Friday 25th November, 2022
Television is very educational, Groucho Marx has famously said, adding that every time somebody turns it on, he goes into another room and reads a book. Parliamentary sessions are also educational in that sense; whenever they are telecast, one’s gorge rises and one swiftly switches off the tube and reads a book. But the telecast of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s speech in the House on Wednesday (23) was different; it reminded us of a nineteenth century book, of all things—Vice Versa by F Anstey (pseudonym used by Thomas Anstey Guthrie). It is about body swapping—two persons exchanging minds and living in each other’s bodies—which is a common trope in sci-fi books and flicks. Politics and shape-shifting go together, but what has body swapping got to do with politicians?
On listening to President Wickremesinghe, who was going ballistic in the House, one wondered if he and his immediate predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had swapped bodies, for the former sounded just like the latter. Most of all, Wickremesinghe called himself Hitler, albeit tongue in cheek. It was Gotabaya who was expected to be a dictator like Hitler after being elected President. Basil Rajapaksa himself likened his elder brother, Gotabaya, to ‘Terminator’ before the last presidential election, and some prominent Buddhist monks said the country needed a leader like Hitler, and Gotabaya fitted the bill.
The UNP and other Opposition parties also described Gotabaya as Sri Lanka’s Hitler and warned that he would rule the country with an iron fist, if elected, but curiously he did what was expected of Ranil, who was considered a weak leader. Ranil is now doing what Gotabaya was expected to do!
Gotabaya, a former frontline combat officer, played a crucial role in defeating the LTTE, and stood accused of deploying the army to crush a protest against a factory which caused groundwater pollution at Rathupaswala, in 2013, but he meekly allowed anti-government protesters to march on the President’s House, and fled the country, a few moons ago. Ranil, who was wary of opening his mouth even for a dental examination while the LTTE was around, has made short work of the anti-government protesters who ousted Gotabaya, and warned that he will crush all protests aimed at engineering a regime change. How come such transformations are possible? Isn’t it natural that one wonders whether something similar to what one sees in Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk Altered Carbon series with a dystopian futuristic setting where consciousness is digitised and transferred between persons, has happened in this country with Gotabaya and Ranil swapping bodies?
Meanwhile, President Wickremesinghe’s declaration in Parliament that he will not allow any protests to be held at all unless the organisers thereof obtain permission from the police for such events is proof that the government is ready to go to any extent to retain its hold on power. He might as well slap a blanket ban on protests, for there is no way anyone could obtain permission from the police for an anti-government demonstration. The police offer their services as bouncers to the powers that be. The current administration is the outcome of a political marriage of convenience between the UNP, which has a history of crushing democratic dissent, and the SLPP led by the Rajapaksa family, which has got attacking democracy down to a fine art. It goes without saying that democracy is in grave danger.
One may recall that during the Premadasa government, a group of journalists covering a DUNF event were attacked by UNP thugs in full view of the police, and when the victims went to the Fort police station to lodge a complaint, the OIC stood his full height blocking the main entrance and declared that the place was closed for the day! When the media asked a servile police spokesman, during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, why dozens of pro-government thugs armed with clubs had been allowed to operate alongside the police riot squad at an Opposition protest, in Colombo, he had the chutzpah to claim that they had been carrying ‘sticks’ to ward off stray dogs. So much for the impartiality of the police, from whom the President wants the Opposition to seek permission for its protests!
Most of all, Chairman of the National Police Commission (NPC) Chandra Fernando is under fire for his presence at a ceremony the SLPP held recently at the BIA to receive Basil Rajapaksa. He has said he happened to be at the airport when Rajapaksa returned from the US, and met the latter. But the controversy over what he did has cast doubt on the NPC’s credibility and impartiality. A fish is said to rot from the head down.One can only pray for the safety of Sri Lankan democracy or what remains thereof.
When House oozes with religiosity
Thursday 1st December, 2022
We have been wondering, during the past few days, whether the ongoing parliamentary debate is on Budget 2023 or Buddhism. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa have been arguing over some Suttas, or different interpretations thereof. Yesterday, Premadasa treated the House to a brief lecture again on some Suttas in response to what the President had said the previous day.
Never a dull moment in the House when President Wickremesinghe is present. He has a remarkable predilection for thrusting and parrying with his rivals. An avid reader, he is au courant with Buddhism, and causes a stir now and then by making snide remarks about political monks. It was something uncomplimentary he said about some junior monks and their conduct that prompted Opposition Leader Premadasa to leap to the defence of the Maha Sangha and quote extensively from several Suttas in support of his arguments. One may not countenance the President’s choice of words at issue, but the conduct of some Buddhist monks is deplorable to say the least, and they are a disgrace to the Sangha. It is incumbent upon the Maha Nayake Theras to rein them in.
Some MPs have strayed into such lengthy digressions, parading their knowledge of Buddhism, that yesterday Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene happened to urge them to stop preaching Dhamma and concentrate on the purpose of the debate and the day’s business.
Politicians are known for smug moralising and fervent religiosity, and on listening to their arguments over Dhamma in the House we were reminded of a line Antonio utters in The Merchant of Venice: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” They are doing to the Dhamma what they do to the Constitution; they are interpreting it in such a way as to justify their actions and gain political mileage.
Curiously, while some laymen were arguing about the Dhamma in the House in a bid to score political points, MP monk, Rathana Thera, made no intervention. It is not clear from media reports on parliamentary proceedings whether he was present in the House while others were bandying words about Buddhism. He waxes eloquent on other subjects ranging from agriculture to foreign affairs, and even advises the Presidents on matters related to agrochemicals, but has chosen to remain silent on the ‘debate’ on the Dhamma, which is his province! We expected him to intervene when the budget debate took a religious turn, so to speak. Even Education Minister Susil Premjayantha stuck his oar in, yesterday. Is it that Rathana Thera considers it infra dig to make a contribution to a debate among laypersons on Buddhism?
It is Vanijja Sutta that Opposition MPs and the President should have discussed during the budget debate, if at all, more than anything else because the Buddha has basically said therein what types of business should be avoided.
The Constitution accords Buddhism the foremost place, but the State of Sri Lanka has, under successive governments led by Buddhist leaders, been doing exactly the opposite of what the Buddha has preached in Vanijja Sutta; he has asked people to abstain from engaging in business in weapons, business in living beings, business in flesh, business in intoxicants and business in poison’. Sri Lanka promotes slavery in all but name; it encourages its women to slave away in West Asia to earn forex; it is dependent on taxes collected from manufacturers of liquor and cancer sticks, and it has undertaken to develop fisheries and animal husbandry. The Chandrika Kumaratunga government sought to set up a factory to manufacture arms here, but its plan went awry. Budget 2023 has proposed to explore the possibility of growing cannabis, of all things, for export! The Sri Lankan state is not involved in the poison business as such, but allows the sale of food items and other commodities contaminated with harmful substances including carcinogens.
Can the rulers of Sri Lanka reconcile the constitutional provision that grants Buddhism the foremost place with the blatant violation by the State of the core tenets of Buddhism?
Now that our honourable representatives have amply demonstrated their knowledge of Buddhism, let them be urged to practise what they preach so that Parliament will be a better place. For this purpose, they do not have to study the Suttas or discourses; they only have to observe the Five Precepts and abstain from, at least, lying, killing and stealing.
Hitler, Stalin and others
Wednesday 30th November, 2022
The Nazis of Sri Lanka (read the members of the current SLPP-UNP government, whose leader, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has called himself Hitler recently in Parliament) have gone into overdrive to suppress democratic dissent. They invaded an auditorium at Hanguranketha, on Sunday, in a bid to sabotage a conference held by a group of SLPP dissidents. Thankfully, they failed in their endeavour.
The fact that the Sri Lanka police are functioning as the Sturmabteilung or Brown Shirts under the Third Reich in Germany, and the prevailing culture of impunity seem to have emboldened the Nazis here to unleash violence to intimidate their political opponents. The Hanguranketha attack presages trouble for democracy, the Opposition and the distressed citizens who are left with no alternative but to take to the streets.
What is up the government’s sleeve is not difficult to guess; even a female ruling party MP has warned that there will be attacks on the Opposition. State Minister Diana Gamage warned Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, the other day, in Parliament; she asked him to cancel a protest march to be held from Kandy to Colombo lest the people should set upon him on the way. The term, ‘people’, is a euphemism Sri Lankan governments use for their goons. One may recall that in the early 1990s, when some journalists covering a DUNF leaflet distribution campaign near the Fort Railway Station were attacked by a gang of UNP thugs, the then Minister of Defence D. B. Wijetunga claimed that ‘irate train commuters’ had assaulted the media personnel who were blocking the entrance to the railway station! We asked him, in this column, whether commuters carried firearms, swords, bicycle chains, and knives. President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was in power at the time, may not have thought his beloved son would come under similar attacks by ‘people’.
The government has sought to justify the use of draconian laws such as the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) to curb public protests on the grounds that political upheavals adversely impact tourism. If so, will the SLPP and the UNP explain why they resorted to street protests to engineer regime changes? The UNP held a large number of protests against the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, and the SLPP unsettled the Yahapalana administration by means of mass protests. The UNP backed the Galle Face protest campaign to the hilt when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the President. No sooner had Wickremesinghe been appointed the Prime Minister than he appointed a committee to look after the interests of the anti-government protesters!
Power cuts, scarcities of essentials, attacks on democracy and the exploitation of foreigners affect tourism more than peaceful protests do.
Political stability is no doubt a prerequisite for economic revival, but it cannot be achieved by suppressing public protests. Similarly, it is well-nigh impossible to overcome political instability while the people are undergoing economic hardships and demanding relief. The government must not only take action to stabilise the economy but also be seen to be doing so. Unfortunately, it is seen to be busy solving the problems of the Rajapaksa family, the SLPP, the UNP and their cronies! It also lacks legitimacy because it comprises the SLPP grandees who ruined the economy, and other failed leaders who were rejected by the people at the last general election for neglecting national security and mismanaging the economy.
There are some troublemakers hell-bent on plunging the country into chaos on the pretext of fighting for the rights of the people. They are the ones who carried out arson attacks, assaulted people and even killed an MP during anti-government protests in May and July. But that is no reason why the people’s fundamental rights should be curtailed. All violent elements that break the law have to be dealt with separately. Interestingly, President Wickremesinghe, who calls himself Hitler, has condemned anti-government protesters as Fascists! Some violent characters among protesters claim to be ‘students’. The government refuses to accept their claim. It does not seem to be aware that the terrorists who have ruined Afghanistan are also called ‘students’ or Taliban in Pashto!
Meanwhile, the unfolding politico-economic tragedy is not devoid of some comic relief. In the 1940s, Stalin had Hitler on the run. But, about seven decades on, here in this land like no other, we see ‘Stalin’ running like a rabbit with ‘Hitler’ in hot pursuit! General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, Joseph Stalin, valiantly led mass protests against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the front, and was instrumental in engineering the collapse of the Rajapaksa regime, but today he is on the defensive, facing as he does harassment at the hands of the current dispensation. He has proved to be no match for Gotabaya’s successor, who calls himself Der Fuhrer; his bark is now worse than his bite.
Sport: Arousal of savage instincts
Tuesday 29th November, 2022
What is this world coming to when sport sparks violence and engenders animosity instead of unity and friendship? Riots broke out in Brussels, of all places, on Sunday during a World Cup football match between Belgium and Morocco, which pulled off a 2-0 upset win. It was too much for some football-crazy Belgians to stomach. But their reaction cannot be condoned on any grounds; violence engulfed several other Belgian cities as well with rioters setting vehicles on fire, pelting police with stones, and inflicting heavy damage on public and private properties while the football fans of Moroccan descent were painting the town red.
Football riots in Belgium occurred only a few weeks after a sport-related tragedy elsewhere. More than 130 people including children perished in a stampede at an Indonesian football stadium, where a pitch invasion led to clashes and police excesses.
Sporting contests are full of uncertainties, but most people cannot come to terms with this reality, much less defeats. These events have become ruthless competitions where sporting spirit has no place. Sport has long ceased to be fun, as a result. We are said to be living in a civilised world! The so-called enlightened Western nations that never miss an opportunity to take moral high ground have also failed to be different although they urge other nations to be tolerant of even terrorist outfits responsible for heinous crimes against civilians.
Sports and nationalism are an explosive mix, which turns sporting encounters into wars of sorts. Cynics say that one need not be surprised even if a cricket World Cup final between some nations in this part of the world happens to trigger a nuclear war!
Some Saudis are reported to have fired into the air in celebration of their country’s shock win against Argentina in a recent football World Cup match. It was no mean achievement for Saudi Arabia, but why should rifles be taken out? Such is their patriotic fervour; they are not alone in celebrating victory so passionately although in other countries, sports fans do not go to the extent of discharging their automatic weapons.
Meanwhile, religion has also wormed its way into the world of sport. Some sportspersons openly seek the intervention of supernatural forces to clinch victory in competitions, but such invocations often go unanswered if instances of inconsistency in their performance and ups and downs in their careers are any indication. Sri Lankan cricketers are a case in point. They make a public display of their religious faiths as well as superstitious beliefs. Some senior cricketers are reported to be followers of Gnanakka, a former hospital orderly, who claims to be a medium of divine revelations!
Sri Lankan cricket has become a confluence of politics, dosh, gambling, religion and superstition; it sadly lacks the sporting spirit. What they follow is the very antithesis of the core theme of Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada. Besides, their thick gold chains, bracelets, talismans, etc., seem to be weighing them down and impeding their performance.
It is only natural that all efforts to bring about global peace and save lives lost in conflicts have come a cropper. How can tensions among nations or groups of people be defused and armed conflicts averted or resolved in a world where even sport, which is meant to bring peoples together arouses ‘savage combative instincts’ and leads to aggression and even mindless violence?
Reports on football riots in Brussels reminded us of George Orwell, who has pointed out in his famous essay, The Sporting Spirit (1945), that football provokes vicious passions. He has made an interesting observation about all forms of sport: “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.” How true!
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