Respect: Owed, Earned and Restored
by M A Sumanthiran
September 21st, 2013 remains a historic day in the lives of Sri Lankans. The day represents the dawn of a new era, and marks the arrival of important times.
A democratically elected Northern Provincial Council has emerged today after decades of oppression, violence and suffering. Any supporter of democracy and freedom will rejoice in the results of the Northern Provincial Council elections—regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.
The long struggle for freedom began with the Satyagrahas of the Federal Party. In the wake of the brutal suppression of this non-violent struggle, a militant movement emerged. Three decades were lost to violence and destruction. In the wake of defeat and humiliation, this election restores hope, hope that the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people may one day be realised democratically. My party and I have maintained that the Thirteenth Amendment is grossly inadequate to meet those aspirations. But the struggle to negotiate for more meaningful devolution of power will take place within the democratic framework, through non-violent means. This election restores our hope in pursuing that path.
Democracy in the North prevailed despite daunting odds. Scores of incidents were reported during the weeks leading up to the elections. Candidates and supporters of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) were threatened, intimidated, and physically assaulted. Even on Election Day, the violence didn’t end. The military was at the helm of these violations. It openly and unashamedly campaigned on behalf of the United People’s Freedom Alliance and attempted to suppress the TNA’s campaign, a hallmark of which was, incidentally, the call for demilitarising the North. Yet the government’s project fatally underestimated the resilience of the individual voter in the North. And in the end, the voice of the people prevailed. The world’s respect is owed to such resilience.
Yet, there is no room for triumphalism at this time of rejoicing. As a result of the conflict, countless lives were either lost or marred forever. We must at all times remember that the edifice of democracy and freedom is ultimately built upon their suffering. For this, we owe them our unreserved respect. We must therefore celebrate with temperance rather than arrogance or pride. The need for humility in victory is unmistakable.
The TNA has been a voice of opposition for many years. Often, we were a lone voice. Our call for accountability came at a time when no other local party dared to stand firmly against impunity. We defended the Constitution when many wavered in the face of popular sentiment. We have thus earned the respect of principled citizens throughout the country, including those from the South.
These principled stands captured the hearts and minds of principled voters in the North; those who valued their dignity over ‘development’. The Tamil-speaking people have demonstrated that they cannot be bought over by empty promises of economic prosperity. Thus, through their electoral choices, the Tamil-speaking people too have earned the respect of fellow Sri Lankans as equal partners in a shared future.
The Centre must also reflect. The President’s legacy now hangs in the balance. He could either negotiate with the Tamil-speaking people to bring about a lasting political solution, or be remembered as the leader who brought victory to Some, only to be rejected by the Rest. It is hence time the Central Government genuinely strived to earn the respect of the Tamil-speaking people.
The Party and its new Chief Minister have boldly declared their intention to transform rhetoric into action. Even within the narrow ambit of the Thirteenth Amendment, we understand that broad reforms must be introduced in the fields of health and education; that development of the North is a shared responsibility. The Centre still exerts unacceptable control on the Province. So the challenges will be many and, at times, seemingly insurmountable. Yet the Party will relentlessly seek to deliver on its promises to the people.
The TNA also bears the responsibility of leading by example. By treating regional minorities in the Northern Province equally and with dignity, the Northern Provincial Council can set an important example of tolerance. By uncompromisingly embracing criticism and dissent, it can demonstrate the value of the Rule of Law and of fundamental freedoms. This will be the stage on which the TNA will demonstrate the quality of a truly principled government. In doing so, we will earn the respect of even our detractors.
As we embrace these times—to rejoice, to reflect and to take on new responsibilities—we must unvaryingly maintain respect for ourselves and for each other. Reconciliation is born out of a realisation that the ‘other’ is no different to ‘us’ and deserves equal respect. It begins when we are able to respect each other without the trappings of paternalism. Respect can no longer be measured or determined by numerical majority; equal human worth and dignity compels us to respect every individual and community equally.
True restoration takes place not in the material world, but in the hearts and minds of the people; it begins when respect is restored. This election affords us the opportunity to begin that restorative process and realise the dream of a united country, founded on the belief that all its citizens are equal and none more equal than others.
M. A. Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a senior practicing lawyer, prominent Constitutional and Public Law expert and civil rights advocate