23 March 2017

Yahapalana machinations subvert ‘transitional justice’

These are UNHRC days.  These are Yahapalana-UNHRC days which are therefore very different from the Rajapaksa-UNHRC days.  Both regimes use the same lexicon when it comes to ‘reconciliation’.  Back then too we heard talk of truth, reconciliation and what not.  There are of course differences.  

The previous regime created conditions to enable such talk simply by defeating the LTTE.  This regime says, rhetorically, that it wants to go beyond the rhetoric.  The previous regime rubbed the big name nations in the international community the wrong way, this regime is cosy with them.  

As for the movers and shakers, this much can be said: they have less illusions on what’s possible than those who swear on this government’s commitment to deliver on promises made.  

They’ll of course listen sympathetically to pleas about ‘ground realities’ and will appear to purchase the sob stories about spoilers in the opposition, but they probably know that spoilers notwithstanding the entire discourse of ‘reconciliation’ stinks on account of selectivity, gross exaggeration, editing out the uncomfortable and a fantastic brain-fade of context.  Yes, ‘context’, the basis for a deadline-extensions, is forgotten when it comes to the matter that’s at the heart of all this: the war and especially it’s final stages where the Sri Lankan security forces carried out an historic and massive hostage-rescue operation against the world’s then most ruthless terrorist outfit.  

Transitional justice.  That’s a lovely term.  It’s supposed to be about truth-seeking, accountability through courts of law, reparations and institutional reforms to ensure that there will not be recurrence of human rights violations.  Sure, all these are important and much needed too.  In the marketing of ‘need’ however there’s exaggeration, context-lack and such.  

There’s talk of continued suffering of those who were victims of the war.  They are said to be living in difficult circumstances and often out of the mainstream of life.  They are supposed to be struggling to survive without viable livelihood opportunities and burdened by uncertainty about the fate of their missing family members.  

Let’s get the marketing out of the way.

Not too long after the war then BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka Charles Haviland lamented in an article the plight of a former LTTE combatant who had been rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.  The man, Haviland wrote sadly, didn’t have a job.  The government had failed him, we are encouraged to conclude.  

Someone picks joins an outfit that kills people, sets off bombs in crowded places, abducts children and proceeds to hold several hundred thousand people hostage, is apprehended, given marketable skills and then set free.  The man can’t find a job.  We are supposed to feel sorry for him?  We are supposed to rant and rave about a government that has failed him and about a ‘failed state’?   

Sri Lanka is a middle-income country in name.  There are lots of third-world areas in this country.  We have not had the privilege of being government by competent and honest people for decades.  In fact it is a considerable feat that terrorism was defeated in the first instance.  The fact of the matter is that difficult circumstances is not the preserve of a particular community living in a particular part of the country.  The victims of the war: they are not just Tamils or those living in the Northern and Eastern provinces.  Survival struggle is not witnessed just in these two provinces.  It is not that those living in other parts are right in the middle of life’s ‘mainstream’.  It is not that everyone else has ‘viable livelihood opportunities.  

This is not to say of course that those in these two provinces suffered less; indeed they suffered much more.  The blame for all that cannot be addressed to those who governed and no one else.  The governments in power have a responsibility of course to make things better, but if making things better is what it’s all about then those who took the LTTE out of the equation and effectively ended the war did better than anyone else.  

Then there’s the burden of uncertainty about the fate of loved ones, i.e. those who disappeared.  There are claims about abduction.  Easy to charge, hard to prove.  There were tens of thousands ‘disappeared’ between 1988 and 1989.  If ‘uncertainty of fate’ is a burden, that burden is now close to 30 years old.  Does not mean that the currently privileged burdens should not be dealt with of course.  Again, easy to demand, hard to deliver.  

We know that among those claimed to have been disappeared died in battle.  We know that some went abroad.  We know that in wars there are liberties taken that are unwarranted, but we also know that all this is painted in a politics that has little sympathy for the aggrieved.   

In Sri Lanka’s case, there’s a deafening silence when it comes to the LTTE’s role in all this and an equal and even more pernicious silence on the culpability of the LTTE’s key approvers, namely the TNA.  Throw all that into the category called ‘ground reality’ and you will begin to understand that those who ignore all this are as guilty of opposing reconciliation as anyone else.  The ‘ground reality’ is made also of those who see and understand the hypocrisy of those who talk of reconciliation as though it’s a single hand clap.  The Opposition will oppose as their predecessors have done, regardless.  It’s silly though to accept everyone to salute the ludicrous.  

Let’s return to ‘transitional justice’.  Those who demand ‘truth’ are silent on the truth.  Are we supposed to join them in the various forums they articulate their demands?  Those who talk reparations do so on tiptoe, making sure that their loved ones (politically speaking) don’t get egg on their faces.  

And yet, we need the truth, i.e. the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and not the comfortable ‘truths’ that the yahapalana-approvers or rather the lies they agree upon.  

And yes, we need accountability through courts of law, an eventuality that is being effectively subverted by the privileging of political revenge over justice-seeking, the preference for compromising sovereignty over credible investigation.  

As for institutional reforms that prevent recurrence of human rights violations, are they talking about federalism without using the F-word?  They did that for years until it became embarrassing to defend the LTTE.   Let them know then that not everyone believes that human rights violations are prevented or encouraged by the nature of the state, whether it is unitary or federal.  World history does not support such a thesis.

In the end, we need a better and broader definition of the term ‘transitional justice’ and maybe we’ll get there, not because of these justice-seekers but in fact in spite of them.  

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Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene. Blog: www.malindawords.blogspot.com

19 March 2017

Recognizing the yahapalanaya party

The most ignored clause of the 19th Amendment is about power, not yahapalanaya
Arjuna Mahendran, the former Governor of the Central Bank, is reported to have transferred out some 500 members of his staff.  The Government is all set to demarcate specific areas for protests.  The Government got some egg on its face with the appointment and removal of judges.  There’s the bond issue scandal.  The big boys in the Government ranted and raved about Port City and the Hambantota Port when in power, and all but showed the middle finger to China while campaigning to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa.  Today the very same worthies are crawling on all fours before China and appear to be brain-faded about the afore mentioned projects. 

Just imagine!

What if all of the above could be placed at the Responsibility Door of Mahinda Rajapaksa?  What if it was the USA and not China?  How would the champions of yahapalanaya have responded?  Well, we are not hearing any shrieks of horror. We are not seeing any terse comments from the US State Department or the British Foreign Secretary.  The yahapalana apologists for this Government have all gone quiet.  Well, not all of them.  Jehan Perera has been reduced to quoting Otto von Bismarck: “politics is the art of the possible”.  Bismarck, interestingly, also observed, “The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood.”  

Let none of this surprise anyone.  It’s not about right or wrong.  It’s not about ethics.  It’s not about doing things right or better.  It’s not about good governance.  It’s all about power and those whose faces you prefer to see and those you despise for whatever reason.  This is best demonstrated by the parliamentary machinations we have seen courtesy the yahapalanists. 

Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), sacked the Secretary of his party and the Secretary of the coalition his party led (the UPFA) days before the General Election and moved to stop the respective central committees from convening.  Did the good governance advocates mutter ‘tut-tut’?  Nope.  That’s yahapalana democracy, the ‘politics of the possible,’ and decisions by iron (we are yet to get to ‘blood’ but don’t be surprised if we do). The end, so to say, always justified means.  

Just the other day Speaker Karu Jayasuriya stated that the National Freedom Front (NFF) led by Wimal Weerawansa could not be accepted as a separate party in Parliament as it was not gazetted as one that contested at the last general election. 

Fine.  Now let’s rewind to a moment in late 2015, i.e. just after the General Election.  This was when a coalition government was formed.  It was misnamed ‘national government’, a deliberate slip which we will revisit presently.  It was a coalition made of which parties, does anyone remember.  Pause for a moment.  Remember the names of the parties?  Write them down.  Did you write ‘SLFP and UNP (United National Party)?’  Are you sure?  Yes?  

Let’s go back to the election.  The UNP, which made a big do of a ‘grand coalition’ with other parties and political groups and called itself publicly ‘United National Front for Good Governance’  secured 106 seats.  Another party secured 95 seats.  Was it the SLFP?  No.  It was the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance).  The SLFP did not contest!  

And yet, this government was formed (as per provisions in the 19th Amendment we were told) following an agreement signed between the UNP and the SLFP, and the latter, let us repeat, did not even contest the election.  The Speaker, in delivering his decision on the NPP has said that he was not concerned over the internal agreements entered into among parties within those which officially contested and found representation in Parliament.  

It’s that trivial, folks.  The point is that the numbers and composition are of utmost importance in parliamentary affair including composition of committees, representation in party leaders’ meetings, time allocation in parliamentary debates etc.  

It’s a classic case of doing the convenient as per political preferences and quite unbecoming of the Speaker who happens to be a man noted to uphold principles in a manner uncommon among his contemporaries.  

Again, why should anyone be surprised?  Well, the lack of comment from all those lovely people who would shout and scream at the slightest transgression on ‘democratic practice’ by the previous regime, is by now understandable.  Forget them, few eyebrows were raised when the 19th came into effect.  No one seemed to mind the vagueness deliberately scripted in with respect to the notion of a ‘national government’.  Let’s revisit.

Here’s Article 46 (5) defines ‘National Government’: “A Government formed by the recognized political party or the independent group which obtains the highest number of seats in Parliament together with the other recognized political parties or the independent groups”.  

It does not say ‘any other’, which would have made this Cabinet legitimate.  Of course neither does it say ‘all other’ (which would have made this Cabinet illegitimate).  The wording is vague and shows carelessness and incompetence.  Well, we should actually use the word ‘pernicious’ here. 

So we have the UNP as the party obtaining the highest number of seats.  Nothing wrong there.  Then we have other recognized political parties.  What’s the ‘recognized’ political party in this national government, so-called?  The SLFP?  Well, the Speaker would say if he was asked politely that the SLFP did not contest the election and perforce he cannot recognize it.  And yet, we have a UNP-SLFP ‘national’ government!  

Just so we know what this is all about, the ‘national government’ clause has little to do with nation.  It’s about ministerial posts and a neat method of subverting both election promise and the article relevant to the maximum number of portfolios.  Thirty, they said.  Thirty, they wrote into the constitution.  But Article 46(4) allows Parliament to approve a number beyond the ’30’ legislated under 46(1)a and 46(1)b.  ‘Beyond’ goes against the spirit of limitation because theoretically all those parliamentarians who are members of the political parties and independent groups that make the ‘national government’ can be appointed to the cabinet of ministers.  Quite ‘yaha’ in the ‘palana' sense, what!

So, what should we take out of all this?  

We should first and foremost stop being shocked about what was done with the Central Bank bond issue, about the self-righteousness and subsequent silence on Port City and the Hambantota Port, about nepotism and corruption and other things that don’t really sit well with the notion of ‘good governance’ (in word and deed).  

If this is yahapalanaya at the age of 2 years, it would be prudent to extrapolate to what the baby would have grow up to come 2020 or even earlier.   We have to conclude, ‘politicians will be politicians’.  More importantly, we have to understand that their approvers and in fact all those who uttered notions such as good governance with sober faces and in grave tones during the Rajapaksas are essentially a bunch of hypocrites.  

As for parties and their recognition, it’s probably best to go with the commonsense definition: a social gathering of invited guests, typically involving eating, drinking, and entertainment. 

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18 March 2017

Staying in power and staying power

Some trophies are hard to secure and even harder to keep
It has become a tradition for Ranil Wickremesinghe to visit various signature tents at the Royal-Thomian and respond to questions put to him.  It’s all light-hearted.  The questions are often tongue-in-cheek stuff and the responses are calculated to generate some laughter, one feels.  

It was no different this year.  Two questions stood out because they were as serious as they were light.  The responses, similarly, drew laughter and also provided food for thought.

One question was about prosecuting wrongdoers (of the previous regime).  The Prime Minister was essentially asked when they would be brought to justice.  The response was light: 

“We are investigating, we are going to courts and we are allowing the lawyers to make money.”  He then added, as afterthought, “lawyers have been big supporters of our party, so we can’t let them down.” 

[See the Big Match interview here]

He was obviously joking about helping lawyer loyalists, but he was correct in terms of the tangible outcomes of the process so far.  What we do know and can appreciate is that such processes take time, perhaps longer than necessary but certainly better long than short for haste makes for error and perforce cannot service the cause of justice.  What we do not appreciate is the selectivity that is so pronounced in the process.  The focus is on allegations against the previous regime or rather key personalities in that regime.  There have been serious violations, clearly, but some of them would fall into petty thievery compared to the daylight robbery associated with the Central Bank bond scam.  If petty thieves deserve arrest, how come those accused of scheming to make billions are allowed to roam around free, is the question that many ask.  

But it was all light-hearted and we can leave it at that.  As light-hearted was the question put to him earlier, ‘Now that you are in power, what’s your next step?’  Pat came the answer: 

“The next step is to stay in power.”

It was not an answer typical of politicians.  It was, in contrast, an honest response.  That’s what politics and politicians are all about.  Power.  Striving to obtain it and thereafter fighting to keep it.  Only, they don’t say it.  Kudos to the Prime Minister, even if it was said in jest and even though it was a slick way of spelling out things.  Not the time nor the place, one might say in his defense.

The match is done and dusted or rather was rained out.  We can return to the response with more sobriety now.  

Power.  Some say it is about longevity and out-living the competition.  That might explain J.R. Jayewardena and to a certain degree Mahinda Rajapaksa and their respective ascents.  It certainly holds for Ranil Wickremesinghe.  Luck, they say, can also figure in the equation.  In Wickremesinghe’s case it was as much longevity as the lack of it among potential rivals within his party.  Whether it is correct to call it luck is debatable, but he was lucky when part of the ruling coalition ‘fell into his lap,’ so to speak, in 2001.  He was lucky when Maithripala Sirisena entered the fray in late 2014.  On the other hand, perhaps luck is about being positioned well when events unfold in ways that opportunities are created.  He was there at the right place and at the right time.  That takes staying power.  

Staying in power is a different kettle of fish.  Today, for all his luck, if you want to call it, the most powerful individual in the country is Maithripala Sirisena.  

Power, in this sense, is best ascertained by the answer to a simple question — who can alter the political equation or landscape most with the least effort?   This is why ‘staying in power’ is a challenge.  There’s no light-heartedness here; certainly not in the sordid theatre called politics.   

It’s a big challenge.  Things have got so bad that those posing as ‘left intellectuals’ and ‘liberals’ (NGO personalities mostly in the latter category) are getting their respective knickers twisted in their plaintive cries of support for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe union.  Left intellectuals who brutally criticised leftist parties for tying up with the previous regime, throwing in a lot of Marxist terms and drawing heavily from ‘revolutionary’ history, are keeping mum about these very parties supporting what would in their lingo be a ‘rightist government’.   Those who mocked these parties for hanging on to the sari-pota and the saatakaya don’t seem to mind the current penchant for hanging on to the edges of the various jackets of the current regime.   As for the ‘liberals’ who were horrified at the slightest infringement on liberties not too long ago, they are pretty quiet when this regime makes a mockery of its own doctrine of yahapalanaya.  

It’s either about unspoken love for the ruling coalition or rather the UNP segment of it, or else it is a matter of ignoring anything or everything that goes against things they’ve claimed to hold sacrosanct including the principle ‘ends do not justify the means,’ in the belief that their not-so-veiled anti-Sinhala and anti-Buddhist outcome preferences are best served by this regime.  

The staying-in-power business is not being served by that lot and Wickremesinghe ought to know this very well, considering what happened in 2004 and 2005.  He has disappointed the business community (they do not see this as a Maithripala-Wickremesinghe government, but a UNP regime).  Trade unions, academics and professionals don’t make such distinctions, but they are not as gung-ho about yahapalanaya as they were two years ago.  It has become increasingly hard for the so-called moderate Tamils to support this regime.  In short, things have changed much since the euphoria of January 8, 2015.  Perhaps the best sign of all this is the fact that this government has had to argue that the yahapaalanists are actually Sri Lankan Bolsheviks of the 21st century.  

They weren’t being light-hearted.  They were serious.  They were hilarious, but they didn’t know it.  What it demonstrated was a regime that’s clinging to straws and trying to convince a doubting citizenry that it is revolutionary.  The interesting thing is that the people are not exactly hungry for a revolution.  Talk about being ‘out of step’! What more should one say about ‘the next step’ of ‘staying in power’?  Well, there is one thing: if you have to say it, it demonstrates self-doubt.  

Yes, the Royal-Thomian is done and dusted or rather was rained out.  Wickremesinghe’s response speaks not just for the UNP but the entire regime.  The next step is all that this regime seems to be worrying about right now.  And, the seriousness of it all is best evidenced by the fact that they’ve lost sight of the yahapalana principles in their political day-to-day.  The 19th and the RTI will not carry them at an election, Wickremesinghe probably knows this.   ‘Staying in power’ is not just the next step, it’s a trace that will mark each step and when it comes to this then one doesn’t really know whether steps taken are in the right direction or not.  ‘Losing the plot’ did someone say?  ‘Lost it already!’ did someone quip? 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene

17 March 2017

Vajira at 85: a story of inexpressible grace

There’s a little girl.  She’s about 15 years old.  She sits across the table from me.  Her voice is firm and her eyes dance as she speaks about her love.  She’s young enough and old enough to identify true love among passing fancies, infatuation and hero-worship.  There was a time when she would prefer to do other things, as much as she loved this love, but that was before.  That was when she was less than 10 years old.  But now, somewhere in the year 1947, she knew enough to weigh heart and mind, deploy them to obtain the most fruitful engagement with the world around her in its wholeness and with its constituent parts.  
Her name is Vajira.  

Sitting right there in front of me, the little girl became a young woman.  And then a mother.  She became a grandmother and a great grandmother.  And through it all her voice remained firm.  Her eyes continued to dance. 

And with unwavering voice she transcribed memory into words, traced the dance steps from then to now in a choreography that did justice to a life dedicated to uphold the sacredness of the dance.  

Her mother had specific plans for all her children.  She had wanted Vajira’s sister to become a doctor and she did.  The brothers were to study law, but they ended up as engineers.  She wanted Vajira to dance and to learn music.  She was sent for violin classes and also dance classes.  She danced.    

When she was around 8, Vajira’s mother had sent her to Sripalee.  Rabindranath Tagore had helped set up this institution, then dedicated to music and dance.   At the time Vajira had been attending Kalutara Balika Vidyalaya.  Anangala Athukorale, a part time dancer teacher at her school who also taught at Sripalee had played an important role in this decision.  

Her father had been working at the Urban Council and was in charge of letting out the Town Hall for various performances.  He made sure that there was always a row of seats for his family.  And that’s how the iconic Chitrasena had come into their lives.  He had come to perform.  Vajira’s mother had immediately arranged for him to conduct classes at home.  She had got hold of her friends and urged them to send their children for this class.  There had been eight in all, including Vajira and her sister.  

Vajira was interested and talented, but she was a child.  She had other interests as well and did her best to cut these classes.  Chitrasena had visited Kalutara for a while and the two families had become good friends.  Later, when Vajira’s sister needed a place to stay in Colombo since she was attending Medical College, their mother had approached the Chitrasenas who had arranged for her to stay with them as a boarder.

When Vajira was around 11, her mother had decided that she should also go and study in Colombo.  She was duly enrolled at Methodist College, which was located right opposite Chitrasena’s house.  And so she too was boarded there.  That house was all about music and dance.  Vajira went to school in the morning and in the evening would attend Chitrasena’s dance classes and also learn Sitar from Edwin Samaradiwakara.  After she reached 15, it was all about dance and nothing else.

“Naturally, I followed Chitra everywhere.  I went for every show.  I must have started to like him at some point.  I was 18 when we got married.”

By that time she was the lead female dancer of the troupe, but apparently she lacked the physique to play the lead female roles.  In Nala-Damayanthi, for example, she always played the Swan while various dancers played Damayanthi.  When it was first produced, Chitrasena had done the choreography but later, in 1963, when they performed Nala-Damayanthi in Sydney he had let Vajira handle it.  “He probably thought I was by that time capable of handling my own scenes,” Vajira said.  The Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday, February 16 paid glowing tribute to Vajira.

“Balletomanes who see the second program of the Chitrasena Ballet, which was presented at the Elizabethan Theatre last night, will receive a shock, for there they will find the original of their beloved classical-romantic ballet, ‘Swan Lake.’

“The various pas de deux, performed by Vajira, as the Chief Swan, and Wimal, as the noble King Nala, leave, it must be confessed, our ‘Swan Lake’ sadly lacking in imagination and understanding.

“This critic has not seen in ‘Western’ ballet mime, acting and dancing, capable of evoking the nature and spirit of the swan, to compare with the performance of Vajira in this role.”  

“The show must go one,” Chitrasena often said, she recalls.  And so it did.  Her involvement was intense and passionate, even while pregnant she had continued to dance and choreograph although she didn’t perform.  

By and by she came to creating her own ballets.   The first, ‘Kumudini’ was done when she was just 19.  The following year she created ‘Hima Kumariya’ and in 1955, ‘Sepalika’.  By this time she was a part time dance teacher in schools and she experimented with the young children she was teaching.  In 1956 she produced ‘Kindurangana’.  She created 17 children’s ballets in total.

Some of these she remembers on account of them being landmark creations of a kind.  “Rankikili,” a children’s ballet, for example is remembered because her daughter Upekha was by that time big enough to perform the lead role of the Kikili.  Her other daughter Anjali played the role of the old lady who keep the fire going, but what was most significant about this ballet, first performed in 1968, was that it was the first time that a ballet was performed without any  words or songs, just music and dance.  It was, Vajira recalls, was artistically of a very high standard. 

“Nil Yaka,” was based on a story by the most accomplished writer of children’s stories, Sybil Wettasinghe.  Sybil incidentally and done the decor and created the set. 

Seventy years is a long time.  Time enough to be afflicted with selective memory, time enough to even forget and be forgiven for it.  But Vajira rememebers the Chitrasena’s first student, Somabandu, usually handled the decor and constumes.  “Samaradivakara and Titus Nonis were both music teachers  and had created the melodies for the children’s ballet ‘Hapana’ in 1979.  Victor Perera, she recalled, had composed all the melodies for “Andaberaya” in 1976.  As for her, she claims that she had mostly drawn inspiration from something she had read.  

Vajira remembers ‘Kinkini Kolama,’ a story about how the nilames or the lords responded to a man who falls in love with a low-caste girl.  “It was Chitrasena’s concept.  I added the dance and we drew from the nadagam style.  This was Upekha’s first in a lead role.  In a way it was the show which introduced her as the lead female dancer of the troupe.”

There had been hiccups of course.  In the beginning they didn’t have a permanent place to rehearse until E.P.A. Fernando, a friend of Chitrasena’s father, had let him conduct his work at his place.  In a more here-and-now incident, Vajira had sprained her ankle on the opening night of a Moscow performance, just as she was to enter.  Immediately her sister Vipuli had taken over.  It was a seamless transition and apparently no one had known, except of course the troupe.  On another occasion, when they had gone for a performance in Australia, the drums had been quarantined causing much anxiety.  Vajira remembers Chitrasena eventually emerging with the drums, all smiles.

That’s how it has been.  It’s about continuity.  It’s about the show going on. There is Vajira and then there was Upekkha.  And now there’s Thaji, Vajira’s granddaughter.  Passion, dedication, endless striving for perfection and the grace in mind and body that inevitably results.  Sacred is the word that Chitrasena used.

The Kalayathanaya produced many, many ballets.  Vajira created the dances, did the choreography and taught the dancers, always under the watchful eyes of Chitrasena, she says.  

The names go together: Chitrasena-Vajira.  It is had to say what one would have been without the other, but for Vajira it’s easily resolved.

“It was always under his guidance and with his permissions.  I had to get the production ready.  He handled the direction and was in charge of the presentation.  He was the inspiration.  He was our strength.  Part of my confidence in all this can be attributed to him being there, always watching and always ready to put things right in case something went wrong.  His blessings were always there.  He taught us so much and what he has taught we pass on to our students.  He is always present in the work we do.”   

And yet, she said there are times she misses his physical presence. That’s how it is with those who are ahead of their times and who tower over the present on account of vision and its realization.  

It was not just Chitrasena though.  Vajira is ever grateful to her mother and of course Chitrasena’s mother and his unmarried sisters who took care of everything so that all she had to do was dance.  

And teach.  After sometime Chitrasena had given up teaching and thereafter Vajira had to be in charge of instruction, creation and continuity.  Those responsibilities have now been handed over to Upekha.

“I never stopped teaching, though.  I created the syllabus and that’s what is still being used.  I created special exercises that made it easier to learn traditional movements.  Now I don’t demonstrate, however.  I use a good student for this.”

In 1963 Anna Ilupina wrote in ‘Izvestia’ about Vajira:

“Every gesture in her slender hands, every glance from her beautiful oval eyes, every movement  is full of inexpressible grace.”  

She might as well have been writing about Vajira today.  

There’s a young girl sitting across the table from me.  Her voice is firm and her eyes dance as she speaks about her love.  She’s young enough and old enough to identify true love among passing fancies, infatuation and hero-worship.  And she knows that it is sacred.  She is 85 years old.  says “I am happy to have contributed to the dance — in my young days, and even now, and until I die.”    

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene

16 March 2017

Yahapalana brain-fade in Geneva

And ready to brain-fade again, by the looks of it!
Way back when Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government was getting slammed left, right and centre by the ‘international (sic) community’, especially at the UNHRC, his detractors were thrilled.  Little did they care that the accusers were tainted in ways that made Sri Lanka look pretty innocent in terms of (alleged) ‘war crimes’.  Rajapaksa was accused of being moronic in his foreign policy.  Dark stories were spread about impending sanctions.  The removal of the GSP Plus facility was thrown in as evidence and a sign of worse things to come.  

The previous regime resisted all moves to interfere in the affairs of the country including direct involvement in judicial processes.  It was a foregone conclusion that Sri Lanka would time and again be bested in votes taken in the UNHRC, apart from the first vote with respect to the conflict when Dayan Jayatilleka was the Permanent Representative in Geneva.  A good battle was fought and lost, as expected.  

Rajapaksa didn’t do himself any favours back home.  Corruption, wastage, nepotism, serious compromising of the Rule of Law and other such negatives slowly but surely brought just enough forces together to throw him out of office.  

Today, the very same international community is going easy on the current regime.  Why?  Because they have this government has shown greater commitment to getting things right by way of reconciliation, transitional justice, transparency and what not?  


What do have now?  We have a regime that is same-same as the Rajapaksas with a key difference.  They’ve adopted Rajapaksa Ways in record speed.  Whereas it took the previous regime more than five years to lose the plot, it has taken this government less than 2 to lose it, if they had a plot in the first place that is.  And this is best evidenced by the short-sighted, irresponsible and sophomoric thinking with respect to dealing with the international community (via the UNHRC) on human rights, transitional justice and so on.  

Prince Zeid has not exactly patted this government on the back, but he’s not swishing any whips either, as was the forte of his predecessor.  He is still calling for hybrid courts.  
What do the President and the Prime Minister have to say?  

The President has clearly said that there will be no foreign judges in judicial procedures to probe war crimes allegations.  That’s a blatant snub on the Consultative Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms.  Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene has said that the President and the Government have full confidence in the judiciary and legal processes.  “We have extremely eminent and experienced judges and our judges have served in various countries and global organizations that have given much credit to the country,” he said.  The issue of establishing a hybrid court does not arise, as far as that component of this coalition government is concerned.

As for the other half, the Prime Minister has said that a hybrid court was not politically feasible and as such a feasible alternative should be found.  His words: 

“Setting up a hybrid court is not politically feasible because such a move would need a referendum. Against this back drop, how can we fulfill the expectations of the international community? Let’s get together and think of a feasible alternative for such a court.”  

And what do the strongest backers (and now approvers) of the forces that ousted Rajapaksa have to say?  Jehan Perera, writing about the Governments performance in Geneva puts it well.

“During their stay in Geneva, the Sri Lankan delegation was able to meet with most important parties at the side events to the official conference. This included meetings with the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and with UN Human Rights Commissioner Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein and with the ambassadors to the UN of various powerful countries. Some of those who are currently playing a decision-making role in UN processes have had previous engagements with Sri Lanka and are in a position to make a comparative analysis of the situation in Sri Lanka as against other countries. They tend to be impressed at the overall developments in Sri Lanka which they can compare with the deterioration to be found in many parts of the world.”

So now it’s about relative merits.  Sri Lanka is better than Myanmar.  One can’t help observing that Sri Lanka was always better than a lot of countries (including the USA, UK, Canada and the EU) in terms of dealing with terrorism AND, more importantly, in sorting out post-conflict issues such as reconstruction, settlement of the displaced, restoration of democracy and rehabilitating hardcore terrorists, people with a combat history and adjuncts in the cause of terrorism, from whose grasp, let us not forget, some 300,000 civilians held hostage were rescued.  Try beating that!  

But that’s not what this government did.  The UNHRC officially recognized all this and then duly forgot, but then again, the likes of Perera never even acknowledged all this for reasons that are obvious.

The problem with the Government’s current position is what G.L. Peiris has pointed out. Prof Peiris asks, correctly, “who approved the UNHRC Resolution that Sri Lanka co-sponsored with the USA?”      That Resolution clearly shows that Sri Lanka is amenable to the involvement of foreign judges.  Didn’t the President and the Prime Minister know back then that a) Sri Lanka has competent judges and a credible judicial process (as the President now claims) and b) that such mechanisms are untenable (as the Prime Minister now claims)?  Were they, like all politicians, merely playing the age old game of seeking the postponement of the inevitable in the absence of a coherent, pragmatic alternative approach?  

it is clear that an international community that is sorely lacking in integrity should not be shown any respect.   This Government was let down by the champions of righteousness (corrupt though they are in this respect).  Today the Government is looking to a less-friendly China for help.  Well, the previous regime appears to have got everything right in this respect.  They knew what the international community was about.  They knew who had the bucks and who had the swagger.  They blew it domestically.  

This government is close to blowing it domestically.  And they’ve read the ‘international’ all wrong.  In Geneva, they suffered a brain-fade.  That’s putting it mildly.  They’ve remained brain-faded since then and demonstrated the fact this year as well.  

In the very least, the Foreign Minister has shown gross negligence, total absence of intelligence, and utter political immaturity.  That’s only if he acted on his own steam, which again is hard to believe.  That particular brain-fade buck floats upwards.   And whether or not it is acknowledged, it sticks. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene

13 March 2017

The politics of script-flipping

A governmental prerogative, obviously
Not too long ago, there was a call for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes.  The call came from both within the country and without.  From within it was the usual suspects, the rights-fixated NGOs and outside it was their international counterparts, backed of course by the West, primarily the USA and Britain.  The UNHRC was where these voices gathered into a chorus.  The chorus was actually an echo of pro-LTTE groups, again within and without the country.   

Resolutions were passed with predictable tokenism concerning the LTTE.  Threats were issued. Sanctions were in the air.  The then Government and through it the people of Sri Lanka were put on notice.  

The writing was clear.  Sri Lanka was to be punished for defeating terrorism.  Sri Lanka was to be punished for orchestrating the greatest hostage rescue operation in remembered history.  Context was buried.  Evidence was manufactured and cleverly enhanced, once again with deft blend of suppression and enhancement of fact as per intended effect.  Reliability of source was absented in all this.  Cogent rebuttals were disregarded.  Sri Lanka would be hanged.  

What was not too difficult to understand even back then seems impossible to reject now: it was not about war crimes, it was not about truth, not about transitional justice.  It was about brining pressure on the then Government with the clear intention of replacing it with a regime that was more friendly to these accusers, and to some of them, particularly those sections of the international community that have no moral authority to talk of human rights violations, a more pliant political establishment.  

True, the UNHRC chief, Prince Zeid, has issued a curt and unsympathetic statement.  True, the matter is not off the table.  But then again both the President and the Prime Minister have demonstrated Rajapaksa-like gumption in their responses.  

Whereas there was talk of hybrid courts earlier and later this was diluted to mention of ‘international observers’ today the men at the top are saying ‘out of the question’. 
Today, even those who screamed about independent inquiries are shrugging shoulders and saying ‘probably not politically possible’.  They’ve gone further.  They’ve dug by relevant ‘facts’ they probably pretended to be ignorant about when the previous regime was being flayed left and right at the UNHRC.  Take this observation for example: ‘Hybrid courts are not necessarily the answer. The hybrid court system established in Cambodia in 2003 has delivered only three convictions after 14 years of effort and the cost has exceeded USD 200 million. In addition, there were instances of the foreign judges and prosecutors publicly disagreeing with each other and resigning from their posts along with allegations of government pressure on them.’  Today they have suddenly discovered the dictum ‘politics is the art of the possible.’

But it is the truth.  A truth that’s convenient now but was conveniently suppressed back then.  The truth is that apart from the Right to Information Act there has been no notable achievement by this government over the past two years in terms of correcting systemic flaws.  They’ve claimed however that judicial independence gained with regime-change, but that’s hogwash.  The judiciary is as good (or as bad if you wish to put it that way) as it was.  Talk about introducing mechanisms to “strengthen domestic mechanisms” have not got from proposal to realization.  Indeed, there was a lot more of such talk during the previous regime.  If it was a question of trust, well then this lot is as untrustworthy as the previous.  

And yet, there are issues that will not go away.   The Prime Minister has revived the notion of a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’.  There is an individual and societal need to know what really happened.  There has to be ‘closure’ as those in the West put it.  

Easy to say, hard to do.  People cannot be hanged on a charge.  There has to be substantiation.  In the case of ‘missing persons’, there are terrible stories and there’s fabrication.  The one has to be separated from the other.  With proof, though.  In the case of those ‘disappeared’ during UNP rule in the late eighties, there were vigilante groups doing the dirty, masked men answerable to no one.  The who, what and where are never easily established.  However, where such establishment is possible, prosecution is non-negotiable.  In Cambodia, it is estimated that 1.5-3.0 million people were killed.  The number unaccounted for in the last stage of the fighting in Sri Lanka ascertained with any semblance of logic is less than 7,000 and this includes LTTE cadres killed and civilians who escaped the LTTE and somehow bypassed the security forces in the first five months of 2009.  If the Cambodian exercise yielded just three convictions, it simply means that truth is a hard to come by commodity.  

The dead will not return.  The living are forced to live with their grief and hopefully with some form of relief.  The other day, it was revealed that in the matter of redressing the grievances of those who had been ‘politically victimized’ by the previous regime, most of the beneficiaries had been ‘found’ by lists submitted by politicians, i.e. their loyalists rather than the truly aggrieved.  Some have petitioned that they’ve been overlooked.  

It’s easy to say ‘Those who work on behalf of victims of violations know that victims do not wish to wait long for justice and also need to be compensated quickly in order to get on with their lives. Those who are victims do not wish to wait for years for justice to be done.’  The truth is that people have to get on with their lives regardless and have done so throughout history.  Who are these victims, anyway?  Is ‘victim’ anyone who claims ‘victimhood’?  It ‘being a Tamil’ a necessary criteria to plead victimhood?  There’s nothing to stop the brother of an LTTE cadre who died in action from claiming he or she had ‘gone missing’ and demanding compensation.  It would be cost-effective to treat every claim as genuine but that would mean that justice and truth really do not matter.  

The truth is that the LTTE abducted children, the LTTE invited war, the LTTE killed Tamils (and Sinhalese and Muslims) and held some 300,000 Tamils hostage.  They were rescued by the Sri Lankan security forces.  LTTE cadres who were apprehended were rehabilitated, provided with opportunities to further their education or acquire marketable skills and reintegrated into society.   That’s as ‘general amnesty’ as any that can be expected in today’s world.  Hospitals and schools were built, so too water supply systems, roads and railways.  That’s as ‘reconstruction’ as any that can be expected from a country like Sri Lanka. 

Now if this government bats on till the end of its term and somehow gets re-elected in all likelihood what’s written above would be like a script for what would probably be uttered on the subject of reconciliation — if indeed that subject retains currency that long.  

However if tomorrow (or say sometime later this year) President Sirisena cobbles together the requisite numbers and forms a government with the Joint Opposition (JO) effectively replacing the UNP with the JO and with either Mahinda Rajapaksa or a proxy as Prime Minister, come September in all likelihood Prince Zeid will change his tune and those who said politics is the art of the possible will flip the script.  Just like that.  It’s like that.  So much for ‘truth’ and ‘justice’.  

Read also:
A love-bite is hardly a palliative
Sinhala and Tamil traces in an island history

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Blog: www.malindawords.blogspot.com.  Twitter: malindasene