The National Trust – Sri Lanka Monthly Lecture Series No- 129 October 29, 2020
By Prof. Gamini Keerawella
I am extremely thankful to Mr. Kanag-Isvaran, Chairman, the National Trust- Sri Lanka, for introducing me to this distinguished audience. I take this opportunity to thank the National Trust for the honour, bestowed upon me by inviting to deliverer this lecture. I really appreciate the kindness of Mr. Wickremerathne, Vice-Chair of the National Trust, who contacted me on behalf of the National Trust first, for giving me the liberty to decide the theme of the lecture. I decided to present my thoughts on ‘Colonial Knowledge Formation under British Rule and Modern Lankan Historiography’.
I am a historian by training. I am proud to be a historian. What we study in history is not really a dead past. Even though the events and personalities that we study are dead and gone, the thinking process behind these events and personalities are living and reemerging again and again in the minds of generation after generation. In that sense, all history is contemporary. The theme we discuss today is more relevant to the contemporary Sri Lankan political discourses. Tracing the genealogy of modern Sri Lankan historiography would help understand historical roots of the concepts on which the contemporary political discourse is centered.
In my lecture, I wish to elaborate three main points. First, the knowledge formation was a key component of the British colonialism project in Sri Lanka. The political and economic aspects of colonialism, the political domination and the extraction of resources have been given adequate attention. But, without paying attention to the Colonial knowledge formation, the totality of British colonial project cannot be grasped. Second, re-reading history in terms colonial political categories is a main component of colonial knowledge formation. The gathering information about the past of the colonial territories and their subjects was considered essential for building colonial hegemony and resource mobilization and exploitation in colonial territories. Third, the modern Sri Lankan Historiography took its form in the context of colonial knowledge formation under British rule. The main thrust of my argument is that modern Sri Lankan Historiography originated as a British colonial project.
Re-reading Sri Lankan History under British rule did not take place in an empty space. What really happened was that the text of pre-colonial Sri Lankan historiography was re-read in terms of the evolving new political categories. As a point of departure to my argument, I wish to draw your attention to attention to Historical traditions in Sri Lanka prior to colonialism.
Pre-colonial Sri Lankan Historiography
Sri Lanka had one of the oldest and continuous historical traditions in Asia. The origin of this historical tradition could be traced back to the introduction of Buddhism to the island in the 3rd century BC. When the Buddhist cannons were presented, they accompanied an historical introduction in the form of attakatha in order to prove that it was the true Buddha’s teaching. Acoordingly, attakatha to the Pitaka became an integral part of the introduction of Buddhism. This historical tradition was naturalized subsequently in Sri Lankan soil and the Sinhala attakatha were produced with added details of the history of the island. The Buddhist texts in Sinhala, including the commentaries, were once again translated into Pali in the 5th century A.D. The Samantapasadhika is a Pali translation of the Sinhala atuva of Vinaya Pitaka.
As a number of Buddhist centers of learning emerged in the island, there were many variations of historical narrations. The available evidence clearly shows that the ancient historical thinking of the island was enriched with multiple perspectives. In order to understand the ancient historical traditions of the island, Mahawamsa and its tika, Vamsatthappakasini are very useful. According to Mahavansa Tika, the Mahavamsa was based on the Sihalatthakatha Mahavamsa. The Vamsatthappakasini mentions about Uttaraviharatthakata and also Uttaravihara-vasinam Mahavamsa. Uttaravihara was Abhayagiriya, a rival Buddhist center that competed with Mahavihara. Uttaravihara historical perspective was not similar to Mahavihara. Almost all the quotations from the Uttaraviharatthakata in Mahawamsa are either to point out differences in the tradition or to provide additional information not found in Sihalatthakata. The author of Mahavamsa (first part) was Mahanama thera of Mahavihara and it presented the tradition nurtured in the Mahavihara.
The earliest known chronicle of the island was Dipavamsa, written around the mid 4th century A.D., little earlier than Mahavamsa. As Luxman Su Perera pointed out, Deepawamsa gives us a fair indication of the nature of the early historical tradition. ” The memory verses, the double versions and numerous repetitions show that it stands very close to the original. Consequently, it gives us a fair indication of the nature of the early historical tradition. The many references to bhikkunis have led scholars to suppose that this may be the work of the bhikkunis of the in the Hatthalhaka nunnery.
Even though there were multiple narratives, the unique place of the Mahavamsa and its overriding importance must not be underestimated. It continued to shape the dominant historical thinking of the island for generations. The Mahavamsa was in circulation as reference material for generations up to the 18th century. It is evident from a reference made by John Davy a medical officer of the British Army who served in Sri Lanka in the period 1816-1820, in his book, An Account of the Interior of Ceylon and of its Inhabitants.
‘Old Chroncile ‘
The historical sketch which forms the tenth chapter, and concludes the first part of the work, was drawn up chiefly from the information which I was so fortunate as to extract from the late Dissava of Welassey, Malawa, an old man of shrewd intellect, a poet, historian, and astrologer, and generally allowed by his countryman to be the most able and learned of all the Kandyan chiefs. Part of the information that he communicated was given from a very retentive memory, and part was drawn from an old chronicle, or other historical romance of Ceylon, which he had by him, and to which he referred when his memory failed him.
The ‘old chronicle’ that Davy referred to was no doubt Mahavamsa.
Pre-modern Sri Lanka historiography emerged and sustained in a particular socio-political and economic order. It was an organic part of reproduction of culture in that particular socio-political order. This order was replaced by a colonial order under the British rule. The colonial knowledge generation on acquired territories and subjugated people was a key component of colonial project.
Colonial knowledge formation
The practice of gathering information on the land, people, religions and languages of the East by colonial agents began from the very beginning of western colonial encounters in Asia. The Christian missionaries took the lead. They believed that familiarity of native languages, manners and customs would be essential in carrying out missionary work successfully.
Building knowledge of the colonial territories and their people in the East reached a new phase in the mid-19th century along with British colonial dominance in Asia. Its epicenter of British colonialism in Asia was India. Soon after the British acquired Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in the second half of the 18th century, the process of studying the people and their language and culture commenced systematically with the patronage of Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of British India. The connection between the colonial power projects and the renewed interest in the study of ancient languages, religions and history of the oriental people is abundantly clear. With the help of Brahmin Pandiths, Charles Wilkings translated Bhagavad Gîtâ into English in 1785. Writing a preface to the first English translation, Warren Hastings stated:
Every accumulation of knowledge and especially such as is obtained by social communication with the people over whom we exercise domination founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state…it attracts and conciliates distant affections; it lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjugation; and it imprints on the hearts of our countrymen the sense of obligation and benevolence…. Every instance which brings their real character home to observation will impress us with more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights, and teach us to estimate them by the measure of our own.
Charles Wilkins and Nathaniel Halhed, writers of the British East India Company in Bengal were among the first to study the Sanskrit. In 1783, William Jones came to India as a judge in the newly established Supreme Court of Bengal. As a judge in the Supreme Court, he was first interested in translating Manusmati (Laws of Manu) into English. He later translated Kalidasa’s Abhiknana Shakuntala and Ritu Samhara, and Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda into English. In the process of studying the society, he started learning Indian languages with the help of Brahmin Pundits of Bengal. William Jones was instrumental in establishing the Asiatick Society in 1784 in Bengal under the patronage of the Governor General Warren Hastings. In the third anniversary lecture of the Bengal Asiatic Society in 1786, William Jones stated:
The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.
This statement not only challenged then prevailing Western perceptions of language history but also paved the way for the development of racial anthropology. William Jones statement of common source of origin of Sanskrit and the European clasical languages received a wide publicity. European philologers, historians, archeologists and ethnologists rushed to the East for intellectual pursuits in colonial environment.
In 1800, Governor Lord Wellesley established the Fort Williams College in Calcutta in order to train colonial civil servants. The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Fort William College became one seat of Orientalist research where the concept of Indo-European family of languages originated. A while later, in 1812, Francis Whyte Ellis
cholarship of orientalisn , ann Histoty Colonial Collector of Madras presidency established the College of Fort St George to train young colonial civil servants of the Company in South India. The colonial administration in Madras, the Literary Society of Madras and the College of Fort St. George remained the triad of the Madras School of Orientalism. In 1816, F.W. Ellis first published proofs of the existence of the Dravidian language family, after studying ‘dhatu malas’ of the three South Indian languages- Telugu, Kannada and Tamil.
In 1856, Bishop Robert Caldwell, elaborated it further and used the term ‘Dravidian’ to identify that language group in his Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages. by quoting Pãnini and other ancient grammarians, Henry T. Colebrooke had argued in his article in Asian researches in 1801, titled ‘On the Sanskrit and Prakrit languages’, that Prakrit was the precursors of modern Indian languages, giving birth to the concept of linguistic unity of India. Now, the concept of linguistic unity of India was challenged by the Madras School of Orientalists, namely, Ellis, Campbell, and Caldwell.
Even though Britain took the lead in building new knowledge on the East but the other European colonial powers also claimed their shares. The first Oriental Society in Europe was the one founded by the Dutch in 1781 in order to map the languages in South East Asia. While Britain had its Royal Society (1823) the French had its own society- Acadèmie des Inscriptions et des Belles Letters. The competition between British and French orientalists to claim authority on oriental scholarship provided an impetus to ‘Oriental Studies’. Anquetil-Duperron, who worked for the French India Company in Pondicherry, returned to Paris with over two hundred manuscripts. His translation of Zend-Avesta and Ouvrage de Zoroastre was a reflection of French interest in Oriental Studies. William Jones who studied Persian at Oxford first came into prominence when he challenged the authority of Anquetil-Duperron.
The European contribution to the development of Oriental scholarship is important at this point. Paris became the main centre of the continental Europe for the construction of knowledge on the Orient. The first Chair of Sanskrit outside Britain was Antoine-Lẽonard de Chẽzy at the Collẽge de France. Eugẽne Bournouf later succeeded him. The first translation of Mahavamsa into an European language was done by Eugẽne Bournouf. In Paris, France Bopp and Max Mủller Studied Sanskrit under Bournouf. I will come to them later.
(To be continued)
Over a decade after the war ended:The threat persists
The LTTE ordered protests in Europe and Canada in 2009 in a bid to pressure Sri Lanka to halt the military offensive on the Vanni east front. Canadians of Sri Lankan origin protest in Toronto in March 2009 in support of the LTTE project. The UK Foreign Secretary Miliband and his French counterpart Kouchner made an abortive bid to stop the offensive late April 2009 (file photo)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Tamil community never explained why the predominately Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern districts voted overwhelmingly for war-winning Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 general election, after earlier accusing him, and his war winning Army, of war crimes, the writer told a webinar, organized by the Sri Lankan Canadian Action Coalition, on Sunday (Nov 22). The writer questioned the absurdity in war crimes accusations against the backdrop of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the LTTE mouthpiece, throwing its weight behind Fonseka, Sri Lanka’s only Field Marshal, at the crucial poll. In spite of the Tamil vote, Fonseka suffered a heavy defeat. Fonseka lost by over 1.8 mn votes.
Sunday’s webinar, moderated by Prof. Neville Hewage, was the latest in a series organized by the grouping. The 90-minute webinar dealt with Democracy Under Threat: Incitement and Glorification of LTTE terrorism during Maaveerar naal.
The writer made his presentation subsequent to one-time US Colombo Embassy staffer, and now US-based Daya Gamage (author of Tamil Tigers’ debt to America: US Foreign Policy Adventurism; Sri Lanka’s Dilemma) and Geneva-based Prof. Dr. H.C. Mehmet Guzel, of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies.
The writer’s presentation: Western Governments’ response to various situations is largely based domestic political concerns. The Western powers conveniently calling themselves the international community, is responding to post-war developments in Sri Lanka, depending primarily on the relationship between the Tamil Diaspora and major political parties therein.
Over a decade after the successful conclusion of the war, the separatist agenda remains a viable threat, though the revival of the once-feared conventional military capability of the LTTE is no longer in the horizon.
However, the LTTE’s defeat has made it easier for Western powers to work with influential Tamil groups, pursuing a common agenda, with some lawmakers represented in the Sri Lanka Parliament.
Regardless of what foreign governments, and Tamil Diaspora groups, say, it is nothing but a political arrangement meant to secure the latter’s support at crucial elections.
What the LTTE couldn’t achieve, through terrorism and military means, its rump and followers might be able to secure with foreign intervention. That is a reality, a possibility Sri Lanka cannot ignore.
Stimulation and glorification
The stimulation and glorification of terrorism, through costly propaganda campaigns and political exercises, at the expense of elected governments here, portend a grave threat to post-war Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s political setup conveniently ignored the growing threat much to the discomfort of those who strongly believe in the country’s unitary status.
In fact, the LTTE’s defeat has paved the way for Western powers to move the UN in support of those seeking a new Constitution, at the expense of the country’s unitary status; the October 2015 Geneva
The resolution co-sponsored by the treacherous Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is a case in point.
For want of cohesive action on the part of successive Sri Lankan governments, including the war-winning Rajapaksa administration, that brought the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009, some of those who had pursued a separatist agenda, though not really involved with the LTTE, during the war, are now at the forefront of high profile diaspora projects meant to divide the country on ethnic lines. Their successes largely depend on overseas political support and backing received from INGOs.
On one hand, a section of the international community accommodated separatist elements and made them a part of their domestic political system, while undermining Sri Lanka, by adopting the war crimes resolution in Geneva in 2015. The Geneva intervention is nothing but glorification of those who waged war against a member State of the UN. The Geneva project should be examined against the backdrop of the annual commemorative events, held in various parts of the world, with the backing of both governments as well as their Opposition political parties. Growing number of voters, of Sri Lankan origin, living in different countries, a lucrative industry in accommodating asylum seekers and human rights lobby, contribute to the mounting insidious campaign against Sri Lanka. Actually, Sri Lanka now faces a bigger threat in spite of the eradication of the LTTE’s military capacity.
One-time LTTE mouthpiece, the TNA succeeded in compelling Sri Lanka to launch a new constitution-making process, severely inimical to the country. That project had the backing of the US and the UN and could have succeeded, if not for Treasury bond scams perpetrated by the then ruling party, resulting in political turmoil. What Sri Lanka should keep in mind is that the absence of a military threat does not mean the country’s unitary status cannot be challenged and overwhelmed by other means. Having backed General Sarath Fonseka’s presidential polls campaign, in 2010, and Maithripala Sirisena’s five years later, the TNA proved its readiness to change its political tactics with an eye on its overall strategy to break up the country. Thanks to Wikileaks, the role played by the US in the formation of the UNP-led alliance, to back Fonseka, is in the public domain. It would be a grave mistake, on our part, to ignore such developments, while opposing propaganda exercises, such as annual commemorative events. The real threat comes from Western politicians seeking electoral arrangements, with Tamil groups in their countries, for votes.
Before discussing further the post-war relationship between foreign political parties and Tamil groups, let me recollect the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. Why did India militarily intervene in Sri Lanka in the 80s? The late J.N. Dixit, in early 2004, revealed hitherto unknown reasons for their intervention. Referring to Sri Lanka’s relationship with the US, Israel and Pakistan, Dixit explained why the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi threw her weight behind Sri Lankan terrorist groups. Dixit, one-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, asserted in ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy’ that Premier Gandhi could be faulted on two foreign policy decisions. Let me quote: “…her ambiguous response to the Russian intrusion into Afghanistan and her giving active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Whatever the criticisms about these decisions, it cannot be denied that she took them on the basis of her assessments about India’s national interests. Her logic was that she couldn’t openly alienate the former Soviet Union when India was so dependent on that country for defence supplies and technologies. Similarly, she could not afford the emergence of Tamil separatism, in India, by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils. ….” Dixit added: “In both cases, her decisions were relevant at the point of time they were taken.”
In other words, India jeopardized Sri Lanka to protect her interests. The Indian project paved the way for an attempt to overthrow the Maldivian government in early Nov 1988. Indian-trained Sri Lankan terrorists almost succeeded in seizing control of that country. Perhaps, such raids are not possible today though foreign governments overtly and covertly support those seeking to subvert other countries.
The British relentlessly pursue an anti-Sri Lanka policy. Maybe their approach is the worst among the countries still backing the LTTE agenda, a decade after the war ended, with the crushing military defeat of the Tigers. British actions promoted terrorism in a big way, while undermining Sri Lanka. Long standing
British policies are inimical to Sri Lanka. They brazenly played politics with Sri Lanka, throughout the war, finally making a last ditch attempt to save the LTTE, in 2009. If the British-French bid to halt the Sri Lankan military offensive succeeded, in April 2009, terrorism would have received unprecedented recognition. The British glorified terrorism, still do for political reasons though all politicians cannot be faulted. However, the British, now the leading country in the Sri Lanka Core Group is pursuing war crimes investigation against us under the 2015 Geneva Resolution by remaining its key supporter.
Having failed to save the LTTE, the UK, a member of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), now pursues war crimes probe as part its overall efforts to appease British voters of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. The UK has refused to consider wartime cables from its High Commission in Colombo! Those classified cables, dispatched by its Defence Advisor, in Colombo, in January-May 2009, and exposed by Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, disputed the very basis of the Geneva Resolution. Lord Naseby had to utilize the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to secure the documents. The British tried desperately to prevent the release of those documents.
A leaked May 2009 US diplomatic cable, originating from its mission in London, a few months after the war, proved the relationship between the Tamil Diaspora and the British establishment. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know why the British played dirty politics with Sri Lanka and still do. A statement attributed to the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband revealed the Labour Party’s dependence on Tamil voters. The ground situation remains the same. With the Sri Lankan Tamil population in the UK, numbering well over 300,000, and further growing, the British will continue their despicable strategy. That is the undeniable truth.
So it is no wonder the US and UK are now all-out to persecute (not prosecute) Wikileaks Head Julian Assange for exposing to the world the unpalatable truth about what happened to Sri Lanka and other victimized countries. Sri Lanka shouldn’t expect the British or the Canadians to give up their cozy relationship with the Tamil Diaspora for our benefit. Politics is a dirty game. The bulk of our own politicians and utterly corrupt parliamentary system, over the years, proved over and over again political interests always come ahead of national interests.
At the commencement of the new Parliament, several moons ago, two lawmakers, both leaders of the Jaffna-based political parties, C.V. Wigneswaran and Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam accused the war-winning military of genocide. The Speaker upheld their right to speak freely in Parliament.
Sri Lanka Parliament never found fault with the TNA, that functioned as the political wing of the LTTE, during the conflict, and went to the extent of recognizing Prabhakaran as the sole representative of the Tamils. The TNA glorified the LTTE. Some of its members participated in passing out parades of forcibly recruited children and, at the 2005 presidential election, ordered Tamils not to vote. But no one bothered to take up this issue with the TNA leadership. After the war, the TNA established a close working relationship with the UK-headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF). The GTF played its cards well. The GTF once employed Labour lawmaker Joan Ryan as its Chief Executive and Policy Advisor. Why should we be surprised over an MP being on the GTF’s payroll, especially against the backdrop of it having parliamentary recognition? Many do not know the inauguration of the GTF took place in the British Parliament, in early 2010, with the participation of top political party representatives. Later, Ryan returned to Parliament to continue her role. Perhaps, many Sri Lankans may not be aware of how Ryan along, with Siobhain McDonagh, MP, requested the Foreign Secretary to expel Sri Lankan Defence Attaché Brigadier Priyankara Fernando over what they called “inappropriate, unacceptable and threatening” conduct of the officer. McDonagh, in Sept 2011, declared, in Parliament, that the Sri Lankan military killed 100,000 Tamils, including 40,000 civilians, in January-May 2009 alone. In 2012, McDonagh, along with an Australian MP, nominated ITN Channel 4 team, that produced “Sri Lanka Killing Fields,” for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Balasingham receives special treatment
The British had a way with the Diaspora. The Special treatment afforded to British citizen of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, Anton Balasingham, underscored the UK policy. British citizen Balasingham, a former British High Commission employee in Colombo, was allowed to function as the LTTE’s advisor in spite of proscription of the group. The British policy remained the same, even after the LTTE assassinated Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi, in May 1991, and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in August 2005. Instead of stripping Balasingham of given nationality, the British facilitated a secret meeting between a high level Norwegian delegation, and Balasingham, in the UK, to discuss the Kadirgamar assassination.
Terrorism received a mega boost when the UK’s Conservative Party, in the run-up to the Dec 2019 general election, proposed, what it called, a two State solution to solve the Sri Lankan problem. The Conservative manifesto declared: “We will continue to support international initiatives to achieve reconciliation, stability and justice across the world, and in the former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, where we maintain our support for a two-state solution.”
Sri Lanka opposed that statement. In the wake Colombo’s opposition, the Conservative Party, claimed the two-state solution was a reference to the Israel-Palestine situation. The UK’s policy is nothing but horrible. Balasingham’s widow, Adela, often pictured handing over cyanide capsules to LTTE terrorists, is living in the UK.
Promoting terrorism the British way
The UK obviously promoted terrorism by bending backwards to appease Tamil voters. There cannot be a better example than the Tamils forcing Cineworld, Odeon and Vue to cancel the screening of Shoojit
Sircar’s ‘Madras Café’ in late 2013. Tamils threatened the UK with violence if cinemas went ahead. Have you ever heard of Diaspora of any origin threatening violence over the screening of a movie? What the Tamils couldn’t stomach was ‘Madras Café’ portrayal of the LTTE assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a despicable crime that deeply wounded India, the god father of terrorism in Sri Lanka.
In March 2011 ahead of the Geneva session, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, who was also one-time US Ambassador in Colombo, received a top GTF delegation in Washington. GTF’s President Rev Father S.J. Emmanuel led the delegation. I had the opportunity to meet the GTF President in London in early 2015 soon after him, in the company of other GTF live wire Suren Surendiran, met the Sri Lanka Government delegation, led by President Sirisena. Recent Canadian rejection of a petition by MP Gary Anandasangaree seeking government support for a legislative effort to remove sovereign immunity as a defense by States against genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and enforced disappearances is certainly something Sri Lankan-Canadian Action Coalition can be quite proud of. Canada also rejected Anandasangaree’s call to refer Sri Lanka to the Committee established under the Convention Against Enforced Disappearances under its Article 32. However, Sri Lanka should be cautious of on-going moves in different countries to pressure Sri Lanka over accountability issues.
The move to do away with the UK ban on the LTTE may give a turbo boost to separatist agenda. The UK’s Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission found that a 2001 decision to keep the ban on the LTTE was “flawed” and unlawful, and may open the way for the proscription to be lifted. It would be pertinent to mention that foreign governments tolerate various Diaspora groups because they can be used to exert pressure on targeted administrations. Nothing can be further from the truth that Western governments are interested in human rights. The world knows how US-British coalition cooked up Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) allegations to invade Iraq in 2003. Those Iraqis who cooperated with Western powers were hailed heroes. The US-UK project destroyed Iraq.
Sri Lanka needs a cohesive action plan to counter lies. Our failure has caused setbacks. In the absence of a tangible action plan, the country suffered badly. Sri Lanka remains in Geneva’s agenda it is proven by the fact that much celebrated Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva has been categorized as a war criminal on mere hearsay. Our failure to prove our innocence is even worse than glorification of terrorism.
Against flawed assumptions and false analogies
By Uditha Devapriya
“It is not enough to have a philosophy, you have to have the right philosophy.”
— Joan Robinson to the then Central Bank Deputy Governor, quoted by S. B. D. de Silva
Academics and students tend to subscribe to certain dominant ideological paradigms, the assumptions which underlie them, and the conclusions those assumptions lead them to. Given that universities, particularly local universities, have turned into knowledge factories preferring unconditional acceptance to critical thinking, false paradigms and analogies get perpetuated easily. They get embedded in school curricula, public forums, and of course the public sphere: as much in the lecture hall as in parliament.
Most of these paradigms delve into what the best way forward for the country should be, economically and politically, or what it should not be. For instance, the Vehicle Importers’ Association of Sri Lanka in a recent letter to the President cautions him against the belief that local manufacture and assembly is the answer to Sri Lanka’s mounting debt and foreign exchange crisis. The reason, whoever wrote that letter avers, is that the process “does not add any value to the country’s economy and is merely designed for tax evasion and higher profit margins.” Further, it warns that “setting up a vehicle manufacturing plant is a lengthy process with extensive planning and research and development.”
This is more or less a rehash of the line that advocates of free markets and free trade take up. The 2021 Budget, with its emphasis on import restrictions and concessions to local businesses, including manufacturers, compelled the same response from these advocates in Parliament. According to them, it favours import substitution over export orientation, cuts the country from the benefits of free trade, and isolates it from the rest of the world. The one leads to the other: if we manufacture locally, we lose out on trade. If we lose out on trade, we lose out on everything. Ergo, we mustn’t think or go local.
Intellectuals and commentators, especially in (but not necessarily limited to) the English language media, tend to extol the virtues of free markets and the evils of state-led growth. They seem to think that Sri Lanka for the most has been caving into the latter paradigm: the state has widened at the expense of the private sector. The solution, according to pundits and analysts, is to let the market decide, and to limit the government to the role of what Robert Nozick called a “Night-watchman”, formulating the rules of the game (the economy) without playing it (intervening in the workings of the economy). These pundits and analysts then point at societies that supposedly prospered under a night-watchman state: the Tiger economies of East Asia, the US, and Western Europe.
Now quite a lot of people believe this. They accept it as patently obvious: a tautology which, if denied, would lead to a contradiction. British philosophers of the 18th century made a distinction between two kinds of statements: “All thieves are criminals” and “Richard is a thief.” The first is self-evident: to deny it would be to defy logic. In other words it exists a priori: you know it’s true even if you don’t try to prove it. The second is not self-evident: you need empirical evidence to test its validity. Such statements of opinion require proof before one can know whether they are true or false. In the social sciences as in the hard sciences, then, critical analysis and logical reasoning are absolutely indispensable.
Unfortunately, much of the hype surrounding advocacy of free market principles and small government is built on a self-evident premise: people believe economic liberalisation will lead to growth, so they think it should be implemented in the country. Import tariffs must be reduced or preferably eliminated, export-orientation must replace import-substitution, let’s not think of local industrialisation or machine-manufacture yet because we’re an island, and let’s reduce the role of the state because, after all, in the US, Britain, and East Asia, it played a minimal role. Ignored in the emphasis on the success of the latter countries is the specificity of their historical experience.
Countries are not all endowed with the same levels or the same kinds of resources. Nor do they magically transit to free markets and small governments. To say economic liberalisation worked there and that owing to it these principles must be applied here is to assume that all it takes for a country to prosper is the implementation of policies to which those countries which are supposedly implementing them now resorted only after they had passed through certain stages. This assumption, quoting the late S. B. D. de Silva, is “a veritable non-sequitur of bourgeois scholarship.” Taking the earlier argument into consideration, such assumptions are paraded as tautologies when in fact they are not. What is missing from the argument, in other words, is the same thing its proponents accuse the other side, i.e. the Big Government protectionist lobby, of lacking: reasoned, analytical judgement.
The US got to where it is largely through its leap to industrialisation in the latter part of the 19th century. Much of the industrialisation which transpired at that time was financed, not by private initiative, but by the government: vast tracts of land running into millions of acres were handed over to railway companies. In Britain, the state played an important role in promoting local industry, smothering the up-and-coming textile mills of India. Discussions about the success of private sector led growth in these countries leave out or ignore the role played by colonial conquest, which happened to be financed by the government. “Is there any greater example of a rampant state than the English state in the world?” asked a friend at an Advocata Night-Watchman seminar years ago. “When you’re talking laissez-faire, they were basically robbing the seas around the world, installing slavery.” True.
In East Asia three distinct case studies can be identified: Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and Singapore. The foundation for Japan’s economy was laid down long before the war by the Tokugawa shogunate; it broke the stranglehold of petty traders, privileging industrial capital over merchant finance. Taiwan emerged from the war cut off from mainland China after the Communist takeover of 1949, yet American experts and economists who formulated that country’s transition to economic liberalisation didn’t embark on free market reforms right away: at first they oversaw rent reduction in 1949, the sale of public lands in 1951, and the commencement of a land-to-the-tiller program in 1953. Land reform limited ownership of paddy land to around 4.5 hectares, much lower than the 10-25 hectare limit imposed by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government in 1972. South Korea underwent roughly the same set of reforms before it attained first world status.
Singapore is a different case, not least because unlike other East Asian countries it lacked a rural hinterland in which a transition from agriculture to industry could take place. Yet there too the role of government intervention cannot be denied, economically and also politically. Milton Friedman once referred to Lee Kuan Yew as a “benevolent dictator”, the very same epithet Maithripala Sirisena used on Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014 after walking out from the then administration. In a 1993 essay, William Gibson described the country as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”, bringing to mind Jagath Manuwarna’s remark about Sri Lanka at a press conference in late 2014: “kalakanni Disneylanthaya.” Unlike Manuwarna’s statement though, Gibson’s essay was banned by the Singaporean government.
Liberals and classical liberals, and even left-liberals, tend to look up to Singapore and Yew’s reforms without realising that, as Regi Siriwardena observed, their achievements rested on the denial of democratic and human rights. Hence when one columnist, drawing wildly false analogies, argues that Singapore lacked a president, yet accomplished much (implying that Sri Lanka doesn’t need an Executive Presidency to get things done), he fails to acknowledge or chooses to ignore not only that Singapore had just one political party during its transition from third world to first, but also that it curtailed dissent in a way that makes any hounding of dissent in Sri Lanka today look haphazard in comparison; when asked why he refused to tolerate political cartoons, for instance, Yew bluntly told Fergus Bordewich that in Confucian society politicians ought to be seen as deserving of respect. To my mind no parliamentarian in Sri Lanka has ever said the same thing using Buddhism as justification. I suppose that has to do with how free the media here is compared to the media there: the latest World Press Freedom Index, for instance, ranks Sri Lanka at 127, and Singapore at 158.
The absence of a rural hinterland made it all the easier for Singapore’s government to enact capitalist reforms, since it could dispense with the need to abolish the kind of pre-capitalist social relations that existed in Taiwan and South Korea. Despite this, however, government intervention swept across the country; in the words of one economist, Singapore responded to international economic forces “through manipulating the domestic economy.”
Wage adjustments vis-à-vis a National Wages Council, a high savings and investment culture promoted via state enforced and state directed abstinence, the shift towards manufacturing in the latter part of the 1960s, the growth of public enterprises (believed to have accounted for 14% to 16% of manufacturing output), and tight government control of trade unions all played a part in bolstering its prospects. As Hoff (1995) noted, the paradox of Singapore’s economic success was that while investments came from the private sector, savings relied on the public sector. It is true that the contribution by foreign investment was significant, yet had Singapore not had a rigidly regulated economy where, for instance, compensation costs for production workers were one-third that of the US equivalent by 1993, it would not have become the third world to first success story it is touted as today.
The specific conditions under which the East Asian economies transformed from developing to developed, from inward-looking to outward-looking, make their emulation in other parts of the world untenable if not unlikely. At the time the governments of these countries were imposing reforms, Western Europe was struggling to recover from wartime recession and MNCs had not become as active in peripheral countries as they would decades later. Their geopolitical alignment with the US in the Cold War guaranteed the success of the East Asian Tigers. Moreover, these were hardly what one could call classical liberal societies: political authoritarianism cohabited with economic liberalisation. Even that dichotomy comes off as false when we consider that government involvement figured heavily in these economies, something that advocates of free markets don’t seem to be aware of.
There was another significant factor: the absence of a merchant capitalist class in these countries. The Tokugawa reforms extended to Korea and Taiwan after Japan turned them into granaries for its domestic needs. The US experts hired to oversee reforms in Korea and Taiwan facilitated, rather than reversed, these processes. In Sri Lanka and much of the Third World, by contrast, experimentation with free market classical liberalism has resulted in not only political authoritarianism, but also the defenestration of an industrial sector, leading to lopsided growth financed by a Pettah merchant class: rather than manufacturing goods, they are imported and resold. The call for “going local”, then, contrary to what intellectuals, institutions, and Opposition MPs think, say, and write, has to do with more than a hysterical call for a garrison state. COVID-19 has sharpened the contradictions of the global economy. The World Bank and IMF paradigm of outward-oriented development is clearly not the way to go about, if we are to resolve these contradictions.
False analogies, assumptions, and tautologies thus will get us nowhere. It is certainly ironic that think-tanks and institutions that privilege reason over guesswork end up indulging in selective scholarship. Even more ironic are statements uttered by academics from countries which passed through several stages before making the transition from a planned order to a free market advising us to bypass those stages when implementing policy reforms here. It takes not only foresight and hindsight, but also courage, to swerve from and dispute these assumptions, dig deep into history, and understand what drives the wealth of nations and the poverty of others. Free markets alone will not do, as even the history of countries where they flourish today tell us. Something else can, and something else must.
Footprints of Sarachchandra at Denison
UVPA delegation and Prof. Sandra Mathern-Smith meet Denison University President at his office, Granville Ohio USA. Photo Credit Dr Saumya Liyanage 2019.
By Dr Saumya Liyanage
This paper marks the 64th anniversary of the theatrical masterpiece, Maname written and directed by Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra and his legacy on Sinhala modern theatre.
I was busy, in early April 2019, with preparations to leave for the US for a two-week long creative arts residency at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. A group of academics, dance alumni and a few students from the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Modern Dance of the University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) and the Dept. of Fine Arts, University of Peradeniya, were invited to take part in the creative collaboration with the Department of Dance and Theatre at Denison University. Denison alumni and dancer Umeshi Rajeendra also joined the delegation. The project was titled ‘Challenging Borders: Embodied Cross-Border Encounters through Dance and Music’ funded by the Great Lakes College Association (GLCA) Mellon Foundation led by Associate Professor and Director of the International Studies, Taku Suzuki.
Our collaboration with the Department of Dance and Theatre at Denison is a long one. First, at my invitation, Sandra Mathern-Smith, Professor of dance at Denison visited the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Contemporary Dance at the UVPA Colombo in 2017. Since then I have had a privilege of working with a brilliant and enthusiastic academic community especially Prof. Sandra and Prof. Cheryl McFarren at Denison. These collaborations brought many academics to UVPA, provided professional and academic benefits to those who studied at the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Contemporary Dance. We arrived at the Denison University mid-April 2019.
Two weeks of intensive teaching, collaborative workshops, discussions, and rehearsals filled up our daily routine. Three academics, Dr Sudesh Manthilake, Senior Lecturer Asela Rangadeva and accompanist Ruwan Pushpakumara, and I stayed at a residential home, provided by the Denison University. It was a walking distance from the Dance department. Dancer teacher, Umeshi, our students, and alumni stayed at a two-storeyed house located at very close proximity to the Denison Performing Arts Centre.
During our stay at Denison, my close companion, Prof. Sandra Mathern-Smith asked me whether Prof. Sarachchandra’s daughter had taught at Denison. I wondered how it was possible that Prof. Sarachchandra’s daughter had worked at Denison. Prof. Sarachchandra had several daughters and I did not have adequate information to guess which one Prof. Sandra was referring to. But she somehow managed to get in touch with a professor at the Department of Religion Studies at Denison.
In the meantime, on that particular day, a lecture on Sri Lankan film and culture was organized by the Faculty of Social Sciences. I prepared my slide show and went to the lecture theatre. An enthusiastic group of students were waiting to see me and we had an hour of talks and discussions on Sri Lankan film and society. I was surprised that they had already watched some of the movies I had acted in. They had many questions to ask the teacher. Question, answers and discussions around key points took up at least two-thirds of the time allocated for the lecture.
Denison University has archived some paper articles published on Prof. Sarachchandra’s visit to Denison University in 1966. Images retrieved from Denison University Library archive.
Thereafter, I was invited to the Department of Religion, where I met John Cort, Professor of Asian, and Comparative Religion. He is a brilliant scholar in Jain religion studies, speaks several Indian languages, and translates poetry from those languages into English. His welcome was warm and cheerful. We had a long discussion about Asia, India and South Asian culture and religious traditions. With that conversation, I realised that as an Asian I had a lot to learn from him. While we were discussing theatre, I mentioned the name of Prof. Sarachchandra and his contribution to the modern Sri Lankan theatre.
I learnt that Prof. Sarachchandra had visited Denison in 1966. When Prof. Cort mentioned that, I was amazed because all this time I had been under the impression that I was the first one to visit Denison as a part of an academic exchange. Further, I could not believe the fact that 53 years back, a Sri Lankan scholar had visited Denison and stayed there for months to teach Asian aesthetics and Sri Lankan dance and drama.
Above all, I could not imagine how Sarachchandra went to Denison because, our experience to go to Denison was long and hectic though we have sophisticated flights and transport facilities. It is not simply getting in and out of a flight. It took more than 15 hours for us to get to our destination with our heavy luggage packed with costumes, masks, and drums. This man of letters had selected a place thousands of miles away from home and decided to share his expertise on Asian aesthetics, Buddhism, and Sri Lankan dance drama with academics and students at a place where liberal arts education flourished.
After a long discussion, Prof. Colt shared two important documents with me that the Denison University had archived. One was a paper article published on Sarachchandra’s visit as a Fulbright-Hays scholar. This old official document had been issued from the Committee on International Exchange of Persons Conference Board of Associated Research Council Washington D. C. It included the names of scholars coming from the Asia-pacific region and my attention was drawn to two of them. First one was Dr Sarachchandra and the other one was Dr Shanmuganathan Suppiah Senthe, a research officer in Biochemistry who used to work at Medical Research Institute in Colombo. But, unfortunately, I could trace neither his research work nor his affiliations.
UVPA – Denison contemporary dance collaboration choreographed by Umeshi Rajeendra. Photo credit Tim Black, Denison University Granville, Ohio 2019.
Sarachchandra was at the Denison University from February 1966 till December 1966. From January 1967 to March 1967, he was at Earlham College Richmond, Indiana. He was supposed to teach and conduct seminars on various subject and expertise he possessed including Buddhism, Hindu Philosophy, Indian Aesthetic Theory, Asian and Sri Lankan folk theatre and especially Indian classical music. The Fulbright-Hays document, to my surprise, refers to ‘demonstration on Sitar’. I wondered how he had brought his Sitar all the way from Sri Lanka. Denisonians must have benefited from his knowledge of aesthetic theories of Bharatha and other commentators. Sarachchandra did not visit Denison empty handed. As this Fulbright document says, for his lectures, he used slides and photos of Sri Lankan theatre and dance dramas, his own sound recordings that he had collected during his own personal visits to various parts of Sri Lanka.
I walked down to my resident hall, thinking how Sarachchandra must have been walking in these Denison trails, before me, talking to students and academics he had met in lecturer theatres, dining halls, and at his residence. I was thinking how the sound of his sitar must have echoed through the Denison theatre spaces, sometimes playing under leafy trees, surrounded by his followers and admirers bringing North Indian Classical music to an unknown world of listeners lived in Granville, Ohio. The Sri Lankan traditional masks he brought to Denison would have been an exotic treasure for Denisonians, slides consisted of ritual practices, dance, dramas, and audio recordings of numerous Sri Lankan rituals and folk songs would have been played and discussed over and over again at lecture theatres here. Now, I realise that I have not started this journey alone. My destiny has brought me here to realize this truth of my ancestral heritage. I remember that Eugenio Barba once said that ‘in my family of professional ethos there are no parents. There is an older brother, Jurek Jerzy Grotowski, Many uncles and relatives […] Ahead of them all, the two grandfathers: Stanislavski and Meyerhold’ (Barba 2003). I began to contemplate how I have lost the connection with my grandfather who has left his wealth behind unnoticed to me and to my siblings.
We had many workshops, seminars, and discussions not only at Denison. We also went to both Wooster and Kenyon colleges in the same region. It was a two-hour drive to Kenyon, which is similar to Denison; it is also a liberal arts University located in a remote country side. At Kenyon, I delivered a lecture on Sri Lankan film industry with special reference to the third wave of Sri Lankan cinema. The lecture was organized and facilitated by a Sri Lankan scholar working at the Dept. of English, Assistant Prof. Kathleen Fernando. Kathleen resided with her husband, a physicist, in a beautiful country house located in the corner of the 10 acres of the University land. Her husband was a friendly person who loved Sri Lankan cricket and pop music. Kathleen treated us with a Sri Lankan meal, basmati rice and many dishes. We in return entertained them with dancing and singing.
Professor Sarachchndra with sitar. Picture courtesy the Official Website of Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra (https://sarachchandra.org/index.php/about/)
Our final collaborative performance with Denison students was only a few days away. All my colleagues were still rehearsing at the theatre, preparing and doing final refinements to the pieces that we were developing for two weeks. I left a bit early to prepare a Sri Lankan meal for them. My colleagues, Prof. Sandra, Prof. Cheryl, Randy (Prof. Sandra’s husband), who drove me around throughout my stay at Denison, Prof. Ron Abraham, Prof. Lee and Prof. Christopher were to come for dinner that night.
The following morning, a Viber call woke me up. Several terrorist attacks had been carried out in some five-star hotels and prominent churches, killing hundreds of people who were celebrating Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Sarachchandra proved that theatre artistes and academics had a difficult world and a challenging journey ahead.
(The author of this paper wishes to pay his gratitude to Emeritus Professor John Cort, Denison University Granville, Ohio USA who provided useful archived material.)
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