A mass communications strategy is the need of the hour – Dr. Jehan Perera 

In the months following the deadly bomb blasts that claimed over 250 lives, polarisation between the country’s ethnic and religious communities has continued to grow. The highest ranking religious clergy aren’t immune to this polarisation, which has the capacity to misguide them away from the more universal values they’re expected to uphold.

Nearly a decade after the end of Sri Lanka’s 26 year long war, most citizens assumed that the hard-earned peace would be sustained; but it collapsed in the debris of the Easter Sunday attacks, which had no internal logic.

And so today, we continue to be reminded about how close we’re to the brink.

For example, a colleague recounted how a traffic policeman who apprehended him had warned that there was information of a possible attack (although the type of attack or location wasn’t specified) as a result of which there was a larger presence of police on the ground. But no such attack materialised.

If another bomb were to detonate and take lives however, there could be a sudden descent into chaos.

Another acquaintance referred to the discovery of swords in the places of worship and homes of Muslims as boding ill for the rest of the country. He also spoke about the violent practice of chopping the limbs of those convicted of wrongdoing in Muslim countries.

Not content with stopping at the issue of swords in the present day, my acquaintance went back 1,500 years to the time of great Buddhist kingdoms of India and the ancient Buddhist university at Nalanda, which was destroyed by invading Muslims who also slayed scores of Buddhist monks. So he had no good faith or trust in the goodwill of Muslims towards Buddhists.

Then there are the irrational fears deeply entrenched in the psyche of many people – for instance, that eating food prepared by Muslims can
be dangerous on account of infertility drugs introduced to render non-Muslims sterile and unable to reproduce.

The tragedy is that this polarisation, mistrust and hateful speech is likely to worsen. And there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, business rivalries make it beneficial to spread misinformation that causes economic boycotts by one community on the other although it adds to the hatred and mistrust on both sides of the divide.

And secondly, the country is careening into election mode with all sides preparing to win by any means possible – including whipping up inter-religious and inter-ethnic hatred – in line with the long observed strategy of promoting such negative sentiments to yield the harvest of votes. Politicians greedily need such a scenario to prevail at election time.

The primary duty of those who govern is to ensure that the rights of the people are protected; and most of all, that citizens’ safety is assured. Unfortunately, the principal task of those who rule Sri Lanka or seek to do so appears to be to win elections at any or all costs.

Amidst these deeply troubled circumstances, it is incumbent on rational elements in civil society to fill the vacuum by way of a mass education campaign – something that the government and political leaders of all parties should be carrying out… but are not.

In particular, Muslim civil society must publicly affirm that they do not subscribe to the agenda of the ISIS affiliated bombers when Sri Lanka is their home… not once or twice but all the time, until the crisis ends.

There’s a special need to advertise widely that swords were found in only two of several thousand mosques there are and that the assertion of their discovery in a large number of Muslim houses of worship is untrue. The canard of infertility inducing drugs being found in food distributed by Muslims should also be exposed.

The millions or billions of rupees that businesses spend on advertising campaigns ought to be devoted to this more urgent purpose. They need to advertise and broadcast on multiple news channels, both in print and electronic media. It has to be powerful enough to counter the political and social media campaigns of those who seek to widen the rift between communities for their own nefarious purposes.

This mass education campaign will need to be carried out at least until the presidential and general elections are completed, and a new government assumes power – hopefully, one that will have the moral vision and credibility to speak the truth, and counter the untruths that now dominate the thinking of the masses.

Until this happens, Sri Lanka will be walking a tightrope between peace and chaos.