Colombo at night, long exposure. View more.
Robert Kaplan discussed Kandy in the latest issue of Atlantic magazine. He described how Sinhala kings took Tamil brides and Buddhist temples hold Hindu icons. ‘Only when Sri Lanka’s political leadership recognizes that legacy will communal peace be at hand,’ he said. Long ago that was the nature of our imagined community. Through royalty and religion, the races were bound. Today, however, I think the model is more Colombo than Kandy. Today our common imagination is defined more by economy than ritual. For peace today, Colombo may hold the key.
Colombo is Sri Lanka’s commercial and political capital. Tamils and Muslims make up over 50% of the population and Tamil is generally their first language. This is a deeply cosmopolitan city where religions, races and languages mix. I know of government ministers married to Swiss citizens and former generals married to Tamils. In Colombo we do not necessarily get along, but we do live together.
To quote a captured suicide bomber, “One day, I came across the Tamil shop owner speaking in fluent Sinhalese to another person who was Sinhalese. This surprised me: During our training in the LTTE, we were impressed upon that the Sinhalese were the bitterest rivals of the Tamils” (National Post, Canada).
What, however, makes us Colombian? We don’t even have a name for ourselves, so what is our identity? We don’t come here on pilgrimage, and we don’t come here based on race. We come here mainly for the money. This is where the jobs are. This is where you find good schools. People in Colombo live together because that’s how you make a living.
This political and economic identity is a kind of ‘imagined community,’ to use a term from Benedict Anderson. It’s very different from our Kandyan past. That identity was sustained by ritual and marriage, solid things that could communicate over great distances via word of mouth. Modern imagined communities, however, are defined by political economy and media.
Even the poorest slum dweller will dress their kids in pristine whites for school. Even the most son-of-the-soil politician will come to the city to do business. This bright (and unrealistic) sense of opportunity is communicated in a visual language of milk and telecom adverts. The mythical good life is shown above kades islandwide, but its highest concentration is in Colombo.
This community of opportunity, however, does not extend far beyond the city and the western province. What holds outstation is what Edward Said called ‘imagined geographies’, the perception of space as a way to control. He used the term in reference to the western concept of the Orient, which didn’t really exist. In Sri Lanka it applies most to Tamil Eelam.
Tamil Eelam is an imagined geography that Prabhakaran used to take power. Using that idea he expelled Muslims, hacked Sinhalese villagers and killed anyone who didn’t agree. Many in the diaspora still believe that imagined geography, though they would never live there. Many local Tamils, in fact, still believe.
Sri Lanka, of course, has its own imagined geography, but to a far lesser degree. We celebrate a united Sri Lanka, but Wannians don’t have the same rights as you or me. Though the Wanni is on our map, those people are not a part of our community. They don’t vote, they can’t move and they can’t speak. Until they’re a part of our community Sri Lanka is not entirely whole.
So, how do we go from a unified map to a unified people? Mr. Kaplan points to our religious and royal history as a hope for communal peace. That ship, however, sailed with the British. I think those concessions to Tamil culture would be incredibly powerful, but Mahinda’s post war visits have been to temples and spots to shore up his Sinhala base. Building more kovils and marrying the Rajapakse sons to Tamils would help, but is not especially likely.
Instead, the idea seems to be security and development. Fishing, roads, airports, power plants, ports. It’s not the grand model of Kandy, but it’s not the nightmare of Tamil Eelam either. I live in Colombo, a lot of diverse races live in Colombo and we seem to get along and get by. The Colombo model might not be so bad.
originally published in the Sunday Leader