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Beyond vote numbers

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Minorities are an important part of Sri Lanka and their votes are expected to be a critical factor in the upcoming Presidential Elections but the messaging from the key contenders has failed to genuinely address the needs of these communities and, worse, is in danger of deepening already entrenched communal divides. 

Displaying the name of the Jaffna International Airport (JIA) in Tamil, above Sinhala and English lettering, triggered much debate on social media platforms, particularly Twitter, last week and underscored how politics is used to worsen race relations in Sri Lanka. The debate continues to rage on even though many would argue it should not have been created in the first place. The main administrative language in the North and East is Tamil and there is no legal issue with Tamil being displayed at the top of the signboard. Given that Tamil is the majority language in the North, it is necessary for it to be displayed most prominently. Still others are engaged in a battle to throw suspicion on why JIA was opened at short notice and continue to cast xenophobic aspersions on visa on arrival facilities extended to Indians. The latter has been in existence for a number of years and is available at other international airports in the South as well. Selectively seeking to twist issues in this manner can have serious long-term repercussions for inter-community links.  

Language was at the root of the 27-year war and even a decade later these are issues that need to be dealt with great sensitivity, perspective, empathy and understanding. These are qualities that are in very short supply during the campaigning period. The polarising nature of this discourse is deeply damaging to Sri Lanka and it is unconscionable that politicians and their hangers-on, irrespective of their party, continue to feed this discourse by making blatantly racist statements because they want to corral the Sinhalese vote or overlook minority concerns because they are afraid of losing majority votes. 

Supporters of presidential candidates and indeed the candidates themselves cannot suggest that minority votes are somehow lesser and including the minorities in deciding who will be the next President of Sri Lanka is somehow dangerous or disadvantageous to the majority. It is this kind of narrow, reductionist and insensitive thinking that resulted in the war and the entire country suffering for decades. Many would argue that the repercussions are still being felt and true closure and peace has remained elusive despite the war ending in 2009. There should be no place for doublespeak in this current situation. 

Both Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Democratic National Front presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa will need some share of minority votes to edge ahead in a race that appears at first glance to be finely poised. The latter especially is expected to need a minority push and many political analysts have pointed out that it is important for him to genuinely engage with minorities rather than try to hack away at the conservative Sinhala Buddhist vote. Whatever the numerical arguments may be, it is clear that both candidates and their respective party platforms need to see minorities as important and sincere stakeholders of Sri Lanka. Whoever wins the race on 16 November will be tasked with building the whole of Sri Lanka and working for the benefit of all Sri Lankans.

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