Silence is always an option. But it is never always the only option
Dr Ruvaiz Haniffa
COLOMBO : the We are in the phase of rapidly fading memories of the 2022 ARAGALAYA and Economic meltdown, faded memories of the 2021 COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Easter Sunday carnage and lost memories of a 30-year-old ethnic based civil war which ‘ended’ (only in military terms in 2017), 1987/89 JVP armed uprising, 1983 pogrom against the Tamils of Sri Lanka, 1971 JVP insurrection,1956 and 1958 pogrom against the Tamils and 1915 Sinhalese Muslim riots.
In between these major incidents there have been numerous minor political, ethnic, and religious based conflicts, confrontations and violence, the root cause being absences/lack of tolerance among Sri Lankans which was/is deliberately cultivated, nurtured, and then unleashed by interested ethno-religious political, professional, business and religious leaders to suit agendas.
Use of ethnicity or religion for political gain is nothing new in Sri Lanka; what is new is the weaponization of ethnicity and religion for political gain through democracy and then using state power to discriminate based on race, ethnicity, and religion through institutions of the state- the executive, legislature, and judiciary.
We have seen the creation from scratch of political forces based on ethnoreligious insecurities of the majority Sinhalese community and Minority Tamil and Muslim communities. The creation of these insecurities as far as the majority Sinhalese community goes was based on the dynamics and consequences of the 2022 Easter Sunday Carnage fuelled by past ethno-religious intolerance. We are living through a political era which is technically democratic but for all practical purposes is an autocracy morphing into a dictatorship where democratic power is vested with a corrupt group of politicians and bureaucrats who are hell bent on preserving the status quo at the expense of the people.
These political and bureaucratic elites be it in government or opposition are committed towards intolerance and exploiting insecurities to hold on to power or exchange power among each other when absolutely needed to show the world that Sri Lanka is superficially a democracy. But nothing changes, as seen for the past 74 years of democratic style of government and governance in Sri Lanka.
Change in any form or shape cannot and will not happen in Sri Lanka until and otherwise TOLERANCE is practiced at all levels of Sri Lankan society.
The concept of TOLERANCE one must understand is NOT A NATURAL STATE FOR HUMANS. It is an attitude and virtue which needs to be cultivated. Research shows that tolerance helps governments maintain law and order and exercise power effectively, on behalf of the people.The following 6 practices and attitudes captures the spirt of tolerance-Empathy, Compassion, Dialogue, Conflict resolution, Resilience and Teamwork
Most of these are already part of our diverse religious teachings and cultural practices as Sri Lankans, but for some reason our moral compass has been disrupted by religious, political and ethnic extremist from all sides for personal, political and economic advantage. The agencies of state and the most of the bureaucrats who ‘work’ in them have over the years (74 years to be precises as at 2023) have being diluted to such point that they have become servants of ruling politicians as opposed to servants of the people looking out for the good of the Sri Lankan people and nation. Justice C G Weeramantry, in the preface to his book Law in Crisis has said ‘Sri Lanka is embarrassed by the richness of the sources of laws and not the lack of it’. What the learned Justice is implying is that we have laws enacted by Parliament to fill libraries, but we lack is the motivation, mechanism and will to implement it fairly for all as a nation. Similarly, we in Sri Lanka should be not embarrassed by the theoretical lack of tolerance among us given our richness of moral and cultural heritages which are the very embodiment of tolerance. Once again it is the practice of tolerance that we should be embarrassed of.
We are a nation who have more religious based holidays (which allows for ample reflection on the basis of tolerance) for all religions practiced in the country than anywhere else on the planet.
We will in the year 2024 hopefully have a chance to elect (as opposed consciously or unconsciously guided to select) our political leaders. The ethnoreligious pollical forces have begun their political campaigns to exploit the majority Sri Lankan Sinhalese population’s insecurities of their physical and spiritual existence within Sri Lanka. This exploitation of existential insecurities of the Sinhalese will specifically target the minority Tamils, Muslims, and Christians of Sri Lanka, further alienating them from what (if any) is left of their Sri Lankan identity. This of course is the desired outcome of the ethnoreligious political forces who want an intolerant society based on what ever parameter to exploit for pure and simple numerical political majority.
In this backdrop the government in power and the opposition who want power will join these ethnoreligious political groups to leverage political advantage (in a numerical sense – that’s how democracy work doesn’t it?). As such we the citizens of Sri Lanka who trod the ‘middle path’ will have only ourselves to practice and spread the message of tolerance. The government nor the opposition will ever want to call on the citizenry to practice the concepts of tolerance in an election year in particular as it will be disastrous politically. This says a lot about the Sri Lankan voter, doesn’t it?
As such, we in civil society (outside the organized political framework) have a huge role to play IF elections are ever held someday! Let us not rely on the traditional politicians to take us forward as UNITED SRI LANKANS. As Mahatma Ghandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.
Do not expect the Sri Lankan government to provide it free for you! Afterall it will undermine the very nature of the Sri Lankan state for the better if the system change, we all want materializes.(The writer is the past Past President of the Sri Lankan Medical Association)