By Ravi Perera –
That we Sri Lankans are given to heavy symbolism is a fact that none can deny. From the obligatory lighting of an oil lamp to symbolize the illumination of the dark ( although a modern electric bulb would give much more light) at almost every function including even sporting events to the politicians dress of choice, so called national dress, a sparkling white kurta top and a sarong to symbolize the purity of a life of service. This dress of the politicians is also said to represent his identification with the masses. Looking around at public gatherings we realize that this idea of the common dress may well be a fiction. The truth seems to be that the common man’s dress is only worn by uncommon people. In recent times we can think of the likes of SWRD Bandaranaike, JR Jayawardena, R Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake and Mahinda Rajapaksa as those who chose to wear this dress, particularly on public occasions. As long as the fiction of that symbol is believed in, it does not matter that hardly anybody else wears such clothes.
But the symbolisms prevalent in our public/social life are not based on “truths”. The legitimacy of the symbols does not come from its approximation to reality. They only seem to represent social attitudes and sensibilities which find acceptance among a certain way of looking at things. So in the middle of a bright tropical day we will light a lamp, not to dispel the darkness without, but as would inevitably be argued to dispel the “darkness within” those gathered there.
Of course, some of our symbolic gestures are just play acting .For example say China gifts one hundred tractors to Sri Lanka. We will invariably organize a ‘handing over” ceremony at which the Minister in charge will drive a tractor for a short distance, as if confirming our grasp of the purpose for which the machine was built. This symbolic drive by the Minister does not mean that our agriculture productivity per acre is going to improve. Even the enactors of the symbolic gestures are not thinking that far. It is the gesture that satisfies them. In almost every public or private function here many such symbolic acts are performed. At certain functions we see fresh milk boiled to overflow, again finding a symbol between the reaction of the substance to heat and a wished for prosperity. Despite decades of effort we are yet to find a method of achieving self sufficiency in the dairy industry.
As expected, the 65 anniversary of our independence from the British was celebrated in Trincomalee, the famed port town on the east coast of Sri Lanka, with the accustomed pomp and pageantry. Undoubtedly much thought was given to the significance of the place and manner of the celebration. Before 2009, when the LTTE was vanquished finally, it would have been unthinkable to stage such a function in that part of the country, which was then deep enemy territory. What was impossible only three years back, has become a reality which can be appreciated both as a living experience as well as symbolically. Future historians may well mark these years as a high point in the nation’s tumultuous post independence evolution.
In Trincomalee too, as has been the practice in recent years, a good amount of the symbolism was around the military, in the display of men and hardware of war. Given the fact that the defeating of the terrorist group LTTE was only achieved by overpowering them in the battlefield there is justification for it. With such an intransigent enemy it was inevitable that finally the only option was a military solution .The stubbornness of the challenger forced a solution which was extremely costly in terms of both lives and material. It is that costly overcoming that we celebrate symbolically every year.
But the picture is not perfect.
As we all know, Sri Lankans are not known for their martial qualities. It is not for strength or fire power that the world acknowledges us. Any mention of the country off-shore inevitably invokes references to easy going people, tea, balmy beaches, cricket, troubled situations, economic refugees and even the tsunami of 2004. We have not militarily fought any foreign force and given the realities of geographical power balance in the region will never be called upon to do so. But since independence our armed forces have been brought out to fight three distinct “wars”. In 1971 they were jolted by the sudden insurrection of the JVP which, after terrifying a complacent nation for a few weeks, soon petered out. The second insurrection by the JVP/DJV (1983-1989) was a far more prolonged and brutal affair during which the nation virtually hemorrhaged. Much of the activities of the JVP/DJV were justified by them on the basis of patriotism. That insurrection too was very brutally put down by the armed forces.
However, the challenge posed by the assorted Tamil terrorist groups, particularly the LTTE, was of a different magnitude altogether. Lasting nearly four decades, the war was most times sporadic and of low intensity, punctuated occasionally by large scale battles which seemed to have ended in stalemates. The seemingly endless and intractable challenge posed by the LTTE nearly unhinged the Sri Lankan power elite. A mere tracing of the empty rhetoric, emotional responses, gut reactions and so called initiatives taken by Colombo in the forty odd years of the war will show us the panic and confusion that dictated policy. Finally, when the government decided to fight all out, the much larger and better equipped army won.
So the “enemy “has always been sons of the soil. It is young men and women born in this country, and born mainly since independence, who have taken to arms against the government. On both sides of the trenches we had Sri Lankans firing at each other. It is often said that in a democracy there is no need to take to arms as we have the option of changing governments peacefully by the exercise of the ballot. Obviously something is wrong here.
At the independence parade when we observe the armed strength on display, we cannot ignore the reality that this force had been used only against those of the country. As a symbol of strength that picture cannot be correct. No army should have as its sole purpose the suppression or destruction of its own people. Its function is not to terrify its own. This is a symbol in error.
Who is to be blamed for the confused symbolisms of our era ? We cannot erase from our minds the picture of those generously proportioned men, in their uncommon “common man’s “dress, with their self-satisfied smirks, glaring at us from every edifice. To a large extent it is they, who have guided and shaped our evolution. They represent many of the things that have happened and also gone wrong in this country. If they symbolize the nation, they also surely symbolize a poverty of spirit, culture and above all of philosophy .