Is Kurunegala losing its multicultural heritage?
The Kurunegala district is one place in Sri Lanka where the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa can expect a good chunk of votes and a clear majority.
After all, his elder brother, Opposition Leader Mahinda is the local Member of Parliament.
There is also another demographic factor that applies to this region.
Women’s activist Sumika Perera points out that a large percentage of the population have connections to the Security Forces and Police. Kurunegala “has a large number of war widows, disabled security forces personnel and current members of the armed forces,” Perera told RepublicNext in an interview.
The war victory cry, therefore, resonates here.
The Elections Commission reported last week that the largest number of postal votes was cast in this election in the Kurunegala district, another indication that many of its voting-age citizens were already mustered for deployment on Election Day for special duties.
“Because of this demographic factor, Kurunegala has been a fertile ground for various Nationalist movements, such as Rise-Up Wayamba,” she says.
In the 2018 Local Government elections the newly formed SLPP won the Kurunegala Municipality narrowly, beating the second-placed United National Party by less than one percentage point 38.95% to 38.36%. But overall in the district the SLPP swamped rest of the field taking a 15% lead.
This is also a place where there has been a significant rise in ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the smaller but significant minority the Muslims.
The Kurunegala Municipality has closed down Beef shops in recent months and a huge outcry was raised when a Muslim Surgeon Dr. Shafi Siyabdeen working at the Kurunegala Hospital was accused of rendering hundreds of Sinhala Buddhist women infertile.
President’s Counsel Mohamed Ali Sabri, an SLPP supporter said in a Twitter conversation that it was a group connected to the party that was responsible for the outcry.
A Police investigation into the allegation has found no evidence of guilt on Shafi’s part.
In contrast, the region has a long history of amity between the various racial groups.
Take the phenomenon of the worship of the local deity Galebandara, the son of King Buvenekabahu the First who reigned in the latter part of the 13th century from Kurunegala and his Muslim Queen Fatima.
Galebandara is worshipped at two places, a regular Kovil which attracts people of all faiths as well as at a Muslim shrine, where again people of faiths come for blessings.
Upali Ratnayake the Hereditary Custodian of the Kovil says there is a connection between the Sinhalese and the Muslims from the time of the ancient kings because of this. Galebandara is worshipped despite the fact that he as Prince Wathhimi was killed by Sinhalese because he executed local Shamans.
The remains of Queen Fatima also lies in a shrine where many pilgrims come. Here she is known as Sithy Umma and locals believe she was a Persian woman who the King saw when he was riding and was struck by her beauty and married her.
The Shrine is looked after by the fifth Hereditary Woman custodian Meherun. She says she “communicates with the Queen” when she prays.
The acting Chief Incumbent of the Eth Kanda Buddhist temple, Weerapokune Sumangala Thero asserts that although there are Muslims, Tamils and other minorities in Sri Lanka it remains a Sinhala Buddhist country and people live together in peace. “When there is tensions or issues between the races it is usually created by politicians for their ends,” he added.
The Anglican Bishop of Kurunegala Rev Keerthisiri Fernando, who is a scholar and writer on race relations agrees. “Politicians want to show that they are better than their opponents. So they create a fear of another community and say if you stay with us, we can look after you so that they can get more votes.”
Activist Perera says usually people of different ethnicities do not mix or inter-marry much “but lived within their own communities in peace.
She also does not expect any racial clashes to be generated during the current Presidential election campaign. “These parties know that they need the Muslim votes to win the election, so I predict that until the election is over there will be ethnic peace.”