It’s almost a decade since the end of the civil war and the process of reconciliation remains but an engine capped to the first gear. Despite hopes of a brighter future post – war, there remains countless loose ends that are yet to be tied. Thousands still missing, riots against communities, subtle racism that is rampant, the list goes on. Having a political crisis amidst all this certainly helps no one, in fact it stifles progress and pushes the country behind. The past year has definitely been one for the books, despite anti – communal violence to kickstart the year we also had to bear the cost of a constitutional crisis coupled with a crippling currency. All wasn’t bleak however as our island was named lonelyplanets no. 1 travel destination, the irony though was, soon after, many countries issued travel warnings to their citizens during the political turmoil, which really put a dent on the tourism industry during the holiday season.
If there is one thing that’s clear through the events of 2018 is that the will of Sri Lankans is strong. The general public are exhausted from false promises made by those in higher authority claiming to be steering us into a brighter future yet at the same time dipping their hands into heinous crimes to make a quick buck or two or to secure a position of power, they are tired also with the nationalistic agendas of certain groups whose main aim is to plunge the country into racial disharmony. Hope rests in the fact that people are ever vigilant. The public aren’t as blind to wrong doings as before. When something fundamental holding together the fabric of a democratic socialist republic is breached, scores of people will take to the streets and protest that very injustice. When communities are being assaulted while false news circulates, people band together and unite in solidarity against the violence.
As useful as social media and electronic news outlets are in spreading information rapidly, incidents occurring this past year are prime examples of how false propaganda can circulate causing fear among the public. This phenomenon of sharing uncorroborated information reached its peak in February last year during the anti – Muslim riots, with the government even going as far as blocking social media networks for a period of 72 hours in the hopes of preventing mobs organising their attacks and spreading propaganda. Aluthgama, Digana, Teldeniya, Kandy are just a few names of places where violence festered through mob attacks. What let it reach such a height was the slow response from police and government. Moreover, perpetrators of religious and ethnic hate know quite well that the penalties they face is little and most often violence goes unpunished. Take for instance the apparent mob leader arrested in connection with the racial violence in Kandy Amith Jeevan Weerasinghe who was released on bail in November with an order to report to the CID every Sunday. Such crimes of spreading material such as leaflets, posters and documents containing extremely racist content and going further to causing violence should have consequences. This was not the case. Moving forward we must ask ourselves if being complacent is enough on our end when it comes to attacks like this.
One could argue that extremist groups were responsible for such incidents, that may as well be the case but still, what does the government have in place to solve such issues cropping up at a time when reconciling wounded communities should be of paramount importance. Is some reprise for families who had their houses/shops and even places of worship damaged available? Should something of this nature happen again, what would be the result? Its as if old patterns which led to a full-blown war are being repeated. The government should be quick to address such issues instead of being quiet and coming up with temporary measures to appease the public. Long term solutions should be provided.
Thankfully, amidst all the attacks this year there have also been groups who have banded to safeguard the community from further violence. When riots spread from Digana had escalated, the monks at the Nelligama Bhuddist Centre immediately took action. Founder of the centre Wathnurakumure Dharmarathne thero and other monks in the centre sought assistance of the area and assigned themselves the task of protecting the Muslims in the area. The groups stood guard throughout the night until the next morning, they prevented four attacks and preached against the wrongs of what the attackers were doing. As the Jummah Mosque in Digana burnt down, Muslims in the area conducted Friday prayers in a school ground. The Sinhala Community in the neighbourhood assisted them in arranging the grounds for prayer. A small hotel owned by a Muslim businessman in Anamduwa was torched down on Sunday 11th March but was rebuilt with the assistance of 300 volunteers, majority of whom were from the Sinhala community.
The previous year wasn’t hard on the Muslim community exclusively, there were a reported 40 religious liberty violations against the Christian community. It ranged from verbal assaults to actual property damage. Often such reports are moved down the list in terms of urgency. Such is the plight of those affected. But there is always hope that the situation will improve.
2018 is certainly one to remember for time to come. A year filled with hate washed over by hope from the community. A year where Sri Lankans proved to the authorities that they won’t be satisfied with the status quo. Law and order have a place in society and so does communal harmony. Not everyone is harbouring grudges, people stand by each other despite the labels of ethnicity and religion. Ultimately the way forward isn’t by clinging on to the wounds of yesteryear but by letting go and allowing them to heal gradually by trusting each other once more. The generation that is to come deserves far better than what we’ve witnessed and been through. It all begins with a single step in the right direction.