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The ‘Ethnic Issue’: Response to MP Sumanthiran

by Dr. U. Pethiyagoda

(June 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Mr Sumanthiran (MAS) is clearly one of the more "cerebral" members of our Parliament and has impressed me with the quality of his contributions. Generally, bereft of platitudes and tired cliches, what he says is worthy of audience.I therefore enthusiastically read what he had to say in an article on the subject "A Lasting Political Solution Through Power-sharing". My reactions are mixed - leaning more heavily towards disappointment than acceptance.

Previous debates on the subject have been preoccupied by assertions of discrimination, colonisation, failed aspirations, linguistic inequities, violence and historical rights. Sadly, MAS is also guilty! The assertions are commonly extremely general, vague and unhelpful.

In what follows, I have attempted to address the major points raised by MAS. However, I must confess that I have yielded to a temptation to digress occasionally to express the opinions I hold. They are not unique and are shared by many who however, for diverse reasons, choose not to declare them. But, they have to be articulated - for we are not yet a nation of complete morons. If my presentation appears muddled or diffuse, I crave the reader’s indulgence but beseech him to assess each point in turn.

In relation to the so-called "ethnic problem", no one I know has asked the simple question "What is your proposed solution or solutions to the problems that you perceive are faced by our minorities?" If only we did this and extracted an answer, however contentious, would it not be a handy starting point? At least the impracticality and ridiculousness of some proposals could help in getting them out of the way to focus on relevancies.

I pin particular hope on the fact that MAS is a Physicist. As any scientist accepts, the resolution of a problem demands precision and objectivity. A physicist especially, would know that the variables in an equation must be measurable and quantified before a solution beomes possible. The scientific method is probably not the only method for orderly thought, but as Prof Carlo Fonseka has stated, despite all its limitations, it is still the best available. At the same time I hoped that MAS also being an attorney, was not led to invoke laboured semantics or other word games.

I must perhaps introduce myself. I am no Political "scientist" or Analyst, not a Sociologist and not even one widely read in politics. However, I flatter myself in believing that I try to proceed on "first principles". When I do so, I am astonished at the extent to which worn out cliches, vacuous words, deception and pretence are valid currency in many discourses on politics. Also, the extent to which politics has distanced itself from the meaty issues of governance is cause for dismay.

For my opinions however, I draw copiously on Lovantsky (2009) and her seminal work on "Tennis, politics and other Racket Games" (see footnote).

In most discussions on "The ethnic problem" much mention is made of democratic rights, discrimination, expectations and aspirations, linguistic inequities, colonization, humiliation, historical rights and violence

Before attempting a sequential discussion of these, please permit me a comment on the phrase "political solution". If the truth be told, the ethnic problem is almost entirely a creation of politics and its practitioners, the politicians. Therefore, it is logically unlikely that the solution will emanate from the very causes of its origins. Also, common experience shows that politics is far more adept at creating problems than solving them. Most of us older persons, will vouch for the fact that our generation was virtually "racially blind". All that mattered was whether a bloke measured up to our notions of decency to be admitted to brotherhood. This is until political perversity sought to separate them into "streams" or other artificial cohorts. The "ethnic issue" is best perceived as a "political clay pigeon shoot". They the politicians, fashioned the pigeon, tossed it up and ranked themselves on either side to take pot shots. We "the people" were restricted to standing by and applauding "our" side!

Considering the weak case for "a political solution", it is hardly worth commenting on "lasting" in the title. I firmly believe that any solution to whatever "ethnic problem" exists will need to firmly abandon hopes of a "political solution".

As a physicist, MAS would need to recall what the word "power" means - the capacity to perform work. Then what does "political power" mean? This we seek to win, to share, to devolve and so on. To me, it demonstrably means "the right to do wrong" (in most cases, at least). What "work" does a politician really do? In most instances, what springs to mind would be actions that the Administration could,should and be required to do, if only they had not been fouled, debilitated and spoilt by "political" interference!

Why is it that at every local election, thousands upon thousands of aspirants offer their services? Theirs they claim, is a burning desire to "serve the people" - if we are naive enough to believe them. It will be no less simplistic than believing that the staff of International Agencies (eg topically, the IMF) and INGO’s are hell bent on relieving poverty (other than their own, and their personal servers) and that representatives of the World’s largest armament producers are passionately intent on promoting peace!. Truly, it is the obscenely high rewards of politics that is the enticing nectar.

Any normal, growing youth has ambitions and hopes. High among them are the following four:- a rewarding job, ownership of a house, a vehicle and foreign travel. Only a fool would fail to realize that the shortest,surest and quickest route to their realization, is undoubtedly politics. The rewards come in speedy and bounteous measure - by means legitimate or otherwise. The decision makers are "in House", so regular increases and security are guaranteed. If this is not good enough, a preiod of just five years (thoughtfully coincident with the length of a single Parliamentary term) carries a handy pension as well. It does not unlike in a state job, demand more than twenty years of service to qualify for a pittance! Vehicles of monstrously extravagant design and cost, foreign jaunts with never an issue of "back to station" reports on achievements, official housing, ridiculously subsidized rents or huge rent allowances, subsidised meals and a host of hidden jewels are reward. In the absence of a "Right to Information" for those who ultimately foot the bills ensures a continuing carnival of secrecy. An estimated cost of 11 million per Parliamentary sitting, even if it is adjourned in ten minutes on account of rowdy behaviour, is indicative of the cost of "democracy"!

The oft repeated "democracy" or lack of it is worth commenting upon. Seldom has a word being so happily and uncritically bandied about without a pause to consider what it means - without couching the explanation in even more "empty-calorie" words.(Perhaps the exception for comparable vacuity is the word "policy"!) The old Lincolnian definition of democracy as " of the people, by the people for the people" is considerably loftier than truthful.

Democracy, we are told, is (like mothers’ milk) good for you! It is evidently all about choice. Choice implies different alternatives. If difference does not exist, then create it, in order that democracy may be upheld! Since no two people are exactly alike, there is unlikely to be any choice that would be unanimous. Inevitably therefore, we are forced to introduce the concepts of majorities, suffrage, votes, parties and elections.The last is the most cunning fiction.

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