This Parliamentary Election has shown the dual space that minorities hold in this country. On one hand, they are pushed to the fringes when important policy decisions are made but on the other, key parties seek to woo their support because they are crucial in the numbers game that every poll eventually boils down to. In this often unfair and vilified space minorities have to find a voice and space that is difficult to maintain once the votes are counted.
The latest controversy this duality has caused is the statements made by a candidate regarding the gay community, which, even though he has since apologised, shows the deep gap between what prospective representatives may actually think and how these may be translated into policy once a Government is formed. Minorities, including sexual minorities, struggle to find inclusiveness in the policies before they are formulated but affect them in series ways once they are implemented. This space also includes women.
Even before campaigning began in earnest there was the controversial COVID-19-linked cremation regulation that was brought by the Government, which has been stoutly defended as being necessary for healthcare reasons, even though it was deeply hurtful to a group of people that make up nearly 10% of Sri Lanka’s population.
This has been followed by the usual anti-minority rhetoric that has regrettably become part of every Sri Lankan election cycle. It has perhaps been toned down somewhat from the heights it reached ahead of the previous presidential election but the November results confirm that divisions between minority and majority communities are deepening in the country.
Issues such as the Easter Sunday attacks have also served to release controversial details into the public domain with a news report this week quoting a top State official inferring that more Muslim students gained entry into Law College in 2012. Statements of this nature are blatantly unfair, misleading and dangerous as they only add more tinder to an already charged situation.
These kinds of prejudices point to structural and systemic issues of racism across Government and its linked institutions that need to be seriously and consistently addressed by anyone coming to power for the next five years.
Sri Lanka already suffers from closed-door decision-making where Cabinet decisions, tenders, procurement, legal reforms and a multitude of other critical details are kept away from the public. There is little proactive release of information and while parliament plays an important role in promoting transparency this process is massively dependent on the decision the public will make on 5 August. These are elements that affect not just ethnic minorities but also other people such as human rights and governance activists as well as media who play a crucial role in ensuring that there are sufficient watchdogs over the governance process.
The vote on 5 August is critical for the survival of these stakeholders as well. A Government that respects law and order, due process and strong institutions that promote transparency is the idealistic goal for anyone who values democracy. Political leaders will always be imperfect, which is why there should be a process for them to be held accountable when they inevitably make wrong decisions. Just as important is fighting for citizens’ rights to be protected, because that is who we all are at the end of the day, citizens of Sri Lanka; and a Government that is not intrinsically inclusive is a Government that is not by the people, for the people.