Archive for the ‘Sri Lanka’ Category

23 May, 2009

From a Distance

I have been away from the blog for a few days now – more on all that, I’m sure, at some later date when I have figured out how to talk about the latest discoveries of my life!

Meanwhile, I wanted to share this aerial view of Sri Lanka. I had never seen it before this and it is truly spectacular. It is true that, from a distance, everything in the natural world looks amazingly beautiful, and from an every greater distance, no one part of the earth looks better or worse than any other. So while I post the video, I also want to post the well-known reflection by Carl Sagan, excerpted from a commencement address he delivered on May 11th, in 1996. These thoughts are expanded upon in his book, Pale Blue Dot. View, read, tell me what you think. Alas, I seem to be unable to embed this media try as I might. I’m giving up and just posting the link here.

“(Look) at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

17 May, 2009

After War

Reflections at the dawn of the ‘Post-LTTE Moment’

by Malinda Seneviratne

sandballThis is a momentous occasion for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, regardless of ideological persuasion and preferred Utopia. Whether or not, as some have (in my opinion injudiciously) predicted, the LTTE will revert to its guerrilla avatar, it is clear that a point of no return has been crossed. We are now officially in the post-LTTE era in that the LTTE of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE capable of UDI posturing, the LTTE of strutting around with a ‘Sole-Rep’ tag, the LTTE claiming authority over a de-facto state, the LTTE with something close to a conventional army, has to be spoken of in the past tense. No future LTTE will be that LTTE, just like the post-89 JVP could never be the JVP of ’71 or the JVP of 88-89.

For a nation that has been held ransom by this bunch of thugs for close to three decades, this is certainly a moment that warrants celebration, not least of all because this is a moment that many if not all insisted will never materialize. We were told, ‘the LTTE cannot be defeated’. We were told that Colombo will be reduced to rubble if Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to take on the LTTE militarily (as it happened, he didn’t have an alternative; the LTTE was spoiling for a fight and insisted on a military confrontation). We were told that we had no option but to sue for peace (read ‘surrender to terrorism’). In short, this denouement was not scripted. Or, to put it another way, it was scripted out. Nowhere in the grand plans that many, both here and abroad, had for Sri Lanka was there mention of the possibility that the LTTE would be so comprehensively defeated.

In a world where engagement with terrorism has engendered more terrorism, where nations far more powerful than us have floundered in such missions despite superior weaponry, larger and better trained armies, far more sophisticated intelligence networks and systems, strong and willing allies, the efforts of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the LTTE, arguably the world’s most ruthless and resourceful terrorist outfit, surely deserves the highest accolades.

beachThis nation that has had to face two bloody insurrections, a monumental natural disaster, contend with political intrigue, suffer the interference of powerful external forces, deal with poverty and unequal terms of engagement in the global political economy, can and should applaud itself for achieving this particular ‘unachievable’.

Celebration can take many forms. There can be the usual fire-cracker explosion of euphoria, the victory rallies across the country, the making of political capital, the rush to take credit whether it is deserving or not, and of course the waving of the national flag. I see no wrong, I do not object. On the other hand, I believe this is also a time for reflection and in particular self-reflection.

graveFirst of all let us all remember those who are no longer here to celebrate with us, those who made the supreme sacrifice so that this day could dawn, so that these celebrations can take place. Let us remember all those who had to die because killing innocent people was ‘fair game’ for the mass murderer called Velupillai Prabhakaran, a fact that his apologists chose to ignore. Let us remember the fact that this war necessitated a diversion of resources from other vital areas of national interest such as education, health, agriculture and industry. In short there was an opportunity cost here; a massive foregoing, a forfeiture whose affects will never be fully calculated.

I call for a greater degree of sobriety because the celebration of this moment in this ‘moment after’ simply means that there was an unhappy ‘moment before’. Over 70,000 of our citizens perished before we could come to this ‘here and now’ of flag-waving. Property worth billions of rupees was destroyed. Infrastructure that could have changed the lives of millions of people never got built.

And then there’s ‘the enemy’, perceived and real. boyShould we not reflect now on the validity of perception? Should we ask ourselves if there is such an entity called a permanent enemy? Should we not walk a few miles along the pathways their thoughts have passed, reside for a while in the residencies of their concern, and test the textures now and then of the dreams they must have invited, entertained and allowed to take possession of their days and nights? Should we not do these things if we want to find out with what gaze we should look at them today, tomorrow and the day after?

There is the ‘hardcore’. No one is born with some congenital ability to differentiate the hardcore from the innocent, the one who is ideologically committed to killing for a cause and the one who is coerced into killing. This is why it is prudent to screen the thousands who have streamed into welfare centres. Empathy does not necessarily bar circumspection.

We must remember, however, that even if there wasn’t the bloodbath that the David Milibands and Bernard Kouchners predicted (and salivated for?), blood certainly was shed. That blood belonged to citizens of this country. tamilmenThat blood cannot be allowed to be orphaned. It flowed out of bodies; bodies that contained minds, hearts, aspirations, bodies that contained lips that would have broken into smiles or half-smiles, wry or coy, lips that kissed or dreamed of kiss, bodies that were made of skin, of limbs, cheeks and eyelids, all of which would have once been tenderly touched by mothers and fathers. Yes, they killed. They wronged the most innocent. They were wrong. In the exchange of fire that is war there is no space for any tenderness. In this post-war moment, it will be hard to feel pity, but it will not be impossible to understand why a 12 year old came to hold a gun in his hand or how a 13 year old blew herself up or how a 15 year old had to be shot dead since this was the only way to stop him from killing 100 people by exploding himself.

I just watched 3 young girls belonging to the LTTE’s suicide unit, recently captured, being interviewed on national television. Could we consider them hardcore LTTE cadres, replete with a sound understanding of the conflict, its historical antecedents, motives, logic, legitimacy etc? No. Kids. That’s what they are.

twogirlskuruConsider the IDPs. Consider the acronym. IDP. Internally displaced person. Well, one cannot for reasons of space refer to all the 200,000 persons displaced by name, but ‘IDP’ certainly makes them nameless, turns them into numbers. Today we know that some women decided to conceive so that they could escape (for a few years) forced conscription. Today we know that the LTTE deliberately burnt the temporary shelters of people living in the No-fire Zone so that they would be forced to spent sweltering days out in the sun, suffering dehydration and be rendered less able to make a break for freedom. Will we stop to remind ourselves again and again that these 200,000 plus people have at least 200,000 stories and that most of them cannot be happy ones? Would we see in the elderly man carrying a suitcase on his head and ‘sprinting’ to freedom our fathers? Would we each recognize our grandmothers in the breaking voice of the old woman lamenting the death of a child or heart-broken because someone near and dear didn’t make it and might have died? tamilgirlWould we see in the bewildered eyes of a child the incomprehensibility we never want to see in our own children? When we see a picture of a family clutching a bundle of belongings will we wonder what we would choose to take with us if we had to flee our homes at a moment’s notice?

Will we understand that almost every family from the Wanni would include at least one person who is ashamed of the fact that crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the LTTE in their name, that the LTTE brought disgrace to their community? Will we understand that in every family there was someone who died and that a child or a father does not cease to be a child or a father just because she/he died in battle, in uniform, or as a suicide bomber seeking to kill innocents? priestsWould we acknowledge that many innocents had to die, many whose only crime was being in the wrong place and the wrong time? Would we have anything to say to the loved ones of the unnecessarily dead? Will we commiserate with them in the same tone, heartbeat murmur and tear-temperature as we did with the near and dear of those who died in the Pettah bomb blast, the Dehiwala attack, the Borella attack, the attack in Kebithigollewa? Would the place names familiar to the Tamil dead roll off our tongues as easily as Aranthalawa, Kanthalai, Kebithigollewa, Dutuwewa etc., even as we recognize difference in purpose and method?

incenseThere was an ‘LTTE-time’. That was a forbidding time. The LTTE did not give any of us the space to think ‘human being’. Those who chose to think ‘human’ and to ignore the reality of ‘terrorist’ altogether, took us up the garden path and while we were sniffing the flowers the LTTE went around killing people. It was a time that required ending and it was abundantly clear that this time could not end unless the LTTE was taken out of the equation. It is not that the forces were inhuman or that we were and there’s ample evidence to support this thesis, but tenderness must necessarily be made secondary when fighting a brutal terrorist.

Today we are not in an ‘LTTE-time’. We are in a post-LTTE time.srilanka08-1337 I believe that this is a moment when we can, if we so want, look beyond identity and see human being, look beyond label and political familiarity and recognize ourselves in these ‘other people’. Seeing pictures of people who had fled LTTE-controlled areas, it occurred to me that my arms were not long enough to embrace all those who deserve embrace (and I was convinced that the vast majority are not unworthy of embrace). It occurred to me also that this country must cultivate a willingness to embrace; a readiness to engage, to tolerate, to affirm chosen identity but respect difference, to celebrate the defeat of a brute and at the same time resolve to recognize the vulgarity of celebration in certain contexts.

kovilIn this post-LTTE moment, in this ‘non-LTTE time’ let us also remember that the more arduous task of rebuilding our nation, resolving the problems of poverty, drugs, crime and political violence and creating a more democratic, tolerant and hard-working society has begun. Let us remember to recall the common humanity of all communities, the essential goodness of all religious faiths and the splendor of all cultural traditions and create a space for all these things to thrive in harmony.

I believe we fought the necessary fight, we fought it well and we have come through scarred, crippled but unbowed and with our ability to slay our ghosts intact. We have come through the long tunnel called a 3-decade war. planting It is time to welcome the dawn, the post-LTTE dawn — with pride, a sense of self-worth, with pomp and pageantry if necessary, but most certainly with reflection, humility and compassion.

Malinda Seneviratne is an award-winning journalist and reporter based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His political commentary appears internationally and he was a part of an international team of election monitors during the U. S. Presidential elections. This article first appeared in The Nation, Sri Lanka. He edits the monthly magazine, Spectrum, and he can be contacted at malinsene-AT-gmail.com

28 April, 2009

pigs, not swine!

Well, I don’t know if I have swine flu. Maybe the question is, how would anybody ever escape any viral virulence when all I see are germs – on the train, in the metro, public rest rooms (which I prefer to call public distress room!), and the head-rests of seats anywhere.

The concern for me this morning is this: why is it so difficult to schedule a sick-visit with a physician in this great land of endless prospect and staggering wealth? Back home in Sri Lanka we go to the emergency room when our bleeding heads are in need of twenty-five stitches (or, sometimes, two). “The Emergency” as it is known, is a place to go to when in the throes of a medical emergency induced panic. We rush through red lights to such a place for there is no time to lose. Blood is always in evidence as are stretchers and a general sense of acute urgency. Tears are both audible and visible.

An emergency is defined as “a serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action; a condition of need requiring urgent action.” My father, suffering from sudden chest pains, was rushed off to the ICU in an army ambulance summoned by a now dead friend. I was hauled there without much ado as the white hearts on my dress turned red from the blood coming out from a hole at the back of my head. These were emergencies.

Needing to see a doctor because of a sore throat does not constitute an emergency, does it? The last time I was in the E.R. was because I had a sprained ligament in my toe and was unable to see a regular doctor because:

(1) I had decided to change physicians and needed all my documents transferred and
(2) I needed my insurance company to mail me a physical card with the new doctor’s name and phone number on it before I could be seen.

So I drove myself all on a weekday morning to the E.R. and was seen along with the dozens of other individuals with nothing apparently the matter with them that I could see. At the end of the examination complete with x-ray I was given one orthopedic sandal which made perfect sense since I am, as of now, fortunate enough to have two feet. I shuffled home and proceeded to develop a consequential pain in my hip. Insurance probably won’t cover that.

This morning I was told that I could not see a doctor for my clearly-strep throat until late afternoon tomorrow. Upon uttering the words “it is perfectly absurd that I am sick today but can’t see a doctor until tomorrow,” the receptionist asked me what my symptoms were. Suddenly, instantly, there was an availability. I’m in luck – the sick were being seen today after all!

So, do I have swine flu? Or do we simply live in a nation of health-care-industry pigs who are content to make money off a broken system? If I’m on the evening news, you heard it here first. Over and out, this is Ru reporting from the trough.

26 April, 2009

Obama’s DC

I should have written this while I was still sneezing among the dogwood, tulips and cherry blossoms, but DC has a way of taking up all available space, time and mind and I have a way of dancing to the music…

I was in the area for a multitude of reasons: community building, political advocacy, book promotion, policy wonkishness (I am, quite possibly one of the few individuals who actually listened to the Clinton impeachment hearings in real time), much of which coincided with the amazing South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) 2009 Summit.

During the course of the last three days I met with a variety of senior staffers from the new administration including those from the Department of Homeland Security, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the white House offices of Public Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Management & Budget. Having lived in DC in the past, and worked in the American national and international non-profit sector as well as the Federal government, what was most illuminating to me was the transformation of the way in which the business of governance is being conducted. To a person, the officials with whom I met, described a process where listening was giving precedence over talking, where partnership with community leaders was valued above the dictating of regulations, and where the underlying precept is that policy ought to be informed by the expertise of the people who are working in the field rather than implemented in an environment devoid of consultation. Even more staggering was the revelation that the new administration was committed to “preemptive strikes” whereby the problems that crop up in the field can be brought to lawmakers and solutions negotiated before they became poisonous enough to require lawsuits.

And all this transmitted to us by a sea of faces that in color and gender and sexual orientation reflects the awesome diversity of the nation itself. It is true, I suppose, that a country gets the leadership it deserves, and that such leadership is deserved only by a populace willing to do the work of bringing it to being.

Describing the best part of their jobs, the various White House personnel gave us a snapshot of a president as accessible as he is inspiring, but the words of Christina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were particularly evocative:

“Everything you saw in him on the campaign trail is true. His is the amazing marriage of a brilliant mind and the power of the office. He is always the most intelligent and the most thoughtful person in the room. He listens, and when he disagrees, it is with the utmost respect of the person with whom he is disagreeing.”

I will have to write more about the conference itself in another post, but for now I will have to simply say that my delight – in discovering, in person, that the change I worked to make possible in my corner of the country, is coming to fruition – was tempered by the fact that the State Department lead by Hillary Clinton, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry and the Sub-Committee which deals with Sri Lanka, as chaired by Senator Casey, is yet to make a statement that is cognizant of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly jarring to me that a president who is known for his desire to know all the facts before he speaks is letting these bodies do the exact opposite. To have people who have never visited the conflict zone in Sri Lanka, or spent any reasonable length of time traveling within the country, put out press releases that run counter to the facts, unpleasant though they may be to take, is a deplorable repetition of the arrogance of the administration they replaced. I would have thought that in light of a new push into Afghanistan, the Obama administration would be more circumspect than that, and that the NYT or the the Washington Post would have had the guts to say what the Washington Times did, just this morning.

Lord knows that I did my best to get the offices of both Casey and Nancy Pelosi to agree to facilitate a multi-ethnic discussion within the Sri Lankan diaspora here. So far, campaign finance contributions appear to have ruled harder than civic engagement, commitment to America’s progress and place in the world and ideological support. Then again, the night is still young. There is such a thing as a learning curve. Perhaps this, too, will pass. I’ll keep y’all posted.

18 April, 2009

Cuba, Berlin, Sri Lanka

The photographs coming out of the Summit of the Americas, to which Cuba may soon return, are heart-warming in more ways than one. The absence of a shifty eyed, inarticulate representative from the United States and the presence of a new president on whom all of the member states, as well as the one absent one, has pinned very high hopes, is perhaps the most glaring of them. The three day summit, has a future-focused theme, that of ‘Securing our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security & Environmental Sustainability,’ all of which are high on the list of the Obama administration, and all of which appear to begin with a new American world view that speaks to listening over dictating, research over ideology and partnership over the flinging down of various and sundry gauntlets and revving up of missiles.

I was also heartened that books are once again on the world stage and chosen as timely gifts. Hugo Chavez is seen rising from the table to hand President Obama a copy of the Eduardo Galeano chronicle on the political interference of Europe and the West in Latin American nations, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. The American president joked that he had thought it was a book penned by Chavez and that he hoped to give him one of his own, but chances are all those assembled have already read the Obama books – which probably explains at least some of the goodwill cards being placed face up on the table.

President Obama’s commitment to engage with Cuba by making the first overtures of good faith, the removal of restrictions on travel and the transmission of personal funds, elicited an in-kind response from the Cuban leadership to discuss issues which have been closed to negotiation before including human rights. Here is President Obama:

“I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he was “prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration, and economic issues.”

Here is Raúl Castro, Cuba’s president:

“We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about, but as equals, without the smallest shadow cast on our sovereignty, and without the slightest violation of the Cuban people’s right to self-determination.”

Praise for these efforts came from Presidents Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and President Ortega of Nicaragua. The latter going so far as to express his shame at participating in a summit that did not include Cuba, and said that “I am convinced that wall will collapse, will come down.”

Perhaps there is something in the air, for, even as these events were taking place in Trinidad & Tobago, there was progress afoot in my own home country, Sri Lanka. In an article titled ‘U.S. has a choice: Are you with Tamil Diaspora for united Sri Lanka or with Pro-LTTE voices advocating a divided nation?’ in the Asian Tribune, the writer outlines the efforts of a group of Tamil Sri Lankans from the diaspora who went on a fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka and issued the following statement along with a more comprehensive call for change:

“…One of the members of “Tamil Diaspora for Dialogue” who along with another twenty Tamil expatriates visited Sri Lanka end of March, Mrs. Rajeswari Balasubramaniam, a writer by profession and Human Rights campaigner who lives in the UK said “This is the time for us, Tamils, to rethink anew whether war and destruction is the final solution for Tamils who have lost thousands of them when one looks back after almost 20 years and we Tamils who have borne the brunt of suppression, oppression, battered and bruised over the years must forget the past and think anew. We know that it is not easy to forget the past after what we went through was hell for many years it is not easy but you have to forget the past”.

She asserted “This message is especially for all those members of the Tamil Diaspora who are especially beating the war drums from the cool comfort and safety of their homes in foreign capitals around the world. They must think anew and learn to live in a united Sri Lanka where all could enjoy equal rights”.

Asked what made them to engage in a dialogue of this nature he said “In the overseas Tamil Diaspora the campaign by the LTTE is so negative and exaggerated. The LTTE is trying desperately to convince the foreign leaders and politicians abroad. But we really wanted to come and see what is going on and to speak to the Government leaders of Sri Lanka. Therefore we took part in the dialogue with the representatives of the Government and got the real picture of what is happening with regard to the North and East crisis”.

Dr. Rajasingham Narendran, one of the other participants, spoke at length about the care being given to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the welfare centers being managed by the government, including the statemetn that, contrary to the propaganda in the U.S., “…almost every one of them is happy with the IDP centers created in Vavuniya. The Government is doing its best to see that the IDPs are safe and looked after well. The people in the IDP centers are happy. There are shops, banks, medical centers, libraries and places of worship within the centers look into their needs.”

There is a lot of work to be done by the Obama administration, and beginning the task of getting accurate information, soothing ruffled feathers and facilitating respectful dialogue between neighbors in its own backyard is understandable and practical. But I hope that the impulse extends to a willingness to support similar efforts by other like-minded people with regard to countries such as Sri Lanka, particularly given that it is now front and center in Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on South Asia and at the United Nations.

I am hopeful. In Europe, the last panels of the Berlin wall are being painted. A beautiful image.

6 April, 2009

All the News Fit to Print

So everybody has heard, by now, that the Boston Globe was threatened with closure by its owner, the NYT Co. The demand is for the unions to agree to $20 million worth of concessions:

Executives from the Times Co. and Globe made the demands Thursday morning in an approximately 90- minute meeting with leaders of the newspaper’s 13 unions, union officials said. The possible concessions include pay cuts, the end of pension contributions by the company and the elimination of lifetime job guarantees now enjoyed by some veteran employees, said Daniel Totten, president of the Boston Newspaper Guild, the Globe’s biggest union, which represents more than 700 editorial, advertising and business office employees.

I have to say that I have become completely disenchanted with the Boston Globe over the past several months. The high-handed, slanderous and untruthful coverage of the internal political issues of my country of birth, Sri Lanka, by the Globe’s editorial staff, its refusal to agree until today to carry any article critical of the pro-terrorist groups that have held the Sri Lankan Tamil expatriate community of Boston, the city and state’s elected officials and its newspaper in a death vice, and its refusal to acknowledge or in any way take seriously the very public death threats made against Sinhalese and moderate Tamil Sri Lankan Americans on its websites all combined to make me come to the conclusion that there are some newspapers we can all do without.

But there are some newspapers we all need and will continue to need: the local ones. These are, for the most part, staffed by a combination of younger and more seasoned reporters who, as they aim to achieve national recognition through the “pick up” for larger circulation of their hometown coverage, tend to work that much harder on the veracity of their stories. They also cover the here and now with greater frequency, placing our national and global woes in our neighborhood contexts. As I said in today’s article about American media , while we wait for the trickle-down effect of intelligence, there will be a slow but steady trickle-up, too, from local newspaper people, like Mercier, until we reach that happy mid-point where we are all well-informed and satiated by thoughtful, well-researched points of view about the world in which we co-exist.

1 April, 2009

Hair: the Musical & Me

I am not sure how old I was when my older brothers and I, our lives unfolding in a still-quiet Sri Lanka, began singing “Good morning starshine, the earth says hello..you twinkle above us, we twinkle below…Good morning starshine, you lead us along…my love and me as we sing our early morning singing song.”

Actually, now that I think about it, that was my favorite. My brothers selected different themes. The one, still wrapped up in many iterations of the divine and distrustful, even fearful, of the righteous wrathful, sang “Manchester England England, across the Atlantic Sea…And I’m a genius genius…I believe in God…,” the look on his face a carbon – and genuine – impression of Treat Williams as he marches his sexy but raggedy-bottom toward the bowels of a plane headed for Vietnam. And the other brother, true to the heart-heavy activist he would become, sang thus: “We starve-look at one another short of breath/ Walking proudly in our winter coats/ Wearing smells from laboratories /Facing a dying nation of moving paper fantasy…”

All this came to mind this morning as I read the review of the latest production of Hair, which opened yesterday at the Al Hirschfield Theater.

As Ben Brantley puts it:

The kids of “Hair” are cuddly, sweet, madcap and ecstatic. They’re also angry, hostile, confused and scared as hell — and not just of the Vietnam War, which threatens to devour the male members of their tribe. They’re frightened of how the future is going to change them and of not knowing what comes next. Acting out the lives of the adults they disdain (a charade at which Andrew Kober, Theo Stockman and Megan Lawrence are particularly expert) becomes a cathartic ritual.

And these are universal themes. Back in a country where no snow fell, where none of us children had yet crossed the Atlantic or even the Indian Ocean, where pop movies like Grease would only make it to Sri Lanka several years after their release here, and where others such as Gone With The Wind had to be seen at special invitation-only screenings for the artsy few, a group to which my parents belonged, a movie whose socio-political implications we children missed entirely (more fascinated by the blue eyeshadow on a boy sitting behind us than by Scarlett’s waistline), Hair, the movie, was a gorgeous, liberating, belt-out-the-blues treat, the kind of wild disobedience your lungs spill out into the streets with gusto upon leaving the theatre. But more than that was the story my father told of seeing Hair “on Broadway,” something that seemed impossibly fortuitous. It was much later that I, a foreign student standing at the cross-streets, realized that “Broadway” was not a stage, but a street.

Again, Brantley:

But of course no stage can contain the hormone-stoked exuberance of those who inhabit it, whether they’re yipping, unzipping or tripping, both merrily and scarily. Know that you may find yourself in intimate contact with various dancing, cajoling tribe members. They may give you daisies or leaflets. They may even ask you to embrace them. Not that you haven’t already.

Which is to say that we three all-grown children-from-another-land still continue to sing,

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

as though it was written for us alone. Perhaps it was.

24 March, 2009

Foreign Media

After a late night talking to John Zuarino for a sweet interview he did with me about the book, a night pushed through with the ingestion of Emergen-C and Samahan to stave off whatever illness is in the air, and a morning spent volunteering at a book fair, I was feeling pretty wiped. What, oh what, could I blog about? As usual, Facebook gave me an easy answer. Scrolling through the links my friends had posted, I came across yet another account by a foreign journalist, in this case an Australian, ranting about restrictions on travel into the areas in which the Sri Lankan government is fighting the terrorist group, the LTTE. That there are restrictions on travel into the Vanni is true. That usually is the case when there is a war going on. The government did not, and will not, allow this journalist into the zones where the LTTE is holding Tamil civilians hostage. They did and will allow Sir John Holmes, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator to travel through those same areas freely. Those restrictions are in place for the safety of the reporters themselves. As a case in point, my own brother, a senior and well respected journalist and someone who works for Sri Lanka’s media unit is, himself, required to undergo the same process to request permission in order to travel to the North as well as the security to do so safely.

It is all too easy for these fly-in journalists to put their neat articles together based on whim and fancy, and our desire to “access the latest breaking news” from anywhere, be it through bloggers or twitterers, makes us complicit in the creation of untruths. A journalist who wishes to cover a current conflict can only do so with any credibility if they have taken the time and gone to the trouble of learning about the country about which they want to talk. In a hard-hitting and prescient article in the American Journalism Review, Sherry Ricchiardi wrote about the age of “parachute journalism,” i.e. those who drop by and write about conflicts they do not understand. She quoted Ted Koppel thus:

Nevertheless, it still amounts to parachute journalism. “Look, I don’t care how good you are, how experienced you are, if you’ve never been in a country before, and you are just parachuted in to cover a crisis, all you can do is skim the surface of what is going on…You don’t have sources, you don’t have the background, you don’t have the context.”

Among the journalists who are commended in her article is Roy Gutman, who reported from 1989 to 1994 as Europe bureau chief for Newsday, work for which he was honored with a Pulitzer in 1993 and the George Polk Award for foreign reporting. Gutman’s claims the work he put into building a solid base of knowledge and “becoming intimately acquainted with the territory” he covered as his strengths. “You have to have experienced people who can figure out the big pictures as well as the little picture. The worst thing that can happen in a crisis…is taking the word of one side or the other and running with it and not understanding the context,” he is quoted as saying at the time.

It is bad enough when journalists take the easy route of interviewing a few expatriates – without investigating their political and economic investment in giving a particular slant to a story – or quote “sources” they access via a long-distance phone call. But it is particularly egregious to do so when it involves a small country on the other side of the world that most people have never heard of and whose fate, too, is not of import to a given international readership. But they are no less human, no less complex, no less deserving of respect than the people who glance at these stories over their morning cups of cappuccino down a street in New York City, or in a bookstore outside Melbourne.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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