The Sunday Leader

Civil Society Can Support But Not Replace Problem- Solving By Government

By Dr Jehan Perera

The Secretariat for Muslims has issued a report, which gives details of anti-Muslim incidents that occurred in the first half of the year.  The report has an introduction that states “The general deterioration of relations at all levels is illustrated by the manner in which a mother was refused entrance to a school in hijab by the school principal, and how the same school prevented two school girls from wearing the shawl and long trousers with their school uniform (as per Education Ministry circular). The manner in which the students were humiliated by being made to remove their trousers while in school, and further the manner in which the courts tacitly endorsed such an action by asking that the parents consider moving the children to a different school are a reflection of the deterioration of relations and the general acceptance of anti Muslim sentiment in the public sphere.”

The report also states that “Additionally during this time we saw the oft repeated government line in the form of both the categorical rejection of the idea that religious unrest is evident in the country, to the more nuanced dismissal of the accusations on the basis that the places that are attacked are either unregistered or illegitimate in some other way, and that the incidents were generally reactions of the communities of which they are a part.” On the other hand, seeking to look at the more positive side, the report also observes that “Today the military is rebuilding broken and burnt homes and business premises. The government’s speedy response in relation to rebuilding is worth recognising especially since compensation claims approved after the 2006 riots in Aluthgama are still to be paid. Although hate activities seem to be continuing we hope that the government’s response acknowledges both the seriousness of what happened and the need to prevent anything of this nature occurring elsewhere.”

It is unfortunate that the problems identified by the Secretariat for Muslims generally escalate when politics intervenes and seeks to mobilise those differences to yield political support, especially in the form of votes.  The failure of Sri Lanka’s post-war transition reflects the unwillingness of the government to transcend the pursuit of political power at the cost of inter-community harmony.  But the bonds that tie the different ethnic and religious communities still continue to be stronger than their rivalries.  Although there has been an increase in inter-community tensions, especially with regard to the Muslim community who have become a target for Sinhalese nationalists with alleged backing from sections of the government, this has not become a mass phenomenon.  The social relations between people of different ethnicities and religions at the community level, where they live, remain strong and are conducive to coexistence.


Important task

Desire of communities to live together is visible in the enthusiasm that is invariably demonstrated when civil society groups take steps to organise inter-community events. A recent example was an amity camp in Addalachenai in the east. Youth from the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities carefully prepared cultural performances.  A Muslim girl’s school team from the area which had won third place in an all country cultural competition sang a religious song and also performed a secular dance which depicted the farming life.  As a farming community these Muslims were no different to their Sinhalese and Tamil neigbours, even though they were different in their religions and this performance was appreciated as a result. This same commitment to inter-community harmony is also manifest in other parts of the country.  In Hatton, for instance, an inter-religious group organised an art exhibition on inter-community harmony.  One of the prize winning entries depicted a novice monk (samanera) tying a Vesak lantern to a tree, while below him Muslim and Tamil children were assisting him and doing their own decorations.  Needless to say, it was the encouragement given by the elders in the community that enabled the children to get together in this manner. When invited to speak a few words, a prize winner said that her painting described the amity that she wished to see, and urged the older generation present to make this a reality.

In the present context, an important task for civil society organisations would be to strengthen the bonds between the communities at the local level.  The religious clergy at the local level belonging to all communities may have no serious problem with each other. But they will generally not make much of an effort to engage with each other as they are too busy interacting with their own religious communities. Therefore they need to be supported with societal and logistical assistance to bring the different communities together. Such getting together to sustain inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony is an important national objective. This is a task that has been taken on by civil society organisations. They contribute to national unity in this manner as they help to build relations between the various ethnic and religious communities.


Government needed

However, there are certain problems at the community level that civil society groups cannot resolve by themselves, and which need action by the government which is vested with the power of decision making and enforcement. One major problem concerns people who were displaced from the land due to war. Most of the attention has fallen on the issue of High Security Zones and the government’s decisions to take over large extents of land to bolster the military presence in the North and East.  However, there are also land problems that are prevalent at the inter-community level and which could cause stress to their relationships unless there is problem solving at the governmental level.

In parts of the East, Tamil and Muslim villages are adjacent to one another. Tiraikerni is one of these villages. It is the Tamil majority which suffered a great deal during the war. It was on the coastal route used by the LTTE during the war.  Therefore its inhabitants were viewed with suspicion as being supporters of the LTTE.  In 1990 when the LTTE attacked Muslims in their mosques on a large scale and killed hundreds of them, there was retaliation by Muslims against villages such as Tiraikerni.  Virtually the entire Tamil community fled, with many of them selling their land at cheap prices.

When they returned after the war, they have had to rent their homes from their Muslim neighbours who purchased them.  This problem is not dissimilar to the plight of Muslims in Mannar who fled when the LTTE expelled them and had to sell their land to their Tamil neigbours at cheap prices.  Now when they return they no longer own the land they once lived on. However, in the North, as the elected representatives of the Muslim people are part of the government, they are able to obtain alternative state land and resources to restart the lives of the displaced Muslims. This is unfortunately not the case in the East, where the Tamil people voted for elected representatives who are in the opposition and therefore are unable to obtain state resources for them.

They have no champion like Minister Rishard Bathiuddin in the North is for the Muslims. Civil society organisations are unable to provide the people with the material resources on the scale they need, which can only be provided by the government.


2 Comments for “Civil Society Can Support But Not Replace Problem- Solving By Government”

  1. R.M.B Senanayake

    Local Muslims cant be blamed for the evils of Muslims in the Middle East such as the ISIS. They have been in Sri Lanka for too long to be blamed for evil elsewhere. Last week I attended a Forum for the Launch of a book by Muslim Women. I was surprised that so many educated women are prepared to campaign for gender equality and liberal values.
    Let us educate the more backward Muslims in English for a language transmits culture and values . By branding all Muslims as extremists we are weakening the hand of the liberal Muslims who do not espouse extremism.

  2. Sangaralingham

    Love your neighbour more than any body elsehe or she is the one who is there to help in time of trouble. That is the casein all civilized society
    Help one another that is applicable in all societies what happened in some countries is not the norm

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