By Lionel Bopage –
I recognise, respect, appreciate and congratulate the valuable work done by many including those of Sri Lanka Invites. Several other organisations that promote rights, freedoms and development efforts needed for building social cohesion and harmony, have been supportive of this event. National Harmony Day in Melbourne is an occasion for celebration. At the same time, it needs to be a serious time to reflect, to remember. Why? Because this harmony day celebration itself is a response to the discord that is rooted among us, both in Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora. We need to ask ourselves the question, if we wish to continue with this discord that led to periods of our infamy.
Each of us has been brought up in a certain socio-economic and political environment. Each of us has a certain cultural identity, of which we are proud. Yet, this proudness should be not enjoyed at the expense of the other. We need to recognise, respect and appreciate the fact that others also have their own proud cultural identities. Each person needs space to claim his or her identity without being subject to discrimination. That is why fundamental rights and freedoms are necessary. Each of us needs to become aware that irrespective of ethnicity, language, gender and faith, we are all citizens of a larger community, Sri Lankan or Australian.
A civilised society cannot and should not celebrate barbarian values. We need to be able to respect the ethnicity, language and faith of others, even if we may disagree with their beliefs. At the same time, certain beliefs or practices may not be immune from scrutiny. If certain beliefs and practices breach our common values and laws, then such beliefs and practices need to be repudiated and criticised. However, this is totally different from vilification of or inflamed animosity towards an ethnicity, language and faith of another person or community group.
Yet, our own upbringing has inculcated in us, bias and prejudice against ‘the other’ in one form or another. Racism not only diminishes the freedom of the other, but also diminishes our own freedoms. It also diminishes the social cohesion and harmony in a diverse society like Australia or Sri Lanka. We need to work towards building harmony amongst ourselves both in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora. In any good musical composition, the musical instrumentalists and singers harmonise diverse pitch ranges of sound. This is broadly analogous to the multicultural harmony we enjoy here in Australia. Despite the colonial past of massacres in Australia, we have been able to live together in relative harmony. We, from many diverse cultures around the world, peacefully coexist with one of the oldest cultures of the world, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Many parts of the world have progressed in matters dealing with racial, gender, religious and linguistic superiority. Ernest Mandela was once identified as a terrorist; but when he died the whole world mourned irrespective of their race, language and faith. The US has a black president, and probably, a woman could become the next president. Racial superiority has become an anathema. None of us want to sanction racial discrimination, or to be identified as racist. Despite many issues remaining to be resolved, social stability and cohesion in Australia has been great. This is a result of the openness, generousness and recognition offered by the many in the wider Australian community.
We cannot forget that Australia also went through phases of assimilation. Many migrants were supposed to throw out their heritage and culture, and ignore the social and economic disadvantage that prevailed among new migrants. The Australian multicultural policy framework came into being in the early 1970s, as a response to this deficient process of assimilation. We came to increasingly recognise, accept, and appreciate the opportunities that could be made use of cultural diversity for the benefit of Australia. Then onwards, any “discrimination, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin” became unlawful and an anathema to many of us. This was crucial in building the Australian nation. So, we need to express our cultural identity within the limits of the Australian rule of law, its parliamentary democracy and equality and freedoms this entails. This is the crux of the matter: harmony of rights and responsibilities, the culture and citizenship, the freedom and friendship, the thought and deed, and the values and the law
We are at a crucial time for dialogue among ourselves. For us to contribute towards a better Sri Lanka, and a better diaspora, we need to exert our efforts to meet the challenge and build social harmony and cohesion. We needed to be guided by what we have in common in recognising and celebrating our diversity. At times of social division, we can and need to return appropriately to the values and characteristics that unite us. Maintaining social harmony essentially requires us to be tolerant, so that we do not slide into discord, division and infamy. This may at times need standing up to hatred and bigotry. Aspiration of harmony is central to human rights. We are entitled to enjoy our basic freedoms. All of us, whatever our race, ethnicity, language, gender or faith is, we should be able to live our lives with an assurance that we are safe and treated fairly as equals. For us to live harmoniously, we need to stand in solidarity with each other.
The Buddhist Pali Canon offers a prescription on ethics, conflict resolution, and social harmony. This is of practical appeal to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. According to Dhamma, a peaceful harmonious society can emerge when people adopt wholesome standards of conduct such as right speech, right action, and right livelihood. In terms of right speech, the Buddha emphasised the importance of establishing a gentle and compassionate attitude when interacting with others. Likewise, I believe, the Christian, Islamic and other faiths also embody similar social harmony principles that could become the basis for inter-faith dialogue.
For example, Pope Francis once observed individuals, families and societies progress only via the culture of encounter. In this process of encounter, all have something good to give and all can receive something good in return. For this to occur, we need to approach the other in a spirit of openness and without prejudice. This social humility favours dialogue. Today, we need to take the risk of dialogue and the risk the culture of encounter, or we all will fall again; this will be the only path that will bear fruit. Harmony does not happen in an effortless environment. Indeed, we must all continually work to ensure that our lives together involve a culture of encounter. All of us must be humble enough to take the risk of dialogue, and recognise that we as a collective can do better.
We need to contribute towards reconciliation among ourselves, to win peace among ourselves; and to work to prevent a recurrence of violence. At the same time, this is about people’s lives, their survival, their well-being, their dignity, their opportunities, their living standards. So, reconciliation, peace building and development need to go hand in hand. One cannot happen without the other. Yet, this cannot happen unless we acquire the values that tolerates, recognises, respects and appreciates the cultural differences of the other.
We in the diaspora need to be able to do the right thing by our people, both in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora, for the sake of generating and harvesting the great destiny that we could leave for our future generations!