Notes from the Field

New Survey in Post-War Sri Lanka Examines Ethno-Religious Relationships

July 11, 2012

Few countries in the world possess the level of ethno-religious pluralism found in Sri Lanka. The country is home to two national languages, Sinhala and Tamil, and four major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. In Sri Lanka, ethnicity and religion are intertwined: Buddhists are Sinhalese; Hindus are Tamils; Muslims comprise a separate ethnic category and are still referred to as “Moors,” especially among older Sri Lankans. While the mother-tongue of Muslims here is Tamil, they are not Tamils. Christians are either Sinhalese or Tamil and the overwhelming majority are Roman Catholic.

As the country emerges from decades of civil war and the societal landscape realigns, new challenges relating to ethno-religious dynamics are palpable. The impact of key events in Sri Lanka’s recent past – principally the war, but even the 2004 Tsunami – on reshaping communities and religious identities, and consequently intergroup relations, is profound and highly complex, and continues to unfold. Analysis suggests that though the war has ended, people deeply worry about extremist religious views and violence, particularly in areas that are multi-ethnic.

Within this complex and evolving ethno-religious landscape, The Asia Foundation just released its National Values Survey in Sri Lanka conducted in late 2011. The survey, which included 5,553 interviews across all provinces with the four major religious groups – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Roman Catholics – provides a more grounded understanding of people’s perceptions of religious beliefs and practices, inter-religious relations, and the role and influence of religious leaders. According to results, Sri Lankans overwhelmingly perceive their society as becoming significantly more religious, and adherence to core religious practices and rituals is high among people of all faiths, especially Buddhists. The increasing importance of religion is affirmed by religious leaders who indicate that their followers are visibly practicing their respective rites and rituals and visiting temples, shrines, and mosques more often than any time in the recent past.

Meanwhile, nine in 10 survey respondents claim that religious education is more important today than five years ago. Religious education in Sri Lanka is propagated not only through religious institutions but also through the public education system, a trend that may be contributing to the formation of insular ethno-religious identities.

The problem of increasing segregation is playing out in communities across Sri Lanka. Conventional wisdom has been that in locations where ethno-religious communities are not living in spatially segregated settlements, people have tended to transcend narrow ethno-religious divisions. Such harmony and co-existence have been facilitated by unique circumstances such as the presence of far-sighted community leaders, mutual dependence between communities, and sharing of common amenities. Yet, it is increasingly acknowledged that these places are likely the exception, and where populations are highly segregated along religious lines, and where religious groups feel pressure to assert themselves in public displays of exclusivity and strength, tension and mutual suspicion tend to characterize relations. According to a Buddhist religious leader who was interviewed for the survey: “There is a decreasing amount of inter-religious opportunities as people become more segregated, which is translating into issues such as fewer inter-ethnic marriages. If people lived together, inter-religious issues could be overcome.”

Survey results show a strong belief among Sri Lankans that people of all faiths have the right to worship freely and hold religious services and festivals peacefully. Yet, at the same time, intolerance is clearly exposed on specific issues such as erecting religious statues or places of worship in public spaces, and the majority feels the country is vulnerable to extremist religious views and violence. A notable proportion of Hindus, Christians, and Muslims also do not feel free to publically express their faith in their local area. It is not surprising then that religious minorities believe government needs to play a more active role to protect minority rights and prevent future violence, specifically regarding land, assets, and places of worship.

At the same time, those interviewed expressed a strong urgency to begin building bridges between religious communities at the local level. The survey revealed that religious leaders are very highly respected and influential among all religious groups, and while Sri Lankans prefer that they stay out of politics, there is a strong desire for greater involvement of religious leaders in solving social problems. This desire is likely driven by the critical but ad hoc role the public has witnessed religious leaders playing in promoting reconciliation and mediating of new conflicts between ethno-religious communities both during the war and in the current peace-building process.

It is anticipated that the results of the National Values Survey will be used by policymakers to better understand the evolving nature of ethno-religious identity and inter-group relations in post-war Sri Lanka. In particular, with the country fast transitioning into a post-war development era, the results will bring to light the potential value of religious leaders in binding religious communities together.

Liam Chinn is a consultant for The Asia Foundation in Sri Lanka and Gita Sabharwal is the Foundation’s deputy country representative there. They can be reached at lchinn@asiafound.org and gsabharwal@asiafound.org, respectively.

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