To be or not to be Sri Lankan: That is the question!

Image from DW

How do I define my identity? At first glance, the answer would be simple and clear: I am a French citizen with Sri Lankan origins. This would be enough for any administrative paperwork. But in daily life, the reality is quite different depending on the situations that we are facing.

The first question would be:

Am I French or Sri Lankan? I was born in France, I studied in France, I live and work in France. So what could be more natural than to feel French?

Let’s take the example at school. I did not have to worry about my origins. It was not an obstacle. We were in a French school regardless of our origins. We were learning French and consequently its traditions. Of course, my roots have always been a topic of discussion. All my friends were curious to know which country I was from, curious about its traditions and lifestyles. Talking about my Sri Lankan origins, mostly allowed me to stand out from others but it never made me question my “French-ness”.

However, after I completed my higher education and started my professional life, I was faced with an overwhelming question of my identity. My current job at the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Paris is the ideal place for me to showcase my Sri Lankan origins all the while being French and also act as an intermediary between the Embassy i.e. Sri Lanka and the various French actors and authorities, i.e. France.  But how many times have I heard people asking me, after meetings or interviews with French representatives, “How is it that your French is perfect? How is it that you do not have any accent?” I was surprised when I was first asked this. My only answer was, “Maybe because I was born and I live here…”

However, in my particular context; I work for the Embassy of Sri Lanka in France and am of Sri Lankan origin. So people might not guess straight-away that I could be French. It is then more or less normal that people would ask these questions. Now, this question would not have probably arisen, had I been working for a French company.

This is when I realized that my roots do take an important place in my life and in my identity. But it is up to me to modulate the importance that I would give to my origins and to my nationality.

The second question which comes to my mind would be: Am I Sri Lankan or just belonging to an ethnic group? My mother is Sinhalese and my father is Tamil. For some, I could be seen as an ideal fusion and proof that different communities can live together in harmony in one country and for others, I could be seen as an atypical fusion and will not really belong to one or the other communities or would not even be a “Sri Lankan”.

Throughout my life and my experiences, I have come to realize that being a Sri Lankan was not the most important fact to know. People will inevitably be curious to know if you are from Sri Lanka, but in reality they will be really curious about your ethnicity. “Really? Are you Sri Lankan? Sinhalese or Tamil?” (Note that generally Muslims and Burghers are not even mentioned). Some will go straight to the point and ask to which ethnic group we belong to, while others will be more subtle by asking from which region in Sri Lanka we or our parents come from and then come to their own conclusions. Either way they still want to know your ethnicity. It is hard to believe that ethnicity is such an important criterion for any relationship to begin!

People consider us first as Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher and then maybe with a bit of luck as Sri Lankan.

However, the reverse situation can also occur. A Sinhalese only considers you as “Sri Lankan” if you are from the Sinhalese community whereas people from other communities will be only recognized in relation to their ethnicity and not as a Sri Lankan; the same goes from a Tamil’s point of view.

I have an anecdote which comes to my mind. While waiting for an oral exam during my A- levels, I saw a young girl. She seemed to be from India or Sri Lanka. Later on, she came to me and asked from where I was from. I answered “I am from Sri Lanka and you?”. She replied “Me too. Are you Tamil or Sinhalese?” I told her that I was Tamil and Sinhalese and she said very spontaneously: “Oh! So you are not Sri Lankan!”…Did I miss something? The only thing I could say is “Oh really! I did not know! That is actually something new! Well, my parents are Sri Lankan and have lived there, so I think it would be quite natural to feel Sri Lankan!”

At first we may think that this girl has made a huge misuse of language, but if we look at it a little closer, the problem is much deeper. One of the many reasons that could explain this type of reaction would be the environment in which the girl grew. We may assume that her parents are both Sri Lankan Tamils and therefore this girl may have lived with the belief that only Sri Lankan Tamils are Sri Lankans and the others are simply Sinhalese, Muslims or Burghers. This may have been the kind of message that her parents, her entourage or even the media transmitted to her, either during discussions or while watching news or even reading the newspaper.

This emphasizes the crucial role that parents have to play in the search for identity of their children. Of course this is not the only factor, but children and young adults will behave, have notions of certain things, and form their identity, which will be heavily influenced by their parents.  The role of the school, the environment that surrounds us, but also our own analysis and openness, will help us shape our identity.

The Sri Lankan Diaspora has, I think, a specific role. Amin Maalouf, Lebanese author who has been living in France says in his book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to belong: “Their role is to act as bridges, go-betweens, mediators between the various communities and cultures.” And I think this is what we should really keep in mind.

Finally, I would say that individual identity is not fixed. Indeed, our environment, the people around us change every day. We will therefore necessarily observe, analyze and try to adapt to each changing situation; which brings us to constantly challenge ourselves on our “affiliation”, our beliefs and principles.

Now, if I have to self-assess and describe my identity, I would say that I am both French and Sri Lankan, regardless of my ethnicity. In some situations, I would highlight my “affiliation” to France and its values more than the other and vice versa. In any case, I think the balance will occur naturally.

I would like to conclude with another quote from Amin Maalouf which has helped me clear my many doubts. I also feel it would ultimately support the arguments which I put forward in this presentation and might make others reflect on:

“How many times […], have people asked, with the best intentions in the world, whether I felt “more French” or “more Lebanese”? And I always give the same answer: “Both!” I say it, not in the interests of fairness or balance, but because any other answers would be a lie. What makes me myself rather than anyone else is the very fact that I am poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off a part of myself?”

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Theruni Sebastiampillai holds a Master in International Business Management from the European Business School, in Paris.  She participated at the French-Sri Lankan Diaspora Youth Workshop “Post-War Reconciliation Dialogue for a Sustainable Peace”, which took place in Paris, on October 27th, 2012. She participated as a panelist on the theme “Individual and collective identity(ies): between search and struggle”.

The event was organized by What’s Next!, an independent forum comprising of post-graduates and young professionals of Sri Lankan origin residing in France. What’s Next! seeks to promote a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka through intellectual exchange and multicultural dialogue.

  • Anpu

    I am a Tamil and I live in UK. I left Illankai (Tamil name for Ceylon) long time ago – long before Black July. Reason for leaving – the Sinhalease govts (UNP and SLFP) did not treat me well. Then one Sinhalease govt changed the name of the country from Ceylon to SriLanka. Now I am a “British”. But I prefer to call myself as Eelam Tamil. I am also a human and would like to live with dignity with equal rights, freedom,…

    • Saman

      Anpu had mentioned that “Sinhalease govt changed the name of the country from Ceylon to Sri Lanka”. If I may correct, Sri Lanka had been the name of the island until the British named it Ceylon. After the independence the original name Sri Lanka is being used.

      • Kandiah

        Eelam has been used whenver the country was mentioned in Tamil Literature.

      • As if I care

        Saman:
        Dannatuva Vage Neda

        It’s the Spanish/Portuguese traders who came to Kerala for “pepper corn” the European Currency of that era also came to our birthplace looking for Cinnamon and called it Colombo, Ceylon. Go to south america you will find the name colombo. You seem shy to say you mixture ;)The then Tamil king of Kotte finally invited the dutch to drive away the portuguese away when the portuguese traders said only the “Salagama Caste” would be allowed to make the cinnamon quilts.

        “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others, merely because you were born in it”.

        Patriotism is to politics what faith is to religion: The unquestioned acceptance of information that is either unverified or that may actually be in conflict with factual evidence. Patriotism is the incubator of wars.

        If you know Spanish (almaria;tuvaya etc same same)then you will have knowledge of this or watch it on BBC Video- Spice Trail- Cinnamon (3 series in all pepper to kerala etc.)

      • Off the Cuff
    • Nilup

      @Anupu,
      Well… I’m a Sinhalese. Born, studied and living in SriLanka. As you have rightly stated, any government of Sri Lanka, had not treat me, the way I wanted it to. We suffer from high cost of living, bureaucracy and lawlessness everyday. You being a Tamil have vanished into a European country by betraying the nationality as an issue, but we the so-called majority of SriLanka got nothing to sell out, to take asylum in any country. In that sense we are helpless more than you guys.

      My friend, the issue of SriLanka is somewhere. It’s absolutely related to development and good governance and not as what all of you have very happily tagged as ‘ethnic issue’.

      • Neville Perera

        Nilup
        You’re spot on: ”It’s absolutely related to development and good governance”:

        ‘’Each and every Government which held office from 1948 till the present bear culpability for the failure to achieve good governance, national unity and a framework of peace, stability and economic development in which all ethnic, religious and other groups could live in security and equality. Our inability to manage our own internal affairs has led to foreign intervention but more seriously has led to the taking of arms by a desperate group of our citizens. we need to rectify this bad governance. We have already missed several opportunities in the past. We need to have State reform; we need to have rule of law established; we need to ensure non discrimination amongst our citizens; we need to have devolution of power and a tolerance of dissent and a strengthening of democratic institutions’’ – Jayantha Dhanapala’s submission to Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC), August 2010, http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/August2010/LLRC-JD-Transcript.pdf
        (Dhanapala is a Sinhalese and was formerly UN Under-Secretary General for Disarmament)

      • As if I care

        Nilup:

        The C.O.L is high everywhere even in the west because the rich don’t pay taxes anywhere in the world. You see the tax consultants thats what they do for a living like the lawyer who has a murderer released.

        Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

        No matter what excuse politicians dream up for waging war, the underlying cause of all wars is economic in nature.

        When the Sri Lankans give up going to war they would become civilized.

        I wish you well with a tear and a smile.

    • Nilup

      Dear Luxmy, Rita and all other Tamil friends,
      Well… I never expected so much of responses in such a short time, but It’s good say hello to you all, even we have never met.

      Dear Luxmy,
      How the LTTE was started and what they did and what Sinhalese did, is history. I also can start to list down chain of brutal incidents LTTE and how they killed innocent Sinhalese and Muslims, making them to abandon all their invaluable properties in the North and East & leaving behind dead. It was a dark time. We all suffered. All those people who died, either Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslims, they were the very same people who struggled everyday to earn a buck to buy a loaf of bread or a kilo of rice to give their children. They didn’t have much to fulfill basic human needs. They wouldn’t know, even in their wildest dream, the comparative luxury of both you and I are enjoying now and then. I also have personal reasons to hate LTTE and Tamils for that matter. BUT I DON”T. Simply because I have realized that the reasons for these incidents are merely beyond what you and I think.

      My Dear Rita,
      Let’s forget the past. As I stated we both suffered. We both lost our friends, parents and children. No one can deny that or fix it. We BOTH WERE WRONG, BOTH SIDE COMMITED ENOUGH SINS !!! Let’s accept it and face the future. No one need apologize or accept the guilt.

      To all Sri Lankans,
      Just think about the situation of our country today. The same people who we thought that saved us from ‘brutality’, is spreading it now. If Tamil people think that just because we are Sinhalese, we have the justice, well think twice about it, because, we don’t. We too suffer from lawlessness, unemployment, corruption, bureaucracy and potential failure to face next 10 years.
      What we should do is collectively face the brutal governments and members of it and use our strength collectively to defeat it by laying grounds for good governance and economic prosperity. We are brother and sisters, not enemies.

      May you all have happiness and prosperity!

      • Anpu

        Nilup,
        Any killing is wrong. It should not happen. I do not think any Muslims or Sinhalese were killed in the north. When so many Tamils were killed in the south in a brutal manner from 1958 (long before the emergence of LTTE) – one would expect some kind of reactions in the north. Sinhalease might have been thretend in the north (but not killed). Muslims were asked by LTTE to leave their homes – which is completly wrong. They should not have been asked to leave.
        What is happening in SriLanka is Tamil genocide. Who is responcible – all Sinhalease Prime ministers, Presidents and their supporters.

        • Anpu

          Sorry I should have said not Sinhalease civilians were killed.

        • Anpu

          I also know so many friendly Sinhalease helped Tamils escape the killings in 1958,.. 1983

        • Off the Cuff

          Dear Anpu,

          “What is happening in SriLanka is Tamil genocide”

          Very intelligent assessment Anpu, very intelligent.

          Just a few days ago Tamils went on street processions in the Sinhala majority areas putting on public display the statues of Hindu Deity’s and of course the Pious hung themselves on hooks and went in procession too (you could of course misrepresent that to the world as torture of Tamils by the Sinhalese).

          On Tuesday this week (13th) the Tamils celebrated Divali the festival of lights which again was on public display in the Sinhala majority areas.

          The overwhelming majority of Tamils live amongst the Sinhalese in Sinhala majority areas.

          Yet you claim a Genocide!

          There is a high influx of foreigners touring the country now. They are not deaf or blind or gullible to take you at your word. Why are you lying? Who are you trying to fool?

      • Anpu

        World Tamil Conference calls for an international investigation into crimes of genocide – http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=6245

        Please let me konw – If you are unable to access the above website and wish to read the above article. I could copy bits from the above link.

        With best wishes

      • Burning_Issue

        “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.

        ABRAHAM LINCOLN, letter to H.L. Pierce, Apr. 6, 1859″

        If the Tamils are not free the Sinhalese cannot be free either! I have heard it all before that everyone is free in Sri Lanka; the Tamils can live freely like the Sinhala! I would like to say one thing to those; The Tamils would like to be free; free to exercise their language to govern themselves; they like to be free to exercise their collective right to have a say in the aspects that affect them. If they are not permitted to do just that nationally, they would want to do that within the N&E where predominantly Tamil speaking people inhabit. It is as simple as that. If the Sinhalese aren’t men enough to recognise this, they will never be free!

        • Off the Cuff

          Dear Burning Issue,

          “The Tamils would like to be free; free to exercise their language to govern themselves; they like to be free to exercise their collective right to have a say in the aspects that affect them. If they are not permitted to do just that nationally, they would want to do that within the N&E where predominantly Tamil speaking people inhabit. It is as simple as that”

          Is it that simple?
          I wish it was.

          What you have left unsaid does complicate things.
          The simple language couches a demand for a lions share of Lanka’s public resources for the Tamils.

          I and many Sinhalese like me would support complete devolution including land and police powers if you would agree to share the PUBLIC resources of this land on Absolutely Equal terms with all others citizens of this land (irrespective of ethnicity).

          Are you willing to do that?

        • As if I care

          The question isn’t who is going to let me;
          it’s who is going to stop me. ;)

          Potentially,a government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights:

          it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims. :)

    • Off the Cuff

      Dear Anpu,

      “I am also a human and would like to live with dignity with equal rights, freedom,… “

      Are you unable to live with dignity and freedom today, in the country that you have chosen to call your home for half a lifetime?

      Though being British, you are not happy about being British either and prefer to live in a fairy tale land that do not exist, except in the minds of the delusional.

      “Reason for leaving – the Sinhalease govts (UNP and SLFP) did not treat me well. Then one Sinhalease govt changed the name of the country from Ceylon to SriLanka“

      You are either ignorant of history or intentionally propagating divisive rhetoric.

      Did you pay for your Education or did Sri Lanka pay for it?
      Education is the means of your livelihood is it not?
      And you are such an ingrate to say that Sri Lanka did not treat you well.

      Dear Kandiah,

      “Eelam has been used whenver the country was mentioned in Tamil Literature”

      What rubbish and what a heap of Lies!
      The word Eelam has no exclusivity in Tamil Literature.
      Ilankai in Tamil also refers to Sri Lanka, which again encompasses the word Lanka.

      Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) is the name of the Tamil political party that was the political proxy of the Terrorist organisation LTTE. It is also the majority constituent of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

      Ramayanaya the Hindu epic refers to Lanka as Lankadweepa.
      “dweepa” means Island and is still used in Sinhala, without any change of meaning.

      In Sinhala Lakdiva or Lakbima is used amongst others(diva and bima meaning island and land respectively while Lak is a derivative from the word Lanka)

      Madras state became Tamil Nadu, Bombay became Mumbai and Madras city became Chenai in a controversial renaming exercise that erased a part of History.

      Ceylon and related names
      Also deriving from the Sanskrit Sinhala via the P?li Sihalam, the 4th-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus called the inhabitants of the island Serandives and the 6th-century Greek sailor Cosmas Indicopleustes (“Cosmas India-Voyager”) called the island Sielen Diva (“island of Sielen”), with both -dives and Diva merely forms of dwîpa, meaning “island”. From Sielen derived many of the other European forms: the Latin Selan, Portuguese Ceilão, Spanish Ceilán, French Selon, Dutch Zeilan, Ceilan and Seylon, and of course the English Ceylon. Further variants include Seylan, Zeylan and Ceylan. Today, Ceylon and its equivalents in other languages are still occasionally used.

      This origin is shared with many other names, such as Serendiva, Serendivus, Sirlediba, Sihala, Sinhale, Seylan, Sinhaladveepa, Sinhaladweepa, Sinhaladvipa, Sinhaladwipa,Simhaladveepa, Simhaladweepa, Simhaladvipa, Simhaladwipa, Sinhaladipa, Simhaladeepa, etc. Many of these names appear to reflect nothing more than the numerous orthographic variations in the way these names have been transliterated into Western languages, including changing the n to m, changing the a at the end of Sinhala to an e, writing the vowel in the penultimate syllable as an i or an ee, changing the v to a w, omitting vowels completely, and so on. (wiki)

  • Trudy Juriansz

    Thankyou Theruni for you your article. I felt all the things you mentioned throughout my whole life, however as a Sri Lankan (Burgher) and Australian. I have come to love my Sri Lankan heritage, especially as I became more connected to it in my adult years. However, on my return to Sri Lanka this year, I am struggling to find my identity again, as I’m seen as a foreigner. I agree with you that the Sri Lankan diaspora has a strong role to play in building bridges, sharing skills and knowledge and helping to co-create a better future for the country. As a sustainability educator, I hope I can contribute in a positive way to the country I love so deeply.

  • silva

    One expresses what one experiences. The people who have been oppressed politically, economically, socially, culturally, environmentally, … by successive governments cannot obviously say that they are ”Sri Lankans”:
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/104705097/Conscientious-Sinhalese-Tell-LLRC
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/104760706/Sri-Lanka-Education-for-War-Must-Be-Transformed-Into-Education-for-Peace
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/108540808/Anthropologists-on-Sri-Lanka

    Successive rulers of Sri Lanka or who aspired to rule Sri Lanka had openly said that they cannot serve Tamils justice because they would win elections:
    President Rajapakse, 15 June 2011: ”If I make any devolutionary concessions to the Tamils, it will be curtains for me”
    L. Athulathmudali, 4 Feb 1985: ‘’Proposing a federal constitution will be political suicide.”
    R. Wickremasinghe, 13 May 1997: “We are a political party. Like any other political party, we will not do anything that will not get us into power, nor would we do anything when we are in power to lose power.”

  • luxmy

    For some it’s human to ”feel Sri Lankans”.

    For some others it should be humane to ”feel Sri Lankans”.

  • Neville Perera

    Dear ”What next”, you’ve good intentions. Very good intentions indeed. Pl look at the context of the problem that has been deteriorating from the time of independence, ie when ”Sri Lankans” have been in charge of running the country and ”leaders” have been setting their eyes only on their hold on power and not on the welfare of the country as a whole.
    The youth needs help in seeing the reality and in filling the gaps.

    • Neville Perera

      ”in filling the gaps” should be ”changing direction”.

      But the government is trying its best to see that any counterpart of ”Arab Spring” doesn’t flow into Sri Lanka by giving military training for university entrants and conferring ”brevit colonels” on headteachers.

  • http://brainoil.wordpress.com sharanga

    It never ceases to amaze me that some people genuinely spend a lot of time thinking about their own identity. What does it matter? There is no metaphysical question you can ask about your identity. The only questions you can ask are practical ones; like what to put in a form. So put in the form whatever that is accurate according to the laws of the land and stop thinking about it.

  • luxmy

    Nilup

    ”not as what all of you have very happily tagged as ‘ethnic issue’??

    ”When the war ended in May 2009, it was the worst that was over, but the ethnic conflict that spans more than five decades is not yet over” – National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, 12 November 2011

    Nilup, why haven’t you questioned silva’s comment:
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/104705097/Conscientious-Sinhalese-Tell-LLRC

  • rita

    Nilup

    http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/2610

    Pl ask your grandparents what happened in 1956, 1957, 1958 and 1959.

    • http://brainoil.wordpress.com sharanga

      The Sri Lankan government has been pretty consistent and non-discriminating over the years when it comes to facing any opposition force. In 88/89, and in 1971, it didn’t care much about the ethnicity of the conspirators when it tortured and murdered them. It has also pretty forcefully suppressed media by breaking the legs of Poddala Jayantha, murdering Lasantha Wickramatunga. It didn’t care about their ethnicity. Also, when the winning party sets fire on the homes of the losing party after any election, while the police is looking the other way, no one is really worried about ethnicity.

      No matter what you say about the SL government, you can’t accuse it of being discriminating when it comes to using violence to suppress its opponents.

      • silva

        Lasantha and Poddala wouldn’t have got into trouble if they didn’t criticise the govt for the way it treats the Tamils.

        • http://brainoil.wordpress.com sharanga

          Oh yeah. That’s whole reason they got killed. You see the government is very mature when it comes to criticism against it, except criticism of their treatment of Tamils.

  • silva

    Nilup

    ”Let’s forget the past. As I stated we both suffered”

    LTTE is gone and the South is OK now. But there is NO change in the North for the last six decades. In fact the last 40 months have been worse for those in the North.

    We have a duty to make a change for those people if we wish to respect ourselves and to have a decent Sri Lank:

    ”But that truth cannot excuse human rights violations that currently afflict the nation as a whole; or for that matter obscure the looming threat of the cultural and political colonisation of the north by the Sinhala Buddhist majority” – Biased and Prejudiced Collection on Sri Lanka, *Gananath Obeyesekere, Economic & Political Weekly, VOL 47 No. 04, 28 January-03 February 2012 (*a Sinhalese Buddhist and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University), http://www.scribd.com/doc/82525102/Biased-and-Prejudiced-Collection-on-Sri-Lanka

    ”Conflict-affected areas remain highly militarised, which has made progress towards achieving durable solutions more difficult. The military has become an important economic player and a key competitor of local people including returnees in the areas of agriculture, fishing, trade, and tourism. It has also been involved in areas that would normally come under civilian administration. It continues to occupy private land, thereby impeding IDPs’ return. The government has failed to make durable solutions a priority, and humanitarian organisations have faced funding shortages and restrictions on programming and access” – Sri Lanka: A hidden displacement crisis, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 31 October 2012, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full%20Report_1116.pdf

  • Dr Richard Antony

    It seems very interesting experience in terms of broader identification. In respect of your experience and lifestyles we could extent in understanding some theoretical perspectives such as Hall’s (1990/96) ‘hybridised identity’ and fluidity which are very helpful in your context. Robin’s notion of ‘Creole’ – conceptual developments also can be applied here to develop further reflections on complexities of identities and ethnicities.