New Internationalist

The challenge to violence

Issue 381

Nonviolence has already defeated dictators and despots. But can it soothe a civil war? Chris Richards goes to Sri Lanka to find out.

What would you do? There is a gang of young men surrounding your car – banging on your doors, your windows and your roof. You do not know how many there are, but when you saw them as you drove by before, there looked to be 20 or 30. Some were drunk. All looked angry – and they were angry with you. This is the time for self-preservation. There’s nothing stopping you from driving off to leave it all behind.

Except that you’re a peace keeper; a peace builder. It’s something that you believe in to your core.

So you wind down the window and talk with them. They say that you have undermined them – stopped a project close to their hearts. They think you’re spying on them. They are not prepared to listen. You see that some have bulges under their clothing – probably knives. They start yelling: ‘Go! Go!’ There’s every reason for you to accelerate and get the hell out.

Except you think that if you stay and engage with them you can transform the situation and defuse their violence. And you know with certainty that if you go you’ll be giving them the excuse they’re waiting for to get really angry – to lose their heads completely.

This is the assessment that Peters Nywanda and Atif Hameed make when they get out of their car to talk with the group. The two are completely outnumbered and quickly encircled. Injury – even death – breathes a knife-edge away.

Peters and Atif are in the city centre of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka – the island nation shaped like a tear dropping from the chin of India. Over 65,000 lives have been lost in the country’s most recent civil war in which sections of the Tamil minority fought the Sinalese-dominated Government for a separate homeland in the north and northeast. A ceasefire was signed in February 2002. However, the country’s ethnic and religious mix (which includes 74 per cent Sinhalese, who are predominantly Buddhist; 18 per cent Tamil, who are mainly Hindu; and 7 per cent Muslim) continues to cause tension.

Trincomalee is one of Sri Lanka’s jewels. It has the world’s deepest harbour: something that partially protected it from the massive devastation that other eastern coastline cities suffered when the tsunami struck last year. The source of the city’s most recent trouble is the appearance of a shining white one-metre Buddha, sitting lotus-like in the city centre. The three-wheel tuk-tuk taxi drivers – 45 Sinhalese in all – have paid for this statue, and put it up without proper authority. For them, it makes a proud statement: ‘This is Buddha country.’

Trincomalee’s Tamils, who are overwhelmingly Hindu, understandably disagree. Although the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims live in equal numbers here, the Tamil independence army (LTTE) hope this city will one day be their capital. While the Buddha sits tranquilly with eyes downcast, conflict erupts around him. On one day the Tamils order a hartal: a closure of the city. On the next, 17 hand-grenade and dynamite attacks take place, causing minor property damage and major room for violence to escalate. A Sinhalese is killed. A Tamil NGO office is stoned. Within a week of the appearance of the Buddha, a grenade is thrown at the gate of the Hindu temple. The Tamils – now directly provoked – start to throw grenades at the Sinahalese. The Sinhalese respond in kind.

As other international NGOs move their staff out of the city, Atif and Peters, from the Nonviolent Peaceforce, move on to the streets. Their presence in places where bombings are likely is planned to discourage further attacks. Calmly they move from group to group, encouraging both sides to talk. They hose down rumours and exchange information so that each side can see the other.

In the beginning their presence does not stop the violence, but it keeps it contained. Then comes a breakthrough. A Buddhist monk – powerful and respected – says he favours removing the statue. He meets with Tamil leaders to negotiate the move. The Tamil leaders respond by cancelling another hartal arranged for the next day. In addition, they say that they’ll attend the relocation ceremony as a public show of respect.

Force without violence

It is the Nonviolent Peaceforce that has facilitated these meetings – bringing the parties together, informally, and providing them with the time and space to talk, listen and compromise. And it is this role that has angered the Sinhalese men who’ve surrounded Peters and Atif’s car. The young men know about the meetings and yell their accusations. More than 50 security men watch from Government army bunkers surrounding the square. Sinhalese themselves, they make no move to intervene. The two nonviolent workers speak after the group has finished. ‘We are very thankful that you stopped the vehicle. We have spoken to many Sinhala people, but not yet to you.’ They explain their work carefully; how they don’t support one body, but listen to all. They say that they’ll continue to meet with the group and talk through some solutions. Slowly – little by little – the group starts to listen, then to understand. As the anger slips away, so does the yelling. Within 40 minutes telephone numbers are being exchanged and further meetings arranged.

This is peace work’s new frontier: specially trained civilians whose mission is to prevent death and destruction and protect human rights without the use of force. Instead they help people to move safely through aggression in a far gentler way than I would have thought possible, opening opportunities for local people to gather, talk, and then to understand.

So, if this kind of nonviolence works, why is violence preferred?

For a start, because of ego. Romanticized stories of how men become heroes stud our literature. The work done by peace workers barely rates a mention. For history’s bold tales salute those who fight – brave men who take up arms and force out their oppressors. Those who oppose the heroes’ means are written off as cowardly traitors. Yet, as Atif and Peters talk about how they approached those 20 angry young men, and how they knew that the gang had knives but were nevertheless prepared to trust in words as their only defence against death, their story sounds like the bravest I’ve heard for some time.

It directly challenges the stereotype that to warrant the kind of status and respect given to heroes you must be armed and dangerous (see Forward march!). This stereotype is just one of the supports for violence as a legitimate tool that is being undermined by Atif and Peters’ work.

Effectiveness is another. After all, violence works. Whether through insults or action, through shouting or striking, when the injury lands, people bend.

That may be the immediate result of violence. But Sri Lanka is a living example of how – between two political opposites – in the long term violence has not worked (see Flowers on the razor wire). Like the ongoing civil conflicts in countries like Sudan, Colombia, the Congo and Nepal, force hasn’t got either side what it wants. Indeed, the willingness of one side to pick up guns only strengthens the resolve of the other side to resist. And when it does win the day in the short term, violence lays a precarious foundation for a transformation to peace. In its wake it leaves its victims angry and vengeful – feelings that disappear under the skin and fester, ready to explode at any time.

As a consequence, even though there have been no official acts of war since the ceasefire was signed in Sri Lanka more than three years ago, soldiers, guns and sandbags are still everywhere. Military checkpoints stud the major roadways into and out of the capital, Colombo – hundreds of kilometres from the lands that the Tamil Tigers claim as theirs. The checkpoints are adorned with advertising signs. The fact that places patrolled by gun-toting guards are seen as positive marketing opportunities shows how slow the Sri Lankan psyche has been to move from war to peace.

Contemplating peace

It creates a precarious position. On the one hand, many Tamils believe that, were it not for the armed resistance by their independence fighters – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – they would all have been killed by the Sinhalese-dominated Government long ago. On the other hand, the Government has infinitely more arms and trained soldiers at its disposal, in addition to the financial resources to secure more of both. Gene Sharp, one of the leaders in the development of nonviolent strategy since Gandhi, explains that movements using violence in such situations fall into the trap of shifting to fight with the opponents’ chosen weaponry – a place from which they cannot win.

But nonviolence isn’t being talked about here as an effective alternative either. In Sri Lanka – indeed around the world – the potential of peace and nonviolence seems in urgent need of a makeover.

In countries like Britain, Canada and Australia reactive, short-term anti-war movements seem to have taken the place where active and permanent peace movements had been working. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the 1960s, but ‘peace’ is still seen by many as pink and fluffy – the terrain of soft wimps dreaming of a better world as they get stoned. Yet one of the tools of peace work – nonviolence – is very much about action: carefully crafted strategic action that can overthrow governments.

Most peace workers are not pacifists driven by a moral imperative for peace, but activists seizing strategies that really work. Internationally, they’ve had some spectacular successes (see The Power of the People). In 1986, when word got out that Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos had rigged the election, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos took to the streets. After Government troops refused to obey orders to attack, Marcos fled. In 2000, a nonviolent pro-democracy movement in Serbia ousted the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, accomplishing what 11 weeks of NATO bombing 18 months earlier could not.

The strategies developed by Gandhi to free India from the rule of the British have walked over water and been refined for local use in countries where violent resistance has failed (see Letters from Gandhi). Economic boycotts were used against white rulers both in South Africa to help defeat apartheid and in the southern states of the US to help defeat segregation (see The Power of the People). Non-cooperation was used in the ‘Solidarity’ strikes to undermine, then cripple, the Soviet-supported Communist Government in Poland. In every case, jails became havens for activism, used to demonstrate that just people must withdraw their consent from unjust laws.

All are strategies with a nonviolent heart. All challenge the belief that violence can only be overcome by the application of a more violent force.

It is a development with which Buddhists should agree. But in Trincomalee, the Buddha still sits in the city centre, surrounded by razor wire. Perhaps not for long. Atif and Peters show me the statue’s likely new resting place – a site suggested by Sinhalese and Tamil moderates away from the centre on the city’s crescent-shaped bay. As we drive by the Buddha, four of the young men who attacked their car five nights earlier wave and smile.

What is starting in this city could never be achieved through violence. New links are being forged between ethnic groups: understanding rather than humiliation, acceptance rather than submission, reconciliation rather than defeat. These are the seeds that are needed for divided people to learn to live in harmony. It is time to plant them and see whether the soil is fertile enough for peace to grow.

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