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Unity in Diversity: Building Shared and Inclusive Societies

22 Dec 2012

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Chandrika Badaranaike                 

Poverty and conflict are two issues that have caused many setbacks for developing nations.
Poverty is considered to be the greatest challenge facing all countries. Governments have formulated and implemented thousands of programmes to alleviate or end poverty and deprivation.


However, rarely do governments recognize the importance of searching out the causes of conflict and resolving them. Unresolved conflict invariably leads to violence and civil war.  This in turn compounds the problems of poverty.


Traditional societies are composed of diverse groups of peoples, of different ethnicities, religions, caste, etc.  In ancient, pre-colonial Societies, diversity did not inevitably generate conflict.  Ancient philosophies recognized and accepted the existence of separate social groups with different beliefs and social structures. Yet, they were all believed to be knit together by a common humanity, in search of an ultimate reality.  The colonial rulers transformed diversity into sources of friction, employing diversities “to divide and rule.”  From being a cultural strength, diversity was transformed into a political and social weakness. With the advent of colonialism, diversity was no more celebrated and accepted as part of an existential necessity, but was seen as something to be opposed.  Of course it was greatly advantageous to the invading rulers to divide us in order to rule and dominate us better.


Hence ethnic and tribal differences, religion differences and so on were exacerbated causing division and conflict.
Studies have amply demonstrated that exclusion and inequality between different groups have been the major cause of intra-national conflicts.  When inequality occurs among groups, which have similar economic and social status – that is, horizontal inequalities, the disadvantaged group feels the discrimination more sharply.


Perceived injustice as well as frustration and despair caused by continued social marginalization, economic deprivation and political defeat have been known to result in violence.  It has been said, “young hope betrayed, transforms itself into bombs.” The continued existence of inequality gives rise to violence and even terrorism – that most dehumanizing phenomenon of our times.  Economic regression and political instability follow:


I wish to affirm here that marginalized groups have been found to perceive injustice not only as economic deprivation, but also through the prism of social and political inequality.  The exclusion of some communities from an equitable share of the benefits of prosperity causes inequalities in every sphere.  It has been affirmed that poverty, social and political injustice and their relationship to conflict may be measured by the difference in opportunity structures for the excluded groups.


Economic development is no doubt the priority requirement for addressing the challenges of poverty and deprivation. Most developing economies have attained accelerated growth and development in the past few decades.


However, hundreds of millions of our citizens have been left behind, continuing to live under conditions of extreme poverty and are even becoming poorer than before.  They remain marginalized, while the benefits of economic growth are enjoyed by a relatively small number of the privileged classes.


Lack of access to education and knowledge, jobs, land and other public assets, by an ever-increasing number of our peoples causes frustration and anger amongst the marginalized.  They are no more willing to tolerate the inequalities.


Economic Development happens to be only one part of the solution.  We need to adopt a holistic plan of action which will encompass the socio-political aspects of the problem.  All those communities which have been excluded historically or even in modern times must be included as equal partners, having equal rights in the economic, social and political spheres.  In formulating policies for development, an inclusive approach is required so that the benefits of growth reach the disadvantaged and they are included in the implementation of the programmes. To end poverty and hunger in a durable manner, we need inclusive and sustainable development. Here I wish to quote from the great Indian poet and philosopher – Rabindranath Tagore “Bigotry tries to keep truth safe in its hands, with a grip that kills it.”


The most potent source of violent conflict today is identity. The denial of rights to or the exclusion of certain groups with common identity becomes the bedrock of dissent and violent conflict.


Prof. Rehman Sobhan affirms in his work on poverty and injustice that poverty, injustice and their relationship to conflict may be measured by the difference in opportunity structures for the excluded. Conflict has arisen in innumerable countries, when the state apportions a larger share of the privileges to the majority, marginalizing and excluding the minority groups – seen as “the others”.  If I may cite some examples: In Peru and Guatemala, cultural discrimination was exercised constitutionally prohibiting the use of indigenous languages.


In Malaysia this was achieved indirectly against non-Muslims through the operation of Bhumiputra laws – and in Ivory Coast against non-Christians.


The Protestant Orange Order movement in Northern Ireland, the destruction of religious buildings in India, Palestine and recently in Malaysia led to conflictual polarization of victimized communities and to violent conflict. In Sri Lanka, language policy has had a similar effect in polarizing a peaceful Tamil community around the demand for equal status.


At this point, permit me to describe my personal experiences as Head of State of Sri Lanka.  I was personally committed to the concept that Federalism and inclusivity were the solutions to Sri Lanka’s minorities’ question.  I had ascertained that the majority of adherents to the exclusivist Sinhala Buddhist concept of the State belonged to a small minority of the elite ruling class politicians and clergy and others closely linked to them.  The masses, in their vast majority were not committed to extremist political views of any type.


We understood that we must negotiate with the minorities and their leaders and bring in suitable concessions.  Sharing what we possess with others will not reduce our strength.  Instead, it will enhance it by bringing together divided communities working together bringing in skills, talents and knowledge of the marginalized that were deprived to us since the beginning of the conflict.  The diverse skills and talents of all our peoples, actively participating in the nation building process, will immensely enrich and unify our divided Nation.  Our country is weak and our State is fragile in every sense of the word.  We need to do much to build a strong and prosperous State.


Hence we adopted a strategy of honest, public discourse to inform the people that the only viable solution was to choose the path of dialogue, negotiations and peace achieved by means of a federal constitution and by building a cohesive Nation and an inclusive State.  We won three major elections within eighteen months, with an increased majority vote at each one. A gallup poll we conducted at the time my government came to power in 1994 showed that only 23 per cent of the Sinhala people opted for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.  We undertook extensive programs to take the message of peace and shared societies to the entire country.  We held seminars, workshops, street theater and used the media widely.  At the end of 2 years another survey showed that the number of people opting not only for peace, but this time also for devolution of power had increased to 68 per cent.


I must emphasize that my government only employed democratic methods, never force nor violence against our opponents.
An essential prerequisite for Peace, a stable and strong government and prosperity is a democratic, pluralist State.  This is the only magic potion I know to bind together diverse peoples of a multi-ethic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious and cultural country like ours, as one undivided and strong Nation.
The vision and actions of leaders of government have been instrumental in defining the choices made by the Sri Lanka people.
For the first time in the history of independent Sri Lanka, my government offered a comprehensive solution to the minorities’ problem.  Even while war had to be waged, we began and completed a large number of essential development projects in the North and East.  Infrastructure damage during years of war was reconstructed – roads, bridges and culverts, irrigation works, telecommunication, electricity schools and the University, hospitals, saw extensive reconstruction and we made available credit for agriculture, small industries and fisheries.


This no doubt created employment locally for youth, who until then had seen no hope of a better future for themselves.  Thus we were able to demonstrate to the Tamil civilians that there could exist Sri Lankan governments with honest intensions of including the Tamils and all other citizens equitably in the development process.  Empirical evidence showed that the numbers of youth joining LTTE armies were considerably reduced, since we adopted these policies.


However, we understood that economic development alone could not succeed in creating a society where all our people would feel they were fairly and equitably included.  For this, it was required to share political power which we the Sinhalese had jealously guarded to ourselves since independence, marginalizing all others not only in practice but also by law, by means of various legal enactments of constitutions and laws.


Hence we proposed to enact a new constitution, containing extensive devolution of power to the minorities, together with various other measures adopted to guarantee their rights.   This draft constitution also contained measures to abolish the Executive Presidency which accords excessive power to the President.


We could not translate our dream of enacting this constitution and transforming a divided, violent Lanka into a united nation where peace prevails, because of the consistent and violent rejection of our Peace Proposal by the LTTE, as well as the obstinacy of the parliamentary Opposition in refusing to give the government the few votes required to make up the required 2/3rd majority in parliament.


We believe that educating the young was important for building a Shared Society and a united country.  We introduced new subjects to the schools curricula and established Peace Education in every one of our 10,000 schools and educated young students about coexistence and the rights of all citizens to equal status politically, economically and culturally.


Ethnicity, religion, language and cultural practices constitute the identity of person.
When communities perceive that their identities are not sufficiently recognized or are positively discriminated, violent protest may follow.  Some of the most violent conflicts known in human history have been caused due to unequal treatment of communities using a different language or practicing a different religion.


Kumaratunga, former President of Sri Lanka presented this paper at the 13th session of the Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe Foundation annual Lecture series in Lagos recently.

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