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Ethno-religious violence and its consequences

22 June 2014 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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It was only a few weeks ago that I wrote an article in this column pointing out that there was a likelihood of ethno-religious violence breaking out around certain flash points in the country.

I pointed out there that ethno-religious violence does not flare up without an environment conducive for it. It appears that those who participated in the violent acts are largely disgruntled youth with a sense of relative deprivation who have been mobilised by militant religious groups.
They would not have taken part in the violence without a prior psychological conditioning for such behaviour.




Persisting uncertainty and the increasing sense of insecurity can encourage more and more people to look for opportunities to leave the country. Apart from the few illegal migrants, most of those who usually leave are those who are most needed in this country. They are the people with intellectual and financial capital who are in demand everywhere.





There are certain pre-conditions for an inter-group conflict to emerge.Firstly, at least one of the groups should feel that the other is a threat or unduly privileged. Secondly, there should be considerable social distance between the two groups in terms of place of work, residential pattern, community organisation and social practices.

In other words, the two groups do not necessarily share much in common in their day to day lives.
And finally, their almost exclusive identities should not only be continually reproduced through education and other social practices but also reinforced by political mobilisation, either formally or informally. The recent incidents of inter-group violence figured prominently in both the electronic and print media.
These media reports became the subject matter for discussion in the media as well as in informal settings like work places and residential neighbourhoods.
In other words, their social and psychological impact has been felt across the country. The messages that have been circulating across the wider public have not been uniform.

One strong and widespread voice that we hear is that the country can ill-afford another round of ethnic-violence. But, then there are also mixed feelings among some people regarding the events.

We are living at a time when a large majority of people have come under increasing economic and social pressure. Increasing cost of living and the burden of widespread ailments such as dengue, chronic kidney diseases and cancer have already devastated many families in almost all parts of the country. A majority of people are running around to make a living and attending to various social responsibilities. Most children and youth are on the move, attending school and private classes, looking for work, etc. Any sense of insecurity arising out of widespread violence can be the last thing that most families would want to face. Such an eventuality would be akin to the proverbial “falling from the frying pan to the fire”.

I have argued in this column that there is an urgent need to restructure the country’s economy away from mono-crop agriculture and services in favour of more value added industries and diversified agriculture.


What we witness today is an increasing emphasis on tourism, gambling and other services. These latter areas of economic activity are naturally more sensitive to the prevailing tense atmosphere in the country. Already, one country has reportedly issued a travel advisory and others are likely to follow. If the trend continues, the tourist industry is likely to be badly affected, sending shock waves through financial institutions in the country as well. Moreover, prospective investors are likely to think twice before investing capital in this country.




Yet, what we witness today is an increasing emphasis on tourism, gambling and other services. These latter areas of economic activity are naturally more sensitive to the prevailing tense atmosphere in the country. Already, one country has reportedly issued a travel advisory and others are likely to follow. If the trend continues, the tourist industry is likely to be badly affected, sending shock waves through financial institutions in the country as well. Moreover, prospective investors are likely to think twice before investing capital in this country.

Persisting uncertainty and the increasing sense of insecurity can encourage more and more people to look for opportunities to leave the country. Apart from the few illegal migrants, most of those who usually leave are those who are most needed in this country. They are the people with intellectual and financial capital who are in demand everywhere.

Sri Lanka has been already very badly affected by the exodus of tens of thousands of people with qualifications and skills in diverse fields. This is already a major factor impeding the country’s development. Can we afford to see more such people leaving the country? Do we need any more reasons to adopt a policy that rejects violence as a means of resolving disputes at a community level?

A sense of security is a fundamental requirement for  a contended life. A sense of insecurity created by actual or potential violence is thus a major issue that needs to be effectively resolved by the State.

That is also the minimum that any modern state owes to its citizens. While law enforcement authorities have the immediate responsibility to restore public order, it is sound State policies that can bring about lasting inter-community reconciliation. Such policies should be based on evidence generated by objective investigations of ground realities in different parts of the country.

We should not have the illusion that this is merely a local affair confined to one or two villages in the south.
In fact, latent ethnic tensions are widespread in the country, particularly in urban areas where competition for space and economic opportunities is intense. Extremist elements are more than capable of whipping up ethno-nationalist sentiments in these areas leading to physical violence.
Inter-community tension does not always lead to physical violence. The risk of reprisal attacks often prevents even ideologically motivated groups from harming their perceived rival groups. On the other hand, large-scale mobilisation of people by organised groups can tip the balance, as it happened in the south.
So, the absence of violence should not make the authorities complacent.

All necessary measures need to be taken to defuse tension and bring about sustainable reconciliation between communities. This requires more than a mobilisation of security forces to protect the communities by simply holding back rival groups.
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