25 September, 2020

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An Era Of Confused Symbolisms

By Ravi Perera

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 .

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    Trincomalee will always remind me of the five young students gunned down on the beach by the armed forces. Their blood stains the fair beach of that town. No justice in this wonder of asia. The UN charter reduced to a rag.

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      The inhuman President refuses to publish the report on the killing of Trinco5 or Muttur17 or many other cases…. They give promises in election manifesto to sound like good humans and then when elected do the reverse of the promises in the election manifesto: his promise was to remove the Executive Presidency but went on to maximise the exceutive Presidency !

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    Quite right: No army should have as its sole purpose the suppression or destruction of its own people. In Sri Lanka the massive army’s sole purpose is to protect and grow the Rajapakse Family Dictatorship and stop regime change since the LTTE has been destroyed.
    The post-war militarization and huge military budget and army men working in UDA is a perversion similar to the impeachment of CJ and distorts the military mandate and discipline. Postwar militarization certainly is nothing to boast about on independence day! The VULGAR independence day military display is symbolic of the ROTTON Rajapakse regime’s PARANOIA, fears of regime change and the rotten state of affairs in the island. The barbaric killer and harasser of journalists Gota the white van goon loves displaying military might to intimidate citizens from seeking regime change. Today the sole purpose of the massive military and military budge is to intimidate civilians who want regime change to stop the corruption that the Rajapakse Family represents and has spread like a virus in Lanka.

    Indeed the massive over-sized military which is supposed to protect against EXTERNAL threats, in Sri Lanka had been used ONLY against Lankan citizens. This is an abuse of the purpose of the military in any country. The military will be used again when the Commonwealth of Nations, aka. Commonwealth Circus of Clowns takes place in November in the Rajapakse Dictators homeland. :Lankan folk should go on the streets and protest The Commonwealths Kamalesh Sharma’s visit and support to the Rajapakse dictatorship on the 10 the of Feb. when Sharma is in Colombo to shake Rajapass’s hand and Check out arrangements for the Commonwealth of Clowns meet in November!

    Mahinda Rajapakse epitomizes the Curse of Kuveni in Lanka and until that family is rooted out the country continues to be at war with itself.

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    Politicians dabble in symbolism because they perceive that there is a demand for it by the voting public. They will wear antlers and hop on one foot if they believe that it will be viewed favorably at election time. Politicians who have donned western/modern/business attire have not fared well in south Asia. This symbolism has notions of independence from foreign domination, native culture, religion etc.

    In short as long as there is a demand for symbolism, confusing or otherwise, the politicians will supply it.

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    Ravi ,
    Thanks for another thought provoking article. Symbols are becoming manifestly visible and incongruous, as the substance in our lives recedes. Symbols have become patently vulgar, as a result of the vulgarity of those who use them. Symbolic rituals have also lost their significance due to scietific and technical advances and the incomprehension of the meaning behind them. God himself/ herself and the symbols/statues that were designed to represent that principle, is rendered an idiotic, corrupt and principle-less entity, by the rituals most of us practice to propitiate our deliberate and premeditated sins. If we are ready to cheat our Gods, what does it take to assume that the people we rule and are around us can be misled?

    I frequently ask my fellow Hindus, is there any meaning pouring hundreds of pots of milk on the statues of our Gods, when children are starving around us? This too in a religion which believes that the God- principle is within everything – animate and inanimate- in this world! There are many such instances in all religions and cultures around us. We pray for divine help to be even successful in murderous wars! The priesthood was in the forefront of crusades!

    Even our president is hoping to propitiate the Gods / the God-principle through his contemplated visits to Thirupathi and Buddhagaya in India. Incidentally, is a very popular temple where even bandits pledge a part of their loot, while seeking blessings of Lord Venketeswara for success in their contemplated mission!

    May God shed light on us and overlook our trespasses !

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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    A correction: incidentally, The Thirupathy temple—

    Dr.R.N

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    What is practiced by the majority of Sri Lanka is ‘Symbolism and Ritualism’ not Buddhism as it is meant to be.

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    Now the Sri Lankan flag and the mere mention of Sri Lanka symbolizes brutality lies and war crimes. Please believe me I am a Sri Lankan I don’t lie

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    A deep article. When we think about it I suppose Sri Lanka is in this situation because we are a certain kind of people with a certain attitude and way of thinking. Unless we change fundamentally I doubt the situation will change much. We need more writers like this who can go behind the façade and make the people of this country think about these things.

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    Those days the LTTE ruled Trincomalee and now Sri lankan Army is ruling it. This is no surprise. It may turn the other way round.As for symbolisms, it depends on the minds of each person.The two brothers of President Rajapaksa is dressing in a similar way. All three have one mind, I suppose.

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