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Baby boom at Vil Uyana on anniversary!

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by Srilal Miththapala

Vil Uyana, the iconic award-winning, luxurious boutique hotel, set amidst purpose built wetlands and thriving natural environment, celebrated its 15th anniversary of operations last week. And what better anniversary gift than to have their resident crocodile ‘Villy’ produce a brood of hatchlings almost to the day, for the first time ever. The mother and 16 babies (up to now) are reportedly doing fine.

The story of Villy the crocodile, and Vil Uyana the hotel, are both most interesting.

The Hotel.

Vil Uyana was the brainchild of Jet Wing Chairman Hiran Cooray, who conceptualised it around the London Wetlands Centre. A barren patch of land in Sigiriya was carefully nurtured and developed into a wetland and thriving eco system of its own. Part of the area was reforested, and another section developed for paddy cultivation, using traditional methods.

Twenty-five individual luxurious chalets were built initially, spread over the property. Over time, a range of fauna were attracted to the salubrious natural environment of the hotel premises.

According to the hotel, after operations commenced, mammal species have increased from 12 to 27, birds from 29 to 151, butterflies from 24 to 51, and amphibians and reptiles from three to 39.

The first northern Grey Slender Loris, an elusive nocturnal primate, was glimpsed in a forest patch at the resort in 2010. Prompt action by Jet Wing’s management saw development plans for the forest patch shelved, and the area comprising rich vegetation was declared as Jet Wing Vil Uyana’s Loris Conservation site. Today it has become world famous for its Loris conservation efforts. (that’s another story of its own ! )

The hotel went on to win several local and international awards, particularly for its design which incorporated the environment. Today it is arguably Sri Lanka’s most well-known luxury nature-boutique hotel.

Villy the crocodile

I first set eyes on Villy around 2007 when I stayed in the hotel with my family. We christened her ‘Villy’ at that time. Since then I have followed her ‘progress’, dropping in to the hotel whenever I was travelling in the area. She was a mugger or marsh crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) and must have been about 3-4 years old at that time, and was about 2.5 feet ( about 3/4 meters) long. We saw her basking in the sun at the further end of the pool, and she was the cynosure of all the resident tourists. (actually none of us were really aware of her sex until last week. So now that we know, I will refer to her as ‘her’ !)

How and when she arrived at the hotel is rather vague, but Ms Sunela Jayawardene, the architect of the hotel, recalls sighting her during the construction time as a very young juvenile. So this indicates that she’s been around the hotel, and made it her home for about 17 years. Assuming that she was around 2 1/2 years when first sighted, I would estimate that she’s about 19-20 years now. In all her 17 + years at the hotel, there has never been any altercation with guests or staff, although she has been sighted quite close, and out in the open, several times.

There is an interesting incident on record when during the early days the Dept. of Wild and Conservation ‘raided’ the hotel on the suspicion that the hotel was keeping a tame crocodile in the premises. Inspection revealed the truth, that the crocodile had taken up residence in the hotel premises on its own accord, and that the hotel had not done anything to encourage it. It was obvious that the environment had become so ‘natural’, that wild animals were being attracted to it.

On a few occasions Villy has gone on a ‘walk about’ and had been missing for a few days from the hotel premises. Usually during periods of drought, crocodiles travel overland in search of water holes. But in the hotel premises there was always adequate water and food ( fish in the water bodies). So Villy has been contented to live in the hotel premises, by and large without causing any problems to anyone, except for such short ‘excursions’ occasionally .

There are records of at least four other crocodiles making periodic visits to the hotel premises during the dry season and making it their temporary home.

And obviously one of these ‘visitors’ must have turned suitor to Villy, culminating in her becoming a mother for the first time.

The Birth.

(most of the following is based on discussions I had with Chaminda Jayasekara, Experiential Manager of the hotel )

Over two months ago Chaminda had noticed some strange behaviour from Villy. She was found digging the soil by the road side just a few meters away from the restaurant. And on one occasion she had very uncharacteristically hissed at him when he was walking along the road.

A few days later he had noticed that she had dug up a small area, and covered it up with soil. So when she was not around, he had carefully removed the top soil and found a clutch of eggs buried there. Thrilled with the discovery, he had quickly replaced the soil over the ‘nest’. Subsequently the hotel staff had noticed Villy spending long periods at the nest, obviously guarding it.

Chaminda told me that he was surprised that she had chosen that particular spot, only about five metres away from the restaurant, right by the side of a road that was often used by guests and staff. We both surmised that maybe she trusted the hotel (her home for almost two decades) and humans, and felt more confident to nest closer to humans.

The hotel had noticed that there were stray dogs and land monitors who were trying to raid the nest. So, a security guard was instructed to check on the nest every hour around the clock ! ( a typical response one would expect from this hotel, which places such a great value on conservation of nature and the environment). The nest area was also cordoned off with a wire netting, leaving access for Villy to enter from the side.

About 70 days later, ( the typical incubation period of crocodiles being about 80 days) Villy had started digging the nest and exposing the eggs. Chaminda and his team could hear the babies making chirping noises inside the eggs, as they started breaking out of their shells. Villy very delicately carried the new born hatchlings in her mouth, to the edge of the bund, closer to the water’s edge.

Some were finding it difficult to break open their shells, and those she gently broke open with her mouth. Chaminda tells me it was amazing to see such a massive animal with such powerful jaws, being so gentle. (a crocodiles can slam its jaws shut with a force of some 3,700 pounds per square inch (psi), or 16,460 newton’s of bite force. By contrast, you might tear into a steak with 150 to 200 psi (890 newton’s). Hyenas, lions, and tigers generate around 1,000 psi (4,450 newton’s).

Interestingly, Chaminda told me that on finding one egg rotten and smelling, Villy had eaten the whole egg immediately. She would eat up all the shells and the remains of the placenta. Perhaps to remove all residual smell which may attract predators.

By late morning all the hatchlings were closer to the bank near the water, basking in the sun, while the ever vigilant mother kept a close eye over them.

As of writing, there are 16 hatchlings alive and well. The team is not sure whether there are any more eggs remaining to hatch.

The challenge would be to now protect the hatchlings from numerous predators. Granted that within the hotel premises such threats would be less than in the wild. In the wild the survival rate is very low. ( around 20%). And I am sure that the Vil Uyana team will zealously safeguard the family.

Chaminda and I discussed what would happen when eventually the hotel will have a large crocodile population to deal with! I guess nature will take its course. Demand on limited resources will put pressure on individuals, who will then move off to find other locations.

Meanwhile, as the hatchlings slowly grow up, I am sure the Jet Wing and Vil Uyana team will have great happiness and a sense of achievement. This is certainly further confirmation that the fruits of their efforts have succeeded in creating a thriving natural oasis of an ecosystem, amidst a star class hotel development.

(Photographs courtesy of Chaminda Jayasekara)



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Decolonising education and critical thinking

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IN BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS (1952), FRANTZ FANON, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination.

By Darshi Thoradeniya

I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.

Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.

As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.

Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.

This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.

History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.

When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.

Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.

The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.

If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.

(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!

Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.

In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.

Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.

It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.

Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!

The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!

Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.

The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.

There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”

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Historic task—a non-racist and human security ideology

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By Jehan Perera

The media has reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to Parliament at this inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago.   The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet, and as many countries which had done so following traumatic events.  President Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.

Indeed, it is unlikely that any other President could have faced the multiple crises the present government has got the country into and remained with its 2/3 majority intact, as it has done so far.  The recent announcement of the SLFP, headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, that it would remain within the government alliance, while criticising it from within, is an indicator of the government’s stability.  This follows the similar declaration by the three leading cabinet ministers from the 11 party alliance of small parties within the government, who have filed cases in the courts against the government.  They too have said they would remain within the government and continue to challenge its decisions that they deem to be incorrect.

There are two key reasons why the government has a measure of stability despite the deteriorating economic situation that is impacting severely on the wellbeing of the majority of people.  The first is the pragmatic calculation of the government leadership that it is better to have its critics within the government than out of it.  It seemed possible that the sacking of Minister Susil Premjayantha for being overly critical of the government would be the start of a purge of internal critics of the government that could cause an unravelling.  But so far it is only Minister Premjayantha, who has had to pay the price for his independence.  This has been explained by the fact that the former minister was a member of the ruling party itself, unlike the other critics who belong to other parties.

SECOND STRENGTH

Due to the multiple perspectives within the government, and which represent the diversity of the government alliance, it has been able to reach out to the widest possible swathe of society.  At the same time, it is able to woo diverse sections of the international community, including the three big international formations that hold the key to the country’s economic progress.  These are China, India and the Western countries. China is continuing to provide economic resources on a large scale along with India.  Both of these big powers seek to improve their position of influence on Sri Lanka and ensure a physical presence in the country which is being granted. Dealing with China has been the easiest, as it only seeks to gain more economic and physical assets within the country to ensure its permanent presence.

Dealing with India and the Western countries is more challenging as they require political concessions as well. In the case of India it is a political solution to the ethnic conflict which involved power-sharing with the minority Tamil community.  In the case of the Western countries it is progress in terms of protecting human rights.  With Sri Lanka being a country of interest to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, this means that its human rights record is scrutinised every three months.  The forthcoming session in late February, which continues through March, will be especially important.  The Sri Lankan government is expected to present a written report on its progress in terms of issues of accountability, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform.  The response of the majority of countries at the UNHRC can have a significant impact as it would influence the European Union’s pending decision on whether or not to suspend its GSP Plus tariff privilege which is a source of support to the Sri Lankan economy.

In this regard, it will be necessary for the government to rein in its champions of ethnic nationalism and national security that give emphasis to the perspective of the ethnic majority community alone.  This is going to be the great challenge as the second strength of the government is its ideology of ethnic majority nationalism and national security which it invokes at frequent intervals, and especially when it faces challenges.  These help to keep the ethnic majority’s loyalty to the government. But they alienate the minorities and also those sections of the international community who are concerned with human rights. The country remains deeply traumatised by three decades of internal war, in which acts of terrorism could strike anywhere, a separate Tamil state led by the LTTE was a short distance away and the centre itself was at risk of being taken over violently by the JVP.  These crises led to extreme measures that have left indelible scars and memories on the people that are easy to reinvoke.

BOTCHED ATTEMPTS

The botched attempt to explode a bomb in All Saints Church in Colombo and the botched police investigation into it have given the impression of a created event that has been questioned by the Catholic Church.  The bomb discovery, in which the Catholic priests did more to uncover evidence than the police, served to divert attention from the 1,000, day commemoration by the church of the 2019 Easter bombings, which killed over 280 persons, set the stage for conflict between Catholics and Muslims and reinforced the need for national security, and racists, to take the centre stage of national politics. On that occasion, as on this, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, played a crucial role in preventing an escalation of the crisis and in calling for the truth behind the bombings to be known. Like the prophets in the biblical tradition, he is increasingly powerful in speaking truth to the rulers, even truths they do not wish to hear.

Events such as the Easter bombing, and now this latest incident, give the impression of security failure that is detrimental to the country’s internal communal harmony and to the international image of the country as a peaceful and secure one for both investment and tourism. Sri Lanka is yet to emerge from the thrall of nationalist politics, and its falsehoods and violence, where political leaders make deliberate and purposeful use of communal differences to win votes and come to power.  They have succeeded time and again in this dastardly practice, but with it the country has failed to reach its full potential time and again.  The costs have been unbearable, whether in terms of lives lost, properties destroyed and economic growth stymied.  Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with the number of its military personnel being five times larger than that of Australia, though the populations of both countries are about the same.  This means economic resources being taken away from development purposes.

The historic task for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government is to make a shift away from a mindset that emphasises the interests of the ethnic majority and national security being the preserve of the security forces to a new mindset that includes the ethnic minority and sees human security and wellbeing as the country’s need. The Sri Lankan state needs to consider all its people as citizens with equal rights, and not as ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities to be treated differently.  And it needs to give priority to human security and wellbeing where gas cylinders do not explode and people have food and education at affordable prices. Both religious leaders and political leaders need to come up with an ideology of the wellbeing of all in which solutions that are beneficial to all are found, where basic needs of all are met, and there is no divide and rule, which is a recipe for long term failure.

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