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Mark Field, and the forgotten dimensions of misfortune and unfairness

Reparations 2

The United Kingdom’s Minister of State for Asia-Pacific at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Mark Field, is upset, we hear. He believes that it is unfortunate and unfair to represent the Geneva Resolution as inter as interference by the international community in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs.’

He is upset because he believes ‘the UK, along with many other friends of Sri Lanka, continues to warmly endorse the government’s principled decision to co-sponsor a resolution that provides a valuable framework for peace-building and reconciliation.’

So let’s talk of principles, that subjective notion which lends itself to abuse in diplo-speak. What gives Field an edge here is co-sponsorship. After all, if the government, which technically represents the people, have signed some document, objectors can be dismissed as spoilers. That the government did not have a mandate to be flippant about sovereignty is pertinent, but that’s easily ignored.

Since Field is attached to the Commonwealth Office he would know a lot about such things. Simply put the entire enterprise was about enslavement attended naturally by plunder and ethnic cleansing. He would know that the bloody operation could count on one thing: some slaves would be willing to trade body-chains to mind-chains. Such slaves there were and such slaves there are. They are the ones who are ready for cooptation; happy accessories after the fact of domination, one way or the other. They ‘go along’ simply because that’s what is dictated by the servility they embraced.

As for ‘Friends of Sri Lanka,’ Field should know that in international politics friendship is probably the cheapest word around. There is no friendship as such outside of appearances and courtesies; there is self-interest, period.

In fact he has let it slip. He has called for the replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act with a new Counter-Terrorism Act ‘which meets international standards’ (which of course the UK and it’s partner in international crime, the USA, regularly dip in the blood of the disposable, shall we say?). The reason? Well, Field says it’s what ‘the diaspora and others in the UK’ ask him about regularly, and therefore makes it something they [the diaspora, others and the UK] like to see. Now that is undisguised, honest, self-interest. The constituency is back home, not here in Sri Lanka.

Moving on, Field, who is visiting Sri Lanka, wants to focus on ‘finding the truth’. ‘It is fundamental’ he says. The truth, he says, is essential to restoring real confidence among communities. To this end, he wants to see ‘progress on accountability and truth-seeking mechanisms which (the mind-chained representatives of) Sri Lanka committed to in 2015.’

He is correct. Truth helps. Accountability is important. The mechanism, however, cannot work if it is designed by outsiders on account of pressure from non-nationals and agreed upon by ‘nationals’ without a mandate and moreover wedded to colonial ghosts. In other words, what’s unfortunate and unfair is for the likes of Field to whine and act as though history never happened, as though there was no bad after-taste, as though structures of domination are things of the past and as though politics of the moment and politics of the homeland (UK) have nothing to do with all this.

But he’s correct. Truth does help. Accountability is important. And charity begins at home. And that, takes us to a more inclusive discussion on misfortune, unfairness, accountability and truth-seeking.

Let Field, his ‘international friends’ and constituency reflect on the following:

‘A catalogue of antiquities and other cultural objects from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) abroad,’ is the title of a book by P.H.D.H. De Silva, published in 1974. It lists a considerable set of known artifacts stolen from this island. There are over 15,000 items listed. The loot it seems has ended up in 23 countries and 140 holding facilities. The vast majority are in Britain. Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Berkshire, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Sheffield, and Windsor all have ‘Little pieces of Ceylon’ so to speak. All stolen goods. For antique and historical value, each and every amulet, the tiniest statuette, the most fragile manuscript with hardly legible lettering, is priceless.

Perhaps it was an evacuation agreed upon. ‘Co-sponsored,’ if you will by the ideological ancestors of the current set of tag-alongs. However, if we abandon, as we should, the semantics, we are left with the immutable truth of theft.

There are truths Field would be more familiar with, such as the Theft Act of 1968 in the United Kingdom. Let’s go to Article 22, ‘Handling stolen goods’. It refers to ‘a person handles stolen goods if (otherwise than in the course of the stealing) knowing or believing them to be stolen goods he dishonestly receives the goods, or dishonestly undertakes or assists in their retention, removal, disposal or realisation by or for the benefit of another person, or if he arranges to do so.’ Article 22(2) declares that ‘A person guilty of handling stolen goods shall on conviction on indictment be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.’

The curators of all the facilities including the British Museum holding anything taken from any colony should therefore be incarcerated. More truths: The British Museum acquired in 1898 a collection of 2,227 manuscripts (prose and verse) mostly in Sinhala, Malayalam, Tamil and Pali gathered by Hugh Nevill between 1864 and 1897. Nevill never completed the critical catalogue he had set out to produce, but K.D. Somadasa compiled a detailed description in seven volumes which the British Library Press published in 1987.

It is unlikely that these were the only manuscripts ferreted out of the country by the British. The Cornell University Library, for example, holds the original of a ‘Catalogue of the Sinhala Manuscripts in the British Museum’ compiled by Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe and published in 1900.

If Field wants truth and accountability, since he’s right there in the Commonwealth Office, he can initiate a full investigation into these despicable thefts sanctioned by the British Governments of the time, so that confidence can be built between Sri Lankans and British citizens. Then, Field’s logic forces us to be more optimistic about true friendship. It is fundamental, to use the term Field prefers. Fundamental includes returning all things robbed from this island in the name of remorse and in the hope of reconciliation.

And so, in the name of possible friendship, let Mark Field make a full statement of disclosure. And in the process, let us hope that this gentlemen who waxes eloquent about the miseries, real or imagined, suffered by Sri Lankans, answers the following questions:

Would shipping out anything from this island constitute theft? Will the Theft Act be enforced to the letter with regard to goods stolen from this island? Will steps be taken to return the ‘Hugh Nevill Collection’ (sic) and all items detailed in De Silva’s catalogue be returned?

The United Kingdom’s Minister of State for Asia-Pacific at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Mark Field seems fascinated with the truth. It’s ‘fundamental,’ he said. Once truth is known, once accountability chairs discussion, we need to talk reparations. The good Mark Field will spare no pains to reinstate honor, dignity and civility to relations between Sri Lanka and the UK, I am sure. The ball, as they say, is in his court.

Malinda Seneviratne is a political analyst and writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com

By Malinda Senevirathna

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