“We affirm that uniting the people in creating a peaceful country after war, in which each community is able to protect its identity and its rights, is the profound responsibility of the government and all parties in the country,” said the Sri Lanka Council of Religions for Peace in a statement.
“The war is virtually over. The biggest challenge now is to create an atmosphere of harmony and understanding so that the people live in peace,” Ven Bellanwila Wimalaratana, a Buddhist who is the chairperson of the inter-religious forum, told Ecumenical News International on May 1 from his office in Colombo.
The April 27 forum statement was signed by senior Buddhist monks, Hindu priests, Muslim clerics, as well three Roman Catholic bishops, including the secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka, Bishop Norbert M. Andradi of Anuradhapura.
After Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidential election with the support of Sinhala nationalist groups in 2005, Sri Lanka’s armed forces launched a concerted campaign to decimate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE has run a bloody campaign for autonomy for ethnic Tamil minority areas in the north and east since 1983 in a war that has left more than 80,000 people dead. The Tigers say it is a fight against Buddhist hegemony.
In early January advancing government forces captured Kilinochchi, the capital of an area controlled by the LTTE, where more than 250,000 Tamil people live in the northern Vanni region. After steadily losing territory to the government forces, the Tamil rebels are now confined to a small area of a few square kilometers near Mullaitive on the east coast.
“This is not the time to celebrate but to reach out and make every citizen of Sri Lanka feel that they are part of the country,” Ven Wimalaratana told ENI.
While Sinhala-speaking people, who are mostly Buddhists, account for 70 percent of the population of 19 million inhabitants of the Indian Ocean island, the ethnic Tamil minority makes up around 18 percent of the population.
Ven Wimalaratana also said the government should make every effort “to ease the suffering of the refugees” fleeing the grip of the LTTE, which observers say is using them as human shields to counter the onslaught by the government forces.
Nearly 200 000 Tamil civilians have already crossed over to government areas, defying the LTTE bid to keep them under their control.
“The government should make sure that the Tamil people would not feel humiliated,” urged K. Sarma, a Tamil and prominent Colombo Hindu priest, while speaking to ENI.
Catholic bishop Andradi noted, “The present situation is very complex.” The first priority for the government, he said, “should be to ensure that the Tamil refugees are cared for with due respect as citizens of our country. This will go a long way in building peace in the country.”