I have no political ambitions

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By 2018-01-14

By Menaka Indrakumar

An international banking lawyer, and founding trustee of the UN Human Rights Office which endorsed the education initiative Think Equal, Aritha Wickramasinghe, is an activist fighting social injustice and seeking the right for equal opportunities for everyone. Back in Sri Lanka after 14 years, he has decided to continue with his activism. Despite his strong and independent political views, he has decided not to step into the political scene.

Aritha believes you can be a common man, and still bring about change. Aritha, talks to Glamour about Think Equal, Politics and Love.

How was it meeting Meryl Streep at the Think Equal fundraiser in London?

Meryl is a really inspirational person and has been part of the Think Equal journey since its inception. Her support, together with that of our other patrons, has been critical in opening doors for the organization's mission of introducing compulsory social and emotional learning to all schools across the world.

One thing that is really wonderful about Meryl is how personable and normal she is as a person. At the end of the day, she's no different to you and I and would want to be treated with the same level of dignity and respect that we all desire.
Her presence at our very intimate fundraiser was important to raise some critical funding with donors who have now become Think Equal champions themselves. Meeting her and having her support has therefore been fantastic! None of which we would have been able to do without our founder and CEO, Leslee Udwin.

How has the Think Equal foundation progressed since its inception in Sri Lanka?

Think Equal is a global organization championing the introduction of social and emotional learning for children during the early years. With the support of Montessori, University of Yale, educationalists and child psychologists, we have created our own curriculum for children between the ages of 3 to 7 and have been piloting this curriculum in pre-schools across the world, including Sri Lanka, since January 2017. The response to the pilot programme has been incredibly positive here in Sri Lanka. We have a wonderful team on the ground working hard on managing the pilots and working together with various Government agencies planning the roll out of the subject across all pre-schools and primary schools.

Do you think equality and inclusion has deteriorated in Sri Lanka?

If we look at the question of equality and inclusion in the short-term, I think things have certainly improved during the last few years. However, if we look at it from a very long-term, things have definitely deteriorated.

Sri Lankan civilization is based on the principles of equality and inclusion of all beings. However, post independence Sri Lanka has been rife with ethnic, religious and class division. During our 70 years of independence from colonial rule, we have been busy killing and discriminating against each other instead of nation building.

Unfortunately, consecutive Sri Lankan Governments and political leaders have exploited the goodness of the Sri Lankan people for their own political gain. This has always been at the expense of our unity and development.
I do have faith that the present leadership is genuine about sustained political reform to guarantee the equality and dignity of all Sri Lankan citizens. However, there remains a significant and bizarre opposition to that equality which has been fanning the flames of racial and religious division.

As Sri Lankans we shouldn't tolerate those who are opposed to the equality and dignity of all our people, no matter their ethnicity, religion, gender, caste, sexual orientation, political belief or origin.
In 2015 you were ranked No.1 'Future Business Leader' by the international newspaper the Financial Times in their OUTstanding List alongside Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – how did that feel?

It was truly an incredible moment in my life. When I moved to the UK in 2002 for my higher studies and as I later commenced my legal career, I never really imagined to even be considered for a ranking of this nature, let alone reach No.1. Being featured in the OUTstanding list really gave me that springboard to take my career and activism to a much higher level. Philanthropy is an important part of my philosophical upbringing. I am always conscious of the privileged life that I have had and the importance of sharing that privilege with those who don't.

The ranking in the OUTstanding list was in recognition of the work I was doing, not only as a banking lawyer but also in human rights and social justice. To share that platform with giants of the business world was a really humbling experience for me.

UK's Attitude Magazine ranked you as the 15th most eligible bachelor in the world, higher than Grammy winners Sam Smith and Adam Lambert and Prison Break star Wentworth Miller – what was that like?

That was really bizarre! I mean, at the end of the day I am still the same guy from Mount Lavinia who likes to watch the sunset over an 'isso wadde' and ice cream at Galle Face. I also grew up watching Prison Break and of course hugely admire Sam Smith and Adam Lambert. To think that I was considered more eligible than them was really unbelievable. Maybe it's my charm? Definitely can't be my looks.

In your opinion who is the most eligible bachelor and why?

That's a very difficult one. It will have to be my brother Navinka. He's 29, tall, handsome, smart and much more charming than I am.

Will you be getting into Lankan politics and which party will you join?

I have no political ambitions. I am definitely passionate about political and social issues and I am quite outspoken about them but that doesn't mean I want to be under a constant public gaze. Being an independent voice gives me the freedom to work on issues that I am passionate about without having to toe a particular party line.

There's no single party that I support. I am someone who casts my vote depending on the policies of the parties and the quality of their candidates. The purpose of democracy is defeated if we constantly vote for the same party because our parents voted for them. We need to constantly hold parties and politicians to account for their actions and promises and that is difficult to do if we blindly support just one party.

At the moment, I do support the Unity Government and the idea of both major political parties uniting for a common purpose. This is the first time we are seeing such political cooperation in Sri Lanka and its efforts should be supported.
You're a fearless activist, taking up issues on social injustice, comment.

I believe we all have a voice that should be raised when we see injustices happen. As a lawyer, I chose this profession because, like many of us, I believe injustice and the equality of everyone before the law.

We all deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity. In addition, we also have a duty to treat others with that same fairness and dignity.

I have been particularly passionate about Women's rights, children's rights and the rights of LGBT people. I am also the Equality Director for iProbono. iProbono is a global platform that connects people and organizations that need legal help but cannot afford it with over 60,000 lawyers across the world that help for free. The organization continues to do incredible work, seeking justice for those denied it, especially women, children and minorities.

I find the treatment of women quite abhorrent. They make up over 50% of the population but about 3% of Parliament. This gross violation of their democratic right to fair representation has led to so many legal obstacles for women. Nearly 70% of Sri Lankan women are subject to abuse and violence and only a fraction of rapists are actually imprisoned for their crime. In 2016 there was only 1 person convicted of rape in Sri Lanka – just one - despite thousands of rapes taking place – so even the justice system works against women!

I am also very passionate about LGBT issues. In Sri Lanka, LGBT people are still subject to criminalization, harassment and violence – not because they have murdered someone or stolen something, but because of whom they love.

The Sri Lankan Government and the Attorney General has made some very progressive promises to reform our archaic, Colonial legal system and have also declared that LGBT people are protected under the Constitution. At the same time, the Supreme Court recently made a very progressive judgment on LGBT issues. The judgment effectively removed custodial sentences for consenting adults charged under sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code. Various authorities have used these sections to target and harass the LGBT community since the 1800s. This was therefore an excellent judgment and the best the Supreme Court could have done considering there is no judicial review in Sri Lanka.

I strongly believe that people must be judged for what they bring to the table, not their sexuality, ethnicity, religious beliefs or any other difference. If we learnt to appreciate people for who they are, then we would have far less problems in this world.

What is love to you?

Love is the unconditional acceptance of someone else for everything that person is.

What is acceptance, why do Lankans lack in it?

Acceptance is respecting and treating someone in the same way that we would want to be treated ourselves. It is the act of accepting someone for his or her whole self. But it is also, crucially, the act of accepting oneself for everything that we are.
I don't think Sri Lankans lack acceptance at all. I think we are a very accepting people. We have a culture that is built on acceptance and respect towards others. However, I do believe that throughout our history we have been increasingly discouraged from accepting ourselves. I believe it is in self-acceptance that we lack and it is this failure that has been exploited by opportunists to create divisions amongst us.

What's the most adventurous thing you have done?
Probably climbing a 10,000-foot active volcano in Tanzania without any preparation and white water rafting on a level 6 rapid down the River Nile in Uganda!

The highlight of your career?

Moving back to Sri Lanka after being away for 15 years!

Three very important changes you want for Sri Lanka, this year and why?

I do fervently hope that all political parties act with courage and take the necessary steps for lasting, positive change in Sri Lanka. We desperately need constitutional and political reform in our country. For too long, our political leaders have given Sri Lankans a bad deal. In 2018 we have an opportunity to undo decades of damage to our country. All our present leaders can become heroes if they take the right steps to reform our current, flawed system of governance.

In 2018, I would like to see these three things:
1. A new Constitution for Sri Lanka being tabled in Parliament which will: a) Guarantee the rights and freedoms of all our people; b) Establish independent institutions free of political manipulation; and c) Be the supreme law of the land that will subject Parliamentary Acts to judicial review and scrutiny.

2. The criminalization of marital rape and the repeal of all personal laws that infringe on the rights and equality of women and other minorities such as the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act and the Thesavalamai Law.

3. The repeal of the Colonial imposed sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka which will then decriminalize private, consensual, sexual conduct between adults and the repeal of the Vagrancy Ordinance which has been used to target and harass women, transgender persons and homeless persons.

Pix by ANURUDDHA MEDAWATTEGEDARA

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