Padraig Colman, from the Nation, 2 March 2012, where a different title was used
Post-modernist theory suggests the past is unknowable. There is no objective fact that we can call ‘history’. There is no way of deciding whether one representation of the past or another is true. Up to a point. Much of what we know is a garbled version of what historians have written. We might make mistakes in our search for the truth about the past, and new discoveries are always being made. That does not mean that the concept of truth itself is relative.
The narrative of what ‘happened’ can attract layers of interpretation and develop into nationalist myths which are exploited by demagogues. This happened in my own country where the true story of oppression gained accretions of myth, leading to further suffering and violence. Fortunately, Irish historians are questioning the foundation myths of Irish nationalism. For example, Roy Foster: “The construction of ‘advanced’ Irish nationalism at home relied on buttressing from abroad, and so did the creation of Irish identity.” The Irish diaspora kept alive the fairy tales. Sinister men rattled collection boxes in north London pubs ‘for the boys’.
Nationalists in Ceylon such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sinhalese Buddhist thinkers such as Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama Thero and the Tamil disciple of William Morris, Ananda Coomaraswamy, wrote of an ancient, highly developed Lankan civilisation. Another Sinhalese, Anagarika Dharmapala, wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber… We were a great people”. The Tamil political leader, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”
When I was still living in Ireland, I was relentlessly spammed by Sihala Urumaya. Some of the terminology carried disturbing echoes of Nazi propaganda. Phrases like ‘race extinction’ ‘dark conspiracy’; words like ‘motherland’; calls for public executions.
Someone calling himself Thanga wrote this recently on the Colombo Telegraph: “The question whether Prabhakaran is alive or dead is immaterial. Prabhakaran is part of Tamil history and part of Tamil psyche. He will be remembered by generations and generations to come. And liberation movements never die with their founders… Prabhakaran was a brave, self-less and dedicated leader who lived by example. A leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!”
Another blogger wrote: “While you are at the praying mood also pray that the Transnational Tamils will be merciful on the Sinhalese when they are done with the ground work for a bigger and more deadlier struggle against you, your racist Sinhalese sisters and brothers led by your majesty the King Mahinda”.
From the Sinhalese side someone made this comment about one of my articles for Le Monde diplomatique: “Tamils have not faced any ‘discrimination’ in Sri Lanka. Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE! Do some research before regurgitating terrorist propaganda.”
Is the politics of memory a good thing? We are warned that we will repeat past mistakes if we ignore history. Forgetfulness brings impunity, which is both morally outrageous and politically dangerous. Recollections that are shaped from the trauma of war and suffering, may be remembered in radically different ways by people who experienced similar events. The selectivity may also serve a political purpose, for example to justify the claims of one group over a competing group.
“Revenge doesn’t know how to choose between the guilty and the innocent”. Slavko Goldstein wrote that in his book, 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning. Goldstein is a Croatian Jew and describes the ethnic tensions during the Second World War in former Yugoslavia. Reviewing the book, the Serbo-American poet, Charles Simic relates it to the insane fight for a Greater Serbia in the 1990s: “Once more, the culprit was nationalism, that madness of identifying with a single ethnic group to a point where one recognises no other duty other than furthering its interests even if it means placing its actions beyond good and evil.”.
There comes a time when reconciliation has to take the place of endlessly rehearsing grievances from centuries back, as the Irish were prone to do. In Sri Lanka, the grievances are still present and sharp and will take skilful and sensitive action to manage.
Kamaya Jayatissa wrote recently in The Island about the need to: “define a common identity, one that will incorporate our socio-economic differences but also our religious, political, cultural and geographical similarities and differences, one that will ultimately give us a stronger sense of solidarity and tolerance through multi-ethnicity… to build an inclusive and homogenous identity, one that will include our diversity – both as individuals and as a nation.”
That will be difficult if the deafening and soul-numbing volume of hate-speak is not turned down.