Image

Galle Face (and a shameless plug for my Instagram)

Washed out streets and a clean Colombo welcome the start of SAES2013. A literary metaphor for a fresh beginning? Perhaps. But also an ominous symbol of one the themes of the conference. The weather in Colombo hasn’t been normal for years now. When I was a kid, the monsoon was like clockwork, April was always hot, August was rainy, and December offered slight relief from the repressive humidity.

Over the last year mostly, and the year before that somewhat, Colombo has felt more like a mildly warmer version of the Central Hills. Not that I’m complaining. I hate the humidity, and now I just need some mosquito repellent to grab a good night’s sleep on most nights. The reprieve gave way to a month or two of absolute scorchers, but that is a price I’m willing to pay. I like the new Colombo weather.

However, this post is not about weather, at least not in the conventional, hi-how-are-you-doing-its-very-hot-no? kind of way. Climate change, the likely culprit of Colombo’s newfound coolness (a very relative term still), is a major problem for the region. And a topic that the South Asian Economic Summit (SAES 2013) where I’m sitting at right now, is quite concerned about.

The unpredictability of monsoons, while mildly inconveniencing the city’s cubicle warriors with cumbersome umbrellas, plays havoc in the region’s agricultural sector, the rise in sea level threatens low lying islands, the melting of ice caps in the Himalayas threatens norms of water flow and while Colombo may have been benefitted with a welcome bout of cooler weather other parts of the region have feced extended spells of debilitating heat. Besides, of the sea level rises that stroll along Galle Face could soon turn into a wade. All these changes affect millions of lives and threaten the already struggling development processes of the region.

The carbon neutral conference happening in Colombo right now is talking about how to address this and many other problems. It’s easy to be cynical in adventurous discussions like the ones taking place today, especially being in a region bogged down by political corruption and policy blindness. Economists and policy wonks can talk and talk but you and I know that when it comes to implementation it always boils down to what the politicians stand to gain on the ground.

But ideas are important. Ideas, if powerful, can eventually trickle through the political processes, even those as mired as the ones in S. Asia, and create some change down the line. People here are talking about regional integration, investment promotion, collective agricultural initiatives, regional transportation and energy management etc. All very adventurous stuff for countries with long histories that are used to justify enmity just as much as to justify friendship.

The conference live streams here. Join the discussion on Twitter on #saes2013.

Image

The Rally For Unity crew has done a pretty neat timeline and infographic (click to enlarge) of the events that took place in Grandpass between June and August this year. Accurate information is crucial if anything is to be done about the upsetting problems we’re seeing today. IMO mainstream media, due to various restrictions, is failing at providing a cohesive and honest picture, a much needed vacuum for some solid citizen journalism to fill.

Sinhala and Tamil translations are on the way according to R4U’s Facebook page, which posted the below along with the graphic.

“What Really Happened in Grandpass?” – This infographic was developed to shed light on the events that unfolded at Grandpass from June to August this year. All information has been factually verified and vetted. Sinhala and Tamil translations will be made available by the weekend.

It is regrettable that certain groups can unduly influence and divide peacefully co-existing multi-ethnic communities. We encourage all Sri Lankans to remain vigilant against such interference and to continue to preserve goodwill among all communities.

labour-movement-610x282

As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

humber dates

Picture by Sanjaya Senanayake

ප්‍රශ්න නැතිවට ප්‍රශ්ණ is an old famous Sinhalese saying. The creation of problems because of shortage of problems in other words. The mysterious case of the ‘Humber’ dates smacks of just this. Unearthed at Cargills, Sri Lanka’s largest supermarket chain’s, now apparently racist, shelves their presence was first alerted (to me at least) by the ever watchful Sanjaya Senanayake.

The word ‘Hamba’ or ‘හම්බ’ certainly smacks of a racist slur. It’s been used enough of times in recent hate campaigns by the Bodu Bala Sena and affiliated groups to bring it permanently out of the rather murky folds of history it had retreated to, giving way to the more civilized slur (if such a thing exists) ‘Thambiya’ (read my post on their origins here).

Anyway, after months and months of racism and hate speech against Muslims in Sri Lanka from a small but loud minority of extremists/jingoists, where we saw everything ranging from attacks against Halal certification, the hijab, animal slaughter, non-existent sharia laws and fictional terrorists in the East, things had finally seemed to subside. And now this happens.

It is not clear yet what form of contraceptives these dates carry, if any, and precisely what age group of Muslim girls’ wombs they threaten, of what bodily organs of Muslim children unlucky enough to eat them. But these darn Humber dates are threatening to inject a new wave of paranoia into what many was hoping were steadying race relations in Sri Lanka.

I jest of course, no one is claiming the Humber dates are lethal to a specific ethnic group yet (strangely enough, only No Limit has so far succeeded in developing confectionery with such precise targeting), but eyebrows are being raised, ears are being perked, there is something in the air again. Epic fail, subtle racism or attempted mass murder?

Vikalpa has tried to get to the bottom of it. But with no results.Their calls have been ignored, and aside from a single name, Cargills has so far been mum on the suppliers. Very strange indeed.

මේ බිහිසුනු බව නිසාවෙන්ම එම නිශ්පාදනය අලෙවි කරන කාගීල්ස් ෆුඩ් සීටී ප්‍රධාන කාර්යාලයට ඇමතු අතර පැයකට ආසන්න කාලයක් උත්සහ කළ මුත් සාධනීය ප්‍රතිචාරයක් අපට ලබා ගත හැකි වූයේ නැත. ‘රටගැන හිතන, ඔබ ගැන හිතන‘ වැනි අසිරිමත් ආදර්ශ පාඨයන් අසමින් දුරකතනය තුළ පැයකට ආසන්න කාලයක් රස්තියාදු කරමින් අපට ලබා දුන්නේ එම නිශ්පාදනය ෆුඩ් සිටී ආයතනයට ලබා දුන් තැනැත්තාගේ නම පමණය. නමුත් අප කල්පනා කරන්නේ වෙළද ආයතනයකට, එයට එහා ගිය, සමාජ වගකීමක් ද ඇති බවය.

For now i’m inclined to agree with Sanjaya and go with the ‘it was an epic fail’ conclusion, though Groundviews remains vigilant to alternative possibilities. For one thing the spellings, ‘Humber’ smacks more of an English Lord than a coastal Moor. The ‘er’ at the end brings it. A packager’s attempt at adding some refinement to the brand perhaps? completely failing due to a lack of cultural awareness and utter ignorance? Or a sinister attempt at a subtle disguise and fallback excuse? And Cargills hedging and dodging the matter could be a simple case of PR paralysis. Sri Lanka isn’t alien to those.

Sermons at the mosque, to me, are a good indicator of the levels of prranoia and fear among Muslims and consequently the intensity of the racism out there. When this whole thing started, it took a couple of months for the ulama to start talking about it in Friday sermons, advising and cautioning the community. Now with most of the extreme voices dying down, preaching is back to timely topics such as Ramadan and exhortations to be better Muslims.

people are still very raw and sensitive however, I hope this blows over soon. Ramadan kareem everyone. 

With the perceived failure of its leadership to appropriately address its problems, there is an increasing vacuum for a movement that truly incorporates the Muslim community from the grassroots-up into collective decision making, the recently established Interim Shura Council is attempting to do just that.

puttlam mosquePic: Puttlam Grand Mosque

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community suffers from both internal and external issues. Externally; recent troubles with the BBS and other similar groups have witnessed Islamophobia in its worst global manifestations taking root in Sri Lankan society.

Internally the community has long grappled with rifts along fault lines of geographical differences, norms of religious practice and ideology. Although rather insignificant in nature (the various factions agree on a broad level on the basic principles of the religion but tend to squabble on minor aspects of practice), these differences have over the years developed into major conflicts that have at times torn the it apart (the 2009 clashes between two mosques in Beruwala for instance, which saw two dead). In recent years the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU) has attempted to restore a semblance of balance by striving to form an umbrella body that incorporates all of the various factions, with marginal success.

Leadership Losing Respect

The perceived political impotency of the vast majority of Muslim politicians, themselves as a group ferociously prone to petty squabbling, have led to mass scale disgust. There is a strong sense that Muslim politicians have long since abandoned pursuing the goals of their people, opting to enrich themselves and pursue their own agendas instead.

The lack of cohesion and unity within Sri Lankan Muslims, largely perceived as a monolithic group by the outside observer, was exposed like a raw nerve as it came under attack from hardline Sinhala Buddhist racist elements. The first major attack, on a mosque in Dambulla in North Central Sri Lanka in April 2012, was quickly followed up by a broad based hate campaign against Halal certified foods, Islamic legal support frameworks and the Hijab.

At that point the ulama (Islamic scholars) played a key role in managing the tension. Its patience and fortitude in the face of rising racism have been continuously bolstered and reinforced by preaching and messages of peace. Their exhortations for Muslims to continuously look at their own faults and errors in order to find the root causes of their troubles have turned what could have been a mood of collective belligerence that could have escalated into unwelcome reactions, into one of patience and reflection.

However, there is feeling that the ulama themselves have a share of blame in the problems afflictng the people. Many feel that the halal issue for example was an unwanted intrusion into the lives of ordinary Muslims. The Halal certification emerged as a result of demand from businesses rather than end consumers and was managed and implemented by the ACJU, the islandwide umbrella body of ulama. The case of recently executed housemaid Rizana Nafeek left the impression that local scholars did not do enough to examine the integrity of the case against her, buckling down to pressure from Saudi Arabia instead.  These incidents coupled with the inability of key members of the ACJU to appropriately defend their position of endorsing the collapsed Ceylinco investment vehicle CPSI makes a case for the establishment of an accountability framework to ensure that a two way relationship between the people at large and the religious leadership is maintained.

There is also sentiment that the current set of ulama, generally lacking ‘secular’ or worldly education in their strictly theological backgrounds, could use a support framework comprising of people from different areas of expertise to enable them to better serve the community.

The Civil Alternative

This dual failure of the political and religious apparatus of Sri Lankan Muslims has created a strong vacuum for the emergence of a civil solution to Muslim issues. Enter the Shura Council. ‘Shura’ is an Arabic term that means ‘consensus’, an idea believed to be of paramount importance in any collective action in Islam. Practiced by the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) and his companions, obtaining consensus is put forward in the qur’an itself and is meant to function as a mechanism to ensure that rulers and the ruled are accountable to each other. Modern Islamic political discourse often points to the idea of ‘Shura’ to highlight the essential compatibility of the original idea of an Islamic government with the idea of democracy.

This fledgling Shura Council in Sri Lanka, now in an interim stage, was first convened in early May, but the idea for it appears to have originated right after the Dambulla attack. It aims to work towards establishing a National Shura Council with the goal of reaching into the grassroots in order to involve them in decision making, and to achieve a broad consensus among the various factions. The movement has the full approval of the ACJU (indeed key members of the scholarly organization have encouragingly been at the forefront of endorsing it), and that of the various other powerful bodies in the community such as the tableeq jamat, tawheed jamat and tareeka organizations (that comprise of sufistic orders in the country) whose differences have caused much of the division within it.

The council, led by professionals and social activists, aims to set up sub councils at the district, town and village levels at local mosques. However the process isn’t easy. Many decisions yet remain to be made. The degree of political involvement is one. Skeptics and think that too much involvement will quickly result in the ‘politicization’ of the body; preferring to instead maintain a one way relationship with politicians, hoping that the latter would have no choice but to listen to them once the Shura Council becomes the large, national, community pressure group it intends to.

The council is currently in the process of obtaining feedback from various communities in the country as well as Muslim professional bodies and other organizations, aware that without full consensus the idea will not work. Matters such as what criteria individual members of each town Shura council should possess etc are still to be decided. There is general agreement that members must be upstanding Muslim citizens, be pious and concerned for its problems. But such a system can all too soon fall prey to opportunism, as evidenced by the sad state of many of the Trustee Boards of Muslim mosques in the country, whose members grapple and play politics simply for the social status associated with being on the board, serving their communities becoming a secondary concern.

Risks on the Horizon

Its emergence into the spotlight will also no doubt open it up to criticism from Sri Lanka’s hard right which until recently engaged in a virulent public campaign against quadi courts (small outfits that deal with Muslim family affairs) in the country, planting fears of the wide scale imposition of ‘sharia law’ among the public. The local Islamophobia machine will not stay quiet at the emergence of a large scale body aiming to bring together the whole of the Muslim community into one cohesive body.

But the biggest need of the hour will be figuring out not how to save the Shura council it from outsiders, but how to save it from itself. The integrity of the council is of paramount importance if it is to function with any credibility and that will mean coming up with an organizational system that has checks and balances to prevent corruption. This is usually nearly impossible without moral people. And as an organization built around a fundamentally religious purpose one would expect that this would not be a problem.

But the truth is that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is currently at a heightened state of awareness. It has just woken up from a decades long stupor and taken note of some of the major damage it has inflicted upon itself. It is worried and eager to set things right, and for now its disparate factions have come together in order to achieve a purpose more noble than mutual bickering. For consensus to happen, the parties convening must want it to happen. And for now at least, its recent troubles have galvanized it into placing the objective of unity above and beyond the petty differences that used to dominate its various factions. ‘The fear of God’ so to speak has been instilled within it via tribulation and trial.

Whereas previously a whole bloc would rather have walked out of the room than compromise even a little, there is sacrifice, setting aside of ego and the recognition of unity as a strong need of the hour. Indeed this is highly in line with Islamic teaching, which deplores fractionalization and internal disagreements, but given that an external enemy had to emerge to make it happen, one wonders if the natural complacency of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community will eventually cause it to slip back into the dreamlike state it was in before the Bodu Bala Sena saw fit to wake it up.

Originally published for The Sunday Leader

This is probably one of the best videos on Sri Lanka tourism i have ever seen. One, because it focuses on Sri Lankan tourists and two, because it is highly entertaining but still gets across a message.

Garbage. Trash. Pollution.

Look at any ‘trip’ that Sri Lankans do and you will see garbage in their wake. Numerous are the occasions that the Sinhalaya Travels crew have gone to some pristine untouched location in a beautiful remote corner of the island and found the effect to be ruined by stray plastic bags, chocolate and toffee wrappers.

And well, its not really just about the effect at the end of the day, we are talking about serious harm to the environment, and that too to locations that are highly prized by all Sri Lankans. On my last visit to Trinco i was especially appalled at the amount of trash local tourists generously scatter about.

The scribbling of walls, carving of trees, pastings of chewing gum, random disposal of garbage into the open environment must stop. And the public needs to be educated. This video is a great first step, and it being taken by a government body is an encouraging sign.

Only the government has the media clout to reach out to educate the people at large. And well, it’ll be great to see them use this for positive propaganda for a change. Hopefully they’ll follow this up with the necessary infrastructure like signboards and trash disposal systems, which there is a serious dearth of.

The song speaks nostalgically of the beauty of the country. The deeply ironic effect it has when coupled with the visuals may be slightly lost if you don’t understand the words.

And as for that poor girl who got spat on with beetle juice. I’ve been there. Happened to me once in Jaffna. Not nice to be on the receiving end of a projectile of a massive red gob of spit.

Azath Salley was arrested yesterday. One of the allegations made against him is making comments that incite religious hatred.  Azath Salley in recent months has built a reputation of of sorts of being pretty much the only Muslim politician with the courage to go up against the BBS in public.

This affidavit penned by the General Secretary and Leader of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) Dr. Vickramabahu Karunarathne, gives a bit of broader context to what Salley was up to in the run up to his arrest. The NSSP, Salley’s NUA and several other parties were part of a “Movement for Unity with Power Sharing” with a mandate that involved tackling racism.

According to the Defense Ministry, Salley has apparently said that Muslims must start an armed struggle like the LTTE, and that they are actually ready and waiting to be armed. Salley is also suspected of having links with the LTTE. No evidence has been brought forth to prove these allegations as yet.

After some heavy drama where he was denied medical care and had to resort to a hunger strike he was admitted to hospital on Friday afternoon. Where his case will proceed is still not clear. Hopefully we will see a fair and transparent legal process. Anything else could be a serious setback to perceptions of government support for ethnic harmony.

But double standards are not nice. For instance, the Bodu Bala Sena has clearly engaged in hate speech and incitement of ethnic hatred. Yet the BBS has only been allowed to grow and prosper. They seem to have quietened down lately, and rumors of anti-BBS foreign pressure have been heard on the grapevine, but there is no telling if the BBS is now a thing of the past; a mere spike in the long line chart of public distractions giving away to the next (Duminda perhaps?); or in fact a sleeping dragon.

The BBS bias though, begins to make clear sense in the murky twilight of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik. Sinhala Buddhist supremacy is nothing new to the country. It has always been there and maybe it always will.

What is worrying to me is not that the government is responsible for unleashing the BBS, because that would imply that it was actually capable of controlling it. What is worrying is that the government, if those that allege that it is behind the BBS are right, is only trying to appease it. Because it plainly poses fatalistic threats to near term stability in Sri Lanka.

From an economic angle, Sri Lanka has a consistent savings to investment gap, so the only way to seriously grow the economy is to attract solid foreign direct investment (or to borrow, but that way lies disaster). But foreigners are notoriously sensitive to political instability; and ethnic strife along with human rights allegations, the Chief Justice fiasco and sudden price hikes just add to the list of cons when it comes to investing in Sri Lanka, especially given enough safer options in the region like the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia etc.

So the argument that this is merely another ‘distraction’ pre-supposes an extremely short-termist, even stupid government. Because for it to invent ethnic disharmony out of thin air as a distraction from a flagging economy, a tactic that can only worsen the economy’s prospects would be a very stupid thing indeed.

But I don’t think the Rajapakse’s are short termist, in fact, they could just be one of the most long termist entities in power we’ve had. But they are still playing a balancing act, despite their outward show of power. Mark Juergensmeyer has a few great passages on Sri Lanka in his “The New Religious State” (the whole of it is well worth read). This was written in ’95 but still sounds coldly relevant today.

The present rulers in Sri Lanka face the same dilemma as their predecessors: they need Sinhalese support, but they feel they can not go so far as to alienate the Tamils and other minority groups. They have been attacked viciously by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists for attempting to achieve what might be impossible: a national entity that is both Buddhist and secular. The use of Buddhist symbols is meant to appeal to the Sinhalese, and the adoption of a secular political ideology is supposed to mollify everyone else.

With elections approaching and Sarath Fonseka back on the campaign trail, powers are converging against the status quo. To take Juergensmeyer’s view, this rise of extremist nationalist forces could be the Rajapakse’s first ‘attack’ at the hands of  “Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists” for trying to achieve a “national entity that is both Buddhist and secular”.

I still think that the Rajapakse model of government, while far from ‘good’, is the best we can have in our current context. We can help improve it, but if it is toppled we would probably descend into disarray. From a policy and historical perspective, and in line with examples of East Asian success stories, a ‘benevolent autocracy’ is probably the only model of government capable of giving Sri Lanka the stability it needs to grow in the longer term. Maybe what John Kotelawala said in 1974 is still largely relevant.

Sri Lanka is not ready for democracy. In a country like Sri Lanka democracy becomes government by bloody mugs and idiots.

But how benevolent is this autocracy? Evidence so far has proven that it can be quite belligerent and reactionary. But is that due to this balancing act, this need to keep all sides happy? And now, how autocratic is it? With movements like the BBS emerging, the stranglehold the Rs have on power is beginning to be questioned as well.

Some of the placards attested to food being the greatest unifier. I agree.

Some of the placards attested to food being the greatest unifier. I agree.

Yesterday’s Rally For Unity, I think, was a resounding success. There was a fair bit of commotion in the run-up to it with various would be social media saboteurs attempting to close the event down. But the turnout was a testament to its reach. By my estimates, around 500-700 people were present, but I could be wrong, being notoriously bad at guessing at this sort of thing.

Some alien flyers (there’s a translation up) invaded the rally as well. Claiming that it was an NGO/foreign funded operation. Now where have we heard that story before? It certainly rings a bell. The Police soon dealt with the trouble makers however, telling them to ‘samakamiwa yanna putha’ (walk away in peace, son) before they slunk off into the inner reaches of Viharamahadevi Park. Volunteers reported being tailed by unknown vehicles after the rally ended as well, but no other disturbances were heard of.

An expanding list of politicians and dignitaries were coming out in support of it as the rally drew near, I think this helped build the credibility of the group involved, which is denying any organizational affiliations, projecting itself only as a loose group of individuals committed to fighting hate speech in Sri Lanka, unaffiliated to the BQBBS which organized the Candlelit Vigil on 12 April.

But the experience of the Vigil appears to have taught some lessons. Police permissions were obtained, and legal loopholes looked into. The role of the Police as a matter of fact, took a 180 degree turn in terms of how they reacted to peaceful protesters, I’m sure everyone appreciated this.

Endorsements by the presence of people like Dayan Jayatilleke (who was interviewed by Charles Haviland for the BBC) and others; and Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and Baddegama Samitha Thero who spoke at the event cemented a sense of officialism.

More than anything though, it was the people that turned up, after everything that happened after the Vigil, that made the Rally work. Families turned up with kids, students came, passers by, random uncles and aunties, clergy, activists, executives, business people, government servants, it was truly an urban motley crowd. Kudos to them.

Photos:

DSC_0211

The rogue leaflet

The rogue leaflet

DSC_0158

DSC_0195

DSC_0178

Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and Samitha Thero

Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and Samitha Thero

DSC_0215 DSC_0239 DSC_0249

Dayan Jayatilleke

Dayan Jayatilleke

Update: More pictures here and on Indi’s flickr

Indonesian_Sampan

Do you know what it means?

Most pejoratives have origins in completely acceptable descriptive words. ‘Negro’ comes from the Latin ‘Niger which means black, ‘Paki’ is shortened from ‘Pakistani’. Terms like Chinaman, Coolie are also derived from relatively innocent descriptive origins. They get their pejorative connotations after being repeatedly used in an insulting manner.  Other names originate directly from a desire to put down and insult, but the word ‘Hambaya’ belongs to the former category.

‘Hambaya’ is derived from the Malay ‘Sampan’. The word for a somewhat flat bottomed boat, also used by the Chinese. Pictured above is an Indonesian sampan, coming back from a fishing expedition. Sampans were frequently seen in Sri Lanka’s South Eastern coast when Javanese people stopped en route while migrating to countries like Yemen and MadagascarMany of them stayed back here as well. The term was eventually associated with South Indian traders who were also Muslims like the Javan people, and who adopted the same style of boat. And eventually, as ‘Sampan’ became ‘Samman’ in Tamil and ‘Hamban’ to the Sinhala people, a collective term ‘Hambankaraya’ was used to describe them as a whole.

According to ethnologist Asiff Hussein, author of Sarandib: an Ethnological Study of Muslims in Sri Lanka, the word did not acquire its derogatory connotations until the beginning of the 1915 riots, the first ever incident of tension between Sinhalese and Muslims. According to Asiff, the riots were sparked by ‘coastal moors’ of Indian residence temporarily ensconced in the center of the country (the riots started at Gampola) for trading purposes. They were not as accommodating as Sri Lankan moors (the term used for resident moors in the country) and objected to the procession of the perehara (Buddhist festival) near their mosque (contrarily, resident moors were long known to have facilitated and supported perahara activity).

The ensuing tensions spread the  use of the word ‘Hambaya’, shortened from the rather more respectful ‘Hambankaraya’, as a wide derog to describe all Muslims even the ones that hadn’t migrated on a boat. But then again, everyone in Sri Lanka, except maybe for the aadivasi, migrated on a boat, and a lot of us still continue the proud tradition, but I digress. The word ‘Thambiya‘ probably acquired its seedier usage around about that time as well. Just like in ‘hambaya’ the problem is the suffix ‘ya’ which basically turns an endearing term that refers to a younger brother into a racial slur.

Signs that ‘Hamban’ was once a respectable term are everywhere. Take Hambantota for instance, what will probably soon be Sri Lanka’s on-paper capital. The whole place is named after the Hambankarayas or at least, their boats.. Hambantota basically means ‘Port of Hambans’. Further to the East, ‘Sammanthurai’ means exactly the same thing. ‘Samman’ is the Tamil version of ‘Hamban’ and ‘Thurai’ means port.

Many Malays still live in the Hambantota area. My uncle was married to a Malay there. Almost his whole family (and wife’s extended family as well) and nearly the entire neighborhood were wiped out in the tsunami. Malays have more than a passing influence on Sri Lankan culture, language and history. But this is often overlooked because of the small size of the Malay community in the country today. They are usually cast in the same cultural bucket as Sri Lankan Moors, who are themselves a pretty diverse lot to begin with.

Not all of the Hambankarayas were Muslim. Chandrabhanu was a Javanese king who spent some 30 years of his reign trying to invade Sri Lanka. He probably used many sampan in his invasionary forays. He was a Buddhist.

81

image from the Colombo Gazette

Tonight’s protest against the BBS (well, actually a vigil to promote the ‘true values’ of Buddhism which the BBS are going against) was an eye opener in many ways.

Number one, injustice

And this MUST be mentioned first and foremost. It was an eye opener to be on the wrong side of injustice, assuming there is a right side to it of course.

The protesters turned up for a peaceful vigil. They had candles and were preparing to light them. However the police, based on some trumped up claim that the gathering was to promote a change to the national anthem, promptly arrested two of them. Later, around four more were arrested. All were subsequently released. Apparently they merely got a free tour of a couple of police stations and got to see what it looked like inside a police jeep; prisoner’s perspective.

The point though is that the cops appeared to be completely on the side of the Bodu Bala Sena on this. They dispersed the protest, claiming that it was to ‘avoid a kalabala (problems, trouble)’ but it was only the BBS that were causing the problems. Yelling, screaming and making false accusations. False accusations which the police, and apparently Swarnawahini, seem to have had no problem propagating with complete lack of evidence.

This video shows the appalling site of a poor protester being manhandled by cops for lighting a candle. While a BBS  guy, clearly trying to instigate some sort of violence from those present, was only being gently and respectfully shoved aside.

Number two, the media.

I think Swarnawahini is the best example, the footage of their protest coverage (linked above) showed a clear bias to the BBS, on no occasion did the supposedly objective news broadcaster think to show BOTH sides of the story, because that would completely defeat their purpose of being a vehicle for the BBS to propagate their extremist ideology. Sirasa/MTV gave an unbiased coverage, and so did Hiru News, in the ten seconds or so they dedicated to it. Kudos to them.

It is a concern that media sources that actually reach the people at large, the Sinhala newspapers, the state TV channels appear to still have a clear bias against showing the anti-BBS view. For example, by entertaining BBS claims that average Sri Lankans that turned up for a peaceful candle lit vigil were ‘NGO funded’, while ignoring clear evidence to the fact that the BBS could have far more substantiatable links with foreign funding. A case can easily be made that they are a disruptive mechanism funded by foreign sources given their alleged unscrupulus-to the-patriotic-eye involvement with Norway, Israel and its latest proselytising in the US, if anything, ‘patriotic’ media should be investigating this.

Number three, the protesters themselves.

I expected the vigil to be left alone, ignored and typecast as an elitist operation that deserved to be merely humored, as these things usually are. But the angry reaction by the BBS and belligerence of police changed all that. You could tell that many were perturbed.

Still others left as soon as they turned up, perhaps alarmed at the news of the arrests, and perhaps disillusioned. The BBS can, and will fight dirty, they will intimidate, and as was so clearly demonstrated, will use state apparatus like law enforcement for added effect. In light of this, how should protests continue and how will they reconcile their significant interests (jobs, family backgrounds, social standing) with the danger of getting arrested, beaten up and losing it all? (BBS agents, presumably, were busy taking pictures of all present).

Everyone present tonight acted admirably today. And I am proud to have been among them. Question is, will we come back, and risk really getting arrested again next time? How many of us have family connections that will bust us out? The movement needs lawyers (there were few on hand today btw, thankfully), funding and more organization.

The crowd was diverse; academics, theater and arts, media, civil society, corporate, intellectual and just young people concerned with the state of affairs. But excuse me for saying this, it was also homogeneous. Privileged, mostly English speaking and well off compared to average Sri Lanka. This is where the BBS has the advantage.

First they’ve got the ear of the people via the media. Second, they LOOK like and SPEAK like the people, while being nothing like them and having interests that are completely contrary to theirs. They are here to con the people, and as far as confidence trickery goes, the BBS is very effective.

How do you mobilize ‘the rest’ to participate? how do you turn this into a ‘people’s movement’? Tonight, many who were there were there because their interests were directly threatened. To ‘the rest; it must still seem like the BBS is fighting against someone else, that their interests are safe. That ‘someone else’ right now are minorities such as Muslims, ‘Night Club’ Buddhists, the NGO and peacenik crowd and the list goes on. All of these elements have been at some point or the other the traditional enemy of the standard-model Sri Lankan patriot. It seems to me that propaganda has created complexes deep in the public psyche that will not be easy to break through.

I don’t have answers, just questions. And in the meanwhile I am wholly in support of acting within the range of what we know. Kudos to those who organized tonight’s event and those who supported it. The challenge now is to keep going. A few of us have organized a petition, and some others are organizing a peace rally soon. Numerous other efforts are going on in social media. Whatever your capacity, there is always some way in which you can contribute.

Part 1 of News First footage. Continued below.