U.S. Can Learn from Unrest in Sri Lanka

by Lloyd Chapman, Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon, USA, August 24, 2005

Sri Lanka is again in the throes of unrest. The foreign minister and two popular radio announcers were assassinated recently, ending a week that saw half a dozen people killed on the nation's east coast.

This island nation near India has been here before. Who knows if there will be the courage or will to find peace?

The conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil populations in the north and east of the country has existed for years. The uneasiness and distrust between many in the communities was obvious when I was here in the 1960s.

The tension erupted into acts of terrorism (including suicide bombings) in the early '80s and full-fledged war for much of the '90s. A cease-fire agreement was signed in the spring of 2002, but peace talks have been stalled for more than two years. And violence has been on the increase.

Real progress toward peace is slow. I think 80 percent of the population is war-weary and ready to find a solution. But the 10 percent on either extreme see the conflict and their opponents through different lenses. They are unwilling to compromise, and their actions are designed to further alienate those on the other side and increase the tension and division.

We in the United States have become more politically polarized in the past five years. Feelings seem to run stronger, and often there is an unwarranted righteousness about our position on an issue.

Beware, America. We are at our worst when our disagreements are fueled by righteousness. We fail to listen, our view of the world becomes more tinted by our beliefs and shades of gray are lost in the stark black-and-white of right and wrong, us versus them.

In Sri Lanka, a major tactic has been to silence the voices of moderation and dissent, with a gun if necessary. In America, we do it with money, ridicule and insinuation. I hope we can find leaders willing to talk with and listen to their opponents, shun rhetoric, collaborate and problem-solve before we turn to guns.

As citizens, I would argue that we have a responsibility to value the differences in our communities -- even those differences that are difficult for us to understand. If we can't, I fear we may be headed to an even more polarized and less peaceful future.

Lloyd Chapman of Salem is a Crisis Corps volunteer and a former Peace Corps volunteer who is doing tsunami-relief work in eastern Sri Lanka. He can be reached at lankalloyd@gmail.com .


Posted August 25, 2005