Remove nationalist indoctrination from school syllabi

24 August 2007

State schools teach the basics of political/ethnic prejudice in the process of teaching history. National pride is not something that can be TAUGHT. It’s something you grow into by yourself. When you try to TEACH national pride, what you end up teaching is prejudice.

National history of every country should explicitly start with the following: We’re NOT the greatest nation on Earth. We’re NOT the most righteous people on Earth. We’re not the most clever. We may be ahead in some areas, behind in others, but we’re just another group of people just like everybody else.

Avoid things like: Glorification of past, bloody battles: History books meant for young children depict Dutugemunu as a hero in the Elara-Dutugemunu war. The same treatment is given to a number of other less-than-righteous kings.

If memory serves me, a Grade nine school history book mentioned with barely concealed glee, two notable defeats of Portuguese/British at the hands of Sinhalese militia. It specifically mentions how a certain lake/marsh turned red with the blood of the foreign soldiers: hardly an educational fact.

Many other interactions with foreign races have been recorded in our school history books in neutral sounding language, but with a definite Sri Lankan slant. The school books have been partially sanitized of most of the wrongdoings committed by Sri Lankans.

As Bertrand Russell says, if every country taught their own imperfections and non-superiority to their young, they will be less likely to approve state aggression against other ethnicities or groups. But such a public is a disadvantage to a power-seeking regime.


Military Solutions and Final Solutions

10 January 2007

There is no military solution to the ethnic problem. Military solutions are for military problems. An ethnic problem requires an ethnic solution. Sinhalese extremists turned a political problem into an ethnic problem. The LTTE turned the ethnic problem into a military problem. Now we have both. The ethnic problem is the existence of a Sinhalese majority and a Tamil minority in a single country and that they don’t seem to get along. The military problem is the existence of an illegal armed group using terrorist tactics under the aegis of fighting for minority rights. We need to solve both these problems.

The fact that most Sri Lankans are unaware of the greater political backdrop their country resides in, and that they’re unaware of the lessons of history, is evident from their acceptance of the term “Final Solution” — the notorious phrase used by the Nazis to mean the extermination of the Jews. Most educated westerners would run screaming if they were to hear the term “Final Solution” in connection to any ethnic issue. Yet it is the same phrase some Sri Lankan leaders are using to describe the mysterious silver bullet that is going to solve the ethnic problem once and for all.

What the solution is to the ethnic problem is not yet clear. But as for the military problem the solution is the disarmament of the LTTE, either voluntarily or by military engagement or by a combination of both. The rationalization of this solution comes from the principle of Uniform Application of the Law. An acquaintance of mine summed it up this way: “If you kill one person, you get to go to jail. If you kill a thousand, you get to go for peace talks”. But on the other hand, it is a fundamental right of a citizen to take up arms if his government fails in its obligation to protect him. This is why the ethnic solution is also necessary. So long as the government of Sri Lanka is failing in this duty, a disarmament of the LTTE will be a unilateral solution many will not accept.

Diaspora Naiveté

29 November 2006

Calls for war are easy to make when the bombs are not going to fall on your own neighborhood. In the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, both sides suffer from two forms of naiveté, each in its own way. Firstly, the paradox of the most distant factions on both sides being the most militant. Sinhalese extremists living in the relative safety and luxury of Colombo find it easy to call for war in the North. Tamil extremists living in London or Toronto are generally the most overt in their affection for the LTTE. Both are not just cases of being in an area where one is free to voice opinions. It is more a case of being disconnected from the reality one thinks one knows through verbal and written descriptions, photographs and video reports. Even those who visit a war-torn area for a few days and think “Ok, now I know what these people are actually going through” is still not fully aware. It is difficult for those in Colombo and London to grasp what it is like to live through a war day and night and not have anywhere else to go. Neither can I.

A section of the Sinhalese engage in classic nationalist chest thumping while a section of the Tamil Diaspora engages in classic romanticization of a distant conflict. But there is another form of naiveté: the naiveté of a new generation who is distanced from the conflict not by space, but by time. Many of the most vocal pro-Sinhalese, pro-war activists of the new generation were but toddlers in 1983. Some hadn’t even been born. They merely inherited the hatred from their elders, just as their Tamil counterparts inherited theirs from their elders. While the new generation Tamils can at least use discrimination as an excuse for their hatred, Sinhalese youth really have no such excuse to hate Tamils as an ethnic group (the crimes of the LTTE organization notwithstanding). We may very soon have to face the absurdity of two groups fighting for reasons that nobody living on either side remembers firsthand.

Civil War vs. Civil Activism

17 August 2006

Activism is a more civilized outlet for pent up indignation than militancy. Yet an entire generation of Tamils have grown up being more militant than activist. Events such as 1983 have terrorized most law abiding Tamils away from civil activism: placard-bearing demonstrators demanding equal rights for Tamils is not something you see often in Sri Lanka.

A Sinhalese dominated Establishment has not tolerated such things. The inevitable result: those who have the stomach for militancy take up arms; those who don’t have the stomach for it, provide support for those who do. This is what has happened today.

Help the Tamils move away from militancy and towards civil activism. Militarization takes so much away from a society. Many southerners who visited the North during the brief ceasefire (and shortly after the tsunami), reported that many of the LTTE guards they had to deal with had zombie-like faces that seemed to have not smiled in years. It wasn’t even anguish. It was almost a battle-hardened lack of emotion — the closest I could get to a description is “chronic rage”.

This does not characterize all Tamil youth. But the present generation of Tamil youth tend to have more faith in the fist than in the mind or the pen. Even when they do use the pen there is more attack-mode rhetoric than there are gentle arguments.

How to share a country

16 August 2006

Not every group on earth is entitled to its own homeland. If that were, the world would splinter into thousands of tiny states. More borders mean more conflicts; more states mean more politicians and more administrative costs; smaller economies mean smaller enterprises. And since people never stop defining themselves in terms of smaller and smaller subgroups, the splintering would never end. So some groups MUST learn to SHARE a single country.

Sharing does not mean the smaller group living as a minority in a country that the majority is trying to define in terms of their own ethnicity or religion. You cannot define Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese/Buddhist country and simultaneously ask Tamil/Hindus to “share” the country. That is not a proper form of sharing; we are asking them to be second class citizens. No human being will accept that for long. There are only three options, out of which only two are civilized: 

a) Define Sri Lanka as a secular, non-ethnic state, or

b) Divide Sri Lanka into one predominantly Sinhalese/Buddhist state and one predominantly Tamil/Hindu state.

c) Suppress or expel the Tamils

One can already see that (b) is a recursive solution: Sri Lanka’s substantial Muslim population will be second class citizens in both these states and will therefore demand a third Muslim state. Achieving (a) requires the implementation of an ethnicity-blind, creed-blind and caste-blind system and a gradual amalgamation of the main ethnicities into one: a topic for another day.

Homelands, civil movements

14 August 2006

Why do many Tamils call for a separate homeland? Because like any group of human beings, they need at least one place on earth they can call home and where they will not be treated as second class citizens. There are many accomplished Sri Lankans who refuse to emigrate to developed countries precisely because of this; sometimes esteem needs supersede economic ones.

No person is happy being treated as a second class citizen, ESPECIALLY in his own country. The response to such treatment will always be either a civil rights movement (as in early 20th century America) or a call for a separate homeland (as in Sri Lanka). 

If the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese public become more receptive to the idea of equal treatment, a civil rights movement will be more effective than a civil war. This will undercut the rationale for militant organizations.

Addressing the ethnic problem

5 July 2006

When I started this blog, I intended it to concentrate mainly on economic and political reforms. But I find myself increasingly addressing the ethnic problem. Because nobody who is serious about reforms can afford to ignore this issue.

But I can think of no simple solution. I don’t believe saying things like “we should learn to live in harmony with each other” or “let’s be more tolerant” goes anywhere. They’re statements of the goal, not how it might be achieved. Simple minded appeals don’t work.

“System changes” too, by themselves will not be enough. We may bring new legislation or go for a federal solution, but the underlying animosity between Tamils and Sinhalese remain. In the face of legal barriers they may find new ways to express it.

Personal changes are not easy to come by. One option is to change our system of education to turn out children who are more tolerant of other cultures and view points. But I’m deeply skeptical of government-sponsored reprogramming of children — even if it’s supposedly done for the better.

Stopping the war is not the same as solving the ethnic problem. Complete military defeat of the LTTE AND a complete give-in to the LTTE are both equally ineffective in this regard.