By Leonard Pinto –
The autobiography of Basil Fernando, Body, Mind, Soul, Society, as stated in its Preface is a glimpse of “the global crisis of civilisation that human-kind has been facing for a considerable time”, through the prism of author’s life experience. That crisis in civilisation happened to be loss of respect for the rights of every human being, or put in another way, the loss of “love your neighbour as yourself.” The book is a tribute to Human Rights, to its theoretical foundation and practical application to which, Basil dedicated his entire life, in his thinking and actions. In his autobiography, he presents his life experiences, both in the tranquillity of village life and the tragedies of insurrections in Sri Lanka, dehumanising war in Indo-China and its aftermath in refugee camp in Hong Kong. While cruising through life experiences, the author intermittently dips into philosophical considerations of truth, justice, peace and compassionate love, which stimulated him to champion the cause of Human Rights, from an existential perspective. In his autobiography, he displays his stand on Human Rights resolutely, as a lawyer, intellectual and a humanist. The genre of the autobiography is unique, as it is in poetry and prose. Most of the 26 chapters contain some poetry, written for certain occasions. Chapter 23 is predominantly dedicated to poetry, where he states, “writing prose and poetry has been a way for me to make sense of my experiences and observations. My poems in particular have always been a subconscious creation”. There are a few scenes in the book, which are narrated in a style that touch our hearts deeply. The death of his sister Evelyn at 4, the deprivation of his scheduled vote of thanks speech after confirmation because of his caste at 7, Tamil father who dragged his two kids back to their car to be immolated together in the 1983 riots, the old man who enjoyed sitting by Hamilton Canal till human corpses began to float and upset him and the Vietnamese Buddhist nun in the refugee camp in Hong Kong, who lost her personality, after living there for a long period, are a few stories that melt the heart of the reader.
From his young age, Basil has been a leader, who placed the needs of the community and the principles of Human Rights before his own interests, sometimes taking high risks. As I knew him at St Benedict’s College Colombo, he was a fluent Sinhala orator and a debater, being involved in literary societies. At Colombo University he accepted the responsibilities of joint secretary of Students Union, vice-president of the Law Faculty Students Union and the national president of the Campus Catholic Students Federation. All this happened during the 1st JVP insurrection in the early 70s, when universities were infiltrated by JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) a communist guerrilla movement steered by Sinhalese youth. Although in Chapter 21, he gives the reason for his involvement in these university student unions as a distraction to forget his failed love affair created by social prejudices, one can discover between the lines his true love in leadership through service to the community.
During the 2nd JVP insurrection (1987-1989) he took high risks in appearing as a lawyer to defend those who were falsely accused of being JVP members, because of professional jealousies, family enmities, political vendettas and class suppression. Basil got into the government’s JVP list when he accompanied a girl, a tutor of his friend’s daughter to the Peliyagoda Police Station. Police chief of the anti-terrorism unit there advised her to go into hiding, because they seem to suspect her brother, a medical student to be a JVP member, and 6 Police units will be searching her, even if he prefers to ignore her. A few days later, Basil was informed by Peliyagoda Police through his friend that his name is also in the government’s JVP list. The advice from his friends was to leave the country as soon as possible, as those who were taken for questioning by the security forces often disappeared. Thereafter, their bodies either floated on rivers or burnt on roadside with piles of tyres. In 1989 Basil escaped potential torture and death in Sri Lanka, when he hurriedly packed his bag and bid goodbye to his recently married wife and the country, pretending to attend a conference, organised by Law Asia in Hong Kong. Arriving in Hong Kong with only US$2,000, he could not survive long even in a motel, as the cost of living in Hong Kong was high. His friends in Hong Kong, Sam Cheung a film producer and his brother Tim Tak, Joseph Clancy an American lawyer and Jack came to his assistance and provided free accommodation.
While in Hong Kong he met youth from Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Pakistan who narrated harrowing stories of how the so-called respectable governments exercised terror and torture by forced false confessions from suspects in gross violation of Human Rights. In Hong Kong he found a job with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to assess the refugees in UN camp, who had come from Vietnam in boats. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the Americans left Vietnam, many people who did not support the communist party, Viet Cong and People’s Army left Vietnam in fear. As it was his job to interview the Vietnam refugees, Basil was able to understand the misery of the post-war Vietnam and paint an accurate picture of that era in some chapters in his autobiography.
Just before the first JVP insurrection I heard the Soviet educated JVP leader proclaiming at a rally in Kandy that when they come to power, they will abandon the tea estates introduced by the colonialists and develop local agriculture. During the second JVP insurrection, they reiterated the same chant, and we had to be ready to abandon Colombo, its offices, schools and universities, and go to villages to grow rice paddies. The French educated Cambodia’s Pol Pot had similar communist economic policies. JVP was beaten and Sri Lanka was saved. Pol Pot triumphed, and Cambodia was ruined. The revolution of Pol Pot and activities of Khmer Rouge brought hunger and misery to the once agriculturally prosperous Cambodia. The educated middle-class Cambodians fled the country or were tortured and killed. 1.5 million Cambodians, one third of the nation perished through hunger or violation of Human Rights.
When Basil took up a position with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992, he was going to a country where life was cheap and Human Rights have been erased from the vocabulary. The Cambodia he went has been battered by US bombing of Vietnamese guerrilla camps, terrorised by Khmer Rouge and other groups, and maneuvered by communist interests in China, Vietnam and Soviet Union to expand their power in the region and the attempts of the US to contain communism and protect regional democracy. The Cambodia that Basil went had lost its glory and power in the region, which it held in the 12th century. Now, their national pride was only in history books and the ruins of Angkor Wat Buddhist temple complex.
Following the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement on 23 October in 1991 between the Vietnamese and Cambodian factions, UN’s first attempt at running an independent country was launched in 1992. Its tasks included disarming and withdrawing foreign forces, bringing back refugees, undertaking administration, including justice, national defence, finance, public security and information, organising free and fair elections and approving a new constitution and a new government. The Supreme National Council (SNC) headed by Prince Sihanouk, 6 members from the State of Cambodia (SOC) and 5 from resistance factions, formed and maintained Cambodia’s sovereignty during the transitional period. It was a busy time for Basil to execute the mandate of the UNTAC with his colleagues, often travelling to remote areas in UN vehicles and helicopters. Body, Mind, Soul, Society narrates his experiences in Cambodia, trying to resurrect Human Rights, which sometimes left him with more questions than answers. He was in Cambodia during the 1993 elections, where King Sihonouk’s party (FUNCINPEC) and Hun Sen’s party (CPP) party contested, and Hun Sen refused to accept the defeat. UNTAC ended its mission in 1993, and thereafter Basil joined Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Cambodia, as the most senior officer of UNTAC.
It was while gathering practical experience in the field of Human Rights at its core that Basil cwas invited to head Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). He writes in his autobiography, “based on the thoughts and convictions I had developed both in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, I felt the need for a new idea to address the limitations of existing views and practices regarding the promotion of democracy and human rights in the specific context of Asian countries… My view was that this idea must be based on the clear identification of the basic problems faced in Asia rather than those in the more developed democracies. This has to be done by observing how legal systems operated in actual practice and not just by reading legal texts. Moreover, the observation of actual facts should take into account the experience of people who have actually sought justice or even those who refuse to seek it as they have lost faith in the system. Particular emphasis should be given to the experiences of those who suffered brutalities, including enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and ill treatment, rape and other sexual abuse, and related heinous offences”. Thus, he considered history and culture of specific societies to be important aspects in bringing Human Rights to life in Asia.
After being engaged in meetings, working groups, interviews, presentations and reporting, Basil came to the conclusion that the physical solutions to the issue of Human Rights, including documentation, procedures and institutions alone are not sufficient to restore Human Rights. He discovered this in the true nature of man, in his material self or body and the non-material self that we call soul, spirit or psyche. From there he dived deep into human consciousness and human conscience. Seeing the fate of deeply Buddhist Cambodia, where Pot Pot banned religion, he made an honest assessment of that secular suppressive policy on the society thus, “I am not competent enough to write in depth about this tradition, some of its basic concepts include the human capacity to meet God (divine spirit) in one’s innermost being. Silence and contemplation can bring people closer to God, who is at all times available for everyone. When there was no inner awakening, then things go deeply wrong not only in the life of an individual, but also in the society”. “I now realise that social change, the outer side cannot be achieved through activism alone. Social activism also requires an inner element: an attempt to touch one’s own inner being… and develop the kind of love for one another that cannot be achieved by personal effort alone”. So, he aptly named his autobiography, Body, Mind, Soul, Society. The book is readable, rich in narration and could serve as an autobiography of a Human Rights champion and a reference book on Human Rights in Asia.
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) was led by Basil since 1994 in Hong Kong and now operates in 12 Asian countries. For “his tireless and outstanding work to support and document the implementation of Human Rights in Asia” he was awarded the ‘Right Livelihood Award’, widely known as Alternative Nobel Prize by the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, Sweden in 2014. He still carries the cause of Asian Human Rights uphill the mountain through his AHRC, as in the myth of Sisyphus. Once he reaches the top, it is released, to find another violation of human rights in another Asian country to document and carry it up to the mountain of Human Rights.
*Dr Leonard Pinto – Former Senior Lecturer & Head of the Zoology Department, Open University of Sri Lanka, Nawala, Sri Lanka, Former Ass. Professor, Biology Department & Director, Matuod Marine Station, De La Salle University, Taft Av. Manila, Kellyville, NSW Australia