Eight years hence

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.

Shakespeare

There are seventy-one mentions of ‘Army’ in the four hundred and ninety-one-page final report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF), released earlier this year. One paragraph is worth flagging in full.

“The Army representatives also stated that although they had achieved the Government’s objective under its political direction and in difficult and challenging circumstances, they felt a lack of solidarity and support at present. They stated their support for a truth-seeking process and if there is any evidence of criminal activity, for the prosecution of the guilty. Given that as far as they were concerned, no criminal activity had been undertaken, they saw no need for amnesty either. Whilst they insisted that civilians were not deliberately targeted and that a policy of zero-civilian casualties was followed, they conceded the possibility of civilian deaths on account of civilians being caught in the crossfire. They also denied that sexual violence was used as a weapon of war. The Air Force reiterated that no crimes were committed and no illegal weapons used.”

Reading the full report, there is a revealing divide between the responses of the armed forces and the thousands of others whose testimony is reflected in it. The military is concerned with the end of the war, and the circumstances that led to its violent denouement. Testimonies by citizens who appeared in front of the CTF, as noted in the final report, are almost completely around the involvement of the army in violence that ranges from extra-judicial killings and abductions to the destruction of homes, fertile land and acts that subject hapless citizens to incredible indignity, intimidation and indifference. Much of this testimony covers a period of time after the end of the war. There is a clear ethnic divide both in how the army is perceived, with the most disturbing testimony coming from Tamils. Reading the report around testimony given by Sinhalese who had suffered the violence of ’71 and ’89, it is clear that lines of empathy are drawn. Those who have suffered violence in the South, recognise how much worse it would have been in the North.

And yet, the report itself and the testimony in it, is already forgotten. The very Prime Minister who commissioned the report has distanced himself from it. Tamil and Sinhala translations of the full report, promised in January, were never released by the government. Public awareness of the report, through mainstream media, was overwhelmingly limited to the role of foreign judges in justice mechanisms, and more precisely, the intemperate pushback against this. The perceptions of the army, based on individual testimonies of violence, remain hidden, even as they are recorded in what some have called one of the most comprehensive processes of public consultation on transitional justice ever to be conducted post-war.

Last week, the State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said that no one would be allowed to discredit the security forces, who had fearlessly safeguarded this country. The Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva used the collapse of a building in Colombo to lavishly praise the army. The army both men venerate, and go to great lengths to protect, is unrecognisable from the army reflected in the CTF report’s testimonies. And therein lies the rub. The south, even eight years after the end of the war, aren’t aware of the degree to which the army has eviscerated trust in the North, not just by what is alleged during the end of the war, but in how it has acted with impunity after the 19th of May 2009, as an instrument of systemic racism, the suppression of dissent and violent land grabs, the scale of which isn’t still evident in the South. An entity portrayed as and largely revered in the south as saviours of the nation are agents of gross violence in the north. The disconnect could not be starker.

In fact, those who know it most acutely could well be the army itself. Their website is replete with press releases around how the army is involved in activities it thinks wins the hearts and minds of those in the north. I have no doubt many soldiers who engage in this work, do it with the genuine belief they are contributing to positive change. I also have no doubt that not all of these activities, no matter how insensitive they seem to outsiders, are undertaken with malevolent intent by the army. They do aim to do good. In the interactions with Police, Navy, Army and Airforce personnel as part of a diploma course in peace and conflict studies I taught at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies around 2005/2006, not a single one said they enjoyed war, killing or making enemies of the Tamil people. Everyone in class, over repeated batches, claimed they were the ones in the frontlines who had the bear the brunt of promises made by politicians in Colombo. The recognition that the army can be a meaningful participant in reconciliation is anchored to those in its rank and file who followed orders they didn’t agree with, and want now to make amends for a violence they were instrumental in meting out.

But this is also the limit of the ‘rotten apples’ theory – the belief that the worst atrocities were committed by a select few. Fearful of electoral pushback or worse, assassination, no government for the foreseeable future will take meaningful measures around accountability. It simply will not happen. The fiction of the army as saviour and hero will continue, in media, textbooks, public life and discourse, memorialisation, policy and politics. The disconnect will grow in the north. The question is what this gives rise to in the years to come. The CTF’s final report suggests that those asking simply for closure, if not given what they deserve, will invariably seed a violence born out of not out unwarranted hate, vindictiveness or unjust cause, but a hopelessness, grief, trauma and fear, the very validity of which continues to be questioned. Eight years after the end of the war, it bears repeating that so much of what gave rise to violence in the first place remain topics no one really wants to talk about openly.

The fate of the CTF report is indicative of how resistant government is to holding the army in particular accountable, or even remotely associated with a behaviour, over decades, that clearly suggests it is above the law. The end continues to justify the means. Chief architects of a violence that matched the ferocity of the LTTE continue to be rewarded and protected, even as the Foreign Minister decries in parliament the previous regime and its efforts to protect those accused of war crimes through diplomatic immunity. The more vehement the opposition to accountability, the more destined we are to repeat history. I believe elements within the military’s rank and file know this better than most, despite their public positions. Reconciliation’s future in Sri Lanka in inextricably entwined with how and to what degree the army is involved. One risks disappointment to hope that wiser counsel will prevail over expedient gain, self-interest, and ultimately, a cancerous guilt.

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Published first in The Sunday Island, 21 May 2017.

On India

Everyone has a story about India, even those who haven’t travelled to or within the country. Often, especially in the West, the most common references to India are anchored to accent, religion, sport, cinema or food. It is not surprising to discover the country first through travelogue, film, literature or devouring the ubiquitous British invention, chicken tikka masala, now served in India as well. As Prime Minister Modi visits Sri Lanka for Vesak, I recalled my own encounters with his country.

My first flight to India was also my first ever flight. We landed in the sweltering heat of Summer in New Delhi, with several other families all flying in to admit their children to University. On the way to our temporary lodgings that evening, the steering wheel of the van we were in, though mercifully close to our destination, came off in the hands of the driver. Seated in front, I recall vividly how this stark fact escaped the driver for a few seconds that lasted an eternity, as he, half-asleep, continued to turn a wheel that wasn’t connected to anything. Jolting awake at the realisation of the disconnect between his function and what was now an autonomous vehicle, several thrusts to brake pedal managed to eventually create enough friction to turn the van into a ditch, which had the intended effect of halting progress. The violent stop meant that inside the van, those seated and the luggage stacked behind were, upon looking back, almost inextricably entwined. After significant effort to disentangle in what was even in the early hours of the morning an oppressive latent heat emanating from concrete, tar and pavement – we trudged wearily to a friend’s house. In the fortnight thereafter, in heat that shot beyond forty degrees Celsius, I had to learn how to gain admission to the University of Delhi, since what was a madness that had some method to locals was indecipherable to anyone from abroad. This meant finding a College that would admit me first, and then going to the University with a letter of acceptance for admission. All this required endless forms, travel to and from places widely spaced apart in hellish heat, feverish mobs instead of queues, three-wheeler drivers who fleeced anyone who couldn’t understand the language and officials who for whatever reason, never gave out information accurately, in full or an intelligible way.

It was unspeakably horrible, and I hated India and everything about it.

It was only in the months and years to come, alone as an undergrad student and travelling around the country by train, that I came to love the country. Admittedly, that love never extended to Delhi as a city. It was, even twenty years ago, insufferable, but for different reasons than one can readily peg today. More than the traffic and pollution, out of control even in the late-nineties, the timbre of the people I met in Delhi was overwhelmingly eviscerating. They were without heart and soul. In well under a year, through sheer necessity and constant, deep immersion, I was fluent in everyday conversational Hindi. This allowed me entry into the personal experiences of rickshaw-wallah’s, often as I shared their food on street-side, street-level, stalls. They were victims and perpetrators, from Bihar and elsewhere. Men on edge. Men who had no love for the city there were in, and less love for where they came from. Men who couldn’t contemplate a future – in a very literal sense – since they were consumed by just getting through every day, a never ending existentialist crisis that made them malleable to any voice, no matter how incredible, that offered them a better future. Delhi was a hard place, and it made you hard. But it was also, perhaps unwittingly, a great teacher. Living in Delhi taught me to cook, wash and clean toilets (of the squatting variety), barter, bargain, fight, run away, cross busy intersections (the trick being to keep walking at a regular pace no matter what, because if you hesitate and stop, you die) and negotiate a bureaucracy designed to enslave those in it, and drive to drink those encountering it.

Not all India was as grating as Delhi, and not all those in in the city were without heart and soul. The close bond with many wonderful Professors at Kirori Mal College continues, and some of my best friends remain those I met in Delhi, including many who were born and schooled in the city. But it was through travel beyond Delhi that I learnt to love the country writ large. The train journeys were never short of epic. From Delhi to Chennai, and then on to Pune and Bangalore for a theatre festival. In my final year, after shipping home all of my books, Delhi to Trichy on the Konkan Express, under the Western Ghatts and skirting the verdant fields of Kerala. The gastronomic variety of station food. The abundance of colour. I was in India before any conceivable social media, smartphones and even broadband, when Yahoo! offered 2Mb in total, and Google, leave aside Gmail, wasn’t even around. I never used a computer in University. There were none around. The only computers I used were in subterranean cybercafés in Kamla Nagar, close to the North Campus of Delhi University or at the British Council library, for which one had to pay every half an hour in order to use. Nirula’s was the only fast food chain around, and the coffee houses were gloriously smoke-infested, noisy, beautifully decaying meeting grounds for the dissection of play, politics or party.

Amidst all this, there were revealing absences and silences too. The North-East of India was erased from public discourse – it was like the region didn’t exist on the conversational and media map of the country. Gender based violence, from mutilation and rape to systemic discrimination and even murder, was already high, but not really discussed as undergrads. We walked past corpses on road on the way to exams, dead because of either the cold or heat. The sheer abundance of humanity had resulted in a strange devaluation of life. Garlanded cows seemed to have a better deal than most at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. The so-called Kargil War was fought in my second year of College, and the realisation that two nuclear warhead wielding States were in open conflict was chilling. It was also then that I learnt that India’s first successful nuclear bomb test was codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’ – an irony that escaped many I brought this up with.
The contradictions continue. I took my first train journey in India last week – from Chennai to Bangalore, and then on to Mysore – in over seventeen years. Much has obviously changed. Much remains the same. Sadly, a lot has grown worse. The India seen by train in urban areas is one big cesspool of excrement, rotting garbage and squalor. Inside the train, the Incredible India! campaign looks like a cruel joke, representing a country a world apart from what’s just outside the window. A grotesque materialism has gripped many parts of the country, and the politics are more violent and divisive than ever.

The India I love, however, it still there. The indescribable beauty of Mysore stretching to horizon, seen from Chamundi Hill, around sunset. The miracle of modern transportation that is the Delhi metro. The boutique beers of Bangalore, along with the sheer variety of food and venues to eat in that city alone. Path-breaking wireless cash services like PayTM, even as the violence of demonetisation impacts far more than those who make the news. An arts, theatre and cultural landscape, in most cities, that is greater and richer in depth, scope, imagination and curatorial prowess than anything Sri Lanka has hosted. Fast and reliable Google Wi-Fi in railway stations, even as basic access to platforms for the disabled remain absent. Progress cheek in jowl with so much left to be done, or deliberately left undone.

The late High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in Delhi, Mangala Moonesinghe and his wife Gnana, gracious hosts of the student community at the time, never failed to encourage us to travel within India and critically imbibe tradition, myth and even at the time, aspects of an embryonic modernity. Sadly, few in the student community listened. But those who did found a country that defies then, as it does today, easy capture. India is Kali, irrepressible and through sheer force of time, devouring those who suspect the country’s resilience and innovation despite the worst austerity and politics. India then is an idea, continuing a tryst with destiny and embracing all of us that neighbour it, willingly or not, in its wake. And even as we must continue to stamp our unique identity in South Asia, Sri Lanka forgets or seeks to somehow devalue India, as country, idea, continent, market, friend or adversary, to its own peril.

You can love or hate the country. But you just cannot ignore India.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 14 May 2017.

May Day mayday

It was truly a Kafkaesque experience. I have for nearly twenty years gone to Sleek Salon on Vajira Road. On the Friday before May Day, as I was getting a haircut, a fellow customer received two calls and made one. There was no attempt whatsoever to leave the men’s salon to take the calls, or to conduct the conversations in a hushed tone. The first call was a negotiation over extra buses to cart people to a rally on May Day. The political party making the request wasn’t clear. Evident, just by listening to the responses, was that a significant premium on offer if the buses were supplied. The caller was told, apologetically, there were no more buses available, at whatever price. The second call had the recipient repeatedly state his official designation and where he was, which to the caller was at an important meeting. The import of this blatant falsehood was only evident in the third call, which he made to his legal counsel. On this call, all of us in the room were privy to the news that an open warrant had been issued for his arrest, and that the Police were in his office awaiting his return. According to what he informed his lawyer, it was around the non-payment of a large bill for which he apparently bore no responsibility.

An official clearly holding an important government position, with impunity, loudly speaking in public as a broker for public transport used for partisan purposes, apparently wanted by the Police over financial anomalies, calls a lawyer to keep him from going to prison, all the while calmly seated getting a haircut, and at one point asking the barber to jot down the mobile number of the Police constable waiting to arrest him. Save for furtive glances reflected through mirrors and cocked eyebrows, the rest of us in the room didn’t know how to react.

The whole episode was a snapshot of Sri Lanka today – where the positively bizarre exists cheek in jowl with the ordinary, and where the lack of shame over serious allegations or even the threat of arrest is the norm for those with clear political clout or are proxies to power. As it would have to others present in the room, it reminded me of what things were like under the Rajapaksa regime and what Asanga Welikala, an academic and friend, calls the ‘normalisation of the exception’, a disturbing socio-political condition where what is ethically suspect or essentially wrong and violent in form, substance, spirit or implementation, nevertheless garners popular support over time by appearing to be the usual way of going about business, or conducting governance.

And this is how we went into May Day.

Most May Day rallies now resemble rock concerts. Guest appearances, soundbites, music, song and dance before and after the main stage appearance of some pretentious individual – beyond the reach of even those attending – livestreamed, plastered across social media and this year, captured through drones as well. A leading journalist vented, not incorrectly, that May Day is more about the genuflection towards select individuals heading political parties than anything remotely related to highlighting the rights and struggles of workers. Not that the crowds seem to care – out of coercion, curiosity or some coordination – they come in droves, sometimes, as was the case on Galle Face this year, even to die. It is unclear whether they listen to what is said on the main stage, or care enough to. Those on the main stage clearly don’t care about anything they say they do – if they did, at the very least and on May Day, they too would come in buses and trains, not luxury SUVs. The fiction around rally, congregation, stage, speech, intoxication and subsequent dispersion is a well-known, rehearsed script.

But beyond public theatre, May Day is also anchored to the projection of power and the perception of popularity. This completely pointless contest between political parties is nevertheless an inescapable, annual litmus test, outside uncertain timelines of elections. All leading politicians and political parties plan for May Day as a show of strength. And this year, the Joint Opposition’s rally at Galle Face green put the others to shame. Judge the success of it not by what the JO says, but the degree to which those in government, and in power, go to downplay it.

On social media, one young card-carrying UNP supporter tried to suggest that the area in front of the main stage had only ten thousand seats. Even a cursory glance at any photo suggests a density, in that area alone, of at least three to four times more. Other attempts appeared to be more scientific, but were in fact anything but – blocking out grids in the crowd and suggesting each grid had one hundred people, a patently absurd under-estimation.

Lest we forget, the power of optics is more than just the number of people who attend a rally. It is about how the rally is covered and from what angles. Here too, the JO was ahead through better, more strategic planning. From the time the crowd was coming into Galle Face green, with video footage put on social media by Namal Rajapaksa, and taken from what appears to be the rooftop of the Taj Samudra hotel, to the perspectives afforded by drones, the live coverage as well as carefully selected photos released to the public gave a sense of scale. In comparison, what is to date publicly available on the social media accounts of the President and Prime Minister focus on a few individuals, and less on the (smaller) crowds that came to their rallies. And even here, as any novice photographer worth her salt will attest, angles matter. There is simply no spatial awareness in the government’s official output, no sense of scale, perspective, a framing that conveys numbers or the use of vantage points to communicate the length of a procession, or the breadth of a crowd.

If May Day is essentially a contest fought around the projection of popular support through media, as much as if not more than actual feet on the ground, the JO came out on top. And this is a vicious cycle. How crowds are enticed to participate is well-known – few ever come out of their own desire. And yet, this is beside the point. The photos of the JO rally carry a currency the government cannot easily or effectively match, which when coupled with debilitating strikes in the near future, strengthens a perception that the government is haemorrhaging the popular vote. The JO only has to show this in order to sow uncertainty, fear and doubt in the minds of citizens, business, investors and diplomats. The government as a basic minimum response has to demonstrate how much of the popular vote it retains, a task that is increasingly difficult.

I end where I began. For far too many, May Day’s theatrics aside, governance as a feeling and something that is experienced is disturbingly familiar today to what so many thought was voted out in January 2015. Intellectually, the analysis may with sound reasoning argue that things are indeed very different. But the heart wins over the mind. If like at Sleek Salon, hapless citizens are only ever entreated to impunity, the abuse of power and a corrupt political culture, it is likely they become either apathetic, angry or both – anathema to a government in power, that hopes to retain it. It is unclear the political leadership we have today cares enough for course correction.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 7 May 2016.

Masking yahapalanaya

Two recent developments, in as many ways, serve as indicators of yahapalanaya’s terminal decline from hope and confidence to insecurity and despair.

The first is the response to and media coverage of the Prime Minister’s visit to the Meethotamulla disaster area. A grammatically convoluted press release by the PM’s office, printed verbatim in the State run English press, suggested the PM would cut short an official trip to Vietnam because of the gravity of the disaster. He was due back in Sri Lanka on a Wednesday. And yet, he only returned to Sri Lanka late Tuesday night. The tepid interest in political leadership aside, on the morning after, in photo after photo, the most obvious and indeed, obnoxious point about the PM’s visit to the disaster area was the face mask he sported. There were two in fact, of different colour and type. One made him look like, as was pointed out on social media, remarkably akin to a villain from one of the recent Batman movies. The other, a lost surgeon. No one else in his entourage wore a mask. The hapless victims of the disaster who were seen with him, living with the putrid stench of the garbage dump for years, destitute after losing family, loved ones and homes, didn’t sport any masks either. It was a public relations debacle. Suggestions that the PM was suffering from poor health on the day of the visit – which may well have been true – came later, and that too, without any concerted official confirmation or communication. This tone deafness around public relations is in fact a defining characteristic of Mr. Wickremesinghe. Somehow packaged in one person is one of the brightest minds and sharpest intellects by far currently in Parliament, and also a monumental PR disaster, almost biologically missing a gene that makes in large part successful politicians what they are – media, people and voter friendly. This isn’t new, to those who have known and worked with him. And therein lies the rub. When Mr. Wickremesinghe is the best chance we have around desperately needed constitutional, political and institutional reform, the central challenge, which also isn’t new, is how to stop him from being his own worst enemy. Progress on this front is shambolic.

The second development comes in the form of a pronouncement by Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne last week, as reported in the media, that President Sirisena requested Minister and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to quit his ministerial portfolio and take up the post of army commander or overall commander for two years to discipline the country. The BBC’s video footage of the cabinet press briefing in Sinhala makes for – and I am genuinely at a loss for words here – interesting viewing. Minister Senaratne starts off by noting that public demonstrations today have, to a large degree, political motivations. He is then asked how Field Marshall Fonseka will help instil discipline in Sri Lanka, to which he first responds by saying that Fonseka is himself a very disciplined individual. He then says Fonseka will expedite all pending investigations that have been dragging on. When pointed out that Fonseka isn’t the Police, Senaratne’s response is that he would be overall Commander, thus suggesting he would possibly outrank the IGP. When asked at the press briefing what Fonseka’s response was to the President’s offer, Senaratne says that if it was in line with clearly outlined responsibilities, he was partial to it. When flagged that citizens and trade unions had a right to protest, Senaratne notes the issue is with their political motivations, by which he means that public agitation supported by the JO is what is really the cause of concern. He also notes that this kind of agitation wasn’t possible under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, hinting at a future where Fonseka may employ similar fear tactics, which later on the press conference, he goes on to deny. He notes that Fonseka will handle protests ‘beautifully’.

The session quickly descends into farce. When asked why a man who headed the Army at a time when its rank and file were engaged in serious, sustained human rights abuses including violence against the media, Senaratne’s response is that Fonseka is actually the person who testified as to how this violence was architected. When asked why Fonseka couldn’t control his own Army, Senaratne responds by saying he doesn’t expect him to, since Senaratne can’t even control everyone in his own Ministry! The Damoclean sword, aimed at the JO but alarming everyone else, is the threat that the President has invited Fonseka to take an overtly more authoritarian, militaristic approach to governance and in particular, crisis response. This is all very familiar.

Shortly after the news of Senaratne’s incendiary statements were made public, the BBC also followed up with Fonseka. Characteristic confusion ensued. Fonseka denied Senaratne’s comments around the offer of taking over the Army, and said that all he had been invited to consider leading was a new crisis response mechanism in response to the disruption by elements only interested in destabilising government. If his response is taken at face value, this indicates a strong, strategic JO united in purpose, and a weak, fearful yet furious and perhaps isolated President unable to come up with any viable alternative to what any party in opposition will do – attempt to regain power. Two things are distinctly clear. The JO will in the weeks and months ahead, with varying degrees of open association, architect public strikes, protests and rallies that will hit all the major sectors of service delivery and government. They will hit traffic choke points, medicine, logistics, fuel, power, communications, tourism. The government, which no doubt knows of these plans to a far greater degree than ordinary citizens, seemingly finds itself at a loss to respond democratically. It may secretly wish for a Gotabaya Rajapaksa type solution, where baton, bullet and brutes are the chief emissaries greeting protestors.

Enter the Fonseka.

On the very same day, Minister Senaratne delivered the keynote address at the ‘Thanthai Chelva’ memorial event, commemorating S.J.V. Chelvanayagam. Going through the live tweeting by the TNA was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Minister Senaratne spoke passionately in favour of federalism and Tamil rights. Lest we forget, this is coming from a government that pushed through crucial and deeply controversial counter-terrorism legislation, the implementation which may well place at much greater risk of torture and abuse the very Tamils Minister Senaratne says he is partial to, without any public consultation or scrutiny, just to regain the GSP + preferential trade agreement.

The circus has clearly come to town. The argument made, not without merit, is that the worst of this government is better than the best of the last regime, around at least, the timbre of democratic governance. Where this argument holds little to no currency is around people who do not feel or perceive tangible existential relief and material gain under yahapalanaya. We have a PM who is grossly insensitive. We have a President, out of fear, fury or foolishness, relying on militaristic solutions to what are political challenges. We have a government without a single-voice, claiming to be for minority rights and democratic governance, yet doing everything it possibly can to undermine both. What government suggests in the morning, quite literally, is not what it claims in the evening. Perhaps all this is justified through the lens of long-term stability. A Thatcherite approach to strikes, and armed with GSP+, an economy more stable than before could contribute to a reduction in the disruption of public and political life, charting an easier path to a Yes vote for reform at the constitutional referendum. And yet, this isn’t the yahapalanaya that was promised. The JO’s success may be less around how it manages the strikes ahead, and more around how it forces government to negotiate on the political turf it circumscribes. It is increasingly clear that the JO, both umbilically linked to and independent of the Rajapaksas, enjoys strategic foresight, an enduring power and popular appeal the government is at wits end to counter, contain or control. One thing in clear. A PM sporting masks and a President with infantile aspirations to greatness by courting the military and its tactics doom us to a future that is far removed from, indeed diametrically opposed to the timbre of government, and promise of governance on the 8th of January 2015.

As the of quoted French adage goes that holds true in Sri Lanka, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A truth more violent than fiction

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I devoted most of my Avurudu break to reading, trying to – and succeeding mostly – to finish a book a day. Two of the most compelling were Shankari Chandran’s ‘Song of the Sun God’ and Anuk Arudpragasam’s ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’. Books like this must come with a warning, and I mean this in half-jest. Shankari’s novel is about the best I’ve read on Sri Lanka, and one of the best I’ve ever read. I am unashamedly biased. The book is essentially about home – Sri Lanka – even as it spans generations and three continents. ontom the thinly veiled references to known places, institutions and people to the more familiar brutality of war and its aftermath, the writing is riveting, unnerving even. Shankari gets under your skin. Not unlike Anuk’s stunning debut, which had me in tears as I read through it in a single sitting, Shankari’s prose is compelling, full of nuance and resonant, in ways a foreign reader will certainly grasp, but a local reader will more fully own and immediately associate with self, family, friends and lived experience. The beautiful tapestry holds, and only ever thinly masks, great violence – not just in what she writes, but in the memories of what the book’s events and characters evoke around what some of us had to confront during the last stages of the war. It is however a deep humanism – of love despite the worst austerity, of resilience in the face of unimaginable violence, of hope in spite of awful loss, of a yearning to return home, despite the worst of what it has done – that at the end of the book, amongst a myriad of other emotions, one is left with. It is the same with Anuk’s book, where the story of a brief marriage, as the title goes, is a vehicle to traverse terrains of violence most have already forgotten, and for different reasons, want kept that way. It is the tenderness amidst unspeakable horror, the attention to detail and palliative care when there is no logical reason to be meticulous or patient, kindness, when there is none of it around, that pervades the difficult pages of this book.

Reading both, I was reminded of magic realism’s flourish in Colombia, at the time Pablo Escobar was on murderous sprees and not unlike our own bheeshana yugaya, the streets ran with blood. The literature that this violence spawns, while anchored to it, also seeks escape – critiquing the politics of violence, blurring the fantastic and real, located in reality yet introducing mysterious events that often kill, hurt, harm or seriously impact characters with no warning, and little reason, not unlike life itself.

The fiction I read provided a frame of reference to engage with news around UN peacekeepers in Haiti that the disaster in Meethotamulla, over the Avurudu weekend, almost conveniently provided cover for. The story, first reported by AP, isn’t the first around nauseating allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Sri Lankan military serving under the UN as peacekeepers. It is however the most detailed account we have so far. AP’s investigations reveal that Sri Lankan peacekeepers wanted sex from girls and boys as young as 12. A girl who says did not even have breasts at the time, for three years, from when she was twelve to fifteen, had sex with nearly fifty peacekeepers, including a “Commandant” who gave her seventy-five cents. At least one hundred and thirty-four Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007, according to an internal U.N. report obtained by the AP. It is worth quoting from the report, as published in the New York Times,

“Victim 2, who was 16 when the U.N. team interviewed her, told them she had sex with a Sri Lankan commander at least three times, describing him as overweight with a moustache and a gold ring on his middle finger. She said he often showed her a picture of his wife. The peacekeepers also taught her some Sinhalese so she could understand and express sexual innuendo; the children even talked to one another in Sinhalese when U.N. investigators were interviewing them.”

I could go on, but the full report is online and a Google search away. The details are horrific. The sheer violence of it all is by order of magnitude more than anything Arudpragasam and Chandran can conjure up with their most sublime fiction. You would think that this would merit serious coverage in the news media, and comprehensive investigations by the Sri Lankan military. Neither is true.

Speaking to BBC’s Sinhala website, the military itself openly admits that no peacekeeper has been charged under the law or brought to courts on account of the allegations. The Army notes that ‘disciplinary’ action has been taken against a Commander and eight others. The nature of this action is indeterminable. The media, including the BBC, didn’t probe more into what actions the military took – their word is simply taken at face value, normalising the most heinous violence through the ‘rotten eggs’ theory, which is paraded whenever questions of accountability are raised. According to this line of argument, the actions of a few do not colour the service and avowed professionalism of the Army writ large, and whenever identified, the personnel in question responsible for infractions, we are told, have been dealt with. No more details are available. The local mainstream media has successfully managed to ignore and downplay the entire story, revealing even post-war, what is a pervasive, deeply ingrained mentality, out of fear or just misguided patriotism, that holds the military above any law, scrutiny and accountability.

Our heroes, are our gods – they play us, for their sport.

Wilde was right, life imitates art. Both Arudpragasam and Chandran paint, in different yet equally compelling prose, a wonderfully evocative, horribly effective pastiche of Sri Lanka’s violent history, that I daresay we are cursed to rinse and repeat. But political will’s absence around accountability isn’t fiction’s burden to generate. Both books unflinchingly look at violence with an honesty, humility and humanity that escapes polity and society in Sri Lanka. We remain scared of what, and who, we cannot name. Fiction breaks these boundaries, with scant regard for a culture of politics that enables, nay celebrates, complicity, secrecy and violence. While transitional justice mechanisms remain elusive, fiction such as this may hold the key to not forgetting the circumstances that led to, and arose out of, war. They may also be the only vehicles through which, even just through literary criticism, we embrace the totality of war in a context where even the most heinous of allegations against the Sri Lankan military, very far removed from the theatre of war in Sri Lanka itself, just aren’t important enough to merit attention.

Demonisation, though, is easy. Here too, Chandran and Arudpragasam in their fiction offer a vital lesson. War’s victims and perpetrators are not easily distinguished. Not discounting agency and command responsibility, those who mete out the worst violence, are often those conditioned by duty, fear, habit or trauma. The violence outside Sri Lanka by those involved in the war, is also a direct consequence of the violence they faced and were co-architects of. Their burden, for life, is to harbour what they did, saw and defended, and it is human nature that the sheer trauma of extended exposure to violence manifests itself in ways that replicate violence. ‘Song of a Sun God’ and ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’ show us, without overtly intending to, that the accounting for the past needs to be done with an understanding that even leading agents of violence are, fundamentally, human – as flawed as the rest of us, as normal as the rest of us. The ultimate tragedy of disavowing accountability is not just for the victims who have no closure, but in the perpetuation of violence, by those who were once at the frontlines. Justice is not just about incarceration, the gallows or electric chairs. It is about healing, by first acknowledging that barbarity happened – that it was real, planned and directed.

Put simply, if we continue to countenance the rape and sexual abuse of children, we are complicit in a violence that shames us all. The realities of Haiti and Nandikadal are inextricably entwined with the complex landscapes of Chandran and Arudpragasam’s writing.  Though fiction can be forgotten, facts endure.

We forget this at our peril.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 23 April 2017.

Asking why

As a visiting lecturer at the Department of English, University of Colombo, I have taught a Masters course called ‘Digital Discourses’ since 2014, which is essentially on how people communicate online, over social media and using their smartphones. The course has proven to be very popular, and each year, I am told, over one hundred apply, out of which only a handful are selected. I have lectured as part of a post-graduate diploma course at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, and at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, I taught for some years several modules as part of a course for mid-career professional journalists. I was for some years part of the visiting Faculty at the University of Lugano, in Switzerland and have also lectured at ETH, in Zurich. A fundamental difference between all the classes, across the years, I’ve taught in Sri Lanka and the students I have interacted with abroad isn’t linked to location, syllabi, age, background or gender.

It is to do with their ability to ask a question.

It seems the simplest thing to ask for, and a no-brainer for any student to respond to. And yet, batch after batch, I have stood at the head of class in Sri Lanka in pin drop silence after I’ve asked the students to shut their notebooks, put down their pens, and ask me a question based on whatever I had covered until then in class. The silence has extended to minutes, over which time no one makes eye contact with me, and look at desk, hands or feet, hoping that I give up and go on lecturing. I do not. And so, after a few awkward minutes, a question is asked. It is usually incomprehensible, because the student asking it has never engaged with a style of teaching that gets them to critically engage, reflect, interrupt, argue with reason and question with a ferocious curiosity. From primary on to secondary and then in tertiary education, or when they attend professional development courses, all they are by default able to do is to take down copious notes. No matter what the lecturer says, they will take it down diligently and without question. The lecturer is always assumed to be right, and if there is some suspicion she or he is not, it is never openly brought up.

Abroad, the classes are almost combative in comparison. There is a different level of preparedness, to begin with. Students look to a lecturer to help chart a course for self-exploration around an issue or topic, and less as an all-knowing being there to impart learning to a mute class. It is utterly refreshing to be able to converse, debate and thrash out a point, especially when the class and I differ on interpretation, merit, approach or significance. They learn, but so do I, and the entire system is geared to test not what is memorised and mindlessly copied, but what can be argued with reason, evidence and conviction. Some of my highest marks have been reserved for imaginative approaches to the subjects I have taught that disagree with my own take, yet where robust academic discipline is combined with lateral reading, critical analysis and original thought to produce compelling writing. That level of interaction is a world away from any class I’ve taught in Sri Lanka, over a dozen years.

What must be changed to make sure we can compete in a global marketplace of ideas? I start with my class, and my engagement with students. My first lecture, if it is one of a series, is not just about what I want to talk about, but also encourages students to stop writing and start thinking. I compel them to ask questions. I ask them questions, and push them to answer honestly, and openly. I play off one student’s opinion with another, and ask them to debate. They are often shy at first, and sometimes even angry they can’t just sit in silence and passively take down notes. I encourage the quietest ones to talk, and ask those who soon thrive in an environment they can share their opinions and ideas to help fellow classmates formulate their own thoughts. I often have an eclectic reading list, drawing from best-selling fiction to mainstream and arthouse movies, a range of web content anchored from the serious and sublime to the comedic yet educational. I get the class to install and use relevant apps on their smartphones, draw maps, locate themselves geo-spatially and virtually, ask them to take on new identities through online avatars, and talk with each other using new expressions, and languages that have evolved around the limitations of handheld devices. I ask student to reflect critically on what they do daily over social media, and then use their own content as class material for teaching and deconstruction. I never allow them the luxury of switching off by turning page and expending ink, and by the end of it all, they either love me, or they are very glad to see the last of me.

More than anyone class, my greatest opposition has come from other faculty members in Sri Lanka, especially at one of the institutions noted above, concerned that I set an example they couldn’t and importantly, didn’t want to match. I leave behind all my presentations, and all the content I use in class, in full, with the students. Other lecturers have their notes, and never share them completely with students. Comfortable in the usual, stale pedagogy, I am often a maverick they don’t quite know what to do with.

Which brings me to institutional culture. The Department of English at the University of Colombo is a refreshing departure from what one usually associates with outmoded, outdated approaches to teaching in our tertiary system. I have enjoyed teaching there the most, and also because the Masters course I helped design and now teach is unlike anything else offered by other University’s in the country. Having interacted with a number of media, communications and journalism lecturers and faculty over the years and the obvious fellow mavericks aside, the issue seems to not just be with grossly outdated syllabi, but with Faculty who are sometimes so far removed from and ignorant of contemporary developments in the fields they teach, their students are ahead of them. Coupled with decades old syllabi that hasn’t been sufficiently revised and pedagogy that treats university students as one would toddlers in kindergarten, the dominant institutional culture at tertiary institutions is in fact deeply anti-intellectual, and openly opposed to critical questioning or independent analysis. In what is a perfect storm, the conditions in universities conspire to leave most students with academic qualifications not worth the paper they are printed on.

A radical overhaul is needed, and long overdue. Perhaps a few of us, already embedded in the system, can start a revolution without waiting for the Ministry of Higher Education, University Grants Commission, the Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework, or internal governance mechanisms in University’s to design, approve and implement new approaches and frameworks. The joy of teaching is not in hoarding knowledge, but seeing it grow by giving it freely away. I love when I have to come back and do research around a question a student has asked me, and for which in class I have not had an answer. While we often blame students for being lazy, including intellectually, less openly discussed is the fact that teachers encourage this disengagement with critical thinking, because it means they have to work harder and longer. Given the pay-scales, I can understand the resistance to do anything more than the minimum effort required, but if we don’t change the way students learn what they come to know more about, we are in effect producing biological robots across a range of disciplines – able at best to mimic, regurgitate and repeat, but never creatively respond, imagine, create or iteratively learn.

I believe both the necessary and urgent step to arrest this terminal decline is a relatively easy one. It gets students to ask a simple question.

Why?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 16 April 2017.

The Joint Opposition’s Referendum

Katrathu Kai Mun Alavu; Kallathatu Ulahalvu

‘What you have learnt is a mere handful; What you haven’t learnt is the size of the world’ is a loose translation of what Chola age Tamil poet Avvaiyar wrote. The verdant verse reminds us that what little we know must not blind us to how much more there is to learn. This is a really tough sell when a country is heading into a referendum around a new constitution, and when polling data suggests how little the majority of voters, whose opinion matters the most, actually know about what they will be voting for, or against. The point has been made before, repeatedly. The outcome of a plebiscite is never really about the question(s) asked and more around what voters feel going into the ballot box. The outcome, as with any electoral process really, is more of an emotive response than an intellectual engagement. There are many aspects to this, chief of which is the fact that a population reeling under the cost of living, a catastrophic drought and simply unable to afford a basic basket of food, is not one that can be meaningfully engaged around the nuances of constitutionalising power-sharing, rights, religion or the nature of the executive. If the government is serious about meaningful constitutional reform and a referendum to see it through, it has its work cut out and with no guarantee of success.

Polling data released last week by Social Indicator, the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, provides data driven perspectives into the nature of the multi-faceted challenges that lie ahead. Let us be very clear about this. The polling data re-affirms what many suspected. The whole process of vexed partisan negotiations, constitutional blueprints, drafting and necessary political compromise aside, the grief this government faces over an electorate that is unaware of and apathetic towards constitutional reform is almost entirely one of its own making. There is, from the Prime Minister to the UNP writ large, between the PM and the President, and also between the President and the SLFP, a near total breakdown in coherent communication and concrete collaboration, around clear, concise messaging regarding constitutional reform. What has ailed government since January 2015 isn’t going to be fixed in the near future. This is a matter of serious concern, as brought out by the polling.

Fieldwork for the survey was conducted from 14th to 19th March, with 1,992 respondents in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages, across all Provinces. The resulting insight into the public perceptions around constitutional reform are nothing short of damning.  Asked what the overall view of the government’s performance since January 2015, there is a clear disconnect between the Northern and Southern Provinces, and between the Tamil and Sinhala communities. This in fact is a common thread throughout the responses to survey questions, highlighting the inescapable fact that Sri Lanka continues to be sharply divided by geography and ethnic identity, even or especially, post-war. Keeping in mind Sri Lanka’s electoral register and the density of voters in each Province, the nature of the problem is clear. Amongst the Sinhalese, 48.7% think the government’s performance is bad or very bad, compared to 6.2% of Tamils who think the same. Nearly 80% in the Northern Province thought the government’s performance was good. Yet, it’s just shy of 30% in the Southern Province.

The data suggests the almost complete outsourcing of voter education around constitutional reform to the JO, or other spoilers. Over 55% note that the government is very unsuccessful or somewhat unsuccessful in informing people about the constitutional reform process. The same percentage thinks that publicising the content of discussions within the Constitutional Assembly and its sub-committees around constitutional reform is very unsuccessful or somewhat unsuccessful. Revealingly, despite the Public Representations Committee’s islandwide consultations over 2016 (with over 2,500 in-person submissions, 800 over email, 150 through fax and 700 submissions through the post or handed in) the poll flags that 31.4% across the country believe the government has been very unsuccessful in obtaining citizens’ perspectives about what should be included and what should change in the new constitution.

Even if they don’t know about the details and status, the number of those who say they are aware of the current constitutional reform process has increased from October last year. On the face of it, this is a good thing. But when we dig further into the data, as other commentators have also flagged, this awareness seems to spring from negative publicity, misinformation and disinformation around the reform process. For example, nationally, those who think Sri Lanka needs a new constitution has dropped from 33.9% in October last year to 23.5% in March. Those who think the current constitution should endure with some changes has increased from 33.6% in October 2016, to 38.9% last month. The appetite for, and interest in a new constitution, is noticeably diminishing. Likewise, support for the complete abolition of the Executive Presidential system has declined from 35.7% in October, to 30.1% in March.

There is a stark divergence in opinion around the fundamental nature of the state, especially between the Northern and Southern Provinces. Nationally, 53.4% want explicit mention of the unitary state in the new constitution. 57% of those in the Southern Province concur, along with over 73% in both the Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Conversely, just 13.7% in the Northern Province agree. Secularism, and its constitutional expression, is another fault line. Nationally, 70.3% state that Buddhism should be given the foremost place in the new constitution. 85.3% of the Sinhala community, unsurprisingly, concur. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, just 9.4% of the Tamil community are of the same opinion. Federalism, in the public imagination, isn’t very popular. A mere 13.2% nationally want it ingrained in the new constitution. In the Northern Province, support for federalism is just over 63%. In the Southern Province, it’s a paltry 7.2%. An underlying structural inequality coupled with divisions based on geographic loci and ethnic identity endure, creating for government the challenge of addressing what is not a new problem – a deeply divided Sri Lanka.

Given the near complete absence of political will to address these challenges which have been studied, flagged, fleshed out, warned against and yet ignored for decades, the government faces the unenviable task of championing a vital referendum, when most don’t even want it. Nationally, 66.2% think there are more important issues than constitutional reform and transitional justice for the government to address. In Sabaragamuwa, the figure is as high as 96.8%. On the other hand, just 13.8% in the Northern Province agree. Unsurprisingly, those who continue to suffer structural inequality and racism the most, want meaningful reform urgently. But the data reveals a more complex picture – suggesting that the disinterest in constitutional reform and transitional justice stems from economic impoverishment. When asked what issues were more important to respondents, the answers given were all related to cost of living, unemployment and other economic indicators.

Avvaiyar verse holds a vital warning for government. If we arrive at a referendum this year – and there is no guarantee on this score – voters will respond with what they believe at the time the new constitution holds for them. Simpler, emotive messages, by definition the least accurate and oftentimes the most retrogressive, will hold sway over academic, intellectual arguments in support of more progressive, meaningful constitutional reform. In other words, the JO is winning public opinion by producing more content, more volubly and more frequently than the government cares to counter. The data from October and March are not just snapshots of public opinion. They demonstrate key trends. Given the clear indications, availability of data and what is an avowed interest in pushing through constitutional reform, one at least can be assured the government will do what it always has in the past to secure a yes vote.

Absolutely nothing.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 April 2017.