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Commemorating independence with reconciliation

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

An unfading memory of my childhood is watching the Father of the Nation hoisting our national flag at the octagon of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, 74 years ago. Seated next to my father on the planks of a wooden viewing platform erected in front of the Dalada Maligawa, I watched D. S. Seananayake raising our national flag, after the symbolic lowering of the Union Jack; it got stuck momentarily as it passed through the hole in the roof, causing DS give it a tug, and my father said, “That is DS, our hero.” Does that hitch signify what we had to undergo to gain independence, or what has happened since?

The buzz-word of the moment is reconciliation and on this occasion of commemorating our Independence, we should ask ourselves whether we have done enough. ‘Reconciliation’ has been defined as ‘the restoration of friendly relations’ or ‘the action of making one view or belief compatible with another’. If one were to go by these definitions, the question is whether talking about reconciliation in Sri Lanka is superfluous as it already exists, perhaps to a greater extent than in the countries that attempt to judge us and force pseudo-reconciliation down our throats!

What DS raised was the Lion Flag, which was adopted as the national flag of the Dominion of Ceylon by the Parliament following a proposal made by the Member of Parliament for Batticaloa, Mudaliyar A. Sinnalebbe, on 16 January, 1948. To represent minorities two vertical strips of equal size in teal and orange were added in 1951. Even after independence our national anthem was “God Save the King’, till the Independence Commemoration Ceremony of 1952, when ‘Namo Namo Matha’ was sung in Sinhala. It is notable that an official Tamil version was sung in Tamil majority areas like Jaffna on this occasion though some narrow-minded nationalists have objected to this lately.

Ours is a country where differing ethnic and religious groups live in relative harmony. After all, minorities live freely within majority areas in spite of the denial of reciprocal rights in some minority areas.

Sri Lanka, a country which has been influenced for over 23 centuries by the pacifism of the majority religion, Buddhism, has shown great religious tolerance. Sinhala Buddhists co-exist with others despite grave injustices done to them during colonial times.

The Portuguese converted Buddhists to Christianity forcibly, though the British were subtle in their manoeuvres. Fortunately, all that has been put behind. In fact, the head of the Catholic Church, whilst acknowledging that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, has declared that Catholics are more at liberty to practise their religion in Sri Lanka than in most other countries.

When terrorists bombed Catholic churches, even Buddhist priests assisted in the rebuilding efforts. Buddhists are seen by the hundreds in some Hindu Kovils.

Of course, there are occasional hiccups, but which country does not have religious and ethnic tensions? However, if one were to analyse the root causes of such issues, one finds that these invariably are politically motivated or engineered. Admittedly, one thing that Sri Lanka lacks very badly is an enlightened political class. The majority, as well as the minorities are represented by self-serving politicians who are corrupt. In the past, we had politicians who contributed to world peace. J. R. Jayewardene, the young Finance Minister, who represented Ceylon at the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, changed history, though his achievements later as President left much to be desired. We have politicians who were brave enough to take on terrorists and defeat them, going against the advice of so-called experts who declared that some terrorists were invincible. Unfortunately, though Mahinda Rajapaksa won the war, he was only partially successful in establishing peace. However, it was not entirely his fault, let down by the leaders of the so-called Free World.

Can Sri Lanka do better? Of course, it can. For that to happen Sri Lankans should be allowed to sort out problems themselves without external interference. Co-existence as well as reconciliation cannot be imposed. It has to emerge from the hearts and minds of the people. First and foremost, the continued harassment by the UNHCR, which is based on biased reports, must stop.

The other key factor that hampers progress is the behaviour of the Tamil diaspora. Their attempts at keeping the Tiger dream of a separate state alive, only antogonise the majority. Instead, they should concentrate on economic development measures for the benefit of their brethren back home. Is it not paradoxical that most of the young Tamils who are waving Tiger flags today were sent to the West by their parents, sometimes using devious means to avoid conscription by the Tigers?

Unfortunately, minorities always seek rights forgetting that they too have responsibilities. The ‘50:50’ demand by G.G Ponnambalam was totally irresponsible.

What about the demand for the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces? Is it not a demand that one minority be allowed to undermine another minority?

The more important question is the situation of the Muslim community in the East. In a merged province the Muslim voice would be significantly diluted and, if this happens, Islamic extremists are likely to have a field day.

Sometime ago, there was an excellent suggestion for redemarcating provincial boundaries and reducing the number of provinces to five with each province having access to the sea, one of our most valuable resources. With the reduced number of provinces, more effective devolution could be envisaged with less financial outlay. These are the sort of innovative solutions politicians of all shades and ethnicities should seriously consider if they seek prosperity, which would eventually lead to true reconciliation. I do hope the present government would implement its promise of the ‘one country-one law’ concept. If laws separate and distance communities, won’t they hamper reconciliation?

Another important issue is the banning of all religious and ethnic political parties so that voters would choose governments based on policies alone. Bhikkhus and other religious dignitaries should also be banned from taking to active politics as it is very important to keep religion and politics apart.

We must also do away with is the caste system, which plagues both Sinhala and Tamil communities. This archaic division persists because it is exploited by politicians. Some Buddhist Nikayas are also guilty of upholding a practice abhorred by the Buddha. Even if a classless society is a distant dream, a casteless society is long overdue.

It is sad that the Buddhist majority has a tendency to overreact due to the false impression that Buddhism is under threat. Of course, politicians are ever ready to exploit and encourage this sort of irrational behaviour. What needs to be understood is that from the time of formal introduction in 3rd Century BCE, Buddhism came under numerous threats but has overcome them all. It has been able to do so because Buddhism is not simply a religion but a philosophy that laid the foundation for modern scientific thinking. Even if it does not survive in Sri Lanka, it will survive in the West, as more and more have come to understand the true value of Buddhism. Therefore, we should not make Buddhism an excuse for inaction but the reason for true reconciliation and peace.



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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