Progress as a Nation – How We Can Move Forward

As a component of its Peace Building initiative, The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has been engaged in carrying out several programmes to promote ethnic unity. Proceeding on the acceptance that Sri Lanka can progress only if it can overcome divisive attitudes, shed suspicions and cultivate respect for each other within its a diverse religious and ethnic composition, and believing also that the private sector has a role to play in forging unity, the Ceylon Chamber has organized several programmes to achieve this objective.

Consequent to the Easter Sunday terrorist attack, it was felt that there was a need for an open discussion on some of the pertinent concerns that were being raised by the different communities. The Ceylon Chamber organized panel discussion featuring prominent business leaders and leaders of the different ethnic communities, on July 18th, 2019, to discuss some of these issues. The discussion focused on how Sri Lanka could move forward, following the Easter Sunday attacks, and how we can overcome the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that has fractured our society. The forum also provided the space for the audience to raise questions and seek clarifications from the panel.

The Panel featured Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy, Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka; Mr. Gihan Cooray, Deputy Chairman of John Keells Holdings; Mr. H. Wegapitiya, Chairman of LAUGFS Holdings; Mrs. Ferial Ashraff, Former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Singapore; Hon. M.A. Sumanthiran, MP; and Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, President of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. Mr. Suresh Shah, former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber, moderated the event. The panelists were unanimous in their view that social harmony was vital for Sri Lanka to progress as a Nation. They responded to questions from the Moderator to voice sentiments both of despair and hope for the future of Sri Lanka.

Mr. Wegapitiya stated that the problem faced in Sri Lanka is not simply a race or ethnic problem, but one that is ‘created by certain cults.’ The biggest issue in the country, he stressed, was that every issue is politicized. “Unfortunately over a period of time, the country has forgotten certain values and everything is politicized,” he said, speaking about Buddhist values of love, compassion, and tolerance.

Mrs. Ashraff commented that after the Easter bombings, the Muslim community itself is grappling with the need to move on. “We don’t know why this happened, and who they were working for, or what the benefit of this was. Tough times for the Muslims – we are polarized like never before. I am told that Muslims fear others and others fear Muslims, which has led to a lot of anger and hate, which is giving away to violence,” she said. Responding to a question, she stated that the Muslims are very willing to change themselves — if at all change will bring about change. She also commented that she was truly blessed to have been born in a Buddhist-majority country.

Speaking about economic impacts within the community, Mrs. Ashraff spoke of the interdependency on each other and said “It’s strange how you don’t realize how business is still a very interdependent thing. We have the producers, the transporters, the exports and imports… If one of us were to perish, we all will,” she said.

Dr. Coomaraswamy elaborated about how social disharmony and conflict within the country could negatively affect investment and development prospects. The Governor stated that our economy has shown resilience, but that it’s not enough to be resilient and that we have to achieve progress. Dr. Coomaraswamy emphasized that social harmony is of the essence to attract investors. He recalled how Sri Lanka had missed the opportunity to attract Japanese investment because of the ethnic riots of 1983. Another, more recent example that was cited was that in an effort to raise money, the banks had indicated that they are used to bombings, but they were much more concerned about the breakdown in law and order that took place a few weeks later. They had asked if this was going to be another ’30-year affair.’ “We need to understand this, and not miss the opportunity that we missed in 1983,” he said and emphasized that no segment of the population should be treated unfairly.

MP Sumanthiran asserted the need for a united country, and stated that the aspiration of the Tamil community was to live as one country. He stated that the Tamil community is still willing and hoping to be taken as an equal partner in the Sri Lankan polity. The lack of representation and inclusion was what compelled Tamils to demand a separate governance structure in the past, he said.

JKH’s Deputy Chairman Gihan Cooray had positive feedback to share in terms of the economy, and reaffirmed that it was ‘quite resilient.’ Building on what Mrs. Ashraff highlighted about social interdependency, Cooray stressed that the incidents that followed the April terror attacks, is what could hurt future business prospects more than the bombings itself. “Unfortunately the world has seen quite a lot of terrorism, but that means we’re not really alone. People tend to move on. However, the other incidents we’ve seen since then isn’t something that’s looked upon kindly,” he pointed out.

The way to move forward, according to Dr. Ariyaratne, is to be introspective and look within not just ethno-religious communities, but within families. Interaction between different communities is of the essence, he said, especially because of underlying tension and suspicion after what happened in April. Children should receive messages of harmony. On a positive note, there are youth who have taken leadership to counter extremism in a constructive way, and find solutions.

“How can we give them a better voice, and better recognition? How do we create better platforms?” he asked. “Can regional Chambers play a role in bringing communities together?”

Dr. Ariyaratne in response to a question, opined that monks should play a part in guiding people, but not be involved in the electoral process. Historically, he cited, a large majority of Buddhist monks have been following Buddhist principles and advising the country the correct way. “However, the current political system these days is really exploiting these differences to get votes. The clergy should not be involved in divisive party politics, but should hold rulers accountable to the people, and guide people to follow the Dharmic law,” Dr. Ariyaratne said, also adding that they should not be above the law of the land.

All panelists agreed that the country cannot progress unless Sri Lankans establish social harmony. There is an urgent need for all stakeholders to play an active part in integrating different communities — starting from families and schools.