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Governments have ensure hegemonic control of State by majority community

by Lynn Ockersz

It is of some interest that the Lankan state is beginning to at least broach the question of ‘guaranteeing’ the rights of all citizens, now that it believes that the ‘terror’ threat to the country’s peace and stability has been effectively dealt with. There was, for instance, Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe who told the annual sessions of the Organization of Professional Associations recently that, ’the government is working on a National Action Plan to develop human rights and guarantee the rights of all Sri Lankans’. He went on to say that the government was committed to developing multiethnic and bilingual public institutions.

The Minister elaborated that ‘this would help recreate Sri Lanka’s wonderful diversity and protect the civil and political rights of every citizen in this country.’ This amounts to making the right ‘noises’ now that the GSP+ facility is hanging in the balance and is proving a prime worry for the government, coupled with a number of other challenges currently staring Sri Lanka in the face, stemming essentially from her amateurish handling of foreign relations over the past few months, but for the ‘ordinary people’ of this country or the disempowered, these pronouncements should not be matters of indifference. Hopefully, the observer is not mistaken in the belief that human rights and their implementation have not been entirely relegated to the margins of state concern.

Human rights have been, of course, at the heart of Sri Lanka’s political storms over the decades and it could be said that for the most part human rights in their entirety have only enjoyed an existence on paper in this country but it emerges as something new that the government is now thinking in terms of a ‘National Action Plan to develop human rights’. This amounts to an admission that human rights have not been fully, vibrantly and consistently implemented or rendered ‘actionable’ by the state and its agencies over the years.

Only time will tell whether the government is in earnest when it speaks eloquently about ‘Action Plans’ on the people’s rights, but it need hardly be said that the way ahead for the state is strewn with challenges of a very daunting kind, if indeed it is serious, considering that the current UPFA administration has been one of the most populist governments to emerge in post-independence Sri Lanka to date.

However, it needs to be conceded that all governments since 1948 have been more or less populist in domestic policy orientation and have not diverged much from the premise that they should not be seen by the majority community as compromising what this community sees as its principal interests. In other words, governments have not veered from the policy of ensuring hegemonic control of the state by the majority community, although, of course, syrupy lip service has been abundantly paid by all post-independence governments to concepts, such as, multiculturalism and pluralism.

Coming back to the basics in the issue of granting and implementing human rights in their totality, the impartial observer cannot but point to some glaring constitutional anomalies in this context. The 1978 constitution contains a chapter on human rights but the constitution virtually ‘takes away with one hand what it gives with the other’, when equality of status for all religions is not envisaged, although the right to practise or ‘manifest’ one’s religion is guaranteed. However, the obligation on the part of the state to give ‘foremost place’ to the majority religion, undermines the slender democratic attributes of the Lankan state and paves the way for the emergence of an unequal citizenry.

The steady and deliberate politicization of religion, or the exploitation of religion by political actors to build their power bases, contributes towards the entrenchment of this anomaly of an unequal citizenry. If the state is obliged to attach foremost status to a particular religion, it would be compelled to be seen as always working towards the interests of the religion in question. It cannot be seen as being overly accommodative of the interests of other religions, however much worthy the latter may prove to be of such treatment. The end result could be the perception among the latter that they are being treated unequally.

Freedom of worship and religious tolerance have, generally speaking, continued uncompromised in Sri Lanka, although the perception of ‘forced conversions’ and the issues growing out of it, have spurred tensions in some quarters over the years, and resulted in the vandalizing of some Christian places of worship, despite Articles 10 and 14 (1) (e) of the constitution guaranteeing, among other things, ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ and the freedom for one to manifest one’s ‘religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching…’.

More specifically, the obligation on the part of the state to attach ‘foremost’ status to a particular religion could and has led to discriminatory practices against those professing and practising what are referred to as minority religions, in some state institutions. The danger in attaching ‘foremost’ status to some religions is that merit could be overlooked in the matter of promotions and elevation of position of those seen as minority religionists, in these institutions, since seeming adherence to the preferred religion comes to be seen as a chief qualification for career advancement. As should be expected, such discriminatory treatment leads to a sense of grievance among those thus affected, besides the credibility of the state being severely eroded among those being called upon to bear these slights.

Now that the state is considering it a matter of policy ‘to develop multiethnic and bilingual public institutions’, these considerations need to be borne in mind lest the long overdue project proves a failure and a sham exercise.

The state cannot wax lyrical about the importance of merit in the issue of particularly public sector career advancement, and through the back door as it were, shower ascriptive privileges and benefits on preferred cultures, communities and religions. This amounts to a travestying of the human rights provisions of the constitution.

Sri Lanka’s citizenship laws adopt some very simple rules of the thumb in the granting of Lankan citizenship but the discriminatory practices adopted by some state institutions leave one with the impression that full citizenship could be enjoyed by only some members of the majority community and religion. Needless to say, it is rampant discrimination of this kind which fanned the flames of ethnic hatred.

As pointed out by this writer over the months, while on the question of nation-building in post-LTTE Sri Lanka, the government should seriously consider outlawing racism in all its manifestations if it is earnestly considering resolving the ethnic conflict. Of course, such legislation would constitute only the initial steps towards resolving the conflict. The state would need to look at extensive devolution if it intends managing the conflict even to a degree, but it could help bridge the gap among our communities by outlawing racism in the first instance.

Meanwhile, some overzealous apologists who spat fire for a military solution are not helping in the task of national reconciliation by dangerously dramatizing the state’s military victory over the Tigers as a triumph for a ‘Sinhala’ army. To be fair, the state avoids seeing the concluded war in these terms, since it wants to project ethnic reconciliation as one of its priorities, but those seeking its favours seem to be thinking otherwise and very unfortunately so. Seeing the conflict in starkly ethnic terms, besides other destabilizing consequences, helps in perpetuating the controversial conceptualization of Lankan citizenship as having only a strong ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ content.

Besides proving that it is more than able and willing to rectify the numerous lapses in the area of human rights implementation which have been continually surfacing, only some of which have been dwelt on in this comment, the state needs to urgently eliminate from the popular consciousness myths that have been lingering about the Sri Lankan identity. There is no way out but to emphasize and institutionalize the multiethnic and plural character of the Lankan state.

6 Comments

Mahinda Samarasinghe is no doubt singing for his supper. Whenever we need money we talk about Human Rights. What use of a National Plan when existing laws are ignored. We hear about such abuses all the time on daily basis. The main perpetrators are the politicians and their hangers on who seen to have the right to overide any laws or rights of ordinary folk. So Mahinda Samarasinghe should start right there and put Govts house in order. Also teach his boss a thing or two about the human rights of IDP's etc. Physician heal thyself.

Posted by: Gamarala | October 15, 2009 07:46 PM

Reconciliation? What is there to Reconcile? TAMILS Supported the LTTE to go to War with Sri Lanka. They Tried to Kill us, they LOST... there is nothing to RECONCILE. Now all they are left with is a TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT situation.

If there was an opportunity for Reconciliation, it expired the moment the LTTE fired its first gun at us in 2006.

Posted by: Devinda Fernando | October 16, 2009 12:02 AM

Well written, but the writer has ignored the 20 years of peaceful means the Tamils have tried, for devolution of power to them.

It is only the state sponsored terrorism that was the result of the formation of LTTE.

Surely state sponsored terrorism was far worse than any the LTTE has done.

The state sponsored terrorism of 1983 alone is many thousands time more than what all the Tamils may have done.

Can anyone deny this by an honest statement of facts?

Posted by: Canaga | October 16, 2009 04:46 AM

Well written, but the writer has ignored the 20 years of peaceful means the Tamils have tried, for devolution of power to them.

It is only the state sponsored terrorism that was the result of the formation of LTTE.

Surely state sponsored terrorism was far worse than any the LTTE has done.

The state sponsored terrorism of 1983 alone is many thousands time more than what all the Tamils may have done.

Can anyone deny this by an honest statement of facts?

Posted by: Canaga | October 16, 2009 04:46 AM

Devinda Fernando is honest on his thinking and represents the current state of mentality of the majority comunity members who do have access to the power in Colombo.

But he is not honest when he makes the following statement as he is desperately looking for a reason to maintain the hegemonic control over the Tamils. "If there was an opportunity for Reconciliation, it expired the moment the LTTE fired its first gun at us in 2006". Because, there is no significance ( or special reasons) attached to hate LTTE (and Tamils) more, after that 2006 mavilaru incident, he must be referring to.

Under these circumstances, Devinda Fernando's options are the only option for the Tamils in SL, that is, take it or leave it. Therefore, it is the duty of the International community (we cannot expect the Devinda Fernando's SL govt or it's friends) to ensure human rights of Tamils and allow them to in peace with dignity.

But, how can they achieve this in Devinda Fernando's SL, which offers only a take it or leave it option? Is this the right time to think outside the box? or outside SL? May ship all Tamils to foreign countries and provide them with local citizenship or carve out what belongs to Tamil within SL?

International community (except for the known human right violators and SL govt supporters) need to take a hard look.


Posted by: M FERN | October 16, 2009 01:19 PM

The writer has come out with some critiques of the many shortcomings of the regime in the media recently – and that is refreshing. At least that much of space is still available in the Lankan scene - where most journalists, for good reason, live in a sense of insecurity, is encouraging. One hopes there will be many more journalists willing to write courageously, fearlessly and - more importantly – ensure a diversity of views from the public at least in the private media. This is now seriously lacking. One sees more critical views of GoSL and its main actors in these columns than in the Colombo English press.

ISS

Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | October 16, 2009 08:09 PM

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