Politics & Economy

Why a cultural and academic boycott is necessary?

The recent violent mob attack against Sri Lankan Christian pilgrims, mostly Sinhalese but including a few Tamil speaking, in Tamil Nadu together with the expulsion of Sri Lankan students gave a prominent platform to a number of questions which have prior been confined and limited to Tamil political circles. Can and should the Sri Lankan state be boycotted? And should such a boycott be restricted solely to the government, the military and the economy of the country?

Tamil Nadu’s chief minister Jayalalithaa’s much criticized decision to send home eight students from the Royal College of Colombo and their coach, who had participated in a local sports tournament, catapulted the passionately led debate to new dimensions. By intervening in the normalization of seemingly civil and institutional relations between both countries, the traditional limitations of the boycott movement to government, military and economy found themselves sharply challenged. The sanctions imposed by the TN government upon representatives of civil institutions opened a floodgate that remained closed for a long time for many people. As a result, the crucial question whether Sri Lankan academia and cultural institutions function autonomously from the state and societal structures became critical to re-examine. The TN’s chief ministers’ forceful intervention brought further issues to light, such as the question whether it is imperative for a call to boycott to incorporate wider aspects of Sri Lankan society. Can academic and cultural institutions be absolved from claims of direct and/or indirect complicity under present systems of injustices and inequalities that constitute the island state? And is the expulsion of Sri Lankan pilgrims and students from Tamil Nadu an abomination that needs to be condemned?

Whilst strongly opposing the recent violence perpetrated against Sri Lankan civilians in Tamil Nadu and whilst equally questioning the intentions and timing behind the AIADMK’s political stunt, I have nonetheless come to support attempts of breaking up ties to cultural and academic institutions of Sri Lanka. In the spirit of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement and the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural & Academic Boycott of Israel, I support and plead for a general cease to collaboration with institutions, both civil and non-civil, that fail to acknowledge and struggle against the occupation and oppression of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

Similar to cultural institutions that function(ed) throughout slavery, apartheid, genocide and other forms of racialized violence, Sri Lankan institutions have actively or passively become complicit in the production and perpetuation of systems of discrimination and segregation by either denying, justifying, diverting and whitewashing or acquitting Sri Lanka of its repeated violations of customary human rights and international humanitarian laws against Tamils.

The process of silencing the structures of power and violence in the island serves therefore to place cultural institutions as agents of collaboration in the maintenance of inequality and the denial of fundamental rights and freedom to Tamils.

Societal failure

As Sri Lanka praises itself as a vivid democracy, civil society holds a critical responsibility and role in advocating for change. Fifty three years since the implementation of the first anti-Tamil piece of legislation however, neither political or societal change nor progress have found fertile ground to flourish and substantialize in the island. Instead, the most chauvinistic government since Sri Lanka’s independence has twice been granted democratic legitimacy for its rule, politics, ideology and power by a majority of Sinhala people after having run for election on the platform of having violently defeated the popular and armed Tamil uprising by bringing victory to an ethnic majority nation. With the erosion of lines between state, military, society and its institutions, the borders between agents of state policies and civil society and the interface thereof have been made blurry if not non- existant. Hence, the project of undermining Tamil rights has been carried out and fought on multiple platforms and frontiers, whether state, military or civil society driven. As silence serves in an oppressive environment as Sri Lanka, as an act of violence in itself, the presumption of innocence based on (never mind seldom used) false notions of 'neutrality' and 'apolitical-dom' appear invalid. Henceforward, none of these institutions should be discharged unless they actively challenge to a greater extent the structures that occupy both state and society.

Although Sri Lankan scholars and students cannot be viewed as monolithically and uniformally complicit in the structural racism that persists in the island, the majority of them have failed to acknowledge and address the issue, as they are indirectly consumed by it and have actively as well as aggressively adopted the ideological machinery of majoritarian entitlement and minority disempowerment. Whilst few Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher scholars and students openly (or in hiding) solidarise with the Tamil people and their suffering, their solidarity remains insufficient to challenge the present structural defects. Moral and material support needs to be lent to the brave few representatives of the former, but their number remain marginal and so too does institutional acknowledgement and support given to Tamils. As institutions function within Sri Lanka under the strict dictate and authority of the government, institutional support or the lack thereof given to fundamental Tamil demands for freedom from oppression, occupation and self-determination mirrors state and societal ideologies and norms.  With few academics having used their privilege to dissent and struggle against oppression and against the occupation of Tamil land, the larger pool of lecturers and professors chose to either disengage or position themselves in line with state-majoritarian policies.

Similarly, what is often portrayed as civil, independent and innocent institutions are seldom as independent and innocent as one wishes them to be. For instance, the Royal College of Colombo, an elite institution funded by the central government and whose principal is directly appointed by the Ministry of Education. Located in the middle of Colombo’s bourgeois suburb of Cinnamon Garden, home to a number of embassies and government offices, the school finds itself not only spatially but also bureaucratically situated in an intimate and direct relationship of dependency to the centre of power. The elite institute has produced and continues to pride itself with a number of distinguished Sinhalese alumni, amongst them is Sri Lanka’s late President J. R. Jayawardane whose government was responsible for the 1981 Jaffna bibliocide and the genocidal summer of 1983 that cost the lives of thousands of innocent Tamils. In other societies the reputation of such ‘distinguished’ personas who have been found responsible for the shedding of blood of thousands of innocent humans might become bleak and uncelebrated, but not in Sri Lanka - as long as the blood to be spilled is ethnic Tamil and their executioner Sinhalese. Claims of neutrality and independence of the school are further shadowed by the fact that the premises of the academy of excellence are decorated with a war memorial (‘Monument of Honour’) which celebrates and honours the Sinhalese soldiers and alumni of the school who have fought for the integrity of their Sinhala nation.  Having produced a large number of highly decorated soldiers and government officials might be one thing, but honouring them is a clear political act which aligns the school with the dominant political ideology that antagonizes and undermines fundamental Tamil rights and freedoms.

To further illustrate the institutional complicity in perpetuating dominant state ideology, the story of aTamil girl, Nethmi Lavanya Yogendra, needs to be brought back to memory. As a young student, then ten year old Nethmi obtained in August 2007 the second highest mark in the Year 5 scholarship results of the Colombo district. Despite her extraordinarily high grades Nethmi was however denied access into the prestigious Vishaka Vidayala school. Her application was followed by the anomaly of direct mail correspondence from the Ministry of Education which announced her failed application on the grounds of nothing but her ethnicity. The discriminatory policy was justified by the then Minister of Education, Susil Premajayanth, who stated that the entry of a Tamil girl into a predominantly Sinhalese school would cause tension amongst the student body. In other words, the Ministry’s decision was portrayed to be ‘for her own good’,  to free her from ‘worse problems’. Although the school itself has accepted the initial application by the Tamil girl, the state interference exemplifies the intrusion and proximity of state and race-based ideology in the academia. The case becomes even more delicate considering the young Tamil girl to have been culturally raised more as a Sinhala Buddhist than a Tamil Hindu or Christian. With being primarily schooled in Sinhala medium and having acquired utmost fluidity in the language, but also adopted Theravada Buddhism as their family religion, Nethmi’s ethnic and cultural difference in relation to Sinhala Buddhists could merely be located in her Tamil name. The conclusion that can be drawn from the case is that even assimilation into majoritarian culture is according to state and its overarching arms insufficient to overcome ethnic, but clearly also racial differences and divides.

The case similarly brings to light the many failures of the Sri Lankan education system to include Tamils schooled in Tamil medium into metropolitan centres of academic excellence. With little investment and funds allocated to Tamil medium education, reconstruction of schools in the Tamil land and tens of thousands of Tamil teachers pushed into exploitive and insecure working conditions, Tamil students, teachers and the entire Tamil schooling  system find themselves marginalized and vulnerable to majoritarian absorption, assimilation and subjugation. As Tamil medium schooling faces a number of obstacles such as the exclusion from a number of prestigious schools situated in the capital city, Tamil linguistic and cultural development appear in an overwhelmingly  Sinhala environment challenged and under threat. The concept of linguistic and ethnic parity therefore emerge as hollowed out Sri Lankan realities.

Both cases confirm as to how there is no social space within the island that remains free from the political fault lines of the state and society. The intrusion and inclusion of ethnocentric doctrines into the educational system proves the presence of an endemic culture of politicization, ethnicization, militarization and securitization of state and society at all social levels and agents – at the expenses of the Tamil population. Assumptions of innocence in relation to the academia as a whole thus need to be  contextualized to the political reality of a country hijacked by dominant and ever present ideologies and markers of ethnic supremacy and majoritarian entitlement.

Stadiums and temporary shelters

Sports emerges in the ongoing discourse as another seemingly civil and independent platform of undermining Tamil demands for liberty and equality. Cricket as the national sport played by members of all ethnic and religious groups has primarily been at the forefront of being co-opted into the state sponsored and monopolized ideology and politics of ‘reconciliation’. The ethnic Sinhala star player Kumar Sangakkara’s recent visit to Tamil regions serves hereby as a prime example of how structures of violence that continue to occupy the Tamil people are being increasingly rendered marginal in the discourse and invisible to the majoritarian eye: after opening the IODR Oval in Oddusuddan built by none other than the Sri Lankan Armed Forces themselves, Sangakkara began to publically chant love songs to the Sri Lankan Army. The irony of sports stadiums, resorts and Buddhist stupas built all over the Tamil land when tens of thousands of Tamil people continue to languish in basic temporary housings or camps somehow seems to have been missed by Sangakkara.  His widely published yet hardly critiqued charm offensive and love letter to the Sri Lankan Army’s mission represents one amongst many attempts of Sri Lankan (majority Sinhala) public figures and national institutions to embellish the presence of a disproportionate number of soldiers of an almost mono-ethnic army in the land of a people who are treated as right-less subordinates within their own homes. So that the Tamil people’s vulnerability to the everyday violence perpetrated by the state and its representatives becomes whitewashed and their presence as occupying forces with the mandate of forcefully holding together what struggles to remain united becomes justified.

The collaboration of diverse institutions with state representatives aids to paint the Sri Lankan Army as an institution, innocent in its conduct and raison d’être and socially productive in its daily interaction with locals. Cricket thus becomes another state tool to divert attention and redefine violence and relationships of dependency and subordination.  Sri Lanka’s central bank governor’s recent comment in the wake of the T20 World Cup held in Sri Lanka confirms the precarious position taken by post-war Sri Lankan cricket in respect of the Tamil rights discourse: "The programme will provide an excellent platform to endorse the new Sri Lanka brand during the next three weeks"(…) I am confident that this trend will continue in the future, and those so-called international calls for (war crimes) investigation will fade away. ‘’ Therefore, neither cricket nor any other state sponsored sports activity is free of charges of challenging and undermining the struggle for Tamil rights by diverting attention and embellishing the current structures of power and violence.

Challenging the political status quo

The recent influx and increase in cultural and sports activities promoted and encouraged by state and army within the occupied Tamil land thus helps to normalize the socio-political, socio-economic and socio-cultural status quo of the region. By being co-opted into the government led ‘reconciliation’ discourse they intent to stabilize current structures of power and violence by satirizing and marginalizing demands for justice and immediate political solutions for the ethnic conflict.

Concurrently, the negotiations led by civil society members to incept cultural programs with occupying forces who rule with impunity, legitimizes the very presence and role of the army in the region. In a political environment where even private birthday parties require official army approval, it remains virtually impossible to avoid any engagement with the army. With little free, independent and non-monitored access to the area, each program conducted within these spaces thus requires prior army permission, surveillance and participation. In other words, no program that is even slightly considered a threat to the current political and social status quo would be granted permission to be held, but only those that are considered harmless and beneficial to the state and its politics of violence and oppression. Hence, the government has the monopoly to direct the image that is being painted of the war torn regions to the outside by managing and controlling each stage play, music program and book reading to reaffirm and consolidate its forms of rule and occupation.

Although the forms of covering oppression and occupation appear diverse, their intent and ramifications are identical: ‘reconciling’ at the cost of the Tamil people and to the gain of Sinhala supremacy. Majoritarian blindness to the violence embedded within these new forms of weapons and war waged against a people and their aspirations mustn’t be condoned, but demands open critique.

Therefore, the assumption that choosing to boycott academic and cultural institutions of Sri Lanka to constitute an act of ignorance fails to recognize the failure of the many Sri Lankan institutions and its individual representatives to voice actual dissent towards anti-Tamil policies by thumbing upon exaggerated notions of hope, sanity and reason in a largely disempowered and threatened minority that holds little authority nor influence beyond the metropolitan and cosmopolitan populace and media. With a number of cosmopolitan Sinhala academics and artists presently often engaged in online and offline ‘crusades’ to delegitimize Tamil perspectives on history and claims to land and injustices by whitewashing Sri Lanka’s recent history, it becomes, moreover, imperative for a boycott movement to include such centres of cultural productions to challenge new forms of oppression and denial.

A call to boycott Sri Lankan institutions which deny the pillars of Tamil suffering serves therefore the sole purpose of responding to persistent forms of destabilizing the Tamil physical and cultural presence by rallying around non-violent means to protest against such overt and covert forms of racism and occupation.

Democratizing a boycott, divestment and sanction movement

The recent events in Tamil Nadu (TN) have further illustrated for the calls of a boycott of Sri Lanka to be in urgent need of expansion and embracement by a larger population, Tamil and non-Tamil alike, than just the various political players of TN. Despite the so-called Eelam Tamil 'card' being mostly played as a political stooge in Tamil Nadu, the boycott of the Sri Lankan state and its various institutions is greater than the petty politics it is delivered by and as. And also larger than the quotidien MD jam bottle, Maliban biscuit pack or Sri Lankan airline ticket that have so far dominated and diverted the discourse amongst activist circles. Whilst acknowledging the multiple aspects and layers of a boycott movement and whilst giving importance to individual and personal sacrifice made in the struggle against inequality in Sri Lanka, the focus needs to however be larger than the shelves of diasporic collections of memories of home. To limit a boycott, sanctions and divestment movement to the government, military and economy constitutes a failure to recognize the real dimension of government involvement in academic and institutional efforts to rebrand Sri Lanka to a haven of tourism, culture, investment as well as bi-national and bilateral co-operation and collaboration.

Integral to the discourse is the question of who incepts and leads such a call to boycott: the current spokespersons who spearhead the debate often aid to defame, denounce, delegitimize as well as corner the idea of boycott, non-collaboration, divestment and sanctions against Sri Lanka by dragging it into unnecessary controversy and critique by attaching it to the notion of privilege of the right and taboo for the liberal and (so-called) progressive. Thus, from being viewed as the monopoly of the few, the sanctimonious and nationalist, the boycott, divestment and sanction movement of Sri Lanka needs to be normalized, universalized and gain the support of the many.

Boycotting a state and its institutions in times of occupation, oppression and racism is a duty not just limited to the nationalists, separatists and opportunist politicians, but equally that of centrists, liberals and the far left alike. Detaching a social movement for ethical and moral principles from political lines of divisions is a crucible in successfully normalizing morally and ethically sound consumerism and contesting structures of oppression. Thus, for the call to boycott, divest and sanction Sri Lanka to be effective, the message, its interpretation and enunciator need to be universally accepted and embraced.

Invisibility and normalization of oppression

In Sri Lanka, the normalization of both states of mind and affairs, namely oppression and occupation of Tamils, have become inherent to many Sri Lankans i.e. (majority) Sinhalese to understand both to be the quintessence for the integrity of the ethnocentric state and its majority people. Constructed as a means to maintain and support the politics of majoritarianism that have infested much of the postcolonial state and its history, the oppression of Tamils has become the pillar of the privilege of the many and the disprivilege of the numerical few.

Whilst oppression, occupation and racism continue to linger for decades over the heads of Tamilpeople and over the Tamil land, they have become invisible and normal to majoritarian eyes and conscience. To break the cycle of socialization and normalization of all forms of injustices that have been inflicted on the Tamil people and torn apart their social fabric, means and tools to disrupt the sleeping, break the silence of the living and rupture the fabrics of racism and inequality need to be fostered and consistently be applied as mechanisms of resistance against the authoritarian state and its apparent and persistent tyranny of the majority.

In the aftermath of the expulsion of Sri Lankan pilgrims and students from Tamil Nadu, the bitter irony that Sri Lanka now portrays itself as a state that protects and encourages its minority cultures is not missed. Again, Sri Lankan representatives of state and society are quick in reframing the discourse by suddenly engaging in the rights debate they are so fundamentally suspicious and dismissive of when it comes to their own record of respecting individual and group rights, specifically of minority populations. By attempting to hijack the ‘controversy’, Sri Lanka takes a stab at becoming a champion of human rights at the cost of diverting from and whitewashing its racialized killing fields and broken cemeteries.

Walls of solidarity

Change needs to be advocated from within as well as outside the island. For a boycott of state, military, cultural and academic institutions of Sri Lanka to succeed, a wall of solidarity needs to be build that surpasses political, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural divides to challenge the forms of structural violence that have affected the Tamil population of the country.

Whilst saluting all those who stand up and speak up within Sri Lanka against the oppression and occupation Tamils are forced to endure, I recognise their courage to be insufficient to challenge and change the fundaments of state and society. Therefore, I do hereby disapprove of mob violence, harassment or any other form of intimidation targeting Sinhalese, but do approve the ceasing of ties to Sri Lankan institutions to prevent collaboration and complicity in the oppression of the Tamil people.

Sinthujan Varatharajah is a MSc. Candidate in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo : International Day of the Disappeared - August 30, 2012, Vavuniya , Sri Lanka| Courtesy: www.vikalpa.org

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