ECONOMYNEXT – The Eastern city of Batticaloa in Sri Lanka is one of the most multicultural and multi-lingual in the country, but is riven with communal differences and is finding that building bridges is not easy.
The communities in the Batticaloa district range from Arab, East Asian and Indian traders who came by sailboat, to the Portuguese and Dutch who came to the island as invaders.
The majority community is Tamil speaking, split between Hindus, Christians and Muslims and the Sinhala speakers, who are a minority. Portuguese is still spoken here and there are half a dozen Tamil dialects you can hear as well. The ethnic Tamils, are, by far the larger community and consider this region as part of their homeland.
Batticaloa also was the epicentre of the conflict between the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the East of Sri Lanka from the early 1980s for nearly three decades. The fighting, particularly during the 1980s was intense and was often in urban areas of the district which was held mostly by government troops.
Although the fighting was between the Tamil separatists and the government forces, as in any war ordinary civilians from all communities were the victims.
In the early days of the conflict, there were some Muslims who supported the struggle for the separate state of Tamil Eelam, says former Vice-Chancellor of the Eastern University Prof. T Jeyasingham. “Nineteen-ninety was the year when the Muslims turned over, meaning they began welcoming the Army and became government supporters,” he told EconomyNext in an interview.
That was also the time when LTTE cadres attacked a mosque in Kattankudy, a Batticaloa suburb which is exclusively Muslim, killing 147 worshippers. There were also instances when the Tigers looted shops in the area. By then the Tamils and the Muslims had become enemies.
Social Worker N Manoharan said, that the Muslims, by forming their own political parties won the support of the Sinhala-dominated government and then used that advantage to better their lot.
Because of the security situation, Tamil traders found it difficult to ply their trade to Colombo and other Sinhala majority areas.
“This helped the Muslims to take over the trade entirely. I think we made a few billionaires during that time,” Jeyasingham said.
The Easter Sunday attacks by an extremist group that had its roots in Kattankudy changed all that, the Professor says. “After the Easter (attacks) I think there were lots of changes in the dynamics. All the advantages they, the Muslims had, came to a standstill, so this may be the best time to negotiate with them where they can speak without all the flanks and this and that.”
One of the three churches hit by the suicide bombers on April 21, 2019 is the Zion Church in Batticaloa.
Fr. Rajan Rohaan of the American Mission in Batticaloa says soon after the attack Muslim Civil Society leaders contacted him as he is the current Chair of the Batticaloa Inter-religious Forum.
“They wanted to come to condole with the families and offer aid,” he said.
However, after discussing the offer with his fellow Pastors, Rohaan turned down the overture for the moment.
Rohaan says that the Tamils in Batticaloa saw the attack on the Zion Church as an “attack on the entire Tamil community, not just the Tamil Christians.”
As a result, the simmering anti-Muslim sentiments in the city and its surrounding area came to the surface. Groups of young Tamil men began distributing leaflets in the city urging their community to boycott Muslim shops and also forced Tamils working in Muslim establishments to stop.
This hugely disrupted the economy of the district. Many eateries are Muslim-owned in Batticaloa and Tamils are their customers. Trade is dominated by the Muslims as they have done over the centuries. The boycotts “robbed many vulnerable people of their livelihoods,” Selvarajah Ariyamalai, a Field Coordinator of the Suriya Womens’ Centre Batticaloa told EconomyNext in an interview.
Rohaan who is the Pastor of St John’s Church, observes that there is the rise of Nationalism in Batticaloa. “There is the rise of Tamil Nationalism and Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism. Then there is the Arabianisation of the Muslim community. So the people of Batticaloa are living with this extremism; that is the real challenge.”
An hour’s bus ride from Batticaloa city lies the rural community of Oddamavadi and there resides Katugastota Mahindalankara Thero, the only Buddhist Monk involved in the inter-religious peace-building efforts.
His temple is in an area which once was a Sinhala-majority area, but now has more Tamils and mixed-race families. At the time of our visit, there were some local volunteers cleaning the temple grounds, and they were all Tamil speakers.
Mahindalankara Thero says the volunteers, mostly women, are children of Sinhala and Tamil parents. “Here we are trying to build a program that will bring peace among the communities,” he told EconomyNext in an interview.
For the Muslims, they have seized the opportunity to reach out to the other communities Abdul Latif Sabeel, Secretary of the Kattankudy Mosques Federation told EconomyNext.
“After this incident (4/21) the bonds between the Tamil and Muslim communities have strengthened,” he claimed. “We are working with Hindu temple Gurus and the Christian churches,” he said.
He went on to say that the Muslims cannot live in Sri Lanka as a separate group. “We have to build this feeling among all communities,” he added.
“At the same time we have to respect the other religious groups,” he said.
But, says Rohaan, it is not as easy as it sounds to build bridges to bring these communities together. The underlying tensions still remain, he believes.
He says, however, that there has to be a realization that all the communities have a single purpose.
He points out that as a “Civil Society actor I would like to work for democratic rights. As a Tamil, I cannot work for only the rights of Tamils. I have to work for the rights of the Muslims, Sinhalese and others.” (Colombo February 08, 2020)