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Sri Lanka

Praja Abhilasha (“People’s Aspirations” Network)

The Context

The name Sri Lanka was adopted in 1972, and was formerly known as Ceylon. The current ethnic composition of the population is 74 percent Sinhalese, 13 percent Lankan Tamils, 7 percent Lankan Moors and 6 percent Indian Tamils. The religious profile of the country shows 69 percent Buddhist, 15 percent Hindu, 8 percent Muslim and 8 percent Christian. Since the outbreak of hostilities between the government and armed Tamil separatists in 1983, several hundred thousand Tamil civilians have fled the island; as of mid-1999, approximately 66,000 were housed in 133 refugee camps in south India, another 40,000 lived outside the Indian camps, and more than 200,000 Tamils sought refuge in the West.

According to the Swedish South Asian Study Network, one major reason for the present conflict in Sri Lanka is the way the British separated the ethnic groups and gave them different access to resources. This created militant chauvinistic groups among Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese and a conflict started to brew from the 1920s onwards. In 1983 a full-scale civil war started in the northern and eastern parts of the country between government troops and the separatist movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In 2000 a Norwegian initiative was launched to broker peace between the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE. Again in early 2006 there were reports of violent incidents and fighting. New negotiations are under way to re-establish peace.

On December 26, 2004, a powerful tsunami devastated the coastal areas around the island destroying fishing villages, flooding rice fields and plantations and sowing grief among rural and urban communities. The disaster affected particularly fishing communities on the coast, and also destroyed much of the tourist infrastructure of the country. Sri Lanka is a very popular tourist destination particularly for north Europeans, and hundreds of tourists were killed by the tsunami. There was immediately a worldwide rally to help tsunami victims and millions of dollars were contributed by individuals, businesses and charities. While the Sri Lankan government was beginning to organize the relief efforts, international relief organizations descended on Sri Lanka to provide help. While intentions to help were sincere, various negative dynamics surfaced resulting in various kinds of local responses.

Foreign organizations and countries were engaged in a competition for visibility in the relief efforts. Billboards advertised campsites and donations. Journalists and television crews mobilized to broadcast particular interventions. Powerful foreign governments and international institutions began voicing their interest in working on post tsunami reconstruction plans. From the World Bank, The Asian Development Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Japan and the European Union among others came offers to the Sri Lankan government to develop policies to reclassify land on the coastline, restrict their access and use and to rebuild the tourist infrastructure on a scale bigger than ever before. Meanwhile, some Christian agencies were seizing the opportunity of the disaster to engage into aggressive evangelistic proselytism that raised strong objections from local Buddhist, Muslim and Christian churches alike.

The Network

In May 2005, a number of grassroots, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community groups gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the invitation of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), and agreed to form a network among organizations representing marginalized communities from coastal and farming areas affected directly and indirectly by the tsunami. By early September 2005 the “Praja Abhilasha” Network was formed. This is a countrywide network composed of 19 organizations. It is inclusive of all faiths and religious bodies present on the island although there are no institutional churches among its membership.

The Response

Members present at the September 2005 workshop worked together to identify the focus areas and content of the program. The Network Steering Committee then met to finalize the proposal: “We agreed that the tsunami has only exacerbated the underlying causes of poverty in our country. We have decided to focus on the following key issue: Access to Land as it is the core issue of poverty in our society. We agree to work on the right to land as a human right of the people as it relates to the right to life and livelihoods of the people, in a context of globalization, privatization and International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed economic reforms in our country.”