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Cancelled festival unsettles Tamils – FT

[MISC, Wednesday, 17 June 2009 20:01 No Comment]

The Sri Lankan tea plantation town of Rakwana, overshadowed by a jungle-clad mountain with a waterfall cascading down its side, is as scenic as any in this stunning tropical island.

For a century, Hindu Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin have celebrated their main religious festival dedicated to deity Muththumaariyamman by parading a figurine of the powerful goddess on a chariot down the south western town’s main street.

However, this year, the festival failed to get off the ground. The celebration coincided with that of Vesak, the main festival of Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist community. Hindus claim that Buddhist youths, flushed with nationalist pride following the government’s success in the country’s civil war against Tamil separatist rebels, threatened them with violence if they staged the parade. Those representing the Buddhist side have a different story. But the bitterness lingers.

“For 100 years, we did not stop holding this ceremony even a single year. This is just because of the conflict, they are taking advantage of it,” said one Hindu ­supporter of the cancelled festival.

The ethnic tension in normally tranquil Rakwana is an illustration of the challenge facing Sri Lanka as it contemplates how to bring a lasting peace to a country polarised by 25 years of racially charged conflict.

Colombo last month inflicted a decisive defeat on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an internationally designated terrorist group that was fighting for an ethnic homeland in Sri Lanka’s north and east. Thousands are thought to have died in the final weeks of conflict.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese nationalist president, has tempered his speeches celebrating the end of the war with promises of equal rights for the Tamils. However, with no comprehensive political solution on the table, the Tamils, who account for about 13 per cent of the population, are yet to be convinced.

As an initial step to win confidence, the government has promised municipal elections in the mainly Tamil northern towns of Jaffna and Vavuniya. But these will not include the 300,000 ethnic Tamil refugees displaced by the conflict who are being detained in camps in the north.

“Now that the government has curbed the LTTE’s terror it is time for the government to reach out to those who were on the other side of the divide, if Sri Lanka is to move forward united as a country in the manner that President Rajapaksa has been exhorting,” said Jehan Perera, of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.

The situation in Rakwana shows how quickly misunderstandings can arise. The Tamils in the town say their 200-year-old Rakkuvaanai Sri Muththumaariyamman kovil, or temple, is an important Hindu landmark in Sri Lanka. People, including Buddhists, pray to the goddess for wealth, prosperity and peace.

When the tensions arose over the annual festival falling on Vesak, the police asked the temple board to postpone the celebrations. But according to Hindu religious beliefs, the date can only be changed every 12 years. “The police asked us to change the time but we can’t because this is the auspicious time,” said M. Keravam, secretary of the temple board. Instead, they simply decided to cancel the festival until next year.

John Seneviratne, the district member of parliament, a Buddhist, and a Tamil MP, were called in to mediate in the dispute.

Mr Seneviratne said the situation had been complicated by plans by the Hindus to open a cultural centre on Vesak. As part of this, they had planned to take the annual chariot procession past a Buddhist centre to the new centre. This could have led to communal tensions.

“Having the opening on that day was an act of mischief,” said Mr Seneviratne. He said he and the Tamil MP together were able to persuade the Hindus to call off the event in the ­interests of communal ­harmony.

“We told both communities: ‘You have been living in perfect harmony all this time and don’t let an ­incident like this damage that’,” Mr Seneviratne said.

While he added that he was satisfied that a compromise was reached, the Tamils in the area believe they had no choice but to concede – and that this could become a sign of things to come.

[Full Coverage]

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