A citizen’s power against the might of the state In her signature article ‘Telling it Like it Is’ comprising part of a collection of writings with the same title, the late Anne Abeysekera asks an important question, ‘Do we in Sri Lanka have the courage and honesty to tell it like it is?’ This question was [...]


A citizen’s power against the might of the state


A citizen’s power against the might of the state

In her signature article ‘Telling it Like it Is’ comprising part of a collection of writings with the same title, the late Anne Abeysekera asks an important question, ‘Do we in Sri Lanka have the courage and honesty to tell it like it is?’

This question was asked and that article penned in the now defunct ‘’Sun” newspaper soon after the ethnic violence of July 1983. It is a query straight from the heart and remains relevant for us now as it was then. Indeed, there is a strange poignancy in these reflections as I review the book (Perera-Hussein, 2018)on request of members of her family. For Sri Lanka now, is vastly changed in many respects from the land which Anne (1925-2015) knew and loved.

Need for collective introspection

Yet when assessing what she wrote decades ago, it is as if she was prescient in her forebodings in regard to the losses that this land of our birth would sustain in due course of a tortured journey. From the promising model of multi-cultural democracy in South Asia at independence, this has become a land where violence is interwoven into the societal fabric, instigated by constant spewing of toxic propaganda by power-hungry politicians. And while momentary and sometimes unfortunately fleeting victories may be won against the march of anti-democratic forces at one point or another, we need to engage in collective introspection as to how this unhappy fate came to pass.

One explanation may lie in the fact that this is a society accustomed to brutality where terrible suffering has been inflicted by periodic waves of deaths and disappearances following from civil and ethnic conflict and deadly institutional decay resulting in those desperate for help not knowing whom to turn to. From a casually ruled people following a casually won independence from colonial rule, the darkness of rabid political ambition on the part of leaders who were never able to put the national interest above their own petty preoccupations impacted with brutal force on decent, law-abiding society. For the most part, these were men of letters who had both the capacity and the intelligence to make a difference. But the effect and impact of their negative influence through catastrophic rule has been savage.

Even so, the nervously unsettling question as to whether communal divisions are more deeply entrenched in peoples’ mindsets, quite apart from what is prompted by political chicanery, cannot but arise. I recall a story, real rather than apocryphal, of a reputed and quite brilliant civil law practitioner who, when entreated by the police to open up a few charitable homes for displaced Tamil refugees in 1983, snapped with annoyance, ‘take them elsewhere.’On the other hand, thousands of ordinary Sinhalese people welcomed those displaced into their homes spontaneously and willingly. The contrast between the seemingly ‘highly educated’ and those not so, is perhaps telling.

Calling out the political establishment

And as we count down a far too tempestuous year and head into an uncertain 2019 with a dangerously teetering economy, I cannot but think that Anne, whom I first knew in my teens as a mother of a friend and a role model for activists, would have been simultaneously appalled and thrilled at the happenings of the past few weeks. At a foundational level, she would have been outraged at the violation of the Constitution and would have said as much with characteristic penchant for ‘telling it like it is.’ But that said, she would also have been wonderfully heartened by the vibrant activism of citizens otherwise uninterested in politics who called out the corrupt political establishment, quite irrespective of party colours, in scathing criticism. In fact, it was the ferocity of the unexpected ‘citizens’ outbursts that took conniving politicians by surprise and was in large measure, responsible for their retreat.

These elements of straightforwardness and integrity were constants in Anne’s writings; coruscatingly honest, always true to the personal stories of those affected and never succumbing to agenda-driven scribblings or egocentric ramblings of those professing to be ‘experts’ in a chosen field. In that particular contribution titled ‘Telling it Like it Is’, she reflects on the fact that ‘wrong impressions can be created by the omission of facts and the refusal to call a spade, a spade.’

This is in the context of the communal violence in 1983 where she observes that, despite the undeniable ferocity of attacks on ordinary Tamil civilians by organised government mobs, ‘there has been a noticeable reluctance on the part of some to admit this.’ It is this line which earlier propelled my recollection of the irritated response of a man of seeming stature and more than ordinary intelligence but who chose not to help when asked. And it is this attitude that Anne deplores, even though perchance, that specific incident would not have been personally known to her.

‘Senseless savagery is never a solution’

Then again, the other side of the human tragedy gripping Sinhala civilians is dwelt upon with compassion. In a piece written for the Sunday Times a year later, she reminds after attending the remembrance of a fallen military man of senior rank that, ‘it is right and fitting that we should give all the support we can to the men in the security forces and to do whatever we can to lessen the pain – if that is possible- of the families who have fallen.’ In that same essay, she ruminates that ‘most of us, whichever community we belong to, are neither haters or practitioners of violence…senseless savagery will never resolve the problems that divide us.’

Due to constraints of space, it would be impossible to reflect on the many threads of beautifully expressed reasoning that runs through this compact collection of essays. Let it suffice to say that this is a book to read when the world outside seems more disconnected than usual and a tad crazier than normal. It is a cheery and refreshing read, not chockful of platitudes but rather reflecting homespun wisdom that comes from a life well lived.

For the young who know Sri Lanka only in the signal madness of what passes for civic life today, it would be good to glimpse a different and gentler reality. Her tacking of gender biases is related with humour and no small wit.

A most enduring lesson

A short while before she passed away, I remember having an animated discussion with her on the state of democratic affairs in this ‘far-from-paradise isle’ where she remained as cheery and optimistic as ever, always believing in the power of the human spirit to prevail against all odds. This resilience then, was another constant of hers, surely a comfort to her family, her friends and the community with which she involved herself with warmth and infinite grace.

But in the end, the most enduring lesson that she left behind was that an ‘ordinary’ man, woman or child can do the most extraordinary things and even challenge the might of the State, as she herself did in countless ways. That must surely remain an inspiration.

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