By Jehan Perera –
The inability of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to deliver his speech at the opening session of the Commonwealth Business Council in London last week was a replay of the scuttling of the President’s intention to address the Oxford Union last year. On that occasion there was strong manifestation of ill feeling and even hatred that apparently intimidated the organizers of the event into cancelling it as the last moment. There was reason for the government to have been aware of the possibility of disruption on this occasion too. The organizers would have been aware of the massive protests that the Tamil Diaspora had been able to organize during the last days of the war when they sought international intervention to stop the war.
On the other hand, it is also possible that the President was briefed regarding the risk he was taking, but decided to go ahead with the speech at the Commonwealth Business Council on the basis that on this occasion the President was visiting the United Kingdom on a state visit to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. By way of contrast, when he went to speak at the Oxford Union, he was going as a private citizen. It is therefore natural that the members of the Sri Lankan government believed that the British government would take additional precautions against a recurrence of that ugly event. It was a failure on the part of those tasked with protecting the President from the humiliation of having his speech cancelled at the last minute.
Despite the fact that the President could not deliver his speech at the Commonwealth Business Council he was able to attend the Queen’s official jubilee celebration which was, by far, the more important event. Members of the Tamil Diaspora were waiting to disrupt his entry into the site of the celebration. But the President showed flexibility in getting into a British police vehicle rather than seeking entry in his own official limousine which would have been recognizable to the demonstrators. He did not stand on his dignity and insist on entering the venue in his own vehicle with the Sri Lanka flag flying high. In doing so, the President showed his pragmatic side which is to do what is necessary to sort out a problem. Photographs showed the Queen graciously greeting the President.
The confrontation between the Tamil Diaspora and the President in London may suggest a scale of ill feeling and virulent hatred that will be impossible to heal or transform into constructive relations. However, the political dimension of this chasm needs to be noted. It is important not to misinterpret it as the evidence of a war between two nations or a conflict that cannot be transformed. In our own neigbourhood we have only to see how the conflict between the Sikhs and the Indian government that gave rise to similar Diaspora agitation has now been overcome by the resolution of the political dispute within India.
During a recent visit to Jaffna I happened to meet with a Diaspora family at Palali airport. Our flight back to Colombo had got delayed for a while. There was a young couple and an older person who seemed to be from the same family. When I found the name of the young man sounded as if it were Sinhalese I inquired from him where he was born. When he gave his hometown in the Deep South I asked him if he was Sinhalese to which he replied in the affirmative. He said he lived abroad and had married a Diaspora Tamil and had come to visit her hometown of Jaffna along with her father. It turned out that the notion we have in Sri Lanka that the Tamil Diaspora is monolithic and anti-Sinhalese is not the only reality.
The young man also informed me that the relationship between the second generation of Tamils and Sinhalese in the Diaspora was not generally a hostile or confrontational one. He said that in the West, notions of racism and nationalism were not encouraged and this also applied to Tamil and Sinhalese young people who grew up there. The second generation of the Diaspora has been educated with liberal and universal values. So by and large they interact positively with each other, and even get married to each other. However, he also said that the one thing that they avoid discussing is the political problem. The inability to solve the political problem is the failure of politicians, not of civil society.
The evidence of positive relations and the desire for such positive relations between the ethnic communities exists both out of Sri Lanka and within it too. It gives reason for hope that the basis for unity and joint problem-solving exists. What is lacking is the political leadership that shows the way forward to people. Most people want to interact with members of other communities and show them that they bear goodwill to them. They like to prove to themselves and to the world that they are not chauvinist or discriminate against others. These feelings are strengthened by religious teachings that stress universal values. No one is an outcaste by birth, remember you were once strangers in the land, the world is one family are some of those teachings that echo in the consciousness of the masses of Sri Lankan people.
Two years ago I was part of a small team of less than ten persons who began to set up inter religious groups in twelve districts of the country, half in the north and east, and half of them in other districts. It was slow and hard work at the beginning. We did not know the religious clergy in many of the districts and they did not know us, and so it was difficult to get them to come for meetings and to commit their precious time when their own religious duties took up so much of their time. It was discouraging to travel for hours to a distant district and find that only a handful had turned up for the meeting. But soon the value of those meetings spread by word of mouth. The religious clergy in a district who knew of each other, but had never had an opportunity to spend time with one another, now found that opportunity and began to value it.
Two years later there is a great deal of work that these inter religious groups have done together to improve their understanding of one another and of their religions. They have begun to understand the nature of the political problems that separates the ethnic communities and makes their political leaders see each other as opponents instead of as partners. So far the mutual acts of good will and assistance are at the micro level. Civil society groups which are usually small, and with limited resources, tend to act at the micro level. But they give a hint of what a more powerful entity, such as the government, could do at the macro level if it has the desire to be an agent of change. Governments have the capacity to act at the macro level in a way that civil society groups do not have.
Among the many stories of change that come from the two years of work, two of them stand out. In one case the army decided to move out of a high security zone. But when they withdrew, they were to leave behind a Buddhist shrine at which the soldiers had worshipped. There were concerns amongst the returning Tamil community that with the passage of time the shrine would be neglected, the jungle would overrun it, and that it may even be vandalized, as there was going to be no more Buddhists left to look after the shrine once the army withdrew. They feared that this could lead to misunderstanding and problems in the future. So the inter religious group met with the army commander of the area and explained the problem to him. The Buddhist monk in that group took the lead in this. The result was that the army agreed to take the shrine away with them when they withdrew.
A second example of a helpful intervention was during the scare caused by the so-called Grease Devils. In one area there was a major confrontation between the military and civilians. The inter-religious committee went as a delegation to the hospital where many civilians lay injured to sympathise with them. In addition the Buddhist monk amongst them who had good connections with the government and with the military took the matter up with senior officials to ensure that the problem did not escalate any further. The third example is the manner in which the inter-religious representatives of the twelve districts negotiated with each other regarding a statement that they wished to present to the entire group. They were conscious of both the need to be truthful with regard to their aspirations, as well as to temper what they said so that the entire group could accept it. Once again they showed, on a micro level, what is necessary to be done at the macro level by the large political actors.
Where the basic relationship is positive and there is willingness to deepen it, leadership can make a huge difference. Prior to our working with them, the religious clergy of different religions did not really work together, even though they knew of each other and bore no ill will towards each other. The missing element was leadership to bring them together and to keep them together. If small civil society organizations with so little power can achieve positive results on the ground in overcoming ethnic differences, we can only imagine what a government that gives leadership to inter-community reconciliation can achieve. In London, President Mahinda Rajapaksa showed pragmatism in getting into a British police vehicle to ensure that he achieved his objective of participating in the Queen’s jubilee celebration. If he shows this same pragmatism in providing leadership to overcome the ethnic conflict, the people will surely rally around him to ensure that he achieves this great objective of winning the peace after winning the war.