Bridgebuilding by Civil Society
It was past 11 pm when the conference at a community hall in Kattankudy ended. The last three speakers were restricted to two minutes each, much to their discomfiture, as some of them had traveled as far as from Colombo and Matara to be present. One of them had even prepared a forty minute presentation which had to be whittled down to enable the conference to end before the witching hour of midnight. According to the local organisers the conference was the first ever inter-religious one to be held in the Muslim town of Kattankudy in the east of the country.
The conference in Kattankudy took place in the context of the continuing inter-religious and ethnic tensions following the Easter Sunday attacks that claimed the lives of over 250 persons and targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels. There is concern once again about the possibility of similar incidents as crucial presidential elections approach. Apart from the taking of innocent lives, such attacks can also be made to influence the course of the elections. Issues of ethnic and religious nationalism, national security and the importance of strong leadership to deal with terrorism will take centre stage.
The inter-religious conference in Kattankudy followed an exchange visit organized by the National Peace Council that involved members of inter-religious committees set up in 22 districts in the country as civil society formations with organic links to the larger community. The main area of the exchange was the volatile Eastern Province in which each of the three main communities is almost equally represented with consequent rivalries and tensions. The choice of Kattankudy for the conference was especially significant as it was the hometown of the leader of the now-banned National Thowheed Jamaat, Zahran Hashim, who led the suicide bombers on Easter Sunday.
As the conference was to share experiences it was scheduled from 6-9 pm at the conclusion of the exchange visit, where the members of inter-religious committees from the other districts met with fishing communities, women-headed households, families of missing persons, among others. However, there were two factors that delayed the conference which the organisers from Colombo had not foreseen. The first was the need of the participants from Kattankudy to take a prayer break shortly after the conference began, in which they went to a nearby mosque. Getting the more than hundred participants back into their seats after the prayer break took up some time.
Second, a further delay arose over the issue of musical accompaniment to the peace songs of Jayatilaka Bandara of Saadu Janaravaya. There were some from Kattankudy who were apprehensive that the controversy over whether music should accompany the songs would derail the harmony of the inter-religious conference. However, the intervention of Abdullah Alim, a moulavi from Puttalam, was useful in resolving the problem. He said that Saadu Janaravaya was not the music of a rock band, but more akin to the sweetness of a rose that is accompanied by thorns. The songs and music of Jayatilaka Bandara thereafter provided a welcome interlude to the many speeches that followed.
The bigger source of delay was the interest of the more than 20 speakers to add a few minutes each to their allocated time which eventually added up. However, despite the delays, the conference was useful in helping the participants to break down the preconceived notions they had of one another. The Muslim participants saw the quality of the Buddhist monks present who believed in the promotion of inter-religious harmony. They saw them as so very different to the nationalist monks whom they have encountered either in media reports or in violent confrontations and who see the Muslims as a threat to Buddhism and to the Sinhala nation in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist monks who attended the conference spoke in term of the Buddhism that upholds loving kindness and universal values.
Even as civil society was creating unity in Kattankudy among the local communities drawn from different parts of the country, in the capital city of Colombo another group of civil society organisations from the March 12 Movement were engaged in a unique exercise to bring together 12 presidential candidates on to one common platform before the people. This was on account of the trust that those who led this civil society initiative, most notably Rohana Hettiarachchi of PAFFREL have gained, through long years of independent election observation that has mobilized tens of thousands of ordinary citizens to uphold the need for free and fair elections.
At the present time there is a large measure of disillusionment among the people with the political parties and politicians in general. The hopes for good governance, anti-corruption and economic development that were raised high during the last presidential and general elections of 2015 have not come to fruition in the manner that was expected. Today those who were once accused of corruption are campaigning as if they were innocent, and those who pledged to bring about anti-corruption measures have themselves been tarnished by corruption. Economic growth rates today are less than during most of the war period.
The situation is so bad that even religious prelates have called for a strongman of the nature of Hitler to redeem the nation. It is in this unhappy situation that civil society has emerged as an institution that has the confidence and credibility to bring together the those who are divided by communal sentiment and by party politics on to one common platform, at the grassroots levels and also nationally. The 12 presidential candidates who appeared on the common platform set up for them by civil society included two of the three main presidential candidates, Sajith Premadasa of the UNP and Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the JVP.
At the debate the candidates were presented with questions prepared in advance by the organisers after consultations with a wide swathe of civil society. The answers they gave on the public stage gives hope in the future of Sri Lanka. Where inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations were concerned, both the two main presidential candidates gave answers on similar lines that eschewed narrow nationalism and embraced the plurality of Sri Lankan society. Several of the first time candidates, most notably former army commander General Mahesh Senanayake spoke likewise in terms of addressing the national question. Faced with the more than 3000-strong multi-ethnic and multi-religious audience at the Sugathadasa Stadium the missing presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, might not have wished to disagree.