What a difference a year makes!!

It is only know that I am beginning to make sense of how much I learned during my trip to Sri Lanka. When the participants of our Global Perspectives on Democracy: New Media arrived- I felt tears come to my eyes when I saw a Sri Lankan flag on a t-shirt. During the dinner I realized that I had a deep understanding of Sri Lanka as I talked with the participants. I miss it and I really hope to go back, and India and Bangladesh too.

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Peace Does Not Bring Freedom

On Sunday, November 8th, 2009 the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an Op-Ed I wrote on our experience and the situation in Sri Lanka. Below is a link to the article plus another I wrote which they published on Sunday, April 26, 2009 after our 18 Sri Lankan friends departed the U.S.

Peace Does Not Bring Freedom to South Asian Island
http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/news/opinion/commentary/article/ED-IRBY08_20091106-202204/304136/

Sri Lankan’s Learn About Democracy at Mr. Jefferson’s University
http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/news/opinion/commentary/article/IRBY426_20090424-200029/263667/

Daman

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Sri Lanka at the Crossroads

Sri_Lanke_Event_12_HHOn October in the University of Virginia Colonnade Club where our Sri Lankan friends gathered last spring, we hosted an event called Sri Lanka at the Crossroads: War, Peace, and Democracy. It was a cold rainy night which reminded us a lot of their visit, but we still had a capacity crowd of 50 people. Those who served as speakers or panelist last spring who were in attendence included Larry Sabato, Ken Stroupe, Chip Mann, John Hager, and Stewart Gamage. Our team captain Joseph and Meg and I were also there, of course.

Professor Sabato spoke and introduced the keynote speaker, The Honorable E. Ashley Wills, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 2000-2003. Amb. Wills discussed his time as a U.Va. student, career, experiences in Sri Lanka, and the direction he feels it is headed. His expertise was vital to this event, and we thank him for his participation. Meg and I gave a presentation on the 18 Sri Lankans’ participation in Global Perspectives on Democracy last March and our participation in the return exchange to Sri Lanka.

We had such a rich experience in Sri Lanka that our presentation probably went longer than it should have. There was just so much to talk about: the program here, reuniting with our friends, the organizations we visited and people we met, the political situation, beauty of the country, the food we now greatly miss, etc., etc., etc. We could have easily gone on for many hours if not days. We and the audience especially enjoyed a live Skype video call with Hemantha and Chaminda about their Democracy Corps – Sri Lanka program. They were projected larger than life onto a screen for all to see. Everyone was impressed with the work that they and all of the 18 are doing.

Visit http://www.virginia.edu/uvatoday/newsRelease.php?id=10035 to read more about this event.

Thanks to all of our Sri Lankan friends once again for being such excellent program participants and showing us around your country. Hopefully we can find a way to get back to Sri Lanka soon.

Daman

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“Democracy Corps -Sri Lanka” Launched!

Democracy Corp SL cropped

In 2004 the U.Va. Center for Politics Youth Leadership Initiative started a program called Democracy Corps.  It was founded to improve civic and political engagement of America’s youth and help answer questions about why we have a democracy and how they can be involved in it.

Two of the 18 Sri Lankan exchange participants, Chamida and Hemantha, have taken the program and made it their own. On August 14 when we were in Matara in the south of the nation they launched Democracy Corps – Sri Lanka with about 20 participants in attendence. It is incredible what they are working to accomplish.

There is traditionally extremely little engagement between the people and the national government. Once elections are concluded, democracy is basically put on hold until the next call to the polls. Sri Lanka has a unitary system of government with few if any checks and balances, and all power comes from the top down.

The participants in the program are already starting projects of their own and helping other Sri Lankans to take a greater role in their nation’s future. As our director, Larry Sabato, says, “Government works better when politics works better, and politics works better when citizens are informed and involved participants.

Chaminda and Hemantha have discovered not to their surprise that the ground is fertile for such a movement. Congratulations to them and all who are involved!

Daman

Visit their website at http://democracycorpssrilanka.ueuo.com.

Democracy Corp SL group cropped

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Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Every where I went in Sri Lanka I was amazed by the number of stray dogs lining the streets- particularly in Colombo.  Often they lay in the streets as the hustle and bustle of city life passed them by.  As tempting as it is to reach out and pet them, it is not advisable as most of the dogs have rabies.  The phrase “let sleeping dogs lie” has a special meaning in Sri Lanka.

This philosophy can also be used to describe the attitude of many Sri Lankans in respect to the current political situation.  Glad that the violence of the war is over many want to just move forward without changing any of the policies that have caused chaos over the past thirty years.  I can understand that and it is reasonable- a citizenry tired of constant bombings, upheaval and bloodshed just wants to enjoy the peace and worry about stability – tomorrow.

Tomorrow may come sooner than many Sri Lankans want to believe if the dogs are not awakened.  By not seizing on the opportunity to devolve power and perhaps creating a system where minorities have a say in the life of the nation, Sri Lanka will not achieve a lasting peace.  With no legal means by which to address social, political and economic inequalities marginalized communities will be left with no other options but to push for a separate state which would not be good for the island.  A gradual process by which the process of devolution of power would be steadily adopted might convince many of the majority that true democracy is an idea that can work in Sri Lanka.

A step towards this must be taken by the government to prove to the Tamils and other marginalized communities that reconciliation is possible.  But it is more than the government- it will take a majority of the Sinhalese to demand that their neighbors and countrymen be included in the new Sri Lanka.  There is a billboard in Columbo that reads- Let’s Rebuild Sri Lanka Together.  I took that to mean that it will take all Sri Lankans- Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, etc.- to create  one nation out of many.

In a presentation I gave I placed the motto- “E Pluribus Unum” and described the belief that one can come out of many.  I hope that the sleeping dogs will rise peacefully from their slumber and unite their voices so that the new Sri Lanka will be a stronger and more vibrant community with a larger number of its citizens participating in its democracy.  It is my prayer for Sri Lanka that she will be able to create a diverse nation in which all of its citizens feel enfranchised and able to determine their future fates.

I hope that the slogan, “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” will not become the motto of Sri Lanka.

Meg

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie!!

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie!!

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We’re home, but stay tuned

Galle Visit 28kb

Meg Heubeck and I arrived back in the U.S. on Sunday evening August 23rd.  During our stay we only had time to write blog enteries late in the evenings or early in the mornings, so there are many more stories to be told. We’ll try to keep them coming over the next few weeks.

We thank Larry Sabato, Ken Stroupe, Mary Brown and the entire staff of the University of Virginia Center for Politics for putting us in the position to participate in this exchange and allowing us to be away from the office for such an extended period. Our interns Ngowk, Emily, Ella and Alex covered for us in the YLI office and kept our operations running.  Thanks to all of you!

 It was such a pleasure working with our friends at Relief International. A special thanks to Joseph who first approached us about a partnership for this exchange back in February 2008 and worked with us through the end. I know our relationship will continue. Sheeni was  a fantastic coordinator, but she was much more than that. She definitely added a spark to the group which helped keep even our longest days energized and enjoyable. We also appreciate all her mom did for us. Not only did she host us for tea and a fully catered dinner, but she actually provided us use of her personal (and well air conditioned) passenger van and excellent driver, Chancey, after our original van died on the way up a mountain. Thanks, Mrs. de Sylva! You may have saved lives! Raji does such an excellent job leading RI Sri Lanka. Thanks for your leadership and friendship. Ramesh, you’re the glue that keeps the operation going from the running of the micro finance programs to the dispensation of our perdiem. We couldn’t ask for a better partner and host in Relief International.

Thanks to Chip Mann who helped plan the Center for Politics’ portion of the first leg of the exchange, and for his guidance leading up to our visit to Sri Lanka.

We are especially appreciative of the staff at the U.S. Embassy  in Colombo. Rebecca Cohn, Jeff Anderson, and Glen Davis are superb emissaries of our nation, and we thank them for all they did for us and this exchange.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for funding this exchange and to the American tax payer.

It was such a pleasure reuniting with our Sri Lankan friends who participated in the first leg of the exchange. We hope to see you all again soon.

Thanks to everyone who followed Meg’s and my experiences during our three weeks in Sri Lanka. It was a thrill to share our stories with you and comforting to know that your thoughts and prayers were with us during the past three weeks.

After making so many friends and visiting the country we feel a very close connection and wish only the best for the nation and its people.  It was an experience we will never forget, and even though we are back home our advocacy for Sri Lanka will continue.

Watch for general news coming out of Sri Lanka. It’s a wonderful country with some significant challenges that deserve our attention. I pray for lasting peace and freedom for all.

Again, please continue visiting the blog over the next few weeks to read more about our experiences.

Daman Irby

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Show me the way to Hambantota, you’re sure to meet some special people there.

IMGA0333IMGA0328We found ourselves the morning of August 14th waking up in the town of Hambantota to the thunder of crashing waves from the Indian Ocean. Our hotel rooms were probably about 20 feet from the water, but this beach was one you’d never want to swim on. There was only about 10 feet of sand, and it plummeted into the water at about a 45 degree angle. It’s apparently been this way since the Tsunami. Every wave built and crash against the wall of sand. You’d actually see waves hit the shore then bounch back into the ocean around 3 feet high. I’ve never seen anything like it. I slept pretty poorly because I was awakened so often by the violent waves.

The hotel itself was mostly pretty nice. We pulled in the early evening of the 13th and were greeted by a bunch of monkeys. Not a good start to our stay if you ask me (see my previous post as to why). The grounds were very nice, the hotel was pretty large, but it turned out to be practically empty. It was actually kind of dark and pretty eerie. A dinner buffet was included in our stay. I think all the guests ate at about the same time, and if there were 20 people staying in the hotel that night, I’d be surprised.

Back to the 14th. That morning I turned on the hot water in the shower. Water came out but then slowed until there’s just a trickle then completely stopped. Of course the cold water worked just fine!

The minor discomfort experienced from the strange silence, darkness,  and cold water at the hotel was nothing compared to the discomfort of those we visited first thing that morning. Our friends Amila and Hisham met us and took us to a community in another part of town where sanitation workers and their families live. This was the poorest community we visited while in Sri Lanka. The homes were shacks many with dirt floors and walls of coconut leaves, mud or tin. The fortunate ones lived in small homes build not too long ago by a non-governmental organization with cider block walls and concrete floors which were nice in comparison.

When we arrived and stepped into the first hut, there was a little baby girl sitting up on the hard floor with a fly crawling on her face. It brings a tear to your eye seeing how the people, especially the children, have to live. There were tons of children around.

Amila is a doctor and has been serving this community. Sanitation workers are ostracized and have to live in areas away from others. These people are what some would consider untouchables. Their community was actually spared from the Tsunami because of the very large dune between them and the ocean.

At the end of our visit we gave the children some of our CFP bracelets, and they loved them! They referred to me as Uncle when asking for them and would stick their little hands up to the open window. It’s common in Sri Lanka for children and youth to refer to others in familial terms even if there is no relation.

I think we were a very unusual sight in their neighborhood. I’m so glad we went there, but I left with a lump in my throat. It’s a shame anyone has to live like that. At least they have strong family units, and access to quality health care. It really makes you appreciate your blessings. I will never forget my visit to the sanitation village.

Here’s a video of a home in the village: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KYFTCRnouk .

Daman

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