Obama, the Mahanayakes and national unity

by Dr. A.C. Visvalingam

(November 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It would not be far off the truth to state that not only did 62 per cent of those who voted in the recent US presidential elections believe that the half-black, half-white Barack Hussein Obama would make a better president than the all-white John McCain but even the vast majority of Sri Lankans who followed the recent US presidential elections were thrilled that so many white voters joined their multi-coloured counterparts to support Obama.

Why is it that we became so elated when a member of a minority group in the US reached the top but when it comes to Sri Lanka, most of us remain shamelessly silent whilst a few vociferous characters claim that this country belongs solely to the majority "organic" Sinhala Buddhists and that the remaining groups are clinging vines or visitors or some other inferior breed of citizen

Why do we give so much publicity to these ignoramuses who do not know that our constitution states quite explicitly that all citizens are equal and entitled equally to the rights and privileges of Sri Lankan citizenship? How do we make these bigots understand that nowhere in our constitution does it even suggest that 65-70 per cent of the population could, in any conceivable circumstances, become entitled to the ownership of 100 per cent of everything?

Amongst the Sinhala people, the fair-minded and tolerant far exceed in number those who hold extreme racist views. Yet this large population of good Sinhalese keep mute in the face of jingoists, just as Father Niemoeller and millions of others did in Germany before World War II. How is it that the voices of decency and fair play have become so weakened when compared with those of fanatics? Having reflected long on this mystery, we are tempted to conclude that one of the more important contributory factors is to be found in the old adage that when a dog bites a man, it is not news but when a man bites a dog, it is.

The reality is that when someone makes outrageous statements, and such views are given headline treatment, they are read avidly by a public longing for sensation; and newspaper sales go up. On the other hand, when a sober citizen writes to the press about the constitution, UN Conventions and the teachings of great leaders and philosophers, it makes pretty dull reading.

Alas, there is no simple or obvious way in which one could alter this imbalance other than to keep exhorting the public not to get carried away by rabble-rousing rotters.

Meanwhile, we must free ourselves of one misconception regarding the question of discrimination. Most people tend to think that the term discrimination, when considered in the Sri Lankan context, means discrimination by the Sinhalese against other races and by the Buddhists against other religions.

In reality, the discrimination that many Sinhalese practise against other Sinhalese is extensive and equally to be deplored, but is highlighted less frequently. For example, if one reads the analyses of election results, one of the points made repeatedly is how the two national parties choose their candidates for Sinhala majority electorates and/or districts largely on the basis of the caste distribution of the local population. Is it not an appalling state of affairs that Sri Lankan voters, after more than 60 years of free education, should so irrationally prefer a candidate of their own caste to a possibly better candidate from another caste?

Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohamed and the great Hindu rishis did not condemn any particular race or caste to an inferior position relative to any other. The Buddha, perhaps, went furthest in saying that nothing should be taken for granted because someone in authority said it but that all propositions should be accepted only after rigorous investigation, and also went on to assert that a person's caste is determined by his/her behaviour and not by birth.

Nevertheless, in defiance of the teachings of the Buddha and the other major religious figures, the ruling classes and compliant religious hierarchies have managed to retain their grip on the proverbial ladle and served themselves extra portions at the expense of other less influential groups.

Once again, as we have done in the recent past, we turn to the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters and ask for their help. In the current context, it is only their voices which would have sufficient authority and acceptance to counter those of the extremist fringe who create the conditions that encourage divisiveness. Hence, a clear pronouncement by the two Mahanayakes to the effect that all Sri Lankan citizens are equal and entitled to all the rights of citizenship, including aspiring to any position in the land, would have a salutary effect in soothing the feelings of the minorities and making them feel that they are an integral part of a united country.

Parents in minority groups could even begin to dream of the day that one of their children could, like Obama, be elected to the highest office in the land. We, therefore, most earnestly request the two Mahanayakes to give the nation a historic new direction to secure equal treatment for all of Sri Lanka's citizens.

The Writer, President, Citizens Movement for Good Governance
- Sri Lanka Guardian