population before driving into the distance in a blaze of glory – not working silently in the background offering encouragement, strategies and support.

A nonviolent army has been a dream of the peace movement since 1931. When war between China and Japan was imminent, former British suffragette Maude Royden proclaimed: ‘I would like now to enrol people who would be ready if war should break out to put their bodies unarmed between the contending forces.’2 Aside from the brave Khudai Khidmatgar – who, after laying bare their breasts to British gunfire, participated in the civil disobedience protests that swept across the Northwest Frontier of India as that country sought its freedom from British rule – no nonviolent civilian army has been successfully formed.3 A scaled-down version emerged with the founding of Peace Brigades International in 1981: an international team that provides protection for local human rights activists operating in areas of oppression. But the possible benefit of expanding this work through a nonviolent army is still the source of heated debate. What would be their mandate? By whose invitation would they come in?

Interventions fail

Then there’s an additional flaw in any army entering a combat zone. ‘It’s an intervention,’ says NP’s Peters Nywanda. ‘An intervention normally imports a set of tools – worked-out solutions – and tries to impose them, rather than letting the solutions develop from the people. Without creating room for respect and understanding, [our work] has a very good chance of failing.’

This is why NP workers are avoiding an interventionist approach. Instead, in Valaichchenai – midway up Sri Lanka’s eastern coastline – they’re crafting a variety of other responses. When I visit the office, the team is meeting to plan the day’s events. Protecting people from military harassment is top of their agenda. It means visiting those who’ve been targeted and co-ordinating responses with other NGOs. NP has also been asked to open its doors for an English class for Tamil and Muslim communities who are so often in conflict. Funding the class is out of the question, but what about fixing up the roof so that classes can be held there?

Then a women walks into the office with her daughter – her son has been abducted and she wants the organization’s advice about how to get him back. Two of the team leave as the meeting continues.

This is slow and painstaking work – 11 people drawn from all over the globe who are carefully helping to sew together a communal tapestry from the many ethnic and religious threads within the region. (A further account of their work can be read on pages 9 and 10). Yet, it is almost impossible to see how this team could work effectively in any other way. The Western intervention into Iraq looks appallingly crude in comparison – arrogant, reckless, devastatingly cruel and hopelessly naïve. For it must be the people themselves, not any outside organization, that can move a country towards peace.

The problem is that Sri Lankans may not be ready to make this move themselves. Like all nations plagued by civil war, this country’s conflict has many layers. Class uprisings by the Sinhalese against their own government – which occured in 1971, and again in 1988 and 1989 – left 75,000 dead in the south. There is ongoing conflict between the Muslim and Tamil communities in the land that the LTTE claims for a Tamil homeland. Add to this the psychological legacy of authoritarianism, discrimination and repression created by five centuries of colonization by Portugal, Holland and Britain. These factors, according to William Knox, have broken down the ability of Sri Lankans to see themselves as individuals with authority to advocate on their own behalf. Until the people have enough confidence to claim that authority, a lasting peace is unlikely.

However, a start is being made. In the city of Batticaloa, the northern divisions of the LTTE and suspected ‘splitters’ from their eastern ranks have been assassinating each other, leaving on average two dead each day. These are losses shrouded in fear and silence.

Twelve people are gathering to break that silence. NP’s Angela Pinchero sits cross-legged on her floor-mattress and recounts their slow yet determined plans. It will be a peaceful event that celebrates life and confronts the culture of death: a small act of defiance that will be done in the dark of an early morning. Yet for them it is a revolution: an opportunity to stand up calmly and say what they want and how they want to achieve it: to be listened to and understood. But first they must learn how to do this. Within the context of Sri Lanka, this is arguably the most important peace work that an organization can support.

  1. Human Rights Watch, Living in Fear – Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, New York, November 2004, Vol 16 No 13.
  2. Y Moser-Puangsuwan and T Weber eds, Nonviolent Internvention Across Borders – A Recurrent Vision, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2000.
  3. E Easwaran, A Man to Match His Mountain – Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam, Nilgiri Press, California, 1985.

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