By Mohamed Harees –
‘First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.’—Martin Niemöller
There can be different perspectives and views about the Aragalaya , an uprising of the people across the island infuriated by the continued extravagances of politicians and their families took to the streets to voice dissent against the government to protest against the growing hardships inflicted by the worst economic crisis the country has faced since independence. There may have been different vested interests which may have exploited the Aragalaya and/or hijacked the agenda for their own political ends. However, there is general agreement about one huge laudable outcome which will pave the way for an inclusive nation, the realization that racial unity is imperative for nation’s progress. The non-racist, indeed anti-racist nature of the struggle, depicting the consciousness the new generation depicted the maturity of thinking. For the first time, people joined ranks irrespective of race, religion, or social class, for a common national cause, breaking the barriers created by their political masters, polluted by the toxic concepts of majoritarianism and racism.
A new feeling of a being part of a ‘Sri Lankan family’ within a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual, and a multicultural setting came into being in and through the Aragalaya, a welcome shower for a nation wounded by decades of division, war and violence. Those belonging to the majority Sinhala and minority communities in the Aragalaya, showed mutual empathy and former felt the pain of their Tamil and Muslim brethren who faced decades of suppression by a majoritarian State. This resonated with the above Martin Niemöller’s famous quote which underscored the consequences of silence, indifference, apathy and being mere bystanders. Among the many takeaways from this Aragalaya, this show of unity if sustained , will rank uppermost and will augur well for this nation.
During WWII the vast majority of people in Germany and the conquered countries of Europe played it safe. They were bystanders, trying to get on with their lives the best they could. They did not speak out against Nazi oppression or risk their well-being trying to defeat their new masters by aiding those in need. After the war, many claimed not to have known the true nature of Nazi persecutions and the Holocaust. Or they claimed they were just following orders. Or the law. Or the crowd. After all, they said, what can one person do? But at the same time brave people throughout Europe refused to give in to the Nazis too. They fought with radio broadcasts and pamphlets, through spying and sabotage, and sometimes in face-to-face combat. The WWII generation and every generation since have had to face the questions of who was guilty for the atrocities of WWII and debate the responsibilities of nations, of communities, and of individuals when facing oppression and persecution.
After World War II, prominent German pastor Martin Niemöller openly spoke about his own early complicity in Nazism and his eventual change of heart. Niemöller is remembered as one of the more prominent Germans to publicly acknowledge his moral failures committed during the Nazi era, as well as those of his nation and church. And he continued to speak publicly about the relationship between inaction and Germans’ responsibility for the persecution and murder of Jews in the Holocaust. His powerful words about guilt and responsibility quoted above still resonate today. Multiple versions of the quote “First they came for….” exist because Niemöller often presented his lectures impromptu and changed the list of victims from lecture to lecture.
Regardless of his exact words, Niemöller’s message remained consistent. He declared that through silence, indifference, and inaction, Germans had been complicit in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people. He felt that the silence of Protestant church leaders, including his own, was particularly egregious because they were in positions of moral authority. Today a debate about collective guilt during WWII still rages amongst academics and in the popular media. Were the German people as a whole guilty for the Holocaust, or just those actively supporting the Nazis? If someone does nothing to stop a crime, is he guilty of a crime himself? Can someone who commits war crimes or crimes against humanity be forgiven by claiming he was just following orders? Thus, in this context, even today, Niemöller’s lines have meaning. It has meaning and resonance across various political spectra. They are often altered to fit differing political or social agendas, but they stand as a universal call for social action and solidarity and vigilance in the face of oppression and injustice. So is this quote relatable to Sri Lanka and its chequered history as well!
In the words of the US based analyst of Sri Lanka, Professor Neil Devotta: “When Sri Lanka celebrated independence in 1948 many considered it the post-colonial country most likely to succeed economically and democratically. Sixty years later( now 74 years later) the island represents illiberalism, political decay, and ethnocentrism. Not only has the country retrogressed on nearly all important indicators representing secularism, liberalism, pluralism, ethnic coexistence, and good governance, it is also poised to degenerate further towards dictatorship”. Since decolonisation in 1948, there has been legal, political and economic discrimination of both minorities – Tamils and Muslims, including racist violence against them, making Sri Lanka a tinder box of sectarian and ethnic tensions. In fact, in the backdrop of the country’s pogrom-filled history, and in the context of a difficult transition from war to peace in 2009, the resurgence of ethno-nationalism and identity politics produced fresh tensions and fault lines.
In Sri Lanka, we live in a time of historical amnesia with glittering generalities used to mask a lack of understanding of what brought us to the point where we now stand. Fortunately, at least decades later during an Aragalaya against State Oppression and State induced economic crisis which affected all, this Niemöller’s apt quote began to prick the conscience specially of the majority Sinhalese regarding their collective ‘failure’ to prevent many a historic blunders – allowing their leaders to adopt a discriminatory policies against minorities, failure to stop many spates of anti-Tamil violence including the 30 year old protracted civil war, and the tragic anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983. In an adopted form, the quote thus became in today’s context as ‘First they came for the Tamils, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Tamil’ which began to resonate strongly in the public domain.
For example, what once thrust Sri Lanka into the political hotspots of the world was the July 1983 riots, 29th anniversary of which Sri Lanka commemorates this month, which is now known to be a crisis sponsored by President JR Jayewardene himself. At least, there exist evidences that this happened with his knowledge and approval. What happened in July 1983 was not a spontaneous riot but a planned pogrom. Many Sinhala people were actually horrified at what happened and were helpless onlookers, while a minority of their ethnicity unleashed havoc in the name of their race and country. It is possible that a section of the people who were non- participants may have been supportive of the anti–Tamil violence and sanctioned it by their silence. It cannot be forgotten that a large number of Sinhalese protected and saved Tamils often at great personal risk. Many Muslims too gave shelter and protection to their Tamil neighbours in those dark days. The mobs on a burning spree went in search of fuel chanting the slogan “Rata Jathiya Bera Ganna, Petrol Thel Tikkak Dhenna” (Give a little petrol and oil to save the race and country). The thugs and goons with State patronage went on rampage raising these types of emotional nationalistic slogans and cries which at least made to justify the carnage being let loose on the innocent civil Tamil population and at worst to provoke people to engage in acts of arson and killings.
Just look at the lack of concern for the people merely because they belonged to a minority community.
The conduct and political role played by the then President JR Jayewardene in the Anti-Tamil violence in July 1983 has been widely criticized. Then Lands and Mahaweli Development Minister Gamini Dissanayake warned Tamils that it would require 14 hours for Indian troops to come and rescue them but the Sinhalese could destroy them in 14 minutes if they wanted to, while then Trade and Shipping Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was sorry that people had to queue up again for essentials as a result of the violence. Then Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel gave a lecture in history about Sena and Guttiga,
In an interview to the Daily Telegraph on July 11, 1983, about two weeks prior to the 83 Genocide against Tamils by the time president Jayewardene said this: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people now. Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us. The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… really, if I starve the Tamils, Sinhala people will be happy… ”. Insensitivity at the worst!
As the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom faded into distant memory, senior journalist DBS Jeyaraj correctly cautioned, in his column in 2010, that ‘the inherent danger in the pogrom of July 1983 being forgotten is that it may very well happen again. As the truism goes “those who do not remember the lessons of history are condemned to relive it again. Arguably had the memory of 1958 anti-Tamil violence been frequently re-visited, the incidents of 1977 and 1983 may not have recurred…The ugly head of neo-fascism masquerading as patriotism is being raised. The Tamil people in particular and the minorities in general are being pilloried as “aliens” and “visitors”. Any sensible nation would have learnt from the gory events that changed this island nation’s history and sent a once booming economy into a downward trajectory, with billions of dollars since been spent on and thousands of lives lost as a result of the thirty year old ethnic strife that followed. Not Sri Lanka as the purveyors of racial hatred continued to spread their evil gospel and irresponsible sections of the media peddle it regularly. Until recently, communalist propaganda in the garb of pseudo nationalism found fertile ground which saw the election of racist Rajapaksas to high office in the Postwar era.
In the Postwar, another catastrophe followed, with the Rajapaksa regime actively promoting anti Muslim hatred and Islamophobia. This led to spates of anti Muslim violence, tempo of which increased after the Easter Sunday terror in 2019. Under Gota’s charge, these divisions reached a record high. The Aragalaya raised the failure of the majority community to stop this toxic trend which Niemöller’s quotr in an adopted version, may read as ‘Then they came for the Muslims , and I did not speak out—because I was not a Muslim’ which also began to resonate strongly in the public domain. The State sponsored hate groups also actively promoted divisions between Sinhala Buddhists and Christians as well, and Sinhala Buddhist people saw the deceit they were subjected to by the so-called pseudo Sinhala Buddhist political leaders in the calibre of Rajapakses. The third arm of the Niemöller’s quote may thus be framed as ‘Then they came for the Christians, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Christian’
In the Sri Lankan context, Niemöller’s quote clearly came into focus when Sri Lankan journalist and editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, then Editor of Sri Lanka’s The Sunday Leader newspaper Lasantha, was assassinated by State sponsored hitmen. Few weeks before his assassination, he penned a chillingly prophetic editorial predicting, “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me” Published three days after his assassination, the editorial titled ‘And Then They Came For Me’ said, quoting Niemöller, he stressed the need to speak out against injustice and State oppression to all‘, without waiting for a day when injustice will reach one’s own doorstep.
Today, some may feel that Rajapakse stooge and defender RW(whose election may be ‘constitutionally legal’ but totally immoral as the successor President marred by corrupt deals) should be given time to perform. However, the fact that the Pohottuwa still has the final say in the affairs of this nation, as witnessed by this sham election, and the circus of old jokers once again in the cabinet, as well as no viable plan of action in offer, including silence on the subject of recovery of stolen assets, proves that this administration is just an extension of the corrupt Rajapaksas and totally unviable and a farce. Besides, the RW has started off his witch hunt of the activists who led the Aragalaya. Already he is inviting back Gota too. So business as usual!It is the duty of the people to stand up against this victimization and defend the spirit of the Aragalaya. Allowing this Rajapakse administrator in Western suit to flex his ‘Batalanda’ muscles will reverse all laudable achievements of this Aragalaya. Next step may be to breed the toxic Rajapaksa style racism in the society at a time when people are realising the folly of being divided and the true meaning of last arm of Niemöller’s quote: Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.’.For ultimate realization of the need for an inclusive Sri Lanka, fundamental changes in mindset on the part of both society is and government will however be needed. Will Sri Lankans be ready for this paradigm shift in thinking to move forward as a progressive nation? A million dollar question indeed!