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Sunday, 2 February 2014





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Nurturing ethnic harmony for sustainable development

Last week, I had the opportunity of reading an essay written by a student of Grade 10 on ethnic harmony. I quote one paragraph: "People would like to see an ethnic problem disappear. And the way they think it's going to disappear is by not talking about it. But, I think, the real way you can make it disappear is by talking about it, learning about it, and understanding it. Then you'll see a change."

Unity among different ethnicities is beautifully displayed by these children. If this trend is continued throughout their lives, this nation would prosper.

If this student was voicing the common concerns of the modern youth, we are a fortunate nation. The formation of the great 'national family', consisting of all people of the country, notwithstanding the differences in ethnicity or religion, which we were expecting since our Independence in 1948, will become a reality within the next few decades.

Ask a dozen adults what ethnic harmony is, and you'll probably get a dozen different answers. Ethnic harmony is an evolving concept that few can foresee in its final form. What is evolving is how we interact with and perceive those who are different from us. We know that most of these differences are superficial and unimportant. Yet, for many, these minor differences are what they focus on first. Where did we learn it, and, how can we unlearn it?

As the National Day 2014 dawns in two days, these are the questions we have to answer. If we are honest to ourselves, listen to our hearts, and find the right answers, we can look forward to becoming a unified nation in double-quick time.

Out of our own experiences, we know that national identities and loyalties are mainly threatened from within (rather than from outside) and they are quite real.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to our country. Throughout the world, the possibility of 'nations within states' and of internecine conflict along religious, ethnic and linguistic lines seem ever present.

The former Yugoslavia is perhaps the most prominent illustration of state disintegration amid clashes between ethnic and religious groups with aspirations to nationhood. The cases of Southern Sudan, Chechnya and Iraq are three more recent examples.

Significant mobilisations

Moreover, there have also been less famous, but still significant mobilisations along ethnic lines in other areas of the world, such as Latin America. Even in the United States, some worry that American identity is challenged by growing ethnic diversity, especially when that very diversity is celebrated under the guise of multi-culturalism or the 'politics of recognition'.

Sixteen years after Independence, it's time for us to take a cue from our own experiences. We need to begin investigating more systematically the variation in 'attachment' among the different ethnic and religious segments of our population to the motherland. We should focus in particular on how our populations that are 'minority' in terms of ethnicity, religion and language feel about their country.

In this investigation, we should seek to answer two questions. First, do our minority populations feel less attached to the country in which they live? Second, what political, economic, and cultural factors strengthen or weaken the national attachment of minority populations?

To answer these questions, we have to formulate our concept of what is meant by 'attachment' to the country. The writer has intentionally used the common term 'attachment' to characterise people's feelings because it is a general description and does not imply any particular kind of attachment (love, pride, and so on) or any specific content of that attachment.

What is meant is a very general sense of one's identification with one's country. Others may have different definitions, such as 'patriotism' and 'nationalism'. These can be very important, of course, but only for determining the consequences of national attachment.


Two important dimensions of a nation's political institutions are economic development and political freedom. Generally, citizens in economically developed countries have a stronger national attachment because they experience a considerable degree of personal freedom and ease of living.

National Day celebrations

Citizens living in developing countries, on the other hand, often experience substantial hardships relative to citizens in developed countries. As such, they may feel less attachment to their country. This means, national attachment may not arise solely because of myths and imaginings, but may have a quite rational basis in living conditions and freedom.

The experience of nation building suggests that ethnic pluralism and cultural blending have been a continuing process in most successful countries. A multi-religious and ethnic identity can itself become over time a source of national identity.

However, historical experience also suggests that blending can only be forced at high resource costs. The 'melting pot' metaphor (practised in the USA) has seldom applied when a country consists of geographically based ethnic nationalities.

Understanding fully the gravity and importance of ethnic harmony, the Government has increased investments in infrastructure and public utilities in the North and the East and accelerated their opening to the outside world. This has begun to result in an upsurge of economic development in these areas. This is a step in the right direction.

Role of schools

At the same time, we must understand that children and young people are perhaps the key to realising true ethnic harmony. They are the first to adapt to new technologies, the first to consider new possibilities and new ways of thinking. Young people tend to ignore superficial differences, and make friends with people from all strata of society - a key component to building harmony and international understanding.

This writer believes that there is an urgent need for successful strategies to implement in our schools - strategies to dispel racial tensions and violence (particularly violence related to race or ethnicity) and to create a vision that includes students of diverse backgrounds understanding of cultural differences.

A growing number of educators are becoming aware of a lack of attention to diversity issues in the preparation of school leaders.

Administrative preparation programs have traditionally emphasised management skills and have not given adequate attention to the need to mediate the new diversity that characterises many urban and suburban schools. If schools are to become more like the ones in the study - safe and respectful environments where positive inter-ethnic relations can flourish - policy makers, principals and others need to make inter-group relations a priority area in education and take appropriate action.

The ideal relationship among our ethnic groups one day should reach a level when we can describe it as 'overall integration and mutual interaction'. Until four decades ago, concentrations of ethnic minorities resided within predominantly 'Sinhala areas', and the Sinhalese people also resided in 'minority areas', indicating that there have been extensive exchanges among our ethnic groups since ancient times.

With the development of the market economy, interaction among ethnic groups has become even more active in the areas of government, economics, culture, daily life and marriage.

Linked by inter-dependence, mutual assistance and joint development, their common goals and interests creating a deep sense of solidarity, Sri Lanka's ethnic groups should become a great national family, together building a Sri Lankan civilisation.

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