18 May 2012

On the inclusivity-clause of historiography

The word in the street is that the former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka will be released, not 'someday' but within the next few days.  In February this year, I wrote about the man in the context of history-writing.  That note included some comments about his politics, his personality and the world of political machinations he stepped into without any preparation whatsoever.  I believe it warrants a re-read.

Dr. Udaya Meddegama, Sinhala Department, University of Peradeniya, once wrote a poem about the Mahawamsa, clearly the most comprehensive account of what happened in this island.  Those who vilify it cannot counter it with any other account written with scholarly rigor that can match it and flounder in a sad process of myth modeling, extensive cross-quoting and other cheap propaganda devices wrapped as historical account. 

They claim it was written by ‘racist Buddhist monks’. The breadth and depth of the tract is such that it would warrant an entire Department or even School (like those in India dedicated to the study of the Mahabharatha and Ramayana), but Sri Lanka lacks historians and people with academic vision.  Vilification is easier.  Such people would be humbled if they read the meticulously researched commentaries of Kuliyapitiye Prananda. 

Meddegama observes: the ‘Sinhala’ race was fathered by the ruffian son of a patricidal and incestuous father whose mother’s sexual fascination was bestiality.  Some start to a ‘racist’ account written by a chauvinist.  The Mahawamsa, then, is an unforgiving narrative. 

History’s players are never one dimensional; the chronicler should not be swayed by great deed to footnote or erase blemish; not in hero and not in usurper.  If history is indeed written by the winners for the glorification of winners, then the Mahawamsa is quite a poor account. 

The above preamble was provoked by the second anniversary of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka’s arrest and talk of updating the chronicle to include that which came after and especially the struggle to free the nation from terrorism.  History will remember and forget and the particular mix of the two is never predictable.  Key facts, however, can and must be recorded.

Fonseka played an historic role. Fonseka, thereafter, lost it.  He was hero, undoubtedly, and he was villain too. Undoubtedly.  The villainy dilutes heroism but rigorous chronicling is unmoved by such things.

The man’s ambition, inflated self-worth, political naiveté etc., and a now proven inability to operate in unfamiliar terrain cost him dearly.  His mean-spiritedness, treacherous and irresponsible ways don’t exactly make him paintable in heroic colours alone. 

He did not win it all single-handedly, but he was key enough to warrant special mention, as much as the Navy and Air Force Commanders, the Defence Secretary, the political leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and those who stoutly resisted all efforts to derail the drive on the diplomatic front did.  Perhaps less, all things considered, but certainly not more. 

He has immense spoiler-potential as I have argued: ‘He has been flip-flopping so much about the white-flags story that no government tasked with safeguarding a nation’s sovereignty can afford to risk mouth-shooting from Fonseka; not because truth should be suppressed, but because he cannot be trusted to be honest.  He can lie in order to exact revenge for perceived wrongs and has proved he is not above putting vengeance above nation.  And he’s not Private Fonseka, he’s the former Army Commander.  Even a lie from a mouth that big can have disastrous consequence for nation and citizen.’  (Daily Mirror, October 20, 2010).

I also stated the following: ‘All this is irrelevant when placed in the context of the overall framework of the law.  Laws should not be broken or twisted and principles should not be selectively applied even in the best interest of the country because it creates bad precedent.  Regardless of the ‘necessity’ element, there is clear ill-will in the execution of proceedings against Fonseka and it does not matter whether the man intended to slaughter the Rajapaksas and their friends within 24 hours of being elected President (if that had happened of course).’

We are talking history here though, not law.  There were many others who erred and in far more serious ways.  Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan aka ‘Colonel Karuna’ for example.  There is a time to fight and a time to forgive, forget and move on, but even these things are irrelevant to the spirit of the law.  ‘Karuna’ is officially a ‘good boy’ now; Fonseka is officially a ‘bad boy’.  But history, when it is recorded, must mention both good and bad.  Either way, both warrant mention, for happy and unhappy reasons.  Write them out, or write them partially, and the error will amount to misinforming generations yet unborn.  It may not matter, but it could. That is the danger. 

A story is not story enough when key incident and key player are written out. It must include the soldier who laid down life for country, the LTTE cadre who marked the earth and memory with his or her heroism, the errant combatants, the suicide bomber, the criminals against humanity and those who marshaled forces to win back a nation, civilization and a tomorrow for our children.  In all their colours, with all the good and bad, the unforgettable and forgettable.




Anonymous said...

What is the point of this bafelling and self-confusing artilce? twisting fact would not make wrng a right. Aimless and confusing as ever, by claiming to be a journalist.

Rory Winter said...

I am not an expert in scriptures so am not able to argue in any detail over contents of the Mahavamsa. Except this: you say that the Mahavamsa is "clearly the most comprehensive account of what happened in this island."

But any journal that starts with a fairy-tale can hardly be expected to be an historic account. I say fairy-tale because of the genetic impossibility of a human to mate with a lion and thus procreate! The feat is just as incredible as its Judaic counterpart claiming that Eve was created from Adam's rib and the Earth created in seven days!

Clearly that part of the Mahavamsa was created through poetic licence, meant only to please the ear. But as this must be the case how much more was fabricated in the same way?

Malinda Seneviratne said...

If fact was twisted, the it is up to the accuser to point out what fact was twisted. :)

Rory, what would you have to say about the Bible....immaculate conception, rising from the dead, walking on water and all that? Could you point to any account in any language that has such breadth and detail AND is corroborated by archaelogical evidence as well as other accounts? If you want to hang the Mahawamsa by the Vijaya tale and junk the rest, that's your prerogative.

Anonymous said...

"He has been flip-flopping so much about the white-flags story that no government tasked with safeguarding a nation’s sovereignty can afford to risk mouth-shooting from Fonseka; not because truth should be suppressed, but because he cannot be trusted to be honest. He can lie in order to exact revenge for perceived wrongs and has proved he is not above putting vengeance above nation. And he’s not Private Fonseka, he’s the former Army Commander. Even a lie from a mouth that big can have disastrous consequence for nation and citizen......"

I don't agree with the above argument. Firstly someone very powerful in the government wanted the Sunday Leader Editor Fredrika Janz to distort What Sarath Fonseka originally said. Secondly, the former Army Commander was not an offender but a victim of a ruthless regime. It was not that important during the war that the General SF didn't behave himself according to the likes and dislikes of the civilians in the country but whether he had that command to mobilize his Army. The Civil society cannot expect from an Ex-Army General to get adjusted to the prevailing political climate and also there was no necessity to do so. Even the people who are in politics do not show this quality.

Walter Rajaratne said...


We let you off the hook when you say chronicling the history has all its attractive fabrications to please the reader to solid facts that have lived the test of time.

But the intelligent reader is there to sort out the facts from hallucinations. Mahavamsa bashers need to take a break and read the Mahabaratha and Purana from this part of the world to other empires prevailed around the world.

As for Fonseka, isolating him for his errors, brutality, bad mouthing are just negligible compared to what the Rajapaksa clan has done before and after they gained control of everything in the country. Those characters you mentioned represented the other sections of the armed services were compelled to fall in line, while still enjoying the cosy wardroom life, that they too are in the forefront, because this was the man from day one dedicated his life for one and only one cause that’s preserving this land for the great culture our forefather’s built.

Don’t forget MR was still trotting the old beaten track of Peace Ball with terrorists while Fonseka was leading his boys with one purpose, for MR to cling to fight to a finish.

The so called charge sheet of robbery on account of his malpractices in tender process is, if at all that had been committed, then wait for the day for Rajapaksas to lose the grip on the state machinery to break all the sluices gates in thundering force.

All the robber barons are in Rajapaksa camp, which they play down with the patriotic card. Sad story of our hard won war. Hope Fonny has learnt one simple lesson. Embracing the same principle he practiced to win the war to protect this land. Not settleing scores.

SANDIKA said...

i know nothing about the 'political history' of SF but i believe he was not a bad commander at the early stages of his carrier i do not know how he joined the corrupted. if Karuna could so easily became a good boy why not SF he too surely will become a good boy. If karuna and the other former LTTE carder can represent the most honored institution of our country 'the parliament' we should let Mr SF to move on with a good political will if he wants to continue his life that way.

how many of the former LTTE carders we have already ' rehabilitated'? i like to know the figure if possible..... we are a nation that generally likes to forgive and forget the wrongs of all sorts. yes but there should always be a limit.

'the mahawamsa' is a valuable source of history that was written in the 6th century now we live in which century? think of the gap even now you can't expect one to write 'totally acceptable and 100% accurate book'( even research findings of a well known researchers) that is the nature of writings and similar things i believe. the writer may miss something when he is writing that is why the readers are there it is very good to have debate on the issues written if we don't agree to the ideas of the writer. so the 'chulawamsa' is a result of that i believe written in a more balanced way compared to the Mahawamsa.

if your 'thinking' is opposite to someones' beliefs or thinking you try to think and see things in a different way. take the papers for instance how the writers analyses sometimes one particular issue. i do not know how a history student in the future will learn and analyze the current political situations of our country.

when you find many books and writings written on one particular issue the reader may get confuse therefore it is so good to have discussions like above.

Anonymous said...

Sarath Fonseka is coming out. What he did or didnt do is irrelevant now. More important is what he plans to do in the future- and that is speculation.
And, isnt it a bit childish to argue about the merits and demerits of the old historical essays and narratives? Those who want to believe, do. Those who dont, dont! Does it really matter?
History, whether fact or fiction is the past. What is written now for future generations is all that counts.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Walter: I am all for crooks being brought to book. As for MR trotting the peace path, come on, it's pretty obvious that he was going through necessary paces. When the 2006 February talks in Geneva took place, he was also beefing up the armoury and had sanctioned a recruitment drive. SF, then a friend, had insisted that he needs time to get the men ready.

History, Anon, counts, because it is referenced and because myths are tossed around as though they are established facts. The whole 'traditional homeland' thesis, which is the foundation for the bogus and exaggerated claims of Tamil grievances are after all history-bound.

Re Federica...the comments by SF were all over the papers and he was not convincing in his responses.

Anonymous said...

why do you bother to write anything when everyone knows you're just an obedient poodle of the government who's being payed to say what the government wants said

Anonymous said...

You should stick to poetry and short stories because you don't seem able to write honestly about political matters. Chequebook journalism isn't trusted, it's obvious to all and doesn't last for long.

Rory Winter said...

@Malinda, you ask me my opinion of the bible and the various fairy stories to be found there. In fact, I had already mentioned two of them in my previous post. I am what you might call a lapsed Christian who gave up as a result of all the fairy tales. Nowadays, I personally follow something between Buddhism and the Tao because this is what makes sense to me.

As for the Mahavamsa, my question is how much more of it is fiction rather than fact and how can we safely accept it as a comprehensive account as you suggested it is?

In any case, I find it all rather a waste of time having to hark back several thousands of years to understand one's identity in the here-and-now. Maybe it's due to 400 years of colonization that the Sinhalese need to do this. But just how valid is such a path of self-investigation? Wouldn't it be better if we left 'history' well alone to take a page out of Gautama's teaching of carrying out a process of self-investigation in the present moment? Both individually and collectively?

Anonymous said...

Malinda,I dont think you should compare the religious books of other philosophies and religions with historical accounts of the past like the Mahavamsa or the Mahabharatha.
Whether you believe or not you cannot ridicule other people's beliefs; that brings discussion down to despicable levels.
Not a single writer in this discussion has ridiculed the teachings of the Lord Buddha.I am a christian.I do not accept all the dogma of the church, but I try to reflect the teachings of Jesus in my life.

Aravindan said...

I will anyday trust Malinda than any Tamil diapora funded or USA/UK NGO funded anti-national people/journalists who are most times working for Sri Lanka's enemies. Malinda writes aggresively about corrupt practices of the govenment and against thugs like Mervyn and I believe he has the best interests of the nation at heart not just its English speaking, western oriented elite.
There should be more writers like him who are flueent in English and also happen to be patriots.
All some pathetic annonymous people can call him is government spokesman or Sinhala racist. His writing is nothing compared to the racist rantings of some so called Tamil intellectuals in the Diaspora. The problem is these people brainwash the younger generation in the diaspora filling them with chauvinism, hate and revenge.

Rory Winter said...

//I am a christian.I do not accept all the dogma of the church, but I try to reflect the teachings of Jesus in my life//

Anonymous, I can resonate with that. Reflecting on the teachings of Jesus, Buddha or Mohammed is no bad thing and certainly light-years better than to waste one's time with the garbage we are exposed to in the mainstream media.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

chequebook journalism: now how does that apply to me? :)

comparing accounts of history with religious books: was illustrating a point. didn't mean to insult. sorry, if i did. i did not insult the 'teachings of jesus', but only pointed out to something that's 'said' about him. jesus, to me, was one of the greatest revolutionaries in human history. as for the bible, it inspires me a lot...the substance that is, and not the frills that metaphor adds.

rory: yes, better to reflect on teachings of jesus, mohammed, buddha etc.

mahawamsa: maybe there should be a dept of mahawamsa studies (like similar institutions devoted to study the mahabharatha). archaeology has confirmed claims and indeed has found it an excellent guide in searching for things buried over time. there are two excellent, well-researched and exhausive 'tikas' recently written by kuliyapitiye pranand on the mahawamsa. we can debate about the percentage of truth or the validity, but in the very least, we cannot say 'junk it'. and i will not, as long as 'history' remains on the table in political discussion and is capable of dragging us to another bout of blood-letting.

Rory Winter said...

In principle, I don't see any reason not to have a special department of Mahavamsa studies. After all, it is part of the history of Sri Lanka, howevermuch we might question its accuracy. After over 400 years of colonialism, a country needs to re-establish its history.

But such a department of studies should not merely provide yet another platform for the Sinhala supremacists and chauvinists. We've enough platforms for those as it is. Such studies should be made in the context of what is, in reality, a multi-cultural society whose rich historical heritage has come from many sources: India as well as Europe, a wellspring of history there to be studied. The Mahavamsa should be but one aspect of it.