In spite of church leaders’ hopes that peace would follow December’s elections in this island nation torn by years of ethnic conflict, renewed violence has broken out between rebel Tamil forces and the government.
At least 16 people died on 12 December in an attack by Tamil Tiger rebels on a military base and at a police station, and through return strikes by the Sri Lankan military forces.
The previous day Christian leaders had expressed optimism that Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, sworn in on 9 December, would seek national consensus in solving the ethnic conflict that has claimed more than 64, 000 lives since 1983.
In the run-up to the election, Wickramasinghe’s victorious United National Party (UNP) had promised to hold peace talks with Tamil militants. After the 5 December election, the UNP joined the Tamil parties and the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress to create a majority coalition called the United National Front.
The defeat in the election of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance means that for the first time since 1994 the country has a president from one party and a Prime Minister from another. The new Prime Minister delayed appointing a cabinet, holding a series of meetings with opposition parties in what was portrayed as an attempt to form a “government of national reconciliation”. Wickramasinghe’s government was sworn in on 12 December.
Earlier, Ebenezer Joseph, General Secretary of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL), said of the election result, "This is a very positive development. We hope this will help end the conflict forever."
The NCCSL is a forum of major Protestant churches including Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Church of South India and the Salvation Army.
"Elections have never been like this," said Roman Catholic Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando of Columba. "Yes, we are now reaping the harvest of the [ethnic] conflict. The people read and hear about violence more than anything else in the media. We need to make the people aware of the negative impact of violence in everyday life."
Jude Ratnam, a co-ordinator of the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) programme of the NCCSL said, "There is growing realisation that we cannot let society turn a blind eye to the all-pervading violence and hatred. What we have witnessed during this election is the impact of the ethnic conflict on our social life. The society is fast losing its sensitivity to violence."
The Christian Council started its anti-violence campaign last summer as part of an international effort launched by the World Council of Churches in February. The campaign in Sri Lanka has sought to mobilise church pastors and other leaders to take action to combat what is seen as an all-pervading culture of violence on the island.
"Violence no longer seems to be an anathema to most people, especially the young who have grown up amid violence. This was very evident in the election-related violence," said Ratnam, who participated in election monitoring with People's Action for Free and Fair Elections, a leading secular coalition with more than 10, 000 election monitors.
Although the previous government under President Kumaratunga had occasionally proposed peace talks, it had also launched army offensives against Tamil rebels. In the run-up to the elections, President Kumaratunga had accused Wickramasinghe of being a spokesperson for Tamil militants. But even Buddhist-majority areas voted overwhelmingly for Wickramasinghe, Joseph told ENI, which showed that "people want peace desperately".
Article from: Ecumenical News International, adapted from articles by Anto Akkara, Columbo, 12 and 14 December 2001