Nationalist Buddhist groups setting up temples and putting up statues in places where there are hardly any or no Buddhists has become a visible source of inter ethnic agitation. The Northern Provincial Council has passed a resolution that no Buddhist temples should be constructed in the North. Many Tamils see the putting up of Buddha statues and the construction of Buddhist temple as a projection of Sinhalese domination in the North after the defeat of the LTTE. They ask why Buddhist temples are being built and statutes are erected in areas where there are no Buddhists. Some of them are constructed by the armed forces. However, it is not only Buddhist groups that are engaging in this practice. Christians in the North have complained of Hindus doing the same and that large numbers of Hindu temples are coming up on encroached state and private lands using Diaspora money.
After a two year lull that followed replacement of the former government through the electoral process, public manifestations of inter community tension and media coverage of the same have been on the rise. There are indications of political maneuvering behind these efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. Video footage of religious clergy engaging in vitriolic attacks on those of other ethnic and religious groups have gone viral on the social media. Most notably in the North and East, there are clashes being reported on inter religious grounds. There are many incidents of religious clergy getting involved in expansionist projects, such as religious conversions, destruction of ancient sites or building places of worship in areas where they are less numerous.
A particularly acute source of inter religious tension is the constant use of hate speech by groups that form themselves under the name of religion and attack those of other religions. Most visibly, nationalist Buddhist groups have been targeting the Muslim community in this regard. Ethno nationalist organizations have been engaging in hate campaigns and intimidating those of other communities at the local level. The expansion of the Muslim population, its increasingly visible economic strength, alleged connections to militant international Islamic groups and religious practices such as Halal have been the main focus of their campaigns. This has created and continues to sustain a sense of apprehension and insecurity in the Muslim community particularly in areas where they are a minority, which is most of the country.
During the period of the last government, these incidents of hate speech and violence were ignored by the government. There was also a widespread belief amongst human rights groups and the Muslim community that a section of the former government was also tacitly supporting the aggressors. On the other hand, at the present time government leaders have shown no support for actions that are in opposition to inter ethnic and inter religious harmony. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have made it clear that they wish these incidents to cease and the law to prevail. President Sirisena’s admonition that anyone who violates the law would be dealt with by the law enforcement agencies will serve to embolden the police to take deterrent action rather than stand idly as they did during the Aluthgama anti Muslim riots in 2014.
As a result of government policy that is not anti minority but is focused on preserving inter community relations, there is no mass sentiment that is in favour of communal confrontation visible in any part of the country. The National Peace Council has been conducting inter religious meetings at the community level. A gathering earlier this month in Trincomalee which was attended by members of all religions, and by government officials and police, on the contrary revealed a great deal of goodwill. The police officer who had been entrusted with communal amity said that there were youth who went about pasting stickers which had hate messages. But apart from pasting the stickers they did nothing much else, and the general population did not support them. It appears that at the level of the general population there is little or no personal animosities. On the contrary social relations and cultural similarities make the people prepared to sit with one another and attend meetings that are called in the name of inter ethnic and inter religious harmony.
Sri Lanka is fortunate in that its past traditions of inter ethnic and inter religious tolerance, of which there are records from the days of the kings, continues to prevail at the social and individual level. On the other hand, the visible manifestations of aggression and intolerance are politically created ones. When such politically motivated action takes place they are highly visible and are immediately given media attention. This creates an impression of crisis. But those who seek to attack those of other communities on account of religious rivalries and for purposes of religious domination do not have support amongst the people. Therefore the agitators are susceptible to control by the law enforcement agencies.
However, in contrast to the politically motivated inter religious tension, there is a degree of community level tension between the different ethnic communities living in the North and East that is having an impact on their lives. In Mullaitivu, an inter religious meeting became a forum for conflicting views to be expressed on matters pertaining to land. A Muslim participant explained that in 1990 when the LTTE expelled the Muslim population from the Northern Province, about 1500 Muslim families had left Mullaitivu. But now more than 26 years later, there are about 4500 Muslim families that have returned due to the natural increase in their population. Obtaining land for the additional families is providing to be difficult as it is resisted by those from the Tamil community and the government administration that functions in that area.
In Batticaloa it was a similar issue of land that led to one of the outbursts of the Buddhist monk against the government servant which went viral on the social media. The monk was angry that Sinhalese who sought land permits were being denied them although they had a claim to the land, according to the monk. On the other hand, the Tamils in the area felt that it was they who were under threat, now that the Eastern Provincial Council had a Muslim Chief Minister. According to them most of the provincial council appointments were going to Muslims, including being security guards in Tamil schools. They also pointed out the prosperity of Muslim towns in the east, as compared to the impoverished Tamil towns that lay adjacent to them.
In situations where there is political mistrust between communities and a history of conflict, it is important that governmental and provincial authorities should take decisions in a fair manner and in a manner that does not create more conflict. The use of a majoritarian mindset by politicians to favour their own community when they are the majority in a region is not conflict-sensitive nor is it acceptable. Decisions that are taken need to be seen as fair by all communities. If this is not the case, inter ethnic and inter religious harmony will be difficult to achieve, and the gains of the present will be dissipated in the new conflicts of the future. The role of civil society would be to identify these conflicts in dialogue with the communities and find ways to take them up to those who make the decisions so that they may decide fairly and take into consideration the concerns of each community in a conflict-sensitive manner.