Sri Lanka must campaign for R2AC
By Janaka Perera
As Sri Lanka today (February 4) marks 60 years since the British colonialists departed the time has come for her to initiate the establishment of a global centre for Responsibility to Apologise and Compensate (R2AC). As a victim of Western colonialism for nearly 450 years this country is uniquely placed among former European colonies to raise the cry world wide for an apology and compensation for crimes against humanity and plunder of human resources during several centuries of colonial rule.
Third World nations can use the precedent of the Jewish victims of the Nazi regime successfully obtaining an apology and reparations from Germany under the rubric of international law. Japan too has been compelled to apologize for war crimes by China and Korea – though continued Japanese occupation of the two countries lasted less than 100 years.
It is not the passage of time and amnesia but public acceptance of guilt and payment of compensation that will gradually erase scars left behind by colonialism.
We must insist in association with India and other former European colonies that those powers that pontificate to us on human rights to accept responsibility for their past misdeeds before trying to pontificate to us human rights and threaten us with aid cuts.
In fact an attempt at calling for compensation was made when Sri Lanka's Uva Provincial Council demanded eight years ago that Britain compensate for the brutal massacres and unimaginable destruction caused in the process of crushing the uprising of 1818.
Much of the backwardness of Sri Lanka and other post-colonial societies is now attributed by experts to the physical, social and psychological trauma that these nations suffered under the impact of colonialism.
In this country the European colonialists stripped her of natural resources, the treasures of the Royal Houses of Kotte, Sitawaka and Kandy. Parallel to this policy was their unrelenting engagement in the destruction of the religious and cultural heritage of the Sinhalas and Tamils and promotion of discord between the various ethnic and religious groups as part of the colonisers' divide-and-rule strategy.
The British, in the name hunting for sport, virtually decimated our elephant population. This is how wild elephants disappeared from our central hills. The opening up of large tracts of hill country jungles for commercialized tea cultivation (after grossly neglecting agriculture and irrigation systems) jeopardized the environmental balance and threatened our water resources. It also paved the way for earth slips in later years. In ancient times our kings never touched these jungles except for allowing terraced paddy cultivation in suitable areas.
All three colonial powers – the Portuguese, Dutch and the British – did their best to marginalize Buddhism and Hinduism which were the religions of the majority. During the Dutch rule unless a native was baptized a Protestant Christian he was not entitled to education, employment, legal transfer of property or registration of birth, marriage and death.
The Christian churches, whether Catholic, Protestant or Anglican, which have seldom or never officially condemned the unfair privileges given to Christians under European colonial rule have however on and off not hesitated to grumble about the restoration of the special rights which the Buddhist establishment had under Sri Lanka's ancient kings, especially after 1956.
The current impasse between sections of the Sinhalas and Tamils has its genesis in British colonial policy. It also led to the loss of our identity as a Buddhist nation and seriously weakened our ties with the rest of the Buddhist world.
That Sri Lanka's achieved her independence without bloodshed is a half-truth that sections of our political establishment perpetuated for the past six decades. The hard fact is that it is Japan's entry into the Pacific Theatre of World War II that substantially weakened the resources of European powers in Asia, leaving no alternative for them but to grudgingly grant independence to their colonies including our immediate giant neighbor India sooner than they had ever dreamed.
Our real struggle for territorial integrity and defence of sovereignty began not after 1815 but with the Portuguese encounter of 1505. The rigueur of rapacious colonialism was felt in its most brutal form during their rule (1505 – 1658). Hitherto no foreign invader succeeded in making us forget our roots by breaking our national will and identity. The arrival of the European powers heralded the beginning of a cultural invasion that made us completely lose our bearings – a process that continues to this day.
When colonialism ended many of our leaders and English middle-class citizens had turned into `people with brown skins and white minds.' Having lost their bearings they simply continued from where the British left off with only a few cosmetic changes - instead of initiating the socio-economic, cultural and educational changes required for a truly independent nation that has identified its roots. Until after 1956 Sri Lanka had no cultural affairs ministry and no State recognition for indigenous medicine.
On this 60th independence anniversary let us give full and honorable recognition to the heroes who stood up to the Western colonizers from the time they set foot on our soil. They deserve a national monument and a shrine of remembrance with a museum highlighting their immense sacrifices, valor and patriotism in fighting the cruel foreign oppressor.
Great Warriors like Mayadunne, Veediya Bandara, Seethawaka Rajasinghe, Vimaladharmasuriya I, Senarath, Rajasinghe II, Nikapitiye Bandara and Edirille Rala who fought the Portuguese to preserve our territorial integrity and kept the Portuguese at bay despite all odds.
Similarly we owe our gratitude to the national figures of the post-1948 era who contributed immensely to our social progress and regain lost rights. Among them are the following:
Dr. Gunapala Malalasekera founder of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) in 1950 and brought all schools of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajranana) under one umbrella.
Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel, Muslim Statesman who contributed to Sri Lanka's unity and integrity and inspired his co-religionists to work together in harmony with other communities. His influence prevented Islamic radical movements from gaining ground in the country.
L.H. Mettananda, the ideological force behind the 1956 socio-political transformation and main author of the Buddhist Commission Report that highlighted the injustices and discrimination the Sinhala Buddhists suffered during the colonial rule and the immediate post-colonial years. He founded the Bauddha Jaathika Balawegaya and campaigned for the restoration of the lost rights of Sinhala Buddhists.
G.P. Wickramararchchi, premier ayurvedic physician, secured due State recognition to indigenous systems of medicine.
Lakshman Kadirgarmar, outstanding statesman achieved worldwide recognition for Sri Lanka in the corridors of power of international institutions and contributed substantially to Sinhala-Tamil amity.
Devar Suryasena campaigned for recognition of indigenous music.
Sunil Shaantha generated popular acceptance of Sinhala music at all levels of Sri Lankan society.
Asoka Weeraratne, pioneering Buddhist missionary to continental Europe, sent the first Buddhist mission to Germany (1957) and established the Berlin Vihara with residential Buddhist monks on a permanent footing. He also established the Meethirigala Forest Hermitage that attracted many foreign Buddhists. In the words of reputed German Buddhist Scholar Dr..Hans Wolfgang Schumann, "The organizational help which Buddhist societies in Asia, particularly Ceylon, in several critical periods have extended, has saved the flame of the Dhamma in Germany from being blown out by the storm of historical events. Isn't this for the Germans reason enough to be grateful" (Maha Bodhi Journal, Vol.79, February-March 1971)
Dr. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, notable dramatist and writer. His play, 'Maname' revolutionized Sinhala drama, generated a new wave of playwriting and theatre and instilled a national consciousness through plays.
Ven. S. Mahinda, inculcated pride and patriotic fervor in the national psyche through Sinhala.
- Asian Tribune -