By Malinda Seneviratne –
[In a parallel CHOGM, perhaps….]
Fellow Commonwealth leaders, ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, delegates from around the Commonwealth, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I extend a warm welcome to all of you on behalf of the citizens of Sri Lanka, a resplendent and resilient land whose cultural ethos if marked by anything is signature by the privileging of the quality of equanimity. We take our joys and sorrows, fame and misfortune, profits and losses, praise and blame with a smile.
It is customary to allude to our shared past, refer to complexities of that past and the resolve by members to reinvent the collective that emerged from these commonalities. We are gathered here, men and women from different cultures and of different faith. We will speak about the commonwealth of values and the responsibility and accountability embedded in the idea of membership. If I were to pin it down to essence, two words remain: free and equal.
Re-invention implies a break from the past, a forgiving and forgetting, a restoration of civilization, recovery of dignity and such. This is good. It is good because it says that condescension has no place in this forum. It is good because there can be no more ‘talking down’ or ‘talking tough’. That’s what equality means.
What does ‘free’ mean? It means we can be frank with one another. It means we can be friends. The Buddha whose teachings more than anything else has shaped the culture and civilization of this country, talks about two categories of friends, those who are virtuous and those who are evil. True friends will criticize to face, with praise in absence; evil friends are not really friends, they smile to face and ridicule behind the back. Let us be true to one another, therefore. Let us have conversation and not monolog. Let us draw deep from the philosophies that have nurtured and sustained us during the colonial encounter, given us the strength of character to recover from the bludgeoning we’ve received and venture forth with confidence to expand the horizons of freedom.
Of all things bequeathed to my country during colonial rule, one stands out: the opportunity for my people to encounter a man called Jesus Christ. His life inspires, his word empowers. Some of us are theists and others are atheists, but both categories of people can benefit from the Sermon on the Mount, which prescribes ways of being and engagement that resonates with the teachings of the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama and Prophet Mohammed.
Let their teachings frame our deliberations and guide is on issues of propriety. I do not have to tell my learned and respectable friends that stone-throwing is what we wanted to put behind us when we became members of this august body. We can and must resist the human urge to be passionate for passion dulls reason. We must instead privilege wisdom, exercise caution and always keep in mind that we, as recipients and givers of much blackness in the past, would do well to recognize complexity and acknowledge context. If we do not, we would quickly slip to a point where statement degenerates into shout and conversation becomes a competition to see who has the shriller voice. We can do better, I am convinced.
We have met before. Many times. We’ve made our points, talked about commonalities and the commonwealth of ideas and values. And yet, it seems that we have allowed rhetoric to triumph over substance. Perhaps out of a reluctance to state the disconcerting, chosen to skirt vital issues that are also common to many of us. We have on many occasions chosen to look the other way when member state bullies fellow member state, when member state joins with non-member to bully fellow-member and when our members themselves are perpetrators of aggression that is an affront to our collective humanity. We have to decide, friends, whether we want to continue like this.
We could chose to tread the tired paths we’ve walked on all these years. We can make the same tired speeches drawn from easy templates. We can use this forum to spout venom, we can paint ourselves as saints who can do no wrong, we can air our pet peeves and we can say a lot without saying anything of substance.
If that is the best we can do, I am afraid that this gathering is a colossal waste of time. If we, as a collective, cannot come up with creative and pragmatic solutions to the problems that beset our peoples such as poverty, hunger, limited access to health and education, development that compromises the idea of sustainability, the poisoning of soils and people by toxic substances, the hoodwinking of less-informed consumers by unethical pharmaceutical companies and so on, then we might as well resolve to close shop.
This Commonwealth of Nations can be better that it has hitherto been.
The people of Sri Lanka warmly welcome you. Wherever you go, there’s one thing you will find. A smile. We hide our sorrows well, we spread the joy. We say to you, ‘Come, partake’. And to those who’ve seen this country through borrowed eyes, I can do no better than say what the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama said of his doctrine, Ehi Passiko, ‘Come, Explore!’
Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhitatta
May all beings be happy.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com