Image via Whole Planet Foundation
“The victor belongs to the spoils” F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, and this is being played out in Sri Lanka as it tries to find its balance five years after the war ended.
In the meantime, politics feeds itself by conveniently pandering to the masses, the Sinhala majority who looks at the regime as Sri Lanka’s saviour who will support its existence as long as that is not forgotten – so is it surprising that the extremist elements are emerging, led by Buddhist monks with a vision for the ultimate Sinhala nation?.
At the same time, 30 years of a horrific war complicated by a communal history and what it took this government to end the war, is a complexity beyond any imagination. With the emotional wounds of LTTE’s loss fresh among the supporters, it is not surprising that the government is pragmatic in securing the North, and using the armed forces to build infrastructure, so the machinery is kept occupied.
To balance between security – preventing new threats from emerging – and to help people resettle and reconcile is a veritable Gordian knot.
This requires a statesmanship with wisdom, integrity and the courage to be gracious when it would be so easy to fall prey to the temptation of power and pander to the majority. This is a time for a deep collective inquiry with every Sri Lankan as to what kind of a nation it wants to be in the future. To do that, the reconciliation process has to be taken seriously with all it’s risks and rewards.
History is clear in the knowledge that minority communities and religions cannot be wished away. Technology and mobility feeds the modern world’s success only through the celebration of diversity and difference. France continues to suffer from its massive ethnic rift, until it changes its heart, mind and the system about acceptance and accommodation between the French and North African minorities. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US thrive in its diversity and pluralism, as it is enshrined in the constitutions – though not perfect – is acted out in the system with most hearts and minds in acceptance.
In this light, it is curious that the Sri Lankan government seems to turn a blind eye to politics promoting communal divisions. Divided nations never achieve its full potential for economic well-being and happiness and others find reasons to interfere and take advantage.
It was these divisive politics that enabled outside forces (Cold War geopolitics at the time) to fuel the war to begin with. Why walk into that trap again?.
There have been many political gestures towards reconciliation and the government has initiated programs such as the National Languages Project expected to enhance relations between Sinhala and Tamil speaking citizens and increase respect for language rights and linguistic diversity fostering social cohesion.
These good initiatives are undermined by the constant news of Sinhala extremist agitation led by monks against Christian and Muslim communities, and the government remaining silent on the sidelines only shows its nod of favour.
The frenzy driven by fear, and that foreboding spread with the notion that the Sinhala race will disappear if not protected, is rationally articulated to win people over to the cause. In the meantime, it destabilizes and pulls communities apart and the country remains a tinderbox.
A visionary and a courageous political leadership could rise above these fears and promote the harmony of multi-cultures for the common good.
Multiculturalism and pluralism is about balancing certain policies that allows multi-ethnic and multi-cultural states to thrive. These policies are enshrined through the constitution, protected by the judicial system and lived by the bureaucracy including law enforcement agencies.
We do not have to look far to the world’s biggest democracy to take some lessons in keeping the balance. Multiple religions and languages define pluralism in India. India’s solid foundation laid by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Ambedkar (who amazingly was from the untouchables – Dalit community), Vallabhbhai Patel and others, for democracy and pluralism keeps it in tact with 1.2 billion diverse people. In 1949, many were sceptical about the infant democracy and some predicted a military takeover, a dictatorship, as was the fate of many other new independent nations in Asia and Africa. Today, with its democracy and pluralism is intact, India is the third biggest economy in the world behind US and China as it gets ready for yet another election.
It is this foundation that keeps states like Tamil Nadu a part of the federation with Hindi as the official language, even though the Tamil language is older than Sanskrit. Indira Gandhi waivered from this spirit of democracy and fuelled a political dynasty to concentrate power, and even with poverty and inequality rampant, democracy and pluralism is embedded in the DNA of every Indian.
Sri Lanka’s democratic foundations are as strong and influenced by India’s too. As such, weakening the democratic institutions of the judiciary, the independent bureaucracy, oversight institutions for finance, elections, human rights and standing by as extremist groups undermine the multicultural and plural foundations is not sustainable as it goes against the grain of the every Sri Lankan’s DNA.
Once the euphoria over the end of the war subsides, the Sinhala population may demand for accountability. Most people realize the importance of the diversity for Sri Lanka, for economic prosperity and development comes from all the different communities working together and in partnership with the rest of the world. Pluralism then becomes the cornerstone for well-being and development.
The newly founded Global Centre for Pluralism based in Canada www.pluralism.ca has identified the following driver’s for pluralism and following is a look at Sri Lanka through that lens.
- Poverty fosters social tensions and promotes political and social exclusion. The extremists are pointing fingers at Muslim business owners for instance, for the plight of poverty of the Sinhala people. Politicisation of this message will be disastrous for Sri Lanka. Economic prosperity with every community contributing positively to the common development will benefit everyone as there will be peace and harmony to grow.
- Institutional mechanisms can pre-empt violence by managing conflict through political means if the political culture supports pluralism through good governance. In Canada, if I get discriminated or attacked for my race, the Police, Labour, Human Rights institutions and the Judiciary will provide recourse and justice. Even if those officials, as individuals, have their own prejudices, a governance process with professional integrity is in place to protect every citizen and there is trust in the system. In Sri Lanka, many of the oversight and systems for justice and due-process have been taken away or politicized.
- Electoral democracy will only work for pluralism if grounded in political participation, representation and accountability. Civic spaces for dialogue and debate have to be fostered to gather and exchange views as it is through freedom of speech that pluralism really grows and countries flourish. These civic spaces including media freedom has eroded in Sri Lanka with many journalists killed over the last 30 years leaving little room for debate and creative ways of growing the nation into the future.
- The rule of law must be independently upheld and eliminate impunity to prevent the use of the state for corruption and ethnic politics. Sri Lankan ethnic politics has been extremely corrosive and divisive and impedes in creating one nation. In Canada for instance, the current Senate spending scandal is a good example of the rule of law being upheld to bring to book corrupt practices of Senators representing the ruling Conservative Party. Even though the party in power would prefer to cover up the scandal, the system of oversight run by professionals took over to pursue the cases. That system has to be protected at any cost where civil society and the media have a crucial role. In Sri Lanka, there is complete impunity and no system in place for oversight anymore, which compromises pluralism.
- Civil society has to be respected and protected as an inclusive space that transcends and encompasses differences. Identities can be multiple and overlapping; national and ethnic identities are not opposed to each other. Civil society and active citizenship champions pluralism. Government has to foster and encourage civil society for sustainability of democracy and pluralism for long-term peace and harmony. Successive Sri Lankan governments systematically destroyed civil society organizations over the last 3 decades in the name of security. Yet, some like Centre of Policy Analysis prevail to hold the government to account, illustrating the tenacity and courage of the committed to fight for justice and fairness, even when the odds are stacked against them.
- Investing in education, culture and its expression through the arts is vital to foster self and social esteem of diverse communities and bring them together. Fr. Saverimuttus’s Centre for Performing Arts established in Jaffna in 1965 worked throughout Sri Lanka in fostering friendships between communities through the arts even during the war years contributed to grass roots level connections and harmony, even if the politics divided the nation.
- History and memory play a crucial role in influencing ethnic relations. Most Sri Lankans have the power of a collective memory of living in peace with diversity and multi cultures. A few extremists cannot shake this solid foundation. History will eventually disenfranchise the extremists, as attacking people of other religions, churches and mosques is just not the right thing to do in people’s eyes.
- Grievances arising from past injustices, if ignored, can fester and grow till it gets entrenched in the communal memory, the national psyche and can become a long term problem on the road to reconciliation. Ireland’s long struggle was a result of continued injustices that moved from generation to generation. It is crucial to engage authentically in the reconciliation process, for a truly shared understanding of the past and come to closure to move into the future in harmony. If not for Nelson Mandela’s authenticity and vision with Bishops Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation process laying a solid foundation for the new rainbow nation, South Africa would by now be reduced to revenge and a civil war.
Commitment to pluralism requires sympathetic effort across all sectors of society. It requires a leadership from politics, business and civil society with an authentic commitment and compromise to build and protect the ethic of respect for diversity and difference. Respect for diversity enriches every aspect of society by enabling every citizen to realize their full potential ensuring that public resources are equally accessed and shared. 
Growing up in Kandy in the 1960s and 70s the Kandiahs, Sathananthans and Subramaniums on Weerakoon Gardens were our neighbours and family friends. I did not realize our ethnic and cultural differences till I was about 10 years old and by then it did not make a difference.
Cosmopolitanism is one of the historical forces Steven Pinker identifies in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that has favoured peaceable motives and driven the multiple declines in violence in modern society. Familiarity and friendship builds trust between different communities. The system has to promote communities coming together rather than separation.
In the information era, literacy, mobility, and mass media helps diverse people from different regions interact and get to know each other and expand their circle of empathy and trust.
The world out there is changing while, Sri Lanka unfortunately is falling behind and the irony is that the xenophobia is coming from the agents who are supposed to carry the word of the Dhamma – loving kindness. Is it a pipe-dream that a thoughtful leadership with wisdom and integrity will emerge to forge a modern multicultural and a plural state so every citizen – Tamil, Muslim, Burger, Sinhala, Christian, Hindu and many others to live and thrive together and create one Sri Lanka?.
The world we seek is not a world where difference is erased, but where difference can be a powerful force for good, helping us to fashion a new sense of cooperation and coherence in our world, and to build together a better life for all” His Highness The Aga Khan
 Ethnicity, Nationhood and Pluralism: Kenyan Perspectives – Edited by Yash Pal Ghai and Jill Cottrel Ghai; Global Centre for Pluralism and Katiba Institute.
This article is part of a larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.