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Where we went wrong and the possible course correction

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Speech before Rotary Club of Colombo Port City by S. Skandakumar

former High Commissioner to Australia and Chirman of George Steuart and Co. Ltd.

Mr President, let me congratulate you and all members on the inauguration of Rotary Club of Colombo Port City and wish you every success in your noble endeavours !

I was born barely two weeks before Independance and like some of you listening in, lived through it all in my land of birth.

What has transpired over those 73 years is common knowledge so let me share why I love my country as I do.

At a very young age in a geography class I looked at the world map to see where our country was positioned. I marvelled at the sheer beauty of its outline and location, unmatched by any other country or continent on that map. I reflected on its priceless resources as tea,rubber,coconut, and cinnamon, graphite and gems, and our climate, scenery, and arable fertile land with ready access to water, spread over a mere 65,000 kms and said to myself that it had to be a gift from above.

I listened to our national anthem and in particular the line ” eka mawa kuge daru” that we were indeed children of one common mother.

I studied our national flag, and reminded myself that the four bo leaves representing Karuna, Meththa, Muditha and Upekha,  meant love and compassion for our fellow beings.

I took pride in our rich civilization, made possible by the teachings of the Buddha, who ended his profound sermons with the line ” May All beings be well and happy.”

Yes the Buddha pointed out even then, that no one could build his happiness on another’s unhappiness.

His description of human ego fascinated me as he referred to it as man’s biggest enemy.

Our ego is a film over our eyes that blurs our vision, and it is only when it is removed will we see our way forward clearly the Buddha preached. What more did I need to feel blessed to be born in such an awesome country.

Came our Independance and the potential was huge. Regarded then as the granary of the East, we had a beautiful horizon ahead of us and a highway leading to it; all we needed to do was to traverse that highway and follow the rules.

Tragically many in the driving seats had their ego as their companion and turned at wrong exits and completely lost their way with devastating consequences.

The line ” I stoped crying for a new pair of shoes when I met a man who had no feet”  told me that this world we live in was only intended to be divided between the fortunate and the unfortunate.

This biblical line was meant to remind those of us in the fortunate category, to make a meaningful contribution to the lives of our fellow beings on the other side of the divide and help evolve an order of love and compassion to make the world a better place.

However despite these meaningful religious teachings blinded by sheer selfishness and insecurity we began to divide ourselves on ethnic and religious lines with disastrous consequences.

We let it happen here only because we failed to place our loyalty to Country ahead of loyalty to the individual, and have paid a horribly destructive price.

Marginalisation led to radicalization,, while discrimination let to extremism and Sri Lankans throughout the Island, known for their  gentle and caring nature, were in some places being transformed by a feeling of rejection. Sadly there was neither the wisdom  nor the will to recognize and arrest this ominous transformation in its infancy.

Here I would like to quote a line from Lee Kwan Yew ‘s address to the people of Singapore to celebrate their Independance in 1965.

He said ” Today we have the right of self rule.

You are free to speak in Mandarin, Malay, English or Tamil: but never forget that you are first a Singaporean.”

I do not think I need to comment further on the profound nature of that statement or it’s impact on the well being of that Country and all its people.

The real Illiterates of the world are not those who cannot read or write. It’s the educated who are unwilling to learn the lessons of history.

My life has taught me many lessons. The most significant of them has been that when honorable intentions are matched by sincere action, blessings from above are assured.

Let me share my personaL experiences.

My appointment as High Commissioner to Australia In 2015 was totally unexpected. Seven years into retirement, lost in the hills, a foreign minister whom I never had the opportunity to meet thought it fit to place his faith in me.

That appointment gave me enormous pride to represent my country overseas, sincerely committed to national unity and equality. This was appreciated by our fellow citizens domiciled there who came together as one during the tenure of my like minded colleagues and I.

An invitation by the Australian Government to our then Prime Minister for an official visit in Feb 2017, the first in 65 years, was followed by another to our President just three months later. While that visit was the first ever official visit of a President of our country to Australia, the fact that it followed just three months after our Prime Minister’s was unprecedented in Australia’s diplomatic history and demonstrated the esteem in which Australia held us for our commitment to national unity and the friendship built over the decades on mutual respect and trust. 

That year was further blessed by reciprocal visits by the Prime Minister and Foreign Ministers of Australia, to a celebration of our 150th anniversary of the tea industry at Parliament House in Canberra with both Houses in attendance, a blood donation programme by over a 100 Lankans domiciled in Canberra, to commemorate 70 years of diplomatic ties, and finally after two years of lobbying by the High Commission, the return of Sri Lankan Airlines to Melbourne. Yes, a diplomat’s dream year made possible by blessings from above.

Australia, a country hundred times the size of Sri Lanka,  with nearly the same population as ours was indeed a revelation. The rigid application of the rule of law and mutual respect among the many diverse nationalities , ethnicities and religious faiths has made it one of the most sought after countries to live in.

This in a country that was openly racist until 1973, when the White Australia policy was abolished.

That decision demonstrated a nation’s humility to accept its faults and the courage to make the change. The ensuing benefits have been amazing.

Another landmark event in Australian history was the apology tendered to the indigenous people in 2008, for the discrimination, and cruelty inflicted upon them for over a century. One has only to read the text of that apology which is engraved and prominently displayed in the foyer of the foreign office in Canberra to understand the extent of the remorse that was felt.

Yes my friends birth is not a choice but a chance. To put it in the words of Warren Buffet the American Billionaire, “An Ovarian Lottery.” It is therefore unacceptable that any human life should be discriminated against on account of an event over which he or she had no choice.

So if ever we feel inclined to look down on a fellow being, let it be that we did so only to raise him up.

I was privileged in my education both at Royal College and the University of Colombo. An education that took me not only to the top of the private sector but quite unexpectedly also the country’s diplomatic service .

I never forgot what I owed my country for that education and  so after serving the oldest business house in Sri Lanka, George Steuarts, for 35 years, a company that historically valued its integrity above everything else, I walked away from commercial life on retirement at age 60 in 2008 to devote the rest of my life to provide opportunities for the less privileged in whatever modest way I could.

Thankfully, helped by generous like minded friends both here and overseas we have been able to support in a meaningful way, education, nutrition,  food for the destitute elderly, farming, access to water through wells, among other needs for those in that category.

The pandemic posed its own huge challenges particularly to those daily wage earners.

When you realize that the daily wage just about meets their daily needs, you can well imagine the impact of prolonged lockdowns on the lives of their families.

We were happy to alleviate that suffering to an extent.

With Government hospitals converting to treat Covid patients, two groups I am privileged to be associated with came together to respond to appeals from these hospitals to raise funds and to purchase urgently needed equipment for both the Jaffna and Bandarawela Hospitals. The generous response from like minded people was gratifying.

So to the emerging  generations in particular, whose entire life is ahead of them, let me remind them that ours is still a country gifted by God. All we need to do to invoke the blessings is to act honorably with integrity and sincerity . Remember the line from Abraham Lincoln’s letter to his son’s teacher:

“Teach him that it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat.”

Our loyalty to our country must always supersede our loyalty to any individual. Servile individual loyalties are an insult to both your intellect and education.

Also remember that Humility is the true hallmark of greatness. Do not be misled by anything else.

Lord Buddha preached moderation and stressed the impermanence of life.

Each of us will reach a phase when our physical and mental faculties decline as we prepare to exit our time on earth. At that stage our only companion will be our conscience. The more at peace we are with it the more serene will be that departure and 

no amount of material things will ever buy that peace.

Show your own appreciation of life by bringing in an additional language for communication, the language of “COMPASSION”  which in Mark Twain’s words is one that helps the blind to see and the deaf to hear.

Then the blessings will be yours. May God bless our beautiful country, all her people and each and every one of you.

 

 



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Features

Dominances, hegemonies and diversities

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by Nicola Perera

What spaces exist for students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities, within the university? Do students and staff in these groups have the liberty and security to openly identify themselves, claim their identities, be visible? Do either university structures and policies or the culture and attitudes within the university community, ensure a lack of discrimination, with the same rights, privileges and opportunities, for such persons to live, work, and study in an environment of acceptance, without hostility or marginalisation? I speak of the ethos of majoritarianism, located in a university of the south, which is predominantly the normative of education in the country.

If I were to ask students, staff, or administrators how persons of ethnic and religious minorities are treated in the university, I suspect they would immediately point to the existence of cultural groups that have long been established in university culture. Most universities and faculties will have a Tamil Society, a Hindu Students’ Society, a Muslim Majlis, various Christian groupings, and so on. Each will organise various cultural festivals, such as carols for Christmas, Ifthar, etc. At first glance, there appears to be representation and accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities, and this is institutionalised within the university.

But this accommodation is superficial and tokenistic. Against the existence of these various groups, consider the Student Union itself, which formally represents the entire student body. Who do they actually represent? The Student Union in the Faculty of Arts organises Buddhist festivals, pinkamas, and all-night piriths at the beginning of the year, as well as inviting Buddhist monks for Poyas, like Vesak and Poson. The major event of the year for the Student Union is the Sahithya Ulela, for which the Union goes all out: portraits of the greats of Sinhala literature adorn the pillars of the Faculty, together with quotations from their works. The drama festival is a huge part of the Sahithya Ulela, during which hugely popular Sinhala plays are performed.

This is the way things have always been in the university’s framework of majority default and minority tolerance. There are religious and cultural student societies to represent and take care of non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala students, representing deviations from the norm, while the Student Union itself, regardless of its political/ideological tendency, firmly represents and centres Sinhala-Buddhist religious and cultural concerns instead of the diverse student body as a whole. The majority culture is dominant to the point where it is the ubiquitous default, and all minority positions are tokenised into tolerated representations. It is a system and space that privileges my ethnic background, where my presence goes unquestioned, unremarked upon and unmarked.

On the other hand, what discriminations, aggressions, and microaggressions do students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities face in and outside class? What could they tell us, if we could only assure them of the security to openly talk about such things without fear of retaliation? What is our role as academic staff, regardless of discipline, to initiate difficult conversations about inclusion, acceptance, to challenge the biases, prejudices, absences? What microaggressions, hostilities, subtle or overt othering do we as staff and administrators perpetrate? What is the culture that we create in university?

What of the class of Muslim students who were told that they can keep their cultural identity but should wear colourful abayas and hijabs, instead of the dark colours they preferred? What of the Muslim staff member who was requested to come and speak to these students, to present herself as a role model who chose to wear colourful shalwars while covering her head? Is it in any way relevant that these requests were made by a staff member clad in Kandyan sari? Of course, it is: the representation of Sinhala Buddhist culture as the university’s default makes its aesthetics and preferences the standard, which apparently Sinhala individual staff members feel empowered to enforce.

What of the Muslim women students who were stopped at the entrance of the university after the Easter bombings? The security guards told them to wear their hijabs in such a way as to show their ears. Is the university capable of recognising this harassment as harassment? Was this an officially-sanctioned policy that required the security guards to act this way? Or were they merely empowered to perform this harassment in that moment by the long-established practice of treating Sinhala culture, dress, and presentation as normal and default, with all marked minority cultures as suspicious deviations? Would the existence of the Muslim Majlis be sufficient to let these students agree with the common perspective that the university – by policy or practice – does not discriminate on the basis of religious/ethnic grounds? Could these students have gotten away with showing impatience, even a touch of hauteur (as I did when I produced my ID card for inspection) at the guards’ power to remark on their ethnicity, police their attire – in myriad small ways to let them know that their presence in the university space was under surveillance, at the majority’s sufferance?

It is not enough for the university to complacently point at tokenistic student groups as evidence of non-discrimination. Even the simple representation of diversity, at which the university is already failing, would still not be enough: including Tamil-language plays at the Sahithya Ulela and making sure to include the portraits of Tamil and Muslim writers as well is necessary, but far from sufficient. What we need is active anti-discrimination, in both word and deed, to identify these situations and contexts in which staff and students of religious and ethnic minorities in our universities are harassed, othered, and discriminated against every day, and to figure out ways to end those practices and prevent them from recurring, through policy, through education, and through our own efforts as the people who uphold and perpetuate university culture.

Nicola Perera is attached to the Department of English Language Teaching, University of Colombo.

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

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Prevent growth of extremism through stronger institutions

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Priyantha Kumara, who was lynched in Pakistan

By Jehan Perera

The killing of a Sri Lankan, in Pakistan, by a frenzied mob, who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy, serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature, lurking within human beings.  “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has been accused of defending Pakistan’s blasphemy law and promoting Islamic fundamentalism to come to power and now to shore up support for his government that is failing to solve the problems of the people.  A clause of the constitution mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Holy Prophet.  Presently Pakistan faces economic sanctions by the EU, as does Sri Lanka, due to its adherence to this law and other human rights issues.   The EU has raised issues related to the protection of journalists, religious extremism, misuse of blasphemy laws, and forced conversion in some parts of the country. A compromised political environment in which there is impunity leads people to take the law into their own hands according to their notions of what is right and wrong.

Mobilising the emotions of people, whether by religion or ethnic nationalism, to gain and retain power, is like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of the Sri Lankan government have expressed their strong condemnation of the heinous crime against its citizens and demanded justice.  Prime Minister Khan has pledged justice and referred to the “day of shame” for Pakistan.  More than a hundred alleged participants in the crime have been arrested. There have also been images of Pakistani civil society groups saying sorry for what has happened.  Likewise, Sri Lankan civil society will also recall the support that Pakistan gave to Sri Lanka during the years of war and, diplomatically, on the issues of human rights violations raised by sections of the international community.

DANGEROUS MIX

It is also necessary for Sri Lankans to be mindful about what has happened within Sri Lanka itself during the JVP insurrection, the 1983 riots, and, more recently, in Aluthgama, Digana and Kurunegala.  In all of these instances, there was a measure of state complicity, or inaction, which is worse than the savage deeds of a mob as the state represents the civilization of the country.  This state failure has been on account of the over-politicisation of the state machinery to the point where senior officers of the state, most of whom have joined the state for idealistic reasons, cannot and do not perform their duties due to political interference.  In a manner similar to Prime Minister Khan, President Rajapaksa, and the current government, won elections by catering to the nationalism and fears of the ethnic majority, with some of its allies spewing hatred towards the ethnic and religious minorities.

There are disturbing signs that the situation of state failure is growing more serious in Sri Lanka.  The release of former Governor Azath Salley after he had been in remand jail for eight months on charges that the court said were not sustainable. All charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit.  The injustice done to him and his family, the loss of eight months of his life and his reputation, require reparations which may be forthcoming as he is a person of stature.  There will be countless others who are less able to fight their cases, like the former Governor did.  In addition, there have been several killings in police custody of prisoners who are alleged to have tried to escape when taken to find their store of weapons or in cross fire or by suicide.  Making matters worse is that in some of these cases the families and lawyers of the imprisoned persons have given advance warning that those held in custody are scheduled to be killed, but nothing is done and the deaths take place.

The same inability or unwillingness to ensure accountability can be seen at multiple levels, be it in relation to the manner in which the three-decade long war ended, or the Easter Sunday bombings, or the Central Bank bond scandal, or the sugar tax scandal, the Yugadanavi Power Plant issue and, most recently, the explosion of large numbers of cooking gas cylinders which have led to deaths and burning down of people’s homes.  In none of these cases has investigations led to the masterminds being found and meted out justice. With time, the cases might be forgotten and the wrongdoers get away with their crimes. Perhaps it is in apprehension of the potential crisis situation in the country that the Supreme Court has written a strong judgement in a case that is representative of the people’s sense of compassion and care for all living beings as directed by the sacred religious texts.   This was with regard to whether elephants captured from the wild and taken to homes and temples as objects of social prestige should be returned to their supposed owners or released to the wild or sent to protected sanctuaries.

GOOD GOVERNANCE

In a decision that can have far reaching ramifications for the rule of law, and for the system of checks and balances, and wisely in a case that is less politically controversial, the Court cited a famous judgement by Lord Denning in the English Courts where he said, “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest.  Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment.  He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.”  The Court said that “these observations aptly apply to the role of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka.”  Notably the respondents in this case were the Prime Minister and Minister of Wildlife.

If positions, such as the Attorney General, are to be filled with persons who will make decisions in line with the Court judgement above, it is necessary that they should be persons with integrity and competence.  They also need the space to be able to do their work without political interference.  It was to achieve this objective that two different governments, headed by two different political leaders from two different political parties took steps to ensure the passage of the 17th and 19th amendments in 2001 and 2015 respectively.  These two amendments had the common feature of reducing the President’s powers and seeking to increase the independence of state institutions from political interference.  A police force that is independent of political influencers, who act behind the scenes, is more likely to act with integrity in dealing with the impunity that is growing in the country.

The government’s pledge of a new draft constitution, before the end of the year, provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it that breeds impunity and resentment which is the fuel for extremism of all sorts. The political space should be kept secular, unlike in the case of Pakistan with its religious law, and kept free from religious or ethnic nationalist biases. The reintroduction of the scheme of appointment of higher officials of state, through a multi-partisan constitutional council consisting of members of government, Opposition and civil society, would lead to better appointments than the President alone making the appointments.  The members of the constitutional council would together select the most appropriate persons to high offices of state and to insulate them from politically-motivated interference.  This is particularly important in the case of the higher judiciary, the last bastion of freedom in a democracy that is going wrong.  The present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision-making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong system of government, based on checks and balances–real good governance.

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Action…in the coming weeks

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At the Irish Pub tomorrow night

The lead up to Christmas, and the New Year, certainly doesn’t look ‘blue,’ in any way.

Initially, I was thinking of Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ – what with the pandemic, and the new variant, creating chaos…everywhere.

But…yes, the showbiz scene here seems to have changed, for the better.

On December 8th (that’s tomorrow), ‘The Legends of Ceylon’ is the title of a musical evening, that will take place, from 7.00 pm onwards, at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, featuring Geoffrey Fernando, Mignonne, Noeline, Sohan, Dalrene, and Manilal, backed by the group Mirage.

Sohan & The X-Periments, a name associated with sing-along events, will be involved in two sing-alongs this month – on December 12th at The Grand Kandyan Hotel, and on December 17th at the BMICH Banquet Hall.

The Christmas Sing-Along, in Kandy, commencing at 7.00 pm, will have, in the vocal spotlight, Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, along with The X-Periments.

The 17th event, at the BMICH, from 7.30 pm onwards, will also feature Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, with guest stars Falan Andrea and Radika.

Sohan indicated to us that the festive scene seems to be brightening up, a bit, and that he and his band do have work coming their way,

“We are going to be pretty busy for the next few weeks.”

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