Monday, January 12, 2009

And Then They Came For Lasantha Wickramatunge

Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge was assassinated in broad daylight outside of Colombo last week. SAJA has a helpful round-up of coverage of the event, including some background on Wickramatunge's journalistic record. What stands out is the fact that he has been a consistent dissenting voice in Sri Lankan politics, sharply criticizing the previous government for years. In recent years he had also become a critic of the new government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he had earlier supported. Indeed, Wickramatunge and Rajapaska were until recently rather close friends.

Wickramatunge's assassination is widely believed to have been carried out by forces allied with the government, if not directly sponsored by the government itself. His memorial service, which took place yesterday in Colombo, was attended by thousands of people (see a Flickr photostream of the event here).

This past Sunday, the Sunday Leader, the Sri Lankan newspaper founded by Wickramatunge and his brother, carried a posthumous editorial authored by Wickramatunge himself. It's called, "And Then They Came For Me," and it's written with the understanding that it would only be printed in the event of the author's assassination.

It's a moving statement, which ought to be read by anyone who doubts whether freedom of the press or freedom of speech is, after all, an essential right. Wickramatunge begins by asserting his primary goal as a journalist over the fifteen years he had worked with this newspaper:

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper. (a link)

Though Wickramatunge had been a critic of the government's prosecution of the ongoing war against the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka, he was by no means an apologist for the LTTE (indeed, if I am reading his name correctly, he is ethnically Sinhalese, not Tamil).

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall. (link)

There's more that I could quote, but perhaps I should just encourage readers to read the editorial themselves.

It's a remarkable statement in many ways, not least because its author seemingly knew what was coming, but continued doing what he was doing all the same. (Bravely or foolishly.) But even more than that, despite the extremity of the situation in which Wickramatunge wrote this editorial, his voice remains calm and reasonable. There is no melodrama there, just a passionate commitment to the journalistic mission of always aspiring to speak the truth, even if no one wants to hear it.

I do not know whether Wickramatunge was right or not when he argued, in the passage I quoted above, that the current military actions in northern Sri Lanka are doomed to failure. Indeed, part of me hopes he is wrong, and that this really is the end of the road for Prabakaran and the LTTE army.

But history and logic suggests that in fact Wickramatunge is likely to be exactly right: you cannot win over the hearts of minds of an enemy in a civil conflict by brutalizing them. Any lasting peace will have to be consensual and negotiated, involving the disarming of the LTTE, but also concessions from the government. (Northern Ireland is the model to try and emulate, I think.)

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, RIP

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died earlier this week, at the age of 91. He was one of the best-known sci-fi writers of the 20th century, the author behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, among many others.

As is well-known, Clarke moved to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in 1956 -- in large part for the year-around access to diving -- and remained there until his death. The locale inspired at least one of Clarke's novels, Fountains of Paradise:

Clarke lived in Sri Lanka from 1956 until his death in 2008, having emigrated there when it was still called Ceylon, first in Unawatuna on the south coast, and then in Colombo. Clarke held citizenship of both the UK and Sri Lanka. He was an avid scuba diver and a member of the Underwater Explorers Club. Living in Sri Lanka afforded him the opportunity to visit the ocean year-round. It also inspired the locale for his novel The Fountains of Paradise in which he described a space elevator. This, he believed, ultimately will be his legacy, more so than geostationary satellites, once space elevators make space shuttles obsolete. (link)

I first read The Fountains of Paradise many years ago, and I pulled it off the shelf this afternoon for a refresher. There is an intense opening, set in the classical period, 2000 years ago, involving a "Prince Kalidasa," who does not seem to resemble the actual Kalidasa (who was not a prince, but a poet). And there are some rich descriptions of the island of Sri Lanka (named "Taprobane" -- Tap-ROB-a-nee -- by Clarke).

Here are a few paragraphs from the historical section involving Clarke's Prince Kalidasa:

The air was so clear today that Kalidasa could see the temple, dwarfed by distance to a tiny white arrowhead on the very summit of Sri Kanda. It did not look like any work of man, and it reminded the king of the still greater mountains he had glimpsed in his youth, when he had been half-guest, half-hostage at the court of Mahinda the Great. All the giants that guarded Mahinda's empire bore such Crests, formed of a dazzling, crystalline substance for which there was no word in the language of Taprobane. The Hindus believed that it was a kind of water, magically transformed, but Kalidasa laughed at such superstitions.

That ivory gleam was only three days' march away - one along the royal road, through forests and paddy-fields, two more up the winding stairway which he could never climb again, because at its end was the only enemy he feared, and could not conquer. Sometimes he envied the pilgrims, when he saw their torches marking a thin line of fire up the face of the mountain. The humblest beggar could greet that holy dawn and receive the blessings of the gods; the ruler of all this land could not.

But he had his consolations, if only for a little while. There, guarded by moat and rampart, lay the pools and fountains and Pleasure Gardens on which he had lavished the wealth of his kingdom. And when he was tired of these, there were the ladies of the rock-the ones of flesh and blood, whom he summoned less and less frequently-and the two hundred changeless immortals with whom he often shared his thoughts, because there were no others he could trust.

Thunder boomed along the western sky. Kalidasa turned away from the brooding menace of the mountain, towards the distant hope of rain. The monsoon was late this season; the artificial lakes that fed the island's complex irrigation system were almost empty. By this time of year he should have seen the glint of water in the mightiest of them all-- which, as he well knew, his subjects still dared to call by his father's name: Paravana Samudra, the Sea of Paravana. It had been completed only thirty years ago, after generations of toil. In happier days, young Prince Kalidasa had stood proudly beside his father, when the great sluice-gates were opened and the life-giving waters had poured out across the thirsty land. In all the kingdom there was no lovelier sight than the gently rippling mirror of that immense, man-made lake, when it reflected the domes and spires of Ranapura, City of Gold-the ancient capital which he had abandoned for his dream.

In this made-up history of the ancient kingdom of Taprobane, Clarke actually seems to know whereof he speaks; the injections of bits of Hindu culture seem to come from a position of knowledge.

And here is a little from the main section of the novel, set in the present day. The protagonist is a Sri Lankan named Raja (short for "Johan Oliver de Alwis Sri Rajasinghe"), who has retired from public life, and moved to an estate built on the site of "Kalidasa's" original pleasure gardens:

That had been twenty years ago, and he had never regretted his decision. Those who predicted that boredom would succeed where the temptations of power had failed did not know their man or understand his origins. He had gone back to the fields and forests of his youth, and was living only a kilometre from the great, brooding rock that had dominated his childhood. Indeed, his villa was actually inside the wide moat that surrounded the Pleasure Gardens, and the fountains that Kalidasa's architect had designed now splashed in Johan's own courtyard, after a silence of two thousand years. The water still flowed in the original stone conduits; nothing had been changed, except that the cisterns high up on the rock were now filled by electric pumps, not relays of sweating slaves.

Securing this history-drenched piece of land for his retirement had given Johan more satisfaction than anything in his whole career, fulfilling a dream that he had never really believed could come true. The achievement had required all his diplomatic skills, plus some delicate blackmail in the Department of Archaeology. Later, questions had been asked in the State Assembly; but fortunately not answered.

He was insulated from all but the most determined tourists and students by an extension of the moat, and screened from their gaze by a thick wall of mutated Ashoka trees, blazing with flowers throughout the year. The trees also supported several families of monkeys, who were amusing to watch but occasionally invaded the villa and made off with any portable objects that took their fancy. Then there would be a brief inter-species war with fire-crackers and recorded danger-cries that distressed the humans at least as much as the simians - who would be back quickly enough, for they had long ago learned that no-one would really harm them.

Reading this, I can't help but think of Clarke himself, one of the world's most famous writers, living in a remote part of Sri Lanka -- away from it all.

After the opening, the novel has a more conventional science fiction story arc -- the goal is to build a kind of massive space elevator from the top of a mountain in Taprobane...

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Monday, August 06, 2007

M.I.A. Talks Smack, and a Brief Review of 'Kala'

I recently read an interview with MIA at Pitchfork Media. The part that seemed most interesting had to do with the role producer Diplo has played in her music. According to M.I.A., the influence of Diplo has been seriously overplayed by the media, for reasons that might have to do with gender and race:

M.I.A.: Yesterday I read like five magazines in the airplane-- it was a nine hour flight-- and three out of five magazines said "Diplo: the mastermind behind M.I.A.'s politics!" And I was wondering, does that stem from [Pitchfork]? Because I find it really bonkers.

Pitchfork: Well, it's hard to say where it originated. We certainly have made reference to Diplo playing a part on your records, but it seems like everyone plays that up.

M.I.A.: If you read the credits, he sent me a loop for "Bucky Done Gun", and I made a song in London, and it became "Bucky Done Gun". But that was the only song he was actually involved in on Arular. So the whole time I've had immigration problems and not been able to get in the country, what I am or what I do has got a life of its own, and is becoming less and less to do with me. And I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can't have any ideas on my own because I'm a female or that people from undeveloped countries can't have ideas of their own unless it's backed up by someone who's blond-haired and blue-eyed. After the first time it's cool, the second time it's cool, but after like the third, fourth, fifth time, maybe it's an issue that we need to talk about, maybe that's something important, you know.(link)

Go, Maya. As she goes forward, she puts more emphasis on the gender question, and less on the whether "people from underdeveloped countries" can have "ideas of their own":

M.I.A.: [...] And if I can't get credit because I'm a female and everything's going to boil down to 'everything has to be shot out of a man,' then I much rather it go to Switch, who did actually give me the time and actually listened to what I was saying and actually came to India and Trinidad and all these places, and actually spent time on me and actually cared about what I was doing, and actually cared about the situation I was in with not being able to get into the country and not having access to things or, you know, being able to direct this album in a totally innovative direction. (link)

Unfortunately, perhaps, most of the interviewer's questions are about the various men she collaborated with on her new album 'Kala', whether it's Diplo, Switch, or Timbaland. (Well, at least there's nothing in here about cleavage...)

I think she's making a valid point about how women musicians are often represented in the alternative/indie rock world. I can remember people saying similar things about Bjork's relationships with some of her male producers, several years ago -- not really giving Bjork credit for her own brilliant and idiosyncratic musical vision. Bjork, like M.I.A., is clearly a force of nature...

On the other hand, M.I.A. did date Diplo at some point (I don't know exactly when), so does her desire to deemphasize his influence have to do with that? I'm just asking...

* * *

Through a DJ friend, I managed to get my hands on an advance copy of M.I.A.'s new album, Kala. It's already been released in the U.K.; the U.S. release date is August 27. This is a brief review (we reserve the right to do a more detailed take later).

Some of the best tracks are already in circulation: "Bird Flu" and "Boys." I don't care for "Jimmy," which heavily samples an old Bollywood film song (from Disco Dancer), though I gather that other folks like it. To me it just sounds a bit clumsy. (Check out a sample from "Jimmy" at Ultrabrown)

My favorite of the other tracks on the record has to be the collaboration with Timbaland, "Come Around." Other cool tracks are "20 Dollar" and "World Town." All three have hypnotic beats, and a slightly more laid back lyrical delivery from M.I.A.

Overall, people who liked the manic energy and off-kilter beats of Arular will probably be into Kala. The sound is slightly different -- it's certainly no retread of her earlier work. The beats here are generally less electronic and more noisy and organic; the maximalist palette seems well-suited to M.I.A.'s over the top personality.

Admittedly, some of the louder tracks on Kala do grate a bit on the ears, but then I suppose that's what an IPod playlist is for, hm?

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