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A radical shift needed

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By Faraz Shauketaly

Most people in Sri Lanka are fully aware that a growing number of the republic are protesting and publicly complaining of a myriad of problems. To be fair, Sri Lanka’s economy has always remained a little over the danger zone and it would be safe to say it has been for quite a while in the amber zone. In the past, growth was remarkable and principal indicators were resilient and stable. Indeed, such was the case throughout the Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency with – for example – the exchange rate maintaining a position and not losing ground in any way to cause investor alarm.

All this changed, of course, with the advent of a new government grandly proclaiming Yahapalanaya or Good governance to be the base of their outlook for Sri Lanka. Sadly, for the nation, the bunch of self-styled good-governance advocates instead quite literally helped themselves.

There was the infamous Bond scam, there were the turning of the Nelsonian eye when it came to Excise collections, under payment of duties for most anything including vehicles especially at the upper end, Minister’s actively discarding due process and established procedure and the list went on and on – except, of course, the manifesto promises were never kept.

In between all of this no one expected a pandemic to come along and wreak havoc upon our shores. Claim and counter claim does its rounds but the fact is no one quite had the expertise to handle CV19 – a new global phenomenon.

The impact on our Tourism industry and on our remittances from our expatriate workers has caused absolute havoc on our economy.

The time may now be opportune for all our political parties to form a joint governance team to embark upon a radical change to our governance outlook.

No amount of confident speak that is put out by the master at the Central Bank can overlook some of the happenings that abound in Sri Lanka. These happenings always – not almost – affect the decision-making processes of overseas based investors seeking new and better opportunities to maximise returns.

The rule of law is always a hotbed of concern. Imagine would be investors studying that aspect of the Sri Lanka way: they will discover the strange goings on within the judicial circle. The Attorney General’s department having presumably studied case files decide to indict persons. At times these persons have temporarily lost their freedom being remanded. Thereafter, the same Attorney General’s department decides to withdraw the charges. And (in a strange twist) the one-time Attorney General is now the Chief Justice. Most liberal minded persons may be unable to comprehend what is going on or will take a pretty dim view of the original indictments and wonder if they were suffering from political lesions.

Of course, the Yahaplanists, too, departed from established procedure. They had a committee based around Temple Trees that basically decided which cases should be taken up by the then newly created FCID. There was a steady stream of persons going to the FCID, some remanded, and it was a virtual circus of the clowns. To so arbitrarily decide whom to look at is a departure from process. It could be argued then that this government was only putting right what was a departure in the past!

All of this is not by the way. It ought not to be so. Sri Lanka will need to up its ante when it comes to the application of the Rule of Law. All sensible investors with the medium to long term pitch in mind will want to feel secure that they are investing in a country that has people who are fairly well educated, where the infrastructure is also more or less par for the course, where the political stability is established and where they can if needed rely on the rule of law to protect their brand and their investment.

At the moment the nation additionally appears to need stability of policy. Not a system where the government is ruling quite often by the issuance of Gazette notices and equally as often changing those notices or amending them within a short period. This indicates that there appears to be a lack of planning and 360-degree consultative processes.

The move towards an all green economy is commendable and will have excellent benefits for our nation’s image in the future once we are well entrenched within a green economy, food, buildings, warts and all.

Save, of course, that none of this can be done literally overnight. The President had no sooner spoken that the import of all non-organic fertilisers was banned. The reaction was spontaneous. Farmers protested, the tea industry was particularly concerned that their exports of 300 million kilos of Ceylon’s finest would be challenged in some discerning markets at least, including the Japanese market.

Our Prime Minister, President Mahinda Rajapaksa the veteran politician that he is, was eloquent and on point when he called for unity within the ruling alliance which after all gave this government the majority they sought – a two thirds majority which they maintain is required for strong government. President Mahinda Rajapaksa pointed to the apparent exodus of the youth of Sri Lanka seeking opportunities in other territories. It is clear, that Sri Lanka is in an economic mire with the people of our country in an abyss of despair.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not missed a beat: he too has alluded to the political disunity and has openly stated that there are two types of persona in so far as his governance is concerned. He has clarified what prompted him to appoint a monk who has been known to be controversial.

No matter what the justification alluded to, the fact is that this appointment has caused much concern not only in our own Sri Lanka but amongst our trading partners whose inputs are essential to the progress of our nation.

One rule, one country is welcome by all of us here in Sri Lanka. However, to appoint a person who is considered a hardliner to the detriment of the minorities in our country is to stir the pot of disharmony and disunity. It could verily fan the flames of communal disharmony.

After 30 plus years of a communally-driven near civil war, all of us, in Sri Lanka, are only too aware of the damage this causes to the growth of our economy apart from the lost opportunities of communal unity. If we need one example it would be to study the phenomenal explosion of tourism in Sri Lanka post 2009. No liberal minded traveller or any corporate worth its salt, will wish to consider Sri Lanka if the country is again a de-facto war zone where personal security is at stake.

President Gotabaya called for and assured a revolutionary change. God bless him for at least saying that. It is exactly what we need on a number of fronts.

Leading the package of revolutionary change will necessarily be the attitude of all governments to that perennial problem of corruption and politically sponsored impunity.

Revolutionary change will need to address inclusivity: consultative processes may well be a tedious impediment to achieve fast-tracked development of government policies. It is unfortunately a case of that old but true adage, ‘Rome was not built in a day’. Any government will need to demonstrate real commitment to address corruption wastage and graft. Not mere words but action real at that is what is required.

It really is quite simple. Sri Lanka’s economy has so very badly been affected that there is no leeway for development and corruption at the same time. Our economy has reached a sort of plateau. If we are to forge ahead, we must have a zero-tolerance towards corruption and waste – the twin impediments that are currently raging across all important sectors.

The losses to state banks after having indulged politically exposed persons – read cronies of any government holding the reins of power – remains at an all-time high. The Minister of Finance has proposed that a principal amount of Rs 8,500,000,000 be returned to the Central Bank, calling it ‘illegally made money’. Most followers of that circus known as the Central Bank Bond Scam will no doubt be reminded that Perpetual Treasuries, the company at the epi-centre, reported profits totalling more than Rs 18 Billion.

A weekend newspaper reported that corporates with cross shareholdings and or directorships with Perpetual separately owed state banks and other state bodies sums greater than Rs 10 Billion. This may well be a smart move by the Minister of Finance enabling President Gothabya to maintain that at least one part of his manifesto undertakings has been completed at least by 50 percent. Nevertheless, the adventure that the former Guvnor of the Central Bank Mahendran embarked upon has cost our country very dearly indeed. It is unlikely that the principal shareholders have assets anywhere close to the monies our country has lost thanks to this escapade. The monies made have been distributed to several who also had a hand in this sordid affair and much of it would have taken flight to other jurisdictions. We are constantly reminded that the Guvnor who went back to his adoptive Singapore never did return to the land of his birth to answer questions that the Police in Sri Lanka would like very much to pose to him. We would not be surprised that if the rest of the profits found its way to friends, family and property and other fixed assets in other countries.

It is not a Radical Revolution change we need, rather we need all the perpetrators not just those now indicted for this matter, be indicted and in the event a custodial sentence be ordered it would arguably perhaps be best if the keys to those cells be thrown into the Indian Ocean.

President Gotabaya was elected because the people truly believed that he would be able to emulate some of what he achieved at the Defence Ministry and the Urban Development Authority. The vagaries and intricacies of Sri Lankan politics dictated that he be nominated by a registered political party in order to contest the election for the presidency. Very unfortunately it is some members of that very party that propelled him into the throne room who have withheld his progress. And when it comes to family, there really is a thin line between family and anything else. Friends and hangers on attached mainly to the former President Mahinda are costing this President dearly in terms of plummeting popularity. Just like what happened to President Mahinda – admittedly in that debacle, members of the family played a key role too.

The saving grace is that the government has approximately three more years to go before they will be obliged to go to the polls.

Presumably before that time, the SLPP will want to put a few cases behind their back – like the Bond scam – sort out the food production and of course stabilise the forex rates.

Much depends on the myopic nature of the Sri Lankan mind-set. If they forget about the hardships, we have endured for the past three years they may neglect to elect a whole new set of people – emulating President Gotabaya’s expressly stated advisory delivered recently.

In which case what will be in store for us? More of the same? Can we really expect a revolutionary change? Hope springs eternal.



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Ontario’s Bill 104: ‘Tamil Genocide Education or Miseducation Week?’

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By Dharshan Weerasekera

In May 2021, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario adopted Bill 104. The stated purpose of the Bill is to, a) designate the week following May 18 each year as ‘Tamil Genocide Education Week’ and b) educate Ontarians about ‘Tamil Genocide and other genocides that have occurred in world history.’ The crucial question is, whether the charge of ‘Tamil genocide’ is true.

To the best of my knowledge, there has been very little substantive discussion of the above question in Sri Lankan or Canadian newspapers or academic journals in recent years and it is in public interest to begin such a discussion. Otherwise, there is a danger that the proposed ‘Tamil Genocide Education Week’ would turn out to be an exercise in mis-education of Canadians, most of whom are relatively unfamiliar with Sri Lanka.

In my view, there is absolutely no factual basis for anyone to claim that Tamils have been subjected to genocide in Sri Lanka. In this article, I shall briefly summarise the arguments made in a case filed in the Court of Appeal in September 2014, Polwatta Gallage Niroshan v. Inspector General of Police, Members of the Northern Provincial Council and others, CA/writ/332/2014. It is a public document. I was the Counsel in the case. The petitioner sought a writ of mandamus to compel the Attorney General to take action against members of the then Northern Provincial Council who had signed a letter (forwarded to the UN Human Rights High Commissioner) alleging genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, the Court declined to take up the case on technical grounds, namely, that the petitioner had failed to file a police complaint. The petitioner, a humble three-wheeler driver, did not have the financial wherewithal to pursue the matter further, but the case is very important in the present context because of two reasons: First, it shows that Sri Lankan citizens have rejected the allegation of Tamil genocide and even gone to the courts with regard to this matter.

Right of reply

Second, and more importantly, since the provincial legislature of a foreign country has asserted that Tamil genocide has happened, it is incumbent on the said legislature to provide a right of reply to all concerned Sri Lankans who reject the charge. Otherwise, one cannot expect the stated purpose of the Bill, education, to genuinely take place. In this regard, it is well to recall that natural justice, which includes the injunction “hear the other side” is an overriding principle (jus cogens) of international law.

Furthermore, one could argue that any funds allocated by the Ontario legislature, to advance the goals of the Bill, should be made available to members of Sri Lankan origin living in Ontario as well, who wish to tell their side of the story during the week in question. For all these reasons, the Sri Lankan case is important as a starting point for a substantive discussion of the charge of Tamil genocide. I give below the relevant portion:

“The 3rd – 35th Respondents, 28 of whom are members of the Northern Provincial Council and five are members of the Eastern Provincial Council, are signatories to a letter sent to the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navinetham Pillay, titled, “Joint letter by members of the Northern Provincial Council and Eastern Provincial Council, 17 August 2014.” In the said letter the 3rd – 35th Respondents request the former UN Human Rights High Commissioner to acquaint her successor, as well as the investigating panel presently investigating Sri Lanka, with the matters contained in the letter.

Petitiner’s contention

The Petitioner contends that the said letter contains explicit statements capable of causing disharmony, ill-feeling and discord among the different ethnic groups of Sri Lanka, particularly the Sinhalese and the Tamils, that the 1st and 2nd Respondents have not taken any steps to investigate or prosecute the 3rd – 35th Respondents for the said statements under Section 120 of the Penal Code (raising discontent or disaffection or feelings of ill-will and hostility among the people) and therefore the Petitioner has a right to request the court for a writ of mandamus to compel action.

The letter makes three requests of the High Commissioner, the second of which is: “The Tamil people strongly believe that they have been, and continue to be, subjected to genocide in Sri Lanka. The Tamils were massacred in groups, their temples and churches were bombed, and their iconic Jaffna Public Library was burnt down in 1981 with its collection of largest and oldest priceless irreplaceable Tamil manuscripts. Systematic Sinhalese settlements and demographic changes with the intent to destroy the Tamil Nation, are taking place. We request that the OHCHR investigative them to look into the pattern of all the atrocities against the Tamil people, and to determine if Genocide has taken place.”

The Petitioner respectfully draws the attention of the court to two matters in the above passage:

i)

The assertion that Genocide has been practised against the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

ii)

That “Sinhalese settlements and demographic changes” are being carried out with the “intent to destroy the Tamil Nation.”

The Petitioner is of the view that, the above two assertions are demonstrably false, and, as a citizen of Sri Lanka, is personally offended and angered by them, and considers that thousands of other citizens of this country feel this way also.

The Petitioner further considers that, false accusations regarding highly sensitive issues made directly to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urging her to investigate the purported offenses constitute an attempt to “raise discontent or disaffection amongst the People of Sri Lanka, or to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of such people” for the following reasons. The crime of genocide has a technical meaning in international law, and one can assess objectively whether or not that crime has been committed. The definition of genocide is set out in the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide (1948) and is as follows:

“[Article 2] In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a)

Killing members of the group;

b)

Causing serious bodily harm or mental harm to members of the group;

c)

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

d)

Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e)

Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

From the above, it is clear that the crime of “Genocide” has two components: the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, and also the committing of one or more of the acts enumerated under points a – e. It is possible to objectively assess whether, in a given set of circumstances, each of those components is present. Similarly, the accusation regarding settlements and the claim that the intent behind these settlements is to destroy the “Tamil Nation” can be objectively assessed.

The Petitioner asserts that, the Sinhalese people have not committed genocide against the Tamil people, or imposed settlements to destroy the Tamil People, or any “Tamil Nation” within this country, and that facts exist to prove these matters. In particular, the Petitioner wishes to draw the attention of the court to the following points: With respect to the accusation of genocide, the following facts are relevant:

Statistsics

Firstly, if the charge of ‘Genocide’ is with respect to the period from Independence to the start of the war, roughly 1948 – 1981, then statistics are available regarding key economic factors such as income, production assets in agriculture and manufacturing, employment, access to education, and access to health services. ((The most recent island-wide census was in 2012 which is after the war. But there is a census for 1981.) If discernible discrepancies exist between the statistics for the Sinhalese and the Tamils with regard to the above factors, a reasonable inference can be drawn that the Tamils have been systematically discriminated against, which would support the contention that the Tamils have been subjected to a genocidal campaign.

The Petitioner is of the considered view that a comparison of the aforementioned factors will show no discernible differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and draws support for this contention from the assessment of Professor G.H. Peiris, one of Sri Lanka’s most respected scholars, who analyses the said factors in a chapter titled “Economic causes for ethnic conflict” in his book, Sri Lanka: Challenges for the new Millennium (2006). The said assessment is as follows:

“To generalize, the overall impression conveyed by these conclusions is that, except when the “Indian Tamils” of the plantation sector (who still suffer from various deprivations compared to other groups) are taken into account, up to about the third decade after independence, socio-economic stratifications—variations in wealth, income, power and privilege, or dichotomies such as those of “haves versus have-nots” or “exploiter versus exploited”—did not exhibit significant correspondences to the main ethnic differences in the country. And, there was certainly no economically “dominant” ethnic group.” (p. 436.)

Secondly, if the charge of “Genocide” is with respect to the period of the war, census data exists which indicate that between 1981 and 2001 (the period of the war) there was a substantial increase in the Tamil population in the Sinhalese-majority areas due to the migration of Tamils from the North-East to that area. Such a movement of Tamils could not have occurred if the Tamils were being subject to genocide.

Also, one can consider the fact that throughout the 30-year civil war, the salaries of government workers in the North and East, large parts of which were under the de facto control of the LTTE, were paid by the Government. Medicine, food, and other essentials were also sent to those areas throughout the conflict. All this does not bespeak an attempt at genocide, rather, the exact opposite.

Finally, if the charge of “Genocide” is with respect to the last phases of the war, i.e. January 2009 – May 2009, the undisputed fact that the security forces were able to rescue approximately 350,000 Tamils who were held hostage by the LTTE indicates the absence of “Genocide.” The Petitioner therefore draws the natural inference suggested by all of the facts set out above, namely, that the Tamils have not been subjected to genocide in this country.

Settlements

With respect to the accusation about settlements, the following facts are relevant. Firstly, if by “Tamil Nation” what the signatories mean is a territorial unit, what are the boundaries of this unit, and by what law is it recognized? If answers cannot be provided to these questions, then no “Tamil Nation” exists. If the existence of such a territorial unit cannot be established, the assertion that the intent behind the settlements is to destroy the “Tamil Nation” cannot be sustained, since that which does not exist cannot be destroyed.

Secondly, if by “Tamil Nation” the 3rd – 35th Respondents mean the areas of the island where Tamils comprise the majority ethnic group relative to the Sinhalese and the Muslims—i.e. the Northern and the Eastern Provinces—it is true that a certain number of Sinhalese settlements were established in the course of various development projects. Nevertheless, statistics exist in the public domain that show Tamil settlements were established along with the Sinhalese settlements, and that, taken as a whole, the distribution of the settlements, when considered in terms of area, as well as development project, was done in an equitable and fair fashion. (See for example, Professor K.M De Silva Separatist Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal, 2nd ed. International Center for Ethnic Studies, 1995).

Thirdly, if the 3rd – 35th Respondents are claiming that settlements are being systematically established at present, it is incumbent on the 3rd – 35th Respondents to name what those settlements are, and to address the following matter: the Sri Lanka Constitution guarantees to every citizen, “Freedom of movement and of choosing one’s residence within Sri Lanka” (Art. 14(h)) which means that anyone who claims that Sinhalese settlements are illegal or wrong must show that those settlements are being established in excess of, or in ways that contravene, the aforesaid right.

The Petitioner repeats that, facts related to the points enumerated above are in the public domain. Therefore, the claim by the 3rd – 35th Respondents, that the Sinhalese are committing genocide against Tamils, and also imposing settlements to destroy the “Tamil Nation” are deliberate falsehoods, unless they can present some evidence to justify and explain their claims.

The Petitioner is of the view that, deliberate falsehoods such as the ones mentioned above can have only one result: the promotion of feelings of ill-will and hostility between different groups in this country, in this case the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and that if the signatories cannot produce evidence to justify and explain their claims, those claims show an ex facie intention to promote the said feelings of ill-will and hostility between Sinhalese and Tamil people.”

Conclusion

The stated purpose of Bill 104 is to ‘educate’ Ontarians about Tamil genocide. However, there is a grave danger that this will result in ‘mis-education’ of Ontarians along with Canadians in general, about the issue in question leading to a possible break-down in good relations between Canadians and Sri Lankans which should be a matter of concern for the Canadian Federal Government. Therefore, a substantive public discussion about whether or not Tamil genocide has occurred is urgently needed and this must necessarily involve giving Canadians a chance to ‘hear the other side’ of the story. Polwatta Gallage Niroshan’s case offers a good starting point from which to offer Canadians and other foreigners a glimpse into that ‘other side’.

(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and consultant for the Strategic Communications Unit at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute.)

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India-Russia ‘special relationship’ surviving global political tensions

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That this is so, is plain to see. India’s alliance with the US continues to be robust and multi-faceted. A case in point is the QUAD grouping which has India’s support and is focused on blunting China’s influence and power in the Asia-Pacific. However, India remains a principal pillar of the BRICS grouping as well, in which China and Russia figure prominently, besides other formations where India and Russia collaborate. Pragmatism is clearly the high note in India’s foreign policy.

If there ever has been an ‘all-weather friendship’ in international politics thus far, it is this ‘special relationship’ between India and Russia. So great have been the political storms this tie has survived over the decades that it could be considered almost a model bilateral relationship.

The relationship began to acquire particularly modern political nuances during the Nehru years. Those were times when the Cold War was at its height. Former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru began to give visionary and dynamic leadership to the Non-aligned Movement, the core principles of which formed the cornerstone of the foreign policies of many a Third World country. The NAM’s anti-colonial and anti-Western bent rendered its fundamental principles and values amenable to Russia and China. In this way was cemented India-Russia solidarity.

Considering that the bi-polar international political system of the Cold War decades has given way over the past 30 years to a multi-polar one, non-alignment in its traditional sense has no validity currently. This is on account of the USSR-dominated Warsaw Pact disintegrating since the nineties, when the USSR began to lose its super power status. However, Russia continues as a major world power in an international political system, which unlike the Cold War decades, is characterized by VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

The latter backdrop renders Russia’s moves on the world stage particularly engrossing. For example, what special meaning is Russia reading into its ties with India in present times? In what ways will India’s current tensions with China affect Russia’s special ties with India, considering that Russia and China generally tend to have identical positions on important questions in world politics?

These and many more issues are thrown-up by the India-Russia ‘special relationship’ which continues seemingly unruffled by current uncertainties and tensions in global politics. Right away it could be stated, though, that the enduring tie is in good hands on the Indian side.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, being a consummate pragmatist, is bound to look at the relationship through a range of angles with India’s national interest taking foremost position. With Modi at the helm, India is likely to have largely trouble-free ties with all those powers that are proving important from the viewpoint of India’s prime interests. For instance, India would be conducting cordial ties with the US while pursuing mutually-advantageous relations with Russia.

That this is so, is plain to see. India’s alliance with the US continues to be robust and multi-faceted. A case in point is the QUAD grouping which has India’s support and is focused on blunting China’s influence and power in the Asia-Pacific. However, India remains a principal pillar of the BRICS grouping as well, in which China and Russia figure prominently, besides other formations where India and Russia collaborate. Pragmatism is clearly the high note in India’s foreign policy.

Recent developments in India-Russia ties bear the latter point out quite emphatically. Russian President Vladimir Putin has just been to India to participate in the 21st India-Russia Annual Summit. Several new dimensions have been added to this summit through the introduction at the end of the talks of what is called the ‘2+2 dialogue mechanism’ at the countries’ foreign and defense minister levels.

Of particular interest is the defense minister level parley. A number of agreements were arrived at between the countries that have a close bearing on their defense capabilities, besides enhancing their ties in the field of armaments manufacture. For example, the sides reportedly signed contracts for the manufacture of some 610,000 AK-203 assault rifles through a joint venture in Uttar Pradesh. The deal is said to be

worth $ 6.66 million. Agreements in the logistics field and a navy-to-navy cooperation MoU are also reportedly taking shape.

While the foreign policy orientation of India could be said to be relatively free of ambiguities, the same could not be said of Russia which could be expected to have many more challenges to cope with. Some tight rope walking awaits it in South and South West Asia, for example.

In these regions Russia has to relate cordially with India while ensuring that its ties with China are not undermined. The arduous nature of the latter task is underscored by the fact that China is losing no time to fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan, which was created by the US troop withdrawal in August. China could be said to be Russia’s natural ally in South and South West Asia, but its need to keep its relationship with India going would oblige Russia to maintain a neutral position in the India-China power struggle. Thus, Russia would be compelled to finely balance its relations between China and India.

Russia and other major powers would also need to come to terms with the fact that unlike in the heyday of NAM, India is almost on equal terms with the US and China. This is particularly so in the area of armaments manufacture, not to mention its increasing stature as a number one economic power. Its long-range missile technology, for instance, is not second to that of China. In fact, it enjoys a slight edge over China in this area.

Besides, India has grown into a major arms exporter. Of late it has exported armaments worth $5.06 billion to 84 countries. Thus, it is reaping the fruits of having developed an indigenous arms manufacturing base over the years. It has quite adequately risen to the challenges posed by its major competitors in Asia and outside. All these capabilities and more of India need to be factored in by those powers that are seeking to compete with it for power and influence globally.

Accordingly, the India of today, Russia would realize, has come a very long way from its NAM years in the fifties and sixties. India has by no means overcome some of its negative legacies of the past, such as widespread poverty, but in some crucial respects, it is on par with quite a few major powers of the West. If the agreements Russia has just arrived at with India are any pointer, it too has come to realize that it is in the economic field that relations with India would bear most fruit today. Like India, Russia too has come to prize economic pragmatism in inter-state ties.

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Sri Lankans, for better or for worse

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There were no words to explain to a Singaporean why a stranger bought us cakes and coffee simply because he and I were born in the same country. No, that’s something my Chinese friend would never understand.

Capt Elmo Jayawardena


elmojay1@gmail.com

I wrote some articles to the newspapers mainly about Sri Lankan matters and the political climate after the war ended. It was just to share my humble thoughts on where we should be heading in search of peace. Many acknowledged my line of thinking, and some asked me why I did not write something about aviation? Not a bad idea, considering I have been around aeroplanes for more than 50 years. But I did wonder who would want to know how I landed through a snow-laden sky in Alaska, or how I flew over the Golden Gate Bridge on my way from San Francisco to Hong Kong? At best, it could all be a bit on the boring side. Yes, I do have some unbelievable fairy tales to relate of times I flew VVIPs for Air Lanka, but such involve names, and names are a dangerous game. I like to keep my home intact and not see the roof going up in flames. Let me change track and tell you some stories I have in connection with aviation and meeting fellow Sri Lankans. All this is true––in black and white and not drawn with colourful crayons.

Singapore to Auckland is a long night trip, 10-plus hours and I was walking to the aeroplane, passing the checking counters. They were all empty, passengers labelled and weighed and sent to wait in the lounge for the doors to open. That’s when I noticed something familiar. There were two men standing by the counter, one look, and I knew where they were from. The Halmilla and Burutha suits were unmistakable and we Sri Lankans stand out like shop window dummies in dark browns and navy blues that Hameedia stitches for us. The two waiting by the checking-in counter appeared to be having a problem––solemn faces, like those of funeral directors.

“We could not get on the flight; it is full, and we have to be in Auckland tomorrow for a cargo meeting.” Well, they were Sri Lankan and that was all the qualification I needed.

“Put them on the flight deck and I will take them.” This was pre 9/11 when the world was a little less violent; the instruction was to the checking desk clerk and the Captain’s words carried weight in SIA. Matter sorted out, Halmilla and Burutha got an instant promotion to cockpit status, not to be folded in the cheese class like sardines, but in pole position, Lewis Hamilton style, right in front. Off we went in the big jumbo jet, 400-plus passengers with two Chinese and three Sri Lankans in the cockpit.

It was a long night and the autopilot was doing the work and we chatted away; no “machang-bachang” talk, but palatable conversation to pass the time cruising in a beautiful star-sprinkled sky on a black velvet night. Indonesian islands went underneath while we ate cock-pit dinner, and time crawled and the night got long as the aeroplane crossed the vastness of the Australian continent. The talk was Sri Lankan and of home; who they were; who I was and many more mundane conversations. We discussed how the fabulous Moonstones had come to the limelight of music and how Clarence rode his bicycle, carrying his guitar to the Malawana house, where they created the immortal lyrics of Mango Nanda and Dilhani and coined “numbata ridainam, hemihita vatiyan, Dunhinda manamali.

Great stories to swap, especially because Halmilla was a Moonstone musician.

The night dragged on and the two Chinese pilots took care of the cruise work and we talked and talked till the distant sky turned tangerine and heron blue promising the dawn, and it was time for me to get to work and bring the big bird down.

I wonder whether an Englishman standing at a ticketing counter in Heathrow could tell a British Airways Captain that he is from Liverpool and get to go in the cockpit because he is English? My two cargo friends are big businessmen now. One I saw some time ago sipping champagne, seated in the business class. He’s obviously done well, has traded his Halmilla to travel in a T-shirt; that is progress. The other I met at a book launch and I was so happy when he came up to me and said, ‘Hello.’ He is in the top rung of corporate businessmen, but the same simple man who took the flight-deck ride to Auckland. Maybe, they will read what I have written and remember how they flew on an SIA 747 with a fellow Sri Lankan. This is not about Airline Captains; nor am I soliciting brownie points for assisting stranded passengers. It is all about being Sri Lankan!

I was walking once in New York with my Singaporean co-pilot, and here comes a familiar face; he looks Sri Lankan. With a broad smile, he asks, “From Sri Lanka?”

“Yes.”

“From where?”

“Moratuwa.”

Aiyo! I am from Panadura, no, so what are you doing here?”

He sounded like he owned New York. “You have a Green Card?” That was a pricey question. “No, just a short time,” I replied. “You are from Moratuwa, I had a friend there you know, Fernando.” I scratch my head; there are ten-thousand four-hundred and seventy-eight Fernandos in Moratuwa.

“You are Ok? Prashnayak naane

hat part sans English must have been to keep my companion out of the private conversation.

“If you have a problem, tell me.” That was straight Sri Lankan.

“Moratuwa no! We are neighbours, no! Come! We will have some coffee.”

That is exactly how it happened. He, the Singaporean and I sat in a wayside Big Apple Turkish joint and had cakes and coffee. He told me of people he knew in Moratuwa (Fernando included) and I asked him about people I knew in Panadura, and we did discover some common friends. The bill came and Panadura jumped and paid. We exchanged telephone numbers (pre-email era) said good-bye and walked our separate ways.

“Captain your friend, nice man,” says my co-pilot.

“No, he is not my friend; I have never seen him in my life.”

“But he paid for us, too,” says my companion. “How come?”

There were no words to explain to a Singaporean why a stranger bought us cakes and coffee simply because he and I were born in the same country. No, that’s something my Chinese friend would never understand.

I have met so many in my years of vagabonding, like the cake and coffee man who owned New York or Halmilla and Burutha who rode on my flight deck. Off and on there have been a thief or two who spoke pure nonsense in capitals. That is acceptable as the instant excellent camaraderie of Sri Lankans I have met and enjoyed far outweighs the few that went sour.

Then there was an Old Ben with a gospelic name, Kotahena-bred, now living in Connecticut. We met in Pretoria whilst watching Sri Lanka play Shaun Pollock’s men in a one-day battle. The Ben and I sat together and cheered, two against South Africa, friends after that. We lost the match, but the whole stadium heard our cheers that resounded in typical Sri Lankan fashion. Thank God by then the country was Mandelised and dark skins like us had permission to shout.

In life, anything is not completely won, nor is it lost. It is the count that matters, especially in people we come to know. As for me, I won most and lost a few, and with pride I say it was wonderful to fly aeroplanes and walk the world as a Sri Lankan. The friends I have made are many, all over the world, and they have come to my life for no other reason than us being simply Sri Lankan and left me richer for having known them.

This is our motherland and its people, kind in heart and endowed with laudable human qualities. Irrespective of what ethnic roots they sprung from or which God they worshipped; the core was Sri Lankan. Of course, there are those spitting venom and blowing fire from their nostrils labelling people and separating their own countrymen. If the truth be trumpeted, it is mostly fanned by political ambitions.

Where is the end to all this? Is it near or far or nowhere?

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