Muditha Dias of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2 June 2019, where the title is “The search for religious harmony in Sri Lanka after the Easter Sunday attacks”
“Who exactly is the NTJ?” I asked our cameraman. We were filming at the Temple of the Tooth Relic, or the Dalada Maligawa, the holiest Buddhist temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
It was December last year, and news had just come in that a little-known group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, had vandalised some small Buddha statues a few miles away. Our Sri Lankan cameraman told me they were an Islamist militant group that had sprung up in response to the intermittent Buddhist-Muslim skirmishes of the past two years.
The Sri Lankan public, it seemed, were largely unaware of this group until this incident. However, this news did not come as a surprise to me. I’m a producer with the Religion and Ethics Report on RN and part of the reason I was in Sri Lanka was to investigate the fallout from religious tensions, especially after attacks on Muslims in Kandy in March 2018.
I focussed the filming around Buddhism — the predominant religion in this country of 22 million people — and followed a Sri Lankan-Australian family, Namali, Bandula and Tiara De Silva, who were visiting the Maligawa during their holidays. They told me about the peaceful and harmonious faith they grew up with, and how they’d passed it on to their children since moving to Australia.
I returned to Sydney but my story plan had to change when on Easter Sunday this year, Muslim extremists targeted Christian worshippers and holidaymakers, killing 258 people and injuring more than 500.
People in Sri Lanka were blindsided by these attacks. Despite my connection to Sri Lanka and awareness of socio-political tensions, I couldn’t figure out how a tiny organisation like the NTJ, which was vandalising Buddhist statues in the country, had managed to execute meticulously planned suicide attacks on Christian churches and luxury hotels.
But it came to light that intelligence authorities were aware of about three dozen Muslim Sri Lankans, members of the NTJ, who had done a stint with Islamic State in the Middle East. Like other groups in Sri Lanka, the NTJ were quietly arming themselves in preparation for the imminent next round of Buddhist-Muslim clashes.
But according to experts, like political analyst Rohan Gunaratne, members of the depleted IS knew of the NTJ’s possession of explosive material and persuaded them to unleash their lethal resources on “Western” symbols. And this is why Christian churches and hotels full of foreigners suddenly became a target.
Since Easter Sunday, I have spoken to many Sri Lankans of different faiths, from all walks of life, and they feel that the nation is capable of shrugging off this latest tragedy and moving forward. After all, Sri Lankans are a resilient people. More than 60,000 died during the ethnic conflict which devastated the country from 1983 to 2009. On Boxing Day in 2004, Sri Lanka faced another disaster: the eastern coast was struck by a tsunami which killed 30,000 people.
Throughout these tragedies, Catholicism was a bridging faith because its worshippers included both Tamils and Sinhalese. The Easter Sunday attacks cannot change this. Sri Lankans have come back stronger from each painful experience of inter-communal violence and natural disaster. They will raise their head again. Their fervent hope is that global forces of religious fundamentalism will leave them alone to sort out their differences.
My Compass story is about that hope for religious harmony in Sri Lanka.
Hoping for Harmony went on air on Compass on ABC TV at 6:30pm on June 23 and on iview.
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“Missing the Boat. How Religio-Political Divisions have Deepened,” May 9, 2019 , ….A Letter from Rohan De Soysa in Colombo to Michael Roberts in Adelaide, 9th May 2019 ….. https://thuppahis.com/2019/05/09/missing-the-boat-how-religio-political-divisions-have-deepened/ ….