My father was born in Jaffna, Ceylon in 1939. Ceylon was under British rule at the time and did not become Sri Lanka until 1972. While on vacation in Sri Lanka over the winter break, I asked my father about the civil war in his homeland and whether or not he thought the issues between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan government have been resolved. Sadly my father was not hopeful.
Over the course of our trip, my father shared an abridged version of his understanding of Sri Lankan history with me and his own story. It was on beautiful beaches, and in the sumptuous greenery of a tropical paradise that we explored the dark history of the country and his voluntary exile.
Prior to European colonial rule, Sri Lanka was divided into three main kingdoms. Two of these kingdoms were Sinhalese and one of them was Tamil. All of the royalty were relations. Despite the blood connection, they would compete against each other for land and wealth. They mobilized their people to fight for them, thereby creating division and ill will between the groups.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Sri Lanka, then the Dutch, and finally the British who were able to unify the country and stayed until Ceylon received Independence on the coat tails of India and Pakistan receiving their Independence in 1948. When the British left they did not leave Ceylon divided into territories as they did India. Instead, they left it as one unified country.
The first government was made up of wealthy Sinhalese land owners who had profited from British colonial rule. It was a secular government. They had little to offer the rural, lower middle class, and a new party, the Sri Lankan Freedom party, led by Solomon Bandaranaike came into power in 1956 on the platform of making Sinhalese the single language within twenty-four hours of coming into office. This became knows as the Sinhala Only bill and made Sinhalese the official language and the only language to be used in schools and universities. There were Tamil riots in the face of this discrimination which resulted in Bandaranaike’s assassination, after which his widow succeeded him and held office.
In 1956, my father learned of an opportunity through school for an all expenses paid trip to the capital city, Colombo. The British RAF were recruiting, and in order to apply, one needed to write a test in the city. Most of his friends parents would not let their sons write the test. Despite my father having no intention of joining the RAF, he seized the opportunity of visiting the capital and went without telling his parents of the strings attached. Fifty-six students wrote the exams that day, and four were chosen to come back for interviews. My father was one of them. After attending the interview, he realized decisions had already been made and the meeting was a formality. Shortly after the interview, he received a letter confirming his acceptance to a technical training program in exchange for a fourteen year commitment to the RAF in England.
I asked my dad if he wanted to go. He told me that it hadn’t mattered what he wanted, the decision was his father’s. My father was ultimately encouraged to go because his uncle had studied at Oxford University and had the prescience to encouraged his brother to send his son away at a time when it was rare to travel to Europe.
Given the national events that ensued, opportunities for Tamils in Ceylon, and later Sri Lanka, dwindled resulting in the thirty year civil war. Jaffna was devastated by this and all of my father’s siblings left the island due to lack of economic opportunity available to them as Tamils. In 1983, one hundred and fifty thousand Tamils left Sri Lanka after riots that killed an estimated three thousand people. The riots began after thirteen Sri Lanka Army soldiers with killed by Tamil Tigers. Sinhalese rioters attacked the Tamil community, killing people and destroying homes and property. The Sri Lankan government did not control the mob, and some believe it was a government orchestrated program. The civil war finally ended in 2009, not through reconciliation, but through annihilation of the Tamil Tigers.
The island paradise that my family was enjoying soaking in the beauty and the culture has a very recent bloody past in which the Tamil Tigers were vanquished, but for whom there has not been reconciliation between the warring factions nor has their been accountability for the atrocities and alleged war crimes that were committed on both sides of the dispute.
I am grateful for the opportunity to share the experience of visiting my father’s homeland with him and my family, and it is sad to realize the tenuous foothold peace has in a country that maintains order through fear and force rather than understanding and agreement. My father says that in Jaffna the army is being used to control the economy and there is an intentional government effort to change the demography of Tamil majority areas by forced relocation.
The tragic blood shed in Sri Lanka and the authoritarian methods used to quell unrest may be extreme, but they hold within them the same dilemmas we all confront as part of the human condition in terms of how do we find peaceful resolutions to conflict whether it be over land, political ideology, environmental policy, religion, or any other difference that exists between people?
Conflict does not get resolved at the level of the content which is being disputed. Whether it be differences between nation states or differences between two people. Trying to resolve conflict by addressing the issues directly results in compromise at best and domination at worst. True reconciliation comes from a meeting of the minds and finding a new solution — not settling. The solution comes from a new understanding emerging that is win-win.
The One Solution conference held in Oslo last year and Cape Town this year, is an exploration of solving global challenges from this perspective. The premise of the conference is that:
It’s the one invisible problem that underlies every single global issue of our time: a misunderstanding of the human mind. The erroneous belief that our feelings of well-being and security are caused by external forces is at the root of all our current problems. Solve this problem, and you solve all the others. Ignore this problem, and we will forever be trapped in an ineffective and chaotic cycle of plastering over the “cracks in the walls” of society.
Whether the conflict be in Sri Lanka or in your own living room, this is a misunderstanding worth clarifying. The first liberation movement comes from within. It comes from recognizing that our experience is created internally via thought. This is a liberation movement that requires no bloodshed nor any allegiance to an outside power. It is about raising our consciousness to see the peace that lives inside of us.
It is the liberation that comes from understanding that as human beings we are each the author of our reality, and the source behind life is the same source no matter what color our skin, what religion we follow, what language we speak. Democrat, Republican or Anarchist, we are all one. There is no conflict from the level of consciousness of love, there are only possibilities, solutions, and a willingness to share the love for the greater good.
Rohini Ross is a psychotherapist, a leadership consultant, and an executive coach. She helps individuals, couples, and professionals connect more fully with their true nature so they can experience greater levels of wellbeing, resiliency, and success. You can find out more about Rohini’s work on her website, rohiniross.com.