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Sri Lanka in the Obama age

So the darkest hour was indeed just before the dawn – however dark the hour and however faint the dawn. I refer to the torment of the Gazans which was brought to a halt in time for the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.

It is a new dawn for the United States, and also, though not as brightly and unambiguously, for the world. It is a new dawn for the people of the USA, after a long struggle against slavery, segregation, racism and racial discrimination, and more recently the economic philosophy of free market fundamentalism. It is a new dawn for the United States as a country. It has set an example by electing an outstanding personality, by revealing and restoring its better self, by showing itself to be a progressive society and by choosing someone who is committed to correcting the country’s course. Already it is looked up to again, and by its new combination of reason and resolve, is on its way to reasserting its global role by acclaim as much as by assertiveness.

Barack Obama sets us an example of enlightened patriotism, of which there is far too little in many societies including our own. Far too many of us are either blindly uncritical patriots or are so aware of our country’s weaknesses and crimes that we have renounced all patriotism if we ever had it. Obama’s patriotism like that of Martin Luther King is one which is acutely aware of his country’s weakness and the stains on its history but is as aware of its strengths and potentialities, and convinced that these strengths outweigh or can be made to outweigh its weaknesses, restoring to it its proper role in the world. As he writes in his second book, his heart "is bursting with love" for his country. Obama grew up acutely aware of the prejudices in mainstream society, but unlike many academics and educated professionals in Sri Lanka who are disdainful of the masses, he can discern the best qualities of the many; he appreciates and loves the people.

President Obama’s patriotism sets us an example in its multiculturalism. In Sri Lanka patriotism is held to be the preserve of the cultural majority. Somehow, only the Sinhala Buddhists are thought to be authentically patriotic or nationalist. Patriotism is identified with the notion of purity, while admixture, hybridism, cross fertilization is not seen as a source of richness but of bastardization and "mongrelization" ("thuppahi"). The nation is supposed to be constructed around the Sinhala Buddhist cultural core, the dominance of which the minorities must accept and buy into. The minorities, or should I say the minoritarians, for their part mirror an inversion of this view and do not fully subscribe to a Sri Lankan patriotism or sign up for Sri Lanka’s struggle against its enemies.

Barack Obama’s patriotism is very different. To America’s enemies he had a tough message: "Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred... for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you". His commitment to his country’s military was manifest in his remarks later that night at the Commander-in Chief’s ball, when he said that of all his tasks he had no greater honor than to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. This is far cry from the Chamberlain–like appeasement policies of the Sri Lankan Opposition and the pacifism of its civil society auxiliaries.

However, Obama’s patriotic resolve is different in character, from the aggressive patriotism that dominates Sri Lankan society. In his speech on Martin Luther King’s birthday, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on the very eve of his presidential inauguration, President –elect Obama repeated the nature of his belief and the foundation of his hope:

"It is the same thing that gave me hope from the day we began this campaign for the presidency nearly two years ago; a belief that if we could just recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together - Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; Latino, Asian, and Native American; black and white, gay and straight, disabled and not - then not only would we restore hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both, but maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process. This is what I believed, but you made this belief real."

Though 76.5% of the adult population of the United States defines itself as Christian, in his Inaugural Address President Obama reiterated to huge applause, and identified as wellspring of America’s success, that:

"For we know that our patchwork heritage is strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself…"

If as they say the sins of the fathers are visited on the children, this is not only truest of the founding fathers, but is true also in reverse, in that the virtues of the founding fathers are harvested by the children. Barack Obama and Martin Luther King were able to build upon the heritage of the Founding Fathers, working the contradiction that lay at the seams of the social contract: the belief that all men were created equal, and the fact many of the founding fathers were slave owners, and the republic coextend with slavery. None of us can choose our fathers. Barack Obama is lucky that he is the political descendant of the Founding Fathers who were steeped in the ideals of the Enlightenment. This is not a matter of West vs. East. Indian politicians and intellectuals can also reach back to the enlightened ideals of the founding fathers, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, and draw inspiration from the Nehruvian choices of secularism and quasi-federalism, as well as the Indian Constitution.

We Sri Lankans have no such heritage of a founding document that we can return to and draw upon, to correct our course. Yet, we do have something going for us which we can draw upon. We did get something right, and more correct than better endowed others. As veteran New York Times journalist turned scholar, Barbara Crossette, writing in The Nation earlier this month (Jan 6) wrote, "Sri Lanka… was once the region’s most progressive and democratic country… A reasonably egalitarian society with human development measures that still exceed India’s—in better health care, near-universal education and literacy, protected rights for women and numerous other factors…"

We can return to what we were, enhance what is good about what we are, if only we are capable of two things: bringing this war to a swift, decisive and victorious conclusion, and rebuilding our society in a manner that preserves the best of our modern heritage, while eliminating those factors that brought this quarter century of bloody war upon us, distorting our profile and undermining those very achievements. For a society to sustain itself as progressive it has to be inclusionary not only of the poor and young of the majority ethnic group, but of all its constituent ethnic and religious communities.

Let there be no ambiguity. The LTTE has been the main obstacle to any progress and the main cause of our degeneration. The open economy of JR Jayewardene, the "growth with equity" multicultural model of Premadasa, the Blairite Third Way of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the free-market fundamentalism of the Tiger-friendly Ranil Wickremesinghe, all unraveled because of the war, and if someone is tempted to pin the entire or main blame on Sinhala chauvinism, it has to be recalled that the LTTE repeatedly returned to war despite the availability of serious reformist options such as the Indo-Lanka Accord, which the Tigers spurned and went on to murder the author-architect of.

The United States has emerged from the gloom, a few months before Sri Lanka has a chance of doing so. Sri Lanka’s emergence from the tunnel of a bitter war will be closer to that of America’s victories in its numerous wars than to the Obama victory. However, the Obama win is relevant to Sri Lanka in more than one way. We shall be closing out the war and building the peace in a new world-historical situation; not one characterized by the Bush administration’s ideology of the "global war on terror" (GWOT) with its Manichean worldview. With the failure of the policy of GWOT, there is a new paradigm that is taking wing. President Obama has made it plain that he disagrees completely with the argument that security requires the abandonment or suspension of the ideals of democratic societies such as the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake...Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy".

What do we do after we have won the war? The Bush administration made the mistake of not planning for what came after the military defeat of Saddam Hussein. We must think ahead. But we must also think correctly, in an enlightened and realistic manner. Do we follow the example of the victorious powers after World War, whose shortsighted and vengeful policies at the Treaty of Versailles resulted in the growth thof Nazism among the defeated and humiliated Germans and led to a second more terrible World War? Or do we follow the example of the Allies after World War 11, whose generosity towards the defeated laid the foundations for the Western alliance and global prosperity? Or let us look at examples closer in time, and place. Do we attempt to imitate the Israelis and practice a policy of occupation, settlements and discrimination, triggering endless cycles of conflict, or do we follow the no less tough-minded but much smarter Russian leaders, who having had to smash the Chechen terrorist insurgency with untrammeled force, have since ensured a high degree of stability by devolving power to their Chechen ally the tough young Ramzan Kadyrov, and transferring enough economic autonomy to guarantee a surge of prosperity in Grozhny?

Already opinions are heard in favor of the most unenlightened of postwar options. These are recipes for continued tragedy, especially with Tamil Nadu at our back, Indian elections on the horizon and the Tamil Diaspora plugged into polities from the USA to South Africa, from Malaysia to Mauritius.

As President Obama said of cynics in his inaugural speech, so too of chauvinists — majority and minority — in Sri Lanka: what they "fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them", globally. With the Obama victory, the current generation in United States is about to fulfill its highest potential. With the coming victory over the Tigers, Sri Lanka can do so too, provided we turn our backs on the local equivalent of the brand of patriotism and values of the outgoing Bush administration while heeding instead the call of Barack Obama. Sri Lanka, emerging from war, can build the peace only with the new spirit of the Obama age beneath its wings.

(These are the strictly personal views of the writer)

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