06 May 2012

May is for flag-waving

May is a month of flags.  May comes wrapped in red, the signature color of protest, of labor, trade unionism and left-wing politics.  Later May moves from single color to multi color with the advent of the Vaishakya Mangalyaya, Vesak, commemorating the themagula (birth, enlightenment and parinibbana) of the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama, most of the country decked in the colours of the Buddhist flag along with lanterns, thoran (pandals), dansal and other decorations. 

There was a May that came three years ago when one flag obliterated the usual colours of Vesak.  That was when the country was rid of the terrorist menace.  It was the lion flag, of relief and celebration (mis-identified by some as ‘triumphalism’) that fluttered in the four corners of the island and across the length and breadth of the land.  Time passed and May was May, red on the 1st and blue, yellow, red, white and orange on Vesak Day.  This May was different.  For ‘flag-reasons’. 

There were two flags that need to be flagged here. First, an LTTE flag spotted in the UNP-TNA May Day procession.  The organizers have since claimed that it was a put-up job by a state-run TV station.  The second was the national flag that TNA leader R Sampanthan held in his hand and waved.  Mavai Senathirajah, TNA General Secretary, addressing a Media Day event in Jaffna on May 3rd said ‘it (the flag) was surreptitiously handed over to Sampanthan by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’ and proceeded to apologize on behalf of the party to the party faithful.  Sampanthan has now stated that he sees no reason for any apology, and, seasoned politician that he is, claims that even if he has reservations about the flag, it remains the national flag and since the TNA stands for a solution ‘within a united (he doesn’t say ‘unitary’) Sri Lanka, there’s nothing wrong in waving the national flag. 

Carrying an LTTE flag is an indicator of ideological position and pernicious though that position is it is nevertheless not illegal.  The flag-carrier could be questioned under the PTA but that something the carrier must resolve to contend with.  When a party like the TNA, with a long history of supporting both terrorism and separatism, picks up the national flag, it is politically significant, especially since the flag-waver happens to be the party leader.  The national flag, after all, embodies everything that goes with nation, including structures of the state, in this case officially ‘unitary’ in character. 

It should not be ‘news’ since the 6th Amendment to the Constitution still holds and is officially affirmed by all parliamentarians, even though such affirmation at swearing-in is immediately disavowed by statement of intent to scuttle the unitary character of the state.  But that’s how things are. The country, after all, shows a healthy tendency to disregard triviality and willingness to suffer mavericks and even separatists.  What’s ‘news’ is the fact that Senathirajah had to ‘apologize’, in affect claiming that his party is not interested in a Sri Lanka or a Sri Lankan solution to grievances, while all the while benefitting immensely on account of citizenship, representative power in the very same state and of course the policy choices of the very government the TNA chooses to vilify at every turn.

What is important is not flag but what flag represents.  What is important is not chest-beating patriotism but on-the-ground patriotism.  What is missed by flag-stories is the fact that flag-waving of the kind seen in Jaffna on May Day was made possible by a regime with a particular policy framework with regard to dealing with terrorism, a people ready to back those choices and a defence establishment equipped to put plan into action. 

Tissa Attanayake, the UNP General Secretary, brags that the party got the TNA to wave the national flag.  Senathirajah says Sampanthan was hoodwinked.    Sampanthan says ‘nothing wrong’ and rejects the hoodwink claim.  Braggadocio, complaint and explanation/disavowal, are all ‘possibles’ with respect to the national flag simply because there is democratic space in Jaffna today, something that did not exist when fascism reigned in that part of the island. 

More importantly, flag-waving misses the point about flag-meaning and moreover it’s a point-missing that all parties are guilty of, including the ruling party.  For flag to have meaning, country must have meaning, citizenship must have meaning, all economic, political, cultural and social processes must have ‘national’ (and not multi-national, for example) character.

The question is, ‘are we there yet?’  Are we united enough to deserve a single flag? Are we conscious enough of history and heritage? Are we enlightened enough to recognize our common humanity and our common human frailties?  Are we humble enough to recognize what the communal ancestors did or did not do to build this country, this civilization and this way of being, making something that is distinctive and amenable to be called ‘Sri Lankan’?   In short, what is the meaning, the length, breadth and depth of our citizenship?  What is the true meaning of the ‘democracy’ we enjoy?  Are all the anomalies around us embedded or else do they find representation in our national flag?  

May is a flag-month.  This May there were additional flags.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether flag-waving affirmed nation or if it waived away or else glossed over much of that which is important in ‘nation’.

Red flags don’t wave away exploitation, Buddhist flags don’t confer enlightenment and national flags don’t 
make nations.  And that’s all there is to know about flags, this month of May.  

['The Nation' Editorial, May 6, 2012]


Ramzeen said...

What's better: United or Unitary? If unitary means we all blend as one, I say that's humanly impossible. If united means we are united in our diversity like a good pol-roti and pol sambal: that's workable.

Anonymous said...

No, we cannot blend as one.'United' is possible, of course. We would then be like India, a mixture of different states and languages, all quarrelling with one another and the central govt(and holding it to ransom sometimes)- but all standing up for the same National anthem and
cheering for the same cricket team!
anon 1

Anonymous said...

we all dream of unity without knowing the real meaning of unity. Sinhalese had unity in the history with some exceptions without harming the longevity of the nation. On this soil there should be one nation. Unfortunately a minority less than 10% of the population wants to feel like a nation whereas 80% of the same community in South India will not feel so or will not fight for their own territory.
Unity is possible only small groups do not exaggerate their "we group" sentiments.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

'unitary' does not preclude 'united'. united is NOT a political formation but a reference to degree of cohesion. it's a cop-out 'other' used by federalists masquerading as devolutionists.