Colombo, Foreign Relations, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Beyond the time-warp in Sri Lanka

‘About 2000 years ago the Sinhala people started facing the dreadful enemy invasions and threats from diverse communities living in the Indian subcontinent,’ according to extremist politician Cyril Mathew and his associates in a book published thirty years ago, Diabolical Conspiracy. The fact that Sinhalese too originated from the Indian subcontinent, and that rival kingdoms in South Asia often cooperated as well as occasionally clashing, was conveniently bypassed. Their account went on to describe all manner of threats faced by Sinhalese Buddhists in their encounters with others: ‘By subjecting the innocent and defenceless Sinhala people to extremely cruel tortures and harassments such as beheading, bloodbaths, killing on the spike and setting whole villages on fire, the foreign invaders mercilessly suppressed the Sinhala people and forced Hindu, Catholic and Christian doctrines well and truly into their minds and bodies… the Sinhala people who became adherents of the doctrine of the foreign tyrants were given lands, possessions, honours, offices, wealth etc. commensurate to the extent that they shed their “Sinhalaness” and adopted decadent non-Sinhala demeanours and traits.’

In the days of British rule, Diabolical Conspiracy claimed, ‘officials belonging to the minority communities who in fact received special privileges and concessions from the British, diligently pressed on with the aim of improving the conditions of their own minority communities to the utter detriment of the majority community in Sri Lanka.’ This distorted view of history, in which different ethnic communities were permanently at odds with one another, was used to foster division and whip up violence. In August 1983, after anti-Tamil riots which he had helped to organise left many dead or homeless, he tried to justify this in Parliament: ‘If the Sinhala are the majority race, why can’t they be the majority?’ Tamil extremists also rewrote history to justify their own violence.

Most Sri Lankans today would strongly reject the idea that people from majority and minority communities in Sri Lanka have little in common and are trapped in never-ending conflict. And, despite the evils of colonialism, few now would accept the portrayal of the Sinhalese (or any other group on the island) as abject victims, doomed always to come out worse in any encounter with other cultures except for the occasional victory in battle. Sri Lankans have tended to be more resourceful than that!

Yet it is still common for terms like ‘race’, ‘community’, ‘nation’ and ‘unity’ to be used without probing deeply enough what these mean in today’s world. Questioning what such concepts signify, and how closely this reflects complex reality, may be helpful in resolving the ‘ethnic question’ so that people of diverse backgrounds and cultures throughout the island may be able to live with dignity and mutual respect.

In stark contrast to Mathew’s supposedly ‘Buddhist’ worldview, the teachings of the Buddha emphasise compassion towards all living things, and impermanence. The themes of interconnectedness and constant flux are echoed in other faith traditions and science, but can be hard to accept. Clear boundaries and stability can seem attractive, even if these foster the idea that humankind can be neatly divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’, members of one’s own tribe or clan and others with less claim on one’s care, who may even be treated as enemies. Yet all of us embody both continuity and change, made up of cells that are constantly dying and being replaced, and part of complex networks of relationships which are affected by us and in turn help to shape who we are.

The notion of ‘race’ is often linked with the desire to belong to a set of people with a shared ancestry, distinct from all others and unchanging in essence. This is understandable in a rapidly changing world, but tends to lead to a distorted view of oneself and others. And it can easily be exploited by politicians who claim to be champions of their ‘race’ while seeking to further their own interests. A focus on ‘race’ became popular in Europe in recent centuries, leading to terrible tragedy in the mid-twentieth century, and wide recognition internationally that this approach was flawed. ‘One race, the human race’ became a popular saying.

Over the centuries throughout the world, people have moved around, intermingled and intermarried. Languages and cultures have changed, partly in response to social and technological change. ‘The English’, for instance, are descended from many different groups of settlers and visitors to the island. And not even the most racist Englishman wants to live in a smoky hut with farmyard animals like the peasants of mediaeval England, or refuses to eat potatoes because they were only brought to England four centuries ago!

Yet in some countries, amidst rapid change, including the shrinkage of certain types of agriculture and industry, many people have felt powerless and as if their very identity has been undermined, and the ideology of ‘race’ has again become popular. In Sri Lanka it is not possible to be certain, looking around a crowded bus or train, to know to which ethnic group each passenger belongs: many of the great achievements in the island’s history have arisen because of encounters among people from different geographical areas and backgrounds. However some still use terms like ‘Sinhala blood’ as if there was some kind of hereditary ‘Sinhalaness’. Ironically, Cyril Mathew’s followers used terrible violence against their fellow-Sinhalese, while champions of the ‘Tamil race’ kidnapped, tortured or murdered many fellow-Tamils. Yet some Sri Lankans still cling to the notion of ‘race’, as if people’s actions and allegiances could be explained by biological differences.

The notion of ‘ethnic community’ is perhaps more helpful. Culture and heritage are indeed important. And people’s ethnic identity as perceived by others – whether they are seen as ‘Sinhalese’, ‘Tamil’ or ‘Muslim’ – has often deeply affected their lives, or even brought them to an untimely end. In that sense, ethnicity is meaningful.

Yet culture is constantly evolving, sometimes in subtle ways. Groups have fluid boundaries, and indeed many Sri Lankans are of mixed parentage. And there are other forms of identity which can matter as much as, or more than, ethnicity. For instance, people who are research scientists, have HIV/AIDS or are fleeing from domestic violence may have certain things in common with others whose experiences are similar, whatever their ethnic community. People’s ethnicity matters to them, but is not the only factor in their lives.

‘Nation’ is, I think, a problematic term, often linked with the notion of a largely self-contained geographical area with clear boundaries and a unified sense of identity. When people talk of a ‘Tamil nation’, for instance, there may be an element of nostalgia for a past when successive generations tilled the same plot of land side-by-side with neighbours also rooted in the same area. Yet Jaffna’s largely arid soil has long been unable to sustain all the Tamils whose ancestors once lived there: for generations people have been moving out to find jobs elsewhere in Sri Lanka and abroad. As midwives and clerks, traders and teachers, they have given to, and gained from, others. Indeed the old notion of disconnected ‘nations’ is making less sense in today’s globalised world. Division into self-sufficient units is also hard to secure within an island as small as Sri Lanka (less than half the size of the US state of Alabama).

A durable solution to the ‘ethnic question’ is almost certain to involve greater regional autonomy, something which can benefit people of all communities. Many Sinhalese members of the political elite in Colombo would much rather grab resources for themselves and their cronies than use these to pay for better education and healthcare for the poor in the deep South of Sri Lanka. While Tamils and Muslims have particular reasons to favour stronger local democracy, especially those who have been the victims of ethnic cleansing, devolution can benefit deprived communities throughout the island.

But talk of a ‘Tamil nation’ or ‘Sinhalese nation’, in which people of other ethnic communities are at best second-class citizens, is unhelpful, as opposed to recognising that there may be regions or sub-regions in which most people are from a particular ethnic community. The term ‘homeland’ is even worse, with its echoes of South Africa in the days of apartheid, when non-white ethnic communities were supposedly given their own ‘homelands’ but in practice were marginalised.

Such devolution need not be a threat to ‘unity’. Numerous countries have vigorous local democracy, unlike the over-centralised system in Sri Lanka, and this has helped rather than hindered a sense of common purpose. Suppressing local distinctiveness and imposing control from afar only fuels resentment and leads to poor decision-making: politicians and bureaucrats running things from a distance, with little understanding of local conditions or accountability to local people, can all too easily make costly blunders.

The tsunami of 2004 brought devastation, when the sea which had been a source of blessing to Sri Lankans of all communities turned into a raging destroyer. The survivors were faced with a number of challenges: how to strengthen international cooperation to prevent and deal with disasters, coordinate relief efforts efficiently across the island, distribute resources fairly and enable local initiative. There were serious failings, but in the aftermath of the disaster it did become clear that the welfare of Sri Lankans of different communities, and indeed people in a far wider area, was closely interconnected; while at the same time over-centralised control and lack of assurance of equality could undermine progress.

Some Sri Lankans seem to be stuck in a time-warp, in which ancient conflicts overshadow present threats such as international trade inequalities, pandemics and global warming. To be able to balance international, countrywide and local factors, to assist co-operation across wide areas while empowering people in their regions, districts and neighbourhoods, it is important not only to draw on ancient wisdom but also to recognise present-day realities. This includes discarding the notion that people can easily be packaged into ‘them’ and ‘us’, victims and victors. Diversity and decentralisation can strengthen unity, multiculturalism and devolution bring benefits to people of many cultures and backgrounds.