23 July, 2024


Against A Culture Of Ambivalence

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

For obvious reasons, the government wants to convince us that its enemies and friends are also the people’s. Obvious, because in equalising the one with the other we are on firm ground. Obvious, because if my enemy is your enemy, the world is easier to simplify, and the decision by an official body is easier to rationalise. Obvious, because if you kill your enemy and he or she happens to be my enemy as well, everything becomes a whole lot easier to sweep under the carpet. That is how totalitarian dictatorships work. And to an extent, that is also how democracies work.

When a movement, an ideology, or an individual is hard to define, harder to oppose or support on the political plane, he or she or it is portrayed rather ambivalently by the government and the opposition. Much of the hype around the SAITM crisis (born of the previous regime), for instance, can be rooted in how we, the people, and those whom we have elected vilify or valorise the student movement. The government is suffering from a headache because of that movement. The Joint Opposition is having a field day. Lahiru Weerasekara is, on that count, a contemporary Rohana Wijeweera to both sides. He is a hero to the State University student population regardless of their politics, a convenience to the JO, and a pain to the government.

If there’s anything that can aggravate a social ill beyond its limits, it’s ambivalence. Ambivalence in negotiation and agreement, in identification and resolution, in diagnosis and prognosis. It was ambivalence which prolonged a conflict which could have been easily done away with to a 30 year war. It was ambivalence which took away 100,000 lives within three years, far greater than the number killed in that civil war. And it was ambivalence which led us to this cul-de-sac between private and public education. Weerasekara is the perfect symbol of all that. He is despised by those who hate him and only mildly liked by those who hate his opponents.

Popular culture has worsened this cul-de-sac. But then that’s to be expected. Popular culture knows how to distort reality to achieve its arbitrary ends. This is not something particular to Sri Lanka only, after all even the United States of America suffers from it when it comes to its own president, depicted on the one hand as a harbinger against elitism by the same people who oppose him, and on the other as a populist demagogue who’s hiding that same elitism he rants against (in both instances, he sells). But we are a small country, small enough for even the smallest act of ambiguity to spell out drastic consequences. Which is why, when the ruckus over SAITM is spelt out in vague terms, we should be wary of those consequences.

And it’s not just the SAITM crisis, of course. Just look at how we are handling our PR when it comes to the international community. On the one hand, we have a set of representatives who seem to be conceding to the process of capitulation we are giving into with respect to institutions skewed against us. On the other hand, you have another set of representatives, sometimes even from the same political party, lambasting (mildly or otherwise) those same institutions. Who’s saying what, and what should we believe? Isn’t this just like the war years, when capitulation was described horrendously as negotiation and when negotiation was robbed of its meaning via an unhelpfully vague series of discussions and peace talks?

The biggest thorn on the side of the government is its lack of clarity. The previous regime had a convenient tool at its disposal to make us forget this. Nationalism. Rabble-rousing, populist, irrational nationalism. The current regime does not have that privilege, especially since despite the many representatives who (claim they) are for a unitary state, freedom from external interference etc, we are led by a set of leaders who are more pragmatic than nationalist (whether or not it constitutes actual pragmatism being another debate altogether). In effect, consequently, there’s nothing the government can resort to so as to hide their indefiniteness.

And to top it all, the regime is trying to please everyone without pleasing anyone. It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that when federalists, nationalists, and members of that self-labelled intelligentsia which operates in Colombo want a piece of the pie shouting “We voted you in, give us what we want!” there’s bound to be a lack of focus. In this process of trying to give everything to everyone, there are winners and there are losers. The winners are the rent-seekers. The losers are the people. And the moment compelling social problems are swept under the carpet, unresolved and etched in uncertain terms, they lose even more. This we ought to know.

Getting back to my earlier point, the student movement, like Donald Trump, sells whichever way and however positively or negatively you view them. They sell because, as heroes, they are pelted by what Marxists and other ideologues would call a “police state” and, as villains, they themselves pelt those they disagree with. In both cases, there’s publicity involved. Publicity, ladies and gentlemen. The kind that prolongs an issue because, for interested parties, there’s money and popularity to be milked. Clarity can be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, we lack it in this case.

Our political culture has thrived on rhetoric for too long. We are awed by what our leaders say, and then get tired of finding out that what they say isn’t what they do. A pragmatic government wouldn’t have, for instance, dithered over the Office of Missing Persons with vague declarations. A pragmatic government would have marketed the OMP notwithstanding the hype for and against it. Like the Right to Information Act, the OMP Bill, even with the president’s signature, was born prematurely, disliked even by those who agree with its provisions simply because of the way it was brought through. When vagueness and confusion take over the process of crystallising Acts of Parliament, we can’t really blame those who lambast them.

Rhetoric is one thing, however. Lack of focus is another. When we put the two together, we get what Gunadasa Amarasekara once cogently described as a kavandaya (or headless corpse): borrowing a Sinhala phrase, “eheth naha, meheth naha” (neither here nor there). Making matters worse is the fact that this government is handling the sins of the past. With a serious communications problem, and despite the statements made condemning the preceding regime, we convenient lay that aside and instead condemn this regime. Despite your feelings about the matter, there’s no denying that the ruckus over SAITM, and those development projects and their environmental impact, was born from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. But what do we have today? An outfit headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa eating into the government’s popularity (what little of it there is left, anyway) over its handling of the same problems traceable to the time he was in power! Can it get any more absurd than that?

So what’s the solution? First and foremost, to do away this culture of ambivalence that has gripped us for so long. It’s not only the government that has compelled this culture, moreover. It’s also us. The people. Popular culture. The many industries that operate on making money out of social problems. The intellectuals who are cut off from the same people they are supposed to help out in the first place. And of course those outfits which are hell-bent against the government. Given all that, we have a clear choice between us. Either we continue with the vague, indefinite, and non-committal way of looking at social ills, or we identify a problem for what it really is, minus our personal feelings, and get our representatives to solve them (or in the least try solving them for ourselves). Feel-good protest campaigns and vigils won’t do much. Positive, committed action will. It all depends on what we choose. And the drastic consequences which follow our choices, both now and to the future.


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Latest comments

  • 4

    It is time that Colombo Telegraph start reporting the real relationships between the Tamils and Sinhalese who live in Sri Lanka. A recent shooting of a Jaffna judge which killed his Sinhalese body guard and the judge’s emotional response clearly shows a different side of Tamil-Sinhalese relationship which is very different from what CT and the Tamil posts depict here. Tamils who post in this forum appears mostly separatist diaspora trying to spread disharmony between the two races. I am tempted to include a video link of the judge’s reaction but am holding it because of CT’s haphazard rules.
    Colombo Telegraph should try and bring peace and harmony to the two races with articles promoting same for a change.

    • 1

      CT may be seen as leaning or sympathetic towards a particular side but that is not without reason. During the MR regime when opposing views were dealt with severely, online entities like CT were the only option for dissenting voices. So you will see many articles written from a certain view point. That should not surprise you. It is important to read stories from many different outlets (not just CT) and make your own conclusions. Personally I consider CT light years ahead of the rest of the dissenting voices online (for example LankaEnews). For the most part CT will post your comments with little to no editing. Now compare that to the Daily-Mirror commented section! Getting comments through is nearly impossible at times and the ones that are posted are edited in ridiculous ways. Nobody is 100% neutral. Everyone has biases. But overall compared to others CT has a decent level of integrity.

      • 3

        If you read my post carefully you might realize that I am commenting on CT’s attitude towards Tamil-Sinhalese relationship rather than how it goes after political crooks. CT is doing a great job in revealing criminal acts of politicians and their hacks. I welcome that. But if you look closely, when ever it comes to Tamil-Sinhalese relationship it always cheer and report negative effects on Sri Lanka/Sinhalese. The latest example is the shooting of Jaffna Judge where the accused is an ex LTTE. Did you see any CT report on that? Imagine how CT will react if a Sinhalese was the shooter. Did you see the emotional outbreak of the Judge as he learnt the death of his Sinhalese body guard? Never in CT. Why?
        When The EU removed SL’s GSP+ status it was all over CT. But when it was reinstalled recently CT was totally silent. There are countless situations where CT is hyper vocal when negatives happen to SL while it goes silent whenever SL has positive outcomes. I don’t consider this as unbiased journalism. If the GOSL decide to block CT in SL I won’t be surprised as this kind of reporting is harmful to race relationship which the Gov. is trying hard to maintain.

    • 0

      “Tamils who post in this forum appears mostly separatist diaspora trying to spread disharmony between the two races.”
      My only consolation is CT is not read by Sinhala masses so that Sinhala people may not form the opinion that all Tamils hate them.
      Sometimes, particularly in anti Rajapaksa arena CT really goes beyond decent limits. Remember Panama Accounts episode? Everyone was anxiously waiting for the real names to appear. CT was one of the first outlets to publish the list- the title carried a photograph of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa!


    • 3

      “Tamils who post in this forum appears mostly separatist diaspora trying to spread disharmony between the two races. “
      This statement clearly shows that Sinhalese cannot understand the true meaning of equality, justice and rights of the people. Seperatism is one of the means of strengthening the relationship between different cultures, mentalities, religions, races when the ruling power create and implement policies that are biased to favour one race, one religion, one language, one culture undermining other races, other religions, other languages and other cultures. What happened in Sri Lanka since 1948 is exactly that. Policies and institutions were created and implemented intentionally change the demographic patterns in the North East where Tamil speaking people are in majority than Sinhalese, language and educational policies are created to destroy the economic, educational and cultural of Tamil speaking people, state institutions were completely mono ethnicised (99% Sinhala armed and police forces), state sponsored violence against civilians (1958, 1977, 1983). Tamils had negotiations, agreements and promises but nothing implemented but each times ended with massacres. There was no justice to the Tamils, Sinhalese are not willing to share the power, Sinhalese are not prepared to allow justice to work, there was no safety to Tamils, what is the alternative? This forced Tamils to move from equality to sharing the power and then seperation. There was no Tamil diaspora when the call for separation came locally. Tamils and Sinhalese were living peacefully together in 1956. Sinhalese were taught in the North East before 1956. Who chased Tamils from Colombo in 1958? Who chased Tamils from Colombo and Upcountry in 1983? Who butchered Tamils in Anudharapura in 1977? LTTE was the product of Sinhalese.

      • 3

        Sri Lanka in its infancy in 1948 had a totally different mentality towards its social and cultural environment. Sinhalese politicians were fighting each other to gain power. What is the best weapon to do so? You are right, differences in culture, mentalities, religions, races etc. were used against each other. Tamils being about 5% of the population, what do you expect from those politicians? Give Tamils all they ask ignoring Sinhalese the majority of whom were marginalized under the British? Look how the north was leading with educational institutions. What educational opportunities did the Sinhalese outside of Colombo or Kandy have? I am sure the Tamils were neglected while developing the Sinhalese areas.

        I have stated many times most violence against the Tamils started due to some anti-state activity of few Tamils. Minorities in every country have issues. Blacks in the US went through much worse scenarios than you are describing. Thousands have been killed by the authorities. However, they never opted terrorism against the gov. With patience they won all of their rights. But if you look closely they are still discriminated. Will that ever end?? I don’t think so.
        I don’t know where you live, but Tamils in Sri lanka both in the North and South are living in peace. I don’t buy this discrimination picture some Tamils (mostly diaspora) paint. Tamils in the south are wealthier than most Sinhalese and are engaged in top professions and businesses. Many live in wealthy neighborhoods that are exclusive. How can these Tamils do so if they are subjected what you describe? Most complainers are either diaspora of lazy Tamils who have no determination to improve their lives.

        • 1

          Eusense, Your seemingly logical response to Ajith drew my attention. Knowing Ajith, thru this Forum, I know that he is more than capable of demolishing all your arguments. I step in, to draw your attention, to the erroneous positions and contradictions I noticed.
          …. Tamils being about 5% of the population(!). — Where did the other 10% go.
          …. ignoring Sinhalese the majority of whom were marginalised under the British? — Were Tamils in any way responsible for any of the tactics the British employed. Why take it on Tamils. Why rob Tamils the benefit of their perseverance, dedication and hard work. Remember, our lands were not fertile; our sweat was our ‘rivers’. We had to enter schools.
          …. most violence against the Tamils started due to some anti-state activity of few Tamils. — I have never heard this before. I never read any of your comments, previously. Which anti-state activities were they engaged in?
          …. Minorities in every country have issues. — I am with you there. But, why do you wish to dismiss the many steps the majority communities in those countries adopt to ease the disadvantages to the minorities. Can you quote a single that Ceylon/Sri Lanka did.
          …. Blacks in the US went through much worse. — I’ll set aside that debate for now. But, how do you have the heart to equate Blacks in the US to Tamil of Ceylon, and compare!
          …. 1) With patience they won all of their rights. 2) But if you look closely they are still discriminated. — You are confusing me. Both the statements cannot be true at the same time, can they be.
          …. Tamils in Sri lanka both in the North and South are living in peace. — That is news to me. Perhaps your understanding of peace is different to what is generally accepted!

        • 1

          Eusense, please state the truth. You say “Sinhalese were marginalised under British. Look how north was leading with educational institutions”. For your information British built only one school in Srilanka – Royal College. It is the missionaries, first Methodist, then American and Anglican followed by Catholic, Buddhist and Hindu who built the schools and not British government. At the time schools were being built in Jaffna schools were being built in other areas too. Richmond College Galle is 200 years old and only two schools in Jaffna – Jaffna Central and Jaffna College and one in Batticaloa – Methodist Central are of the same vintage. Tamils welcomed missionaries and if Sinhalese did not do so it is their problem and Tamils should not be blamed for it. It is the British who ruined the Jaffna economy as during their rule Srilankan economy was centred around the plantation sector, and for Tamils to be competitive they had to take up to educating themselves. If the British did not merge Tamil Kingdom with rest of Srilanka, then there would not have been any inroad by Tamils to take a larger share in the government employment available to Sinhalese. British favoured Sinhalese, mainly in the low country in other ways such as trade permits which made Sinhalese not to have any keenness for education and state employment.

        • 1

          I am sure you have completely lost your sense now and come up with new facts, new theories in your desperate attempt to defend your case. First of all please study the para below before I come to other lies you said.
          I don’t know whether you have heard of Department for Census and statistics of Ceylon (Srilanka). This department collects population statistics every 10 years. You can get national, provincial population by ethnicity. These are not estimates. Population information is available from 1881. For example, according to 1981 Census, Sinhalese accounted for 74%, Srilankan Tamils 13%, Srilankan Moors 7%, Indian Tamils 5%. According to 1881, Sinhalese 67%, Srilankan Tamils 25% (includes Indian Tamils), Srilankan Moors 7% . According to Census the population of the Eastern province in 1881:59% Tamils,34% Muslims,5% Sinhalese. Census 1946: 49% Tamils, 39% Muslims, 8% Sinhalese Census 1981:42% Tamils, 39% Muslims, 25% Sinhalese.
          Northern Province: 1881:96%Tamils, 3% Muslims, 0.5% Sinhalese.
          1946:95% Tamils, 3% Muslims, 0.5% Sinhalese
          1981: 92% Tamils, 5% Muslims, 3% Sinhalese.
          If you compare the population distribution by Region, only in Eastern Province and Northern province, the popultion by ethnicity changed dramatically.

    • 1

      Eusense, the true picture about the relationship between Tamils and Sinhalese in Srilanka is difficult to assess as both Tamils and Sinhalese will be diplomatic in giving their feelings bar a few in both races. Tamils will nave nothing against the Sinhalese if they allow Tamils to live in dignity and safety as first class citizens without any interference by the Sinhalese. Similarly Sinhalese will have nothing against Tamils if Tamils accept Sinhala hegemony and sole ownership of the land and live as second class citizens being satisfied with whatever given by them to Tamils. From this it is clear that though there appears to be some form of cordial relationship at the surface, at the deep level there is no such thing. Sinhalese want Tamils only for socialising and nothing else. How many Sinhalese have felt sorry for Tamils being discriminated in education and employment and being subjected to violence resulting in loss of lives and properties. If you hold a referendum amongst Tamils for independence you will see the real relationship between them. Except a handful of fair minded Sinhalese, the rest do not want any sort of reconciliation with Tamils on the basis of Justice, despite pressure from international community. For the start CT should publish articles about the true ancestry of Srilanka including archaeological. geological and genetic proof to denounce Sinhala racist propaganda.

  • 1

    “If there’s anything that can aggravate a social ill beyond its limits, it’s ambivalence.”
    I added this to my collection of valuable quotes.

  • 5

    “”That is how totalitarian dictatorships work. And to an extent, that is also how democracies work.”
    In democracies intelligent people do not vote because there are block votes of stupids for humbugs.
    This compilation of paragraphs upon paragraphs based on mahavamsa breeding is blossoming into a treatise know as satanic verses in present day culture. As kids in Asia we knew money was surreal and barter was the in thing similarly we speak of feeling the truth than thinking the truth.
    Do you think to know if you are hungry??
    Stop writing sleeping pills and change your subject into something like make in Lanka or better go plough the field and your eureka moment may dawn.

  • 0

    Good piece

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