A stage for 21st century ethno-religious colonisation

Censuses conducted over the years in the Trincomalee district of Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province indicate a slight numerical majority and a minority in its various communities. However, it is noteworthy that since the 1940s, no single ethnic group has been in the majority in the district. “It is the most ethno-religiously pluralistic fringe in Sri Lanka,” wrote political commentator Tisaranee Gunasekara in one of her columns. It speaks to the identity and spirit of the city and the district as multi-dimensional and multi-faceted, vibrant. It speaks of the composition of the communities that dot the area and make up its socio-cultural fabric. Although it is home to Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese, it is a city whose identity has strong Tamil and Saivite roots.

It is this identity, of course, that is sought to be erased and rendered irrelevant, only to be reinterpreted as foreign and alien objects that supplant a millennium of Buddhist dogma ordained in every corner of Sri Lanka. Like the Buddha statue that was spontaneously erected one night in the city centre in 2005 (militantly championed by a then lesser-known Buddhist monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero), the steps taken by the state afterwards in 2019, backed by a Presidential Task Force on Archaeology in the Eastern Province, show a concerted and forceful effort to change the size, demography and identity of the province. A task force headed by a historian who does not know the language of the ancient Tamils, limited to the Eastern Province and intent on documenting the traces of Buddhist ruins, and if only Buddhist ruins, in the midst of a historically diverse and sensitive province is curious to say the least.

Until the end of 2021, the working group had no Tamil and Muslim representation: only two members of the 18-member committee, representing 70% of the Eastern Province. While the military and media tycoons are questionable appointments to the task force, what most concerns communities in Kinniya, Kuchchaveliya or Kannneiri are the powers that the state-appointed task force has granted to people like the venerable Panamure Thilakawansha Thero, head holder of the Arisimale Buddhist temple, a priest who has been at the centre of the illegal encroachment and forced settlements along with the Kuchchaveli divisional area. The Arisimale Viharaya and its principal holder reclaimed the land when in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cyril Mathew, as Minister of Industry, made efforts to settle a number of Sinhala communities and build Buddhist temples in the area, bringing Sinhala settlement back to 1977. As the apparent rediscovery of Buddhist ruins in these areas has prompted the Department of Archaeology to cordon off more sections, more land has been given to Buddhist viharayas or temples, such as the viharaya at Pichchamal, with estimates of 320-400 acres, according to one inhabitant. The Arisimale temple has thus expanded its reach and presence, promoting through a very detailed and professional website its historical claims in the area.

Screenshot of the Arisimale Viharaya website.

A selection of high-definition audio-visual content reveals a well-thought-out strategy to cater and call to action the Sinhala Buddhist community to take up the noble cause of the temple, giving off a brand of pilgrimage tourism in the process.

In the following GroundViews video (English subtitles), two members of the local communities describe how they are threatened by the developments of the Eastern Province Archaeological Heritage Management Task Force.

Local tourism, meanwhile, plays a larger role than might be expected in challenging the established cultural footprint that other communities have had since they first settled on the east coast in the early 19th century. After migrating to safer areas during the hostilities of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, which began in the mid-1980s, they discovered on their return after the war that their land had been taken over. If not by the military, then by the forests and thus cordoned off as a protected area by the Forest Department. When that proved insufficient, the prospect of artefacts and ruins scattered around the area that predated these settlements seemed attractive to some parties. A working group was set up. Travel vlogs broadcast from the pristine east coast often point to ‘foreign extremists’ who are destroying the lesser-known Buddhist cultural heritage of the east. The Sri Lankan Army, which still maintains its control over the area, not through the dozens of roadblocks and bases but through a façade of army hotels and air force golf courses, now also has a presence in significant but controversial places such as Arisimale beach or the Kuchchaveli Pichchamal Raja Maha Viharaya, whose entry requires prior permission from the navy.

Communities in the area admit that some stretches of land and coastline along Pulmoddai Road have historical and cultural value for Buddhist identity and should therefore be protected by law. Even so, the law should not allow anything that has been happening; a claim to land, based on the belief that jasmine flowers were offered from a viharaya to the Ruwanweliseya stupa in the 1st century BC, should not supplant existing communities that have been settled and entitled to the land for two centuries.

Buddhist philosophy is not based on historical ownership. In this GroundViews video, Asik Mohamed Ibrahim of the Muslim community of Kuchchaveli explains that his ancestors started living there more than two centuries ago, but are threatened by these forced encroachments.

In an area like Kuchchaveli division, which is and has historically been an area populated by Muslims, the increase in land for temples eventually leads to the settlement of devotees to worship in the temples, which disrupts the existing social fabric. This is compounded by the cordoning off of private land and denial of access by the Forest Department, the Wildlife and Conservation Department and the Mahaweli authorities on various and sometimes unreasonable grounds. Tensions are high, as Trincomalee’s claim to be at the centre of Sri Lanka’s pluralistic and multicultural identity continues to be reinterpreted as a homogenous place for one race, one religion and one ethnicity.

This article by Pranith WiraSinha originally appeared on Groundviews, Sri Lanka’s award-winning citizen media website. We reproduce an edited version as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices.

The original article can be found here