UNLOCKED Blog 3: The Art of Unity: The Sri Lankan Chapter

26 Feb 2015

Just after gaining independence from the British in 1948, Sri Lanka – then called Ceylon – was one of the most promising countries in Asia, due to its achievements in health, education and social services. Lee Kwang Yew, the founding father of the modern Singapore, visited during the 1950s and stated that he wished that Singapore would become more like Ceylon, ‘Britain's Model Commonwealth Country’.

Throughout the years, Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped colonial outpost with no natural resources into a ‘First World’ Asian Tiger. Sadly, our country lagged behind for 67 years, stagnating or perhaps worsening on economic and political indicators. We had to see other developing countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan progressing, while we epitomized ‘conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness’ as Lee later suggested.

Where did we go wrong? What happened to us as a country?

I think we all should take a moment and ask ourselves the question, “can we really be happy about the last few decades of our country’s history?”

In my opinion as a youth, although there might be other reasons, the most significant factor that hindered us from where we truly should have been, is the fact that we have still not learned the art of living together, united and undivided. 

Our history, post-independence, was heavily marred by scenes of ethnic, religious, racial and social differences. As highlighted in the National Human Development Report 2014 on Youth and Development: Towards a More Inclusive Future (NHDR), the 1956 Language Policy; the youth-driven insurrection in 1971, which was largely attributed to educated youth frustrated by the inability to fulfil their aspirations, the 1983 ethnic violence, the civil unrest of the late 1980s and, of course, the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), contributed towards alienation and feelings of isolation for the communities involved. As you may agree, when people aren’t happy with their lives, they aren’t going to achieve much for themselves and as a result, society as a whole.

Let’s take the war with the LTTE. Yes, their actions over the past three decades should by all means be deplored and condemned. But why did the LTTE create itself in the first place? Why did they become extreme enough to allow the killing of their own countrymen? Did our leaders fail to listen to their grievances as well? Is it because youth in the North felt socially and politically isolated, prompting them to move towards extremism?

Possibly. The NHDR suggests that “since independence, youth in general have had a tense relationship with the Sri Lankan state, expressing, sometimes violently, their disappointment with the failure of mainstream political institutions to address their grievances and their exclusion from the development process.”

I believe this is precisely where we failed. The lack of broad-minded leaders and policies. Social and ethno-religious divides are what held us back at large.

So, what is the way forward? The incidents above are not aimed at suggesting that the situation is hopeless. We should learn from them, and move forward in a more holistic manner. Yes, these tragedies happened in the past, but we should not let them resurface in the future. We do have options - two options. Firstly, we could continue to point fingers at each other and blame each other based on nothing but our differences, just as we have done in the past, and thereby move towards further disaster. Or, we could choose to unite, forgive, forget and move on.

We have, in the past, dwelled on what divides us, instead of focusing on what can bring us together. This has been the case not only in Sri Lanka, but perhaps throughout human history. To put this in context, let us take this example:

During Big Match time, we might find a Royalist and a Thomian quarrelling about which school is better - although Royalists and Thomians do not generally quarrel, as they are a friendly bunch! Now, when a Sri Lanka vs. India Cricket match comes along, you will find these same two men standing on the same side, chanting the same rhymes, singing the same songs and supporting our country, forgetting all the fights and heated words exchanged at the Big Match. This is one of the instances where nationalism takes precedence. Remember the India vs. Pakistan matches, and the extremes to which their apparent ‘love’ for their country have taken them, ending in violent terms. However, surprisingly enough, when an Asia XI vs. World XI match comes into play, you will see the Pakistanis and Indians side by side, cheering the Asians on. The point here is that sometimes we are so obsessed with our apparent cultural uniqueness to the extent that we forget our humanity.

We need to think collectively as human beings. This does not necessarily mean that we have to belittle our cultures, religious beliefs, traditions, nationalities or ethnicities, but instead, give precedence and importance to our basic values and principles. In this way, we can uplift ourselves and everybody around us!

Finally, I’ll give you just one example of the amazing outcomes, results and happiness we could potentially achieve if we start to learn the art of living in unity.

The European Renaissance occurred during the 15th and 17th centuries, before which were the Dark and Middle Ages.  While Europe was considered to be in the Dark Ages, there was a thriving and prosperous civilization taking shape in Cordoba (presently Southern Spain) under the Al-Andalus. Cordoba was one of the most advanced cities in the world at the time, and had become the intellectual centre of Europe. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived cooperatively in Cordoba for more than 300 years at a time when the rest of the region was marred by religious violence, such that it was one of the few places in Europe in which all these people could live together. It is precisely through this unity and cooperation that Cordoba achieved its unmatched status, which, according to some historians, later contributed towards the Renaissance in Europe.

This type of unity is what we need in Sri Lanka.

We must work together in unity to survive, to thrive, to grow, to evolve.

Be a revolutionary. Embrace peace, love and unity!

As Martin Luther King said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we're all in the same boat now.”

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