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Biden Presidency Initiates Significant Policy Shifts

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Sri Lanka and the Gotabaya Executive may be in for a rough ride

by Kumar David

The changes in both domestic and foreign policy initiated by the Biden Administration are quite significant. On the domestic side changes include a sharp turn in economic strategy, an energetic intervention in dealing with the pandemic, a more plural approach to race relations, positive environmentalism and rethinking border controls. I can touch only on the first today. The effect of American economic policy on Sri Lanka will be felt through the appreciation of the dollar against LKR and the possible upward movement of global interest rates both of which are bad news for a country mired in foreign debt. The determination of the US administration to chart a sharply different economic strategy from that of the last four years, and given the importance of the dollar and the size of the US economy, this will have sizeable effect on the rest of the world. I will spend a few paragraphs on this before turning to human-rights issues which are more likely to impact us directly.

It is likely that there will be an upturn in the US, Chinese and global economies in the next two quarters as the worst of the pandemic passes – fingers crossed since the devastation that covid-variants may inflict on the world is still a known unknown. The $1.9 trillion covid relief, unemployment support and handout package that Biden forced through Congress last week comes atop $2.7 trillion injected into the economy for covid relief since the start of the pandemic and Obama’s stimulus package of 2009 which finally grew to $830 billion by 2019. American Federal debt has risen to about $25 trillion; this is separate from Quantitative Easing whereby the Federal Reserve (FED) bought corporate and government bonds to stimulate the economy after the 2008-9 Great Recession. It is difficult to estimate how much of this still remains on the FED’s balance sheet but I estimate that at its peak the FED had doled out about $5 trillion.

Indications at the moment are that most economies have weathered the pandemic-induced dip with varying degrees of damage and that the next 12 to 18 months will be a period of modest recovery. The US, China and India – I am not too confident of the EU and Russia – will experience a return to pre-pandemic growth, at least for a while; others like Sri Lanka may be less fortunate for reasons I will discuss anon. The relevance of this to today’s column is how this could impact on the Sri Lankan Double-Paksa (two Rajapaksas) led state? Usually a universal upturn will benefit all players in the global market and Sri Lanka should see some increase in demand for its products but there are also three downside factors. The consequences of a very likely rise in world interest rates and appreciation of the dollar, the American led onslaught on human-rights violators and the anti-BJP backlash in Tamil Nadu. The consequences of the first of these is of course directly economic, the second and third will have political consequences with economic spill over.

Although a school known as Modern Monetary theory (MMT) thinks otherwise, it is impossible to avoid inflation if there is endless money creation. The response of central banks to inflation is to raise interest rates. True enough the FED has for a long time aimed at an average inflation rate of 2% but it has doggedly remained much lower – in fact US inflation has remained below 4% for the last 30 years despite the US Federal debt increasing from $3 trillion to $25 trillion. Now in the context of the current bout of planned expenditure the FED hopes inflation will climb from very low values to 2.4%, enabling it to raise interest rates to above 3% sometime in 2022.

This would help stabilise US monetary policy but spells bad news for heavily indebted countries like Sri Lanka. Inflation has a knock on effect on interest rates and bond yields. Without getting technical about it we can expect our debt servicing costs – Lanka will need to keep borrowing to meet its current account deficits and take new loans to service repayment and interest on existing debt – to become more onerous in the coming years as a consequence of America, China and other rich countries pouring funds into new domestic programmes. There is now talk of a new $3 trillion infrastructure programme being steered through Congress by Team Biden before the 2022 Congress elections at which the Republicans are expected to recapture some ground. Team Double-Paksa will have no option but to offer its rear to China in exchange for further loans if it is not to default on debt servicing; a new 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) swap-deal was signed a few days ago. The rupee briefly crossed the 200 to a US$ mark on March 17 and is at 199 at this time of writing. It will drift beyond 200 as the bludgeoning in Geneva seeps into the calculations of market players.

 

The post-Geneva wasteland

There has been a profound shift of foreign policy from Trump’s idiosyncratic and droll circus. The obvious change is a much greater emphasis on human rights as the Double-Paksas are learning to their cost. The UNHRC resolution calls for enhanced monitoring of Sri Lanka’s progress in reconciliation and accountability. Since the government will do damn-all, the oral update to the Council at its 48th session and written update at its 49th session will be negative (unless you believe that leopards can change their spots and tigers their stripes). A comprehensive report is to be presented at the 51st including recommendations for action. There are three Regular Sessions per year in March, June and September. Funding of $3 million for the Commissioner’s Office for this part of the work has been promised by Australia and others and monitoring will commence immediately. The Resolution had over 40 co-sponsors and there may be long term impact on trade and restrictions may be imposed on alleged miscreants.

The Biden Administration is going out on a limb to show that it is different from Trumps insane interlude. This is partly for domestic consumption and partly to correct damage that Trump did to American interests around the world. His love affair with North Korea’s Kim reduced the mighty US into a caricature; America wants NATO as much as NATO needs America and Biden now has a salvage operation on his plate both on NATO and environmentalism. These should be doable but what may be more difficult to salvage is the Iran Nuclear Deal. Iran has made further progress towards a bomb since Trump scuttled the agreement which it obviously will not be willing to reverse. The US for its part is demanding new concessions before it lifts sanctions. Most likely over time individual countries will overlook the American stand and do business with Iran as suits their own interests.

A tougher human rights regimen will be prominent. Sri Lanka will not have an easy ride with Asian countries including those who abstained in Geneva (India, Japan, Indonesia and Nepal) or for that matter those who voted in its favour such as Pakistan and the Philippines. No one will overtly assist the Sri Lankan state to defy or undercut the stipulations of the Resolution. The country seems to be sailing into uncharted waters and the horizon looks gloomy. Worst of all the Captain is an inexperienced novice and the older and shrewder First Officer is keeping out of sight except for a short holiday in Bangladesh – a successful one!

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Alaska: “There are a number of areas where we are fundamentally at odds, including China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan . . .” America may take limited action against China over its “genocidal campaign” against Uighur Muslims. China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi reacted strongly, warning the US against meddling in its “internal affairs” and challenging its own rights record using the Black Lives Matter as an example. The Chinese unfortunately picked a very bad example because the massive BLM movement drawing in whites, blacks and Hispanics is a demonstration of the strength not the weakness of a more open society. The attack on Putin too is focussed on issues of democratic rights and attempts to murder opposition leaders. Therefore to return to my starting point, given the turn of the Biden administration to rights issues as its foreign policy plank, Gotabaya would be wise to learn three Singaporean principles enunciated by two Prime Ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong.

 

= Always put Singapore’s interests first and make it clear to the big powers that Singapore has no intention of meddling or taking sides in geopolitical manoeuvres.

= Ensure that the Government of Singapore functions within the remit of Singaporean law and give no room for outsiders to allege that it curtails or violates the rule of law or its binding responsibilities.

= Maintain fairness between ethnic communities (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) so that rifts that open the door to outside interference are precluded.

The Sri Lankan government is not free to do any of this because the economy is in near collapse and the possibility of default on foreign debt makes it dependent on China. This undermines its ability to act as a free and independent agent. At home the regime is beholden to extremist nationalists and monks. The military is treated by the Executive as though it embodies the state. A military that has been brutalised in a civil war is unsafe. Last week I pleaded with international actors to assist the people to protect their freedoms. The mechanisms that the UNHRC has put in place to monitor the regime are admirable and will very helpful. I am confident that not even this neophyte Executive will spurn world opinion brazenly.

 

 



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All communities should be treated equally without distinction

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by Jehan Perera

The government was elected on a platform that stressed national security and unity. The elections took place in the aftermath of the Easter suicide bomb attacks of 2019 that caused the highest numbers of casualties in Christian churches. As the bombers were all Muslim, the Muslim population in the country came under public suspicion which was spontaneous and widespread. There was also equally widespread fear and anxiety about follow on attacks that could target Christians in particular and also the population in general. The cause of the attacks and the master minds behind them were a mystery then as they are now.

Due to the timely intervention of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, in whose diocese the two most serious attacks took place, there was no retaliation against the Muslim population by those who had lost their kith and kin. However, in the weeks that followed, there were mob attacks against the Muslim community in parts of the country that were distant from the bomb attacks. These attacks were not spontaneous but organised and intended to loot Muslim property and cause fear in them. The government, which was under political siege for having failed to prevent the suicide bomb attacks, failed once again to adequately protect the Muslim community.

It is in this context that Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s statement on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Easter bombings takes on significance. About two months ago he gave a deadline by which he asked the government to identify who was behind the Easter attacks and the cause for them. The Cardinal has consistently spoken up on the issue of the Easter bombing, first to ask for restraint on the part of the victims, then to ask the government to identify the perpetrators and prior to the elections to take the position that the people needed a government that could protect them. Now he has said that “Our brethren were attacked not by religious extremism, but by a group that exploited it to use the attackers as pawns in order to strengthen their political power.”

MUSLIM OUTREACH

Two years after the Easter bombings in which they were branded as supporters of religious extremism, the Muslim community seeks in many different ways to overcome the suspicion that once engulfed them and which they fear can do so again. The use of the black Islamic dress that was an increasing trend among Muslim women has been much reduced. Muslim organisations are making energetic efforts to network with other religious organisations, join inter-religious groups and to liaise with civil society. They make available to them the Islamic teachings on peace and coexistence. This weekend I was invited to the opening of a community centre in the Kurunegala District by a Muslim organization.

On the walls of the community centre there were panels put up with sayings from the different religions on a number of important matters, such as how to treat others, and the role of spiritual values in everyday life. The foremost place at the opening ceremony was given to Buddhist monks who had come to attend the ceremony along with government officials and police officers. The monks who spoke said that the Muslim community living in the village had good relations with the Sinhalese living in the neighbouring villages, and this had continued for generations. Another monk said that after the Easter bombings they had heard there were violent gangs heading in the direction of the Muslim village, they had come there to ensure no harm would befall those people.

In this context, the announcement that the government will ban 11 Muslim organisations sends a negative message to the country at large about the Muslim community. It creates an impression that Muslims organisations are under suspicion and possibly even close to performing acts of violence which necessitates them being banned. Of the 11 banned organisations, two are foreign ones, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda which have been reported internationally as engaging in violence. However, the other nine are Sri Lankan organisations which do not have a track record of violence or illegality. Four of them have the name “Thowheed” in them, which in the Arabic language means “faith.”

 

DIFFERENT TREATMENT

The ban on these Thowheed organisations may be due to the fact that the leader of the suicide squad, Zahran, was part of an organisation that had the name “Thowheed” in it. The ban on them may also be due to the fact that the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter bombings recommended such action against them. However, the Commission also recommended that other non-Muslim organisations be banned which has not happened. This suggests that the Muslim organisations are being treated differently. The danger is that when it treats organisations differently, the government may be generating resentment in the Muslim community, especially the youth. If the words of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith are correct, the problem lies not in Muslim extremism but in partisan power politics.

Sri Lanka has experienced Sinhalese youth insurrections twice and even the Tamil militant movement was started by youth, who were once called “the boys.” Perhaps in anticipation of such a radicalisation phenomenon, the government has recently passed an add-on called the “De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” to the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This will permit people who fall into its ambit to be send to rehabilitation centres for up to two years without trial. This may provide the government with an opportunity to release up to 250 Muslim citizens currently under detention on suspicion of being involved in the Easter bombings and send them for rehabilitation. On the other hand, this regulation may be used in the future in regard to other persons and other groups. The better way to prevent radicalization is to make people feel that the law is even-handed to all, and also to encourage engagement between communities.

During the discussion that took place at the opening of the community centre in Kurunegala, it was noted that the younger generation had fewer inter-community linkages than those of older generations. This may be due to the changing nature of society and the economy where people spend less time with other people and more time with machines or doing narrow and specialised jobs. In multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in which there is conflictual relations, the tendency on the part of those from different communities will be to live in their own silos rather than interact with those of other communities. Living in peace in plural societies requires purposeful and energetic interaction which is organised. Where there has been ethnic and religious strife the world over, the better answer has been to provide people with encouragement and incentives to mix together, which is what the Muslim organization in Kurunegala was trying to do.

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TNGlive…a boon to artistes affected by the pandemic

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No doubt, Covid-19 has ruined the entertainment industry, throughout the world.

Entertainment venues have been shut down, concerts cancelled…and musicians are finding the going pretty tough.

However, it’s heartening to know that there are performers who find solace in keeping the public entertained, via online performances.

In this instance, those responsible for TNGlive must be congratulated for creating this platform, on social media, in order to give lots of folks, from around the globe, the opportunity to showcase their talent, on a regular basis.

Quite a few Sri Lankans have been featured on TNGlive, including Melantha Perera, Suzi Croner (Fluckiger), Sureshni Wanigasuriya, Yasmin de Silva, and Kay Jay Gunesekere,

Suzi did this scene twice, and on both occasions her performance was highly rated, with bouquets galore coming her way…on social media.

On Saturday, April 10th, she was featured (8.00 pm Sri Lankan time) doing songs from the country and western catalogue.

It was a very entertaining programme, which also contained some dance scenes (line dancing) from the audience present, in her living room – her friends.

Her repertoire included ‘Joline, ‘Me And Bobby McGee, “Johnny B. Goode,’ ‘Blue By You,’ ‘Okie From Muskogee,’ ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ ‘Rose Garden,’ ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Cotton Eyed Joe.’

Suzi is to make her third appearance, on TNGlive, shortly, but this time it won’t be a solo effort, she says.

“For variety, I would be having a guy from the Philippines, and he sings the hit songs of Tom Jones and Engelbert.”

So get ready for another special from Suzi, who now resides in Switzerland.

Suzi was the frontline vocalist for the group Friends who were, at that point in time, top of the pops!

Another artiste who impressed viewers, performing on TNGlive, with his daughter, was Nigel Gerrard John Galway.

Nigel is from India, and has been a Chef for the last 23 years, with 12 years spent at the Oberoi hotels. He was also an executive Sous Chef at Taj, in Coimbatore.

In fact, Allwyn Stephen, TNGlive chief, referred to Nigel as…probably the first Singing/Dancing Chef in the world!

He, and his 18-year-old daughter, Lean Pamela Mary, did get the attention of many, with their unique style of presentation; while Nigel handled the vocals, Lean, using only gestures, expression, and movements, brought out the meaning of the lyrics in most of the songs her dad did. And, she did it beautifully.

Yes, she also did exercise her vocal cords, on this particular programme

Says Nigel: “We come from a family of musicians, but we attempted singing, only during the pandemic, on various social media groups, and we did so only because we were all stuck at home.

“We joined TNGlive, through a friend, and have been performing ever since. The love and support we received from people around only encouraged us to keep growing and now we have a page of our own called THE SINGING CHEF.”

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Heard at the club

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Part II

A member reminisced an incident that happened long years ago, during those peaceful times when terrorism was unheard of. He had been driving his car, on the Deniyaya Road, when about six miles from Galle, he saw a village in a state of panic. So he stopped his car near the village boutique and asked the mudalali what was happening? The mudalali had said that the self-opinionated ‘mudliyar’ of the village (a court interpreter) had organised a ‘dane’ (an alms giving) and was awaiting the procession of monks, complete with drummers, from the temple. And, seeing it coming over the paddy fields which was a short cut, instead of the village road as show off, put him in a paddy, and he had chased the monks away. So the monks had gone back to the temple. As the meal time deadline for monks was fast approaching, the villagers brought the meals they had cooked in their homes, to serve the monks! That was the panic.

He was an unpopular villager who rose to a high position in the public service with political influence. Cussed by nature, he used his official position to harass villagers. When he met with an untimely death and, right at the moment the coffin was taken to the hearse, the whole village reverberated with the sound of fire crackers, organised by the irate villagers.

****

Once a terrible post office blunder very nearly wrecked a marriage. A certain sales rep sometimes sold his wares on credit. One such creditor was the owner of a shop named ‘Chandra Cafe’ who was slack in his payments. So the sales rep sent him a telegram that he would be coming to collect his dues, next Monday. On receipt, the owner of Chandra Cafe telegraphed the rep asking him not to come on Monday and the telegram received by him read, ‘Do not come on Monday – Chandra K.P.’ And when the rep’s wife read the telegram there was some misunderstanding at home which nearly rocked his marriage.

****

This reminded us of another telegram. An army officer was to go back to camp by the night mail. When he arrived at the railway station, he found a lady in an advanced state of pregnancy, almost in tears, because no berths were available. Gallantly the officer offered her his berth and, at the nearest post office, sent a telegram to his commanding officer saying ‘Unable to return tomorrow as ordered. Gave berth to lady. Arriving tomorrow evening.’

Obviously, the vital word ‘berth’ had been misspelt as ‘birth’, for the gallant officer received this reply from his commanding officer, ‘Your next confinement will be to barracks’.

****

A philanthropist donated a building to his old school. An opening ceremony was held with a VVIP as the chief guest. A group photograph was also taken. As the donor was keen to get this photograph published in the newspapers without delay, he sent the local correspondent in his limousine to Colombo. He met the editor who happened to be an old boy of the same school. After a look at the photograph, he folded it in such away to eliminate the principal and sent it for publication. The editor seemed to have an axe to grind with the principal!

****

It was in the early 60s and I was on my way to the club in the evening, when I met a friend near the club. With him was another, I invited them both to the club and after a few drinks we were headed out of the club, when near the gate, my friend pulled me aside and said that his friend was going for some trade union work to Hambantota and was short of funds. I told him that he should have told me that before I paid the club bill and also told him I had only Rs.18.00 which I gave. This trade union leader was non other than Rohana Wijeweera, who was to become JVP leader.

****

It was towards the end of the 1980s and a club member, a tea factory owner was on his way home all alone in his car, at the break of down, after finishing his factory work. He had to travel 12 miles. After about five miles, he saw a youth profusely bleeding with injuries, coming down a hill. The good Samaritan that he was, he took him in his car to the hospital. On the way, the police took him and the injured youth into custody for terrorist activities. Fortunately for him, Major-General Lucky Wijeratna, who was a classmate of his at school, was there to save him.

 

****

This happened several decades ago. There was a certain popular elderly club member, who was a wealthy businessman and drank nothing but whisky. That day when he came to the club, he seemed to have lost his bearings. He told his friends that he was going to donate all his wealth to the Home for Disabled Children which was close to his house, because his only child, a daughter, had eloped. His friends prevailed on him to defer his decision for a few months. About a year or so later, he came to the club one evening carrying a big flask in his hand. He said that it was for his errant daughter who has now reconciled, adding that he was a grandfather now!

****

A busy garage was located in a residential area and it was open day and night. To highlight their services, they put up an impressive signboard, ‘We never sleep’. The following day a prankster had written below it ‘and neither do the neighbours’.

During the day of insanity – 29th July 1987, the Open University at Matara was burnt down and the Ruhunu University remained closed. A wall poster came up. It read: ‘Close the Open University’ and ‘Open the closed University’.

****

A young teacher, met a young man at the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens. Although their native villages were far apart, they

became close friends and planned to get married in the near future. He posed as a private bus owner. One day on a visit to his fiancée, he stayed the night over and muttered in his sleep, “Borella – Battaramulla! Borella – Battaramulla!” This aroused serious suspicions about his identity. So a few days later, her parents came to the Borella junction, to see him in a sarong loading passengers to private buses as a ‘bus crier’. And the love story ended right there.

****

A long time ago a wealthy industrialist, a popular member of the club, was having his drink in a secluded corner of the club, most unlike him. He appeared to be quite agitated. Some concerned friends asked him what happened. He said that his only daughter (he also had a son) had married a man of her choice adding that his wife was in favour of the marriage. The daughter he said, was 22 years old. His friends told him that at that age, she was entitled to choose her partner in life and appealed to him to take things easy as his wife too approved of the marriage. After about a year or so, a friend visited him. Proudly pointing out a large multiple storey house in his sprawling garden, he had said that it was built by his son-in-law.

****

A certain member served abroad for many years. One morning he come back to his native Galle in a hired helicopter. That evening he came to the club and ordered a case of beer for his friends!

****

Several years ago, a member had gone to the Galle Post Office to send a telegram to a close relative. He was informed by the postal authorities that there was a breakdown in the telegraphic services and that it was unlikely that his message, about a bereavement in the friend’s family, would reach his relative in time. They advised our friend to telephone someone in the area where his relative lived and to get the message delivered orally. Those were the days when only a few had telephones. As the member did not know anyone in that area with a telephone, he thought of S. Jayasinghe, known as Mr. S, who was not know to him personally and who was a Junior Minister residing in the area where our friend’s relative lived.

When our friend telephoned him from the post office, he had just got into his car to go somewhere. Soon after he was speaking to our friend over the phone as if he was talking to an old friend. He also told our friend that he was about to go to the site where he was building a new house. Our friend then gave him the message and appealed to him to get it delivered. The rest of the story was told to our friend by his relative who had said that during a heavy shower of rain, he found a car near his gate and that when he went up to the car he recognized him to be the Junior Minister. Like my friend, he did not personally know the Junior Minister. Instead of giving the message then and there, he had got off the car and had gone to our friend’s house and not only given the message but also consoled him by talking to him for a few minutes.

****

It was in the late 1980s, at the height of the insurrection, that this member was travelling all alone to Galle in his jeep. He was going through the Kottawa Forest which was famous at the time for tyre pyres. The Navy had stopped his vehicle and asked him to take a young man who was injured in a motorcycle accident, to the Galle Hospital, about eight miles away. The young man was bleeding profusely. He got him admitted to the hospital but our friend was forced to stay there for a long length of time, culminating in his having to give his consent for a surgical operation on the injured, whom he had never seen before. Alas! The purpose of his visit to Galle was lost.

****

A member had two sons, twins aged three years. As they fell ill, he channelled a specialist doctor who examined one twin and refused to examine the other, as an appointment was not made for him. So our friend had the other twin channelled as well. Certainly, it was no personification of Hippocrates!

****

A popular elderly member used to come to the club only on his pay day to keep himself warm. He worked at ‘Sathosa’ (C.W.E). The younger members would then tell him that he is very fortunate to work in a historic establishment like ‘Sathosa’ which is also referred to in Guttila Kavya (an epic) thus:

‘Sara Salelu Jana Sathose.’

Highly elated he would order a round of drinks, adding ‘Surapana karathi mese’.

****

This happened many decades ago. A member who was an inveterate gambler once lost heavily at the card table and mortgaged his expensive wrist watch. A member who was not well disposed towards him had sent a post card to his wife informing her that her husband sold his watch to gamble. He also had a 15-acre well-maintained tea estate which he had to sell when his gambles failed.

****

This story was related by a member and is about the ‘kings’ in the planting circles. A planter in the coconut belt of the North Western Province who owned acres of coconut, once named himself ‘King Coconut’. He argued that if a planter in the Kalutara District who owned vast acres of rubber could be referred to as a ‘Rubber King’ why shouldn’t he be called ‘King Coconut’.

****

One day a member related a story, which is hard to believe. A teacher who served in an uncongenial station, in his quest for higher knowledge, had studied for an external degree at a university. And he passed the examination with flying colours, obtaining first class honours and was highly commended by the university authorities for his brilliance, while serving in a different area. He had confided to his friends that his success at the exam was due to the gift of seeing all the question papers in a dream, before the examination!

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