… and biting a hideous croc’s tail
By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne
(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy)
Former Chief of Defence Staff
There is a saying in the Sri Lanka Navy that if you want to be a real seaman, you should do the Basses light-house relief operations, which are unnervingly tough. That assignment requires excellent navigation skills, seamanship knowledge, boat handling and team work in very rough sea conditions. The slightest mistake will cause your ship, or boat, to be smashed on the devilish reef.
Two of my batchmates and I became ‘real seamen’ – or so we thought – by doing the Basses lighthouse relief operation almost 40 years ago, as cadets, in the m
onth of April 1981. So, our “baptism of fire” occurred at the Basses.
One of the “Three Musketeers” was
Dushyantha Amaranayake, a Logistic Officer, who rose to highest position in the Naval Logistic branch, Director General, Naval Logistics, and to rank of Rear Admiral. He is now retired and living in Kandy. (As an aside, if you want to meet him during daytime, do not go to his residence but to the Victoria Golf course, Digana, or the Nuwara-Eliya Golf Club). The second one was Rohana Perera (who rose to Rear Admiral rank, commanded three Naval A
reas and after retirement functioned as the Chairman, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) for a number of years with much dedication. He is now living in Ragama. The third one was yours truly. We were ‘all for one – one for all’.
We were selected by late Lieutenant Shanthi Kumar Bahar, the Officer in Charge of Lighthouse relief vessel, ‘Pradeepa’ and Officer-in-Charge of Naval Diving Unit for the lighthouse relief operations. We had been in the Navy only for six months!
Those days ‘Pradeepa’ operated from T
rincomalee and her task was to help change lighthouse keepers, every three months, transport food items, fuel and fresh water to the Great Basses and Little Basses light houses, which are six to seven nautical miles away from the land off Kirinda/Yala/ Kumana area. The three lighthouse keepers lived in the lighthouse for three months, cut off from the rest of the world. It was a very difficult job, but I came to know that they were highly paid.
When the British left our shores, after Independence in 1948, and our Defence Pact with the UK came to an end in 1957. (From 8th January 1782 to 1st October 1957, the Naval base, Trincomalee, had been under British.) Imperial Lighthouse service handed over to the Royal Ceylon Navy the lighthouses — there were 14 active lighthouses around the country –– the relief vessel and the fabulous mansion in Colombo 7, where the Head of Imperial Lighthouse Service (Ceylon) had lived; it was also known as “Light House”. This mansion currently houses the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for Strategic Studies.
The lighthouse relief
operation was a very tough task, especially during the monsoon seaso
ns (North-East and South-West). The two relief operations during inter monsoon seasons (April/May and December/January) were very enjoyable with calm seas and crystal-clear waters. We were lucky that we did 1981 April relief operation and Pradeepa was anchored close to the lighthouse with two shackles of anchor cable. (A shackle is 15 fathoms). You see the anchor and the cable lying on the sea bottom from the ship’s bow! We, the young cadets, used to jump into sea and swim to the Great Basses lighthouse while Lt Bahar and other Navy divers were engaged in spear fishing.
Evening B-B-Qs were full of fresh sea food at our camp site in Kirinda (while doing the relief operation at Great Basses lighthouse) and in Udda Pottana (at Yala block 2) while we were engaged in relief work for the Little Basses lighthouse. After a seafood pig-out, the three carefree cadets would sleep on the beach in open air, next to our camp fire. I indulged in my favourite hobby––counting stars.
There were these three lucky cadets working hard on seamanship and navigation during daytime and enjoying the night with good food while their not-so-fo
rtunate batchmates in Trincomalee were polishing shoes, chipping and painting the deck of old gunboat SLNS Ranakamee and running around the dockyard!
The need for the lighthouses in Basses reef had been felt by the British in 1856 as ships had to a
void the dangerous Basses reef known as Ravana Kotte in Sinhala––the mythical sunken city of King Ravana. To be on the safer side, ships kept well away from this reef, thereby spending more time on passage and burning more coal. It was argued by mariners that if lighthouses were constructed to show the ends of the dangerous reef, a large amount of funds spent on extra coal and time could be saved. An iron tower on a granite base was proposed but that project did not get off the ground.
Sir James Nicolas Douglass, renowned Engineer and Lighthouse designer with Alexander Gordon, submitted a design, in 1867, to Trinity House (official authority for lighthouses in England, Wales, Channel Islands and Gibraltar) involved in the project. Those were the days when the construction of lighthouses was a family business. Sir James’s brother, William Douglass, was the executive engineer of the Basses lighthouse construction project, and travelled to Sri Lanka. The stones required for construction of the lighthouse were cut into required sizes, numbered and shipped in two steamships with lifting gear. Each stone was 2-3 tons and 120 tons were shipped from the UK. The load of 37, 256 cubic feet of granite used for the Great Basses lighthouse weighed 2,768 tons. The tower was 121 feet in height.
These granite blocks were carried all the way from the UK in specially designed two twin-screw steamers fitted with lifting gear.
The first stone was laid on 28th December 1870 for the Great Basses lighthouse and work completed with light fitted in March 1873. There are six circular rooms in the Great Basses lighthouse with a 13-foot diameter. The little Basses lighthouse of the same size as the one at Great Basses was completed in 1878. Both lighthouses were identical; the Great Basses lighthou
se is pure white and the Little Basses is white with a black strip around the centre. Two lighthouses flashed two different light signals at night as per Admiralty List of Lights. The characteristics of the lights indicated in navigational charts also.
The Little Basses lighthouse is closer to Corona shipwreck. (It had nothing to do with coronavirus!) Corona was a 40-gun frigate originally owned by the Italian Navy; it was built in Venice in 1807. The Royal Navy captured her and named her HMS Daedalus; she sank hitting the Little Basses reef while escorting a convoy, in 1813.
A wooden whaler (boat handle by oars) was being towed by Pradeepa and tow was released closer to light house. The whaler was thereafter pulled by a civilian crew. They were led by their coxswain, Taalif Mohammad Rajeem. He came from a family British brought from Jawa (Indonesia) for this job. He was living in Kirinda. Rajeem was extremely adept at what he was doing. He kept the whaler with oars closer to the lighthouses, not hitting the reef and transferred goods and men by using a manually operated crane at the lighthouses. Rajeem did this with a vessel controlled by oars, something that even present-day power boats could not do!
Rajeem was an excellent cook as well. His ‘fish soup’ was delicious. It is the best fish soup I have tasted in my life. Rajeem died at 84, about five years ago. We miss the great man.
When we visited the two lighthouses, we found that they were very well maintained by the keepers. They were like five-star hotels. The brass parts of the buildings were shining. Now the lighthouses are controlled by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.
It is very unfortunate that these two lighthouses were abandoned following the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. The killer waves reached the third floors of the lighthouses and their keepers had to be rescued by the Sri Lanka Air Force helicopters. They refused to work there thereafter. Now, the lights are automated and mainly depend on solar panels.
I visited the two lighthouses with the present lighthouse keeper, Nizar, who is based in Kirinda, when I was Director General Sri Lanka Coast Guard in 2014. You feel sorry of these majestic granite giantesses that were strong enough to withstand the ferocious tsunami waves.
I will conclude with one incident that happened in Udda Pottana during our lighthouse relief operation in 1981.
While walking on a dried Villu in the Yala block Two with Lieutenant Bahar in lead, we came across a huge crocodile in the middle of the place. It looked dead. Lt Bahar asked me, “Cadet Wijegunaratne do you know how to find out whether a crocodile is dead or not?” I said, “No Sir.”
He said the crocodile had its last strength in its tail-end. “So, you have to bite the tail end and if it moves, it’s alive. If this crocodile is alive, we will carry it to a water hole and release it. I said, “Aye, Aye, Sir! “.
Lt Bahar shouted at me again, “So, why are you waiting?” What do you think? So, I went up to the huge croc and bit its tail! Luckily for me, there was no movement. It was dead.
If any Navy Officer asked a present-day Cadet to do such a thing, the cadet’s parents would go running to Human Right Commission and log a complain against the officer!
Those days we were told “comply and complain”. Yes! We complied. But to complain? To whom?
Those were the days!!!
Whither the Proposed Elephant Reserve?
Land grabbing in Hambantota
The following is a shortened version of a communiqué sent to us by the author on behalf of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform
2019 marked the worst year for human-elephant relations. With 405 elephant deaths at the hands of humans and 121 human deaths at the hands of elephants, the year saw a surge in a conflict which has dragged on for decades, if not centuries. Among the root causes are the eviction of elephants from their natural habitat, the fragmentation of their territory, and the use of that territory for development work and for illegal activities.
The recent surge in encounters between elephants and humans has been almost purely due to certain interventions by successive governments, in the Hambantota District, that has led to elephants intruding on human territory and humans encroaching on elephant territory. In that sense, we feel the present government ought to be held to account over two decisions taken by the Cabinet before and after the parliamentary election.
Two fateful decisions
As per the provisions of Circular No 05/2001, issued by the then Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife on August 10, 2001, areas categorised as “residual forests” were taken under the jurisdiction and protection of the Forest Department.
We have learnt from reliable sources that owing to pressures exerted by certain powerful Ministers, moves have been made to amend this Circular and to transfer these areas to Divisional and District Secretariats. This has facilitated the theft and plunder of those lands, among them those demarcated as the site of a Proposed Managed Elephant Rreserve in Hambantota which we will look at below.
Another key decision of this government, after the election, was Gazette Notification No 2192/36, issued by the Land Commissioner General, which sanctions the use of state lands for the purposes of investment and local milk and food production.
Accordingly, applications have been called from interested parties, and once they are received authorities will screen them before giving the green light for the transfer of these lands. We can verify that certain businessmen are, through powerful politicians, lobbying for the transfers of property which belong to the Elephant Reserve.
Some of the affected territories
We have identified four broad areas that these illegal activities have affected. Firstly, 2,000 acres extending from Gonnoruwa to Buruthankanda, encompassing Gal Wewa, Weli Wewa, Kurudana, Katan Wewa, and Galahitiya Wewa, have been marked for bulldozing and will be flattened completely. On the authority of a former Air Commander, moreover, 500 acres in this territory have been cleared to make way for a solar power plant.
Secondly, the Mahaweli Authority released certain lands between the Proposed Elephant Reserve and Madunagala to locals, resulting in the isolation of 18 to 20 elephants. This has considerably heightened the human-elephant conflict in the area.
Thirdly, around 20 elephants are isolated or trapped within a 2,500 acre territory that formed part of a 5,000 acres taken over for the Magampura Port Project. Again, this has led to a heightening of the human-elephant conflict.
Fourthly, the coridoor taken by elephants from Gonnoruwa to the Bundala Wildlife Sanctuary has been wiped off. The path has been obstructed mainly due to deforestation. Once again, it has only contributed to a heightening the human-elephant conflict.
The consequences of not opening the Proposed Preserve
Development projects throughout Hambantota until now has led to the loss of 20,000 acres, to say nothing of a spike in human-elephant encounters that have, in the last three years, caused the deaths of 31 elephants and 15 humans (with eight more villagers disabled for life). It was to remedy these issues that a proposal was made to the Department of Wildlife Conservation to construct a Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve. To date, no progress has been made on this, with the result that forest land ostensibly reserved for the purpose has been flattened to make way for illegal sand, rock, and clay mining.
The vacuum created by the failure to declare the area as belonging to the Reserve has been filled by an unholy trinity of powerful politicians, corporations, and local thugs. The previous regime, moreover, built villages and farms on lands in this area. That speeded the pace at which they were later taken over by various unscrupulous interests.
Authorities have thus far failed to declare the Proposed Reserve and start work on it. That has resulted in a proliferation in illegal transactions and a deterioration in relations between humans and elephants. We shall look at each in turn now.
A snapshot of some of the illegal activities
The ongoing construction of a solar power plant commissioned by various companies has resulted in the clearing of over 600 acres of land in Saddhatissapura and Buruthakanda. The ongoing construction of a “solar village” near Valaspugala and Divulpalassa has affected 300 more acres which elephants used to frequent.
A former Air Force Commander has, through the Mahaweli Authority and by his sanction, reserved around 60 hectares for the construction of the Solar Power Plant. Forty acres have been transferred to a company called Senok, while 20 acres of forest have been cleared. All that, by the way, in violation of the National Environmental Act.
Property developers have managed to transfer to themselves 6,000 acres of prime land encircling Maginkaliyapura,
Gonnoruwa, Katan Wewa, Pahala Andara Wewa, and Kada Idi Wewa. As usual, the most discernible and immediate outcome of this has been a surge in encounters between elephants and humans.
Oil remains a lucrative field, and the localities of Lolugas Wewa, Matigath Wewa, Parenhi Wewa, Lin Wewa, Swarnamali Wewa, and Mayiyan Wewa encompassing some 1,500 acres have been isolated to make way for an oil tank farm. Among other problems, this will affect 90 acres of paddy land adjoining Swarnamali Wewa.
2,000 acres adjoining Hamuduru Wewa, between Sooriya Wewa and Pahala Andara Wewa, have been felled for banana cultivation; eight persons have been identified as running the plantation. The illegal enclosure has been fenced off electrically, disrupting the lives of elephants who used to frequent the area. The villagers of Andara Wewa, Valaspugala, Karuwala Wewa, Tissapura, and Ranamayapura complain of these beasts encroaching into their lands and destroying their livelihoods.
Meanwhile, the waters of Andara Wewa are being rapidly drained, leaving precious little for cultivation by resident farmers: a significant threat to an entire way of life.
Can we lay aside the sand, clay, and rock mining operations these illegal land transactions have led to? By no means. In addition to the unauthorised cultivation of crops, forest land in Veheragala which belonged to the Department of Wildlife Conservation has been allocated for stone mining, in addition to areas such as Mayurapura, Seenikkugala, Katan Wewa, Ihala Andara Wewa, Kuda Idi Wewa, Galahitiya, and Gonnoruwa.
What has caused all this?
Two reasons can be pointed at for what’s happening in Hambantota District: the apathy of relevant authorities, especially the Mahaweli Authority, and the spurt in mega-development projects. We shall look at each briefly now.
Regarding the apathy of relevant institutions and authorities, all that needs to be said is that the silence of the Wildlife Conservation Department, the Central Environmental Authority, the Divisional and District Secretariat of Hambantota, and of course the Mahaweli Authority continues to be deafening. Certainly, it is on their doorstep that we lay the blame for what is happening today, not just to the people but also to the environment.
Take the Mahaweli Authority. Around 40% of the land concerned belongs to this institution. As per Section 3(1) of the Mahaweli Authority Act of 1979 and Gazette Notification No 137 dated April 16, 1981, it took over land in the Walawa Division. At no point was forest land in the vicinity taken over to release them later on for development work.
The continued felling of trees and isolation of elephants are in clear violation of the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980. According to Gazette Notification No 772/22 of June 24, 1993, clear, unequivocal permission from authorities is needed for deforestation of land in excess of 2.5 acres. Laws are generally more honoured in the breach than they are in the observance, and as far as these laws, gazettes, and circulars are concerned, there has been very little observance, much less enforcement.
Regarding the mega-development work in the region, we have already noted that it has led to the deforestation of more than 20,000 acres. Three projects in particular have aggravated the problem: the Magampura Harbour, the Mattala International Airport, and the Southern Expressway from Matara to Hambantota. No proper Environmental Impact Assessments have been conducted for them. In the absence of an environmental audit, we are forced to conclude that the beneficiaries of these initiatives, in particular certain Chinese firms, have chosen to ignore their impact on wildlife. We need not add that it has served to aggravate not just deforestation, but also human-elephant encounters.
The need to open the Elephant Reserve
A total of 25 reservoirs belonging to the relevant area in Hambantota come under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, while 17 more come under that of the Mahaweli Authority. The forest area bordering these reservoirs comprise a flourishing ecosystem, preserved for centuries despite the encroachments of colonisers. They contain some of the most diverse hotspots in this part of the world, populated by more than 450 elephants and other birds and beasts. We cannot let them be destroyed at the whims of politicians, corporations, and thugs. They must be preserved.
The road ahead
It is clear that the most immediate solution to these problems is to commence work on the Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve. If not, the illegal transfers of and transactions over land belonging to it will continue, pitting elephants against humans at a level unparalleled in recent history. The protection of natural habitats and areas populated by elephants should thus be our number one priority.
To that end the ongoing transfer of 15,000 acres for the construction of an Investment Zone must stop, at once. We cannot allow development projects to undermine of wildlife conservation. We say this because it is not just the welfare of our generation that we must look to but also that of generations to come. Otherwise, no matter what happens in the short run, in the long run the environmental costs of these projects will outweigh their economic benefits. That obviously does not bode well for anyone.
Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform
Translated by Uditha Devapriya
Smaller, Smarter and More Sustainable
by Dr Sarala Fernando
Former Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinghe recently referred to the need to reshape Sri Lanka’s outward migrant flows to become “smaller, smarter and more sustainable”. From where does this concept derive? Internet sources point to a recent GTZ document on SME Reporting in Global Supply Chains. Whatever its origin, this vision offers a valuable guide for government policy in the new normal that is emerging in the aftermath of Covid 19 and in the background of deglobalization trends. It is in keeping with our Buddhist heritage of proportionality and human development including gender empowerment within a framework of environmental protection and compassion for animals.
Around the world even in the most advanced societies, infrastructure growth seems to have reached a dead end – renting is slumping in hi-rise buildings (as prestigious as the Empire State Building in New York) as workplaces get smaller with social distancing, automation is replacing on site workers, many of whom are being made redundant or asked to work from home. Everywhere, mobility is being reduced with current disincentives on global tourist travel and transportation while new modes of transactions like ecommerce and online sales are booming in place of retail sales in traditional malls. The question is, however, whether our new government which has scored a huge victory at the recent election and amassed a massive majority in the new Parliament, will see that as an endorsement of an opposite vision, more prestige buildings and large scale projects in manufacturing and agriculture, irrespective of their cost to the environment.
It is not only the government but also the private sector which seems to find it difficult to adjust to the “new normal”. Projects for 600 room hotels in fragile environments are being mooted, huge office cum shopping malls and apartment blocks are still coming on stream around Colombo, all of which raise public concerns on the distribution of limited supplies of water, electricity and stress on sewerage and waste disposal capacity. Is it too late to offer a new paradigm that all this new building infrastructure should be ” smaller, smarter and more sustainable” with resort to solar power instead of tapping the national grid, recycling water use instead of just relying on the mains and even handling its own waste disposal on site. This is particularly important in respect of the new Port City which has the technical capacity and is well placed to support municipal assets instead of drawing them down. The Port City enticement of opening park areas to the public is welcome but what price leisure if water pressure is reducing and electricity and telecommunication supply becomes more erratic and more expensive for city residents?
At the same time, there is hope in that many small groups organized and driven by young volunteers are mobilizing entirely on their own, to spruce up railway stations and clean pilgrimage sites and beaches.These scattered efforts are being supported by the security forces especially the Navy under its blue –green programme. It is also good to hear of local companies developing cost effective composting machines for household to industrial waste, networks for collecting and converting plastic waste and a factory for disposing of hospital waste. There is even an ongoing initiative to make a machine to collect plastic and other waste from the river mouths before this goes on to contaminate the ocean.
A concerned citizenry determined to protect the environment and connected through social media can help form a national green movement to put the environment first. Perhaps a start could be made in the debate over the proposed new constitution calling for a clause to be added on the lines of the Indian example: Fundamental Duty: (I) Article 51-A(6) : By Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976. … “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures”.
President Rajapaksa appears to be aware of the challenges as he has shunned extravagance preferring to operate out of his own home and with minimum security and entourage. He would however have access to all the “smart” security infrastructure, data and equipment although it may take time to train a “smarter” human support. In his previous work on urban renewal he has given indications of sensitivity to the need to green the city, restore its heritage assets and keep it clean. He has had to strength so far, to limit the ambitions of the palm oil lobby to cultivate more acreage at the cost of drying up local water resources but has allowed the controversial road to be cut through Sinharaja rain forest opening the way for uncontrolled development which may jeopardize its UNESCO Heritage status.
Today environmentalists are worried whether the government’s financial crisis will lead to the destruction of forests, alienating lands reserved for the environment and for its denizens to make way for example to foreign multinational companies to resort to large scale agriculture using genetically modified (GM) seeds. Already conflicts have arisen on the ground with Mahaweli lands to be given to foreign investors, removing local cultivators from these lands. Can we not learn from across the waters where a different struggle is taking shape to restore traditional farming practices and saving indigenous seed varieties from foreign exploitation? Recent full page press advertisements by a multinational famous for its pineapple products, which entered Sri Lanka in the past by using reserved forest lands for growing a monocrop of Cavendish bananas, hints of the controversies of the “new agriculture” that is coming and the dangers posed to the wealth of indigenous varieties and seeds in this country.
Instead of allowing the destruction of forest lands for commercial exploitation and foreign investment, why does the government not make an assessment of the many buildings and lands currently occupied by government ministries and departments in the major cities, organize all the public services in a few strategic locations, thereby releasing the excess for sale or other uses? Not so long ago the Department of Poor Relief was located in Colombo 7 and even now government staff quarters are located in this same area which commands a high property value. Construction of huge buildings coming up for local assemblies could be discouraged which include those famous imported chairs and other extravagance at public expense. It is said that many school buildings around the island are in need of essential refurbishment and are empty for lack of students or teachers and a monk mentioned to me recently that there are hundreds of temples abandoned for lack of resident monks. How could these be brought back to life for services to the communities near by?
Some rationalization of renting buildings for government departments is required. I had some experience of this in Geneva having overseen bringing back of the consular office from an outside location to the Sri Lanka mission leading to savings of 25% of the mission budget without loss of productivity. In Sri Lanka, a specific example is the Foreign Ministry consular division which has been moving from rented location to rented location in Colombo while,logically it should be housed within the Immigration building for the sake of public convenience. Similarly should not the CEB and Water Board share city offices for the convenience of the public, leaving their headquarters separate for reasons of data and critical infrastructure security? My perspective is based on personal experience, having visited many offices after retirement and rather appalled at these flashy new buildings constructed for revenue generating Ministries like Immigration and Customs where the public entrance is open to the elements while the portico covered entrance is reserved for VIP vehicular traffic. It seems that computers are all networked together in these buildings so that one failure sends the whole system down and customers are forced to wait or return another day. This is definitely not smart. Too late to make “smaller” but certainly opportunity for making more user- friendly and more sustainable.
This vision of “smaller,smarter and more sustainable” is attached to a larger vision of urban renewal but how to bring this about? The lack of organization and neglect of cleanliness is seen by a simple example, the chaos in the rail yards in the south clearly visible when taking the train from Colombo to Jaffna, and from that chaos then like a miracle, entering into to neat fenced areas in the North. Some may argue that this is not a good example because new reconstruction has come to the North and the smaller population makes management easier. Yet, the question arises whether the chaos in the south is symptomatic of a deeper problem, an unconcerned local citizenry or the lack of caring leadership? Driving through Kurunegala town recently I was wondering how this urban mess, dug up roads and pavements, has come to pass, given that this constituency sends some of the most powerful Members to Parliament. The city of Galle sometime ago was another example where the entrance to the city along the coast was cluttered with heaps of garbage, ignoring the importance of the first impression, (a basic lesson in diplomacy). I am remembering also former Foreign Minister Kadirgarmar who told me once that on setting foot inside a mission and seeing its arrangement and upkeep he would know instantly the state of that diplomatic mission.
(Sarala Fernando PhD, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. She writes now on foreign affairs, diplomacy and protection of heritage).
Brainwashing and Freedom of Religion
by Vijaya Chandrasoma
The terms “Freedom of Religion” and Freedom of Worship” are often used as interchangeable concepts. They are not. The difference in the meaning of these concepts is responsible for much of the religious strife and violence in the world today.
Freedom of Worship is practiced where the government and society will protect the rights of all citizens to practice their religions, so long as they confine their worship to the religion of their birth; a nation whose government or society “encourages” its citizens to believe in the dominant religion, and penalizes those who wish to embrace other beliefs and faiths.
The most extreme examples of this practice of Freedom of Worship are the Islamic nations, which stigmatize, persecute and penalize citizens who convert to a faith other than Islam. A custom which prevails, in varying degrees, in many nations in the world.
Freedom of Religion, according to a 2012 study by George Moses, is the “more expansive term. It includes freedom to worship their own religion, but also protects the rights of believers to evangelize, change their religion, have schools and charitable institutions and participate in the public square”.
As President Obama proclaimed on Religious Freedom Day, 2017, “Religious Freedom is a principle based not on shared ancestry, culture, ethnicity or faith but on a shared commitment to liberty. Our nation’s enduring commitment to the inalienable human right of religious freedom extends beyond our borders as we advocate for all the ability to choose and live their faith.”
The words “ability to choose and live their faith” illustrate the difference between Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Worship.
America’s confusing religious history began with the arrival of the English Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620, fleeing religious persecution in England. The constitution of the United States, subsequent to the establishment of a sovereign nation in 1776, provided the framework for the government of the Commonwealth of the 13 colonies.
Separation of Church and State is a legal principle in the United States, but the phrase appears nowhere in the constitution, the closest being “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of (any) religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, as part of the First Amendment.
Although Christianity is the dominant religion in the USA, representing 73% of its population, with its motto “In God We Trust” in US currency and the phrase “One Nation Under God” in its Pledge of Allegiance, no one is persecuted or penalized for converting to another faith, or indeed, for practicing no religion at all – which may not be apparent in today’s religious landscape. Politicians of every stripe are outshouting each other as being true, God fearing Christians publicly, while breaking every commandment in the Bible in private. No politician will be elected to the US Presidency today unless he holds a Bible in one hand, an AK 47 in the other, all the while professing enduring support of Israel.
Strangely, American evangelists have also demonstrated their religious hypocrisy in their devotion to a president who has had five children with three wives, been convicted of multiple financial frauds, accused of pedophilia and sexual assault, and broken just about every commandment in the Good Book. They continue to revere such an evil man as “The Chosen One”, in spite of his self-serving dalliance with science and truth, which has cost tens of thousands of American lives through climate change and a global pandemic.
When Russia established a Communist state, Marx’s theory about religion being the opium of the people was embraced. The USSR, in 1922, was the first nation to officially eliminate religion, and to prevent the propagation of religious and spiritual beliefs, with the ultimate goal of establishing an atheist state.
“Atheists waged a 70-year war on religious belief in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party destroyed churches, mosques and temples; it executed religious leaders; it flooded the schools and the media with anti-religious propaganda; and it introduced a belief called ‘scientific atheism’, complete with atheistic rituals, proselytizers, and a promise of worldly salvation”. But, in the end, “a majority of older Soviet citizens retained their religious beliefs and a crop of citizens too young to have experienced pre-Soviet times acquired religious beliefs.” (G. L. Mosse).
Communist China took a different route. The Communist Party of China is officially atheist. Party members are discouraged from publicly participating in religious ceremonies, on the basis that religious beliefs are tantamount to “spiritual anesthesia”. However, China does recognize five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism. While the practice of religions is prohibited, any offence is honoured more in its breach than its observance. The US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report estimates that there are 650 million religious believers in China, primarily made up of Chinese Buddhists, followed by Christians, Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. With China’s modernization and economic boom, China’s religious believers are, perhaps ironically, on the increase.
Which goes to prove that there’s no propaganda machine in the world with the capacity to successfully combat infantile and adult brainwashing.
To quote Buddhist scholar and translator, Dr. Alexander Berzin on the Buddhist view of other religions, “Just as there are billions of people in the planet, there are also billions of different dispositions and inclinations. From the Buddhist point of view, a wide choice of religions is needed to suit the varied needs of different people. Buddhism recognizes that all religions share the same aim of working for the well-being of mankind”.
In other words, a person of faith should welcome the world to challenge that faith. Whether the universe was created and designed by a Superior Being, or originated billions of years ago in rapid expansion from a single point of nearly infinite energy density, and evolved to its present state, is a decision to be made by individual faith, reasoning and logic. A free nation, where people are sovereign and encouraged to practice their own religion in all its diversity, is a nation with no official religion at all. Challenging thoughts, beliefs and faith is not meant to be easy or popular. It is meant to make us free.
Just as a newborn child is pure and innocent, with no prejudices of race, caste or creed, it is brainwashed and corrupted from the day it is born. It is a fact that 90% of the world’s population believes in the religion of their parents. If your father is a believer of Islam, you will, almost certainly, adhere to the teachings of the Qur’an. If your mother is a Christian, you will believe in the tenets of the Bible. As the Catholic Church says, “Give us your child till he is seven years old, and we’ll have him for life”, a maxim enshrining infantile brainwashing credited to St. Ignatius Loyola himself. And so with Buddhists, Hindus and every other religion practiced in the world. Not even the sage advice of the Buddha, that every religion should be respected and honoured, has been able to stifle the power of brainwashing, which almost every child in the world has been subjected to, and etched in their subconscious for life. Any doubts that may arise will be overcome by the power of their initial and continuing brainwashing, which is rampant, influencing every age, at every turn; in schools, in places of worship and business, in society at large.
All religions have one goal in common. They have the spiritual well-being of humanity and an orderly, just society at their core; they teach their adherents to follow a path of ethical behaviour, of love, compassion and forgiveness. It is just the reward that awaits you if you follow the path, and the punishment if you don’t, that form the basis of the main differences of all religions.
The need for an afterlife is caused by the denial of the ego to accept the finality of death. The final destination is a testament to the human imagination, and includes a surfeit of virgins, the Pearly Gates, and rebirth. Why is there so much strife, anguish, even violence over a concept that can never be conclusively and logically proved? Science has proved that the light at the end of the tunnel is the figment of one’s own faith. But then, the best minds in the world once thought that the earth was flat, so what do we know?
At least 4.5 billion people in the world identify with one of the four organized religions, and the numbers are rising. Religion remains the most powerful force in society today. And the crimes committed in the name of these religions are also increasing in many countries, democracies and authoritarian regimes alike.
No government has yet been able to quell the human need for faith, a belief in a deity or a spiritual law which has been instilled into the human psyche from birth. As long as people continue to be brainwashed from their infancy, religions will thrive. As will religious wars and crimes in the name of religions.
On the bright side, the concepts of atheism and agnosticism are gaining currency in Scandinavia and Northern European countries, where there is a preponderance of “heathens”. And these countries are known to be the most economically developed and socially just countries in the world. Not coincidentally, they are also recognized as countries where their citizens are happy, healthy and cared for, “from womb to tomb.” The fact that they also have some of the highest substance abuse and suicide rates in the world is another one of those quaint paradoxes of human nature.
Perhaps the evolution of these nations has achieved the “herd immunity” necessary to ward off the twin plagues of brainwashing and organized religion.
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