20 September, 2019

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The Struggles Of Identity In Sri Lanka

By Celina Cramer

Celina Cramer

My presentation will be an attempt to critically analyze my experience as a Franco -Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka and how I feel, as part of Sri Lanka’s Diaspora, that we can and should contribute to its ongoing reconciliation process. I’m no expert, and therefore would like you all to  allow me to use my own personal experience to draw out the problems that I have identified as causes of the conflict  and for the absence of an all-inclusive identity; a national identity as one may call it –  the “Sri Lankan  identity”.

When the war ended, I was in Colombo. I saw people dancing in joy and relief on the streets, media flashing the pictures of the LTTE leader’s slain body all over TV. As I watched all this happening around me, it became clear to me that this was only the end of the military combat and not the ethnic conflict which started it. Many had died in the name of what they perceived as a righteous cause – the fight against discrimination and marginalization – and many others in the name of patriotism, for their country against a separatist terrorist group. A long process was to begin, to pave the way for a “return to normalcy” for the combatants – both state and rebel, for civilians caught in the conflict zones and elsewhere in the country, and also not forgetting the millions who migrated to other countries.

I lived in Sri Lanka for 12 years. Four ethnic groups coexist or coexisted I might say, in Sri Lanka. And I am yet to see a fusion of these communities to form one over-arching identity.

The escape from a “no culture”

I was only 9 when I went to Sri Lanka in search for a “richer culture”. I was told that at that time, the influence of the Parisian banlieue culture, where we lived in and still live in, would not do for us. My parents anticipated the cultural differences that existed between the two countries. How were they going to deal with the fact that their kids would grow in a culture that was different to theirs?  And because of this difference they called it a “no culture”.  I am also now, very much aware that this pattern of thinking is not general in sociological terms. This pattern differs according to the social strata that one belongs to. So there was a social – “class” – impact on this decision. This is so you understand this experience in the light of my background, which of course will not be the same for everyone here.

Sri Lanka’s formal education provided barriers

My school career in Sri Lanka is definitely the most memorable period in my life. I went to different schools. Schools there were categorized on a quasi ethno-religious basis. Of course in the playground and outside class friendship and acquaintances went beyond these barriers. I first joined a girl’s only convent. I learned all my prayers and enjoyed singing hymns in Sinhala, Tamil and even Latin! I respected, venerated and even worshipped my teachers and elders. I felt well-disciplined.  I wore a uniform, that I had a hard time getting used to when it came to racing to be the first in the queue of the canteen to buy murukku during the most awaited “interval” time.

In class, I had the choice of studying in either Sinhala or Tamil: the two official languages recognized by the Constitution. English was the link language also recognized by the Constitution. But unfortunately, I could not benefit from this constitutionally recognized language. We also sang the national anthem in Sinhala every morning at school. And I always wondered how my friends who were in the Tamil Medium class sang it?

Now just watch a rugby match and you’ll hear National anthem of New Zealand, it is sung in Maori and English. And so is the national anthem of South Africa. Both these countries are multiethnic like Sri Lanka and have managed to allow every citizen, regardless of their ethnic origins, to feel “included” and not so “excluded” as one would feel singing “Sri Lanka matha”.

Differences are not inevitably divides

I also found out that I was a Burgher, because my class register said so. So were all my class mates categorized. Some were not even in my class because they had classes in Tamil.  The “Link Language” which supposed to act as a linking platform for all of us to communicate amidst two native languages, was only taught for 40 minutes every day. That was all. And mind you this is the “link language”.  Those who had the opportunity of speaking English at home had the added advantage of knowing more than what was taught in class –  clearly marginalizing those who didn’t speak it at home. Only a small number conversed fluently- creating some sort of elitist attitude towards those who didn’t.

I failed to understand

There are few things in this multicultural and multiethnic society of Sri Lanka that I ponder on.  Why is it that I couldn’t find a public school that taught in English, when English is the link language in a country that holds two national languages: Sinhala and Tamil?  Tamil was a second language to those who chose to study in Sinhala medium and vice versa. And when I was in Sri Lanka, I personally did not feel the need to learn Tamil, in a country that spoke Sinhala and English.

Among the language barrier that was created in some schools, was religion. A very shocking example is the “Prefect system” in some schools in Sri Lanka. In one of the schools that I attended, the title of “Head Prefect “was given only to an all-rounder who belonged to the school’s principal religion. This clearly made those of other religious conviction seem ‘less better’ than those who followed the principal religion in the school. But when did anyone’s religious convictions have anything to do with their academic strengths?

The Sri Lankan national flag always caught my attention for its multiplicity of colors and its striking boldness with the lion on it. When the lion’s bravery represents the Sri Lankan’s bravery, and when lion in Sinhala is “Sinhaya” you may easily find the connections Sinhalese make to the “lion” symbol. The minorities are represented in the other coloured stripes: orange and green. But some minorities are not. I studied it at school. I thought about it on my own. I could never fully identify myself in this flag; maybe because I was born in France or maybe because one of my parents is a ‘Burgher’ and I could not see the Burghers in the flag.

A way forward?

Now, when I look back at my instructive years in Sri Lanka, I know that I am who I am because I lived and grew up on that beautiful island and have no regrets, but at the same time, can’t help thinking how the education system in the country played a role in creating divisions among communities and making it a tormented island. It is only when I came back to France for my higher education that I realized that type of education system will never take us forward. Education had failed to create one national identity merging all four major communities on the island.

I do understand that to appease curiosity, we tend to identify ourselves to our communities. Saying you’re Sri Lankan is not enough; we all have to further identify ourselves to our ethnicity. But that does not mean that one is better than the other, stronger or weaker, darker or fairer, short or tall, and the list goes on.

Sri Lanka has just come out of a war that started more than 30 years ago and ended only in 2009. Since then, Sri Lanka has endeavored to move forward step by step, reconstructing and also trying to reconcile the wounds of the war.  Reconciliation is an important process in the conclusion of a war that was ignited by an ethnic conflict. Tensions between two communities the Sinhala and the Tamils, need to be solved and reconciled. The verb to reconcile in itself is very meaningful – to put back what was once one in being and is now separate. This also traces the many years of coexistence of all the four communities of the country- Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher – which were caught in the tensions. One may trace the causes of the tensions before attempting to reunite; look into the past before moving forward, to avoid repeating the mistakes made.

The question still remains: have I fully identified myself in all this? I have not. I’m still struggling to.

*Celina Cramer graduated in Economic and Social Administration from the University Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Celina Cramer participated at the French-Sri Lankan Diaspora Youth Workshop “Post-War Reconciliation Dialogue for a Sustainable Peace”, which took place in Paris, on October 27 th, 2012. She intervened as a panelist on the theme “Individual and collective identity(ies): between search and struggle”.
The event was organized by What’s Next!, an independent forum comprising of post- graduates and young professionals of Sri Lankan origin residing in France. What’s Next! seeks to promote a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka through intellectual exchange and multicultural dialogue.
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Latest comments

  • 0
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    Good presentation, nicely done and best of luck.

  • 0
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    if a couple are at each others throat all the time , don’t you think divorce is better.

  • 0
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    OHM OHM, RAMA.
    DIVORCE AND LEAVE THE PREMISES,GO TO PARENT’S PLACE.
    THAT IS WHAT YOU THINK ?,
    THAT IS THE BEST.

  • 0
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    You know I hate to think that someone
    Could have hurt someone like you
    And if I was him I’d be right by your side

    Lay your troubles on my shoulder
    Put your worries in my pocket
    Rest your love on me a while

    I hope you figure it all out some day!

  • 0
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    30 years of war. 30 years of intense security measures. 30 years of bombs and suicide attacks. it ends….who among those who lived in fear would not celebrate? i guess those who have led sheltered lives or lived elsewhere sans certain insecurities would see things differently.

  • 0
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    This is an interesting article. I have few questions

    (i) It is not clear to me what is your main message to the reader

    (ii) You said that you did not still understand the issues that you are talking about. Yes, that’s true. For example, you mention that there is conflict between different ethnic communities in SL. This is not true. There is no conflict between ethnic communities. Can not you see they live pecefully in your 12 years life in SL? To me there is a conflict between powerful elite groups and powerless poor people who do not have acccess to resources as well as various social services. This affects any community no matter that you are belongs to which ethnic groups.

    (iii) My understanding is that you should substitute multiculturalism that exit in Canada, Newzealand, or Australia into Sri Lanka. These societies are completely different from Sri Lankan socio-cultural structure. So you must read true history of Sri Lanka to find solutions for exiting poverty and inequality in Sri Lanka. There is no actual ethnic crisis. But politicians (both tamil and sinhala) and tamil dispora who live in foreign countries created this problem because these people have advantages due to such a problem. If you carefully analyze, more 80% of tamils who live in Western countries got their western citizenship using 30 years war situation.

    • 0
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      why is that you re not clear the main message ?

      Quoted from the article itself:

      “The question still remains: have I fully identified myself in all this? I have not. I’m still struggling to”

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    It was not her fault. Reason is there was no Sri Lanka at all. The name of Sri Lanka was originated from the 1972 constitution. Prior to that this island called SEEHALAYA,SINHALADEEPAYA,SERENDIB,SEHELAYA,SEYLON AND LASTLY CEYLON. THAMBAPNNNI also another name. The identity of this island is nothing but SINHALA. It is true that others too living here, but no any evidence they had adding any thing to island’s culture or development as construction of any WEWA, or DAGABA. Therefore looking of SRILANKAN identity is is pointless.If she is willing to do so,it is still room for searching SINHALA identity.
    samarasekara

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      man william michael kevin, you are such a bore. could you please stop repeating yourself. i have seen the same old story repeated time and time again. don’t you get bored man. anyway man a few disused water tanks and a couple of dilapidated dagobas don’t mean that sinhala race has done anything substantial to speak of. tamil people must have built mud huts to live in the north east and that’s also a clear evidence of civilisation man. go and see in jaffna man, there are still mud huts standing strong against the downpours and gusty winds.
      therefore don’t deny the presence of tamil civilisation and culture in north east man. how about the hindu temple structures in different parts of north east. aren’t they part of tamil hindu culture man. man, whatever fabricated story you and lanka toilet web come out with , the truth is tamils have lived in the north east as long as the sinhala people lived in the south. man, please don’t invent new stories about north east tamils by saying we tamils were brought from south india by dutch to make cigars, beedies and also to cultivate tobacco. these are all a load of bollocks man.

  • 0
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    Hey give the kid a break..she’s just some kid after uni addressing a youth forum..from the coverage she’s getting in the press looks like she has some patron..or maybe a sugar daddy.. hmmm..writing from Paris..wonder who??

    • 0
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      Or maybe her article was interesting enough to be published when they received it ?

    • 0
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      looks like the bull shitter in paris is now using proxies:) this must be because he was told to shut is gap and do some work a few months ago.

  • 0
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    There is nothing wrong with the article, but some how some commentators are ignorant or do not understand the point.

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      I read three article from this Youth forum including this one. They are graduate students but do not how to develop carefully their aruments about the theam that they discuss. They are providing policy implications for peace builing in SL. But their writings demonstrate that they do not have clear undertanding about either their subjects (i.e. economics, political sciences, or peace studies) or socio-economic chanracteristics in Sri Lanka. Thus, My opinion is that they are not qualified for providing policy implications for Sri Lankan development. Nobody can provide solutions for Sri Lankan socio-economic and political problems just based on test book theories. These theories only provide general gudieline. In practice policy analysts have adujust various things by taking into account socio-economic realities in that particular country. Hopefully, this may help your future writings

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    [Edited out] going to destroy us . making policy towards sri lankak. bull shit . grow up

  • 0
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    Celina the day the majority loses it’s inferiority complex is the day Sri Lanka will become a Civilized Nation where all citizens will be equal

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