Wednesday, May 29, 2024

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The power of unity 

By Saliya Weerakoon

As the Sinhala and Tamil New Year unfolds, it brings more than just festive tidings; it heralds a crucial juncture for Sri Lanka – a time to decide if we will unite and thrive or splinter and falter. This New Year isn’t merely a cultural celebration; it is a stark reminder of the formidable challenges and boundless opportunities that lie before us.

In the stories of great leaders like Nelson Mandela and Lee Kuan Yew, we find a compelling narrative of transformation through unity. Mandela once asserted: “It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it.” He knew the power of forgiveness and the indispensable value of unity in a racially-divided South Africa. 

Similarly, Lee’s strategic vision transformed Singapore from a fledgling nation into a global powerhouse. He famously declared: “We must be united, or we will perish” – a sentiment that rings especially true for Sri Lanka today.

This year’s celebration comes at a time when our country is engulfed in economic strife, with the majority grappling with the harsh realities of financial hardship. Yet, historically, even during the brutal throes of war, the New Year was a time of unity and joy. This resilience is a testament to our national spirit – a spirit that must be rekindled as we face the present challenges.

As we reflect on personal stories of hope and renewal, such as the birth of my daughter Aneethra, born 17 years ago on 13 April after heartbreaking losses, we are reminded of the New Year’s profound symbolism. It’s a celebration of new beginnings and enduring hope, mirroring our national landscape. 

My children – Aneethra, Amaya, and Dimitry – brought me a sense of belief that against the backdrop of adversity, resilience can usher in waves of joy and prosperity. I have seen many fathers and mothers fighting for their children amidst the challenges prevailing in the country, but I am certain that the resilience of Sri Lankans could turn this country for good. These personal victories are not isolated; they are part of the larger Sri Lankan experience, echoing the potential for national rejuvenation.

Yet, this year’s muted festivities underscore a pervasive sense of unease. Our traditional New Year joy is tempered by the economic burdens weighing heavily on our citizens’ shoulders. This should not deter us; rather, it should propel us to adapt and preserve our cherished traditions. These rituals are not just customs; they are a lifeline to our past and a bridge to a more unified future.

The divisions that scar our country – be it ethnic, religious, or economic – are not insurmountable. Our history is punctuated with moments of unity that have defied the odds –  be it the communal harmony during the dark days of the civil war or the collective grief and solidarity in the aftermath of the 2019 attacks. These instances underscore a fundamental truth: our shared humanity transcends the divisive forces at play.

A pivotal election

The upcoming Presidential Election is a pivotal moment for Sri Lanka. The candidates declared in the race – Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD), and Dilith Jayaweera – each bring different visions and solutions to the fore.

With Wickremesinghe, I have had a long personal and professional relationship where I often delivered the uncomfortable truth which he always took with a smile, and with Jayaweera I have had an unmatched bond of friendship. After I decided to write this column, I may have lost both of these relationships. If that was the price, I would take it. 

Premadasa and AKD both are one degree of separation for me. Knowing my regular Sunday column reaches them directly or through one degree of separation, I urge these leaders to campaign not on the basis of division but on a platform of unity and truth.

Eighteen months ago, Jayaweera told me that he would run for the presidency. It took me 30 seconds to say that he should, when many discouraged him. When everyone was shying away from responsibility and offering only criticism, I felt Jayaweera’s entry to politics and the rise of the Mawbima Janatha Party (MJP) would add colour to the political discourse.

Despite my friendship, he was not aware that I wrote a, perhaps controversial, column in a paper owned by him. When he knew, I said I would be critical of him too, to which he smiled and agreed. I found it refreshing to see that in a country known for gagging, assaulting, and killing journalists in the past, freedom of speech is honoured by a presidential aspirant.

Many viewed him as divisive and racist; I found him to be different to the public perception and he promised me that he would run a clean campaign. His narrative of nationalistic and Buddhist civilisation campaigns could be perceived by some as going in the wrong direction. It could be misunderstood given what had taken place in the country for decades. In a country where patriotism is widely used to create division, true patriotism should be on display. Jayaweera should bring clarity to the nationalistic narrative. 

My association with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) was brief but fruitful. On 28 March 2017, at her residence, after a long conversation, she gave me her book ‘CBK’ and wrote a note to me: “For Saliya, for our common dreams.” The common dream was a great Sri Lanka on the foundation of unity. 

Though she is not running for the presidency, I would like to appeal to her by reminding her of her S.J.V. Chelvanayakam Memorial Lecture titled ‘The absence of war is not peace’ on 25 April 2015. She said: “In a nation where all citizens and communities feel satisfied that they are equal partners, sharing equal political rights, economic, social, and cultural benefits, there will prevail political stability and economic prosperity. Leaders and every citizen must recognise the value of diversity, rejoice in its richness and limitless potential, and strive to build unity within diversity. I would call this a cohesive and shared society.” 

She quoted: “Rabindranath Tagore said bigotry tries to keep truth safe in its hands, with a grip that kills it.” 

I was never a fan of President CBK in 1994-2005, but I always found her better without power. I always knew she would play a role in this decisive Presidential Election of 2024 – perhaps her last Presidential Election to make a lasting impact. 

I appeal to Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, Dr. Harsha de Silva, and Eran Wickramaratne – three that I enjoyed being around for years – to uphold every word said privately and publicly to bring unity to the country. I pray that they will not betray themselves for petty political positions. I doubt they will betray themselves but here is a reminder. There is learning from our common colleague, the late Mangala Samaraweera – you need to take a stand in life as a public leader. Even if it is perceived wrong by others, if you really believe in it you must stand amidst criticism – even at the risk of losing your position. 

I appeal to AKD to run a presidential campaign without arousing the emotions of vulnerable people but to fight on policy and, of course, to punish the wrongdoers once elected within the provisions of legality and due process. I have enjoyed the rise of the JVP to the forefront since 1994, denouncing violence. I have no doubt that the JVP is for national unity as for the founding principles of the party. 

I am certain that Premadasa will follow the footsteps of his father Ranasinghe Premadasa – a true socialist and hero to the poor. In fact, at the 2019 Presidential Election Premadasa polled over 70% of the so-called minority vote. I wish I would not have to use the word minority anymore. 

I appeal to Ravi Karunanayake, Sagala Ratnayaka, and Ruwan Wijewardene who are spearheading the Wickremesinghe campaign to stay true to the United National Party (UNP) principles and Wickremesinghe’s long-standing policy of national unity – a policy he was at the receiving end for decades, but never wavered. 

I appeal to Tiran Alles, the chief in charge of law and order, to use the provisions of the law to punish anyone for racism and inciting hatred among people. If Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera can be booked, no one else could be above him. There should be equal treatment for anyone. Otherwise, it’s an injustice to the Thera. When the Thera was sent to jail for the first time, some celebrated, but this time no one was celebrating. Muslims did not celebrate this time. Islam is all about forgiveness. There is a silver lining; this country has started to heal. 

I appeal to Karu Jayasuriya, the trailblazer of the Sadharana Samajayak movement, to stand for national unity, though he is completely out of public office. 

I have never met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – the man who had the best chance to unite this country post May 2009. It was a time when, if he had said anything, people would have blindly agreed. I believed in him doing the right thing to bring an end to centuries of disharmony. The past should not be forgotten but here is an opportunity for the patriarch to correct a grave mistake. Confessions are powerful. Nelson did, Mahinda can do too. 

Support systems

The billionaire corporate magnates who run the private sector machinery – Nanayakkara, Peiris, Perera, Selvanathan, Jayawardena, Esufally, Omar, Amalean, Pathirage, Yaddehige, Hirdaramani, Subasinghe, and the rest – have a profound role to play shaping the narrative for national unity. If you look at the above names, there is a Buddhist, a Catholic, a Hindu, and a Muslim. All of them have provided employment and opportunities without looking at religion, political beliefs, and pedigree. 

My friends in the corporate sector C-suite, perhaps this is the time to speak up, without waiting to issue lukewarm, politically-correct statements on pressing issues through selected chambers. There’s no point in meeting in bars and coffee shops discussing how to turn this country around if you turn your back when you are desperately needed. Whilst I understand corporate executives cannot speak in public on political issues, certainly there is no barrier to speaking to heal the country. 

You don’t have to die for your beliefs, but you can make yourself count in different forms. You don’t have to be a political leader to be a public leader. Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. never sought political office to shape the world. They shaped the world. They shaped our thoughts. No one remembers Nixon, but you remember MLK. 

Our new leader must embody the essence of compassion, kindness, and joy inherent in our national ethos. They must not only seek to govern but to inspire, to unify, and to lead by example, reflecting the teachings of Gautama Buddha and the strategic wisdom of global statesmen like Mandela and Lee. 

Our diaspora, too, plays a critical role in this national narrative. Their engagement should extend beyond participation in ad hoc events asking questions and providing criticism on social media. They should actively participate in creating sustainable opportunities for those left behind – especially women, who form the backbone of our societal fabric. Investing in small businesses, even $ 100, not only fosters economic independence but also nurtures a sense of community and shared success. 

It is easier to cry wolf from afar whether you are in the US, Canada, Australia, or the Middle East. The real skin in the game is when you are invested in the people of the country and its societal fabric. 

Religions’ role 

The philosophy of Buddhism, which guides the majority of our populace, teaches us humility, respect, and tolerance. These principles are crucial as we strive to forge a national identity that is inclusive and representative of all ethnicities and beliefs.

Reflecting on the violent upheavals of our past – from the 1983 riots, 26 years of war, the gruesome 1988/’89 rebellion, and the 2019 Easter bombings – it is clear that these were not monolithic battles between ethnic groups but rather tragic consequences of misunderstandings and manipulations by a few. The majority of Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnic or religious background, yearn for peace and unity. 

There is no doubt Sri Lanka is shaped by Buddhism and I don’t have an issue with it being called a Buddhist nation if it gives pleasure to someone and relieves them from anger. However, whether you’re a Buddhist, a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, or an atheist, true divinity lies in yourself, your thoughts, and your actions. 

I was small during the July 1983 riots, but my family shielded many Tamils from carnage from chauvinists who called themselves Sinhalese. In 1988/’89, it was Sinhalese killing Sinhalese. In 2019, a few misguided youths who claimed to be believers in Islam killed many humans belonging to different religions. 

The division in the country is not only on ethnicity; this country is divided by social class, caste, creed and even the school you studied. Here is a country divided by local geography and where you come from, irrespective of your religion. 

A Buddhist from Anuradhapura Central College is treated differently from a Buddhist from Ananda and Nalanda Colleges. A Catholic from St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s Colleges is treated differently to a Catholic from Holy Cross College, Kalutara. In Kandy, a Trinitian is treated differently to a boy from Vidyartha College. A girl from Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya and a girl from Holy Family Convent, Wennappuwa or Kurunegala are not on the same scale. 

I was fortunate to study in two great schools in Sri Lanka. One had 99% Buddhists and one had 99% Catholics. I went to the temple in the Buddhist school and to the chapel for holy mass at the Catholic school. But I missed associating with Hindus and Muslims much, which I made up for in the post-school period. Overseas, no one asked me about my religion and family background or the school I attended. I was never discriminated against anywhere and found it amusing that it’s only in Sri Lanka that your pedigree becomes the licence for entitlement. 

As a mark of protest for the above hypocrisy, in my long corporate life, my CV never carried my nationality, ethnicity, religion, age, and school for the first interview. However, thankfully I was hired by giant corporations. Everyone should be given their chance for the moonshot of their lives irrespective of where you come from. 

You can go on and on about many hypocritical belief systems in the country. These are centuries of divisions and can not be uprooted in a month. However, it’s important to start fresh for a new beginning. 

As we stand on the brink of a potentially-transformative Presidential Election, it is imperative that we choose leaders who prioritise the welfare of all 22 million Sri Lankans, not just those who echo their personal ideologies. We need a president who is prepared to lose honourably rather than win at the cost of our nation’s unity.

This New Year, let us recommit to the ideals of unity, integrity, and resilience. Let it be a time of introspection and collective action. We must embrace our differences, celebrate our shared heritage, and move forward together. If we fail to unite, the consequences will be dire – not just for this generation but for those that follow.

Let this New Year mark the beginning of a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s story – one of peace, prosperity, and unity. Happy New Year to all, and may we make it a year of triumph over adversity.

A close friend of mine told me to tell the truth. I was told that even if people don’t like me, they will not disagree with the truth. It was a risk I was prepared to take because I have been tired my whole life, like many others, of watching this country perish when all other countries are rising. No one goes to jail for talking about national unity. So speak up.

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