Friday, February 26, 2016

What is peace?

Peace is wholeness. A place, a society not divided against itself. In peace, daily activities go on. Manufacturing, commerce, service, noise, all are experienced by the unfettered and unafraid. Peace lets the arts flourish. Creativity is part of the chaos of peace. Because people are free to create. In peace people are protected to criticize, to build, to invent. You may have to experience war in order to understand peace. And what about my experiences in "peaceful" Sri Lanka, now seven years past the armed conflict but sliding into a series of ethnic and demographic conflicts that we may not see the end of for a long time. The continuing conflict, characterized by interethnic mistrust and fueled by hatred, is a rampage unchecked by critical thinking. It's as though no one knows better than to tag their neighbors "Those Tamils...those Muslims..." These are the appellations you hear in Sinhala-dominated Sri Lanka and there is nothing to stop these prejudices. I hear these tags from educated people, well-meaning people, wealthy people, sophisticated people. These tags are prelude to misunderstanding. They are the basis of past wars. It's only that people just now in Sri Lanka lack the means to stir them up further. And among people in the Tamil East there is still ample evidence of suppression by the police and the military. Physical evidence of a painful past is everywhere, even if it takes forms other than billet-riddled walls. The psychological pain is measured by what people won't talk about. 

Peace is "shalom." The word shalom comes from the Hebrew root "shaleim," which means, literally "whole." Some of my Sri Lankan readers may not want to be reading this. They have been convinced by their press, which prints lies about Israel, labeling it an outlaw state that is based on illegal "occupation." I encourage these readers, who I'm sure value a critical analysis of history, to read more history and to shy away from slogans, just as they might when it comes to a political understanding of their own country.  Israel's legitimacy is repeatedly challenged by the Sri Lankan delegation to the United Nations, whose members slavishly vote against Israel in frequent human rights declarations. It's a joke. Human rights in Sri Lanka were trampled during the 30 years' conflict and they are still challenged. The conflict took root in contemporary political history in the 1956 "Sinhala only" laws. What these laws set into motion is still unrolling today in a deeply divided society with few civil institutions to moderate it. The press and other media do little to challenge these problems. "Land," "demographics," and "blood" continue to play a central role in Sri Lankan social and political  life. I've seen with my eyes the "settlements" of Sinhalese farmers that were imposed in the Tamil East in blatant disregard of environmental protocols. The hundreds of thousands of people involved in these measures, epitomized by the Mahaweli Scheme, dwarf Israel's "settlements." And the consequences may well be as far-reaching. 

But in a society where critical thinking is not taught in schools., even in universities, and where rote learning for test results is encouraged in burgeoning private "tuition" classes that are given nights and weekends, what can you expect? Where will a generation of future leaders come from when the current educational situation is so weak? Where will critical thinkers arise in a society wedded to power? How can creativity and creative solutions be brought to bear in a world where authority and submission are the default behaviors?

Sri Lanka is a beautiful land with valuable resources, a gentle climate, fertile lands, and an important geographic location. As it continues to commodify its beauty and abuse its lands, territorialize its landscape and marginalize its minorities, I wonder how the difficult questions of its future will be addressed. 

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