DifferentYetEqual Press Statement on 15 August 2016 Vigil (English)

differentyetequal2

Diverse people gathered to celebrate differences and demand equality (from the official DifferentYetEqual FB page)

 

The following statement can be found in all three languages on the Different Yet Equal Facebook group page. 

 

DifferentYetEqual: A campaign for equality and democracy

Press Statement: 16 August 2016

On the evening of 15 August 2016, we, a group of citizens from diverse backgrounds, gathered together under the banner DifferentYetEqual, at Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 07.

We began discussing the need for such a campaign, to promote equality and justice in our society, as many of us are deeply concerned by the continued atmosphere of racism and intolerance in recent times. We have been particularly concerned with several incidents of attacks against Muslim and Christian communities and their places of worship, around Sri Lanka[i]. We have read countless reports (in 2016) of mobs disrupting Christian and Muslim religious activities and gatherings violently[ii]. We are concerned by the ongoing campaign by some groups to claim Sri Lanka as a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ nation. We are also acutely aware of our responsibility as citizens to proactively counter these discriminatory ideologies. We are firm in the understanding that no community needs to be treated less than equal for this nation of ours to move forward. It is our diversity and pluralism than makes Sri Lanka the nation it is.

We began as an informal group, disseminating our ideas and thoughts through social media and other networks to a larger community of concerned citizens. We collectively organised yesterday’s vigil, of our own volition as a citizen-led collective, using our own personal funds. Everyone who attended the vigil came of their own accord. There were people of diverse communities and from diverse backgrounds present at the vigil.

Soon, the vigil was disrupted aggressively by a group of people claiming to be representatives of the ‘SinhaLe’ group. This group proceeded to carry out their campaign of the promotion of racism and hate-speech. Conflict between the two groups ensued, as the ‘SinhaLe’ group goaded the vigil-attendees constantly. It only subsided finally because all those at the vigil were able to be non-aggressive, non-confrontational, peaceful and tolerant, while making their point assertively and strongly. Finally, the DifferentYetEqual group disbanded collectively, peacefully, after singing songs of unity and peace and making their statements to the media in Tamil, Sinhala and English. We disbanded before the ‘SinhaLe’ group did; this was our choice.

We are not an organisation, nor do we have any affiliations whatsoever to any political party or personality and wholly reject any such claim.

The Media

 As those gathered to demand a more just and equal Sri Lanka for us all, we were disappointed by the behaviour of most of the media present there yesterday. Instead of covering the event they had come there to cover – the DifferentYetEqual vigil for equality – many immediately diverted all their attention to the disruptive elements. Most of the media present seemed more interested in quickly turning their cameras to the unfolding drama, rather than seeking balanced perspectives from those who had gathered for the vigil.

Several media reports following the vigil contain factual errors about DifferentYetEqual, which are a sign of this unprofessionalism. This could easily have been avoided had the journalists been interested in seeking out the facts; there were prepared media spokespeople present, and we would have been happy to answer any questions.

We urge the media to take its responsibilities more seriously; to ensure that they give equal time and effort to documenting and presenting multiple perspectives so as to commit to impartiality and professionalism.

We are grateful however, to the non-mainstream media on social media platforms giving the vigil coverage, and to mainstream media who worked hard to provide accurate reports.

 

The Police

The Cinnamon Gardens Police were informed of our plans for a silent, peaceful vigil days before, by representatives of the group. We believe they had and have a continued responsibility to stand by us, and all other citizens who are attempting to rally for equality in a peaceful, non-disruptive manner.

Many police officers gathered at the site of the vigil, once the disruptive elements had arrived. While members of the DifferentYetEqual group reasoned with officers asking them to step in and do something, the officers did nothing until much later, when the OIC arrived on the scene. By then, there was a strong police presence and we believe they could have contained the situation more effectively and efficiently.

The police did step in strongly towards the end, but mostly to reason with the DifferentYetEqual vigil group, and ask us to not engage and prolong the confrontation. They did also try to reason with the ‘SinhaLe’ group, but we believe and feel they could have done more. The ‘SinhaLe’ group also carried a distorted version of the national flag – a crime as far as we know – and we urge the Police, in the future, to at least act strongly on matters like that.

However, we are thankful for their presence there.

 

Finally, we are inspired at the way all vigil-attendees stood strong and responded peacefully yet assertively in the face of aggression and hate. We believe in the power of citizens’ collectives and urge more citizens to join together to stand up against discrimination. Together, we have immense power and we cannot be silenced. The vigil was not the end of the DifferentYetEqual campaign; it was only the beginning. We hope to continue using social media and public events to bring people together, to stand against racism and all other forms of discrimination.

 

[i] INCIDENTS OF VIOLENCE AND INTIMIDATION OF CHRISTIANS 2016; Compiled by The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL)

[ii] Special Rapporteur Report Submitted to Minority Rights Group Incidents against Muslims February, April, May, June 2016

 

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Holding Space and Speaking: Why, When, How We Say the Things We Say About Injustice

if you are not angry

 

Below are some notes and observations about how, why and when we choose to speak and what we choose to say on social media – but also in general. This is about how we respond to injustice, and how we respond to those who respond to injustice – and while specifically about recent events, can also broadly be applied to larger conversations about any kind of narrative about the marginalized and oppressor.

In the wake of Brexit, the shooting of LGBTQ people in a club in Florida, the latest killings of Black people in the USA by the police, and other such international crises, different kinds of people are speaking up on social media platforms. The following thoughts are about those who materialize to criticize those who choose to speak their minds against these crises of justice, these failures of democracy, these violations of what is right and good in the world. This is about those who pop in to say ‘Who cares?’ or a more distilled version of that, ‘Why do you care so much about what’s happening so far away?’, or those who feel they can make inane jokes about these matters when others are grieving; those who can trivialize that grief, that rage; those who patronize others who are enraged to say that they, the non-caring, have understood the issue better than the enraged; those who speak to only say, seemingly, nothing more than they don’t care about this thing that you care about – or worse, that they feel the injustice you are grieving is not really ‘injustice’ at all.

This is very interesting to me – it’s not just a matter of morality (though I think it is just that), it is a matter of semantics. It is very interesting to me how people build their arguments, and indeed why they do so, and more importantly – when and why they choose to put forth these arguments. It is a question of, why have you chosen to speak in this moment on this matter?, and is there a concept of sometimes, simply, not speaking?

Social media gives everyone the platform to ‘speak’, even when we often have not earned the right to speak – in particular spaces, on particular topics. Thanks to the Western Liberal ideals on which much of social media is based (‘Freedom of Speech’), we no longer even believe that we need to earn the right to speak. We think we are just born with that inalienable human right to speak – but some of us more than others. It gives us the opportunity to say things which carry no meaning and have no relevance. It even gives us the opportunity to tear other things down, and really not achieve anything else with our words.

It is interesting: because it is a matter of knowing for yourself that there are things on which you should not, need not, speak – either because it is not your space, or because you are ignorant about the facts, or indeed, as you claim yourself sometimes, it does not affect you. Here are some questions I often ask myself before ‘speaking’: do you have something interesting to say? Do you have something substantial to say? Do you care?

If anything it reveals: who among us constantly wish to hold space, and who among us are willing to, even used to, giving up space, being silent and sitting down. And this is a matter of privilege, I observe – there are those of us who have always had space, automatically; those of us who have never had to prove ourselves or our right to speak, those of us who have never had to fight to be heard.

Further, it reveals more about you than you think it does. Not only have you now revealed yourself as someone who thinks themselves to be, by default, interesting, you have also revealed yourself to be someone who is openly admitting they do not care about injustice, problematically, in forums where people do care.

If you do not care about the killing of Black people in America, perhaps you don’t have to say anything around conversations about the matter, among people who do. Keep scrolling. If you haven’t been someone that has cared – in general – about the struggle of Black people in America, if you haven’t spoken up before about their oppression, then perhaps you don’t need to step in to critique their resistance. If you are only stepping in to critique their resistance – to say it’s not about race, to say that somehow the injustice and violence against them is justifiable and explainable – and you have not given any of your space to critiquing white privilege / white supremacy before that, then you are only revealing yourself to be someone who does not think the continued oppression of African Americans is wrong. If your own reproduction of the narrative has not been balanced, and the only moment you have spoken up on the entire topic of racism in America is to say Black Lives Matter is doing something wrong – then you are a part of the problem.

If you do care, but want to point out genuine contradictions in other people’s reproductions of events – to say they are building unfair narratives, if you have a critique of the things they give their space to, if you want to say ‘Why do you care about Black Lives Matter when you didn’t seem to care about Tamils being killed here/people killed in Syria?’ etc. then be very sure of what you want. Perhaps do not make sweeping generalisations. Ask yourself, is this true of all, or at least most of the people who will read your statement? If it is not true of all or most of them, and only of a few, why not engage those people privately? Would this not be a more effective and sincere method of engagement?

If you are keen to make a public statement – perhaps try not to sound righteous. Perhaps time your comment better and word it so they don’t feel reprimanded for grief and rage which seems a natural reaction – perhaps wait to ask the question genuinely, wait until people aren’t grieving Person/People X (as much) to say “Let’s not forget Person/People Y”. Perhaps don’t ask it the very day Person/People X has been killed. If you do, know that you run the risk of sounding as though you are saying that Person/People X did not matter.

If you do care about the murder of Black people but also really care about reminding us of our own unbalanced narrative, if your objective is to ensure we truly remember and grieve fairly, then why not use your own space to remind us that there others we should be grieving too, and say it like that’s what you are saying – why not write “as we mourn the murdered Black people in America, let us not forget those dead in _________ (insert place), instead of saying ‘WHAT ABOUT BAGHDAD?’ on comment threads under other people’s status messages? Try to see – when we say Black Lives Matter the day after two Black men were killed in rapid succession, on the spot, by police officers, we aren’t forgetting Baghdad or Pakistan or Bangladesh or Syria. If you think we genuinely have forgotten, or have failed to grieve them ever, then ask genuinely. Remind us genuinely. Use your own space constructively to do so.

Remember our contextualized focus on certain things over others in certain moments does not mean exclusion – remember when we say Black Lives Matter, for example, we are actually asking everyone to end exclusion. We ourselves are asking for more inclusive, fair, just narratives.

If you are trying to point out the inherent bias in much of the mainstream media we consume, to say it privileges first-world news over third-world news, that’s a good argument – but please make sure you note your critique of the media and the way we consume it clearly. Again, try not to reprimand grieving people. Try not to patronize us.

If this is the case: you better be someone who has given space to all these issues. You better be someone who has shown you care. You better be someone who has talked about all the issues you are raising – and not just someone stepping in to moderate or trivialize other people’s rage.

If you are not trying to genuinely remind us there are other injustices in the world (in a timely, non-patronizing, relevant manner), and you are also not trying to point out the bias in the way the media behaves and the way we behave with it – then hold on, what are you asking? Are you simply asking people to care about justice for some people but not others? Do you think our struggles are not linked? Why are you pitting injustices against each other? Why are you trying to narrow things down when people are actually quite broad in their grief and rage sometimes? If I care about minority rights here in Sri Lanka, I should care about the killings of coloured people in America. If I care about minority rights in Sri Lanka, why shouldn’t I care about Islamophobia in England? Why shouldn’t I care about the brutal murder of queer people in Orlando? If I didn’t, I would be the worst kind of hypocrite. I wouldn’t be someone that cared about the principle of human rights at all.

If you do not care about people’s struggles, then please, you don’t have to speak. Stop occupying those spaces. Leave it to the people who do care. If you have a critique, make sure you have earned the right to have that particular critique, on that particular matter, and to have us listen. This means, generally, we need to know you are someone who cares about the matter – we need to know you are not speaking only to reveal your own prejudice, that you are not speaking only because you find it impossible to not hold space everywhere all the time. We need to know your voice does not pop up only to criticize or make fun of those who are outraged by injustice.

Here’s another observation about privilege: you tend to not listen when someone is saying ‘I am being discriminated against’. When a community, or someone from within a community, is speaking about their reality – listen. You don’t get to say anything. You don’t have to say anything. You certainly don’t get to say ‘No, that’s not discrimination as far as I’m concerned’. Try and understand – it’s not about you or what you perceive to be the problem. It doesn’t matter what it sounds like to you. It matters what that someone/community is saying. You don’t get to ascribe meaning to their reality. Only they get to do that. Take your cues from them. Let them lead.

Finally, we should all do what we can to educate OURSELVES. It’s not anyone else’s job. Don’t pop up with arguments that have been put forth and then wholly defeated in public discourse a long time ago, as though they’re legitimate.

I can only quote that brilliant Jesse Williams speech here again, a lesson on morality and on semantics —

‘The Burden of the Brutalized is not to comfort the bystander;

If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression;

If you have no interest in equal rights for Black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do – sit down.’

 

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Feminist Perspectives on the Orlando Shooting (from the Third-World)

At Least 50 Dead In Mass Shooting At Gay Nightclub In Orlando

Brenda Chirino, one of hundreds that gathered at the Metro Wellness Center in Ybor City, attends a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. Tampa Police momentarily shut down a portion of 7th avenue to accommodate the large crowd. (Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

What do cases like the Stanford rape and the mass-shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse, in Orlando, Florida have in common?  Do not be fooled: the victims in both cases may seem easily distinguishable – one was a young, working woman, the others up to 50 people celebrating Pride week at a famous Orlando club; the woman heterosexual and white, the women and men who died or were injured at the club were mostly queer and coloured – but it is in the perpetrators and their crimes, and the systems which produced both, and deal with both, that we see the similarities. Once again, on the surface, the perpetrators in both cases – Brock Turner, the Stanford Swimmer turned Stanford Rapist, and the shooter in the Orlando violence – may seem very different. But underneath the surface, we are faced with the deep-seated issue which underlies many social problems: we are faced, quite simply, with patriarchy.

Just because the victims in the Orlando shooting were not all women, do not imagine for a moment that it not a problem of patriarchy; that it too was not a crime driven by ‘male’ violence and misogyny. The kind of ‘toxic masculinity’ which is produced through a patriarchal culture and a patriarchal worldview, is invariably going to dangerously suppress things inside us, things which ultimately find their expression in harm. This masculinity urges men to be aggressive, unresponsive to their own emotions, power-obsessed, homophobic and deeply fearful of anything feminine and/or queer. This masculinity drives sectarianism, nationalism and fundamentalism, because it drives men to believe it is their duty to be the protectors (bearing arms!) of their families, communities, and even nations. It teaches domination – it breeds imperialism and colonialism, ideologically and in practice. This masculinity drives militarism and war – it produces fragile egos in men, then pits men against each other as competitors for power, and convinces them that violence is the only ‘manly’ response. It teaches them to love weapons that can kill. It teaches men to be threatened – easily – by anything unlike them or anything which challenges the power structures as they know it: it breeds sexism, but it also breeds homophobia and feeds other kinds of hatred like racism. Women can be racist too, but when men are racist, it becomes layered with all the other problematic things produced by patriarchy in masculinity. This masculinity vilifies sensitivity; it rejects emotional truthfulness, and encourages men to be defensive, irrational and hateful. For men and women, it can teach us everything we know about what power is, and where we fit inside that domain of power. It forces heteronormativity, because it needs to keep the model of the ‘family’ alive; because it is within this model that men and women can both play their roles as taught by the doctrine of patriarchy. It forces men to reach for power through domination and aggression, over women and other men; it forces women to submit. It forces men who are different to hide, to cower, to sometimes, also submit. Ultimately, toxic masculinity fails us all.

Feminists have said for a long time that patriarchy is bad for us all. Patriarchy and misogyny produce all kinds of insidious violence which, at first glance, may not seem like problems of patriarchy and misogyny. Us not noticing it, is only a sign of how deep and effective patriarchy truly is, structurally – how every cultural, social, political and emotional element of our world is attached to this one thing, right at its core. Patriarchal power structures manifest other power structures from it, in its own image, and so every part of our world behaves like it. Importantly, it is the thing that produces this problematic version of religion we have – all mainstream practice of every major world religion is produced from a patriarchal context and this explains many issues within these religions, as they are today and have been for several centuries. In a time before, the earlier versions of many of our major spiritual traditions encouraged the equality of the sexes, celebrated sexuality, worshipped the feminine, preached only peace, urged one to develop a multi-dimensional relationship with oneself and with nature, and encouraged human beings, women and men, to be whole in being true to both the masculinity and the femininity within each one. Patriarchy is why religions suppress sexuality and demonize sex; why religions insidiously or obviously teach the subjugation of women, through teaching the fear and hatred of women and femininity; why religions deliberately intersect themselves with the rhetoric posturing of nationalism and sectarianism.

From here is born the violent male response to the constant suppression of emotion and the deeper self: emotion which cannot be expressed, must not be expressed, for what it is. Emotion which patriarchy does not teach you to identify, understand and express healthily. Confused, fearful, unhealthy attitudes towards sex, sexual freedom and sexual identity are one of the key concoctions produced by patriarchy and they are the root causes for a variety of problems, only a few of which are rape, child abuse and homophobia. The victims may not always only be women – we are all victims, past, present and future, in some sense.

News reports now say that the Orlando shooter was abusive to his ex-wife; reports also say he might have been a regular at the popular gay nightclub he attacked, as well as on a gay dating app. These are not surprises; in fact, they are the most predictable part of the story. Closeted queerness, a secret sexual identity, signs of violent misogyny, and a burgeoning hatred of those who can be free, who have chosen to be free. Add to that America’s gun culture (also patriarchal), and you have a mass-shooting. The Stanford Rapist, in his own admission, was unable to see the great harm in what he had done; he was unable to see the basic abnormality of trying to have sex with an unconscious woman. The insecurities of the men, their own fears, their own desires, manifesting as hatred and violence towards others, a need to dominate, a need to express: they are all part of the same problem.

Let’s not be fooled or distracted; let’s not forget that stories like the Stanford rape and the Orlando shooting, like all violence against women, sexual violence and homophobic violence are all connected. They are born of the same hatred, the same wilful aggression. These violences are inflicted on us through twisted, confused, toxic masculinity; by cultures which teach male aggression and dominance; by cultures which advocate violence; cultures which insist: violence is always the answer. These cultures are everywhere and we live inside them; they are universal, as well as specific.

Though both incidents happened in the United States, this is relevant to us all; patriarchy persists in all our countries, in all our societies, though it sometimes manifests itself in utterly different ways, it also sometimes manifests itself in exactly the same ways. We are victims of patriarchy, yes, but we are also, many of us, its perpetrators, its implementers. Patriarchy isn’t like a God – it isn’t an unseen universal superpower over which we have no control. Human beings built it, and today, human beings perpetuate it. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously – but the more discourse there is about what patriarchy looks like, in all its forms, we make it harder and harder for us to keep doing it. For those of us who are doing it unconsciously, building awareness and knowledge is key. For those of us who are doing it deliberately, the increasing awareness around us is bad news. Today’s alternative international media coverage is discussing the ‘male-violence’ and ‘toxic masculinity’ components of gun-violence. We are getting better at recognizing it right away.

There are two important kinds of solidarities we need to form. First, our counterparts in the first-world need to stand by us as we stand by them. When LGBTQ people are killed in Orlando, we all bleed. When secularist, LGBTQ activists are killed in Bangladesh, we all bleed just the same. We need first-world LGBTQ movements to stand by third-world LGBTQ movements. When women of colour are imprisoned, raped or attacked in the first-world, third-world feminists stand by them; first-world women of colour and feminists need to show us the same solidarity.

The second bond which needs to be strengthened urgently is that between the feminist movement and the LGBTQ movement; we have much to give each other. The queer movement and the women’s movement must continue to strongly stand together, and must, more than ever, ideologically and proactively intersect. It is vital that all queer politics strive to be rigorously feminist, and that all feminist politics strongly hold queer rights at the core of its mandate, always. Feminism has always urged us to open our eyes to the brutality of patriarchy and the war it wages on women, men and children – perhaps even animals – everywhere; the war it wages on the queer, the coloured, the indigenous, everyone who refuses to conform and subscribe to its narrow definitions of identity – it is time we listened, together.

 

 

 

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May 18: We Have a Lot to Mourn

Vaaharai 1.jpg

Vaaharai community marks May 18, 2016 (source: Tamil Guardian)

I am astounded; the government has called off this year’s ‘Victory Parade’ and no one is really talking about it. Why are we not talking about it? Why isn’t everyone talking about it? Why aren’t we all so very glad? In an interview with the Sunday Observer, our present Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena — why didn’t I even know his name until this interview? Why is that? — accepts a military parade is unnecessary, wasteful and inappropriate. He accepts it doesn’t feel right. Small steps, big meaning. He says it isn’t the right way to mark this day for the country as a whole. It isn’t right for everyone. He talks openly about mourning, about our collective need to mourn. He is saying we all need to mourn but maybe we mourn in different ways and one people’s way of mourning shouldn’t be imposed on another while that other cannot mourn. In a country where the Tamil communities in the North and North East were for so many years prohibited from this very cultural human right, he is talking about mourning. He talks openly about remembering the dead and the disappeared. The government is publicly accepting that there is such a thing as ‘the disappeared’.

Meanwhile, in an open letter to his former boss, Mangala Samaraweera has laid bare all — he accepts the allegations of war crimes against the former government are possibly true. He says the footage that the Channel 4 documentaries aired was authentic, and that they knew it even then.

In an interview with the New York Times some weeks ago, our president Maithripala Sirisena addressed the new Constitution for Sri Lanka being developed now. He is talking about devolution of power. He is talking about the Sinhalese giving up a little power to share it with the Tamils and other minorities. He is talking about true and just power-sharing. He is saying the Sinhalese majority have nothing to fear; the Tamils having more doesn’t mean we have less. Human rights and democracy isn’t a zero sum game, indeed the opposite is true. The more we give, the more we have. He is saying the oppression of some means, inevitably, the oppression of all; that without justice and true equality, no majority can ever really be happy. He is talking about the war not being the problem but a consequence of the bigger problem — Sinhalese domination in all power structures. He is talking about a new constitution which would fix that from the root, up. He is talking about the root of the problem, about cause and effect. He is saying it’s us. HHe keeps the air conditioning turned off in his office. He has a picture of Karl Marx hung on his wall! He is saying things no one in power in my whole lifetime has ever really said, not so openly. He is saying obvious things, but obvious things are sometimes radical to the ears. He too talks about mourning in a sense, about healing and the slow, gradual change that healing needs to be.

Every day, I hear about all the good people who are finally being heard, being taken seriously — all the good people who are the experts, the activists, the academics who have worked so hard to question our leaders and challenge our perspectives, who have tried so hard to force open our eyes to the possibility of inclusivity and equality. The people who, under the previous regime, had to shrink away into the shadows, into hiding, often publicly discredited and humiliated by intimidation. Our present leaders are not only not ignoring them, they are listening; they are thinking clearly about representation: they are putting women and members of minority communities at the tables, at the heads of the tables, and they are saying, ‘We all have something to learn from you. We are listening.’ These are the good people to whom our government is now looking, who the government is asking to lead the discussions and the action, all the good people appointed to so many advisory committees and task forces who are getting things done and encouraging us all to have important conversations: there’s the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, the Task Force on the prevention of violence against women and girls, the team overlooking the Right to Information Act gets done, an initiative to draft a National Arts and Cultural policy, which we hope will ensure, beyond artist rights, cultural rights for all. Mourning our dead is a cultural right; and we should all have it. There is the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation which seems fiercely committed to the idea that the arts has a crucial role to play in healing, mourning and understanding each other. There is a move to set up a permanent Office on Missing Persons (I know there is a petition to have it named the Office on Missing Persons and Enforced Disappearances, which we are optimistic will be heard) — there they are again, accepting the reality of disappearances. Who are these people? Am I the only one astounded by the fact that our leaders are speaking of these things with seemingly no other agenda except, well, to speak of them?

Today on my newsfeed, amidst the terrible floods and landslides, people complain that the awful results of natural disasters are actually the result of bad governance and reveal an uncaring, under-prepared government. No. Let’s put aside the constant cynicism. If you like, let’s talk instead about climate change and how risk and vulnerability are structural; let’s talk about our impact on the planet; let’s talk about the first-world’s impact on the planet and how the third-world is so much more vulnerable to the consequences. Let’s talk about that thing for which we are all responsible. 

But on an average day, why don’t we celebrate and support the good stuff more? Why do we only remember the names of the monsters but not the good, unassuming new leaders we seem to have? Why aren’t we paying more attention to what they are doing?

Don’t tell me that their goodness is only impressive because we were stuck with the worst of the worst for so long. That’s not even true. These aren’t signs of mere, minimum competence. We are seeing more than that. We are seeing something real. But we have to push them to more, we have to ask them for more thinking, more reflection. We have to ask for a true commitment to creating anti-racist structures and attitudes. We are seeing something good. But we have to ask for even better. I think these are people who care about the right things, the really important things. We have to care also. We have to care also so we can ask for more.

Why are we still so cynical? Our political cynicism is damning, and it is often lazy — sometimes I think it means we aren’t listening. We aren’t reading. We aren’t looking around us. Or worse, it means we don’t care enough about this stuff. At every moment like this, I am overcome by this thought: I fear that in the end, the majority of us didn’t incite a revolution at the polls last year because of Mahinda Rajapakse and his clan were vile racists who systematically deepened ethnic divides and strengthened racist structures which oppressed Tamil people so absolutely. We did it because of allegations of corruption and abuse of public funds, not because of the militarization of the North and North East. We did it because the cost of living had risen so much and we couldn’t bear the flagrant displays of obviously corrupt opulence coming from the Rajapakse family while we ‘struggled’, not because there are around 40,000 civilians unaccounted for after the end of the war in 2009, whose deaths the Sri Lankan Army was quite likely responsible for, with orders from the top. Not because of the killings and the abductions and the torture and the illegal incarcerations and the rape of Tamil civilians, academics, activists and journalists. Not because of the systematic racism and race-based violence at all levels; in communities, in prisons, on the streets, in their homes, that was normalized for us. Not because of the cultural colonization and the economic colonization and the clean, hostile take-over of land belonging to Tamils.

Our present leaders are saying we need to mourn. We need to mourn more, we need to mourn better. We, the Sinhalese, have a lot to mourn. We have to mourn everyone and everything we lost. But there are other things. We have to mourn everything we allowed our former leaders to do; all those times we didn’t raise our voices strongly enough when Tamils were being killed just a few hundred miles away from us. We have to mourn all the times we rejected our activists and journalists when they spoke about the horrors we couldn’t see ourselves; all the horrors being carried in the name of our freedom, our safety. We have to mourn for ourselves; for every ounce of guilt and shame we feel at every moment we do something to reinforce racism: every time we confess we cannot speak Tamil. Every time we confess to never have heard of that Tamil poet. Every time we are struck by our own ignorance when we are faced with vibrant Tamil academics who know so much more than we do; who open our eyes to a history we have never paid attention to. We have to mourn how little we know about the war and how it happened so differently to the Tamils than it did to us; we have to mourn how little we have tried to find out. We have to mourn that we are shocked when we now read that Tamils in the North and North East post-2009 had barely any basic rights; that they had no right to mobility, no right to seek justice, no right to even grieve for their dead. We have to mourn how little we know about how much land was stolen from Tamil people by our former leaders, through brute force and intimidation. We have to mourn that we supported the Good Market while it was still a weekly affair in Rajagiriya, not even knowing that a monument to the disappeared had stood there, and had been razed to the ground there. We have to mourn.

We should next ask that our present government gradually take down the several offensive monuments to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, which were erected after the ‘victory’ in 2009, in places which saw the worst cruelty and tragedy. If they want monuments, let them commission our artists to work on monuments which commemorate the dead and disappeared sensitively and reflectively. If they want monuments to the Army — then let them build those, but not atop the dead, not atop the things that are more honest and revealing of us. We should next ask that our present government gradually publicly accept that for the Tamils in the North and North East, mourning their dead and commemorating the LTTE are sometimes one and the same, and stop safely toeing the line in this statement. Say this out loud. Accept what it means. See how it falls on our ears. Perhaps next to redesign the national flag (or think past a national flag altogether). Symbolic, yes, but symbols are powerful.

We have to mourn. We have a lot to mourn.

 

 

 

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How Does Our Media Cover Tragedy? An Open Letter to Sri Lankan Media Establishments

Published on Groundviews.

On April 2016, two 19 year-old women were fatally hit by a train while attempting to cross a railway track in Dehiwala. The tragic incident quickly attracted the attention of the media, and journalists from every major domestic media outlet reported the incident, bringing to the nation and the world images and stories about the “tragic death of two friends”. The coverage included graphic CCTV footage of their last moments, sound bites from devastated parents and family, as well as those from a grief-stricken student body.

We write this letter as citizens who observed this tragedy via the local media; we are deeply concerned by the visible lack of principles and ethics for journalism in Sri Lanka, as displayed in the coverage of this recent event. We believe reportage of this incident has revealed the major ethical failings of our media.

As a people we have experienced and continue to experience numerous challenges – a war, a major natural disaster, and various ongoing social conflicts; we would think, as a nation, that we have by now developed a heightened level of sensitivity towards tragedy and conflict, and that we would see this reflected in our media. However, time and again, the Sri Lankan media, mainstream and otherwise, have displayed a troubling disregard for basic ethics, disappointing the public in our need for sensitivity. It has always been paramount to follow a framework of value-based ethics, which can guide the work of our journalists and media publishers; today the need is most urgent.

Overview of incident:

According to our observations, both print and electronic media coverage of this incident was problematic.

Many mainstream TV news channels televised in their first reports of the incident, actual CCTV footage without any attempt to censor the graphic nature of the images. This footage captured the actual point of contact between the victims and the train; in several reports, it was slowed down and replayed multiple times. The news reports of the events were then uploaded to social media networks including Facebook (and subsequently linked to respective Twitter accounts), and hosted on the media outlets’ respective channels on YouTube (the news reports including the CCTV footage were still available on many of these forums at the time of writing this letter.)

Print media printed false and unverified information in their reports, and carried contemptuous op-eds, which began a cycle of thoughtless victim-blaming.

This leaves us, as citizens of this country with a series of questions regarding the assumed role of the media in cases such as this, and the journalistic ethics we believe were flouted.

1. The editorial decision to televise this CCTV footage calls to question the commitment to sensitive reportage and exposes clear ethical issues.

  • Did the editor/s consider the impact this graphic footage would have on the general public, and more importantly, on the families of the victims, for whom this remains a personal tragedy? Did the media consider what it might feel like to have the death of a loved one repeatedly televised?
  • Were the families of the victims officially notified of the deaths before the broadcasting of the graphic footage?

2. Thereportage could compromise genuine attempts to uncover the facts and is a clear display of irresponsible journalism.

  • Was the CCTV footage of the accident released to the public by the media before the relevant law enforcement officials had an opportunity to review it? Does this compromise the integrity of a thorough investigation?
  • Was this crucial bit of evidence released to the media by law enforcement officers or a third party? If the CCTV footage was released to the media by a third party, didn’t the media have a responsibility to support the investigation by not televising it?

3. The sensationalized reportage disregarded any respect for the privacy of the victims and their grieving families, and the community at large.

  • We are aware that the photograph of the girls that was televised and printed was taken from a Facebook post uploaded by a grieving classmate, with a personal message attached.  The photo was taken without the expressed permission of the said Facebook user, nor were the wishes of the family considered in this matter.
  • One report included a photo taken off one of the victim’s Instagram accounts, which was then used for an over-dramatized, fatalistic report. Camera crews visited the houses of the victims, televised the funeral, and images of grief-stricken parents. The street address and the house is clearly identifiable in the reports. In other reports, the camera crews even followed the procession to the cemetery and attempted to speak to family and friends there.

4. Did the media sensationalize the reportage to exploit a tragic event but fail in their basic duty to report facts?

  • What was the true motivation behind releasing and then highlighting the graphic footage of the accident in a situation such as this? The media may justify the showing of graphic footage at times when a ‘truth’ needs to be exposed in service of the public. Cases of major human rights abuses, corruption etc. come to mind. However, in a case such as this, where the incident is an accidental death – what is the real purpose of this kind of reportage?
  • In further attempts to sensationalize the tragedy, various media outlets interviewed ‘eyewitnesses’ the next day; these reports said that the young women had their earphones plugged into their ears at the time of the accident, and that this was the main cause of the fatality. The media used this unverified information and createdunnecessary, non-constructive discussions about the victims of the tragedy being responsible for their own deaths. Reports later surfaced through other media sources that this piece of information was not true; the doctor who performed the post-mortem on the bodies of the young women very clearly stated he found they were not wearing any devices; this fact was next verified by the driver of the train.
  • The media resorted to op-eds with a righteous, moralistic tone, questioning   a) the ‘younger generations’ so-called obsession with technological devices, b) the victims choices, as young people and particularly as young women, in being out for a social gathering that night. Archaic, and indeed sexist ideas were promoted through these op-eds.
  • The reports which carried the CCTV footage, along with the op-eds as mentioned above, incited the public to also respond in an insensitive manner. The reports were widely shared on social media forums such as Facebook, where the comments sections were alight with thoughtless, sometimes downright cruel banter about the victims being to blame for their own deaths.

Conclusion

We are concerned that the media has sought to actively contribute to a culture of morbid fascination towards tragedies at the cost of ethical and responsible journalism. This leaves us with the unfortunate conclusion that media outlets do this because perpetuating such a culture simply leads to increases in readership/viewership.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the media understands the power it has in shaping public opinion and a communities’ response. While we fully appreciate the complex duties journalists must balance when reporting on sensitive topics, we must demand as a public that the media is both more responsible and credible.

Some media outlets, upon being publicly questioned on the ethics behind broadcasting graphic footage, did remove the footage from some of the forums on which they have an official presence. But the removal of the footage did not occur across the boards, and to date, the footage is available on some mediums.

We urge all our media establishments to develop their own stringent guidelines and to practice sensitivity in all their work. We also urge them to generate awareness within their own communities on some key fundamental journalistic principles which are universally accepted and practiced.  There are also several resources the Sri Lankan press should use, which are specific to them, where codes of ethics have been set out:

Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics) of The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka and Free Media Movement Adopted by the Sri Lanka Press Institute

Sri Lanka Press Council Code of Ethics for Journalists

We urge all members to reflect on their own choices and those of their organization/s, and to contribute fruitfully to a lively discussion on the matter in an open and honest way. To generate a discourse in this spirit, we must also create a culture of peer-review, where members of the media can themselves provide and receive constructive criticism as a community. This community should itself lead the discourse on broader topics such as media rights and responsibilities. We are all responsible and we are all accountable.

 

Subha Wijesiriwardena
Jake Oorloff

 

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Ethical Divides: ‘This Divided Island’ and ‘The Seasons of Trouble’

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This post has been a long time coming. It has taken many shapes and been many versions of itself. Now I am back home in Sri Lanka, where all the nuances of our lives in this place and belonging to this place somehow pull and tug simultaneously, I think it’s time to say it out loud.

Over the last year, two books by Indian journalists on the Sri Lankan civil war were published by major Indian publishing houses. First was ‘This Divided Island’ by Samanth Subramanian and second was ‘The Seasons of Trouble’ by Rohini Mohan. Let me give you a full disclosure first: I know Subramanian a little, and I know Mohan very well. Subramanian is a friend of friends (as a figure of speech and literally), I’ve spent time with him socially; Mohan is a good friend, and I would say she and I are close. But that said, I hope to convince you that the account I am about to give is as objective and unbiased as one could be, and is unrelated to my personal friendships with either of them. Consider this not so much a review of both books — I will reflect on both books as a writer, and as someone who entertains a persistent inner struggle about testimonial-based work, i.e using other people’s stories for your own work,  particularly in the context of war and conflict. I am especially concerned with how we negotiate the multitude of ethical discomforts when it comes to the ever problematic dynamic betweem subject-story-storyteller-reader. Also, I will reflect on the books as a Sri Lankan — to ask, how does it feel to me to have someone on the ‘outside’ write about us? — and as a Sri Lankan who was very peripherally a part of the journeys of both writers as they worked here in Sri Lanka. Many books have been written about the Sri Lankan war and I have found many of them unsatisfactory.

However, before we proceed, another part of the full disclosure should be this: one of the things the books have in common is that they are both dedicated to my brother, who died in May 2014. My brother Sanjaya was a friend of both Subramanian and Mohan and was instrumental to them both in their processes of writing.

I had wanted to write something about Subramanian’s book the day it was launched in Bangalore, last year. I believe there are some serious ethical and thus, journalistic failings in the book and have been thinking for awhile about how, and why if at all, I should say so. Last year, after the launch in Bangalore, Subramanian very kindly gave me a copy of his book for free, signed. It was a sweet gesture. He then asked me to turn to a specific page. When I did, I found that I, name not changed, am in the book. This was the first time I was at all privy to this information. I had no idea until that very moment that I was featured in his book. I had not been asked prior to its publication; my permission had never been sought and thus never given. In principle, I immediately found this uncomfortable. However, I tried to shake it off; I skimmed the chapter quickly, the one I was in. That entire chapter details Subramanian’s visit to Sandhya Ekneligoda’s residence in a distant suburb of Colombo, escorted by me.

Here’s some context: to put it briefly, I come from a world of activists. I am probably the least involved, when taking into consideration my family and many of our friends, but I have and do occasionally get involved for short periods of time, to help out when needed. Important to remember is that I know many of the same people Subramanian was talking to at the time, as external research for his book, or for directly collecting first-hand accounts of life during and after the war, by those who were worst affected in different ways — the idea for the structure of his book was that it would be told through ten primary stories, ten primary people. At the time, I was working with Sandhya Ekneligoda, the wife of the disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, helping her with some English writing. I would visit her fairly frequently, spend some time with her and her two sons, and return home. Her home was not far away from where we live. Subramanian had told me that he wanted Sandhya to be one of the ten people in his book. He had asked if I could arrange a meeting between them. Knowing Sandhya to be someone who did not shy away from the public eye and from journalists, I asked her if she would be alright with meeting him; she said OK. The chapter in Subramanian’s book I refer to details our visit to her home that day, but the way that encounter is interpreted by Subramanian baffles me. It is not as I remember it. However, I do not want to turn this into a ‘he said’ ‘she said’ situation — but what I do need to assert, pressingly, is that as I remember it, Sandhya very categorically said she did not want to be in Subramanian’s book, and she did not want to do an interview with him. She did not want to be one of his ten stories. For me, this was enough.

However, she did end up in Subramanian’s book, once again, name not changed. Anyone can the read the book to find out more about the scene I am speaking of, I won’t detail it here. I cannot attest to the overall process through which Subramanian negotiated permissions with other subjects appearing in his book; but I do know I was never asked, and in Sandhya’s case, he went directly against her wishes. To me, this shows a breakdown in his understanding about the sensitivity and fragility of the nature of our lives in Sri Lanka at the time, particularly for those involved in human rights work — even peripherally, like I was; a carelessness in relation to the carefulness and caution with which people engaged in such work. This is a part of the very thing he claims he understood, at the end of that chapter, and that I seemingly didn’t. Sandhya has very publicly been at the forefront of the fight against enforced disappearances, since  Prageeth’s disappearance in 2010, doing perhaps what was considered the most risky — demanding accountability for human rights violations committed by the state. This kind of work is done carefully, with caution and more importantly, in trust. By taking Subramanian there, I exposed her to a stranger she did not know and only trusted because she trusts me. What is further revealed, is a breakdown in Subramanian’s understanding of relationships, and how they work in such fragile contexts. In this chapter, he has me wondering if some out-of-the-ordinary behaviour from Sandhya that day had been a way of her ‘asking (me) for money’; he has me confusedly wondering why she refused to talk to yet another journalist — himself, as though I, who have known her for so long, and translated her words to Subramanian that day, didn’t understand. He has me seeming stupidly unaware of the nuances of Sandhya’s struggle, and himself knowing exactly how she feels.

To me it seems like he just did not get it, at all. Not just Sandhya or me or that day, but the whole thing — he missed something crucial and real, without which his entire process, his plan to write about life in the Sri Lankan civil war, is compromised. 

There are layers of problems here, aside from his patronizing assumptions: his writing about me could have put me at risk,  and worse, it could have put Sandhya at risk further, all because of what I did by taking him there. He also seemingly does not realise how detrimental it could have been, not only to my relationship with Sandhya but with all the people of that world; this world of which I am very much a part every day. If she had read his book, and believed it, how would that affect what she thinks of me? Not only do I seem insensitive and impatient, I seem insincere. How could I explain to Sandhya that I would never think she was asking me for money?  I would look like a hypocrite and a fake; in her home, pretending I believe she is my equal and me hers, despite clear class-differences between us, while privately believing everything she does out of the ordinary, is a badly disguised attempt at asking me for money. 

But here it is — I wonder if it ever occurred to Subramanian that Sandhya might find out. Perhaps in his eyes, there is no scenario in which someone like her would read a book by someone like him. There is no scenario in which it would matter if she was upset; there is no end-to-end subject-storyteller integration. She was never sent a copy of the book, just like her decision to not want to be in it was not heard. Unfortunately, I believe this carelessness becomes a kind of coldness, and finds its way into the entire book. It becomes a book difficult for a Sri Lankan like me to read and accept as being sincere. While his technique as a writer could be praised, there is a distance created between writer and story, apparent to the reader; it seems as though he stands far away, inspecting the surface of our lives, simplifying it for a far-away readership. His meticulousness as a writer is overshadowed by a kind of arrogance. How are we supposed to feel, knowing we are there for other people to extract stories from, for their own publishing successes? 

seasons of trouble

With Mohan’s book, you can tell, from start to finish, somehow, it is written by someone who cares. Her book, about three central characters, is written entirely through their perspectives. Mohan’s book is also more resolutely feminine — to its advantage — not in the obvious, stereotypical ways, but in many imaginative ways. Because it is primarily a book about women, written by a woman perhaps, the woman’s perspective in it is indisputable. It has patience with its stories and with its subjects; it has patience for all their quirks and contradictions. It takes its time and goes slowly, where the characters want it to go. Behind the book, one imagines, is a writer who had little agenda to push except to sit and listen. To be a good listener takes patience, and kindness, but above all, it takes a kind of selflessness — you have to be able to let those hours, days, weeks, be about the person who is speaking, and not about you. And the work that’s gone into listening with Mohan clearly makes itself present; it’s the thing that makes the whole book unfurl. I always think that in any good work, writing, theatre or otherwise, one should be able to see signs of the process — you should be able to sense the craftsperson crafting something there. With Mohan’s book, I was able to see that and feel that. 

And this is the interesting thing; while Subramanian’s book is written in the first-person, through his perspective as he journeys into Sri Lanka, meeting people who tell him stories about the war, the human being that’s constructing the work is somehow very absent from the work, or at least, very far away. It is clinical. Mohan never literally puts herself anywhere in the work, her three characters are always front and centre, but the person who is doing the work — the listening, the unraveling, the understanding, and finally, the writing — is ever present. Somehow, Mohan manages to show us her own uncertainties, her own vulnerabilities while never really writing about herself. Underneath the life-stories of her three characters she is there, never hiding, and you feel her own transformation during the journey she has made in the writing of the book, along with the transformations of her characters.

Reading these books brought me very much closer to my own internal conflict about writing about ‘other people’s’ wars, or using other people’s stories for your own work. Especially if you are writing about ‘someone else’s war’, i.e there is no obvious link between you and the story personally, then how, and more importantly why do you write it? As my friend Arun very rightly said, it then becomes pure ‘curiosity’ which compels you, and the writer/journalist has to be supremely careful not to treat the subject of curiosity as just that. Why is it important, after all, to tell these stories? We pompously claim ‘the world needs to know’, but how often does the world finding out actually affect the lives of the very subjects of our work, leave alone in a lastingly positive way? And what if people don’t want their stories to be told? Do we have the right to override the agency of another human being with regards to their own life-story? It is critical, and complicated, to keep the subject integral to the process. Further, how do we negotiate our own conflicts about the story, about the purpose of what we are doing? And I think, essentially, conflict is the thing that makes the work come alive in this case — not just the conflicts of the people you are writing about but your own conflicts. Effectively, I want to read something by someone I can sense at least has some conflicts themselves about the work they are doing, using other people’s tragedies for their own work. 

I remember being irritated with Frances Harrinson’s work about the Sri Lankan war, ‘Still Counting the Dead’, and ‘The Cage’ by Gordon Weiss; while ‘This Divided Island’ is the work of a better writer, I found it discomforting in the same way. I didn’t sense an uncertain or conflicted person behind the book, dealing with the intensely complicated narrative of the civil war of another people, and that troubled me, because then what you are left with is an arrogant person. The ability of a documenter to constantly question themselves, to ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and to ask themselves what good it will do for the people whose stories they are telling, the humility to never assume that the work you are doing is, by default, important: this is the thing which makes everything else fall into place. It opens the subject up from the inside and pulls the reader closer.

 

 

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Leaving / Arriving

south asian feminists.jpg

South Asian Feminists, 1986

Today, on the day I leave India, I thought it would be nice to share this picture, which was shared via my mother’s friends on Facebook a few days ago. This is the great South Asian feminist sisterhood, as we know it, circa 1986. My amazing mother Sunila Abeysekera, wears possibly biggest smile in the room, sitting 5th from the left. This photograph was taken in Bangladesh.

 

I wanted to share this picture for many reasons; first, because she is always with me, and in some ways more so now than ever before. Many of these women are also always with me — especially in these big moments. Second, because, I think it celebrates a cycle my mother started, that I may have only just completed for myself — a cycle of finding the South Asian part of our identities, the feminist part of our identities, and the part of us that belongs forever in the love and warmth of a sisterhood. India not only gave me my own sisterhood but has brought me closer to my mother’s. In India, I found the parts of myself which closely resemble the best parts of my mother. Removed from the place we both called home, I found her here, over and over again — in classrooms, in poetry, in love, in friendship, in feminism. In all the ways in which my life in India has transformed me, I found her. Removed from the place I always knew to be at the core of my identity, I have found ground to which I inherently feel connected.

 

To say that my life in India ‘transformed’ me seems simple, too simple, to describe the massive undertaking of my life which was done by my friends, my mother’s friends and my teachers here who breathed life into my life, who opened — broke open — my eyes and my heart and my mind. It seems also too simple a way to describe the way in which my family at home seemed to carry me through every thing challenging, even from afar. But for now, the word ‘transform’ is all I have.

 

Finally, I wanted to share this picture today because they all look so happy, and this is what I know of my mother’s feminism, and of the feminism of her friends. They have always been the women with the loudest laughs and the warmest hugs; with the sharpest wit and humour; they with their songs and hand-holding, with their stories; they were the women most likely to point out the birds nesting at the tops of trees or how the green on the trees changed gradually with the seasons. This is the ‘happy’ feminism I knew all my life — the reason I get angry when people say ‘feminists are angry’! But this is the feminism I didn’t always fully know how to belong to; my own sisterhood here (not just of women but of men, ‘sisterhood’ as a feeling), and this one I inherited from my mother, they showed me how. India brought me home to an organic, true, and fundamentally joyful feminism, one in which I have learned to think more, love better, fight harder.

 

I am grateful to my life in India for so many things; most of all, for helping me to arrive.

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