Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Minister calls on poets to help unite a divided nation

( Created date: 23-Feb-2015 )

Writers, actors and dancers asked to help heal the wounds of civil war as new government pushes for reconciliation
For centuries, the poets of Sri Lanka have sung the praises of the island nation’s stunning physical beauty – and spoken too of the conflicts that have torn it apart. Now, the government is looking to the country’s literature to heal the wounds of a brutal civil war.Rajiva Wijesinha, the recently appointed minister for higher education, has called on universities to organise programmes of poetry, along with sports, drama and dance, to “bring together” the largely Buddhist Sinhala majority and the largely Hindu Tamil minority.
“The arts are important. They can only be a part of a much broader effort, but should not be neglected. Nothing will make everyone happy but you can reduce the intensity of grief and anger,” Wijesinha, who recently published an anthology of poetry translated into English from both the main local languages, Sinhala and Tamil.
Sri Lanka is struggling with the aftermath of a brutal 26-year civil war that cost tens of thousands of lives. It ended in 2009 when government forces advanced behind heavy bombardments into the strongholds of separatist extremists fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north of the country.
In the wake of the war, the rift dividing the two major national communities has remained wide.Tamils blame the former government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, defeated in a surprise result in early elections last month, which made few concessions to their demands for greater autonomy. Rajapaksa argued that economic growth would heal the wounds of war, and refused to release Tamil political prisoners, order the withdrawal of security forces from land seized by authorities or prosecute alleged war crimes.
The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has moved swiftly to meet some demands from the Tamil community, appointing a civilian to the key post of governor in the Tamil-dominated Northern province, for example, and ordering the return of some land currently occupied by the army there.Sirisena has also repeatedly said he is committed to reconciliation, mentioning the suffering of all Sri Lankans in a keynote address last month. Such rhetoric is unprecedented in recent years.
Amarakeerthi Liyanage, one of Sri Lanka’s best known poets, said poets had already begun to contribute to a healing process in Sri Lanka.“Now, after the end of the war, younger Sinhala poets and writers are reconsidering Sri Lankan identity and quite a few are writing about the new possibilities of rethinking what it means to be Buddhist or Sinhala,” said Liyanage, who lectures in literature in the hill town of Kandy.
Liyanage blamed Rajapaksa, who took power in 2005, for “propagating triumphalism and creating a kind of euphoria of victory”.“It was the poets who countered that and began to rethink what really happened during the war,” Liyanage said.Others, however, said that poetry had been marginal at best in dealing with communal issues. “Poetry has always been very compartmentalised by language. There was some effort to bring poets of different communities together in the 1950s but it was sporadic,” said journalist and poet Malinda Seneviratne, who last year won Sri Lanka’s top literary award for his work.
“Outside of such ‘anthologies’ and offering literary awards to literatures from all three languages – always judged separately for pragmatic reasons – there hasn’t been any significant move to interact.”Sri Lanka has long been known for its rich literary tradition, often attributed to the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of the country of 21 million. However, the civil war forced some of the most prominent creative artists, particularly Tamils, into exile.
One well-known Tamil poet, based in Norway, was deported when he visited Sri Lanka in 2013. Last year, though, local Tamil poets in the north of the country were able to participate in a reading event in Jaffna, the Tamil dominated northern city.“You have to involve the people and poetry is part of the people,” said Wijesinha, the minister.
Some are sceptical of the project. “The best way to have reconciliation is to meet the grievances that we have laid out explicitly and clearly and for which we are clamouring for 65 years,” said CVK Sivagnanam, a Tamil politician in Jaffna. 
Mano Ganesan, an independent Tamil former member of parliament in Colombo, said anything which brought communities together was welcome but should not replace “political initiatives on power-sharing and human rights”.


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