Last week, this newspaper reported that some hotels in the Mirissa Bay area were refusing to serve Sri Lankans on the purported ‘uncivilized’ behaviour of local visitors.
The report quoted a humiliated customer as complaining of being turned away from several places, when he ordered a simple cup of coffee. Since people don’t get high over a cup of coffee, those are not preventive measures to wade off alcohol fuelled idiosyncrasies. What we are talking about is a clear cut case of apartheid, in which, Sri Lankans as a whole are being reduced to second class citizens in their own land, ironically at the hand of some folks in Mirissa, who before the trickle of tourists there, survived on the very locals they now refuse to serve.
Second, whatever those hoteliers may claim as the pretext, a blanket ban on the locals is patently unconstitutional.
The Sri Lankan Constitution prohibits the discrimination on race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth.
Article 12.2 states: “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds.”
However, no Constitution is worth the paper it is written on unless its guarantees are implemented; and they cannot be implemented when those who are entrusted to enforce them are ignorant and regressive in thinking, in the same way the folks who refuse to serve locals in Mirissa are. Since the Sri Lanka Tourism authorities who are meant to regulate the industry have so far failed to act, it seems we have plenty of those sorts in high places.
This is not a joke, though it is taking place in some sleepy corner in the Down South. Imagine the implications, if every fish monger, barber, hospital, super market or a school is given right to refuse serving people on the grounds of their ethnic group, religion, colour of skin or the caste origin.
Imagine a hypothetical context where the hoteliers in Jaffna refusing to se rve those hordes of Sinhalese visiting the north using the same logic used by the chaps in Mirissa, or a Sinhalese shop owner refusing to sell goods to Muslims or vice versa.
Then, since Sinhalese tourists have to be housed somewhere and Muslim or Tamil shoppers have to buy their groceries, we will have to open shops catering exclusively to particular ethnic or religious groups, and barring others on their ethnic or religious orientation. We will be living in a hellhole of segregated society.
However, those extremes do not normally happen, because the majority of sane people are not bigots or ignorant idiots. That is also why we have strong Constitutional provisions on equality. When those guarantees are breached, they have to be rectified, offenders be brought to book and measures be taken to avoid recurrence. And if there are gray areas of existing laws that allow discrimination, they ought to be addressed.
Can a hotel refuse to serve a local for him being a local? The Ministry of Tourism should clarify. (Other than Apartheid South Africa, and the pre- 1960s segregated American South, ‘Tourists Only’ beaches and hotels existed until very recently in Cuba, which is yet another classic case of the inherent contradiction between the promise and the reality of communism.)
And if the Ministry of Tourism believes segregation is permissible (Going by its inaction, it seems to be case),the courts have to intervene.
If all that effort is not worth taking, there is a short cut: We can amend article 12.2 to read as “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds , Except in the case of admission to the white only hotels and future white only beaches.”
That would rectify the constitutional anomaly.
In a way, the conduct of some hoteliers in Mirissa is understandable. Constitutional guarantees could promise the high heaven, but for them to become a reality, there ought to be a degree of enlightenment.
However, enlightenment does not dawn on the nation as a whole. It first occurs at some privileged corners and then trickles down to the rest. It is the responsibility of the government to spread that enlightenment, (in this case, the idea of basic human dignity) to the places and people where it has not yet reached.
The best way to do that is education and persuasion, but since you cannot rely solely on the good heartedness of an individual, a country needs laws to make sure those values are respected and penalties to dissuade offenders.
The world has evolved to be a better and more accepting place for all of its humanity, not just due to voluntarism of mankind, but also due to coercion. Those coercive methods may range from the British civilization exercise in the 19th and 20th century to Lee Kuan Yew’s loo law that fined those who do not flush the toilet after using it.
In a country at our economic and social conditions, an enlightened government and elites should enforce enlightened laws and implement those that already exist to guide the rest of humanity along the path of civilization. Of course, that should also include penalties for the offenders who wreak havoc after a couple of shots , not only in Mirissa, though those antics have pretty much become part of boozing culture in this country.
There is another point. The arbitrariness of some small- time hoteliers in Mirissa highlights a greater problem: the absence of a regulatory framework and therefore the void in basic business ethics in Sri Lanka’s small businesses- be they be self- employed pavement hawkers, road side eateries or the newly sprung hotels in Mirissa.
Policy makers of this country have shown an unholy obsession to regulate large scale businesses and investors, which are capable of self -regulation, while the disorganized small businesses remain a law unto themselves. We have Public Health Inspectors raiding five star hotels, when right before their eyes many thousands of road side eateries sell rot, with garbage pilled on the floor and if any, have nauseating crumbling toilets. We have excessive labour, land and environment regulations that hinder the growth of existing big businesses and discourage new investments, when workers struggle in informal small business work for slave wages under gruelling conditions.
Those suffocating regulations hinder the growth of organized business, thereby depriving many millions in our workforce their rightful opportunity to find jobs that offer better salaries and other benefits. Those jobs are generally in the formal sector, those are the ones that bring in new technology, train workers and pay decent salaries. Their standards have spin off effects on small business , and help the latter in their growth trajectory.
Sri Lanka needs to nurture its small business, but it should also set minimum standards for those ventures. They cannot operate in the state of the nature. If nothing else, those thousands of eaters can be told to clean their toilets and dress their waiters in pleasant attire, and hoteliers in Mirissa can be given a lesson on human dignity and equality.
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