Some Thoughts on the Eve of 2012 Vesak
Image courtesy Reuters
Two Veask Poyas have come and gone and three years have sped by since May 2009 when the prolonged war with the LTTE ended. And we Sri Lankans are yet trapped in post-war rhetoric and caught up in punches and counter-punches arising from different visions of what post-war Sri Lanka ought to be. Debates on who is a patriot/nationalist and who is a traitor have raged. Some Sri Lankans, sadly, have tended to the viewpoint that saving face is more important than national self-preservation and self-respect. Is one who has a honest disagreement with the government in office, no matter how different and opposed to that of the establishment point of view his/her opinion may be, actually a traitor? No fair-minded Sri Lankan will think so. Conversely any citizen who uncritically agrees with everything the establishment says or does is not ipso facto a patriot or a sensible nationalist. Happily most Sri Lankans, not blinded by bigotry or misguided by narrow political loyalties, are fair-minded human beings.
We must not permit propaganda from any quarter to colour our opinions. In all situations where misperception and confusion seem to prevail, and seemingly powerful voices seek to fashion opinion and thereby lead us to indiscretion , we must fall back on our convictions and the courage stemming from the latter to act independently. To question dominant views, subject them to our intelligent scrutiny and then respond meaningfully to them is a duty we owe to our fellow-sufferers on life’s complex journey, as exhorted by the supreme human being whose birth, life and death we commemorate as we mark another Vesak Poya in a few days.
Way too many of us who subscribe to the tenets of Buddhist philosophy tend merely to pay lip service to them. If we truly believe in metta ,karuna mudita and upekka, the freedom of thought and enquiry as outlined in the Kalama Sutta, and above all for today’s purposes, the concept of equality that Buddhism seeks to teach those of us willing and able to learn, then there is no basis whatsoever for the majority of Sri Lankans who are followers of the Buddha dhamma to behave the way we have done and are doing today. To be certain, the Buddha by means of his spiritual emphasis on equality, was opposing the iniquitous caste system and the social discrimination that prevailed in his time in India, but his teachings on equality of all human beings are also equally applicable to discrimination on grounds of ethnicity. According to Buddhist philosophy then the rights of all human beings must be protected. No one community or group has special rights that others do not or cannot enjoy. All of us are afraid of punishment, moreso when such punishment is unjust and uncalled for. Buddisht philosophy reminds us that this fear of unjust punishment stems from our human determination to be free from dukka during our samsarik existence: Sabbetasanti dandassa/ sabbe bayanti maccuno is how the dhamma explains this to us. The Sigalovada Sutta similarly teaches us to respect one another and points us in the direction of how to get on with our fellow citizens along life’s difficult journey towards nibbana.
It is my fervent hope that we Sri Lankans will begin from 2012 Vesak onwards to shed our irrational fears and animosities springing from inter- ethnic or intra-ethnic differences and learn to live together in peace and harmony. We have gone through more than three decades of awful violence, deep pain and monumental tragedy. There is no Sri Lankan regardless of his or her ethnicity who has not been adversely affected one way or the other in the last several years. Some who are yet not aware what exactly has happened to certain of their loved ones who have disappeared continue to suffer even today long after the guns have fallen silent. Anger at what has happened is the emotion that comes easily to us and we must avoid this negative emotion at all costs. Samyutta Nikya (SN 1.71) reminds us that anger is the only thing that is good to kill and in verses 3.14 and 3.15 it notes that in war, there is no winning side. All who participate in war ultimately end up as losers. Additionally in the Dighavu-kumara Vatthu: The Story of Prince Dighavu (Mahavagga 10.2, 3-20 PTS: Horner vol 4, pp.489- 498) we are told that only forbearance, never revenge, can bring an end to war.
Instead of creating fresh wounds in our fractured community, we must hasten to build bridges of human understanding in addition to building those urgently needed bridges to speedy economic development. Both building projects must go hand in hand as they are not mutually exclusive. Sri Lanka cannot hope to achieve economic prosperity without social contentment. One is reminded in this regard of Bhutan’s concept of the Gross National Happiness Index(GNHI). The fact that we may have more money in our pockets will not make us content. We will be nearer contentment when all of us citizens are made to feel we have a stake in our country regardless of our ethnicity and our social status, no matter how far we may be from the centre of political power. The fact that some citizens are not in agreement with our political masters of the day should not be a reason to label them as traitors and be made guilty of treason. It is when we are made free of the tentacles of the ‘national security state’ that Sri Lanka has slowly evolved into in the last four decades or so that we will begin to feel secure in our own country once more. The freedom to think and act responsibly without fear of unjust reprisals from the state or its law enforcement agencies will also contribute handsomely to the promotion of the kind of contentment referred to above.
And above all, we must mark the anniversary of the third year of the end of the war that falls on the 18th of May by re-doubling our efforts at achieving lasting peace and true reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I suggest that we do away with the ostentatious military parades and exhibitions that are usually held at this time of year. They smack of triumphalism and seek to divide us further rather than unite us. By all means, let us bear in mind lessons learnt and not forget what damage violent extra-parliamentary challenges can cause to democratically elected governments and the state in general. But to forgive those that have harmed us, whether they hail from the north or south, and whether they are Tamil or Sinhala, is essential. As the old saying has it, to err is human, forgive divine. Such forgiveness ideally ought to be accompanied by multi-religious observances and commemoration of the dead regardless of the fact that they died attacking or defending the state. It is our fellow citizens who died on either side of the conflict, not outside invaders. By our collective (politico-moral) sins of commission and omission, we caused the southern and northern insurgencies to materialise. Hence all of us are culpable for the violence and mayhem that have recently taken us and our country away from our true character and nature. It would be perfect if the President and the government take the lead in this regard and set the rest of the country an example. Let the 18th of May, 2012 mark a new beginning for our battered state. We may be assailed on many a front, but through the demonstration of our true national resilience based on our wonderful religio-cultural values, let us prove that while we may be down we are far from out. We have it in ourselves to resurrect, resuscitate and revitalize our country.
The battle for peace and reconciliation must be fought and won in and though the hearts and minds of the people of Sri Lanka, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher and Sinhala. Let us discard all false labels that, at the end of the day, do not hold any meaning. Let us stop squandering our national energies on frivolous debates on traitors and patriots. Let us cease shooting our messengers and instead seek to heed their messages. Let us not seek to make enemies of our friends the world over and instead extend our hand of friendship to them once again as we have traditionally done. A Sri Lankan welcome is something visitors to our shores treasure forever. A few days ago, I bumped into a British couple at a bookshop who told me that this was the 21st year running that they have visited Sri Lanka and how much they love the island. And, this expression of appreciation for our island home is by no means an isolated phenomenon. A significant number of Sri Lanka’s admirers feel the same way. There is much goodwill out there which could so easily be harnessed for our collective well being. There are thus very good and cogent reasons why we should think anew as the Veask Poya of 2012 dawns on us. We should endeavour to marshal our thoughts and energies along these reasons, avoid the dangers emanating from the extreme diasporic Tamils and ultra-nationalists alike at home and engage with Sri Lanka’s moderate middle to achieve a national renaissance that will carry us into the kind of future Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankans deserve.