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MCC, PUC, SLMC and PCRby

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A week of acronyms:

by Malinda Seneviratne

We’ve had a fire at the Supreme Court, the reconstitution of the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC), moves to reconstitute the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), an official statement from the US Embassy announcing that the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement has been tossed into the proverbial waste paper basket and unprecedented scenes in Anuradhapura where the man who claimed he had found a cure for Covid-19 courtesy the blessings of Goddess Kali created quite a rumpus.

Let’s start with the controversial ‘peniya.’ Now it is fashionable to laugh-off anything that’s ‘native’. Call it a colonial cultural remnant if you like. The problem is that Dhammika Bandara’s ‘cure’ was not tested properly. It was however ‘endorsed’ by sections of the government and given publicity by the state media. It was essentially a commodity in the market. There was a seller and lots of buyers. Seller and buyers violated Covid-19 protocols. Officials failed to enforce them. There was a buzz which knowingly or unknowingly helped divert attention from important issues such as the prison riots in Mahara. The Opposition waded into the syrup and is still stuck there. Good publicity for Dhammika Bandara and the ‘peniya.’

That’s old news. The ‘latest’ is the man making quite a scene before the Chief Prelate of the Atamastanaya in Anuradhapura, Ven Pallegama Hemarathana Thero, claiming that he was Mother Kali and was therefore the good bikkhu’s mother as well! Now there are many Sinhala Vedamahattayas who go about curing the sick quietly. No stamping feet. No advertisements. Most importantly, they don’t use efficacy as though it is a license to demand anything and everything. Dhammika Bandara is different, obviously. He hasn’t done himself any favors.

That’s ‘ongoing’ and could divert attention from the other issues flagged above. The Opposition was quick to claim that the fire at the Supreme Court was an act of arson aimed at destroying important documents. Sajith Premadasa visited the courts complex and called for an ‘independent investigation’. The word ‘independent’ has been used so often that it has lost all value, more so because the ‘independents’ that successive governments have appointed to various councils and commissions have essentially been political fellow-travelers of the particular regimes.

The truth is that the fire had not caused any damage to court records or papers. It was in a location where there was broken/abandoned furniture. Why such garbage was not removed, we do not know. We do not know how the fire started. Investigations are ongoing, we are told.

Interestingly, the fire was intense enough to drag Ranil Wickremesinghe from virtual cold storage. Following the historic election debacle in August 2020, Wickremesinghe has been in political hibernation, so to speak. The UNP is still to name someone to the national list slot. The issue of party leadership is as yet unresolved. Wickremesinghe hinted at retirement. It is well known that he is an expert at quelling opposition in the ranks. The ranks left, more or less, and that has made ‘quelling’ irrelevant. He is not one to let go, however low his political fortunes sink. He’s come out. It is interesting to see what he does next.

Then there’s the MCC, the PUC and the SLMC. The media release issued by the US Embassy in Colombo is full of contempt, of course couched in diplospeak. ‘Funds approved for Sri Lanka will be made available to other eligible partner countries in need of grant funding to pursue their economic development priorities, reduce poverty, and grow their economies,’ it says, implying that Sri Lanka doesn’t have or is not interested in pursuing ‘development priorities.’ ‘Development’ and ‘priorities’ as understood by the USA, obviously, which are not necessarily in Sri Lanka’s interests. Sri Lanka doesn’t want to reduce poverty, is another element of the subtext. One remembers that such plans as are praised by countries like the USA gave us first ‘structural adjustment’ then ‘structural adjustment with a human face,’ and finally ‘structural adjustment with poverty alleviation.’ That taught us where poverty comes from.

The media release also claims, ‘country ownership, transparency, and accountability for grant results are fundamental to MCC’s development model.’ Well, the entire process of project proposal writing was overseen by the US Embassy. There were ‘MCC experts’ herding ‘local experts’ at Temple Trees during the Yahapalana years. Mangala Samaraweera was pushing it. Wickremesinghe went along. They were all dumped by the voters eventually. And, following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pledge to review all such agreements, even Premadasa said that the MCC agreement would be revisited. The JVP and the SJB wanted to know the new government’s position. The Gunaruwan Committee appointed by the President clearly objected to the agreement in its current form, but the Government kept it on the table. Now it’s off the table. No credit to the Government though.

The Embassy finally says, ‘The United States remains a friend and partner to Sri Lanka and will continue to assist Sri Lanka in responding to COVID and building its economy.’ This is almost like saying ‘we are mad at you for not following the script!’ The USA’s ‘friendship’ will be once again on show in a few months in Geneva when the Sri Lankan case comes up for review. Let’s see what happens then.

‘Diplomacy’ is in the subtext of the controversy over the sacking of certain members of the SLMC, but it’s not the whole story. There are ex-officio members in the SLMC as well as a certain number who are elected. There are also those appointed by the Minister.

Now there’s a hue and cry about the sacking of certain members. The replacements are political appointees, cry the objectors. What’s forgotten is that the lot that were moved out were themselves political appointees. Sunil Ratnapriya is not just a political loyalist, he is a politician. Dr Harendra de Silva, whose work in the Child Protection Authority is highly commended by one and all, was a close associate of former president Chandrika Kumaratunga. They were all appointed by Rajitha Senaratne, now a man who anyone can say is dignified and honorable to the last letter.

There are allegations against those appointed by Senaratne in particular and the SLMC in general which basically went along with what the minister’s friends said or what they believed were the minister’s wishes. Replacing them with a set of people that another minister trusts is not guaranteed to produce startlingly different outcomes though. At the end of the day, the outfit that clashed with the SLMC (the Government Medical Officers’ Association, GMOA) seems to have got its way. A committee was appointed to review the work of the SLMC, certain serious allegations were examined, there were disturbing findings and some members of the GMOA were elected to the SLMC. Politics of different kinds were and are clearly at play.

One of the murmured but not openly mentioned precipitating factors in this drama is the de-listing of several prestigious Russian universities. The process, the report indicates, wasn’t above board. We don’t know if the Russian Embassy expressed concern. Unlike their US counterparts they are not given to issuing media releases or reading out the Riot Act.

There’s a similar drama brewing with regard to the PUC. The President’s Secretary Dr P B Jayasundera has written to the Treasury Secretary directing that staff of the PUC be transferred out and offering that the PUC’s functions can theoretically be added to other state institutions. The current set of commissioners are certainly not saints. They’ve been repeatedly rapped on their knuckles by the Attorney General’s department for operating outside their mandate. They have essentially acted as though they are a body parallel to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), coming up with alternative long-term energy generation plans following solicitation of public comments of the CEB’s plans. The long term energy general plans are typically made for 15 years, with adjustments being made every two years. The PUC, citing trivialities, have delayed approval of the same, taking more than a year and a half on average, which essentially makes such plans redundant.

If the frustrations of the CEB have been noted by the President, that’s good. The CEB’s detractors claim that certain high-ups in the CEB have their own agendas. Perhaps they do. Well then, they should be investigated and brought to light. Chanting ‘CEB is corrupt, CEB is corrupt’ just won’t do. For the record, if the CEB was indeed corrupt and the PUC squeaky clean and effective, why wasn’t corruption in the CEB wiped out by those in the PUC?

Jayasundera’s directive is childish. It’s a shortcut at best. What’s required is that the rules be followed. They are clear as per Section 7 of the PUC Act No 35 of 2002 with respect to who could be a member of the PUC, and the term and removal of members. The mandate is clear. A regulator regulates but does not transfer to himself the functions/mandate of the regulated. The PUC does not make policy. It deals with guidelines and works to ensure that operations fall within the relevant parameters.

Overall, politics in the nuts-and-bolts, i.e. policy-making, institutional arrangement and procedural matters, seems to have trumped power games among and within political parties.

The only matter of interest, at least for political analysts who look at elections and candidates is the resignation of Patali Champika Ranawaka from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Ranawaka, who at one point led the Sihala Urumaya (SU) through which party he first entered Parliament 20 years ago, was instrumental in mobilizing sections of the Maha Sangha to contest parliamentary elections in 2004. The JHU secured nine seats on that occasion and played a key role in the election of W.J.M. Lokubandara (UNP) as Speaker. Lokubandara would thereafter morph into a staunch ally of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The fortunes of the JHU declined not too long thereafter, but Ranawaka’s star was on the rise. He is credited with having authored Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election manifesto in 2005 and was a key speaker during that election campaign. Following the resignation of National List MP Ven Omalpe Sobitha, Ranawaka entered parliament and was duly appointed as Minister of Environment.

The JHU joined the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in 2010 and had relatively meager returns, but Ranawaka came third in the preferential votes in Colombo. He was given the Power and Energy portfolio but later, perhaps since he didn’t quite see eye-to-eye with the Rajapaksas, was ‘downgraded’ to Minister of Science and Technology. The unilateral exit of Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero from the UPFA in late 2014 forced Ranawaka’s hand. The JHU quit the government, backed Maithripala Sirisena and Ranawaka was made Minister of Megapolis and Western Province Development. He was, then, a Gota+Basil version of the Yahapalana Government. He was President Sirisena’s nominee to the Constitutional Council and was the Secretary of the United National Front for Good Governance led by Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Ranawaka’s political history is akin to someone who has switched vehicles frequently. He either hit potholes or drove into them, abandoned the vehicle and jumped into another. His organizational history, so to speak, is colorful: JVP, Chinthana Sansadaya, Ratawesi Peramuna, Janatha Mithuro, National Movement Against Terrorism, SU (Sihala Urumaya), JHU, UPFA, UNPGG and now the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). As of today, the first nine are nonexistent or largely irrelevant. Ranawaka has moved. Up.

Yes, he was with the JHU for 16 years, but both he and the JHU would have gone into oblivion had he (and the JHU) not hooked up with the UPFA (2010), the UNP (2015) and the SJB (2020). Some argue that it was not that Ranawaka jumped from party to party but that the relevant parties had come to him. Well, writing manifestos notwithstanding, none of the big brothers listened to him after the polls closed.

The JHU is not even a rump as of now. It makes sense to quit. More importantly it’s a necessary first step for Ranawaka to further his political ambitions. Sajith Premadasa, whose sophomoric qualities got exposed during his presidential bid, is no match for Ranawaka when it comes to intellect, drive and even oratory. This was most evident during the constitutional crisis in late 2018. Wickremesinghe was ready to give up, senior UNPers were dumbfounded, but it was Ranawaka who held the fort and saved the day. Too late in the day to stop the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s inexorable drive to power of course, but although not a UNPer, he won the (grudging?) respect of that political camp. It is quite possible that a Ranawaka presidential bid would inject some hope and much needed passion into the SJB/UNP. Premadasa better watch out; the attacks from the pro-SLPP camp are directed at Ranawaka, not Premadasa, perhaps because he is seen as a more serious challenge. That’s good for Ranawaka and bad news for Premadasa.So it was essentially a week of acronyms: MCC, PUC, SLMC and PCR (that’s Patali Champika Ranawaka).

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Politics

Government by, for and with the UNHRC or the people?

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by Malinda Seneviratne

Last week we wrote that it’s time for the Geneva Circus and that it would come with molehills and mountains. Well, now we have it all in a single document. The report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka is now in the public domain. A dismissing observation frequently used by high school debaters in another era is apt: ‘It reminds one of a Texan bull — a point here, a point here and, yes, a lot of bull between.’

As expected the report waxes eloquent over Resolution 30/1, one which the then Government in its wisdom (read ‘a combination of arrogance, ignorance and pernicious intent’) co-sponsored and from which this government duly withdrew. That co-sponsorship was severely criticized by the then opposition and it is reasonable to assume that the defeat of the Yahapalana Government had a lot to do with that intemperate move. It is not surprising that apart from the aghast of the likes of Mangala Samaraweera and the pro-resolution NGO adjuncts of that government, the decision to withdraw was barely even commented upon in Sri Lanka. Had to be done, was done. That was the message.

The UNHRC report then talks of ‘emerging threats to reconciliation, accountability and human rights’. Flag that word ‘emerging.’ We’ll get back to it presently. The implementation of Resolution 30/1 is commented on. Conclusions and recommendations are offered.

Here are the ‘threats’: a) militarization of civilian government functions, b) Reversal of Constitutional safeguards, c) political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations, d) majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric, e) surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space, f) new and exacerbated human rights concerns.

Appointment of ex-military officers as heads of certain state institutions doesn’t constitute ‘militarization.’ They are, for all intents and purposes, civilians and have the same legitimacy as, say, some NGO backer of a particular government being appointed to head, say, the State Pharmaceutical Corporation. However, the extensive role of the security forces in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic can certainly be construed as ‘militarization.’ The report divests comment of context. If Sri Lanka has had any success in managing the pandemic, it is on account of two factors: a strong health infrastructure dominated by state agencies and the absolute commitment at great risk of security forces in tracking and tracing operations over and above the daily grind of ensuring that basic safety protocols are maintained.

It reminds one of the hue and cry over the relief centers set up in anticipation of the end of the conflict and gradually downsized as per lessening requirements following resettlement of the displaced. ‘Concentration camps!’ screamed the objectors, who, not surprisingly are still to go-to people for information when reports such as this are compiled and who, again unsurprisingly, were ardent backers of the Yahapalana government whose ‘performance,’ again unsurprisingly, is (mildly) applauded in the report. Just imagine a bunch of NGOs handling that unprecedented situation where hundreds of thousands of civilians previously held hostage by the LTTE had to be fed, clothed, housed and most importantly connected with families torn apart as the LTTE corralled and moved them to maintain its ‘human shield’. Just imagine a single ministry or department handling the same. It would have been a disaster.

The High Commissioner is ‘particularly troubled’ by the appointment of Lt Gen Shavendra Silva as Army Commander and Maj Gen (rtd) Kamal Gunaratne as Secretary, Ministry of Defence, because ‘it is ALLEGED (note the word) that they are implicated in ALLEGED (that word again) war crimes and crimes against humanity.’ Governments cannot punish anyone by denying seniority-driven promotions on account of allegations, and certainly not those submitted by individuals and organizations with dubious agenda based on statements/claims that are unsubstantiated. That’s with respect to the Army Commander. As for Gunaratne, he is, as pointed out above, a civilian and the objections on account of allegations are of no worth for the very same reasons mentioned with respect to Silva’s appointment.

Constitutional safeguards. The reference is to the 20th Amendment and talks of ‘democratic gains of the 19th Amendment’. The key ‘issue’ for Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner, is ‘[the erosion] of the independence of key commissions and institutions on account of procedures to select, appoint and dismiss. The 19th, she says, made for a constitutional council of ‘eminent persons’. The CC was severely tinted in favor of politicians. Their eminence, we don’t have to talk about. As for ‘civil society representatives’ they were all political addicts of the then government. They rubber stamped the will (whims and fancies, really) of the then Prime Minister. The 20th has a Parliamentary Council. All politicians. As eminent or otherwise as those in the CC. And look what they’ve done! They approved the promotion of the six most senior judges of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court! How appalling, eh? Then they approved the top most senior judges of lower courts plus a highly respected senior lawyer plus a person from the AG’s Department to fill vacancies in the Appellate Court. Appalling, that!

To be fair, not all appointments to the various commissions followed the same logic. Partisanship has been a factor. However, nothing in these appointments are ‘worse’ than those we saw during the yahapalanaya years; those appointments didn’t provoke as much as a murmur from the bosses of the UNHRC at the time. Telling!

As for ‘democratic space,’ the government has not held the long-postponed provincial council elections. True, they are white elephants. True they are the outcome of the most pernicious piece of post-independence legislation (the 13th Amendment). It’s part of the constitution though. Hold them or amend the constitution, that’s what is logical. Apart from this, it is silly to say that democratic space has shrunk. Elections were held just a few months ago. No complaints of any wrongdoing there. NGO activists can claim to be scared to speak. Claim. It is useful to say ‘scared’.

The report talks about political victimization. Now there are two sides to this coin. The gripe is about cases filed during the previous regime being withdrawn. Fair enough. However, the UNHRC has not bothered to consider the possibility that there were thousands who were hauled before the FCID during that period, many put behind bars etc., but no one found guilty. Whether this is due to some back-house deal among politicians or simply lack of evidence, we don’t know. However, it is no secret that the FCID was run by a few pro-UNP lawyers who used the mechanism to harass one and all who they imagined were Rajapaksa loyalists. If indeed THAT was victimization, offering relief is certainly not out of order. The report makes much of the Shani Abeysekera case, forgetting that he was in the thick of things in the vendetta circus of the previous regime.

The report takes issue with the ‘Commission on Victimization’. The High Commissioner alleges, ‘The Commission has also interfered in other criminal trials, including by withholding documentary evidence, threatening prosecutors with legal action, and running parallel and contradictory examinations of individuals already appearing before trial courts.’ It’s up to the Commission to respond to these charges, which are certainly serious.

Then it talks of ‘majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric’. First off, we’ve had a nauseating load of ‘minoritarianism’ and minoritarian-driven ‘exclusionary rhetoric’. Secondly, the allegations are nothing more that perceptions and demonstrate a woeful lack of appreciation of history, heritage and most importantly demographic realities.

For example, the report says, ‘In June 2020, a Presidential Task Force was established on the sensitive issue of Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, consisting almost entirely of Sinhalese members, including two Buddhist priests, despite the diverse population and heritage of the region.’ Here’s the truth. The vast majority of archeological sites in the island that are ‘Buddhist’ in character so happen to be in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The vandalism of the same at the hands of the LTTE is very well documented. The Government could have included Muslim and Tamil historians and/or archaeologists in this Task Force, true, but the UNHRC statement seems to confuse the past and present. This is archaeology. Period.

As one might expect, the issue of disposing the bodies of the Covid-19 dead has been mentioned. This is a contentious issue with respect to which the Government has not covered itself in glory. However, the politicization of the issue has not been the preserve of the government or the majority community. Not a single all-Muslim community has come forward to say ‘bury them here, right here in our village!’ That ‘lack’ indicates how politicized the issue is, over and above the constant shifting of goal-posts regarding this issue by Muslim representatives (first it was ‘our religious right’ and when that was sought to be affirmed by arranging burial in the Maldives it was ‘we want to be buried in our motherland; now God’s Kingdom now and now Motherland!). Anyway, the UNHRC alleges ‘impact on religious freedom’ and talks of the Covid-19 pandemic ‘exacerbating the prevailing marginalization and discrimination suffered by the Muslim community’.

Marginalized? In what way? Discrimination? In what way? Has Bachelet been advised on privileges enjoyed by the Muslims that are denied to other religious communities? Has the UNHRC talked of the privileges embedded in Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act and of course the rank sexism in that community affirmed by the same? Is the marginalization and discrimination of ‘Muslims women’ not an issue for the UNHRC?

The section on surveillance and intimidation of civil society is laughable. Are these actors, with sad and even corrupt histories, above the law? Can they not be questioned or investigated? In any event, all we have with respect to this ‘issue’ are (we assume for lack of any other evidence), complaints. The complainants, as is well known, need to paint a picture of woe to remain relevant (and their organizations to remain financially viable). What’s wrong in checking on funding sources in a world where international organizations are used as cat’s paws by certain countries to destabilize others, especially when the governments in power are not ‘friendly’. This government is certainly not malleable. The previous one was not just malleable but seemed to consider genuflection an article of faith!

The section on Hejaaz Hizbullah is not without merit. There were technical errors committed in the arrest. He’s under a detention order. The UNHRC is upset that he might go for 10 months without being charged. It is indeed revealing of the true political will of the UNHRC that it found no compulsion to comment on the case of Pilleyan (who went 5 years (!) without being charged!).

‘Mysterious deaths under custody’ is an issue. It is a long-standing issue. The 2015-2019 period saw many such cases. UNHRC noted some of these cases but didn’t make a song and dance about it. Molehills were left as molehills. However, such ‘incidents’ scar the government. It’s something the Government does not need.

It is then a report that is full of exaggeration and in a sense a regurgitated whine over Resolution 30/1. It is a report that is built on a long history of falsehood and exaggeration furnished almost exclusively by actors who are certainly not dispassionate nor apolitical but rather had heavily invested in certain outcomes that have nothing to do with human rights or democracy. It is, nevertheless, an official report which charges the government among other things of not responding to queries submitted to it. The Foreign Ministry needs to respond comprehensively.


On the face of it, one might say that this report is just one of the many things that came up this week, but considering the history of such documents and the possible impact, it does warrant extensive response. For example, while the UNHRC report tutors the government on do’s and don’ts, it calls upon the Human Rights Council and member states to do much more than knuckle-rapping.

It wants the Council and member states to explore possible targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged (cute term, that!) perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses (yes, guilty until proven innocent, over and above the fact that allegations have been submitted by individuals and organization that have pernicious agenda, the fact that substantiation is weak and reliability of witnesses worth little more than toilet wash). They want to stringent vetting procedures applied to Sri Lankan police and military personnel identified for military exchanges and training programs. Based on allegations, yes.

But here’s something cuter. The Council and member states are urged to ‘prioritize support to civil society initiatives and efforts to reparation and victims’ assistance and prioritize victims and their families for assistance in their bilateral humanitarian, development and scholarship programs.’ Rewards for those who follow the script? The UNHRC could but will not revisit the term ‘civil society’ with respect to Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile a gazette was issued on Thursday by the President’s Secretary Dr P.B. Jayasundera notifying the public of the appointment of a three person Commission of Inquiry (Supreme Court judge A.H.M.D. Nawaz, as Chairperson former IGP Chandra Fernando and retired District Secretary Nimal Abeysiri) to investigate all allegations of human rights. The Commission has been given six months to report findings. The gazette notification alludes to the government’s decisions from withdrawing from Resolutions 30/1, 40/1 and 34/1, notwithstanding which pledges to work with the UN and its agencies on accountability and human resource development to achieve sustainable peace and reconciliation.

The government will not be applauded by the UNHRC. That’s for sure. However apart from this ‘basic’ and the basic of comprehensive response, it is important for the government to retain the confidence of the citizens. That’s not only about the UNHRC circus, however. It’s about delivering promises, being acutely aware of and sticking to mandate. In the end, that’s what will matter most.

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Politics

Of Saris and Grapefruit

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by Rukmini Attygalle

A review by Padraig Colman

Rukmini Attygalle writes in her acknowledgements in her debut collection of short stories entitled Of Saris and Grapefruit, “To all those who, in one way or another helped me to: See clearly; Feel deeply; Laugh heartily.”

The first story in the collection is “The Setting Sun”. The story hints at the dark side of tourism. Wimal impressed his contemporaries with his relative wealth. He was fifteen but “seemed older and was the richest young man in our village. Although, most of the time he walked around barefoot, like the rest of us, he did actually possess a pair of shoes.” One can guess how Wimal makes his money and the narrator is soon following the same path. “’You will work for this gentleman today. Do as you are told, and he will give you a good tip.’ Mr. Jinasena nodded at the man, smiled at me, and walked away. “

In “Dawn of Birth and Death”, we see life in the midst of death. From the terrors of tourism, we turn to the terror of the Tigers. “Kusuma, the eldest daughter now heavy with child, sat on a low stool watching her father busying himself with wood, hammer and nails, making a cradle for his soon to be born grandchild. …No one in the family nor anyone in the village, for that matter, possessed a cradle. Somapala had wanted to make something special for the expected child. Although a farmer, he had inherited his father’s love of carpentry. “

The family’s peace is soon disturbed and their modest expectations thwarted. Nearby Kumbukpitiya village had been attacked by the LTTE. Kusuma “instinctively picked up the child, cut the umbilical cord and separated it from the afterbirth. She ripped her underskirt, wrapped the child in it to keep it warm and nestled it against her.” Kusuma knew that Somapala was never going to come back. “As she cradled the child in her arms, Kusuma’s eyes rested on the legacy left to her son by her father – the cradle which was ‘almost finished’ and needed ‘only a bit of sand papering.’ “

We are in a lighter mood with “Money Lender” and “Let-Down”; both stories deal with the narrator’s encounters with a shrewd beggar called Andoris, who plied his trade mainly in and around Colpetty market. He was double-jointed and had the ability to contort his limbs to such an extent that, when it suited him, he could appear horribly deformed. “He never ever verbally claimed that he was in any way disabled. If others thought so – well that was their prerogative! Their undoing too!”

In the afternoons, he went into the market-square to work as a porter and hailer of taxis. “He seemed to change miraculously from the pathetic deformed figure prone to breathing difficulties to a man-of-action. The agility with which he pranced about on his thin stick-like legs never failed to amaze me. Veins bulged out of his upper arms as he lifted heavy shopping bags, and he seemed very much happier doing this than his morning work.”

The narrator’s eccentric relationship with Andoris begins when she is on her way by taxi to a social function and is horrified to find she has not brought any money. She borrows money from the beggar, which, of course, she repays. “What I had given him was much more, very much more than what money could buy. To him, the entire transaction between us was like an exchange of gifts between two friends. Momentarily, he had been the benefactor and I the beggar. And I? I was so glad. Grateful too.”

Her friends and family disapprove of her friendship with a beggar and she allows them to dissuade her from accepting an invitation to the wedding of Andoris’s daughter. “He probably accepted that socially I was considered his superior, but he knew, that we both knew, that on a basic human level we were equal.”

Leela, the central character in the title story, “Of Saris and Grapefruit” is happily settled in London working in a government office. She gets on with her colleagues but does not want to abandon her Sri Lankan identity and is aware that some people might struggle to accept immigrants. “Leela was proud of her national heritage and no amount of pressure subtle or otherwise would change her decision to continue wearing sari. She stood out like a parrot among a flock of grey pigeons.”

There was an initial British froideur but soon the people she worked with became friends as well as colleagues. Mary, however, still exhibited some reserve and continued to hold back. After an embarrassing incident when Leela’s sari fell off in the street at Elephant and Castle, Mary revealed more about her life and character and displayed her true worth as a friend. “She slowly left the room and returned with the British panacea for all stressful situations, a ‘nice-cup-of-tea’, and shyly placed it on Leela’s desk. Leela noticed a motherly gentleness in Mary’s face, that she had not seen before.”

My favourite story in the collection is “Shared Bench”. This is the longest story in the book and it has subtleties and nuances and twists of plot worthy of a novella. Swarnamali was sixteen when her mother died. She stepped into her mother’s role and took on the responsibility of caring for her siblings. Despite her eligibility to go to university, she joined the local Teacher Training College in Kegalle, so she could stay at home and help her father. Later Swarna went to live in London but made frequent holiday visits. This was the first time she had come to Sri Lanka since her husband Mahinda passed away.

Swarna had taught at the village primary school before she married and left Kegalle and memories come back as she now visits the school. She visits the Teacher Training College and thinks about Mr Raymond, her English lecturer, who showed great concern when she tripped and injured her knee. “He was tall, fair and good looking and also approachable with an easy manner and a good sense of humour.”

She was happy to see today that her favourite bench was still there under the kottang tree. “Again, a sharp memory came vividly to mind. She saw herself, of course slim and girlish and different from how she looked now, seated on the bench sketching when Mr. Raymond happened to pass by. He stops and says ‘Hello’. Swarna’s heart misses several beats; she drops her pencil and turns red with embarrassment, or was it pleasure, she now asks herself? He bends down, picks the pencil and hands it to her. Did her fingers touch his?”

Today, the seventy-year-old Swarna saw a figure of an old man shuffling along the sandy path waving a white stick in front of him. He was obviously blind.” As the blind man approached, she noticed his hunch; his balding head sparsely covered with downy white hair, not scraggy but neatly trimmed. His face was almost completely covered with a thick grey beard. His eyes and upper face plus the bridge of his nose were encased in a pair of outsize extra dark sunglasses that ran across from ear to ear.” The blind man, whom Swarna guesses is about ninety, introduces himself as Andaré (after the blind jester) and the two are soon enjoying a good conversation about culture and philosophy. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the twists and turns of the story by saying any more. Please read it.

This collection of eleven short stories displays many clear insights, much deep feeling and also an engaging sense of humour. Some of the stories are bleak, dealing with the horrors of terrorism and tourism. Some stories deal compassionately with marriage, aging, fading memory and mortality. There is also a lighter note of social comedy and acute observation of human interactions. The stories lead the reader on gently with simple, lucid prose that creates a subtle air of mystery.

 

Of Saris and Grapefruit

is published by Bay Owl Press and is available in all good bookshops at Rs 850.

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Politics

It’s time for the Geneva Circus replete with molehills and mountains

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by Malinda Seneviratne

Circus Pacifica, Apollo Circus and of course the amazing Chinese Circus — readers of an earlier generation will no doubt remember these. The Apollo Circus however planted itself on Pedris Park for quite awhile, but the others were rare.

Perhaps the antics of politicians, political parties, activists of various persuasions and of course the NGO rat pack compensated. They have entertained us even as they went about their charades, clowning, sleight of hand, somersaults and such, prompting quite a few oohs and aahs from an audience that wasn’t exactly applauding in unison.

We could never look forward to the real circuses. We didn’t have to anticipate with bated breath the political circus. However, there’s one which comes around every year around February. The Geneva Circus.

There are essentially two scripts: one to be used when a US-friendly or rather servile-to-the-USA government is in power and the other when the regime is not willing to play ball with eyes closed. In the first case, we get co-sponsored anti Sri Lanka resolutions, soft deadlines, much forgiving and forgetting. The run-up to the UNHRC sessions are not marked by Washington-led media outfits badmouthing Sri Lanka. The separatist groups abroad are in ‘go-easy’ mode. Human rights outfits barely murmur ‘concerns.’ Their local counterparts go into hibernation and the slumber is so deep that they don’t have the eyes to see any wrongdoing.

Well, we are not in that situation right now. It’s ‘the other guys’ in power and perforce it’s the second script that’s being played. This is how it goes.

It begins with the collection/construction of evidence. There are claims that strangely (and by now predictably) are filed without substantiation. Non-movement on agreements that are no longer valid will be noted. There will be a lot of striving and straining to enumerate ‘minority grievances,’ and to this end, the local lackeys in political and NGO circles will do their bit. Statements will be issued by the representatives of nations that have clout in Geneva (the U.S. ‘Cesspool of bias’ description notwithstanding). All ‘concerns’ raised will be duly documented. Human rights outfits, international and local, silent for months, will suddenly find voice.

‘Sri Lanka’s human rights situation has seriously deteriorated under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2021.’

That’s Human Rights Watch. Absolutely predictable. It comes with ‘evidence.’

HRW claims that security forces have increased intimidation and surveillance of human rights activists, victims of past abuses, lawyers, and journalists.’ If activists and claimants of past abuses, political operatives who conveniently wear the lawyer or journalist hat are upset about outcome preferences that haven’t materialized feel some anxiety and want to call it ‘intimidation’ or ‘surveillance’ that’s their right. A state cannot be faulted to be cautious, especially given a 30-year war against terrorism and a jihadist movement that unleashed terror on civilian targets that matched the worst of the LTTE. We don’t even know if there was intimidation or surveillance. We do know that ‘intimidation’ is frequently fabricated, posted on dubious websites and photo-shopped into newspaper cuttings. We know that such ‘evidence’ is sent to the right addresses where the relevant householders lap it all up gleefully.

HRW is upset about Sri Lanka withdrawing from the resolutions co-sponsored by a more than mischievous minister on behalf of a government operating absolutely against popular will on the relevant issues. However, when the wording is regurgitated, it does sound ominous. It’s as though Sri Lanka has decided that truth-seeking, accountability and reconciliation are irrelevant. That’s hardly the case. Well, not ‘Reconciliation = Eelamist Agenda’ certainly, but those who preferred THAT version were booted out by the voter. HRW has missed the incontrovertible truth that even those who pushed that version, did an about turn, pledging in two major elections to uphold the unitary character of the state. As for the devolution element of reconciliation, not even its most ardent advocates seem interested in provincial councils.

So it’s natural that the HRW feels a reversal in ‘gains of the previous government.’ HRW feels that minorities are ‘more insecure, victims of past abuses fearful, and critics wary of speaking out.’ That’s what Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of the outfit says. It’s cut-and-paste stuff, nothing more.

If ‘security’ is about a separatist agenda moving in the ‘right direction,’ sure, that’s not happening. ‘Victims of past abuses,’ she says — well, such as? Critics? Does she mean those who were unofficial adjuncts of the political camp that lost? They are wary, are they? ‘Wary’ is certainly a politically more useful descriptive than, say, ‘devastated by political defeats.’

There is certainly a more military presence in government. Systemic flaw and woeful incompetence by officials haven’t really helped the President get things done, especially in a pandemic context. It’s no secret that it is the security forces and the State Intelligence Service that have sacrificed the most, working tirelessly around the clock, to support the efforts of the medical teams fighting Covid-19. The retired officers (they are civilians now, let us not forget) haven’t done worse than those they replaced as heads of certain key institutions. In fact, in certain cases, they’ve managed to streamline operations, cut costs and get things done.

HRW says ‘they were, like the President, implicated in war crimes.’ Here we go again! Accusation treated as established fact in a political project which is not described as such, naturally. HRW makes much of the USA announcing that General Shavendra Silva was ineligible to enter that country. Oh dear! The USA passes judgment and that’s the last word? This is the point where the clowns do their turn. Loud applause and much laughter follow!

HRW talks of a ‘false accusation on social media that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus.’ Lots happen on social media. Some take it seriously, some don’t. HRW seems to have done some surveillance and cherry-picked. Good for HRW.

HRW does better on the issue of burials/cremation. The Government has not sanctioned burial. Yet. The issue has been politicized by multiple parties, Muslim politicians included. Maybe HRW is not interested in delving into the details and the complexities, but the Government could (still) act in ways that alleviate the apprehensions of the Muslim community.

The High Commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet has also made the expected noises, flagging ‘freedom of expression’ issues related to what she calls ‘criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 situation.’ This is not the time to be mischievous and some certainly were, and that, Bachelet and HRW will not agree, can have serious impact on the entire population. The nice thing about it is that neither HRW nor UNHRC has to do the cleaning up when the smelly stuff hits the fan.

Ganguly ends with some poetry. Nice. ‘Concerned governments should do all they can to prevent Sri Lanka from returning to the ‘bad old days’ of rampant human rights violations. Governments need to speak out against abuses and press for a UN Human Rights Council resolution that addresses accountability and the collection and preservation of evidence.’

Concerned governments, she says. Does she mean the USA, UK and those in the EU? Laugh, ladies and gentlemen. That’s what you do when the circus comes to town!

Yes, the EU too. The EU has, as expected when the Geneva Circus is around the corner, ‘raised concerns’ on human rights. The wording is identical, almost: inclusiveness, reconciliation and fair treatment of minorities.’ The EU office has also tweeted that it is ‘saddened by the destruction of the monument at the Jaffna University.’

What’s the story there? Students cannot put up structures at will on state property. If the monument was sanctioned, the person who gave permission was the first culprit. However, having allowed it or turned a blind eye to it (as the case may be), it is wrong to arbitrarily raze it to the ground. The Vice Chancellor opined that it was an obstacle to reconciliation. The students’ response (‘we tell the “Sinhala Government” that we don’t want to fight a war, we just want to honor our dead’) seems to justify his position, but that’s a different matter.

If students want to celebrate brutes, that says a lot about the students. However, if it’s about remembering kith and kin, that’s another matter altogether. If that’s the case, though, why make a political fuss about it? Why turn it into a circus?

The VC has since done a U-Turn and even laid the foundation for a replacement monument. The government missed a trick here. It could have engaged the students. It could have discussed the possibility of a monument before which anyone could grieve, especially the near and dear for the temperature of their tears are the same and truer than those shed by the politically motivated. Could have, should have, still can do. Never too late.

There are circuses and circuses. Some International, some local. We had the US Ambassador finding her voice after a long silence to express dismay over the assault on the Capitol Building in Washington DC. ‘We will continue to try to be more perfect,’ she pledged. So, the USA and everything in that country including racism, police brutality and a foreign policy that’s only about securing markets, plundering resources and bombing countries to the middle ages if that’s what pursuing strategic interests entails, is ‘perfect.’ That’s the claim. Laugh ladies and gentlemen!

This week also saw an incarceration drama. Ranjan Ramanayake was sentenced to a four year prison term for contempt of court. Naturally, the opposition cried ‘foul.’ Ranjan’s ethics are obviously of the kind that makes ‘foul’ a weak descriptive. He did rant and rave in ways that others did not. He did insult the judiciary. He demanded an independent judiciary but was caught on tape (his own) promising to intercede on behalf of a judge, taking her case to the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (yes, under whose watch HRW and the UNHRC says ‘there was progress’!).

Was there political motivation at work in the court decision? We don’t know. We can speculate though. Speculation on this count was fueled by the acquittal of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan allies Pilleyan, former Chief Minister, Eastern Provincial Council and leader of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).

Ranjan in, Pilleyan out! How horrendous! That’s the line the Opposition took.

Well, Pilleyan belonged to a terrorist organization. That’s bad. He was accused of murder. That’s not good. However, on that particular charge, his innocence has to be presumed until and unless proven guilty. He was held for five years without trial. Five years! That’s when the government which HRW and Bachelet believes ‘made some progress.’ Those making a song and dance about Ranjan’s sentence and about ‘the lawyer’ Hejaaz Hizbullah being held without trial over suspected involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks, weren’t upset over Pilleyan’s incarceration.

Five years was long enough to find the evidence, but apparently the Attorney General couldn’t make a case. That, or he bowed to political pressure. The former indicates that his predecessor was playing politics with justice. The latter, if that’s the case, doesn’t cover the current Attorney General in glory. However, all this is speculation. We really don’t know.

Maybe investigations regarding Hizbullah are incomplete. He’s been under custody for many months. Not yet ‘years.’ Years, however, is the time-slice in the case of LTTE cadres currently in detention. Neither the previous regime nor this has moved to bring matters to a close. It would be a horrible travesty of justice if they are finally released ‘due to lack of evidence’ or an unwillingness to continue with the prosecution (either of which could be the case with respect to Pilleyan). Not a laughing matter, ladies and gentlemen .

We had the President slipping in Ampara over the last weekend. To be fair by him, the President has been badgered endlessly by Harin Fernando from day one. The President responded in jest, but what he said was not really funny. He alluded to Prabhakaran and how that terrorist’s life ended. Unnecessary. Unbecoming. Harin is, relatively, small fry and his political track record is so sketchy that responding to him constitutes a salute, an undeserved one.

Harin claimed he knew about the Easter Sunday attack AND DID NOTHING ABOUT IT! Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during the election campaign, conducted himself well. He didn’t utter one word about his fellow candidates. He focused on his program. He slipped. That’s no laughing matter either, even though people are making a mountain out of a molehill here.

There was noise over the East Terminal of the Colombo Port. The unions and several political parties objected. They met with the President. The talks were disappointing, they said. The President said it will not be sold. He said it’s a joint venture with a minority control for the Indian port development company. He didn’t say that the same company is building a competitor-port in Kerala. Obviously there’s ‘understanding’ that’s not been put into words and made public.

Obviously the (virtual) sale of the Hambantota Port by the previous regime has constrained the President vis-a-vis Indian ‘concerns’. The President has gone on record to say that India’s national security concerns will not be compromised by Sri Lanka. There’s a cheque being cashed by India but we don’t know what we got in return. The vaccine? That’s a laugh — in any case 99.5% of the infected recover, the vaccine is still an unknown quantity and there are alternatives out there in the vaccine market. A (nominal) buffer in Geneva? Possible but again, we do not know. Such things are not said. Arms are not twisted in public.

A government besieged (as this one is) has few options. Geneva is a circus but not one where the Sri Lankan delegation will get to laugh. The Government has one trump. Not Donald. The people.

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