Ethnic Branding & Its Fallacies: Romesh faces Sinthujan

Guilt By Ethnicity – A Liberal Sinhalese Response


Dear Sinthujan, ….

I read with bemusement your letter to the “Sinhalese ally”. Coming after the arrest of the human rights activist Ruki Fernando, such condescension may be untimely given how devoted Ruki and other have been towards advocating for the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamil community as well as other minority groups. Notwithstanding the emotional reaction, the allegations and insinuations in your piece deserve a response. This is mine. The Contradictions of Being an “Anti Generalist” Generalist The tendency in your article to rely on generalizations of the Sinhalese community to oppose generalizations of the Tamil community is fascinating. On one hand, you assert that the Tamil diaspora is not homogeneous and that there is diversity amongst the Tamil community. On the other hand, you write that the imaginary Sinhalese ally “writes, narrates and produces history as if the Tamil community should be in a museum” (really?!), feels the Diaspora “destabilizes” the country, mutes Tamil voices, has no recognition of “positive human traits” of Tamils, thinks “uniformly” that the Diaspora is bad. This depiction hardly represents that of an ally. If as you write, the Sinhalese ally speaks, writes and thinks as if they know everything about the Tamil community but “in reality know nothing”, then by extending the same logic, you probably should reconsider how much you as a Tamil know about the Sinhalese community.

The Rise of the “Guilt by Ethnicity” Phenomenon The concepts underlying your missive is another example of the “guilt by ethnicity” litmus test that is all too common when dealing cross culturally on matters regarding Sri Lanka and its Diaspora, Tamil or otherwise. This litmus test at times may at times be designed by those who advance ancient prejudices using the language of academia. Alternatively the litmus test is designed as a way to protect the leadership decisions made by previous generations, regardless of how terrible those decisions may have been. But in either case, the litmus test generally is that people of a certain ethnicity and those who associate with those ethnicities all think the same and act the same and as such one must always be careful when interacting with those of certain ethnicities. As you yourself have identified, various branches of the Sri Lankan government are equally as adept in launching baseless, unsubstantiated and unwarranted accusations against the Tamil diaspora writ large. Take for instance the proscription by the Sri Lankan Government against Tamil diaspora organizations including the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC). As one of the preeminent organizations representing the interests of the Tamil community in Canada, the CTC admittedly has an ethnic bent to their advocacy. However at the same time the CTC has done its very best to act principally as evidenced by their opposition to the jailing of General Sarath Fonseka and the impeachment of the Chief Justice. While public criticism from the Canadian Tamil Congress of the Tamil Tigers is hard to find, such criticism is expressed privately. The CTC has been a force for tremendous good for many communities in Sri Lanka and continues to have great potential to play an integral role in assisting in the development of Sri Lankan communities. The proscription of the CTC and specifically the publishing of names and addresses of the Tamil diaspora is a disturbing development and in no way advances the cause of reconciliation, which is what all communities in Sri Lanka desperately need.

The Qualities of a Sinhalese Ally The “anti-generalist” generalist position and the rise of the Guilt by Ethnicity phenomenon likely arise from what social psychologists call the actor-observer asymmetry: where actors, when judging their own behaviour, attribute their actions in the particular situation than to a generalization about their personality, but when explaining the behavior of others are more likely to attribute their behavior to the others overall disposition rather than to situational factors. To combat these twin phenomenon’s, one must first accept and acknowledge that there is a problem: namely that the general situation facing the Sri Lankan people is unacceptable and unstable. Second, there must be a commitment to trying to transform the situation. It is this commitment that differentiates the ally, Sinhalese or otherwise, from non-allies. Third, there must also be a recognition that the allies cannot transform the situation by working either by ourselves or by working only with those that look like us and talk like us. For one, the larger socio-political-economic system is too complex to be grasped or shifted by any one person, organization, or sector. But two, we simply don’t have the luxury of choosing our allies/friends. It is because of these recognitions that the ally, Sinhalese or otherwise, is constantly open to and searching for ways to work together with other people. However in the case of Sri Lanka, most allies, Sinhalese and otherwise, find that the actors who need to work together are far too polarized to even try and approach this work head on. These actors are not even able to agree on what the problem is let alone the solution. Although there may be shared recognition that the situation is problematic, these actors attribute the problems to very different reasons. Despite the polarization, the ally, Sinhalese and otherwise, remains committed to transforming the situation. Allies do their best to act on a principled basis, expressing disagreements when necessary and doing our best to not hold differing opinions against the other allies. Allies do their best to acknowledge when mistakes have been made and take actions to rectify those mistakes. Allies defend each other from outsiders to the alliance. Allies forgive each other and are patient with each other. Allies recognize there are times to lead and to follow and struggle with when it is appropriate to do either. Allies acknowledge the potential limitations that our allies may have and do our best to not demand our allies do something which exceed those limitations. But perhaps most importantly, allies respect each other.

The Need for Multi-Dimensional Alliances In creating alliances, one does not necessarily deny the existence of the various sets of special advantages, rights and benefits (which some call privileges) each participant bring to the table. On the contrary, effective alliances use these differential privileges to mobilize actors across ethnic, generational, and geographical boundaries around specific issues. When need be, effective alliances challenge participants to either create futures where other communities can access those same privileges or alternatively undermine the structures supporting those same privileges. At no time do effective alliances do not hold each participant guilty on the basis of the privileges that they have accrued through no fault of their own. When participating in these alliances, many times friendships form. The fact of being friends may not be expressed publicly, but thats not because the allies arent; its just that it never happens. However friendship and alliance does not entail conformity; allies must be free to be authentic and allowing others to also be authentic as well. Moreover there cannot be a surrender of being ability to think. This means that like any good friendship, any alliance will have its share of disagreements in approaches and perspectives to take. Sometimes those disagreements grow so loud that they are held against each other, which results in quick disintegration of the alliance. But even though the alliance may have disintegrated, the authenticity of the individual people in the alliance and their commitment to transform the situation remains. There still remains room to rebuild, albeit in different forms and constitutions. The commitment of these people are not a façade. The Pretence of the Sinhalese Ally You write that the Sinhalese ally is a pretence. You construct the problem as exclusively a Tamil one; consequently working with Sinhalese allies is anathema. However in a world where the biggest challenges to the Sri Lankan people in the form of climate change, growing food insecurity and rising sea levels lie in the decades ahead, working in silos is no longer an option. The alliances between the Sinhalese and the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and around the world have become and will continue to be all the more important to encourage and to foster if only to adapt to changing global realities. In fact if the work the Sinhalese ally does with its Tamil friends provides water to one more family, provides education to one more child and empowers one community at a time, then the work the Sinhalese ally does is anything but a pretence, no matter how bigoted and condescending those against us continue to be.                   Sincerely, Romesh Hettiarachchi

P. S.   If this appears to be a personal attack, it is not intended to be. However I am not willing to resort to generalizations about the Tamil community in responding to the (false) racial constructs that you argued in your letter. The Tamil community is diverse as much as the Sinhalese is diverse. about either cannot be made.

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