Colombo, Gender, Politics and Governance

A response to Gomin Dayasiri’s “Return of the Colombians”

Friends, Colombians and Countrymen, a few weeks ago the commercial capital of our country; Colombo was attacked. This was not a conventional armed attack and nor was it a terrorist attack, but yet it was an attack, an attack upon the social, political and cultural complexity of Colombo. I refer to the article titled ‘Return of the Colombians’.

Firstly, this elitist analysis of Colombo’s population ignores the complex cross cutting social strata based cleavages of Colombo’s society. A complexity and multiculturalism that was born from years of demographic and cultural change which manifested itself in a multi layered social and economic Colombian mosaic. An elitist analysis of Colombo ignores the vast amount of Colombians who are not elites. These people are the people who keep the lifeblood of our city flowing; by their hard work, blood, sweat and tears. These are the people who don’t drive expensive cars, live in grand houses or apartments and earn a monthly wage of over RS 10,000. These are the people who clean your house, cook your food, clear your garbage, own micro businesses and must walk the streets of Colombo just to survive to the next day. They are all Colombians, living, breathing and dying in Colombo. Their perceptions must not be ignored, but they are ignored in ‘return of the Colombians’. All Colombians supported an end to the war. But all Colombians did not celebrate by lighting crackers and eating milk rice, they sighed in relief that this godforsaken war was over and prayed that this would be an end to our conflict.

Secondly, while our destructive war has ended and we can finally look forward into a brighter future, there are yet those on both sides of the divide who wish to drag in old prejudices and continue this conflict. In a post war Sri Lanka; reconciliation, human rights, democracy and a sustainable peace should be our guiding principles but ‘Return of the Colombians’ makes no reference to these values. Instead, it concentrates on a ‘war mentality’ thus ignoring the opportunity given to us by the end of the war to rebuild our country and reconcile a shattered community. If we continue to hold on to a triumphal attitude and celebrate our successes forever, we will never be able to win the hearts and minds of the ethnic brethren with whom we share our country. On the long term the only manner in which we can ensure that another war does not occur is by promoting harmony among our communities by building an inclusive multicultural Sri Lanka. It is for a peaceful equal motherland that so many had died.

Thirdly, while there is much work to do, in order to re build our economy ‘Return of the Colombians’ provide no solutions towards achieving this goal but instead concentrates on shifting the blame of Sri Lanka’s economic travails onto Colombo’s business elites. This approach is misleading and illusionary at best for a number of reasons. It ignores the political corruption that has caused generations of economic wastage. It ignores an unequal geo political and local trading system which focuses Capital in the hands of the economically powerful. It does not take into account the very key point that the author is fascinated with; a 30 year old civil war which has held Sri Lanka back from developing to its full economic potential. The delusional interpretation that Colombo elites are to blame for Sri Lanka’s unsatisfactory economic situation shifts the blame away from the fundamentalists that prolonged Sri Lanka’s cursed war in the first place.

Fourthly, the author makes a paradoxical argument concerning the ‘Bush doctrine, which can at best be described as a distortion of reality. The author’s contextual interpretation is absolutely opposite to the Sri Lankan societal ground reality during the war. A majority of Sri Lankans supported the war by being silent, our people are not bloodthirsty, our people wanted an end to this conflict through any means and if such a ‘silent’ majority would have sabotaged the war effort then we would not have won the war. All anti war forces were broken into insignificant little groups and in contravention to what the author of ‘return of the Colombians’ says, people were not branded ‘nationalists’, ‘patriots’ and ‘war mongers’ for supporting the war. On the other hand, anyone who opposed the war were dubbed as none patriots and traitors. Remember that this is the ‘true’ Bush Doctrine.

The author of ‘Return of the Colombians’ also needs to be reminded as to who represents the backbone of Colombo and indeed; Sri Lanka. The backbone of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation and rehabilitation process are its women. From the first lady of this land, who leads a valiant effort of encouraging younger generations to rebuild our nation to the 70 year old women who cleans our streets, goes without food to feed her grand children and smiles with pride at her sons returning from the war; if it wasn’t for the heroic women of this country and our city, we would not have what we have now. The author needs to be reminded that next to every man is a woman who is his equal and his strength. Our women underwent immense hardships for Sri Lanka to win this war, but their war has not ended. For once, look up and notice who are organizing the aid drives for IDP’s now, who ensures that the entire family is fed and who will bare the sons that will lead our country into a brighter future. Do not dismiss our women, even the ‘high society ladies’ who are busy looking after the interests of their own children and even the children in Vavuniya.

We must understand that the future of Sri Lanka lies in multiculturalism and a class cutting social bond which Sri Lankans support because we suffered this war as a collective with hope for a better tomorrow. Colombo represents a Sri Lanka in which our society can be a successful melting pot of class, race, culture and political interests. Colombo represents a harmonious future in which our older generations learnt from the mistakes of July 1983 and taught our younger generations to never let our motherland be shamed by communal violence. Sri Lanka has undergone some horrific attacks but Colombo has seen some of the most brutal violence in Sri Lanka’s post independent history. Indeed, I represent a Colombian generation that was born into a violent conflict which escalated in the 1980s, 90’s and 2000 onwards. We have the right to learn from our mistakes and put a history of daily suicide bombing, headless corpses and dismembered body parts behind us. Our collective nightmares will not let us forget the horrors of a brutal war, but we demand the right to move on and build our country. Colombo and the whole of Sri Lanka does need a paradigm shift in it thinking. A paradigm shift in which lessons learnt from the past will help us build a future in which we can live a harmonious existence. We will learn from the fires of the past, but we will not be burned by them. These lessons began in Colombo and will spread to the rest of Sri Lanka. “Times are indeed a changing”, the time of the author who wrote ‘return of the Colombians’ is over and our time is just beginning. It is time for Sri Lanka’s new generation to forge a new future; Arise Sri Lankans.