By Laksiri Fernando –
There were several merits in the President’s speech to the 71st UN General Assembly sessions on the 22nd September, highlighting the enormous development challenges that the country is facing and outlining the initiatives that the government is taking and/or intends to take. What seems to have escaped the attention of the critics or observers is his emphasis on social democratic policies, whatever he meant. This is the first time that such an emphasis was made, although briefly, on Social Democracy, as far as I am aware. Among the challenges facing the country, a particular attention was placed on the drug menace engulfing the youth world over, and highlighting the joint actions that should be taken by the UN and the member countries.
A major portion of the speech also was focused on the war the country had to undergo and to assure the international community, or the local people through the speech, that terrorism was abhorrent and measures would be taken to prevent another war erupting. However, there were weaknesses as well in the speech, and thus the criticisms. These criticisms could be anticipated as the speech ought to be on behalf of the ‘people and the country,’ and the assurances have to be realistic. Let me add my own reflections or ‘my two cents’ to the chorus. I am here focusing only on two aspects: (1) the way the speech was narrated particularly in the English transcript and (2) the emphasis made on Theravada Buddhism in the country. It should be added that it is the English version which matters to the outside world.
To put it bluntly, the narrative of the speech appears quite self-centred, or rather authoritarian, using the first person singular expression of ‘I’ 21 times in a text of around 950 words, as published by the President’s media unit (now available in the UN website). A statement such as the following on ‘poverty alleviation’ is quite odd from a democratic country and a democratic president.
“I am determined to alleviate poverty in my country. I declared 2017 as the Year of ‘Alleviation of Poverty’ in Sri Lanka. I have given lead to creating the basic platform for the people to free themselves [from] poverty in a county that prioritizes economic progress.”
It is not clear whether the mistake is with the President or with the speech writers. Most probably with the latter. The text appears some ‘notes’ for a speech and not exactly the transcript of the speech that the President delivered. In that case, it is not clear why the President’s media unit published it as the speech? In an initial posting, there was a single strange sentence saying “I have been in power for the last 15 months.” This was later corrected. It was not only a mistake of the period in office; but a declaration such as ‘I have been in power’ is apparently odd in a democratic country.
The transcript gives the impression that the President was talking as a dictator or an authoritarian person. I believe (and hope) it is not the case. Even when you go to the original speech, I believe there is much the President could have improved to reflect a democratic culture or aspirations. If he has said “mage rajaya nilayata (not balayata) pathweemata pera” then it could have been translated as ‘before my government came to office’ and not ‘to power.’ The obsession with ‘power’ has to change for the sake of democracy. This has to change not merely in words, but in deeds. Even the first sentence of the transcript was misleading. He actually said “I am extremely happy to take part in this 71st Session of the United Nations general Assembly as the President of Sri Lanka.” However, in the transcript, there is no qualification ‘as the President of Sri Lanka.’ At the General Assembly, a President should represent the people and the country, and not himself or herself.
It is not unusual for a statesman or a stateswoman to, at times, present his/her case in the first person singular at the UN. But this should be rare and valuable. Most of the time, it is plural, even if it is first person (we or ours). For example, in the British Prime Minister, Theresa May’s speech, there were only two occasions in over a 2,000 word speech where she referred to her beliefs or initiatives. First, when she was referring to the problems of migration and referred to three fundamental principles that she believes in. Second occasion was when she referred to the first ever government task force that she has initiated in combating modern form of slavery or ‘super exploitation.’ The latter was very much similar to what the President Maithripala Sirisena talked about as the ‘Year of Poverty Alleviation.’ Yet it is only once she mentioned ‘I’ and then reverting back to her usual ‘we.’
If I may make another comparison, in the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull’s 575 word speech there was no ‘I’ at all. He was always talking objectively about the challenges his country and the world were facing and referred to ‘we’ in respect of Australia, or ‘ours’ in respect of Australian policies and initiatives.
One may argue that this is a difference between a presidential system and a cabinet government, where collective responsibility or collective wisdom prevails in the latter case. This may be partially true but not totally. Even in the speech of the US President, Barack Obama, only occasionally that he said ‘and so I believe’ or ‘I say all this’ and so on. Most of the speech was objective and largely in the plural. Even the President of Uganda, Kaguta Museveni, did not use the ‘I’ except at the beginning congratulating the election of the new President of the General Assembly, H. E. Peter Thomson. Nor did the President of Brazil, whose speech, President Sirisena referred to in his submission in relation to the ‘drug menace’ except to say, “I bring to the United Nations, in sum, a message of uncompromising commitment with democracy.” This was after outlining Brazil’s commitment to Paris Agreement on climate change, free trade arrangements promoted by the WTO, and most importantly, human rights etc. There was no reference to human rights in our President’s speech at all.
Reference to Buddhism
Most controversial might be the President’s reference to ‘Sri Lanka as a Buddhist country’ at the UN speech. When the transcript was first issued by the President’s media unit (reproduced in the Colombo Telegraph), the wording appeared more controversial than what appeared later or now. Therefore, there was understandable disappointment or criticism. One reason was that the reference to Buddhism was given out of context, in two paragraphs, referring first to ‘war and terrorism’ in the country. It was not the reference to war or terrorism that was wrong, but the reference to Buddhism in that context, devaluing its universal value philosophically at a fora like the UN.
Then in the second paragraph, it was bluntly transcribed that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, where Theravada Buddhism is practiced.” This appeared like a sectarian proclamation instead of emphasizing Buddhism’s philosophical or scientific value. This is still the case in the English version posted in the UN website. However, the original speech in Sinhala now posted in the same website gives a more balanced view which probably was the intention of the President. Now the statement is in one paragraph in the original Sinhala version. What is the fuss, one may ask? Let me give the official English posting first and then my translation from the original Sinhala next.
“In many parts of the world, we see the unfortunate proliferation of anger, hatred, and brutality. I would call that the contemporary society is experiencing a crisis of morality. I believe that all states should pay heed to the cry for moral values. I believe that every society must dedicate itself to raise its share of positive moral values.
Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, where Theravada Buddhism is practiced. The teachings of the Buddha help us find solutions to many of the burning issues of the contemporary world. Similarly, I am sure the wisdom offered by the great world religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and others can help us today. As such, I am of the view that we, as states, can strengthen and foster those religions and philosophies that help us look inward.”
More accurate translation of the original might be the following.
‘Honourable President, in many countries in the world today, in the prevailing international contexts, we see wars, war like situations, and sometimes more barbaric conditions along with disunity, hatred and societies gripped with hatred. Here, the absence of a moral fibre necessary for our human society is a major problem. In today’s conflict ridden societies, the need to build a citizenry based on morality is important, and I believe all countries should give priority to this need. Sri Lanka as a Buddhist country, I believe that the wisdom revealed by the Theravada Buddhist philosophy would be extremely important for resolving many problems in the world today. Similarly, I believe it is necessary for all countries to strengthen and expand religious and spiritual philosophies based on Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other religions, in resolving civilizational problems that we are faced with.’
Here it is clear that it is not a proclamation that the President made Sri Lanka as a Buddhist country where Theravada Buddhism is practiced. He took the example “Sri Lanka as a Buddhist country” (Sri Lankawa baudhha ratak vidihata) and emphasized Buddhism’s importance. There is a difference between the two. His emphasis was on the role of religion and spiritual philosophies in ‘resolving civilizational problems that we are faced with.’
There was an ambiguity however. It is not clear whether the President deviated from the text which was prepared before, or the local translators deviated from (or distorted) the President’s ‘broader concern for religion’ to highlight ‘Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country.’ Whatever is the case, the UN General Assembly might not be the best place to do so. UN is a secular or independent organization from religions and it should continue to be the case. Religious debates should not spoil its purposes.
What the President said in Sinhala can have two meanings. (1) Admittedly, there is a growing feeling among many people that there should be a ‘religious awakening’ to counter what they call the moral degeneration in the present day society. This is a trend going against (pure) secularism. During my last visit to Vietnam, I have witnessed a growing religiosity particularly among the youth even in this (or previously) communist country. However, there are sections who emphasise this need as ‘spiritualism in general’ or as ‘interfaith spiritualism.’ The President’s speech undoubtedly resonates this aspect of belief.
(2) More obvious was his apparent belief that Buddhism offers some solutions to the present day predicaments in the world. There is an undeniable truth in this as well. I myself have emphasized the methodological or scientific importance of Buddhism*. The President said that in the particular context of conflicts and wars in the world today. He also identified disunity, hatred and revenge in societies to highlight the need for peace and conflict resolution. There are some Western philosophers, like Johan Galtung, who also emphasise the same importance of Buddhist methodology for conflict resolution and peace. Even the UNESCO has taken its motto primarily from Buddhism which says “As wars begin in the mind of men, it is in the minds of men that defences of peace must be constructed.”
However, the above has nothing much to do with Theravada Buddhism per se. The most respected Buddhist leader in the world today is Dalai Lama from Tibet. The President’s emphasis on Theravada Buddhism can be controversial in that context or even otherwise. Why emphasize, Theravada only when there are few other strands? The most important might be to emphasize Buddhism in general without reference to one strand or the other. One could also argue that for some reason, Theravada countries (e.g. Sri Lanka, Burma and Cambodia) have been engulfed in violence and conflict than other Buddhist countries in the recent past. Therefore, particularly a statesman from Sri Lanka should prove the theory before preaching it to the world.
The President’s statement at the UN has other implications in projecting the country’s image within the international community. It could give the wrong impression that Sri Lanka at least shy away from embracing ‘multiculturalism.’ I am using the term ‘multiculturalism’ broadly to mean diversity and pluralism in many spheres of ethnicity, language, religion and culture. At least it is commonplace for statesmen or women to emphasize their countries and policies are multicultural in this continuously integrating complex world. What country is not multicultural these days?
For example, when the Australian PM delivered his speech, he said “Australia is one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world – from the oldest human cultures of our First Australians, to those people who come from almost every UN member state.” He went on saying,
“Australians are not defined by religion or race, we are defined by political values; a common commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law, underpinned and secured by mutual respect.”
When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke on behalf of Myanmar (Burma), although she didn’t use the term ‘multiculturalism’ explicitly, it was all over there in her speech. She said “When we talk about building peace and development, we cannot neglect the important aspect of enhancing respect for human rights, equality, diversity and tolerance.” She further said, “We must be united in standing together against all forms and manifestations of violent extremism related to religious, cultural and social intolerance.”
*“An Introduction to Research Methodology: Western and Buddhist Perspective.” http://documents.mx/documents/an-introduction-to-research-methodology-by-prof-laksiri-fernando.html