Why Sri Lanka should embrace its minorities as it rebuilds

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Thursday, June 4th, 2009
 By Ilica Malkanthi Karunaratne.

"The strife is o’er, the battle done’; these words from a favourite hymn echo again and again in my mind. Is the strife really over? Are we really free to travel the roads and to have freedom of expression?

It is my belief that the way to national unity is not through hordes of unruly people on roads shouting filth against communities and individuals or through pasting insulting posters of political opponents. This is the time to win hearts and influence people by meaningful deeds and not by mere words. We have to stop thinking that every Tamil is an LTTE supporter or that other minority communities are not Sri Lankan. This country belongs to us all not only to Sinhala Buddhists. We have to build up an atmosphere where any Sri Lankan can occupy the highest office in the land like Obama did in the US.

To begin with; Sinhala and Tamil New Year should be renamed National New Year. Name boards of roads should be in all three languages, official letters from government departments should be in all three languages. Racist groups; particularly those within the government should be barred from making racist statements and from making any remarks which incite hatred between ethnic groups. They continue to make irresponsible statements far beyond subjects within their own purview.

Children starting from the kindergarten should not be separated into classes according to race. Years of war have made us lag behind the rest of the world in a myriad spheres. If we want to move alongside if not ahead there are changes which have to be made. The time to do this is now while war euphoria is still alive. It is up to the majority to be magnanimous; whether we like it or not, English is an international language and can be the unifying one. Sinhala is spoken only in Sri Lanka and predictions by authorities on the subject are that it will die out in a couple of decades. There is something radically wrong with our education system when we insist on Sinhala only in education and when young people seek jobs, they fail in their attempts due to a lack of knowledge of English. The task ahead is immense, time consuming and needs the support of everyone; ridiculing Opposition parliamentarians is not the answer as they are needed on the road to recovery. Thousands of disabled and injured soldiers need rehabilitation and occupation. The same attention has to given to the IDPs. Here I would like to quote from a statement made by The Anglican Bishop of Colombo, The Rt Rev Duleep Chickera. I am very proud as an Anglican that he has not lost his voice like some others who are like tame poodles; deaf and blind when lies are said about any faith.

“Consequently we require a visible shift from sympathy for the IDPs to an affirmation of their rights and dignity as Sri Lankans. These persons cannot lose their rights as Sri Lankans because they were trapped by the LTTE in the Vanni. In fact, they crossed over at great risk in a courageous demonstration of their right to movement as Sri Lankans, and this must be recognized. Also the travails of war and displacement that prevents them from producing documentary evidence does not make them any less Sri Lankan than the rest of us. But if a lasting solution to our larger and more tragic conflict is ever to be reached we need to engage in two more crucial shifts. The first is to overcome the tendency to see ghosts of the LTTE in every Tamil, If not an entire community will be held under surveillance for the rest of their lives, some of whom will inevitably be drawn into the next Tamil militant resurgence. The second is the need for a just and speedy political response to the grievances of the Tamil people. These grievances must be heard and can best be articulated by a cross section of independent Tamil leadership.”

Educational programmes in schools and in the electronic media would do much to inspire children and to change attitudes in those with a racist outlook. I was visibly shocked recently when an educated young woman commenting on the arson attack on a TV station commented that it didn’t matter as the station was pro tamil. This kind of attitude among those who should know better will only hinder progress and unity and has to be changed. Assaults, attacks, murders and abductions of journalists have to stop if we want to be recognized as a civilized nation. Unsolved murders have to be solved forthwith. The queues for visa’s have increased during this past week. This is not a good sign as it shows a sense of insecurity even after the war victory

We must take a look at Singapore which is an excellent example. It was the vision of one man, Lee Kuan Yew who relentlessly pursued his objective till he succeeded in converting his dream into reality. Singapore is the best example of a multi racial society of equal citizens. There, a person’s contribution is recognized and rewarded on merit, regardless of race, culture, language or religion. It reminds us all what a cohesive multi racial society can achieve. Lee Kuan Yew undoubtedly had the decisiveness and political support to override grassroots prejudice to advance his country’s interests. This is the time that those in power can make these changes here before it is too late. Meritocracy above all else must be the name of the game.

Perhaps our tragedy has been that we have had too few Lee Kuan Yews and too many ‘I Con Yu’s’!