Racist utterances and undermining govt. strategy

Last week saw a protest that had the potential to erupt into a major conflagration: Muslims protesting remarks allegedly made by Minister of Environmental Affairs Champika Ranawaka. Fortunately, the demonstrations were handled tactfully and there were no disastrous consequences.

The Muslim community had apparently been angered by the Minister’s alleged assertion that they were not original inhabitants of this land and that arrived in this country only as traders. We are not proposing to discuss that proposition in these columns; that would be an exercise for historians in academia.

What interests us though is the carefree abandon with which ministers of this Government appear to voice their opinion. Not so long ago we had Minister and leader of the Upcountry Peoples’ Front (UPF), Periyasamy Chandrasekharan virtually espousing the cause of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Parliament. And now, we have Minister Ranawaka, the sole representative of the Jathika Hela Urumaya allegedly casting aspersions on the origins of the Muslim community in this country.

The fact that both the UPF and the JHU are in the Cabinet of ministers-not to mention other assorted political parties such as the Lanka Samasamaja Party, the Communist Party, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna-is an indication of the political spectrum covered by the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

That such diverse political parties are accommodated in the same room, is in itself, testimony to the political skills of the President.
But, in order to govern with that kind of coalition, the President must receive the co-operation of all his ministers, not periodical stabs in the back that only further their personal or party political agendas. Regrettably, that seems to be what is happening, judging from the remarks attributed to some ministers on some very sensitive issues.

There was a time when the concept of collective cabinet responsibility was implemented to the letter. In the first J. R. Jayewardene Government, then Minister of Plantation Industries and a former Minister of Finance himself, M.D.H. Jayewardene, criticised in Parliament the Budget presented by Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel.

MDH was a senior party man but nevertheless, JR told him that he had violated cabinet responsibility and showed him the door.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, we know, cannot deal with the same iron fist. His is a fragile coalition with the Opposition relishing every prospect of throwing a spanner in the works. So he needs the collective support of each and every member of his Government. In fact, that is the main reason why the cabinet numbers over a hundred and almost every Member of Parliament is a minister.

That is not to say that the cabinet should be a group of yes men singing unbridled hosannas to the President. They are certainly entitled to their opinions and the right and the freedom to express those opinions. But in so doing, shouldn’t they be mindful of the political complexities and the sensitivities of the day?

Not so long ago, we had a controversy over certain remarks attributed to the Commander of the Army, where he again allegedly asserted that the majority community took pride of place in this country. Those remarks too did cause considerable embarrassment to the Government, and the Commander of the Army should have been more prudent in his choice of words. But, at least he was a military professional with a job to do and it could be argued that he was speaking in the context of a professional soldier and in no other capacity.

A politicians’ role is entirely different. Not only are they policymakers they are also the representatives of the people. Therefore, when they jump the gun and utter what they fancy, it can have serious consequences.

When the Minister of Environmental Affairs who is a minister of the Government allegedly claims that one community in this country are apparently only traders, it may convey the wrong impression that this is the viewpoint of the Government.

And that can have potentially catastrophic results, because we are in the midst of an extremely sensitive stage of the Eelam war. The Military is said to be poised to win the war and capture key Tiger controlled regions, and the spotlight has been focussed on the Government to ensure the welfare of Tamil civilians in these areas.

The Government is certainly doing its best in this regard but the LTTE propaganda machinery is also in overdrive, trying to convince the rest of the world that Colombo is practising genocide against the Tamil community.

In such a politically charged atmosphere, which Government politician would venture forth with comments that convey the impression that the majority community is in some way or other superior to other communities in the country? Only someone who is either very naive or someone who is very opportunistic. Either way, it will not only not help the President or his government, it has the potential to undermine the strategies adopted by them.

It is time then that ruling party politicians think again about what they say and how their remarks may be interpreted. Fanning communal passions may get them racy headlines in the next day’s newspapers but they are placing the next generation in peril. And that is something that this Government at this juncture could well do without.