By Hemantha Warnakulasuriya
Two days after my first article, ‘Work is Worship’,
Professor Charles Sarvan sent a response to a former colleague of mine at the Foreign Ministry.
He very kindly forwarded the same to me and I to use the title he gave, ‘Restoration of the fractured confidence in Tamil Speaking in Sri Lanka.’ as the title to this article.
Mr Charles Ponnathurai was educated at St. Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa and later entered the Peradeniya University and Graduated with English Honours in 1958. Due to the violence perpetrated on the Tamils, he migrated, married a German Lady and changed his name to Charles Sarvan. He has written extensively on the Ethnic issues. I reproduce his letter in full:
“In an article titled ‘Work is worship: The work-ethic success of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ (17 June 2012) you quote a message received when serving as His Excellency, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Rome:”
“You have killed us, broken our limbs, burnt our houses and property to the ground. Overnight we were reduced to the state of beggars. You drove us from our homeland and we became refugees begging for alms. We lived on the handouts given by foreign governments.”
“You then go on to point out that some of these same Tamils are now leading professionally successful and/or materially comfortable lives: they should be urged to return and contribute to the Island from which they were forced to flee. “We [Sinhalese] must show them that the Tamils who were driven out […] are wholeheartedly welcome to work for the betterment of Mother Sri Lanka.” There is much worthy of comment in your statement, but I will content myself with two observations.
The Nazis knew that, as the direct result of their attitude and action, some very gifted Jews were fleeing the country. Not only were they outstanding in philosophic, scientific, creative and entrepreneurial terms but, until then, they had seen themselves as being German; had identified with Germany. Many sacrificed their lives for Germany during World War 1. The Nazis knew all this but didn’t care. As Mandela writes in his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, feelings about “race” and colour are so potent that people are willing to damage, even sacrifice, prosperity and progress in their name. Similarly, one wonders whether there are not individuals and groups in Sri Lanka who would rather see the departure of the Tamils – whatever the price. The exodus of the Burghers has made the Island less varied and poorer but this has not been popularly regretted: perhaps, quite in the contrary. So, on this subject of Tamils returning, I wonder if you number among the very few.
Secondly, you urge Tamils to look not to the past but to the future, but what of the present? You seem not to address issues such as massive military occupation; the expropriation of land; the cultural onslaught (“culture” in its wider meaning); the lack of equality, and the sense of dignity that goes with it; discrimination in opportunity and employment etc. “We have broken the pride of the Tamils”: if so, are such people likely to return? No doubt, there are some Tamils who will seize such business opportunity as they see (even if they don’t re-settle in the Paradise Isle) but I think the majority of Tamils are unlikely to be eager to make a general contribution to the Island – not until those Tamils still at what was once “home” are treated fairly.
‘Mother Lanka’ (to use your phrase) must first show – in conduct, rather than in mere words – that she is a concerned and caring mother to all her children, equally and without favour, and not a cruel stepmother when it comes to minority groups. I hope this ‘sharing of thoughts’ will be seen as a positive response to your well-meant statement. (I regret I don’t know where it was first published.) Being a President’s Counsel, I am sure you are as much concerned about justice and fundamental human rights as with material prosperity. The term “investment” has a material, monetary, meaning: one must “invest” also in justice and decency, in equality and inclusion.
By way of a postscript, may I say that ethnic stereotyping makes me uneasy. While some Diaspora Tamils have succeeded (and attract attention), the majority of Diaspora Tamils lead average to less-than-average lives: they are not noticed and remarked on. The same applies to Sinhalese settled abroad.
Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan”