Posts Tagged ‘hope’

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.

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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