By Emil van der Poorten –
Something I’ve wrestled with since my return to Sri Lanka is the matter of whether one should, in any way, associate with those who have continuing and productive relationships with the most corrupt and repressive regime in the history of this country.
When I came back in January of the year following the Tsunami, I was taken down south by an old family friend who, I discovered, was a veritable confidant of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. We ended up in close physical proximity to the current President during a series of events on the day when the foundation stone for the (re-located) new town of Hambantota was laid. My friend, in fact, had occasion to follow Mahinda Rajapaksa to the venues of a couple of meetings in order to meet him and secure his active support for a charitable venture dealing with the post-Tsunami needs of people of that area. Needless to say, I tagged along out of curiosity and because I had no other choice.
Avowals of “independence” notwithstanding, I have found this friend to be one of several of my longtime buddies (from another Sri Lankan life) who appear to have surrendered any pretence to the principles of fairness, social justice etc. with which we (and our parents) were brought up in favour of a mess of pottage, all in the name of “pragmatism,” a term which received respectability during the Kennedy years and which is used most freely by those who are blatantly opportunistic and unprincipled in their conduct.
The narrative of this friendship and several like it, serves as something of a parable for those of us brought up with a social conscience in Sri Lanka’s most troubled times. How does one deal with personal friendships when one party in that relationship is in bed with those whom one does not merely disagree with but who are beyond the pale in the matter of simple decent conduct or ethical behavior? I’ve trotted out the old saw, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are” more times than I (or you dear reader, perhaps) care to remember. However, one more time when it is appropriate won’t hurt!
The usual response of those confronted with the disparity between their preached standards and those practiced where they are complicit by association with those guilty of monumentally undemocratic practices is something to the effect that “the world is not a perfect place” and the old Sri Lankan stand-by excuse for the monstrous behaviour of those whom they cultivate: “the Idi Amins/Dubya Bushs, Adolf Hitlers etc. etc (interchangeable!) did it first,” referring to the conduct of historically brutal and undemocratic regimes. I have previously referred to this “they did it first” argument being advanced by those seeking to justify unacceptable behaviour by asking whether performing genocide and other unspeakable crimes is okay just because Adolf Hitler or King Leopold of Belgium did it first. Suffice it to say that I will not hesitate to revert to this response, ad infinitum, because some facts not only bear repetition but need to be used as cudgels with which to hit apologists for dictatorial practice over the head!
There are two major sources of irritation in the matter of the behavior of my friends, some of them already relegated to the “erstwhile” category. One of these is the blatant dishonesty of the arguments they advance and the other is the fact that they are, in fact, complicit in the terrible things are being done in this country in the name of “development, rehabilitation” etc. etc. by virtue of their countenancing such conduct.
How does one discard these friendships?
Admittedly, with a significant degree of difficulty! After all you don’t drop friendships and associations that have endured over decades in the blinking of an eye. At best, such a severing of bonds is painful and requires wrestling with one’s own conscience and very personal feelings. However, not to sever such friendships after one has determined that there is a chasm between you and them in the matter of fundamental beliefs, principles and conduct is patently dishonest. If you choose to sleep in that kennel you’d better be ready to wake up with fleas (or worse, much worse.)
One might also attempt to engage in the very slow and tedious process of trying to convince your friend(s) of the need to return to the “straight and narrow” of ethical and moral conduct. I’ve seen this approach succeed in other circumstances, but not very often! However, as much as this might seem like tilting at windmills, if you value a friendship, it might constitute an appropriate use of time and effort. There is also the risk one takes in such an endeavour that, in trying to save a drowning person when you don’t have the skills, training and tenacity to do so, you might well drown yourself!
The final option is to “freeze out” any friends who have strayed seriously from the accepted path that was mutually agreed on over the years. This, too, is more easily said than done but it does provide the potential for a gentler “divorce.”
In any event, if you are faced with the dilemma I have just described, I can only wish you more luck than I’ve had in my efforts to untangle or cut this particular Gordian Knot!