21 May, 2024


Moral Universalism Or Immoral Nativism

By Sarath De Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects, totalitarian propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have done by the most eloquent denunciations, the most compelling of logical rebuttals.” ~  Aldous Huxley in his revised forward to Brave New World.

Two things happened last week that made me tear up the few pages I had written and start anew. Both events compelled me to reappraise the zeitgeist we live in. Zeitgeist is one of those German words that crept in to English usage to express the spirit of social change, the bewildering unpredictability that characterize a period, a generation or an age. First was an encounter in the form of a conversation. The second was a piece of learned writing that dealt with public imagination of our time.

I spent last Sunday afternoon in the company of an ambitious, articulate, US educated professional (When in college in the US, he was a member of Young Republians. As part of his Political Science degree program in a prestigious university, he interned under a Republican Congressman). He was rancorously critical of my judgmental and condemnatory remarks concerning views of Major General Kamal Gunaratne in his book ‘Rana Maga Osse Nandikadal’ in my article Viyath Maga – Reverting To The Dictator State.

His censorial riposte brooked no retaliatory reasoning. ‘You simply don’t understand what we went through. You can now afford to pontificate because such illustrious soldiers who fought for our nation delivered us from evil that has no match in human history.’

I made a tentative reference to the funeral of former terrorist and deputy first Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuiness. I pointed to the words of the pastor at his funeral. “There are people in this church today whose presence would have been unthinkable only a generation ago.” That was the wrong thing to say.

The intensity of the expletive, the profanity of opinion it elicited had to be heard to be believed. Benedict Anderson was right when he said that nations are imagined communities. The vehemence, the energy, the fanaticism with which he defended the war hero and savaged my urbane multiculturalist worldview convinced me that ours is a nation that is singularly and universally more imagined than any other nation on this planet.

The second encounter was more rewarding. I read the recent essay by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka published in Global E Journal of the Center for 21st Century Global Dynamics of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka’s in this paper deals with Public Imagination albeit in a global sense in the age we live in. He starts off with characteristic gusto.

‘In the construction of a new public imagination, as in every other form of human endeavor, you are caught between two realities: you have to go back to where you got it wrong, but you can’t go back home again.’

Indeed! We have to go back to where we got it wrong. In retracing our steps, we need not go back home. But then, what was our home and where was it?

Then, it dawned on me. This subject of our public imagination had a direct bearing on my earlier encounter with the unabashed and avid admirer of Major General Kamal Gunaratne – the war hero who claims that his soldiers advanced against the enemy with “loaded weapon in one hand and a book on human rights and rules of engagement in the other, with hearts brimming with affection and love for the people they were to protect and safeguard.” In our public imagination they carried a loaded weapon in one hand and the book of human rights and rules of engagement in the other. Post war triumphalism has no doubt contributed to an equally ambidextrous public imagination.

Here, we speak of our post war public imagination. The Rajapaksa tribal order appropriated our public imagination. It was done cleverly and with great élan. In fairness, I must say that Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka was not always the naïve nativist that he has turned out to be or pretends to be in his new incarnation of in-house ideologue of the Rajapaksa family in general and the theoretical tactician of the Gota for President Movement in particular.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, our Ambassador in Geneva at the time hostilities ended and Author of Long War, Cold Peace knew where our public imagination was headed to and who steered its direction.

The publisher of Dr. Jayatilleka ‘s Long War, Cold Peace describes the purpose of the book. Long War, Cold Peace deals with politics and its extension: war. Most wars generate in their aftermath, a process of reflection. “This book is an analytical interpretation of what led to the war, what the most significant lessons of that experience were and what could prevent a recurrence of conflict.”

Now to return to the subject of public imagination and what happened tour public imagination after the war ended, we need go no further than the first paragraph of the Preface that Dr. Jayatilleka writes. Of the need for reflection after conflict he says “It is the practice, one may say the duty of the state and civil society, of artists and analysts to do so. It is usually the case that the period after a war, is one of profound ferment and productivity in the intellectual, artistic and policy realms. From WW II Europe to post Vietnam America that has been so. Sri Lanka for the most part, seems a sad exception. We have almost ceased to analyse, to think. (Emphasis mine)

Our public imagination was choked. But there were short, sharp grasps for fresh air by some intellectuals. Professor Nira Wickramasinghe of Leiden University is one. In October 2013 she published a paper – Producing the Present: History as Heritage in Post War Patriotic Sri Lanka. Who choked our thinking? Who trampled on honest analysis?

Here, I must again thank Dr. Jayatilleka. His recent statement that Gotabaya will create a 21st century technocratic state surpassing the grandeur of a pre Chola Lanka, rang memory bells as loud as bells of Notre Dame reminding me of the percipient, predictive study of the Rajapaksa ruled patriotic state by a Sorbonne educated Lankan academic.

Professor Nira Wickramasinghe wrote that in post war Sri Lanka, more than ever, nostalgia permeates heritage practices in Sri Lanka. She disentangled the state sanctioned ideological construct of the triumphant Sinhala-Buddhist state celebrating its victory over un-national secessionist forces. Nearly four years ago she warned us that “banal nationalism” could easily alienate cultural minorities. Today not a day passes without us hearing of smart patriotism of Gota that escapes grasp by dumb jackasses such as this writer.

Who shapes the public imagination in Sri Lanka? A foot note in her paper provides a clue. “In the popular press it is no longer historians who discuss matters relating to the past but amateur historians who write without abiding by the protocols of the profession. Among these are Bandu de Silva, a former diplomat who frequently contributes to the English language Newspapers Island, and Daily News, and NuweraEliya Hemapala and Ellawala Medananda who write for the Sinhala dailies.

Jürgen Habermas is a political philosopher who has grappled with historical questions from Nazism and student movements of the 1960s to the early phases of globalization. He makes an observation relevant to our discussion in the form of interventions of what he reads as historical public imagination that leads to the harrowing history of Germany in the 20th century. It is worth listening to him. ‘We have an intuitive knowledge of the intricate relations among past, present and future where the individual is concerned; but it is far from obvious how to apply that knowledge to a collected actor like a nation.’

The Bodu Bala Sena which is a fairly substantial reflection of post war public imagination was conceived promoted and sustained by the state , which in the opinion of this writer in its entirety is Gota conceived, Gota promoted and Gota sustained is a substantial reflection of our post war public imagination.

Professor Nira Wickramasinghe frames her paper with a quote from anthropologist Michael Herzfeld: “The state – actually a shifting complex of peoples and roles…”

BBS is an instrument of our contemporary public imagination. It served and serves a Sinhala Buddhist entrepreneurial class that had to ‘other’ possible competition to exploit, enjoy the economics of peace and get ahead in the urban development stampede.

To return, to the pivotal theme of this essay, there is no doubt that Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is one of our brightest, smartest political commenters enjoying an international repute. This writer can only endorse the editors of the Global E Journal of the Center for 21st Century Global Dynamics. His essay on Public Imagination in contemporary times is outstanding, compelling and provocative.

I turn seventy five this year. I was eighteen when the world learnt of the subject of his Doctoral Dissertation Moral Siera Maestra. He inherited at birth the positives and negatives of the legacy of Moral Siera Maestra. So I have no quarrel with him if he says that Fidel Castro approximates Nietzsche’s Roman Caesar with the soul of Christ. Not true, but it can pass. But I have a quarrel with him when he attempts to tell us that Gotabhaya Rajapakse possess even an inkling of the soul of a Siddhartha.

Time has come for Dr. DJ the son of Mervyn De Silva who coined the phrase ‘Mongrel Nationalism’ to choose between moral universalism and an immoral nativism.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Interesting back scratching and mild ass kicking going on between these two (Alwis and DJ).

    DJ is going on endorsing every one from Gota to Wijayadasa Rajapakse (not Sajith Premadas any more, thank God) and any one else that comes to his mind, it looks like.

    What the monkey’s ass is going on, only Alwis and DJ would know.
    Please keep CT readers informed – and entertained.

  • 2

    Seriously cannot this educated fellow understand the gratitude a country has for war heros likw Kamal? Does this man expect others in the country to look at him as some criminal just like ltte diaspora wants?

    This government has done everything to create chances for a gota presidency. And no BBS is not a post war nationalist movement but srilankan version of a islamophobic force that is strengthened all around the word.

  • 0

    For me, this is a sales pitch for Dr. Dayan Jayathilake particularly and his book, a view of a christian and how the christian researcher Wickeamsinghe see it. blah..blah..

    Sinhala buddhists don’t have rights. They can not assert their rights. that is extremism. Sri lankan majority culture is shaped by buddhism. sinhala people can not have a “sinhale”, and it should be Sri lanka, they can not have their flag, it should have minorities, they cannot have their language as the only national language, it should have Tamil and english, sinhale should be multicultural and buddhism should be equal with christianity, if not that pi$$ off those the minorities.

    Anyway thanks for your view.

    Same old crap.

    • 7

      jimsofty Dimwit

      “Sinhala buddhists don’t have rights. They can not assert their rights.”

      What rights are you talking about?

      Right to kill with impunity?

      Sunday Sil, Monday Kill?

      Right to abuse state powers?

      Right to make money out of Government contracts?

      Right to peddle drugs?

      Right to commit war crimes crime against humanity?

      Right to behave like a moron and remain a stupid?

      Sinha Le (Lion Blooded) people should be caged or sent back to African jungle.

      • 0

        Dumb Native Veddo:

        Right to commit war crimes crime against humanity? Right to behave like a moron and remain a stupid?

        Ranil’s UNpatriotic party is going to lose big time ?

        Sinhala people are stupid – morons that is why LTTE is a spiritual organization and killing suicide bombers is a war crime. Those who saved child soliders and civilian hostages are war criminals.

        what a way to analyze things.

        • 4

          jimsofty the Dimwit

          “Ranil’s UNpatriotic party is going to lose big time ?”

          Is it unusual? Why are you sad about it?

          “Those who saved child soliders and civilian hostages are war criminals.”

          Examples of war crimes are:

          Wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity

          Attack, or bombardment, by whatever means, of undefended towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings

          Seizure of, destruction or wilful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments and works of art and science
          Plunder of public or private property.

          Crime against humanity as crimes committed in armed conflict but directed against a civilian population.

          Again a list of examples is given below:

          Persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds.


  • 1

    What a fine article this would have been if Sarath de Alwis had not chickened out and named the first of the three personalities, because then it would have been an interestingly contrasting portrait of three Sri Lankan intellectuals from three points of the spectrum. I do wonder how Sarath defines those three points of location of the spectrum…

  • 2

    I am at a loss. How will naming the first of the three personalities make a difference ??

    • 5

      sarath de alwis

      “How will naming the first of the three personalities make a difference ??”

      Since Wimal Sangili Karuppan Weerawansa is being detained by the CID, the war monger is looking for a partner to fill in the intellectual deficiency.

      Dayan typed the following on 18 January 2017 and CT promptly published the piece under

      A Dividing Society, A Divided Self

      “It was almost the end of 2016 and at the society wedding of the year attended by the incumbent President, the Prime Minister and two former Presidents (of wildly unequal popularity even in an elite setting), that a very senior retired civil servant posed the following question to me in the buffet queue: “Dayan, have you ever seen a government that was quite as stupid as this one?” My prompt answer was “nope”.”

      sarath de alwis

      I am still awaiting to hear the very senior retired civil servant’s name.

      • 1

        Don’t be silly. Sarath’s article is pegged on three encounters, and he names two of the personalities but not the first. My article was not built on encounters with personalities; I mentioned an encounter as a light, if truthful preface to the theme and analysis.

        • 4

          Dayan the war monger

          ” I mentioned an encounter as a light, if truthful preface to the theme and analysis.”

          I too wanted to remind you that your banal typing never brought any new knowledge to the discussion, except your dislike for democracy.

    • 1

      Three encounters; two names? At least one of your old editors would have reminded you that ” names make news”.

  • 1

    Hey Sarath, when and where did I say or even allude to Gotabhaya having ” the soul of Siddartha”? More than a little tendentious, don’t you think? or as Trump would tweet, “fake news”?

    • 2

      Bring ot on, Sarath.

      A gentle ass kick, g…..ently right.

      OK, Dayan, kick, a little harder.

      Now we will wait for Sarath’s counter punch, hopefully at DJ’s cojones?

      Come on, don’t expect a hard one. Sarath knew DJ’s father don’t you know?

  • 1

    Dear Sarath: “Moral Universalism or Immoral Nativism”. NEITHER. It is purely HYPOCRISY.

  • 4


    No you did not at any stage say that Gotabaya has the sole of Siddhartha.You did say that he is a reformed Angulimala. No matter what I say or you say people will either elect him or reject him for the presidency. Unless he is jailed after due process before 2020 he is and will be a viable candidate. So please tell him to tell us what he thinks of democratic dissent? Remember what he told the Wanathamulla residents.

    Native Vedda,
    Oh You are awaiting to hear the name of the very senior civil servant ! I made no reference to a senior Civil Servant. Do you have a name ? Of course you are a native vedda. Why don’t you begin by tell us your Name POJJA ?

    • 4

      sarath de alwis

      “Why don’t you begin by tell us your Name POJJA ?”

      You have just discussed the possibility of Gota being elected to presidency of this island and democratic dissent.

      You have not sufficiently persuaded us to disclose our officially recognised names. On the contrary your articles discourages many.

      Every little secret can be out in the open only in a fully democratised island where the state is accountable to the people.

      It might take another 25 years or more. I hope and wish you a long healthy life for you to enjoy the fruits of fully democratised Sri Lanka.

      Hope you would still be contributing to CT as a centenarian and us commenting on your articles.

  • 1

    Sarath, aren’t you confusing Kamal Gunaratne with Mahinda Rajapaksa? I think it was MR rather than KG who made the claim of the gun in one hand and the universal declaration of Human Rights in the other…an adaptation of a famous phrase of his friend and hero Yasser Arafat who talked of a gun in one hand and an olive branch in the other.

    Kamal’s superb book is authentic and grittily realistic while also being romantically nationalist.

  • 4

    No fear. I am not confusing Kamal Gunaratne with MR. I am quoting Kamal Gunaratne from his book. I have the Sinhala orginal wjhere he claims the same except that in the Sinhala version the soldier’s breast is brimming with Dayawa, Adraraya and Karunawa. Eka Athakin pathuram pirunu thuwakkuawath , anek athin manawa himikam ha Rules of Enagement pothath ” For the purpose of my article I visited a book shop and copied from the English version of the book. Beauty lies in the eye in the beholder. From your side of the barricade it is Superb, authentic gritty and realistic, romantically nationalist. Super.
    So it was a repeat of Elara Dutugamnu. Not a war against terror . Not a civil war against a separatist movement.

    Sinhala Soldier fighting the Tamil invader. I doubt you read the book in its entirety. In my review I quoted extensive chunks from its Sinhala version. The Book is a classic in its overarching rejection of the ethnic heterogeneity of our country. It is an authentic and unvarnished depiction of Sinhala Buddhist savagery.

    • 4

      sarath de alwis

      “So it was a repeat of Elara Dutugamnu.”

      It was the first known monk lead religious crusade against others according to Mahawamsa.

  • 1

    “Three encounters; two names? At least one of your old editors would have reminded you that ” names make news”.”
    You are right.
    I wrote that piece essentially for the benefit of the unnamed third party. My intention was not to make news. My purpose was to persuade a discerning mind that the way to reintegrate with his origins is not by getting brain washed by Old Anandians whom the third party new only in primary school.

    The first Ugly American to land in this country was Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. .

  • 2

    De Alwis:
    To return, to the pivotal theme of this essay, there is no doubt that Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is one of our brightest, smartest political commenters enjoying an international repute. This writer can only endorse the editors of the Global E Journal of the Center for 21st Century Global Dynamics. His essay on Public Imagination in contemporary times is outstanding, compelling and provocative.
    Not a vacillating, unprincipled egotist, who will betray any cause and abandon every scruple to advance his own interests, then?
    Et tu de Alwis?

  • 0

    Sarath, Kamals book written in English is a bit different to his Sinhala print as most incidents he included are basically not true. A intellectual who refused to use his fathers surname is today preaching others and you describe him well. The technocrat who is pushed by the phoney admirer when in Paris and Geneva wrote his honest opinion about the 13A and he expressed a different opinion to that of his boss during that time. But today he is trying to be the saviour of poor Sinhalese and trap Gotabaya for the World Tamil Forum. As always he will failed as he is well known to many.

  • 1

    “THERE has been a good deal of discussion lately between journalists and political scientists concerning, on one side, political journalists’ dogged ignorance of relevant findings in political science and, on the other side, political scientists’ obdurate refusal to make their work accessible or practically useful. It would be nice were political scientists to appear more often on op-ed pages and write more and better popular work, but I say we blame the journalists for indifference.
    Economics and finance journalists often have some background in academic economics, at the undergraduate level at least, and generally keep up to speed on the state of the art. Political journalists, I guess, generally have no parallel familiarity with academic political science, and I’m not sure they care. Most political journalists strike me as glorified sports writers who tell gripping tales about interesting personalities, debate ceaselessly about the strategic aspects of the next big game, track the relative status of competing teams, and, most boringly, report scores”.TE
    “As for a blind spot, I really wish that political scientists spent more time interacting with the people they write about. The lived experience of politics and the academic representation of it often differ. Journalists and political scientists need to bridge the gap.”

    • 2

      Shelton Dharmaratne

      “The lived experience of politics and the academic representation of it often differ.”

      Please tell us as to why the lived experience of politics and the academic representation of it often differ.

      ” Journalists and political scientists need to bridge the gap”

      Do they really have to when they are only interested only in their own ego trips and worried about where their next job/laptop is coming from?

      Fake news/analysis helps to manufacture consent, or shall we say Maha Sammatha (Great Consensus), just before it wreak havoc.

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