PUBLIC officials have a duty to be careful about their statements but despite all evidence to the contrary, they can still say things that make sensitive ethnic relations in Sri Lanka even more tenuous. Ironically, most of these ideas are expressed in connection with the formation of a new Constitution, which was initially launched to promote ethnic cohabitation and minority rights.
The latest war of words was sparked by Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Chairman Basheer Segu Dawood during a discussion held in Kattankudy on Saturday in the context of submitting their proposals to the new Constitution. Here he made reference to a ‘separate Muslim State’ and underlined the point that the party’s late founder M.H.M Ashraff’s also believed in such a concept. Fortunately the statement was rejected by Ashraff’s son Aman on Monday in a short statement where he insisted that his father’s mandate was solely for a united Sri Lanka, undivided by any means.
While admitting that the former Minister had harboured such a sentiment, his ideas had evolved beyond separatism noted his son, pointing out it was only initially expressed in the context of the LTTE fighting for a separate state. Indeed the SLMC has not repeated such an aspiration and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has strongly moved away from the idea of the separate state, even accepting the post of main Opposition and pledging to stand for the rights of all Sri Lankans.
After three decades of war, Sri Lanka is finally moving towards reconciliation. Admittedly this journey will be difficult, contentious and thorny because it will require all Sri Lankans to be honest about their prejudices and feelings towards other ethnicities. Retrospective soul searching comes at a high price, especially when it includes a pledge to the international community to investigate allegations of war crimes. But it does not need to be made harder by public officials who are raking up fresh insecurities and hurdles.
Caution must be taken when tackling this particularly thorny issue. It’s a delicate matter. People’s basic freedoms, including freedom of expression, should not be stifled in the name of fighting racism. At the same time, a large majority of Sinhalese people do support reconciliation and are inherently peace-loving but others who feel threatened by minority communities would take statements on separatism to heart. The minorities, for their part, can do a lot to build trust between them and the majority community and must also take every step possible to fight the extremist elements that exist within their own communities.
The Government has embarked on the tough road of Constitution building with the stated intention of giving minorities more rights. This has created uncertainty among the majority because they fear rights that are accorded within the existing Constitution will be whittled down. The deconstruction of something as crucial and fundamental as the Constitution means that all communities will have their own set of building blocks and how they use them will decide the future of everyone. Government committees to collect public views exist to collect ideas from all communities, but those giving their views have a responsibility to commit to moderate and progressive ones. Raking up the opposite will only give new life to old problems.