20 October, 2017

What Has Gone Wrong?

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Dr. Charles Sarvan

“What has gone wrong?” (Ben Bavinck

By chance, different strands came together in my mind, the first two leading to the third and most important, namely, Sri Lanka’s poor placing in the UN’s ranking of nations according to the degree of happiness experienced by its peoples. There are many factors which explain this uncomplimentary and unfortunate positioning, and I focus on the willingness to deny the full humanity of the other. Specialists with far better knowledge of political, economic and sociological factors, will explain better and more comprehensively.

These are days when Callum Macrae’s ‘No-fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’ is very much in the news. The savagery of those final days must horrify and move to pity any and all possessed of even a modicum of humanity. Apart from the mass-killing, why were the helpless victims first humiliated and tortured? Here and elsewhere, Tamil Tigers about to be executed are shown to have been stripped naked. Perhaps, an explanation is there in Into That Darkness, the book resulting from Gitta Sereny’s interview with Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka, largest of the five Nazi extermination camps. At these camps, it was not only the mass killing but that the camps were so organized as to achieve the maximum humiliation and dehumanization of the victims before they died. But why, Sereny asked him, if they were going to kill them anyway? What was the point of all the humiliation? Why the cruelty?  Stangl’s simple but chilling explanation was: “To condition those who actually had to carry out the policies. To make it possible for them to do what they did” (emphasis added).

The second strand is Ernest Macintyre’s play ‘Irangani’, based on the ancient Greek tragedy, ‘Antigone’, by Sophocles. (I thank the playwright for sending me a copy of the text.) I quote from a note by Macintyre at the end of the text. During the 1971 JVP insurrection, “Kataragama was a centre of insurgent activity. On April 16 the Sri Lanka Army crushed the insurgents and brought the town under their control. That day several girls, including Premawathi , who were believed to be involved with the rebels were arrested.” Premawathi Mannamperi was tortured, stripped naked and then forced to “walk across the town […] Finally, stopping near a post office, the officers opened fire on the girl and buried her alive (emphasis added). They returned on two separate occasions to finish her off. She ultimately died from a bullet to the head. The account of her suffering and death in the play follows closely the real events.”

Premawathi was stripped naked and paraded publicly in a country claiming to be fundamentally traditional, conservative and, above all Buddhist: the religion par excellence of compassion, morality and self-discipline. If a young Sinhalese Buddhist woman could be so treated; if thousands of young Sinhalese Buddhist JVP members and (alleged) supporters could be killed by a Sinhalese Buddhist army, then the treatment of Tamils is not an aberration but an extension. Dutch Christian priest Ben Bavinck in his diary records that a number of youth have been beheaded in Kandy, and their heads displayed with the sign, “Coconuts for sale”. The question Bavinck asks himself should be pondered  by all Sri Lankans: “What has gone wrong?” (See, Sarvan. Sunday Leader, online edition, 6 November 2011.)

Thomas Hardy, in a poem titled ‘The man he killed’, imagines a soldier thinking that war is very strange: you kill a man with whom, in peace time, you might have had a drink and a chat; even lent a bit of money to help him out. In other words, both being human, he could be me, and I could be he. But Stangl at Treblinka; 22-year old beauty queen Premawathi at Kataragama, and the manner of the killing of Tamil civilians and of Tiger combatants who had surrendered, all point to what I think is the crucial, the most deadly and tragic, first step. The word “dehumanize” means to deny or take away the human identity of a human being:  for mass slaughter; extreme and gratuitous cruelty; torture, degradation and humiliation the first and crucial step is to deny that the enemy is equally human – unlike the ‘voice’ in Hardy’s poem. They are different and, being different, can be treated differently; not being human as “we” are human, they can be treated inhumanely. In The Mahavamsa, Dutugemmunu grieving over the thousands of deaths he has caused is comforted by Buddhist monks: You have killed only one and a half men. The one was a Buddhist; the other on the way to becoming a believer in the teaching of the compassionate Buddha. The rest, not being Buddhists, were but animals and don’t matter. The Tigers may have had human form but they were veritable demons. Being demons, they should be exorcised, the more inhumanely, the better. Torture and degradation, as Stangl explained, makes it possible for mass and indiscriminate (civilians; women and children) killing to be unleashed. They are, in fact, an essential prerequisite. Sadism of this extreme kind makes the perpetrators callous, and frees them of the weight of conscience so that they can repeat the ghastly act again and again without compunction, even take pride in it.  One remembers US soldiers and the pictures they took of their treatment of Iraqi prisoners, proud of themselves and proud to show others.

These two strands lead me to the third. In the UN General Assembly’s second ‘World Happiness Report’, 2013, out of a total of 156 countries, Sri Lanka is ranked near the bottom at 137. Leading the list are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Canada and Finland. Nor is it a case of power (the USA is 17th) or wealth (Saudi Arabia is 33). One can react to this ranking of Sri Lanka with an enraged “We don’t care”; with denial, “It’s simply not true” or by challenging the validity of both criteria and methodology. Easiest of all, and playing the player rather than the ball, the present writer can be sneered at and abused. But taking into account Callum Macrae’s report and what Ernest Macintyre presents in dramaturgical terms (that the play hasn’t been staged in Sri Lanka is indicative)  the constructive reaction would be to undertake an honest self-examination, and to ask two questions: Why is Sri Lanka’s ranking so low? How can it be changed for the better?

In July 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered in what is known as the Srebrenica massacre. Now (September 2013) the Dutch Supreme Court has ruled that since these Bosnians happened to be under the protection of Dutch UN troops at the time of the mass killings, the Dutch government will accept responsibility. There is no suggestion that the Dutch soldiers carried out this massacre. Nor was there great pressure from the international community on Holland – unlike with Sri Lanka – and yet the country carried out an investigation; accepted, with deep regret, full responsibility, and will pay compensation. (This is one of several, and varied, factors why Holland, small in size and not extraordinarily rich, is ranked fourth. Germany comes 26th.) Such a reaction is unthinkable in present-day Sri Lanka, given its culture – culture in the widest sense. Of course, one could distract attention and point to crimes during the Dutch colonial period, but what matters is not the past but the present state of a country and its people.

Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (1516) observed that the successful working of a system depends finally not on the system but on the people who run it. It’s the people who determine how a system or structure, be it political, economic or social – indeed, a country as a whole – works. They are the decisive factor, and it is their mind-set and behaviour that needs to be changed: what I have inclusively, if vaguely, referred to as their “culture”.  The ideal and the aim must be to bring about a decent and just society (one which, among other things, doesn’t forget that enemies are also fully human beings) and so increase the degree of happiness in ‘the Paradise Isle’ for all its citizens.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way…  (From Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    Dr. Sarvan,
    You have entirely forgotten the continuing atrocities since 1959 in a peaceful buddhist country – TIBET.
    Even now,tibetan monks are self immolating themselves – China is desperately trying to keep this out of the world media.
    Even the UN appears to ignore.
    Why?
    Are you a sycophant of China?

    • 0
      0

      Justice,

      For your information Justice begins at home

  • 0
    0

    Excellent piece. We look in a mirror and we see ourselves-scratch the surface and the thin veneer of civilisation disappears-and we see the beast. Charles Sarvan does not condemn-he just shows us what lies embedded in all of us.

  • 0
    0

    A very thought provoking article to take seriously if our people and those who govern us think seriously.Thank you very much for giving ua food for thought.

  • 0
    0

    A very thought provoking article to take seriously if our people and those who govern us think seriously.Thank you very much for giving us food for thought.

  • 0
    0

    What Has Gone Wrong?

    Nothing has, according to Bahavat Geetha: Everything is going on as it should be. Only thing is that the outcomes don’t seem to please us. Change our opinions of events and actions. If we can’t change things, be wise and change ourselves.

    It’s our karma, isn’t it? Be contented, it could be worse; imagine all the poor souls who are tortured day in and day out! Aren’t we better off? Be happy.

    That is what the MARA junta want us to be!

    • 0
      0

      Thiru

      It would be much easier to discuss “what has gone right”, if any.

      • 0
        0

        Yes, agreed, zero!

  • 0
    0

    Having read all what an old friend Charles Ponnuthurai whom I had known many long years ago during my teen age school days(he would understand my remaining aon)I have often wondered why man has both religion and dynamite.Does he or any one else have an answer to this puzzle?

    • 0
      0

      Uthungan

      Man has this inherent insatiable appetite, ability, desire, stupidity, need, love, to self destruct, particularly the people of Sri Lanka irrespective of their race, language, caste, class, religion, region, ……..

      Religion and dynamite help to speed up the process.

      • 0
        0

        If religion is the opium of the masses, power is the heroin of the rulers:
        Sri Lanka is a society of drug addicts!

    • 0
      0

      Regarding religion and dynamite, as I have written elsewhere, we must (I think) separate religion from doctrine. Doctrine is claimed to have a divine origin, be it the Hindu sacred texts, the Holy Qur’an, the Bible or the teachings of the Soul of Great Compassion.

      Religion, in contrast, with its ceremonies and rituals, is “man made”. Religion is a human interpretation and expression of doctrine. That is why religion can be entirely contradictory to doctrine. That is why the same doctrine finds such different religious expression in different circumstance and times, and even at the same time by different individuals: some show love while others of the same religion hate. So too, violence and peace; selfishness and selflessness

      No, I don’t know why you must remain anonymous. Would like to get in touch with you.

  • 0
    1

    No war = no happiness.

    Start war = start happiness.

    Remember how people were happy on May 19, 2013?

    WOW! :) :)

    • 0
      0

      Fat “Mama” Fuk U Shima

      No Brain = Start of Insanity ( Madness)

      Madness = Start of Happiness for Fuk U Shima

      Happiness for Fuk U Shima = Happiness for Sinhalese Race

      Don’t forget how Sinhala Race will be shitting in their pants after March 2014.

      WOW! :) :)

  • 0
    1

    No war = no happiness.

    Start war = start happiness.

    Remember how people were happy on May 19, 2009?

    WOW! :) :)

  • 0
    1

    Thinking of 19 May 2009 makes me celebrate.

    Party time.

  • 0
    0

    The pic in this article was released by wikileaks.The one sitting with a blue checked sarong covering his legs is supposed to be colonel Ramesh who was severely tortured before he was shot dead.

    People had seen singhala boys and girl’s bodies floating down stream in the sacred Mahaweli river in Kundasale during the JVP uprising.Some bodies got sucked by the sifting sands,came up a few days later and went floating downstream and plunged down the Victoria Falls.

    So we do have this sinister murderous streak in the Sri Lanka Army going down the years.Is it a cult or ?.Will we ever get over this curse?.
    If it could happen in the sacred City of Kandy and find bodies floating in the sacred Mahaweli river why not in Nandikadal.
    Then Nandikadal was not known now it has become a sacred place as well as a Touristy place for the Defence to collect money to see a peice of land and water.

    They forgot to declare spots along the Mahaweli that the army won a war against the JVP Insurgeny,they killed and threw the bodies to get rid of the curse and now collecting money along the Mahaweli River as a touristy place showing the murky waters that sucked in the bodies.t

    Make the money at the expense of our sons and daughters who were tortured and murdered by the reputed army.
    Then they did not have/knew the Geneva convention later they did,carried it in one hand and yet tortured and murdered without due process.

    Will this go on or have we become civilized ?
    What is being civilized.?

    or who should be civilized first.
    Hard to make up the mind.

    • 0
      0

      The reason behind the extreme bestiality of the Lankan army in 1971 and 1988/89 – when tens of thousands of Sinhala youth were brutally
      tortured and killed – is puzzling. This should be a subject of serious
      study because there is always a chance of recurrence. While it works
      sadistically against the majority Sinhalese it is terrible against Tamil youth – that still continues. Massacring helpless dogs to teach
      a “lesson” to perceived enemies, who or may not be there, it is a symptom of deep mental aberration. Why are they so cruel despite a religion and dominant culture that daily preaches love, tolerance and compassion. It is time we turn the searchlight inwards and see if it is the cannibalistic Kuveni syndrome that still leaves traces down the millenia. The main thing is to take steps to get rid of this feature once and for all.

      Puduma Ledak

      • 1
        0

        Puduma Ledak

        “It is time we turn the searchlight inwards and see if it is the cannibalistic Kuveni syndrome that still leaves traces down the millenia.”

        I am sorry.

        What exactly you mean by “cannibalistic Kuveni syndrome”?

  • 0
    0

    A pertinent question and discussion on a vital subject, ‘happiness’ has been tarnished by the writer through propaganda and rhetoric.

    Firstly the writer brings in highly questionable propaganda documentary produced by Callum Macrae. Some of the material of that documentary are suspected to be doctored and non of the allegations are proven. It shows the writer’s dishonest motives.

    The writer is known to have enough intellectual capacity to understand how states use the tools at it’s disposal such as armies when state’s authority is challenged by violent means by anyone (the religious or ethnic associations doesn’t count). The army’s behaviour doesn’t depend on the religious beliefs of individual soldiers. Secondly, army’s composition generally reflect the demographic composition of the country. Accordingly, US Army would be a Christian army, UK army would be an Anglican army, Milldle Eastern armies would be Islamic armies. Yet the writer doesn’t call the the WWII German army as Christian, he calls it Nazi, while he labels Sri Lankan army as ‘Sinhalese Buddhist Army’!! Why? Why doesn’t he recognise other religious denominations represented in the Sri Lanka army? Does he imply other religious believers in the army did not kill in the same way as Sinhala Buddhists? He identifies suspected JVP member, Manamperi as Sinhala Buddhist and other JVP members as young Sinhala Buddhist, yet he doesn’t identify LTTE tigers as Tamil Hindu or Tamil Christian. Why?

    The writer doesn’t utter a single word about one of the most important features of Sri Lankan context. That of how tiger leaders and their financiers got young Tamil Hindus and Christians to torture and kill thousands of Sinhala Buddhist and Muslim villagers in their homes, temples and mosques. what made them use matchets instead of bullets to hack villagers to death including men, women, children, young and old. It has been recorded how tummies of pregnant women have been cut open by the young Hindu and Christian Tamil Tiger boys and girls during those massacres.

    Therefore it is quite evident the writer in a very smart way using the Nazi strategy in dehumanising Sinhal Buddhists. Hi links the level of happiness of the country as described by some foreign researchers to the apparent brutality of Sinhala Buddhists (he doesn’t mention any other religious denomination in Sri Lanka).

    This matches with the general idealogical base of the editorial borad of Colombo Telegraph judging by their heavy selection of anti Sinhala Buddhist material in this site.

    This is anti Sinhala Buddhist psychological warfare at it’s smartest Best.

    This discussion of happiness is like George Bush discussing democracy in Iraq.

  • 0
    0

    Puduma Ledak- now that you mention it.History book describes Kuveni so.In the Tamil translation Kuveni is described as Kuveni the Raatchahai(Demon) Queen.I didn’t say it the book says it.

    It also says- The demon queen Kuveni and 500 women warriors watched as Vijaya and 800 of his men from India,banished by Vijaya’s father arrived on the shores of Sri Lanka.When they found that these guys were handsome and young they lured them into their camp.In school we wondered where the men of Kuveni were.years later another history book had it,not the school history book,all the men were gated to do carpentry,pottery,bows and arrows for Kuveni.Is there truth in the latter- who knows.
    Anyhow it said the singhala race was from the Demon Queen and Prince Vijaya and the rest of his men and Kuveni entourage.
    In which part of the Island were the native veddahs who lived a peacefull life hunting,Could it be Yala,Wilpattu,Habarana jungles?

  • 0
    0

    Sarwan,

    Sadly nothing has changed. It is business as usual. Killing comes naturally to the Sinhala Race( The Matale Graves) and when it comes to killing the Tamils they do it for a living.
    The fact Sinhala Lanka ranks at the bottom of the pile is due to a number of factors.

    1) The very nature and the Characteristics of the Majority who are inherently racists.
    2)The Racial dimension
    3) The failure by the international community to check the abuses and the biggest culprit being India.

    How can it be changed for the better?
    The change is definitely not going to come from within so how then.

    In order for Sinhala Lanka to move forward it has to be brought into line to adhere to Civilised Standards through pressure and the underlying causes removed once and for all.

    1) The question of the Tamil issue has to be resolved and for that to happen first of all the Majority have to be forced to accept Tamil Aspirations which has been denied for the last 64 years.

    2) The question of Accountability has to be addressed as Accountability is a Pre Requisite to Reconciliation.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 300 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically shut off on articles after 10 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.