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TAMIL NATIONAL FORUM
Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne
So, What Went Wrong?
1 December 2005
Public Morality, Education & Violence
An intriguing and universal feature of morality, of even the most elevated moral code, is the ease with which human beings while assimilating it for themselves at the same time limit its application. In the dimmest recesses of time men and women observed within their tribe a known and accepted moral code; however, in their relationships with other tribes "no holds were barred". The two-thousand year evolution of tribes into nation states has changed little in this respect. Within the nation-state the law embodies the accepted concepts of natural justice and equity and the fair balance of rights and obligations; outside the frontiers of the nation-state, in the international arena, the law of the jungle prevails. It is only within the last 50 years that some semblance of international law has emerged. And it is only in the last two years that the international community is groping towards the need for enforcement of international law. Morality is easily internalized (i.e. applied to oneself, one's family, one's community and, in the last resort, one's country) and is not easily projected beyond one's own.
Shri Lanka's history since independence in 1948 is a classic demonstration of this difficulty. Every government that held power, and the one that now holds power, seeks earnestly to do what is right and good for the Sinhala people, reflecting faithfully in so doing the wishes of the great mass of the Sinhala people themselves. How such actions will affect others outside the Sinhala nation is of little or no concern. What is right and good for the Sinhala people is right, period.
The belief was universal in Sinhala society that limiting the citizenship of the newly independent state to "sons of the soil" ("bhumiputras" in the Malaysian context) was right and moral; coupling voting rights to such a restricted concept of citizenship was right and moral. No thought was spared for the million souls and more not less who lost a claim to citizenship and the precious right to vote which they had enjoyed under British colonial rule. That the new state should be less liberal in these respects than its colonial predecessor was considered absolutely right and just because it was in the interests of the indigenous Sinhala and Tamil nations. The concept of public morality was internalized and limited -we care not for what happens to those beyond the laager.
The narrowing continued with "Sinhala Only". What is good for the Sinhala race was right and good - never mind what happens to others. Public pressures in the areas of agricultural and industrial activity went in the same direction - what was beneficial to Sinhala people was the highest good and became the object of state policy. How others were affected mattered not.
It is that attitude of the Sinhala people to which their politicians gave effect. To blame the politicians for what the people so strongly demanded and approved is to stand cause and effect upon their heads. The politicians faithfully carried out what the Sinhala people were convinced was absolutely right.
Public morality, among the Sinhala people as with many other peoples, is a limited concept applicable only within their own society. Never once during the 44 years of independence has the question been asked within Sinhala society - "Is what we are doing right and fair by others?" - "Is there some merit in the objections they raise so vigorously?" - "Are we, by far the largest ethnic group, in possession of the most fertile and productive land on the island, being magnanimous to, and helpful towards, those less favored?" These are not questions of woolly altruism and starry-eyed benevolence. They are hard questions that go to the very bedrock of our security and prosperity. For the highest standards of public morality are also the best policy.
It is just the same as in personal life. It is universally accepted that in the sphere of personal morality we must always make a conscious attempt to put others before ourselves. It is not uncommon for us to ask ourselves "How will my actions affect others?" And, when we know they will be adversely affected, to take stock of what we are about to do. It is by such sensitiveness to the feelings of others that we evoke a similar response from them. These are standards that we accept as good for ourselves, both morally and practically. They are the standards that we must adopt as a society. We have to change and it is never too late to change. We must begin asking ourselves "What do the Tamil people want and how can we help them get it?" They have voted overwhelmingly in 1977 for a state of their own; it is for us now to do our best to help them get it. Therein lies the path to peace and prosperity for the Sinhala people. This is not visionary nonsense; it is hard practical politics which will end hundreds of years of chaos and usher in a new age in which both nations will have the opportunity to re-join the world and contribute to, and benefit from, its progress in the 21st century.
There is no question but this is diametrically the opposite of what we have been taught to believe and what we have accepted too long unquestioningly. We have been taught that our safety lies in being the majority in a single, all-island state comprising all the land "from sea to shining sea". We have been taught that the indigenous Tamil nation is a predator who if "given an inch will take a mile". We have been taught that their word cannot be relied upon. We have been taught that there is no justice in an eighth of the population getting one third of the land and two-thirds of the coastline of the island. We have been taught that if Sri Lanka shrinks to two-thirds of its present size we will all be impoverished. We have been taught that while the indigenous Tamil nation has an ultimate home across the water in the Indian state of Tamilnadu, we, the Sinhala nation, has nowhere else to go. We have been taught that separation into two states will guarantee the continuance of the war, not peace. We have been taught that the Sinhala and Muslim minorities in the state of Eelam will he discriminated against and will suffer. We have been taught that Buddhism in its purest Theravada form will vanish from the face of the earth if the unity of the island and the dominance of the Sinhala Buddhists therein is not maintained.
The near-universal prevalence of these apocalyptic fears and mindless prejudices in Sinhala society shows the medieval state of the education system to which it has been subjected. If these were fears entertained by the smaller of the two nations there would be some semblance of a rationale. But the Tamil nation, one-eighth the size of the Sinhala nation in population terms, entertains none of these ridiculous fears. They are perfectly content to be cheek by jowl with an hysterical neighbor eight times their size and are confident of being able to survive. They perceive no threat from the Sinhala people and they have no hallucinations about being driven en masse into the sea. Far from having an ultimate home in India their relationship to the Indian central government and the state government of Tamilnadu is, if at all, worse than that of the Sinhala nation. They are not asking anybody for one-third of the island and two-thirds of its coastline - they have had them for centuries and have them to this day (subject to a few enclaves held precariously by the Sri Lanka army). And as for trustworthiness it is Sinhala leaders who have resiled from solemn written agreements with them on the most specious of excuses adding insult to injury.
Let us now examine each of these atavistic fears individually and rationally.
First, that our safety lies in being a majority in a single all-island state. The Sinhala nation is unquestionably the most numerous of all the ethnic groups on the island. It possesses two-thirds of the island's land area comprising its most fertile and productive land. Its language and culture have survived through hundreds of years of turmoil and finally colonial subjugation. All this has been achieved throughout the centuries in a multi-. state island. The last 44 years of majority dominance in a single all-island state have witnessed 27 pogroms against Tamil civilians from 1956 to 1983, two bloody uprisings by Sinhala youths resulting in a total of perhaps 50,000 killed and open warfare for 9 years from 1983 to the present. Majority dominance in a single all-island state has brought not safety and security but chaos, ruin and war. The evidence or real life is diametrically the opposite of what we believe.
Then the fear that the Tamil nation is a predator that will gobble up Sinhala occupied areas. The Tamil nation has never claimed anything other than their homeland which, since 1987, has been established by law as comprising the northern and eastern provinces of the former British colony of Ceylon. They are fighting to eject the Sri Lanka army from the parts of this area which it is occupying against their wishes. Not an inch of the seven Sinhala-occupied provinces is under attack form them - peace and tranquility prevail in that area. It is in the very hearths and homes of the Tamil people that war is now being waged by us against them. It is their towns and cities that are subject to naval and aerial bombardment by us. To believe that they are more dangerous to us than we are to them is to reverse reality completely.
"Can we trust the Tamils?" is a rhetorical question that is often asked. Yet the record is that it is Mr. Bandaraneike and Mr. Dudley Sennayake who resiled from solemn written agreements that each of them signed with Mr. Chelvanayakam - not the other way around. Having broken our word we turn round and ask whether we can trust them! Mr. Prabhakaran is supposed to have broken his word to Mr. Premadasa in the preemptive strike of June '90. Their version is that it was the Sinhala side that broke their word in increasing the troop strength in the eastern province by disguising special forces commandos as ordinary police. The jury is still out on who broke his word first. It is undeniable, however, that they have better grounds for distrusting us than we have for distrusting them. We must begin to see ourselves as others see us.
We make a great and constant play about one-eighth of the population not being reasonably entitled to one-third of the island and two-thirds of its coastline. We seldom mention that one-third of the island and two-thirds of its coastline have been in their possession for centuries and continue so to this day. There is no call upon "us" to give all this to "them" because they have it already. It is impossible to give to someone what he/she already has. This simple fact is beyond our comprehension because we have been brain-washed into believing this is all in our possession and we have to part with it to the Tamils. The elementary, verifiable, physical facts on the ground are the very opposite of the dismaying notion of sacrifice that we struggle with. This is a nightmare of our own creation. We have managed perfectly well without possession of this one-third of the island and two-thirds of its coastline for hundreds of years and there is not a shadow of doubt that we will continue to do so.
There is a gut feeling that if the Sinhala nation is restricted to a country comprising the seven provinces of the former British colony of Ceylon, it will be impoverished. We need a large territory to prosper. The French have a uniquely appropriate phrase for this - folie de grandeur. A quick look around the world will show there is little correlation between size and prosperity. Shri Lanka less Eelam will be about the size of Switzerland, the most prosperous state in Europe. It will be about a sixth larger than Taiwan which today has the world's largest foreign currency reserves. It will be 75 times bigger than the state of Singapore which is estimated to become the world's richest state in per capita income in the year 2000. The Sinhala nation will be thoroughly impoverished not by a contraction_ of. area but by unremitting war and self-destructive policies, from both of which our deliverance lies in our own hands.
The "nowhere to go" syndrome is, perhaps, the most extreme example of the medieval nature of our thinking. It is perfectly true that in ancient, and right down to early medieval times, there were large wholesale migrations of tribal people. For many centuries since, nations have been rooted to their territories which is what has made them into nations as distinct from wandering tribes. In the last few centuries there has been no case of an entire nation pulling up the stakes and marching en masse into some neighboring territory. There is no call upon the Sinhala nation to go anywhere. Its whole history is an eloquent tribute to its fortitude in holding fast to the ground on which it stood, unbudged by centuries of buffeting from Indian invasions. The fear that we have nowhere to go is an absurdity dredged up from a medieval proto-subconscious and is a just cause for alarm as to how primitive we really are and how thin the superficial veneer of modernism is.
The argument that two states on the island will guarantee war not peace is also derived from our medieval past. Even a cursory glance through the Mahavamsa and the Chulavamsa will show that war, not peace, was seemingly the divinely ordained relationship between the many kingdoms (one can hardly call them states) on the island. To believe that in this day and age we can have no relationship other than war with a neighboring state is an absurdity which beggars description. For 44 years since 1948 we have had peace, not war, with our immediate neighbor, India, despite great strains and tensions. Most of the world's countries are at peace with their neighbors - war is the exception. There are well-established norms and practices which secure international good-neighborliness; efforts are constantly under way to improve them as new problems arise. Even where a new state secures its independence by bloody warfare the resulting neighbor-states are not doomed to incessant warfare inter se. When the Irish Free State won its independence from Great Britain in 1922 after hundreds of years of guerilla warfare the same blind fears were expressed but in the 70 years since then the two states have been at peace. Separation brought peace and ended war - not the other way round. Peace is the normal state but peace has to be secured by unremitting effort towards building up good neighborly relationships. Not only should we secure peace by recognizing the state of Eelam, we must assist that state in every way possible within our limited means and win its goodwill and support in our own endeavors to build up our nation. Two states on the island are a wonderful opportunity for putting the past behind us and for building a mutual relationship which could be a shining example of good neighborliness for the whole South Asian region. Relationships of war and peace are not divinely ordained - they are the work of human beings and where there is a will to peace there is always a way.
Our attitude towards the minorities question reveals a great deal about ourselves. We are convinced that if ever the state of Eelam is established the Sinhala and Muslim minorities within it will be discriminated against and will suffer. What evidence have we for such a belief? We know how we, as a majority in the unitary all-island state, treated the minority Tamils. We believe that the discrimination that we practiced will be repeated by the Tamil government of Eelam. But why should they be bound to repeat our follies? They could well be wiser than we are and not commit any of our disastrous mistakes which we have been forced so ignominiously to reverse. Just because we made mistakes in our minority policies is everybody bound to make the same mistakes? The Tamil nation may make mistakes which are uniquely their own; they are not bound to repeat ours. On the contrary the minority policies of the state of Eelam may well be models of enlightenment which we could do well to emulate. To forejudge a state's policies even before it is born shows the and rancor that has possessed our minds. We need to purge ourselves of such patently obvious malevolence.
And finally, the most egregious and unpardonable error of all - that we are the custodians of the purity and existence of Theravada Buddhism, and to fulfil that role we must be dominant in an all-island state. This must surely be the ultimate apotheosis of the misuse of a noble religion to serve one's selfish ends. The Sinhala nation is not the savior of Theravada Buddhism - it is exactly the opposite; Theravada Buddhism will someday be the salvation of the Sinhala nation. The eternal, universal truths of that great religion have survived for two and a half thousand years inspiring men and women all over the world, and will continue forever to do so, on their own merits. They are not the private property of the Sinhala nation or of any nation. They are part of the heritage of humanity. Whether the island exists as a single all-island state or fragments into a hundred states will matter not to Theravada Buddhism which exists in the hearts and minds of men and women and is only sullied by its purported co-option by states. The attitude of the Sinhala nation on this subject - its pseudo-emotive role of custodian - shows only too clearly how little we have understood and been influenced by its true meaning. We must begin to learn the lesson that the lofty moral code of that great religion which we embrace so readily in our personal lives must also be extended to encompass and govern all our dealings with our neighboring nations.
From all of the foregoing, it must become clear that something is grievously wrong with our educational system. How else can the thinking of a whole nation be so encumbered with atavistic, medieval fears, mindless prejudices, the inability to comprehend existing reality, the failure to be influenced by one of the world's loftiest moral codes! The question applies with equal force to middle class people who have been privileged to receive a westernized, liberal education as to the mass of rural people whose education commencing in Privena (Buddhist Temple) schools and continuing in the local language schools was at best rudimentary. In neither area is the humanism and enlightenment that must run like a golden thread through all education evident. All too often education is regarded as a means to employment and nothing more. But what good is employment if people know not what a good life is! Education is for living - for living with others, for living public-spiritedly in a state, for living happily in a nation of one's own, for living humanely in the larger world of nations near and far, for living as a contributor to one's own culture and through it to the culture of others, for living so that we nurture the planet which is our home. In the European cultures education above the primary and secondary levels is called "formation". Without it one is deformed, just as if one lacks a limb.
The lack of such a widening, humanizing content in our educational system is due only partly to the very superficial nature of our contact with the outside world. Our own culture contains within it every element needed to humanize and raise the moral tone of our nation. They are_ neglected in the scramble for material advancement for political. gain, for power and the temporary rewards which its misuse brings. The resultant moral malaise is all too clear to thinking, concerned people. The SARVODAYA Movement has, as its central plank, the moral regeneration of Sinhala society. Our nation can have neither peace nor progress without it.
When we talk of peace we must remember we are at war not only with the Tamil nation - we are at war with ourselves as well. The endemic nature of violence within Sinhala society, especially at levels where it should be an unspeakable abomination, must cause the deepest concern. In most nations the locus of endemic violence is in the least educated, least privileged, stratum of society. As the duration and quality of education increases the incidence, of violence dramatically declines. When the highest level, the universities, is reached the adjective most often applied to the groves of academe is "hallowed". The sanctity of a university and its precincts is second only to that of a cathedral. How is it then that our case is diametrically the opposite to that of the civilized world? How is it that our universities have become battleground where physical violence and/or the threat of its pollutes the very air? Where murder most foul lurks around every corner? How did they spawn the bloodiest and most barbarous political movement that has ever besmirched the fair name and reputation of our nation? How is it that young mean and women, nurtured by parents who believe unreservedly in the Buddhist philosophy of tolerance, of compassion, of ahimsa (the avoidance of the slightest harm to man or beast) can come to a university and there be converted to a philosophy which invokes and justifies slaughter so ferocious as to be just one last step short of cannibalism? We cannot blame the godless Marxist philosophy of the West for among its devotees are some of the gentlest, most humane people on earth. If that philosophy is godless, it is because it elevates man to the place of god and sanctifies man and his material needs. The Marxist philosophy aims by a dialectical process to convert those who disagree with it. To slaughter in cold blood those who disagree with you is not part of the Marxist canon. It can only be derived from a primordial streak of latent insanity with a high propensity for infecting those who have not received a humane and enlightening education.
If our nation is to be healed of this dreadful malaise, if we are ever to be fit to join the comity of civilized nations, if we are to be at peace with ourselves and with our neighbors, if personal and public morality are to be joined in one wholesome unity. We must, as the highest priority and at the expense of all the sacred cows and medieval prejudices we have harbored, restore to our educational system at all levels the highest values of humanism and liberal enlightenment drawing on the great resources of our own and other cultures.