ICES: an outsider’s view
This is an outsider writing about the ICES (International Centre for
Ethnic Studies) and the recent controversy regarding the sacking of Rama
Mani from the position of Executive Director, her reinstatement and the
cancelling of her visa.
This is an outsider who sees in this drama certain elements that
speak to a larger politics, of ideological bent and relevant praxis
(‘practice’ doesn’t sound very academic, neda?).
Let me state my bias at the outset. I am not exactly a fan of the
ICES, Colombo. It was and still is for the most part an integral part of
what Susantha Gunatillake called the ‘Ethnic Studies Industry,’
selective in historical reference and choice of research subject, while
its ‘scholarship’ is coloured heavily by political objective.
There is another bias here so I will get that out of the way as well.
I have known Pradeep Jeganathan (positioned in this fracas on the side
opposite to Rama Mani, Radhika Coomaraswamy and Bradman Weerakoon and
their fan club) for at least 34 years. His mother taught me and now
teaches my daughter; my mother was a kind of academic counsellor to him.
He was my brother’s classmate and we played on the same chess team.
Our friendship is strong. I have the highest regard for him as a
scholar and a decent human being. We hold different political views but
there is a vast range of subjects that interest us both and on the
infrequent occasions we do meet, we have decent and interesting
conversations. The last time I met him was in July 2007 when a panel
discussion moderated by Dr. Harsha De Silva on the subject of “July ‘83”
was recorded at the ICES.
Anyway when some 54 persons who believe they represent ‘civil
society’ are perturbed by the recent events at the ICES concerning its
Executive Director, Rama Mani say they are ‘dismayed by the complete
lack of due process and fair play’ in her being sacked and when they say
that her termination ‘indicates a worrying lack of transparency and a
retreat from ethical standards,’ I am amused, more than anything else.
I like these terms ‘due process’, ‘transparency’ and ‘ethical
standards’ and in this case they are indeed pertinent because the
signatories, the allegedly ‘respected’ civil servant Bradman Weerakoon,
and ex-Executive Director of ICES, Radhika Coomaraswamy throw them
around a lot while spitting on them at every turn. (No, I am not being a
tad harsh; I am being mild in the extreme in fact).
Kingsley De Silva fired and later reinstated Rama Mani. The firing
was accompanied by accusations regarding violating the above lofty
The reinstating smacked of ‘giving into pressure’. At any rate, the
‘process’ as far as ICES is concerned appears to be pretty messed up,
with or without Rama. I don’t care how ICES sorts out its little family
feud; it’s their business after all. However, I wish to make this
business an opportunity to talk about ‘processes’ with respect to those
who are wont to nauseating posturing a la ‘we-are-civil-society-reps’.
Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy
I will relate four stories by way of illustrating what I believe to
be the fundamental larger-than-Mani problem of the ICES and ICES-types.
The first concerns Rama, the second Rama and many of the signatories
pleading her case, the third involves Rama and one of the signatories,
Sunila Abeysekera, and the fourth Radhika.
In February 2006 when the Government of Sri Lanka held talks with the
LTTE in Geneva, the National Peace Council organised a trip for a bunch
of university students from Sri Lanka. The students, predictably,
belonged to the three communities, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. They went
to Geneva to have what the NPC called ‘alternative talks’.
Jehan Perera wore his ‘journalist’ cap to attend the media briefings
cum photo ops in Celigny at the beginning at conclusion of the talks. I
was there too, and knowing about his little peace-do in Geneva, I asked
Jehan if I could attend and he graciously said yes. I went with H.L.D.
Mahindapala, Bandula Jayasekera and Jeewantha Jayatissa.
Rama Mani, faculty member of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy
(where the ‘talks’ were being held) was chairing the session. The
students said their piece. The Tamil students took issue with the
Security Forces, the Muslims told their tale of woe carefully editing
out any mention of the LTTE and the Sinhalese did their
we-are-guilty-and-sorry-please-forgive-us number. Rama, responding, said
something along these lines:
“This is really very moving and very encouraging. It shows that
people can sit together and talk. Let us hope that this kind of spirit
is there in the talks between the Government and the LTTE too and they
move forward and reach a resolution regarding devolution of power to the
extent of federalism and even separation.”
She was ill-informed and clearly out of her depth. I observed that
for there to be peace there should be ‘process’ and the
outcome/resolution should include parallel processes of de-escalation
and democratization, and that I didn’t think it was correct to
pre-determine ‘solution’ and then design process to suit the preferred
end. Mahindapala and Jayasekera also spoke on these issues.
Rama gave me her visiting card and although we couldn’t meet again,
we spoke on the phone. I told her then that she was ill-informed and
warned her that just because someone uses ‘peace’ as a label it does not
necessary mean that he/she is above board, without blemish and incapable
She told me not to be so dismissive of peace activists. She knew
nothing of what these ‘peace activists’ have been doing in Sri Lanka. We
agreed to meet up someday and talk about it.
I met Rama briefly in Geneva that April (when the LTTE decided not to
show up for talks scheduled as per the agreement signed in Celigny in
She mentioned that she had been offered the ICES job but had not been
happy with the terms. We talked about other things, in particular the
poetry of Hafiz of Shiraz. I told her my honest opinion: ‘This
academic/scholarly stuff you are doing is rubbish; you would be more
effective if you went off somewhere far away and wrote a novel’.
‘I must do that,’ she said. ‘Soon,’ she added after a pause. ‘Soon is
now,’ I responded. We laughed. That was it.
After Rama Mani finally took up the ICES job last year, I met her in
Colombo on several occasions. She invited me for dinner once. There were
lots of people, some of whom I knew and most of whom I knew of. Among
them, was a woman who I had known from Peradeniya.
She told me: ‘Malinda, aren’t you amazed by the diversity here?’ Yes,
it was a diverse gathering. There were Sinhalese, Tamils and lots of
foreigners from various countries. My response: ‘Yes, diversity in terms
of country of origin, ethnic identity, religion etc., but not in terms
of political position, they all hold the same view; except me.’ She
reflected for a moment and agreed.
I had told Rama earlier by way of both warning and the need to give
her the benefit of the doubt something along these lines:
“When foreigners come to Sri Lanka, especially foreigners in some way
associated with the ‘ethnic conflict’ or are held to be influential,
they are typically ‘befriended’ by a small, English-speaking, Anglicized
and articulate band of men and women who tout federalism.
They are ‘nice people’ in that they make intelligent conversation,
are interesting hang-out buddies and extremely friendly. Of course they
will not tell you what really motivates them nor educate you about the
fact that their arguments stand on flawed and incomplete premises nor
tell you that they are in fact a tiny minority in a larger intellectual
They will make out that they make up the entire intellectual
community in the island and will dismiss those who take issue with them
as ‘chauvinists’, ‘extremists’, ‘majoritarian’ etc.
They are smart. They will disarm you of critical appraisal. You
become one of them.”
Rama clearly had not been listening.
A few months later I attended a seminar at the ICES. I forget the
topic, but Rama was presiding with Sunila Abeyesekra and Shirani
Gunatillake making presentations. Sunila spoke about her work in Latin
America and painted a rosy, romantic picture of ‘civil society’.
I asked her if she is saying that NGOs and civil society activists
are necessarily pure, value-free and without political agenda. Sunila
said, ‘No, of course not; we all have our political agendas. We are not
Rama immediately interjected, ‘What she is saying is not that they
are insincere but that they do have agendas and political objectives;
and (laughing) you are not to write about this in the newspaper!’ I said
I would not, choosing to send her an email, ‘I noticed that you covered
Sunila’s butt, but the funny thing is that Sunila didn’t notice that her
butt required covering!’ Rama has not communicated with me since. I have
broken my promise because the stakes are higher now and country most
definitely comes before such niceties.
Rama, obviously, was smart enough to know or at least suspect that
her great buddies were small-minded, anti-intellectual operators and not
scholars with integrity or activists pure of heart and soul. She covered
up for whatever reason.
Rewind to March 18, 2006. Daily Mirror. “This way to civil society,
ladies and gentlemen,” followed by “‘Peace’ NGOs in Colombo and their
phobias” the following week. Author: self. The nimiththa was a position
paper written by Charan Rainford and Bernadette Mahendira titled ‘Aiding
peace in Sri Lanka - Opening a dialogue between NGOs and donors’ and
circulated by Radhika among a select group of NGO personalities as
prelude to a closed-door seminar on the same subject.
The way they conceptualized it, they merely wanted to ‘explore
NGO-Donor relations in the context of the current crises (that of a
Parliamentary Select Committee on NGOs having been set up), explore the
history of NGO-Donor relations and (find out) whether there is a need to
re-negotiate the framework for the partnership, both in terms of process
and substantive issues’.
The ‘closed-door’ nature betrays, as I argued then, a hemmed-in
mentality but we could forgive that if it was merely a first (in-house)
step in a larger journey. ‘More problematic was that the ICES sought to
examine only the NGO-donor part of the processual equation while
footnoting the other and more crucial necessity, an NGO-people
dialogue,’ I argued.
Pradeep called me at around 8 am the day the first article appeared.
He acknowledged the point I made and said Radhika also concurred and had
wanted him to invite me and others who have similar issues for this
workshop. I told Pradeep that that would be a separate discussion
altogether but that it would be a welcome move should the ICES actually
decided to ‘talk’ to the ‘un-civil us’.
The ICES has not made any moves in that direction since,
unfortunately. Quite apart from the fundamentally anti-democratic and
elitist character of ICES operations as revealed here, the real problem
lies in Radhika’s hypocrisy as shall be demonstrated presently.
Let’s get to language use now. How can someone like Radhika, who
stakes so much on transparency, due process and what not and champions
NGOs, the participatory ethic etc., be so close-minded in the first
place ? How can she reference ‘due process’ with respect to Rama’s
removal and not object to the violation of the same principle with
respect to Rama tying up ICES with the Global Centre for the
Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) ?
Bradman Weerakoon has only said that the Board of the ICES was
‘interested’ in Rama’s proposal to have ICES ‘provide input from South
Asia by affiliating with the GCR2P’.
Rama must have aligned ICES with the GCR2P, for the ICES found
mention in the GCR2P website as an Associate Centre. There is no record
of the ICES Board deciding on such a move. Why hasn’t our
Due-Process-Is-My-Watchword Radhika Coomaraswamy rapped Rama on her
knuckles for this? Sounds fishy to me. It gets better. The Canadian High
Commissioner, Angela Bogdan, had written directly to the Board of ICES
(the letter has been reproduced in The Nation of January 27, 2008)
intimating that funding would be frozen if Rama was not reinstated.
Radhika herself is reported to have issued a veiled threat of having
Ford Foundation funding for the ICES endowment withdrawn. She has not
denied this in a response to Kingsley, Pradeep and others where she
blurts out some ‘factual information’.
What Radhika does or does not do with regard to whatever sway she
holds over the Ford Foundation is not my business, but can she not take
issue with Bogdan after expressing concern regarding the donor-driven
political economy of funding ? Some would call it shooting oneself in
the foot, I believe.
Or was that all hogwash from an ardent neo-colonial sycophant to
mislead fellow-natives regarding her true and servile commitments? Her
uncritical cheering of R2P (Right to Protect) juxtaposed with her
‘concerns’ about the donor-driven character of NGO activity, clearly
shows that she’s playing a double game.
Radhika unashamedly brags about being on the advisory panel of the
Rama shows embarrassingly teenage-like oomph for Gareth Evans who she
invited for the Neelan Thiruchelvam Memorial Lecture last year. Mind
you, Evans, to be brutally frank, didn’t know his marbles about Sri
Lanka and what he did know was the usual nonsense dished out by the
‘we-are-the-civil-society’ intellectual frauds referred to above.
Radhika is not some wet-behind-the-ears research assistant. She is
supposed to be a scholar. Rama too, of course. That both these people do
not see the reincarnated colonial that is R2P is scandalous and this
fact alone should be sufficient to summarily deny them office in any
institute with academic pretensions.
Bradman on the other hand is but a retired civil servant and by all
account hardly an adornment to that service, his ‘highly-respected’ tag
obtained more through carefully cultivated association with high profile
politicians and regular affirmation by journalists loyal to the UNP
(he’s one of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s advisors) than to demonstrated
skill. His defence of Rama is emotional and of the she’s-a-decent-kid
kind. The due-process issue, the stink of neo-colonial framings and the
clear complicity of his pals in a patently anti-intellectual exercise is
way too much for him to handle.
So we have Radhika with her agenda, Rama out of her depth, acting the
perfect proxy, Bradman the naive and 54 signatories who question the
integrity, due-process or lack thereof and adherence to ‘founding
principles’ of the ICES with respect to Rama’s removal and of course
talk of ‘a worrying lack of transparency and retreat from ethical
standards’ but will not dare question the bona fides of these very
people and indeed their guilt in the same violations that prompted them
to sign the document.
As I said at the outset, I find all this amusing. The ‘54’ believe
that the process behind Rama’s ouster ‘gravely risks and undermines the
organisation’s rich contribution to polity and society in Sri Lanka and
elsewhere in the past 25 years’. That’s a matter of opinion of course.
Whether it was Kingsley (and Pradeep, Jeevan, Sam, Jani and Dushante
going by Radhika’s list of villains - all unknown to me apart from
Pradeep) perpetrating sabotage or Rama going overboard, believing
herself to be Viceroy, or Radhika getting paranoid and defensive is not
going to cost me any sleep.
It is up to the ICES to figure out what’s best for its operations.
The issue is that what’s good enough for ICES does not necessarily have
to be good for Sri Lanka. Rama, all things considered, is not the
purohitha here. She’s but an instrument of forces that are most
definitely anti Sri Lankan.
However, this does not mean that she can play the larger-than-ICES
activist and expect to be spared criticism. As for Radhika, she’s been
around long enough to know the Golden Rule, ‘He who has the gold makes
the rule’. She should not be clamouring to register the ICES as an
affiliate of GCR2P, but give it another name.
I am dying to know how Radhika (and Rama) would conceptualize the
status of states that inflict human-made catastrophes on the people of
other states and the R2P-like prerogatives therein in a globalised
world. The issue of sovereignty does not apply here of course, but pray,
what principles do apply, say, to the USA with respect to Guantanamo
Bay, or the United Kingdom with respect to the atrocities perpetrated in
post-Saddam Iraq or Canadian companies’ complicity in horrendous rights
violations in Ecuador and elsewhere ?
Or do they believe that violations done in the name of the glorious
‘free market’ are somehow ok ? Should not these bleeding-heart human
rights advocates stretch the idea of R2P to include corporate crime and
cross-border ‘human-made catastrophes’ ?
Should they not be perturbed enough by the human-made catastrophes of
mining companies such as Freeport-McMoran to advocate military force (as
a last resort) against them ? Will Radhika (and Rama) ‘(not continue but
begin to) interfere’ in such activities as per their conscience-fuelled
Rest assured, they will do nothing of the kind. Radhika let it slip
when she said she will ‘continue to interfere’. Freud would have smiled.
This is the subtext of R2P. It is not about a right to protect but a
right to interfere.
Would anyone fault me for proposing the term “Busybodies” to describe
Did I forget the cancellation of Rama’s visa ? I am not sure if she
canvassed the Canadian High Commissioner to make representations on her
behalf but if she didn’t and also had any sense of the integrity of her
organisation she would have responded immediately, ‘Thanks, but no,’ the
moment she heard about Bogdan’s letter.
There may have been better ways of sorting things out but
unfortunately Rama has allowed things to get out of hand and this has
All I know is that Pradeep does an excellent job with Domains, that
he entertained legitimate hopes of succeeding to Radhika’s post and that
he was naturally peeved when Radhika shooed in Rama.
I did ask in a newspaper article what he was doing at an organization
that insults its founder’s name by bringing down a clown like Evans to
wax eloquent about being Good Samaritans (read, International Thugs).
Anyway, let him defend himself, he’s able enough.
As for the rest of us, those who are un-civil but not necessarily
stupid, we must make sure that the footnote begins to talk. We must make
sure that the Radhikas and Bradmans realize that their elitism does not
go unnoticed and that neither does their intellectual paucity. The same
for the pathetic 54, who, more than Radhika, Rama and Bradman, appear to
be the most ridiculous in this drama. It is simple. The ICES has a
problem, a human-made problem.
It is not a catastrophe, but then should human beings look the other
way at non-catastrophic problems? No, we should rush in and do the do-gooding.
We have the Right to Protect, no?