Heading back home to Sri Lanka from a recent overseas trip, I happened to find myself seated to a very chatty gentleman on the aircraft. He told me he was from Israel and was visiting Sri Lanka for the first time. He had lots of questions for me which I tried to answer helpfully. I had just one for him – “Why Sri Lanka?” He looked at me almost scornfully as he proclaimed., “It is the safest place in Asia at the moment”. In one line, he summarized the current situation in the country.
I was not listening as he went on extolling the virtues of its pristine beauty and other delights. I was thinking… True. In an uncanny twist of irony, from being entrapped in a treacherous vortex of terrorism acts, random bombings, destruction and mayhem, here we were enjoying peace at long last. But another more ominous thought also crossed my mind – were we so accustomed to turbulent times that we were actually uneasy with peace? Did peace seem something we felt was beyond our entitlement? Was a situation of anarchy just what we were comfortable with?
Looking around at the recent evidence of the worrying campaign of “Sinha-Ley” spread largely through stickers on vehicles, shades of ethnic and racial division emerged. More threatening was the innuendo of the ‘Ley’ part actually written in deep scarlet representing the translation in Sinhala–blood. Having closed the door on ugly racial disharmony which reared its head with an apparent nod from some officials of the last government – men of the robe marching forcefully into government offices, hijacking press conferences and instigating attacks on minority communities, do we need more upheaval? After a very long time, the racial and religious divide has been almost bridged. Who needs another situation of communities retreating into little compartments defined by their ethnicity and religion?
Sri Lankans could, without any difficulty, embrace the outlook of multicultural Singapore where all ethnicities have equal rights. One of the most heartening sights during the recently concluded Thai Pongal festival in Singapore was the Chinese Prime Minister making ‘dosai’ with the Hindu community. History has shown that it is not alien to our culture to embrace all minorities. Despite some troublemakers determined to show up the majority Sinhalese as rabid, divisive racists, time has proved that such a notion is totally incorrect. Many political parties embracing racist ideologies have collapsed and who can forget our troubled past when many Sinhalese sheltered their Tamil brethren from attacks by a few opportunists?
Has the memory of the bloody war that had this beautiful land in its vice-like grip for so long become hazy to these rabble rousers? Has it been replaced with a grinding, low-intensity conflict with an often unseen enemy? Emerging from the trials of the JVP and the LTTE when the country was stuck in two endless wars, both of which at the time seemed something we could neither win nor afford to lose, is such an ugly campaign relevant?
The Sinha-Ley campaign is repulsive as it is meaningless. It plugs into a misguided patriotic national zeitgeist. What are these invisible perpetrators hoping to portray or achieve? Does an ugly car sticker make the owner of the car more patriotic? A better citizen? A better Sri Lankan? Hardly! In fact, the people who espouse such vapid displays of misguided patriotism are only setting a dark example for their children.
Every minority community in Sri Lanka plays a part in the rich, colourful and culturally rich fabric of our island nation. This very situation entrances the visitor singling out this small country as unique. Persons from all communities are participants in what makes Sri Lanka such a wonderful place to visit – whether through their food habits, dress, culture, performing arts or language. It is time we embraced the example of Singapore or risk another conflict situation.
Ethnicity, whether based on language, religion or other distinctions, is often a superior basis for collective action in contemporary conflicts in poor countries than other social divisions such as class. Organisation or action along ethnic lines is often a product of the failure of the state to provide public services and conflicts rooted in grievances—over one group’s standard of living relative to another—can take an increasingly ethnic dimension, as leaders mobilise followers by appealing to ethnic differences
While these situations might mimic outright anarchy they are generally short-lived as they inevitably run out of puff. These campaigns often end up as temporary contracts between belligerent groups. The Sinha-Ley campaign might have its misguided followers, but just like its shadowy creators – we can only hope that for the sake of peace and stability in our country, such ideology retreats to the shadows never to emerge again.
A Dead Statesman I could not dig:
I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
Rudyard Kipling (from Epitaphs of the War 1914-18).