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.