Politics and Governance

American People Make History, Can We Sri Lankans Ever?

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan


In April 2008 I met an American national in Colombo who works for the World Bank in Washington, DC. At that time both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were contesting for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination and John McCain was already the sole contender for the Republican Party Presidential nomination. When we conversed about the upcoming American Presidential election he told me that, although in his opinion John McCain was too old for the office of the President, he believed American people are still not “ready” for a woman or non-white person to become the President of the United States.

His prognosis was proved wrong on November 04th when the American people made history by electing their first African American President. I was fortunate to be just a few blocks away from the White House to witness this historic moment of the American people; minority communities in particular who overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama. My thoughts went back home; can we Sri Lankans ever make the same epic history? I remembered the pronunciations by heads of two pillars of the Sri Lankan state, viz. the chief executive and the head of the armed forces. In 1994, the then President of Sri Lanka claimed that the minority communities are mere branches of the majority Sinhalese community. Just a couple of months ago, in September 2008, the chief of the Sri Lanka Army said that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese (majority community) and minority communities should not demand “too much”.

It is not that this kind of racial supremacy exists in Sri Lanka alone; it is all over the world, but America has crossed this supremacist disposition on November 04th 2008. United Kingdom is an example of the supremacism of the majority community, viz. the English. I still vividly remember the national elections of 1992 when John Major of the Conservative Party (incumbent Prime Minister) and Neil Kinnock of the Labour Party (Opposition Leader) were contending for Premiership, while I was a postgraduate student in the UK. Whilst most opinion polls showed a very close run between the two parties, on the day of the election (April 09th) The Sun newspaper (the most popular tabloid at that time) had a banner headline and lead story that was widely believed to have contributed to the loss of the Labour Party and its leader Neil Kinnock at that election. The Sun asked the British people to switch off their lights in order to mark dark times ahead if a “Welshman”, Neil Kinnock, was elected. Despite moving his Labour Party away from leftwing politics, Neil Kinnock lost to John Major largely due to his ethnicity, I believe. Even now, there are undercurrents of racism whipped up by certain media (and perhaps by certain sections of the Conservative Party as well) against the incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown who is a Scotsman. These experiences indicate that it is a Herculean task for a person other than English to be elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In this respect, American people have proved to be above the rest in the World.

The case of Sri Lanka is different from the United States or the United Kingdom at least in one important respect. In the case of African Americans, Scottish or the Welsh, they by and large speak the language of the majority community and their religion is by and large the same as that of the majority community (different denominations of Christianity notwithstanding). Whereas in the case of Sri Lanka, Tamil and Muslim minority communities by and large speak a different language and follow different religions than the majority community. Thus, whilst the majority community speaks Sinhalese and is largely Buddhist, Tamils and Moors speak Tamil and are largely Hindu and Muslim respectively.

Nevertheless, the demographic composition of the United States is almost the same as in Sri Lanka; in the former the majority community accounts for 73% of the total population (minority communities account for 27%) and in the latter it is 74% (minority communities account for 26%). In spite of the differences in ethnicity, a common language binds the people of America (religious sectarianisms notwithstanding), which is not the case in Sri Lanka. Having said that, the differences between the United States and Sri Lanka go beyond the differences in languages or religions of the peoples of these two countries. It is more to do with the fundamental differences in the governance structures of the two countries: for example, America is a federal state while Sri Lanka is a unitary state; America does not have a state religion whereas Sri Lanka does. Moreover, affirmative action programmes have made America an inclusive society (notwithstanding enduring discrimination in many respects even now), whereas in Sri Lanka lukewarm implementation of the dual official language policy and discrimination in education and employment opportunities have alienated the minority communities. These are some of the fundamental differences between the two countries.

Sarvi Graph

Ironically, by and large it is the Western educated and/or domiciled elites of the Sri Lankan society (from both the majority and minority communities) who have been and are insular and retrogressive. The foregoing is evident when one reads the views and opinions of the writers to the Sri Lankan media (or the diaspora media – both electronic and print – in Europe and North America), both English and vernacular language ones. Remember that person with a Doctorate from the London University who crafted the Republican Constitution of 1972, which proclaimed Buddhism as the state religion of Sri Lanka. Many racist propagandists, bureaucrats, policy advisors and members of parliament of the current Sri Lankan regime are either citizens or dual-citizens of Western countries, particularly America and Australia. Similarly, by and large, it is the Tamil citizens of several western countries who were/are advisors to and apologists of the LTTE fascism. It is these exclusivists who are prominent contributors to popular Tamil newspapers in Sri Lanka and diaspora media.

Both the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the chief of the Sri Lanka Army have sent their children to Europe (England & Ireland) and United States respectively for higher education. The children, siblings and relatives of top leaders of the LTTE and the State are citizens or permanent residence of one of the European, North American or Australasian countries. While it was reported that the chief of Sri Lanka Army is an American green card holder and the Defence Secretary is an American citizen, I wouldn’t be surprised if the LTTE leader (along with some other top rung leaders) has an open invitation to be a citizen of Norway and/or any other Scandinavian country.

World should also remember that the widow of the chief ideologue of the LTTE and self-confessed perpetrator of crimes against humanity and war criminal, Mrs. Adele Balasingham, is a British citizen. She has confessed publicly, both in writing and verbally, that she was the one who set up the women’s brigades of the LTTE, largely drawn from underage girls conscripted from schools in the Eastern and Northern parts of Sri Lanka. In spite of these self-confessions, Adele Balasingham lives and continues to propagate the fascist ideals of the LTTE from her South London residence (most probably bought with criminal money). Would this not make the British State complicit in crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sri Lanka? Parents of innocent Tamil children crucified in the battlefield in the name of liberation, spouses and parents of Tamils who have ‘disappeared’, and others from both the majority and minority communities who have endured violation of their fundamental rights in the cause of “humanitarian war” would one day seek justice from the American and British States whose citizens or residents could have been complicit in such heinous crimes against humanity.

Can the offsprings of the supremacists of both the State and the non-State in Sri Lanka convince and free their respective fathers out of their insular mindsets? Could the enigma of Barack Obama prick the conscience of the State and the non-State powers that be in Sri Lanka? Can the exemplary message of the American people inspire the general public in Sri Lanka (irrespective of ethnic affiliation) to break out of the shackles of parochialism, communalism and fascism?

If you need inspiration watch and listen to the Obama victory song, see It’s A New Day here.


Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, Ph.D. (Wales) M.Sc. (Bristol) M.Sc. (Salford) B.A. (Hons) (Delhi), is the Principal Researcher of the Point Pedro Institute of Development, Point Pedro, Northern Sri Lanka and a Fulbright Visiting Research Scholar at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, DC, U.S.A. Corrections, comments and suggestions are welcome to [email protected]

  • DD

    Sri Lanka can. Unfortunately most of our great leaders, and the greatest Tamil leaders have all being assassinated by the LTTE.
    Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam who was assassinated in 1999 amongst many brings me the biggest angst and sorrow.

  • Sinthaamani

    Romantic musings of Obama comparisons not withstanding, the writer loses credibililty with the following statement: “…the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)…sent their children to Europe (England & Ireland)…for higher education.” This assertion is the usual refrain of media gossip. The “Researcher” has left his guards slide.

  • reka perera

    A ”researcher” is saying that someone living in London is steering the course of this country. What are the 101 ministers doing? Constitutional Council, APRC and CoI blocked by her? White vans and Drive-by shootings in their hundreds for years arranged by her? ….. Consensus between UNP and SLFP blocked by her? Southern Consensus muffled by her? What Sri Lanka need is unbiased ”reserchers”.

  • reka perera

    well said.

  • davidson panabokke

    Sixty-year structural violence and ethnic outbidding post-independence, series of state-aided pogroms, satyagahis crushed, conciliatory pacts torn, draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, mass graves, endless series of Commissions appointed to ward off sanctions by the UN for decades with nothing coming out of them, politicised armed services, politicised judiciary, government service transfer system under politicians’ thumbs, disgusting level of corruption and executive power of the President, repressed journalism, peace activists ridiculed …. comparable to all this is a lady in South London?

  • TPiriyan

    While the writer’s numbers in his scholarly table line up, the context does not. Obama is a product of a State run by laws, separation of powers are defended to the hilt by the intellengtia powered by legal luminaries driven by Maslowian instinct, “congress shall pass no laws respecting on establishment of religion, or free exercise thereof; or abridging right to speech, or of the free press,” is written into the constitution; supreme court judges represent the cream of the society, vetted by Congress, and people; What about Sri Lanka? Does the climate in Sri Lanka merit comparison? How can an Obama arise in a State that bombs its citizens from the air, while the 85% roots on…The researcher, while presenting scholarly credential weirs off mark, into the opinionated gossipy land; Hope he learns a point or two while in D.C.

  • V.J.

    The Left antiAmericans have created an entire industry protraying the United States as this backward, racist, fascist, oppressive state, despite blatant facts pointing to the contrary. It took the election of a black man to the White House to get even the radical Left Wing antiAmericans to take a step back. But it won't end. As I said, antiAmericanism is an industry, and despite the fact that Americans are light years ahead of the world in race relations, the radical Left, mostly those in western Europe, will continue to protray the USA as a racist fascist state, even when in their own backyards are some of the most violent hardcore racists on the planet. When my mother left Sri Lanka she nearly went to Britain. I think God she did not and instead came to the USA where I was born. Most Europeans don't even know that 70% of Louisiana voters voted a Punjab Indian as their governor last year. That's 70% of the votes in a mostly white state! Americans can see past skin color, and instead see people for their ideas. Not all, but most, more than in the rest of the world at least.

  • DPoovanis

    When it comes to the United States, people see what they want, even Americans do this as the American World Bank worker Muttukrishna spoke with in Colombia proved. Why would he believe Americans not ready for a black or female president? Although it took Obama's win to somewhat shatter this stereotype of the racist American, long before him Americans had already entered crossed the color barrier, at least more than most countries. For nearly 20 years black women have been winning Miss American contests, multiple times. This is not frivilous. That black women were being chosen to represent all of America, a nation that is mostly white, is quite astounding. Yet it mostly went unheralded, and America continued to be described by European elites and American elites alike as the world's most racist society. On top of this, for years in America half the 10 most influential people in America have been black Americans. Oprah Winfrey comes to mind, who is the most wealthy woman in America and has a mostly white following on her TV show. Will Smith is currenlty the number one box office draw in America. The list goes on, and it's more tha just in entertainment.

  • DPoovanis

    Bobby Jindal is the governor of the state of Louisiana and won by 70% of the vote. A mostly white southern state eleted a dark-skinned Punjab Indian as its governer–their representative–and it went without any cheers. One India columnists dared to call Americans racist for the vote, actually complaining that had Jindal been Hindu instead of Christian he never would have won! America, it seems, can never win in the eyes of many. We have spent so much time accusing Americans of racism that we have ignored our own sins. And, as usual, while the world buried its head feeling content that things are "much worse in the USA" as leaders around the world have told us, it was Americans who elected a black man as their representative. Really, though, this is no surprise. Harder to ignore this time, maybe now the world will be more self-reflective and less resumptious about what life is like in the world's largest melting pot.

    Thank you to my friend for sending me this link to this I liked reading the article!

  • Pingback: Jack()

  • Lucky W

    I wished the title was “American People Made History, Can We Sri Lankans Repeat?”
    Didn’t Sri Lanka have the first woman Prime Minister in the world twice over? Didn’t all Sri Lankans, regardless of gender, ethnicity and race get voting rights unlike in the US? Wasn’t the TULF, a minority party, the main opposition in Parliament not long ago? Wasn’t Lakshman Kadirgamar, a minority, the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka before his assassination?

    Yes, we all should celebrate the first American President who happens to be Black.

    The author compared but failed to contrast the situations. Let’s ask these questions. Would Obama be the President if Dr. Martin Luther King had abandoned the path of non violence? Would the likes of Malcolm X ever be elected? Would Americans elect a clansman who has committed atrocities against them?

    Hope the day will come soon to Sri Lanka to elect a “Tamil-Obama” who would carry the aspirations, hopes and dreams of all Sri Lankans. How about we start with a Cricket Captain?