A poser for the self-righteous: How about a Tamil or Muslim presidential candidate in Sri Lanka?

July 11, 2018 Asia , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , POLITICS

Reuters photo



Malinda Seneviratne



Yahapalanists, i.e. those advocating yahapalanaya or good governance, as per their own articulation of the term, are for equality, justice, truth, transparency, accountability and other such lovely things. Again, as per their rhetoric, they abhor injustice, corruption, nepotism, graft, misuse of state resources and abuse of authority, among other things.


Yahapalanaya, in the way the term has been used by its advocates, is not just about good governance. Yahapalanist rhetoric has waved many other flags, with noble objectives beautifully embroidered on them. They have called for a separation of religion and state, regularly rant and rave against assertion of identity (usually limited to those by Sinhalese and Buddhists) and insist that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country (carefully omitting relevant numbers and percentages). As such we have to take ‘yahapalanaya’ as a political concept that embraces all these things and it is the broader definition that we use here.


Yahapanlanists, in the sense the term is used here, refers to all those in the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and other parties who directly or indirectly backed Maithripala Sirisena’s presidential campaign and all individuals and organizations opposed to the previous regime.


Alright. Various key Yahapalana spokespersons have often dismissed and vilified their political rivals, in particular key personalities in the Joint Opposition and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna as well as those in organizations claiming to represent Sinhalese and Buddhists. They have been called racists and chauvinists. They are said to be out of touch with the times, accused of living in the past and being obstacles to progress.


This is not a defense of those accused thus. The ululation notwithstanding, there is truth in some of these charges at least with respect to some of those charged. The issue here, however, is about the integrity of the accusers, or put another way, the yahapalanist worth of the yahapalanists. In short, the question is, ‘do/can they put their money where their mouths are?’


Now both the parties led by the President and Prime Minister, the SLFP and UNP respectively, have a long history of positions taken than yahapalanists would not hesitate to call chauvinistic, racist, extremist, intolerant, etc. These parties have spawned many leaders who have in their operations turned the basic premises of yahapalanaya on their proverbial heads and kicked them in their proverbial behinds to boot. Furthermore, it is not as though the current lot are squeaky clean when it comes to upholding the yahapalana articles of faith. Let us be generous, however.


Let us assume, for arguments sake, that the yahapalanists are actually abiding by yahapalana principles. Assuming thus, among all litmus tests one can theoretically conduct to ascertain integrity with respect to the noble objectives articulated by them in the run up to the January 2015 election there is one that I believe would demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt their commitment to the yahapalana cause: the ideal profile of a Yahapalana presidential candidate?


If, as they claim, the JO, SLPP and other non-yahapalanist political groups are ‘majoritarian’ cannot they, the yahapalanists, being the righteous, noble and exemplary political actors on the Sri Lankan stage, be they members of political parties or not, argue for a presidential candidate who is the antithesis of whoever a JO/SLPP-led coalition puts forward (i.e., a racist in the eyes of yahapalanists)?


No, it would not be enough for such a candidate to be a Sinhalese or a Buddhist uttering yahapalana terminology at every turn. They should go the whole hog. Get a non-Buddhist who is also a non-Sinhalese as the candidate. If they don’t, it could mean that they are playing ethnic-politics that is a far cry from yahapalana ideals.


Let’s take Ranil Wickremesinghe. His religious affiliations are not clear, but there’s no doubt that he is a Sinhalese. Sajith Premadasa is a Sinhala Buddhist. Ravi Karunanayake is a Christian, but he’s a Sinhalese. Sinhalese are out, so let’s not labour the point with other potential UNP candidates. Among those who are neither Sinhalese nor Buddhists, the most senior is Kabir Hashim. How about Kabir as the UNP’s next presidential candidate? Have any yahapalanists stopped to even consider him?


It doesn’t have to be someone from the UNP, after all that party has not fielded a candidate at a presidential election since 2005. The UNP can find someone from outside the party system (e.g. Sarath Fonseka in 2010) or back a candidate from another party (e.g. Maithripala Sirisena in 2015). And the UNP need not worry if the political history of the particular candidate being embarrassing either due to wrongdoing (e.g. Fonseka, who was called all kinds of names by UNP stalwarts) or association (e.g. Sirisena). What counts is agreement on a program, never mind ability to deliver or lack of political will (e.g. Sirisena).


I am sure there are exemplary Tamils and Muslims untainted by political affiliation and endowed with the kind of integrity and aloofness from the dust and grind of ideological/political engagement. Can the yahapalanists come up with some names? Better yet, will they sweat and toil for such a person to be nominated as a candidate who runs against ‘the racists’?


Let’s assume that they want someone who is already ‘political’ (considering the utter failure of the Fonseka experiment); let’s lower the bar. Let’s just say ‘ok’ to any Tamil or Muslim politician, regardless of his/her track-record ideological or political.


R Sampanthan is the most senior politician in today’s Parliament, along with John Amaratunga, the latter not relevant since he’s a Sinhalese. Sampanthan had his black marks thanks to circumstances forcing his party to be an LTTE mouthpiece and before that for subscribing to Appapillai Amirthalingam’s chauvinism, such blemishes can be ignored. He’s not disgraced himself as the Leader of the Opposition. Moreover on countless occasions Sampanthan has spoken for all citizens and not just the Tamils.


Age is not on his side, obviously, for he’s 85. How about M.A. Sumanthiran, then? The occasional Tamil nationalistic rhetoric aside, Sumanthiran has also, like Sampanthan, spoken for all citizens, articulating their concerns and critiquing policies that could have a detrimental impact on them. How about a Sirisena-like deal, where Sumanthiran is nominated as the ‘Yahapalana Candidate’ with all yahapalanists backing him? Would the main ‘yahapalana party’ go along? That’s the UNP, by the way, which added a ‘yahapalana’ tag to the party name when contesting as a coalition in August 2015. How about Rauff Hakeem? He’s been embraced by the UNP and the SLFP at different times. Arumugam Thondaman?


Would all this shock the yahapalanists? Would they say I’m being mischievous and just trying to tease yapalanists to find someone who is unlikely to win? Well, the fact of the matter is, either you are idealistic or else you are abusing idealism. You can’t be a yahapalanist who is willing to bend the yahapalana yardstick, surely?


Let’s hear it from them. Dear yahapalanists, would you go with a candidate whose choice will do justice to your multi-ethnic, multi-religious rhetoric or would you not?





Malinda Seneviratne

I am a journalist, political commentator and a chess enthusiast. I was educated at the University of Peradeniya, Harvard University, University of Southern California and Cornell University and live in and work from Kottawa, Sri Lanka.

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