Seeking Religio-Political Coexistence in Sri Lanka

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.

Religion and Ethics Report journalist Muditha Dias filming in Sri Lanka… RN

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.

St Anthony’s Church in Colombo was targeted in the Easter Sunday terror attacks….. Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte

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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Ameer Ali, ACL  2009a “The Transformation of Muslim Politics in Sri Lanka and the Growth of Wahhabism from the 1980s,” 5 May 2009,

Ameer Ali, ACL 2019b “How Extremisms have fed off Each Other in Sri Lanka, 1950s-to-2019 … and still proceeding,”  6 May 2019,

Chakravarti, Uma & Haksar, Nandita 1987 The Delhi riots, Delhi: Lancer International.

Cook, David 2006 Understanding Jihad, University of California Press.

Cook, David 2015 ‘Jihad’, ‘Martyrdom Operations’, and Mohammed Atta’s Injunction in the “last Night’, before 9/11,” 12 May 2015,

Engineer, Ashgar Ali (ed).1987 Ethnic conflict in South Asia, Delhi: Ajanta Publications.

Farasat, Warisha 2013 “The Forgotten Carnage of Bhagalpur,” Economic & Political Weekly 48/3,

Jayasuriya, Wilfrid 2019 “The Force of the Moors: Reflections Historical and Ethnographic,” 25 June 2019,

Kannangara, A.P. 1984 “The riots of 1915 in Sri Lanka: a study of the roots of communal violence,” Past & Present,102: 130-65.

MA Nuhman: Sri Lankan Muslims: Ethnic Identity within Cultural Diversity, Colombo, ICES, 2007

Roberts, Michael (ed.) 1979 Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Sri Lanka during the Modern Era, Colombo: Marga Publications.

Roberts, Michael 1979 “Meanderings in the Pathways of Collective Identity and Nationalism”, in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 1-90.

Roberts, Michael 1979d”Problems of Collective Identity in a Multi-Ethnic Society: Sectional Nationalism vs Ceylonese Nationalism, 1900-1940″, in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 337-60.

Roberts, Michael 1994a “The imperialism of silence under the British raj: arresting the drum,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-81.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “Mentalities, ideologues, assailants, historians and the pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-81.

Roberts, Michael 2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol 30: 857-88.

Roberts, Michael 1996 “Teaching lessons, removing evil: strands of moral puritanism in Sinhala nationalist practice,” South Asia, Special Issue, XIX: 205-20.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “Marakkala kolahalaya: Mentalities directing the Pogrom of 1915,” in Roberts, Confrontations in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009, pp. 113-154.

Roberts, Michael 2019 “Slippages: Where ‘Muslim’ is An Ethnic Label as well as a Religious Typification,”  3 May 2018,

Roberts, Michael: 2019  The Clash of Civilisations and Hate at the Heart of 21/4 in Sri Lanka,”14 May 2019,

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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 ….. ….



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One response to “Seeking Religio-Political Coexistence in Sri Lanka

  1. VAN ARKADIE, Alex.

    ‘See Religio-Political co-existence in Sri Lanka’
    Seemingly, following the church massacres last April, there are a growing number of Christians as well as sympathizers who seem to understand better the miracle following repetitive Christian martyrdom of the XXIst Century – (although it also sounds rational when critics say that the Lankan Catholic Hierarchy should exercise a cautious degree of restraint in public announcement, pronouncement or proclamation).
    Fortunately after the Easter Sunday killings, religious convictions have helped bind many of the devout of all faiths and doctrines though underlined by either a sense of resignation to the powers of ‘karma’, or in acceptance of the Will of the Lord as when hopefully invoking ‘Insha Allah’…
    Poor Sri Lanka is once again Asia’s Teardrop – not the resplendent Pearl of the Orient.
    It is indeed pathetic, but primarily rooted in the on-going political struggle for greed and power. Hopelessness is voiced or sensed everywhere – except from among the fab-glittering-rich or those unashamedly imitating them. Hard-earned or easily gained foreign cash is so ignorantly disposed of in trying to be like the Jones’s next door !
    Most of the TV Ads. cater to the happily rich. Are they the majority of whom Lanka could remain proud and complacent of. Young couples struggling to survive and their aspiring families are brainwashed, mesmerized or artfully held spellbound in front of digital TVs. Sometimes for umpteen hours, watching puppy-love Soap operas in Sinhala, if not imported from TV Serials where-ever. What proportion of them are in accord with Lankan culture, tradition, religious and moral values, language and simple life-styles akin to daily living or focused on how the Nation’s majority are trying to survive with some self- respect. Artificiality, outdoor glamour and copy-catting have become the catchy- style. Eating out with family or friends within glass houses capturing the twinkling glow from overhead neon-signs has become fashionable even in distant urban towns.
    TV channels hardly emphasize on prime time for educational or informative transmission, but overload popular presentations with unlimited advertisement Spots. Hardly any time afforded for Interviews, Discussions or Documentaries on success stories from peoples’ participation in technical, agricultural, horticultural, responsible fishery, water harnessing conservation and wastage, use of wind and solar power, livestock care and production, conscious disposal of human refuse and plastic products of all types, recycling for benefits from energy resources, community development projects for small-scale income generation among rural poor to motivate and stimulate our student category in directing their attention on national wealth linked to national development. What about long-term investment in our industries and the plantation sector including inland paddy cultivation and incentives to harness and support manpower resources ? What consideration is been given to streamline and steer up government educational policies and programs with incentives to encourage and promote high school students, under-grads and university lecturers engaged in the allied fields of art, electronics, engineering, law, medicine, science, etc., so that their accumulated expertise could eventually contribute toward betterment and progress of the Nation ?
    On our travel to the South, we managed to spot and identify a bare handful of tourists around Hikkaduwa but hardly any in or around the Capital City. In fact most hotels are closed. Some show signs of abandonment and pitiful neglect from disuse. Job loss therefrom remains high and families of the unemployed are in distress. Regardless whether Sinhala, Moslem, Tamil or Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist or Christian, the naked truth is starkly evident.
    I assured some that, hopefully, the non-reactionary calmness that prevailed almost throughout the Nation following the April explosion will set the pace for visitors to arrive … primarily because there was no backlash or negative repercussions thereafter. World media and Tour Organizers now await a peaceful end also to our presidential election.
    Care to hop-in and chat with your auto-driver, say a polite hello to a stranger at the market place, or pause at a bus-stop, the chorus repeats as though from a national dirge. Unknowns will instantly spot you from the crowd and politely address you as a visitor from abroad. At Keels supermarket in Maharagama, an aged gent told my spouse and me, “You both must be on a visit. Don’t settle down here. Our country is in a mess. No hope – they are all liars”. I smiled but remained dumbstruck lacking words to attempt any reply.
    All important Centres for the Public, places of devotion and educational instutues are under careful security surveillance.
    One noteworthy point worth mentioning: our Lankan security staff are amply well-disciplined, cautious, respectful and dutifully polite., where-ever assigned to duty at day or night. I mentioned it and even thanked them for their courtesy conduct to which they smiled in private acknowledgement.
    The Capital City, the Kelani temple as well as the Kochchikade roundabout are heavily fortified zones. Reconstruction is nearly complete but teams of navy personnel are busily engaged with the finishing touches under burning heat in their vadu-maduvas adj. the church. Visitors say that the sacred sanctuary now looks more like a museum-show-piece rather than the hallowed sanctity that used to prevail within before explosion. My grandparents and my parents used to accompany me there from Dematagoda, ‘for prayer to the Saint of the Poor to obtain work and bread for all in want’, from when I was about 05 or 06yrs. and when Dad’s Naval HQ was just nextdoor on the waterfront itself.
    One Sunday morning walking out of St. Anthony’s, Nittambuwa, my sister’s senior parishioners bluntly enquired from me in near despair: “Would our country continue to remain like this”. Even if the burning issue has reached its maximum, they very well know that neither the poor Nation nor its People can find a human redeemer. Rampant corruption, greed, nepotism, favouritism and ugly struggles for political domination reign supreme. Blatant accusations among party chiefs gain maximum press coverage and generate repetitive TV transmissions from day to night. Unfortunately, this in my view would affect the larger part of our native population, a wide majority of whom are Sinhala-Buddhist. Even the Sangha sabhas and Balavegayas are aggressively divisive, self-proclaimed , but unknowingly inflicting further enmity between their own community in order to remain militant for the sake of achieving ‘party’ gains … How many realize the long-term damage to the nation and its people at large ???
    In this South Asian Social-Democratic Sovereign State pledged to uphold and propagate from its traditions rooted in Lord Siddharta Gautama’s Theravada Buddhism, I sadly fail to understand why ordained monks have to lift up their saffron robes – now fast changing to shades of burgundy, crimson or fiery red – for the sake of rowdily demonstrating and angrily manifesting in venemous, nasty tongue when affronted by a half-dozen or more TV crews. If rightfully confronted by Snr. Officials of the Lankan Police Force, they disrespectfully challenge established authority. Not even Madavi Somè, Yakadaya, Choppe or Maru Sira reacted with such low-graded ‘thuggery’ against the Ceylon Police force in the early 50s and 60s, though they were considered criminals and imprisoned overnight. O.k., Yes, Right, agreed. , … the hamudurus’ harsh cry is either in favour or against political supremacy, whereas each morning, evening and especially during Poya, senior monks of their very own sect in temple compounds solemnly preach the noble virtues of Maithriya and Ahinsa to dozens of elderly upaasakas, upaasikas and hordes of little children, all dressed in spotless white sarongs and shirts or modestly draped in lamaasaris. Meanwhile bill-boards, posters and banners along public thoroughfares and street corners boldly announce, private tutors who offer students “Tutions in Buddhist Civilization” … to what end ? My question then: Does the Buddhist Sangha care a damn about who reigns within and outside their ashrams, monasteries and temples – what about our future generation; to what extent would they find Lord Buddha’s Dharma worth treading or even emulating ? Of what significance would be our age-old Pali intonation, “Buddahm saranam gatchchami; Dhamman saranama gathchami; Sangan saranam gatchchami.” Imagine latter day Sri Lanka with less or least regard for the Five Noble Precepts of Buddhism.
    No second to Lankan TV transmissions are some of our prostitutionalized Lankan newspaper houses. One daily TV transmission in particular is widely broadcast during early morning peak-hour featuring maxi-sized newspaper Headlines of the Day. And the varied organs of the Press are in competition with each other to gain viewer attention by exaggerating and often unethically loading upon unfounded slander, baseless gossip, and/or unethical political misbehavior. I fear this could lead to further turmoil and disharmony among the larger majority of Lankan commoners spread throughout the Island and create wider cracks among the Sinhala community itself.
    Commoners are in a state of acute tension even within their very home and family environment; wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, children and especially teenagers. School-goers, young working adults and nearly all of the hard-working or job-seeking youth on their regular errands are either acutely depressed and disgruntled, or numb and submissive to what is mercilessly ongoing. Why find criminal offence in one who drifts to drugs, alcohol, crime and suicide if such victim was denied the liberty to reason on how best to await with hopeful anticipation for a better day tomorrow ??? With the Ahinsa we tend to widely preach, let our Statesmen who are determined to recall the death sentence mercifully register the ‘hopeless’ for responsible care and rehabilitation by civil authorities in association with volunteers from our multi-ethnic socio-religious groups. That in a nutshell is maithri and ahimsa. After all Sri Lanka has so many voluntary groups caring for the helpless, disabled, orphaned and/or abandoned four-legged friends !
    In a TV sponsored Sinhala programme, one learned Medical Prof. remarked, “At this rising alarming rate – of desperation and frustration – a majority of our nation’s youth are soon going to end up physically incapacitated and mentally sick”. How terribly sad and painful to hear.
    From 5 a.m. each dawn, hordes of singled or grouped uniformed school boys and girls patiently await at open-air wayside bus-stops. Sareed ladies and smart young businessmen in tie with their office bags (and perhaps lunchboxes) are among growing crowds. Already ‘full’ private vans, buses and 3-wheelers, doggedly rush to gather a fresh load and accelerate on to the next stop while desperately trying to overtake their opponent drivers in front, regardless whether they are oil-tankers, container carriers, heavily loaded trucks or a careless three-wheeler packed with a bunch of little school-goers sandwiched between a truck and an overtaking van or daring scooter-rider. Though early in the dawn, the rush has begun to boil over, overflowing in fury and fume along our public thoroughfares – only to be repeated backward again before sunset. A 20-seater private AC van to which we were admitted from Colombo Pettah one afternoon included another 5 men and women psgs. unsteadily balancing on their feet as the vehicle wrecklessly raged onward disregarding the looming risks within or danger ahead.
    Traffic control is rare, nil or powerless. Accused and jailed offenders for whatever neglect or fault gain prompt release thro. intervention by political higher-ups. Defence laws exist to restrain or punish offenders, but political interference has become the norm with Lanka’s Judiciary in a state of near-rigor mortis !
    Just an example: Certain political higher-ups knew in advance and there is evidence to prove how they manipulated their escape from the Easter Sunday explosions. Christian parliamentarians themselves fled in time with least care for their brethren among whom they habitually congregate to worship the same God each Sunday or Feast-day. What level of hypocrisy has our beloved nation of leaders stooped down to ?
    Instead, nowadays it has become fashionable for political opponents of the same rotten bunch in the State Assembly to point fingers at each other about the so-called series of Islamist-ISIS plots and attacks. ‘How come’, Moslem parlimentarians argue, “ if we warned you in advance of a possible aggression by subversive groups, neither the government nor military failed to take timely action and bring the suspects to Law ?’
    Nearly all of the local Audio-Visual TV Channels as well as the Printed Media seem aimed to further confuse the majority public at large. This adds to the rising level of disappointment and frustration of our commoners everywhere.
    Sri Lanka is readying to painfully bleed again.
    When on the eve of my departure to Rome I asked a beloved Lankan NGO-friend, “Can we be hopeful about the upcoming election”, he promptly and remorsefully replied, “it can only become worse”. Though a trusted and long-time friend, I hope and pray he will be proved wrong”. God help Sri Lanka.
    Did I hear your distant cry for peace and reconciliation in our Land of Origin., Have I rightly sensed your call for
    With apologies for the long summary, permit me please to close on this prayerful note. Feel free to comment and/or widely circulate. May be the time is near for all Lankan overseas expatriates to call through the auspices of the United Nations for a halt to dirty politics in Lanka and therefor unite for the Founding of a ‘World Association of Lankan Expatriates’. Who knows ! Keep in touch and spread the good word. /alex
    VAN ARKADIE, Alex. – 02 Aug. 2019
    (Retiree of the UN/F.A.O. Hq. Rome, Italy – 1977-2006 and Freelance Media Reporter)

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