By Ameen Izzadeen
The Sri Lanka Podujana Permauna’s triumph in the August 5 general election is massive if not astounding, given the improbabilities of the Proportional Representation system. But if there is one infliction that blemishes this super majority victory, it is racism.
The undercurrents of racism were evident even this week. The day before the new cabinet ministers and state ministers took oath, distorted National flags fluttered in the centre of the Kandy city. The flags were sans their stripes that symbolized minority communities. Of late, this particular version of the Lion flag has come to symbolize the ideology of anti-minority ultranationalists.
It appeared that, by displaying the ultranationalist version of the Lion flag, some people in authority want to send a stern message to the minorities that they were not part of Sri Lanka. Their action goes against the pledge President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gives in his presidential election manifesto – which was also touted as the SLPP’s general election manifesto — that he would build a pluralistic and inclusive Sri Lanka.
Saner counsel, however, seemed to have prevailed and the full national flags replaced the distorted ones later in the day.
In minority circles, fears are being expressed over certain ultranationalist candidates who contested on the SLPP ticket and won handsomely. These candidates form what could be called Sri Lanka’s Alt-Right. Like the white supremacists in America, Lankan alt-right ideologues do not believe in equality and inclusiveness. They promote Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and even resort to blatant lies to whip up anti-minority hatred. Some of these politicos were linked with the anti-Muslim violence at Digana in Kandy in 2018 and in the Gampaha and Kurunegala districts last year following the Easter Sunday terror attacks.
These politicos’ actions and views go contrary to the stated policies of the President and the Prime Minister. In his address to the nation during the ceremonial opening of parliament on May 19, 2009, the day on which the 30-year civil war ended, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa said there were no minorities in Sri Lanka and there were only two categories of people in the country – those who love the country and those who do not.
But political realities and the absence of statesman-like political behaviour have given a free rein to alt-right politicos. It is unfortunate that the ruling SLPP – the leading national-level party today — has subscribed to the belief that it can win elections solely on the strength of the votes of the Sinhalese who make up 75 percent of the country’s population. To get their votes, the party failed to dissociate itself from ultranationalist viewpoints emerging from its support bases.
The SLPP must realize that by being inclusive also it can win elections. Such a victory will be truly national, while the former approach contributes to the polarization of society and it could be harmful to the county in the long-term. This is because national security or national interest of a country will be served better only when there is national unity in diversity.
This view is supported by International Relations Professor Barry Buzan who in a seminal work identified various security threats from within the state. Among these threats are state policies directed against certain individuals or communities.
If only we had national unity, we would not have been devastated by the 30-year civil war and we would have been a prosperous country today.
The importance of national unity also assumes greater strategic importance in the context of Indian Ocean geopolitics and global power rivalry. It is worth recalling Aesop’s fable on the bundle of sticks. A dying old man had a number of sons who often quarrelled with each other. To teach them an object lesson in unity, he called them to his bedside, gave them a bundle of sticks and asked them to break them. When they failed, he gave the sons a stick each and told them to break. This they did. The morale of the story is: united we stand, divided we are broken into pieces.
Where there is no national unity, there is plenty of space for fifth columns to surface if this country one day faces an invasion by a foreign power. A “fifth column” is defined as a treasonous group who secretly undermine a nation from within.
We cannot rule out the possibility of an invasion. Just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit us unawares, we might one day find foreign troops all of a sudden in our midst. We need to be prepared. The best defence against a foreign invasion is national unity.
The colonial powers could rule Sri Lanka for 550 years because we were not united in opposition to their presence. The vast Ottoman Empire was defeated only after its enemies divided the Ottoman subjects along racial lines. Recent political developments in the Middle East and elsewhere also stand as a testimony to the link between foreign invasion and national disunity. The US was able to invade and occupy Iraq, because the Iraqis were not united. The Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the South colluded with the US.
The US-led coalition captured Kabul without much resistance because the Afghans were divided along ethnic and ideological lines. The Northern Alliance dominated by the minority Tajiks collaborated with the US troops and ousted the Taliban regime dominated by the majority Pashtun community.
However, Iran’s case is different. The US, Israel and Saudi Arabia clamour for a regime change in Iran, but they are unable to invade Iran, because, they do not have the backing of a fifth column.
Judging by these examples, a reasonable suspicion arises whether the groups which incite racial hatred in Sri Lanka are being backed by a foreign power with an ulterior motive. This is a matter to be studied by those who are tasked with ensuring the country’s national security. The logic is simple: Racism divides people, generating the necessary conditions and space for the emergence of dissident groups, which may collude with a foreign power planning an invasion.
Given the invaders’ strategy of divide and conquer and Sri Lanka’s vulnerability as a location of strategic importance, the Sri Lankan government should make striking national unity and bringing about total inclusiveness a top priority. The accommodation of dangerous alt-right ideologies for short-term political gains may in the long run cause bigger damage to national security.
But wait a minute, there is no minister of national integration in the new cabinet.