Role of religious actors in establishing sustainable state-society relations in the aftermath of conflicts and in addressing structural violence

Role of religious actors in establishing sustainable state-society relations in the aftermath of conflicts and in addressing structural violence –  Address By Venerable Galkande Dhammananda, Head of the Walpola Rahula Institute, Sri  Lanka at the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development in May 2018

 Sri Lanka is a home for a little over 20 million people. Sri Lankan society comprises Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and a small percentage of Burgher people. Proportionate distribution of religions among these people in Sri Lanka are as follows: 70% Buddhists, 12.6% Hindu, 9.7% Muslim and 7.4% Christians.


Buddhists of this Island are ethnic Sinhalese and Hindus are the ethnic Tamil. There is hardly any Hindu from the Sinhalese community and hardly any Buddhist from the Tamil community. In this circumstance, only the Christian religion represents both the Sinhala and the Tamil communities. However, Buddhist share many Hindu religious cultural practices in their day-to-day religious rituals and Hindus accept the Buddha as an incarnation of their god. These favorable practices and beliefs are deep rooted in the culture of the both communities.


Sri Lanka experienced colonial interventions from  1505  AD  onwards. The first  intervention was  made  by Portuguese and then Dutch and English. The British ruled the entire country for 130 years. During the time of colonial rule, the society started splitting along ethnic lines namely Sinhalese and Tamil. The politics of the country developed along these divisions after independence in 1948, which led to a bloody armed conflict. The basic arguments in post independent Sri Lanka was to keep the unitary state structure or to go for power devolution where minority communities can participate more actively in decision-making. In this context, religion and religious identities became important.


Unsuccessful efforts of finding an amicable solution led to the eruption of the armed conflict, which continued for almost 30 years. During this conflict between the government forces and the LTTE, a Tamil ethnic armed group fought for a separate state for Tamils. All the parties who took part in the conflict used violence as a tool to terrorize people to make them silent and obey to their orders. Therefore, displaying dead bodies, burning bodies in public places, slaughtering people including infants were common ways of ‘sending a message’.


During the conflict time, the LTTE ran a de-facto state in the north and east of the Island. They had their own army, police and judicial systems until government forces destroyed them totally in 2009.


The religious background of the armed group who fought for a separate state was comprised of Hindus and Christians with hardly any Buddhist or Muslim. The majority of the soldiers from the government forces were comprised of Buddhists and there were only a small percentage of Christians and Muslims in the forces and hardly any Hindus.


Clear-cut division between religions among the conflicting parties paved the way for targeted attacks on religious places and religious leaders during the time of the conflict. Certain religious leaders and institutions also worked either with the government forces (Buddhist) or with the militant groups (Hindu and Christians). Therefore, when the armed conflict ended in 2009 there was a deep suspicion about certain religious institutions by almost all the parties.


Soon after the armed conflict ended in 2009 another round of tension started between Buddhists and Muslims. Certain new organizations emerged and were engaged in spreading hate messages which paved the way for two incidents where four people died in the first incident (in 2014) and two people died and many properties were damaged in the second (in 2018). Certain organizations which spread hate were led by religious leaders.


Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) a Buddhist monk led organization was the first organization that started hate campaign against Muslims. It was very clear they had close connection with Ashin Wirathu, a Myanmar counterpart leader of same kind of violent Buddhist organization.


At a high time of the hate campaign supported by seemingly war-victorious government, hardly any Buddhist Monk or organization came forward to promote peace. In this circumstance, we created video messages and shared them through youtube channel1 to educate people. We used social media extensively and other media, such as online newspapers. Also, the print media gradually started publishing our messages. Our recent video message that was released after the new clash in Kandy was repeatedly telecast on national TV channel and in live telecast on an international cricket match that was happening at the time. Newspaper and Television interviews, public speeches are also used by us as a method of education. Apart from that we conduct interreligious dialogue programs and camps for children to bring people together.


1 Youtube channel called bahujana hitaya


Our understanding is that these divisions and suspicions among the ethnic and religious groups in Sri Lanka are result of the unhealed wounds created from the time of the intervention of the colonizers. Throughout the last few centuries wounding processes are visible but hardly there is any healing process. Since there is no healing, wounding continues.


In such circumstance the interventions of the foreign peacemakers and aid groups have been seen as suspicious and conspiring against the certain communities and religious groups and supporting the others. Those NGO actors who conducted workshops and other peacebuilding work with the support of foreign agencies were seen as agents of those foreign ‘enemies’ and hence lacking legitimacy as peace actors.


30-years of armed conflict in Sri Lanka has badly damaged the lives of the people and the development of the country. It also created many refugees and armed activities affected the security of the region. Any religious tension in one country affects similar developments in the region. Developing examples of overcoming such situations become very important in this context.


Walpola Rahula Institute’s approach as an effort to overcome these challenges:


Challenge 1: How to win the hearts of other faith groups and communities such as Tamils?

  1. 1. As a Buddhist organization we keep a distance with the government forces, political parties and political figures.
  2. 2. We kept it clearly visible that we do not have any vested interest, including spreading our religion.
  3. 3. We emphasize that we all are wounded and all are with pai Hence ‘ones’ healing depends on the healing of his/her ‘other’. As long as your other is with wounds, you cannot be healed. So, there is a need of shifting everyone from a ‘wounder’ to a ‘healer’ role.
  4. 4. Keeping transparent how we get funds.


Challenge 2: How to maintain trust with one’s own religious group?

  1. 1. Always make it clear the work that we are doing is exactly what your religion expects you to do, such as practicing Loving-kindness (Metta), Compassion (Karuna) and  Sympathetic-joy (Mudita). Therefore, peacebuilding is what your religion expects you to do and it is your duty.
  2. 2. Not to take any monetary support from any foreign agency and keep a distance with NGOs.
  3. 3. Depending only on independent donations and not on organizational funding.
  4. 4. Develop peace building/healing tools from one’s own religious teachings and introducing them to the people.
  5. 5. Use the power that we have as religious leaders to educate people about these methods.


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“Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) a Buddhist monk led organization was the first organization that started hate campaign against Muslims. It was very clear they had close connection with Ashin Wirathu, a Myanmar counterpart leader of same kind of violent Buddhist organization” The above mentioned statement is false. These Monks do not spread hate in the community but are bold enough to speak the truth which is against what the Western media wants to promote in Sri Lanka. Ven. Ashin Wirathu speaks against the invasion of Rohingas from Bangaladesh which the West hopes to support akin to the problem they created… Read more »