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Sri Lanka: Is recolonisation the final solution?- II

Since a millennium before that time, the interactions between the island and the southern and eastern regions of the subcontinent were almost exclusively at the trade and cultural or religious levels, and the island's sovereignty was not challenged.

10 mins read
A representational image: Christopher Columbus Arrives in America in 1492, by Gergio Deluci, 1893 [Credit: WikiCommons]

This is the second part of this series. Click here to read the part one

To assert, as Mr Sirimanne does, that “From ancient times the Northern region in the island was a kingdom occupied by Tamils due to its closeness to South India…….. during the reign of King Elara, a Tamil, there was a war between the Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms…..” is completely wrong. It is a very irresponsible statement. The factual situation is that the young prince Dutugemunu of Magama in the south, after a long military campaign involving a series of hardwon battles, defeated usurper king Elara who had come from India as an invader. There had been no Tamil kingdom in the north or a permanent Tamil population in the north before the 13th century CE, as Professor Kingsley de Silva argues with evidence in his ‘A History of Sri Lanka’ (Penguin Books, London, 2005). Magha of Kalinga’s cataclysmic invasion with a massive army of twenty thousand Kerala and Tamil mercenaries and his ruinous occupation of Lanka for twenty-one years (‘moved thereto by the lust of wealth and power’ as the Mahavansa puts it), laid waste to the kingdom and the religion, and put an end to the achievements of the dry zone- based hydraulic civilization that the Sinhalese kings had built over the centuries. But during Magha’s reign ‘… there dwelt, scattered in the beautiful cities and hamlets that they had built for themselves in the great strongholds and mountainous parts of the country, some great and good men who defended the people and the religion from the disturber’ (Chapter 81 of the Mahavansa). This means that the Magha invasion caused the disintegration of the Lankan kingdom into a number of regional strongholds from which ‘great and good men’ (such as Subha Senadhipathi of Yapahuwa, a general, Sankha of Gangadoni, another military chief, and Bhuvaneka Bahu on the top of the Govinda rock) defended the rest of the country, until king Vijayabahu III of Dambabeniya’s son and successor, Parakrabahu II, was finally able to drive away the despoilers. In earlier times, South Indian invaders, when defeated and driven away, sailed back to India, but this time, Magha with his retreating army made a permanent Tamil settlement in the north.

Since a millennium before that time, the interactions between the island and the southern and eastern regions of the subcontinent were almost exclusively at the trade and cultural or religious levels, and the island’s sovereignty was not challenged. But occasionally, right from the earliest times, traders became invaders. Thus, as the Mahavansa (Ch.11 ) records, ‘Two damila (malabar) youths powerful in cavalry and navy, named Sena and Guttika’ (Sena and Guttika were horse traders with a fleet of ships.), after killing the reigning monarch Suratissa, who must have been very old by that time, ‘righteously reigned for twenty-two years’ from 237 to 215 BCE. But Suratissa’s youngest brother (most probably nephew) Asela defeated and put to death the usurpers, and restored Sinhalese sovereignty, and ruled at Anuradhapura for ten years. Then, another powerful trader (as recently concluded by historians) from South India named Elara killed king Asela, and ruled the country for forty-four years. But see how the Mahavansa (Ch. 11) records this event: ‘A damila named Elara of the illustrious “Uju” tribe, invading this island from the Cola country, for the purpose of usurping the sovereignty, and putting to death the reigning king Asela, ruled the kingdom for forty-four years, – administering justice with impartiality to friends and to foe.’

Following is how king Dutugemunu treated his fallen enemy king Elara, fully recognizing the latter’s noble reputation as a righteous ruler, though a usurper, as recorded in the Mahavansa Ch. 25: (Mr Sirimanne alludes to this episode in a rather offhand manner.)

‘Summoning within the town the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, within the distance of a yojana, he held a festival in honour of king Elara. Consuming the corpse in a funeral pile on the spot where he fell, he built a tomb there; and ordained that it should receive honours (like unto those conferred on a Cakkavatti). Even unto this day, the monarchs who have succeeded to the kingdom of Lanka, on reaching that quarter of the city, whatever the procession may be, they silence their musical band.’

(This royal decree is honoured by the Sinhalese Buddhists even today, after over two thousand years.)

Isn’t this something hard to come by in the history of war in the world, war being an ever present necessary evil, as it were, in human affairs? King Dutugemunu’s magnanimity in victory came from his Buddhist upbringing. At the beginning of his campaign against Elara, prince Dutugemunu declared: ‘This enterprise of mine is not for the purpose of acquiring the pomp and advantages of royalty. This undertaking has always had for its object the re-establishment of the religion of the Supreme Buddha…..’. (The country’s ancient Buddhist culture is a world heritage that must be protected.) The same compassionate and generous spirit was alive in the hearts of the young soldiers and their commanders who took part in the humanitarian operation in the north that put an end to the armed separatist terrorism in 2009. They could have brought the war to a quicker end and suffered a lot fewer casualties among themselves than they did, had they chosen to defy what was inherent in their cultural DNA. Unfortunately, the geo-poiltics driven superpowers have not recognized this fact, and have visited punitive afflictions on Sri Lanka for alleged violation of human rights that make life miserable for all Sri Lankans.

To return to my subject, geographical proximity no doubt was a factor in the stimulation of interactions between the two countries, but mass movements of population to and fro were not so easy as to be a usual occurrence. The fact that Sinhala kings sometimes brought queen consorts from South India (due to complicated succession problems that had nothing to do with the then existing demography of the country) is not something unique to them. Just look at the Wikipedia: The recently deceased queen Elizabeth II’s family tree has ancient roots in Germany, Denmark, Russia, etc.; but citizens of those countries do not seem to think of claiming that she was of their ethnicity or of assuming that the fact had any political significance.

Of course, as a result of these interactions, the Sinhalese acquired a great deal of Indian culture. But the important thing to remember while appreciating that fact is that over the past twenty-three centuries the Sinhalese have cherished their own language, their own distinct spiritual doctrine (Buddhism), and their island home with its rich abundance of recorded and unrecorded evidence of their prehistoric insular ancestry and their ancient Buddhist heritage. When it comes to sharing the natural resources of the land with minorities with different religious cultures, languages, ethnicities, etc. that joined them later in different contexts, there is no other race of people who are more humanely accommodating than the Sinhalese Buddhists in spite of the fact that they were the most persecuted community during the past half a millennium under the jackboot of three European colonial powers. Why were they singled out for such suppressive treatment? It was because the colonialists correctly identified the Sinhalese (under the benign sway of their spiritual masters, the Buddhist monks) as their only implacable enemy.

Traditionally, whenever the country and the Buddha Sasanaya were in jeopardy, the monks have come forward as defenders, on rare occasions even as armed soldiers. Warrior king Dhatusena who ruled at Anuradhapura from 455 to 473 CE, having defeated six Dravidian usurpers, was a Buddhist monk in his youth. King Senerath of Kandy (who reigned from 1604 to 1635 CE) was originally a monk. He disrobed to become king in order to try to rid the country of invading foreign powers. He fought against the occupying Portuguese and expanded the territory of his kingdom. The Sinhalese only thought of the country, the Buddha Sasanaya, and the commonality of people, not so much about their race. In modern times, sometimes Buddhist monks have cause to feel threatened by non-Buddhist extremists who forcibly enter the Buddhists’ religious space or when they vandalize or lay claim to ancient Buddhist archaeological sites (even violating the antiquities ordinances established in British times). It is natural that they try to raise awareness among the citizens about these things and to get the political authorities to set things right according to the law. People who have political or sectarian or religious axes to grind have no qualms about excoriating the monks and lay Buddhists for alleged racism, chauvinism, extremism, xenophobia, and so on, simply because they raise their voice against the covert and overt excesses of extremists that go undetected or unrecognized by local political authorities and the hostile foreign NGO brigade. Of course, it must be remembered that Tamil Hindus face the same threats from religious fundamentalists. Actually, Tamil Hindu and Sinhala Buddhist solidarity is indispensable for mutual protection from the proselytizing zealotry of mindless fundamentalists. Certain foreign funded NGOs and their local allies do everything possible to prevent the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus from uniting for making common cause against unethical conversion projects.

Mr Sirimanne seems to imply that colonizing of Sri Lanka by three European nations happened as a matter of course, apparently unopposed by the native Sinhalese and Tamils, and that they somehow benefited from the experience. The truth is otherwise. Our people were massacred, our places of worship were vandalized, desecrated, burned down, or alienated to strangers or converts, while the country’s natural resources were plundered, and the sons of the soil were oppressed, downtrodden, and exploited. Because of this historical reality, for all the missionaries’ efforts of four and a half centuries, only about six percent of the local population had embraced Christianity/Catholicism by 1947, and the rest 94% had willingly forfeited all claims to possible material rewards by refusing to abandon their no less humanizing hereditary faiths.

At first, under the Portuguese, Sinhalese Buddhists in coastal areas embraced Christianity under duress, but later, as Mr Sirimanne says ‘Many Sinhalese in towns and cities for favors changed their religion and acquired Portuguese names’. Serving or saving the Sinhalese was not the real concern of the Portuguese. They thought of their own people back home, just as the foreign powers involved in our internal affairs currently do. Portugal at that time was not as resource-rich as Sri Lanka, its people were enjoying a far lower standard of living than the contemporary Sinhalese. Provocation for plunder was high. And it didn’t go unheeded. (See Dr Susantha Goonatilake’s ‘A 16th Century Clash of Civilisations: Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka’, Vijitha Yapa, 2010) The Dutch who followed them introduced a network of canals for transport of local products for export for their own revenue, and introduced Roman Dutch Law for ease of administering the provinces they were occupying. It is true that in the course of time, these innovations became useful to the descendants of the people that they had indifferently robbed.

On February 4, 1948, Sri Lanka was granted dominion status (within the British Commonwealth) which was short of full independence. It was not something remarkable or memorable by any means. India was given the same status on August 15, 1947. But the wiser and more dignified Indian leaders implicitly eschewed the ‘benefits’ of membership of that body, and officially quit it on January 26, 1950, and asserted their country’s full independence, worthy of their many millennia of glorious civilization, which produced the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka, who introduced Buddhism to our country, and about whom H.G. Wells said: “……..amid tens of thousands of names of monarchs, “Ashoka shines, shines almost alone, a star” .

The patriotic progressive people of Sri Lanka under the leadership of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike declared Sri Lanka a republic on May 22, 1972. Now that was a momentous occasion for the whole nation to celebrate. But it was less than an ideal choice to remain a member of the Commonwealth. Probably the choice was made for us by the powers that be. Has any special benefit accrued to Sri Lanka as a result? Has it done anything to relieve the suffering inflicted on the peaceful citizens for having defeated terrorism and saved democracy? Has it ever intervened on our behalf in such situations?

Mr D.L. Sirimanne ends his interesting article “Celebrating 75th Anniversary of Independence” (The Island/Opinion/January 18, 2023) with the following paragraph, which prompted this response:

‘It is almost 75 years since Sri Lanka obtained Independence from Britain and unfortunately the country was misruled and ruined by ignorant avaricious unpatriotic Sinhalese leaders fighting for power. It is now a bankrupt nation and 80% of the population is starving without food, fuel and medicine. It a disgrace to plan celebrating 75 years of ‘misrule’ as ’75 years of Independence.’ The 4th February 2023 should be a day of repentance and religious prayers to God, Allah and all the Devas to make Sri Lanka a prosperous and happy nation, with freedom and equality to all its multinational and multireligious citizens in the very near future.’

That within the last seventy-five years since the end of British occupation there have been some ‘ignorant avaricious unpatriotic Sinhalese leaders fighting for power’ is undeniable. We have living examples in the highest places even today. But to say that the country has been misruled and ruined solely by these unpatriotic Sinhalese leaders is a crass generalization that arbitrarily transfers all blame to the leaders of the Sinhala majority, while exonerating the few communalists among the minority politicians, who are actually even more responsible for retarding the forward march of post-independence Sri Lanka by adopting hostile attitudes to nationally beneficial changes proposed by Sinhalese leaders.

The Sinhalese voters, whenever they have the chance to do so, democratically elect their parliamentary representatives, hoping or requiring that they make laws for governing the country for the good of all its citizens regardless of multifarious differences among them. On every occasion that they felt persuaded that the leader who would be able to bring in necessary changes to transform the country so that this goal could be fully realized, they elected him or her with tremendous majorities, which were augmented by at least some votes from the minorities as well, such as when they elected Mr Bandaranaike in 1956, Mrs Bandaranaike in 1970, Mr Jayawardane in 1977, Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaik Kumaratungae in 1994, Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010, and Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019. In all these cases, they were elected on a nationalist platform, not on a communalist basis. Although ordinary Tamil and Muslim voters are as fair-minded and as democratic as the ordinary Sinhalese voters, the ruling elite of each minority community rouse communal feelings among its polity against the majority for their own advantage, rather than for that of the community they claim to represent. The evil practice of political horse-trading between majority and minority politicians seems to have come to stay. Global and regional superpowers exploit this situation to push their geopolitical agendas at the expense of Sri Lanka.

Mr Sirimanne’s wish for ‘a prosperous and happy nation, with freedom and equality to all its multinational and multireligious citizens’ is what all right-minded Sri Lankans have shared and have been slowly but surely moving towards since 1948. The British adopted the infamous divide and rule imperial policy, which is still being used against us. The term ‘multinational’ is problematic for our small country in that it denotes a number of nations, which means it promotes division. To say that we are a multiethnic or multiracial and multicultural nation is better for establishing ‘freedom and equality’ for all Sri Lankans. They already enjoy these. If there are any lapses, they are common to all communities.

The solution is not to try to return to the alleged Utopia that the British are believed by some to have bequeathed to us at independence (for such wasn’t the reality), or to overlook the 1972 change as insignificant, but to make way for the young of the country today to make a correct assessment of what has been achieved and what has not been achieved by the previous generations since independence (who were no less patriotic, no less proactive than them) and forge ahead with new insights, new visions, and appropriate course corrections as our ancestors did during crises to ensure our survival for so long as one people in spite of manifold differences among us.

Concluded

Rohana R. Wasala

Rohana R. Wasala is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian, with a background in academia.

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