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#4551, 7 July 2014

Dateline Colombo

Sri Lanka: A New Melody for Nation-building
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
Executive Director, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS), Sri Lanka

The month of June marked the first International Seminar on South Asia Development organised by the Xinhua news agency in Hong Kong, where this author was invited to speak on the topic of Sri Lanka at the centre of the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). On the same day of the seminar, Pakistan suffered a terrorist attack on Karachi Airport. Sri Lanka’s international airport was attacked in 2001 by LTTE terrorists in a similar manner. After three decades of combat with one of the world’s worst terrorist organisations, Sri Lanka can share its experience in fighting terrorism. The importance of fighting terrorism together with the nations of the Maritime Silk Road cannot be ignored.

In the current context of a very uncertain global stage, many parts of the world are being targeted by organised terrorist groups. In Tikrit and Mosul for example, thousands have been massacred by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s militants from the Islam State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). More than 150 children have been kidnapped, many others have been recruited as child soldiers, and the ISIS has appointed its own administration. The rise of the non-state actor is clear. The national security threat is spreading to many regional nations due to militant groups such as the ISIS. States should work together to combat such threats rather than evade the situation.

In the south of Sri Lanka, Buddhists and Muslims have clashed due to extremism within the society. While the majority of the society focuses on building a harmonious community with space for ethnic and religious reconciliation, this incident has created a negative image of Sri Lanka on a local and global scale. With all positive economic indicators and a record growth in the tourism industry, a negative image globally could have adverse consequences on the country. As reconciliation is essential to the progress and development of Sri Lanka, other non-violent ways to address societal issues must be found. Terrorism cannot be answered by terrorism. Instead, the government must work towards curbing extremist elements that give prominence to nationalistic ideas, which disturb the county’s social fabric. Nationalism is used to guard and protect one’s own identity.

Sri Lanka should use the influence of nationalism to address serious issues such as the decline in the use of Sinhala and Tamil languages in younger and future generations. With approximately 40,000 students enrolled, 90 per cent of whom are Sri Lankans, the international schools in the country have become a popular choice for schooling. Sinhala or Tamil, however, are only offered as an optional language taught once a week and not calculated into the grade point average. Without proper incentives to learn the language, the outcome is that most children from these schools are unable to read or write in their own dialect: Sinhala or Tamil. Language has the power to provide a connection to a culture and loyalty to a nation. Without it, people are not as tied to the country, and are not afraid to leave for work. The lack of knowledge of one’s own language is a directly related to the growth of the brain drain. This should be looked at as a serious issue. Nationalism should focus on cultural aspects such as protection of the language instead of concentrating on creating disharmony among different groups within society.

While the government faces many internal challenges such as the southern riots, it also faces external issues from the UNHRC. The high level committee was appointed and will advise the team set up to conduct a comprehensive investigation of alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The question is, will the government cooperate and allow the team to enter the country to proceed with the investigation? After the announcement of the experts by UNHRC, the Finnish President was talked about on the front page of a local newspaper as “Bribe-taker Ahtisaari to probe SL.” This is not a positive note. The next Presidential election marks the third round of President Rajapaksa. The news that Rajapaksa will be the first Executive President to contest for the third time was also discussed in the political columns.

In order to assist the reconciliation process, the government of Sri Lanka has invited Special Envoy Cyril Ramaposha from South Africa. Some groups inside the government coalition, however, are against outside assistance. It is seen in a negative light by some in the government and public. Furthermore, the USAID program for Citizen Education on voting was stopped by the government as it was seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the nation. The tension is high with the accumulation of internal and external pressure. Amidst this tension, President Rajapaksa invited President Xi Jinping to visit the country as a move towards strengthening bilateral relations with China.

As Rabindranath Tagore says “When old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart; and where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.” Sri Lanka could find a better and new melody in the post war era, which will create a better society.

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