Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Religion and faith

Thoughts on Sri Lanka’s Future on Another Vesak Day


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The  Vesak Poya day has come and gone several times since May 2009 when the prolonged war with the LTTE ended. And we Sri Lankans are yet trapped in post-war rhetoric and caught up in punches and counter-punches arising from different visions of what post-war Sri Lanka ought to be. Some think that we should continue to celebrate, as the current government does, and even forever celebrate the military victory over the LTTE. Some think that the purpose of this kind of extravaganza is justified  for it gives the government the means to keep the people of this country continuously reminded of one of its most significant success stories. Is that the case or is it, as some others think, that the government wants to exploit its military triumph and use it to keep on bamboozling a gullible public to continue to support it regardless of a failing economy, increased corruption and a disastrous governance record?

Nobody would begrudge the people of Sri Lanka marking the anniversary of the  end of a long drawn out  war if  it is done with decorum and dignity. As SomapalaGunadheera has recently pointed out in a fine essay, it is salutary to recall how the great Sinhala hero, King Dutugemunu responded  to a not dissimilar war victory after he defeated his adversary the Tamil King Elara. Let us look at how The Mahavamsa (as translated by Wilhelm Geiger and quoted by Gunadheera) records  King Dutugemunu’s triumph and subsequent conduct:

King Dutthagamini proclaimed with beat of drum: ‘None but myself shall slay Elara.  When he himself, armed, had mounted the armed elephant Kandula , he pursued Elara and came to the south gate (of Anuradhapura). Near the south gate of the city the two kings fought; Elara hurled his dart, Gamani evaded it; he made his own elephant pierce (Elara’s) elephant with his tusks and he hurled his dart at Elara; and this (latter) fell there, with his elephant. When he had thus been victorious in battle and had united Lanka under one rule he marched, with chariots, troops and beasts for riders, into the capital. In the city he caused the drum to be  beaten, and when he had summoned the people from a yojana around   he celebrated the funeral rites for King Elara. On the spot where his body had fallen he burned it with the catafalque, and there did he build a monument and ordain worship. And even to this day the princes of Lanka, when they draw near to this place, are wont to silence their music, because of this worship.’

(Stanzas 67 – 74, Ch.XXV)

As Gunadheera points out Dutugemunu’s convocation was not a sign of triumphalism but one of honouring his political opponent whom he had slain in single combat. It is also noteworthy that Dutugemunu restricted the assembly  to those living within a circumference of one yojana(4/5th mile?). Gunadheera opines that  this limitation is a sign of the King Dutugemunu’s humility and his rejection of triumphalism. Like King Dharmasoka before him, Dutugemunu seems to have been remorseful of the loss of life caused by war. Although war had to be waged for the unification of the country, Dutugemunu was not unaffected by the loss of life that had to be incurred to achieve unification. This is how The Mahavamsa records Dutugemunu’s frame of post-war mind:

Sitting then on the terrace of the royal palace, adorned, lighted with fragrant lamps and filled with many a perfume, magnificent  with nymphs in the guise of dancing-girls, while he rested on his soft and fair couch, covered with costly draperies, he, looking back upon his glorious victory, great though it was, knew no joy, remembering that  thereby was wrought the destruction of millions (of beings).

(Stanzas 101- 103, Chapter XXV)

The relevant issue in this context is not whether or not King Elara could be compared with Prabhakaran, but whether the response of our political leadership may be compared with that of King Dutugemunu. Crude displays of military might and cheap political speeches only make a mockery of what needs to be done. The supreme sacrifice made by our soldiers and that made by those who opposed  the state both deserve commemoration, however misguided one feels the Tamil Tigers may have been.We  need to never forget that those who died or were maimed are  all citizens of Sri Lanka. We also need to bear in mind that it is our collective failure as a country that led to two horrible bloodlettings in recent memory- – the southern insurgency of 1971 and its second coming in 1987- 1989 and the northern rebellion  that began in the 1970s and intensified  through the 1980s. Human beings, however misguided they may be,  do not resort to war risking death and destruction unless they are reduced to absolute desperation. And, as we well know, there are no winners or losers in a war. We all lose as a consequence of Man’s inhumanity to Man.

The fact of the issue, no matter what other explanation we may come up with for Sri Lanka’s failure to evolve into a modern nation state, is that we have not been able to keep our multi-ethnic polity contented and safe after regaining our political independence in 1948. It is Sri Lanka’s inability to make each of its citizens secure in the knowledge  thathe/she is equal before the law of the land and that each of us has the same rightsand obligations regardless of our ethnicity that is at the heart of our enduring national problem. Sri Lanka is a state dominated by members of its numerical Sinhala majority. Sri Lanka is thus a country,   not a nation. For a country to become a nation, its populace must form a cohesive and integral whole; must be able to bind together in such a manner as to be indivisible. All citizens of the coutry should bear allegiance to an ethos that is all-embracing and indissolubly Sri Lankan.  We have yet to achieve this goal of becoming a nation. In this regard all of us  citizens, and all of our political leaders that we have elected to office over the years are responsible for our failure as a people.

In these days of great scarcity, when the state is seeking to scrape the bottom of the monetary barrel,  to parade a military victory earned at such massive human cost is morally ugly as it is financially reckless.   Road closures for rehearsals made the chaos of the morning commute to work more horrendous than usual. The inconvenience was massive and, if the powers-that- be look at the CCTV cameras they have installed in the different parts of the city, they will see the acute frustration and disgust on the faces of  the citizens who commute to work and back to earn an honest living sans military escorts to pave the way for them. The best alternative to this unseemly parading of triumphalism is that recommended by the LLRC which called for a separate event on the National Independence Day  to remember ALL those who died during the war. The LLRC further called for a joint declaration by all political parties to do all they can to ensure that the kind of bloodletting we suffered during the war against the LTTE will never  again occur in our country. I suggest that we also include those who died during the southern insurrections  at this special event to remember our war dead.

Of course,   the government and its supporters will seek to vilify those of us who do not see eye to eye with their idea of a commemoration. Our refusal to acquiesce in this exercise in political self-glorification will be (mis)interpreted as anti-national and unpatriotic. Newspaper editors suffering from Napoleonic  and other more massive complexes will defame and distort. But the discerning citizen will see through these farcical theatrics of politicians and their hangers on. He/she will acknowledge that to question dominant views, subject them to our intelligent scrutiny and then respond meaningfully to them is a duty we owe to our fellow-sufferers on life’s complex journey, as exhorted by the supreme human being whose birth, life and death we commemorate as we mark another Vesak Poya in a few days.

Way too many of us who subscribe to the tenets of Buddhist philosophy tend merely to pay lip service to them. If we truly believe in metta,karuna  mudita and upekka,  the freedom of thought and enquiry as outlined in the  Kalama Sutta,  and above all for today’s purposes, the concept of equality that Buddhism seeks to teach those of us willing and able to learn, then there is no basis whatsoever for the majority of Sri Lankans who are followers of the Buddha dhamma to behave the way we have done and are doing today. To be certain, the Buddha by means of his spiritual emphasis on equality, was opposing the iniquitous caste system and the social discrimination that prevailed in his time in India, but his teachings on equality of all human beings are  also equally applicable to discrimination on grounds of ethnicity. According to Buddhist philosophy then the rights of all human beings must be protected. No one community or group has special rights that others do not or cannot enjoy. All of us are afraid of punishment, moreso when such punishment is unjust and uncalled for.  Buddisht philosophy reminds us that this fear of unjust punishment stems from  our human determination to be free from dukka  during our samsaric existence:Sabbetasantidandassa/ sabbebayanti  maccuno is how the dhamma explains this to us. The Sigalovada Sutta  similarly teaches us  to respect one another and points us in the direction of how to get on with our fellow citizens along life’s difficult journey towards nibbana.

It is my fervent hope that we Sri Lankans will beginfrom Vesak 2013 onwards to shed our irrational fears and animosities springing from inter- ethnic  or intra-ethnic differences and learn to live together in peace and harmony. We have gone through more than three decades of awful violence, deep pain and monumental tragedy. There is no Sri Lankan regardless of his or her ethnicity who has not been adversely affected one way or the other in the last several years. Some who are yet not aware what exactly has happened to certain of their loved ones who have disappeared continue to suffer even today long after the guns have fallen silent. Anger at what has happened is the emotion that comes easily to us and we must avoid this negative emotion at all costs. Samyutta Nikya (SN 1.71) reminds us that anger is the only thing that is good to kill and in verses 3.14 and 3.15 it notes that in war, as pointed out above, there is no winning side. All who participate in war ultimately end up as losers. Additionally  in the Dighavu-kumara Vatthu: The Story of Prince Dighavu (Mahavagga 10.2, 3-20 PTS: Horner  Vol 4, pp.489- 498) we are told that only forbearance, never revenge, can bring an end to war.

Instead of creating fresh wounds in our fractured community, we must hasten to build bridges of human understanding in addition to building those urgently needed bridges to speedy economic development. Both building projects must go hand in hand as they are not mutually exclusive. Sri Lanka cannot hope to achieve economic prosperity without social contentment. One is reminded in this regard of Bhutan’s concept of  the Gross National Happiness Index(GNHI).  The fact that we may have more money in our pockets will not make us content. We will be nearer contentment  when all of us citizens are made to feel we have a stake in our country regardless of our ethnicity and our social status, no matter how far we may be from the centre of political power. The fact that some citizens are not in agreement with our political masters of the day should not be a reason to label them as traitors and be made guilty of treason. It is when we are made free of the tentacles of the ‘national security state’ that Sri Lanka has slowly evolved into in the last four decades or so that we will begin to feel secure in our own country once more. The freedom to think and act responsibly without fear of unjust reprisals from the state or its law enforcement agencies will also contribute handsomely to the promotion of the kind of contentment referred to above.

And above all, we must mark the anniversary of the fourth year of the end of the war that we marked the other dayby  re-doubling our efforts at achieving lasting peace and true reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I suggest that we do away with the ostentatious military parades and exhibitionsthat are usually held at this time of year. They smack of triumphalism and seek to  divide us further rather than unite us. By all means, let us bear in mind lessons learnt and not forget what damage violent extra-parliamentary challenges can cause to democratically elected governments and the state in general. But to forgive those that have harmed us,  whether they  hail  from the north or south, and whether they are Tamil or Sinhala, is essential. As the old saying has it, to err is human, forgive divine. Such forgiveness ideally ought to be accompanied by multi-religious observances and commemoration of the dead regardless of the fact that they died attacking or defending the state. It is our fellow citizens who died on either side of the conflict, not outside invaders. By our collective (politico-moral) sins of commission and omission, we caused the southern and northern insurgencies to materialise. Hence all of us are culpable for the violence and mayhem that have recently taken us and our country away from our true character and nature. It would be perfect if the President and the government take the lead in this regard and set the rest of the country an example.

The battle for peace and reconciliation must be fought and won in and though the hearts and minds of the people of Sri Lanka, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher, Sinhala and others. Let us discard all false  labels that, at the end of the day, do not hold any meaning. Let us stop squandering   our national energies on frivolous debates on traitors and patriots. Let us cease shooting our  messengers and instead seek to heed their messages. Let us not seek to make enemies of our friends the world over and instead extend our hand of friendship to them once again as we have traditionally done. A Sri Lankan welcome is something   visitors to our shores treasure forever. I have several friends who keep coming back to Sri Lanka year after year as they find beauty in our island home of a kind that is rare and good.  There is much goodwill out there which could so easily be harnessed for our collective well being. There are thus very good and cogent reasons why we should think anew as the VeaskPoya of 2013 dawns on us. We should endeavour  to marshal our thoughts and energies along the directions outlined above, avoid the dangers emanating from the extreme diasporic Tamils and ultra-nationalists alike at home, and engage with Sri Lanka’s moderate middle to achieve a national renaissance that will carry us into the kind of future Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankans deserve.

[Editors note: A truncated version of this essay appears in the Sunday Times of 26 May 2013].