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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2648

Nagenahira Navodaya or Leidensweg

Nagenahira Navodaya or Leidensweg

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“After World War II, the United States prevailed in the defence of democracy in Europe because it successfully pursued a long-term political strategy of uniting its friends and dividing its enemies, of soberly deterring aggression without initiating hostilities, all the while also exploring the possibility of negotiated arrangements”.

Zbigniew Brezezinski (Testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee – 1.2.2007)

The government has announced an ambitious plan to develop the East in six months. The Rajapakse regime is strong on fashioning attractive development programmes and holding impressive commencement ceremonies but somewhat weak when it comes to actual implementation – as the experiences of the last one and half years amply demonstrate. That is the obvious danger in the Nagenahira Navodaya – that the grandiose plan will remain just that, a plan. It is happening in the South with other much publicised programmes of the regime; and it can easily happen in the East. The fallout of such a failure is self-evident.

There is another, less visible danger which would stem from the politico-psychological basis on which the government approaches Eastern development. That is the danger of unequal development, discriminatory development, development that will be seen by Tamils and Muslims as biased towards the Sinhalese and inimical towards their own interests. If such a perception is created and gains ground, the Tigers will find it easier to spread unrest and violence in the East. And it will serve to radicalise Islamic youth in the province. If Nagenahira Navodaya is seen by the non-Sinhala residents of the East as a euphemism for a Sinhala resurgence, we may find ourselves battling on two fronts, with a rejuvenated Tiger and with an Islamic militancy.

There are diverse opinions about who the original inhabitants of the East were. Irrespective of who came first and who did not, today the East is home to Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in almost equal proportions. Only a development plan based on the belief that the East belongs equally to all the people who live there can succeed politically. Nagenhira Navodaya, if it is not to be a misnomer, needs to be ethno-religiously neutral, both at the level of conception and at the level of implementation. Irrespective of claims by official propagandists, when (and if) this ambitious plan reaches the implementation stage, the Eastern Tamils and Muslims will feel whether there is an ideological context and content to it or whether it is ethno-religiously neutral. And that feeling would go a considerable way in deciding both the success of the plan and the fate of the East.

Ethnicity and Religion

Post-Thoppigala, it would make sense to look back at the long and bloody road travelled. We, the Sinhalese, opened the Pandora’s Box with our inability to understand that others can feel as passionately about their language as we do about ours and that no one likes to be a second class citizen in his own country. Vellupillai Pirapaharan is a true child of that culture of incomprehension and intolerance. He began with ‘Tamil Only’, thereby marginalising and antagonising the other component of the ‘Tamil speaking people’, the Muslims. He followed this with a ‘North First’ policy which led to an unprecedented schism in the Tiger monolith and eventually resulted in the dislodging of the LTTE from its Eastern strongholds.

Not even the JHU would deny that the East has a multi-ethnic and multi-religious populace. The controversy is over whom the East belongs to – whether it belongs to all three communities because it is currently peopled by all of them or whether it belongs to one particular community on the basis that its ancestors were the province’s original inhabitants. In this sense the debate about who owns the East is a part of the debate over whether or not Sri Lanka is a pluralist society. Those who insist on calling Sri Lanka a Sinhala/Sinhala-Buddhist country insist that this claim does not deny the fact that people of diverse ethnicities and religions live in Sri Lanka. The implication is that Sri Lanka really belongs to the ethno-religious majority and that all other ethno-religious groups live here by our grace and as evidence of our grace; consequently we have a right (and a duty) to chastise any minority legally (and occasionally in other ways) when they step beyond this or that line (drawn unilaterally by us).

It is this mindset of ‘hosts and guests’ which made us replace English with Sinhala Only rather than with Sinhala and Tamil. Because if we see Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhalese, then Tamil is not a native language; it is as much of an alien language as English. According to this mindset Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and even Sinhala Christians are not co-owners of this country but its guests. We see ourselves as gracious hosts who hospitably permitted these alien races settle down in ‘our’ country. But we also expect the ‘guests’ to remember that they are guests. Given this mindset the right of any minority to live in Sri Lanka is a conditional one, determined by their conduct - unlike the majority, whose right to live in Sri Lanka is unconditional and is guaranteed by birth.

We are hospitable so long as the minorities do not abuse our hospitality; the moment they assert their rights as equal citizens of this country then we begin to look at them with hostility and tell ourselves that they are repaying our goodness and tolerance with rank ingratitude. From this, to either perpetrating or condoning violent chastisement of these abusive and ungrateful ‘guests’, is but a logical step, as the Black July bloodily demonstrated.

One of the arguments used by European political leaders to justify the persecution of Jews was that they were not loyal to the countries they were living in because they were rootless wanderers without a motherland, even if they have been living in any particular country for generations. In one of those ironies of history the Jews in their long awaited moment of liberation used a strikingly similar argument to justify the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their own motherland. The Palestinian Arab, said the founder of the state of Israel David Ben Gourian, does not have any “emotional involvement” in the land of his birth: “Why should he? He is equally at ease whether in Jordan, Lebanon or a variety of places. They are as much his country as this is. And as little…” (Memoirs). This is what we feel about non-Sinhala people of Sri Lanka. That is why in moments of anger we tell the Tamils to go to India (even though we proudly claim that we are descendent from an Indian prince) or remind Muslims that in Saudi Arabia other religions are not tolerated. Shades of this mindset can be discerned in the regime’s plan to expel Tamils from Colombo lodges and the subsequent attempts by government leaders to justify the unjustifiable. After all, if Tamils are merely guests in ‘our’ land, then we have the right to dictate where they can and cannot live.

Religion is the other area of controversy. Already the JHU has claimed the East as the land of the Buddhists on the basis of ruins of ancient temples. Whatever the past may or may not have been, today the East has many move Kovils and Mosques than temples and any attempt to change this reality will plunge this vital province into bloody civil strife. Equally damaging would be any effort at removing non-Sinhala residents from sites of ancient Buddhist ruins or resettling Sinhalese in those areas under state patronage. Any Sri Lankan has a constitutionally guaranteed right to live where s/he pleases; this however is different from state aided colonisation favouring majority community. In the East peace and security can come only on the basis of absolute equality and the acceptance of existing demographics – even if these are totally at variance with our cherished belief of what the province was in its ancient past.

A Marshall Plan

The LTTE’s intolerance and maximalism helped create an inadvertent Sinhala-Tamil-Muslim axis in the East and it is this development which enabled the Lankan forces to defeat the Tiger in the East. Nagenahira Navodaya must seek to solidify this multi-ethnic, multi-religious axis, consciously and on the basis of absolute equality. Any attempt to favour the national majority or to reclaim ancient glories will debilitate and destroy this axis and pit the minorities against the majority. The Tigers would work actively to enable such an outcome and the regime must not do anything to help these enemy endeavours. The depriving of Sampur residents of their traditional land in the name of security or development may not be unconstitutional; but politically, it epitomises the kind of approach we must not adopt in rebuilding the East. Tamil and Muslim residents must not feel that development and security serve as fig leaves for a Sinhala resurgent agenda, implemented by the regime and the state (including the Security Forces).

Ignorance breeds prejudice and fear. Ignorance is thus an important pillar of extremism. Demonising of the ‘Other’ cannot be done without ignorance of the ‘Other’. This is particularly so when it comes to religion, a crucial factor in determining the complexion and trajectory of Nagenahira Navodaya. What most of us know about each other’s religions is limited to a few derogatory remarks made by extremist elements belonging to our own religion. These derisive remarks are aimed at proving the absolute superiority of one’s own religion by demonstrating that all other religions are just Myths.

Today most Sri Lankan school children are taught the three main languages used in the country. If this policy was followed from the very beginning the bloody trajectory of the last 50 years could have been avoided. Ignorance about each other’s religion can be alleviated by ensuring that all children are given at least a basic grounding in the four main religions of Sri Lanka. Such a multi-religious education will help the next generation unlearn the intolerance we have learnt. And the best place to begin such an experiment is the pluralist East where religious co-existence is not an abstract slogan but an absolute necessity for normalcy and prosperity.

Leidensweg is a Germans term used to describe the plight and the tragedy of those who are faced with unimaginable suffering because of their own past mistakes and crimes. This was the name given to the harrowing flight of the German people from the occupied territories in the face of the advancing Red Army 60 years ago. Buddhists with our belief in karma should be able to understand and appreciate this term and the profound meaning it conveys. We still have not ceased paying for our old karma of 1956 and 1983. The Tigers lost the East because of their own ‘karma’ – their intolerance and North First conduct. In the aftermath of the capturing of the East we must be careful not to turn Nagenahira Navodaya into a Sinhala Resurgence. If in this moment of choice, we choose the past over the future, the Rising of the East will metamorphose into a Leidensweg for Sri Lanka and her long suffering people.

- Asian Tribune -

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