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.
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.*
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
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.
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.