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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

leaves out Gash dispatches, Swiss embassy abduction drama and India’s accountability

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by Shamindra Ferdinando

Veteran journalist Tim Sebastian interviewed Foreign Secretary, retired Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage, in the immediate aftermath of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopting accountability resolution in respect of Sri Lanka.

Twenty-two countries voted for the resolution, 11 against, whereas 14 abstained. The vote on Sri Lanka took place on March 23. Among those who abstained was India whose intervention here in the 80s caused a war that was brought to a successful conclusion in May 2009. But Sebastian was only interested in accountability on Sri Lanka’s part. He wasn’t concerned about Adele, who played a significant role in building a female fighting cadre for the LTTE, either.

“In the last few days, the UN Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution highlighting your government’s failure to ensure accountability for human rights violations and mandating UN investigators to collect and preserve data that can be used in the future judicial proceedings. They did that Mr. Secretary because your abject failure to do it yourself and because of the worsening human rights climate in your country. Aren’t you ashamed of that?”

It was internationally acclaimed Sebastian’s opening question to Foreign Secretary Colombage in ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview titled: Is Sri Lanka on the brink.

Admiral Colombage responded: “Well, Tim let me say the World War ended 78 years later… earlier and we still see the residual effects on the environment on the physical things and the Good Friday agreement was in 1998 and there are 116 walls which is called peace walls. Still…”

Sebastian interrupted Colombage. “We are not talking about Northern Ireland; Mr. Secretary We are talking about Sri Lanka and your failure to ensure accountability for human rights violations… which you have denied in other interviews.”

One-time Navy Commander, and the Additional Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Foreign Relations, Prof. Colombage received appointment as the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry following the last general election.

Admiral Colombage, who had served the SLN for 36 years, was its 18th Commander. He received the command in 2012, three years after the end of the war. Following his retirement, Colombage served as the Director of the Centre for India-Sri Lanka Initiatives and Law of the Sea Centre at the Pathfinder Foundation. At the time of his appointment, as Foreign Secretary, Colombage was the Additional Secretary to the President on Foreign Relations and the Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL).

 

Relying on a backbencher’s speech

Let me examine the latest Geneva resolution against the backdrop of the ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview and the Daily Mirror interview, titled ‘Govt. committed two mistakes’, with one-time Permanent Secretary to the Justice Ministry Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama published on March 27, 2021.

Responding to a query, Dr. Jayawickrama asserted: The mistake that the government appears to have made was to think that it was all about “40,000 deaths”, and to rely on a backbencher’s speech made in the House of Lords. It was never about that. Another mistake that the government appears to have made was to convince itself that the Resolution was initiated by “Diaspora Tamils” when it was not.”

Tamil Diaspora, based in the UK, Australia, and Canada, vigorously circulated the article in the wake of accusations the government compelled the newspaper to ‘kill’ it. The paper denied the accusations. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesperson Suren Surendiran tweeted: “Remarkably honest replies from Dr. Jayawickrama to some pertinent questions from the “Daily Mirror” Surendiran posted the entire text alleging government-imposed censorship.

Dr. Jayawickrama referred to Lord Naseby as a backbencher whereas Sebastian never referred to the Conservative Party politician’s disclosure in the House of Lords on Oct 12, 2017 or Admiral Colombage cared at least to mention it. If the government relied on Lord Naseby’s revelations, as Dr. Jayawickrama asserted, the former could have exploited the disclosure. The incumbent government conveniently refrained from taking advantage of Lord Naseby’s ‘work’ much to the dismay of the former Royal Air Force pilot who exposed the British duplicity.

 

A fresh Geneva initiative

Sebastian’s reference to fresh authorisation for UN investigators to collect and preserve data that can be used in the future judicial proceedings should have prompted Admiral Colombage to remind British television journalist and novelist how the UK government suppressed wartime dispatches from its High Commission in Colombo (January-May 2009). The proposed inquiry is scheduled to take place over a period of 12 months, commencing Sept 2021. In fact, during the entire interview, Sebastian conveniently never referred to how the UK suppressed dispatches from Colombo. Lord Naseby obtained some sections of the dispatches after nearly a three-year struggle. He had to seek the intervention of the UK Information Commission to lay his hands on those dispatches.

Leader of Sri Lanka Core Group in addition to being UNHRC member, the UK still refuses to release dispatches despite Geneva authorising a new Inquiry Team, led by a Senior Legal Advisor, to collect all available evidence pertaining to the war and post-war events. Those desperate to prevent the full disclosure of British dispatches from Colombo, obviously advantageous to Sri Lanka, call it a political statement. It was certainly not. Former Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva, in an interview with ‘Get Real’ anchor Johnney Mahieash, and subsequent queries from the writer, asked why the UK wanted to suppress dispatches from its own man in wartime Colombo Lt. Col. Anthony Gash who served as the British Defense Attaché throughout the Vanni war. The former CJ was of the view that Geneva should seek access not only to the UK dispatches but from other major countries, particularly the US, India, Germany and Canada. He pointed out that the wartime US Defense Advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith contradicted war crimes accusations in 2011, six years before Lord Naseby revealed the existence of British wartime dispatches.

 

NPC and GTF back thorough inquiry

The Island sought National Peace Council (NPC) Executive Director Dr. Jehan Perera’s views on the following query: “Geneva set up a new inquiry mechanism at a cost of USD 2.8 mn to gather and examine evidence and information pertaining to the whole gamut of war crimes allegations and current developments. What is your stand on SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris public call to the UK to submit Gash reports against the backdrop of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Dr. Harsha de Silva, who once led the government delegation to the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) of Sri Lanka’s human rights record at Geneva backing the government call? Dr. de Silva’s all available info should be made available to the new Geneva inquiry team.”

Dr. Perera responded: “All evidence should be placed before the UN investigation unit and this includes the dispatches of Lt Col Anthony Gash as revealed by Lord Naseby.  The UN unit needs to seek that information itself to get a rounded perspective on the problem.

 “On the other hand, if the government formally makes a request for the Gash reports it will be accepting the legitimacy of the UN unit which is not its current position. Instead I would wish that the government resolves the issues laid out in the various UN reports through internal mechanisms that have the support of the political parties, including the minorities, within the country. 

“It is only if the country is internally united that we can go on the path of development that the government intends and respond successfully to international pressures. Otherwise it looks like our country is locked in a vicious cycle.”

Dr. Perera represented the country at the Geneva sessions during the yahapalana administration. 

The writer posed the same question to GTF’s Surendiran, who, too, backed examination of all evidence and information available. Surendiran said: “Of course all available evidence should be made available to the investigative team that will collect and analyse this evidence. No one should hinder that process of collection of evidence, be it the UK Government or the Government of Sri Lanka. In that regard, Sri Lanka if it has nothing to fear about should allow the investigators free access so that the collection process can be comprehensive and complete.”

 In fact, Wikileaks revelations pertaining to Sri Lanka, too, should be examined along with submissions received by the UNSG’s Panel of Experts’ (PoE/Darusman Report) that paved the way for the 2015 co-sponsorship of an accountability resolution. Would the new Geneva re-visit previously collected information, particularly by the PoE, covered by UN a 20-year confidentiality clause (2011-2031)?

 

UK bending backwards to protect

relations with Lanka

The FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), in its objections filed with the Information Commission, following Lord Naseby’s bid to gain dispatches from Colombo, stated; “Lt. Col. Gash was the FCO’s defense attaché at the British Commission in Colombo during the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Many of his dispatches contain information provided directly to him by his contacts in the Sri Lankan government, the Sri Lankan Army or other military sources. His reports indicate, he had access to reports on troop movements, Sri Lankan military strategic thinking, the movements of the LTTE and assessments of casualty figures. The effective conduct of international relations depends upon the free, frank and confidential exchange of information such as this. If the UK does not respect these confidences, then its ability to protect and promote UK interests through international relations will be hampered which will not be in the public interest.

Subsequently, the FCO asserted that it was of the view that releasing the information redacted on the basis of section 27(l) (a) would be likely to prejudice the UK’s relationship with Sri Lanka and would negatively impact on the information that they would be willing to exchange with the UK in the future. It further stated, the disclosure of the withheld information, in this case, was not in the public interest as it would be likely to damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Sri Lanka. This would have the effect of reducing the UK government’s ability to protect and promote UK interests through its relations with Sri Lanka.”

 The Information Commissioner, on June 26, 2016, dismissed Naseby’s appeal for full disclosure of the Gash dispatches.

So, according to the FCO, disclosure of Gash dispatches would harm the UK’s relations with Sri Lanka. In the absence of proper examination of British role in promoting terrorism in Sri Lanka, successive UK governments allowed the LTTE a free hand. Wikileaks exposure of a secret meeting between the Norwegians (handling disastrous peace process) and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in the immediate aftermath of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination in August 2005 underscored the privileged status enjoyed by the LTTE. Balasingham, one-time British High Commission employee who received British citizenship for services rendered to Her Majesty’s government lived freely there until his death due to natural causes in Dec 2006.

Over the years, the UK provided the wherewithal required by the LTTE to wage war in Sri Lanka. The British. contribution grew over the years in the wake of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991. It must be noted that the UK only removed the LTTE International Secretariat, established in London for many years, only after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi for the obvious reason that its presence there was becoming too embarrassing even to the British. In fact when a visiting journalist from The Island, accompanied by a group of media persons from several countries, raised the issue of the LTTE having a big presence in the British capital during a visit to BBC Headquarters at Bush House in Central London around the time of the Rajiv assassination that year, he was given the lame excuse that the Tigers had not violated any UK laws. Despite the much-publicised British proscription of the LTTE, the latter operated a major fund-raising project that funded their war until the very end.

Perhaps, Foreign Secretary Colombage, during the interview with Sebastian, should have referred to the Wikileaks revelation of the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner making a desperate bid to halt the military offensive on the Vanni east front. Towards the end of the ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview, Sebastian queried about Inspector Nishantha Silva fleeing the country in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 presidential election.

 

Focus on Shani, Nishantha

Referring to the arresting of SSP Shani Abeysekera, Director, Criminal Investigation Division (CID) who inquired into several key human rights cases, Sebastian said: “…and another Nishantha Silva from the same Division had to leave Sri Lanka because of threats immediately after the last presidential election and you tell me that is the way a democracy which you claimed to have pursues justice does not look like it? Does it? Questioning how Nishantha Silva left the country suddenly, Prof. Colombage alleged it was all part of a conspiracy while strongly denying Sebastian’s accusation the officer was threatened. “All these things were planned. They were probably given lots of money to do these things…” Sebastian insisted: “You do not know that Mr. Secretary…”

It would have been better if Prof. Colombage pointed out that the Swiss Embassy involvement in the Nishantha Silva affair against the backdrop of one of its employees Garnier Francis (former Siriyalatha Perera) falsely accusing government agents of abducting her outside the mission and sexually abusing her. Sebastian conveniently refrained from referring to Garnier who had been Silva’s contact at the Swiss mission. The Swiss went to the extent of trying to evacuate Garnier and her family in a special air ambulance after their project meant to smear President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went awry. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa opposed the move to evacuate them. If not Garnier, too, would have ended up in Switzerland and a key campaign issue against Sri Lanka.

At one-point Sebastian chided Prof. Colombage whether he was proud of living in a country where child killers get presidential pardon? Sebastian was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa releasing a soldier convicted of killing several persons, including children in the Jaffna peninsula. Colombage responded well, pointing out how post-war, Sri Lanka rehabilitated 12,000 terrorists, including children. Colombage posed a pertinent question whether presidential pardon is available only in Sri Lanka. Sebastian insisted he focused on Sri Lanka and not the rest of the world. Perhaps, Prof. Colombage should have reminded Sebastian how funds made available by those living in the UK prolonged the war in Sri Lanka. None of those shedding crocodile tears today bothered to protest when the LTTE used children as cannon fodder. The fact that children were used in suicide attacks, too, cannot be forgotten. Didn’t Rajiv Gandhi perish in a suicide attack carried out by a female Tiger cadre? A proper inquiry is required to ascertain and identify those members of Sri Lankan terrorist groups living in the UK and the rest of the world. The proposed new Geneva probe can facilitate Sri Lanka’s efforts to track down those living overseas, under assumed names, while they continued to be categorized as war disappeared.

Sebastian also raised the issue of disappearances and missing. In fact, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe explained the cases of missing and disappearances during the yahapalana administration. Wickremesinghe pointed out how the so-called disappeared either died in combat or were now living overseas.

Prof. Colombage responded: “…most of the human rights defenders are receiving money from the West. We know their bank accounts. We know how much they have received.” The Foreign Secretary alleged they were not bona fide human rights defenders. Sebastian hit back: “You just smeared the whole lot of them in one sentence…”

Now that Prof. Colombage has quite rightly raised funding received by NGOs/civil society groups, let there be a public disclosure of the funding secured over the years. A Norwegian examination of its involvement in Sri Lanka released in 2011 revealed substantial funding made available to various civil society groups. The Norwegian report revealed how generous Oslo had been to those who facilitated its Sri Lanka project. As Geneva stepped up pressure on the country, the government should approach the issues at hand sensibly. Geneva should be priority No 1. The government cannot forget that no less than Commander of the Army Gen. Shavendra Silva, earlier the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division/formerly Task Force I was blacklisted by the US. Sebastian warned Prof. Colombage of dire threats posed by targeted sanctions imposed by individual countries. Member states might start applying targeted sanctions, asset freezers and travel bans against your state officials and others…. Are you ready for that?

Prof. Colombage responded: “If individual countries have a separate agenda not necessarily human rights but using human rights as a weapon there is very little we can do. Let us wait and see.” However, the former Navy Commander missed a golden opportunity to ask Sebastian what he thought of the Tamil community overwhelmingly voting for war-winning Army Chief the then General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll. Fonseka won all predominately Tamil speaking electoral districts in the northern and eastern districts, including Jaffna. In fact, bogus human rights campaign should have ended the day, Tamils declared their support to tough talking Fonseka, who survived a suicide attack in April 2006 to finish off the LTTE. If the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka and the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2006, terrorism would have triumphed. But fortunately for Sri Lanka both survived two separate LTTE suicide attacks targeting them in Colombo itself. That is the undeniable truth.

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Midweek Review

Convincing storytelling with engaging dialogue and three-dimensional characters

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‘10.34’ By Aditha Dissanayake, a Vijitha Yapa Publication

Reviewed by Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana
Former Deputy Director-General, United Nations.

’10:34′ is a dramatic love story of a poetic and tender quality written with a deep respect for both the beauty and the danger to our blue planet seen from space as a vulnerable blob in the vast universe.

It is a contemporary romance that follows a woman, a committed environmentalist, as she navigates her life among men with differing feelings of the imperative of conservation stewardship.

This book is Gratiaen Award winner Aditha Dissanayake’s fourth novel, by far the best. This book is enjoyable to read due to the simplicity of the prose style and vividness of imagination. Though simple but thoughtful, the story is fun enough, and the unexpected twists and turns keep the reader engaged.

It is the story of two people finding love in unusual circumstances, albeit differently than either of them intended.

Aditha narrates a 24-year-old schoolteacher’s unexpected detour of accompanying her banker fiancé and migrating to New Zealand. The deviation begins when Kumi alights the morning Udarata Menike to visit her hometown in the fictional village of Maliyadda on the banks of the Kothmale Oya. She goes there directed by her Uncle in London to make the final arrangements to sell her grandfather’s ancestral property. Kumi finds the dilapidated property a piece of heaven on earth. Lush greenery with a creek flowing through the property has become the perfect home for all that nature creates. An ideal home for her as well she realises. She could hardly tear herself off from the allure of the place to return to Colombo, which she must, to see her fiancé off. He was going ahead to settle affairs in the new country they were moving to before Kumi arrives.

During her vacation to her ancestral village, abandoning her plans to stay at the bed and breakfast place where she had an eventful night with an unexpected visitor, she moves into the abandoned house that had once belonged to her grandparents. Kumi also struck a friendship with Vino Coomaraswamy, an editor of a publishing house in Lancaster, on holiday in Maliyadda, searching for his roots.

On return to Colombo, she finds her favourite mango tree, that shaded her room and to its rustling sounds which she fell asleep in the night, had been a victim of the insensitive confidant who failed to understand that perhaps her first love is nature. Incensed by the developments that followed and tugged by the spell cast over her by the sanctuary in Maliyadda, she makes an unintended quick return to the place she had felt at peace.

There, she finds comfort in her friends Vino and a Professor turned recluse whom she had met on her previous visit. The Professor was intruding on the property to record the often-ignored weeds and lesser-known plants in the mid-country for his next book.

Abandoning her plans to move to New Zealand with her urbanized banker boyfriend, she decides to make home the abandoned house that had once belonged to her grandparents. But in addition to preventing her Uncle from selling the land, Kumi must also prove to the Professor that she has no wish to harm the plants that he so loves.

Easily the best part of the book is how, as the story unravels, it becomes clear that Kumi and the Professor progress towards saving not only nature but themselves from their toxic relationships and past mistakes.

An essential aspect of the book is the author’s tender, discerning look at nature that is ever-present and is the thread that runs through the novel.

Aditha makes her characters very vibrant and three-dimensional and true to life. The main characters are compelling and enigmatic. Kumi is beautifully drawn – warm, bold, outspoken, intelligent, and kind to all living beings, whether human or part of nature, the type of character that carries an endearing story. Vividly portrayed, the men around her – Nadush, bright and bold as an up-and-coming banker, Kavan, intelligent and warm as a professor, and Vinoo, intelligent and outspoken as an editor would be.

The characters in this book are remarkable. The author shows a deep understanding of their roles and places them cleverly to keep the story moving. There are also secondary characters introduced for a few cameos. Even some of those who barely appear have a chance to shine, which tell us a lot about the storytelling.

The book is sprinkled with enjoyable dialogue, which is hard to write – and extremely hard to write well. Two people merely talking are not always engaging on the page, no matter how scintillating the dialogue. Novel writers are not screenwriters whose story is brought to life by an entourage of directors, actors, sound engineers, cinematographers. A novelist must describe the setting and provide all five senses for the reader. Readers will not know what things look like unless you show them.

Aditha’s text reads like a screenplay. The conversation between Kumi and the Tuk Tuk driver is such that a reader can hear it as if spoken aloud; the words do not lie inert on the page. When discourse flows, it’s easy to read and understand; it’s funny, revealing, poignant, and devastating all in one single sentence. The story is interspersed with engaging dialogue, and that’s part of what makes it effective. The dialogue is so catchy, so snappy, so utterly say-able, that the story could easily be made into a movie…

This is a wonderfully written novel with a captivating story that touches your heart, an engaging plot with so many twists, and endearing characters who were believable. The book affirms the depth of humanity’s relationship with nature and adds particular urgency to the cause of protecting the environment that nourishes all living beings. It is a delightful book.

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Midweek Review

‘Human Rights’ And Ecological Crisis In Sri Lanka

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‘The origin of the contemporary ecological and social crisis can be traced to the colonial period and the incorporation of the country into the global capitalist economy.’

By Prof. Asoka Bandarage

The recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution A/HRC/46/L.1/Rev.1 of March 16 has brought extensive charges against Sri Lanka over alleged human rights violations, but is arguably seriously flawed. Opportunistic and strategic use of human rights by the western powers to maintain hegemony continually ignore violations of the rights of nature and humanity rooted in the destructive model of economic development the same powers introduced to the world.

Historical Background

Ancient Sri Lanka was known for its Buddhist eco-centric approach to life. The origin of the contemporary ecological and social crisis can be traced to the colonial period and the incorporation of the country into the global capitalist economy.

Vast tracts of forest were cut to establish mono-cultural coffee, tea and rubber plantations and local people lost rights to ancestral lands and resources. Deforestation destroyed water resources that irrigated the rivers leaving village tanks dry. Multi-crop subsistence agriculture was undermined, leaving people to become dependent on imported food supplies.

Sri Lanka’s forest cover declined from 84% in 1881 to 70% in 1900 and to around 50% in 1948, when the British left. Deforestation and plantation development laid the basis for land erosion and loss of animal habitats and biodiversity.

The origin of the current human- elephant conflict is attributed to deforestation starting in the British era, along with the widespread colonial practice of killing animals for sport and trade. The revered elephant was declared a pest and a reward of a few shillings was given for the head of an elephant.

With the introduction of the Open Economy in 1977, Sri Lanka became subjected to neo-liberal policies such as privatization and structural adjustment, largely as conditions to loans from the World Bank and the IMF. The massive Mahawaeli River Development Program of this period provided access to land for the poor and a significant increase in the country’s food production and power resources. However, the construction of dams and irrigation networks, roads, and similar infrastructure also radically altered soil and water systems including degradation of watershed conditions and loss of wildlife habitat and populations.

A related agricultural reform began in the 1960s (the “Green Revolution”), with a campaign to promote the use of agrochemicals and transgenic crop varieties, resulting in the loss of original indigenous seed varieties. The Mahaweli program and irrigation have supplied the water for most of the rice cultivation in the North Central Province. This area ­is also – likely not coincidentally ­– the site of the nation’s highest incidence of chronic kidney disease among poor farming communities.

Current Realities

The rich industrialized countries in the Global North are responsible for nearly 80% of historical global carbon emissions. Yet poor countries in the global South, such as Sri Lanka ­– whose carbon footprint is negligible – are the greatest victims of climate disasters. The current and looming impact of climate change on Sri Lanka is massive:

Annual mean air temperature has significantly increased by between 1961- 1990 increasing 0.016 °C per year;

Annual average rainfall over Sri Lanka has decreased by about seven percent between the 1931-1960 period and the 1961 to 1990 period;

Forecasting the rise in sea level, Sri Lanka is faced with a predicted devastating coastal erosion rate of 0.30-0.35 meter a year, with adverse impact on nearly 55 percent of the shoreline.

The 2004 tsunami drastically highlighted the vulnerability of the low-lying plains in the coastal zone to any future rise in sea level. Northern and eastern coastal areas claimed as traditional ‘Tamil homelands’, are vulnerable to submersion as they are flatter than other coastal areas. This has serious implications for both population displacement and renewed political conflict, concerns totally absent in UNHCR Resolutions that focus on identity politics and calls for political devolution.

In 2015, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), an international aid NGO, identified Sri Lanka ‘as the country with the highest relative risk of being displaced by disaster in South Asia. For every million inhabitants, 15,000 are at risk of being displaced every year in Sri Lanka’.

In 2017 alone, the country experienced seven disaster events, mainly floods and landslides, and ‘135,000 new displacements due to disaster. Sri Lanka is also at risk from slow-onset impacts like soil degradation, saltwater intrusion, water scarcity, and crop failure’.

Sri Lanka was ranked second among countries most affected by extreme weather events in the Global Climate Risk Index 2019 and sixth in 2020.

Deforestation

Deforestation is considered the greatest environmental threat facing Sri Lanka today. Sri Lanka ranked fourth among countries with worst deforestation of primary forests in the world in the 2000-2005 period. Forest cover, which had declined to about 50% at the end of British rule, has further declined to 44% in 1956 and 16.5 % in 2019.

A highly controversial current case is the housing development supposedly constructed for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on Willpattu National Wildlife Park. The housing will remain despite a recent court judgement that declared it illegal. The ‘polluter pays’ principle was upheld, but this only requires that the offender reforests other lands ‘in any area equivalent to the reserve forest area used for re-settlement of IDPs’. Even this court decision is under appeal by the 7th respondent, former Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishard Badiuddin. Moreover, as ecologists point out, mere tree planting elsewhere will not lead to recovery of the intricate forest eco-systems that were destroyed.

Another major controversy involves the Sinharaja Rainforest covering an area of 18,900 acres. It is home to over 50% of the country’s endemic species and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Deforestation is now taking place in the Sinharaja area for the construction of a road for an isolated village bordering the Forest Reserve and for the suspected building of hotels, shops and other encroachments.

A National Plan based on surveys and clear demarcation of boundaries of Forest Reserves, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Conservation Areas and enforcement is urgently needed to avoid conflict and encroachment over remaining forests.

A recent announcement was made by the Government Minister of Irrigation, Chamal Rajapaksa, regarding proposals to construct two irrigation tanks inside the Sinharaja, each spanning an area of five acres, with Chinese involvement. A 30-kilometer water tunnel to transport fresh water to areas in the South (including possibly Chinese controlled Hambantota port) is also reported. This announcement has raised alarm over environmental impact and likely loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status.

Mining, Dumping and Export-led Growth

There are, unfortunately, many other environmental controversies, the most destructive of which involve export-led growth and foreign companies.

In 2017, 263 waste containers carrying biomedical, plastic and other waste from the UK was brought for illegal dumping in Sri Lanka. Such toxic dumping by rich Northern countries in the poor countries of the South is sadly a common practice. After a legal victory by environmentalists, the containers are being sent back to the UK.

A proposed new project in the Eastern Province is the Eastern Minerals Project of Capital Metal, a company from the UK which plans to mine the ‘highest-grade’ mineral sands containing ilmenite, rutile, zircon and garnet. While it promises to be a highly profitable venture, environmentalists fear massive and irreversible damage to the vulnerable eastern coastline.

Yet another controversial mining project is proposed by Titanium Sands, an Australian company,that wants to mine titanium on the island of Mannar off the northern coast of Sri Lanka. Mannar is a bird paradise and local environmentalists blame the Australian company of ‘illegal conduct’ and plans to dramatically transform the ecosystem and limit land use by the local community.

 

Neo-Colonialism

Just as the world is at the cusp of a new era of technological and corporate authoritarianism, Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, is also at a decisive historical juncture. The island is facing new forms of external intervention and competition primarily involving the expansionist and national security efforts of China, USA and India. These three countries are also the biggest carbon polluters, pursuing unbridled economic growth despite the impending global climate catastrophe.

Sri Lanka is centrally placed in the maritime route of China’s Belt Road Initiative. China is now in control of the Hambantota port, the Colombo Port City, a terminal of the Colombo port and a hybrid renewable energy project on three islands off the Jaffna peninsula, just 50 km from the Tamil Nadu coast.

The Quadrilateral Alliance of the USA, India, Australia and Japan is challenging this Chinese expansion, and is, in turn, in control of key strategic positions and natural resources.

India, for example, is in control of the British colonial era Oil Tank Farm in the seaport town of Trincomalee. It is reported that the development of the west terminal of the Colombo port will also be given to the company of Indian billionaire Adani.

The US Millennium Challenge Corporation’s proposed Compact with Sri Lanka was turned down by Sri Lanka due to local protests over resource exploitation, land grab and an effort to splinter Sri Lanka into two separate entities under the control of the United States. However, there is suspicion that some of the main objectives of the MCC to digitalize land registers and privatize land to make them available for development by transnational corporations maybe be continuing in other ways.

The US signed an Acquisitions and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) with Sri Lanka in 2017 making the island a ‘logistics hub’ allowing US military vessels open-ended access to Sri Lanka’s seaports and airports. The ACSA is part of the ‘grand strategy of a united military front between the US and India in the Indo-Pacific’.

A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the USA and Sri Lanka, which could turn Sri Lanka into a US military base, has been proposed but not yet signed due to local protest.

Neo-Colonialism and Eco-Social Implications

While the implications of Neo-Colonialism for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity have been much discussed in recent media, the ecological and social implications remain relatively unexplored. Some of these include:

Conflicts between Chinese interests and farming families around the Hambantota port over Chinese offers to buy ancestral properties of locals.

Protests and legal action by environmentalists over Chinese Port City, especially coastal sand excavation and dumping of chemical waste.

Control of the west terminal of the Colombo harbor by India’s controversial Adani Group, which has a history of environmental and financial violations in Australia and India.

Effects of militarization of the island under the ACSA and possible SOFA agreements and military confrontation between the Quadrilateral Alliance and China in the Indian Ocean.

 

Future Survival with the Wisdom of the Past

Sustainable agriculture has a long history on the island, as in any long-lasting indigenous culture, and it needs to be brought back to the fore. Local self-sufficiency and agro-ecology are the only solutions to future food scarcity and surviving the vicissitudes of the global economy.

Both Sri Lanka and the world have enough natural resources to support people if resources are shared equitably and sustainably used. It is the apocalyptic destruction of the unregulated greed of neoliberalism that must end.

For this to happen, policies of corporate regulation must be put in place at both the national and global levels. These policies also need to incorporate a broader definition of human rights that includes the rights of nature and people’s rights to natural resources and livelihoods. 250 major civil society organizations from around the world have signed a declaration calling for an end to ‘corporate control and cooptation’ of the United Nations including the U.N. Convention on Climate Change. Indeed, the moral authority of the United Nations and its partisan approach to human rights need serious questioning.

There is an urgent concurrent need for environmental education that transcends political party and ethno-religious divisions and unites people both with each other and with a survivable environment. Environmentalism is also humanism that looks to the future, and the rights and survival of future generations.

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