The Island newspaper reneges on word to publish Buddhist perspective on sovereignty and freedom
Posted on May 7th, 2010

 Sri Lanka News

When Dr.  Shelton Gunaratne, professor of mass communications emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead and former Lake House journalist, sent an essay on the Buddhist perspective on state sovereignty and press freedom (re- produced below) for publication in The Island newspaper, the editor sent the following e-mail message dated 26 April 2010:

“Thanks a lot for a very interesting contribution. Will print it shortly.
Prabath [Sahabandu]”

 But to Gunaratne’s dismay, editor Prabath failed to keep his word. Who intervened to prevent the publication of Gunaratne’s elucidation of Buddhist philosophy on two very important political concepts?  It is unlikely that Gunaratne, who was selected the first World Press Institute Fellow from Ceylon in 1966, is unknown among the editorial bigwigs on The Island.  The editor of The Sunday Island, Manik de Silva, joined Lake House in 1962, the same year that Gunaratne joined. 

The Island cries its heart out to defend press freedom. Recently, it editorially denounced the appointment of Mervyn de Siva to the Media Ministry as inimical to press freedom. However, the self-same purveyors of press freedom have denied a senior colleague in their profession and a well-known communications scholar, the freedom to reach The Island readers.  Why?

Gunaratne’s Buddhist perspective is that  “sovereignty” and “freedom” associated with it in the Westphalian sense need abrogation in non-Western cultures to suit the context of Eastern philosophy. Buddhism asserts that nothing is independent; thus, sovereignty is an oxymoron; so is freedom. Daoism concurs: the reciprocal interactions of the yin-yang opposites (in Buddhist terms, the interactions of interdependent and interconnected factors) produce middle-path outcomes that keep on evolving. Only those experts who slavishly reify archaic Western definitions will defend these two concepts in the Treaty of Westphalia context.


 By Shelton A. Gunaratne

With regard to the recent debate on sovereignty in The Island newspaper, Kalana Senaratne (The Sunday Island, 25 April 2010) wrote,  “In fact, the point that I am raising here is in support of Dr. NJ’s overarching submission (which he seems to have clarified in his second article): That “ƒ”¹…”the emergence of international human rights law has resulted in a government’s treatment of its own nationals becoming the legitimate concern of the international community. It has also resulted in the individual becoming a subject of international law.'”

Chandrasiri Wijeyewickreme (LankaWeb, 24 April 2010), on the other hand, tries to expose the “expertise” of NJ, who brags about a book (published by Cambridge University Press) that made him (NJ) an authority on international law.

Wijeyewickreme sees NJ as a “Kalu Sudda” who was beholden to the ways of the West with little understanding of the country’s culture and ethos. He sees NJ’s concern with international law as a mere subterfuge to back Western intervention in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.

Although I do not necessarily agree with Wijeyewickreme’s conclusion, I tend to agree with Wijeyewickreme’s use of the term “Kalu Sudda” to describe NJ’s behavioral characteristics from the days he was a law student on the Peradeniya campus. I often noticed NJ hobnobbing with fellow Kalu Suddas and Kalu Suddis, a snobbish elite known on campus as kulturs, among the famous pillars facing the entrance to the university library. I do not use the term “Kalu Sudda” to vilify him.

Considering his background, I bet that NJ’s attempt to demystify state sovereignty is solely based on what he has been able to absorb from the scholarship of Western political science, UDHR, ICCPR, ICSECR. Western thinking held sway over the United Nations at the time of the adoption of the declaration and the two covenants that defined it.

The ICCPR commits its parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial. As of October 2009, the Covenant had 72 signatories and 165 parties. The United States Senate ratified the ICCPR in 1992, with five reservations, five understandings, and four declarations.

The ICCPR is part of the International Bill of Human Rights, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The ICESCR commits its parties to work toward the granting of economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) to individuals, including labor rights and rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living. As of December 2008, the Covenant had 160 parties. Although the United States signed ICESCR in 1979, the U.S. is not bound by it until the Senate ratified it.

NJ’s argument that these covenants have become international law thereby limiting state sovereignty is simplistic because powerful Western nations (like the U.S.) have not ratified those rights that clash with their capitalist, democratic, libertarian principles and philosophy. For the same reason, I cannot agree with Senaratne’s agreement with NJ’s reasoning.

The fact of the matter is that NJ’s asseveration that there is no such thing as sovereignty is absolutely correct but the reasons he and Senaratne have given for the absence of state sovereignty is absolutely wrong. “Kalu Suddas” like NJ are unlikely to have ever thought about the connection between the absence of sovereignty and the Eastern philosophical view of the universe.

Buddhist philosophy is very clear: Everything in the universe is interconnected and interdependent. It’s a mega cooperative of interacting networks of varying magnitudes. Quantum physics backs up this view of the universe, where everything is energy (including matter and information). The law of dependent co-origination (paticca samuppada) can explain every phenomenon in the universe. Nothing is/was/could be independent or sovereign. It shows the total ignorance of knowledge in Buddhism when the so-called Buddhist politicians of a country dare to claim that their country is sovereign/independent. Existence is anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (no-soul/interdependence)

NJ and Senaratne could have made a better case for their stand through Buddhist philosophy than through the gobbledygook of so-called international law, a Western construct to maintain its hegemony.

 (The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead. The opinions expressed are solely his.)

11 Responses to “The Island newspaper reneges on word to publish Buddhist perspective on sovereignty and freedom”

  1. Leelawardena Says:

    “Nothing is/was/could be independent or sovereign.” Says professor Gunaratna. I understood about the so-called independence of nations when I finish reading ‘confessions of an economic hit man’ by John Perkin. It is no easier to be independent today than the colonial times. We have to decide whether we want to be puppets of the neo-colonists and be slaves for ever or be independent by aligning with the nations of such aspirations.

    In my limited knowledge, everything that relates to ‘Paticca Samuppada’ has to do with the cessation of the whole mass of suffering. If I were to give some indications; in ‘Samyutta Nikaya’, ‘Kindered Saying’ part 11, one can read an interesting interpretation to ‘Paticca Samuppada’ in terms of happiness that could ultimately lead to sainthood. ‘Visuddhi Magga’ also refers to ‘Paticca Samuppada’ so as to explain the process of rebirth fully. To my knowledge, nowhere does ‘Paticca Samuppada’ relate to matters that are connected to governments or governance.

    Also, I do not understand why Gunaratne mentioned ‘anicca, dukkha and anatta’ while discussing his chosen subject of sovereignty. Moreover, how on earth Gunaratne can relate ‘Paticca Samuppada’ to the aspects of the sovereignty of a nation. I don’t know how long Gunaratne had been in Minnesota, but I could safely visualize Gunaratne is entangled in a cultural mix-up; I think, he is neither here nor there. Perhaps that is why, he had undermined the Buddhist politicians are ignorant of Buddhism.

    It is a good thing if Gunaratna could read Dasaja Dharmaya before he advice his Buddhist Politicians.

  2. Geeth Says:

    The problem here is not about the ideas, ideas are great. But great ideas can be so ineffective when they are not presented in the right space and time, or not putting in right context. “paticca Samuppadaya’ must be brought to revitalize our nation in Sri Lankan political space. We need it, because nation’s body needs to be immunized for harmful external attacks. But, in current global space, in which our nation is struggling under different theories and different contexts, Buddhism can be a good weapon for our enemies to take the advantage of it as well known Sinhala saying goes… like “Urage malu urage ange thiyala kapeema”. What we have to reconsider is how those ideas relate to current threat that Sri Lanka facing in front of the well theorized, well orchestrated attack to trap the nation. First and foremost, we need to ask ourselves if we are disagreeing of something that relates to current world order and its threat to the very existence of the nation or discussing issues with our people. Immediately we must separate these two. Please do not ever confuse the local with the vicious global. Let us ask few questions to get back to the track.

    1. Can we discuss about sovereignty out of the context of on going Trans nationalization of the globe, in which destroying all boundaries of nation state is the indispensable part of it, and at the moment that national sovereignty has become an obstacle to it?
    2. What mechanism that provides poor nations a sense of security in this current world order, other than sovereignty?
    2. Does sovereignty has any use in the current global system that is undergoing a vigorous restructuring for re-colonizing the global south under different pretexts?
    3. on what principle that current global power apparatus functions? Does that function on Buddhist principles or Western Christian principles?
    4. If current world order functions on Christian principles, can we influence it through ‘Paticca Samuppada?’
    5. We are well aware of the greatness of Buddhist philosophy. But do our adversaries aware of it?
    6. When all sorts of theories formulated to nullify third world sovereignty to bring all regions of the global south under western control, can ‘Paticca Samuppadaya’ be a useful weapon in the hands of our adversaries to attack our nation like the concept of ‘Ahimsa’ being used by Prof. Thumbaiah through his infamous book ‘Buddhism Betrayed’ to undermine our resolve to fight against terrorism?’ Don’t forget, “our tool can be a mortal weapon if it falls into the wrong hand, and if they hold it wrong.” We shouldn’t let them to sever our head by our own ‘pirith nool.’

  3. ajit.rand Says:

    I am afraid I have t oagree with Leelawardena on the issue.

    First of all, Buddhism deals with ‘personal’ emancipation from suffering and rarely deals with ‘national’ or ‘collective’ salvation apart from Buddha’s advice to kings etc. Buddha didn’t believe in salvation being delivered by anyone else.

    Every thing Professor Guneratne is saying about the The ICESCR is valid and the US has failed to sign or ratify organisations like the International Crime Commission (ICC).

    However, the issue of ‘national sovereignty’ should not be confused or mixed-up with the Buddhist view of ‘paticca samuppada’ etc: that comes down to good neighbourly behaviour, like if there is a fire in the neighbourhood we will fight it together. While we maintain good relations, we don’t attempt to dictate to, or to run the affairs of our neighbour. If they have a family dispute, that is their business!

    Likewise, in this interconnected world, each country, rich or poor, big or small, needs to respect the others’ right to manage their own affairs. To that extent, sovereignty does exist, and is enshrined in the UN Charter, just like other rights of countries and individuals.

    We need to fight to maintain sovereignty.

    Ajit Randeniya

  4. Priyantha Abeywickrama Says:

    This is an interesting and notable incident. It could be a result of certain lapses about local sensitivities. The term “Kalu Sudda” is a double edged knife that could have hurt the very people who make decisions at this portal. This local newspaper is essentially a Kalu Sudda version if the term is used to judge dark/brown skinned version of English, who live the English life. Whether local or overseas, every dark/brown skinned person other than English who live the life according to English Way could be considered Kalu Suddas including many English speaking Sinhala patriots quite contrary to self-denials. There are also very personal references contained in this article that might have attracted legal consequences.

    Cultural sensitivities tend to get lost by alienation. Even Lanka web has its own cultural sensitivities as well as insensitivities. As a matter of fact, this site remains insensitive to wholesale insults thrown at Sinhala people and stick hard to certain hardcore western rules. For that matter, I used the local (Sinhale’) cultural sensitivities to impose a seriously discriminatory comment in response to a slur thrown at Sinhala people on the basis that a well-known local website published the slur in the first place. In fact, they too have learnt the lesson just like the Island news.

    It seems many of you have ignored the writers and the type of articles that appear at this Upali Group news portal. I hope some of you remember how they used the media power to judge Sinhala people, criticise Sinhala people and to impose their values on Sinhala people a few years back. Obviously, colourful language responses have changed their policies and look more culturally sensitive than the typical western English news portals who act like they are law unto themselves. Having said that they are little Suddas who act like the big Suddas that you know to make a living off the vulnerable to-be-Kalu-Suddas and locally resident Kalu Suddas including the high and mighty who think, eat and breath English to develop themselves first under the mirage of developing the country. Being an ex-member of the local gang, Shelton should know better to go with the flow than against. The best you could do to local English community is to encourage migration and outsourcing the overdue correction. I wish that you could have achieved more by writing an email to the editor using the natural English language.

  5. Weeraya Says:

    If DR NJ is correct, then Islamic radicals also must be free to walk into USA freely. USA also should not be so draconian in protecting it’s borders. World being closely knitand intervowen does not mean any nation can freely invade our nation at their own will! Invasion of Iraq was a clear violation of it’s sovereignity! R2P is a load of nonsence introduced in order to achieve their expansionist agendas!

  6. ajit.rand Says:

    Hear! Hear!!


  7. cassandra Says:

    Ajit Randeniya has given the example of what action one would take if a neighbour’s house was on fire. But in relation to the role of the international community in respect of human rights abuses, I would suggest another scenario to consider. Imagine your neighbour gets drunk regularly and unjustly and unfairly beats his wife and children, all this happening within the four walls of his own house. What are you going to do? Because it is happening within his house, do you say to yourself that you do not wish to interfere in his personal life and let his wife and children suffer at his hands? Or, do you see out of a sense of justice and because of your shared humanity, that you have a duty to save his wife and children from his brutal behaviour?

    I do not consider that a nation’s sovereignty is some absolute thing that authorises it to do whatever it wishes in regard to its citizens. The authority is only in respect of things that are just and fair and accrue to the common good, and I can see how such things as basic human rights transcend the boundaries of national sovereignty.

  8. ajit.rand Says:

    Cassandra, you have brought out the very example I had in mind, but didn’t want to discuss.
    It is good that you raised it.

    The point is, where do you stop as a neighbour?

    What about a neighbour who is in to financial strife due to loss of job or business failure and their children are malnourished or starved? As a neighbour, do we take over the family budget and help them feed the children, or take the children away and put them in a refuge? Have we got the right to do any of these under the law?

    The UN Charter preserves the sovereignty of a country and non-intervention is an underlying principle of international law. The vast majorit yof the international community is not seeking to change these principles, only the US and UK do.

    Another issue is the reality of their ‘choosing’ to intervene, depending on as to ‘which’ neighbour is misbehaving. The US is notorious for looking the otherway when their puuppet regimes are committing unbelievable atrocities, but ‘picking on’ governments where their ‘friends’ may be waiting to grab hold of power, or they want access to resources in the country.

    The reality is that while we may not like the goings on in a particular country, our intervention (short of occupation of a country and taking over of its government) can help improve things. But that will be colonialism all over again. World history is replete with cases of this nature.

    What is going on now is not any genuine concern by the US, UK and France about the suffering of people, but an attempt to exploit these desperate people and their situation for their own purposes. The sudden concern for the Kurds in Iraq, or Tibetans, or Karens in Burma are political tools rather than true humanitarian concerns.

    If that is the case, they should be sending food shipments with no strings attached, rather than sending the marines!

    Do you agree Cassandra?


  9. Geeth Says:

    Your simplification of a complex apparatus of a global project of attacking sovereignty of peripheral world is sickening to death Cassandrahhhhhh!!!

  10. cassandra Says:

    Ajit.rand, your point is well made.

    In the meantime, I suppose that whilst it is all very interesting for us to be discussing these things, the reality is that if a nation that is strong enough sets its mind to it, it will find its own justification for intervention in the affairs of another country. And, in this, we need to be wary not merely of the West. Haven’t we painful memories from the 80s when India showed scant regard for the sanctity of sovereignty to intervene in the manner it did?

  11. ajit.rand Says:


    The thing is, the ‘western’ method of invasion these days is through ideology. They try to influence a fraction of local peoples, usually the young and impressionable minds, to provoke the government, create arrests, lead to street riots etc and then create a global propaganda campaign against the country. Iran, Zimbabwe and western China were classic recent examples of this method. They try on, and give up when they fail, like in each of these cases.

    Behind the scenes they put what they call ‘pressure’ on the governemnt to achieve their ends. Failing that they go to te UN Sec Council and try to bargain with any member who is against acting. That does not work any more after Russia and China worked out their objectives.

    The western forces do not want to ‘confront’ countries ‘cos of trade and other interests.

    In the case of India, the ‘parippu drop’ was realy only a very bad looking invasion of the air space only, caused by domestic political pressures. As you probably know Indian governments are always coalitions between the Congress and Tamil Nadu parties and they are compelled to give into pressure by the Nadu parties. That changed with the murder of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE and now they realise the danger of a Pan-Dravidian Elam for India.

    My basic point still is, any country wanting to help suffering IDPs should give material aid through the government. We are entitled, and we should be suspicious about other ‘campaigns’ they wage while the people starve to death.


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