Colombo, Diaspora, Identity, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Nation building post war

Written to mark the forthcoming publication of Challenges for Nation Building: Priorities for Sustainability and Inclusivity, Edited by Gnana Moonesinghe

We are no closer to nation building post war than we were during it, and before it. More accurately, we are no closer to the recognition that nation building needs to embrace the possibility, and arguably, desirability, of many nations in a State. This brings with it the complex challenge for a democracy to manage, based on the need for social cohesion, the centripetal and centrifugal forces of nation building – an enduring contest between inclusion and exclusion. These challenges can be in the domain of ideas, or they can be in the theatres of war, but they never go away. Nation building’s telos is not some nirvana of harmonious co-existence. It is a process, and like any other that involves history, emotions and multitudes of peoples, it will always be messy. And yet, how is it that we have failed so tragically to agree to a broadly shared vision – call it a supra-national, Sri Lankan identity – that in comparison India, even with its incredible diversity and difference, has managed to find in much greater abundance? Again, this is not to project a model of perfection to our Northern neighbour’s jai hind. It is to flag the singular absence of a Sri Lankan equivalent.

We have seen violent conflict in our country because we have dramatically failed to negotiate the ideas debate that undergirds nation building. Ideas that seek to define, devolve and sometimes deny determine a nation. This is a fluid dynamic, for ideas mutate as much as a context changes. There is no going back for example to ideas of nation building that dominated the politics of the 50’s and 60’s in Sri Lanka. These failed, and how! The challenge then becomes how we now foster ideas that flow from, but are not hostage to history. You can look at this through the lens of politics, education, language, media, rights, gender, law, identity, religion. Each will submit that nation building is founded first and foremost on that specific pillar, but the reality is what in Sinhala can be expressed as ‘mana sankalanayak’ – a bricolage of ideas. This is reflected in this volume, with contributors recognising that nation building is not a construct or process divorced from the politics and negotiation of identity and language. It also focuses on education, and in particular, the importance of a civic identity – how we see ourselves, and how we want to be seen. I believe ‘new media’ – media that leverages or is based on web, Internet and mobile technologies can help in this regard. In the vernacular, but also in English, leveraging new technologies can help those usually without voice take part in and feel part of debates that post-war, seek to define what and where we must go, be, avoid and emulate.

Often, these are definitions arbitrarily, self-servingly created and sustained by politicians, then justified by apparatchiks in various domains. The danger – much like WMD’s in Iraq – is that fiction risks, if it is repeated enough times being perceived as fact. Post war Sri Lanka’s nation building efforts smack of denial, decrying violently any counter-narrative to what is projected by government as the whole and only Truth. This is not just detrimental under the present regime, it sickeningly exacerbates a larger systemic problem – the rabid fear of what the Economist calls the “severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. Simply put, if we don’t have the confidence to embrace difference and its expression as the foundation of nation building, we risk seeing the mere absence of war as the best glue that binds our peoples. A timbre of debate that celebrates participation over domination, difference over conformity, creative conflict over supine compliance, critical questioning over mindless submission still eludes us.

The Editors Note to this volume suggests that nation building is “about upholding ethnical values, high standards in morality, about sharing and about redressing people’s grievances”. I feel it is also essentially about human dignity. We are used to seeing its tragic loss in the IDP camps post-war. These images endure, and it is a grave mistake to think that any meaningful nation building will occur in an ahistorical vacuum removed from the emotions and violence they generate today, and will continue to generate even outside Sri Lanka.

Perhaps nation building post war should tap into progressive ideas within diasporas. A growing number of groups such as Lanka Solidarity are forging progressive networks and generating ideas that contest and transcend what they have been told by elders, often those who left Sri Lanka in the early 80s, to be immutable facts. This can and must surely encourage radical thinking within Sri Lanka, for the most progressive processes on nation building will be despite governments and politicians. They will begin with dignity and respect, include diversity and tolerance, debate identity and difference and denounce hate and harm. Nation building’s success is when we see it not as some pretentious academic or partisan political construct, but a process that continuously defines what is the best of us – a proud peoples, at peace with ourselves, progressive in our outlook, courageous in our ideas, innovative in our governance and confident in our democracy.

  • First we got to think as a nation, rather than in fractions. With all the good thoughts, even you tend to drift towards the latter. Like you I too like to see the nation built, as one, and thank you for the effort.

  • Dayan Jayatilleka

    Much as I like Sanjana’s perspective and its literary expression, I must note that it has not succeeded in avoiding the almost ‘structural’ weakness of the liberal-left cosmopolitan paradigm, as distinct from the Marxian-Nietzschean or Marxo-Nietzschean-‘left’ Schmittian one I prefer to remain in.

    The former either ignores or regards as wholly negative, the role, indeed the crucial role, of WAR in nation-building/formation.
    The latter, its roots ranging back to Heraclitus and Thucydides, does not.

    No discussion of nation building in Sri Lanka can be serious, still less fruitful, if it doesn’t acknowledge the positive results of the war and the victory. Imagine a discussion of nationbuilding in the US which fails to recognise the merits of the Union victory over the Confederacy in the War of Secession? And let’s not get our romantic airbrushes out: that war saw Unionist scorched earth tactics ( Grant and Sherman, the march to the sea, ‘driving Old Dixie down’) and was followed by the dreadful years of the Reconstruction and the prolonged persistence of Jim Crow laws.

  • Sie.Kathieravealu

    Magerata said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    First we got to think as a nation, rather than in fractions. With all the good thoughts, even you tend to drift towards the latter. Like you I too like to see the nation built, as one, and thank you for the effort.

    Thank you “Magerata” for the views expressed. To implement this type of thinking the system of governance in the country MUST BE CHANGED

    Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success”

    “Democracy is much more than who can win an election. It is how a country is governed between elections. It is government by discussion, not by diktat and decree”

    In a civilized society, the people must be empowered to directly participate in the governance of the country and the best way for the people to empower themselves is, a system of governance that would address the problems faced by various sections of the society – particularly the poor, the politically weak and the various categories of “minorities” who do not carry any “political weight” – would be to DILUTE the powers of all elected representatives of the people by separating the various powers of the Parliament and by horizontally empowering different sets of people’s representatives elected on different area basis to administer the different sets of the separated powers at different locations and thus throughout the country (a small fraction of the Parliament with defined powers and duties functions in each and every village, division, district and region)” to perform the different, defined and distinct functions of one and the same institution – the Parliament – like the organs of our body – heart, lungs, kidneys, eyes, nose, ear etc. – performing different and distinct functions to enable us to sustain normal life
    I dream of a country where freedom exists in all forms. Freedom
    -ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚  of Speech
    -ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚  of media
    -ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚  of movement
    -ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚  of economics/business/trade
    -ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚  from corruption
    -ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚  from fear
    -ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚  from brutality & hatred
    -ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚  from violence/abuse
    -ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚ ï‚  from discrimination
    In the words of Martin Luther Kingï‚…
    ï‚“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ï‚“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.ï‚”
    .

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    Good…thoughtful essay.

    Much as I like Sanjana’s perspective and its literary expression, I must note that it has not succeeded in avoiding the almost ‘structural’ weakness of the liberal-left cosmopolitan paradigm, as distinct from the Marxian-Nietzschean or Marxo-Nietzschean-‘left’ Schmittian one I prefer to remain in.

    The former either ignores or regards as wholly negative, the role, indeed the crucial role, of WAR in nation-building/formation.
    The latter, its roots ranging back to Heraclitus and Thucydides, does not.

    No discussion of nation building in Sri Lanka can be serious, still less fruitful, if it doesn’t acknowledge the positive results of the war and the victory. Imagine a discussion of nationbuilding in the US which fails to recognise the merits of the Union victory over the Confederacy in the War of Secession? And let’s not get our romantic airbrushes out: that war saw Unionist scorched earth tactics ( Grant and Sherman, the march to the sea, ‘driving Old Dixie down’) and was followed by the dreadful years of the Reconstruction and the prolonged persistence of Jim Crow laws.

    • Burning_Issue

      “No discussion of nation building in Sri Lanka can be serious, still less fruitful, if it doesn’t acknowledge the positive results of the war and the victory.”

      Is this why you stopped writing in favour of power devolution and 13th amendment? How do you suggest one goes about measuring the acknowledgement of the war victory? At what point you would deem that this chapter is closed?

      Please outline your endeavours towards finding a viable political alternative to the MR regime that you claimed that you are part of! Is this also subject to the acknowledgement of the war victory?

  • Sanjana Hattotuwa…

    Like the lyrics of the Steve Miller song “Serenade” goes…
    Wake up, wake up
    Wake up and look around you…

    you will then see that there is NO Nation building post war…but there is personal ego building (walk or drive around colombo and the rest of the country and see the thousands and thousands of posters, banners, hoardings, cutouts etc [Edited out] that have been put in every conceivable place!

  • Punitham

    1. Thank you, Sanjay: every chunk of good intentions/hopes is a building block for peace and prosperity of the whole country.

    2. ”…Nation building’s success is when we see it not as some pretentious academic or partisan political construct, but a process that continuously defines what is the best of us …”:

    Chapter5: Ethnic Co-operation in Sri Lanka by Norman T.Uphoff in Carrots, Sticks and Ethnic Conflict(Ed MJ Esman and RJ Herring 2003):

    ”The farmer who objected to this generosity was persuaded to support the plan after a young farmer, Narangoda, took him by bicycle down the long and bumpy canal road to see what conditions were like at the end. The dissenting individual came back quite moved by what he had seen, reporting that the tail-end farmers did not have enough water even for drinking and bathing, let alone for growing a crop of rice. The Gonagolla farmers tried to save donate two and even three days’ of their five days water allotment once they became more conscious of how the drought was affecting othersothers down stream…..
    Several Sinhalese farmer groups told me that they had an informal understanding with Tamil communities downstream: if the tigers were making a raid upstream, Tamils would try to warn Sinhalese communities so that they could try to protect themselves; if the Sri Lankan army was moving downstream, Sinhalese would try to warn the Tamil communities so that they would try to get out of the way…. When I met with Sinhalese farmers in Gonagolla and asked whether the Tamil engineer living among them was safe, Narangoda, the local leader said: ”Yes, I regard him as my brother and if someone comes to get him, they will have to get me first”

    Triumphalism, Olcott lectures of the wrong kind and what goes on in the Northeast NOW must be reversed as soon as possible to safeguard Narangodas.

  • Post DJBS Scenario

    Sanjana,

    I don’t think most Tamils feel we are in a post-war period. Post LTTE or Post Armed Resistance but not Post War.

    The buildup of military cantonments, the Singhalization of the North and East, the land grab, the use or threat of violence by the Singhala forces against Tamils–this looks more like occupation or colonization.

    This is an important distinction to make because how we frame the problem will in part determine its solution.

    Also, you said the “we are no closer to the recognition that nation building needs to embrace the possibility, and arguably, desirability, of many nations in a State”. By ‘we’ who are you referring to? The Tamils have always acknowledged the co-existence of a Tamil nation and a Singhala nation on the island. It is the latter who believe the island in its entirety is theirs alone —even in areas where they are a minority.

    Instead of saying ‘we’ why not just say Singhalese?

    Lastly, if you would ask the publisher of this forthcoming book to co-release a kindle version I would appreciate it.

  • ordinary lankan

    Violence (in its many forms) remains the key challenge – especially because it shuts out the possibilities that can only emerge through honest dialogue. we have three great languages that we can use but instead we use

    the language of violence
    the language of money; and
    the language of influence

    when we really want to get things done. Manner and form have died out – and this is the same whether it is a three wheeler on the road or an MP in Parliament. Many educated people resort to the language of influence and patronage when they want to get things done – so this is just a twist to the language issue – I dont see major issues in using any language so long as we avoid the three poisons set out above.

    These poisonous modes of communication have shaped our values and also our identity in a fundamental way. we must change who we are.