Monday, August 31, 2015

Assessing preferred outcomes in National Lists


Around five years ago, there was a Parliamentary Election, one which saw the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) grab 144 seats and an easy majority. The opposing United National Party (UNP) obtained less than half that number. In addition to the MPs who were elected, both parties unveiled their National Lists.

Some names stood out. They were "fresh". Others didn't. They were "vintage". Several defections, changing loyalties, and attempts at wresting control from the ruling coalition later, the UNP emerged from some of the worst defeats it encountered. The Parliamentary Election held this year saw several members moving from the List and opting for the manape fight.

Two of them merit highlight. Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne.

When J. R. Jayawardena introduced proportional representation courtesy of his Constitution, he implemented a system whereby professionals, academics, and technocrats could get into parliament without the need to poll numbers. This was the National List. Both Harsha and Eran had been in that five years earlier. Both of them courted enough votes to beat older contenders. Few, for instance, could predict defeat for Rosy Senanayake. But it happened. Both these newcomers topped her. Heavily.

There's a lesson here. National Lists were not ready-made for rejects. Those who came in because of them had to build trust and that in a way which ensured popular support. This was and will be the "litmus test" for such a mechanism, notwithstanding what happened then and after the election this month. As such the Lists of not just the UPFA and UNP but other parties should stand up to this.

Predictably though, they haven't. Here's why.

The UPFA, for the most, made a mockery out of its National List. For a president who actively asked voters to vote in intelligent, educated individuals Maithripala Sirisena put away the likes of G. L. Peiris and Tissa Vitharana. True, he played for keeps by casting aside key loyalists of his predecessor, inimical to the people's will though it was. True, he then put in the likes of Mahinda Samarasinghe, who is both educated and has shown regard for truth and justice even in the face of dissenting opinion.

But these were rejects. Professor Sarath Amunugama, for instance, was in the original list. He was not put out. Why Vitharana and Peiris were is anyone's guess, even factoring in the president's need to purge his own party. Worse, both Sumathipala and Samarasinghe were rejected in favour of those whom the people had ELECTED IN. Where's the democracy in rescuing THEM?

Some of these people, moreover, were "allies" of the former president. They have changed colours, true. But the way they shifted loyalties warrants censure if not outrage, a point the president should have kept in mind when promoting them. After all, they were known and condemned by the then opposition. Why take them back? And why take out clean names for the sake of expediency, especially when it involved the virtual erasure of a key Sirisena supporter (and Ranil Wickremesinghe critic), Shiral Lakthilaka?

Let's not kid ourselves that many of these rejects embraced Maithripala Sirisena because they affirm good governance and democracy. Let's not kid ourselves that they aren't known for jumping back and forth, landing on whoever's able to bail them out whenever they're in need of an "opportune moment". Anybody who's willing to bet that these politicians (who sided with Mahinda Rajapaksa, even for these past two months) are out there to help citizenry and ameliorate structural flaws must be very, very brave.

Sadly, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) echoed the same thing. It spouted enough feel-good rhetoric to make us believe that it would stand by position. It didn't.

Forget what Chrishmal Warnasuriya stated after his party's leaders claimed "full agreement" over the composition of the National List. Forget the "Nation's Conscience" tag JVPers pinned on themselves. Forget the fact that the party became politically schizoid when it implicitly backed the UNP and then decided to criticise both major parties at the 11th hour. Even setting all this aside for argument's sake, was putting in a reject, even someone as "venerated" as Sunil Handunnetti, a "must"? Did the people ask for him?

Rightly then, the JVP has raised hairs. More importantly, it has undressed itself.

Incidentally, Warnasuriya's remarks invite assessment. Bimal Rathnayaka claimed that the entire party was with the decision to re-select Handunnetti. Warnasuriya publicly denied this, laying out how incredulous and unnecessary the proposal to bring Handunnetti back at the cost of his NL seat seemed to him. Which means, logically enough, that Rathnayaka erred and twisted himself. Badly.

Next came Tilvin Silva. "Handunnetti was wanted," he commented. "He cannot be described as a defeated candidate," he offered as justification, as though it endorsed unqualified acceptance. He then elaborated: "He lost because the JVP couldn't attract enough votes". Wonderful! By the same logic, rejects from other parties (and not just the UNP or UPFA) must take losers back in regardless of whether the people voted for them or not because those parties didn't perform well enough. A fine example to follow indeed!

Having sanctioned all this while spewing feel-good remarks about democracy and the people's will, the JVP’s leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has absolutely no moral right to point fingers at the UPFA over its List. Indeed, if his words and those of his politburo buddies are anything to go by, he has no moral right to point fingers at ANYONE over ANY OTHER issue hereafter.

The UNP "won" here, relatively speaking. Yes, it put in one defeated candidate, and that even as its own Secretary went on the record saying that it wouldn't do so. As The Nation reported last week, the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) had to contain several internal rivalries, particularly in Rishad Bathiudeen's and Rauf Hakeem's parties. Viewed this way, the UNP's decision appears to be a minor transgression, though one that will provoke reaction if other defeated candidates are re-selected.

Judging every National List is not important and hardly worth the effort. A rough perusal, however, should convince anyone that the UNP took in clean names and not just bigwigs. The UPFA had those names too, but sadly the president's word was privileged. Having salivated over democracy and then badmouthed it by rescuing those rejected by the people, the JVP earned ire.

The UNP wins on this count, inasmuch as politics is all about playing relative merits against each other. It has set an example which even the president couldn't follow. Maithripala Sirisena has sent a message, hence. That message reeks of expediency, we note. Not good governance. Certainly not CLEAN governance. If he hands out ministerial posts to rejects, therefore, we can conclude: "Morally bankrupt!"

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, August 29 2015

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Accountability and the politics of selectivity

When US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal speaks, there’s usually someone listening and taking down notes. The lady knows subtlety and there’s plenty of THAT in what she says. Big time. So when she makes her second or third (I forget which) visit to Sri Lanka barely a WEEK after elections were done and dusted, questions are raised. Whether she answers them or pleads ignorance, then, is not important. What’s important is inference. And conclusion.

We know Biswal wasn't exactly comfy with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. Whenever her colleagues visited here they usually privileged the opposition and more importantly parties known for hardcore communalist stances. They demanded accountability and THEN inserted reconciliation. Biswal in particular spoke about the international community and how its patience (whatever that meant) was running out with regard to this government "delivering the goods".

That was then. Times have changed. The lady who seemed to privilege and hobnob more with the opposition, strangely, has opted to do the same with the government now. She went easy on the government, curiously enough, and went to the extent of meeting the president himself, something she could never do with his predecessor given that she was someone whom the then president neither had the time for nor the patience with. Rightly.

Her choice of words is different too. True, some words haven’t changed. She still wants investigation into war crimes (“alleged”, please note). She hasn’t inserted “accountability” but that’s a word that’s still being tossed about, never mind whether it’s achieved through a domestic or international mechanism. But for the most, her comments on the USA sponsoring a resolution of “collaboration with the government” and thereby widening scope for domestic investigation merit assessment.

Biswal has a way with words. So does everyone representing her country’s interests in the field she’s cut out for herself, diplomacy. That’s why, when she inserts a caveat (she added “along with other key stakeholders” to “collaboration with government”) we should worry.

Let’s not forget that the US knows and (s)elects these stakeholders. Let’s not forget that it tends to privilege some stakeholders and push out others. Let’s not kid ourselves that the reaction of the “international community” to alleged war crimes here amounts to anything other than a need to bully a democratically-elected government into condemning and censuring itself, even irrationally.

And then there’s the investigation itself. As Chris Dharmakirti comments in an article (“Sinister Campaign Afoot To Block Sri Lanka Using Paranagama Report At UNHRC”), the TNA and an organisation calling itself Sri Lanka Campaign for Justice and Peace effectively tried to cripple the Mahinda Rajapaksa-sanctioned report on missing persons (the Paranagama Commission) and more importantly one of its chief advisors, Sir Desmond de Silva.

Having inferred that this move was tilted towards the pro-LTTE Diaspora, Dharmakirti then concludes that by stifling the Commission, what will get preserved is the accusation (unsubstantiated) that Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE was committed by a “genocidal army”, in particular because the Commission at once rubbishes the findings of the controversial Darusman Report ON THIS COUNT.

Biswal will not speak about this and nor for that matter will the government. There’s no need to, some will offer. Maybe, but that doesn’t really counter the issue. If at all, by pleading ignorance here, neither the government nor whatever Biswal represents will be doing itself any favour.

Point is, Sir Desmond de Silva erred. He coughed up something the TNA wasn’t comfy with. He commented that the “great mass of civilian deaths which occurred in the final stage of the conflict were regrettable but permissible collateral damage”.

Now the TNA, despite that moderate-garb it wears from time to time, has been known to pander to anything that absolves (in part at least) the LTTE. It’s known to have censured the government and some of its heads have been wont to openly invite the international community to bully and arm-twist this country. So it shouted “rescind Sir Desmond’s appointment!” and (without really explaining) alleged “lack of independence”.

Having thus got rid (technically, that is) of Sir Desmond and therefore the crux of the Paranagama Commission (which mind you created to counter the United Nation’s howls against Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government), these people should, we feel, be grilled. They should be questioned.

There’s that allegation they levelled against Sir Desmond, for one thing. Speaking about independence or the lack thereof, what would the TNA say about the fact that a key panellist advising the NGO which opposed that gentleman was (surprise, surprise!) none other than Yasmin Sooka, who was on the Darusman Panel! This isn’t just about bias after all. It’s about conflict of interest too, never mind that Sri Lanka Campaign has denied that WITHOUT denying Sooka is in it.

Then there’s the fact that the Paranagama Commission was (technically speaking) a domestic mechanism. Isn’t that what Biswal wanted? Isn’t that what we were forced to resort to and didn’t that in the end become a mechanism through which Darusman and his credibility-challenged report (it speaks about 40,000 civilian deaths even as the UN itself concluded a figure of 7,721 towards the end of the war) could be countered? If so, why are we howling? Why are we arguing?

These are questions that will not be asked and for reasons of (we hope not but fear) expediency. In the end reconciliation is and will be a two-way process, whether or not the likes of the TNA will be okay with someone as distinguished and relatively untainted as Sir Desmond. As such the implications of both the Paranagama Commission and Biswal’s official support for Sri Lanka the next time the country’s grilled will, no doubt, be taken up and assessed.

Whether this bodes well for us is for another article. For now, what matters is whether Biswal comes with clean hands. Given that we have no option but to trust that the American government will stick by us (in a world where governments stick by each other as long as there’s submission to whoever’s affirming “sticking-by loyalty”), we can only wait and watch.

So far Karunandhi, self-professed lover of Sri Lankan Tamils and no stranger to the anti-Sri Lanka lobby in his country (India), has condemned Biswal. Superficially at least that bodes well, notwithstanding the caveat that all that might be “show”. The important thing however is that the US sticks by us and that in a way which sustains the truism that reconciliation (and yes, accountability) was and will have two sides or more, never mind what NGOs and civil society groups that love to badmouth the country will say.

I noted “no option” for Sri Lanka. This means, logically enough, that the US’s promise will have to be accepted and trust between that country and ours will be based on whether we accept the promise or act with caution, extreme or otherwise. Sad, yes. Can’t help.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Saturday, August 29, 2015

On political equations that never 'stay'


Power struggles are rarely about people. Rhetoric is scripted in, yes, but for the most it remains a necessity as a means to an end. Outcomes which get preferred by parties never privilege the voter. This we know. As such election-aftermath has more to do with power and frill than it has with serving the people. This too we know.

Writing 12 days before Maithripala Sirisena defected from the SLFP and thereby wrecked the political equation, Udaya Gammanpila, then allied with the Jathika Hela Urumaya, commented on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s moves. Arguing that Wickremesinghe would use a proxy, Gammanpila made a classic inference: that he would use this move to retain position within his party.

This is true. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s conduct during the presidential and parliamentary elections was suave to say the least. He aced dissidents within his own party and that in a way which lent credibility to his faction. If at all, he convinced those within the United National Party (UNP) to join him, and thus privilege party above anything else.

Political equations do not last long, however. Scripted into MOUs and agreements (between and within parties) are escape clauses. True, Ranil’s grip on party leadership and his ability to wield power in the face of popular dissent is not unknown. If at all, this will sustain his vision for party and government for quite some time.

But this is just half the picture.

Dayan Jayatilleka once observed that the only way to salvage the UNP was to join up with the JVP and other dissident parties and embark on a consciousness-raising exercise against Mahinda Rajapaksa. What unfolded later wasn’t just a consciousness-raiser but a revolt against incumbent. Both Jayatilleka and Gammanpila couldn’t have predicted Wickremesinghe using a stalwart from the ruling party to become prime minister, which explains why both opposed Sirisena’s campaign, the former on principal.

What happened next was the formation of four different voter-camps, all of whom supported Sirisena. They were those who: 1. Supported the UNP; 2. Embraced him from the UPFA; 3. Let go of ideology and supported him (from the JVP, TNA etc); and 4. Were courted by the Jathika Hela Urumaya upon its ejection from the Alliance and hence congealed into the floating voter.

The point is that Wickremesinghe’s equation is shaky. Those four classes remain intact, but altered slightly. Now those with the UNP will remain with the UNP. Those who supported Maithripala Sirisena from the UPFA are with the president. But the other two classes, particularly those from the floating vote-base, are what count. Wickremesinghe’s position should be based or rather positioned on this ground. Why?

First of all, what’s national in this National Government? What we’ve seen is a coalition, yes, but one in which the UNP dominates. Power-sharing has been for the most vertical, with state largesse remaining with the Greens and “titbit” ministries going to the Blues. In this context it’s not too hard for the prime minister to court popularity within his party.

Problem is, these things don’t remain constant forever. Wickremesinghe’s strategy was and is to split the SLFP and this in a way which ensures that his faction within the UNP holds sway on government and party. He needs to do two things here: a successor who’ll continue his legacy, and ensure that his party “gets” the presidency some day. Whether he can do this while accommodating those who’ve been known to oppose him within the UNP is for another article.

Right now, here’s what counts. Without delivering on the mandate given to him by the floating voter, Wickremesinghe’s government can hope for very little. This is not just because the UPFAers who affirm(ed) the National Government are led by a party-less drive to weed out corruption and adjust structural flaws. This is also because their representatives wrecked one political equation, turning Rajapaksa into a lost cause. History, as we know, can and does repeat itself.

Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero is not Green. Nor is Patali Champika Ranawaka and the JHU, as well as those who helped the yahapalana campaign, Shiral Lakthilaka included. They are as colourless as they can get. As such the primary need to contain opposition and lend credence to a Green government means that two requirements need to be met: national security and foreign affairs.

Here’s why.

Part of the reason why the UNP lacks support from the rural voter is that it’s perceived as anti-poor and pro-West. This doesn’t make the SLFP a socialist paradise either, but the point is that for almost 10 years, ever since Rajapaksa breached the famous Maithri-Malik deal by allowing defectors to join his government, the UNP was badmouthed as a party which stood against the war. Making matters worse was its tilt towards the West, even when geopolitical realities recommended otherwise.

Here’s the pincer: the floating voter supported Sirisena to drive out Rajapaksa for a reason. That had less to do with a rejection of everything Rajapaksa stood for than a need to get his corrupt group out of the way. The former president, let’s not forget, still courts popularity, and from some of his own critics, for the way he handled the war. Those who claim that other factors helped him are hence at a loss for words when asked, “Would these factors have helped without him?”

Logically therefore, two things should remain constant should a Rajapaksa Restoration NOT be legitimised: the country’s security apparatus and its foreign relations, the latter of which should remain as neutral and non-aligned as possible.

In an interview with foreign correspondent Padma Rao Sundarji (for her book Sri Lanka: A New Country), Sirisena emphatically stated that national security would remain a priority, while the armed forces would gradually exit civil administration. Sirisena’s statement affirms the view that what Rajapaksa left behind must be held together and that in a way which ensures the opposition cannot justify his predecessor’s return to power. The same, by the way, can be said of the country’s foreign relations.

As things stand, the UNP has much to gain. Even from the SLFP. Having gained power in a way which would have made Machiavelli proud, Wickremesinghe must now ensure that what he got cannot be squandered. At all. For that, he must satisfy those two requirements without letting go of the broader canvas which he and his party seeks to enforce in this country, economically, socially, and politically. If he’s successful in this, there’s no doubt that the political equation will “stay”, indeed for quite some time.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, August 29 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Premaranjith Tilakaratne story

Franklin D. Roosevelt knew how to charm people and that in a way which made those charmed give in to him. Once, when his mother had been reading aloud to him, he was on the floor poring over his stamp collection. She noticed him. "Franklin!" she snapped angrily, "I don't think there's any point in my reading to you anymore. You don't hear me anyway."

Young Roosevelt's answer, pithy and in-your-face, made his mother smile: "Mama, I would be ashamed of myself if I couldn't do at least two things at once."

Whether she let him play with his stamps is another story. What's important is that reply and how he articulated it to get back into anyone's good books.

True, no one's saying that Roosevelt became popular for doing two things at once when he became president. But his response remains relevant for those endowed with that rare gift called "dexterity", who go through life and realise that for all its pressures, what they have cultivated in their minds will remain. Premaranjith Tilakaratne, playwright, writer, de-mystifier of myths associated with the arts, and raconteur, probably knows this better than most other people. This is his story.

He was born in Ratnapura in 1937 and educated in Sri Palee College in Horana. Later he had joined Dharmapala Vidyalaya. This was in 1956. "Universities felt the pressure of what happened that year firstly, with the peraliya to swabasha. Dharmapala, on the other hand, remained an English medium school for some time."

Schools are usually associated with certain activities and these include "playing hooky". Premaranjith and his friends had cut classes at Sri Palee to pursue his first love: films. Apparently his first school had a unique and altogether inconvenient timetable: classes ran on Saturday and were halted only on Sundays and Wednesdays, "in keeping with the timetable of Shantiniketan, the school which Rabindranath Tagore, who laid the foundation stone for Sri Palee, started."

Naturally enough, they were forced to choose between going to school on Saturday and going for the 10:30 show at the theatre. "The choice," he laughs, "wasn't hard to make."

Life had been tough on young Premaranjith though, since his father was a teacher and hence opposed to films. Nevertheless, the son had rebelled against the father, borrowing money from him and biking with friends to watch the latest show in town. "We got caught. But we persisted. That's how we kept our love for films and preserved that love."

So how had the shift to Dharmapala been? "We were all taught in English. Our textbooks were published abroad. Above everything though, I remember Dharmapala because of someone I met and befriended there: Tissa Abeysekera. He and I remained friends till his death."

Though he had opposed films in general, Premaranjith's father had been a theatre-goer. He had exposed his son to the stage early on, in particular to Nurti plays. When it came to the cinema however, Premaranjith's taste differed. "Nurti was all about bana and morality plays. The films I saw and relished were different: Quo Vadis, Solomon and Sheba, Ben-Hur, and Hindi hits like Bharat Matha."

When asked whether the epic, larger-than-life decor of these classics reflected his career as a playwright, he quietens a little, admitting that while playwrights are expected to concentrate on dialogues, he went for visuals. "I was never against Western and Hindi cinema. At a time when critics were separating 'good' films from 'bad', a process which ended up rubbishing Hindi and Western cinema, I enjoyed both."

His life as a playwright had coincided with his career as a civil servant. "I worked in the government before I embarked on my life as a dramatist." How he'd entered the theatre is interesting. He and another friend from Dharmapala, Wickrema Bogoda, had gone to watch the rehearsals of Sugathapala de Silva's Boarding Karayo. Seeing the rehearsals had convinced Premaranjith that writing plays was both easy and colourful.

Wahalak Nathi Geyak
40 years later, he reflects on this. "My stage career was colourful. But easy? I hardly think so."

His first play was Vaguru Bima (1963). Back when Sartre, Camus, and Existentialism held sway over our theatre, Premaranjith opted for family dramas. "We called ourselves the '63 Group', like Sugathapala de Silva's 'Ape Kattiya'. Unlike that though, our group had dramatists. Sugathapala's group consisted of actors."

His inexperience as an actor helped. "Take Marlon Brando. Superb actor. When he started directing films however, he made sure no one shone over and above the main lead, who almost always was Brando himself. Now I was never interested in acting in my own plays. So I did what other dramatists should have done: I chose and featured the best actors. Always."

From then on, the list unrolls: Wahalak Nethi Geyak (1964), Thoththa Baba (1965), Ammai Appai (1966), Kontare (1967), Julie (1977), and a novel take on a Nurti tragedy, Sri Wickrema. Fame hadn't come easily to him and controversy had showered over nearly all his plays. Thoththa Baba, for instance, an adaptation of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane, had been banned for its homosexual subtext. Not that awards and accolades hadn't come: Wahalak Nethi Geyak won awards for script and acting at that year's State Drama Festival.

More importantly however, critics had been kind. In fact out of the playwrights who emerged during then, the English press had been quite inclined towards Premaranjith. Here's A. J. Gunawardena on Waguru Bima: "It possesses a basic requirement of any piece of theatre. That is, the ability to hold the attention of the audience." Here's Tissa Devendra on Wahalak Nethi Geyak: "What is noteworthy is its simple and straightforward treatment of a theme that is both universal and contemporary. These conflicts of age, ideals, and expediency of father and son are of universal validity."

Wahalak Nethi Geyak
He wasn't just a playwright. He wrote. Wahalak Nathi Geyak "became" A House Without a Roof, which won the State Literary Award in 2004. Two of his more political plays, Serade Seetha and Devi, were brought together in Kingdom of Liars. "Laced with satire and full of wit" is what Ranga Chandrathne has written on it. "A caustic and angry comment on love, life, and politics" would be more apt, "angry" because for all its use of comic and stock figures (like Lieman, who does his name proud by distorting truth as a media chief), one notices an invitation to the reader to take up arms.

After all these decades, what has Premaranjith learned about his art? "For one thing, I never shied away from exploring new avenues. During my time there was an almost nationalistic backlash against Hindi films. I wasn't part of that anti-Hindi bandwagon. There was also a tendency to confuse films with Buddhist plays and pandam. Far from indulging such an illusion, I believed and continue to believe that Buddhism as practised by our people is what has kept our culture back."

"Colour" is something his plays are full of. For the most, he's opted for adaptations, ones which have won both praise and blame. "That's another thing. Getting praise from critics is all fine and well, but if you can't satisfy your audiences, what's the use? We're not ivory towers. We have jobs. We can't afford to experiment always." As an example, he points at Kontare, possibly his most colourful play.

Kontare had been an adaptation of West Side Story. Translating it into a Sri Lankan setting is a challenge, but Premaranjith had done it. "In West Side Story the conflict is between immigrants and Americans. In Kontare the conflict is between residents of Colombo and outsiders. That's experimentation, yes. But more importantly, it becomes relevant to my audience and country."

There's so much more to Premaranjith Tilakaratne. His career and beliefs have come together in whatever he has done. The father-son conflict, so beautifully captured in his House Without a Roof, is as universal as the trail one finds leading from Oedipus to Sinhabahu. That's just one example though. He has caught an equilibrium between life and art few others aspire to. An achievement, certainly.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, August 22 2015

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Reflections on wins and losses in August


About a year ago, when the Provincial Council elections were held in Uva, few predicted victory for the United National Party (UNP). There were reasons for this. Firstly, there was virtually no internal unity. An opposition that was being targeted and that in a way which worsened factional splits would have spelt victory for the government. Secondly, rumours of a newcomer entering Uva were made and denied. That didn't bode well either.

Notwithstanding all this, Harin Fernando entered the political equation and proved that with patience and humility any incumbent, even one as popular and "loved" as Mahinda Rajapaksa, could be defeated. Naysayers from the government were thus proved wrong. Uva was won by the UPFA. But barely. Meanwhile, the signs were already in. Defeat had to come. Sooner or later.

What happened in November that year and what followed thereafter is, of course, history. Inevitably therefore, this year's Parliamentary Election results weren't just predictable. They were as they should have been.

There were winners and there were losers. Some were expected. Others weren't. Despite the higher-than-heaven predictions made by both major camps, the UPFA and UNP, no one obtained a majority. There are reasons why it happened and why, after all the rhetoric spewed by the former party, the outcome wasn't as rosy as expected.

No one can deny that the re-entry of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the UPFA added to that party's performance. The fact that MPs loyal to the former president were elected while many of those who joined Maithripala Sirisena lost proves it. Jagath Pushpakumara and Vijith Vijithamuni Soysa, for instance, topped Monaragala in 2010. Both were kicked out.

All this points at one thing. The UPFA's campaign was essentially aimed at getting Mahinda Rajapaksa in as Prime Minister. Predictably enough, for those who campaigned and canvassed on behalf of that party, this wasn't as much a parliamentary election as it was a PRIME MINISTERIAL election. As such kinship with Rajapaksa helped. In the end, stalwarts like Vidura Wickramanayaka (Kalutara), who obtained lukewarm results in 2010, whizzed up, while newcomers like Niroshan Premaratne (Matara) whizzed up even more.

The UNP, to its credit, kept to its program. There was less rhetoric. More sobriety. Good governance and the need to eliminate structural flaws figured in its campaign, which coupled with its insistence on getting in clean candidates to parliament probably took in the floating voter who voted for Maithripala Sirisena last January. Even those who supported Sirisena from the UPFA, reasonably enough, would have gone green this time, a point reinforced by his continued attempts at wresting control of the SLFP and thereby preventing Mahinda Rajapaksa's return.

The UPFA campaigned on the assumption – faulty as it was – that the 5.8 million who voted for it would remain or better still, increase. Didn't happen. As such one thing was made clear. Nationalist rhetoric aside, there wasn't any sustainable link between the rallies which greeted Mahinda Rajapaksa and those who wanted him as Prime Minister. The main problem with his campaign, therefore, was confusing the one for the other. Making matters worse was his assertion that the North and East got him defeated last January, one that eroded his minority electorate.

What of the UNP? Many of those who topped the UPFA list were old names. The Greens on the other hand produced fresh faces, particularly those capable of challenging the Old Guard. Sujeewa Senasinghe got almost 400,000 votes less than his party leader, but he still obtained more votes than Ravi Karunanayake and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, the latter of whom slipped to ninth place. Moreover, the party did what many never expected it to do: canvass on its own without allying itself with any Tamil communal party.

That was where the UNP aced. Big time. Here's how.

One of the most frequent allegations (misguided as it was) against Sirisena was that he was "chosen" by minorities. Racist as it was, the UNP needed to legitimise victory without attracting that allegation. It took a huge gamble. Such gambles can cost. Fortunately for the Greens, it paid off here. Not only did it win without Tamil parties, but in areas where the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) held sway, both it and the UPFA lost sorely. Even with that, the UNP embraced victory.

What happened to the JVP? It slipped. Badly. Reasons differ as to why this happened, but above everything the need to defeat the UPFA would have been privileged more than a need to push up a third (or as the JVP loves to call itself, an "alternative") force. Not surprisingly, in this tug-of-war it was ignored, to a point where it got fewer seats and thus had to kick out many of its stalwarts, Sunil Handunnetti included. The same can be said of Sarath Fonseka's Democratic Party, by the way.

For a party that expected much more, defeat would have come because JVPers 1. aligned themselves with the Rainbow Coalition which pushed Sirisena to power or 2. grew tired of the schizophrenia which many of their party seniors were succumbing to (Anura Kumara Dissanayake, for instance, did himself no favours in trying to grab at the Greens and then criticising both parties at the 11th hour). Indecisiveness can't fool voters for long, this was proved amply.

There are names that merit mention and names that deserve more. Ranil Wickremesinghe deserves more. Notwithstanding the hiccups he unfortunately slipped up these past six months, he brought together a party that was, barely two years back, in danger of splitting into two. He showed patience. And humility. In opting for a one-horse race over another Rainbow Coalition, he took a gamble. He won.

Mahinda Rajapaksa may not be Prime Minister, but he got what he wanted. He chased off many of those considered to have backstabbed him after the January election. By getting rid of them, Rajapaksa got his revenge. Smoothly. Calmly. With no force. Sobering on one level. Ironic on another.

Written for: The Nation, August 22 2015

Friday, August 21, 2015

The 'jathika' and 'vijathika' of coalitions


On August 24, 1931, the then prime minister of Britain Ramsay MacDonald attempted to resign over a disagreement with his own party with how the country's finances should be handled. His king, George V, advised him to form a coalition, one which would obtain representation from all parties, including his own (Labour).

That coalition, referred to as the "First National Ministry", was dissolved just two months later, only to be resurrected following a General Election. The reason was simple. The economy was in a slump, in no small part due to the Great Depression. There was a need for a coalition and a good one too.

By 1945, more than 20 years later, Britain saw or rather underwent five more coalitions, the most crucial of which was headed by Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Characteristically, every party involved played a role.

What's notable here is that these coalitions weren't formed for nothing. There were reasons and all too often a national interest was at stake. In none of these instances were democracy deficits and good governance issues. Crucial outcomes were warranted and for this all parties needed to get together. Even if it meant the absence of that cornerstone of any functioning democracy, an opposition.

Well, it's confirmed. A National Government will be set up here. We don't know who's to be represented and who's to opt out. A true National Government can only come with the participation of every party and ideology, including those who espouse federalism, nationalism, capitalism, communism, and yes, even anarchism. For that to happen though, two questions need to be asked: is there enough provision in the Constitution for that and if so, do we really need to go ahead?

Two commentators debated on this on MTV's Newsline the other day. Bandula Jayasekara, diplomat and writer known for his outspokenness, was more accommodating. Rusiripala Tennakoon, trade unionist and political analyst, was more critical. He named names and flipped unturned stones. More importantly, he went on to answer the above two questions and that with tact and objectivity.

His take was based on two premises.

The first. Constitutionally speaking there are provisions and guidelines for forming a National Government here. Specifically, Article 45 states that the president, having consulted the prime minister if necessary, can appoint non-Cabinet Ministers from the Parliament and that these Ministers are then answerable to the Cabinet. This amounts to a National Government or coalition.

The second. Such a coalition can be effective only if the constituent parties (including the head of the alliance) subordinate themselves to a national interest. Such an interest is birthed by a national crisis, including financial meltdowns (as with the MacDonald era) or a war (as with the Churchill era). An interest which "sweeps off" party politics, therefore, can only arise through a crisis. Such crises are rare.

Having laid these out, Tennakoon asked a question: do we really need a National Government?

Consider this. There's no war. The economy's doing fine, at least relatively. We have a serious democracy deficit but then again so does almost every other country. We are not in Lebanon and for this reason we don't really need consensual politicking which robs an opposition from the people. Sure, we've been told that there's to be rhetoric-less good governance in the days and months to come, and judging by the people elected into Parliament that seems to be true.

Do we need a coalition for that though? On the face of it, maybe. Maithripala Sirisena is president and also leader of the SLFP. Ranil Wickremesinghe, his foremost backer in the January election, is prime minister and leader of the UNP. Forget other parties. Forget other party leaders. For the time being, an alliance between these two means, as a sine qua non, a coalition.

But what's it all about? As Tennakoon rightly pointed out, a National Government must subordinate itself to a national interest. What do we have here? For the past six months, all we saw was one party playing second fiddle to the other! A farce? Well, almost. Not surprisingly, how both parties conduct themselves in relation to each other for the next 60 months will be judged on this basis.

Right now, here's what counts. Coalitions aren't just formed. There are forces that breed them. More importantly, history shapes and chisels the right moment for their formation (and of course their split). It's ridiculous therefore to expect them to be made for a (perceived) need to ensure good governance.

Put it this way: those who script in a "jathika" into a coalition while castrating a headless opposition and thereby perpetuating party-politics are actually "doing" a "vijathika".

No, I am not suggesting that this is where Sri Lanka is heading. There's every reason to pin faith on the UNP and the program it's carrying. Then again though, do we really need a National Government for this? Let's not forget, after all, that without a viable and strong opposition (the UPFA meets this easily) neither good governance nor democracy can be sustained for long.

If such coalitions are formed to ward off crises, which need unconditional and across-party-line support, then a virtual absence of those crises would ruin democracy if we still opt for a coalition government and what results is an opposition-less parliament. History has shown what happens in that context, both here and elsewhere. Best not to tempt it.

Rusiripala Tennakoon has made a point, hence. A very good point. So good that it merits assessment.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Maithripala-Mahinda tug-of-war


About 15 years ago, there was a Parliamentary Election, one which saw the ruling People's Alliance (PA) obtain a near-majority with 105 seats. Barely a year later, when several MPs defected to the opposition United National Party (UNP), the PA slid. Badly. It managed to obtain 89 seats, while the UNP got 18 more. What happened for the next four years was a series of defections and alliances which more often than not became the laughing-stock of the entire country. And of course, an unresolved war went on without a hint of protest from either party.

The point is that in 2000, everyone or rather almost everyone believed that the Alliance, led by the then president Chandrika Kumaratunga, would stay. Forever. Implausible, yes, but then again no one thought her front would lose just a year later. Political equations can be wrecked sooner or later, this was learnt then. The UNP, to its credit, was humbled three years later, when that wave they rode on in 2001 went down.

Who'll win and who'll lose this time? Extrapolating from the past, one can predict victory for the party which won the presidential election. But the situation's different here. There was no real party which won that election. Maithripala Sirisena contested from a coalition. True, despite his avowed neutrality he seems to be favouring the United National Front (UNF) over his own party, the SLFP. But the fact is that even with all that, both major parties are own their own. As such it would make sense to delve into what each of them has to offer and how it seeks to "gain" an edge over the other.

Writing to The Island 10 years ago, Professor H. L. Seneviratne reduced the fight between then presidential candidates Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa to one between economics ("arthika") and nationalism ("jathika"). Having identified what was ailing the country back then ("the disintegration of the foundations of social order") he then went on to pontificate about the (perceived) rift between policy and nationalism:

"A Mahinda Rajapaksa government saddled with the JVP and the JHU can only lead the country to war and economic ruin. This is not to say that a Ranil Wickremesinghe government is going to be perfect. But his manifesto at least mentions good governance, and his party seems to have learnt some lessons from its recent defeat."

History, Marx observed, repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce. Take out the JVP (which is grabbing on to the Greens) and the JHU (which is contesting under them) and you have one essential rift: between Ranil and Mahinda. Like in 2005, the leader of the SLFP has vowed not to support his own candidate. Like 2005, the UNF is gearing up its commitment to a better social order, though whether that commitment is mere rhetoric is something to be seen with a UNF victory and thereafter.

2005 was a "tragedy": war, economic ruin, and corruption. 2015? A farce, certainly. Here's why.

The United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is on a populist line. Unlike the presidential election though, while it's laced with nationalist rhetoric it's bereft of the type of character assassination we saw back then. I have mentioned before that most of those who resigned from the national government led by the UNP did so seeking the popularity that their former leader, Rajapaksa, was courting. I've called him a trampoline for this reason. As such the UPFA campaign is essentially Mahinda-led. Whether his political resurgence will survive the election aftermath, however, remains to be seen.

In 2005 the internal rift was between Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga. The lady's back, canvassing for the UNF while claiming she's still loyal to her father's party. The real rift is elsewhere though: between Maithripala Sirisena and Rajapaksa. And this is where the UPFA is set to lose: because unlike in 2005, here the figure who's opposing Mahinda is not only his party leader but his country's president.

Sirisena's conduct during the election was anything but neutral. Firstly, he bragged about how he defended Ranil, a man who's trashing his party all over the country. Secondly, he reiterated his stance on Mahinda not being made Prime Minister, which again weakened the SLFP-UPFA given that its campaign was headed by his predecessor. Thirdly, he showed himself to be absolutely incapable of maintaining neutrality when the opposing UNF used him as poster-boy for its campaign.

A context like this hardly favours the UPFA, particularly given that state resources are at the disposal of the UNF. Inevitably it'll have to "focus" on something to ensure victory by default. For better or for worse therefore, it has chosen to go back to the Mahinda Option, i.e. to install him as Prime Minister and to use this as a means of getting those 113+ seats for a majority. Whether this is enough is for another article, but for now how the party is set to achieve this is pertinent.

Few would bet on the UPFA losing by a large margin. True, it doesn't have state resources to (ab)use like last time. But six months isn't six years. People forget, but not that easily. There's a Mahinda Resurgence, built on populist charisma on the part of the man and those who side with him. It's no surprise that they're targeting the more rural areas in the country, and have all but completely conceded defeat in the non-Blue areas, including Kandy, Badulla, and much of Colombo.

The problem here isn't the fight between Mahinda and Maithripala. Rather, the issue is with the factions the SLFP alone has broken into. One can identify five of them, consisting of: 1. Those who have sided with Mahinda by default (Wimal Weerawansa et al); 2. Those who've taken him in for temporary gain (don't be fooled by those who worship him for forgiveness, that's all "show"); 3. Those who are still vocally against Mahinda (Duminda Dissanayake); 4. Those who're neither here nor there (S. B. Dissanayake); and 5. Those who've truly embraced neutrality without trashing either Mahinda or the president (Mohan Lal Grero).

Is unification possible? If the UPFA is to win it's not only possible but mandatory. With its leader avowing neutrality (sic) though, there's an absence of a centre with which to make unification a reality, As such it's natural that everything and everyone gravitates towards Rajapaksa. As a sine qua non, this means that the party as a whole is embracing what Mahinda wants it to embrace: ethnic populism and a return to pre-January, both bitterly opposed by the UNF and the Maithripala-SLFP Faction. Getting the party together, therefore, is harder than it seems.

Weaknesses show within a party easily when it's split this way. The UPFA to its credit has come off clean(er), with its most reviled candidates not even being nominated. But "clean" doesn't guarantee strength all the time. Fact is, the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and the Mahinda Camp are reiterating that their figurehead will become not just Prime Minister, but EXECUTIVE Prime Minister after the election.

What does this mean? By using the qualifier "Executive", Weerawansa is asserting superiority over Sirisena. How? By hinting that Rajapaksa will be stronger than the president who clipped his own wings with the 19th Amendment. For someone who's highlighting that the UPFA is for self-unity, he's implying that his side of the party is hellbent on trashing and undermining the president. No one, not even someone as simple as Maithripala Sirisena, can or will tolerate that.

Moreover, a Rajapaksa Restoration isn't possible without restoring the political climate to what it was before January. This is unlikely. The majority were against how things were run back then. It's not hard to suppose, even factoring in the disgruntled voter who's reverted to the loser in the last election, that the majority will be against it even now. Given that a restoration of the political situation this way needs for its fulfillment the re-installation of the former president (the two go together), it's hard to imagine how he will ever be the Prime Minister, Executive or otherwise.

This in itself isn't enough to defeat the UPFA though. Much of the UPFA's campaign is run on the premise that Rajapaksa will retain his political signature after the election. Without that premise, it's reasonable to assume that SLFPers would have spoilt their vote for the most. As such one thing needs to get across from the Weerawansa-Gammanpila-Gunawardena-Nanayakkara nexus: that a restoration to pre-January cannot and should not come at the cost of Sirisena's dominance over the political sphere.

As things stand, the situation's tough on Rajapaksa. The conflict before January was between him and Ranil's proxy Maithripala. Now it's between Mahinda and Ranil (explicitly) plus Maithripala (implicitly). The wave that's on the former's side will continue even after the election, which means that his signature as such will remain relevant for a long, long time. With a near-majority for the UPFA, whether or not he's made Prime Minister, the UNF will be trashed. Severely.

What of Sirisena's role in all this? He's vowing to have his party cleaned. By "cleaned", he's indicating a purge from within, to get rid of everyone who's firmly on his rival's side. Pertinently enough, this recalls what another party leader from another time tried to but failed to do. Mikhail Gorbachev.

Contrary to popular opinion, Gorbachev did NOT want to obliterate the Communist Party. He wanted to democratise it, and there by institutionalise political reform before economic reform in the Soviet Union. Naturally enough, he failed in this. He failed because by privileging democracy and dissent, he tried to reform a party which was opposed to both from the outset. Communists who love to trash the man as an imperialist lackey, therefore, fail to realise this.

The SLFP is different. A purge as such can only be legitimised through a person who's proven loyalty to party and unity. Sirisena fits the bill. Whether he can contend with the Mahinda Wave (which to its credit has a good and bad side, unlike the post-Stalin Communist Party) is another story.

Unfortunately however, the the UNF is filled with former SLFPers, some of those who have dubious track records and whose possible return to the SLFP (they are contesting from the UNF, NOT the UNP) after the election will lead to either of two outcomes: a purge that's done for the benefit of the personal vendettas they have against Mahinda Rajapaksa, and one done to serve the UNP's interests. One doesn't have to be a political scientist to conclude this.

Will Maithripala Sirisena do what Mikhail Gorbachev couldn't: reform his party and democratise it without self-castration? Gorbachev couldn't because the Soviet Union was based on a dictatorship, which meant that embracing dissent and reform within the Communist Party implied, as a sine qua non, that the party itself had to be obliterated. Thus he ended up turning it into a nonentity. On the other hand, Sirisena has a bigger chance. Let history grant him that chance. For that though, a genuine move to reform without ruining the party must be made. Possible? Certainly.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Reflections on the 'Sihala Urumaya' that was

On October 10, 2000, there was a Parliamentary Election. Two days later, a newly formed party split over its National List seat. The Central Committee had selected one person for that seat. This person had later resigned over the split, a problem given that he was the party's president. Worse still, the split had been a tug-of-war between him and a younger rebel, who was apparently hellbent on forcing everyone into selecting him.

In the end, that rebel got what he wanted. He got the seat.

S. L. Gunasekera, the president, had commented on him and his faction: "A set of intolerant Talibans."

The Sihala Urumaya got 1.48 percent of the votes that year. In 2001, when another Parliamentary Election was called (one which saw the defeat of the ruling People's Alliance), that amount slipped to 0.5 percent. Gunasekera left. The rebel, Patali Champika Ranawaka, emerged as a leading nationalist after his faction gained support. The entry of bhikkhus into parliament and what followed thereafter is history. Done and dusted.

What explained the rift? Going by election results Ranawaka was more popular: he got 37,000 votes from Colombo against the 28,000 his rival got. This was reflected within the party: Gunasekera wanted the National List seat, something opposed by 90 percent of the candidates in the Sihala Urumaya. So it wasn't a deterioration brought on from inside. The people wanted Ranawaka.

Beneath those numbers, there would have been a bigger rift. We wouldn't really know. What we do know is that between the Parliamentary Election of 2001 (where the SU didn't get a single seat) and that of 2004 (where nine JHU members entered the parliament), things moved fast.

The government led by Chandrika Kumaratunga and her rival Ranil Wickremesinghe became indecisive. Everything "Sinhala" and "Buddhist" was trashed in the name of plurality. Everyone considered nationalist, Gunasekera included, was marked as an extremist. A key critic of the LTTE, Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thero, passed away. Soon enough, the nationalist wave turned into a tsunami. The JHU rode on it.

Between 2001 and 2004, the JHU built up a nationalist front headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Between 2005 and 2010, the war was fought and won. And between 2010 and 2015, the man who's credited as having ended that war was opposed by those very people who (it is claimed) had written much of his manifesto, the "Mahinda Chinthana". All from the JHU.

That they were his scriptwriters is of course hard to buy, but that they stood by and defended him and the war isn't. Having built credibility, they walked out on their former boss. They defeated him. They joined forces with the same people they'd once branded as "Tigers" and "Eelamists".

Turncoat Wordsworth?
There are questions here that will and won't be asked. Like what happened to the Sihala Urumaya. Or what would have happened if Gunasekera stayed. Or what was worse: Ranawaka's perceived chauvinism or his later squandering of it. Questions on whether the "Old Guard" SU was preferable to the "New Fleece" JHU won't be asked either. But they should, and for a good reason.

Whenever one reflects on the Jathika Hela Urumaya, there's a verse which should come to mind at once. It's from a poem by William Wordsworth that encapsulates his former ardour over the French Revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! — Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!

The JHU's decision to go into areas like constitutional reform replaced the nationalist wave of 2010. The "bliss" in that "dawn" soon soured. Champika Ranawaka's removal from the Ministry of Power and Energy in 2013 aggravated the campaign to find a common candidate. When Maithripala Sirisena became president, the people who had supported and continued to support his predecessor shifted from the JHU. They began calling Ranawaka a traitor, compounded by Rathana Thero's admission that his party never had a Sinhala Buddhist base.

"The attraction of a country in romance" – was this the wave which brought the JHU into parliament? If so, did the perceived neglect of it erode that party's popularity later on? To ask this is to ask whether the alternative outcome in 2000, i.e. the Gunasekera Faction's victory, would have been more desirable.

Not for nothing was Gunasekera called a "moderate". Not many people, for instance, know that the Sihala Urumaya's principles (inadvertently) reflected those of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike's Sinhala Maha Sabha. Bandaranaike's original stand, which he kept to before yielding to popular pressure in the 1950s, was that no unification of the country was possible without unifying the Sinhala people. By "Sinhala", of course, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists were included, a point reflected in the fact that not only did Protestants and Catholics vote for the Sihala Urumaya, but a Christian priest, Father Oscar Abeyratne, canvassed for it.

Bandaranaike and his Sinhala Maha Sabha, then, found a rightful heir in Gunasekera. But what happened next? His position in the SU was questioned. Why? Because he was an atheist!

No one who has "read" Gunasekera and his fellow SU stalwart Malinga Gunaratne can deny that they were for what Ranawaka wanted: an end to the war. True, there were rifts. Gunasekera was against the entry of Buddhist monks into parliament, a point which intellectuals and nationalists (in the wake of statements like the above by Rathana Thero) agree with. But his faction was more inclusive. It was respected by a larger section of the country, which explains why Ranawaka is called a "racist" by the same people who voted for Sirisena, while his rival remains quietly respected.

Who was better, then: the non-Buddhist who maintained his views till his death or the Buddhist who kept on contradicting his own stand?

Not that this hasn't happened before. Read up on the JVP and the LSSP and their coalitions with the same parties they opposed. Read up on Max Eastman, James Burnham, and John dos Passos, avowed Communists and Trotskyites who made U-turns in the face of the Red Scare. Read up on Trotsky himself, who predicted that the Bolsheviks would give way to a single dictator and then forgot his own prophecy by joining them in 1917. And while you're at it, read up on Wordsworth's former revolutionary zeal and his subsequent capitulation.

There are turncoats and there are those who change. The two are different. The JHU doesn't have turncoats and there's no reason to think it will. But judging from what some of its own members have said and the people they've joined with (a year ago it would have been impossible to dream of Ranawaka or Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe in the UNP), there's doubt. Makes one want to revisit the Old Guard. Makes one want to return to the "country in romance", where Sinhala people, whether Buddhist or Christian, united as one.

The Sihala Urumaya is dead. So is S. L. Gunasekera. Their legacy remains, however. Always.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, August 14 2015

Friday, August 14, 2015

Theatre in heady (and heavy) doses

Desmond MacCarthy had once witnessed some schoolboys rendering Henry IV in London. He had been moved. "Than this," he had written, "there could be no better way of getting the young to care about Shakespeare." It wasn't just the performance that had impressed him. It was the way the boys had come together, almost involuntarily like ducks taking to water. "The right entrance to the garden of Literature and Art," MacCarthy continued, "is through the gate of excitement and pleasure." Apt.

Shakespeare is timeless. He's an icon. Yes, he's a sacred cow to some. To everyone else though, he's open to interpretation. When his work and the work of his ancestors and his successors are taken up and modified to suit context, there's creativity. More importantly, there's progress. All this and more are being echoed by a group of schoolboys and lovers of English theatre. Here.

The group has a name. AnandaDrama.

I spoke with two of its leading members, Nishantha de Silva and Rajitha Hettiarachchi, some weeks back. They'd staged Dracula! six days before. Reviews had been kind, I was told. The play, which toyed around with the Count's story colourfully, was the latest in AnandaDrama's tortuous history. It showed the team at its best. For now.

Its history "distinguishes" it the most. "For a long time, we never had an English drama society at school," Nishantha tells me, "We had one or two from time to time. But overall and compared with other schools in Colombo, we were behind. Way behind."

The "turning point" had been 2006. That's when Nishantha together with a bunch of students had formed a Drama Circle at school. Their "baptism of fire" had been a short extract from Timon of Athens. "That isn't a text people usually go for," Rajitha tells me, "But we opted for it." They hadn't got into the Finals. Hadn't bothered them.

Reputations are a dime a dozen and hard to keep, but when it came to English theatre in schools in and around Colombo, the group began gaining them. Quickly. "We followed Timon with Macbeth, Coriolanus, Hamlet, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet," Rajitha remembers. Rajitha himself had come into the Circle in 2010, together with another leading member, Ishtartha Wellaboda.

Three years later (2013), after another member (Eraj Gunawardena) had joined the team, the Drama Circle "became" AnandaDrama. Just like that. "We're a Non-Profit Company Limited by Guarantee," Rajitha and Nishantha explain to me, "Neither a company nor a charity, but something close to both."

So what guides AnandaDrama? "First of all, we don't target competitions. We don't buy the notion that we should. There's so much to the theatre apart from prizes, which we instill as an attitude in our students," Nishantha tells me. "Secondly, we take in everyone who shows interest. This means, and we are quite clear about it, that we don't 'exclude' on the basis of proficiency in language."

Rajitha interjects here. "Students are afraid of 'approaching' English because they think that what matters is diction. Not so. By engaging with that language with creativity and constant vigilance, you can get over that fear. Here at AnandaDrama, those we tutor get the hang of the 'lingo', sooner or later."

Both concede that veterans have lent support unconditionally. "To name two of them, Feroze Kamardeen and Thushara Hettihamu. Like them, we're 'at home' with Lionel Wendt. Not that we are an esoteric circle, but there is a crowd we accommodate frequently."

Awards? "Plenty!" both of them smile as they roll off the list. What “strikes” in that is their presence at the Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition, organised towards the end of each year. "We've taken part in 'Shakes' and done our level best. There's no hard-and-fast rule as to who's accepted for the cast, but once you're in, you're in." They tell me that boys from below O/Levels and Grade 10 have participated as well, a sign of how they've "spread" their gospel in and around school.

The future? "We're thinking of going beyond. It'd be interesting, for instance, to take Dracula! abroad. To be sure, we'll be doing reruns. More importantly however, we would like to be regarded as a national group. For that, we need to go forward. Big time."

English theatre isn't only about Shakespeare and for this reason AnandaDrama has "encountered" other texts. A witty take on Lewis Carroll's classic (Alles in Wonderland), Michael Morpurgos' Kensuke's Kingdom, a fusion of Christian Anderson, Perrault, and pop culture (The Most Peculiar and Lamentable Tragedy of the Girl in Red), and of course Ruwanthi de Chickera's Grease Yaka. I recall (and prefer) Dilshan Boange's take on that one: "It deals with a heady subject in heavy doses."

Ironic. Sums up AnandaDrama. Nicely. Desmond MacCarthy would have been proud, I'm sure.

Written for: The Nation FREE, August 14 2015

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The undressing of 'Gremlins'

Films are celebrated for different reasons, even when they use the same theme or plot-line. Some are treasured for being original, but originality is hard to get. That's why directors go for clichés. Why they win if they're used well and lose if they're used to the point of overkill.

Occasionally though, clichés aren't taken in: they're subverted. True, cliche-subversion in itself overused, particularly in this postmodern, postcolonial world where subversion is the norm. Still.

Joe Dante directed Gremlins in 1984. He directed its sequel in 1990. Both subverted every tradition and norm in the film book. Both are hailed and won praise and critique. Not hard to see why.

Like the best works of art which aren't original but still manage to reach out to audiences, these two provoke questions. They ask us, "If this is a theme used over and over again in the cinema, how can it be inverted?" Not surprisingly, Gremlins became just about the most "inverted film" out there. Since its sequel celebrates 25 years this year, it would be relevant to examine some lesser known aspects to both films.

First of all, the question "What are these films about?" can't be answered by glancing through them. At the outset both are about the "corruption of self" brought on by alien contact. Audiences would have adored the first half of the film, where an American family (the Peltzers) adopts an animal (Mogwai) called Gizmo, bought from an antique dealer. It lives under three rules: no bright lights, no water, and no eating after midnight. As everyone knows however, in films rules exist to be broken.

When the first two rules were broken and Gizmo spawned more of its kind, viewers would have laughed. When the third was broken, and when that spawn transformed into vicious creatures ("gremlins") that can and do kill, they would have fainted. People thronged to see a "family film". What they got was a "family film in parts", with multiple definitions for "parts".

But this isn't everything. Critics pointed out that the film reinforced ethnic stereotypes. The "gremlin" as such is a hybrid of African-American and hippie culture. At times, this turns out to be a wild and even racist take on immigrants in the United States, a point acknowledged by audiences and critics alike.

Reading the film like this would defeat purpose, however, which probably explains why both Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael (two of the most popular reviewers back then) avoided it. A more incisive reading (or "undressing") of both films would mean assessing what differentiates one from the other. For that though, one would first have to assess what's common to both.

A good starting point would be this extract from the essay "Gizmo: The Model Minority":

"Some critics have alleged that gremlins portray a grotesque caricature of African Americans, which would not be surprising in the viciously racist era of the 'welfare queen' and the crack epidemic, which was beginning to capture the nation’s attention in 1984. In 'Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies', Patricia Turner has criticised the film for imbuing the riotous ne’er-do-wells with the equivalent of blackface, as they feast on fried chicken and break-dance while wreaking havoc"

That "grotesque caricature" provoked people to condemn the film's message. But to extrapolate and call it racist would be stretching things too far. Certainly, how the monsters behave reflects how some middle-class Americans looked at minorities and their (desperate) attempts at assimilation. But beneath this "Us v Them" dichotomy, there's another dichotomy, based not on ethnicity but on class. Put simply, the creatures turn into deviants who despise the same milieu they came from: middle-class bourgeois life.

What is "middle-class" and "bourgeois" about the Peltzers? Technology and its (un)reliability. From blenders that squirt out juice to shavers that sprout cream all over, it shows bourgeois life at its weakest. "Without music," Nietzsche wrote, "life would be a mistake". One suspects bourgeois life in the 20th century would be as castrated without technology, which the gremlins themselves realise when they tamper with a chair-elevator and send an old woman flying to her death. Literally.

Put it in another way. The cherubic Mogwai are corrupted by the bourgeoisie. They turn into monsters that raise hell against their own "creators". How? By "spitting" at their way of life, as shown in the scene where a gremlin blows his nose on the Peltzer’s curtain. "Like Jean Renoir's Boudu expressing his contempt for bourgeois life by wiping his shoes on a bedspread," Kael would later comment. Apt.

The same can be said of the sequel, on a different level. In both films the gremlins don't just rebel against bourgeois life. They reflect what they rebel against. How they're portrayed best exemplifies this: in the first film, set in a community that privileges uniformity over individuality, the gremlins all look the same. In the second film, in terms of looks and behaviour, they're different from one another. As with New York itself.

So much for the commonalities. What of the differences? Firstly, Joe Dante got more creative control with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. One can of course argue that his vision "held sway" over the first film as well. After all, Chris Columbus' original script (which had Billy as a miscreant who mistreats Gizmo) was darker than Dante's final product, which was more of a black comedy. The "change" in-between had to be made by someone. That someone had to be the director.

But with Gremlins 2 Dante went "beyond" black comedy. He parodied the original and poked fun at it (one of Billy's colleagues, for instance, questions the logic behind the "Three Rules", only to have a gremlin slap him in defiance). Above all, he caricatured its characters to their most basic level.

Take Christopher Lee. Until then he played characters who couldn't redeem themselves and hence had to be killed (a legacy of his role as Dracula). In Gremlins 2, he's a manic researcher called "Doctor Catheter". Halfway through, at which point the story turns chaotic, he hints at redemption. Ready to aid our heroes and thus achieve redemption, he opens a safe to get some weapons.

And then, he gets zapped by a gremlin who's turned into a bolt of electricity. Just like that.

Not surprisingly, both films hold different messages. If what get's affirmed in Gremlins is the notion that technology cannot and will not "hold on" all the time, then towards the end there's a resolution, with the antique dealer (Mr Wing) lecturing the Peltzers on the evils of technology. What Mr Wing doesn't realise, of course, is that it was technology that was used to kill the gremlins.

What of the sequel? There's a message, yes. But a resolution? Hardly. Halfway through, the plot loses any sort of coherence. This is seen best in how the monsters make an appearance from outside, by bullying the projectionist who's projecting Gremlins 2! True, like its predecessor, Gizmo appears in the 11th hour to kill off the monsters and emerge as the "hero".

Okay, maybe not as ridiculous as you THINK it is
But it's different here. In Gremlins he rode a remote controlled car (how he did it is anyone's guess), a symbol of technology, and leaped onto the last gremlin, opening a curtain to let some light in and melt him. In Gremlins 2, he makes use of another aspect of Western society, more derided and at the same time as venerated: pop culture. That explains his cherubic imitation of John Rambo, as he kills a gremlin with a rubber-band, paperclips, and a pencil. And yes, it's as ridiculous as it sounds.

If at the end of the first story Gizmo reverts to "Oriental purity", in the second story he reverts to "Western decadence". While Gremlins indicts the West, the sequel embraces it. By that time Gizmo can't retain his purity: Mr Wing is dead. The scene of him listing out the TV channels he wants to watch to Billy is thus the "ultimate" triumph of Western openness over Eastern conformity. Viewed this way, the final scene, where a security chief gazes in horror at a love-struck "she-gremlin" before "giving in" to her, doesn't only affirm bourgeois decadence. It affirms chaos. Uncertainty.

With no resolution.

In Gremlins 2, a gremlin who acquires the ability to talk after drinking one of Doctor Catheter's potions has this to say about what he and his troupe want:

"The fine points: diplomacy, compassion, standards, manners, tradition: that's what we're reaching toward. Oh, we may stumble along the way, but civilisation, yes. The Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag: everything your society has worked so hard to accomplish over the centuries, that's what we aspire to. We want to be civilised."

And towards the end, when the "Brain Gremlin" gets everyone to sing "New York, New York", we agree with what Billy's neighbour admits: "These guys aren't bad". But no one could have allowed them to take in what civilisation "worked so hard to accomplish". Not even a quirky director working in Hollywood, who made pop culture turn on its head in two of the most deliciously entertaining films ever made.

So he killed them. Just like that.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, August 14 2015