19 September, 2018

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Public Writings On Sri Lanka: Review

By Christopher Rezel

Christopher Rezel

Christopher Rezel

It is usual for mainstream Sri Lanka media and politicians to dub Tamil commentators on racial inequality as biased. Given violence against dissenting voices, most such comment originates abroad. Consequently, they are labelled diaspora proxies for a resurgent Tamil Tiger movement and dismissed offhand.

Such would be remiss in the case of Charles Sarvan’s, Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Vol 11. It brings together a collection of seemingly disparate and wide-ranging essays that implicitly, if not directly, have bearing on the historical prejudice and rivalry between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Sarvan, doctor of Philosophy, London, and professor of Commonwealth Literature, who now lives in Germany with his German-born wife after a career of teaching at universities in different parts of the world, says he is “merely presenting his personal understanding, in the hope that the ensuing discussion, even disagreement, would make a small, but positive, contribution.” An eclectic reader, he meshes his own analysis and observations with those of Sri Lankan academics and intellectuals, besides international notables.

To ignore this book would be to remain unaware that at the height of the war with the Tamil Tigers, a Buddhist monk was a teacher at Kilinochchi; or that a Sinhalese Special Task Force officer taught music at a local school in Thirukkkovil.

The above snippets, which elevate our faith in human nature, show up in an essay that reviews the book, Of Tamils and Tigers: a journey through Sri Lanka’s war years, by Dutch missionary-teacher, Ben Bavinck, who spent 30 years on the island. Similarly, other essays, written between 2005 and 2011, may dwell on Tolstoy, on outstanding Sri Lankan individuals such as H.A.J. Hulugalle and Paul Caspersz, or on a wide range of social and ethical issues. But they all come back to throw light on the island’s ethnic problems, broadening our understanding, obliging us into a more adaptable stance. Sarvan quotes the writer Elmo Jayawardana: “We hate some people because we do not know them, and we will not know them because we hate them.”

Published by Cinnamon Teal Publishers, Goa, India. Email address: contactus@cinnamonteal.in ISBN: 978-93-83175-04-8

Published by Cinnamon Teal Publishers, Goa, India.
Email address: contactus@cinnamonteal.in
ISBN: 978-93-83175-04-8

The longest essay, Reign of Anomy, concentrates on past and present reasons for fear and hostility between the Sinhalese and Tamils. It focuses on key issues if Tamil political grievances are to be resolved. The list is long. It may go back to the disenfranchisement of the island’s “Indian” Tamils, laws making Sinhala the only official language that reduced Tamils to language illiterates, promotion of Sinhalese colonization of Tamil areas, reduction of university intake of Tamil medium students, curtailment of Tamil recruitment to the public sector, especially the police and armed services.

These and other failing are the result of an intolerance that goes back centuries and to myth. The origin of such myth may be located in the historical work, the Mahavamsa, or Great Chronicle, which discusses the supposed arrival of Prince Vijaya from northern India in 543 BCE to found the Sinhalese race, besides the introduction of Buddhism to the island. The Mahawamsa, dated to the 6th century Common Era that records a “history” of the previous thousand years, is considered important to Theravada Buddhism, the dominant branch of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Sarvan takes a critical look at the Mahavamsa because “it powerfully influences both the Sinhalese collective conscious and, even more powerfully, the Sinhalese unconscious”. He calls it “a pernicious work, one that has wreaked horrendous damage”, and quotes eminent historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who warns that myth, mistaken for history, can become the raw material for xenophobia. The Mahavamsa is all-pervasive in the Sinhalese consciousness and begins with schoolchildren being taught the story of how the Tamil king Elara was defeated by the Sinhalese king Dutugemunu, with the battle presented as one between the two races. They learn that King Dutugemunu, on being concerned he would not attain nirvana, was exonerated of battlefield massacre and assured by Buddhist monks that he had killed but one and a half men: the one being a Buddhist and the other only on the path to becoming a Buddhist. Others who died, being non-Buddhist, were but animals. To “think of the Dutugemunu-Elara conflict as one between Sinhalese and Tamil is to read the distant, dim and unreliable past through the consciousness of later times. It is to impose categories on the conflict that then did not exist,” says Sarvan.

He suggests that an unfortunate inheritance can be traced from The Mahavamsa through the virulently “racist” Anagarika Dharmapala, a man the writer Sharmini Serasinghe says added his own flavour to Buddhism “in the form of intolerance of other religions and ethnic groups…” (Colombo Telegraph. Bigotry of Sinhalabuddhism, 2 March, 2013.) The Mahavamsa asserts the Sinhalese are Aryan, a claim generally believed in and which sets apart Sinhalese attitude towards Dravidian Tamils. The belief regularly manifests in Sri Lankan journalism and literature, such as the book, The Revolt in the Temple, where the author D.C. Wijewardena writes, “The Sinhalese are Aryan, and the Aryan race is not only intellectually but, more importantly, morally supreme in the world”.

Similar claims are encountered in national newspapers that deride Tamils, such as, “an alien Tamil speaking group with little or no history in the island” (Sunday Island, Colombo. 25 January 2004, p.7.) Further, imperial Britain is co-opted to the Sinhala Aryan cause and the defeat of Sri Lanka’s last king, who was of Dravidian origin, is viewed favourably: “The Kandyan Chieftains really exchanged the Nayakkar Dynasty with the Windsor Dynasty of England who were of Aryan stock replacing the wholly alien Dravidian power” (Sunday Times, Colombo, 4 March 2007, p. 4.).

Sarvan presents such inanity not with the intention to belittle, but as a call for scrutiny of the simple and unthinking belief by many who credit the Mahavamsa as literal, historical, truth.

Many prominent Sri Lankan academics and intellectuals question such acceptance. Foremost is Professor Carlo Fonseka (The Island, 22 October 1995): “I do not find that reading the Mahavamsa enhances my self-esteem as a Sinhalese. On the contrary, I feel greatly embarrassed and deeply humiliated when I learn that we the Sinhalese are the descendants of Vijaya, the banished profligate son of an incestuous marriage between (Sihabahu) and sister (Sihasivali) whose mother was so exceedingly lustful that only a real lion could satisfy her sexually […] Thus, according to the Mahavamsa, brutishness, bestiality, incest, patricide and profligacy, were the stuff of our genesis.”

Sarvan sees Buddhism as “a rational and essentially kind and gentle doctrine” but its expression in Sri Lanka today as an “unfortunate divergence” that “has proved false to Buddhism”. He addresses the role of Buddhism and the Buddhist clergy in stoking Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflicts and believes the island is “in danger of becoming a theocracy, like Iran, where important decisions in all spheres of private and public life must have the approval of the clergy”. He quotes author Gordon Weiss, “Some Buddhist monks preach hatred, rather than loving kindness, and are violently “racist”.

Buddhist clergy stoking anti-Tamil sentiment in post-independence Sri Lanka goes back to July 1957 when the country’s then prime minister, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, and the leader of the main Tamil political party, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, entered into a landmark pact intended as a measure of autonomy to the Tamils, with both sides making concessions. Sections of the Sinhalese saw the pact as a sell-out and a mob, led by some 100 Buddhist monks, descended on Mr Bandaranayake’s residence and forced its abrogation. That abandonment led to tensions resulting in successive violent outbreaks against the Tamils that eventually spiralled into the 26-year war between the two communities.

We are told in ‘Anomy’, “The clergy is listened to with respect and credence, and has a powerful influence on the thought and actions of the people.” ‘Anomy’ was written at the height of the war and so it became inevitable that the word “terrorist” was scrutinised. Such examination compels us to look afresh at our own reality, keeping in mind his disclaimer: “To understand cause is not necessarily to exculpate or condone reaction and consequence.” He sees the word terrorist as a “current term of political abuse – used, over-used and misused,” with each side claiming the other is a terrorist and that the struggle is against the much-execrated terrorism. We are reminded that, “states unleash terror on the civilian population on a much larger scale than any terrorist group” and J. M. Coetzee in, Diary of a Bad Year, is quoted: “Dropping bombs from high altitude, causing civilian casualties, is no less an act of terror than blowing oneself up in a crowd”. Sarvan asserts, “Those killed by states run into millions, and numerically bear no comparison at all with those killed by terrorist organisations.” “However, state-terrorism tends not to be viewed as criminal, the attitude being that no outside political entity has the right to prescribe to a sovereign state what methods and means it should employ to preserve itself.”

Another book reviewed within these pages is, The cage: the fight for Sri Lanka & and the last days of the Tamil Tigers, by Gordon Weiss. Weiss reiterates contentious claims: “In Sri Lanka, during the first five months of 2009, about 160,000 government troops “faced off against a core force of perhaps 2,000 to 5,000 Tamil Tiger fighters […] The sixteen-week siege led to the death of between 10,000 and 40,000 people. […] There was wholesale bombing of civilians; hospitals were not spared, and “the Sri Lankan government deliberately denied the besieged population food, medicine, shelter and medical aid and personnel.”

Tamils and other minorities who overwhelmingly supported the election of Maithripala Sirisena as President in January did so in the hope of bringing about justice, peace and reconciliation. But though the new president is on record as stating that no development or progress is possible without unity among the three major communities, he has been slow to dismantle the barriers, dragging on the existing dichotomy of no war and yet no peace.

Trawling through Sarvan’s book, it becomes clear that among matters needing President Sirisena’s attention are the demands for an independent, international inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, an accounting for disappeared persons, the ongoing militarisation of the North and East, land rights, reintegration into society of former LTTE cadres, and repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which continues to be used to punish and curtail dissent.

Sarvan is both cautious and optimistic: “It is difficult, very difficult, to extirpate group prejudice because its roots are spread wide and deep in the collective soil. But it’s by no means impossible, as post-war Germany has shown, emerging from a period of “now done darkness” with relief, wanting to understand the past, willing to make amends in the present.” I would urge that readers to go through this text and form their own, various and differing, opinion.

*Christopher Rezel, Australia. Writer and journalist; formerly a reporter on the Ceylon Daily News.

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Latest comments

  • 2
    0

    Why is it that I always find a stone in my shoe whenever I stroll down delightful Flower Road? Mostly towards the Town Hall end. Very strange!

  • 12
    1

    L am not a person accepted by this society. People expelled me from professional society.No one like to talk to me or communicate to me by any means except few. Really people treat me as a mad person. Therefore I do not have a very sound knowledge as youall. I felt it observing this article.

    But very simply Tamils are people who have courage to earn thier living or do studies under difficult circumstances. Thirty year dragged brutal war ended completly in 2009. Today even our people mention it with rejoice. But as I observe after six years most of the people are crying for their vanished people. I could imagine the tragedy since I faced similar situation. Have they all given lands.True there is a suspicion among us after war. Weshould have extended our hand for peace without keeping army there for long years. When iI read the stuff today I can observe our Sinhala Buddhists has gained some superior thinking. That itself shows they do not know even the basics of Buddhism.But they use the super qualities in Buddhism to con demn others.Really I feel Hunan life is of equal worth despite any difference.

    How could we forget their grievances and say Diaspora is strengthening, I cannot thinkof where our ignorant people are heading towards,Lord Buddha preached us think of others comparing to one’s own self.

    It is my view if these Tamil people are directed to their normal life they would contribute greatly to our country. I donot think at this stage there need is a highway.Really I know how I was descriminated in this society and how I become helpless as Sinhalese. I could imagine their position.Without visualizing people as Hambaya or some other thing we should try to consider all as human who suffers pain ,starvation, thirst equally. That is the real Buddhism but not to have asuperior feeling among others.

    • 5
      1

      Sriyani and Pacs

      These comments above are highly commendable with insight.I congratulate and salute for your wisdom of truth.

      4* hotels and express ways will not mend the broken hearts. Those who suffered and lost their loved ones need a closure in life. That is recognising the truth the ask for pardon to be relieved from sorrow and release from pain , Pain of losing your loved one, this is from both sides to move forward for the future of the country.
      As you say no human is bigger than the other .

      Both communities suffered and one worse than the other community. We need to recognise that. As long as it’s not recognised by the majority no way the country can move forward. We cannot bury the truth forever. The two communities have lived for centuries together .
      We cannot speak for what ever happened during Elarah’s and Dutugemunu ‘s times or king Rajasinghe’s time.

      We can only think and talk of this generation And the war for Elam 1,2,3,4 and so.on.

      Me as a Singhala Buddhist call upon the Tamils to bring a closure with the help of
      The Diaspora and the international mediators .
      Think of our future generations for their sake we need to unite to work together .

      Only the selfish Yakkos will talk about the superiority bullshit.

      I heard recently the children grew up during the war in the North have done well in the education . To. top it all a boy from the North scored well and topped the Nation in Maths stream in the Last A/L exams

      That is something the whole nation to be proud of. Give credit when needed not only to the super humans who live in the gods country SL so called majority there is another side to the coin as well.

      The selfishness and greediness were created by the Moda politicos for their own game.

      People wake up and kick these greedy ar……. .out of the picture.

      • 3
        3

        ‘Me as a Singhala Buddhist call upon the Tamils………..’

        You are neither Singhala nor Buddhist but you cannot see where you reveal it.

    • 7
      1

      Dear Sriyani Mangalika

      As you say you are not accepted by society but you are far from mad. You are just separated from the uneducated and unenlightened people of our country. I fully accept your sentiments and people like you should come forward despite the challenges to shout you down and change the mentality of our nation’s people who are intoxicated with their ugly majority and racist views.

      Sri Lanka can be such a beautiful if not for people like Mahinda, Wimal and DJ and a few others who spew their hatred for the minorities and cause the foolish masses to have fear. Fear of what? I really cant understand.

      As Thisaranee once so eloquently put it… We Sinhalese who are a majority suffer from a minority complex. This only highlights us as a weak community.

  • 3
    1

    “He sees the word terrorist as a “current term of political abuse – used, over-used and misused,” with each side claiming the other is a terrorist and that the struggle is against the much-execrated terrorism.
    We are reminded that, “states unleash terror on the civilian population on a much larger scale than any terrorist group”

  • 5
    2

    I am waiting for the reply from our analyst friend DJ. He will lash out at Rezel and Sarvan, selecting and omiting ´tha facts to suit his mission, namely all the missery is coming from the nationalistic and racist Tamils from the north and comfortably start the ethnic crisis from LTTE and the time after. I read in a reply from him to Sarvan, that he was claiming that the Tamils are comparable to Nazis…. whereas he comfortably forget Anakarika Tharmapaly, SWRD, and JR how they treated the minorities: like Hitler treated the Jews, Sinthi & Roma. He will blame the Tamils for all the sad things happend in Sri Lanka since 1948.
    Now I wait….

  • 2
    0

    Analyst
    Can you enumerate how much the Majority community suffered . And also let me know how much they benefited by subjugating the Tamils. Come out with truth. We can see if you are the first to come out with truth. Even you may not know the truth.

  • 2
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    Analyst
    Can you enumerate how much the Majority community suffered . And also let me know how much they benefited by subjugating the Tamils. Come out with truth. We can see if you are the first to come out with truth. Even you may not know the truth. The justice can come even at the age of 93.

  • 1
    1

    Repeal of the “Prevention of Terrorism” Act is imperative.
    Using the provisions of this Act, arbitrary arrests and detentions
    are the rule of citizens who are helpless, especially in the north.
    The army has stepped up harassment of citizens, after the advent of this government.

    http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=37735

    Magistrates are required to interrogate citizens brought before them by police, in private, before deciding on remand or bail.
    But, this is not being done.

  • 5
    1

    Sriyani Mangalika
    “It is my view if these Tamil people are directed to their normal life they would contribute greatly to our country”

    Analyst
    “I heard recently the children grew up during the war in the North have done well in the education . To. top it all a boy from the North scored well and topped the Nation in Maths stream in the Last A/L exams “

    well well well…it seems you guys were born yesterday.
    LTTE was regarded as one of the most ingenious liberation fighters ever by international observers of all sorts.
    They built submarines, planes, armoured cars in the junlges of NE of Sri Lanka.
    The Tamils survived power cut and embargo on essential od and oil and prodicuced top univercity results right through out the war

    The Tamils who fled the country for what ever reason are well established all over the worlds. Tamils all over the world are successful profesionals in medicine, finance, law, technology with leading multinational companies and successful Entrepreneurs in all aspects of business from running petrol stations,grocery stores,to multi billion dollar businesses.

    Sri Lanka would have surpassed Singapore and present day Dubai as one united nation of Tamils, Sinhalease, Muslims, Burghers etc … if not for the power hungry Sinhala racist politicians who whipped out racism wihth help of saffron clad monks.

    Unfortunateley the Sinhala people of Sri Lanka are reduced to spineless obedient servants of the power hungry Sinhala politicians. These politicians are exploiting the fictional Mahavamsa and its hold on rural Sinhala Buddhist.

  • 0
    0

    The accomplished Writer, Teacher and Philosopher Charles Sarvan brings
    dignity, intellectual depth and elegance to his thoughts. Though he lost immediate family members in 1958, 1977 and 1983 he has no prejudice or hatred of all Sinhalese. That liberalism he gained at St. Thomas’ Gurutalawa as a boy, and later, I believe, Trinity – the healthy ethos of the 1940-1960s have all cumulatively gifted him with a sound mind that refuses to fall prey to racial-religious bigotry. Sarvan also carries the advantages of having moved closely with the leaders of the African National Congress in Lusaka when they were part of the Govt-in-Exile then. He taught in Lusaka then. The seeds of accommodation in Sarvan, happily, has many origins – reading being the more significant.

    Fortunately, for us we have many in the country, in the different religions and races, who fall into this category. This brings credit and dignity to Sri Lankan society as a whole. This was the reputation the diverse people of this country enjoyed till about 60 years ago.
    Today, we have conducted ourselves to the point we are seen through the prism of the hatred of the BBS, the Ravayas, Gunadasa Amarasekera and so on. It brings a poor reflection to this country presently, which subscribes, in the main, to the philosophies of love, tolerance and plural accommodation to all rraces and religions.

    R. Varathan

  • 1
    0

    Rezel writes,”The Mahavamsa asserts the Sinhalese are Aryan, a claim generally believed in and which sets apart Sinhalese attitude towards Dravidian Tamils. The belief regularly manifests in Sri Lankan journalism and literature, such as the book, The Revolt in the Temple, where the author D.C. Wijewardena writes, “The Sinhalese are Aryan, and the Aryan race is not only intellectually but, more importantly, morally supreme in the world”.
    I don’t know whether Sarvan said this or Rezel is saying it, but Mahavamsa does not have references to “Aryans”.The concept of an Aryan race was an invention of later German scholarship and repudiated thereafter. Geiger,the translator of the Mahavamsa, a product of the same German scholarship, brought the idea to Sri Lanka. Sinhala nationalists swallowed this theory hook line and sinker used it base their supremacist claims — even to this day, even by the descendants Sinhalisised Tamil immigrants!
    After Hitler’s rise and fall no reputable scholar uses the word “Aryan” in any serious discourse.It is only white supremacists in Europe and the USA that use it unblushingly — and Sri Lankan propagandists and scholars too.Even Sri Lankan history books refer to the story of Vijaya as an “Aryan immigration” and amateur linguists even talk about Sinhala as an Aryan language instead of “Indo-European language …Even Max Muller, who used the word “Aryan” in his early writings repudiated it in his in his later work…

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