Colombo Telegraph

Public Writings On Sri Lanka: Review

By 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.
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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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