Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Why do I, a privileged Sinhalese soul, give a shit about the plight of the Tamil community?

On Sunday I was at a SLWB meeting when a gentleman posed a question the group had trouble answering.  "What is the purpose of this organization?", he questioned.

Though I couldn't speak on behalf of the organizaiton, it made me question myself. What is the purpose of my work with the Sri Lankan community? Why do I, a privileged Sinhalese soul, give a shit about the plight of the Tamil community?

Well, here's my go at it:

We have a responsibility to our ancestors and our heritage to be of one heart. We have been on the same land for thousands of years and now, in foreign land, we act like strangers. Brother and Sisters we must remember we are one family. I know we speak in different tongues and pray in different spaces; but, if you look into one another’s eyes, do you not see yourself?  We have let foreign men of power encourage our differences; we have let it disseminate our hearts and fight amongst ourselves. If we want positive change for the future, we must come together; we must see where our concerns are common.
Maybe it won’t immediately change our reality. But, it will cleanse our hearts of hatred. It will set aside misunderstanding. It will let Brothers and Sisters, who have fought for too long, to realize our faults and fall into one another’s arms with forgiveness and realization. We are one and our obligations to our "community" should be one.
I seek to overcome imagined barriers and re-imagine my "community" beyond the confines of ethno-nationalism. I actively seek forgiveness from those who have been forsaken by a land that is labeled, by an act of fortune, as mine. I want to undermine this privilege. I seek to reunite with my lost brothers and sisters who, ignored and denied, have become angered. I seek to bring them home. I seek to remind them of a beauty long forgotten. I seek to hold their hands to the gates of justice, prosperity, and eternal peace.

                                              Shot: A religious Hindu parade in Trinco
                                               By: Natale Danko


  1. It's quite striking that this piece starts with the more distinctively 'political' concept of 'privilege' - and somehow, in the midst of all that oprah-esque meandering, falls into mere uninformative idealism. The point of talking about 'privilege' is that people who stand in structural relations of privilege to others stand to gain something by maintaining the status quo. Questioning privilege means that the privileged will LOSE something when their privilege becomes unmasked, visible, and then politically mitigated. You haven't indicated here what undoing the "sinhala" privilege you have means in terms of the material and political consequences you potentially face. This whole, "let's-all-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya" isn't substantive enough to tell us why you - or any other sinhala - would seriously consider undoing the material and social inequalities you technically benefit from.

  2. Dear Feminist philosopher,

    When I talk about Sinhala 'privilege', I am primarily looking at the question of ethno-nationalism in Sri Lanka. I believe, one of the primary reasons for contestation on the Island is that Sri Lanka is percieved as a Sinhala ethno-national state. This exludes individuals of other ethnic backgrounds.

    This is the privilege I hope to undermine - the idea that Sri Lanka is some Sinhala promise land.

    Now, I do allude to material and social inequalities when I talk about discovering our "concerns are common".
    The question of ethno-nationalism has divided the masses into either strong supporters (sinhala nationalists) or strong opposers (Tamil nationalist). In my personal understanding, I feel both approaches are problematic because it prevents the citizenry/Diaspora from discovering their shared plight.

    For example, if such an understanding existed, between these two "opposing" national ideals,you wouldn't have suggested that Sinhalese have "material" and "political" benefits, which exceed those of the Tamil.

    The poor/middle-class Sinhalese plight is not so far off from the poor/middle-class Tamil plight.

    1. There are poor Sinhala folks, who do not benefit from the economic system, hence why they migrate here looking for a better life.
    2. Nepotism in politics doesn't exactly benefit every single Sinhala soul.

    Inequalities and injustice are experienced across the border of ethnicity. However,caught up in the limitation of ethno-national identification, this is often ignored.

  3. "For example, if such an understanding existed, between these two "opposing" national ideals,you wouldn't have suggested that Sinhalese have "material" and "political" benefits, which exceed those of the Tamil."

    Since when does recognizing commonalities between groups preclude examining or talking about group-differences? Two groups can be positioned in structurally "common" ways and still have meaningful differences. By way of example, white women and black women clearly have good reason to fight sexism together. But insofar as white women experience "sexism" in meaningfully different ways than black women - because of race - then, there are also good reasons to envision alternative forms of political resistance. Likewise, the fact that there are commonalities between the Sinhalese and Tamils doesn't mean that the two groups are socially positioned in the same way within political and social structures. Differences in how Tamils (and other groups) have experienced state violence compared to the Sinhalese is good reason to envision alternative forms of political resistance. Your naive and uninformative "ode-to-commonalities" is too unsophisticated to even recognize the complexity of people's political situations.

  4. Now, feminist philosopher, there are many organizations directed towards the "Tamil" or "Sinhala" community. This has become quite conventional.

    However, I do not think many attempt to re-define community beyond the confines of ethnicity and create a united movement, which is not defined by ethnic preference; but, rather, a non-ethnic social and political vision?

    Thus, this is The Alternative Political Resistance. What you talk about has been done, maybe even over done. It is the convention.

    Further, I disagree I think there are several cases where Sinhalese and Tamils were socially positioned in the same way within political and social structures.

    To respond specifically to this statement: "experienced state violence compared to the Sinhalese is a good reason to envison alternative forms of political resistance."

    When Sinhalese boys were rounded up and killed, during the JVP riots in the 1970's, they were killed on terms such as, (1) They were Young Men (2) The were Sinhalese.

    This isn't much different from Tamils experiencing state violence because they were Tamil during the Black July Riots.

    Now, I'm not saying my point is Absolute Truth. there are differences However, anything anyone ever talks about is how we're different. You rarely hear anyone advocate for where our struggle is one. I don't think there's anything "uninformative" or "unsophisticated" about taking a fresh new perspective. Actually, I think it does quite well to recognize the complexity of the political situation in Sri Lanka.

    On the other hand, you're trying to box the Tamil and Sinhala struggle into two clean separate issues, rather than be honest with history and accept the points where their struggles are similar.

    In denying a truth in my point, you have denied the complexities. Not I.