Political Culture, Ethno-religious Tension and Way Forward

19 May 2014 07:35 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


We all know the direct costs and long term consequences of the North-East conflict that ravaged much of the country for nearly three decades.

The ethno-religious tension prevailing in the country casts a dark cloud over the country’s future and is the last thing that the hapless masses want. Moreover, the country can ill-afford another period of socio-political instability, given the backdrop of violent conflicts in the recent past. There are already many views expressed by various commentators on the causes of the present tensions.  The need of the hour is not to split hairs on the causes and consequences of the new wave of unrest  but to find all possible ways of defusing them to dispel fears and anxieties among all communities so that the ordinary people can get on with their lives and look forward to a stable future.

We all know the direct costs and long term consequences of the North-East conflict that ravaged much of the country for nearly three decades. Many Sri Lankans belonging to all communities simply left the country looking for a better life elsewhere. The exodus of talented and more enterprising individuals deprived the country of indispensable human and financial resources, making the country’s development more difficult. Moreover, the country could not attract much needed long term capital investment, resulting in mounting debts that has become a major burden on the entire population today, besides its various other negative consequences.

Tension between communities is not something new. These have been brewing under the surface for many years. A study conducted by us a few years ago found many potential, ethno-religious flash-points in different parts of the country. These were areas where people belonging to different ethno-religious communities live side by side. In some localities, prevailing tension led to localised skirmishes but the fear of grave consequences of violence persuaded local community leaders to intervene and defuse tension. In many instances, the peace makers were religious leaders.

"the absence of a collective voice against extremism can only encourage the latter"

What is happening today is dangerous. If the law enforcement authorities become ineffective in preventing the breach of the law of the land and maintaining public order, the result can only be more public disorder, creating fear, anger and frustration in the minds of the aggrieved parties. The consequences of such emotions are well known. Not many people want to see aggression and violence in their neighbourhoods involving unruly mobs.

The present tension is as much political as ethno-religious. So, the political leaders in the country cannot shirk their collective responsibility to address the issue forthwith. While the religious leaders belonging to all faiths cannot turn a blind eye on this growing problem, the ordinary people on whose backs the politicians reach their positions of power and privilege deserve at least a peaceful atmosphere in the country so that they can carry on with their lives. Unlike political leaders in this country, they do not have armed guards to escort their vehicles given to them at public expense and protect their residences. So, the minimum that the political leaders should do is to arrive at a non-partisan consensus to say in one voice that they have zero tolerance for ethno-religious violence. Given the fact that it would be hard for any political leader to support or tolerate ethno-religious violence, the voting public in this country in general would expect their elected leaders to at least take a collective stand on the issue which is of great concern to ordinary people belonging to many political parties and different ethno-religious communities.

Given the highly political nature of the phenomenon of ethno-religious violence, the tendency on the part of many political leaders is to remain silent at least partly due to the fear that they might lose some popular support. Yet, the absence of a collective voice against extremism can only encourage the latter.

It is obvious that the political parties and their leaders are in competition with each other for popular support. Yet, we have seen in the past that the rise of all forms of extremism due to diverse circumstances has not been in the wider public interest and that almost everyone suffered as a result, besides setting the country back by several decades in terms of lost opportunities and exodus of people, many of whom would have been a great asset to the country. So, it is the bounden duty of all public-spirited political leaders to shed their petty differences to come together to restore public order and dispel the fears and the anxieties of people, in particular, those of the members of minority communities. Already, several prominent members of the ruling coalition have expressed their opinion on the present situation but these do not amount to a collective stand on the part of the government. The same is true for opposition parties. What is needed at this juncture is to send a clear message to the wider public as to where the political leaders stand on the issue of ethno-religious violence. This could be best done by taking a collective stand in public on the issue and reiterating the view that violent extremism in any form was unacceptable and that people should resort to non-violent means of political expression in resolving disputes rather than taking the law into their own hands. It is also the collective responsibility of political leaders to ensure that state institutions and officials are empowered to address people’s issues without fear or favour so that there is no need for people to take the law into their own hands. If the politicians could demonstrate their collective resolve in the above regard by way of a non-partisan public pronouncement, using the media institutions, it could go a long way to help resolve the present crisis.  We Sri Lankans have not been fortunate enough to witness many instances after independence where political leaders closed ranks to safeguard wider public interest at a time of national calamity. Many of them have thrived on acrimonious and divisive politics and enjoy their privileges and perks at public expense which many of them could never have had if they had to earn them with their professional or other skills. So, this would perhaps be too much to ask for from most of the present crop of politicians. Nonetheless, there are some public spirited politicians across the political and ethno-linguistic spectrum and it is no doubt the desire of hapless masses to see these politicians lead the way and work towards a national agenda to marginalise all forms of ethno-religious extremism. This is the only way to ensure social and political stability in the country. So, if the right thinking political leaders representing diverse political opinion and different communities in the country could come onto a common platform to articulate their collective resolve, it would not only send a clear message to extremist groups but also reassure people that they could look forward to a stable future. This is not the time to encourage more people, in particular the ones with professional skills to find their way out of the country.

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