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Diasporic Tamils, Ultra-Nationalists and Thoughts on Another Vesak Day

Diasporic Tamils, Ultra-Nationalists and Thoughts on Another Vesak Day

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Published by: Thavam on May 27, 2013
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May 26, 2013 |
The VesakPoya day has come and gone several times since May2009 when the prolonged war with the 
 ended. And we Sri Lankans are yet trappedin post-war rhetoric and caught up in punches and counter-punches arising fromdifferent visions of what post-war Sri Lanka ought to be. Some think that we shouldcontinue to celebrate, as the current government does, and even forever celebrate themilitary victory over the LTTE. Some think that the purpose of this kind of extravaganzais justified for it gives the government the means to keep the people of this countrycontinuously reminded of one of its most significant success stories. Is that the case or is it, as some others think,that the government wants to exploit its military triumph and use it to keep on bamboozling a gullible public tocontinue to support it regardless of a failing economy, increased corruption and a disastrous governance record?Nobody would begrudge the people of Sri Lanka marking the anniversary of the end of a long drawn out war if itis done with decorum and dignity. As Somapala Gunadheera has recently pointed out in a fine essay, it is salutaryto recall how the great Sinhala hero, King Dutugemunu responded to a not dissimilar war victory after he defeatedhis adversary the Tamil King Elara. Let us look at how The
( as translated by Wilhelm Geiger andquoted by Gunadheera) records King Dutugemunu’s triumph and subsequent conduct:
King Dutthagamini proclaimed with beat of drum: ‘None but myself shall slay Elara.When he himself, armed, had mounted the armed elephant Kandula , he pursuedElaraand came to the south gate (of Anuradhapura). Near the south gate of the city the twokings fought; Elara hurled his dart, Gamani evaded it; he made his own elephant pierce(Elara’s) elephantwith his tusks and he hurled his dart at Elara; and this (latter) fell there,with his elephant. When he had thus been victorious in battle and had united Lankaunder one rule he marched, with chariots, troops and beasts for riders, into the capital. Inthe city he caused the drum to be beaten, and when he had summoned the people froma yojana around he celebrated the funeral rites for King Elara. On the spot where hisbody had fallen he burned it with the catafalque, and there did he build a monument andordain worship. And even to this day the princes of Lanka, when they draw near tothis place, are wont to silence their music, because of this worship.’ -(Stanzas 67 – 74,Ch.XXV)
 As Gunadheera points out Dutugemunu’s convocation was not a sign of triumphalism but one of honouring hispolitical opponent whom he had slain in single combat. It is also noteworthy that Dutugemunu restricted theassembly to those living within a circumference of one yojana(4/5
th
mile?). Gunadheera opines that this limitationis a sign of the King Dutugemunu’s humility and his rejection of triumphalism. Like King Dharmasoka before him,Dutugemunu seems to have been remorseful of the loss of life caused by war. Although war had to be waged for the unification of the country, Dutugemunu was not unaffected by the loss of life that had to be incurred to achieveunification. This is how The Mahavamsa records Dutugemunu’s frame of post-war mind:
Sitting then on the terrace of the royal palace, adorned, lighted with fragrant lamps andfilled with many a perfume, magnificent with nymphs in the guise of dancing-girls, whilehe rested on his soft and fair couch, covered with costly draperies, he, looking back upon
 Tissa Jayatilaka
 
his glorious victory, great though it was, knew no joy, remembering that thereby waswrought the destruction of millions(of beings). - (Stanzas 101- 103, Chapter XXV)
The relevant issue in this context is not whether or not King Elara could be compared with
, butwhether the response of our political leadership may be compared with that of King Dutugemunu. Crude displays of military might and cheap political speeches only make a mockery of what needs to be done. The supreme sacrificemade by our soldiers and that made by those who opposed the state both deserve commemoration, however misguided one feels the Tamil Tigers may have been.We need to never forget that those who died or were maimedare all citizens of Sri Lanka. We also need to bear in mind that it is our collective failure as a country that led to twohorrible bloodlettings in recent memory- – the southern insurgency of 1971 and its second coming in 1987- 1989and the northern rebellion that began in the 1970s and intensified through the 1980s. Human beings, however misguided they may be, do not resort to war risking death and destruction unless they are reduced to absolutedesperation. And, as we well know, there are no winners or losers in a war. We all lose as a consequence of Man’sinhumanity to Man.The fact of the issue, no matter what other explanation we may come up with for Sri Lanka’s failure to evolve into amodern nation state, is that we have not been able to keep our multi-ethnic polity contented and safe after regaining our political independence in 1948. It is Sri Lanka’s inability to make each of its citizens secure in theknowledge thathe/she is equal before the law of the land and that each of us has the same rightsand obligationsregardless of our ethnicity that is at the heart of our enduring national problem. Sri Lanka is a state dominated bymembers of its numerical Sinhala majority. Sri Lanka is thus a country, not a nation. For a country to become anation, its populace must form a cohesive and integral whole; must be able to bind together in such a manner as tobe indivisible. All citizens of the coutry should bear allegiance to an ethos that is all-embracing and indissolubly SriLankan. We have yet to achieve this goal of becoming a nation. In this regard all of us citizens, and all of our political leaders that we have elected to office over the years are responsible for our failure as a people.In thesedays of great scarcity, when the state is seeking to scrape the bottom of the monetary barrel, to parade amilitary victory earned at such massive human cost is morally ugly as it is financially reckless. Road closures for rehearsals made the chaos of the morning commute to work more horrendous than usual. The inconvenience wasmassive and, if the powers-that- be look at the CCTV cameras they have installed in the different parts of the city,they will see the acute frustration and disgust on the faces of the citizens who commute to work and back to earnan honest living sans military escorts to pave the way for them. The best alternative to this unseemly parading otriumphalism is that recommended by the
which called for a separate event on the National IndependenceDay to remember ALL those who died during the war. The LLRC further called for a joint declaration by all politicalparties to do all they can to ensure that the kind of bloodletting we suffered during the war against the LTTE willnever again occur in our country. I suggest that we also include those who died during the southern insurrectionsat this special event to remember our war dead.Of course, the government and its supporters will seek to vilify those of us who do not see eye to eye with their idea of a commemoration. Our refusal to acquiesce in this exercise in political self-glorification will be(mis)interpreted as anti-national and unpatriotic. Newspaper editors suffering from Napoleonic and other moremassive complexes will defame and distort. But the discerning citizen will see through these farcical theatrics of politicians and their hangers on. He/she will acknowledge thatto question dominant views, subject them to our intelligent scrutiny and then respond meaningfully to them is a duty we owe to our fellow-sufferers on life’s complex journey, as exhorted by the supreme human being whose birth, life and death we commemorate as we markanother VesakPoya in a few days.Way too many of us who subscribe to the tenets of Buddhist philosophy tend merely to pay lip service to them. If wetruly believe in metta,karuna mudita and upekka, the freedom of thought and enquiry as outlined in the KalamaSutta, and above all for today’s purposes, the concept of equality that Buddhism seeks to teach those of us willingand able to learn, then there is no basis whatsoever for the majority of Sri Lankans who are followers of the Buddhadhamma to behave the way we have done and are doing today. To be certain, the Buddha by means of his spiritualemphasis on equality, was opposing the iniquitous caste system and the social discrimination that prevailed in histime in India, but his teachings on equality of all human beings are also equally applicable to discrimination on
 
grounds of ethnicity. According to Buddhist philosophy then the rights of all human beings must be protected. Noone community or group has special rights that others do not or cannot enjoy. All of us are afraid of punishment,moreso when such punishment is unjust and uncalled for. Buddisht philosophy reminds us that this fear of unjustpunishment stems from our human determination to be free from dukka during our samsaricexistence: Sabbetasantidandassa/ sabbebayanti maccuno is how the dhamma explains this to us. The SigalovadaSutta similarly teaches us to respect oneanother and points us in the direction of how to get on with our fellowcitizens along life’s difficult journey towards nibbana.It is my fervent hope that we Sri Lankans will beginfrom Vesak 2013 onwards to shed our irrational fears andanimosities springing from inter- ethnic or intra-ethnic differences and learn to live together in peace and harmony.We have gone through more than three decades of awful violence, deep pain and monumental tragedy. There is noSri Lankan regardless of his or her ethnicity who has not been adversely affected one way or the other in the lastseveral years. Some who are yet not aware what exactly has happened to certain of their loved ones who havedisappeared continue to suffer even today long after the guns have fallen silent. Anger at what has happened is theemotion that comes easily to us and we must avoid this negative emotion at all costs. Samyutta Nikya(SN 1.71)reminds us that anger is the only thing that is good to kill and in verses 3.14 and 3.15 it notes that in war, as pointedout above, there is no winning side. All who participate in war ultimately end up as losers. Additionally inthe Dighavu-kumara Vatthu: TheStory of Prince Dighavu(Mahavagga 10.2, 3-20 PTS: Horner vol 4, pp.489- 498)we are told that only forbearance, never revenge, can bring an end to war.Instead of creating fresh wounds in our fractured community, we must hasten to build bridges of humanunderstanding in addition to building those urgently needed bridges to speedy economic development. Bothbuilding projects must go hand in hand as they are not mutually exclusive. Sri Lanka cannot hope to achieveeconomic prosperity without social contentment. One is reminded in this regard of Bhutan’s concept of the GrossNational Happiness Index(GNHI). The fact that we may have more money in our pockets will not make us content.We will be nearer contentment when all of us citizens are made to feel we have a stake in our country regardlessof our ethnicity and our social status, no matter how far we may be from the centre of political power. The fact thatsome citizens are not in agreement with our political masters of the day should not be a reason to label them astraitors and be made guilty of treason. It is when we are made free of the tentacles of the ‘national security state’that Sri Lanka has slowly evolved into in the last four decades or so that we will begin to feel secure in our owncountry once more. The freedom to think and act responsibly without fear of unjust reprisals from the state or its lawenforcement agencies will also contribute handsomely to the promotion of the kind of contentment referred toabove. And above all, we must mark the anniversary of the fourth year of the end of the war that we marked the other dayby re-doubling our efforts at achieving lasting peace and true reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I suggest that we doaway with the ostentatious military parades and exhibitions that are usually held at this time of year. They smack of triumphalism and seek to divide us further rather than unite us. By all means, let us bear in mind lessons learnt andnot forget what damage violent extra-parliamentary challenges can cause to democratically elected governmentsand the state in general. But to forgive those that have harmed us, whether they hail from the north or south, andwhether they are Tamil or Sinhala, is essential. As the old saying has it, to err is human, forgive divine. Suchforgiveness ideally ought to be accompanied by multi-religious observances and commemoration of the deadregardless of the fact that they died attacking or defending the state. It is our fellow citizens who died on either sideof the conflict, not outside invaders. By our collective (politico-moral) sins of commission and omission, we causedthe southern and northern insurgencies to materialise. Hence all of us are culpable for the violence and mayhemthat have recently taken us and our country away from our true character and nature. It would be perfect if thePresident and the government take the lead in this regard and set the rest of the country an example.The battle for peace and reconciliation must be fought and won in and though the hearts and minds of the people of Sri Lanka, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher, Sinhala and others. Let us discard all false labels that, at the end of theday, do not hold any meaning. Let us stop squandering our national energies on frivolous debates on traitors andpatriots. Let us cease shooting our messengers and instead seek to heed their messages. Let us not seek to make

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