Haters divide, but people have other ideas | Daily News

Haters divide, but people have other ideas

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade, which brings all communities and religious groups together.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade, which brings all communities and religious groups together.

The successful visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may have surprised detractors, but it did not surprise those who know of the good relations between the US and Sri Lanka in the past. J.R. Jayewardene was feted by Ronald Reagan on the White House lawn. The two were cut from the same cloth — unabashedly right wing, old-school. Reagan was the ultimate Conservative, and the great communicator, and JR the firm believer in the power of the US to do good and deliver on curbing terrorism, above all.

Years later, some pointed to past points of tension in relations between Sri Lanka and the US and ran away with the idea that these relations were irreparably damaged. But this ancient country has had good relations with all the big powers in the over 2,000 years of our history. As for lasting ties with the Americans, the very upbeat tone set from the beginning of the Pompeo visit confirms this quest for real friendship.

Former President Jayewardene says in his South Lawn speech that he is the 193rd in the long line of Heads of State of this very old country, if anybody would care to watch the video on YouTube. By this measure President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the 199th leader of this country, counting all Kings and Governor Generals, etc, of the past.

If anyone expects this country with that heritage to botch relations with any of the major powers, they are probably not being realistic. The one big reason is that there have been excellent people- to-people relations between us and the major powers. That’s the case at this point in time, and will be in the future.

Leaders deal with exigencies. People deal with people. People-to-people ties are organic. Our ties with China and India in the neighbourhood go back thousands of years.

But while on the subject, the issue of Sinhala - Tamil relations comes to mind. The Sri Lankan State was at war with violent Tamil separatists.

But the people-to-people relations between the two communities cannot be understated. The war may have sundered relations at the level of leadership between the Sinhalese and Tamils. But, the organic relationship between the two major ethnic groups that make up our social fabric was much stronger than what warring leaders could tear apart.

Our bonds go much deeper than purchasing Austin A30s from Jaffna or taking the man who came from Colombo to Velvettithurai for a jaunt. Jaffna is where the country’s best engineers, doctors and judges came from.


These historical ties go back thousands of years and they have been animated by a sense of great respect for each other’s ways of life. But the revisitation of that history is unnecessary. It is there, among the oldest recorded works detailing the ancient past.

Today, there may not be any significant Tamil input in the Executive branch of Government, as there used to be in Cabinets past, but there is Tamil input of significance in the Legislature and the Judiciary. The point being made is that people give life to the organic relations between communities.

The leaders think they define these connections — but the people are always leagues ahead. My guess is that the Tamil diaspora is not as ill-disposed to Sri Lankan Sinhalese as it is made out to be. I see folks such as Noel Nadesan, my friend — a veterinarian and novelist —  now domiciled in Melbourne, Australia, sometimes being more Sri Lankan in his jottings from afar, than Sri Lankan Sinhalese.

Some may say he is the exception and that I’m romanticizing these ties between some ‘diehards’ and the rest of us in the predominantly Sinhala areas of the country, but I don’t buy that, as what’s real is not fantasy.

There are scores such as Nadesan who have such deep ties with the old country that they don’t forget. Of course Nadesan lives abroad, and so do many other articulate Sri Lankan Tamils.

But there are other Sri Lankan Tamils here who are privy to a new reality. They are the lifeblood of the hospitality industry in certain parts of Colombo, and I daresay this is a departure from the more traditional businesses that Tamils engaged in, in the Western Province, and some of the other Sinhala majority provinces of this country, for instance.


Old ties and people-to-people ties are not susceptible to the temporary damage that is caused by leaders who deal with exigencies.

The argot of a ‘war’ between the Tamil separatists and Sri Lankan forces was trumped up for various reasons; the fact was that between Tamil and Sinhalese people, there was a culture war that morphed into something bigger because there was a leadership crisis in both communities. Now this has abated, and antagonisms have come to a close.

There were some riots in the past, and other occurrences that exacerbated communal relations, but people are aware that the riots were engineered by unscrupulous fringe elements. These elements were within the United National Party and it did not help that the then party leadership did not show much leadership qualities when the rabble-rousers within their ranks planned their deeds.

The so-called core issues on the other hand were largely culture wars. There was the issue of language, but that too was hijacked by the politicians. All of the other issues about the use of the ‘Sri’ sign on vehicle number plates for instance, have distinct cultural moorings.

Even culture wars are generally created by political adventurers who are seeking ways to mobilize voters to build up vote banks. Organic culture wars are rare — and at least in this part of the world, they are relatively harmless.


These types of culture wars happen over trivial things. There was for instance, no culture war or any other war over Muralitharan in this country. But, the Tamil Nadu film industry was beset by protests when some movie producers were planning to use a top notch actor in Indian Tamil films (Vijay Sethupathi) to play champion cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan.

That is a very good example of how people-to-people ties and political slogans are two different things. It is fair to say that Muralitharan is an icon in Sri Lanka to both Sinhalese and Tamils.

There is no known antipathy towards him in any section of the Tamil community here.

Tamils may by and large not agree with him on his very sanguine interpretation of ethnic relations in this country — may or may not, I’d say, qualifying that. But that is not of any material relevance in the face of the fact that they do not contest his right to say what he says.

That they may not agree with him may be part of a mild ‘culture war’, loosely put. But even then it did not lead to any fully blown culture war where Muralitharan was demonized. These types of mild culture wars prevail in all societies. Malaysia has an ongoing culture war between the Muslim and the Chinese communities there, and it is mostly in the form of a cold war as it is rarely manifest in any raw, visceral form in the open.

We have such culture wars between Muslims and Sinhalese, Sinhalese and Tamils, and even Muslims and Tamils sometimes. They are harmless in the main and do not yield the result of dividing communities. Sometimes these little conflagrations have the effect of adding to the richness of the social fabric. It is not an overstatement that there isn’t just unity, there is beauty, in diversity.

There is no underestimating strong cultural bonds forged over the years. They do not lead to permanent fissures as perhaps when the Rohingya Muslims crossed the border and settled in Myanmar.

Now, that was a very sad confrontation. We had some very sad confrontations too, but the point is that these were largely artificially created by political adventurers, even megalomaniacal ‘leaders’, so-called. At a people-to-people level, Sinhalese and Tamils and Muslims are kin in this country, and nothing can tear them asunder. They always have been and always will be from the same single source, the brotherhood of man.