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Delegates at Hambantota trying to pose for the massive group picture.

Delegates at Hambantota trying to pose for the massive group picture with the president.

I know a lot of people here are idealistic, I am too. I’m just a little cynical about the mechanisms we usually use in order to get what we want. Getting what we want (‘we’ being ‘the youth’, an over-homogenized entity that sometimes does not make sense), being the primary goal here at WCY2014 and similar conferences we attend. My frustration usually stems from the fact that no one usually looks in-the-face of the most urgent problems of our time, problems from which most of the issues we want to tackle arise from the first place.

There was very little deep discourse, for instance, on the wars and oppressions raging in the world today. Where essentially respected nations within the global community are carrying out dastardly acts with grave violations of human rights. There was next to no discussion about the corporatocracy, the military industrial complex, puppet regimes, the exploitation of resources in the name of capitalism, phenomenon that are invariably nicely packaged in boxes labelled ‘democracy’, ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’ for gullible minds to consume, distorting what those original concepts should mean to us to begin with.

Take the Arab Spring, the most touted example of this century, bandied about by practically everyone trying to convert people into believing in the ‘potential of youth’. The Arab spring has completely failed in almost all the places it has ‘sprung’ up in, with Tunisia being the only possible exception. Wherever else the Arab Spring raised its head, born by the boiling frustrations of young people long oppressed by regimes backed by the global status quo, it has only been compressed again, the most blatant example of this being Egypt, where a military coup that killed nearly 700 innocents is now holding forth as the only hope for democracy in the country. A regime fast gaining support and legitimacy from around the world despite its many ongoing violations.

We talk about climate change and the carbon footprint, yet most climate problems stem from activities of large corporate entities that are simply not represented here. This literally makes it impossible to engage meaningfully with one of the main stakeholders on the issue. These same corporates, again, are supported by governments that bring legitimacy to conferences such as these, and preserved and natured in the name of capitalism and economic growth. So, I think, what kind of game are we playing here? Are conferences such as these merely put in place to pander to the enthusiasm of youth? A way of harnessing their energy? A way of diverting it away from where it would have been expended otherwise? In bloody smash-yourself-against-the-wall-revolutions born of desperate frustration perhaps?

Young people almost by definition are frustrated. I think being frustrated and concerned about problems and issues is something that ties us together as idealists, as those that are young. Because what else does? I have met many kinds of young people. Strong, weak, happy, sad, apathetic and simply downright evil. I have met young people that in my opinion should in no way be allowed anywhere near a position of power. Young people in that sense are just like old people. But young people at least, are less likely to take things lying down.

Most of the ‘old people’ that spoke to us over the last few days, like John Ashe, the president of the general assembly of the UN, indicated how the baton is now being passed, about how his generation was not as successful as he hoped it would be. How the world’s problems, decades on, are still more or less the same. This is a huge responsibility and also a burden on our shoulders. Because what guarantee do we have that our approach will yield better results? Are we, in an Einsteinian spell of madness, going to go about solving our problems in the same way as those before us, repeating their oversights and mistakes? Or are we not only going to aim for change, but also in a change in how we approach change?

From the beginning of the conference, the unofficial word on the street was that we were not to expect a revolutionary outcome document. The point is the process, changing the process here is what was important. Wangari Maathai, the famous Kenyan activist, left us with the tale of the hummingbird, who patiently travelled back and forth from the river in an attempt to douse the flames consuming her jungle home even as all other animals fled. We must all be hummingbirds for change, she said. And hummingbirds are what I see when I look at the delegates of WCY2014.

Plenty of people here believe this conference can and is contributing to change in a positive way. At least in terms of process. If this goes ahead as planned, the post-2015 development goals will essentially be influenced by actual youth input. For the first time in like, ever, young people would have actually contributed their bit into global policy formulation; having their say in how policies of countries around the world address issues such as gender, human rights, health, governance and what have you. This, even I can admit, is nothing to sneeze at.

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Adams Peak can be a grueling trek but ultimately extremely rewarding. The cultural aspect especially, which makes it stand to reason to attempt it in the pilgrimage season. This was from last year. We trekked up half the distance through a jungle path* that only opens up when the villagers of Udamaliboda begin to use it for their own pilgrimage. The path is otherwise usually covered in thick undergrowth and you are likely to get lost if you attempt it at any other time. Also, even at the best of times, the risk of flash floods is real.

When you reach the steps proper, which in our case consisted of little more than rough cuts made into rock (the Kuruvita route. The more civilized paths lead up from Hatton and Ratnapura, the former is crowded and touristy, while the latter is longer but more peaceable and one with nature), and meet other pilgrims on their way up or down, they will greet you in verse invoking upon you the blessings of the god Saman, the deity of the mountain. You are generally expected to respond in kind, or bear the brunt of the uncomfortable silences that follow with respectful, sheepish smiles.

The mountain’s Sinhala name, Samanala, derives from the name of this god or also possibly the Sinhala word for butterfly, which is the same. The whole area surrounding the mountain, which is sacred and steeped in ancient lore and significance associated with all four major faiths the island hosts but primarily in the belief systems of the Sinhala people, is known as ‘the realm of the mountain god’ or ‘Samanala adaviya’, to those that revere it. It is also known as ‘Shri Pada’ (for the sacred footprint on its peak said to belong to Adam, Shiva or the Buddha based on which belief system you subscribe to) or Adam’s Peak.

There are four main paths that lead to the peak, and attribute it to what you will, but ascending or descending along the lesser populated ones, it is not hard to gather a sense of otherwordly profundity in every leaf that brushes your face, in the clumps of big rock roughly hewn to make way for human progress, in the breathtaking views and sights that greet you as you progress upwards or in every rivulet of icy water that crosses your path; from thin streams to the gushing majesty of the ‘seetha gangula’ or ‘cool river’ in which it is considered especially auspicious to bathe in.

In the case of the path we took, every leech that successfully latched on to our foot in tenacious determination, sucking our blood and giving us the itches for weeks afterwards, also succeeded in conveying something otherworldly, just not so much in a good way. But if you are up for a tough hike, I would strongly recommend the path from Udamaliboda. In an age of ease and convenience, it alone remains one of the only truly ‘authentic’ ways up there. I know, I sound like such a hipster.

Remarkable people come to the peak. I saw old men and women, some supporting themselves with walking sticks resolutely making their way upwards, even passing us, our poor touristy tread unfired by any sense of profound purpose, in an amazing testament to the power of human faith. Whole families, nay, whole villages will come up the mountain together, many will carry toddlers all the way up and all the way back down. They will bring supplies and cook and sleep and live their way up the mountain, often taking days to complete the pilgrimage, taking advantage of the many ‘ambalamas’ or resting places constructed for the purpose.

It is said that Ibn Batuta, the famous Moroccan Islamic jurist who pretty much made an envious lifelong career out of traveling and writing about it, talked the Tamil king of the North at the time into taking him to the peak. He must have gone through thick jungle, forbidding trials, and territory belonging to Sinhalese kings, but he doesn’t appear to have experienced any untoward problems. In Islamic tradition, including the prophet’s (may peace be upon him) hadeeth, there is some evidence that Adam could have alighted upon Sarandib, but there is evidence just as strong that makes the case of him having landed in Jordan. Anyhow, it appears that Muslim traders initially made a big deal of the former, which also resulted in increased access to the hinterlands, and expansion of the trade in gems, both a spiritually and commercially profitable enterprise.

The multiculturalism of Adam’s peak however, I can attest to. When I found myself up there before sunrise, I was anxious to offer my pre-dawn salah. This was at the height of BBS induced anti-Muslim hate in the country, and being the city slicker I am, I naively feared I would be mobbed in mid-prayer. The top of the mountain is a warren of construction; temples and viewing platforms; sprawling resting places, all squeezed into a very small piece of land right on the peak, which incidentally results in terrible foot traffic jams along the more crowded Hatton route, which sort of beats the purpose of taking the shorter, more commercial path to the top.

I apprehensively laid my prayer rug amidst sleeping bodies, in what I thought was a secluded corner. And proceeded to pray. I kept hearing hubbub in the background, hubbub which I expected to rise to a crescendo of outrage at any moment. But nothing happened. I prayed, nodded at a few groggy people just waking up, and left. I felt unnoticed, unremarked upon, and more than anything else that could have happened, that made me feel welcome, a part of the crowd.

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Nothing really left to talk about except for the sunrise, which everyone waits for, and which is pretty much the point of the whole exercise for those that aren’t religiously motivated. There is a very long moment of staring into the East, hundreds of people literally looking towards the East, faces open and expectant as if hoping for some sort of divine revelation. And the sun is a total tease. It made us wait and wait, and finally deigned to let loose a single gleam, a ray as sharp as a laser beam piercing through the crowd, before finally rising completely to the occasion.

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The sun will soon be too bright to look at, but if you glance off the Western side of the mountain, you will see the massive triangular shadow of the peak stretching to the horizon, the mist still caught in the valleys of lesser peaks look like trapped lakes. It is truly a breathtaking sight.

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*information on trails and travel advice to Adam’s Peak can be found on the excellent Lakdasun

Dayan Jayatilleka spoke at a recent event organized by the Sri Lankan Committee for Solidarity with Palestine, to commemorate the UN Day for Solidarity with Palestine . The Sri Lankan government has made it a general point to sympathize with the Palestinian cause, though in recent years it has also become increasingly pally with Israel, with an envoy in the country and multiple arms deals.

DJ himself has a long and robust history of support for the Palestinian cause. But his speech on that day smacked of opportunism aimed at capitalizing on one of the world’s most tragic human rights issues in order to express the grievances of Sri Lanka’s government.

His attempts to equate the troubles of the Palestinian people with the ‘troubles of the Sri Lankan people’, whatever that may mean drastically trivialized the Palestinian problem. According to him, Sri Lanka and Palestine are two sides of the same coin, because they are both subject to double standards by ‘hegemonic Western regimes’.

I don’t quite know what Sri Lanka DJ is taking about, unless he’s talking about the extremely poor or the post-war disenfranchised, but even they don’t experience problems remotely close to what Palestinians experience everyday; sewage flooding their streets, constant threat of death by drone strikes/air strikes/deranged Israeli soldier strikes, frequent checkpoints, the inability to enjoy one’s rights in one’s own country, constant threat of expulsion and murder at the hands of an opressive regime etc etc etc. The list goes on.

To say that Sri Lanka and Palestine have something in common because we are both subject to double standards by Western regimes is like equating an advanced cancer patient with someone complaining about a visit to the dentist.

Also consider that in the eyes of the West, the government of Sri Lanka is accused of crimes that liken them more to Israel than Palestine; cast more in the mold of the oppressor than the oppressed. And all it seems to be doing is playing the part of the prosecuted street thug plaintively pointing at the gangland boss going free. This posturing is an admission of guilt, not of innocence.

DJ went on to make an explosive exhortation for David Cameron to visit Palestine, and not Jaffna, if he cares about human rights. I think David Cameron is quite aware of the tragic state of Palestine. He staunchly ignores it everyday, never meaningfully addressing the problem that the ‘Western Hegemonic Powers’ Dayan talks about created in the first place. But unlike Palestine, Sri Lanka’s problem is completely internal. We have the power to solve it, address it and move on from it. The Palestinian people do not have this luxury.

The moral agency of the West (what moral agency of the West?) is just a diversion, and it’s sad to see someone like DJ actively engaging in promoting it as the predominant point in Sri Lanka’s post war discourse, dialog and search for truths. Instead we should be looking inwards, into our own history, into our own morality. I have always been and still am staunchly against the LTTE, and I am more grateful than I can say that the war is now over, and the terrorists ‘defeated’.

But i’d be lying if I said that I believe the conflict has ended. Sri Lanka’s conflict is living on, and it is constantly being aggravated in its sleeping underground state by inaction, jingoism and distraction. And no one seems to be taking a meaningful public stand to address it. The conflict is a sleeping dragon, and eventually it is going to wake up. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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.

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