29 November, 2020

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Guilt By Ethnicity – A Liberal Sinhalese Response

By Romesh Hettiarachchi

Romesh Hettiarachchi

Romesh Hettiarachchi

Dear Sinthujan,

I read with bemusement your letter to the Sinhalese ally. Coming after the arrest of the human rights activist Ruki Fernando, such condescension may be untimely given how devoted Ruki and other have been towards advocating for the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamil community as well as other minority groups.

Notwithstanding the emotional reaction, the allegations and insinuations in your piece deserve a response. This is mine.

The Contradictions of Being an “Anti Generalist” Generalist

The tendency in your article to rely on generalizations of the Sinhalese community to oppose generalizations of the Tamil community is fascinating. On one hand, you assert that the Tamil diaspora is not homogeneous and that there is diversity amongst the Tamil community. On the other hand, you write that the imaginary Sinhalese ally “writes, narrates and produces history as if the Tamil community should be in a museum” (really?!), feels the Diaspora “destabilizes” the country, mutes Tamil voices, has no recognition of “positive human traits” of Tamils, thinks “uniformly” that the Diaspora is bad.

This depiction hardly represents that of an ally. If as you write, the Sinhalese ally speaks, writes and thinks as if they know everything about the Tamil community but “in reality know nothing”, then by extending the same logic, you probably should reconsider how much you as a Tamil know about the Sinhalese community.

The Rise of the “Guilt by Ethnicity” Phenomenon

The concepts underlying your missive is another example of the “guilt by ethnicity” litmus test that is all too common when dealing cross culturally on matters regarding Sri Lanka and its Diaspora, Tamil or otherwise. This litmus test at times may at times be designed by those who advance ancient prejudices using the language of academia. Alternatively the litmus test is designed as a way to protect the leadership decisions made by previous generations, regardless of how terrible those decisions may have been. But in either case, the litmus test generally is that people of a certain ethnicity and those who associate with those ethnicities all think the same and act the same and as such one must always be careful when interacting with those of certain ethnicities.

As you yourself  have identified, various branches of the Sri Lankan government are equally as adept in launching baseless, unsubstantiated and unwarranted accusations against the Tamil diaspora writ large. Take for instance  the proscription by the Sri Lankan Government against Tamil diaspora organizations including the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC). As one of the preeminent organizations representing the interests of the Tamil community in Canada, the CTC admittedly has an ethnic bent to their advocacy. However at the same time the CTC has done its very best to act principally as evidenced by their opposition to the jailing of General Sarath Fonseka and the impeachment of the Chief Justice.

While public criticism from the Canadian Tamil Congress of the Tamil Tigers is hard to find, such criticism is expressed privately. The CTC has been a force for tremendous good for many communities in Sri Lanka and continues to have great potential to play an integral role in assisting in the development of Sri Lankan communities. The proscription of the CTC and specifically the publishing of names and addresses of the Tamil diaspora is a disturbing development and in no way advances the cause of reconciliation, which is what all communities in Sri Lanka desperately need.

The Qualities of a Sinhalese Ally

The “anti-generalist” generalist position and the rise of the Guilt by Ethnicity phenomenon likely arise from what social psychologists call the actor-observer asymmetry: where actors, when judging their own behaviour, attribute their actions in the particular situation than to a generalization about their personality, but when explaining the behavior of others are more likely to attribute their behavior to the others overall disposition rather than to situational factors.

To combat these twin phenomenon’s, one must first accept and acknowledge that there is a problem: namely that the general situation facing the Sri Lankan people is unacceptable and unstable. Second, there must be a commitment to trying to transform the situation. It is this commitment that differentiates the ally, Sinhalese or otherwise, from non-allies. Third, there must also be a recognition that the allies cannot transform the situation by working either by ourselves or by working only with those that look like us and talk like us. For one, the larger socio-political-economic system is too complex to be grasped or shifted by any one person, organization, or sector. But two, we simply don’t have the luxury of choosing our allies/friends.

It is because of these recognitions that the ally, Sinhalese or otherwise, is constantly open to and searching for ways to work together with other people. However in the case of Sri Lanka, most allies, Sinhalese and otherwise, find that the actors who need to work together are far too polarized to even try and approach this work head on. These actors are not even able to agree on what the problem is let alone the solution. Although there may be shared recognition that the situation is problematic, these actors attribute the problems to very different reasons.

Despite the polarization, the ally, Sinhalese and otherwise, remains committed to transforming the situation. Allies do their best to act on a principled basis, expressing disagreements when necessary and doing our best to not hold differing opinions against the other allies. Allies do their best to acknowledge when mistakes have been made and take actions to rectify those mistakes. Allies defend each other from outsiders to the alliance. Allies forgive each other and are patient with each other. Allies recognize there are times to lead and to follow and struggle with when it is appropriate to do either. allies acknowledge the potential limitations that our allies may have and do our best to not demand our allies do something which exceed those limitations. But perhaps most importantly, allies respect each other.

The Need for Multi-Dimensional Alliances

In creating alliances, one does not necessarily deny the existence of the various sets of special advantages, rights and benefits (which some call privileges) each participant bring to the table. On the contrary, effective alliances use these differential privileges to mobilize actors across ethnic, generational, and geographical boundaries around specific issues. When need be, effective alliances challenge participants to either create futures where other communities can access those same privileges or alternatively undermine the structures supporting those same privileges. At no time do effective alliances do not hold each participant guilty on the basis of the privileges that they have accrued through no fault of their own.

When participating in these alliances, many times friendships form. The fact of being friends may not be expressed publicly, but thats not because the allies arent; its just that it never happens. However friendship and alliance does not entail conformity; allies must be free to be authentic and allowing others to also be authentic as well. Moreover there cannot be a surrender of being ability to think. This means that like any good friendship, any alliance will have its share of disagreements in approaches and perspectives to take. Sometimes those disagreements grow so loud that they are held against each other, which results in quick disintegration of the alliance.

But even though the alliance may have disintegrated, the authenticity of the individual people in the alliance and their commitment to transform the situation remains. There still remains room to rebuild, albeit in different forms and constitutions. The commitment of these people are not a façade.

The Pretence of the Sinhalese Ally

You write that the Sinhalese ally is a pretence. You construct the problem as exclusively a Tamil one; consequently working with Sinhalese allies is anathema.

However in a world where the biggest challenges to the Sri Lankan people in the form of climate change, growing food insecurity and rising sea levels lie in the decades ahead, working in silos is no longer an option. The alliances between the Sinhalese and the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and around the world have become and will continue to be all the more important to encourage and to foster if only to adapt to changing global realities. In fact if the work the Sinhalese ally does with its Tamil friends provides water to one more family, provides education to one more child and empowers one community at a time, then the work the Sinhalese ally does is anything but a pretence, no matter how bigoted and condescending those against us continue to be.

Sincerely,
Romesh Hettiarachchi

p.s. If this appears to be a personal attack, it is not intended to be. However I am not willing to resort to generalizations about the Tamil community in responding to the (false) racial constructs that you argued in your letter. The Tamil community is diverse as much as the Sinhalese is diverse. Generalizations about either cannot be made.

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Latest comments

  • 2
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    News Update to CT management and Readers:

    Gobi, two other LTTE Terrorists have been shot dead by Sri Lankan forces. The incident occured in Raja Rata.

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      I hope it is not KP or Karuna. Touch them …. then you will see what happens. Two greate leaders Sri Lanka has produced

  • 3
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    The world is an intricate work of art with different shades, colours, ethnicities, religons, opinions etc. It is like a painting which depicts an idea, an intention, the mood of the creator. We paint a wall in our our house in one shade and colour and become a captive of that environment.

    Humanity has advanced across race, religon, creed and colour. Nations stand side by side on the world stage. Yet we try to maintain an ancient tribalistic approach to problems.

    Human beings have been blessed with wisdom and intelligence. They can communicate, exchange ideas, understaand and negotiate. That is the way to solve problems. Not to go around with a sledge hammer and demolish the opposition.

  • 2
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    Dear Romesh,

    Please permit me to address you simply by your first name. That is how I addressed Sinthujan, when I responded to his call to you.

    The emotion in your language is very palpable. Sinthujan equally was.

    Politics should be handled with mutual respect. Emotions should not be allowed to make voices discordant. Or else, discussions would turn into a debates.

    Your view merits consideration. Your arguments deserve a response. Let me leave that to Sinthujan.

    However, there is a sore point. You begin, ‘I read with bemusement … .

    That is bemusing in itself. You don’t engage in a productive discussion with such condescending salutation. It set the tone for the rest of your arguments.

    That’s not how it should be between allies.

    • 2
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      First name is absolutely fine.

      Stating my Bemusement is a statement of fact, not condescension. The article was untimely.

      Agreed on the discussion but not debate. But I’m not sure its safe to assume that Sinthujan is an ally, given the contents of his article. Doesn’t mean his ideas don’t merit respect or discussion, just that judging by his article, I don’t think he considers himself an ally of the Sinhalese ally.

      • 1
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        I still stand by my, ‘You don’t engage in a productive discussion with such condescending salutation’, – ally or not.

        You state that, ‘I don’t think he considers himself an ally of the Sinhalese ally’. Had you had mentioned that in your rebuttal to ‘Dear Sinthujan’, my observation wouldn’t have arisen.

        Anyhow, thank you for responding.

  • 3
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    A sober and thoughtful response to Sinthujan’s ill conceived and rabble rousing and confusing diatribe.Indeed it is not possible to imagine how Sinthujan came to compose such an indisputably untenable piece, as Hettiarachchi has shown conclusively, since he is apparently a trained graduate student at reputable university.
    Of course it is easy to understand the applause he has received from certain quarters,quarters which have never shown a capacity for deep thought or logical argument– nor even,for that matter, a talent for civil debate.

  • 5
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    Kudos to you Romesh! You sum up my feelings completely. Many, if not most, of the blogs on this site are rife with over-generalizations, especially about the “Sinhala Buddhists”.

    As one such myself who has is a bharatanatyam dancer, who can read/write Tamil and who empathisizes with the fears of a minority in a democratic nation, I often feel dismissed by many who comment here.

    We Sinhalese are not all “chauvinistic” as many claim, and not all Buddhists support BBS’s BS.

    Work with us, and let us work with you to help the Tamils who live in Sri Lanka.

  • 6
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    This is a good, restrained and mature response and very different from the Sinhalese/Tamil supremacist rants that you normally find.

    Congrats!

  • 4
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    Dear Romesh
    Your argument is the Sinhaleses as an ethnic entity is not reponsible for the problems of Tamils of SriLanka. You are sadly mistaken. Sinhalese are unique in not raising their voice when atrocities are commmitted against minorities. When over million Hill country Tamils were disenfranchised in 1948 which Sinhalese journal,or politician raised his voice of dissension? Mind you, most of these disenfranchised Tamils were in their 2nd and 3rd generation.When Tamils were killed and and massacered in 1958 ,1977 and 1983 how many Sinhalese leaders insisted that the perpetrators should be held to task. Even Buddhist monks and Sinhalese policemen connived in this pogram.When Sinhalese only was made compulsory in 24 hours, Tamil government servants lost their increments and jobs due to lack of proficiency in Sinhalese. Why didn’t your ethnic brothers protest against this aggressive policy.In 1972 A legislation was passed by your ethnic leaders that Tamils must score a higher aggregate mark over Sinhalese to enter University how many Sinhalese protested?. But this was repealed due to Tamil protest and legal vulnerability of the law. Now churches (about 300) mosques and temples are burnt and destroyed. Have you seen any prosecution? About 40 to 60 thousand civilians are killed deliberately by the present government.There is a hue and cry in the international scene. But how many Sinhalese are asking for investgation? Even the opposition parties do not care because only the Tamils (dogs according to Mahavansa)were killed.

    • 3
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      If your first sentence represents what you think my argument is, then you have missed my argument completely.

      • 0
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        what makes you think SL needs reconciliation with tamil diaspora?

  • 3
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    liberal sinhalese are more dangerous than those in saffron robes. not all the germans participated in the killing of jews. they passively supported. there may even be some who saved jews but history never denied that jews were persecuted by nazi germany. similarly rajapakses know they will not be prosecuted for a single war crime because there is no will in the sinhala public. i am pretty sure the tamil struggle is not about asking for your generosity so that they can be one of you.

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      what makes you think tamils are in a position equal to jews in germany. They were never in such a situ in SL even during the height of war.

      The war SL army and gover finished in 2009 is a war against a terrorist organisation which kept this whole country hijacked for 30 years. By the time it was in 2009 the war was no longer an ethnic conflict but a complete terrorist movement. SL defences had the responsibility to defend the country and its people. SL forces defended the nation as any legitimate govern and its forces would do.

      SL was in a survival war. there was no other option for SL than to wage war.

      And this is really an interesting world, where war mongering states like US is deciding on punishing SL for stopping a war.

  • 2
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    My litmus test for verifying the authenticity of the likes of Romesh, is a simple question: If the international investigation that’s currently underway leads to an independent state in the NE, will you congratulate the Tamil people and wish them well, or will you join the masses who will try burn down the US embassy and the UN compound in Colombo?

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      Patriot, A stupid question
      “If the international investigation that’s currently underway leads to an independent state in the NE, will you congratulate the Tamil people and wish them well, or will you join the masses who will try burn down the US embassy and the UN compound in Colombo?”
      Answer: Why would anybody congratulate Tamil people for what US and UN have done?
      Tamil terrorists received a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan army. Have you congratulated the Sri Lankan army for that glorious victory?
      If Tamils get an independent state in NE, will you provide transport to Tamils living in Colombo, hill country to “migrate” to NE? Will you compensate for their loss of property? Remember, no more dual nationality for Ealamists. Just look at Little Indias (Tamil ghettos)in Singapore, Penang. They are the dirtiest areas in those countries, like India itself and your imaginary Ealam.
      Forget your stupid dreams. The 5th annual victory celebrations are only a month away. Join in, I’ll gift you a Lion Flag.

  • 3
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    As someone else previously pointed out, I, too, could not get over the first line. It certainly sets the tone for the rest of this article. What a pompous load of drivel! The sinhalese were not being generalized – rather, it is their structural position in Sri Lanka and abroad that was originally criticized. This condescending response to the original article only evidences how the elevation of the Sinhalese to the exclusion of the minorities has impacted Sinhala psychology; even the liberal Sinhalese are not immune from superimposing their values and ideologies in their ‘help’. Liberal sinhalese tend to discredit the diaspora by claiming that they are out of touch with the island – this plays exactly into the SInhala Buddhist project of disenfranchising tamils from Sri Lanka. The liberal sinhalese paints those who want justice for Tamils as ‘nationalist’ – but fails to examine how their views support Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

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