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In recognizing the role of the Tamil diaspora in propagating the idea that the Sri Lankan government is guilty of War Crimes, we must also recognize the rationale behind their stratagem. And to some extent, though we need to combat their falsehoods, understanding should lead to some measure at least of forgiveness, since they certainly suffered much in the eighties. It is as much our responsibility to disabuse them of the notion that nothing has changed since then, as it is theirs to get rid of an outdated mindset that has done so much damage to the Tamil people left in Sri Lanka, abandoned as they were for so long to the rapacious Tigers.
With regard to the mainstream Sri Lankan political opposition however, forgiveness is less easy, because their stratagem has been based not on suffering and bitterness but rather on laziness and greed. A few years back they seem to have concluded that trying to persuade the Sri Lankan people to bring them back to power democratically was not possible. They decided then that they had to rely on what they think of as the international community to bring down the elected government, so that they could take its place.
An element of self-indulgence will doubtless be suspected in the last couple of writers I shall include in this series, though I feel there are good reasons for including them. In the first place, they represent genres that are a significant part of English letters, in the one case travel, in the other history. Secondly, they have interesting literary connections, of different sorts, and also exemplify factors I have found recurring again and again in the biographies of the writers I have included in the series.
To begin with Gerald Durrell, he belonged to what used to be termed an Anglo-Indian family. In the old sense that meant Britishers who worked in India. The same was true of George Orwell (who like Durrell was born in India) and Terence Rattigan and of course Kipling. Writers who spent time in India, many of them writing about the country, included Forster and Simon Raven and Paul Scott and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and of course the Indians, Naipaul and Rushdie and Seth.
UPFA MP Prof Rajiva Wijesinha in an interview with LAKBIMA NEWS says that attacks on media should be investigated, and adds that if the police continue to draw blanks in all instances, ‘then we need to have better police training.’
Currently there are criticisms directed at the government for lack of accountability on various fronts and concerning major issues of the day. Some of the topics are the soaring COL, lack of coordination when providing relief to flood victims, failure to prevent attacks on media institutions and disappearances of media personnel etc. What are your comments?
Obviously any government will have to face criticisms. Your questions relate to two separate areas. One is happenings over which government has no control, such as the floods, and also the Cost of Living, which relates to problems all over the world. I don’t think the public at large criticize the government for these matters, though obviously political opponents will try to make political capital. However, it is important for government to respond actively and swiftly to alleviate problems, and I think this the government has done with comparative efficiency. Certainly, when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I found that our Disaster Management Centre was most efficient in a crisis, and I believe this has been exemplified recently too.
With regard to attacks on the media, as I have said before, it is vital that these be investigated, and if the police continue to draw blanks in all particulars, then we need to have better police training. However, one problem with the continuing assertion of opposition politicians and their related NGOs, that government is responsible for the attacks, is that police are less likely to investigate thoroughly. That is no excuse however, and investigations, and indeed criminal proceedings if appropriate, should be more efficient
‘The two sisters among the mourners, whose voices had till now lacked their usual intensity, rose and rent the air with their shrill cries, quite unconcerned about the fate of the Master of Ceremonies. The four mourners now worked in unison, their bodies swaying like reeds in the wind, and lamented in chorus:
‘The poor will miss you, oh, you charitable one!
Who is going to feed us on festival days?
Your grandson has come, wake up, my beloved!
Your grandson has come, wake up, my darling!’’
From Alagu Subramaniam, ‘Professional Mourners’
Some years back, in compiling an Anthology of Sri Lankan short stories entitled ‘Bridging Connections’, I included a sharp satire by Alagu Subramaniam entitled ‘Professional Mourners’. Though the main subject of satire was the upper caste family which took ruthless advantage of the poor women who were paid to mourn at funerals, I was reminded of that chorus of women when I saw a recent piece by Sarala Fernando, described as ‘a retired diplomat…served as Ambassador in Geneva from 2004-2007’, which is supposed to be about what she describes as ‘the race that is being run between the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka and the Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General in New York.
At the time of Richard de Zoysa’s death in February 1990, a month before his thirty second birthday, he had for long been established as the most promising of Sri Lanka’s young English language poets. Therein of course lies a seeming paradox: a long period of promise implies that it was not fulfilled.
This is sadly true. There are just over thirty poems included here, and these represent almost all that Richard produced. There was at least one other very late gem, about his work in Jaffna along with Waruna Karunatilleke which he gave me for possible publication and then took back; but that unfortunately I cannot now trace. Apart from a few like that, and some others that were published in his school magazine (which have not been included, because he would undoubtedly have wanted them revised into better final form), Richard wrote no other poems.
I realize that there are only two writers in this series who were born after 1950, and one of them is Vikram Seth, for whom I had to make a special case to show that he could be considered a British writer. The only unquestionably British writer on the list then, in spite of his Japanese origins, is Kazuo Ishiguro.
This is not really special pleading on the part of an Asian because I note that, when in 2008 the Times published a list of the ‘50 greatest British writers since 1945’, Iain Banks was the only such young , unquestionably British, writer of prose, apart from J K Rowling. The other two born after 1950, all three in fact in 1954, were Ishiguro and Hanif Kureishi. This may have to do with the fact that writers will take time to establish a reputation but, given the early successes of many writers earlier in the century, perhaps one should also wonder whether there is simply less talent around.
I was asked recently for a comment regarding what was termed the Higher Education Ministry’s controversial decision to make the Advanced Level General English paper compulsory for those seeking University Entrance beginning from 2011. The question was whether this was fair, given the absence of English teachers at schools. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, to which I had spoken on this issue, had also been told that there were over 1,400 schools without a single English teacher.
My response was incorporated in an article, perfectly reasonably, given constraints of space, but I thought I should reproduce it more fully, and with further clarifications given the questions that were raised.
I checked the decision with the Ministry and found that the requirement that has been introduced is that all candidates for university must sit the exam. It is not compulsory to pass.
There is an old folk tale about a scorpion that asked a frog to give him a lift across a river. The frog was naturally frightened that the scorpion would sting him, but the scorpion promised he would not, and pointed out that, were he to sting the frog while they were en route, they would both drown. The frog was reassured and took the scorpion on his back but, when they were half way across the river, the scorpion stung him.
As they were both sinking, with his last breath the frog asked the scorpion why he had destroyed them both. ‘I can’t help it,’ said the scorpion ruefully. ‘I am a scorpion. My nature will not change, whatever the problems it might cause.’
I was reminded of that story in reading Ranil Wickremesinghe’s comments at the Opening Session of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Regional Conference. He had performed his usual number about the deficiencies of the government and the wonderfully altruistic approach of the opposition.
This article is taken from the FOR THE RECORD section of the Reconciliation Website, www.peaceinsrilanka.org which subsumes the old site www.peaceinsrilanka.lk used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP). The articles in FOR THE RECORD are intended to counter those who promote division. Though problems should be raised, and addressed, there must be balance, so as to avoid the perpetuation of bitterness.
The Periclean scholar, who had begun by thinking that there were possible comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and Sri Lanka, did show some acumen in suggesting that, given the distance between facts and allegations, there was need to explore why the allegations came so thick and fast, with such untenable comparisons. I thought it best to answer this through questions, which led her to exclaim, while wracking her brains for the answers, that she was not used to answering questions. Her research had evidently involved just asking questions, the Socratic method evidently not part of the stock in trade of her intellectual training.
The first question to answer was, who was raising the questions, and she realized pretty smartly that the principal driving force was the Tamil diaspora. We then went into the history of that diaspora, and I realized that she was aware of the violence that had driven many of them away in the early eighties. And it was necessary to note that there had been political decisions too in the period before that, which had also led Tamils to feel they would be better off abroad.
Sri Lanka has a very good record as far as the present topic of discussion, ‘Mother and Child’, goes. Statistics with regard to infant mortality and maternal healthcare, with regard to education and health facilities, suggest that we are the best in this regard in South Asia.
However, this is an area in which things can always improve. We used to be much better than almost all Asian countries 50 years ago, so in fact we seem to have fallen behind, in comparison with some countries in East Asia. And, in any case, where mothers and children are concerned, we should think in terms of zero tolerance. I know we can do nothing about accidents and sudden tragedies, but what is avoidable should be avoided.