Building togetherness, raising hopes | Sunday Observer

Building togetherness, raising hopes

What a contrast from Christmas festivals just a few years ago! Togetherness and determination to progress shines forth this Christmas Day as perhaps never before in Sri Lanka, symbolised by the record-making ‘Christmas Tree’ in central Colombo, standing amid the even taller and yet rising commercial towers.

Last Christmas, too, there was festivity, but for most Sri Lankans, 2015 was barely 12 months since the end of decades of numbing social fear that continued after the traumatically brutal conclusion of the internal war. That social fear, nurtured by a regime that thrived on war even in the act of ending it, continued after the war, actually worsening the relations between ethnic and religious communities. Majority ethno-religious triumphalism and arrogance espoused by that regime caused not just fear but also destruction and violence meted out to the ethno-religious minorities.

If some sections of the majority community were misguided to view the Tamils as a ‘defeated’ community, that same unscrupulous manipulation of ethnic attitudes misguided sections of the Sinhalese to turn on the other ethnic and religious minorities. Triumphal speech was spiced with hate speech. Mob violence masqueraded as ‘civil’ and clerical action, robes and all.

Entire Muslim neighbourhoods – Moor and Malay – were subject to public intimidation, acts of shaming, and large scale mob rioting. Shop burning became a regular feature of the last regime, as did acts of discrimination against Muslim women and men in various institutions and places.

Similarly, Christian institutions large and small came under attack, with accusations addressed to religious leaderships and mob violence against hundreds of small churches throughout the country.

If recent decades are memories of minority community fear and suffering, they are also a period of corresponding hatred and fear among the majority community. The hatred and fear of minority communities arose from suspicions fanned by extremist groups protected by the last regime. Fear of these minority communities also arose within the majority community as a result of their attacks on the minorities – this culture of social violence predicating the possibility of retaliatory violence.

The political change at the beginning of 2015 heralded the easing of these intense social antagonisms. Extremist groups that were protected by the previous government became dis-empowered when their political patrons lost their own positions of power. The whole tenor of the campaign for political change emphasized reconciliation, friendship and justice for all, and this, today, has resulted in the change of social ambience.

It has taken over a year of sustained and painstaking efforts – if uneven – for social attitudes to shift away from bitter memories and toward hopes for the future. At the end of its second year, the Sirisena Presidency can look back at a range of initiatives that have gradually brought this country on to a new plane of social endeavour that looks away from the past and into the future. The Wickremesinghe Government can look back at nearly two years of slow struggles to repair the immense destruction to State and economy while putting the country on to a new modernization track.

True, these initiatives – even if some were flawed – were often belittled or misrepresented by the remnants of the previous regime and their extremist cohorts. On the one hand, there is resistance to digging up the dirty and bloody past. On the other, these same sections, for their very civil and political survival, have endeavoured to mislead the public and use every opportunity to whip up old fears and hatred.

The spate of urban development today is not merely the result of opportunistic corruption during the previous regime. That was no more than ‘beautification’ at the whims of bigwigs benefiting from the spin-off from inflated contracts and deals – such as ‘port cities’ and ‘deep sea ports’ which are not essential or a priority.

The new government has managed to re-orient urban progress towards actual development as opposed to wasteful beautification. While wasteful projects are being re-configured to do the least financial and environmental damage, new and profoundly systematic planning is yet under way for a serious building of a middle-income economy and society.

Cities are being planned where they are most needed, as are roads, bridges and other economic infrastructure. And the spate of glittering towers now rising above the landscape are a result of this improved planning, ambitious goal-setting and, above all, investor confidence. True, the global slowdown and uncertainty has not brought much foreign direct investment. But, that is a long term goal after decades of war and social chaos.

More importantly, the last two years of de-emphasis of community antagonism and emphasis on collective and collaborative efforts toward prosperity has helped everyone feel togetherness, more than antagonism. Fear and suspicion is being replaced with confidence between communities and hope arising from the glimpse of the advantages and possibilities of social peace. Pride is replacing humiliation as citizens combine to deliberate on a new constitution to facilitate a wholly new political system that recognizes and cherishes all Sri Lankans in accordance with their diverse interests and common destiny.

Hence, while in past years, Buddhists were exhorted by extremists to suspect the intentions of other religions, this Christmas Day, the most visible sign of festivities, that record-making Christmas Tree on Galle Face Green, is the creation of a collective of Sri Lankans most of whom are Buddhist! Even more significantly, the festive Tree is not the work of big business or just political panjandrums, but that of a workers’ union supported by donations of medium and small business friends – all quite irrespective of religion and ethnicity. Most significantly, it is the hard work of all the artisans, construction workers, planners and organizers coming together in a determined endeavour for the happiness, not of themselves but, of others.

Hence, Christmas Day today, while brimming with the peace and love it annually celebrates, symbolizes the new Sri Lanka of unity and determination.

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