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A small school event held in the northern town of Vavuniya made national headlines in Sri Lanka this week, after a provincial Education Minister refused to hoist the national flag at the ceremony. Reports of the incident soon made their way into southern Sinhala and English media, provoking disapproval and shrill objection from strident nationalists among the majority Sinhalese.

The range of responses the incident evoked prompted Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray to seek legal opinion of the Attorney-General’s Department. “There was a big hue and cry all over the country and in the media. I can’t be silent, right? I had to intervene. I am waiting for legal opinion on the matter,” he told The Hindu.
In a media statement issued on Thursday, the Minister, Kandiah Sarveswaran, from the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), said he did not disrespect the flag, but merely expressed the same reservation that Tamil leaders such as Federal Party-founder S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and the Leader of the Opposition A. Amirthalingam, who led the Tamil United Liberation Front, also had in the past. “From the day this flag was introduced until today, no one with a Tamil nationalist sentiment has accepted it,” he said, adding that the flag was a reflection of the SinhalaBuddhist dominance in the country.

The Sri Lankan flag of today was adopted in 1972, after modifications to previous variants. Dark red in colour with a yellow panel bordering it, the flag has a prominent image of a lion — considered a symbol of Sinhalese pride — holding a sword, and surrounded by four Peepal leaves that bear religious significance for Sinhala Buddhists. Many refer to it as the “lion flag”. In 1951, two vertical bands in green and orange had been added to the flag to represent the minority Muslims and Tamils.
During its separatist struggle, the LTTE created a flag with a Tiger as “the national flag of Tamil Eelam”.

All nine provinces of Sri Lanka have different provincial flags, but the symbolism of the national flag makes some uneasy in the country that was torn apart by competing ethno-nationalisms. Following wide public consultations in 2016, the PM Ranil Wickremesinghe-appointed Public Representations Committee, suggested designing a new national flag keeping in line with its recommendation for a secular state and representing Sri Lankan collective life without reference to ethnicity.

Responding to the Minister’s position, Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran said that while he would himself not refuse to unfurl the national flag, the Education Minister’s position was “understandable”. Appealing to Mr. Sarveswaran “to show his resentment to Sinhala majoritarian hegemony in some other way”, the northern CM noted: “We do not like to hurt our Sinhalese brethren. But our reservations are nevertheless true and are real.”

Concurring with him, Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian and spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran told The Hindu: “Such stunts play straight into the hands of the extremists in the south. The CM has been very sensitive to it.” Considering that the Tamil leadership had currently accepted Sri Lanka as one country, the flag must be recognised as a national symbol, he said. It is in a similar spirit that the Tamil leaders like them welcomed the reintroduction of the Tamil national anthem which former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had, albeit unofficially, banned. (The Hindu)