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Sri Lanka shows how to forgive while not forgetting

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A MONTH ago, responding to the attacks and reported plans to attack statues of eminent and respected persons such as Winston Churchill, Robert Peel and Queen Victoria and the desecration of the Cenotaph in London which commemorate those who gave their lives for the freedom we enjoyed today, I wrote an article for The Conservative Woman setting out why I, someone born and bred in post-colonial Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and for whom English is a second language, found it incredible that some people in the UK were campaigning to destroy their own historical symbols.

 The originally published title of the article read ‘If post-colonial Sri Lanka is proud of its Empire heritage, why isn’t Britain?’ In my opinion this did not reflect the contents of the article, and the editor agreed to my request to change ‘proud of’ to ‘at peace with’, adding a note on the piece that headlines are written, as with newspapers, by sub-editors and not writers.

Readers’ comments on the TCW website were both positive and negative, with the latter being from some Sri Lankans. In contrast, I received a much larger number of positive messages from Sri Lankans (Buddhist and non-Buddhist Sinhalese) from outside the TCW website.

The critical comments, which were relatively few, were prompted by the word ‘proud’ in the original headline. They usually contained intemperate language that helped to generate some similar counter responses. In addition to creating unpleasantness and anger, such exchanges could become shouting competitions to see who can produce more examples to justify a particular point of view. However, the unintentional nature of the tone of at least some comments became evident when one who had been aggressive to another honourably accepted a mistake of his, making the arguments become civil after that.

To exacerbate the situation, some readers seemed to have responded with comments that are not likely to have been sufficiently self-reviewed before submission. As a result there were statements such as, to paraphrase, ‘the British left Sri Lanka in 1948 leaving the Tamils in power. Owing to this there was a 26-year civil war where the Tamils rebelled against the Sri Lanka government’ and, more significantly, the presentation of an extract from the ’The Declaration to the Kandyan Chiefs’ by Sir Robert Brownrigg (Governor) giving the impression that the atrocities mentioned there were by the British when in fact they were by the King of Kandy on his own people.  Another interesting example of ‘quick writing and submission’ was the presenting of only British atrocities to prove that the Empire was not ‘relatively benign’, whereas such a proof requires evidence of one that was better.

In some of the comments there were assumptions about me (e.g. not a ‘real Sri Lankan’, ignorant of history, paid by someone or a political party to write the article) and personal attacks. These gave me a taste of what others who dare to express opinions may experience due to the current ‘cancel culture’, which is worsened by the ability of contributors to hide behind pseudonyms. However, anonymous comments are also disadvantageous for a contributor because the authority, if any, of his comments remains unknown.

To show why they were not ‘proud’ of the Empire heritage, some Sri Lankans mentioned the ruthless suppression of the Uva Rebellion of 1817-18. It was a sad episode that happened soon after the King of Kandy was deposed by the British in 1815 with significant assistance of powerful Sinhalese aristocratic chieftains of the kingdom. This and other events such as the enactment of the Waste Land Ordinance that enabled the takeover of the common land of the Kandyan peasants for coffee cultivation, remain unforgotten by Sri Lankans. Hence, some of them mentioning such events to express their displeasure at the word ‘proud’, and the absence of criticism when the title was changed to ‘at peace with’, demonstrated the correctness of the article’s message: that the country is able to rise above the past’s hurt and be at peacewith the heritage of the British Empirewithout forgetting that history. If there were no regrettable episodes, then Sri Lanka would not have been a good example for the article. (The beneficial aspects of the British Empire are not a part of this discussion.)

Sri Lanka is a great example of how a people can be forgiving while not forgetting, as exemplified by the speech of the then Finance Minister (and later Prime Minister and the first Executive President) J R Jayawardena to the San Francisco Peace Conference on Japan in 1952. Quoting Lord Buddha, he said ‘hatred is not overcome by hatred, but by love’ and that Ceylon would not seek reparations for the damages of the Second World War though it was significantly affected. This made him (and the country) a friend of Japan till his demise. Is this not very different from the behaviour of some in the UK who desecrate and try to remove or destroy statues of those whose actions helped them have a free and dynamic country into which most migrants from elsewhere in the world would pay enormous sums of money to smugglers and risk their lives in rough seas to immigrate, as evident from the flimsy boats in the English Channel? 

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Thantirimudalige Canisius
Dr T D Gerard Canisius is a chartered structural engineer who works mainly on fire safety engineering, especially of tunnels.

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