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Midweek Review

Heisnam Kanhailal (1941-2016): Remembering a Theatrical Legacy

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Sabitri demonstrates walking upstream during an actor training workshop at NSD, 2010. Photo credit Saumya Liyanage.

 

by Dr Saumya Liyanage

Victor Thoudam, one of my closest friends, was a student at the National School of Drama (NSD) New Delhi, India; he was about to launch his latest performance in Imphal, Manipur amidst Covid-19 pandemic. I contacted Victor to congratulate him on his work. During our conversation, I asked him about Kanhailal, a visionary director and writer I met in 2010 in New Delhi. He said, “Kanhailal is no more with us”. I was saddened and felt lost while remembering my short but worthy conversation I had had with Kanhailal in the early winter days of 2010 at the NSD. I have associated with Indian theatre directors from the northeastern region, and I had fruitful conversations with three of them during my visits to NSD. One was theatre and film actor Adil Hussain. Other two were theatre directors and writers Heisnam Kanhailal and Ratan Thiyam. Since 2010, I have had spoken with my Indian colleagues and nobody informed me that Kanhailal has passed away. Then I asked Victor about Ratan Thiyam, and he said, “He is getting old but is still active in theatre”.

 

NSD Years

It was winter in New Delhi and the chilly wind was unbearable when travelling at night in a trishaw for a play or a movie. But Bharath Rang Mahothsav (BRM), the International Theatre Festival, organised by the NSD, provided warmth and the motivation for me to witness regional and global theatre trends. The International theatre festival was on at several theatres around the school, including Abhimunch; theatre productions from all over the world and every part of India were being staged in the evening. There were also dance experimentations and other happenings in various non-conventional performance spaces in the school premises.

After watching plays at night, students, teachers, actors, and directors would gather around a bonfire outside the school premises, sipping milk tea, eating samosas and discussing what they have seen. On such an occasion, my colleagues at NSD, Prof. Robindas, and Adil Hussain got me to watch a play from the Manipur region. The Director was Heisnam Kanhailal. During my breakfast at the crowded canteen of the NSD, students also insisted that I see Kanhailal’s production and Ratan Thiyam’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken. NSD staff was generous enough to provide me free tickets to watch all the plays during the festival.

Ratan Thiyam

It was the first time I saw Ratan Thiyam’s theatre work. The hall was packed with students, theatergoers, critics, and laymen. Some spectators were even sitting on the floor. Ratan Thiyam was very famous in Delhi. I was mesmerized by Ratan Thiyam’s theatrical approach to Ibsen’s play. It was adapted and produced in a Manipoorian style with mind blowing sets and costumes. Ratan’s actors, their rigor in performing on stage, are unforgettable. But critics like Rustom Bharucha argue that Ratan’s theatre is more festival centric and elaborate colours and sets which overpowers the real essence of his theatre. As Bharucha further emphasizes, Ratan Thiyam creates a theatrical extravaganza or an ‘invented tradition’ through which an imagined ‘Manipooriness’ and indigeneity is created for the cultural centers such as New Delhi and elsewhere.

Kanhailal and Indigenous Theatre

The theatre has stunned me twice so far. The first one is the play titled Othello in Black and White directed by Royston Abel. It was staged at the BRM festival before 2010. cannot remember the exact date. My colleague Adil Hussain played the key role in it. His performance as Othello was fantastic. The second was the Manipur play, adapted from a folk tale, and directed by Heisnam Kanhailal. It was very simple and minimalistic. The key role was played by a matured actress. Later I found that she was the collaborator and lifelong partner of Kanhailal’s plays, Sabitri. Today, I vaguely remember the play as I saw this production way back in 2010.

When Artaud writes how an actor should impact upon the audience member and should vibrate her body similar to a serpent feeling the vibration of the floor, Sabitri’s lyrical body and stylized movements directly communicated with me. Rejecting the mundane theatre conventions, Kanhailal’s actors used human voice in its fullest capacity and tonal variations, and the lyrical body movements to convey the meanings of a human story. This masterpiece exceeded my generic understanding of proscenium theatre and was a vibratory theatrical experience with a minimum effort of extraordinary theatre effects.

After watching this play, I was eagerly waiting to have a discussion with Kanhailal. My friend Victor came, the following day, with a photocopied book. It was about Kanhailal’s theatre practice written by Prof. Rustom Bharucha. It was The Theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa (1992). Because it was out of print. It was a precious present for me as I started reading Kanhailal’s theatre career and his practice. With the support of NSD staff, I managed to get an appointment from Khaneilal to meet him for a discussion. I met him at the NSD with his wife Sabitri and had a long discussion on his theatre, his beliefs, his practice, and training regime of actors in Kalakshetra, theatre ensemble located in Imphal, Manipur.

Third Theatre

For Bharucha, Kanhailal’s ‘poor theatre’ (meaning the avoidance of excessive theatre technology or other auxiliary material) is a powerful political idiom which captures the indigenous sentiment and oppression of people live in Imphal, Manipur. Writing about Kanhailal ’s famous theatre work, Pebet (1975), Bharucha contends that as a theatre director, Kanhailal questions the idea of janmabhumi, the patriotic ideology created by the dominants, used as an oppressive tool to suppress the marginalised communities (Bharucha 1992). In this play, mother Pebet (a small extinct bird) is disgracefully attacked by her own children after being manipulated by her opponents. When this play was first performed, it was considered not only as anti-Hindu production but also a theatre work promoting anti-Indian sentiment.

Kanhailal and Sabitri conducted several actor training sessions for graduate students during my stay at the NSD. These sessions consisted of learning from nature and working with various natural metaphors to create imaginative bodily movements. Most of the time, Kanhailal appeared as a guru, discussing and explaining things to students while Sabitri demonstrated all the exercises they discussed in class. One of the exciting acting exercises that I observed was walking upstream in a river. Sabitri’s body was a flexible tool although she was in her later fifties at the time. She started showing students how to imagine a shallow river and wade it. Students were then asked to imitate Sabitri and her body movements. Workshop went for two hours followed by a discussion.

Similar to other theatre practitioners in the new era of Indian theatre, Kanhailal has been inspired by European Avant Guards such as Grotowski’s corporeal theatre and also Badal Sirkar’s approaches to communal theatre coined as ‘third theatre’ in India (Nair, 2007, Hirsch and Brustein, 1970, Brahma Prakash, 2010). While his contemporary theatre director Ratan Thiyam’s theatre was criticized as ‘reinvention of tradition’ and meant to please for the cultural centres in India, Kanhailal’s theatre is minimalistic and dominates non-verbal theatricalities opposed to established proscenium, middle class theatres. However, Bharucha is critical of being non-verbal and the domination and overemphasis of pre-expressivity of Kanhailal’s theatre. As he argues ‘Kanhailal seems to have overstressed non-verbalism and the physicality of his actor’s training at the expense of confronting the spoken word […] The instincts and reflexes of Kanhailal’s actors are extremely sharp, but their minds have been somewhat numbed by their essentially dream-like response to performance.’ (Bharucha, 1992, p. 19). Kanhailal’s theatre is unique in that he borrows most of his materials from his inherent Meitei tradition and its folklore. Yet, these folk tales and fables are transformed into political idioms through lyrical and corporeal works of actors. As a theatre producer, Kanhailal rejects elaborate sets, costumes, music, stage props, make-up, or stage light. His theatre can be performed either on conventional proscenium theatre or any space where people can gather. This simplistic and minimalistic nature lays emphasis on actors’ contribution, their mannerisms, and vocal capacity to impress the audience more than anything else. Hence, Kanhailal creates a powerful and unique theatre mode through which our senses are filled with a novel theatrical experience.

Conclusion

Kanhailal’s theatre and Sabitri’s performances have been well received by many critics, theatre scholars in India and abroad. Kanhailal received the Padma Sri Civilian Award in 2004 and later in 2016 he received the highest Padma Bhushan Civilian Award from the Government of India. Kanhailal and his collaborative partner Sabitri have created over 20 productions during their theatre career. Most of these productions have been performed in major cities in India and at international theatre festivals. Sabitri as an actresss has received many awards and accolades including Best Actress awards at Cairo International Theatre Festival, Natya Rathna and other state wards such as Padma Sri and Sangeeth Natak Academy Award.

Working and dedicating one’s life and energy to sustaining a community-based theatre is a difficult exercise. Kanhilal and Sabitri have both succeeded in their endeavour. Many students who graduate from the NSD are attracted to more popular entertainment industries such as television and cinema. But theatre artists such as Ratan Thiyam or Kanhailal were not drawn towards those popular expressions. Instead, they dedicated their lives to creating a form of ephemeral arts, whose original quality cannot be preserved in another form.

(The author wishes to thank Himansi Dehigama for assistance in preparing this article.)

Reference

Bharucha, R. (1992). The Indigenous Theatre of Kanhailal. New Theatre Quarterly, 8(29), pp.10–22.

Brahma Prakash (2010). Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 27(1), pp.175–179.

Hirsch, F. and Brustein, R. (1970). The Third Theatre. Educational Theatre Journal, 22(1), p.113.

Kothari, S. and Panchal, G. (1984). The Rising Importance of Indigenous Theatre in India. Asian Theatre Journal, 1(1), p.112.

Nair, Sreenath. (2007). Poetics, Plays, and Performance: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 25(1), pp.165–168.

Rustom Bharucha (1992). The theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa. Calcutta: Seagull Books.



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Midweek Review

leaves out Gash dispatches, Swiss embassy abduction drama and India’s accountability

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by Shamindra Ferdinando

Veteran journalist Tim Sebastian interviewed Foreign Secretary, retired Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage, in the immediate aftermath of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopting accountability resolution in respect of Sri Lanka.

Twenty-two countries voted for the resolution, 11 against, whereas 14 abstained. The vote on Sri Lanka took place on March 23. Among those who abstained was India whose intervention here in the 80s caused a war that was brought to a successful conclusion in May 2009. But Sebastian was only interested in accountability on Sri Lanka’s part. He wasn’t concerned about Adele, who played a significant role in building a female fighting cadre for the LTTE, either.

“In the last few days, the UN Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution highlighting your government’s failure to ensure accountability for human rights violations and mandating UN investigators to collect and preserve data that can be used in the future judicial proceedings. They did that Mr. Secretary because your abject failure to do it yourself and because of the worsening human rights climate in your country. Aren’t you ashamed of that?”

It was internationally acclaimed Sebastian’s opening question to Foreign Secretary Colombage in ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview titled: Is Sri Lanka on the brink.

Admiral Colombage responded: “Well, Tim let me say the World War ended 78 years later… earlier and we still see the residual effects on the environment on the physical things and the Good Friday agreement was in 1998 and there are 116 walls which is called peace walls. Still…”

Sebastian interrupted Colombage. “We are not talking about Northern Ireland; Mr. Secretary We are talking about Sri Lanka and your failure to ensure accountability for human rights violations… which you have denied in other interviews.”

One-time Navy Commander, and the Additional Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Foreign Relations, Prof. Colombage received appointment as the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry following the last general election.

Admiral Colombage, who had served the SLN for 36 years, was its 18th Commander. He received the command in 2012, three years after the end of the war. Following his retirement, Colombage served as the Director of the Centre for India-Sri Lanka Initiatives and Law of the Sea Centre at the Pathfinder Foundation. At the time of his appointment, as Foreign Secretary, Colombage was the Additional Secretary to the President on Foreign Relations and the Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL).

 

Relying on a backbencher’s speech

Let me examine the latest Geneva resolution against the backdrop of the ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview and the Daily Mirror interview, titled ‘Govt. committed two mistakes’, with one-time Permanent Secretary to the Justice Ministry Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama published on March 27, 2021.

Responding to a query, Dr. Jayawickrama asserted: The mistake that the government appears to have made was to think that it was all about “40,000 deaths”, and to rely on a backbencher’s speech made in the House of Lords. It was never about that. Another mistake that the government appears to have made was to convince itself that the Resolution was initiated by “Diaspora Tamils” when it was not.”

Tamil Diaspora, based in the UK, Australia, and Canada, vigorously circulated the article in the wake of accusations the government compelled the newspaper to ‘kill’ it. The paper denied the accusations. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesperson Suren Surendiran tweeted: “Remarkably honest replies from Dr. Jayawickrama to some pertinent questions from the “Daily Mirror” Surendiran posted the entire text alleging government-imposed censorship.

Dr. Jayawickrama referred to Lord Naseby as a backbencher whereas Sebastian never referred to the Conservative Party politician’s disclosure in the House of Lords on Oct 12, 2017 or Admiral Colombage cared at least to mention it. If the government relied on Lord Naseby’s revelations, as Dr. Jayawickrama asserted, the former could have exploited the disclosure. The incumbent government conveniently refrained from taking advantage of Lord Naseby’s ‘work’ much to the dismay of the former Royal Air Force pilot who exposed the British duplicity.

 

A fresh Geneva initiative

Sebastian’s reference to fresh authorisation for UN investigators to collect and preserve data that can be used in the future judicial proceedings should have prompted Admiral Colombage to remind British television journalist and novelist how the UK government suppressed wartime dispatches from its High Commission in Colombo (January-May 2009). The proposed inquiry is scheduled to take place over a period of 12 months, commencing Sept 2021. In fact, during the entire interview, Sebastian conveniently never referred to how the UK suppressed dispatches from Colombo. Lord Naseby obtained some sections of the dispatches after nearly a three-year struggle. He had to seek the intervention of the UK Information Commission to lay his hands on those dispatches.

Leader of Sri Lanka Core Group in addition to being UNHRC member, the UK still refuses to release dispatches despite Geneva authorising a new Inquiry Team, led by a Senior Legal Advisor, to collect all available evidence pertaining to the war and post-war events. Those desperate to prevent the full disclosure of British dispatches from Colombo, obviously advantageous to Sri Lanka, call it a political statement. It was certainly not. Former Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva, in an interview with ‘Get Real’ anchor Johnney Mahieash, and subsequent queries from the writer, asked why the UK wanted to suppress dispatches from its own man in wartime Colombo Lt. Col. Anthony Gash who served as the British Defense Attaché throughout the Vanni war. The former CJ was of the view that Geneva should seek access not only to the UK dispatches but from other major countries, particularly the US, India, Germany and Canada. He pointed out that the wartime US Defense Advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith contradicted war crimes accusations in 2011, six years before Lord Naseby revealed the existence of British wartime dispatches.

 

NPC and GTF back thorough inquiry

The Island sought National Peace Council (NPC) Executive Director Dr. Jehan Perera’s views on the following query: “Geneva set up a new inquiry mechanism at a cost of USD 2.8 mn to gather and examine evidence and information pertaining to the whole gamut of war crimes allegations and current developments. What is your stand on SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris public call to the UK to submit Gash reports against the backdrop of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Dr. Harsha de Silva, who once led the government delegation to the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) of Sri Lanka’s human rights record at Geneva backing the government call? Dr. de Silva’s all available info should be made available to the new Geneva inquiry team.”

Dr. Perera responded: “All evidence should be placed before the UN investigation unit and this includes the dispatches of Lt Col Anthony Gash as revealed by Lord Naseby.  The UN unit needs to seek that information itself to get a rounded perspective on the problem.

 “On the other hand, if the government formally makes a request for the Gash reports it will be accepting the legitimacy of the UN unit which is not its current position. Instead I would wish that the government resolves the issues laid out in the various UN reports through internal mechanisms that have the support of the political parties, including the minorities, within the country. 

“It is only if the country is internally united that we can go on the path of development that the government intends and respond successfully to international pressures. Otherwise it looks like our country is locked in a vicious cycle.”

Dr. Perera represented the country at the Geneva sessions during the yahapalana administration. 

The writer posed the same question to GTF’s Surendiran, who, too, backed examination of all evidence and information available. Surendiran said: “Of course all available evidence should be made available to the investigative team that will collect and analyse this evidence. No one should hinder that process of collection of evidence, be it the UK Government or the Government of Sri Lanka. In that regard, Sri Lanka if it has nothing to fear about should allow the investigators free access so that the collection process can be comprehensive and complete.”

 In fact, Wikileaks revelations pertaining to Sri Lanka, too, should be examined along with submissions received by the UNSG’s Panel of Experts’ (PoE/Darusman Report) that paved the way for the 2015 co-sponsorship of an accountability resolution. Would the new Geneva re-visit previously collected information, particularly by the PoE, covered by UN a 20-year confidentiality clause (2011-2031)?

 

UK bending backwards to protect

relations with Lanka

The FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), in its objections filed with the Information Commission, following Lord Naseby’s bid to gain dispatches from Colombo, stated; “Lt. Col. Gash was the FCO’s defense attaché at the British Commission in Colombo during the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Many of his dispatches contain information provided directly to him by his contacts in the Sri Lankan government, the Sri Lankan Army or other military sources. His reports indicate, he had access to reports on troop movements, Sri Lankan military strategic thinking, the movements of the LTTE and assessments of casualty figures. The effective conduct of international relations depends upon the free, frank and confidential exchange of information such as this. If the UK does not respect these confidences, then its ability to protect and promote UK interests through international relations will be hampered which will not be in the public interest.

Subsequently, the FCO asserted that it was of the view that releasing the information redacted on the basis of section 27(l) (a) would be likely to prejudice the UK’s relationship with Sri Lanka and would negatively impact on the information that they would be willing to exchange with the UK in the future. It further stated, the disclosure of the withheld information, in this case, was not in the public interest as it would be likely to damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Sri Lanka. This would have the effect of reducing the UK government’s ability to protect and promote UK interests through its relations with Sri Lanka.”

 The Information Commissioner, on June 26, 2016, dismissed Naseby’s appeal for full disclosure of the Gash dispatches.

So, according to the FCO, disclosure of Gash dispatches would harm the UK’s relations with Sri Lanka. In the absence of proper examination of British role in promoting terrorism in Sri Lanka, successive UK governments allowed the LTTE a free hand. Wikileaks exposure of a secret meeting between the Norwegians (handling disastrous peace process) and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in the immediate aftermath of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination in August 2005 underscored the privileged status enjoyed by the LTTE. Balasingham, one-time British High Commission employee who received British citizenship for services rendered to Her Majesty’s government lived freely there until his death due to natural causes in Dec 2006.

Over the years, the UK provided the wherewithal required by the LTTE to wage war in Sri Lanka. The British. contribution grew over the years in the wake of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991. It must be noted that the UK only removed the LTTE International Secretariat, established in London for many years, only after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi for the obvious reason that its presence there was becoming too embarrassing even to the British. In fact when a visiting journalist from The Island, accompanied by a group of media persons from several countries, raised the issue of the LTTE having a big presence in the British capital during a visit to BBC Headquarters at Bush House in Central London around the time of the Rajiv assassination that year, he was given the lame excuse that the Tigers had not violated any UK laws. Despite the much-publicised British proscription of the LTTE, the latter operated a major fund-raising project that funded their war until the very end.

Perhaps, Foreign Secretary Colombage, during the interview with Sebastian, should have referred to the Wikileaks revelation of the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner making a desperate bid to halt the military offensive on the Vanni east front. Towards the end of the ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview, Sebastian queried about Inspector Nishantha Silva fleeing the country in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 presidential election.

 

Focus on Shani, Nishantha

Referring to the arresting of SSP Shani Abeysekera, Director, Criminal Investigation Division (CID) who inquired into several key human rights cases, Sebastian said: “…and another Nishantha Silva from the same Division had to leave Sri Lanka because of threats immediately after the last presidential election and you tell me that is the way a democracy which you claimed to have pursues justice does not look like it? Does it? Questioning how Nishantha Silva left the country suddenly, Prof. Colombage alleged it was all part of a conspiracy while strongly denying Sebastian’s accusation the officer was threatened. “All these things were planned. They were probably given lots of money to do these things…” Sebastian insisted: “You do not know that Mr. Secretary…”

It would have been better if Prof. Colombage pointed out that the Swiss Embassy involvement in the Nishantha Silva affair against the backdrop of one of its employees Garnier Francis (former Siriyalatha Perera) falsely accusing government agents of abducting her outside the mission and sexually abusing her. Sebastian conveniently refrained from referring to Garnier who had been Silva’s contact at the Swiss mission. The Swiss went to the extent of trying to evacuate Garnier and her family in a special air ambulance after their project meant to smear President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went awry. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa opposed the move to evacuate them. If not Garnier, too, would have ended up in Switzerland and a key campaign issue against Sri Lanka.

At one-point Sebastian chided Prof. Colombage whether he was proud of living in a country where child killers get presidential pardon? Sebastian was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa releasing a soldier convicted of killing several persons, including children in the Jaffna peninsula. Colombage responded well, pointing out how post-war, Sri Lanka rehabilitated 12,000 terrorists, including children. Colombage posed a pertinent question whether presidential pardon is available only in Sri Lanka. Sebastian insisted he focused on Sri Lanka and not the rest of the world. Perhaps, Prof. Colombage should have reminded Sebastian how funds made available by those living in the UK prolonged the war in Sri Lanka. None of those shedding crocodile tears today bothered to protest when the LTTE used children as cannon fodder. The fact that children were used in suicide attacks, too, cannot be forgotten. Didn’t Rajiv Gandhi perish in a suicide attack carried out by a female Tiger cadre? A proper inquiry is required to ascertain and identify those members of Sri Lankan terrorist groups living in the UK and the rest of the world. The proposed new Geneva probe can facilitate Sri Lanka’s efforts to track down those living overseas, under assumed names, while they continued to be categorized as war disappeared.

Sebastian also raised the issue of disappearances and missing. In fact, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe explained the cases of missing and disappearances during the yahapalana administration. Wickremesinghe pointed out how the so-called disappeared either died in combat or were now living overseas.

Prof. Colombage responded: “…most of the human rights defenders are receiving money from the West. We know their bank accounts. We know how much they have received.” The Foreign Secretary alleged they were not bona fide human rights defenders. Sebastian hit back: “You just smeared the whole lot of them in one sentence…”

Now that Prof. Colombage has quite rightly raised funding received by NGOs/civil society groups, let there be a public disclosure of the funding secured over the years. A Norwegian examination of its involvement in Sri Lanka released in 2011 revealed substantial funding made available to various civil society groups. The Norwegian report revealed how generous Oslo had been to those who facilitated its Sri Lanka project. As Geneva stepped up pressure on the country, the government should approach the issues at hand sensibly. Geneva should be priority No 1. The government cannot forget that no less than Commander of the Army Gen. Shavendra Silva, earlier the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division/formerly Task Force I was blacklisted by the US. Sebastian warned Prof. Colombage of dire threats posed by targeted sanctions imposed by individual countries. Member states might start applying targeted sanctions, asset freezers and travel bans against your state officials and others…. Are you ready for that?

Prof. Colombage responded: “If individual countries have a separate agenda not necessarily human rights but using human rights as a weapon there is very little we can do. Let us wait and see.” However, the former Navy Commander missed a golden opportunity to ask Sebastian what he thought of the Tamil community overwhelmingly voting for war-winning Army Chief the then General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll. Fonseka won all predominately Tamil speaking electoral districts in the northern and eastern districts, including Jaffna. In fact, bogus human rights campaign should have ended the day, Tamils declared their support to tough talking Fonseka, who survived a suicide attack in April 2006 to finish off the LTTE. If the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka and the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2006, terrorism would have triumphed. But fortunately for Sri Lanka both survived two separate LTTE suicide attacks targeting them in Colombo itself. That is the undeniable truth.

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Midweek Review

Convincing storytelling with engaging dialogue and three-dimensional characters

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‘10.34’ By Aditha Dissanayake, a Vijitha Yapa Publication

Reviewed by Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana
Former Deputy Director-General, United Nations.

’10:34′ is a dramatic love story of a poetic and tender quality written with a deep respect for both the beauty and the danger to our blue planet seen from space as a vulnerable blob in the vast universe.

It is a contemporary romance that follows a woman, a committed environmentalist, as she navigates her life among men with differing feelings of the imperative of conservation stewardship.

This book is Gratiaen Award winner Aditha Dissanayake’s fourth novel, by far the best. This book is enjoyable to read due to the simplicity of the prose style and vividness of imagination. Though simple but thoughtful, the story is fun enough, and the unexpected twists and turns keep the reader engaged.

It is the story of two people finding love in unusual circumstances, albeit differently than either of them intended.

Aditha narrates a 24-year-old schoolteacher’s unexpected detour of accompanying her banker fiancé and migrating to New Zealand. The deviation begins when Kumi alights the morning Udarata Menike to visit her hometown in the fictional village of Maliyadda on the banks of the Kothmale Oya. She goes there directed by her Uncle in London to make the final arrangements to sell her grandfather’s ancestral property. Kumi finds the dilapidated property a piece of heaven on earth. Lush greenery with a creek flowing through the property has become the perfect home for all that nature creates. An ideal home for her as well she realises. She could hardly tear herself off from the allure of the place to return to Colombo, which she must, to see her fiancé off. He was going ahead to settle affairs in the new country they were moving to before Kumi arrives.

During her vacation to her ancestral village, abandoning her plans to stay at the bed and breakfast place where she had an eventful night with an unexpected visitor, she moves into the abandoned house that had once belonged to her grandparents. Kumi also struck a friendship with Vino Coomaraswamy, an editor of a publishing house in Lancaster, on holiday in Maliyadda, searching for his roots.

On return to Colombo, she finds her favourite mango tree, that shaded her room and to its rustling sounds which she fell asleep in the night, had been a victim of the insensitive confidant who failed to understand that perhaps her first love is nature. Incensed by the developments that followed and tugged by the spell cast over her by the sanctuary in Maliyadda, she makes an unintended quick return to the place she had felt at peace.

There, she finds comfort in her friends Vino and a Professor turned recluse whom she had met on her previous visit. The Professor was intruding on the property to record the often-ignored weeds and lesser-known plants in the mid-country for his next book.

Abandoning her plans to move to New Zealand with her urbanized banker boyfriend, she decides to make home the abandoned house that had once belonged to her grandparents. But in addition to preventing her Uncle from selling the land, Kumi must also prove to the Professor that she has no wish to harm the plants that he so loves.

Easily the best part of the book is how, as the story unravels, it becomes clear that Kumi and the Professor progress towards saving not only nature but themselves from their toxic relationships and past mistakes.

An essential aspect of the book is the author’s tender, discerning look at nature that is ever-present and is the thread that runs through the novel.

Aditha makes her characters very vibrant and three-dimensional and true to life. The main characters are compelling and enigmatic. Kumi is beautifully drawn – warm, bold, outspoken, intelligent, and kind to all living beings, whether human or part of nature, the type of character that carries an endearing story. Vividly portrayed, the men around her – Nadush, bright and bold as an up-and-coming banker, Kavan, intelligent and warm as a professor, and Vinoo, intelligent and outspoken as an editor would be.

The characters in this book are remarkable. The author shows a deep understanding of their roles and places them cleverly to keep the story moving. There are also secondary characters introduced for a few cameos. Even some of those who barely appear have a chance to shine, which tell us a lot about the storytelling.

The book is sprinkled with enjoyable dialogue, which is hard to write – and extremely hard to write well. Two people merely talking are not always engaging on the page, no matter how scintillating the dialogue. Novel writers are not screenwriters whose story is brought to life by an entourage of directors, actors, sound engineers, cinematographers. A novelist must describe the setting and provide all five senses for the reader. Readers will not know what things look like unless you show them.

Aditha’s text reads like a screenplay. The conversation between Kumi and the Tuk Tuk driver is such that a reader can hear it as if spoken aloud; the words do not lie inert on the page. When discourse flows, it’s easy to read and understand; it’s funny, revealing, poignant, and devastating all in one single sentence. The story is interspersed with engaging dialogue, and that’s part of what makes it effective. The dialogue is so catchy, so snappy, so utterly say-able, that the story could easily be made into a movie…

This is a wonderfully written novel with a captivating story that touches your heart, an engaging plot with so many twists, and endearing characters who were believable. The book affirms the depth of humanity’s relationship with nature and adds particular urgency to the cause of protecting the environment that nourishes all living beings. It is a delightful book.

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Midweek Review

‘Human Rights’ And Ecological Crisis In Sri Lanka

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‘The origin of the contemporary ecological and social crisis can be traced to the colonial period and the incorporation of the country into the global capitalist economy.’

By Prof. Asoka Bandarage

The recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution A/HRC/46/L.1/Rev.1 of March 16 has brought extensive charges against Sri Lanka over alleged human rights violations, but is arguably seriously flawed. Opportunistic and strategic use of human rights by the western powers to maintain hegemony continually ignore violations of the rights of nature and humanity rooted in the destructive model of economic development the same powers introduced to the world.

Historical Background

Ancient Sri Lanka was known for its Buddhist eco-centric approach to life. The origin of the contemporary ecological and social crisis can be traced to the colonial period and the incorporation of the country into the global capitalist economy.

Vast tracts of forest were cut to establish mono-cultural coffee, tea and rubber plantations and local people lost rights to ancestral lands and resources. Deforestation destroyed water resources that irrigated the rivers leaving village tanks dry. Multi-crop subsistence agriculture was undermined, leaving people to become dependent on imported food supplies.

Sri Lanka’s forest cover declined from 84% in 1881 to 70% in 1900 and to around 50% in 1948, when the British left. Deforestation and plantation development laid the basis for land erosion and loss of animal habitats and biodiversity.

The origin of the current human- elephant conflict is attributed to deforestation starting in the British era, along with the widespread colonial practice of killing animals for sport and trade. The revered elephant was declared a pest and a reward of a few shillings was given for the head of an elephant.

With the introduction of the Open Economy in 1977, Sri Lanka became subjected to neo-liberal policies such as privatization and structural adjustment, largely as conditions to loans from the World Bank and the IMF. The massive Mahawaeli River Development Program of this period provided access to land for the poor and a significant increase in the country’s food production and power resources. However, the construction of dams and irrigation networks, roads, and similar infrastructure also radically altered soil and water systems including degradation of watershed conditions and loss of wildlife habitat and populations.

A related agricultural reform began in the 1960s (the “Green Revolution”), with a campaign to promote the use of agrochemicals and transgenic crop varieties, resulting in the loss of original indigenous seed varieties. The Mahaweli program and irrigation have supplied the water for most of the rice cultivation in the North Central Province. This area ­is also – likely not coincidentally ­– the site of the nation’s highest incidence of chronic kidney disease among poor farming communities.

Current Realities

The rich industrialized countries in the Global North are responsible for nearly 80% of historical global carbon emissions. Yet poor countries in the global South, such as Sri Lanka ­– whose carbon footprint is negligible – are the greatest victims of climate disasters. The current and looming impact of climate change on Sri Lanka is massive:

Annual mean air temperature has significantly increased by between 1961- 1990 increasing 0.016 °C per year;

Annual average rainfall over Sri Lanka has decreased by about seven percent between the 1931-1960 period and the 1961 to 1990 period;

Forecasting the rise in sea level, Sri Lanka is faced with a predicted devastating coastal erosion rate of 0.30-0.35 meter a year, with adverse impact on nearly 55 percent of the shoreline.

The 2004 tsunami drastically highlighted the vulnerability of the low-lying plains in the coastal zone to any future rise in sea level. Northern and eastern coastal areas claimed as traditional ‘Tamil homelands’, are vulnerable to submersion as they are flatter than other coastal areas. This has serious implications for both population displacement and renewed political conflict, concerns totally absent in UNHCR Resolutions that focus on identity politics and calls for political devolution.

In 2015, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), an international aid NGO, identified Sri Lanka ‘as the country with the highest relative risk of being displaced by disaster in South Asia. For every million inhabitants, 15,000 are at risk of being displaced every year in Sri Lanka’.

In 2017 alone, the country experienced seven disaster events, mainly floods and landslides, and ‘135,000 new displacements due to disaster. Sri Lanka is also at risk from slow-onset impacts like soil degradation, saltwater intrusion, water scarcity, and crop failure’.

Sri Lanka was ranked second among countries most affected by extreme weather events in the Global Climate Risk Index 2019 and sixth in 2020.

Deforestation

Deforestation is considered the greatest environmental threat facing Sri Lanka today. Sri Lanka ranked fourth among countries with worst deforestation of primary forests in the world in the 2000-2005 period. Forest cover, which had declined to about 50% at the end of British rule, has further declined to 44% in 1956 and 16.5 % in 2019.

A highly controversial current case is the housing development supposedly constructed for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on Willpattu National Wildlife Park. The housing will remain despite a recent court judgement that declared it illegal. The ‘polluter pays’ principle was upheld, but this only requires that the offender reforests other lands ‘in any area equivalent to the reserve forest area used for re-settlement of IDPs’. Even this court decision is under appeal by the 7th respondent, former Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishard Badiuddin. Moreover, as ecologists point out, mere tree planting elsewhere will not lead to recovery of the intricate forest eco-systems that were destroyed.

Another major controversy involves the Sinharaja Rainforest covering an area of 18,900 acres. It is home to over 50% of the country’s endemic species and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Deforestation is now taking place in the Sinharaja area for the construction of a road for an isolated village bordering the Forest Reserve and for the suspected building of hotels, shops and other encroachments.

A National Plan based on surveys and clear demarcation of boundaries of Forest Reserves, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Conservation Areas and enforcement is urgently needed to avoid conflict and encroachment over remaining forests.

A recent announcement was made by the Government Minister of Irrigation, Chamal Rajapaksa, regarding proposals to construct two irrigation tanks inside the Sinharaja, each spanning an area of five acres, with Chinese involvement. A 30-kilometer water tunnel to transport fresh water to areas in the South (including possibly Chinese controlled Hambantota port) is also reported. This announcement has raised alarm over environmental impact and likely loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status.

Mining, Dumping and Export-led Growth

There are, unfortunately, many other environmental controversies, the most destructive of which involve export-led growth and foreign companies.

In 2017, 263 waste containers carrying biomedical, plastic and other waste from the UK was brought for illegal dumping in Sri Lanka. Such toxic dumping by rich Northern countries in the poor countries of the South is sadly a common practice. After a legal victory by environmentalists, the containers are being sent back to the UK.

A proposed new project in the Eastern Province is the Eastern Minerals Project of Capital Metal, a company from the UK which plans to mine the ‘highest-grade’ mineral sands containing ilmenite, rutile, zircon and garnet. While it promises to be a highly profitable venture, environmentalists fear massive and irreversible damage to the vulnerable eastern coastline.

Yet another controversial mining project is proposed by Titanium Sands, an Australian company,that wants to mine titanium on the island of Mannar off the northern coast of Sri Lanka. Mannar is a bird paradise and local environmentalists blame the Australian company of ‘illegal conduct’ and plans to dramatically transform the ecosystem and limit land use by the local community.

 

Neo-Colonialism

Just as the world is at the cusp of a new era of technological and corporate authoritarianism, Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, is also at a decisive historical juncture. The island is facing new forms of external intervention and competition primarily involving the expansionist and national security efforts of China, USA and India. These three countries are also the biggest carbon polluters, pursuing unbridled economic growth despite the impending global climate catastrophe.

Sri Lanka is centrally placed in the maritime route of China’s Belt Road Initiative. China is now in control of the Hambantota port, the Colombo Port City, a terminal of the Colombo port and a hybrid renewable energy project on three islands off the Jaffna peninsula, just 50 km from the Tamil Nadu coast.

The Quadrilateral Alliance of the USA, India, Australia and Japan is challenging this Chinese expansion, and is, in turn, in control of key strategic positions and natural resources.

India, for example, is in control of the British colonial era Oil Tank Farm in the seaport town of Trincomalee. It is reported that the development of the west terminal of the Colombo port will also be given to the company of Indian billionaire Adani.

The US Millennium Challenge Corporation’s proposed Compact with Sri Lanka was turned down by Sri Lanka due to local protests over resource exploitation, land grab and an effort to splinter Sri Lanka into two separate entities under the control of the United States. However, there is suspicion that some of the main objectives of the MCC to digitalize land registers and privatize land to make them available for development by transnational corporations maybe be continuing in other ways.

The US signed an Acquisitions and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) with Sri Lanka in 2017 making the island a ‘logistics hub’ allowing US military vessels open-ended access to Sri Lanka’s seaports and airports. The ACSA is part of the ‘grand strategy of a united military front between the US and India in the Indo-Pacific’.

A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the USA and Sri Lanka, which could turn Sri Lanka into a US military base, has been proposed but not yet signed due to local protest.

Neo-Colonialism and Eco-Social Implications

While the implications of Neo-Colonialism for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity have been much discussed in recent media, the ecological and social implications remain relatively unexplored. Some of these include:

Conflicts between Chinese interests and farming families around the Hambantota port over Chinese offers to buy ancestral properties of locals.

Protests and legal action by environmentalists over Chinese Port City, especially coastal sand excavation and dumping of chemical waste.

Control of the west terminal of the Colombo harbor by India’s controversial Adani Group, which has a history of environmental and financial violations in Australia and India.

Effects of militarization of the island under the ACSA and possible SOFA agreements and military confrontation between the Quadrilateral Alliance and China in the Indian Ocean.

 

Future Survival with the Wisdom of the Past

Sustainable agriculture has a long history on the island, as in any long-lasting indigenous culture, and it needs to be brought back to the fore. Local self-sufficiency and agro-ecology are the only solutions to future food scarcity and surviving the vicissitudes of the global economy.

Both Sri Lanka and the world have enough natural resources to support people if resources are shared equitably and sustainably used. It is the apocalyptic destruction of the unregulated greed of neoliberalism that must end.

For this to happen, policies of corporate regulation must be put in place at both the national and global levels. These policies also need to incorporate a broader definition of human rights that includes the rights of nature and people’s rights to natural resources and livelihoods. 250 major civil society organizations from around the world have signed a declaration calling for an end to ‘corporate control and cooptation’ of the United Nations including the U.N. Convention on Climate Change. Indeed, the moral authority of the United Nations and its partisan approach to human rights need serious questioning.

There is an urgent concurrent need for environmental education that transcends political party and ethno-religious divisions and unites people both with each other and with a survivable environment. Environmentalism is also humanism that looks to the future, and the rights and survival of future generations.

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