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A Burgher perspective on politics in Sri Lanka today

Ha! Said a Burgher who was having a chat with me about the current political situation and the politics of Sri Lanka in general. If you didn't know it, Burghers are passionate, even fanatical, individualists and if there are 45,000 of us in the country, that's 45,000 different opinions about politics, politicians and everything else.

Pieter Keuneman

Even though designated a political community by the British in 1800, Burghers have, by and large, avoided politics like the plague (and sundry other factors) their ancestors fled from. Certainly, this does not mean that they didn't take to politics. They did. That was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As a matter of fact, the first voice raised for internal self-government and subsequently for full independence came from leading Burghers who led the embryonic movement for representative government. However, the agitation was conducted with decorum, decently and in order and without breaking the Law that then prevailed.

Ha! Continued my Burgher friend, You must be off your b--y rocker to write about Burghers and politics. Perhaps he was right but I also have the right to freely express my opinion and what I think is the Burgher perspective on politics in the country today.

Burghers, as a people of European origin and of mixed descent, have always been a bridge between the indigenous inhabitants and those from the West because they share the cultures of both and have evolved their own unique synthesis of both to create a distinctive Burgher culture. Therefore, they, more than anybody else, have always possessed an advantageous overview in other words, the Big Picture that is being painted on the canvas of Time.

It should also be said that activist Burghers are not afraid to swim against the current and stand up and be counted. Some notable examples come to mind: A.E. Buultjens, a Cambridge graduate who became a Buddhist and the first principal (1890-98) of the leading Buddhist educational institution in the country: Ananda College.

Buultjens was also a pioneer of the nascent labour and trade union movement, organising printers at H. W. Cave & Co., who struck work in 1893. Then, Pieter Keuneman, another product of Pembroke College, Cambridge University.

He was the only Burgher to be prominent in post-independence, was successively secretary and president of the Cambridge Union and edited the Union's learned journal, 'Granta', worked as a journalist in Lake House for a short while and went on to become a founding member of the United Socialist Party in 1941.

That became the Ceylon Communist Party in 1943. He was the Party's first secretary-general, president of the CP-led Ceylon Trade Union Federation and in Parliament continuously from 1947 to 1977 representing the multi-member Colombo Central constituency. He became a fluent speaker in Sinhala and Tamil.

He left his library of over 10,000 volumes to the Jaffna Public Library. George Keyt was a cultural catalyst, a leading modern artist and well versed in Sinhala and Sanskrit.

The Legislative Council from 1833 to 1931 had many Burghers who represented the community and distinguished themselves. The Colombo Municipal Council, founded in 1856, had a Burgher Mayor, Dr. Vivian R. Schokman, in 1937, and several prominent Burghers were members from its founding to recent times. Some of these notable personalities were: Charles Ambrose Lorenz, C.L Ferdinands, Dr. J.W. van Geyzel, and F.C. Loos; (Sir) Samuel Grenier was its first secretary. Dr. Peter Daniel Anthonisz served in the Galle Municipal Council and by special permission of the Governor was also a member of the CMC and represented the Burgher community in the Legislative Council from 1886 to 1895.

The first Burgher in politics was J.H. Hillebrand who was followed by J. B. Giffening, then (Sir) Richard Morgan, C.A. Lorenz, James Maartensz, C.H. Ferdinands, James van Langenberg, (Snr.), Dr. P.D. Anthonisz, H.L. Wendt, F.L. Loos, James van Langenberg (Jnr.), Francis Beven, and Dr. W.G. van Dort.

The first elected members were: Sir Hector van Cuylenberg, Charles Vander Wall, Allan Drieberg, N. J. Martin, Arthur Alvis, H.A. Loos, C.E. de Vos, George A. Wille, and Dr. V.R. Schokman. Others in the post-independence era were R.S.V. Poulier, Dr. Eric S. Brohier, and Senator Eric LaBrooy.

However, racism (and racist politics) slowly raised its head (a first manifestation was during the Sinhala-Moor riots of 1915) during the deliberations of the Donoughmore Commission (1927-31) where D.S. Senanayake, representing the conservative political establishment, was on record as strongly opposing the grant of universal adult suffrage, i.e., the vote to all permanent inhabitants of the Island.

He also strenuously opposed giving the vote to the plantation workers of recent Indian origin then disparagingly referred to as coolies.

The Commissioners disallowed his submissions, granted full adult universal franchise and scrapped an income qualification that would have limited the vote to just about 200,000 voters out of a then population of four million. The Burghers saw the appointment of the new government under the Donoughmore Constitution as the writing on the wall. Their perception has been proved right over and over again by subsequent events, most of them both tragic and traumatic.

Even though DS was always portrayed as a strong nationalist, his policy of drawing the various ethnic groups together into a cohesive whole had one glaring exception: the hard-working, almost slave-like Tamil plantation workers who had been involuntarily brought into the country since 1822 by the British to work on the tea and rubber plantations. Several generations had been born on the plantations and they had no other home even though some of their wealthy supervisors (thalaivars/kanganies) travelled frequently between British India and Ceylon.

DS saw the election of seven plantation Tamils elected to the State Council in 1931 and again in 1936 and though he had a congenital fear of communism he knew at first hand that their natural leader, Satyamurthy Thondaman, was no Marxist and wouldn't lead his people into the communist fold and he didnt from 1931 to 1947 a sixteen-year period during which he led the Tamil plantation workers until the Ceylon Indian Congress was formed in 1939, (which later became the Ceylon Workers Congress, the country's largest trade union).

He led it and transformed it into a powerful political party, and was successful in obtaining full citizenship status for his people disenfranchised by DS in 1948.

The Burgher leaders watched with considerable and growing disquiet the formation of the first Tamil political party, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1944, and the breakaway faction that became the Tamil Federal Party in 1949, and also took serious cognizance of Moor organisations converting themselves into political parties representing the interests of the Muslims (Moors and Malays mainly). This was race-based politics that began sounding the death-knell of liberal democratic politics in this country.

They steadfastly refused to convert the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon into a political party, preferring to exert their influence culturally, socially, and economically and as always, staying loyal to the Government in power and abiding by the laws of the land.

The Burgher leaders shone in the first half of the 20th century; the same cannot be said of the leaders of the community that followed from 1951 because their eyes were focused on greener pastures overseas, notably Australia, Britain, and Canada.

They failed to provide enlightened leadership to the community and, as a direct result; the Burghers gradually sank into a shadowy obscurity and a debilitating poverty barring a few fortunate exceptions.

Indeed, there was nothing to prevent Burghers from learning the Sinhala and Tamil languages and excelling in them except that their leaders provided no back-up to them to become an essential part of the Sri Lankan nation.

As the 21st century dawned, Burghers realised that they must emerge from their obscurity, leave the shackles of poverty behind, and once again claim the natural rights of fully co-equal citizenship. A new generation of dynamic Burghers has now emerged and is restating in no uncertain terms their right to be both seen and heard.

The unfortunate division of the Sri Lankan polity into politics based on nothing more than personalities rather than policies that would develop Sri Lanka leaves the Burghers increasingly dismayed because such shallow and superficial politics is contributing to the rapid disintegration of Sri Lanka into ethnic-based enclaves run by gangsters and extortionists.

Burghers, whatever their political affiliation (or the lack of it) strongly believe that liberal democracy (as practised in, for example, Switzerland) does not mean domination by either a majority or manipulation by a minority as has been the practice in Sri Lanka since 1931. For them the practice of liberal democracy means distancing themselves from the narrow confines of race, caste, class, religion, language, and territorial homelands.

They would welcome a secular polity that strongly believes in the Rule of Law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the several conventions thereunder, transparency, and clean politics free of the taint of majoritarianism and the twisted compromises that favour one minority over another.

Burghers are appalled by terrorism and terrorists and have never ever believed that such methods should be used to gain political or other objectives.

Therefore, it is safe to state that Burghers can never support the objects of terrorism and that they also strongly abhor the use of violence to attain any object. They believe that fundamental reforms are necessary and that structural changes should be made to ensure a just and free society but that such things should be done in a civilized manner as befits human beings.

For Burghers, the very essence of life means the attainment of refinement, improvement, sophistication, and elegance; it means an appreciation of the fine arts and the highest ideals of civilization. Such a condition of tranquility could only exist within the cocoon of peace.

Peace (not the temporary absence of war) can only come if it is recognized that every permanent inhabitant of this island is a fully co-equal citizen possessed of an inherent dignity and innate self-respect as a human being and that this condition of equality is recognised by all the majority as well as all the minorities and that no one is more equal than anybody else.

It would also mean a constitutional sea change that would recognize the unconditional equality of all races, religions, languages, cultures, and the social and economic status of all the permanent inhabitants without even a wisp of a shadow of favour to any. That means that bigotry, racism, intolerance, divisiveness, and chauvinism, would be outlawed.

All decent citizens of Sri Lanka would endorse the Burgher perspective on what the politics of Sri Lanka should be (and could be) if we regain our senses and halt the slide over the abyss into irremediable chaos.

As that genetic fusion of East and West the Burghers whose ancestors literally fled the ever-contentious continent of Europe because of persecution, tyranny, poverty, and discrimination, a strongly imprinted racial memory remains in the Burgher consciousness that abhors everything that smacks of the use of force, duress, coercion, and compulsion. Burghers are free spirits who joyously celebrate life as a perpetual fiesta and they do so on every occasion that presents itself without being melancholic or fatalistically submissive to karma or whatever.

Let this be a catalyst that would resurrect the process of recreating a just society where free spirits could thrive to the fullest extent of each individuals natural potential.



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