ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 36

Who are we?

By Ayesha Inoon and Smriti Daniel

What does it mean to be Sri Lankan? If, for a moment, we could put aside the invisible barriers that divide us – language, race, and religion – then who would we be?

It is 59 years since Sri Lanka became a free and independent state. Yet, it seems our hearts and minds are still fettered with a thousand chains.

The rich heritage of the land that we have inherited lies forgotten, and so too the spirit of our ancestors who took such pride in being ‘Ceylonese’ and citizens of the country they loved.

What must we do to achieve once more, an identity that is truly Sri Lankan, and how can we pass it down to future generations? These are the very questions we asked several Sri Lankans...this is what they had to say.

Educationist, Deshamanya Jezima Ismail is the Chancellor of South Eastern University and has founded several organizations including MWRAF (Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum).

59 years of independence have passed and we have still not been able to achieve a Sri Lankan identity. Maybe the 60th year we’ll see the birth of a new Sri Lanka and people with a Sri Lankan identity. There is an inbuilt belief in minorities and majorities – this may be true quantitatively but I don’t think we should look at it this way. There has to be an absolute educational change and a change in the attitude of the people. What is needed for this identity is not just empty rhetoric but sincerity and commitment to our efforts to build a united nation.

In the community development work I do, coexistence is one of the significant features. We promote this because the theme of MWRAF is the promotion of a Sri Lankan identity in a united and pluralistic society. A community identity is also important in the fabric of society but a Sri Lankan identity even more so.

Unfortunately our curriculum has not given enough significance or importance to this. The teaching methodology has not been effective enough to make an impact on a student’s education. It is important that education in all forms, both formal and informal promote the concepts, attitudes and values that go into the making of a Sri Lankan identity.

Dr. Dennis Aloysius is Past President of the College of General Practitioners as well as the Sri Lanka Medical Association and Sri Lanka Paediatric Association and is the Founding Editor of Sri Lankan Family Physicians.

Of course we need a Sri Lankan identity and the lack of it will make the future bleak for our country. In my opinion unfortunately, language has become divisive factor. When we were younger some of us studied in the English medium and although this may have not been ideal, at the time we didn’t really feel that anyone was different. The divisions we have created for political mileage have been the cause of all our problems. We are uncomfortable in our multi-ethnic society. What’s the difference between a Sinhalese and a Tamil? There’s no difference! We’re all made from the same stock.

To achieve a common identity as Sri Lankans, I believe we must change the system of education, and make it compulsory for everyone to learn both languages and to be competent in each language.

Deshamanya Professor Emeritus J.B. Disanayaka has been teaching at the University of Colombo for over 41 years and has done much for the development of the Sinhala language.

Every nation ought to have its own identity in every sense – economical and cultural. Language is a symbol of cultural identity and among Sri Lankans people are identified by their language – Sinhala or Tamil. Both languages should be given their due place and brought on par with English.

Differences will always be there in different parameters. It’s not about an erasing of differences. The need is for people to understand and appreciate those differences. Ours is a wonderful society where many different groups coexist.

I am simultaneously a Sri Lankan and a Buddhist. We should maintain an ethnic identity within a larger Sri Lankan context. It is when we are able to appreciate the other man’s differences that we will be able to prosper as an independent nation.

Award-winning film director Tissa Abeysekera is also known as a political commentator and critic. He won the Gratiaen award for his book ‘Bringing Tony Home.’

Our biggest challenge is to forge or find a Sri Lankan identity, to discover an underlying thread that could weld together the various ethnic and religious groups that constitute modern Sri Lanka. Today, this unity can only be re-awoken by people who will strongly transcend the boundaries that divide us. Like India, our hope must be in the state and the thinker adopting a more secular approach. If we adopt this secular approach, especially where statehood is concerned, we are bound to find some common ground. Personally, I identify myself as a Sinhala Buddhist, but I wish to be part of a wider reality…to be with Christians, Hindus and Muslims who were born in this country and call them all comrades.

Attorney-at-Law and President of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), V. Anandasangaree received the 2006 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence.

When we gained independence for our country in 1948, I was a student and I remember the great rejoicing among us. At that time there was mutual respect among the Sinhala and Tamil people. Subsequently the unity of the country started eroding; people started talking about different communities, races and religious groups. It’s unfortunate that the country is now divided into various groups.

If we want to come back to the old days people must forget personal gains, or benefits for various groups of people – we must forget all that and live like brothers. Our country’s problem is not as bad as we think, I am always of the view that peace is knocking at our door.

I believe that the best solution for this would be a fundamental rights chapter to be included in our constitution and any violation should be strictly punished. If we can achieve equal rights for everyone, we can achieve a common Sri Lankan identity.

Dr. Hema Goonatilake is an accomplished scholar, researcher and lecturer in Buddhist studies and women’s studies. She was also a former senior advisor to the government of Cambodia and UN expert.

Sri Lanka has been one of the few countries in the world to have a continuous historical identity for more than 2,500 years. I have worked in many countries and cultures for over 20 years, and it is partly from that experience I speak when I say that the reality is that our identity as a nation is a composite of the majority Sinhalese culture and the other minority cultures.

I feel strongly that harmonious coexistence is possible for the people in this country as it has been for much of its history. In the meantime, we should have the strength to forge our own identity without becoming a shuttlecock for foreign forces.

The current situation of conflict is largely due to a terrorist outfit. I have lived in Jaffna and know how friendly the people there are.Once terrorism is removed, people will open up and interact well with each other.

We have lived peacefully together in the past, and we will live peacefully together in the future. One needs only look at our beautiful tapestry of religions, races and cultures to appreciate that Sri Lanka has a unique heritage. See how very well Wellawatte is developing with all those new Tamil migrants. We must really be proud of it all.

Chandra Jayaratne is a former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and was named Sri Lankan of the Year in 2001 by the LMD publication.

It is my fervent hope and sincere wish that the civil society of Sri Lanka, led by the grass root village people, will drive the nation’s leaders in governance, business, academia and society into assuring that “Development of Sri Lanka” is achieved under “A Common Sri Lankan Identity”, where the binding vision is similar to the building of a strong and long term sustainable house (“The House of Sri Lanka”), with sustainable peace, harmony, stability and territorial integrity as its foundation.

As its pillars let it have:

  • Equitable economic and social growth across the country
  • Law, order, human security and justice
  • Human rights, civic liberties, freedom of expression, equality, equity
  • Equal access to the national infrastructure
  • Sustainable environment and ecology
  • Transparency, good governance and meritocracy

And finally, for its roof - the binding set of values around the nation Sri Lanka.

Artist Anoma Wijewardene has exhibited her mixed media and oil paintings all over the world. Her most recent work was ‘Quest' a multi media trilingual exhibition.

What is identity…especially when it is the identity of a nation state? Is it a fixed, imposed idea? Or is it a mutable, ever evolving journey…. with innumerable possibilities and horizons? Ten people looking at the one painting experience relate to it in ten different ways, and similarly perhaps there are as many identities as there are landscapes, colours, races and religions in a land. Can the fragmentation and disconnectedness of years of civil strife be denied? Is this not also our reality, and even our identity? How does this impact on our perceived identity or lack of one?

We have a strong sense of history, we have our cultural roots, which underpin the changes, but if a culture is boxed, labelled and frozen can there be room for expansion and growth? Is there more to be achieved by being inclusive rather than excluding the ‘other’. While accepting the inevitability of globalization and interdependence, our own unique contribution can be a greater understanding of the value of individuality, diversity and our own particular history; and finally, embracing our common links with our South Asian neighbours and the wider world.

Jean Arasanayagam is an award winning novelist and poet, whose works have been translated into several languages, making her one of the few resident Sri Lankan English writers to be published internationally.

What I feel is that we have to have a country to belong to, but I must emphasize the importance of the individual identity. I’m very proud to say that I’m Sri Lankan, but, I am also Jean Arasanayagam. As a society we need to have acceptance of this individual identity, with all its quirks, idiosyncrasies, and uniqueness of experience. We have the right, the right to be ourselves.

But only as long as we don’t endanger, threaten or impose, and I emphasise this, impose our will on others. We must be especially mindful and aware of the language used by the people we live with and are surrounded by in this multicultural context. In addition, I think you have to listen and give credence to those who bear the truth. The truth has to be encountered. We must have truth in utterance, in behaviour, in action and in our very existence.

K.H. Sunil, shopkeeper in Colombo:I feel that our Sri Lankan identity has been destroyed by the open economic system. We have lost our ability to think independently or to maintain our originality. We should take more pride in our Sri Lankan uniqueness and try to build and strengthen it. Perhaps we started in this country as one race, but now we are a pluralistic society and we should appreciate each other and find common goals. We have to start thinking that we are all one.

Niranjan Silva, bank officer: It is important to be able to say, I’m Sri Lankan, not Sinhalese or Tamil. We shouldn’t be racist. If we could just learn to live together peacefully in this country…this is not the only country where there are many different communities. For instance in the States or the U.K they all live together.

Rozanne V. and Prabasha Kuruwita, teachers at Royal Institute: We should be willing to speak and listen to other people’s ideas. The young generation especially knows very little about our history or the importance of celebrating Independence Day. They don’t have real feeling for the country; instead they are attached to the west. I think we should really concentrate on the children. We are teachers, and especially people like us, can really help change these children’s attitude. We have a lot to learn from the past when heroes like Weera Puran Appu and ancient kings did good things for the country.

Dileni Perera, 16-year-old schoolgirl: Although we celebrate Independence Day there is no true sense of independence among Sri Lankans. We are always trying to imitate other cultures; we are not true to ourselves. The national spirit that created heroes such as Weera Puran Appu is no more. We don’t even maintain our original languages, Sinhala or Tamil, the common language we use nowadays is ‘Singlish’. We need to go back to our roots, to find out what makes us truly Sri Lankan and try and build that among us again.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.