By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD
Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.
The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?
Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.
PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.
By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.
Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)
What’s unique about Omicron?
Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.
While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.
It can spread rapidly
The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.
Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.
What is of immediate concern?
Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.
How could the variant have evolved?
Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.
Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.
What can we do about it?
Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.
The good news
The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.
A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.
And the bad news
The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.
The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.
S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.
Michael Chan Chi-wai.
G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.
K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.
(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
A perverse twist: Blame Aragalaya, let Gota stay, and kids can go home!
by Rajan Philips
Although the May 9 Temple Trees ‘coup’ ended disastrously for its orchestrators, the coup’s purpose may have been fulfilled indirectly, even if only partially. Aragalaya, though still alive, has been deflated enough to encourage twisted reactionary politics creep back to life after going dormant for over a month. The perverse twist is being manifested in blaming Aragalaya for its allegedly infeasible demands, deriding its apparent inability to provide an alternative leadership, calling Galle Face protesters middle class kids and telling them they have had their fun and they can go home now, and asking Gotabaya Rajapaksa, even if tongue-in-cheek, to stay on and tidy up his mess.
I call this perverse and twisted partly because such insults and instructions were never flung at the Rajapaksa regime which has been on the run since the end of March, and more importantly because the mushrooming criticisms of Aragalaya totally miss the economic elephant in the room. Until May 9 and its violent Temple Trees teledrama, criticisms of the Aragalaya have been generally from the Left. They were mostly supportive and friendly criticisms. After May 9, the reactionaries seem emboldened to assume they have got their license back. Hence the flurry of criticisms ranging from a rather bizarre comparison to the utterly abominable trucker-protest in Ottawa, Canada, to the patronizing advice that Aragalaya kids have had their fun at Galle Face, have eaten their free biriyani lunch, and now they can go home.
Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya has many similarities with protests in other countries over the last decade in what is being described, both by the political Left and the Right, as the age of mass protests. According to one assessment the size and frequency of protests since 2009 are eclipsing the protest waves of the last century in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. According to another, a majority of the of the protests in different countries are triggered by the failure of representational democracy and the outrage over systemic corruption and lack of accountability. The latter study (World Protests: A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century. 2022. Global Social Justice, Initiative for Policy Dialogue, New York), identifies “mass middle-class involvement in protests” as a “new dynamic” that has ruptured “a pre-existing solidarity of the middle classes with elites,” mainly as a result of economic failures.
Even so, the Aragalaya in Sri Lanka cannot be understood or discussed in isolation from the economic calamity that the country is facing. The collapsing economy is virtually the be all and end of Aragalaya. There would be several contributing ‘determinants,’ but in the absence of anything like the current economic crisis, it is safe to say, there would not have been the Aragalaya that took Sri Lanka by storm for well over a month. What is so deterministic about Sri Lanka’s economic condition? In my view, it is what Professor Mick Moore of the University of Sussex described (to the BBC’s Today programme) as “the most man-made and voluntary economic crisis of which I know.” And public outrage has simply targeted the men who made it.
Mick Moore has been a consultant on Sri Lanka for the Asian Development Bank and he knows something about the island’s economy and its decision making compulsions. His description that it is “the most man-made and voluntary economic crisis,” is the most accurate assessment and explanation of our situation among all the assessments and explanations that are flying around. Moore rejected the lately canvassed idea that Sri Lanka’s difficulties are due to global economic problems, and asserted that the Sri Lankan crisis is “emphatically not that”.
His criticism would seem to include both the Mahinda and the Gota regimes. The former borrowed money for infrastructure projects and the latter “insisted in this very macho fashion” on repaying the massive debt instead of restructuring it. The government, Prof. Moore said, “went along in this way until about six months ago and basically they had given away virtually all the foreign exchange they could command”. “This is egregious incompetence,” he concluded.
Prof. Moore’s assertions were resoundingly validated by the Central Bank Governor Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe, when he appeared before the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) on Wednesday, May 25. As reported in The Island (Thursday, May 26), the current Governor confirmed that his two predecessors (Lakshman and Cabraal), then Minister of Finance (and Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Treasury Secretary S. R. Attygalle – all of them criminally failed to act on the dire warning given by the IMF as far back as March-April 2020, of an impending financial crisis and Sri Lanka’s debt unsustainability. Without debt restructuring, IMF has warned, that Sri Lanka will not be able to procure new loans.
The Committee was also informed how three members of the then Monetary Board (Governor W.D. Lakshman, Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle and nominated member Samantha Kumarasinghe) disregarded the written objections of the two minority members (Ranee Jayamaha and Sanjiva Jayawardena) and decided to maintain a fixed exchange rate at Rs. 203 by using the Bank’s reserves ($ 5.5 billion in reserves between June 2021 and March 2022), in order to hide the extent of the debt crisis.
Here we are a year later, with forex reserves depleted to daily subsistence levels and the country going from pillar to post in search of fuel, gas, medicine and food to meet its daily needs. What Prof. Moore called “egregious incompetence,” was described at the COPE hearing as “a crime” by committee Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath. The Chairman went on to call for a Special Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate those whose negligence has brought the country to its current plight. .
As Prof. Moore has observed, Sri Lanka’s current crisis cannot be blamed on global economic problems. No other Asian country is in the same perilous plight as Sri Lanka. Countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam, which were far behind Sri Lanka in the starting lineup for economic take-off, have now surged far ahead of Sri Lanka and they are not having any of the problems that Sri Lankans are now facing, Covid or no Covid. The current problems are not only man-made but they were also made in the last two years. There is much to be said about Sri Lanka’s economic trajectory after 1948, but none of it can be used to mitigate the misdoings of the last two years. Blaming 74 years of independence is simply lamebrained.
It is not 74 years, but only the last two years of egregious incompetence that are to blame. People caught it instinctively and it was their outrage that became Aragalaya. Corruption and incompetence are not unknown to Sri Lankans, but never before have they seen the two fusing in a single ruling family, to such a large extent and in so short a time. That made Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa the bullseye targets of public outrage. For the first time ever, Sri Lankans targeted a political figure and his family for expulsion by resignation. And the target slogans Gota-Go-Home and Myna-Go-Home were given territorial grounding in Gota-Go-Gama and Myna-Go-Gama, respectively.
Put another way, it is the ‘egregious incompetence’ of the Gotabaya-government and the hardships it has caused for all Sri Lankans regardless of their social and spatial locations, which is at the root of the ‘Aragalaya’ movement and offers some insight into both its anatomy and its anticipations. Aragalaya is still a ‘real time’ phenomenon, and it is too early for broadly acceptable analysis and interpretations of the movement. So, it has become a dart board for others to throw their favourite missiles, often making their own projections rather than attempting reasonable insights. In the absence of plausible explanations, there is no harm in accurately describing what one can see about Aragalaya, and it would be sufficient to say for now, “this is how things are,” as a great 20th century philosopher used to say.
Aragalya activists have been described, on the one hand, as the westernized children of 1977, with the implication that they are undermining the achievements of the children of 1956. They have also been seen as lion-flag waving Sinhala supremacists who are among the 6.9 million who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa but who are now disenchanted with him after seeing him in action as President. And there might be many shades in between.
Another litmus test applied to Aragalaya is how inclusive and reflective it is of Sri Lanka’s ethnic plurality. Aragalya has shown no overt ethnic exclusion or symptoms of chauvinism. That in itself could be seen as a positive development in the twilight of Sri Lanka’s political past. In addition, the current economic hardships are so pervasive that there is hardly any opportunity for feelings of ‘relative discrimination’ between groups. Everyone is in the same bind, just like as it was after the 2004 tsunami. It was political leadership that failed then, and it is political leadership that is failing now even though the circumstances are vastly different.
Admittedly, Aragalaya has been deflated by the violence of May 9, the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the rest of the family (save one), and the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister by the sole surviving Rajapaksa family member, i.e., President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But to take Aragalaya for dead is to forget the economic elephant that is still in the room. Everyone wishes Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to succeed on the economic front. But can he look after the economy without minding political housekeeping?
That is the question and the difficulties he is facing are quite significant and they are not easily scalable. As some of us have been arguing, the manner in which Mr. Wickremesinghe was inducted as PM is also contributing to the difficulties he is facing. This is not something seen in hindsight, but should and could have been anticipated earlier. That is to say, Mr. Wickremesinghe should have had the discussions he is having now with political party leaders as part of accepting the President’s invitation to become PM rather than as a consequence to it.
And instead of proceeding to implement an agreed-upon agenda, the Prime Minister has to waste and time resources to deal with Basil Rajapaksa’s machinations involving SLPP MPs in parliament. It is now known that the latest vote in parliament to elect its Deputy Speaker was not parliamentary cretinism, but Basil Rajapaksa’s highhandedness to show that he alone is the SLPP boss, and not the President. Call it separation of powers, the Rajapaksa way!
And the youngest of the Rajapaksas is reportedly planning to sabotage the much anticipated 21st Amendment because it includes a provision that would disallow dual citizens as MPs, that would directly apply to Basil Rajapaksa. The current draft of 21A is less than the ideal as pointed out by the Bar Association in its letter to the Prime Minister. But even a second or third best version of 21A might become impassable in parliament if Basil Rajapaksa has his way.
In fairness to Ranil Wickremesinghe, he is not the only one to blame for the current stalemate. Both the SJB and the JVP have to take their share of the blame for failing to provide a proper transition plan that could have facilitated the resignation of the President and brought in an interim government to implement a limited agenda of crucial tasks before calling a general election. The SJB was looking for an invitation from heaven to lead an interim government, and the JVP was hoping for a general election to fall from the skies. The SJB is now looking for admission to the Ranil-Rajapaksa administration through whichever door, while the JVP seems to have suddenly gone silent. Or could it be that the mainstream media is ignoring the JVP unless it has something offensive to say about it?
As for Aragalaya, it might be deflated, but it certainly is not dead. Aragalaya is not limited to what goes on at Galle Face. It is manifested in every protest that is going one in any part of the part of the country. It is manifested in the long and never ending queues for scarce supplies. Aragalya may not have achieved its most publicized objective, the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Not yet. But it has achieved the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, which would have been impossible if people had not come out in protest starting in Mirihana. It has achieved, as well, in the very public pursuit of wrongdoers which is supported by lawyers acting pro bono, forcing the Attorney General’s Department to suddenly become responsive, and providing the courts the sociocultural context to resonate positively to what the people are looking for. These achievements are not insignificant by any standard.
AN ENCOUNTER WITH FELIX DIAS BANDARANAIKE IN THE EARLY 70s
by Eric. J. de Silva
I had always an interest in the subject of public service training and when Mr B.H. (Buddhi) de Zoysa, the Director of the Academy of Administrative Studies (re-named later in the eighties as the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration – SLIDA for short), asked me whether I would like to come as his Deputy with the prospect of being able to succeed him in the event of his leaving to take up a job in the World Bank which he was fairly hopeful of getting,
I had no reason to say ‘no.’ This was at the very end of December 1971 when I was working as General Manager of the Industrial Development Board, a statutory body which came under the Ministry of Industries. Though this was a ‘cushy job’ as one would call it with the additional advantage of being able to draw a handsome allowance over and above one’s substantive salary, I felt somewhat uncomfortable working there – the reason being that its Board of Directors was full of theoreticians and was trapped in a `No Action – Talk Only’ type of syndrome, to use a popular expression, despite the valiant efforts made by its Chairman, Somapala Gunadheera who was responsible for getting me there and was no longer there by that time.
I had come to know Buddhi when he was Government Agent, Colombo and I happened to serve as his Addl. G.A. for a few months after the dissolution of Parliament in December 1964, ahead of the General Elections of March 1965 and, together with the very capable and experienced Asst. Elections Officer D.S.Ratnadurai, relieved him of much of the burden of running the elections – Colombo being the district with the largest number of electorates.
On being assured by Buddhi that he had got the necessary approval of his Minister (Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike, who held the portfolio of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Local Government) for the proposed move, I readily agreed. Even if Buddhi was not to get the World Bank job and I ended up as Deputy there, I felt it was well worth taking up the offer with at least a long-term prospect of succeeding him, considering the many attractions that the Academy offered for a person with my sort of interests.
Shortly thereafter, I found the Minister addressing a letter to Mr. T.B. Subasinghe, the Industries Minister, stressing the important role the Academy had to play in improving the quality of administration, and asking for my release from the IDB for the position of Deputy Director in the Academy for which I was very well suited (‘ithamath yogya’ were the words used). Mr. Subasinghe, the genial gentleman and veteran politician, called me up on receiving this letter and said that he had no option but agree to the request made by his colleague though he was sorry to let me go.
I came over to the Academy as the year 1971 ended and was appointed as its Director on March 01, 1972 on Buddhi’s departure for Washington having got his World Bank appointment. This was a position that many of my seniors would have aspired to hold, considering the reputation and the recognition the Academy had already acquired as a vital instrument for improving the overall performance and efficiency of the public service.
I found the work at the Academy to be both interesting and challenging and, to the surprise of many, had no problems with the Minister who was considered to be a hard task-master and a very difficult person to please. He went to the extent of saying openly at regular meetings of Heads of Divisions of the Ministry (the Academy was concurrently the Administrative Training Division of the Ministry) that he was satisfied with the work the Academy was doing.
He was particularly pleased when I broke new ground by running the first Management Course in Sinhala for mid-level SLAS officers. Not only did he come for the ceremonial opening of this course, he also paid me and my staff a huge compliment for having worked tirelessly to prepare the course material.
I had no problems whatever with the Secretary of the Ministry, Mr. B. (Baku) Mahadeva, whom I had known as Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Food during the 1960s when I worked as Deputy Commissioner in the Department of Agrarian Services, and later moved to the Ministry to take up the position of Deputy Director of Agricultural Planning.
So was it with Mr. P.H. Siriwardhana, the Additional Secretary under whose wing the Academy directly came and whom I had not known earlier at a personal level. An economist by training, who had been in the service of the Central Bank for more than half his lifetime, he was a man of few words, and did not want to tread into areas he was not too familiar with. He kept in close touch with me, quietly appreciating the work that we were doing and giving us his fullest support as and when necessary.
Things, however, changed with the departure of Mr. Mahadeva to take up an assignment in Kuala Lumpur, resulting in the elevation of Mr. Siriwardhana to take his place, and the appointment of someone from totally outside the government sector who was a close relative of the Minister to take up the position that the latter held.
The new Additional Secretary, arrived on the scene with pre-conceived ideas about what sort of training public servants needed to be given, and wanted many changes done almost overnight. These, in my view and in the view of senior officers at the Academy, were of an ad hoc nature and would have disrupted programs that had been developed over the years on the basis of comprehensive needs assessments conducted by the Academy. This naturally led to many disagreements between him and me.
He bided his time until the Minister left for England on some official business and had to extend his stay there to be with his wife cum Private Secretary who had to undergo an eye surgery (if I remember right), and asked that I be replaced immediately with a person of his choice. When the Secretary called me up and asked me what the problem I had with the Additional Secretary was, I explained to him that I had no problem with him at a personal level, but there were some issue-based differences of opinion between us.
I also reminded the Secretary that on no occasion had he found me wanting in my job during the period he was overlooking the Academy, which he acknowledged with a smile. Being a man of few words, he quickly went on to say that there was no point in my staying on in the job if the Additional Secretary wants a change, and I said I felt the same.
He then offered me the post of Government Agent, Galle which was vacant or about to fall vacant if I was willing to take it, and I indicated that I did not like to go as G.A. to my home town if I had a choice. This he fully appreciated and said that the Secretary, Ministry of Planning and Employment (Prof H.A. de S. Gunasekara) was looking for someone to fill the vacant post of Director, Regional Development in his Ministry and that he would speak to him shortly and get back to me.
Not stopping at that, he gave me the assurance that he would keep me attached to the Ministry office until a suitable position comes up in keeping with my seniority. It appeared he felt there was no reasonable ground to get me out of the Academy, but was in no position to prevent it. All this happened on a Saturday which was a half-working day at the time.
After having got home, I mulled over the options-available to me considering the suddenness of my fall from grace. I had reservations about taking up the Planning Ministry job for more than one reason. Not only had Prof Gunasekara been one of my teachers at Peradeniya, he was also one of my immediate neighbours at Wijerama Mawatha where I resided at the time, with our two families maintaining very cordial relations.
In the circumstances, I thought it was better if things were left at that. However, the prospect of being ‘attached’ to the Ministry of Public Administration for too long was not very pleasing as it would have given the impression that I had been relegated to the so-called ‘pool’ – not the most enviable prospect for a former Director of the Academy, the main function of which was providing management training to public servants at middle and senior levels.
The very next day (Sunday) I happened to meet Mr. W.T. Jayasinghe, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs quite by chance when I drove in to a ‘petrol shed’ near the Thunmulla Junction to get some petrol for my car. I had known him from the time he was Controller of Immigration and Emigration in the early sixties and I was an Assistant Secretary in the Defence Ministry under which his department came.
He asked me how I was doing at the Academy and went on to say “you must be enjoying your work there.” When I told him that I had just been “unceremoniously kicked out” from there, and that I will be in the so-called ‘pool’ from the very next day he raised his eyebrows in disbelief. I briefly told him about the events that preceded my ‘fall from grace’ and said that there was a possibility of my being sent as Director, Regional Development in the Planning Ministry which, like his Ministry, came directly under the Prime Minister at the time.
“Why not come back to your old Ministry?” he asked, and followed it by saying “If you are agreeable, the post of Senior Assistant Secretary (Defence) is there for you subject, of course, to the Prime Minister’s approval. (I had been Assistant Secretary – Administration and thereafter Assistant Secretary – Defence in that Ministry in the early sixties.) In fact, we have kept the position vacant for some time since Ridgeway Tillekeratne left, until a suitable person is found. I will ask the Prime Minister and get back to you before Hillary (Prof H.A.de S.Gunasekara) gets hold of you.”
I was, no doubt, delighted to accept the offer and rushed back home to break the news to my wife. Of course, the final decision was in the hands of the Prime Minister who, I thought, may not remember me working in her Ministry in the early sixties.
Later in the evening that same day, Mr. Jayasinghe phoned me at home to say that the Prime Minister had given her approval, and asked me to report to his office on the following morning saying that he would speak to his counterpart at the Public Administration Ministry and get the formalities attended to.
Thus within a single working-day after being “dismissed summarily” from the Academy, I had arrived in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs much to the surprise of those whom I had left behind at the Academy, as well as those who had been following developments at the Public Administration Ministry itself.
When Minister Felix returned to the island a few weeks later, he would have found that the Director of the Academy had left his job while he was away and I wondered what reasons would have been given for his sudden departure. Obviously, it had to be something seriously wrong that could not wait till the Minister got back to the island.
Be that as it may, I felt it was MY duty to meet him and formally bid him farewell while thanking him for having given me the opportunity of heading that important institution as well as the courtesy and support he had always extended to me in my work. It was not possible, however, to get a suitable time to meet him as he was extremely busy attending to matters that had awaited his return not only in the Ministry of Public Administration but also in the Ministry of Justice which too had been entrusted to him in January 1972, following the resignation of Senator J.M. Jayamanne.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister convened a meeting at the Parliament building to discuss some important issue relating to Defence that had legal implications, regarding which the presence of the Justice Minister and his officials was also required. I went with the Defence Secretary to the meeting and sat next to him at the conference table.
The Justice Minister came to the meeting a few minutes late as he had been participating in a debate which was taking place in Parliament and, soon after taking his seat, threw a sharp glance at me the moment he saw me across the table which made me feel like an accused in the dock.
As soon as the meeting was over and the Prime Minister left, Felix made one big dash towards the Chamber where the debate was still going on. I virtually ran behind him and having caught up with him, asked whether I could have a word with him. He threw another sharp glance at me and said somewhat brusquely: “So you got a more powerful job and left, eh?” I said “No sir, that is not what happened” quite emphatically, and followed it up by saying “I would never have left in your absence if I had a choice. I have been waiting, ever since you came back to meet you and explain to you what actually happened”.
With a look of surprise on his face he said “Well, come and see me sometime at my office in Hulftsdorp”, and dashed off towards the chamber. It became clear to me that the Minister had been misinformed about what had taken place, and I did not find it difficult to understand why he wanted me to meet him at the Justice Ministry rather than at the Public Administration Ministry where the offending parties were more likely to learn about my meeting with the Minister.
The very next day, I phoned his office at the Justice Ministry in Hulftsdorp and got the earliest possible appointment to meet him. When I went there, I found that the Minister had gone to attend a ceremonial sitting of the Supreme Court which is usually held when a Supreme Court judge retires or a new appointee takes office, and it took quite some time for him to get back.
He saw me in the waiting area right outside his office room and asked me to come in, apologizing for having kept me waiting. Once we sat down, he asked me as to what really happened. He listened to what I said very intently and said without the slightest hesitation “Oh I see, but what the people over there told me was that you got a more powerful job and left the Academy.”
He then paused for a moment and said: “Anyway you have got a good job and I wish you well” – words that resonate in my ears to this day. I left his office as a much relieved man, wondering what the result would have been if I had not sought a meeting with him to put the record straight.!
During my stay at the Defence Ministry, I met him a couple of times along with the Secretary in his capacity as Minister of Justice regarding matters connected with the Emergency Regulations operative at the time, but he never looked at me the way he did that evening at the meeting presided over by the Prime Minister at the Parliament building or when I ran behind him to have a few words with him after the meeting ended.
(Excerpted from A Peep into the Past, the memoirs of Eric. J. de Silva)
What can Ranil get done?
by Kumar David
The spirit of my heading is not a mocking: ‘He can’t get anything done; his Interim Administration (IA) is an exercise in futility’ gesture. Not at all, it is a serious even bookish question about what RW’s IA with a bit of luck is likely to achieve and what, even a congenital optimist will grant, it cannot do. And in between there are a raft of maybe and may-not-be options. I have never been a UNP supporter but I will not let my political views affect the assessment offered here.
I think RW will pull a few rabbits out of the hat and get a few things done re the impending catastrophe. Maybe that’s one reason why he said the “next two months could be the worst”. If he eases the pain he can crow “See I did it!” Tamil Nadu has flagged-off ship-loads of rice, milk-powder and medicines and Delhi flagged-off mercy-tankers of petroleum/oil. Japan has offered a $1.5 billion grant which we will not be able to repay. The IMF and the Americans have not yet dropped anything in the begging bowl but charity is being pondered. For some incomprehensible reason, though we know we are a crummy lot, the rest of the world has a soft corner for Ceylon-Sri Lanka. And then there are the virtues of nonalignment. If RW plays coy he can get the Chinese and QUAD to fight over mating rights. Petrol and gas shortages may ease and if so RW will claim credit and wolf-whistle at Sajith to come over for a cuddle and a tumble. This is not unrealistic; it is a possible two-month subplot; indeed so far he has outsmarted the SJB. However, if he fails to ease the fuel snarl up within say two weeks he will be toast; public opinion will turn against him and there will be more trouble on the streets.
If this subplot seems manageable, the next is much tougher. Food! Gotabaya’s imbecile fertiliser dogma has brought the country to the threshold of starvation. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres singled out Afghanistan and Lanka as countries where people will go hungry this year. Furthermore, even if we had dollars the global scene is very bad. Many UN agencies warn of a food crisis. Between 1.5 billion and 400 million will go hungry. An FAO Information Note points out that Russian wheat accounts for 16.8% of world wheat exports and Ukraine’s share is 11.5%. In 2021; either Russia or Ukraine (or both) ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, maize and sunflower oil. (China and India, in that order are the world’s largest wheat producers). Russia is the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, second in potassium fertilizer and the third in of phosphorous fertilizer. The UN warns of an unavoidable dire fate. Bread price in this Gota-blighted island has doubled. RW et al can do nothing about any of this except pray harder.
Why not make a conspiracy-theory movie with a plot that our fertiliser scuttling imbeciles were working in cahoots with Russia and Ukraine to hold the world to ransom? I have a grumpy buddy in Australia who will buy the global rights if it’s gloomy enough. Seriously though, the Treasury and the Central Bank have been robbed empty by the villainy or idiocy, respectively, of MR plus Royal Family, or of GR. This then is RW’s third hurdle (after fuel shortages and impending food calamity). The nation’s reserves are gone, the future is bleak and RW and his merry-men cannot overcome any of this. At some stage people will say of RW either: “The bugger tried and did a few things, but the real villains are the goddamn Paksas”, or they will roll him up with the Paksa-brigands and nearly-225 other sons of bachelors and damn him too.
Alas I am not done with bad omens. The worst pertains to a medium-term programme to rebuild the nation’s economy. In a series of columns spread over weeks I have made some points that people have agreed with. Prominent is the fundamental truth that we as a nation consume and have for some 70+ years consumed more than we produce. Ceylon-Sri Lanka is broke because we ate our way through much more than the output of our economy. A significant cut in consumption is already in full swing. Steep inflation, hefty increases in fuel prices and a fall in the value of LKR by 50% without an increase is wages, amounts to substantial restructuring of the economy away from consumption. Savings of all description, insurance and pensions, indeed anything monetary in public hands de facto been slashed in value. Inevitably there will be more to come. The cutting consumption side of restructuring is underway, the production side has still to be addressed.
Does this sound like taking the side of the well-heeled against the yakos? No, the capitalist class was into crooked games up to its eyeballs. The worst was JR’s neoliberal period (RW was a part of it), oiled by anti-Tamil pogroms, subversion of the judiciary and an authoritarian constitution. To stay within the narrow remit of the economic argument, the JR era of neoliberal opening-up for much sought-after global investors and unchecked laissez faire in domestic economics was a disaster. Investors did not arrive in anything like expected numbers, multiplied plunder of national resources and pauperised Northern and Eastern farmers, a factor in the rise of Tamil nationalism.
Having got this anti-capitalist harangue off my chest, the question remains “What to do now?” Two things that will have to be done even if God Almighty becomes Finance Minister is consumption will have to be pruned and production and productivity raised. The left will wail at the first; but what the hell comrades Lenin did it, Stalin did it with an iron fist, Stalinist governments did it in Eastern Europe, the great helmsman tried in China and mucked it up because he was half-mad by then, Castro did it fairly successfully (think healthcare, education and poverty alleviation) though US aggression undercut any thought of democracy. The big difference is that Lanka is not a post-revolutionary society; our task is to push in progressive social-democratic directions. The left, if faithful to its past, will not rob; furthermore it can help people understand why they are sacrificing and that the usufruct will be ploughed back for the benefit of their children.
To get back to RW. Ok I am prepared to grant that he is not a crook, unlike the Paksa-Plunderers, SLPP hangers-on and the majority of current MPs and one-time Provincial Councillors – you know what I am saying; adverbs and adjectives fail me and my Editor has a phobia against four-letter words. The question at issue is can an Interim Administration led by RW, buttressed by cross-overs from here and there and everywhere, with a less than second-rate Cabinet, carry through a programme curtailing consumption and engendering increased economic output? The answer is that the question is beside the point since the IA has no mandate beyond dealing with urgent tasks pertaining to the prevailing emergency. RW plus alliances he concocts (the SJB has now put its head down offered to back the IA) must win an election to gain legitimacy for any medium- or long-term programme on his drawing board. So, in tennis parlance; point-and-set to early elections.
The other bourgeois-democratic option, the Sajith bandwagon, cannot form a government till it wins a general election or cobbles together a working-majority or teams up with RW in an electoral front. That makes it ‘game’ too to early elections. Now let’s give our mind to match-point. What will appease an angry populace and mollify Gale Face Green? I cannot imagine any government without an electoral mandate surviving and executing a programme of reforms and reconstruction, unchallenged, for any length of time. That surely is match-point for holding an election as quickly as the Elections Department can arrange it.
Do I have a programme I will stick my neck out for? Well here goes. “Gotha Go” is unconditional, but timing is negotiable within limits provided the funeral date is announced now. It will appease the masses and mollify GFG. Every day Gotha stays is perilous; he will undercut Aragalaya and conspire with fellow Gannakka deifying devotees in the military. So long as he remains at the helm, emergency, curfew and military-on-the-streets will be Lanka’s lot. Rumour has it that a crisis is brewing now about draft 21A; a section of the SLPP it alleged is making a last ditch attempt to resuscitate Paksa-Power via a Basil reincarnation. If true this will cut the ground under RW who will be pressured into a tacit alliance with Aragalaya? Good but does he have Imran Khan’s fighting spirit? All this, including crucially the indispensable abolition of the Executive Presidency, belong to the political domain and all are no-brainers.
Far, far more complex is the economic dimension; we need a via-media acceptable to the mass and feasible in prevailing circumstances. Switching to a left perspective, I have aimed these last three paras at the NPP, JVP and Frontline, but they will interest others as well. I concede that the state-form will retain capitalist features for the foreseeable future; but what capitalism? There are as many “capitalisms” (and “non-capitalisms”) as there are fingers on my two hands; Egypt or England, Pakistan or Peru, (and Vietnam or Venezuela). The concept of state-form has become complex and convoluted the world over in this era, especially the last forty years. However this is not the occasion for a review of state theory in the Twenty-first Century.
What kind of semi-capitalism in Lanka; neoliberal, laissez faire, state-directed, franchises to the capitalists or populist concessions to the masses? Markets do indeed rationalise production decisions and up to a point investment options; neither central planners nor computer algorithms can replicate that. But markets also need to be regulated, controlled and directed in the social interest. This is a balance that calls for intelligence, expertise and vision. To manage a 21st century economy one needs a core cadre with adequate internal expertise at the heart of political power, but one also needs relationships with assemblies of experienced specialists outside.
In addition to old economic skills to run a government one must understand non-fungibles that have risen to prominence in recent decades; finance-capital, monetary policy, global trade and institutional practices. In addition there are intangibles; design, research, digital systems, technical innovation. I do not expect a left political entity to transform itself into a panoptic faculty of specialists, nerds and wizards; of course not! What it needs, aside from a competent core, is to stimulate sympathetic connections and external working relations in these quarters. This way of thinking is a paradigm shift for Lanka’s young-left, but there’s time enough to adjust. The left contingent elected to parliament at the next election will be large; a sign of things to come and a portent of responsibilities it will have to bear in the future when it comes into administrative office.
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