Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 107

The American way forward is to go backwards

By H. L. D. Mahindapala

Part I

American diplomats, along with their Western allies, (all of whom are bundled together as “the international community”) have played and continue to play a key role in the north-south conflict, oftentimes leaning heavily on the Government of Sri Lanka to do its bidding. Sometimes it exerts its pressure behind the scenes and sometimes it makes quite blunt statements for public and political consumption. Robert Blake, the American Ambassador, for instance speaking on the topic of “Sri Lanka: The Way Forward" told a seminar held on September 21, 2007: "Since time is short and we Americans are known for not mincing our words, let me get right to the point on the topic at hand. The Government of Sri Lanka has achieved some important victories in the last several months.

The expulsion of the LTTE from the East and the recent sinking of several LTTE ships carrying arms and other provisions mark important military successes. But these tactical successes should not tempt the Government to re-consider whether Sri Lanka’s conflict can be won by military means. It cannot… The governing coalition must demonstrate it represents the interests of all Sri Lankans, not just southern Sinhalese".

As he states, he is as blunt as he can be. His statement is like the curate’s egg; good in some small parts. He has also jumped to the conclusion that “the way forward” is for the “south” to give in to the “north”, to use the geography of Ambassador Blake. His statement also reveal three salient points: 1) there is a realistic appraisal of the change in the “military balance”; 2) the Sri Lankan government does not represent the interests of all Sri Lankans and 3) the “southern Sinhalese” must appease the northern Tamils to “demonstrate (that) it represents the interests of all Sri Lankans”.

In referring to “southern Sinhalese” he pits them against the “northern Jaffna Tamils”, geographically speaking. He is right in this because the confrontations are between the southern Sinhalese and the northern Tamils ONLY and not with the other minorities –the Muslims in the east or the Indian Tamils in the central hills. This should impress upon him and his colleagues in the international community that the “southern Sinhalese” can’t be that bad as they are portrayed to be if they can co-exist in relative harmony with all the other minority communities except “the northern Tamils” – the dynamics of which will be dealt later.

In his political assessments, Ambassador Blake could not have missed the unmistakable demographic and ethnic factors of the other two communities: a) they are also Tamil-speaking; b) they are also ethnic minorities and c) they also claim, rightly or wrongly, a geographical space of their own. If, as stated by Ambassador Blake, the Sri Lankan government does not represent the interests all communities, shouldn’t they have also turned into terrorists (American definition) like the northern Tamils? But they haven’t. So the “southern Sinhalese” can’t be that bad in handling ethnic relations with the minorities, if it has a problem with only one single minority community out of three, eh?

The majority-minority problems are surfacing to be a common factor plaguing all democracies that have built their political culture on Western models of what they call liberal principles and norms. The same problems recur in non-democratic societies too but that is not a part of this story. Some disaffected minorities take up arms (e.g. Basque separatists), some have been suppressed into total submission like the indigenous tribes of Americas, Australia, N. Zealand etc., some continue to flex their muscles (e.g. Afro-Americans and Muslims) – all of which are turning out to problematic for the liberal leaders who have a pathological penchant for preaching to others on how they should deal with their minorities.

Sri Lanka too has a majority-minority problem but with only one community – and that happens to be with the most privileged community in the north. Despite the pompous pronouncements of some second-rate academics and third-rate public intellectuals hired by foreign-funded NGOs, there has not been a balanced study of the majority-minority relations in Sri Lanka. Invariably, what passes off as research is a regurgitation of the Tamil separatist platform of the forties and fifties based on cooked up history, fictitious geography and imagined grievances of discrimination.

These researchers, driven more by their politics than the realities on the ground, have produced volumes based on their superficial theory of good guys vs. bad guys. The good guys are the northern Tamils and the bad guys are “the Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinists” who have been accused of denying the minorities their economic, cultural, territorial and linguistic rights. Since the Western diplomats have swallowed this political platform of the Tamils it may be helpful to review in outline the majority-minority relationship of the advanced liberal societies with that of the not so advanced Sri Lanka.

No doubt, Ambassador Blake is fully aware of the crises faced by the majorities in leading democracies with their minorities. How many minorities in America, France, UK, Australia, for example, are happy with their lot? Can America, UK and France – the leading models of democratic liberalism -- claim to represent all the minorities and just not the Christianized Caucasians? When, for instance, the Hispanic minority demands that their language be recognized the American states are reacting aggressively by officially declaring English as the official language. In Sri Lanka all three languages are recognized. So which of the two countries has a better record of representing the minorities?

In France 13 million Occitanians and other minorities are denied the right of using their languages. French is the only language recognized by the state and the minorities must conform. So on the logic of Ambassador Blake shouldn’t the Sri Lankan government follow the example of the French – the land of liberty, equality and freedom -- to be representative of minority interests?

The use of headscarves in European countries too has created such a storm that in France it is banned. In Sri Lanka the government issues free headscarves to the Muslims. Which country represents the minorities better?

The first Army Commander was Maj-Gen. Anton Muttukumaru, a Tamil. The second Navy Commander was Rear-Admiral, Rajan Kadirgamar, a Tamil. There were several Tamil IGPs. Why aren’t they there now? They would have been killed by the Tamils like the way they killed Lakshman Kadirgamar, who would have been the first Tamil Prime Minister if he was living today.

To test his case Ambassador Blake could ask Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a man who haunts the cocktail circuit crying about discrimination against the Tamils, what discrimination he faced throughout his career? Or he could ask Radhika Coomaraswamy? Or better still, ask Radhika what discrimination her father, Raju, the pre-eminent bureaucrat, faced in the public service?

Furthermore, if Ambassador Blake should pause to compare the plight of the 70 million Tamils spread out in the diaspora he will be surprised to find that the Tamils had never had it so good as in Sri Lanka. Take, for instance, the highest symbol of the nations. There are 192 flags flying at the UN and in none of these has the Tamils a place of recognition except in the Sri Lankan flag. The orange strip in the Sri Lankan flag has given them the highest honour of being recognized and rubbing shoulders with the community of nations. The Muslims are honoured in the green strip. How many minorities are recognized in the American flag? Or in the Union Jack? Or in the Australian flag?

Without going deep into the international intricacies of the “culture wars” of Samuel Huntington, it has to be acknowledged that the increasing flow of migrants from non-Caucasian countries is upsetting the prevailing culture of the Westernized-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants (WASP) in English-speaking countries so much so that the so-called Western liberal leaders – from John Howard in Australia to Gordon Brown in Britain – are demanding conformity to the majority WASPish culture.

Faced with the flood of migrants from non-European cultures challenging their values and their way of life the Western liberals have somersaulted and are now drawing limits for multiculturalism and insisting on re-defining national identity with the emphasis on reinforcing the values of the dominant majority culture of the WASPs. For instance, in the last week of September 2007, addressing the first Labour Party conference as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown made an impassioned speech using the words “Britain” and “Britishness” 70 tims, according calculations made by those attending the session. And here’s the juicier bit that fell from the British lips of the British Prime Minister: “I am proud to be British. I believe in British values. I stand for a Britain where it is a mark of citizenship that you should learn our language and traditions.”

Well, which American ambassador will dare to tell Gordon Brown that his speech represents an aggressive assertion of majority dominance over the multiple minorities in Britain? Imagine what Jehan (Pacha) Perera and Poi-kiyana-sothy Saravanamuttu would have to say if President Mahinda Rajapakse had made a similar speech at the SLFP sessions? And since Ranil Wickremesinghe is a regional representative of the International Democratic Union, headed by these liberal leaders, will he follow the great pillars of liberal democracy and repeat the same speech, substituting “Sinhala” and :Sinhalese” instead of “Britain” and “British”? And if not, why not?

What is more, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer Brown proposed the establishment of a British national day. High Commissioner, Dominick Chilcott, will agree that this is another demonstration of the British government’s determination to impose the values of the dominant “British” on the minorities, whether they like it or not. It is clearly a move to instill patriotism of the British, by the British for all the minorities who are not that British. But if the Sri Lankan leaders follow the British example imagine the hysterical political reactions of the NGOs and the Tamil propagandists! They will, no doubt, raise such a howl until British High Commissioner turns into a fairy godmother to grant their wish.

The hegemony of the majority and the political dominance of the majority in France and UK, for instance, are expressed clearly in the ethnic bias contained in the name of their nations. The French calls it is France because it stamps unquestionably the authority of the majority. And the British call it Britain for the same reason. But the Sinhalese did not go down that ethnic track. They had the opportunity to call it Heladiva (the island of the Sinhalese), for instance. Instead, they chose a neutral name, Sri Lanka, to be inclusive of all communities.

Then there is the citizenship test. No one can become a citizen in America, UK, France, Australia etc., unless they pass a citizenship test. Paneer can bowl in the English team, wearing his turban, as long as he passes the British citizenship test and conforms to British values. Imagine for a moment the repercussions if the Sri Lankan government had insisted on the Indian Tamils passing a citizenship test before they qualify to be citizens!

Besides, in all the countries where the Tamils have settled down nowhere have they been given a place of recognition, honour, dignity and respect as the Sri Lankan Tamils whose language is given an equal place with Sinhalese and English in stamps, air letters, national currency, roads, official documents etc. Of all the airlines in the world, only Air Lanka announces in Tamil. It would be interesting to find out what High Commissioner Chilcott’s godmother would have to say to the dignity and honour given to the Tamils of Sri Lanka! Would he ask his fairy godmother to change it, as he said he would in the case of changing Sinhala-only to English?

The “southern Sinhalese” have, from pre-colonial days, been running a multicultural, multi-ethnic and tolerant administration giving the minorities (1) protection from Western imperialists who persecuted them on religious or commercial grounds, and (2) their freedom to have their own identity and grow in their culture, invariably with state patronage. Besides, practically every government in power has had one or two members of he minority communities in the Cabinet – the highest decision-making body of the nation. Most governments also had depended on the minority votes to come into power and be in power. In other words, the minorities have been active participants in the process of decision-making as, for instance, in the case of G. G. Ponnambalam the leader of the Jaffna Tamils who voted with the government of the day on the Citizenship Bill.

Perhaps, the outstanding exception would be the passing of the Sinhala Only Bill in 1956 which prompted the High Commissioner Chilcott to say: “If my fairy godmother were to grant me the power to change one thing in Sri Lanka’s recent past it would be to prevent the Sinhala-only language law from coming into force and to make English the common working language.” But the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act was passed in 1959 restoring a balance. What are the chances of the French passing a similar bill to recognize the language of the 13 million Occitanians? Or the American Congress passing a bill to recognize Ebonics – a dialect of the Afro-Americans rebelling against the hegemony of English – as an alternative to standard English? When this issue of Ebonics came up before the Oakland Board of Education they voted on a “policy affirming Standard American English language development for all students.”

No doubt, H.C. Chilcott’s fairy godmother would approve of it. Apart from acknowledging the privileges granted automatically to those who know English (the Sinhalese youth called it the kaduwa - the sword that grants power and privileges) I must confess that my respect and love for the English language is not second to that H.C. Chilcott. At the same time, I must add that there are some English scholars among Sri Lankans who can teach some of the English-speaking diplomats a few things about their glorious language. However, what gets the goat of those who speak and don’t speak the language is when these diplomats behave like Mrs. Norris, one of the most obnoxious, meddlesome, know-all women in English literature. It’s a pity that Jane Austen didn’t endow her with a broomstick to complete her character!

END Part 1

- Asian Tribune -

Share this