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'Conversations in a Failing State'

Towards the end of 19th century, the renowned American writer Mark Twain visited Colombo. While he was admiring the plurality of colour in the native dresses, somewhere in Pettah, he saw native children coming out of an English school, in line, in white uniform and in the same hairdo. ‘What an ugly scene’, he wrote, being sad at the way colonial institutions depriving natives of their pluralism. More than a century later, Patrick Lawrence, another American, comes to Sri Lanka to record the net results, a failed nationalism and a failed state, as consequences of the loss of pluralism.


Almost unbelievably for a nation with so many advantages and so much promise, it was a legitimate question by 2006 whether Sri Lanka could be called 'a failed state,' writes Patrick Lawrence in his recent book ‘Conversations in a Failing State’, brought out by Hong Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in March 2008.


"Sri Lanka is at war with itself, and I had expected as much… It suggested, even then, the notion of a nation as a kind of forced imposition, as an idea no Sri Lankan appeared to grasp—not, at least, with enthusiasm or understanding."


In his opinion, the failure of judiciary in Sri Lanka is the collapse of the last bastion of the state of Sri Lanka. He sees it not as the work of any single individual, but as the cumulative effect of the failure the system that started long back. This and the loss of public space in Sri Lanka are covered at length with many illustrative examples in his book.


Mr. Patrick Lawrence was correspondent, commentator and editor in Asia for more than twenty-five years working for the International Herald Tribune, New Yorker and the Far Eastern Economic Review. The present publication is a result of his study as Senior Rapporteur for the AHRC.


Excerpts from some of his interesting observations follow:


On average Sinhala opinion:

…You think of Sinhalese heritage. I’m Sinhalese, but I’m thinking of the heritage of this country. It so happens that ninety percent of our heritage was built by Sinhalese. The Sinhalese—they left a large amount of evidence to show that they were here for good, as it were. The others never left anything that signified their attachment to this place. What have they left? Nothing. They weren’t concerned about living here. They were just traders who went back.”


The others: The Tamil population.


Back: Back to Tamil Nadu, to southern India.

Going back is a recurring theme among some Sinhalese. In 1981, just after the burning of the Jaffna Library, a legislator from the U. N. P. said of the Tamils in a parliamentary debate, “If there is discrimination in this land, which is not their homeland, then why try to stay here? Why not go back home, where there would be no discrimination? There you have your culture, your education, universities, et cetera. There you are masters of your own fate… It would be advisable for the Tamils not to disturb the sleeping Sinhalese brother…. Everyone knows that lions, when disturbed, are not peaceful.” […]


What is striking about such versions of events, including Stanley’s, is how neatly the past is organized. […] The concern is simply that Tamils understand the past as they should, and so in whose country they live. […]


Stanley said, “I don’t think there’s an ethnic crisis, even though they call it one. It’s just a terrorist group trying to create disorder. The Sinhalese and Tamils are very friendly people. It’s just not their homeland. They’ve left no achievements.” [Chapter 4]


On Sri Lankan historiography

What about history, then? On this point Shanthi was wrong. Yes, there have been formidable histories of Ceylon and Sri Lanka. Notable in this respect is the work of K. M. de Silva, the historian in Kandy. But de Silva’s book, A History of Sri Lanka, is not the history Sri Lankans share. It does not define the past of public space in Sri Lanka—not as people commonly think of it. The past in Sri Lanka has been both despoiled and neglected. And it is the despoiled and neglected past, not history, that Sri Lankans carry in their minds. The paradox is plain: History matters in Sri Lanka, but there is no history.


Instead there is a mythical past, the past of Vijaya, the legendary voyager from northern India who, with seven hundred companions, is said to have come to Sri Lanka sometime in the fifth century B. C., whereupon the Sinhalese became Sinhalese. This is the past of great kings and great stones and great tanks. It is the past of we-were-here-first and ours-was-the-great-civilization. It is not a human narrative; it is not inhabited in the way history is by definition (and certainly not by those we now call the indigenous, who arrived at least ten millennia before Vijaya). […]


There is Vijaya, of course, who enters the narrative by way of a text on a plaque [in the NationalMuseum, Colombo]:


The transition from Pre– and Proto–history to the historical period in Sri Lanka begins with the Indo–Aryan settlers headed by the legendary ruler Vijaya from North India around the 5th century B. C., thus commencing the Sinhalese race.


This is sloppy logic and very sloppy writing—sloppy and provocative. There is the problematic word “legendary.” Are we acquiring a notion of history in these galleries, or a creation myth? […]


Then the problem of “the Sinhalese race.” By even the most lenient of definitions, the Sinhalese are not remotely a race. And the scholars of our time are moving further and further away from any such notion: Contemporary thinking is such that the very notion of race is losing its validity. In any case, one has never heard of an heroic adventurer arriving somewhere and “commencing” a race. It is, prima facie, an impossible idea. [Chapter 11]


On the Sinhala-Only Act

Three years later S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike led the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, a party of conservative social democrats, to power, breaking the U. N. P.’s monopoly. Riding the populist wave, Bandaranaike appealed to the basest instincts of an insecure majority. Hence the main plank in his platform was “Sinhala only” as a national language. It worked, needless to say. He then went on to push through the language law—a measure that, I would argue, stands as the most tragic mistake and betrayal of principle in all of Sri Lanka’s history as an independent nation. [Chapter 1]


It is difficult to date the beginning of Sri Lanka’s gradual decline toward the status of a failed state. One might say it started at independence, when the elite that took power from the colonial administration failed in the most fundamental task facing it: to bring the vast, excluded majority into the new polity and all its processes, to make citizens of the Ceylonese—to empower them, as we would say today. One could also point to Bandaranaike’s language law, which had a devastating effect on the consciousness of the Ceylonese as belonging to a modern, secular, multicultural nation at just the moment such a consciousness needed to be encouraged. [Chapter 2]


On political violence and militarisation:

How did violence, the threat of violence, and the fear these produce among the citizenry, become so endemic in a society that inherited so stately a thing as the Westminster model? This question, too, can be answered variously.


In 1956, while parliament was debating Bandaranaike’s language law, Tamil leaders began a satyagraha at Galle Face Green. Satyagraha is an Indian term meaning, roughly, “support for the truth.” The term was much used during the Indian independence movement to describe resistance movements based on Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence. Those mounting their satyagraha at Galle Face Green were attacked by Sinhalese supporters of the language law, and eighteen people were injured. It is a tiny number compared with all the casualties that have followed, but perhaps we can date the appearance of violence in Sri Lanka, at least in its contemporary guise, to this small, mostly forgotten occasion.


The dirty war and Argentina’s disappeared are well-known around the world. But Sri Lanka’s grim descent into violence and near-chaos is little understood outside the country. Foreigners are generally aware that there is a war between the government and the Tamil separatists, but this is usually cast in the simplistic terms of ethnic problems and a war against “terrorists,” a word often used to remove the need for any further understanding.


If Sri Lanka is anyone’s space, it is theirs, not the space of its citizens. Public space is now military space. It is a kind of occupation zone. [Chapter 2]


On Burning the Jaffna Library

The most fateful fire in Sri Lankan history occurred in the city of Jaffna, in the far north, in 1981. It was set on the first of three nights of anti-Tamil violence and destruction that resembled a pogrom, a running Kristallnacht in the center of the Tamil community. Apart from the death toll, which was six, the greatest casualty was the Jaffna Library. [...]


It is natural that those of Tamil extraction would mourn the loss of their library for many years, as many Tamils did. But the true loss was larger still than it was commonly understood to be. Jaffna Library was not only, or even primarily, a Tamil institution. Understood properly, it was Sri Lankan. It stood for the multicultural mosaic of the nation. As a national treasure, Sinhalese ought to have celebrated it just as much as Tamils did. In the burning of the Jaffna Library we must recognize not only an attack on an ethnic population, but the annihilation of public space. [Chapter 4]


On Judiciary

The judiciary was the last branch of government to give way to the corruption and politicization that have all but destroyed Sri Lankan institutions. Even as things crumbled all around it, the Sri Lankan judiciary was still considered to be among the best in the British Commonwealth. This seems to have been true until well into the 1990s, at least in the higher courts if not the lower. “First to go was customs,” Saminda once told me. “Then the police and the army. Then the civil service. And then the judiciary.” [...]


To put a complicated history very simply, the high regard Sri Lankans have traditionally had for law has made it the perfect instrument for the creation of public disorder in the interest of political gain. [...]


Had Sri Lankan judges and lawyers taken the path that their counterparts in Pakistan were to adopt, particularly in 2007, the independence of the judiciary and the larger history of Sri Lanka may have taken a different turn. The judiciary may have retained its capacity to intervene in important national issues and thereby reduce the extreme polarizations and disintegration that was to come in subsequent years. [Chapter 6]


On torture

In 2007 a global survey conducted by an American foundation found Sri Lanka among the world’s two or three worst offenders in the matter of official torture.(8)


Thangavelu said toward the end of our conversation, when the files and records had been put away, “You cannot say there is no hope. The human resources are superb. You can turn around the mentality in a couple of years if you really concentrate on it.”


Thangavelu described the problem in two words. “The mentality,” he said. One hears numerous other ways of expressing the thought. But what does “the mentality” actually mean? In all the reports, studies, case studies, and so on it is not visible. But what Thangavelu implied is correct: Human rights abuses in Sri Lanka are finally a reflection of the way people think, the complex of assumptions we can call the structure of their consciousness.[...]


Identity is the process by which the stronger culture, and the more developed society, imposes itself violently upon those who, by the same identity process, are decreed to be a lesser people. Imperialism is the export of identity. [...]


A psychiatrist who studied the Tamil communities affected by the war in the north and the east uses the term “existential fear,” and it is very apt. [...]


This is the existential fear noted by Daya Somasundaram in Scarred Minds, his study of the Tamils. I single out this condition among the long list of disorders among victims of official violence not because it is any harder for the individual to bear than other disorders. It may or may not be: Extreme suffering always has a dimension that is, for the sufferer, infinite. I single out existential fear because the disorders that comprise it are all related to a perception and experience of power, especially the use of power that is arbitrary, so that it is unknowable and in a certain sense totalized. To suffer fear engendered by displays of unpredictable, unknowable power is now part of what it means to be Sri Lankan. It is the trap, as my jurist friend put it, into which Sri Lankans have fallen. [...]


The police are victims. By numerous accounts they often find it necessary to intoxicate themselves before torturing a prisoner. Theirs are sordid lives. The lawyers and the colluding physicians are victims, too. So are the jailers and “henchmen” and those who collaborate in the creation of imagined crimes. [Chapter 8]


On the grievances of Veddahs

The discussion on the day of our visit was especially complex in this respect. It concerned another public space—the public space called “Sri Lanka.” This was the point of the long story the elders told, beginning with the promises of the first prime minister after independence. The old chief, who finally began to speak a little more, remembered them. Taken all together, they were promises of a place in Ceylon, and then in Sri Lanka, but no such place had ever been opened to them. And now they were rejecting it, as if to say, “We do not want to be part of the public space called ‘Sri Lanka.’” Hence Lokubanda, the man who spoke after the deputy chief: “We’ve decided to go back to the forest,” he had said. [...]


As the story the elders told drew to a close, the enormity of the moment became clearer. They had defended their rights and way of life for years—in Colombo, before various international agencies dedicated to the world’s indigenous peoples. Now it was court cases; now it was “back to the forest,” laws and conservation officers notwithstanding. [...]


“When we were in the forest we knew how to use it. When the Mahaweli diversion project started in the early-1980s, that’s when the destruction of things started. The younger generation is different. Look at the way they’re dressed. They wear caps and T-shirts. They don’t even know the language. When we try to teach it they’re not interested. It’s not taught in school, so the children get used to Sinhala.” [...]


Another lively debate erupted. Someone whose name I did not learn said, “We’re supposed to keep our community intact. It’s not only the dress, but also the language.” [Chapter 11]


On the Upcountry Tamils

As the founding prime minister he quickly turned government into a kind of family business. Senanayake himself was also minister of defense and foreign affairs. His son, Dudley, was agriculture minister; his nephew, John Lionel Kotalawala, was commerce minister, and his cousin J. R. Jayewardene, the future president, held the finance portfolio. One of the first important acts of this family enterprise came in a series of three bills enacted in 1948 and 1949. These laws effectively disenfranchised Tamils working on the tea estates in central Ceylon. [Chapter 1]


The plantation workers are still predominantly Tamil—poor, mostly unorganized, living in minimal conditions on the estates. Once you know the immense suffering that made these places what they are, it is impossible to drink tea again in the same way, or to look in the same way at the rows of tea bushes as they roll over the hilltops like the undulations of ocean swells. They are a beautiful sight, but too much pain and deprivation has been sacrificed for them to be beautiful and nothing more. [Chapter 7]


On Muslim fear

I had heard much of this before. I met a senior government official, a prominent jurist and a member of numerous commissions, who happened to be Muslim. Over the course of several days we discussed corruption, bribery, the penal code, the constitutional council. All of this we covered in careful detail, topic to topic, question-answer, question-answer.


Then I put my pen down and closed my notebook. As so often when one does this, the conversation changed.


“There is something else,” said the official, whom I am bound not to name. “It’s about the Muslim community. There is a climate of fear among the Muslims. You cannot see it. You will have to look to find it. But it is there. I am a Muslim. I can tell you, we are very frightened. We look at what they have done, and we ask, ‘Are we next?’ It is not a far-fetched question.”


They: The Sinhalese majority.


Have done: Done to the Tamils.

[Chapter 11]

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