Kashyapa A.S. Yapa

The students were yawning and murmuring. They knew the professor was killing time until the guest speaker arrived. Then the classroom door opened and a tall, slim middle-aged gentleman stepped in leisurely. Everyone suddenly hushed, magnetically gluing the eyes on him "A holy man" whispered one student. His peppered curly hair, neatly combed back, exhibited his broad forehead –a sign of growing wisdom. His deep-set dark eyes caressed the classroom. His long nose beaked above the dense moustache, neatly anchored to the extensive, equally peppered beard encircling his elongated face. His reddish lips set off gentle waves in the sea of facial hair. The soft deep voice captivated the audience. He spoke with a heavy accent, challenged the cozy capitalistic notions of the students, and appealed to them on behalf of a political struggle halfway around the world. Yet, he mesmerized them with his gaze, composure, and words.

What a feat! While growing up, he was such a mischievous brat that his father "imprisoned" him in a boarding school. The political party leaders shunned this young, hot headed radical. His own parliamentary colleagues jailed him for a year for allegedly conspiring to revolt. He led tens of thousands of workers on a near-suicidal general strike. Later, the government proscribed his group accusing them of instigating ethnic riots, forcing him to go underground.

A decade later, he regained his parliamentary seat, with the largest majority vote and in 1999, contested the Presidential election.

Yet, the road to "sainthood" has been long and hard for the veteran Sri Lankan politician Vasudeva Nanayakkara (Vasu, for short). His first speaking tour in the western United States made him reflect deeply upon his own journey of life.
Map of Sri Lanka

The 3rd graders at Terra Bella Elementary in California, most of them Latino farm workers’ children, wanted to impress the distinguished visitors: on the huge world map hanging from the wall, they pointed to Sri Lanka without hesitation. "The capital?" "Colombo." "The language?" "Sinhala." The visitors gratefully returned the gesture. The students learned to write their names in the script they had only heard of. The teachers’ efforts to open the eyes of these underprivileged kids moved Vasu.

He fondly recalled his own teachers in Sri Lanka. The Methodist church leaders, who ran the Richmond College, lived up to their motto –service to the community. The students volunteered their time to help farmers and workers. Political debates enriched the social studies classroom. In the wake of Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain, the school principal, a strong nationalist, implanted national fervor among the students.

Richmond College prepared Vasu for his vocation: the politics. At 16, he became involved with a leftist political party, LSSP. A local political giant and a school neighbor, W. Dahanayake, became his inspiration. Vasu formed a LSSP youth league in his village and shouldered the efforts to unionize the local industrial labor.

Strawberry gardens
Sandwiched between the brown eroded ridges of Little San Bernadino Mountains and the blue polluted ripples of Salten Sea, the thousands of greenish acres of oranges, grapes and strawberries appeared illusive. Not too far away, rows of parched men, their lunches slung over the shoulders, sat in front of boarded-up shops of Mecca, California, waiting for the messiah in a pickup truck to offer them work.
Salten Sea behind the oranges
The land of grapes and cacti, sprinklers and dust storms, giant corporations and the unincorporated: the land of socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.

Such injustice compelled Vasu to abandon his fledgling law career and devote his time and effort seeking comprehensive and lasting remedies for the social-ills plaguing Sri Lanka. He quickly gained notoriety as a radical, for he would not accept any compromises in that quest. The LSSP helped this youngster to get into the Parliament in 1970, but the elderly party leaders dreaded his bluntness. When the Police imprisoned him for a year for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government during the botched youth uprising of 1971, the powerful LSSP Cabinet Ministers raised not even a finger.
Once out of jail, Vasu spearheaded the movement to nationalize Sri Lanka’s large tea, rubber and coconut plantations –remnants of colonial economy. The issue wedged a split between the socialist ideologues and the conservatives in the governing coalition. The differences deepened and in 1975 the conservatives kicked the Leftists out of the government. Soon, the LSSP leadership expelled Vasu and his idealist colleagues from the party, blaming them for the privileges lost.
Tea plantations of Sri Lanka
Vasu founded a new party, NSSP, with his friends and immediately assumed the vanguard of labor and student struggles in the country. In the 1977 elections, he lost his parliamentary seat to the conservative wave that swept the votes. Bent on making NSSP stronger, Vasu began uniting various progressive forces. But the crushing defeat of the 1980 national labor strike, launched by NSSP against the neo-liberal policies of the new government, dashed such hopes. Depleted and demoralized, the NSSP, in 1982, attempted to gain national attention by launching Vasu as a Presidential nominee in a field already crowded with many Leftist candidates.

In retrospect, Vasu admits that they erred. "We were too rigid in pushing our extreme Left program. We made the same mistake in 1977 elections: we scattered the Left votes and got a whipping from the Right. Then, in 1980, we underestimated the will of the government to push its agenda, and sacrificed our best cadre in a suicidal strike."
Joshua Trees
The rigid socialist training dictated that all natural resources should be exploited for the benefit of mankind. Vasu, at first, considered a side trip to visit the Joshua Tree National Park a waste of time. Yet once there, seeing the hairy, elderly-looking Joshua trees struggling to stay erect, he fell in love with them. He began to appreciate the tranquil beauty of the desert.
His ideological rigidity began to flex during his two-year hide-and-seek with the law. In 1983, the dictatorial Sri Lankan government, in a calculated attempt at shutting down all opposition to its policies, banned Vasu’s party along with a few other leftist groups, falsely accusing them of fomenting racial riots. Left without the option to defend his rights under the Emergency Rules, Vasu was constantly on the run.
In the burgeoning housing subdivisions of Phoenix, few would have the courage to preserve a two-acre urban lot. Rare indeed to find someone who would dedicate privately-held land for a community garden. The boldness of the two Latino activists, Francisco and Marco who conceived the plan, immediately struck a chord with Vasu. He now understood the tenets of the struggle of Latinos in the United States: they refuse to give up their culture. They want to preserve their identity.

Symbol of Latino struggle

Halfway across the Globe, in Sri Lanka’s bloody ethnic strife, Vasu stands firm in his belief that each ethnic group should have the right to maintain its identity and determine its fate. In the highly emotionally charged political battlefield, many of his colleagues paid the price with their lives. Vasu feels lucky to survive the terror-filled late ‘80s, when paramilitary death squads and the extreme nationalist insurgents reigned: neither group respected the middle ground.

On the eve of 1994 elections, Vasu jumped at the opportunity to defeat the long-running government under the banner of a broad left-center coalition. When his party, NSSP, reneged, he abandoned his own brainchild and joined the moderates. They won the elections. Vasu hoped for a rapid end to the country’s burning problems: the costly ethnic conflict and the ruined social fabric –the result of neo-liberal dictums followed to the letter.

At a talk on Arizona State University Main campus, Vasu –the guest speaker-- became the listener. Vasu enthusiastically questioned Professor Arturo Rosales about the exodus of rural Mexican women towards the maquiladora sweatshops at the US border, and the open market policies that are slowly gobbling up the rural farms creating hordes of migrant slaves for the labor-scarce US agribusiness.

FTZ workers in Sri Lanka
"The same drama is enacted in Sri Lanka," says Vasu, "except we call the maquiladoras ‘Free Trade Zones’ and our migrant slaves are flown in plane loads towards the Middle East."

He has been fighting long to improve the pathetic living and working conditions of "Free Trade Zone" workers. He despises these neo-colonialist industrial vultures, but he cannot advocate uprooting them altogether, until a satisfactory economic program for the rural sector is established.
Vasu expected that the 1994 government would restore at least some social services. But when it was trapped by the conservative elite and bogged-down in corruption scandals, he became disillusioned. He crossed-over to the parliamentary opposition and began uniting the disappointed Left. In December 1999, Vasu contested the Presidential election under the banner of the new group, Left and Democratic Alliance. He pushed forward a serious proposal to resolve the all-consuming civil war. His position forced the two main contenders in the election to address the conflict moving beyond racial politics, though he doubts their sincerity.
Despite his long trajectory in politics, Vasu does not seem like a typical politician. At ASU West, the students who expected to meet a slick, stiff politician were surprised by Vasu. Global Business major Johan Carlson said "he wasn’t slick at all. He answered our questions very well and to the point."

"Vasu is very knowledgeable and did not personalize the questions" Shadman Hosseini commented.
Vasu's audience at ASU West
Vasu did not win the 1999 Presidential election in Sri Lanka. Yet, Julie Murphy-Erfani, a Professor of Social Sciences at ASU West claimed "his demeanor is Presidential. He has an aura of sincerity." Yolanda De La Cruz, Professor of Education agreed. "He is a spiritual person: not resentful, not aggressive. He is thorough and open."

Vasu used the 1999 election to shape the political discourse and also to strengthen the new alliance. At 61, he has great plans for the country’s future and seems invigorated by each new adept he wins.
Grand Canyon

Standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, Vasu contemplated the hide and seek game played by the tiny greenish streak of Colorado River against the towering temples of rock blocking its way. Undaunted and unhurried, the river nibbled away the giants in its unstoppable march ahead. "This is another world" he mused.

16th May, 2000.

Feel free to send me email if you'd like to begin a dialogue. Write to me


Back to the top