Western Colonial Crimes in Sri Lanka - the Issues of Accountability and Compensation


To 'despoil' according to standard dictionaries is 'to plunder, rob, deprive'. While individual acts of mischief are the principal concern of enforcers of the law in civil society, it must not be forgotten this kind of infraction can be generalized and viewed in the larger context of the interrelations between nations, peoples and societal groups.

Legalists have found it fashionable to speak of 'universal rights' the basic prerogatives of humankind - that cannot be infringed without the wrath of a so-called 'International Community' descending on the perpetrator with massive force.

The Iraqi 'tyrant' Saddam Hussain is said to have used 'weapons of mass destruction' (Chemical and Biological weapons) against the Kurds and this instance is held to be paradigmatic of the new thinking where leaders are held responsible for 'crimes against humanity' even if the malfeasance is committed within national boundaries recognized in international law. In brief, the offender is judged on the severity of the crime committed and not its legality as determined by the instruments of governance in force at a particular time and place.

The Western Christian Powers effectively the rulers of the world today have been chary of deepening and expanding this principle of accountability and transnational justice to those instances where 'peoples, societies and civilizations' have been 'despoiled' through the willful and abusive acts of the ruling powers of the day.

Eschewing abstractions for the moment, reflect on the 'despoilment' of our land, its autochthonous inhabitants and its living culture by the marauding British Colonialists in the heyday of imperialist arrogance. The law as structured and interpreted by the White Ruler allowed the wholesale eviction of the true indigenes from the choicest land in the fertile highlands of Sri Lanka.

The ecology of the montane forests of our country was brutally disrupted to pander to the whim of the foreigner who favoured cash-crops over the floral diversity that had enriched our land for countless thousands of years.

A foreign slave-labour force was press-ganged from the subcontinent and settled in the Sinhala heartland creating vast areas that remain irremediably alien to this very day. A civil service and an educational structure were cleverly fashioned to make the Sinhala-Buddhists second-class citizens in their own land.

The Tamil-speaking elite moved to the south in vast numbers and became the new petit bourgeoisie an exercise in social engineering that greatly favoured the hegemonic grip of the White Ruler on a land known historically for its proud defiance of the alien invader. Can anyone deny that these vast structural changes so willfully and perversely introduced by the Colonizer to whittle away the power and standing of the majority community constitute a 'despoilment' that is justiciable in the context of that larger interpretation of the law pertaining to culpability that has gained rapid currency in the West?

The fashion has been to seize upon the individuals (political enemies) and to arraign them before an 'International Court of Justice' for crimes committed against 'humanity'. To most thinkers in the 'Third World' this seems ludicrously topsy-turvey in that it is the Western Rulership as constituted in the age of colonial expansion that must be held responsible for the large-scale destruction of cultures, the vast displacement of peoples, the assault on the natural environment and the enforcement of beliefs and values that have proved disastrous in the long term.

Are these not crimes against mankind? Are they to be dismissed as unhappy events of the past that do not warrant reappraisal and (possibly) reparation? While there is a clear moral issue here, can it be said that the law must be silent on misdeeds of this magnitude committed in the not too distant past? Let us take a largely-forgotten episode from the recent past of our country to reinforce this point.

After the Uva rebellion of 1846 foreign troops (recruited from the war-like tribes of Gujarat) were sent to the area of conflict with the express mission of destroying the 'support-base' of the insurgents. The once-fertile province of Uva never recovered from the massive depredations of the attackers. Hundreds of towns and villages were razed to the ground while the inhabitants fled to the forest to escape massacre.

Must this ghastly episode in colonial history remain immune from the purview of those who clamour noisily for the observance of human rights in parts of the world that have never really recovered from the rapine and plunder inflicted by the forebears of the very accusers?

Today we stand at the crossroads in the unfolding of our tumultuous history. The minorities that the colonialists planted in our midst clamour for a 'homeland' nested in the very center of the land that the Sinhala people identified as their own for over twenty centuries.

The others the pampered issue of those who established a foothold in the fringes and margins of this country through the calculated benevolence of the white colonialists now claim one third of Lanka as their 'nijibimma' (ancestral ground).

If our ancient land is dismembered and its true autochthons driven into 'Bantustans' at the mercy of expanding Dravidic power, will not this mark the end of our history that once stood tall in the eyes of the world? Who is to blame? Certainly one cannot exculpate the pathetic leadership of the Sinhala nation at this climactic moment in history. Yet, we would be tragically remiss in our duty if we ignore the role of the erstwhile colonialist in precipitating this disaster.

Are they not accountable for the large-scale 'despoilment' of the Lanka of old that laid the foundation for the eventual marginalization of our people? Is this not a 'crime against a people and a civilization' that must be proclaimed to the world? The living as individuals - cannot be punished for the misdeeds of the past.

Nevertheless, those who ride high on issues of 'human rights' and 'accountability' cannot easily forswear responsibility for brutal misdeeds of their forbears misdeeds that have plunged our ancient civilization into a state of enervation and sad decay that seems irreversible.


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