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.