Rajpal's Column

2nd July 2000

No clout at all, in the national discourse

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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The debate in the Observer about the legitimacy of the SLAAS sessions (were they hijacked, were they not?) has made that staid organisation, SLAAS, appear somewhat controversial and kicking.

But, while the hijack drama plays in a different tarmac, it's good to record that the SLAAS sessions were imbued with their own brand of karma.

Some SLAAS speakers shook the earth, and pounded the podium. (Nalin de Silva registered about 7 on the Richter.) But, others simply were hilarious.

Prasanna Hennayake, a geographer, tried to map the contours of the Sri Lankan conflict and appeared more like a cross between a failed kavi kola karaya and a sociologist rearing to go. On the first day or so, he intoned that the Sinhala community should be like a big brother to the Tamils, and the Sinhala big brethren should tell the Tamils 'hey, look this is not the way to do things' (Loku Aiya has spoken. And this at the scientific level of Section F).

On the second day Hennayake sounded even richer. His presentation, lyrically delivered contained some profundities, among which were some thoughts to the effect that the Tamils in Sri Lanka had Tamilnadu as a fallback option and the Muslims the Middle East, while the Sinhalese had only Sri Lanka. (In person, after the sessions, I asked him about whether a Muslim has a free ticket and a free lunch in Saudi Arabia, and the scientist said he hadn't said anything to this effect 'even by implication.' I charged him with academic dishonesty.

To which he replied: "You must pick up my paper." I signed up for the paper, which SLAAS people said they will make available for collection, after a telephone notification. I'm still waiting for the call.) Papers don't necessarily account of course, for the off-the-cuff science of sociologists and geographers.

To their credit, others such as Nalin De Silva, Susantha Goonetilleke and Tissa Vitharna seemed to have the courage of their (albeit quite opposite) convictions. But, some others, such as the cited example, represent a certain facet of the contemporary discourse.

It's the anything goes fringe, that promotes pop-thinking as replacement for serious comment and enlightened discourse.

It's unfortunate that this half-bakedness is becoming the mid-year fashion. There was the recent instance for example, when the Press Council issued judgment calling persons of a certain sexual orientation 'sadists.'(!) This column commented on the insensitivity and the lack of elementary social etiquette and decency reflected in this judgment (plus the obvious lack of learning...). The Asian Human Rights Commission has echoed these same thoughts, and expressed shock and dismay over 'a judgment of unbelievable crudity' made by the Press Council.

The AHRC called the decision 'unreasonable distasteful and warped', adding that 'the council members who made this judgment have brought disgrace to their body, abused their power and proved themselves unsuitable for public office.' (By the way, among the gems contained in the judgment: 'The complainant is a male, and he could not therefore suffer rape in a manner referred to in the letter, and as such has no standing in court.' Also: 'lesbianism is an act of gross indecency and unnatural, and somehow misguided and erratic women should be allowed to understand the true sense and reality of life').

By the way also, there was a misprint in this writer's column dated Sunday June 11 which dealt with the judgment. The last sentence stated 'this is not a country that cannot sanction letting loose convicted rapists on lesbians.' It should have (obviously) read 'this is not a country that can sanction letting loose convicted rapists on lesbians.')

Please also note: That column doesn't in anyway condone the judgment, and I maintain that the Council should have entered judgment in favour of the plaintiff, against a letter writer who said 'convicted rapists should be let loose on lesbians.'

But, the column of June 11 takes the position that if the council didn't necessarily want to do that, at least the council should not have displayed ignorance in the way the judgment was worded.

Via that intellectually scenic route then, back to the matter of the SLAAS sessions. Pity that the national discourse doesn't stand up to public debate and scrutiny anymore.

Positions have become ossified, and now we have people packing guns on various sides, threatening to bump off or at least physically irritate men of ideas in the South. It's a sign that the debate is entering the new if you would have that physical realm.

That's not good for eggheads. But it would have been expected of an intellectual elite to take up a challenge. More detractors could have come to SLAAS the sessions were announced after all, and I for one didn't go on personal invitation.

The head-on intellectual confrontation is no longer staple for intellectuals that was in the bygone, when we had confrontations like the Panadura debate. If the sylvan groves have been replaced by the killing fields, they have also been replaced by a lack of thrust and parry, and a paucity of men of talent with the courage of their convictions.

Tailpiece: The need for comic relief has never been more acute, particularly in a stuffy intellectual environment sans the benefit of safety valves. In this spirit, it's worth recalling the tale doing the rounds about the three dominant forces.

In the South there is Chandrika. In the North there is Prabhakaran. And, in the cricket pitches there is Muralitharan. No, for Sri Lankan's here is no escaping these.

Japanese firm out of Eppawela?

Tomen Corp. is reconsidering its planned investment in a huge phosphate mine in Eppawela, an ancient village in central Sri Lanka, according to members of a Japanese nongovernmental organization supporting residents who oppose the project.

The NGO, Japanese Citizens for Eppawela, has received replies from Tomen after sending letters in May and June urging the company to halt investment in the project because it will destroy the environment and threaten residents' lives.

As part of a project with U.S. fertilizer firm IMC Agrico Co., Tomen and the Sri Lankan government-owned body Lanka Phosphate Ltd. are to explore and mine for phosphate around 56 sq. km of ancestral lands, destroying 26 villages and 23 major irrigation tanks, the NGO said.

Tomen planned to put up 25 percent of the estimated $500 million needed for the project, while IMC Agrico intends to put up 65 percent.

Tomen replied in a letter dated June 21 that the firm was currently reviewing the plan in compliance with Sri Lankan law and a Supreme Court decision on a suit filed by seven Eppawela residents demanding that the project be halted.

On June 2, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court decided that the defendants could not take any further action until the geology and mineral department concluded a comprehensive investigation into phosphate in Eppawela.

The investigation should include the amount of phosphate and the mines' effect on the environment, and its results should be made public, the court said.

Tomen told a member of the NGO in an October letter that it was conducting a feasibility study of the area.

The project could destroy the area, which includes the ancient 54-km Jaya Ganga canal, listed by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a World Heritage site, and will threaten more than 12,000 residents with forced relocation. Tomen currently holds 25 percent of the shares in Sarabhoomi Resources Ltd., which was set up to mine for phosphate in Eppawela.

Courtesy The Japan Times

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