Midweek Review

Looking beyond literary criticism
A response to Izeth Hussain on ‘Sinhala Racism’
by Bandu de Silva

My former colleague in the Foreign Ministry, Izeth Hussain (IH) has responded to my article in 'The Island' of September 20th through two articles published in 'The Island' dated October 4th and 1st November respectively. In the first article he commented on my statement where I expressed dislike over the term Sinhala chauvinism he had used. He also explained that the idea of Islamic Umma which I referred to as a concept different from chauvinism though I did not exactly equate the two. I had made only a passing comment on the idea of Sinhala chauvinism which many writers here and abroad seem to use rather uncritically. I did not enter into a detailed discussion of it. That would take much space and it is not my intention to open that subject here. As far IH's explanation of the Islamic Umma, I have been elucidated but at the present stage I wish to keep my mind open until I do more research on it if I have the time.

I had no intention to enter into a debate over this issue of racism which IH raised more pronouncedly in the second article. I had no particular interest in the UNP to defend its position either. However, as IH has, in his further rejoinder brought out the same issue more pointedly substantiating his Ambassadors (in the Foreign Service) stinks to high heaven of racism, and also accuses the "Sinhala racists" for aborting his appointment to Paris besides making a personal remark as to how I stand in his estimation on the issue of racism, I thought a response from me is well deserved.

Before I do so, I wish to express my appreciation of IH's comment that I am not a racist. However, he has diluted that remark when he says that I have "swallowed whole a familiar argument of the racists that there is no racist discrimination against minorities by our governments but only abuse of power." I do not recall my ever having entered that general debate but I think IH arrives at that conclusion on the basis of my remarks on his case, i.e., my reference to his "personal bitterness with the UNP government." That interpretation seems to have hurt him probably as it detracts from the thesis he was building up over the presence of racism practiced against 'Marakkalayas'. Even IH's choice of the word "Marakkalaya' seems to exhibit the bitterness than it proves anything else.

So, I start with this stigma placed on my head. That does not bother me but let me say that I keep on reminding myself what a venerable old grand-uncle of mine told me 50 years ago and my father had been repeating many of times that there could be a Kerala strain running through blood of the family which is remembered to have migrated in the Dambadeniya or Kurunegala kingdom times and appointed guardians of Totagamuwa Vijayaba Pirivena/temple. There may be something in it as that institution had a strong Southern Indian link and had given much prominence to Tamil studies and as our family still carries the "Ge" name of the village adjoining the temple. I keep on asking how then I could have any claims or pretensions to be a racist in the Sri Lankan context.

Racism as theoretical concept

When IH tries to build up a theory that the UNP and the Sinhalas are practicing racism, which seems rather puerile, he has to meet a whole body of multiple scholarly discourses on the subject of racism. Today, even the historical role of the Greeks, the first people who were thought of having introduced the idea of race superiority with their idea of others as 'barbarians'; and the European Christians (Roman Catholics) who practiced discrimination against the Jews to a greater extent stand absolved of the charge of practicing racism. In later social science studies the idea was presented that these people had not even reached the threshold of racism. (Rebeireux).

Assumptions

I see two strains of assumptions in IH's second article. First, he accuses the UNP government of practising discrimination against minorities using the evidence of treatment he received as a senior Foreign Office official at the time he was ready to take up higher office as Head of Mission. He furnishes three instances as evidence of this discrimination. Second, he accuses "Sinhala racists" for aborting his appointment as Ambassador in France.

He shows that the nomination as Ambassador in Bonn was aborted because the government wanted to appoint a Cabinet Minister whom it wanted to keep as far away as possible. He does not explain what brought about the abortion of the second posting to Moscow. He had found the cause of the abortion of the third appointment (to Paris) eight years later, i.e., in 1995 in 1995 when someone who had worked in former Foreign Minister, A. C. S. Hameed's Bureau informed him that there was a petition from the Buddhist group in Paris over his appointment. From that he concludes that it was "Sinhala racists" who stopped his posting there. At this point his ire shifts from the UNP government to the "Sinhala racists" yet his overall perception of the UNP following discriminatory practices against minorities remains. It is this "interference" with the appointment to Paris which occupies more space in IH's mind.

In this process, one observes that his ire against former Foreign Minister Hameed is diluted progressively, perhaps, on account of the emergence of "new" evidence. However, he does not completely absolve the Minister of responsibility and accuses him for not arguing out his case over Paris appointment which he says, the President never revoked.

Now, let us see how things stand against the overall picture in the Foreign Ministry.

Counterpoints

When IH tries to build up a thesis on the practice of racism by the former UNP government against the 'Marakkalayas' he does so on the basis of the solitary evidence of his own case. Curiously, the situation has repeated at least three times as he explains. That repetition could be seen as fertile ground for a surmise of the presence of discrimination. This is no doubt, a worse case of injustice and unfair treatment committed against IH; but can it be construed as discrimination against the minorities? Wouldn't that be holding on to too rigid a position and going too far trying to over-milk the evidence. One could even perceive here an attempt to equate one's personal situation to that of an entire ethnic group.

Now let us take some counter points.

1. Couldn't one argue that despite a certain strong opinion which existed in the country at the time, the appointment of a Muslim to the higher portfolio of the Minister of Foreign Affairs by the UNP government of President J. R. Jayawardene demonstrated that it was above discriminatory practices against that particular community?

2. Still more, when under the first phase of the same UNP government in 1978, or by the same Foreign Minister, a relatively exceedingly large number of Tamil career diplomats, some of whom were junior to others (who were bypassed), were appointed over the heads of others, didn't the UNP government show that it was not practicing discriminatory treatment against minorities? (The more senior career officers who were overlooked were myself, Gamini Seneviratne, Stanely Jayaweera, Tissa Jayakody, and Jayanth Rajapakse who were (wallowing) in the Ministry at the time). I was in a 'Goulag' created for myself.

3. More significantly, these appointments were to what IH classifies as more important posts such as London, Paris, Bonn, Beijing, Cairo. Singapore and other. This is how things stood in July 1983 when the ethnic riots broke out when there was outright condemnation internationally about the way the Tamil minority was treated.

4. My batch-mate, P. M. D. Fernando was singled out to be posted to what IH calls "less important posts", namely, as Ambassador to Baghdad and then to Maldives after an earlier stint in Philippines. He retired early perhaps, in disgust. Doesn't that situation alone make IH's argument that less important posts were offered to IH as further evidence of discrimination as a 'Marakkalaya' less plausible? In this light, doesn't the charge of discrimination against IH as evidence of discrimination against 'Marakkalayas' lose its steam?

5. IH has refused my comparison of his case with mine. This is correct up to a point because his appointment to Paris was completely aborted while mine finally went through after a six month's delay. The latter took place only because the President wished to stop over in Paris on return from the Bahamas (CHOGM) to meet the new Ambassadors he sent out to Europe after July 1983 events. He was surprised to find that his orders regarding Paris and London had not been carried out and Balasubramanium and Moorthy still remained heads of mission in those two places. That is how my appointment finally took place and Minister Hameed just gave me three days notice to proceed to Paris after delaying for six months, and as an afterthought, extended it by two more days for me to 'observe Wesak' in Colombo! On arrival in Paris I found that he had countermanded the orders of Secretary Jayasinghe and stopped the Embassy intimating the French Foreign Office, the date of my arrival six months earlier. He had been present in Paris at the time.

What does one make out of it? A personal discrimination against me by Minister Hameed? Or, a discrimination on grounds of my ethnicity? Or my religion? I cannot level that charge against the UNP government as it was clear that it had nothing to do with it. Some of my friends suspected that it was my ethnicity and religion which was not to the liking of the Minister but I refused to accept it. One of them had even mentioned it to Prime Minister R. Premadasa who sent me word asking me to wait saying better days would come. As the head of the Board of Governors of the Central Cultural Fund he had come to know earlier that Minister Hameed was discriminating against me because I was taking an overt interest in activities of the CCF. He had not even acknowledged two letters sent to him by the Minister of Cultural Affairs, Mr. Hurulle recommending that my air passage be paid to attend the inauguration of the Cultural Affairs, Mr. Hurulle recommending that my air passage be paid to attend the inauguration of the Cultural Triangle Project by UNESCO Director General, Mahtar M'Bow. Even duty leave was not sanctioned. I finally came over at the request of Esmond Wickremesinghe, with Mr. M'Bow at my expense and using my private leave available to me. What would one call that? Personal dislike of the Minister? Or prejudice on grounds of ethnicity/religion?

6. Again, when the Minister of Tourism, Anandatissa de Alwis appointed me as the first Sri Lankan representative to WTO in Madrid where I was C/A Ambassador, the Credential were held up by in the Foreign Ministry for over a year on Minister Hameed's order and this came to light when I was asked by the Tourism Ministry to lead the delegation to WTO. At that point the Credentials were rushed to me and I did not attend the Conference. The Director General of WTO was too busy to receive me and I sent my credentials to him through courier. The newspapers published a picture I had taken with his predecessor.

7. How is it that the Buddhist group was active on-line Paris? A Muslim later succeeded as High Commissioner in London. There was no problem of the sort IH experienced.

What does all this evidence throw up? Can IH's argument of discrimination against minorities by the UNP government be upheld? If one could use that argument, does it not appear that there had been discrimination against the Sinhala officers by Minister A. C. S. Hameed, if not against the Sinhala ethnic group? I do not subscribe to that view. None of the other officers who were overlooked by him did so, as far as I knew. In my own mind I thought if my seniority was being sacrificed in the round of appointment of heads of mission in 1978 in order to give priority to career officers from minority ethnic groups with a view to bringing about a settlement of the national question, and to disprove the presence of discrimination against minorities, (rather mistakenly though), then it was well and good and I must accept that decision.

A colleague downgraded

IH's remark that only "B de S's and Daya Pereras and the Sena Pereras" could be sent to more important and the more attractive posts, notwithstanding Hameed’s abuse of power, does not seem to be in line with the generally highly principled arguments which IH follows. It seems rather to smack of pique at this particular point. I am indeed sad that my colleague who was an outstanding member of the career service thought of grouping me who was his professional colleague carrying 27 years experience as a professional career diplomat at the time besides having held the (high ranking) post of Minister in the Embassy in France up to three and half years earlier which position gave me access to the same officials as that of an Ambassador, along with Daya Perera and Sena Perera, however outstanding these two may have been in their respective professional fields. Didn't he think that as a professional I deserved to be Ambassador to France or any other such (important) post and that through proven competence in the field of diplomacy, I earned that as a matter of right?

"Sinhala racists"

As IH reveals, he came to know in 1995 that the reason for aborting his appointment was that there had been a "powerful group of Buddhists there" (in Paris) which he interprets as "Sinhala racist objection to his appointment". He cites a petition sent by the so called powerful Buddhist group which his informant had referred to. At this point the direction of IH's ire shifts from the UNP government to "Sinhala racists." He seems to discreetly avoid reference to Buddhists in the conclusion though he referred to the objection as arising from a "powerful group of Buddhists there." Foreign Minister Hameed whom IH had been accusing all along for his misfortune is also cleared to some extent when he quotes Minister Hameed asking him to be patient for a while till the situation cleared up. His problem with Minister Hameed is that he finally did not back him up sufficiently enough by pointing out to the president that he had not recalled his name.

Crux of the matter

The crux of the matter, as IH rightly points out is that there was a certain Sri Lankan individual (on the spot) with "powerful backers" (who was trying to use the Buddhist group there to promote his personal advancement); but it is not correct to assume the "Sinhala racists" for that reason for aborting his appointment. It would be like my accusing the whole Muslim community for what I went through under Minister Hameed including the denial to me my post as the Director General after I returned and the 'privileges' that went with it. IH never faced such a problem like non-availability of seating accommodation in the Ministry that I had to go through. Under President Premadasa a new Foreign Minister was appointed. I had the first inkling of what Prime Minister Premadasa returned to as the 'time' would come, when the first things that the new Minister Ranjan Wijeratne did was to restore my place and appoint me as the senior Director General I was later appointed as the first resident Ambassador to Iran with a very important mandate.

The intrigues that followed the "person with powerful backers" which IH referred to coming into the scene was the beginning of the break up of the Buddhist group in Paris. That can also explain how the petition that IH speaks came to be sent. One wonders if the original Buddhist group (Dhamma Cakka) even knew that the name of the Buddhist (group) was being used. My assertion is that the petition IH speaks of could have originated form a ghost organization, if not from a ghost writer.

This Buddhist group of Sri Lankans in Paris came together after the spill over of July 1983 riots to France where the large Tamil Diaspore took the upper hand even committing two murders of Sinhalese there, under the encouragement given to them by my predecessor, Ambassador Balasubramaniam. It even received the active support of Christians and Muslims. The Bank loan to purchase the land to set up the Buddhist temple was arranged by a Roman Catholic, who worked with an Arab Bank. He watched over the progress of the temple and its activities with enthusiasm. The South Africa lawyer Mitchel Hegg. an old friend of Lalith Athulathmudali, assisted in the legal work and interceded with me to bring about a settlement of disputes which had risen later. The role of the individual referred to was to break up this unity to promote his advancement.

Similarly, earlier, there was a petition against one of the nominees for the post of Permanent Delegate to UNESCO after I left the Embassy at the end of 1980 after my first assignment there when the government decided to have a separate post of Permanent Delegate. That was brought to my attention by Prime Minister R. Premadasa who was showing interest in that new post. (CCF sponsored?).

On that occasion while I was awaiting to take up my second appointment in Paris, in view of my long experience with UNESCO where I had initiated the Cultural Triangle project, and brought UNESCO into two other projects in which the President was personally interested, namely, the Arthur C Clark Centre and the Institute of Fundamental Studies, President Jayewardene sought my opinion to sort out the suitability of the two candidates who were being nominated to the post of Permanent Delegate to UNESCO, one of them jointly sponsored by Foreign Minister Hamid and Esmond Wickremasinghe, and the other by the Prime Minister. Naturally, I was in a difficult situation, not because I had any difficulty in assessing the merits of the two candidates, but because of Prime Minister who was present with the President was expecting me to support his candidate. Following the discussion, none of the two contenders were selected. They were found other niches of lower dimension and another outsider who had some difficulties at his own place of work in Paris, who was later backed by the Prime Minister was nominated.

When IH was appointed to succeed me, obviously, as IH surmises, this person again became active again. When Warnasena Rasaputram was appointed to succeed me finally instead of IH, the intrigues did not stop there. Rasaputram had no misgiving that it was this person's machination that saw him moved out within a short time after appointment of Paris. The argument over separating the functions of Ambassador of France and Perm. Delegate to UNESCO was then reversed to say that one person could again handly both! What followed is history! So IH is not the only victim of this situation.

The issue of Ambassador in France, therefore, has a longer history and a more complex background than what IH makes out and the "Sinhala racist objection" to his appointment, he speaks of, has another dimension. Perhaps, he has mistaken one person promoting his self advancement using the Buddhist cover to make a generalization. This is rather unfortunate. All this may be degrading exposure not worthy of persons who had held high office but I do so taking that risk because I thought it more important while I possess information to state that frankly in defence of a people who are being accused as "Sinhala racists" based on an unjust interpretation. I have left out more embarrassing details.

 

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