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Sat Mag

George Floyd, African-Americans, and Sri Lanka’s Estate Tamils (Part I)

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By Uditha Devapriya

Over two weeks, the George Floyd protests spread practically everywhere. From Kansas to Kenya, from Baltimore to Berlin, they turned into symbols of dissent against not just the racism, but also the xenophobia, of White America.

One of the most haunting images to emerge from the demonstrations was that of a young Sri Lankan girl, draped in the flag of her country, posing defiantly on the streets of an American city. The image and the girl in it attracted both support and opposition, the latter coming from militant Sinhala nationalists who felt she dishonoured a national symbol by using it as a sign of civil disobedience involving a domestic issue of another country.

The response of the nationalists to the George Floyd uprisings was, if at all, amusing. One section of this crowd took to social media to condemn White America for exhibiting its racist, chauvinist face yet again. Another section – no less big or significant – took the opposite stance, censuring those protesting against the murder of a black civilian because, to them at least, Floyd’s murder did not warrant the rampaging and the pillaging of public property. To the latter group, these protests seemed disproportionate to what they regarded as an instance of police authority enforcing the law over a minority community.

The few within the nationalist crowd who did support the raging protests were, even more amusingly, taken to task on social media by another group, this one ideologically opposed to nationalism. The latter crowd seemed to think, not without justification, that the nationalists sharing posts and posting comments against White America were myopic: they seemed to sympathise with George Floyd, but not with the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka, whom the anti-nationalists alleged are as discriminated against over here as George Floyd’s community is over there. Thus both nationalists opposed to the protests AND anti-nationalists critiquing the selectivity of those supporting the protests persisted in comparing African-Americans to the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka.

In that sense the protests taught us two important lessons. Though they don’t form the subject of this essay, they are relevant to it, and hence need to be examined.

Firstly, the inability of many Sinhala nationalists to take their struggle against neo-colonialism and Western hegemony forward. Resistance to colonialism has historically formed the bedrock of the Sinhala nationalist lobby, yet their denunciations of this uprising betrayed a failure to think beyond geographic borders. This came out quite despairingly in their reaction to the only local political party that saw it fit to organise a protest in front of the US Embassy. The government’s crackdown on the demonstration didn’t seem to ruffle their feathers, nor did the point that the demonstrators were making.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the inability of local left-liberal outfits to come up with a proper front, in Sri Lanka, against the George Floyd murder. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) organised the protest against the US Embassy, while the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) organised a discussion on it online. But neither of these belongs to what is traditionally labelled as “civil society.” The point can be made that the issue at the centre of these protests was not Sri Lankan and that is why civil society ignored it, but that excuse pales away when one considers that the moment sections of the nationalist crowd let out their anger at the US’s handling of the protests, certain social media civil society activists focused their energies more on pointing out the hypocrisy of the nationalists.

Despite the hostile exchanges between the two factions, one particular point brought them together: their comparison of African-Americans to Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. They underscored this comparison from two different vantage points.

Thus the nationalists who critiqued the protests seemed to believe that, like extremist Tamils and Muslims, African-Americans and other minorities in the US were unfairly questioning the legitimacy of rule by an ethnic majority. Those opposed to the nationalists, on the other hand, inadvertently, by their critique of the nationalists’ sidelining of Tamils and Muslims, equated the latter two with the community which Floyd hailed from. The question to be asked here is whether such an analogy is, if not plausible, then at least tenable.

In 2011, a year before Barack Obama won election for a second term, Vinod Moonesinghe wrote a cogent reply to someone who in an article had wished for a Tamil or Muslim to be elected as this country’s leader. Vinod made two points there: considering Obama’s win as a win for all African-Americans failed to distinguish between his class origins and those of most African-Americans; and equating African-Americans with Tamils and Muslims was anachronistic, given the economically privileged status of the latter two groups.

Taking class and caste into consideration, then, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s election win seemed closer to such a comparison than the potential coming to power of a member of a “minority.” Taking class, caste, AND ethnicity into consideration, the analogy would have to extend, not to Jaffna and Colombo Tamils, Moors, and Malays, or Borahs and Sindhis, but instead to a community that, like the blacks of the US, was imported as dirt cheap labour, cut off from the rest of the population, and supervised under a setup no different to the plantations of the southern US. In other words, the migrant Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Before making an analogy between these two groups, though, it would do well to reflect, very briefly, on the historical trajectory of slavery in the West.

Following the Arab invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries, Europe turned inward. The eminent historian Fernand Braudel has written of a “second serfdom” that sprang up in parts of the continent where feudalism failed to give way to capitalism. The result was the growth of a kind of slavery, white slavery, across the East, in what is now Russia; it’s a testament to the legacy of the trade which emerged there that the word “slave” derived from the ethnicity of those marshalled into it from that region, Slav.

With the influence of the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks after them waning after the fall of Granada in 1492 (the same year Columbus “discovered” the New World), a liberated Europe, discovering hitherto unchartered colonies in the Americas on one side and Australia on the other, gradually instituted a system of indentured white bondage.

It has been estimated that around 67% of all white immigrants to the new colonies arrived there as servants. These immigrants were bound to a contract that compelled them to work for an overseer, without pay, over a specified period of time. Most often such contracts were drawn for those who had a prior obligation to these overseers which they couldn’t meet, such as a debt. Since the government usually didn’t interfere with these contracts, extortion and kidnappings became common, as they would among Africans later on. The situation was such that even in as late as 1910 the US government was trying to put an end to white slavery: the White Slave Traffic Act (or the Mann Act) that year made it a felony to transport women across state borders for the purposes of “prostitution or debauchery.”

Debt bondage, however, applied in the early period only to white immigrants to the white colonies, and the Irish; the difference between their situation and that of African slaves was that the latter were never recruited to pay off an obligation; most of them ended up as lifelong labourers, unpaid and treated as chattel or property. As Liam Stack once observed, “[u]nlike slaves, servants were considered legally human.”

To put this in its proper perspective, the position of those shipped to the sugar plantations of the West Indies and the cotton mills of the southern United States fitted that of neither indentured servants nor wage labourers. The process of recruiting and transporting these Africans, in the long term, thus became, as Gordon K. Lewis put it, “quasi-militarised”, while once quartered in the plantations their owners did everything to isolate the unfortunate immigrants, prisoners really, from the world outside.

Revisionist historians, white and black, have tried to understate the full weight of black slavery, either by pointing at the involvement of African intermediaries in it or by showing that European Christians became as entangled in it as Africans.

Thus Robert Davis (Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters) argues that while the Atlantic slave trade was 12 times as large, more Christians than Africans were captured between 1500 and 1650, while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (“How Many Slaves Landed in the US?”) contends that of the 10.7 million Africans who survived the passage to the West, “only about 388,000” were shipped to the United States. What these “findings” fail to show is that black slavery was not geographically limited to the US, or for that matter to Western Europe, and that from 1530 to 1780, when more than five million Africans found themselves dispatched to Portugal and Brazil, only about a million Christians were forced into servitude in North Africa, along the Barbary Coast and into the Ottoman Empire.

The Abolitionist movement, no doubt representative of a progressive, enlightened wing in the Evangelical Revival, agitated for African slavery’s end. It did this as much for moral reasons as for pragmatic ones; the rise in Britain of an industrial Whig bourgeoisie over a landed Tory gentry and the expansion of British interests in Asia and Africa had by then necessitated the rise of plantation colonialism. It is hence not a coincidence that African slaves in the British West Indies were emancipated by official proclamation in the same year (1833) that the most ambitious set of administrative proposals were tabled in Sri Lanka (Colebrooke-Cameron) to lay the foundation for the new colonial plantation economy.

Against this backdrop, black slavery soon receded to countries where a white settler class predominated, including Rhodesia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. S. B. D. de Silva in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment refers to these as “settler states”, a distinction I will return to later. In any case, what we have here is the first of many differences between the plight of African-Americans and that of Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims.

Plantation colonialism demolished and also made use of existing traditional political, cultural, social, and economic patterns in much of Asia and Africa. The most immediate result of that, of course, was the impoverishment of the peasantry; in Sri Lanka, as we know, the peasantry most directly affected by these policies remained the Kandyan Sinhalese.

Marx was largely correct in his comparison of British domination of India to that of Ireland. He was more prescient in the implication that the British brought with them to the colonies their experience in subjugating the Irish peasantry. Two policies make it clear to what extent they were following the Irish example in India and Sri Lanka: the expropriation of peasant land, and the pursuit of divide and rule. I shall turn to these next week, and with them, the growth and evolution of Indian migrant labour.

To be continued next week…

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Hemasiri begins to unload against Sirisena

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Former President Maithripala Sirisena, on April 24, 2019, had told former IGP Pujith Jayasundara that if the latter took the blame for the Easter Sunday bombings he would be given his pension and posted to any country of his choice as an ambassador, former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando yesterday told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) investigating the Easter Sunday attacks.

Fernando said that Jayasundara had come to him for advice on the matter soon after Sirisena had made the offer. Fernando refused to advise him, given the sensitive nature of the proposal. “I told him that he should talk to his family members,” Fernando said.

Sirisena had also told Jayasundara that the Commission he appointed to investigate the attacks, headed by Supreme Court Judge Vijith Malalgoda, would clear the former IGP. Jayasundara only had to accept the responsibility and resign, Fernando said.

The witness also said that around 25 and 30 decisions taken by him as the Defence Secretary had not been implemented due to President Maithripala Sirisena’s interference.

“On one occasion, former IGP Jayasundara and I prepared the documents needed to transfer some police officers. The following day, Sirisena called me, scolded and asked me to cancel the list. He said he was the Defence Minister and that IGP and I had no authority to do such things. Although I tried to explain that there was no political motive behind our attempts, he was not ready to accept it.”

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Editorial

Blinding ingratitude

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Saturday 19th September, 2020

A disabled soldier who had lost vision in one eye on the battlefield and became totally blind due to injuries he suffered at the hands of the riot police, during a protest, near the Presidential Secretariat, in Nov. 2017, has moved the Supreme Court, seeking damages. He was one of the protesters who demanded that the disabled military and police personnel who had been compelled to retire before completing 12 years of service due to injuries they suffered, in the line of duty, be given retirement benefits.

The protesting war veterans asked the yahapalana government a very pertinent question: “If the MPs who complete five years in Parliament without risking life and limb are entitled to pension benefits how come we who had to retire owing to battlefield injuries before competing 12 years are denied that right?” We argued editorially that they deserved what they were asking for, and the government had to grant their demands without humiliating them. They are in this predicament because they braved heavy machine gun fire, shelling and walked through minefields to make this country safe, and people belonging to all communities have benefited from their sacrifices. After the war, children resumed schooling without fear of being abducted on the way and turned into cannon fodder, in the North and the East. People have the freedom to elect their representatives in all parts of the country.

During the war veterans’ demonstration in 2017, this newspaper juxtaposed two pictures on its front page; one showed the then President cum Commander-in-chief Maithripala Sirisena raising his hand during a speech at a public event, and the other a row of prosthetic legs the protesting war veterans had placed in front of them. The pictures had the desired impact; Sirisena saw red and complained.

Shabby treatment the armed forces and the police received from the yahapalana government, demoralised them beyond measure. One of the reasons why the intelligence personnel refrained from going beyond the call of duty to neutralise the National Thowheed Jamaath last year may have been their fear of being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. What one gathers from some key witness’ evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday Carnage is that they were wary of initiating action. Time was when the state intelligence outfits did not waste time, writing letters or making telephone calls, when they received information about possible terror attacks; they sprang into action and eliminated the threats themselves without leaving that task to others. That was how they kept the urban centres, especially the Colombo city, safe during the final stages of the war.

President Sirisena made a public display of his compassion by pardoning an LTTE cadre who had attempted to kill him, but the disabled soldiers had to grapple with the police and suffer injuries and many indignities in a bid to have themselves heard. Sirisena should have met them and solved their problems instead of allowing the riot police to rough them up.

The police steered clear of Zahran and his fellow terrorists who carried out the Easter Sunday terror attacks as they did not want to incur the wrath of the yahapalana leaders who subjugated national security to political expediency. But they used force against the disabled soldiers who were fighting for the rights of disabled police personnel as well.

Those who won the war and undertook to look after the war veterans are now at the levers of power. They ought to ensure that the grievances of disabled military and police personnel are redressed.

 

 

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