[Op-ed]: Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

As 2016 drew to a close, The Sunday Leader newspaper asked me for my views on Lankan civil society’s key challenges in 2017. I had a word limit of 350. Here is what I wrote, published in their edition of 1 January 2017:

Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sections of Sri Lanka’s civil society were closely associated with the political changes that happened at the presidential and general elections in 2015. That was only natural as the notion of good governance had been articulated and promoted by civil society for years before Maithri and Ranil embraced it.

Now, as we enter 2017, civil society faces the twin challenges of holding the current government to account, and preventing yaha-palanaya ideal from being discredited by expedient politicians. At the same time, civil society must also become more professionalised and accountable.

‘Civil society’ is a basket term: it covers a variety of entities outside the government and corporate sectors. These include not only non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but also trade unions, student unions, professional associations (and federations), and community based or grassroots groups. Their specific mandates differ, but on the whole civil society strives for a better, safer and healthier society for everyone.

The path to such a society lies inevitably through a political process, which civil society cannot and should not avoid. Some argue that civil society’s role is limited to service delivery. In reality, worthy tasks like tree planting, vaccine promoting and microcredit distributing are all necessary, but not all sufficient if fundamentals are not in place. For lasting change to happen, civil society must engage with the core issues of governance, rights and social justice.

Ideally, however, civil society groups should not allow themselves to be used or subsumed by political parties. I would argue that responsible civil society groups now set the standards for our bickering and hesitant politicians to aspire to.

Take, for example, two progressive legal measures adopted during 2016: setting aside a 25% mandatory quota for women in local government elections, and legalising the Right to Information. Both these had long been advocated by enlightened civil society groups. They must now stay vigilant to ensure the laws are properly implemented.

Other ideals, like the March 12 Movement for ensuring clean candidates at all elections, need sustained advocacy. So Lankan civil society has plenty of unfinished business in 2017.

Nalaka Gunawardene writes on science, development and governance issues. He tweets from @NalakaG.

Note: Cartoons appearing here did not accompany the article published in The Sunday Leader.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he had articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.

Sri Lanka: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...

Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...

This is one of my favourite images. Showing southern part of India and my native Sri Lanka, it was captured by one of the early US space missions, nearly four decades ago.

Much has happened on the tear-drop shaped island since this image was taken: among other things, we’ve been through a civil war that lasted a generation, and robbed the dreams of at least two generations. That war officially ended on 18 May 2009.

The Day After, on 19 May 2009, I wrote a 1,500-word essay titled Memories of War, Dreams of Peace. The editor of Groundviews, Sri Lanka’s leading citizen journalism website, published it in full, and within minutes of my emailing the text to him.

I’m humbled and gratified that in the past few days, it has been widely read, commented on, quoted online and reproduced. Some have agreed with me; others have dismissed me as a naive dreamer. A writer cannot ask for more.

20 May 2009: MediaChannel.org (New York) reproduces the essay in full


24 May 2009: The Sunday Leader (Colombo) reprints the essay in full

I look back briefly on the brutal and tragic war – not in anger, but in great sadness. I then look forward in a wistful, dreamy mode. My premise was: “Now that the war is officially over, will this mark the beginning of real peace? I want to believe so. I want to audaciously dream of peace. The alternative is too dreadful to consider.”

This is not exactly what I’ve been trained to do. As a science writer and film-maker, I gather and analyse information, which I try to present in logical, coherent and accessible ways. In recent years, I’ve also been writing op ed essays in areas where I have some competence and experience. In writing this essay, I consciously departed from all that. I’m neither political scientist nor activist to engage in ideological or technocratic discussions, which others have already started in earnest. I wrote this at an emotional level, looking back and looking forward.

But my training did come in handy in framing the timely and necessary questions. My chosen ‘author intro’ for this essay thus reads: “Writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been a dreamer for all his 43 years. He asks more questions than he can answer.”

We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...

We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...

If my views come across as naive or idealistic, I shall plead guilty as charged. My emotions this week are best described as cautiously optimistic, but as some readers on Groundviews pointed out in their comments, our high hopes have been betrayed before. But can we afford not to dream privately and publicly at this juncture? I don’t think so. We have suspended our dreams for too long, and it’s time to start dreaming again.

There are as many kinds of dreamers as there are dreams. One of my favourite quotes comes from the British soldier and writer T E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame): “All men dream, but not equally…the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Goodbye, Lasantha Wickramatunga – and long live Siribiris!

No discussion or debate...

Colombo General Cemetery: No discussion or debate...

This is a view of Colombo’s main cemetery, the final resting place for many residents of Sri Lanka’s capital and its suburbs. I took this photo less than a month ago, when I visited a grave on a quiet morning.

The late Bernard Soysa, a leading leftist politician and one time Minister of Science and Technology, once called it ‘the only place in Colombo where there is no discussion or debate’.

This afternoon, family, friends and many sorrowful admirers of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the courageous Sri Lankan newspaper editor who was brutally slain last week in broad daylight, took him there — and left him behind amidst the quiet company.

But not before making a solemn pledge. All thinking and freedom-loving people would continue to resist sinister attempts to turn the rest of Sri Lanka into a sterile zombieland where there is no discussion and debate. In other words, rolling out the cemetery to cover the rest of the island.

The last laugh?

The last laugh?

Silencing Lasantha was the clear aim of cowardly gunmen who intercepted him on his way to work and shot him at pointblank. Tarzie Vittachi, the first Lankan newspaper editor to be forced into exile 50 years ago for freely expressing his views on politically sensitive issues, once called such attacks ‘censorship by murder’. (Alas, since Tarzie uttered those words in 1990, shooting the messenger has become increasingly common in Sri Lanka.)

Rex de Silva, the first editor that Lasantha worked for (at the now defunct Sun newspaper) in the late 1970s, has just cautioned that Lasantha’s murder is the beginning of ‘the sound of silence’ for the press in Sri Lanka. Can this sound of silence be shattered by the silent, unarmed majority of liberal, peace-loving Lankans who were represented at the funeral service and the Colombo cemetery today?

And would they remember for all time Edmund Burke’s timeless words: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”?

How many would actually read, absorb and heed the deeply moving words of Lasantha’s one last editorial, copies of which were distributed at the cemetery and the religious service before that?

That editorial, which appeared in The Sunday Leader on 11 January 2009, embodies the best of Lasantha Wickrematunga’s liberal, secular and democratic views.

As I wrote in another tribute published today by Himal Southasian and Media Helping Media: “I have no idea which one – or several – of his team members actually penned this ‘Last Editorial’, but it reads authentic Lasantha all over: passionate and accommodating, liberal yet uncompromising on what he held dear. I can’t discern the slightest difference in style.”

“And there lies our hope: while Lasantha at 51 lies fallen by bullets, his spirit and passion are out there, continuing his life’s mission. That seems a good measure of the institutional legacy he leaves behind. If investigative journalism were a bug, the man has already infected at least a few of his team members…”

Read the full story of The Sunday Leader team’s courage under fire

Read The Sunday Leader‘s tribute to its founding editor on 11 January 2009: Goodbye Lasantha

Much has been written and broadcast in the past 100 or so hours since Lasantha’s journey was brutally cut short by as-yet-unidentified goons who have no respect for the public interest or have no clue how democracies sustain public discussion and debate. I’m sure more will be written – some in outrage and others in reflection – in the coming days and weeks.

puncturing egos for 40 years

Siribiris (left): puncturing egos for 40 years

As we leave Lasantha to his rest, I remember Siribiris. For those unfamiliar with the name, Siribiris is an iconic cartoon character created by Camillus Perera, a veteran Sri Lankan political cartoonist who has been in the business as long as I have been alive.
Siribiris represents Everyman, who is repeatedly hoodwinked and taken for granted by assorted politicians and businessmen who prosper at the common man’s expense. The only way poor, unempowered Siribiris can get back at them is to puncture their egos and ridicule them at every turn. And boy, does he excel in that!

It’s no surprise that Lasantha – the bête noire of shady politicians and crooked tycoons – was very fond of Siribiris. Perhaps he saw his own life’s work as extending that of Siribiris in the complex world of the 21st century. That he did it with aplomb and gusto – and had great fun doing it, sometimes tongue stuck out at his adversaries – will be part of Lasantha’s enduring legacy. (As his last editorial reminded us, in 15 years of investigative journalism on a weekly basis, no one has successfully sued the newspaper for defamation or damages.)

So Goodbye, Lasantha. And Long live Siribiris!

Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka