By Jehan Perera
The economic situation in Sri Lanka continues to deteriorate on multiple fronts though slowly enough for people who can afford to pay higher prices not to notice too much. For the past four months or so there has been a relatively steady supply of petrol, diesel and cooking gas. The long queues are no longer to be seen. The rationing system for auto fuel has been effective at curbing demand for it and at conserving dollars. Cooking gas is freely available. The prices of all these essentials have escalated three-fold giving rise to inflation. But those who can afford to pay at least double or triple the prices they used to pay, because their income levels are high, are satisfied that they do not have to wait in long lines as in the past. Most of them are no longer members of the protest movement. Indeed, some of them have even become supporters of the government crackdown on the Aragalaya.
At the height of the protest movement, rich and poor alike got together on the streets to protest against the acute shortage and non-availability of fuel, gas and electricity. There was a unified countrywide demand for change that brought down the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. That unified demand no longer exists because those with money in their hands can afford to pay the higher prices and get on with their normal lives. They would prefer a life without protests on the streets as they can make ends meet. But for those who cannot afford their previous lifestyle, which is the majority, there is much dissatisfaction which will undoubtedly take a rebellious turn as witnessed in the continued protests by students.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken over the reins of the state in which a principal feature is the crackdown on the protest movement. Since his advent to power, prices have continued to soar which has made life unsustainable for wide swathes of people who were surviving at the margins prior to the economic collapse. It is reasonable to believe that the university students whose street protest in Colombo was violently broken up this past week, with over 80 of them being arrested, are representatives of those people whose incomes do not permit them to have a normal life anymore. At the present time, the most optimistic scenarios give five years of economic hardship before there is a turnaround. The president and his supporters need to consider whether five more years of repression is possible or desirable.
The problem is that the government is trying to alleviate the symptoms of the crisis by borrowing more and continuing with the practices of the past. The government is failing to address the root causes that brought the Aragalaya into being, as much as it failed to address the root causes of the ethnic conflict. Repression in the latter case led to three decades of war, but with no political solution, as evidenced by the difficulties the government is facing today in Geneva. The hoped for peace dividend at the end of the war in 2009 did not materialise and the military budget got bigger which contributed to the budget deficit.
The student protestors who are being subjected to police attacks are those who would be finding it difficult to live with dignity amidst the severe cost increases. By utilising water cannons, tear gas and baton attacks and arresting the students and charging them before the courts, the government is sending a message to the larger society that protests over economic hardships will not be tolerated. The government’s concern may be two-fold. First, that if the protests are not nipped in the bud, they will grow again due to the increasing hardships people are going through and become an uncontrollable protest movement as in the recent past. The declaration of High Security Zones in Colombo is a sign that the government is taking maximum precautions. Second, an IMF requirement for funding is political stability.
Previously High Security Zones, were promulgated in the North and East at the height of the war to safeguard the military bases from enemy attack. The Bar Association has condemned this move as inimical to democracy and said that it will be carefully studying the provisions of the order issued by the President and will take appropriate legal action to ensure that the fundamental rights of the people are secured. The BASL has also said “the imposition of draconian provisions for the detention of persons who violate such orders thus violating the freedom of expression, the freedom of peaceful assembly and the freedom of movement all of which are important aspects of the right of the people to dissent in Sri Lanka.”
Significantly, protests and public gatherings in the areas declared as High Security Zones are banned while vehicle parking will not be allowed in the vicinity of any of the designated locations. Some of the designated locations were the sites for large public protests during the heyday of the Aragalaya which demanded the resignation of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa between April to July as the people agitated against the government for its mishandling of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. The government has lost its popular mandate to rule. This can be seen in the fact that its leaders cannot step onto the streets to mingle with the public unless accompanied by large contingents of bodyguards. They will see their survival through the prism of national security.
During his last days in office, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to form a small all-party cabinet comprising 15 ministers who would work together to address the immediate problems of economic crisis, come up with a mutually accepted national economic plan and hold fresh elections in six months. This was the statesmanship that was expected of President Ranil Wickremesinghe when he became president. His focus on crushing the protest movement came as a surprise but was justified on the basis of the need for law and order. It was expected that he would similarly crush corruption and self-seeking practices which also violate the law. But these expectations are yet to materialse.
The reappointment of the same set of politicians who were in the seats of power under the former president and failed to stop the economic crisis, cannot inspire hope that they will provide a solution. They seem to have no idea of a solution to the overall national crisis. They are adept at speaking about the problems but not at presenting the solutions. In the meantime, there are today people who go to the Koththu seller and buy one to take for the family dinner. They leave their national ID card as surety as they do not have the money to pay then and there. These are the people on whose behalf the university students protest.
There is a need to be mindful that there is hatred against those who are blamed for having brought the country to this sorry pass. This hatred is growing as people find they cannot feed their children but they see their rulers continuing to demand positions, perks and privileges and getting them. There are no solutions being presented to the people, only the problems. In this context, the appointment of a large number of ministers at a time when there is hardly any money available for development projects is seen by people as unjustified. They are seen, with mounting hatred, as being part of the problem that will not go away until that entire set of politicians goes away.
In this bleak situation, academic staff at Jaffna University have set an example that the government can follow in winning the hearts and minds of students instead of punishing them so severely. It started when one of the faculty members observed his students come for his morning class without having had their breakfast. He started with giving the students in his class crackers and bananas. Next he was able to motivate two more of his colleagues to contribute to providing a free meal. This was three months ago. Today, the community action has increased to a level where they are able to supply more than 1,200 students with a meal every day.
At a time when the government is being asked for evidence of its commitment to reconciliation and justice at the 51st UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, the Jaffna academics have shown a spirit on the ground that the government needs to take on board nationally. Their establishment of a community kitchen for their students who are from all parts of the country and of different ethnicities and religions is national reconciliation in practice. As in the case of civil society initiatives, the academic staff at Jaffna university have shown on a micro level what the government needs to do at a macro level. Civil society can generate community support. It is the duty of the government to provide systemic support.
Teaching feminism at SL universities
“Feminism is not a synonym for man hater though we need a new man now”:
By Aruni Samarakoon
Recently, I was in a discussion on Feminism with the members of the Post-Graduate Research (PGR) community at the University of Hull, in the United Kingdom. They were my colleagues, from the Middle-East, Asia and Europe, representing the natural and social sciences, but, apparently, did not possess any prior knowledge on feminism. I say this because most in the natural sciences seemed to characterise feminism as a political ideology against man (man in this context represents male). This discussion provoked me to recollect why feminism was stereotyped by these scholars, who were researching for their doctoral degrees at the time.
The objective of this article is to extend my argument of teaching feminism at the Sri Lankan universities in my last Kuppi column (25/10/2022), which drew attention to the gaps in teaching and learning feminism in the classroom and practicing it in everyday life.
I introduced the basic notion of feminism in my last Kuppi column, but would like to extend the conceptual understanding of feminism in a new direction, that is the notion that feminism is not an anti-man discourse. bell hooks—lowercase letters symbolise, for hooks, resistance to injustice and prejudice in the capitalist system or a “new language” of equality and justice for all—in Feminism for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000) states, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression… and it was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy ” (p.01). hooks’ proposition was further reinforced by socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham in her book, Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972). Rowbotham suggests that feminism is a new political project to empower both men and women and create a new man and woman. Notably, hooks and Rowbotham did not agree with ‘binary politics’ that constructs man as “enemy” and woman as “victim”.
Who is the “New Man”?
The political notion of the “New Man” was developed by Rowbotham. She critically examined women’s representation in post-French revolution politics and asked how the latter “represents the voice of women in the French Revolution”? She suggested that women moved once again into the second sex (subordinate role) paradigm at the end of the French Revolution as revolutionary politics turned into patriarchal politics. Therefore, she suggested the concept of “New Man,” a man who recognizes class and sex oppression as the primary determinants of exploitation. The “New Man” understands the equal significance of ending classism and sexism at once. I draw on hooks and Rowbotham to propose that a “new man” is a necessary condition for teaching and learning feminism at Sri Lankan universities.
The question is whether you see the “New Man” in any context in Sri Lanka? Let’s start with the recent peaceful uprising of “Gota- Go-Home-2022”. Revolutionary political agents of both male and female sex were visible at the beginning of the uprising. For example, the image of a woman carrying a child in one hand and a placard in the other went viral on social media. The female undergraduates were on the front lines of the protests, holding the banners and shouting the slogans. The activities of women in this scenario took me back to the French Revolution;
“The idea of a march of women to Versailles to stop the bloodshed spread in April 1871. Beatrice Excoffon, the daughter of a watchmaker who lived with a compositor, told her mother she was leaving, kissed her children and joined the procession at the Place de la Concorde. Nobody was clear about the aims of the march or knew definitely what they should do, but there were political rather than strictly economic motives” (Rowbotham, 1972, p.104).
The women who came to the streets in the Sri Lankan uprising had both political and economic motives. They were not certain about the plan, though their voice was to end the “dictatorship” and restore “democracy”. The fundamental question is where are these women now? How many of these women were in the political party negotiation table at the end of the uprising? How many were able to voice their political motives? I argue that these revolutionary women were thrown to their private spaces by the “Old-Man”- the agent of patriarchal politics. The irony is that the “Old-Man” was preoccupied in ending the dictatorship in parliament, while maintaining sexist dictatorship in their revolutionary political bodies. Thus the “New Man” is a necessary condition to practice feminism as political ideology for everybody.
The aims of feminist academic discourse and activism were/are to raise women’s political consciousness and empower them to be the “New Woman”. The scholarship of hooks and Rowbotham interpret the “New Woman” as one who opposes patriarchal politics. The “New Woman” can be found today in every sector; these women are in a hard struggle to establish the “Woman’s identity” in those settings. For example, the underlying impetus driving the ongoing Iranian protest is to recognize Women’s identity as a human being. Tearing off their hair cover was a symbolic representation of their voice to get identified as human, in my interpretation. However, creating the “New Woman” is a contested and difficult political process. What is the role of teaching and learning feminism at universities in creating the “New Man” and “New Woman”?
“Learning outcomes” of Feminism
A key “learning outcome” of Feminist pedagogy would be to critically examine a given social reality. The given social reality contains the stereotypes, power hierarchies and objectification of the human body. Feminism then, will throw light on this social reality and raise the critical mindset of both woman and man to question that given social reality.
Feminism, in that case, plays the role of activism for social transformation. The focus of old school pedagogy was examining theory; activism was not a part of older pedagogical approaches. It was feminism that introduced activism as a new method of teaching and learning Amy K Levin states in Questions for a New Century: Women’s Studies and Integrative Learning (2007) that, “feminist studies programmes work to meet knowledge and skills goals and activism is the requirement of the course” (p.18). Connecting knowledge and personal experience is a part of feminist activism.
However, in the context of Sri Lankan universities, activism is yet to be recognized as a legitimate pedagogical activity. In my experience, the most university academics in Sri Lanka maintain a hierarchy of academia and activism. They tend to present the theoretical arguments of other prominent scholars in academic language, rarely understood by the public. In activism, the theoretical explanations are discussed in simple language and examples of everyday life are connected to theory, to engage the public.
In conclusion, the point of feminism is not an anti-man thesis, but to create the “New Man and Woman” . The “New Man ” concept in Sri Lanka can and must be improved and expanded by teaching feminism at higher education institutions. Training undergraduates in activism is necessary for social transformation, which should be the ultimate objective of education. It is worth noting that the Kuppi collective has taken the lead in discussing new approaches to education; feminism is part of that discussion.
(Aruni Samarakoon teaches at the Department of Public Policy, University of Ruhuna)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies
Indian model as wayforward
By Jehan Perera
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s statement that district committees can be considered as part of the solution to the vexed problem of power sharing between the ethnic communities has caused a considerable furore in the Tamil community. It came as both a shock and a disappointment as the president has also been speaking about fast-tracking the national reconciliation process. The president said he is ready to reintroduce District Development Councils when former president Maithripala Sirisena proposed setting up of district councils under the provincial councils as a cost cutting measure. “Former President, I listened to your comments on District Development Councils and I am ready to do it,” the President is quoted as having said. Subsequently, the president’s media unit clarified that the President meant that the District Development Committees (DDCs) will be established within the Provincial Councils.
The president’s media unit further elaborated that the DDCs would provide a platform for coordination between the government, the provincial councils and the local governments for all executive decisions. It also said this will ensure the process is not duplicated and will reduce financial wastage. The concept of the district as the unit of devolution was tried before in 1981 by the president’s uncle, the late president J R Jayewardene during whose period the government established DDCs to be part of the solution to the ethnic conflict that was getting worse by the day. The Sri Lankan security forces had been ordered to control the growing Tamil militancy. The security forces were armed not only with guns but also with the Prevention of Terrorism Act which was abused then as it is abused today though to a much greater extent then, than it is now.
The memory of the brief period of the DDCs is an unhappy one to the Tamil community. The elections to the DDC were contested by the ruling party, the UNP, to which the president belongs. The government’s attempt to rig those elections and win them at any cost led to the catastrophic burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981. This seat of learning was one of the most sacrosanct institutions of Tamil civilisation that symbolised the high quality of education in the north of the country that was the envy of other parts of the country. It is therefore not surprising that the president’s media unit was quick to deny the very negative inferences made with regard to the president’s speech.
The president’s media unit can be relied upon to accurately portray the president’s cryptic remark with regard to his willingness to resuscitate the district council system. However, the very idea of creating a complex platform for coordinating the central government, provincial councils and local government bodies for all executive decisions seems to be a difficult task. It runs the real risk of killing any possibility of decision making through a multiplicity of committees. Coordination within one level of the government is difficult enough. Coordinating between multiple levels will be even more difficult. There have been issues when two drivers sit at the wheel. Who does the Government Agent in a district report to as he also serves as the District Secretary? What is the protocol when a central deputy minister and provincial minister attend a formal meeting?
The questions noted above have been raised in the past and many remain unresolved and making further units of devolution will be confusion compounded. The irrelevance of the proposed district committees to the solution of the ethnic conflict can be seen by another problem. The provincial councils, which were formulated to be the solution to the ethnic conflict, and to represent the wishes of the people of each province, do nothing of the sort at the present time, as they are non-functional where people’s representation is concerned. For the past four years, the provincial councils have only been administrative bodies run by a presidentially appointed governor who can act, and does act arbitrarily, without consulting the people of the province. During this period, elections to the provincial councils have not been held. Far from being institutions of devolved power, the provincial councils now represent the centralised power of the state, both unfortunately and perniciously.
The ability of the government to neutralise the provincial councils by the undemocratic method of not permitting elections to be held for 4 years gives impetus to the Tamil community’s rejection of them. The provincial councils were brought into existence in 1987 as the main democratic part of the solution to the ethnic conflict. They were meant to provide the people of each province with the power to decide on locally relevant matters. But this right has been denied to them. This would be the main reason why the demand for federalism is once again coming to the fore. In a landmark judgement the Supreme Court in August 2017 with Chief Justice Priyasath Dep presiding ruled that “Advocating for a Federal form of Government within the existing State could not be considered as advocating Separatism.” The court dismissed a petition that ITAK (or Federal Party) had, as one of its “aims” and “objects” the establishment of a Separate State.
The TNA which is the largest Tamil party (with ITAK as its major component) has responded positively to the president’s announcement that he intends to seek a solution to the ethnic conflict by the 75th anniversary of Independence. They have said that they will seek a solution on the basis of federalism. Their spokesperson M. A. Sumanthiran has pointed out that there are more than 25 countries in the world which have federal system and they are very much united, and contain over 40 percent of the world’s population. The United States, India, Switzerland and Malaysia are examples of federal states. The key feature in a federal state is that the government will not be able to change the way a provincial council is governed. Certainly, the government will not be able to arbitrarily postpone elections to a provincial council for four years and then run it centrally through a governor of its own choice.
On the other hand, from the time that the Tamil polity has asked for federalism, beginning in the 1950s, the Sinhalese polity has rejected it as being injurious to the country’s national sovereignty and security. There is misapprehension that federalism might be the first step to secession. The examples of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are given as examples of federal states that broke up on the lines of their federal units. The Sinhalese position is that a unitary form of government would protect the country from being divided in this manner. However, even unitary states have been divided if they did not manage their ethnic relations in a constructive manner as was the case in Sudan (which divided into South Sudan) and Serbia (Kosovo). The enlightened reasoning and decision of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in 2017 needs to be explained to the political parties and to the general population.
The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote “For Forms of Government let fools contest whatever is best administered is best.” Just across the seas from Sri Lanka the world has a good example of a diverse and huge country that has held together as one and is now getting stronger and stronger, both in terms of its economic might, but also its international stature. The Indian form of government is neither wholly federal nor wholly unitary, but can take on aspects of either as the situation demands. In times of peace it is federal, in times of stress it can become unitary. This was the solution that India and Sri Lanka agreed to in the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 and which was distorted in the 13th Amendment. Recently in parliament, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa went one step forward to say he was for discussions on 13th Amendment plus. India has been Sri Lanka’s best saviour at the present time in terms of the economic crisis, giving Sri Lanka far more than other countries. With India’s political support to a political solution based on its own learning and experience, a viable solution can be found and Sri Lanka can forge ahead as a truly united nation to economic development.
Top acts heading overseas…for 31st night
Sohan & The X-Periments, and the new-look Mirage outfit, will not be around to usher in the New Year – 2023.
While The X-Periments will take a break, from 31st night activities, their leader Sohan will be away, in the UK, making sure that the folks, over there, have a ball, as the New Year approaches…and after!
He will be at the Honeymoon Banquet Hall, in Hounslow, London, together with the band Roots, and guest artiste Damin David – UK Lankan’s Voice Winner – to welcome 2023.
This dinner dance will commence at 7.00 pm and wind up at 1.00 am, and will be held in typical Sri Lankan style, with kiribath, tea, coffee, after the countdown.
Among the highlights will be the selection of the New Year Queen.
This will be Sohan’s third trip to the UK, for this year, and it did come as a surprise, he says, adding that he is glad that he is in demand in the UK, as well.
Sohan will also take wing for Australia, to perform at a very important event – a concert to honour the late Desmond de Silva.
It will be held on 11th, February, 2023, in New South Wales, and will also feature Mignonne and Suraj, Melantha Perera, Mariazelle, Corrine, and Sohan Pieris, among others.
This concert will showcase the music from Desmond’s incredible musical journey…with the Spitfires, Jetliners, Foreign Affair (UK), Replay 6, Desmond and The Impressions, and the baila king himself, in ‘hologram.’
In the meanwhile, the new-look Mirage, who captivated a full house at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, Mount Lavinia, last Friday night – December 2nd – is scheduled to head for Oman for two important seasonal gigs – on 23rd December and 31st December.
On Friday, the 23rd, they will be at the Grand Hall, Al Falaj Hotel, in Muscat, for ‘Sri Lankan Musical Night’ – from 3.00 pm onwards.
In addition to their Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve gigs, the General Manager of the Al Falaj Hotel, Praveen George, indicated to me that Mirage will also be seen in action at a few more events, in Oman.
Down Under, too, elaborate plans are being made to celebrate the dawning of another New Year.
Two popular bands, in Melbourne, Replay 6 and Ebony, will be at the Grand On Princess, to provide the right kind of music to make this New Year’s Dinner Dance nostalgic.
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