IREX – #WhatsYourPeace?

December 10, 2015

Building Peace and Tolerance in Sri Lanka

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“There is a new voice in Sri Lanka, a voice that rejects extremism, violence, and terrorism,” says Suchith Abeyewickreme, a Sinhala-Buddhist, peace educator, citizen activist and Community Solutions Program leader. “Before 2010 there was not room for that voice, but it has been growing and getting stronger.”

For 26 years, Sri Lanka endured armed conflict. Political rhetoric deepened religious and ethnic divides. Abeyewickreme is trying to change the conversation in communities so that tolerance, social healing, inclusion and reconciliation can begin.

To do so, Abeyewickreme co-founded the Walpola Rahula Institute, which promotes interreligious dialogue among Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus in Sri Lanka. Abeyewickreme and his colleagues educate community members and religious leaders on how to start dialogue toward mutual understanding across religious divides—important work at a critical time in Sri Lanka’s history.

The same search for tolerance and desire to improve his community brought Abeyewickreme to the Community Solutions Program, implemented by IREX. Through the program, Abeyewickreme strengthened his leadership skills and worked on intercommunity dialogue around gentrification issues in Washington, DC neighborhoods. The program also connected Abeyewickreme with Search for Common Ground, where he worked ondomestic dialogue programs that seek to resolve conflicts and build understanding around complex issues that are just as divisive as the ethnic and religious tensions he tackled in Sri Lanka.

This collaboration inspired him to think differently about how to reduce conflict within his country. “I realized after being in DC that the new manifestations of conflict in Sri Lanka will not be of the same nature—large, national, ethnic conflicts,” Abeyewickreme says. “Rather, there will be smaller, intercommunity tensions at a very local level that are as much about socio-economic equality as they are about race or religion.”

Abeyewickreme began to collaborate with Dr. Novil Wijesekara, a fellow leader in the Community Solutions Program. Together, Abeyewickreme and Wijesekara devised ways to build resilience and strengthen the social fabric of low-income neighborhoods in Sri Lanka.

Their project helps minority residents—mostly Muslim—who have been displaced by recent government projects and development. The project currently focuses on meeting this group’s economic needs through urban community gardening. In the next phase, Abeyewickreme will begin addressing religious and ethnic tensions within the community.

Six years after the end of military operations within Sri Lanka, the country still has much work ahead to create lasting peace and tolerance. “Everyone was affected by the conflict,” Abeyewickreme says. “After 26 years, everyone needs healing. I believe in an inclusive approach that promotes the healing of individuals and society as a whole. It is only after healing that we can then get to the reconciliation and understanding that we seek.”