The American People Have Made History ... Can Sri Lankans Ever?





Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, Ph.D. (Wales) M.Sc. (Bristol) M.Sc. (Salford) B.A. (Hons) (Delhi), is the Principal Researcher of the Point Pedro Institute of Development, Point Pedro, Northern Sri Lanka and a Fulbright Visiting Research Scholar at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, DC, U.S.A. Corrections, comments and suggestions are welcome to sarvi@gwu.edu

In April 2008 I met an American national in Colombo who works for the World Bank in Washington, DC. At that time both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were contesting for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination and John McCain was already the sole contender for the Republican Party Presidential nomination. When we conversed about the upcoming American Presidential election he told me that, although in his opinion John McCain was too old for the office of the President, he believed American people are still not “ready” for a woman or non-white person to become the President of the United States.     

His prognosis was proved wrong on November 04th when the American people made history by electing their first African American President. I was fortunate to be just a couple of blocks away from the White House to witness this historic moment of the American people; minority communities in particular who overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama. My thoughts went back home; can we Sri Lankans ever make the same epic history? I remembered the pronunciations by heads of two pillars of the Sri Lankan state, viz. the chief executive and the head of the armed forces. In 1994, the then President of Sri Lanka claimed that the minority communities are mere branches of the majority Sinhalese community. Just a couple of months ago, in September 2008, the chief of the Sri Lanka Army said that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese (majority community) and therefore minority communities should not demand “too much”.

It is not that this kind of racial supremacy exists in Sri Lanka alone; it is all over the world, but America has crossed this supremacist disposition on November 04th 2008. United Kingdom is an example of the supremacism of the majority community, viz. the English. I still vividly remember the national elections of 1992 when John Major of the Conservative Party (incumbent Prime Minister) and Neil Kinnock of the Labour Party (Opposition Leader) were contending for Premiership, while I was a postgraduate student in the UK. Whilst most opinion polls showed a very close run between the two parties, on the day of the election (April 09th) The Sun newspaper (the most popular tabloid at that time) had a banner headline and lead story that was widely believed to have contributed to the loss of the Labour Party and its leader Neil Kinnock at that election. The Sun asked the British people to switch off their lights in order to mark dark times ahead if a “Welshman”, Neil Kinnock, was elected. Despite moving his Labour Party away from leftwing politics, Neil Kinnock lost to John Major largely due to his ethnicity, I believe. Even now, there are undercurrents of racism whipped up by certain media (and perhaps by certain sections of the Conservative Party as well) against the incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown who is a Scotsman. These experiences indicate that it is a Herculean task for a person other than English to be elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In this respect, American people have proved to be above the rest in the World.                 

The case of Sri Lanka is different from the United States or the United Kingdom at least in one important respect. In the case of African Americans, Scottish or the Welsh, they by and large speak the language of the majority community and their religion is by and large the same as that of the majority community (different denominations of Christianity notwithstanding). Whereas in the case of Sri Lanka, Tamil and Muslim minority communities by and large speak a different language and follow different religions than the majority community. Thus, whilst the majority community speaks Sinhalese and is largely Buddhist, Tamils and Moors speak Tamil and are largely Hindu and Muslim respectively.

Nevertheless, the demographic composition of the United States is almost the same as in Sri Lanka; in the former the majority community accounts for 73% of the total population (minority communities account for 27%) and in the latter it is 74% (minority communities account for 26%). In spite of the differences in ethnicity, a common language binds the people of America (religious sectarianisms notwithstanding), which is not the case in Sri Lanka. Having said that, the differences between the United States and Sri Lanka go beyond the differences in languages or religions of the peoples of these two countries. It is more to do with the fundamental differences in the governance structures of the two countries: for example, America is a federal state while Sri Lanka is a unitary state; America does not have a state religion whereas Sri Lanka does. Moreover, affirmative action programmes have made America an inclusive society (notwithstanding enduring discrimination in many respects even now), whereas in Sri Lanka lukewarm implementation of the dual official language policy and discrimination in education and employment opportunities have alienated the minority communities. These are some of the fundamental differences between the two countries.         

United States

 

Sri Lanka

Ethnicity

Share in the population

Ethnicity

Share in the population

Caucasian American

73 %

Sinhalese

74%

African American

12 %

Tamils – E&N

10%

Hispanic

11 %

Moors

8%

 

 

Tamils – hill country

5%

Others

4%

Others

3%

TOTAL

100 %

 

100%

Nonetheless, Barack Obama’s election as the President of the United States has given a glimmer of hope to minority communities around the world, including in Sri Lanka, that they too could become rulers of their respective country by peaceful democratic means. It is a powerful, peaceful message against separatist nationalism and armed violence of marginalised communities around the world for equality, justice and freedom. In order to emulate the American historical feat of November 04, 2008, States that are confronting separatist nationalist struggles (by peaceful means – ala Scotland and Quebec – as well as by armed rebellion – ala Palestine and Sri Lanka) should reform its governance structures to be inclusive based on equality of opportunities, irrespective of gender, race, religion, etc.



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shan perera - 1/12/2009

Sri Lanka can have a Tamil president at least a prime minister. We had a Tamil foreign minister a few years ago Lakshman Kadiragamar who was tipped to be a future prime minister buy the ltte gunned him down.

Eelamist would say that he was with the establishment, so is Obama. If Obama was against the establishment he would never be president.

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