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Midweek Review

Daunting challenges ahead

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GR two years in office:

By Shamindra Ferdinando

‘Signature of The Executive’

(first volume Nov-Dec 2021) and ‘Two Years of Prosperity Amidst Challenges: State Governance Committed to the Country and the People’ dealt with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s two years in office. Edited by veteran journalist, Sugeeswara Senadhira, who had held previous government appointments, the two publications discussed the new government’s strategy under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s leadership against the backdrop of the Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016, betrayal of the war-winning armed forces at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council in Oct 2015, soaring cost of living and the ruination of the agriculture-based economy.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa handsomely won the Nov 2019 presidential election. The wartime Defence Secretary polled a staggering 6.9 mn votes, whereas his nearest rival, Sajith Premadasa, who contested on the New Democratic Front (NDF) ticket, secured 5.6 mn votes. Interestingly, the UNP fielded the then General Sarath Fonseka (2010 presidential) and Maithripala Sirisena (2015 presidential) on the NDF ticket though that party never had any representation at local government, Provincial Councils or parliamentary level.

President’s Director General (Media) Sudewa Hettiarachchi, formerly of Hiru and Swarnavahini, presented copies of the anniversary publications to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Anuradhapura Janadhipathi Mandiraya recently. Among those present was Presidential Spokesperson Kingsly Ratnayaka, who had served Sirasa for nearly three decades. ‘Signature of The Executive’ also explained the long-felt need for the Presidential Media Division (PMD), inaugurated on July 29, 2021. Sudewa Hettiarachchi, who had been the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Swarnavahini, succeeded Mohan Samaranayake in early May this year.

The two publications essentially discussed the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government’s accomplishments. It would be pertinent to mention that Gotabaya Rajapaksa never obtained the membership of the SLPP though the latter fielded him at the presidential poll and to date the status quo remains.

Let me examine President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s two years in office – a period of unprecedented political turmoil, uncertainty and further deterioration of Parliament. In fact, the UNP, with the support of the then President Maithripala Sirisena, paved the way for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature at the 2019 presidential by blocking Mahinda Rajapaksa’s path to another term. The yahapalana government brought in the 19th Amendment in 2015 to deprive Mahinda Rajapaksa the opportunity to contest the presidency again. The 19th Amendment also prevented dual and foreign citizens from contesting presidential and parliamentary polls under any circumstances. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose entry into active politics had been facilitated by civil society organisations, ‘Viyathmaga’ and ‘Eliya’, gave up his US citizenship to enter the fray.

Swiss ‘drama’

 Having won the presidency with an overwhelming majority at the last election, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa faced a major attack within a week. Interested parties staged an abduction of Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Banister Francis (former Siriyalatha Perera) in the wake of police Inspector Nishantha Silva of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) securing political asylum in Switzerland. The well planned maneuver was aimed at giving a turbo boost to accusations emanating from the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as the Secretary, Ministry of Defence and brought the war to a successful conclusion, which the Western countries, led by the US and the UK, could not stomach as that went against their oft repeated narrative that the Tigers could not be defeated in the battlefield by the Sri Lankan security forces.

Against whatever violations the LTTE committed, even under an advantageous ceasefire, drafted by the Norwegians and blindly signed away by UNP Leader and PM Ranil Wickremesighe in 2001, the West kept on insisting that the only solution to the conflict lay in a negotiated settlement. What the West was aiming for was a peace of the graveyard here, when they would be the ultimate victors.

The Swiss Embassy, the United National Party (UNP) that had been routed at the 2019 presidential election and some sections of local and foreign media played significant roles in the operation meant to discredit President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They almost succeeded. An alert President Gotabaya Rajapaksa thwarted the Swiss plot by refusing the conspirators’ move to evacuate the Embassy employee and her family in an air ambulance that had been flown in advance and kept on standby at BIA. Had the wartime Defence Secretary succumbed to pressure, the conspirators would have achieved their despicable objective in delivering a heavy blow to the newly elected President within a week after his inauguration. For the Swiss, well known for handling blood money, this staged drama would have been child’s play.

The Swiss Embassy abduction drama is now before the Colombo High Court. This particular case should have been dealt with expeditiously. Francis claimed that on November 25, 2019, five persons, who arrived in a white vehicle, abducted her in the Cinnamon Garden area, in Colombo, threatened her with a firearm, detained her for several hours and questioned her about the CID Inspector Nishantha Silva, who fled the country. She has been indicted under the Penal Code for allegedly making a false claim that she was abducted and sexually harassed.

The Foreign Ministry owed an explanation how it addressed the Swiss Embassy drama as well as a CID officer receiving political asylum in Switzerland. The Foreign Ministry appeared to have conveniently forgotten the case though at the onset the then Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena handled the case enthusiastically. The Swiss Embassy drama dominated the local media for a couple of weeks while the influential conspirators got even the New York Times to report an entirely one sided Swiss Embassy affair, even before the then Swiss Ambassador Hans Peter Mock brought the alleged incident to Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa’s notice. Prof. Peiris, who succeeded Dinesh Gunawardena in August this year, should review the CID officer’s case.

By turning down the Swiss request to evacuate its employee, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reversed the trap. Had the evacuation taken place, as planned, the accusations pertaining to the alleged sexual harassment couldn’t have been challenged. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa survived the Swiss conspiracy. This particular case and the way we are being singled out for targeting at UNHRC shows that countries like the USA, the UK and Switzerland can literally get away with murder because of their clout.

Chandrasena affair

In early Feb. 2020, the media reported the alleged involvement of one-time SriLankan Airlines CEO Kapila Chandrasena and his wife Priyanka Niyomali Wijenayake in money laundering. The Attorney General directed the CID to obtain a warrant to arrest them. The Chandrasenas have been quite influential during the previous Rajapaksa administration. They had been so influential, that Kapila Chandrasena, in spite of serious corruption charges, received the appointment as Chairman of the national carrier in the immediate aftermath of a constitutional coup staged by the then President Maithripala Sirisena. The 52-day government reversed the decision amidst media furore over the controversial appointment. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the CID to conduct investigation into corruption charges pertaining to the Chandrasekeras role in the re-fleeting plans. Police headquarters owes an explanation to the country as regards the status of the high profile inquiry.

The failure on the part of the police to bring the investigation to a successful conclusion should be examined taking into consideration the Attorney General and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) withdrawing about 50 high profile cases on technical grounds. Two years after the presidential directive for an investigation into the Chandrasena affair, the government is in a fresh dilemma over the Pandora Papers disclosure pertaining to former lawmaker Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband Thirikumar Nadesean named by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The failure on the part of the CIABOC to record Nirupama Rajapaksa’s statement several weeks after a presidential directive to the outfit, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eva Wanasundara, underscores the callous and snail’s pace at which such sensitive investigations are handled.

Similarly, the country is in the dark as to what the authorities are doing about Pandora revelations pertaining to one time government ministry super secretary R. Paskaralingam, who had been working very closely and powerfully with former President Ranasinghe Premadasa and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Nor do we know what the authorities had done about previous revelations made by, for example Panama papers, whose revelations were no less shocking, especially into those who had held Swiss bank accounts.

The Covid-19 pandemic erupted here in March 2020, ahead of the scheduled parliamentary polls in April 2020, although the first confirmed case was reported in early January 2020. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave resolute leadership to Sri Lanka’s battle against the rapid spreading infection. The President’s controversial decision to mobilise the armed forces and place the Covid Task Force under Army Chief General Shavendra Silva’s command paid dividends.

Sri Lanka’s efforts to curb Covid-19 suffered a debilitating setback due to rapid deterioration of the epidemic in India that resulted in the sudden stoppage of the supply of the Covi-shield vaccine and the delay on the part of Sri Lanka in using 600,000 doses of Sinopham donated by China. India never resumed Covi-shield supplies thereby compelling Sri Lanka to largely depend on the Chinese vaccine, which actually saved us from a far greater calamity as was seen in India.

It would be pertinent to mention that before the Covid-19 eruption, Sri Lanka suffered a staggering setback when the US categorised Gen. Silva, who is also the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), a war criminal in Feb 2020, on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes accusations. Sri Lanka’s efforts to clear General Silva’s name are questionable. Unfortunately, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the blacklisting of the former General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the celebrated Task Force 1/58 Division thereby ignored the overall Geneva threat. Sri Lanka’s failure to secure a place at the International Law Commission (ILC) should be examined against the backdrop of the country’s human rights record being constantly under pressure, especially by those with much innocent blood in their own hands, like the US and the UK.

Sarath vs Sarath

Quite surprisingly, the government continued to contribute to the Western campaign against the country by allowing killings of persons under police as well as judicial custody. Deaths in government custody cannot be justified under any circumstances. Recently, SJB lawmaker Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera traded accusations over deaths in police custody. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, too, ridiculed the police and the minister in charge over continuing killing of notorious suspects in police custody.

The simmering controversy over Minister Weerasekera’s coordinating officer and a Secretary to Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda making an attempt to recover buried LTTE gold couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The two ministerial aides have sought the assistance of the Officer-in-Charge of Puthukudirippu police to recover the gold. Such incidents prove the deterioration of the overall system and the continuing failure of the political party system to prevent unscrupulous elements taking advantage of the government. One should not be too surprised by the level of corruption in a country that experienced the then Governor of the Central Bank, Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran perpetrating Treasury bond scams at the behest of the then UNP political leadership. President Maithripala Sirisena cannot absolve responsibility for the cover-up of the first Treasury bond scam as he dissolved Parliament to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) presenting its report on that scam to Parliament. Emboldened by that action of the than President to save them, contributed to an environment under which the same administration perpetrated a far bigger second Treasury bond scam in March 2016. The incumbent government, in spite of much touted assurances in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively, hasn’t been able to convince Singapore to extradite Mahendran. Maithripala Sirisena, who represents the SLPP now, recently accused the government of sitting on Mahendran’s extradition matter.

Turmoil within …

The SLPP’s near two-thirds majority in Parliament as well as its power to secure the backing of a selected group of Opposition, has failed to ensure the much required political stability. The government is in severe turmoil with a rapidly widening rift with Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP threatening to undermine the administration. With 14 members (12 elected on the SLPP ticket, one appointed through the SLPP National List and one elected on the SLFP ticket), Sirisena’s party is the second biggest constituent among the ruling party parliamentary group. The SLFP has thrown its weight behind the National Freedom Front (NFF) and other smaller parties battling the government against the country entering into a controversial deal with the US-based New Fortress Energy. Three cabinet ministers, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila have publicly opposed the power agreement. They have vowed to oppose the project whatever the consequences though the government remains adamant that it would go ahead with the controversial deal with the US firm. The PMD’s coverage of the issue at hand reveals President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s firm backing for the US project.

Minister Weerawansa once earned the wrath of the SLPP by urging the ruling party to accommodate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a policy-making role in the party. Weerawansa, quite rightly asserted that the President should hold a suitable position within the top SLPP leadership as it would be pivotal for their overall strategy. Weerawansa didn’t receive any help.

As repeatedly declared, the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Oct 2020 and the passage of the Colombo Port Commission Bill in May this year didn’t have the desired impact. The country, in spite of being repeatedly told the 20th Amendment would ensure the much needed political stability, remains in deepening political turmoil. The SLPP’s primary promise to introduce a new Constitution, too, can be jeopardized in case the SLFP and the smaller constituents further distanced from the SLPP. They represent about 25 lawmakers elected and appointed on the SLPP ticket and its National List, respectively. In addition to them, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, elected from the Colombo District list of the SLPP, has distanced himself from the party following disputes with the government and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself.

The incumbent government hadn’t been able to reverse the Geneva process. The previous lot betrayed the armed forces by co-sponsoring an accountability resolution in early Oct 2015. In spite of much publicised withdrawal from the Geneva process soon after the last presidential election, Sri Lanka remained under Geneva scrutiny. Another high profile and costly investigation targeting the country spearheaded by Human Rights Commissioner Michele Bachelet is underway now. The government seems sort of blind to ground realities as it refrained from presenting all available information, particularly the disclosure made by Lord Naseby before the Geneva body. The government remains mum as the UK continues to suppress credible information that may help Sri Lanka to challenge the very basis of the 2015 Geneva resolution.

Unfortunately, the government hasn’t been bothered with the UK strategy. Instead of countering lies, the government has entered into a dialogue with some sections of the civil society, who are part of the Western plot, in an effort to ease Western pressure. This strategy remains questionable. Over two years after the last presidential election, the Geneva issue continues to baffle the government particularly due to its failure to recognise the real challenge.

Some of those who exploited the yahapalana betrayal of the armed forces to their advantage at the last national elections, seemed to be either uninterested or wholly silent on the Geneva issue.

Toughest problem

Perhaps the extraordinary crisis caused by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s well-intentioned bid to do away with the use of agro-chemicals is yet to be addressed. The often repeated assurance that the government would ensure sufficient supply of carbonic fertiliser couldn’t be met. The bid to import Carbonic fertiliser from China ended in a disaster with China blacklisting the People’s Bank over withholding payment as a result of the Attorney General moving the Colombo Commercial High Court against the Chinese exporter Qingdao Seawin Biotech, its local agent Chelina Capital Corporation Pvt. Ltd and the People’s Bank. Against the backdrop of the Chinese product being declared contaminated, the government sought India’s assistance to procure the required fertiliser. India and Sri Lanka quickly reached agreement on liquid nano-urea. Unfortunately as in the case of the import of the Chinese product, the Opposition questioned both in and outside Parliament the alleged involvement of the Secretary to the President, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and Secretary to the Prime Minister Gamini Sedara Senaratne in the Indian and Chinese imports, respectively. Both PBJ and Senaratne have denied any wrongdoing on their part. PBJ has complained to the CID whereas Senaratne denied any role though a Director of the Chelina Capital Corporation happened to be a relative.

The government needs to address the farmers’ issue without further delay.

Gas explosions

Amidst nearly 50 cases of accidental explosions of domestic gas cylinders and the government doing away with price controls altogether, much to the dismay of the hapless people, 2022 is certainly going to be a challenging year.

With the government reiterating its commitment to organic farming thereby giving an opportunity to the private sector to import agro chemicals, the issues at hand remain cloudly.

Often repeated accusations that the change of formula of propane and butane resulted in the explosions cannot be discarded and the government cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for the pathetic situation created by waste, corruption and irregularities in every sector. The government-owned Litro Gas blocking government audit for two years is a case in point. The utilisation of the services of a costly President’s Counsel to block the government audit of the SLIC-owned enterprise highlights the crisis faced by the country as the Parliament failed to fulfill its main functions, namely financial discipline and enactment of new laws. Sri Lanka’s failure to change its path overnight and take tangible measures to restore financial discipline, as it struggled to address the severe balance of payments crisis, can be quite disastrous.



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Midweek Review

Amidst political turmoil Dullas takes a courageous stand

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Media Minister Dullas Alahapperuma over the last weekend quite clearly criticised the government’s much-touted Rs 229 bn relief package.

Matara District lawmaker Alahapperuma is the first SLPP Cabinet Minister to do so.

The journalist-turned-politician didn’t mince his words when he declared that the financial package failed to address the grievances of the population at large, though it provided relief to the public sector, pensioners and Samurdhi beneficiaries. Alahapperuma received the media portfolio in August 2020. Previously, he held the power portfolio but was shifted before the finalisation of the Yugadanavi deal, now challenged in the Supreme Court.

The Minister was addressing a gathering at the Thihagoda Divisional Secretariat.

The lawmaker emphasised the failure on the part of the government to take the public into confidence and the responsibility of the Cabinet members and the officials to speak the truth.

Emphasising the pathetic response of politicians, ministers and members of Parliament in the face of unprecedented and daunting challenges, lawmaker Alahapperuma issued a dire warning. Unless those who had been elected by the people made a genuine effort by making much needed sacrifices, the public would simply dismiss politicians as a set of crazy men.

Pointing out that public servants were a fraction of the population, lawmaker Alahapperuma questioned the suitability of the financial package announced by his Cabinet colleague Basil Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Finance Minister. MP Alahapperuma reminded that the vast majority of people struggling to make ends meet, wouldn’t receive any relief. Therefore, the whole purpose of the financial package announced at a time when the country was experiencing severe economic pressure didn’t address overall public concerns.

The Media Minister also referred to Power Minister Gamini Lokuge’s declaration that there wouldn’t be power cuts whereas the General Manager, CEB, quite clearly indicated the real situation. Referring to social media, Alahapperuma, who had held important portfolios in the cabinets of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa underscored the responsibility on their part to tell the truth as the media couldn’t be suppressed.

Alahappeuma’s criticism of the Rs 229 bn relief package indicated that it hadn’t been properly discussed at the Cabinet level. Had it been deliberated at Cabinet level, perhaps MP Alahapperuma and some other ministers would have expressed their concerns. Perhaps, the media should raise this issue at the next post-Cabinet media briefing, chaired by Minister Alahapperuma, in his capacity as the Cabinet Spokesperson.

In addition to Minister Alahapperuma, Ministers Dr. Ramesh Pathirana and Udaya Gammanpila function as co-Cabinet spokespersons, though the latter had missed quite a number of briefings over the past few months. Mohan Samaranayake attends the briefing, in his capacity as the Director General, Government Information Department.

This week’s post-Cabinet briefing is scheduled for today (19) in view of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa opening the new session of Parliament yesterday.

It would be pertinent to mention that lawmaker Alahapperuma questioned the worthiness of the Rs 229 bn package at Thihagoda, Matara, while Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who is also the Chairman of the ruling SLPP presided over meetings in Galle, Matara and Hambantota, also on the same day to discuss ways and means of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formulated by the United Nations.

At the Matara event, chaired by Prof. Peiris, Minister Alahapperuma and State Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, too, addressed the gathering. But, Alahapperuma took up the Rs 229 bn package at a separate event at Thihagoda. Since Ministers, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila declared war against the highly questionable Yugadanavi deal in Sept last year, Prof. Peiris repeatedly attacked those who criticised the government policies in the open. The former law professor is of the view that whatever the disagreements, such issues should be taken up at Cabinet, parliamentary group or the party leaders level. Obviously, with the gradual deterioration of the national economy, as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic, unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement, dissenting views are growing within the ruling coalition.

The SDG goals such as education, gainful employment, clean water, safe environment, access to healthcare and protection of women and children are discussed at a time the government is struggling to meet the basic requirements of the public.

Lawmaker Alahapperuma should use the post-Cabinet media briefing today to tell the truth. Take the public into confidence. The country is in such a desperate situation, the SLPP can no longer play politics with the issues at hand.

The forthright stand taken by Minister Alahapperuma against the backdrop of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stripping Susil Premjayantha of his portfolios for being strongly critical of the SLPP’s agriculture policy, foreign currency crisis and runaway cost-of-living, should be applauded.

USD crisis

Three major groupings, namely the joint trade Chambers, Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) recently warned the government of a rapidly deteriorating financial situation. The organisations contradicted the government’s claim of having the situation under control. All primarily blamed the growing foreign currency crisis for the current predicament.

In spite of some difficulties the Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry, the apex pharmaceutical body responsible for the import of more than 80% of the medicines, contradicted the recent Health Ministry denial of medicine shortage. The Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry pointed out that the import of medicine is allowed only if the importer had foreign currency and certainly not taking into consideration the requirement. The powerful grouping warned soon there would be serious shortages as the foreign exchange crisis deepens.

Declaring that at the moment, medicines are the only commodity coming under price control, the Chamber urged the government: “There is no solution to this dilemma than removing the price control of medicines and implement a fair and equitable pricing mechanism which will link the price of medicines to the USD, inflation and direct costs such as raw material, fuel and freight charges, which will make the importing and marketing of medicines viable. As difficult as it may sound, the authorities will have to choose between having medicines at a cost and not having medicines at all.”

Overall, the joint trade Chambers, Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) painted a bleak picture. The government owed an explanation as to why the Finance Ministry announced a Rs 229 bn relief package at a time the current dispensation was struggling to cope up with an extremely weak financial status.

The country hasn’t been in such a desperate situation even at the height of the war though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) made determined efforts to cripple sea supply routes. Over 12 years after the successful conclusion of the war, the national economy is on the brink. Debilitated Sri Lanka has been compelled to continuously seek assistance from both China and India regardless of consequences. Having lived beyond our means over the past couple of decades, the country now finds itself bogged down in an economic quagmire. Recent deliberations with China and India as regards multiple financial assistance underscored the crisis the country is in.

The government should consult the Opposition regarding Sri Lanka’s response to the crisis. In fact, the government shouldn’t work on the issue at hand alone but initiate a dialogue with the Opposition. Those represented in Parliament should seek a consensus on a rescue operation regardless of whatever differences they have on other matters.

The proposed new Constitution, inclusive of electoral reforms, postponed Local Government polls and law reforms based on the controversial ‘One Country, One Law’ concept seemed irrelevant as the basic supplies are interrupted in the absence of sufficient foreign currency.

A new phase in foreign relations

Sri Lanka recently appealed for further Chinese and Indian assistance. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa requested China to help restructure debt repayments as part of the efforts to help Sri Lanka weather the deepening financial crisis.

The request was made during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Presidential Secretariat on January 09, 2021. In spite of repeated assurances given by Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal that foreign financial obligations would be met, the Opposition and some financial experts are on record as having said the country is on the verge of default, according to analysts.

“The President pointed out that it would be a great relief to the country if attention could be paid to restructuring the debt repayments as a solution to the economic crisis that has arisen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the President’s office said in the statement.

China is Sri Lanka’s fourth biggest lender, behind international financial markets, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan.

Sri Lanka has to repay about $4.5 billion in debt this year starting with a $500 million International Sovereign Bonds (ISB) which matured on Jan. 18 (yesterday). Central Bank announced that it was settled.

Although the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo Qi Zhenhong refrained from revealing China’s stand on Sri Lanka request when he met a selected group of journalists at Galle Face Hotel soon after Minister Wang departed, Beijing is very much likely to provide further assistance. Having invested in Sri Lanka in line with the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and its flagship project Colombo Port City gaining momentum, China will surely throw its weight behind Sri Lanka.

In spite of Western and Indian objections over the years, China has sustained its high profile project in Sri Lanka. The latest development is in the China Harbour Engineering Company’s (CHEC) spearheading the construction role in the second phase of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port. Politically influential Access Engineering PLC has teamed up with China Harbour Engineering Company of China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC). According to the Colombo Port City website, CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd through China CHEC is part of CCCC. The Chinese enterprise that has been active here since 1998, executed the Southern Highway, Outer Circular Highway, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, Colombo South Container Terminal et al.

An Indian High Commission press release based on a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi on 15 January 2022 underscored the unfolding crisis. The press release dealt with a virtual meeting External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr. S. Jaishankar had with Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa on January 15, 2022, consequent to Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi last month.

Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant sections of the Indian statement: *Dr. Jaishankar conveyed that India has always stood with Sri Lanka, and will continue to support Sri Lanka in all possible ways for overcoming the economic and other challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic. As close friends and maritime neighbours, both India and Sri Lanka stand to gain from closer economic inter-linkages.

*Both Ministers positively noted that extension of US$ 400 million to Sri Lanka under the SAARC currency swap arrangement and deferral of A.C.U (Asian Clearing Union) settlement of USD 515.2 million by two months, would assist Sri Lanka.

*The two Ministers reviewed the progress in extending the Indian credit facility of USD 1 billion for importing food, essential items and medicine and USD 500 mn for importing fuel from India.

*Mr. Rajapaksa recalled India’s long standing cooperation with Sri Lanka and deeply appreciated the gestures of support. He welcomed Indian investments in Sri Lanka in a number of important spheres, including ports, infrastructure, energy, renewable energy, power and manufacturing and assured that a conducive environment will be provided to encourage such investments. In this context, both Ministers noted that the recent steps taken by the Government of Sri Lanka for jointly modernising the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm will boost confidence of investors, apart from enhancing Sri Lanka’s energy security.

*EAM brought up the issue of Indian fishermen detained in Sri Lanka. He urged the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure early release of the detained fishermen on humanitarian considerations.

* The two Ministers agreed to remain in close touch for guiding mutually beneficial bilateral economic cooperation towards long-term economic partnership for shared progress and prosperity.

Dependence on foreign powers

As FM Basil Rajapaksa promised, a ‘conducive environment’ has to be ensured for the speedy implementation of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm project. The FM cannot be unaware of Ven. Wakamulle Uditha Thera, on behalf of the JVP, moved the Supreme Court against the Trincomalee project. In addition to that petition, prominent Buddhist monks Ven Elle Gunawansa Thera and Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera, too, have moved the Supreme Court against the Trincomalee deal. Whether we like it or not, Sri Lanka’s position on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm as well as large scale poaching by Indian fishermen will be influenced by the growing dependence on India. The proposed agreement on USD 1 bn Indian credit facility to import food, essential items and medicine as well as USD 500 mn for importing fuel from India underscores Sri Lanka’s plight.

Shouldn’t the public be duly informed of the actual situation? In spite of repeated warnings over the impending crisis, the government took an arrogant stand. The SLPP ruled out an arrangement with relevant parties with the intervention of the IMF to restructure loans. Having presented a lacklustre Budget in Dec 2021 for 2022, the SLPP caused a debilitating setback by declaring Rs 229 bn relief package. As former minister D.E.W. Gunasekera recently pointed out in an interview with the Communist Party organ Aththa the entire amount required for the controversial relief package had to be printed at the expense of financial stability. The outspoken former General Secretary of the CP warned of dire consequences due to excessive money printing to finance such political projects. However, Gunasekera had no objection if that vast sum went to increase production in the country. Minister Alahapperuma’s Thihagoda statement is nothing but a clear evidence of growing concerns among those who fear the path the government is treading. Such criticism shouldn’t be ignored.

The bottom line is economically weaker Sri Lanka can be far easily influenced by foreign powers. The Yugadanavi deal with US energy firm promoted by the US Embassy in Colombo as well as the recently signed agreement on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farms or the growing Chinese role here have to be considered against the backdrop of the confrontation between China and Quad alliance the (US, India, Japan and Australia).

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Midweek Review

Let ethics precede religion

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Image courtesy Minds Journal (https://themindsjournal.com/power-conditioned-mind/)

By Susantha Hewa

Conditioning is persuading people to believe something by repeated exposure to it and preventing them, as much as possible, from being acquainted with any conflicting views. No matter what it is meant to serve, it is an unwelcome process, which goes against all norms of education and civilisation. However, religious conditioning, for centuries, has been viewed as innocuous because it has acquired a semblance of sanctity by being associated with religion. This is a pity because, conditioning, no matter where it happens, produces the adverse result of making the learners mechanically accept what is drilled. No matter how great a religion may be, we are not making full advantage of it, if we continue to use indoctrination as the primary method of teaching it. Specially, it targets children who have no escape from or defence against this apparently edifying imposition.

There may be some who feel that religion and conditioning are inseparable and the former would lose all its meaning without the latter. However, this view begs the question of what constitutes religiosity. Of course, programming of children will continue to be the best method, if its objective is to make them devoted to the teachings of the respective religion as they grow up, regardless of the possibility of such programming unwittingly driving some of them to fanaticism as history would bear witness, sadly. So long as we use conditioning as the primary method of teaching religion, it is unrealistic to expect a different outcome.

Since all the religions in the world intend to guide people to become better individuals, there should be a concerted effort to prevent the diversity of religion from being a serious cause of division in society. After all, the ultimate purpose of religion should be to help people rise above their narrow religious identities and become unbiased, sensible and intelligently ethical. If religion, instead, push people more towards clinging on to dogma drilled in childhood than making them cultivate qualities that make the world a happier place for all, the whole enterprise becomes meaningless and, worse, counterproductive. As such the hoary method of premature conditioning of children merits a rethink.

If we are ready to view religion as something not necessarily connected to or reliant on conditioning, it would allow us to look for an alternative method of instruction that will enable the forming of ethical people without making room for them to be segregated on the basis of their acquired faiths. In fact, religion would be doing its best for humans if it gradually helped everyone to shed their religious scales and look for similarities rather than differences in others, which all religions advocate. After all, religions should be a liberating influence; not one which restricts.

To own that our long accustomed method of teaching religion has room for improvement is not being derogatory of religion at all. Religion and its mode of instruction are not tied by a sacred knot. Changing the method which tends to create separation is not to change the content enshrined in any religion. On the contrary, it is the first step towards preventing religion from inadvertently being divisive and insular. Unfortunately, in a world which admires and advocate innovativeness and creativity in every imaginable field, we seem to be complacent about the routine and unproductive method of drilling young minds by way of teaching religion.

Let’s think of education, which is one of the best civilising agents in any society. Education, over the years, has slowly and steadily progressed in terms of teaching methods. We have come a long way from using rote learning, drilling and all sorts of intimidation and punishment; instead, today we encourage group learning rather than individual learning, comprehension rather than memorising, questioning rather than passive reception, discussion rather than lecturing or doling out notes. As for the teacher, today, he or she acts as a facilitator rather than an all-knowing dispenser of knowledge. In other words, we have shifted from the parochial teacher-centred education to a more productive learner-centred education. Why should religious instruction remain in a rut? After all, religious tutoring, of all things, need not have even the remotest associations of stagnancy. It’s time we found alternative methods of religious instruction without making the mistake of thinking that shifting to a more fruitful method of teaching religion amounts to being disrespectful of religion in any way. Such dormancy defies every notion of progress. One’s regard for religion had better not prevent one from seeing the shortcomings of the ineffective method of conditioning.

Even if we had the ideal situation of a single-religion world, indoctrination of the unformed minds is hardly the best method of imparting religion. It is far more productive to replace conditioning with discussion, where the participants can fine-tune and broaden their knowledge. It had better be aimed at expanding horizons rather than mugging up content. Of course, the prerequisite for such a dynamic method is the avoidance of premature conditioning and let children develop their general learning faculties through normal education till they can deal with religious content.

If those who are anxious that stopping the religious moulding of the young would make them immoral, then, surely, moral philosophers, educationists and other concerned scholars may help develop a common subject of “ethics” without any religious tones. It would be introduced to students at a suitable grade tailoring the content to suit their level of cognition. Such a method would be much better than drilling immature minds, even if the world had only one religion. The benefits of it would be manifold in the present multi-religious world where conditioning has significantly contributed towards religion based alienation. Wouldn’t an unconditioned mind be better equipped to understand religion or religions without being obsessed with one of them?

Conditioning, for one thing, flouts all the sound principles of education. For another, it denies children the right to select their religion when they are mature enough to do so; it’s not different to partnering babies to their future spouses at the discretion of the parents. In fact, tradition has denied all of us the right of choosing our religion. Had we been left to choose our religion at the right time, our choice may have been different. More importantly, such a refined form of freedom would prevent us from being fanatics who would be ready to die or kill for our preferred religion. Choosing your religion as a mature person would put you on a completely different relationship with it than when it gets foisted on you when you were a toddler who could not say, “No please, not now. Don’t I have a choice in this matter?”

The word “religion” usually evokes feelings of serenity, brotherhood and peace in many people. However, this is not the case with its plural form “religions”, which connotes disquiet, division and strife. Unfortunately, we hardly find societies with a single religion. As far as religions are confined to textbooks they have no rivalry, but they do when unformed minds are programmed by them for want of a better method. Turning a blind eye on this and continuing to exploit children’s helplessness will not ensure the ushering of a peaceful and enlightened society. Can we, of all things, expect a method, which violates a basic right of children to produce good results?

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Midweek Review

Liberal Arts Perspectives

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University of Bologna: ‘Medieval universities had five faculties: arts, philosophy, law, medicine and theology. Of these, the faculty of arts had the largest number of students and theology dominatedthem all in authority as clerics often were the teachers and the officials of universities.’

by Usvatte-aratchi

Professor Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s address before the College of Psychiatry raised two questions in my mind: liberal arts education and the appreciation of a novel. I will write some notes on liberal arts education. I have not read the novel he analysed.

What is liberal about liberal arts education? To understand that you must ask the further question what was education liberated from? It was liberated from theology, from the Roman Catholic Church, from scholasticism, from Aristotle and from the dominance of Latin. People turned from the study of God to the study of humans and his environment, hence humanism and the humanities. Protagora’s line came back to life: ‘Man is the measure of all things ….’ Mathematics became ‘the language in which the book of nature was written’ rather an aid to astrology. Knowledge was freed from the supremacy of sacerdotum, the church. In France that dominance continued till the Revolution. That dominance was something that we now can only imagine. The Pope, claiming that he was either the Vicar of Christ or successor to St Peter, exercised enormous power over believers. He anointed kings, excommunicated them, kept repentant kings kneeling before his closed door in winter cold, contracted peace among feuding kings and chartered universities. On occasion, bishops exercised some of these powers. Henry VIII’s breach with the Pope, the dissolution of monasteries in England and the use of some of that wealth to set up Trinity College in Cambridge (and its eventual contribution to the advance of knowledge, especially in mathematics and physics from Newton to Hawkins) was a seminal to the spread of liberal arts education. The revolution in 1688 in England was, in part, a rejection of James II to attempts to re-establish the dominance of Catholicism, following his cousin in Paris. The first amendment to the constitution of US reads ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. The French Revolution threw out the privileges of not only kings and the aristocracy but also of the Catholic church. The thinkers of pre-revolutionary Paris Montesquieu, Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire, Quesnay, say (Say’s first name was Jean-Baptiste which Grenouille, which the protagonist in the novel Amarakirthi analysed, also bore) and many others contributed mightily to the outcome.

Knowledge was freed from scholasticism and Aristotle. Aritotle’s Organon was replaced with Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. Latin was replaced with vernaculars after Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and after a committee of clerics similarly translated the Bible into English to form the Authorised Version. The content of that liberal arts education kept on growing and growing until sometime in the late 19th century, universities began to award the B.Sc. Degree, although Harvard College had appointed a professor of science as early as 1756. In 1700, in Paris there was the Academie des sciences. A few centuries after education was freed, as the guild system dissolved itself, apprentices were liberated to choose a craft of their choice and employment wherever they wished. So arose the individual as the centre from which society was composed.

The modern threat to liberal arts education comes from the all-powerful state, the Leviathan that saved men and women from the state of nature, which with full blown power threatens to gobble up everything in society. It is paradoxical but the true, that the state simultaneously espouses, nourishes and promotes liberal arts education. Most liberal arts colleges and universities are owned by and operated under governments. But the threat is real mostly in states which have totalitarian governments. In others, the governance and management of institutions are pretty much in the hands of the education institutions. There are two German terms that define the freedoms that educational institutions in non-totalitarian societies wish to enjoy: lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) and lehrenfreiheit (freedom to teach). Students are free to learn what they wish to where they wish to, and teachers are free to teach what they wish where they wish. There is a varied and vast literature on these themes and academics here are far more informed of these than I. I will cite two well-known instances of gross violation of these freedoms, one from the US and the other from India. In the early 1950s, there was the McCarthy witch hunt for communists in higher educational institutions which seriously interfered with their freedom of inquiry. In India a few years ago, a minister intervened to insist that a book written by a teacher in Delhi University be removed from the reading lists for MA students. However, there are many ways in which governments and large corporations interfere with the direction of research and teaching in universities. By funding research and teaching programmes, the funding institutions decide the directions in which universities move. My knowledge of academic institutions in China and Russia is very scant and I refrain commenting on them.

Liberalism grew to free people and people became free when governments intervened to end societies that were ‘nasty, brutish and short’. The neo-liberalist view belies this history. That process contained two streams. One fed the growth of personal freedom, now espoused in extreme forms by libertarians. The other was the main political programme of liberals, best illustrated by the activities of the Liberal Party in Britain in the 19th century and of the Labour Party in the 20th. The expansion of government in society including the regulation of markets was a part of that programme.

Failure to be fed by either of these streams causes starvation of one aspect of society and the emergence of malformations. At one extreme is the insurgence of Donald Trump in US and the pursuit of neo-liberal polices in Chile, both of which threaten democracy in the respective countries. At the other extreme is China which, it has been reported to have raised millions of people from poverty in about 30 years, giving them opportunities for a better life but denied people the freedom to choose. Again, at the expense of a democratic society.

Back to the campus. Medieval universities had five faculties: arts, philosophy, law, medicine and theology. Of these the faculty of arts had the largest number of students and theology dominated them all in authority as clerics often were the teachers and the officials of universities. (The president of Princeton University, until Woodrow Wilson in 1902, was always a clergyman, a presbyterian.) The statutes of Oxford referred to the arts faculty as the fons et origo ceteris– the source and origin of others. It was necessary to obtain B.A. and M.A. degrees to proceed to the higher faculties, except in the case of laws. Much of present-day conventions can be explained in those terms. In US, one cannot proceed to study law, medicine, management or philosophy unless one has completed an M.A/M.Sc. As the teaching content in science became comparable to those in arts, B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees came to be their equivalents.

Right up to the middle of the 19th century, even small colleges from medieval times could teach all the subjects that were necessary for the award of university degrees. That changed rapidly after a decade or two from then. Few colleges, if any, could teach the whole range of subjects undergraduates undertook to study. When Conant Bryant at Harvard in 1926, introduced the ‘smorgasbord’ of subjects for undergraduates, he announced to the world the expansion of knowledge that had begun about 1850. University faculties asserted themselves and appointed teachers in science to teach in labs, which were expensive to set up. Similarly, social sciences came to be taught in university faculties. The subject matter taught in these faculties became strange to those in others and the problems of ‘two cultures’ emerged and multiplied.

Given the large volume of material now taught in both schools and universities (colleges), it is necessary to think out where do we teach best all students a common curriculum to enable students in each stream talk to others. After all, a Samskrit scholar must be able to read a railway timetable and a theoretical physicist must not put on ear plugs when Bhimsen Joshi sings Meghamalhar. Two characters in C. P. Snow’s (of ‘Two Cultures’ fame) novels Walter Luke in The New Men, a physicist, and Roy Calvert, an orientalist, in The Light and the Dark) exemplify what Snow had in mind. My understanding of the situation is that it cannot be done productively in college or university. In societies like ours where a miniscule fraction of all school children enters universities, it is far more productive to introduce a larger number of students to the world of learning in school. In Britain it, was tried in several newer universities. Columbia had the Great Books course. In France the Baccalaureate examination (Bac) seems a successful attempt to do this.

In our schools now, students enter a stream at age 16. By 18 they are non-returners, either in arts or in science. Children in C schools have one stream to choose from. Students in 1AB schools have the luxury of choice. Students in C schools have a tougher time to enter the other stream.

I was in school a long time ago. It was possible then for a student to learn one or two languages to a good level of proficiency and literature in one of them, learn mathematics (including elementary calculus, coordinate geometry and series in algebra), one science subject (often botany in the absence of a lab and teachers to supervise experimental work) and the three social studies subjects. Of course, those conditions required good teachers. I imagine good schools in urban areas then had facilities for all this and more and now most schools have them. But even a small government central school in some hick town, when under a good principal provided that education. With two years preparatory work in the sixth form, the quality of which varied enormously among schools, a young man or woman entered university, where if he/she were diligent, he/she would come out not altogether a stranger in other faculties. My impression, no more, is that it all depended on teachers and systems matter much less.

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