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A Long Struggle toward Peace

March-April 2005

On December 26, the tsunami struck Sri Lanka. Jehan Perera '82, J.D. '87, was not directly endangered, but a close relative lost her husband and her home. Despite such horrors, Perera noticed something else as he traveled to assist her and to report on the disaster: "What was wonderful to see, was how people who were un-affected rallied to help those in need, irrespective of the divisions that normally exist in our political life."

Ever since obtaining his law degree, Perera has been serving in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in his native Sri Lanka. The former economics concentrator says he "wished to work for the upliftment of those at the bottom of the economic ladder." Initially he became director of legal aid for the Sarvodaya Movement, a grassroots community-development group. But as civil strife intensified between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese, largely Buddhist, majority and Tamil, mainly Hindu, minority, Perera "saw the need to engage in peace building and reconciliation work to prevent the destruction of the lives of people and economic assets" of his country.

Jehan Perera speaks out for Sri Lanka's National Peace Council.
NPC Media

In 1996 he shifted his focus to confiict resolution and became a founding member and media director of the National Peace Council (NPC). The group seeks a negotiated settlement to the 20-year struggle that has caused an estimated 65,000 deaths throughout the island, mostly in the northeast, where government troops have been fighting the separatist, well-entrenched Tamil Tigers (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE). In 1998, Perera helped organize a national peace convention that drew 1,700 delegates from all parts of the island. But the o(infinity)cial peace process has been stalled since the Tigers walked out of talks in April 2003. According to UN estimates, at least 80,000 Sri Lankans, mainly Tamils, have been living in refugee camps because of the war.

Perera has welcomed the recommendation made by the UN high commissioner for refugees that the Sri Lankan government's post-tsunami recovery plans include war-refugee resettlement as well. Late in January, in his weekly newspaper column, he harked back to his economics studies and encouraged the opposing sides to consider the "theory of the second best": under certain circumstances, given imperfections in information and market conditions, going for a second-best outcome may be the wiser course. A cooperative relationship between the government and the LTTE on tsunami-related issues, he suggested, could lay the groundwork for a revival of the peace process. But both sides would need to compromise: the government would have to acknowledge the LTTE "as the dominant political actor" in much of the northeast; the LTTE would have to accept that "the international community recognizes the Sri Lankan government as the legitimate authority in the country."

Acknowledging Sri Lanka's troubles in his tenth-reunion report, Perera wrote that his development work required "a great deal of political awareness and sensitivity and sometimes courage as well." If that comment still rings true, so, it seems, do the convictions that have propelled him. An NPC statement issued in January declared, "Today, Sri Lanka stands at the threshold of receiving an unprecedented amount of international assistance that can really make a big difference to the country's overall development profile. It would be tragic if this opportunity is not taken to develop the country in a just and equitable manner...Whilst focusing on recovery from the tsunami, there is a need to focus on permanently recovering from the civil war as well."

~Jean Martin and Emer Vaughn