Colombo Telegraph

Sunila Abeysekera And The Prerogatives Of The Displaced

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

Sunila Abeysekera, 61, passed away a few days ago.  As in the case of all deaths, she is mourned by those who knew her best, friends and family.  But Sunila was not just ‘friend’ and ‘family’.  She was a political personality.  This is why Human Rights Watch posted a short note acknowledging her ‘work’ and expressing sorrow.  This is why those who stood with Sunila or found ‘comrade’ in Sunila for sharing views or sharing common enemy speak of her passing with sorrow.

Some, in passing, mention her voice, i.e. in the literal meaning of the word (for others ‘voice’ is about expressing opinion, objecting to what is considered objectionable, articulating about and for the inarticulate).  Those who identified with her political work lament that she is irreplaceable.

No one is one-dimensional and Sunila was no exception, but her most public face was political. For this reason such her life will be assessed, celebrated and criticized for political reasons, primarily, with word on Sunila making way through ideological lens.  I write, for example, as a person who did not identify with Sunila’s politics, who objects to the machinations she was part of and in whose few brief encounters with her found little to cheer.

Sunila Abeysekera

Sunila Abeysekera was committed to the causes she embraced.  The impression I got was that she wholeheartedly believed that she was right and that she was driven by ideological predilection rather than narrow political projects which envisaged some kind of personal gain, political or otherwise.  Going strictly by the many tributes she was clearly a sociable person; friendly, kind, comforting, unruffled and quite the celebrator of collectives.  In these aspects, perhaps and especially to her politico-ideological comrades, her demise leaves a vacuum and warrants the ‘irreplaceable’ tag.

She, an individual as opposed to party or organization, became rallying point for a bunch of people of eclectic political orientation.  Some were self-labeled ‘leftists’, some believed they were Marxists, some objected to people, parties, policies or ideologies she too objected to.   Take the whole lot, Sunila included, and one gets the sense that they could be called IDPs, i.e. Ideologically Displaced People.  That displacement can be traced back to the ‘betrayal’ by the Left in 1964 and worked through the veritable usurpation of the ‘Left’ tag by the JVP in the late sixties, the debacle suffered by working class political formations following the July 1980 strike, the global declines of the Left Movement in general, the fall of the Soviet Bloc at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties and of course China going the capitalist way.

The JVP did not constitute alternative for a number of reasons we need not detail here.  What these individuals were left with was a nostalgic attachment to the left label. What they were left without was an organization with an uncompromised leadership.  And so they migrated into clubs and societies, mainly NGOs which picked up ‘causes’ as per the directives of the political economy of charity, with inflows from the West that a) helped un-people whatever was left of the left, and b) effectively allowed for the management of dissent.  And so, they ‘discovered’ that environment, women’s rights, human rights, media rights and other rights, conflict resolution, peace-building, climate change, aid effectiveness, democracy-advocacy and good governance, permitted them to retain the left badge and also keep them afloat financially.

They discovered workshops, seminars, foreign trips, election-monitoring and such.  They discovered vocations in all these things.  Put together, it is still nothing compared to what politicians and their lackeys make, of course, but all things considered this segment of the displaced could at best be spoilers or give a leg-up to politicians and parties that are no different to those they try to oust.

They followed the Government from crisis to crisis, incident to incident, latched onto the Government’s new found enemies as possible deliverers of victory, dropped them when they failed to live up to expectations,  fled into Facebook and blogs, and conferred divinity of anyone and everyone who had whatever reason to object to those they objected to. They did not organize. Many would have sought salve from what they considered voices of sanity, especially Sunila’s.  This is why she is judged as much for what she said as for the company she kept. She did not close doors on anyone and this cost her, but then again she was not one to compare marginal benefits with marginal costs.

It can be argued that the overall political did not offer them too many options, but anyhow the conditions drove them, in their ideological solitude, to seek one another, and be comforted in the fact that the echoes produced in small rooms where the ‘converted’ reiterate what other ‘converts’ say, made a loud enough noise.

Sunila had her pet peeves.  She was selective. She had her holy cows.  Who does not, though?  One objects or supports as per one’s preferences.

Sunila Abeysekera made her voice count in comfortable surroundings.  Whenever she ventured outside and deigned to speak, she was open to query.  On at least a couple of occasions, I saw her bested by those who knew enough history, were alert and were articulate.  Sunila didn’t appear to hold grudge; she didn’t believe that political opponent needed to be personal enemy.  That’s a quality many of her detractors are not endowed with.

She had a vision for Sri Lanka and that’s no less a right than that enjoyed by anyone else.  She played the game of relative merits, lesser enemies and bigger threats.  She was out of tune with majority sentiment, but she was not in a popularity contest and therefore remained undeterred.

Sunila, by all accounts, lived every moment of her life to the fullest.  ‘May she rest in peace,’ many say now, but that’s what her life was all about too. She was at peace with herself, her work, her opinions, ideological preferences and political choices.  That’s something to applaud.

Her fellow-travelers would do well to reflect, after Brecht, on the following: ‘unhappy are those who need heroes’.

*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at

Back to Home page