Photo courtesy of Amalini de Sayrah
The current political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka calls for a new strategy in the political course of the Tamils and other minorities. People have been provoked to revolt against the state because of its short sighted policies and the corrupt practices of politicians that have led to a rapid decline in the economic situation. The recent Covid-19 outbreak aggravated the crisis by affecting production, export trade and tourist arrivals, adding to the massive debt problem.
When the disaster began to affect the urban population causing shortages of gas, milk powder, sugar and fuel, they gathered in small groups and engaged in demonstrations. Eventually people marched to the Galle Face and made it a permanent battle ground.
The Galle Face protests started as a very serious focused struggle. It has gradually developed into a carnival type battleground. This is an inevitable transition. Although slogans and banners alone are enough to start a people’s struggle, for its continuation a combination of music, dance and performances are important ingredients to vitalize the environment. Careful monitoring is being carried out to prevent the battle ground from degenerating into pure entertainment space.
The politics of the Galle Face battlefield
The main political objectives are the resignation of the president, the prime minister and his cabinet. There is a call for all parliamentarians to quit. These demands emanate from the perception that the present government is corrupt and inefficient in handling the present crisis.
It is mainly run by the new generation of youth. The young generation is geared to build a corruption free country with dedicated leaders to live peacefully and to take part in developing the country. There is a general feeling that the struggle has brought various communities together under a Sri Lankan identity.
It does not appear to be controlled by any political party or group. Although this may seem like a spontaneous popular struggle, some groups have put forward their own ideas for a political change, emphasizing a system change.
- Reducing the power of the president and creating a parliamentary democracy
- The present set of corrupt politicians should be prevented from entering politics again
- Developing an accountability mechanism to which all politicians including the president and the prime minister must be answerable
- All ministries and institutions should be accountable for their actions
- Introduction of a new electoral system
Two key issues are highlighted. One is preventing the concentration of power in one individual and the second is the establishment of a state free of corruption. The basic political purpose is the transfer of power from president to parliament and the implementation of an accountability mechanism.
The position of minorities in the struggle
To understand the position the minorities must take in this struggle we need to revisit some of the historical issues. During the heyday of Buddhism in India, Emperor Ashoka believed Buddhism would not continue to hold ground in India so he considered an island like Sri Lanka to be the best place to safeguard and develop it. He wanted to link Buddhism to the state so there would be continued state patronage for it so the connection between Buddhism and the state is a historical connection.
It is impossible for Sri Lanka to have a political system that is based on a complete secular constitution. Even long colonial rule and democratic politics have failed to change this situation. The current constitution provides special place to Buddhism as well as to the Sinhala language. In this context the concept of equality remains a slogan.
The minorities, especially the Tamils and Muslims, have been subjected to various forms of oppression and violence from time to time. These activities had the patronage of politicians and the governments that were in power often took a lackadaisical attitude to enforcing law and order and even fueled the hatred. There was no groundswell of opinion against this blatant social injustice and oppression among the Sinhala masses. From time to time a few stood for social justice and human rights. The Sinhala community has been silent spectators of the human rights violations and atrocities resulting from racial hatred.
Against this backdrop, slogans such as united Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan identity, which have gained new currency on the Galle Face battlefield, must be treated as politically shallow slogans.
To understand the problem in creating a unified common Sri Lankan identity, it is necessary to compare it with the existing Indian identity. India is a country with a completely secular political system. The Indian national anthem is sung in Bengali, which is a language of a minority. It is possible for a Sikh to become the prime minister and a Muslim to become the president in India. We cannot even dream of a completely secular political system in Sri Lanka. We are not politically mature enough to reach that situation. What we have is a system that is based on majoritarian democracy.
Why minorities must support the struggle
This struggle is not going to provide solutions to the problems of minorities. The economic woes will escalate in late May. Just by playing musical chair the present parliamentarians are not going to satisfy the demands of the protesters so the present struggle will go on until there is tangible change in the system; changes to improve race relations and equality can be factored in.
The minorities must make a decision whether to support the struggle or keep silent, depending on the views of the president and prime minister and their actions.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the ceremonial opening of parliament after the end of war on May 19, 2009 said, “We have removed the word minorities from our vocabulary three years ago. No longer are there Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any other minorities. There are only two peoples in this country. One is the people that love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth. Those who do not love the country are now a lesser group”.
At that time Mahinda Rajapaksa was an influential politician among the Sinhalese people. He could have put forward an appropriate solution to the problems of the Tamils and such a move would have been acceptable even to his opponents. Instead, he sought to disregard the identities of the minorities.
Although Gotabaya Rajapaksa had links with Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups before assuming the presidency, there was an expectation among minority communities that he would take a neutral stance when he became president but these expectations were soon shattered.
President Gotabaya’s chauvinist tendencies have manifested on several occasions. Important examples are the appointment of the Eastern Provincial Archaeological Committee devoid of Tamils and Muslims, the presidential pardon for a former army soldier who was convicted by the courts for killing several Tamils and the appointment of controversial racist priest as the head of one country one law committee. If this regime continues, there is a danger that minorities will have no place and will be relegated to the status of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar where Theravada Buddhism reigns.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected on the Sinhalese vote. This has weakened the voice of the minorities. If the current government and their political ideologies continue, the future of the minorities will be precarious. In this context, it is important that Tamils, Muslims and Christians support the struggle not only for economic reasons but also for political ones.
There is one thing to keep in mind when supporting the struggle. There is a feeling that it has created a unique Sri Lankan identity. The next step will be to eliminate political ideas and tendencies that will go against the common identity, targeting political parties based on race or religion. We should not forget that we unite when there is a common enemy when the enemy is eliminated the differences will re-emerge. Under no circumstances should minorities agree to abolish political parties that represent them. Perhaps in the future we can dream of an unifying Sri Lankan identity when there is a completely secular constitution and the people’s attitudes change to accommodate a Tamil or a Muslim as the president or prime minister of Sri Lanka.