What does it mean, to love Sri Lanka?

We Sri Lankans have a complex relationship with Sri Lanka.  Like all humans, we hate certain things. The dust. The public transport. The electricity bill. The mid-year heat and the politicians with their promises and that random uncle who always gets drunk at the wedding.

But we love our country. If the US takes a go at us, we curse Obama and his warmongering. India rumbles a few kilometres away and ye average citizen suddenly turns into the political equivalent of a street fighter. And come cricket season, we ready the pitchforks. Eketh wath loku na.

flag

But for some reason, we don’t seem to love the people that actually make up our country. First there was – well, quite a big war. Then there were little battles that made people wonder if another war was about to happen. Some time ago, a Facebook group posted a photo of a Sri Lankan girl wearing the Sri Lankan flag as a decoration and a couple of hundred people promptly jumped in to call her all manner of filth and a disgrace to the country.

More recently, Maithripala Sirisena announced that you could sing the Sri Lankan National Anthem in Tamil and the entirety of Sri Lanka lost its mind. Completely ignoring the fact that the original constitution of Sri Lanka lists this as perfectly legal, many said that the country was splitting again.*

to love the country

Correction: the entirety of Sri Lanka lost their minds on Facebook. The rest of Sri Lanka presumably read the morning paper and got down to work, having more important things to do than argue with university students.  I would also like to point out the irony of a dude called Dimitri (Russian name) Stephen (Greek name) Samarakoon (Sri Lankan name) talk of selling out to foreigners.

But the fact that these arguments about the national anthem are fundamentally wrong.  A well-read friend of mine, Nisansa Dilushan de Silva, made this excellent rebuttal in which he pointed out that the Tamil version of the national anthem has been around since 1951 (longer than most of the people talking about this problem) and that it was only banned by Mahinda Rajapakse in 2010.  And no, Sri Lanka is not the only country with a multi lingual national anthem. Switzerland’s anthem is sung in no less than four  languages.

Sri Lanka did not go to war over a national anthem. It went to war over the culmination of mass racial prejudice. In the 1960’s a socialist named Sirimavo Bandaranaike took over the country, nationalized the most important parts of  the economy and education and the media, and then ordered the country to use Sinhala. Only Sinhala. Look up the 1956 Official Language Act. Subsequent “Sinhala-only” policies alienated the Tamil and Sinhala populations until someone came up with a group called the LTTE and decided to ambush 13 Sri Lankan Army soldiers.

Why did this come to pass? Because S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, educated at a British University, a qualified barrister in England, decided to be a champion of one language and one religion. Because the Tamils and the Christians gave the Sinhala Buddhists hell back when the English ruled the country.

Because a bunch of dead people did a bunch of shit many, many years ago.

Many of are done – and all of these arguments made – because people actually love their country. They actually care enough to call out Maithri and protest (verbally, if not violently).  They care enough that they will get upset over a flag being worn inappropriately. They care enough to fight. They care enough to die.

The problem is that we love our country, but not the people in it. The problem is that what we say love – our country – is actually smaller than the real Sri Lanka.

SRI LANKA IS

island

Sri Lanka is not a flag. It is not a religion, it is not a language, it is not a song. It is not Colombo. It is not Jaffna. It is not Hambantota.

It is an island 220 kilometres wide and 440 kilometres long. It is 21 point something million human beings of various ethnicities, ages, skin colors, social background, economic background, religions. It is multicultural. It is a whole heaving mass of humanity with dreams, nightmares, aspirations, ambitions, opinions.

It is beautiful.

Prabhakaran’s Sri Lanka was much smaller. It was some of the North and a strip of the East. The people of Prabhakaran’s Sri Lanka did double duty as soldiers, machines that bred more soldiers and human shields.

That wasn’t the real Sri Lanka.

Our Sri Lanka is larger, but not much.  To some people Sri Lanka is Colombo. To many people Sri Lanka is still what we had back in 2005. The South. The Middle. The West. Our people are Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking, with a smattering of Christians and Muslims. Our Sri Lanka is still the Sri Lanka that says “the North and the East” in a disparaging way.

The real Sri Lanka is still larger. We think we’ve unlocked it. We say we’ve won it. We haven’t won anything until we accept all of Sri Lanka. All the people. All the religions, all the differences, all the similarities. All their rights. To love Sri Lanka means to love all of it.

love_country

It’s not enough to go to Jaffna in our ethnically segregated little bus trips and stay in our ethnically segregated hotels and come back and say that yes, Point Pedro was nice, did you see those bunkers? It’s not enough to protest on Facebook. What we need to do is stop thinking of the north as the “North” and instead think of the north of Sri Lanka. Our country. Those people as our  people. The Tamil National Anthem as the same thing as the National Anthem.

I’ve been to Jaffna a few times. Nobody wants another war. The crippled guy who runs a red three wheeler near Hotel Tilko wants to earn enough for his family to eat the next day. The man running the hotel wants happy customers and big profits. The man selling dry fish wants to sell his dry fish. The student running to university wants a job. They’re not so different. The language doesn’t change the meaning of life.

We say we are multi-cultural. We are not. We are pockets of culture isolated from each other. We’re not the boiling pot we claim to be. We’re a whole lot of separate ingredients that haven’t mixed yet.  We value pieces of cloth, rocks, snatches of music and old monuments more than human lives. And that seems to be the status quo not just for Sri Lankans, but for all humans everywhere. Since the dawn of history, people have fought over invisible gods, funny buildings and pieces of colored cloth.  We’re roughly on point.

It is changing, thankfully. Many people who have actually known the war like the fact that the government reminded people of a way of paying homage that we’d all forgotten. Many people don’t mind the fact that someone wears a flag – how could you, after going to one cricket match?

Many remember that we, Sinhalese, too, have done more terrible things to each other, and that the song sung in Tamil still sings to the same country as that sung in Sinhalese. It’s not their song. It’s our song, too. It says so right there in the Constitution.

Comments

47 thoughts on “What does it mean, to love Sri Lanka?

    1. Impressed first time in my life ! “It is a whole heaving mass of humanity with dreams, nightmares, aspirations, ambitions, opinions.” !

      Many thanks to the Author. 🙂
      Roshan

  1. i should set up a camp and start mining this.
    ’tis gold mine bro.

    i’ve been thinking of writing an article like this for a while. but i lack the journalism/editorial skills to do this sort of thing properly. and now you have done it! kudos bro.

    good job!

  2. Excellent. One of the best. Hope more “we love Sri Lanka, this is our country” people would read and be able to understand.

  3. Love this. I’ve been to Jaffna too and the last thing the people there want is another war. But everyone else here is under the assumption that they are training for one or something. It is frustrating and annoying. What is so wrong if the national anthem is to be sung in tamil? The sad thing is although all this crazy nationalistic (bordering on racist) policies were made over two decades ago. The people of today carrying their fancy smart phones still live in that era.

  4. Hi,

    I would like to meet you for a chat, i am a Nigerian woman who has lived here for seven years, and your article reveals EXACTLY what i have been thinking…

  5. WOW! WOW! WOW! Like someone said earlier, this is so good, almost had me in tears. You speak for many of us. Agree with everything, except maybe ‘hating the random uncle who gets drunk at weddings.’ 🙂

    Thank you so much for this!

    1. Haha……. ‘hating the random uncle who gets drunk at weddings.’ – No way you got it all wrong. That’s what makes us all Sri Lankans. Irrespective of our colour, race, religion this is one common thread that permeates us, Sri Lankans. Don’t we have some good old drunken stories from the past . Win or loose we booze and we have fun….

      Well throughout article. Hope we have more of you.

  6. Well written and this is the great truth of our love for the country… but are we doinv the right thing in the name of “the love for the country” is well established in this piece..

    Thank you auther for your thoughts!!

  7. read this somewhere:

    may be we will win the upcoming election, again.
    may be they will start returning lands in their north to our people.
    may be they will send your army back to my south
    may be we will all play cricket together
    may be we should make Russel Arnold president with a bat
    may be a smart young educated woman from nowhere will become prime minister
    may be she will change that horrible racist flag with that arrogant lion
    may be that flag will have a vadai, a cricket bat, bulath and a big big palmyrah tree
    may be may be everyone will learn there were no lions in lanka.. EVER
    may be we will all have karawala
    may be
    just bloody may be
    may be
    may
    be

  8. Well said. I lived in both North and South regions. I couldn’t understand why we disrespected other communities. Yet loved the neighbors with different background. Finally a great article

  9. I am not sri lankan and thank god for that. If you love sri lanka so much why have you left out the fact that Sri Lanka has only 10% of its rain forrest left, pesticides have poisoned the water supply with arsenic, companies people still supply esbestos to the consumer public, sri lankan socioty is homophobic, islamaphobic, zenophobic, racist, patriarchal and superstitious, and to top it all off blindly nationalistic.
    I theorise that in the wake of colonization the nation was left hungry for the kind of power and arrogence they saw in their former masters. In todays world that translates into the agresively aquisitive and manipulative style of society that lingers in colombo and anywhere where money flows. Copying the colonial rules of profet before people, humans and nature as comodity, and riches due to inherent superiority and inelligence. Sri lankans pull this off with impressive vigour and ruthlessness.
    So before you start getting all teary eyed and sentimental, ask yourselves, if you really love your country so much why the hell are you all dreaming of moving to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Uk and USA. Is it that you miss your old colonisers, oh and what about the servents, you cant have them in another country……
    Nationalism is ignorance
    ignorance is bliss

    1. Kumar,
      Thanks. I’ll ask my friends if they can translate for me – my own written skills in Sinhala and Tamil are very poor.

  10. Go to any cricket match played in sri lanka featuring the Pakistani cricket team and you would see the number of so called “Sri lankans” in green and white.
    should we love them too?

    1. Should we not? Hath not a Paki cricket fan eyes? Hath not a Paki cricket fan hands, organs, dimensions, senses?

    2. Mate cricket is a sport, a game, choosing to support another team doesn’t mean they don’t love our country, it just means they prefer that team over ours. The right of choice belongs to every man and woman and given that, in this instance, that choice doesn’t harm others we shouldn’t judge or dislike them based on it even if we dislike their choice.

    3. Yes. As a Murali-loving Muslim myself, it really does confuse me to see some people support anyone but our boys in blue. But when I do appropriate some time on the pot to think about it, I feel there are two reasons as to why they pitch to the other side:

      1. They’re idiots, and idiots are innawai-ing in every race. In any case, we should love these idiots too – after all, its just a game of leather being thrown at willow. That being said, its important to remember that 90% of Muslims in Sri Lanka would take a bullet for Sangakkara’s wife. Me included.

      2. We are divided. Too often are minorities in this country reminded of the fact that they are NOT Sri Lankan. Too often are they reminded that this country belongs just to one race. Too often, we propagate a notion of us vs them. We have stopped looking at each other as just Watalapam loving-soggy kokis hating Sri Lankan machanlas. This alienation of people removes their sense of identity and makes them feel like they just don’t belong here. And in turn, manifests itself in identifying better with other nationalities.

      If we open our arms and accept everyone to be truly Sri Lankan regardless of what invisible god they worship, I am pretty sure the number of people wearing India or Pakistani jerseys will dramatically reduce. Idealistic, yes. But I am sure it can be done.

  11. The day we all Sri Lamkans accept this truth would be the day we have true freedom. Couldn’t agree more. Thanks you.

  12. Thank you for putting out this article. I think we just created a problem in 2010 by brining in a ban . I believe we have got a golden opportunity to make a new start so let’s forget petty issues and work towards building our country.

  13. Well said…..

    but it should be mentioned that the ignorant Sinhala Buddhists (being the frogs in well they are) are the biggest perpetrators in petty minded bullshittery which destroy the harmony in this country and is very much evident when looking back on our country`s very past (i.e. 1951 destruction of Tamil’s properties and cold blooded murders just coz they were Tamils! riots against Tamils in the 80s burning down Tamil businesses and property etc… ) Prabakaran taught a good lesson to the country unfortunately this lesson was forgotten faster than an blink of an eye. (discrimination against Muslims when MR was in power, building up hatred towards other ethnic groups etc..)

    my question is WHEN would it stop and WHERE would it stop? When would be enough is enough?

    when will the ignorant morons open their eyes and see that while we trample each other while holding patriotism as a shield to justify heinous crimes against the minority the world has progressed way beyond our capabilities of catching up?

  14. Quote : ”The Tamil National Anthem as the same thing as the National Anthem”
    This would read better if referred to as the Tamil version of the National Anthem . Living overseas me thinks that singing the National Anthem in Tamil is the first step to making us One Nation. Great sentiments expressed and hoping that more Sri Lankans think along the lines expressed by you and the majority of the commentators.

  15. I agree with all the points expressed except the invisible god phrase and the subtle intent of uniting on atheist mundane. Profanity won’t unite people, either. The icons and images of yore if united people there might not be the multiplication of it. The fear of one group or race or religion or caste (ethnicity is a new coinage) growing to capture the island is the reason for the discrimination. ‘A level-play game favours them not us’ is the motto of Sinhala supramacy rabid monks and the Tamil supremacy separatist global majority also claustrophobic Muslims etc. [Follow me on twitter, my views are clear in tweets than in long articles.]

  16. Excellent piece of work…..
    You have hit the nail on the head. Cannot agree more.
    While every citizen does it bit…..
    Can we get this message to the classroom right at the beginning….
    Call it Nursery, Lower Kindergarden, Upper Kindergarden, Grade 1…..
    Whatever they call it these days….
    Good Luck.

  17. Brilliant. You need to get your stuff out there as you are articulate in this piece. I am earnestly surfing the net looking out for of your articles. Bravo!

    1. I need to check my phone out coz some of my words are missing in my comments above for which I do apologise. But at least you get the gist of what I was trying to say .,,,,, arrrrgggghhh…..

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