Cosponsored by the Wilson Center's Asia Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, and by the Initiative for Inclusive Security

Visaka Dharmadasa, a Sri Lankan civil society activist in the national peace process, spoke at an Asia Program event on her efforts to strengthen the voices of parents and women in the national peace dialogue, as well as civil society empowerment. Dharmadasa's second son, a Sri Lankan army officer, was reported missing on September 27th, 1998 after a battle in which a total of 619 soldiers had been reported missing. More than 600 families had not received any definitive news of their sons. Dharmadasa organized these parents into an association called Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action and together they visited the battleground. They were met by a horrific landscape of "shoulder bags and bones," and proceeded to file a lawsuit requiring the Sri Lankan government to conduct DNA testing on the soldiers' remains, so that their sons could be identified, taken home and given proper burials.

Dharmadasa also founded the Association of War-Affected Women to bring together mothers of slain or missing soldiers from both the Tamil Hindu and the Sinhalese Buddhist communities. Both communities realized that, as mothers, they felt the same emotions and "could really make bonds and build a common ground." The Sri Lankan problem is not going to be solved by ending the violent conflict between the armed insurgents, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the Sinhalese-majority government, Dharmadasa stated. A resolution to the national problem calls for all Sri Lankans to address embedded ethnic prejudices and the need for both Sinhalese Buddhist and Tamil Hindu communities to feel that they are treated with dignity and equality by each other. "Human dignity, the need to respect each other, is extremely important," Dharmadasa emphasized.

In designing and facilitating the Track II dialogue process between the LTTE and the government, Dharmadasa has worked to bring together influential civil society leaders, particularly women. She contended that the inclusion of women in the peace negotiations brings the attention of the national authorities to the long-term humanitarian component of the ceasefire rather than merely the short-term aspects, such as disarmament. However, she also stated that women need to speak to the security issues as well when interacting with the authorities, as "addressing the humanitarian content alone by talking of ‘our dying sons' is not effective when dealing with authorities."

Civil society in Sri Lanka, Dharmadasa argued, does not call for peace as emphatically as it should. In comparison to the solidarity that Americans show for their soldiers in battle overseas, "you cannot see the same empathy and passion for our soldiers across the majority of Sri Lanka." In order to build this necessary solidarity, she stated that civil society empowerment in Sri Lanka is necessary. "Civil society brings a different perspective," Dharmadasa asserted, adding that there is space for civil society to contribute constructively to the national peace process. A civil society partnership with India is also critical, as India plays the most crucial role of any external state actors in Sri Lanka.

Bhumika Muchhala, Program Associate, Asia Program, Tel: 202/691-4020
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program