By Mahesan Niranjan –
Last Thursday, I went to a seminar at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences on the subject of “Sri Lanka and the culture of impunity: human rights challenges in a post-war and post-conflict environment,” at which the speakers were Paikiasothy Saravanamuthu, Asanga Welikala and Uvindu Kurukulasuriya. The topic is of great interest to me — so it should be to any Sri Lankan who wishes a better life for our fellow countrymen. Since I have not met the three speakers before, but have read some of their writings, I felt it was an opportunity to say “Hello” to them. My mate and drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram, came along with me to the seminar.
When we arrived at the event, as it usually happens in gatherings of Sri Lankans, I bumped into a friend who I did not know was coming there, and she introduced me to her friend and friend’s friend and so on. One of them wasn’t going to stay for the seminar, “I have to catch a train, it might get a bit late, no?” she worried. The other one tried to persuade her to stay: “Aney, stay Aney, it will be fun, no?” I was a bit annoyed. The seminar is on post-war Sri Lanka, and this woman is claiming it will be fun!
“What do you mean fun?” “Well the embassy people will come, the GeeTee Ef fellows will also be there, no?”
“How do you know they are coming?” I asked. “I am sure,” she said with great confidence, “they will all be there, even if the High Commissioner doesn’t come, they will send someone to monitor and plant questions at such meetings. And the flag fellows will also come.”
The killjoy in me couldn’t resist. “Not really,” I said, “those guys are all in Cardiff,” referring to the kicking, shouting, stone throwing, pitch invading, flag waving and flag burning match outside the Cardiff stadium – the shameful acts of the “Boycott Sri Lanka” campaigners and their rowdy opponents. That both these parties think they are doing some good for their fellow countrymen they have left behind in our island is, to me, a source of utmost amusement.
The seminar was excellent, with three 20 minute talks, a short time for questions because the speakers over-ran a bit and a reception afterwards during which you had the opportunity to say your “Hello” to the speakers – thus achieving the purpose of my trip.
Saravanamuthu spoke eloquently about current trends, discussing the monotonic increase in militarization of all aspects of our countrymen’s lives, the callousness with which people are being thrown out of their bombed out homes in the northern land grab project (wasanthaya for some, agony for others) and the venomous attack on the judiciary with particular reference to the impeachment of the Chief Justice. Welikala discussed formal frameworks of constitutional arrangements, where they failed and where they did not succeed. Both were well-structured talks delivered without visual aids — hence I found it hard to parse and digest their talks. (A particular occupational hazard I suffer from is that I need graphs and equations on power-point slides to keep me awake at seminars. But on this occasion, the seriousness of developments in our country did the trick, and I stayed mesmerized for the full 90 minutes.)
Kurukulasuriya discussed Sri Lankan media (this one with power-point slides, hoorah!). The least experienced among the trio in speaking in a university classroom maybe, yet he stole the show, with striking survey results delivered with classic Sri Lankan style intonation in speech, punctuated by shrugging of the shoulders and pauses that spoke more than words. The occasional bursts of laughter he elicited from the audience came from their short-term working memories. But when they consolidated the digested pieces of information in their hippocampi as long term memory, it would certainly have been in the form of a deep sense of sadness about the state of our country.
The speakers did not have answers to the questions that haunt me every day: “What will be the trigger of the much needed course correction in our country?” and “What precisely is my role in this?”, but they gave the audience much food for thought.
Throughout all this, and in the train back home, my mate Thevaram was rather silent and uninterested, though at some points during the seminar I noticed him making notes. “You seem quite detached from all this,” I queried, “What’s in your mind?”
“Well, what was it they said I did not know already,” he snapped back. “But you were making notes, you must have found something useful there,” I challenged. “Oh that,” he said, “I was writing my exam paper!”
“I have drafted a really tough exam question, you know,” he said, almost sounding like he was feeling very frustrated and was going to take it out on his class – poor students. “What course do you teach this semester?” I asked. “Contemporary Sri Lankan Politics and Journalism,” he replied, pushing the sheet of paper in which he had written the question towards me.
Now, he is not supposed to show the draft exam question to me, but hey, what the heck, we live in interesting times, no? And I am not supposed to share it with you either, but hey, what the heck, we live in interesting times, no?
Mid-Term Examination: Contemporary Sri Lankan History and Journalism
Q1. Discuss the following claim:
“When Velupillai Prabhakaran was alive, he destroyed the Tamils. When dead, he is destroying the Sinhalese. And these fellows are clueless about what is happening to them, how sad?”
[Author’s note: The said claim was made some months ago, during an intensely nostalgic conversation after the second glass of wine, by a former lecturer of HillTop University in Sri Lanka – an exceptionally clever man, forced into exile some thirty years ago, and now living in retirement in an isolated, far away island that I shall refrain from naming.]
*Mahesan Niranjan is Professor of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, UK