A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday September 18 2011
There is a UK radio soap that has been going strong since 1950. Guest actors have included Princess Margaret and future (never?) Queen Camilla. It was originally billed as “an everyday story of country folk”, but is now described on its Radio 4 web site as “contemporary drama in a rural setting”. Lynda Snell is a character everyone loves to hate. She is a nouveau riche blow-in from Birmingham who is constantly trying to organise the yokels in amateur dramatics and other improving projects. The BBC website says: “The sight of Lynda Snell approaching on her trusty bicycle has sent many a villager scurrying for cover as they wonder what project she’s about to cajole them into”.
When the USA and the UK were criticizing the Sri Lankan military’s conduct at the end of the successful war against the LTTE, President Rajapaksa remarked: “Why should we listen to people who don’t wash their bottoms?”
I assure readers that, although I am a westerner, I am housetrained and my nethers are immaculate.
His Excellency’s remark neatly encapsulates a number of ideas about relationships between the USA, UK, EU and the rest of the world. The former imperial power and the current imperial power look down contemptuously on the brown-faced nations and altruistically wish to bring them freedom, democracy and civilized values. The brown faces are not pleased and regard their critics as culturally uncouth and ignorant. Never the twain shall meet, as the imperial bard Kipling wrote.
It is difficult to avoid going down a tu quoque road on this subject. I cannot avoid saying to foreign audiences that most people in Sri Lanka, even those who vehemently oppose the government, are apoplectic at the Galle Face and impudence of the US and the UK criticizing other countries when they have themselves committed such appalling atrocities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
On the other hand, there are some Sri Lankans whose resentment of foreign interference is strengthened by living permanently among foreigners, their patriotism intensified by their comfortable distance from the motherland.
When we still lived in Ireland, we were inundated with e-mails exhorting us to support the Sihala Urumaya. When I politely asked the sender to desist, I received a diatribe telling me that I should be ashamed of myself for my ingratitude for the benefits bestowed on me by Sri Lanka – the education system, the health service, the beautiful landscape. At that point, I had never set foot in Sri Lanka. I responded that Sihala Urumaya could not claim credit for any of these as it had never governed the country nor even had any MPs elected. I conceded that the country had bestowed one great benefit upon me – my wonderful Sri Lankan wife. However strong my gratitude for that, I did not see the need to give money to Sihala Urumaya.
Even those days, I was planning to live in Sri Lanka. I have now lived in Sri Lanka for nine years and have not set foot outside it for five years. I was amused to find that my patriotic interlocutor had lived in London for 17 years.
Last week I received a comment on one of my articles from one Ajit Randeniya. He thinks I am Lynda Snell.
“Usual arrogance of a blow-in from the British Isles (turned red by Asian and African blood) trying to dictate to us as to how to manage our national affairs. Should the bombers be sent over to Sri Lanka to save Canine Right to sterilization? May be the new hymie friend Zarcoseeeee will also want to join in! Or you can go home to the pure environs of London or wherever you came from.”
This is a somewhat incoherent diatribe but I admire Ajit’s inventiveness in managing to get anti-Semitism into a discussion of dogs!
While researching an article about racial stereotypes, I came across an article by Terry Eagleton, Marxist essayist and Professor of English at Lancaster University.
“Just as one of the customs most native to Ireland was getting out of the place, so nothing is more indigenously American these days than otherness. Openness to the other is a rebuke to the parochialism of a nation which finds it hard to distinguish between Brighton and Bogotá; but it is also a piece of parochialism in itself, rooted by and large in the intractable ethnic problems of the US. These home-grown concerns are then projected onto the rest of the globe rather like a cultural version of nuclear missile bases, so that post-colonial others find themselves obediently adopting the agenda of a largely American-bred cult of otherness.
Critics in, say, Sligo or Sri Lanka are to be found busily at work on the ‘other’, partly because it is an important question in its own right, but also because this is the programme peddled for its own private reasons, as it were, by the nation which sets the academic pace in these affairs. When American critics come to write about Ireland or Egypt, what tends to catch their eye are questions of margins and minorities which loom large on the intellectual menu of their own culture, rather than, say, educational policy or religious architecture, which are less glamorous concerns in their own backyard.”
I see where Ajit is coming from but he is making unwarranted assumptions about me. There are valid points to be made about foreign interference. As an interfering foreigner, I have made those points in these pages.
The foreign press often misses the target about Sri Lanka through simplification of the situation. I do not adopt any entrenched positions. I write in order to learn. I am always happy to be corrected in the course of civilised debate. By civilised debate I do not mean incoherent racist diatribes.
Everybody has to live somewhere. These days not many people still live where they were born. My Irish forebears were forced to emigrate. Many others are forced to emigrate. I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. I am sensitive about my position as a guest in Sri Lanka. Do I turn a blind eye and live a passive life or do I engage with the community I have chosen? Many Sri Lankans, not just the Tiger-supporting Tamil diaspora, have escaped to other countries they find more congenial. From the comfort of a foreign couch they spout their punditry on Lanka Web and Huffington Post. Perhaps it would be more useful if they could reverse the brain-drain and come back home to join those of us permanently resident in Sri Lanka and help to rebuild the nation.