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Do autocracy & kleptocracy go hand-in-hand?



JR’s despotism, Chandrika’s kleptomania; What’s the next variant?

by Kumar David

If you have not read or reread Victor Ivan’s Queen of Deceit recently it might be an idea to do so because of forebodings that the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa presidency will be an autocracy post 20A and anticipation that the constitution to be enacted thereafter will set this in stone. An allied concern is that autocracy is usually a stepping stone to kleptocracy; but is this an inevitable corollary? I make the distinction because JR was an autocrat who he did not rob the country dry; conversely Chandrika did not enjoy as formidable a stature as JR but if you accept even a part of what Victor Ivan says a better title for his book would have been ‘The Bandit Queen’. The original Sinhala is Chaura Rajna; the English version is available from Amazon, and presumably Ravaya has both.

The charge of dictatorship levelled against JR is an open and shut case. He reigned like a monarch, was venerated as a sage and worshipped by an all-stooge press. He expelled the Tamil party from Parliament, revoked a general election, egged on and rejoiced in the 1983 communal riots and drove the country to neo-liberal economics which widened inequality. He stripped Mrs B, Felix Dias and Nihal Jayawickrema of their civil rights desecrating fundamental rights but no one dared say boo to his goose. Supreme Court judges and Chief Justices who did not toe his line were shooed out. Repeated bouts of racism in Sri Lanka have removed ideological checks on the abuse of power; JR removed the institutional constraints as well. Post 20A we will have neither institutional nor ideological checks.

Re Chandrika, the first question is “To what extent should we place confidence in Victor’s indictment?”. My short answer is I believe most but not all of it. Let me state upfront, one point that is sloppy in Victor’s storyline is Chapter II (p.49-65) “Who Orchestrated the Town Hall Bombing?”. It is speculation without real evidence; it can’t stand scrutiny or challenge. He makes out that Chandrika arranged the bombing to win sympathy and turn around a flagging presidential election (December 1999), but the plan misfired and she suffered damage to an eye. Victor Ivan would have brought much credit to himself and to his book had he left out this hare-brained conspiracy theory. Another huge deficiency is that nowhere does Victor recognise that after the LSSP and CP succumbed to racism in 1965-66, Chandrika was the only national leader who made an effort – unsuccessful because of Ranil and the UNP – to go that extra mile and revisit Tamil anxieties and address legitimate demands.

It is charges of corruption – bribery, kick-backs, abuse of state facilities – that I think ring true and accusations of complicity in criminality and murder are convincingly argued. It is amazing that neither Chandrika nor her numerous explicitly named crooked partners sued or received retraction or apology for numerous stunning allegations. The implication is that none dared take the witness stand. Exposés by many people against a well known accountant, to pick an example at random, are that he masterminded on behalf of Chandrika the privatisation of Kotagala Estate where, in effect, the state was defrauded of Rs 198 million, presumably shared between the miscreants. There are many more examples; Water’s Edge for example.

Chandrika’s Presidential Security Division (PSD) was a known Mafia led by a notorious criminal Baddegana Sanjeewa and his associates; all conveniently bumped off later (shades of the Oswald-Ruby episode in the Kennedy assassination). The PSD, Victor boldly asserts, bumped off Kumar Ponnambalam and Rohana Kumara (a foul-mouthed TV producer). No election in this country has been as vile as Wayamba Provincial Council 1999, virtually run by the PSD. I do not intend to pursue criminality since my focus today is on kleptocracy. And I do believe that there was huge corruption during Chandrika’s reign. Worst perhaps were private-power projects. From friends and engineers, I know of multi-million-dollar kick-backs. Isn’t it legitimate to ask whether criminality on this scale could have transpired without connivance and benefits for the boss?

I have used these two examples to suggest that constitutional autocrats are not necessarily kleptocrats and conversely that Mafia-presidents deep into robbing with gross reputations for financial misconduct may not be formidable dictators. The Executive Presidents of Lanka have all wielded excessive power and done so unwisely but Chandrika is not the worst case of abuse of formal constitutional power; that nefarious honour goes to JR and Mahinda. Nevertheless, it is fair that I give readers access a point of view contrary to mine. Please seen an essay by Martin Sandbu in the 22 September 2020 issue of the Financial Times (UK) “Populists and kleptocrats are a perfect match”. ( It says in summary: ‘Autocracy and kleptocracy – the capture of political power for the purpose of theft and embezzlement – go together; oligarchic networks (family clans) have privatised the state for their own benefit. Use of public funds for private benefit is rife; lucrative state contracts are handed out to personal associates. Then there is the opposite problem; use of dirty money to manipulate democratic politics. Political fecklessness causes the worst damage; failure to crack down not only condones wrongdoing but also signals that it is of no great priority’. I (KD) think this is true as a generalisation but there are variations.

I am sure readers know where I am heading: What expectations should we have of the post-20A Gotabaya Presidency? Yes, you are right if you guessed that I am leaning to the view that this Presidency will be autocratic but not kleptocratic. That seems to be the style of the man – that is of course not counting hordes of venal parliamentarians and disreputable family. The downside of GR’s style lies elsewhere, it is his penchant for issuing peremptory ill-advised commands. I need to dwell on this. Yes indeed, he recognized and stuck with sound advice on COVID, but on some other matters he has not been so wise. Verbal instructions are to have the same import as formal government texts; this will lead to chaos. The President, thanks to his hare-brained advisers could end up in Mugabesque bedlam. Ex-President Tambo Mbeki of South Africa in the face of ridicule by every medical learned-society, the WHO and specialist opinion, decreed that AIDS was not caused by the HIV virus or concupiscence! This fruitcake president is responsible for 350,000 preventable deaths. The very day that he left office, the new Health Minister Barbra Hogan declared “The era of denialism is over in South Africa”. But the damage had been done!

Then for example if instructions are issued to the CEB that 80% of electrical energy shall be from renewable sources by 2030 it’s like running after a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. If no more thermal plant is commissioned and if those in operation are switched off one by one to keep thermal below 20%, it will be pandemonium in power supply and in industry. GR is fixated on 80% renewable electricity by 2030 while the CEB long-term plan puts it at 35%; an unbridgeable gap. (In my view 35% is too high, but my two-cents worth is irrelevant). This controversy is a huge techno-economic uncertainty. We can’t go on like this. Gota needs to put his money where his mouth is. May I suggest, only partly in jest, that if he is to have any credibility, he must dismantle the CEB planning unit – engineers can transfer to other branches and should welcome the move (sic!), otherwise when things flop, they will be accused of sabotaging Presidential targets.

The Cabinet, Power Minister, unschooled MPs and CEB Chairman Herath a Viyathmaga person, dare not oppose the boss. Therefore, all must put their money where their mouths are and demand that the unit be re-staffed with “experts” foresworn to upholding the 80% decree – though full-page article alternative-experts in the local press don’t even have the foggiest notion what a rolling-plan is! This lot must be instructed to commission 2,000 GWh of additional renewable energy each year starting now – every month sans action is 30 days lost! An 80% target by 2030 means increasing renewable electricity to 26,000 GWh/annum by then. Current renewable production is about 6,300 GWh/annum, consisting of 4,500 major-hydro and 1,800 novel sources – mini-hydro (1,100), wind (450), solar (150), bio-mass (100). These numbers are not exact but acceptable; I have no access to real-time data. This is the marathon these new “experts” will need to run and let’s see how President Gotabaya bridges the 35% versus 80% handicap!

Autocracy may provide cover for kleptocracy, but it may instead provide cover and immunity for irrational decision making that none dare question. Hence my expectation differs from what most others say. It is very likely that we will get much autocracy, hand-in-hand with frequent illogical decision making, but not big time kleptocracy. Insofar as the title of this essay goes, JR was a tyrant who brooked no challenge, Chandrika a base kleptocrat, MR a populist who wore a coat of many colours, and the last incumbent only half executive but surely more than half deranged. The next, after 20A and/or the new constitution will be a novel, a very novel variant on the ever-turbulent executive-despot-autocrat theme.



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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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