Recently I’ve begun to notice once more a particular sort of post cropping up on my Facebook timeline, most often posted, “liked”, or shared by one of my FB friends. Almost all of these posts are by Sri Lankan Muslims (most of my Muslim friends are Sri Lankan); almost, I say, because the rest are by non-Muslim social workers or activists who are generally anyway more interested in this particular topic than most. The event that seems to have sparked this flurry of posts is the ongoing escalation of the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians.
The posts are almost exclusively of a religious bent, lamenting the fate of Palestinian Muslims being brutally attacked (or ignored) by non-Muslims and calling on God to protect these people in particular, and Muslims all over the world in general. Earlier this year, and at various times last year, there was a storm of similar posts about Muslims in Syria. Of course, there were also posts about Aluthgama, but that is hardly something unusual since it was an event right here in Sri Lanka.
Now, I’m not going to get into the circumstances of what’s happening in Palestine and Syria; who is right or wrong, the three dead Israeli children, the fact that a significant minority of Palestinians are Christian, or that a lot of the killing being done in Syria is in fact by Muslims themselves. I have my own views on both conflicts (as do most of the people posting), but they are irrelevant to this post. One thing that is clear is that none of us really know much about what’s going on over there and aren’t really interested. So why are my Muslim friends posting about it?
A few years ago, it wasn’t unusual for Muslims in Colombo and elsewhere in Sri Lanka to be out on the streets in protest, or picketing a western embassy, whenever the US invaded Iraq or Afghanistan or bombed Libya or something like that. This has completely stopped of late, which is understandable given the threat Muslims face right here in the country; Sri Lankan Muslims no longer feel safe enough to show solidarity with other Muslims. Clearly, however, that isn’t true on the internet, and Sri Lankan Muslims feel more at ease giving their opinions and protesting certain things without the actual physical danger they would face on the street from nutjobs like the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS).
Clearly, Sri Lankan Muslims don’t like the fact that other Muslims are being harmed. But they are more incensed by the fact that these people being endangered are Muslim than that they are Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, or whatever. We don’t see the same level of outrage when Muslims like Saddam Hussein kill Kuwaiti Muslims, or when Hizbollah or Islamic Jihad kill Israeli children, or when the Saudis execute Sri Lankan Muslims. Clearly, Sri Lankan Muslims identify with other Muslims worldwide, but mostly when they are in conflict with, or under attack by, non-Muslims.
So I think it is safe to say that Sri Lankan Muslims are identifying with the Muslimness of those people rather than the circumstances they find themselves in. I find this a bit annoying because it reminds me of the knee-jerk reactions of Tamils in Toronto and London who allowed their Tamilness to overrule other considerations. Sri Lankan Tamils in the diaspora certainly felt more Tamil than Canadian or British, and that led to their protests about what was happening in Sri Lanka. So do Muslims feel the same? Do they identify with a global Islam that has a stronger identity than that of being Sri Lankan? Certainly, Sri Lankan Christians (I mention them simply because they are the only other Sri Lankan ethnicity with a global presence) don’t view conflicts around the world through a religious lens or, if they do, identify enough with those warring parties to take any action. There were no Christian protests about the Yugoslavian conflict, or various wars in Africa. You don’t see Christian protests outside Arab embassies when an Islamic terror group targets a western (Christian) country.
Now, I want to ask my Muslim friends whether you realize that what you are doing is setting yourselves apart in the eyes of other Sri Lankans; it is making us feel as if you are more interested in what is happening on the other side of the world than what is happening right here; that you are immersed insomething the rest of Sri Lanka is not. At a time when it is important for Sri Lankan Muslims to reinforce their Sri Lankanness, and avoid being labelled outsiders, is this what you should be doing? Or do you feel that your solidarity with Muslims worldwide is more important, more identifying, than your Sri Lankanness? I’m not making a judgement here or suggesting what you are doing is right or wrong; I am simply looking for answers. I hope to hear from you soon. Thanks for reading.
The Sunday Times quotes the Prisons Department spokesman as saying that a new title is being sought to replace that of “hangman” as the negative connotations of the current title of the post is putting off applicants for the vacant spot. I have helpfully made up a list of possible designations for this job; feel free to add to it:
Life Terminations Officer
Permanent Citizenship Revocation Manager
Life Executive Officer, Prisons Department
Director of Lifestyle Suppression
Chief Operations Officer, Executions & Terminations
Terminal Penalties Officer
And my personal favourite: Director of the Division of Ultimate Solutions
You said I could preach Ahimsa after the war was over.
So I did as you asked.
I killed them all
For your Dharmishta Society.
Where is the Ahimsa
The One Plate Project is an initiative by Yamu and ad agency JWT to create a uniquely Sri Lankan practice online. During most religious and cultural celebrations such as the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, Ramazan, Thai Pongal, and Christmas, people of all ethnicities look forward to the celebrations, regardless of whether that particular festival is one relevant to one’s community or not. And there’s one simple irreligious reason for that — Sri Lankans love food. As a Christian Burgher, I look forward to Avurudhu and Ramazan almost as much as I do to Christmas because I know there’s going to be a load of great Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim food coming my way from the neighbours.
In multi-ethnic neighbourhoods — mostly in Sri Lanka’s bigger cities, it is considered a common — and neighbourly — practice to send your neighbours — especially those from other communities — a plate of food if you’re celebrating something. So at Ramazan, some biryani and wattalappam is pretty much guaranteed; sweets and milk rice will be loaded onto a plate for Avurudhu; and at Christmas, thick wedges of breudher are piled onto plates and dispatched to the neighbours. Everyone gets to enjoy everyone else’s party. What makes this doubly cool is the fact that no one wants to return an empty plate to its owner, so usually there’s a frantic scramble to find something tasty to fill that plate for its return journey.
This is precisely the experience the One Plate Project replicates in a virtual neighbourhood. Hosted on Anything.lk this Avurudhu, the project allows you the chance to buy a plate of food — ideally one belonging to your community — and have it delivered with a personal greeting to a random person from another community. In return, you yourself will receive a surprise plate of food from some other neighbourly stranger off the net. How it works is that one selects one of four plates, each belonging to one of the four major ethnic communities of Sri Lanka — Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, and Burgher — and pay for it. All plates are priced the same at Rs 500. That’s it. Your address will be saved on the site, and on delivery day you’ll receive something in return.
The project was launched by Yamu and JWT this New Year, and is planned to run throughout all the major festivals for a full year, culminating next year with the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. To simplify matters, the organisers have decided to stick to just sweets for now which are less perishable and therefore easier to deliver. They have also restricted the project to Colombo for now, but if all goes well we’re likely to see both the menu and the areas expand rapidly over the next year. For now, the Sinhalese plate consists of aasme, konde kevum, kokis, and thala karali; the Tamil plate has jelebi, rava laddu, sweet murukku, and boondi; the Muslim plate is actually a bowl of legendary watalappam; and the Burgher plate gives you the equally famous breudher.
Speaking to me, Indi Samarajeeva, one of the owners of Yamu, said that the “One Plate [Project] is an experiment to see if online food sharing can help bridge divides between communities. Sri Lankans traditionally share food at holidays with their neighbors. One Plate is an attempt to extend that behavior online.” At a time when Sri Lanka has been experiencing a new wave of ethnic tension, Indi went on to say, “We hope that people will take the chance to do something concrete to promote fraternity and goodwill among all the communities of Sri Lanka.”
I think every generation faces its own particular challenges; but the greatest and most defining ones are those of morality and courage. That moment, if missed, condemns that generation — and often many that follow — to a world far more unpleasant and evil than we would wish it to be. For many in the free world of the late 1930s, that moment came with the invasion of Poland and the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It was a moment when my grandfather’s generation had to decide if they would simply stand on the sidelines or go out and fight someone else’s cause. Fortunately for them, the choice was easy; their respective governments took the right fork, and millions of young men — my grandfather included — went out into the deserts, the jungles, and across the seas to ensure that tyranny and racism would not shape our world. For 1960s America, the moment of destiny was in fact a place — Vietnam — and a moral choice. America made its decision, albeit a little late for millions of Vietnamese.
But when that hour of destiny arrived thirty years ago in Sri Lanka, our parents’ generation failed us. For decades, they had watched as extremist rhetoric leveled at the Tamil community gave way to physical violence. They stood by as our constitution was changed to remove any protection the minorities had a right to under law. They were silent when the nation’s leadership was silent on the racism and hatred that was all around them. They did nothing when their elected politicians in fact helped instigate the violence that climaxed in the orgy of assault, murder, rape, and destruction now known as Black July. For thirty years we have wondered how our parents could have been so docile, so shortsighted, so wrong in their choices. We have watched our country torn apart by suicide bombers and child soldiers, by tanks and artillery. We have watched a hundred thousand die, because our parents didn’t say “stop!”
Thirty years later, the clock is back at five minutes to midnight; racists are calling for violence, for this country to be only for Sinhalese Buddhists. They are calling for a tiny minority to change their lifestyles or leave; they are calling for their right to worship to be curbed. And they are threatening violence if their demands are not met. Our government is at best silent; at worst in collusion. Our police force is standing by while Muslims are attacked. There are no arrests. There is no condemnation. There is no justice.
The last time this happened, I was eleven years old; an uncomprehending child. I grew up to wonder why my father who could ride a motorcycle through a wall of fire to get me home that July, hadn’t been able to stop what was done to the Tamils and to my country. Was he scared? Didn’t he care? I ask the same questions from myself today. Why am I doing nothing as my country heads towards the flames again. I ask it of my friends — especially the Buddhists — my colleagues, my girlfriend. None of you are racists, I think. None of you believe that Muslims must be persecuted and harassed. Why are you not speaking out? Why are you not protesting? What will it take? Or is there nothing that will drive us out of our homes and on to the streets to brave the thugs and the tear gas, the water cannon and the bullets? Have we no fucking shame?
I feel ashamed right now; ashamed of my government; ashamed of my friends; ashamed of my country. More than anything, I am ashamed of myself. I have never felt this way about my country, and I never thought I would, but I feel it now. And I hate feeling this way. In the worst of the war, I told myself that it wasn’t my fault; that I hadn’t chosen this war to fight. But this is now. This is me. This is us. This is our country and our moment of destiny is here. Why are we doing nothing?
Unfortunately, much of history is written by journalists. And Gota’s War is no different. If you’re looking for a military history of Sri Lanka’s war, this is not the book for you. In fact, that book has yet to be written. CA Chandraprema looks at the conflict through the lens of the media — the incidents and events that drew the newspaperman’s eye; albeit a rather right-of-centre Sinhalese nationalist newspaperman. Make no mistake, this is an important book; if for no other reason than that it is the first since the end of the war to cover the conflict in its entirety.
Chandraprema’s use of Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s truncated name in the title, and the description, The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, is slightly misleading, giving the impression that the book is simply about the Defense Secretary’s role in the final few years of the war. In fact, what Chandraprema does is to use Gotabhaya as both a counterpoint and a parallel to the narrative, particularly in the early stages of the war, when Gotabhaya was a young SL Army officer. Gota’s War is both history and biography, but it is not a natural coupling, and Chandraprema’s attempt to do both in one piece, cripples the scope of the book as a historical work.
In order to keep Gotabhaya central to the narrative, Chandraprema is forced to keep the trench-level view of the war narrow, while looking at some events – the JVP uprisings, the political infighting between the Rajapakses and their opponents – with a detail that is superfluous to the war against the Tamil separatists. Naturally, because of this, the early military confrontations between the Armed Forces and the separatists is confined to descriptions of operations carried out by the Gajaba Regiment, the unit Gotabhaya served most of his military career with. Similarly, this focus on Gotabhaya naturally prevents him examining some of the other influential characters that a true history should have. This is particularly clear in the almost non-existence of Gen Sarath Fonseka in Gota’s War. When he does make a rare appearance, he is depicted, at best, to be a rather passive figure and, often, as a hindrance to the dynamic and practical defense secretary. Fonseka, in Chandraprema’s view, is a Montgomery to Gotabhaya’s Patton, plodding and rigid, petty and selfish. In this, the author has done both Fonseka and his book a great disservice, and is akin to writing the history of the Second World War and leaving out Eisenhower or MacArthur. Similarly, many of the other military officers examined – senior to Gotabhaya the soldier and subordinate to Gotabhaya the defense secretary – are largely those who had the most influence on him. While this is acceptable in a biography, it is certainly not in a history.
The converse of this is that Gotabhaya often disappears from the narrative for long periods, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when his character isn’t central to events. We have very little indication of Gotabhaya’s personality, or the motivations that drove him; almost nothing of Gotabhaya Rajapakse the man; beyond the most superficial of sketches. This too is a deep flaw in Chandraprema’s book. At the end of Gota’s War, we know hardly more of the defense secretary than we knew at the beginning.
Chandraprema has also come under criticism, both from within the SL Army and without, for playing favourites in his book; for focusing on the feats of certain military officers, unfairly criticizing others, and completely ignoring still others. I will not dwell on this because every author has his own slant and viewpoint, and is entitled to it. To examine motive would be to review CA Chandraprema rather than his writing, and that is not the point of this article. I have mentioned the treatment of Fonseka simply because it is so glaring and obvious a failing.
One thing Chandraprema can be certainly complimented on is his writing style. Gota’s War is 504 pages long, and looks rather daunting when first picked up. However, it is very readable even if you’re not a history buff. The prose is smooth and conversational, the chapters no more than half a dozen pages in length, as fast paced as a novel, and devoid of the stuffiness, cliché, and archaic language many Sri Lankan authors of histories and memoirs feel obliged to write in. Chandraprema even manages to infuse a certain amount of sardonic humour to his writing. The book is solidly bound, and the cover is attractive, if rather unimaginative. The book could do with some better maps, however, in place of the hand-drawn ones at the back, which give no indication of the frontlines, the Tiger- and government-held areas, or the direction of offensives described by Chandraprema. Continue reading
In June 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed a panel to investigate and and advise him on the possibility of large scale human rights violations in the closing stages of the war in Sri Lanka, primarily in the first quarter of 2009. This was done close on the heels of the UN Human Rights Council’s rejection of a call by advocacy groups for a full-scale international investigation. Ban appointed his Special Rights Investigator to North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, as the panel’s chair and, in April 2011, the panel released its report. This report has been variously viewed by the different parties. At one end of the spectrum it is seen as totally biased and unfair by the government of Sri Lanka, and at the other end as proof of genocide by the Tamil nationalists. Somewhere in the middle, most balanced observers have seen it as a scathing indictment against both the victorious Sri Lankan military and the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Certain international advocacy groups such as Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, and Human Rights Watch, then immediately mounted a media campaign accusing the GoSL of war crimes, and one particularly contentious issue is that in this campaign, the panel’s use of the phrase “credible allegation” has been replaced by that of “credible evidence”, giving the impression that the panel has evidence of war crimes committed by the GoSL. The recently aired Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, opens with this lie.
In reality, the panel uses the phrase only twice; in the positive, saying that it had credible evidence that superiors in the Sri Lankan chain of command were responsible for any violations committed by their subordinates; and in the negative, claiming to have no credible evidence of the LTTE’s use of human shields. Everywhere else, the term used is that of credible allegations. At no point does the Darusman Report reveal what evidence it examined, which portions were deemed credible, and which portions were rejected. Nor does it explain how an allegation was deemed credible, and whether this credibility was based on actual evidence, eyewitness testimony, or both. In spite of this, legal minds contend that credible evidence is necessary for an allegation to be termed credible, though it is unclear as to how the Darusman panel adjudged credibility.
Let’s take the statement by the panel that they cannot find credible evidence of the Tigers using civilians as human shields. This is what the report says:
“…With respect to the credible allegations of the LTTE’s refusal to allow civilians to leave the combat zone, the Panel believes that these actions did not, in law, amount to the use of human shields insofar as it did not find credible evidence of the LTTE deliberately moving civilians towards military targets to protect the latter from attacks as is required by the customary definition of that war crime (Rule 97, ICRC Study).”
Rule 97 of the Customary International Humanitarian Law, as set out by the ICRC, prohibits the use of human shields, and is based on a number of customary practices, international conventions, military manuals, and state laws which are cited in support of Rule 97.
Now, given that in addition to eyewitness testimonies to the fact, there exists video footage shot by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of the Sri Lanka Air Force which clearly show violations of Rule 97, the Darusman report seems to fly in the face of the actual evidence. Continue reading
Two weeks ago, Reporters sans frontières (RSF), on the instigation of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), called for a boycott of the fifth Galle Literary Festival. They sent a petition around, and Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy signed up. So did a bunch of other idiots. In it, they called on international authors who had agreed to travel to Sri Lanka to abort their journeys, claiming that it was wrong for literature to be celebrated in a country that killed its journalists. Three authors did; South African Commonwealth Writers Prize winner Damon Galgut, Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, and Indian Man Booker winner Kiran Desai. The rest came.
It’s wrong to do many things in a country that kills its journalists. It’s wrong to laugh, it’s wrong to be happy, it’s wrong to have celebrations of any sort. Christmas, Avurudhu, and Valentine’s should be boycotted. But what is right is to celebrate literature. How could the RSF and JDS get this so wrong?
Supporters of the boycott variously claim that the Galle Literary Festival has failed to speak out against the Big Bad Wolf from Madamulana who likes to eat journalists for lunch. Him and his wolfpack of brothers. They say that participants at the festival haven’t done their bit to call attention to the disappearance of cartoonist and columnist Pradeep Eknaligoda, or the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunge, or even the killing of that Tiger, Dharmaratnam Sivaram. Last June, Sri Lanka hosted the International Surfing Association’s Pro 2010 event at Arugam Bay on the island’s east coast, in an area once dominated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Well, to paraphrase Colonel Kilgore, Tiger don’t surf, and he’s history now. Over a hundred and twenty international competitors from New Zealand to Germany and from the USA to South Africa participated. No one boycotted that. Next month sees the start of the Cricket World Cup, with Sri Lanka hosting several matches which will be watched by at least a billion fans worldwide. No one has boycotted that either. Perhaps the RSF and JDS think that surfers and cricket fans are too dumb to care about media rights. Continue reading
On Wednesday 8th December, 2010, the Government of Sri Lanka decided to do away with the Tamil language version of the country’s national anthem. The decision was made at the first cabinet meeting to be held since President Mahinda Rajapakse’s return from the Oxford Union fiasco. The unfortunate decision itself, as well as the timing of it, has resulted in much speculation as to whether it is an act of revenge for the British Tamil diaspora’s recent machinations.
The decision clearly isn’t grounded in any factual concerns — those voiced range from the inaccurate (no other national anthem is sung in more than one language — MR) to the absurd (India with 300 languages has a Hindi national anthem — Wimal Weerawanse). It is not surprising that Weerawanse, a man who was once hilariously unaware that The Old Man and the Sea was written by Ernest Hemingway and not Guy de Maupassant would be ignorant of the fact that the Indian national anthem is in Bengali, but I am surprised that President Rajapakse is unaware that nations such as South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand (amongst others) have multi-lingual anthems. What makes Weerawanse’s statement ridiculous, is that while it may not be possible to incorporate 300 languages into one anthem, it’s pretty simple to do so with two.
Excuses aside, there doesn’t seem to be any necessity to make this change. Traditionally, the Sinhalese version of the anthem is sung in Sinhalese-majority areas, and the Tamil one in Tamil-majority areas. There is an English version apparently, which I’ve never ever heard sung and which looks a bit cheesy, to be honest, when written down. Many Christian churches conducting services around Independence Day usually opt for WS Senior’s beautiful Hymn for Ceylon instead, set to music by Deva Suriya Sena. If the GoSL felt a need for some sort of standardization, the sensible (and sensitive) option would have been to have a verse in each of the official languages, with the majority language sung first, depending on the area. Continue reading
There’s been a lot of discussion and drama around the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel on Sri Lanka, it’s validity, necessity, and legality. These have ranged from newspaper editorials to street farce. Rather than adding my own narrative to this, I thought I’d reproduce some of the conversations that have been taking place online. This particular one emerged in the comment thread of one of Indi’s posts on the matter, and amongst other things, discusses Star Trek. The debate can be seen in whole on that blog, but I’ve just selected a portion of it that I think highlights some of the viewpoints, as well as a lot of the fallacies. It often gets off the topic, but in order to avoid being accused of manipulation, I haven’t edited any of the comments.
Mahinda: This whole mess was created by our dearly beloved Mahinda & Co. in the run up to the Presidential Elections.
Our General (who has a bit of a bad habit of speaking his mind sometimes, even when it may not be appropriate) mentioned to Indi’s boss, the Jansz woman, that he had information that our friend Gota issued a silly order to a certain Major General to “shoot any LTTE personnel, even if they were trying to surrender waving white flags”. The General went on to add that no such thing occurred on the ground, and that he himself took responsibility for actions of the Sri Lankan Army during the final stages of the war, as the serving Commander of the Army. I think the General was just getting involved in a spot of character assassination here, and to try and show the public what sort of man our Gota is, in his opinion. Our Frederica immediately got extremely wet, sensing an opportunity to flog a few more copies of her rag with a controversial exclusive. She wrote and published her infamous story, presumably omitting bits she felt would have lessened the impact of the controversy. The General and his media team, understandably upset, issued a correction, stressing that the General was certain, as a Commander who had direct contact and control with and over troops on the ground, that no acts in contravention of the Geneva Convention were committed by the SL Army. Frederica made some noises to the effect that she had a tape recording of the interview and that he actually said war crimes had been committed, but seeing as she has failed to produce the said tape, I suppose we can write this off as a little white lie.
Philip Alston also got wind of the Jansz woman’s controversial article, and was obliged to contact the Sri Lanka Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights regarding the article. The Secretary of the said Ministry at the time, (who was, unusually for a Secretary to a Sri Lankan Ministry, an Oxbridge educated, presumably intelligent man) promptly replied to Alston saying that the article was erroneously published and that the General had issued a correction claiming that no one waving a white flag trying to surrender was shot by SL Army troops.
However, Team Mahinda & Co. had other ideas-they retracted the reaction of the Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management (which would have solved the whole problem) and turned the issue into a political drama to dupe the easily fooled masses. They even went as far to publish full page ad’s of a noose with the caption “don’t vote in the man who will send our brave soldiers to the gallows”. And lo and behold, the highest ranked serving Officer in the history of the SL Army, the man credited with ending the war, became a traitor who betrayed the country (this was similar to the process by which Ranil, the man who convinced Karuna to defect along with his eastern LTTE types, which weakened and lead to the defeat of the LTTE, became a “deshadrohiya”). Continue reading