Where the street cleaner and CEO sit together
Daily Mirror Editorial
Feb 15, 2011

In ancient and uncivilized times diseases like leprosy were seen as an incurable curse. Even religious laws decreed that the lepers should be outcast and confined to leper colonies. They were untouchable. When they had to come to town for an urgent need, they were required to ring an alarm bell and wear a board saying, “I am unclean.”

In most parts of the world, the attitude and the approach is now more enlightened and compassionate, though in certain parts of India for instance there are thousands of people who are still outcast as untouchable. In Sri Lanka today we may not have problems with leprosy, lepers or toilet cleaners. But similar rejection or discrimination takes place in more subtle and sophisticated but equally dangerous or devastating ways.

For instance we need to reflect deeply today on racial divisions and prejudices which persisted for decades and finally exploded into a bloody thirty-year war in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed, wounded, displaced and dragged into varying degrees of destitution and degradation.

Prior to independence there were differences of opinion between the Sinhala and Tamil political leaders and the situation took a dangerous turn when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike broke away from the ruling UNP and played the “Sinhala only” card. He swept to office in 1956. The Tamil community reacted and within two years there were anti-tamil riots. Mr. Bandaranaike realized his folly and reached an agreement with Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam to devolve power to the northern and eastern provinces. But the UNP led by J.R. Jayewardene and Sinhala extremists accused Mr. Bandaranaike of betraying the Sinhala people and launched a massive campaign against him leading to his assassination by a Buddhist monk in September 1959. After that we had the agreement in 1966 between the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and Mr. Chelvanayagam for the setting up of district councils with wide powers. But that also was sabotaged by extremists. We saw anti-tamil riots again in 1977 with the breaking point being the racial holocausts of July 1983.

After that most Tamil people considered themselves to be or were treated like second or third class citizens and at one point in the war most Tamil people found themselves in a position where it was virtually a crime to be a Tamil. It was a kind of social leprosy. They may not have had to ring a bell and wear a board saying “I am a Tamil”. But there was deep suspicion or prejudice with most Tamils considered to be Tigers or Tiger supporters.

The time has come now to heal these divisions or the social leprosy. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has made several positive recommendations for deep and lasting reconciliation between the two communities. President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his Independence Day message assured he would methodically implement the LLRC recommendations. If and when he does so it might be a good foundation to build a just and fair society where we will reject not only racial leprosy but even discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, or social status so that even the street cleaner and the chief executive officer could sit together as equal citizens.

Source: Daily Mirror - Sri Lanka