by Kamaya Jayatissa
“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”
– Charles de Montesquieu
Going through the recent statements made at Geneva, as well as on its sidelines, I wonder how much time each of us take to simply pause and reflect on where we are today, as opposed to where we were in 2015, 2009, 1983, 1978, 1948, and so on. So much has happened in Sri Lanka and so much keeps on happening that it sometimes feels emotionally and physically overwhelming to keep track of where one should position itself. So overwhelming that we almost let go of Ariadne’s thread, without even realizing that we may have got lost in our own maze decades ago. So much so that applying logic becomes secondary and any available route is good enough to be explored -sometimes even for the sake of being explored. Doing something, anything really, then becomes more important than pressing the pause button for a moment.
President Sirisena’s recent speech at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly last week was to a certain extent reflective of this need to pause and allow the Sri Lankan people the time to heal, think and rebuild – without external interference – before rushing into one direction or the other:
“As a strong nation, we request all of you to allow us space to resolve our problems and to progress as an independent country. In this context, once again I wish to reiterate our request for your assistance and support for us to resolve our own issues as Sri Lankans. I further request your support in the efforts of my government to alleviate fear and suspicion among the communities living in our beloved motherland, and to build greater harmony.”
While we may or may not agree with the rest of the statement, this paragraph alone represents a strong message to the international community, one that the current government needs to reinforce internally, as well as through its foreign missions, and most importantly through a genuine rapprochement with its Diaspora. This is even more important considering the resurgence of distorted statements such as the one made by Prof. Jayasumana two weeks back, at the 39th session of the UNHRC, where he claimed that there has never been such a thing as an ethnic problem in Sri Lanka.
As clearly stated by President Sirisena, fear and suspicion are still very much part of the problem in Sri Lanka. Individuals – irrespective of whether they are from the majority or the minorities – have gone through so much over such a short amount of time, that fear and suspicion have made themselves comfortable in our everyday lives. Thus, what the international community has omitted and what our successive governments have failed to address over the years, was the urgency to create some sense of belonging among our people. While in most other post-war countries, rebuilding the nation also meant giving equal importance to rebuilding trust between communities, we seem to have failed in doing so at every stage of our history (be it in 2015, 2009, 1983, 1978, 1948, and so on). As it appears, even the so-called moderate segment of our society still carries those intrinsic fears.
Instead of combatting those communal fears through a more humanistic lens, we contributed in generating an even more disparate system; one that, over the years, failed to forge a common identity among all Sri Lankans – especially among the young generations. This lack of a Sri Lankan identity has led us to approach every policy concern and issue in a disaggregated manner. Whether it has to do with education, livelihood, unemployment, or even service delivery, we compulsively apply our ethnic or religious lens to these, before even considering applying a more humanistic, let alone pragmatic/logical lens to the issue at hand.
Our political machinery combined with ongoing external pressures have further added to this divisive approach. Even our approach to human rights has been ethnicized, rather than humanized, over the years in Geneva – UNESCO being unfortunately one of the few international organizations unlike the UNHCR, which understood the urging need to promote humanism as the rule rather than an exception. Of course, embracing a common identity does not mean homogenizing communities into one melting pot as is often the case in the West. This would be detrimental in the case of Sri Lanka. Given both our multicultural heritage and our history of violence, forging a common identity would require developing an identity that would lay its foundations on our individual and collective identities, while functioning at a higher ideological level.
This requires us to reflect on what it means to be a Sri Lankan, and how this Sri Lankan identity connects with the notion of citizenry. Unfortunately, when both notions are not addressed by either the people or the State, then what are we left with? Could these two notions be our missing threads?
Both citizenry and national identity are two evolving notions that need to emerge organically through a social contract between the people and the State. But for that to happen, an adequate environment needs to prevail. This is why preserving our national sovereignty becomes more relevant today than ever. Any mechanism or policy put in place that does not reflect the needs, expectations and obligations of the people (both within the majority and the minorities), and the capacity of a particular State at a particular given time, is not meant to succeed.
This also means understanding that this missing sense of belonging cannot only rely on a rights-based approach as the neo-liberals would want us to believe. It also needs to rely on the obligations of every citizen. Obligations towards the State, as well as towards other citizens. A semblance of both citizenry and national identity did emerge every now and then (during the tsunami e.g.). However, this always remained too weak and sporadic to sustain the different cycles of violence faced by the country over the years.
Unless we can relate to one another first and foremost as citizens, let alone as human beings, we might ultimately just fail once more to construct a more humane Sri Lankan identity. For that to happen, we need to pause and reflect on where we failed in the past, and where we can and want to head as a Nation.
As such, Sri Lanka should in fact use its ethno-religious complexities to its advantage and further promote a (humanistic) citizenry approach in its policy-making process and ultimately among its people.