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CHRISTIANS IN SRI LANKA:

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Living in Harmony amidst Challenges after Easter Terrorist Attacks of 2019

by Prabhath de Silva

Sri Lanka has attracted the attention of ancient and modern colonial empires, foreign countries ,merchants, travelers and missionaries over the centuries owing to its strategic and prominent location at a crossroads of maritime routes traversing the Indian Ocean.

The Portuguese were the first European colonial power to arrive in Sri Lanka in 1505. Their presence in Sri Lanka’s maritime provinces between 1505 and 1656 CE, which began as an interaction of trade and commerce, later developed into a colonial rule in the maritime provinces from 1597. The maritime provinces were ruled by the Dutch East India Company from 1656 to 1796. The British captured the maritime provinces of the Island in 1796 . When native feudal Chiefs ceded the sovereignty of the interior native Kandyan Kingdom to the British Empire by the Kandyan Convention of 1815, the whole Island came under the British rule. Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948.

The Buddhist missionaries from India during the reign of Emperor Asoka introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BCE, and it soon became the established religion of the ancient Sinhalese monarchy and the majority Sinhalese people. The Sinhalese majority community is predominantly Theravada Buddhist [93% of the Sinhalese population] and only a 7% of the Sinhalese population is Christian. Hinduism has been in existence since at least the 2nd century BCE The Sri Lankan Tamils are predominantly Hindu [ 85% of the Sri Lankan Tamil population]. A 15% of the Sri Lankan Tamil population is Christian. The Muslim settlers who came from the Arabian Gulf and later from South India brought Islam to the Island beginning in the 8th Century CE , converting native women upon marriage. Sri Lankan Muslims constitute 9.3 % of Sri Lankan’s population

During the presence of Portuguese in the Island (1505 to 1658), Catholic missionaries actively engaged in evangelization of natives. Thousands of native Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus embraced the Christian Faith. The maritime provinces of Sri Lanka came under the rule of Dutch East India Company after its armies defeated the Portuguese in a series of battles between 1640 and 1658. The Dutch immediately banned Catholicism in Sri Lanka by laws. Through the brave and zealous endeavors of the Catholic missionaries from Goa, a territory of Portuguese in India, a territory of Portuguese in India, the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka which had become an outlawed underground church, survived and grew amidst persecution during the Dutch occupation. In last few decades of the Dutch rule in the maritime provinces, beginning from the 1750 s the Dutch granted religious freedom to Catholics.

From the beginning of their rule, the British granted religious freedom to all religions. The Catholic church emerged as the largest Christian church. The British permitted the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka to establish schools and charitable institutions. Catholic missionaries came from France, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, and Goa. During the British colonial rule, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and The Salvation Army missionaries from the British Isles introduced their respective forms of Christianity to the Island in the 19th century. They established schools and charitable institutions throughout the Island. During the early British period, the American missionaries from the Congregationalist churches arrived in Sri Lanka and established churches, schools , the Island’s first western medical school in 1851, and medical missions in the Northern Province. In the early 20th century, when Sri Lanka was still a colony of the British, missionaries from the American Pentecostal churches introduced their brand of Christianity to the Island. According to the Census of 2012, a 70.2% of Sri Lankans were Theravada Buddhists, 12.6% were Hindus, 9.7% were Muslims (mainly Sunni), 7.4 Christian [Catholic 6.1%, other Christians 1.3 %] and 0.05% others.

 

Christians in Today’s Sri Lankan Society

In order to present a kaleidoscopic picture of today’s Christian community in Sri Lanka and the issues and challenges they face, I interviewed three pastors and four lay persons of four different Christian denominations in Sri Lanka for this article.

 

Voices of Pastors

On one Sunday morning when the sun was shining bright, I stepped into the Methodist Chapel at Kalutara, a town (predominantly Buddhist) situated in the western coast of Sri Lanka 42 km south of Colombo. The Sunday worship service was in progress. Methodist Church of Sri Lanka was founded by the early British Methodist Missionaries who arrived in the Island in 1814. It was these first missionaries who had established the Methodist congregation at Kalutara through their zealous missionary endeavours in 1814. Methodist Church of Sri Lanka today has approximately 25,000 members throughout the Island. Methodist congregation of Kalutara currently has a membership of 90 people consisting of Sinhalese and a few Tamils.

After the service, I spoke to the Methodist Minister in charge of this congregation, Rev. Sunil Weerasinghe (60). “Every Sunday we proclaim God’s Word and His love, and we encourage people to live in peace with their neighbors. Most people in our congregation are a low income earners. There are only a few middle class families. In the pastour church helped people find work or start their own small businesses. After all, it is better teach someone to fish than give him fish.” Rev.Weerasinghe laments: “Methodist Church of Sri Lanka nowadays have no funds for such self-employment projects.

In evening of that Sunday, I met Rev. Shirley Faber (61),President of the Christian Reformed Church of Sri Lanka (formerly known as the Dutch Reformed Church in Sri Lanka ) at his residence in Dehiwala, a suburb of Colombo. It is the oldest Protestant denomination in the Island founded by the Dutch East India Company in 1642. The Christian Reformed Church which had around 200,000 members by the end of the Dutch colonial rule in the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka in 1796, is today one of the tiniest Christian denominations today with a membership of approximately 6000 people. Speaking of ecological and social concerns, Rev. Faber said: “The mandate of the Christian Churches is not only to preach the Gospel but also to show Christian concern and love for people and the love for God’s creation. God created the world and handed over the control of His beautiful creation to the human beings. We ought to know that we are only the stewards of His creation. As stewards of His creation, we should display good stewardship. We are accountable to God as to how we utilize the resources in His creation. The Churches should show its concern for ecological and social issues. In our society, wealth and resources are unfairly distributed. During the Covid-19 crisis, our church helped both Christians and non-Christians. We should show our love for people regardless of their religion not with the motive of converting them to Christian faith’.

As for the theological challenges, Rev. Faber is of the view that some charismatic Pentecostal churches which promote and propagate the ‘new theology of prosperity’ (health and wealth), poses a challenge in that they entice the less informed members of mainline Christian churches to join them by their controversial teachings.

 

Easter Sunday Attacks : Seeking Justice

On 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, three churches (two Catholic and one Evangelical Pentecostal) and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, Colombo, were attacked in a series of terrorist suicide bombings launched by a local Islamic extremist terrorist group which had embraced the ideology of ISIS. A total of 267 people were killed including at least 45 foreign nationals and eight bombers, and at least 600 were injured. Among those who were killed and injured, there were many children and women. The church bombings were carried out during Easter worship services in St. Sebestian’s Church, Katuwapitiya in Negombo, St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo and Zion Pentecostal Church in Baticaloa.

Out of the 267 people killed and 600 injured, about 221 killed and an overwhelming majority of the injured were Christians attending Easter Services in the three churches. On April 21 last year, Easter Sunday, a series of suicide bomb attacks launched by a local extremist Islamic group which has embraced the ISIS ideology inside three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. Out of the 267 people killed and 600 injured, about 221 killed and an overwhelming majority of the injured were Christians attending Easter Services in the three churches. On April 21 last year, Easter Sunday, a series of suicide bomb attacks launched by a local extremist Islamic terrorist group which has embraced the ISIS ideology inside three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. “The impact of the attacks is still noticeable. Christians seek justice for the victims and their next of kin, “says Rev. Dr. Noel Dias, a Catholic priest, a former Senior Lecturer in Public International Law at the University of Colombo and an Attorney-at–Law, who resides at the Archbishops’ House of Colombo.

Rev. Dr. Noel Dias remarked: “The leadership of the Catholic Church played a decisive role in containing the probable escalation of retaliatory violence against the Muslim community by appealing to her faithful not to retaliate but to forgive the attackers in a true Christian spirit. The Easter terror attacks have left a lasting impact on Christians. They are still seeking justice for the victims and their families.” These concerns are echoed every day by the Christians and other people in Sri Lanka and abroad. Mr. Mike Pompeo, US State Sectary who was on an official visit to Sri Lanka on the 27th and 28th October, did not forget to place a wreath at St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo on 28 th October 2020. In his Twitter, Pompeo said: “Today, I laid a wreath at the Shrine of St. Anthony, one of the sites of the 2019 #EasterAttacks which killed and injured hundreds of innocent people. We stand with the Sri Lankan people and the world to defeat violent extremism and bring perpetrators to justice.”

There are some questions that remain to be answered. The most important of them all is: Why didn’t the Sri Lanka’s authorities in charge of security who had repeatedly received prior foreign intelligence reports about these terror attacks and the suicide bombers during the two weeks prior to the attacks, take appropriate action to arrest the suicide bombers and prevent them? The investigations including a concluded Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry and an on-going Presidential Commission Inquiry have not yet conclusively answered these questions even after one and a half years. Suspected perpetrators have so far been indicted in the High Court for trial in connection with the Easter attacks.

As for the spiritual challenges posed by the Easter Attacks, Rev. Dr. Noel Dias said: “The martyrdom is the seed of the Church. These challenges remind us of what C. S. Lewis once said: ’Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’

Speaking of the role of the Catholic Church in pastoral care, Rev. Dr. Dias opined: “Catholic Church is in the fore-front of organized pastoral activity, which performs very well in the educational and social service sectors. There is a great need for pastoral care in terms of building a rapport between the clergy and the laity. In terms of political involvement, Catholic Church in Sri Lanka does not get involved in party politics but raises her voice and concern when the occasion demands justice and reasonableness in the political and social context. In the perspective in theology, the church should refrain from being elitist. External pomp, over emphasis of material structures must be moderated. There is a greater need in this direction. In terms of fostering family relationships, Catholic Church is better organized than the other religious denominations. However, there is still an urgent need to address issues like pornography, drug and alcohol addiction etc.”

 

Voices of the Lay Christians:

Aruna Silva (50), a father of six children, who earns his livelihood as a three-wheeler taxi driver and a painter of motor vehicles said: ” I was born and bred as a Methodist. I moved to this area in 1995 and joined this congregation. There is religious freedom in the country. There were a few occasional isolated incidents of religious violence against Christian churches by a few extremist groups.” Aruna opined: “I believe that the persuasive and aggressive forms of evangelism used by some evangelical Pentecostal churches disregarding sensitivities of other religions, at times though not always, may have provoked the extremist elements to attack Christian places of worship in some rural areas”.

Naveen, a 20 year old young undergraduate student in Information Technology who is a member of this Methodist congregation at Kalutara said: “I am proud to be a Christian in Sri Lanka as it gives me a unique privilege to show my Christian testimony to non-Christian brothers and sisters by my words and deeds of love. Our good deeds would speak louder than our words. In order to help the poor people to improve their economic conditions, the church should first identify their skills and help them to earn an income in the areas they are so skilled”.

Janice Benjamin (32) is a young educated Catholic mother of five children, housewife and an active member of the Catholic movement known as “Neocatecumenal Way” founded by Kiko Argüello, a Spanish artist and Carmen Hernández in 1964. She lives in Colombo and is a member of St. Lawrence’s Church there. Janice strongly believes that “Satan is waging his final war against the family”. Says Janice, “I personally see how it is absolutely true in the context of the Church here. Many Catholics, I believe, are not given proper and adequate instructions on the Catholic Church and its history, its rich teachings, and as such it is very obvious to see the prevalence of many attacks on the family. The Neocatecumenal Way is a tiny minority within the Catholic Church. In the Neocatechumenal Way, we are given a lot of insight on the teachings of the church and the Bible particularly on marriage, family, children, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. It is very sad to see only a minority in the church practice the official teaching of the Church on these issues. Many would go with the tide and agree with the modernist views of society. Sadly, many of my friends say that unless the Church adapts to the modern trends, it will lose its members.”

The Neocatecumenal Way of which Janice is a member, promotes the idea of having children as many as possible. Says Janice: As a young mother of five children, I would say that it is definitely a challenge for me to raise my five kids in a society which considers having more than one or two children is old fashioned and stupid. There are struggles economically, and physically and it is draining our energy and resources. But in the midst of all these I see the love of God resonates in my family of five children who are a blessing from God.”

Speaking of the most important reform needed in the Catholic Church, Janice opined: “In my opinion, the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has to be more vocal in its teachings. The Church should do more to inculcate the rich traditions and values in her faithful, younger generations and children. The teachings of the church and the Bible should be slowly introduced to the children not in a moralistic and legalistic sense but in a way of showing them that this is how the Love of God is reflected.”

Professor Rathnajeevan Hoole (68) is a member of the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka. He belongs to the congregation of St. James’ Church in Nallur, Jaffna, his native place in the Northern province of Sri Lanka chiefly inhabited by Sri Lankan Tamils. Professor Hoole, is a former Senior Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Peradeniya and State University of Michigan. He is well known for his role as one of the three members of Sri Lanka’s Election Commission. Professor Hoole’s father was an Anglican clergyman. Professor Hoole has served as a member of the Diocesan Council of the Colombo Diocese of the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka for several years. A When interviewed by me, Professor Hoole expressed his concerns about the general level of education prevalent among the pastors in the Anglican Church of Sri Lanka and in other non-Catholic churches. Said Professor Hoole: “The educational standards of our protestant pastors have deteriorated over the last few decades. Pastors of non-Catholic mainline churches (except the pastors of Christian Reformed Church) are trained at Pilimatalawa Theological College where liberal theology is taught, while the pastors of evangelical free churches and Christian Reformed Church receive their theological education from evangelical/Pentecostal seminaries. The most important reform required is to groom educated Protestant pastors. Many Anglicans and other non-Catholic Christians seem against or ignorant of the creeds and Catholic side of our faith. The free churches even think the Lord’s Prayer is Roman Catholic. So unsatisfactory is our theological education. They think transference from Roman Catholicism is conversion. Most of the educated Jaffna Tamil Christians left Sri Lanka and settled down in the western countries during last six decades due to the ethnic tensions and a 30 year Civil War that ended in 2009”.

The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka and worldwide maintains very high and uniform educational standards for its clergy. In order to become a Catholic priest, a seminarian should first read for a Bachelor of Philosophy degree awarded by Gregorian University or Urban University of Rome in English medium after his General Certificate of Education (Advanced Level)-Sri Lanka’s matriculation examination. In addition to this a seminarian is required to read for a second degree of Bachelor of Theology awarded by one of these two universities. These degree are recognized by the university grants Commission of Sri Lanka and universities throughout the world.

Amidst all the challenges, the significant contributions of Christianity to the social and moral development of Sri Lankan society in some aspects remain highly significant. The most significant and prominent among such legacies is the formal educational system of primary and secondary schools in Sri Lanka. It is a lasting legacy of Christian missionaries. The missionaries of mainline Christian denominations (Catholic and non-Catholic) were responsible for introducing a formal modern educational system by establishing their respective networks of schools throughout the iIsland increasing the literacy of the people. The non-Christians were the largest beneficiaries of the Christian missionary school system. The leaders of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities who had received their education from the Christian missionary schools later established Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim school networks on the lines of the Christian missionary school model in the last quarter of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. The British colonial government provided financial aid to both Christian and non-Christian school networks. The Christian missionary school networks served as the models for both State and non-Christian schools. The Catholic and Protestant Churches were the pioneers in establishing Reformatories for juvenile offenders, Schools for the Blind and Deaf, children’s homes, elders’ s homes, hospitals and industrial schools for young persons etc. The concept of monogamous marriage was introduced to Sri Lanka by Christian colonial rulers and missionaries. It is now a well accepted and entrenched concept among the Buddhists and Hindus. Christian influence can also be seen in wedding ceremonies and funerals and in other moral and social aspects too.

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A year into Rajapaksa presidency amidst Covid-19 pandemic

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by Harim Peiris

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

 

 

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-2017)

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How rot set in

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Rubber:

By Dhamsiri Dasanayaka,

Ex-Advisory Officer, Rubber Research Board

Rubber could be considered bread and butter of bona fide smallholders. They have cultivated their lands with rubber plants and manufacture Ribbed Smoked Sheets (RSS) out of their harvest by using traditional knowledge. The government in order to help them initiated an extension service for cultivating rubber. This article attempts to show how this extension mechanism came about.

In 1972, the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) established two extension departments, namely Smallholdings Department (SHD) for rubber smallholders and Estate Advisory Department (EAD) for large estates. In 1974, both were amalgamated into a separate scientific extension department called Advisory Services Department (ASD). From 1953, under the Rubber Control Act, non-scientific Rubber Control Department (RCD) provided subsidies to rubber farmers. The RCD issued permits to relevant land owners for replanting and new planting. Copies of these permits were referred to the ASD of the RRI for initiating the extension activities. Rubber Instructors of the ASD carried out this extension service successfully. They guided the small holders in multiple ways, such as planting, processing, marketting, bark exploitation, and other agricultural activities. This was the rubber extension system that took place during the decade of 1970.

In 1984, Smallholder Rubber Rehabilitation Project 01 (SRRP1) was implemented with World Bank assistance. The Advisory Services Department (ASD), with its flexible financial management system, the well-set theoretical, and practical links with the RRI, functioned effectively to improve the smallholdings sector. Both RRI and ASD were under the Rubber Research Board (RRB) highlighting the “Research- Extension- Farmer” academically recognized agricultural development model, and the SRRP planners decided to entrust this project to the ASD, which consequently became a well-organised active Extension Department like the RRI structure under the (RRB). Chairman of the RRB was a rubber industry professional. RRI and ASD were headed by two PhD qualified Directors. The think tank of the ASD was a scientifically qualified active group competent enough to implement the SRRP project successfully. During this project period, the role of the RCD was to issue permits to rubber farmers.

The Rubber Control Department (RCD), which essentially consisted of administrators, appointed a field staff of rubber Inspectors to handle the extension programme on field. They were too involved in subsidy administration in the field thus duplicating field work of rubber which caused confusion among rubber smallholders according to administrators. To eliminate this farmer confusion from the field, the ASD, which constituted experienced scientific think tank was removed from the RRB in 1994 and attached to RCD think tank, which was mainly an administration body and formed Rubber Development Department (RDD), which was also an administration body. This non-scientific administration think tank (RDD) was not conducive to effective agricultural extension.

By 2002, there were too many irregular segments causing duplication and, hence, excess staff in the RDD were transferred to RRI without having a clear mandate. As a result, 35 extension officers of the RDD who came back to the RRI were entrusted to handle extension programme under the RRI Director. This again led to creation of a dual extension officer situation in the field as in 1994.

At present there are six more institutions formed by the MPI and the relevant authorities to supply services to rubber sector as mentioned below.

As a result, there are four officers from the institutions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the field handling extension and related functions. Now, the rubber farmers are again in a dilemma, unable to figure out which officer should be contacted to get advice on multiple services such as cultivation and processing, etc. Hence, it is questionable why the MPI and relevant authorities have ignored this multiple officer situation. This is in spite of a number of institutions dealing with rubber cultivation and wasting rubber growers cess fund meaninglessly.

 

Source: Rubber Development Department

Table 1 and articles authored by Mr. J. A. A. S. Ranasingha, Dr. L. M. K Tilakaratna and Professor. C. S. Weeraratna, in The Isalnd during the last few weeks indicate that the rubber production in the country has decreased substantially. Table 2 shows the production and imports of RSS in the year 2017. This implies that RSS manufacture should be increased which has a direct link with the smallholder production of RSS. RSS is an input to rubber industry. To improve the productivity of the rubber sector, which is on its way to extinction, there is a pressing need for an effective scientific rubber extension organisation to cater to the needs of rubber farmers. This will enable agronomically qualified think tank to assist rubber farmers to carry out agronomical activities such as outdoor farmer training , indoor training at Nivthigala Kelle, adaptive research activities, planting practices, soil conservation measures, establishing cover crops, fertilizer application, exploitation methodologies, manufacture of better quality rubber sheets, nursery management, smoke houses management, fixing rain guards and marketing, etc., more effectively like in 1994 and before.

One crucial factor which can be attributed to this calamitous situation in the rubber sector was the extremely unsatisfactory situation in the scientific extension, created by the amalgamation of the ASD and the RCD in 1994, removing the extension-oriented ASD think tank from RRB and forming the RDD administration think tank for the sake of development of the rubber sector. This action led to a breakdown of the well-established “Research – Extension – Farmer” inter faced academic development model. This model is a must in agricultural development and it must never be converted to a “Research – Administration – Farmer” model even though the extension label is affixed to the administrators. As a whole it was counter-productive as evident from the decreased production of rubber and increased imports of RSS due to the extension mechanism.

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Quadriplegic doctor aspires to walk again

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Dr. Dinesh Palipana Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021

By Sajitha Prematunge

Dr. Dinesh Palipana does not have the full command of his fingers and his usual offer of a handshake took the form of an awkwardly extended fist. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, like a good sport, fist bumped the quadriplegic doctor, gangster-like, an act of empathy Palipana appreciates to this day. Such are the trials and tribulations Sri Lankan-born Australian doctor, lawyer and disability advocate, Dinesh Palipana is faced with, on a daily basis. But such technicalities didn’t prevent him from recently being named Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021.

The quadriplegic doctor, the first of its kind in Queensland, and the second in Australia, is currently a lecturer at the School of Medicine, Griffith University; Adjunct Research Fellow at Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Senior House Officer (Emergency Department) at Gold Coast University Hospital. “Eleven years ago I was lying on an intensive care bed, I couldn’t move my arms and legs, I couldn’t eat or breathe. My life was falling apart all around me. But to be here after all that trauma seams surreal. But I am grateful for life, for my community, friends and family that supported me,” said Dr. Palipana.

He is a founding member of Doctors with Disabilities Australia, an advocacy group for physicians with disabilities and the ambassador for Physical Disability Australia. Palipana is a member of the scientific advisory committee of Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation. In 2019 Palipana was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine; Junior Doctor of the Year at the Gold Coast University Hospital; Henry Viscardi Achievement Award, a global award in recognition for his work in disability advocacy; and ‘Change Making’ in National Awards for Disability Leadership. All these accolades and achievements would have been impossible without the love and support of his mother, Chithrani Palipana. “My mother taught me what love, strength, commitment and perseverance are.”

 

Tragedy

Born in 1984, Palipana and his family migrated to Australia in 1994, when he was 10. Not only physical disability, Palipana knows only too well how debilitating mental health disorders are as well. He battled with depression, anxiety and panic disorder while studying law. “It took some time. I had to readjust my life and thinking. Finding my purpose really helped.” He realized that law was not his calling. He commenced his Doctor of Medicine at the Griffith University in 2008. When he was 25 and half way through his medical degree, he lost control of his car while driving home on a wet night. The car aquaplaned and rolled. When it finally stopped, he realized that he could not move or feel his legs. Palipana was far enough in his medical education to self diagnose it as a spinal cord injury. It left him quadriplegic.

He lost all sensory and motor function below his chest due to the injury. “I can’t move my fingers,” said Palipana. He has had to make a lot of adjustments to life. “Initially, going from a normal life to being paralysed, was very challenging.” Palipana pointed out that even day-to-day activities can be difficult with impaired movement. Despite a life-changing disability, Palipana decided to go back to medical school. Against all odds he graduated in 2016, with quite a few awards, as the first quadriplegic medical graduate in the state of Queensland, the second in Australia. He also completed a medical clerkship at Harvard Medical School.

Prof Harry McConnell of Griffith University was instrumental in getting Dinesh back on his feet, no pun intended. “He is a passionate believer in inclusivity and has always fought for the rights of those with different abilities. He did a lot of work to facilitate me coming back to medical school. He also helped me a lot with getting my life back together.” Palipana was inspired by Dr Harry Eeman, Australia’s first doctor with tetraplegia, who sustained a severe form of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder that left him paralysed, halfway through medical school. “Dr. Eeman spent time with me to figure out solutions to some of the physical challenges. His experience really laid the foundation for my journey.”

 

Medical school

Palipana adapted new methods to train as a quadriplegic doctor, in partnership with Griffith University and the Gold Coast University Hospital. Quadriplegia can turn everyday activities into obstacles, but he learned his way around them. “Before coming back to medical school I spent a lot of time finding solutions to challenges. I had a great team helping me.” And with persistence, he learned how to hold a stethoscope making use of the natural grip of his fingers. He learned how to examine patients. “I even learned how to insert a cannula with some assistance.”

When asked how inclusive Australian professional culture is, in terms of employment opportunities for the differently-abled, as opposed to a country like Sri Lanka, Palipana admitted that it initially proved difficult to secure an internship in medicine in Australia. Despite two years in clinical training as a medical student at the Gold Coast University Hospital, Palipana had trouble securing an internship. In 2016, he was the only Queensland medical graduate without an employment offer. “I worked really hard in medical school and got good grades. It was very frustrating that non of those things mattered.”

Palipana admitted that medicine is not the most inclusive profession, but said it has improved much in the past five years. Although he explored the possibility of pursuing a medical degree in a Sri Lankan University, Palipana said that most university administrations were reluctant to accommodate him, “Except for Kelaniya University. Other universities have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity.” As a quadriplegic doctor working in Australian, Palipana said that shortcomings of accessibility are not restricted to Sri Lanka. “Accessibility needs a lot of work globally.”

His perseverance paid off. He was eventually employed by the Gold Coast University Hospital as Queensland’s first quadriplegic intern. His disability makes him no less capable as a doctor compared to an able-bodies person. Gold Coast Health, Emergency Medicine Director, Associate Professor David Green, speaking to the Today Show Australia, vouched for Palipana’s ability to pull his weight, albeit on a wheelchair. “In a big, busy emergency with a lot of staff, his value is enormous…After a while you just forget about his disability,” said Green on the Today Show. Dinesh said that the team spirit gets him through. “Besides, there are plenty of patients, I can examine, who do not require me to perform any procedure.”

When asked whether his disability has made him more empathetic towards his patients and whether the accident and subsequent hospitalization made him more able to relate to his patients, Palipana said he remembers what it felt like to be a patient. “It can be disempowering and terrifying. Anchoring myself in my own experiences helps me to remember what it’s like being a patient.” On the other hand Dinesh said that he has never had a patient react negatively to him. “Every single patient has been amazing. I am privileged to be a part of their journey towards recovery.”

Cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques for spinal cord injuries has a major research appeal for Palipana, who is determined to walk again. As Griffith University’s Biospine Project co-lead, Palipana explained that thought-controlled rehabilitation involves translating thought patterns into movement. “For example, if someone’s thinking of walking, we can translate that thought to movement by electrically stimulating the leg.” Promising results suggest that it can re-programme the spinal cord to restore some function in people with paralysis. “Therapies such as thought-controlled rehabilitation, drug therapy and digital twins have separately shown to restore some function in people with chronic paralysis. It is our hope that people like me will be able to stand on their own power again.” His ultimate goal is to come up with a therapy for spinal cord injury.

 

Advocacy

After recuperating at hospital for eight months, Palipana came back to Sri Lanka, where he spent another year, recovering in the company of family and friends. While in Sri Lanka he raised awareness and funds for spinal cord injury victims. In fact, his disability was a catalyst to his advocacy for training medical students with disabilities in Australia. “I’m lucky to be in a position to advocate for people with different abilities,” said Palipana.

Palipana obtained his law degree from the Queensland University of Technology in 2007 and was admitted as a lawyer in 2020. His background in law gave new impetus for his advocacy work on inclusivity in medical profession and education in Australia. “Law is a great tool that can be used to do a lot of good. It allows us to navigate legal and social structures.” His advocacy work with the Australian Medical Association has paved the way for national policies on inclusivity in medical education and employment. He used his story to demonstrate how the community can work with disability, to overturn a set of guidelines issued by the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand in 2015, vesting Australian medical schools with the power to exclude students with a range of disabilities. “Another major obstacle faced by students with disabilities was the attitudes of education establishments such as universities and academics.” Palipana said that Griffith University was an exception.

Palipana is also vocal about disability rights in the times of COVID-19. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the inequities that differently-abled people face. Everything from healthcare access to employment has been an issue,” said Palipana. When health resources are scarce, some would argue that they are better utilized on those with a higher chance of survival. When governments of the developed world are forced to consider how to ration ventilators between people with disabilities and those without, how has COVID-19 affected those with disabilities?

If one with lungs as compromised as those of Palipana’s, were to contract COVID-19, the prognosis would indeed be bleak. Palipana explained that people with disabilities, depending on the disability, can be at high risk of increased complications due to COVID-19. “Many disabilities affect lung function. My lungs for example, don’t function as well, because of the spinal cord injury. It’s 30 percent of what it should be. If I were to get COVID-19 or even the flu, the chances of an adverse outcome is relatively high. Similarly, people with multiple sclerosis and stroke victims are susceptible,” pointed out Palipana. That should not justify sidelining people with disabilities. Palipana maintained that it is all the more reason to safeguard such vulnerable groups. “Through different forums and organisations, I am fortunate to be able to make a contribution in this important area.”

His message to people with debilitating disabilities and illnesses, who may be contemplating giving up on life is, “As a good friend once said, life is about ups and downs. Whenever there is an up, just know that there will be a down. Things can get challenging, but anyone can overcome them and live their dream, if they have the will. If I can become a doctor and lawyer others can too. Just find your passion and chase it.”

Going from being unable to breathe without the aid of a respirator, to advocating for disabled people and developing medical aid, real life success stories such as that of Robin Cavendish, never cease to inspire. Dinesh Palipana who proved his mettle by doggedly pursuing a career in medicine, while advocating for disability rights is, without a doubt, of that same calibre and hopefully will inspire multitudes more to achieve similarly extraordinary aspirations.

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