By Tissa Jayatilaka –
This essay by Tissa Jayatilaka first appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper, The Island, in January 2009, four months or so before the war against the LTTE came to an end. Because the issues that Jayatilaka has addressed in January are yet of relevance today, The Colombo Telegraph wishes to re-publish it for the benefit of our readers.
There is no doubt whatsoever that besides the continuing national tragedy resulting from our ethnic conflict now exceeding a quarter century since its beginning, the greatest challenge Sri Lanka will face in the first half of the New Year will be on the economic front given the international economic crisis that has already wreaked havoc elsewhere. As a people, we have to brace ourselves to meet the exceedingly tough year ahead amidst the encircling economic gloom.
A half-closed door is also one that is half-open just as much as a glass that is half-empty is also half-full. In the end what matters is how we apprehend the reality around us. Given Sri Lanka’s self-inflicted wounds that have now festered for over twenty five years, we are today, as a state, perilously close to turning gangrenous. In such a situation it is perhaps easy to become bitter, cynical and despairing even to the point of giving up as many a sensitive and intelligent fellow-citizen has done. The more difficult task is to ‘screw [our] courage to the sticking-place’ and to fight harder to save ourselves from total ruin.
On a personal note, I must confess that I myself have not infrequently despaired for my country and been on the verge of giving up the struggle for good and all! At all such moments I have been consoled by the fact that we have survived worse epochs(avichara samayas) in our near-three thousand years of existence as a country. I have taught myself to make a distinction between ‘chronological time’ and ‘historical time’. A quarter or half-century in an individual’s life(‘chronological time’) is a very long and significant time but the same timeframe in a country that is nearly thirty centuries old(‘historical time’) is almost nothing. And, being a believer in the Buddhist concept of impermanence, I know that our present avichara samaya shall also pass ( just like the other such ones we have endured to-date) and we shall soon be whole again.And it is towards such an end that we must all collectively strive resolutely and unflinchingly no matter the manifold impediments that lie in our path.
In the New Year that has dawned , I see the following as the most urgent national priorities for our country. First and foremost, horrendously belated though it may be, we need to put an end to the destruction of our, mainly, non-middle class youth who continue to serve as cannon fodder. Both the LTTE and the State have been[,and are,] waging war in the name of liberation! The result has been our precipitous decline as a people almost to the edge of national doom. History teaches us that it is impossible and undesirable to seek to end human conflict through war. We are all fellow-sufferers on life’s bitter-sweet journey and we need to help each other along the way. W.H. Auden, the British poet, put it memorably when he said that ‘we must all love one another or die’. It is about time that our leaders learnt the invaluable lesson that King Dharmasoka learnt many centuries ago consequent to the bloody Kalinga War—that ‘dharmavijaya’ (Righteousness) was far superior to ‘digvijaya’ (Military Expansionism).
We need to share political power with all of our citizens regardless of their ethnic background for this tiny island belongs to all of us who inhabit it. All of us should be equal before the law. No one group of us has special privileges despite the irresponsible utterances of a few misguided citizens who happen to occupy prominent positions in society at present. They are here today and will be gone tomorrow. For, as we know only too well, ‘Golden lads and girls all must,/ As chimney sweepers, come to dust’.
People may come and people may go but Sri Lanka needs to go on. It is vital that a political package be offered to our Tamil and Muslim brethren in the North and East and our country based on the concept of self – rule and shared rule. They must be recognized as the stakeholders that they are within our country. This is the only way that we will be able to find a durable solution to our national conflict that has gone on for longer than it should have, assuming it was inevitable that it had to begin in the first place.
If the war continues and if the Sri Lankan Forces were to prevail against all odds, it will most likley result in a return to the status quo ante – the dominance of our Tamil and Muslim citizens by the Sinhalese. This, as I have argued before and elsewhere, is precisely what happened when the “Insurrection” of April 1971 was put down by the State. Most, if not all, of the grievances of the marginalized social groups that gave leadership to that revolt have not yet been addressed with the care and the attention they ought to have received. At best we have sought to change pillows to cure a headache. Too many of our rural poor in such regions as Uva – Wellessa and the deep South, not to speak of our urban poor, continue to exist in the margins. Hence priority number one is a speedy end to war and the consequent sharing of political power with all of our citizens.
I am all too aware that there are those who claim to belong to “The Realist School” of Sri Lankan politics who feel that arguments and suggestions as explicated above are off the wall. To these ‘Realists’ one has to be either a bleeding heart liberal, a hopeless idealist or a deracinated Sri Lankan to subscribe to non – sectarianism and secularism. They are of the opinion that a conscientious objector is an unpatriotic citizen or a false alarmist out to undermine the heroic deeds of our Security Forces personnel. Furthermore these “Realists” are of the view that the lives of the poorer segments of our society (for none of their progeny is on the battlefront) are somehow expendable in the larger interests of re- establishing Sinhala supremacy. They thus seek to lead only by precept, not example. They seem to fail to realize that “capturing” or “re- capturing” territory is only half the battle won. Holding such recaptured territory with authority is another matter as we learnt to our enormous cost in the 1990s. Moreover we may yet win the battle and lose the war so long as we continue to think and act in exclusivist terms. I insist that if we are ever to win a sustainable peace in our bleeding country, we have to be inclusive not exclusive. To truly defeat the LTTE, we have to treat all of our Tamil citizens as our equal partners with all of the rights and obligations they are entitled and subject to under our Constitution. Of course it goes without saying that our other fellow-citizens, the Muslims, Malays, Burghers and others must also be guaranteed the same rights if national stability is to be re-established.
In this quest, we must display the wisdom and maturity to accept help from every quarter. Not only must ‘The choice and master Spirits of this Age’ in our society come together shedding their petty political differences, we must also seek assistance from our friends outside our shores. We cannot and must not seek to be an island to ourselves. Although it may seem too bitter a pill to swallow, we need to confront the reality that we are a very small country with very few resources at our command. Crudely put, we have no markets to offer, no oil to sell and no military bases that are sought after. We are hence neither politically, economically nor strategically significant to the rest of the world. All we have is our natural beauty and our precious human resources. So it is in our interest to be on good terms with all of our neighbours both near and far. If we are pragmatic and realistic, we will realize that we need all the help we can get from whatever source. Demonising and alienating certain Western countries by labeling influential visitors from them as “terrorists” will not help our cause at all. We need their assistance, for instance, to convince the non-LTTE Tamil diaspora to join in our struggle for true and authentic national liberation. We need their assistance to prevent money and weapons from reaching the LTTE to enable us to defang the Tiger.
To attempt a verbal offensive with the states of Western Europe, the United States and closer home,India, and to attempt to reach out to an alternative International Community is to live in a make – believe world.China,Pakistan,Iran,Venezuela or Cuba is not likely to rescue us, were we, even if we ever can, to take on the rest of the world. To urge Sri Lanka to recognize her limitations in the world order is not to be anti – national but pragmatic and sensible. Rhetoric is as easy as it is cheap and may help some of us to climb the social and political ladder. But it will not save our country from the travails it will doubtless encounter if we continue to bite off more than we can chew, as some politicians and their acolytes have done in recent times. The priority number two for Sri Lanka hence, is the imperative need to act within our politico – economic limitations.
It is in the above context that we Sri Lankans must also look carefully again at concepts such as independence, sovereignty, self – determination and the like. These are indeed valuable and relevant concepts. But the specific context in which they originated a few centuries ago, have now changed and we need to adjust to changing and changed circumstances. Indeed the very concept of the Nation – State has undergone a sea change and we are today far more interdependent than ever before. Even bigger and more powerful states that Sri Lanka have learnt that they cannot go it alone like The Lone Ranger, Billy the Kid, or the Kansas Kid used to do in the comics we once read as schoolboys. Multilateralism, by all accounts, is poised to make a welcome return to the scheme of things international and global. The manner in which business is conducted in the world arena is most likely to change in the coming years. Sri Lanka needs to move with the times and be cognizant of new realities that will soon confront and challenge us. Whilst being justifiably proud of our ancient heritage, we need to re -summon the wisdom of our past to surmount the present socio – political impediments that are bedevilling our march to progress as a modern 21st Century polity.
*Writer is the Executive Director, U.S-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission