The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva, Doreen, Vivi and Sirima
By Kusum Wijetilleke
(email@example.com) & Rienzie Wijetilleke (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Women in Sri Lanka make up 52% of the population and 56% of registered voters, but a mere 5% of legislators. The Sri Lankan female voter, whilst having significant strength in numbers, has been unable to translate said the bers should make women’s issues front and centre for politicking but the reality is quite the opposite. The tax rate on sanitary napkin imports was just over 100% in 2018, until a reduction to 52%. There was controversy over the recent halving of maternity leave from 84 days to 42 days for trainee development officers in the public sector. Throughout the country we find reports of domestic abuse being ignored by authorities, of street harassment with the countrywide tradition of ‘cat-calling’ being “accepted” as part of a culture. Our politics indicate a level of flippancy with regards to women’s issues in general, with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs no longer worthy of a place in the Cabinet.
There were eight women elected to parliament at the 2020 General Elections, out of a total of 75 female candidates from the major political parties, making them a distinct minority in Sri Lanka’s 225-seat chamber. Around the world and in Sri Lanka, the debate around female representation in politics has been raging in social sciences for some time, with a variety of explanations proposed. Most pertinent might be the principle of “you cannot be what you cannot see”, asserted by Feminist Author Marie C. Wilson, President of the Ms Foundation for Women, established by Gloria Steinem. Ms Steinem remarked, “We’ll never solve the feminization of power until we solve the masculinity of wealth”. This is especially true for women that long to enter the very expensive business of politics. Another given and accepted reason is that the conservative and traditional family arrangements restrict most women’s career choices.
In Sri Lanka, the argument from traditional family restrictions on career choices certainly rings true, but with a few very notable and accomplished exceptions. In her most famous work; ‘Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World’ (1986), Sri Lanka’s definitive feminist academic and activist Kumari Jayawardena stated the importance of a political account on women’s struggles in the East as necessary for the women of these countries who may be “unaware of the role in liberation struggles of their ancestors and great-grandmothers”. She further discusses the limitations of women achieving liberation through education and entering the workforce, proposing that true liberation is only achieved through political as well as social and economic equality.
A cursory glance at Sri Lanka’s early history as a nation State shows that women did indeed hold some very important keys to power. These women were, as you might expect, from the upper classes and many with substantial financial clout and some did also have the full support of their families in political endeavours while others succeeded in spite of familial and cultural restrictions.
When Sri Lankans envision women in politics, we invariably fall back on the two most recent matriarchs, both from the same aristocratic family. ‘Sirima’ and ‘CBK’ certainly blazed their own trails in the world of politics. Whereas their political dynasty seems to have ended with CBK’s final term, the mixed fortunes of ‘Mrs. B’ and the times during which she ‘ruled’ are nonetheless fascinating. To begin with, Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike becoming the world’s first female Prime Minister may no longer be appreciated in the way that it should. When she was elected in 1960, six years ahead of Indira Gandhi, the London Evening News stated “… there will be need for a new word. Presumably, we shall have to call her a states-woman… This is the suffragette’s dream come true.”
If you define democracy as a system where all citizens of the state have an equally weighted right to vote, then Sri Lanka is the oldest democracy in Asia. Class, sex and ethnicity were all used to restrict the vote throughout history. Until 1918 in the UK, only property owning men over the age of 21 were allowed the vote. The 1965 Civil Rights act definitively lifted restrictions on Black Americans voting in many Southern States. Indigenous peoples in Canada achieved the right to vote in 1960 and those in Australia had to wait until 1967. Japanese women achieved suffrage in 1947 and Pakistani women in 1956. Yet Sri Lanka achieved universal suffrage in 1931 which is quite significant considering India only achieved the same parity in 1950. Thus the introduction of Universal Suffrage was by no means a simple evolution.
Sri Lankans will recall “Sirima” and her time in power with a shrug of dissatisfaction given the failures of her socialist economic policies. Following her husband’s assassination and her elevation as the leader of the SLFP and its candidate for PM, she would often cry during campaign speeches, which earned her a nick name; ‘the weeping widow’. Members of Parliament would speak disparagingly of her efforts to govern with references to the “kitchen cabinet”. Yet due to her strong intellectual and ideological positions, she eventually earned a sort of begrudging respect from the many men in that kitchen cabinet. Her time in power was characterized by food shortages, bread lines and rationing, but Ms. Bandaranaike is also remembered for her ruthless dismantling of the JVP insurrection in the early 70s, leading to a remark by a prominent politician that she was “the only man in her cabinet”.
The 1962 coup d’état attempted by high ranking military and police leaders is less recalled and worth revisiting. The aborted plan to detain Ms. Bandaranaike and her senior officials at the Army Headquarters was the result of a power struggle many decades in the making. Sri Lanka’s pre-independence elites were highly westernized, even Anglophilic, right wing and Christian and many had close ties to the UNP. The sudden and dramatic power shift post-independence, led to a political establishment that was staunchly Sinhala-Buddhist, left wing and ‘rural’, that is to say; non-westernized. Sri Lankans today are acutely aware of past ethnic divisions, but may not fully appreciate the class and religious divisions that were dominant during the colonial era.
The inevitable shift and consequent fissure, betrayed the nation’s ethno-religious divisions. The main protagonists of the attempted coup were all from the upper classes; property owning, well-educated and with right-wing ideologies. The coup was aborted at the last minute after an informant revealed the plans to the PM. All 24 individuals charged with the conspiracy were Christian: 12 Sinhalese, six Tamils and six Burghers. The coup was also an attempt to arrest the country’s economic decline that began with Ms. Bandaranaike’s nationalization of key industries including banking, foreign trade, insurance, transport and petroleum. Her policies further exacerbated the import-export imbalance and the country was $2 billion in debt, but the mantra she repeated defiantly through-out was “produce or perish”.
Whilst the faults of “Sirima” are widely accepted, her foreign policy and internationalism, which in many ways saved the Sri Lankan project, deserves more attention. With only two weeks’ worth of rice in stock, she negotiated an emergency shipment of 40,000 tons from China. These being the beginnings of the cold war, international diplomacy was fraught and required careful navigation, especially for a Socialist Republic having just achieved independence. Sri Lanka grew in stature internationally as a founder nation of the Non-Aligned Movement under the guidance of Ms. Bandaranaike and she made countless overtures for peace between the major Western Powers and the Soviet Union. In 1963, following several state visits to “western” nations, understanding the need to balance both sides, she became the first Sri Lankan Prime Minister to visit the Soviet Union and returned with an agreement for large quantities of discounted petroleum from the Soviets. The nationalization of the oil industry and the resulting distress to British and American corporate interests led to the US cutting aid to Sri Lanka. Egyptian President Abdel Nasser sent oil tankers to Sri Lanka and in 1975 Ms. Bandaranaike negotiated a supply arrangement for 250,000 tons of oil on a deferred payment scheme after direct negotiations with the then Vice President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.
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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development
There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.
The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.
To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.
Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.
It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.
All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.
Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.
If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.
In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.
However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.
It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.
The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.
It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.
A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.
Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.
Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.
The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.
We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.
This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.
Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!
At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.
One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.
It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!
ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!
The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.
When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!
I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.
I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.
I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.
Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!
I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.
Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.
We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.
Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?
Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!
To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.
Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.
The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..
How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!
If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.
And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!
Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.
Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.
With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.
I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.
Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.
He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.
Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.
He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!
I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:
“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.
“There is no science to beat common sense.”
But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!