One of the many benefits of the end of the war is the ability of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims to mix with one another without the prospect of getting into trouble. During the time of war, such mixing was potentially problematic, as those who were Tamil could easily be suspected of having links with the LTTE. Therefore even those who were engaged in peace building were wary of bringing members of all ethnic communities together. There was also a second reason. This was the polarization that existed within the communities as they supported one side or the other. This was something that was far too volatile and controversial for anyone or any group to take up. So the issue of the war was, by and large, not discussed in multi-ethnic settings. It was safer to do so in mono-ethnic settings.
However, the end of the war has provided the opportunity for people from the different ethnic communities to come together and to discuss issues. There is less of a need to support one side or the other, as to seek ways to jointly address people’s minds to bringing reconciliation and a political solution which is a mutually shared goal. People at the community level are prepared and willing to engage in joint activities, whether it is discussing together or doing something concrete together, that will heal the wounds of the war. Discussing the causes of the war and how it was fought can still be polarizing. But the search for a solution can be undertaken jointly, as indeed it must, at both the community and national levels. In this context, it is unfortunate that civil society interactions to promote mutual understanding of each other’s sufferings and the way forward are being viewed by sections of the government with suspicion.
In discussing prospects for national unity in the former war zones of the North and East, one of the messages that comes through is that all communities feel that they are victims. As they were separated from each other during the war, and there was no sustained effort to bring them together, they are unfamiliar with the sufferings of other communities. The failure of Sri Lanka’s post-war transition has been primarily due to the unwillingness of the government to transcend the pursuit of political power to build inter-community harmony. The latest half yearly report produced by the Secretariat for Muslims has gives details of anti-Muslim incidents that occurred in the first half of this year.
The report start with an introduction refers to “the general deterioration of relations at all levels.” The report notes 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.” It can be seen from this statement that what the government is seen to be doing can become counter-productive to the national unity that the government wishes to bring about.
The desire of communities to live together is visible in the enthusiasm that is invariably demonstrated when civil society groups take steps to organize inter-community events. A recent example was an amity camp in Addalachenai in the east organized by civil society groups. Youth from the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities present at the camp made carefully prepared cultural performances. A Muslim girls school team from the area which had won third place in an all country cultural competition sang a religious song, which might have been expected, 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 religion 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 there organized 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 organizations would be to strengthen the bonds between the communities at the local level. The community leaders 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 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 organizations. They contribute to national unity in this manner as they help to build relations between the various ethnic and religious communities.
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 a 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. Civil society organizations are unable to provide the people with the material resources on the scale they need, which can only be provided by the government. This is why the TNA parliamentarians who represent the Tamil people need to find ways to engage constructively with the government in order to provide for the people who rely on them.
The Sinhalese living in the East too have their own grievances. At the conclusion of another civic interaction in Karaitivu in the East, one Tamil participant noted that only now did he realize how badly the Sinhalese in the East had suffered during the war. Most of them have come in as settlers in the past several decades, brought to the East by successive governments under various land settlement and irrigation schemes with the promise of land and resources. But those Sinhalese who live as minorities in Tamil and Muslim majority areas of the East find themselves to be as poor and marginalized as their neigbours. Some of them who live in Deegavapi continue to live in houses made of baked earth and coconut cadjan roofs which are at risk of being flattened by elephants.
There is more the government can do in terms of physical infrastructure and economic development for the multi ethnic population of the East who have been victims many times over. The government must also encourage and give support to civil society to have interactions and promote mutual understanding among the different ethnic and religious communities.