By Lionel Bopage –
If memories and past experiences are not re-examined in the light of new situations, bleak will be the future for all new generations.
Given Dr Nalaka Godahewa’s professional background, his speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appears to be a political stunt. For it is in the main misleading, illogical, irrational, “not doctoral” and at times disingenuous. His speech is premised on the fallacious hypothesis that discrimination against minorities in Sri Lanka, particularly the Tamil community has been a fabricated (or imagined) myth. Recent activities indicate that he would have represented “Viyathmaga”. His dubious political motives become clear at the conclusion of the speech. “No ethnic based solutions” he says, choosing not to face up to the current difficult constitutional development process, adding that this whole process is there to satisfy a western agenda by the external forces “who only want to divide us”.
This is not surprising given his political affiliations. Dr Godahewa was the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Financial Crime Investigation Division had arrested him in December 2015 for a financial grant allegedly provided to a youth movement headed by a son of the former president. His lawyers argued that this was a political witch hunt and that the grant was “simply a sponsorship given with proper board approval for a stock market awareness program”. Leaving that aside, let us dissect what Dr Godahewa leaves out of the historical record in order to support his specious contention that there has been no discrimination against non-Sinhala communities.
Discrimination is primarily an intentional or unintentional ‘behaviour or treatment’ that does not accord with the principles of fairness and natural justice.
This is reflected in international law, which defines racial discrimination as:
“any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”
A further clarification states:
“Discriminatory behaviors take many forms, but they all involve some form of exclusion or rejection.”.
Thus, discrimination involves restricting a member or a group from opportunities or privileges that are available to another leading to exclusion, or the “othering” based on illogical or irrational decision making. It can and has developed into a source of oppression and resulted in inhumane and degrading treatment.
This paper will highlight the implications of the inability of the Island’s elite to develop a national consciousness that transcends religion, language and caste – the reasons which are rooted in the country’s long servitude under the Portuguese, Dutch and the English. In the post-independence era, the failure of our political and cultural elite to deal with this vital societal issue has resulted in various forms of discrimination, particularly on the grounds of ethnicity. This is reflected by the communal violence and the human rights violations carried out by the state and its security forces, and political organizations – underpinned by the ideological perspectives of almost all political persuasions to protect the class interests and privileges of the ruling elite.
The argument that there is no national oppression or discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka and if there is it is only against the Sinhalese is based on the premise that Sri Lanka is the country only of the Sinhalese and non-Sinhala peoples are just recent migrants. This is a Sinhala nationalist construct of the island’s history. On the other hand, a Tamil nationalist construct of history attempts to portray that they were the Island’s first inhabitants. These counter narratives choke any room for dialogue or compromise when it comes to resolving the vexed national question.
In spite of the hair-splitting arguments they make, there are a few matters we could all agree upon: that many generations of those living in the Island, including the Sinhalese and Tamils have been inhabitants of the country for many centuries. Hence, Lanka is the homeland of all the people currently inhabiting it. Solutions need to be found for the current issues, not to a historical problem that existed centuries ago. Such solutions need to pave the way for a united, harmonious, inclusive and fairer Sri Lanka where all people are treated equally and can live with dignity and respect.
Centuries of subjugation and suppression under colonial rule trampled on the national dignity and fundamental rights of the local people, and flared up a national consciousness in each community. Therefore, the need arises to analyse and recognise the palpable peculiarities of each community, the difficulties they face in understanding the spectrum of inter-ethnic interests and the need for radical social transformation along with a prudent and patient approach to redress their concerns.
Sri Lanka did not develop a strong anti-colonial, pro-independence struggle. Tamil leaders were in the forefront of political agitation in tandem with Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others, who agitated for constitutional reforms. Ponnambalam Ramanathan was their first elected common representative. Ponnambalam Arunachalan, his brother, campaigned for education in local languages and local universities. the Jaffna Youth Congress gave leadership to transform this reformist campaign into an anti-imperialist one. The struggles of the working class led by the left and the Indian independence from colonialism in 1947 also influenced this transformation.
The British made Ceylon ‘independent’ in 1948 in accordance with their new geo-political and military strategy launched to counter the expanding ‘threat of communism’ in Asia. In doing so, they did not consider the political exigencies needed to ensure fairness and justice for the island’s diverse residents post-independence. In this political vacuum, rancour replaced civility and the national project degenerated into ethnic/communal conflict. The Sinhalese regarded Tamils as economically and educationally privileged. Increasingly falling out with Tamils, the Sinhalese wanted to secure “majority rights”. They were also very concerned about the geographic proximity of the Tamils in Lanka to the numerically strong Tamil community in the Madras State of India. Psychologically, the Sinhalese felt a minority in comparison to the multitudes of Tamils living in the sub-continent.
In the current global economic phase of neo-liberalism, the economic disparities that lie at its heart, intensifies the national and religious strife for independence and identity of smaller nationalities and nations. In such an environment, the solution lies not solely on carrying out a resolute and consistent struggle against nationalist and chauvinist manifestations, but also on agitating for achieving equality of opportunity and equity of access through ensuring fairness and completing the tasks of the democratic revolution that could not yet been accomplished in many countries like Sri Lanka.
*To be continued…..