21 September 2018

Notes for a Manifesto: Reconciliation

There are word and terms that get bastardized due to improper usage, over-use and association with error, political noxiousness and flippancy. Reconciliation is one which has some currency in this regard and perhaps is second only to ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance). 

In a different time we had ‘peace’. Even seemingly benign and indeed wholesome terms such as sustainability have suffered the natural and sad consequences of being hijacked and re-defined to mean the exact opposite of the original meaning. 

And so we have ‘yahapalanaya’ as a cuss word and we have ‘reconciliation’ as joke.  Nevertheless good governance is and will always be a wholesome project while reconciliation is something this country needs to obtain as a non-negotiable for progress of any kind.  

Reconciliation, in its current usage, refers to unresolved issues among communities. These include all manner of grievances which include threat, vulnerability, inequality and other citizenship-anomalies. Whether they are real or perceived is another matter that also needs to be addressed, for claims need to be substantiated and aspirations less than ridiculous given current realities. 

We don’t have a happy starting point apart from the fact that there’s no armed conflict right now. The absence of war helps. However, the lack of will on all fronts to be rational, desist from selectivity in citing history and a predisposition to let the political prerogatives of the moment frame engagement has not helped. 

As in most cases, there are immediate issues to sort out and there are medium and long term objectives to achieve. There are immediate issue such as people in custody, those who are said to have disappeared and lands occupied by the military. Some of these are being addressed. 

There is demilitarization, for example, perhaps not at the speed that would please some, but it’s happening. On the other hand, demands such as wanting the military out of the North and East are silly. We can’t have the military stationed in space or at sea. Furthermore, we are talking of a 30-year armed conflagration and it is prudent always to err on the side of caution. Demilitarization, yes, but complete removal of military presence, a resounding no, therefore.  

That said, there’s no reason why properties occupied by the military should not be released to owners or, in the event that strategic consideration require continued occupation, alternative land be alienated to the particular citizens.  Furthermore, as makes sense in times of peace, the focus should be on reconciliation of key issues and enhancing military intelligence operations, even as military presence is decreased. 

There is the issue of those in custody. It has been made complex by Tamil politicians including those who supported the LTTE calling for the release of all LTTE suspects even as they demand military personnel accused of wrongdoing during conflict be tried. On the other side of the divide, Sinhala nationalists are hell-bent on protecting all military personnel regardless of whether or not the particular infringement had anything to do with military activities. 

In this regard, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) came up with a decent enough proposal, citing inter alia the unofficial amnesty that sorted out similar issues pertaining to the insurrection of the late eighties. They also noted that the affirmation of the principle of equal treatment where soldiers are to be charged would require the re-arrest of some 12,000 LTTE cadres who surrendered (many with weapons) and were released almost immediately following ‘rehabilitation’ way back in 2009.  

The JHU called for a classification of crimes by the LTTE, military and para military groups currently in custody in terms of whether they were related to the conflict and whether they were in the pursuit of personal matters. Any individual, regardless of which military outfit he/she belonged to or post held, accused of pursuing objectives unrelated to the war or contravened conventions related to the execution of military action (e.g. rape, abduction, theft), in or out of uniform, should be tried, they said. 

All others, including the 60 plus LTTE cadres in custody should be released immediately.  General Amnesty is what they have called for. Finally, they have said that with such a move all claims and demands pertaining to this issue should end. This makes sense. They have not, after all, called for the abolition of the Office of Missing Persons. That’s a separate issue, a medium-term one, one might add. 

I have already addressed the issue of citizenship anomalies when it comes to religious communities in a previous article in this series (see ‘Notes for a Manifesto: State, Religion and Rationalization’) and shall not go into it. Instead, let’s move to ‘the long-term’.

It’s thorny, naturally. It’s about grievances and addressing of the same. The biggest problem here is that people have their preferred outcome and tailor grievance (with lots of frills) as well as the terms of engagement accordingly.  There is the issue of language, where the legislation is in place but operationalization lagging due to lack of political will and resources, but there’s certainly progress. 

There are historical claims (e.g. ‘The Exclusive Traditional Homelands of the Tamils’ for example, as claimed) based on which ‘devolution solutions’ are proposed with scant regard for history (the archaeological and historical records are either ignored or corrupted, myth replacing truth more often than not), demography (close to 50% of Tamils live outside the North and East), geography (boundaries have no basis in history but were drawn arbitrarily by the British for their own purposes) and economic logic (uneven distribution of resources does not support the devolutionist case).  

This is where reason must come to replace emotion. A historical audit need to be done. Grievances must be shorn of frills and what’s obtained should be the basis of the reconciliation proposal. These issues have always been ignored in all consultative processes so far. Moreover, as was recommended by the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission), devolution should satisfy all communities. Key term, ‘all communities’. Any ‘solution’ that aggrieves one community (e.g. the Sinhalese) will not resolve, but make for renewed agitation. The vandalizing-intent of the Tamil politicians (proceeding from where the LTTE stopped) as well as moves to create a Tamil-only territory (again proceeding from where the LTTE stopped) will not help obtain reconciliation. Similarly, the nonsensical moves by state authorities to establish a ‘Buddhist mark’ in certain areas of the Northern Province (putting up Buddha statues) offends and can only re-open wounds that are yet to fully heal. 

The key word is ‘rationalization’. Take it out and we don’t obtain reconciliation but a grotesque creature by that name: misnamed, misbegotten and made for continued tensions or worse between communities.   

This, like the previous articles in this series, is also addressed in particular to Nagananda Kodituwakku, Rohan Pallewatte, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena and any other individual entertaining hopes of becoming the next President of Sri Lanka.

Other articles in this series:

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com

16 September 2018

Yahapalanaya: a disaster beyond management

No offense to those who take disasters seriously (and we all should, let me add). No offense to the serious matter of disaster management. The headline was picked, I confess, from a serious interview with a serious academic about a serious subject. 

Dilanthi Amaratunga, Professor of Disaster Risk Management, University of Huddersfield, UK, and a leading expert on the subject of disaster resilience, while discussing challenges, opportunities and other related concerns stated recently, ‘we cannot be complacent about disaster management.’  

She is correct of course.  In the interview published in the Daily Mirror, she has highlighted the following or rather the interviewer, Kalani Kumarasinghe, has condensed the professor’s observations into neat bullet points: 1) Economic losses caused by disasters are increasing, 2) Private sector’s involvement is vital in disaster risk reduction, 3) Need to be rid of the silo mentality, 4) Policy makers brush aside science and research, 5) Disaster Risk Reduction must be incorporated into development, and 6) Appreciate the commitment made by the Government

‘Disaster’ can be replaced by ‘Yahapalanaya’ (not the idea but the name associated with the government that promised to turn idea into reality) and it would still make perfect sense. Well, the last contention would be debatable but if rhetoric is the ‘Simple Pass’ of ‘Commitment,’ it still holds. No one, after all, would give this government an A for ‘commitment’.  Anyway, let’s go through the list, one by one. 

The economic losses caused by Yahapalanists are increasing. The promise was prosperity. The promise was freedom from debt. The promise was about freeing processes from nepotism, political patronage, abuse of state institutions and resources. The promise was a foreign policy based on economic interests. A lot of hot air, little to show for it.  

The Central Bank bond scam was massive and the lengths to which Yahapalanists, headed by the Prime Minister (no less!), went to protect the principal culprit tells us how flippant they’ve been about setting things right. They’ve played the game of blaming the previous government (e.g. ‘they did it too’ which of course is poor excuse for non performance and worse, a scandalous come-back to corruption charges!). They’ve talked of an inherited debt burden, but they’ve piled up the debts themselves.  There’s nepotism, there’s helping the near and dear, there’s abuse of state resources.  As for a decent understanding of foreign relations in terms of economic prerogatives, the Yahapalanists betrayed their sophomoric grasp of such things when they couldn’t understand the China-factor until Brexit hit them between their eyes.  

Private sector involvement has been a mantra for the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe for decades and it’s the doctrine that was mouthed by the Yahapalanists.  Ask the private sector what it thinks of how the Yahapalana Government is handling the economy; they won’t hesitate to give an F. That’s for the lack of clarity, absence of direction and will, mixed-signals, a marked reluctance to rationalize the regulatory structures and a fascination with the gajamithuru dhanavaadaya (comprador capitalism), which is about close friends of the political elite acting in the interest of foreign capital in return for a cut of the profits and folks, that’s capitalism in recession! The share market is dull. Absolutely. As dull as the Yahapalanists.  

The ‘Silo Mentality’  is a descriptive of a system marked by people or institutions working as distinct and independent entities. It is usually a product of over-decentralization or else a preponderance of 

institutions making for redundancy and overlap. In Sri Lanka’s case over and above the institutional silos, we have the President and the Prime Minister locked in their own little silo-worlds. This is why we have one set of political actors proposing and another dismissing, or else decisions being sabotaged. Then there’s the silo called ‘Let’s reduce talk to blaming the Rajapaksas’ and another one limiting action to ‘Vendetta’.  The most damaging silo is one that has been produced by fear of imminent electoral defeat: ‘Forget everything, focus on elections’.  

Science and research are non-negotiable when it comes to correcting systems and planning for the longterm. The longterm for the Yahapalanists has diminished to the time between now and the next election. Even if the provincial councils are delayed, they cannot postpone the General and Presidential Election (if the 20th Amendment doesn’t go through) beyond 2020 August and 2020 January respectively.  

Even if electoral anxiety was not a factor, we’ve seen the utter contempt for science and research in the scandalous rush to implement environment sensitive projects such as transferring Colombo’s waste to Puttalam. This is right next to Wilpattu and a lagoon which is in and of itself a sensitive ecosystem. Whereas the mining companies operating in the area or planning to do so are serious about sustainability and effect on ecosystems to the point of exasperation, this particular waste management project is being rushed with hardly any study on environmental impact. 

Science and research is not only about environment. They are important in all matters of planning whether it is a trade agreement, land reclamation, building the Port City, or allowing foreign powers to operate strategic assets. The Yahapalanists don’t look to the long future, but in a mad rush to get the bucks that allow them to put up a decent enough show that can be marked to the voter, they are rushing to sign agreements without any vetting whatsoever.  

The same can be said about constitutional reform.  Some Yahapalanists in the UNP and their cheer squads (e.g. Thisaranee Gunasekara) have argued for the scrapping of the executive presidency not because it makes any sense in terms of improving the overall political system, but as a measure to keep the Rajapaksas out of power. The JVP is essentially doing the work of the UNP in this matter, but even if we were to ignore all that, there’s no ‘science’ in advocating the abolishing of the executive presidency if at the same time there’s nothing said about amending or repealing the 13th Amendment. The two (Executive Presidential System and the 13th Amendment) are tied in a way that if you take the first out and leave the second intact it compromises the integrity of the state.

The utter disregard for method is also apparent in the proposals for a new constitution as per the ‘reconciliation need’ expressed often by Yahapalanists. History is out, so is geography and demography. Economic realities are considered non-factors. It is essentially a pernicious attempt to scuttle reconciliation in the very name of reconciliation, for it  seeks not co-existence but a factoring out of Sinhala Buddhist interests. That’s a recipe for disaster.

All these indicate that there’s no notion of risk in the overall calculations of the Yahapalanists. The only thing that seems to worry them as of now is the likelihood of being voted out. The results of the February 10 elections brought all anxieties to the fore. It is to manage the risk of losing that all manner of ad hoc ‘development’ projects are being implemented. Well, talked about rather than implemented would be the correct way to put it.  
Commitment. Well, if one reads the manifestos put together for the 2015 elections, recall the relevant rhetoric and check the current reality against that which was promised, we can get a good sense of how committed the Yahapalana Government has been on key issues. Apart from the Right to Information Act, some elements of the 19th Amendment (flawed on several counts) and a greater degree of freedom (which is natural in the first few years of any government by the way), there’s not much to brag about. We won’t give them an F, but neither would we give them anything more than a Simple Pass.  

That’s where we are, ladies and gentlemen.  

Professor Amaratunga began her interview with an example: ‘I recently read in the news that some of the early warning towers had been vandalized in Mullaitivu. What would have happened to the people who are relying on that particular early warning tower if a disaster was to take place, on that day.’

Vandalism is a good descriptive. The promise has been vandalized. Hopes have been vandalized. Yahapalanaya as a term and a concept have been vandalized. The disaster has happened and is happening (past and present tense both). It’s not the Rajapaksas who indulged in all this vandalism. It’s the Yahapalanists themselves!

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com

13 September 2018

Notes for a Manifesto: State, Religion and Rationalization

In a secular Sri Lanka will Muslims hae 'special leave'
for Friday prayers?

Nagananda Kodituwakku, public interest litigator, has drafted a constitution for Sri Lanka. It would be the Third Republican Constitution since Independence if it moves from draft, through discussion, and amendment (if necessary) to ultimate replacement of the Second Republican Constitution and its amendments.
He has detailed sweeping changes in judicial, executive and legislative powers, treaty obligation, size of parliament and cabinet, parliamentary privileges, election system, the right of recall as well as transitional provisions. We need to salute this indefatigable fighter for citizens’ rights, true representation and accountability for the efforts expended in drafting this document. It deserves perusal and discussion. 

Now a republic can be defined as a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives and which has a leader who is elected rather than a monarch. Given diversities of all kinds, a leadership of a republic should ideally be representative of that diversity or at least sensitive to it.  Typically its the majority sway that finds expression in the governments that are elected. Majority can take many forms and where identity has sway there should be checks and balances to ensure that this ‘edge’ does not slide to a tyranny where those who don’t make up the majority are not reduced to lesser citizens in any way. 

Also, it must be understood that citizens are not entities without culture, philosophy and identity. Representation, therefore, gets inscribed by all this. This is why majorities mark the state one way or the other.  Such things can be legislated out of course, but then we need to have a different definition of ‘republic’.  

That said, let’s get to the secular-wish of Kodituwakku’s proposal. He has been bold and clear and this is good. Also, let us not rush to think that he is proposing just a word-change. Constitutions give direction. Key elements such as secularism would obviously require amendment and/or repeal of any articles in order to keep intact the integrity of the notion. Governments obtain from these and proceed to amend policies to affirm the constitution.  

This is what the summary which he has made public recently says:

“[There will be] strict  anti-racial [and anti-]discrimination laws with severe  penal  sanctions against any form of discrimination, guaranteeing human dignity, self-esteem and respect would  be  guaranteed to every citizen.” He adds: “Every citizen is identified as a Sri  Lankan only and any reference made to race or religion in any instrument will be cancelled forthwith and no Sri Lankan shall be compelled to declare their race or religion.”  

There’s a rider that might cause some problems, though: “Every citizen will be required  to    respect the culture, religion, rights and freedom of other social groups and to further national interest and the national unity.”

The problem is this: religions and therefore religious practices, depending on the religion and the practice of course, can by definition infringe on other religious communities and their rights. In other words religions can spill outside the particular religious body; for example those religions which consider proselytization an article of faith or whose religious texts define religious others as infidels who need to be eliminated by any means necessary. Where do we draw the line and who decides a) if lines should be drawn and b) what these lines are? The questions raised will be hard, but they need to be raised and addressed.

It might help to consider certain scenarios that exist and/or are recommended. There are some, for example, who claim that injustices should be remedied. The British reneged on the agreement inked in the form of the Kandyan Convention with respect to the status of Buddhism. Correction would mean that we need to reaffirm the particular article. Some might say this was done via Article 9, i.e. Buddhism being conferred the foremost place and the State required to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana. However, it can be argued that this ‘special status’ is immediately and effectively negated by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).

What needs to be understood here is that recalling history is a dangerous game and if such ‘correction’ is the norm constitutions would have to be constantly amended as per changing demographic realities. If, for example, there’s some kind of mass slaughter of a particular religious community (and we have seen this happen), someone might say, ‘now go ahead and legislate for the changed reality!’ An extreme example is given here to illustrate the point: Buddhists can ethnically cleanse the island of Hindus, Christians and Muslims, or Muslims can eliminate those of other religious faiths. What then of true republicanism? What then of the secular wish? 

We can defer such things to such a tragic eventuality of course. What we cannot defer is the non-secular interventions of the state in a would-be secular state.  

Here are some of the questions that secularists would have to address:

In a secular state enacted through constitutional reform on the lines proposed by Kodituwakku and others, can there be more than one system of law, i.e. special laws for particular religious communities? If there’s going to be one law for everyone (as proposed), what then of ‘customary law’? Will Thesavalamai Law, Kandyan Marriage Law, aspects of 'Muslims laws' embedded in the Constitution be repealed?  Shall we make 'talak, talak, talak' THE formal and state-sanctioned method of divorce and if so will women have the same right as men to employ it? Will the state withdraw support all educational institutes formally run by a religious organization or identify with any particular religion?  

What is required then is a system of rationalization. A Christian friend mentioned one irrationality (and this is not about secularization): ‘Ours is a religion that sanctions wine in the church itself, but liquor shops are closed for Christmas which is a day of celebration and not Easter, a day for abstinence, penitence and general reflection.’  

There are more serious issues that require attention if we are to go the secular way. Religion is a private affair. If a Buddhist wants to engage in religious observances, observe sil for example on Poya Days, he/she should do it on his/her time and not that of the place of work, be it government or corporate. There’s leave. There’s lieu leave. Take it! Similarly, A Muslim who want to pray on Fridays can either take short leave or come to an arrangement with the employer to work extra hours. A Christian can take leave for Christmas and Easter.  And to keep everything equal, we would have to shift the weekend so as to avoid days of worship as per religious edict/belief in the interest of there being no special privileges for any religious community. In other words, we have to have a weekend that avoids Fridays (special for Muslims) and Sundays (special for Christians).  

There need not be bo leaves on the national flag because that would be ‘Buddhist’. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act will have to be repealed. All legislation as well as other written and unwritten ‘understandings’ for religious exceptions for Muslims during Ramadan and in the event of widowhood, divorce and childbirth would have to be removed. That would not mean of course that religious practices are outlawed, but just that no one can make any claim on the state for special privileges. 

Note also that provisions enabling Christian and Catholic priests to function as marriage registrars would have to be abolished. If the state requires to recognize such unions priests shouldn't be allowed any part in the matter. After all, we have to keep religion strictly apart from matters of the state! 

If you want to keep all that because ‘that’s how it has always been’ then we immediately make room for historical claims and with it we cannot leave out the articles in the Kandyan Convention.

The issue is this: are we really serious about secularism? Will secularists respond? Whether they do or do not, the following must comment: Nagananda Kodituwakku, Rohan Pallewatte, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena and any other individual entertaining hopes of becoming the next President of Sri Lanka.

Other articles in this series:

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com

10 September 2018

Imperfectly yours... [a confession about writing]

I start typing between name and disclaimer. There are days when I know before hand, sometimes even as early as the previous day, what I will write about. Most days, however, I really don’t have a clue. Most days, if you ask me ‘what are you writing about today?’ around 9.30 a.m., I would probably smile and say, ‘don’t know’.

This is true. It is not about writer’s block or being ‘out of it’. It is not about the lack of inspiration. Not about having run out of things to write about.

If the universe can be seen in a grain of sand, then it is theoretically possible to see anything in anything, everything in something, everything in nothing and nothing in everything. I know this and therefore I know it is all about opening and opened eye or closing a closed one; a simple exercise that is guaranteed to generate a decent enough choice of topics to write about. So, theoretically, the ‘don’t know’ response can be a result of there being too many things to write about.

Over time, we all learn how to get by. This is a confession, a how-I-do-it of a kind.

‘The Morning Inspection’ has a history. There was a time when my morning was made of Amitha Abeysekera’s ‘This is my island’ in the Island, first in the Sunday paper and then in the daily. Sometimes he was flat, especially when he tried his hand at fiction, but the vast majority was made of good reads. It was an important part of my education. 

Years later, the Island carried another column called ‘Morning Spice’, authored by ‘Ginger’. Snippets. Interesting facts. Thoughtful comments. Some wit. Healthy cynicism. Humour. Eminently readable. Then there was the Rajpal Abeynayake Column in the Sunday Times and later in the Sunday Observer and now in the Sunday Lakbima News. More spice than Ginger and heavier than Amitha. All three unique and fascinating too.

I was without a regular job. Freelancing doesn’t pay much. There’s no job security. No EPF or ETF. No vehicle allowance. No festival allowance. No distress loans. No loans, period. No perks. Times were tough, so I met the Chairman, Lake House, Bandula Padmakumara to ask if I could write for the Daily News. He asked what kind of stuff I would be writing. I told him that I have a decent idea about what can be written and what cannot, so I will try to stay within the boundary line (there have been times what I have wandered outside and the editor has put his foot down; I never complained for in most instances I understood the logic of the decision). I told him about Amitha and Ginger. He asked ‘how many articles a week?’ I didn’t think: ‘six a week’. ‘Can you produce that much?’ he asked. ‘I will try’. That’s how it began.

As I stepped out of Lake House that day, I asked myself whether I had just made a complete ass of myself, whether I could indeed deliver six pieces a week. I didn’t calculate, fortunately. Had I done so, I would have told myself something like this: ‘you will have to write around 300 articles a year!’ Had I calculated, I would have been floored by the number and that would have been the end of that. Instead I stepped on a grain of sand and took a quick tour of the universe. I concluded ‘possible’.

At 9.30 a.m. I don’t know, but an hour or two later, I do. All I have to do is to look around and pick some random grain of sand. Well, not random, but let’s say ‘one of many grains of sand that just happened to be close enough’. There are grains of sand in the inbox of my email account, for example. Friends and readers frequently comment on something I’ve written, wanting to share something or suggesting follow-up issues to write on after reading a particular article. 

People give me words, thoughts, things worthy of celebration, those who need to be censured. A grain of sand could be a news story. A murder, a name, a random comment by a random person, or a celebrity for that matter, a newspaper article, a photograph that you want to look at for hours, a painting, the one-great-line of a third-rate film etc etc. Something on the roadside. A cartoon. A comment by a child. A melody from a long ago. An old man’s complaint.

No, I don’t know what I would write if you asked me around 8.30 a.m., but I do write something eventually. I get it out of my chest through my fingertips. In a way, utterly self-indulgent. I console myself by saying ‘it is entertainment in part and partly information’. I might be kidding myself, though.

I was inspired by other people, people of repute and accomplishment, keener observers and thinkers. Books I’ve read. Teachers. Events that passed me by or engulfed me. Things I saw and heard on account of being at a particular place at a particular time and not out of design.

These thoughts will be published, if all goes well, on September 10, 2010. That’s an anniversary. It would mark a year of morning inspecting. Leaving out the 10 or so articles that were ‘stopped’, I’ve written (I counted) 285 since that day. Or the fact that I was there with laptop and fingertip ready when life happened and therefore was able to record. I don’t know.

It’s all about a single line or a single though. All I do is pick up (metaphorically) any ‘something’ that happens to cross my mind. All I do is describe it. I think what one wants to say gets said regardless of the topic you are given. ‘Topic’ is mere wrapping paper or a coloured piece of string that makes for a neat package. A word is not a wrapping paper. It is ribbon. A grain of sand and a universe. Made of lovely people who’ve indulged me throughout my life.

Or just over the last year. Or last month. Or just a single moment. They know who they are. I know who they are. They know me. We all know it’s not about us. Just grains of sand and universes. I just describe things every morning. As best I can.

First published in 'The Daily News' on September 10, 2010

‘Civil Society’ needs to be nationalized!

‘Civil Society’ is old and as is usually the case predates the term.  Scholars argue that it is drawn from the Aristotelian phrase ‘koinōnía politikḗ (κοινωνία πολιτική)’ which refers to a community of citizens subject to the rule of law.  Apparently it entered the Western political discourse only after Aristotle’s work was translated into Latin by late medieval and early Medieval writers such as William of Moerbeke and Leonardo Bruni. Its more recent meaning derives from the usage of dissidents such as Václav Havel who used it in contradistinction to intrusive holistic state-dominated regimes in the Soviet Bloc of nations.  
Another term that is often used as coterminous with ‘civil society’ is NGO, i.e. Non-Governmental Organizations. Like civil society, the term came late although the notion dates back to the late eighteenth century.  The term came into popular use only after 1945 when the UN discussed a consultative role for outfits that are not member states or governments. 

Technically even corporations are NGOs since they are not nations or governments. Technically, they can claim to be part of civil society too. If we delve into things and processes deep enough we can of course make the argument that even NGOs, like corporates are embedded in ‘government’. And, if we keep digging, we would have to ask whether NGOs are really part of civil society.

On the surface, however, the distinction is clear enough. There’s always been a fair amount of distrust between the NGO community and successive government, even though prominent NGOs in Sri Lanka (in particular those whose ‘civil society’ credentials are suspect) tend to be pally with UNP governments or leaders who have antipathies towards Sinhalese and Buddhists.  Outwardly NGOs and governments have shown suspicion about each other’s motives and see each other as spoilers.  

NGOs badmouth governments and governments return the favor. We’ve seen a lot of that. They both claim representative edge. Governments say ‘we were elected, therefore we have a right to represent’. NGOs say, as mentioned, that they are a part of civil society. They can and do point out that being elected is one thing but that does not necessarily mean the elected represent the electors. This we know. 

There’s a question that’s not been asked enough: ‘What right in terms of numbers, reach and acceptance do NGOs have to toss around the representational rights implied in the term ‘civil society’ which they use as though they own it?’ 

I wrote an article seven years ago titled ‘And civil society (real) floors civil society (imagined)’.  Fake would work better than ‘imagined’ I now feel. Anyway, the article contained the following observation:

“NGOs are made of workshops, seminars, project proposals, reports, double-billing and overheads that make up more than two thirds of annual budgets.  They are also made of claims, chief among which is that of representational lie.  ‘We are civil society,’ NGO personnel like to think and state.  They are an incestuous bunch, these NGOs.  They form consortia and forums which are made of the same groups and led by the same people.  They appoint each other to each others boards. They applaud one another and occasionally give each other awards for this and that. They quote one another. They scratch each other’s backs.”  

As for their use of the ‘civil society’ tag, this is what I wrote:
“They say they represent ‘civil society’, but don’t say ‘well, no one elected us, and to be honest, our views are marginal or less and more seriously are based on assumptions that reality rebel against’.  Ask them to organize a demonstration or announce a public seminar and less than a hundred turn up.  Indeed, most of their operations are of the behind-closed-doors kind.  And yet, they bat on.  Courtesy of friends in big-name diplomatic missions and big-name countries whose political agendas vis-à-vis Sri Lanka coincide with theirs.”

The article contrasted this patten of operation with a resolution passed at the Annual General Meeting of a bank that was built by the thrift and credit cooperative movement of this country, better known by its Sinhala acronym SANASA. The shareholders, many representing SANASA primary societies, unanimously resolved to reject the infamous ‘Darusman Report’.  To those who may have forgotten, this report was the one produced by a ‘panel of experts’ appointed by the UN Secretary General to investigate accountability issues related to Sri Lanka’s war on terrorism. The name refers to the Chairman of the panel, Indonesian politician Marzuki Darusman. 

The key issue here is representation. The SANASA movement counts over 8000 primary societies whose work covers thrift and credit primarily, but also embraces social, cultural and moral development. At the time, over 3800 such societies owned shares in the SANASA Development Bank.  Each society has between 100 and 2000 members with the average being over 400.  Even if we took the average as 200, this meant that over 740,000 people were represented at the AGM.  

From a movement which counts over 8000 primary societies or groups devoted to the subject of thrift and credit, with social, cultural and moral upliftment embedded into agenda, SANASA counts more than 5000 entities that are active and hundreds with assets and business that easily best branches of well-established commercial banks.   A total exceeding 3800 own shares in the SANASA Development Bank. 

Now that is ‘representation’ and that’s what is important, not whether they approved or rejected some flawed report put together by the ignorant or misled. 

Now these people don’t use the term ‘civil society’.  The question is, do those who actually use the term have anything like the representational cloud that the SANASA movement has?

A highly celebrated NGO personality (decorated by fellow travelers and given to decorating fellow travelers) was once asked how many people he could get to a demonstration if his funding dried up. His answer says a lot: ‘to be honest, none’.  

So where’s the accountability? To whom are they answerable? To ‘the people’ implied in the usage of the term ‘civil society’ or to donor agencies (International NGOs and foreign countries)? When the Right to Information Act was being drafted, I know for a fact that ‘NGO representatives’ involved in the process did their best to limit the legislation to state agencies. It was no small victory that the Act included provisions for binding NGOs to respond to queries, even though we have heard noises about NGOs refusing to cooperate.  

The problem is that the term ‘civil society’ is loosely used and in practice has little to do with ‘all of society’. Rather, the work is mostly about furthering the ideological projects of the minuscule numbers that make up these outfits. Just to illustrate the point, during the conflict, a demonstration was organized at Lipton’s Circus by a group calling itself ‘100 Peace Organizations’. There were less than 100 people attending that protest. 

This is why it is argued by some that ‘civil society’ is just another name for name-board outfits made of people who are members of multiple NGOs whose ‘work’ can be described as agitation and whose innovation and creativity is framed by narrow political agenda at best and by monetary needs in the main.

Sometime in the early years of this decade, Indika Jayaratne, an announcer at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, made a pertinent comment on NGOs and civil society. He said, in Sinhala, ‘sivil samaajaya janasathu kala yuthui’ (civil society should be nationalized).  The word ‘nationalization’ was turned into cuss-word by the UNP and the political right. That’s another discussion of course. The reversal, interestingly, was called ‘janathaakaranaya’  (‘peoplization’) in the Premadasa years.  It was in essence, at best, a ‘some peoplization’ in that it allowed the wealthy to take over state-owned enterprises. 

The word however has some uses. If you want to call it janathaakaranaya then a ‘peoplization’ of NGOs would give more credibility to the ‘civil society’ label. ‘Nationalization’ or ‘janasathukaranaya’ would be even better for multiple reasons. First it implies ownership by the people and not a few individuals who rake in the bucks under cover of a rubber-stamping set of overseers on a ‘Board’.  Secondly, it would necessitate a solid and comprehensive understanding of the entire nation and not just some constituent part, typically a Colombo-based, insular community who uses as alibi some collective that suffered some injustice, perceived or real.  It all boils down to bucks, social standing and the furthering of narrow political projects, as mentioned.  

The issue is, we don’t know if NGOs are really interested in being honorable about using tags such as ‘civil society’.  Typically, those who have the edge do not concede it without a fight. Lump all NGOs who use that term and ask them to come up with numbers and representational spread and the response would be silence or contentious.  The problem is that they’ve given civil society a bad name and thereby robbed the empowering potential of the idea, just like how this government has made it next to impossible to use the term ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance). 

The reality check arrives unexpectedly, though. It happened when the entire federalist tribe was stumped despite the bucks, access to resources and close connections with the dominant political leadership of the time. They, then, typically talk about masses being asses. The fact of the matter is that the ass-masses, so-called, are not stupid. They know who represents them and who cannot. They know how to pick the lesser evil of the moment. 

It is better for NGOs to explore ‘civil society (real)’ and find out the degree of mismatch between aspirations and indeed overall understanding of social, economic, cultural and political realities. They can back off from the practice of prescription and lip-servicing notions such as ‘participation’ (typically purchased by ‘attendance fees’). They can discover ‘nation’ in its entirety including its history and heritage in all its rich detail including of course error and horror. 

Nationalization of Civil Society (fake). Now that’s a project, but one which they might not get any funds to implement, but that’s the only way to get a hang of Civil Society (real) and win the usage-rights. This side of nationalization (in the most comprehensive meaning of that term) one can only expect error, abuse, further corruption of the term and eventually the subversion of civil society (in the broadest and most accurate meaning of the term).

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  malindasenevi@gmail.com

07 September 2018

Time can be sliced and scrambled

“Were you aware, perhaps in a sacred moment of intoxication, that an evil guard imprisons us by the winding of clocks?”

A close friend of mine was hospitalized for depression and related conditions which warranted close medical observation and indeed restraint for he was convinced there was nothing wrong and consequently given to violent objection to ‘treatment’. This was in 1985. I believe in August or September. I spent a month and a half in the Psychiatric Ward of the General Hospital, Colombo with my friend. Nights.

He was convinced that he had acquired special powers. He once blinked and said ‘nuwara archchi merenava hathai visi pahata’(‘My grandmother in Kandy will die at 7.25). It was 7.10 pm. He was claiming that he had willed her death. As the minutes passed, it was clear he was beginning to doubt his powers. He instructed me to go to his house and bring back his brother’s watch, a digital contraption, where time could be stopped. Well, not ‘time’ but its indication on a display screen. My friend was playing with time in the most innocent manner. He was devastated when 7.25 p.m. came and went. He broke down and cried.

For years I thought time, despite its ‘capture’ for display purposes in a circular frame, was of linear orientation. It just went straight ahead, it seemed. Towards death, I might add.

I was intrigued by the ‘international date line’ when Mrs Palliyaguru, my Grade Four class teacher told us about it. I managed to grasp the logic of how different places can have different times, but was still thrown a bit when I encountered ‘daylight saving time’ in the USA. 

It is all relative, now I understand. I know now that time travel is not impossible. We can go back in history courtesy memory and far into the future thanks to imagination. And since each individual remember things in particular ways at particular moments and also imagine things in ways that are distinct, conceptions of ‘time’ can vary from one person to the next.

Some people divide life into childhood, adolescence and youth; some into childhood, middle age and old age; some into childhood, bachelorhood, married life. Other dissections are possible of course.

Sometimes time passes very slowly, too slowly in fact and that’s a product of anxiety or anticipation. Sometimes the good times pass by very fast. Too fast. 
There are years we will never forget, moments too. Then there are years that are eminently forgettable and indeed duly forgotten. Moments too.

It is not just individuals. Communities, groups and countries can have different time-notions. An American of the USA, for example, might collapse time and distance, viz ‘it’s three hours from here’. The driver of an intercity coach would speak of distance not in miles or kilometers but the number of audio cassettes that can be played from A to B: ‘cassette piece pahaka dura’ (a distance of five cassettes). Or CDs.

Governments have five year plans. Some have 10 year plans. We are told to plant rice if we want to plan for a year, plant trees to plan for decades and to teach the people if we want to plan for a century.

What all this says is that ‘time’ is more complex that it seems. All this is a long foreword to a simple observation that won’t take too many words. I believe that the vast majority of people in this country, while they plan and execute with deliberate or instinctive reference to lifetime, are nevertheless deeply conscious of the plural, i.e. lifetimes. The time-frame is not measurable in the number of cassettes, hours, miles etc., but is sansaaric in dimension.

Deep down, I believe this is why we are a laid-back society. We are not in a hurry. The average Westerner is appalled by what he/she perceives to be scandalous slowness, which is immediately (and understandably) labeled ‘sloth’.

Are we slothful? Well, I don’t know. I think it is about what it important to the particular individual or collective. Is ‘life’ an aggregation of meetings? Is ‘living’ directly related to size of bank balance, companies/territories acquired etc? Is ‘living’ amenable to capture in photographs and/or videos? Is life, on the other hand, about seeing, hearing, breathing, touching, tasting and synthesizing in real time and real space and remembering without the aid of recording device?

I don’t think we can conclude either way. This much is true, though; things that are proposed and implemented have a better chance of proceeding smoothly (meaning, with greater acceptance and therefore less convulsion) if they are tuned to the pace-ethos of the particular community.

I am thinking of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, i.e. that horribly anti-democratic piece of legislation and process of legislating following the Indo-Lanka Accord. That was totally oblivious and dismissive of ‘OUR CHOSEN PACE’. Passed. Resulted in 60,000 deaths. 

Did not work.

These things are akin to stuffing one’s mouth with food. If it’s too much you gag on the food. Or vomit it out. It depends also on the type of food. Certain foods cause allergies to certain bodies. True for individuals. True for countries. You can force-feed. The body suffers. Can die. Or even revolt and grip by the throat the force-feeder and strangle him/her to death.

Things happen. Things are happening. There’s a ‘pace’ involved. Right now, I believe, in substance and pace, there’s a mismatch. Not healthy. Certain things cannot be stopped with a watch that can ‘stop’. No, it is not about time passing.

Time does pass. Moves. Let’s say ‘forward’. Nations don’t necessary move in concert, in the same direction. They are entities that can go back and indeed self-destruct to levels that forbid reconstruction.

This was first published in the 'Daily News' eight years ago (September 6, 2010) under the title 'On dimensioning time'.

06 September 2018

Notes for a Manifesto: Education Reforms

If anyone doubts that the entire education system should be reformed, a quick listen to statements made by the Minister of Higher Education Wijedasa Rajapaksha (WR) would force a re-think. On the one hand he extols the virtues of private education and insists that this way lies the future. Then he submits a Cabinet Paper to take over the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT).

The reasons offered are hilarious. WR tells us that SLIIT was initially managed by a private company although owned by the Government (he probably meant ‘state’) with money being released from the Mahapola Trust Fund (MTF) to construct the first building.  Three years ago, WR claims, SLIIT had paid some 400 million rupees to the MTF and purchased a new lease for the property.  

WR is concerned that there are no government officials on the SLIIT board now. He believes that less than half a million rupees is a gross under-valuation considering the worth of SLIIT assets, which by the way were not paid for by the Government. He’s most concerned about the fate of SLIIT students since ‘there is no rightful owner to this institution’!  

That’s WR’s SLIIT story. Another version would give a more comprehensive and detailed picture. It would speak of SLIIT being established in 1999 by a group of eminent academics and professionals as a Company Limited by Guarantee in order to address the demand for IT professionals. It would mention how SLIIT expanded, establishing centers in Matara, Kandy, Jaffna and Kurunegala, while creating opportunities for the study of other fields. 

It is a success story, by and large. If an ‘ownerless’ institution can offer graduate and postgraduate degrees in multiple disciplines, secure accreditation from renowned international certifying authorities in a country where the ‘owned’ universities have little to brag about, it is clear that ownership is not an issue.  PerhapsWR should study how not-for-profit entities operate, assess the track record of SLIIT, compare it with institutions such as the one he wishes to turn SLIIT, and check his tongue before making statements if only to curb contradiction and obtain coherence. 

It’s more than an issue of private versus public (or a mixture). It is about institutional and programmatic coherence and it is also about quality. Let’s consider the current situation.

The state spends billions on education and yet the end product clearly indicates that the return on investment is low.  It appears that the relevant authorities have not updated themselves about the objectives of education, new methodologies and the need for synergy.  

At present the public education system lags behind private systems by as much as two years. It is an exam-oriented system and one which effectively pushes a 15-16 year old into a particular stream. A student that young cannot know what he/she is good at or what would sustain his/her interests. Moreover it makes it impossible for him/her to shift streams in the event it is discovered that he/she chose poorly.  Blinders are imposed early and a student cannot explore other areas of study. For example, the course-rigidity does not allow a mathematics student to learn biology, commerce or literature.  
This needs to be corrected. It cannot be impossible to come up with a system which gives students more flexibility in the combination of subjects, especially at the tertiary level. For example, it should be possible and indeed compulsory for a student focusing on the social sciences to obtain more than rudimentary instruction in commerce, mathematics and biology where the student can select from a basket of subject options.  The entire examination schedule can be restructured to allow for two or more exams that count for the final overall result where a student, if he/she feels that he/she has made a mistake could, after the initial set of exams, shift disciplinary focus.  

While there are assignments, group projects and such, they do not count towards the final grade that a student receives. Therefore, naturally, what is fostered is a culture of exam-mania. It’s a do or die matter and those who die are buried, as per ‘custom’. 

Ideally, there should be a system which strikes a balance between school based assessment and evaluation through competitive exams. Centers could be set up to facilitate schools and teachers to conduct such assessment and also oversee the integration of new and innovative learning/teaching mechanisms.  

In any event, there has to be a strong civil-education component in the school curriculum especially to ensure that students who benefit from subsidies are made aware of how much is spent on them, who coughs up the money and what this entails in terms of ‘giving back’ at some point. 

Such an initiative would have to be complemented by a licensing system for all those who aspire to be teachers. Having a degree does not mean one is automatically suited to teach. It is unfair to subject children to the supervision by those who are engaged in on-the-job training. That’s like getting a medical student to prescribe medicine.

The overall idea is to ensure that when a student exits school, he/she has a more rounded education, is empowered with the ability to work with others, a healthy curiosity, good communication skills in at least two languages (including English) and an innovative frame of mind among other things. 

There are other issues. International schools operate largely without any supervision. In this case it is not about curriculum, but policies and practices, some of which are highly questionable. What is proposed is of course not policing, but a system of licensing that requires adherence to standards across all areas of operation. 

There are lots of institutes devoted to higher studies, both private and public. There are also institutes that focus on technical education. There’s overlap and there’s sidelining. Such things can be corrected by reviewing and if necessary restructuring the institutional arrangement to obtain a greater degree of coherence and enhance synergy.

Education is obviously a key element of national development. Therefore higher education (subsequent to the empowerment through a reformed school education structure) has to be tied to overall skills requirements. This necessitates a comprehensive occupational classification based on current realities and those that envisaged development could produce.  In other words we need to know what kind of human resources we need, envisage the needs down the line and ensure that these ‘needs’ do not compromise the fundamentals of education — a solid enough foundation in the sciences, mathematics, social sciences and humanities regardless of whether or not direct arrows can be drawn from courses to jobs.  

Unfortunately, we are stuck in a mindset that’s best exemplified by the confusion betrayed by the Minister of Higher Education. The preference has been for uttering truisms, misunderstand and misarticulating the problem, addressing piece of it and in an ad hoc manner, and leaving things by and large unchanged. 

We can and must do better.  Please take note Nagananda Kodituwakku, Rohan Pallewatte, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena and any other individual entertaining hopes of becoming the next President of Sri Lanka.

Other articles in this series:

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com