The past few months have seen several protests held in the North and East over the acquisition of land to construct new Buddhist shrines. It has been alleged that Buddhist monks aided by army personnel have been engaged in these questionable activities with the tacit approval of the Archaeology Department which have led to tensions among the local population and the military.
At a recent meeting with Archaeology Department officials, President Ranil Wickremesinghe weighed in on the issue and chided Department officials for taking money from Buddhist monks to carry out their work and reminded them that they do not work for a private firm but a Government institution that has to act according to the law.
The Archaeology Department on its part says that they are giving priority to the work in the North and East as the area was neglected for 30 years but this over-enthusiasm to concentrate their efforts in one part of the country is leading to unnecessary friction between communities.
Its 14 years since the end of hostilities in the North and East and land issues remain one of the major obstacles to any moves toward reconciliation. While large extents of land that had been acquired due to security reasons for military camps, mainly in the North, have been released, this new trend by Buddhist monks of bulldozing their way into lands claiming they were historically places of Buddhist worship is unacceptable.
There is no doubt there are Buddhist sites that are of archaeological interest throughout the length and breadth of this country given Buddhism has been the state religion for over 2,000 years and successive rulers have left their imprint by building places of worship, many of which have now disappeared.
Despite this, a substantial number of ancient sites remain well preserved and are not only places visited by Buddhists but by anyone with an interest in history and archaeology.
That said, it is important to acknowledge that this land has also been inhabited by people of different faiths and cultures for almost as long as the followers of Buddhism, particularly the followers of the Hindu faith in the North and East of the country, where Tamils make up the majority. They fear that a new form of Buddhism expansionism by way of building temples and shrines in these areas would make them lose the lands they have occupied for hundreds of years.
The suspicions are valid given that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed an 11-member Presidential Task Force to conduct a comprehensive survey of archaeological sites in the Eastern Province and recommend measures to preserve them, the members of which were only drawn from the majority community and consisted of Buddhist monks and military personnel.
Since taking office President Wickremasinghe has pledged to address issues facing the Tamil community, particularly in the North and the East where land issues remain a major issue of contention.
The new wave of building Buddhist shrines in areas where the majority do not practice Buddhism is bound to create problems and get in the way of reconciliation among communities which can only happen if we respect each other›s faiths, languages and culture. If this trend continues, it will only be another reminder to residents of the North and East that they have to play second fiddle to the majority, war or no war.
Understandably, these are difficult issues for mainstream politicians in Sri Lanka to address in a forthright manner given Buddhist sensitivities but uncomfortable as it may be, the President and the Government need to take the right stance on this issue.
Archaeology Department officials too must not be swayed by pressure from interested parties and do their duty in an impartial manner.