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Creating ethnic and religious harmony in Sri Lanka

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 12 June 2019 00:00

 The Easter Sunday massacre of innocent church goers and the subsequent attacks on Muslim households and business establishments have confirmed that Sri Lankan society is still a primitive cluster of tribal groups which clash with each other from time to time – Pic by Chamila Karunarathne 


  • Most urgent need for creating socio-political stability and an economic take off

The purpose of this article is to discuss ways and means of creating harmony among the various ethnic and religious communities in Sri Lanka (SL) in order to lay a stable foundation for speedy economic recovery mainly to alleviate poverty.

The Easter Sunday massacre of innocent church goers and the subsequent attacks on Muslim households and business establishments have confirmed that Sri Lankan society is still a primitive cluster of tribal groups which clash with each other from time to time. The realisation that history may repeat itself in this manner after the Black July of 1983, the subsequent 30-year-war and the attacks on innocent Muslims in and around Aluthgama, Teldeniya, Nattandiya, etc., recently has kept foreign direct investors out of this country as pointed out by this writer several times as against the assertion on the part of the some authorities that it is due to inconsistency of policies. 

In fact by 2016 according to UNCTAD, the stock of foreign direct investments attracted by SL was only $ 9.7 billion (used mostly for construction and not for manufacturing), while those attracted by the stable governments in East Asia amounted to more than a trillion dollars as in the case of Singapore and Hong Kong and over a hundred billions dollars where South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia are concerned. This inadequacy of investment for creation of employment and production for export is the main reason why SL is still poor compared to the East Asian nations, (per capita income of SL by 2017 was $ 4,074 while those of South Korea and Singapore were $ 29,743 and $ 57,714 respectively).

It is indeed due to history repeating itself that SL is still poor and the economy has collapsed as of 2018. This is due to a series of events that took place after the 1956 ascension of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike as Prime Minister supported mainly by a group of Sinhala Buddhist activists (some of whom were extremists who assassinated him later). 

The next main event of this nature was the Black July of 1983 when innocent Tamils were terrorised; the JRJ government at the time did nothing to stop it. The SLFP governments that ruled the country after that, again drew their support mainly from Sinhala Buddhists and therefore (even the UNF government that came to power in 2015) did nothing to bring social harmony among the different ethnic and religious groups; the only deliberate act was perhaps the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1978 (made permanent in 1982). 

That apparently is why the various attacks on Muslims recently by Sinhala Buddhist mobs and the massacre of churchgoers on Easter Sunday by Muslim extremists took place again: history repeating itself. 

In other words these violent events have taken place mainly on account of leadership failure to bring about harmony among the different communities in the country as a foundation for speedy economic growth in contrast to other governments in the region.


Social harmony in Singapore

The government of Singapore led by its great leader Lee Kwan Yew on the other hand took deliberate constructive action especially to enshrine Multiculturalism, Secularism and Meritocracy in the 1965 Constitution to bring about social harmony and integrate the Chinese, Malay Muslim, Indian and other communities into a single integrated nation after the Chinese-Malay clashes of July 1964; secularism (meaning religion should not be part of the affairs of state) was actually intended to protect religious freedom so long as it does not clash with public order. 

This was buttressed by, a) the National Pledge of 1966 which introduced English as the common language of the nation, b) the Presidential Council for Minority Rights in 1970 to prevent discrimination against any race or religion, c) the Ethnic Integration Policy of 1989 for Housing to ensure a certain proportion of housing units in an apartment block is set apart for ownership by persons belonging to the various ethnic/religious groups so that they are sort of compelled to share of common facilities leading to building of trust and friendships, d) the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act of 1990 which introduced legal measures to combat threats to social harmony and introduced a national military service for males, e) the Community Centres with facilities for common activities in urban areas in 1990, f) the Racial Confidence Circles composed of leaders from the various communities in every constituency in 2002 and g) the Community Engagement Programme, 2006 to create trust, understanding and cooperation among the various ethnic and religious groups.

It may be noticed that all these are positive constructive measures to bring about social harmony and not necessarily for preventing terrorism only. It should also be mentioned that these may have resulted in a strong foundation of communal harmony which created the political stability required for the well-known spectacular economic take off in Singapore.


New Zealand (NZ) 

Though NZ has no state religion, the NZ Bill of Rights of 1990 and the Human Rights Act of 1993 ensure the right to religion and the right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion. The Human Rights Commission of NZ and the NZ Office of Ethnic Affairs have in addition prepared programs to promote harmonious relations among the different ethnic and religious communities. There is no doubt that such constructive laws may have contributed to peace and harmony that led to prosperity in NZ.



An emphasis on secularism, more specifically encouragement of religious freedom is also seen in Chapter 111 of the Indian Constitution as amended in 1976; it prevents the state from identifying itself with any religion to ensure equal treatment of all religions. Article 3.6 of the constitution in fact declares that activities promoting religious disharmony is an offence punishable with imprisonment for three years as well as a fine or both.

The Indian constitution makers also decided wisely to retain English as the official language of the country by its Official Languages Act of 1963 until any change is made on account of the existence of about 2,000 ethnic groups speaking different languages. This huge democratic country thus gives an answer to those who wonder how it manages to tick along with a very satisfactory economic growth rate in contrast to little SL populated with only a few racial and religious communities. 


Promoting social harmony in Sri Lanka

Therefore it is high time Sri Lanka resorts to constructive means to promote social harmony especially to attract investment to rescue its collapsing economy. The proposals made in this connection are:

The professionals and the clergy particularly the Buddhist priests who desire to assist in overcoming the current political crisis, could advise the candidates appearing for the forthcoming Presidential Election and the leaders of candidates contesting the General Election to declare in their manifestoes that constructive constitutional and other measures to bring about social harmony among the different ethnic and religious groups to create a stable environment required for economic growth and poverty alleviation.

They could request the candidates and leaders to spell out what these measures are in their campaigns and why these are necessary. Main among these should obviously be the enactment of a new constitution, as the 1972 and 1978 were not drawn up to create an integrated and well governed SL especially by uniting the various ‘tribal’ groups. The specific measures to be included in the new constitution could include:

One of them is the improvement of the electoral system and the introduction of a method to regulate the political parties. The unit of parliamentary elections was the district and therefore campaigning expenditure was so large that the candidates once elected did not hesitate to recover this expenditure by robbing from allocated state funds or by resort to taking bribes. Under a new constitution parliamentary elections therefore should be based on the smaller constituencies as before; since there were frequent clashes among the candidates of the same party under Proportional Representation, future elections should be held under the First Past the Post system. 

In addition the 1978 constitution allowed the leaders of the political parties to field their candidates for election on the basis of loyalty to him/her and not on their ability reflected by their educational qualifications and experience; there was also no provision in the constitution to regulate the actions of the political parties by the state to ensure a better quality of governance. The political party system has therefore produced a situation where new elections would result in the emergence of the same type of mediocre MPs. A new constitution thus should contain details of selection of candidates for election with a passion and ability based on qualifications and working experience to serve the people of their constituencies and of the country; there should also be provision for monitoring the activities of political parties particularly the requirement of submitting annual reports of all their activities with an audited statement of accounts. 

The provision of an effective public service to the people was also overlooked. The 1978 constitution allows, via article 55, the extension of the power of politicians in the ruling party over the public institutions which had until the enactment of the 1972 constitution, provided the people an efficient service without a political bias, managed by an independent commission; this change led to selection and promotion of officials on political and other bases and not on merit alone as in Singapore. It is obvious that this has had a tremendous unfavourable impact on the efficiency of the public service. The relevant article in the present constitution has therefore to be done away with.

The 1978 constitution also overlooked the creation of social harmony. A new constitution should therefore include provision for the following:

It should contain a full and complete Declaration of Fundamental Rights as the rights in section 14.1 of the constitution are not as complete as that of South Africa. In addition the new constitution has to provide for the setting up of a Human Rights Commission as in NZ to promote harmonious relations among the different communities, and for safeguarding the rights of the minorities. Obviously there should also be a requirement for a link language which should have been English as in the Indian constitution. A Religious Harmony Act should also be enacted to prohibit the use of religion particularly in elections and impose legal action against political parties, other organisations as well as individuals who spread religious disharmony. An Ethnic Integration Policy as in Singapore intended for setting up mixed urban settlements to promote better understanding and trust among the ethnic and religious groups should also be formulated for implementation.

The 19th Amendment made the situation worse by creating two executive posts of President of the republic and a Prime Minister of the cabinet of ministers; if they happen to be from two different parties there is bound to be disagreement on the ways and means of governing the country as at present. Therefore the post of President of the Republic should also be abolished in a new constitution.

Candidates also should in addition indicate in their manifestoes ways and means of improving the productivity of factors of production such as land, labour and capital and of enhancing the global competitiveness of goods and services by reducing budget deficits (to lower costs) as well as import tariffs ( as import substitution has failed here in the past) mainly in order to expand exports to rescue the economy from the present state of bankruptcy. They should promise that in addition to long term strategies, short term programs will be implemented to improve rural productivity as people in rural areas have been suffering intensely due to low returns from their farms and poor infrastructure facilities. 

Once elected they should promise to implement the measures indicated in Section 2 above within the first year of office. 



It is clear now that the efforts of SL leaders to appeal especially to Sinhala Buddhists voters to win elections and their failure to promote harmony among the various ethnic and religious communities have led the country to economic disaster and poverty of all people, (mostly of Sinhala Buddhists since they are the majority community). So the leaders and others concerned including the Buddhist clergy have to grab (perhaps the last) opportunity presented by the forthcoming Presidential and General elections to firmly promise that they will take all the measures such as those mentioned above to bring about harmony among the different ethnic and religious groups in the country to arrive at political and social stability required to overcome the collapse of the economy and extreme poverty. 

(The writer is a development economist)

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