Living secular in the ‘Sinhala Buddhist Republic’ of Sri Lanka

Two years ago, in a moment of panic, I rushed my young daughter to Colombo’s only children’s hospital. To be honest, I don’t normally turn to our overcrowded government hospitals for healthcare. But a doctor friend had recommended the Lady Ridgeway Hospital as the best place for administering the anti-rabies vaccine.

As with all government hospitals, they first wanted to record the patient’s basic bio data. Fair enough. I provided the child’s name, age and street address. For some reason, the form also asked for the patient’s religion. Before I could say anything, the nurse in charge wrote ‘Buddhist’.

Now, this was both incorrect and highly presumptuous. But when I objected, it sparked off an argument. The formidable woman insisted that with a ‘good Sinhalese surname’ like ours, we simply had to be Buddhists!

When I said her assumption was wrong, she asked me with some disdain: are you then a Christian? No again. Now she was beginning to be get really irritated: who is this man who speaks fluent Sinhala, but is neither Buddhist nor Christian?

I was not about to declare in public a matter I consider to be intensely private: my religious faith. With the fellow public behind me becoming impatient, and the public servant in front of me taking a dogged stand, I retreated with a heavy heart. (I later paid a few thousand rupees for the same course of vaccines at a private clinic, where my religious faith or ethnicity was never questioned.)

I thought this was an isolated incident, and didn’t think further. But a few months later, I ran into a similar situation at my area police station. I’d gone to make a formal complaint about a serious matter concerning personal safety, and once again, the process started with my bio data. When it came to fixing labels, the woman constable recording my statement categorised me as ‘Sinhalese Buddhist’ — without even raising her head from the big book of complaints.

In case you are wondering, I bear absolutely no tell-tale signs of belonging any faith: I don’t wear a religious symbol as jewellery, or wrap pirith nool (pieces of thread blessed by monks) on my wrist. I also carefully avoid sprinkling my everyday speech with any religious phrases. Even my occasional swearing is devoid of religious references. (An observant friend once likened my colloquial speech to that of my favourite cartoon charter Tintin’s: no harsh swear words, and only secular references.)

Must biology be destiny in the 21st Century? Blind chance of birth placed me in a family of ethnic Sinhala parents who also happened to be Buddhists. But these cosmic accidents don’t make me a Buddhist any more than, say, I become a believing and practising Aquarian simply because I was born in February. My brand loyalty to the randomly assigned religion and star sign are about the same: zero.

Just so that I put all my cards on the table, I have not practised any religion or belonged to any religious faith (with their trappings of scripture, priests and places of worship) from my teen years. That’s 30 years of uninterrupted secular humanism.

Indeed, ‘secular humanist’ is the only label that I proudly wear in both public and private. But in the Sinhala Buddhist Republic of Sri Lanka that my land of birth is turning into, various public agencies find this ‘aberration’ either unsettling or unacceptable. My self-exclusion on matters of faith makes me an instant misfit in many state procedures. And yet, we are supposedly an open and democratic society……and in theory at least, not a religious state.

But that matters little in practice. For example, I recently gave evidence under oath in a court of law in a civil case. All along, my lawyer advised me to just ‘pretend’ to be a Buddhist for that solemn occasion. Apparently the system can’t handle ‘spiritually neutral’ — my preferred (and very honest) answer when asked about my faith.

I don’t see how and why a citizen’s religious affiliation – or its complete absence – should matter in the least when dispensing vaccines or justice in the modern world. Is this not a residual habit from colonial times that no longer serves a purpose? Actually, I find it worse than redundant; it’s plain insulting.

Religion is not the only private matter that our governments love to poke its clumsy and unwelcome noses into. Also falling into this category: everyone’s sanitary habits, and sexual relations between consenting adults.

For sure, what private individuals do in the privacy of their homes can have some implications for the community, economy and national statistics. In today’s highly inter-dependent and interlinked world, no man or woman or nation is an island.

Despite this, there are at least three aspects of modern living where choices must remain strictly and entirely personal: what we do in our bed rooms, wash rooms and (metaphorical) shrine rooms. I, for one, will resist all arms of the state and government, as well as self-appointed guardians of our morals and values, from intruding into any of these hallowed spaces of my free will and choice.

Especially when it comes to matters of faith – or its complete avoidance – the Jackboot of government means absolutely nothing.

Well, at least until they perfect the Thought Police

* * * * *

Explanation for non-Lankan readers:
The ethnic mix and religious mix in Sri Lanka don’t coincide, making it (at least for me!) a delightfully chaotic melting pot. While some Sinhalese are Buddhist and some Tamils are Hindu in their choice of faith, that is not to be assumed. Indeed, there are statistically significant numbers of both Sinhalese and Tamils who are Christians (of various denominations). While all our muslim friends are Islamic, there are also some ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils who have converted to Islam. So one has to be very careful in making generalisations, and it’s altogether better to avoid them….

So you want to help develop the media? Read this first!

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about How to become a global publisher or broadcaster in just 100 minutes! That was compiled by my British media activist friend David Brewer , who showed how it could be done using free tools that can be downloaded and activated in minutes.

This week, David has brought out another handy guide — this time aimed at those involved in media development. UNESCO defines it in lofty, technocratic terms, but it basically means strengthening the media institutions, media people (practitioners and managers) and media consumers so that the media can best serve the public interest.

Everyone seems to have their own recipe for media development, and that’s part of the media’s huge diversity. Media Helping Media asked a number of people who have benefited from media development projects what they felt needs to change in the year ahead. The replies have so far come from The Russian Federation, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Macedonia, Ukraine, Bhutan and Nepal. They make up a challenging list of tips for those who try to help media in need.

Its introduction says: “You have as much to learn as you have to give. That’s the message to those offering media assistance in transition and post-conflict countries from some of those on the receiving end.”

Here’s my own contribution to this interestingly crowd-sourced distillation. David had asked for three key points, but you can see below why I was never very good in arithmetic…

Media operate as a business, not charity: All media have a social responsibility, but that must be balanced with commercial viability. This is so with state, corporate or community owned media. Bankrupt media can’t serve any public interest.

‘Media’ is a plural: Media is a basket term for entities with enormous diversity and variability. One size does not fit all, no matter how well intended. It’s crucial to understand before engaging any media.

Follow the eyeballs: If you want the biggest bang for your limited buck, start with the mass market end of media such as FM radio, tabloid newspapers and music TV channels. Leave your broadsheet/classical prejudices out of investment decisions.

Take it easy: Audiences need entertainment as much as information and education. Supporting quality entertainment in the media is just as important for the public good as nurturing investigative journalism or advocating media freedom.

Sparks of hope: Real world is not an all-or-nothing game. Find oases of innovation and resilience, and nurture them to survive and grow in turbulent times. Back media underdogs of today who can become fierce watchdogs of tomorrow.

In responding to David’s request last month, I’d added this covering sentence which sums up my thinking: “All this is common sense that is often uncommon. I really wish media development organisations would listen and reflect more, and also step beyond their comfort zones and romanticised little bubbles.”

The entire collection is well worth reading, for it distills decades of ground level experience and insight. This guide will help many well-meaning organisations (UN agencies, philanthropic foundations, CSR arms of media companies and others) to be more focused, sensitive and ultimately more effective in developing the media.

Read the related 12 tips for international media trainers

Hans Rosling and Gapminder: Unraveling the Joy of Stats!

Hans Rosling: Information Wizard

If you thought Al Gore was a data-happy geek, you should see Hans Rosling in action.

The Swedish medical researcher has a way with numbers. He brings heavy and dreary statistics into life using a combination of animated graphics and equally animated presentations. With the drama and urgency of a sportscaster, he uses a new presentation tool called Gapminder to debunk various myths about world – economic development, disparities and how well (or poorly) we share our planet’s resources.

Hans Rosling is Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet (which awards the Nobel Prize in medicine), but it’s his other role – as Director of the Gapminder Foundation – that he plays ‘statistics guru’ to the whole world. If you’re perplexed by lots of numbers, he’s the man who can make sense of it all.

In some ways, Rosling and Gapminder present in live action – and on video – what the Atlas of the Real World attempted to do in 2D maps: show the world as it is, with little or no distortion or misconceptions. That effort, published in late 2008, uses software to depict the nations of the world, not by their physical size, but by their demographic importance on a range of subjects.

I’ve watched a number of Rosling talks on video online. He makes no attempt to conceal his Scandinavian accent, and his English grammar is not always perfect. But it doesn’t matter: the guy has such mastery over his ideas and statistics, and a great stage presence too. He’s profound and funny at the same time, without being condescending that most experts and especially professors are.

Here’s an example of Rosling at his best: recorded in February 2006 in Monterrey, California:

No more boring data: TEDTalks

Rosling’s quest to use numbers to shatter stereotypes of rich and poor countries has brought him global prominence. He was one of the world’s “100 most important global thinkers” of 2009, according to Foreign Policy Magazine.

Look, no magic here!

Rosling was honored at #96 on the list for “boggling our minds with paradigm-shattering data“. The list is topped by (1) Ben Bernanke, the chairman of US Federal Reserve for his actions to turn the US depression and (2) President Barack Obama for “for reimagining America’s role in the world.”

Foreign Policy noted: “Rosling is well known for his energetic lectures, in which he narrates mind-blowing statistics on development and public health — as they literally move across a screen. Imagine x-y axes filled with data points, each representing a country. As time passes, the dots move, realigning to show changes in child mortality, percentage of paved roads, unemployment rates, or pretty much any other metric you can imagine.”

Here are some more examples of Rosling magic:

200 years that changed the world (with Hans Rosling)

For the first time, Gapminder can now visualize change in life expectancy and income per person over the last two centuries. In this Gapminder video, Hans Rosling shows you how all the countries of the world have developed since 1809 – 200 years ago.

Hans Rosling on HIV: New facts and stunning data visuals

Hans Rosling unveils new data visuals that untangle the complex risk factors of one of the world’s deadliest (and most misunderstood) diseases: HIV. He argues that preventing transmissions — not drug treatments — is the key to ending the epidemic.

Hans Rosling: Asia’s rise — how and when

This is one of the funniest Rosling talks I’ve watched online so far. Speaking at TEDIndia in November 2009, Rosling recalled how he was a young guest student in India when he first realized that Asia had all the capacities to reclaim its place as the world’s dominant economic force. He graphs global economic growth since 1858 and predicts the exact date that India and China will outstrip the US.

Note:
Rosling and Gapminder developed the Trendalyzer software that converts international statistics into moving, interactive and enjoyable graphics. The aim is to promote a fact-based world view through increased use and understanding of freely accessible public statistics. His lectures using Gapminder graphics to visualise world development have won awards by being humorous yet deadly serious. The interactive animations are freely available from the Foundation’s website. In March 2007 Google acquired the Trendalyzer software with the intention to scale it up and make it freely available for public statistics. Google has since made available as Motion Chart, a Google Gadget.

Do we want a ‘Progress Bar’ for our lives?

I sometimes wish Life came with its own progress bar. [tweetmeme]

You know, that now familiar indicator on computer screens that shows how much of a task is done, and estimates what more remains — and for how long.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how much of our life is still left?

I’m not alone in this wish. In fact, whole cottage industries – such as astrology and palmistry – thrive on this universal curiosity to know what’s next, and what’s round the corner for ourselves.

Yet there is no known system of knowledge, or a proven technology, that can give us a customised, accurate answer. Everything that claims to do this is nothing better than a clever guess. Often, it’s not even that and only a complete rip-off…

The Undiscovered Country...

Then again, do we really want to know when we’re going to reach the end of the line (whether or not the mission is accomplished)?

Years ago, I watched a Star Trek episode that involved a world where everyone died at the same age. So all living persons knew how much time they had left, allowing them to sort their lives before it was too late.

I don’t think I’d want to live there. Not knowing how much of my life is left, and what’s in store for me in that remainder, makes living more interesting. Besides, I doubt if the chaos theory and randomness of the universe will ever allow such precise advance knowledge of anyone’s future…

As I turn 44 years today, I Googled for ‘progress bar + life’. Just for the heck and kick of it. I didn’t really expect to find an exact match, but I did. That’s the wonder of the web…

Progress Bar of Life is described as ‘a slightly morbid little web app’. It’s an innovation by an Australian geek named Andrew Ballard.

When I ran the quick and simple app, I received a slightly amusing result. Try it out, and see for yourself.

Always in a hurry?

Perhaps the inspiration came from Top Geek Steve Jobs, who is quoted on this website as saying: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life”

Still in the realm of marginally useful web apps, I also discovered timeanddate.com some weeks ago: it allows counting down or counting between any two dates. The result can be in days, hours, minutes or – for those who prefer such precision in their lives – even in seconds.

They tell me that I am exactly 16,071 days old today. Not a neat round figure as being 44 years, but there we are. (I somehow thought I’d lived for more days than that, but a quick manual calculation showed they are right.)

These counts are all very abstract anyway: our days and years are peculiar to the Earth — these measurements have no meaning beyond our home planet. Planetary rotation defines a day, while its revolution around the local star (in our case, the Sun) defines a ‘year’.

Another website, maintained by San Francisco’s excellent Exploratorium, allows me to calculate how old I would be if I lived on other planets of the Solar System where the rotation and revolution are different.

According to them, if I were to travel to the two planets closest to ours, I would be aged: 71.5 Venusian years on Venus; and 23.3 Martian years on Mars.

And if I want to melt my years away, I have to travel further to the outer planets: on Jupiter, I will be 3.7 Jovian years, and I’ll not even be 2 in Saturnian years! Wow…

On second thoughts, I think I’ll just stay on here.

Waiting for Mandela: Film maker recalls momentous week in Feb 1990

Updated: 6 Dec 2013 Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918 – 2013): Thank You and Goodbye!

Nelson Mandela at a 2005 charity concert branded after his prison number, 46664.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release after 27 years in prison.

Ending his long walk to freedom on 11 February 1990, he gave a speech which ended with these words from the defence statement he’d made during his trial for treason 27 years previously: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

My friend and inspiration Danny Schechter wrote an interesting piece recalling the week 20 years ago when his hero (and mine) finally walked free after being the world’s most celebrated political prisoner for over a quarter century.

American journalist and film maker Danny was a long and persistent supporter of the struggle against Apartheid: in all, he has made six films with and about Mandela. Here are his reminiscences in full, borrowed from his News Dissector blog:

WAITING FOR MANDELA, by Danny Schechter

Danny Schechter with Nelson Mandela

Twenty years ago during this very week, I was leading the production team of Globalvision’s inaugural TV series, South Africa Now. We were all consumed by the rumors that best known political prisoner in the world, Nelson Mandela, the leader and symbol of the African National Congress, was about to be released from prison in South Africa after 27 years.

It was exciting and nerve-wracking to contemplate what would come next—but with all the joy and anticipation, there was a fear too, fear that Mandela would be freed into an unfree society with power still in white hands dominated by their pro-apartheid Generals and securocrats. No one was sure what would happen. Would he be going from one jail to another? Would he be assassinated? Would it even happen?

Back then, we were rushing to finish a South Africa Now PBS special slated to air in prime time on Sunday February 11th. PBS correspondent Charlayne Hunter Gault, later to become first NPR’s and then CNN’s bureau chief in South Africa, had agreed to anchor it, and we were busy putting the final touches on the show which we had titled WAITING FOR MANDELA.

It was all rush, rush. We wanted to be timely but we were covering all bases because we weren’t sure if he would be freed or not. On Friday, February 9th, we went into the studio at the old WNET–Channel 13 in New York to record our studio introductions. We finished our graphics. Charlayne prercorded her open. She was great, We were ready to go. All that remained was for the special to be packaged and aired.

But then, late on Friday Night or was it Saturday Morning, we heard that South African President DeKlerk was going to make a special announcement, a key speech to mark the opening of their Parliament. He was considered a liberal Afrikaner and had been part of a process or internal coup that ousted hardline pro-apartheid president. P.W. Botha known there as “the crocodile.”

What would he say? What would he do?

The next day, were glued to our TV sets and saw DeKlerk shock the world. He announced that Mandela would be freed the next day, on Sunday. He was then in Victor Verster prison in South Africa’s wine country north of Capetown. It was happening!

Not only that. DeKlerk announced that the ANC and the South African Communist Party and all other banned organizations would be, after decades, unbanned and allowed to participate in South African politics. This meant that the ANC leaders and their MK guerrilla fighters would be able to come home from so many years in the pain of exile.

The world was upside down. ANC people worldwide had to pinch themselves to see if they really heard what he said.

It was mind-blowing. We screamed. We cried. And then, we panicked. Our TV special was now out of date. The Waiting for Mandela was over. We had a little more that 24 hours to come up with a new TV hour with virtually no budget. We had won a hour of prime time TV. We couldn’t allow it to go to waste.

The world media was rushing to the scene. They had satellites, crews, reporters galore. What could we do that was different? We had been covering the situation there on a weekly basis and had all sorts of footage the networks didn’t. We had contacts and context. But we couldn’t go there because there wasn’t enough time. And besides, we were, in effect, banned there working with South Africans. (The ANC would be unbanned before us!)

We went to work, re-editing, tapping into a South African broadcasting company feed, and setting up the first televised exchange between the ANC and a government that refused to recognize the liberation movement.

We worked around the clock. Two editors collapsed in reworking the material under pressure. We just made air, as TV people say, by minutes. We believe our special was the best on TV.

The program was now called MANDELA: Free At Last. And we have tapes for anyone interested!

Read more memories and reflections by Danny Schechter on the News Dissector blog

Huffington Post, June 2008: Danny Schechter’s 90th birthday tribute to Nelson Mandela

Desiderata: Happiness is a journey, not just a destination…

“Desiderata” is Latin for “desired things”, and the plural of desideratum. Desiderata is also the title of a famous prose poem written by Max Ehrmann an American spiritual writer and attorney.

It captures his thoughts about attaining happiness in life. Its universal and timeless sentiments have resonated with people all over the world. As with the ‘Chief Seattle speech‘, another urban legend has emerged suggesting that this poem was “found” at Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore and is as old as 1692.

But in this instance, the Church itself has clarified Ehrmann actually wrote it himself and copyrighted it in 1927.

None of this takes away from the beauty and profundity of the poem. Living in a world full of clutter and noise, I find much comfort in this. Here’s one illustrated version I found online:

‘Avatar’ unfolds in the Amazon: Find out the Real Price of Oil!

This is no Avatar: It's Real!

A few days ago, reviewing the blockbuster movie Avatar, I wrote: “Film critics and social commentators around the world have noticed the many layers of allegory in the film. Interestingly, depending on where you come from, the movie’s underlying ‘message’ can be different: anti-war, pro-environment, anti-Big Oil, anti-mining, pro-indigenous people, and finally, anti-colonial or anti-American. Or All of the Above…”

Indeed, an Avatar-like struggle is unfolding in the Amazon forest right now. The online campaigning group Avaaz have called it a ‘Chernobyl in the Amazon’. According to them: “Oil giant Chevron is facing defeat in a lawsuit by the people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, seeking redress for its dumping billions of gallons of poisonous waste in the rainforest.”

From 1964 to 1990, Avaaz claims, Chevron-owned Texaco deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste from their oil fields in Ecuador’s Amazon — then pulled out without properly cleaning up the pollution they caused.

In their call to action, they go on to say: “But the oil multinational has launched a last-ditch, dirty lobbying effort to derail the people’s case for holding polluters to account. Chevron’s new chief executive John Watson knows his brand is under fire – let’s turn up the global heat.”

Avaaz have an online petition urging Chevron to clean up their toxic legacy, which is to be delivered directly to the company´s headquarters, their shareholders and the US media. I have just signed it.

Others have been highlighting this real life struggle for many months. Chief among them is the documentary CRUDE: The Real Price of Oil, made by Joe Berlinger.

The award-winning film, which had its World Premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, chronicles the epic battle to hold oil giant Chevron (formerly Texaco) accountable for its systematic contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon – an environmental tragedy that experts call “the Rainforest Chernobyl.”

Here’s the official blurb: Three years in the making, this cinéma-vérité feature from acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger is the epic story of one of the largest and most controversial legal cases on the planet. An inside look at the infamous $27 billion Amazon Chernobyl case, CRUDE is a real-life high stakes legal drama set against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics, celebrity activism, human rights advocacy, the media, multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures. Presenting a complex situation from multiple viewpoints, the film subverts the conventions of advocacy filmmaking as it examines a complicated situation from all angles while bringing an important story of environmental peril and human suffering into focus.

Watch the official trailer of Crude: The Real Price of Oil

According to Amazon Watch website: “With key support from Amazon Watch and our Clean Up Ecuador campaign, people are coming together to promote (and see) this incredible film, and then provide ways for viewers to support the struggle highlighted so powerfully by the film.”

They go on to say: “A victory for the Ecuadorian plaintiffs in the lawsuit will send shock waves through corporate boardrooms around the world, invigorating communities fighting against injustice by oil companies. The success of our campaign can change how the oil industry operates by sending a clear signal that they will be held financially liable for their abuses.”

While Avatar‘s story unfolds in imaginary planet Pandora — conjured up by James Cameron’s imagination and created, to a large part, with astonishing special effects, the story of Crude is every bit real and right here on Earth. If one tenth of those who go to see Avatar end up also watching Crude, that should build up much awareness on the equally brutal and reckless conduct of Big Oil companies.

Civilisation's ultimate addiction?

Others have been making the same point. One of them is Erik Assadourian, a Senior Researcher at Worldwatch Institute, whom I met at the Greenaccord Forum in Viterbo, Italy, in November 2009.

He recently blogged: “The Ecuadorians aren’t 10-feet tall or blue, and cannot literally connect with the spirit of the Earth (Pachamama as Ecuadorians call this or Eywa as the Na’vi call the spirit that stems from their planet’s life) but they are as utterly dependent—both culturally and physically—on the forest ecosystem in which they live and are just as exploited by those that see the forest as only being valuable as a container for the resources stored beneath it.”

Erik continues: “Both movies were fantastic reminders of human short-sightedness, one as an epic myth in which one of the invading warriors awakens to his power, becomes champion of the exploited tribe and saves the planet from the oppressors; the other as a less exciting but highly detailed chronicle of the reality of modern battles—organizers, lawyers, and celebrities today have become the warriors, shamans, and chieftains of earlier times.”