16th January 2000

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Then, Sri Lankans are seminarians

Many, many decades ago, someone- I quite forget who- derisively dismissed Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. Even that seems a compliment seeing that most hours of the day the shops are closed and the only ones who benefit by this are the Asians who are open late into the night and on Sundays too.

But if the British are shopkeepers, then the Sri Lankans should rightly be described as seminarians.

This is not to suggest, even remotely, that our fellow countrymen have certain religious propensities which metamorphose them into celibates or make them take vows of eternal compliance. It is simply to indicate a particular trait in the national character which leads them to organise or attend seminars as though it was imposed upon them by some divinity or by legal necessity.

So associations, societies, organisation and forums proliferated more prodigiously than rabbits and seminar wallahs rush from one venue to another for there isn't a day when some association or society is not in earnest discussion on growing potatoes in Welimada to Marxian dialectics, like the ancient conventicles of Socrates.

But if associations proliferated in Sri Lanka like wild mushrooms, then they also split and separated like amoeba. One day there is a Media Mafia Movement. Before long things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, as the Irish poet W.B.Yeats wrote some 70 years or so ago. So days later, there is a splinter group calling itself the Movement of the Media Mafia (in those days there were no laws on intellectual property).

Before long, office-bearers take wing to parts of the world where the Mafia is more respected and powerful while others try to ingratiate themselves to those in positions of power and get their own positions in a corporation or board.

The dexterity with which Sri Lankans create associations and societies is a wonder. There are enough subjects in the world to go round. That hardly bothered their creators. If there weren't enough subjects in the world to go round, there were enough office-bearers to go round the world.

I thought I had left all this behind when I left Colombo more than ten years ago. Fortunately the Sri Lankans living in Hong Kong were mostly professionals and they had little time for this kind of seminar shenanigans. The only occasions on which they could be brought together in substantial numbers was if there was a new year party or the now regular annual dinner-dance.

Apparently old habits die hard. Or so it seemed to me when I received a fax last month from an organisation called the European Centre for SAARC Studies inviting me to a 'Seminar on Presidential Election in Sri Lanka'. It appeared to be a legitimate enough exercise and its academic and intellectual seriousness was underlined by the name of the organisation.

The venue was the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies which gave additional weight to it as a serious attempt to discuss and assess the presidential election which every Sri Lankan, wherever he or she is, would be interested in simply because we are a highly politicised people.

Among the speakers were a couple of names I recognised. One was Mick Moore who has written extensively on Sri Lanka and used to contribute quite often to the Lanka Guardian. The other was the controversial Jane Russell who has shown a special interest in local politics and authored books on Sri Lanka.

So it was with much interest and eagerness I braved London's typical weather and arrived more than 30 minutes before the scheduled time wanting to get myself a ringside seat as it were.

The seminar was jointly organised by the 'European Centre for SAARC Studies', 'PA Support Group in Europe' and the 'Organisation of Professionals in Europe (aff. to SLFP)' which I guess means affiliated to the SLFP and not affectionate to it.

I thought even such partisan bodies as the latter two could sufficiently detach themselves from their political affiliations for a couple of hours at least, to take a serious, critical look at the presidential election.

When we entered Room 52 where the meeting was to be held, the overhead lights failed to come on. Had I been more mentally alert I should have read Shakespearean symbolism. Somewhat like the raging winds in King Lear which symbolised the rage and torment in Lear's own mind.

Though we moved across to another room where the lights shone brightly, we continued to be in the dark, as events showed soon enough. When the seminar did get off to a late start one person was deposited in the chair and another who sat by him explained Mick Moore was in Colombo but other speakers would arrive later.

The president of the Saarc studies' group who sat alongside the chairman made some mention of there being two principal candidates in the presidential election and, that in his view, the 'ethnic' problem would be the main issue and other desultory remarks. Thereafter came short comments from a Bangladeshi and an Indian associated with the group. They made reference to free and fair elections several times.

As the meeting progressed with much noise and little progress, the chairman kept on parrotting at the end of every comment that the audience should come up with proposals to support President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

It did not take long for the so-called seminar on the presidential election to turn into a battle on the ethnic issue. The presidential election was long forgotten after the first initial reference, except that at the end of each comment, the chair would seek support for the president.

By now most of the 25 or so attendees seemed to be getting tired of a seminar which was not a seminar but a pooja. I thought I was in the wrong room attending the wrong seminar.

So I asked whether the invitation I had in hand was the same one that others had received since mine said it was a seminar on Sri Lanka's presidential election.

Moreover I said I couldn't understand what seemed to me like an invocation to the gods for support for the president. As far as many attendees were concerned, they were not there to support one or the other. They came expecting an interesting and informed discussion on the election.

Instead we were as much in the dark about the election as we were in that first room without lights. When I asked the chairman why we had to come up with proposals to support the president, his argument was that this meeting was organised by groups affiliated to the SLFP, a piece of logic that would have the ancient Greeks scratching their cranium.

So okay. But then the invitation should not have been to a seminar where one expected to hear varying views on the elections, but to a propaganda meeting where the organisers would probably earn some kudos and other things from the ruling circles.

Those who attended this meeting on the basis of what was stated in the invitation appeared to have been brought by a sleight-on-hand.

Nothing pertaining to the elections such as the economic policies, the performance of the PA government in the last few years, an assessment of the promises held and promises fulfilled or broken, whether opposition policies could solve the social and economic problems, was even discussed.

When it finally broke up, we were handed a statement issued on the letterhead of the European Centre for SAARC Studies what explicitly stated to be a joint statement of the two groups supporting the PA and the SLFP.

Curiously it was signed at the end by the chairperson of the SAARC group on behalf of all three organisations.

I wonder how other office-bearers and members of the SAARC group, which surely is representative of all the South Asian countries, can allow themselves to be made parties to a partisan statement over an election in one of the member countries?

If the SAARC group is an independent and impartial group devoted to studying and analysing the problems of its member countries, how can it allow itself to become involved in such one- sided politics-whichever side it is- without losing whatever credibility it has?

In the meantime I'm still waiting for Jane Russell, who was supposed to be on the way to the seminar, to express her views. Perhaps she has done so- by not turning up.

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