October 15, 2023

A Thoughtful Encounter at the SLB Travelling Exhibit

Natasha Palansuriya

This blog describes an encounter between a Sinhala Buddhist monk and a Tamil priest as they explore and discuss the Sri Lanka Barometer findings at the travelling exhibit in Batticaloa in September 2023.

It’s a gloomy, rainy day in Batticaloa in September. In a field next to the Kallady bridge stands the modified shipping container that is used as a space for the Sri Lanka Barometer travelling exhibit. Amongst throngs of school children, two other guests walk in – a Sinhala Buddhist monk and a Tamil priest belonging to the Church of the American Ceylon Mission.

As a community volunteer welcomes them, they realise they have walked into a travelling exhibit with data, facts, and figures on the Sri Lankan public’s opinion on issues related to reconciliation and social cohesion. They seem curious. As they are guided through the exhibit, they point out different installations to each other and share their thoughts about different findings, reflecting on some longer than others.

Their mannerism and the way they speak to each other seems to reveal that they share a close friendship. Just from their attire and identity as clergy from different religions, they seem likely to have had different experiences of the conflict, different religious beliefs and ideologies, and different social backgrounds. However, they seem to relate to each other on a deeper level, surpassing these differences. As a researcher present at the travelling exhibit, this, for me, felt like a personification of reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

I engage in a conversation with them as they continue to explore the findings on issues like dealing with the past, identity and belonging, equality of opportunity, and trust. They share personal experiences as well as experiences from their respective communities.

On some aspects, they realise their experiences were vastly different – for example, they have different thoughts about the importance of memorialisation.

The Sri Lanka Barometer findings show that Sri Lankans, nationally, think that memorialisation is important, as indicated by a mean score of 7.3 out of 10 in the 2021 Sri Lanka Barometer Survey.

On other aspects, they realise they share the same thoughts – like on the Sri Lanka Barometer finding that shows that over a third of Sri Lankans think that the main basis on which people discriminate against other people is economic status. They both see this finding, look at each other, and nod their heads in agreement. They pick up on the issue of caste, where 2.4% of Sri Lankans identified caste as the main basis of discrimination. The Tamil priest says, “Yes, this is for sure the case in Jaffna”, and the Buddhist monk adds “Also in Kandy” – and it seems like both acknowledge this newfound realisation.

According to the 2021 Sri Lanka Barometer Survey, more frequent responses apart from the 34.2% of Sri Lankans identifying economic status as the main basis of discrimination are 22.2% of Sri Lankans say the main basis of discrimination is ethnicity, 9.7% say language, 7.2% say religion, 6.4% say poverty, and 3.8% say political affiliation.

They then decide to write on one of the interactive exhibits that asked visitors, “Why is reconciliation important for Sri Lanka?” They want to make up a sentence that has both Sinhala and Tamil words combined. They end up writing “எங்கள் රට, විවිදත්වය ஒற்றுமை” (“Our country … unity in diversity”).

For me, this encounter was a brief moment in the bigger picture of reconciliation in Sri Lanka that strengthened my hope against all the challenges and conflicts in the post-war era. It reminded me that in everyday life, reconciliation is a matter of understanding each other deeply, to know that the perceived “other” is really not that different. With this understanding at the interpersonal level, trust can develop between communities.

The Sri Lanka Barometer Survey findings show that Sri Lankans have moderate levels of trust in people from identity groups different from their own (with a 4.9 mean score on a scale of 1 to 10; 1 being not trusting at all, and 10 being very trusting).

Is it possible that this openness to deeply understand ‘the other’ can lead to more trust between communities?

Is this where the journey towards reconciliation begins?

The SLB Travelling Exhibit aims to create a more informed public discourse on reconciliation through presenting the SLB survey findings. From 11 to 15 September, the travelling exhibit visited the South Eastern University Sri Lanka, from 18 to 21, it visited Batticaloa, attracting over 3,600 visitors in total and engaging in more in-depth community discussions with over 50. More visits around the country and more discussion forums are planned.

Taking the exhibit to different regions enables communities to interact with the information intended to inform decisions and actions towards reconciliation and social cohesion and empower a more responsible citizenry.

Could this be where the journey towards reconciliation continues?

Dr. Natasha Palansuriya is an Independent Researcher and is currently leading the research work for the Sri Lanka Barometer initiative for the Strengthening Social Cohesion and Peace in Sri Lanka (SCOPE) program. She holds a PhD in International Politics from City, University of London, where her research focused on the Sri Lankan Tamil transnational engagement in post-war justice. Her areas of research expertise include transitional justice and reconciliation, diasporas and diaspora engagement, transnational activism, governance, and democracy.