17 May, 2022


Archaeology Politics & Prejudice Clouding Vistas Of Prosperity & Splendour  

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The appointment of a Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, with its ethnically exclusive but otherwise oddly mixed composition, has created political ripples not only in Sri Lanka but also outside the country. Veteran Indian journalist, PK Balachandran, has already written two commentaries on the matter and both have appeared in the Indian and Sri Lankan media. On Friday (June 12), The Island carried a superbly inclusive article by Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan on the richly blended Buddhist and Hindu heritages of the Eastern Province. Add to them the Islamic and Muslim cultural additions over nearly a thousand years, and five hundred years of colonial accretions, there is much heritage to cherish and preserve in Lanka’s East. We can only hope that Dr. Chandrahasan’s enlightened appeal to the Task Force to be inclusive in its outreaches and to engage the widely available expert resources in its explorations, will not fall on insensitive or untrained ears. 

There are also other nagging questions about the need for a task force on archaeology at this time of all times, and about the cultural appropriateness of a Presidential Task Force mechanism for preserving cultural heritage. It is not the love of heritage and its preservation that appears to be driving the task force agenda. It is the agenda of ultra-nationalism and electoral calculations to use ultra-nationalists as political subcontractors for the election campaign that seems to be at work instead. The composition of the Task Force is indicative of archaeology politics and prejudices. The Task Force excludes not only Tamil and Muslim archaeologists but also renowned Sinhalese archaeologists. The Director-General of Archaeology, Dr. Senarath Bandara Dissanayake, who is on the Task Force, must be finding it rather lonely there – surrounded by men of the cloth and men of the uniform. And for scholarly presence on the Task Force, there is Chairman Dilith Jayaweera of Derana, whose self-confessed qualification is that he has been interested in archaeology from his childhood. By that token, every 20+ year old Sri Lankan should be allowed to play in the national cricket team at least once. Why not a task force to do that? 

Bulldozing Archaeology

The apparent purpose of the Task Force is to honour the President’s commitment in his “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” Manifesto, to celebrate Sri Lanka’s “historical heritage” that “depicts its pride and identity,” and to fulfill the “bounden duty to properly conserve them for future generations.” But the language and the message in the manifesto is quite innocuous and inclusive in contrast to the geographical focus, ethnic exclusion, and aggressive approach in the appointment of the Task Force in its name. The relevant section in the manifesto appears in Chapter 9 (A Righteous, Disciplined and Law-Abiding Society), under the heading, “History, Archaeology and National Heritage.” Hardly a sign of priority, and there is no mention of Archaeology or Heritage in the Ten Key Policies listed in Chapter 1. 

In Chapter 9, there are four action-items (bullet points) under Archaeology and Heritage: to not allow destruction or vandalism of heritage sites and to protect them by all means including amendments to “legal ordinances”, a co-ordination program, and efficient regulations; establish a “Digital Archeological Encyclopedia,” and restructure the Central Cultural Fund; provide basic tourist amenities without endangering heritage sites; provide proper training to tour guides to “prevent wrong information being disseminated to tourists.” 

None of the above action items are of an urgent nature that require a Presidential Task Force to undertake them in the midst of a global pandemic and economic shutdown, not to mention the non-emergency national curfew. And all of them could have been left to the Department of Archaeology, one of the oldest (established in 1890) and well-respected government departments. It has a professional reputation that extends beyond Sri Lanka. It has a well-established Exploration and Documentation Division that mandates Archaeological Impact Assessments to be undertaken for any development project on a parcel of land exceeding 0.25 hectares. If the department is well funded and its independence is not overridden by powerful politicians for politically motivated construction projects, there should not be any danger to Sri Lanka’s heritage resources due to human action. 

The new Task Force is mistakenly instructed to take a different, pro-active, even aggressive approach – “to identify sites of archaeological importance in the Eastern Province and implement an appropriate program for the management of archaeological heritage, by conserving and restoring such identified sites and antiquities.” To that end, the Task Force is empowered to “identify the extent of land that should be allocated for such archaeological sites, and take necessary measures to allocate them properly and legally.” This is euphemism for state land grab in the name of heritage. And that is hardly the practice in Anthropology anywhere, now, or ever. One does not preserve heritage by bulldozing away living communities to create new vistas of past glories. That would be no different from clearing slums in Colombo to erect condominium towers, some of which are standing half-built, half-tall and fully empty in the Colombo skyline. 

Prof. Jagath Weerasinghe of Kelaniya University, the renowned Archaeologist, who was interviewed by Balachandran for his articles, not only disapproves the bulldozing approach to create archaeological sites while ignoring the living needs of local communities, but he has also recalled how it took the celebrated Archaeologist Shiran  Deraniyagala (Director of General of Archaeology, 1992-2001), 30 years to win over Sinhalese farmers who would not part with their land, and to get their consent to carry out the Ibbankatuwa archaeological excavation in Dambulla. The famers “even threatened to kill anyone who dared to touch their land.” Is the new Task Force capable of such professional discipline and patience in dealing with not only Sinhalese farmers and landowners, but also their Tamil and Muslim counterpart brethren in the Eastern Province? 

On the contrary, if things go out of hand there is the possibility of Ayodhya-like disputes, like the fiasco in Uttar Pradesh, India, flaring up in the Eastern Province, though not on the same scale as in India. Local communities will be pitted against one another in disputes over whose sacred shrine came first on any particular site. According to Peradeniya academics Tudor Silva and Shahul H. Hasbullah, interviewed by Balachandran, Muslim farmers close to a controversial archaeological site at Digavapi in Oluvil, are already fearful of losing their lands because of the archaeological project. The fusion of ultra-nationalism and unprofessional archaeology is a dangerous process. It breeds intolerance and hatred, and it emanates, as Silva and Hasbullah said to Balachandran, not from “the ethnically heterogeneous periphery, but … some members of the urban elite with a rather superficial and partial understanding of the reality at the ground level.” The ultra-nationalist elites “use their influence over mass media and bureaucratic, political and legal machineries to reconstruct what they perceive as the legitimate past.” And thus, the sixth Task Force under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was born. 

Genocide Rhetoric

A parallel development is the recent media reports about genocidal allegations being raised in the Canadian legislatures by Tamil Canadian parliamentarians. The two developments – archaeological task force and genocidal allegations, are not connected but they have the potential to merge into a common headache for the government, or collide with each other in the public domain, especially the social media, in Sri Lanka and among rival Sinhala and Tamil groups in the diaspora. All of this will bring much delight to pseudo internet scholars, who would not have been able to put pen to paper in the old days of higher standards, but who are now assured of having many a field day in the social media over archaeology and genocide in equal measure.  

The general backdrop to these developments includes the government’s withdrawal from the sponsorship of the UNHRC resolution in Geneva, the pardoning of military servicemen found guilty by the courts, the celebration of the 2009 war victory with renewed gusto after the five year yahapalana interregnum, and the silencing of the National Anthem in the Tamil Language, the ‘reasonably’ official language spoken by the Tamils and the Muslims. Add to these the backlashes against innocent Muslims after the Easter Sunday bombings last year, the continued targeting of Muslim professionals, and the insensitive rebuffing of Muslim funeral rites during the current pandemic.    

Outside Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan Tamil groups organized counter commemorations of the end of the war with online events and including high-profile participations by former UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Navaneethan Pillai; former US State Department Assistant Secretary and now Congressman, Tom Malinowski; and an Australian Senator in Sydney. The International Crisis Group took direct aim at the government over “its intention to rule without parliamentary oversight for the first time in the country’s modern history, potentially sparking a serious constitutional crisis.” That was before the crisis was averted by the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear about it.  

These developments prompted last week’s (June 4) Sunday Times political column to comment on the absence within the government of a “Quick Reaction Team” to deal with external nuisances. There is no shortage of quick-reaction Task Forces within the government, however, and the President was quick on the draw and added two more Task Forces on the morrow of the Supreme Court decision, to bring their total number to six.  The Task Force on Archaeological Heritage is the sixth Task Force and, so far, the last one. There might be an urge by ultra-nationalists to appoint yet another Task Force to deal exclusively with external nuisances like Navaneethan Pillai.  

Whatever actions the government may choose take to counter the post-diplomatic activities of Navaneethan Pillai and others, it is worth noting that she, or the American Congressman and former State Department Assistant Secretary, may not have participated in last month’s commemorative events if the government had not withdrawn its sponsorship of the Geneva Resolution. I am not suggesting that letting Pillai have the license to speak publicly is too high a price to pay for the withdrawal in Geneva. Rather, the government must be prepared to face the withdrawal effects no matter from where they might come. And they are not going to be limited to speeches by retired diplomats.  

Left to themselves, the forces of Sinhala ultra-nationalism and archaeology politics, and the Tamil diaspora groups making genocidal allegations, can keep going at each other. The two cannot stop one another; nor can anybody else. The question for President Rajapaksa and his Administration is whether he should be part of this clash and get caught up in that vortex. So far, he has taken his stand on the side of Sinhala ultra-nationalism and he is not pretending to be a neutral President. Will he continue with this partiality? What will be its effect on his presidency, and his ability to do anything positively good even if it is only for the Sinhalese? 

In the short term, it will win for the SLPP the parliamentary election with or without a two-thirds majority. In the medium to long term, it will not be of any use to the President if the economic slump continues and the recovery turns out to be slow as it is now expected to be. The US Federal Reserve (Central Bank) said just that last Wednesday, contradicting the American President and the stock market. Even the US stock market, after rising spectacularly earlier, fell precipitously on Thursday in the wake of increasing Covid-19 cases in hitherto unaffected areas in the US. The OECD and the IMF are predicting the same for the developed and the global economies. Covid-19 is now hitting hard Brazil and, too close for comfort, next door India. The times are still extraordinarily uncertain and people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. Hardly the time for a national adventure in archaeology.  

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 8

    What won’t this despicable man do to win the elections? Digging the earth for racist reasons, just to please his racist base, at the expense of the minority, who once again, the Rajapaksa’s are making scapegoats of. All to please the saffron robed Sinhala supremacists, and win the Buddhist vote. Whatever happened to winning on their achievements and merits, and winning fairly and squarely? We have come down to monkey tricks, discriminating the Muslims, and making sure the Sinhala supremacists are kept gratified. The Rajapaksa’s are back to their old ways again.

    • 2

      “The Rajapaksa’s are back to their old ways again”. This is news to me! Were they ever away from their old ways, to be ‘back again’?

  • 10

    This Presidential Task Force Team for Archaeological Heritage Management has been given a licence for destruction with Gota’s evil political motive and is something similar to the Muslim invasion in India.

  • 8

    This is a cunning move by Gota to divide ethnic communities. Do not fall for it.

    He knows history is contested. He also knows how certain ethnic groups react. He is playing that card to dissolve his opposition. Leave out this matter for now. Otherwise the only beneficiary will be Rajapaksas and other racists at the election.

  • 8

    The high handed act of creating a Presidential Task Force Team for Archaeological Heritage Management will lead to unpleasantness among the Sri Lankans. One should not forget Lord Buddha’s noble teachings: ‘Discussions are always better than arguments, because an argument is to find out who is right, and a discussion is to find out what is right’. Merely accompanying Buddhist monks is insufficient. I am wondering whether Gota is a real Buddhist.

    • 3

      What is the point in discussing with descendants of ‘Para’ people who do not appreciate the value of Sinhala Buddhist Heritage sites in North and East which is the cradle of more than 2000 years old Sinhala Buddhist Civilization. The attitude of ‘Para’ people who occupy the land of Sinhalayo is ‘THEY ARE NOT OURS’, so why not vandalize them and build ‘Kovils/Mosques on top of them to prevent excavations by Sinhala archaeologists.

      ‘Discussions are always better than arguments, because an argument is to find out who is right, and a discussion is to find out what is right’.

  • 2

    P. K. Balachandran, the racist Malayalee interviewed one Muslim and all others Sinhalese. He did know Professor Pathmanathan but didn’t talk to him. The purpose of the interview was to put it on Tamils the racism. He writes it is Sinhalese are blaming on Tamils as they are people claiming the Sinhalese’ land. Any place’s names sounding the Thipa Kal Viharai are Sangam Time Tamil words. For Ex. Word “Addalai”(-Chaenai) (the raised place where the Guards sitting on) was long replaced by “ParaN or Uri”. How did these name change took place from Sinhala, a language came into exist in 6th century, to Sangam Tamil when only Muslims living there now? Just only 400 years ago the Kandy Tamil King gave those lands to Muslims. Before that, Kandy was ruled to known History by Sinhalese Kings! The real story of Satatissa was he too was a Tamil King like his brother and he built the Viharai in Tamil name as Thipa Kal(Temple Lamp Stone) Viharai. Anyway British have done justice by allocating 600 Acres to Viharai. The land is fully covering anything related to Temple and the rests are farmlands. So there is no point in asking Muslim Farmers to hand over the farmlands which they have occupied for some time though Muslim politicians doesn’t want to talk about this until King has assigned them all the ministries they want, alter the election is over.

  • 2

    Further King Senathi raja was not aware of the Viharai as he never had visited there. For him, it was only jungle, so he let the Muslims to occupy it. Any stone writing found in that area around 1st century is in Tamil. They say their claim was in “second lost stone”. That story tells Sinhala Archeologist has been throwing Tamil writing in the ocean.

    In Trinco, they say from 3 BCE there was a Jain temple. Buddhism had to be brought to Lankawe with Thunder and storms to control the natives by Buddha and the son of a lion to cheat the queen. But, then how did Jainism came without much all those fanfare to natives? Why the Jains didn’t name Trinco with their name? If Jainism came to Lankawe, then it too should have come from Tamil Nadu. Then why there is confrontation of the name Trincomalee? Now let us take look at the Pali names in North East. Are they from Tamil Jains or Tamils Buddhists? Leave that all; what was the temple there before Jains built their one? If the Buddhists demolished Jain’s temple and had built theirs in that place, why Hindus should not build there, their temple? The one single answer to all these is P. K. Balachandran is an anti-Tamil Malayalee, he started this easy only to justify King’s 6th Task Force.

  • 4

    Rajan Philips,
    What qualifications you have to decide whether they are of an urgent nature or not?

    While the Government was fully occupied with handling the pandemic a group of Mus Lings started encroaching land belong to Muhudumaha Viharaya and the monk was threatened by these encroachers. That is why taking action became urgent. During ‘Yahapalana’ regime encroaching temple land went on but those don kees did not take any action. Although you say all of them could have been left to the Department of Archaeology, one of the oldest (established in 1890) and well-respected government departments, they too did not take any action.

  • 7

    “Hardly the time for a national adventure in archaeology”.
    There is no more appropriate time than this, to undertake this adventure.
    Gotler messed up the Economy by
    1. Reducing and eliminating rightfully so the indirect taxes which is a curse we imported from the west that burdens the masses, but without increasing the direct taxes to balance the Government revenue. He is printing money causing inflation that will negate the benefit that would have accrued to the poorer section by removal of indirect taxes.
    2. He messed up the Economy by imposing total lock down which is the only brute force method known by War Criminal who led the Corona Task force, unnecessarily damaging the Economy and hitting hard the poorer section of the Society. Becsuse of His mad.love with China and for dissolution of Parliament, did.not quarantine the foreigners especially the Chinese in late January early February.
    3. His cronies to make money, he is embarking corrupt Tenders for Driving license, ticketing system with.some descent professionals resigning before 6 months of.appointment, power plant without tender

    Is there a better time than this time to have a Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalist victory and win two third majority.
    Why worry about international community that takes talking about injustices as a hobby and people like Navi Pillay who has no real power.

  • 6

    How many of you guys believe this crap?

    “The rookie Police Constable attached to the State Intelligence Service (SIS) who assisted in recovering the Rs 7.9 million robbed from the Colombo National Hospital has passed away in a motor accident.
    He had been receiving treatment at the Intensive Care Unit of the Colombo National Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries this morning”

  • 4

    Latest archaeological discovery from Sri Lanka:

    Quote “Tropical rainforests are thought to have been particularly challenging and, until recently, impenetrable by early H. sapiens. Here, we describe evidence for bow-and-arrow hunting toolkits alongside a complex symbolic repertoire from 48,000 years before present at the Sri Lankan site of Fa-Hien Lena—the earliest bow-and-arrow technology outside of Africa. As one of the oldest H. sapiens rainforest sites outside of Africa, this exceptional assemblage provides the first detailed insights into how our species met the extreme adaptive challenges that were encountered in Asia during global expansion.” Unquote

    Source: Bows and arrows and complex symbolic displays 48,000 years ago in the South Asian tropics
    VOL 6, ISSUE 24

    • 8

      A Sri Lankan friend in Australia says whenever she goes to visit a relative in a Seniors’ Home she often comes across a nearly-white gentleman in a wheelchair continuously mumbling words and phrases such as, native Sinhalayo, eternally grateful to our ‘ranaviruwos’, demala terrorists, Toiyas who make noise now coming to join the army, ‘para’ people, demala LTTE barbarians, the International Community and UNHRC are deaf and blind, demala koti have a disease called ‘Rajapakshe Cholera’, descendants of Dravida slaves, Did Rajapuka abuse your poo kaa. On and on the man mumbles. When my friend inquired from a staff member, she pointed to her head and said, ‘He has been affected.’ So it is a good thing too that on and off CT moderators disallow this man’s mumblings to tarnish the magazine’s pages. Now he seems to be getting excited about ancient Vedda artefacts.

      • 9

        Are you sure it was an elders home and not a psychiatric ward?

      • 3

        Part 1

        I cant make head or tail but will give it a try.

        1) A Sri Lankan friend in Australia says whenever she goes to visit a relative in a Seniors’ Home she often comes across a nearly-white gentleman.
        *** She was referring to a Burgher as a lot of them emigrated to Australia.
        2) in a wheelchair continuously mumbling words and phrases such as, native Sinhalayo, eternally grateful to our ‘ranaviruwos’,

        *** It sounds like referring to aborigines
        3) demala terrorists

        *** These are Freedom Fighters and I have checked my archives and I cant find any evidence LTTE driving any Burgers out of Sinkala Lanka
        4) Toiyas who make noise now coming to join the army, ‘para’ people, demala LTTE barbarians, the International Community and UNHRC are deaf and blind,
        *** This is definitely bunch of lunatics so must be Psychiatric Ward so the IQ must be very low just like Sonalis .
        5) demala koti have a disease called ‘Rajapakshe Cholera’,

        *** No it is Rajapaksa “ Leprosy” where all the private bits are falling off just like when SF was dragged by Gothas Task Force when his Genitals were damaged.

        • 3

          Part 2

          6) descendants of Dravida slaves, Did Rajapuka abuse your poo kaa. On and on the man mumbles.
          *** The mumbling was due to severe pain
          7) When my friend inquired from a staff member, she pointed to her head and said, ‘He has been affected.’
          *** This is the end product and all the inhabitants were suffering from the same symptoms.
          8) So it is a good thing too that on and off CT moderators disallow this man’s mumblings to tarnish the magazine’s pages.
          *** Sonali baby your IQ is so low you cant even figure out what is permitted and what is not permitted. Just to correct you should have either 2said CT Moderators allow ( not disallow) and the rest or CT moderators disallow “not to tarnish” the magazines pages. . With low IQ it might be all too much

    • 2

      Did Sri Lanka exist 45000 years ago?
      Was it not part of India? Why are you then crowing about South Indian technology ? You should be ashamed of yourself.

      • 1

        Don’t you remember the Champika’s lab in Florida dated the Rapist Army’s mass murder bones in Mannar to 600 years back. Who knows from which museums of a foreign country these all were stolen?

  • 6

    Mr Philips,
    Please note that your statement that Prof. Jagath Weerasinghe “recalled how it took the celebrated archaeologist Shiran Deraniyagala….30 years” to win over the villagers in Ibbankatuva when excavating there, is erroneous.
    It was not Siran who excavated at Ibbankatuva, but Senake Bandaranayake. And that was what Prof. Weerasinghe told P.K. Balachandran, but the journalist recorded the wrong name.

    When he saw the article in the paper, Jagath rang the journalist pointing out the mistake and requesting a correction but was told it was too late.

    However, when I saw the article in the Financial Times, and recalled the difficulties during the excavations in Sigiriya and Ibbankatuva, etc. (particularly during the 2nd insurgency), I felt that the record had to be corrected. I asked Mr Balachandran to please send a correction to the papers in question but he was disinclined to do so. So I emailed the FT myself requesting a correction. The editor responded at once and the paper carried it the next day.

    However, the original error has gone down on record and few will see the correction.

  • 6

    The appointment of a Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, with its ethnically exclusive but otherwise oddly mixed composition, has created political ripples not only in Sri Lanka but also outside the country.
    *** Who the hell does Gotha thinks he is to manage Tamil Culture and Heritage . The creation of the Task force is to speed up Colonisation. If allowed to continue at this pace without devolving power under 13th Amendment even Nallur will be demolished during Gothas time and what does it matter to Sumanthiran who left Point Pedro at the age of 4.
    But Sri Lanka under the onslaught of Nature ( COVID) is crumbling. Look at the evidence. Yesterday when I read the death of Rajaveeva I didn’t think much at the time but when I thought about it was written all over it was the work of the Task Force. The confirmation comes from the following. It was Independent Square a High Security Zone and how can even a Gotha Lover like Rajaweeva go there with a Gun and we are told for Jogging. Then I read one commentator saying our Police will find out. What a Joke.
    1) Mauled to Death by Loan Sharks . Result of COVID Collateral damage . 1 dead two escaped with injuries. More to follow.
    2) East Terminal to go ahead with planned consortium.

    • 5

      *** Despite Gothas promise to retain Sovereignty India is chipping away. GOSL are negotiating with Indian Government to be allowed to run Sri Lankan Airlines to Palaly. So much for Sovereignty. Empty words.

  • 6

    Yes the coming colour is no good. Gotta will control even the right to have a sexual intercourse. Why not he is the supreme commander and the military at his disposal. The military will be deployed to guard your bedtime in the night.

  • 1

    Preservation of artefacts is important to every nation. Such artefacts and ruins need be preserved and is a part of the national heritage. When I say national it transcends beyond any ethno-religious divide. There can be so many “Task Forces” but I believe the real authority lies with the Department of Archeology in these matters. Going entirely by CT articles I do not see the presence of this important stakeholder. Long before any Task Force sits down to meet and guzzles funds the Department of Archeology must present to the country of an archeological evaluation of the whole land.

  • 4

    Sonali, The man himself is an archaeological discovery. Economy is in shamble and how do people expect Rajapaksas to win election. So now we have an archaeological task was which could target both Muslims and Tamils. The same task force which burned down Jaffna Library is now brought in to preserve . There is already complaints in East, that private property being cordoned by forest official as Government property, when Wilpattu is deforested (see current aerial pictures in news paper). Wiki on Wilpattu says(last line ) it was done with the help of Basil.

  • 4

    Muslim extremists destroy all evidence of the existence of any other religions when they rule an area. Hence, there is a need to safeguard religious monuments of all the religions in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.

  • 0

    “The two developments – archaeological task force and genocidal allegations, are not connected but they have the potential to merge into a common headache….” 
    The two are not connected, but the massive uproar Tamils are making against this task force and the genocide allegations are ofcourse very connected. Namely they are connected to the totally unjust Tamil cause of falsely accusing Sinhalese and trying make a case for a separate state.
    Besides for the Tamils archaeological finds and genocide are very connected, since they are two of the most sought after wishes of the Tamils. There are small problems associated with these wishes though. Namely, Tamils being a relatively recent diaspora of Tamilnadu and wishing to find archaeological evidence from pre-historic times, won’t ever find any. The problem with the wish of genocide is that even after 11 years Tamils still haven’t been able to make a list of the genocided Tamils, and in addition to that, Tamils show almost double the population growth rate of the Sinhalese.
    So, don’t worry about our government’s headache. Its the Tamils who have a never ending headache about not getting anywhere with your bogus claims and allegations.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.