Preamble: In September 2010 I was invited to participate in a three-cornered discussion on ABC Radio on the remaining Burgher community in Sri Lanka seen in historical perspective. This short discussion was mediated gently by Philip Adams and involved Alexa Schulz in California, Stephen Labrooy in Sri Lanka and yours truly in Adelaide. It arose out of the film documentary Tropical Amsterdam created by the German American chronicler Alexa Schulz. I had not seen the film at that point and I presume that my participation arose from my central hand in the text and visual imagery in People Inbetween: The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s (Ratmalana, Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha Publications, 1989). Since my name leads many people to mistake me as a Burgher let me note here that I am not Burgher, but “Kāberi” (Black, Kaffir) on my patrilineal side and an achcharu liquorice all sorts in bloodlines in ways that render me eminently thuppahi (mixed and thus low and alien to the native soil).
The film has since been shown at the Galle Literary Festival in January 2012 and apparently went down well according to a note sent to me by Stephen Labrooy. Alexa was kind enough to send me a copy. It so happened that another writer living in USA, Hassina Leelarathna, wrote an essay on the film in the Sunday Leader and I immediately posted this work in the thuppahi site in May 2011. This essay has suddenly come alive with extended blog comments initiated by Mark Labrooy in Melbourne.
The commentary reveals some empirical details re migrant movements, but is more significant in revealing threads of sentiment and interpretations of the Sri Lankan past that are controversial. In my reading they display bitterness as well as prejudice. In this manner they indicate that extremism is not confined to Sinhalese and Tamils. Readers should extend a review of this discussion to the comments penned by Charles Schokman and Ivor Kelaart[i] (also in Melbourne) when they read an article by Professor Kevin Dunn “Perceptions of Racism in Australia: Indians and Lankans most victimized– says Kevin Dunn” = http://thuppahis.com/2011/09/21/racism-in-australia-indians-and-lankans-most-victimized-says-kevin-dunn/.
I refrain for the moment from presenting more extended commentary on the historical interpretations (with all their slants and distortions) voiced by those who have been moved to enter their opinions in the public realm. The views expressed are thought-provoking and should encourage debate and contestation. It is with this hope that I have extracted them from the deep recesses of a site that is little visited so that a wider public can ruminate on the experiences and interpretative readings of the several Sri Lankans who have taken the trouble to present their views in my thuppahi site. Michael Roberts
1. A Comment from Mark Labrooy in Melbourne, writing as a “damned proud Ceylon Burgher,” 1 January 2012.
I found the movie nothing more than a somewhat humourous snapshot of a small Burgher community coming to terms with the reality of living in a country that has unquestionably deteriorated since independence.
Your review doesn’t mention the downward spiral the country went into since “Sinhala Only” was introduced around 1958. I know I was there as a child but old enough to know what was happening. It was a wonderful childhood with many indelible memories.
As for Burghers regarding themselves as an elite? I agree they did and they thought themselves above the “natives”. But this is no more so than many high birth Sinhalese who also regard themselves as socially upward of the native class as you call them. This is true to this very day as I have relations, who are Sinhalese, living in Sri Lanka who are clearly a cut above the rest. They are highly educated and live in a socio-economic layer that is higher than the average. So what is the difference between that and the social layering one finds in society generally no matter where one goes, even China?
The Burghers of Ceylon left the country in droves at the introduction of “Sinhala only”. As the socialist government of the day were hall-bent on constricting (or restricting) opportunity to the Sinhalese majority the Burghers had no option but to uproot themselves. Here you will find the origins of the Tamil Eelam movement.
Sinhala only is a very sad vestige of modern Sri Lankan history. It was political opportunism. Why I ask have so many Sinhalese migrated to live in America, Britain, Canada and Australia? Why I ask do the Sinhalese who can afford it send their children to study in these countries? Have they come to terms with Sinhala only as an unmitigated disaster?
Its a paradox that not many Sinhalese like to address.
2. Response from Stephen Labrooy in Sri Lanka, 27 January 2012
Whilst I agree in the main with Mark LaBrooy’s comments, the main aspect of Sinhala Only which was unpalatable to the Burgher community was the abolition of the English stream in schools. It was a pre-requisite for us that our children were educated in our mother tongue- English.(A not unreasonable requirement !). I firmly believe that the vast majority of us would have stayed here had that element been removed from the Sinhala Only bill. Yes the bill was political opportunism at its worst, but in a way it answered a call from the vast majority of this country (non-English speaking) who felt that they were totally “left out” after independence. The right decision would have been to make all three languages — Sinhala, Tamil and English — the official languages of Sri Lanka and at the same time build up the English stream in all village schools. At a very late stage, it has dawned on the Sinhala people – only in the last two decades or so- that far from being the beneficiaries of Sinhala Only, they are in fact its greatest victims! Only English speakers can step into the top positions outside of Government Jobs- which do pay well. Those students who have struggled to get nto University and were entirely Sinhala Educated now had to learn English in order to be able to read their text books! Steps are now being taken by the current administration to try and address this problem. People castigate SWRD Bandaranaike for this lamentable situation, but in my opinion J.R Jayawardene was by far the bigger culprit. Here was a man who had achieved virtual dictatorial powers in 1977, had all the power necessary to put things right in our education system (when we still had teachers in this country who could teach in English) and did nothing. Sometimes, it would appear that the sins of omission are greater than those of commission!
3. Response from Mark Labrooy, 27 January 2012
Hi Stephen, Mate, you and I are on the same page…I think!
Thanks for your reply. You will obviously look at the situation over the last 60 plus years from a “local” Burgher perspective. On the ground so to speak, or, as the movie portrays, a man who came to Australia for a while and then returned to SL but with a close affinity to what was happening on the “street”.
I look at the matter from an outside perspective. I know the hardship my parents went through in taking a family with six children to a miserable bloody existence in South London for the first eight years 1962 to around 1970. My Dad left a directorship with Ceylon Fibre Industries for the sake of the family. All of us have come through, tougher, wiser and with no regrets of our parents decision to leave Ceylon.
I never for a moment thought about why my parents took us away. Now, as a man of mature years I am asking questions. In learning the truth I am quite bitter about what happened.
Stephen, I will leave a final comment: Isn’t it ironic that the incubators and implementers of Sinhala only, namely, Philip Gunawardene, Colvin R. De Silva, S.A. Wickremasinghe, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Peter Keuneman ALL completed their education in Universities in the UK and America…in English.
I lament the fact that a Burgher (Keuneman) was involved with this motley crew.
4. Riposte from Podinilame Dissanayake in USA, 28 January 2012
I saw ‘Tropical Amsterdam’ at a showing in Los Angeles and I think the filmmaker has done a good job of capturing the lives of the ‘conquerors’ whose roles have now been reversed. The film does not make a pretense of being a historical epic about the rise and fall of the Burghers in Sri Lanka.
I have no doubt that Mr La Brooy had a great childhood growing up in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the majority of the people, didn’t. His ‘indelible memories’ don’t extend to the vast majority of the “conquered” commoners who for centuries under colonial rule faced degradation, including massacres (Uva Wellassa and Kanda Udarata). I’m not sure if he’s even familiar with that aspect of our history. The usage of the mother tongue was prohibited in schools and jobs did not come by without English, which education was not available to the commoner. One had to be christened or swear slave allegiance to the colonial master to succeed: “……many high birth Sinhalese who regarded themselves as socially upward” as stated by Mr La Brooy, came from such stock and they were a minute percentage of the Sinhala community.
Imagine a justice system where judgments are passed and the accused are clueless about the judicial proceedings and their rights because they don’t know the language in use? Such was the fate of the Sinhalese under colonial rule, as well depicted in Leonard Woolf’s “Baddegama.” If English was a barrier for social upward mobility for the vast majority of the populace, why was it wrong to have been supplanted with the language of the majority?
As for LaBrooy’s sweeping statement that Sri Lanka is “….a country that has unquestionably deteriorated since independence…” I challenge him to be specific and submit indicators of deterioration. Is it per capita income, quality of life indicators, or what? In fact, far from being worse, for the majority of the ‘conquered,’ things have vastly improved. You only have to look at the makeup of our cricket teams, or the dramatic career of an athlete like Susanthika Jayasinghe, for evidence.
LaBrooy and others who carry the “Sinhala only” vendetta must see it for [what] it is: a passing phase in a nation trying to find its wings after independence. It may have been political opportunism but one that gave space to the political and social advancement of a once “conquered” community that was suppressed because of the English barrier. The children of the post-independence era, having gotten their opportunity through “swabasha,” have now moved into the 21st century. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates commented in 2009: “I am optimistic that the country is poised for greater economic growth and development, and much of that will be fueled by the use of software and the power of IT. Sri Lanka’s high literacy rate, at over 90%, and its high standards of education and healthcare give it a strong economic foundation. The country’s IT literacy rate is nearing 20%, which represents a significant jump from 8% only a few years ago.” These opportunities are available to all Sri Lankans, and they don’t have to change their religion or speak a language that their parents don’t understand. English has been taught continuously in the past 60 years in schools and its importance as a link to global opportunities has never been minimized.
Mr La Brooy’s attempt to borrow from the LTTE bill boards are shameful. The seeds of separatism by interested political figures were sowed prior to independence, very much prior to the Sinhala Only act.
Finally, Labrooy’s argument that Sinhala parents are sending their kids abroad ”having come to terms with Sinhala only as an unmitigated disaster,” is nothing less than laughable. US immigration stats show that between 2000 and 2010 over 1,400,000 people from Europe, including 200,000 from the UK became permanent residents or citizens. That doesn’t account for the number of people who attempted but were not able to gain legal residence. What does that tell you? That they have all come to terms with their native languages as an ‘unmitigated disaster’ or are they seeking better opportunities just as the human race has been doing through migration since before the so-called ‘dawn of civilization?’ Can one conclude that the recent wide interest in China, by those living in western nations (mastering Mandarin and Cantonese and handling chop sticks) is because they have come to terms with “English only” as an unmitigated disaster or because they see trade and other advancements?
I must add that there were a few advanced colonial-era educators who did try to give a place to the Sinhala language in their schools. One such was Rev A.G. Fraser who as early as in the 1920’s included Sinhala in the curricula at Trinity College, Kandy (my alma mater). The much-revered Rev. Fraser is credited with uplifting Trinity from a provincial to a national school with his far-sighted policies which were not always in line with those of the colonial masters. He was by no means a political opportunist!
5. Response from Mark Labrooy, 29 January 2012
Sir or Madam, Let me take issue with several of the points you raise:
The Burghers were not “conquerors” as you put it. They didn’t conquer anyone. They were a relatively small group of people of largely mixed descent that chose to remain after the Dutch were ousted from Ceylon. The contemporary definition of a Ceylon Burgher also includes people of British and Portuguese origins.
The Burghers didn’t “rise” to a particular social class in Ceylon. Their position was pre-ordained as a result of being able to work with the British who were the last conquerors of the island. The Burghers had a predilection to mix and work with all groups which is why the British put them into administrative and supervisory roles. Mind you the British were staunch separatists in a social sense as depicted in the film.
The Burghers haven’t “fallen” as you put it. We proudly evangelize our origins from our new countries of domicile and would add that we now contribute substantially to Sri Lankan tourism revenue. Many Burghers have risen to great prominence, too numerous to give a blow by blow account here.
So, I will confine your comments to mere Burgher xenophobia.
The use of the mother tongue was NOT prohibited in schools. I went to St Peters College, Colombo up until 1962 where they had both English and Sinhalese streams. The English stream was taught Sinhala as a second language and the Sinhalese stream was taught English as a second language. I understand that all the major schools had the same mot certainly during my early years.
Ananda and Nalanda colleges were schools where the students were taught exclusively in Sinhalese. Please get your facts straight.
Post independence but more specifically post 1956 the country went into conflict with the Tamils. “Sinhala only” was the root cause. The war came to an end last year with the tally of dead of somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 people. If that ALONE isn’t deterioration then I’m sorry say you are living on another planet. The cost of the war to the country in social and economic breakdown was massive. There was virtually nil foreign investment in the country.
I visited SL in 2006. I found Colombo to be a filthy city on a par with Cairo. Householders were happy to pile their garbage in front of their own homes. When the pile got too big they threw their rubbish into the canals or the railway lines. Yes, I walked from the Bambalapitiya Flats (where I used to live) to Kinross along the railway line and couldn’t believe my eyes. And moreover, the average person on the street couldn’t give a hoot. He/She had no pride of place. In my day there was some rubbish around but not to the extent of what it was in 2006. THAT is deterioration.
Today, you have white van kidnappings, journalists who are hounded and killed for publishing a particular view in a so-called democratic country. The leader of the Opposition is put in jail. THAT is deterioration.
The Sinhala Only Act was a brutal act of xenophobia. It led to Tamil and Burgher job-holders having to re-apply for their own jobs but now having to prove proficiency in Sinhala. Fact not fiction. Sinhala only was the brain-child of a Communist Sri Lankan elite all overseas educated in ENGLISH. See my earlier blog. The policy was blatant ethnic separatism, and that gave rise to the big riots of 1958 where Tamils were bludgeoned on the street by Sinhalese thugs. Fact not fiction. I know because the Bamba Flats was a place of refuge for many Tamil families and their friends and relatives. They were protected by a vigilante group consisting of Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher people.
As for the SL cricket team, the last time I looked they got a well-deserved hammering at the hands of the South Africans. The Jayasinghe lady did very well in one of the Olympic events and was a creditable performance, but coming third is not the standard one should aspire to.
[i] Kelaart’s comments were sent o Victor Melder and reached me by email:“I wonder how Kevin Dunn accumulated his facts. I take umbrage at what was published in the Australian. Guess the professor and Stuart Rintoul wanted their 5 minutes of fame! My details – scant as they may be
I was born in Ceylon some 81 year ago and have lived amongst Australians for over 56 years. I have always had a healthy respect for them and have not found then racists. Being a Burgher helped because when we migrated we sought assimilation. We prided ourselves on being good citizens of our new country. That was our mindset!
I left Ceylon (as a 25 y.o.) because I didn’t like what was going to happen in that island once the nationalists took over. By God I wasn’t wrong! Remember the cronies of SWRD and the Sinhala only stupidity? I worked in the banking sector for over 30 years (1956-1985 – the last 10 as a Branch Manager of 2 NAB branches) and was accepted by all kinds of Australians, friends, sports people and customers alike.
Talk about racism – Sri Lanka today must be close to the apex – perhaps a like study by our esteemed (?) professor would reveal this. Does he know that some Federal parliamentarians today are requesting the PM to speak up on the massacres that happened in that sad country? Does he know of the insults Burghers were subjected to soon after Independence?
That’s why we left in droves so that our children would have a better chance in life and never suffer those indignities. For all the years I have lived here, I was never victimised because of the colour of my skin. In Australia men and women are taken at face value but if migrants have a working knowledge of the English language, then I’m certain they would never suffer any sort of discrimination. But then that is left to the individual.
Wonder how it was that Burgher migrants in the 1950s through 1970s held high positions within the various State Governments? We were not soft, like some migrants are today, we came to Australiaof our own accord hell bent to do well and we did!
I see migrants from Sri Lanka today with a chip on their shoulder, still hankering for the life back home. I consider them misfits and the sooner they return to their island home the better!
I cannot talk for the Indians. They are a race of people whose new arrivals in Australia have been in the papers for all the wrong reasons recently so I’ll leave it at that. It is so easy for some nonentity to put forth findings on racism – I believe their views are very narrow. But then, the present crop of migrants have quite different work ethics to us older people.
Sincerely, Ivor Kelaart