August 17th: Will We Ever Learn From History?

By Lukman Harees

Lukman Harees

In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.” – Edmund Burke

‘You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all the people all of the time’; This has been said before and it still rings true today. As Sri Lanka prepares itself once again to choose its’ next parliament, political parties -mega and minor and of various hues are at their usual old game of presenting hastily fashioned manifestos to the electorate which look laudable in print but are mere fairy tales in action. However, it is expected that the voters will become wiser even this time and elect their representatives, keeping the interests of the country at heart and mind , thereby defeating the vested interests of those who seek their votes merely to boost their personal gain and glory. The world observes with much interest how the Sri Lankans will vote :To revert to the darker days of corruption and communalism- another Breakdown OR to continue their quest for good governance – Then a Breakthrough?

January 8th was a milestone in the history of our country not because of the fall of the dictator cum aristocratic Mahinda Rajapaksa from grace, but also it appeared to show positive signs of the people of Sri Lanka willing to take a decisive path to institute good governance in ‘corruption- prone’ Sri Lanka. The past few months in the Post-Election Maithri Era were certainly a gush of fresh air into the heavily polluted atmosphere particularly created by the racist, authoritarian MR regime which allowed Sri Lanka to virtually become a pariah state in the eyes of the international community. Whether good governance came about in the desired dose was another matter, but there were some progressive measures taken by the Maithri/Ranilregime which spelt hope for a positive change in the country’s political culture. People were certainly seen to experience relatively more freedom of expression, while constructive measures were taken to prune down some dictatorial powers of the Executive. Sri Lanka certainly needs this much needed change to effectively mould the behaviour and thinking of its’ future generations and leaders to create a united, peaceful and a progressive Sri Lanka.

Mahinda MuslimSri Lanka is yet again on the crossroads of history. People of Sri Lanka thus crossed one on January 8th and made a conscientious decision to change the course of history. However, if they do not follow through the gains and cross the other on August 17th in the same direction, then it will definitely be a retrogressive exercise in Toto – a case of ‘operation-successful- patient died’. Sri Lanka should wake up and vote decisively without sleep- walking again into the same hell-hole. Going by historical track records, it has been ironical that Sri Lanka, commencing from independence has been missing historic opportunity after opportunity, Providence has been throwing them at it at regular intervals, and almost snatching defeat from the clutches of victory every time. Particular reference is being made to the numerous opportunities for bringing communities together and defeating divisive and majoritarian tendencies.

National unity will provide us with the essential bedrock for progress, which is stability. For any nation to move forward and meet challenges, a strong core and foundation is necessary, which can only be achieved if there is national unity and reconciliation. National unity is a value system, a thought process which has to be properly articulated because everyone has different views and perceptions of what national unity is all about. Our political leaders unfortunately did not work out a vision and an integrated plan of action for Sri Lanka and merely worked on short term strategies based on opportunism and selfish interests. It was widely seen that political parties largely exploited ethno-religious affiliations which led to the polarization of ethnic identities. They seldom focussed on the importance of building upon the spurs for national unity which arose at Independence and many other subsequent instances in our post-Independence history.

When British insisted that there should be consensus among all communities when calling for independence, I, as a Muslim recall with pride how T.B. Jayah, an inspirational Muslim leader at the time, echoed the general view of the Muslims in this regard. Amidst attempts made by colonial rulers to create division among people in countries under their subjugation to perpetuate their rule as seen in our history, the excellent contribution he made to gain independence in his capacity as a leader representing minority communities without falling into these traps of colonial rulers can never be forgotten. In this respect the statement he made in the state council is of great historical significance.

buddhist-monks-protest-in-colombo_2865341He said: “The Muslim Community has its own problems and grievances. This is not a time to place them before you. Independence and freedom is the foremost priority for us more than everything else. We can discuss them with Sinhala brethren and find solutions after gaining independence. I am making this statement with the concurrence of all Muslim organisations and my Muslim colleagues who are members of this council. We do not lay down any conditions. The solid stand of all Muslims is that Sri Lanka should be granted independence forthwith unconditionally“. Member of the State Council A. Ratnayake said: “Jayah is a member representing a minority community and he had set a fine example to all other members representing minority communities. What Dr. Jayah showed us then was a path based on mutual confidence”. Tamil leaders too toed the same line. But then, what happened subsequently which finally led to the violent struggle launched by the Tamil Tigers is history. A significant historical opportunity thus fell through. Then, there was also another opportunity for national reconciliation ,which came about when CBK was voted into power in 1994 which too fell part.

Clearly there were many elements with ultra-Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian leanings who were responsible for these missed opportunities. Social Analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda says ‘the Sinhalese Buddhist historiographical tradition and ideology inherent in it supports ethnic political violence” (Uyangoda 1996:Militarization, Violent State, Violent Society: Sri Lanka.”). Events that transpired in post-independence Sri Lanka when Buddhist leaders and Buddhist monks campaigned for policies that exacerbated ethnoreligious violence highlight Uyangoda’s argument. On the contrary, Sinhala Buddhists too had their own grievances arising from the biased attitudes of the colonial masters ,but their leaders in Post-Independence era too adopted the same thinking making them a majority with a minority mind-set ,as historian Nira Wickramasinghe noted.

The two most assertive nationalisms that have emerged in post-independence Sri Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms gave rise to a bi-polar debate in the national discourse. In fact Tamil leaders as well without finding common ground to create national integration too demanded majoritarian status, in response to its marginalization rather than ethically re-configuring the discourse to re-imagine the nation as a more inclusive site based on principles of justice and equality for all communities as another analyst Qadri Ismail(2005) pointed out. Thus, it is said that if the idea of national reconciliation is to be taken seriously, one needs to confront the almost total absence of a space in which ‘Sri Lankan-ness’ (a common identity) can be evoked and experienced.

Once again, when MR defeated Tigers militarily in 2009, there arose another historic opportunity, which unfortunately MR failed to grab – i.e. to reunite all communities under a common banner without making the Tamils feel like a vanquished lot. This is when hate groups cropped up like mushrooms posing as the saviours of the Sinhala Buddhists whipping up highly charged emotive communal feelings. BBS, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya led this hate campaign which turned basically into Anti-Muslim Hate. History will not forgive MR and his Brother Gota for having decisively failed to stop this hate campaign and instead having given tacit support and encouragement to Gnanasara Brigades to act without fear or sanction. Sri Lankan cannot afford another Aluthgama Fiasco.

As Sri Lanka approaches the D-day on 17th August, voters should give a very clear message to the next Parliament – Base future plans and strategies on a solid bedrock of national unity and reconciliation. Any defeatist and reactionary forces working towards pulling Sri Lanka towards anarchy and another Myanmar/Somalia should be kept away from that hallowed legislative assembly . This applies not only to the majority Sinhala Buddhist people, but even to minorities too. In fact, there is the emergence of a greater social compulsion (from Muslim religious leadership too) asking the Muslims to think/vote in the national interest and desist from voting along communal lines. Muslim political leadership anyway have failed the community in a big way and there is no motivation in that respect to vote for them.

Sri Lankan voters should not allow the dark clouds of racism, communalism, majoritarianism and political corruption to grip the skylines of Sri Lanka once again . No more Gnassara- type handicaps to obstruct its’ journey to achieve a Sri Lanka where all communities can live in peace and amity. In this regard, it is sad to see some recent developments in the election campaign, which do not augur well for Sri Lanka.

  • Major political parties nominating same old faces ;most with a dubious records once again, insulting the voters’ wisdom to elect good worthy people to high office.
  • Displaying of distorted national flags ; even at MR election rallies
  • MR trying to show more ‘Tiger bogeymen’ and portraying himself as the champion of the Sinhala Buddhist people ( ‘Dutugemunu’ arising from the ashes’)
  • The emergence of a BJP ( Bodu Jana Peramuna with close resemblance to India’s initial BJP) and its’ Cobra mark (very relevant symbol indeed)
  • The BJP’s racist charged speeches with clear Anti Muslim (Islamophobic) tilt

These types of reactionary forces should be defeated. A future government should tackle national issues on the basis of equality and fairness and should not adopt majoritarian or biased attitudes in any form. All communities should be allowed to enjoy their constitutional rights to freedom and liberty and the law enforcement authorities should be even handed. Hate speech and groups should be banned. Criminals whichever community he/she belongs to, should be dealt with, on the basis of being a criminal and not on the basis of the ethnicity. Drug kingpin is a anti-social who should be sternly dealt with, whether it is Wele-Suda or Mujahid. Recent slain ISIS militant saga should be viewed with and investigated from the point of view of national security as Muslim organizations combine has recently requested; not from a Muslim angle. Likewise, racist trouble rousers such as Gnanasara should be taken to task irrespective of the colour of their robe. All anti social elements such as ISIS militant Abu Shuraih Sailani, Drug Kingpins Mujahids/Wele Sudas, racist Gnanasaras or Prabakarans have no religions . The society should realize the dangers of falling into the traps laid by third grade politicians and extreme religious leaders who will always stir narrow communal /racial feelings to further their own interests even by setting fire to the country they (never) love. Will the voters at least this time learn from history and act differently?

“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” – Robert Penn Warren