By Malinda Seneviratne –
‘Moderate’ is a subjective tag. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran may call himself a moderate but not everyone will go along with his self-perception. The same holds for any moderate, self-labeled or labeled as such by others. Politicians, in particular, are notorious for self-labeling and crafting speech with particular audience in mind.
Despite all these truisms and some contentious assertions Sumanthiran’s intervention in the budget debate has to be labeled ‘brave’. It is not easy, after all, for a Tamil politician to admit that wrong was done in the name of the Tamil people.
One can argue that he hasn’t done enough, for example that he cannot be taken seriously until he acknowledges the pernicious role of pro-LTTE elements of the expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils. Indeed, Sumanthiran’s ‘acknowledgements’ sound bland compared to the listing offered by Rajan Hoole (‘A flawed liberation Struggle: Massacres of Sinhalese civilians,’ in www.colombotelegraph.com). When he says ‘We are in refugee camps for 23 years’ and asks ‘Why is that?’ he could be asked also to ask himself whether the question is less valid for Tamil politicians and militants.
On the other hand, reluctance to acknowledge crimes done in the name of a particular community is not the preserve of Tamil politicians. Exchange of barbs and listing the crimes of the ‘other’ has been the order of play for several decades.
This is why, despite serious silences in Sumanthiran’s speech, it has to be seen as a brave intervention. In all probability he would have been the recipient of much flak from his party colleagues, behind closed doors of course. While it was not exactly an ‘own goal’ it was certainly a kick in the ‘wrong direction’ in terms of the general practice of political football, one might say.
When he acknowledges that was done in the name of Tamils to Muslims was unjust (and adds, albeit as an afterthought, that the Sinhalese also suffered), he puts himself within slapping distance of both friend and foe. This is not courage but double courage. It appears that he at least has understood that few Sinhalese would be interested in listening to any litany of woes uttered by any Tamil politician who pussyfoots around the vexed issue of atrocities perpetrated in the name of the Tamil community.
He is only saying part of the story when he states ‘Only when David Cameron spoke, the world heard; otherwise our voices are stifled’ for he cannot be ignorant how Cameron’s ignorance and cheap politicking. And yet, he is correct that certain grievances fall on deaf ears in Colombo. He probably understands that the identity of grievance-articulator is part of the problem. What is important is that name of messenger and his/her past history should not cause listener to turn away. Even if there is frill and inflation as per the dictates of expediency, there often is a core that is real and big enough to warrant complaint and therefore redress.
Sumanthiran, let us repeat, has come within slapping distance and this constitutes opportunity and warrants applause. This is why.
About a year ago, Bishop Duleep de Chickera during a thanksgiving service for the former Vicar of St. Paul’s Church, Kandy, Rev Fr James Amerasekara, said that Fr James’ ministry was governed among other things by Jesus’ extortion ‘If a man slaps you on your cheek, turn to him the other also’. Bishop Chickera explained that it had taken him a long time to realize that what Jesus meant was ‘stay within slapping distance, don’t move away; because that distance is also the distance for an embrace’.
Embrace a member of a party that was once the mouthpiece of a terrorist outfit, a Tamil whose party turned the other way when in the name of the Tamil community thousands of Sinhalese and Muslims were slaughtered in cold blood? Yes. ‘Yes’ because perceptions aside there was a ‘real’ that happened in the other direction too. Humility is the cornerstone of any edifice of co-existence and inter-communal harmony. Sumanthiran is not always humble and his humility even here leaves out large parts of a very violent text, but that’s not reason enough to dismiss. Rather, it is reason enough to turn searchlight inwards.
For several decades we have had people speaking on behalf of various collectives choosing to react to slap with slap. Someone must start by refusing to slap-back. Someone has to come within slapping distance. For now, it might be pointed out that Sumanthiran came within slapping distance but took care to hold a shied in front of his face. Still, it is better than what others of his political persuasion has done and better than what his detractors have done and do.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com