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From Here to Hanoi

by Dayan Jayatilleka

Vietnam was the first country to be informed by Sri Lanka of its victory over the Tigers. It was from the on the record remarks of a top Vietnamese leader that I learned that. In their separate speeches of welcome, the President, Prime Minister and Secretary General of the ruling Communist party of Vietnam all congratulated the Sri Lankan President for “the country’s historic victory over the LTTE” and promised to cooperate in “the elimination of the remnants of the LTTE”. On the issue of whether or not the Sri Lankan victory over the Tigers was one worth celebrating, the word of leaders who, as young men, actively fought the world’s mightiest superpower and won has an overriding credibility and authority.

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A woman sits making flags with a sewing machine in her tinny shop selling political decorative items including flags, banners, communist signs and portraits of Karl Max-Lenin and Ho Chi Minh in downtown Hanoi on July 15, 2009-pic: pic: Getty images

Vietnam hosts an international Buddhist Conference next year but it’s purely part of the cultural matrix and plays no role in the identity of the state. This is because they have separated religion from the state and government. Vietnam is successfully Janus faced, balancing the continued emotive commemoration of its sufferings, sacrifices and victories in the wars against imperialist intervention ( so much for those who say we must forget the Tigers and the war) with a forward looking, liberalized economy (so much for those who want to stay mired in a wartime mindset and mood). There is a lighter ideological touch in Vietnam than there is in Sri Lanka. The past is part of the fabric of identity and culture and ideology weigh less heavily on the people than they do in Sri Lanka.

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A North Vietnamese tank crashes through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon on April 30, 1975. The taking of the palace marked the fall of the U.S.-backed south and the end to a decade of fighting-pic: NYTimes archives

On April 30th 1975 as I watched on my TV screen in London, a North Vietnamese tank pushed its barrel through the bars of the main gate of the Presidential palace in Saigon, broke it open and rolled over it like some war elephant. 34 years later I was at a banquet at the same palace hosted by the Chairman of the Peoples Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, who had joined the resistance fighters while in his teens. Next to me was a highly articulate and relatively young man who had done two years of postgraduate studies at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts and had just sat for his advanced political training examination at the Higher Party Academy. Throughout the dinner we discussed and debated Vietnamese foreign policy options in the 1970s --and this was a cadre attached to the Municipal authority of Ho Chi Minh City; the interface of the Foreign Ministry and the Municipality! We should be lucky to have Ministers, let alone officials and Left party cadres of this intellectual caliber and pragmatic open-mindedness. At one point President Rajapakse interrupted from across the table, mentioning smilingly that he had just told the top Vietnamese official next to him that I was very knowledgeable about the history of the Vietnamese CP and the revolutionary struggle.

Flashback: The first thing I did when having finished a lengthy chat over breakfast, Mahinda Rajapakse invited me to join him the next day on the first ever state visit by a Lankan leader to Vietnam, was to go to the BMICH and switch my tickets for the Mt Lavinia Hotel jazz concert from the Saturday to Sunday. There was only one disappointment: percussionist Sunil de Silva, my first cousin, hadn’t turned up from Sydney, but the rest of it was great and Sanja and I were glad we had got away from the high politics and the house repairs. It was great to see Mignonne still in action, guiding the band, Grooving High. We should all look so good and be as gracefully spirited at her age. In my early 50s, I belong to the generation that knew her as Mignonne Ratnam and had bought the ‘Jetliners at the Taj’ album. I still remember her from my boyhood, when she used to play the Yamaha organ at the Taprobane’s Blue Leopard (wearing a long slinky, glitzy slit dress). My mum Lakshmi de Silva had taught her at St Bridget’s and Mervyn knew Tony Fernando.

Jerome Speldewinde was of course the maestro, the Man, El Hombre, though I wish he had given himself a more challenging repertoire. With that voice he should be singing Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen. He did the very best version of Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy that I have heard, supercharging and Latinizing it in the same go. I told him he’s good enough to be playing Montreaux. He told me I was lucky to have been there and more than once and that if I’m back here maybe people like himself should think of coming back too. I didn’t know what to say.

Good as he was, and he was the best, what made me happiest were young Dellain Joseph and Natasha Rathnayake though not necessarily always in that order. It’s a heck of a lot easier for me to answer some of the questions that GV posters ask me like “what’s a nice intellectual like you doing with someone like Mahinda Rajapakse?” or words to that effect, than to decide whether Natasha or Dellain is the better singer. Depends on the song I guess. Natasha was better accompanying Jerome on God Bless the Child than Dellain was, but it was reversed when the same trio did Ain’t No Sunshine. I’d love to hear Jerome, Natasha and Dellain sing with Harsha Makalanda on the keyboard.

Mignonne represented continuity and Natasha and Dellain connected us back with the great Sri Lankan divas such as Yolande Bawan and Erin de Selfa. We‘ve still got the talent and social and cultural space; Cultural conformism hasn’t been able to stamp it out, I thought.

Flash forward: This new candidacy thing, maybe it’s the Black Swan event we needed; the game changer. In the first place it makes all those speculations about how we are almost the same as the Tigers look silly. Godfrey Gunatilleke (Uncle Godfrey to me) had told me some weeks back that he believes in the “reiterative principle in History”. He was right. The very possibility of a close run race reiterates the quintessentially competitive, democratic character of the Sri Lankan system, in contradistinction to Prabhakaran’s rule in the North east not to mention Hitler’s and Stalin’s. (Some Gulag Island, though my favorite bit of punditry was the quote propped Hitler-MR parallels of a Sunday before turning into cheering a possible democratic renewal a Sunday after). I thought it pretty un-Hitlerian for a Hitler to risk losing power by chancing an election anytime after he had assumed power through one!

The Black Swan entry splits the ultranationalists and will draw a line of demarcation between the militarist hyper-nationalists and the relatively more moderate or pragmatic nationalists. It potentially enables the demarcation of a Third space between the militarist “majoritarians” and the neoliberal “minoritarians”. It enables the recognition that if anyone is auditioning for Hitler or Mussolini, it sure ain’t Colombo civil society’s favorite bad guy MR or the trimmer mustached GR! The peeling off, jettisoning or marginalizing of the hardest line Sinhala chauvinists elements from the mainstream ruling coalition is a necessary precondition for the reassertion of a centrist nationalism and unblocking the transition to a stable peace. It enables the posing of the question, to whom does Sri Lanka belong: the Sinhala Buddhist alone, the pro-west Fat cat elite, or all of us who were born and live here; all of us citizens?

Back to Jerome Speldewinde winding up the show and zipping his guitar case at the Mount. Some BB members and GV bloggers may say it’s the Dayan Paradox, though I prefer the more alliterative and accurate Dayan Dialectic: how can Dr DJ dwell in both the (erstwhile pro-war) statist-patriotic space and the (pacifist) nonconformist jazz space. Sri Lanka is one of those few places that would be considered a paradox, but the Sri Lankan cultural and political personalities or identities are split, and this schizophrenia is a key to comprehending our crisis. F. Scott Fitzgerald, echoing Blaise Pascal, commended the ability to hold together two absolutely antithetical ideas at the same time, the hallmark of a first rate mind. As for me, I’m thinking, we produce - we have—singers like Natasha and Dellain and soldiers like Shavendra de Silva and Prasanna Silva. Damn it, we’re good.

7 Comments

Tamil around the globe have one message, please remind your government:

LET MY PEOPLE GO!

Posted by: Anonymous | November 8, 2009 12:41 AM

.
Once there was a time, we Srilankans were competing with Singapore, and today we are measuring ourselves against Vietnam, thank god not Somalia.
:-)

Posted by: aratai | November 8, 2009 08:40 AM

If Dayan's view of the war was justifiable as it liberated both Sinhalese and Tamils,then the liberation of minorities is considered as an unfinished business of the war.Who ever is contesting the Presidential election should spell out their vision for a future SL,Which I presume is and will remain multiethnic multi cultural pleuralist democracy.
Creating a secular accommodating space is part of nation building,candidates should rise above their nationalist rancor and act and behave like statesman when it comes to the National question, which is the devolution of powers.There should equal treatment of all citizens .No special favors or discrimination.

Posted by: Justice | November 8, 2009 10:24 AM

Hello Prof.Dayan,
As you are aware,once everything was over your vietnamese buddies did go to the USA on flexed knees with a begging bowl,of-course you fellows are doing the similar thing in order to survive.You should have written about this aspect.
By the way did that guy who went to Tufts ask you about Richard,Tharaki,Lasantha and Raviraj?Did he say that there are some similarities between some of your buddies and Mr.Pol Pot?As you know Tufts is a bloody good school and these kids are well informed.
Cheers,Siva

Posted by: Siva | November 8, 2009 12:06 PM

Hanoi, memories of Uncle Ho/General Giap, 1975, the rapproachement between the US and Vietnam of the present times - are all lessons in history that politics is played with and without bloodshed in that empirical realization “there are no permanent enemies but only permanent interests”

The Status Quo is often restored. In our own divided land, these lessons bear relevance today. DJ’s foray into our local music scene was both nostalgic and interesting. Mignone, Erin and Yolande were faithfully remembered. Yes!

They did much to keep the Island’s musical tradition alive. But in the global scale – then and now – the achievements of young Maya Arular (M.I.A) put Sri Lanka in the major leagues of the music world and placed the island at its pinnacle at the Musical Grammy’s last February in Hollywood when the 9+ months girl was honoured singing/dancing to a global audience exceeding 2 billion.

Look who joined her – Jay-Z, Kayne West, T.I. Lil’ Wane and Jamie Foxx - that’s as big as you can get in the major league pop world.

How come she was missed out? DJ is far too enlightened to be infected by the communal virus though his oblique adverse comments on the young Tamil girl earlier comes to mind.

Hollywood recognized her singing along these contemporary greats, arguably, as she gives voice to the displaced, visa-less global diaspora.

Music transcends racial and all other barriers and outstanding talent, in this particular context, I believe should be acknowledged above local prejudice.

ISS

Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | November 8, 2009 12:52 PM

Dear ISS,

I have heard Maya on TV, and Dellain Joseph live -- and the latter ( who is also quite probably an ethnic Tamilian, as was one of my aunts by marriage who had the same surname and was Jaffna born)is a better singer. Furthermore, Dellain and Natasha are not supporters of Tamil Eelam which immediately disqualifies one from being considered Sri Lankan. Yolande Bawan, Erin de silfa, natasha Ratnayake and Dellain all consider themselves Sri Lankan in origin and never endorsed separatism or spoke up to save the Tigers . MIA does not. so she does not belong in my categorisation. By the way I heard that even the liberal Obama administration has refused Papa Arular a visa to the USA...!

Dear Siva,

Heck no. They signed some defence agreement with GOSL and kept saying that Prabhakaran was like Pol Pot. Evidently they had helped GOSL during the war.

Aratai: do you know the ecopnomic and industrial growth rates in Vietnam? The Vietnamese are doing a heck of a lot better than the Tamil pople after three decades of Prabhakaran's separatism .

Posted by: Dayan Jayatilleka | November 9, 2009 07:19 AM

Dayan,

These columns secure energy with your lively interventions. If political loyalties are to be part of the yardstick to judge musical talent, then we are going backwards with the hairy Mullahs to the dark medieval times in search of light.

You may not have many buyers in this strange reincarnation of one who is generally identified as a progressive in many matters political. I fear the twain sha’nt mix.

If “endorsing separatism” is used to knock out people from the ball-park, the list will end up mighty long. It will include that lass who brightened our political skies aas she emerged right from the Left Bank of the Seine - CBK (Manifesto 1994) who looked at the matter more realistically.

This will necessarily include a large portion of the lot that is able to think in both sides of the Parliament. All of them acknowledged Sinhala extremism from 1956 “created conditions for the Tamils (some of them, I hasten to add) driving them to look at the option of a Separate State” The Tamil moderate political leadership always added a ryder "subject to viable alternatives to come from the Sinhala side."

Therefore, it was popularly suggested, the matter be addressed urgently and conclusively. Even the carefully crafted Manifesto in 1977 of JRJ (whom an Indian journalist described as “having the face of an embalmed corpse”) came close to that and assured the matter will be discussed in an APC.

And, by jove, Professor, the list carries your name too??? Don't apologise. Here the world applauds intellectual honesty and rejoices seeing a Sinhala name in Varadar’s NEPC.

Well! that’s history now and cannot be erased. Your tainted yardstick also removes that great voice from Australia Kemahl (of Lankan Tamil and Malaysian extraction - Kamalanathan??) who was given the honour of singing the venerable “Waltzing Matilda” more than once in National Aussie mega-events.

As well that old beardie A.E. Manoharan too. But let me say I agree with you M.I.A. is no great voice as Nihal Fonseka or Lylie Godridge were. She, like many in pop music for sometime now, come out with that futuristic hard-metal-acid rock but catchy physchedelic music.

Making the top of the charts are more profitable now than producing lilting lullabies. What more, even “Paper Planes” can bring in a flood of the green back by the millions. Can’t blame them – the dough’s what matters in many cases. Cheers.

ISS

Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | November 9, 2009 03:27 PM

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