By Uditha Devapriya –
After months, years, and decades of engaging with and writing on the political, Malinda Seneviratne has decided to contest at the 2020 Presidential Elections. His is a candidature that merits scrutiny before endorsement, if at all because he has a history not many know and consequently deserves assessment. He is an egghead with both feet planted firmly on the ground, minus those pretentions to intellectual supremacy that continue to mark many others in his fields of study. Rare. This is therefore an attempt at unearthing his political experience.
I’ve been accused of generalising too much. That’s my way though, a habit that has stuck to me for so long that it’s become my “leopard’s spot”. Sometimes this blinds me to the truth, sometimes I refuse to see the truth, but thankfully I’ve never obfuscated it. Naturally then, in this universe we paint in black and white, where shades of grey are almost never tolerated, it’s refreshing to come across a man who’s engaged with the political and the aesthetic, and who’s come to appreciate that essentialism and reductionism will never EVER help us by way of progress.
It takes a reductionist to appreciate a universalist, after all.
I don’t remember reading newspapers in school. But I do remember columnists and I remember Malinda Seneviratne. I also remember reading INTO him. Like every other man who comes and leaves his mark in our political firmament, however, he’s best viewed and judged by the standard he’s created for himself. He is and has always been an indefinable political commentator.
Indefinable, and misunderstood. Explains why he continues to receive vitriol from both sides of the political divide. I hence believe it’s time we set the record straight, get a biographical sketch from the horse’s mouth, and drive home the point that men are least understood by those who insert political frill into them.
Malinda’s first tryst with politics had been with the conversations he had with his father, Gamini, who had been a Trotskyite as an undergraduate. “He explained the Labour Theory of Value to me when I was about 15 in a matter of minutes and I haven’t since heard as lucid an exposition as his. One of his batchmates at Peradeniya, Nanda Wickramasinghe (Podi Wicks) of the Revolutionary Communist League, would turn up off and on and leave a copy of the party newspaper ‘Kamkaru Mawatha’. I read it. He was the first ‘political activist’ that I spoke with. I wasn’t impressed by the JVP and in Peradeniya I was never seen as a friend of the JVP-run student movement. Neither was I impressed by the UNP and the SLFP, for that matter.”
Both his father and mother, Indrani, were English honours graduates from the University of Peradeniya. His father was a civil servant while his mother taught English literature in many schools, her longest stint being at Royal College. Malinda himself is a Royalist. Having done his A Levels in the Mathematics stream in 1983 and having secured results good enough to be accepted by the Science Faculties of the University system, he opted to offer Arts subjects in 1984 and, again having secured good enough results, was selected to the University of Peradeniya. While studying at Peradeniya, he had also attended Carleton College, Minnesota for a Trimester on a student exchange program in 1987, a year which proved to be a turning point.
“Towards 1987, the situation in the country was getting worse. The JVP was heading towards fascism. The SLFP under Sirimavo Bandaranaike was neither here nor there. The UNP government had signed the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. At this juncture, there was a need for a candidate who could reckon with both sides of the political divide. Inevitably, I felt the Old Left met this challenge well, and for that reason supported Vijaya Kumaratunga and, after he was assassinated, Ossie Abeyagoonasekera, with the United Socialist Alliance.”
Around that time, he had applied for a scholarship from abroad, having done both the TOEFL and SAT exams. In the end he “got” Harvard, after seeing the collapse of the University system in his country. “I was required to contribute 1,000 dollars towards covering expenses, but because I saved whatever money they gave me, I didn’t need to. It was essentially a 100% scholarship.”
I don’t think anyone can write about the Malinda who emerged at this point without taking two people into account. Malinda agrees. “Patali Champika Ranawaka and Athuraliye Rathana Thero were responsible for my political resurrection. They saved me from the fallacies of Marxism and the allure of the whole modernist discourse on development. Not surprisingly, I was able to ‘rescue’ myself from Marxism by 1990. I am and have always been grateful.”
What happened next was inevitable: Rathana and Champika wanted to build a political organization, Malinda became one of several recruits in this project, and with other like-minded activists the Ratavesi Peramuna was inaugurated to talk about human rights abuses by the state, the LTTE, the IPKF, and the JVP. The movement attracted its share of detractors and attackers of course, and Malinda remembers that all too well.
“We organised an exhibition in Matara. It displayed photographs and paintings of human rights abuses across the country. It was attacked by UNP thugs who also kidnapped two of our members and released them later on. We wanted to discuss what we’d do next, as in where we’d have to go from here and what we could do to counter state propaganda, and we held a meeting in Wadduwa in February 1992. That meeting was disturbed by the police, who on a tip-off came and arrested us, initially believing that we were associated with the JVP, which of course had been crushed by that time.”
What happened next? “We were held for three weeks, but our movement wasn’t finished. Immediately after we were released, most of the group joined the ‘Pada Yatra’ organised by the then Opposition and led by Mahinda Rajapaksa. As time passed by, the Ratavesi Peramuna, or rather the group that continued to identify with it after the Wadduwa incident, “morphed” into the Janatha Mithuro in 1993.
Meanwhile, Malinda continued with his personal life. “I was recruited as an ELT English teacher at the Medical Faculty in 1992, but when I was imprisoned that was the end of my job there. I was then hired as an Editor at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute somewhere in March 1993, but left in 1994 after I was interdicted following a run-in with the person in charge of maintenance.”
He also tried to pursue his studies, applying for various postgraduate courses in the hope that a scholarship would greet his way. “I wasn’t lucky at first, but a friend of mine told me to apply to the University of Southern California’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. He said I had a good chance of getting a scholarship. I did this and went there, but after a year applied to Cornell University where I wanted to read for a PhD in Development Sociology. In 1995 I went to Ithaca in New York. “
Surprisingly, he never really completed his degree there. “My Master’s thesis was titled ‘Journeying with Honour: In Search of the Vague and Indeterminate’. Some told me that it delved into anthropology and ethnography. It was essentially a study of how honour and dignity are negotiated in a multi-caste social environment. Either way, although I wrote it, the University wanted me to revise it. They gave me a conditional Masters.”
That was 17 years ago. “I still haven’t revised it,” he tells me, “Which means I technically haven’t completed my Masters.” I ask him whether he’d like to have a shot at it one of these days, and he says, “I don’t think so”.
The Malinda Seneviratne story could have ended there, but it didn’t. In October 2000, he was recruited as an “understudy” (his term, not mine) to the Editor of the Sunday Island, Manik de Silva. “I left ‘The Island’ in April 2004 following an unpleasant encounter with some senior journalists of ‘Divaina’ to which I was at the time writing a weekly political comment and because I wasn’t too pleased the way the management handled it. After leaving ‘The Island’, I did some part-time work as a copywriter at Phoenix Advertising. I continued to be ‘part-time’ but would spend the entire working day there. When ‘Rivira’ started ‘The Nation’ in 2006, I was taken in as Deputy Features Editor and editorial writer.”
How did his journey at “The Nation” begin? “Krishantha Cooray, the first CEO of Rivira Media Corporation, upon the recommendation of Upali Tennekoon, the first Editor-in-Chief of ‘Rivira’, invited me to be the Editor-in-Chief of the English weekly paper they planned to publish. I told him that I didn’t have the experience and suggested that he find a senior person for the job. I said I would be happy to be a Deputy Editor. I recommended Rajpal Abeynayake for the senior position. The company finally hired Lalith Alahakoon, who was the Editor of the ‘Daily Mirror’.”
Soon thereafter, he ran into disagreements with company editorial policy and politics. “Essentially I was an outsider to the editorial team of ‘The Nation’. Krishantha had hired me, but the rest were all handpicked by Lalith and most of the senior people more or less shared his convictions.”
How exactly did he feel this though? “Well, my designation was Deputy Features Editor. One of my tasks was to write the editorial. One day, they replaced the editorial I had written with another, which was clearly written while I was still in the office. It’s the Editor’s prerogative but I think it was common courtesy to inform me. I found out only two days later when I bought the paper in Kegalle. This was in December 2006. I returned to Colombo the following day and handed my resignation. “
His brief stint at “The Nation” would be followed by stints as Assistant Communications Director of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (for three months in 2007) and Consultant Director of the Special Media Unit at the Government Information Department (2007 November to 2008 November). After leaving it in 2008, “I worked as a freelance journalist writing 10-11 articles a week to six different newspapers until October 2011, when I was offered the post of Editor at ‘The Nation’.” That many articles a week to six different newspapers is of course an accomplishment at one level, but Malinda being Malinda says, “That was my only source of income. I didn’t have a regular job.”
His Editorship at “The Nation” was I believe the beginning of his best years yet, which sadly ended in 2015 when he had to leave. “What happened was that the owners of the paper accepted a letter of resignation written several months before, which was no longer valid. It was essentially a case of constructive termination. I said I would challenge them in court. So we reached an agreement and I left with reasonable compensation. ‘The Nation’ was of course shut down and re-launched a few months later as a tabloid.”
All this is history, of course, and they merit recounting for the simple reason that they offer much by way of painting a colourful personality. I doubt Malinda would use the “colourful” tag on himself, but to me that’s what sums up the man. It’s a sign of his humility that he never balloons himself, which is what makes his political history all the more palatable. That doesn’t make him an idealist though, and for this reason he’s cautious in both praise and vitriol.
Sihala Urumaya and NMAT
Before he joined “The Island” in 2000, both Champika Ranawaka and Rathana Thero had helped form the Sihala Urumaya. Malinda supported them and ended up contesting on the party ticket in Jaffna.
Perhaps it’s my naiveté at work here, but I ask him whether he actually won. “Are you crazy?” he asks me cheerily, “The Sihala Urumaya got more votes than the JVP and the Nava Sama Samaja Party. I got seven preferential votes. All in all, the point we were trying to drive across wasn’t to do with votes. Rather, we were making the point is that even the Sinhalese had a heritage claim on every inch of this island. This was a time, we should not forget, when to affirm that one was a Sinhalese was enough to invite a lot of bad-mouthing.”
Having contested and “lost”, Malinda’s next formal political association was with the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT). “The NMAT was dominated by many who were with the Janatha Mithuro and the Sihala Urumaya. I agreed to work with them after 2006, on the condition that it would operate independent of the Jathika Hela Urumaya. The JHU campaigned on a nationalist platform, but the NMAT worked on combating terrorist propaganda. I think Anuruddha Pradeep Karnasuriya put it best when he said that the NMAT was a petrol shed, not a supermarket, and that what we ‘sold’ was objection to terrorism.”
The organisation, which chiefly combated the myth that the LTTE couldn’t be militarily defeated, was vindicated in 2009. This we know. What we don’t know, and what Malinda tells me, is its association with the nationalist politics rampant at the time. “During Chandrika Kumaratunga’s time, we had federalists telling us what to do and what not to do. They were running the government, basically. We had a difficult time back then, but that’s not to say we thought of giving up. And so, even though the likes of Ranawaka are vilified and marginalised today, the truth is that we all played a role in birthing May 2009.”
Here I ask him about his “association” with Mahinda Rajapaksa. “I can understand why people still think I supported him unconditionally, because I was almost always the defender of the State whenever the West took it to task over the way the issue of terrorism was handled by that regime. However, just because I defended the State – which I did because I felt the West had no moral right to vilify us over war crimes – that doesn’t mean I was behind Mahinda Rajapaksa.”
So what were the ideas and ideals he stood for? “Back when the Sihala Urumaya was formed, you couldn’t say you were Sinhala or Buddhist. You’d be taken as a racist if you did. We were against that. We felt that the voices of the majority of this country were being silenced. If you think that makes me or those who stood with me chauvinists, that’s erroneous.” I tell him that the “chauvinist” tag was used thanks to misconceptions about the party’s positions on democracy, equity, and social justice, and he agrees.
“We never affirmed a ‘Buddhist hegemony’. To be honest, that term is a myth. There is NO Buddhist hegemony. Look at history, at the wars we had to fight. Who made up the majority from among those who suffered? Yes, you can talk of numbers and say, ‘The Sinhala Buddhists were anyway in the majority even then.’ But then who got the benefits? The Sinhala Buddhists? Certainly not! That’s what the SU was arguing, and that’s what formed the political content of the very many back-and-forth debates I was engaged with, inter alia, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka in ‘The Island’.”
Malinda also argues against “misconstrued multiculturalism”. “A multiculturalism that doesn’t take note of historical realities and percentages is misconstrued. Federalists and those who vociferously support the 13th Amendment ‘talk’ multi-ethnic and multi-religious without talking numbers and percentages into account. They use terms such as ‘North’ and ‘South’ and immediately offer a picture to the ill-informed, especially abroad, of an island divided in the middle according to ethnic identity. They are content in drawing a boundary between North and South. But think of the map of Sri Lanka they use to support their thesis. That map (used by Eelamists and devolutionists) was drawn by the British, based on imaginary boundaries that had and has no scientific basis. Looking at this, you’re telling me that half the coast and one-third of the land in this country must be given to less than 10% of the population? Absurd!”
Sociologists here and elsewhere have frequently commented on the social content of the Buddhist revivalist movement. I bring this up because Malinda, when talking about the role of Buddhism in Sri Lankan history, talks of Anagarika Dharmapala rather warmly. “We articulated and have been articulating what the likes of Gunadasa Amarasekera and Professor Nalin de Silva have stood for. They have been affirming what the Anagarika stated a century or so ago: that we must stand on our own feet and stop mimicking the West. People love to vilify us as racist, but that’s crass.”
To which I put my two cents: “If the Buddhist revivalist movement, of which the Anagarika was a leading figure, was so concerned about this, why then was it housed by people whose conduct was so antithetical to the spirit of what they were espousing?”
Malinda’s reply is quick and concise: “People aren’t saints. However, I believe that the revivalist program suffered on two counts. Firstly, it separated ‘Sinhala’ from ‘Buddhist’, which is basically what Professor Nalin states. Secondly, the revivalists failed to take stock of what breathes life into any nationalist project: an engagement with history and heritage. When it comes to the great debate between Colonel Olcott and the Anagarika therefore, I wouldn’t take sides, but I would argue that (and I am no expert here) the Anagarika was the more wholesome of the two.” I deliberately try to generalise this as a comment on the inadequacy of Olcott’s program, and he laughs: “That’s what YOU people do. Pick, choose, and generalise. The world doesn’t operate that way.”
Which is where he comes to the present. “People think I am against the separation of temple and state. How? By my (alleged) support for the Jathika Hela Urumaya. First of all, far from being an unconditional supporter of the JHU, I was one of the first to write against its decision to let monks contest. When Athuraliye Rathana Thero confirmed this to me, I told him then and there, ‘You’ll find me your biggest opponent. My column in the Sunday Island of that week (in February 2004) denounced the JHU.” But this does not mean I support a non-existent separation between temple and state.” I tell him that the West may be drawing closer to achieving such a separation, and he disagrees: “The West never sustained that separation in the first place.”
I can’t quite explain it, but I find in Malinda the union of democrat and nationalist. The fault must be mine, because to this day I can’t think of how the two can come together. “I have always stood for citizens’ rights. I don’t look at them on the basis of race or religion. On the other hand, I have always believed that if ever a community was ‘deprived’, that was the Sinhala Buddhist community. Again, look at history. Look at the leaders we had from 1948 onward. NONE of them acknowledged Buddhism.”
There’s something missing in Malinda’s argument though, and I am confused what it may be. I put to him that the ideology he’s still articulating has more or less been accepted by the majority, even in a nuanced way, and that there’s very little more that we actually need to achieve. He disagrees. “Now you’re implying that we don’t need to demand. Of course we’re not demanding. We’re asking for representation. Let’s not forget, after all, that Sri Lanka isn’t a mono-religious state, that it does recognise other communities, and that it gives more space for religious holidays. We’re way ahead of the West here and we accept that.” To the point that he’s being vilified for “mollycoddling” extremism, he replies, “Who hasn’t been vilified? Who hasn’t been misread?”
I broach the subject of secularism once more, and he grows impatient. “There’s no secularism in this world. You talk secularism in the West to me when there are no Christian holidays, when there’s no ‘In God We Trust’ in the US dollar bill, and when they don’t impose bans on the burqa in Europe!” Not surprisingly, Malinda is for identity-assertion for EVERY community: “If we are not Sinhala or Tamil in the first instance, our being Sri Lankan becomes less meaningful. There are those who talk about ‘One Nation, One Race, One Blood’. All poppycock.”
We then delve into political reforms. “I was writing about good governance, the shortcomings of the 17th Amendment long before November 21, 2014, followed by the dangers inherent in the 18th. Like I said before, I defended the State against the West, but this didn’t mean I was complacent. I supported Rajapaksa in 2005 because I felt that Ranil Wickremesinghe, given what he did from 2001-2004, would have been a disaster in terms of dealing with the LTTE.”
There’s always been a question I’ve wanted to ask this one-time sociology student, and I ask it now. “Do you think the intelligentsia in this country is responsible for how the West misinterprets us?” He asks me to elaborate on what I mean by “intelligentsia”. “Anthropologists, sociologists, academics,” I hastily say. He is cautious in his reply. “See, I wouldn’t generalise like that. Of course some of them are responsible for creating and sustaining the image of Sri Lanka as the Tear or the Blood Drop of the Indian Ocean, but there are many fathers and mothers to this situation.”
“What of the ‘Sinhala Nation’ they think Sri Lanka is construed as?” I ask. “Again, that’s poppycock. What that term presupposes is that the Sinhala Buddhists usurped other communities of their rightful place in the country. You go to the North and East and you’ll see archaeological evidence of a strong Buddhist presence. There are people, including academics, who talk of a Tamil Buddhist culture in the North. If so, since Buddhism is eminently a scholarly religion, where is the Tamil Buddhist literature?”
Is there then a reason for why this collective has been and is being attacked? “The Sinhala Buddhists of this country have always been accommodative of other faiths. When the South Indians invaded us, we took Hindu gods to our temples and worshipped them. We didn’t do that with Jesus Christ when the Portuguese, Dutch, and British invaded us, and maybe that’s why some of those who profess their faiths are grinding axes with us.”
Malinda is probably the most down-to-earth in his profession, and also the most frank. Words and sentences come easily to him. He writes excellently. Given his background, that’s no surprise. Perhaps this is what has made him “respectable” in the eyes of the English-speaking, rootless elite in our country, for whom identity has become amorphous. He has certainly stood for the rights of the vernacular (he is a superb bilingual), and has frequently written on the originality of those who choose to write, read, and live their lives without any of those habits inculcated by lotus-eaters.
In the final analysis, then, that’s probably the best way to sum him up: that he’s no lotus-eater.