Island of Refuge | Sunday Observer

Island of Refuge

1 October, 2017

When the mythological outcast, Prince Vijaya, and his band of fellow-exiles landed on the shores of this ‘Thrice Blessed Isle’, he was warmly welcomed by the inhabitants and given a home. Ever since that epoch-making moment, Sri Lankans have been welcoming of people from other lands.

“Too many!” some short-sighted hotheads might cry only to be hushed by the voices of reason, of the rationality for which the Dhamma is renowned. Sri Lankans, inspired as they are, by many religions and philosophies, are all too aware of their own predicaments of displacement - from border villages, from embattled home regions and, exile from country. Many a Sri Lankan household recalls temporarily hosting some friends or kin fleeing either human political disaster or natural disaster.

The Lankan instinct of ‘family’ spurred hundreds of Sinhala communities to rush down from the Uva hills to rescue Tamil and Muslim communities on the East coast hit by the Tsunami of 2004. They were the ‘first responders’ in many a human contingency during that catastrophe. Meanwhile, local Sinhala community groups of the North Central Province, led by village clergy, took a convoy of over 80 relief supplies-laden vehicles to Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

Last week, Sri Lankans reacted with disgust and shame when, on Tuesday, police had to be rushed in to prevent an emotionally charged mob from storming a house sheltering Myanmar Rohingya refugees. Ultimately, the refugees had to be rescued (again) by the authorities and sheltered in a detention camp for their safety!

In the first place, the little band of impoverished peasantry, the majority of who were children, had been rescued by the Navy and was housed in an officially maintained shelter, especially, for displaced people and refugees. The mob seems to have not heeded the obvious: that this was no den of surreptitious infiltrators or saboteurs. Strangely, even the saffron robed clergy – usually the spiritual guides - seen alongside the mob also seemed to ignore the facts of the situation.

Worse, the mob, judging from their public statements and their shouted slogans, seemed to boast inspiration from Sinhala ethnic ‘patriotism’ and not a Sri Lankan one. Have they forgotten the destiny of their mythical founding hero, Vijaya? Do they know their history, their civilization?

Even worse, some of the saffron-robed clergy seemed to be in the leadership of this unruly and threatening ‘demonstration’ confronting a suburban house of humanitarian shelter.

Every nation has its miscreants in its society. And every society responds to, and deals with, such miscreants in accordance to its highest standards and strictest protocols. A nation’s civilization defines how it deals with its own failings, its own inner demons.

This country and its society has struggled with its own failings, even its own ‘crisis of civilization’ as one of its epochal leaders described the ethnic violence of 1983. And it has shown the world how its peoples have fought among themselves, and striven again and again to reconcile and re-build a harmonious nationhood. At this very moment our political and community leaders are engaged in detailed negotiations and learned deliberations to map out the national way forward for national unity and ethnic co-existence.

An aspect of a stable and civilized society is its capacity for humanitarian aid – within the community or to neighbouring humanity seeking help. Our membership of the global community of nations renders us formal stakeholders in international responsibilities to help suffering people and communities at risk wherever they might be. It is in fulfilment of such global citizenship that Sri Lanka proudly deploys its troops in peace-keeping and humanitarian missions in various parts of the world.

Only the miscreants of our society, and the misled, act against such national endeavours. Whatever some miscreants might say, and the misled believe, our country is proudly committed to giving shelter to those in distress from wherever they may come.

Whatever mischief-makers may claim, the public has the confidence in the Navy which rescued these refugees adrift in the high seas. With its decades-long experience in defending the nation in actual war, can anyone doubt the procedure of the Navy, combined with the vetting by our Immigration administrators, AND the United Nations in processing and then caring for these refugees?

Any true ‘patriot’ will certainly want to know the facts. But, these facts are easily knowable without unruly demonstrations outside refugee shelters as any citizen should know. One would expect that clerics would lead the way in careful inquiry before leading mobs.

The sole argument trotted out by the ‘organizers’ of last Tuesday’s mob, that Sri Lanka is not obliged to give shelter to refugees is an anachronistic argument that is ignorant of our modern national status as a member of the UN. Sri Lanka has long observed the UN protocols for refugees with the minimum problem. But why the resort to legalese by this ethnic ‘patriotic’ mob? Does not Sri Lankan social custom have a far longer tradition of welcoming visitors and sheltering those who seek refuge?

Any citizen who knows her or his history and national myths will take pride in a much longer tradition of island hospitality and succour to the suffering. We hope that the authorities deal with this misbehaviour firmly while social as well as religious leaders need to lead the misguided away from such ill-informed and unruly actions.