The best way to keep bigots at bay is to co-opt the ex-President in the search for a political solution
A recurrent problem with the Sri Lankan politics is that it has continually failed to seize the opportunity even when it was knocking at the door. That failure dates back to Independence; if the then political leaders had the courage to forge ahead with the Banda-Chelva pact, or much later, Dudley-Chelva pact, we could have been saved from a ruinous civil war, that battered our economy and social fabric. On each occasion, it required decisive action and political will to make that difference, which we sadly lacked.
Ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, later succeeded in removing the greatest obstacle for a political settlement, an egregious terrorist group that turned Tamils into cannon fodders of a pipe-dream of a megalomaniac. But he too failed to translate those gains into sustainable peace. It is natural that he held reservations about Tamil politicians, however, for the sake of greater national interest, one could have expected him to try hard to co- opt the Tamil leadership to seek a political solution. It was his petty mindedness, just like many of his predecessors (plus electoral considerations), that deprived him and the country of that opportunity.
In this account, Rajapaksa’s successor is a pleasant contrast. Since his election, President Sirisena has seized the momentum that sprang up with his election victory and turned it in to the best shot Sri Lanka has at a lasting political solution. Hailing from the SLFP, a party that historically failed to grapple with the realities of the ethnic diversity in the country, President Sirisena is a stark contrast to many of his predecessors.
His feat in reining in the SLFP from demanding the post of the opposition leader, and, thereby paving way for the appointment of R. Sampanthan in that office is not only ethically and politically correct; It does also signify a major breakthrough in search for peace and reconciliation. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya found it easier to declare Mr. Sampanthan as the Opposition Leader, since the SLFP General Secretary in a letter to him abdicated any claims for the post. Obviously, the SLFP cannot keep the cake and eat it; it cannot be part of the National Government and to make claims to the post of the leader of the Opposition. However, in the winner-takes-all Sri Lankan politics, such niceties are rarely practised.
Also, in terms of their personal credentials, Mr. Sampanthan and Chief Opposition Whip Anura Kumara Dissanayake stand tall before the two presumed nominees promoted by the Rajapaksa coterie: Kumara Welgama and Mahindananda Aluthgamage (the latter is also being investigated by the Financial Crime Division).
“His feat in reining in the SLFP from demanding the post of the opposition leader, and, thereby paving way for the appointment of R. Sampanthan in that office is not only ethically and politically correct; It does also signify a major breakthrough in search for peace and reconciliation”
However, immediate and long term advantages and implications for reconciliation are more telling. Co-opting the Tamil mainstream politics would signify a major turnaround in the Sri Lankan politics; now, it would be much difficult for the fringe elements of the Tamil diaspora to complain about entrenched discrimination. Being the Opposition Leader, Mr. Sampanthan, and his party TNA, would have to speak up not only for the North, but also for the entire country. If he does that, he would be helping to change misperceptions still prevalent among a vast swathe of Sinhalese people in the South, and, effectively defeat the demagoguery of Wimal Weerawansa, Galabodaatte Gnanasara Thera et al. Added responsibilities at the national level would also have a moderating effect on the TNA, thereby helping the search for a political solution. Ideally, that would also weaken the pervasive influence of another defeatist agenda promoted by an unlikely source, former Justice C.V. Wigneswaran, the incumbent Chief Minister of the Northern Province. The Northern Provincial Council last week passed another resolution demanding an international war crime investigation.
In the past, Tamils were not short of their share of demagogues. Mr. Wigneshwaran threatens to become one.
However, what is not clear is that how far the average Sinhala folks, who are more susceptible to the demagoguery of their own demagogues in the South are aware of the merits of recent political manoeuverings. They live in their small world, listening to petty-minded politicians. But, their ignorance is dangerous. (The vast majority of them don’t read English newspapers, so they won’t read this. But, had not our leaders dismantled a functioning English medium education in the 50s, we would have been a more enlightened society).
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s indoctrination of the Sinhala polity resulted in its further radicalization. Not only did he appease to fanatics, he also succeeded radicalizing millions of otherwise sane people, on whose back he expected to win a third term and build his familial empire.
If MR could radicalize millions, the new government should be equally competent enough to de-radicalize them. A minority of bigots are a given in any society. But the radicalization of a majority in the majority community would turn a country into a zombie land. To see the danger of it, look no further than Pakistan.
In order to foster reconciliation, the new President has led by example. (He, of course, has a personal reason to do since, without the landslide mandate from minority communities, he wouldn’t have been the President) However, the Government can do better. While addressing long persisted grievances of the Tamil community, the Government should also act to ease concerns and allay suspicion (many of which, nonetheless are overblown) among the Sinhala community.
To do that, the Government can take a pro-active reconciliation process from the grassroots in the villages, help communities empathize with each other and heal the old wounds.
It is only through reaching out to both the North and South, that the Government can defeat the sinister mechanization of the bigots in the South, who, when the time is opportune, would try to derail the search for a political solution. The Government can expose those bigots, many of whom are currently being investigated for corruption. It can also co-opt some of them. To that end it may have to suspend or abandon the ongoing investigations. The ex-President Rajapaksa has repeatedly asked his successor to stop investigations into him and his family.
Granting that request would surely infuriate re-energized civil society groups, who want to see the leaders of the former regime on the dock.
However, if it helps the country to find a pluralistic political solution, no concession is too big. Even MR would like the proposition, rather than languishing as an MP from Kurunegala.
Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @Ranga Jayasuriya on Twitter / DM