Reading Roberts on Sri Lanka’s Socio-Political Ailments: A Letter to Roberts

Drawlight, 10 June 2020

Sir: I have read through and consider this an excellent summary of the key issues,[1] particularly for those who are not very knowledgeable about history and of the sort who are busier protesting matters that have no relevance to them (the current trend among especially the youth in Sri Lanka on social media bandwagoning on BLM issues in the US simultaneously ignoring the more immediate realities of fellow Sri Lankans engaged in modern day slavery in the Middle East and other countries).

In my undergraduate years I recall being exposed to the work of Paul Collier, development Economist at Oxford, and also the counterviews of some of his critics. However, one theme that seemed universal in that school of thought was that the success of a developed society depends on trust. I do not necessarily mean the sort of trust associated with entrusting your spouse to another man/woman’s care and going off to get about your business, but trust in society at a whole, together with its attendant systems including legislature/judiciary in genuinely serving the needs of society above those of the individual.

Unfortunately, my experience in Sri Lanka has been of a rather inverted model of trust, wherein there is no culture of trust because it is on a continuous unvirtuous/vicious cycle where the need of the individual trumps all else – come hell or high water. Again, my experience in the construction industry was a good microcosm of the ‘every-man for himself and to hell with us all’ that eventually is reflected across broader society. A policeman recently solicited a bribe from a friend to get a simple matter attended to – the negotiation was based on the price of arrack having risen and that the ‘charges’ must be commensurate. Now why would a citizen ever trust the police when this is the norm? Similarly, why should one expect the policeman, probably having been driven to this ‘norm’ through the inequality and inefficiency of his own system that keeps his salary low and his career prospects dim, ever trust the administration? And why would administrators ever trust a citizenry that would drop them like a hot iron the moment the free political handouts stopped coming in? And on and on it goes.

I find, particularly more so among the fellow Sinhalese, that culture of ‘pulling up the ladder behind you’ being very prevalent – this is through my observation of the Sinhalese both in Sri Lanka and in diasporas in several countries. I have seen less of this culture among the Tamil and Muslim communities, both of which I have interacted closely with from a young age – perhaps that in term drives bitterness and resentment among the majority. So we are far away from reconciliation until we get to grips with these basic realities.

I recently told an African American good friend of mine in the US the following: ‘it would have been nice had George Floyd’s local community helped him get off drugs, stop doing crime and get in touch with his kids whilst he was still alive. How strange that they care about him more now than they did then?’ and that there are 6 or 7 Indian CEOs (most not born in America) on the Fortune 500 list, and only 4 black CEOs (all born in America). What did the Indian community do right that the Afro-American community did not?

His response was to send me a video clip (which I haven’t watched in full due to lack of time) along with the comments ‘this is why the black community can never progress – we pull down, not up – there is no cohesion, not even on the right to be black: Video: Backlash emerges behind Cynthia Erivo’s role in ‘Harriet’


Drawlight’s Response by Email to the Youth Rotary of Colombo East’s Zoom Session entitled

Battle for Harmony” held on 28th May evening in Colombo[ii]

I was able to listen to segments of the discussion in the midst of some other work – including your preamble, your discussion on the role of ‘vengeance’ and your closing statements (I may have missed others). I will go back and listen to the recording that is on the site later on. I found the presenters interesting overall, although I am curious as to how this particular mix was arrived at (speaking from a professional background perspective, not a diversity perspective) and I am not certain it had enough emphasis (indeed, I am not aware that all the presenters were equally aware of, or if they were, chose to eschew the topic) of the deeply ingrained cultural, religious, and political factionalism that feeds into this ‘cycle of vengeance’.  

Your discussion on the Navy chap from Rathgama[iii] reminded me of my many years working alongside the construction industry in Sri Lanka, which is probably the only industry where you can see the brightest minds in engineering working alongside those from the most underprivileged backgrounds from remote parts of Sri Lanka. Yet this ‘institutional’ cycle of vengeance pervaded every strata regardless of  background or education unfortunately, I felt I was more sensitive to it than many other educated folk and lamented that the hoped for ‘reconciliation’ remains a pipe dream in this context.

I am reminded of something I once came across when working through Isaac Deutscher’s three-part  biography on Leon Trotsky — someone whose ideology I do not hold to the level of adulation some of your subjects in the ROHP (Bala Tampoe and Colvin R in particular),[iv]  but whose writings as both a theorist, a journalist, and an early critic on the dangers posed by Hitler and National Socialism are excellent reading material even today.

I believe this was from the 1930s: “Today, not only in peasant homes but also in the city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century  the tenth or thirteenth [centuries]. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcism. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet; fascism has given them the banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from  the national organism in the course of the unhindered development of society comes out today gushing from  the throat: capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism’.

In some ways, perhaps he [Deutscher] may as well have been writing about Sri Lanka today.

I must now read Prof Gananath’s article in full — thank you for reproducing it on your blog……………

ERRATA, A Note, 13 June 2020: “One correction I wish to make is that the quote regarding Trotsky is actually by Trotsky, and not by Isaac Deutscher. I came across it in the autobiography, but as I do not have access to the books at this time I was only able to find the wording online. The context quote was from one of Trotsky’s writings on the developments in Germany and fascism in particular in the early 1930s, titled ‘The Rise of National Socialism’. Apologies as my hurried e-mail sent via mobile phone evidently was not clear on the author.”

“Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.”


[i] The session was entitled “Battle for Harmony.” The compere was Amavi Banagoda and the participants were Mrs. Jerusha Crosette Thambiah-De Silva, Dr Vinye Ariyaratne, Russell Arnold, Prashan de Visser, Michael Roberts and Shamil Mohamad. The organiser and ‘engine-driver’ was Fabian Schokman.

[ii] The session was entitled “Battle for Harmony.” The compere was Amavi Banagoda and the participants were Mrs. Jerusha Crosette Thambiah-De Silva, Dr Vinye Ariyaratne, Russell Arnold, Prashan de Visser, Michael Roberts and Shamil Mohamad. The organiser and ‘engine-driver’ was Fabian Schokman.

[iii] The reference here is to Vijithamuni Rohana de Silva, the naval rating at a guard of honour for Rajiv Gandhi, who attempted to brain Gandhi for enforcing a huge loss of face in July 1987 by braining him with the butt of his rifle (see Roberts 2018).

[iv] ROHP refers to the Roberts Oral History Project conducted between 1965 and 1969 in UK and Sri Lanka wherein 153 administrators and politicians were interviewed. These oral records and ancillary scripts can be accessed by visiting the Adelaide University web site

and then clicking on the link to Adelaide Research and Scholarship under Series 1 – Digital versions.


Gananath Obeysekere: “Sorcery and Premeditated Murder: The Canalization of Aggression,” Ethnology 1975 reproduced in 2020 also at

Michael Roberts: draft of  “Honeycombed with Societal and Political Fissures: Sri Lanka Now & Ever  Before” – being a Memorandum on Sri Lanka’s society and polity with an eye on radical reform, 10 June 2020 ….. now available at

Michael Roberts: “Clobbering Rajiv Gandhi as Chastisement in 1987: A Guti Dheema,” 8 August 2018,

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One response to “Reading Roberts on Sri Lanka’s Socio-Political Ailments: A Letter to Roberts

  1. Not all Back people are the same. ADOS (American Descendants of Slaves) asserts that the gains won for American Blacks were won by people descended from African slaves. They assert that the definition of black, in terms of who should reap social benefits, ought not merely based on skin pigmentation.

    BLM is a different question. Their case is based on how police violence affects black people, and the taking of black lives by the police. BLM does not concern itself with black on black homicide, which far outnumbers black lives lost at the hands of white policemen.

    The factor which goes unnoticed in these cases is generational trauma. The chances of success or even escape are slim to none for blacks for whom the generational trauma of enslavement persists in their lives. For someone who has no ancestors who climbed out of poverty, or got an education or trade or made it into the middle class, the chances of a decent life for him or her might as well not exist.

    The lack of hope, and the culture of victimhood (which does have very deep roots in real terms) then leads to lives blighted by lack of education, social skills, drugs and crime. The anger and resentment resulting from deprivation and hardship becomes the dominant drive in social movements such as BLM.

    It is not surprising that human beings who feel they have been born into a trap from which they cannot escape react with violence and anger.

    During colonial times, the majority of Sinhalese people might have felt the same. The high-born, high caste, English-educated elites rose to positions of power and authority, whereas the the rest, for whom the benefits of a Western education was out of reach, languished in the bottom rungs. Their anger and resentment resulted in the ousting and eviction of the Burghers, and was followed by state-supported efforts to marginalize Tamils.

    Now the Burghers are gone, the remaining Tamils have been put in their place, but still the teeming masses remain at the bottom. Their situation will worsen when the Chinese become the new foreign overlords of this debt-ridden, over-populated island.

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