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Tissainayagam, Richard de Zoysa and Professor Rajiva Wijesinha

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 20 September 2009 09:13 No Comment]

 J. S. Tissainayagam and Richard de Soysa The ‘reaction’ cited below was published by you last week (September 13, 2009). It  followed your reproduction of the statement made by Mr. Tissainayagam in court which handed down a sentence of 20 years hard labour on him. I quote verbatim:

REACTION – Sinhala bloggers “In 1989, Tissainayagam translated some documents on the human rights violations of the regime for (now President) Mahinda Rajapakse, a key human rights activist of the day to be taken to Geneva. He was a hero then, but now a villain. Is this because then he was fighting for rights of the Sinhalese and now for Tamil rights?”

The question that concludes the above passage caught my attention. As I have written elsewhere, the whites who joined the struggle against apartheid in South Africa did not do so because they were ‘for’ the blacks, but because they were against discrimination and the brutality (and resulting human suffering and tragedy) which  accompany the imposition and maintenance of injustice.  White Americans from the North who supported Martin Luther King’s campaign were insulted (‘Nigger lovers’), beaten and, in some cases, murdered. Some of the most trenchant accounts I have read of Palestinian suffering are by individuals of Jewish origin.

One can identify three kinds of protest. The first would be if I were to suffer injustice as a member of a group, then protest and work towards dismantling that injustice. A second kind of protest would be if I took an interest, for example, in the plight of the (to me) distant peoples of the Amazon rain-forest. I would be disinterested, since there is no hope of gain for me in expressing concern and indignation.  (Increasingly, “disinterest” tends to be confused with “uninterested”.)

The third and the most challenging is to speak truth to power when that power is wielded by one’s own group, and, what is more, when injustice and force work to the advantage of one’s own group. The examples I have cited from South Africa, the USA and Israel arguably come within this third and last category.

To return to the question, “Is this because then he was fighting for rights of the Sinhalese and now for Tamil rights?”, the sickness of ethnic division (call it  primitive ‘tribalism’, if you will) has gained such a hold on this island that one now speaks of Sinhalese rights and Tamil rights, rather than of (fundamental, universal) human rights; human rights recognise our common humanity, regardless of language, religion, sex or skin colour. 

Writing about the late Adrian Wijemanne, I pointed out that his was a principled, essentially decent and caring stance. Transcending narrow tribalism, he did not “fight for the Tamils” but for equality, justice and inclusion. If the Sinhalese had been oppressed, herded and corralled into prison camps, he would have been among the first to espouse their cause.

The position adopted by such individuals calls for rare courage and inner strength because they are execrated and abused as “traitors”, experience physical terror, and sometimes pay the final price of death. (The ‘cost’ is also borne by those most close and dear to them.) At times of inhumanity, such individuals — their character and conduct — affirm our humanity, restore confidence, hold out some hope, give courage.

On the other hand, to go with the majority, to unethically use one’s intelligence and ‘cleverness’ with language, has its rewards: public admiration and applause; media attention; appointment and promotion; entry into the higher circles of power (and the privilege and social status that brings); invitations; and deference. It is an intoxicating, addictive cocktail that must make one feel successful, powerful, and smugly conceited. But it is gaining the “world” at the expense of what is best in us as human beings.

And yet, at moments of silent, honest introspection, some of those who have ‘sold out’ must look in the mirror of the past, see their earlier self and pause — however briefly, uncomfortably and hurriedly. As a poet wrote (albeit in another context), good is the life ending faithfully – faithful to the values, principles and ideals one believed in and cherished.

Many souls, as noble as they were modest, both Sinhalese and Tamil, have refused to be intimidated, declined to compromise, disdained dangled prizes and rewards, and paid the price. And this brings me, with thanks, to Professor Rajiva Wijesinha because it was he who, several years ago, drew my attention to one such individual: Richard de Zoysa, political activist and poet. I conclude with extracts from my resulting review.

(Richard de Zoysa) was well known: a human rights activist, a fearless critic of political immorality and cruelty. As an actor (on stage and screen) and as a journalist and broadcaster, he reached many. In a time of unreason, of ‘racial’ and political hatred and violence, he upheld the values of justice, decency and humanity.  He was brutally murdered in February 1990, not having quite reached the age of 32.  His mother’s attempts, despite state obstruction, to bring his killers to justice, excited national admiration and pity.

To Rajiva Wijesinha, editing these poems was evidently a labour of love [...].   I can do no better than to quote him: de Zoysa was a very promising poet and “therein lies a seeming paradox…‘promise’ implies that it was not fulfilled.” What we have then is not so much admiration for achieved work as regret that potential was cruelly cut off; that de Zoysa fell victim to the forces he had courageously opposed. The loss is both to poetry and to those of the wider polity.

Sri Lanka is not without such individuals, and, therefore (despite the present combination of suave falsehoods and appalling cruelty), not without hope of ethical and political redemption and renewal. When that awakening happens, many now wallowing in power and pride will be seen quite differently.


The Sunday Leader

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