Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Over My Dead Body

Image credit: Yale Medicine

It doesn’t seem fair that news of the latest sharp rise in Covid 19 cases is coming right at the most difficult time in the economic and fuel crisis in SL. Yet it also seems inevitable, given that we are still only about 2.5 years through what seems to be a 5 year pandemic. 

How can I cite such clearcut numbers? They are merely estimates, based on research done into the major pandemics that have afflicted the world over the past several centuries. SARS (2002-2004) was the most recent one. But there has also been Ebola. And HIV AIDS, which first emerged in the mid 1980s. 

The most severe global impact was felt by the pandemic a century ago, just after WW1, popularly called The Spanish Flu (1918 to 1920) which affected 500 million people (about 30% of the world’s population) and killed about 50 million people. And further back in time, when population size was far lower, in the years of the Bubonic plague aka ‘The Black Death’, (peaking between 1347 to 1351) and again emerging in the Elizabethan era (1589 - 1593) in England, virally transmitted disease decimated the population of Europe. So there are certainly enough of these traumatic mass events to study, and from which to draw certain conclusions. 

Now the global population level is higher than it has ever been, and international transport has improved in efficiency and rapidity, through industrialization. The population is far more mobile, and so the risks of transmission are greatly increased today. An epidemic breaches border boundaries very quickly, and becomes a pandemic. 

The noticeable trend is that people get tired of masking, social distancing, and having their social lives disrupted indefinitely. Quite apart from the concerns about infringements of personal liberties and freedoms, vaccine politics and the mass marketing of vaccines, there is a sense that if we are tired of being impacted by it, it should no longer be a threat. 

This is of course, although very understandable, toddler level thinking. If we close our eyes because it’s all too much, it won’t go away! 

In fact, we need to ensure that our masks are in good supply, social distancing protocols are once again in place, and that we are vaccinated appropriately, as there is now evidence that current vaccines largely prevent the severe outcomes that Covid imposes, providing a shield; and that even when people do test positive to the latest variant, they are able to avoid hospitalization. 

In Australia, cases of the Omicron variant B.A. 5 have been surging over the winter flu season and we are told are now peaking. Sri Lanka generally over the past 2.5 years has seen the commensurate rise about 3 months after Australia. 

Epidemiologists are requesting that members of the public take themselves to the nearest vaccination centre, and get their third or fourth booster shot ASAP. Every morning, between 9am and 1pm in Colombo, there are several medical teams administering the boosters, supervised by the armed forces. But very few people are so far getting these vaccines, despite the fact that they are very effective, and very accessible. 

Why is this reluctance occurring? Is it the difficulty of travelling to the sites due to fuel shortages? This is a matter of priority. And the QR system seems to be working efficiently now to even out fuel distribution. 

Some people believe the Pfizer vaccines are past their best date. I checked with doctors in Colombo, and was told this: 

 “The Pfizer vaccines expire at the end of July. For vaccines and many other drugs, "expiry" means the efficacy goes down. As a rule of thumb we say the efficacy diminishes at a rate of about 10% per month.

The manufacturer has announced that current tests indicate efficacy is maintained at 100% one month afterwards. (This is called the ‘extended expiry date’, and is determined by lab testing. We need to wait another month to determine efficacy at the end of 2 months).

It is important to recognize that vaccine cold chains are strictly maintained, with checks done at least 3 times a day including weekends.” 

So getting the booster vaccines sooner rather than later, while the supply is still plentiful, would be the best plan. 

The other concern that people have is whether they can take Pfizer after having initial shots of SinoPharm last year. Anecdotal reports support the doctors when they say yes, it should be fine. Also, keep in mind that most people were vaccinated initially almost a year ago now, and immunity diminishes over time. 

If you want your immunity to be robust in the months ahead, with the intensely transmissible Omicron variant now just starting its impact, act now. Our everyday food intake, vitamins and nutrition should be our basis of natural immunity; but the vaccination will ideally add the shield to this. It takes about two to three months for immunity to build after the vaccine is administered. 

It will be 2025 before this ordeal is truly over, based on pandemic patterns. It is far too early to give up on taking precautions and valuing our lives and our well being. 

At any one time, there are only 5 to 10 people observable  in the queues even at Viharamahadevi Park to obtain the vaccinations. While this is welcome in one sense, it is worrying if it shows that members of the public have become indifferent to the situation. 

Could it be that they haven’t read the data? Certainly the country as a whole has been preoccupied with other matters since Sinhala and Tamil New Year. But now is the time to start focusing on building ourselves up again. What use is economic improvement if we don’t live to enjoy its benefits? 

Have we forgotten the devastation caused by the Delta variant last year? And this year, due to the additional economic crisis and the resulting shortages in medical supplies, the health system will be even more challenged over the next few months.

I say 5 years from late December 2019, or January 2020 because of the increased numbers of people in the world today, and their greater congregation in cities due to mass urbanization. It is difficult to clearly look at and analyse the surges and declines in numbers, which occur in waves, because of the differences in testing protocols in different countries. 

It is best to pre-empt an impending wave like this. Please everyone -  consider your own situation and take action in the next few days, as a service to the community as well as your own family and yourself.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Body Politic

Many people in Sri Lanka today believe that the way we have been governed is no longer sustainable. When we as a country are through this dark tunnel, and looking back on the breakdown of the country over the last several years, we will see that there is a tangle of reasons for the bankrupted state of the nation. 

Many, many people have been having their say and offering their opinions on this: in newspaper columns, on digital platforms, on panel discussions and all kinds of groups and symposia. My own opinion is that we get the leaders we elect, and we bear the consequences of their choices: we, who choose those who lead us. 

If we have chosen our leaders on emotional grounds, rather than rational principles, and if we have elected ministers who are not qualified or even concerned to make effective choices for the benefit of the country, the dire consequences will teach us to choose differently in future. Not only to choose different people, but to choose leaders on more informed grounds, and with clearer awareness of the direct impact of bad choices, on we who choose. 

This is not easy to do, given the far from rigorous and transparent selection process by which people empowered to make decisions which affect the nation have been appointed. The quality of the ministerial candidates, their level of education, their life experience, their codes of conduct, their track record in work, their contribution to the country, their moral integrity - are all being considered now, after the fact, as if for the first time. Are those who represent us, truly representative of us? 

What many ministers have in common seems to be a heightened sense of their rights and entitlements, rather than awareness of their responsibilities to the country and their fellow citizens. We have seen on video the low level of personal conduct indulged in by many of them even in public: violence, both physical and verbal, sexism, loss of equanimity, arrogance and disrespect. This conduct is unbecoming: and I don’t just mean that it looks bad. Conduct like this in their position as representatives of the country will literally result in their own discredit, and the undermining of respect for the office they hold. 

What has been going on - in a drawn out and messy and colorful way - since the end of April this year has been a vocal demand for change - not only in terms of specific personnel but in the political processes and structures of governance by which they rule, and the extent of the damage they can cause in their term of leadership. 

The economic crisis which is bedevilling the citizenry in multiple ways is felt differentially, but it is felt by all. The rise in opportunistic crime, the reluctance of overseas investors to commit themselves in a situation where they don’t know if their investments will be misused, or misappropriated, the breakdown of public health services and the closing down of small and medium enterprise businesses are all symptoms of the underlying condition: system failure. 

Faced with total societal collapse, and with no power to change things and no rescue remedy in sight, many people resort to escapism of different kinds. 

An interesting case study of this occurred last week, when former MP Hirunika Premachandra led a protest outside the Prime Minister’s private residence. The media, instead of highlighting the reason for the protest itself, chose to publish photos of this lady which focused on her saree blouse and the parts of her body which it contained. The populace, their sexism and misogyny uppermost, were effectively distracted. 

Truly, the curse of superficiality is afflicting every aspect of this nation. 

Ms. Premachandra’s own fighting response, graphic in its detailed references to breastfeeding, was published on her social media platforms, and was much praised by some sections of the public: 

‘I am proud of my breasts! I breastfed three beautiful kids. I nurtured them, comforted them and dedicated my whole body for them. I am sure people who make fun of my exposed breasts (due to the clash with the police) also sucked their mothers’ nipples until (it’s) raw when they were infants. 

Anyway, when you are done talking, making memes and laughing about my breasts, there was ANOTHER civilian died in a queue... Just so you know!’ 

Her comment shows her awareness of the national tendency to resort to crude humor and trifling irrelevancy. The initial point of her protest was engulfed by misogynist mockery on social media, which led the PM, against whom she was protesting, to speak up to paradoxically protect her against their insults. 

The Daily Mirror quoted the PM as saying that ‘motherhood should not be insulted in a decent society’, and described him as making an ‘appeal to the social media activists and users not to publish photos of Hirunika Premachandra who is a mother of three, causing insult to her.’ 

Motherhood is indeed a sacred concept. It is also a central pillar of patriarchy, in which women’s worth and value are defined by (and limited to) their capacity to bear children. It is fused with nationalism in countries like Sri Lanka, which many proudly call their ‘Motherland’. Yet in this same country which apparently holds mothers in such respect, the violence against women and girls is one of the highest in the world. Would she be entitled to less respect if she had fewer children, or more respect if she had more children? 

Ms. Premachandra is also famous for hugging police personnel in the course of their duties. This may seem like a trivial point, until one notices that the former FLOTUS, Michelle Obama, was also noted for her warm (and inclusive) hugs during public engagements. She even describes herself as ‘Hugger In Chief’ on her public Twitter profile. In her husband’s term of office, Ms. Obama was described as ‘looking like a man’ and also criticised for working out at the gym and revealing her toned upper arms in sleeveless tops and dresses. Her husband, approving of his wife’s commitment to personal health and fitness, and clearly proud of her physique, commented she had the ‘right to bare arms’. A comment that, in the context of recent debate in that country regarding gun law reform, does not seem very humorous, today. 

We can see how fertile women and virile men are made into icons in global popular culture. Anthropologists and sociologists and biologists all over the world can explain the reason why. But in the world of contemporary social media, these attributes are augmented on media platforms, and then decried and debased by an army of reliable professional detractors, fuelled by predictable and easily manipulated social bias, and a malicious desire for petty mischief. Would we prefer to be hugged - or hurt? Hit up or shut down? 

Years ago, I heard of an old Sinhalese village story in which an elderly mother rebuked her son, who had recently been given an important position in their region, as an overseer of food distribution during a time of famine. This lady, fainting with hunger, stood in a queue along with everyone else, and petitioned her son for food. He, acutely aware in a way no minister seems to be today, that he would be held accountable for any favouritism shown to his relatives, said she would be allocated exactly the same amount of measured rice as everyone else. The lady then shamed him by calling out in the public assembly, asking if she, his mother, had ever measured the life giving milk she had fed him from her breasts. 

Ms. Premachandra may - in her defence - be invoking her right to the only respect this society accords women: the rights of a mother, the giver of life. But women and girls are entitled to respect no matter what their marital status is, or whether they have children or not. 

In a more representative and modern political and governance process, where there would be far greater female participation and many more female ministers and leaders of corporations, winning public respect through their effective leadership, such situations would not occur - in which women are routinely trivialized and the valid concerns of the public requesting better leadership are continually diminished. 

As in any failing system, whether a human body, or a sociopolitical one, many negative factors have become normalized. We would need to intervene and rapidly normalize some positives if we want to see some change for the better.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Against Our Will

Image Credit: The Decider


Sometimes whole countries find ourselves, as Salman Rushdie once expressed it, in ‘Midnight’s Children’, “handcuffed to history”. Two events of differing magnitude have occurred in the past several days: an African American megastar, Will Smith, resigned from the institution which confers the Academy Awards, because of his own unmannerly conduct at the awards ceremony where he won his first Oscar. 

Smith is only the 5th African American man to win an Oscar. And in his acceptance speech, through tears of self pity and remorse, he said his conduct did not express the man he wanted to be, a man who - in his own words - was a ‘River to my people’. It sounded like a political speech. And it was - a direct quote from Anthony Quinn’s character in ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’. 

While this was going on in Hollywood, Sri Lanka’s citizenry were engaged in mass peaceful protest, across boundaries of race, religion, gender, age and even socio-economic class, calling for an end to power cuts and fuel shortages which have robbed some of quality of life, and many of essentials for survival. 

It may seem as if these two events have nothing in common. But let’s look again. These events, shocking and disruptive as they are, have never happened before. They indicate that society as a whole is experiencing a desire and a need for change. In Will Smith’s case, he was allowed to remain in the forum and accept his award despite flagrantly breaking the rules of acceptable conduct and protocol. But the public outcry against the ‘slap that was heard around the world’ has turned the tide against him, and against socially endorsed male violence in general. Will Smith’s son had Tweeted, presumably from the Smith family’s mega living room, shortly after the event: ‘And That’s How We Do It’. This was before his father’s public apology, which took place the next day. 

For the past 74 years, from the time of Independence to now, in Sri Lanka, such a unified movement as we are now seeing has not occurred in living memory. Successive governments have strategically played majoritarian politics, and minorities have been excluded, threatened and scapegoated. Women and girls and the issues they face have been relegated to minority status by a series of toxically masculinist regimes, while the areas of economic and fiscal management were supposedly handled by the men in charge. The focus was on economic growth, rather than education, awareness of civics, or peace and reconciliation. An area of Colombo specifically demarcated for the expression of protest was ominously set aside for the purpose, thus ironically reducing the public space in which protest could ‘officially’ take place. Anyone protesting there would be isolated and visible. Dissent was disincentivized. 

The military forces were hugely amplified, in numbers and scope of action, to ensure the security of the populace, but members of the police force have been seen on CCTV cameras via phone video assaulting unarmed citizens, immune to accountability under the expanded ‘state of emergency’ PTA act. 

The most striking aspect to me is that the protestors are predominantly young and female, some with toddlers held in their arms. This is not only for optics. Many young mothers cannot afford childcare. But it is also strategic. Military forces would be very unwise to publicly use force such as tear gas and rubber bullets against unarmed young women, with the cameras of the world watching. These young women are bravely stepping up in front at the protests, often against the express cautions and anxieties of their parents and grandparents, and the subduing dictates of their conservative culture. 

Hollywood has been examining its own underlying systemic structures and assumptions for some time now, in the wake of the ‘Me Too’ movement, and holding even its most successful and awarded actors, directors and producers accountable for their abuses of power. Will Smith and the way his conduct is being dealt with is informed by this growing awareness, even in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the perception that ‘woke politics’ is giving minorities too much leeway.  Smith’s wealth, success, amiability, gender and race are not going to operate to modify the decision. 

In Sri Lanka, the frustration of the younger generation is fuelling the protests for better governance. The young people of this country are articulate, well informed, and technologically literate. They are also sceptical of political rhetoric, and contemptuous of nepotism and cronyism; and unlike the respectful generations of the past, who were brought up to be dutiful, passive and obedient, they do not automatically respect those in authority. For them, as for young people all over the world, respect must be earned. 

In the past, their sense of injustice and oppression has been cynically manipulated, to divide their generation, and many young people in Sri Lanka have disliked and distrusted the diaspora, and railed against the perceived privilege and elitism of the wealthy. This is the direct result of the systemic inequities and lack of opportunities in their society. In refreshing contrast to this cycle of negativity, the clear focus of the younger emerging leadership is on inclusion and acceptance of diversity. 

Lacking the financial resources to study overseas, the younger generation clearly feel they must co-operate and do their best to make this country a place in which they can live and work - and rightfully enjoy the fruits of their sustained efforts. 

And this is how they do it.

Morning Glory Circular

Image credit: The Great British Bake-off


Today I am going to make scones. One of the easiest things to make, so it is said. In normal times. Three ingredients: Butter, flour and milk. But the relative proportions are important. It’s one of those essential, simple processes which, if faithfully followed, according to tradition, tried and tested in all the houses along Morning Glory Circle, the road where I live, reclaimed bush land with unceded sovereignty, where every house has a nature strip, produces an outcome which temporarily reassures us that all is well, at tea time at least. 

My forte has always been showy, one pot stews, pasta sauces and casseroles. Slow cooking, in the old brown pot from student days, so I can be soothed by the aromas from the kitchen while working on something. But baking, with its finely judged proportions, its calibrations and its exact timing, seemed to exist in a realm beyond my reality: where the oven with its inbuilt dials and dashboard was a known entity, and the baking trays were the right size, and the butter and milk full fat, from contented cows. 

My friend Gail suggested a radical variation, which appealed to me. Substitute cream for the milk and butter, 

and add lemonade. She said this makes the batter very frothy and aerated, so to handle it as little and as lightly as possible. 3 cups of flour. Make a mound, and hollow out the middle. Pour 1 cup of cream and 1 cup of lemonade into the middle, and mix it lightly. Knead it into a big square shape and cut off dollops to put on a tray. 

In 15 minutes, at 200 degrees, the scones will be ready. Butter and jam them while they are warm. This quantity makes 16 scones, according to Gail. I am going to add sultanas to half of the mix, and cheese to the other half. See, I’m improvising already. I can’t stick exactly to a recipe. It’s not in my nature. 

And while the scones are baking, I’m going to allow myself the indulgence of 15 minutes of unrestrained anxiety about  how the world I grew up in is coming apart. 

We have a choice to mute the voices on the radio and the television, which warn us of images that may potentially be distressing to some viewers. Or even to turn off the technology, altogether. 

Turning inward, we can measure the ingredients which make a locked down life pleasurable: 3 measures of freedom of choice over the daily realities and preferences of our life. 1 measure each of financial independence and political autonomy. Not beholden to any one. 

As we make the recommended well in the middle, we roll up our sleeves and rejoice in the capacity of our own hands to enact our will. As we shape the texture of the mixture, we think about consistency of what we want to produce. 

We open the jam cupboard to choose our  jam. The butter should be unsalted, if the other ingredients are in their best form. 

Chaos reigns on the screen, but here in the kitchen all is well. Fill the kettle with water, and enjoy the fullness and heaviness that results. Bring it to the boil, and empty the favourite cup. Polish it up, burnish it, for this is the sweet cup, the bitter cup is no longer enough to hold what your joy has grown into.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Wish You Were Here

A few days ago, there was a large peaceful protest held in Melbourne, Australia, at a very visible public meeting point. This was one of the many international protests held in countries with diaspora Sri Lankan communities. Sri Lankans are perceived to be generally conservative, respectable, model immigrants, who conduct themselves with decency in public.

Video footage of this protest showed some individuals handing out black and white leaflets to the protestors. The full content of those leaflets were not visible to the camera. But some of the content was vociferously objected to by a loud individual in a strikingly patterned shirt and vibrantly coloured sunglasses.

He was specifically incensed by the use of the term ‘genocide’, which was apparently being cited in the leaflet, and which was part of a request for respectful recognition of the suffering of the Tamil people in the North and East of Sri Lanka during the recent 27 year civil war. The loud man told the leaflet distributors that this was not the place for them to have their say. He told them to ‘remove themselves or that he and his group would remove them’. He followed through on this threat by physically moving to the front of the group of protestors and dramatically and insultingly tearing one of the leaflets into pieces.

The video has been widely commented about on Sri Lankan social media, with most commentators assuming that this mannerless individual is a representative of the majority of Sinhalese people. But about 3/4 of the way into the incident, at 1 minute 16 seconds in the video, if you view it, you can clearly see another protestor coming in and requesting the loud man to take a step back. He can be heard to say, ‘These people also have a right to say what they want to say. It’s not right to tell them to leave.’

The rest of the protestors in this video don’t appear to speak or say anything, displaying collective bystander syndrome. But the fact that the aggressive man attempting to silence and exclude those requesting respect for the day of remembrance on May 18th, was publicly persuaded to stand back, was significant. The predictable dynamics of sharp otherisation and reflex resentments that we are all too familiar with, have changed.

Some commentators on Twitter, showing their own assumptions, didn’t see or hear the man being told that the rights of the minorities should be upheld. They cited the rest of the footage as an example of how crude and toxic the notions of many immigrants from Sri Lanka are, and how - having themselves made a successful bid to escape to the relatively peaceful and prosperous vistas of Australia - they never evolve into a less hateful mindset, but keep their race-based hatreds alive and kicking. Literally.

I am sure that such crude simplifications cannot accurately portray the feelings of all expatriates. The reality of the immigrant diaspora experience is a complex and nuanced one. I asked some colleagues and friends in Australia and England whose families were economic immigrants, and refugees, what they think of what is currently going on in the country of their birth. Their responses were illuminating:

‘There is a side of me that I need to suppress that daily whispers to me that Sri Lankans have nobody to blame but themselves and that they can now shut the gate and lie down in the mess they have made. Endlessly complaining about how helpless they are. Complaining and opportunistic sniping have been the national pastimes, all these years, and everyone is sick of it.

Where were these people who are now in the streets, protesting, when the north and east were being bombed indiscriminately? Where was the demand for justice when aid workers were murdered? Children shot in parks? Young women and schoolgirls raped and murdered? Years of these very same shortages in the north and east of the country were met with silence in the south and west… So I think: reap now the whirlwind of your own sowing, you fools...

Then I shake my head and think of the actual people who are suffering. Young students with their bright minds and their progressive views, people like the staff of some of the media outlets, continuing to draw attention to the alienation of justice and dignity of minority groups, and hospital workers and Tuktuk drivers and delivery personnel and kadai keepers. People who had nothing to do with the outrages and the scars inflicted on my people.

I realise that my failure of compassion is part of the disease hurting Sri Lanka and that compassion is exactly the cure we need: globally, locally, familially.

And I am ashamed of myself.’

Listening to this, I think that, just as Galle Face Green has become a performative physical space for the expression of many diverse feelings and ideas, and for the airing, processing and quasi-exorcism of many long-held but suppressed sources of grief and anguish, so this period of time is a space of conceptual re-evaluation for all of us.

People seem to actually be listening to each other’s stories. There is space accorded for this, even amidst the cacophony and chaos of calls for change and the reflex suppressions they prompt. Many people are realizing for the first time how influenced they have been by the biased opinions written and presented on mainstream media public platforms.

They can see that their own fears and prejudices have been catered to, and weaponised. They are tired of being expected to unquestioningly digest and absorb negative rhetoric which otherises their fellow citizens and increases the tension and hostility of the context in which we all co-exist.
Another correspondent remarked that:

‘In Tamil it is said a village bird however high it flies it will never become an eagle. In each community, there are only a very few who have the intelligence, honesty and common sense to practice ethical conduct.’ He went on to say that non expert opinions are not worth the paper they are written on, and how disgusted and progressively disillusioned he is that modern journalism is so glib, superficial and infested with ignorance and blatant bias.

Ironically, at the same time that the diaspora communities are being jealously scrutinized by those who can’t get out of what some are calling a ‘failed state’, and being criticized as riddled with negative qualities; they are also being appealed to for financial aid. Their numbers are being counted, and it is calculated that if each immigrant sent back 100 dollars to the motherland, the nation’s debt burden would be significantly resolved.

An activist in Colombo recently observed :‘We are not just “one people” in the sense that we are a heterogenous group of people. And appreciating individual diversity is the best way to true unity.’ She pointed out that mindset reset is required: ‘Sri Lankans seem to build community by turning to homogenous mass mentalities.’

Progressing from the ‘this is not the place for you’ stance of the leaflet destroyer to inclusiveness and reconciliation involves empathy and recognition of the other person’s equivalent centre of self and value.

This is going to need not only public performance but private self-evaluation. On the part of all of us.

Friday, May 13, 2022

SWRD and The Poisoned Well Of Nationalism

Image credit: Nazly Ahmed
I was introduced to the existence of a publicly shared negative attitude towards SWRD Bandaranaike for the first time at a book launch held at Barefoot Cafe in Colombo, several years ago. The author had decided to sensitize  the assembled audience to the themes and style of her book through the dramatization of certain scenes from it. One of these scenes portrayed SWRD on his death bed, having just been shot on the verandah of his home, by a person dressed in the robes of a Buddhist monk. The actor playing this part in the dramatization used a rich, plummy British accent, which induced much merriment in the assembled self proclaimed lovers of the arts that evening. The presentation was a caricature: SWRD did not speak in such an exaggerated, upper class English accent so many years after returning from his studies in England. 

Mocking a man on his death bed could be seen as rather a crude and mannerless thing to do, and although it seemed surprisingly vulgar to me, it was in fact a good introduction to the highly personalized, irresponsible and careless way in which people’s characters are routinely assassinated in this country. 

Despite being immortalized in the form of statuary within the BMICH, and outside The Presidential Secretariat, and having the primary international airport named after him, here was a man being laughed at by a group of people decades after his death - in a way, at that time, I had not seen happening to the elected leader of any country. 

Since then, of course, we have seen the way that the 45th President of the United States was pursued by the media, who threw off any restraint or attempt to present a balanced and unbiased presentation of the surreal events in North America’s seat of power. Publications like The New Yorker became almost unreadable, because of the hatred and contempt visible in every article of its contents towards Donald Trump and his dynastic ambitions. 

But recently in Sri Lanka, on Galle Face Green, where peaceful protestors have occupied public space for the past weeks to call for the resignation of the current government, the personal disrespect shown to the current President has eclipsed anything I have ever seen or heard before. The statue of SWRD seemed to stand amazed amidst the performances of anger, revenge, accusation, contempt and grief for losses of loved ones which are taking place around his plinth. Even ritual public exorcisms are being performed to free the country of its karmic distress. 

Sri Lankan people tend to personalize their politics. And this is a national trait which I think should be re-evaluated. Why are the Bandaranaikes - and especially SWRD - blamed so much and so often for what the country has become? When it is clear by now that other leaders have acted in many ways - both overtly and covertly - that have greatly damaged and impoverished the country? 

The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 was a piece of legislation. Like any piece of legislation, it can be repealed or amended, to better reflect the wishes of the people. And it could have been repealed or amended at any time since 1956. 

For 74 years, it has not. Successive governments across the spectrum of politics have not succeeded in summoning the collective will to pass such amendments and make them law. 
At its core, the majoritarian bias of the Act, the way it excludes the Tamil language and subjugates those who speak it into secondary citizenship status, is fundamentally flawed. It has been seen as an expedient political choice, made with a short term perspective of its consequences. 

In 1959, the same year that SWRD was assassinated, parts of the ‘disastrous’ Act were reversed in a ‘Sinhala Only, Tamil Also’ attempt at amendment and greater ethnic parity, via the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act. Nearly 30 years later, in 1987, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution stated that ‘the official language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala’ while ‘Tamil shall also be an official language’ with English as a ‘link language’.

The fact that SWRD is seen as a key factor in the passing of the Act was symbolically shown in the public tying of a black blindfold around the face of the statue of him standing outside The Presidential Secretariat. Next to him, a large sign was erected, saying ‘Wake Up’, in all 3 languages: Sinhala, Tamil and English. This event occurred on April 29th, and photographs of it and comments have been circulated on social media. Social media figures have for the past several months been selectively citing only SWRD as the sole architect of the 'disastrous' Sinhala Only policy. Education is needed. 

Majoritarian politics has been played for 74 years, in bloody and terrible ways, by opportunistic people, many of whom have brazenly showed no sincere feeling for this country despite taking oaths to serve in its highest positions of responsibility. Can SWRD be solely blamed for all of this? It doesn’t really seem fair. 

It is as if we are all meeting someone in the present day, called Sri Lanka, who tells us that his or her life has been ruined forever by decisions made nearly 3/4 of a century ago, by an ancestor of theirs. They believe it when they say it to us, we can see that all the people citing the initials of the person whose government initially enacted that legislation genuinely feel injured, and there is certainly evidence that the original decision was flawed, but to allow this belief that what was done in the past has to be lived with forever and permitted to dictate the subsequent shape and direction of their life - in the present day - is a choice taken by themselves. Especially when the power now exists to reshape and redirect our lives, with greater self awareness and accountability. This of course requires effort and self reflection, taking responsibility as well as asserting our own rights. 

I would say that solely blaming actions taken in the past by other people for our own current condition is not only unjust, but disempowering and morally unintelligent. It inflicts a state of passivity and victimhood on us, and this powerlessness combined with self pity, frustration and hatred has led continually to violence in the country. Volatility is one thing, but a state of perpetual potential violence which underlies all our actions and reactions is toxic and dangerous. Scapegoating and blaming of others is avoidance of direct accountability. Suggesting lynching through visual symbolism links this peaceful protest with degraded politics the world over. 

SWRD is a name which is associated with ad hominem attacks. People foam at the mouth when his family name is mentioned, making assumptions often without investigating the facts of what has actually been said or done, and he himself is spoken of as if this one piece of legislation was the sum total of his life’s contribution. The focus is on the person, or what people think they know of the person, and not on the crucial systemic issues of governance. 

If we want better governance, in 2022, we should as a people educate ourselves to govern our own - often manipulated - impulses on the one hand to elevate and worship our leaders, and on the other to denigrate them and drag them in the dust. Why not wake from our extremist stupor and interrogate the myths with which we have comforted ourselves through the devastations inflicted by multiple colonization? Why not make the decision that it’s just not only ‘Sinhala Only’ any more? And make space for the co-existence of other citizens with equivalent centres of self?

This piece of legislation was fractured, and it has resulted in a skewed and deformed system which badly needs reform. It has not been changed until now because - clearly - many people have profited in the past from the way things were. 

High literacy rates are praised in Sri Lanka, but it is literacy in a language the majority of the world does not speak or understand. Keeping English only as a link language would have enabled what operated as walls to become bridges. But giving equal status to Tamil from the start would have really decolonized the country and given us a foundation on which to build a resplendent and vibrant nation. 

Our wells have been poisoned. We have been encouraged to personalize our politics, and to indulge in decrying each other too easily. Our tendency to stereotype each other out of ignorance and laziness has been used against us. Ad hominem arguments are fallacies, and they dominate in the world of social media because they are highly dramatic, and performative and crowd pleasing. When media figures do it: Eg ‘I got real questions’ - it gets high social media traction for little effort - the opposite of fearless journalism or objective commentary. We need to consciously dismantle these insidious dynamics that have set us against each other. To do so will be a true exorcism of what has bedevilled us for so long. 

In that context, it’s really important that the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New year rituals of boiling the milk and asking for blessing and prosperity were publicly performed in the protest space. Singing the national anthem in Sinhala was an important part of asserting the patriotism and national pride of the protestors, who from the start of the protests in March have refused to be portrayed as marginalized and lawless rebels. The Tamil version of the National anthem should also have been sung, and was - on the next day. 

The events of May 9th, when these peaceful protestors found their tents - including those housing Legal Aid, medical supplies and the GotagoGama Library - attacked and damaged by a group of violent thugs, have shown what an irritation their continued request for effective governance has been. 

It is not only external forces they have to contend with, but internal cultural conditioning, which has unfortunately promoted division and segregation, and the frustrations and distortions of mind and spirit which trying to survive and create a life in a broken societal structure brings with it. 

It is not too late. 75 years after the legislation was passed, it can be amended. In 26 years, in 2048, 100 years after Independence, if we act now we could see that the mechanism of an inadequate partial independence was eventually taken down because it simply wasn’t satisfactory. After all the pain and anguish caused by that wrong and long upheld decision has finally been openly expressed and acknowledged, it is a problem to solve: a simultaneous equation, with a simple and elegant solution. No hierarchies. No imagined or assumed superiority or inferiority. A rich and inclusive diversity, represented by Ministers of the State whose primary goal is actually to serve the citizens of the country - and not themselves and their families. 
Image credit: Nazly Ahmed
 
I am informed that 90% of the protestors are Sinhala language speakers, and from non-elite backgrounds. What has been happening organically in the people’s peaceful protests directly challenges the official narrative. That is why I would suggest that the focus of the movement should be on creation rather than destruction: the demand for just and effective structures and processes of governance, rather than overthrowing regimes or revenge and retribution against individuals. 

Allegations of corruption may be difficult to prove, and called ‘baseless’, as they will involve the uncovering of sophisticated instances of intimidation, bribery, threats and cronyism which will be in the interests of the perpetrators to diminish and deny. 

The additional challenge is the Sri Lankan appetite for spice - in their news, gossip and scandal as well as their food. They add curry to everything, even bolognaise sauce and roast chicken rub. For example, in a widely shared and approved Facebook post recently, I saw cited as fact an inaccurate anecdote about SWRD. 

On Sunday, April 17th, a month ago, it was stated: 

 ‘When SWRD declared “Sinhala Only” in 1956, he was asked “ What about the Burghers, how will they cope?” Banda famously replied “Well they can Burgher off”. And they did! They never stood up and protested, because NO ONE ELSE STOOD WITH THEM. They were on their own, and so they all left in droves, depriving this country of their awesome culture, music, education, traditions, food. What a loss for Sri Lanka!’

This callous jibe which operates to further denigrate the former PM reminds me of the quotation falsely ascribed to Marie Antoinette, that the starving poor of France could not afford bread, so ‘let them eat cake’. 

In fact, SWRD was quoting. 

The phrase ‘Burghering off to Australia’ is the last line of a play titled ‘Fifty-Fifty’, written by the Sri Lankan playwright H.C.N. de Lanerolle, and it is spoken by the character Dionysus  Sumanasekare, whose initials ‘D.S.’ have generally been read as an allusion to Mr. D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. 

This was noted in an article by Wilfred Jayasuriya titled ‘Merging Literature and History’ which was published in The Sunday Observer on 20th September, 2009. In the context of the ‘Fifty-Fifty’ political debate which was current in the buildup to the drafting of the legislation, the character Dionysus asserts that he is even willing to give 100 percent representation in the State Council to minorities. Sumanasekere was thus presenting the ongoing debate about minority representation in dramatic form. 

Anyone who used the term ‘Burghering Off’ after 1948 in Ceylon was re-phrasing in local and contemporary terms an expression that was habitually used by men in England and the Commonwealth countries of that era. 

To be unaware of this cultural context is to enable the scapegoating and disproportionate blaming of SWRD for legislation which he himself tried to amend in his lifetime. When the statue of SWRD was blindfolded a few weeks ago, comments were made on social media by a number of activists and media figures which singled him out as the sole cause of all Sri Lanka’s political troubles and ethnic tensions for the past 7 decades. 

A commentator on Twitter stated that The Sinhala Only Act was ‘the first step towards an inward looking nationalistic Sri Lanka that drove minorities away... Much of them were highly qualified public sector professionals who went on to build great lives in the West.’ 

Another activist posted photographs of a man in a sarong standing on the shoulders of the statue in the act of blindfolding it, and called SWRD ‘responsible for the disastrous Sinhala Only Act that set this + most of our recent history, in motion.’ 

Another activist, posting similar photographs of the same event, and calling SWRD  ‘Bloody Banda’ declared: ‘Perhaps a noose would have been more apt for a man whose racist actions paved the way to brutal Tamil pogroms and a 30 year war!’ 

In October 1957, after a month of self serving pro-nationalistic publicity, J.R. Jayewardene undertook a 72-mile march from Colombo to Kandy to publicly oppose the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact. Various dramatic performances were intended to be staged to invoke Buddhist blessings at the sacred Temple Of The Tooth and to invite divine retribution against those seeking to make provision for the minorities through that Pact. 

This was performative Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, designed to raise public opposition to the creation of regional councils, and brazenly playing the racist majoritarian nationalistic card for political gain. This card was not played by SWRD, but by Jayewardene and Senanayake, who headed the procession, and who later brought crowds of people to protest at Tintagel, SWRD’s private home in Colombo. 

In 2022, to accuse SWRD for ‘creating the strategy that every Sri Lankan government has since used to their benefit’ is to be either ignorant or careless of the other significant political agents who impacted the legislation. 

Before scapegoating one man - which is easy to do but unjust, and inaccurate - commentators should research the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact, and see what was actually included in that important agreement by SWRD, prior to the passing of the ‘disastrous Sinhala Only Act’. His own later attempts to pass legislation to bring into effect what had been lost by the deletion of the Pact were constantly opposed by nationalists who did not want concessions to minorities being made. 

At many stages along the journey towards full sovereignty and inclusive nationalism, mistakes and mis-steps were made, and could have been amended. At this juncture, while looking at how we have reached this point, it would be wise not to blindfold ourselves to the real complexities of the issues which have brought us here. Simplification is an easy way out; and short term, stop gap facile assumptions, and reflex biased stereotyping of others are not going to serve any of us well, today. 

Does racism symbolically reside in a piece of statuary? Or in a piece of legislation? Or is it enshrined in the human heart and mind, toxically attached to inherited and unquestioned notions of nationalism?
If we externalise and project it onto one person who is supposed to carry the sins of an entire race - does that free us or exonerate us collectively from our own failings? 

We don’t have to look far to access another way of viewing SWRD Bandaranaike. In the open access resource of Wikipedia, we are told that ‘Amid the growing opposition to the pact, Prime Minister Bandaranaike continued his efforts to convince the people of the country that it was the best solution to the communal problems of the country. He equated the pact to the Middle Way doctrine of Buddhism. However the (extremist nationalist) demonstrations continued, and came to a head on April 9, 1958, when approximately 100 Buddhist monks and 300 other people staged a protest on the lawn of Bandaranaike’s Rosemead Place residence.’ 

That lawn is paved over now, and the residence is a boutique hotel. Not even a placard commemorates the place where SWRD was assassinated. 

If we want to see the truth of our complex history, we need to not only to wake up but to open our own eyes and see things as they are, and not the way we have been told they are, or may prefer them to be. 

Applying logic and scepticism to an emotive issue is not easy, but it is necessary. SWRD died before The Sinhala Only Act could be amended and in his absence he is an easy target to hang it on. But plenty of people endorsed it, and profited from it. 

I believe a closer look at the prevailing context in which the Act was drafted and made into law will challenge the view of SWRD as the sole person responsible for all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions, and the uncaring architect of all our suffering.  At this stage, we need to develop the capacity to form a more complex and composite view of life, including history - both political and personal. Black and white thinking, lifting up heroes one minute and destroying villains the next is childlike. Simplified versions of history and politics will not accurately represent or help us effectively navigate the reality we experience as we finally develop maturity and sovereignty as a nation.



Nothing But Blue Skies

Image credit: Tara Gooneratne


A long time ago, nearly a quarter of a century, now, I visited Iceland, during the brief summer, a place and time where the sun never sets. The blurring of times of day created a strange effect, as if tightly scrolled emotions and thoughts were intensely opening out, prompted by the lengthening of the day and the radiant sun, filtered through the blinds specifically used at this time of year.

One such approximate afternoon, I fell half asleep and had a waking dream. I dreamed that a young woman found herself positioned on a rock at the top of a waterfall. The water was icy cold, its source being a melting glacier. And the young woman had to stand on the rock, and not move, keeping her balance, while the icy water flowed around her, and through her. She tested this, from time to time by moving a little, but the thundering force of the water made her realise her bones would break if she endured it too long, so she kept returning to the original position aligned on what seemed to be the prow of the rock.

As she stood, suspended, she slowly felt less pain. And she gradually turned blue: first pale blue, then aquamarine, then eventually a vivid and vibrant blue. And then I woke up. The waterfall, when I described this dream to my Icelandic friend, was Gullfoss, a landmark I had not yet visited, and the place in which the girl was standing was known in legends, according to my friend, as the abode of the gods.

Iceland is a vivid, still forming country, seething with energy. The extremes of its landscape soothed me, and indicated the wisdom of finding equilibrium and equanimity. It showed me that history is always in the making, both personally and politically. How much geography and geology and climate shape the everyday choices and challenges we make and face.

In the years since that dream, I’ve recalled it at different times and attempted to apply it to the shape of unfolding events in my life. Was I the girl that turned blue? If not, how could I hear and feel the huge torrent of icy water that poured over that edge? What was the icy torrent that the girl had to learn how to endure? What did it symbolize?

Now I’m in a different torrential time: in Sri Lanka, 7 degrees North of the Equator, having in the past 3 years undergone terror attacks, the pandemic and now undergoing a people’s Revolution. I live in the mountains, far from the strife of the City, and there are a lot of small waterfalls near my home.

The country is volatile and shifting under my feet: not geographically but sociopolitically. So much unresolved pain, so much karmic stress, paper thin reconciliation over the wounds from a thirty year civil war, from the demonic manipulations of successive generations of politicians, so much wasted plenty, so much beauty and grief, imperfectly blended and crudely infused.

I never thought I would make it this far, to be clear. So much has happened, like a torrent of loss and grief and shock, interspersed with stabs of joy and spaces of solace. How is it possible to make sense of these disparate and dissonant threads, woven into one cloth of personal history?

I remember seeing the girl in the dream, and wondering how she was able to keep her balance. I knew while watching the sequence that it was always her choice. And something about the water and the sky made me feel that she was connecting different elemental aspects together, through her conscious decision, made and remade anew, to stay standing on the rock: earth and water and air were aligned by her act of will. It was always her choice.

She was not a Disney heroine: her hair did not fly back behind her neatly like a banner. There was no young man to say ‘Close your eyes and trust me’, as Rose did in ‘Titanic’, as he put his arms round her waist and urged her to outstretch her arms, like a wing span, at the moment of sunset, short sweet hours before the iceberg hit the vessel in which they were journeying.

I came downstairs and told my friend my dream, and he said that the colour blue was the colour of divinity in Hindu and Catholic art: the flowing locks of Krishna, and the mantle of Our Lady, who took upon herself the mysteries of the world, and pondered them in her heart.

I think perhaps the message to me is that everything that I have felt to be unendurable at the time, specifically excruciating and about to overthrow and undo me, was something to which, looking back from my vantage point today, I have - over time - managed to adjust.

Even the day the tsunami hit, Boxing Day of 2004, my mother and I were visiting her old teachers for morning tea, with an iced coffee cake, and noticed that the tide had gone out very far, and there had been an earthquake in Indonesia. I remembered my Year 10 geography classes, and then how we had been warned how to evacuate when bush fires raged through Sydney, and said that we needed to get all the important documents and photos that could not be replaced, and leave for higher ground, now. Right now! It wasn’t easy to convince the old couple, and my mother said she couldn’t leave them. I told her: You are making the wrong choice. It was a high water mark for us.

As it turned out, the salt water only came into their garden that day, and did not undermine and overthrow their little house. We got to higher ground.

The day the Easter Attacks hit, I hadn’t gone to Church, even though I’m a member of the Cathedral Choir. Because I was behind on some editing work I had promised to do. Deadlines have often kept me on track, although I scrape and protest ungratefully against them.

The young woman in my dream on the rock in the waterfall in Iceland tested the waters, and adjusted to the situation. She did not fly or run or melt away. And by staying, she transformed, and in a sense accessed something divine within her.

My friend gave me several books on Iceland, and although I never learned the language and could not read the sagas in the original runes, I could read the story told by the illustrations. He gave me my rune, Wunjo, the blossom bearing branch, as a pendant or a key ring made from pewter. And he gave me the English translation of the best known Icelandic novel: ‘Independent People’.

The word ‘Independent’ in Icelandic means ‘Standing upright, unassisted, unsupported, in one’s own strength’. It means sovereignty.

And in the first few pages of the book, a phrase shone out at me, splendid with specific meaning: ‘The sun today is stronger than history’.