Political Kunu Harupa: Badly Used ‘Bad’ Words

In Sri Lanka, even the best-laid arguments can be overturned by a single word or phrase: ‘imperialist conspiracy’, ‘NGO karayas’ and ‘diaspora’s haunt our political rhetoric.

A phrase or an adjective, judiciously headlined, can still invalidate an opinion even while bullets are withheld. A speech that repeats a cliché enough times can license barbarism among vegetarians.

The legacy of all the bad habits, precedents, and lies of a long broken democracy is rooted in our political language. These are the words that can turn filth into flowers and intellectuals into ingrates.

Imperialist Conspiracy/Foreign Conspiracy (අධිරාජ්‍යවාදී කුමන්ත්‍රණ/ විජාතික කුමන්ත්‍රණ)

This phrase was a desperate gimmick for deflecting blame during Rajapaksa’s regime. Where challenge could not be ignored, it was important for propagandists to call it a foreign conspiracy or an imperialist conspiracy. In the speeches of parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa, it even gained the eminence of a theodicy, explaining the possibility of evil in the omnipotent rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“Just when this country has swept away the LTTE terrorists and is entering the road of development as a nation, [there are elements] who instigate imperialist conspiracies to create an anarchy within the country. Therefore, as the second chapter of the freedom struggle, we must act as one to defeat those conspiracies.”

–       Nuwan Kodikara and Chamira Alaldeniya – quoting parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa for Dinamina on March 12, 2009

Predictably, the candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena against incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa received the same treatment.

“A group of senior members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) today described SLFP stalwart Maithripala Sirisena contesting the upcoming Presidential polls as the common candidate against Mahinda Rajapaksa, is part of an international conspiracy to create political instability in Sri Lanka.”

–       Lakna Paranamanna – reporting to the Daily Mirror on November 22, 2014

The phrase was called to service when dealing with Sarath Fonseka, the former Army Commander who continued to draw public support even after his incarceration.

“Use your valuable vote to defeat imperialist conspiracies… In the moment where this country is being taken towards development, after the cruel war that went on for 30 years of destroying valuable human assets and all properties, there are international conspiracies to take the great, heroic warriors including the President and the Defence Secretary to the International Criminal Court. Among them is the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka who had stated that the present leader of government is not worth a hair of Velupillai Prabhakaran.”

– Unattributed news feature in Dinamina – quoting parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa on January 31, 2014

Here is the more day-to-day vilification of human rights as an imperialist conspiracy:

“Yet there is also a group who were angered by this victory… The weapons, accusations and calumny employed by these foreign powers have taken a strange shape. The clamour about the ethnic conflict that was raised those days have now become a dud. Now it is an outdated weapon. Their latest weapon is human rights and accusations of war crimes. In order for our President to bravely face these imperialist conspiracies, the necessary strength, conscience and blessings of the people are there in ample supply.”

–       Kumari Balasuriya – the governor of the Southern Provincial Council – writing to Dinamina on November 18, 2011

Eeniya (ඊනියා)

The ubiquitous but mysterious eeniya.

The nett achievement of war-time propaganda was to compact all its manufactured neuroses and paranoias into this Sinhalese word. Its contemporary character is as an adjective, for example in the formation Eeniya Eelam (ඊනියා ඊළාම්). Its use in the form of the noun Eeniyava (ඊනියාව – or, roughly, the Eeniya), in the self-description of a YouTube channel by the name of Sri AV TV Network, seems anomalous.

Sandagomi Coperahewa, Professor of Sinhala at the University of Colombo, told Roar that the word was originally the morally neutral compound “ඒ නියා (such of that kind)”. The modern, pejorative use of the word can be etymologically faithful if it’s used within a paradigm of irony. The routine accusation of eeniya in today’s journalism, however, is a result of thoughtlessness.

“It appears,” Coperahewa wrote to Roar, “in classical Sinhala works such as Ummagga Jathaka, Butsarana (12th century) to denote the meaning ‘such’. However, the meaning ‘ so-called’ (often used sarcastically) [only] appears in modern colloquial usage. ඊනියා පඬිවරු (so-called pundits). Now the old meaning ‘ such’ does not appear in the current usage.”

Being abused with impunity, the word now only has an effect, and no longer an exact meaning. Perhaps its most extreme use was by Nalin De Silva, the self-made philosopher who had accused the whole of Western civilisation, from medical science to art, of being eeniya, or a fabrication. Like all the other words that follow in this list, its purpose is always to discredit and to vilify.

Here it is, in editorials, headlines, and columns, substituting news items with our childhood fears:

 “The traitors who – betraying our own motherland, showing encouragement and empowerment to Prabhakaran’s eeniya Eelam War, and justifying that violence – have joined the [pariah foreigners]… Being the obedient servants of the [pariah foreigners] – who are inheritors of a disgraceful history that piled up mountains of corpses – it is the vocation of these morons to betray the country. However, we shall not see anyone who betrays the motherland as sons and daughters of mother Lanka. Nor shall we identify them as such.”

–       Editorial – divaina.com – titled “Give no space for traitors!” (දෝහින්ට ඉඩ නොදෙව් !

“Mister Wimal Weerawansa has noted that in the guise of inviting Mister Sarath Fonseka to an interview, they are trying to create eeniya human rights problems for Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.”

–       Akitha Perera – on divaina.com – referring to a statement made by Wimal Weerawansa, National Freedom Front President and MP

Here is the continued appearance of eeniya, since the January 2015 elections, after the reversion of prey and predator:

“The eeniya Joint Opposition creating a new government is only a dream.”

–       S.M. Panagoda – writing for mawbima.lk on January 2, 2017

“By giving false interpretations to the new constitution which is presented in order to create national unity, the Eeniya patriots are committing a crime against the future generation of children.”

–      Headline – hirunews.lk – referring to a speech made by President Maithripala Sirisena

“The people who suffer today caught in the traffic jam on the Kelani Bridge must remember that it is because these eeniya red protesters that the Japanese aid was delayed this much today. The harm caused by this is immense.”

–       Minister Paatali Champika Ranawaka – quoted by Rivira.lk on March 3, 2017

In all the examples above, the word is in the employ of those in power, and is in reference to those who compete with them for that power. Their common message is twofold: first, the reader is reminded of a collective cause and an underlying sense of guilt; then, the reader is informed of an act of sabotage, and is left with a supply of legitimised hate.

To say that the word is a synonym for the common enemy would be to underestimate its occult influence. Re-read example number 1; notice that it distinguishes between two classes of enemies. The word parayan (පරයන්) has the same role as its loaned counterpart “pariah” does in English – it refers to outsiders or outcasts. The word eeniya is attached to the second, the more insidious class of enemy – the enemy within.

A historic equivalent of this would be the word “quisling”. First appearing in Norway in the 1930s, the word originates from the Norwegian politician Vidkun Quisling, the leader of Norway’s government who collaborated with Nazi Germany. By the end of the Second World War, “quisling” had become a pandemic, and was used to classify any traitor who had collaborated with the enemy. Similar to eeniya, the publication of the word quisling also warranted witch-hunts for the slightest symptom of non-conformity, and stiffened the population into an attitude of distrustful vigilance.

NGOs/NGO Kaarayan (එන්.ජී.ඕ. කාරයන්)

Nationalist pressure groups protest against NGO activities and foreign interventions. Image credits, clockwise from bottom left: Images 1 and 2: AP/Eranga Jayawardena; Image 3: Getty Images/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

In Sri Lankan journalism, an NGO is shorthand for a misguided nit-picker. In Sinhalese journalism, qualified with the more derisive suffix kaarayan or “pedlars”, an NGO is a cult of saboteurs. Even in its expanded form, Non-Governmental Organisations, Sri Lanka didn’t find the acronym comfortingly explained. The government has been testing NGOs with legislation since the 1980s. There was the Voluntary Social Service Organizations [Registration and Supervision] Act that could be seen as an attempt to discipline their activity. Then there was the Circular Letter of the Secretary to the President dated February 26, 1999, with a list of stipulations that intended to hold NGOs to a policy audit. But the distrust remains unappeased, especially in the public imagination. When the word is used now, the message is that a feeble minority is conspiring against the mandate of the majority.

 “This also questions the validity of I/NGOs to pass judgements ‒ most of which are selective, ill-informed and partisan ‒ on the internal affairs of nations. Their meddlesome roles particularly in conflict and post-conflict zones have been grossly intrusive and counter-productive…The irony is that these NGOs hacks strut around posing as holy priests of higher moral code none of which is observed by their Western paymasters”

–       H. L. D. Mahindapala – writing to the Daily News on February 18, 2013

“The Global Tamil Forum and the NGO kaarayan of this nation request for accusations of war crimes against the Sri Lankan army to be investigated”

–       Keerthi Warnakulasooriya – defence column titled “The NGO threat to the Sri Lanka Army at the moment of celebrating the 63rd Day of Independence” (63 වැනි සංවත්සරය සමරන අවස්‌ථාවේ ශ්‍රී ලංකා හමුදාවට එල්ල වූ එන්.ජී.ඕ. තර්ජනය) – divaina.com – October 14, 2014

“When there are only a few days for the Commonwealth Conference to be held in the City of Perth in Australia, a group of 14 foreign NGO kaarayan, led by two NGO chiefs of this country, have sent an urgent message to the leaders of the Commonwealth, asking for the postponement of the Commonwealth Conference that is proposed to be held in Sri Lanka in the year 2013… This confirms that fire starters are in this country. They are none other than NGO chiefs. These NGO kaarayan who depend on foreign aid now want to direct some weapon-bearing terrorists and create an anarchy like in Libya.”

–       Keerthi Warnakulasooriya – writing to divaina.com on October 29, 2011

Unlike in the case of eeniya, it seems that writers do not consider the pejorative sense of the word ‘NGO’ to be self-explanatory. They had all provided contexts, the grand East vs. West narrative, and the hypocrisy of the West. NGOs, who were seen as “counter-productive” in example number 1, have turned into outright anarchists by example number 3. The intention of these paragraphs is to remind the readers of the momentum of the Sri Lankan resurgence and the dangers of indulging second thoughts.


The flag of the Communist Party of India, the parent organisation of the Naxalite movement in India. Image credit: flickr/Shreyans Bhansali

In the catalogue of political slander, of all the subliminal bullying and hypnosis of the trade, J. R. Jayawardene’s usage of this word deserves special admiration. It was a lazy con. Though Naxalite has a specific application, it has none in Sri Lanka.

Naxalite is a member of a left-wing guerrilla programme happening in India. The word takes root from Naxalbari, the village where the movement was founded in the 1960s. Triggered by the Central Government declaring itself custodian of indigenous tribal lands, the movement has gone through several theoretical adjustments, from Marxism-Leninism to Maoism, and has spilled across the Eastern half of present day India.

Stories of Naxalites and Naxalite plots appeared in Sri Lankan newspapers in the year 1982, close to the Presidential election. There were no ideological correspondents for Naxals in Sri Lanka at the time, before that, or even since. Nevertheless, the police managed to diagnose several Naxals within Jayawardene’s opposition, and summarily imprisoned them.

J.R. Jayawardene and Vijaya Kumarathunga, who was imprisoned on the charge of Naxalitism by the former. Image credits: left, Getty Images/Sandro Tucci; right, last.fm

This is an excerpt from the resignation letter of Hector Kobbekaduwa, the main Opposition Candidate who contested against Jayawardene, which Kobbekaduwa addressed to his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP):

“…after the elections I had to spend most of my time in courts and the fourth floor of the CID regarding an alleged Naxalite plot…”

–       Daily News, May 6, 1983

Hector Kobbekaduwa’s resignation from the SLFP is itself a result of the complex stratagem of deceit and manipulation used by Jayawardene to defuse his opposition. By the time of the Presidential election, the leader of the SLFP, Sirima Bandaranaike, had been stripped of her civic rights; Sirima’s son and the heir apparent of the SLFP, Anura Bandaranaike, had been ideologically subverted; and Hector Kobbekaduwa, the replacement candidate, had been sabotaged. However, by the end of the Presidential election, Jayarawardene realised that he no longer commanded the same popularity he did in 1977, when he first entered office. If voting patterns remained the same for the general election, Jayawardene would lose his five-sixths majority in parliament.

This is another excerpt of Hector Kobbekaduwa’s resignation letter, this time quoting a speech made by the then Prime Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa:

“[Anura Bandaranaike] admitted, to a great extent, that there is a Naxalite programme within the [Sri Lanka Freedom Party], furthermore he helped us a lot to defeat it, through him we have even received a lot of information…”

Vijaya Kumaratunga, actor, husband of Chandrika Bandaranaike, and charisma dynamo of the SLFP, was one of those accused and imprisoned for the “Naxalite programme”. Shortly afterwards, Jayawardene brought his referendum, an irregular and unpopular bypass of the general election.


A protest by LTTE sympathisers. Image credit: srilankabrief.org

The use of this word is usually warrantable – by linguistic standards, if not by moral standards. Even when used pejoratively, the word ‘diaspora’ refers to the ethnographic entity of expatriates who maintain ties with their land of origin. The word only became a cheat in the public relations game between the government and the LTTE network of sympathisers and financiers. After the defeat of the LTTE on Sri Lankan soil, the word ‘diaspora’ referred to a kind of unkillable bogeyman against whom all means were justified.

“[We] are not going to allow the conspiracies of the Tamil diaspora to become a reality in any way.”

–       Unattributed news feature in Divaina – quoting Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa on May 18, 2012

“Since spokespersons loyal to the Tamil diaspora in Western governments are beholden to them because of their vote banks, the strategy should be ignore them and present positive images of Sri Lanka backed up with facts…With the military defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, attempts are being made by the Tamil diaspora to keep the LTTE dream alive in Western democracies.”

–       Neville Ladduwahetty writing to the Island on November 30, 2010

In example number 2, the word is used in apparent good faith. However, even there, the totality of that statement reveals the priorities of the government immediately after the war: it was taken for granted that the remaining task was to rehabilitate the image of the Sri Lankan government, rather than to resolve the grievances of the Tamil community.

The Polluted Stream Of Our Language

Sadly, this list would never have an end. For a long time, Sri Lanka had remained sunk in the Press Freedom Index, and one of its overlooked repercussions is the long-term corruption of language. By now, any kind of political opinion would have a catchphrase dedicated to prevent it from having an audience. Federalism, capitalism, communism, secularism, feminism – they all have untouchable status in our political discourse. Meanwhile, some others, like nationalism and patriotism, have been endowed with sanctity and cordoned off from debate.

We have come through a time when politics was simplified to a tit-for-tat game between patriots and traitors. Every point of policy was debated on forbidding stakes: citizens were urged to err on the side of prejudice; the cost of entertaining new ideas was shown to be the victory of Prabhakaran. It was a lifetime of emergency states prolonged, and necessary evils repeated. We now seem to be on our way to the age of political correctness, from misdirection to indirection. ‘Civil Society Organisations’ instead of ‘NGOs’, ‘non-recurrence’ instead of ‘victory of the people’ – already the euphemisms are replacing the libels. It is as if the words were our enemies all along.

But we must remember that long after the journalists overcome their seasonal fevers of indignation, the spirit of unreason would still have its patrons. The enemy of our freedom is not abstract evil, but plain thoughtlessness.

Featured image courtesy asianmirror.lk

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