By Romesh Hettiarachchi –
Dear Bala Thambi:*
I hope this letter finds you well. I’ve heard the weather in London, England is pretty cold this time of year, though I can’t imagine it being as cold as Toronto (-22 deg. C. brrrr!).
I am writing to you in response to your various online reactions to the election of President Sirisena in Sri Lanka. I must admit a certain fascination following the various changes in your viewpoints since November, watching while you called for Sri Lankan Tamils to boycott the Sri Lankan elections and criticized other Diaspora Tamil groups who urged every Sri Lankan Tamil to vote in the elections. While I know that there are many Tamils who think differently than you (after all, few generalizations can be made regarding a group as varied and diverse as the Tamil Diaspora) I do want to address your perceptions that the election of President Sirisena has not changed anything.
Sri Lanka: an Island Divided?
You seem to be under the impression that Sri Lanka remains an island divided, pointing to the fact that President Sirisena’s victory was dependent on voters in the North and North East. Thambi, this is not really groundbreaking news: every vote matters in an election! President Sirisena was as dependent on voters in the North and North East as he was dependent on voters elsewhere in the country. As an astute observer of the Sri Lankan elections, you know that minority groups have in general voted against the incumbent, particularly in Sri Lanka’s recent history. Check the election map of the Sri Lankan presidential election in 2010. Moreover, as my friend Indi has demonstrated, maps of election results can be skewed to suit the purpose of the creator.
You harbor this belief based on your view that the Tamils voted en masse against President Rajapaksa and not for President Sirisena. Funnily enough, it’s the same view adopted by a certain former President. Look, mass generalizations simply cannot made about the voting intentions of groups of people. In this case, compare the votes of President Rajapaksa to the regional demographics: there simply are not enough Sinhalese in the North and North east to account for how many votes President Rajapaksa won in those regions. Clearly some Tamils voting for President proving the inaccuracy of your statement. Your generalized statement in legal terms is not supported by the evidence.
President Sirisena’s victory was a result of the Tamil population exercising their right of self-determination (i.e. voting to determine their own destiny) by voting in conjunction with other Sri Lankans in favour of President Sirisena. Their votes not only counted but mattered. I can only imagine your reaction if, despite these votes for President Sirisena, President Rajapaksa had won: you likely will say the votes of the people of the North/North East don’t matter; “they will never have a president of their choosing”! Further, while I will never agree with your view that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were freedom fighters, I hope you recognize that the LTTE only represented the Tamil community as they threatened, intimidated and killed all who opposed them. Under the LTTE, Eelam never was and likely would never be a democracy.
The Historical Aberration of the Election
You scorn the self-congratulatory celebrations most Sri Lankans engaged in after the election results were announced. With all due respect Bala, most observors of the Sri Lankan election were shocked – look at all the predictions of election violence from outside observors. This is not a surprise when looking at the global context: peaceful transitions of power due to democratic results are super rare, particularly when so much of power is concentrated in the hands of so few. See for instance Bangladesh, Pakistan, Syria, Thailand, Kenya and Nigeria. Ukraine is still dealing with violence stemming from the decision of the Ukrainian Parliament to dismiss President Yanukovych and to hold new elections less than a year ago.
As Kate Cronin-Furman attests both the process and outcome of these presidential Elections were an aberration in global politics with electoral transition in this election only being peaceful as a result of the success of several moving parts: a strong Election Commissioner, competent domestic and international election monitors and the refusal by the military to take illegal orders.
Sri Lankans have every reason to be proud and self congratulatory.
Intersectional Diaspora Privilege
I know you think that I as a liberal Sinhalese am “Sinhala-splaining”, defending “Sinhala Supremacy” and am completely ignorant about my “Sinhala Privilege“. As you know I have little patience with the Privilege discourse. But if you want to use the Privilege discourse, then perhaps you should “Check your Privilege” – i.e. the intersectional privileges you (and I), enjoy as being a member of the Diaspora living outside Sri Lanka. Amongst the many privileges we enjoy in the Diaspora is talking about Sri Lankan issues in the abstract: rarely will we be affected directly by the issues we endlessly discuss.
Your failure to recognize your intersectional diaspora privilege is evident when prior to the election you urge voters to boycott the election but now either mock the election process/results or demand President Sirisena listen to you. Your failure to acknowledge your intersectional privilege is manifest when you relate all issues in Sri Lanka through the lens of accountability and justice when most people living in Sri Lanka do not have the same luxury; the lenses they adopt are far more complex. And while I recognize there are certain privileges that Sinhalese enjoy when either discussing or visiting Sri Lanka, you fail to recognize the privileges you enjoy in certain circles of the Tamil Diaspora where being Tamil is often times a prerequisite to being credible.
And yes I am well aware that in certain circles of the Sri Lankan community, being Sinhalese is a similar prerequisite to credibility. Its this awareness that causes me to act as I do.
The Long Road Ahead
Look, the work to build a different Sri Lanka is long and hard with little glimpse of an end in sight. Even today, President Sirisena has given himself less than 100 days to govern, after which there will be a second election. By the time the election is declared, we can sure the Sinhalese nationalists will have regrouped and there will once again be a ready to demonize all minorities in Sri Lanka and brand any opponents of Sinhalese nationalism, locally or in the diaspora, as traitors in order to obtain power. At that election every vote will again be needed to ensure this Sri Lanka will continue on its path to good governance and rights-centered democracy.
I again ask you to reconsider your unwillingness to work with those who do not think or talk the same way you do. Don’t call for a boycott of the electoral process if the elected leadership of the Sri Lankan Tamil community ask the Tamil community to participate in the elections. Stop undermining the elected leadership of the Sri Lankan Tamil people i.e. the Tamil National Alliance and Chief Justice Minister of the Northern Province CV Wigneswaran. You don’t have a stake in the Sri Lankan election; they do. You don’t need me to ask you to continue supporting the local needs of your people by donating your money and time to those communities; your commitment to your people is quite clear.
If you are willing to work with those you disagree with, you will be readily welcomed by my friends and I. We may be a rowdy bunch but know that all of us are well-intentioned. Till then, I’ll do my thing and I wish you all the best with yours. Please give my regards to Gayathri and the boys.
Romesh Hettiarachchi is a lawyer and mediator in Toronto, Canada and has no affiliation to any of the organizations mentioned. He can be reached @romesh_h. This is the second of three reflections on the Sri Lankan election written in the form of letters. The first can be found here.
*Bala Thambi is a composite construct of various viewpoints expressed by segments of Tamil Diaspora in the news and social media. This article is not written or addressed to any one specific person. Bala Thambi is a fictitious character with any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, purely coincidental.