A Call for a Change in Culture
Image Courtesy: Sandesh Bartlett
“They will never change” is a phrase that many Tamils overseas often hear from back home. A simple phrase articulated partly in sadness, partly in gloating. It’s difficult to condemn how various Tamil speaking communities hesitate to either believe or trust in change the aragalaya advocates for. The Tamil communities are as diverse as Sri Lanka’s biodiversity where the members identify themselves by their religious beliefs, caste, socio-economic positions and gender. A multiplicity of different lived experiences and sociocultural struggles. All of them enabled by the oppression of the authoritarian state, armed movements, caste discrimination and inner communal ethnic racism throughout history. A history of oppression entwined within the same mother tongue.
If one looks at the Tamils in Sri Lanka or its diasporic communities as a homogenous monolith, one is making the most common sociological mistake. At times it’s rather unintentional but often Sri Lanka’s Tamils are framed as such by the nationalist elements who seek to uphold a narrow minded play of power politics and its nature of duality. The current scale of protests and the outrage are undeniably rooted in the economic crisis and its devastating humanitarian consequences. Nevertheless, as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, it is unfortunately the scale of today’s outrage among the mostly Sinhala speaking ground in the South, its constructed unity, its lack of humility and acknowledgement of ethnic privilege in relation to the island’s darkest times that prevent many Tamil communities from placing their trust and belief in any meaningful change.
We always find someone else to blame
Sri Lankans often use questionable narratives to romanticise struggle. It is a dominant construction of narratives which pleases the majority while neutralising the past, its actions and its sociological consequences. The “heartwarming” pictures of certain instances taken at the protests are often narrated as evidence for reconciliation and unity. Narratives which, if viewed objectively, are largely shaped by deficiencies in historical and sociocultural knowledge, lived experiences and sensible education. Coupled with a bitter nationalistic flavour, the notion of reconciliation and unity hides the causes in inequality and its institutionalised policy of nationalism. Another sociological mistake, whether on the island or overseas, is to think that “true” reconciliation comes naturally by constructing sudden empathy, validation or acknowledgment towards minority communities through amplifying populistic voices in solidarity instead of challenging the toxicity of ethnonationalism and its consequences on minority communities within such larger framing.
It is constructed without an integral desire for educational mechanisms and opens the door for populists and their divisive mind games. It catalyses a one trick pony with a saviour mentality which allows the local and diasporic media or political parties further opportunistic exploitation for epistemic power. They reproduce the same educational deficiencies which have been underlined by the historic economic crisis and its devastating humanitarian consequences. A crisis if evaluated within the short term, is undeniably caused by the government; a crisis which affects all communities differently. However, it must be emphasised that a long term evaluation cannot be examined and evaluated to the same simple extent. A long term evaluation will expose the causes of social educational deficiencies in a society due to the traditional exploitation of power. It will be a telling revelation of a nation’s social responsibility of oppressive politics which hasn’t reappraised its blind support of power structures before the crisis. Many communities have been subjected for decades to such forms of suffering and insecure living because of the majority, the state and the various military actors. A majority which has created mutual ethnocentric paths for oppressors of minorities and dissenters by exploiting the fears of the ordinary.
The blind support for a strong ethno-state has caused an illusional liberation in the form of another oppressive ethno-state. Both of which ideologically took its civilians hostage. Ethno-centric states in which the majority benefited significantly in the perpetuation of oppressive policies. In particular, the schizophrenic politics of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism, i.e. the conceptual politics in which a “Sri Lankan” Buddhist or secular Tamil nation stands unconditionally above the rights of individual beings, has assimilated into communities. The majority was classically conditioned into ethno-centric politics by their elected politicians and armed movements, who historically guaranteed and delivered them protection while they pushed for acts of hatred and discrimination towards minorities and dissenters.
Such philosophies have a long tradition in Sri Lanka. From the perspective of all majorities, it quickly becomes clear that the politically constructed fears which occupy civilian minds are like a curse paralysing any rational evaluation in order of reappraisal. When fears occupy the mind, one could speak of a conditioned state of mental terror. A cheap political magic trick which has been alarmingly effective historically within all communities; with majorities fictionalising and reinterpreting realities carried by their overriding ethnic pride, that it becomes possible to endure their own guilt. Until one finds new old culprits. As it has been particularly the case for the island’s Muslim communities who faced pogrom-esque attacks shortly after the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019 or who were ethnically cleansed in the North and East by the Tigers in 1990. When mystical stories lead one to perceive themselves as a victim instead of the culprit of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, the game of power between fiction and history blurs its lines and communities adapt fictions as realities and realities as fictions. The authoritarian policies of governments and movements since independence, particularly when related to the horrors of war, have been nothing other than the product of ethnocentric nationalism. A product which carries the thumbprint of colonialism. If one shakes hands with the devil one shouldn’t be surprised to find oneself in hell afterwards someday.
Our dead could tell a thing or two.
Social heritage of colonialism
Sri Lanka’s colonial history had a significant impact on the internalisation of ethnocentric thinking and distinction on the island. To this day, Sri Lankans employ a colonial style of knowledge (re)production. Sri Lanka’s socio-political path was initiated in the midst of colonialism and its empires. Colonial thinking and knowledge leads to a form of knowledge production primarily informed through the dominant perspective. The relationship between power, knowledge and human beings is inherently unbalanced and manifests its nature epistemically as the dominant knowledge. The further belief that a distinction in the value of beings must be made was thus proactively produced and disseminated as knowledge by colonialism. The same is evident for the idea of “race” which is rather the result of racism and not its prerequisite as many still believe. Here, at the latest, it should be clear where the Sri Lankan dualistic narratives come from. There is an urgent need for a fundamental rethinking of how this unbalanced relationship can be brought into a just socio-political balance for all communities on the island. This includes the reimagination of social institutions such as families and (higher) education as in academia that contribute significantly in how the majoritarian society is shaped. A rethinking is required to reimagine social norms and values that should not pursue the realisation of a homogeneous simplified nation, but rather a nation that reflects and promotes the natural diversity of its people, i.e. its beauty as an impetus rather than an obstacle for the future. A rethinking that must change the unbalanced relationship between power, knowledge and the human being within the institutional framework to convert institutions for a sustainable change by a continuous discourse with different realities and lived experiences.
The dead cannot forgive the living
One is overlooking the nature of nationalism and its tradition of discrimination and oppression by speaking of change in political positions exclusively. The remedy for symptoms of bad governance cannot be only a change of politicians within political institutions as the past decades have shown. The lesson must be to demand a culture which targets the elimination of ethno-centric authoritarian governance while working on real accountability through transitional justice.
Many fall for patriotic fairy tales of their origins and their untouchable place on the island, manufactured tales of their ancestors and kingdoms and seek for the same heroes. They repeatedly used violence, supported by state officials, military actors and armed movements who oppressed those who articulated concerns on the ever-increasing social and political demise of dignity and integrity publicly. They hunted down and massacred numerous people across the island like animals in the wilderness. Accompanied by harrowing speeches from elected politicians and self-proclaimed leaders and blindfolded justice. They watched like bystanders at an accident how entire communities across the island were physically displaced or killed. They watched idly as governments and armed movements took over lands and homes, erasing all traces of coexistence. They pushed the remaining into a merciless liberation movement which in the end was no different in its inhumanity than what it was supposed to oppose. An illusional movement fed with fears born in the heart of the island out of pure helplessness and lack of inclusive political alternatives. Nationalism creates nationalism. Oppression creates secession. Secession becomes oppression. Oppression increases nationalism. The cycle continues until it’s broken. At least sociologically. Sri Lanka can never escape its history of tragedies. It has produced tragedy after tragedy and expects subsequently to move forward towards a better future. The majority might have faith in justice by solace but repeatedly fall in love with injustice for solace. It’s like trying to get out of a toxic relationship by starting another toxic relationship.
Many speak of reconciliation through solace, inclusion through lived diversity, mourn exclusively for Tamil victims in front of a sea of cameras to prove solidarity but fail to notice their deficiencies in emotional sensibility. Solace cannot come in a homogenous form to please and there are things which cannot be forgiven. Only the dead can forgive and they cannot speak. One cannot forgive in the name of the dead and one has to understand that there will be no solace. Given the fact that ordinary survivors of the island’s violent history by the state and armed movements will not be available to society for all eternity, the growing social responsibility of the youth to deal with the island’s violent history on their own, is coming ever closer. As unpleasant as it may be, a just future must ultimately accept the unhealable wounds that have been caused as a lesson for the future and should not practise solace purely for pity in solidarity towards authoritarian and totalitarian policies that produced countless civilian deaths on a regular basis during the armed conflict. The price was always a high one to pay from a societal point of view.
No change without a culture of integrity
A better Sri Lanka requires patience and time. It’s a place that frankly today’s generations won’t witness in their lifetime. A better Sri Lanka that isn’t conceptualised by the usual ethno-centric players within Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism.
All political and social organisations, who hold key positions; those who want to acquire power through majorities in various communities will always use institutions such as politics, economy, family and particularly (higher) education epistemically for their own agenda of power. As long as we yearn for patriotism and nationalism, strive sociologically for heroism and tackle sociocultural challenges with a singular, ethnocentric manual of identity instead of reforming social education and bringing justice and accountability, the harmonious Sri Lanka we seek will stay an utopia in our dreams, thoughts and prayers.
Political and social institutions are created and shaped by the majority and not vice versa in a democracy. They ultimately are the product of the majoritarian communities. How are institutions supposed to change if the majority does not acknowledge its role in formulating the discriminatory culture of a homogenous majoritarian nation? A nation where affected ordinary minorities are massively underrepresented across all social and political institutions and organisations on the island or overseas. A nation where a handful of privileged academics and elitists dictate the future of an entire plural population and its diaspora, in essential political and social questions. An island of different communities which still longs for nationalism and heroism. If the voices of those who write history speak exclusively, the voices of the oppressed cannot speak and as long as such issues are not addressed, explored and examined for further evaluation, it won’t be worthwhile speaking of change. It could be considered for certain cities such as Colombo or Kandy only, if at all. However, such cities and their majoritarian citizens are practically the definition of assimilation and shouldn’t be taken as representative for the entire island and its communities for successful inclusion or lived diversity free of racism and discrimination let alone poverty.
One can only have hope in today’s children.
For that they need humble role models who pave their way towards societal change away from ethnocentric politics for their minorities and maybe even for their displaced diaspora. Where no one can be worthy than the other. Where no singular concept of nation dictates communities by using fears, but where communities create a nation of plurality fighting all forms of fear. Where the tradition of occupying minds through fears cannot win elections anymore. Where different truths aren’t repressed to exile and replaced by lies. Where accountability and solidarity aren’t only valid for some but have no validity for others. Where it must not only be dreamed of in the depths of thoughts because our children have made it reality by truly rewriting the history of fears and violence. Together with dedication, commitment and love in their hearts but without fears in their minds. All this with unconditional sensibility towards the dead, the disappeared, the displaced. It won’t be an easy walk on the beach on a hot summer day. It will be exhausting, gruelling, disillusioning and demotivating at times.
So, will we miss the exit to a better Sri Lanka again? Only time can tell.