Three Sri Lankas – Sinhala, Tamil and English

| by Gaja Lakshmi Paramasivam

( 01 March 2012, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) I write in response to the article in Sri Lanka Guardian ‘A search for identity; tomorrow’s Sri Lankan’ by Kamaya Jayatissa.
Tomorrow’s Sri Lankan would look different to today’s Sri Lankan who looks different to yesterday’s Sri Lankan. As a child, I was identified as the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Navaratnam and now as the mother of Pradeep, Uma and Gayathri. In a few years’ time I would be identified as the grandmother of my grandchildren. Through all this there is that individual Gaja through whom I identify myself and my work performed out of my own free will. In a stable and reliable society, the gap between the two (how we see ourselves and how others see us) is narrow.
I myself went through serious identity crisis in 1998, due to my experiences at the University of New South Wales, Australia. I have NOT gone through this identity crisis to that degree in Sri Lanka. There are others to whom the gap is wider as Sri Lankans than as Australians, Americans, French etc. As per my observations, to most young Australian Tamils/Sinhalese, it is the other way around – meaning they would be assessed by residents of Sri Lanka very differently to the way they would assess themselves. I take it that Kamaya Jayatissa is of this group.
Through the experiences at the University of NSW, I learnt that to the average Australian I am not an Australian but Indian/Sri Lankan. Once s/he knows I am Tamil – I am now Tamil belonging to the same group as the ‘Bad Tamil Tigers’. By living naturally with Common Australians, I have learnt that majority Australians allocate status through themselves vis a vis the other person. In other words, they use the collective status attributed by their superiors (including parents) who have custody over benefits – to assess the status of someone relative to themselves rather than independently using discriminative thinking on the basis of the two sides of a common principle. Where this relativity is based on the issue in which they have expertise, the discrimination even though subjective, would confirm the decision/net value based on common principles and processes flowing from those principles. The former is subjective and the latter objective. The former is local and the latter is global.
To me – as per my inner assessment based on the Truth I know about myself, I am Australian – more Australian than some whose families have lived here over four generations. This is because I believe I have contributed to Australia’s high status at Global level – as an Equal Opportunity facilitator – confirming a core value needed by any leader in multicultural immigration. I am Sri Lankan for the same reason. Both are lateral forces towards global participation. When genuine they would naturally become vertical forces in a local environment – for example in Tamil areas where majority folks do not travel beyond their local villages.
There is very little gap between how I see myself and how I consciously ‘show’ myself, including through the articles I write. This gives me inner peace. The wider the gap the greater the reconciliation needed to consciously maintain harmony. When another person assesses me and the decision / judgment shows a wide gap between my assessment and theirs, I expect conflict. If the person, according to my assessment is an ‘outsider’ to the environment in which we are, I express myself to ‘show’ my assessment of my status. This I consider to be my duty to society. Hence I showed my equal opportunity status at the highest official level – i.e. the Prime Ministerial level when Mr. John Howard was Prime Minister. The first person with whom we do not identify through our physical senses is an ‘outsider’ and is the representative of common society outside our family/institution/country. We then need to use discriminative thinking using common principles.
To ‘show’ my status in this manner, I said to the Police who arrested me at the University of New South Wales ‘I am Australian’. The Police were ‘outsiders’ to the University environment. They assessed me as per my looks (and not my work ) as a minority force in that predominantly white environment. Those who came to arrest me were the parallels of the University Security Officers who could have exercised their delegated authority to remove me from the premises but did not. Like the Sri Lankan President going to China, they called the Police to override their inner wisdom. They did not throw me out, due to their ‘internal’ assessment of the situation. Instead they called the Police in, who used their lack of ‘internal’ knowledge and therefore the capacity to assess the situation more genuinely.
Our attitudes are a combination of our natural ‘guna/trait’ and our conscious thinking based on how we want to portray ourselves to the outside world. The latter is more easily addressed than the former, because with the former as Dr. David Garlick of the University of New South Wales often said, ‘we are ignorant that we are ignorant’. The natural guna/trait would be common to all of us in that group and hence we do not see anything wrong with it. It is also one of the common factors binding us naturally to each other. Only someone with stronger natural opposite guna/trait would override this common force. It cannot be addressed merely intellectually. It is this ‘guna/trait’ that gives us common identity through a group / race / nation. This has natural powers – even if we are thieves to outsiders – as the villagers in Northern Sri Lanka to whom we have added ourselves – are known.
Human Rights violations that seem wrong to the Global citizen is a common ‘guna/trait’ of the Sri Lankan Government as well as the LTTE/JVP and their supporters. They would not lose any sleep over mere loss of status from those they consider to be ‘outsiders’ – for example the UN. They would be affected by gain or loss of votes and/or money to their group.
To those who have invested on the basis of principles covering wider society outside their local groups a principle based assessment of rights and wrongs would matter. Young migrants of Lankan origin, living in the West would tend to take an intellectual approach to the issue and hence would be affected by the grading allocated to Sri Lanka by their new countries of residence. Those who see themselves more as Tamils than as Sri Lankans (and they have the right to do so) would naturally be affected by the status allocated to LTTE.
To convert our inner Peace to outer harmony, we need to identify ourselves first and take our place in various forums accordingly. There is little point in shouting directly at someone who naturally identifies her/himself as a Buddhist-Sinhalese or Hindu-Tamil to think s/he is Sri Lankan, except for work purposes. Likewise one who identifies her/himself as Christian-English to think s/he is Australian. When we are in positions we are required to consciously think as per those positions. That would help maintain the outer harmony in common areas. Developing systems and structures towards this is the responsibility of the Government. A strong system of Public Administration would help achieve this. I do believe that Tamils did and would be happy to think and show they are Sri Lankans provided they get the position benefits. It is when this path to such regulated thinking is blocked that they would fall back to their internal identification and polarize themselves. This would be the case especially with those who thought Sri Lankan for work purposes. It is this ‘thought’ process that the external agencies such as the American Government could develop through the express path. Some of us are doing this through small business approach in Tamil areas.
In a naturally democratic Sri Lanka, a Tamil, Muslim or Burgher would feel as free to portray that s/he is Tamil/Muslim/Burgher as a Sinhalese in parallel official position with the government felt. That is the target that the Sri Lankan government needs to set for itself. The more politicians promote Buddhist-Sinhala nationalism, the higher they raise the bar for themselves. Similarly, Tamils who promote Hindu-Tamil nationalism through Sri Lankan status.
When we stay local – for example as Sinhalese only or Tamils only – we have the greater opportunity to invest in vertical growth. That is the reason for families and institutions. This was why Tamil Tigers were able to produce outstanding outcomes / goods with much less resources than an average Sri Lankan did. This is also the reason why migrants form ghettos – especially when they fear losing their social identity as a group. When this vertical investment is genuine and is independent of other groups, we would change naturally and voluntarily to live in a multicultural environment. That vertical investment comfortably converts itself to become a lateral force leading to globalization.
Hence, it does not matter whether we identify ourselves as Sinhalese/ Tamils/ Muslims/ Burghers, or Sri Lankans. What matters is that we do so as per our own belief-based internal assessment and /or consciously as per our official positions. One who holds position in Sri Lankan Public Service has the duty to her/his country to present her/himself as a Sri Lankan – using the avenues available through her/his position. Every time such a person presents her/himself as a Sinhalese/ Tamil / Muslim/ Burgher s/he naturally demotes her/himself to the local position. That is what went wrong with both sides to this war. Both used brawn power to downgrade Sri Lankan positions to local positions. Those in government were/are more wrong than the other side because they receive/take benefits under the claim that they are Sri Lankans. It is the duty of every Sri Lankan to criticize the government and do what s/he could to make amends and restore the force of being Sri Lankan and/or looking Sri Lankan. When this force becomes stronger than the local forces on either side – there will be inner Peace in Sri Lanka.
Kamaya Jayatissa says ‘Tomorrow’s Sri Lankan is the one who builds his/her identity through the respect, understanding and tolerance of his/her diversity. I am a Sri Lankan. And you?’
The way I identify with myself as Sri Lankan may not look the same as the way Kamaya Jayathissa identifies her/himself as Sri Lankan. Mine is felt when my mind is still and I feel in harmony with my environment even where Sinhalese are in majority. This would not be possible if I am conscious of being more powerful in Tamil areas vis a vis a Sinhalese, by virtue of me being a Tamil. I believe that my investment in Australian Public Service helped me relate to Sinhalese in Sri Lankan Public Service through their work. In my mind, every time I was searched by a uniformed officer, I assessed that person on the basis of her/his work at that time and place. It did not matter to me how that other person saw her/himself. What mattered was that I was using common measures. Thus I invoked the Sri Lankan in that person. Would like to know how Kamaya Jayatissa assessed her/himself as a Sri Lankan. Mere understanding and application of theory does not make us one. One needs to have actually practiced them – even in the most trying circumstances where one’s life was at risk. Such a Sri Lankan would have little difficulty to becoming a global citizen and/or a traditional elder for the next generation and beyond.
Recently, an active member of the group called SPUR (Society for Peace, Unity and Human Rights ) which is largely known as an extremist Sinhala group here in Australia, asked whether all present in another common forum were committed to ‘one Lanka’. To me, through its trilingual policy, the government is promoting three Lankas – one Sinhalese, another Tamil and another English – all of Equal status. Those who invest in Tamil values beyond one generation, would easily convert to other cultures in Sri Lanka. Hence it matters not whether we are committed to one Sri Lanka, two Sri Lankas or like the Triple Gem – three Sri Lankas. They are different faces of the space others see as one country – just as I am mother to some and daughter to some others. So long as we ‘invest’ rather than spend for immediate benefits – we would be investing in more than one form of Sri Lanka. Investments become more ‘common’ when they mature with time. When we invest in one Sri Lanka only – our investment may not be as strong as our investment through three angles which would usually include strong components of traditional values. We must not lose the value of Diversity by hastily moving to Uniform practices.


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.