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What’s In A Flag?

Aug 6, 2011 3:05:46 PM - thesundayleader.lk

What’s in a flag? Does it unite, or can design divide?

The Sri Lankan flag has a large lion on a maroon background, holding a sword. This is supposed to symbolise the Sinhalese. To its left are two narrow strips for the Muslims and Tamils and a yellow border for everybody else (or is that the Chinese?). I’d always thought it a bit odd to put demographic information on a flag. What if the demographics change? But never mind.

One vital insight from Buddhism is that if you look at anything long enough, it changes and breaks apart. The Buddha was focused on personal identity, but national identity is much the same. If you look at the flag close enough, its racial connotations fade.

Indian origins

For one thing, the lion is Indian. Sinha Bahu, the mythical progenitor of the Sinhala race, was mythically born and lived in India. He never set foot here, but rather sent his Malaka Silva-esque thug of a son anywhere else. The son, Vijaya, just happened to end up here. Before I get accused of insulting the Sinhalese, please understand that everywhere from Rome to Australia was founded by brutes. There’s no shame in it, it’s just a shame to stay that way.

Second, the last person to fly the lion flag  was King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, who was also an Indian. He was born in Madurai and imported to rule under the Nayakar Dynasty. Those kings usually imported wives from India, but in this case they imported a king. I thought he was Tamil, but it turns out that he was an ethnic Telegu. At that time, I suspect that connections mattered more than race.

Racial lines

The division of Sri Lanka by race is, I think, a new concept and not an especially useful one. Putting it into our flag so rigidly may not have been genius but, after a while, who cares? Like King Vijaya, it is possible to rise above our origins. If you look at the flag closely enough, the racial parts disappear into contradictions. Maybe we just shouldn’t look so close.

I’ll admit to having been ambivalent towards the flag. As a child it was a nightmare to draw, my lion always ended up looking like a squashed gecko. I have also found the color combination, at times, hideous. During the last Cricket World Cup, however, I noticed that I didn’t care. We got a big flag and drove around Colombo with it hanging out the window and it was pretty fun. People honked at each other, it was cool. Then the match crumbled due to horrid administration, but that’s another story. I was ashamed of the government, but still proud of the country.

At that point, it was just the Sri Lankan flag. It wasn’t a demographic infographic or a burden of history. It was just something fun. I mean, we don’t even have lions in this country. Who cares?

I’ll admit that Sri Lanka’s inheritance is chequered, but you have to remember that we’re still  very young. At this point in America’s development, they had slaves and barely allowed non-landowning white males to vote. What I think is important is that – if you look past the sword – we still honor an inclusive nation on our flag. If you look past emergency law, we still enshrine those equal rights in our Constitution. And, given hard work and fresh blood, these things too shall pass. America took a while to live up to its stated ideals. It’s taking us a moment too. I recently saw the Sri Lankan flag behind presenters at Refresh Colombo, a monthly gathering of geeks. This was an event organized by Muslims and Sinhalese and the best speech was by a young Tamil programmer. Nobody cared. In that room we were all geeks and Sri Lankans and the debates were about Nokia vs. Google, not Tamil vs. Sinhalese. As he closed, one young programmer said he thought working together on his app could make us all proud as Sri Lankans. And I think it could. We’re not defined by our flag, we define it. Let’s define it well.