Colombo, Identity, Peace and Conflict, Religion and faith

Interview with MIXED RICE: Standing up for a diverse Sri Lanka

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Describe the group of people who curate MIXED RICE. Who are you? Where are you located? What are your ages? Educational and professional backgrounds?

The people behind MIXED RICE are a collection of Sri Lankans from various backgrounds who are scattered across the globe from Sri Lanka to Australia, Japan, the US and UK. There are 10 active members right now who range from early twenties to late thirties, both male and female. Our group includes Sri Lankans who are Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims who are of all faiths and a few who believe in none. Some of us are students, some of us are professionals in IT, Accounting and Journalism. We didn’t consciously set out to be as diverse as that but it has fit neatly into the message we aim to promote through our platform.

But to us, it is not who we are that is important but the message and dialogue we wish to promote and create. We believe the cross section of Sri Lankans who represent MIXED RICE is but an extension of the new Sri Lanka that we see emerging. One that is proud and respectful of each other’s beliefs and rights. And like Sri Lanka, we believe MIXED RICE is an idea that is evolving and adapting each day, as it faces new challenges, and one that grows stronger through like minded open spirited people who share their own stories of celebrating our diversity and their intolerance towards any form of discrimination. 

The persecution of Christian faith groups for years and the violence against a Muslim place of worship in Dambulla last year, went without initiatives like this being launched by groups like yourselves. More citizens died in the final months of the war in ’09 than have been attacked or harmed in the years since. No one launched any web or social media initiative to speak about shared values, diversity and the protection of all citizens then. What changed since then, and over the past year to launch an initiative like MixedRice? Who is your target audience, and why?

You’re right when you say religious persecution is not new to Sri Lanka, and the Dambulla attack was a major flashpoint last year. We feel the difference between those attacks and the recent push to restrict religious freedoms is that groups like Bodu Bala Sena are calling for Buddhists all over the country to take up their cause, while the attacks you are referring to – while abhorrent – were largely a result of localized issues. Both are underpinned by similar attitudes toward minorities, but we feel the movements that have begun now present a much wider, more sophisticated threat. There are numerous overseas examples of extremist ideologies that have gained sudden popularity and effectively hijacked the country. MIXED RICE hopes to prevent that by raising awareness about these groups’ flawed and convoluted logic, and by combating apathy. Hopefully, if we can start changing some of the attitudes that drive organizations like BBS, there will be fewer of those attacks all over the country.

In terms of the last few weeks of the war, there are plenty of groups out there calling for more accountability from the protagonists of those events, but we at MIXED RICE have chosen to focus on this present threat instead.

On 18 May you noted on Facebook that you aim to celebrate diversity in Sri Lanka through a series of essays and social media. The essays are on the site, and some poetry too. What have you planned regarding social media?

We have been sharing our content on Facebook and Twitter since the very moment we launched Mixed Rice. Obviously it will take a while to establish a real presence on social media, but it has been a good start for us so far.

The numbers show that we have been getting a considerable percentage of visits as a result of our work on FB and Twitter. Our website was built to be tightly integrated with social media. The share tracker serves as a dynamic measure of our social reach and progress. Our social media team consists of four people operating from different time zones since it is imperative to stay up-to-date and proactive in order to create awareness during this initial phase in particular.

We are well aware of the impact social media can make. So it’s not just about sharing content, we also want to make sure that our followers engage in meaningful discussions. We are confident we’ll get there in the near future.

Some days ago, a reader warned you against turning into another ‘unpatriotic’ Groundviews and instead asked you to ‘penetrate patriotic masses’ to help them understand difference between ‘patriotism and racism’. How would you answer that challenge and help the masses understand this difference?

In our view, Groundviews and  MIXED RICE are different entities. As far as we are concerned, Groundviews operates on a citizen journalism model, which can open it up to being labeled as ‘unpatriotic’ as opinions can be polarizing. The goal of Mixed Rice is to focus on people, their experiences and their stories to generate a dialogue of openness, understanding and tolerance.

In order to differentiate between racism and patriotism, we think that it’s important for people to understand what true patriotism is. To us, patriotism is working towards a Sri Lanka where everyone, regardless of their race or religion, has equal rights and equal opportunities. We want to provide a platform that will help rid Sri Lanka of the rigid classifications along racial and religious lines. No matter what language you speak or which philosophy you subscribe to, we are all Sri Lankans.

We want people to understand that our progress as a country relies heavily on economic and social development of all ethnicities, and that people who are advocating for the advancement of only one race or religion are the ones who are selfish and unpatriotic. How can you be a patriot if you wish to undermine the rights of 10% of the country’s populace?

Sri Lankans have shown remarkable resilience through centuries of war, foreign occupation and a bloody civil war to remain such a vibrant and diverse community. Our aim is to remind people of this free spirit, as we believe true change and tolerance happens at a personal level. MIXED RICE can be read, it can be shared, you can contribute to it, but primarily we hope it will be felt by the reader, which triggers change.

Some days ago you noted that you are looking at Sinhala translations, but that it will take time. How important are Sinhala translations for you, of all the essays that go up on the website? Are you also considering translations into Tamil?

Sinhala content is one of the major topics of discussion among the team – the benefits of having Sinhala content are obvious. We’ve got Sinhala material on hand and we plan to publish it in the near future. But we are going to tread carefully on this: measure our site analytics; learn more about our target demographic (and how best to reach them). We will then figure out the smartest way to implement Sinhala material.

It’s unlikely that we’ll offer both English and Sinhala essays side by side. Multilingual websites without a clear layer of separation don’t work. We’ll offer a way to toggle between languages. As for Tamil content, if we get enough Tamil visitors who will benefit, we’ll definitely explore the option.

Its not about doing things because we can though. We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin, we want to concentrate our efforts on where it makes the most impact.

Has MixedRice reached out to young activist collectives in Sri Lanka who have successfully organised high profile events against hate and harm? Is there value in collaboration, sharing resources, and cross-fertilisation of ideas and content? What plans does Mixed Rice have to network in this regard?

We’ve already contacted a couple of groups and we intend to work with them in the months to come. There is definitely value in collaboration as it will speed up the process, and that’s exactly what we need. We believe we are here to help improve Sri Lanka. It doesn’t matter whether we do it on our own or by joining with other groups that are committed to this good cause.

The site does not have any kind of licensing or copyright framework. What is your policy on republishing content, and why isn’t this content under a Creative Commons license?  

We understand the merits of allowing people to freely republish our content, but we haven’t got any plans for releasing our material under a site-wide CC license. We are happy to accommodate publishers who get in touch with us to discuss the possibility.

It appears that Mixed Rice is quite a small group right now. Do you have plans to expand, and if so, how?

At the moment there are 10 members in the MIXED RICE team, which we think is a decent amount to begin with. That being said, we are very open to adding to that number when we come across people who we feel are like-minded, and have something to contribute. Although it’s been only couple of weeks since our launch, we have already come across a few such people, who we are considering getting on board. So expanding shouldn’t be a problem as we go on.

You’ve stated on the website that leaving things like religious harmony and the strengthening of diversity in Sri Lanka to the Rajapaksa regime “is at best delusional, at worst very dangerous“. What then does Mixed Rice hope to do as alternatives?

We have no interest in opposing one political party or siding with another. Our business is with people. Strengthening of religious harmony and diversity can only be achieved through people; you, me and the people around us. And to do that, we need to actively take part in things be it speaking up against injustice, promoting peaceful coexistence or appreciating our diversity.

There are plenty of open, kind-hearted Sri Lankans doing nothing. Maybe they think there isn’t anything that they can do, or they think they don’t have a suitable platform to be heard. Maybe they just don’t care because it’s not affecting them. We are telling them there is something they can do; you can positively encourage diversity and unity and denounce bigotry. It doesn’t have to be on our website – it’s more important you do that in your day-to-day deeds. If they think they don’t have a suitable platform, we are ready to give an opportunity to be heard for people who could not voice their thoughts before. If they simply don’t care, we’re telling them why they should care, because sooner or later it’s going to come back to bite you. We’re simply inviting people to think critically and act accordingly.

Initiatives like this blossom, then fizzle out, without little or no emphasis on the preservation of archives, hand over, or phase out by design. How will Mixed Rice evolve in the months and years ahead when its original instigators have moved on?

At the moment the few of us that have been here at its inception are committed to carrying out the MIXED RICE vision for the foreseeable future. We’ve got an expanding list of writers and have constant discussions on how we can make the website and our message leaner and more effective.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep bringing more intelligent, committed people into the fold and I think sustaining what we’ve started won’t be a major challenge, if we continue to do that.

To those about your age, yet apathetic to what’s happening in Sri Lanka, what would you say? Why do you give a shit?

There are dozens of reasons why we shouldn’t be apathetic, and there are obvious, pragmatic ones like avoiding more ethnic strife and allowing post-war economic benefits to continue unhindered, but we think for most of us those are not the biggest reasons.

The fact is, there are peaceful Sri Lankans all over the country, who contribute heavily to the society, love Sri Lanka as much as anyone else, and could not dream of being anything other than Sri Lankan. These people are having their rights and lifestyles threatened by those who seemingly wish to create a racial and religious hierarchy. Sri Lankans are being treated as outsiders in their own land, and as fellow human beings, we cannot and will not stand for that.