Moving from Nationalism to Multiculturalism: A Lake House Editorial Plea in Sirisena’s Voice

Daily News, 14 December 2015 … with emphases being the additions from The Editor, thuppahi who has also taken the liberty of dding a few bibliographical references from his own pen.

For the past 65 years, we have been talking a great deal about national unity. We talked amongst ourselves, in the media, at meetings and in legislative bodies. Yet, even with such a plethora of discussions, we still disagree over how national unity is best achieved, what it should look like, and precisely what it is that needs to be unified. We are always in question and, strangely, we have no shortage of answers – answers that are painfully polarized.

We often talk as if we have discovered the answer to our national question, but our tone of voice has a predictable, almost scripted, quality. Having rehearsed our lines, assumed our positions, and located our opponents, we are ready to perform. Some of us demand equal treatment of all citizens, regardless of their cultural, ethnic, racial, language, religious, gender, or other characteristics, saying Sri Lankan citizenship must be left undifferentiated, equal, and symmetrical.

Multi-cultural SL  independence-commemoration

In contrast, others demand forms of differentiated citizenship, whereby our differences are not only recognized but incorporated into the rules and procedures of the political system. Scripts like these are performed on high-profile political stages from Parliamentary politics to provincial government discussions and in numerous policy arenas. They shape the debate over the recognition of North (or North and East together), the parameters of Tamil peoples’ political autonomy, the contours of self-government, the scope of minority rights, and the under-representation of women and minorities in electoral politics.

The scripts change, of course, and their tone of voice varies, but the oppositions remain: equal versus differentiated citizenship, equal provinces versus asymmetrical federalism, citizens equal versus “citizens plus,” individual rights versus collective rights, impartial versus group-based representation, and so on. Our present political community is produced through the performance of these constitutive oppositions. Of course, such oppositions are hardly unique to Sri Lanka. They are common in other liberal democratic societies debating questions of citizenship and diversity.

Dualities are not exactly in fashion these days, for good reason. They generate limitations in our thinking and hinder us from pursuing more promising political paths. So it is easy enough to make the case for re-orienting Sri Lankan politics beyond the static options of equality or difference, individualism or collectivism, and so on.

Who would doubt that we, as a nation, would be better off if we could engage with one another in a less polarized manner? We cannot get “beyond” these oppositions to achieve national unity, however, despite our desire to do so. Indeed, this desire is a large part of the problem – or, depending on how one views it, the solution – because attempts to transcend the oppositional character of these debates tend to reinforce them. The national unity question that drives our conversation makes it futile, lost in the very terms of the quest. But to the extent that our dialogue continues, those that participate are at least united in their oppositions. This is the bind that ties.

Multicultural society:  If the majority of us can agree on a path to achieve national unity, it will eventually lead our country into a solid multi-cultural society. In such a society the different cultures are made inclusive, tolerated and accommodated, and these trends are institutionalized in legislation. Canada, Australia and other western countries, where multiculturalism is the national policy, respect religions, ethnicity and cultures of different communities and their cultural rights, while a secular law common to all protect their human rights. They are not allowed to have a legal system (e.g. Sharia law) or practices (e.g. animal sacrifices) that are contrary to the laws of the country.

Canada, for instance, has, a Multiculturalism Policy from which the plethora of new immigrant communities has benefited in more ways than one. For instance, I know of many Sri Lankans who own their own properties in salubrious neighbourhoods in Canadian Capitals. The key to that effort lay in the fact that all three levels of government – Federal, Provincial and Municipal – provided that immigrant community with the means of generating the revenues not only to purchase a substantial building but to continue to maintain their cultural identity in that city.

Power sharing: Since we gained independence 67 years ago, cultural and political discrimination in governance, the lack of equitable development policies, and failure to preserve and respect local and cultural knowledge has become more and more visible. During the years 2005-2014, democracy came to represent the “tyranny of the majority”, while a political culture premised on the notion that “might is right” became entrenched in the various regions of the island.

In the North and South, politicians who claimed to represent majority interests have frequently undermined the rights of local minorities. Sri Lanka gradually became to be recognized by the outside world as a country no longer upholding the true sign of social democracy. The Government was not able to protect the vulnerable and those with the least access to power.

The need of the hour is for power sharing to promote trust building and co-existence between the island’s diverse communities in order to forge a common future and preserve human life. Since the decades-old conflict is now history and, therefore, Sri Lanka now has an ideal opportunity to charter a new course.

Transformation:  To realize this aspiration, the consensus and support of the citizens are required. President Maithripala Sirisena himself cannot change the culture of a nation. Were he to have his priorities passed more quickly, he would have to employ tough hardball politics. But for President Sirisena, culture should trump politics. He would rather be true to his core values than to achieve his campaign promises disrespectfully. He is a compromiser. He wants Sri Lanka to be united again, seeking democracy, justice, progress, and prosperity. But to carry out his agenda, he must favour new policies, and anything new is likely to be opposed. His communitarian agenda involves using government to help set a context for private sector risk-taking and community initiative.

Together with the PM, President Sirisena has brought a profound philosophy into the very centre of power. He hopes that Sri Lanka will become more multicultural. He reaches out to foreign countries, hoping to win them over with his seductive friendliness. He extends his hand to the opposition parties, despite their contrary behaviour, because of his inclusiveness. In contrast with his predecessor’s unwillingness to admit a mistake, he freely does so in a humble yet charismatic manner. Although supporters have been disappointed that he has refrained from attacking his opponents, he is unwilling to do so because being respectful is central to his personality; he expects others to disagree without being disagreeable.

Rather than getting his way by strong-arming those who have stood in his way, he prefers a non-confrontational approach to bridge differences. His bipartisanship is based on a view that government should both provide harmony for the people and be conducted in a harmonious manner. There is nothing more baffling about President Sirisena than his seeming inability to show emotion.

Transforming Sri Lanka into a truly multicultural country should not be just a dream. This type of a cultural change will take time and cannot be effected with just smiles and speeches. We must vote out politicians who are arrogant, disrespectful, confrontational, exclusivist, conflict-oriented, greedy, volatile, unprincipled, and seek to impose their ideologies on others.

On that day, politicians in Colombo and Jaffna may change their mind-set into working together in a spirit of communitarian pragmatism despite fundamental differences.



Anura Gunasekera: “Of Traitors and Patriots,” with Preamble from Michael Roberts, 8 February 2010,

Michael Roberts, with Anne Abayasekera: How does one BECOME Sinhalese or Tamil in Sentiment? 14 March 2010,

Michael Roberts: “Roadblocks in the Path of Reconciliation in Lanka: Ideological Cancers within the Sinhala Universe,” 13 May 2014,

Michael Roberts: Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist Failures in comprehending the Kandyan Period of Lankan History,” 2 June 2014, … a reprint

PLUS National Anthem in Sinhala and Tamil 4th February 1949, March 21, 2015  independence-commemoration



…. and to this event in New Zealand =

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Filed under cultural transmission, democratic measures, heritage, historical interpretation, plural society, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, tolerance, world affairs

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