Photo by REUTERS/ Mariana Bazo, via Time magazine

There is no getting around it, we humans are emotional beings. Thereby, nations made up of humans will possess an emotional psyche which is reflected on how it is governed.  The issue is whether this psyche is aligned among most citizens or not.

Diverse multicultural nations will have some dissonance, yet as a country like Canada shows with three dominant societies – the Francophone, the Anglophone and the Aboriginal people – First Nations, Inuit and Metis and the 200 odd nationalities that inhabit Canada in relative harmony, shows good governance based on great leadership can indeed live in relative harmony.

However, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper with his Anglo Saxon biased divisive politics nearly undermined this cohesiveness.  It takes only one strong leader to upset the applecart.  Justin Trudeau’s election in 2016 brought the traditional focus on Values and multiculturalism back, as he vociferously defended through his election platform.

Back in 1956, Sri Lanka’s fate changed with Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s Sinhala only language policy.  This divided a people who had lived side by side for millennia and made the Tamil population, as well as the Muslims and Burghers, strangers in their own land.

When a community’s identity and a sense of belonging are taken away through their right to communicate, people become emotionally vulnerable.

Emotions are simply feelings that arise when a need is not met.  When a need for acceptance, sense of community and inclusion are not met, it could impinge on the need for safety to give rise to feelings of insecurity, frustration, fear and despondence.  It takes basic Values of respect and dignity away.  When that happens, people lose hope and the desperation can lead to violence.

In Sri Lanka, tension between the Sinhala and Tamil communities was inevitable as both groups asserted their post independence identity and authority.

Could this tension have been managed with strong leadership and governance to bring the nation’s diverse people together, on a shared identity and citizenship, while respecting everyone’s distinct cultural, religious and linguistic differences?.

Culture, religion and language are such emotional triggers that have been central to Sri Lanka’s seven tumultuous decades of independence.  With fortitude to stand firm on the Values of respect and dignity, Sri Lanka’s political leaders could have avoided the tragedy of over 100,000 deaths at the hands of the insurrections and war.

However poor the leadership was, I do marvel at the resilience of the Sri Lankan people, having lived through two major insurrections – 1971 and 1988-89, the war and the Tsunami.   This resilience stems from a certain equanimity and beauty; an underlying thread that weaves through the nation even at the worst of times.  That thread survived among the people even as the political leadership bled the country hiding behind emergency powers after the 1970s to compromise on democratic values.

Governing with a Firm Hand

“The first duty of government is to govern” wrote former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who was in charge when Canada experienced its own separatist terror with the 1970 October Crisis.  “It is absolutely essential to have, at the helm of the state, a very firm hand, one that sets the course that never alters, that does not attempt to do everything at once out of excitement or confusion, but that moves along slowly, step by step, putting solutions in place”[i].

It was a lack of a firm hand and perhaps acting out of excitement or perhaps confusion, with the Sinhala chauvinists breathing down his neck, that Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike lost his nerve to order the Police to retreat, during the June 1956 Satyagraha campaign, putting the peaceful protesters at risk[ii].

Satyagraha or non violent protest is the noblest form of dissent, which requires tremendous emotional control, discipline and courage, as we learned from Mahatma Gandhi, later emulated by Martin Luther King Jr. and so many more.

The Tamil Federal Party’s peaceful Gandhian protest led by a genial S.J.V. Chelvanayakam at Galle Face without Police protection was broken up and attacked by thugs.  This humiliation and the second attack on the April 1961 Satyagraha could have been the first step towards the brutal war thirty years later.

Canada’s Crisis

As Canada went through its brutal French Canadian separatist uprising culminating in the “October Crisis” in 1970, after seven years of terror acts by the Front de libération du Québec or Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ), Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had to act.  Things came to a head when a British Diplomat James Cross and a moderate Quebec politician, Pierre Laporte were kidnapped in Montreal.

When Trudeau asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to go after the terrorists they went to town arresting Communists, Maoists, Trotskyites, artists, musicians, hippies, people with long hair – anyone they deemed a threat to the nation.  This is exactly what Trudeau was worried about – when oversight is taken away, Police would take the law into their own hands.   Trudeau railed against these arbitrary arrests and eventually got them to target the FLQ.

As the crisis loomed larger than anticipated, Emergency measures were called to mobilize the Canadian army.  Trudeau very reluctantly passed the War Measures Act on 16th October 1970.

Trudeau’s anguish is reflected in his book, Memoirs;

“I was deeply disturbed by it, and extremely apprehensive about what would ensue.  I was afraid that it would lead to abuse, and I was worried about the political consequences.”

Invoking the Emergency Powers limited fundamental rights and suspended institutional checks and balances.  Trudeau used this exceptional measure to deal with this crisis, but knew well that democratic practices and international law seeks to impose temporal, procedural, and substantive limits to emergency powers[iii].

The next day, Canadians were horrified to hear that Pierre Laport was killed as the FLQ made their serious intent known.  This led to many arrests, mostly in Montreal of whom, many were innocent – yet such was the reality of a war like situation, but the FLQ was cornered.

At first, Trudeau was accused of over reacting, and being a French-Canadian himself, many Quebeckers treated him as a traitor to the cause, saying the FLQ was a conspiracy fabricated to crush the idea of Quebec sovereignty in favour of English Canada.

Finally, Trudeau’s actions were supported by a majority of Canadians, as he was able to bring the immediate situation under control.

The situation was no less complex and emotionally volatile than that what we saw in Sri Lanka with much worse results.  Crisis like this require great statesmanship with integrity, toughness and objectivity and Trudeau walked this tight rope mindfully.

When Trudeau was asked what the October Crisis taught him about the art of governing, he said;

“First of all it taught me that you can be the most prescient futurologist in the world, you can lay out the best-made plans and define your priorities with utmost care, but if you show yourself to be incapable of managing a crisis when it arises, you will lose your right to govern and the whole thing will blow up in your face….”

Blow up in Sri Lanka’s face it did with the 1983 Black July crisis.

The contrast in how this crisis was managed by President J.R Jayewardene on that dark day of 23rd July 1983 defined the next 3 decades.

The rest is history.   Sri Lanka is yet trying to get back to normal by finding that balance in the shared identity and common ground amongst its diverse people.

This is not easy, as Canada too swings back and forth with the question of Quebec sovereignty depending on provincial and local politics.  It is yet an emotionally volatile issue where language is central.  The intricate balance is kept with strategic and thoughtful federal government leadership by being closely engaged with the Francophone population across Canada.

It is the sense of decency, respect and justice, where citizens take responsibility for themselves that is core to Canadian Values that underlies this balance, especially in the worst of times.

An Honest Account of Values

Governance is about creating an honest account of justice.  Honest account of justice stems from the laws of the nation.  These are based on certain human principles and Values.  Honest account of Values is provided through the institutions that govern.  When they are compromised, we compromise the very Values that form a foundation of a nation such as justice, fairness, equity, equality, freedom, based on the basic human Value of respect.

It is every citizen’s responsibility to hold themselves to account accordingly to keep this balance.   However, there is a times for thoughtful defiance and action.

Even Nelson Mandela gave up his non-violence when the Afrikaner apartheid was relentless in trampling on the rights of the original people taking their dignity away.

Desperation gives rise to our reptilian nature and that is as natural as our ability to love unconditionally.  However, action taken strategically, like when Mandela was careful only to attack public infrastructure and not people (even though there was collateral damage), it can be affective in attracting the attention of the powers that be.

This is the lesson for leaders who are blinded with power and not mindful of human’s real nature to defy and avenge, even to a point of harming self, when there is nothing to lose anymore.

People have to give up a lot to leave their families and a normal life to join a rebellion.  Sri Lanka was no different to what history has taught us, as we witnessed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rose to become one of the fiercest forces in the world in its time.

The key is what can our present and future political leaders learn from all this?

Leaders have to learn the Power of Balance

When tempers run high, it is crucial to get back to the framework of Values for an anchor.    Values are mediated through emotion by language.  When there is dissent, mindful and brave leaders will not send in the guns, but create space for crucial conversations, as when there is room to express our feelings and needs, we dissipate the energy of those emotions and find common ground for empathy.

The current Sri Lankan politicians have to learn from our own history and of others to facilitate a balance between the tension of order and democracy.  It requires leaders to take an honest account of their own deep and meaningful purpose of what they are in place to do – to lead and to serve based on very basic human Values.

What is paramount then for leaders is to learn to manage themselves first.  This is done through quiet time for daily reflection and meditation, as that slows things down and enables the space to gain insights, especially when there is a crisis.  When one manages self, the ethical, moral and spiritual elements of leadership becomes possible.  Then we can create an emotionally stable society.  Virtuous and strategic political leaders can inspire diverse people to a shared citizenship and common purpose.

Ultimately though, the power is with the people, as we have seen real change in recent history electing – the new Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in Sri Lanka in 2015, the 2016 Trudeau team election in Canada and even the Trump election in the USA.

That is where communication platforms such as Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph among others provided people a space to exercise their power to disagree, which is the first step towards exercising our democratic rights.

A Tribute to Groundviews

Sri Lanka lost its space for open and safe conversations for most as people and communities got polarised driven by fear in the last three decades.  When we lose that space for expression, we lose the opportunity to understand the feelings and needs of people leaving no room for empathy.

As Sri Lanka got more and more polarised, Groundviews, established at the height of the war, provided a safe platform for most of us to keep our communication lines open for better or for worse.

Reading articles and comments over the ten years saw the expression of extreme anger, frustration, despair and hopelessness from many people and through the comments, this outlet was the stage for many passionate, heated debates.  This expression enabled people to dissipate their energy in a way that perhaps kept these emotions from leading to more violence.   It also led to better understanding of each other’s aspirations, fears and pain.

This is a tribute to the courage and the conviction of the people who operated the Groundviews platform even under dire circumstance and duress in the last ten years, which gave many of us the trust that real change is possible.  Let us continue to exercise that right to hold our political leaders accountable to – we the people.

Congratulations to Groundviews for your tenacity and holding true to the value of freedom that we all cherish.

[i] Memoirs, Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1993)

[ii] Politics and Society, Volume II, Regi Siriwardena; International Centre for Ethnic Studies