Step 10 – Sri Lanka

January 23, 2018

By far, Sri Lanka has been one of the best surprise of this travel,  from both human and interfaith
perspectives. A journey full of colors and hope within a country that just emerged 9 years ago from
a 26 year-long war.

 Context

From the 16th to the 20th century, Ceylan (former name of Sri Lanka) was a European colony,
successively under Portuguese, Dutch and British sovereignty. It is only in 1948 that the country
gained its independence from the United Kingdom. However, the young democracy could not
prevent the monopolization of power by the Sinhalese majority. Actually, this domination was the
outcome of a policy led by the British crown which aimed to “divide to conquer” by favoring the Tamil
minority to make it become an elite. That was how a regime which consisted in favoring one ethnical
group over the other in order to divide and rule. In this case they favored the Tamils over the
Sinhalese. The rising discriminations against Tamils failed to be thawarted by any of the three
successive constitution promulgated between 1948 and 1978. As time went by, the situation got
worse as the concept of “Sinhalese race” started to emerge and that Sinhalese intellectuals started
to advocate for it. As soon as 1948, one million Tamils had been stripped of their nationality on the
pretext that they were of Indian origin. In fact, a majority of Tamils comes from South India and was
displaced to Sri Lanka during the British colonization to increase the tea industry in the region. In
1956, Sinhalese became the only official language thereby evicting the Tamil minority language. At
the same time, Buddhism was also granted a privileged status and was followed by a number of
other oppressive and discriminating laws against Tamils. In the 70’s, the LTTE (The Tamil separatist
party), also called ‘’The Tigers” is founded in response to the daily acts of violence towards the
community. The year 1983 was the one of the outbreak of war: an attack by LTTE on a State
military bus killed 13 individuals and was followed by retaliations within Tamil neighborhoods
leading to the death of no less than 600 individuals. During more than 26 years, the country is
seized by death and hatred. More than 100.000 will die from this racial and societal disease.
Nowadays many Tamils are still fighting in efforts to have the genocidal nature of the conflict and
their victim status recognized. Their struggle includes not only the atrocities committed by the
Sinhalese government but also the LTTE, which conducted a manhunt against any Tamil individual
disapproving its deadly actions. However, and though the State has engaged, since September
2015, in the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the infringements of Human Rights
that occurred during the war, there are, to this day, no tangible results (yet).

 A non-profit network with strong and countless initiatives

Even though History is a heavy weight on the country’s shoulder, one can only be amazed by the
array of organizations aiming to strengthen social cohesion and coexistence among all. The easy
access to NGOs or other charity organizations is a striking display of the constant activity led by civil
society. Some pioneer non-profits are constantly reinventing the Sri Lankan society through their
numerous activities and events. Since the civil war, Caritas Sri Lanka has provided a space for
dialogue and exchange between the two main communities: Tamil and Sinhala lessons as well as
an immersion program in a host family to understand each other’s realities. Thanks to its booming
creativity, the Caritas’ influence and impact became all the more so important. URI Sri Lanka, with
whom we spent two days in Jaffna, during their yearly National assembly, allowed us to experience
some of our purest moments of conviviality and of sharing with locals. Coming from all across Sri
Lanka but also from India, young people and adults came to share their experiences and the
activities they had held throughout the year. This cultural and religious mix magnified the differences
and specificities each individual had while also reminding their unity within their commitment to
peace. Thanks to them, we took part in a trip to the Sacred Island where Hindu and Buddhist
temples, Churches and Mosques stand alongside each other. Guided by Noor, our Muslim friend,
Eloi discovered the Hindu culture and its traditions. Meanwhile, Bettina met Muthukumar Chennai,
an Indian filmmaker, using cinema to raise awareness about the environment and coexistence. The
day after, we went back to the Assembly to carry out around ten interviews with young people, old
people, students, women, men, religious officials, believers, non-believers, and, above all, a lot of
determination and faith in tomorrow.

Interfaith, the channel chosen by the government for reconciliation

Regarding the Sri Lankan context, the conflict was more ethnic than religious. Thus, initiatives of
reconciliation are rather cultural than religious. This is all the more so crucial to understand given
the many stories that we were told such as the one of Ramani and Devanandan Prince.
Nevertheless, religion is a major cultural factor in each ethnic group : Tamils are
composed of 75% of Hindus whereas the rest is either Christian, Muslim or of other faiths. Within
the Sinhalese group, the majority is Buddhist (90%) but still holds Christian and Muslim minorities.
Surprisingly enough, two other minority ethnic groups have drawn away from this bicultural trend:
The Indian Tamils (4%), poor and settled in the north of the Island and the Muslims, also called the
Moors (8%). At this stage, one can only start to understand the complexity of the Sri Lankan
society… Broadly speaking – and to get it over with data – there is 70% of Buddhists, 15% of Hindu,
8% of Muslims and 7% of Catholics. In that respect, the government has put in place religious
departments to allow the communities to organize while maintaining dialogue with the State in order
to ensure a permanent link. Yet, the fact remains that tensions have not disappeared. Bearing that
in mind, and to tackle this issue, the government works on restraining the growing hate towards the
Muslim community (i.e : this issue cannot be approached without a broader point of view on the
regional geopolitics, notably with the policies led in India and more recently in Myanmar…).

The challenges of education

It is beyond doubt that education is one of the most concerning topics. Many children experienced
war and grew up with it. So, how should peace be taught without tarnishing the memory and pain of
thousands of families? Nowadays it is too early to hope for a History program that reconciles the
narratives of each group when many crimes are still pending cases. However, university
researchers as well as the State administration and publishing houses must work on providing such
textbooks for teachers to rely on while addressing that part of history to the youngest generations.
As in all countries in post-conflict situations, this school subject clearly reflects the situation of the
country. Between 2001 and 2007, the content in secondary school programs were reviewed in order
to strengthen the “education to peace” (democratic principles, human rights, gender equality and
environmental protection).  While civil society awaits for this national curriculum, it works through
putting in place transitional pedagogical tools: Equitas is the result of a cooperation between the
Sri Lankan diaspora and the Canadian government. Nowadays, the organization offers and publishes
many textbooks for schools in order to put in place conflict resolution workshops and fight against prejudices.
Equitas addresses the question of civil war narratives in history classes and aims at transforming each
transmitted narrative and stories specific to each group into one single collective and national narrative…
and that is certainly no easy task!

Millennials: resilience and hope

Now it’s up to the youth to take a stand. The millennials born in the 80s have grown up, for almost
all their life, in a violent, fratricide and warlike context. They are the hope, the symbol of resilience
and the reason for our unfailing respect and admiration for the people of this country. Off all studied
countries so far, the Sri Lankan youth is one of the most committed to reconciliation and determined
to make a change in society: they take part in all the initiatives and fights with an undying energy
and positivity. From the Al Akbar Mosque passing by Global Unites and United Religions Initiatives,
they still have a lot to give. Just 10 years ago, when the conflict seemed to settle down, Prashan
deVisser launched Sri Lanka Unites, a conflict resolution NGO gathering young Sri Lankans from
different backgrounds and ethnical groups to build the future. The success of Sri Lanka Unites
quickly led to its exportation in an additional nine countries suffering from internal conflict, now all
part of Global Unites. Shifan, Khalib, Jordan, Noor, Fareenah, Sutchit, to only quote some of them,
are just as many radiating people deeply involved in the future of their country. A few weeks after
we had met Schifan, Sutchit and Khalib, the three friends announced us they had created Interfaith
Colombo, inspired by the model of InterFaith Tour and Coexister. This announcement has filled us
with pride, joy and excitement for our new friends and the work they are getting involved in. While
some choose to commit to dialogue, others like Marjorie and Chamika, a young French-Sri Lankan
newlywed couple. Five years ago, they jumped both feet in sustainable tourism ! So, if you were
thinking about going to Sri Lanka, please check at their page. In addition to being sustainable actors,
Marjorie and Chamika also hosted us for most of our stay in Sri Lanka with an unsettling simplicity and kindness.
Through these wonderful encounters and thanks to those who welcomed us with open arms, we
have learned more than we could have ever expected, making this 10 th step one of the most
touching of all.

 

Béné