Hobson’s Choice for ethnic minorities

"The leaders of the ethnic minorities need to continuously engage with the government, as did the Catholic bishops, while voicing the problems of their constituents which the government needs to resolve in a satisfactory manner."
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By Jehan Perera

(October 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) With the ending of the war more than five months ago, Sri Lankans have had the great relief of not seeing daily reports of casualties due to fighting between the armed forces and LTTE cadre. Nor have there been bomb attacks that cause mayhem and loss of innocent civilian life. These constitute major improvements that have uplifted the quality of life for all people without exception. Even those people who continue to be confined to welfare camps have more security in their lives now than they did during the time of war.

However, the rhetoric of government leaders and some of their actions suggested that the country still remains on a war footing, with institutions of war being everywhere apparent. The continued detention of a quarter of a million people in government welfare centres is the most visible legacy of the war. Military checkpoints continue to dot the landscape, with more important cities such as Colombo and Jaffna having them every few hundred meters. Even the intrusive cordon and search operations continue with news reports of security forces checking homes in Colombo to see if suspected LTTE cadres from the IDP welfare centres had found themselves sanctuary within them.

Indeed, it now appears that with the passage of time and the approach of crucial presidential and general elections, the rhetoric of war and national security is getting increased rather than decreased. High ranking government members have been warning that separatist forces are still active and trying to create a dangerous situation to destabilize the government’s military victory. The state media has reported that conspiracies involving Sri Lankan and international forces are at play to create a political environment to achieve by political means the very division of the country that the LTTE failed to achieve through military means.

The most obvious consequence of this line of argument being made is that the present government needs to win the forthcoming elections if the sovereignty of the country and the victory over the LTTE are to be safeguarded. However, this is not a new argument, nor is it one limited to the present government and its supporters. Past governments too have resorted to similar arguments at election time to seek the electoral defeat of their political opponents, whom they have branded as possible traitors and anti-national elements. This time perhaps the rhetoric and utilization of state resources to spread this message is greater than ever before.

Other methods

There is also a second argument that is being used, which is also not new, but which is being used by the government, and especially by its nationalist allies, with greater vigor than ever before. This states that the victory achieved by the Sri Lankan military at great sacrifice must not, at any cost, be bartered away for political gain. It is argued that the territory that the military fought to recapture must not be surrendered through a political solution that concedes any form of autonomy to the Tamil-majority and other ethnic minority areas. The government has accordingly put forward the proposition of one people, one nation, and has proclaimed the ideal of a country in which no one is described as a minority, and in which no part of the country is described as being an ethnic minority one.

With the approach of elections, the government is engaged in an aggressive campaign to keep its ethnic majority Sinhalese voter base intact. Its primary election-related focus is its greatest achievement, the military defeat of the LTTE, and to warn against its revival in another form unless more military precautions are taken. This may be why government members appear to be under an embargo to talk about a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Not even the proposals of the All Party Representatives Committee, which were handed over to the President several weeks ago, are being mentioned at all as being part the government’s campaign.

In order to woo the ethnic minorities, the government is engaged in other means of ensuring their support. One method has been to offer privileged positions within the government to minority leaders who will function within the limits set by the government. Several political and business leaders have been successfully co-opted by the government. The logic that some of them have employed is that it is better to get something from the government by siding with it, rather than getting nothing by opposing it. This pragmatism on the part of some minority leaders has enabled the government to claim a significant ethnic minority representation at the higher levels of governance.

Another method employed by the government has been to have high visibility meetings with leaders of minority communities, and to follow up with a media barrage regarding the success and goodwill generated at the meeting. Some recent examples have been meetings with the visiting parliamentary group from Tamil Nadu and also with the Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka. There was extensive media coverage given to both meetings. The scenes of positive interactions shown in the mass media would send a powerful message to the general population who are not privy to what was actually said and discussed.

Critically engage

But beneath the smiling footage that is released to the mass media, there is a different reality. The situation on the ground is a grim one which the leaders of the ethnic minority communities have to deal with. At their meeting with the President, it is reported that the Catholic bishops gave priority to their concerns about the continued detention of displaced persons within welfare centres. They also spoke about the need to reassure the ethnic minorities that there would be a political solution that would satisfy their just and reasonable aspirations. Unfortunately it appears that the governmental response to the urgent issues raised by the bishops was less than understanding with a tense atmosphere prevailing at times.

Those who cannot understand the problems of others are unlikely to be problem solvers and reconcilers. One of the government’s strategies is to deny there are problems, when others who are affected by those problems raise them. Or, it claims that the problems are being addressed. This could either be due to their actual belief that no such problems exist, or because they know that their existing capacities do not permit them to address those problems. An example would be the much advertised government offer to relatives of the displaced, that they can apply to have their relatives released and to stay with them. Not many have been able to avail themselves of this facility.

There needs to be mutual understanding. After mobilizing the forces of Sinhalese nationalism to win the war, the government cannot simply negate the demands and fears of Sinhalese nationalism which sees the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict as a historical reality. But if the government continues on the course that Sinhalese nationalism would take it, there is bound to be resistance that arises from the nationalism of the ethnic minority communities. This is the pattern of history that needs to be transcended. An example would be the manner in which the European Union became the mechanism that ended the historical intra-European animosities.

All the people of Sri Lanka would be grateful that the bombardments and forcible recruitment of children that was part and parcel of the war have come to an end. But, once human beings are assured of their lives, they seek more from life than just to survive. They want a life that has higher values such as justice, truth, equality and participation. The leaders of the ethnic minorities need to continuously engage with the government, as did the Catholic bishops, while voicing the problems of their constituents which the government needs o resolve in a satisfactory manner. An oppositional approach is unlikely to be fruitful, especially with a government that shows itself determined to win the forthcoming elections at any cost.
-Sri Lanka Guardian
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