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Big Match: SJB versus UNP



Ranil Wickremesinghe’s return to parliament has been greeted with dismay and delight in various quarters. The timing couldn’t have been better for the UNP, and conversely worse for the SJB. Whether the government takes advantage of whatever impending division in the SJB his presence may lead to, we can’t really tell. Yet his return is significant, for two reasons: the rising unpopularity of the government, and the shortcomings of the opposition.

If the two appear to be linked, it’s because they are: growing dissatisfaction with the regime has translated into growing dissatisfaction with the opposition. The one has dovetailed and is dovetailing with the other. Wickremesinghe’s return, in that sense, symbolises a rift between not just the government and the people, but also the opposition and its past.

For the SJB, the challenge is clear. If it doesn’t clarify its position on key policy issues, and pose as a viable enough alternative to the government, there will be defections: not of MPs, perhaps, but of voters. It’s ridiculous to dismiss Wickremesinghe’s prospects because he has one seat in parliament. True, the UNP polled less than even the number of rejected votes at last year’s general election. But last year is last year. Circumstances have changed, and will continue to do so. If the SJB doesn’t adjust to changing realities – a point Wickremesinghe raised his candid interview with Chamuditha Samarawickrama – it can and will be doomed to electoral marginalisation, with gradual co-option by the UNP.

The problem is that it’s not the UNP that’s divided over the SJB, but the SJB over the UNP. If Mr Wickremesinghe’s return didn’t exactly polarise the SJB, those polarities showed up on social media. Thus while one SJB MP tweeted that he hoped Mr Wickremesinghe would help strengthen the opposition, another SJB MP noted, in a rejoinder to the tweet, that the four time prime minister would only strengthen the government.

The difference in opinion and tone between the two MPs points to a threefold division in the party: a pro Ranil faction, including those who subscribe to the ex-PM’s economic ideology and are not opposed to a coalition with him; a pro Sajith faction, including those who fought the Ranil Raj in the UNP; and a group of younger Turks, whose entry to the UNP coincided with the post-2019 struggle over the party leadership.

The UNP’s political heritage is distinctly neo-liberal: centre-right, if not right wing, affiliated with the International Democrat Union (which counts among its members the Conservatives in the UK and the Republicans in the US), and economically hawkish. Its attitude to the war, consistently doveish, makes it the perfect decoy and bogey for the SLPP. From 2000 to 2010, from Jaffna to Nandikadal, it spoke against the war; that it spoke for peace in the CFA years is at best a questionable claim, given Ali Zahir Moulana’s recent revelations about its role in the CFA, but it certainly opposed Mahinda Rajapaksa’s military excursions. That did not win it any favours from the general populace, despite a brief respite from 2015 to 2019.

Now the crux of the matter is this: while the UNP cannot escape its heritage, the SJB can. To do so requires a new way of thinking and strategizing, a new vision and mission, a new way of opposing the regime. That new vision cannot, and should not, be to the right of the party or personality it opposes; it should not advocate a return to the policies of the past, especially if those policies were roundly defeated at the polls.

There are three specific concerns the SJB must address here.

Firstly, Sajith Premadasa’s strategies may or may not have endeared him to ex-UNPers, yet despite the dismal depths to which the government has sunk, assuming that people who voted for the SJB in 2020 will do so again in the future would be unsound. I say this not because of the prospect of a Ranilist co-option, but because, having exited the UNP, Mr Premadasa more or less unleashed two genies: a populist (within his party) and an anti-Rajapaksist nationalist (43 Senankaya). Such divisions can be made use of by interest groups that wish to hijack the SJB. The latter, obviously, is in an unenviable position here,

Secondly, unlike the Mahinda Rajapaksa led Joint Opposition (JO), a populist faction from a centre-left party co-opted by the neo-liberal right, Premadasa’s project has almost millenarian overtones: the restoration of the parent party to a populist conjuncture.

Rajapaksa had a fairly recent era to wind the clock back to: 2005-2014. Premadasa has had to go back further, more than a quarter century, to the era he pledges to bring back through a new party. Since Sri Lankans have terribly short memories, Premadasa’s project appears to me more daunting, and more challenging, than Rajapaksa’s.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the SJB has failed to clarify its path. This has been on account of the criticisms it’s receiving from its UNP base, and from newer electorates.

The pro-UNP base accuses it of trying to imitate, or mimic, the SLPP. Cynical as it is, this assessment is pertinent, because critics of the SJB who once voted for the UNP contend today that, far from succeeding, Premadasa and his allies have failed to pose as an alternative to the government. Their criticism is basically grounded in accusations that the SJB has abandoned what are assumed to be its constituencies: middle-class suburbs, minorities, and civil society. In short, if it is trying to be more populist, to beat the regime at its own game, it is also, in the same breath, alienating the electorates that helped it get into parliament.

As for the “newer electorates” – Sinhala Buddhist peasantry and middle-class – it is widely and justifiably felt that they remain the monopoly of the SLPP. As such, any attempt to win these electorates can only be futile and counterproductive: futile because they will not budge from the SLPP’s stranglehold, and counterproductive because while failing to woo them, the SJB is losing its appeal among its UNP base. That minority parties in general, and the TNA in particular, have voiced concerns about the SJB’s turnaround on such matters as the ethnic question, devolution, and reconciliation, therefore says a lot about how its efforts at escaping its UNP past are perceived on both sides of the political divide: by former allies who accuse it of betraying its commitment to their aims, and by ideological enemies who view its efforts at winning new electorates as opportunistic, expedient, and futile.

None of this bodes well for the country’s youngest opposition party. Comparisons with the Joint Opposition flounder because, as I mentioned earlier, the SLPP had a recent time-frame which it could market to the public. For a quarter century, on the other hand, the UNP was associated with the ubiquitous figure of Ranil Wickremesinghe; despite his fine (if contested) legacy, Ranasinghe Premadasa came to power before many of us came of age. In that sense his son’s challenge is twofold: to market the SJB as a return to the UNP’s populist phase, and to steal the populist thunder from the government.

More than anything, however, the SJB must evolve a consensus on Ranil Wickremesinghe. To exclude him from everything would be fallacious; as fallacious as letting him dictate the SJB’s political trajectory. Unlike before, there is a healthy opposition to the UNP among SJB MPs, especially the younger Turks (as witness Rehan Jayawickrema’s video, posted days before Wickremesinghe’s return, in which he condemned him for denying young MPs a chance to rise) and older MPs like Ashoka Abeysinghe. There are, admittedly, MPs who swing to Wickremesinghe’s side, who see him as an ally: those on the Westernised, neoliberal, Ricardo Hausmann* wing of the SJB. But they are in a minority.

The truth is that Wickremesinghe faces a significant backlash from even liberals who fawned on him not too long ago. The truth is that he can, as a recent newspaper editorial puts it well, “play spoiler and irritant.” History has shown us that when the issue of the party’s leadership cropped up, he and his acolytes always preferred maintaining the status quo of the opposition to challenging the status quo of the government.

This is not certainly how a democratic opposition behaves. To Premadasa’s credit, the SJB is doing what it can to prevent a return to such a state of affairs. Hence to hope, as one MP did in a tweet, that Ranil Wickremesinghe will help strengthen the Opposition would be, as one commentator allied with Premadasa put to me the other day, “to make sure the Opposition remains in the Opposition.” It doesn’t get more ironic than that.


Note: Ricardo Hausmann is an economist associated with the neoliberal regime of President Carlos Andres Perez in Venezuela. He was courted by the UNP in the yahapalana years, and his input was incorporated in the controversial MCC agreement.


The writer can be reached at

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The JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) used rude language in Parliament to criticize the No Confidence Motion moved by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). He called it “stupid, moronic”.

Curiously he and UNP leader Wickremesinghe seemed to share a similarly negative view of the No Confidence Motion. Ranil thought that the NCM qualifies the Opposition to belong in the Guinness book of records.

AKD’s remarks and their timing weren’t exactly a model of political wisdom and intellect.

Firstly, one would have thought that any attack by the SJB on the government, however amateurish one thought it was, would be a positive thing. After all, in his famous ‘Message to the Tricontinental’ Che Guevara commended “battles won or lost—but fought—against the enemy”.

The leader of a party that led two unsuccessful uprisings should know better than to judge a battle simply by its immediate outcome and its strengthening of the enemy.

Secondly, the timing of AKD’s crude sideswipe was atrocious. A major battle has commenced and is about to move to the next level with the presentation of the KDU bill in Parliament in the first week of August.

That battle is being waged against an enemy that is qualitatively different from any that the JVP has ever faced. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his closest associates aren’t planters and volunteer army officers like Gen Ranjan Wijeratne or Oxford-educated hawks like Lalith Athulathmudali.

This battle therefore needs a broader front of alliances, partnerships and blocs than ever before in Sri Lanka’s history since 1947. Insulting the country’s largest Opposition party isn’t perhaps the best way to built a broad united action front or to secure covering fire in parliament. Rather, it is “moronic”.

AKD’s sectarianism is not limited to the SJB and its recent no-confidence motion. Given the stakes in the coming confrontation over the KDU bill, AKD should be ready to appear on the same stage as his counterpart Kumar Gunaratnam, leader of the FSP. If the JVP and FSP leaders appear on the same stage and address the crowds, it would give a huge boost to the Movement. However, AKD remains the guy who said on TV that there was never a JVP member, let alone leading personality (who by the way worked hard, clandestinely, to rebuild the party) known as Kumar Gunaratnam. Kumar Gunaratnam’s older brother Ranjithan, who was eliminated by the state, was one of the JVP’s hero martyrs.

Thirdly, AKD’s situation is both absurd and hypocritical. He purports to lecture the SJB on political stupidity. Under AKD’s leadership, the JVP which had 40 seats in 2004 has dropped to three in 2020. He is also a leader under whom the JVP’s vote-share dropped to 3%. If the SLPP rolls back the low cut-off point that President Premadasa instituted and restores the original cut-off point that JRJ imposed, AKD’s party would be in dire straits.

Fourthly, AKD is attempting to talk down from a lofty height to a party which has achieved much more than his. Rohana Wijeweera had the ambition—as announced in his two master classes which he took around the country, about the fate of the LSSP and the SLFP- to become the main left party (which it is) and then the main opposition party. Having existed for 55 years it has failed to achieve the latter status.

By stark contrast, Sajith Premadasa’s SJB did so shortly after its formation. In the first general election it faced it obtained more seats and a higher percentage of votes than SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP obtained at its first general election in 1952.

It achieved the status of the biggest Opposition party in a few months; a status the JVP long aspired to. This was Sajith Premadasa’s achievement, coming on the heels of his ability to score 42% of the vote against Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 Presidential election. It is amusing when he and his party are given lectures on political unwisdom from someone who reduced his party from 40 seats to three.

While Sajith has been able to secure the leadership of the Opposition by making his party the largest in the Opposition space, the zenith of AKD’s achievement has been to knock Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dead UNP into fourth place and gain the third spot (and three percent of the vote).

Fifthly, a glance around the world will show that however dramatic the protests and upheavals, the endgame is either electoral-democratic or a military coup perhaps in electoral form.

The Arab Spring and its Egyptian outcome provide one example of the latter. Latin America provides the better example, of the former.

It would take the wildest leap of the imagination and the widest deviation from reason, to assume that a candidate who obtained 42% on the deep downswing, and a party that is the main opposition formation, can be outpolled by anyone from a party that cannot get into double digits.

A little modesty is in order therefore, from AKD; not an outburst of misplaced arrogance.

I was there, watching and listening, the last time the JVP, on a high, was dismissive of a Premadasa. It was at Nugegoda in June-July 1989. The event was a well-attended JVP rally by the roadside, which went on into night. President Ranasinghe Premadasa had released over a thousand JVP detainees, declared a unilateral ceasefire, invited the JVP to re-enter the democratic electoral process, offered it three portfolios- and the JVP had spurned it all, returning to violence. By mid-year Premadasa invited all parties to attend a Roundtable. Advised by Anton Balasingham and Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah (‘Mahattaya’), the LTTE agreed and participated for tactical reasons, to gain time and space.

At the Nugegoda rally, the JVP declared it was not the LTTE and would not bend, and announced that it would fight on till victory. That was June or July 1989. In six months, the party that AKD now leads, had learned a lesson about being “politically stupid, moronic”.

He should not repeat the mistake of talking down to another Premadasa; especially not the only son of the Premadasa that AKD’s predecessors thought themselves superior to.

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The so-called “Black July” riots of July 23, 1983, marked the culmination of a slow build- up of inter-communal violence over the years. Starting in 1956, going on to 1958 and growing in intensity by 1978, it saw the climax of this process in 1983.

Apart from the areas which were predominantly inhabited by the Tamil Community, almost the rest of the island was overwhelmed by the conflagration.

Anuradhapura District stood out as the one region that did not succumb to communal violence. Today, the then role of the Security Forces and the Civil Administration in Anuradhapura in successfully handling this crisis appears to have faded into the limbo of forgotten things.

The purpose of this narrative is two-fold. Firstly, to bring to notice the phenomenon of communal harmony that prevailed in one region, amidst the disturbing events of the time. Secondly, to show that in a Unitary State – there can be no other practicable constitutional arrangement- it is possible for all communities to live amicably if we only have the will to do so.

The morning of July 24, 1983, dawned bright and clear. I had returned home from Anuradhapura the evening before for an enjoyable weekend with my family, after a long stay there. I was the North Central Commander based in Anuradhapura.

While having my morning tea, I casually turned on the radio for the news. Then, I was astounded to hear the startling news that 13 soldiers had been ambushed and gunned down by terrorists at Neeravali Junction, Jaffna, the previous evening.

I immediately surmised, that this event boded ill for our Island and that Prabhakaran would succeed in orchestrating a stunning communal backlash – as intended – if immediate counter measures were not taken.

The District of Anuradhapura was my responsibility.

I therefore, packed my bags and left for Anuradhapura via Kurunegala within the hour. On the way I noticed people huddled in groups by the wayside talking in an animated manner. Their attitude and gestures confirmed my premonition that matters could soon get out of hand.

I reached Anuradhapura in double quick time and held a conference with my Detachment Commanders, the Police and the Civil Authorities. They all agreed on the need for immediate action to forestall trouble.

The Tamil population in Anuradhapura numbered a little over 5,000. Most were concentrated in the City and the rest scattered around. They were mostly traders and government officers. They could be easy prey to designing mischief makers within the District as well as elements infiltrating into the region. Kekirawa, had about 13 Tamil families – isolated and vulnerable.

Our intention was to ensure maximum normalcy in the region without resorting to the setting up of “Refugee Camps” or moving the Tamil population to safe havens outside the District.

Accordingly, the following measures were adopted for immediate activation.

Patrolling to commence immediately within the city and the outlying areas.

The three main approaches to the District i.e. Kekirawa, Kurunegala and Puttalam to be kept under round-the-clock surveillance by joint Army-Police teams. They were given clear orders to apprehend and to deal firmly with intruders.

Known trouble makers were summoned to the Police Stations in their respective localities and sternly warned against resorting to acts of mischief. They were also subjected to the closest surveillance by the Police.

Mobile patrols fanning out from the local Police Stations monitored progress and gave Situation Reports to my HQ at Anuradhapura.

The services of the local Gramodayas were harnessed to supplement the efforts of the Army and the Police. They enthusiastically, joined in organizing vigilance groups and kept a close watch on possible flash points.

The troops were addressed by their respective commanders and the gravity of the situation as well as the need to maintain the highest standards of discipline was impressed on them. The gist of this address was to point out that the killing of the soldiers was a matter to be dealt with professionally by the military and not by civilians killing civilians through outbursts of impotent rage. Such a reaction would in the long term be counter-productive and without a doubt disastrous.

On the evening of July 24, whilst our activities were under way, I was appointed Coordinating Officer for the North Central Province with full powers under the Emergency laws to ensure the peace. Since our plans were already in motion, keeping the peace caused no difficulties.

Eventually not a single Tamil was hurt in the entire District of Anuradhapura which continued to be a haven amidst the turmoil and carnage around.

Our success was mainly due to the enthusiastic cooperation of all the principal actors.

The District Minister, the late Chandra Bandara, in his enthusiasm, even tried to assume overall control of operations! I had to tactfully remind him that as the ultimate responsibility for maintaining law and order was entirely mine, I needed to exercise the necessary powers commensurate with that responsibility. He fully appreciated the position and gave me his fullest cooperation. He assured the Tamil government servants that they had no reason to fear for their safety or that they were being abandoned to lawless elements. He even occasionally accompanied me on patrols and was alert to keep me briefed on possible trouble spots.

The able Government Agent, the late T K Dissanayake, saw to the smooth functioning of the Civil Administration and gave all possible assistance to the Security Forces. He also ensured that the supply lines to the Province were running smoothly and that there was no dearth of food, grain or other essentials.

The police under SSP Sumanasekera were to me a tower of strength during this crisis.

On the personal side, my Staff Officer major – later Maj Gen Rtd – Vasantha Perera rendered yeoman service liaising with the Civil Authorities and coordinating arrangements.

My overall Commander Operations – later Maj. Gen – Vijay Wimalaratne, meticulously attended to all arrangements in the field and tirelessly monitored operations.

I have gone into detail about personalities because I feel that ours was a truly unique achievement which was solely due to their cooperation. There were no recalcitrant elements among them.

Our efforts at keeping Anuradhapura as a zone of communal harmony did not go unnoticed by either the media or the public.

I quote one excerpt from the editorial column of a principal daily newspaper – “the advance measures taken in Anuradhapura, a sensitive border area in terms of communal differences …….., the preventive action to preserve law and order, to protect the minorities, is deserving of study, of praise and of emulation.”

Finally, when I took leave of Anuradhapura shortly afterwards to assume duties as Commandant Military Academy Diyatalawa, a grateful public led by the District Minister, the Government Agent, the Police and other notables gave me a most moving send off.

This gesture remains firmly etched in my memory.

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Whither or wither NGOs?



Not too long ago, a friend of mine observed that many if not most NGOs, in their quest for values such as transparency and reconciliation, embark on lavishly funded projects that target a broad audience, yet appeal to a narrow base.

Exhibitions at galleries in and around Colombo, discussions with foreign experts in Colombo hotels, and art, essay, and photography competitions: these, she pointed out to me, tend to leave out people who matter to those who want to achieve reconciliation and accountability. By doing so, NGOs not only alienate people, but also discredit themselves.

She then showed me an expensive, glossily laminated book that an agency had brought out to commemorate a particular event. Around 30 photographs, each revolving around a specific theme, incident, or person, stood out on the pages, and the accompanying text, simple, brief, and poetic, pointed out the significance of the event as perceived by a person: a hawker on one page, a distinguished filmmaker on another, and so on.

The publication obviously seemed worthy of the care and commitment its authors had put into it. Yet my friend questioned, rightly I think, whether such a project would mean anything to the country. While she did not come out with it vocally, what she wanted to say was that much money had been spent on a book which would reach very few.

The problem with NGOs – and I mean most of them, barring the occasional agency that serves its community – is their inability to go beyond their quarters. Many of them seem to believe that forums, discussions, and exhibitions can somehow compensate for their lack of presence in the world outside Colombo or other major cities.

If this had the effect of merely discrediting them in the eyes of the people who should matter to these agencies, there wouldn’t be an issue. But it has also had the effect of turning the people who matter away from the very values that the agencies advocate. One can’t blame them, because when you intellectualise reconciliation and projects which supposedly promote reconciliation, you distance yourself from a majority whose unfamiliarity with the language employed in those projects puts them off.

If you want to market these values, you have to market them to the people. While I’ve always believed that liberalism, the ideological prism through which these values are promoted if not marketed today, is largely a construct of 18th and 19th century European, bourgeois, white civilisation, this does not and should not discount the universality and timelessness of values such as human rights, transparency, and accountability. That these have been hijacked today and put in the service of a neoliberal agenda is another question altogether; that is a legacy of the Cold War, the end of history, and the clash of civilisations.

In other words, we should not fall under the illusion that because these are being touted in the interests of certain ideological interests, they should be discarded completely. To do so would be to assume that such values are alien to our civilisation. They are not.

Human rights, transparency, accountability, and reproductive rights are not, nor have they ever been, Eurocentric. Historical narratives and accounts tell us that long before cities emerged in Europe, long before Luther pinned those 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church, scholars and rulers from this side of the world were making important moral distinctions, going beyond the dual logic system that the West would later pioneer.

It would be more correct to think of freedom, individuality, responsibility, and fundamental rights as universal values refracted through particular ideological systems. For instance, Rupa Saparamadu in Sinhala Gehaniya argues that, prior to European colonialism, Sinhala women were treated quite well and certain inalienable rights were accorded to them.

I myself take issue with such a claim – Praveen Tilakaratne, responding to a piece by Senel Wanniarachchi on the image of the goddess Tara at the British Museum in which he makes a similar observation, also takes issue with that claim – but the point that such an argument could be made, and historical evidence be marshalled for it, obviously points to a narrative of rights, duties, and justice falling outside the matrix of Western civilisation.

The vexing question, then, is whether we must accept these values for what they intrinsically are or whether, given how they have been modified to suit Western ideological interests and preferred political outcomes, we should try to relate them to a worldview that differs from a Eurocentric perspective. Indeed, Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has suggested that we view rights through cultural prisms.

The struggle to “universalise” these values and tenets must be taken from another angle also. For far too long, the human rights agenda, as it’s called, has been criticised, not unjustifiably, for being not only Eurocentric and white but also middle class and elitist. In other words, they are seen as the preserve of English speaking upper or upper middle class society, a point that has more often than not been borne out by the reality; a glance at some of the big names in NGO society will make it clear that agencies tend to operate through cocktail circuits rather than tangible, live encounters with people. Naturally this should not be the case, though it is: from the choice of officials for agencies to the language they employ in their press releases, they project distance from rather than proximity to the people.

I realise the dilemma that these NGOs are caught in. Agencies rely on donors and donors can only give once certain criteria are met. Forgetting for the moment the vexing, debatable issue of whether donors set certain agendas that are detrimental to national interests – a moot point which I think deserves further analysis and assessment – the truth is that agencies are, not a little ironically, as bureaucratised as government departments, if in a less discernible way.

As such policies tend to be ironed out by top officials, then reinterpreted by the rank and file of the organisation, policy is filtered through many layers, making consistency impossible. As the scholar Anna Ohanyan (2009) has noted, donors tend to “capture” NGOs and deny them both organisational autonomy, an issue exacerbated by the entrenchment of the NGO sector in the developing world in the face of weak, authoritarian regimes.

In fact, it is when the public sector is on the verge of collapse and the State veers towards authoritarianism that donors focus their attention on NGOs. This trend is hardly specific to Sri Lanka, yet it is a phenomenon prevalent in countries like ours that fluctuate between long periods of authoritarianism and brief periods of neoliberal reform. That, moreover, is not the case all the time: NGOs may flourish at times of authoritarianism and censorship since it can “market” the need for large funds, but it can also erode in such periods.

On the other hand, while donors may be willing to fund agencies during a transitioning from right wing authoritarianism to neoliberal reform, once the transition is made, or is assumed to have been made, they may exit the industry since, frankly, there’s no further need for them. A random visit to one or two offices of the most prominent agencies here will make clear how lack of funds has left the sector impoverished, especially in the wake of the post-2015 wave of neoliberal reforms that swept through the country and penetrated the State.

The fluctuating fortunes of NGOs deserve scrutiny. It’s certainly a paradoxical world out there, one which a seasoned academic, devoid of a bias for or against such agencies, must undertake to study. On the other hand, the universality of values that these agencies espouse must not and cannot be denied. To fit them in the larger cultural mould we come out of, to relate them to people whose conception of individuality is different from how the West’s, is to embark on an endeavour far removed from the cocktail circuits of local NGOs.

My critique of NGO led civil society thus is that we have allowed a certain group to dominate the conversation, letting them decide which issues are “larger causes” and which are not. By giving this clique carte blanche, we have let them do what they want, and what they please, on behalf of “us” or “the rest of us.” The need here, then, is to reform civil society. Unless we do this, all we will get out of reconciliation will be laminated coffee table books that mean nothing to people who matter. Reform within NGOs, by NGOs and not the state, is therefore an imperative need of the hour. It cannot wait, and it should not be delayed.


The writer can be reached at



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