All in a long week: From Oprah’s One Shot to Weerawansa’s Backstabbing
by Rajan Philips
A lot more can be added to the title as stories making news last week in Sri Lanka and around the world. The 2021 International Women’s Day (IWD) arrived on Monday, March 8. Even as Monday was dawning in much of the eastern hemisphere, Oprah Winfrey was upstaging The Crown while it was still Sunday evening in west coast Los Angeles. Netflix, the streaming giant and the producer so far of four seasons of the popular royal series – The Crown, could not have imagined what Ms. Winfrey pulled out of her “carrier bag” as a real-life story starring a real-life and eloquent prince (Harry) and his biracial and TV-genic American wife, Megan Markle. Their dramatic recounting of the intersections of race, gender, royalty, and the English tabloids presaged the 2021 Women’s Day.
Hours later, female farmers from Punjab and Haryana stormed the ramparts of Delhi, continuing the months-long farmers’ siege on the Modi government and its agricultural laws. Black Sunday protests had already started in Sri Lanka over government’s pussyfooting around the 2019 Easter Sunday tragedies and the masterminds behind them. Later in the week Sri Lanka’s heavy-footed parliament began debating the Presidential Commission report on Easter Sunday, with the SJB and the TNA supporting Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s call for international investigation of Easter Sunday bombings.
On Tuesday, March 9, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a non-governmental organization in Washington, released a report prepared by 50 global experts in international law, genocide, and the China region, which claims that the Chinese government “bears state responsibility for an ongoing genocide against the Uyghur in breach of the (UN) Genocide Convention.” It is apparently the first time a non-governmental organization has undertaken an independent legal analysis of China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has pre-emptively dismissed the report and said that allegations of a genocide in Xinjiang “couldn’t be more preposterous.” However, the matter was raised by President Joe Biden at his virtual summit meeting, on Friday, March 12, with the other three leaders of the four Quad countries: Prime Ministers Narendra Modi (India), Scott Morrison (Australia), and Yoshihide Suga (Japan). It will also be raised by Secretary of State Antony Blinken with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in their bilateral meeting a week later.
Thursday, March 11, was the first anniversary of Covid-19 being declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. It has been quite a year for everyone born during the last 100 years after the Spanish flu had come and gone. The global toll of Covid-19 is astounding: nearly 120 million infections and close to three million deaths. The impact on women has been patriarchally disproportionate. The global vaccine rollout is anything but proportionate. The UN theme for the 2021 Women’s Day could not have been more fitting: “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.”
To mark the occasion, if not the theme, the world media carried the picture of Sister Ann Rose falling to her knees pleading with Myanmar soldiers to shoot her and spare the children. The military junta is struggling to contain the escalating civilian protests against the suspension of democracy in Myanmar, even as the UN Security Council is running out of non-veto votes to roll back the junta’s auto-coup to shut down parliament and keep itself in power.
The Pope and the Cardinal
The start of the crowded week also saw Pope Francis making his first international trip after Covid-19. Following his October encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” the Pope visited Iraq over four days travelling from modern Baghdad, to historic places in the old Mesopotamia, among the cradles of human civilization: the ancient City of Ur where Abraham was born, Mosul on the west bank of Tigris, and Ninevah Plain on the east bank with its Christian towns. There have been mixed reactions to the Papal visit during the pandemic. But as Moises Saman told the National Geographer, Pope Francis brought a “spark of hope and validation” to a “country and its people … deeply scarred by conflict. … it felt like a turning point, for people of all faiths, to have a person of his stature come to Iraq—despite the pandemic, despite security concerns, despite all these obstacles.” The Pope met with the 90 year old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf and called for an end to violence and extremism and for unity among the Muslims and the dwindling number of Christians in Iraq.
In Sri Lanka, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith invoked the Pope’s visit to Iraq and called it as an inspiration for unity and peace among peoples of all religions in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. To his credit, the Cardinal is calling for justice without alienating the Muslims. His disenchantment is with the government for its half-hearted approach to act on the recommendations of the Presidential Commission. The approach is also censorial as the Attorney General is denied access to the full report apparently for security reasons. We learn from news reports that the Attorney General has met with the Cardinal, but we have not seen any report about his meetings with the Minister of Justice or any Minister of consequence.
But the Cardinal might be the government’s lesser worry now, with National Freedom Front (NFF) leader and Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa stirring the pot again by alleging that there are “clandestine links between a section of the government and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen, allegedly involved with those responsible for 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.” This is the lead story in The Island on Friday (March 12), which goes on to say that SLPP parliamentarians are “furious” with Mr. Weerawansa’s latest outburst and that they think he has “stabbed the government in the back.”
Reader in Chief
This is a curious departure from the circus of the yahapalanaya government. The chief clown then was also the Head of State, given to periodical outbursts against his Prime Minister in public. Nothing powerful or politically purposeful went on between the two men (Sirisena and Wickremesinghe) in private. Now the carping clowns are everywhere in government, but the Head of State has gone quiet in Colombo. The current President keeps his counsel for sharing only with captive audiences in the villages. He is becoming the nation’s Reader in Chief, touring villages and reading selected passages from a Presidential Commission report. A breather for the President and a benefit to the country from the 20th Amendment. But others in the government might be breathless with anxiety about the upcoming UNHRC vote on Sri Lanka.
All in all, quite a scatterplot of news stories out of national and international political and cultural variables. Everyone of these stories can be dissected and discussed at length. But they also have an instant effect on people watching television or looking at their mobiles. Oprah Winfrey’s interview made a big splash in the US with 17 million viewers, mostly favourable to the prematurely retired Prince and his feminist wife. In the UK, the reaction has been different but greatly divided along generational lines.
Everyone is respectful to the Queen, whose stature has been enhanced by Netflix’s series, The Crown. Even Oprah Winfrey’s ‘One Shot’ was all adulatory about the Queen. In one of the episodes of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth visits her uncle Edward III in Paris ten days before his death in 1972. The uncle who abdicated the throne for his American wife, praises the Queen, whom he had once called Shirley Temple, for her success as a monarch. “The Crown, he says, “always has a way of finding the head for it.” It is Her Majesty who has been finding it hard to find a successor. The latest real life episode in Los Angeles might make the succession in London all the more challenging. And it is a different challenge for the people as they have to periodically renew their elected leaders even in the UK.
Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?
By Maduranga Kalugampitiya
The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!
While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.
What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.
Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.
Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.
Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.
In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.
If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.
In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.
(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Selective targeting not law’s purpose
By Jehan Perera
The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.
Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.
But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.
The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.
Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.
In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.
The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”
Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.
The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.
Girl power… to light up our scene
We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!
The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.
Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.
It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.
Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).
Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).
Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.
They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).
Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.
The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.
Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.
She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.
“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”
With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.
“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.
Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!
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