“Humanity is beyond race or religion.”
Sociologist Ramees Abubakar talks to The Catamaran about reconciliation amongst the various religious and ethnic groups in Ampara, one of Sri Lanka’s most diverse districts.
Ampara District, in the Eastern Province, is one of Sri Lanka’s most diverse. The multiethnic nature of this region, even after the end of the civil war, has led to religious and ethnic strife. Dr. Ramees Abubakar, Head of the Department of Sociology at Southeast University spoke to The Catamaran about the role the middle class might play in helping communities heal.
Dr. Abubakar, Ampara is a multiethnic area. How are relations amongst these diverse communities?
Ampara district is made up of 43.58% Muslims, followed by Sinhalese with 38.75% and Tamils 17.39%. There are also other small ethnic groups like Burgers.
Ampara district boarder was expanded up to Dehiattakandiya through the delimitation process and due to planned settlements of Southerners in the district, the ethnic ratio changed to a great extent. Even though the Tamil and Muslim minorities live in large numbers, the majority of the land is in the hands of the Sinhalese.
Before the war, there was harmony in social fields such as politics and trade and they lived amicably. This had impacted even on the cultures of Tamils and Muslims.
There are about 44 traditions among Muslims similar to that of Tamils: puberty ceremony, marriage functions, dowry and ‘Thaali’ are just a few.
Although they practiced different religions, both communities spoke the same language. Muslims were did business in Tamil majority areas and vice versa. But after the war, although there are good relations between Tamil and Muslim communities, differences started brewing; what we see today is the scars of such differences. The Sinhalese of Ampara district were living in unity with both Tamil and Muslim before the war. They were engaged in economic activities also in places where Tamil and Muslim people lived. The war divided these communities and even after the war ended, the situation remains the same.
In your opinion, what could be the reason for communities continuing to live separately?
The emergence of ethnic political parties is one reason that communities are divided. In business activities, too, people are instigated to think along ethnic lines. This leads to misunderstandings.
The recent incidents in Ampara, where businesses belonging to Muslims were attacked by Sinhalese and a mosque was ransacked started with the accusation that in a Muslim hotel, contraceptive was mixed with the food they served. There are issues among Tamils and Muslims with regard to lands in Akkaraipattu. The Buddha statue in Maanikkamadu was also an issue among these three communities.
There are enough opportunities for people to live in unity, peace and harmony. Many researchers point to the fact that the political forces with selfish motives are keeping communities divided. If not for this, there is no barrier for people to live in peace.
We can’t put the blame solely on politics, ethnic and religious limitations also divide the community. What is your take?
Religion is a fundamental right of every individual. Everyone is free to follow a religion as he pleases. Similarly, ethnicity is an identity of a group of people based on religion or language. But these cannot be the basis for hostility.
These are emotional subjects which could be used for selfish motives by anyone. That’s what has happened recently. It is not acceptable to divide communities on this basis. Humanity is beyond race or religion. All people can live in harmony with their religion and culture based on humanity.
As a sociologist, what do you believe are the reasons for all people to divide into ethnic groups?
The scars of the war are a major factor in the lives of the people of Ampara District. People have a deep sense of fear because of the war: Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims have fears deeply rooted in the social fabric of life, coupled with racism, ethnic hatred and other complexities. The main reason for this is the war and politics.
However, ordinary people go into all the communities for daily business activities and engage in their livelihood. People of a higher strata too are involved in economic, social, administrative and political activities with all ethnic groups building up relationships. But the middle-class, which earns a fixed income, does not get involved in socially oriented harmonious activities. This is because these people rarely get the opportunity to be involved in the daily activities of other people. There is a kind of split attitude among this class of people. It is very important to create a sense of unity among them. In fact, their role is essential for social reconciliation. They have to change their course.
What kinds of changes do you believe need to happen?
Different mindsets exist because each community is separate from the other. Every community must come out of this isolation mentality. Every community must come forward to forgive and forget the wrongdoings and shed their fears. If the community continues with this mentality, sustainable peace will only be a dream.
There is still a museum exhibiting the atrocities committed against the Jews during Hitler’s period in Germany. This is because similar cruel deeds should not be repeated and feelings of retaliation should not crop. It is important for transitional justice.
Reconciliation is very important for the development of the country. Otherwise, human resources and other resources will go waste without being utilized and it will lead the country to go regress. People should change their attitude and behaviour. They must be encouraged to have discussions and to avoid violence. Coexistence should be built up through this.