By Priyan Dias
Much rhetoric has been used in various media over the years, and recently too, on the subject of patriots and traitors. I feel constrained to express my views as well. Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary (1755) defined a patriot as “One whose ruling passion is the love of his country.” This is certainly a laudable goal and worthy of emulation by all citizens; it suggests a cause bigger than one’s self and hints at a sacrificial character. Why then did he also say that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”? Genuine patriotism is not easy to define. And the use of rhetoric often infuses the term with a very narrow content.
In any case allegiance to one’s country, while important as part of a social contract, is not absolute. We recognize this in Edward Snowden, who acted against the interests of his country (the U.S.) by leaking classified information in the wider interests of the world at large; also in Nelson Mandela, whose actions to end apartheid in South Africa got him labeled as a “terrorist.” What we see here is that true love of one’s country is not easy to define; and must be judged by higher universal norms of justice.
In our country, the term “patriot” is sometimes defined very narrowly as one who defends military heroes, whatever the charges against them; and a “traitor” as one who dares to scrutinize their actions. Military heroes are in turn defined as those who prosecuted war against the LTTE, which undertook an armed struggle to create a separate state. There is no doubt that the end of the war against the LTTE brought great relief to all Sri Lankans – whether those in the South who feared bomb explosions in buses on a daily basis; or indeed those in the North, whose sons and daughters were forcibly recruited by the LTTE. Hence there is much gratitude towards the armed forces. But gratitude cannot be equated to the condoning of all actions taken during the course of one’s actions.
This applies to all citizens, but in particular to those given power over others. Hence anyone in the military has power over other citizens by virtue of being armed; politicians have the power of governance over the people; and principals and teachers have the power of selection and examinations over their students. All such power has to be held in trust and exercised for the public good and not abused for personal gain or gratification. As a society we accept that politicians and principals are not above the law. Principals are convicted for taking bribes for school admissions. And while not many are convicted, many politicians are indicted or at least investigated for their abuse of power. Even Mahinda Rajapakse is being investigated, and there is no public outcry of “traitor” against those who are investigating him, despite his being the commander in chief of the armed services that won the war.
Why then is the military viewed differently by some sections of our society? Is it because of a sense of collective guilt that we allowed them to risk their lives while many of us in the South (though not those on the borders) lived in relative safety? Is this the same reason why there was so much public southern euphoria in May 2009 at the end of the war? I wonder whether the euphoria was shared by those who had lost children or spouses serving in the forces? Would we have emerged better as a society from the war if conscription was resorted to, so that the risks of war would have been better shared? (There was certainly some discussion of it.) These questions cannot be answered; certainly not in a consensual manner. I am just raising them because I have not heard them raised before. How about those in the forces who fought a disciplined war with honour, but have a cloud over that honour because the military is viewed with a jaundiced eye in some quarters? Would they prefer investigations of some sort so that miscreants can be brought to book and the collective honour of the military restored?
There are various allegations regarding the complicity of the military in some terrible incidents – notably the killing of five Trincomalee students in 2006; the deaths of the local ACF workers in Muttur also in 2006; and various kidnappings for ransom. We do not know for certain whether the military is guilty of these actions. But there is certainly a pall that hangs over it as a result of the uncertainty. And until properly investigated that pall remains. Also, we begin to believe, not only within the military but in all spheres of life, that power can be abused with impunity. Perhaps all of this started with the impunity that went unchecked during the two JVP insurrections – i.e. the mass scale extra-judicial elimination of young people, then in the South. Hence this Sri Lankan attitude of “forgetting the past and moving forward” will not suffice; since a past that is not dealt with will haunt our future. Pardons may even be considered for anyone convicted; but without investigations and convictions, impunity reigns supreme. And because we did not have the strength of character to investigate these incidents properly ourselves, Geneva will thrust foreign judges on us.
Our social fabric was preserved via military intervention in both the southern and northern insurrections. Most, if not all of us, are grateful for that. It must be said in passing however that such insurrections are often spawned by injustice in the status quo. Whether such injustices have been mitigated as a result of the insurrections remains moot however. Nevertheless, the Youth Commission Report following the southern insurrection did give voice to rural southern grievances, most poignantly through the phrase “Kolambata kiri; gamata kekiri.” And given that the JVP has now come into mainline politics and doing yeoman service in the opposition, one could say that the social fabric has accommodated the southern voice. The northern voice still seeks expression however largely via a promised constitution, something that all provincial councils apparently desire too.
At any rate, the military was never hailed as being the saviours of the nation at the end of the southern insurrection, as much as it was in 2009 after the northern one – this despite the fact that the country and its capital city were more severely disrupted as a result of the former, with southern universities closed for two whole years!! So the rhetoric behind today’s adulation of the military is that it prevented the separation of the country that was attempted by the LTTE.
Once again, while expressing gratitude to the military, I would like to deconstruct this rhetoric.
Who indeed has prevented the separation of the country? Those who fought the LTTE in active combat certainly qualify. But we read in the newspaper recently that a group of rehabilitated former LTTE members gave an emotional farewell to Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu, the commander of the Civil Defence Force in Mullaitivu, when he was being transferred. I do not know whether Colonel Bandu has been decorated for valour in warfare. But he has obviously made a huge contribution to reducing the risk of separation through his empathetic treatment of former separatist cadres. Perhaps to a lesser extent, every service person at a Colombo checkpoint who treated visiting northerners with dignity and courtesy would have contributed to the idea that we can remain one nation.
When a bomb blast resulted in 23 deaths and 80 injuries on the road between the Katubedda junction and the Moratuwa University in 2008, almost all the male Tamil university students living close to the campus were taken in for questioning by the Moratuwa police. To my knowledge (and I am willing to stand corrected) only two university teachers visited them at the Police Station; but dozens of their Sinhala landlords did, just to express concern for their young Tamil tenants. Even ordinary citizens of the country would have contributed in many such ways to reducing the risk of separatism. One cannot prevent separatism by force alone; in many situations, force could actually hasten separation.
Once again we are all grateful to the military. They certainly prevented the separation of the country. But so did many others, in ways that are different but no less effective. So I am relativizing the role of the military; and also re-iterating that glorifying the armed services is not the only form of patriotism. There are at least two other ways in which we can show tangible “love of our country.”
The first, of course, is allegiance via sole citizenship and long service in the country. There are many ordinary people from all walks of life who have served or are serving the nation for a lifetime, in honesty and integrity, whether in the private, public, NGO or other sectors. Such service counts more, in my eyes, to stamp them as patriots, rather than whatever opinions they hold about the armed services or the national anthem. Members of Parliament are not allowed to hold dual citizenship, and rightly so. Those who play a pivotal role in the affairs of a nation should be required to have their futures inextricably linked to that nation. I say this because suspicion and dissent among people groups in this country are more often than not sown and nurtured by those who have secure futures in other climes. To be a patriot is not to relive the past, but to bind one’s self to the future of one’s country. For over 35 years I have been a teacher in the state university system, delivering free-of-charge education to generations of students from all corners of the country. A large percentage of them see a university degree as a passport to a foreign job. I do not believe in the curtailment of personal freedom. And many such who live overseas help Sri Lanka in numerous ways. But her destiny must be dictated by those who live (together) within her borders.
The second way is to pay one’s taxes. In the U.S. every child must “pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” every day at school. This is dangerous patriotism in my opinion, one that is easily exploitable by its leaders; as seen for example in the invasion of Iraq after 9/11. And that is the biggest problem with patriotism all over the world including Sri Lanka – it is actively cultivated by those who want to capture or retain state power. But at least most if not all Americans recognize the importance of paying their taxes – they convert their display of patriotism to some tangible nation building action. In South Korea, when the Central Bank was in trouble in 1998, it is said that average citizens donated their own gold to enable it to pay back a loan to the IMF!! Sri Lanka’s GDP per capita has increased from 370 USD in 1985 to 3860 USD in 2016 – a tenfold increase (six-fold, based on purchasing power parity); but its GINI index (that measures income inequality) has also increased from 32.5 in 1985 to 39.8 in 2016. We have become wealthier while becoming more unequal; and the case is clear for increasing direct taxation. I am not a spokesperson for the present government, but even the JVP has consistently wanted indirect taxation reduced from its current astronomical level of 80%. And the patriotic (“love for country”) thing to do is to increase personal income tax. In this “wonder of Asia” however, it is the very people who pontificate on criteria for assessing patriots and traitors who also agitate to reduce their taxes. What a travesty!