23 September, 2020

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The Presidential Elections; A Tipping Point To End Institutional Racism! 

By Mohamed Harees

Lukman Harees

With the Presidential Elections due by the end of the year, Sri Lanka has already become a hive of activity much visible both on the streets and in the media. The electioneering and campaigning have already started on an adversarial note, with more heat being created than light. What we Sri Lankans go through to pick our President is not only crazy and unnecessary but genuinely abusive. Hundreds of millions of rupees are spent in a craven, cynical effort to stir up hatred and anger on both sides. A decision that in reality takes one or two days of careful research to make(if based on policies and track records), is somehow stretched out into a process that involves relentless, suffocating mind-warfare, an onslaught of toxic media messaging, fake stories and news sensationalism, directed at an unsuspecting public, that by Election Day makes every dinner conversation dangerous and literally divides families. A corrupt and racist political system is much to blame for this, but the media too have to take responsibility for the damage they do to the public psyche in the name of election coverage; not forgetting the naivety and the gullibility of the Sri Lankan voter. 

The 1978 constitution has not delivered political stability, though it was drafted and adopted for that purpose. With the benefit of hindsight, Sri Lanka’s executive presidency it created, has failed under its own terms. The nation’s four decades tryst with the executive presidency, has thus not been in its’ best interests. The crisis or the conflict President MS unleashed on October 26,2018 rekindled the debate on the abolition of the executive presidency. In fact, he reached a Faustian bargain with MR- the man whose 2005-2015 presidency brought democracy under siege. MS is now in the unenviable position of being dubbed a crackpot trusted by no one, while Yahapaalana government has become a rudderless ship. This coalition government, which came to power defeating MR regime on the platform of bringing the corrupt sharks of that time to justice and to bring national reconciliation failed on both counts. Further, the national outcry to abolish and/or to introduce more checks and balances is still not being given ear to. However, despite the media hype, consequent to the 19th Amendment, this election will only elect a President with much less power than the incumbent who came to power in 2015.

In this context, it is a tragicomedy of our times that the main parties who have been holding power in Post- Independence Sri Lanka (UNP, SLFP and PA/ breakaway SLPP) are once again seeking a fresh mandate, despite their tainted track records. Gota and Sajith (if nominated) represent a bankrupt political system which has taken Sri Lanka aback to the point of a failed state. Sri Lanka’s social integrity and economic stature have been compromised beyond repair under these two major party rule. They have  turned Sri Lanka into a divided nation. Frustration with the corruption, divisive/racist politics,  loss of confidence in politics and rule of law, and the lack of orientation of the country’s elites to the common good and the interests of young voters in particular, have led to a generation no longer using their right to vote and withdrawing from political life. The polarisation of society and political culture has made it more difficult for young people to become politically-active. Sri Lanka’s rulers have thus repeatedly disregarded the country’s best interests for personal gain.

With the socio- economic systems in dire peril when compared against international indicators and  our heads shaking in bewilderment at the ever-worsening political climate that surrounds Sri Lanka, our questions are: Have we reached the tipping point, where our democracy hangs in the balance? Has our country reached an existential crisis point? And what can we do to prevent this? My question to all who continue to support the two party system: What more will it take before you accept that this corrupt ill-gotten system has already led us – and perhaps gleefully – to assume political serfdom and into dictatorship and poverty of all forms in the seven decades of Post Independence era? Should we not be part of a social re-engineering movement to change this evil status quo? Isn’t it time opportune   to have a paradigm shift in our political thinking? 

There is however good news in the horizon beyond the narrow confines of the two party- continuum. A tipping point indeed! In sociology, a tipping point is a point in time when a group—or a large number of group members – rapidly and dramatically changes its behaviour by widely adopting a previously rare practice. Journalists and academics have applied the phrase to dramatic changes in governments, such as during the Arab Spring. The latest positive development has been the challenge taken up by the numerous intellectuals and political activists banding together forming National People’s Power (NPP), to change the political culture from ‘personality based’ to a ‘policy based’, and to challenge the status quo where power has been moving to-date along a two- party continuum. NPP has put forward JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake as their candidate whose track records in public office are comparatively credible. Besides, there is also public interest than ever before to challenge the status quo and to weed out the wretched political pests and leeches in the highest echelons of power, who have been ruling, sans any shades of shame and integrity, robbing public wealth at will. One of the main challenges for the next president will be to prove himself to be a national leader bringing the people together, rather than being a tribal leader and to clean up the stables while ensuring a credible political culture.

One of the biggest tragedies of our time is the emergence of intolerance and raw racism in the social and political fabric of this country, especially in the last few decades. Once upon a time, we Sri Lankans prided ourselves on our tolerance of difference. According to the story we told ourselves, we forged “one” people out of “many” in our schools, neighbourhoods, social interactions and political for a, as the US motto ‘E pluribus unum’ projects, tolerating a wider range of religious beliefs. We won our independence on a united platform. Unlike some other nations that rooted citizenship in blood or soil, we (eventually) became more willing to accept birth-right citizenship. Therefore, it is pathetic that Sri Lanka had to face the challenges to democratic values and human rights principles posed by racism and related intolerance. Incidentally, in the 2018 report of Bertelsmann Stiftung, a Germany-based think-tank, Burkina Faso and Sri Lanka were classed as defective democracies, having been classed as moderate autocracies in the 2016 report. ‘It is not so much the slight increase in the number of autocracies that is worrying. More problematic is the fact that civil rights are being curtailed and the rule of law undermined in an increasing number of democracies as well,” says this latest report.

We have seen the resurgence of ultra-right/ religious movements expressing racial, religious, national or ethnic hatred. We have also heard political voices from the highest echelons of power which echo and even actively advocate racism, majoritarianism, demonizing and scapegoating minority and vulnerable groups. Many writers have argued that the rise and institutionalisation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in post-independent Sri Lanka bear much responsibility for today’s ethnic conflicts between the majority Sinhalese state and the minorities. Ironically, the competition among the Sinhala ruling classes, for acquiring state resources and political capital, has turned nationalism into the ruling ideology and the state ideology of Sri Lanka. Social Analyst Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda argued that “Sinhalese Buddhism (Not Buddhism) has made no significant contribution to the evolution of a non-violent social ideology. On the contrary, the Sinhalese Buddhist historiographical tradition and ideology inherent in it supports ethnic political violence”. In his Foreword to  Farmer’s book ‘Divided Nation’, Lord Soulbury expressing his dismay on the Sinhala-Tamil conflict said, ‘the reconciliation of Tamils and Sinhalese will depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elect it.” Yes, with no political will at the top to ensure that the constitutional rights of all communities to enjoy their religious and cultural rights are duly protected, the extreme elements have been operating without fear of sanction and impunity prevented them from receiving any punishment.   

We therefore saw violent attacks motivated by State sponsored racism, and related intolerance, alongside persistent and profound discrimination against numerous groups, which led to their marginalization, exclusion and diminished participation in society. 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, Aluthgama, Digana and Post- Easter anti Muslim violence resulted from government inaction. How JRJ acted during 1983 riots, MR during Aluthgama and Yahapalana rulers during the subsequent ones showed the State complicity. Both Tamils initially and then Muslims become part of this marginalization and hate campaigns spearheaded by extreme groups with patron saints in the governments. We have also witnessed some sections of the Sinhala national newspapers carrying out a well-orchestrated campaign against the Muslims in the recent past. Even the law enforcement authorities do not act fairly whereby some enjoyed special rights than others; specially the rogue Buddhist monks and politicians.(ICCPR application was a case in point)

The profound and toxic assumption of racial superiority thus undermines the foundations of democracy and the rule of law. This debasement of groups of people is deeply and fundamentally contrary to every principle of human rights, which under international human rights law is tantamount to a criminal offense. It is also contrary to the spirit of the country’s Constitution too. This is profoundly dangerous as we saw in our bloody history, where by sharpening divisions in society, dehumanising certain groups and creating acute grievances, racism prepared the ground for bloodshed. Racism and racial discrimination sharply limit opportunities for political participation and representation and the protection and inclusion of minorities and other groups. A society that does not fully respect the equal right of all individuals to participate in public life and decision-making is not fundamentally a democratic society. Democracy seeks to respectfully accommodate differences – whether ethnic, racial, religious, political or others; to enable all individuals to fully realise their potential; and to extend the full and equal protection of the State to all. It demands an active respect for the other – every other. 

Democracy doesn’t just crumble on its own. We, the people, are supposed to be its caretakers, just as we are its beneficiaries. We aren’t blameless in its decay, as we become spectators of  its’ decaying process engineered by vested political interests, where our morals and social norms are desecrated, our social interactions and conversations are polluted by the cesspits of racism and ghetto-ism. Isn’t it time to change the course of history to struggle and sacrifice for our own good as the question of how we will live together is raised and decided. We are left to ask what 2020 will bring: a push back for robust democracy within an inclusive Sri Lanka, or yet another year of decline, where divisive politics will further fragment our country along racial and religious lines. Towards this, it is up-to us to ensure that the forthcoming Presidential elections will herald a turning point for Sri Lanka. Let us  make it a tipping point to show our determination to clean up the political culture, and to make policy based politics, the basis of our decision to elect our next leader. For many decades, we have voted for personalities- and poverty, corruption ,inequality and intolerance were the ultimate results. Let us therefore question the effectiveness of the policies the Presidential contenders bring forth and weigh the pros and cons of their track records in terms of their honesty, integrity. Let not the ugly history not repeat itself.    

Particularly the responsibility of political parties, platforms and organizations in taking decisive action against racist discourse is paramount. Also will be developing internal disciplinary measures against public statements and actions that encourage or incite racism, racial discrimination, and related intolerance. People should ask those who seek power to fight this cancer of racism and divisiveness head-on- through (1) education in eliminating racial and other negative stereotypes, (2) Effective judicial protection and remedies for victims of racial discrimination,(3) duly prosecute and sanction those responsible for hate speech and racist violence. It is also fundamental that public authorities and elected officials openly speak out against discrimination and intolerance in all fields. Towards this end, public has a vital role to play by raising their voice against racism and to vote responsibly without being slaves to communalist emotions. The opportunity should be seized to make sure that the next government has the broad national credibility, internationally endorsed, to begin the process of knitting together the Sri Lankan society battered by its recent traumatic history. Here comes the tipping point in our country’s journey, when we decide to a ‘stop and search’ and our emotional police bring us to a standstill, and restore the fault lines in the cluttered tale of its’ life. Otherwise, ‘those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it’, as the philosopher George Santayana said.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    1

    Dr Harees

    You have covered much ground. However, it all comes down to a tribal affair. The winner is the one who captures the majority of those who vote with their heart rather than head. The others have a Hobson’s Choice. I will scrawl ‘none of these devious buggers’ on my ballot paper. If everybody did, the winning majority will be the spoiled vote.

    Apropos Anura Kumara Dissanayake, much as I admire many aspects of his leadership, I still have to get over the fact that as an adult he chose to join (and lead) a party that did choose violence over the ballot box and brought so much misery to the country. Not once, but twice.

    It looks like we have to wait longer for an altogether higher quality of candidate.

    • 4
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      We may have to wait forever. High quality Sri Lankans do not want to get into the swamp, and have the poison in their lives. Only thugs, crooks, and those willing to stoop to crime, get into Sri Lankan politics.

      • 0
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        Chitra, you are right. The root of the problem is the party leadership – particularly the leader. The leader must set the standard and demand the quality of candidate that is put forward for election. NOT local thugs, suspected drug dealers, sharp operators, people of unproven repute, opportunists. No decent person (and we have plenty in this country) will come into politics if as you say they step into a shitty ‘swamp’.

    • 2
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      Are the UNP and SLFP (or for that matter SLPP) not parties that entirely abhor violence?
      The JVP has given up on the revolution as a goal. That is not something that I endorse.
      It is the social violence that they indulged in as response to state violence that is the issue. They could not tell ordinary people from the oppressor, and that was their tragedy. They attacked nearly all dissenters. they should make a clean breast of it with a public self-criticism.
      But what about the big parties? Are they composed of saints? Their crimes include bigger things besides violence.

    • 0
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      Spring Koha,
      My concern with AKD is not about JVP’s violent past for, they admit that they have become “cold” now; rather; its unchanged commitment to failed Marxism. In other words, they have given up only the strategy, but not the goal!

      Speaking on Harees points, all I can say is that it is a “wrong conclusion”. It is very easy to describe the current situation. Take the world of organisms, for example. Many described the distribution of species nearly the same way but only Darwin could come up with a somewhat plausible explanation! Same is true with the movement with planets. In the same way, we have seen so many essays describing the soco-political-economic status of today’s SL but I can’t think of any common criteria to categorize their conclusions.

      Harees seems to be unhappy with the ongoing racial tensions; and we all do! Is fair to blame the current Gvt for not solving a long rooted racial conflicts within mere four years? In democracy and with minority GVt of which a partner SLFP pulling in a different direction, keeping up with even a single promise is miracle. Besides, racial tension has become part of national politics all over the world. In England, the debilitating BREXIT issue is fundamentally racial. Last US election is no different. India also is having the same issue.With all these, I think that SL did better.

      It is absolutely wrong to suggest that SL has racism institutionalized. On the contrary, like corruption, racism by some public official is a reflection of SL society at large. But, in responses to recent racial tension, Gvt didn’t take a side. The IGP involved was transferred & him along with hospital director are under further investigation.

      • 1
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        Continued…
        Spring Koha,
        Harees’ use of the term “paradigm shift” clearly indicate his belief that current Gvt is only an extension of the previous. But, considering what we had since 1978, democracy wise, is 19 A not a paradigm shift? We haven’t even seen the full operation of 19 A yet. Parliament becomes fully powerful only after the upcoming presidential election!

        Speaking of paradigm shift, Thomas Kuhn who invented the term in his seminal book, “Nature of Scientific revolutions” clearly warned that not all PS are as progressive as expected at the time. Failed Marxism is one of the best example. Its philosophy & theory is false; and utterly failed in practice as well. How can we expect a paradigm shift from a failed theory?

        P.S. What MY 3 did with MaRa on Oct 26, 2018 certainly was not a Faustian Bargain b’cos, instead expecting to gain wisdom, he surrendered whatever he had in return for power, instead!

  • 1
    4

    All goebbles talk. But, finally Hitler lost, If AL Harees is not a true Sri lankan, he does not know. Other wise, we had elections since 1948 or 1933. What did we gain since 1978, nothing. Then why do we need Elections. Who are we going to satisfy. I am pretty sure, either the Tamils or muslims will not profit. If so, who So, when we have a proper leader, even Ten years without elections OK, At least sinhala buddhist supremacy will win. both the Tamils and muslims know the truth in their hearts. Sinhala Buddhist Supremacists have to follow that trail.

  • 2
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    Mr Harres,
    It is surprising that a man of your political awareness has not noticed that we DO have an unusual candidate. His name is Nagananda Kodituvakku. His entire program is aimed at producing exactly the kind radical change, in the political culture and in the society at large, that you are dreaming about. You can get an idea of Mr Kodituvakku’s ideas and plans by looking at some of the videos available on youtube. Just type “Nagananda Kodituvakku” and you will find the videos. Incidentally I agree with you that Anura Kumara Dissanayake and his party have not made any credible acceptance of blame for their sordid past, and their racism.

  • 4
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    Good idea. We can start by stopping the movement to kill ‘infidels’ according to beastial Islam, and by stopping bombing of religious venues of other faiths!

    How is that Mr Harees?

    • 3
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      Mawanelle Saranankara,

      In a foreign country if someone asks, “What is your name?”, they want to call you by that. If someone asks the same in Sri Lanka, it is because they want to treat you according to that.

  • 4
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    Anyway, Institutional racism is far negligible than those from the holy books.

  • 4
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    “In his Foreword to Farmer’s book ‘Divided Nation’, Lord Soulbury expressing his dismay on the Sinhala-Tamil conflict said, ‘the reconciliation of Tamils and Sinhalese will depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elect it.”

    Why Lord Soulbury expressed his dismay on the Sinhala Tamil conflict? After all British ‘Awajathakayo’ did everything to divide the people in Sinhale. This British guy wrote the book ‘Ceylon: A Divided Nation’ blaming Native Sinhalayo because he was brainwashed by Demala bureaucrats.

  • 1
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    After Britishers left Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka) in 1948, competition started among politicians on communal lines to capture power. With Bandaranayake’s Sinhala only in 1956, and sinhalisation of almost all Government appointments to Administrative, Public, Police and Military services in later years, our Country had been led to such low levels. As long as this communal trend continues among our Politicians, there will be no survival for us.

    • 3
      1

      Vela,
      In 1956, The Sinhalese chose Sinhala Only, and fell into a Deep Well from which there was no Escape!
      The Tamils chose Tamil as the First language, but did not let go of English Completely!
      The Muslims chose English, causing Jealousy among the Sinhalese and Tamils, because they could Communicate with the rest of the World and Develop Economically!

      • 1
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        However the average Thamizh is still far more fluent in English than the average Muslim. Only rich Muslim kids largely living in Colombo/Kandy, study in the English medium . The rest largely study in Thamizh and some in Chingkallam

  • 3
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    Racism is Sinhala Lanka is Rampant.. If in doubt look at the efforts that have gone into addressing the issue of RECONCILIATION.
    1) Picking a candiate to run for president who has blood on his hands.
    2) Appoinment of Shavendra who has more blood on his hands
    3) Ditching and Dithering in dealing with those who are guily of Murder and Misappropriation.

    Gotha has recently applied for a stay of the Trials citing reasons that he will be immuned from being Prosecuted as a President. I have always said this and that is why Gotha is running for president and he must be reading my comments as he has seized upon this.
    Gotha if you are reading this just remember what happened to Al Bashir. There is an arrest warrant for him and he cannot go anywhere . You as a President will be a Liability with an arrest warrant. You cant even go to India as you will be arresed. Sinhala Lanka under you will be going through 5 yars of “VANAVSAM” . Spare the agony for Sinhala Lanka man . It is not worth it. Just one more thing in your application you vehemently deny that you are guilty. But you have admitted that you know the two people who are behind Lasanthas Murder. That is an admission of Guilt by not bringing those to book as a Defence Secretary. How can anyone trust you as a President. especially these so called women who you are trying to protect.

  • 0
    0

    Dr. Harees. Thank you for a rational analysis. At independence all communities accepted the Covenant entrenched as Section 29 in the Soulbury Constitution to unite as one.

    In 1956, with the Sinhala Only Bill the majority community violated the Covenant. The Tamil Community peacefully resisted it.
    In the 1972 Republican Constitution the Covenant was left out and no equivalent was introduced. The Tamils walked out and peacefully protested. In 1976 they formed a Resolution to state their rights. In the 1977 parliamentary elections and they got the mandate of the Tamil People. The 1977 riots was the response of the Majority Sinhala Buddhist. The 1978 constitution did not contain a Covenant. The Tamil Youths took up arms. The 1983 riots was the Jeyawardena’s Government’s response. The rest is our tragic history. There was a glimmer of hope in January 2015. But it is broken now. We are facing the start of the next cycle.
    We are still in a feudal social and political environment that existed before the European colonial era. It appears that 72 years of One Person One Vote in our ethnic/linguistic environment did not work.
    It is important for our our progressive thinkers to create an Autochthonous constitution that all communities can compromise. The current government’s 3-year attempt to get the peoples opinions obviously was a failure.

  • 1
    0

    The answer is a trial by “error”; to try to elect a new set of young politicians and get rid of the culture of impunity and bigotry of the old politicians “if possible”.
    The status quo is the other alternative. Wake up?

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