Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Critiquing the President's Victory Speech

Evidence of a majoritarian mindset?

by Qadri Ismail, Groundviews.org, August 21, 2009

Especially since the president did not say, in a significant omission, that he has also removed the word “majority” from his vocabulary. Which begs the question: are we to believe that the Sinhalese, the majority, will continue to dominate the country, politically and otherwise?...

For, if one calls a group a minority, it is doomed, always, by definition, to be unequal to the majority, to require protection. To always be the object, never a subject, of the polity...

The president...is firm: a solution to the problem of the minorities shall be based, grounded, on the philosophy of Buddhism, the religion of the majority.

Authors note: The following is the text of a talk before a forum on minority rights organized by the CPA in July. It should, ideally, have been edited for publication. But, given the recent death threat against CPA Director, Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, is offered here as a gesture of solidarity. Saravanamuttu is one of Sri Lanka’s most consistent, courageous, anti-racist voices. I am not surprised that the mass-murdering, corrupt, militaristic, totalitarian-inclined government of the Rajapakses would want to silence him.

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My brief today is specific: to reflect on a provocative statement in the president’s victory speech after the military defeat of the LTTE. The speech as a whole, given its occasion and its content, demands serious consideration, debate. Its implications are grave, for the minorities, for those who require ethnic equality as a grounding principle of a fair and enabling polity, and for those who believe in debate and disagreement as another imperative of such a polity. My remarks will address these questions, in the course of a reading of the speech, which is offered to this gathering by a literary critic and a Sri Lankan citizen. A citizen marked, not incidentally, as Muslim, a minority.

Given my relative lack of facility with Sinhala, the language in which the speech was delivered before parliament, my quotations are from the English translation available on the President’s official website. I will first address the implications of the speech, as I see them, for the minorities, for ethnic equality; and then turn to the question of disagreement.

Early in the speech, most of which denounces the LTTE and praises the armed forces, the president asserts that he does “not accept a military solution as the final solution.” This is to be welcomed. But the questions arise: what would be the contours of the alternative, what he calls a “political solution”? What would be its basis, or ground? Put differently, what is the problem that requires a solution?

The speech addresses these questions. The president is firmly, categorically, one could even say irrevocably, committed to a unitary state. Any form of devolution which would alter the unitary status of the constitution is off the table. As for the problem, in his opinion, the Tamils have been “denied the right to life…freedom…[and] development.” Others might hold, I certainly would, that the Tamils have been systematically oppressed by Sinhala majoritarianism, at least since the pan-Sinhala Board of Ministers of 1936. But the president doesn’t go that far. The Tamils have been denied some rights. Significantly enough, no agent is identified, named, of such denial. We are left to wonder whether the agent is the Sinhala majoritarian state, only the LTTE, or both.

The president’s silence on this question is telling. For, if the problem is Sinhala majoritarianism, the solution, to be effective, must address it. Must involve a reconstitution of the state on non-majoritarian grounds. Whereas granting Tamil rights need not involve such reconstitution. If the problem is just the LTTE, of course, it has already been solved. But that is not the president’s position.

Here, then, is that provocative statement: “We have removed the word minorities from our vocabulary three years ago. No longer are the Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any others minorities.”

One reason this statement could be considered provocative is because, to those who hold that minorities have, or should be legally and constitutionally recognized as having, certain rights as a group, the president could be understood as effectively denying such rights. Given the brutal record of this government, against the Muslims as well as Tamils, this is a credible fear. Especially since the president did not say, in a significant omission, that he has also removed the word “majority” from his vocabulary. Which begs the question: are we to believe that the Sinhalese, the majority, will continue to dominate the country, politically and otherwise? Only, now, with a terminological difference, calling the Tamils etc something else? Is the speech, in other words, subtly, but effectively, majoritarian?

Of course, another reading of the statement is possible – one that a literary critic like myself would be sympathetic to. For, inherent in the term minority is the word minor – which means lesser, unimportant, even insignificant, inconsequential. To a deconstructive literary critic, these senses of the word are concatenated, tightly connected, inextricable. Minority always means both a smaller group, numerically, and a lesser one, consequentially. You cannot use it in the first sense without implying the other, even if you don’t intend to. Language is not something an individual controls, but is social, which we all inherit. Words have histories; they are implicated with politics and society.

Recognizing this, political science has produced at least one alternative to majoritarianism – consociationalism. Taking ethnicity, not just citizenship, as the ground of a plural polity, it seeks to constitute such polities through institutionalizing a combination of group and individual rights. I do not uncritically endorse such an alternative to our unitary constitution; consociationalism has its own difficulties. But, along with federalism, consociationalism should, I submit, be an approach we at least debate. It forms, for instance, the ground of the Northern Ireland agreement. There are also other alternatives to majoritarianism, outside political science, including that which could be called taking turns, which I don’t have the time to discuss fully today.

These alternatives are ground on the belief that to be considered minor, lesser, is profoundly disabling, demeaning, unacceptable. The notion of minority rights, deeply problematic. For, if one calls a group a minority, it is doomed, always, by definition, to be unequal to the majority, to require protection. To always be the object, never a subject, of the polity. From such a perspective, ethnically plural polities, to be fair and equal, must be constituted outside the logic of number. Outside the terminology of major and minor. Rather, all the constituent groups of such a polity must be seen as equal subjects.

From such a perspective, the president’s statement suggests that Tamils, Muslims, Malays, Burghers, etc are no less important to him and his government than Sinhalese, the majority. That all Sri Lankan citizens are truly equal. If this is the case, the statement is not just to be welcomed, but applauded. But for this to be effectively the case, the president, and government, would have to be against not just the term minority, but the politics of majoritarianism.

The question before us, then, is how does one read this statement? Is it opposed to majoritarianism? One time-honored method of reading is to figure out the author’s intention; to ask, what did the president intend? But, in order to do so, one would have to get inside his head – a feat that deconstruction considers impossible. A second method would be to read the statement against the actions of the government. For instance, to ask, is such a statement consistent with a government that, not too long ago, ordered hundreds of Tamils visiting Colombo and its environs from the north expelled? Is such a statement consistent with forcibly confining some three hundred thousand Tamils, almost all of whom have not taken up arms against the government, who are charged with no crime, in internment camps in the Vanni, our own Guantanamo, only larger? Are these Tamils free? What about the northern Muslims? Are they free to go back to their homes in Jaffna, Mannar and elsewhere? Are they equal citizens of Sri Lanka?

If one answers such questions in the negative, one is led, inevitably, to call the president’s statement hypocritical. I do not choose to do so not because I consider Rajapakse incapable of hypocrisy, but because facts are unstable, slippery things. Their meaning can always be contested.

Rather, being a literary critic, I prefer to continue reading the speech. It might give us some clues. The passage immediately following the one cited above goes thus: “There are only two peoples in this country. One is the people that love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth. Those who do not love the country are now a lesser group.”

A couple of points are worthy of note about this passage. The first is its binary, absolutist logic: it divides the country, definitively, into “only” two groups – those who love the country and those who don’t. There is no middle ground. The president doesn’t call the latter traitors; but it is not, I submit, far-fetched to note such an implication. After all, the word for a lover of country is patriot; its antonym, traitor. These two words have a long history, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. For instance, you will no doubt recall that another warrior president, of the country in which I live most of the year, the United States. George W. Bush, famously said, during his self-proclaimed “war on terror,” that U.S. citizens were either with him, or against him. There was no middle ground. To argue for a political response to Islamic extremism, as many of us did publicly at the time, was to be complicitous with terror.

The second point is that the president calls those who, in his opinion, don’t love the country, small, lesser. They are not termed minorities; but are, effectively, minoritized, delegitimized. Which raises, to my mind, further questions: does one have to love a country just because one happens to be born in it? What, in the first place, does it mean to love a country? Must one uncritically endorse its government?

Let’s keep reading; the speech will give us clues: “This small group questions as to whose victory this is. Our answer is that this is not a victory by President Mahinda Rajapaksa alone. The people are gathering around the National Flag…this victory belongs to the people so lined up behind the National Flag.”

To this logic, those who love the country wouldn’t hesitate to stand behind its flag. But let’s take a closer look at the flag. To state the obvious, it’s dominated by an armed lion. As the report of the National Flag Committee of the 1950s reminds us, the lion is meant to represent the Sinhalese. The two stripes beside it, the minorities. Now the president may have dropped the word minority from his vocabulary but, I submit, since the two stripes, individually and together, occupy a smaller space on the flag than that given the lion, our flag effectively minoritizes those groups, represents them as lesser. Unlike, for instance, the Indian flag, where the saffron and green stripes are of equal dimensions.

In such a reading, I submit, to stand behind, or beside, our flag is to endorse Sinhala majoritarian dominance. If all Sri Lankan groups are indeed equal in this country today, surely this should be manifest in our flag? If the president holds that there are no minorities in Sri Lanka, shouldn’t he, by his own logic, be committed to changing the flag to reflect such a position? How can one credibly ask the minorities, or anybody committed to ethnic equality, to stand behind such a flag, one that represents, reinforces, if symbolically, the subordination of these same minorities? Could those who refuse to salute the flag for this reason amount to nothing more, or less, than traitors?

Can one love this country – or any country, for that matter – but disapprove of its flag? Can one love this country and oppose, not the Sinhalese, a people, but Sinhala majoritarianism, a politics?

The president’s speech suggests otherwise. In arguing for “a solution of our very own, of our own nation,” the speech also outlines the grounds of “a solution acceptable to all sections of the people”: “I believe that the solution…[from] we who respect the qualities of Mettha (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Muditha (Rejoicing in others’ joy) and Upeksha (Equanimity), based on the philosophy of Buddhism…can bring both relief and an example to the world. Similarly, I seek the support of all political parties for that solution.”

The president, one should note, does not call for ideas or proposals towards a solution. He is not interested in consulting different shades of opinion, letting there be debate, disagreement. His position is firm: a solution to the problem of the minorities shall be based, grounded, on the philosophy of Buddhism, the religion of the majority. All political parties, and by extension all citizens, are merely asked to support, to assent, to this. This is, I submit, a strange, troubling view of politics – which, by definition, involves more than one party. But, in this understanding, one party alone can propose a solution.

Would this make those who disagree traitors, since there are only two kinds of Sri Lankans today?

I do not know what the president would say in response, but his brother, the Secretary of Defense, is on record, with the BBC earlier this year, equating dissent with treason. Unequivocally, definitively, absolutely. Without any middle ground. The occasion was questioning about the murder of my friend and former colleague, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

Lasantha, as we know, spent much of his professional life critiquing the government – whether it was led by Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremasinghe or Mahinda Rajapaksa. I did not agree with all his criticisms, some of which were undeniably petty. But it was, I submit, an act of love. He wanted this country to be a more enabling, livable, democratic, non-corrupt, ethnically fair and equal place. He welcomed disagreement with his own positions. Lasantha’s writing demonstrates that one can, indeed that one must, critique that which one loves. Uncritical love is called worship.

Now the president is not his brother; but the posters all over the country, if nothing else, signify the closeness of their bond. They stand beside each other, symbolically and otherwise. They are inextricable. Consequently, I cannot but read the president’s speech as a subtle but effective expression of Sinhala majoritarianism. This, by itself, is a legitimate political position. However, the president presents it as not open to question, debate, disagreement. Given the lack of such a commitment, given the absolutist division of the country into two shades of opinion, one of which is delegitimized, given the implicit equation of the latter with treachery, the speech emerges, chillingly, as a warning to those who might dissent. It suggests that there is only one way to love this country. That would manifest itself in waving our majoritarian flag and uncritically endorsing a majoritarian government.

I love Sri Lanka, but am opposed to majoritarianism. So, for what it’s worth, I disagree.

Qadri Ismail is associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota. He has also been a journalist in Sri Lanka.