The Struggles of Identity in Sri Lanka
Images courtesy Multicultural Arts Victoria
My presentation will be an attempt to critically analyse my experience as a Franco-Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka and how I feel, as part of Sri Lanka’s Diaspora, that we can and should contribute to its ongoing reconciliation process. I’m no expert, and therefore would like you all to allow me to use my own personal experience to draw out the problems that I have identified as causes of the conflict and for the absence of an all-inclusive identity; a national identity as one may call it – the “Sri Lankan identity”.
When the war ended, I was in Colombo. I saw people dancing in joy and relief on the streets, media flashing the pictures of the LTTE leader’s slain body all over TV. As I watched all this happening around me, it became clear to me that this was only the end of the military combat and not the ethnic conflict which started it. Many had died in the name of what they perceived as a righteous cause – the fight against discrimination and marginalization – and many others in the name of patriotism, for their country against a separatist terrorist group. A long process was to begin, to pave the way for a “return to normalcy” for the combatants – both state and rebel, for civilians caught in the conflict zones and elsewhere in the country, and also not forgetting the millions who migrated to other countries.
I lived in Sri Lanka for 12 years. Four ethnic groups coexist or coexisted I might say, in Sri Lanka. And I am yet to see a fusion of these communities to form one over-arching identity.
The escape from a “no culture”
I was only 9 when I went to Sri Lanka in search for a “richer culture”. I was told that at that time, the influence of the Parisian banlieue culture, where we lived in and still live in, would not do for us. My parents anticipated the cultural differences that existed between the two countries. How were they going to deal with the fact that their kids would grow in a culture that was different to theirs? And because of this difference they called it a “no culture”. I am also now, very much aware that this pattern of thinking is not general in sociological terms. This pattern differs according to the social strata that one belongs to. So there was a social – “class” – impact on this decision. This is so you understand this experience in the light of my background, which of course will not be the same for everyone here.
Sri Lanka’s formal education provided barriers
My school career in Sri Lanka is definitely the most memorable period in my life. I went to different schools. Schools there were categorized on a quasi ethno-religious basis. Of course in the playground and outside class friendship and acquaintances went beyond these barriers. I first joined a girl’s only convent. I learned all my prayers and enjoyed singing hymns in Sinhala, Tamil and even Latin! I respected, venerated and even worshipped my teachers and elders. I felt well-disciplined. I wore a uniform, that I had a hard time getting used to when it came to racing to be the first in the queue of the canteen to buy murukku during the most awaited “interval” time.
In class, I had the choice of studying in either Sinhala or Tamil: the two official languages recognized by the Constitution. English was the link language also recognized by the Constitution. But unfortunately, I could not benefit from this constitutionally recognized language. We also sang the national anthem in Sinhala every morning at school. And I always wondered how my friends who were in the Tamil Medium class sang it?
Now just watch a rugby match and you’ll hear National anthem of New Zealand, it is sung in Maori and English. And so is the national anthem of South Africa. Both these countries are multiethnic like Sri Lanka and have managed to allow every citizen, regardless of their ethnic origins, to feel “included” and not so “excluded” as one would feel singing “Sri Lanka matha”.
Differences are not inevitably divides
I also found out that I was a Burgher, because my class register said so. So were all my class mates categorized. Some were not even in my class because they had classes in Tamil. The “Link Language” which supposed to act as a linking platform for all of us to communicate amidst two native languages, was only taught for 40 minutes every day. That was all. And mind you this is the “link language”. Those who had the opportunity of speaking English at home had the added advantage of knowing more than what was taught in class - clearly marginalizing those who didn’t speak it at home. Only a small number conversed fluently- creating some sort of elitist attitude towards those who didn’t.
I failed to understand
There are few things in this multicultural and multiethnic society of Sri Lanka that I ponder on. Why is it that I couldn’t find a public school that taught in English, when English is the link language in a country that holds two national languages: Sinhala and Tamil? Tamil was a second language to those who chose to study in Sinhala medium and vice versa. And when I was in Sri Lanka, I personally did not feel the need to learn Tamil, in a country that spoke Sinhala and English.
Among the language barrier that was created in some schools, was religion. A very shocking example is the “Prefect system” in some schools in Sri Lanka. In one of the schools that I attended, the title of “Head Prefect “was given only to an all-rounder who belonged to the school’s principal religion. This clearly made those of other religious conviction seem ‘less better’ than those who followed the principal religion in the school. But when did anyone’s religious convictions have anything to do with their academic strengths?
The Sri Lankan national flag always caught my attention for its multiplicity of colors and its striking boldness with the lion on it. When the lion’s bravery represents the Sri Lankan’s bravery, and when lion in Sinhala is “Sinhaya” you may easily find the connections Sinhalese make to the “lion” symbol. The minorities are represented in the other coloured stripes: orange and green. But some minorities are not. I studied it at school. I thought about it on my own. I could never fully identify myself in this flag; maybe because I was born in France or maybe because one of my parents is a ‘Burgher’ and I could not see the Burghers in the flag.
A way forward?
Now, when I look back at my instructive years in Sri Lanka, I know that I am who I am because I lived and grew up on that beautiful island and have no regrets, but at the same time, can’t help thinking how the education system in the country played a role in creating divisions among communities and making it a tormented island. It is only when I came back to France for my higher education that I realized that type of education system will never take us forward. Education had failed to create one national identity merging all four major communities on the island.
I do understand that to appease curiosity, we tend to identify ourselves to our communities. Saying you’re Sri Lankan is not enough; we all have to further identify ourselves to our ethnicity. But that does not mean that one is better than the other, stronger or weaker, darker or fairer, short or tall, and the list goes on.
Sri Lanka has just come out of a war that started more than 30 years ago and ended only in 2009. Since then, Sri Lanka has endeavored to move forward step by step, reconstructing and also trying to reconcile the wounds of the war. Reconciliation is an important process in the conclusion of a war that was ignited by an ethnic conflict. Tensions between two communities the Sinhala and the Tamils, need to be solved and reconciled. The verb to reconcile in itself is very meaningful – to put back what was once one in being and is now separate. This also traces the many years of coexistence of all the four communities of the country- Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher – which were caught in the tensions. One may trace the causes of the tensions before attempting to reunite; look into the past before moving forward, to avoid repeating the mistakes made.
The question still remains: have I fully identified myself in all this? I have not. I’m still struggling to.
Celina Cramer 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 intervened 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.