Review of ‘Sri Lanka: A Victor’s Peace: 2009 to 2019’

by Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan, Berlin, January 13, 2020

Ana Pararajasingham,
Sri Lanka: A Victor’s Peace: 2009 to 2019,
Sydney, 2019.
What follows is not a review of this collection of thirty-two, very perceptive, essays
but a sharing of a few thoughts arising from the book, particularly from its title.
The phrase “a victor’s peace” prompts one to wonder: What of the
vanquished? Are they also at peace or is their plight one of Vae victis (Woe to the
vanquished)? If so, what is meant by peace? I have suggested elsewhere that peace
can be of two kinds: positive and negative. Negative peace is absence; more
precisely, the absence of overt conflict while positive peace is presence, the
presence of security, harmony and a degree of sanguinity all of which are the product
of Justice – political, social and economic justice: see pages 166-171 of A Victor’s
Peace. The Romans prided themselves on their ‘Pax Romana’, but their peace was
often one that was brutally enforced on conquered peoples: as Britain did during the
long years of its imperial hegemony. The emperor Caligula is said to have declared,
in relation to his unpopularity, let them hate me so long as they also fear me. So too,
it seems, with peoples and nations.
At the end of Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, the British imperial official
plans to write a book based on his doings titled, ‘The Pacification of the Primitive
Tribes of the Lower Niger’. One of the definitions of the word “pacify” is to calm
someone who is angry or upset. But the word “calm” needs thought. Is it calm as
calmness is understood in religion and in philosophy or a helpless, overt calm? Is it a
calm while biding changed circumstances and opportunity?
“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.” (Auden)
The opening lines of Psalm 137 have been popularised through song: “By the rivers
of Babylon we sat and wept / when we remembered Zion”. However, the concluding
lines of the psalm are suppressed or ignored:
Oh daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
The initial “re” in “reconciliation” stands for “again”. Reconciliation means to
create again a former state of amity. It is easy to be nostalgic about the past but
whether there was ever in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) a broad, grass-roots inter-ethnic
harmony is a matter of opinion. Inter-ethnic friendship between individuals, some
very close, must not lead to the forming of a wider (and false) impression. I will return
to this aspect later. Yeats in his poem of four lines, ‘The coming of wisdom with time’
writes of the “lying days” of youth. Those who are old like me may recall that in years
past they still believed in equality and inclusion; of harmony and happiness, of
working together for a bright future. The first step to reconciliation is recognition; the
recognition that the other side has valid cause for hurt and resentment. But in as
much as we are urged not to assume that which has first to be proved, so we must
ask whether there is a desire on the part of the Sinhalese masses for reconciliation.
There is much written about “moving on”, of healing wounds and building a safer and
happier future but this is based on the assumption that to the majority of Sinhalese it
is indeed a desideratum. I have touched on these in the essay, ‘Reign of Anomy’,
included in my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2: see, for example captions
such as ‘A History of Disappointment’ and ‘’Tamils and trust’
Etymologically, the word “nation” is from the Latin word natio and is linked with
“birth”. Today in many countries, particularly in the West, it’s taken to mean
individuals and groups, “native” and of differing birth, coming to form an entity: unity
in diversity. But in Sri Lanka, Professor K M De Silva observes the word in the
Sinhala language for ‘race’ and ‘nation’ are the same. (I have quoted this elsewhere
but am unable to locate it.) Doesn’t Para Dhemmala mean “Foreign Tamil? Weaned
on the milk of The Mahavamsa, to many Sinhalese “Nation” means domination by
one race (Sinhalese) and religion (Buddhism). They are now well on the way to
achieving this goal, so why should they seek reconciliation? Racists scorn “mutual
respect”. And we return to Caligula’s arrogant and defiant Oderint, dum metuant.
There are Sinhalese, Buddhist and Christian, who have stood up against
discrimination and violence. I am reluctant to list names for fear of omitting some but I
am forced to mention Adrian Wijemanne who was branded a traitor, a Tamil lover (on
the lines of “Nigger lover”) and ostracised by friends and relations. But Wijemanne
was not championing the Tamils but human rights and Justice. As I wrote elsewhere,
had the Sinhalese been oppressed, Wijemanne would have fought with equal
courage and clarity: see pages 17 – 21 of ‘There are no Pro-Tamil Sinhalese’ in my
Sri Lanka: Paradise Lost? Any Tamil who protests the absence of justice, however
mildly and reasonably, is promptly and conveniently branded a racist. I quote from
the same book, page 31:
“A Sinhalese, a friend for over sixty years, recently suggested that I was a
racist. I found that particularly ironic because in 1958 I went to his village with
my notes to help him re-sit the first-year university examination, and was
caught up in the anti-Tamil riot of that year. The denial of equality is not
abstract theorising to me. Having been a ‘Para Dhemmala’ in Sri Lanka; a
non-white in England in the early 1960s when “colourism” was unashamed,
overt and crude; having been an Asian in Africa, and a ‘non-believer’ in a
Muslim country, I am for human equality; for equality not in form but in
substance, equality not in false protestation but in actual practice; for equality
irrespective of ethnicity, skin-colour, sex, religion, language caste or class.”
Then there’s another category of Sinhalese. I quote, op. cit.:“There are
Sinhalese who, though they don’t take a public stand, do their part by quietly working
to help Tamil unfortunates, particularly women and children. They are active in the
crucial fields of housing, health and education. They are good and caring people who
work without material reward: “the salt of the earth”. But one feels there are also
others who do similar work while, consciously or unconsciously, subscribing to belief
in Sinhalese hegemony. These have it both ways: Sinhalese dominance which they
see as rightful, and yet the sense of being noble and generous because of the
charitable work they do It is good to give alms to the poor but it is best while doing
that to also work towards poverty-eradication so that charity is no longer needed. It is
good to be kind within an unkind situation but better still to change that unjust
situation… You can’t assault me, take away my rights, and much of what is mine and
then, while not restoring what is mine as a human being and as a citizen say, Okay,
okay, let us now reconcile” (page 27). In relation to this last category, the fantasy
novel, Black No More by Afro-American George Schuyler (1895-1977) comes to
mind. A drug is produced which turns blacks into whites. Being priced economically,
just about all black Americans become white. One would have thought that if the so-
called “race problem” (more precisely “the colour problem”) were removed then there
would be ushered in a wonderful new USA. At present, Moslems are blamed for
violence but as Graham E. Fuller argues in his A World Without Islam (reviewed by
me), what appears to be religion-based violence has its roots elsewhere. Even if
there were no Muslims, there would be violence. In Black No More, perhaps
surprisingly but significantly among those who oppose the transformation are whites
doing good work among blacks. Their reaction demands analysis and understanding.
What, one wonders, if all Tamils and Muslims were to become Sinhalese, and
Sinhalese Buddhist at that? Would Sri Lanka then be a “Paradise Isle” – in far more
important terms than natural beauty which, after all, is not a human achievement.
There are Sinhalese – Tamil friendships, social and personal, both within the
Island and abroad. There’s fellowship and invitation; close personal help and support
all of which undoubtedly go to enrich life. However, I doubt that Tamils in such cases
speak of what has been done, and is being done, to the Tamils as a people. There’s
a reluctance to cause embarrassment; the fear of being thought over-sensitive, even
a ‘racist’ thus damaging, if not terminating, what is otherwise a pleasant (and perhaps
profitable) association. But if Tamils do not “ex-press”, how will their experience,
situation and feelings be known? Years ago, I was admonished not to talk about
religion and politics because these subjects were sensitive, emotionally charged and
would lead to the breakup of association and friendship. But what, I wonder, is the
value of a friendship if what is important, vital, cannot frankly be spoken about and
freely discussed? Martin Luther King said that what caused more pain was not the
words of their enemies but the silence of their friends. And Archbishop Desmond
Tutu admonished that if we remain neutral in a situation of injustice then we have, in
effect, chosen the side of the oppressor.
The “Peace” of the defeated can mean massive military presence, the
expropriation of land and the denial of opportunity to make a living. It can mean
helplessness and humiliation. Ana Pararajasingham writes about the “dividend” that
genuine peace will bring to the Island. One cannot but agree but I would add a
cautious (if pessimistic) note. As Nelson Mandela said, and as History has repeatedly
shown, emotions aroused by ‘race’, colour or religion are so powerful and pernicious
that people are willing, knowingly willing, to sacrifice their economic welfare for them.
George Schuyler writes (op. cit.) that ‘race’ consciousness is stronger than class
consciousness; that “Negro” matters more than wages and hours of work. Some
would offer Brexit and Britain as a recent example.
In certain circumstances, passivity is not an option and struggle becomes a
moral imperative. This is what Pararajasingham does, and I urge the reader to get a
copy of his anthology.

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