21 September 2017

Executive, legislative and judicial: ALL OUT OF ORDER

SYSTEM ERRORS MUST BE ELIMINATED!

The presumption of innocence until and unless proven guilty is one of the foundational and sacred principles of the judicial process.  So let us not be presumptuous.  However, let us state some established facts.

Nagananda Kodituwakku, Presidential Candidate 2020 and a public interest lawyer has written to the Registrar of the Supreme Court requesting that several cases he has filed not be listed before certain judges he has mentioned by name.  

The cases areas follows: the abuse of National Lists (SC/Writs/05/2015), abuse of tax-free permits by MPs (SC/Contempt/03/2017), destruction of ancient Buddhist religious places of worship in the Northern Province (SC/FR/309/2015), judicial corruption (SC/Writs/03/2016), abuse of public office to defraud government revenue by P.B. Jayasundara (SC/Writs/04/2015), and a ruling against lawyer/activist Nagananda Kodituwakku (SC/Rules/01/2016).

As mentioned above, let us not be presumptuous; the accused have not been found guilty.  What is interesting is the issue that has prompted litigation, in short failure to fulfill constitutional obligation with respect to the (alleged, as of now) illegality of the 14th Amendment, that piece of legislation allowing those rejected at the polls to be accommodated in Parliament through ‘National Lists’.  The relevant judges, Nagananda charges, refused to offer determination and instead passed it on to someone else.  

For the record, the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1988 (just before the United National Party lost its two-thirds majority perniciously obtained through the anti-democratic measure of the 1982 referendum), violated established procedure.  The then President, J.R. Jayewardena submitted a note to the then Chief Justice requesting a determination on constitutionality. 

The 14th Amendment was not included in the Order Paper of Parliament.  It was not gazetted.  The people were not given sufficient time to assess its worth and if thought fit to make submissions to the Supreme Court on the issue of legality.  In fact this particular draft was used to throw out another draft on the same subject that had actually adhered to established procedure.  

It’s obviously a can of worms, but one which has now been opened thanks to a case filed by DEW Gunasekara (possibly inadvertently, according to Rajan Philips) after he was denied a slot in the SLFP’s national list in August 2015, and thanks to the untiring efforts of his lawyer, Kodituwakku.  What it affirms (that’s a soft word which does not mean ‘proves’) is the widely-held notion that the judiciary either functions under the control of the executive or is given to betraying the judicial power of the people that it is mandated to exercise purely on trust.  If it’s a matter of not wanting to incur the wrath of the executive, then we are poor indeed as a citizenry and our sovereignty is not worth the ink used to write the word. 

This particular case, then, involves all three organs of the state, the executive, legislative and judicial. It forces us to wonder why the recent enthusiasm shown by the Government for constitutional reform has tiptoed around the issue of the National List, the illegality of the 14th Amendment and making room for people who have failed to win the trust of the people to legally represent them in Parliament.  

It is in this context that constitutional reform proposed by Kodituwakku need to be discussed.  He has made several recommendations which he believes would make for a corruption-free institutional arrangement where the sovereign rights of the people are upheld at every turn, especially in the courts.  

Among the measures recommended are the following: Ensuring that judicial power of the people shall be exercised by the judiciary, the introduction of the right to judicial review, removal of immunity afforded to the executive president, the removal of the ‘Urgent Bill’ provision, extension of the citizens’ right to reference fundamental rights alleged to have been infringed to a period of six months, the introduction of accountability criteria for the judiciary, prohibition of any judge to take up any position in either the public or private sector after retirement, restricting promotions in  the entire judicial service to career judges on the basis of merit and merit alone, introduction of a case management system with mandatory compliance provisions guaranteeing the speedy disposal of cases, removal of the unlawful court vacation system, and introduction of public interest disclosure law. 

In addition, Kodituwakku has called for the number of MPs to be limited to 125 and the size of cabinet to be limited to 12. Citizens would also be empowered to recall MPs for abuse of office.  He has recommended sweeping changes to the political party system and the process of elections as well radical reform pertaining to labour rights.

What is interesting is that for all the talk of democratization, there has been very little interest on any of these important issues from the lords and ladies of good governance, be they NGO activists, academics or political commentators.  One hopes that given the courage shown by Kodituwakku in a) taking up these issues in court, b) putting his entire career in jeopardy simply because he has proven to be an irritant in court thanks to his forthrightness, and c) bringing it all into the public domain by announcing his candidacy, all these forces will now support the call for constitutional reform along the lines he has detailed.

Kodituwakku has humbly stated that it is not about himself and we have no reason to believe otherwise.  The reforms proposed are not only pro-citizen but they are aimed at correcting fundamental flaws in the entire institutional arrangement that have been neglected for decades, errors that have spawned other errors and rendered the entire edifice untenable.  

It is not the hour of Nagananda Kodituwakku and he will be the first to say it.  It is the hour of the citizen.  Your time.  My time.  Our moment.  Let us not fail to seize the opportunity.



Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com Twitter: malindasene

14 September 2017

The pathetic ‘at least’ whine of Yahapalanists

Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith, Daily FT (January 8, 2017)
In the third week of January 2015, just two weeks after he became President, Maithripala Sirisena appointed his brother Kumarasinghe Sirisena as the Chairman, SLT.  That was the beginning of making a mockery of the term ‘good governance’.  

A month later the Central Bank decided to issue Treasury Bonds in a process which resulted in the then Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s son-in-law making enormous gains.  In June that year, just as the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) was about to release its report on the controversial bond issue, Parliament was dissolved, effectively quashing that story.  Responsibility for this, we have to conclude, must be equally shared by the President and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister of the ‘Unity Government’ and leader of the United National Party (UNP).  

How about democracy and promised democratization?  In April 2015, addressing a rally at Vihara Maha Devi Park, President Sirisena vowed to institute electoral reform.  Two years later, the 20th is yet to see the light of day.  Forget reform, elections to the local government bodies and provincial councils have been postponed indefinitely.  Anyway, in August 2015, just before the General Election, the President moved to sack the General Secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA.  A court order was obtained to stop any moves to reverse the decision.  The President, who was also the leader of the SLFP, openly campaigned for candidates of a rival party.  Immediately after the election, the President proceeded to use National List slots allocated to the SLFP to accommodate several loyalists who had been rejected by the voters. It is in this manner that the poster-boy of the yahapalana project demonstrated commitment to democracy.  

Other partners of the project were no better.  The JVP made much of its ‘professional’ national list, but dumped the professionals after the election and made room for party stalwarts rejected at the polls.  In February 2016, the UNP which by the time had a pact with the SLFP for a ‘national government,’ used the same facility to accommodate another loser, Sarath Fonseka.  

Disgraced former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake’s name cropped up several times for dishing out jobs to the near and dear.  There were several diplomatic posts that raised eyebrows on account of the appointed being related to top politicians of the yahapalana government.  It was also the UNP that was hell bent on protecting the Central Bank Governor, Arjuna Mahendran.  

The shrill moralizing in the run up to the January 2015 election appears to have had a very short life.  All relevant lajja-baya (shame and fear) have been abandoned.  This government has shamelessly voted for enhanced privileges which, as Nagananada Kodituwakku has pointed out, are clearly illegal.  

But then, the heavens be praised (as some might say), the President’s brother Lal knocks down and kills two people, flees the scene and later hands himself in. President Sirisena, after visiting the houses of the two brothers who fell victim to his brother’s reckless driving, has promised “to look after the well-being of the families and educate their children,” hopefully with his own money.  

So we had not too long ago, ‘at least Ravi Karunanayake resigned’ and now ‘at least now the law is allowed to take its course.' Never mind that Ravi K was put in charge of rural infrastructure development and now feels fit to issue directives to former colleagues in the cabinet.  Never mind that the President and Prime Minister had to create a 'Lottery-Ministry' of all things to appease the man when the finance portfolio was taken off him!  We also had the ‘better late than never’ brag when the Right to Information Act saw parliamentary passage.  We had ‘better than nothing’ when the flawed 19th Amendment saw light of day.  

And then there’s that other fall back, “there’s a greater sense of freedom”.  It’s true.  There’s a marked and palpable difference between the before and after of January 8, 2015.  However, a few interjections are necessary to obtain the full picture of freedom-relativity and to talk about what’s probably in store.  

Do we have more freedom than we did in July 2008 (i.e. two years and eight moths after Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power, the same length of time between Maithripala Sirisena becoming president and today)?  Of course we do!  Back then we had checkpoints everywhere. Back then there were bombs exploding.  Back then, a war.  Fear. Trepidation.  Now compare July 2008 and June 2009.  More freedom?  Why, of course!  The degree of freedom after the end of the war was of such magnitude that comparison defies quantification.  Now things did go downhill thereafter, but the freedom-resurgence post January 2015 and the setbacks in the 32 months since, has not given us a rise that is of any significance, given the freedom-jump that came with the defeat of terrorism in May 2009. We are comparing ‘times’ here, note, and not personalities, but we could speak in terms of tenure, i.e. the Rajapaksa Watch vs the Sirisena-Ranil Watch.

As for the future, the way things have unfolded since January 2015 (as described above and factoring violent response to protests) doesn’t make for optimism.  The Yahapalanists have lost much ground ideologically and politically.  Therefore, history has demonstrated, exercise of the coercive option in more brutal form cannot be too far away.

Let’s not go beyond that, for now.  Let’s dwell at the here-n-now.  

At the Here-n-Now, we see yahapalanists playing Relative Merits, clutching at straws (like Lal Sirisena) and trying to cover a mountain of inconsistency, abuse, theft, nepotism and incompetency with the thin apologetic two-word gravy called ‘At Least…”  

‘Look, Lalith and Anusha were sentenced,’ they say and then inquire, ‘would this have happened during the previous regime?’  That’s another ‘at least’.  But then, would each and every public official who have done the bidding of yahapalana politicians in contravention of established procedure be similarly prosecuted?  That’s where the brag hits a snag.  

Among those who voted for Maithripala Sirisena in January 8, 2015, a fair number would have figured, ‘it is important to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in order to stop the country sliding to lawlessness and a possible third post-independence insurrection that could be worse than the second.’  An equal or even larger number may have thought, ‘Maithripala, with the UNP, would set things right’.  In short, they may have believed that the anti-Rajapaksa coalition would deliver on the yahapalana pledge, even if not in 100 days as promised, soon enough.  They may have not entertained the thought that ‘regime-change’ would bring to power people who did not have a clue about ‘good governance’ and worse, would quickly flush the book down the tube.  

So this ‘at least’ thing, is it supposed to be a robust argument for a non-return to the past (of the Rajapaksas)?  That’s a poor consolation prize, isn’t it?  At any rate, if that’s all that it is about, then it means that the At Least Brigade wants the people to be happy with freedom-crumbs and are hoping that crumb-dropping would obtain for them a license to profit in counter-yahapalana ways.  

There’s little merit in bragging about Ravi Karunanayake’s resignation considering the immense lengths which the government went to save him the blushes.  The same with the bond scam.  Arguably, it’s less about a freedom-culture created by yahapalanists than fear of a more alert people who could not stand the misdeeds of the previous regime and are not going to suffer wrongdoing by the present lot in silence.  What yahapalanists should fear is not a return to a past but a march to a different future.   And this is something that ought to worry the other factions of the corrupt club as well, those who were defeated and those who swung now this way and now the other, as fortunes waned and waxed. 


So ‘at least,’ at best, is an apologists’ uttering, an apologist’s vain hope that it would appease those who expected better.  The truth of sentiment can of course be tested in an election, but that’s a word that yahapalanaya is avoiding like the plague.  So they want raucous applause on account of the ‘at least’ argument, sorry.  A slow hand-clap, at best, nothing more.  

07 September 2017

And we say 'aye' to no-confidence motions against ourselves....!

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
“Time it was…and what a time it was…it was…a time of innocence…a time of confidences.  Long ago it must be…I have a photograph…preserve your memories… they're all that's left you.”

That’s Simon and Garfunkel and it’s from their song ‘Bookends’ which speaks of aging and nostalgia.  The nostalgia part is something that we often encounter.  For example, we have seen how the passing of years prompts remarks such as ‘never in our days,’ and ‘those were the days,’ if a line is required to lament the present.  And if it is about people, we hear people say ‘they broke the mould when they made him,’ or ‘Here was a Caesar (or an Amaradeva)! When comes such another?’ (Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’: Act 3, Scene 2).  
We need to ask, however, ‘was there ever a time of confidence and confidences?’  When was history ever free of intrigue?  When did righteousness reign supreme for any reasonable length of time?  Sure, there was innocence and the innocent.  There were people who were confident and those who could keep confidences.  And yet, there was also dismay and despair.  There was betrayal and shooting down of expectation.  There was malice and mischief.  Then, as now.  

‘In another era he or she would have resigned!’ Haven’t we heard this over and over again?  Well, in the ‘back then’ of reference, sure, people have resigned.   And many crooks did not, isn’t this also true?  Things were shoved under the carpet, the old boys’ network came to the rescue and bigger battles were left for another day.  Big fish were left alone.  

But let’s talk of confidence and therefore of no-confidence.  The threat of a no-confidence motion seldom made people fret.  The power of numbers was insurance enough.  However, we saw two senior ministers resign in quick succession.  Neither of them acknowledged any wrongdoing.  The government, for its part, clearly in damage-control mode, attributed the resignations to a wholesome political culture they claim to have created.  A different explanation would be that given coalition-unease and rising disillusionment about the government any other course of action may have scuttled the government. 

One of the two worthies has since been put in charge of the subject of rural infrastructure development and he has seen fit to issue directives to his former colleagues in the cabinet. The other continues to hold important positions in the government outside of the cabinet, namely the Constitutional Council.  Clearly, both have consolations prizes and clearly the political leadership has not lost confidence in them.  

It’s not over yet.  Just the other day, Minister Sarath Fonseka said he would give evidence that would prove that former Army Commander, General Jagath Jayasuriya, was guilty of war crimes.  President Maithripala Sirisena retorted, ‘I won’t let anyone touch Jagath Jayasuriya’ or any war heroes for that matter.  

Anyone guilty of wrongdoing during any military operation is no ‘war hero’ regardless of contribution to eliminating terrorism.  

The President could have worded it better, at least in the interest of affirming the basic tenets of good governance.  He did not.  More interestingly, the two statements clearly imply that Fonseka and the President are at odds.  As such there’s two legitimate questions.  Will Fonseka initiate a no-confidence motion against the President? Will the President orchestrate a no-confidence motion against Fonseka? 

Now, it is not the case that every disagreement should prompt no-confidence motions.  This is serious stuff, however.  There’s the charge of Fonseka pandering to interests that are not in concert with the country’s interests.  The President, by presuming outcome of any reasonable process of inquiry, it essentially giving the finger to all notions of justice.  No-confidence motions, then, are warranted.  

Nishan Muthukrishna, an astute and unfortunately self-effacing student of politics, has responded to the question thus:  

“[The] next vote of no confidence should be against the Sri Lankan voter. For electing these people.”

That’s tongue-in-cheek.  It is easy to blame the people.  True, they elected ‘these people’ (‘these’ is a term that could be applied to even those in the current Opposition of course).  However, we have to acknowledge that people can vote for one person or a particular party for a number of reasons.  In January 2015, for example, they felt wanted to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa.  Some of the self-labeled winners of that election claimed among other things that they received a mandate for things peripheral or un-mentioned in the manifesto.  As for the manifesto, it is no longer a document that anyone can swear by, given the callous way in which pledges were abandoned or violated.  

Moreover, the entire system is structured in a way that the people don’t really have a fair choice.  After being forced to vote for one set of crooks, brigands, murderers, wastrels and incompetents over another, after being forced to weigh relative merits, it is unfair to blame the voter and no one else ‘for electing these people’.  

On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the ‘these people’ Nishan refers to, appear to have a lot of confidence in the people, i.e. the voters.  Knowing very well that they have multiple pathways to retain political relevance (national lists, cross-overs or appointment to posts with plush benefits and/or opportunity for self-enhancement), politicians, especially of the two major parties and to a lesser degree the leaders of parties in coalition with then, can count on the people not to upset things too much.  What’s an electoral defeat, after all, if the winner is an old friend or someone with whom it is easy to become friends?  

If politicians had confidence in the people for reasons more nobler than the assurance that they, the people, are not likely to stand in the way of pursuing purely personal goals, we would be living in a different country.   

It would be a country where mandates are taken seriously, where representation means something, and where the knowledge and expertise of the people of the country are taken note of.  In this regard, there’s already our politicians regularly win votes of no-confidence against the citizenry.  

This brings us to us.  The citizens.  We have expressed confidence in our politicians, if not in a shout at least through whisper or simply an ‘X’ on a ballot paper.  Sadly, we have reserved our votes of no confidence for ourselves, or rather for each other.  We are not a ‘yes we can’ citizenry, at least not so in assertion and the transformation of affirmation into collective action.  We are a ‘yes, we can’ people in many if not all spheres of social and economic activity, but we are a ‘no, we probably can’t’ kind of citizenry when it comes to politics.  

We needn’t be so forever, though.  It begins, as always, with each of us as an individual and thereafter in the recognition of similarity in each other and eventually the coming together and moving forward.  

There’s a sign hanging outside the party headquarters and every election office of the two major parties and all parties and groups aligned with them.  It’s a quote and not one from Simon and Garfunkel.  It’s not from Shakespeare.  It’s from Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century epic poem, ‘Divine Comedy: Canto III, Vestibule of Hell’’: "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate", most frequently translated as "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” No, it’s not in Italian.  It is in Sinhala and in Tamil.  We just miss the words because we are distracted by the lies, the personalities and our fascination with pressing a button called ‘default option’.    That, ladies and gentlemen, is how we vote ‘aye’ on no-confidence motions on ourselves.  That’s how we let ourselves down.  And that’s how we allow ourselves to be kicked around. 

We can do better.  We deserve a more confident time; a time of confidences, yes.


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com

31 August 2017

I am not buying "corruption-inevitability," are you?



Dr Harsha De Silva, Deputy Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Development, has come out strong on the subject of corruption.  He has observed that the entire country is corrupt.  The implication of course is that his government is also corrupt. He has said that he’s ‘sick of it all.’  

The deputy minister should be applauded for having the courage to say it as it is.  One hopes that he will soon disassociate himself from the corrupt regime he is a part of and not give it any further legitimacy.  One hopes, also, that he will in due course detail the corruption and identify the corrupt.  

His, however, is not an isolated cry.  Following the recent resignation of Ravi Karunanayake and the information that has surfaced in the course of investigating the Central Bank bond issue scam, ardent supporters of the yahapalana regime, perhaps in damage-control mode, have taken refuge in the timeless legitimator: ‘corruption there will always be.’  

The subtext is easily obtained: ‘we are not going to get anything better if we throw these people out.’  

That logic could of course be applied to a lot of ills. One could say, for example, ‘there will always be nepotism, abuse of state resources, violation of democratic principles, bribery, embezzlement, petty theft, murder, rape, child molestation, racism, and gender inequality.’  In short, it is a mischievous statement. 

Another set of people, more cautious and cute, while chiding the government for its failures, nevertheless offer legitimacy by interjecting that the alternative would be worse.  They talk of ‘fearful memories (of the previous regime).’  The Friday Forum, while conceding that “the government’s agenda seems increasingly disconnected from the hopes and expectations (of the voters) and that its record on corruption [is] abysmal, interjects ‘the Joint Opposition is a spoiler’.  [There is] abuse of executive power.’  Another ardent critic of the previous regime and campaigner for ‘good governance,’ during a recent television debate cautioned, ‘we can’t go back to the future,’ even as he lambasted the government along the same lines.  

Interestingly, most if not all of those taking this position, had no qualms in supporting people who had corrupt track records or were part of corrupt governments including the one they backed Maithripala Sirisena to oust in January 2015.  At the time it was all about regime-change, never mind the integrity or competence of the would-be replacement(s).

So it’s all about relative merits at best, or more likely a matter of which faces one likes less (or more).  What it also means is that the commentariat is intellectually and morally poor or worse, corrupt.  

What is it that prevents people from imagining a state that is different, a political reality where corruption is seen as corruption and therefore objectionable and not reduced to a debate on degrees?  Perhaps it is a mental block which stops people from imagining a Sri Lanka that is not governed by either of the major parties or coalitions led by them which include smaller political organizations the hands of whose leaders are dirty or bloody or both.  It is that, or else, it is a simple matter of complicity which speaks of a serious integrity-deficit; simply, it is all about assessing marginal benefits against marginal costs.   

The Chairman of the Elections Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya recently attributed declining numbers in voter-registration to disillusionment among young eligible voters, especially in the Greater Colombo area.  That ‘disillusionment’ can be read in many ways.  

One can be worried about it because it could indicate a lack of confidence in the democratic process and institutions, and therefore point to extra-democratic affirmations of citizenship.  On the other hand, it could mean that a significant number of young people are not willing to go along with the kind of pussy-footing that supporters of the two main parties engage in.  They may be unwilling to play the game of relative merits and this can be seen as a positive rather than a negative trend.  

Time will tell if the rejection of the politician and political party implied in these developments translate into extra parliamentary political action or lead to the creation of a new political coalition where such parties do not figure.  In any event, it is time that the citizens of these country do not short-change themselves by backing those they know have short-changed them time and again.  

If anyone says ‘corruption there always was and always will be,’ the chances are that he/she is peddling excuses on behalf of the corrupt or lacks the courage, integrity and commitment. 

The question we should ask ourselves is, ‘are we really that impoverished?’  We need to ask that question because if that is the case then all talk of good or better governance is meaningless.  

Now if we are not impoverished, what next?  First and foremost, we need to shed our fixations on the two major parties and all those other parties, political groups, civil society organizations and the various individuals identified with such entities.  They will not deliver, this they have established beyond all shadow of doubt.  

We are fooling ourselves if we think it is prudent to support this government because it might do this, that and the other close to our hearts or as the case may be desist from doing this, that and the other that we abhor, even if we cannot stand the nepotism, corruption abuse of state resources and the by now established readiness to unleash violence on objectors.  Similarly, we are fooling ourselves if we recall the positives of the previous regime and allow such recollections to erase from memory everything that was despicable about it.  

We simply cannot afford to push the default option button again and again; certainly not if we want a safe and sustainable Sri Lanka and a clean environment for our children.  We simply cannot suffer the corrupt just because the probable replacement is not to our taste.  We need to look for a different pathway to the future and we need to think of different companions on that necessary journey.   Dr Harsha De Silva has expressed disgust and if he were to make a clean break from the disgusting, he would be contributing greatly to the development of a different way of thinking about Sri Lanka, a Sri Lanka that is not willing to be resigned to corruption or be hoodwinked by the notion of corruption-inevitability.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malinsene. This article appeared in the Daily Mirror, August 31, 2017.














   



30 August 2017

’i’ is also for ‘intrigue’

THE CERAMICIST ASELA GUNASEKARA AND HER EXHIBITION 'I'


Who is the fool on the hill?  That’s a question that never came up in any A/L English Literature exam paper in all the years that the Beatles’ song ‘The fool on the hill’ was on the syllabus.  It’s a question I didn’t ask myself when I prepared for that exam.  It’s a question I realized should have been discussed and that realization came when I saw a ceramic sculpture with the song-title about a month ago.  

The fool on the hill

Kuveni, I’ve heard of and the story has disturbed me no end for many reasons.  I had not though of Kuveni as a feeling or more precisely ‘an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling’ or as an epic poem, I had not. 

Ophelia, when I played Horatio in a Sinhala version of Hamlet almost thirty years ago, was as tragic as she was when I first read that play.  I had never seen Ophelia.  Nor Kuveni.  I’ve seen artistic depictions of Theri Sangamitta carrying a sampling of the Sacred Bo Tree in a begging bowl, but somehow they all seem embellished or distorted now.   An added dimension, strangely and unexpectedly, had ‘shelled’ the Arahat Sangamitta and yet given her in fuller form.  I saw them all the same day I discovered the question regarding the fool on the hill.  

Left to Right: Kuveni's Rhapsody, Sanghamitta, Ophelia and Pandora

Pandora was about a box, about curiosity, flight and the horrors of life and the world.  It wasn’t about escape, it wasn’t about embracing reality and dealing with it.  Now it is.  


There was a conqueror and he came with a note:  ‘The ascetic Siddhartha Gauthama conquering the three temptations: greed, anger and lust. The necessary struggle that preceded enlightenment could not have been easy.  Torment was written on the face.  


How can one capture anything of the notion called ‘anitya’ or impermanence?  To cast it would divest it of meaning.  But then again, if approximation (of capture) is useful for reflection, then I found something useful that day.  


The full moon is for those in the northern hemisphere a ‘man’ and for us in the south, a rabbit.  The full moon is also a moment historically designated for reflection of the eternal verities for Buddhists.  The full moon can be depicted as the Buddha, this I hadn’t known.  


There were other ‘pieces’ that probably spoke a language I understood less, but I ‘heard’ enough, anyway.  Like 'Atlas' who was 'unburdened.'  I had never thought of the idea and even if I did I wouldn't have imagined the crumpled, lost and defeated figure that was before me that day  

The true worth of the work of Asela Gunasekara, ceramicist, is best assessed by those who have a deep understanding of art and especially sculpture and within that field, the medium, ceramic.  What I can say is that there’s something about the works mentioned above that made the images remain within or, put another way, held me within them.  

The exhibition, held at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery about a month ago was titled, simply, ‘i’.  Yes, ‘i’ as in the letter and in lower case.  It had a disclaimer of sorts: ‘imperfect, impermanent, incomplete’.  The title indicated a philosophical exploration but as titles go it could have been an easy excuse for sloth and lack of skill. Words, as is often said, are easy, and can be deployed to express honesty as well as deception.  Untrained though I am in art and art appreciation, I realized quickly that there was nothing trivial, flippant or mischievous about ’i’.    


The above is context relevant to what follows, which is not a review but a sketch of one of the artists featured in that exhibition, Asela Oshadhi Gunasekara.  The other, Akshana Abeywardene, her son, whose photographs were on display is a talent in his own right and deserves a separate feature. Later.  Now, Asela Oshadhi Gunasekara. 

Asela was born in 1973, and had been left-handed, but taught to eat and write with the right hand.  That ‘correction’ may contain a clue to the early part of her life.  She had, as a child, struggled with writing.  The Sinhala characters had come out as mirror images.  She laughs about it, saying that her husband teases her about all this, saying that this forced switch from left to right could be why she is confused.

It hadn’t been a laughing matter when she was a little girl, however.  She was chided at school for poor handwriting.  Whereas she got A’s for religion, language, arithmetic and singing, she got a B for Art and a C for Handwork when she was in the second grade.  The comments are interesting.  She was told to ‘try to draw colorful pictures’ and to ‘practice folding paper.’   Today she says ‘Art should never be a graded subject in school,’ for reasons that obviously have nothing to do with those silly grades.  

Asela had always been interested in art.  She liked it.  “I used to draw everywhere. And I also appreciated.  I was fascinated by the pictures on the back of Readers’ Digest magazines.”

Like almost everyone who was a child in this country over the past 5-6 decades Asela grew up with Sybil Wettasinghe.  That was art.  And stories.  She had been fascinated by two things as a child, nature and books.

“I remember my grandmother showing me birds sitting on a wire.  I must have been two or three then.  This was in Malabe, which was at the time a place where there was enough and more wildlife.  The natural world fascinated me. I collected things like feathers and seashells  My father bought me books.  If anyone asked me what I wanted I would say ‘books.’  My father, who worked in the People’s Bank, had a decent collection of books.  I tried to read everything, including the ‘adult’ books!  My parents had to hide some books from me.” 

By the time she was around 14, Asela remembers, she had become very passionate about art.  She had taken the subject in Grade 6 when she moved from Musaeus College to Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya.

“Unfortunately the teacher wasn’t too encouraging, but I used to look at stuff, like pictures, and draw.  I was always a solitary person, so I had a lot of time.  When I was not studying it was all about reading and drawing.  I did write poetry, first in Sinhala and later in English, but art was what interested me most.”

She belonged to the one and only batch of students who had to take just 6 subjects for the O/L.  There were exams for these 6 subjects but the final grade for the other two would be determined through assessments. For two years she could paint and draw.  The political unrest of the late eighties persuaded the government to scrap the assessments so that particular batch of students had to settle for a 6 subject O/L.  Asela got 5 Distinctions and a single Credit which meant she could pick the stream of her choice for the A/L.   

It was another left-hand and right-hand moment in her life.  Most of her friends had decided to study arts and languages.  She had been good in literature but was pushed into biology.  

“I was disoriented.  I remember the first term; I knew it wasn’t my thing.  I convinced my mother to talk to the teachers so I could switch to the arts stream.  The teachers were not willing.” 

“So two years of your life were robbed?” I asked.

“No, my whole life was robbed. Things could have been drastically different.”

She hadn’t done too well, naturally.  She had wanted to switch and do arts the following year, but her father had discouraged and had suggested that she join a bank.  That’s how she ended up at Standard Chartered Bank, Colombo (1992-97) and in Dubai from 1997 to 1999.  She quit when Akshana was born and it was only after he started preschool that Asela began to think of a different career.  So she enrolled in a two-year degree program in liberal arts at the American College of Dubai, which was affiliated to the Southern New Hampshire University.  

The tsunami brought her back to Sri Lanka in 2004.  She walked into Mel Medura and became a part of Sumitrayo, the well-known program on drug demand reduction, working with Ms Nalini Ellawala, first as an intern and later as an administrative director.  

“I learnt so much there by getting involved in programs and community work.  But I wanted to study, so I got into an online MSc program in HRD at the University of Leicester.  I worked with a HRD consultant for a little while but didn’t really like that work. Then I applied for a vacancy in UN volunteers.    It was called the VOICE Project and was about streamlining voluntarism.  I was a Project Coordinator for nearly two years.  That’s when I finally concluded that working for someone is not going to work for me.”

And that’s how she got back on track, the point when she decided that if left-handed was how she was born then left-handed was how she should be and live, so to speak.  Art.

In fact through all these explorations with various careers, the one constant had been art.  Even while at the bank, Asela says, art had been her refuge.  

“I did something…anything…was always with it….It was not conceptual art….I didn’t know what conceptual art was…I had no formal education and had never really studied it.”

In Dubai she had learnt about stained glass. Her brief venture into liberal arts, although they were introductory courses, had been a fulfilling experience.  

“My professors were good.  I discovered different subjects like psychology, sociology, philosophy and literature, which opened my eyes to different spheres and helped me see things deeper even though they were just introductory courses.  That was in a way a turning point when it came to art as well.   In 2010 when I quit the UN project, I decided that I should study art seriously.  At a creative writing workshop conducted by Ashok Ferry in 2010, I happened to sit next to a foreign lady who gave me the number of Prof Chandrajeewa when I told her I am interested in art. 

“I went to him and that was it.  He knew how to teach technique but more than this he could read personality and guide accordingly.  He knew I wanted to express myself and he let me do just that.  He taught me to think like an artist.  He helped me find myself.  I missed that class when we returned to Dubai in 2011.  I enrolled in a painting class at the Dubai International Art Centre, but after studying under Prof Chandrajeewa, it was a disappointment.  It was too rigid and boring.  So I decided to something else.  Ceramics.


“I had two Ceramic teachers, Michael Rice  from Northern Ireland who taught me pottery on the wheel and Katerina Smoldyreva from Russia who taught sculpture.  It was from Michael that I learnt the conceptual element related to pottery on the wheel. Katerina gave another kind of outlook.  I got a wheel and worked on my own.  I worked with Katerina for about two years and it was from her that I learnt technique as well as the relevance of learning art history. Then I set up my studio.  I owe a lot to these two teachers who introduced me to ceramics.  I knew it was my medium.  I was home with it. In 2014 I started classes for kids and now I have around 20 students.”

Asela’s first exhibition was ‘Dream Catchers,’ held at the Lionel Wendt in July 2012.  It was a group exhibition featuring two painters and a sculptor, all students of Prof Chandrajeewa.  In 2016 October, she was one of several online artists featured at another group exhibition, this time at the Saskia Fernando Gallery.  All the artists were from the online platform ‘Art Space Sri Lanka’.  

“By then I was doing only ceramics. It was more of an exposure.”

Asela Gunasekara’s story is like a journey. She’s wandered along paths cut and ordered for her and when the way ahead although clear seemed meaningless she left it.  She’s wandered thereafter and by a mix of choice and chance discovered a happy creative space, a medium that she feels belonged to and one she moulds even as it moulds her.  Now she searches for herself through her work and ‘i’ is exactly what it claims to be.  It is imperfect because perfection is a brag that’s more often than not a lie.  The Zen masters of Japan, Asela points out, were master ceramicists and they would often pick out the most imperfect work as the masterpiece.  

Her work is about impermanence and that’s a concept that comes from Buddhism, which she claims has inspired her. 

“I come from a very traditional Buddhist background.  My mother was an only child whose mother died when I was small. Her father was a part of my growing up.  He was an ardent Buddhist.  I had no choice but to listen to the sermons.  Some of that must have gone into my head.  Of course some of it I questioned and some parts I discarded. When I studied Buddhism for the O/L it made sense, it was logical.   So it’s there in me as a foundational philosophy.  Not that I can claim to know it or that I understand fully, but whatever is there is part of me and it comes out.  Both my teachers in Dubai were very receptive to Buddhism. We had good conversations about Zen Buddhism.  Michael introduced me to traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-sabi, which is a world view about accepting imperfection, impermanence and the incomplete.”

Wabi-sabi in fact is a concept obtained from the Buddhist teachings of anicca, dukkha and anatma (impermanence, suffering and the absence of self-nature).  Wabi-sabi aesthetics dwell, then, on “asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes”.

Some of the titles for her sculptures are drawn from stories and this is not surprising.  Apart from the natural world, the stories she’s read and heard and even those which she makes in her own mind inspire Asela, she explained.  

“There’s always a story, a story line; it could be short, but it comes in.  I am fascinated by stories and always have been.  I still remember one of the first books I loved, uda giya baba (the baby that went up).  I loved veda beri daasa (Dasa, the idiot) and the translations of Russian stories that I read as a child.  I loved books with good illustrations and colours.  

“Since I was in a bank, I did banking exams, but gave up at one point even though I had only two more subjects to complete.  I went to Aquinas and inquired about external arts degrees.  I wanted to do an external degree at Kelaniya and took English Literature, Philosophy and I think Economics.   Fr Herman Fernando taught us literature.  He introduced me to contemporary poets and the ballads of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon.  I had to leave because I got married and we went to Dubai, but that was a wonderful experience.”

Then she went on to explain why her exhibits came with titles and explanatory captions.  “The exhibition in 2012 didn’t have any titles or descriptions.  Of course art is a language but maybe it is a language for the artists and not for everyone.  Some or most of the recipients might find it a foreign language.  People were intrigued, they had lots of questions.  

"It made me realize that when you are catering to a general audience it helps to guide them a little.  If there were no titles or descriptions, ‘i’ would have been a different experience for the audience. So, yes, I do take away their right to independent appreciation of the work itself. Some artists argue that this is how it should be, that the viewer has to take whatever he/she wants out of it. I felt however, that for this audience, I should offer some basic guideline.”

Made sense. If not for the ‘note’ on ‘Conqueror’ I would have read it very differently, for example.  Such reading has its merits, no doubt, but in this instance I feel I would have been poorer without the nudge from the artist to read in a particular way.  

Her work is incomplete, naturally.  There’s exploration ahead of her.

“People ask if I have a style and I say ‘no’ because i don’t want to be in a box, be captured by a label.  For now, I am a ceramicist.  But I want to experiment with glass, mixing the two mediums and using them for sculpture.  Conceptually, however, I am a bit lost.  I need to find my way again.  I am not sure where I would go.  I will take it as it comes.”

Asela Gunasekara is an artist who will immediately say ‘not yet’ given her philosophical predilections or even say ‘never will be’ as per the three dimensions of ‘i’ (imperfect, impermanent, incomplete).  She layers her work with herself and the work and the artist do intrigue.  That’s another ‘i’ and not paradoxically.  It all flows from the 'left hand,' now.  And it is all about the exploration of ‘i’.  Simple i. Simply, i.