19 January 2017

So you want to take out ‘Buddhism’?

The ‘enlightened’ people entrusted with the grave task of recommending changes to the constitution have sought to turn Sri Lanka into an official secular state.  Although the Final Report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) doesn’t mention it, this particular recommendation clearly seeks to do away with Article 9 of the Constitution.

Article 9 reads thus: The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).

Articles 10 and 14(1)(e) are as follows: 

10. Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice. 

14. (1) (e) the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

This recommendation should not surprise anyone.  The worthies on this committee are without exception either advocates of secularism and have on occasion been critical of Article 9 (and even openly been anti-Buddhist as judged by crass extrapolation of extreme Buddhist groups to cover the entire community and strange silence on the excesses of other religious groups) or are tainted by association with organizations that by and large do the same.  

This report claims legitimacy from both appointment and by claiming to have given ear to voices that cut across all categories, religious and otherwise.  

A report put together by the Committee on Constitutional Reform, headed by Lal Wijenayake, released last year, in contrast appear to have actually listened to people and recorded their representations faithfully, despite the problematic nature of the committee’s composition.  The CTF report, in contrast, is weak, slanted and quite in contrast to the reconciliation intent of the mandate, a recipe to deliver its very opposite.   However, given what has to be understood as real intent, the recommendation is what was always predictable.  

This is how it is worded: 

The CTF strongly recommends that meaningful steps should be taken through consultation with all stakeholders, towards a secular State and with equal respect accorded to the multiple religions practiced in the country.  

The logic of Article 9 draws from the clause related to Buddhism in the Kandyan Convention, the document that ceded the Kandyan Kingdom (to which the ‘land of the war-like Sinhalas’ — as described by the Dravidian marauder Raja Raja Chola I — or ‘Sinhale’ had shrunk by that time) to the British: ‘The religion of Buddhoo, professed by the chiefs and inhabitants of these provinces is declared inviolable and its rites and ministers and places of worship are to be maintained and protected’.  The British treated that as well as other protective clauses with utmost disdain (to put it gently) thereafter.  If the recovery of the nation from the invader was to make any sense, then reinstating those abrogated clauses was logical.  Hence Article 9, it can be argued, also considering the notion of ‘compensation’ for all the violence unleashed on Buddhists and Buddhist places of religious significance, and the burning and looting of Buddhist texts.  We could throw in the formal and informal advantages conferred on non-Buddhists, especially Christians, in all spheres, especially education and obtaining employment.

Someone might say, ‘but people, communities and geographies are always in flux — changing times and scenarios call for changed articles of faith’.  Correct.  If that’s the case, then we have to legislate for the moment, having duly dumped history in the waste-paper basked of constitution-making.  Out would go all talk of traditional/historical homelands (myth-lades though they may be) and with it calls for devolution.  Factored in would be the dispersed nature of the Tamil community (close to 50% live outside the so-called ‘traditional/historical homelands’).  Interestingly, that dumping is not called for by those who want to legislate for the here and now.

But what is this here and now?  Is it the number-erased, percentages-ignored thing described as multi-ethnic and multi-religious?  We are not talking of a population equally divided along lines of ethnic identity and religious persuasion.  We are not talking of a neatly ethnically enclaved geography.  So, in essence, Buddhists are asked to concede demographic edge in the interest of ‘a more enlightened’ political arrangement.  Perhaps Buddhists are being asked, in the name of the philosophy they subscribe to, to reflect on the Buddha Vacana, the notions of impermanence, the virtues of giving (dana) and equanimity (upekkha) and so on; essentially boiling down to ‘magnanimity’ and the celebrated of shared humanity.  

Let’s go with secularism. If secularism is what is sought and if Buddhists are being asked to waive demographic advantage in view of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘reconciliation’, if reconciliation can never be a clap with a single hand, and if secularism is citizen-focused in ways that keep religion strictly separate from state, we would have to consider alterations that are not limited to doing away with Article 9.  

Let’s begin with the simple things (things, please note that even the ‘enlightened’ West would not consider).  Holidays.  Religious holidays.  Communal holidays.  

No Poya holidays.  No extra holiday for Vesak.  No aluth avurudda on April 13/14.  No Easter. No Christmas.  No Ramadan.  No Thaipongal, no Mahasivarathri, no Idul Fitr and no Idul Adha.  No Deepavli or Milad-un-Nabi.  And Sunday, a day of religious significance for Christians will no longer be a holiday.  

Instead, let the work day be truncated by one and a half hours, Sunday through Friday.  Saturday, a religion-neutral days will be a holiday.  And yes, no half-days or short-leave for Friday prayers.  If employees want to be religious by all means, but on their time, not that of the organization that pays their salaries.  

Let’s take it further.  Not only will religion be taken out of the curriculum there won’t be morning prayers and there will no longer be schools based on religious faith.  No Buddhist schools, Muslim schools, Hindu schools, Catholic schools or schools run by or framed by other Christian religious organizations or faiths respectively.  The state cannot help in any manner whatsoever any private institution that has any association with any religious faith.  

Let’s get more serious.  Let this secular Sri Lanka of ‘equal citizens’ (never mind the inequalities that capitalism generate and depends on) be a land where there is one law: an eka-ratak, eka-neethiyak kind of entity.  

Nothing called 'Customary Law'.  No marriages under ‘Kandyan Law’.  It will no longer be possible to refer to Thesavalamai law in property-related litigation.  No Sharia law.   No ‘Muslim marriages’.  No Talaq.  No multiple wives.  

Come to think of it, if we want to be truly secular, then we need to revisit Roman-Dutch Law as well, since the man considered to be the founder of this system of jurisprudence, Hugo de Groot, was a Christian apologist.

The CTF has been quite cute in all this.   The CTF hasn’t gone into these important areas of secularism simply because it wants non-Buddhists to have religious privileges.   When they interject the phrase ‘towards a secular state’, they deliberately advocate ‘a start’ and the only ‘start’ that anyone has talked about so far in this business of secularizing Sri Lanka is doing away with Article 9.  That’s cute, ladies and gentlemen.  Very cute.  

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

18 January 2017

That curious creature called ‘civil society’

Words are easy for politicians and in politics.  Take ‘the people’ for example.  It’s hard to think of a term that has been as abused.  It’s all ‘in the name of the people’ isn’t it?  There are of course other useful (and cheap) words in the lexicon of politics.  ‘The nation’ has a lot of utility value, for example and has been used and abused all over the world and across history.  And then, there is ‘civil society’.  

Civil society is defined as “the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens" and includes the family and the private sphere, referred to as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business.”  It is supposed to refer to “a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity” and as such implies all manner of collectives, regardless of size.  However in usage it is the exaggeration of this definition that dominates.  It’s useful, this exaggeration, for political purposes.  In usage, it would (like to) count every single citizen who is not a politician or a business owner.  Perhaps this is why those who call themselves representatives of civil society see ‘civil society’ as an alternative to states and governments.

What really is civil society in Sri Lanka?  How representative are those who claim to speak on behalf of those whose memberships are assumed but not necessarily ‘membered’ in the term?  

These are not questions that the self-appointed ‘reps of civil-soc’ (RCS) will like to answer.  

Let’s consider a few examples.  In the early years of the new millennium there was a protest at Lipton’s Circus.  It was a ‘peace demonstration’ or rather a demonstration for peace, meaning agitation to put a stop to military activity.  Most of the key voices in that collective were and still are ardent advocates of federalism, some on occasion endorsing moves to confer parity of status to the LTTE vis-a-vis the Government of Sri Lanka.  That’s not what is important here. What’s interesting is that it was a demonstration by ‘100 women’s organizations’.  What’s telling is that less than 100 turned up!  

In 2006 February, another captain of this interesting industry was asked on the sidelines of talks between the then government and the LTTE in Celigny, Switzerland, how many people he could bring to a demonstration if he didn’t receive funds from donor agencies.  He was honest.  None, he said. Membership, even temporary membership, has a price tag then  Not too different to the rice packet, alcohol and a few hundred bucks plus transport that are spent to purchase support for the two major parties in the country, one observes.  

Civil society, however, assumes the kind of purity (of purpose and practice) that politicians dare not demand or, as of late, would not bother claiming.  On the one hand, politicians seek and obtain votes.  They are up for election.  They are up for rejection.  Even if one considers the fact that only those with money or are supported by the moneyed can reasonably expect to win, there is some rudimentary representational claim that they can make.  The lords and ladies of civil society don’t have even that!

What’s civil society?  Ask those who are counted in as members but have never met the lords and ladies who claim to represent them.  Ask them their names.  They wouldn’t have a clue.  ‘Civil society’ is the ‘other’ of what they are not.  

Some are lords, some ladies and some are wannabe lords and wannabe ladies.  Some genuinely think they are the subaltern they like to believe the entire enterprise is, but even among them only a handful would not be getting paid at the end of the day.  

The lords and ladies, then, make pronouncements on behalf of a largely non-existent membership.  They attach themselves (typically) to political formations that are for the most part admiring of the West, it’s dominant paradigms of development, it’s preferred economic policy regimes and the narratives of history and progress it prefers.  In the name of the people, mind you.  In the best interest of the nation, remember. Don’t be fooled, tell yourself.  

People talk of majorities as though they are pickpockets or worse.  People talk of majoritarianism as though it is a cuss word.  Haven’t heard of minoritarianism being used anywhere, even though minorities of the ethnic kind have unleashed violence and caused destruction throughout history.  No?  Well, research ‘English’, ‘Portuguese’ and ‘Dutch’ histories in Sri Lanka, not to mention Dravidian hordes, Tamil-speaking and otherwise, who’ve adventured here.  Well, forget all that — think of the Europeans who ‘discovered’ a new (sic) world across the Atlantic.  

Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta wrote a book titled ‘The only minority is the bourgeoisie’ way back in 1985.  I can’t remember if it was in this collection but he had a pithy line in one of his books, perhaps, ‘The 52nd state of amnesia’: ‘when they say you are a visible minority, it means you’re a sitting duck!’  Well, the bourgeoisie is not the only minority.  It is a minority that is visible and perhaps so powerful that its minority status misses the eye.   

The bourgeoisie is a silent, pernicious and destructive minority.  ‘Civil society’ can’t hold a candle to the bourgeoisie of course but it is still pernicious.  Not invisible in the bandying of terms, but made visible by the fact of that which it invisibles, if one were to use the term, namely the non-existent membership in whose name it operates.  Pernicious is an apt descriptive.

Consider who civil society backed to the hilt over the past 30 years.  Among politicians, they were behind Chandrika Kumaratunga.  They were, rather reluctantly forced to back Sarath Fonseka in 2010, a man they had previously vilified since he was on the ‘other side’ of their preferred victor in the war, namely the LTTE.  They were less reluctant in their support of Maithripala Sirisena of course, but today while some of them mutter dismay over pronouncements made by the President, they treat the Prime Minister as a holy cow.  If the election of Kumaratunga was a victory for the progressives, then yes they played a role, albeit a role smaller than claims.  So too with the victory of January 8, 2015.  Both Kumaratunga and Sirisena have proven that celebration was early and unwarranted.  Civil society, anyway, is supposed to go beyond personalities and parties.  

Let’s conclude. If we talk of minorities or sections of minorities that are as bad or worse as chauvinistic majorities, ethnically speaking Sri Lanka has wholesome minorities.  Compared to that peculiar minority called ‘civil society’.  The kind we’ve discussed above.  Just to clear confusion, if you talk of the collective of maranaadhaara samithi (death-donation societies) or thrift and credit cooperatives or Sarvodaya societies, they are far more numerous, do much more in real terms to uplift communities and get a lot more done.  They too are legitimately part of ‘civil society’.  And, if we talk membership that is known, understood, acknowledged and evident in practice, they are a majority that outnumbers many times over the collective assumed to be represented by the lords and ladies of civil society.    

Civil society.  It needs to be unpacked, clearly.  If done comprehensively perhaps a true civil society might emerge and a far more useful one too. 

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

16 January 2017

Wimal Weerawansa’s political presence

Wimal Weerawansa is under arrest. The Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) holds that Wimal abused privileges, especially with respect to the use of vehicles.  He is also charged with outright corruption and nepotism regarding the distribution of houses constructed by the government while he was the Minister of Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities in the previous government.  The National Freedom Front (NFF) which Wimal heads, contends he is innocent.  The jury is still out on the legality of the FCID, but this notwithstanding the matter is now in court.  Court will decide.  

Wimal was arrested even as his party was getting ready to hold its convention.  Perhaps the arrest was timed well, politically, the party alleges.  Wimal, after all, is the voice, the personality and all but the party.  One notes that such machinations are not uncommon in Sri Lanka and that the yahapalanists have amply demonstrated that they too are (happy) creatures of a pernicious political culture that has hardly suffered a dent since January 8, 2015.  

The man first entered the political imagination of the country as a journalist.  He was then Wimalasiri Gamlath, writing to ‘Lakdiva’ which evolved into the key media platform of the then proscribed JVP.  He was one of several pro-JVP writers who left that newspaper and launched ‘Hiru’.  It was his lines, in print and those thundered from political platforms, that wide-eyed young people, especially from the universities, lapped up and later mouthed to would-be followers.  

I remember the first time I heard him speak.  This was in 1994, shortly before the General Election.   I was, along with a few others, selling the monthly newspaper put out by a group called ‘Janatha Mithuro’.  We were selling ‘Asipatha’ at the Goodshed bus stand.  Wimal, at the same time, was speaking at a rally at Bogambara.  

While the JVP activists had been extremely silent in the aftermath of the 1988-89 bheeshanaya, it was those involved with the Janatha Mithuro and the Jathika Chinthanaya who talked politics in the universities.  It might even be said that these elements paved the way for the JVP to make a come-back in the universities.  Wimal said it differently.

‘Galivar nidaagena iddi liliputtan tikak ekathu vela sadda daanava’ (some Lilliputians are making noise while Gulliver is asleep).  

Gulliver, to Wimal, was of course the JVP.   Even back then it was clear that Wimal had a way with words.  In 2010 April, after the UPFA had rolled over all opposition at the General Election, Wimal, addressing a media conference put it succinctly: ratata aadare kattiyata rata giyaa, badata aadare kattiyata bada giyaa’ (‘the country went to those who loved the country, and those who loved their stomachs were inflicted with diarrhea’ playing on the Sinhala word ‘bada’, meaning stomach and therefore the term, literally, ‘stomach went’ or ‘suffered purging’).

Rhetoric was his thing, and not always substance.  A collection of parliamentary speeches titled ‘Garu Kathaanaayakathumani…’ (Honorable Speaker….), another lovely heading by the way, could be described as wordy or alternately ‘fluff’.  Fluff, however, sells.  Wimal was a good salesman.  He was a crowd-puller.  People came to hear him speak.  This is why he was usually asked to make the final speech at major rallies organized by the JVP or by the UPFA when the JVP was the junior partner of that coalition which was led by the SLFP and included several smaller parties such as the CP, LSSP, MEP and DVJP (during the 2004 Parliamentary Election and the 2005 Presidential Election).  This ensured that the crowds would remain until the end.

There’s a story that a parliament reporter related to me way back in 2007 when the final vote on Budget 2008 was taken.  It was a tense moment.  Anura Banadaranaike had crossed over to the Opposition.  It was a given that the TNA and UNP would vote ‘nay’.  Thondaman’s CWC was not ‘in the bag’.  It was a critical moment.  Minister who had just attended a media briefing on cabinet decisions at the Department of Government Information and were sipping tea in the office of the then Director General Anusha Palpita, had grave faces.  Wasantha Ramanayake, who ‘rose’ after Maithripala Siriesna became President but gave the impression of loyalty to the then President, insisted that Parliament should be dissolved.  This was just before the vote was taken.  The JVP held the key.  If the JVP had voted against the budget, it would not pass.

The said reporter said that when the name of the first JVP member of the UPFA was called up, he had looked at Wimal and what was probably a pre-arranged signal had been given.  The JVP abstained.  Had they stood with the Opposition, it could very well have precipitated an unfolding of political events which among other things may have not given us the ‘result’ of May 2009.  Ravi Karunanayake was livid and expressed frustrations by banging on his desk with both hands.  Anura Bandaranaike immediately left the house, hotly followed by Arjuna Ranatunga who was trying to pacify the broken man.

Wimal could be called the signal-giving agent of the JVP for that particular moment, but at the time he was quite the mover and the shaker in the party.  In the very least, he gave the signal that prevented history taking a different turn and taking it instead on a path that might very well have seen the LTTE survive to this date.  On the flip side, of course, it kept the Rajapaksa’s in power and enabled all manner of abuse and erosion of democracy, but that’s another story.   It was a moment that was marked by Wimal Weerawansa.  No contest there.

Wimal was expelled by the JVP in March 2008 and later formed the National Freedom Front (NFF).  That was not a ‘split’.  The real split came when Kumar Gunaratnam and others left to form the Frontline Socialist Party four years later.  If numbers alone counted, then the NFF was an inconsequential sliver and the 2012 split a rip down the middle.  

‘Split’ was what it was called, however.  Perhaps this is why those who supported Sarath Fonseka’s presidential bid in January 2010 thought that Mahinda Rajapaksa could be defeated.  In 2004, the JVP backed Mahinda but in 2010 the party stood with Fonseka.  In 2004, if not for the JVP, Mahinda wouldn’t have had a team to put up posters.  The soldiers, so to speak, had abandoned Mahinda, it was thought.  Other factors should not be discounted of course.  In 2005 Mahinda was a candidate but in 2010 he was incumbent; in 2005 the UNP was a threat, in 2010 it was in disarray; in 2005 Ranil and not Mahinda had the support of both private and public media but in 2010 it was Mahinda who owned the media; in 2005 we were in the middle of a war, by 2010, i.e. under the political stewardship of Mahinda, terrorism had been defeated. Some did say that it was Fonseka who won the war and not Mahinda, but then again those who curse the dictatorial powers of the executive presidency conveniently count out the fact that when dictatorship is conceded sway on all fronts is also implicitly acknowledged. 

What’s relevant here is the error in quantifying the ‘JVP-factor’.  The number of ‘soldiers’ did matter of course, but that factor, when comparing 2005 with 2010 had ceased to be relevant given the changed circumstances and the stature that incumbency gives, not to mention the resources that could be mobilized, legally and illegally.  Outside of this, the JVP was nothing.  Wimal was all.  His voice and turn of phrase, far outweighed anything that the likes of Somawansa, Tilvin, Arura Kumara, Handunnetti, Vijitha Herath and Lalkantha could deliver, individually or as a collective.  

Wimal was one factor and certainly not the only relevant element, but one simply cannot footnote or erase the role he played in the rise of the JVP.   The hard and necessary organizing that is a non-negotiable for party building notwithstanding Wimal gave the JVP the massive public presence it sorely needed following the 88-89 debacle.  He was the JVP’s brand ambassador and helped it rise from a lost cause to a little something and eventually a considerable parliamentary force: 1 seat through Ariya Bulegoa’s party in 1994, 10 in 2000, 17 in 2001 and almost 40 courtesy the manaapa kramaya and joining forces with the SLFP in 2004.  

The brand ambassador became the brand, it could be argued.  Wimal was ejected in 2008 but remained politically relevant.  That’s the advantage of being a brand.  What happened to the JVP after that tells the story of Wimal’s political worth to that party, at least in part. The party’s fortunes declined dramatically.  In April 2010 the JVP won 4 seats (contesting under Fonseka’s banner) and in 2015, returned just 6.  The ‘vote bank’ appears to have stabilized to around 500,000.   

Wimal, along or with his party, is certainly not going to best the JVP in a General Election, but Wimal and his words proved to be a thorn in the JVP’s flesh.  And not just the JVP.   

The maubime panchayudhaya (which he called himself in 2010) has certainly lost its shine.  Electoral defeat does that.  Wrongdoing or even allegations of wrongdoing does that.  There has been a lot of invective against Wimal from pro-Government quarters in social media.  He is not liked.  He is feared by some, especially those who are slow in retort or cannot match his wit.  Others would not consider Wimal a heavyweight.  

One could talk about Wimal’s ideological preferences and how these have evolved over the years.  He’s a nationalist now, for convenience or our of conviction, only he would know.  He is perceived as a threat by those who are opposed to nationalism (are they internationalists, though?).  As such, given the political preferences of the regime, Wimal being incarcerated should be a relief.  It would be a stretch to say that the relief comes from ‘taking out’ a crook, considering the crooks that hobnob with the self-righteous in the high seats of power and the crookedness that is encouraged one way or another by this government.  

Time in the can, as they say, can be sobering.  It quietened Fonseka and all but took out S.B. Dissanayake.  What it would do to Wimal, we cannot say.  He had his moments.  Perhaps he’s not yet done. 

05 January 2017

Let’s make Mr Sampanthan’s New Year wish come true

R. Sampanthan is the Leader of the Opposition.  He is also the Senior-Most Citizen of Tamil Nationalism.  Some might demand that the ‘Nationalism’ descriptive is incorrect, but let’s leave it at that.  It’s a new year, after all.  Let’s also leave aside track records.  Mr Sampanthan has made a statement, a gracious one in fact, and as such is richly deserving in reciprocated grace.  

In his New Year message as the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Sampanthan has made an appeal to all citizens to put aside difference and build a prosperous and peaceful country.  He has also predicted that 2017 would be a crucial year in the history of the country if a permanent and lasting solution to the ‘national question’ is found.  He believes that a new constitution will deliver this.  

It is an important and hopeful message.  If we don’t read too much into it and delve into the subtext, as contextualized by Mr Sampanthan’s past and the past of all the Tamil political organizations he has been in or supported, directly or indirectly, it can be read as a wholesome message that rises above tired ethnocentric narratives typical of Tamil nationalists.

Mr Sampanthan, while acknowledging ‘diversity in (our) communities’ has appealed to all the people in the country to ‘strive hard to not not let such diversity become a barrier to building a prosperous and peaceful country for (our) future generations’.

Laudable.  Utterly.

The issue is that he has pinned all this to what he calls ‘the national question’.  

So what IS this ‘national question’?  Which description of this much used and even over-used term are we to take in our deliberations?  Are we to take one of the many versions articulated by various strains of Tamil Nationalism, then invariably we get to the autonomy theme which, in its proposed concretization, is about devolution.  That, however, goes against the all-embracing, rising-above-communalism tone of Mr Sampanthan’s statement.  

He cannot, for example, ask for people to ensure that diversity is not a barrier to forging a better nation and then restrict relevant discussion to one that calls for all non-Tamil communities to accept the Tamil nationalist (we are being generous with the terminology here) frame of reference.  

We must hope that this is not what he is proposing.  

So, if we were to take the generous interpretation, we have to first and foremost contend with definitions and of course the underlying assumptions, claims and relevant extrapolations towards the multiplicity of preferred outcomes.

Mr Sampanthan has issued a statement.  He has made an appeal.  He has, at least in statement, asked people not to be fixated about their identities and relevant politics.  Instead of fixing a solution and politicking towards its realization, Mr Sampanthan’s statement implicitly calls for a reconsideration of the terms and conditions.  ‘Terms’ as in terminology and ‘conditions’ as in context, history, demography, economy rationalization and of course pragmatism which takes into account the kinds of violence and destruction that mindless and racist myth-modeling produced over the past few decades.  

What is the reality that supports calls for a devolution-based solution to this ‘national question’ as described by Tamil nationalists?  Not much.  You can’t have autonomy when almost half the community lives outside the historical homelands, so-called.  You can’t, in the first instance, even talk of history when all you have is a version that is thin on fact and heavily laden with chauvinistic historiography.  
The reality that needs to be acknowledged, discussed, debated and, where anomalies are established, resolved, comes under the subject-heading grievances.  What are these grievances?  They should be spelled out.  They should be shed of myth and supported by fact.  Once this is done, then and then alone must ‘devolution’ even be considered.  And, if indeed ‘devolution’ makes sense, then the question of boundaries need to be discussed, considering that the relevant lines are colonial constructs which ought to have been ‘un-made’ almost 60 years ago.  

Mr Sampanthan is calling for nothing less, nothing more, I like to believe.  In the spirit of the new year, let me add.  Let us all support him.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.comTwitter: malindasene.  This article was first published in the Daily Mirror, January 5, 2017.

26 December 2016

That man Sarinda Unamboowe

Today it is hard to utter the name Sarinda Unamboowe without also mentioning Nathan Sivagananathan.  They are twins of a kind, united in purpose, sacrifice, giving, spirit and heart.  These are the names associated with ‘The Trail’, an exercise of love, loving kindness, reconciliation, unification and a lot more besides; in other words much more than a long walk from the Northernmost point of the country all the way down to the Southern tip to raise money for a cancer hospital, a facility that twins an earlier effort to build a similar hospital in the North.  

Sarinda and Nathan would brush it off, the former with a dismissive guffaw and perhaps a self-effacing blunt joke and the latter more politely.  They’d both say the same thing, most likely: ‘it’s not about us and it’s not just us — it’s about thousands and thousands who came together and did something that was truly amazing.’  

They are right, of course, and yet in a land and indeed a world which unfortunately needs heroes, these two names are better known and not undeservedly either, one might add.  

All lives are epic.  Some are known, written about and read.  Some are lived, known to few or none, and end in anonymity.  Nathan has a story and one day it will be written.  Sarinda’s too.  This is not biography.  This is recollection and gathering, a piecing together if you will, less for the record than for a glimpse of conduct that should not surprise and lessons worth learning.

Sarinda at 14 or thereabouts

Let me begin with Sarinda the cricketer.  According to all accounts Rochana Jayawardena (who later went on to win a Test cap) produced a match-winning all-round performance at the 104th Battle of the Blues, scoring an unbeaten 145 and collecting a match-bag of 9 wickets.  He didn’t win it for Royal all by himself, however, and he would be the first to state this.  He came in when the more fancied Royal team had lost 4 wickets for a paltry 56.  

Seated (L to R): Malik Samarasinghe, Sarinda Unamboowe, Chulaka Amarasinghe (Capt), Sandesh Algama and Rochana Jayawardena
Malik Samarasinghe (11) helped Rochana stop the rot, putting together 55 for the 5th wicket.  Important.  Gihan Malalasekera was run out for a duck, but he sacrificed his wicket to ensure that the man better equipped to marshall the tail and get a decent score for the team remained in the middle. Important.  

Then came Sarinda.  The score was 112 for 6.  Sarinda, who together with Rochana had saved Royal against S Joseph’s a few weeks before, rose to the occasion once again.  The pair put together 90 runs for the 7th wicket.  Very important.  He was there when Rochana scored his fifty (just his second for the season) and when he reached 100.  His contribution was just 26.  

A team man.  Makes sense, looking back 32 years later and in the context of the things he’s done.  This I realized fully only a year later.  

It was a different team.  A much weaker team.  A team which would have lost the Royal-Thomian if not for the heroics of a young fresher called Chandana Jayakody.  The incident took place a few weeks before the Big Match.  

It was late evening.  The ground was empty, except for the squad going through late-evening exercises.  They were jogging around the ground.  They were in full view of the Prefects’ Room.  The prefects, around that time, were finalizing the list of Stewards for the match.  They happened to see the cricketers and one of them roared a hearty ‘Aaaar’ (‘R’ as in ‘Royal’ and as in the first of the cheer, ‘R-O-Y-A-L Royal’).  Following the ‘Y’ of the cheer, someone repeated ‘Y’ so loud that it drowned the ‘A’ completely.  From then on it was ‘Y-Y-Y’ (or ‘Why, why why???’) as in the retort-jeer if you will often used by some of Royal’s opponents.   

It was just some boys good-humouredly laughing at their team and therefore themselves.  No malice was intended.  In fact some of the very same prefects were among those who vociferously cheered the team even when it was fighting losing causes, through impending defeat and defeat itself.  

A few minutes later, Sarinda, who had left school by that time but was helping the team, turned up at the Prefects’ Room.  

He didn’t rant and rave.  There were no screams.  

‘You know that the team is not doing too well.  You are prefects.  You can do better than this.  They need your support.  You didn’t have to do that.’

The prefects assured that they backed the team and that it was not meant to ridicule or hurt.  

‘That’s good,’ he said and left.  

Loyalty.  That was important to Sarinda.  Years later it was loyalty to a nation, a nation made of all kinds of people whose various identifiers meant little or nothing to him, just the fact that they were citizens of his country, Sri Lanka.  Back then it was his alma mater

Sarinda, like any schoolboy then and now, would count lots of unforgettable moments.  Those close to him would know much.  Others know little or nothing.  Among the ‘little’, here’s something I picked up a short while ago, almost 35 years after it happened.

The 103rd Battle of the Blues.  I am quoting an account written by Sarinda years later. 

“Malik Samarasinghe, the slow left arm spinner got one to pitch on off and drift in to the batsman, who attempted to play a square cut, a tad too close to his body. The result was the faintest, feather of a snick.”

The only person who reacted had been Sarinda, the keeper, who “let out a yelp and leapt in the air.”   None of the teammates around the bat had supported him and neither had the bowler.  

“The umpire decisively shook his head with a disdainful stare down the pitch, clasped his hands behind his back and turned his head away; Sandesh Algama at first slip kept hopping up and down, repeating ‘What? What? What?’”

The batsman, Stefan Anthonisz, had stood firm for a few seconds looking at the ground. Then he had turned, looked Sarind in the eye, “muttered an audible obscenity and to the shock of all, on and off the field, tucked his bat under his arm and trudged off the field”.

“The Royalist players, once they realized what had happened, stood to applaud the batsman all the way to the pavilion.”

The tea break had found Sarinda making a beeline for the Thomian dressing room to shake the hand of the batsman and to confess, “I would never had done that!”

And then, another note, added years later:  “Esto Perpetua Stef. To this day I drink to you.”

Honest.  Honourable.  Learnt of books and learnt of men.  That’s him.  Sarinda.

I like to think that Sarinda of that time did not become Sarinda of ‘The Trail’ (or for that matter Sarinda of ‘Wheels for Wheels’ where he, along with a dozen others cycled ‘around the pearl’ that is the island of Sri Lanka to raise money to buy wheelchairs for children suffering from cerebral palsy).  

I prefer to think that the Sarinda of that time is still the same Sarinda — same values, same  sense of loyalty and purpose.  Serious when there’s a job at hand, but never forgetting to smile or laugh if the moment warranted it.  

I am sure that there are many who will have ‘Sarinda-stories’ to relate from ‘The Trail’ that are similar to the ones recounted above.  Maybe there are other aspect to the man and if so I hope someone will put them all together one day. 

Gehan Rajapakse, Namal Kamalgoda and Palitha Antony, co-authors with Sarinda of ‘Elusive: a journey through the wild’ for example could talk of his love for the wild, for nature, for the earth and perhaps his concerns at the violence done to the same.  

Chulaka Amarasinghe, skipper of that winning Royal team as well as other teammates will talk about his antics in the dressing room.  Sriyan Cooray, Royal’s rugby captain in 1983 when Sarinda played as winger, and other ruggerites of that time probably have anecdotes, as probably do members of the Athletics team of which Sarinda was the hurdler.  His friends from MAS as well as other places of work, classmates at Royal and friends from Ithaca College, NY, could add to all this.  

When I met him a few years ago at a modest ceremony where Dr Dinesh Sivaratnam made the single largest donation towards the completion of the cancer hospital in Tellippalai, Jaffna, enough to build an entire ward of 60 beds and accommodation for medical staff, I asked Sarinda what he does (for a living).  He laughed and said ‘jangi mahanava’ (I stitch panties), referring to his work at MAS Holdings. That’s also Sarinda.  He knows how to laugh, even at himself.  

There are hundreds if not thousands of pictures from ‘The Trail’ where Sarinda is hugging fellow-‘trailers’.  Tons of pictures where he celebrates the indomitable nature of the human spirit.  He smiled for countless selfies even though his body, especially his feet would have hurt terribly.  

Yes, he has smiles for all seasons.  And he puts smiles on a lot of people.  Especially people he has never met.  Just by being himself.  

Sarinda Unamboowe.  A wonderful standard-bearer not just for our generation, but for everything that’s good, decent, civilized and hopeful in all our people; in our nation, in fact.   Along with Nathan, whose story will also get written, I promise. 

22 December 2016

Cheating Sinhalese in proposal and Tamils through outcome

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has made two statements regarding reconciliation via constitutional reform.  Firstly, he has said that a referendum on a new constitution should not be approached the way the Presidential Election was fought.  In that election, the Northern and Eastern Provinces overwhelmingly voted for President Sirisena, who was the default candidate of the United National Party and as such was backed to the hilt by the coalition led by that party.  

What Anura K is saying, then, is that in this instance voters should not back a UNP-drafted proposal.  In other words, as far as the JVP is concerned, this is not something to do with Mahinda  Rajapaksa and indeed is a larger issue that has little to do with regimes, regime-change, good governance and what not.  

The signal is that the JVP is opposed to the new constitution or at least those sections that refer to devolution.  Why the JVP cannot openly oppose the secrecy shrouding the process or detail the relevant articles to which they only hint that they object, is anyone’s guess.  

The second contention is that in the event that the new constitution is rejected at a referendum, the cry for ethnic-based devolution should be abandoned.  This provides a clue.  The draft new constitution clearly includes articles that go beyond the 13th Amendment in terms of devolving power to the provinces.  This is not surprising since the chief architects of the process, Jayampathi Wickramaratne, representing a party that would not win a single seat in Parliament in a first past the post system, is ideologically committed to such devolution.  Add to that the ideological preferences of Mangala Samaraweera and Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the intellectual sloth and political naivete of the UNP and we cannot expect anything else.  

That said, there is a serious political problem in Anura K’s second wish.  Why should defeat result in a dropping of a demand?  In the first instance such change of heart cannot be legally obtained.  Secondly, if electoral defeat must necessarily result in abandonment of political project, there are lots of things the JVP should have dropped a long time ago.  And not just the JVP, one might add.  

It is like saying that since there are laws against theft, thieves should give up on wrongdoing from  pickpocketing to misusing power and abusing trust to pull of heists worth billions through the manipulation of Central Bank bond issues.  Silly.

While we can attribute the formulation of such wishes by the JVP to anxieties about how much political bleeding the JVP could suffer from the enactment of such proposals (if endorsed by a referendum) and of course sophomoric thinking, the key issues are essentially being skirted here, by the JVP and by the Government.  

First of all, the question ‘why devolution in the first place?’ is not addressed beyond the crass regurgitation of the logic of Eelamist myth-modeling sans appropriate weight to all the relevant factors.  According to all indications, is yet another ill-conceived pandering to Tamil chauvinism marked by an absolute disavowal of history and a shameless and even dangerous refusal to factor in historical, demographic and geographical realities.  

It is also, in effect, a proverbial lifting of the sarong to the valid observations made by President Maithripala Sirisena with respect to the errors embedded in provincial boundaries which (need we even mention?) were arbitrarily drawn by the British and has been the ‘base’ on which the Eelam Map has been traced.  It’s a trace that Tamil chauvinism swears by and sections of the current Government are loathe to inspect.  That’s pernicious historiography compounded by pernicious approval by the very fact of nonsensical constitutional drafting.  

It is clearly incumbent upon governments to listen to grievances and to set in place structures and processes that allow for the rational treatment of aspirations where the true dimensions of grievances and the appropriateness of aspirations are correctly assessed.  One can argue that these structures and processes do exist.  What is lacking is the political will to do this important and necessary audit.  The formulation of ‘resolution’ where such ‘homework’ is not done is irresponsible and goes against the basic principles of good governance.  In the absence of such will the natural yield is ‘whim and fancy’.  

The fate of a people should not be put in the hands of whim-fancy politicians because such idiocy and irresponsibility do not yield reconciliation but rather exacerbate antipathies and produce bloodshed.  

What if, for example, the JVP went further and something of this kind: ‘include a caveat whereby a an overall “yes” for devolution requires all Tamils to live in the North and East’?  That would be unfair, absolutely.  On the other hand, therein lies the key problem about devolution predicated on chauvinistic thinking and the exaggeration of claims.  Close to half the Tamils live OUTSIDE the so-called traditional/historical homeland (whose histories and traditions at best remain unsubstantiated).  

Strong supporters of federalism are now swearing that this is not the right time to have a referendum.  It will be defeated, they claim, because ‘wounds are still new’.  They advocate a brainwashing of Sinhalese before putting the question to them.  That’s ‘democracy’ in their book.  In other words Anura K and the JVP need not worry, going by what the devolution racketeers are worried about right now.  Any ‘yes’ vote for such measures in Parliament would seal the political fate of the aye-sayers and perhaps even their parties, at least in the short term.  The President, at the right time, could pull out SLFP support.  That’s ‘goodbye’ to the two-thirds needed to get it passed in Parliament.  The UNP could tell Tamils that they did their best but the SLFP wrecked it and thus seek to retain the minority vote.  The SLFP will say that the UNP was trying to whack the Sinhalese.  A general election would see the UNP losing much ground among the Sinhalese.  Needless to say parties such as the TNA will tell Tamil youth that the Sinhalese will never yield anything.

This is what happens when you put the horse before the cart.  Reconciliation is scuttled.  The necessary starting point of the exercise has been missed.  Failure gets scripted, even if that’s not intended.  Sooner or later, after much pain, suffering and even bloodshed, we have to return to the beginning, the historical audit and the sober assessment of grievances and the equally sober consideration of aspirations.  

If the ‘beginning’ is to be painted in colours that are acceptable to Tamils, then the Vadukoddai Resolution is an excellent document to have on the table.  The claims therein could be evaluated with those affirming and negating bringing substance and not rhetoric to the table.  Anura K can find his voice, even.  

All of the above, we must not forget, has the danger of scuttling important deocraticising measures which may have been included in the draft.  The mishandling of Tamil chauvinism by the constitution drafting pundits can therefore wreck that other, more important project that is such an important part of Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto.  We saw a similarly surreptitious move by the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in the year 2000.  Proposing the kind of ‘resolution’ that her political successors in this Government are currently pushing effectively resulted in keeping intact the executive presidency.  

These are the issues that the JVP could take up, if indeed they want to remain politically relevant into the foreseeable future.  As of now they are party to the insidious attempts by a few to cheat the people, the Sinhalese in the proposal itself and the Tamils through the most likely outcome.

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