Posted by: lrrp | January 9, 2006

Blaming the Past in Sri Lanka – The Portugese Colonization by By Raveen Satkurunathan

Blaming the past for all of Sri Lanka’s current ills has become fashionable. The convenient arch villain has been identified as the Portuguese by some Sri Lankan pundits. The recently held “International conference on the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese Encounter at the prestigious BMICH in Colombo” is an attempt in that direction.

If we can blame the Portuguese for today’s societal ills, then can the Veddas, the Sri Lankan aboriginals blame the Gujaratis for their current plight? Because as Sri Lankan children have been taught from their kindergarten, it is Gujarat that gave birth to the Sinha[la] bahu clan that was directly instrumental in the cultural and physical annihilation and genocide of the aborigines.

Infact I made the commentary to show how absurd it is to blame the Portuguese for today’s ethnic and social problems. But many of the pundits in the conference have conveniently forgotten to mention some of the positive aspects of Portuguese colonization. These positives were accrued mostly by the majority Sinhala Buddhists who are decrying the effects of Portuguese colonization today, which happened more than 400 years ago.

We can say very confidently that it is because of the Portuguese colonization that the Sinhalese find them as an overwhelming majority in Sri Lanka today. As Sri Lanka’s written historical anal, Mahavamsa mentions, ethnic Tamils have always found themselves in Sri Lanka in a political culture that promoted Buddhism from the beginning of written history. As a consequence ethnic Tamils have assimilated into Sinhala Buddhist identity since then. It is no different than the invading Normans and Danes as well as indigenous Celts becoming English over a period time in England. Whether Tamils were in Sri lanka prior to this Gujarati colonization or not is immaterial, because the Sinha[la] Bahu clan eventually imposed its cultural traits on everyone.

But this state of affairs did not last a long time. Long before the arrival of the Portuguese, the Tamils had been able to organize themselves as a separate political entity under the auspicious of the Jaffna kingdom. This kingdom was not restricted to the northern Jaffna peninsula alone as biased contemporary Sri Lankan history maps would indicate. It had suzerainty over the pearl rich western Puttalam area and further south as recorded by a traveling Chinese historian Fa Hien of those days. This kingdom provided the political space for Tamils to survive as a separate ethnic group, without the need to be assimilated as Sinhala Buddhist, as they had done in the post Gujarati colonization period.

Further the littoral regions of southern Sri Lanka was inhabited by simple folks of South Indian origin whose main livelihood was fishing, pearling, toddy tapping, cinnamon peeling and being the cannon fodder of local petty kings and chiefs in their constant fights.

These were by and large Tamil or Malayalee speaking Hindus as can be attested by the “Ge” or house names of their descendants today in South Sri Lanka. Their primary function of fishing and toddy taping had prevented them namely the Karave, Salagama & Durave castes from being absorbed into Buddhism as fishing and toddy tapping was an abhorrent profession to the Buddhists.

Although some amongst them due to their military service had ingratiated their lineages with the dominant Sinhala Buddhists through land grants. It is this group that has turned to be the true villains of Sri Lankan history not the Portuguese.

Although most of the descendants of these groups today deny their obvious South Indian origins, true historians know the truth. If left alone most of these coastal people would have coalesced into the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka. If that had happened, Tamils might not have been the minority at all. But that is not what happened. The most important contribution that the Portuguese did to the Sinhalese was the elimination of an important social distance indicator between coastal Tamils and Sinhalese in converting both to the Catholic faith. It enabled the age old assimilation of Tamils into Sinhalese to happen again which had come to a halt due to political and religious reasons.

As a caveat during the Buddhist revivalist period instigated by Anagarika Dharnapala who was born into a Catholic Salagama family, many of these coastal Catholics both Tamils, Sinhalese and Sinhalised Tamils converted enmass to Buddhism and even created their own Buddhist organizations because the traditional upper Govi caste oriented prelates refused entry of these newly converted Buddhists of dubious caste origins into their organizations.

Even today Sri Lankan Buddhist prelates are organized by caste such as Govi, Karavae and Salagama because of this very reason. If there is to be a looser due to Portuguese colonization in Sri Lanka, then it is the Tamils more than the Sinhalese. Tamils lost their independent Jaffna kingdom and lost considerably a very large percentage of its ethnic brethren to Catholicism, who have become Sinhalese Buddhist and Sinhalese Catholics all the way from western Puttalam region to southern Matara and beyond. It is only in the Northeastern provinces that Catholics have maintained their Tamil identity.

Today just one village in the Western coast hangs on to its Tamil identity. It is Uddappu. It is one of out of a thousand villages and towns that spoke Tamil and dotted the coastal region once upon a time. All other surrounding Catholic, or Buddhist villages are self considered to be Sinhalese even if they spoke Tamil at home just a generation ago. Further down in the South, Tamil has been replaced as a mother tongue many generations ago. Although as presented in the conference, Portuguese did destroy a lot Hindu and Buddhist places of worship, today’s new Buddhists have taken over many Hindu temples as Buddhist Vihares as can be seen by the statutes of Hindu deity Ayyanar on horseback in these Vihares complexes close to Negombo.

These new Buddhists like, all newly converted around the world overwhelmingly supported and still support the suppression of Tamil language and civil rights since the populist prime minister Solomon West Ridgeway Diaz Banadaranaike came to power in 1956. He himself came from an uppity coastal caste of formerly Hindu then Catholic and later Protestant background. He converted to Buddhism as a way to gain power, only to be shot dead by a Buddhist monk. In a nut shell his family’s ascent to power as Sinhala elites from its lowly roots shows the hybridization that is the norm amongst the ruling class. Since him, his clan had provided two more leaders for the country who have managed to push it beyond the abyss.

Sri Lanka has not being able to overcome its colonial history, not because of the effects of colonialism, but because of the lack of vision of its post colonial political class. This cabal owes its current success to its ability to ingratiate it with whoever and what ever was perceived to be dominant. They had appropriated what ever was necessary to succeed. During pre-colonial times, it was for land grants from petty Sinhalese chiefs and titles for offering their kinsman as the cannon fodder for war. During the Portuguese times, it was Catholicism and Portuguese names. During the British time, most had converted to Protestantism and picked up Anglo names. Today they are Buddhists of the first class. Their continued usage of racist supremacy as a political card displays the inner insecurity of the ethnically hybridized ruling class but also primarily their crass opportunistic behavior.

The entire top rung of the pseudo Marxist but ideologically racist JVP (the third larges political party) politburo hails from these littoral whose family origin lie in the murky waters of f the Palk Straits. But today they are upkeepers of the virulently superior Sinhala Buddhists interests. This also
applies to the current President and his coterie of Southern advisors and military leaders with Iberian patrilineal last names shown or hidden.

It is this ruling class catering to a narrow, parochial and racialist world view that has brought the country to its current abyss, not the Portuguese colonialism as the conference presenters would have us to believe. The people who pay the price for such opportunistic politics are the common family man, the fisherfolk and the farmer who had from time immemorial wanted to live in peace and loved their neighbors true to their religious teachings, but not the least similar to the corrupt Pajero driving, Swiss bank account holding ruling elites.

If Sri Lanka is to emerge from its current abyss, then its highly educated people need to look at who is leading whom in what direction. Is the tired old virulent Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric used originally by the Diaz Bandaranaike clan and now being offered anew by the Mahinda Rajapakses, JHU & JVP the right message for them?

For whom does this virulent and racist messages benefits? It only benefits the ruling class and their coteries who like the chameleon continues to change its colors to hold on to petty perks at the cost of millions of common people.

They have exploited the country for their selfish interests and its future growth and economic prosperity of the country that would have easily emerged similar to that of Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. Just like their ancestors had sacrificed their kinsman for few acres and useless titles today’s cabal of Hennanayakes, Bandaranaikas, Rajapakses & De Silvas are burying the birth right of all Sri Lankans.


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