By Kamaya Jayatissa –
“I hear that melting-pot stuff a lot, and all I can say is that we haven’t melted.” – Jesse Jackson
Is post-war Sri Lanka truly multicultural?
For a country which finally came out of a protracted civil war we surely have not learned much of a lesson when it comes to tolerance and peaceful co-existence between communities. Lack of inter-communal dialogue, anti-Muslim propaganda, destruction of private properties, escalation of hate-speech against minorities, religious fundamentalism… Where does it stop? In these circumstances, it is legitimate to ask ourselves whether post-war Sri Lanka is truly multicultural or whether it just comprises of multiple cultures that are (hardly) living side by side.
From the outside, there is no doubt that Sri Lanka, as many other countries today, will appear as an internally diverse society. Whether it is through its history, its literature, its architecture or even its landscapes, one cannot deny the cultural diversity our country gained throughout the centuries. But when digging a little deeper, one can only wonder whether our mosaic remains undamaged. Indeed, how much do we exactly know about each other’s culture, religion, language? How much do we share with each other? Do we even respect, leave alone celebrate our differences? These questions need to be considered seriously, particularly given the dangerous escalation of religious fanaticism preached by groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena which claims that this island is neither multi-ethnic nor multi-religious.
For my part, I still want to believe that Sri Lanka remains a mosaic of communities that can live together in peace and in harmony. Nonetheless, I pity that we do not truly realize it and treasure it; thereby enjoying our diversity to its fullest.
Having recently visited an Araniya near Thihariya, I experienced quite an atypical moment which, despite the recent incidents, comforted me in my thoughts. This Buddhist forest monastery which was located on top of a hill was lost in the middle of nowhere. Its surroundings were so quiet and serene that one could easily lose track of time and space. Once I reached the top of the hill, I could hear resounding chants beautifully spreading into the forest. One chant came from the temple below where the monks had just started to recite their evening prayers while the other chant came in chorus from a nearby mosque. Though completely different in terms of resonance, the two chants fused as one. And while I am pretty sure that both the temple and the mosque must have perceived the noise made by their neighbor as quite irritating at times, to me that coincidental combination was one of the most striking melodies I ever heard. For a brief moment, it sounded as two religions, two cultures; one could even say two worlds, merging as one.
Unfortunately, as it has often been the case, we tend to forget that this Rainbow Nation of ours is way more than just a few communities living side by side. Too frequently do we tend to forget that, as a nation, we need to cultivate not only our commonalities but also our differences in order to foster respect, develop mutual understanding and mostly create a platform for open dialogue between our people so that no individual or community feels marginalized to the point of being considered as strangers in their own soil. The end of the war should have been the best occasion for such a platform to be restored. Instead, what emerged these past few months is an additional form of extremism, based this time on religious intolerance and racism, which juxtaposes itself onto the current socio-political and socioeconomic crises. And for such a form of extremism to have surfaced and grown this fast, in such a short period of time, it can only be due to the fact that we allowed it for already too long by remaining passive spectators of our own downfall.
Hence, what strikes me the most in all this mess is that most of the people seem to have stopped believing a long time ago, as if agonizing in silence was the safest thing to do. Although the Government must share its part of the burden, if no urgent and effective push is initiated by us, the people, there will be no interest or need for change at the top of the pyramid, leaving us once more with nothing else than a scattered and divided nation.
So far, one of our biggest mistakes was to fight solely for the end of the war rather than also for a positive, participatory peace. We forgot to forgive each other in the process and we are now facing the consequences of our own omissions by repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Mostly, we forgot that our diversity is also part of our culture and that it is our responsibility to preserve it as much as our communal traditions and beliefs; only then will we achieve lasting peace.
My only hope is that the present crisis does not go on forever and that we will be able to regain the communal peace our parents and grandparents once enjoyed, a communal peace that my generation never had the chance to experience truly. In this context, restoring hope and commitment in the nation-building process seems to be, to me, one of our biggest challenges as Sri Lankans. And for the cynics among us who are determined to play the card of skepticism, what better inspiration than President Mandela who once said “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.
*Kamaya Jayatissa, President of What’s Next!, is a PhD student in International Law at the Sorbonne University, Paris. She holds a Master Degree in International Law from the Sorbonne and a Diploma in International Governance and Sustainable Development from Sciences Po, Paris.