Sri Lanka: Nagenahira Navodaya or Leidensweg

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jul 22 12:28:39 UTC 2007

  Published on Asian Tribune (
Nagenahira Navodaya or Leidensweg Created 2007-07-22 06:21

Nagenahira Navodaya or Leidensweg

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

*"After World War II, the United States prevailed in the defence of
democracy in Europe because it successfully pursued a long-term political
strategy of uniting its friends and dividing its enemies, of soberly
deterring aggression without initiating hostilities, all the while also
exploring the possibility of negotiated arrangements".*

*Zbigniew Brezezinski *(*Testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations
Committee – 1.2.2007*)

The government has announced an ambitious plan to develop the East in six
months. The Rajapakse regime is strong on fashioning attractive development
programmes and *holding impressive commencement ceremonies but somewhat weak
when it comes to actual implementation *– as the experiences of the last one
and half years amply demonstrate. That is the obvious danger in the *Nagenahira
Navodaya* – that the *grandiose plan* will remain just that, a plan. It is
happening in the South with other much publicised programmes of the regime;
and it can easily happen in the East. The fallout of such a failure is

There is another, less visible danger which would stem from the
politico-psychological basis on which the government approaches Eastern
development. That is the danger of unequal development, discriminatory
development, development that will be seen by Tamils and Muslims as biased
towards the Sinhalese and inimical towards their own interests. If such a
perception is created and gains ground, the Tigers will find it easier to
spread unrest and violence in the East. And it will serve to radicalise
Islamic youth in the province. If *Nagenahira Navodaya *is seen by the
non-Sinhala residents of the East as a euphemism for a Sinhala resurgence,
we may find ourselves battling on two fronts, with a rejuvenated Tiger and
with an Islamic militancy.

There are diverse opinions about who the original inhabitants of the East
were. Irrespective of who came first and who did not, today the East is home
to Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in almost equal proportions. Only a
development plan based on the belief that the East belongs equally to all
the people who live there can succeed politically. *Nagenhira Navodaya,* if
it is not to be a misnomer, needs to be ethno-religiously neutral, both at
the level of conception and at the level of implementation. Irrespective of
claims by official propagandists, when (and if) this ambitious plan reaches
the implementation stage, the Eastern Tamils and Muslims will feel whether
there is an ideological context and content to it or whether it is
ethno-religiously neutral. And that feeling would go a considerable way in
deciding both the success of the plan and the fate of the East.

*Ethnicity and Religion*

Post-Thoppigala, it would make sense to look back at the long and bloody
road travelled. We, the Sinhalese, opened the Pandora's Box with our
inability to understand that others can feel as passionately about their
language as we do about ours and that no one likes to be a second class
citizen in his own country. Vellupillai Pirapaharan is a true child of that
culture of incomprehension and intolerance. He began with 'Tamil Only',
thereby marginalising and antagonising the other component of the 'Tamil
speaking people', the Muslims. He followed this with a 'North First' policy
which led to an unprecedented schism in the Tiger monolith and eventually
resulted in the dislodging of the LTTE from its Eastern strongholds.

Not even the JHU would deny that the East has a multi-ethnic and
multi-religious populace. The controversy is over whom the East belongs to –
whether it belongs to all three communities because it is currently peopled
by all of them or whether it belongs to one particular community on the
basis that its ancestors were the province's original inhabitants. In this
sense the debate about who owns the East is a part of the debate over
whether or not Sri Lanka is a pluralist society. Those who insist on calling
Sri Lanka a Sinhala/Sinhala-Buddhist country insist that this claim does not
deny the fact that people of diverse ethnicities and religions live in Sri
Lanka. The implication is that Sri Lanka really belongs to the
ethno-religious majority and that all other ethno-religious groups live here
by our grace and as evidence of our grace; consequently we have a right (and
a duty) to chastise any minority legally (and occasionally in other ways)
when they step beyond this or that line (drawn unilaterally by us).

It is this mindset of 'hosts and guests' which made us replace English with
Sinhala Only rather than with Sinhala and Tamil. Because if we see Sri Lanka
as the land of the Sinhalese, then Tamil is not a native language; it is as
much of an alien language as English. According to this mindset Tamils,
Muslims, Burghers and even Sinhala Christians are not co-owners of this
country but its guests. We see ourselves as gracious hosts who hospitably
permitted these alien races settle down in 'our' country. But we also expect
the 'guests' to remember that they are guests. Given this mindset the right
of any minority to live in Sri Lanka is a conditional one, determined by
their conduct - unlike the majority, whose right to live in Sri Lanka is
unconditional and is guaranteed by birth.

We are hospitable so long as the minorities do not abuse our hospitality;
the moment they assert their rights as equal citizens of this country then
we begin to look at them with hostility and tell ourselves that they are
repaying our goodness and tolerance with rank ingratitude. From this, to
either perpetrating or condoning violent chastisement of these abusive and
ungrateful 'guests', is but a logical step, as the Black July bloodily

One of the arguments used by European political leaders to justify the
persecution of Jews was that they were not loyal to the countries they were
living in because they were rootless wanderers without a motherland, even if
they have been living in any particular country for generations. In one of
those ironies of history the Jews in their long awaited moment of liberation
used a strikingly similar argument to justify the deprivation of the
Palestinian people of their own motherland. The Palestinian Arab, said the
founder of the state of Israel David Ben Gourian, does not have any
"emotional involvement" in the land of his birth: "Why should he? He is
equally at ease whether in Jordan, Lebanon or a variety of places. They are
as much his country as this is. And as little…" (*Memoirs*). This is what we
feel about non-Sinhala people of Sri Lanka. That is why in moments of anger
we tell the Tamils to go to India (even though *we* proudly claim that we
are descendent from an Indian prince) or remind Muslims that in Saudi Arabia
other religions are not tolerated. Shades of this mindset can be discerned
in the regime's plan to expel Tamils from Colombo lodges and the subsequent
attempts by government leaders to justify the unjustifiable. After all, if
Tamils are merely guests in 'our' land, then we have the right to dictate
where they can and cannot live.

Religion is the other area of controversy. Already the JHU has claimed the
East as the land of the Buddhists on the basis of ruins of ancient temples.
Whatever the past may or may not have been, today the East has many move
Kovils and Mosques than temples and any attempt to change this reality will
plunge this vital province into bloody civil strife. Equally damaging would
be any effort at removing non-Sinhala residents from sites of ancient
Buddhist ruins or resettling Sinhalese in those areas under state patronage.
Any Sri Lankan has a constitutionally guaranteed right to live where s/he
pleases; this however is different from state aided colonisation favouring
majority community. In the East peace and security can come only on the
basis of absolute equality and the acceptance of existing demographics –
even if these are totally at variance with our cherished belief of what the
province was in its ancient past.

*A Marshall Plan*

The LTTE's intolerance and maximalism helped create an inadvertent
Sinhala-Tamil-Muslim axis in the East and it is this development which
enabled the Lankan forces to defeat the Tiger in the East. *Nagenahira
Navodaya *must seek to solidify this multi-ethnic, multi-religious axis,
consciously and on the basis of absolute equality. Any attempt to favour the
national majority or to reclaim ancient glories will debilitate and destroy
this axis and pit the minorities against the majority. The Tigers would work
actively to enable such an outcome and the regime must not do anything to
help these enemy endeavours. The depriving of Sampur residents of their
traditional land in the name of security or development may not be
unconstitutional; but politically, it epitomises the kind of approach we
must not adopt in rebuilding the East. Tamil and Muslim residents must not
feel that development and security serve as fig leaves for a Sinhala
resurgent agenda, implemented by the regime and the state (including the
Security Forces).

Ignorance breeds prejudice and fear. Ignorance is thus an important pillar
of extremism. Demonising of the 'Other' cannot be done without ignorance of
the 'Other'. This is particularly so when it comes to religion, a crucial
factor in determining the complexion and trajectory of *Nagenahira Navodaya.
* What most of us know about each other's religions is limited to a few
derogatory remarks made by extremist elements belonging to our own religion.
These derisive remarks are aimed at proving the absolute superiority of
one's own religion by demonstrating that all other religions are just Myths.

Today most Sri Lankan school children are taught the three main languages
used in the country. If this policy was followed from the very beginning the
bloody trajectory of the last 50 years could have been avoided. Ignorance
about each other's religion can be alleviated by ensuring that all children
are given at least a basic grounding in the four main religions of Sri
Lanka. Such a multi-religious education will help the next generation
unlearn the intolerance we have learnt. And the best place to begin such an
experiment is the pluralist East where religious co-existence is not an
abstract slogan but an absolute necessity for normalcy and prosperity.

*Leidensweg* is a German term used to describe the plight and the tragedy of
those who are faced with unimaginable suffering because of their own past
mistakes and crimes. This was the name given to the harrowing flight of the
German people from the occupied territories in the face of the advancing Red
Army 60 years ago. Buddhists with our belief in karma should be able to
understand and appreciate this term and the profound meaning it conveys. We
still have not ceased paying for our old karma of 1956 and 1983. The Tigers
lost the East because of their own 'karma' – their intolerance and North
First conduct. In the aftermath of the capturing of the East we must be
careful not to turn *Nagenahira Navodaya* into a Sinhala Resurgence. If in
this moment of choice, we choose the past over the future, the Rising of the
East will metamorphose into a Leidensweg for Sri Lanka and her long
suffering people.

- Asian Tribune -


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