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Sri Lanka: pandemic threatens to deepen divisions between religious and ethnic groups


Kesuma Saddak

In November 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, was elected as the new president of Sri Lanka. Shortly afterwards, he appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as his prime minister. National and international observers believe that the new and potentially authoritarian president was chosen by voters in direct response to the terrorist attacks by Islamist suicide bombers in April 2019. Over 250 people were killed, and hundreds injured at three Christian churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticalo. Despite prior warnings that an attack was being planned, the extremely divided former government under President Sirisena failed to protect its citizens. As a result, many Sri Lankans were bitterly disappointed by President Sirisena’s government and turned instead to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in whom they saw the prospect of ‘strong’ leadership.

Respecting freedom of religion even in times of crisis

The pressure on Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has intensified, especially since the attacks in April 2019. They face heightened levels of discrimination and experience hate speech and distrust on a daily basis. Some local media outlets (both press and TV) have even blamed Muslims for introducing COVID-19 and spreading it around the country. It seems highly likely that the pandemic is being deliberately exploited to stoke further tension between religious and ethnic groups in the country. The Government recently made cremation compulsory for COVID-19 victims, even though this is not a WHO requirement. Unrest broke out among Muslims, with some protesting openly, when the new rule made it impossible to bury two victims of the pandemic in accordance with their religious traditions. Non-governmental organisations have responded by urging the Government to respect the principle of religious freedom even during the present crisis.

Effective cooperation during the crisis

However, as our work with Misereor’s local partner, the National Peace Council (NPC), shows, there are also positive examples of effective cooperation in response to the pandemic. The NPC provides food parcels and face masks for those at risk of hunger. Nearly 40 interreligious committees have been set up, with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians working together to organise and deliver aid quickly and unbureaucratically. Large numbers of Muslims in particular are involved in the aid campaigns run by the NPC. They want to express their solidarity with those from other religious communities who need help. The process of distributing assistance packages has led to greater interaction between the various religious and ethnic groups than is normally the case. The NPC hopes that this joint initiative, involving so many Muslims, will promote a sense of reconciliation between the country’s different population groups.

Women among those hardest hit

The role of Sri Lankan women during the COVID-19 pandemic has been very striking. Traditionally, one of their main responsibilities is to go out and buy food for the family. After weeks of lockdown, this has become very difficult, placing a huge burden on women in particular. Against this cultural background, many NGOs have opted to distribute food rations instead of cash. They are concerned that any money they provide to support families could be used by men for other things such as alcohol. By contrast, they know they can rely on women to make good use of the food they supply.

Building closer links between government and civil society

The assistance programmes set up during the pandemic have given civil society groups such as the NPC an opportunity to establish a better working relationship with the authorities and government representatives by demonstrating a transparent, cost-effective, participatory and inclusive approach. At the same time, their response to the crisis has enhanced their standing within the population as a whole. They were on the ground helping those most in need well and timely. It remains to be seen, once the crisis is over, whether this newly gained trust will have a positive impact on the peace process and future peacebuilding activities.

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Kesuma Saddak has been with Misereor for 30 years. As Programme Officer, she is responsible for Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste.