Sri Lankan minister calls on poets to help unite a divided nation

A view of Ella in Uva province: poets are being asked to turn their attention from poems extolling the nation’s beauty to rethinking what it means to be Sri Lankan. Photograph: WestEnd61/Rex

A view of Ella in Uva province: poets are being asked to turn their attention from poems extolling the nation’s beauty to rethinking what it means to be Sri Lankan. Photograph: WestEnd61/Rex

For centuries, the poets of Sri Lanka have sung the praises of the island nation’s stunning physical beauty – and spoken too of the conflicts that have torn it apart. Now, the government is looking to the country’s literature to heal the wounds of a brutal civil war.

Rajiva Wijesinha, the recently appointed minister for higher education, has called on universities to organise programmes of poetry, along with sports, drama and dance, to “bring together” the largely Buddhist Sinhala majority and the largely Hindu Tamil minority.

“The arts are important. They can only be a part of a much broader effort, but should not be neglected. Nothing will make everyone happy but you can reduce the intensity of grief and anger,” Wijesinha, who recently published an anthology of poetry translated into English from both the main local languages, Sinhala and Tamil.

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Diaspora Lanka Report : 28 September to 31 December 2013 – Part 9

4.6 Formalizing relationships

Discussions with Prof Rajiva

Discussions with Prof Rajiva

Diaspora Lanka has hit a snag. Since July last year the Government Agent of Mannar (GA), Urban Council Mannar (UCM), the Assistant Commissioner Local Government (ACLG) and the Urban Development Authority (UDA), key partners for the past two years, now want DL to gain formal approval from the Presidential Task Force (PTF) before they will continue to work with us. Diaspora Lanka wrote to the PTF in 2011 seeking this approval. In a lengthy phone response, the PTF Secretary informed us that we did not need their approval for our activities because we worked through local agencies, and if project approval was required, the local entity would naturally seek that. Now the rules seem to have changed and DL is in the process of gaining such approval.

Activities summary from the last visit to Sri Lanka

• Presidential Advisor on Reconciliation Prof Rajiva Wijesinha and Jeremy met with Mr Divaratne, PTF Secretary, about the matter of formal approval. He would like DL to establish a formal relationship with the UDA to streamline and make more efficient our work with government. Mr Diva also rang the new GA, arranging an appointment for DL to meet him.
• DL met with the UDA Chairman who directed the UDA Head of Business and Jeremy to draft an MoU between the UDA and DL. The document was written the next day, discussed at a directors’ meeting and forwarded to the UDA’s legal section. A letter of request along with requested registration papers were also provided by DL.
• A follow up visit and phone calls were made requesting formal approval by the UDA and PTF.

Next steps

• Write to the UDA Chairman and request he inform DL of the progress of the MoU.
• Write to the GA of Mannar seeking his help in expediting the finalization of the MoU.

Reflections

Without the signing of the MoU by the UDA and written approval from the PTF, Diaspora Lanka’s more strategic work is currently in a holding pattern.

DL meets with Mannar GA

DL meets with Mannar GA

Deutsche Welle – Colombo ‘failing to engage’ with Tamil minority

Five years after the end of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, there are few signs of a government-led reconciliation, MP Rajiva Wjesinha tells DW, arguing that mistrust and suspicion have only grown stronger.

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Shortly after the Sri Lankan army defeated the separatist “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” in May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared an end to the country’s bloody civil war which had lasted more than 25 years during that period claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people.

Five years after the end of the separatist conflict, Sri Lanka is still struggling with reconciliation between the majority Sinhala community and the Tamil minority. International human rights organizations hold the army as well as the LTTE-separatists responsible for crimes committed during the civil war. UN High commissioner Navi Pillay has repeatedly criticized the government in Colombo for having failed to establish a “credible national process to address abuses.” As a result the UN Human Rights Council recently decided to launch an independent international investigation of human rights violations during the war.

In a DW interview, Rajiva Wijesinha, a member of the Sri Lankan parliament for the ruling coalition, says the government is not paying enough attention to the needs of people in the former war zones and welcomes advice from countries “which have not been unfairly critical” of the Sri Lankan government’s reconciliation approach. Continue reading

Geneva 2014: Is the government falling into a trap?

The exclusion of intellectuals and their input in the making of public policy — foreign policy in particular — and the consequences thereof, was a recurring theme at a recent public discussion on the upcoming UN Human Rights Council session in March 2014.  Nativist, xenophobic tendencies were coming to the fore and “We don’t know how to converse with the world anymore,” warned Dayan Jayatilleke, the keynote speaker.  Dr Jayatilleka is best known as the former UN ambassador in Geneva who led the team that defeated a hostile resolution brought against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council Special Session in May 2009, soon after the military defeat of the LTTE.   Sri Lanka lost two subsequent US-led resolutions in 2012 and 2013.

The discussion held at the auditorium of the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA) was organised by the Liberal Party and moderated by its leader Rajiva Wijesinha, a National List MP and Secretary to the (now dismantled) Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP). Prof Wijesinha noted the absence of input from independent think tanks in foreign policy decision making, and lamented the failure of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute and the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies in this regard.

Jayatilleka has been arguing consistently in the media that the cold war the country faces is an intellectual battle. A bibliography on Sri Lanka has developed over the years with a number of documents being produced, but though these were studied in the West there was no significant discourse in Sri Lanka he said, on his fortnightly TV talk-show ‘Vantage Point’ aired Thursday on ‘MTV Sports.’ “We are going into battle without knowing the history.” He said it was unthinkable that the GoSL did not respond to the flawed report of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Panel (the ‘Darusman report’). There were two brilliant critiques of it that had been disregarded. One was by the Marga Institute, a much respected independent think tank, and the other a study titled ‘The Numbers Game’ by a group of highly educated Western-based Sri Lankans. Listing some of the other literature on the subject he mentioned the Petrie report, Gordon Weiss’s book ‘The Cage,’ The Routledge Handbook on R2P, and a UK House of Commons research paper in 2009 titled ‘War and Peace in Sri Lanka,’ which traced the campaign against Sri Lanka originating much earlier than the ‘last stages of the war.’

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The fog of war in Sri Lanka

Berne (1)

By Michael Roberts and Padraig Colman

Reporting of the civil war in Sri Lanka has tended to distort various aspects of the violence that ensued, particularly in terms of the number of civilian casualties and the causes of their deaths.

Although Western media have been critical of both sides in the conflict between the Sinhala-dominated government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), they tend to see Tamils (and thus the LTTE) as underdogs.

Sri Lankan Tamils have been emigrating since the fifties. There is a substantial body of intelligent and prosperous Tamils abroad alienated from Sri Lankan politics and governments. The patriotism of expatriate Tamils increased when the government defeated the LTTE in 2009. They are receptive to the propaganda of Tiger activists.

Tamil nationalists or sympathizers now hold key positions in the west. Sri Lankan government PR is ineffective in comparison with the coordinated campaign of the Tamil diaspora using such outlets as the BBC, ABC, Sky, Channel Four, New York TimesDer Spiegel and their like.

The result has been distortion.

  • Western media erroneously describe it as “a war without witnesses” even though a restricted number of foreign reporters were transported to the rear battle front on several occasions.(1)
  • The received wisdom is that at the end of war there was “merciless shelling” and “extermination” and that subsequently some 300,000 civilians were “interned” in “concentration camps”. Both claims are exaggerations, the latter being quite gross.
  • Ban Ki-Moon’s Panel of Experts (Darusman Report) said that “a number of credible sources have estimated that there “could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths”. Despite the questionable methodology pursued by this panel, (2) its guesswork became a definite figure of at least 40,000 civilian dead; and, in the indelible words of a British parliamentarian named Lee Scott, 40,000 “slaughtered”.

British parliamentarians did not allow for the following factors during the last five months of the war in the patch of LTTE territory we term the “Vanni Pocket”:

  • It was difficult to distinguish between civilians and combatants;
  • The LTTE often fired on Tamil civilians;
  • US Ambassador Butenis confirmed the government’s claim that they made a conscious decision to prolong the war and risk more SL Army casualties in order to protect civilians. Red Cross representative Jacques de Maio, Robert O Blake of the US State Department and Jim Grant of UNICEF echoed this in their secret memoranda during the height of the war;
  • The Sri Lankan authorities knew that USA and India were tracking the battles on satellite and would spot any inordinate use of force; Continue reading

Our preparations for Geneva

946826684glBy K. Godage

Former Ambassador

I was happy to read that Mr. Lalith Weeratunge and Dr. G.L. Peiris would be going out to Geneva to brief missions of countries in the HRC, whatever briefing/ publicity we can give to what we have achieved so far and what we intend to do will not be a waste of time.

This approach is certainly what is called for, not sending a large delegation during the Sessions to lobby delegates as we did a few years ago; most countries decide on their positions on Resolutions such as those relating to countries such as ours, before the Session commences. Former Ambassadors such as Jayantha Dhanapala. Pallihakkara, Nihal Rodrigo {who is an Advisor to His Excellency] and Bernard Goonetilleke would bear me out.

I have often wondered as to what the government’s strategy is to counter these anti-Sri Lanka Resolutions. In the first instance, as the government is already doing, we need to continue to reach out to the Tamil people in a meaningful manner and encourage the Tamil people to reach out to the Sinhalese and Muslim communities. The Tamil community in particular, along with all other communities of our country must continue to enjoy the hard won freedom in every sense of that word; they also need to feel secure and have opportunities to pursue livelihoods of their choice; another important value for the Tamil people in particular is Education, in this regard I am, aware that those who take the trouble to find out about the progress within the country are more than happy with what the government has done since the war ended, to improve the education facilities in the region. In this regard I would urge the government to continue its good work in spite of attempts by pro LTTE elements to divert its attention and create a rift between minor communities and the government.

The government, I presume, has prepared Documentaries that can be shown to the international community. Such Documentaries, perhaps prepared by foreign companies under our supervision of course, would have greater credence and acceptance. We should also establish a Reconciliation Commission which should be headed by a committed person such as Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, the Advisor on Reconciliation to the President, who is well informed and has worked tirelessly to challenge the baseless accusations made by the pro LTTE individuals and organizations. We should without further delay also establish a local commission with three retired judges of the Supreme Court to inquire into what happened in the last days of the conflict, when we saved the lives of over three hundred thousand civilians.

We could then without doubt, give the lie to the horrendous charge that 40,000 were killed in the closing stages of the war on terrorism. Let us call upon those who are making this wild accusation to come up with proof before the Commission, giving the names of those whom they claim were killed. We could also commission an independent body, comprising respected Sri Lankans from a range of professional fields, to document the history of the war and record the deaths that have resulted from targeted terrorist activity – this needs to include the support lent by any organisations and certain countries to the terrorists, which has enabled them to continue their war against the State. Continue reading

A Response to Rajan Phillips and L. Jayasooriya

A few comments on the paper delivered in Brazil indicate how deeply Sri Lankans have absorbed the oppositional mindsets that Nirmal Verma and Tagore deplored. One generalization occurred in the Sunday Island, to which a response was made. Another appeared only in the electronic media, but was obligingly sent in. Published here are the response to the Sunday Island and a response to another comment, since it seems important to explain to those who seem confused the idea between a nation in which there is a majority of a particular religion, and characterizing the state as that of a particular religion.

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The Editor

Sunday Island

 

Dear Sir

I read with some interest Rajan Philips’ account of ‘Anglo-Indo-Lanka ties and tangles from DS Senanayake to Mahinda Rajapaksa’  in your columns last week. In the midst of an interesting thesis, he made a gratuitous reference to a paper I had delivered in Brazil last month, and claimed that my thesis seemed to have been ‘to attribute the foreign policy differences between DS Senanayake and the UNP, on the one hand, and SWRD Bandaranaike and the Left on the other, to the difference between a supposedly dichotomous Western view of things and a contrastingly unifying Eastern vision’.

I am grateful to him for having so graphically illustrated a dichotomizing view of things, and sorry that his mindset seems to be ‘Western’ in this regard, as defined by Nimal Verma and Tagore. I did not talk about differences between Senanayake and Bandaranaike, and indeed I pointed out that the Rubber Rice Pact with China was signed during a UNP regime. I did note that J R Jayewardene had abandoned traditional Sri Lankan foreign policy because of his decision to enter the Cold War on one side, but I would certainly not describe the traditional UNP, as represented by the Senanayakes, as dichotomizing.

I attach a copy of the full paper and hope that you might be able to publish it in full, since Mr Philips’ account is misleading.

Yours sincerely

Rajiva Wijesinha

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Thanks for writing to me personally. I am sorry you have only blind copied to others, so please do pass this on to all those others as well. I have taken the liberty of copying this to many of those on these lists who have written to me personally recently, but I assume there are many more.

I have long realized that few people read carefully, and that comments on what others say are

a) based generally on what one assumes they have said

b) intended to make points one makes anyway

In this instance it seems that you, like Shenali, have confused my criticism of those who think Sri Lanka is a Buddhist state with those who refer to it as a Buddhist nation. The latter is not a problem, since it means a nation where the majority is Buddhist, which is of course true of Sri Lanka. But thinking of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist state (or of France as a Catholic state) is inaccurate, since this is not the case constitutionally, and it is generally not acceptable to give a state a particular religious identity when there are substantial portions of its populace who belong to other religions. Continue reading

‘Mirrored Images – An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry’ launched in Canada

A recently published book “Mirrored Images  – An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry” Edited by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha was launched in Toronto at  an event organized by the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa and, the Consulate General’s Office in Toronto. The Anthology brings together the poetry of 89 poets including translations from Sinhala and Tamil together with poems written  in English.

Prof. Chelva Kanaganayakam of the English Department of the University of Toronto who gave the Keynote address on the topic “Translations and the idea of Meditative Thinking” said that “In a world dominated by the discourses of globalization a book of translations forces us to reflect and meditate, and it alerts us not only to differences but also connections and intersections among communities, religions and ethnicities”. He further  stated “that there are similarities and there are differences.  Both are in fact important. Context shapes the way one lives.  The subject matter too could be different. But the meditative dimension, the concern with belonging, and with identity and rootedness are similar”.

Referring to Rajiva Wijesinha he said that the Editor has been fair, balanced objective and thorough.  As a writer and as a critic he is aware of the need to let  literature speak for itself and construct worlds that readers must decode for themselves.  “Mirrored Images” is a significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s multiple literary histories. Continue reading