Tanenbaum Helps Bring Religious Leaders Together to Build Peace in Sri Lanka

Three weeks before the People’s Forum 2015, the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR)—an organization co-founded and directed by Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action recipient Dishani Jayaweera and her partner Jayantha Seneviratne—held a four-day workshop, supported by Tanenbaum, where 50 religious leaders representing the four main faiths in Sri Lanka—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian—came together. There, the religious leaders agreed on a set of recommendations for grassroots communities, opinion makers and national policymakers, as a “path for reconciliation and peace” in Sri Lanka, to be presented at the People’s Forum. From the list of recommendations they developed a National Road Map for Reconciliation, which lays out how best to advocate and implement those recommendations.

Exemplifying the power of the Peacemakers in Action Network, facilitated by Tanenbaum, Dishani invited her fellow Peacemakers in Action from Nigeria, Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, to help implement a process with Sri Lankan religious leaders and develop the National Road Map for Reconciliation. As men of different faiths—James a Christian and Ashafa a Muslim—they once fought for opposing militias in the Kaduna State of Nigeria. However, after experiencing hate and violence destroy their communities, they joined forces 20 years ago to found the Interfaith Mediation Centre.

At Tanenbaum’s intervention in Sri Lanka, Nigerian Peacemakers Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa served as “living models” for the Sri Lankans; many attendees in the workshop were already followers of the Peacemakers’ transformative work in Nigeria! Their presence in Sri Lanka was not only inspiring but manifestly instrumental due to their wealth of knowledge and experience in conflict transformation. Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa’s contributions were well received during the development of the Road Map.

A crucial aspect to the process leading up to the People’s Forum, and one stressed by Dishani, Jayantha and the CPBR team, was the bringing together of religious leaders to collaborate with other socially active groups. Expressing a perspective similar to Tanenbaum’s philosophy, the CPBR team explained:

“[Religious leaders] have a ready source of knowledge and potential for peacemaking… and experience in caring for and advising local communities. They are highly intelligent, well connected, duly respected and very resourceful. They could draw out their existent source of knowledge, experience and resources and use it more deliberately for peacemaking.”[i]

The People’s Forum three weeks after the workshop was a remarkable success: bringing out the power of participatory processes towards ethnic and religious coexistence. Sri Lankans of every age, gender, faith and ethnicity presented their unique set of recommendations to 1,500 guests, including government bodies, religious leaders, civil society activists, the international community and community leaders from different regions. The recommendations were from heartfelt “grassroots perspectives,” and the event revealed how Sri Lankans believe the country should proceed towards reconciliation and peace.

Tanenbaum is proud to support the peacebuilding work of Dishani, Jayantha and the CPBR team, who over the years have established grassroots groups by engaging in a consultative process with women, men, children, youth, elders, and inter- and intra-faith leaders across every geographic region of Sri Lanka to facilitate dialogue, empower individuals for self-transformation and improve communities. With commitment, each group devised recommendations to further reconciliation and peace in their communities, with the end result of an impressive 2,688 recommendations. These recommendations ranged in their focus from those that could be implemented at community and regional levels as well as changes needed in national level policies; with the latter focusing on six key thematic areas, namely, opportunities for healing for those affected by war, implement the trilingual policy, restructure the formal education system, establish an inter-faith council to promote inter-faith culture, introduce media policy that respects diversity, and introduce constitutional amendments that ensure equality and equity.

After nearly three decades of civil war in Sri Lanka, the People’s Forum 2015 marked a historical event in the country by infusing hope among the participants for a future of reconciled communities and peaceful ways of citizen participation in governance. Since gaining independence from colonial rule in 1948, Sri Lanka has suffered from ethnic and religious polarization due to weak processes in nation building, resulting in the predominant Sinhala/Buddhist community competing with, and at times fighting against, other communities vying for equality in citizenship and fair share in statehood. Even though the war was ended in 2009 and victory declared by government forces, the country remains fractured and continues to struggle to overcome religious, economic and ethnic tensions.[ii][iii] 

The People’s Forum marked the culmination of 12 years of grassroots efforts by CPBR and seven years of inter-faith engagement, with the inter-faith journey since its inception accompanied by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and the German Federal Foreign Office’s (ifa) zivik funding program. Following the success of the People’s Forum, Dishani, Jayantha and the CPBR team, along with the country’s religious leaders, have initiated the process of building a broad coalition to implement the Road Map—a map created by the people of Sri Lanka for reconciliation now and for future peace.

The Tanenbaum-supported intervention in Sri Lanka leading up to the People’s Forum, and the Forum itself, show that when peace activists motivated by faith come together, peace is possible.

[i]  CPBR (2002).Socially Engaged Religions for Coexistence in Sri Lanka.

[ii]  David Feith (2010). “Tamil and Sinhala relations in Sri Lanka: a historical and contemporary perspective,” in Global Change, Peace & Security, formerly Pacifica Review: Peace, Security & Global Change, 22:3, 345-353, DOI: 10.1080/14781158.2010.510270

[iii]  CPBR (2015). People’s Forum 2015 – To Heal Our Past, to Build Our Future: The journey of community voices for national reconciliation.