By Jehan Perera –
The national social integration policy of the government is the latest in its multi-pronged effort to affirm and reaffirm its commitment to improvement in practices of governance and making Sri Lanka the home of all Sri Lankans. It comes at a time when the flight of boat people from Sri Lanka to Western countries has reached a level that is attracting international media attention that is not complimentary to the country. Less visible is the brain drain that is depleting the country of its best human resources as I discovered over the weekend to my dismay when I rang up to make an urgent appointment with my doctor. The launch of the National Policy Framework for Social Integration that took place at the President’s House in Temple Trees follows the report of the Lessons Learn and Reconciliation Commission which was validated by the UN Human Rights Council in March and the National Human Rights Action Plan to be submitted at its forthcoming meeting in November. It was also significant that the launch took place on July 16, exactly a week before the anniversary of the anti-Tamil pogrom that commenced on July 23, 1983 that spelled the disintegration of a democratic and plural society.
The policy on social integration was prepared under the auspices of the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration with technical backing from the German government. The policy framework document states that it intends to “safeguard fundamental and human rights and promote social and legal protection and foster cohesion, harmony and inclusiveness through the assurance of socio-economic well being and social justice.” The government could not have selected a more appropriate person than Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, to lead the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration and to promote social integration amongst the diverse components of the Sri Lankan population. As a left-oriented politician with a Marxist background, Minister Nanayakkara has been one of Sri Lanka’s most respected proponents of universalistic and people-centred thinking that transcend existing social and political structures.
Those who aim for conflict resolution in Sri Lanka need to take into consideration the fact that successive governments, including the present one, have encountered seemingly insuperable difficulties when it comes to addressing ethnic issues. Therefore an over-concentrated focus on the ethnic conflict has not been a recipe for political success or even for obtaining widespread public support. It has instead tended to exacerbate ethnic polarization still further, whereby any solution that is proposed to the specific problems of the ethnic minorities is perceived to be detrimental to the interests of the ethnic majority. An alternative approach would be to aim to remedy problems that are common to all communities, and not only to the ethnic minorities. Such an approach would identify the discriminatory practices that impact negatively upon some members of all ethnic communities, be they religious, economic, class or caste, and deal with them in a comprehensive manner.
The rationale behind the National Policy Framework for Social Integration is to achieve the goal of social integration by “the inclusion of all citizens through equal opportunities and equal access to services such as education, health care, employment, social protection and social security, judicial, economic, political and cultural activities, etc.” This policy framework is comprehensive in its scope. It identifies areas of law and political practice, wherein which social exclusion and marginalization occur. If the highways and airports being constructed at great cost in different parts of the country do not serve the people in whose midst they now exist, there is an increase in the prospects for potential conflict. Those who are excluded and marginalized, and who cannot reap the fruits of the government’s developmental policies, are more likely to rise in revolt against the prevailing order, whether they live in the north or south.
The fact that the government wants to be seen as taking the social integration policy seriously was evident at the launch of the policy document. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was present on the occasion and at least over a thousand if not more invitees gathered in the auditorium of the Presidential office complex in Temple Trees. The manner in which this once staid place has been transformed into a hive of activity and political education was worth witnessing. Temple Trees has been streamlined to accommodate a couple of thousands of people with ease. The hall in which the launching ceremony took place was in the nature of a temporary construction but it had all the comforts of a conference hall, with good air conditioning and a buffet style meal arrangement.
During the course of the event President Rajapaksa demonstrated a great deal of affection and trust in Minister Nanayakkara. This was readily apparent in the warm and familiar words he directed towards the Minister who has been his long time friend and colleague. There was a time when they both campaigned for human rights together in Geneva, and lobbied with the international human rights community, and carried case studies and analyses of human rights violations by governments to which they were opposed. While making his speech, the President also made a plea that all communities should work together in all that they did. He cautioned that in this time of provincial elections there was a possibility of some politicians playing to narrow communal sentiment and seeking to rouse up base feelings of ethnic nationalism, which is also referred to as communalism.
The President’s reference to inter-community working together and to the resort to ethnic nationalism to win votes at elections is significant. Prior to the President’s successes at the Presidential Elections in 2005 and 2009, there was a belief held by many political analysts and even hard-headed politicians that no one could win the Presidency without the support of the ethnic minorities. As a result the ethnic minority political parties became among the strongest supporters of the Presidential system of government, as they felt that any President would have to be beholden to them for winning the elections. However, President Rajapaksa dispelled the notion that the ethnic minority vote was decisive in winning a presidential election by winning almost solely on the support of the ethnic majority. He was able to mobilize Sinhalese nationalism to an extent that no other politician had.
Sitting in the audience amongst the thousand plus who had come from all parts of the country for this momentous event, I could feel myself being mesmerized by the warmth radiated by the President, his charismatic presence and his liberal use of words in which he appeared to be distancing himself from those who used ethnic nationalism at elections. It was ironic that as a practitioner of the most extreme form of centralization of power, the President was speaking that all communities should be working together. It is reasonable to believe that if people of all communities are to work together, they also need to decide together, which is what the concept of “power sharing” is all about. This is what the government has been balking at doing, ever since it crushed the LTTE and militarily defeated the main instrument of Tamil ethnic nationalism. It became clear that the President has the right vision, but he needs the right mechanism to translate words and vision into reality and regain what the country lost so starkly on July 23, 1983.
The agenda of the launch of the social integration policy had the singing of the national anthem at its end. While listening to the President speak, I wondered whether the anthem would be sung in one language as insisted by the government after the war victory, or in both languages as recommended by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. At a Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebration in April organized by the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, I had been present at a school in Ratnapura, the electorate of Minister Nanayakkara where the national anthem was sung in both languages in the presence of the Minister. I found it a moving experience of unity and togetherness. However, on this occasion, at the President’s House and with the President in attendance, any such hopeful expectation was not realized when the national anthem was sung in Sinhala only. Just as in the case of the LLRC recommendations, civil society needs to find what it can do and seek to implement whatever it can from the social integration policy, preferably in partnership with the government but by itself if necessary. The national anthem can be sung in both languages by Rotary clubs, Lions clubs, schools and at sports events as just one symbolic affirmation of social integration. No doubt civil society organisations have only a limited role to play in the remaking of the polity, which at best is complementary, supplementary and catalytic. But they can demonstrate in their own practice, and in a micro manner, that what civil society believes to be preferable is also possible in the national polity.