For Sri Lanka: follow Coomaraswamy and Kadirgamar and consolidate the Middle Ground in Sri Lanka

Raj Gonsalkorale & an Anonymous Tamil Moderate, courtesy of Asian Tribune

This article is about suggestions made by a moderate member of the Tamil Diaspora for a political solution in Sri Lanka. The person concerned is a professional and someone who loathes the extremist elements within the Diaspora as much as he loathes similar elements within the Sinhala community.

national unity convention april 2014  Pic from National Unity Convention, April 2014

He opines that extremism is contagious and breeds competition to outdo each other and develop contempt of each other, leaving moderates in a helpless situation to have their voices heard. He says that when political leaders on both sides do not show leadership to give voice to the moderates, they end up being held captive by the extremists and their lack of will and honest intention has led to the impasse that one continues to witnesses in Sri Lanka. In his words, he states he is a great believer that in the end it is the intention (or that beautiful Sinhala word – ‘Chetanawa’) that counts. If that ‘Chetanawa’ is enforcing an exclusive Sinhala Buddhist identity, it is bound to fail, .not through the ‘betrayal’ / ‘conspiracy’ of the Tamil Diaspora or the famous ‘Batahira Kumanthranaya’, but as that is the natural order of things in this world.”

Radhika KumaraswamyIn the context of what this Tamil Diaspora moderate has stated, it is appropriate to quote some extracts of an article written by Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy in Groundviews on the 14th of May 2014. She has lamented very poignantly about how things could have been five years after the war, rather what they in fact are, and she says “something is amiss. Something has gone terribly wrong. We have lost something precious- perhaps it is our soul”.

While being critical of the President and the government on several fronts, she has been even more scathing about the attitude and actions of Tamil leadership. She states that as for the Tamil community, those whose hands are full of blood and who justified all the massacres, machinations and assassinations of the LTTE are now strutting the corridors of European Parliaments, the US Congress and UN institutions in Geneva and New York as “human rights activists”.

The TNA that raised so much hope among Tamils when it was elected to the provincial councils refuses to break with the past and continues with rhetoric that now sounds so terribly out of date, like a broken record stuck sometime in the 1970’s- though the fact that they are deprived of power and money must be frustrating. The rest of us Tamils have become sullen as we have been told to keep our mouths shut- an uncle of mine, every time he meets me signals that I should zip my mouth!”

Rather than commenting on Dr Coomaraswamy’s contentions as it is best that readers come to their own conclusions on them, it is important however to accept that there is an impasse in regard to moving towards a political solution five years after the end of the war. One could conclude that the parties who should be giving life to a discussion on a political solution are either unwilling to do so on their own volition or because they are being held back by others or as the moderate Tamil Diaspora professional says, there is a lack of serious intention or true “chetanawa”.

Dr Coomaraswamy contextualizes this in a way by implying that the impasse and the current state of affairs is because “something is amiss. Something has gone terribly wrong. We have lost something precious- perhaps it is our soul”.

Lakshman Kadirgamar--en-wikipedea Lakshman Kadirgamar who was assassinated by the LTTE prior to the 2006 elections —Pix from en.Wikipedia

No doubt something is missing. There is a leadership vacuum amongst all political parties, religious and civil society leadership in Sri Lanka to look at this issue in perspective and attempt to find some middle ground to identify key issues that are less contentious and which can kick start discussions and consensus building. More contentious issues are brought to the forefront for political reasons leaving what is possible to be done, not done. With this backdrop, it is very interesting to consider the point of view of a moderate Tamil who seeks equality and dignity for Tamils within a political and administrative structure that is far removed from what some others within the Diaspora and many within the TNA are seeking.

The contours articulated by this person (in his own words) are as follows

1. Constitutional acknowledgement that the whole of Sri Lanka is the traditional homeland of its entire people and no one is constitutionally superior to the other.

2. Acknowledge the fact that many civilians – perhaps in large numbers, died in the final battle and a memorial built that can be the focus of NATIONAL (not just Tamils or Sinhalese or Muslims only) grief and nation building. It must be built it Kilinochchi or Vavuniya and it should use visible symbols that represent all communities as what King Dutugemunu did after he defeated King Elara. Tamils should not have to go to Tanjore in Tamil Nadu to commemorate their kith and kin who died in the war, if we are serious in our request that Tamils should be loyal to Sri Lanka and not to India, as is the case now

3. Strict implementation of the trilingual policies begun by this government.

4. Confront the supremacist ideology (also called Jathika chintanaya) with equal force/vigor with which the LTTE was confronted and defeated.

5. Declare Thiruketheeswaram (Mannar), Thirukoneswaram (Trinco), Muneeswaram (Chilaw), Naguleswaram (KKS) and Kathirgamam (Katharagama) as ancient Hindu shrines and develop/protect them as such for the sake of ALL people in the country. Hinduism and Buddhism are two sides of the same coin, and promoting that ideology at a grass-root level would advance reconciliation.

6. Review all school textbooks, Sinhala and Tamil to ensure that history is not presented in a way that makes one or more communities as foreigners/invaders. Vijaya, and Ravana before him, could be described as some of the first invaders and doing so that would not help the reconciliation process.

7. Administrative de-centralization at a provincial level

8. The post of PM should be alternated between people of different ethnicities

9. Second chamber with equal representation for all communities to review legislation, especially those that can affect communal relationships

10. National & independent police/judicial service commissions

11. Actively seek and recruit Tamils/Muslims who are capable of confronting the separatist ideology and defending the SL interest at international forums. Kathirgamar was the best example. Use the National list to bring such people as Sumanthiran/Vigneswaran, persons of high caliber credentials and acceptance within the Tamil community into major frontline cabinet positions

There are several enlightening factors of significance that have been outlined here. Firstly, the broad basing of the “homeland” concept. While this might be anathema to some Tamils, it is a welcome approach that would facilitate Tamils and Sinhalese to reach out to each other. It is a key plank that would remove suspicion, mistrust and other barriers between the two communities.

Secondly, the broad basing of the commemoration of those who died during the 30 year armed conflict, (especially the annual military event conducted by the government although the Diaspora member does not refer directly to this) to include ALL citizens who died. The writer would like to add here that as he had suggested in an article in the Asian Tribune some two years ago, the annual “victory” day celebration should also include a day of religious observances to remember all those who died and to bless the country for its liberation from the yolk of terrorism, rather than only celebrating it with a Military event. Most ordinary folks amongst all communities who suffered and who would rejoice their freedom, would be able to identify with religious events rather than with Military events.

Equal recognition of the Hindu religion by the State would be a huge fillip for the Hindu community, considering Buddhist temples (and ipso facto most Buddhists) already do this everywhere in Sri Lanka. Besides this, Sri Lanka should apply for UNESCO recognition of the Hindu temples mentioned due to their historical, religious and cultural significance. After all, Buddha himself was a Hindu by birth.

Administrative and NOT political devolution to provinces is a major point made here. This is a very significant shift in ideology which can move reconciliation forward as it removes a major barrier that is hindering reconciliation.

Administrative devolution recognizes the united and unitary nature of the political structure of the country whereas political devolution impacts on the unitary nature of the structure, something unacceptable to the Sinhala community.

This, combined with greater power sharing at the Centre to provide better and more effective guarantees for minority rights through a second chamber and to enable minorities to contribute in equal measure, as equals, to political decision making of the country, would advance the reconciliation process.

Finally, the importance of symbolism in a country where minority mindsets are negatively fuelled by the lack of such symbolism is a very valid point that should be considered. This writer suggested in a previous Asian Tribune article that the current governing party with their two thirds majority should introduce a constitutional amendment to appoint two Vice Presidents, one each from the Tamil and Muslim communities.

While in the current circumstances, one does not expect these positions to wield much power, they could have been assigned specific responsibilities to promote reconciliation and harmony and the symbolism would have been very tangible.

The ability of political leaders to be as trilingual as possible is another significant symbolic measure. Unfortunately, besides the President, no Sinhala leader in the government or the Opposition is trilingual, or at least be able to speak some Tamil and understand some Tamil.

Although Buddhism is not just for the Sinhalese, no Buddhist priest is known to be able to preach a sermon in Tamil or speak to a Tamil person in Tamil, leaving no doubt in the minds of Tamils that there is Sinhala supremacy in Sri Lanka when it comes to Buddhism and a Tamil would have to learn Sinhala in order to understand Buddhism.

There is unfortunately not much hope for genuine reconciliation unless there is movement towards the middle ground by all stakeholders to this process. These stakeholders are not just politicians and must necessarily include religious and civil society leaders. In particular, the most influential segment of this, the Buddhist clergy who are capable of positively influencing over 70% of the population, should play a leading role to demonstrate they are true followers of Buddha himself who did not recognize any type of division amongst communities based on religion, ethnicity, caste or wealth.

Politicians are animals of the constituencies they represent from whom they draw votes to stay in power. The constituencies rather than the politicians determine how politicians behave and they respond to constituency politics in order to remain in power. This should not be so, but it is so. Political leaders should influence constituency behavior and not the other way around. That would be true leadership.

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