Sri Lanka, a country seemingly at peace
You might picture Sri Lanka as a country with wonderful landscapes and a strong Buddhist heritage that attracted over 2.3 million tourists in 2018. But this island is also home to different communities: the majority of its population, 70%, is Sinhalese and Buddhist, while 18% is Tamil and Hindu, and 8% is Muslim. This multiculturalism could be seen as an asset and an opportunity to embrace different cultures, traditions and languages. But since Sri Lanka's independence in 1972, its ethnic diversity has been the driving force of tensions that resulted in a civil war between the Tamil nationalist group, also known as the Tamil Tigers, and the Sinhalese government. Today, more than a decade after the end of the conflict in 2009, a peacebuilding process is still underway. Unfortunately, it has been proven difficult to successfully implement an efficient peace process as tensions between different communities remain high.
The struggle of the Tamil community
The Tamil community traditionally lives in the northern part of the island. As a result of the war, most of the Tamil who used to live in other regions eventually moved north. This region is comparatively poorer than the rest of the country, and home to most of the remaining anti-personnel landmines planted during the war, making farming complicated and dangerous. Many Tamil families lost their land to Sinhalese farmers during the war, and are still struggling to get them back. The struggle to recover financially and mentally from the war resulted in a constant resentment of the Tamil minority against the Sinhalese majority. This is also fuelled by a feeling of a lack of cultural recognition. More than half of the Tamil community speaks and understands Sinhalese, while not even 10% of the Sinhalese effectively speak Tamil. It is therefore unlikely that the peace process will manage to move forward if the Tamil community keeps on feeling left out.
The risk of radicalisation within the Muslim community
The Muslim community has also been facing multiple challenges in the last decade. Though not directly involved in the civil war, they were and still remain one of the main targets of Buddhist extremist groups, the most important one being the Bodu Bala Sena (or the Buddhist Power Force). The BBS conducts economic boycotts towards muslim-owned businesses, and their conventions often host hate speech against this community. Houses and shops owned by muslims are locally ransacked by the BBS : this was the case in the city of Kandy in 2014. The marginalisation of this community led to the religious radicalisation of some individuals. Though this radicalisation can be traced back to the 1980s, it has definitely intensified since the end of the civil war and it is feared that it could result in an armed conflict in the near future. Radicalized individuals conducted suicide attacks on the 21st of April 2019 all around the country, killing 250 people. These attacks clearly show that the decade-long standstill of the peace process is not viable in the long term, and needs to be pushed forward.
Local initiatives in peacebuilding
Seeing that the peace process was at a standstill on the national level, locally led organizations have come together to find solutions on a local level. These organizations emphasise that the collective effort of different communities is a key for improving everyone's way of living. Importantly, they do not shy away from multiculturalism. One of these associations is the Women for Peace and Good Governance (WPGG), based in the city of Kandy. Their main goal is to promote women in leadership positions, in both the private and the public sector. The association has been created in 2007 by 54 women from a multicultural background, whether Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese.
What the Peace Brigade does
Another interesting initiative is the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, which is active in over 3.000 villages across the country. Its main goal is to ensure better living conditions for the rural population. This fairly big movement created a “Peace Brigade” (Shanti Sena), composed of over 100,000 teenagers and young adults. The brigade aims to promote peacebuilding, democracy and good governance to the Sri Lankan youth, regardless of their religion, community or language. The association believes that this interethnic and interreligious dialogue will help promote a more equal and inclusive society. The executive governing council of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement itself is multiethnic, and their joint meetings are provided with a trilingual translation.
United they stand
At the national level, the Muslim and the Tamil communities have come together to pursue their common goal. At the beginning of February 2021, they gathered for a march across the country, demanding that both the government, and the international community, protect and enforce their rights. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 outbreak and the economic crisis that the country currently has to face, the peacebuilding process seems to be temporarily put on hold. Sri Lanka has seen many initiatives fighting for equal rights of its diverse communities, however the minority groups are still struggling to escape the many challenges that they face. For the country's peacebuilding process to achieve fruitful outcomes, it will be important that a united front is put in the forefront and demands the protection of everyone's rights in the country, regardless of individuals' ethnicity or religious beliefs.
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