Peacebuilder Pushpi Weerakoon is no stranger to the Conflict Transformation field and is well loved among many youth groups and civil societies. She is a trained Mediator from Harvard University with an MA in Conflict Transformation from the Eastern Mennonite University. Pushpi also holds an MBA from University of Wales and specializes in International and Commercial Law from University of Buckingham. In 2011 Pushpi was honoured with the Rotary National Peace Award. I caught up with her while she was been busy doing what she does best providing ‘service above self’ as a Rotarian and as the Coordinator at the National Reconciliation Secretariat at the Presidential Secretariat headed by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, the Reconciliation adviser to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Q: How do you coordinate these numerous number of service projects?
A: I work through a multi-talented diverse network I have build myself ever since schooling at St Bridget’s Convent, Colombo which kept growing as I attended several universities and then worked as a Conflict Transformer across continents. The experience of having worked in the humanitarian field since 2003, seeing the volatile ground reality, change of attitudes among the victims and offenders during and post conflict, I believe broadened my understanding and sensitize me towards the deeper needs of the beneficiaries. Presently when I identify a need to be fulfilled I appeal to my network with a project proposal emphasizing on the urgency of the need and take the initiative to liaise among the different stakeholders to get the project rolling. Remember what requires to initiate a good service project is an idea/ a good solution to the identified issue and a good communication strategy to get this idea across to the right forum/individual.
Getting these two correct will automatically lead you to the resources and funds required to implement it. It is important that the solution sought is agreed upon and promoted by the consensus of the beneficiaries and the contributing stakeholders to achieve a sense of ownership and to sustain the project. You also do not have to belong to the same sector your initiating the project in, all you need is a like-minded, energetic support group who believes in you and the cause you set out to achieve. Also master the art of networking through social media. Spreading the word by Ping, Twitter, Blogs, Facebook, Linkedin and interactive websites goes a long way. Give credits where its due. We humans loves to be acknowledged. That self satisfaction most of the time by itself is a huge motivation to keep doing selfless service! Finally and most importantly be confident, believe in yourself to make that change you want to see.
Q: How do you understand the idea of ‘reconciliation’?
A: My guru, the father of conflict transformation, Prof. John Paul Lederach calls it “a meeting ground where trust and mercy have met, and where justice and peace have kissed.” In simpler terms, it’s about bringing people together to move them beyond the past through re-establishing trust and normalcy, forgiving each other, in a justifiable society where the previous belligerents would be able to co-exist peacefully. In Sri Lanka, a successful reconciliation process would pave way to victims and offenders of both the main fractions of the conflict not only to co-exist peacefully but also to work for the betterment of our next generation. It should rekindle mutual respect among ethnicities such as Sinhala and Tamil and also among different fractions of single ethnicities such as Northern and Southern Tamils and Muslims.
All communities should accept ex-combatants/beneficiaries, military and the Police, war widows and disabled into their localities with open arms. There should be a positive atmosphere for the natural day-to-day activities to progress without fear and prejudice. Most importantly the youth who are cut off from the rest of the country for over two decades and made to think the southerners were of different nature, must mingle together and share their values and cultures to disperse the misunderstandings. Youth Leadership is imperative to Reconcile a nation. Even though such a process will never be achieved overnight, even small steps taken without delay could lay a foundation for a lasting relation.
Q: Why is youth leadership imperative to reconcile a nation?
A: Youths are not just our future but also our ‘present’, in the literal sense a ‘gift’. The energy, vibrancy and the intellect of them is the key to drive the Sri Lankan Reconciliation and the Development process forward . They should take the initiative to re establish the relations among the diverse communities in the North, East and South by way of building bridges through sharing of resources, cultures, values, lifestyles and thought processors which would bring about attitudinal change within to help recognize the richness of the diversity. It is very important our youth understand the true history of our nation, why conflicts/internal struggle took place, the stakeholders and their hidden agendas and the power dimensions which rekindled the armed struggle. Knowing the true history will make you understand why still a certain sector of our society feel deprived and unheard. It is this feeling that we should work at to diminish.
As citizens of Sri Lanka inspite of our ethnicity, religion or cast we must all have a sense of belonging with the feeling of been respected and heard. We must understand that this cannot be achieved by Development alone, there must be a ‘meeting of minds’ through educational, vocational and service programs. I’ve also witnessed many a times our youths explaining to their elders that naming and shaming is not the way forward.
This is true, we must be open minded and understand the positive results of the current reintegration system. We must not just advocate but also be sensitive to the adoption of restorative approaches with the understanding that the victim and the community have both been effected by the action of the extremist LTTE and that we must help the ex-combatants to make amends with both the victim and the community while healing the trauma of the victim and meeting the offenders needs. This I’m sure as my adviser, grandfather of Restorative Justice, Prof Howard Zehr would agree with me would not only contribute to the co-existence of the victims and ex combatants side by side but also positively contribute to the economic and social development in our ongoing nation building process. With the innovative ideas and projects initiated by the network of youths and civil societies I work with today, this process of achieving a mutual understanding and building a nationally agreed social perception for a peaceful co-existence is becoming a reality.
Q: What are some of the pressing issues that needs to be addressed in the North?
A: In Vavuniya and Kilinochchi apart from infrastructure development such as roads and housing for returning IDPs there is an urgent need for safe houses (currently the only safe house available is in Jaffna) for young unmarried mothers, education on sexual and reproductive health, medical supplies, income generating activities for war widows and disabled, education and vocational training for youths, English and Maths teachers, extracurricular and sports activities and religious/cultural exchange programmes in the schools, Tamil speaking Women Police Constables, human rights training for Police and Army and security for all including ex-combatants. In a more broader context there is also a grave need to find a solution for the Muslims evicted from the North as far back as 1990 and give serious effect to the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the constitution in 1987 which made both Sinhala and Tamil the official languages. In a more practical sense it should be compulsory for at least two national languages and maths to be passed in O/L s and to sing the national anthem both in Sinhala and Tamil to have a continuous dialogue, understanding and acceptance among the different ethnicities.
Q: Have you initiated activities to address these issues?
A: Yes. There are many programmes in the pipeline. Right now I’m in the process of bringing together the Rotarians, Rotaractors and Interactors to set up a vocational centre in the North with the help of Aide Et Action, Archmage Co and US Diaspora. I have also looked into the possibility of reviving a vocational training centre in Elenkopurm village in Theravil GN in PTK and a cultural centre in Trincomalee through the contribution of diplomats. The Rotary National Youth Exchange programme which brought students from North to cities in the South is set to launch its 2nd phase to take students from the South to North and improve the projects implemented by the students in the 1st phase. I’m also liaising with a US College in Boston to help conduct English classes. Prof Rajiva Wijesinha and Rotary International President Kalyanjee has discussed the possibilities of investing in training teachers.
Rotary club of Colombo Mid Town has adopted the Learn and Lead scholarship programme which provided scholarships to underprivileged students especially in the conflict affected areas to study in reputed institutes. Rotary clubs are also looking into the possibilities of rehabilitating war victims by providing artificial limbs. We are also in the 2nd stage of conducting the Rotary National Thalassemia awareness campaign which was supported by NPIP Entertainments and in addition to this I’m setting up the National Crohns and Colitis Association. I’m also currently in conversation with authorities to provide vocational training in rehabilitation centres for Juvenile victims. A group of Indian Rotarians have also expressed their interest to conduct medical camps in North.
The Reconciliation secretariat have begun to establish Reconciliation units in districts and clubs in schools. These school clubs have already begun to reach out to their sister or brother schools in the North by way of publishing joint newspapers, cultural and vocational programmes. We also have an active Civil Society and a Youth Forum which brings together diplomats, principals, NGOs, INGOs, Rotary clubs and Youths to provide solutions for pressing social issues.
The Secretariat has also proposed a National Policy on Reconciliation with emphasis on the need of establishing an independent; institute to seek redress stemming from deficiencies in the system of administration and lack of good governance that affect all citizens regardless of ethnicity, Public Service Commission to ensure that there is no political interference in the public service and that recruitment and promotions in the public service are in conformity with the equality provisions in the constitution.
We also strongly propose there be independence of the judiciary and the Police with regard to the appointment process and functioning, and to make the public service and the police inclusive of all communities with special attention to ensuring adequate representation of the population in any area. I’m confident that through all of these service projects and proposed policies we’d be able to reach out to those who felt marginalized and direct our hearts and minds toward sustainable peace as the Rotary International President Elect Sakuji Tanaka has set out the new theme to be.
Q: You have received full sports colours while in school and have also played for the university. Haven’t you thought of using sports to bring youths together?
A: Why not! All of the Youth Exchange programmes and workshops includes a component of sport. The Rotary National Youth Exchange participants from Mullaitivu, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Batticaloa, Vavuniya and Jaffna had a wonderful time and made new friends by playing cricket, Football, Volleyball, Basketball and Elle at Royal College Colombo. We used swimming as a relaxing exercise to wound up an exhausted day filled with lectures and meetings. At some of these sessions we did come across naturally talented uncut gems. Due to less sporting facilities in the schools many have not been able to pursue their dreams much further (One of the students in this group used a bamboo stick to practice high jump and represented his school at the Nationals last year). The Reconciliation Secretariat is hoping the sister/brother school adoption programme of Southern schools by Northern schools will initiate many sporting events as much as other resource sharing events.
Q: So the future is bright?
A: Of course! but remember it’s up to us to make it as bright as we want it to be. Peace is something we must work for even reconciliation is an ongoing process. The government, civil societies, private sector, media, youths and the rest of the citizens including the diaspora must play their respective roles in making this process a success. It’s not something one sector could achieve. The root cause of the ethnic conflict could lie in the failure of successive governments to address the genuine grievances of the Tamil people, a political solution would be imperative to address the causes of the conflict but rather than pointing fingers and waiting till the other do it, we should individually take it upon ourselves to contribute in whatever way we can. Every little bit adds up. A collective peace achieved would have a longer life span since the many stakeholders having a sense of ownership would also be the guardians of it.
Interviewed by Daria White (A Bulgarian national, Ms White is a Phd candidate at James Madison University who also holds an MA in Conflict Transformation specializing in Peacebuilding and Trauma Healing from the Eastern Mennonite University USA)