Meaney’s essay on Sri Lanka Crawling with errors
by Padraig Colman (Michael O’Leary)
I recently moved closer to the fleshpots of Colombo after spending nearly 15 years enduring the privations of life in a remote location in the Uva Province. I have written about that life in Uva province here:
The move meant that I have got rather behind with my reading and have only just got around to reading the issue of the London Review of Books dated 2 February 2017. That issue contains an article on Sri Lanka by one Thomas Meaney. Because of my tardiness, two people have already beaten me to the punch and taken Meaney to task for errors in his essay. Michael Roberts and Jonathan Spencer are both academic anthropologists with a thorough knowledge of Sri Lanka that is both deep and wide.
Others have challenged Meaney’s contention that the country passively gave itself up to foreign conquerors and was in 1948 handed independence on a plate without having to fight for it. Nobody died, he claimed. We Irish (and I suspect Meaney has Irish antecedents) have long memories and are likely to bring the massacres of Cromwell at the slightest excuse. The Uva Province still bears the scars of what happened in 1818. In retribution for an uprising, the entire able-bodied male population above the age of 18 was killed and homes throughout the region were also destroyed. The British also destroyed the irrigation systems, poisoned the wells, killed all cattle and other domesticated animals, and burnt all cultivated fields.
I have seen a copy of Meaney’s CV and am confident that he is a very knowledgeable young man. However, leaving false modesty aside, I do not think that Thomas Meaney knows as much as I do about Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the prestigious organ has allowed him over 7,000 words to inform readers about the country I have chosen as my home. Unfortunately, he makes many egregious errors.
I am not concerned so much about value judgments like this one: “The Rajapaksa years now look like the most ignominious period in the country’s post-independence history.” Meaney is, of course, entitled to hold that opinion. I was myself (as I wrote in these pages https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/partisan-people-and-fissiparous-parties/) happy that Rajapaksa was ousted, but I do not think that history will judge MR as harshly as Meaney contends. After all, he ended 30 years of fear and improved the infrastructure of the country beyond recognition. Sri Lanka also made it into the ‘high’ category of the Human Development Index during Rajapaksa’s rule.
It is ten years since I last left Sri Lanka and I have experienced the warp and woof of daily life here. I certainly felt a huge improvement in the quality of life in Sri Lanka even in the backwater in which we lived. I listen to ordinary people like a couple who sell vegetables at the Badulla market. We have known them for 13 years; they used to be prosperous but now they are desperate; they wish Rajapaksa had not been ousted. Meaney writes dismissively about Gota’s transforming of “Colombo into a city of antiseptic beauty” but many of the affluent are worried about the effluent that is returning to the city because of the laxity of the current government. Many are nostalgic about Gota’s can-do spirit.
Replete with factual errors
Rather than disputing Meaney’s judgments, I am more concerned about factual errors that any decent copy-editor should have spotted and questioned with the author. Jonathan Spencer drew some of these to the attention of the LRB in a letter and the editors allowed Meaney a response. He was oddly offhand: “I thank Jonathan Spencer for clearing up errors for which I have only myself to blame. But some of his objections are unnecessary.” Who else could be to blame for his errors? What is that “but” doing there?
Jonathan Spencer has carried out fieldwork in Sri Lanka since the early 1980s, concentrating at first on rural change and local politics, but writing more recently on ethnic conflict, political violence and political non-violence. His current research looks at the fraught boundary between the religious and the political in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Prof. Spencer had pointed out that Meaney’s claim that the British “converted Ceylon’s inhabitants on a much larger scale than the Portuguese and Dutch had” was nonsense because there were four times as many Catholics as Protestants in the population in 1948. Spencer also said it was plain wrong to describe S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike as a member of the ‘Burgher class’ when he was a man from the highest caste in Sinhala society. Spencer also questions Meaney’s account of the JVP uprising: “The ‘fifty thousand youths’ who ‘descended on Colombo’ in 1971 are new to me, and I imagine to all other scholars of modern Sri Lankan politics.”
There are many more ludicrous errors. Meaney says that Mahinda Rajapaksa was from Matara. According to Wikipedia, he was born in Weeraketiya in the southern rural district of Hambantota. In his opening paragraph Meaney writes: “Solomon Ridgeway Bandaranaike, the anti-colonial head of State who took power in 1956…” Later he writes that “Bandaranaike’s wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became head of the SLFP and the world’s first female elected head of State…. “In fact, both Bandaranaikes held the office of Prime Minister. The head of State was Queen Elizabeth II. Also in the first paragraph, Meaney writes: “After independence in 1948, Ceylon alone among the former colonies not only retained but promoted the monarchy”. Did no-one at LRB notice the contradiction?
More confusion about office here: “Prabakaran participated in the assassination of the Governor of Jaffna”. On 25 April 1978, the LTTE issued an open letter, which was published in the “Virakesari”, claiming responsibility for the assassination of 11 people including Alfred Thangarajah Duraiappah in 1975. Duraiappah was the Mayor of Jaffna (elected by the people) and a Member of Parliament (elected by the people), not the Governor. Jaffna does not have a Governor. The Northern Province has a Governor who is appointed, not elected. Prabakaran, of course, was never elected by anybody. Another avoidable blunder was getting the Army Commander’s name wrong. Meaney calls him “Sarnath” Fonseka instead of Sarath.
Who fired that fatal bullet?
As Michael Roberts writes: “Thomas Meaney speaks with a certainty that brooks no doubt: ‘At the Nanthikadal lagoon, in the far north-east, Prabakaran was captured and killed. Photos of his execution and a gruesome video were widely disseminated.’ Since no documentation is deployed in these types of powerful media outlets, we have no means of checking Meaney’s conclusions.”
After citing the views of David Blacker who had served in the Sri Lankan Army, Roberts comments: “Alas, the Western world is dominated by journalists and intellectuals who have no experience in jungle warfare (or any form of warfare).”
Roberts uses Blacker’s expertise to quash D.B.S. Jeyaraj’s contention that the LTTE leader shot himself and questions the view that he was captured and summarily executed. H.L.D. Mahindapala wrote: “Nobody knows who fired the fatal bullet. It seems to be a gun shot fired within a range of about 10 metres.” Roberts surmises: most soldiers will tell you: more often than not, one sprays a round at vague figures of the enemy way in front of you … a frontline soldier has the luxury of identifying an officer or X and Y to target only on a few occasions”. I have no way of knowing how Prabakaran died, but then, neither does Meaney.
I am disappointed that LRB has seen it fit to publish this error-strewn essay rather than giving the job of reviewing books on Sri Lanka to people who have knowledge and expertise in the subject. I am sure that Michael Roberts or Jonathan Spencer would have made a better fist of it. There is insufficient space here to deal with all the dubious statements in the article. I may return to the subject later. Malinda Seneviratne commented: “There seems to be an over-indulgence in off-the-cuff remarks.” As political scientist and former ambassador Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka wrote to me: “The usual, wry well-written Orientalism, just like all the LRB pieces on SL through the years. You can’t really pick at this ball of wool, can you?”