By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Have you learned nothing from history?” – Sigmund Freud (The Failure of an Illusion)
The exodus began a few years after the independence. The first to leave were the Burghers.
Realising that the equation of Sinhala with national (desheeya) in the politico-cultural sphere rendered precarious their place in independent Ceylon, most of the Burghers upped and left, in search of more tolerant pastures.
The Tamils began leaving next. Each Sinhala supremacist measure produced more migrants, culminating in the horror of Black July. With hindsight it is clear that the long Eelam War made matters worse for ordinary Tamils, from a practical, living-conditions point of view. As the Tigers gained the upper hand and began implementing such anti-civilisational measures as child conscription, Tamil exodus reached a new high.
In between, large numbers of plantation Tamils were expatriated.
All of this was done on the basis that Lanka belongs to Sinhala Buddhists, that Sinhala Buddhists are the true owners of this island. But that did not prevent Sinhala Buddhists from migrating in large numbers, in search of greener pastures, to escape the war and in a few cases to avoid political persecution.
Since the late 1970’s, a large number of economically poor Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims have gone to the deserted lands of the Middle East in desperate search for a living – often at considerable risk to life and limb.
Sri Lanka lost a huge chunk of her human capital with these multiple exoduses. As the educated, the talented and the able departed for other shores, the country was for their absence.
According to Wikipedia the Lankan Diaspora (Lankans emigrants and their descendents) is as large as 3 million. Recently UNP parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratne pointed out that “Sri Lanka’s expatriate population is the second largest in the world in per capita population terms, next only to Lebanon” (The Sunday Times – 29.7.2012).
The victorious ending of the war has not staunched this massive brain and brawn drain, as is evident from the long lines outside embassies, the ever increasing demand for foreign employment agencies, ‘quick sale; owner leaving the country’ ads in the paper and the sudden spurt in human smuggling. Despite peace, despite lavish promises of miracles and hubs, Lankans are still leaving, in search for livelihood, education, safety or just a different life.
Sinhala supremacist politicians, monks and ideologues never tire of repeating that Sri Lanka is the greatest land in the world. Perhaps Sri Lanka has the potential to become one of the best, but at this moment it is certainly not so. That is why the exodus is continuing.
The exclusionary, alienating and discriminatory policies championed by those political, religious and cultural leaders who fetishize the idea of Sri Lanka while ignoring the problems and concerns of Sri Lankans are primarily to blame for this anomalous state of affairs.
The leaders think that grandiose promises can make up for bad governance and triumphalist rhetoric can substitute for real development – of the sort which reduces poverty and improves living conditions. But the people, of all ethnicities and religions, disagree – which is why so many of them are leaving.
Black holes consume stars. Fundamentalism – and the concomitant intolerance – consumes nations.
Fundamentalism is self-defeating, as history has demonstrated time and again.
Roman Emperor Justinian in his famous Code declared Hellenism an unclean and abominable heresy abhorred by God. Justinian’s criminalisation of Hellenism effectively banished the accumulated wisdom of Antiquity from Rome. With this victory of fundamentalism, Rome – and Europe – receded into a long night of intellectual obscurantism and economic underdevelopment.
Literacy levels dropped drastically; hygiene and athleticism almost vanished (Justinian also put an end to the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of Games). For 600 years Europe regressed and stagnated.
Hellenism banished from the newly Christianised Roman Empire found a home in Persia and later in the Islamic Caliphate. As Rome (and the West) receded in to the darkness of medievalism, Persia and the Caliphate experienced a golden age civilisation, made possible by the tolerance and openness of most of their rulers who promoted culture and learning not only of the Greco-Roman variety but also of the Babylonian and Indian variety.
By the 12th Century, the Arabs were at the forefront of scientific discovery, technological innovation and arts. A growing religious fundamentalism eventually put an end to this scientific and technological revolution in the Arab-Islamic world and pushed it into stagnation and regression.
Justinian’s fight against heresy destroyed the intellectual achievements of the Greco-Roman world and condemned Europe to centuries of backwardness. Crusades did Europe far more harm than good. As Fredrick Engels wrote “If Richard Cœur – de – Lion and Philip Augustus had introduced Free Trade instead of getting mixed up in the Crusades we would have been spared 500 years of misery and stupidity (letter to F Mehring – 14.7.1893). The Catholic vs.
Protestant wars devastated many parts of Europe; religious extremism was one of the reasons for the downfall of the once great Spanish empire.
When Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, French Protestants (known as Huguenots) departed for more tolerant lands. Most of the Huguenots were skilled craftsmen (especially weavers). There was a direct correlation between this mass emigration and the subsequent economic blossoming of countries such as England and Netherlands which welcomed the Huguenots and benefited from their skill and know-how.
Extremism knows no limits and is as self-destructive as it is destructive. Government of, by and for the ‘chosen people’, chosen on the basis of a primordial identity – either ethnicity or religion requires a land that is pure. Politics of salvation needs a country which is the exclusive preserve of the ‘chosen’ ethnic or religious community.
Progress requires tolerance. Intolerant lands often deprive themselves of some of their most precious resources when they alienate and exclude the ethno-religious other.
In Sri Lanka the steady haemorrhaging of brain and brawn did not bother the extremists on any side of the politico-ideological spectrum. The Sinhala supremacists were too busy claiming Sri Lanka for Sinhala Buddhists while the Tigers were focused on waging war for a Tamil state in which very few Tamils seemed to want to become citizens of.
Post-war, the madness continues.
The search for the ‘other’ never stops.
In Sri Lanka (Ceylon) the ‘other’ was at initially the Malay and Tamil workers of non-Sri Lankan origin; then it was Tamils. The next community to be so stigmatised can be either Christians or Muslims. Later the search will turn even more inwards and the line of demarcation may become one which divides the followers of the pristine from of the doctrine from those who are not.
The hysteria over the ‘Mahayana invasion’ in the early 1990’s is a warning of what future can hold for Buddhists. A similar process of cannibalisation will happen within the other religions – just as it happened with the Tamil minority – Catholic vs. non-Catholics, Sunni vs. Shia – the possibilities are endless because ethnic and religious frenzy once given full rein knows no bounds.
The ruling ideology of the Rajapakse era is Sinhala supremacism and Rajapakse supremacism. The Rajapaksas waged the Fourth Eelam War as the main axis of a restorationist project, to give back to the Sinhala race the place of dominance it enjoyed since 1956 and lost in 1987 due to the intervention of an external force, India.
Consequently, and with the war won, it cannot devolve power to the minorities.
Thus Rajapaksa approach to peace-building and reconciliation will be to keep the minorities quiescent through a combination of terror and miniscule economic bribes.
In the North and the East, people continue to suffer from discrimination and injustice. In the South, the unprecedented is already the normal. Such as substandard fuel being sold by the state for the second time, causing at least 10 trains and more buses to malfunction; or educational authorities messing up the university entrance process again; or an Olympic team which consists of 7 athletes and 30 officials.
Race and religion will continue to be used to divert public attention from these failures and to justify Rajapaksa Rule. This would involve pandering to the extreme elements in each community whenever necessary as well as setting the majority against the minorities and the minorities against each other.
A best case in point is the recent Presidential visit to the Chief Priest of the Dambulla temple who played the leading role in the attempt to destroy a mosque and a kovil. This is even as the regime uses the Muslim card to justify the deeds of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen.
The Rajapaksa nation building project will be even more exclusionary than anything Sri Lanka has experienced in the past. It has to be in the interests of the Dynastic Project. The last things the Rajapaksas would want is for Lankans of various ethnic and religious communities to unite on the basis of enlightened self-interest. For the sake of the Rajapaksa Dynastic project, it would be much better for various Lankan communities to live in suspicion and fear of each other.
That way the Ruling Family can play the role of protector of the majority from the minorities and the minorities from each other. They can portray themselves as the saviour of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians, the only bulwark between Sri Lanka and violent anarchy.
A state of semi-conflict can also justify the further militarization of Lankan polity, economy and society (by a Rajapaksaised-military) and the hemming-in of fundamental rights and democratic freedoms.
A state that is secular and a society that is tolerant are perhaps the only bulwarks available to pluralist countries, such as ours, against ethno-religious polarisation and the consequent conflicts and fragmentations.
But this will not be possible so long as the Rajapaksas rule, and in their dynastic interest, encourage and foster ethno-religious extremism and extremists of all communities. Because they can continue to rule, only so long as they can divide.