Power-sharing vital: Personal exhortations insufficient for multi-ethnic victory

Jehan Perera, in the Island, 5 April 2011

 Pic from Island, 5 April 2011

Sri Lanka’s loss to India in the finals of the World Cup cricket tournament in Mumbai was a big disappointment to the country’s cricket fans that would comprise the vast majority of its population.  But it was not unexpected, even as victory was hoped for as within reach.  India’s cricket team is known to be strong and it has a population that is more than 50 times larger than Sri Lanka’s from which to draw its talent.  The Sri Lankan team also fought to the end to make it a thrilling contest worthy of a world final. The crowds that thronged Galle Face Green to witness the action in Mumbai on giant screens in the public park streamed to their homes dejected at its conclusion.

Pic from Sunday Observer, 3 April 2011

The disappointment would have been much greater to the members of the Sri Lankan cricket team who had done so well to come to the final of the World Cup tournament. They overcame other great cricket playing nations on the way, but the challenge in India was just too much.  The cricket pitch and the roaring crowd in Mumbai favoured the Indian hosts. But the Sri Lankan team had their country’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the stands cheering them all the way.  The President knew where the heart of his nation was and was there with them.

Prior to the finals, President Rajapaksa urged the Sri Lankan cricketers to victory and gave them a fitting reason to do so.  At the World Cup final in Mumbai, playing his last international game for his country was Sri Lanka’s record breaking bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan. For close on two decades, Muralitharan had given his best for his country and the President’s exhortation was to honour his departure by winning cricket’s greatest trophy, the World Cup. Although victory in that final was not to be, the President’s exhortation would be given as evidence of his equal treatment of all Sri Lankans, including its ethnic minorities. 

Denying problems

The morning of the World Cup final, I happened to meet a retired senior public servant at a supermarket. He said that many years ago, during the time of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, he had accompanied a government minister to the north.  As the war was raging, they had to travel by helicopter and not by road.  While they were flying over the war-stricken land, the minister had ventured the opinion that the Tamil people had no special problems.  My friend had replied that if the minister could not see the problem, he could not solve the problem.

My friend’s advice about getting out of this trap of wrong perception was to follow the Buddha’s teachings.  He said that the story of Kisa Gothami was instructive in this regard.  A woman who had just lost her child and was crazed by the sorrow of her loss came to the Buddha. She wanted him to restore life to her child. She found for herself the truth when she followed the Buddha’s request, which was to bring back to him a few mustard seeds from a house that had seen no death. This is why freedom of movement, freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are so important to human life. They enable people to find out for themselves the truth. 

Unfortunately, post-war Sri Lanka has become a place in which these freedoms are being restricted. Those who say there is an unresolved ethnic problem when leaders of government say there is none are labeled as traitors, attacked in the media and deemed fit for criminal investigation. Media persons are intimidated because they know that if they cross a line, they will be subjected to persecution. There has been a general culture of impunity with regard to attacks on the independent or pro-opposition media. The recent arrest of an editor on seemingly implausible charges of conspiring to burn his own media institution to discredit the government, and threatening violence against relatives of the main suspect arrested by the police (on a complaint by the main suspect’s relatives) is an example. 

Presidential redefinitions

Those in Sri Lanka who deny that there is an ethnic conflict are legion. Many of them would point to the country’s cricket team as an example of ethnic harmony at work, especially the presence in the team of Muttiah Muralitharan. It is a microcosm of what we should be and ought to be – a multi ethnic group based on merit and performance and working together successfully as a team. Shortly after the end of the three decade long war President Rajapaksa gave expression to this popular sentiment with a pithy statement. He said that in Sri Lanka there were no minorities, there were only those who loved the country, who were the great majority, and those who did not love the country, who were a minority.

However, two years after the war’s end, there is evidence that not all is well in terms of inter-ethnic relations and representation in the country. At the recently concluded local government elections a pattern that keeps recurring showed itself again. Although the government won convincingly in most parts of the country, in the north of the country in which there is a Tamil majority, it lost. The process of rebuilding the war-affected parts of the north and east is not taking place at the expected pace, which may be why the government is not getting Tamil votes.   There is also the unresolved issue of power sharing, where decisions regarding the country’s policies are made collectively by representatives of the main ethnic communities, and not simply by the majority community.

When Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996, the war between the LTTE and government was taking place on a major scale in the north and east of the country. In 2007, when Sri Lanka reached the final for the second time and faced Australia, the LTTE carried out its first air attack on Colombo, dropping bombs on the city while cricket lovers were glued to the game on television. This time it was different.  As government spokespersons repeatedly said, the defeat of the LTTE had permitted the World Cup matches to be played in Sri Lanka without any hindrance. With the end of the war, power sharing and greater multi ethnic representation in governance is necessary to truly bring back the north and east into the mainstream, and to draw on the untapped pool of talent in that part of the country.

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Filed under historical interpretation, life stories, power sharing, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, welfare & philanthophy

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