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Conscience

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Sri Lankans have a fascination with everything foreign. Going ‘to the foreign’ or ‘ab-road’ is considered to be the epitome of success. For after you are ‘in the foreign’ life there is going to be all feather beds and high disposable income.

I’ve run into many people like that in my time, who hasn’t? Once i had someone explain to me in great detail how to make a convincing case to seek asylum in Canada. The process involved coming up with a newspaper article/advertisement calling me a wanted man, going through highly exciting cut-throat late night border crossings and conning Canadian judges. I was sixteen at the time.

Just yesterday i met someone who expressed a strong urge to go to Germany. Why? because it is ‘awesome over there’. Praneeth (name changed) is a low level executive at a multinational corporation. In other words, he has a job and background that many would kill for. Initially I just thought he wanted to visit, how naive of me.

A friend of his: “do you know what he did? he’s working in a garage in Germany.”

And I say, wow yeah that’s great. Praneeth gets a wistful look in his eyes as I ask him ‘so you want to get a work visa?’ But apparently there are no work visas for Germany, which  brings us to the thorny question; “how is your friend working in a garage there?”

His friend (let’s call him Channa) ingeniously played the system. He didn’t go all ‘Machang’ and escape the hotel the night before the big handball game, but he still lied and connived for all he was worth.

He went there for a holiday, stayed with a monk he knew and somehow negotiated a deal with a local restaurant which produced a letter attesting to the German immigration authorities that ‘Channa is absolutely the best, and pretty much only, cook in the world capable of cooking at our restaurant and it is absolutely essential that you help him come work for us”.

This enabled him to get a five year stamp the next time he applied. And now Channa works in a garage, painting cars and doing other garagy things, cooking be damned. His education is wasted, but he tells Praneeth during his frequent visits home that he feels “very secure” and wouldn’t give it up for the world. And now poor Praneeth wants to quit his corporate job and do the same thing.

If you thought Channa was quite the ‘arch bugger’, let me tell you about Praneeth’s other friend Nimal who is some kind of an ‘international player’. His life involves shuttling between several high profile foreign countries every five months or so. He’d work for five months in the US, come to Sri Lanka, and go work for five months in the UK. I am fascinated, how in the world does he manage this?

Nimal, like Channa, initially went for a holiday. He then came back to Sri Lanka and applied again, and this time got a much longer stamp on his visa. He used this to surreptitiously get a job being a waiter, cleaning stuff or like Channa, working in a garage. Unglamorous, but it pays the bills for a glamorous image back home.

Actually, he is part of a whole network of such ‘international players’ who simply switch jobs with each other when their visas begin to expire; ensuring a constant supply of international jobs that will not cause them to overstay their visas and impinge on the hospitality of their hosts in any way (other than by stealing their jobs of course).

So for example Nimal would give his job in the US over to his friend Riyas as Riyas leaves his job being a street cleaner in the UK which he gives to Nathan who gives up his job as a logger in Scandanavia to Kamal who in turn will leave his job as a shop assistant in Italy just in time for Nimal to come back from a short intermediate stay in Sri Lanka to claim it. And they keep switching ad infinitum. Praneeth thinks its brilliant.

No wonder us unambitious Sri Lankans get so much shtick from Western visa authorities. I don’t blame them either. We enter their countries by the boatload, clog up their social security nets and even contribute with our own brand of organized crime, with raging chain gangs in countries as diverse as Canada, UK and Italy hailing from places like Ja-Ela and Wattala (town names just an example, nothing personal if you live there).

I’ve spoken to others who are a lot more honest about this kind of living. And apparently, hard labor is hard labor whether you are in a developed country or not. Some work three jobs and barely get enough sleep. They show a pretty picture to everyone back home, but they live on the fringes of society and become anonymous automatons with no identity. No life even. And many regret ever leaving home.

*Abroad Yamuda Machang?: Shall we go abroad, mate?

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After stewing about it for more than two days ‘Team Mobitel’ appears to have finally come up with a response.

Mobitel response

It’s actually quite ridiculous. They apologize for any ‘inconvenience or pain of mind’ caused but reiterate that the racist ringtone will remain on their site on a ‘revenue share basis’. Apparently they still care about upholding the ‘true values of unity and ethnic harmony’ by allowing an organization that stands for just the opposite to make money off its site, and on a revenue sharing basis too.

The image is accompanied by an expanding thread of comments of largely unimpressed people. Mobitel’s social media team and at least one fake account is also feebly attempting to respond, but are only succeeding in digging itself deeper into this hole.

Many are asking if Mobitel would allow an LTTE song to be put up to fund the terrorist group on a ‘revenue sharing’ basis too. The answer, even though it has not been articulated yet, is obviously no. Why in the world would Mobitel do that? Therefore Mobitel definitely does NOT consider the Bodu Bala Sena to be a hate group or a group with any negative social connotations at all.

The utter chutzpah of this response is rather hard to digest, I will say that at my next tea party. The lyrics of the BBS song call for a “Holy War” to destroy the “rallying cry of the unrighteous” and “the heathens” “who have all united into one camp”. Yup, practically dripping with peace and harmony there.

Actually if this song came from any other group, or was just a song released by an individual artist. Its message could have been construed as one meant purely to inspire and provoke steadfastness on a personal level or whatever (the lyrics are actually quite well written). But the BBS has made its intentions clear through its actions, they possibly really do want a holy war. In denouncing imaginary Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka and countless other made up threats, the BBS is fast mirroring its non-existent worst enemy.

Therefore by allowing the BBS to make money from its ring back tone services (and sharing in the moolah no less) Mobitel is sending a strong message that they support, or at least are indifferent, to its extremist standpoint.

Here’s a poster being shared around on Facebook, which carries the full lyrics of the song and calls for a boycott of all Mobitel products.

image from JDS Lanka

image from JDS Lanka

The Pax Rajapakse is almost four years old. In that time I’ve gone from being a relative tortoise in my own country to having a degree of freedom that I never imagined possible. I’ve traveled now to virtually every place formerly torn up by the war. And can travel anywhere else I please should I wish to do so.

But the Pax Rajapakse is just that, peace. It has no moral identity. It has no moral pretensions even though it likes to pretend otherwise. Dreadful things are done to preserve the peace. But in all objectivity some might say that the end justifies the means. Peace is its own reason.

But a once universal peace is now fragmenting into varying degrees of peace; different categories of peace now exist. There is a lesser peace and a greater peace. The greater peace is being able to move around your country with freedom, the lesser peace is demarcated by invisible lines drawn through society with labels saying things like ‘Do Not Cross’, ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ and  ‘Sycophants Only’.

The country, as it strains under the forces of development, churns society like the roiling Indian Ocean and casts up new oppressed classes and facilitates the surge of new elite. Apparently there is ‘good’ corruption and ‘bad’ corruption. So say some, justifying the regime’s steamroller approach to progress with a substantial personal cut. But where is the line, I say?

While people leave on boats, and put up with heavy abuse for want of jobs and are kicked out of their homes to make way for high rises in the midst of Colombo; a whole new class of wealthy and powerful Sri Lankan is emerging. Closely connected to the country’s powerbrokers, they wield high influence that cuts through social and legal infrastructure like butter. Any justice is we have here is highly skewed in the favor of these elites.

All this has not gone unnoticed. The people are restless and feeling the brunt of ever increasing cost of livingn. Straight talking journalists are still in danger. And the briefly stable peace is now crumbling at the edges with this latest drive of racism. The people are hungry for something to blame. A few decades ago it was the Tamils, and now it is the Muslims. 

But peace is profitable, war is not. And the last thing the government needs is another conflict. And therein lies the problem. Sri Lanka is a corrupt animal. This corruption is like a cancer, but it can still grow within it. Most forecasts still place our economy with prospects of around 6-7% of GDP growth per annum. On a global scale this is huge. This means we double every ten years or so. And if we’re patient enough and do not over reach, we can still become a rich country in our own time.

There are however, serious glitches that can ruin everything. Since Sri Lanka stopped being a low income country, it has stopped receiving aid which basically allowed us to spend more than we earned without worry. And over the years a strong parasitic class developed that benefited and prospered from this surplus, the result; a bloated state sector, crazy inefficiency and high levels of corruption. And now it is this transition from being aid dependent that is really killing us.

Finding itself forced to cover up its various deficits (budget and current account) by taking loans, Sri Lanka is realizing (I hope) that it is mixing a recipe for disaster. We need solid foreign investments to replace these loans and they will not come in until the political, and by extension business, environment is made investor friendly; until budget gaps are sorted out sustainably;  until capital expenditure is focused on projects with long term benefits like education, infrastructure and health.

Currently the government is trying to cover its behind by putting the burden on the public. It should be cutting dead weight and increasing its efficiency by turning state corporations (like the cash bleeding CPC and CEB) profitable, instead it is reducing much needed public expenditure and increasing prices of essential goods and utilities. This burden on the public, ever increasing with the latest round of fuel price hikes, is what is contributing to unrest. There is a continuing laxity in addressing post war issues, and fiascos like the Expropriation Bill and the impeachment of the Chief Justice are poorly handled and reflect very badly internationally.

The Rajapakse regime still has my support. Most East Asian giants grew up under pseudo democracies; Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. And the fact that we lack a better alternative has never been more obvious in the light of the UNP’s recent feeble opportunism in attempting to capitalize on racist propaganda. The Rajapakse’s have huge potential to bring something the country has not had for a long time; political stability and long term growth. But they cannot do this by cultivating a parasitic social sub-strata of sycophants and dependents.

Hidden agenda lurks behind this fresh wave of racism, trying to distract from pressing issues at hand. What we should be doing is figuring out the real problems and then campaign for reform, especially with the limitations of our reality in mind. This is undoubtedly hard to do in the current context; the corruption is the cancer and it is within all of us, if you will permit me a bit of drama. If the Rajapakse regime had a big role to play in creating the pax, average Sri Lankans have an even bigger role to play in keeping it.

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This post was originally published in The Platform

I dislike the label ‘activist’, armchair or otherwise. To be defined as an activist is to be defined by the inactivity of others. Armchair activism, as I see it, is a constant struggle against (to paraphrase Milton Freidman) ‘the tyranny of the status quo’; that dread inertia that prevents people at large from forming the critical mass required to propel decisive solutions to social issues that affect them all.

Armchair activism is different in nature from ‘on-the-ground’ activists who have a gamut of other responsibilities, like standing in front of tanks and bulldozers should the need arise. (Raashid Riza has an excellent post on contemporary activism, armchair activism and cynics of all forms in the light of recent events here.) Armchair activists are more specifically involved in spreading the word in the domain of public opinion – they are in the fight against ignorance, cynicism and apathy.

The goal of the armchair activist, conscious or otherwise, is to convince OTHER people of the need for altruism and moral consideration. Theirs is a sustained effort at tipping the balance of this inertia, at creating that critical mass. Social media has contributed to a phenomenal rise in armchair activism. The ability to influence public opinion is now at our very fingertips.

But armchair activists are rendered outcasts in an environment still dominated by  the primary tyrannical force, materialism. Materialism breeds selfishness, and selfishness is protected by cynicism. Cynicism denies responsibility for the actions of others, even individuals the cynics themselves have elected into power. Cynics deny that one can make a difference, but know that many can. However they doubt that enough will overcome their own cynicism in order to join together convincingly, thus building a self fulfilling philosophy that makes selfishness always comfortably right.

This is played out in social networks, both real and virtual, everyday. People cannot understand why other people get all up in arms about things that happen thousands of miles away. These others can’t understand how some can idly sit by and look at pictures of kittens when not only kittens but children are being slaughtered indiscriminately ONLY a few thousand miles away. Vocal cynics resent being reminded of the latter. And say so. Scoffing at idealists is a popular pastime when idealists get active.

And then there is the silent majority, too caught up with its own affairs to even bother with vocalising its cynicism. To all of them, the ‘voice of the people’ is a myth. Or if it exists, it only exists in order to elect the next American Idol, or president.

This disillusionment with the power of the ‘voice of the people’ is the primary source of conscious or unconscious ire for the armchair activist. Forever trying to influence and educate, shock and engage the public at large, armchair activists capitalise on critical events they see as having the ability to finally tip the majority in their favor. These are the times when they get really active, because to them it is all about critical mass.

And they help. Public outrage in the wake of Israel’s illegal Operation Pillar of Cloud helped accelerate the ceasefire agreement; public outrage at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill sparked investigations debating BP’s drilling practices, the risks of oil spills and key environmental issues in general. But have they done enough? I’d say no. The underlying causes of these issues remain, ready to burst forth in some new form of violence in the future. Change more radical than this would need to happen for a permanent solution, the kind of solutions that all activists, everywhere, ardently hope for.

But, unfortunate as it may be, this kind of critical mass manifests only when a major crisis is imminent. Only when the disease spreads to the very foundations of the materialism that breeds the cynicism, that breeds the apathy of public opinion, will the majority awaken from its inertia. But when this does happen, to paraphrase Friedman again, their actions will depend on the ideas that are ‘lying around’, the discourses, social infrastructure, alternative policies and theories of change that have been kept alive by activists of all kinds, waiting until the ‘impossible’ becomes the ‘inevitable’.

This is probably why activism and armchair activism appear futile in the short term and only superficially effective in the medium term. For long lasting change to occur, whatever that may mean, the efforts of activists are not enough.  It takes the efforts of non-activists as well, in the process converting everyone into someone who acts, removing the need to define what an ‘activist’ is altogether.

Water Is Life is carrying out a play on a twitter hashtag that is usually considered to be satirical. #firstworldproblems tweets are usually self effacing guilty admissions of how people have it so good but they still complain.

Water is Life however have voted to take it seriously. I don’t whether on purpose or not. Their campaign features poor kids complaining of how much they hate it when their leather seats don’t heat up, when they leave their dirty clothes lying around for so long that they stink, or when they say no pickles but they still get pickles.

The whole effect is quite jarring. I don’t know how many first worlders would donate after seeing it though, especially those first worlders who might have at some point tweeted something with the hash #firstworldproblems, who might be a little too guilt tripped to look at it with any favor. Apparently some think it in bad taste. But perhaps not as bad as the tweets themselves, which, taken in context of what people have to go through in Haiti and other places like it, can seem downright cruel.

Yesterday i was ‘dragged to court’. Must to the chagrin of my family. ‘Why did you get involved?’ ‘you should have just walked away’, now you’re going to have to waste half your life there and you’re never going to be able to even leave the country, was the general surmise.

It was about this. Some three months ago i was driving down Lorenz Rd and discovered the body of Kanapadipillai Udayakanthan, he didn’t seem to have had a very comfortable death judging by the blood and wounds. I told the cops, and with one casual phone call on Sunday afternoon someone from the Bambalapitiya Police summoned me to court. Told me to come the next day. No letters sent to my house, no paperwork just ‘Hello, is this Abdul Halik? Come to court tomorrow at 9 a.m kthnksbye’.

I’m like erm.. is this some sort of prank call? So i asked my cousin who practices in Hulftsdorp, apparently this is the yoush when it comes to criminal cases. He scared me a little and asked if i needed a lawyer, i filled him in on the details and he said that i could probably make do without one. ‘Probably’? relief mixed with apprehension, what have i got myself into?

Hulftsdorp is amazing. I’d only been there once before. You have all these massive old Dutch buildings. This one was so big that it stretched for almost a kilometer down the road i went in search of a mosque. And the majority of them don’t seem to be under heavy use, and have crumbling facades invaded by weeds and rubble.

I took my phone into court. No one checked. We sat in the back row (my dad insisted on accompanying me). Soon it was so crowded that people were jostling for standing space. It was hot and sweaty, and the lawyers were in black ties and jackets. I’m glad my ten year old self got distracted from the temporary ambition of becoming a lawyer.

Above it all one man ruled. No not the judge. The mudaliyar, to whom all the lawyers were sugary sweet . My dad filled me in. The mudaliyar is the in-between between the judge and the rest of the court. Administrative staff like him and the Registrar (what the mudaliyar becomes when he gets a promotion) are powerful because they can move files up and down and presumably do wondrous things to paperwork that can make or break a case. They net in the cash from corporates, rich/desperate people eager to make something go away.

The justice system wouldn’t be complete without its own unique brand of injustice.

I hear clanking. Like a thousand little bells going off. The prisoners, manacled, are being brought to the little cage in the corner from where they’ll observe proceedings. Wait what am i saying, they’re not prisoners yet, none of them have been proven guilty. But none of them have been proven innocent either. Apparently this is enough to cage and chain them.

There were some interesting cases being heard. One drug addict (going by his sallow cheeks, shadowy skin and sunken eyes) was allowed to represent himself. He was asked to cross examine the men testifying against him and he kept directing his questions to the mudaliyar, who repeatedly barked at him to ‘ask the damn witness, not me’. The phone in question was an ancient nokia 1100. The cost of the whole court case probably cost everyone involved several times its value.

He was put back into his cage and the case was postponed. At recess i saw him with his family throwing a little baby girl up and down in his arms. I smiled, he smiled and nodded as if we were long lost friends.

I felt sorry for the thambili seller up next. He had managed to acquire the services of a lawyer, who pleased on his behalf. Apparently he’s had no income for five days since the police confiscated his cart for trading on the pavement. He was given the cart, and let off with a warning.

The woman accused of prostitution was the best. She looked half like a beggar, and didnt seem to be al there. She loudly protested her innocence for ‘ayale yama’ or ‘indecency’ (Sri Lanka apparently doesnt have direct laws against prostitution). Whereupon said the judge (always via the mudaliyar, who is used as a mouthpiece) that she could get off with a fine of Rs 100 (yes 100 Rupees!) if she pleaded guilty. She wouldn’t hear of it. And was remanded for 9 days pending trial. I was like ‘you go girl’!

My testimony was carried out in the confines of the judge’s office. A stenographer took it down as i spoke on an ancient typewriter. I signed and left. The whole thing took about 5 minutes. But I sat in court for 5 hours.

Going to court is a hassle. I don’t think i’d like to do it several days over and over and over. Probably why a lot of Sri Lankans walk away or tip annonymously and straight out avoid any involvement like the plague. Being caught up in a case might mean a major restriction on your life, the inability to leave the country for extended time periods. And cases can last for years. Even decades. But i hugely enjoyed my visit to court yesterday. Everyone should go once. You can just walk in and sit down and watch. No need of cardboard summons even.

*title changed from Why Everyone Should Go To Court (as opposed to Once)

Not in the name of Buddhism

The plight of the Rohingya has been exacerbating while the world was caught up with the Olympics. Scores have already died gruesome deaths and tens of thousands have been internally displaced. Aan Sun Suu Kyi has been silent, contributing to the violence by actually saying that she ‘doesn’t know’ if the Rohingya are Burmese, and continues a trip around Europe hob nobbing with the equally silent elites of the West that recently effectively dropped all sanctions against the military junta that controls Burma.

To give some context from the AJStream video above, the Rohingya have been around since before the state of Burma itself. Like many other people in the region they repeatedly came under the rule of invading forces. The Persians, the Mughals, the British. The argument that the junta uses, and what Suu Kyi has also used, that they are effectively stateless is built on the racially prejudiced law known as the ‘black law’ by Rohingya activists, passed in the sixties when the junta took over. A time when Burma, in its newfound independence from the British, embarked on a national vision defined by the lofty ideals of ethnic purity and economic independence. Sound familiar? I see strange parallels with Sri Lanka’s own anti-Tamil stance in early independence years. Though our historical fling with ultra racism brought us entirely different results. None of them good.

The Rohingya were officially stripped of their citizenship in 1982  and have lived a life of pain, squalor and effective misery since. The recent spate of violence erupted in June when 3 mulisms were accused of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman.

Prior to the Junta, the Rohingya enjoyed full citizenship and rights. I am assuming this was mostly in the British time. But the hate and prejudice against them increased over the sixty post independence years and has ironically culminated just when Burma should have been on the path to international acceptance. The Junta recently released Suu Kyi and some political prisoners and opened up the country to US and European businesses prompting those governments to virtually abolish the sanctions regime. And now that the West thinks it has turned Burma into a poster child for democracy, the Junta is carrying out one of the worst atrocities we have seen in this century. The West is silent. Seemingly hating to admit that its most recent success story is a jarring failure.

The news reports carry some horrific accounts (see video above). Neighbors and thugs aided and/or unstopped by armed forces storming Muslim villages; burning people alive, engaging in mass murder, rape and torture. One account tells of a group of children who were tied up and tortured until they lost consciousness, another was an eyewitness account of attackers who planted swords blade up on the ground and skewered babies alive. A group of escapees recount how a military helicopter swooped down and attacked escaping boats killing about fifty in the process.

The burmese president has reportedly stated that the Rohingya must be deported. But deported where? Aside from Burma these people have no home. No foreign country is willing to accept them. This is racism at its uglist, most deplorable and most violent. What we’re seeing is an emerging genocide. And if so, its probably the most ignored news item in the world today.

International media has largely been silent. The Twittersphere and Facebook has largely been ignoring it. Remember when Aang San Suu Kyi was a prisoner? Being a Suu Kyi activist was fashionable, Saving Tibet was in-the thing to be seen doing in 2008, KONY 2012 went nuts until everyone realized the truth, and the guy who made the video turned to be a little deranged. All of these issues got airtime and the global industrial media complex got behind, graphics were made in pastel shades, celebrities endorsed, and people the world over made them go viral. Causes have become brands, people take them up if they like the packaging and the advertising. The personal kickbacks and ego boosts.

The Rohingya though, are not fashionable, not yet. They have no voice, no power. Right now Bangladesh, the neighboring country and a Muslim state to boot, is turning them away guiltless. Makes me sick. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been throwing money at the problem, offering no permanent solutions. Sri Lanka, as a Buddhist nation, faced with a fellow Buddhist country committing atrocities under a false guise of Buddhism has said nothing. Everywhere mum’s the word. The UN isn’t even in the picture. And the Rohingya are caught increasingly between a rock and a hard place both of which are closing in for the crush.
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