Don's Diary

July 13, 2001

Almost halfway through my fieldwork studying social exclusion of the poor from banks and pro-poor banking policy in the central uplands of Sri Lanka. I am interviewing Muslim and Sinhala people about their attitudes to money lending.

Visit a local Muslim politician. He is a promising source for insights into the anti-Muslim violence of the previous week when three mosques were burnt and some Muslim houses attacked. Unfortunately, he talks in platitudes.

Interview the local notary, an attorney who reports huge earnings from signing and attesting to major land transactions. He knows all about Muslim-Sinhala conflicts over land. I curtail my enquiries to avoid any antagonism. Land is often transferred to the moneylender if payments are not kept up. This can result in Buddhist land being transferred to Muslims or vice versa.

Visit three local rural bank branches to examine their image with customers and to gather loan application documents. Two are grimy, tiny offices, but the third is a modern three-story building with gold-plated decorations and leafy pot plants. Since 1977, Sri Lanka has had a free-market orientation, and the bank is gradually converting ("reforming") to a for-profit stance.

Revisit the third bank with its profits graph prominently displayed. The manager proudly represents a new profit-oriented attitude among bankers. Unfortunately, my research shows this may lead to the closure of many non-economic and rural branches. It all sounds familiar.

We work another 12-hour day with questionnaires and our tape recorder. I discover the cartel of local informal moneylenders includes a father and his three daughters. All are charging 30 per cent interest a month for fully secured loans. The father once had acid thrown at him after he started to wear a gold chain he had obtained from a borrower who did not repay. Locals insist that Muslim anger against him is not communal or religious but is based on his behaviour.

We visit the site of the anti-Muslim violence. Viewing burnt-out mosques, along with 30 angry locals determined to re-build, I consider how this is presented as "just a crime". The local monk and others insist that the violence is caused by thugs and is not part of a programme to frighten Muslim residents.

Discover the local monk drinks alcohol and has made controversial decisions about renting the temple's village lands. My Sinhala Buddhist colleagues are embarrassed when I ask them why they bowed down to his feet yesterday and talk of his only faults today. They say that being respectful is in their culture. Regret my donation to the monk. But it seemed appropriate, since generosity is in the local culture.

Wendy Olsen is senior lecturer, Centre for International Development, University of Bradford.

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