4 December, 2021

Blog

Mind The Sri Lankan State (Of Mind)

By Gehan Gunatilleke – 

Gehan Gunatilleke

Gehan Gunatilleke

Imagine a house with five distinct layers. The outer layer is a veranda and is the first thing you witness on arrival. The second is a living room, where guests are hosted and entertained. The bedrooms are located within the third layer and the kitchen located in the fourth. Finally, the sanitary facilities are found within the outer layer, at the rear of the house. This design is common to many traditional homes in Sri Lanka and may strike some of us as vaguely familiar. There is a fascinating phenomenon to detect in the design. With each layer, the relative charm of the house diminishes. The veranda is spotless; and the living room is in mint condition. Yet the rest of the house progressively loses its sheen—all the way to the squalor of the rear.

In Sri Lanka, appearances mean much more than what meets the eye. To a majority of us, our dignity resides in how we are seen by others. This is why the façades of Colombo were decorated splendidly ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), while the suburbs remained less appealing. Even before the summit, public pride in the beauty and cleanliness of the city was palpable. Meanwhile, large screens were constructed alongside our highways to conceal the slums.

The phenomenon is not limited to the tangible. We are world-renowned for our pleasantries and our hospitality. Yet it is unbecoming of a Sri Lankan to openly discuss the things that lurk behind the smiles. This mentality explains a Magistrate’s look of contempt when a woman brings her husband to court on charges of domestic violence. This psyche also explains the public’s hostility towards international criticism. It certainly explains the hailing of a new hero—Dr. Chris Nonis, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

As the social media revelry over Nonis’s slick disposal of a CNN interviewer unfolded, few questioned why so many Sri Lankans felt a sense of national pride. Nonis, a British citizen, with his accent, vocabulary and rhetoric, resembled a skillful artist with a multihued palette. The picture he painted and, importantly, the manner in which he painted it, made Sri Lanka look good—a rare feat on the diplomatic stage. Yet the picture he painted was a simple forgery. And Fred Pleitgen, in for Christiane Amanpour, was woefully underprepared to point this out.

Nonis claimed that the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was Sri Lanka’s equivalent to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Yet, around the same time as the interview, the Government of Sri Lanka was mulling over fresh proposals for a Sri Lankan TRC. Perhaps it would be unfair to have expected Pleitgen to point out the irony in Nonis’s comparison.

Nonis also claimed that a domestic process was in place to implement the LLRC’s recommendations. Yet Pleitgen failed to ask exactly how many LLRC recommendations had been implemented to date. In Chapter 4 of its report, the LLRC cited incidents such as the alleged navy attack on civilians in Chundikulam on 10 May 2009 and the army shelling of civilians in Pokkanai, and called for their investigation. In Annex 5.1, the LLRC’s report listed 3,596 complaints of disappearances, 1,018 of which were allegedly after the security forces or police arrested the persons concerned. Unknown to Pleitgen, a military Court of Inquiry and a Board of Inquiry has already exonerated the armed forces from these allegations.

Nonis also declared that in Sri Lanka, the right to protest is respected, which is why ‘protests’ against foreign journalists had to be tolerated. Once again, Pleitgen failed to point out the glaring contradictions in Nonis’s observations. Even as the High Commissioner spoke, protests in Colombo during CHOGM had been banned by a court order to prevent any embarrassment to the government.

We may forgive a foreign journalist, tasked with eliciting a sound bite, for failing to do his homework. Yet the Sri Lankan public knows very well the inaccuracies in Nonis’s statements. Notwithstanding, the reaction has been distinctly triumphalist—from the viral dissemination of his interview across Facebook to the numerous fan pages bestowing him with demigod status.

Make no mistake; the hysteria does not come from the so-called ignorant masses. It comes from the upper echelons of the educated classes. On this island, the value placed on prestige far outweighs the value of a clean conscience. It hardly matters if the prestige is superficial. It hardly matters that Nonis, the latest guardian of the realm, merely emulated our former colonial masters. It matters even less that he has already sworn his allegiance to another monarch.

This paradox is also evident in the Sri Lankan public’s attitude towards CHOGM. On the one hand, the majority of the Sri Lankan public derives great pride from their country sitting at the helm of the Commonwealth for the next two years. On the other, the public endorsed and openly partook in the anti-British diatribe, which emerged in response to the criticism of Sri Lanka’s human rights record throughout the summit. A majority of Sri Lankans felt that British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes, had no moral right to point fingers at Sri Lanka, given the UK’s own human rights record. Hardly anyone wanted to confront the substance of these allegations.

We Sri Lankans live in a house with a charming façade but a decrepit inner sanctum. A majority of us derive prestige and self worth from verandas and living rooms and care little for the places that visitors are not meant to see. Nonis is celebrated only because he helps keep the verandas and living rooms clean, and it matters little that the broom is an imported one. Those who pursue accountability in Sri Lanka must then realise that they are not merely contending with the Sri Lankan state. They are contending with the Sri Lankan state of mind. The majority of Sri Lankans staunchly resist an international accountability process because they view it as an intrusion into the inner layers of their house. Change may come only through a radical transformation; a transformation through which the occupants of the house redefine their sense of self worth; a transformation of the mind, where loyalty is defined by fidelity to the truth and pride is taken in pursuing it.

*Gehan Gunatilleke is an attorney-at-law and researcher living in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    How to use really big words to sound smart.

    There is nothing like a fusillade of acateleptic verbiage to make even the most puerile asseverations seem the acme of sagacious perspicacity. You too can expectorate verbal pyrotechnics with the application of these abecedarian expedients.

    * Haul out the most esoteric and recondite words from the deepest nadir of your lexicon.

    * Mix with a salubrious dose of didactic pretension. Be not vexed by accusations of dilettantism. Ignore those who encourage laconic atticism. Allow your fustian argot to coruscate in all its fulgurous resplendence!

    * This stratagem is especially efficacious when hurling invective at intractable and contumacious adversaries. Inveigh against their feculent folderol! Pronounce excoriating imprecations! Fulminate bombastically, and toss in acerbic execrations.

    * Always remember not to come to the gravamen of your polemics and pasquinades without first obstreperously producing ostentatious pabulum. Pellucid prose serves only to express, but with the proper use of prolix and loquacious pleonasms, one can win approbation through intimidation.

    * Genuine erudition is not requisite for the use of grandiloquent verbosity. If you don’t recognize a word, it is dubious anyone else will. Throw trichotillomania and theanthropy into a conversation, even without provocation. Bonus points for the proper use of callipygian

    Indulge your sesquipedalian predilections! Fear not floccinaucinihilipilification: Even if you are exuding vapid ordure, none will be the wiser.

    Now get out there and obfuscate!

    I didn’t write this. I don’t know how to write like this. All due credit should go to Andy Breslin. I just did a CTRL-C & CTRL-V

  • 2
    0

    Gehan Goonetilleke seems to the one himself who suffers from the malady that he accuses Sri Lanka of. Beneath his competence in English lies a contempt for his own ethnic group. Beneath his polish he sees only stuff to gripe about and has no appreciation of the bright side of Sri Lanka.
    That Chris Nonis and Muralitharan, both of whom bravely stood up and addressed the UK’s public and its PM,respectively, speaking out the Truth as they saw it, with coolness and sensitivity, are criticized by GG with such intense inner hate bespeaks of a problem psyche.

    • 0
      0

      You must be one another PINGONA of their kind (birds of a feather flock together).. to see that Nonis spoke out the truth.
      Nonis has not studied the updates of LLRC recommendations before making such statements about them being implemented. Latter was criticised by Prof. Rajiva Wejesinghe.. not now already 9 months ago – he called it as “LLRC recommendations move painfully slow”.

  • 0
    0

    Sir,

    These are the facts that many people in SL (including me) would have wanted express.

    Excellent, Thank you sir.

    Your student,

    Tissa

  • 0
    0

    Brilliant. One of the best articles I have read in CT. The state of mind is exactly what it is. And what’s more, there is an exact mirror image on the Tamil side too! Thank you Gehan.

  • 0
    0

    Thanks for this article. How very true!

  • 0
    0

    Splendid Gehan. I am proud of you young man, keep going, SL need your help…
    Anura

  • 0
    0

    Excellent piece, Gehan-written in precise,clear and simple English which anyone can understand. A rare event in CT.

  • 0
    0

    Gehan Excellent work.. spot on, thank you!
    The blatant fact is what Dr. Nonis and others who consider him as a ‘hero’ do not realise how myopic the society has become. The complacency , this inebriation, hearing impairment is incomprehensible! I am not sure whether Sri Lanka is being turned into a land of disabled minds.

    • 0
      0

      So true….and thank you Gehan for your excellent work

  • 0
    0

    Excellent article Gehan! But this state of mind is a human state of mind and if you examine a bit more further you will find this all over the world in all societies. If we can live like we are dying and if we can live like brethren once again (Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims ….etc). If you investigate globally, no country, tribe, racial group etc. has “won” after a war! War is terrible and a huge failure like surgery or chemotherapy/radiation in Medicine. Last resort! That means you could not talk and solve your but had to resort to murder!
    And it has taken centuries and yet some scars are not healed in many previous wars, conflicts. If we can just focus on things that all of us agree and then postpone the things that we disagree, may be we can achieve much! All human societies will like economic progress, security, jobs, and human development in all spheres of endeavors.
    Good education for their children, achievement in business, science, technology. I fervently hope we can postpone our differences for a bit and be a little more pragmatic like the Singaporeans and many of our more developed Asian neighbors which will enable us to achieve economic progress and that usually is followed by various other reforms, freedoms!

  • 0
    0

    Fantastic work Gehan!

  • 0
    0

    I think Chris Nonis is maligned unfairly. As a diplomat he merely spoke up for the country. What else would you expect from him? As they say diplomacy is about lying abroad for your country. Apart from that Gehan Gunatilleke has been quite right in highlighting the Sri Lankan penchant for outward pretence. As I have said before, even the often spoken about winsome ‘smile of the natives’ is one of cunning anticipation than genuine warmth.

  • 0
    0

    Bravo!

  • 0
    0

    An excellent article, and an argument that must be at the heart of any debate on reconciliation and accountability. However, I found myself quite depressed at some of his assertions, probably because they are true.

    Firstly, Gunatilleke states ‘the hysteria does not come from the so-called ignorant masses. It comes from the upper echelons of the educated classes’. And here lies the problem. Judging by the contributors and those who add comments to many of the articles on CT, the upper echelons of the educated classes are well represented here. And the bigoted narrow mindedness on display at times, is quite frankly, chilling. If these are the type of people the ‘ignorant masses’ are counting on to lead and inspire the process of reconciliation and accountability, then we have no chance at all.

    Secondly, Gunatilleke states: ‘Those who pursue accountability in Sri Lanka must then realise that they are not merely contending with the Sri Lankan state. They are contending with the Sri Lankan state of mind. The majority of Sri Lankans staunchly resist an international accountability process because they view it as an intrusion into the inner layers of their house. Change may come only through a radical transformation; a transformation through which the occupants of the house redefine their sense of self worth; a transformation of the mind, where loyalty is defined by fidelity to the truth and pride is taken in pursuing it.’

    Quite right too. Of course we should resist being told by others how we should put our house in order. If it is to have any effect at all it has to come from within, because we want it to. But again, if the views as reflected on CT ( from the upper echelons of the educated classes) are anything to go by, then our positions are hopelessly polarised along racial lines, and there is little or no common ground to even make a beginning. Of course, we could do with a visionary leader preaching reconciliation, like a Mandela or a Gandhi, but then, Sri Lanka’s leaders have always been shockingly poor.

    We have to face the fact that racism is now so entrenched in our society, and we are so brutalised by the years of war and conflict, that it will take the passing of several generations before we can come to terms with the sort of people we have become. However, given the abysmal leadership, and the rampant racism and ignorance at all levels of society in Sri Lanka, there is every chance that the country will tear itself apart again in the not too distant future.

    • 0
      0

      Nice comment Chris Rajasinghe. However, I must disagree with some of the praise you have for the writer’s interpretations.

      Firstly, Gunatilleke is wrong in the assertion that the “hysteria does not come from the so called ignorant masses”. There is no hysteria from any one but a projection of such by the manipulated press and the government’s spokesmen. The “upper echelons of the educated classes” represented in CT also do not count for a majority amongst society. It is only the opinions of those who take the trouble to express it. Gunatilleke’s generalizations are therefore not validations of a group’s opinion.

      Secondly, Gunatilleke’s opinion “those who pursue accountability in Sri Lanka must then realise that they are not merely contending with the Sri Lankan state. They are contending with the Sri Lankan state of mind. The majority of Sri Lankans staunchly resist an international accountability process because they view it as an intrusion into the inner layers of their house” is an oversimplification. It is the government that must change. The state of the citizen’s mind has never been a significant influence with this government. It is not merely the reluctance to delve in to the inner sanctum of the house that is the crux of why many do not support international interference. It is because they foresee the consequences of such action and the partition of the house. The implications of such a move are disastrous. They are too numerous to outline here.

      Gunatilleke’s article is excellent in that it pin points an aspect of the Sri Lankan character. However as some commentators have pointed out such behaviour is common in other countries too.

      Bridging the ethnic divide is difficult. The difficulty is not due to the racists on either side amongst the citizenry, or the Tamil diaspora. It is the racism of the government a.k.a.Mahinda Rajapaksa that stands in the way.

  • 0
    0

    The Sinhalese are neither better nor worse than the humans of other ethnic groups, with all the goodness and intelligence as well as the frailties and evil that human beings carry in their gene pools and are capable of finding expression to.

    The self-hate rampant among many ‘Sinhalese’ who write in to the ColTelegraph is something that ought to be studied by psychologists. In no other country does one see such expressions of condemnation of one’s own people as a group.
    One wonders whether the underlying self-hate and discontent is restricted to the English-educated segment of Sri Lankan society.

    • 0
      0

      AMLadduwahetty

      Perhaps truth hurts.

      Would you like all Sinhalese to lie just so they can be nice to each other?

      Speaking their mind helps those want to move forward.

    • 0
      0

      Yes very true. The universality of condemnation of the current regime with no comparison to its predecessors is glaring and opportunistic for all to see. The regime is popular representatively and seems to reflect fairly accurately the ethos of the majority of its populace. There seem to be an invitation to the outsiders to help this disgruntled group. This website will become soon redundant if there is no editorial intervention to be more balanced and constructive

      Dr. N. Satchi UK

  • 0
    0

    AMLadduwahetty – I agree with your assertion that “The Sinhalese are neither better nor worse than the humans of other ethnic groups, with all the goodness and intelligence as well as the frailties and evil that human beings carry in their gene pools and are capable of finding expression to.” However, I disagree with your view that “.. self-hate (is) rampant among many ‘Sinhalese’ who write in to the ColTelegraph …”

    I’m sure that if you look around (the world) you will find that countless critics of their governments all over the world are of the same ethnicity as those whom they are criticizing. And that has absolutely nothing to do with “self-hate”, rather, it is to do with dissenting views. Your view smacks of a knee-jerk reaction to the truths that Gehan is stating. Obviously you are a keen supporter of the current GOSL.

    Do try to be a little more objective!

  • 0
    0

    Like several others, I too thought this piece was excellent.

    Dr Nonis is very slick, but also intellectually totally dishonest. However, he will be a wonderful candidate for a HardTalk session on BBC. Maybe after totally flattening Steven Sackur with a few more well-aimed and articulate howlers, he may even displace that archetypical hora GLP from the Ministry of External Affairs. How wonderful the succession will be… imagine: from hora Prof to hora Doc!!!

  • 0
    0

    Ha ha! Good Read Bro!

  • 0
    0

    This is very is a thoughtful commentary and if it is helpful, the middle class Caucasian homes are different. The homes are smaller in comparison to their public buildings and infrastructure. They are kept clean and tidy all round. Gaudiness is almost absent. They seldom entertain any visitors at home.

    Any estate agent will tell you that buyers make their decision in thirty seconds of entering to view a home weather to buy or not. The state of decor, cleanliness and desirability of the kitchen and bathrooms make all the difference.

    Dr. N. Satchi UK

  • 0
    0

    Dear Gehan Gunetilleke,

    This has got to be one of the best insights into the inner workings of the Sri Lankan psyche. The ra ra of the educated fools was deafening regarding the Nonis diatribe. It’s amazing how gullible we Sri Lankans really are!

    GTBP

  • 0
    0

    AM Ladduwahetty. I am not sure that recognition of the faults that lie within society should be regarded as self hatred. Rather it is the first step towards understanding ourselves, our faults and our limitations, that can then be the basis for moving on and reaching out to others. As Aristotle said, ‘Know thyself’. If we believe that we are perfect and that the fault must always lie with someone else, then that is no basis for dialogue or reconciliation.

    The faults in our country are many and the Tamils and Sinhalese are both to blame. A bit of humility, self analysis, and acceptance of the mistakes made by both, would go a long way.

  • 0
    0

    Native Vedda, Chris Rajasinhe, Java Jones et al:
    Yes of course it is more complex than mere self-hate, but most commentators on this site are so negative towards Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese in particular in their thinking, that the underlying reasons seem pathological.
    Some of them probably reside abroad and one wonders whether they are as critical of the same phenomenon that is as common there that Gehan Gunatilleke ascribes to Sri Lanka. I think not.
    “Know thyself” was not an admonition to a nation, rather, to the individual.
    If harsh criticism is seen by all of you as the way to improve matters let me assure you that it only turns people off.
    If improvement is really what you want, then you need to adopt a different approach than simply griping and

    • 0
      0

      AMLadduwahetty: – :
      : :
      “but most commentators on this site are so negative towards Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese in particular in their thinking”

      It is known as tough motherly love.

  • 0
    0

    Dear AM Ladduwahetty,

    “Self hatred” is when one denigrates oneself. Championing a truth spinner is a reflection that truth doesn’t matter to oneself. Pointing that out is not self hatred; accepting the lie is.

    GTBP

  • 0
    0

    Gehan Gunatilleke,

    You are a bright boy, my child.

    This is a brilliant analogy.

  • 0
    0

    Sorry this took off before I could complete the sentence it seems.

    …before simply griping and criticising the few like Chris Nonis who attempt to put Sri Lanka in a perspective that he thinks is right.

  • 0
    0

    Too bad Tamils are stateless!

    • 0
      0

      Too bad you don’t have your own culture but instead identify with the language of Barbarian from Eurassia.

  • 0
    0

    Chris Nonis may have been wrong on many counts, and has attracted both praise and approbation as an apologist for the Rajapaksa regime. However, he came over quite plausibly, for someone toeing the government line, and therein lies the reason why he has attracted so much attention. We have got so used to the EAM policy of trotting out dim witted, inarticulate, and boorish idiots to tell the world that in Sri Lanka, black is really white, that someone who comes across as halfway intelligent is greeted as the Messiah. Never mind what he said. At least it sounded good, and we didn’t all have to die of embarrassment again.

  • 0
    0

    AMLadduwahetty – Looks like you are trying to slide out of this one with your assumptions and negative views on what Gehan is saying. You really ought to follow your own ‘advice’.

  • 1
    2

    Just admit that you are working for the TNA lawyer and Stop hammering a good Man

  • 1
    1

    any lawyer worth his salt would realize that you are cynically twistina what dr nonis said

    • 0
      0

      Mr. Gamini, I believe that I should point out the irony and contradiction of your statement. You accuse Gehan (a lawyer) of twisting the statement made by Dr. Nonis while stating that a lawyer can ‘untwist’ them. My dear sir this would require further ‘twisting’ on the part of the good lawyer to supposedly ‘untwist’ the comments made by Gehan. Exploiting facts to your advantage is the nature of the law profession. Therefore your argument that Gehan has significantly twisted facts would only serve to point out that he is in fact a good lawyer – who is very good at his job!

  • 1
    0

    Dear Gehan, while you do make some valid observations about the hypocrisy of the average Sri Lankan as well as the government, I believe you have missed the point with regard to a few things.
    Firstly, the reaction to the interview of Dr. Nonis was not merely due to his defense of the state at the particular juncture. The unpreparedness of the interviewer (his belief that he could ‘bludgeon through’ a diplomat of what he probably though was some ‘lowly’, ‘backward’ country) clearly showed the dismissive attitude shown by those in the so-called ‘developed world’ towards developing countries such as Sri Lanka. Tourists from these countries are sometimes surprised that we have televisions and imagine us to be some ‘low life’ who are barely literate enough to even articulate ourselves in our native language! The eloquence with which you have written this very article is ample evidence that this is not the case. Therefore, I believe it is justifiable for any developing nation to be weary of being viewed as some ‘half-brained idiots’ by those whose greatest ‘superiority over us’ (if at all) takes the form of the colour of their skins and the girth of their wallets. You must understand that much more than a pride of a nation was at stake in the standing ovation given to Dr. Nonis. It was also about the dignity of the people of the so-called ‘third world’. I believe your generalisation that Dr. Nonis was ‘worshiped’ due to his defense of the country/state is both incorrect and unfair.
    Secondly, as few of the commentators have already pointed out, you are not referring to the Sri Lankan state of mind but rather to the ‘human’ state of mind. Take US for instance. The emphasis is on imprisoning Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning rather than on solving the underlying issues – including the state’s unprecedented surveillance of its populace and its complete lack of concern of the safety of civilians in a country in which it has a waged a so-called ‘war on terror’ (despite the military intervention not being backed by a single piece of evidence). Take India for instance. Rather than on taking remedial action against rape taking place in the country in a massive scale, it appears that emphasis of the authorities in certain cases is on discouraging women who are making these claims.
    Therefore, is the situation not the same everywhere? It is possible however that in Sri Lanka this tendency is greater than in some other countries. If so, the ‘sin’ of the Sri Lankan people is not being conscious its appearance but of being ‘overly-conscious’ of its appearance. It is important that you distinguish the fine line between these two points.
    However, I must say, despite my disagreement over its contents, I must congratulate you on a thought-provoking and well-written article.

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.