By Thanges Paramsothy –
What do we learn from the parliamentary election held on the 17th August of 2015? In my opinion, which is shared by some other political analysts as well, the voters have questioned the divisive politics promoted by some narrow nationalist political parties. Exclusivist ethno-religious nationalisms have posed a threat to social harmony in the country. They have divided the people along lines of ethnicity, religion, language and territory. Viewing every single problem in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country solely through the lens of ethnicity and nationalism creates tension, disharmony and resentment and often instigates individuals and communities to act against one another. We now live in a society where the differences between communities in terms of religion, language and culture need to be respected. One culture or identity is not in any sense inferior or superior to another culture or identity. All the communities on the island need to be treated equally and their dignity should be protected.
To emphasize the importance of singular imagination does not mean that we disregard the plural character of our polity and embrace the “Sri Lankan identity” (which is often equated with the Sinhala-Buddhist identity by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism). The Sri Lankan state cannot be associated exclusively with “Sinhala” or “Tamil” or “Muslim” or “upcountry Tamil” or “any other ethnic group.” Sri Lanka a rich mosaic of all and one should not use this identity to create divisions within the people of Sri Lanka. We need to see this identity as common to all even though there are differences in the numerical strength of the different communities and different historical texts state that a particular community or some communities came to this island before others.
We have to move forward appreciating the differences, valuing the cultures of each other and recognising the importance of each citizen without allowing nationalisms to imprison us. When we associate the state/country with a particular ethnic group, we stop recognising other cultures and ethnic groups and their place in the state. While each politician and citizen in Sri Lanka give importance to their shared ethnic identity and culture, they should recognise others equally including in electoral politics without creating unnecessary tension among the people. It is a culture of co-existence and power sharing that we need to promote. We all have the ability take the country forward but we have not taken strong action in this regard. Now we have to act as agents of progressive change.
It should be noted that the Sri Lankan state has failed to address the problems of the workers and ethnic and religious minorities. In the post-independence history of Sri Lanka, we witnessed ethnic polarisation, riots and armed conflicts, thousands of deaths, disappearances and loss of property. Many citizens of Sri Lanka irrespective of their ethnic, class, caste and gender backgrounds still suffer due to the prolonged armed conflict and the political violence at the different levels of society. In order to move forward, the newly elected government should address the socio-economic challenges facing the people and find solutions to the prolonged national question without exacerbating the divisions.
It is apparent in the last parliamentary election that the people of Sri Lanka have shown their opposition to divisive politics in remarkable manner. I do not say that that the narrow nationalisms of the north and the south were overwhelmingly rejected. What I would like to emphasise is that these nationalistic/divisive approaches have been defeated to some extent. The United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) on the one hand created fear among the Sinhala voters in their election campaign that the UNP was going to divide the country and allow the LTTE to regroup, as part of their strategy of maximising their votes. The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) on the other hand contested the election by raising the slogan of “two nations – one country.” Both of these parties who resorted to divisive politics have been defeated. The Tamils in the north-east overwhelmingly rejected the TNPF though the party in its campaign selectively attacked militant groups like the PLOTE and EPRLF, constituents of the TNA, for their involvement in abuses while praising the LTTE and portrayed the politicians of the TNA who showed interest in engaging with the Southern political parties as traitors to the Tamil cause. The TNPF also received support from a section of the Tamil diaspora. However, this party was able to get only 15, 022 votes, which is estimated as 5% of the total votes polled in Jaffna district. Its performance in the rest of the Northern and Eastern provinces was even worse compared to Jaffna.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) continues to emphasize the importance of finding a solution to the Tamil national question in their electoral politics. But the TNA overtime has adopted a flexible approach to the Tamil national question understanding the complexity of the issue in a multi-ethnic society. This also shows that the divisive/nationalistic version of electoral politics has started to wither away in post-war Sri Lanka for the first time.
The newly elected government has some immediate as well as long-term responsibilities and challenges in order to lead the country. It has now been more than six years after the end of the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. Thousands of people who were displaced from the northern part of Jaffna are still living in IDP camps and with their friends and relatives. They should be, without further delay, resettled in their lands. It is the responsibility of the government and its establishments to take the necessary steps to solve this problem.
Moreover, thousands of war-affected female-headed households in the north and the east of the country have been leading a difficult life under conditions of economic hardship and intimidation for several years. A proper mechanism should be created in order to support them consistently. Those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanities need to be investigated and punished according to the law of the land. This might be hard for the new government as the state was complicit in the brutality that happened at the end of the war. But there is no other alternative for a government that wishes to lead a civilised society. Transparency and accountability with regard to war-related issues are essential to ensure reconciliation and peaceful ethnic co-existence in post-war Sri Lanka.
Devolving powers to all the ethnic groups and regions is very essential. This needs to be done by acknowledging the changing patterns of the different nations territorially. The government should act with courage in this regard and convince the people that power sharing benefits all communities on the island. We do not have to rely on the international community to do this. We have the capacity to do this but we need to engage with this issue with an open mind. It is now in our hands whether we live together moving towards a better nation or fighting each other and paving the way for another round of communal tension. The new government, the civil society, political parties and the people need to work together to put an end to decisive politics in the country.
*Thanges Paramsothy – PhD Research Student in Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, University of East London, UK