The long road to normalcy

Monday, 13 May 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As another week starts Sri Lankans remain wary of their surroundings and communal tensions continue to erupt in different parts of the country underscoring the grave need for the Government to spearhead efforts to promote harmony in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks. 

Curfew was imposed in Chilaw on Sunday after clashes erupted in the town. Shops were closed and large crowds had gathered as security forces moved into the area. Initial reports said the situation had been triggered by a social media post claiming an attack was being planned by residents and the person responsible was arrested by police. The dangers of social media at a time when communal relations are arguably at an all-time low are self-evident, especially after the Digana clashes last year. 

However, since banning of social media is also problematic the Government will have to find some way to monitor the posts being shared on social media with the consultation of the public, civil society and other stakeholders. Perhaps the most effective is the swift action of arresting and punishing such people for spreading misinformation and hate speech. There is also the need for a broader national discourse on restoring moderate religious views across all communities and finding ways to promote inter-religious dialog. 

The previous Sunday clashes erupted in Negombo between Sinhala and Muslim communities. Shops were looted and tensions in the area remain high even though curfew was removed. The reports of swords and other weapons being found around the country have also contributed to existing sentiments of distrust and fear. Even though the Government has pledged compensation much more needs to be done on the ground to foster co-existence and rebuild harmony. 

The Government last week took steps to regulate madrasas. The Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Ministry has presented to the Government a bill called the Madrasa Education Regulatory Act that seeks to set up a Board with powers of regulation, registration, supervision, control and development of education within madrasas in Sri Lanka. There are 1,675 Quran Madrasas across 24 districts in the country.

The only district without one is Kilinochchi, which also does not have Arabic colleges or Ahadiya (Sunday) schools. The highest number of 344 is in the Ampara district, followed by Colombo which has 161 and Batticaloa 148. Arabic colleges are also most numerous in the Ampara district, with 42, followed by Puttalam with 38 and Kandy 28.

The Madrasa Education Regulatory Act envisages the creation of a Madrasa Education Board comprising nine Muslim members to advise the Minister on policy matters. The power of regulation, registration, supervision, control, development and improvement of madrasa education in Sri Lanka shall vest in the Board. This is a positive move but the Board must have the right mix of people and should, ideally include female members as well.  The Ministry on Friday also issued a statement calling on trustees of mosques to record sermons and send a copy to the Ministry. It is unclear how the Ministry would listen to all these thousands of sermons and what action they may take if a particular sermon is found to have incendiary messages but it’s still a start.  More such efforts need to be made to restore moderation to religions, especially since nationalistic views are also fuelled by conservative perceptions of Buddhism and a larger effort will have to be made so that communities can start putting aside their fear.