By Romesh Hettiarachchi –
Calls for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to be appointed as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka continue to grow. One vocal supporter of these calls has been former diplomat and current academic, Dayan Jayatilleka who described this movement as standing for a Sinhala nationalism that forms the core of Sri Lankan nationhood and Sri Lankan patriotism. Dayan elaborates on this stance in his previous article Smart Patriotism and the Marginal Majority (“Smart Patriotism“), asserting that Smart Sri Lankan Patriots must acknowledge the central role of Sinhala nationalism. Any failure to recognize Sinhala nationalism is characterized by Dayan as being ridiculously artificial and dis-organic.
The Duty of the Patriot is to the Country not to Former Elected Officials
Given Dayan’s admitted soft spot for Mahinda Rajapaksa, Dayan’s agreement with Wimal Weerawansa that “Mahinda is not a name, Mahinda is a country!” should not be a surprise. However equating a former elected official with a whole country is hardly the behaviour of a patriot. As United States President Theodore Roosevelt said:
Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.
Characteristics of Nationalist Thought
As astute and intelligent as Dayan may be, Dayans’ writings tend to dwell on the victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations of the past. Such tendencies are described by George Orwell in his essay Notes on Nationalism (full essay here) as being essential for the nationalists quest to secure more power and prestige for “their nation.”:
The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakably certain of being in the right.
The unshakeable certainty of being right is probably one of the more distinguishing characteristics of Dayan’s writings. However given the failure of nationalist thought to evolve over the past seven decades, Orwell’s characteristics of nationalist thought continue to be relevant especially when it comes to Dayan:
- Obsession: Like their Tamil counterparts, Sinhala nationalists are near obsessed with the superiority of their own race. In Smart Patriotism, Dayan argues that the ancientness of the Sinhala nation, language, history and civilization confer a central role upon the Sinhala Buddhist people in the Sri Lankan nation. If this is accurate, then it is difficult to see why the same principles should not apply for the Tamil community, considering that the Tamil language is generally recognized to be at least as old as Sinhala, if not older.
- Instability: Dayan asserts he stands for a “nationalism that is compatible with internationalism.” This is a nonsensical position: Nationalism is compatible with internationalism insofar as the demands of the international community are superseded by the interests of the nation state i.e. the very definition of nationalism. Perhaps Dayan’s intense nationalism is a byproduct of his intellectual affinity with Marxist Cuba and his historical reservations with the Western states?
- Indifference to Reality: Orwell described nationalists as possessing two remarkable capacities. First nationalists have an inability to seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. Smart Patriotism exemplifies this inability splendidly: able to be transformed into an argument for Tamil nationalism simply by reading “Tamil” for every instance of “Sri Lankan”, “Sinhala” and “Sinhalese.” The second remarkable capacity for nationalists is their inability to not only disapprove of atrocities committed by their own side but not being able to hear about them: [For nationalists] a known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind… Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied. Again these capacities are equally demonstrated by Sinhala and Tamil nationalists alike. It appears that when it comes to Sri Lankan and Diaspora politics, acknowledging reality is clearly not a prerequisite to being taken seriously.
Patriotism and Nationalism – an Antiquated Debate that Hurts Sri Lanka?
I am well aware that nationalism and patriotism continue to play significant roles in global politics. However history demonstrates that concepts of patriotism and nationalism have generally been tools for those in power to exclude and marginalize dissenting voices. You need to look no further than the previous regime to see examples of this. It is no wonder why Oscar Wilde called patriotism the “virtue of the vicious” and Samuel Johnson viewed patriotism as “last refuge of a scoundrel.” Similarly it cannot be a surprise that Albert Einstein referred to nationalism as an infantile disease – the “measles of mankind” – while Eric Frohm referred to “nationalism as a form of incest, idolatry and insanity” with patriotism being its cult.
With those who demand tribal ideologies be embedded at the core of a national, multi-ethnic identity like betraying signs of their youth, I would much rather hope a post-conflict society such as the society Sri Lanka aspires to be would adopt the perspective of Martin Luther King Jr.:
Power without love is reckless and abusive.
Love without power is sentimental and anemic.
Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.
Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
Sri Lankan Identity: Fragmented?
Speaking solely as a Diaspora observor, it seems to me that attempts to define the smart/dumb Sri Lankan patriot and by extension Sri Lankan traitors, only serves to exclude those who do not fit these narrow subjective definitions. Indeed, similar asinine intellectual and institutional attempts in Sri Lankan history has resulted in our Sri Lankan communities suffering through decades of violence.
It may well be Sri Lankan identity has fractured as a result of such violence and the ensuing rise of ethnoreligious idiocy. If true, its no wonder that Dayan wants Sinhala Nationalism to fill the cracks in these fractures. Hes simply reverting back to what he knows. With expressions of patriotism and nationalism in post-war Sri Lanka proving to be effective means for activists and politicians to ensure the cycle of conflict continues, it is imperative that those opposing these expressions continue to work together within and across geographic boundaries to find a different “glue” to hold the Sri Lankan identity together.
In the interim, and to conclude, allow me to paraphrase Jon Stewart: Efforts to define the patriotism of Sri Lankans as smart, dumb or delusional isn’t bad as much as its hurting Sri Lanka.
Stop. Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting Sri Lanka.
p.s. Also Dayan, as a fellow fan of The Boss, I hope you recognize Springsteen would never support your brand of politics. Also, give Glory Days a listen. You may find some relevance in the lyrics.
Now I think I’m going down to the well tonight
and I’m going to drink till I get my fill
And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it
but I probably will.
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of Glory days.
*Romesh Hettiarachchi is a lawyer and mediator in Toronto, Canada. A former director of Sri Lankans Without Borders, Romesh can be reached @romesh_h. For those interested in continuing these discussions, particularly those in Canada, visit the Kathae Kadai facebook forum.