Finding the Person Behind the Label

This article originally appeared in the online magazine on September 5, 2007. (original online here)

Editor Natasha Gunn hears Tamil émigré Jeyanthy Siva give a presentation in Amsterdam on her work, which aims to provide skills for resolving conflict without resorting to violence.

Last month, when the Dutch Muslim Council invited Dutch Freedom Party PVV leader Geert Wilders to talk about his proposed ban on the Koran in an effort to combat polarisation and feelings of fear in society, Wilders refused because in his view “a debate on this is pointless."

In the same period, PvdA politician Ehsan Jami was assaulted for his criticism of Islam and is now under protection and the Monitor for Racism and Extremism of the Anne Frank Foundation revealed that the percentage of racist violence stemming from the extreme right rose by 75 percent last year compared to 2005.

Lastly, on the domestic front, a survey by J/M, a monthly magazine for parents of primary school students, revealed that 75 percent of parents say they are annoyed by the children of other people; stating that these children are insolent, antisocial and disobedient. Almost 9 in 10 parents say that discipline at schools should be harsher and more frequent.

All of the above conflict seems to stem from judgemental thinking and manifests in a breakdown of communication from ‘opposing’ sides where clearly there are differing points of view. Both parties believe the other side is ‘wrong’ and they are ‘right’ and seem locked into an endless finger-pointing cycle.

Jeyanthy Siva

Musing on what the answer could be in a world of blame and retribution, I went along to hear Tamil émigré, Jeyanthy Siva give a presentation at the West-Indisch Pakhuis in Amsterdam on her work between the different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka and civil society at large which aims to provide skills for resolving conflict without resorting to violence.

When she was twelve, Jeyanthy made a promise on bidding farewell to the empty rooms of the home she was leaving in Jaffna, Sri Lanka; to return one day to help her homeland find peace.

She emigrated with her family to the US in the 80s to escape the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists, which erupted into war in 1983.

Now Jeyanthy is well on the way to fulfilling that childhood promise.

“For a while I felt as if I had nothing to offer. I even judged my dream - to help shift people's thinking and feeling from the paradigm of mistrust and fear to the one of trust and love, as idealistic,” she says.

When Jeyanthy came across the language of non-violent communication during her studies in America she realised that she had found the means to help. It reminded her of the words of a spiritual teacher: “At base, we have two choices to make, whether to live from love or fear.”

In 2002, Jeyanthy set out for Sri Lanka.

“Don’t trust anyone,” warned her Tamil family as well as her Sinhalese friends. She found that deep mistrust of everyone and everything was a common theme among all Sri Lankans regardless of their ethnic identity, both within Sri Lanka and abroad.
This rampant lack of trust amongst people in Sri Lanka is reflected by division at every level of society.

Twenty years of fighting down the line, the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) agreed to a cease-fire in February 2002. However, violence between the LTTE and government forces intensified in 2006, although neither side has officially backed out from the cease-fire.

Human right’s violations are commonplace and the UN and human rights groups say abductions and disappearances between January and June of 2007 come close to a thousand.

In the face of such conflict, Jeyanthy decided not to work with either the government or the Tamil Tigers. Instead, she is working to facilitate communications among religious leaders, a group of people who, unlike in the western world, still have great influence over the people, along with community leaders, University students and others.

"Because the situation in Sri Lanka is so polarized and people tend to automatically assume you are for one side or the other, it's very difficult to be understood as standing not for one side or the other but for all sides and all people," she says.

Through instilling trust in the meetings she facilitates and supports, Jeyanthy hopes that diverse language and ethnic groups can gain a sense that their perspective matters. “I hope to create a container to help people feel safe,” she says. “A breakdown of trust means creativity breaks down.”

Jeyanthy Siva:
not giving solutions.
Photo by Antowi Wibbelink

Jeyanthy gives two paradigms for communication based on Marshall Rosenberg’s language of non-violent communication: the fear/ distrust-based model and the trust-based model.

The fear-based model uses punishment and reward as a means to motivate people. Such societies are characterized through having a few people in strong positions at the top and money and power matter considerably.

In the trust-based society, people want to care and are motivated via interconnectedness, compassion, empathy and vulnerability. In this kind of society everyone matters.

Communication without violence is based on the trust model. We need to understand our own needs and the needs of those we are dealing with – without judging them as the ones in the wrong or the ‘bad’ ones, the terrorists. It means seeing the opposition as people rather than dehumanizing them. From here we can find a way to meet everyone’s needs.

“The biggest contribution I can give is through being who I am, modelling empathic listening and vulnerable expression, not being the all-knowing person or giving solutions,” says Jeyanthy, who strongly agrees with Rosenberg’s view that the quickest way to get some one to adopt a new behaviour is to show respect for the life in them which led to the old behaviour.

Jeyanthy left me with the understanding that being trustworthy is healing - and much of the blame we attribute to others is purely a reflection of our own needs. Perhaps we should take a closer look at where we are coming from before we stick a label on the 'other side'.

5 September 2007

After giving this presentation, Jeyanthy in collaboration with Mirella Visser are launching a mentoring scheme to enable more women living in Europe to connect with remarkable women in Sri Lanka. For more information visit ‘Women’s voices over the internet’ for Sri Lanka.

For more information about Jeyanthy Siva’s organisation visit
(Note: Sandhi is from Sanskrit meaning, "point where two or more paths cross")

An interview on Sri Lankan televsion with Jeyanthy Siva:

Marshall Rosenberg on nonviolent communication (NVC):

[An evening with Jeyanthy Siva at the West-Indisch Pakhuis in Amsterdam was organized by Mirella Visser of the Centre for Inclusive Leadership (]

Natasha Gunn
Expatica Netherlands

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[Copyright Expatica 2007]