issue 183 - May 1988
Politics of the soul
Sri Lanka's courtship with capitalism has brought more than colour television and GI Joe dolls to a once closed economy. Industrial development has tended to sacrifice the rights of the poor for the sake of modernization. Two of Sri Lanka's most experienced popular organizers debate whether the struggle to reclaim the rights of the poor is a political or a spiritual challenge.
Every morning across Sri Lanka, families gather to reflect and share a quiet moment together before they begin their long work day. These families are poor and scarcely have time to spare for reflection. But the organization which guides them, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, stresses the need for spiritual direction in their lives. For them it is equally as important as cooking the noon meal or getting to work at the tea plantation on time.
Sarvodaya ('well being for all') was the basis of a movement forged in India by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s. He based his vision on Buddhist principles of truth and non-violence and launched a unique approach to community and national development. Sarvodaya was adopted in the 1970s in Sri Lanka and today nearly 20 per cent of the nation's population has rallied behind the movement's leader, Dr A .T. Ariyaratne.
Community industry and village improvement schemes, like road building and water systems are only the surface of Sarvodaya's work. The movement seeks a total transformation of society based on spiritual awakening and personal growth. Ariyaratne's 'non-violent revolution' is founded on the idea that true development must come from within.
The Sarvodaya Movement insists that direct political action holds no place in development. Despite intense ethnic and political conflicts in Sri Lanka the organization maintains a non-confrontational, non-partisan stand.
As the conflict between she Singhalese Buddhist majority and the Hindu Tamil minority grows more violent, the role of Sarvodaya as a peace-maker has been put to the test. As Sri Lanka's most prominent popular organization, Sarvodaya is looked to for an answer to the nation's crisis. Even so, Dr Ariyaratne maintains that Sarvodaya can best pursue its goals of economic equality and ethnic understanding without political ties.
Dr Ariyaratne's philosophy has captured hearts worldwide. Ari, as he is known to his followers, has a calming presence and a resonant voice which evoke a religious trust in even the most sceptical observers. The power of his analysis has made him a guru of the alternative movements in Europe, Canada and the US. When Ari speaks, people listen intently like children entranced by a favourite grandfather's stories:
"The vast majority of Sri Lankans are poor, powerless and deprived. They have both material and non-material needs. They need food for their normal physical growth, but they also need to develop their minds. That's why we believe spiritual awakening should be closely linked to a program for economic and political emancipation and justice.
We do not believe the existing concepts and institutions that govern our society are the best. They have led to all kinds of violence, injustice and environmental pollution - every imaginable thing. So we believe a fundamental change in human beings, as well as society, has to take place.
Four hundred and fifty years of Western influence and the existence of a small elite who have achieved affluence have made the general population also aspire to material prosperity as their sole aim in life. But few succeed. The free economy has brought plenty of consumer goods in the last decade. Everyone is bent on making quick money to acquire these things. But at the same time malnutrition is on the increase, the cost of living is skyrocketing. Bribery and corruption are endemic.
Young people go on a rampage of looting and arson at the slightest opportunity so they can get these things. This is what happened in 1983 in many places in Sri Lanka. Some young people looted television sets from shops, and only after taking them home to their shanty dwellings realized they had no electricity. Then they smashed them on the ground. This kind of frustration develops in people who see a consumer society around them, but are denied its benefits.
In Sri Lanka today there is violence and counter-violence which has already taken thousands of lives, most of them innocent people who cannot comprehend what is going on around them.
The Sarvodaya approach to peacemaking is two-fold. First, the movement tries to re-establish a value system which brings our people back to our peaceful roots. Only then can we remove the causes that have brought about the present unrest. Second, the movement addresses problems that need immediate attention like relief and rehabilitation.
People want us to take one side or the other, but we are committed to non-violence and to social justice. Any revolutionary force aiming for social justice must recognize our right to fight non-violently for the same ends. On the other hand, the elite interests feel we should be with them trying to oppress the people. We are not prepared to do that.
We believe radical change can only come when people understand the meaning of community, when they are shown how to become less individualistic and more co-operative."
Dr Ariyaratne has widespread support in Sri Lanka. Bus his concerns have deflected Sarvodaya from political and economic issues which are tearing apart the nation. Sisira Navaratne, a former Sarvodaya field worker, says that by refusing to participate in a political debate Sarvodaya is misleading its followers and jeopardizing the prospects for peace.
In his wire-rimmed glasses and Brooks Brothers shirt Sisira Navaratne seems like a prototype development bureaucrat. But as he speaks it is clear that Sisira has not forgotten his peasant roots. He has taken on a new look, but a life-long commitment to the poor is still what drives him:
"Sarvodaya tries hard to be a non-political organization. But in Sri Lanka's tense political climate it is very difficult to be impartial when the goal of the organization is to 'awaken the entire nation' like Sarvodaya says.
Some Sri Lankan government policies have opened us up to a barrage of foreign products and values which are contradictory to our culture. Sarvodaya talks about reclaiming our traditional value system while the government removes thousands of peasants from their lands to make way for a massive irrigation scheme. How can Sarvodaya talk about restoring values when it doesn't take a stand against the government?
Sarvodaya has a very good relationship with the present government. There is no material aid but it does have the government's political support. It's because Sarvodaya has never confronted the government that people assume the movement takes the side of those in power. This perception has got in the way of solving some of our country's most serious problems, particularly the ethnic violence.
Sarvodaya has continued some relief activities in the North and East like other NGOs. But it has not been able to deal with the main ethnic issue since the militants don't see Sarvodaya as impartial. Rather they're seen as being allied with the Singhalese. Both Singhalese and Tamils had hoped that Sarvodaya could play a greater role as mediator. But that couldn't happen because Sarvodaya was unable to hold a dialogue with the militants. In fact militants killed the Sarvodaya leader in the North as an indication of how they felt about Sarvodaya's political preferences.
As a result, the Singhalese also lost faith in Sarvodaya's ability to act as a mediator and saw it as incapable of dealing with this national question. Their reputation will be difficult to re-establish.
The real problem with trying to be neutral is that people don't learn anything. Most villagers are innocent; they don't bother about larger issues. They are concerned with daily survival. So they don't really care who they work with as long as they get something from them. Sarvodaya has given a little to get people involved, but haven't taken it any further. If Sarvodaya wants to build strength among the villagers, it has a duty to help people understand larger political issues and act on them."