By Harsha Gunasena –
Democracy is the rule of the majority. If the majority tries to suppress the needs of the minority the Democracy would deteriorate to the level of dictatorship of the majority. Sri Lanka was in this situation for long time and sometime back it tried to march towards pure dictatorship. It was foiled and thereafter democratic freedom was established. However, it did not come back to the status of pure democracy.
Results of the recently held presidential election s were highly polarized based on the ethnicity. It is important to note that minorities did not vote for the extremist candidates of their ethnicities. They voted for a Sinhala-Buddhist overwhelmingly. This was the situation in the last presidential election as well. This time the trend continued with the sharpening of the polarization. This election was canvassed mainly on the grounds of national security and ethnicity. Ironically, if Sri Lanka needs national security at this point in history, it needs to harmonize the different ethnicities and religions, rather than dividing them. Therefore, the country is in the wrong mindset now.
The President said that he is the President of all Sri Lankans including the people who did not vote for him. Also he stated that he would not address the political aspirations of the Tamils, but he would certainly address their economic aspirations since Sinhalese would not oppose to the development of the areas where Tamils are. He thinks that by this way their political aspirations would fade away. In other words, the assumption is that the root cause of the problem is an economic one.
It is not. Now the people of Hong Kong launched massive protest campaigns against Chinese rule. Hong Kong is economically sound, but they selected to protest against Chinese backed extradition law by compromising their economic growth. Scotland is enjoying asymmetrical power sharing in Great Britain. They can decide whether to leave Great Britain or not, but they have decided to stay at the last referendum. Catalonia is a wealthy region in Spain, having a separate parliament and contributing to 19% of GDP of Spain. There is a widespread belief among the Catalans that the central government takes much more from them in taxes than it gives back.
Therefore, low economic conditions may not be the reason. On the other hand, when the economy grows it may be more difficult to suppress the political aspirations of Tamils, contrary to the belief of the President. What the President is not saying is that the political movement he represents worked intentionally to uphold Sinhalese chauvinism and got political advantages out of that. From SWRD Bandaranaike, the opposition political parties worked like this. Only Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wikremesinghe did not fall into this flow. They have their own shortcomings and deficiencies, but they did not try to take political advantage out of this national question.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former President got the best opportunity to solve this question as the leader who ended the war. Unfortunately, he avoided that. Yitzhak Rabin was the Commander-in-Chief of the Israel defence forces during the six-day war in 1967. When he was the Prime Minister in 1994, he signed Oslo backed Israel-Palestinian peace agreement which paved the way to get him awarded Nobel Peace Prize. However, he was assassinated subsequently by a person who opposed the peace treaty. Mahatma Gandhi who was the key figure of Indian independence and who initiated to end the ethnic, religious and caste-based discrimination in India was also assassinated as a result of his stand in ethnic riots in 1947. The former president may have thought that it was better to stay alive rather than getting the Nobel Prize.
It was not the case. History teaches us a different lesson. For millennia in this country we did not have ethnic conflicts until 1915. Conflicts and wars were among the kings and princes. They were concerned about the power as of now, and not the ethnicity. There were many Sinhalese in the army of Elara. Mahavamsa praised Elara that he ruled ‘with even justice toward friend and foe, on occasions of disputes at law’. Magha who ruined our civilization and paved way to shift the kingdom to the south in the 13th century was not a Tamil. Sinhalese kings sought the support of the Pandyans against the Chola invasions.
Sinhalese and Muslims lived in this country in harmony over a millennium. During the regimes of Sinhala kings Muslims served in Royal Courts and advised kings in international affairs and trade. They also served in Buddhist monasteries and they were allowed to build their mosques in temple premises. Sinhala kings allowed them to settle in Kandyan districts to save them from the influences they got from the Western invaders.
This situation was changed in the late 19th century together the Buddhist revival programme. During that time Sinhala Buddhists were downtrodden and the hegemonic domination of the society was with the Christians and the trade was with the non-Sinhalese. Unfortunately the Buddhist revival programme which was initially directed against the Christians subsequently directed against the other ethnicities as well. This is the beginning to the ethnic conflicts in this country. Contrary to this situation India managed to direct its independence struggle against the British uniting all the religions and ethnicities of the country.
Therefore, this is a political movement. This was used by the opposition leaders from Bandaranaike to get into power. Chandrika Kumaratunga changed this. The Sudu Nelum movement was able to change the contaminated Sinhala folk mind to a great extent. Therefore, Mahinda Rajapaksa had the opportunity to have a paradigm shift of the politics of the country. Failure was a misfortune of him as well as the country.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also having a similar opportunity now. However, it is not great as the opportunity got by his brother. The reason is that the arousing of Sinhalese chauvinistic feelings also contributed to the victory of the last election to a great extent. Bandaranaike after the victory in 1956 tried to do justice to the Tamils but he could not face the pressure of the people led by Buddhist Bhikkus. He was a liberal democrat. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a liberal democrat. He is an authoritarian leader as requested by the Bhikkus themselves.
The only constitutional concession the Tamils got were granted as a result of Indo Lanka pact which was signed on the intention of one person with the opposition of his Prime Minister and the senior ministers and of all the political parties other than of Tamils and with the imposition of curfew and finally with a physical attack to the Indian Prime Minister.
Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wikremesinghe did not give the political leadership to the process of making a new constitution. The process has gone to a considerable level with the support of all the members of the Parliament.
Sinhalese fear a political solution without any valid grounds. They think that if some autonomy is given to Tamils, they will ask for a separate state. It is not correct. India provides an example to negate that belief.
By the time of becoming an independent country, India had demarcated the borders of Southern Indian states based on the areas acquired from Maharajas and hitherto followed borders by the British. There were requests for a separate Tamil state in particular, and separate state for all the people who have spoken Dravidian languages in general. India started re-demarcation of the borders of Southern states in 1953 and it continued to 1956. Hyderabad state and Andra state were combined and Telugu speaking Andra Pradesh was created. Travancore-Cochin state and Malabar provinces of Madras Presidency were combined and Malayalam speaking Kerala state was created. Tamil speaking Southern provinces were amalgamated with Madras Presidency which was renamed as Tamil Nadu in 1968. Kannada speaking provinces of Hyderabad state and western Bombay state were combined with Mysore state. This was renamed as Karnataka in 1973.
With these changes and with the constitutional prohibitions for separation, the demand of the separate Tamil state was faded away. What they wanted was separate identities for the respective ethnicities and not separate states. Therefore, it was proved in India that demarcating of provinces based on the language and ethnicity would run down the demands for separate states. This is quite contrary to the popular belief in the south of Sri Lanka.
It is the task of concerned civilians and civil society of this country to convince the majority Sinhalese that if the Tamils are allowed to fulfill their political aspirations there will not be any danger to the territorial integrity of the country. They have to convince the President that without doing this, country cannot go forward with the economic prosperity alone and this is not betrayal of the Sinhalese community. This is swimming against the stream and this is the way forward.