Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Incomprehensible words about an "unparalleled colossus"

The first prime minister of Sri Lanka, D. S. Senanayake's 64th death anniversary commemoration was marked the other day in the English-language Daily Mirror. He was called "The Nation's Father and Undisputed Leader of All Time." Lovely words and fine sentiments about a man who did horrible things. Maybe less important than the man and what he did is the way he is celebrated in hindsight. The words that are chosen to describe his actions and their consequences. 

I don't know anything about politics and I don't care about them but my time in Sri Lanka has exposed a world of human political evil that I can't ignore. It's a world where a blind eye is turned to self-inflicted human tragedy, where responsibility is directed outward from the perpetrators, excuses made, lies constructed and promulgated, cultural genocide accepted and even celebrated. It's a bitter pill to swallow. And it's all in the words people use. 

I'm reading the article on Senanayake and I'm reminded that it was he who stripped upcountry Tamils of citizenship in the 1950s. What sort of leader is that? Who divides the population of a struggling country  for the sake of political expediency? How does this craven act catapult your desperately poor country into the 20th century? Is there any precedent for this, any other country whose "leader" rips part of its population out of the social fabric and "legally" strips it of its rights? The only example I can think of is Hitler driving his country into the "thousand years" of the Third Reich. Disaster. 

Whatever made the Senanayake debacle possible the real horror to me is the way it's recalled today in the "liberal" press. Here are the few words the Mirror had to offer:

 "...there was resentment among the Tamil community due to his citizenship laws, which disenfranchised virtually all Tamils of Indian origin living in the central highlands." 

Let's take a closer look. This was a first move by the newly independent Sri Lanka toward dividing and destroying the ages-old Tamil community in Sri Lanka. The goal has to have been to excise them from the rest of the population, to somehow conveniently get rid of them. Resentment? Is that all? Is this the one word to describe the anguish people must have felt at this time? Does this single word encompass the lasting consequences of Senanayake's action? 

What else could these "citizenship laws" have been meant to accomplish? Anything less than dominance of the Buddhist majority over the rest of the island? An end to legal rights of other communities in Sri Lanka? Closing the door on the possibility of a pluralistic society?

"Indian origin?" From what I've read the upcountry Tamils, most of them living in virtual slavery as workers on tea plantations, had been brought by the British up to 100 years before. That's several generations. Their "origin" was Indian but they were Sri Lankans. This language of origins and "the other," used right now, today, in the Sri Lankan press, recalls Hitler's labels of "Asiatics" or "Aryans." You're a newspaper. Wake up and use your words. Unless, as I imagine, the author and editor of this article have chosen their word carefully. "Origins" in Sri Lanka mean everything. Almost as much as one's horoscope. 

Arguably the upcountry Tamils were "disenfranchised" already by dint of their "employment." But to be stripped of citizenship?

I've heard over and over the tale that the British left Sri Lanka with Tamils better educated than the rest of the country, holding positions of power and wealth incongruent with their numbers, and with better access to government jobs than their Sinhalese neighbors. Not, by the way, the plantation Tamils. These kinds of excuses were used by Hitler to rationalize his atrocities. Before him, Ataturk. In subsequent generations and in different places, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin. Instead of weaving tales about "incongruent with their numbers" why not build a society where the "limited good" of a stifled economy and burgeoning government sector is replaced with a mindset and social structures to complement growth and a more equable distribution of wealth and human rights, in which individuals have greater access to education and opportunity? 

The medieval mindset of limited good persists here in Sri Lanka, especially in the horrible politics of land and the built environment. Yes it's an island. But a large, rich one that's mostly underpopulated!

Stripping part of the population of its rights, the atrocity Senanayake committed during his reign, set the stage for decades of conflict based on continuing misapprehension, distrust, and hatred. It's still with us and no one will talk about it. 

The Mirror article finished up by labeling Senanayake as an "unparalleled colossus!" It's like calling the Brussels terrorists freedom fighters. Where a society turns away from history, as I've seen here, where the continuing social narrative ignores atrocity, there can be no hope for reconciliation and moving forward toward a peaceful society. 

No comments:

Post a Comment