Two leaders – the President of Sri Lanka and the President of the United States of America made addresses this week that were meant to change the course of contemporary history. One, for Sri Lanka specifically, the other, for the world at large.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke on Wednesday to commemorate the local version of ‘V-Day’ or Victory Day – the liquidation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a terrorist organization, and the liberation of thousands of people from their clutches. His government beat the odds, fighting pessimism from many fronts while battling the terrorists.Now that the task has been accomplished and the fruits of victory thoroughly enjoyed, the country is, no doubt, waiting for his next move – healing the scars from the wounds of war, attrition and suspicion.
The LTTE made this into a communal conflict, whipping up the racial element, never tiring of referring to the ‘Sinhala Army’ and the ‘Sinhala Government’. In turn, they reaped a whirlwind of patriotism and nationalism in the ‘south’.
The fact remains that there is an element of wounded pride in at least a section of the Tamils – particularly the Tamil Diaspora, that the LTTE was militarily crushed. This is understandable were one to compare it with the wounded pride among the majority that was partly responsible for the mayhem of July 1983 -- the riots following the killing of 13 soldiers in an ambush in Jaffna.
It was, therefore, timely that the President strenuously argued that the Armed Forces were not engaged in a racial war, but in one of uniting the country.
Speaking in Tamil, he tried to reach out by saying that “This is the Motherland of all of us. We should live in this country as the children of one mother, as brothers and sisters. There can be no differences here. The war fought against the LTTE was not a war fought against the Tamil people.”
He went on to underscore the need to provide facilities that the people of the North have been deprived of for the past 30 years, and equated the enormous task before them to the fight against the LTTE.
In Cairo, US President Barrack Obama was speaking to a different audience also about a ‘New Beginning’ -- one that hopefully would bring a long elusive settlement to the problems in West Asia (the Middle East) and through it, world peace.
His address struck a chord on both sides of the political divide -- Israeli Jews have expressed satisfaction, and the Arabs have, by and large, been optimistic.
Both Presidents are trying to reach out to an aggrieved, hurt, suspicious and sometimes hostile audience. Often, the moderates get sidelined in these political ventures because either one side holds a gun or is submerged by popular sentiment.
Fortunately, for President Rajapaksa, the need to hold the gun to drive a good bargain is no longer an issue. Many are those who argue that without the gun, there can be no pressure applied. There the comparison may end. A point of departure is that the Sri Lankan President is viewed as a “hardliner” while the US President is viewed as a “peacenik” – someone who is genuinely different from all his predecessors due to his exceptional background. We also see, the two Presidents embarking on two separate roads -- the Sri Lankan President venturing to bring about racial amity in his own country without being held hostage by the gun, and the US President trying to negotiate world peace with elements with the gun, and arguably, nuclear weapons within reach.
President Rajapaksa also said this in Tamil: “The war against terrorism is now over. It is now the time to win over the hearts of the Tamil people. The Tamil speaking people should be protected. They should be able to live without fear and mistrust. That is today the responsibility of all of us.” His remarks were meant to reassure the minority, but also aimed at the majority.
There is, though, a need for the minority to reach out as well. Many of their academics have been likening themselves to the Jews and demanding a homeland. This idea, incubated a long time back, even had a bearing on the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, later to take root in Sri Lanka in the 1970s.
The question is whether they are prepared to consider themselves as One People in a united Sri Lanka. Reciprocity and integration are the key to a ‘New Beginning’. Newspapers are flooded these days with articles by an older generation writing nostalgically of the past when all communities lived in friendship, peace and harmony.
The answer, many say, is to go back to the good old days.
There is much to be done. Link languages, mixed classes in schools, exchange of visits and resuming the ‘Yal Devi’ train service to Jaffna are all commendable. Yet while the onus is heavily on the Government and the majority community to see these through with commitment, equally there is a crucial need for reciprocity.
As with the Jews and the Arabs, the different communities in Sri Lanka (where the situation is not half as bad) must reach out to one another. While the nation must rejoice at the end to terrorism, there is a need to be cautious about the risk of triumphalism in the wake of victory. How best the principles enunciated in the messages of Presidents Rajapaksa and Obama must resonate with the people is to be seen. Sri Lankans, Arabs, Palestinians and the Israelis, one and all, must seize this historic moment for reconciliation.