Colombo, Media and Communications, Politics and Governance

No we can’t? – Obama’s victory and Sri Lanka

“Obama avoth LTTE ekata vasiyak venewa kiyala kathawak ahala nedda?” (Haven’t you that if Obama wins, it may be advantageous to the LTTE?)
Emigration and Customs official, Katunayake International Airport

The discovery that I am interested in peacebuilding by an emigration or immigration officer at Katunayake is always an invitation for the brief discussion of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, the articulation of their unswerving (and I believe genuine) confidence in the incumbent regime to bring peace and my own parting appeal for them to look beyond military victories to the need for a political solution. As I was heading out of Sri Lanka on the 3rd of November to visit the US, the conversation also turned to the US elections and the nature of the two candidates. When I said I hoped Obama would win, pat came the reply I’ve quoted above. I paused, not knowing how best to respond to this popular fiction. In the end, I thought the best response would be to note that Dayan Jayatilleke, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva whose name they instantly recognized, looked at Obama quite positively. Grunting his surprise and not entirely convinced, my interlocutor sent me on my way.

Having come to America, it feels like a country that is voting for the first time. Televised scenes from across the country were reminiscent of the turnout and enthusiasm surrounding South Africa’s first post-apartheid democratic elections. Cable networks show black, white, Hispanic, Indian and other Americans – famous Hollywood, television and music industry as well as ordinary folk from places like Harlem – who on the streets, in their homes, in parks, hotels, malls, lobbies, churches spontaneously breaking out into chants, gospel, song, tears and dance. It looks as if everybody is crying on the television – Rev. Jesse Jackson, Oprah, Sean P. Coombs, entire congregations in Harlem and many Republicans, albeit for different reasons. There were people getting out of their cars in the middle of the road and breaking down in tears, and then into dance. In New York, Times Square thronged with thousands who shouted so much when it was announced that Obama would be the next President that it was a tremendous noise sandwich. “America did the right thing…. It feels like anything is possible” said Oprah on CNN, one of Obama’s earliest and most devoted fans. Also speaking to CNN, Colin Powell noted that the Obama was a person who “who just happened to be black, who just happened to be African. He is American first a transformational figure”, echoing his earlier ringing endorsement of Obama as someone who transcended racial identity.

Early editions of newspapers on the 4th simply call Obama ‘Mr. President’. One even had a photo of Obama with the headline ‘O Baby!’. Around the world – in Kenya (where the 5th has been declared a national holiday), in Sydney, Japan, Honolulu people are celebrating the awe-inspiring ascendance of a most unlikely candidate to the office of the President. The sheer scale of Obama’s sweep of America’s popular vote is astounding, and his ability to turn voters in traditional Republican states and many independents to vote for him. There are stories of voting booths in states like Virginia overwhelmed by those who turned out to vote, in some cases waiting hours. Entwined in the magnitude of this moment, it is difficult to capture in words the timbre of an American that wakes up to Obama’s significant victory. For many, there are in fact no words to capture their relief and joy at the culmination of a campaign truly incredible in its design, ability to inspire people, generate enough campaign financing to overwhelm both McCain and Hillary and inter alia, leverage the power of the web, Internet and mobiles to get Americans to vote.

“We may not get there is one year or in one term” was the cautionary note that Obama, ever the strategist, struck in his acceptance speech in Chicago. Faced with a Russia that lost no time whatsoever in new jingoism against the US, the significant problems in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, a global financial crises, growing domestic economic woes and a myriad of other significant social, political and economic problems, Obama will very quickly find that promising change is significantly different to, and far more challenging than delivering it. The high levels of expectation and support Obama commands today can quickly change to impatience and apathy. It is precisely here, in the adroit management of impatience in polity and society, that Obama’s years in political office will be judged. It is also here that the greatest danger lies for him and us. Unless he is seen to deliver, the optimism and hope that he has been so remarkably successful at engendering and capturing will, at a pace quicker than what it took to build them, turn sour. A country of cynics is not an America that will bring global stability.

But these are issues others, both in the US and elsewhere, will deal with in more detail and insight. Whilst participating in the pervasive euphoria of the moment, I simply remembered what Immigration Official told me as I was leaving Sri Lanka. Articles and op-eds by those close to the Rajapakse regime in Sri Lanka have already appropriated Obama’s language, ideas, message and campaign for parochial ends. This is to be expected by a regime keen to demonstrate, to an international audience in particular, that it alone is best placed to bring about peace in Sri Lanka through the decimation of the LTTE and afterwards a political solution. Severely undermining these attempts to curry favour with the international community are the policies, practices and statements by a regime with scant regard for any of the principles of inclusivity, humility, respect and the transcendence of identity that define Obama, his campaign and his approach to and understanding of governance and politics.

Gen. Sarath Foneska’s incredible suggestion that Sri Lanka ‘belongs’ to the Sinhalese and the JHU’s ringing endorsement of this statement as a party very close to the Executive is a recent example of a regime incapable of even fostering the slightest degree of hope that it can bring about peace even after the military defeat of the LTTE.

A regime that openly, unashamedly and with complete impunity notes that Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays, Chinese, Boras, Moors and other identity groups are ‘visitors’ is not one that can transcend identity or envision and inspire of a Sri Lanka where all our peoples, and all our nations, can be united.

A regime that commemorates the violent expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna under the LTTE but does not meaningfully express regret over the expulsion of hundreds of Tamil peoples from Colombo in 2007 – an action designed and implemented by a State that revealingly made no distinction between Tamils and terrorists – is not one that can ever build bridges between and within divided communities and peoples.

It is doubtful whether in the context of Sri Lanka’s hugely partisan politics and systemic violence, anyone able to unite Sri Lanka meaningfully will ever emerge. Obama in his acceptance speech spoke of a country “not of blue states and red states, but a United States”. Who is articulating a similar sentiment in Sri Lanka today? A united Sri Lanka requires an equal measure of political imagination to envision and courage to articulate. It has never been possible under the LTTE. It is not possible under the Rajapakse regime. Sadly, most of us are still caught up in the feverish rhetoric of war as the only answer to all that vitiates our progress, development and national unity. This is a falsehood. The promise of change can never be hostage to the vicissitudes of war.

Our failure to realize this is also our failure to produce an Obama.

  • Frank Sullivan

    You are entitled to your opinion…. but please keep in mind that the LTTE are a TERRORIST organisation. And in a civilised world people should be free of terrorist acts. Things like assasinating presidents in Sri Lanka and India and the countless murderous acts carried out on innocent Sinhalalese families should not be left unheard or forgotten.

    Democratic approaches employed by the LTTE:
    (1) grab some poor tamil teenagers of their families
    (2) brainwash them
    (3) strap some explosives on ’em
    (4) blowup near a crowded gathering.

    How about sitting down and talking with the government instead of blowing people up?

    Yes… I liked Obama. He’s a great man and I’m sure he’s going to be a great leader. But even he should realise this terrorist group stopped once and for all.

  • Lankan

    I feel that this article is quite biased. Essentially, it has taken one statement, made by General Sarath Fonseka, and used it to insinuate that the entire Rajapakse Government is of the same mindset. This is a complete falsehood. The Rajapakse Government, like many others before it, respects and stands to support the minorities of Sri Lanka.
    If the Rajapakse Regime was so openly racist, as is suggested by the author, why is it that, to this day, the Sri Lankan Government funds the education, power supply, health services, and transport of the areas controlled by the terrorists who are the LTTE? Whilst the LTTE, wealthy through its dealings of illicit drugs and firearms, refuses to provide the infrastructure to provide the very people they claim to be fighting for, it is the primarily Sinhalese government that provides these services to the Tamil People. In addition, it was the same government of Mahinda Rajapakse, which appointed a former Tamil LTTE soldier, Pillaiyan, to become the leader of the Eastern Province. Likewise, 60% of all Tamils in Sri Lanka, live in Sinhalese dominated areas; clearly happy to be in the government’s territory and not feeling any discrimination whatsoever! Are these the actions of a racist government? The government of Sri Lanka is not racist at all – the evidence is there to prove that point. Of all the organisations and groups in the country, they alone provide services for the Tamil people – they alone promote the rights of Tamils to political office [it is interesting to note that Kadirgamar, a Tamil who was grooming for the Presidency, was assassinated by the LTTE in 2005. Interesting insight, regarding the rights the LTTE claim to be fighting for]. The actions of this government are those of a true democracy, and one which Obama would gladly support. To use one General’s comment, and use it to suggest that it represents those of a government which is completely devoted to ensuring the rights of the Tamil people, is a crime against the truth itself! This author, intentionally or accidentally, has overlooked this simple truth. The evidence is heavily in favour of Rajapakse indeed; it is evidenced from the battlefront that he is the closest any leader internationally has gotten to defeating a terrorist organisation in the post-9/11 era. If he can safeguard the rights and interests of the Tamil people whilst he is fighting the deadliest war in southern Asia, how can one claim he will do anything different when the war is finished? This author has effectively subverted the truth and taken one simple statement, and used it to paint the wrong image of a government, which is devoted to protecting the rights of all Sri Lankan citizens.

  • Obama

    unfortunately majority of Sri-lanka are likes of “Lankan & Frank Sullivan”, and comparing Sri-Lanka and US is ridiculous. Sri-Lanka now is comparable to US 60 years ago during slavery time, plus Sri-lankans first should learn to be humans before comparing themselves to be civilized world like the Western Countries or Europe. Ousting Sri-lanka from UNHCR is rightfully deserved

  • Senerath

    I see that people are questions why we can’t have our own Obama. Let’s examine the parallels. I think an Obama equivalent in Sri Lanka would be someone from the Sri Lankan Tamil community. However, there would be certain requirements of this Sri Lankan Tamil if we are to compare him or her to Obama. Here are some of them…

    (1) He or she should be a Buddhist. Obama is a Christian and subscribes to the religion of the majority of Americans. Hence the Tamil Obama would have to follow the religion of the majority of Sri Lankans which is Buddhism

    (2) He or she should be fluent in Sinhalese. Obama is fluent in the language spoken by the majority of Americans which is English. Hence the Tamil Obama would have to be totally fluent in Sinhalese.

    (3) He or she should be a member of one of the two major parties either the UNP or the SLFP. Obama is a Democrat. Granted the US has a two party system but the Tamil Obama cannot come from an ethnic party like the TNA, TULF et al.

    (4) He or she cannot use the fact that he or she is Tamil to gain votes. Obama never once used the fact that he is an African American to gain the votes of African Americans. Thus the Tamil Obama should not advertise his or her ethnicity.

    (5) And let’s not forget that Obama is half white. Thus the Tamil Obama should have a Sinhalese mother.

    If these conditions are met, then we can say that we have a Tamil Obama of our own. Otherwise there is no point in trying to bring the American example to Sri Lanka.

  • Indika

    Hey all,

    Have all noticed some thing more important, all these convercations. Sinhala people love to live with peace and with all others and SOME Tamils do not want to. So that means those Tamil can’t live with other nations? So I think those kind of persons really should stay separatly from all the nations. Better to go to a dessert and stay along them selfs who does not like to live with other ethnic and religeos groups. They can have their own life.. and remember those who want to live separatly, pls not not take any comunication equipments to your “dessert” as you do not like otehr people other than your “Ethnic group”. I think we can raise some funds for you for your new ” Dessert” island.

  • reka perera

    ”Sinhala people love to live with peace and with all others” .
    Sinhalese people except those who made 80,000 Tamils stateless and voteless in 1949, except those who butchered and burnt 150 Tamils in Galoya sugercane field, except those thugs who butchered and burnt hundreds of Tamils in 1958, except the politicians who sent armed forces to beat up the satyagrahis in 1961, except those who butchered and burnt thousands of Tamils in 1977, 1981, 1983, except those who ‘disappeared’ thousands of Tamils arrested by Prevention of Terrorism Act, except those who gave and received impunity for killing Tamils, ……………………. …………………… ……………………
    ………………………………… ………………………………………………….
    except those who prevented investigations into crimes and drove the IIGEP away, except those who threaten journalists and lawyers who go about their professions.
    In that case ”SOME Tamils do not want to”.

  • K Nanthakumar

    reka perera …

    your quite right when you say that there were sinhalese people who did commit those crimes … and they deserve to rot in hell. however, i’d like to note that not all Sinhalese were involved in those activites. a few thugs are bound to get out of hand at times, but one cannot claim the entire sinhalese race is like that. there were so many cases in which sinhalese families actually protected their tamil friends and families during the 1983 riots, to protect them from thugs.

    do not forget that the LTTE drove 121,000 Muslims away from the north in the late 1980’s, that they massacred 60 buddhist monks in 1986 and annihilated countless sinhalese villages in their quest to create a terrorist state. all extremists will get out of hand and there are extremists on both sides, sinhalese and tamil. don’t twist the truth so that its like as though the sinhalese thugs are the only criminals. only the extremists on both sides commit the crimes; the vast majority of sinhalese and tamil live together happilly and free from the idiocies of these extremists.

  • Malinda Seneviratne

    The wish for a Sri Lankan Obama and the exploration of the political space for such a creature has become a popular pastime for many. Some of the obvious incompatibilities have been ignored in most comments. The thrust of the ‘Obama Wish’ is to entrench the notion of a multi-ethnic-multi-religious Sri Lanka. The merits of such an eventuality notwithstanding, I believe this multi-thing needs to be fleshed out by its most ardent advocates. It is not a self-evident truth.

    Such a project requires you to go into history and go into demography and go to the deconstruction board and place within it the multi-ethnic, multi-religious diga palala of Sri Lanka. You have to tell us what ‘multi-ethnic’ and ‘multi-religious’ means. And if you want to compare and contrast Obama, the US citizen with the Sri Lankan Obama of your imagination, then you must mention that Obama does not have slave ancestry. You must compare the contributions of whites, blacks and Hispanics in the making of the USA on the land robbed by genocide and trickery from the Native American with the contributions of Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers and Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians (of all denomination) to the making of Sri Lanka throughout the longer-than-US-history of the island.

    My comment on this can be found here…

  • It does not seem to be advisable to compare Obama’s persona with the Sri Lankan situation. What seems to be important is the whole set of ideals that this man represents in the contemporary American and international contexts. He is seen as a man who goes beyond racial boundaries (in a country which found it extremely challenging to reach inter-racial co-existence and accomodation). Even the most rival international counterparts (such as the Iranian President) seem to see in him an approachable opponent, with whom constructive negotiation could possibly begin.

    These factors are what makes the election of Barack Obama a highly significent event. In the Sri Lankan context, I believe that it is perfectly possible for someone who incarnates and upholds such ‘inclusive ideals’ to come to power in future. I may not know how long it will take, but the arrival of an ‘Obama-equivalent’ in our land will be marked by the political success of someone who successfully surpasses ethnic boundaries, calls for inter-ethnic accomodation and measures to reach that goal, makes Sri Lanka a modern, cosmopolitan state open to the world, makes it a state that absolutely respects parity in all sectors of government, gives equal status to our languages and cultures, and facilitates innumerable opportunities for the youth, irrespective of who they are, where they come from, and to what ethnic community they belong.

    Whatever his/her own ethnic identity is, such a person is bound to command the support of a majority of Sri Lankans (within and beyond our shores) of the 21st century generation(s).

    All we could do at this stage is to continue a constructive dialogue, and develop awareness among people about the importance of making peace and ways of doing so. People from different groups and backgrounds view the ethnic issue through different and conflicting stereotypes, and helping them view it beyond those seems to be an essential step forward.

  • Remember Obamah is for a unified state, he speaks for and as a US citizen not a sessionist, seperstist, terrorist or a racist ! The US is not engaged with a fascist or terrorist or separatist war on it’s soil. After all if it is justified here then so can it be in the US. America is facing the minority impact in its political future for the first time. Sri Lanka has faced this for many decades. It is onle now that a quarter of the voting population is non-european, and this change is not bought or forced upon the US by out siders / a third party. Our situation is on the other hand has been quite different to this.

    Obama won on a ‘God bless America’, not ‘God damn America’, a point you may like to learn !!

  • The specificity of the Sri Lankan condition is not denied, and frankly not addressed in this article. What was referenced were the expression and implementation of disturbing and essentially violent policies and practices, no different in spirit to those employed by the LTTE and with sickening consequences, that run counter to addressing significant challenges of democracy, human rights and terrorism.

  • wijayapala


    What was referenced were the expression and implementation of disturbing and essentially violent policies and practices, no different in spirit to those employed by the LTTE and with sickening consequences, that run counter to addressing significant challenges of democracy, human rights and terrorism.

    One reason that we don’t have a Sri Lankan version of Obama is simply that our “liberals” are too clueless and disconnected from the country outside of Colombo. Obama won because he crossed lines and boundaries. He won “red states.” He gained credibility by vowing to continue the battle against anti-US terrorism.

    Contrast this with the attitude of our own NGO snobs as demonstrated quite eloquently in the above article. The author constructs a Sri Lankan ignoramus in the immigration officer who does not share the author’s belief in peace and love with the LTTE. Perhaps if the author had some understanding of US history, he would’ve known that the process that ended with Obama’s presidential victory had begun with a very bloody and costly Civil War fought by an earlier President who did not believe in a “political solution” with the slave-owning southern secessionists. That Civil War was interesting because there were American versions of our own NGO pundits:

    During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Copperheads nominally favored the Union and strongly opposed the war, for which they blamed abolitionists, and they demanded immediate peace and resisted draft laws. They wanted Lincoln and the Republicans ousted from power, seeing the president as a tyrant who was destroying American republican values with his despotic and arbitrary actions.

    …As war opponents, Copperheads were suspected of disloyalty, and Lincoln often had their leaders arrested and held for months in military prisons without trial — one famous example was General Ambrose Burnside’s 1863 General Order Number 38, issued in Ohio, which made it an offence (to be tried in military court) to criticize the war in any way: the order was used to arrest Ohio congressman Clement L. Vallandigham when he criticized the order itself.

  • kumar

    if manhinda or JVP said ““We may not get there is one year or in one term” how the local press and people would react. infact don;t you think the media would have said empire building and that these people are looking to extent the term?

    i felt it was funny that he should being it up specifically -indicating he’s in for a 2nd term .. shouldnt he atleast have served 2-3 years before making a comment like that? we only want to see , what we want to SEE:::::::::::::::::

  • Obama

    Sri-Lankan fascist regime had made the most of Bush doctrine of “War on terror” camouflaging vicious civil war as war against terrorism. The failed shortsighted foreign policy of Bush not only promoted acrimony throughout the world, also lead to severe economic slowdown which resulted the global recession that we are facing today.

    Barack Obama, who is now viewed as the beacon of hope by Americans and rest of the world, views the problem of the 21st century as “problem of others” meaning today’s problem in the world as the failure of the states to accept minorities as equal, and his first choice of an example in a google interview is Srilanka followed by Ireland. Obama with his remarkable acumen in differentiating terrorism and civil war gives a slight hope for minorities who are suppressed by the majority.

  • Ghani

    Sri Lanka need a catlayst like Obama to change its destiny. But can no other than Buddhist Sinhalese person can be a President of the Country. Though Obama is a Balck and African American, majority of Whites and miiloins of people of other racial backgrounds let Obama to make history. Can Sinhalese allow a Tamil or Muslim or any other minroty person to become a president? . We need to do lot of work to see an Obama, starting from brainstronming our people by creating pluarlist mindset to changing the British inherited constiitution.