By Shiranee Dissanayake –
Enough is enough! Having lived through the gruesome experience of 30 years of terrorism of the brand of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the people of Sri Lanka be they Sinhala, Tamil Muslim Burgher or Malay have experience the ultimate in physical and mental suffering. The LTTE was allowed to thrive on Sri Lankan soil, expand internationally and develop into the most dangerous, ruthless terrorist organization in the world. Although there were many attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully, political, religious, racial and other considerations by the politicians as well as civil society groups deterred the process from constructively moving forward. Looking back at 71 years of independence it is evident that those who wielded the reins of power have not had the foresight, the qualities of leadership or the political commitment needed to ensure lasting peace, let alone prosperity for this our motherland. The horrific senseless killings of innocent civilians on 21st April 2019, by the ISIS based Islamic terrorist organization the National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ), which has been operating in Sri Lanka for over 12 years, speak volumes for the lack of concern and commitment, and incompetence of the political leadership in handling issues of this nature. Indeed, another violent odious, terrorist organization is the last thing that Sri Lankans want on Sri Lankan soil. They have already had enough.
When the war ended in 2009, under the political leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the military leadership of Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka, backed by the total dedication and commitment of the armed forces and the unstinted support and co-operation of the people of all communities who collectively deserve the credit for this victory, the door finally opened to usher in lasting peace and prosperity. However regrettably, the era that followed was one of bribery, corruption, politicization of government institutions and autocratic family rule.
This prompted the educated elite, the intellectuals, professionals and civil society groups to band together under the guidance and leadership of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera to vote Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa out of power. As Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe was unable to summon the majority support of the people to run for the presidency, a common candidate in the form of Maithripala Sirisena was put forward by the UNP as the presidential candidate. His promise of a Maithri Palanayak, Sthawara Ratak, appealed to most Sri Lankans who had suffered at the hands of the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world, within a stagnant economy, for more than half of their lives.The Rajapaksa reign of politicization of government institutions, widespread bribery and corruption, and big time robbery of the wealth and resources of this country prompted the people to opt for the national government proposed by the UNP with Maithripala Sirisena of the SLFP as the common presidential candidate.
To cut a long story short, there were great expectations that the national government of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe would give priority to salvaging the country from the economic morass it was engulfed in. It was the fervent hope that this ‘national’ government would do away with racism, religious extremism and inequality. It was the people’s dream that it would ensure justice for all bring about an era of peaceful coexistence among the different ethnic communities and steer the country towards economic prosperity.
However, the performance of the President and the Prime minister after four years of their term of office, has left the voters and all who worked day and night to ensure their victory, in a state of bewilderment and utter disgust followed by a total breakdown of trust and confidence in their leadership.
One of the main reasons for this is that the President has got his priorities wrong. His first priority was to be the leader of the SLFP and nurture the party instead of adopting an apolitical stance, committed to protecting and developing the country in keeping with his position and his promise of a ‘Maithri Palanayak, Sthawara Ratak’. As time progressed, it became abundantly clear to all, that his first priority was not the country but his own political future.
The sudden indiscriminate sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the installation of Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister on October 26th 2019 with total disregard for the provisions of the constitution, put the lid on the collapse of the Maithri/Ranil coalition. Judging by the evidence that has emerged since the April 21st ISIS attack on innocent worshippers in Catholic churches, and guests top ranking tourist hotels, it is clear that national security of the country has been given little or no priority by either of the two leaders.
Looking back at the tragedy of 21st April where 243 innocent people were ruthlessly killed for no fault of theirs and nearly 500 seriously injured, it might be relevant to examine how the government in power handled this severe threat to national security. It has been established beyond doubt that information regarding the impending attacks was communicated to the security top brass as well as His Excellency the President more than two weeks before the attacks took place. It is also clear that there has been a sense of complacency or even indifference among all concerned, regarding the impending danger to the security of the people.
If one examines the reason for this it becomes clear that there was no consultation or communication between the President and Prime Minister regarding this vital issue of national security. The fact that the President left the country without handing over his duties to the next in command clearly indicates the callousness with which he treated the security of his people. His animosity towards the Prime Minister seems to have superseded his responsibility towards the people who brought him into power. Although the Prime Minister claims that the information was not communicated to him, he too should take responsibility for this unfortunate incident for not being more vigilant in the absence of the President. It was reported in the media that his attempt to summon the Security Council soon after the attack, was foiled, due to “instructions from above”. What is most disgusting is that at a time when the country is plunged into a tragic cataclysmic situation, it is being used to gain political advantage in order to wrest power. So much, for the statesmanship of our political leadership.
So now, the vital question is what is the fate of the 22 million people comprising Sinhala, Tamil Muslim, Burgher and Malay who consider Sri Lanka their motherland? When will the communal, religious, economic and societal problems which have plagued the country for the past 71 years be resolved, so that people of all races and religions will be able to live in equality, peace and harmony with each other? Sri Lankans of all communities have gone through enough pain and misery due to the insensitiveness and incompetence of the political leadership and the rigid mindsets of Sinhala Tamil and Muslim communities. It is now clear that as long as the Sri Lankan population see themselves as majority and minority communities their interests will never see fruition. The time has come for all sections of the Sri Lankan community to start thinking out of the box and change their old parochial attitudes and ideas which have been a deterrent, to the forward march to peace and prosperity. It is now evident that this problem will never be solved satisfactorily as long as any form of divisive thought is entertained within the Sri Lankan social fabric.
In an article written by this author during peace talks with the LTTE, published in the Daily Mirror as far back as 9th September 2002, under the heading “In Pursuit of Peace and Survival” this problem was highlighted and discussed. I quote “So how do we address this problem in a way that the grievances of all communities are addressed equitably? The currently held perception that a particular ethnic community should be represented by a political party characterized by its ethnicity, has spawned a political culture which seemingly strives to champion the separate causes of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim interests. And so we are confronted with ethnically motivated political parties such as the Sihala Urumaya, The Muslim Congress . . . . to name a few. As for the interests of the depleted Burgher community, they have been relegated into obscurity’. . . . . . The question is, is this predilection a healthy sign for the future?”
It is now clear that this line of divisive thinking has only created chaos enmity and religious sectarianism in the country. I quote: Therefore, what the country needs now is firstly a new beginning divorced from the old perceptions, race hatreds, prejudices and sectarian politics.
Secondly, the creation of a new political culture where political parties will be identified by their vision for the future of the country as a whole, and not the interests of only one ethnic community.
Thirdly, to inculcate a sense of togetherness and belonging among the different ethnic communities, so that a new breed of leadership will emerge, who can see their role extending beyond the confines of a particular ethnic/religious group.
For this process to be effective, it is important to bring about attitudinal changes among the political leadership and civil society towards being more liberal and open to serving and being served by those who belong to other ethnic groups, dispelling perceptions that are ethnically prejudiced. Only then can we hope to achieve a lasting peace in this country”
It is indeed regrettable that the political and religious leadership at the time did not see the problem through this lens even after it was highlighted in the press. Now it is evident that the problem has escalated into dangerous proportions while the political leadership is still bent on preserving their own narrow political interests and the religious leadership is splitting hairs over Sri Lanka being a Sinhala Buddhist country.
So as it is plainly clear that ‘racial integration’ which has been bandied about for so long should mean that all races be absorbed into one single entity and treated as a single community with no racial affiliations or prejudices. In this scenario no one will be treated as a minority group and all citizens will have equal rights according to the constitution of the country and be amenable to a single legal system which will apply equally to all. In this context fighting for their rights becomes superfluous as it is already ensured.
All citizens who consider Sri Lanka as their motherland should have a right to their motherland. If a sense of togetherness and belonging is cultivated among all ethnic communities without bringing race and religion into the equation, they should be able to identify themselves as members of one community for the purpose of ethnic integration and peaceful co-existence. The political representatives and leaders should be able to see their role in a more holistic manner rather than being confined to any ethnic or religious group, as this will only cause more divisions and divisive thought. Members of any community who wish to enter politics will then be able to identify with, and relate to the people, irrespective of their race and religion.
As for the question of Sri Lanka being accepted as a Sinhala Buddhist country, it will be beyond dispute if all Buddhists who form 75% of the population, sincerely follow the teachings of the Buddha and practice the Dhamma in the manner that Lord Buddha intended it to be. Rethinking Lanka’s future on the above lines to overcome the current problems is an option that all communities should seriously consider.
It is indeed sad, that 243 people had to die for the necessary environment to be created for Sri Lanka to change for the better. Let us hope that the martyrdom of these noble sons and daughters of Sri Lanka will not be in vain. Let it be our prayer that those who can bring about this change by changing their rigid parochial mindsets even at this late stage will do what it takes to transform this resplendent isle of ours into a true Dharma Dweepa. In the current context where our beloved motherland has been plunged into a dark age of fear and uncertainty, it would be appropriate to close with these words of Rabindranath Thagore which undoubtedly will be the prayer in the hearts of all peace loving Sri Lankans.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.