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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2553

Inter-ethnic Relations - The Barometer of a Nation's Health

Dr. Siri Gamage, University of New England, Australia

Looking at what is happening in Burma, Sri Lanka, Sudan and other trouble spots around the world, one cannot help but to emphasize the need for healthy inter-ethnic relations as a foundation for harmonious societies. When societies carry a multitude of peoples from different ethnic, cultural and identity groupings it is not possible to govern such countries by the power of the gun or the application of dominant ethnic/political ideologies and systems only for the long run. The state has to take into account the aspirations and needs of minority ethnic/cultural communities and make them part of the governing system. However, the success of inter-ethnic relations regime does not depend solely on the actions of the governments.

Individuals from different ethno-cultural communities form lasting friendships, kinships etc. over time as they live their lives facing each other in a given geographical space, now expanded to commonly accessible cyber space. Sharing is the key word in day-to-day life of the peoples. Even though conflicts have characterized the histories of conflict-ridden countries, underneath the social system one finds a deep structure of values, norms and attitudes that highlight sharing among different ethnic-cultural communities. While the political and power dynamics lead those leading a country at a given time to resort to single-ethnic paradigms, when we observe the day-to-day lives of peoples, life is governed by day to day needs an aspirations.

Such needs and their fulfillment drive people to 'connect' with others and 'accept' in various circumstances rather than 'disconnect' and 'decline'. However, due to the emphasis placed on the inter-ethnic conflicts, there are substantial segments in societies who do not show willingness to 'connect' and 'accept'. The desire of members of such segments is to 'disconnect' with the Others because of the mindsets formed as a result of heavy media content that are slanted toward justifying the positions of one ethnic group over the other, and the effects of actual conflicts.

Recently a Tamil lecturer from Jaffna approached me for some help in regard to his higher studies in a European country. A Sinhala academic from Matara also did the same. What did I do? I fulfilled their requests irrespective of their ethnicity or the location in the North or the South. If I operated from a mono-ethnic standpoint as many Sri Lankans do these days, I would have disregarded the request from the Tamil lecturer from Jaffna.

My ability to think beyond my race, ethnicity, culture, or place and deal with human beings as they are irrespective of where they come from, their ethnicity or location within the area of my work did not come from nowhere. It is founded on the life experiences of living in two countries, ie. Sri Lanka and Australia, and the values that I inherited and grown up with. My own reading is that initially I inherited this quality from Sri Lanka itself during my growing years in the South and in Kandy associated with university life. I do know that many Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora do have the same values and attitudes.

It is the politicization of ethnicity and minoritisation of governance that have led to the development of two camps as if the average society is reflective of this dichotomy.

In real societies you find a multiplicity of attitudes, values and norms. Harming another person is not in the general make up of individuals. However, as a result of competitive politics, work, and economics people develop antagonistic attitudes especially when the traditional value systems reinforced by religion and education fall apart. Thus there is a significant need to re-examine the value foundations of conflict-ridden societies with a view to identifying and reinforcing the norms, attitudes and behaviors that allow peoples to live in harmony, share, and prosper.

In the case of Sri Lanka, irrespective of the resolution of the conflict between the government and the LTTE, the sharing among peoples of different ethnic communities should continue at the level of individuals at least. For a society to move forward, such sharing is very important in comparison to the creation of divisions, antagonisms and conflicts. However, in the recent past the emphasis placed on the conflict between the government and the LTTE, and the politics associated with preparing an illusionary 'devolution of power formula' has led to the diminution of the very basis of Sri Lankan society -that is the value basis for sharing, harmonious inter-ethnic relations.

One theory suggests that once the LTTE is defeated militarily, everything will be fine. Democracy will dawn on the North-East, development will follow, and everybody will be happy. Will they? What kind of development will it be? Will the rising cost of living and depreciation of rupee stop afterwards? Who will get the land liberated from LTTE for development? Will people in the affected areas lose their land and multinational corporations dominate the so-called development? A society injured by decades of war and conflict will have an injured population with injured minds.

What sustains a country is not necessarily the nature of the state and its military but the social institutions that have been developed over centuries of evolution. Everyone knows that after independence, politics-particularly the devious nature of it- has ruined Sri Lanka. What sustains the country's integrity is the deep-rooted value system being subscribed by a substantial population belonging to different ethnic communities. Not by the racists who advocate the hegemony of one ethnicity over the others.

Strangely, it is this very same value system, particularly aspects of it such as tolerance, otherworldly orientation, altruism, simplicity, and compassion has paved the way for adversarial politics and its sustenance. In the case of Sinhala-Buddhists, this is very visible. When the elderly, the young and middle-aged meditate and observe sil on temple grounds on poya days their lives are governed by the values described above. This system has allowed the political class/families to continue to plunder the society of its wealth, move abroad and live happy lives (in the short run) while the masses are struggling to eke out a meagre living. This has been the case in the past also. The story of Sri Lanka is not different from the stories of other developing countries where the monies allocated by neo-liberal global economic agencies are at the centre of power politics and crony capitalism.

The deep value system that lends to inter-ethnic harmony and sharing that has been developed over centuries of co-existence sustains the societies in the face of colonisation and now globalization. Examples of such co-existence and sharing are visible in many spheres of life within the country and in the Sri Lankan diaspora. Those who are concerned about the welfare of the people, human and civic rights, and democracy in countries such as Sri Lanka, and Burma need to focus attention on these deep value structures and how to strengthen their validity at times of conflict, without letting the politicians exploit them for narrow power political ends.

Dr. Siri Gamage, Senior Lecturer, Contextual Studies & Education School of Education, Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies, University of New England, Armidale NSW, Australia 2351.

- Asian Tribune -

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