The following statement can be found in all three languages on the Different Yet Equal Facebook group page.
DifferentYetEqual: A campaign for equality and democracy
Press Statement: 16 August 2016
On the evening of 15 August 2016, we, a group of citizens from diverse backgrounds, gathered together under the banner DifferentYetEqual, at Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 07.
We began discussing the need for such a campaign, to promote equality and justice in our society, as many of us are deeply concerned by the continued atmosphere of racism and intolerance in recent times. We have been particularly concerned with several incidents of attacks against Muslim and Christian communities and their places of worship, around Sri Lanka[i]. We have read countless reports (in 2016) of mobs disrupting Christian and Muslim religious activities and gatherings violently[ii]. We are concerned by the ongoing campaign by some groups to claim Sri Lanka as a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ nation. We are also acutely aware of our responsibility as citizens to proactively counter these discriminatory ideologies. We are firm in the understanding that no community needs to be treated less than equal for this nation of ours to move forward. It is our diversity and pluralism than makes Sri Lanka the nation it is.
We began as an informal group, disseminating our ideas and thoughts through social media and other networks to a larger community of concerned citizens. We collectively organised yesterday’s vigil, of our own volition as a citizen-led collective, using our own personal funds. Everyone who attended the vigil came of their own accord. There were people of diverse communities and from diverse backgrounds present at the vigil.
Soon, the vigil was disrupted aggressively by a group of people claiming to be representatives of the ‘SinhaLe’ group. This group proceeded to carry out their campaign of the promotion of racism and hate-speech. Conflict between the two groups ensued, as the ‘SinhaLe’ group goaded the vigil-attendees constantly. It only subsided finally because all those at the vigil were able to be non-aggressive, non-confrontational, peaceful and tolerant, while making their point assertively and strongly. Finally, the DifferentYetEqual group disbanded collectively, peacefully, after singing songs of unity and peace and making their statements to the media in Tamil, Sinhala and English. We disbanded before the ‘SinhaLe’ group did; this was our choice.
We are not an organisation, nor do we have any affiliations whatsoever to any political party or personality and wholly reject any such claim.
As those gathered to demand a more just and equal Sri Lanka for us all, we were disappointed by the behaviour of most of the media present there yesterday. Instead of covering the event they had come there to cover – the DifferentYetEqual vigil for equality – many immediately diverted all their attention to the disruptive elements. Most of the media present seemed more interested in quickly turning their cameras to the unfolding drama, rather than seeking balanced perspectives from those who had gathered for the vigil.
Several media reports following the vigil contain factual errors about DifferentYetEqual, which are a sign of this unprofessionalism. This could easily have been avoided had the journalists been interested in seeking out the facts; there were prepared media spokespeople present, and we would have been happy to answer any questions.
We urge the media to take its responsibilities more seriously; to ensure that they give equal time and effort to documenting and presenting multiple perspectives so as to commit to impartiality and professionalism.
We are grateful however, to the non-mainstream media on social media platforms giving the vigil coverage, and to mainstream media who worked hard to provide accurate reports.
The Cinnamon Gardens Police were informed of our plans for a silent, peaceful vigil days before, by representatives of the group. We believe they had and have a continued responsibility to stand by us, and all other citizens who are attempting to rally for equality in a peaceful, non-disruptive manner.
Many police officers gathered at the site of the vigil, once the disruptive elements had arrived. While members of the DifferentYetEqual group reasoned with officers asking them to step in and do something, the officers did nothing until much later, when the OIC arrived on the scene. By then, there was a strong police presence and we believe they could have contained the situation more effectively and efficiently.
The police did step in strongly towards the end, but mostly to reason with the DifferentYetEqual vigil group, and ask us to not engage and prolong the confrontation. They did also try to reason with the ‘SinhaLe’ group, but we believe and feel they could have done more. The ‘SinhaLe’ group also carried a distorted version of the national flag – a crime as far as we know – and we urge the Police, in the future, to at least act strongly on matters like that.
However, we are thankful for their presence there.
Finally, we are inspired at the way all vigil-attendees stood strong and responded peacefully yet assertively in the face of aggression and hate. We believe in the power of citizens’ collectives and urge more citizens to join together to stand up against discrimination. Together, we have immense power and we cannot be silenced. The vigil was not the end of the DifferentYetEqual campaign; it was only the beginning. We hope to continue using social media and public events to bring people together, to stand against racism and all other forms of discrimination.
[i] INCIDENTS OF VIOLENCE AND INTIMIDATION OF CHRISTIANS 2016; Compiled by The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL)
[ii] Special Rapporteur Report Submitted to Minority Rights Group Incidents against Muslims February, April, May, June 2016