Diversity – the key to survival

Friday, 2 August 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Ethnicity and religion can be misused in multiple ways to manipulate and frighten society. Being aware of the history of the country and the dividing forces which have taken place, Sri Lanka has at the same time always been a melting pot right from the beginning! – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


Three months ago, Sri Lanka was shaken hard by the vicious acts of a few and again the large majority had to suffer loss, fear, discrimination and long-term economic consequences. It could be observed that Sri Lankans are extremely resilient to catastrophes, have they gone through so much within the past decades! Many of the Sri Lankan people went on with their daily life soon after the tragic events. 

Where the Easter bombings were a shock for everyone, the fact that multiple people knew about the plans to conduct such terror in the country way before it happened, was another shock. A country like Sri Lanka, who has experienced years of terrorism and has been an expert in counter terrorism and intelligence. How can it be that such country loses track on extremism and potential violence? Some might argue there was a purpose behind the blindness, however it could have also been a complete lack of good governance and political failure to protect the people of this country.

As it is with terrorism, there is one tremor and then a multitude of aftershocks. Not only had communities suffered loss and trauma, the entire country has been hit economically, mentally and psychologically. This already being more than enough to recover from, one can still observe how some individuals as well as groups use this despair as a chance to profit. This might be one of the ugliest traits of humans – to use a tragic situation for personal proliferation. 

During the past weeks it was confirmed again that ethnicity and religion can be misused in multiple ways to manipulate and frighten society. Being aware of the history of the country and the dividing forces which have taken place, Sri Lanka has at the same time always been a melting pot right from the beginning! Being an island in a crucial global location, attracting ships of various origins to its ports, the country has always been influenced by many different cultures, traditions, religions and ethnicities. It is said that Sri Lankan cinnamon has been found in ancient Egypt as early as 1500 BCE, implying trade between Egypt and Sri Lanka. 

In pre-colonial societies, diversity has hardly been a motive for conflict. Rather, it was considered cultural strength. Through the colonial rule division was created in Sri Lanka, framing differences in religion and ethnicity as either inferiority or superiority. Since then, the instruments of division and exclusion have been used to create inequality, discrimination, frustration and finally, violence. 

The document “People of Sri Lanka” of the Ministry of National Integration, Official Languages, Social Progress and Hindu Religious Affairs (earlier called Ministry of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages) starts with the headline “Sri Lankan” – Our Identity/“Diversity” – Our Strength and describes 19 different ethnicities whose home is Sri Lanka. Not just recently, but since decades. Hence Sri Lanka is used to diversity and to live in a heterogenous society. There are still villages where a multitude of religions are present and communities practice various traditions. They live side by side despite their different ways to speak, pray, cook or celebrate. 

Looking at history it had always been one or the other group of powerful people who started bringing injustice, discrimination and conflict into before peaceful communities. And still it seems to be the same practice. It is those with blind ideologies putting poisoned opinions and thoughts into the minds of the masses who – be it out of fear or strong commitment to traditions – believe these disruptive viewpoints. How can we overcome this legacy and grow out of this pattern, remembering the true roots of Sri Lanka as a diverse nation, valuing diversity as asset? The question is, what needs to change that communities do not give into the propaganda distorting religious and ethnic used by a few for power and personal gain, which makes them go against their neighbours? 

It is actually quite simple: bring people together, give them space to get to know each other and connect on a human level – far beyond religious or ethnic differences. Segregation, division, inequality and exclusion have to be minimised. 

One point of intervention can be the education system in Sri Lanka. Segregated school systems where children from small age do not encounter kids from other communities, well often not even the other sex, might have led to distorted opinions and prejudices. Sri Lankans identify very strongly with their school. Essentially who they meet at school mostly comprises their main group of associates later on. Studies have shown that several Sri Lankans have had no contact with the variety of Sri Lankan ethnicities and do not know about their traditions and customs. They know the rumours, myths and stories which are told. Therefore there exist pictures of “the other” which continue through generations, without ever being corrected.

In Rwanda, after the genocide has left deep scars in the society, a proactive organisation has undertaken a set of workshops bringing together various kinds of people from different communities. By involving in common activities, spending time together and giving room to get to know “the other”, they were able within two years to significantly increase trust between the groups and decrease prejudice and discrimination. The key was to bring people together and give space for connection. To allow them to have their opinions and bringing them onto the table and confront the other group, to have discussions and eradicate myth and prejudice. 

Sri Lanka has shown its ability to live side by side and with each other since centuries. Sri Lanka is a country of compassion where a poor person would offer his meal to someone else in need and an entire community would come together to rescue an animal which got stuck in a well. Sri Lanka has all preconditions to find strength and unity in its diversity, to overcome the old patterns of dominance and inequality and actually use diversity as an advantage.

We all have our differences, but end of the day aren’t we all the same? We are humans! If you buy a pack of M&Ms, they come in different colours shapes and forms. They might taste different as well. But aren’t they all M&Ms? Would you only eat the orange ones and throw away the green ones? If you take off the colour, they all look the same! 

Finally, we are a species on a planet in a vast universe. We have to move on from narrow minded opinions about “the other” and understand that we are all sitting in the same boat. There are much bigger challenges in front of our door and if we want to survive, we have to work together, we have to find solutions together where everyone is needed! No group can do it alone. Humanity will survive because of its diversity! Monocultures do not withstand the challenges of climate and pests – a biodiverse forest does. Diversity is key for the survival of humanity! Let’s not wait until global challenges are forcing us to cooperate and join hands. Let’s look out of the box today and start with an open heart and mind towards a united Sri Lanka.

Recent columns