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Midweek Review

Why JVP-NPP leader AKD would flunk political science

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JVP and NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP

By Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

At a whistle-stop rally on the recent motorised propaganda tour by the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), its leader Kumar Gunaratnam made a clear, bold statement that in defence of the interests of the working people and youth, his party’s mass organisations were ready to work together with the trade unions, peasant unions, teachers unions and women’s organisations of the rival JVP. The highlight of the speech was on the TV News.

One would have expected an immediate positive response from the JVP leadership or that of its allegedly autonomous avatar, the NPP.

Several days later, there has been not a word of response by the JVP and/ or NPP leadership to this important outreach by the FSP leader, which if accepted and acted upon would decisively multiply the strength of the left by unifying in action, the left-led mass movement.

The non-reciprocity and deafening silence that has followed is hardly evidence of the sincerity or seriousness of the JVP-NPP.

However, that is not the point that this article seeks to draw attention to. Instead, it focuses on a horribly wrong answer the JVP-NPP leader has given to one of the most fundamental, basic and central questions of Sri Lankan politics. That blunder is strategically dangerous in a situation of extreme crisis such as that we are living through.

AKD on the presidential system

Dr Siri Gamage, Associate Professor at an Australian university translated into English and posted on a leading website, an interview given by JVP-NPP leader, or is it JVP and NPP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP. Dr Gamage obviously translated it because he recognised it as a definitive statement of AKD’s vision and an authoritative statement of the perspective of the NPP which he heads.

For purposes of convenient assimilation and critique. I have taken the liberty of breaking up the answer into separate sections, while leaving nothing out.

This is the question AKD was asked.

Q.3. Many people talk about the executive Presidency. If you become the President, what will you do? Will you change it?

This is the complete answer he gave

“Since 1947 until 1977, our country was governed by a system centred on the parliament. Between 1977-2021, the system was centred on the executive President. If we look back, we can observe that the executive Presidential system has not been successful.

In the tribal societies, the leader controls everything including the formulation of laws, administering justice and meting out punishments. He holds legislative, executive and judicial powers. As civilisations grew, instead of a governance system centred on one person, a system based on collectivity emerged. This became the norm. Our country went back to the uncivilised (Ashista) world/era. Instead of the rule by various structures/institutions, the power was concentrated on one individual.

Take the examples like change of the Litro gas chairman, the decision to stop importing fertilizer, change of four secretaries in the Ministry of agriculture. The last secretary was an expert in the field. He could not stand the decisions made (by the government). Some professors with expertise were removed.

It is the executive power that led to the problematic situation we face. Under this any (momentary) thought that comes to the mind of the executive President can be implemented without checks and balances.

In our country, leaders do not have a higher mindset suitable for the position. He can set free someone already punished by the courts. He can implement half judgement, delay, and stop. Release someone from the prisons. Why is such a power given (to the President)? If a person is wrongly accused then he can intervene. Thus, the leader should have a mind suitable for the power he holds. Authoritarianism has been strengthened through the 20th Amendment to the constitution.

Given all the difficulties we face, we think the executive President system is not suitable for us.

Therefore, it should be changed. We will bring necessary legislation to do so before the Parliament. This is a decision of our collective movement –not my individual view. I am only one factor here. Ours is a collective effort. We have to take the power back to this collective. We can bring about a positive change that way. We have a group of people who are sincere, dedicated to the task of changing this society.” (From Revolution (Viplavaya) To Transformation (Parivarthanaya): AKD’s Response To 10 Questions – Colombo Telegraph)

Red, but not well-read

AKD has the weirdest idea of the genesis of the presidential system: “In the tribal societies, the leader controls everything including the formulation of laws, administering justice and meting out punishments. He holds legislative, executive and judicial powers. As civilisations grew, instead of a governance system centred on one person, a system based on collectivity emerged. This became the norm. Our country went back to the uncivilised (Ashista) world/era. Instead of the rule by various structures/institutions, the power was concentrated on one individual.”

The reality is quite the contrary. The first presidential system arose in the USA when the founding fathers had to decide on a system, have fought and won the American war of Independence against England; a war which was also known as the American revolution because it was waged against a monarchy.

Well acquainted with the English parliamentary system and parliamentarianism, the USA rejected it in favour of a Presidency, with checks and balances. One of those checks -and-balances was of course a bi-cameral legislature (a parliament) and the other, the judiciary.

In opting for and designing a Presidential system, the Founding athers relied heavily on the histories of the Roman Republic, a high point of proto-democratic society and civilization, before Rome became an Empire run by the Caesars.

Simon Bolivar, the great Liberator who having united much of the Latin American continent after waging war against the Spaniards, opted to follow the USA in choosing a system of government.

One of the world’s top leftist theoreticians Antonio Negri, a Professor of State Theory at the University of Padua and lecturer in Political Science at the University of Paris who spent 24 years in prison and exile for his membership of Workers’ Autonomy, a far-left Italian movement, was principal author of the famous (and massive) volume ‘Empire’ (Harvard), written in Rome’s Rebibia prison. In it and its sequel, Tony Negri celebrates US Constitutionalism or what he calls ‘the US constitutional project’ by revisiting the influence on the American Founding Fathers, of Greek historian and political analyst of the Roman period, Polybius.

Aristotle made the breakthrough classification of democracy, oligarchy and monarchy, and identified the tendency of each to degenerate into its opposite and the cycle to begin again. Polybius found the solution to be a ‘mixed system’ which accommodated all three forms but used them to check and balance each other. The American constitutionalists consciously studied him and built a mixed system with the elected presidency, judiciary, and bicameral legislature.

AKD is obviously completely unaware of the glowing letter of support written by Karl Marx on behalf of the First Workingmen’s International, to American President Abraham Lincoln on his war to defend the union against the Confederate breakaway, and to free the slaves. AKD is also obviously unaware that had Lincoln not had the executive powers of the presidency (which he decisively used) and decisions were left to the legislature, the North could not have won the Civil War.

So much then for AKD’s garbled and imaginary history of the social and historical origins of the Presidential system, which is the basis of his denunciation. You cannot be politically illiterate about what you are fighting against and which you denounce as the chief evil or fount of all our present discontents.

If this interview were a tutorial or examination paper in Political Science, I would have given him the same ratings that S&P’s, Fitch and Moody’s give Sri Lanka under Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Presidency or Parliament?

Furthermore, AKD confuses the Presidential system as exists in Sri Lanka, with the Presidential system as such.

Sri Lankans have a Presidential system – which is more advanced than a parliamentary model–albeit badly distorted by two swings to opposite extremes: the over-centralization of the 18th and 20th amendments and the dysfunctional deadlock of the 17th and 19th amendments.

AKD has a garbled reference to checks and balances: “It is the executive power that led to the problematic situation we face. Under this any (momentary) thought that comes to the mind of the executive President can be implemented without checks and balances. In our country, leaders do not have a higher mindset suitable for the position. He can set free someone already punished by the courts. He can implement half judgement, delay, and stop. Release someone from the prisons. Why is such a power is given (to the President)? If a person is wrongly accused then he can intervene. Thus, the leader should have a mind suitable for the power he holds.”

What is the JVP leader trying to say? If it is that checks and balances are necessary but absent in Sri Lanka, then why not advocate a Presidential system WITH the separation of powers which provides checks and balances as do the US and French presidential systems?

Latin America and South East Asia have witnessed far more autocratic rule than has Sri Lanka so far – for instance that of Pinochet, Suharto and Park Chung Hee—but no Latin American or Far Eastern revolutionary, radical, leftist, progressive or democrat has advocated the abolition of the presidency, and many have run for and been elected President without regarding it as their duty to abolish the office!

AKD concludes that “Given all the difficulties we face, we think the executive President system is not suitable for us.” By “we” he obviously means the JVP and the NPP, separately or together.

So, “we think the executive President system is not suitable for us”—which means the executive presidential system as such; as a system; not the 1978 model or the post-20th amendment model.

He gives the most easily refutable reasoning and the skimpiest possible evidence for his conclusion: “If we look back, we can observe that the executive Presidential system has not been successful.”

To start with, what would have happened to the war, when the JVP pulled out of the coalition with Mahinda Rajapaksa while the war was on, IF SRI LANKA DID NOT HAVE THE EXECUTIVE PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM?

The resultant political instability would have enhanced the power of those parliamentary formations which officially regarded the LTTE as “the sole legitimate representatives of the Tamil people”. There would have been instability in the rear of the state and the armed forces, which would have helped the racist-fascistic enemy, Prabhakaran and his Tigers.

No political system can be evaluated in the abstract. It must be evaluated comparatively, and in the case of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, it has to be evaluated as against our experience with the parliamentary system. AKD’s blithe condemnation of the executive presidency is utterly unconvincing when we review the real history of this country.

Every single centrifugal, supremacist act that dragged this country from being ahead of the rest of South Asia to lagging behind it, took place under Ceylon’s/Sri Lanka’s Westminster model.

The disenfranchisement of the hill-country Tamils of Indian origins, the Sinhala Only policy, the takeover of private Catholic schools, the policy of district-wise and media-wise standardization of marks at university entrance, the Constitutional declaration of Sinhala as the sole official language, and conferral of primacy of place for Buddhism, took place under parliamentary democracy (and the nostalgically admired first-past-the-post electoral system).

Not a single such piece of discriminatory legislation was promulgated under the 1978 Constitution (and the system of proportional representation).

The 1958 anti-Tamil riots occurred; the JVP, the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) and its successor the LTTE were formed; separatism became mainstream Tamil politics (Vadukkodai resolution 1976); and armed insurgencies were born–all during the Parliamentary period of our post-Independence history.

To prevent arbitrary appointments by the President and to de-politicize public service appointments, which AKD keeps talking about in this answer, one simply has to return to the situation prior to the abolition of the independent Public Service Commission; opt for restoration of the pre-1972 PSC.

In the USA, the executive is checked not by commissions consisting of unaccountable NGO members, but by legislative oversight in the form of strong Congressional committees. In Sri Lanka, that would forestall any backlash.

Attributing all contemporary ills to the executive Presidential system, while upholding the parliamentary model, is palpably dishonest and hypocritical.

If you get the fundamentals wrong, whatever you get right, you will not make it beyond a point. If you get the answers to fundamental questions wrong, you cannot provide, let alone be, the real alternative.



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Midweek Review

Death of a Patriot

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The late Gomin Dayasri declared he didn’t want to be a President’s Counsel. Appearing on Sirasa Pathikada, the outspoken lawyer said that there was no point in requesting such a title. Dayasri said so during a conversation with the late Bandula Jayasekera, who invited him on several occasions. Dayasri pointed out the absurdity in the process of appointing President’s Counsel.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The much respected senior Attorney-at-Law Gomin Dayasri, 77, is no more, but his voice carried such weight that he had the opportunity to advise the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2005-2015) at the highest level, in his heyday, despite not fearing to admonish them whenever it was deserved. The final rites were conducted on July 02 at the Borella Cemetery.

A true patriot, Gomin had been among those who stood for Sri Lanka’s unitary status whatever the consequences. During the war, and after, Gomin, always mindful of the interests of the armed forces and the police, which was not a popular thing to do among those who had the ear and patronage of the self-appointed international community of the West and was among those few civil society activists who valiantly threw their weight behind the campaign against separatist terrorists as it was treated like heresy by those same elements who worshipped the West.

Sirasa and MTV/TV 1, although being constantly accused of undermining the war effort, earned the respect of the nationalists for the coverage given to the late lawyer. The writer received opportunities to participate in Sirasa and MTV/TV 1 programmes, sometimes, with the late Dayasiri who strongly opposed federalism, separatism and foreign interference.

Top lawyer, Gomin Dayasiri, and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, Dew Gunasekera, declared that Sangakkara couldn’t have made that statement in the UK at a better time.

The late Dayasri never hesitated to take on the Rajapaksa government if he felt it was on the wrong path.

A case in point is Kumar Sangakkara’s controversial hour-long Sir Colin Cowdrey lecture delivered in July 2011, at Lords. A section of the then government depicted the lecture as a frontal attack on them. Those who resented Sangakkara for exposing their wrongs, cleverly deceived then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They propagated the lie that the cricketer was challenging the government and was working with the Opposition. Sangakkara earned the wrath of the then government though he paid a glowing tribute to the war winning armed forces at such a prestigious forum at a time a section of the international community, including the UK, was and is literally hounding Sri Lanka’s valiant fighting units for bringing on an implausible victory against all odds, wherever possible.

He was neither a blind worshipper of patriots, the late Dayasri was among the few who dared to stand by Sangakkara. When the writer sought his response to the threats on Sangakkara, Dayasri was prompt and strongly supported Sangakkara’s demand to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities in the game, Dayasri declared that a cohesive strategy was required to stamp out corruption in both public and private sectors. Sangakkara’s speech couldn’t have come at a better time, Dayasri said, adding: “The dashing batsman’s eloquent presentation was very pro-Sri Lanka as against the LTTE terrorism and cricket terrorism. If any politician, or the government, decides to take action against the player, there’ll be a public outcry because the sports personality has courageously exposed the insider dealings in Sri Lanka Cricket. More of Sangakkara’s kind should come to the forefront.” (“The day Kumar Sangakkara felt humbled’, with strapline ‘Unpardonable failure to capitalize on ‘Spirit of Cricket’” lecture, on January 25, 2017 issue of The Island). Michael Roberts posted in The Island Midweek column article under the headline ‘Sangakkara’s MCC lecture and the Rajapaksa/ Wickemesinghe governments’ failures,’ in his Thuppahi blog.

Sangakkara became the first speaker to receive a standing ovation at Lords since Bishop Desmond Tutu in 2008. Both the UK-based, and Sri Lankan media focused on Sangakkara’s assault on the politically influential cricket administration and the criminal waste of funds, as well as resources belonging to Sri Lanka Cricket. The Sinhala print and electronic media completely ignored Sangakkara’s speech.

Dayasri asserted that the only shortcoming in Sangakkara’s superb speech was the absence of a reference to the Indian factor in Sri Lanka terrorism. Dayasri suggested that the writer left that out as Sangakkara must have had reason to be silent on the Indian factor.

The following post by Janaka Perera “Gomin did not confuse patriotism with loyalty to any political party or consider it the monopoly of any group” in the US-based Gamini Edirisinghe’s e-mail thread, explained the late lawyer’s response to the situation.

Daya Gamage posted: “I have been following Gomin Dayasiri’s trajectory for the past 30 to 40 years, his struggle to keep Sri Lanka undivided”.

Nimal Fernando posted: “A true son of the soil, whose fierce patriotism was a source of solace for Mother Lanka.”

Dr. Anula Wijesundere declared in her post that Gomin was a true patriot and a great lawyer who spoke fearlessly and eloquently against LTTE terrorism. Like the other great patriotic lawyer, the late S.L. Gunasekera, Gomin, too, appeared free of charge and defended the armed forces and the police.

Lt. Col. Anil Amarasekera recalled the services rendered by Gomin Dayasri and the late S.L. Gunasekara.

The retired officer posted the following: “… during their lifetime, they worked tirelessly to protect and preserve the unity and territorial integrity of our motherland for posterity”.

Gomin even appeared for me free of charge when I filed a case against the then Commander of the Army for violating my fundamental rights by not allowing me to enter the Sinhalese villages in the Weli Oya region to work against the devolution proposals of the then Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government. The Commander of the Army withdrew the order preventing me from entering Weli Oya after a fundamental rights petition was filed in the Supreme Court. Therefore we withdrew our fundamental rights case.

Asoka Bandarage: “Sri Lanka has lost a beloved patriot. Gomin Dayasiri was a brilliant, courageous and interesting individual. I communicated with him a number of times on matters pertaining to peace and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. Gomin gave advice freely when H.L.D. Mahindapala and I were faced with legal charges over our writings on Sri Lanka. I also had the opportunity to visit and enjoy lunch at Gomin’s home in the tranquil village setting off Thalawathugoda.”

Sudharshan Seneviratne: “I do remember Gomin very well at Ananda. We admired him for his oratory skills and his sharp rebukes levelled at the opposing debating team!

In a limed way though, he did give his valued opinion on the College English Union magazine, the Spark, edited by Deva Rodrigo.

After he left college Gomin took time off while he was doing his Law exams to tutor me on the AL Government paper.

Later we met, not frequently though, at Anuradhapura when I was excavating at the citadel and Jetavanaramaya where he did have pointed questions on culture, identity and training of the next generation.”

Gamini Edirisinghe posted the News First video clip of Dayasri’s funeral.

Oct 2006 triumph

The judgment on the high profile case, filed by the JVP seeking de-merger of the Eastern Province, comprising Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts from the Northern Province, was delivered on Oct 16, 2006, the day an LTTE suicide attack on a Navy land convoy claimed the lives of nearly 100 of its personnel at Digampathaha (not Digampathana) between Habarana and Dambulla. Digampathaha attack was the single worst directed at a military convoy during the entire war whereas the judgment could be considered the most important as regards Sri Lanka’s unitary status.

The Supreme Court on Oct 16, 2006 declared the merger of the northern and eastern provinces, implemented in terms of the controversial 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, ‘null and void and illegal’. The Court declared that material provided by the petitioners resulted in “volumes of material to establish the divisions that existed in historic times and that the eastern province was part of the Kandyan Kingdom at the time of the British conquest”.

The ruling was given in spite of heavy international pressure against de-merging the East from the North. It would be pertinent to mention that at the time of the SC judgment and Digampathaha suicide attack, the LTTE’s conventional military capacity was considered inviolable, especially by the West. In fact, the armed forces hadn’t been able to seriously challenge the LTTE, at least in the Eastern Province, at the time of the historic judgment.

In Sept. 2006, Co-Chairs backing the peace process – the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway – cautioned Sri Lanka against the move. Co-Chairs warned: “There should be no change to the specific arrangements for the North and East which could endanger the achievement of peace. The legitimate interests and aspirations of all communities, including the Tamil, Muslims and Sinhala communities, must be accommodated as part of a political settlement.”

Prominent lawyers H.L. de Silva, S.L. Gunasekera and Gomin Dayasri appeared for the petitioners. Prof. Nalin de Silva, who served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Myanmar (Sept 2020-Sept 2021), recalled in a piece on Gomin Dayasri, written in Sinhala, the role played by the three lawyers in the triumphant case.

Son of fearless N.Q. Dias, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence, during Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s first term (1960-65) as Prime Minister, has been given a new name. Showing his disdain for the colonial past his father, ditching the Portuguese derived last name Dias, still carried by many Sri Lankans, proudly and simply named him Gomin Dayasri and sent him to Ananda College though his mother very much preferred Anglican S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia. But, N.Q. Dias, who had studied at an equally elitist Trinity College, Kandy, desired his son to receive an education at Ananda College for obvious reasons.

Prof. de Silva played a glowing tribute to Gomin’s father, legendary civil servant N.Q. Dias, for facilitating the recruitment of Sinhala Buddhists to the armed forces’ officer corps, which, along with top echelons of the police, was till then an almost exclusive club of Christians. Had that not happened, the armed forces couldn’t have brought the war to an end on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009, Prof. de Silva asserted.

Declaring that the case against the merger of the Eastern Province from the Northern had been the most important one the late Dayasri appeared, Prof. de Silva declared that if not for lawyers H.L. de Silva, S.L. Gunasekera and Gomin Dayasri, Sri Lanka’s history could have been different. Pointing out that except Dayasri, other lawyers weren’t Sinhala Buddhists, Prof. de Silva emphasized the need to de-link the East from the North through the passage of a Parliament act. That should be done in honour of those lawyers who rendered great service to the motherland. We would however like to differ with Prof. Nalin de Silva on late S.L. de Silva, though born into a Christian family, he was a life-long agnostic.

Accountability issues

The late Dayasri had been seriously disappointed with the way Sri Lanka handled accountability issues both during the conflict and after. The Island reportage on the conflict and related matters certainly received a big boost, thanks to advice and suggestions the writer received from the late lawyer. Dayasri was always accessible and never declined to comment on contentious issues. Twice he visited The Island editorial after the conclusion of the sittings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) at the BMICH, into the killing of 17 persons employed by the Action Contra La Faim (ACF) to provide the writer a briefing of what was going on. The CoI also inquired into the killing of five youth in Trincomlee in January 2006.

On one occasion, Dayasri provided the writer several photographs of civil society representatives with foreigners involved in the process. With a mischievous grin, Dayasri said the role played by most foreign-funded NGOs here was quite treacherous. The lawyer asserted that successive governments pathetically failed to meet the challenge posed by those who represented the interests of separatists.

The ACF case took an unprecedented turn in late March 2008, when the late Dayasri challenged the right of one-time Government Agent Dr. Devanesan Nesiah to be Commissioner due to his close relationship with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). S.L. Gunasekera, who also appeared for the military, demanded Dr. Nesiah’s removal.

Appearing for the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Army, free of charge, Dayasri opposed Dr. Nesiah’s role against the backdrop of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) being made party to the high profile case. Dayasri targeted Dr. Nesiah after the Presidential Commission accepted CPA and several other civil society groups, party to the inquiry on the basis of an application submitted by President’s Counsel and one-time President of Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) the late Desmond Fernando. Justice N.K. Udalagama headed the Commission. The proceedings were held under the scrutiny of International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP).

Dayasri didn’t mince his words when he questioned the failure on the part of Dr Nesiah to disclose his close relationship with the CPA at an earlier stage. Alleging that it had been a serious lapse on the part of the Commissioner, Dayasri bluntly told the former Jaffna Government Agent Nesiah: “You cannot be a judge in your own case because not only justice must be done, but it must be seen to be so done, otherwise there’ll be the likelihood of bias.”

Dayasri and Desmond Fernando clashed at the inquiry over the latter’s claim that a minister confided in him that he (minister) knew the perpetrators of the Muttur massacre. Dayasri demanded that Fernando should get into the witness box. Fernando skipped the proceedings the following day (Probe into Muttur massacre takes a dramatic turn: Commissioner’s right to hear case challenged due to NGO link, The Island, March 27, 2008 edition).

As a result of the stand taken by Dayasri and Gunasekera, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had no option but to intervene. In a letter dated June 06, 2008, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga asked Dr. Nesiah to explain his relationship with the CPA and the payments received from the CPA. In spite of the presidential directive for him to step down, Dr. Nesiah joined the proceedings on June 10, 2008. Dayasri’s protests compelled the CoI to ask Dr. Nesiah to leave (Commission probing human rights violations: Nesiah dropped after President’s intervention, The Island, June 11, 2008)

Dayasri also argued against the 19th Amendment in a Fundamental Rights petition before the Supreme Court in 2015. Many an eyebrow was raised when Dayasri petitioned against President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament in Oct 2018. Dayasiri told the Supreme Court though he opposed the 19A, since its passage in Parliament, yet the President was duty-bound to act in accordance with it, and the dissolution in less than four and a half years without a Parliament resolution was unconstitutional.

Dayasri simply ignored the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa had received the premiership as a result of Maithripala Sirisena’s constitutional coup.

In conversation with the writer, Dayasri, lecturer in law and respected commentator on matters of national importance, expressed serious concerns over the failure on the part of the government to address the Geneva challenge. The absence of a clear action plan to use disclosures made by Lord Naseby offended Dayasri, who felt those who exercised political authority quite conveniently failed to exploit the advantage given by Lord Naseby. The cancellation of the Victory Day parade by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in 2015 angered the lawyer. Calling the decision a disgrace, Dayasri explained that the President and the Premier should be ashamed of themselves.

Dayasri earned the respect of the armed forces and the vast majority of people. His contribution and influence would remain as the country struggles to cope up with an extremely difficult situation caused by waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement and, most of all, simple political incompetence at the highest level, being the prime cause of it.

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Midweek Review

EPIC-MEMORY and BRECHT

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Grusha walking on the bridge made of human bodies. Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle in Thamil, Co-direction by P. Niriella and K. Rathidaran. Tr. by Dr K.M. Shanmugalingam, 2016.

by Laleen Jayamanne

Memory of the World’

UNESCO established the Memory of the World Programme in 1992 to preserve for posterity the audio-visual heritage of humankind, stating that war, social upheaval and lack of resources have accelerated its destruction.

“Significant collections worldwide have suffered a variety of fates. Looting and dispersal, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate housing and funding have all played a part. Much has vanished forever; much is endangered. Happily, missing documentary heritage is sometimes

rediscovered.” UNESCO

UNESCO has also promoted the preservation (through revival), of the vital endangered category of human culture it calls, ‘The Intangible Heritage of Mankind’; the ancient arts of music, dance, theatre and ritual. As temporal arts, they are ephemeral by nature, passed through guru-shishya parampara transmission encoded in bodies through practice, in what used to be called the Third World.

Thanks to the availability of digital technological tools of preservation, exhibition and connectivity, the work of these visionary programmes has been considerably enhanced. Now, the fragile celluloid film, which was once the medium of preservation of artefacts, has itself been saved, restored and preserved digitally. Apart from this kind of essential programme of preservation, the very idea of attributing memory to the ‘world’, in the UNESCO formulation, is fascinating to speculate on because we usually think of memory as an inalienable human organic faculty of the mind without which we would live in a perpetual state of amnesia, in a timeless and depleted present. It seems to me that ‘memory of the world’ as an idea can also be imagined as something more than historical memory, which by definition is the written record, usually organised chronologically. ‘The world’ can now also suggest not only the human but also the earth itself and all that it sustains, plants and animals and even microbes and fossils and minerals and the cosmos, too. This is the zone that some artists have begun to explore within a ‘deep-ecological’ consciousness of what is known as the Anthropocene – the epoch of man-made ecological devastation.

‘Epic-Memory’

Walter Benjamin, the German theorist of culture, in his essay, The Story Teller, described another kind of memory, created by humans over millennia, which he called ‘epic memory.’ He invites us to imagine how to think about an idea of memory that’s more ample than our personal memory, by offering a dazzling image of ‘epic memory.’

“One must imagine the transformation of epic forms occurring in rhythms comparable to those of the change that has come over the earth’s surface in the course of thousands of centuries. Hardly any other forms of human communications have taken shape more slowly, been lost more slowly.

Memory is the epic faculty par excellence.

Memory creates the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation.”

What Benjamin calls the ‘chain of tradition’ has been severed or partially lost in societies subject to colonisation and the forces of modernity have also destroyed many traditions. So we are looking for ways in which an expansive mode of remembering might be generated by artists through creative work, especially in the post-war situation of Sri Lanka where experiences of loss and trauma are widespread and some of their causes left unaddressed, forgotten, repressed, for many reasons. And now especially, with Sri Lanka in a state of profound crisis open to new possibilities of collective life free of ethnic nationalism and violence, an idea of epic memory might be of some use. It is the case that we don’t have ancient epics like India’s, Silappatikaram, Mahabharata and the Ramayana or the Greek ones, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet a modern idea of epic memory can perhaps still be formulated with what we do have.

The epic form was originally an oral form, which required from the bards a prodigious memory, trained through repeated recitation, which is why the muse of the epic form was called Mnemosyne, meaning epic memory in Greek. The written form of the epic came into being much later in history, based on the much older collective oral poetry of legends and myths of ‘the people’ handed down orally. Both in the UNESCO idea of ‘memory of the world’ and Benjamin’s definition of ‘epic memory,’ what is clear is that memory is a collective creation, taking shape over vast epochs. According to Greek myth, Mnemosyne, is the mother of the nine muses, and the word mouseion in Greek (from which the word museum is derived) means the dwelling place of the muses, who are the inspiration for the different art forms. This is a rich vital aesthetic image of the museum which is worth thinking about.

Then, one might be tempted to think that this is the same as the idea of ‘civilization’, which is the sum total of a culture’s pre-history and history as expressed in artefacts and written record. Usually this is indeed how nation states constitute themselves and give themselves an identity formulated on ethnicity, language, religion, custom, myths, etc. This is dangerous territory because states have deployed their myths to justify authoritarian and racist policies to divide and rule multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic societies such as Lanka. The Rajapaksa regime mobilised the Mahavansa narrative of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony of Lanka to secure its own rule and some artists joined in with the mythic-epic genre films and shows.  But I think the UNESCO idea is counter-hegemonic because it’s not created by a centralising state. Its memories may not fit easily into a master narrative of mythic inevitability. There is an element of chance and the possibility of ‘minor narratives’ emerging, which can’t be totalised into primordial myths.

Brecht’s Theory of Epic Theatre

To create a clearer picture of how to craft an idea of memory with great amplitude and rich potential, we can start with a modern example, the work of Bertolt Brecht, which Lankans have been quite familiar with (since the mid 1960’s), in all three languages. He famously created an ‘epic theatre’ and a theory of modern epic practice, as opposed to the traditional ‘dramatic theatre’. He called traditional dramatic theatre Aristotelian because it followed the basic structures analysed by the Greek philosopher in his Poetics. Walter Benjamin wrote several essays defending Brecht’s idea of epic theatre because what Brecht did was something quite unusual within the history of European theatre at the time. Instead of following the 1920s avant-garde German Expressionist theatre or French Surrealist theatre or constructivist Soviet practice, he looked to classical Asiatic theatrical forms such as Peking opera and its conventions of staging and highly formalised abstract forms of acting, to create a modern epic practice. For some artists of the left, Brecht’s theory appeared to be a strange move, looking to traditional Asian practice of the deep feudal past – not at all modern. Benjamin showed how Brecht’s modern epic form was suited to their time of the rise of fascism in Germany and its appeal to irrational emotions and ideas of racial purity and superiority. According to Aristotle the epic form contains three genres in one. That is, the lyric or ‘first person’ expression of subjective feeling as in love poetry, the dramatic as in actions and reactions organised in dialogue, in ‘second person’ and narration, which is the power to tell a story or narrate in ‘third person’. Therefore the ample epic mode can combine all three genres with ease, which means that it has the power to shift focus from one to the other, in complex combinations.

The traditional idea of ‘epic memory’ itself has an act of performance built into it through what is sung and is not something private and personal but consists of mythic stories, legends common to a people. But there is a crucial distinction Brecht and Benjamin made here between myth, on the one hand, and the epic form, on the other. The epic as a genre is a much later historical development from myth and though it does deploy myth, it does so on its own terms. Because, historically speaking, the epic is a later human achievement than myth, it also has had the rational power to comment on the myths it uses. That is to say, the epic form, with its many flexible techniques, has the power to create a sense of distance from the mythic universe of the ancients, which appears irrational and fated.

This idea of a historical ‘distance’ of the epic form (from the original myths), was taken up by Brecht and made into a method of constructing his epic drama. He called it, using a long German compound word, ‘verfremdungseffect’, variously translated as ‘distanciation’ or ‘Alienation-effect’ or ‘de-familiarisation’ or ‘making-strange’. Fine scholarship is available on this idea, my favourite was developed by Eugenio Barba and his Odin Theatret in Denmark. To create a dramatic situation which can immediately be ‘frozen’ and turned into a scene which is narrated and commented on, is one of the well-known ways in which Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle was performed in Colombo, in the 1965 by Ernest Macintyre’s ‘Stage and Set’ production. The tender scene of a lyrical song sung by Grusha to her adopted infant son, can swiftly change to a bawdy commentary by the chorus. Sudden changes of point of view, mood and tone, are calibrated to give the spectator a chance to perceive a situation from more than one angle. It’s a way to introduce the exercise of reason into the spectacle of theatre, according to Brecht, to break its spell even as it is deployed. Brecht was here influenced by Eisenstein’s theory of montage, which he introduced into theatre. Eisenstein’s theory of montage created a clash between one shot and another, so as to produce a new idea in the mind of the spectator. So the continuously flowing conventional dramatic action could be interrupted, fragmented and anything-what-ever from ‘the memory of the world’ could be inserted to break the flow. So it’s the introduction of a radical film technique, montage, into theatre to make the mind constantly alert and instantly beguiled and then relaxed by the commentary of the chorus. These disjunctions can be very subtle or very direct depending on the skill of both actor and director.

Professor Saumya Liyanage’s recent article, on the play ‘Sanga Veda Guru Govi Kamkaru’, clearly indicated that the brilliant young playwright-director Chamila Priyanka had created an epic mode of theatre, which the judges of the drama competition failed to understand, (The Island, 11/5). Liyanage said that there is a to and fro movement between empathy and distance in the way the play was constructed and directed. The current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe referred to Brecht in parliament, comparing his current task (to save Lanka), to that of the selfless Grusha’s action of saving the baby, treading on the rickety bridge. Whether he wanted empathy or analytical distance by offering this parable from the Caucasian Chalk Circle we don’t know, but he could assume that Lankans at large would know the reference. But we also know the play well enough to see what a thoughtless comparison it was.

The Artists’ Protest March

I saw a Brechtian epic mode in full flight in the artists’ protest march (#GotaGoGama), the other day on the streets of Colombo, which converged on Gall Face. Actors wearing handmade cardboard masks of the various yakas and the sunniyas were doing wild dancing moves using these marvellous creatures of the folk imagination of Lanka to exorcise the political demons sucking the people’s life-blood. These performers were such a refreshing counter to the expensive kitsch fascist-mythic-nationalist spectacles and films made under the Rajapaksa regime. And to see and hear a group of women walking rhythmically and playing the heavy drums slung across their bodies strung from their necks or tied at the waist, was a powerful moment for me, as I never imagined that Lankan women would be allowed to play these ritual drums belonging to a male tradition of such vitality. Traditionally, women only played raban pada! While the documentary camera excitedly cut between many performances very fast, I got the sense of an epic vision being performed as street theatre. Gamini Hattotuwegama’s pioneering street theatre work of the 70’s and 80’s seems to have taken on an unimaginable mass form, matured, diversified, loosening up and airing so many different stratified and compacted layers of the blood-soaked earth, of this famed ‘island of Dhamma’, Sri Lanka.

Perhaps artists can generate some ideas from these two modes of imagining memory (‘memory of the world’ and Brecht’s epic mode), which are quite distinct from personal memory. Artists working on traumatic experiences of the civil war and the formidable state ideologies that led to and orchestrated it, may find it useful to try to mobilise an ample epic mode of perception. I think so because it has this flexible montage structure, not tied to a strict linear chronology. ‘Montage’ is a term taken from engineering, of fitting different pieces of machinery together, so it contains the idea of assembling something with different components, stuff, to make something happen. While one might work on oneself and one’s sense of loss and a host of other urgent feelings that resist linguistic expression, one can also create certain disjunctions, breaks, (distanciation, make-strange the familiar), through an epic mode of composition. The need to repeatedly go back to the traumatic moment is often limitless, with no end in sight. Each repetition yields less as it becomes routine with no exit. Whereas, epic vision-memory, understood in a Brechtian way, is centrifugal not centripetal, it ripples out. It is not centred on man and nor is its vision cut to the measure of MAN. It is non-anthropocentric and non-anthropomorphic. Epic vision-memory helps us to see and feel and understand that we are part of something vaster and also much finer and subtle than ourselves. Epic vision gives us antennae like insects have. Tantric Buddhist idea of a ‘subtle body’ (Sukshama Dehaya) might be a line of investigation for those attracted to the rich visual traditions of Mahayana Buddhism which include vast scroll paintings which visually activate ‘nadi’ or a nervous system that connects many life forms too.

Brecht’s epic vision, in not giving ‘happy endings’ or resolving all the dramatic conflicts, leave us with an ability to discuss alternatives, as in say The Good Woman of Szechwan (Hita Honda Ammandi). I think the famous Chennai bonze statues of poets, (including a female one), and scholars (including an English scholar-missionary), and the epic heroine of Silappatikāram, Kannagi, lining the ocean front of the Marina really is a marvellous epic configuration that could also be understood in the Brechtian modern sense of the epic as well. They are positioned against the background of the ocean and address the people of Tamil Nadu evoking epic memory. The idea of debate so dear to Brecht also was staged when the Kannagi statue built by the Karunanidi’s DMK government was removed from her pedestal by Jaylalitha as Chief Minister, inaugurating a statue ‘battle’ and then returned from a museum, back again to her pedestal, with a change of government. There appears to be a sense of humour too in these serious political moves and counter moves, a marvellous sense of epic performance. This kind of jostling, argumentative, magnificent vision evoked by these bronze statues of Tamil Nadu is surely a modern mode of epic memory conjoined with the ocean, the sand and the sky – a memory of the world for sure.

Epic form is not the same as mythic form. The epic is Janus-faced (has two faces) facing two opposed directions. One face is turned toward myth and the other faces history. And situated in between the two, it has ample space-time to play and shuttle between the two modes of knowledge by making sure that history itself is not allowed to turn into myth.

And Laughter?

I saw on YouTube a well-known Sinhala actor perform a strange oration of excessive praise, a Rajapaksha varnanawa, invoking the glory days of Dutugamunu. What struck me was how much the brothers Mahinda and Gotabhaya laughed when they were praised in more and more exaggerated ways (drawing on the heroic parallels), by the actor who appeared to be carried away by his own brilliance at flattery and histrionic performance. I couldn’t help but think that the two brothers were looking at each other in a certain way and laughing, as much as to say, ‘does he really believe this stuff he’s spouting, what an idiot!’ They appeared to know that these were stupid but useful myths that they had themselves mobilised as history for their gain, but the true believers and the fools were the people themselves. This is just my reading of laughter of the two authoritarian brothers. Laughter is a tricky involuntary human impulse hard to control and pin down rationally. But one hopes that the last laugh will not be theirs’ to enjoy.

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Midweek Review

Of Revolts and Ahimsa Ascetics

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By Lynn Ockersz

In this all too familiar pattern,

Of besieged ruling class reaction,

The Jackboot’s coming crashing down,

On citizens forced into starvation,

And on Scribes mindlessly manacled,

Besides being seen as ‘Inessential’,

Hoping to muzzle into silence,

Consciences of blazing defiance,

But history’s lesson is undisputed,

That revolt is the result of repression,

And we have at hand to clinch the point,

The torching of Libya’s parliament,

And the youth-led bush war of Myanmar….

Just two warning signs for Fat Cat Sires,

That people deprived of Bread and basics,

Are unlikely to take after Ahimsa ascetics.

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