By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
Ever since its political independence Sri Lanka has never been able to solve its central national crisis in relationship between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil speaking communities. The souring relationships began with a veneer of cordiality between leaders like DS Senanayake, Ponnambalam Ramanathan and GG Ponnambalam. The veneer was removed at the stage when SJV Chelvanayakam, in reaction to visible signs of obduracy on the part of Sinhala leaders, demanded Federal Government. It became an obvious chain reaction on both sides of the now growing divide in the national fabric of our society. Mutual suspicions between the communities sprouted and a struggle ensued with demands and counter demands. SWRD Bandaranaike brought the process to a head with communal riots unfolding and stances on both sides hardening. The culmination was represented by the rise of the LTTE and the consequent civil war that put the clock of progress back and diverted invaluable national resources away from infrastructure development, agriculture, health and education towards the killing fields of destruction.
The war now technically over, has not put the problem to rest. The old process of demands and rebuffs have strangely resurrected itself in a different milieu and context with mounting internationalization of the national conflict. The LTTE Diaspora is out there very active and India is increasingly restive under Tamilnadu pressure. These are all new developments not present during the early phase of conflict referred to above.
There are fresh demands for ‘self-determination,’ or autonomy under the current new order of Tamil leadership. It is doubtful that such political proposals would be successful considering the experiences of the recent past. To the Sinhala people Prabhakran had been a bitter experience when innumerable attempts at peaceful mediation had come a cropper with Prabhakaran giving his word and later breaking it all utilizing the pauses just in order to regroup his forces. To many Sinhala leaders the suspicion is real that a proposal for some kind of autonomy would likewise be utilized by the Tamil leadership to launch a separate state. Both the demand for self-determination, whatever that may mean, and its rejection are thus equally racist phenomena and the issue will not be settled because of that. These futile exercises will only help to harden identities and to entrench the very myth that lies at the bottom of the problem.
I like to examine this whole issue of failure in relationships in a totally different light: The rancorous dispute between the two communities have been sourced on a terrible myth. This is the myth of race and its accompanying manifestation-racism. “Almost everywhere one looks among present societies, race and racism make angry welts and deep wounds on the body politic. It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a fiction. The concept of race has no genetic or biological basis,” points out British philosopher, AC Grayling.
DNA analysis dismantles the whole idea of race completely. ‘Race has no biological reality,’ says Professor Jonathan Marks of Yale University; ’the human species simply doesn’t come packaged that way.’ Race is a social, cultural and political concept construct based on superficial appearances and historical conditions, largely those arising from encounters with other peoples as Europe developed a global reach, with the slavery and colonialism that followed, concludes Professor Jonathan Marks.
It is suggested here that we can get over our relationship problem only by going beyond racism. To advance beyond racism we must go beyond race. One cannot reach this goal by resorting to something akin to the ‘Black Power,’ campaign. Satre called the Black Power an ‘anti-racist racism.’ As a community Tamils have been, no doubt, subject to all kinds of discrimination in the past. They believe also that the war was won by killing many of the Tamil innocent civilians. In this context, therefore, one can empathize with them when they develop prejudices toward “the Sinhala Government” and the Sinhala people.
On the other hand, responsible Tamil leaders must try and correct such an ant-racist racism. The media as a whole must play a catalytic role in helping both sides of the divide to advance beyond racism and thereby find accommodative solutions. A change of regime is a necessary prerequisite for reaching this higher plane of consciousness. The current regime is seriously suspect and has lost credibility to lead the proposed new revolution in social engineering. The UNP has also a suspect past but could yet manage to make a genuine change of perception. On the other hand, here is a new philosophy that the invigorated JVP can incorporate because the party’s Marxist roots are in line with the concept of going beyond race.
We can see the end of racism only when individuals learn to see others only in individual and human terms. The doctrine of equality must be enforced. This would include equality in the use of Tamil and Sinhala languages. With such radical changes the question of ‘homelands’ will not arise and the need for self-determination will not arise. The length and breadth of the island must be perfect home for the Tamils and Sinhala. The rule of law must be firmly in place for grievances to be addressed without prejudice.