Sunday, September 16, 2012

Our Historical Memory Loss

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 16-09-2012, UNDO, page 3

“CMC busts Rs.5 m for just one lecture” is the headline of a news item published in ‘The Nation’ (February 19, 2012) referred to the Mayor of Colombo approving a workshop at Kandalama Hotel. It was claimed that the “… Kandalama Hotel (was) a project vehemently condemned by his party [i.e. the UNP] a decade ago during the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration”. This is incorrect. The Kandalama Hotel was built during the United National Party administration and opened before Kumaratunga became President.

H.L. Seneviratne gives the date given for the above mentioned massive protest campaign or the satyagraha held in Dambulla as 12th June 1991, in his book The work of kings: the new Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It predates the events by a year and one month!

Construction work on the hotel, located in the catchment area of Kandalama Wewa, begun in late 1991 with the strong backing of the Premadasa Government and in spite of protests based on the location of the hotel, the possible negative impact on culture etc. No construction is allowed in the catchment area of a tank under the traditional systems that prevailed in the country. It was claimed that people living in traditional villagers were also removed from the catchment area of Kandalama tank when it was renovated in 1960s.

The Kandalama protest campaign gathered the support of various groups - civil activists, environmentalists and also some politicians then in the opposition. Then, as now, there was no lack of people ever ready to agitate against the Government. The climax of this campaign was the massive satyagraha demonstration at the slopes of the Rangiri Dambulla Rajamaha Vihara on July 12, 1992. In fact some opposition vowed to convert the hotel into a hospital when thy capture power. An inquiry was held by the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration and it was found there are no serious issues arising from the hotel. The hotel is now recognized for being environment-friendly, subsequent to some alterations in its design. It nevertheless remains square on the catchment area.

This is not a malady restricted to Sri Lanka or Sinhalese. Time blurs, discolors and in other ways alter memory. Indeed, the erroneous may even replace the real (like the above mentioned event) and may be buttressed by invented folklore.

Such situations ate often called “historical memory loss” where “historical memory” is defined as the collective understanding that a specific group of people shares about past events which this group perceives as having shaped its current economic, cultural, social, and political status and identity. It is a term that is yet to be fleshed out of course, but it is getting frequent mention in academic circles.

There are other lesser known examples, for instance the ceremonial opening of the Tower Hall Theatre, Colombo in December 1911. The story based on an “eye witness account” and the printed script of a drama mentions that the hall was opened at an event held in the presence of the then Governor of Sri Lanka and other distinguished guests. The Governor, Sir Henry McCallum was not in the country in the entire month of December, and it was the Mayor of Colombo who was the chief guest. The date given for the opening is 6th December in that story, but it was opened only on the 16th as revealed by contemporary newspaper reports. The true story of Tower Hall Theatre opening will be included in the forthcoming book titled Tower rangahal vamsa katawa by Prof Tissa Kariyawasam.

Such errors creep into popular writing as well as in academic writing but could be remedied by referring to authentic sources. The best way to minimize error is to check official records of relevant institutions (government or non government), contemporary literature including diaries of reliable individuals and the comparing of newspaper reports.
The memory of the Sinhala people (majority of the country) lasts only for a period of two weeks, some say. That is a lie that was turned to ‘fact’ by Velupillai Prabakaran and later picked up (perniciously) as “fact” and abused by those with their own vested interests. It’s more than three years since terrorism was defeated. Have the people forgotten? The Government believed the people will remember the victory over terrorism and show gratitude. The opposition thought otherwise. The ruling party won, some will say because things were remembered.

Some will say the era of terror and its impact should be remembered as it will be a lesson for the future too. Will it be erased from memory? Will it be mis-remembered? We don’t know. The not knowing is perhaps the charm of remembrance and learning lessons, or the forgetting and still learning lessons no less skewed.

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