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 ponder.

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 country.

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.