Coming to terms with Sri Lanka’s colonial past : Call for justice after 500 years
Posted on July 29th, 2012

by Janaka Perera Courtesy Daily News

Galle Fort with Old Harbour in foreground

“HOW long illustrious companions, shall we live as slaves to these vile Portuguese, whose harsh servitude you have borne for nearly 125 years without any other liberty than what they permit us?… If they put up with us, it is only to make use of us and that with our own arms we may be the executioners of our own lives, the creditors of our riches, our precious stones and spices, for there is not a year when all that there is in Ceylon does not pass to Goa and from Goa to Portugal.”

– Lascorin Commander Don Cosme Kulatunga Wickremasinghe Mudaliyar addressing his kinsmen at his house stirring them to rebellion that was a sequel to which the Kandyan Army routed the Portuguese forces under General Constantino De Saa De Noronha at Randeniwela, Baddula in 1630.

(The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon by Fernao De Queyroz Vol.II pages 762-764)

December 19 next year marks the 45th anniversary of the liberation of Goa, South Asia’s last Portuguese colonial stronghold, following a lightning attack by the military forces of our immediate neighbour India.

This operation also exposed then as now the West’s utter hypocrisy towards Asia’s developing nations.

Western governments, which did not raise a finger to pressure Portugal (then under a fascist dictatorship) to quit Indian territory, suddenly began pontificating on the values of non-violence, reminding the Nehru government of Gandhian principles and condemned India’s use of armed force to kick the enemy out.

Goa figures prominently in the life of the great Sri Lankan monarch, King Vimaladharmasuriya I (1591-1604) alias Konappu Bandara who had combat training there under the Portuguese until the opportunity dawned on his return to Sri Lanka to rise against the enemy in Danture, in the Kandyan hills in 1594.

His victory prevented in the nick of time from Sri Lanka becoming another Asian aberration like the Philippines. The Portuguese called him the “Traitor of Kandy”.

But Sri Lanka’s real traitor was Portuguese puppet King Don Juan Dharmapala whose prime objective to make this country a vassal state of Lisbon.

Luckily for our nation at the time Dharmapala bequeathed his Kotte kingdom to the King of Portugal in 1580 he had virtually ceased to rule his kingdom.

The forces of King Rajasinghe I of Sitawaka had not only chased him away to Portuguese-controlled Colombo fort but also besieged the city itself.

The legal validity of Dharmapala’s gift to the Portuguese king was also in question since no Sri Lankan monarch had the right to ownership of the lands he ruled. He was only a trustee under the law that prevailed, though he had executive powers.

Addressing the recent international conference on the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese Encounter at the BMICH Colombo, Attorney-at-Law Senaka Weeraratne noted that the precedent set by Dharmapala in transferring his kingdom to a foreign sovereign had implications in influencing the conduct of post-independence Sri Lanka’s ruling policy.

“Dharmapala’s betrayal has echoes in events that have unfolded in contemporary Sri Lanka,” said Weeraratne.

The Portuguese Encounter Group in association with the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Asiatic Society and the Archaeological Society organized the two-day (Dec.10-11) conference.

Its importance centered around the fact that 16th century Sri Lanka was the major Asian civilized entity that fell victim to Portuguese plunder, genocide and cultural rape under the Pope’s 1492 Treaty of Tordisellas.

The Portuguese were the first colonial power to pave in this country the way to almost continuous religious tensions – the reprercusssions of which is felt to this day in Sri Lanka.

Prior to the their arrival local Buddhists had appropriated the Vedic (Hindu) deities while the Hindus accepted there were many paths to spiritual liberation and regarded the Buddha as one of god Vishnu’s several incarnations (since Hinduism is not monotheism).

Buddhism was also able to co-exist with indigenous beliefs and local deities. Thus all of the island’s inhabitants considered themselves as largely belonging to a common religious culture.

The Muslims kept their Islamic beliefs to themselves and did not interfere with the religious practices of the Buddhists and Hindus. No group engaged in proselytizing. But the Portuguese encounter changed all that and led to a contemptible policy that other European Christian missionaries too subsequently followed to varying degrees.

Professor M. U. de Silva (Kelaniya and Ruhuna Universities) told the conference that the unsympathetic approach of the Portuguese towards local religions and a wave of unethical conversions of ‘heathens’ under Portuguese padroado real or royal patronage, created a separate local group, marking a clear deviation of the existing relationship of State, religions and society.

The newly converted indigenous Catholics never paid the same respect to age-old customs and traditions. This was the beginning of today’s so-called multi-religious society in Sri Lanka and the resulting religious friction.

From 1574 onwards the Portuguese continuously destroyed Buddhist and Hindu temples in the Maritime Provinces. Portuguese missionaries established their own churches over their ruins. Bhikkhus were driven away from their temples or killed.

The Buddhist resistance to Portuguese religious policy took the form of Ganninnanse – a type of militant bhikkhu – clad in white robes and not ordained according to vinaya or canonical law, but pious.

They attended many ritual needs of the Buddhist community and kept the Sinhala-Pali Buddhist tradition alive during the Portuguese rule. Their untiring efforts brought religious freedom to the people of the littorals during the Dutch administration of the maritime-provinces.

The Portuguese adopted a scorched-earth policy to terrorize the inhabitants and crush armed uprisings. Some villages suffered wholesale destruction and remained depopulated.

Yet, the will of the people, said Prof. Silva, could not be effaced till the Portuguese were driven out of the lowlands through the joint efforts of Rajasinghe II and the Dutch.

Social Scientist Dr. Susantha Goonatilake recalled the strong protests by native Americans against moves to celebrate in 1992 the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus reaching the Americas and the resulting apology by the Pope for the crimes the Spanish Conquistadors had committed.

Dr. Goonatilake noted that similar plans to mark in 1998 of the 500th anniversary of Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in India had also been challenged whereas in Sri Lanka a former Prime Minister had planned to celebrate this year the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese encounter, which would have been tantamount to “celebrating slavery”.

Dr. Goonatilake however said that present day Portugal was not the Portugal of 500 years ago. Today’s Portuguese were very nice people and in their own way they were trying to atone for the past by having museums depicting horrors of the Inquisition.

Writer and novelist Gaston Perera told the audience: “All these happened a long time ago. They are shrouded now in the mist of time. You may ask why we are raising this now? It is because we are not going to cover up the past.

We are not going to sweep the past under a carpet. We want to know it. We want to hold it up and expose it dispassionately, objectively, unemotionally and clinically so that we know what our past is and then hopefully we come to terms and reconcile with our past.”

Attorney Senaka Weeraratne stressed the need for a public apology and reparations and compensation from Portugal for crimes against humanity such as mass murder, war crimes, religious and ethnic cleansing, the theft of Sri Lankas; cultural artifacts, forcible conversion, large-scale destruction and plunder of Buddhist and Hindu Temples and seats of higher learning in the country.

The points he raised were based on the principles of international law and contemporary precedents such as the Judgements of the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal.

He concluded:

“The claim for compensation is not an appeal for voluntary charity but to simple justice. In any code of ethics restitution must be made for unjust gains at the expense of another. Portugal is a Christian country. Christian forgiveness requires that the sinner must admit his or her guilt.

Seek forgiveness and make restitution for any damage done. Any possibility of reconciliation between Portugal and Sri Lanka requires initially repentance and restitution on the part of Portugal.

We have to work towards making a presentation of colonial history to the colonizer, which will lead them to repentance or at least to make restitution for the sins of their forefathers.

Generally oppressors forget and their grandchildren are never told that there is anything to forget. But it is our duty to keep alive the memory of the past so that the oppressor remembers their oppression and in addition present and future generations of Sri Lankans will not make the mistakes of their forefathers.

In conclusion what can we expect? I read somewhere that there is a Jewish proverb, which says, “A child that does not cry dies in the cradle.”

Likewise if we do not ask we will not get anything. We believe that there is a strong case for restitution both on moral and legal grounds. Present day-Portugal must come to terms with its past.

One Response to “Coming to terms with Sri Lanka’s colonial past : Call for justice after 500 years”

  1. Christie Says:

    We are still under Indian colonialism and Imperialism.

    British Indian Empire was built with British violent aggression and oppression with Indian non-violent aggression and oppression.

    British are gone but Indian colonial parasites and Indian Imperialism gors on.

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