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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1584

Unity in Diversity – Former Sri Lankan President’s psychological formula for living in harmony

By Our Special Correspondent

chandrika_4.jpgMrs Chandrika Bandaranayak Kumaranatunga, the former president of Sri Lanka, made a passionate appeal to all the Nigerians, fiercely polarized into two distinct religious domains, to celebrate the diversity while delivering the thirteenth Anyiam-Osigwe Lecture in Lagos, Nigeria on 29 November. She highlighted the steps that she took while dealing with 30-year-old ethnic conflict in her own backyard when she was the president of the island nation.

Although, Mrs Kumaranatunga clearly refrained from using the phrase, ‘follow me for lasting success’, those who read between the lines are of the view that’s exactly what she meant as she drew a parallel between the conflict in Nigeria and what exists in Sri Lanka.

Mrs Kumaranatunga identified the two issues that got in the way of the development of the countries in the Third World – poverty and conflict. Her observation may have sounded as something of a revelation in the hall where the lecture was delivered in Lagos, Nigeria, when she said how the governments in this particular domain of the world are addressing the issue of poverty to alleviate it – and by being engaged in endless socio-economic projects – and the very institutions dismally fail in dealing with the other evil – conflict – by not recognizing the causes behind them.

Of course, the governments are not committing themselves to search for the causes of conflict exactly as academics do for their PhD theses: first of all, such experiment s are very costly; secondly, there is no guarantee that identifying root causes alone would solve a conflict easily; and then, even if they identify the root causes that Mrs Kumaranatunga cites as a necessity, implementing them in real world may be much easier said than done. Because, Mrs Kumaranatunge oversimplified the remedy while completely ignoring another vital factor, yet another one among many – the attitude of the affected groups in question which often hampers any meaningful progress.

Mrs Kumaranatunge, quite surprisingly, took a swipe at the colonial rulers in her speech for exploiting what she saw as diversity among various ethnic groups to create friction just for the sake of dividing and rule. Since both Sri Lanka and Nigeria had been under the British rule, it goes without saying which colonial power she had on her political radar.

There may be some truth in what she said; she, however, failed to account for the less-than-impressive progress made by the countries that she had in mind during the post-colonial period, when the divide-and-rule factor was clearly absent and the rulers were the ‘patriotic’, indigenous men and women. Nor did she explain the mysterious attraction of the offspring of the current indigenous rulers of the Third World to the very colonial institutions for education or career enhancement, which more or less promoted and contributed to the immoral practice of ‘divide-and-rule’ in their hey day.

The British learnt the painful lesson in identifying what Mrs Kumaranatunga called the causes of conflict – and in a rush: they divided India along religious lines in the hope that the two communities would live in peace thereafter; migration took place over the dead bodies of hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women to and fro and the Indian Muslims did not find the warm welcome that they had anticipated from the indigenous Pakistanis, often being treated as second class citizens, especially in the commercial capitol, Karachi, where MQM –Muthahida Quami Movement - was born to fight against the dominance of Punjabis and Sindhis – after paying a heavy price just for crossing the borders. As the conflict intensified Britain was forced to accommodate thousands of refugees from the conflict zones as it came under fire for the way it handled the whole issue.

It is easy for those who argue against ‘quick fixes’ to ask for long term analysis. The challenge is how far we have to go back in history in identifying the root causes. The latter does not provide an easy solution either as an honest analysis about the history of a lingering conflict can often open up a can of worms – doing more harm than good.

“Studies have amply demonstrated that exclusion and inequality between different groups has been the major cause of intra-national conflicts,” said Mrs Kumaranatunga as that is the most common thread that seems to be encompassing the on-going conflicts around the world. This hypothesis, however, fails to account for the determination of Scotland to break away from the United Kingdom despite sharing the same language, religion, skin colour and even key ministerial posts when the Labour government was in power; because, neither exclusion nor the inequality seems to be case in this situation.

The situation in Belgium is another case in point. Mrs Kumaranatunga failed to identify the power of determined nationalistic elements to stir up ethnic sentiments in the collective psyche, even if the material and political needs are not the issues – to achieve what they want.

Mrs Kumarantunga was right to admit how millions of people were left behind when some developing nations recorded impressive growth. She is also right for identifying it a major trigger for future unrest, especially by the disgruntled youth in developing nations. She does not have to look beyond her own country how a similar situation developed into a major internal conflict in mid- eighties which, at the height of which, she ended up being a widow.

To her credit, Mrs Kumarantunga clearly recognized the major conflict zones in the world and even partially identified the major causes behind them. Her insights into conflicts, however, have more hypothetical overtures than those of pragmatism in real world. Age-old conflicts often have endless factors that could easily slip through an academic scanner no matter how noble the intentions are.

- Asian Tribune -

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