The Clash of Identities in Post-War Sri Lanka

My perspective is the one of a 25 year old who was born in Sri Lanka during the war and who came to France at the age of 1; one who is considered or seen as a French in her country of birth but who is expected to behave as a Sri Lankan; one who also happens to “belong” to both the ethnic and religious majority of the island.

In a country comprising mainly of Buddhists, one would think that Sri Lanka would be more tolerant, more understanding and open to other people’s beliefs and cultures -yet, though I may not know much about the ground reality, when I hear about anti-Muslim demonstrations, when I hear about discriminatory behavior and attitude towards Tamils, or when I do not hear at all about Burghers, I do not see much effort towards understanding and certainly not much tolerance in my country. Though this is not to be generalized, what I sometimes notice are various forms of marginalization, frustration, and sometimes even extremism from all sides. It seems to me that one of the main challenges in post-war Sri Lanka is therefore to resolve the current clash of identities.

While the recent post-war efforts of GoSL have been commendable –though it may not quite be “in every sense” as John Ging said- to build a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka, much effort remains to be done in terms of ethnic reconciliation, in conjunction with both political and socio-economic reconciliation.

Ultra-nationalism, within both the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities led to frustrations on both sides; especially within the Diaspora(s). For minorities, this frustration was mainly built on ethno-religious stigmatization, social discrimination or sometimes even rejection; feelings that often exclude and marginalize communities even further. This led minorities to perceive, sometimes wrongly, the slightest change as a potential form of discrimination. Paradoxically, it gave a sense of somewhat auto-proclaimed superiority to the majority.

Maybe because I grew up away from the conflict, maybe because I was educated in France, maybe because I am naïve enough to believe in a better Sri Lanka, I never really made any ethnic distinction between Sri Lankans. On the contrary, I always considered myself, first and foremost, as a Sri Lankan. And yet, how many times was I asked –especially in France- whether I was a Sinhalese, a Muslim or a Tamil? Though I never really understood why, I realized that people gave a tremendous importance to this ONE question and I kept on wondering “…but aren’t we all Sri Lankans? Or does my Sinhalese and Buddhist legacy gives me a legitimacy that my Tamil, Muslim or Burgher friends do not seem to have? ” If so, I still wonder how.

Of course, we all have our own identity(ies). The very notion of identity itself will be defined differently depending on each individual/group, making its interpretation subjective to each individual/group. We are different from each other and at the same time we carry diversity within ourselves. Each of us is indeed a unique combination of various identifications that are not equally significant to us. Far from been static, this notion transforms itself throughout the different stages of our life. But can we build a collective identity based on what intrinsically defines us as an individual? How comes that in such a small island, people do not feel as if they belonged to one nation, to one Sri Lanka? How come that members of the Diaspora, especially the second and third generation are most of the time considered as non-Sri Lankan in their country of origin?

The LLRC Report itself, in its Section III on “Reconciliation”, says that “The development of a vision of a shared future requires the involvement of the whole of society. […] A culture of respect for human rights and human diversity needs to be developed creating an environment where each citizen becomes an active participants in society and feels a sense of belonging, of being Sri Lankan.” Yet, in post-war Sri Lanka, the very concept of Sri Lankan-ness, or of Sri Lankan consciousness, a concept which is yet to materialize, is often seen as an idealistic vision. Few are those who actually believe in it. I for one believe that future generations, both in Sri Lanka and within the Diaspora, have the ability to build a more united country, one that will incorporate socio-economic disparities but also our religious beliefs, political affiliations, cultural similarities and differences; one that will give us a broader, therefore stronger sense of belonging –including national belonging- through solidarity and appreciation of cultural diversity; one that will ultimately include both our individual and collective identities. Mutual respect and understanding should therefore be our common denominators as Sri Lankans.

An idealistic yet feasible tentative approach to build a Sri Lankan identity would be to create and maintain an inclusive society. What I mean by that is that we should adopt a multi-dimensional approach that will ultimately promote both social integration and social cohesion. This means further participation in public affairs by all communities, including perhaps the Diaspora(s). This also means engaging in a process of reconciliation by maintaining the security of all individuals, but also respecting the Rule of Law, equality of rights, justice and equity in the distribution of wealth and resources; thereby achieving the realization of the legitimate rights of all citizens.

The role of education –not only in its broader sense but mainly the education received at school, the one that should place all children on an equal stage- is here predominant, not to say crucial. I believe that it is the instrument that can provide the opportunity to learn values of respect and appreciation of diversity through the promotion of multiculturalism, pluralism, and ultimately respect for all forms of identities.

In a post-war situation, the restoration of trust among and within communities is also a prerequisite for reconciliation. But can there be a restoration of trust without forgiveness from both sides? Any discussion of accountability must recognize the need for mutual accountability. Yes, there was a war, and an extremely violent war which lasted for over three decades and which scars are still to be healed, but we have to go forward, we must go forward and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Sri Lanka did win the war but it still did not win the peace and the harmony that goes with it. With the end of the war, we now have a second chance to build a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. This can only be done through mutual or common understanding, through dialogue and eventually trust between all communities. This requires forging a sense of belonging, a national unity amidst diversity and ultimately a culture of peace (to use the phrase of the former head of UNESCO, Frederico Mayor). Post-war Sri Lanka is the chance for the younger generation –both within Sri Lanka and among the Diasporas- to build a better Sri Lanka.

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Kamaya Jayatissa, President of What’s Next!, is a PhD student in International Law at the Sorbonne University, Paris.  She holds a Master Degree in International Law from the Sorbonne and a Diploma in International Governance and Sustainable Development from Sciences Po, 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 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.

  • Fact101

    Well written article kamaya.

    The basic problem here is psychic of majority ethnicity (if I put it correctly, a portion of majority). In every country a citizen is not second to another citizen. Those countries not honored this rule ended up in chaos. The ugly truth is, Sri Lanka never had a lesson from three decade war. Most of the minorities do not have any identity problem and it was gone along with LTTE; most of the minorities consider themselves as Sri Lankan even though cultural and religious differences may exist. We cannot view in TV those songs which sang about unity in diversity during war time and we need to question why?

    Now the problem here Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, they haven’t even drop Mahavamsa (great chronicle) to promote their invest motives. Mahavamsa reveals just like any other ethnicity Sinhala origin is from outside the country. As this record doesn’t satisfy to achieve this supremacy they left this a side and going behind Mahabharata to prove Sinhalese were existed even before the advent of Vijaya and claiming that Mahavamsa was mistaken in this regard. Irony is that, Mahabarata is a religious book of Hindus (and Tamils) , the very first community these Sinhala racist consider as arch enemy. If they accept Mahabarata then they have to accept Hinduism is true (leaving Buddhism aside), because to arrive such a decision they have to accept every content in Mahabarata is true and Mahavamsa is false. Secondly they must accept Sri Lanka is part of India, as Sinhala’s were mentioned along with other people of India. In this case, Sri Lanka must become another state of India leaving its Sovereignty. Whatever it is, both Mahavamsa and Mahabarata had its share of fiction, tracing a lineage to a lion or froth of cow’s mouth which are biologically impossible. All we know that human migration started from Africa and who came first doesn’t concern in giving contemporary rights. The big question is are we going to decide matters based on fictions and unauthentic sources or taking the reality of 21st century?

    Present politics will not leave community to be united unless otherwise people get enough vigilance over these dirty politics. These differences are capitalized by politicians and Buddhist religious leaders to achieve their luxuries. These racist simply forget the way the war was won. The condition favored the winning will not give us a second chance if such appear in the future. India was supporting well the Sri Lankan government during the war as Congress party which was lead by Sonia Gandi wanted to have her revenge for killing her husband by LTTE. State of Tamil Nadu was under her control and they could not do much about supporting LTTE. Pakistan and Iran had given both military and technical support. China given the help it can offer. Now three above are related to minority sect of Sri Lanka and if a war reappears the condition will be opposite to the war it was before. Also china will play based on the advantage it can get just like US is playing with its foreign policy.

    Will be another conflict or not is just a matter of time, but its better think by the general public and intellectual how we can avoid such without leaving the country in the hands of fools. Believing in military might is the greatest stupidity a country can rely upon for internal problems. Because with right amount of finance and influence things can change overnight. Seed of conflict may even be the gathering in Navinna vihara on 30th which is named as “12th Riot” .against whom? is the question

    • Expecting

      “Seed of conflict may even be the gathering in Navinna vihara on 30th which is named as “12th Riot” .against whom? is the question “

      Plot is know well against whom and the world can see the outcome if the racist go behind them, in fact this is what the foreign power financing them also expects to happen. If the fools can’t realize the outcome then let them taste the outcome by their own. Silence of innocent is just like calm before the storm.

  • Velu Balendran

    It is strikingly clear to me that your early education being away from SL has moulded you as a cosmopolitan rather than as a Mahavamsa following chauvinist Sinhala Buddhist and enables you to ask the questions no Sinhalese person brought up in SL would dream of asking. I appreciate your innocence, but opinions proffered without a historical perspective which you have avoided here, especially in a polarised ethnic context, will not I suspect make the impact they deserve.

  • BigQuestion

    I had this question in mind for long time can any Sinhala Buddhist or Hindu can answer this question as they believe in re birth.

    X- Was a Sinhala Buddhist 100 years back and died in 1960

    Y- Was a sri lankan Tamil 100 years back and also died in 1960

    X was born again to a Tamil parent and joint LTTE killed many Sinhala Buddhist

    Y was born again in Sri lanka and became a Buddhist monk and destroyed a Hindu temple

    Can anyone tell me what’s happening here; why can’t we remember our past so that stupidity such above will not occur?
    Isn’t this because we have to forget everything and try to live in peacefully?

    • Gamarala

      I can see entire life , past and present of yours
      Through this questions.

      • Gamarala

        Oh dear, an imposter Gamarala or a fellow Gamarala from Medamullana (These days, all kings have their origins thereabouts). Perhaps we may distinguish each other by calling you Loku Gamarala and I can be Nikang Gamarala?

    • Leela

      You may be a Christian but definitely not a Hindu. Otherwise, you should have known that there are Hindu idols in most Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka. Also you should have known that many Buddhists visit all the famous Hindu Kovils to get blessings from Hindu Gods. Where on earth Buddhist monk(s) destroyed a Hindu temple.
      Leela

      • bigQuestion

        Leela

        You didn’t answer the question; do you want to know the list of Hindu temple destroyed during 1983 riots?

        I know Buddhist goes to Hindu temple to get the blessing of their god as Buddhism doesn’t have one. Mean time I know there is sect of Buddhist monk who doesn’t approve this and anything other than their place is not sacred. Have you forgotten the demand of the thera that told a Hindu girls crow and demanding demolition of kovil along with mosque in Dambulla.

        Instead of Tamil Hindu, if you make above as Tamil Christian or sri lankan Muslim will the question give any difference. You are a person promoting that “soil of the son/daughter” is only Sinhala Buddhist and appreciating napoleon reach conclusion get advantage over others. It’s obvious that your viscous demand is even Tamil, Hindus, Christian, Muslims and Burgers should follow your way of life. While talking an indo-European language and inherited from a city from Bangal and following a religion which doesn’t originated here how you can claim your way is the only way of “son of the soil”. If I expand the question further to identify your notion of “son of the soil” along with your belief of rebirth

        Well take a hypothetical name shenali

        shenali- Was a Christian Tamil years back and died in 1890 after 77 years

        shenali- Was a born again as Tamil and died in 1983 riot after 80 years

        shenali was born again as Sinhala Buddhist for the first time and talking about “son of the soil”

        Is she son/daughter of the soil? if she consider only Sinhala Buddhist are son of the soil. Don’t we have to calculate gross years of her life as Sinhala Buddhist if her definition to be applied.

        If she demands only present matters then how come who came first to the country matters. If anyone claim that the first one came must go first leaving space to other, how you can say he is wrong.

        Soil of the son is the one who got citizenship in sri lanka, even if he/she gets it yesterday. If you can’t grasp this definition then you are leaving the country for another war. Is this what you wanted?

  • Ward

    ”The role of education –not only in its broader sense but mainly the education received at school, … ultimately respect for all forms of identities” :

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/104760706/Sri-Lanka-Education-for-War-Must-Be-Transformed-Into-Education-for-Peace

  • Leela

    Napoleone di Buonaparte was not born French. It is French nationalism that made him fully fledged French, Napoléon Bonapart the emperor of France in time. I think that’s the model every man, woman and a child who lives in any country must follow. I see that you are following Napoléon but visualize you are a Sri Lankan to pick on Sri Lanka with some ulterior motive in a roundabout way just the way the other young lady, Cramer had done below.

    You being brought up in such a neo-colonialists system, you do not even hear that racist and xenophobic ideas are deeply embedded in Europe but only all types of extremism by Sinhalas. You do not even know that Vernellia R. Randall, Professor of Law, the University of Dayton said; “The immigrants are blamed by a majority of French citizens for increases in unemployment, crime and decreasing educational standards. They are seen by nearly three-quarters of the population as more likely to commit crimes than the average French person is. Nearly 40% of the population supports forcible repatriation of unemployed immigrants, and 22% supports forcible repatriation of all immigrants.” Perhaps your French supervisors wish you overlook such denigrations. Anyway it is rather strange if not amazing for PhD students like you and Cramer to hear the same trivial things and have alike thinking.

    I am sure you speak with some vernacular French ascent. So why do they ask silly questions such as; “And yet, how many times was I asked –especially in France- whether I was a Sinhalese, a Muslim or a Tamil”. If they ask whether you are French or a French passport holder, I can understand. I also can understand if they ask whether you are a “Sinhalese or a Tamil” for that may be the usual news on Sri Lanka. But to add Muslim in to that sentence, I don’t believe you. You should know that they ask you such questions because you are coloured and thereby half-baked French.

    Half-baked French thinking of ‘better Sri Lanka’ is more like the neo-colonialists way of ‘better Sri Lanka’. Definitely that’s not the way we Sri Lankan voters here think. If we thought the way you think there will not be a Sri Lanka by now. To understand why we think like that you ought to read comments that I and dingiri jot down for that Cramer as well as contemporary Sri Lanka history at least through Wikipedia to understand the source and the cause of the conflict you are talking.

    I am telling you that all neo-colonialists are proven hypocrites. Everywhere, they say one thing and do another. Neo-colonialists invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and even shot unarmed Bin Laden in the head and his woman in the leg but they rushed Kouchiner and Milliband to Sri Lanka to demand we stop the war against terrorist LTTE and free Pirapakaran. Now they want to punish Rajapakse on various fronts for ignoring their order.

    And you talk of “Ultra-nationalism, within both the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities.” All that Sinhalas are against is separatism and anything that lead to separatism. That said pray tell us where else Sinhalas enforce ‘ultra-nationalism’?
    Leela

    • BigQuestion

      “All that Sinhalas are against is separatism and anything that lead to separatism”

      I hope in your statement any cultural and religious differences and practices also considered as “anything lead to separatism” , this is what in Sinhala we say “fish die by its mouth”. This is what we call ultra nationalism. With your vague statement comes the following when it comes to just dressing,

      Tamils can’t wear their choice of dress and showing their identity.

      Muslims can’t wear any dress of their choice to fulfill their religious requirement

      Any other sect cannot wear their choice of dress.

      Now if you some to your definition of Sinhala Buddhist, first of all what is your culture. Most of the Sinhalese now wear what has come from west. Even if you wear sari that was just taken from Indian culture. While you can’t define your own culture how you can claim others should follow yours. Even sigiriya painting (frescos) is also reminiscent of the Ajanta Caves of India, if not we could all ask our women to be like that. if all should follow one, then mahiyangana wedda (indigenous people of sri lanka) can show you the culture we should follow. Are you ready for that change?

      So, my advice is don’t cross the limits. Sri lanka history is unique to sri lanka and all the people here have the full rights for their choice. Any supremacy will lead to another war. Thanks to people like you its not very far either.

  • http://brainoil.wordpress.com sharanga

    This article should be set as an example for what not to write on Groundviews. This artcle should be given an award if stating the obvious in a vague language is a virtue.

    So there’s racism and matginalisation and all sorts of similar things in SL. Great, I didn’t know that before reading this. My memory was wiped out yesterday.

    What to do about this situation? We must build an inclusive society, and build trust. Great, that’s very specific.

    Really, the only part that was even remotely specific in this artcle was the part about education. Delete the rest of the article and expand on it and you’d get a better article.

  • Expecting

    “Seed of conflict may even be the gathering in Navinna vihara on 30th which is named as “12th Riot” .against whom? is the question “

    Plot is know well against whom and the world can see the outcome if the racist go behind them, in fact this is what the foreign power financing them also expects to happen. If the fools can’t realize the outcome then let them taste the outcome by their own. Silence of innocent is just like calm before the storm.

  • silva

    ”All that Sinhalas are against is separatism” ?

    Tamils decided on separatism in 1976.

    What happened between 1948 and 1976?

    • Leela

      silva,
      DBS Jayaraj said a Tamil named Visvalingam proposed separatism in 1928 and that is during the British Raj and that is ling before 1976. So, look for the original reasons.
      Lela

  • silva

    For those who don’t know what triggered the civil war of the last 30yrs or why the 64-yr conflict is still going on :

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/104705097/Conscientious-Sinhalese-Tell-LLRC

  • Jayalath

    It seems to be every thing go out of control . The post war and reconciliation has become a common topic of srilankans living in abroad . You are living in France and did you ever think what level that French recognise the minority Algerian in France ? Sarakosy the former prime minister of France was imposed the most contraversial ban of barka veil covering the full face of Muslim women in France . Algerian minority fought along with French army during the war to defend the country .it is their formal legacy , present day in France these descendants are faced the inferiority .The multiculture and minority is in a greatest threat in the world more than ever been before , their unemployment figures and social deprivation is rising by staggering figures .

    These figures are indicating in the first class countries in the world , not in the countries that superstition and delution is run .the minority communities in the world are petrified with latest development of ratial and religious . So , this situation can be seen very commonly around us .

    Therefore , I strongly believe this situation is needed to be addressed without delay . The education among us is vital to boost the value of humanity paramount to any thing .