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NewsWigneswaran and Acrimonious ‘Ethnic Debates’ – Laksiri Fernando

Wigneswaran and Acrimonious ‘Ethnic Debates’ – Laksiri Fernando


On 19 January a seminar had been held in Jaffna organized by the Swiss Institute for Federalism of Fribourg, Switzerland, on the invitation of the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C. V. Wigneswaran. The local partner of the seminar was the Institute for Constitutional Studies (ICS) in Colombo. When the Chief Minister’s opening address was published in the Colombo Telegraph (20 January 2016), a rather acrimonious debate ensured in the form of comments and counter-comments.

To be fair by the Swiss Institute, it should be stated that it is not an institute which advocates federalism for other countries, but believes that ‘increasingly countries are incorporating elements of federalism into their structures in response to recent demands for increased regional autonomy and independence.’ Their focus is much wider and the following appears as the first paragraph of their ‘About Us.’

“The Institute of Federalism is recognised both nationally and internationally as a centre of expertise in the field of governance. For nearly 30 years the Institute has been producing academic analyses of the responsibilities which lie with a government and of the conflicts of interest it faces in performing its tasks. These include fulfilling the duties of a government in line with needs but economically, acting in accordance with democratic legitimacy, taking the different sections of society into account and protecting the rights of individuals and minorities.”

The Institute is attached to the Faculty of Law of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

The Trigger

The trigger for the debate appears to be the following statement, among others, made by the Chief Minister and I am quoting a full paragraph.

“Second fear expressed is that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country and the Tamils who are immigrants of recent yesteryears are asking more than they could and should. That is not so. History does not support the Mahawansa story. Also there is no ethnic group called the Sinhalese. The Sinhala language itself came into being only around 6th century AD. There was no Sinhala language before that. It is ideal to get a group of International Historians to investigate these facts. There is on the other hand contrary evidence of the existence of pre Buddhistic Hindu culture in the North and East available.”

Even if I ignore his other utterances, there is a clear statement that “there is no ethnic group called the Sinhalese,” a denial of the ‘other.’ There is a possibility that the CM was quite emotional at his address and his anger or acrimony led to the utterance. If that was the case, he should have carefully gone through the text and corrected or moderated it before sending it for publication.

If that was a statement by an ordinary person or even an ordinary politician, it could have been ignored. However, the person is the Chief Minister of the Northern Province. The statement comes at a time when there is much hope that a New Constitution could be inaugurated and a greater or clear autonomy could be given to the Northern and the Eastern Provinces along with the other provinces.

Then there was an immediate retribution from one Vibhushana, masquerading in a pseudonym, claiming that even the Tamils in the North were “brought for road and rail construction not to be sent back to India but settled in isolation of the Sinhalese in Jaffna.” It was claimed that the settlements were aimed at creating an exclusive Malabar region. There were other insults and the whole history was put upside down, like the Mahavamsa treatment by the CM. It is interesting to note that Vibhushana never came to the brawl thereafter.

Necessary Premises

It is a common sense premise to acknowledge that there should be ‘mutual respect for each other’ for any reconciliation between conflicting parties. It is more important in respect of an ethnic conflict. Referring to many conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Franke Wilmer (“The Social Construction of Man, the State and War,” 2002) has said the following.

“There are 4,000 to 5,000 ethnic or identity groups in the world, living in fewer than 200 states. Virtually all societies are multi-ethnic, and even those less so are in theory open to immigration and thus potentially more multi-ethnic in the future. Restructuring the basis of civic obligation within the state from one based on a perception of sameness to one of mutual respect, of reciprocity and interchangeability even in light of differences is not a moral luxury, it is a necessity.” (p. 261).

There should be a change in ‘man and woman’ apart from restructuring of the state, to mean particularly constitutional changes at this stage. Not only rights, but also obligations should be emphasized. As Wilmer emphasised, restructuring or transforming ‘the basis of civic obligation from one based on sameness to one of mutual respect is a necessity.’

This is the same what was emphasized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) during particularly the Kosovo crisis. Their mission was as follows.

“OSCE mission would be guided by the importance of bringing about mutual respect and reconciliation among all ethnic groups in Kosovo and of establishing a viable multi-ethnic society where the rights of each individual are fully and equally respected.”

There is no attempt in this article to equate or compare Kosovo with Sri Lanka. But most of the principles applicable to many ethnic conflicts are common at the base. The details have to be worked out on that bases and above them.

There shouldn’t be any intolerance or even unease on the part of the Sinhalese, in my opinion, if and when Tamil political leaders articulate their traditional demand of ‘federalism’ or even the ‘right to self-determination.’ These can be and should be discussed in a rational or even a ‘social-scientific’ manner. At the same time, the Tamil leaders or the Sinhala leaders should not come up with ‘outrageous’ or ‘farfetched’ statements that can hamper a proper and a constructive dialogue. The obligations are not only for the leaders, but also for the general public, activists, journalists and the academics.

Acrimonious Debate

When Vibhushana made his ‘outrageous’ comments, a moderate Tamil opinion asked the question: “What is the compulsion that makes you write such nonsense?” While he was dismissingVibhushana’s claims as ‘nonsense,’ there was an admission that he must have been compelled by something which was in CM’s statement. This highlights what is lacking in many ‘ethnic debates’ which should in fact be dialogues. If Vibhushana had pointed out what was wrong or disagreeable in Wigneswaran’s statement, it could have been a constructive dialogue. But without that, it has led to an acrimonious debate.

There have been over 100 comments within two days and most of them were insulting communally, but not personally, thus escaped the ‘guillotine’ of the editors. Few were ‘edited out’ when they were clearly going beyond the guidelines. Some of the utterances were: ‘Tamils are primitive and backward race,’ ‘Mahavamsa is crap… SinhalayaModaya!’ I am not quoting full length of ‘imprudence’ not to aggravate the situation. Some of the postings appeared serious claims about history from both sides, but some others were simple fabrications just to annoy or frustrate ‘the other.’Some referred to credible authorities on the subject of history, but often distorting them for their own arguments.

One James gave an elaborate explanation rather to justify Wigneswaran’s theory that ‘Sinhalese are not really an ethnicity.’ The claim was that many present day ‘Sinhalese’ in the South had originated in South India, which in fact can be a fact. No ethnicity could claim purity. Claim for ‘purity’ or ‘exclusivity’ could be an inhibition for reconciliation from anyone’s part. One ‘paul’ (not Paul!) asked, in my opinion correctly “How can the Tamils be a distinct people when every poster is claiming that the Sinhalese are from S. India or have Tamil origins or are Tamils themselves?” There were no insults or anything else in that positing. It is possible that some of the angry comments from the Tamil side came not only because of the past treatments or atrocities but also the new chauvinist trends like ‘Sinha-Le.’ However, none of them is a reason for Wigneswaran’s irresponsible statements.

There were however saner comments or arguments mostly coming from those who were appearing in their own names. When using their own names and taking responsibility for what they say, naturally, there was some moderation and rationality. But most unfortunate was that some who began arguments rationally soon cavingin for emotions and joining the bandwagon of bigotry. It is important to quote Dr. Rajasingham Narendran who tried his best to give some sense to the debate and keep a balance. I am reproducing only separating some paragraphs.

Bigotry begets bigotry. Foolishness of old is being deliberately revived with intemperate,unnecessary and unwise words and similar responses. Where is the ‘uniqueness’ we are debating? Is it in our genes, conduct and thoughts?

We speak related languages, eat the same food and practice related religions. We have more in common than most other people’s. We have shared our foolishness several times over and paid a heavy price for this. We shared the pain too and have displayed similar bestiality. Modern genetic studies indicate that the indigenous Sinhalese and Tamils, have the same genetic base. Others have been invited-in,largely from South India and have become part of our mosaic.

Ultimately, all of us, including our aboriginal Veddas, stood up in East Africa and walked across to where we are now!

Please do not cook a Witch’s brew once again foolishly, when some solutions to our problems are being contemplated and actively pursued. Any solutions that will solve our post-war problems and pave the way for our economic resurgence would be good solutions in the circumstances we are currently in.

CVW, you will be blamed and cursed by history, for paving the way to acrimony and its consequences once again with unwise words, phrases and concepts. You are, deliberately or inadvertently, becoming part of a curse that has bedevilled Sinhalese, Tamils and this island for decades now. You are kindling fires that that were subsiding but yet smouldering. There are many waiting to use your words as an excuse to pour oil on smouldering fires, from both sides of the rather fragile fence. It was not to play this role that you were nominated by the TNA and elected by an overwhelming majority!

No further comment is necessary.

Some Lessons

It is intriguing how people are obsessed with ‘history’ and ready to inflame emotions on the basis of their ‘bigoted history,’ from both sides of the divide. It is my view that those who do so belong to a particular social milieu (‘the bigoted leisure classes’ I may say) and not the suffering general masses. Both or the obviously ‘contradictory versions’ of history cannot be true. History of the ancient past should be taken with equanimity today. Most important is to place our history in the broader context of human history.

It is a simple fact that our lives are connected to that of our parents and grandparents and so on through a web of familial, cultural, linguistic and religious traditions that is difficult to disentangle (Ludwig Wittgenstein). That is how we have become who we are whether Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims. Those are our identities which are also interwoven with each other through history, politics, economic interdependence and common living. However, the relative differences are no reason to fight each other or argue with each other in an acrimonious manner.

Whatever Wigneswaran has stated should not be utilized any longer to inflame emotions or create more controversies.

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