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Midweek Review

The value of aesthetic sentiment and its role in our lives

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Figure 2: ‘I see me’ a dance work choreographed and performed by Kanchana Malshani, Choreography Lab, Goethe Institute, Colombo 2019. Photo credits Malaka Mp Photography.

Pleasure or Purpose?

by Saumya Liyanage

 

This paper is based on a guest speech delivered at the annual lecture series titled ‘Medicine and Beyond’ organized by the Galle Medical Association at Karapitiya Teaching Hospital in 2019.

Introduction

Artistic practice as a creative endeavour is regarded as a second-rate activity when it comes to considering science and scientific truth claims. Plato wanted to remove artists from his utopian State. He argued that arts generated moral issues and bad sentiments so this type of human actions should be removed from the society. This tendency of marginalising the arts and artists’ works increased in 18th century Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a tendency of ‘faculty psychology’ started identifying higher and lower faculties of sense experiences and those psychologists categorised human sense experience in a hierarchical manner. Along with this, there are higher faculties that are believed to correspond with human intellect and there are lower faculties which are defined as non-cognitive and bodily. These bodily faculties produce subjective experience (Johnson 2007).

Mark Johnson here refers to the eye of the human being as one of the higher faculties which are believe to produce human intellect. The eye gathers information which is processed in the brain, and the brain orders the body to take action. This is the ‘Nature-idea-response’ model that Western science has propagated for the last few centuries. We observe worldly phenomena, process data in the brain, and come to certain conclusions. Therefore, information which is gathered through the eye and processed in the brain, dominates our knowledge and we assume that our intellect is developed through the information gathered through the eye. The eye also refers to the mind or ‘mind-eye’ as well. However, other senses such as smell, touch, taste, and hearing are referred as secondary to ocular-centric perception. While these lower level senses provide lower rated sense experience, the higher order sense like the eye provides higher order intellectual attainment. As a result, aesthetic pleasure is also categorised as a lower level of sense experience because we believe that the arts ignite subjective mental states. This subjective experience is placed against rational thinking. Even in Asian aesthetic theory, ‘rasa’ is also defined as something related to ‘extract of essence’ or taste of food. In line with this, the consumption of food and extricating ‘rasa’ is a secondary sense experience achieved through the tongue.

Aesthetic pleasure

Our daily life is filled with activities: lecturing, teaching, seeing patients, having meetings, driving cars, cooking, washing, and cleaning. All these activities are understood as rational activities. Therefore, we think that we need aesthetic pleasure, which is placed against reason and again less rational, less intellectual, but aesthetic entertainment, a much-needed component of life, is considered ‘subjective’ because it addresses human sentiments, feelings, and emotions. In the rational-emotional binary opposition, reason is favoured and hierarchically higher than emotion. For instance, sexual pleasure is seen as obscene and less intellectual similar to mere bodily activity.

Arts, especially the aesthetic, come into play as a means of escape from anxieties in our daily lives. The idea of Terror Management Theory (TMT) explains how we are conscious about our bodies and health, and take care of our wellbeing through various activities. The idea behind this consumption of arts is connected with the desire for human immortality. The fear of death is alleviated by seeking help from art and aesthetic pleasure. Thus, aesthetic experience is used as a way of escaping daily reality and also used as a tool of wellbeing. However, my question is whether these arts and aesthetics are there only for us to gain pleasure. Are there any other utilitarian needs for which we humans can use the arts? What are the other benefits that the arts can bring to human life? In what capacity could art enrich our human experience? These are some of the vital questions that I would like to discuss here.

 

Body, Mind and Cognition

Western modern philosophy theorises the division between the rational mind and the body, and the human body is understood as a separate function like a mere mechanical object similar to a clock or a machine. We see the human beings and their bodily functions in this dualistic way. Accordingly, a human being has two separate entities: mind and body. Bodies decay and are vulnerable to all sorts of diseases and ailments. We unconsciously conceptualise our bodies as a collection of functionalities such as blood circulation, respiratory functions, secretions such as urine and saliva, functions of organs such as lungs, liver, heart, and intestines. These conceptualisations of human body and its functionalities lead us to think of our bodies as inanimate objects which are enlivened through blood and breath. We distinctively differ between the thinking substance (mind) and the physical body (Soma) because we believe that thinking is a higher order function, which has nothing to do with the physical body. These daily conceptualisations of our thinking and bodily functions lead us to separate our rational thoughts from bodily functions. Therefore, the body is marginalised in the history of philosophy.

Yet, cognitive science has recently found that our thinking activities, conceptualisation, and ideas are not generated in a separate mind but these ‘mind activities’ are inherently embodied (George L., & Mark J., 1999, p. 3). The embodied mind is developed through organism-environment interaction or coupling. Traditionally, psychologists and philosophers have believed that thinking and thought processes are rational and intentional activities. However, recent studies have proved that our thoughts do not function rationally but occur largely within our unconscious region.

 

Further, abstract ideas and concepts are also largely metaphorical. For instance, in our daily lives, many abstract concepts such as time, space, distance, speed, etc., are understood in linguistic metaphorical structures (George L., & Mark J., 1999). These key findings of cognitive science have already questioned the way we understand human nature and our engagement with the world. We are now at a juncture where we may need to reconsider our previous assumptions on the human mind, reason and aesthetic experience and our engagement with the world. One cannot marginalise aesthetic sentiment as merely ‘subjective’ because the subjective-objective dichotomy cannot be applied anymore to explain how people perceive aesthetic experience. In other words, aesthetic sentiment is both rational and emotional at the same time. Hence, artistic activities, aesthetic experience, and perception are not mere cognitive or sentimental functions but about how human beings seriously engage with the world.

 

Music

Let me begin with music. Music plays a key role in shaping our lives and forming our experience as human beings. Music has the power to bring back memories and histories of our lives and it allows us to escape from the current social reality and encourage us to live through the past. Many of us are fond of listening to old music. The reason is that these musical sounds evoke nostalgic sentiments in us and help us escape from the current reality. Let’s contemplate for a moment and see what happens when you hear a familiar song from the 70s or 80s. How do we understand the experience it provides us? How do we understand its meanings despite its language and meanings derived from linguistic connotations? One of the basic arguments here is that we understand music not just because we know the language or we know the particular genre of music, but our understanding is rooted in bodily means. Mark Johnson argues: ‘The meaning in and of the music is not verbal or linguistic, but rather bodily and felt. We understand the meaning of longing, desire, expectation, for better things to come, and so on. We cannot convey it verbally, but it is nonetheless meaningful, and it is enacted via our active engagement with the music’ (Johnson 2007, p. 242). It is not a particular aesthetic mind that germinates and informs us about the meaning of music but it is the corporeal knowledge that is inherent in human beings which suggests to us different connotations of what we listen. The argument here is that music is an abstract form of art and its meanings go beyond our linguistic structures and connote indescribable meanings derived through our senses.

In terms of understanding arts and extricating aesthetic pleasure, we tend to transform all kinds of aesthetic experience into a ‘representation’ form. Transforming innate meanings into a representational mode allows humans to understand the arts as a ‘particular language’. There is a very popular saying that “music is a universal language”. But the irony is we do not listen or familiarize ourselves even with our neighbours’ musical traditions such as Carnatic music. Because language dominates the domain of understanding and eventually what we do is transform other forms of experiences into a language like metaphors through which we assume that we could understand the meaning of arts. Therefore music can be understood not only as an aesthetic object but something innately social and ideological text.

Figure 3: Cassandra directed by Seth Baumrin at Gershom Theatre, Lviv Ukraine, 2019. Actor, Lyudmyla Honcharova is performing with co-actors. Photo credit Vadym Rybin.

 

Dance

Let me now discuss, in brief, the values pertaining to dance. Dance as an art form can present diverse forms of expressions and meanings. Traditionally, Sri Lankan dance for instance have various codifications where dance audiences extricate meanings through narratives and stories embedded in dance. Hanuma Wannama or Gajaga Wannama depicts animal behaviours and meanings related to how these animals behave and move along with stories related to religion and rituals. Without these narratives embedded in traditional dance, we cannot see what meanings or feelings that these moving bodies bring as aesthetic meanings to the viewers. Similar to other art forms, we tend to define dance again as a universal language, or ‘mother of all tongues, or ‘the mirror of the soul’ (Warren cited in Leavy 2015, p. 149). These views are commonplace in the society related to dance, because we try to understand dance as a particular ‘language’ similar to music.

However, dance is one of the most abstract forms of art where meanings cannot directly be accessed.

Despite the literal and narrative meanings embedded in it, dance is used to cultivate other forms of values and meanings for human beings. Dance is narrative and tells stories. In traditional forms of dance, people derive meaning from narratives and stories embedded in dance rituals. These stories and narratives encapsulate human nature and gods’ and goddesses’ influence in human lives and wellbeing. Dance is emancipatory and used as a way of expressing social and personal discomforts and disagreements. There are some instances in which dance is used to critique social norms and raise disagreements through humour and satire. These forms also can be seen in some traditional dance dramas such as Kolam or Sokari in Sri Lankan dance-drama traditions. In these dance-drama forms, people use this art form to critique and show their discontent about established hierarchies and social status. Dance can be used to raise social cohesion by engaging with various communities and bringing them to a common platform. Dance is used as a healing process and it can heighten human wellbeing and communal sense. So, there are many ways in which we can understand how dance could be utilised in our daily life. In recent studies, dance has been identified as a tool to transcend historical time. As Cleark-Replley argues ‘dance is a form of transformative human action that expresses an individual’s being with purposive ends and can thus support communal relations’ (Cleark-Replley cited in Leavy 2015, p. 149).

 

Theatre

Finally, I would like to discuss briefly how theatre and performance practice could benefit our lives not only as a source of aesthetic pleasure but as a way to uplift other human values in our daily life and beyond. Theatre is a powerful medium through which one can communicate and share ideas and thoughts with other communities. The idea of ‘theatre’ has been used for a wide variety of meanings from antiquity to the present. The term theatrum mundi is used to denote the ‘world as theatre’ capturing every human activity taking place in the world. Further the term theatrum vita humane connotes the idea of ‘life as theatre’ (Fischer-Lichte, E. 2014). These usages therefore indicate how the term theatre is used to encapsulate both human and worldly activities.

Theatre invites actors and theatergoers to get together and engage in a communal space where they share certain meanings of their lives and surrounding environment. This is understood as an autopoiesis feedback loop or ‘co-presence’ of a group of performers and viewers. In this co-presence, theatre ‘investigates’ as well as ‘represents’ social phenomena where we live in (Leavy 2015, p. 174). Hence, theatre is not only for us to have pleasure and use as a leisure activity but also an investigation, exploration and representation of our daily realities. In general, theatrical performance raises our conscious awareness of where we live, what we do, and how we can change our environment. This awareness is vital for human beings to live and work in a society where unjust and exploitation is dominated. Theatre raises our awareness of our surroundings and further questions prejudices dominating in social structures. Theatre has the power to empower marginalized communities, groups of people who are suppressed by dominant power structures such as military, medical or governments. Theatre therefore stands along with those marginalized people and leads their struggles to emancipate them from those suppressive tools. In this sense theatre is political and educational. Theatre activism leads people to engage with policy and make changes in how they are being governed. Theatre is education in the sense that it blurs the boundaries and restrictions imposed in the traditional educational systems and allows people to learn without been subjugated to established pedagogies. Thus theatre creates a space for people whose voice is unheard and left alone. People who are involved in theatrical enactment and who are a part of the audience can cultivate knowledge through watching and engaging with the theatre. In this way, theatre and performance can serve to enhance human experience in diverse ways.

Conclusion

In these concluding remarks I would like to restate the idea that similar to scientific enquiry, the arts and arts practitioners also do research in their respective fields and create theories, challenge existing concepts and prejudices, develop new ideas, find new forms, and problematize existing knowledge with new creative research and insights. As I have argued above, the history of philosophy has created a gap between artistic endeavors and scientific explorations. However, with new understanding about how the human brain and cognition operate, it is clearly proved that human thinking, conceptualization, and ideas, traditionally understood as a function of the rational mind, are not rational activities but are embedded with emotional drives and occur largely in the human unconscious. In line with this aesthetic sentiment is an important human cognitive function that goes beyond our limits of language. Therefore, the arts override language and linguistic meanings. We make sense of the arts and our environment through our bodies and their encroachment with the outer world. The value of the practice of the arts and aesthetic sentiment is an integral component of human development. It is our duty for the next generation to convince that the arts and the aesthetic is another way of holistically understanding the world that science cannot perceive through rational means.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Dr Arosha Dissanayake, past president of the GMA and all the committee members of the association who made this event possible. Further a special gratitude goes to Himansi Dehigama and Sachini Senevirathne for helping prepare this paper.

References

Fischer-Lichte, E. (2014). The Routledge introduction to theatre and performance studies. London: Routledge.

Johnson, M. (2012). The meaning of the body: Aesthetics of human understanding. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kashima, E.S. (2010). Culture and Terror Management: What is “Culture” in Cultural Psychology and Terror Management Theory? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(3), pp.164–173.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (n.d.). Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. New York, Ny: Basic Books, [20]10.

Leavy, P. (2019). Handbook of arts-based research. New York: The Guilford Press.

Leavy, P. (2020). Method meets art : arts-based research practice. New York: The Guilford Press.

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Midweek Review

A deeper scrutiny of ‘intelligence related matters’ needed

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Public Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera Monday, 18 at his ministry met Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, to discuss ways and means of strengthening law enforcement operations. Public Security Ministry Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis and IGP Chandana Wickremaratne participated in the discussion.

Former Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) of Police H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, having read our last week’s column, further elaborated on the revelation by retired SDIG Merril Gunaratne pertaining to what he called the unprecedented expansion of the DIG cadre during Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s tenure as the President (May 1993 to Nov 1994).

Kotakadeniya, one of the most outspoken senior cop, while in service (if one had cared to canvas his opinion) and now in retirement, said Wijetunga’s intervention had been far worse than mentioned and caused the further deterioration of the service. The retired Senior DIG sent us the following statement in the wake of the writer’s comment on Gunaratne’s latest work ‘Perils of a Profession’, titled ‘Perils of a Profession jolts scandal- ridden police’ published in the January 13, 2021 edition of The Island:

“In the chapter, titled ‘Violation of the line of seniority – a major cause for decline,’ it is stated President Wijetunge ordered the DIG cadre to be increased from 19 to 30 and that there was speculation about this increase benefitting an officer who was a favourite of the President. I would like to add two relevant facts regarding this issue.

“Shortly after Wijetunga assumed office as the President, in 1993, he summoned me to the Presidential Secretariat. At that time I was based at Police Headquarters as DIG Headquarters and DIG Administration. My parents and I had the privilege of being acquainted with Wijetunga from my childhood as we were from the same village.

“When I met the President, he told me that the welfare of Police officers hadn’t been given the due importance and, therefore, to redress the situation he had an idea to appoint a DIG to handle welfare work in each DIG Range. He inquired from me whether I would endorse the proposal.

“I reflected for a few seconds and replied that the subject of welfare in each range was being looked after by an Inspector, and therefore the appointment of an officer of a rank of DIG was not quite necessary. The President did not appear to be pleased with my response.

“If few days, after this meeting, with the President, I was transferred as the DIG Logistics on 1.10.1994 and thereafter to Chilaw on 4.10.1994. I felt that the move by the President, to appoint several DIGs’ in charge of ‘welfare’, was meant to fulfill his desire to expand the DIG cadre to allow his favourite officer who was very junior, to also become a DIG.

“The other matter was that the DIG cadre increase was not from 19 to 30, but much above 40 since the officer concerned was at that time 44th in the list of Senior Superintendents. “

Kotakadeniya refrained from mentioning names. The Island inquiries revealed that ironically highly respected Frank Silva had been the IGP at that time and Mahinda Balasuriya the beneficiary.

Kotakadeniya, who had served as Defence Ministry advisor during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President following the 2005 November Presidential election, was the only retired officer to respond to The Island piece.

Deterioration of the public sector

The deterioration of the police should be addressed at the highest level. Unfortunately, successive governments, in spite of their grandiose plans to restore the dignity of the once proud service caused further deterioration. Political parties cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current predicament.

But at least it is no longer a runaway rogue force, hand in glove with the underworld, due to the current government’s no nonsense line on law enforcers. Yet the current dispensation, too, is still struggling to cope with the situation against continuing revelations on the depth of its rot. The revelation of the clandestine dealings involving the elite Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) and heroin Mafia sent shock waves through the entire security establishment. Gunaratne, however, hadn’t at least made a reference to the PNB fiasco or the controversial release of Easter Sunday massacre suspect Riyaj Bathiudeen who had been held in CID custody in terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Mahinda Balasuriya received the appointment as the IGP in early November 2009 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President. Balasuriya resigned in early June 2011 following the killing of a 21-year-old worker, during a protest, by police fire at the Katunayake Export Processing (EPZ).

The government rewarded him with a diplomatic appointment. Balasuriya, perhaps is the only retired IGP to receive an appointment as head of a diplomatic mission in spite of stepping down under controversial circumstances. Balasuriya served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Brazil. With the Parliamentary High Posts Committee, chaired by the Speaker, nothing but a rubber stamp for successive governments to accommodate their favourites, at the taxpayers’ expense, without any difficulty.

Balasuriya received significant media coverage when he was investigated by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that Inquired into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC). The yahapalana outfit probed why Balasuriya provided armed police security for members of Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF), who hadn’t been at least members of Parliament.

The Commission sought clarification on what grounds Balasuriya provided security in the period 2010-2015.

The Commission estimated the exercise could have cost the taxpayer approximately Rs 30 mn.

Gunaratne dealt with officers with political patronage at different levels exploiting the much abused system to secure promotions. In the chapter referred to by Kotakadeniya, Gunaratne depicted an extremely negative picture of the service.

Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section that referred to the pathetic situation of some influential persons securing key posts and promotions for stooges at the expense of the deserving: “The pattern, so monotonous since 1977, had seriously demoralized the service. Some have been adept not only in the ‘long jump,’ but also in ‘hop, step and jump,’ by obtaining more than one promotion outside the eligible criteria.

Backdoor entry into Parliament

But should we be surprised by irregular police promotions? In a country where defeated candidates can be accommodated in Parliament through the backdoor or ruling party perpetrated Treasury bond scams twice in 2015 and 2016, ‘rape of the seniority line’ as underscored by Gunaratne seemed not so serious an issue. In fact, the rot in the police is just one symptom of the overall deterioration of both public and private sectors.

In spite of the creation of the National Police Commission (NPC) in terms of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution followed by the 19th and the recently introduced 20th, the crisis-ridden department is in bad shape. The PNB’s alleged involvement in drug dealing, Riyaj Bathiudeen’s sudden shock release, alleged attempts to undermine police investigation into Easter Sunday attacks, handling of the probe into negligence on the part of Brandix and government officials in respect of the second Covid-19 eruption highlighted fundamental flaws in law enforcement.

Police continue to play politics and politicians continue to play with the police. Both parties engage in ‘politics’ at the expense of truth and credibility. The Parliament remains indifferent. Yahapalana IGP Pujith Jayasundera, in the wake of the Oct 26, 2018 constitutional crisis caused by the sacking of Wickremesinghe government, immediately switched his allegiance to the Rajapaksas. Jayasundera returned to the fold as President Sirisena’s ambitious project collapsed.

Over the years, politicians have set up systems that took care of problems. Actually, Gunaratne in ‘Dilemma of an Island’ (2001), ‘Cop in the Crossfire’ in 2011 and the latest ‘Perils of a Profession’ launched this January dealt with perhaps some broader issues though a fully-fledged Presidential Commission as suggested by the author is required to reach consensus on genuine remedial measures.

Former Sub Inspector and defeated candidate at the August 2020 general election Palitha Range Bandara recently received the appointment as the General Secretary of the demoralized UNP. Bandara succeeded Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, who was rewarded with the post of Assistant Leader.

Beleaguered UNP leader Wickremesinghe picked Bandara in spite of him being accused often of divided loyalties. But in relation to ‘Perils of a Profession,’ it would be pertinent to mention that Bandara received backdated promotion to the rank of ASP in Dec 2017, courtesy the NPC.

The NPC recommended promotion for cop-turned-politician Bandara to the rank of ASP on the grounds the previous Rajapaksa administration victimized him, politically, though he had left the police long before Rajapaksa came to power in 2005. The NPC made the recommendation to the Law and Order and Southern Development Ministry. The NPC responded to Bandara’s appeal and recommended that MP Bandara be reinstated in the Police Service from 24 August 2000 and promoted to the ASP rank on the 27th of the same month and sent him on retirement. Promoting an SI to the rank of ASP cannot be an issue for those yahapalana grandees who brought back Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake from retirement to name him the Commander of the Army. The National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) carried out the Easter Sunday attacks during Senanayake’s tenure as the Army Commander. Instead of accepting responsibility for the failure on the part of the Directorate of Military (DMI) to thwart the NTJ project, Senanayake exploited the police lapses to contest the last presidential election. Senanayake couldn’t poll even 50,000 votes. The results of the Nov 2019 presidential poll placed Senanayake fourth behind JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

The yahapalana administration also brought back Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah from retirement to place the Navy under him. However, it is pertinent to mention that Sinniah led some of the most successful operations on the high seas against the LTTE arms smuggling vessels.

Need for clear cut procedures

The government will have to set up specific mechanisms to deal with both law enforcement and military officers claiming political victimization, rightly or wrongly, instead of looking at them through a political lense as has been happening under various governments. Gunaratne mentioned several instances of how retired senior officers brazenly exploited the political setup for their advantage. In the absence of procedures, any wrongdoer can secure benefits at the expense of the truth.

The author dealt with an attempt made by a Colombo-based diplomatic mission to recruit a police intelligence officer in the early 70s. Having named the officer concerned as Ananda Jayasekera, who passed away in 2019, Gunaratne discussed the case that ended up with the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike being alerted to the foreign mission’s bid to run an agent within the State Intelligence setup.

During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second presidential term, the US Embassy made an abortive bid to recruit Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe. The offer was made at a party hosted by the then US Defence attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith on January 20, 2011, in honour of a senior officer from the US Pacific Command.

Samarasinghe not only turned down the offer to secure permanent residency in the US for him and his family by betraying the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he promptly brought the US bid to the latter’s notice.

Against the backdrop of foreign powers stepping up their clandestine activities over the years, the circumstances under which Inspector Nishantha Silva of the CID secured political asylum for himself and his entire family a week after the last presidential poll underscored the pivotal importance of the intelligence services keeping a track of developments. Did the State Intelligence Service (SIS) headed by SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena know of the connection between Nishantha Silva and the Swiss Embassy?

Subsequent inquiries revealed a much wider conspiracy involving Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Francis, (former Siriyalatha Perera), the Swiss Embassy and the police officer who prominently figured in the leaked audio tapes of the then UNP State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake. Did SIS at least know the controversial CID investigator’s plan to flee the country in the event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the presidential poll? Did the then Director, CID SSP Shani Abeysekera know of his subordinate’s plan?

If the Swiss government succeeded in evacuating Garnier Francis in an air ambulance amidst accusations that government personnel molested her and threatened her with death, immediately after Inspector Silva fled the country, the issue would have been raised in Geneva at the forthcoming 46th UNHRC sessions as if it was the gospel truth. However, the possibility of the matter still being raised during the Feb-March 2021 sessions cannot be ruled out as the West is quite capable of making an untruth a truth, especially through their ‘independent’ media as happened with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the maligning of Gaddafi just before his ouster and gruesome killing in public.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa placed the SIS under intelligence veteran Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally. The SIS had never been under a military officer before. The crisis-ridden police are now placed under retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera as the Minister of Public Security with retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis as the Secretary to that Ministry. The Office of Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), too, has been placed under retired Maj. Gen. Ruwan Kulathunga. In spite of the much tighter hold on the intelligence setup, the government was caught flat-footed when the demolition of the LTTE war memorial on January 8, 2021 in the Jaffna University triggered chaos. The incident placed both Sri Lanka and India in an embarrassing position as the demolition of the memorial took place close on the heels of Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s high profile visit to Colombo.

Although the author made reference to the failure on the part of the police to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks, an issue as important as how the Indian intelligence managed its operations aimed at the NTJ hadn’t received due attention.

Did India alert SIS regarding their NTJ hunt or just provided the finished intelligence product on April 4, 2019, regarding the planned operation? Sri Lanka should be really worried about foreign intelligence services engaged in clandestine activities here, especially against the backdrop of growing US-China rivalry, with the former receiving the backing of India, Japan and Australia.

PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran killing outside the Maldivian HC in Colombo in July 1989 revealed the possible involvement of the Indian intelligence. The killing took place in the wake of the PLOTE bid to overthrow the then Maldivian President Gayoom at the behest of a Maldivian businessman. The sea borne PLOTE raid went awry even before Indian troops landed there to bring the situation quickly under control.

A deeper scrutiny of ‘developments’ is required as China-US hostilities take a turn for the worse with both seeking to enhance their spheres of influence. The need for the intelligence services to be prepared to face multifarious threats on different levels is of paramount importance. The Easter Sunday carnage is certainly not the first intelligence failure and it wouldn’t be the last.

The assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993 exposed the entire intelligence setup. The infiltration of President Premadasa’s inner circle by the LTTE is perhaps the worst single intelligence failure that proved the importance of the intelligence services being on top of the ‘political game,’ too. For intelligence services, there cannot be a worse period than President Premadasa’s tenure (1989-1993). An ignorant President played pandu with national security leading to the Eelam War II in June 1990 with disastrous consequences. Retired SSP Tassy Seneviratne didn’t mince his words when he appeared before the LLRC. Seneviratne explained how President Premadasa’s interventions caused debilitating losses at the onset of the Eelam War II. The rest is history.

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Midweek Review

The Royalty and its ‘Yes’ Men

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By Lynn Ockersz

The air is thick once again,

With the familiar refrain,

That you, the ‘Sovereign People’,

Are at centre stage,

In this wearying racking of brains,

On how the notoriously Nodding Land’s,

Primal law must take shape,

But here’s the truth none can escape:

You have descended from wage labourer,

To an alms-seeker of the street,

And your hearth’s flames,

Are sputtering to an ominous end,

But the timeless moral remains:

You are hapless pawns,

In a decades-long power game,

Featuring dynastic heavyweights,

And their 225 ‘Yes’ men.

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Midweek Review

From Jaffna library to University – politics of identity

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By Harim Peiris

A centre of Tamil learning in Jaffna was attacked and destroyed. No, not last week, but 40 years ago, in 1981, the iconic Jaffna Library, a seat of Tamil language, literature and learning was burnt to cinders by a mob of what then cabinet ministers Cyril Mathew et al were watching, perhaps not entirely as innocent bystanders, from the veranda of the old Jaffna Rest House termed as “an unfortunate rampage by a few drunk and off duty police officers”. Coming a full circle, four decades later, once again a seat of Tamil learning, this time namely the University of Jaffna, witnessed the destruction of its memorial to the dead. The police officers were again there, now on duty and very sober, as under cover of darkness, they guarded the backhoes which did the demolition. The contexts were different, the events eerily similar, while the rhetoric is strikingly the same.

Back then there wasn’t even the pretence of trying to justify the actions and two years later in 1983, we had a pogrom and were in the midst of a civil war. Now, a decade after the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, we must learn from the lessons of the past. It is former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who paraphrased Spanish philosopher Santayana to state in the House of Commons that “those who did not learn from the lessons of history were destined to relive it”.

Post the civil war, the urge to curb Tamil nationalism from taking on any form of militancy or armed expression is an entirely legitimate and desirable objective. No one in his or her right mind would wish or desire Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations to once again lead to a civil war. However, towards this end, what is required is an intentional and purposeful, domestic process of post war reconciliation, which includes reparations and guarantees of non-reoccurrence. Unfortunately, more than a decade after the end of the civil war, dealing with either the effects or the causes of the war has not occurred in a meaningful manner. After the war, in the former conflict areas, the roads have been repaired and the public buildings reconstructed, but the shattered lives of especially the most vulnerable sections of Northern society, the widows, the orphans and the rural poor, remain largely as they were a decade ago.

Playing demolition derby in the University of Jaffna is not the means of advancing reconciliation. In fact, the University of Jaffna provides a useful safety valve and escape outlet for the frustrations of Tamil youth and curbing non-violent expressions of ethnic nationalism only drives it to less non-violent spaces. Neither does destroying the memorial to the dead, do anything to moderate Tamil opinion. Engagement and dialogue would have been better. It is a point that was reiterated most recently by visiting Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar and likely to be reiterated by a majority of the International community at the upcoming sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva.

 

Memorialising and remembering the dead

Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations and social tensions extend beyond life and into the realm of death. It is a key aspect of our humanity that we mourn our dead. The religious faith or belief systems by which we make sense of life and death and especially find the strength to move on after the death of loved ones, especially under tragic and violent circumstances are crucial aspects of our personal and community life. Accordingly, the need and right to mourn the dead, is fundamental to us as humans and crucial to providing healing and closure, especially in the aftermath of a brutal and long drawn civil war, which resulted in the destruction of considerable life and property of both combatants and non-combatants on all sides.

Sri Lanka’s current controversy over the remembrance of the dead is not just confined to the Tamil populace seeking to mourn the loss of loved ones during or at the tail end of the war. On our new battle front of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka has become the only country in the world, to prohibit the burial of the dead with the religious rites and rituals of the deceased and in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin. The decision of the government, through its Ministry of Health, which bears the responsibility, is on the flimsiest of pretences based on the views of its own handpicked “experts” who are contradicted officially by public communique not only by the independent and distinguished College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka but also by the WHO and the practice of the global community of nations. Even with the far more contagious Ebola virus, the dead are buried with no adverse effects and the view of the government’s “experts”, truly make us a land like no other.

It is my friend and colleague, University of Amsterdam academic Dr. Ram Manikkalingam who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote a Sri Lanka, which was the Sinhala equivalent of what Prabhakaran and the LTTE sought to create, a mono ethnic nation governed on ethnic lines.

Sri Lanka’s strength and moral superiority over the separatism which was defeated at Nandikadal, derives from the fact that we are multi-ethnic and multi religious and we should cherish that strength and, in its defence, desist from governing exclusively by the prism of ethnic Sinhala nationalism. Bulldozing monuments does nothing towards that end.

 

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-17)

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