The quest for true freedom | Sunday Observer

The quest for true freedom

Freedom, liberty and independence. Three words that seemingly have the same meaning, but differ in their interpretation. Sri Lanka gained independence from the British rulers on February 4, 1948, exactly 70 years ago. This was a turning point for freedom in the history of our nation.

Independence is not just a facility that we gain from someone. It is also a state of mind. We must really feel free and independent as a nation to reap the full benefits of the struggle for independence that succeeded in 1948. Sri Lanka has gone through a tumultuous 70 years, mainly as a result of the shortsighted and ethnic centred policies of our politicians, most of whom thought only about their own political survival. Unfortunately, they did not think about maintaining ethnic harmony and unity, in doing so which ultimately resulted in one of the longest-running conflicts in Asia. Opportunistic politicians planted the seeds of discord and rancour in the hearts and minds of people, which tended to marginalize certain communities and religious groups.

Their actions finally led to a massive conflagration that consumed the lives of nearly 100,000 youth and others, while destroying the country’s social and economic fabric. Although the conflict finally ended in 2009, the hearts of all Sri Lankans will take many more decades to heal. Yes, there is a massive development process underway in the previously war-torn areas, but what is more important is making those people inclusive in the nation’s journey to greatness. Physical progress alone cannot achieve this noble objective. Today, we have an enlightened leadership that has seen the dangers of ethnic division and vowed not to repeat the same mistakes.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was one of the most important initiatives undertaken in recent memory. Although it was appointed by the previous administration, the latter was reluctant to implement any of its forward-thinking recommendations. The idea behind the LLRC is a simple one – we must learn lessons from the tragic 30-year conflict and ensure that we never go down the same path again. The present administration has taken steps to implement most of the LLRC recommendations aimed at shaping a harmonious nation.

In fact, the Government has recognized ethnic reconciliation as the number one priority. All other initiatives will come to naught if we cannot achieve reconciliation among different communities. There is bound to be some level of mistrust between members of various communities after a three decade long conflict, but the time has come to move forward. Any attempt at inflaming ethnic passions must be nipped in the bud. Recently, swift action by authorities helped prevent another ‘Aluthgama’ in several areas of the country. Such decisive action is needed to keep the peace.

As the saying goes, it is sometimes easy to win the battle, but keeping the peace is much harder. Peace and reconciliation go hand in hand. We lost the peace that we gained in 1948 because some of our politicians lacked the foresight to maintain reconciliation. This mistake should not be allowed to happen again. There still are certain political, societal and other forces which see internecine conflict as their only salvation and path to political victory. Sri Lankans must eschew their thinking irrespective of any aspects such as, community and religion.

Today, we have a golden opportunity to move forward as a nation sans division and conflict. The proposed new Constitution will be an ideal starting point. All political parties participated in this exercise where the entire Parliament was turned into an assembly for debating on and drafting the new Constitution. The fact that all political parties agreed to participate in this exercise shows that everyone irrespective of politics understands the need to create a new political culture in the country.

While the new Constitution will essentially be a home grown exercise, it does no harm to look at other countries and models to see what can be done better. Singapore’s late Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew was horrified to see Sri Lanka sliding into an abyss spurred by ethnic divisions, so he ensured priority for ethnic harmony in Singapore. Likewise, South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution made certain that everyone, black or white, could call South Africa their own. South Africa’s new national anthem even has words in Afrikaans and the many black South Africans who were oppressed by the Afrikaans-speaking white regime for decades have no qualms about singing these lines with hands on their hearts. In India, the national anthem is actually sung in Bengali, a minority language in a country where most people speak Hindi.

The Common thread in all of these countries is that the people identify themselves as Singaporean, South African and Indian. They do not think of themselves as black, white, Chinese, Malay, Hindu, Tamil, Gujarati or Bengali. This ‘one nation-one people’ identity should precisely be our goal. Whenever we meet someone, our first instinct is to ask him or her, “Are you Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim ?”. The fact that we are all Sri Lankans, wherever we live, does rarely cross our minds.

Evolving a truly Sri Lankan identity should be one of the main priorities and tasks of the new Constitution. It is perhaps time for us to do away with questions such as, “What is your race and religion” in official documentation. If I go to a Police station to lodge a complaint on a break-in, I see no reason why they need to know my community and religion. If we call ourselves Sri Lankan instead of giving racial monikers, half our problems would be solved. This does not mean giving up traditions and beliefs unique to each community – it means, we think of ourselves as one Sri Lankan people.

This should perhaps start in the classroom. Children usually have no preconceived notions or prejudices and it is far easier to inculcate in them a sense of belonging to one Sri Lanka. We are told that Reconciliation will soon be a subject in schools. The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation is also planning to start a Reconciliation Channel from February 21 which will also focus on the same issue. Our Governments have already taken preliminary steps to end the language barrier by teaching Tamil to Sinhala students and vice versa.

Indeed, 10 or 15 years down the road, all young people will be able to speak Sinhala, Tamil and English fluently, which will end all divisions based on language. After all, there will be no room for miscommunication or misunderstanding if everyone knows all three languages. Our institutions should be further bolstered with staffers who can speak and correspond in all three languages, so that there is no room for miscommunication.

Devolution is often a controversial subject, though a necessary one. In fact, the February 10 Local Government is a good example of devolution at work. We will be electing more than 8,000 Local Government representatives who will be our voice at the grassroots level. From Pont Pedro to Dondra Head, they will be united in the task of serving the people regardless of any man-made divisions. Devolution can take many forms and come through a variety of institutions, but it recognizes the stark reality that every province, every district, every village has different needs or priorities in terms of development, social welfare, health and education. The proposed new Constitution will no doubt address this issue as well- devolution will empower the people, not weaken them. There is some confusion over the terms ‘unitary’ and ‘united’ but if you forget the purely political nuances, these words imply that devolution will not separate us at the end of the day. Rather, it will unite us all in the march towards progress. The term ‘Unity in Diversity’ describes this very well. Seemingly, a contradiction of terms, it can work rather well in practice. There are many other countries where this works splendidly. During the independence struggle, leaders from Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay and Burgher communities joined hands to achieve one goal – independence. Now, as we look towards the next 70 years in our post-independence journey, this unity should come to the fore. Again, the concept of unity in diversity has a chance of succeeding only if we come together under one flag, one nation, proud of our identity as Sri Lankans. Division along ethnic and religious lines will serve no purpose other than to drag the country down a slippery slope to oblivion.

As a nation emerging from the embers of a cataclysmic conflict, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We have overcome many odds to reach this milestone, but there are many challenges ahead which have to be faced as one nation, one people. We have to collectively rise out of the mire of poverty and ignorance to become an Asian powerhouse. Remember, all Asian countries other than Japan were poorer than Sri Lanka in 1948. Somewhere along the way, we fell behind. There is a lot of catching up to do, but if we think collectively as Sri Lankans and aspire to do our best for the Motherland, no goal will be impossible.