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Narrative Fragments of Independence share a unifying Sri Lankan Narrative



by Rajan Philips

Sri Lanka turns 73 this week, 73 years since becoming independent. It is nearly 15 years since I started writing to the Sunday Island, and almost every February I have written a piece to mark Sri Lanka’s independence anniversary. I wrote one for the 70th anniversary, in 2018, but unbeknownst to me and many others, there was a different and far more precious souvenir that was being prepared to mark that special occasion. The precious product came out the following year, in 2019, entitled “Archive of Memory – Reflections on 70 years of Independence.” It was the brainchild and consummate achievement of Malathi de Alwis, who passed away recently causing great shock and much sadness in Sri Lanka’s social, activist, and academic circles.

I did not know Dr. de Alwis at all and never had the privilege of meeting her. But members of my family did, and the copy of the “Archive of Memory” that I am using for inspiration now was given by Ms. Alwis to my wife, Amali, when they met in Colombo in January 2019. Many of us knew of her work and her collaboration with Kumari Jayawardena, and we saw in her a gifted torch bearer for the next generation. As with Serena Tennakoon earlier, untimely death has snatched away another accomplished prodigy all too soon when Sri Lanka needs many more of them – among both women and men and among all its Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim co-existences.

On the positive side, and despite its seemingly unbridgeable political divisions, Sri Lankan society never runs short of people never giving up in keeping the social ties of unity, decency, tolerance, and humanity, alive and strong. Malathi de Alwis was one such person. The Archive of Memory which she conceptualized and produced, in collaboration with Hasini Haputhanthri, Shani Jayawardena and others, is testament to her life’s work and purpose. Even more, the Archive is a testament to Sri Lanka’s possibilities, notwithstanding all the recessionary and reactionary forces that are in command today.


The life of things

Malathi de Alwis was an Anthropologist. So was Serena Tennakoon. Anthropologists do not work with large populations, or look for statistical validations of social practices or processes. They look for experiential validations and try to discern sense and meanings from social norms, processes, customs, and practices. Practices involve symbols and objects and artefacts and things. Anthropologists talk about “The social life of things.” The Archive of Memory enshrines both the social and political life of Sri Lankan things. It is a photographic collection of objects and artefacts, and narratives about them educed from their owners and possessors.

The Archive includes seventy photographs depicting seventy objects and artefacts – one for each year of independence. Each photograph is supplemented by a narrative, authentically provided by the owners, and dialectically refined by the owners and the editors. Linguistic mediation was inevitable because the Archive of Memory is published in all three languages of Sri Lanka, the narratives involved translation from one language to another. Even in the same language – there was back and forth between the narrators and the editors as they ‘distilled’ the original tale to suit the physical limits of size and structure while retaining the authenticity of the narrative voices.

The archival project clearly seems to have resonated across a representative cross-section of Sri Lankan society. A network of collectors and interviewers literally contact-traced potential possessors of things that had tales to tell. They were drawn from all ethnicities and all social strata, from all occupations and walks of life, and from all religions as well as from atheists. The project received more than 150 interests, and settled on 70 objects and stories. The Archive includes at least one object-story pair from each Province, as well as from the diaspora, and the provincial tallies are – Western Province over 20 of them, Northern Province 14, Central Province 9, and five each in the Southern and Eastern Provinces.

Chronologically, the objects and stories span all seven decades of independence, some of them going back to pre-independence years, many of them converging around the 1980s and 2000s. It will not be justice to the Archive to try to describe in words any, let alone all, of the objects that are captured by the splendid photography of Sharni Jayawardena. The objects range from family jewelry, personal belongings, household items, musical instruments, food sampling, mechanical appliances, garden trees and many more. Not every object is a personal possession, but something that relates to someone’s experience, or a common event. The stories about them are personal, but they are also political – if not directly, but at least contextually.

The collection begins with a Silver Bangle and the story about the Pageant of Lanka that Deva Suriya Sena organized in London, in 1948, to celebrate Ceylon’s independence. The pageant was held over four days featuring episodes from the past through music, dance, and drama – Ravana and Sita; Introduction to Buddhism; Elara the Just; Arrival of the Portuguese; and the British Administration. Dakshini Fernando who narrates the story was a 20-year old, living in London in 1948, and wore the Silver Bangle for a dance performance at the pageant.

The book ending story is about a Suitcase that has been the life companion for Bandara Menike, born in 1948, in Sorantota, Badulla, in far less than fortunate circumstances. She even missed learning to read and write, which all her siblings did, and joined as a domestic help to a well-to-do family in Badulla. When that family moved to Colombo, they took Menike with them and bought her a new suitcase to pack her belongings. The Suitcase has stayed with Menike through much of the Independence years. She wouldn’t let go of it, and says “it keeps vigil under my sick bed.” She has seen Colombo at its best and at its worst – from the limitless ocean and the amusing zoo, to the fires of 1983, the sirens of the civil war, and the water wall of the tsunami.

In between, we are introduced by Sunethra Bandaranaike to the Wedding Necklace that her mother wore en route to becoming Sri Lanka’s and the world’s first woman Prime Minister. A.T. Ariyaratne recounts his initiative as a young schoolboy in Galle in setting up a co-operative for poor women who make coir rope, to get fair prices for their product. The initiative grew into a fully fledged Coir Rope Makers Co-operative encompassing 15,000 villages across the island after starting “80 destitute women” in Unawatuna. And we hear of the exploits of Ray Wijewardene making Micro-Light aircrafts.

Depressing stories surface on all sides as years roll by and the country is caught in the throes of a civil war. Udhayani Navaratnam (Tellipalai/New Delhi) and her family saved their keys but lost their house in Tellipalai. She was 14 in 1990, when the family had to evacuate their home as it came under the government security zone. They were reduced to living a nomadic existence, the father died of a heart attack in 2003, and in 2011 they were given permission to return to their house. After 21 years they went back, their mother clutching the bunch of keys. There was nothing left to open.

The things and the stories, assembled by Malathi de Alwis and her creative team of serious and dedicated friends, bring into rare relief the social facets of Independence – separate from political pretensions and the parades that go with them. The Archive’s introduction eschews pretension and speaks candidly about independence and its aftermaths:

“While there is much to celebrate in our overthrowing a 500-year yoke of colonial rule and embracing democratic politics, it is undeniable that Sri Lanka’s post-independence trajectory has also been rather turbulent and bloody. Communal riots, youth insurrections, natural disasters and a protracted civil war have cast a long, brooding shadow across recent decades. Any reflection on our past must acknowledge the positive advances we have made as a nation as well as question and learn from our negative experiences.”

The Archive captures samples of positive advances as well as negative experiences, and acknowledges that many “events of great political and historical significance” are not in the collection. However, what are included are worthy of repetitive reading and reflection, not for making political arguments but as a vehicle for political catharsis. Although they are fragments that have never been together, nor will ever be, together they interlace a Sri Lankan story that is not politically pretentious but is socially authentic. For that, we say Thank You to Malathi de Alwis, and salute her memory.

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President picks up the gauntlet



by Jehan Perera

By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.

President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.

But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.


Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.

At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”

The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.


It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.

On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.

An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.

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Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka



Student union leader Wasantha Mudalige with prison guards

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.

School children as “drug addicts”

A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”

Bhikku students as “alcoholics”

The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.

The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.

University students as “terrorists”

The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.

The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.

Privatization of Education

The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.

The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.

Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

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Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive



Janaka Palapathwala: Recreating the Presley era…through song.......

For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation

Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.

Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.

However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:

“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”

Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.

Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.

“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.

“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”

Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.

“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.

“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.

Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.

“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.

“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”

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