|US election: A lesson in
tolerance and equality
Barack Hussein Obama
made history this week, not because he became the forty-fourth
President of the United States of America, but because he became
the first African American to do so. It is indeed an epoch
making moment in history, a moment which until now, apparently
existed only in the dreams of those who dared to dream.
Obama’s victory is spectacular not only because he was an
African American; there were other factors which made his
achievement special: He is only 47 years old, is a first
generation American, and is not a Washington insider who has
toiled in the American capital for long- his political career
spans all of four years. All this points to the fact that Barack
Obama is indeed a unique kind of man.
But it is not only Barack Obama that is special. The people of
the United States of America have proved to the world that they
are special too. A nation founded by immigrants and built into a
super power by people mostly of Caucasian origin, have consented
to being led by a man who is an African American-an indirect
descendant of the people who were designated as slaves in that
country not long ago.
This is no mean feat in the context of the United States. Less
than fifty years ago, the country was practising
institutionalised racial segregation. And even today the
demographics of America are such that African Americans
constitute less than thirteen per cent of its population. For a
nation to have transcended such historical and demographical
factors requires courage indeed.
We in Sri Lanka have ourselves been embroiled in an ethnic war
for a quarter of a century. An entire generation has grown up
into young adults in this country fearing war and the next
terror attack, and not knowing what peace is. That is because
since independence from the British sixty years ago, we have not
realised the value of ethnic harmony. For us in Sri Lanka then,
the 2008 Presidential election in American is a lesson in
tolerance, equality and respect for the minorities.
Sri Lanka’s bane has been its’ divisive political culture. It is
not that successive governments did not realise that the
country’s ethnic cauldron was on the boil. But instead of
stirring it into one melting pot as America did, political
parties and their leaders-of many hues-wooed the voter with
segregating and discriminatory policies that aroused rather than
doused ethnic hatred.
We have reaped the results of what we sowed: twenty five years
of terrorism, economic stagnation, becoming an undesirable in
the international arena, and a nation still so deeply divided,
that it is yet struggling for a solution to the question of
devolving power to its own minority communities. And
regrettably, there are very few signs that we have learnt from
the experiences of the past quarter of a century.
There was a time when then President J.R. Jayewardene used to
boast that there was no discrimination against the Tamil
community in this country. As evidence, he flaunted his Chief
Justice S. Sharvananda, his Attorney General Siva Pasupathy and
his Police Chief Rudra Rajasingham. But in the events that
followed, that was about as far as this country got to devolving
real power to the minorities!
A glance over our shoulders in the world map will tell us that
even in neighbouring India, where Sikhs were agitating for a
separate state not so long ago, and where they assassinated
Congress Party Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a Sikh is today the
Prime Minister, leading a government of the same party.
It is not that appointing one man from a minority for a top job
in government serves as a panacea for all the ills of a country.
But in getting to that mindset, a country has to evolve and
mature and shed its parochial prejudices along the way. That
does not happen overnight. It does not also happen with
self-seeking, narrow-minded politicians whose concern is the
next election and not the generation. And that has been Sri
Lanka’s plague since independence.
As we watch Barack Obama take oaths as the President of the most
powerful nation on earth, and become, in effect, the most
powerful man on the planet, we must, as a nation in turmoil,
where two communities are at war with each other, pause to
Surely it is not that we cannot be innovative or accommodating
in our political thinking. We did produce the first woman Prime
Minister of the world. And despite all our political setbacks
and the scourge of terrorism that has plagued us, we have been a
robust democracy for three score years. But somehow, we seem to
be utterly reluctant to take that painful next step forward-the
step that would grant meaningful devolution of power to
minorities, and be a stepping stone to lasting peace in the
Barack Obama said in his campaign, referring to computer screen
visuals predicting outcomes of the different states across
America, “I do not see red states and blue states, I only see a
United States of America”. It is high time that we too saw Sri
Lanka as neither blue, green nor red but as one single nation.