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Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (1995 | 2009).

Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail (eds.)

Now in a 2nd Edition, with a new preface, and a comprehensive index.

"Stimulating... Excellent..." -- Journal of Asian Studies. 

"Will be of great value to all those concerned with... nationalism [and] violence..." -- Arjun Appadurai.

"...[F]orces us to think about Sri Lankan symbolic and social formations in an entirely novel fashion." -- Gananath Obeyesekere

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« Reconfiguring Regional Power | Main | Forgive, but do not Forget »
Tuesday
Feb212012

Paradise Lost?

I have been asking myself, again and again, my question of last week, and other weeks in different ways – why is there a demand for an inquiry into the final stages of the civil war, but no demand for an inquiry into previous moments of the war. In fact, when the evaluation of the Norwegian peace efforts was published, I asked a similar question; why was the lack of a war crimes inquiry in 2002 not criticised now as a major failing of that peace process. There has been no reply.

I have been asking myself, again and again, my question of last week, and other weeks in different ways – why is there a demand for an inquiry into the final stages of the civil war, but no demand for an inquiry into previous moments of the war. In fact, when the evaluation of the Norwegian peace efforts was published, I asked a similar question; why was the lack of a war crimes inquiry in 2002 not criticised now as a major failing of that peace process. There has been no reply.


There would not be a reply, because the answer is too grotesque to say out aloud, even though it is quite obvious. Way back in 2002, the ‘government’ as it were comprised a group that was in an ultimate sense, endorsed by the US, the EU, the Canadians, and Scandinavians. So the whole idea of the ‘peace process’ was to support it. Now, we have a government which is close to China, and the idea is to embarrass it so much, humiliate it in public, so that it would be so discredited that it would simply, as they, ‘change.’ That’s the soft option when it comes to regime change. There are of course harder opitions!


Paradise
What’s at the bottom of these ideas? Let me present one overarching frame, that wager everyone concerned uses it consciously or unconsciously to legitimise this view.
Paradise is one of the most frequent names used to evoke modern Sri Lanka. Not surprising, given its extraordinary beauty, and amazing ecological diversity, that allows one to travel from rain forest to arid desert, high, misty mountains to breaking surf in a matter of hours. But the plot thickens when we hear the words, ‘Paradise lost,’ used with increasing frequency during and after the civil war. It’s the theme of books, like William Maguire’s’ Only Man is Vile, the inspiration of novelist upon novelist, and even a phrase invoked recently by an educated and cultivated former President of the country, a leftist who governed during the ‘peace process.’


Paradise lost, is a long, 1,000 line poem by John Milton, written in seventeenth century, but the theme, narrative and characters are drawn from the oldest myth of what becomes the Christian tradition: The story of the Garden of Eden and falling into sin of Eve and then Adam. As a foundational myth of Christianity, and I use the concept of myth here in the anthropological sense, which no judgment on the truth or otherwise of the story, the idea of the fall man is one of the most authoritative, pervasive ideas that cements our understanding of places and things. After all, it was the work of the son of God, Jesus, to redeem and save man, from this original sin, and allow him to find salvation in heaven. Indeed the idea has become so pervasive, so secular, if you like, that one can say, ‘the thing about Sri Lanka is that it’s a paradise lost,’ and not have to think it through, because it sounds so true and right.


Not a justifiable idea
So does that mean that in the words of Bishop Herber’s hymn, ‘every prospect pleases, but only man is vile?’ Let’s take that apart for a moment. Are Sri Lankans more vile than others? Just a little bit more? That seems rather odd, does it? That one group of people would be, in some intrinsic way to be more evil than another group? No, it’s not a justifiable idea. Yes, Sri Lankan live in a most beautiful land, and perhaps it should be called Paradise. Unfortunately, this idea of Paradise, those present in all the Semitic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, becomes almost an almost secular Christian idea in modern times. So, the claim of natural beauty – Paradise - becomes also the repugnance of its people – fallen, evil ones.
Such then, have to be saved; with all manner of artifices; empowerment, development, peace building, conflict resolution, and now, reconciliation. Nature is beautiful, the people have sinned; they need to be saved. Finally, one through up ones hands and says, we’ve tried, they’ll never learn, and like an angry God wreaking trials on the people, comes the charge of war crimes. “No, you have all sinned,” they say. “We tried to save you through conflict resolution and peace talks, but you didn’t listen. Now you will be judged!”


Liberal way
And why didn’t they ask for jugdment before? Because they were still teaching us, in the liberal way; when you are friends with the regime, of course, you imagine they are good students and will be like you some day. When they are friends with the Chinese, oh well, they need to be judged. Having being judged, perhaps then, they will reconcile.


Last week, I presented what I take to be a different view, suggesting that we should forgive each other, and forgive ourselves, without waiting for a judgment to be delivered from a tribunal. I do so, because I do not think that is some fundamental way, men and women are sinners, who have done evil, and so therefore have to atone for this sin before an outside authority. There is nothing fundamentally good or evil in any of us. We can always forgive ourselves, we do not need God, the Canadians or the UN to do it for us.

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