23 October, 2020

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Diasporic Tamils, Ultra-Nationalists And Thoughts On Another Vesak Day

By Tissa Jayatilaka

Tissa Jayatilaka

The  VesakPoya day has come and gone several times since May 2009 when the prolonged war with the LTTE ended. And we Sri Lankans are yet trapped in post-war rhetoric and caught up in punches and counter-punches arising from different visions of what post-war Sri Lanka ought to be. Some think that we should continue to celebrate, as the current government does, and even forever celebrate the military victory over the LTTE. Some think that the purpose of this kind of extravaganza is justified  for it gives the government the means to keep the people of this country continuously reminded of one of its most significant success stories. Is that the case or is it, as some others think, that the government wants to exploit its military triumph and use it to keep on bamboozling a gullible public to continue to support it regardless of a failing economy, increased corruption and a disastrous governance record?

Nobody would begrudge the people of Sri Lanka marking the anniversary of the  end of a long drawn out  war if  it is done with decorum and dignity. As Somapala Gunadheera has recently pointed out in a fine essay, it is salutary to recall how the great Sinhala hero, King Dutugemunu responded  to a not dissimilar war victory after he defeated his adversary the Tamil King Elara. Let us look at how The Mahavamsa( as translated by Wilhelm Geiger and quoted by Gunadheera) records  King Dutugemunu’s triumph and subsequent conduct:

King Dutthagamini proclaimed with beat of drum: ‘None but myself shall slay Elara.  When he himself, armed, had mounted the armed elephant Kandula , he pursuedElara and came to the south gate (of Anuradhapura). Near the south gate of the city the two kings fought; Elara hurled his dart, Gamani evaded it; he made his own elephant pierce (Elara’s) elephantwith his tusks and he hurled his dart at Elara; and this (latter) fell there, with his elephant. When he had thus been victorious in battle and had united Lanka under one rule he marched, with chariots, troops and beasts for riders, into the capital. In the city he caused the drum to be beaten, and when he had summoned the people from a yojana around   he celebrated the funeral rites for King Elara. On the spot where his body had fallen he burned it with the catafalque, and there did he build a monument and ordain worship. And even to this day the princes of Lanka, when they draw near to this place, are wont to silence their music, because of this worship.’ –(Stanzas 67 – 74, Ch.XXV)  

As Gunadheera points out Dutugemunu’s convocation was not a sign of triumphalism but one of honouring his political opponent whom he had slain in single combat. It is also noteworthy that Dutugemunu restricted the assembly  to those living within a circumference of one yojana(4/5th mile?). Gunadheera opines that  this limitation is a sign of the King Dutugemunu’s humility and his rejection of triumphalism. Like King Dharmasoka before him, Dutugemunu seems to have been remorseful of the loss of life caused by war. Although war had to be waged for the unification of the country, Dutugemunu was not unaffected by the loss of life that had to be incurred to achieve unification. This is how The Mahavamsa records Dutugemunu’s frame of post-war mind:

Sitting then on the terrace of the royal palace, adorned, lighted with fragrant lamps and filled with many a perfume, magnificent  with nymphs in the guise of dancing-girls, while he rested on his soft and fair couch, covered with costly draperies, he, looking back upon his glorious victory, great though it was, knew no joy, remembering that  thereby was wrought the destruction of millions(of beings). – (Stanzas 101- 103, Chapter XXV)

The relevant issue in this context is not whether or not King Elara could be compared with Prabhakaran, but whether the response of our political leadership may be compared with that of King Dutugemunu. Crude displays of military might and cheap political speeches only make a mockery of what needs to be done. The supreme sacrifice made by our soldiers and that made by those who opposed  the state both deserve commemoration, however misguided one feels the Tamil Tigers may have been.We  need to never forget that those who died or were maimed are  all citizens of Sri Lanka. We also need to bear in mind that it is our collective failure as a country that led to two horrible bloodlettings in recent memory- – the southern insurgency of 1971 and its second coming in 1987- 1989 and the northern rebellion  that began in the 1970s and intensified  through the 1980s. Human beings, however misguided they may be,  do not resort to war risking death and destruction unless they are reduced to absolute desperation. And, as we well know, there are no winners or losers in a war. We all lose as a consequence of Man’s inhumanity to Man.

The fact of the issue, no matter what other explanation we may come up with for Sri Lanka’s failure to evolve into a modern nation state, is that we have not been able to keep our multi-ethnic polity contented and safe after regaining our political independence in 1948. It is Sri Lanka’s inability to make each of its citizens secure in the knowledge  thathe/she is equal before the law of the land and that each of us has the same rightsand obligations regardless of our ethnicity that is at the heart of our enduring national problem. Sri Lanka is a state dominated by members of its numerical Sinhala majority. Sri Lanka is thus a country,   not a nation. For a country to become a nation, its populace must form a cohesive and integral whole; must be able to bind together in such a manner as to be indivisible. All citizens of the coutry should bear allegiance to an ethos that is all-embracing and indissolubly Sri Lankan.  We have yet to achieve this goal of becoming a nation. In this regard all of us  citizens, and all of our political leaders that we have elected to office over the years are responsible for our failure as a people.

In thesedays of great scarcity, when the state is seeking to scrape the bottom of the monetary barrel,  to parade a military victory earned at such massive human cost is morally ugly as it is financially reckless.   Road closures for rehearsals made the chaos of the morning commute to work more horrendous than usual. The inconvenience was massive and, if the powers-that- be look at the CCTV cameras they have installed in the different parts of the city, they will see the acute frustration and disgust on the faces of  the citizens who commute to work and back to earn an honest living sans military escorts to pave the way for them. The best alternative to this unseemly parading of triumphalism is that recommended by the LLRC which called for a separate event on the National Independence Day  to remember ALL those who died during the war. The LLRC further called for a joint declaration by all political parties to do all they can to ensure that the kind of bloodletting we suffered during the war against the LTTE will never  again occur in our country. I suggest that we also include those who died during the southern insurrections  at this special event to remember our war dead.

Of course,   the government and its supporters will seek to vilify those of us who do not see eye to eye with their idea of a commemoration. Our refusal to acquiesce in this exercise in political self-glorification will be (mis)interpreted as anti-national and unpatriotic. Newspaper editors suffering from Napoleonic  and other more massive complexes will defame and distort. But the discerning citizen will see through these farcical theatrics of politicians and their hangers on. He/she will acknowledge thatto question dominant views, subject them to our intelligent scrutiny and then respond meaningfully to them is a duty we owe to our fellow-sufferers on life’s complex journey, as exhorted by the supreme human being whose birth, life and death we commemorate as we mark another VesakPoya in a few days.

Way too many of us who subscribe to the tenets of Buddhist philosophy tend merely to pay lip service to them. If we truly believe in metta,karuna  mudita and upekka,  the freedom of thought and enquiry as outlined in the  Kalama Sutta,  and above all for today’s purposes, the concept of equality that Buddhism seeks to teach those of us willing and able to learn, then there is no basis whatsoever for the majority of Sri Lankans who are followers of the Buddha dhamma to behave the way we have done and are doing today. To be certain, the Buddha by means of his spiritual emphasis on equality, was opposing the iniquitous caste system and the social discrimination that prevailed in his time in India, but his teachings on equality of all human beings are  also equally applicable to discrimination on grounds of ethnicity. According to Buddhist philosophy then the rights of all human beings must be protected. No one community or group has special rights that others do not or cannot enjoy. All of us are afraid of punishment, moreso when such punishment is unjust and uncalled for.  Buddisht philosophy reminds us that this fear of unjust punishment stems from  our human determination to be free from dukka  during our samsaric existence: Sabbetasantidandassa/ sabbebayanti  maccuno is how the dhamma explains this to us. The Sigalovada Sutta  similarly teaches us  to respect oneanother and points us in the direction of how to get on with our fellow citizens along life’s difficult journey towards nibbana.

It is my fervent hope that we Sri Lankans will beginfrom Vesak 2013 onwards to shed our irrational fears and animosities springing from inter- ethnic  or intra-ethnic differences and learn to live together in peace and harmony. We have gone through more than three decades of awful violence, deep pain and monumental tragedy. There is no Sri Lankan regardless of his or her ethnicity who has not been adversely affected one way or the other in the last several years. Some who are yet not aware what exactly has happened to certain of their loved ones who have disappeared continue to suffer even today long after the guns have fallen silent. Anger at what has happened is the emotion that comes easily to us and we must avoid this negative emotion at all costs. Samyutta Nikya(SN 1.71) reminds us that anger is the only thing that is good to kill and in verses 3.14 and 3.15 it notes that in war, as pointed out above, there is no winning side. All who participate in war ultimately end up as losers. Additionally  in the Dighavu-kumara Vatthu: TheStory of Prince Dighavu(Mahavagga 10.2, 3-20 PTS: Horner  vol 4, pp.489- 498) we are told that only forbearance, never revenge, can bring an end to war.

Instead of creating fresh wounds in our fractured community, we must hasten to build bridges of human understanding in addition to building those urgently needed bridges to speedy economic development. Both building projects must go hand in hand as they are not mutually exclusive. Sri Lanka cannot hope to achieve economic prosperity without social contentment. One is reminded in this regard of Bhutan’s concept of  the Gross National Happiness Index(GNHI).  The fact that we may have more money in our pockets will not make us content. We will be nearer contentment  when all of us citizens are made to feel we have a stake in our country regardless of our ethnicity and our social status, no matter how far we may be from the centre of political power. The fact that some citizens are not in agreement with our political masters of the day should not be a reason to label them as traitors and be made guilty of treason. It is when we are made free of the tentacles of the ‘national security state’ that Sri Lanka has slowly evolved into in the last four decades or so that we will begin to feel secure in our own country once more. The freedom to think and act responsibly without fear of unjust reprisals from the state or its law enforcement agencies will also contribute handsomely to the promotion of the kind of contentment referred to above.

And above all, we must mark the anniversary of the fourth year of the end of the war that we marked the other dayby  re-doubling our efforts at achieving lasting peace and true reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I suggest that we do away with the ostentatious military parades and exhibitions that are usually held at this time of year. They smack of triumphalism and seek to  divide us further rather than unite us. By all means, let us bear in mind lessons learnt and not forget what damage violent extra-parliamentary challenges can cause to democratically elected governments and the state in general. But to forgive those that have harmed us,  whether they  hail  from the north or south, and whether they are Tamil or Sinhala, is essential. As the old saying has it, to err is human, forgive divine. Such forgiveness ideally ought to be accompanied by multi-religious observances and commemoration of the dead regardless of the fact that they died attacking or defending the state. It is our fellow citizens who died on either side of the conflict, not outside invaders. By our collective (politico-moral) sins of commission and omission, we caused the southern and northern insurgencies to materialise. Hence all of us are culpable for the violence and mayhem that have recently taken us and our country away from our true character and nature. It would be perfect if the President and the government take the lead in this regard and set the rest of the country an example.

The battle for peace and reconciliation must be fought and won in and though the hearts and minds of the people of Sri Lanka, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher, Sinhala and others. Let us discard all false  labels that, at the end of the day, do not hold any meaning. Let us stop squandering   our national energies on frivolous debates on traitors and patriots. Let us cease shooting our  messengers and instead seek to heed their messages. Let us not seek to make enemies of our friends the world over and instead extend our hand of friendship to them once again as we have traditionally done. A Sri Lankan welcome is something   visitors to our shores treasure forever. I have several friends who keep coming back to Sri Lanka year after year as they find beauty in our island home of a kind that is rare and good.  There is much goodwill out there which could so easily be harnessed for our collective well being. There are thus very good and cogent reasons why we should think anew as the VeaskPoya of 2013 dawns on us. We should endeavour  to marshal our thoughts and energies along the directions outlined above, avoid the dangers emanating from the extreme diasporic Tamils and ultra-nationalists alike at home, and engage with Sri Lanka’s moderate middle to achieve a national renaissance that will carry us into the kind of future Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankans deserve.

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Latest comments

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    You seem to have forgotten that we are dealing with something very different here.

    The two contexts have nothing in common and nothing in common can be expected.

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    Tissa Jayathilake:

    You are theoretically correct.

    Even in Buddha’s time, there was lot of hostilities towards Buddha when He was living and delivering his doctrine. You know how Brahmins and Muslims destroyed Buddhism and buddhists in greater india, not the present india.

    The same onslaught is going on even to date ?

    Buddhism is the ultimate truth.

    What is the way to preserve the Buddhism when there is a onslaught from other religions, particularly Christianity and Islam ?

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      Certainly not by going against all the principles of Buddhism…this would not be the way to protect Buddhism. This would be aiding in the. Destruction of the great philosophy. I don’t see how agressive behav iour from outsiders of the faith could possibly destroy any religion, it is really only the followers of a faith who can destroy the religion by failing to adhere to its true principles…we are not Buddhists. Just in name, we must be Buddhists in action and thought.

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      “Buddhism is the ultimate truth.” – it should be put into practice.

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      when the BBS stood up on a stage in kandy in sight of the Daladaa maligaawa, with a Buddha statue on stage, and shouted filth, I would think that in itself constituted an assault on the teachings of Buddha.

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    While the various events taken separately would seem innocent and justified the overall trend of the govt is indeed triumphant and divisive. There is no problem in celebrating victory but take into cognizance the situation of those defeated. It is the duty of the govt not only to celebrate victory but to heal the wounds of war and work towards reconciliation. Those who lost their kith and kin need to be allowed the space to remember the dead. The heavy handed, militaristic policies of the govt, towards the people in the north, denying their social liberties and constitutional rights, needs to be tempered down. The actions of some sections of the diaspora cannot be taken as an excuse to impose suffering on the people in the north.

    Winning gives birth to hostility.
    Losing, one lies down in pain.
    The calmed lie down with ease, having set winning & losing aside.

    Dhammapada 15.201

    The past should not be followed after, and the future not desired;
    what is past is dead and gone, and the future is yet to come.

    Majjhima Nikāya 4.272

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    Please see the attached link — does it look like Sri Lanka is on its way to being the guardian of the religion best known for peace and tolerance?

    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/what-intolerant-buddhist-monks-are-doing-to-sri-lanka/

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    Tissa, an excellent essay pointing out that the battle for peace and reconciliation must be fought and won in and though the hearts and minds of the people of Sri Lanka, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher, Sinhala and others. I just returned from the East Coast where I heard the same sentiment expressed by a former Sri Lankan Army officer now living in the East Coast.

    Winning hearts and minds of the people of Tamil population, while fighting the LTTE was also the strategy of General Denzil Kobbekaduwa and the Army Commanders who followed him. As school children we learnt the story of the Cow who rang the bell requesting justice, as recorded in the Mahavamsa and mentioned in the following extract from the Wikipedia.

    “Elara, a Tamil from the Chola country, is traditionally presented as being a just king even by the Sinhalese. The Mahavamsa states that he ruled ‘with even justice toward friend and foe, on occasions of disputes at law and elaborates how he even ordered the execution of his son on the basis of a heinous religious crime. The same chronicle relates that the king had a bell with a rope attached at the head of his bed, so that all who sought redress might ring it. In particular, he is presented as a tireless defender of the Sinhalese faith and of pointedly treating Sinhala nobles with the same dignity as his Tamil associates. As such Elara is often held as the archetype of the ‘Dharmaraja’ or ‘just king’ of Dharmic tradition, all the more remarkable for not being a Sinhalese, whom he governed”.

    Unfortunately, such lessons have been replaced with language and lessons in our school curriculum that create ethnic tensions. A group of respected school Principals like the Principal of Ladies College who is expected to retire this year, should be entrusted the task to focus the school curriculum to promote ethnic reconciliation.

    The time has come for the President and the Cabinet of Ministers to focus on winning the hearts and minds of all the people of Sri Lanka, to win the war after winning the battle.

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    Dear Tissa:
    A great article.
    The problems with the “so-called” Buddhists and even some Sangha are that they use Buddha’s teachings only as lip-service. Basic tenant of Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Upekka are mere slogans. (Now one could see them only as sign boards at certain intersections in Colombo.)

    Although Siddhartha was born to the Sakya clan, when the Sakyas and the Kosalas went to war over a dispute of sharing water of the Rohini River, Buddha visited the war front not to bless the Sakya soldiers or to tie Pirith Noola on them, but to preach both parties, that in war there are no winners, all would be losers with the destruction war brings (similar to what you have quoted from Samyutta Nikya.) Buddha’s message to them was to settle the dispute through discussion.

    If the authorities allow the families, former leaders and carders of the southern terrorists of 1971 and 1989-90 to commemorate (really celebrate) their dead leaders and carders, why deprive the Northerners light a lamp in memory of the loved ones, is difficult to understand, and clearly shows bias.

    My belief is that the Sangha, when they don robes should not stand for a race or a nation. Their approach and attitudes should be of “Universality.” How could a Buddhist priest stand for Sihala race and utter and behave against the Tamils or Muslims or even against any other nationality? It is very un-Buddhistic. The Buddha is neither a Sinhala nor a Sri Lankan.

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    Hello Tissa,

    Fine essay.

    But dream on.

    When the human gene is so flawed Tissa, you are preaching dhamma.

    Look around and see what is going on. No point sermonising or propounding theories and axioms to make what is bad good. We all know what it right and what is wrong and what leads to what, yet time and again we end up choosing exactly what is harmful. We talk the talk of metta, karuna, mudita, upekka, reconciliation and good governance till our faces are red, but we walk the walk of pride, hate, anger, divisiveness and the purest form of avariciousness – not only today but since the human race began(I remember a Tamil movie song from my young days ‘anda naal mudal, inda naal varai, manidan mara villai”).

    All of you who read this may beg to differ, but I will die convinced that the human gene is flawed. The status quo of human inspired tragedies that keep sweeping the world since time immemorial can change only if and when we genetically modify the blighted human gene.

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