Sri Lanka’s political majority and minorities must unite in order to form a cohesive society
Images have been circulating Facebook, highlighting in their various hues the fact that the sixth executive president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, won with the support of minority communities in the country. The last president, Mahinda Rajapakse, instead obtained the votes of a majority of the majority. There is an image depicting a line drawing of a rabbit, requesting those who have time to go about colouring a map of Sri Lanka to induce racism: to colour the rabbit. That is how much Sri Lankan society has been polarised over the last few weeks.
President Rajapakse was the clear front runner to win when the elections were called in November 2014. Since then, the probability of him winning thinned, especially when the general secretary of his own party defected to the opposition, occupying the mantle that was the common opposition candidate. Come the eve of the election, Mahinda Rajapaksa was still the favourite to win, albeit only just.
I had never come across someone who wholeheartedly committed to the fact that Mahinda would lose, even in the predominantly anti-regime circles that I move in. The most optimistic notion doing the rounds was that Maithripala had a very fair chance of winning. That optimism, however, was swiftly disqualified by the commonest of statements: should the unthinkable happen, the Rajapakses are so entrenched in their power politics that they will never let go, and even if they did, it would be after a bloodbath. Days before the elections, the price of vegetables and other household commodities soared as a premonition-soaked public stockpiled in anticipation of the violence and curfew that was expected to eventuate.
The unthinkable happened: Rajapakse lost. He allegedly tried to use the military to create chaos, the army refused, and what ensued was probably the most peaceful election and post-election climate in my near-thirty-year lifetime. Both Muslims and Tamils voted en masse for the opposition; particularly the Muslims. Not because they had faith in the opposition, but because the Rajapakses had to be deposed.
Under the Rajapakses, Sri Lanka’s political balance descended from precarious to utterly damaged. Media freedom was stifled and the country went from being a benign, smiling island nation to a surveillance state. The latest technology was mustered to wage a war that was now being used to protect the power balance of the regime. Journalists were killed in broad daylight; media institutions and other organs of a functioning democracy were stifled or bullied into submission. Ostentatious construction projects were instituted, some meaningful, some less so. The incentive behind many such projects was a fruit of corruption enjoyed by those involved.
Political appointees were commonplace, and many people at the highest echelons of power could trace some link to the Rajapakse family. Sri Lanka’s first female chief justice was impeached for allegedly blocking a project that largely involved one of the Rajapakse brothers. The impeachment process itself was not moral and the very process reflected the tatters in which political decency lay. It is rumoured that one of the loquacious ministers of the government addressed her derogatorily in Sinhala as ‘baby’.
As a nation, many felt that we had lost our spirit under the Rajapakses. As a people, we were being groomed to dislike each other in a land which was abrasively and wrongly claiming to belong to just one race. Racism was allowed to thrive: indeed, bureaucratic apparatuses were struggling to survive without it. Ministers and ministerial offspring were running amok, and thugs in robes went about desecrating the sanctity of the noble philosophy that is Buddhism.
Corruption was so rampant that it became a deeply ingrained element of our psyche. When one lives in abnormality for long enough, what was once considered abnormal slowly yet firmly goes through a subtle metamorphosis to become normal. Decadence is so gradual that it happens without grazing the sensitivities of our collective consciences, eating away at our souls.
The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), largely unrepresentative of the average Sri Lankan Buddhist, wrought carnage upon the carefully evolved and preserved Sinhala-Muslim relationship. To the credit of the Muslims, however, they were astute to identify the BBS as a terror group and not of a representative wing of the majority Sinhala community. The BBS was out in the open in its aggression towards Muslims. A country where law and order is considered sacrosanct would have no dilemma in having many of the BBS charged and punished. Instead, they were harnessed and even prospered under the watch of the previous government. Among the reasons for their invincibility was their perceivably close relationship with former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse.
Hundreds of properties and dozens of mosques were damaged, causing immense physical and emotional trauma upon a beleaguered and innocent Muslim community. It was, and continues to be a symbol of the decadence of our society that hate speech so easily spewed from the electronic mouths of many educated Sinhala youth, under the watch and connivance of the state. However, in all this, Muslims must not and should never be tricked to indulge in the turgidity that this was a victory brought forth by the Muslims and other non-Sinhala ethnic groups. Rajapakse had to go, the people rose against him, and that is all.
Muslims should move beyond the parochialism that has plagued politics in recent decades. It didn’t use to be this way: abnormality has once again come to be accepted as normal. It is understandable that the circumstances pushed Muslim politicians down that path, but that time has now passed. Muslims should integrate not just with the Sinhalese or Tamils, but with all those who identify themselves as Sri Lankan.
I was among the tens, if not hundreds of thousands at the last rally in Maradana by Maithripala Sirisena of the Colombo Central electorate. I was also among the elated crowds at the Independence Square when the new president was sworn in. The former is a Muslim stronghold and the evergreen bastion of the opposition United National Party; the latter is a national treasure. Remarkable was the fact that in one instance, Sri Lankans rallied against the incumbent, and in another they rallied in support of the new incumbent. This was not as antagonistic warlords who had momentarily laid down their arms, but as a harmonious clutter of Sri Lankans of all shades, celebrating what they deserve.
Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency, or indeed his new government, should not be considered better than the last unless it actively proves to be so. They have made promising new steps, but they have miles to walk. This new government has to be held accountable for all the steps they take, commended for the good they do and taken to task for their wrongs. Never again should a regime as dastardly and corrupt as the last be allowed to surface and soak the founding principles of Sri Lankan society, one that still teaches ‘values’ in her schools.
This is not a victory for the Muslims or Tamils. Neither did the Sinhalese win with the help of their other racial counterparts. The oldest democracy in Asia’s people got together to depose what they thought was a representation of everything that isn’t Sri Lankan. They did so to regain the Sri Lanka they know.
That is how it should be.
I am a Muslim. I voted for the winning candidate. It is against the grain of these sentiments to highlight that I voted in a Sinhalese, but I did, and not just because there wasn’t a suitable Muslim candidate. I am from the political majority, a majority that should embrace the minority to form a cohesive Sri Lanka. Not as a monotonous people, but as a united people.
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