Cinnamon Colomboscope 2015: Lunchtime Conversations with Gehan Gunatilleke

The following is the second in a few interviews/feature pieces that I am writing in the lead up to Cinnamon Colomboscope 2015 scheduled to take place on the 22nd and 23rd of August. See my interview with city walker and photographer Abdul-Halik Azeez here and my interview with Tamil rapper Krishan Maheson here)

Its mid-afternoon and I make my way to the Verité Research offices to meet Gehan Gunatilleke. I am waved in by Gehan who is artfully balancing his lunch plate in one hand, as he ushers me to the lovely open area filled with various people chatting. I join Gehan who is seated among some of his collegues and we settle down to chat.

Gehan Gunatilleke is a lawyer and academic specializing in public law and human rights. He is currently the Research Director at Verité Research, an independent think tank based in Colombo. While having authored and co-authored several publications he also currently teaches on post-graduate courses in human rights and development offered by the Universities of Sydney, Colombo and the Open University of Sri Lanka. As we continue on in our conversation, I am struck by Gehan's skill in explaining his thought process and justifications of statements in a marvelously articulate way - leading me to believe he must be one hell of  a popular lecturer!
The lovely first location of our chat

Gehan is moderating a panel on a particularly interesting topic in terms of the theme of the festival; the session being entitled 'Future Cities: The Balancing Act' including an architect and an urban planner among its participants. Gehan is also well known for his sharp political commentary, and he explains that in this context the 'balance' as it were is the balance between development in the sense as it has been portrayed in the last half-a-decade (high rise buildings, cleanliness, increase in outward affluence etc.), between the more human aspects and rights that come with such ideals. Gehan likens the development agenda that had previously been pushed (referencing one of his articles) to a house where the spaces seen by the visitors (such as the veranda or living room) were clean and tidy, but the further inside the house you went the more messy and dirty it is. Indeed in a sense this was what Colombo had become "a house with different layers of cleanliness but as you dig deeper you see the unpleasantness". As Gehan says this was the identity "a sort of Jekell and Hyde"-esque persona that had various, startlingly contrasting depths and layers to it, but this is beginning to change "inefficiency is beginning to creep its way in but in a slightly more endearing way" reminding me that "we are after all a developing country and we can't emulate Singapore overnight" and that this rapid development often comes under a dictatorial leadership and this has a price. We then talk for a while about this clamp down on freedom and the price that Colombo was paying for the beautification and gentrification, and the interesting cross road the future of the city stands at now; and Gehan strongly believes that if you are going "to balance beautification and other human interests then it is going to have to be inclusive" and there are many examples of cities that have done this that we can draw from. 

Our conversation then turns to the identity of Colombo as a city, as well as the role it plays in setting a standard for the rest of the island to emulate in terms of its multiculturalism and inclusivity. Gehan points out that in calling Colombo a standard there is "an element of deceit" there, as Colombo was also the site of some of the most violent events of the past three decades (such as the 1983 ethnic riots, the 1989 JVP insurrection and the significant evictions that took place over the last few years). As we reshape the identity of Colombo and the nation, we need to find a way to accept our demons, "bring it into the architecture" (through a memorial for victims for example "that speaks to the collective loss of all the communities") and this will begin to help propel the city towards creating a more holistic and honest identity. Gehan tells me the particular session he will be moderation at the festival will be particularly interesting in this sense as the participants will include people who have a hand in shaping the tangible cornerstones of this identity, and not just the intangible aspects. We debate briefly about the view of the private sector on the development that took place over the last few years, what their motivations are and how they differ from that of civil society, how a lasting balance can be struck that benefit as many as possible, and the dangers of ignoring one or the other; but the sun beating down on forces us to pause and seek refuge in the cool of Verit's beautifully imposing meeting room.

Settling back down we speak a little bit about the Colomboscope festival itself and role it has to play in encouraging and curating important conversations. Gehan tells me having been an attendee last year and being impressed with the high quality of the talks, he has high expectations of the quality of the talks and events this year as well. He ultimately hopes that with regard to his session he will be able to "at least surface the tensions that will arise" between the panelists coming from different view points, and also "surface the overlaps and convergences between the different interest groups".

My phone is unable to do Gehan justice (who is contrary to what he believes very photogenic)

Gehan's session will take place tomorrow morning at 10.15am with architect Madhura Premathilake, architect and urban designer Naomi Hanakata and Chairperson of the Western Regional Megapolis Project Ajitha De Costa and tickets can be obtained at the gate.


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