The following is a list of things I’m often asked or told, revealing of Sri Lankan perceptions about the Burgher community.
- Are you Sri Lankan?
- Can you speak in Sinhalese?
- ‘You’re a Burgher? You sure don’t look like one’
- ‘Sounds like a Las Vegas stripper name’
- ‘They get drunk every Saturday and go to church the next day, no shame’
- ‘Burghers? Parents must be divorced then.’
- ‘Lansi no? Probably got the job because of her English and the mini skirt’
- ‘Burgher.. like a hamburger?’
I could continue but the real point I was trying to make is that 70 years after independence, our ethnicity is still misunderstood.
Sri Lanka is multicultural and multiethnic, in short, rich in diversity. During nearly every Independence Day celebration, political campaign or ceremony where the public is addressed, minorities are continuously acknowledged. But from what I’ve experienced, it’s only a mandatory or token line in the speeches they deliver.
Coming from both Sinhalese and Burgher roots, I call myself a ‘hybrid’. Growing up with this label was no easy task. My mother told me about the struggles she underwent to get my sisters and I into school. National schools would not take us in, because free education came with labels and perceptions that we didn’t know of beforehand and the ones that accepted us came at a price my mother couldn’t afford.
I have a lot of fond memories from my school time, but that was not always the case. I was 8 years old when I understood what bullying really was, when girls started laughing at me for making pronunciation errors during English period. I was angry then, but I came to realize that these children are mere reflections of what we have become as a country.
The year was 2015, and my nominations were accepted to run for Vice Chair for Policy and Advocacy at the Commonwealth Youth Forum in Malta. I was one of the two Sri Lankans whose nominations were accepted by the Forum. With the support of a few good people like the late Adhil Bakeer Markar, one of the greatest human beings I had the honour of knowing, I made an appeal to the Government of Sri Lanka to, if possible, support me to attend the Forum. I’m no stranger to rejection, but this rejection came with the explanation that I was not accepted to represent my country as a Sri Lankan, because of my ethnicity.
First, I was asked to submit my birth certificate for verification purposes (which I completely understood). They then questioned me in Sinhala to ensure that I indeed spoke the language (perhaps not entirely necessary). Then they made an offensive comment highlighting the trouble the administration would have been in if they had sponsored a ‘suddha’ (irrelevant given that I had proved that I was a Sri Lankan already) and to no-one’s surprise, I was never contacted by the said government office again.
For years, others like me have mastered the art of tolerating these rather discriminatory statements and acts of others. We have learned to manage, but it’s frustrating to know that no matter what we do, we will always be outsiders in our own country. I’ve had more acceptance as a Sri Lankan in other countries, and the reality always hits once I return.
Over the years Sri Lankans have openly accepted personalities like Duncan White, Lionel Wendt and even embraced the ‘baila’ music of Wally Bastian. However, by virtue of our Government’s failure to bring a country together through ethnic sensitisation even after 70 years of Independence, people gradually forget that all ethnicities have played a pivotal role in developing our country and have a right be recognized as Sri Lankans equally.
Life would be easier for most of us if we respected and treated everyone with fairness and equality, but I know it’s not that easy for everyone. I’d ask everyone to take a minute and remember the 1996 World Cup. Our nation was devastated by acts of terrorism at that point but the undying passion, commitment and togetherness of the team, consisting of diverse ethnicities, brought the nation together under one flag. To me that’s what independence should feel like. We may be challenged or obstructed; we may fail or accomplish but above all, we accept each other as one people. Our true independence will be the day we become welcoming to each other as a nation.