By Dinesh Dodamgoda –
During her ten-day mission to Sri Lanka, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, made remarks on SL and its ‘selected cultural minorities’. Those remarks stand against the principle of Pluralism and thus, will not contribute to build sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.
Rita Izsák-Ndiaye said that the SL government “must put in place some urgent, important and concrete measures to clearly demonstrate its political will and commitment to better protect the dignity, identity, equality and right to participation in all walks of life of Sri Lanka’s minorities”.
She further stated, “Efforts by the Government to implement good and inclusive governance must include guarantees that minorities become part of decision-making processes and have a place in state- and provincial administration. Consultations with minority groups on issues affecting them should be regular, institutionalized and systematized.”
Her statement that was supported by her visits to selected cultural communities (as she visited and emphasised on Sri Lankan and Up-Country Tamils, Muslims, Hindus, Burghers, Christians, Telugus, Veddas, Malays, and Sri Lankan Africans) indicates that she concerns about ethnic and some other cultural minorities. Her position, therefore, intends to encourage the SL government to focus on those and similar kind of selected cultural communities as special groups of people that should be politically privileged. Rita Izsák-Ndiaye’s position itself and her emphasise on adopting an institutionalized approach towards selected cultural-minorities are manifestations of either Minoritarianism directly or Majoritarianism indirectly. Thus, as I will demonstrate, her statement and the presumption behind the statement discourage the application of Pluralism in SL government’s efforts to find a sustainable solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka.
The Fundamental Error
The fundamental error of Rita Izsák-Ndiaye is that she encourages the government to broaden up and institutionalise the privileged representation of selected cultural communities. Her approach limits the application of Pluralism as it discriminates non-cultural communities such as labourers, farmers, consumers, fishermen, graduates, non-graduates, urban communities, rural communities, etc. Rita Izsák-Ndiaye’s presumption behind her adopted position further indicates that she even does not consider non-cultural communities of which some of the groups are minorities are also communities that she is missioned to protect (This is because she may be tasked to embark on her mission with a typical UN mandate!).
This fundamental error is made not only by Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, yet by most of us when dealing with the society. We, unintentionally or intentionally, either try to politically privilege or discriminate Minorities or Majorities in the cultural communities, especially when we pay attention to divided societies that based on cultural cleavages such as Ethnicity or Religion. The danger in this approach is that as the constructivists’ view, “often the politicization of ethnic identities is endogenous to the political process and in the absence of political-institutional constraints identities tend to be more fluid”. Therefore, politicised or politically privileged ethnic or religious groups tend to subsume all other groups and communities and often it creates “pathological situations” as it was in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The Sri Lankan Experience
Since the Independence the ethnicity and the religion over and over again dominated SL’s political discourse and the agenda. In 1956, Bandaranayke’s ‘Sinhala language only’ policy came to the forefront of politics whilst the Minority Tamil community leaders demanded for ethno-federalism. Thereafter, in 1972, the new constitution privileged Buddhism over other religions and furthermore, discriminated minority University students by adopting a standardisation policy on the basis of ethnicity for University entrance whilst the Tamil youths, including Velipille Piribaharan, the deceased leader of the LTTE, stood and started a bloody civil war against the Majority rule. Even after 1978 and during the President J. R. Jayewardene’s era, Sinhala-Buddhism played the Majority role in politics whilst the Tamils opposed to it violently. Still the country maintains the same majority-minority division and the agenda settings in politics and interestingly, international representatives like Rita Izsák-Ndiaye is also willing to endorse and encourage the existing ethno-religious cleavage that fuels the Ethnic Civil War which consumed thousands of humans in Sri Lanka.
As said, the above described trend privileged ethnicity and religion over other identities such as non-cultural identities in politics in SL. The SL is a country that has a society with multiple and often cross-cutting identities. For example, a person in SL can and with regard to non-cultural identities be a ‘labourer’ who is a part-time ‘farmer’ in a ‘rural’ village. Therefore, he simultaneously maintains at least three multiple and cross-cutting non-cultural identities, namely a labourer, farmer and a rural community member. At the same time he can have a cultural identity and be a Tamil-Buddhist as there are 22,254 Tamil Buddhists (another cultural minority) and eleven Tamil Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka.
However, the existing approach in Sri Lanka and the approach proposed by Rita Izsák-Ndiaye that based on ethno-religious cleavages suggest only to focus on and privilege the person’s cultural or ethno-religious identity and to ignore rest of the identities he has. Therefore, the adopted approach does not appreciate multiple and cross-cutting identities that exist in SL. Since the cultural identities such as ethno-religious identities are endogenous to the political process and in the absence of political-institutional constraints identities tend to be more fluid, they subsume all other identities in SL and dominate them. This trend is against the principles of Pluralism and, in practice, discourages socio-political entities to encourage non-cultural identities in individual, group and the state (or even international) levels.
This pathological trend was echoed in the SL Prime Minister’s statement in which he stated that Buddhism would be given the foremost place in Sri Lanka’s new Constitutions as well. As I observed in my previous article, this is a manifestation of Majoritarianism, one of the main causes of the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. Similarly, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye’s statement, on the other hand, encourages Minoritarianism, again one of the main causes (at least in its perceived forms) of the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. Therefore, since the Majoritarianism and the Minoritarianism contributes to the ethnic problem in SL, the SL Prime Minister’s and Rita Izsák-Ndiaye’s theoretical and policy oriented positions do not support and encourage Pluralism in SL. Hence, both of them stand against building a harmonised society in Sri Lanka and their positions are counterproductive in achieving sustainable peace in SL.
Lack of Knowledge and Awareness:
According to her statement, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye thinks that the “SL Government must implement good and inclusive governance to include guarantees that minorities become part of decision-making processes and have a place in state- and provincial administration”. However, this is against all the principles of Westminster democracy. How can she ask a government to privilege a Minority will without considering the Majority’s will?
According to the Westminster political principles that Sri Lanka affirms, SL appreciates the Majorities will. However, when it comes to the will of cultural communities such as ethnics and religious, the government of SL has no other option, yet to accept the Sinhala-Buddhist majority’s will. So, how could Rita Izsák-Ndiaye force the SL government to privilege Minorities and go against decades old principles of Westminster? She cannot. Although the SL government includes the Minorities when taking political decisions, in reality, the Majority rules.
However, the SL admired Westminster approach did more harm to her citizens than good it has done. Majoritarianism and, on the other hand, perceived Minoritarianism killed more than hundred thousand of humans during the Civil War in SL. Hence, the country needs an approach that go beyond Minoritarianism and Majoritarianism (and may be as well as the Westminster).
Minoritarianism or Majoritarianism are not Solutions
However, it is not the counter-Westminster approach that proposed by Rita Izsák-Ndiaye that would solve problems in SL. Why?
As I said, the Westminster approach in terms of privileging the country’s ethnic and religious majority has done more harm than good to SL as the ethnic-civil war killed more than hundred thousand humans in SL. Therefore, either privileging the Majority or discriminating the Minority or vice versa create the same effect and contribute to the same harm. Hence, the country needs an approach that goes beyond privileging cultural Majorities or Minorities. It is to appreciate the Sri Lankan societal reality that values citizens of SL who have multiple and cross-cutting identities.
Therefore, an appropriate approach should be based on Pluralism that would include non-cultural identities as well. However, as noted, the ethnic and religious euphoria has killed thousands of humans in SL and millions of lives in all over the world. Hence, as the constructivists view, “often the politicization of ethnic identities is endogenous to the political process and in the absence of political-institutional constraints identities tend to be more fluid”. Therefore, politicised or politically privileged ethnic or religious groups tend to subsume all other groups and communities and often it creates “pathological situations” as it was in Yugoslavia and Rwanda (or even in SL). Hence, we must think out of the box to find a sustainable solution and have to consider the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, is also not a solution, yet a part of the problem.
 See, Philip G. Roeder (2012) Power dividing: The multiple-majorities approach in Stefan Wolf & Christalla Yakinthou (ed.) Conflict Management in Divided Societies: Theories and Practice, Routledge: London, p. 71.
 See, Philip G. Roeder (2012) (op cit.)