Forging a Culture of Mutual Tolerance among Sri Lankans: A Path to Reconciliation?

Photo courtesy Reuters Alertnet

You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist” – Friedrich Nietzsche

I recently learned that intervening in favor of a “[...] modernist, inclusive Sri Lankan nation that transcends narrow, parochial ethno-cultural identities” (cf. Asanga Welikela’s recent intervention) may unfortunately present you as a Jacobin; especially if you happen to be educated in France; which is apparently by essence revolutionary. One can only imagine my Great Terror after reading such a comment. I still wonder whether Welikela’s approach would have been different had I not been a Sorbonne/Sciences Po educated Sri Lankan.

By focusing on the question of “sub-state nations” and by his dismissive position towards secularism, Asanka Welikela’s argumentation displaces my “original position” which has primarily to do with a culture of mutual tolerance and the emergence of Tomorrow’s Sri Lankan, that is to say  “[...] the one who builds his/her identity through the respect, understanding and tolerance of his/her diversity” (cf. article).

The concept of tolerance, in its fullest sense having been elaborated quite exhaustively by thinkers, philosophers or even organizations such as the UNESCO, I shall confine myself to political, religious and linguistic issues which are the primary causes of ethnic tensions in today’s world.

As much as one should not confuse secularism with the concept of laïcité, one should not misinterpret the relative need of State reforms in a post-war context with theories of State intervention by using to the adjective “radical” as soon as the notion of secularism surfaces. If I may remind Monsieur Welikela, the term secularism, which draws its philosophical roots from Greek thinkers such as Epicurus, refers to the objective view that collective and individual decisions should not be biased by religious influence – whereas laïcité is a more subjective notion according to which the religious sphere does not interfere in any institutional sphere.

Used with parsimony, the concept of secularism is thereby relevant to the current socio-political situation of our country which relies more on religion than on human values. But to what extent can a State intervene in forging an inclusive identity based on pluralism without being radically intrusive? To what extent will its policies impact on the social interactions of its people? I believe that it is through its policies that a State provides either satisfaction or frustration of individual and collective needs in terms of identity. A recent example being the promotion of a trilingual Sri Lanka meant to encourage dialogue between all Sri Lankans. This is the type of post-war reforms the country needs, reforms that will break walls and build bridges between all communities while preserving their own identities; reforms that aim at providing equal opportunities to all and will ultimately accelerate the development of the country through socio-economic integration.

In my vision, the State is there merely to provide the necessary tools to build an inclusive society. The pivotal actor in forging a post-war Sri Lankan identity is and remains the people of Sri Lanka; not only the ones living in Sri Lanka but also the ones that are part of the Diaspora, which suggests that a geographic criterion is not the sole base for any inclusive identity-building process.

Moreover, a fact that one should constantly keep in mind when referring to post-war countries such as Sri Lanka is that, outside the island Sri Lankan minorities become the majority; mainly due to the high number of refugees who have fled the country during the first stages of the war in the 1980s. One such example is Paris itself where the Tamil community represents roughly 2/3 of the Sri Lankans, which gives them a more preponderant role than the Sinhalese community in the French/European political arena. Including the Diaspora in the reconciliation process is therefore a must as it will provide more legitimacy to the country in its peace-building efforts. The question is not whether the Diaspora and the minorities can be part of a post-war Sri Lankan identity but whether they wish to be integrated in a more tolerant Sri Lanka.

However, as pointed out by Welikela, talking about identity issues indubitably leads us to talk about our Constitution. So let’s pause to examine Sri Lanka’s Supreme Law and most precisely its article 9 (Chapter II):

7. (1) The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and, accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasunu while giving adequate protection to all religions and guaranteeing to every person the rights and freedoms granted by paragraphs (1) and (3) of Article 15.”

This speaks for itself. One does not need to be a strict constitutionalist to comprehend that all types of discrimination or privilege on the basis of religion should not be part of a constitution, laws or policies (especially when that “religion” happens to be a philosophy rather than a religion). As if to camouflage the predominant position given to Buddhism in the said article, the Constitution further elaborates that “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds” (article 12). What Welikela describes as an “unnecessary distraction” is in fact a legitimate concern in ensuring equal rights between all Sri Lankans irrespective of their ethnicity, beliefs and aspirations and is thereby as important as the question of “sub-state nation”. These are indeed complementary issues that need to be resolved in parallel with each other. Am I to remind him that the conflict itself has its roots back in the discriminatory aspects of reforms implemented against minorities by a ruling-elite of the majority? It is in the context of States that have more or less failed in their attempts of nation-building that minority nationalist movements, which challenge the unitary State’s monopoly of political hegemony, emerge. (Nations without States: Political Communities in a Global Age, Montserrat Guibernau, 1999)

Rather than analyzing the issue of identity from an entirely legal perspective as done by Asanga Welikela in his constitutionalist monologue, one also needs to scrutinize the issue in a more humanistic manner. As an internationalist, I was taught to believe in the importance of human values; one of the most important been the universal value of tolerance. Call me an idealist, but the culture of mutual tolerance I advocate is one that includes all diversities, founding the inclusive Sri Lankan identity on pluralism, and by no means on cultural neutrality as misguidedly suggested by Welikela.

The triptych of respect, understanding and tolerance suggests sharing and learning from each others’ culture, history, beliefs, failures and successes. By adopting an inclusive identity, each of us will develop the ability to bypass his/her own disadvantages or misinterpretations of “the other” through knowledge sharing, dialogue and even debate. This requires a collective effort from both the majority and minorities. The progressive notion of tolerance becomes all the more relevant in today’s globalized world where communication bridges are built faster than ever.

Over the centuries, Sri Lanka was gifted with people belonging to different ethnicities and religions. So what better place to start building a common and inclusive identity? What better moment than post-war Sri Lanka? What better concept to start reconciling a fragmented nation scattered by extremist views over the past three decades than tolerance?

I agree that a revolution of mindsets might not be the only alternative to build a new and better Sri Lanka, but it is one of the main paths to reconciliation and thereby should not be underestimated. Tolerance should indeed be recognized and promoted through public policies in order to build reconciliation among Sri Lankans; and especially with minorities (Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays). If not an alternative to a sustainable peace, a society based on mutual tolerance will at the very least reduce the persisting socio-economic gaps between the different communities.

Before concluding, I would like to share the following excerpt from L.E. Blaze’s book The Story of Lanka. Written in 1921 by the founder of Kingwood College, the core message of this excerpt still remains relevant –though using the notion of “race” which is inaccurate and has assumed pejorative connotations;

One of the first things we have to learn is that all of us must live in peace and friendliness with one another, and must all work together not only for our own good but also for the good of the whole country. It is worse than foolish for one race to abuse or to act against another, since we can get on only by helping one another. Each of us can be proud of his own race and at the same time respect others and be courteous to them.”

As UNESCO’s Director-General, Mrs. Irina Bokova, said: “[…] that which unites us is stronger than that which separates us” (A New Humanism for the 21st Century, 2010, UNESCO). Only a pessimist will agree to say that precisely because our predecessors were unable to build an inclusive identity in the past, we will not succeed either in this post-war era. Today’s Sri Lanka is both contextually and ideologically different from the postcolonial period. We have to learn from the past and go forward, not live in it.

  • C.C

    Bravo encore Mademoiselle Jayatissa!

    Revolution of the mindset is what we need. It may not be one like the Arab Spring, but Sri Lanka needs change. Article 9 of the Constitution proves it. May seems ideological now, but weren’t they all! – Take Rousseau’s Declaration back in 1789…and now it’s the most essential foundation of all our interactions.

    It is in the hands of our generation and I think we are aware of the need to breed this culture of mutual tolerance for a better tomorrow, and a better Sri Lanka.

  • niranjan

    What Sri Lanka has is an ethnic problem(cultural) and not a religious one. Many people are not aware(most will not care either) of the Constitution and the foremost place given to Buddhism.

    The progressive notion of tolerance becomes all the more relevant in today’s globalized world where communication bridges are built faster than ever- How globalised is Sri Lanka in the first place Kamaya?
    If you ask me not very much. Perhaps that is a part of the problem.

  • Manoj

    Sri-Lanka must transform itself into a secular pluralist state that engages with its diaspora- a simple idea that’s well-argued and written with great insight and sensitivity.

    • Shanuki

      It just won’t happen.
      All these ideas sound good, especially when expressed in good writing.
      But the writer, like so many liberals around, categorically ignore the elephant in the room: the ground situation in SL, and what’s really happening today. Go on a trip to a place like Trinco, and you’ll see what I mean. Sad that all this writing only serves to show how educated one is etc. but has no concrete impact on SL because the writers walk a good few feet (or kilometers should I say) above Sri Lankan soil.

  • nathan

    Over the centuries, there was no such thing called ‘Sri Lanka’. It is, at the most, a post-colonial aberration.

    The Tamil identity, on the other hand, well…

    btw, the Tamil community in Paris dont call themselves Sri Lankans. Last time I heard in Geneva, they were calling for a plebiscite.

    Now if you can tolerate that, and accomodate that, and accept that, then there can be reconciliations between the two nations after two states have formed.

    Else, your idea of ‘humanism’ is only a farce to cover the oppression that we face. The most cruel of massacres in history were after all committed in the name of humanism.

    • Gamarala

      Nathan,

      “The most cruel of massacres in history were after all committed in the name of humanism.”

      Fascinating! I’ve always awarded that honour to the church during the dark ages, with perhaps an honourable mention to the Nazis. But it appears that I may have been mistaken, and it was the humanists all along. Please do enlighten us.

      • nathan

        French/British/Dutch colonialism and the literature that was used to justify it extensively used a term to justify their actions.

        I didnt say that it was the humanists, unless you are deliberately trying to read me wrong. Read my sentence again.

    • wijayapala

      Dear nathan

      The Tamil identity, on the other hand, well…

      …is also a post-colonial aberration?

      btw, the Tamil community in Paris dont call themselves Sri Lankans.

      Silly, that’s because they live in Paris, not Sri Lanka. They’re Parisians!

      • Keynes!

        And Susantha Goonatilake claims he’s a New Yorker!

  • Wallflower

    Much advanced thoughts in a highly racist society, thanks to Religio-Political parties that seem to be calling the shots these days. When a certain political group wanted to elect Mr: Lakshman Kadirgamar as the PM of this country, which was the trump card we could have played over Racism at the time, the racists within the ruling elite blocked that move. If that came to pass, this country would have not been where it is today.

    • yapa

      Racist? Can you please explain how?

      Thanks!

      • Wallflower

        Yapa, The riots of ’57 and ’83 were based on the race of a certain section of the Ceylonese and Sri Lankan population. The intermittent riots that erupt in Beruwala too target a certain race of Sri Lankans. Please do enlighten me, I am quite open to correction.

      • yapa

        Dear Wallflower;

        Are those riots based on race or ethnicity? Can you tell me how rioters ascertain the opponent’s “RACE” before they went in for riots? There must have been a lot of people with same race connections among them who fought each other.

        For example Muslims live in Low country must have around 50% “Sinhalese blood”, but there were Sinhalese-Muslim quarrels in the past. There is a lot of common blood among Sinhalese and Tamils as well, does this common genetic factor prevent riots between them?
        On the other hand there are “Sihalized Tamils” in South, do you find riots among them and others living there? Do you find riots between the “Timilized Sinhalese”(Koviars) and other Tamils living in Jaffna?

        “Race” has nothing to do with riots in this country, or in many other places in the world today. In Zimbabwe and South Africa and many parts of Africa, you can say riots, struggles and wars were based RACE. You can call them racist, if you really want to. But most of the riots/disagreements erupted today are based on cultural differences and not based on their DNA.

        The word “racist” have been used by many to make their attacks on the opposition more severe and intensify their claims over the others.
        This is one of the most “unduly weighted” and “abused” words, to gain undue advantages.

        Don’t you agree my dear friend?

        Thanks!

      • Wallflower

        +Thank you so much dear Yapa for the trouble taken, much appreciated. I agree that I have used a much abused word, which would need hair splitting arguments to define, which is not my intention at all. All that I ever wanted to say was that when the JVP proposed the most suitable person at that time to be appointed as the PM, who was without argument Mr: Laksman Kadirgamar, the majority in the ruling party did not approve of it since he was not a Sinhalese. If you could cite any other disqualification where he was concerned, I would consider it an honor to be enlightened. Thanking you, dear Yapa I remain your friend.

    • wijayapala

      If that came to pass, this country would have not been where it is today.

      You mean the LTTE would still be around?

      • Wallflower

        Wijayapala, The justification for their grievances would have received a serious set back.