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Category: Politics (page 1 of 12)

Decriminalizing homosexuality in Sri Lanka: Problems

homosexual (hɒmə(ʊ)ˈsɛkʃʊəl,ˌhəʊmə(ʊ)ˈsɛkʃʊəl)

So recently the government shut down yet another attempt to decriminalize homosexuality in Sri Lanka.

To wit, the bill proposed that people should not be discriminated upon based on their gender, and the old farts panicked.  We got the usual excuse that this is a Buddhist country, and this was culturally inappropriate.

This is, unfortunately, rational, if not perfectly logical. Consider the country that we live in:

  • Short skirts are frowned upon
  • Women working and not marrying before 25 is practically a source of family shame
  • We have enough trouble making multiple religions work, let alone multiple genders
  • All major religious bodies are still strongly conservative and anti-homosexuality

As a human being, I agree that this doesn’t make the slightest shred of sense. As long as there’s no rape involved, what two people do in bed is really none of my business. By all means do the wall if it pleases you.  As a Buddhist, born into a family of rather conservative Buddhists, it makes even less sense. Buddhism says absolutely nothing about sexual orientation. These morals are not Buddhist at all, but Christian ones inherited from British colonizers.

“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”
(Leviticus 18:22)

For some reason, England eventually agreed that short skirts were okay and gay people were not going to hell; we didn’t. If anything, a ban on homosexuality is a regression: the ancient Greeks were okay with it, the Romans were perfectly fine with it. Even in Sanskrit literature we have terms such as ubhaya, napumsaka, or shanda — a reference to “Third Gender”, unless I’m completely off the mark here; and that makes us look positively medieval.

Unfortunately this logic only works in Colombo. At the end of the day, we are a very liberal lot: we have the advantage of being exposed to multiple points of view, multiple perspectives, and are generally able to say look, the Greeks did it, why haven’t we progressed?

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Colombo is a tiny bubble, a bubble within a bubble, perhaps ten thousand people operating within a larger framework of conservative people. The rest of the country holds starkly different morals. People here have spent their entire lives knowing that being gay is evil; that belief has only been enforced by religious systems.

If any success is to be won here it can only proceed in stages.  First must come equal rights for women. That makes sense because, like it or not, women are working, generating a sizeable chunk of the economy, and no force of old men in Parliament can stop this; the working-woman stigma was dealt with in the early 2000s.

Next we probably need a tangent; we need to dissociate religion from the control it has over who we marry and why. Religion is one the great sticky social constructs of humanity. It binds people together: useful for forming coherent communities, terribly unhelpful for social change. In this case, I feel it’s one of the big sticklers holding us back.

Historically, this seems to be the pattern of acceptance that other countries faced with this issue have followed. Once all this is done comes the acceptance of homosexuality.


Hopefully on the heels of this will come the acceptance of other gender identifications. I don’t ever see the 58 gender types being accepted. Maximising the number of options you get on an ‘About me’ page is vastly different from implementing it in a social context. For example, a man identifying as a woman walking into a woman’s bathroom would still intense discomfort; a man identifying as an Apache helicopter would, and probably should be certified insane.

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But there is absolutely no reason why a reasonable reduction of these types, plus biological permutations of gender, and sex changes, cannot work perfectly within legal frameworks. The most efficient solution is to map out, statistically, the most common variants of gender/sex and cater to them; say the top 5. It’s a reductionist approach, but can lay the start of something until we work out the rest of it.

Realistically, this battle of ideas is not going to be won overnight. It will take years.

In reality the average Sri Lankan – who does not know or care about these movements – is the idealogical equivalent of those folks from the Westboro Baptist Church.

Any attempt to topple a strong idealogical standpoint overnight will only result in violent reprisal.  It doesn’t really matter if we consider it right or wrong or a matter of fundamental human rights. Ideas aren’t like on-off switches; they diffuse into people like ink into water.  Remember that when Obama decriminalized gay marriage, he was doing so in response to decades of sustained equal rights activism; movements that have been going on since the sixties.

In the meantime, cheers to all the folks who are actively pushing for this issue. It may seem futile, but five to ten years from now, their efforts are going to be the pebbles that set the avalanche rolling.

(Note: I am neither homosexual nor of any other non-heterosexual orientation, so one might argue that being straight and male affects my thinking here.  However, if we are to accept other genders and orientations as rational human beings, then we must also drop straightness and maleness as grounds for  a flaw in reasoning). 

The Siege of Aleppo, #aleppo and Syria’s Anne Frank

The siege of Aleppo reads like a scene from The Lord of the Rings.

Aleppo, the largest city in Syria has, since 2012, been a battle point between the rebels (the Free Syrian Army plus the Army of Conquest, as well as Al-Queda’s Syrian arm).  Some 31,000 people are estimated to have died.

The government forces (and Russia) have been airstriking (is that a word) the shit out of rebel positions and the rebels, while falling back, have been shelling government-held parts of the city. Here is a breakdown of the sides by Nassim Taleb (Black Swan / Antifragile):

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Both sides have had it rough. In July the government forces managed to circle the city, but the rebels hit back, cutting government supply lines into the western part of the city and hanging on like grim death onto Eastern Aleppo.

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And yet this conflict only made our timelines when some bizarre tweets from #aleppo started trending on Twitter. Amidst the voices was that of Bana, a 7-year old girl tweeting about being under fire in Syria.

Initially, I spent a full day just reading #aleppo, horrified at the conflict it revealed and equally horrified that, if you go by the shares, Kim Kardashian’s butt is more important than one of the most brutal sieges happening in the world today.

It took a while for me to spot the implausibilities. Bana is a verified account.

1) Why does a 7-year-old have a verified account?

2) There was a whole host of beautifully worded “final messages” on #aleppo. As  Sri Lankans, we know what wartime misinformation looks like; during a 30-year civil war it was used internally by the government of Sri Lanka, but (much more successfully) also by the LTTE to drum up international support.

Given that the Aleppo rebels are no chicken farmers , but are sophisticated militants, how much of this “news” was propaganda? 

3) Why is the mainstream media not talking about this?

The second question was easy to verify. #Most of the eloquent “Goodbye messages” were too similar and well-done to be real. They all have a scripted air – the common narrative is that there’s all-out genocide; Assad (government) forces are raiding houses and slaughtering civilians; and that Aleppo’s militant Islamist rebels are valiantly fighting the Russian-backed genocidal government.

Anissa Naouai, host of RT’s “In the Now”, identified these popular videos and the rebel-affiliated activists / propaganda artists generating them. They all have massive social profiles that are verifiable with a few searches. The videos are clearly part of a funded operation: most of these people have MSM access. Their activism might be real, but they’re a) not terrified civilians recording their last thoughts and b) are on the side of an ISIS analogue.

Is Bana real?

a_ov_bana_161004-nbcnews-ux-1080-600Is this endearing seven-year-old real? Or is this a carefully constructed media trigger? Remember that most of us didn’t know or care about the Syrian war until that photo of a boy washed up on the beach went viral.

At this point some of you will, naturally, be looking disgusted at my rationale.

Fortunately, Megan Specia from the New York Times was working on a piece on the Syrian war and actually kept in touch with Bana. Her balanced and rather moving article points out three things:

1) Bana Al-Abed is a real girl living a real life in a very real war.
2) The Twitter account is operated by her 26-year-old mother.
3) In some of the videos shared, Bana calls for an end to the bombing and appears to be prompted from off camera, as if speaking a rehearsed message

Is this seven year-old girl, who the Washington Post calls “the Anne Frank of the Syrian War” a propaganda prop? I think she (unwittingly) is.

I have no doubt that the child is real and wishes for an end to the war. I have no doubt that the bombing is real and that people are dying in terrible ways. However, she is not the one writing this story. Her mother is. Willingly or not, the child is being used as a prop.

Which brings us to the 3rd question: why is the mainstream media not talking about this?

I assumed the media wasn’t, but as it turns out, every media outlet worth its salt has something on Syria.

aleppo

Granted, it’s not as much as all the other trivial stuff. But I’ve come to believe that this assumption about the media is more a problem with the way I / we consume news.

The logic is as follows: newspapers thrive on advertising. Advertising models thrive on shares, clicks and views. What do people share, click and view?

Not the most important stuff. Consider the following recent headlines:

  • Japan overtook China as the largest holder of U.S Treasuries.
  • Justin Trudeau, the only Prime Minister who could double as an underwear model, is tossing his liberal politics in the bin.
  • Scientists discovered a way to potentially reverse aging in mice (imagine the implications for humans).
  • A 12-year-old boy tried to detonate a bomb at a German Christmas market.

And yet we don’t see these things, because this don’t really interest most of us. My personal feeds, for instance, catalogue none of this information.

It follows that to survive, media outlets, too, must cater on some level to their audiences. Nobody would read pure highbrow journalism; such a paper would die out too soon.Therefore, perhaps it’s not just that mainstream media (which is largely dominated by America) is ignoring Syria: it’s could also that we don’t see, consume and share that kind of news.

Where there is no demand, can supply thrive?

Conclusion

Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.

That’s a quote from Arrival (which, by the way, might easily be one of the most intelligent sci-fi movies ever made: watch it).

If you substitute “communication” for “language”, the phrase also reflects the reality of modern warfare, which is as much about misinformation as it is about shooting the other guy in the face. Now you have to make the world root for you (again, a tactic the LTTE did so well).

The ‘liberators’ drumming support against the government now garnering much of the support on social media. But if we hark back to Taleb’s comparison:

20161215_syria_0Are the “bad guys” on social media really the bad guys? And are the good guys the good guys? There are innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, but how much of the news can be believed?

Previously, the victors in any conflict wrote the narrative. But as David Blacker pointed out, the Internet changed all that. Communication now decides whether you go down as the hero or the villain. Syria – and every warfront in the world right now – is a masterclass in how to do it.

In a perfect world, we would accept that there are always biases, even in reputed media; we would consume information from different sources and consider a weighted average as the truth. In this world, we all get triggered by one image and a winning tweet. So, note to self: stop relying on Facebook for news and start reading the papers again.

Because, as Goebbels said, if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

syria
9:09 PM: edit note: thanks to Devika Brendon for spotting the error in the title.

Ravi K Presents the Budget

Honorable Speaker, as the 20th Minister of Finance of Sri Lanka, it is my privilege to present the 71st Budget for 2017. First I’m going to put the rest of the Parliament to sleep by singing the praises of Yahapalanaya and Ranil W. Now, if you can all forget our track record of failed budgets, let’s begin.

We spend around Rs. 200 billion to import food products and agriculture related goods annually. Honorable Speaker, I propose to spend 1 billion rupees more trying to get our country to be self-sufficient in Potatoes, Big Onions, Chilies, Maize and Soya. We’re going to remove VAT on farming machines and use another 50 million to subsidize their purchase. How many of those magically turn into BMWs I cannot say.

Honorable Speaker, we’re kinda losing the tea market, but we’re going to make genetically superior coconuts, and try to get people to grow sugarcane.

Our cows, having being born under the previous regime, are unfortunately not producing enough milk. I propose to throw Rs 600 million at those blasted herbivores.

Our fisheries, if the Indians don’t keep stealing, will be amazing. I propose to spend Rs 3 billion to make sure that they are. There’s some shit here about chickenfeed and ornamental fish that I shall also now read out to you. You can pretend to listen.

Now some of you may not know this, but the Moragahakanda, Uma Oya and Yan Oya irrigation projects, if we finish them, will do a lot of good for the Northern, Eastern, North Western, Uva and Southern Provinces. Families living there will also need water and electricity. Honorable Speaker, we’ve allocated over Rs 60 billion for the whole shebang. We’re also going to spend some money upgrading over 80 dams.

By the way, I also want to do this Heda Oya thing. New reservoir. Only costs Rs 20 billion. Money? Foreign loans, not to worry. Trust me. We can make irrigation great again.

Honorable Speaker, education is centric in our development model. But we’re going to drop investment on this by 40%, because it turns out the Ministry doesn’t know how to spend money. If anyone complains, tell them we’re still better than the previous government.

We’re going to spend a lot of money upgrading schools that need it. I’ve also been reading science fiction, and so we’ve decided to spend Rs 5 billion free Tabs for 175,000 A/L students and 28,000 A/L teachers. Telcos are going to provide WiFi connections. What’s that? No, I don’t mean 3G connections, I mean WiFi. Don’t bother me with actual science. No, they won’t watch porn.

Honorable Speaker, we’re going to add Hospitality Management, Fashion Design, Digital Technology, Logistics and Financial Literacy to O/L and A/L streams. I don’t know what we’ll actually teach them. We’ll figure something out. Also, the Ministry is going to support 1,000 gifted students by giving them 2,500 rupees a month each, which will make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Honorable speaker, all schoolchildren between the ages of 5 and 19 will receive an insurance policy for Rs 200,000.

We’ve also thought long and hard about the universities. Honorable speaker, you’ll agree that a lot of people who want degrees can’t get them; these failures eventually pay for their own education or end up here in Parliament.

Therefore, I propose to double the intake into universities: to give scholarships to the top three students of every university to continue in Harvard or Cambridge; and by the way, here’s Team SHARK. Did I tell you about Team SHARK? These boys built a car. Fabulous stuff.

Please stop yelling about the budget cuts now.


Note: This is a parody, numbers are accurate and the full text of the budget speech can be found here.  

The Magic of Pada Yatra

by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Pada Yatra: rough translation,  pilgrimage.  They’ve been around for awhile, but the most famous is Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent Salt Tax protest. That original Pada Yatra started with 80 people and went down in history as the famous Dandi Salt March: it even inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Leave it to the Joint Opposition to organize their own Pada Yatra. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Co basically rallied thousands of people who marched, on foot, from Kandy to Colombo, while their political overloads trundled by gently in jeeps sucking on cheap ice cream.

It didn’t overthrow the British Raj, of course, but it was pretty impressive. It began in Peradeniya and spread to Nelumdeniya. Kiribathgoda was packed. Residents of Kelaniya reportedly hung grass from electric wires ‘for the protestors’. A disorganized crowd of several thousand strong preceded the actual rally. Most of us in Colombo didn’t feel it, but everyone on that route definitely did.

Let me get something off my chest first: that really should be Pādha Yāthra – unless our Media is having well-organized chuckle by making Mahinda’s rally sound like the Fart Pilgrimage. In that case, well played, Lake House, Wijaya. You’ve made us all proud.

Phew. Now, on with the conversation (photos by Shehan Gunasekara). 


Protest marches are generally organized around a single specific grievance – British India’s Salt Tax, the deployment of troops to Vietnam, Taylor Swift’s never-ending albums of breakup songs.  The Joint Opposition, who likes to multitask, seems to have decided to go for a shotgun approach: let’s protest about everything we don’t like. Most of the slogans are divisible into four broad categories:

  •  Economic hardships under the current government
  • ‘Selling the country’ to foreign masters
  • National sovereignty threatened by constitutional reforms
  • Miscellanious (stuff like Maithri being a muppet, Ranil being a fag and so on)

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I find this whole thing stupid, and not just because they actually had a Maithri-muppet on display. Because if you step back and think about the first three slogans:

  1. Economic hardship
    Granted, the current government’s economic policy is worse than a third-grader’s attempt to grill a cheese sandwich.
    That being said, economic hardships are still Mahinda’s baby through and through. Who threw the country into debt for every single construction project ever, built the least used international airport in the world, bloated the civil service to unreasonable figures, bought votes by increasing salaries, ran a failed airline and got the taxpayers to pay for it?
    As disorganized as current policy is, we as a country are still dealing with the fallout of the Rajapaksa regime.
  2. Selling Sri Lanka to foreigners
    Like *cough* China? Have we already forgotten the casino debacle, the Port City, the Hambantota Port development and the highways done by the Chinese? 
  3. National sovereignty threatened by constitutional reforms
    Because obviously things like the Right to Information are evil, but forcibly extending the duration of your own Presidency is perfectly right. Carry on, Lord Commander.

Now I may not know much about the fine art of protest marching (University of Kelaniya – this is your forte), but I understand it’s very, very rare that the people leading the protest marches are the source of 3/4ths problem in the first place (everything except the Miscellanious category).  I can almost imagine the campaign meeting.


Namal: Appachchi, what do we do? There’s nothing we can say that actually makes sense!

Mahinda: Okay, boys. Listen close.

<they huddle closer together for warmth and political protection>

Mahinda: Here’s my master plan, boys. First, I pop my head out of the jeep.

Namal: Yes, Appachchi!

Mahinda: Then, we show people the magic satakaya.  <He gestures off-screen>. 

<All nod> Ah, the satakaya!

Mahinda: Then we show them the mustache!

<All nod> Ah, the mustache!

Wimal: the mustache will never fail, sire.

Mahinda: Right? If my godlike mustache management doesn’t convince the proletariat to overthrow the government and give me back my power, nothing will!

Wimal: <getting excited> : And then we’ll invade Westeros and take King’s Landing!


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But seriously, though.

Mahinda went on to make the real threat of the day. Addressing a gathering at the Lipton Circus (full speech here), he vowed that this march was only a warm up – and that next time, they will “take everything away”. He stated that the Yāthra is training for opposition MPs – “on how to achieve a government, how to struggle for that and how to select plans and strategies while in the opposition.” He raged on about how the government’s “only refuge are the CID, FCID and Bribery Commission, and that the public will not be deceived by this”.

Enough of the farce. The Pādha Yāthra is no Gandhian attempt to set things right. It’s a dictator manipulating thousands of people into cheering for him for no logical reason whatsoever.

There’s a term in the software industry for what these people (and all politicians) do: FUD. It stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. By sowing FUD against your competitors, you attract clients. And from where I’m standing, it seems to neatly describe every single thing the Joint Opposition is doing right now.

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Why do people still listen to swindlers, crooks and thugs? Is it because we, as Sri Lankans, tend to fixate on single historical events – the 1996 World Cup, the 2009 defeat of the LTTE – instead of assessing performance over time?

What do we actually hope for? Elections are a mechanic by which the public blackmails a government into giving them progress: we shake the ballot box and say do good or you’re out.  But we’ve been here with the Rajapakses: we know exactly what’s going to happen. The economy is going to continue to spiral. Mahinda’s sons are going to grow rich and fat (or richer and fatter). When everything collapses, we’re going to blame it one the Muslims. Or the Tamils. Or the Americans. Or some other nameless entity to fight against.

Is our current government so unreliable that having the Rajapaksas running everything from the skies to the streets is a viable alternative?

The only  thing to come out of the Pādha Yāthra was a ban on political parties using 23 public grounds around Colombo. The rest of its legacy is in a disturbed Opposition (some of whom don’t agree with Mahinda’s Kandy-Colombo catwalk) and thousands of man-hours wasted in cleaning up the mess it left behind. Are we that hungry for someone to worship?

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And while these things are hardly on the same level, this – and the current government’s string of farces – are a disturbing mirror of affairs happening elsewhere in the world. Britain’s public voted against all sane rationale and choose to exit the EU, leaving a clown by the name of Boris Johnson in the hot seat. Elsewhere, Donald Trump continues to puppet America towards senility and chaos.

Have we always been this stupid, or is democracy –  the rule of the masses- being stretched to the breaking point, as it once was in Greece?


(Recommended) further reading: History tells us what with happen next with Brexit and Trump

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