Hot Press from Sri Lanka: Thoughtful Ethnographic Commentary

  Arun … and Sam …

 A = Introduction from The Editor, Thuppahi

‘Sam’ Samarasinghe is an old Peradeniya colleague who was born and bred in the Kandy Peradeniya area. We worked closely together in the 1970s in running the Ceylon Studies Seminar. He has been teaching at Tulane University since about 1989, but maintains a flat in Kandy and returns every year. He was a central figure in the ICES affairs in Kandy till about 2006(?). More vitally, his local embeddedness is signaled in his central role in running a Kandy ‘rag’ (The Kandy Herald I think it was/is called).

Apart from several articles on the present political crisis in Colombo Telegraph (some reproduced also in Thuppahi), he has now sent us an invaluable ethnographic account from Kandy – prompted in part by Arun Dias Bandaranaike’s email note to me in appreciative commentary of Sam’s “Postscript” review on the debate aroused by his most recent article in the Colombo Telegraph.

Given his familiarity with the media world, his severe evaluation of our TV news coverage is an indictment of the journalistic world that we must take note of.

Sam’s NOTE was a private letter responding to Arun Dias Bandaranaike’s private email note to me in appreciation of Sam Samarasinghe’s PostScript to the raging Debate in Colombo Telegraph on his Previous Essay” …………………….. (see

On occasions over the years Arun has provided me with ethnographic gems himself and his evaluations have always been food for thought. Living and working in Colombo 7 circles has never blunted his acumen or capacity to interact with people on the street or in the villages. So: good folk, read …..  absorb …. Think.

B = Ethnographic Notes from Kandy City …by SWR de Samarasinghe aka “Sam,” 13 December 201

Dear Arun and Michael:

I very much agree with Arun’s view that for very many Sri Lankans, especially in the low-income group, both urban and rural, constitutional niceties are remote concerns that the well-to-do elite indulge in for their own amusement. But I make that statement with some important qualifications.

Today, I arrived in Sri Lanka around 1.00 a.m. and reached Kandy a few hours later. In the last 12 hours I visited Kandy town twice to get feel of the situation made an effort to talk with some people to understand what others think. While I was in town for the second time late in the afternoon, the Supreme Court decision was announced holding against MS. There was one round of firecrackers and nothing more. Kandy is a UNP stronghold. Thus, I would say the reaction was muted.,

As Arun says, ordinary people are worried about their day-to-day survival. The three wheeler driver who took me home in the afternoon had earned only Rs 850 for the whole day up to 6.30 p.m. Not enough to maintain a family of four. The fishmonger, and the small businessman who sold me a computer part both complained that business was down. I have to take their word for it.

But more importantly my brother Shantha who is Director of an Island-wide project that is building 2,000+ rural bridges with a massive EU/UK grant told me a more credible story. He picked me up from the airport this morning and came to Kandy to work in his Kandy office. He told me that he was glad to get away from his Colombo office because many of his small contractors were coming see him to get the money due to them for the work competed. He does not control the project finances. The Treasury is not releasing the money pleading “lack of authority.” Shantha says that some of the contractors are in dire straits.

At lunch I spoke with two Sinhala medium teachers each with about 25 years of experience. Both were very concerned about the situation, but also very confused about the rights and wrongs. I realized that their confusion is partly attributable to very weak media, especially TV, on which they rely for information. My suspicion was confirmed today evening. The Supreme Court decision was announced a little after 5.00 p.m. I watched TV for about 2.5 hours this evening surfing channels for news programs. Every channel without exception announced the verdict and then spent the rest of the time simply showing the partisan pronouncements of politicians. Not one channel bothered to gather a well-informed panel to analyse and explain the verdict and its implications. It is no surprise that the two teachers that I referred to were totally confused.

Best wishes. …… Sam

C = An Email Note from Arun Dias Bandaranaike in Colombo, 12 December 2018

Thanks for sharing Sam’s piece or response.  He writes like a man who has thought about matters rather than speak akin to venting knee- jerk reactions.

Of course, this whole rigmarole about constitutionality, justice and human rights, mannerly conduct of public affairs and the practicality and economic necessity of abiding by the rule of law, washes over the polity of Lanka.  Just a few kilometers out of the metropolitan bustle, none of these niceties of conduct and the impact of propriety in governance matters even a jot. Embezzlement, black money, drug dealing, bribery…are just ‘one of those things’, and not much of a topic to get ones knickers in the proverbial twist.  All do it, including the small man and priest …. so what?!?!?!

Conversing with the people in my father’s village, one has the sense that all these matters of constitutional upheaval,  and preservation of democratic values and ideals is just ‘an imposition’, probably from the minds and hearts of an elite.  Most know nothing of these and don’t want to know. [The exception may be among some of the younger ones who have been exposed to internet and TV programs, and those with smart phones sharing in the psychobabble of social media; but even they are leaning to the rightist trend of bashing the so-called neo-liberal doctrine. ]

As Mr. Esmond Satharasinghe [doyen among chartered accountants and taxation specialists] has opined; the average citizen of Lanka articulates his concerns  as being limited to “Peduren bimata, bimin pedurata” [From the sleeping mat to the floor and from the floor back on the sleeping mat].

There are very few expectations and the main expectations are in tandem with the life of the ‘lotus eater’.  Get something for doing almost nothing. Get something free or seek entitlement even if there is little rationale for it. Fill your belly with rice, and life will carry on.  Let someone else carry the burden of providing the food.   Perhaps the much maligned Robert Knox in his treatise of the 17th century artlessly observed exactly what he saw, and then included that in his narrative which illustrates the nature of the Lankan polity and its social mores…. and nothing much has changed in the non-urban space today!

Those folk in the village are open ONLY to the trash propaganda as dished by the state machinery, and they’ve swallowed the deal hook line and sinker.  There is nothing the matter (they say)…. just some retrograde anti-Sinhala fellows are trying to tow the line of the west, and we don’t need that interference; all we need is a STRONG leader who will take us to the “Promised Land” where no minority will ever be heard even breathing, and no foreigners will be seen telling the ‘civilized’ Lankans with their 2500 year historical magnificence behind them that there are other ways to rule, aside from the medieval style where Buddhism, the reservoir and the paddy field were the only relevant things, and all else is an urbanized  distraction, mythologies created by the minorities.  That’s the cant they sing.  Democratic ideals are an inconvenient exhalation, in their reckoning.

So, Sam’s carefully crafted prose will have resonance with the few, not the many, in Lanka!!!.



Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar,”  2 October 2018,






Filed under accountability, constitutional amendments, cultural transmission, democratic measures, governance, historical interpretation, island economy, legal issues, life stories, performance, politIcal discourse, security, self-reflexivity, social justice, sri lankan society, trauma, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions

3 responses to “Hot Press from Sri Lanka: Thoughtful Ethnographic Commentary

  1. chandre Dharmawardana

    Those folk in the village are open ONLY to the trash propaganda as dished by the state machinery, and they’ve swallowed the deal hook line and sinker.
    Remarks in line with the above statement, orsimilar remarks in any other writing are, in my view, simply not true. I find that the average rural person has a good understanding of social justice and democratic values, as well as their own rights. There are politically more sophisticated than the majority of Americans – thanks to the movements of the old left. The rural people have a better appreciation of politics than the average North American who watches only football, baseball and reality TV.
    Sri Lanka TV is no better than the TV watched by most average N. Americans. The two writers Arun and Sam are perhaps unhappy that the people who they talked to do not watch the “analyses” given by TV shows, be it Sirasa, Pathikada or ada-derana. Of course, all these are as Partisan as channel-4 or Fox News or CNN. Given the consistent failure of the Pundits to predict the unwinding of the political process in the US, or in various European countries, are such analyes worth the hot air?
    So what is your yardstick?
    However, even if we say grant all these, the voter has nothing but the same pack of crooks to vote in, or vote out. There is no longer any public or private morality, and no public ethics. You can buy any drug, a girl or even a gun in bars which now exist even in far flung places like Bibile!
    You need to bribe someone or apply influence to do anything including getting your child into school. Read Dickens, and Victorian England (so prosperous, or most US or Latin American cities are) was no better.

  2. Pingback: Kussi-Amma Sara and Citizen Silva in the Present Political Situation –Arun confronts Chandre | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. sach

    The rural voter in Sri Lanka is way more independant minded and has more political awareness than those who think they are the westernised liberal english speaking elite. The choice of these two groups, Mahinda vs Ranil speaks volumes about the choice of each group.
    It is a myth these elite maintain that they are somehow above the average rural voter in Sri Lanka.

Leave a Reply