Punsara Amarasinghe

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe is a post doctorial researcher attached to Institute of Law, Politics and Development in Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa. He held visiting fellowships at Sciences PO, Wisconsin Madison and HSE, Moscow. His co-edited book “Thirty Years Looking Back: The Rule of Law, Human Rights and State Building in the Post-Soviet Space was published in 2022 September

Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka celebrates its 178th Anniversary

This year marks the 178th anniversary of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka the oldest learned society in the country, but arguably the 178th year stands as a critical juncture for the society due to various reasons. Mainly the unlawful occupation of society’s premises by the Mahavali Authority is a serious concern as it creates a vulnerability for the library of the Royal Asiatic Society which consists of an invaluable collection of books dating back to the 16th century. The deplorable financial status is another major problem for the continuity of the scholarly work of the Royal Asiatic Society. When its fellow Asiatic society in Calcutta receives 44 Million from the central government of India monthly, the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka only receives one million annual grants from the Government of Sri Lanka, which is by all means not adequate for the main research activities of the society. Also, the lack of public awareness of the existence of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka hinders its intellectual engagement with the public. In particular, the gap existing between the Society and the University academia in Sri Lanka reflects the scholarly erosion of the country compared to the university scholars such as Prof. T. Nadaraja, and Prof. Ariyapala from yesteryears.

Against the backdrop of such crucial conditions that the Royal Asiatic Society has been facing, the official visit of President Ranil Wickremasinghe fell on the 27th of April. It was a response to an official letter written by the current President of the Royal Asiatic Society Dr Malini Dias to President Ranil Wickremasinghe regarding the troubled status of the Society and the visit of the President signifies as it was the first visit made by the Head of the State of Sri Lanka since late President J.R Jayewardene, who visited the Royal Asiatic of Sri Lanka along with the British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher in 1985. By the Constitution of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, the Head of the State is the chief patron of the Society, which had been a practice upheld by the Colonial Governors. The visit of President Ranil Wickremasinghe is a gesture that stands along with that distinguished tradition.

On a personal level, President Wickremashinge has a link with the Royal Asiatic Society rooted in his family history as President’s Grand Father C.L Wickremasinghe’s collection on the Sinhalese folklore remains in the library of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. In his remarks at the discussion held at the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka President mentioned the yeoman service rendered by the distinguished scholars at the Society to preserve the historical studies of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, he highlighted how studying the history of Sri Lanka through “Mahawansa” enabled colonial archaeologists to trace the history of India as well.

President was much concerned about the severe issues faced by the Royal Asiatic Society and pledged the support of the government to carry out future activities, in his speech, he indicated that the Royal Asiatic Society would play a pivotal role in initiating a new Institute of History.

Ideologies: Swimming against the current


In general, the dissolution of the USSR was marked as the triumph of liberal democracy over Communism by creating a rift in the ideological realm of the West. However, the euphoria erupted from the West, which was exaggerated as the end of history by Fukuyama was short-lived with the emergence of different narratives from the different corners of the earth. Especially, the ideologies appealing to civilizational romance replaced the vacuum created by Communism in the most fervent manner, which vehemently critiqued the pitfalls of the Western liberal discourse as a decadent machinery reflecting the demerits of crony capitalism. It was an interesting phenomenon that some of the intellectuals who hailed and nurtured themselves under the bliss of Communist ideology felt enthusiastic in seeking different approaches to confront the West.

The common feature which is palpably evident in tracing the ideological avenues between Alexander Dugin of Russia and Nalin de Silva in Sri Lanka is their initial encounters with Communism regardless of their later disinclination towards it. It may appear to be rather ironic in viewing both of their philosophical contributions to their own state apparatus. Silva has been largely hailed as the sage of current Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism which was used as the populist trumpet for the political victory of the ruling regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa in post-war Sri Lanka and Dugin is personified by the Western media as Putin’s Rasputin with his wider influence in creating Russia’s nostalgia for its imperial pre-Soviet past. The most vivid and consequential formulation of Dugin and Silva’s ideological narrative needs to be examined in the context of the socio-political unrest that pervaded their home spaces. Both Russia and Sri Lanka were swallowed by an unprecedented wave of discontent after both countries embraced the pure form of Western liberalism as the last resort at different junctures. A conspicuous step taken was the dismantling of all the traditional forms that existed in both countries as the hoorah for Liberalism that resulted in creating an ideological limbo and it was the moment both Dugin and Silva gave birth to the potency of their ideologies which were interwoven with the native culture in their respective countries.

Nalin de Silva took a rapid shift from his initial hobnobbing with Communism after authoring his seminal work “ MageLokaya” in the 1980’s, which remains to be his prime text questioning the Western perception in knowledge. In developing his theory on how the mind affects knowledge creation, Prof. Nalin de Silva applies his stance on the intrinsic relationship between the observer and the observation to the whole sensory world. In explaining this anomaly, Prof. Silva gives prominence to the cultural tradition that generates knowledge. The Indic and Buddhist traditions that prevailed in South Asia provided no ground for the construction of knowledge devoid of mind.  Contrary to the traditional Popperian manner of falsification, Silva admits the presence of mystical knowledge as the foundation of Sinhalese Buddhist knowledge, which is a stark reflection of how Dugin tries to bring Orthodox mysticism and other forms of occultism to his views on knowledge.

Also, it should be noted that his writings often critique the knowledge in the West as a hegemonic discourse which is confined to a set of intellectuals devoid of Non-European upbringing.  In Silva’s lexicon, this process is called “Greco-Jewish Christian” discourse, likewise, it has been reiterated by Dugin from a different term in his writings. His views posit Russia as a unique civilization, which is neither Western nor Eastern and his depiction of the West as modern-day Carthage, a decadent civilization echoing the need materialistic economic market approach relates to Nalin de Silva’s stark criticism of both Liberalism and Marxism which are endemic to the Western discourse. In making his criticism of the Western knowledge and sciences, Silva affirms the importance of creating a different knowledge system based on Sinhalese Buddhist ethos.

There is no doubt in denying any possible intellectual collaboration between these two ideologues living in two different geopolitical spaces, in a context both of them have carved their narratives on completely different premises. But, the commonality that links two them is rooted in their sheer reluctance to the Western ideology. Given their appealing nature, which tends to restore the nostalgia in their countries, both of these ideologues have become vocal advocates for nationalist politics in Russia and Sri Lanka. In particular, Putin’s legitimacy of his invasion of Ukraine has been frequently viewed as a gesture stemming from Dugin’s idea of a religiously tinged civilizational clash: Russia against Atlantism. In Putin’s view, bolstered by Dugin, a unified Ukraine without Russia is a pervasion of the spirituality of Ruskimir. In Sri Lanka, Nalin de Silva’s writings became stimulating rhetoric for the Rajapaksa administration in the post-civil war context in a situation where the government was lampooned by the West for alleged human rights violations.  Especially, the political emergence of Gotabaya Rajapaksa was imbued with Silva’s favourable views that elevated Gotabaya to a strong candidate who has the competency in confronting the Western influence on Sri Lanka.

All in all, making a short comparative analysis between Alexander Dugin and Nalin de Silva raises our concern on the new ideological front arising outside the West as a significant factor influencing the non-liberal discourse. When “Sinhalese Buddhist chinthanaya (ideology ) becomes Silva’s main instrument in his narratives, Dugin yearns for Russia’s Orthodoxy and these two elements have solidly altered and impacted the early 21st-century socio-political consciousness in both Russia and Sri Lanka, which further proves the futility of liberal mantra in the political praxis of both countries.

Prof. Merlin Peiris: The last of the Mohicans leaves the stage

The demise of Prof Merlin Peiris embodies the end of an epoch representing the humanities academia in Sri Lanka as he was obviously the last of those great doyens who lived when the country’s humanities education was prospering in those halcyon days at the edge of the British rule. Prof. Merlin was one of the first students of the maiden batch of Peradeniya University when it was shifted from Colombo in 1950 and began his flair for classics even before he entered the university under the wings of Noel Phoebus at St. Peter’s College in Bambalapitya. As the old adage goes “our beginnings never know our ends”, Merlin’s childhood fancy for Greeks and Romans made his fate sealed in the realm of classics till the moment he departed from the mundane world. Indeed, he was destined to be Sri Lanka’s foremost classist in its post-colonial context with lots of challenges that loomed before him. First, a subject like classics was purely an elite one in those bygone days which was essentially confined to a particular class with Oxbridge pedigree. In particular, those who excelled in Greek and Latin in colonial Ceylon mainly used the classics as a bridge to peruse either law or join the elite Ceylon civil service. There was no gusto among the young Ceylonese graduates to read for a doctorate in classics and in one instance famous Vice Chancellor of Peradeniya Sir Ivor Jennings University scorned the idea by saying “classics PhD is impossible for a Sri Lankan as it is toughly ploughed field”. Young Merlin made famous English colonialist’s remark a fallacy by obtaining his PhD in Classics within one and half years from London University and many Sri Lankans followed his steps later.

The second challenge that Prof Merlin confronted was the uncertain winds of politics that the whole country faced by the nationalist rhetoric of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956. The influx of Swabasa to the university level simply vanquished the elite status held by classics in the humanities faculty in Peradeniya which resulted in the exodus of many finest scholars from Sri Lanka to foreign countries. Merlin took up the department of Western Classics in Peradeniya when the subject was at stake and audaciously spared it from a total eclipse. His biggest contribution to classical scholarship was the writings he left on Greek motifs in Jataka stories which remained to be an untouched zone till he unveiled it in one of his writings. In addition to that Prof Merlin was a zealous learner in Mahawamsa studies and compared Sri Lanka’s prime great chronicle with the other historical events in Greco-Roman antiquity. Comparative study of the Mahavamsa and classical Greece was a neglected field among the local historians as such an astute study requires a keen knowledge of both Sri Lankan history and Western Classics. During the colonial era, those who mastered classics showed less alacrity in examining the country’s historical relations with the Western civilization and those who gained their training in Sri Lankan history at the University of Ceylon possessed no sufficient knowledge of Greco-Roman studies. Under these circumstances, Merlin’s interest in connecting western classics to Sri Lanka’s ancient history was sui genris. The dozens of articles that he authored in the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka unfold how this island was known to Greeks and Romans in the days of yore. Indeed, it was Prof. Merlin who inspired later-generation classists like D.P.M Weerakoody to inquire further into Sri Lanka’s historical connection with Greece and Rome. Yet his biggest forte was rooted in Greek philosophy, which was the field he mastered for his PhD at London University. The long conversation that I used to have with Prof. Merlin at his villa in Dangolla were often filled with lengthy arguments on the Grecian notion of rebirth. 

The greatest quality that would aggrandize Merlin’s name above the current mediocre scholars in Sri Lanka is his intellectual tolerance towards dissent. As a humane scholar, he was always patient in listening to the other person’s opinion. I recall how I approached him during my student days at Royal College as the only Sinhala medium student who sat for Greek and Roman Civilization for GCE Advanced Level and he walked the extra mile by providing me with study materials written in Sinhala. Even though I shifted away from studying classics at the university, my association with Prof Merlin remained unchanged till his demise. 

Vale Magnum Magister!

Thucydidean reality in Sri Lanka: Some comments on Yuan Wang 5

The small state dilemma is a complex discourse in the realm of International Relations, which dates back to the classical epoch of Thucydides whose seminal work “The History of Peloponnesian War” has been regarded as the first illustration revealing a realist outlook toward interstate relations. The most famous passage, which is known as the “Melian dialogue” from Thucydides’” History of Peloponnesian War epitomizes the genesis of the realist point of view in international relations, where a group of islanders from Melos argued by virtue of the law of nations they have the right to remain neutral in the conflict between Athens and Sparta. This contention was unpalatable for Athenians as they believed in their supremacy should be honoured by the weak city-states. While scornfully ignoring the Melian plea to remain neutral in the war, Athens emphasized that Melos should consider who they are and what they possess. In the speech delivered by Athenian envoys before the Melian delegation, Athenian delegate states
“You have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible. Since you know as well as we do the right, as the world goes is only in the question between equal power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

Those prophetic words in the Melian dialogue extend their significance to understanding the current geo-political trap challenging the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. The island nation with its unique significance as a geopolitical hub in the Indian Ocean currently undergoing its worst economic calamity since its independence from the British and the political instability followed by the economic crisis deepened the socio-political limbo of Sri Lanka. In the backdrop of such a chaotic internal atmosphere, the sailing of the Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese satellite tracking vassal to the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka has created a tense situation pushing the Sri Lankan government into a diplomatic quandary. The initial response of the Sri Lankan foreign ministry to the Chinese ship Yuan Wang 5 to call at Hambantota was altered as India and the US showed a critical concern over the issue. The foreign ministry in Colombo requested China to postpone its visit to Hambantota while adding that it wished to reaffirm the enduring friendship and excellent relations between Sri Lanka and China”. The main concern for both India and the US was based on the security of the Indian Ocean Region as they suspected that Yuan Wang would seek to track down certain intelligence information.

Sri Lanka caught in the tug-war between India and China over the dominance of the Indian Ocean has often faced diplomatic hullabaloos. More importantly, the island nation’s foreign policymakers seem to have a knack for making diplomatic blunders in handling both China and India. In particular, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, Sri Lanka tilted toward China in the post-civil war era, which resulted in the influx of Chinese influence into the Sri Lankan domain causing concern for India. On the other hand, Colombo’s partnership with Delhi took a doggy standard as Sri Lankan policymakers made no genuine attempts to show its primacy for India’s concerns under the thread of neighbourhood. It was in this background, India came to assist Sri Lanka to grapple with its worst economic crisis as New Delhi provided $3 billion in loans to replenish the economy. It seems that the Indian influence has grown rapidly with its monetary assistance to the default island nation by accelerating its influencing capacity to the state apparatus.

Taking the Yang Wang 5 incident and the pressure imposed upon Sri Lanka denotes that Sri Lanka has reached a point of no return from the orbit of both China and India, which signifies the Thucydidean reality.

However, Sri Lanka’s decision to allow Yuan Wang 5 should be understood in the critical juncture that Sri Lankan authorities faced from multiple fronts. From one side, Colombo was pushed by New Delhi and later the US to prevent the Chinese ship from entering Hambantota harbour, which was leased to China for 99 years in 2017. On the other hand, the request came from China as a major investor and a donner in Sri Lanka further increased the dilemma. The question that arises now is whether Colombo has any individual choice in opting for its foreign policy decisions. From a vantage point, the political-economic trajectories loomed after the civil war in Sri Lanka brought much of a sinister outlook for the country as the Rajapaksa regime made a rapport with China regardless of the country’s reputation for its nonalignment foreign policy.

Today Sri Lankan authorities stand between the devil and the deep blue sea before the “realpolitik” regarding the Indian Ocean Region security. China has been carving the niche for its position in the Indian Ocean for a longer period with much deeper ambitions of securing the Belt and Road Initiative through the maritime routes. Against this backdrop, some of the Chinese military strategists openly claimed that the Indian Ocean cannot be regarded as the backyard of India. In particular, since the People’s Liberation Army opened its first overseas military establishment in Djibouti in 20, China’s interest in Sri Lanka seems to have risen to a significant level. It was in 2010 Robert Kaplan predicted China’s long-term ambition for the hegemony of the Indian Ocean as he depicted the Chinese as well organized and deliberate in whatever they do. The comity built up by the US along with India, Australia and Japan to counter the Chinese threat in the Indian Ocean has been consolidating through the defence pacts such as QUOD and AUKUS.

This is the current power tango prevailing in the Indian Ocean and its effects on Sri Lanka continue to create detrimental impacts on the island. In applying the moral emanating from the Melian dialogue, it becomes evident the island nation possesses no ultimate agency in deciding its strategic affairs. Perhaps when Sri Lanka was governed by its wisest statesmen like Sir John Kotalawala who even challenged Nehru in Bandung, the island nation had the fullest competency in taking its stances. But, the ebbing of strategic thinking as a result of the bureaucratic decadence under political influence has curtailed Sri Lanka’s own external relations standards. Taking the Yang Wang 5 incident and the pressure imposed upon Sri Lanka denotes that Sri Lanka has reached a point of no return from the orbit of both China and India, which signifies the Thucydidean reality.