Sri Lanka: The Presidential Election was on the Day of Tolerance

Tolerance is fundamental for democracy to flourish. Where there is diversity, there is always the potential for conflicts. How to manage conflict is rooted in the idea of being tolerant. 

by Mass L. Usuf

Alarmed by the current rise in acts of intolerance, violence, terrorism, aggressive nationalism, racism, and discrimination directed against national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, as well as acts of violence and intimidation committed against individuals exercising their freedom of opinion and expression - all of which threaten the consolidation of peace and democracy, both nationally and internationally, and are obstacles to development.

The above text forms part of the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance adopted and signed by the 185 Member States of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), meeting in Paris at the twenty-eighth session of the General Conference, on 16 November 1995. The International Year of Tolerance was declared in celebrating the fiftieth-year anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations and UNESCO. The following year, in 1996, the General Assembly of the United Nations chose 16 November to mark the adoption anniversary of the Declaration.

Coincidentally, 16 November was the date of the Presidential Election in Sri Lanka, on which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was voted into office this year.

Lurking dangers

The stark fact that Sri Lanka has become an ethnically polarised Nation is convincingly evident. One of the biggest and impending challenges for President Gotabaya is to narrow this gap, before this country slides into a structurally disintegrated society. There is never going to be economic prosperity and development in a country in which the citizens live like aliens in their own motherland. The sense of belonging and the feeling of patriotism would gradually diminish from the hearts and minds of the affected people. Each will look at the other with suspicion, enmity, jealousy and hatred. The transcendent thread of 'commonness' binding each and every citizen as equal members of this Nation will be damaged. The more, this cancer is left on its own to metastasise, finding solutions will become complex. The further it is allowed to saturate the minds of the majority, seeking answers will become a sensitive issue. Striking while the iron is hot is what President Gotabaya must do on a high priority basis. The reality is that there cannot be a peaceful country without harmony between its citizens.

Rooting out vigilantism

Vigilantism is when people 'take the law into their own hands' in order to protect or advance their interests. This can pose a serious threat to internal national security, as one isolated incident can be the reason to trigger a widespread riot. Such undemocratic behaviour negatively impacts on the image of the Government, since there will follow international condemnation. Moreover, it will directly impact in slowing down the economy of the country.

The post-Easter Sunday Attack was marked by unchecked vigilantism, especially against Muslim women and their traditional dress - not the face cover (Niqab). In schools, hospitals, universities, government departments, and in public places vulnerable and lonely women were targeted by 'heroic' men. This naturally creates fear and resentment in the minds of the victims and their families. Think about this - would you allow your wife, sister or mother to be accosted by some unknown men?

Emperor Ashoka

Every human being commits mistakes and they learn from their mistakes. The President has had a variety of allegations hoisted upon him, which is a publicly known fact. Irrespective of whether these allegations are true or not, here is an opportunity for President Gotabaya to display his statesmanship, both to the local and international community. A statesman in whose mind the country comes first, even above self. A statesman who represents the entire Nation of people, which includes those who oppose him. A statesman who will protect the vulnerable people of his country. A statesman who will integrate a fractured society. A statesman who will tolerate criticism against him. At this point, it will be beneficial to refer to what has been recorded about Emperor Ashoka, in his approach towards the vastly pluralistic Indian sub-continent.

"Ashoka's religion contained gleanings from all religions. He emphasised the virtues of Ahimsa, respect to all religious teachers, equal respect for and study of each other's scriptures, and rational faith." Bhargava, Rajeev (May 2015). The roots of Indian pluralism. Philosophy & Social Criticism.

International Day of Tolerance

As a first step, President Gotabaya can declare 2020 as the 'Year of Tolerance.' Secondly, adopt the week of 16 November as the 'Week of Tolerance' every year. This is, also, the day that he was decisively voted into office.

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, had this message on the occasion of the International Day for Tolerance. At a time when extremism and fanaticism are unleashed too often, at a time when the venom of hatred continues to poison a part of humanity, tolerance has never been more vital a virtue.

In answer to the question, "Why do we mark International Days," the UN site notes: "Each international day offers many actors the opportunity to organise activities related to the theme of the day - Governments, civil society, the public and private sectors, schools, universities and, more generally, citizens, make an international day a springboard for awareness-raising actions." Further, articulating the foundation for the line of action for the future, it observes that tolerance is openness, respect, solidarity and acceptance of our diversity as human beings. In place of fear and rejection of the unknown, tolerance is mutual understanding, through active interest in the traditions and beliefs of others and the sharing of common ideas.

As is recommended, as part of this Week of Tolerance, prizes may be awarded to institutions, organisations or persons, who have contributed in a particularly meritorious and effective manner to tolerance and non-violence.

Support of minorities

Who would not want to lead a happy and peaceful life? To whichever religion, race, ethnicity one belongs to, the common goal of every human is peace and happiness. This is exactly what all religions teach. No one can go wrong in following the correct, true and unadulterated pure teachings of the religious reformers. All citizens and preachers of religion should bear this in mind.

There is a hugely responsible role for all citizens of this country to undertake. This role would comprise working towards the betterment of our Nation and fostering cordial and harmonious relationships with one another. While the part that the minority communities need to undertake is onerous, it is also the duty of those belonging to the majority community to give that space to them, by extending their understanding, tolerance and respect to the freedoms, feelings and aspirations of the other.

In this effort, leaving aside party loyalties, religion, race and ethnic differentiations, all of us, as citizens of this country, must extend our support and cooperation to the new President. We must help him steer this island towards an era of peace and prosperity, without fear and austerity.

Tolerance and democracy

Tolerance is fundamental for democracy to flourish. Where there is diversity, there is always the potential for conflicts. How to manage conflict is rooted in the idea of being tolerant. Democracy is about equality which means, though all the people are equal, they can think differently, can express themselves differently, can pursue religious freedom differently, can have political views differently. To acknowledge these differences, to respect viewpoints and to understand pluralism are the hallmarks of democracy dignified by the practise of tolerance. Tolerance does not promote the destruction of each other, but the co-existence of each other.

To declare 2020 as the Year of Tolerance, and 16 November as the 'Week of Tolerance' every year, will be a feather in the President's cap, and historically mark the day on which he was elected to the Office of President.

The end.

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