Unrest and rioting in cities throughout the United States, the world’s largest economy and one of its richest, have been going on now for a week. Protests have taken place in at least 75 cities and have reached the gates of the White House. The immediate cause for these riots was the killing of an African American man by a white police officer in an especially brutal way by keeping a knee on his neck. This killing was filmed as it was happening in public on the roadside and showed other police officers looking on while people passing by plead with the police to get off the dying man.
The scale of the public agitation and violence hark back to the late 1960s and the imposition of curfews has been reported to be more than at any time since the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. American society was able to overcome that setback because that was a time of progress. There was hope in the air. The civil rights laws had been passed that gave equal rights to all. Affirmative action policies were being put in place that enabled people from disadvantaged communities to get places in universities and better jobs.
In the 1980s when I was a student in the US the black-white divide persisted in fact despite the laws and affirmative action policies. This was most evident in the freshman dining hall for first year students. There was a series of long dining tables in the hall where students could sit wherever they pleased. But it soon became evident that there were two rows of tables on a side towards the back where only African American students would sit, though sometimes a white student or two would join, and at other tables there were black students sitting too.
One year I had African American roommates and one of them invited me to his home in a prosperous suburb of New York. The suburbs in the US are very livable spaces where the better off sections of the population live in large houses that have large gardens. My friend’s father was a successful professional in one of the largest US-based multinational corporations in the world. He had succeeded in life and his son was also on the path to success. But I observed that whatever topic the family began their discussion on, it would invariably turn towards the issue of racial relations, inequalities and prejudice.
The triumph of Barak Obama at the presidential elections of 2008 and his subsequent re-election in 2012 seemed to signal a new phase in the integration of American society. The US has been described as a “melting pot” to which people came from all parts of the world as immigrants but within a few generations became wholly American and imbibing a common culture and values. But there were components from the very beginning of American history that did not melt in. They were the African Americans, and the other the indigenous American. They could not adequately benefit from the social contract that offered equal citizenship, equal opportunities and equal protection of the laws.
The influx of new immigrants from across the border in South America and from Muslim countries has brought other communities with distinct and un-meltable identities and who cannot be ignored or suppressed. The challenge for the US is to integrate them as well into the larger society and ensure that the social contract is implemented. In the face of this challenge has come the insecurity and fear that each community has of the other it does not know with the majority feeling threatened by the minority even as the minority feels marginalized and discriminated against by the majority. This is a phenomenon which we in Sri Lanka are familiar with.
President Donald Trump has been able to mobilise the fears of the white majority by focusing on their fears of the other communities with whom they have minimum engagement. Law enforcement are suspecting that outside elements from both far-right and far-left groups are playing a significant role in the unrest that has spread to cities all over the US. The parallels to Sri Lanka can be seen during time of riots when community members cannot withstand violent action instigated by people who come in from outside. The most that can be done by them in these unfortunate circumstances is to heal the wounds after those powerful instigators from outside have left, which is what our inter religious committees in many parts of the country have done.
There are lessons for us in Sri Lanka from the ongoing events in the United States. The end of the war in 2009 ended the armed uprising against the state by the Tamil ethnic minority which followed many non-violent protests from 1956 onwards. But it did not end the ethnic conflict. From 2015-19 Sri Lanka had a framework for reconciliation in UNHRC Resolution 30/1 of 2015 which the then government co-sponsored. It consisted of new institutions to meet the needs of those who had suffered in the war, such as the Office of Missing Persons, and reform of laws on the one hand, and addressing the roots of the conflict through constitutional reform on the other hand. This reconciliation framework was being implemented by the government, albeit slowly in view of political resistance by the opposition, both by hardline Sinhala nationalists as well as by Tamil nationalists who refused to cooperate.
In March 2020, following the change of government, Sri Lanka informed the UNHRC that it was withdrawing from the resolution. Speaking in Geneva, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stated “Notwithstanding withdrawing from co-sponsorship of this Resolution, Sri Lanka remains committed to achieving the goals set by the people of Sri Lanka on accountability and human rights, towards sustainable peace and reconciliation.” However, the government’s promise of achieving sustainable peace through an inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process has yet to materialize. There is hardly any public discussion about this lacuna. Looking at the US, it is timely that this discussion begins.
The statement by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that he was elected by the majority Sinhala population was balanced by the president concurrently declaring, at his swearing in, that he would be the president of all Sri Lankans. The differing treatment meted out to the funeral of the hill country Tamil leader Arumugam Thondaman, at which no Covid-related restrictions seemed to apply, as against the strictness of the enforcement of rules to other communities constitute a double standard that will rankle deeply. It is essential that the grievance of the minorities are addressed as early as possible which may be easier than the challenge facing the United States. The communities in Sri Lanka have been living in proximity for centuries unlike in the American case and they share many common values. With the correct leadership South Africa under Nelson Mandela was able to perform a miracle of political transformation. So can Sri Lanka if our present leadership puts its heart and mind to the task.