Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

How high is our Social Esteem in Sri Lanka?

Our self esteem is central to our survival.  Yet, we do not value its importance as we face life’s challenges.  Self esteem, whether our own or others’, is strengthened or takes a beating, through the way people communicate with each other.  This communication is based on our power in relation to others.  So, the more hierarchical and controlling a system is, power is concentrated with a few people, chances are esteem of the people below is undermined.

What is good for people is also good for nations.   So, nation’s success also depends very much on its population’s collective self esteem, which is also called social esteem.

If we define esteem as the confidence in our right to be happy, feeling of being worthy, secure and the ability to think and cope with the basic challenges of life, we could measure it in many ways.

Whenever I travel to other countries, one way I measure this collective social esteem of that nation is by the way people treat each other on the roads, which is everyone’s common space.

If we use this same measure, how would Sri Lanka fare in its social esteem?

Reflect on it as you fight for your place on the road, be it as a pedestrian, cyclist or a driver.  It seems like ‘survival of the fittest’.   This struggle feeds on itself lowering our esteem and moving us towards selfishness.

The current state of Sri Lanka – fragmented, at war, power held and manipulated by a few, economically disadvantaged, over 75% of its people in poverty – all these lends itself to lowering self esteem for individuals and a collective poor social esteem.

This results in people feeling alone, not supported, not loved and as a reaction, the survival instinct makes people hard and selfish.  Further, half of Sri Lanka’s population lives on a government hand out through Samurdhi.  Dependence also kills our self worth and in turn our self esteem.

When a nation comes to this stage, it becomes difficult to develop as a whole as it loses site of a common goal.  It leaves many people behind and only a few with existing power and wealth gain.  The gap widens between the powerful and the powerless.

So, people become desperate.  Those who can, take the law into their own hands, just like a bus getting burned by the people when it has an accident in their area.  There is no consistency in upholding the law and justice.

This is such a pity as we are supposed to be a nation of Buddhists where justice, equanimity along with love and compassion for all beings are the main tenets.

It is also sad that as a nation we have allowed leaders to move away from the very values of Buddhist philosophy.  It is a shame to see the nation becoming hypocritical to the very basis of its Buddhist existence – becoming conscious of our superficial differences in race, religion, class.   We have to all hold ourselves accountable, as all this begins with self.

When we lose our values, we lose our social esteem.

Values and Social Esteem

Values define who we are, what we stand for and how we live.  Values define our highest ethical and moral aspirations for freedom, justice and equality.  Values are also crucial for our basic existence for food, clothing, safety and comfort.

Two words, ‘honesty’ and ‘respect’, usually finds its way into most ‘values statements’.

Social esteem is protected when there is honesty and integrity.  It is further enhanced where there is love and respect for each other.

As such, we need to inquire into what our values really are.  We need to write them down, discuss them with our children, friends and at the workplace.  This way we will bring it to the forefront of our minds.

Then we need to see whether we are governed and led according to these values.

We should ask;

  • Is there honesty and integrity in the way we are being governed ?
  • Is their respect for each other as fellow human beings in the way we are being led ?
  • How has this impacted on our social and self esteem ?
  • Am I contributing to protecting or eroding our values by the way I live ?

It is about time that these issues are discussed in our homes, schools and workplaces, as when we look around any successful nation, their success is a result is based on a sound system of values, ethics, justice and governance.  Then we see their people have a high self esteem leading to social esteem.  High esteem makes people winners in family, business and sports.

We see this stark contrast through the media and when we travel and lament – what has happened to our precious Lanka ?

  • When we have either evolved or inherited a “value system” based on ethnicity, religion, caste, colour, wealth, position, gender or other means; rather than on the contents of a person’s character; then we would define who we are, what we stand for and how we live; solely based on such useless factors.

    Honesty, respect and justice in relation to others too would be based on such useless factors.

    In Sri Lanka, if one were to ask a Sinhalese confidentially, he or she would admit that Tamils are viewed and treated by them as property less than human. Dignity to a Tamil is denied too based on this “less than human” attitude. This is because their “value system” is based falsely on ethnicity

    Any individual or a people who are displaced, disappeared, arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, murdered, deprived of legitimate rights and freedoms in any society, are failing to receive dignity from those who are doing such undignified acts. Consequently, their self esteem is low. All these arise from ” a slave has no right” concept, instead of the correct attitude “do unto others what you would like others to do unto you”.

    Restoring Tamil dignity is the reason for Tamil Eelam. It is not a survival kit as most politicians interpret.

    Honesty and respect too in relation to Tamils and ultimately justice are based on this “less than human” attitude. It is this factor which has lead to unilateral abrogation of agreements reached politically with Tamil leaders. There is no respect for Tamil political decision. In other words the attitude is “a slave is there to receive what the master gives him”. Alternatively, “a slave has no right”.

    Tamils can never reagin their lost dignity as long as the Sinhalese have the “less than human attitude” towards Tamils. Sinhala nation needs to be emancipated from this thinking towards Tamils and should be born again into an attitude to treat Tamils as humans and equals..

    The evidence for such transformation would be seen when Sinhala nation starts to respect Tamil life, Tamil political decisions and Tamil welfare. The Sinhalese would then respect unconditionally, the Tamil political decision of Tamils to have Tamil Eelam.

  • Exiled

    The statement, to restore the dignity of Tamils, Tamil Eelam must happen contradicts the statement that ‘Tamils will never regain their lost dignity as long as the Sinhalese have the ‘less than human attitude’ towards Tamils’, used by Sam in his comment. Tamil Eelam can never restore the dignity of the Tamils. Tamil Eelam is just a facade for the continued intimidation of Tamils. How can dignity be restored when the Tamils are divided on Tamil Eelam? If Eelam becomes a reality the Tamils who opposed it would never be restored of their dignity. It is a vicious circle within a vicious circle. It is time the Tamils wake up from the illusion of Tamil Eelam being Utopia and think more realistically. Surely, we are not so blind so as to imagine democracy restored in a Tamil Eelam led by the Tigers.

  • “In Sri Lanka, if one were to ask a Sinhalese confidentially, he or she would admit that Tamils are viewed and treated by them as property less than human.”

    Well I am Sinhalese and I will tell you that I do not view or treat Tamils as less than human. And that is not reflective of open-mindedness on my part, it is a case with a lot of people. The manner in which one blatantly classes people into two mindsets in terms of race as “Exiled” said, leads to a vicious cycle.

    I was an aid worker in Sri Lanka myself and I too have seen the suffering of refugees and the poor….there were Tamils, Muslims and believe it or not Sinhalese too. I think it’s humanity that has suffered in Sri Lanka, not a race per se. While I don’t deny that there are strongly chauvinistic elements wreaking havoc on both sides (Sinhala and Tamil)…I think it’s people to wake up to the manipulative ideologies that have been leading them astray for decades now…

    The moment you start viewing a person as a Tamil, a Muslim or a Sinhalese..I believe you are lowering yourself to a moral level which pleads for chauvinism.

    As for the main topic, I agree. I’ve lived in Sri Lanka and many other countries from poorer nations like Malawi to much richer countries like Australia. Observing the interactions of people and the functioning of society itself is a huge indicator. Though I love Sri Lanka, there is an oppressive air to functioning there that breaks my heart. For the most part as the particle mentions, especially in Colombo, there is no city spirit. It is engulfed in fear. I don’t blame people…we’re constantly being told that another faction/race is the enemy. Fear psychosis wouldn’t be putting it mildly.

    Photography and film making are a prime hobby of mine yet when in Colombo, especially last year, I did not dare be seen in public with my own equipment. There’s a string of army men posted along the streets, constantly surveying the actions of people. How can society function in this environment of fear and suspicion, one struggles even to be hopelessly apathetic as it is literally in your face day to day. One may argue that the army men exist to protect us, though I can say that it hasn’t really stopped bombs from going off in the area I lived in. I think it only communicates to Sri Lankan society that they are at the will of forces that toy with their emotions and aspirations like puppets.

    Honesty, Justice and Respect ARE NOT useless factors. In fact they are cornerstones of any culture, even the cultures we deem to be oppressive. It is almost always a case of misinformation and misinterpretation with the intent to manipulate. I guess the fundamental question is :

    ‘Does the infringement/violation of your rights entitle you to infringe/violate the rights of others?’

    I for one believe that Sri Lanka is a shameful example of a state, mainly because it struggles to look after it’s own people and its people are so easily led astray. There are thousands upon thousands living in camps, with no assurance of a meal for the day….just empty promises from two sides of a better life. There are millions living without basic infrastructure and quality of life (health, education etc). But there is the timely electoral visit …and once again promises …and plenty of others to put the blame on. They explain economics to the masses, blame rising prices on oil, foreign devils and the war…while gliding in luxury on pre-historic roads to their insulated mansions in the sky.

    If racially induced doctrine takes precedence over fundamental human values and dignity …I can only propose that we live on homogeneous planets or else we’ll be in a perpetual state of war and suspicion.

  • Siri

    Whole of this notion is lopsided and taken out of historic context! As a nation Sri Lankan lost their self esteem over a period of about 450 years when the colonial imperialist governed the country. However, during that time some segments, particularly the Tamils, of the population enjoyed certain privileges provided by the colonial rulers. They not only accepted their religion but also subservient to their “masters’ for the privileges, such as jobs, education, positions, titles, etc offered to them. In the Sinhala community too there so many instances of such privileges being offered to those who were willing to accept and worship the foreign cultures.

    Because of these reasons, the so called self esteem was “owned only by a minority few” of all the communities. They had the wealth, education and political power while a large majority of the population did not enjoy any of those and they were marginalised in so many different ways. This further intensified because of the inherent factors such as caste system.

    In light of these circumstances it is hypocritical to put the blame of the Sinhala community alone. Those who were privileged in all the communities should share the blame. For example, the Jaffna Tamil clan was so domineering in every sphere of the Sri Lanka life until about the late nineteen sixties. They were the ones who treated the Sinhalese as a second class citizen when it was to do with education, employment, sporting activities, private businesses etc. This situation had to be changed in one or way or the other for sake of the poorest of the poor, in particular the Kandyan peasantry who lost everything, including their lands, villages, religious suppression etc.

    The various governments, who came into power, after the independence, never had any shared national visions compounded the problem, which was already complex, even further! Tamil leaders at that time asked for a 50 per cent share of the government power rather than being engaged on a more visionary development effort irrespective of the fact that they were better equipped to do so having being exposed (being privileged!) to education and professionalism! They were more selfish about their ‘clan” rather than being companionate towards majority of people who had nothing!

    Therefore, in short it is very hard to put the blame on the majority community. Although they were in majority in numbers in all the other respects they were a ‘minor’ community who had no education (English), wealth, political power (they were only political ponies!) and the religious back up! So why blame them now? Because it the easiest to do in the current circumstances, I suppose!

  • ANTON

    I wish to thank the author of this article on the importance of self esteem of a nation’s individual for collective strength.
    Poverty dehumanizes the poor, and the lack of self esteem inevitably makes them worship the oppressors. Hence, the ‘Jaya Wewa’ chanting in political meetings. People don’t have the courage or strength to question the corrupt politicians who have reduced them to their current plight.
    If I were an unemployed youth, I will also sing Jaya Wewa to a powerful politician if I perceive he can help me to find me a job. And in fact I will forgive him/her for all the ills done – as a matter of gratitude.

    Our traditions have fragmented us into thousands of mutually uncaring regional clans to the extent almost all are collectively weak. We superficially show sympathy towards our respective ethnic groups but reality we suck their blood.
    The rise to wealth and prosperity of many parliamentarians and members of the local bodies cannot be without corrupt practices.
    All poor and rich know this, but to bring this openly for public debate requires courage which as rightly pointed out by the author – requires SELF ESTEEM – which can’t exist in a fragmented society with hungry stomachs fed by hatred and mythical stories about our ancient greatness and glories.

  • I read the comments by “Exiled”.

    Let me answer my view on the raised matters one by one;

    1. The point is this. It may take 50 yerars or even never for the Sinhalese to have “less than human attitude” towards Tamils. The formation of Tamil Eelam will give dignity and self respect to Tamils, not from the Sinhalese but from others, which will make the Sinhalese to learn to give dignity and respect to Tamils. And they will follow suit.

    The statements, to “restore the dignity of Tamils, Tamil Eelam must happen” and ‘Tamils will never regain their lost dignity as long as the Sinhalese have the ‘less than human attitude’ towards Tamils’, do not contradict each other but it affirms a practical step towards restoring dignity and self respect of Tamils.

    2. Tamils are not divided. All Tamils are united firmly in that Tamils are repressed and persecuted by the Sri Lankan state. So there is absolute UNITY amongst Tamils on this matter. Being divided politically, is democfratic and is purely an internal matter of Tamils. They will sort out themselves.

    When Sinhalese think that they must sort out Tamil matters they away the dignity of Tamils. “Master must do for the slave” Attitude.

    3. Tamil Eelam will; be governed by a democratic constitution. Once Tamil Eelam is formed the war stops. The next step would be forgiveness and reconciliation. It is therefore speculative to think that ” the Tamils who opposed it would never be restored of their dignity. It is a vicious circle within a vicious circle.”

    The arguments are similar to arguments levelled by colonial masters who wanted to retain theircolonies.. “Do not give freedom they do not know to use it”

    Tamil Eelam is therefore a “must” for Tamil dignity.

  • I read the comment by Shanil.

    Any Sinhalese may take cover by saying “Well I am Sinhalese and I will tell you that I do not view or treat Tamils as less than human.”

    The point is; if all such people who claim to be “Tamil friendly” would have come out to the streets and demonstarted, they would have long put away the oppression against a nation of People, the Tamil Nation. But it never happened. About 85% support Mahinda’s oppressive war !!

    Sinhalese often try to justify oppression against Tamils by saying that it is happening to the Sinhalese also. One has to be true to himself and answer the question “Is there institutionalised oppression against the Sinhalese by the state?” The answer is NO. But the state represses Tamils using its own institutions. A disgraceful happening of which humanity should be ashamed.

  • Exiled

    Sam, let me start by saying that I am a Tamil. I agree with you ‘that Tamils are united firmly in that the are repressed and prosecuted by the Sri Lankan State’. But I am also a Tamil who knows that there are Tamils who have been repressed and prosecuted by their own Tamils, the ones who are considered as ‘liberators’ of the Tamils. So it is quite clear that there is a division amongst us. To believe otherwise is juvenile.

    Eelam will never restore the dignity of the Tamils and we must look for other ways to fight for the freedom of the Tamils. If you believe that there will be forgiveness and reconciliation you are dreaming of an impossible scenario. If the liberators cannot digest criticism now they will never be able to digest it. The division in politics that you say, is ‘democratic’ and ‘an internal matter of the Tamils’, in reality has created nothing but deaths and disappearances and there is nothing democratic about that. So if you are to kill for peace, and kill your own for peace, how can you trust the killers at any point?

  • I agree with “Exiled”. Eelam is a pipe dream whichever way you look at it. I don’t endorse or support anything that is being done by the SL govt. As for Sam’s comment about getting out and marching out on the streets to protect tamils…I wonder how grounded in reality such a statement is. I do not recall a place on earth where such a thing has happened…

    So is that a failing of the Sinhalese as you seem to suggest..? Or is it a universal failing of humanity itself. Could it not be..though it may seem like useless hypothesizing ..that this same tragic situation would be the very same if the Sinhalese were the minority in Sri Lanka and tamils the majority.

    As Exiled said, there are thousands upon thousands of Tamils who suffer at the hands of BOTH the Govt and the LTTE. What of their esteem? In my experiences, talking to such people…often refugees in camps..they don’t care about all these things you speak of. They quite honestly they that they are fed up and want nothing to do with it. Ofcourse I don’t claim that this is a representation of all tamils (like the LTTE claim they are). Point is ..I find that it is mainly the tamil diaspora overseas that are overtly passionate about the LTTE and their so called struggle for freedom.

    The savage hypocrisy is that that support and the nurturing of the terrorist means of a struggle…has lead to the enslavement and oppression of the people whose rights they seek to protect and realize. To believe that a state founded by child soldiers and hardened terrorists will be a democratic utopia ….as I said and “Exiled” suggested…a pipe dream.

    I find the Sri Lankan Govt’s actions deplorable and I too agree that the state has marginalized them. Though I can also say that there are regimes that have blatantly done the same and continue to do so. I do not mean to justify it ….it is deplorable but I think it’s important to be contextual about this and not lambaste a whole race as being a disgrace to humanity.

    Is there institutionalized oppression? Yes! You speak purely in racial terms . You forget that there are generations of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese that have and will be been deprived of their basic human rights due to the way in which the state functions (sure it might not b in pieces of legislation but practice) ….if you are of the view that it is only Tamils who have suffered..I personally find that a very narrow view.

    And I find cruel irony in your reference to the GOSL’s lack of humanity. That may be so and they be chauvinists that have oppressed tamils….but what of the LTTE and the diaspora who support them? Child soldiers, rape…torture ..killing civilians. How on earth that can explained as dignified or justified in the name of ANY struggle..it is not..and if one believes so it is a fundamental hypocrisy in my view…if one believes they are..they are as bad if not worse than the oppressors themselves. It has lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts that is just raping the country as a whole..

  • Exiled, I am glad that you agree with me that there is unity amongst Tamils. I failed to point out in my last reply that Tamils are also united in that they must have autonomy, rule themselves and take care of their own future, as the Sinhalese governments have not yet proved that they are credible, honest and trustworthy. Sinhalese cannot be trusted as a nation to grant the legitimate rights of Tamils.

    You doubt about forgiveness and reconciliation in Tamil Eelam. In South Africa, the blacks and whites were at each others’ throats, killing, murdering and raping. But they reconciled after the conflict and today they are a very peaceful nation. Northern Ireland is another example. Therefore, I am not dreaming of an impossible scenario.

    When any liberation war ends the next step would be to look after the citizens. For this to happen, peace, stability and human rights are important. Any political party in power after liberation, is wise to understand this principle and they gear towards this end. This is my expectation for Tamil Eelam. Therefore it is wrong to say that “If the liberators cannot digest criticism now they will never be able to digest it.”

    I agree that death and disappearances are wrong. But no one is perfect. But when Tamil Eelam is formed, there are processes like drafting of a constitution and elections. The rubber will then hit the road. The liberators will have to meet the people and bow down to their rightful desires. Tamils as a nation, do not like violence. Therefore, such mishappenings will cease to exist in due course. If it does not cease, there will be people voicing their opposition to put things in order, is what I believe in. But such fears should never deprive attempt for freedom itself of people. Freedom is very valuable for humanity.

  • Shanil, you start by saying that Eelam is a pipe dream whichever way you look at it. I do not think you are looking at it the right way. The Tamil nation by Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 and subsequent self referendum in 1977 have endorsed Tamil Eelam. It is the legitimate demand of the Tamil Nation. This was endorsed further by “Thimpu Declaration”. There is only one more last step. With that Tamil Eelam will come into existence, Many Sinhalese are blinfolded to this reality. they will have “heart attack ” on the day it happens!

    You have travelled widely to our credit. Have you never seen whites marching against the oppression of Blacks in America?. Recently did you not see many whites marching against Tibetan oppression? The problem with Sinhalese is they are “Tamil friendly” for personal happiness but they are not “Tamil rights friendly”. They are hostile. This is why you oppose Eelam. Are you therefore not having and supporting the belief consciously or subconsciously that “Tamils are a property less tha human”?

    I am glad that you touch on “terrorism” but you hide the fact that there is cruel state terror that causes counter terror from LTTE and puts Tamil civilians in danger. You fail to understand that the state is involved in oppression, and abduction of children through the paramilitaries in the East. If Sri Lanka can exist as a state by doing such criminal deeds, why can’t Tamil Eelam be a state?

    There is instituionalised oppression against Tamils not against Sinhalese. To test my view you just show your ID at a road block. If your ID is Sinhalese, the attitude is different. Have you ever thought why? A tamil faces oppression just because he is born as a Tamil. A sinhalese receives favour instead of oppression.

    When you say “You forget that there are generations of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese that have and will be been deprived of their basic human rights due to the way in which the state functions (sure it might not b in pieces of legislation but practice)” you are speaking of overall social oppression. What I am speaking of is Ethnic oppression. Tamils face both social and ethnic oppression.

    Tamil diaspora does not support murder, rape and other cruel habbits of combatants. When it happens, it has to be vehemently opposed and stopped. But the freedom movement must continue to seek freedom from state terror and oppression. Such mishaps happened in many countries that fought for and got independence.

    What we need in our island is two countries; Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam. We must do that to be dignified nations. As two countries we must not fight with each other. Instead, join hands as friends and develop the whole lot economically. I do not believe that we should have visas for travel. We should travel freely and be anywhere freely like how it is happening in Singapore and Malaysia. I am sure that way we will stop fighting and be fruitful.

  • Exiled

    I am sorry Sam, but I am still not convinced that Eelam is the best answer for our problems and I cannot agree with the logic you have forwarded in your response to Shanil, justifying the atrocity of the LTTE. As I mentioned elsewhere on groundviews, we as Tamils have missed many opportunities for a negotiated solution to our problem beginning way before Independence and I personally cannot condone achieving freedom through violence. To me its the most degrading and selfish thing we could do. I wouldn’t want freedom at the cost of killing innocent people. I will not be able to enjoy such a freedom. I would rather die. I just wish we could ‘fight’ for our freedom in a much better way. You say that the ‘Tamil diaspora does not support murder, rape and other cruel habits of combatants’ and that ‘When it happens, it has to be vehemently opposed and stopped’, but I am really saddened that the diaspora that comes out in millions to protest the atrocities of the GoSL does not even make statement against LTTE atrocities. Why are we so hypocritical? WHY? aren’t we Tamils human beings anymore?

    I would also like to mention about a new blog that provides a forum for discussion about the ‘SRI LANKAN DIASPORA’S LINK TO THE ETHNIC CONFLICT’. Anyone interested should visit it at http://sahasamvada-forum.blogspot.com.

  • You have your views and I have mine Sam ..I just think that if I have the ability to think that my views may not be entirely correct …then perhaps the same may be true of you. But I do not enforce my views on anyone. I appreciate your response but I don’t find myself in agreement especially with your closing opinion. I find it detrimental.

    As for your examples of South Africa (where I was born) and Singapore and Malaysia…if you look further into these examples you will find that in actual fact esp South Africa and Malaysia are terrible examples. But anyways I reserve the right to my opinion and you are entitled to yours.

    I for one hope that there is piece and if the tamil people and i mean all of them want their own ethnic state….then all ofthem may leave and go and start life anew.