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Sri Lanka - Book on Victor's Peace - Comments

At the end of Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, the British imperial official plans to write a book based on his doings titled, ‘The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger’.

by Prof. Charles Sarvan

What follows is not a review of this collection of thirty-two, very perceptive, essays but a sharing of a few thoughts arising from the book, particularly from its title "Victor's Peace"- by Pararajasingham.



The phrase “a victor’s peace” prompts one to wonder: What of the vanquished? Are they also at peace or is their plight one of Vae victis (Woe to the vanquished)? If so, what is meant by peace? I have suggested elsewhere that peace can be of two kinds: positive and negative. Negative peace is absence; more precisely, the absence of overt conflict while positive peace is presence, the presence of security, harmony and a degree of sanguinity all of which are the product of Justice - political, social and economic justice: see pages 166-171 of A Victor’s Peace. The Romans prided themselves on their ‘Pax Romana’, but their peace was often one that was brutally enforced on conquered peoples: as Britain did during the long years of its imperial hegemony. The emperor Caligula is said to have declared, in relation to his unpopularity, let them hate me so long as they also fear me. So too, it seems, with peoples and nations.

At the end of Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, the British imperial official plans to write a book based on his doings titled, ‘The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger’. One of the definitions of the word “pacify” is to calm someone who is angry or upset. But the word “calm” needs thought. Is it calm as calmness is understood in religion and in philosophy or a helpless, overt calm? Is it a calm while biding changed circumstances and opportunity?

“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.” (Auden)

The opening lines of Psalm 137 have been popularised through song: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept / when we remembered Zion”. However, the concluding lines of the psalm are suppressed or ignored:

Oh daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.

Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

The initial “re” in “reconciliation” stands for “again”. Reconciliation means to create again a former state of amity. It is easy to be nostalgic about the past but whether there was ever in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) a broad, grass-roots inter-ethnic harmony is a matter of opinion. Inter-ethnic friendship between individuals, some very close, must not lead to the forming of a wider (and false) impression. I will return to this aspect later. Yeats in his poem of four lines, ‘The coming of wisdom with time’ writes of the “lying days” of youth. Those who are old like me may recall that in years past they still believed in equality and inclusion; of harmony and happiness, of working together for a bright future.

The first step to reconciliation is recognition; the recognition that the other side has valid cause for hurt and resentment. But in as much as we are urged not to assume that which has first to be proved, so we must ask whether there is a desire on the part of the Sinhalese masses for reconciliation. There is much written about “moving on”, of healing wounds and building a safer and happier future but this is based on the assumption that to the majority of Sinhalese it is indeed a desideratum. I have touched on these in the essay, ‘Reign of Anomy’, included in my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2: see, for example captions such as ‘A History of Disappointment’ and ‘’Tamils and trust’.

Etymologically, the word “nation” is from the Latin word natio and is linked with "birth". Today in many countries, particularly in the West, it’s taken to mean individuals and groups, “native” and of differing birth, coming to form an entity: unity in diversity. But in Sri Lanka, Professor K M De Silva observes the word in the Sinhala language for ‘race’ and ‘nation’ are the same. (I have quoted this elsewhere but am unable to locate it.) Doesn’t Para Dhemmala mean “Foreign Tamil? Weaned on the milk of The Mahavamsa, to many Sinhalese “Nation” means domination by one race (Sinhalese) and religion (Buddhism). They are now well on the way to achieving this goal, so why should they seek reconciliation? Racists scorn “mutual respect”. And we return to Caligula’s arrogant and defiant Oderint, dum metuant.

There are Sinhalese, Buddhist and Christian, who have stood up against discrimination and violence. I am reluctant to list names for fear of omitting some but I am forced to mention Adrian Wijemanne who was branded a traitor, a Tamil lover (on the lines of “Nigger lover”) and ostracised by friends and relations. But Wijemanne was not championing the Tamils but human rights and Justice. As I wrote elsewhere, had the Sinhalese been oppressed, Wijemanne would have fought with equal courage and clarity: see pages 17 - 21 of ‘There are no Pro-Tamil Sinhalese’ in my Sri Lanka: Paradise Lost? Any Tamil who protests the absence of justice, however mildly and reasonably, is promptly and conveniently branded a racist. I quote from the same book, page 31:

“A Sinhalese, a friend for over sixty years, recently suggested that I was a racist. I found that particularly ironic because in 1958 I went to his village with my notes to help him re-sit the first-year university examination, and was caught up in the anti-Tamil riot of that year. The denial of equality is not abstract theorising to me. Having been a ‘Para Dhemmala’ in Sri Lanka; a non-white in England in the early 1960s when “colourism” was unashamed, overt and crude; having been an Asian in Africa, and a ‘non-believer’ in a Muslim country, I am for human equality; for equality not in form but in substance, equality not in false protestation but in actual practice; for equality irrespective of ethnicity, skin-colour, sex, religion, language caste or class.”

Then there’s another category of Sinhalese. I quote, op. cit.:“There are Sinhalese who, though they don’t take a public stand, do their part by quietly working to help Tamil unfortunates, particularly women and children. They are active in the crucial fields of housing, health and education. They are good and caring people who work without material reward: “the salt of the earth”. But one feels there are also others who do similar work while, consciously or unconsciously, subscribing to belief in Sinhalese hegemony. These have it both ways: Sinhalese dominance which they see as rightful, and yet the sense of being noble and generous because of the charitable work they do It is good to give alms to the poor but it is best while doing that to also work towards poverty-eradication so that charity is no longer needed. It is good to be kind within an unkind situation but better still to change that unjust situation… You can’t assault me, take away my rights, and much of what is mine and then, while not restoring what is mine as a human being and as a citizen say, Okay, okay, let us now reconcile” (page 27). In relation to this last category, the fantasy novel, Black No More by Afro-American George Schuyler (1895-1977) comes to mind. A drug is produced which turns blacks into whites. Being priced economically, just about all black Americans become white. One would have thought that if the so-called “race problem” (more precisely “the colour problem”) were removed then there would be ushered in a wonderful new USA.

At present, Moslems are blamed for violence but as Graham E. Fuller argues in his A World Without Islam (reviewed by me), what appears to be religion-based violence has its roots elsewhere. Even if there were no Muslims, there would be violence. In Black No More, perhaps surprisingly but significantly among those who oppose the transformation are whites doing good work among blacks. Their reaction demands analysis and understanding. What, one wonders, if all Tamils and Muslims were to become Sinhalese, and Sinhalese Buddhist at that? Would Sri Lanka then be a “Paradise Isle” - in far more important terms than natural beauty which, after all, is not a human achievement.

There are Sinhalese –Tamil friendships, social and personal, both within the Island and abroad. There’s fellowship and invitation; close personal help and support all of which undoubtedly go to enrich life. However, I doubt that Tamils in such cases speak of what has been done, and is being done, to the Tamils as a people. There’s a reluctance to cause embarrassment; the fear of being thought over-sensitive, even a ‘racist’ thus damaging, if not terminating, what is otherwise a pleasant (and perhaps profitable) association. But if Tamils do not “ex-press”, how will their experience, situation and feelings be known?

Years ago, I was admonished not to talk about religion and politics because these subjects were sensitive, emotionally charged and would lead to the breakup of association and friendship. But what, I wonder, is the value of a friendship if what is important, vital, cannot frankly be spoken about and freely discussed? Martin Luther King said that what caused more pain was not the words of their enemies but the silence of their friends. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu admonished that if we remain neutral in a situation of injustice then we have, in effect, chosen the side of the oppressor.

The “Peace” of the defeated can mean massive military presence, the expropriation of land and the denial of opportunity to make a living. It can mean helplessness and humiliation. Ana Pararajasingham writes about the “dividend” that genuine peace will bring to the Island. One cannot but agree but I would add a cautious (if pessimistic) note. As Nelson Mandela said, and as History has repeatedly shown, emotions aroused by ‘race’, colour or religion are so powerful and pernicious that people are willing, knowingly willing, to sacrifice their economic welfare for them. George Schuyler writes (op. cit.) that ‘race’ consciousness is stronger than class consciousness; that “Negro” matters more than wages and hours of work. Some would offer Brexit and Britain as a recent example.

In certain circumstances, passivity is not an option and struggle becomes a moral imperative. This is what Pararajasingham does, and I urge the reader to get a copy of his anthology.

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