By Sarath Chandrajeewa
(Part I of this article appeared in Satmag of 04 Dec.)
Allegations about Chilean Ambassador
In his book ‘Memoirs’ Neruda openly admits to having sexual relations with a Tamil female labourer, engaged in what was considered the lowest of professions in society of the time, while he was the Chilean Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Though he was honest in writing about it, the act itself depicts the inhuman, forceful qualities of higher officials, and the low esteem they had for women.
However, without citing sources, Tissa Abeysekera in his book ‘Ayale Giya Sithaka Satahan’, had written a verses about Neruda’s dalliance, with an intense enthusiasm for literature; ‘The great poet, the Nobel Prize winner who loved a scavenger woman in Wellawatte’ (Tissa Abeysekara. . Ayale Giya Sithaka Satahan. Sarasavi Publishers. Pp.252-254). In it the poet frees Neruda of blame, neglecting to consider the women’s right to free will and sexual coercion on the part of Neruda. He frees Neruda because he is impressed by his prestige. If Neruda’s admission is investigated, it would be obvious that he never mentions love in his declaration.
The poet behaves as if he is about to catch a prey. He tries to bring her into subjugation by making gifts. The woman, who is powerless, knows that she would not be able to fend off a well-built white skinned man. He compares the frightened woman lying with eyes wide open, bereft of any emotion, to a thousand-year-old south Indian statue of a woman. He only sees her body. He cannot empathise with her internal shock. He uses her as a lifeless form to satisfy himself. He has written that, that was the first and the last time he laid with her. He does not say anything about what happened to her afterwards. It can be concluded that she most probably ran away or hid somewhere. It is confirmed sexual assault, because she had not returned and they did not get together again. The following statement by Neruda could be used against him, regarding the sexual assault. The following is a translation.
“My solitary bungalow was far from any urban development. When I rented it, I tried to find out where the toilet was; I couldn’t see it anywhere. Actually it was nowhere near the shower, it was at the back of the house. I inspected it with curiosity. It was a wooden box with a hole in the middle, very much like the artifact I had known as a child in the Chilean countryside. But our toilets were set over a deep well or over running water. Here the receptacle was a simple metal pail under the round hole.
The pail was cleaned every morning, but I had no idea how its contents disappeared. One morning I rose earlier than usual, and I was amazed when I saw what had been happening.
Into the back of the house, walking like a dusky statue came the most beautiful woman I had yet seen in Ceylon, a Tamil of the pariah caste. She was wearing a red and gold sari of the cheapest kind of cloth. She had heavy bangles on her bare ankles. Two tiny red dots glittered on either side of her nose. They must have been ordinary glass, but on her they were rubies.
She walked solemnly toward the latrine, without so much as a side glance at me, not bothering to acknowledge my existence, and vanished with the disgusting receptacle on her head, moving away with the steps of a goddess.
She was so lovely that, regardless of her humble job, I couldn’t get her off my mind. Like a shy jungle animal she belonged to another kind of existence, a different world. I called to her, but it was no use. After that I sometimes put a gift in her path, a piece of silk or some fruit. She would go past without hearing or looking. That ignoble routine had been transformed by her dark beauty into the dutiful ceremony of an indifferent queen.
One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand year-old sculptures from the south of India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.’ (Memoirs by Pablo Neruda – Hardie St. Martin [Trans].  Penguin books. Pp.99-100).
Based on personal interviews with members of low caste communities that lived along the seashore (Bambalawatta), between Wellawatte and Bambalapitiya, in the 70s, and in particular a family (father, mother and son) who cleaned the toilets at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, at no.46, Horton place, Colombo 7, in 1975, 45 years after the incident, this writer came upon certain information which could only be attributed to Neruda’s above statement.
A young attractive girl of ‘Cakkiliyar caste’ (Neruda referred to it as Pariah caste) suffered from a psychological disorder. She talked very little, liked to live alone and sat silently looking at the sea most of the time, symptomatic of her disorder. Due to her father’s illness, at the age of 18, as the eldest in the family, she was sent to clean the toilet at the Bungalow of one of the colonial officers, in Wellawatte. People of this caste never sent young girls to clean latrines, only males and married women. House owners kept an empty container or tin with a few coins on the doorstep of the toilets, as payment.
In 1930, she was raped by the owner of the Bungalow. A young male relative of the girl made an attempt to attack the white officer with a dagger, which he used to cut areca nuts, at the seashore, when the officer was out on his morning walk from Wellawatte to Mount Lavinia. His bodyguard or caretaker counter attacked. As a result, the relative lost consciousness and broke his spine. The bodyguard was a fearless muscleman from down south. People called him ‘Mahakalu Sinhalaya’’ (black Sinhala Giant). Paralysed and bed-ridden, the relative suffered for the rest of his life. ‘Mahakalu Sinhalaya’’ was probably ‘Burampi’ in Neruda’s book. When Neruda left the country this man also left with him.
The young girl was married off to a very elderly person in the community by her parents, because she lost her virginity. Within a short period the elderly husband of the young girl died of alcohol poisoning. He probably drank too much because he was so delighted with his beautiful young bride, or perhaps out of grief.
People of this caste usually drank methylated spirits mixed with lime juice. There was a rumour in the community that the woman was unlucky and born at a malefic time. The family of the relative who was paralysed also blamed the girl. At her husband’s cremation the young girl flung herself into the fire and committed suicide. Some interpret this incident as ‘Sati pooja’. Some said that relatives motivated her to do so. The worst tragedy is that she jumped into the fire with her unborn child. According to the beliefs of this community, a widow who commits ‘Sati pooja’ becomes a goddess. Afterwards people of her caste never mentioned her name and forgot her altogether.
This community was brought into the country, from Andhra Pradesh, in India, by the colonial administration in Ceylon, for cleaning services in the city of Colombo, and lived along the seashore. After the expansion of urbanization, the Non-Aligned Conference in 1976 and the coastal belt restoration programme, this community moved into marshy lands between Peliyagoda and Wattala. They originally spoke Telugu or Andhra Tamil. Sri Lankans refer to this language as ‘Andara Demala’, also a derogatory term for something unintelligible. They were impoverished and lived with very few amenities, in slums. They were considered untouchables and encountering them was deemed a bad omen by those hailing from high castes. Therefore, they went to work at dawn and during the day they stayed in their slums. Knowledgeable people in the community called themselves ‘Arunthathiyar’ meaning ‘the People of the dawn’.
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
Pablo Neruda, the internationally acclaimed Latin American poet, was born on July 12, 1904 in Parral, Chile. His original name was Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. Pablo Neruda was his pen name, which he legally adopted in 1946. He was the son of Jose del Carmen Reyes, a railway worker, and Rosa Basoalto. His mother died within a month of his birth. He entered the Temuco boys’ school in 1910 and finished his secondary schooling there in 1920. Neruda was a voracious reader and was encouraged by the principle of the Temuco Girls’ School, Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), a gifted poet who would herself later become a Nobel laureate.
From 1927 to 1945 he served as Chilean consul in Rangoon, Ceylon, Java and Barcelona, and wrote prolifically. Neruda fell in love with a Dutch woman, Maria Antonieta Hagenaar, when he was serving as a consul in Batavia, presently Indonesia. He and his wife separated in 1935, and Neruda met a young Argentinian woman, Delia del Carril, who would be his second wife, until their divorce in the early 1950s. Matilde Urrutia Cerda was the third wife of the Chilean poet, from 1966 until his death in 1973. His only daughter Malva Marina Reyes, was born in Madrid in 1934. She died in 1943 when she was nine years old, having spent most of her short life with a foster family in the Netherlands after Neruda ignored and abandoned her, forcing her mother to take up what jobs she could. She suffered from severe health problems, especially hydrocephalus.
Neruda became known as a poet when he was 13 years old. His creative work varied considerably in style and included surrealist poems, historical epics, prose, autobiography, political manifestos and passionate love poems, such as those in ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014), once introduced him as ‘The Greatest Poet of the 20th Century’. Neruda was a world recognized symbol throughout his life. He had been active as a Chilean poet, diplomat and communist politician.
Neruda was greatly influenced by events of the Spanish Civil war. He was elected a senator in 1945, and also joined the Chilean communist party after World War II. Two years later he was expelled from the position of senator and a warrant was issued for his arrest when President Gabriel González Videla outlawed communism in Chile, in 1948. He lived in hiding and in 1948 left Chile, crossing the Andes Mountain by horseback. During this period he visited the Soviet Union and various other countries including the West European Communist bloc. From 1970 to 1973 he served under Salvador Allende as Chilean ambassador to Paris.
From then on he regarded poetry not as an elite pursuit but as a statement of human solidarity which addressed simple people. ‘Canto General’ (one part of which is ‘The Heights of Macchu Picchu’, translated by Nathaniel Tarn) is a poem of epic proportions, tracing the history of Latin America, evoking the grandeur of its landscapes. It also introduces political polemic. Always a prolific poet, Neruda continued to write poetry throughout the fifties and sixties, and in 1950 he was awarded the International Peace Prize, in 1953 the Lenin Peace Prize, and in 1971 he was awarded Nobel Prize for Poetry.
The Chilean army toppled the democratically appointed President Salvador Allende’s Marxist socialist government on September 11, 1973, and came into power. The coup was led by General Augusto Pinochet. Neruda was hospitalized in Santiago at that time as he had undergone surgery for prostate cancer. Twelve days after the coup, on September 23, he died. The reason for his death was not clear as there were several conflicting opinions. One was that he died of a heart attack and another was poisoning by the army.
At a time meetings and demonstrations were banned and thousands of people were in custody, a massive number of Chilean people turned up at his funeral.
Neruda is often considered the National poet of Chile. However, his poems have been popular and influential worldwide (Mark Eisner. . ‘Neruda; The Poet’s Calling’. Harper Collins publishers; Alter Alexandra. [August 5, 2015]. ‘Rediscovered Pablo Neruda poems to be published’. The New York Times).
Violating women’s rights and sexual harassment
In November 2018 the cultural committee of Chile’s lower house planned to name the Santiago Airport after Neruda. Several Feminist and human rights groups demonstrated against this plan demanding that he not be revered in such a manner. They read notes that Neruda had written and accused him of sexually assaulting several women at the foreign ministry office (Charis McGowan. [November 23, 2018]. ‘Poet, Hero, Rapist – Outrage over Chilean plan to Rename Airport after Neruda’. The Guardian).
Research papers, psychological analyses and articles about Neruda’s perspective on women have been published (Zizek, Slavoj. . ‘Courtly Love or Woman as Thing’. Leitch publishers). These papers interpret that he perceives women with a male supremacy. This psyche is reflected in words used in current society to refer to women, such as ‘baduwa’ or ‘kella’ (a good or a piece). Areeba Tayyab, analysing Neruda’s ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’ claims that he objectifies women (Areeba Tayyab. . ‘Tracing female objectification in Neruda’s work: a psychoanalytical study of courtly love in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Department of English Language, Superior University, Pakistan. European journal of Interdisciplinary Research. Vol 1,No. 1, Pp.21-28).
During a demonstration on university students’ human rights and sexual harassment, Karen Vergara Sánchez, an activist student has said, “There is no clear reason to rename the airport, and it is happening at a time when women are only beginning to dare denounce their abusers…we have started to demystify Neruda now, because we have only recently begun to question rape culture” (Charis McGowan. [November 23, 2018]. ‘Poet, Hero, Rapist – Outrage over Chilean plan to Rename Airport after Neruda’. The Guardian). In a further attempt at demystifying Neruda, it is being questioned whether Neruda is suitable to receive international awards such as those for peace and justice. Likewise, it is being questioned, through Neruda, whether the real life of an artist and his works of art are one and the same. It is ironic to find the answer in his own poems.
“If you ask me what my poetry is, I’d have to say: I don’t know.
But if you ask my poetry, she’ll tell you who I am.”
Pablo Neruda, 1943
Schoolchildren gather at a House on fire with shocking revelations
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Narendra Fernando, Sergeant-at-Arms of the crisis-ridden Parliament, has declared that the largest number of students, in the post-independence era, visited the House on Thursday (Dec. 01).
Director, Legislative Services, Janakantha Silva, who is also the Acting Director of Communication, quoted Fernando as having said that approximately 5,000 students, from 32 schools, received permission to visit Parliament on that day. The top official was further quoted as having said that was a world record.
According to the statement, issued by Parliament, last Thursday, since the re-opening of Parliament for students on Sept, 19, 2022, the House received over 25,000 schoolchildren. Declaring that schoolchildren have been allowed, as per a decision taken by the Committee on Parliamentary Business, chaired by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the Parliament appreciated the support extended by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, for the initiative taken by the House.
President Wickremesinghe has also assured funds required to provide a free glass of milk for each school child, visiting Parliament from next month. The House declared that this move received the blessings of both the government and the Opposition.
The government and Opposition owed an explanation as to what they really expected to achieve by allowing schoolchildren to observe parliamentary and at times unparliamentary debates. The conduct of members of Parliament has deteriorated, over the years, to such an extent, the media, on several occasions, questioned why schoolchildren were exposed to the utterly disgraceful conduct of the people’s uncouth elected members.
The day after the statement, issued by the Serjeant-at-Arms, a clash between Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and State Wildlife Minister Wimalaweera Dissanayake proved again that the Parliament is certainly not suitable for schoolchildren. The exchange, triggered by the war-winning Army Commander’s disparaging comment on the Digamadulla District lawmaker, over the controversial digging of trenches, underscored the appalling status.
The Gampaha District Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) MP earned the wrath of Wimalaweera Dissanayake for being harshly critical of digging trenches at the latter’s behest to thwart marauding wild elephants causing havoc in peasant homesteads. Fonseka’s declaration that the State Minister’s strategy was foolish enraged the State Minister who called the five- star General Kalawedda (pole cat), Vel Vidane (a somewhat demeaning and distorted translation with not even a hint of military prowess of the term Field Marshal), etc.
How many schoolchildren had been in the gallery when the war-winning General was abused in such a manner because of his own provocation of a self-made man? Wimalaweera Dissanayake has even earned a university degree, through sheer personal perseverance, amidst much adversity. The insinuation by the Field Marshal that the digging of trenches is a ruse to carry out sand mining at an unprecedented scale cannot be ignored. Though in this particular instance cited, it may not have been the case, knowing Dissanayake’s true character. But the crux of the matter is that in a ‘land like no other’ whether anything can be done without the powers that be making money in such usual instances. How many schoolchildren witnessed the exchange between lawmakers Fonseka and Wimalaweera Dissanayake?
Safi Nagar affair
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s attack on Environment Minister Nazeer Ahamed, also on Friday, over Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) authorization of a massive sand mining racket in Safi Nagar, in the East, exposed corruption from the highest level to the lowest rung in this vital government institution. The accusations were justified on the basis of a letter Secretary, Environment Ministry, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, has written to Director General, GSMB, Sajjana de Silva, late last month, demanding an explanation, within 14 days, regarding the issuance of an illegal permit for sand mining in Safi Nagar, in the Muttur electorate.
Those schoolchildren, visiting Parliament, must have got a firsthand opportunity to hear how politicians and officials abused their authority. The scale of corruption must have shocked them. Parliament should be ashamed of what is continuing to happen in this bankrupt country.
Environment Minister Nazeer Ahamed never disputed the shocking revelation that GSMB Chairman Dr. Senarath Hewage Prasad Manjula, as the head of a private mining company, called Uptown Ventures, had received a mining license. Manjula has received the appointment, as GSMB Chairman, in Feb. 2022, after the sacking of Prof. Anura Walpola under controversial circumstances.
Before further discussing the happenings, in Parliament, on Friday, let me recall what Manjula’s predecessor, Prof. Walpola, told Pamodi Waravita of ‘The Morning’, in an exclusive interview carried in its online edition, on March 02, 2022. The story, headlined ‘Removed GSMB Chair levels allegations against GSMB DG’, the writer dealt with the circumstances leading to Sajjana de Silva’s appointment as Director General of GSMB. Accordingly, Sajjana de Silva has received the appointment as DG during the Covid-19 lockdown, on the basis of his seniority.
Prof. Walpola has explained that the GSMB board made the appointment, on a temporary basis, as it couldn’t physically meet, due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Sajjana de Silva filled the vacancy created with the retirement of the person who served in that position. The new appointment took effect in March 2020. Walpola is on record as having said that when the GSMB board physically met in June 2020, Sajjana de Silva’s appointment was rejected. However, the DG produced a letter he had received from then Environment Minister S.M. Chandrasena that confirmed his appointment.
Prof. Walpola, who received appointment as Chairman, GSMB, in Dec. 2019, claimed that at the time Sajjana de Silva obtained confirmation he was under investigation by the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID).
In spite of a spate of complaints against the new DG, the Ministry refrained from taking action against him. Prof. Walpola was quoted as having alleged that the DG had the backing of six GSMB personnel, under investigation.
Perhaps, the most interesting disclosure, made by Prof. Walpola, was the issuance of a license to his successor, Prasad Manjula, by DG Sajjana de Silva, contrary to the Mines and Mineral Act. Obviously, the then Environment Minister, the incumbent Minister as well as successive Ministry Secretaries, chose to turn a blind eye.
It would be pertinent to stress that Prof. Walpola lost the chairmanship, of this vital state enterprise, less than two weeks before the GSMB board was to appear before the parliamentary watchdog committee.
Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) lawmaker Shanakiyan Rasamanickam first raised the issue at hand at a COPE meeting, on February 23, 2020. The Batticaloa District MP questioned the rationale behind accommodating the proprietor of a mining company as the Chairman of GSMB. Obviously, the COPE lacked the power to intervene. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration not only allowed the illegal transaction but also protected the wrongdoers.
Friday’s attacks on the government, over the Safi Nagar affair, should be examined against the backdrop of a despicable project that placed the GSMB in the hands of a person who had been engaged in large scale sand mining.
Those who allowed schoolchildren to observe parliamentary proceedings should be aware the Parliament has nothing to offer except educate them on unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement.
Joint attack on Nazeer
Statements made by JVP leader Dissanayake, TNA MP Rasamanickam, and SJB MP Ajith Mannapperuma, as regards the Safi Nagar, bared an unbelievable state of affairs. The Parliament dealt with the matter, during the committee stage debate with the JVP, TNA and SJB, demanding why Minister Ahamed protected the culprits. The JVPer largely based his criticism on Dr. Jasinghe’s no nonsense letter, that demanded a plausible explanation, within 14 days.
Having contested the last general election, on the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) ticket, in August 2020, Deputy Leader of that party Ahamed, an engineer by profession, at the onset of the unprecedented political turmoil, switched his allegiance, in April 2022, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Ahamed simply ignored party leader Rauf Hakeem warning of disciplinary action for what he called breach of party discipline.
With the advent of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the President, in July, the Batticaloa District MP received the environment portfolio. Ahamed seems to have so far stood by the GSMB operation. However, Dr. Jasinghe’s missive to DG, GSMB suggested that the Environment Ministry finally responded to continuing criticism over the Safi Nagar affair.
Both print, electronic, including social media, continuously attacked the government over the inordinate delay in taking action against both the DG and Chairman of GSMB. ‘Hiru’ spearheaded the media campaign with aggressive coverage of the developments continuously, until the damaging disclosure in Parliament on Friday.
Lawmaker Dissanayake asked why Uptown Ventures was granted a license to engage in sand mining, in state land, in a clear case of conflict of interest and regardless of a proposal made by another party. The MP has taken up the issue against the backdrop of Dr. Jasinghe’s allegation that DG, GSMB, discredited and abused his position.
MP Rasamanickam declared in Parliament that GSMB Chairman was the person who secured the license to remove 100,000 cubes of sand from Safi Nagar. The MP questioned how an official, who is supposed to ensure transparency and legality in sand mining, received a license for the same? The TNA representative declared his readiness to face any legal challenge. Declaring he had the required evidence to prove his accusations, MP Rasamanickam alleged the DG, GSMB, is responsible for all corrupt activities therein.
The Batticaloa District MP said that if necessary he would call an international press briefing regarding Minister Ahamed’s failure to act on the letter issued by Dr. Jasinghe, to DG, at the centre of the whole sordid deal. The TNA representative demanded the immediate interdiction of the official while warning of consequences in case his demand was not met.
At the onset of his statement, lawmaker Dissanayake asked Minister Ahamed to clarify Sajjana de Silva’s status. Responding to the JVPer’s query, Minister Ahmed said that though being appointed in an acting capacity, Sajjana De Silva has been confirmed in his position.
MP Dissanayake said: Sajjana de Silva received the appointment during S.M. Chandrasena’s tenure as the Environment Minister. The appointment didn’t have the required approval from the management committee of GSMB.
Minister S.M. Chandrasena: At the time, Sajjana de Silva was granted an acting appointment, he headed the seniority list.
MP Dissanayake: At the very beginning, I clarified this matter. I sought and obtained the status of the GSMB official. Though you said Sajjana de Silva was granted an acting appointment, your letter of appointment didn’t say so.
The Parliament was told how a license obtained by Uptown Ventures for the cultivation of chilies, in 3,000 acres of land, permitted the enterprise to engage in large scale sand mining. The project received government sanction for mining of 5,000 cubes of sand, on a monthly basis. The House was asked how the proprietor of Uptown Ventures ended up as Chairman of GSMB. The JVPer pointed out the absurdity in the GSMB Chairman’s defence that he was no longer the head of that venture. But, at the time the illegal sand mining took place, at Safi Nagar, Senarath Hewage Prasad Manjula-led Uptown Ventures, the JVPer declared, reiterating accusations pertaining to the Safi Nagar project.
Pointing out that Dr. Jasinghe’s report identified the GSMB Chairman as one of the persons involved in the corrupt transaction, MP Dissanayake declared the direct involvement of the political leadership in the Safi Nagar operation. Those responsible had been exposed and were now naked before the public. SJB MP Ajith Mannapperuma chided Minister Ahamed for remaining silent. Urging the Minister to come clean, the Gampaha District MP asked why he remained silent when such serious accusations were made against the two top officials of the GSMB. The former UNP MP asked whether Minister Ahamed lacked the backbone to set the record straight.
Minister Ahamed said that as regards DG, GSMB, the Ministry had already issued a charge sheet and that action was in progress. “Likewise, the Chairman’s issue with regard to Safi Nagar, complaint has been lodged with the CID, and the Auditor General Department is evaluating the whole thing. The report will be submitted. Once that is done, necessary action will be taken as per the advice given by all those institutions”, the Minister said.
Dissident SLPP MP Weerasumana Weerasinghe said that there was no need to await the Attorney General’s opinion to take action in respect of repeated disclosure made by ‘Hiru.’ The outspoken Communist Party representative said that Environment Secretary Dr. Jasinghe’s missive to the DG, GSMB, was more than sufficient to take punitive action against the culprits.
Having asked whether Secretary to the President, Saman Ekanayake, was present in Parliament, lawmaker Weerasinghe said there was no point in making grandiose statements at COP27 if the government could not take punitive measures against errant officials. The MP was referring to the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, more commonly referred to as COP27, held in Egypt last month. Weerasinghe asked Ahamed whether he chose to safeguard the ministerial portfolio or would handle the issue without fear or favour.
NDI funds House project
Amidst continuing political-economic-social crisis caused by failure on the part of the executive, legislature and judiciary to address issues at hand, the Parliament has launched a new project to educate primary school students. With the financial backing of the National Democratic Institute, the Parliament has launched ‘Punchi Dupathe Kurulu Kathandaraya,’ in Sinhala, Tamil and English to educate those who have even reached their teens of what the Parliament hadn’t called representative democracy.
The book launch took place at the children’s section of the Colombo Public Library with the participation of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. What really Parliament and NDI hoped to achieve by educating primary students is not clear. Likewise, ongoing efforts to set up ‘parliaments’ at schools, introduce electronic voting et al at a time Parliament failed in its mandatory responsibilities, such as public finance and enactment of laws, may not help restore public confidence in the political party system. Those struggling to make ends meet, as a result of the economic ruination, may be flabbergasted if they hear of silly projects undertaken by Parliament, using meagre resources at a time of unprecedented economic turmoil. May be that money could be better utilized to improve nutritional level of our schoolchildren.
Washington headquartered NDI operates in many countries through its partners and the operation here is no exception. Funded by the US taxpayer as well as other international sources propagating Western values, the NDI project should be examined against the backdrop of a range of US initiatives here. The controversial US role at the 2010 presidential election is a case in point. The US backing for war-winning Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka, at that election, is not a secret, thanks to Wikileaks revelations.
Remember, the USAID funded USD 13 mn (Rs 1.92 bn) project to enhance democracy, transparency and accountability in 2016. That three-year project was launched in the wake of the Central Bank bond scams, perpetrated in Feb. 2015 and March 2016. Did that high profile initiative produce desired results? Seven years after that US initiative and scores of other projects undertaken by successive governments and NGOs, Sri Lanka has ‘achieved’ bankruptcy status.
Why social science viewpoints are necessary for addressing multistranded crisis in Sri Lanka
by Kalinga Tudor Silva
The current crisis in Sri Lanka is multi-faceted with economic, political, and social aspects impinging on one another. The economic and political crises are the ones that are more visible as reflected in queues, scarcities, and mass mobilisations against the ruling establishments, issues that demand urgent attention and action. Underlying these seemingly fire-fighting emergencies are the need for understanding the root causes of the multi-stranded maladies, the need for preventive action based on sound policies and socially sensitive and well-informed crisis intervention strategies that are driven by objectively assessed actual needs of affected people and the resources available to tackle them rather than political motivations driven by short-term gains of one kind or another for the decision makers at the top and the need to accommodate those in the inner ring as against the competent personnel who may be more capable of addressing the actual needs on the ground by virtue of their skills and training. Social Sciences inclusive of Economics, Political Science, Sociology, Social Anthropology, Psychology, Education, Demography, Geography, Management, Law, and Social Work must be utilized in full and appropriate transdisciplinary blends in identifying and implementing required preventive action and immediate crisis responses in order to make sure that we will see the end of the crises at hand, do not remain entangled in them forever and better prepared when the next crisis hits us.
If there is any lesson to be learnt from the ongoing stalemate, it is that decision making at the level of policy formulation in matters such as development, public finance, local or foreign investments, technology transfers, governance, environmental conservation and economic recovery, must involve not only the elected leaders and the designated officials who may be largely guided by common sense understanding of issues and exigencies within the systems in which they operate, including demands by diverse stakeholders such as those with vested interests, but also experts in relevant fields with a proven track record, analytical skills, intellectual integrity, autonomy and a capacity to stay above the competing pressures from diverse stakeholders in order to pursue common good and the needs of future generations (e.g. climate justice, need to safeguard the commons) as against the urgent needs of those currently preoccupied with accessing the scarce resources available. Social Sciences have the knowledge base required to sort out matters and guide crisis responses and policy directives and also a capacity to generate suitable new knowledge where the existing body of knowledge is inadequate.
Economics and related disciplines including Business Studies and Management must be deployed to understand and respond to the escalating debt crisis, rebuilding of foreign currency reserves, overcoming commodity scarcities and more careful and rational administration of public funds. Rebuilding legitimacy of the state, cleaning up the political process, enhancing public accountability and broadening parameters of democratic participation to include youth, women, professional groups and disadvantaged social groups require critical inputs from Political Science, History, Sociology, Demography and Public Administration. Responding to the unfolding social crisis inclusive of unemployment, indebtedness, bankruptcies, overseas labour migration, social tension, malnutrition, depression, suicide attempts, substance use and crime calls for variety of expertise from a range of disciplines such as Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Law and Public Health. While none of these disciplines will have ready made quick fixes to the complex problems the country is facing at present, we must realise that the problems at hand cannot be tackled by handpicked ‘yes’ men with no sound understanding of the issues involved.
Mechanisms for Harnessing Social Sciences
Different countries follow different modalities to harness Social Sciences for national development. For instance, publicly funded state institutions such as the Social Science Research Councils consisting of leading scholars in each field are used in countries like USA, UK, India, and the Philippines to support independent social research by eminent scholars on priority global/national issues and help establish a valid evidence base to be used in scientific as well as public discourses. Social Science think tanks are also set up and mobilised by the universities, foundations, civil society organisations or even political parties for advocacy and decision-making purposes. For instance, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is one such think tank committed to global peace and sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation in the US. Similarly, the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation in Germany is linked to the Christian Democratic Union (centre-right), and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation is affiliated with the Social Democratic Party (centre-left). In these instances, the respective social science think tanks may be influenced by ideologies, and particular political agendas, but there is a clear recognition of the perspectives and positions from which they make a case one way or the other and this may influence the application of the relevant ideas by the specific actors. It must be mentioned here that the relevant think tanks serve to not just reiterate and justify the actions of the respective political parties, but also change and reorient them in line with available evidence about the changing circumstances.
The absence of any credible mechanism to support and utilise Social Sciences in socially relevant ways exploring their full potential must be identified as an important factor contributing to the larger social crisis currently unfolding in Sri Lanka. Against this background, there are vastly different rhetorical and largely unsubstantiated claims about vital issues such as incidence of poverty and malnutrition, educational disruption, suicides and the patterns and the extent of substance abuse in the country with neither the state nor civil society seeking to establish valid and reliable data bases that help monitor the relevant outcomes as against the policies and interventions pursued. Instead of recognizing and addressing social issues, injustices of one kind or another and social grievances fueled by unemployment, hopelessness and sense of disadvantage to be countered deploying appropriate social policies, the overwhelming tendency has been to resort to arbitrary action, violence, state repression and outright manipulation in response to episodic waves of social resistance by avalanches of disaffected people in the north and the south. This has not resulted in long-term peace and stability or lasting development in the country as we know very well at this point in time. This is why required Social Science inputs are absolutely necessary for identifying and addressing the bottlenecks and real issues in society.
Towards Socially Responsible and Publicly Accountable Research and Public Action
In Sri Lanka the expanding Social Science community should strive towards addressing issues of vital public interest in their research, advocacy, and dissemination of study results in whatever fora available. The policy failures we have repeatedly seen in Sri Lanka are largely due to the failure of the people in power to recognise potential contributions from sciences in general, including Social Sciences and the failure of the scientists to come forward and exert their due influence through advocacy and public debates in mass media and social media. Many of the social issues swelling up from the ground level go undetected or under detected until they explode after reaching a crisis level as there are no trained social workers, counsellors or other actors providing care and guidance in establishments such as universities, schools, workplaces or even institutions like prisons, drug rehabilitation centres, elderly homes, or services catering to international migrant workers.
Absence of any public institutions that systematically collect, disseminate, and analyse social data and conduct public opinion polls have added to the volatility of the situation. Traditional support mechanisms through family and kinship alliances, neighbourhood associations, charity and philanthropy or even religious institutions have been undermined due to the ongoing processes of social transformation and they have not been replaced by a cadre of well-trained professional care givers with adequate resources available to the people concerned. The result is accumulation of grievances on a massive scale feeding into mass protests and social tsunamis of one kind or another. While economic recovery and social stabilisation clearly need appropriate social policies and programmes, addressing larger issues of social injustice and clearing obstacles for upward social mobility in ways to be identified through applied social research, trained social scientists such as social workers can also play a useful role in providing social care to supplement and strengthen existing social support mechanisms that help people cope with diverse problems they face.
There is also a clear need for the Sri Lankan Social Science community in and outside the country to forge alliances and collaborations, come forward to reflect on, comprehend and respond to the multistranded and multilayered crisis at hand and contribute towards expanding the frontiers of knowledge in the relevant fields in terms of addressing the vexed problems confronting all of us. This may require not only new approaches to overcome the economic and other obstacles the country is facing, new ways of practicing our disciplines and innovative educational initiatives where the teachers and students are pushed towards finding viable and effective remedies for the problems at hand. The existing body of Social Science knowledge may not have all the answers to the problems we are facing but this is where new knowledge and innovative remedies must be identified, introduced, and assessed.
While resource limitations and unsettled conditions in the country may pose serious challenges for social research in Sri Lanka presently, we must bear in mind that some of the key advances in Social Sciences were made in post-war Europe and North America and more recently post-Apartheid South Africa in situations not dissimilar to what we are going through at present. Knowledge production for understanding the world around us as well as knowledge production for tackling urgent human problems remain within the remit of Social Sciences in diverse fields ranging from Applied Economics to Applied Anthropology. With a long history of cultural heritage and established scholarship, democratic governance firmly established despite numerous challenges and reversals throughout the post-independence period and a rich heritage of biodiversity and cultural unity and diversity, a considerable repair work must be done, and we should all come forward to think ahead and outside the box to address the mounting challenges we face as a country. Social Science thinking must pave the way for forward looking social policies on the part of state agencies as well as progressive social movements geared to democratic reforms, broad-based development of a sustainable nature, and rational and optimum use of public resources in publicly accountable ways for advancing the common interests of all citizens in the country,
(This essay was initially published as the editorial of the Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences Volume 45, Number 1 published by the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka on December 5, 2022).
Of Books and Guns
By Lynn Ockersz
In the fabled Isle,
Said to have been blessed,
With all things elevating,
No sleep is lost now,
On which comes first,
‘Bread or Guns?’
For, betwixt the safety,
Of the masters of the land,
And the ‘Sambol’ and rice,
Of the toiling subject class,
It’s those wielding heft,
Who decide what comes first,
But now the schools of the poor,
Are also going the way of ‘Bread’,
For, on the drawing boards,
Of the state’s foremost brains,
Education is made to trail Defense,
In another ominous sign,
That the pillars of the welfare state,
Are in a state of collapse,
Allowing the market to freely reign,
With military muscle clearing the decks.
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