Sri Lanka has undergone a surprisingly quick political transition since the start of this year. The government of President Maithripala Sirisena has increasingly moved away from the authoritarian style of the previous administration, which was nonetheless credited with ending the long civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebels.
Visaka Dharmadasa, Founder and Chair of the country’s Association of War Affected Women, said Sri Lankans now saw an opportunity to create “permanent peace,” and reconciliation between ethnic groups.
“We had nine years of repressive governance and now we have good governance,” Ms. Dharmadasa said. “There’s a whole gamut of good governance and best practices that we have to implement, and non-governmental organizations will be monitoring and pushing the government to do the right thing.”
Speaking with the International Peace Institute’s (IPI) Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, she said women and organizations like hers had a big role to play in the transition, and in peacebuilding generally.
“I believe that our organization will play a crucial role in this road to reconciliation, especially on the issue of disappearances—those missing and missing in action—as well as on women’s rights, the needs of women, and the need for their voices to be heard in the whole process.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sri Lanka appears to be undergoing great political change, with the potential for long-talked about justice and reconciliation efforts moving forward. What does this opportunity mean for peacebuilders in the country?
It’s a very special moment. We believe that this is a golden opportunity to create permanent peace in Sri Lanka. That’s why what I call the “road to reconciliation” has to be well-planned.
As peacebuilders, we are very excited about the new opportunity. We had nine years of repressive governance, and now we have good governance. There’s a whole gamut of good governance and best practices that we have to implement, and non-governmental organizations will be monitoring and pushing the government to do the right thing.
For years, your organization has worked between conflict parties and the government, as well as run consultations across many parts of the country, with a wide selection of women. What role do you see your organization now playing in the transition process?
I believe that our organization will play a crucial role in this road to reconciliation, especially on the issue of disappearances—those missing and missing in action—as well as on women’s rights, the needs of women, and the need for their voices to be heard in the whole process.
Because of the period we had in Sri Lanka with a repressive government, we have also established an association of Friends of the Association of War Affected Women here in New York City. We’ll be opening that office in January, and we believe we can also work here in providing advocacy to the permanent missions, and to the UN.
We often hear that it’s easier to bring women in at the start of peace processes. In Sri Lanka, the peace process ended and the conflict was resolved with military action. What entry points do you see to include women in the implementation, justice, and reconciliation phase?
This is where I would bring in the ICAN (International Civil Society Action Network) Better Peace Tool, because it recognizes that the time to introduce women is not only when you are starting a peace process. It can happen at any point of the process of peacebuilding. Whether in the prevention or reconciliation stage, you could bring in women. It’s just a matter of consulting them and getting them onboard.
Here at IPI, we’re doing research on what makes a network organization more effective at peacebuilding. As you run a network-based organization yourself, do you have any thoughts on the advantages for peace?
When the UN resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was put in place, we established what we called “Team 1325.” This comprises 25 district leaders; one each in every district of Sri Lanka. When we go to work, our district partner takes the lead. Her organization will be really taking care of all the logistics of things, so we will never enter a district without informing these partners. This gives credibility to small organizations, and ensures them their voice will be at the center of discussions. Now these voices can also be taken to New York.
This year, with the 15th anniversary of Resolution 1325, we’ve seen a big review of the women, peace, and security agenda. There have also been reviews this year of peace operations and peacebuilding. Can you provide some examples of how activists on the ground unite all of these different approaches to peace?
Sri Lanka has more than a million women going to the Middle Eastern countries as domestic workers, because they need money; it’s not because they have no education. So we requested that we have more women go into peacekeeping instead. The countries of South Asia are the largest UN troop-contributing countries, so we wanted to have the training of women for this role, and we wanted to have a study center for women.
There was also a practical example in 2011 in Sri Lanka. Women were complaining about the security situation, because the government would not remove the military from their areas [after defeating the Tamil Tigers in 2009]. This point of view was understandable, because there were 30 long years of war in their part of the country. We found the best alternative was to have women in uniform—also speaking the same language—deployed to those areas. I must mention [ICAN’s] Sanam Anderlini here, because it was her strategic input that helped me to think and really advocate with the government of Sri Lanka, and we were able to deploy women in uniform in those places. I think that is one option: providing security, providing employment, and also giving dignity to women.
When they seek a role in peace processes, women are often viewed as not experienced enough on military and security issues, but so much of your work focuses on those areas. Do you have advice for women on how to be seen as credible, experienced voices in this field?
One very important thing is to not work toward any agenda. You have to be neutral to ensure credibility and trust from everybody. That’s extremely important. It’s how I could walk into the Tamil Tiger offices, as well as our prime minister’s office. Being a mother of two military officers, for the Tigers to trust me as well as for my government to trust me took a whole lot. But I didn’t have any other agenda and I was not partisan to any party. It was just humanity—human lives—that I valued. I didn’t want anyone to die.