Featured image courtesy Army.lk

Much has been said across various media over the years, and recently too, on the subject of ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’. Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary (1755) defined a patriot as “one whose ruling passion is the love of his country.” This is certainly a laudable goal and worthy of emulation; it suggests a cause bigger than one’s self and hints at a sacrificial character. Why then did he also say that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”? Genuine patriotism is not easy to define, and the use of rhetoric often infuses the term with a very narrow contextual framing.

In any, case allegiance to one’s country, while important as part of a social contract, is not absolute. We recognise this in Edward Snowden, who acted against the interests of his country (the U.S.) by leaking classified information in the wider interests of the world at large; also in Nelson Mandela, whose actions to end apartheid in South Africa saw him labeled as a “terrorist.” What we see here is that true love of one’s country is not easy to define; and must be judged by higher universal norms of justice.

In our country, the term “patriot” is sometimes defined very narrowly as one who defends military heroes, whatever the charges against them and “traitor” as one who dares to scrutinise their actions. Military heroes are in turn defined as those who prosecuted war against the LTTE, which undertook an armed struggle to create a separate state. There is no doubt that the end of the war against the LTTE brought great relief to all Sri Lankans – whether those in the South who feared bomb explosions in buses on a daily basis; or indeed those in the North, whose sons and daughters were forcibly recruited by the LTTE. Hence, there is undeniably widespread gratitude towards the armed forces. However, gratitude cannot be equated to the condoning of all actions taken during a certain period of time or circumstance.

This applies to all citizens, but in particular to those given power over others. Anyone in the military has power over other citizens by virtue of being armed; politicians have the power of governance over the people; and principals and teachers have the power of selection and examinations over their students. All such power has to be held in trust and exercised for the public good and ideally, not abused for personal gain or gratification. As a society, we accept that politicians and principals are not above the law. Principals are convicted for taking bribes for school admissions. While not many are convicted, many politicians are indicted or at least investigated for their abuse of power. Even Mahinda Rajapakse is being investigated; there is no public outcry of “traitor” against those who are investigating him, despite his being the Commander in Chief of the armed services that won the war.

Why then is the military viewed differently by some sections of our society? Is it because of a sense of collective guilt that we allowed them to risk their lives while many of us in the South (though not those on the borders) lived in relative safety? Is this the same reason why there was so much public euphoria in the South in May 2009? I wonder whether that euphoria was shared by those who lost children or spouses serving in the Forces? Would we have emerged better as a society from war if conscription was resorted to, so that the risks of war would have been better shared? How about those in the forces who fought a disciplined war with honour, but live with under a cloud because the military is viewed with a jaundiced eye in some quarters? Would they prefer investigations of some sort so that miscreants can be brought to book and the collective honour of the military restored? These questions cannot be answered; not unanimously at least.

There are various allegations regarding the complicity of the military in some terrible incidents – notably the killing of five Trincomalee students in 2006, the deaths of the local Action Contre le Faim (ACF) workers in Muttur also in 2006 and various kidnappings for ransom. We do not know for certain whether the military is guilty of these actions. But there is a pall that hangs over them as a result of the uncertainty. Until properly investigated, that pall will remain. We also begin to believe, not only within the military but in all spheres of life, that power can be abused with impunity. Perhaps all of this started with the impunity that went unchecked during the two JVP insurrections, in which there were mass scale extra-judicial eliminations of young people, then in the South.

This Sri Lankan attitude of “forgetting the past and moving forward” will not suffice, since a past that is not dealt with will haunt our future. Pardons may even be considered for anyone convicted; but without investigations and convictions, impunity reigns supreme. And because we did not have the strength of character to investigate these incidents properly ourselves, Geneva may attempt to thrust foreign judges on us.

Our social fabric was preserved via military intervention in both the Southern and Northern insurrections, for which most are grateful. It must be said, however, that such insurrections are often spawned by injustice in the status quo; whether such injustices have been mitigated as a result of the insurrections remains moot. Nevertheless, the Youth Commission Report following the Southern insurrection did give voice to rural Southern grievances, most poignantly through the phrase “Kolambata kiri; gamata kekiri (Milk for Colombo; cucumber for the village)”. Given that the JVP has now come into mainline politics and is doing yeoman service in the opposition, one could say that the social fabric has accommodated the Southern voice. The Northern voice still seeks expression, largely via a promised constitution, something that all Provincial Councils apparently desire too.

At any rate, the military was never hailed as being the saviours of the nation at the end of the Southern insurrection, as much as it was in 2009 after the Northern one. This is despite the fact that the country and its capital city were more severely disrupted as a result of the former, with Southern universities closed for two whole years. The rhetoric behind today’s adulation of the military is that it prevented the separation of the country that was attempted by the LTTE. I would like to deconstruct this rhetoric.

Who has prevented the separation of the country? Those who fought the LTTE in active combat certainly qualify. But we read recently that a group of rehabilitated former LTTE members gave an emotional farewell to Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu, the commander of the Civil Defence Force in Mullaitivu, when he was being transferred. I do not know whether Colonel Bandu has been decorated for valour in warfare, but he has obviously made a significant contribution to reducing the risk of separation through his empathetic treatment of former rebel cadres. Perhaps to a lesser extent, every service person at a Colombo checkpoint who treated visiting Norrtherners with dignity and courtesy would have contributed to the idea that we can remain one nation.

When a bomb blast resulted in 23 deaths and 80 injuries on the road between the Katubedda junction and the Moratuwa University in 2008, almost all the male Tamil university students living close to the campus were taken in for questioning by the Moratuwa police. To my knowledge, only two university teachers visited them at the Police Station; but dozens of their Sinhala landlords did, just to express concern for their young Tamil tenants. Even ordinary citizens of the country would have contributed in many such ways to reducing the risk of separatism. One cannot prevent separatism by force alone; in many situations, force could actually hasten separation.

While the military certainly prevented the separation of the country, so did many others, in ways that are different but no less effective. I am relativising the role of the military, and also reiterating that glorifying the armed services is not the only form of patriotism. There are at least two other ways in which we can show tangible “love of our country.”

The first is allegiance via sole citizenship and long service in the country. There are many ordinary people from all walks of life who have served or are serving the nation for a lifetime, in honesty and integrity, whether in the private, public, NGO or other sectors. Such service goes further in identifying them as patriots than whatever opinions they hold about the armed services or the national anthem. Members of Parliament are not allowed to hold dual citizenship, and rightly so. Those who play a pivotal role in the affairs of a nation should be required to have their futures inextricably linked to that nation. This is qualified by the fact that suspicion and dissent among people groups in this country are more often than not sown and nurtured by those who have secure futures in other climes.

To be a patriot is not to relive the past, but to bind one’s self to the future of one’s country. For over 35 years I have been a teacher in the State university system, delivering free education to generations of students from all corners of the country. A large percentage of them see a university degree as a passport to a foreign job. I do not believe in the curtailment of personal freedom, and many who live overseas help Sri Lanka in numerous ways. Yet, her destiny must be decided by those who live together, within her borders.

The second way is to pay one’s taxes. In the U.S, every child must “pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” daily at school. This is a dangerous patriotism, one that is easily exploitable by its leaders. This was seen, for example, in the invasion of Iraq after September 11. That is the biggest problem with patriotism all over the world, including Sri Lanka – it is actively cultivated by those who want to capture or retain State power. However, at least most Americans recognise the importance of paying their taxes, converting their display of patriotism to some tangible nation-building action. In South Korea, when the Central Bank was in trouble in 1998, it is said that average citizens donated their own gold to enable it to pay back a loan to the IMF. Sri Lanka’s GDP per capita has increased from 370 USD in 1985 to 3860 USD in 2016 – a tenfold increase (six-fold, based on purchasing power parity). The country’s GINI index (a measure of income inequality) has also increased from 32.5 in 1985 to 39.8 in 2016. We have become wealthier while becoming more unequal and the case is clear for increasing direct taxation. I am not a spokesperson for the present government, but even the JVP has consistently wanted indirect taxation reduced from its current astronomical level of 80%. The ‘patriotic’ thing to do would be to increase personal income tax. In this ‘wonder of Asia’ however, it is the very people who pontificate on criteria for assessing patriots and traitors who also agitate to reduce their taxes; a travesty indeed.

Editors Note: Also read ‘Sorting Bad Apples: Is Lustration the Answer to Sri Lanka’s Military Impunity?‘ and ‘Spiraling incidents of military intimidation in the North: Ruki Fernando