In Conversation with Gamini Jayaweera
Building a Society That Accepts Diversity
“Extremism is always nourished by other forms of extremism. When ordinary people suffer because of acts of extremists, they too tend to lean towards extremism.” This is Gamini Jayaweera’s interview with The Catamaran.
Gamini Jayaweera is the convener of the Inter-faith Committee of Kandy, a trade union leader who fights for the rights of the workforce and a social activist pushing for national unity. While there are figures that show that the Sri Lankan population passionate for peace and reconciliation are in the 95th percentile, unfortunately there are no programs to mobilize them for peacebuilding.
THE CATAMARAN – What is the purpose of the Inter-faith Committee?
Kandy is a special area where people of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities live together. The sacred Temple of the Tooth, the Asgiriya and Malwaththa Buddhist temples, the four main Devales, the Pillaiyar Kovil, four mosques and two Catholic cathedrals are all found in the town of Kandy. Therefore ethnic peace and reconciliation is essential. While most citizens are traditional in terms of racial, religious and cultural views, they live together. They also have grown to become suspicious of each other. Therefore, anyone can create disharmony among the communities and cause conflict. The burning of the mosque that happened two years ago in Digana is an example. Therefore, we created Inter-faith Committee to create peace and reconciliation in Kandy.
THE CATAMARAN – Some of those who were arrested after Easter Sunday attacks blamed the Digana incident as the reason to join the Muslim extremist organizations.
Extremism is always nourished by other forms of extremism. When ordinary people suffer because of acts of extremists, they too tend to lean towards extremism. All forms of extremism seek to win over the common people and that can only be done only by spreading fear among communities.
THE CATAMARAN – Do you believe these racist groups are manipulated by politicians?
Yes. Organizations like Mahasohon Balakaya say that they work against harm caused by other communities to the Sinhalese. This is comical. The Sinhalese are 72% of the population of Sri Lanka. They are the majority community. As far as I know, the minorities do not threaten the majority. A terrorist group led by Saharan attacked several churches and hotels killing about 250 people in the Easter Sunday Attacks. Other than this incident, I did not see any harm caused by the Muslims to the Sinhala people. What is happening here is manipulation by a group trying to capture power using ethnic and religious chauvinism.
THE CATAMARAN – Is it wrong for a person to love their own ethnicity and religion?
One’s race and religion are important, but no one has right to denounce the identities of other communities because of that. Anyone has the right to follow their religion without harming others.
THE CATAMARAN – What is the role of media in building national unity?
Social media is very popular among people today. Extremist groups use them for their propaganda. This issue has been discussed at an international level. Each media institute has a responsibility towards national unity. They have a duty to operate media responsibly. A journalist may be a member of a political party, but that journalist cannot serve his political party while delivering his duties. Today, journalists serve politicians openly. Genuine citizens can be created only if the media acts professionally. The world is moving forward based on humanity, not race and religion. Our country’s media must learn this.
THE CATAMARAN – Schools and Political Parties are created in the name of race and religion. There is a severe criticism that they are obstacles to unity.
We can prevent establishing new political parties and schools on ethnic and religious basis, instead of getting rid of what has already been established. We must seek solutions to problems without creating more problems.
THE CATAMARAN – What is your opinion on the demand for a common law for all races?
There are issues regarding the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. Even within the Muslim community there have been discussions about it. In a democratic society, each community has right to respect their own racial, religious and cultural identities. The dead body of a Muslim is buried within 24 hours. The body is placed on a basket given by the mosque. Sinhala society does not question such customs. But there is criticism regarding the underage marriages that take place under Muslim marriage law. Also, the Burqua is questioned on the grounds of security. There are some Muslim women who have not walked out of the house since the day the Burqua was banned in the country. We need a broader dialogue about these issues. We have to build a society that not only tolerates diversity, but also accepts it.