ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53

To those of us who fail to speak up

With all the abductions, killings, election riggings, and bashing up of journalists, etc. taking place in Sri Lanka, we seem to have become desensitised to the irregular, shocking and criminal acts happening around us on a daily basis. In fact, many of us are turning a blind eye to what is happening.

We have now become no different to the Germans who lived during Hitler’s time. This dangerous state of apathy reminds me of a poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöllers, the World War II resistance hero who spent eight years in a Nazi concentration camp.

I have taken the liberty to adapt this poem to fit the Sri Lanka context:

(With apologies to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984))

“First they banned the sale of meat,
and I didn’t speak up, because I was a vegetarian.
Then they banned the sale of alcohol,
and I didn’t speak up, because I was a teetotaller.
When they shut down movie theatres,
I didn’t speak up, because I had a DVD at home.
When they censored television,
I didn’t speak up, because I didn’t watch TV.
When they imprisoned Tamils on suspicion of being terrorists,
I didn’t speak up, because I was not a Tamil.
When they shooed away the beggars and bashed up the gays,
I didn’t speak up, because I was neither gay nor a beggar. When they put away the prostitutes,
I didn’t speak up, because I was a married man who stayed cloistered at home.
I didn’t raise my voice, I didn’t make a fuss.
It’s funny there was no one left to notice, when they came for me.”

For his opposition to the Nazi’s state control of the churches, Niemöller was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, from 1937 to 1945. He narrowly escaped execution and survived imprisonment. After his imprisonment, he expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis.

Here is the original poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller:

“When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

“When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

“When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

“When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

“When they came for me,
There was no one left to speak out.”

By Shehan Jayawardene, Kelaniya

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