27 October, 2020

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The Mixed Choir

By Ajita Kadirgamar

Ajita Kadirgamar

I’m not a religious person. I don’t go to church very often. But I was in church last Sunday because my beautiful and talented Hindu friend invited me to listen to her choir at an event titled HymnFest ’13 – a festival of hymns for brass, organ, choir and congregation. So there I was at the quaint old St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk, Kollupitiya, listening to the powerful voices of a very ethnically mixed choir, including my Hindu friend.

When everyone is dressed in nondescript black, singing in one voice, you don’t see the individuals, you see one unified body with a single thread that binds them together – a love of music and singing. A glance at the names in the programme revealed a Malay (making his debut on Timpani), Burghers, Tamils, Sinhalese, a Colombo Chetty and a few foreigners. Yet little did it matter what their denomination or ethnicity was. No one questioned the appropriateness or their right to be in a church singing hymns to an audience that was equally diverse. There were even some seemingly foreign Muslim ladies dressed in shalwars in the gathering!

My friend may be a devout Hindu, but she has been singing in choirs all her life, thanks to her open minded parents. The youngest of six siblings they were all encouraged to go beyond their cultural and societal boundaries in their quest for hobbies, interests and pastimes.

While I listened to hymn after hymn and observed the ‘congregation’, I marveled at how unique and special this country is, for it affords us such a mixed tapestry of citizenship.

Having lived for long periods away from Sri Lanka, the one thing that lures me back time and again is the rich and varied friendships I have here. There are my two Bora friends. One I met through a common social circle and though years may pass with no contact, the bond of friendship is renewed in an instant from the first welcoming hug. The other who I met during a diploma course in the 90’s, is a sane voice in a mad world and keeps me grounded. My long time “Sinhala Buddhist” friend who calls me her sister and who felt abandoned when I left the country ten years ago, is delighted I am back and has been a source of tremendous support as I readjust to life here. My European friend and former neighbor was born a Catholic but converted to Islam when she married a Sri Lankan and moved here over 30 years ago. We were the kind of neighbours who were in and out of each other’s homes, borrowing eggs, sugar, needle and thread, whatever the need of the day. Her home was our second home. As a young child my son thought he was a Muslim too, especially during the month of Ramadan when he would rush there to ‘break fast’ with them in the evenings. He loved the samosas that uncle would bring from the mosque.

Our lane in fact was a picture book microcosm of a harmonious Sri Lanka, for there were Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim families wall to wall, living and socializing in perfect coexistence. The kids would play cricket and basketball, the women would stand around chatting in the evenings, we would visit the homes of newborn babies and condole when there was a death in the family, food would be shared at festivals and special events. Such joyous times! To top it all the house next to me functioned as a Montessori. For nearly a decade it was home to children from every community and walk of life.

All of this is in stark contrast to the few friendships I developed in the US.  For instance my first friend there, a Greek Orthodox American on a spiritual quest, once said she should not even be friends with me because I was not a ‘church going Christian’. We remained friends even though she moved to another state, but this comment always bothered me. Was religion a deciding factor in friendship? This was an alien concept to me.

Meanwhile the Sri Lankan model of neighborliness can never be replicated elsewhere. Though I did associate with one neighbour in the US, through a shared interest in gardening (there were no fences separating our properties) and invited them over a few times over the years, never once did they reciprocate.

Friendships aside when I look at professional and other relationships I realize that here too the diversity is plainly evident even though is not a conscious choice. My dentist is Muslim, my doctor is Sinhalese and my lawyers are Tamil. Do we not select them for their professionalism and expertise first and foremost? Dr. Lakshman Weerasena who I have known for nearly 30 years now, speaks English, Sinhala and Tamil and with equal ease. He will speak to a patient in the language they are comfortable in and whether prince or pauper they will receive his expert prognosis with equal care and concern. This man is the true essence of a real Sri Lankan whom I hold in the highest esteem.

Never, never have I questioned the multi ethnic, multi communal makeup of this country. It is and will always be what makes this island unique. Shame on those who think otherwise.

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    the same tranqulity, I experienced in SINGAPORE.

    Singaporiens never care about their or others ethenicity,
    but all are Singaporeans and all are together when any religioeus celiberations or any national funtions are there.

    Why cant We??????.

    first of all

    Just, Each and Everybody should keep away the politikkas from their life.

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      Thanks Ajitha – nice work – keep it comming!
      We more of such celebrations of out everyday multiculturalism to cut to cut the racism that the uneducated and uncultured Rajapassa regime is spreading like a virus in the Lankan boy politic.

      Colombo is a multicultural city – always has been and will be – never mind Rajapassa naming all the street names after him and Sinhala Buddhists. We will rename them one the Rajapassa dictatorship is FINISHED!

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      I don’t agree with our friend’s observation about Singapore. I live in Singapore. Singapore Chinese are some of the worst racists. Their government is good, but not the Chinese population

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    Who do you mention “those who”
    Just say openly the yellow gown racist BBS monks
    Don’t beat around the bushes

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    “Never, never have I questioned the multi ethnic, multi communal makeup of this country. It is and will always be what makes this island unique. Shame on those who think otherwise.”

    I am with you on that statement 100%. Millions are.

    However, there are those who do question multi ethnic, multi communal makeup. They could be Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus. That is a fact proven more often than not. We have to be aware of it.

    We also have to battle and enentually defeat those who question Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic, multi communal makeup ideologically. On public stages. It is an uphill struggle. But, we have already come a long way.

    The outcome of that struggle is certain. Multi ethnic, multi communal makeup of Sri Lanka shall prevail.

    Cheers!

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      Ben Hurling
      It is our own successive, ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ Governments who have created these Ethnic and Religious Divisions, for their own purposes. The majority of voters are ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and our self-seeking Politicians have learnt to turn them against other Religions and Ethnicities, to keep their Majority Voting Base intact, cutting the ground from under the feet of the Opposition and the Voice of Democracy. The poor standard of Education outside the capital Cities also helps these crooked Politicians in their endeavours. The current Government is not even working for the betterment of Education and Health of their ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ voters, but only for themselves.

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        Sanjay – you are absolutely right.

        For the Sinhala politicians, since Banda, artificially causing this conflict and divisiveness has proved to be the easiest and the most effective way to woo and persuade voters and I think the Sinhala politicians have perfected that art more than anyone in any country – and the Tamils, including LTTE, Diaspora and whoever else have actually played right in to the Sinhala politician’s hand, making that process even easier for those rogue politicians to consolidate that divisiveness.

        The civil society and the academics have done sweet nothing to stem that tide.

        All the discussions, conferences and debates to bring about reconciliation amount to no more than barking at the wrong tree. The Sinhala politicians have nothing to gain and everything to lose if the Tamil and Sinhala civil society see eye to eye. Until that changes and the politicians see no incentive to keep the conflicts and suspicions alive, they will continue to hoodwink both Tamils and Sinhalese.
        It is up to the civil society and the academics to bring about that appropriate social thinking, unadulterated by this abominable group that passes for politicians in this country.

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    What ever said and done this will be a multi cultural, multi ethnic, multi religious country forever, as long as the balusenas, modawansas, urumeeyas, and racists fundamentalists are kept under control, for all peace loving sri lankans to mingle with each other and develop this country to greater heights. This should be our fervent wish and prayer for all sane, right thinking Sri Lankans for evermore.

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    every word you have written is true. because i too grew up in a similar neighbourhood like yours and it has made me a better human being and i have learnt to be comfortable with all types of people. irrespective of their caste .creed or ethnicity.more power to your pen and good luck to you.

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    Miss Ajita KadirGamar:

    If you like Michael Jackson (when he was living) or U2 or any South -Indian Singers you may see people of many religions and ethnicities go there to see them. What is the reason. Music is a universal language.

    In the Church you listen to music or you sing music and after that listen to the preaching. Most, probably you give some money to the pot collection.

    So, you contribute to the franchise -business which you call the religion and come. They entertained you. Other than that, if you are religious you may believe that you don’t have any control over your life and it is not your actions or your mind responsible for all these things but the Allmighty who does all things.

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    “Never, never have I questioned the multi ethnic, multi communal makeup of this country. It is and will always be what makes this island unique. Shame on those who think otherwise.”

    Dumb are those who think other wise. But perhaps not because because we should assume that sheer dumbness prevents them from thinking. They may remain in their happy mono cultural moronic state.

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    Go anywhere in this island and speak to anyone on the street whom you do not even know, you get a very friendly response. The ordinary people do not really care who you are or where you came from. Except those criminally inclined, no one will hurt you. Yet when we read the speeches of politicians, leaders, the news media, we feel that there is some problem.

    It is a strange, ureal feeling that these friendly and smiling human beings can be capable of hate and discrimination when there is hardly anything to be seen on the surface. They all look the same, feel the same, suffer from the same problems, have the same hopes and aspirations. Yet at times they become violent and unrestrained, irrational and paranoid.

    It seems that hate and discrimination is being manufactured by a handfull of paranoid individuals who are disenchanted with their own existance, looking for excuses and scapegots. Race and religon, class and creed are fertile ground to sow the seeds of hate and violence.

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      I personally experienced HATE when living in the US for almost a decade… what I tell em is… OK fine. I may not be the same as you in your eyes.. BUT slit your wrist and tell me your blood is green…

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        *used to tell em

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    There is no point in SAYING I’m for a multi-ethnic sri lanka.
    It’s time for us to DO something towards it as there are people under the boots of the army in multi-ethnic sri lanka.

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    Glad you liked our recitle last Sunday.

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    One thing clear here, is there is no problem with race and religion when it comes to the top end of town as far as the temporary or permenent inhabitants are concerned.

    When referring to others, they don’t realise that it is a creation of their own.

    Did we have a BBS or RBS, when the LTTE was around and the NGOs and their financiers and Handlers were busy?.

    Doesn’t the Top End know or heard about Action & Reaction?.

    Nine Catholic preiests from the Mannar diocese alone met the President recently to discuoes their issues relating to deveopment and other matters about the welfare of their people.

    These inhaibitants there don’t have the facilities or the resources to sing Hyms on Sundays in Queen’s language in Queen’s Church with their fellow inhabitant Muslims and Hindus

    Do they?.

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      It is disappointing that it has taken the President so long to sort these matters out. Pathetic.

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        Allways the lead Buffolow is followed by the rest of the heard,

        be it mothercow, other calves or the rest of buffllows ,

        So same with present governance, Back boneless Oppossition, and most of the P P P P P all the Ps .

        And We are paying obove our head for thir sins also.

        Not Only that,

        TO K A SUMNA also,

        To LEE POTTER ALSO,

        We Sri Lankan,Shame for Us.

        THAT IS FROM OUR TAX MONY

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      ado Sumana of course there was no BBS and their ilk when LTTE was there as the Govt was busy with the LTTE and it kept them in power and popularity,now that the LTTE is gone they still need to cling to power hence the creation of BBS and their kind (remember winston churchill losing a democratic election when the 2nd world war was over and!)

      but then again paid koolies like you mr K A Sumansekera wont understand it or pretend not to understand it!)

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    I am glad to know you are back Ajitha and I must see you when I am back there for Christmas. Lovely article lady.

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      Good luck to Mrs. Ajita [Edited out] meeting THE MAN from Kotahena and Wesley College! LMAO.

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      oi kasi, why do you have to travel all the way to the hell hole in order to celebrate the festval of an alien faith. can’t you find white or black churches wherever you live. what a nut case you are.

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    If you leave it to the Sri Lankan people, this is how it will always be. Unfortunately this wonderful feeling of unity and growing up part of each other’s culture has been spoilt by devious politicians, and thugs in saffron robes, who are causing hate and inciting violence against the minority Sri Lankans. Dividing and conquering seems to be their agenda, which unfortunately will harm the country and all it’s people. We all have to keep our wonderful memories of growing up in a a multi cultural country, and hope that perhaps future generations may be as lucky as we were.

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    low caste converts refuse to enter hindu temples on the grounds that it’s a sin to enter. besides their new found faith forbids them from entering saying it’s a devils dwelling place. i would like to mention something here about a friend of mine who married a white girl. the wedding ceremony was conducted in a hindu temple first. however, one of his cousins who converted after marrying a low caste catholic few years ago said to my friend that if the ceremony was to take place in a hindu temple she wouldn’t attend. in fact she didn’t attend besides one of her brothers again a recent convert. christian whites attended the ceremony that took place in the hindu temple. these tamil converts think they own christianity and they are the saviours of the alien faith. i wonder what’s this so called devout hindu friend of convert ajita doing in a church. aren’t the converts not enough to sing in the church choir.ajita, your friend is a nut case who doesn’t know what she is doing. she will be better off singing thevarams in wellawatte temple.

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    Isn’t it interesting that people of multi-ethnic and multi-religious origin can perform their talents inside a Christian church.
    Could they do that inside a (1)Buddhist Temple (2)Hindu Kovil and (3)Muslim Mosque?
    Speaks volumes about the tolerance factor in the Christian church.
    Ajita, maybe you should go to church more often.

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      don’t talk a load of bollocks. christian sects all over the world are an intolerant lot. racism, sexism, etc. are rampant in christian church. if white churches are tolerant how come there are thousands of black churches in america and europe. how come catholics and protestants are at each others throat in northern ireland. what’s your explanation for sectraian killings. stop patoranising you ignorant git.

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    Thank you Ajita,
    True, how wonderful multiculturalism is when people regardless of origins can join hands. Sadly, there are many evil politicians and activists who are motivated by power and fame who promote mono lingual, mono cultural enclaves. Multiculturalism also exists in other cities; Kandy, Galle and Trinco. If only residents of Jaffna are allowed to embrace multiculturalism as you have seen in Colombo …. but then, they have to overcome caste/religious barriers first … like your Greek Orthordox friend has to.

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    Absolutely but how to get that message throughout the island and beyond the confines of Colombo 3 and 7.

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    Ajitha,
    Great article, absolutely true and lets hope and pray there will come a time when we could all live in peace devoid of the barriers brought about by those who thrive on anything for their own ulterior motives.

    The Hindu friend you speak of in the early part of your article is a very, very dear and much loved friend of mine. We stand richer for such genuine friends.
    I am sorry I missed that wonderful evening.
    Hermoine

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      wishful thinking.

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    We are a great nation.Some groups and individuals who DON’T LOVE THEIR COUNTRY BUT JUST LOVE THEMSELVES BRING DISREPUTE TO OUR MOTHERLAND.IT NOT EASY TO FIGHT AGAINST SUCH ELEMENTS DIRECTLY.INDICVIDUALLY,PARENTS TEACHERS DIRECTLY.INDIVIDUALLY,PARENTS,TEACHERS RELIGIOUS LEADERS AND THOSE WHO HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO TOUCH THE LIVES OF A MULTI-ETHNIC GROUP DO WHATEVER YOU CAN TO BRING UNITY AMONG INDIVIDUALLS AND UNITE THE NATION.

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    Absolutely correct. We never had a STATESMAN — only politicians.
    the situ is deteriorating fast. Instead of waiting for the moon, persons should get together and try to remedy the disastrous situation.
    The problem is “who will bell the cat”

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    I liked what you have written.Will you be willing to join in on a Bakthi Gee Recital in a Buddhist Temple or a Bajan in a Hindu Kovil ?

    We must bring the barriers down and move across them more readily
    I am a Christian – a pracising one. But I believe that we err whenever any one of us says “Only we ,,,,,,”Let us work together for a multi religious, multicultural world and Sri Lanka. And let us seek Peace Justice and Human rights for all.

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      I did my schooling in a great Christian school that cut across all barriers and gave importance to activities of all the religions.The school choir consisted of children of different religions joining in for all cultural and religious activities in the school.Most of us are ignorant about the basics of the major religions,and misunderstandings nostoften come about because of ignoranc
      The churches have to lead the way by being inclusive rather than being exclusive.Jesus was exclusive that he included everyone under his earthly kingdom so how dare we as human beings exclude them from our churches, specially when it comes to marraige-we have to leave the hard part to God -conversion-we can’t do it anyway(some people think they can).As one lay preacher very aptly said ‘we can only tell the story’ God does the rest.Work towards the Church of Sri Lanka, till then we are not carrying out Gods plan in Sri Lanka.

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    An apple does not fall far from the tree, Daughter like father.

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    A well thought and written article. However, words wont make SL a multicultural and multireligious island—– only deeds will. The leadership must come from the government. Will that happen? That is the question.
    I totally agree with Nadi Karunaratne—-you have to get out of the confines of Colombo3 and Colombo7 and embrace the whole island. Meanwhile, the good people of SL will have to live in hope.

    Senthil Sinniah

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    A well thought out and written article. However, words wont make SL a multicultural and multireligious island—– only deeds will. The leadership must come from the government. Will that happen? That is the question.
    I totally agree with Nadi Karunaratne—-you have to get out of the confines of Colombo3 and Colombo7 and embrace the whole island. Meanwhile, the good people of SL will have to live in hope.

    Senthil Sinniah

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      Senthil Sinniah, I am going down ‘Memory Lane’. If I am right, you were in our class at C. M. S. Ladies’ College, Flower Rd, Col 7, SL till Standard 5 Tamil Medium those days till Form 1. You left as only girls were allowed from Form 1 upwards. There were only 4 or 5 boys in our class till Standard 5 Tamil medium class with English as a second language. From Form 1 upwards it was all English medium with Sinhala or Tamil as second languages. The classes Form 1 upwards was all mixed, Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers, Muslims, Boras. Ms. Pushparanee ( Gulasekharam ) Ratnesar, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

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    Ajita Kadirgamar, you sound like your late father Lakshman Kadirgamar. I remember seeing you on TV in SL years ago as English Announcer 10.00 pm wearing saree & you looked beautiful & announced the News on SL TV very well. I can almost picture you on SL TV many years ago. Best regards, Pushparanee ( Gulasekharam ) Ratnesar, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

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    Lovely thoughts,so well expressed. Music does transcend the barriers of ethnicity and religion. It is indeed quite wonderful how Choirs in particular and Orchestras too can be a uniting force across human communities. The composition of the attendees in this case at the Scots Kirk would be of course somewhat different to those at, say a Buddhist Pirith chant, a Hindu devotional chant or a Muslim prayer session.
    What AjithaK describes is really the way it was and STILL IS in Sri Lanka when everything is secure, and no unreasonable demands are made by any of the minority religious and ethnic groups she mentions. None of us, “majority Buddhists” who are scornfully referred to in the commentary thread questions the right of “the others” to follow their religious philosophies. But there has to be some balance and respect.

    It is when there is disrespect and intrusion into an existing stable and contented balance in a society, with demands from a sector that is backed by money and/or political power, coming especially from EXTERNAL sources, accompanied with new rules like dress codes that strikingly and vividly display ‘differences’, together with an obvious increase in the presence of that sector, that a spark of insecurity is set off together with interpretations of ‘sinister’ encroachment. Reactions then begin to emerge.
    How to deal with the situation without allowing it to fester to the point that it explodes as it did in 1983 is in the hands of not only the Govt., as happened then, but in the hands of the citizens who love this very special country that the author appreciates so much.
    It is, I think, the citizenry who must be vigilant to sense growing seeds of discord and through discussion and communication between all parties at issue, FIND SOLUTIONS THROUGH THEIR OWN MULTI-COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS. This would be far better than waiting for the law or the govt to intervene, AND these latter may not even be necessary if inter-personal communications can resolve these situations.
    The bottom line is that insecurity is almost always what generates bad behavior. Labels like “Multiculturalism”, “Multireligious”, and “Multiethnic” applied to a country like Sri Lanka wherein a good percentage of its 80% majority Sinhala Buddhist population suffered ethnic discrimination through the centuries of colonization, has yielded strong ethnocultural hypersensitivity in this group.

    If that historically etched discrimination of the Buddhist Sinhala is understood with grace by the “Minority” communities, and these latter would be gentler and more reasonable and responsible in their demands, there would be no reason at all to keep Sri Lanka from becoming that IDEAL society reflected by the “Mixed Choir”, and which could serve as a model for the world.

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    As Kids we always recognized people by there names,not by there Race,It’s sad what has happened to Sri Lanka .My wife is A Singaporean Muslim and I want to bring her to Sri Lanka for A holiday, Take to to NuwarEliya my birth place. then to Kandy and show her my school Trinity College, but she is afraid to visit Sri Lanka because of the Current Religious discrimination and violence against The Muslims.We had A thirty year Civil war.are we going back to Square one and start all over again?

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    I was an English Teacher in SriLanka. I had Sinhala and Tamil students in my classes. I spoke to them in English.

    Imagine my joy when a Tamil student approached me and asked, “Udaya says that you are Tamil; ATHTADHA Teacher?”

    Does it matter if I am Sinhala or Tamil?!

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    Is Ajita talking about elite of Sri Lanka or all levels. We ordinary Tamil loosers who have no protection in our native place, don’t feel the way she wrote. May be we are struggling to lead daily life in the army concentration camps.

    Glad that she has no shame & sleep well without any guilty conscience. We’ll live our lives with shame because we are Tamils but don’t feel as Sri Lankans.

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    Thanks for that Ajita. Spot on.
    I’m a member of the Calvary Church in Kirulapona. Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the church celebrated the thirtieth year of its founding by Dr Tissa Weerasinghe, who continues to be the Chief Pastor, and an exemplary leader to us all.
    The high point of the three days was that we were addressed in English by a Thai pastor, with immediate translations in Sinhala and Tamil being done by two pastors who are familiar with those languages.
    On Sunday, there was a turn-out of perhaps 750 people. Most of the Praise and Worship songs were sung in all three languages.
    Why? Because the congregation had come from far and wide, and were of all ethnicities.
    In my opinion, there couldn’t have been a better example of multi-culturalism than this!
    I truly wish we’ll be able to live in harmony like we used to when we were kids.Sri Lanka, we can do it!!

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