Friday, October 17, 2008


Do we speak up or remain silent? Shanie

Pastor Martin Niemoeller

When the Nazis came for the communists,

I remained silent;

I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,

I remained silent;

I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade union ists,

I did not speak out;

I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,

I remained silent;

I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,

there was no one left to speak out.

Pastor Martin Niemoeller was a German clergyperson. As a young man, he served in the Germany Navy during World War I as a submarine commander. Towards the end of the war, when the German Workers’ Party was formed, Niemoeller was an enthusiastic supporter. Under Adolf Hitler’s leadership, the Party began to adopt a stridently nationalist line and changed the name of the Party to Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party. When a democratic election was held in 1933, Niemoeller, like most Germans, supported Hitler who was elected the German Chancellor. Once elected, Hitler began to turn fascist, suppressing all opposition and propounding racial theories that created a "master race" with all others considered inferior. In 1934, he established a totalitarian state – the Third Reich – with himself as Der Fuhrer, The Leader. A plebiscite overwhelmingly confirmed him in power and he was able to rule virtually without any opposition until the end of the War.

Niemoeller was unhappy with the direction that Hitler was taking and became a critic. He was sent to a concentration camp in 1937 and narrowly escaped death only because of his standing. He was released only at the end of the war in 1945. It was about this time, the "poem" quoted above was written and attributed to him. Post-war, Niemoeller became a committed pacifist, apologized for his past in supporting the National Socialists, and campaigned for nuclear disarmament. At the height of the cold war and the Vietnam War, he called for cooperation with the Communists and in fact travelled to Vietnam and met Ho Chi Minh, causing an uproar among the western conservatives. He served from 1961 to 1968 as a President of the World Council of Churches, the apex body of the world-wide Protestant Churches.

Niemoeller’s life and poem have a meaning for all of us. If we truly believe in democracy, we have to acknowledge that each one of us is entitled to our personal views. We cannot fault or punish anyone for having views different from ours. We have to treat everyone, however strongly we may disagree with that person, with dignity and respect. That is why, we need to condemn and do everything in our power to stop the meaningless abductions, violence and killings directed at people by those who disagree with them. That is why the killing of General Janaka Perera is so reprehensible. We refer to him because of his prominent public profile. But there are thousands of others like him who have had and continue to suffer violence because of their political, ethnic or religious position. Janaka Perera’s family had to undergo many indignities in respect of his funeral, a Magistrate has made adverse comments regarding the tardy manner in which the investigations into his death are being conducted and there has been no indication to reassure his family and the public that an independent and fair inquiry will be held to identify and bring the conspirators to justice. Surely there is something rotten in a system that allows this?

To whom does Sri Lanka belong?

After the horrors of July 1983 and a southern insurgency that followed soon thereafter, Sri Lanka engaged herself in a task of nation-building. From the early nineties to the middle of the following decade, there was a momentum towards building up a national identity. It was true that there were vocal and at times violent expressions of Sinhala/Buddhist and Tamil chauvinism during this period. The LTTE continued suppressing dissent in the North and East, assassinating mainly but not solely Tamils who sought to challenge the direction in which they were taking the Tamil civilian population. Similar fascists among the Sinhala community attacked Christian Churches and their pastors. Also in a few instances, the Muslims as a community were subject to violence. But despite these aberrations, the political leadership, notably President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, was resolute in the task of nation building and resolving the National Question in a manner that offered justice and equality to all communities.

But the gains of that decade are being lost in the last couple of years. The Army Commander’s remark that our country belonged to the Sinhalese has not provoked any denial from the political leadership. The UNP and civil society organisations have sought to distance themselves from this statement but it has not provoked any outrage among the ordinary public. On the contrary, judging by the correspondence columns in the media, there are many (it is possible that it is only the chauvinists who care to write) who share his views. That is a shame. It is the kind of silence that Niemoeller was to lament in his reference to the response of the German population to the fascism of Hitler.

In Tamilnadu in South India, a frenzy is being built up on the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka. But there are also courageous voices who dare to challenge the dominant trend. Malini Parthasarathy has written a devastating critique of the LTTE arguing that India should stick to its policy since the early nineties of non intervention directly in Sri Lankan affairs, a view undoubtedly shared by Editor N Ram of the Hindu newspaper in which Parthasarathy’s article appeared. The point is that we may have our own views, but we must not remain silent or be afraid to speak up if our views run contrary to the dominant trend. As is attributed to Edmund Burke, "All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men (and women) to do nothing."

Professionalism in


The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed serious concern at the plight of the tens of thousands of innocent civilians who are caught in-between the two parties involved in the conflict in the Vanni. Along with other world leaders, he has also stressed the need to offer the minorities a political solution to their grievances and the necessity for dialogue. It was however refreshing to read, to those of us who have been used to polemical outbursts from government spokespersons, to read the response of our High Commissioner in India, Romesh Jayasinghe. Asked on the sidelines of a function for his off-the-cuff comments on the Indian Prime Minister’s statement, High Commissioner Jayasinghe has stated,

"It will presumptuous for me to comment on the Prime Minister’s statement. I have read about the statement in the media. What I can say is that whatever the Prime Minister has said it will be regarded as most important by Sri Lanka, and we would keep in mind his observations while dealing with the situation. This is in the spirit of the warm and friendly relations between India and Sri Lanka."

Thank God we still have professional diplomats of this calibre in our Foreign Service.

Dialogue and a Political


We are sure President Mahinda Rajapakse does not share the views of Wimal Weerawansa that the current war is the political solution to the National Question. It sounds very much like the ‘Final Solution’ of the Nazis. But what is worrying is that, despite all the rhetoric and the symbolic summoning of the All Party (sic) Conference, no political package has been forthcoming. Tissa Vitarana’s statement that consensus has almost been reached (we have heard that many times) but that it will be presented after the war is over sounds very ominous. One fails to understand why it is necessary to wait for the war to be over. In fact, the end of the war will be hastened if a consensus package is presented now. We trust that the chauvinists who are now in President Mahinda Rajapakse’s camp are not going to have the last laugh on Minister Vitarana.


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