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8th March 1998

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Sudu Nelum: bridging the ethnic divide

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

To most people, the Sudu Nelum Move ment signifies youths with lotus blooms in their hands pledging to work towards peace, spreading their message through sprightly street performances. Few know the reasons behind its birth two years ago.

Launched in the year 1995 as an ambitious project of the newly elected People's Alliance government, it is the only such movement at present, making reconciliatory efforts between the Sinhala and Tamil communities in a country grappling with a prolonged and costly war exercise.

Pledging for Sudu NelumThe objective of Sudu Nelum is to bridge the gap between the Sinhala and Tamil communities, ideologically seeking to remove the deep rooted hurt which has in reality, made peace more elusive and unattainable. The white lotus, the chosen emblem of the Movement signifies the purity of thought and action which could blossom out from the muddy depths of communalism.

Spearheaded by Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Media Mangala Samaraweera, the Movement has undertaken its own share of responsibility with regard to the political exercise of the government- its main thrust being to create awareness amongst the public of the necessity for power sharing.

Housed in a tiny two storied building overlooking Temple Trees, the Prime Minister's official residence, the Sudu Nelum Headquarters is a hive of activity during the day, with staffers and volunteers contributing their time and energy for the promotion of peace. At the entrance which in appearance belies the magnitude of work undertaken by the Movement, is a poster of slain Ratnapura District Parliamentarian Nalanda Ellawala, a pioneer of Sudu Nelum.

It is here that the various projects and programmes come to life under the auspices of various serving committees comprising professionals, politicians and volunteers.

Chaminda Liyanage, Senior Co-ordinating Secretary of the Movement asserts that it was necessary for the government to alienate the Tamil people of the North from the clutches of the LTTE, if the war had to be won.

"We at the Movement are also waging a different war, of winning the hearts and minds of the people. It is through this that the government could re-establish civil administration and gradually push the North and East towards lasting peace," he said.

The charge that the Sudu Nelum Movement is political is swept aside by those associated with it. Instead, they state that though initiated by President Kumaratunga herself, it has become a non-political movement committed to the cause of nation building through the maintenance of a close dialogue with the people.

According to a leading activist of the Sudu Nelum Movement and a practising lawyer, the reason for its creation was the socio-political scenario which prevailed in the late eighties, which left deep emotional scars in many people. With the escalation of violence, there also was an escalation of state sponsored terrorism, he asserts, which drove a wedge between those who lived in amity for generations.

Perhaps, it sounds all too ideological, yet such a movement is needed to remove the deep rooted mistrust existing between communities. The moral degradation has reached such levels that both communities have little or no faith in each other. Should this plague be inherited by the next generation as well? he queries.

With 146 branches islandwide including Jaffna and two international branches operating in Japan, the Movement intends launching the second phase of its awareness campaign in mid 1998. One of the main projects undertaken by the Sudu Nelum in this regard is the Caravan, popularly known as Thawalama.

Thawalama came under fire from the outset, where the street performances were called a mere political gimmick and today stands temporarily abandoned until a new phase of the same programme is launched. It receives the patronage of over 300 artistes who regularly perform.

Sudu Nelum officials emphasize that contrary to popular belief, there were no monetary gains for the performers who join in on a voluntary basis. When they begin touring the country, they are compelled to spend months away from home, reaching out to the people and communicating with them in order to educate them on the political realities of the present day. It is dedication on their part, claim the officials, who say that apart from providing the performers with the basic necessities as food and lodging, no other benefits flow to them.

The streets get busy when the performers come. It is not so much for the political education they get but to view the performance.

As one performer recounted the joy of it, the happiness did not stem alone from performing, but from being able to get close to the masses. The dialogues and skits are carefully written, edited and choreographed by veteran dramatists like Linton Semage, Wasantha Wittachchi and others who also put the performers through a rigorous course of training.

Thawalama, has various stages and takes many forms. Apart from street drama, photographic and book exhibitions and video presentations are also held.

It is by bringing young people from the North and South together that an attitudinal change could be brought about. The only way to foster peace is through promoting affectionate bonds between communities," adds Mr. Liyanage who believes that this task would require time and patience both.

It was with this motive that the Movement undertook to hold youth camps in all parts of the country, starting with a massive three day camp at Embilipitiya. And according to Mr. Liyanage, the youth camp held especially for Jaffna youths in the South was a roaring success. These were people who did not know each others language and found it difficult to trust members from the other community.

By the time the camp concluded, some people had fallen in love, and found parting unbearable. For many, it was the first time they were away from an atmosphere of artillery shelling, and people's screams piercing the night skies. It was a whole new world that they experienced.

"We are waging war at present to extend the writ of the government over the North and the East. It is equally important to explain the futility of war when the entire question originally stemmed from the unfulfilled political aspirations of Tamil people. It is this aspect the devolution package seeks to address, and we want the fear psychosis to end fast," asserts Liyanage.

Apart from Thawalama, perhaps the largest project undertaken by the Sudu Nelum Movement is the reconstruction of the Jaffna Library destroyed by vandals way back in 1981. According to Minister Mangala Samaraweera who is also the National Convenor of Sudu Nelum, it is an effort to rebuild a store of knowledge contained in over 95,000 volumes.

The Jaffna Public Library Commemorative Souvenir published in 1984 described the magnitude of destruction thus: "This priceless collection which was a repository of great human culture in our country, was turned to ashes, and a building which was the architectural pride of the North damaged. The hurt was more since the perpetrators of this dark deed were no other than the custodians of law and order maintained by the taxes of the citizens."

It has gone on record that the library in the aftermath of the devastation fell into the hands of the LTTE, thus becoming a powerful arsenal of separatists. According to the Minister, it is with the apolitical aim of correcting a wrong committed by the majority community that the restoration has been undertaken by the government, a sign of good will and gradual healing of past wounds.

An ambitious fund raising project with the objective of raising 700 million rupees for the reconstruction of the library has been recently undertaken by the Brick and Book project which has so far raised over 2 million rupees and received massive donations of books.

At present, two large monuments are being built in front of the Parliamentary Complex in Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. One seeks to honour valiant soldiers who have made the supreme sacrifice over a decade of waging war, which is to be named the Heroes Monument. The other is the Shrine of the Innocent otherwise known as the Monument of Democracy in remembrance of those who were victims of the reign of terror in the late eighties.

Yet, the thrust of the Sudu Nelum is to change with more emphasis being given to the welfare of the disabled soldiers. At present, the Movement has provided several families of soldiers with land and essential housing construction material. In addition, an education programme for the children of disabled soldiers is under way. For security personnel, special identity cards are being issued enabling them to gain priority over others and transport passes in specified areas.

Though priority is given to combatants, the welfare programme will soon be extended to all war victims alike. We intend making available these benefits to a larger segment of the population as time goes by," say the Sudu Nelum officials.

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