To Whom Does Sri Lanka Belong? To The Few,Many or All?
By Dayan Jayatilleka
[Full text of the 12th Bakeer Markar Memorial lecture on ‘Challenges to Strengthening Sri Lankan Identity’, delivered on Nov 17, 2009 by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, former Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations at Geneva].
When Imthiaz extended this invitation to me, it was impossible for me to refuse for three reasons. Firstly, Bakeer Markar was one of those unforgettable Speakers who could command the respect of the House; a legend in his time. Secondly, Imthiaz and I had known each other from the time we were school boys. He captained the debating team at Ananda College while I captained the debating team at St. Joseph’s College — we met in those circumstances and have been friends since. Thirdly, one of the grandsons of the late Mr. Bakeer Markar, one of the sons of Imthiaz, Fadhil, a very bright young man who was the President of the LSE students’ union, worked with me as a volunteer intern at our Mission in Geneva when I served as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative.
Those personal reasons apart, the political scientist in me found the topic irresistible because this topic is the key, the most crucial problem that Sri Lanka has to face today. It is indeed the topic, the issue, the problem which framed our development and our discontents, our wars and our periods of peace, our crisis and our construction since Independence. It is the issue that we have not yet resolved. It is the question to which we have not provided a satisfactory answer, though we have triumphed over the main obstacle to the strengthening of a Sri Lankan identity – the deadly, protracted armed challenge posed by the separatist terrorist LTTE. That military triumph, historic as it is, is only a pre-condition, a pre-requisite for the construction of a Sri Lankan identity. We have removed an obstacle, but we have not yet reached our destination. So this is indeed the topic that all politicians, all intellectuals, artists, and concerned citizens must address their minds to. Obviously I cannot exhaust this topic or even do justice to it in the time available to me. I hope to speak in our link language, in English and if time permits I will switch to Sinhala for a few minutes in order to summarize my views. But what I do want to achieve is to shed light on some aspects of this problem; to disturb you in some way and catalyze a process of thinking.
Now, when we talk about Sri Lankan identity, what do we really mean? What does it mean to be a Sri Lankan? We may put it even more basically or crudely: To whom does Sri Lanka belong? This is the crucial question. Let us face it squarely. I submit that there are broadly speaking, three perspectives on this. These may not be explicit, though some have been explicitly stated — but in many cases, they are perspectives that are and have been the implicit co-ordinates of policy. What are these three views?
One is that Sri Lanka belongs to the few. The other is that Sri Lanka belongs to the many and the third perspective, which I hold and which I hope to urge on this audience, is that Sri Lanka belongs equally to all its citizens. What do I mean when I say that there are those who hold that Sri Lanka belongs to the few? If we look back at what is seen, more or less accurately, as the golden age of Sri Lankan or Ceylonese identity — the first decade after independence — I would submit that there was something seriously flawed in the social contract of that time. If that were not the case, how does one explain the election results of 1947 where the parties of the Left did so well that they would have formed the first government of independent Ceylon if they had agreed to a coalition between themselves and the progressive independents?
How do we explain the mass protest, the ‘Hartal’ of 1953 and the turning point or ‘rupture’ of 1956?
These are explicable only because, there was a sense among the masses, that to be "Ceylonese" was something restricted to an unrepresentative elite. There was a notion that a few, a certain class of people, ethnically diverse but socially integrated, were the real owners of Ceylon. This perspective or perception is an obstacle, a challenge to the formation of a true Sri Lankan identity because the country cannot belong to just a few, policy cannot benefit only a few and if it does or if it is perceived as so doing, there will be a majoritarian backlash of one sort or the other, i.e. on class or cultural lines or a combination. This view that Sri Lanka belonged to the privileged few, be they domestic or foreign, or that those at the top held such a covert conviction and acted upon it, was one of the well springs of the second insurrection of the JVP and even of certain parliamentary electoral outcomes such as 1970 and 2004.
The second perspective is that Sri Lanka belongs to the many, to the majority. Now on the surface this seems justifiable, but I would say that it is a very dangerous view. The "many" can be described and have been described by political formations in Sri Lanka in two senses. One is socio economic. Those on the Sri Lankan radical left, quite different from the radical left elsewhere in the Asia and in the rest of the world, have defined the many not only in socio economic terms, that is as the poor or the working people, but as the many of the many, the working people minus the Tamil and Muslim poor; the Sinhala underprivileged.
This is the ideology of Sinhala Only combined with the doctrine of class struggle (and the practice of class/caste struggle). The Sinhalese are felt to be an underprivileged nation, oppressed, discriminated against and marginalized by an imperialist-backed cosmopolitan elite or a minority dominated compact. But whether you describe it in strictly socio economic i.e. ethnicity blind/neutral class terms or in more loaded ethno religious or ethno cultural terms, that is a way of excluding vital segments of our citizens be they the entrepreneurial classes, the professionals, the middle classes, the urban dwellers or the ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities. These segments are seen as somehow non-national, alien, and reactionary.
The notion that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists while the minorities are somehow guests or visitors, has directly or indirectly caused the conflicts that have devoured almost a quarter million citizens of this country in the 60 odd years since Independence. One may ask why I put together those who have died in two Southern insurrections which were ideologically based or class-based, and those who have died in successive wars in the North and the East which were ethnicity based. The reason is this: The failure to construct an inclusionary, stable, successful Sri Lankan identity not only alienated the minorities, but also blocked the path to sustainable economic development in the country as a whole and therefore was responsible at least in part for the stagnation that led to unemployment, poverty, inequality and the resultant youth insurrections in the South. This is a constructive critique of Sri Lanka that was made most cogently, consistently and with the greatest authority by Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew. Thus, the unresolved question of identity, the idea that Sri Lanka is a country that belongs and must be "ruled by" an ethno-religious or ethno-lingual majority, is something that will have to be transcended if we are to heal and progress as a country and a people.
The third perspective, which I believe is the only pathway to build a successful Sri Lankan identity is the idea that Sri Lanka belongs equally to all of its citizens irrespective of whether they happen to the members of an ethnic or linguistic or religious majority or minority. The idea of the equality of citizenship, that Sri Lanka is a country that belongs equally to all Sri Lankans, is something that we shall have to fight for. That is a relatively simple idea, surely. We live on a little island. Either we can consider and conduct ourselves as members of a single extended family, with members/relatives who, naturally, are different from each other — or we can continue to consider and conduct ourselves warring tribes which will continue to fight each other for hegemony or a segmented, separate sovereign space on this small island. If we opt for the latter course, we continue to waste more time, more resources, more lives and blight our future while failing completely to fulfill the magnificent potential that we have as a country. This is the moment, now is the moment to make this decision, because we are in the aftermath of a Thirty Years War.
We have almost experienced a Second Independence. It is a second chance that few countries get, and we must be proud of having wrested this chance. We must be proud of being able to achieve this victory over a very formidable and internationally notorious terrorist army, not just a terrorist group, not just an organization, but a movement and militia. Our people have shown that they have the psychological and spiritual resources to fight and win, not to succumb to terrorism. Now, we must go on to demonstrate that we have the wisdom, the sagacity, the generosity to build a united nation, Sri Lanka, which is not a synonym or disguise for the dominance of this or that community.
If Sri Lanka is only another name for a Sinhala Country or ‘Sinhala Rata’, then once again you will have the constituent peoples of this island drifting apart from each other. That drift may not take the form of a violent insurgency. I am not really worried about the renewal of the LTTE’s military campaign because I think we have a splendid army which is perfectly capable of crushing any such resurgent violence at the first sign of its appearance— but I am worried about the gulf between our peoples which prevent us from pooling our talents, capabilities and resources and flourishing as a society, a nation, a country.
We have to face the question of whom Sri Lanka belongs to — the few, the many or all – together with certain allied and ancillary questions. For instance, is diversity a danger or a resource? We have, as Sir Arthur C Clarke said, perhaps the greatest biological diversity and cultural diversity compressed in a smallest possible space— which makes for richness and beauty, but also for conflict because we have not been able to reconcile these diversities. Societies as different as the United States of America and Singapore, diversity is regarded as a rich resource. It is like the colors of a palette: the more colors that are available to you, the better it is for the artist. But diversity is seen with apprehension in some quarters in Sri Lanka. This is the mindset that we have to overcome, because diversity provides opportunity.
Every community brings something to the table that is Sri Lanka. It is obvious that this is the only country in the world in which the Sinhala language is spoken and it should be indubitable that the Sinhalese must have a country, this country for their own. I believe that if we had lost the war, no Sinhalese anywhere in the world would have been able to walk with his or her head held high. But when we correctly say that "Sri Lanka is the country of the Sinhalese", as we must, it does not mean that Sri Lanka must be regarded as the country only of the Sinhalese while the others are "visitors" or "guests", " tenants" or "lodgers". Sri Lanka is the only country for the Sinhalese and of the Sinhalese but it does not belong only to the Sinhalese and cannot be "ruled" only by the Sinhalese. Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese, to the Tamils, to the Muslims, to the Malays, to the Burghers, to the men and the women, all of whom are citizens of Sri Lanka. And it does so equally.
The diversity of the Sri Lanka population is a most precious "natural" resource because the minorities not only enrich our cultural mix, but also provide the connecting link between Sri Lanka and the world. This is not understood. As I said, Sinhalese is spoken by a large collectivity only on this island. Theravada Buddhism does not have any echo in the sub-continent— you have to look further afield to South East Asia for co-religionists. Ceylon or the Island of Sri Lanka as a receptacle or Theravada Buddhism is a very important and unalterable structural factor of our civilization, arguably constituting, in overlap or amalgam with the Sinhala language, its central and specific or defining core.
Now, the very fact that the Sinhalese and the Buddhists or the Sinhala Buddhists are an overwhelming majority of the country should provide a sense of security because this is not a demographic that will be altered. Centuries of colonialism and millennia of invasions have not altered this fact. While of course everything is subject to change in the long term, there is no need to be apprehensive about the erosion or extinction of what is a solid, demographic and civilizational majority. That automatically guarantees certain preponderance in terms of civilization, culture and ethos.
But what it does not require — and this is the mistake we have made — is the translation and transposition of a natural demographic and cultural preponderance into political and constitutional primacy, pre-eminence and hegemony, because once you do that, you depart from the principle of equality of citizenship, of equal rights and the principle of merit based on open competition. Thus the minorities become second class citizens whether you intend it or not.
I do not see why, when you go into a police station, you have to enter your ethnicity and your religion. We may say, "Okay, you have to enter your ethnicity because there was civil war which was drawn for the most part from a particular community". That is now over. I really do not see why you have to enter your religion— but this is what happens in Sri Lanka today. These are the anomalies that have to be addressed and eliminated. Diversity, as I said, has to be understood as a rich resource because whether it is the Hindus, the Muslims or the Christians, these are the communities that have some kind of links, some overlaps with the world outside.
So together, and enjoying equal rights as citizens, the Sinhala Buddhists and the minorities can have the best of both worlds; can strengthen Sri Lankan identity with one functioning almost as a citadel or a castle, and the others functioning as the bridges between the cultural "core" or "heartland" and the rest of the world.
Instead what you have today is an absence of comprehension and communication. For quite some time now, we have had a dominant discourse which can be understood only within the boundaries of the Sinhala Buddhist heartland and is lost in translation when it travels, moves. The moment you try to address the Tamil people, the Muslim people, the Christians or the world, it does not sound right because there is no sensitivity to other ways of thinking, other cultures, other civilizations and other outlooks even on this small island!
We must also decide whether a Sri Lanka identity can be constructed by looking exclusively inwards or exclusively outwards, or by a two directional approach. I would say that we need an inner–outer approach; indeed a multi-vector, multidirectional approach, looking within while simultaneously reaching out to all corners of the world. For too long we have had a kind of a cultural involution and narcissism where we are not only justifiably proud of our country and our civilization achievements, but tend to exalt them to the point that we lose all perspective. There is no appreciation or achievement of other cultures.
There is the repeated incantation that we are the best; everything good flowed from us; we do not need to learn anything from outside and should resist "outside influences". We are self referential, and refuse to subscribe to, evaluate ourselves by or be evaluated by universal values, norms and standards. The sad thing is nobody believes our claims, except ourselves; nobody buys into our logic or plays our game.
The world cannot understand us and we cannot understand the world. We neither care about being understood by the world nor that we are ourselves unable to understand the world. It is a dialogue of the deaf: the outside world cannot comprehend what we are saying and we cannot comprehend what it –including our neighbors and allies– is trying to say to us. For instance we have not de-coded – as if there were anything esoteric to "de-code"—the dynamics of the Obama visit to China or the Manmohan Singh visit to the USA and the implications for us of both. We have not registered the growing congruency (rightly or wrongly) of the positions of Obama’s USA, and Russia and China, on Iran’s nuclear program.
When communication breaks down we yell from the rooftops about international conspiracies! It is not that there aren’t international moves against us – not every criticism or adversarial move is a conspiracy—but these ‘conspiracies’ must be understood within the overall crisis of our external relations, and that crisis is primarily one of cross-cultural comprehension, communication, and representation.
We see this in the field of human rights which I am especially acquainted with, due to my last job. We have this strange discourse: "how dare you criticize us on human rights issues because we grow up worshiping our parents from the time we were little and you do not; instead you call your parents by their first name. So how dare you accuse us culturally superior and therefore ethically superior beings, of human rights violations?" This is some notion of intrinsic cultural superiority which nobody in the world will grant us. Human rights are universal because the human condition, the fact of our common, shared humanity, is universal! We are all human beings before we are Sinhalese, Buddhists or Sri Lankans! That must be grasped.
So, the invocation of our 2,500 year old culture, civilization and history and our "homegrown" version of human rights simply will not do. I am glad that I never took that kind of stand in Geneva. If we did, Sri Lanka would not have got a 29-12 majority in its favor. No wonder we lost 63-0 in the European parliamentary vote in Brussels and had a 421-1 vote when Resolution 711, critical of us on the IDP issue, was moved in the US House of Representatives in early November! This blinkered or blind self-exaltation is not going to help us advance as a unified Lanka, into the 21st Century.
We must look at ourselves and the outside world. When we look at our own culture, our own traditions, we must learn to discern and discard that which is no longer appropriate and retain that which is valuable. Not everything about tradition is appropriate. Caste is not appropriate. Certain attitudes are not appropriate. Are we to embrace them simply because at one time they were part of our tradition? We must be able to critically sift out that which is relevant, that which is appropriate, that which is precious, that which is essential, and those aspects which are not. We must be able to blend our culture with the best of other cultures — and this is in fact is how our Sri Lanka evolved! There is nothing within Sri Lankan culture that has not been influenced or impinged upon by other cultures, whether they were and are Indian, Tamil or Arabic or European.
This is all the more so today in the era of the internet. All you have to do is to turn on your television set and you will find that culture is not something static. It is not something that belongs to the museum. Culture evolves; culture has a future and is to do with the future just as much as the past. In the construction of a Sri Lankan identity should we look to the past or the future? I think we must rediscover, reflect on and revaluate the past, but not stay mired in it as we tend to do. We must look to the future. We are not only what we have been. We are not only what we were. We are what we can make of ourselves.
I say all of these because of personal experience, and also because of a strategic reason which I will get to. The personal reasons are these: I belong to a majority and a minority. I am a member of the majority in so far as I am a Sinhalese. I belong to a minority in so far as I am a Christian, a non-practicing or not quite practicing Catholic. So I am able to see the issue of a Sri Lankan identity through the eyes of the majority as well as of the minorities. Therefore, I believe I am able to see a bigger picture, a fuller picture, rather than if I were either only a member of the minority or only a member of the majority. Now the second personal reason is how I was brought up, the foundational formation of my own identity.
Many people in this audience knew my father, the late Mervyn de Silva, the famous journalist and respected editor, not to be confused at any time with another person of the same name whom I would never call a gentleman! Though he had a Sinhala Buddhist upbringing and family background, Mervyn never referred to himself or our family members as Sinhalese, nor did we say, "We were not Sinhalese". We never disowned the Sinhala identity but it never figured consciously or explicitly, and if anyone, such as Mervyn’s good friend the late Gamani Jayasuriya, founder of the Sinhala Arakshaka Sanvidhanaya (SAS), were to bring it up, my father would brush it aside. I cannot remember in all my years of growing up that there was any reference to us as Sinhalese or any time my parents said "as Sinhalese" we must think such and such, or do such and such or be this way and not that. No, our standards were international, universal; I was brought up to behave according to and adhere to standards which were the same anywhere in the world, which is, I suppose, why I was able to function with ease and success at the UN in Geneva. We were "Ceylonese", "Sri Lankan"— and "Asian" (my mother Lakshmi was particularly conscious of our Asian identity, while Mervyn was more "international").
Our identity was one of citizenship, of being citizens of the country and of belonging to the continent as a whole; there was no narrow ethnic or ethno religious identity or what Lakshman Kadirgamar used to decry as "tribalism". If you look at Mervyn de Silva’s writings, he would refer to himself as "a journalist", as "a literary critic who became a student of international relations". So the aspect of personal identity that was most important to him was not what he was by accident of birth, but what he had made of himself through free choice. That is true of our country as well. To be Sri Lankan does not necessarily only mean this or that version of what we were or where we are coming from. It also means what we make of ourselves in the future. We have the free choice to do that.
Lakshman Kadirgamar gives us the formula for being truly Sri Lankan, exemplifying and articulating what a Sri Lankan identity is: "I am first and foremost a citizen of Sri Lanka. I don’t carry labels of race or religion or any other label. I would say quite simply that I have grown up with the philosophy that I am probably, kind of a citizen of the world. I don’t subscribe to any particular philosophy; I have no fanaticism: I have no communalism. I believe that there should be a united Sri Lanka. I believe that all our peoples can live together, they did live together. I think they must in the future learn to live together after this trauma is over. We have four major religions in the country. Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity. All these religions exist very peacefully. They get on very well. I see no reason why the major races in the country, the Tamils and Sinhalese cannot again build a relationship of trust and confidence. That is my belief. That is what I wish for and in working for that I will not be deterred by having some labels pinned on me." (Interview with Japanese National Television, NHK, 2004)
Quoting this on the occasion of the Kadirgamar commemoration this year, Mrs. Suganthi Kadirgamar correctly said that it "encapsulates Lakshman’s vision, idealism and aspiration for a united Sri Lanka devoid of conflict".
Now the hypocrisy of our dominant social ideology is this: many Sinhalese would applaud this but not say the same themselves! They applaud these sentiments coming from a Tamil, but are not willing to adopt the same stand, defining themselves "first and foremost as a citizen of Sri Lanka", eschewing "labels of race or religion". So it is a good thing when a Tamil or Muslim eschews "labels of race or religion" and affirms their Sri Lankan identity, but it is perfectly in order for Sinhala Buddhists to assert their own "race and religion"!
Who and where is the Sinhala Lakshman Kadirgamar? Friedrich Nietzsche, my favorite philosopher said that "there was only one Christian — and he died on the Cross". Similarly we could perhaps say that there was only one Sri Lankan and he is dead. It is no accident that this pioneer and practitioner of a Lankan identity and consciousness, this prototype of being a Sri Lankan, was murdered in the name of liberation no less, by ultra-nationalists or hyper-nationalists, the Tamil extremist LTTE. He is dead precisely because he was a Sri Lankan!
Many of our ultra nationalists, mainly the Sinhalese ultra-nationalists say that the views expressed here are all Western values, which we can and must reject because we are part of Asia — but let me tell you that their attitude is not part of Asia at all! It is not only alien to contemporary Asia; it was certainly not the attitude and perspective of the Asia of Zhou En Lai and Nehru! India, which has over 80 per cent Hindus, has a secular State. It had a President who was a Muslim. It has a Prime Minister who was a Sikh, despite the fact that there was Sikh secessionist insurgency in the 1980s and Indira Gandhi’s assassins were Sikhs.
The leader of the major party which was re-elected happens to be of Italian origin. If you take Singapore, 9 per cent of the people are of South Asian origin, but many in the top ranks of the Government happen to be South Asian or Indian or Tamil. It is an integrated society based on merit. Indonesia has a population over 90% of which is of the Islamic faith but the state is defined as secular, while Bangladesh which has a Muslim majority and elements of a Buddhist heritage is also a secular state. So, while we talk about Asia we are not really part of today’s Asia at all.
We must not remain out of step with the new Asian consensus and must adopt our own version of the 21st century Asian model, which is one of meritocracy, multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism. We are really displaying an island mentality which is rather like that of the proverbial frog in the well or as a friend of mine once said it is more like a frog in a coconut shell in the well. We have to get with Asia, and it is important that we do so because this century is the century of Asia, of the Asian resurgence, the shift of economic power to Asia and we only have to hook up. It is our region, our extended family, where we belong.
Our identity as Sri Lankans must include a strong commitment to equity and social fair-play, but do we want to level upwards or do we want to continue leveling downward as we did with Sinhala Only and later with media and district wise ‘standardization’? In the name of Sri Lankan identity, do we want to lower our standards and adopt the lowest common denominator with the excuse that we are compensating for colonial privilege? Or do we want to excel in Asia and the world once again, because there was a time we did (the first post WW 2 or post Independence decade), by raising our standards to the level of excellence and making ourselves competitive with the rest of the world?
All this may seem less than patriotic in the traditional or conventional sense of the word. However on the basis of our experience in the battles we fought and won in Geneva, I can assure you that it is very patriotic in the strategic sense. Those were not battles on our soil; it was a struggle on alien territory, even enemy territory. Ours was a small beleaguered mission. We were out there in hostile territory in the middle of Europe with very experienced western foreign Ministries campaigning against us, with their capitals just a few hours away by plane.
Yes, we prevailed, but I also saw at first hand — because we were the "breakwater" — the massive demonstrations of pro-Tiger, pro-Tamil Eelam youngsters and the tragic self-immolation of a 21-year old boy who had come from London.
So, as I have said elsewhere, "The war is over, but the struggle is not", because there is another generation of young Tamils, born and educated in the West, who are deeply alienated from Sri Lanka. How is that challenge going to be met? It cannot be met with fire power because that is not a military challenge. It has to be met through the generation and projection of "soft power" and "smart power"; brains, education, economics, diplomacy, communication. It is a struggle in the Western-dominated international media, in the corridors of power, in Washington, in London, in Brussels. Are we ready to win this "peaceful competition"? It is not a battle that Sri Lanka is geared for. It is a battle we will lose if we do not revise our notions of what it is to be Sri Lankan. If we do not construct a broadly inclusionary Sri Lankan identity based on equality and merit, we will find it difficult to win the battle.
However, we can win it because there are many young Sri Lankans, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, men and women, who do not believe in separatism (like Imthiaz’s son at the LSE, a boy we can proud of). But how are we going to attract and enlist young people like that including young Western educated and/or westernized Sinhalese, while remaining in the grip of a closed minded cultural conservatism and traditionalism, even overseas, in the Diaspora and the state’s interactions with it? I went on some of the Sinhalese community radios in Australia and said "you are going lose your kids if the Sri Lankan culture they are getting are songs that are 30 to 50 years old! They will come for ‘Sri Lankan events’ with their parents till they are 12, 13 and 14 and then you are not going to see them!" So we have to change that.
There is a lot going on in Sri Lanka on our television screens, on FM radio. There is a modern Sri Lanka. There is a post-modern Sri Lanka. There is a Sri Lanka of the 21st century that has already begun to emerge. We do not reflect that officially. Our State does not reflect it. The official or dominant discourse does not reflect it. It is that Sri Lanka that is already in formation, a Sri Lanka and Lankan identity that is a fusion because among young people you already have that fusion. There is an open mindedness in that fusion, which is taking place not only between the communities here, but also between Sri Lanka and the world. If only we are able to open our minds and our hearts, use our brains and modernize and democratize our notion of Sri Lankan identity; it is only if we are able to break the chains that enslave our minds, that we will be able to achieve the defeat of renewed attempts of secessionism which are based overseas and hope to leverage powerful countries outside the region against us.
It is only then that we will be able to fulfill our potential as a country and as a nation. It is only then that we will be able to move confidently, reaping the benefits of our splendid military victories, arriving in the 21st century to compete and win. Thank you.