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I’ve witnessed a coup attempt before — and history bodes poorly for America’s future

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by Alfred Mccoy, Tom Dispatch

As an eyewitness, I can recall the events of January 6th in Washington as if they were yesterday. The crowds of angry loyalists storming the building while overwhelmed security guards gave way. The slavishly loyal vice-president who would, the president hoped, restore him to power. The crush of media that seemed confused, almost overwhelmed, by the crowd’s fury. The waiter who announced that the bar had run out of drinks and would soon be closing…

Hold it! My old memory’s playing tricks on me again. That wasn’t the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. That was the Manila Hotel in the Philippines in July 1986. Still, the two events had enough similarities that perhaps I could be forgiven for mixing them up.

I’ve studied quite a number of coups in my day, yet the one I actually witnessed at the Manila Hotel remains my favorite, not just because the drinks kept coming, but for all it taught me about the damage a coup d’état, particularly a political coup, can do to any democracy. In February 1986, a million Filipinos thronged the streets of Manila to force dictator Ferdinand Marcos into exile. After long years of his corruption and callous indifference to the nation’s suffering, the crowds cheered their approval when Marcos finally flew off to Hawaii and his opponent in the recent presidential election restored democracy.

But Marcos had his hard-core loyalists. One Sunday afternoon, four months after his flight, they massed in a Manila park to call for the restoration of their beloved president. After speakers had whipped the crowd of 5,000 into a frenzy with — and yes, this should indeed sound familiar in 2021 — claims about a stolen election, thousands of ordinary Filipinos pushed past security guards and stormed into the nearby Manila Hotel, a storied symbol of their country’s history. Tipped off by one of the Filipino colonels plotting that coup, I was standing in the hotel’s entryway at 5:00 p.m. as the mob, fury written on their faces, surged past me.

For the next 24 hours, that hotel’s marbled lobby became the stage for an instructive political drama. From my table at the adjoining bar, I watched as armed warlords, ousted Marcos cronies, and several hundred disgruntled soldiers paraded through the lobby on their way to the luxury suites where the coup commanders had checked themselves in. Following in their wake were spies from every nation — Australian secret intelligence, American defense intelligence, and their Asian and European counterparts — themselves huddled in groups, whispering mysteriously, trying (just like me) to make sense of the bizarre spectacle unfolding around them.

Later that same evening, Marcos’s former vice-president, the ever-loyal Arturo Tolentino, appeared at the head of the stairs flanked by a security detail to announce the formation of a “legitimate” new government authorized by Marcos who had reportedly called long-distance from Honolulu. As the vice president proclaimed himself acting president and read off the names of those to be in his cabinet, Filipino journalists huddling nearby scribbled notes. They were furiously trying to figure out whether there was a real coalition forming that could topple the country’s democracy. It was, however, just the usual suspects — Marcos cronies, leaders largely without followers.

By midnight, the party was pretty much over. Our waiter, after struggling for hours to maintain that famed hotel’s standard of five-star service, apologized to our table of foreign correspondents because the bar had been drunk dry and was closing. Sometime before dawn, the hotel turned off the air conditioning, transforming those executive suites into saunas and, in the process, flushing out the coup plotters, their hangers-on, and most of the soldiers.

All day long, on the city’s brassy talk-radio stations and in the coffee shops where insiders gathered to swap scuttlebutt, Marcos’s loyalists were roasted, even mocked. The troops that had rallied to his side were sentenced to 30 push-ups on the parade ground — a source of more mirth. For spies and correspondents alike, the whole thing seemed like a one-day wonder, barely worth writing home about.

But it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. A coterie of colonels deep inside the Defense Ministry, my source among them, had observed that comedic coup attempt all too carefully and concluded that it had actually been a near-miss.

A year later, I found myself standing in the middle of an eight-lane highway outside the city’s main military cantonment, Camp Aguinaldo, ducking bullets from rebel soldiers who had seized the base and watching as government Marines and dive bombers attacked. This time, however, those colonels had launched a genuine coup attempt. No drinks. No waiters. No wisecracks. Just a day of bombs and bullets that crushed the plotters, leaving the country’s military headquarters a smoking ruin.

Two years later, the same coup colonels were back again for another attempt, leading 3,000 rebel troops in a multipronged attack on a capital that trembled on the brink of surrender. As a cavalcade of rebel armor drove relentlessly toward the presidential palace with nothing in their way, American President George H.W. Bush took a call aboard Air Force One over the Atlantic about a desperate request from his Philippine counterpart and ordered a pair of U.S. Air Force jet fighters to make a low pass over the rebel tanks and trucks. They got the message: turn back or be bombed into extinction. And so Philippine democracy was allowed to survive for another 30 years.

Message from the Manila Hotel

The message for democracy offered from the Manila Hotel was clear — so clear, in fact, that it helps explain the meaning of tangled events in Washington more than 30 years later. Whether it’s a poor country like the Philippines or a superpower like the United States, democracy is a surprisingly fragile construct. Its worst enemy is often an ousted ex-president, angry over his humiliation and perfectly willing to destroy the constitutional order to regain power.

No matter how angry such an ex-president might be, however, his urge for a political coup can’t succeed without the help of raw force, whether from a mob, a disgruntled military, or some combination of the two. The Manila Hotel coup teaches us one other fundamental thing: that coups need not be carefully planned. Most start with a handful of conspirators plotting some symbolic attack meant to shake the constitutional order, while hoping to somehow stall the security services for a few critical hours — just long enough for events to cascade spontaneously into a desired government collapse.

Whether in Manila or Washington, coup plotting usually starts right at the top. Just after the news networks announced that he had lost the election last November, Donald Trump launched a media blitz with spurious claims of “fraud on the American public,” firing off 300 tweets in the next two weeks loaded with false charges of irregularities and sparking loud, long protests by his loyalists at vote-counting centers in Michigan and Arizona.

When that response got little traction and Biden’s majority kept climbing, Trump began exploring three alternate routes, any of which might have led to a constitutional coup — manipulating the Justice Department to delegitimize the election, rigging the ratification of electoral votes in Congress, and the paramilitary (or military) option. At a White House meeting on December 18th, Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, urged the president to “invoke martial law as part of his efforts to overturn the election” and accused his staff of “abandoning the president,” sparking “screaming matches” in the Oval Office.

By January 3, rumors and reports of Trump’s military option were circulating so credibly around Washington that all 10 living former defense secretaries — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Mark Esper, among them — published a joint appeal to the armed forces to remain neutral in the ongoing dispute over the election’s integrity. Reminding the troops that “peaceful transfers of power… are hallmarks of our democracy,” they added that “efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes” would be “dangerous, unlawful, and unconstitutional.” They warned the troops that any “military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be… potentially facing criminal penalties.” In conclusion, they suggested to Trump’s secretary of defense and senior staff “in the strongest terms” that “they must…refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election.”

To legitimate his claims of fraud, according to the New York Times, the president also tried — on nine separate occasions in December and January — to force the Justice Department to take actions that would “undermine an election result.” In response, a mid-ranking Trump loyalist at Justice, a nonentity named Jeffrey Clark, began pressuring his boss, the attorney-general, to write Georgia officials claiming they had found “significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.” But at a three-hour White House meeting on January 3rd, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen balked at this evidence-free accusation. Trump promptly suggested that he could be replaced by that mid-ranking loyalist who could then send the fraud letter to Georgia. The president’s own top appointees at Justice, along with the White House counsel, immediately threatened to resign en masse, forcing Trump to give up on such an intervention at the state level.

Next, he shifted his constitutional maneuvering to Congress where, on January 6th, his doggedly loyal vice president, Mike Pence, would be presiding over the ratification of results from the Electoral College. In this dubious gambit, Trump was inspired by a bizarre constitutional theory advanced by former Chapman University law professor John Eastman — that the “Constitution assigns the power to the Vice President as the ultimate arbiter.”

In this scenario, Pence would unilaterally set aside electoral votes from seven states with “ongoing disputes” and announce that Trump had won a majority of the remaining electors — making him once again president. But the maneuver had no basis in law, so Pence, after scrambling desperately and unsuccessfully for a legal justification of some sort, eventually refused to play along.

A Political Coup

With the constitutional option closed, Trump opted for a political coup, rolling the dice with raw physical force, much as Marcos had done at the Manila Hotel. The first step was to form a crowd with some paramilitary muscle to stiffen the assault to come. On December 19th, Trump called on his hard-core followers to assemble in Washington, ready for violence, tweeting: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Almost immediately, the Internet’s right-wing chat boards lit up and indeed their paramilitaries, the Proud Boys and Three Percenters militia, turned up in Washington on the appointed day, ready to rumble. After President Trump roused the crowd at a rally near the White House with rhetoric about a stolen election, a mob of some 10,000 marched on the Capitol Building.

Starting at about 1:00 p.m., the sheer size of the crowd and strategic moves by the paramilitaries in their ranks broke through the undermanned lines of the Capitol Police, breaching the building’s first-floor windows at about 2:10 p.m. and allowing protesters to start pouring in. Once the rioters had accomplished the unimaginable and seized the Capitol, they were fresh out of plans, reduced to marching through the corridors hunting legislators and trashing offices.

At 2:24 p.m., President Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country.” On the far-right social media site Parler, his supporters began messaging the crowd to get the vice president and force him to stop the election results. The mob rampaged through the marbled halls shouting “Hang Mike Pence.” Hunkered down inside the Capitol, Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) tweeted: “This is a coup attempt.”

At 2:52 p.m., Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia), a former CIA agent, tweeted from inside the barricaded House chamber: “This is what we see in failing countries. This is what leads to the death of democracy.”

At 3:30 p.m., a small squad of military police arrived at the Capitol, woefully inadequate reinforcements for the overwhelmed Capitol Police. Ten minutes later, the D.C. Council announced that the Defense Department had denied the mayor’s request to mobilize the local National Guard. While the crowd fumbled and fulminated, some serious people were evidently slowing the military’s response for just the few critical hours needed for events to cascade into something, anything, that could shake the constitutional order and slow the ratification of Joe Biden’s election.

In nearby Maryland, Republican Governor Larry Hogan had immediately mobilized his state’s National Guard for the short drive to the Capitol while frantically phoning Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who repeatedly refused him permission to send in the troops. Inside the Pentagon, Lieutenant General Charles Flynn, the brother of the same Michael Flynn who had been pushing Trump to declare martial law, was participating in what CNN called those “key January 6th phone calls” that refused permission for the Guard’s mobilization.

Following a phone call from the mayor of Washington and its police chief pleading for help, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy “ran down the hall” of the Pentagon to get authorization for the Guard’s mobilization. After a crucial delay of 90 minutes, he finally called the Maryland governor, outside the regular chain of command, to authorize the Maryland Guard’s dispatch. Those would indeed be the first troops to arrive at the Capitol and would play a critical role in restoring order.

At about 4:30 p.m., Trump finally tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home in love & peace.”

Ten minutes later, at 4:40 p.m., hundreds of riot personnel from the D.C. police, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security arrived, along with the Maryland Guard, to reinforce the Capitol Police. Within an hour, the protesters had been pushed out of the building and the Capitol was declared secure.

Just five days later, Dr. Fiona Hill, a senior Russia expert on the National Security Council under Trump, reviewed these events and concluded that President Trump had staged a coup “in slow motion… to keep himself in power.”

History’s Lessons

Beyond all the critical details of who did what and when, there were deeper historical forces at play, suggesting that Donald Trump’s urge for a political coup that would return him to power may be far from over. For the past 100 years, empires in decline have been roiled by coup attempts that sometimes have overturned constitutional orders. As their military reverses accumulate, their privileged economic position erodes, and social tensions mount, a succession of societies in the grip of a traumatic loss of global power have suffered coups, successful or not, including Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, the Soviet Union, and now the United States.

Britain’s plot was a bit fantastical. Amid the painful, protracted dissolution of their empire, Conservative leaders plotted with top generals in 1968 to oust leftist Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson by capturing Heathrow airport, seizing the BBC and Buckingham Palace, and putting Lord Mountbatten in power as acting prime minister. Britain’s parliamentary tradition simply proved too strong, however, and key principals in the plot quickly backed out.

In April 1974, while Portugal was fighting and losing three bitter anticolonial wars in Africa, a Lisbon radio station played the country’s entry in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest (“After the Farewell”) just minutes before midnight on an evening that had been agreed upon. It was the signal to the military and their supporters to overthrow the entrenched conservative government of that moment, a success which became known as the “Carnation Revolution.”

However, the parallels between January 6th and the fall of France’s Fourth Republic in the late 1950s are perhaps the most telling. After liberating Paris from Nazi occupation in August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle headed an interim government for 18 months. He then quit in a dispute with the left, launching him into a decade of political intrigue against the new Fourth Republic, whose liberal constitution he despised.

By the mid-1950s, France was reeling from its recent defeat in Indochina, while the struggle against Muslim revolutionaries in its Algerian colony in North Africa turned ever more brutal, marked as it was by scandals over the widespread French use of torture. Amid that crisis of empire, an anti-elite, anti-intellectual, antisemitic politician named Pierre Poujade launched a populist movement that sent 56 members to parliament in 1956, including Jean-Marie Le Pen, later founder of the far-right National Front.

Meanwhile, a cabal of politicians and military commanders plotted a coup to return General de Gaulle to power, thinking he alone could save Algeria for France. After an army junta seized control of Algiers, the capital of that colony, in May 1958, paratroopers stationed there were sent to capture the French island of Corsica and to prepare to seize Paris should the legislature fail to install de Gaulle as prime minister.

As the country trembled on the brink of a coup, de Gaulle made his dramatic entry into Paris where he accepted the National Assembly’s offer to form a government, conditional upon the approval of a presidential-style constitution for a Fifth Republic. But when de Gaulle subsequently accepted the inevitability of Algeria’s independence, four top generals launched an abortive coup against him and then formed what they called the Secret Army Organization, or OAS. It would carry out terror attacks over the next four years, with 12,000 victims, while staging three unsuccessful assassination attempts against de Gaulle before its militants were killed or captured.

The Coup of 2024?

Just as the Filipino colonels spent five years launching a succession of escalating coups and those French generals spent four years trying to overthrow their government, so Trump’s Republicans are working with ferocious determination in the run-up to the 2022 and 2024 elections to ensure that their next constitutional coup succeeds. Indeed, if you look back on events over the past year through the prism of such historical precedents, you can see all the components for a future political coup falling into place.

No matter how improbable, discredited, or bizarre those election fraud claims are, Republican loyalists persist in endless ballot audits in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Texas. Their purpose is not really to find more votes for Trump in the 2020 election, but to maintain at least the present level of rage among the one-third of all Americans and more than half of all Republicans who believe that Joe Biden’s presidency is fraudulent.

Since the 2020 election coincided with the new census, Republicans have been working, reports Vox news, to “gerrymander themselves into control of the House of Representatives.” Simultaneously, Republican legislators in 19 states have passed 33 laws making it more difficult for certain of their residents to vote. Driven by the white nationalist “replacement theory” that immigrants and people of color are diluting the pool of “real American” voters, Trump and his Republican loyalists are fighting for “ballot integrity” on the principle that all non-white votes are inherently illegitimate. As Trump put it on the stump in 2016:

“I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in… and they’re going to be able to vote and once that all happens you can forget it. You’re not going to have one Republican vote.”

In case all that electoral manipulation fails and Trump needs more muscle for a future political coup, right-wing fighters like the Proud Boys are still rumbling away at rallies in Oregon, California, and elsewhere across America. Just as the Philippine government made military rebels do a risible 30 push-ups for the capital crime of armed rebellion, so federal courts have generally been handing out the most modest of penalties to rioters who attempted nothing less than the overthrow of U.S. constitutional democracy last January 6th.

Among the 600 rioters arrested as of August, dozens have been allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanors and only three had been sentenced to jail time, leaving most cases languishing in pretrial motions. Already Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz have rallied to their defense, writing the U.S. attorney general to complain about an “unequal administration of justice” with “harsher treatment” for Capitol defendants than those arrested in Black Lives Matter protests.

So, in 2024, as the continuing erosion of America’s global power creates a crisis of confidence among ordinary Americans, expect Donald Trump to be back, not as the slightly outrageous candidate of 2016 or even as the former president eager to occupy the White House again, but as a militant demagogue with thundering racialist rhetoric, backed by a revanchist Republican Party ready, with absolute moral certainty, to bar voters from the polls, toss ballots out, and litigate any loss until hell freezes over.

And if all that fails, the muscle will be ready for another violent march on Washington. Be prepared, the America we know is worsening by the month.



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Features

Rising farce of Family Power

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Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.

He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.

He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.

“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,

 “If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again.  If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.

“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”

Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength.  In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.

It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.

While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.

Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law?  Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?

What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,

The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.

The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance.  There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser –  from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?

The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to

use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.

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A tribute to vajira

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By Uditha Devapriya

The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.

A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.

In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.

Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.

Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.

Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.

At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.

These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.

Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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It’s all about France in Kandy !

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Sarah Toucas, Director Alliance Francaise de Kandy

This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.

A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.

All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.

Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.

Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.

To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.

Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar

comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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