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Broad coalition of protesting groups necessary

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Sri Lanka is currently experiencing the worst economic crisis in its post-independence history. Foreign reserves have dangerously dwindled, incapacitating the government to import essential supplies, such as fuel, cooking gas, fertiliser, and medicine, among other things, says the Social Scentists’ Association of Si Lanka.As a result, Sri Lankans are going through unprecedented suffering. Severe shortages of almost all essential items have had a crippling effect on their daily lives. For many weeks, people across the country have been standing in long queues to obtain essentials. They are forced to suffer long hours of power cuts. The current crisis has not only disrupted people’s lives at home, but also adversely impacted the economic activities of many sectors, such as agriculture, transportation, hospitality, small businesses, and manufacturing. The livelihoods of many are teetering on the edge of collapse. Children’s education, already disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, has further suffered due to lack of transportation, electricity, and even writing papers. Hospitals have almost run out of essential medicines, costing lives. The crisis has reached such a high point that any corrective measure, no matter how well thought out, will take at least months to have some positive effect on people’s everyday lives.We share the public perception that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is primarily responsible for aggravating the financial crisis and bringing it to a head. In the backdrop of intensifying popular protest against the difficulties people face, the President and his government are fast losing legitimacy. Although economic mismanagement was the immediate cause of the current crisis, we cannot ignore the role of political institutions and processes in producing the overall crisis. Since independence they have nurtured a corrupt, authoritarian, ethnicised, dynastical, and undemocratic political culture, paving the way for the current disaster of unprecedented magnitude. Resolving the immediate economic crisis is undoubtedly a major priority. However, we believe that restoring democracy and reforming the country’s political culture are equally important and urgent, for establishing a just and fair society.

Indeed, this is the call from ordinary citizens who have been protesting over the last month, night and day, in the sunshine and rain, offline and online. The protests which started as small neighbourhood candle-light vigils about the hardships faced by people, due to the power cuts and gas and fuel shortages, have now grown into an unprecedented nationwide uprising that has crossed the ethnic divide. A number of protests have been punctuated by Iftar celebrated by Muslim participants at the protest ground. Young people, including university students, who have never been involved in any protest, are at the forefront of the agitation. This is a spontaneous citizens’ protest movement with a multi-class, multi-ethnic character. It is a culmination of a wave of protests commenced by farmers, teachers, fishermen, etc., against economic hardships a few months ago.This spontaneous uprising of people, independent of political parties, call for the removal of the Rajapaksa family and all 225 Members of Parliament. We see this call as a metaphor of the deep disenchantment shared by many citizens with the whole political class in this country. This wave of protests gives a clear message that citizens are deeply disappointed with the way in which the country’s system of democratic institutions and practices have been abused by the political elites, as well as the bureaucracy. The slogans and demands being put forward embody a thorough critique of the system, suggesting ideas and directions for far-reaching reforms and reconstructions. It is also a call for a new political culture of democracy, accountability, and integrity without political corruption. Citizens and civil society organisations, committed to Sri Lanka’s democracy, have come together to support and sustain this movement in the long term.

We unequivocally condemn the use of violence against unarmed citizens exercising their right to protest, and are deeply saddened by the death of one protestor at Rambukkana on the 19th of April 2022. More broadly, we recognise that there are efforts to infiltrate this movement and divide and demonize the protesters as anarchists and extremists. Counter protests are being staged to bring back ethnic divisions. Social media analysts have also warned that efforts are underway to splinter and dilute the core message coming from the people. Therefore, participants and well-wishers of this new democratic movement in Sri Lanka need to be vigilant to defeat such efforts at undermining this movement. Moreover, the Prime Minister, in his address to the nation on the 11th of April, appeared to issue a veiled threat against the protesters, while falsely asserting that the protestors are insulting the armed forces.

This is a new and rare democratic moment for Sri Lanka. Let us not miss it. We urge all political and civil society actors to respond to the messages coming from the protesting young citizens with utmost seriousness and responsibility. In that context, we would like to state the following:

*We welcome the current democratic activism of all Sri Lankans, especially the youth, who have got onto the streets to express their deep disappointment and anger against the rulers. It is a new democratic movement of citizens that has emerged independent of political parties and politicians.

* We urge the current government to respect the demands of the citizens and pave the way for a new interim government, and take effective steps to resolve the economic crisis immediately.

*We urge the government to suspend those responsible, immediately as well as indirectly, for opening fire on unarmed civilians pending an independent investigation into the killing of one protestor in Rambukkana. We are conscious that such action by the police has been normalised through a long history of impunity.

We stress the importance of reforming the political system of the country as a part of the solution to the current economic crisis by:

*Re-establishing the primacy of parliamentary democracy, checks and balances on the Executive as well as the Legislature, to prevent arbitrary and corrupt government, and institutions and mechanisms of accountable government.

*Introducing new institutional and procedural mechanisms to facilitate citizens’ participation in, and supervision of policy-making and implementation.

*Reforming and democratising political parties, their structures, and practices to be truly representative of citizens, freeing the parties from the control of families, business elites, and corrupt vested interests.

*Introducing reforms to re-establish independence of the bureaucracy, judiciary, and law enforcement institutions, including the Attorney General’s department and the Police, on the principle that their primary institutional duty is to serve the people and protect their rights, and not the interests of the rulers.

*Adopting economic policies that encourage economic and social development, while providing adequate social protection measures to safeguard living standards of the poor, the unemployed, and the working people.

*Putting in place an institutional framework that would ensure citizens’ participation in the affairs of government.

*Introducing an institutional framework that would establish equal status of all economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender groups while protecting their rights.

*Ensuring that any programme of resolving the economic crisis would not transfer its burden to vulnerable social groups.

*Addressing the long-standing demand for greater devolution of political power from the Tamil minority; and

*Accounting for past and present atrocities committed by the State against all citizens, including minority communities.

We call for a broad coalition of all protesting groups to sustain this movement for democracy and economic justice in the long term. The participation in the on-going struggle by industrial and plantation workers, farmers, public and private sector employees, small traders, women’s groups, student groups and ordinary citizens indicates a foundation has been already laid for a mass movement to emerge. It is also time for any struggle for democracy in the ‘South’ to be linked up with the struggles for devolution and justice in the North and East, and the rejection of the systematic marginalization and intimidation of ethnic and other minority communities as part of state policy.

THE SOCIAL SCIENTISTS’

ASSOCIATION



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Opinion

The lasting curse of Janasathu

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Kataboola tea estate

Let me begin with two anecdotes.

In the 1960s, my father would pull into the local Shell petrol shed and a smiling pump attendant, smartly attired in a uniform (khaki shirt and shorts) would come up to the driver’s side and inquire what was needed. While petrol was being pumped, the attendant would wipe the windscreen and check the engine oil. The toilet was clean. The air pump worked. To my delight, large, colourful road maps were given out, for free. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? All this for about Rs. 1 (one) for a gallon of petrol!

The next anecdote. In 1978, I visited Brian Howie, a former classmate, at Kataboola Estate in Nawalapitiya. Brian was an SD – assistant superintendent – and his bungalow was in a remote corner of the estate, so remote that it had its own mini hydroelectric plant. Mrs. B’s government, which had nationalised the estate, had recently fallen and the estate was now under new management.

The bungalow was sparsely furnished, and I noticed that a corner of the living room was blackened. Brian told me that the previous occupant, a former bus conductor turned “SD”, had not known how to use the kitchen stove, so he put some bricks together and had created a lipa in the living room to do his cooking. Meanwhile, every appliance and item of furniture in the bungalow had been stolen by the same man.

Janasathu has a false ring, meaning “owned by the people”. But, as everyone knows, the term instead means a nest of thieves, running up millions in losses at the cost of the people. A place where friends and political supporters are given employment, showered with generous perks, and given a free run to plunder. Government owned corporations, companies, and “other institutions” run into the hundreds, and perhaps a handful make a profit. The rest are leeches, sucking the blood of the nation.

Do we need a corporation/board for salt, ceramics, timber, cashew, lotteries, fisheries, films, ayurvedic drugs, handicrafts? For a publisher of newspapers? They are so swollen with employees that their raison d’être appears to be employment, perks and plunder that I mentioned above.

I recently read that Sri Lankan Airlines, the CTB, the Petroleum Corporation, and the Ceylon Electricity Board are the biggest loss makers. The Godzillas among them appear to be Sri Lankan Airlines, which reportedly lost Rs. 248 billion in the first four months of this year, and the Petroleum Corporation, which lost Rs. 628 billion in the same period. (The Petroleum Corporations is owed billions of rupees by both Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board.) The Ceylon Electricity Board appears to be a mafia, subverting efforts to promote renewable energy, while promoting commission-earning fossil fuels. While the poorest among our population are starving, the crooks that run these organisations continue to deal and steal.

In Hong Kong, where I lived for 20 years, no airline, bank, petroleum company, telephone service, LPG or electricity supplier is owned by the government. The buses belong to the private sector. In Japan, where I live now, in addition to the list from Hong Kong, even the railways and the post offices are privatised and provide a courteous, efficient service. In Japan, the service at petrol stations is reminiscent of Ceylon’s in the 1960s that I described above.

At least in one instance, Mrs. B attempted to correct her folly in nationalising plantations. The de Mel family owned thriving coconut estates in Melsiripura. After nationalisation, the estates declined to such a sorry state that Mrs. B personally invited the de Mels to take them back. Today, the estates are thriving under efficient management.

As a nation, we need to admit that janasathu has failed, and take steps to remedy the situation ASAP.

GEORGE BRAINE

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Opinion

Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions

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I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.

In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.

Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.

Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”

Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!

LIONEL RAJAPAKSE

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Opinion

Need for best relations with China

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(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future

ANANDA MEEGAMA

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