23 May 2017

Malinda Seneviratne's trysts with the political

Since there are all kinds of claims about my political history, I am posting this article, based on a recent interview by Uditha Devapriya, published about a month ago in the Colombo Telegraph.  The original article was also posted by Uditha in his blog, 'Fragmenteyes'.

I've been accused of generalising too much. That’s my way though, a habit that has stuck to me for so long that it’s become my “leopard's spot”. Sometimes this blinds me to the truth, sometimes I refuse to see the truth, but thankfully I’ve never obfuscated it. Naturally then, in this universe we paint in black and white, where shades of grey are almost never tolerated, it’s refreshing to come across a man who’s engaged with the political and the aesthetic, and who’s come to appreciate that essentialism and reductionism will never EVER help us by way of progress.

It takes a reductionist to appreciate a universalist, after all.

I don’t remember reading newspapers in school. But I do remember columnists and I remember Malinda Seneviratne. I also remember reading INTO him. Like every other man who comes and leaves his mark in our political firmament, however, he's best viewed and judged by the standard he’s created for himself. He is and has always been an indefinable political commentator.

Indefinable, and misunderstood. Explains why he continues to receive vitriol from both sides of the political divide. I hence believe it’s time we set the record straight, get a biographical sketch from the horse’s mouth, and drive home the point that men are least understood by those who insert political frill into them.

Malinda’s first tryst with politics had been with the conversations he had with his father, Gamini, who had been a Trotskyite as an undergraduate. “He explained the Labour Theory of Value to me when I was about 15 in a matter of minutes and I haven’t since heard as lucid an exposition as his. One of his batch-mates at Peradeniya, Nanda Wickramasinghe (Podi Wicks) of the Revolutionary Communist League, would turn up off and on and leave a copy of the party newspaper ‘Kamkaru Mawatha’. I read it. He was the first ‘political activist’ that I spoke with. I wasn’t impressed by the JVP and in Peradeniya I was never seen as a friend of the JVP-run student movement. Neither was I impressed by the UNP and the SLFP, for that matter.”

Both his father and mother, Indrani, were English honours graduates from the University of Peradeniya. His father was a civil servant while his mother taught English literature in many schools, her longest stint being at Royal College. Malinda himself is a Royalist. Having done his A Levels in the Mathematics stream in 1983 and having secured results good enough to be accepted by the Science Faculties of the University system, he opted to offer Arts subjects in 1984 and, again having secured good enough results, was selected to the University of Peradeniya. While studying at Peradeniya, he had also attended Carleton College, Minnesota for a Trimester on a student exchange program in 1987, a year which proved to be a turning point.

“Towards 1987, the situation in the country was getting worse. The JVP was heading towards fascism. The SLFP under Sirimavo Bandaranaike was neither here nor there. The UNP government had signed the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. At this juncture, there was a need for a candidate who could reckon with both sides of the political divide. Inevitably, I felt the Old Left met this challenge well, and for that reason supported Vijaya Kumaratunga and, after he was assassinated, Ossie Abeyagoonasekera, with the United Socialist Alliance.”

Around that time, he had applied for a scholarship from abroad, having done both the TOEFL and SAT exams. In the end he “got” Harvard, after seeing the collapse of the University system in his country. “I was required to contribute 1,000 dollars towards covering expenses, but because I saved whatever money they gave me, I didn’t need to. It was essentially a 100% scholarship.”

I don’t think anyone can write about the Malinda who emerged at this point without taking two people into account. Malinda agrees. “Patali Champika Ranawaka and Athuraliye Rathana Thero were responsible for my political resurrection. They saved me from the fallacies of Marxism and the allure of the whole modernist discourse on development. Not surprisingly, I was able to 'rescue' myself from Marxism by 1990. I am and have always been grateful.”

What happened next was inevitable: Rathana and Champika wanted to build a political organization, Malinda became one of several recruits in this project, and with other like-minded activists the Ratavesi Peramuna was inaugurated to talk about human rights abuses by the state, the LTTE, the IPKF, and the JVP. The movement attracted its share of detractors and attackers of course, and Malinda remembers that all too well.

“We organised an exhibition in Matara. It displayed photographs and paintings of human rights abuses across the country. It was attacked by UNP thugs who also kidnapped two of our members and released them later. We wanted to discuss what we’d do next, as in where we’d have to go from here and what we could do to counter state propaganda, and we held a meeting in Wadduwa in February 1992. That meeting was disturbed by the police, who on a tip-off came and arrested us, initially believing that we were associated with the JVP, which of course had been crushed by that time.”

What happened next? “We were held for three weeks, but our movement wasn’t finished. Immediately after we were released, most of the group joined the ‘Pada Yatra’ organised by the then Opposition and led by Mahinda Rajapaksa. As time passed by, the Ratavesi Peramuna, or rather the group that continued to identify with it after the Wadduwa incident, “morphed” into the Janatha Mithuro in 1993.

Meanwhile, Malinda continued with his personal life. “I was recruited as an ELT English teacher at the Medical Faculty in 1992, but when I was imprisoned that was the end of my job there. I was then hired as an Editor at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute somewhere in March 1993, but left in 1994 after I was interdicted following a run-in with the person in charge of maintenance.”

He also tried to pursue his studies, applying for various postgraduate courses in the hope that a scholarship would greet his way. “I wasn’t lucky at first, but a friend of mine told me to apply to the University of Southern California’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. He said I had a good chance of getting a scholarship. I did this and went there, but after a year applied to Cornell University where I wanted to read for a PhD in Development Sociology. In 1995 I went to Ithaca in New York. “

Surprisingly, he never really completed his degree there. “My Master’s thesis was titled ‘Journeying with Honour: In Search of the Vague and Indeterminate’. Some told me that it delved into anthropology and ethnography. It was essentially a study of how honour and dignity are negotiated in a multi-caste social environment. Either way, although I wrote it, the University wanted me to revise it. They gave me a conditional Masters.”

That was 17 years ago. “I still haven’t revised it,” he tells me, “Which means I technically haven’t completed my Masters.” I ask him whether he’d like to have a shot at it one of these days, and he says, “I don’t think so”.

The Malinda Seneviratne story could have ended there, but it didn't. In October 2000, he was recruited as an "understudy" (his term, not mine) to the Editor of the Sunday Island, Manik de Silva. "I left 'The Island' in April 2004 following an unpleasant encounter with some senior journalists of ‘Divaina’ to which I was at the time writing a weekly political comment and because I wasn’t too pleased the way the management handled it. After leaving ‘The Island’, I did some part-time work as a copywriter at Phoenix Advertising. I continued to be ‘part-time’ but would spend the entire working day there. When 'Rivira' started 'The Nation’ in 2006, I was taken in as Deputy Features Editor and editorial writer.”

How did his journey at “The Nation” begin? “Krishantha Cooray, the first CEO of Rivira Media Corporation, upon the recommendation of Upali Tennekoon, the first Editor-in-Chief of ‘Rivira’, invited me to be the Editor-in-Chief of the English weekly paper they planned to publish. I told him that I didn’t have the experience and suggested that he find a senior person for the job. I said I would be happy to be a Deputy Editor. I recommended Rajpal Abeynayake for the senior position. The company finally hired Lalith Alahakoon, who was the Editor of the ‘Daily Mirror’.”

Soon thereafter, he ran into disagreements with company editorial policy and politics. "Essentially I was an outsider to the editorial team of ‘The Nation’. Krishantha had hired me, but the rest were all handpicked by Lalith and most of the senior people more or less shared his convictions.”

How exactly did he feel this though? “Well, my designation was Deputy Features Editor. One of my tasks was to write the editorial. One day, they replaced the editorial I had written with another, which was clearly written while I was still in the office. It’s the Editor’s prerogative but I think it was common courtesy to inform me. I found out only two days later when I bought the paper in Kegalle. This was in December 2006. I returned to Colombo the following day and handed my resignation. "

His brief stint at “The Nation” would be followed by stints as Assistant Communications Director of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (for three months in 2007) and Consultant Director of the Special Media Unit at the Government Information Department (November 2007 to November 2008). After leaving it in 2008, “I worked as a freelance journalist writing 10 to 11 articles a week to six different newspapers until October 2011, when I was offered the post of Editor at ‘The Nation’.” 10 to 11 articles a week to six different newspapers is of course an accomplishment, but Malinda being Malinda says, “That was my only source of income. I didn’t have a regular job.”

His Editorship at “The Nation” was I believe the beginning of his best years yet, which sadly ended in 2015 when he had to leave. “What happened was that the owners of the paper accepted a letter of resignation written several months before, which was no longer valid. It was essentially a case of constructive termination. I said I would challenge them in court. So we reached an agreement and I left with reasonable compensation. ‘The Nation’ was of course shut down and re-launched a few months later as a tabloid.”

All this is history, of course, and they merit recounting for the simple reason that they offer much by way of painting a colourful personality. I doubt Malinda would use the "colourful" tag on himself, but to me that's what sums up the man. It's a sign of his humility that he never balloons himself, which is what makes his political history all the more palatable. That doesn't make him an idealist though, and for this reason he's cautious in both praise and vitriol.

Before he joined "The Island" in 2000, both Champika Ranawaka and Rathana Thero had helped form the Sihala Urumaya. Malinda supported them and contested on the party ticket in Jaffna. 

Perhaps it's my naiveté at work here, but I ask him whether he actually won. "Are you crazy?" he asks me cheerily, "The Sihala Urumaya got more votes than the JVP and the Nava Sama Samaja Party. I got seven preferential votes. All in all, the point we were trying to drive across wasn't to do with votes. Rather, we were making the point is that even the Sinhalese had a heritage claim on every inch of this island. This was a time, we should not forget, when to affirm that one was a Sinhalese was enough to invite a lot of bad-mouthing.”

Having contested and "lost", Malinda’s next formal political association was with the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT). “The NMAT was dominated by many who were with the Janatha Mithuro and the Sihala Urumaya. I agreed to work with them after 2006, on the condition that it would operate independent of the Jathika Hela Urumaya. The JHU campaigned on a nationalist platform, but the NMAT worked on combating terrorist propaganda. I think Anuruddha Pradeep Karnasuriya put it best when he said that the NMAT was a petrol shed, not a supermarket, and that what we ‘sold’ was objection to terrorism.”

The organisation, which chiefly combated the myth that the LTTE couldn't be militarily defeated, was vindicated in 2009. This we know. What we don't know, and what Malinda tells me, is its association with the nationalist politics rampant at the time. "During Chandrika Kumaratunga's time, we had federalists telling us what to do and what not to do. They were running the government, basically. We had a difficult time back then, but that's not to say we thought of giving up. And so, even though the likes of Ranawaka are vilified and marginalised today, the truth is that we all played a role in birthing May 2009."

Here I ask him about his “association” with Mahinda Rajapaksa. "I can understand why people still think I supported him unconditionally, because I was almost always the defender of the State whenever the West took it to task over the way the issue of terrorism was handled by that regime. However, just because I defended the State – which I did because I felt the West had no moral right to vilify us over war crimes – that doesn’t mean I was behind Mahinda Rajapaksa."

So what were the ideas and ideals he stood for? "Back when the Sihala Urumaya was formed, you couldn't say you were Sinhala or Buddhist. You'd be taken as a racist if you did. We were against that. We felt that the voices of the majority of this country were being silenced. If you think that makes me or those who stood with me chauvinists, that's erroneous." I tell him that the "chauvinist" tag was used thanks to misconceptions about the party's positions on democracy, equity, and social justice, and he agrees.

"We never affirmed a ‘Buddhist hegemony’. To be honest, that term is a myth. There is NO Buddhist hegemony. Look at history, at the wars we had to fight. Who made up the majority from among those who suffered? Yes, you can talk of numbers and say, ‘The Sinhala Buddhists were anyway in the majority even then.' But then who got the benefits? The Sinhala Buddhists? Certainly not! That's what the SU was arguing, and that’s what formed the political content of the very many back-and-forth debates I was engaged with, inter alia, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka in ‘The Island’.”

Malinda also argues against "misconstrued multiculturalism". "A multiculturalism that doesn't take note of historical realities and percentages is misconstrued. Federalists and those who vociferously support the 13th Amendment ‘talk’ multi-ethnic and multi-religious without talking numbers and percentages into account. They use terms such as ‘North’ and ‘South’ and immediately offer a picture to the ill-informed, especially abroad, of an island divided in the middle according to ethnic identity. They are content in drawing a boundary between North and South. But think of the map of Sri Lanka they use to support their thesis. That map (used by Eelamists and devolutionists) was drawn by the British, based on imaginary boundaries that had and has no scientific basis. Looking at this, you're telling me that half the coast and one-third of the land in this country must be given to less than 10% of the population? Absurd!"

Sociologists here and elsewhere have frequently commented on the social content of the Buddhist revivalist movement. I bring this up because Malinda, when talking about the role of Buddhism in Sri Lankan history, talks of Anagarika Dharmapala rather warmly. "We articulated and have been articulating what the likes of Gunadasa Amarasekera and Professor Nalin de Silva have stood for. They have been affirming what the Anagarika stated a century or so ago: that we must stand on our own feet and stop mimicking the West. People love to vilify us as racist, but that's crass." 

To which I put my two cents: "If the Buddhist revivalist movement, of which the Anagarika was a leading figure, was so concerned about this, why then was it housed by people whose conduct was so antithetical to the spirit of what they were espousing?"

Malinda's reply is quick and concise: "People aren't saints. However, I believe that the revivalist program suffered on two counts. Firstly, it separated 'Sinhala' from 'Buddhist', which is basically what Professor Nalin states. Secondly, the revivalists failed to take stock of what breathes life into any nationalist project: an engagement with history and heritage. When it comes to the great debate between Colonel Olcott and the Anagarika therefore, I wouldn't take sides, but I would argue that (and I am no expert here) the Anagarika was the more wholesome of the two." I deliberately try to generalise this as a comment on the inadequacy of Olcott's program, and he laughs: "That's what YOU people do. Pick, choose, and generalise. The world doesn't operate that way."

Which is where he comes to the present. "People think I am against the separation of temple and state. How? By my (alleged) support for the Jathika Hela Urumaya. First of all, far from being an unconditional supporter of the JHU, I was one of the first to write against its decision to let monks contest. When Athuraliye Rathana Thero confirmed this to me, I told him then and there, 'You'll find me your biggest opponent. My column in the Sunday Island of that week (in February 2004) denounced the JHU.” But this does not mean I support a non-existent separation between temple and state." I tell him that the West may be drawing closer to achieving such a separation, and he disagrees: "The West never sustained that separation in the first place."

I can't quite explain it, but I find in Malinda the union of democrat and nationalist. The fault must be mine, because to this day I can't think of how the two can come together. "I have always stood for citizens' rights. I don't look at them on the basis of race or religion. On the other hand, I have always believed that if ever a community was ‘deprived’, that was the Sinhala Buddhist community. Again, look at history. Look at the leaders we had from 1948. NONE of them acknowledged Buddhism."

There's something missing in Malinda's argument though, and I am confused what it may be. I put to him that the ideology he's still articulating has more or less been accepted by the majority, even in a nuanced way, and that there's very little more that we actually need to achieve. He disagrees. "Now you're implying that we don't need to demand. Of course we're not demanding. We're asking for representation. Let's not forget, after all, that Sri Lanka isn't a mono-religious state, that it does recognise other communities, and that it gives more space for religious holidays. We're way ahead of the West here and we accept that." To the point that he's being vilified for "mollycoddling" extremism, he replies, "Who hasn't been vilified? Who hasn't been misread?"

I broach the subject of secularism once more, and he grows impatient. "There's no secularism in this world. You talk secularism in the West to me when there are no Christian holidays, when there's no 'In God We Trust' in the US dollar bill, and when they don't impose bans on the burqa in Europe!" Not surprisingly, Malinda is for identity-assertion for EVERY community: "If we are not Sinhala or Tamil in the first instance, our being Sri Lankan becomes less meaningful. There are those who talk about 'One Nation, One Race, One Blood'. All poppycock.” 

We then delve into political reforms. "I was writing about good governance, the shortcomings of the 17th Amendment long before November 21, 2014, followed by the dangers inherent in the 18th. Like I said before, I defended the State against the West, but this didn't mean I was complacent. I supported Rajapaksa in 2005 because I felt that Ranil Wickremesinghe, given what he did from 2001-2004, would have been a disaster in terms of dealing with the LTTE.”

There's always been a question I've wanted to ask this one-time sociology student, and I ask it now. "Do you think the intelligentsia in this country is responsible for how the West misinterprets us?" He asks me to elaborate on what I mean by "intelligentsia". "Anthropologists, sociologists, academics," I hastily say. He is cautious in his reply. "See, I wouldn't generalise like that. Of course some of them are responsible for creating and sustaining the image of Sri Lanka as the Tear or the Blood Drop of the Indian Ocean, but there are many fathers and mothers to this situation.”

"What of the ‘Sinhala Nation’ they think Sri Lanka is construed as?" I ask. "Again, that's poppycock. What that term presupposes is that the Sinhala Buddhists usurped other communities of their rightful place in the country. You go to the North and East and you’ll see archaeological evidence of a strong Buddhist presence. There are people, including academics, who talk of a Tamil Buddhist culture in the North. If so, since Buddhism is eminently a scholarly religion, where is the Tamil Buddhist literature?”

Is there then a reason for why this collective has been and is being attacked? “The Sinhala Buddhists of this country have always been accommodative of other faiths. When the South Indians invaded us, we took Hindu gods to our temples and worshipped them. We didn't do that with Jesus Christ when the Portuguese, Dutch, and British invaded us, and maybe that's why some of those who profess their faiths are grinding axes with us."

Malinda is probably the most down-to-earth in his profession, and also the most frank. Words and sentences come easily to him. He writes with conviction. Given his background, that’s no surprise. Perhaps this is what has made him "respectable" in the eyes of the English-speaking, rootless elite in our country, for whom identity has become amorphous. He has certainly stood for the rights of the vernacular (he is a bilingual), and has frequently written on the originality of those who choose to write, read, and live their lives without any of those habits inculcated by lotus-eaters.

In the final analysis, then, that’s probably the best way to sum him up: that he’s no lotus-eater.

22 May 2017

You can be like Kobe Bryant and like Isaiah Thomas

Kobe Bryant is a basketball legend.  Having played for the Los Angeles Lakers throughout his 20-year career, Kobe led his team to five NBA championships from 2000-2002 and 2006-2007.  He has secured numerous scoring titles and MVP awards. He has had 1 eighty-point game, 6 sixty-point games (including his final game), 26 fifty-point games, and 134 forty-point games in his career. In his final game on April 13, 2016, he became the oldest player to score 60 in a single game (37).  Sure, he had his ups and downs, often caught flak for being selfish, had personal issues (who doesn’t?) but few would deny that he was one of the most fearsome competitors the league has ever known.  

Kobe Bryant. A legend, certainly.  Isaiah Thomas is a star.  Not a legend.  Not yet, anyway.  

Isaiah  is only in his 6th NBA season, hasn’t won any championship rings, doesn’t own any scoring titles and in a league dominated by the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Hardin, is just one of several ‘second rung’ names.  True, he has led the Boston Celtics to the top of the Eastern Conference regular season standings and has inspired his team to make it to the conference final against defending champions Cleveland Cavaliers.  Not a legend though.  Not yet, anyway.

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers.  Isaiah Thomas currently leads the arch rivals of the Lakers, the Celtics.  So what’s the Bryant-Thomas story?  It began or it could be said to have begun when Bryant called him to offer condolences over the tragic death of Isaiah’s sister Chyna in a car accident the day before the playoffs began.

Later, Isaiah would recall that Bryant had told him that it is up to him, Isaiah, to decide whether or not to play in that first game, but had added 'The one bit of advice I would give you is, if you are going to play, then you gotta play; maybe you can find some peace in moments out there.’  Kobe had also said ‘if you ever need anything, just reach out; I’m here for you.’

And Isaiah did reach out.  This was when the Celtics fell behind to the Chicago Bulls 2-0.  He called Kobe and asked if he’d mind looking over some of the game film and help him figure out how to unshackle himself from the Chicago defenders.  So the two players had set up their laptops and done a video tour of the game action together.  The Celtics went on to beat the Bulls and then the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.  The Celtics were creamed by the Cavs in Boston no less, in the first two games, but bounced back in Cleveland to win Game 3 even though they played without the injured Isaiah.  The result of the series is not relevant here.  It's the lesson that counts.  A lesson of reaching out. 

Kobe said he was happy to help Isaiah: ‘He had the courage to ask. I did the same thing with Michael Jordan when I was a young player.’  And he had learned the importance of reaching out from another legend, another Michael but in a different field, music.  Apparently during a visit to Neverland Ranch in his rookie season, the pop star had told him to reach out to all the greats in his profession and learn from them.  Kobe had done just said.  Over the years, basketball greats such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Magic Johnson (all Lakers) as well as Bill Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird and of course his childhood idol Jordan had been generous with advice whenever it was solicited.  Bryan had decided that one day he would do the same, mentoring any young player who came to him. 

Not everyone is a legend but there’s no harm in aspiring to be one or at least wanting to be the best that one can be.  This involves a lot of hard work.  Talent helps of course but it is the commitment, unforgiving hard work, the ability to overcome adversity, the will to win and the humility to acknowledge frailties that makes ordinary people great and great people legends.  

Two things are necessary.  First, the accessibility to the greats.  Secondly, the courage to ask.  Kobe was ready, Isaiah had the courage.  

In all of us, there’s a potential Kobe (the Mentor) and a potential Isaiah (needing guidance).  Isaiah Thomas may or may not end his career as a legend, may or may not make it to the Basketball Hall of Fame, but he certainly has the talent, the humility and the courage to learn from those who came before.  There are dozens of basketball legends and many of them have mentored younger players, in official as well as in unofficial capacities.  Some seemed to have been happy enough to let footage of their greatness do the work.  That’s all available in the public domain, true enough, but then again the right word at the right time and in the right tone can add that much more to such kinds of ‘learning material’.  In short, there are people like Kobe.  And there are people like Isaiah.    

You and I may not ever be like Kobe or like Isaiah, not in basketball or in any other field.  There’s nothing to stop us from trying though.

18 May 2017

The commonalities of celebration and grief

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected, BBC just couldn’t get enough of the protests.  Wiliam Bowles, in an article titled ‘The nerve of these guys!’ quoted the BBC back then: ‘Millions of Iranians simply did not believe the result. The main demand of the protesters has been an annulment of the result and an election re-run.’  The very same BBC, Bowles noted, had ‘no wall-to-wall coverage of Afghan outrage over a stolen election’.  Instead, the BBC had noted, ‘There was no further reference to fraud. It was pointed out that the figures were more or less in line with the opinion polls.’

That was in November 2009.  According to BBC the Iranian election was fixed but in Hamid Karzai’s case, the ‘election’ reflected ‘more or less’ the will of the Afghan voter.  

There’s a lesson here.  People see what they want to see and look the other way when the sight does not please.  

And so one memory is privileged over another, one element of a story underlined while other strands, less palatable, are ignored or erased.  

Today, exactly eight years after a thirty year long conflict was brought to an end, at least in a military sense, people are playing BBC, so to speak, one way or another.  To some, there’s reason to celebrate and for others it is a moment for mourning.  

The end of a war, regardless of who or what emerged victorious, is a blessing in some aspects at least.  No bombs, no bullets flying around, no checkpoints, no need to be wary of the person next to you, no abduction of children, no forced conscription, no need for young girls to be impregnated so that conscription can be avoided, no anti-personnel mines crippling combatants or civilians, no need to wonder at point of morning parting whether loved ones may not ever be seen again and no need for certain politicians to pay salaams to armed men.  These are blessings.  These are all reasons for celebration.  

If there’s a thing called opportunity cost, there has to be something called opportunity benefit.  

A sober reflection, say on the part of those held hostage in Vellimullivaikkal on the 17th of May, 2009 (or in fact anyone who survived that ‘historic’ hostage-taking exercise that began when the security forces secured Silavatura) on those last days as an element in a thing called ‘human shield’ and the lived reality of the 18th of May, 2017, would yield in the very least a sense of being blessed in some small say.  

On the other hand, the end of armed conflict, is a moment to reflect and such reflection gives rise to innumerable reasons to grieve.  A destroyed political, social, economic and environmental landscape, for example.  Lost opportunities, arrested development, livelihoods that were shattered and difficult to rebuild, and most of all the fact that someone that someone loved is lost forever give enough reasons to grieve.  

Of course there will be other reasons to celebrate, and naturally reasons to mourn as well.  Those for whom it was all about the character of the state, i.e. unitary, federal, confederation of separation, can celebrate or mourn as per preferred outcome.  

And so, that moment when separatism’s military persona was defeated, we can conclude eight years later, yielded a mixed bag.  We are all in that bag, huddled together in varying degrees of happiness and/or sorrow about that entire history and its part-denouement on May 18, 2009.  There’s some talk, there’s silence as well.  There’s recognition of common humanity and an inescapable sense of difference and separation as well.   

The 18th of May means different things to different people simply because there are battles, as my friend Thrishantha Nanayakkara once said, that continue to be fought in the alleyways of memory.  

Celebrators we are and so too are we grievers, separable in sentiments pertaining to outcomes.  

It is easy to dismiss relief as ‘triumphalism’ and equally easy to dismiss mourning as ‘sour grapes’ or mourners as ‘sour losers’.  However, since we have an 18th of May and since it is historic, one way or another, it is a moment good enough to reflect on.  

Let me mark this day by recounting a visit to the Menik Farm IDP facility in Cheddikulam in July 2009.  This is an extract of something I wrote back then:

“I realized that had it not been for the discipline and structured authority of the Army, things would have been far worse.  By that time, there was order.  The day-to-day was streamlined.  Conditions in these facilities were not ideal, but still better than in some other parts of the country. I was impressed by the untiring efforts by the security forces to make sure that everyone had food to eat, that the sick were taken care of, that families were reunited etc.  I was impressed by the volume of relief items that were pouring into the area.  I was impressed by the fact that there were dozens of doctors who had volunteered to work round the clock attending to the sick. 

“I remember being horrified by some of the stories these unfortunate people related.  I was impressed that despite all the trials they had been put through, most of them retained their dignity, self-respect and humanity.  Thinking back, I believe that nothing impressed or inspired me more than how these people asserted their will to live and prosper.

“I visited all the relief facilities. In each unit, regardless of size and population, I encountered ‘education’.  There were hundreds of teachers among the IDPs and many principals as well.  Naturally, there were thousands of children. Each and every one of them had ‘returned’ to school, so to speak, almost all of them after many months.  The authorities facilitated it all.  The largess of their fellow-citizens and well-meaning non-governmental organization had ensured they would not lack in stationary.  

“The people themselves, despite all the trauma they had been through and indeed had not yet overcome, had decided that the children must learn, even under the harshest of conditions. 
There were ‘classes’ under the trees and inside tents.  They were organized according to age.  The children were being taught English, Tamil, Mathematics and Science.  Some of the instructors were teachers attached to the Education Department. Some were older students or adults who had been trained in other professions.  I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the teachers and the students.  I remember thinking, ‘this country has reason to hope’.” 

I also wrote the following, a couple of years later: “The rains that will slake our national thirsts have to fall from our own skies. No one can make us smile, except ourselves. No one can make the harsh earth yield flower and grain, except ourselves.”

I still believe.   

13 May 2017

If you are from Ellagaava, say it with pride!

In October 1985, a fresher at Dumbara Campus was quizzed by his seniors.  It was what might be called mild ragging.  The conversation took place in Sinhala and this is a rough English translation. 

‘Where are you from?’


‘Where in Colombo?’


‘Where in Horana?’


‘Where in Bulathsinhala?’


‘Ah…..that would be Colombo 60!’

The fresher was probably trying to make things easy.  Sunil Udukala, now a senior officer at the Central Environmental Authority, is in fact quite proud of his roots. It was for him a convenience to answer this way.  Sometimes it is more than a convenience, for in these matters there’s also the play of shame and pride.  Here’s a proud story. 

It was during the reign of King Rajasinha the First, also known as Sitawaka Rajasinha since he ruled the Kingdom of Sitawaka and had won the name after a fierce battle against Portuguese forces.  

The Portuguese were from the get-go determined to ‘save the heathens’ (to put it mildly) and long before annexing territory were making ideological inroads.  It was known that they were making their way inland along the Kalu Ganga.  They had to be stopped.  

Now the narrowest spot on the river was actually a waterfall called ‘Penigala Ella’.  This was at one end of what is now demarcated as the Sabaragamuwa Province.  Apparently traders in juggery and treacle from upstream would meet potential consumers from downstream at this spot.  One day a flood had taken all their wares down the river.  That’s how the name ‘Penigala Ella’ was coined.  

There’s another coinage.  ‘Ellagaava’ or ‘By the Waterfall,’ by the waterfall Penigala Ella, that is.  Rajasinha I did not just want the invader stopped, he wanted to destroy the Portuguese.  It was decided that the best strategic point for this purpose was Ellagava.  A fort had been set up at the point.  The enemy advancement was duly destroyed by Manamperi Disawe, who had been tasked to lead the battle.

Now around this time, one of his favored concubines had died.  Rajasinha wanted a temple built in memory of the lady.  It was built at Ellagaava and dedicated to the Goddess Pattini.  A priest was needed to handle the affairs of the temple and a man from the Lewella Korale was duly picked, trained and sent to Ellagaava.  He came to be known as Elle Kapurala.  The title and the name was passed down from generation to generation and that’s how more than 450 years later there came to this earth a child who was named Elle Kapuralalage Jagath Kumara Wijesiri.  

That was in the year 1959.  Twenty years later, Jagath Kumara Wijesiri was recruited as an Army Officer Cadet.  When he was asked where he was from, this boy who had been educated at both Ellegaava Vidyalaya and Taxila Maha Vidyalaya, said ‘Horana’ since he thought no one would know ‘Ellagaava’.  During their training in Diyatalawa, a fellow officer cadet by the name of Geetha Atapattu, better known as ‘Geeth,’ had died. Geeth had been Head Prefect at Sripalee Maha Vidyalaya, Horana. 

Since people thought he was from Horana, he had been warned not to say anything ‘unnecessary’ regarding Geeth’s unfortunate death.  Young Wijesiri apparently didn’t even know where Geeth lived.  Anyway, word had got out, and it was suspected that Wijesiri had something to do with it.  He was a victim of circumstances.  

Wijesiri would retire as Major General and the first one from the Sabaragamuwa Province.  Today he is proud of his name and his history.  If someone asks him, he would say ‘I am Elle Kapuralalage Jagath Kumara Wijesiri’.  There’s pride when he recounts his family history.

“My father joined the Army and he went on to become a Commissioned Officer.  From our early days he inculcated in us a sense of history and love for our country.  My grandfather was adamant that the family should put in at least 100 years of service for the country.  In 1991 my youngest brother joined the Army.  Father retired, was recalled and served until 1994.  Together, we have  completed 100 years of military service.”

Names have histories.  People too.  Some want to forget histories, some do not.  Some are pressurized not just to forget but to ridicule their past.  Then there are people like Alle Kapuralalage Jagath Kumara Wijesiri.  He’s not from ‘Kolamba Heta’.  He’s from Ellagaava Eka, so to speak.  And he’s proud of the fact.  

12 May 2017

President Macron: congratulation and good luck in finding the voice of sanity

This is the English version of a letter sent to Emmanuel Macron, President of France. Scroll down for the French version.

May 11, 2017

His Excellency Emmanuel Macron,
Republic of France

His Excellency Jean-Marin Schuh
The Ambassador of France to Sri Lanka and the Maldives 
89 Rosmead Pl, Colombo 00700

Dear Mr Macron,

Greetings, congratulation and good luck in finding the voice of sanity

This is not the moment to talk of ideological issues.  This is the moment to acknowledge and celebrate a historic victory, more for the people of France than for you, I am sure you’ll agree.  

This is a moment when the dominance of mainstream parties was shattered.  Some would call it a revolution for this reason alone.  As you’ve pointed out, in this sense, a new page has indeed been turned in the history of your country.  

You’ve spoken of hope and trust.  You’ve spoken of fighting the divisions that undermine France. I wish you all strength, courage and humility in securing these important things for your people.  With the people, needless to say.  

We too, in Sri Lanka, have learned the worth of hope and trust, more so in their absence.  We know how divisions undermine our nation.  We have also suffered under the tyranny of mainstream political parties.  We too want it ended.  

François-Marie Arouet, bettern known as Voltaire, the great French writer, historian, and philosopher once said that “no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking”.  That, and solidarities that matter, I would add.  And so I wish you and the people of France the necessary wisdom and relevant solidarities, now and always, and hope that sanity will prevail over all insanities that divide and cause blood to be shed.   


Malinda Seneviratne 

11 May 2017

‘The SAITM Issue’ and the politics of misnaming

SAITM: Means different things to different people on both sides of the divide
Whoever is against SAITM should also be opposed to fee-levying institutions such as private nurseries, tuition classes, outfits that offer all kinds of certification and practices such as channeling services.  This is an argument that is widely tossed around by those opposing opposition to SAITM.  The flak that Dr Anuruddha Padeniya of the GMOA has got over the past few days has been liberally padded with such logic.  His detractors have roundly castigated him for offering consultancy services in private hospitals even as he spearheads the agitation against SAITM.  

The cause of the GMOA has not been helped by the fact that some of its fellow-travelers have waved the anti-privatization flag.  In other words, the ‘SAITM issue’ for them is but an expression of a process or even an economic policy preference they oppose, namely privatization.  

All causes have to deal with different stakeholders who have diverse outcome preferences.  The opponents have the option of picking out one or more of the claims or parties and target these.  That’s politics.  Misidentification, mislabeling, misrepresentation and such are part of the game.  

There are therefore people who are calling for the blood of the movers and shakers of GMOA, especially Dr Padeniya.  Naturally ‘the sick’ are used as grist.  The pro-SAITM or let’s say the anti-GMOA lobby would have us believe that no one cares more about the poor and the sickly of this country than them.  That again is politics.  It is useful, after all, to have the key issues shoved out of the debate.  Indeed, part of the story is to define ‘key issue’ in ways that make for easy engagement.  Everyone involved in this drama does this.

What all this helps displace is the important (let’s not say ‘THE key issue’) matter of a coherent policy with respect to education in general.   It is easy to say ‘we need more doctors’.  Of course we need more doctors, there’s no question there.  It’s easy to ask ‘if you are raising concerns about quality, can you give any guarantees about the quality of doctors produced by the state universities?’  It’s a valid question of course.  

It’s easy to take medical mishaps, inflate them, display them, throw them in the face of those who bring up the issue of standards (pertaining to SAITM) and scream ‘you don’t have a case, hoo-hoo’.  

It’s easy to say such things and raise such questions as long as you desist from talking about the realities in our hospitals — the congestion, the financial constraints, under-staffing across all categories, the consequent stress and say nothing about the incredible services rendered therein.  Easy and irresponsible.  

“The SAITM issue” is a book that has not yet been written, or rather is a book whose pages are all over the media, including Facebook, Twitter, the blogsphere and elsewhere on the internet.  This is not an abridged version of that book and neither is it a review.  What’s written above is preface and what follows will be a short note on the seeming contradiction of GMOA members engaging in ‘private practice’ with a view to separate the issue of privatization or private income-earning practices from that of regulation and accreditation.  

One of the most sober comments on this element of the debate was offered on Facebook by Dr Waruna Jayasinghe.  It is worth translation.  He called it ‘From nurseries through SAITM to channeling….”

Montessori Schools: Whether or not a child has attended a Montessori is irrelevant when being enrolled in a school. The particular child is not required to have obtained instruction on any elements of the primary curriculum.

Tuition: Tuition gives students preparing for exams a boost.  However it is not the tutor who sets and conducts the exam, but the state.  Those who attend tuition classes and those who do not are assessed by a single institution and process.  (We can define the SAITM situation as one where the tuition master himself conducts an exam and produces doctors according to a Montessori system).  

Private degrees (e.g. IT) and private medical colleges: Since many don’t see a difference, let me use an example.  I obtain an IT degree of forgettable quality.  You give me a job.  I write software programmes at a rate.  You realize that they are useless.  You sack me.  In other words, the consumer, the quality controller and the boss are all one person and someone who knows the subject well.  Now assume I get a degree from SAITM.  Even if the quality controller, the Sri Lanka Medical Council, says ‘poor quality,’ the law forces recognition. Accordingly I am recruited and sent to serve in Wanathavilluva.  I prescribe medicines like crazy.  I also engage in private practice.  The patients’ conditions get worse courtesy my treatment and prescription, but they wouldn’t know I am the cause.  Since there are very few senior doctors in such facilities they too wouldn’t notice my idiocy.  So I will remain secure and happy.  Here the consumer, the quality-controller and the boss are independent of one another.  The quality controller has been crippled.  The consumer has no knowledge of quality and no authority either.  The boss doesn’t have the means nor the mechanisms to assess the work of junior physicians.  I continue to practice.  One day you come to me for treatment.  I prescribe. You die.  Your loved ones complain to the SLMC and my registration is cancelled.  This is of no use to you, since you are dead.  My friends will continue to treat and prescribe medicine to their patients.   

Channeling: I work in a government hospital.  After I clock-out, I have the freedom to make koththu or engage in channeling.  Since I am a doctor, I choose private practice.  I have knowledge and training to offer for a price.  You come to purchase these because you find it more convenient or of greater value to obtain these in this manner rather than getting it free at a government hospital.  You have the complete freedom to obtain treatment from a government hospital or from some other individual should you feel that I am expensive or that you would not get value for money from me. 

What this shows is that although people try to put everything in one heap, it is SAITM that disempowers people from choices and that if the quality of medical degrees is not strictly monitored the outcomes could be disastrous. 

Now some may argue that (say in the USA) universities offer their own degrees.  The issue there however is that there is assessment, there are ratings, there are minimum standards that have to be met for purposes of accreditation.

‘The SAITM issue’ is about accreditation.  It’s about quality control.  One can vilify the SLMC and argue about the quality of doctors produced by state universities, but one cannot shove under the carpet the issue of coherent and comprehensive assessment.  There has to be a single authority in the business of regulation or else a coherent and comprehensive process of evaluation.  

Someone can claim that the SLMC is not perfect.  That’s fine.  The solution would be to improve the institution and the processes therein.  The Government, as of now, appears to be ill-equipped intellectually and politically to sort out the mess to which it has contributed (as did the previous regime) by being frivolous and arrogant.  

What’s evident is a scandalous disregard for regulation and a bastardization of accreditation.   The Government should rise about the politics of  misidentification, mislabeling and misrepresentation because a) it is unhealthy, and b) as things stand it could maim or kill a lot of things, including the Government itself.

This cannot be healthy. 

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

10 May 2017

Save the Sinhala Program at Cornell University

Deepthi Kumara Gunaratne once alleged that I never studied at Harvard University.  He said that I might have been eating hoppers in some boutique somewhere near Harvard, at best.  He was essentially claiming that I had learned nothing at Harvard.  Someone else asked me once what I had brought back from Harvard and I said ‘Harvard was too big to carry back to Sri Lanka,’ and, after a pause, added, ‘Harvard was too small too.’  

Not true, strictly speaking, but I was using a broad brush and alluding to alleged superiority of certain knowledge systems, just like Deepthi.  Big or small the institution, big or small the individual, we leave something behind and we take away something too.  True of Harvard and true of Cornell University.  

When I entered the doctoral program in Development Sociology at Cornell in 1995, I didn’t know that Sinhala was taught in that school.  The ‘Sinhala Program’ was housed in the ‘Department of Modern Languages’. Ironic, considering the history of the language; strictly speaking English should also have been located in Morrill Hall (as well), but then again, these things are largely arbitrary despite the appearance of classification logic.  

I got to know about it at a function welcoming students organized by the South Asian Program of the university.  My advisor Prof Shelley Feldman introduced me to Milan Rodrigo who taught both Sinhala and Tamil at Cornell.  Perhaps at that meeting or at a subsequent function I met Professor Emeritus James W. Gair (who passed away last December), a linguist in South Asian linguistics specializing in Sinhala, as well as in Pali, Tamil and Dhivehi.  Jim was a wonderful teacher and a great human being. He was quite the Santa Clause, with his white hair and beard, twinkling eyes and a year-round smile. Jim bailed me out.  

It happened in the Summer of 1997.  I had obtained a Summer research grant the previous year and had decided to stay on in Sri Lanka until Fall 1997.  Before coming to Sri Lanka I had a assistantship to teach ‘Introductory Sociology’.  I had erroneously assumed that my slot would be there for me when I returned.  When I made inquiries, I was informed that they had been filled.  So I wrote to Jim Gair detailing my predicament and asking if there was some research or teaching position in the Sinhala Program.  Jim wrote back immediately saying that Milan had retired and that he had been looking for someone to teach Sinhala.  It worked for both of us.  I was able to survive the next four semesters thanks to the Sinhala Program.   

Today, I heard that Cornell is planning to scrap the program, supposedly for cost-cutting reasons.  It’s a pity if this is done for several reasons.  First of all, considering the wealth of the university the Sinhala Program costs next to nothing.  There’s just one teacher, Prof Bandara Herath, and not much space is taken for his office or his classroom.  More importantly, Cornell University is the only university outside Sri Lanka offering a full curriculum in Sinhala and is the global leader in Sinhala language teaching materials.

Sinhala has been taught at Cornell for more than 50 years ever since it was established by Prof Gair, a PhD holder from Cornell and who got a DLit/Sahitya Chakravarti from Kelaniya Campus. Scholars such as Gordon H. Fairbanks, M.W. Sugathapala De Silva, W.S. Karunatillake and John Paolillo have produced rich teaching material which have been regularly upgraded by those who came later, including Bandara Herath and Liyanage Amarakeerthi.  

Typically, there are three broad categories of students who enroll in the courses offered during the regular academic year as well as the Summer Program: linguists, heritage students (with Sri Lankan ancestry) and those who wish to do fieldwork in Sri Lanka.  ‘Sinhala’ is an integral part of and affirms the multi-disciplinary ethic of the university’s South Asian Program, and is moreover a program that has been excellently complemented by arguably the best South Asian collection in North America.  Cornell’s Kroch library holds a world-class collection related to Sri Lanka, including holdings in Sinhala, Tamil, Pali, and Sanskrit. 

The courses provide a unique  opportunity for students to acquire basic competence in the language thanks to materials developed at Cornell.   And it’s not just about picking up enough of the language to get by.  Colloquial language skills are of course emphasized during the program, but these are complemented by introduction to the writing system and colloquial reading materials.  Upon successful completion students are ready to study literary Sinhala while the more advanced students, if they so wish, can work in literary Sinhala and/or to develop more advanced colloquial skills. Doing away with the program would be an insult to and negation of considerable efforts of a fine set of academics who worked diligently and tirelessly to make all this possible.

So no, my ‘angst’ is not reducible to gratitude alone, but nevertheless I must mention another reason to be thankful.  

There are two periods in my life when I read voraciously.  To put things in context, I am a slow reader and large books intimidate me to the point of avoiding them studiously.  The first was when I was detained for three weeks by the Police for suspected insurrectionary activity (successfully challenged in court) and the second was when I was a graduate student at Cornell University.  I am talking here about literature and not strictly academic ‘required reading’.  I spent many hours browsing the Kroch library collection.  I was surprised to find that even books that had been published as recent as the previous year had been purchased by the library.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a copy of a collection of short stories written by my friend Liyanage Amarakeerthi.  he had gifted me a copy of that book just before I left Sri Lanka for my graduate studies.  I still remember what he inscribed on the first page of that book which has since gone missing: “barasaara buddhimatheku vee yali mavbimata peminenna” (return to the motherland after becoming an accomplished academic).  Never happened, but that’s another story. Amarakeerthi would later teach Sinhala at Cornell, having obtained a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  

Amarakeerthi is also associated with the other story that saddens me about the possible fate of the Sinhala Program at Cornell.

It was at Cornell that I first laid my hands on Simon Navagaththegama’s celebrated novella, Sansaraaranyaye Dadayakkaraya (roughly translatable as ‘The Hunter in the Sansaric Grove’).  As part of an exercise for a class on Marx, Nietzsche and Freud taught by Prof Geoff Waite I translated a passage from that book.  It emboldened me to try my hand at translating the entire book.  I sent the first two chapters to Amarakeerthi and he urged me to complete it.   I did and it eventually won for me the H.A.I Goonetilaka Prize for translations offered by the Gratiaen Trust.  The universe has a strange logic.  A few years after I left Cornell, my friend Liyanage Amarakeerthi was hired by Cornell to teach Sinhala.  

Again, I must emphasize that all this nostalgia is only of incidental worth to the story here.  There’s a fine program at Cornell that is in danger of being scrapped.  The children of many expatriate Sri Lankans have benefited from the program, either by enrolling in the various courses or by access to the excellent course material developed by those who ran the program over the past 50 years.   

There’s a fine program at Cornell that is in danger of being scrapped.  As a former teacher, a former student of sorts (of Jim Gair), a beneficiary in multiple ways, and someone who is cognizant of the worth of that program, I can but urge the relevant authorities to revisit the proposal.  

Yes, there’s a lot I brought back from Cornell and there’s stuff I’ve left behind, but all that is incidental, I must repeat.  There are more important and compelling reasons to resist this move.