SRI LANKA: What nations live by

(A discussion on the current abductions and the debate at the Human Rights Council on accountability and reconciliation)

| by Basil Fernando
( March 17, 2012, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) Tolstoy wrote a great short story entitled ‘What men live by’. It is about an angel who was sent by way of punishment to earth to get an understanding of what men live by. As there are ways about people in what they live by there are also essentials about what nations live by. This short essay is on how the theme is relevant to Sri Lanka today as the nation is gripped with insecurity due to widespread lawlessness.

Yet another incident in July 1983

Burying the dead
being an art well developed in our times
(Our psychoanalysts having helped us much
to keep balanced minds, whatever
that may mean)
there is no reason really
for this matter to remain so vivid
as if some rare occurrence. I assure you
I am not sentimental, never having
had “a break down”, as they say.
I am as shy of my emotions
as you are. And I attend to my daily
tasks in a very matter-of-fact way.
Being prudent, too, when a government says:
“Forget!” I act accordingly.
My ability to forget
has never been doubted. I’ve never
had any adverse comments
On that score either. Yet I remember
the way they stopped that car,
the mob. There were four
in that car: a girl, a boy
(between four and five it seemed) and their
parents, I guessed, the man and the woman.
It was in the same way they stopped other cars.
I did not notice any marked
Difference. A few questions
in a gay mood, not to make a mistake
I suppose. Then they proceeded to
action. By then a routine. Pouring
petrol and all that stuff.
Then someone, noticing something odd
as it were, opened the two left side
doors; took away the two children,
crying and resisting as they were moved
away from their parents.
Children’s emotions have sometimes
to be ignored for their own good, he must have
thought. Someone practical
was quick, lighting a match
efficiently. An instant
fire followed, adding one more
to many around. Around
the fire they chattered
of some new adventure. A few
Scattered. What the two inside
felt or thought was no matter.
Peace-loving people were hurrying
towards homes as in a procession
Then, suddenly, the man inside,
breaking open the door, was
out, his shirt already on
fire and hair, too. Then, bending,
Took his two children. Not even
looking around, as if executing a calculated
decision, he resolutely
re-entered the car.
Once inside, he closed the door
Himself. I heard the noise

Still the ruined car
is there, by the roadside
with other such things. Maybe
the Municipality will remove it
One of these days
to the capital’s
garbage pit. The cleanliness of the capital
receives Authority’s top priority.

(Kalyana Mittata: Beautiful Friendship)
This poem was written just a few days after the incident; it has been continuously published ever since and has been translated into several languages. One of the last publications was in an anthology in Singapore. I have thought and rethought a lot about the incident as well as the poem. Over the years many people have also discussed the poem with me and I know that many people have thought about the events around which the poem was woven. For me the incident did not end in July, 1983 and I must also say that, indeed, it did not begin at that time either.
Let me quote here another poem that I wrote in 1971.

By the wayside

This wreath
with no name attached
is for you
who has no grave.
As the place of earth
which embraced you
could not be found,
this wreath was placed by the wayside.
Forgive me.
Forgive me
for placing a memorial for you
by the roadside.
(Translated from Sinhala — Kalyana Mittata: Beautiful Friendship)
For me the two poems carry the same meaning and as the years went by with greater intensity I have felt the link between these events.
Violence in Sri Lanka has become more and more senseless. This is a position that I have held throughout these years and I could not make any sense of the claims of justification for the violence in terms of eliminating insurgencies or terrorism and the like. This violence goes very much deeper, yes, I think, very there is continuous meaning in looking into it.
This violence, I believe, is essentially about Sri Lankan identity. There have been many claims of identity formulated mostly in terms of colonial times. Perhaps the need during those times was to find our bearings and also to inspire ourselves to face a coloniser. Unfortunately as time went by we have used the same terms of identity also to define relationships with each other, that is among the same people and, may I say, among the same brothers and sisters who were once colonised by the same coloniser. The extension of the pain and bitterness that was the result of long periods of colonisation has happened, perhaps without conscious intention and perhaps through a subconscious process that work within human beings.
Over the years I have constantly reexamined the assertion that is told by some people that there is a kind of enmity between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Speaking frankly and with the utmost honesty despite of reexamining this assertion over and over again, perhaps with some sense of self-criticism, so as to find whether in me, too, there is any such enmity; I can say with the utmost honesty that I do not find any validity for this claim. I do not believe that there is any kind of enmity between Sinhalese and Tamil communities and even Sinhalese and Tamil people towards each other. However, I will not extend this to deny that there is a lot of cultural baggage behind us and that there are all kinds of things that create ambiguities in the relationships. Cultural baggage is a part of any people, we have no choice in this matter, we carry many things that, in fact, have no deep relevance or meaning in terms of our existential being. But, these things are there and I believe in the history of all peoples they exist.
Do cultural ambiguities breed enmity? Do these things make us enemies to each other; make us feel that we have to engage in warfare with each other, that we have to destroy each other? With the utmost honesty I can tell you that at no time in my life have I felt that way.
I can also say that at no time have I felt that any person who is a Tamil has had that kind of enmity towards me. Instead of enmity I can go on to illustrate the moments of deepest friendship and understanding and sharing with each other.
Perhaps I could tell one simple story that I will never forget. At some time in 1978 I was in India and returning through Trichi airport to come to Palalay and then to return to Colombo by train. I had made that journey from Colombo to Jaffna and back many times. On this particular occasion after our tickets had been taken at the airline counter, we were told that the flight had been cancelled and we were directed towards a hotel where we were to await an announcement for the next flight. We were also told that from Jaffna there would not be a train to Colombo and therefore we would have to go from Palalay to Ratnamana by air. On the way to the hotel I struck up a friendship with a man who was older than me. He was a resident of Jaffna. He was a teacher and had gone for an interview for a teaching job in Nigeria. This man looked upon me as a youngster and we became friends. I told this gentleman, whom I had never met before that I had no money to take a flight from Palalay to Ratnamana as I had expected to go by train. This older gentleman told me, “Son, do not worry. I will purchase the ticket for you and you can pay me back later.”
The reason why the plane had been delayed was an attack on the railway line which disabled it and if I remember correctly that line has never been restored. I learned later that it was following a provocative speech by President J.R. Jayewardene in which he told the Tamil militant groups that they should either come for talks or if they wanted to fight then he was ready for them. This was followed by violence in Colombo and many other parts.
Finally about two days later we flew back to Palalay and my friend took me from there to his house. The plan was that I would stay there until the evening and then take the usual flight to Ratnamana. At his home I was served with a homemade pittu with great hospitality and friendship although I was a total stranger to the family. Within an hour my friend told me, “Son, I will take you back to the airport and buy your ticket.” He came with his cycle and we walked to the airport and on the way he told me, “Son, my family tells me that it may not be safe for you here due to the talk of violence in Colombo”. Somehow, I did not ask for details. In such kind of situation you get the feeling of an understanding of things. He brought me to the airport, bought me a ticket and with a smiling face, bade me goodbye.
Of course I returned to Colombo but this was my last visit to Jaffna and the saga of events which have been happening is a common memory that we all share so I do not believe there is a need to go into the narrative of those events.
What is historical is that such events did happen in the bitter-most ways but the truth is that it was not due to an enmity between the Sinhala people and the Tamil people but due to political events over which the ordinary people had no control.
That is almost always the way of politics. Politics takes place with events that are created by those who are involved in the political process who are working under all kinds of compulsions of the times. However, the problems that are created are attributed to the people.
To illustrate this I could narrate my experience in Cambodia. I was in Cambodia in the crucial years for that country between 1992 and the end of 1994 which was a period when the UN Transitional Authority for Cambodia was present in the country and trying to arrange the first election after one of the greatest historical catastrophes known to human history which is known as the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia and the resulting destruction of almost 1/7th of the population and most of the social organisation which existed at the time. What happened in Cambodia was, again, the result of certain political forces having their impact felt on an entire population. Sometimes the Cambodian people are blamed for this tragedy and there is no justification of any sort for attributing this tragedy to those people. It was the result of a history that was not of their choosing but which came upon them. What I saw in Cambodia was beyond anything I could have imagined. So my thoughts of Sri Lanka have ever since been influenced by a situation of that sort, the kind of catastrophe which is beyond human imagination.
It is not my intention to compare the two situations because they are entirely different and the magnitude of the catastrophe that Cambodia faced and what we have experienced cannot be compared.
However, in essential terms the kind of social tragedies we face have very deep similarities. To use a common parlance, it destabilises the situation and puts things into a position from which they will never return. For me, what the family in my poem represents was that kind of departure from the old world of Sri Lanka and the new situation of tensions and catastrophes that we have entered into.
What I want to say, in short is what we experienced there was the end of a kind of history in which our identities had been rooted. It we are to find ourselves again we have to find ourselves through the construction of a new identity and about this there is really no choice.
In colonial times we define ourselves through our past. The glorification of the past was perhaps a necessity in the face of an external enemy who was using all the modern capacity to gain control over us. We had to construct a memory which might be based on some aspects of truth but also many other which we would have created through our own imaginations as our glorious and heroic past. We needed to think of ourselves as heroes capable of great deeds in order to face a foreign enemy. That kind of psychology is inevitable under those circumstances. Under the present circumstances we cannot live with the old identity we constructed for that time. We have now faced a present and have gone through at least 40 years, I say 40 years beginning from 1971 and I see continuity in what happened in the south, the north and the east. I see this entire period as one whole episode and not as a fractured incidents belonging to the north, south and east. The violence of the last 40 years is just one piece of history and that is how I see it within me. It is not something I constructed; it is something that my subconscious tells me about my present predicament. I believe that is the way most people see things, whatever labels we put on ourselves the inner self that is within us is telling us something different. It is something that tells us that the future can only be something new and not something which is a reconstruction of something that was.
This is the way in which I see the issue of identity in the future. The 21st century forced us to look into ourselves in terms of the internal problems that we have faced with all of our histories and it is forcing us to find a new identity in order to live and to live well in our circumstances. There is something unavoidable in this. And when we look into new histories this is what we see everywhere. In each of the European countries, what they are today and what they were a few hundred years ago is not the same. The old Christian world view which told of a certain beginning of the world and a certain ending for the individual is no longer the view of the average person living in those countries. A completely new identity has come upon them with a completely new way of defining themselves. Science, in terms of Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and others have discovered things and created things with those scientific discoveries so that today they have to define themselves in completely different terms. None of them today would know how their own ancestors defined themselves many years ago. That is a thing of the past. As an Irish poet said each generation is a new nation.
I believe that this is so for all of us Sri Lankans whatever the community we think we may belong to; whatever the way we have identified ourselves in the past and with whatever cultural baggage we thought it necessary to define ourselves. We are in a new situation and our pain, the historical circumstances of a long tragedy, has simply forced us to find our way.
We have to find a new way, a new form of existence among ourselves for the betterment of all and in this, I see no choice.
There may be politicians and others with narrow views who may still think of trying to keep us within the terms of old paradigms and old identities. However, that is an enterprise that our changed subconscious and the forces of consciousness that we share today, the stream of our consciousness that do not leave any room for.
It is in these terms that we have to think of reconciliation, not as something of enemies becoming friends but as people who have gone through a certain history, faced certain changes and who have to define their way of living for the future. We have changed. In fact, it is now we must define our ways in terms of that actual change not in terms of imaginary selves that we constructed in the past and which anyway, no longer exists whatever our subjected view about may be.
Shaping identity from a reconciliation perspective
In colonial times the perspective for fighting against colonialism had to be in terms of the construction of identity on the basis of our capacity for heroism as the fight against a ferocious enemy required emotional impetus to create courage. Naturally in such times people tried to reflect upon their past histories, legends and myths which supported the idea of a self image on the basis of such reflections.
However, when a nation is faced with a long period of catastrophe created by its own incapacity to avoid pitfalls and thereby everyone is facing a situation of pain and confusion, a different kind of understanding is needed to provide the impetus for a new kind of fight. What is important at such times is a capacity to understand errors and mistakes which gave rise to the catastrophe. The approach needs to be one of humility and honesty. The people, on such occasions, need to look in the mirror and to recognise in their image many things that are not so beautiful in their collective character.
Talking about the generation of Germans after the war two of the greatest German psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich published a book entitled The Inability to Mourn. The book was written on the basis of their clinical experience with a large number of Germans after the Second World War. They realized that many people who came to him for treatment were not really suffering from any identifiable illness. After long years of clinical work he realized that their illnesses were a product of their inability to mourn their past. This book, which later became a household item, deals with the enormous need for humans to mourn the social wrongs that people commit collectively, as much as people need to mourn in the face of personal tragedies.
Now at this time what Sri Lankans need is this same ability to mourn. Triumphalism of every sort is only a symptom of an illness and incapacity to come to terms with the collective wrongs, mistakes and errors which have led the nation into a catastrophe.
Perhaps the wrong or the error that we need to understand most is our collective failure to understand the notion of justice. Perhaps the following poem may help to reflect on this aspect.
The Court House

In a land called Injustice
In a place called City of Fear
There was a court presided over
by a man called Mr. Absurd

The court sergeant was Mr. Drunkard
The Mudilier was Mr. Bribery
There were many clerks and peons
Who had no names.

The Litigants were the ordinary folk
Who thought they came to seek justice
About which
They had no notion

Some thought it white
Some thought it black
Some as liquor
And others as bribery

Summons were never written
But issued
Fines were never paid
But consumed

Mr. Absurd said
He held the balance
Holding on to the shoulders
Of Mr. Drunkard and Mr. Bribery

In the appeal court
Mr. Absurd was held in high esteem
The wisdom of Messrs D and B
Received nation’s applause

(The sea was calm behind your house)
The poem reflects what has become of our institutions of justice.
It is this that needs to be corrected if we are to have a notion of justice as the foundation of our nationhood.
In the prevention of catastrophes and also in recovering from catastrophes when they happen for whatever reason, what helps a nation most is an adherence to a notion of justice that could bind everyone together despite of whatever differences they may have with each other. Whether the differences are between individuals or groups matters little. A nation can be held together only to the extent that the state and the people have a common conception of justice.
The 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka is founded on the rejection of any notion of justice. It was one man’s creation and that man, President J.R. Jayewardene, was a paranoid who feared above everything else, the capacity of the Sri Lankan people to elect and also to reject governments when they wished. Free and fair election was what he feared most and in order to prevent the possibility of that he destroyed the very foundation of the rule of law in the country. Sri Lanka has a supreme law that rejects the equality of all citizens before the law which is the foundation of the rule of law. By placing the executive president above the law the very foundation of a just society was ousted while, in fact, he was promising to create ‘a just society’.
What Sri Lanka needs above all else is to accept the rule of law as the foundation of the nation. This would require not only the rejection of the 1978 Constitution but also all the practices that have developed ever since which have made Sri Lanka’s legal system a monstrosity.
Developing the Sri Lankan legal system on the rule of law needs a collective effort from everyone. Today, people who are frustrated with the utter lawlessness that is prevailing in every corner, deeply desire the ending of this period. Almost everyone talks against lawlessness today. Condemnation of abductions attacks on the freedom of expression and association, vehement condemnation of corruption and arbitrariness constitute the contempt of talks and discussions of all. In the streets, the market places, at home and wherever people gather, this is what people talk about.
Therefore, there is a political consensus as there has never been before, on the need to establish rule of law as the foundation of the nation. What is lacking is a political leadership for this purpose. The incumbent president promised to abolish the 1978 Constitution and to set the footing for a rule of law-based society. But he betrayed the trust placed in him by the people who gave him the power to bring about such a society. On the other hand there is no clear expression of political will on the part of the opposition political parties to state clearly a commitment for a fight to achieve this end.
There is today a vast gap between the aspirations and the desires of the people to end a period of catastrophe and to begin a period of stability on the basis of a rule of law-based society and the apathetic political approaches of all political parties who are unwilling to commit themselves to this objective.
It is the people themselves who should now find a way to shape the politics of their political parties and to create a consensus between themselves and such parties for an unambiguous commitment to make the first priority of all political programmes to be the abolishment of the 1978 Constitution and the establishment of the rule of law as the foundation of nationhood.
Ultimately it is within the genius of every people to shape politics in the way they want. The time has come for the people of Sri Lanka to play a decisive role in choosing and expressing the wish that the foundation of their nation will be the rule of law.
This is essentially what the discussion on the accountability and reconciliation that is taking place before the UN Human Rights Council is all about.
( W.J. Basil Fernando is a Sri Lankan born jurist, author, poet, human rights activist, editor. He can be reached at


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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