#DialogueForPeace: Religiously Working For Change in Sri Lanka

[This blogpost is a compilation of extracts from Impact and Success of District Inter Religious Committees: Religiously Working for Change published by National Peace Council, Sri Lanka, January 2016.]

“Whether in Sri Lanka, Europe or the United States, coping with the challenge of religious and ethnic diversity is the challenge of our times… An important part of our answer has been the inter-religious committees we formed five years ago…

It was slow and hard work at the beginning. The political context was filled with intolerant and narrow nationalism. Civil society peacebuilding work was labelled as being anti-national by the nationalists in the government. We ourselves did not know the religious clergy in many of the districts and they did not know us, and so it was difficult to get them to come for meetings and to commit their scarce time when their own religious duties took up so much of their time. It was discouraging to travel for hours to a distant district and find that only a handful had turned up for the meeting. But soon the value of those meeting spread by word of mouth. The religious clergy in a district who knew of each other, but had never had an opportunity to spend time with one another, now took that opportunity and began to value it.

During the period of the last government, when space for civil society was shrinking, these DIRCs played a major role at the community level in mitigating local level conflicts and addressing collective issues of concern to their communities. Due to constant interaction, the multi-ethnic and multi-religious members of these committees have developed a greater degree of trust that can be utilized to withstand the polarizations of the current day. Capacities of the members of DIRCs have been built over the years and well trained on subjects of conflict resolution, early warning and mediation, conflict sensitivity and prioritization of humanitarian needs, pluralism, media, documentation and referrals and also have built linkages with media. The members were also provided training in “nonviolent communication skills.”

~ Jehan Perera, Executive Director, NPC

“DIRCs are made up of multi religious and multi ethnic religious leaders and lay persons who have recognition, respect and a sense of moral authority that people tend to look up to. In their capacity, the DIRCs have continued to identify points of tension within their localities and address these issues using suitable mechanisms. Within the DIRCs, members have built trust and cultivated harmonious working relationships between different religions and ethnicities and as a result are able to work well in localities/ areas where there is brewing tension between different religious and ethnic groups.

… Those who formed inter religious committees were conscious of both the need to be strong with regard to their aspirations, as well as to temper what they said so that the entire group could accept it. They demonstrated on a micro level what is necessary to be done at the macro level by the large political actors.

…The DIRC network was mobilized to function as a community watch group at the district level through enhanced capacity in early warning, mediation, media, documentation and referrals. They used this training to mitigate and intervene regarding religious and ethnic tension in their respective localities and improved mediation that contributed toward reconciliation peace and justice at the district and national levels. Furthermore, a National Inter Religious Committee (NIRC) was established in order to directly address inter religious and inter-ethnic issues and conflicts that may arise at the national level.”

~Thushara Ranasinghe, Program Manager, NPC

“Membership of DIRCs are made up primarily of multi faith religious leaders, who have good standing in society as moral leaders and torch bearers to whom people look up to, as well as lay persons. We believe that the role of religious leaders as teachers of nonviolence, social justice, equity, brotherhood, kindness, tolerance and humbleness are important aspects which help us take the message of peace and reconciliation to the greater community…

In the course of implementing the project, NPC and its local level partner organizations faced many challenges. This was a direct result of negative publicity and incorrect information generated by the previous government about non-governmental organisations, especially those working on peace and human rights. This situation was further exacerbated by the then government’s tolerant attitude  towards various Buddhist-led extremists groups, some of whom were directly implicated in instigating communal violence between Sinhala and Muslim communities in Aluthgama and Beruwela and creating a tense situation in Matara in Issadeen Town. Furthermore, there was an active government led movement to discredit and label organizations as the NPC as traitors working for foreign organizations and some politicians actively tried to disrupt project activities.”

~ Saman Seneviratne, Project Coordinator – RIID, NPC

Peace Stories from the DIRCs

“A group of 43 farmers were affected [by Army land acquisition, curator’s note]… and of them, 18 people had lost arable land and a further 25 lost paddy land. This group included 37 Muslim farmers and 6 Sinhala farmers. According to Moulavi Yaseen, the army had informed the farmers, that their land will be returned to them within three days of the event ending. However, even after the lapse of over two years after the event, the lands were not returned to their rightful owners and the army not only continued to occupy it but also constructed a permanent structure there citing security considerations. This prevented the farmers from being able to cultivate and continue their livelihoods. The loss of income, inability to continue their livelihoods and rising debt led a group of farmers to file a legal case in the Sammanthurai Magistrate’s Court in 2013.

The DIRC as its first step established a sub-committee to look into the matter… Ven Ranmuthugala Sangarathana thero and I visited the Army Information Division in Akkaraipattu in early 2015 to discuss this matter with them. Thereafter, along with Raviji Kurkkal, we met the Sammanthurai Divisional Secretary who promised to look into the matter. However, even by July 2015, there was not much progress… When we approached the Divisional Secretary after the election, we realised that he had communicated with the relevant authorities including the Assistant Lands Commissioner of the Eastern Province, and had called for a meeting between all parties to the issue.

… At this meeting, it was decided that the land should be released back to the rightful owners and the Commissioner explained that these lands have been illegally occupied by the army. Thereafter the Commissioner’s office held a land kachcheri (court) in late August 2015 to look into the grievances of the rightful owners and persuade the army to release the lands.”

~ Moulavi A. Azwer, Ampara DIRC

“On 19th May 2015, our Committee members attended an important collective community event—a religious service for those who had lost their lives in the war. I took part in this important activity with other multi faith leaders as it is necessary to engage in religious practices according to the religious teachings we believe in. As people of one country, remembering those who have died is part of our cultural makeup. Because I attended a ceremony which was held to commemorate the war dead in the Northern Province, people asked me why I did it and stated that it can cause trouble for me in the future. I told them that as members of the Jaffna DIRC, we did things together and it is not correct for me to boycott an event because my community will disapprove of it. For me it was important that we were commemorating people who had lost their lives in the war and I was attending it as a member of the Jaffna DIRC. It was important for me to maintain the trust and brotherhood that the members of the DIRC had worked hard to establish.”

~ Ven. Meegahajandure Siriwimala thero, Jaffna DIRC

[The Nuwara Eliya DIRC organised an art exhibition for children on ‘Inter-religious Coexistence’.]

“Our teacher informed us about this exhibition and explained its objective. She asked us to come up with drawings that can show how people from all ethnic/ religious groups can work together and how important it was to maintain unity among each other. In Hatton, we have people belonging to all ethnic groups and I have many friends who follow other religions. When I was preparing for this competition, I asked for their different opinions and as a result I was able to come up with a meaningful painting. I believe it incorporates thoughts of people from all religions. I am pleased to tell you that my message contains the ideas of my friends from different religions. I think the people who participated at this event got an opportunity to think about friendship in a new way. I believe that taking part and winning was a great experience for me.”

~ Thakshila Dilrukshi, Sripada Maha Vidyalaya

See also: NPC, Case Studies in Reconciliation.


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