03 December 2016

Trumps and jokers, global and local

Did he say 'I'll make other countries also great (again)"?

It has been reported that the Government has asked US President Elect Donald Trump to pressure the UN Human Rights Council to drop war crimes allegations against the country’s troops. First of all, while there is references to allegations, what the UNHRC has focused on is essentially effective investigations.  It’s the modalities that have been scripted into the entire narrative on the Council’s discussion with Sri Lanka that have raised questions about infringement on sovereignty, selective application of principle etc.  

More importantly, writing to Donald Trump on this particular issue indicates a certain naïveté which is scary considering how important logic, good sense, knowledge and such are in the sphere of diplomatic relations.  

The missive follows Sri Lanka, in post-Mahinda Rajapaksa euphoria perhaps and perhaps believing that the done thing was to do whatever the previous regime didn’t do, went ahead and co-sponsored what is clearly a UNHRC resolution that ran counter to the country’s interests.  Asking Trump to dump it indicates misgivings. It also indicates that the Government implicitly acknowledges that the UNHRC is Washington’s pawn.  Thirdly, it is essentially an unofficial submission of the country’s national interests to the whims and fancies of the USA.  

The Government is essentially saying ‘big brother, get the UNHRC off our back, please’.  Big brothers make rules, kid brothers submit.  Once the nature of the relationship is established (and that’s what this request does), there’s no going back.  

Now it can’t be the case that the Government realized that it had erred or that the UNHRC resolution runs against the national interest only after Donal Trump won the election.  The Government did not appeal to Obama.  So why appeal to Trump?

The obvious answer (the true answer only the Government would know) is Trump’s ‘nationalism’.  Trump’s straight talk about ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorism’ might have also nudged the Government into believing that he would be different to Obama.  

Well, there’s nothing to say that nationalists of one country would find lots of common ground with nationalists of another country.  

To put it crudely, wars are all underwritten by nationalisms, it’s ‘nationalists’ that fight one another.  In other words the idea of ‘Making America (sic) Great Again’ is by definition about an even more prominent role globally (‘great’ makes sense only in relation to other countries, after all).  The USA does not have to worry about making anyone else great, or rather less a pariah internationally.  Washington does not operate that way.

Perhaps the Government was inspired by Trump’s ‘nationalism’ to all of a sudden think ‘nationally’ (which it hasn’t going by what the Foreign Ministry has been doing since January 2015).  Even if that were the case, the more prudent approach would be one of using relevant statements from nations that have censured Sri Lanka in the recent past and making a Sri Lankan policy statement that is clear, logical, draws from relevant contexts and consistent with the statements made by such nations.  

Assuming that Trump will ‘bail us out’ just because Trump made some nationalistic noises is plain silly.  

It would have been better for example to draw extensively from Theresa May’s positions on the subject, refer to them, and make a Sri Lankan policy statement on allegations and investigations related to ‘war crimes’.  Just say ‘we have strengthened and will continue to strengthen further the domestic mechanisms’ and be done with it.  

This of course does not mean that Theresa May is a saint.  Britain has her reasons which are clearly not of the same order of the issues Sri Lanka has to contend with.  However, if it’s word play then one needs to be smart about it.

The words to Donald Trump are weak and weakening.  Quite apart from the sophomoric nature of the letter, it shows a serious weakness.  The regime knows that it will run into trouble with the electorate due to the mishandling of things pertaining to the UNHRC.  If the previous regime floundered thanks to arrogance and other kinds of idiocy, this government is tripping on unpardonable naïveté (we are being kind here). 

The Government is weak but it need not go out of its way to demonstrate the fact.   It is the same with respect to constitutional reform.  A lot of noise about power-devolution, some whimpering statements expressing misgivings mostly from proxies (the SLFP and Champika Ranawaka) but no clear stand.  This is dangerous in a context where certain elements are trying to fast-track the whole process, much in the way that J.R. Jayewardene fixed the mythical boundaries of Eelam with the 13th Amendment.  

The President has been bold enough to say that current provincial boundaries were basically drawn by the British, implying that power devolution based on such lines would be erroneous and indeed a travesty of justice.  He has stopped there without taking the argument to its logical conclusion.  

We can draw a parallel from the love note to Trump.  When one asks a favor, one is obligated.  One submits.  The one implies the other.  It’s the same with the federal idea.  It’s about two (or more) distinct political entities (usually an ethnic or religious community) contained in a geography with a considerable history voluntarily coming together.  That’s the story of the US constitution and also the Indian union.  In Sri Lanka’s case, these ‘conditions’ are far from established.  However, what is pertinent is that the fact of ‘coming together’ automatically scripts in the option of separation, regardless of rhetoric (at this point) disavowing such intent.  The Government, it seems, is well on the way to scripting in the possibility or option of separation through constitutional reform.  Sure, there will be safeguards, but there’s nothing to stop a future Amirthalingam or Chelvanayagam or Prabhakaran from pointing out the implicit acknowledgment (in such an amended article in the Constitution) of a specific, ethnic-based political entity contained/containable in a specific geography and using this to legitimate agitation and re-taking of arms.  

Both in constitutional reform and dealing with the international community, or rather those sections of it that have pushed against Sri Lanka, the Government has been lethargic and sophomoric.  It would be surprising if it changes the complexion of international relations, especially with respect to the human rights circus.  Domestically, it is a recipe for strife due to lack of clarity and statements that raised more questions that deliver answers.  One is tempted to talk of trumps.  And of course jokers.  But let’s just say ‘missed a few tricks’.  

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

30 November 2016

A love note on countering hate-speech

President Maithripala Sirisena has instructed the IGP and Chiefs of Security Forces to arrest all those who incited racism.  At the Security Council meeting where these instructions were given, Minister Mano Ganeshan, it is reported, had drawn the attention of the President to a statement made by a bikkhu in Batticaloa which, he claims, hurt the Tamil people. The President is said to have inquired about enacting new laws to enable action against people who incited racism and Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe had said that steps have been taken to draft the law and had also pointed out that there are existing provisions to imprison inciters of racism for a period of a year.  

It must also be mentioned that the Bodu Bala Sena held a demonstration where anti-Muslim sentiments were openly and vociferously expressed.  The Thowheed Jama’ath responded by condemning inflammatory speech.  One also observes that notwithstanding Minister Rajapakshe’s assurances, a previous attempt to ban hate speech through the ‘Code of Criminal Procedure Amendment Bill’ and the ‘Penal Code Amendment Bill’ came to naught with both bills being withdrawn following objections by 22 ‘civil society’ organizations. At the time the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also strongly opposed the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill on the grounds that it is inconsistent with Article 14(1)(a) of the Constitution, which guarantees to every citizen the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression including publication.

It is strange that the Minister of Justice, who is said to have placed these draft amendments in the Order Paper, had not noticed the inconsistency.  Perhaps he did and was just going through the motions to keep happy those (equally ignorant) organizations that screamed their heads off wanting some kind of constitutional guarantee prohibiting ‘hate speech’.  

The problem lies perhaps in the very word ‘inciting’, which in this context is predicated on what is called ‘hatred’.  We can toss in ‘intolerance’ and frame it all in the complex context of democracy, the freedoms and limitations therein.  

The problem is that the good intentions clearly evident in the President’s directive and in proposed legislation come into serious conflict with both freedom of expression and the much celebrated notion of ‘religious freedom’, not to mention the subjective nature of the term ‘inciting’.   

Let’s start with a simple example.  Parents and children.  Parents punish children.  No child is happy to receive punishment.  They often resent and are often convinced that their parents hate them.  If you asked the parents, they would probably say ‘it is because we love them!’ And if you want a religious example, let’s take a crude one, just to illustrate the point.  In “Asterix and the Vikings’ the Vikings pacifying a Gaul they were planning to kill, claimed they were going to do the poor man a favor so he can thereafter wine and dine in Valhalla. 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of love and hate.  It’s a personal thing.  Two people can view the same act (say, of punishment) differently. 

If it’s all about making illegal anything that ‘propagates war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility of violence’ (as is worded in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] Act No 56 of 2007) then we don’t need such amendments.  As the TNA has argued, Sri Lanka is compliant with this Act. 

It was first mooted by Vasudeva Nanayakkara and later, when the Bodu Bala Sena was riding high, Rauff Hakeem, then the Minister of Justice picked up the baton.  It is interesting that if passed, the Act would effectively make illegal much of the Left rhetoric such as ‘Dhanapatheen Banghavewa’ (down with the capitalists)!  It can be construed as a threat, a death threat in fact!  But such details aside, the Act is not without problems notwithstanding compliance with the ICCPR Act which makes is superfluous.

Since all this is about religious communities, let’s talk religion.  Let’s talk of Christianity and Islam and the relevant texts, namely the Bible and Quran respectively.  

Now both the Bible and the Quran have wonderful explications of the notion of love.  They talk of community, solidarity, tolerance, peace, sharing and caring.  The devil, so to speak, is in the details, for amidst all this, there is a lot of content which would be objectionable in the narrative of tolerance, peaceful coexistence and such.  

These are, let us point out at the outset, are texts that many adherents swear by.  Indeed, some may argue that the ‘word’ is the foundation, king-post, edifice and roof of the particular religion.

Let us consider some of the relevant content.

In the Old Testament, we can cite Exodus 22: 22, "He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed."  It can be generally interpreted as a call for the genocide of followers of all religions other than Judaism and Christianity.  One must remember that those who consider followers of other faiths ‘infidels’, let’s say, can easily interpret to serve their purpose.    The clause ‘incitement to discrimination, hostility of violence’ is easily satisfied here.

Leviticus 20:13 would amount for the mass killing of all gay persons.  Deuteronomy 13:1-5 is particularly gruesome: ‘If there arise among you a prophet, ... saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them...And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death...So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee....’ 

There’s also Psalms 79:6: ‘Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known thee, and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon thy name.’  Need we elaborate?

Matthew 27: 24-25, John 8:44 and Corinthians 10:20-21 also contain similar ‘devilment’ as does Revelation 2:9.

What does the Quran say? The list is long, but  a couple of quotes would serve our purpose:2:191-193 Fight and kill unbelievers until “religion is Allah’s” (i.e. Islamic law rules all societies).
47:4  “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom, till the war lays down its loads. So it shall be; and if Allah had willed, He would have avenged Himself upon them; but that He may try some of you by means of others. And those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will not send their works astray.”

Let’s stop there.  Of course the overall context in which such words were uttered ought to be mentioned before rushing to judgment but these religions themselves and certainly the courts by their very existence presume that such patience and wisdom as are necessary for this is rare.  If there’s ‘bad wording,’ we can rest assured that frail human beings will take them out of context.  There’s a lot of history that can be referenced and a lot of bloodshed too.   

So if you want to talk ‘inciting’, there are lots of places to visit, unless you want to be selective and therefore racist/communalist in your practice. 

The Amendments referred to above have been withdrawn, but Minister Rajapakshe has promised ‘new laws’.  We don’t know what they are or when they will be presented to Parliament.  However, the international covenant stands.  And we are complaint, according to the TNA.  The Bible and the Quran both stand in violation of the Covenant.  Are we going to do something about it?  In other words, are we going to petition for an amendment to the ICCPR Act or are we going to ask each and every Christian and Muslims whether he or she strictly adheres to the entirety of these texts?  Would that be fair?  

The sad and vexed truth is that there are no shortcuts to handling inter-communal (especially inter-religious) antipathies.  Dialogue among communities can help, but that’s probably not going to work with fundamentalists such as the ISIS, those subscribing to Wahabism and indeed some Christian denominations or, the ‘case at hand’, the Bodu Bala Sena.  The Thowheed Jama’ath would be hard pressed to apply the morality expressed (as quoted above) to the Quran and inflammatory content therein.  

In the end it boils down to decent people from all communities, religious and otherwise, to step in, stand up and be counted because, simply, there are things that the law simply cannot deal with without relevant authorities being called out for selectivity in application and themselves charged for being racist/intolerant.

As for the legislators, they should do their homework before coming up with the kind of nonsense that was presented in Parliament and later withdrawn.  That’s basic.  They should know that interpretation that is highly subjective makes for different kinds of violations and possible exacerbation of existing tensions and antipathies.

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

26 November 2016

Fidel, "free" markets, and the sauce with which we are being eaten

Fidel Castro is no more.  He died today at the age of 90.  Whether he is hero or villain, he certainly is historic.  This cannot be disputed.  The following article was published in the Sunday Island o December 12, 2000.  It was one of the earliest articles I wrote for that newspaper.  

That Latin America bleeds is not news. In fact, blood-letting seems to be the defining badge of the entire human race, not just Latin America. Still, bleeding has a different signature in each continent, nation and community. Thus Eduardo Galeano’s "The open veins of Latin America" reads as a particular story of a particular continent, for brutality etches certain distinctive lines of suffering on each people. Subcommandante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatistas fighting for democracy, dignity and history in the Mexican Southeast, also chooses the metaphor of blood and its associations in describing the political economy of the Mayans in Chiapas in a powerful introduction to his collection of communiques titled "Shadows of tender fury," where he talks about the many veins through which value is syphoned out of that resource-rich region.

The paucity of blood has a name. Anemia. This is a story about deficiencies, especially in Latin America today’s globalized climate, with leaders clamouring to extend NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) to countries other than the US, Canada and Mexico, while indigenous people say "No! We don’t have to go to university or to a library to know about globalization; we live it everyday and can very well manage without it".

Such indignation is usually found in radical gatherings, and anarchist listserves and websites. The Ibero-American Summit can hardly be called a radical collective, but there were hard truths spoken there this time, the 10th such summit, held in Panama City. It had to be Fidel (who else?) Fidel Castro is known for long and biting speeches. A lot of them are about defending socialism and the Cuban Revolution and typically end with the now familiar call to arms: "Socialism or Death!" And yet, Fidel does come up with the numbers and an analysis that is more often than not lucid and cogent. You can fault him for many things, but this should not make us blind to some of the arguments he makes, particularly since they shed light on the predicament of nations like ours. His recent speech at the 10th Ibero-American Summit held in Panama City is a case in point.

Castro gives a quick run down of the situation in Latin America:
"Forty five percent of the total population in Latin America and the Caribbean region are poor, that is, 224 million people and 90 million of them live in absolute poverty. Actually, over half of the poor and absolute poor are children and adolescents. The average mortality rate for children under 5 years of age in Latin America and the Caribbean region was 39 per 1000 live births in 1998, thus, the number of dead children was close to half a million.

"It is estimated that this year 2000, approximately 36 percent of all children under 2 years of age are in a high risk food situation which is worse still in the rural areas where about 46 percent are in jeopardy due to generally precarious sanitation conditions and greater difficulties to gain access to public health care.

"The direct cost of vaccines for the immunization of a child under one year of age against six preventable child diseases such as diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, poliomyelitis, tuberculosis and tetanus is lower than 80 cents of a US dollar. However, the World Health Organization has reported that all over the area of the Americas, including the United States and Canada, immunization coverage of children under one year against these diseases ranges from 85 to 90 percent, thus it is estimated that over 15 million children in the hemisphere, under 5 years of age, are not protected from those six diseases.

"As for education, it is estimated that 20% of children join the educational system late, 42% do not get through the first grade and 30% do not get through the second. Only 80% of children in the region make it to fourth grade and just 73% to the fifth. Eight out of every ten students attend school for seven years but the average schooling is approximately four grades. Pre-school education coverage in the region reaches an average of 15 percent."

He contrasts this scandalous state of affairs with the situation in Cuba thus:

"If the infant mortality rate in the Latin American and Caribbean region were similar to the 6.4 per 1000 live births in the first year of life and the 8.3 for children under 5 reached by Cuba — despite the fact that it has been isolated, harassed and subjected to a ruthless economic warfare for over 40 years — almost 400,000 children would have survived every year; 99.2% would have pre-school education coverage; 99.9% would be enrolled in school by the age of 6 and 99.7% would remain in school up to sixth grade. Also, 98.9% of the total first grade enrollment would have passed the sixth grade and 99.9% would have entered junior high school while 99.5% of these graduates would go on to senior high school or technical school. They could have obtained the first prizes in the Olympiads of Knowledge and there would not be children in need of special education without schools. Actually, there would not be illiterates and the average educational level of the adult population would be higher than the ninth grade; lastly, there would not be one child under 16 years of age working for a living."

The numbers in Sri Lanka make interesting reading. One out of every three children under 5 years of age is underweight. The infant mortality rate is 17 out of every 1000. Under five mortality is 19/1000, indicating a high prevalance of hunger and/or poor health care.

Maternal mortality is at 60/100000. Key to understanding these numbers is that they indicate only those cases that are reported. The problem is that not everyone dies in a hospital, hardly surprising since people can’t afford the medicines and the medical attention subsequent to "structural adjustment" which is but another name for privatization and the making of things like healthcare and education a luxury.

We do have a high literacy rate, 91%, but as someone said, we are for the most part literate in reading the destination signs of buses. Anyway, in this age of private bus conductors screaming the names of destinations, being able to read is not essential. Apparently 14% of children between 5 and 10 do not even attend school. Thank you structural adjustment!

Thirty five percent of the population is below the official poverty line. As we all know, the poverty line is a neat mechanism that can be lifted or dropped at will, so the real numbers typically are higher. External debt as a percentage of GNP, in 1998, was 54%.

We have the world’s number one suicide rate. Three thousand six hundred farmers in Polonnaruwa attempted suicide last year alone, 145 died. And these farmers are under major irrigation, mind you. It is hard to think that all of them were suffering from unrequited love or something. I am sure there must be statisticians out there who can do neat regressions after factoring in the negatives resulting from the proposed legislation regarding water entitlements. Yes, it is not too difficult to draw a line from specific "adjustment" policies to these numbers.

Yes, we are better than Latin America in general and way ahead of the rest of South Asia (thanks not to early liberalisation but a long tradition of an interventionist state that was responsible to the well-being of the population), but we will continue to play "catch-up" to Cuba the way we are going. We eagerly await the 2001 census to get some numbers on the rotten fruit yielded by liberalisation since 1977. We can only hope that in the context of fixing elections and fixing matches, the numbers themselves will remain independent of the machinations of interest groups.

Back to Cuba. Cuba is faulted for pursuing socialist policies and for having a dictatorship. With respect to the latter, it must be mentioned that Fidel Castro is the only leader in Latin America and the Caribbean (and probably in the entire world), who walks into universities and factories without a security cordon. If one were to go by the numbers, then the achievements of a regime that affords its population free health care and free education are indeed remarkable. We are living in a materialistic world. Things, therefore, have to be measured in tangible terms. Cuba is a far cry from the barracks Socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. And the Cuban people have proved beyond a shadow of doubt, that a state that actively seeks to look after its population can deliver the goods. The miserbale failures of pro-US, pro-free market regimes all over Latin America only offer a startling contrast to Cuba. It is clear that there are more lessons to learn from Fidel than from Uncle Sam.

And yet, our leaders meekly follow the dictum, now openly and unashamedly waved around, that free markets are the way to go. Nowadays people don’t talk of structural adjustment. Years ago, we had "structural adjustment," which gave way to "structural adjustment with a human face," and finally "structural adjustment with poverty alleviation". The subtext is simple. Structural adjustment does not have a human face. Structural adjustment causes poverty. At least that’s what the symptomatic reading of that particular trajectory tells us. Structural adjustment, in real and understandable language was this: the twisting of our structures to facilitate the uninterrupted, indeed "sustainable" development of their (rich, capitalist, white) nations.

Nowadays no one talks of structural adjustment. No one talks of capitalism. Now we have globalization. Capitalist culture has a way with words. For example, shell-shock, which was a term anyone could understand, no longer happens in this world. Apparently. Now it is called "post conflict trauma". And so, there is user-friendly lexicon at the fingertips of the World Bank/IMF expert, the academic and the development practitioner.

Globalisation! What more unifying concept is there for us to dream about? The problem is that unity is another name for the obliteration of difference. If monoculture has alarming implications for agriculture, it portends terrifying things for civilization. Right now, in the name of globalization, we are being bought or are buying into the notion of the "free market".

Free markets, as Eduardo Galeano once said, allow us to choose the sauce with which we will be eaten. There are no free markets in the sense of the classical economic. There is no such thing as a perfect flow of information and markets are fallible if they are anything. Where vast numbers of people can neither demand from nor supply to the market, it is ridiculous to interject the prefix "free" to anything.

The question is, how long are we going to wait? After enough blood is withdrawn the body loses that minimum amount of strength to resist. My guess is that we are close to that point.

See also: History absolved him a long time ago

24 November 2016

Camillus: the compassionate and trenchant fellow-citizen

What does a cartoonist have in common with a soccer player?   Deftness, certainly.  An eye for line and space.  Innovation.  Not all soccer players can draw and not all artists can dribble a football.  Kurukulasuriya Eligious Camillus Perera could do both.  He’s long since hung up his boots, but his brushes are still fresh, as is his wit, political acumen and sense of humour.  

Camillus, as he is known to anyone who has been reading newspapers over the past 50 years, was born on December 1, 1939 in Negombo and was the eldest in a family of three boys and two girls.   His father, Kurukulasuriya Thomas Alfred Perera, who had got through the London Junior Matriculation exam, had been employed at Kolonnawa Govt Factory and Camillus remembers him going to work in tie, coat and hat:  “It was the British period!”  His mother, Kurukulasuriya Mabel Birdie Fernando, was a seamstress.  She had 5-6 machines and employed a few girls in the neighbourhood off and on, as and when she had orders.  Camillus remembers her as being very good at sewing.  That’s an art, one could say, and who knows, perhaps that’s where he got his artistic genes from.

He began his formal education at St Sebastians Roman Catholic Mixed School, located on Sea Street, Negombo.  After a couple of years, his father had got him enrolled at Maris Stella College, and had moved him once again when a couple of years after that.  From Grade 4 up to his SSC and HSC Camillus had attended St Mary’s College, Negombo.  He particularly remembers with gratitude the time he spent learning English and Sinhala literature:  “We read Shakespeare and Charles Dickens…familiarizing myself with literature has helped me a lot over the year.”

He was barely out of school when he applied for a job as a Tracer Draftsman in the Puttalam Kachcheri.  This was in 1960.  He had to draw plans giving detailed information of old lands to surveyors. 

It had been football that had consumed him during school and indeed for a considerable period after completing his studies.  He had been good at it, even at school, and had been Vice Captain of the team in 1958.  So it was natural that Camillus represented the Puttalam Public Service.  In fact he had helped his team win  Public Service Trophy in 1960.  He had played Right Full Back.  He also represented Jupiters in the Negombo League (which included Air Ceylon, Air Force and the Police).  He had led Jupiters to a league triumph in 1962 and remembered the UNP Member of Parliament for Negombo, T Quintin Fernando giving away the trophy. His preferred position had been Right Full Back.  Today, only Camillus and two others of that triumphant Jupiters team are alive. 

“I remember travelling to Jaffna to play the ‘Grasshoppers’.  We beat them 4-0.  Our goalkeeper, Anton Lawrence Savarimuttu, a businessman resident in Negombo, was from Jaffna. I remember that we were treated very well. Back then my life was all about playing football.    

Camillus claims that it was his height that denied him the opportunity to represent his country.  

His other interest of course was drawing and this is what made him want to come to Colombo.  His gift had been recognized when he was in school.  Caricature was his thing.  

“Once I drew the Principal of St Mary’s, Mr S. P. Selvaratnam.  The Principal was a very good teacher and well qualified too with a BA from London BA.  He smoked cigars.  It was known that drank, but of course not in school.  I drew him with his legs on the table and a bottle on the table.”

Mr Selvaratnam had got hold of this ‘piece of art’ and had spoken to him about it.  Camillus recalls what he said:  “You must not draw such things and show others.  But come and show me.  It’s a good drawing.  Think about improving your cartooning.  

“I was desperate to come to Colombo.  About three months after I started work, Hemasiri Premawardena, who was an Assistant Government Servant, helped me.  He told me that the Colombo Kachcheri desperately needed a Tracer Draftsman.  I found that there had been approximately 5,000 applicants.  I was the lucky one.”

Although he had wanted to be a cartoonist, Camillus at first hadn’t known what cartoons were nor how to become a cartoonist.  There hadn’t been anyone to advise him.  All he knew was that he could draw and that he was enamoured with the cartoons of Aubrey Collette. 

“Yes, I was attracted to his cartoons.  Everyone talked about them.  I thought this was something I would like to get into to, but I didn’t know how to think, how to get hold of an idea.  So I went to see Thalangama Premadasa, a translator attached to CTB,  who I was told was a good writer. I wanted ideas.  He helped me.  Later I learned that he had taken jokes from the Illustrated Weekly of India.  I wanted to improve my imagination and develop my own ideas, but as I said there weren’t many people who could guide me.  So I went to British Council, the American Centre and the Indian libraries and went through magazines.  I did this almost daily.  I collected ideas.  That’s how I started.” 

It was the Lake House publication, “Sarsaviya” that first published Camillus.  This was in 1964.  “I was asked to illustrate Andare’s poem about the toddy tapper.  I remember walking from Dam Street to Lake House.  They published two or three, but that was all.  Then I got some advice from a photographer.  He said ‘Sonna, ‘Sonna, if you want to come to Lake House, you have to shine in some other newspaper’.  A friend who worked with me at the Colombo Kachcheri took me to “Dawasa".  So I started drawing cartoons for Dawasa in 1965.  The Chief Sub, Nandasiri De Alwis, introduced me to the Editor.  I was tasked to draw a daily cartoon.  That was the beginning. Thepanis was the first cartoon character that I developed.”

When the UNP was returned to power in 1965, Patrick Wickramasinghe, brother of Joe Wickramasinghe (Principal, S Peter’s College), a senior officer in the Colombo Kachchery and a very strong UNPer from Pamunugama, had taken him to Paris Perera (MP Neomal’s father).  Perera had asked Camillus to come to Lake House.  

“I went.  He met me and took me to Mr Ranjith Wijewardena.  I drew some sketches of some ministers.  He said ‘we will inform you’ but nothing happened.  Maybe they were not up to standard.”

And so he continued to draw for Dawasa.  “I was an amateur and so I didn’t get paid, although I expected a small payment.  A friend from the Kachcheri friend took me to Ganemulla one day to see Piyasena Nissanka, veteran Editor of Silumina.  He too asked me to come to Lake House.  I went.  He introduced me to DF Kariyakarawana who gave me the opportunity to draw cartoons for Janatha, the afternoon daily.  That was how ‘Don Sethan’ came into being.  This was in 1966.  Don Sethan had a family; his wife Simona, daughter Meraya and younger brother Lapaya.  The daughter’s boyfriend was Goddin Aiya.    It became a popular family cartoon.  In fact DF’s family named themselves after those character’s name!  The following year I created ‘Siribiris’ for the ‘Silumina’.” 

He had somehow managed to juggle effectively his work at the Kachcheri and his cartoons, often completing the day’s work while traveling to Colombo from Negombo.  The success of Don Sethan brought him more work.  Wimalasiri Perera, Editor, Sarasavi, had asked him to contribute. That’s how he started the ‘Dekkoth Padmavati’ series in 1968.  In the same year, he drew a strip cartoon called ‘Mister Loveris’ for the Sunday Observer.  The Daily Observer had also invited him to draw.  

“Denzil Peiris was the editor at the time.  I had to submit to Eustace Rulach, who was the Deputy.  Eustace guided me.  The first assignment was to draw P.B. Alwis Perera.  They wanted me to draw a picture story.  I wasn’t very enthusiastic about this.  I was more interested in humour.  In fact humour is my forte, but I did draw the Dutugemunu story.  It took me several weeks.   

Camillus recounts a particularly tense situation where he was caught in the middle of an interest conflict.  This was in 1968.

“This was during the time I was drawing for the ‘Janatha’.  Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was then the Deputy Minister of Information wanted to meet me, someone in the Kachcheri told me.  So I went.  I walked from Dam Street to the Ministry, which was adjoining the CWE in the Fort. He asked me whether I could draw some cartoons for him.  I said ok.  He wanted me to draw for Desathiya, on the vagaa vyaapaaraya (Agriculture Drive).  Not too long afterwards, he had instructed  his Secretary, GVP Samarasinghe, to get me to the Ministry as a cartoonist by creating a special post.  I agreed.  

In1968 there was a general strike by government servants.  By this time Mr Premadasa had different portfolio, he was the Deputy Minister of Local Government.  He wanted me to draw something about the strike.  This put me in a very difficult spot.  I was the president of my union which had 24 members.  All the leaders of all the trade unions worked in my branch.  I was friendly with all of them.  In fact I think all of them believed that I belonged to their parties.  So in the end, although I said I would do it, I did not.  Neither did I go back to Mr Premadasa.”

Camillus was an integral part of the island’s first ever cartoon paper, Sathuta, launched in August 1972.  He introduced the inimitable character Gajaman to audiences all over the country through Sathuta.

“Mahinda Samarasinghe, attached to Lake House and doing the Cinema Section in the Janatha was the one who came up with the idea.  It was a Lake House publication.  Nalini Wickremesinghe, Ranil’s mother, was in charge.  I created Gajaman for Sathuta.  It was called Camillus ge Gajaman (Camillus’ Gajaman).  The name was inspired by Walt Disney.  It was not just ‘Mickey Mouse,’ the title was ‘Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse’.  This was in addition to the work I did for other newspapers.  ‘Tikka’ was a children’s character I drew for the children’s paper ‘Mihira’ and Tikka came with his parrot, ‘Pato’.  I also did a strip cartoon on sports for ‘Janatha’.  It was called ‘Sellan Sena’ and I touched on all sports through it.”

There were down days, obviously.  He had been asked to do a special cartoon to mark the Sinhala New Year and he had drawn Gajaman running after a pig brandishing a knife during the punyakaalaya.  “Wimalasiri Perera had some isue with Samarasinghe and got the cartoon stopped.”  

“It was, in a way, a blessing.  Chinthana Jayasena, who passed away recently, came to the Kachcheri looking for me.  He said that he along with a few others was thinking of starting a newspaper for Anura Bandaranaike and wanted me to come aboard.  The name of the newspaper was ‘Ada’.  I think Dasa Mudalali funded it. Chinthana was the editor.  I remember what I drew.  I knew Anura was fond of Siribiris.  So I had Siribiris garland Anura with a necklace made of miniature alcohol bottles.  Anura loved it!”

The popularity of Sathuta took a downward turn in 1975 when the Multipacks Group launched ‘Siththara’ in October that year.  

“Haris Hulugalle was a director, and Chinthana was the editor.  We quickly surpassed ‘Sathuta’.  I remember doing a ‘Gajaman Special’ for the New Year.  This was in 1976.  We had record sales — more than 200,000 copies were sold islandwide within a few days.  It was the humor.  I used all the avurudu chaarithra, including the contest for the biggest liar and the avurudu kumara-kumaari contest.”

Multipacks also launched a cinema paper called Sithsara and after Chinthana moved out, Camillus had been appointed had became editor of Siththara and Arthur U Amarasena (husband of the actress Sriyani Amarasena) was brought over from Times to be editor of Sithsara.  Camillus recalls that the paper Ranketi was done by Chandraratne Mapitigama (who was writing for Siththara while working for the CTB.  He said that he  had to pay artists, cameramen and other from a lump sum that he had been given.

Camillus’ characters were wholesome.  They were real.  People saw themselves and each other in these characters, their antics and their words.  At one point the Company had sought to obtain copyrights to the characters.  It had led to litigation.  Camillus had prevailed. In 1982, he decided to launch his own paper.  It was called ‘Camilusge Gajaman Samaga Sathsiri’.  The Catholic Press had given him a line of credit for a month so he could launch ‘Sathsiri’.  

“The Catholic Press building became my office.  But there were rent issues and eventually I bought a property in Dematagoda and later a press as well.  After Sathsiri I started an educational paper for children called ‘Hapana’ which was published until around 1996.  I continued to draw for the Catholic papers: ‘Thiththa Aththa’ for the Gnanaartha Pradeepaya, ‘Sunday Punch’ for the English publication and ‘Ummai Ureikkum’ for the Tamil paper.  I returned to cartoons in 2006 when ‘Rivira’ was launched.  I’ve drawn ‘Davase Tokka’ and ‘Sathiye Tokka’ for Rivira for more than 10 years now.”

Looking back, Camillus speaks with gratitude about the Colombo Kachcheri until 1990: “I never had too much work.  Of course I had to get permission from the Land Commissioner’s Department to draw cartoons but this was never a problem.  I worked and I drew until I retired in 1990.  

Apart from Siribiris, Gajaman, Tikka and Pato, Thepanis, Don Sethan and his family and Sellam Sena, there was also ‘Magodisthuma’ the politician we encounter everyday and everywhere and who makes us hold our noses.  As he says, he was not a political cartoonist, but neither was he not.  He drew the politics of the day because it was as a part of our everyday as was other things, the householder, the sportsperson and the celebrity.  

Camillus held an exhibition in 2002 to celebrate Gajaman’s 30th ‘birthday’.  On that occasion Ajith Samaranayake wrote what could be called the best short-capture of Camillus Perera.

“For 36 years Camillus Perera has been one of the most lovable institutions in Sinhala journalism.  There is practically no newspaper he has not graced with his cartoons apart from a while crop of small publications some of which he now controls.  These cartoons have offered a wryly witty commentary of not only politicians (who are anyway easy to caricature) but also ordinary people both as the individual as well as the mass.”

That, according to Ajith, was Camillus’ special strength: “The man who likes to call himself a comic cartoonist takes a compassionate but trenchant look at Sri Lanka’s middle and lower middle classes who have over time evolved almost into a special sub-class.  Taken for granted by the politicians at election time and forgotten thereafter, described as the petit bourgeoisie or the lumpen proletariate by the Marxist ideologues, this class has supplied the grist to Camillus’ mill.”

He spoke to people from all walks of life, all communities and brought them altogether by reminding everyone of the commonality of their humanity as well as their foibles.  He made it possible for his fellow citizens to laugh at themselves.  He made long roads short, dark days bearable and good days worthy of celebration. 

Half a century is a long time to engage in one particular activity. The years can dull the nib of a pen, can wear out the brush.  But Camillus’ best instruments, his mind, his sense of humour and, as Ajith puts it, his compassion and sharpness, have retained freshness or rather have been refreshed as and when necessary.  

His cartoons are now 50 years old.  Gajaman is now 42 years old.  Camillus will be 77 soon.  They are as young (or old) as anyone who encounters them, on a piece of paper or on the street.  That’s something worthy of celebration. 

17 November 2016

Getting over Trump(ed)

"Peaceful Acceptance" of "people's will" there was NOT in 2008
Kautilya, a religious bigot if ever there was one, nevertheless wrote an excellent treatise on state craft titled ‘Arthashastra’, one of the earliest works on the subject.  In Book VI, "The Source of Sovereign States", Kautilya writes, “The king who is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror's territory is termed the enemy. The king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror only by the enemy, is termed the friend (of the conqueror).”

This is the earliest recorded note on the issue of friends and foes in the matter of governance.  It has subsequently been used in other contexts of course and is generally reduced to the familiar dictum ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ often attributed to Mao Zedong.  What is important to note here is that neither Kautilya nor Chairman Mao proposed it as a general theory, but rather one which could be applied to given situations.  Perhaps this is why we have that other adage which could be considered a corollary of sorts, ‘there are no permanent enemies or friends in politics”.  

The recently concluded US Presidential Election prompted animated response from Sri Lankans of different political/ideological shades both here and in the USA.   They are as divided, one might say, as the people of the USA, perhaps for reasons that are not too dissimilar, reasons that appear to be drawn from the above political observations on friendship and enmity.  It’s probably not surprising considering that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were said to be the most unpopular candidates in remembered history. 

After all, Republicans were told ‘hold your nose and vote Trump’ even as their Democratic counterparts pleaded, ‘hold your nose and vote Hillary’.  

It was a close race and one where the winner lost the popular vote.  Naturally, the Democratic camp felt cheated by the elections system or rather the system of selection in the USA.  On the other hand, if system was at fault, then the die-hard Clinton supporters can’t really complain, for they were happy when system-flaw hoofed out Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primaries.  Trump was not the first ‘winner’ who lost the popular vote, he was the fifth, following the election of John Quincy Adams (1824) which helped launch the Democratic Party, Rutherford B Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888) and George W Bush (2000), when the Supreme Court in a split decision refused to sanction a re-count in Florida.

One can only speculate whether the Democrats or rather the anti-Trump camp (which is broader than the support base of Clinton) would have been as vociferous in their protests had it been some other Republican that had secured the White House.  As for Trump supporters who are yelling that the Clinton camp is in denial and telling them to shut up and accept the result, they are silent on the kind of denial that the most racist and bigoted of their camp demonstrated when Barack Obama won in 2008.  

As of now, it appears that a lot of people, across the so-called political divide, are trying to get on non-existent moral high horses.   

Trump came with a lot of baggage that has upset a lot of people in the USA and elsewhere.  Women and minorities, in particular, have reasons to fear a Trump administration given his brash sexism, racism and homophobia.  Trump’s victory has in fact emboldened the worst elements of Intolerant America (of the US) and promised legislation to overturn key progress on resolving grievances of women, minorities and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) groups could only make things worse.  

His trigger-happy brashness is certainly worrisome given that the Republicans have control of the Senate and Congress and not just for US citizens that have reservation about Washington’s foreign policy prerogatives of late.  On the other hand, there would be those who think that it is best to have the true face of US foreign policy in the top seat because it would all be straight-up without the frills, double-speak and subterfuge.  Others might just shrug shoulders and say ‘same old, same old.’   These fears, more than the issue of a President elect who lost the popular vote, appear to be the fuel for the Dump Trump protests that have mushroomed all over the USA.   We didn’t see the Obama administration being ‘progressive’ about the pipeline crossing sacred burial grounds and the Missouri, the main water source of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.  Would Hillary do better?  Is she ‘more progressive’ than Obama? These are not questions that we hear from the  Dump Trump campaign.

It must be noted, however, that although the anti-Trump protests are putting ‘Arab Spring’ to shame, but the self-righteous Western media are given them the proverbial cold shoulder, just like the human rights squads that were so gung-ho about Middle Eastern dictators not too long ago.  

The truth is that it is meaningless to think of Republicans and Democrats as Right and Left respectively.  They are so in relation to one another, but on the broad political spectrum both parties are far right, if you want to be serious about this.  

Apart from the real felt fears of the aforementioned groups within the USA, the truth is that it is meaningless to think of Republicans and Democrats as Right and Left respectively.  They are so in relation to one another, but on the broad political spectrum both parties are far right, if you want to be serious about this.  Even Bernie is not really ‘left’, but looks so in relation to Hillary and certainly in relation to Trump.   Sure, Obama ‘The Progressive’ didn’t have the cushions in Congress and Senate that Trump has, but he didn’t exactly make the world ‘safer’ did he?  The truth of the matter is whether one is Right or Left (relatively speaking), there are always operational limits imposed by the system, be in domestic or foreign policy, be it climate change or war (declared or undeclared).  In short the interests of the corporate class will be served while the interests of special groups such as the Jews will determine policy in the Middle East.  

US policy is not about resolution, but containment, or ‘management’ which is the more fashionable word.  Even domestic policy will be informed by the larger need to ensure that things do not get out of hand — neither the KKK or the anarchists in the Dump Trump efforts are likely to do as they please, subject of course to the caveat that the KKK types will probably get a pat on the back with the friendly ‘now enough’ while the anarchists, if there are any, will be roughed up.  

One might say that there could be a (dangerous) shift when it comes to environmental issues since Trump has selected a well known climate-change skeptic to head his US EPA transition team, Myron Ebell.  On the other hand, despite Obama’s rhetoric, the US conceded nothing voluntarily by way of multilateral efforts in this sphere.  The track-record, compared to other countries, is embarrassing.  With Trump, the one positive is that there’s less likelihood of spin, foot-dragging and (again) subterfuge — again not something that calls for popping the champagne.  

However, to think that a Trump Presidency would see a policy regime on Sri Lanka that is more informed, more acknowledging of contexts, fair etc., etc., is to be optimistic.  That’s not how Washington has worked. 

From this end, i.e. Sri Lanka, we had M.L. Shivajilingam of the Tamil National Alliance organizing an event to smash coconuts and light candles to bless Clinton ahead of the election.  Everyone knows that Clinton categorically stated that she did not want the LTTE defeated.  It’s hard to put any spin on that.  Why should any Sri Lankan who abhors terrorism be unhappy about a Clinton defeat under these circumstances, one can ask.  Again, it’s about friends and enemies, not in an absolute sense but at least in terms of specific contexts.   However, to think that a Trump Presidency would see a policy regime on Sri Lanka that is more informed, more acknowledging of contexts, fair etc., etc., is to be optimistic.  That’s not how Washington has worked.  To be thrilled about the result on account of justified antipathy to Clinton is certainly uncalled for.  

Kautilya was correct, but only so in a specific context determined by time and space.  Our enemies are not always our enemies and our friends are not our friends forever.  Our current enemies current enemies may in time and in different contexts become their friends.  Where would that leave us?  Ask Clinton if she’s changed her stand on Sri Lanka (vis-a-vis the LTTE) and she will cautiously skip around it but essentially end up standing against Sri Lanka.  Ask Trump and he might not know where Sri Lanka is, but if pushed, he might find himself rubbing shoulders with Hillary.  

So the USA had an election. So Donald Trump was elected or selected if you want to have it that way.  I feel for all those who feel less belonged than ever before in that country.  I am not sad that Clinton lost and I am indeed glad that I didn’t have to hold my nose and vote for either of these two.  I don’t think there’s reason to celebrate Trump’s triumph or Clinton’s defeat.  I could say ‘cheers’ for less spin on US foreign policy, but then again, going by history, I doubt I would be cheering for too long.  The truth is that the US still holds the trumps in certain global card games.  They’ve got one with a name in the White House.  Doesn’t make too much of a difference.   

See also the following reflections in a series titled 'Love Notes to Democracy' following the US Presidential Election 2004:

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