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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.


An excellent article. I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by Dr DJ. Hope this messaage will be taken to all Sri Lankans to bring about a change in our mindset and a transformation in our society. It is not difficult, its 'all in the mind'. If each and every one of us decided now that we will treat each other as our own Sri Lankans, not as someone different, irrespective of language, religon, race or political affiliations, then there is no doubt that we can make it.

Posted by: SriLankan | December 2, 2009 08:23 AM

It is an easy question to answer. Any and everybody born in Sri Lanka who retains Sri Lankan citizenship and loves his/her motherland. However, one must remember that there are no separate areas whether inhabited or otherwise, that are reserved for particular groups ethnic or religious.

Posted by: Ram2009 | December 2, 2009 08:35 AM

For the many who lament the Ceylon of halcyon days was submerged by the cultural Revolution of 1956 (which Dayan choses to call the “rupture”) that imposed or enthroned (take it the way you will) Sinhala and devalued English.

And so we thought was lost for ever our avenues of sophisticated learning via English, Dayan rekindles hope. If the earlier generation believed with the decline of English went our chances of gaining from the intellectual wealth of the West (India, China and Latin America included) Dayan and those like him disprove the theory.

In his dual-personality of simultaneously being both a member of the majority and the minority, his perspective demands attention. The trilingual, pleasant Imtiaz has chosen well in inviting Dayan to make this address in his father’s (Imtiaz’s) memorial.

An eminently graceful, educative and fine speech too. If those in positions of power and influence are looking for that proverbial “mohokatath thel” (the oil to cure anything) this will do for starters to our continuing social-racial ailment.

How often has this been said - ”the failure to construct an inclusive stable successful Sri Lankan identity not only alienated the minorities but blocked our path to economic development in the country” If you recall – today Indian leaders proudly claim against great odds and opposition they succeeded in building a strong,united, multi-racial, multi-linguistic sub-Continent where we chose to fail and fumble.

If Sri Lanka is searching for someone to look up to build a truly plural, united and successful society Dayan is one I would have in mind. Balanced, learned, articulate, trusted by Sinhalaese and others alike; acceptable to the right, left and centre; free of the other social ills that stink to high heaven.

I am not thinking of an all powerful Executive President but a starting point to repair the national damage – a link where the apolitical academic
wealth of the country works with the elected political. The USA is a success story here.


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | December 2, 2009 10:17 AM

Good article.

One thing I believe is the Sri Lankan identity SHOULD BE the function of the state. That is the government of Sri Lanka function. It is not up to the people of the country to be Sri Lankan.

Who is a Sri Lankan ? Is a good question. The answer should be that a person who has permanent residency or citizenship in the STATE of Sri Lanka is a SRI LANKAN.

The state should deal with him as a SRI LANKAN first and look into others sub-categories if it is required ONLY.

That is the ethno-religious origins.

TRYING to create a SRI LANKAN identity is a FUTILE exercise. Instead, ALL energy must be put to make sure that the state can deal with anyone in three languages used in Sri Lanka that is English, Sinhala, Tamil. There must not be any difference based on your ethno-religious background when dealing with the state.

Interseting question would be what do you do about group represetation in a situation like this.

Does individual rights supercede group rights ???

What is Dayan's perspective on this ?

Sri Lankan/ Ceylonese is a noun used to address citizens of Sri LAnka / Ceylon

Posted by: Sinhala_Voice | December 3, 2009 12:29 AM

I agree with big hurdle for the sri lankan identity is the concept of tamil homeland.There can not be any homeland in any part of the island and any community should not enjoy special power in any region.

Posted by: PP | December 3, 2009 12:31 AM

Thanks Dayan for your nice article.

But what you have not analysed is the peaceful devolution that the SJV Chelva attempted in the fifties and sixties - for 15 years, and gave up. This resulted in the formation of LTTE and others.

Would not Chelva's agreements with the UNP / SLFP - signed three successive times after respective elections, would have created a peaceful island, had they been acted on?

Besides, did SWRD's election propaganda to bring in Sinhala and Buddhism only, in order to come to power because DS Senanyake had neglected, SWRD's turn to take over? Am I right? Though SWRD had advocated federalism and written articles on it - much earlier.

I (Tamil) studied at Ananda College, when LH Mettananda was principal, and also served in the Senior literary association. I had close contacts with Mettananda, who conducted the association - as the 'Patron'. He was, to my, knowledge treated all alike, though only less than 20 Tamils were studying at Ananda.

Unfortunately election after election, was based on race and religion, by the greedy politicians - is this right?

Posted by: Canaga | December 3, 2009 03:05 AM

Dayan Jayatilleka,
This dream of yours is 60 years too late , lots of water has gone under the bridge. The only way this can be reversed is the minority Tamils Should be made to feel that they are equal in The Island of Srilanka. This has to come from the majority community, who made the Tamils feel that they are 2nd class citizen in Srilanka. Is this possible? It is only in the hands of Sinhala weather they can make Tamils, Muslims and others feel Equal. First 30 years of post independent history has proved the opposite. Even now post civil war there are not even tiny evidence that Tamils are going to get any rights. The Island of Srilanka belong to not Just Sinhala, It is not acceptable Just because there is no country in the world except in the Island of Srilanka people speak Sinhala there should be a Sinhala Srilanka. But I accept Srilanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhist. Like wise Eelam belong to the Tamils. Remember Tamils and Sinhala ruled them separately before they lost their independence. Once both Sinhala and Tamil nations exercise their Self determinations and sovereignty and feel equal then there is no reason why they can’t reunite on equal terms and bring the Island of Srilanka back to glory.

Posted by: Pandaravanian | December 3, 2009 06:56 AM

Dayan Jayatilleka
Why don't you support and addres Mr wickramabahu Karunaratna's camapaign for president even though he may not win but his manifasto suits your views broadly and also you can educate the Sinhala mass and wake them from their transe of Mahavamsa mindset.

Posted by: SJVGGPINGRAVE | December 3, 2009 07:06 AM

Yes Dayan is only writing and speaking (as far as I am aware) to only to the English speaking and only elite people and worked and working for his supper with people like Mahinda and co how can he enlighten the Sinhals chuvinistic mass.In any case his writings can't be understood by ordernary Sinhala people.Unles he joines forces with people like wickramabhau Karunaratina how can he take the message to Sinhala mass And during the above speech he has devote considerable time to his own personal glory and upbringing western education etc. How will the Poor Sinhala mass identify him with them other than his Sinhala root.

Posted by: Sinhala Tiger | December 3, 2009 07:59 AM

"we correctly say that "Sri Lanka is the country of the Sinhalese"- Definitely not
Srilanka is not a country it is an Island.It consistes two Nations."I believe that all our peoples can live together" How??? If and when the people lives in the Island feel they are Equal then only both nations can live to gether in united Sri Lanka." "they did live together" How ?? as 2nd class citizens enjoying repeated pograms,racial riates ,in the hands of Sinhala thugs,and military,Your Lip servives are to slowly make Srilanka the country of Sinhala by assimilating tamil people.Only Ltte was blocking it now You(you think) have a free hand so you talk of "think they must in the future learn to live together after this trauma is over" As 2nd class citizen??.You are talking/pretending as you are able to see as a minority and Knew how minority feel, were you at the receiving end in 1958,1961,1977, 1983 ,or sinhala only act.discriminated at university admision, government jobs,jobs in the armed forces,etc??

"Ethnic cleansing is about assimilating a people. It is about destroying the identity of a people, as a people. And it often occurs in stages. The preferred route of a conqueror is to achieve his objective without resort to violence - peacefully and stealthily. But when that fails, the would be conqueror turns to murderous violence and genocide to progress his assimilative agenda. Genocides do not just happen. In the island of Sri Lanka, the record shows that during the past sixty years and more, the intent and goal of all Sinhala governments (without exception) has been to secure the island as a Sinhala Buddhist Deepa. The current Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa is simply the latest in a long line of leaders of the Sinhala Buddhist nation.

And Dyan has helped him in Geneva. And in future who ever requestes his help in this endever he will oblige.

Who wss Kadirkamar ? He happened to have a Tamil surname that is all.Was he elected by Tamils.Was he able to speak in Tamil or think in Tamil or think like a Tamil.Was he able to demonstrate he had the support of Tamils.He was a good example of assimilated Tamil people.

Posted by: Pandaravanian | December 3, 2009 09:14 AM

Are you looking for a Paradigm Shifts in the Sinhala Mind set.
How will this happen when the majority community in the Island of Srilanka has the minority/inferiority complex. unles we seeke a deeper understanding of the factors which drive this (Sinhala) intransigence. A clue to this is to be found in a speech by S W R D Bandaranaike, the founder of the Sinhala Maha Saba and the architect of the Sinhala Only policy of 1956 which marked the beginning of the Tamil struggle for self-rule. According to the Daily News of 8, November 1955, Bandaranaike made the case for the Sinhala Only bill by arguing that "With their books and culture and the will and strength characteristic of their race, the Tamils (if parity were granted) would soon rise to exert their dominant power over us” It was not just the Mahavamsa inspired notions of 'primacy' that have been the impetus, but also something else-the fear of domination...A political solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka requires re examination of previously held views so that all parties involved in this conflict can realise their goals by agreeing on political structures to enable the two nations in the Island of Sri Lanka coexist as equals and free of the fear of domination of one by the other. " We Tamils can understand why 1958,1961,70s university admision policies, 1977.1981-Jaffna library,1983 happned. What is your deeper understanding of the Sinhala mind set Dayan? Are they capble or able to shift? Sure You are one of them.

Posted by: SJVGGPINGRAVE | December 3, 2009 09:53 AM


There are no country in the world where Tamil is not spoken. But there is no conutry in the world that Tamils can call their own .There for it should be indubitable that the Tamils should have EELAM for their own.
Srilanka 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 (okey but not the whole Island)for their own
Both can have their own country for their own.

Why were and are the Sinhala want to have the whole Island of Srilanka for them alone??? Greedy??, fear?,inferiority complex? You should explore deeply rather than superficially gloss over using Kadirkamar and some other selfserving likes.

It is only then that we will be able to fulfill our potential as two countries and two equal nations.Or even a confederation of United NATIONS OF SINHALA AND TAMIL /Srilaka and Eelam .It is only then that we will be able to move confidently, reaping the benefits of our splendid military and political victories, arriving in the 21st century to compete and win. Thank you.

Posted by: SJVGGPINGRAVE | December 3, 2009 10:35 AM

I once spent three days in a house of an MP in Kandy.
This MP was a Budhist gentleman.As I entered the house,
among things I saw in the house,was a "Quran".He was not an ordinary budhist,above the average on many grounds.The Quran is not sitting there to teach him Islam but out of respect for muslims.He is truly a
gentleman politician in every aspect.My point is
simple, just give other human beings due respect even
by going an extra mile and that won't let you down.You
won't lose anything.Do the reverse because you can,you
will have to go behind archaeologicl evidences for your
own existance.All peoples must be able to be proud of
their identity that they are Srilankans.It's the
responsibility of the leaders of all communities to
learn this before trying to teach others with empty
preachings which has become a routine.Dr.Dayan's approach is commendable.

Posted by: muzammil | December 3, 2009 01:28 PM


You have opened up a provoking, challenging topic to discuss. One may say that Sri Lanka belongs to those who own it.

Preponderance of foreign capital absence of local institutions of sufficient weight has created a law of the jungle be it in the roads or in disposing of state assets which had come into being in more ‘statist’ times.

Institutions like co-operative movement is in shambles and vastly different from the ration books and subsidised arts and theatre that emigrés remember.

Who owns Sri Lanka - It is not simply a matter of acreage, few thousand of acres in Hambantota or Wellawaya may not be equal in value to that of an acre in the Colombo square mile. If one make a good look at the business ownership there again the numbers employed by a business though valuable may not be giving much added value in comparison with some of the successful software development firm with a Western clientele. In the arts and entertainment or sports again few young bucks may be minting money, but those who produce services for the local market face a much harder struggle.

The open mindedness of the media attract educated Westerners with specially those with a love for the country of their forebears to an idealised paradise. Idealistic young like Mr Bakeer Marker can certainly plat their role to help Sri Lanka reach new heights. Openings abound in creating high added value industries of all sorts, tourism, health farms, eco tours, oil exploration, or simply by helping the education in whatever spherethus contribute to improve Sri Lanka's brand name.

I am sure youngsters will soon realise the products of the soil has to be shared with responsibility. Tax systems have not developed to create an atmosphere conducive to growth, with almost no arrangements for unemployed, pension for vast percentage of old etc, though the health system is better than the rest.

In the first government of Sri Lanka there was a good number of parliamentarians who had spent a good part of their youth in the West with prominent anglophile tendencies. But we see that ones without such experience, e.g. like D S Senanayake and J R Jayawardane have left even more lasting legacies mamnaging to ensure their offspring move to the top job. I remember NM Perera calling expats to come back in the early seventies, but he said do not ask me for salaries, comparable with the West. If larger contingent of Westerners, are to come to Sri Lanka and bscoming successful at getting incomes comparable with the West, in the near future, an even r larger slice of the national cake consumed by the top 1 %. That surely means even more crowded roads with motor cars, house rents / food prices shooting up which would make life for the ordinary man unbearable, a tendency we saw in the Post Tsunami bubble.

In the earlier part of the century we have seen how rapacious tea planters built up the industry importing labour from India, building roads, rail roads, but very little permeated to the villagers of Uva or Nuwara Eliya. In fact their lot of many worsened, with access to schools and hospitals closed by the barbed wire fence of the estate.

This is the contradiction young SWRDB with his ear to the ground through local government saw in the 30s that led him to propose federalism. I hope youngsters of today will see it too.

Posted by: Tissa Wije | December 3, 2009 03:09 PM

Dear ISS,

Many thanks. I’ll try to live up to it.

Dear Sinhala Voice,

The declarations on human rights, including the important Vienna declaration emphasize that neither individual nor group rights have primacy over one another but that these are equal and interdependent.

Dear PP,

If an individual or family can have an identifiable home, a hometown, and home province, what’s wrong with anyone considering part of the country their homeland within a united, even a unitary Sri Lanka, so long as it is not a separate entity?

Dear Canaga,

You are right-- except that the politicians got their ideas from a subterranean world, represented by lobbies and pressure groups.

Dear Pandaravannian,

Still sticking to your delusions which have cost the Tamil community so much? Learn from the Black people of the USA who, in the South, couldn’t even vote till 1965.


That’s a joke, right? The guy is a clown.

Dear Sinhala Tiger,

I delivered a summary of the same speech in Sinhala, which was carried by the Sinhala media. And if you want to check whether I have a Sinhala speaking/reading/viewing audience, all you have to do is ask any TV station owner or program producer what my ratings are, when I do appear.

Dear Pandaravanian,

Sri Lanka is not a country? Tell that to the UN. And the ghost of Prabhakaran, because he tried to test that proposition.
My role in Geneva? Try reading Prof S Sivasegaram ( who is critical of me) to understand what happened and what I did.

Did Kadir ” Think like a Tamil…think in Tamil”? You sound like that Sinhala kook Nalin de Silva who wants to know if we think like Sinhalese or think in Sinhala. That’s ridiculous. Scientists and philosophers alike agree that it is irrelevant in what language people think but the correctness/rationality or otherwise of what they think.

A paradigm shift? Yes we can. Remember Vijaya Kumaratunga?

A country of their own for the Tamils? Maybe, but not on this small island. Try Canada or Australia. Or Tamil Nadu. Or South Africa. Good luck.

Dear Muzammil,

Thank you.

Posted by: Dayan Jayatilleka | December 3, 2009 10:44 PM

im very happy to read the article and a tamil living in europe for the past 20 yrs.although i agree with the article but i have my personal opinions.srilanka was called as a pearl of the indian ocean because of its natural beauty and hospitality of the people .diversity is strength and we should have a unity in diversity.
first of all both communities should accept the responsibility for the blunders they made and unite to create a united srilanka.there should equal treatment of all the races and religions .religious leaders shouldnt allowed to interfer in the politics.all the languages should be taught from elementary level .all the citizens of the country should be allowed to live anypart of the nation without political interferances.past is past .anyone can become a president or prime minister of and finacial help should be given to the affected whether there were militants or soldiers.IF we really follow the teachings of all the religions of srilanka and united together we can create a jewel of the indian ocean soon.wake up people .past is past .future we r not aware of .use the present to achieve .god bless all is one

Posted by: raj | December 4, 2009 09:29 PM

Dear Dayan Jayatilleka | December 3, 2009 10:44 PM


Yes, You have such a favorable following in the Sinhala rural mass .And you have confidence in the Sinhala peoples ability for a Paradigm Shift. Then Why not forget about what has happened to Vijaya, and SWRDB, And start a campaign for what you believe in and try to get the power in to your hands by either throwing your hat in the ring(presidential) or try to help the people who can influence the Paradigm Shift openly with full throttle. I will stand behind you. As I can’t see any one in the horizon for the foreseeable future in Srilankan polity.

Why should Tamils who have lived historically for centuries in the Island of Srilanka need a country of their own outside the Island of Srilanka ? Because the Sinhala are greedy ? Or fear as articulated by SWRD in 1956? Unable to compete with equally? Aren’t you aware there are several countries in the UN which are smaller then even Jaffna?

We Tamils recognise the Sinhala nation. We accord a place of dignity for the culture and heritage of the Sinhala people. We have no desire to interfere in any way with the national life of the Sinhala people or with their freedom and independence. We, the Tamil people, desire to live in our own historic homeland as an independent nation, in peace, in freedom and with dignity. That is all Tamils seek. Nothing more nothing less.Is this unresonable? If so tell me why?
You may say sovereignty but you have refused to share it with Your Island born brothers but now lost it to your big brothers in India, China ,and The West. Even before the presidential election the candidates and oposition leader are running there and asking your big brother's premision.

In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind." Edward Bernays in Propaganda

"Ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity. Ethnic cleansing is about assimilating and digesting a people. It is about destroying the identity of a people, as a people. And in the case of Sri Lanka the theoretical frame was articulated with clarity in July 2009 by Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksha

Now, my theory is: there are no minorities in Sri Lanka, there are only those who love the country and those who don’t... For reconciliation to happen, there must be a mix [of ethnicities]. Here the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and Muslims inter-marry. In my own family, there have been mixed marriages: Sinhalese with Tamils, Sinhalese with Muslims. This is Sri Lankan society..." Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa's Theory of Reconciliation: Intermarriage, 7 July 2009

Given President Rajapaksa's genocidal record, it seems that his theory of reconciliation may be simply stated: kill off as many Tamils as you can and then marry those that you have failed to kill. It is this Sinhala society which President Rajapaksa seeks to pass off as a Sri Lankan society - albeit with a Sinhala Lion flag , with an unrepealed Sinhala Only Act, with Buddhism as the state religion, and with the Sinhala name 'Sri Lanka' which the Sinhala majority gave the island unilaterally in 1972. Was this theory Dyan You have have proved in the UN.
Dear Tissa Wije

The same SWRDB said in a speech According to the Daily News of 8, November 1955, Bandaranaike made the case for the Sinhala Only bill by arguing that "With their books and culture and the will and strength characteristic of their race, the Tamils (if parity were granted) would soon rise to exert their dominant power over us”.

And the history has proved that he tore up the agreement with SJV.

Posted by: SJVGGPINGRAVE | December 5, 2009 09:46 AM

Dear Dayan,
The Nation that has lost its rights to its language, rights to its citizenship, rights to its religions and continues day by day to lose its traditional homeland to Sinhalese colonisation ? What is the alternative now left to a Nation that has lost its opportunities to higher education through standardisation and its equality in opportunities in the sphere of employment ? What is the alternative to a Nation that lies helpless as it is being assaulted, looted and killed by hooligans instigated by the ruling race and by the security forces of the State? Where else is an alternative to the Tamil Nation that gropes in the dark for its identity and finds itself driven to the brink of devastation? Should Tamil nation to submit to ailien Sinhala nation Dyan? Do you wantor expect all the Tamils to get assimilated by sinhala and live happieley ever after.
See What Mahinda Aiya's latest Chindanava
This theoretical frame was articulated with clarity in July 2009 by Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksha
Now, my theory is: there are no minorities in Sri Lanka, there are only those who love the country and those who don’t... For reconciliation to happen, there must be a mix [of ethnicities]. Here the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and Muslims inter-marry. In my own family, there have been mixed marriages: Sinhalese with Tamils, Sinhalese with Muslims. This is Sri Lankan society..." Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa's Theory of Reconciliation: Intermarriage, 7 July 2009.

Posted by: pandaravanian | December 5, 2009 12:32 PM

Dear Dayan,
The Nation that has lost its rights to its language, rights to its citizenship, rights to its religions and continues day by day to lose its traditional homeland to Sinhalese colonisation ? What is the alternative now left to a Nation that has lost its opportunities to higher education through standardisation and its equality in opportunities in the sphere of employment ? What is the alternative to a Nation that lies helpless as it is being assaulted, looted and killed by hooligans instigated by the ruling race and by the security forces of the State? Where else is an alternative to the Tamil Nation that gropes in the dark for its identity and finds itself driven to the brink of devastation? Should Tamil nation to submit to ailien Sinhala nation Dyan? Do you wantor expect all the Tamils to get assimilated by sinhala and live happieley ever after.
See What Mahinda Aiya's latest Chindanava
This theoretical frame was articulated with clarity in July 2009 by Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksha
Now, my theory is: there are no minorities in Sri Lanka, there are only those who love the country and those who don’t... For reconciliation to happen, there must be a mix [of ethnicities]. Here the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and Muslims inter-marry. In my own family, there have been mixed marriages: Sinhalese with Tamils, Sinhalese with Muslims. This is Sri Lankan society..." Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa's Theory of Reconciliation: Intermarriage, 7 July 2009.

Posted by: pandaravanian | December 5, 2009 12:32 PM

Dear Dayan,Please read the following in the and let us know how can we or you the 'minority' community creat a Srilankan identity

‘No qualms about shelling huge numbers of ethnic minority civilians‘

BY Andrew Stroehlein

"Genocide" is too limiting a term in any case. In recent years, governments have not necessarily been exterminating entire subgroups en masse with crystal-clear intent. Yet some governments show no qualms about shelling huge numbers of ethnic minority civilians trapped in confined war zones, as we saw in Sri Lanka earlier this year. [TC]

Tamil doctor Interdicted by Health Ministry for expressing private opinion

by Namini Wijedasa

A Tamil doctor has been interdicted by the ministry of health allegedly for expressing a private opinion to a Sinhala doctor that was interpreted as “causing disrepute to the Government.

Dayan I hear
that You are against any International investigation of Humain right abuses and war crimes in Srilanka.Are you fully suporting and approving the abuses and what ever has happend in Srilanka including Ltte violence.Or are you dening these ever happened, or you have full confidence in Srilankan Judicery and the Governance.

Posted by: SJVGGPINGRAVE | December 6, 2009 07:21 AM

Dera Dayan,
Are you compairing the predcament the blacks faced in the Us to that of the Tamils in Srilanka? Did the blackes had their home lands where they habitated historically for several centuries.Did they have their soverin country/Kingdoms ever? Or are you trying to tell or hoodwink that all the Tamils were brought to Srilanka by the British. Also see below what the civil rights leader has told and it did not prevent him from dreaming.
Negroes are human, not superhuman. Like all people, they have differing personalities, diverse financial interests, and varied aspirations. There are Negroes who will never fight for freedom. There are Negroes who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There even are some Negroes who will co-operate with the oppressors. These facts should distress no one. Every minority, and every people has its share of opportunists, profiteers, freeloaders and escapists .... No one can pretend that because a people may be oppressed, every individual member is virtuous and worthy. The real issue is whether in the great mass the dominant characteristics are decency, honour and courage.." Martin Luther King in Why We Can't wait

Posted by: pandaravanian | December 6, 2009 07:51 AM

Excellent Article by Dayan.



Many commented on this blog referring to "Srilanka", which is the name unilaterlally choosen by the majority government of that time in 1972. The island nation(s) called by Taprobane, Ceylon, Ilangai, Sinhala Kingdiom, Tamil Kingdom, Eezham, etc etc.

If anyone think of reconciliation it should start from there if "Srilanka" is acceptable to all communities living in that island. Then the rest shall follow.

It was to change the official name as "Srilanka"

Posted by: Thaya, T | December 10, 2009 11:44 PM

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