I walk at Independence Square a couple of evenings a week. A friend who walks with me, asked why the Buddhist Flag was hoisted on the flag pole. To tell you the truth, I had not noticed the large rectangle of blue, yellow, red, white and orange fluttering in the wind. On my walks at the newly landscaped area, I admire the root balled trees, appreciate the lights that come on automatically at 6pm, and in the fading light, take care not to trip on the granite paving squares that define the walkers’ route. With my floppy hat jammed on my head, I do not get the chance to look at the sky often. So, while I knew there was a flag flying I believed it was the national flag and did not give it too much thought, after all we were at Independence Square, what other flag would be there?
The two flags – the Buddhist flag and the National flag – have very different connotations. The Buddhist flag is made up of five colours denoting, loving kindness, peace and universal compassion with the blue stripe; the middle path of avoiding extremes and emptiness with the yellow stripe; blessings of achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune and dignity with the red stripe; the purity of Dharma, leading to liberation outside of time and space in the white stripe; and finally, the Buddha’s teachings and wisdom with the orange stripe. It stands for values that all of us, whatever our belief systems are, would treasure. Our National flag is also made of stripes and colours in addition to a sword saluting lion, but it means other things. For instance, the maroon background represents the majority Sinhalese people, the gold lion represents bravery and courage; the orange stripe represents the Tamil minority, the green stripe the Muslim minority. Finally, the four Bo leaves stand for the core principles of Buddhism: Metta, Karuna, Muditha and Upeksha. In theory both flags embody wonderful ideals, but in practice, they have become symbols of unease, oppression, tyranny, domination, injustice and inequality. It is not the fault of the flags – it is the fault of the people.
Writing at this time, July 2013, when I see the Buddhist flag flying at Independence Square, I am filled with a sense of foreboding. I find it hard to believe that those who fought hard for our independence would have wished any Sri Lankan citizen to have such a thought at any point of time. But these days, with seemingly perpetual unrest, many of us do. I had three chances to give up my Sri Lankan citizenship and become a citizen of three different countries – one American, one European and one on the Pacific Rim. I did not entertain that thought for even a minute. It is a matter of pride that my mother chose to give birth to me in Sri Lanka rather than England where she lived through her pregnancy, rushing back home for her confinement and thus continuing the line of my family being born in this country for many generations and many hundreds if not at least a thousand years. I was determined to remain a Sri Lankan at any cost. Through peacetimes and war times, like the Christian marriage vows, I was dedicated to my country in spirit even if not in service.
Post 1983, many of our Tamil brothers and sisters fled their birth-land in panic and terror. They felt quite clearly, and in many instances quite rightly, that this was no longer their home. It was no longer a place where they could live in peace and security. While I could empathize with them, I would never ever know what it really felt like. I could not even begin to guess because unless one has been there and gone through the suffering they did, one cannot know. For twenty-six years while the war fought on, the other minorities lived beneath the radar. If I am truly honest, perhaps there were even times when I was grateful the negative spotlight was on them and not on us. But I remember so clearly being told by one Tamil or another: Just wait and see, you will be next. At that time I did not believe it. I would not believe it. I didn’t want to believe it.
Today, there is another kind of war. It is fought on different battle grounds, but it is still a war. It is a war for the concept of home, and minorities don’t seem to be anywhere in the blueprint.
If you look at our recent history, Sri Lanka has not been good to her minorities. A radical difference from how her ancient Kings treated visitors and residents of the island. Ibn Batuta, Marco Polo, Fa Hien, Marignolli and Odoric, are just some of those who have come to this ancient island. They all speak of the hospitality and graciousness, generosity and prosperity of the country and its people. Colonialism brought us no choice. We were all under the white man, equal before his eyes as being his inferior. There was no difference between ethnicities, faith, colour or language, the colonizers saw us as one homogenous people who were there only to be exploited and ruled. The fight for independence was by all Sri Lankans. There was a hope that they could create a land, where no-one would be a second class citizen, where all citizens had a say in the destiny of the country and its people. Oh how wrong we were. How short-sighted, how naïve we would be proven in that belief. After colonialism, when Sri Lankans were in charge of their country and their affairs, one of the first responses was against the minorities. First the Burghers, then the Tamils, then Sinhalese Christians, Malays and Muslims began the slow exodus to other lands. Included in this trickle, flow, flood and deluge were a fair number of Sinhalese Buddhists.
In the today and now of Sri Lanka I wonder what I should do now? I am certain it is a question that a Tamil citizen would have had to face since 1983 if not earlier . Now it is the turn of the Muslims and soon it will be the turn of all other minorities to ask and wonder what they do now?
It is not a comforting thought and forces me to ask another question. One directed at my fellow citizens who are Sinhalese and more specifically who are Sinhalese Buddhists. What is it you want from us – your minorities? Do you want us to be perpetual second class citizens? To cower down and bow whenever a member of the majority come close to us? To be grateful that we are allowed to live in this country and never forget it? To forget our own heritage and culture that has contributed so much to the collective culture, to remove our food from the menu, to change our names, to tape over our music and songs, to erase our books from the national libraries, to paint over our art, to dress differently and speak in only one tongue? Would that be enough? And if we cannot do that or more accurately if we do not want to do that, would you like us to disappear and where would you like us to go? Do the Tamils leave for Tamil Nadu, the Muslims for any other Muslim country, the Burgers for white Western countries and the Christians for any Christian country? Would you be happier then? I doubt it. Left with a homogenous country, infighting between classes, castes, professions, regions, towns and villages will continue. Of that I am certain.
Last weekend I went to Puttalam where I have my small piece of heaven. Where my Sinhala Catholic cook jokes and jostles with my Muslim labourer whom she has known since childhood. Where the bulldozer I have hired for the day is owned and driven by a Hindu Tamil who after a short chat invites me to his little cultivated plot of land and gifts me two kilos of freshly harvested peanuts. When I am there, I am at the receiving end of innumerable little gestures that make me feel welcome and wanted and loved on a daily basis. I wonder am I making this up? Am I romanticizing and reading too much into encounters that don’t really mean anything. Are they just being polite?
Almost daily, there is something in the news that makes me ask the question: where is my home? Is it where a Buddhist flag flies and where am I in it? Is it in Puttlam or any other small town or village where people live fairly amicably with each other despite their varying faiths, political affiliations and income levels. Or is it somewhere else? Is it with people who don’t understand when I speak of being given a dead-rope by some-one or call my friend machaan? Is it eating bread and cheese which, whilst I love, makes me dream of kade paan, pol sambol and fried eggs? Is it trying my tongue around another language and accent desperate to be understood? Is it smiling at a brown skinned girl at the farmers market and wondering where she is from? Of seeing a television advertisement for a sun bleached beach and grey green sea while I shiver at a snow covered railway station, waiting for the train? Is it always somewhere else and never here?
I lay the blame of where we are now, squarely on the shoulders of the state. Not just the state we have today, but the state from the time of independence. We have always had a political culture of vengeance and pettiness that can only feel good about itself only if they and only they alone are top dog. A position which has resulted in the building up of one community at the expense of all others. A state that does not represent all its people equally and impartially is not a true democracy. Sri Lanka does not do that for all its people. Simple logic then says: Sri Lanka is not a true democracy. Someone tell me differently for me to have hope.