The world is still experiencing the euphoria arising from the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States of America. Many analyses of the “Obama phenomenon” have appeared in the local press. Some writers have attempted to draw parallels with Sri Lanka in relation to the question of opportunities for minorities.
Certainly, we have lessons to learn from Barack Obama’s victory.
Obama is African American, and African Americans represent 12 percent of the US population. Not once in his political career and presidential campaigning did Obama exploit the fact of his ethnic background. In fact, throughout his primary and presidential campaigns, Obama appealed to the average American by addressing issues and problems that all Americans face. Not once did he appear to represent only the oppressed or the racially disadvantaged, and as such he posed no threat to the white majority. He was the nominee of a mainstream political party, and it came as no great surprise that he earned overwhelming acceptance from the vast majority.
As everyone knows, the situation here in Sri Lanka is different. In the 60 years of our post-independence history, minorities lived in harmony with the majority as long as they remained in the political mainstream. Minority community members held prominent positions in government, including the post of Speaker of Parliament. They also held leading posts in important ministries, such as education, foreign affairs, home affairs, health, trade and commerce. They were elected mayors of many municipal councils, including the capital Colombo.
They obviously had the blessings of the majority community, without any reservations. And this was at a time when African Americans were denied the basic rights of education, transport, health, and so on, by America’s white majority. And not too long ago, a Tamil belonging to a mainstream political party very nearly became Prime Minister.
Political strife with violence would break out in our country every time the majority community felt threatened by minority demands that were perceived as unreasonable. With the minority communities isolating themselves into political parties along ethnic lines, naturally the majority community became obsessed with their own protection, resulting in much strife.
Much work remains to be done to reverse this unfortunate trend.
Let the minority communities reassess the wisdom of marginalising themselves into ethnic parties. They should work together again with the majority in the mainstream. The nation’s future peace and prosperity depends on their ability to do so.
That is the lesson we should learn from Mr. Obama’s achievement.