by Kumar David
The government is in retreat analysts say. Strategists in the opposition, smelling blood, are hopeful of replacing President and Parliamentary majority in 2024 and 2025, if not earlier in the event of a debacle. It is a sign of the times that Namal and his wife were jeered and compelled to flee Monarch Imperial, a posh restaurant, on December 23 said the Daily Mirror of the next day. In this context there are four national groups of importance – JVP-NPP, SJB-Sajith, TNA and the scattered Muslim parties. The first two have national ambitions and the latter two sub-national (not lead a government). The SLPP has not yet given up the ghost and under Mahinda’s leadership hallucinates recovery. Sajith hankers after the presidency. The JVP-NPP is motivated to get enough parliamentary seats to be one step away from power. I discount Ranil’s UNP, the SLFP and every other faction of the government as a centrepiece of any future government. Presidential ambitions: Sajith, Champika, Karu, and from the (Raja) Paksa-clan Gota second term or Namal, all crave the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
It is premature to make predictions but strategies are ripening; the NPP has issued a draft programme and JVP Secretary Tilvin Silva a strategy letter in the December 20 issue of Mawilma (Compass) the NPP’s monthly magazine-newsletter. I will discuss the programmes of the aforementioned four and the government side as they become available, but right now only the JVP-NPP version is to hand. I will not confine myself to the document but also comment on broad strategy in the context of the unfolding scenario. For example, I will spell out my views on the JVP-NPP’s orientation to military intimidation.
The NPP’s “Rapid Response” Manifesto
The platform entitled “Rapid Response to Overcome Current Challenges” opens with a preface outlying Sri Lanka’s manifest debacle followed by a section entitled ‘A Thriving Economy Instead of a Dependent Economy’ which declares “As National People’s Power we present initial ideas for the socio-economic transformation that society needs”. https://www.npp.lk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/NPP-Booklet-English.pdf
The document is heavy on economic aspects, less so on state-structure, constitutional reform and the national question. It gives prominence to comprehensive short, medium and economic goals and includes a section on preparing the human resources required for plan implementation. It critiques JR’s Open Economy as the origin of the current malaise and for initiating a culture of greed which bred a select group which benefited from profit, fraud and corrupt business practices, and vested power in a few hands. Features of JR’s policy were ‘financialisation’, austerity, subsidy cuts, nurturing monopolies, excessive borrowing, and the sale of state assets to a favoured coterie; neoliberalism Sri Lanka style. Emphasis on financial markets undermined commodity production says the manifesto and accuses post-independence policy makers of not managing the economy for eco-friendly and people oriented outcomes and failing to even protect the place the country previously occupied in foreign trade. Instead there has been borrowing for narrow political and personal gain of rulers (Hambantota Harbour, Mattala Airport, Mr 10% etc.) but not borrowing for development. The document should have emphasised that a Tourism and Remittance based economy is not production oriented.
The end result, the NPP says is near bankruptcy leaving the country enmeshed in a vicious cycle of debt and foreign currency shortages. The nexus of Manufacturing-Technology-Education-Exports-Foreign Investment targeted at production are all mentioned, but the presentation could have been better integrated. The role of the private sector is noted but employing the state as vehicle to enable entrepreneurship as in China could have been emphasised. Interestingly the document also warns that “The people responsible for creating the debt trap will not be allowed to escape from liabilities”. Hope this is not another empty threat!
In respect of state-structure the NPP urges a strong parliament with a cabinet accountable to parliament and elimination of the executive presidency where power is “arbitrarily concentrated in one person”. The president is to be elected by parliament as the ceremonial head of state and the armed forces. Governance is to be led by the prime minister and the cabinet with checks and balances. The right to recall representatives will be introduced – an important new provision. The separation of power between the executive, legislature and judiciary is to be ensured. What more could any blue-blooded liberal ask for?
The National Question is the Achilles’ heel of all Sinhalese politics because even anti-racist parties know that a bold position regarding minorities will spell their doom. This perception is correct; the core of the problem lies with the Sinhalese people. (It’s well and good for me, not warming a seat in parliament to say this, but which Sinhalese party can say this and hope to win even a few seats?) The LSSP story is a frightening reminder of the truth that eventually it is the people, not the leaders, who make history. NM was prepared to demand ‘Parity of Status’, Colvin raged against Sinhala Only, Reggie Mendis lost a hand at the Town Hall grounds deflecting a bomb thrown by a racist bomb. But then in a decade plus, pressure wore down the Party. Every Sinhalese party has been frightened by such lessons. That my dear countrymen is Lanka!
The programme promises a system of governance that decentralises political and administrative power based on democracy, equal representation, and participation, “affirming the Sri Lankan identity” of all nationalities (sic!). It resolves to make the Provincial Councils efficient institutions – note, not to abolish them. It promises a commission (dear God another god forsaken commission!) with powers to prevent discrimination against any individual or social group based on nationality, religion, caste, language, gender, or sexual orientation – why not the laws of the land do this, I ask? The NPP-JVP promises to take steps to acknowledge cultural differences between different communities and to promote coexistence within this matrix.
The drafters seem to have been in difficult terrain bridging three concepts; liberal democracy, radical rejection of ethnic exclusivity and any notion that Lanka is the land of the Sinhala Buddhists. As a political realist I find the NPP’s phrasing adequate though I will tease it about the missing elephant ‘devolution of power’. The difference from Sajith-SJB is that from personal knowledge of JVPers I know that the Sinhala-JVP of the 1960-70s and the anti-13A Somawansa Amerasinghe JVP of the 1980s, are both gone for good. If you detect any slippage on the national question in this programme blame not the NPP, hold the Sinhalese people to account.
JVP Secretary Tilvin Silva’s Approach
The Party Secretary is the official spokesman and his emphases are significant. What I detect is that Tilvin is, perhaps, concerned not to make too many concessions to liberalism in the economic programme. He emphasises “paradigm shift”. But I am not sure what he means when he critiques “the old State-monopolistic capitalistic system”. Is he referring to the Stalinist centralised universally-planned state economy or the Sirima-NM model of 1970-75? Perhaps both. I agree that a fresh approach to economic problem solving, including an understanding of why the liberal-capitalist model, the Sirima-NM guided model and Stalinist regimented economy all failed is needed. He does not comment on the avatar of the Deng Xiao Ping model as transferred to Vietnam and Mongolia. There is much to learn from these two since there has been substantial manufacturing, economic and export growth, while benefits have percolated down to the people and hence the regimes have sustained public approval.
Here is an extract from Tilvin’s Malima article. “This crisis is now a challenge to the people. Its real cause is not merely factors such as Gotabaya’s personal failure. The real reason for this is the bankrupt and wrong socio-economic system still being followed in the country. Therefore, there is an inescapable challenge to everyone who expects a real and sustainable solution to the crisis. It is defeating the system of roll-over politics and handing over the country to people trusting in various political personalities. Further, reverting back to the old State-monopolistic capitalistic system as a solution to the neo-liberal economic model is also not feasible. What the country is honestly requesting for is a deep and vast paradigm-shift in the socio-economic system. There is no other real solution to this problem.” Tilvin Silva, Malima, 20 Dec 2021; (Available from JVP, 464/20, Pannipitiya Road, Battaramulla. Phones: 0112 785612, 0777 199524, 0714458399, 0718449424).
An ex-LSSP, ex-Vaama comrade
Readers of my column are familiar with the two themes I have been emphasising in recent months: (a) The regime is buckling in a huge crisis; (b) nevertheless it is very dangerous – it cannot be trusted and is prone to military adventurism. This is Comrade Puwakpitiya’s response to my importuning that he pushes both these ideas in the NPP; he is quite close to NPP policymakers. I quote from a recent email.
“I think it is premature. We should consolidate our base at working class and village level so that we can intervene as a powerful force. We do not see a threat of militaristic intervention. The government is too weak at the moment and I do not see any way it can come out of this. If the situation changes, we can reconsider. At the moment there is space for us to work towards an alternative political movement” – Puwakpitiya.
Though he is agreement with my assessment of the mess in government, at the same time he shows naïve underestimation of potential dangers. To wait till the “situation changes” to make defensive alignments is like a man who waits till after his death to take an insurance policy! The costs of an adventure by a regime which cannot “come out” of a disastrous meltdown are too catastrophic to wait till it happens. There are two Christmas season examples on the world’s TV screens right now. The Burmese military is on a rampage of brutal bloody crackdown, rape and murder including indiscriminate airstrikes on Karen and Kachin minorities precisely because the junta is in a social and economic crisis. In Sudan on Christmas Day the military mobilised thousands of troops to spray gunfire on protests against a “government too weak to come out of” its crisis except by such methods. The Sri Lanka military has tasted blood in 1989 and against Tamils in the 30-year civil war. Thus waiting “for the situation to change” is complacent. The costs of complacency will be very high if there if a military venture is attempted (anarchy plus economic, ethnic and civil conflict). What’s the objection to establishing a minimal defensive covenant of the whole opposition right now? How will this obstruct “consolidation of a base at working class and village level”? Why is it an either-or formulation?
A devils’ drama in power politics
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did say with pride the government’s decision to set up 100 new police stations, at his inaugural speech at the opening of the new session of Parliament.
There may be cause for presidential pride in having many more police stations, but the recent records of police activity, especially on matters relating to public security, does leave much to be desired of the Police.
The reports flowing in about the hand grenade found at All Saints’ Church, Borella – Colombo, do raise many questions about police activity: Is it inactivity or directed activity on this matter? The limited time it took to search for the person who placed this grenade, the first arrest in this regard – the sanchristian of the same church; the Church’s own revelation of the longer CCTV on the same day, with a different player in this grenade match, and the police arrest of that person too; and the stories of weapons or fire-toys found in the home of a retired doctor, who is now said to be the brain or strategist behind this grenade match, is rapidly unfolding into a drama of political direction, where the police is playing more than a lead role!
The All Saints’ Church is considered a holy shrine by those who attend religious services there, and those who come there to appeal for the blessings of saints, and God, too. But who would ever have thought that such a place of worship would be the defining authority on how many matchsticks a box of matches would or should have?
The Cabinet Minister in charge of Police was also heavily involved in this All Saints’ show piece – from matchsticks to joss-sticks and sellotape – and the ethnicity of the first suspect, too. As the country moves into the coming disasters on the economic and service fronts, as the dollar disaster keeps rising with Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s blessings, we may well see the All Saints being moved into an All Devils drama, with whatever dramatic expertise that key politico-police authorities possess!
President Gotabaya certainly has a way of his own. He is so fully supportive of his green agriculture programme. His desire for green is certainly not to do with his liking the UNP, although Ranil W may be supportive of any such moves. But his continued support for green agriculture does raise questions about his memory capacity. Has he forgotten all the problems and the near disastrous situations that his green-agro policy did push this country into?
Does he know nothing of what his blanket ban overnight on agrochemicals did to the agricultural sector? Has he not been informed of what this country paid to the shipload of Chinese fertiliser, which our own analysts found to be contaminated? Is he not taking any action against the officers of a state bank who signed a Letter of Credit, without the necessary information on financial security?
This is certainly playing with a green ball that gathers all the dirt on the field and giving all strength of profit to the Chinese player!
The President did say he would submit to Parliament the recommendations of the Expert Committee appointed to help draft a new Constitution. That means he has some faith in the Parliament of the people. That’s good. Let’s wait and see how this goes on.
What raises many problems is that he was so uninterested in the findings of the Special Committee appointed by him to study the gas disaster, caused by the gas dealers. Was he so ignorant or uninformed of the repeated and continuing blasts of gas cylinders, the deaths caused to mothers and children, the injury to gas users, and the huge damage to homes? When will this Parliament have a proper debate on the gas catastrophe, as it may on recommendations of the Expert Committee on the new Rajapaksa Constitution?
The President’s speech was short. It was good, because the problems this government has caused to the country, since his election as President, and the huge election of a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which has given more than Green Agro Power, would not be a good, lengthy exercise.
Rajapaksa Governance is certainly calling for major changes in our political thinking, and system of governance. Making it even more brief would be of more service to the country and the people, than what the Family Power nor Pavul Balaya is doing today.
Even with the many twists of the current police exercise, and the rise of the new All Devils Drama that is unfolding, let’s hope the Rajapaksa Power Play gets run down to its end very fast!
BY Srilal Miththapala
From time immemorial the female form has been exploited for diverse reasons, to achieve a wide variety of outcomes by various cultures, individuals, groups, tribes and business organisations.
At the same time, women have always been aware of the immense power of their sensuality, and how it can be subtly used to further their ambitions.
The tourism and hospitality is not an exception in this context, where a woman’s presence in the service delivery/customer contact points usually has a strong positive impact.
This discussion tries to analyse this phenomena in an objective manner, with special emphasis on how localised cultural contexts affects it, and the resulting implications
Women and sensuality
Sensuality is about ones sexual feelings, thoughts, attractions and behaviours towards other people. Sensuality is diverse and personal, and it is an important part of who you are. And manifests in various ways such as body language, tone of voice etc.
Many In today’s world believe that a wide variety of expressions of female sensuality can be empowering to women when they are freely chosen. It can also be utilised by women to further their personal ambitions and goals.
History is full of such examples. The very origin of humanity may have been vastly different if Adan did not succumb to Eve’s ‘charms’ in enticing him to eat of the forbidden fruit.
Delilah enticed Samson to reveal the secret of his brute strength, at the behest of the Philistines.
Eva Duarte, was an illegitimate child with dreams of stardom. She met rising political star Juan Perón in 1944 and unabashedly charmed herself into his life, ending up as the First Lady of Argentina.
Cleopatra is cast as the ultimate femme fatale, whose influence supposedly ruined many a good man’s career, with she herself succumbing to the complicated web she wove.
And Harry Belafonte summed it all up in his famous song “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”-
“And not me but the people they say
That the man is leading the women astray
But I say, that the women of today
Smarter than the man in every way”
All these examples are of women who have leveraged their sensuality in a rather ‘aggressive’ fashion for personal gain, which often had them labelled as promiscuous, flirty and slutty, and looked down upon.
However in todays ‘sexually liberated’ world, the feminist movements have successfully transformed this thinking by radically removing the arbitrary shackles prescribed by tradition. Today a woman who is aware of her sensuality, and confidently carries it, is considered an emancipated person.
However when a woman’s sensuality and form, is used to achieve some results by a third party, implicitly or explicitly, it could be considered a form of exploitation.
Women in Hospitality and Sensuality
‘Sexual hospitality’ was an ancient custom whereby the host provided a hostess from his household to the male guest for their pleasure.
The Himba tribe of Nigeria, are known to practice the Okujepisa Omuka tradition, which involves a man giving his wife to his visitor for sexual entertainment and pleasure.
While such actions do stem from cultural norms, there are other numerous examples where there is an aspect of domination, where women are forced or coerced to provide these services, rather than of their own free will.
However in today’s commercialised and highly competitive hospitality industry, a women’s sensuality has become a commodity employed to attract customers, although it may not be officially endorsed.
When women and girls are repeatedly objectified and their bodies hypersexualised, the media contributes to harmful gender stereotypes. In a study of print media, researchers at Wesleyan University found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8 percent of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects.
The hospitality industry today, not only legitimises and reinforces these historical gender stereotypes to some extent, but also eroticises hospitality, albeit in a subtle manner. Almost always front-end customer contact staff are attractive, well-groomed and well attired women. An establishment will go to great efforts taken to design ‘eye-catching’ uniforms for frontline female staff. (This is more prevalent in resort hotels in the Asian region, which are seen to be more exotic destinations) .
The hospitality industry is a “looks” industry, in which women are expected to use their appearance as part of the service experience. Restaurants often have strict grooming and uniform rules, requiring employees to maintain certain “looks.”
There is no doubt that women in the hospitality industry do brighten up and add colour to the industry by their sensuality, charm , physical form …call it what you may. Ask any hotelier and he will conform that the charming smile of a girl at the front esk has neutralised many a guest complaint!
This in turn often attracts sexists remarks and sexual innuendo from customers, which are possibly relatively ‘mild’ and female frontsline staff usually learn to cope with. ( “The food is as good as you” and “Are you on the desert menu? Because you look yummy.”)
However this environment of the hospitality industry which to a certain extent ‘accepts’ this status, could also lead to other forms of more damaging issues.
Women in Hospitality-The Sri Lankan context
Women in the industry
Women’s under -representation in the labour market is high in Sri Lanka. The population comprises of 52.8% females but when it comes to labour force participation their representation is only 35.6%, which is the lowest in South Asia (Department of Census and Statistics – Sri Lanka, 2014).
Howev, Sri Lankan females are among the most literate in South Asia, and the country tops the sub-continental rankings for female literacy. According to the University Grant Commission of Sri Lanka is the only country in the region to produce more female graduates from its local universities.
The Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM) – Colombo School in 2017 had a representation of only 21% of female students, 12 % in Kandy Hotel School and only 6% in the Anuradhapura Hotel School. Similarly the three privately managed hotel schools namely Mt. Lavinia Hotel School, The Winstone Hotel School and William Angliss Hotel schools representation is 11%, 10% and 24% respectively.
Sri Lanka’s overall female labour force participation is lagging behind many Asian nations. Presently, Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation rate is around 35% compared with male participation rate of 75%
Despite its importance to the economy (was the third largest foreign exchange earning Industry before CoVid), Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and its growth was facing several constraints, among which the lack of skilled human resources is prominent.
However, in contrast to the high levels of female participation in the tourism industry worldwide (about 54%), albeit with some regional differences, women are highly underrepresented in Sri Lanka, with females accounting for less than 10% of the workforce.
The reasons for this are varied, and often based on cultural issues and norms. Jobs in the industry are considered to be socially unsuitable for women, especially for single females, and are often associated with
safety issues (sexual harassment),
poor prospects of career advancement
lack of job security
poor retirement benefits in relation to the public sector;
long/late working hours and shift work (no flexibility)
sub-standard working environments and facilities.
Some of these are definitely perceptions perpetuated by the media. Consequently, parents and husbands have discouraged their female children from pursuing a career in the hotel sector.
According to a World Bank study on women’s participation in the Sri Lankan labour force, 85% of the respondent stated that women are likely to leave their job in tourism after marriage.
From the aforementioned reasons that women shun the tourism industry, sexual harassment at work is perhaps the most contentious issue.
In a wide ranging study published by Hospitality Management Degrees Net, it is stated that one in every ten women in the hospitality industry in the world, has faced some form of sexual harassment, with restaurant and frontline staff reporting more incidents. The type of harassments ranges from sexist remarks (87%), sexual innuendo (84%), and inappropriate touching (69%). The larger proportion (80%) are from other male co-workers and customers (78%)
In Sri Lanka, there are no specific studies done on the sexual harassment in tourism industry, but there is considerable literature on the general female workforce in Sri Lanka.
However, the same aspects are prevalent in the local tourism scene with restaurant and the housekeeping staff most prone to such issues. The most common acts of harassment were obscene language, sexual jokes and sexually suggestive comments.
In a Sri Lankan context more women in junior positions in hospitality experience sexual harassment which indicates that it has to do with both gender and power issues. With low levels of education, they are less confident than other employees when dealing with difficult people in positions of power.
There are also instances reported of subtle ‘sexual bribery’ where certain ‘favours’ can be demanded by those in higher management positions in return for job related rewards.
However, without specific information it is difficult to comment about the Sri Lankan situation. But definitely harassment is often ignored or taken to be ‘part of the job’, by both the targets of the harassment, and the co-workers who witness it. Unfortunately in the hospitality industry it is taken as the ‘norm’ and exposure to unwanted sexually related attention is considered to be part of the job (Hoel & Einarsen, 2003).
When compared to actual number of complaints on sexual harassment from the employees of the tourism sector to other main sectors, it is seen that complaints received from tourism sector is much lower than some other sectors where the females dominate in numbersss. (such as the apparel industry)
There is no doubt that women play a vital role (knowingly or unknowingly) in marketing and promoting a hospitality establishment through their own sensuality. However this subtle ‘making use’ of women to promote the business can lead to enhanced issues related to sexual harassment to them, both from within the establishment (co-workers) and from without (customers).
This can be managed if there is a good open and transparent work ethic and culture, where professionalism and the dignity of labour is respected.
D A C S & Mendis B.A.K.M. Women in Tourism Industry – Sri Lanka Silva (2017)
Museums through Prof. Thapar’s eyes
Dr. Roland Silva Memorial Lecture:
By Uditha Devapriya
On Thursday, 27 January, Prof. Romila Thapar will deliver the Dr Roland Silva Memorial Lecture to the National Trust of Sri Lanka. Prof. Thapar will be speaking about the museums in India, charting their evolution from private collections to public displays and placing them in the context of similar institutions from other colonial societies.
Museums formed a crucial part of the colonial project, aiding administrators, officials, scholars as well as nationalist elites in their reconstructions of the countries they lived in and governed. Not surprisingly, after Independence the role of such institutions changed. Prof. Thapar would be discussing this aspect as well along with their potential to bring the historian and the social scientist together and their contribution to society.
The event will be the 141st such organised by the National Trust, as part of its Monthly Lecture Sessions. Originally held on the last Thursday of every month at the HNB Auditorium in Colombo, these lectures have brought in various scholars from fields connected to the study of history including archaeology, architecture, and ornithology. The shift online during the COVID-19 pandemic did not bring them to a halt: while the trustees held 10 online lectures in 2019, they held eight in 2020 and another 10 in 2021. Since 2015, moreover, these lectures have all been uploaded online free for everyone and anyone.
The brainchild of two of Sri Lanka’s finest archaeologists and scholars, the National Trust of Sri Lanka celebrates its 17th anniversary this year. Its objectives include the identification, documentation, protection, and conservation of the country’s heritage, defined in terms of physical objects like historic buildings, monuments, artistic and cultural works, as well as intangible artefacts like rituals, customs, and beliefs. More importantly, it seeks to inculcate an interest in these matters among ordinary people.
There it has more or less been doing what such organisations should be doing. The contemporary notion of a National Trust first came into being in late 19th century in Britain, with the establishment of a National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Founded as a not-for-profit association in 1895 and incorporated by an Act in 1907, it has since become the largest conservation charity in Europe. Its aim has not just been to save important sites from destruction, but also to open them up for public enjoyment. More than 125 years later, it has evolved into a fully-fledged institution, overseeing more than 500 historic sites, 250,000 hectares of land, and 780 miles of coastline.
Since then similar institutions have sprung up elsewhere. In India, a National Trust was established as a registered society, a corporate body with its legal personality, in 1984. Today that country is home to more than one such society: the International National Trusts Organisation lists three, including the Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development. In other countries these organisations serve different functions: the Yangon Heritage Trust, for instance, focuses on urban heritage, while the Siam Society also focuses on the natural sciences. Whatever function they serve, the International National Trusts Organisation lists more than 80 of these institutions, emphasising their common inheritance.
Though the need for a National Trust had been felt for some time in Sri Lanka, nothing was done about it until Roland Silva and Senake Bandaranayake intervened in 2004. The concept papers reveal that a great deal of thought went into the founding of the organisation. Initially conceived as the “Sri Lanka National Heritage Trust”, it later transformed into the National Trust for Cultural and Natural Heritage. The concept papers tell us that from its inception, much emphasis was placed on the notion of intangible cultural heritage, based on UNESCO’s classification of customs, traditions, and beliefs as enshrined in a landmark treaty, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, in 2003.
At its inception on May 27, 2005, the National Trust counted 11 founders, including Silva and Bandaranayake as well as Ashley de Vos. To oversee its activities, seven committees were formed; another committee to oversee the management of the society, came into being in 2010. Arguably, the most important of these, the Scientific Committee, branched out to eight sub-committees, dealing with areas such as monuments and sites, architectural conservation, and industrial heritage. These, not surprisingly, reflected the expertise of its founders; since their formation, they have brought together a wide group of scholars, from art historians and architects to musicologists and archaeologists.
Today, the Trust engages in several activities, and not just lectures. In 2006 it organised an inaugural tour to the Botale Raja Maha Viharaya and other areas of historical interest in the region; due to the pandemic, it has not undertaken any historical tours since 2019, when it sponsored a visit to Jaffna. It also took up several conservation projects, one of them involving the Portuguese Fort in Malwana and another Joseph Lawton’s photographs of various national heritage sites. The latter has proved useful to the researcher and archivist of 19th century British Ceylon. These projects, in turn, led to two audio-visual productions: an exploration into the history of Sinhala music based on a lecture by Tissa Abeysekara, and a similar project about the evolution of music theatre in Sri Lanka.
Perhaps, the Trust’s most important contribution has been its publications. About 20 of these have been done so far. Foraying into different fields, they have spurred interest among scholars and readers alike.
These titles include Senake Bandaranayake’s and Albert Dharmasiri’s Sri Lankan Painting in the 20th Century, Neville Weeraratne’s The Sculpture of Tissa Ranasinghe, Nishan Perera’s Coral Reefs of Sri Lanka, Gehan de Silva Wijeyaratne’s Birds of Sri Lanka, and Shanti Jayewardene’s Geoffrey Manning Bawa: Decolonising Architecture. Reasonably priced and available at leading bookshops, they underline the need to go beyond just coffee table publications of general interest.
Elsewhere, National Trusts have become a gauge of a society’s intellectual activity. In that regard the Sri Lankan National Trust may have much more potential. Though these tours, lectures, and publications have contributed a great deal, they have not been met with adequate levels of interest. Ambitious as these have been, they have not succeeded in gleaning a response commensurate with the Trust’s objectives.
In this, of course, the Trust is not to blame: there is just so much an institution can do. Yet when one considers that the British National Trust claims a membership exceeding 5.4 million, while its counterpart here claims fewer than 600, one realises the depths to which scholarly activity in Sri Lanka has fallen.
That tells us as much about our people as it does about our intelligentsia. Of late, one leading academic institution after another has been swept up by the rigours of politicisation. Scholars have increasingly turned into yes-men. Original research has become a thing of the past. What little intellectual activity there is now is underfunded and overstretched.
If Sri Lanka is to compete internationally, it must produce scholars capable of taking it to the world. Such individuals cannot thrive in a culture that rewards obeisance and acceptance over scrutiny and critique. This does not apply to politicians only, of course; people have contributed to such a state of affairs as well. In other countries, non-specialists rarely, if ever, have the last word over experts. In Sri Lanka, however, they exercise a more formative influence on the public than do professionals. This can only end badly, for everyone.
It’s not unfitting, then, for the National Trust to have chosen someone like Romila Thapar for this year’s inaugural lecture. Professor Thapar is not just the leading historian in India; she is also one of its most outspoken intellectuals. Of late, she has come out into the open, emphasising the need for nuance and rationality in the study of history.
There she has had to face a situation not too different to what we are facing: nationalist extremists have more or less monopolised discussions, turning the study of the country’s past into debates over who should be determining its future. Lost in such debates is the point that we are what we make of ourselves, that we invent the customs and traditions which we believe define us, and that these must always be placed in their historical context.
The National Trust obviously has a role to play in all this. We are caught in the midst of a severe crisis, and economic problems have taken precedence over everything else. Yet, there probably has been no better time to raise these concerns, to talk about them, to make it easier to understand our past. This is something the Trust’s founding members, especially Senake Bandaranayake and Roland Silva, engaged induring much of their lives. It is the legacy the Trust is heir to, the legacy it bears today. If it cannot live up to its own inheritance, no one can.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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