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Forging a common Sri Lankan identity based on a culture of mutual respect and tolerance

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By Kamaya Jayatissa

Hello Friends,

Paradoxical as it may seem, I have in the past often referred to Sri Lanka as both an Island nation and archipelago of communities.

Art at a children’s camp promoted by D.S. Senanayake College, Colombo and the Future for the Youth Charity in Nov 2009-Pic by Charles Haviland-Courtesy: BBCNews.com

Given the raucous cacophony of strident cries of race and religion it does seem unlikely that these polyphony of voices can ever be blended into a harmonious symphony

The vision and call of people like the British missionary Rev.W.S. Senior sounds in the present context as an unrealistic voice in the wilderness. Walter Stanley Senior was a scholar, pastor, teacher and poet who served in Sri Lanka for many years as Vice –principal of Trinity College, Kandy and Vicar at Christ Church, Galle face.

Inspired by the landscape and people of the Island then called Ceylon, W.S. Senior poetically envisaged a future Sri Lanka of unity and tranquility where the races had blended and marched to a single drum.

Here are three verses from his “Call to Lanka”.

But most shall he sing of Lanka

In the bright new days that come.
When the races all have blended
And the voice of strife is dumb
When we leap to a single bugle,
March to a single drum.

Rev. W.S. Senior

March to a mighty purpose,
One man from shore to shore;
The stranger, becomes a brother,
The task of the tutor o’er,
When the ruined city rises
And the palace gleams once more.

Hark! Bard of the fateful future,
Hark! Bard of the bright to be;
A voice on the verdant mountains,
A voice by the golden sea.
Rise, child of Lanka, and answer
Thy mother hath called to thee”

Against the current nightmare of vocal warriors from sparring ethnicities in the pearl of the Indian ocean , the Bard of Lanka’s yearning for a time when the voice of strife is dumb does seem a distant dream.

What is heartening to me is the recurring phenomenon of occasional silver linings in the dark clouds across the horizon. From time to time voices of reason and sanity are raised but sadly they are drowned in the communal commotion and seldom heard.

This however does not deter these voices and they do speak up sounding a clarion call for a new Sri Lanka

One such voice I heard recently was that of Kamaya Jayatissa who holds a Master Degree in International Law from the Sorbonne University and a Diploma in International Governance and Sustainable Development from Sciences Po, Paris.

Kamaya in a recent article calls for a common Sri Lankan identity and says “Tomorrow’s Sri Lankan is the one who builds his/her identity through the respect, understanding and tolerance of his/her diversity”.

Reading Kamaya Jayatissa made me share the Bard of Lanka’s prophetic dream and visualize a future for our country transcending barriers of race,religion,caste and creed, forging a unity amidst diversity.

Jayatissa’s vision is not that of assimiliation but of integration based on mutual respect for the “other”.It is pluralist in essence.

I am therefore posting Jayatissa’s article on my blog with the hope that many of our readers along with me will share that future vision albeit briefly

Here it is Friends-DBS Jeyaraj

Forging a common Sri Lankan identity based on a culture of mutual respect and tolerance

By Kamaya Jayatissa

If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” – Chuck Palahniuk

Few are those who believe in the existence of what I would like to call a post-war Sri Lankan identity. Indeed, most of us will identify themselves according to their ethnicity, some according to their religion, beliefs and aspirations and some according to their country of birth. Yet, the fact is that we do not belong to just one category or another. We are different from each other and at the same time we carry diversity within ourselves. Each of us is a unique combination of various identifications that are not equally significant to us. So how does one define the schizophrenic notion of identity?

In a sociological sense, one could say that identity defines who we are and who we want to be. It also defines where we come from and where we go to. Yet, identity is not necessarily something we inherit or something inherent to us. It does not axiomatically combine shared values, beliefs or concerns. To say that one inherits a certain identity –whether it is the Sri Lankan identity, the Sinhala or Tamil identity, the Islamic or Christian identity- is inaccurate (at least partially).

Identity is also something we built/build within ourselves as individuals. It also has to do with the way others perceive us and vice versa. The very shape of our identity therefore tends to evolve throughout our life, depending (to a considerable extent) on the environment we are in.

The struggle for identity is something we all experience at some point of our life; either as individuals or as a nation. Depending on each individual or group, there will multiple (Sri Lankan) identities.

Hence the necessity to define a common identity, one that will incorporate our socio-economic differences but also our religious, political, cultural and geographical similarities and differences, one that will ultimately give us a stronger sense of solidarity and tolerance through multi-ethnicity.

Today, despite tremendous efforts to rebuild the North and East, the country is still split psychologically into two. The fracture between the North and the South remains and most importantly, reconciliation is still lagging. So what better cause than peace to [re]build a Sri Lankan identity?

From a post-war perspective, how can we define what it means to be “Sri Lankan”? Most importantly, how can we find a commonality that will enable us to build an inclusive and homogenous identity, one that will include our diversity –both as individuals and as a nation?

Post-war Sri Lankan or how to “rebrand our identity”

In marketing, before rebranding a product, one has to be clear about the issues that are to be solved. What is the vision of the enterprise? What does it expect 5 or 10 years from now? And most importantly, how can this vision be achieved?

If we consider the Sri Lankan identity as a product and apply to it the above mentioned strategy, then one has to ask himself what the vision of Sri Lanka is. What do we, as individuals and/or as a post-war nation, expect a few years from now? Mostly, how do we build a common identity (if such a thing really exists)? This requires a fundamental shift in mentalities and behaviors that only the younger generations will collectively be able to achieve by building their own ideology, one that will enable them to share an identity that will transcend their own diversity in order to establish a sustainable peace in the country.

But what does being a post-war Sri Lankan mean? Today, to be a Sri Lankan is contextually different from what it used to be three decades ago or even two years ago when the war ended. It might even be different a quarter century from now. However, given the current post-war situation, [re]defining the Sri Lankan identity is not merely a necessity; it is also a prerequisite to reconciliation. One cannot talk about reconciliation without talking about identity issues, equality or discrimination.

This is especially true if we consider the fact that our country came out of a protracted civil war, a war between its own constituents, citizens. Studies show that today: “No other factor in this century has caused so much misery to so many people as religious and ethnic intolerance. No other single factor is responsible for such extensive and protracted violation of rights as ethnic conflict”. (The Right to a Culture of Tolerance, Report of the Advisory Commission, The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, chaired by Dr. Kamal Hossain, 1997, p.18)

If there is such a thing as being a post-war Sri Lankan, are we talking in terms of nationality and in that case does being Sri Lankan means belonging to the Sri Lankan nation? But again, can we consider Sri Lanka as “one” nation or isn’t this so-called nation scattered into pieces both inside and outside the island? Or as the Oxford dictionary defines it, is identity “the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is”? In that case, are we talking in terms of geography, ethnicity? It seems to me that both notions are pieces of the same puzzle; the missing pieces being the indispensable center-piece i.e. the common denominator characterizing us as (post-war) Sri Lankans.

One also needs to identify what he/she wants to do with this “new” identity. Defining the purpose of such a notion is indeed essential. I believe that the search for a common identity is part of the solution to the existing post-war stagnation. Though commendable, so far most of the post-war efforts were put into material infrastructure and tourism whereas the concept of identity-building is as important (if not more) in terms of nation-building, reconciliation, peace and stability.

Reconciliation policies through the promotion of multi-ethnicity

“A State which recognizes the multiple identities of individuals and groups is more likely to ensure peace, stability and development than a State which espouses narrow sectarian ideologies.” (Ibid, p. 40)

The role of the State is pivotal in terms of identity. Over the years, Sri Lanka has struggled and not satisfactorily succeeded, to fuse its diversities into a melting pot of its own; a pot that has however proven to be extremely fragile. So how does a State overcome the fragmentation of its own identity?

Public policies implemented by the State are necessary to shape a new identity as part of the peace-building process. Not only will it function as an accelerator in terms of socio-economic development and international recognition but it will also have a major psychological impact on the citizens by ultimately reinforcing their “Sri Lankan-ness”.

This requires the promotion of social equity between all ethnic and religious groups; starting from a reform of the education sector. Inequality, known as a major cause of marginalization in all societies, is first experienced at school. No public school should be used as a platform to promote or privilege one religion over the other. Instead, emphasis should be put in teaching human values and ethical principles since primary schools; a concept valued by organizations such as UNESCO. This goes for the State as well.

Buildings, no matter how architecturally uncommon they are, will not help in building inner peace among Sri Lankans. Instead, what we need is to showcase our diversity through the enforcement of multi-ethnic public policies. Language, for instance, should not be a barrier in either obtaining an employment or in our everyday life. If we are unable to communicate with our own people and especially in our own country, then how are we even to discuss about social equality?

French Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu would have agreed that the concept of secularism is part of the solution. We, Sri Lankans, have given far too much importance to the practice of religions and not enough to spirituality; a notion that the Buddha himself tried to inculcate us: “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without”.

Frustration due to discrimination or rejection often excludes minorities, pushing them further away from the larger society they live in. Such marginalization often builds the need to find a new and somewhat irrational identity. The inclusion of the minorities as well as the Diaspora is therefore essential to build a better Sri Lanka.

* * *

Being born in Sri Lanka or being part of the Sinhala Buddhist majority does not make you more Sri Lankan. Comparatively, being born and/or raised abroad does not make you less Sri Lankan.

The lack of a homogenous identity engenders the risk of exclusion and discrimination whereas there should not be competitiveness between and within communities. If we actually consider ourselves first and foremost as Sri Lankan, then no distinction needs to be made between individuals that are part of the majority and the ones that are part of the minorities.

While some might perceive our diversity as our vulnerability, I see it as our strength. The more diverse we are the better understanding and more complete we get to be. The problem is not necessarily how we live or cohabit with each other but how we combine these multiple identities into a common identity. Ultimately, it is all about how we, both as individuals and as a group, want the Sri Lankan identity to be perceived as, and what we want to do with it.

I believe that being Sri Lankan is not giving any sort of importance to ethnicity, social, religious or geographical distinctions. Being Sri Lankan is being tolerant and understanding of one another, no matter where we come from and where we go to. Building and preserving a culture of mutual tolerance is and should be our common denominator, our common identity as Sri Lankans.

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?

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  1. Thank you Mr.Jeyaraj for excerpting WS Senior’s verses into this brilliant article.Most appropriate. Alas! in the present Sri Lanka dominated by racists posing as patriots even Senior is a forgotten imperialist

  2. You may be a srilankan but

    I am not a srilankan and I will never be
    One .
    I am a Tamil and always will be.
    One may thing I am a racist but I am not.
    Because where I live I am proud to call myself
    Tamil Canadian.

  3. has anybody seen the placards saying ‘srilanka for sinhalese only’

    in the recent demonstrations.

    no wonder the tamils are asking for seperation!

    imagine if the tamils had placards saying ‘north and east only for tamils and

    what would the army had done to the poor tamils?

    it shows the double standard and inequality the sinhala govtments practice against people.

    unless and until we the sinhalese realise and address the genuine tamil greviances and concerns

    we will not get nowhere!

    tamils are not the problem of the country it’s the sinhala politicians.

  4. Another good article or thought that have highlighted what we are missing in SL.
    But unfortunatly SL Politicians won’t get that message.
    If SL really keen on PEACE then
    1. Either they need to treat all religions as same or Government should NOT involve in any religious matters at all.
    That will be the ideal situation.
    (Like Developed countries).
    2. There should not be any form of ethnic or race discripmination.
    3. Politicianms should be accountable to people and Media should not be threaten in any form.
    Then only Politicians will do the right thinks and otherwise medias should high light those matters.
    Whether it is President or Prime minister or his family members.
    4. No Arm gangs should not be allowed.
    5. All Political prisoners should be freed as part of Countries Reconcilation Process
    (Whether they are LTTE or JVP or Genral Fonseka, etc)
    Lets start again freshly and forget the Past.
    Lets think the bright future.

    BUT…Will it happen…
    It is a good opportunity ; But ONLY If Srilanks’s President and his family act in good and open minded.

  5. Excellent article which should be read by all Sri Lankans, especially the politicians who are the policy makers & set direction to our country.

    Without waiting for any one to start, we can practice secularism starting from the smallest unit- which is the family.

  6. Yes! Some could think in the way you have mentioned and explained. It is very nice indeed! But, if the Government of Sri Lanka and its laws and actions emphasize that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Theravada Buddhists, then who will be a Sri Lankan?

  7. A good article Kamaya.

    You have grown up and educated in the west speak of secularism and a common Srilankan identity. I applaud you.

    The Srilankan identity of inclusion of all people, under one flag must start from Grade 01. Meaning. some of our history books must be re-written and others dust binned.

    The ethno identity crisis we have in Srilanka and the resulting murder and mayhem is influenced by the writings of the past. As a learned person said, if the Srilanka is to achieve peace we must burn the Mahawamsa. Can we ?

    Recently the current Govt and it’s cahoots in power wanted to change the written history again, this time pitting the Christians against the Non-Christians. We appear to love conflicts.

    Again, a thoughtful article and I am Srilankan, first.

  8. I think it was after 1972 name change to Sri Lanka the many Jaffanese rejected Sri Lankan identity. It ironic because the name “Sri Lanka” is language neutral whereas name “Ceylon” is essentially derived from “Sinhale”.

    The Jaffanese clashed over the letter ‘Sri’ as well, The Jaffanese Tamil language puritans did not appreciate the fact it was Sanskrit. The letter ‘Sri’ on number plates for example were disfigured in Jaffna. Jaffnanese Tamil language supremacism rooted in south Indian Dravidian movement imported their Aryan hatred there too. Perhaps it was because Sinhalese are said to be Aryan similar to north Indian heritage. Beginning of Tamil terrorism in Ceylon, (I wish I can call it freedom fighting. But killing Alfred Driaappah ??) also emanate from a period at the height of the Dravidian movement. From certain angles the steps taken during 1956-1972 by SLFP seem to be an attempt at pre-empting Dravidianism problems in Sri Lanka.

  9. “imagine if the tamils had placards saying ‘north and east only for tamils and

    what would the army had done to the poor tamils?”

    Chelliah, Didn’t the so called “sole representative of Tamils” demand a separate mono-ethnic state for Tamils and chased out Muslims from Jaffna? I don’t remember they were carrying place cards saying “North and East belongs to all communities”

    “tamils are not the problem of the country it’s the Sinhalese politicians.”

    Before Tamils blame everything under the sun on Sinhalese, they need take a look at themselves in the mirror first and ask “where did we go wrong”?

    Good article DBS.

    “I believe that being Sri Lankan is not giving any sort of importance to ethnicity, social, religious or geographical distinctions. Being Sri Lankan is being tolerant and understanding of one another, no matter where we come from and where we go to. Building and preserving a culture of mutual tolerance is and should be our common denominator, our common identity as Sri Lankans.

    Tomorrow’s Sri Lankan is the one who builds his/her identity through the respect, understanding and tolerance of his/her diversity.”

    Well said.


    Thank you but the credit goes to the author Kamaya Jayatissa a young girl who grew up in France

  10. Secularism, a market economy, a free press, common identity, common national symbols, mutual respect, human rights, diversity, tolerance, doing the “right thing”, the supreme powers of the Law, democracy, and similar values and virtues – are all part and parcel of a solution towards a healthy and winning society. But absent gutsy Statesmanship of the highest integrity, all of this is nothing but a pipe dream. Sure, evolving a common identity is a big part of the solution, but without the visionary leadership committed to pluralism and equality – it won’t happen! Having immigrated to the U.S. in the early 70’s – just few years after the Civil Rights Act was passed – I can attest to the fact that the transformation of the American society from that of a bigoted one to that of a more equitable and tolerant one is due to very many complex and inter-woven reasons, but without American Statesmen like the Kennedys, Johnsons, Reagans, Clintons and others – it would never have happened! Sri Lankan leaders who shun the recommendations of their commissions – be they APRC’s or LLRC’s – perhaps do not fall in the same category. Prognosis: Until time a visionary Statesman (or a Stateswoman) occupies the State’s highest office, it is quite unlikely that the islanders could even begin to think of becoming healthier. [A well intended article, but words in vain.]

  11. Superb Article,Lovely verse.

    Yes time to time sanity and sparks of hope arises.
    The more we think of ourselves as ‘Sri Lankan’and the less Srilankans think of themselves as Sinhalese and Tamils peace will prevail.

  12. I do not hesitate to call me Sri Lankan.As ‘Lanka’ came from pure Tamil word
    ‘ILANKAI’ before Sinhala language evolved and it was mentioned in the ancient
    ‘Thirumanthiram’ as ‘Siva Pumi’ which estabilished with very ancient five famous’Shiva’ temples within the the five corners of the island.

    If you do not hide my history by saying ‘Appe Ratta’ ‘Appe Andduva’ ; let us
    to say also ‘Intha Mann Enkalin Sontha Mann’ ,empower our region without any discrmination, State sponcered colanisation and Violance to develop or co-oprate our neighbourhood with suffecient power,then I do also feel SriLankan.

    The word ‘Sri’ came from Sanskrit mean ‘holy’ or ‘honorable’ , before rebrand
    the identity , are we reflecting the brand meaning? when UN concern about over
    40,000 Civilians killed not only the ruling government but also our political parties like UNP,JVP and some inhuman organisation rejecting the investigation
    and justice for the poor people seems to us ‘UN-Holy’ and ‘UN-Honorable’.

    Until they accepting the truth and implement the remady not carrying forward the
    hateful opperesing politics ,lies and broken promises, I would rather remain as
    ‘TamilLankan’ than ‘SriLankan’.

  13. A nice article Kamaya, thanks DBS J for psoting here.

    Being born in Sri Lanka or being part of the Sinhala Buddhist majority does not make you more Sri Lankan. Although born in SL, because of not being part of Sinhala nor Buddhist made me feel less Sri Lankan at times, very less, sadly. Maybe this could well be the reason our former PMs converted their religion. This is history, and democracy rewards for such efforts at the expense of harmony amongst communities in SL. In SL, unity in diversity is a casuality.

    To teach trilanguages at schools is one of the good thing happened in recent past, but I would not surprise if another SWRD comes and articulates sinhala only back again.

  14. This article is soothing to the eyes and pleasing to the ears.
    Will the concerned Sri lankans have eyes to see? Ears to hear?

    Can the greedy, selfish, moronic political leaders and all the politicians in power be trained to think like this ?

    I hope all the young Sri Lankans think like Kamaya Jayatissa, so we would have hope for the future.

  15. Just another really nice article one of many in the last 30 years. The only way for the Sinhalese and Tamils to live in harmony is for the Tamils to convince the Sinhalese that they will never allow Sinhalese families going to work to come home in body bags and will not empty their streets of Sinhalese and the Sinhalese to to convince Tamils that they will always be treated with respect and equality and allowed to run their affairs with dignity in a reasonable devolution. I doubt with the Diaspora going all out to nail, sri lanka, any one of the above two will happen in our lifetime. May be in our next lives ?we all are sri lankans and we DO love the country, so if Buddhism or Hinduism is truth, we are most likely to born in SL again. So let’s hope. As it is, Sri Lanka consists of many races, the two main are deeply suspicious of each other. Nothing can happen under such conditions.

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