Tuesday, 08 October 2019 13:32

Bridging the Ethnic and Religious Divide Through Awareness

High level government officials, religious leaders, representatives from NGOs and Community Based Organizations, members of the Community Policing Unit, media personnel and DIRC members attended facilitative meetings in six districts under NPC’s most recent project, Actively Countering Extremism, implemented with funding and guidance from the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).

The purpose of the meetings was to discuss the prevailing tense situation in local communities and to plan activities to promote solidarity among Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils towards building reconciliation.

The meetings were conducted under the guidance of NPC Project Manager Saman Seneviratne, who initiated the discussions by highlighting how inter community conflict could have an adverse effect on the country.

The project originated after the deadly Easter Sunday attacks in April, which caused a backlash against the Muslim community with businesses being boycotted, Muslim women being discriminated at supermarkets and hospitals and the Muslim community as a whole being pushed into a corner.

Under the project, the NPC has been working in 10 selected districts where the tension between the religious communities has been high as a direct result of the April 21 attacks.

Ms. Maziyya Hillmy, an active Galle DIRC member, spoke about the issues faced by the Muslim community, especially by the Muslim woman, after the attacks. She praised her Sinhalese neighbours and friends who reached out to ensure her safety and encouraged her not to hide at home.

As a result of the meetings in the Galle, Ratnapura, Hambantota, Kegalle, Moneragala districts, special committees were appointed to organize visits to Muslim villages to conduct a series of activities to build solidarity among the different communities.

“The Muslim community was afraid to seek treatment because they thought they might be mistreated. We need to reassure them of their security and give them a sense of belonging in their own country. It is not an easy task but it is vital to build trust among the communities. At the same time, the importance of reconciliation and integration needs to be taught in schools so that children have a proper understanding of the different cultural and religious values and practices that exist around them.” H.P. Karunawathi, Director, Galle Ayurvedic Centre.

“My Muslim colleagues lived and worked in fear during the first few days after the attacks. But since my secretariat took quick action and alerted the security forces, I was able to protect the vulnerable communities in my area. It is vital to have respect for each other. One of the main reasons for disrespect and disharmony is the misunderstanding that occurs as a result of the language barrier, so it is important to implement language learning programmes in schools, universities and other relevant agencies to close the existing language gap.” Himali Rathnaweera, District Secretariat, Galle.

“It is vital to get the youth groups involved in the reconciliation process. To stop extremist and racist ideas from spreading among the youth, they need to be properly educated about the different cultures and religions. Youth skill and capacity development programmes should be organized and implemented as well.” Sugath Chandrasena, National Youth Service Council, Ratnapura.

“Since there are multiple ethnicities living in Ruwanwella, it is important that all communities have a proper understanding of each other’s different cultural and religious values and practices. I suggest conducting a cultural exchange programme between Sinhala and Muslim women where they visit each other to have discussions on their different cultural practices, allowing them to have a better understanding about each other as women.” Janaki Ihalagoda, District Reconciliation Officer, Kegalle.

“Certain groups don’t have much confidence in the reconciliation process carried out by the government but each citizen has a responsibility to the country to do their part in helping the process. It could start with something small such as sharing a positive message on Facebook about peace building and condemning extremism.” Sujith Wedamulla, Superintendent of Police, Moneragala.

“Children do not carry racist and religious differences. It is only instilled in them by adults. So after the April 21 attacks, there was no disharmony among the students in the schools. All racist and extreme religious ideologies exist because of people’s attitudes, which are fed by misunderstandings. But since these school children are given a proper education about different cultural and religious values and practices, they are not so narrow minded.” D.W. Susil Kumara, Principal, Samodhagama Junior School, Hambantota.