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Chinese Whispering in Sri Lanka: On Gossip, Anxieties and Politics

Featured image courtesy Sri Lanka Unites

Chinese whispering in Sri Lanka is suggestive of at least twofold meanings – literally and metaphorically. One has to do with the geo-political and international trade related issues, as many International Relations experts have put it. This meaning duly emphasises the significant role China plays in Sri Lanka’s economy and foreign policy. The other significant meaning is about the socio-political fabric intrinsic to post-war Sri Lanka, in which the presence of China gives birth to manifold gossiping, some factually substantiated and some others entirely fantastic. But then, fantasies aid in performative notions as many anthropologists have taught us. Thus the truism makes sense that Chinese whispering is not all about China’s presence in Sri Lanka. It is more about the many hushed-up tales and humid gossip looming large over the shores of the Indian Ocean. At least, this is what might attract a wandering anthropologist’s – such as this essayist’s – cruising glance. Some of this gossip and tales are of significant value and they intersect with geo-political perspectives on the relations of China and Sri Lanka, bringing in India to the picture as well — as a perennially anxious entity. They solicit the rabid acumen of analysts keen about strategic relations, international trade and politics.

However, more important than the apprehensions about geo-political calculus couched in the grammar of international analyses is something very local, concrete and enveloped in multiple layers of anxieties. It is not hard to come across this kind of gossip, which this essay dwells upon, related to the inter-ethnic discontents in post-war Sri Lanka. This is as much concrete as the ‘ethnicised communities’, broadly Sinhalese and Tamil in the context of this story. A wandering non-Sri Lankan anthropologist is likely to deduce from freely circulating gossip the following: things are not ‘fine’ in the midst of rhetorical performance of reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka. And if this is the case, any initiative by any government may not really amount to building much needed inter-ethnic trust. As some Tamil youth I encountered (anonymity intended henceforth) would put it:It’s just a matter of time to see the resurgence.More than a statement of fact, this is an articulation of an anxiety, a frustration.

For, Fumes presuppose fire

 If this is the broad scene, Chinese whispering cannot be confined to the mere corporeal presence of China. It acquires a little more than what pundits of international relations could grasp even in the wildest of their collective imaginations. The slivers of fumes, indeed, presuppose fire. To cut a long story short, Chinese interests in Sri Lanka, both economic and strategic, are beyond any doubt very real. Also, there is a glamorous posterity of this relation. In ‘confidential’ reports WikiLeaks released in the public domain, Sino-Lanka friendship has facilitated to combat Soviet impact, as well as put a check on India’s regional interests. In the condolence meeting upon the death of Mao, the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was sufficiently vocal in articulating the role of China in Sri Lanka.  If this seems a very archaic indicator of mutual interests, one needs to look at the massive Port City project underway in the proximity of  Galle Face in Colombo. The Chinese initiative worth US$1.4 billion to construct a “mini-city” atop reclaimed land in Colombo inspired whispers of different kinds. The project was signed when the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed power in 2005.

Many whispered accounts suggest considerable corruption entailed in this deal, as in many others. It is hard to corroborate such allegations with factual evidence. But what matters is the ability of the Lankan public to whisper about the possibilities, no matter how unsavoury and unverifiable. This whispering could underline the idea that the ‘Lankan public’ is willing to cross the socially and politically divisive identities and discourses in order to hint at potential white-collar malpractices. It is also indicative of the public suspicion of powers that be. At the height of the power of the Rajapaksas, these whispers worked as a kind of ‘weapons of the weak’ in the sense suggested by James Scott. But some of these have now come to the surface as more concrete forms of agitation consequent to the electoral defeat of the Rajapaksa regime. Indeed, it augurs well for a discerning civil society, otherwise terribly fragmented in Sri Lanka in correspondence with the socio-political cleavages amongst various identity-groups. But then, there are other undercurrents of social whispering too which an observer can come across while interacting with folks any evening along the shore.

As part of social whispering, it is possible to hear a Tamil youth (anonymity intended) saying: This is a Sinhalese conspiracy to prosper with Chinese money, get more employment opportunities for youth of Sinhala origin, and consequently push aside Tamil youth.’ Once again, there is no factual corroboration for this narrative. But what matters here is the clear existence of an inter-ethnic trust deficit and lack of any systemic initiatives thus far by the state or by non-state actors to ensure that these kinds of whispered account do not have a receptive audience. So once formed, these kinds of perceptions become ‘real’ in the minds of believers.

The seemingly concrete premise supporting the whispered apprehensions is partly derived from the long haul of political violence, which Sri Lanka underwent in the recent past. The premise also derives its strength from the nearly unconditional support of the present regime to Chinese project(s), known as well as unknown. On the other hand, however, a Sinhala youth (anonymity intended) could whisper with due reverence to the new god of contemporary South Asia, namely development: ‘This project like many others, is a necessary step towards putting Sri Lanka on a respectable pedestal in the international community of nations.’ This whispering makes an attempt to ignore the possibility of any ethnic, communal or caste discontent pertaining to development projects. It would instead suggest that this is for the prosperity of Sri Lanka, which will eventually benefit everybody from any identity-group. It may seem to be a very familiar stance in contemporary India too.

It becomes obvious that the Chinese presence in social whispering is meaningfully accidental. This is not to say that the concrete manifestations of the Chinese presence do not inspire whispered narrative accounts. Instead, the idea is that the socio-political divides are so deep that anything could engender ethnic apprehensions narrated in the informal walks of everyday life. These are among the strains of thought that emerged from the accounts in my field diary as I recently travelled from Colombo to Batticaloa, some three hundred kilometers away in Eastern Province. To my trepidation, my assumption was vindicated. As soon as the tourist van entered Tamil-dominated areas, my fellow traveller, a young Tamil academic from Eastern University and formerly a student at Jaffna University, exclaimed: after this point, it’s the land of a superior race.’ Upon inquiry, I gathered that the reference was to the perceived Tamil cultural superiority and industriousness, which often seem to manifest in everyday conversations.

Traversing the tropical landscape, sublime lagoons, and arresting serenity in the surroundings, there appears little doubt about Tamil pride and prejudices in their sense of ‘homeland.’ But then, Tamil subjectivity is scarred by the military aggression in the recent past, as well as persistent grudges about the lackluster unfolding of democratic processes and institutions. The Lankan model of democracy is clearly farcical for the Tamil populace (and perhaps for many Sinhalese too), asserted a scholar from Jaffna visiting Eastern University in Batticaloa. And many ordinary folks at local cafes could be overheard reiterating a similar view, by mostly harping on the ‘underrepresentation of Tamils’ in not only political processes but also in state machineries more generally. A young scholar researching on Tamil performance art observed, ‘You may find quite a few Tamils in the lower rung of the hierarchy in the Lankan bureaucracy, but seldom any on the top positions.’ An oft-repeated message in this part of Lanka is about the perceived Sinhalese conspiracy to keep Tamils away from the realms of crucial decision-making. And in this regard, they find the new regime much the same as the old one(s). This is not only in politics and ordinary life. An art historian of reckoning opined that even historiography in Sri Lanka narrates stories of Tamil society and culture only in the footnotes. How many Tamil scholars are mentioned in the debates in social sciences, arts or in public discussions in Sri Lanka,’ asks an evidently disappointed Tamil political scientist.

Apprehension Beneath Comprehension

 With the above-mentioned excerpts from freewheeling interactions – without data sets, tables and graphs, it is possible to surmise that post-war Lanka is grappling with a deeply ethnicised sense of subjectivity. At one level, it seems nearly impossible to devise a scheme of reasoning beyond the ethnic divide as things prevail at present. Equally tough is task to cultivate an inclusive liberal-romantic-utopia cutting across different ethno-cultural communities in Sri Lanka.

Nevertheless, could there be a shared dream of Sri Lanka in this wake? To find an optimistic answer, one expects that the state machineries ought to be doing something qualitatively different to engender an alternative subjectivity for Lankan communities. And perhaps the goals of governance should ideally rise above playing the India-China game to more realistically and inclusively redefine notions of development and a more hopeful collective vision of the future. The latter is necessary as a more socially sensitive measure to bring about inter-ethnic partnership, as it were. Of course, beyond the state, this also ideally should be a prerogative for civil society as well as individuals. Or else, the seeming lull could bring about a storm of a bizarre nature in times to come. The chill of the thought compels even an irreverent anthropologist to turn to the Buddha with a prayer: let an awakening be.

Readers who enjoyed this post may find “Contending with rejection and exclusion: Take two on the Kuliyapitiya debacle” and “(Re)conceptualising reconciliation: Transitional justice in Sri Lanka” instructive.