Harassment of women in politics on the rise
by Rathindra Kuruwita
Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.
CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.
“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.
Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.
Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.
The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.
“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.
SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.
“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.
The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.
The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.
“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.
There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.
Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.
“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”
Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.
“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.
He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.
“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.
The urban-rural divide
When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.
“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.
“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.
“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.
He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.
With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.
“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.
Role of civil society and govt.
While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.
Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.
“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.
Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.
“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.
Women fighting back
Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.
While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.
“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.
Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.
He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.
“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.
* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.
Trump indicted, Aragalaya in Israel, and IMF in Sri Lanka
by Rajan Philips
Halfway through my writing this piece news broke out that a Grand Jury in New York has voted to indict former President Donald Trump on reportedly more than 30 counts in connection with his alleged role in a hush money payment scheme and cover-up of his affair with an adult film star. The sordid affair was before Trump began his presidential run; the crime of payment was committed when he was the Republican candidate. The Grand Jury in the US criminal justice system is a group of citizens who hear evidence from a prosecutor and other witnesses against an accused person and votes in secret to decide if there is enough evidence to charge that person with a crime.
That the Grand Jury in Manhattan, New York, believes that there is enough to charge a former president with a crime is unprecedented in US history, but it should be considered par for the course when it involves Donald Trump. A separate criminal trial with another jury awaits the indicted Trump, but the legal theatre that the Manhattan District Attorney has opened in New York will preoccupy US society and politics for months, even years, to come. America will trundle along with no dramatic changes internally because as a highly federated leviathan it is too cumbersome for swift overhauls. Externally, the US President will have the necessary autonomy to plough ahead, but only with impaired credibility and not without universal derision.
Besides the case in New York, Trump is facing the real possibility of a separate indictment in the State of Georgia over election interference, and the growing possibility of indictments by a federal prosecutor for his involvement in the January 6 (2021) violence at the Congress in Washington and over his handling of confidential government documents and obstructing the course of justice. Trump is still bluffing and believing that the indictments will boost his campaign for another shot at the presidency, but the only ones falling for his bluff are those in the Republican Party – those who believe like him and others who do not have the backbone to call his bluff. Trump has been calling out on his faithful to come out and protest for him, but no one seems to be falling for his demagoguery anymore.
Global protests now are against those in power and for throwing them out. They are not for reinstating someone like Trump who didn’t deserve to get power in the first place, the first time. There will be a lot of drama but nothing like what is going on in France and Israel, or what happened in Sri Lanka last year. Israel is having its own version of aragalaya with nearly a three-quarter million people storming the streets of Tel Aviv last Sunday to protest against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political scheming to subordinate the country’s judiciary to its legislature. The pretext theory for Netanyahu in Israel, as with others of his ilk elsewhere, is that unelected judges should not be allowed to frustrate the so called will of the people that is conveniently expressed through the governing majority of their elected representatives in parliament. Mr. Netanyahu’s real purpose, however, is to prevent the courts from finding him guilty on charges of fraud, corruption and potentially sending him to jail.
The scale and persistence of protests in Israel are not unlike the explosion of aragalaya in Sri Lanka. But both are different from the protests in France in that they are not about government corruption or an authoritarian President. Also, the judiciary is not implicated in the French standoff between President Macron and the people protesting over the working life span of ordinary French people, especially women and wage workers. Sri Lankan governments and Presidents, like colonial Governors before them, have had their monkeying moments with the judiciary, but the judiciary has been spared of political ignominy for some time after the cowardly impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake by Rajapaksa bullies.
Now there are rumblings that Supreme Court Judges might be hauled before a Parliamentary Privileges Committee to clear up just who the bosses are when it comes to disbursing government funds. This is President Wickremesinghe’s tit-for-tat response to a divisional bench of the Supreme Court directing the Treasury not to withhold funds needed for local government elections that are now past their due date. This is not the same situation that Netanyahu has stirred up in Israel, and it is not likely to stir up the same level of protests as in Israel. Put another way, there will be no aragalaya for the judges in Sri Lanka.
But the judges should feel free to stage their own form of silent protest and rebuff any highhanded call to attend a parliamentary committee meeting. They can take a leaf from Justice TS Fernando’s playbook when he stood up to Felix Dias’s tricks and entreaties to drop the curtain on the proceedings of Sri Lanka’s first Constitutional Court in the 1970s. Such a judicial pushback against a clever-by-half executive will command huge public support and sympathy, even if the people may not take to the streets (or Galle Face) as they did during aragalaya, or as it is going on now in Israel. There are other differences too.
The protests in Israel against Netanyahu’s scheming against the judiciary are also a manifestation of simmering differences between secular Jews and orthodox religious Jews over the future direction of Israel, the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the provocative Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The orthodox religious Jews of Israel generally of Middle Eastern descent are hostile to the courts which often rule against ultranationalist Jewish claims and agendas. The courts are seen to be dominated by liberal judges who are Jews of mostly of European origin.
Israel’s ultranationalist and religious Jews have largely been a fringe force in Israeli politics until Netanyahu reached a Faustian pact with them after the elections last November to become Israel’s Prime Minister for the sixth time in his checkered political career. He cobbled together a coalition comprising rightwing and religiously conservative parties, all of them more conservative than Netanyahu’s Likud Party, to form the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. Their aim is to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank, subordinate the courts to the will of the governing coalition, and transform the state of Israel to become more religious and less secular.
Netanyahu calls his era Israel’s golden age to the dismay of the country’s moderates and its overseas benefactors. The country including the military is gravely divided, and the protests have been successful in forcing Mr. Netanyahu to call for ‘a pause’ to his legislative scheming, to have more dialogue with his opponents. But he has given no indication that he will scale down the changes that he is pursuing. However, the PM’s pause has becalmed sections of the protesters. Histadrut, the country’s largest trade union with 800,000 members, has now called off a general strike after successfully staging a token strike that even included Israeli officials in foreign missions walking out of their embassies.
In France, on the other hand, the unions are demanding that their President follow Israel and call for a pause on the retirement age! The Macron government has responded that it is prepared to dialogue with the unions on any and all of their other grievances except the age of retirement. So, the standoff continues with no end in sight. But neither in France nor in Israel, is there any attempt to clampdown on protesters or declare emergency rule. That happens to be only in Sri Lanka, thanks to President Wickremesinghe and his political machinations.
The IMF and its Discontents
It has been clear that after the tumultuous exit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Wickremesinghe has been the beneficiary of a protest fatigue in the country. Strangely enough, it is the President who seems to be bent on poking the protest tiger to give himself the excuse to impose a clampdown. His poking is all political; for on the more critical issue of the economy, the President is shadow boxing because there is no real opposition to his economic initiatives including his ‘pre-historical’ (inasmuch as Sri Lanka’s economic history is just beginning with Ranil at ’74) deal he signed with the IMF. While the Sri Lankan protest universe is mad as hell with the President on specific issues – taxes, LG election etc., no one has the stomach for a general strike over the IMF.
While a strike may have been averted, that was no reason for government bozos to light firecrackers to celebrate the IMF deal. There is nothing to celebrate here. The IMF is not the end of the road, it is only the end of the beginning. At the same time, the old detractors of the IMF seem to be immaturing with age – to borrow Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s classic putdown of Tony Benn, then keeper of the Labour Party’s left-conscience, that “Tony immatures with age!” There is no point in rehashing the rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s against an IMF deal in 2023. Those who eternally bring up the venerable name of Joseph Eugene Stiglitz and his searing criticisms one time of the IMF, may want to know what The Economist said recently about Mr. Stiglitz and the IMF, that they may have “warmed to each other,” after their earlier differences. All of this is table talk that is not going to help Sri Lanka in any way.
Apart from the details of the Ranil-IMF agreement, what is remarkable now is the openness of the IMF officials to engage directly with the Sri Lankan public. On March 21, after the IMF agreement was finalized, there was an extensive Press Briefing and Q & A session conducted virtually from Washington. Quite a few commentators and journalists participated from Colombo, and the IMF website carries the transcript of the whole briefing and exchanges. Questions and answers were free and frank, and covered, besides details of the agreement, even the timing of local and presidential elections in Sri Lanka. The exchanges were livelier and more informed than one might come across in today’s parliament in Sri Lanka. This was followed by a virtual roundtable meeting with trade union representatives in Colombo, in which the IMF officials indicated that the government might be able to revise the current tax proposals to address some of the union concerns.
The onus is on the government to finally set about revamping the economy. For the opposition, there are parts of the IMF agreement that can and should be used to hold the government accountable and answerable in a very political way. These include eradicating corruption, going beyond the IMF’s goal of “reducing corruption vulnerabilities; strengthening social safety nets; and revisiting the tax concessions currently offered to potential Port City investors. The IMF Staff Report includes a number of Annexes, one of which, Annex VII. The Social Safety Net: Recent Developments and Reform Priorities, could be a technical blueprint for a political manifesto. Annex VII. Colombo Port City Project, provides a sobering account of what the Galle Face venture may or may not bring to Sri Lanka after all the shouting. There is a lot to chew here besides the shouting.
The Need To Feed And Invest In The Future Of Our School children
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
Undoubtedly, children, particularly from low-income families, have borne the most significant hardships due to the unprecedented economic crisis that has beset our country. The single biggest challenge has been the skyrocketing food prices of even essentials, resulting in many families adopting coping strategies from reducing the number of meals consumed to eating less preferred meals lacking nutrition. As a result, the impact on schoolchildren has been a double whammy from constant hunger to skipping school, thus impacting their education.
The WFP situation report in October 2022 said, ” Even before the economic crisis and the pandemic, malnutrition rates across Sri Lanka were already high. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lankan women and children suffered from far higher rates of malnutrition than most other middle-income countries: 17 per cent of children aged under five were too short because of stunting, and 15 per cent were too thin for their height (wasted). The current economic crisis will likely aggravate this further.”
However, the statement made in September 2022 by the SLPP Anuradhapura District Parliamentarian K.P.S Kumarasiri in parliament that he had received reports of instances where 20 students fainted in three schools at the Vilachchiya Divisional Secretariat division caused a media storm and highlighted the problem. He went on to name the schools where the fainting of the students had occurred. He also highlighted media reports of a student bringing coconut kernels as her midday meal to the school in Minuwangoda.
True to form, Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said he was unaware of such incidents in Vilachchiya. However, he assured that he would look into the matter and denied the occurrence in Minuwangoda. Chief Governmen Whip Prassana Ranatunga, also got into the act by saying that Minuwangoga was his electorate. Having inquired from the principal about the media reports, Ranatunga attributed them to lies fabricated to instigate people!
The government reacted to continued social media posts citing incidents of schoolchildren fainting by extending a ban on public servants speaking to journalists to include social media posts. In addition, the order said, “Expressing opinions on social media by a public officer shall constitute an offense that leads to disciplinary action.” This was after certain provincial health officials, and teachers claimed students were fainting in schools because of a lack of food. The government also suspended the former Hambantota Regional Director of Health, Dr Chamal Sanjeewa, charging him with “causing inconvenience to the government” by presenting “false” information to a media briefing about child malnutrition in Sri Lanka. One hopes that he has now been reinstated and an apology tendered to him.
Why the government denied the existence of the problem is a mystery because several months before that, the World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization, stated in a release, “An estimated 4.9 million people – 22 per cent of the population – are currently food-insecure and require humanitarian assistance. Reduced domestic agricultural production, scarcity of foreign exchange reserves and depreciation of the local currency have caused food shortages and a spike in the cost of living, limiting people’s access to healthy and affordable meals. The economic crisis will push families into hunger and poverty – some for the first time – adding to the half a million people who the World Bank estimates have fallen below the poverty line because of the pandemic. The latest WFP assessment reveals that 86 per cent of families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and, in some cases, skipping meals altogether.
Similarly, in its 2022 report, UNICEF said, “Children are disproportionately affected by the rapidly unfolding economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Rising food and fuel prices, frequent power cuts, and shortages of life-saving medicines are particularly impacting the poorest and most marginalized. More than 5.7 million people, including 2.3 million children, require humanitarian assistance. Sri Lanka is among the top ten countries with the highest number of malnourished children, and the numbers are expected to rise further.”
Save the Children Sri Lanka released in March 2023 their “Rapid Needs Assessment Report – Phase 2,” a comprehensive report based on a country-wide survey done in December 2022. Some of the critical findings were:
Food was a significant contributor to household expenses, which increased by five percent from 44% in June 2022 to 49% in December 2022.
33% of households reported they still cannot meet their food needs.
30% of households could not provide adequate nutritious food for their children, and six percent could not provide any nutritious food.
50% of households have reduced the quantity of food consumed
74% of households are eating less preferred food.
27% of households have reduced the frequency of food intake (three times to twice or once)
25% of adults skipped food
Almost 90% of households adopted some coping strategy to meet their daily food demand. The most cited report of coping strategies adopted was relying on less preferred and less expensive food.
The manual on the School Nutrition Program published in 2020 by the Ministry of Education states, “Many surveys reveal that school-going children’s physical, physiological and nutritional status directly or indirectly impacts the students’ attendance, participation in learning and performances. Therefore, improving the nutritional level of children of school-going age is essential”.
The Observations of a Medical Consultant
I reached out to Dr B. J. C. Perera, Specialist Consultant Paediatrician, for his observations on the importance of nutrition for children. He sent me a short note “It is abundantly clear that optimal nutrition is of seminal importance for children and adolescents. Right from the time the baby is in the womb, where adequate nutrition for the foetus is provided by the mother, to the time after birth, where the golden elixir of mother’s milk provides all necessary nutrients to the baby during the first six months of life on earth and then afterwards to the time during early and late childhood as well as adolescence where a well-balanced diet provides adequate nutrition, the young ones of our land are totally dependent on the parents for the provision of optimal nourishment. All essential nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals have to be provided for children and adolescents for physical and mental growth. Physical growth in stature leading to satisfactory weight gain and an increase in height depends to a great extent on the provision of adequate food.
On the other hand, the inadequacy of essential nutrients leads to a reduction in height or stunting and poor weight gain, leading to different types of malnutrition states. Moreover, the inadequacy of certain essential nutrients leads to the development of well-documented diseases and increases the susceptibility of malnourished children to catch various infectious diseases. Many believe that the inadequacy of food leads only to disturbances in physical growth. However, it must be pointed out that optimal nutrition is also crucial for cognitive and mental development. There is accumulating evidence from research studies that inadequate nutrition has significant effects on intelligence as well as the proper development of all types of mental skills”.
Who is Doing What?
The Sri Lankan government has funded a school meal programme for several decades. According to the Ministry of Education manual on school nutrition, in 2017, a total of 1,105,605 students of 7,871 schools benefited from the meal programme while 112,088 students of 414 schools benefited from the programme of providing fresh milk.” But unfortunately, one of the economic crisis’s consequences was the reduction in the 2022 budget allocated for the school meal programme. Nevertheless, according to recent media reports, the cabinet has approved a proposal by the President to extend the school meal program to benefit an additional one million students, resulting in nearly 50% of school children benefiting from the program.
Several international organizations have come forward to help with the school meal program. For example, the October 2022 WFP report stated that 556,929 schoolchildren had received school meals prepared with rice supported by WFP. In addition, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and in partnership with Save the Children, the United States donated 3,000 tons of food to nourish school children across Sri Lanka. The U.S. Ambassador Julie Chang said, “This donation from the American people targets the most vulnerable Sri Lankans – children – and enables them to focus on their schooling rather than on their hunger.” Furthermore, UNICEF was planning to raise U.S. $ 28.3 million for various initiatives in the country, including providing nutrition to children.
The Chinese government donated 8,862,990 metres of cloth to the Education Ministry as school uniform material for the 2023 academic year. The donation amounts to 70% of the country’s school uniform material required for this year.
Several charitable organizations and corporates have also gotten involved in supporting the school’s meal program. For example, my former employer, the John Keells group, has taken 12 schools and seven preschools under their wing, supporting 2,415 children with daily meals under their “Pasal Diriya” program. The supermarket arm of the group is also supporting an initiative to feed 1,000 preschool kids aged between 2.5 and five years for over six months. The customers of Keells Super primarily fund this program contributing 80% of the cost and the company the balance. I have also read media reports of a donor-funded project called ” Rise Up School Meals”, supporting 12,000+ children in 81 schools with meals and a glass of milk. The Roshan Mahanama Trust of the former Sri Lankan cricketer too is doing excellent service helping children with school books, among many other initiatives. No doubt, many other organizations and charities are doing their bit.
In addition, in a personal capacity, many assist with meals and purchasing school books, bags and shoes for school children individually or as a group coordinating with school principals and teachers.
All these initiatives are genuinely commendable, and no doubt go some way towards helping children, particularly from low-income families. The smile that you get from a child after providing a wholesome meal is indeed something that will make one happy and fulfilled. However, whilst international organizations, corporates, charitable organizations, and well-intentioned individuals can support the initiative to feed a child for some time, the primary responsibility lies with the government.
Therefore, it is incumbent on the government to allocate the necessary funds and ensure the program’s success. It should not remain only a slogan. UNICEF, in their release, stated, ” In tackling the current crisis in Sri Lanka, put children first. As the situation evolves, Government efforts must include closely monitoring the impact on Sri Lanka’s youngest citizens—the future of the country, but currently the most vulnerable.” No one can disagree with that.
Kumar Sangakkara brings pride to Sri Lanka yet again
MTV 1 in its night news bulletin on March 27, mentioned that Kumar Sngakkara had addressed the Oxford Union and presented a short visual. Interest kindled, I googled and watched the entire Union session on video.
There he sat comfortable and so at ease, looking his handsomest best, dressed near casual in a dark blazer like jacket with grey slacks and subdued tie. He spoke excellently with the slightest of attractive accent, as English should be spoken. Also, no er…s and um…s at all. His talk, whether recounting incidents from his life or answering questions about cricket, was even paced and smooth flowing. Listeners’ reaction seemed to be riveted interest; questions at the end were many and penetrating.
A note on the Oxford Union is apt here. It is a debating society named the Oxford Union Society, commonly referred to as the Oxford Union, in the city of Oxford, England, whose membership is drawn primarily from the University. Founded in 1823, “it is one of Britain’s oldest university unions and one of the world’s most prestigious private students’ unions. It exists independently from the university and is distinct from the Oxford University Students Union.” Women were admitted as late as 1963. “The Union has the tradition of hosting some of the world’s most prominent individuals across politics, academia and popular culture.”
Please do note that sentence. Thus Sangakkara has been accepted by a most prestigious association as one of the worlds’ most prominent individuals. (In contrast local figures that stomp our stages hubris-filled come derisively to mind: granted PhDs from potty institutions and using Dr with names; claiming educational/professional qualifications that never were and strutting puffed up with self-inflation)
Kumar Sangakkara addressed the Oxford Union on February 23 this year. Seeing him walk up to the small platform filled me with justified pride. The convener, probably President of the Oxford Union, asked the first question on how Kumar got started in cricket. Kumar replied he was more into tennis and swimming as a schoolboy in Kandy, but at around 18 or 19, he moved to cricket and liked it as it was a team game calling for collaboration and playing as a cohesive group. He mentioned his father, several times later too, as being his guide and promoter, wanting him to always excel; while his mother was keener on his studies and educational success. His father had advised him to learn to change and never stop learning. “He threw a book at me each week – Tolstoy or philosophy or whatever and on Friday came question-time. He kept at me throughout. When in Australia for a test match, the hotel reception phoned me one night to say I had received a fax from my father. Initial alarm gave way to suspicion he was being usual. I told reception to put it under my door in the morning. As I had expected it was an entire page from the biography of Don Bradman and advice I should follow him.”
From his talk it was obvious he grew up in a closely knit family of three siblings and now his own family is very important to him. He referred to his wife several times.
He modestly said he was far from being a superior cricketer. “Talent is an overused word. Was I talented? Yes. Super-talented? No, not at all. I went through a learning curve and became self aware. What is identity – mine? Cricket for a short while, philosophy of life now. Personal relationships have been very favourable to me always.” He mentioned that leadership is basically stewardship.
Speaking of cricket per se, he stressed the fact that when they played matches it was more for the people of SL than for themselves individually or for the team or the Board or SLC. “People looked up to us and in a generous manner, more than in most countries; and we represented their yearning. In our country people go through so much they deserve to be given wins on the field. We are looked upon as an integral part of them. Hence winning a match or a series was more than a victory; it was a fulfillment of people’s hopes and dreams. To be Captain of the team carried an extra dimension to it.”
He mentioned that cricket in Sri Lanka, like much else was/is highly politicized and calls for enlightened leadership with vision and transparency. He very sensibly did not elaborate on politicization though we remember full well how after winning a World Cup he and Mahela were subject to probing. Worse was to come after he delivered that excellent ‘Spirit of Cricket’ address at Lords, invited by the MCC, for which he received a rarely given standing ovation. No, the yakkos back home, meaning Colombo, were waiting to question and blacklist him. The then Minister of Sports – Mahindananda Aluthgamage – still a VIP in the present government, pronounced that Kumar’s speech would be ‘investigated’. I commented soon after, in this column, that the use of that word itself showed ignorance. What one can do to fault a speech is analyze it. With hindsight I now wonder whether Aluthgamage was puppet stringed to behave as he did, by other/s who thought they were the kings of sport.
Question time had many hands being raised. One undergrad seemingly from South Asia wanted to know the highpoints of his life. Prompt came the answer: “Leading five winning teams.” Another queried about memorabilia. Kumar said he had no attachment to collecting souvenirs of his cricketing career, he did not know what happened to some of his medals won.
He was asked about cricket in Britain which he answered at length. Then came the question from a young woman how he felt about the Cowdrey lecture. Kumar elaborated that he hesitated at first on accepting the invitation but the people concerned persisted. So he agreed and then thought of what his topics/subjects should be. He decided to speak from a personal perspective about cricket as it is perceived by the common man and other strata of Sri Lankan society; what significance it carries; how it is the most favoured sport – even more than other team sports like rugby. The inherited game from the British colonial rulers was adapted and evolved to be representative of the country with its cultural heritage and ideals et al. Little by little ideas that came to him fell into place and fitted well. His writing the script, however, only ended just before he got dressed to proceed to the venue. He did not mention even in passing how his ‘Spirit of Cricket’ address was received and his excellence acknowledged.
Advice was sought. His answer included: “Think freely, critically, acquire wisdom which is different from education, and be honest. Stand up against policy and politicians that have been negative and caused trouble.” He was asked what his political stand was. He replied that it was of sports and politics; they being interdependent and unfortunately not a healthy relationship as of now. He said his wife more than him was out with the initial Aragalaya and was involved with protest marches and gatherings, “We have an obligation to speak for the greater good of our country.”
I do so sincerely hope more people would listen to his address to the Oxford Union, more so politicians, most of them third rate but preening themselves as the best. A personal opinion I dare place before you is that Kumar Sangakkara has never been given the honour, even public mention, that he richly deserves. Some would bring in the words jealousy and envy – two emotions I personally despise and cannot believe people harbour. But of course there was and still is this from lesser men and some so self-called sportsmen. Also, he was not a ‘hail fellow well met’ type. Not at all that Kumar made himself thus or was elitist in manner and behavior. He just was of a better breed and school from those who harboured within them innate inferiority complexes.
The final question asked of him by an Oxford Unionist was: What now? What next? Kumar smiled broadly and gave no definite answer, except to indicate spend more time being a family man which he always was in boyhood and continues in manhood as well.
He met and spent time with Sri Lankan Oxford University students, including it was mentioned, Insaf Bakeer Markar, Pres of the SL Society of the U of O. I add that the details given when googling his name are that he is a cricket commentator, former professional cricketer, ICC Hall of Fame inductee, businessman and former president of the MCC.
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