Starting Conversations Around Conflict in Sri Lanka
It is the windy season in Mannar, which means the ocean is stirred up and the fisherman do not take their boats out. The palm trees bow towards the rough sea and at night the mosquitoes are blown straight through the house and out the back door. I’m staying at Bridging Lanka’s Donkey Clinic and Education Centre in the village of Thailankudiyiruppu, where injured and feral donkeys from urban areas are brought for healing and nurturing. The quieter donkeys are also used in the Donkey Assisted Therapy Program to help differently-abled children gain confidence and develop life skills. As I scratch behind the ears of these serenely sensitive animals it is hard to imagine that Sri Lanka has had so many major armed conflicts, almost one every seven years since independence in 1948.
Religious History of Sri Lanka
Mannar Island sits on the North-West tip of Sri Lanka and stretches out towards India’s Rameswaram separated only by 32kms of sea and a string of Islands known as Rama’s Bridge. According to Hindu theology the link was built by Rama’s army to rescue his wife Sita from the Rakshasa demon king, Ravana. The monkey god Hanuman jumped across to save her.
The Hindu epic Ramayana chronicles all this happening in 3rd Century BCE, with Buddhism arriving from India in the same century through Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BCE) (O’Brien, 2017). It is credited as one of the oldest living Buddhist traditions in the world. Arab traders arrived in the 7th century CE and married native women who converted to Islam. By the 8th century their trade and religion were flourishing across Sri Lanka. With the arrival of the Portuguese (1505), Buddhism was nearly wiped out with any monk caught wearing a saffron robe, executed. Along with the Dutch (1658) and the British (1796) colonies Christianity grew with the influx of missionaries.
Then in the 19th century Sinhala Buddhist nationalism was born as a political ideology. It came in response to British colonial oppression and discrimination against the Sinhala Buddhists and focused on the idea that to be Sri Lankan was to be of Sinhalese culture and ethnicity and to practice Theravada Buddhism.
The national 2012 census (Sarvananthan, 2016) has current day Sri Lanka split between Buddhism 70.10%, Hinduism 12.58%, Islam 9.66%, and Christianity 7.62% and according to three Gallup polls, Sri Lanka is within the top five most religious countries globally with 99% of the population claiming to be religious (Daily, 2017). So, as I travel through Sri Lanka and marvel at the natural beauty of its forest covered mountains filled with the relics of ancient kingdoms and Buddhist temples, to lush paddy fields surrounded by coconut trees along stunning coastlines, I also reflect that there is a long history of battles for identity, beliefs and power, whose legacy and tensions are very real in the Sri Lanka of today.
Jeremy Liyanage – founder of Bridging Lanka
Jeremy Liyanage, Executive Director of Bridging Lanka with whom I am undertaking a field placement, was born in the town of Kandy amongst the thickly forested mountains of central Sri Lanka. He loved his hometown and at the age of nine when his parents decided it was time to immigrate he went from house to house in his neighborhood begging for another family to adopt him so that he could stay behind. His mother and father foresaw a storm gathering in Sri Lanka with the introduction of the Sinhala Only Bill (1956) which made Sinhalese the official language of the country (Britannica, 1998). It won the government of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike a landslide victory but deeply divided the country, with riots erupting as soon as the bill was passed amongst the minority Tamil-speaking provinces.
As Jeremy grew up in Australia the seed of Sri Lanka always remained. The country erupted into a 26 year civil war ending in 2009 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were decisively defeated by the Sri Lanka Armed Forces. Jeremy returned in 2010 and through the urgings of a local businessman landed in Mannar, sandy, dry, predominantly Catholic, and mostly poor subsistence farmers and fishermen recovering from the war. He started the work that grew into Bridging Lanka on his own small savings and the support of friends.
Bridging Lanka has now grown into a local staff of ten people. It still operates on donations and the ‘smell of an oily rag’ but has evolved into undertaking 25 emergent projects. Jeremy says the work in Mannar has fundamentally changed him. The work focuses under five themes: education for all, livelihood projects, reconciliation and social cohesion, environmental protection and urban improvements.
Conflict between Muslims and Buddhists
My internship with Bridging Lanka is under the reconciliation and social cohesion portfolio and chiefly concentrating on the tensions that have risen between the Muslim and Buddhist communities.
In February 2018, a Sinhalese lorry driver from Ambala, and his assistant, were assaulted by four Muslim young adults in Teldeniya. The driver was admitted to the intensive care unit of the Kandy General Hospital and died from his injuries. This sparked a number of public attacks on Muslim homes, mosques, and businesses and resulted in the death of one 24-year-old Muslim young man. When the violence was halted not only was there a huge economic cost to the community – approximately Rs 8 billion – but trust between Muslims and Sinhalese was set back decades.
A small Bridging Lanka team have been in Kandy and Colombo to understand the history behind these incidents and who else is working in the space with whom we can partner.
The nature of our work is simple – to listen in a purely exploratory way without any program or solution in mind – with the intention of trying to find bridge builders who can move between the two groups and develop trust. Our hope, is that deep trusting relationships can act as a foundation to develop a united community that is supportive, resilient and harmonious in finding lasting solutions to the current tensions.
Breaking iftar during Ramadan in the local Digana community where their mosque was burnt down.
This was a temporary structure until the new mosque is built.
Britannica, T. E. (1998, July 20). Sinhala Only Bill. Retrieved from Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/event/Sinhala-Only-Bill
Daily, M. (2017, April 20). Sri Lanka, one of the world’s most religious countries: Survey. Retrieved from Daily Mirror: http://www.dailymirror.lk/127249/Sri-Lanka-one-of-world-s-most-religious-countries-Survey-
Nazim, A. (2018, March 13). The Digana-Kandy Racial Riots: What You Need to Know. Retrieved from roar LIFE: https://roar.media/english/life/in-the-know/the-digana-kandy-racial-riots-what-you-need-to-know/
O’Brien, B. (2017, March 7). Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Retrieved from ThoughtCo: https://www.thoughtco.com/buddhism-in-sri-lanka-450144
Sarvananthan, M. (2016, November 16). Are Religious Conversion Taking Place in Sri Lanka? Retrieved from Colombo Telegraph: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/are-religious-conversions-taking-place-in-sri-lanka/