Saturday, April 10, 2010

Archaeology Used as Political Weapon

It isn't a new thing.  The ancient Egyptians chipped the names of out-of-favor predeceasors off of monuments they'd left behind and the latest newcomer had his name inserted instead. Conquerors routinely killed all the scribes, scholars and teachers and burned any libraries and/or smashed written records (such as cuneiform tablets) when they took over territory.  Exactly how many times was the great library at Alexandria burned before it finally came back no more?  Israelis and Palestinians chop down and burn olive trees demarcating ancient and not-so-ancient boundary lines.  In the USA right now, ancient Native American sites are being bulldozed and destroyed for commercial developments.  In Iran, the same is happening with pre-Islamic historical sites.

Mr. Don calls it "media control."  I remember how shocked I was the first time he brought up the concept, at least 10 years ago.  It's amazing how naive I continue to be...

We have seen the ongoing archaeological war unfolding in Israel and the disputed territories.  Now the same thing is happening in Sri Lanka - or Ceylon, as it used to be called.  Today, the battle not only is taking place in the trenches (literally), but also in the trenches of public opinion.

A small sample of this developing global war for public opinion was recently displayed in The Ottawa Citizen where I found this letter to the Editors:

Rewriting history
The Ottawa Citizen
April 10, 2010
Re: Archaeology new weapon in post-civil war Sri Lanka, April 7.

Being a history buff, I have difficulty to accept the premise that Sri Lanka now has something called ethnic archaeology. Tamil archaeologists digging in the north say that they are the first settlers and the Sinhalese archaeologists say, "Oh, no, you are not."

Sri Lanka's history goes back 2,600 years and historic archaeological sites are dotted all over the island, especially in the north-central areas. This is why the Tamil Tigers made every effort to excavate and demolish such sites fearing that the Sinhalese some day will claim their rich history rooted even in the Jaffna peninsula, which the Tamils claim as theirs.

Since the 1970s, the Tamil Tigers have tried to get rid of the Sinhalese and Muslim communities who had lived for generations in the north. It was one way how Tamils tried to claim that the north was their historical homeland. It is no surprise to me that the Tamils will do anything to destroy and obliterate any immovable archaeological site which would point to historic roots for the Sinhalese who had lived in the north for centuries before the Tamils arrived as invaders from South India.

Asoka Weerasinghe,

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
Wondering what The Ottawa Citizen may have published that sparked such a letter, I went looking - but I was not able to locate the article in question at the newspaper's website, guess my search skills are no longer up to snuff. But I did find this April 6, 2010 article from the Times Online, which I suspect may have been published by The Ottawa Citizen:

April 6, 2010
Archaeology sparks new conflict between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese
Jeremy Page, South Asia Correspondent

[Image: From article, a tiger jumping through a halo, the symbol of the Tamil Tigers, is still visible in the northern city of Kilinochchi ? once a rebel stronghold, but today patrolled by government troops]

Recent visitors to Kilinochchi, the former capital of the Tamil Tigers, had noticed something unusual — there was a single, new building standing among the bombed-out ruins of the abandoned city in northern Sri Lanka. It was a whitewashed Buddhist shrine, strewn with flowers. “We thought it strange because there was no one there except soldiers — the civilians had all fled,” one of the visitors said.

Officers told them that the shrine had been damaged by the Tigers and renovated by the army — recruited largely from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority — after the rebels’ defeat a year ago next month. “It’s an ancient site,” Major-General Prasad Samarasinghe, the chief military spokesman, told The Times.

Many Tamil archaeologists, historians and politicians disagree. They say that the area had been populated for centuries by the ethnic Tamil minority, which is mostly Hindu. “There was nothing there at all,” Karthigesu Sivathamby, a retired professor of Tamil history and literature at the University of Jaffna, said.

The true origins of the site may never be known without independent analysis — which is impossible while the army restricts access to the area. Many Tamil community leaders fear that the shrine is part of a plan to “rediscover” Buddhist sites and settle thousands of Sinhalese across the north to undermine the Tamils’ claim to an ethnic homeland. [Cf. what the Communist Chinese government has been doing for years in resettling ethnic Han Chinese in traditionally Uighar lands, as well as other ethnic minority areas considered "territories," such as Tibet.]

They also worry that such efforts will accelerate if the ruling coalition, led by President Rajapaksa, the country’s ethnic Sinhalese leader, wins a two-thirds majority in parliamentary elections due on Thursday.

“The Government is putting up new Buddhist shrines and building permanent housing for soldiers,” Suresh Premachandran, an MP from the Tamil National Alliance, said. “They are trying to colonise the area, to show it belongs to the Sinhalese.”

He said that the army was building housing for 40,000 soldiers and their families in the north, even before it has finished resettling 300,000 Tamils who were held in internment camps after the war. The army says that it does have that many troops there but denies settling their families and says it is simply renovating old military camps — and occasionally renovating Buddhist and Hindu shrines.

“We’re just trying to protect the people and make sure the [Tigers] don’t come back,” General Samarasinghe said.

So begins a new chapter in a dispute that began with the birth of archaeology in Sri Lanka, under the British in the 19th century, and that grew into a civil war that lasted 26 years and killed 100,000 people.

When the British took control of the country in 1815, they were unsure of its ancient history but soon embraced the legend of the Mahavamsa — a text written by Buddhist monks in about AD500.  It suggests that the Sinhalese are descended from Prince Vijaya, an Aryan prince exiled from northern India in about 500BC, and that Tamils did not migrate from southern India until 200 years later.

That theory — still taught in schools — underpins the Sinhalese chauvinism that ultimately drove the Tigers to launch their armed struggle for an independent homeland in 1983.  In fact, archaeologists had discredited that after independence by excavating settlements in the north that dated from long before 500BC and showed similarities to sites in southern India — suggesting a much earlier migration.

When the conflict began, they were forced to suspend excavations and many Tamil archaeologists fled into exile overseas. Since the end of the war, archaeology in the north has resumed — and with it the debate over the country’s ancient history.

“For three decades we haven’t been able to do anything in the north,” Senarath Dissanayake, the head of the Government’s Archaeology Department, said. “Now we can find out about how ancient people lived here — their culture, economy, social background, living conditions and religion.”  He said that his department had identified 60 old sites in the north in the last year — and six completely new ones, dated between 300BC and AD1000.

Some Tamil academics question why the new sites are all from a period when Sinhalese Buddhist culture is thought to have flourished. Others want more Tamil archaeologists involved, as well as foreign experts or the UN, to ensure that the work is objective.

“The archaeological department is the handmaiden of the Government,” said one prominent Tamil scholar, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. “The concern is that they’re going to identify these sites as Sinhalese, build lots of Buddhist shrines and tell Sinhalese people this is their lost land.”

The Government announced last month that 300,000 local and foreign tourists had visited the northern province since the war ended – and officials say that the vast majority were Sinhalese from the south.

Government archaeologists deny identifying sites on ethnic or religious grounds.

“The emphasis from the President is that there should be a balancing of Buddhist and non-Buddhist sites,” said Sudarshan Seneviratne, the head of the Central Cultural Fund, which finances archaeology. “He’s a smart politician. He knows how to cater to all communities.”

Mr Seneviratne accepted, nonetheless, that there were “parochial” forces who wanted to use archaeology for political purposes. Principal among them on the Sinhalese side is the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Buddhist monks’ party that is part of the ruling coalition, and has a powerful influence on Mr Rajapaksa.

Its clout was illustrated last month when the Government refused a visa to Akon, a Senegalese-American R&B singer who had been due to perform in Colombo this month.

Activists had protested over the video for Sexy Bitch, a song that showed bikini-clad women dancing around a pool, with a Buddha statue in the background. The protesters said that the Sri Lankan Constitution obliges the state to “give Buddhism the foremost place” and “protect and foster” the religion.

The JHU invoked the same argument in December when it presented 29 demands to Mr Rajapaksa, including one for him to rebuild dozens of Buddhist sites in the north. His response has never been made public but the JHU — which is led by a passionate amateur archaeologist — claims that the President concurred.

“He agreed to take immediate steps to restore Buddhist sites in the north,” Udaya Gammanpila, a senior JHU member, said. “He said the army and the archaeological department were already working on it.”

Even if that is untrue, the JHU can directly influence archaeology because Champika Ranawaka, its chief ideologue, is Environment Minister and his approval is required to excavate and protect sites. Foreign archaeologists familiar with Sri Lanka say that the country — which is approximately 70 per cent Sinhalese and 20 per cent Tamil — needs to move past the ethnic issue. [Good luck, dudes!  Not in my lifetime - probably not in several of my lifetimes!]

“That debate will never be answered by archaeology,” Robin Coningham, a professor of archaeology at Durham University, said.

Tamil scholars say that that may not be possible with the JHU in government and the army empowered to rebuild Buddhist shrines on contentious sites.

“Archaeology has always been political in Sri Lanka,” said one Tamil historian overseas, who also did not want to be identified for fear of endangering relatives in Sri Lanka. “It’s no different today.”

Major monuments

Sigiriya Remains of the 5th-century palace of Sinhalese King Kasyapa, built on a 370m (1,200ft) high outcrop

Polonnaruwa Ruined city, famed for its Buddhist frescoes, it was the country’s capital in the 12th century

Anuradhapura Ancient city with monasteries, man-made lakes and the Jetavana Dagoba — said to be the world’s largest brick stupa. It was the capital from 4th century BC to the 11th century

Kandy The last seat of the Sinhalese kings, defeated by the British in 1815. Also site of temple said to have a tooth of the Buddha

Galle Home to a fort, built by the Portuguese after their invasion in 1505 and developed by Dutch invaders after 1656. They added ramparts and built churches

Dambulla A complex of cave temples with ancient wall paintings

Sinharaja National park and ancient forest reserve, said to be the last primary rainforest. [Said to be last primary rain forest? Dudes, satellite photographs reveal the truth.  Duh!]
This all just makes me sick to my stomach.  For the past few weeks since I have been involved in a journey to discover my "roots," I have been confronted with evidence that shows me as nothing else could that I am related to literally hundreds of thousands of descendants of people who journed to the New World during the 1600s and later - all of my European ancestors.  But those European ancestors also had ancestors, even if I cannot trace them back because the written records cease to exist after a certain point.  I'm here - alive and breathing.  The fact that I can trace my Belanger ancestors to the 1560's is something remarkable to me, but that's not a patch on their beginnings.  Those ancestors did not just spring up out of the earth like mushrooms with baptismal and marriage and death records all nicely recorded, and neither did their ancestors, or their ancestors before them.  If we could go back far enough, we would see through the pictorial power of genealogical charts that we all spring from a very small wellspring of humans.

So why the hell are we beating up on each other so?  For territory?  For money?  For fleeting power?  For our various gods? Oh please. Take a look at the comments at the end of this Times article if you think I'm full of baloney.  They tell the story as nothing else can.

In the end, we are all buried in Mother Earth, or our burnt-up ashes are scattered to the winds.  So, what good have we done?  What can we say to ourselves, during those last few precious moments of breath and life, that we have done to make the world a better place?  That we have killed x-number of people because they were not "us"?  That we have perpetrated archaeological and historical lies for the sake of furthering a particular political agenda?  That we hated our neighbors better than they hated us?

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