by Eng. D. Godage
Total foreign currency reserves of the country were around seven billion dollars at the beginning of 2021 but it decreased to around 1.2 billion dollars towards the year end, even though the Central Bank announced that there was a reserve of three billion dollars. The net foreign assets of the total banking system are said to be a US$ 4.1 billion deficit by 2021 end. Everybody knows the suffering and difficulties the countrymen undergo as a result of the depletion of foreign currency or dollar reserves. Without elaborating on those effects, it is the intention of the writer to examine how foreign reserves depleted so fast.
Politicians, officials, public speakers very often tend to blame every government since independence over the past 70 years for ruining this country, but with regard to foreign debt, it is not applicable. Moreover, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt globally but other countries in this region did not suffer as much and face such crises like the ones faced by Sri Lanka, so it is no excuse. It is not essential to elaborate on this fact as it is common knowledge. Consequently, the writer makes an attempt to understand how and when it happened. The focus of this discussion is on infrastructure development, and not other debt instruments.
Debt burden since independence
The Oya project implemented around 1948 using local funds comes to mind. Moreover, from 1950 the major port development scheme of Colombo Harbour created the Colombo Port, one of the most modern ports at the time, by 1956 under the leadership of the Minister of Transport and Works, Sir John Kotelawala in the Dudley Senanayake Cabinet, utilising local funds amounting to 110 million rupees. While work was in progress, the ship ‘Gothic’, carrying Queen Elizabeth II, berthed alongside the newly constructed Customs Quay to christen it the Queen Elizabeth Quay (QEQ). Incidentally, the QEQ was buried in the privately developed SAGT or South Asia Gateway Terminals around year 2000.
The Mahaweli Development Project, a massive irrigation cum hydroelectric scheme originally planned for 30 years but telescoped into about six years, was undertaken by the J.R. Jayewardene government using concessionary loans as well as grants. Funds were provided based on a thorough feasibility study, with eminent engineer late Dr. A.N.S Kulasinghe and his team of engineers working as consultants. Resultant benefits are well known and they did not lead to any debt crisis in the country.
Road and railway infrastructure development has been carried out with locally raised funds. After the 2004 tsunami disaster, the Railway Department staff rehabilitated the destroyed line to recommence operations with the least possible delay. It is said that northern rail line improvements carried out later on loans under Uthuru Wasanthaya had spent two to three times the cost.
Since 1980 the country has seen another major development programme in the port sector. Studies had been conducted at a time of increasing demand for container traffic, confirming the urgent need to expand port facilities. The first phase of expansion, requiring US$ 32 million, was funded in the form of a Yen currency loan. The project progressed systematically aided by further loans, through a transparent bidding process. As a result, the Colombo Port was elevated from the global rank of 127 in 1981 to 21st in 1997. These loans were granted only after proper feasibility studies were carried out and confirmation of loan repayment capability, as affirmed by the lending Japanese Agency. Extensive borrowing for project infrastructure became the norm only after about 2000 and not since independence.
Newer debt accumulation
A Sunday English newspaper on March 9, 2014 and May 1, 2016 reported, with details from the External Resources Department, on 28 projects funded predominantly by China Exim Bank loans amounting to US$ 7,671 million, with five-year grace and 10-year repayment periods; their interest rates are not indicated but is supposed to be over six percent. All these projects are said to have been initiated through unsolicited tenders. The same newspaper published a report under the caption, “Normal tender procedure not possible for mega projects: PBJ”. This is a questionable statement. Further examination of the above list shows seven projects, all in Hambantota, totalling US$ 5,054 million, for airport, port, highway extension, railway extension and local road network. None of them seem capable of generating revenue to repay the massive loans even though they have been in operation for around 10 years by now. These loans alone require about US$1 billion per year as repayment, burdening the country, and using up its dollar reserves. During the previous regime the Hambantota Port was given out on a 99-year lease.
Did the Treasury officials who handled these borrowings not see the danger of the debt burden or debt trap and the country’s inability to repay them without adequate future revenue? One can cite the shifting global financial structure and unforeseen circumstances as the reason. But they should have been taken into consideration in any plan. High costs due to unsolicited proposals without a competitive bidding process are also an issue. As for costs, the Treasury Secretary has said that it is the engineers who determine costs. This is not an acceptable excuse.
The Colombo Port South Harbour was found to be an urgent project, and proved viable after an extensive feasibility study by 2001. After producing detailed designs, cost estimates and all implementation requisites, it was not possible to proceed due to lack of funds. The Hambantota Port project was also given high priority by the same government though two feasibility studies failed to show the viability of the project. For the Colombo Port project, the Treasury Secretary advocated commercial borrowing claiming that the lending agency conditions were unacceptable.
In fact, only one lending agency came forward to offer approximately one third of the fund requirement. The Ports Authority managed to obtain very concessionary loan of US$ 300 million in 2006, to proceed with the project, albeit after a two-year delay. The new harbour was completed successfully within the stipulated time and cost while adhering to a transparent tender process. It is worthwhile to note that the lowest cost, approximately US$ 320 million, was quoted by the Korean contractor who successfully completed it, while the next bid was around US$ 570 million by a Chinese contractor. This project seems to be generating more revenue than budgeted.
In fact, the biggest container ship in the world ‘Ever Ace’, with a carrying capacity of 24,000 TEU, berthed in the Colombo South Harbour in October 2021 as it is the only port in the region that could accommodate a ship of that scale, bringing great honour and promoting the Colombo Port.
Most Chinese funded projects that commenced during the past two decades seem now complete and in operation, spread among power and energy, transportation, airport and aviation, ports, irrigation and water sectors. Debt distribution is US$ 1,553 million in power and energy, US$ 3.99 billion in transportation, US$ 232 million in airport and aviation, US$ 1,336 million in ports and US$ 101 million in irrigation. This includes projects indicated by the aforementioned 2016 news item, and subsequent major projects like the Central Highway are not included.
Expensive ventures like the Norochcholai coal power plant costing US$ 1,346 million have helped to meet the country’s energy demands and there has to be a post project evaluation to ascertain its financial gains and loan repayment capacity. Highway projects undertaken on expensive loans do not seem to generate enough revenue to meet dollar loan repayments. Although some benefits accrue, the post project economic and financial evaluations are not satisfactory. The highest revenue on a peak day on the Southern Highway has been 38 million rupees a day. Considering the average annual turnover minus the operation and maintenance costs it could take 100 years to repay loans. Authorities should perform a post project evaluation for the benefit of future planners.
Lessons to learn
This is history but should not be discarded, for the valuable information and data therein demonstrate the actual scenario and resultant repercussions. Decision makers and economic advisors to the government, especially of the Treasury and any other relevant officials could review them.
The debt burden has aggravated the dollar crisis during the past two decades. The COVID-19 pandemic during the past two years is not an excuse as other countries in the region too have faced the same but are performing better. The negative economic growth in 2020 and the considerable dollar debt burden, with the country’s reserves collapsing have not occurred suddenly. Severe import restrictions have made day to day life of the people inconvenient and led to the collapse of some domestic industries.
The worst is yet to come, as warned by the Secretary to the President, delivering a speech in Colombo, as reported by a Sunday English newspaper on 28 Nov. 2021. He was the Treasury Secretary during the past two decades, when China Exim Bank loans were signed to the tune of billions of dollars mostly for white elephant projects, The massive dollar debt seems the root cause of most problems faced today.
Comments on President’s address to the nation
By Neville Ladduwahetty
Following the resignation of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Cabinet of Ministers, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the Nation, during the course of which he is reported to have stated that “a new constitutional amendment containing provisions of the 19th Amendment would be brought in” and furthermore, “some people have asked for the abolition of the Executive Presidency. I will make room for that after discussing with all stakeholders” (The Island, May 12, 2022).What is intended herein is to caution the President that while there are provisions in the 19th Amendment that are noteworthy, certain provisions need to be deleted and others completely revised, and still others included as fresh provisions.
For instance, Article 33A, which requires the President to be responsible to Parliament, and Article 42 (2) should be deleted because they contradict the very core principles of the separation of power enshrined in Presidential Systems. The provision contained in Chapter VIIA establishing “the Constitutional Council”, responsible for appointments to high posts and Independent Commissions needs to be replaced with a fresh arrangement for setting up Independent Commissions because it failed to comply with the specified constitutional obligations. A fresh provision is the one that relates to Article 42 (1) which states, “There shall be a Cabinet of Ministers charged with the direction and control of the Government of the Republic”. However, there is no constitutional provision to ensure how this all-important provision works in practice.
Another issue addressed herein is the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The choices are between been referred to as semi-presidential. Each system has its merits and demerits. Therefore, it is critical that the choice between the two takes into serious consideration the context within which the system operates. For instance, the political structure in Sri Lanka is made up of a multiplicity of political parties representing a variety of interests, ideologies and communities. As such, it could be assured that the formation of any government is inevitably a coalition, which by its very nature is not known for stability. Therefore, in the particular context of Sri Lanka’s political formations, a presidential system should be the preferred option because the Executive and Parliament are elected separately by the people, thereby ensuring that at least, one branch – the Executive – is free of Parliamentary instability.
ARTICLES 33A and 42 (2)
Article 33A states: “The President shall be responsible to Parliament for the due exercise, performance and discharge of his powers, duties and functions under the Constitution ….” AND Article 42 (2) states, “The Cabinet of Ministers shall be collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament.”
Both Articles were first blindly incorporated into the 1978 Constitution that was drafted for a presidential system of government, and later into the 19th Amendment, notwithstanding the fact that they are provisions applicable to a parliamentary system of government. Such serious contradictions reflect poorly on the drafters of the 1978 Constitution and the 19th Amendment.A Supreme Court bench of seven judges unanimously stated in (SC FR 351- 3612/2018), that “the first rule when interpreting Constitutions is that words in a statute must be given their ordinary meaning.” Based on this rule, while Article 3 states, “Sovereignty includes powers of government ….” and Article 4 (b) states, “The executive power of the People including the defence of Sri Lanka shall be exercised by the President of the Republic elected by the People”, how could one organ of government be responsible to another organ of government – the Parliament, which is also separately elected, but by the same People?
Commenting on how the Cabinet of Ministers derives its power, the Supreme Court in (S.D. No. 04/2015) stated, “The Court in the Nineteenth Amendment Determination came to the conclusion that the transfer, relinquishment or removal of a power attributed to one organ of government to another organ or body would be inconsistent with Article 3 read with Article 4 of the Constitution. Though Article 4 provides for the form and manner of exercise of the sovereignty of the people, the ultimate act or decision of the executive functions must be retained by the President. So long as the President remains the Head of the Executive, the exercise of his powers remain (sic) supreme or sovereign in the executive field and others to whom such powers are given must derive the authority from the President or exercise the Executive power vested in the President as a delegate of the President.”
It is therefore crystal clear from the determination of the Supreme Court that the President or the Cabinet of Ministers cannot be responsible to Parliament, and that the Cabinet of Ministers derives its authority from the President and exercises its power as delegated power of the President. Therefore, if the intention is to incorporate provisions of 19 A, the above provisions should be deleted. The fact that they continue to exist despite the SC determination is because of flawed practices resorted to by Parliament.
CONSTITUTIONAL COUNCILS and INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONS
The Constitutional Council (CC) consists of 10 members with the Speaker as its Chairman. Of the 10 members in the CC, seven are members of Parliament and three are outsiders nominated by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.Article 41 B (1) states, “No person shall be appointed by the President as the Chairman or a member of any of the Commissions specified in the Schedule to this Article, except on the recommendation of the Council”.
Article 41C (1) states, “No person shall be appointed by the President to any of the Officers specified in the Schedule to this Article, unless such appointment has been approved by the Council upon a recommendation made to the Council by the President.” However, prior to the establishment of the Constitutional Council all appointments of public officers and the judiciary were made by the President in keeping with Articles 54, 55 and 107 of the 1978 Constitution.
Based on the SC Determination cited above, the establishment of a CC is a clear and deliberate attempt to remove and transfer power from one organ of government – the President – to another organ that is predominantly from Parliament. Therefore, the establishment of the CC should have warranted a referendum. However, the SC determined otherwise, based on a determination made by a previous Court in connection with the 17th Amendment.Notwithstanding such contradictions, the fact remains that at the end of the day, appointments to high posts and Independent Commissions are made either by the Executive or by Parliament. If the intention is to foster an independent Public and Judicial Services that is free of political influence, ALL appointments to Administrative and Judicial institutions should be made either by a Public Service Commission or a Judicial Service Commission, as was the practice prior to the politicisation of these institutions.
The need to politicise Administrative and Judicial institutions arose in order to politically control the manner in which these institutions functioned, because those who manned them became a law unto themselves. To overcome such possibilities, instead of attempting to exercise control by directly getting involved in their appointments and how they function, a more effective proposition would be to make the appointments to high posts by independent Public Service and Judicial Service Commissions, and monitor and review regularly their performance through Constitutionally strengthened Parliamentary Oversight and Sectoral Committees.The recommendation therefore is to delete Chapter VIIA that contain provisions for the establishment of a CC incorporated in the 19th Amendment. What is recommended instead is that a Constitutionally empowered Public Service and Judicial Service Commissions recommend for appointment by the President, ALL appointments to high posts stating with Secretaries to Ministries and Heads of Departments. Such a Public Service and a Judicial Service Commission should be vested with executive powers to promote, transfer, exercise disciplinary control and dismissal of public officers, including addressing grievances of the public. An arrangement close to what is recommended already exists with the Police Commission that handles only public grievances. All other functions of the Police Department have already been transferred to the Public Service Commission.
PARLIAMENTARY OVERSIGHT and SECTORAL COMMITTEES
At present, Parliamentary Oversight and Sectoral Committees function under provisions set up under Standing Orders. What is recommended is to make provisions for these Committees to function under provisions of the Constitution, thereby empowering them to fulfil the primary function of reviewing the performance of the policies of the Cabinet of Ministers in respect of the direction and control of the government and the administrative performance of the administrators implementing the policies. Such an arrangement permits Parliament through these Committees to review executive action since the Presidential system does not permit the Cabinet of Ministers to be responsible and answerable to Parliament as stated above. Furthermore, such empowered Committees should have the authority to review the performance of the administrators, notwithstanding the fact that they are appointed by independent Public Service and Judicial Service Commissions.
A significant fact overlooked is that it is the Separation of Power between Parliament responsible for Legislation and the Executive responsible for executive action, that permits the review of executive action by Parliament. However, it must be noted that the review of executive action by these Committees does not mean that the Cabinet of Ministers are collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament. Such a feature where executive action is reviewed by Parliament does not exist under a parliamentary system, because the latter does not recognize separation of power between Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers.
ABOLITION of the EXECUTIVE PRESIDENCY
Does the slogan of the protesters calling “Gota-go-home” mean for the incumbent President to be replaced by another, or the abolition of the Presidential System? On the other hand, the Executive Committee of the Bar Association is very specific. They want the Executive Presidential System abolished. Having so stated, the President of the Bar Association during the course of an interview stated, “I think the abolition of the Executive Presidency and the reinstatement of the 19th Amendment are the key constitutional changes that should be dealt with” (The Sunday Morning, May 15, 2022).There is a contradiction in the above statement. Since the 19thA is an Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, which for all intents and purposes is a presidential system, how could its “reinstatement” exist if the Executive Presidency is abolished? If 19A is perceived as a weakened Executive Presidency, as some do, the fact remains that 19A has to function within a presidential system, weakened or not.
The perception that 19A weakened the executive powers of the President could be challenged because although the President “shall” act on the advice of the Prime Minister (Article 43 (2), Article 43 (3) states that the President “may at any time change the assignment of subjects and functions and the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers”. This means the President “may at any time” undermine the “advice” of the Prime Minister. As for appointment of State Ministers and Deputy Ministers, 19A states that the President “may” on the advice of the Prime Minister make such appointments. Such discretionary provisions cannot amount to a weakening of Executive Power. On the other hand, the establishment of The Constitutional Council is a clear instance of transfer and removal of the executive power that should have required a referendum. Under the circumstances, the perception that reinstating 19A amounts to abolishing the executive presidency is seriously flawed.If the attempt is to abolish the executive presidency, what is it to be replaced with? If it is to reinstate a parliamentary system, it is absolutely critical that hard realities that currently exist in Parliament be recognized. For instance, the present Parliament is made up of 15 political parties. This means that the formation of any government must necessarily be a coalition representing a variety of interests, ideologies, and communities. The stability of such a conglomerate is tenuous, and since the executive and the legislature are represented by a coalition under a parliamentary system, the inevitable outcome would be the instability of the whole government. For instance, between the years 1948 to 1972, only one out of eight governments successfully completed the five-year term (Daily FT, January 30, 2018).
Such instability is not inherent under presidential systems because the sovereignty of the people is exercised separately by a President responsible for exercising the executive power of the People and a Parliament elected separately to exercise the legislative power of the People. Therefore, even if Parliament is made up of coalition governments that inherently are unstable, at least the Executive would continue, thus ensuring the stability of at least one branch of the government. Therefore, the Executive Presidential System should be retained. Furthermore, the attempt should not be a towards a weakened Presidency or one that is responsible to Parliament, but one that functions well under constitutional checks and balances exercised by Parliament.
The President during the course of his address to the nation following the resignation of former Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers, stated that a new Amendment would be presented “containing the provisions of the 19th Amendment”. Furthermore, he stated that he would consider abolishing the Executive Presidency.The need to contain provisions of 19A in a new Constitutional Amendment is because of the popular belief that 19A diluted the executive power the President enjoyed under the original 1978 Constitution. How realistic is this belief? The claim that the executive power of the President was diluted under 19A is because Article 43 (2) states the Cabinet “shall” be appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister, whereas the original 1978 Constitution stated that the President would appoint the Cabinet “in consultation with the Prime Minister where he considers such consultation to be necessary”, which indeed is less obligatory than the wording in 19A. However, the 1978 Constitution as well as 19A contains the provision that the President “may, at any time change the assignment of subjects and functions and the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers….” Since this provision overrides the intended compulsion to dilute executive power, there is in fact no removal or transfer of power from one authority to another. If the interpretation is that power was in fact transferred, relinquished or removed, it would have required a referendum since it would be inconsistent with Article 3 read with Article 4, as determined by the Supreme Court cited above.
Other provisions that should be deleted from 19A are Article 33A, which states that the President is responsible to Parliament, and Article 42 (2), which states that the Cabinet of Ministers “are collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament” because they are inconsistent with Article 3 read with Article 4, that separate legislative and executive powers into two organs of government that are separately elected by the People. Therefore, one organ cannot be responsible to another of equal standing. Furthermore, since the Cabinet of Ministers operates on the delegated power of the President, it cannot be responsible to Parliament either. How such misreading of separation of power could have survived from 1978 and continue to exist in 19A reflects poorly on the framers of the Constitutions.A key provision that should be deleted is Chapter VIIA in 19A, which establishes the Constitutional Council. Prior to 19A, the Executive headed by the President was responsible for ALL appointments to high posts. In order to dilute the power of the President, 19A transferred the responsibility of recommending officers to high posts and Independent Commissions to the Constitutional Council, seven of whose 10 members are from Parliament. It is therefore apparent that appointments are subject to the influence of either the Executive or the Parliament.
Since such arrangements are not conducive to the independence of administration, what is recommended herein is to scrap the concept of the Constitutional Council making recommendations for appointment to high posts and Independent Commissions, and pass on such responsibilities to the Independent Public Service and the Judicial Service Commissions. The performance of personnel so recommended and appointed by the President would be subject to the review of Constitutionally empowered Parliamentary Oversight and Sectoral Committees. Furthermore, the reviews would also enable such Committees to oversee executive action. Thus, since such Committees would be fulfilling two functions, it is absolutely vital that the provision is constitutionally empowered so that these Committees are incorporated into the new amendment to the Constitution.As for abolishing the executive presidency and reinstating 19A, it is a contradiction because 19A cannot exist after abolishing the Executive Presidency; 19A exists within the framework of a Presidential System, weakened or not.What is intended herein are recommendations that should be given serious consideration if the intention of a new Amendment is to introduce a new and improved 19th Amendment.
Suicidal government, divided opposition, distorted Aragalaya
BY DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
If pressure is manifestly building up in a boiler and the safety valves stay shut, then an explosion is inevitable. The ruling party or should I say ruling party+1, the plus being Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are keeping the safety valves shut. A Cabinet reshuffle with a sprinkling of SLFP and SJB defectors does nothing to outrun the coming explosion.The ruling party had the chance of a confidence-building measure aimed at a consensual dynamic in Parliament. It could have made the gesture of voting for Rohini Wijeratne Kaviratne as Deputy Speaker. It did not. By rejecting that option, it enhanced the rhetoric of confrontation in Parliament.
The ruling party may well continue on this path, on an issue that is far more crucial, and that is the 21st Amendment. That amendment is the very last chance to show that anything positive and accommodating of the Aragalaya demands, can come from this Parliament. It is perfectly alright for the SLPP to enter negotiations with all other parties over the text of the draft resolution but those negotiations must have a tight deadline, because a clock is ticking outside. The SLPP must not be or be seen as the deal-breaker. It must agree to whatever all the others agree to.
The new Prime Minister, who is also the very old Prime Minister, not only in age but also because it is his sixth go round in the post, is compounding the problem. In the first place, it was a wrong choice. If Gota didn’t want to appoint the Opposition Leader because the latter had attached too stiff a price tag, the next best choice when facing a YOUTH REVOLT, would have been his own party colleague Dullas Alahapperuma, who shares in part the same ideological formation as the young rebels or rather the parties that back them.Not only was Ranil the wrong choice, Ranil has or Gota-Ranil have yet to do the right thing. What is that right thing?
The deep and deepening Sri Lankan economic crisis requires the very best brains we can muster, just as a complex surgery would require the finest surgeons handling it. What and where is our A-team which is handling the economic crisis and also negotiating with the world system? Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe is definitely a huge plus, but where are Dr Nishan de Mel, Dr Dushni Weerakoon, Dr Deshal de Mel and of course Prof Howard Nicholas (who has worked with the Vietnamese government)? These stellar talents have to be on the frontlines of the economic war, not in some backroom advisory group.
Now to the Opposition. I think that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa should have responded faster to President Gotabaya’s last speech, which provided an opening. The speech was in the evening, the reply, even the same reply should have gone in early next morning. Timing is essential in politics. The response should also have been somewhat more nuanced than it was. The stress should have been on the President’s remarks on the 19th Amendment. That should have been nailed down. The exit issue should have been flagged but worded more diplomatically; not quite so ‘in your face’. The approach should have been what the Cold Warriors used to call Soviet ‘salami tactics’, i.e., a slice-by-slice incremental approach to taking power and displacing the existing governmental leader.
Today, the most glaring lapse of the Opposition is its divided character. The main Opposition is too heavily tilted towards one side of the Opposition spectrum, i.e., the TNA, and too far away from the centrist group with the larger numbers; the SLFP-led 11-party bloc of roughly 40 MPs. The main Opposition party should be more even-handed and equidistant in the opposition space if it is to get the arithmetic right. if not it will have to inhabit a liberal enclave, with the JVP-NPP growing on the ground, outside Parliament, and posing a serious electoral challenge.In the face of galloping quasi-anarchic radicalization, no Opposition formation can make it alone. It is only—I repeat, only—a progressive centrist re-groupment; a new Center-Left, that can rebalance the democratic system and save it. That means the SJB plus the SLFP; Sajith Premadasa plus Maithripala Sirisena. Nothing else would be sufficiently broad-based.
The chance is coming up with the 21st Amendment. The SLFP is not for outright abolition of the Executive Presidency. The SJB has recently converted to abolition. Either the latter can remain politically fundamentalist and lose the vote, or it can arrive at an agreement with the SLFP and secure a solid vote for abolition of the 20th Amendment and its replacement by a version of the 19th. In my personal view as a political scientist and ex-diplomat (rather than a lawyer, accountant or banker), the most responsible and correct view on the Executive Presidency is held by the SLFP, the 11-party bloc it leads, the 43 Group of Patali Champika Ranawaka, and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka the chairman of the SJB.
Finally, for the Aragalaya. Before the Aragalaya and even before Mirihana or the candlelight vigils on the sidewalks, there was the peasant unrest. The peasantry got it right, when it said “never since 1948 has there been a leader like Gotabaya who devastated us like this”. Some said it had happened earlier under the British, others demurred, saying not even under the British.The candle-light vigils, the Mirihana demonstration and the Aragalaya all got it right: Gota Go Home, because he was the one responsible for the catastrophe and he was the very worst we had ever experienced. His was a freak presidency.
The Gota Go Home/Gota Gotta Go slogan corresponded perfectly to Mao Zedong’s definition of the correct line or what he called ‘the mass line’; ‘from the masses, to the masses”; the cognitive cycle from the perceptual knowledge of the masses to the conceptual knowledge of the revolutionary intellectuals and reinserted in its refined version, into the mass consciousness.This was working fine, as manifested in the spectacular demonstrations in the Sri Lankan Diaspora.Where are those now? What has happened is the struggle has shifted, been diverted, cluttered, adulterated, confused.
How can anyone square ‘Gota Go Home’ with ‘down with all 225’, ‘shift power out of the Diyawanna Parliament’, ‘overthrow the system,’ etc., which, if at all, should come ONLY AFTER the ouster of Gota? Fidel Castro and Che Guevara said none of this while fighting to oust Batista. The Iranian mass movement that ousted the Shah never raised these divisive issues during the successful struggle; they only came up later. The Filipino movement which ranged from the Catholic church, and the Liberal to the Maoist CPP-NPA-NDF, never raised these slogans within the mass struggle to get rid of Marcos.How on earth can one say, as the peasants rightly do, that no one has ever been as bad for agriculture and food security as Gotabaya, and also say that this has been going on for 74 years?
How can one logically say that the 20th Amendment created an autocracy and then say that things have been lousy for 74 years? How can one rightly assert that the economy has never been worse and then say that the years in which Ceylon/Sri Lanka was a model of welfare, as well as those decades in which we had a high growth rate—including an average of 5% during wartime—all belong to 74 years of doom and gloom?
How can a rational mind accept that the truth that Gotabaya’s 20th Amendment makes for an autocracy, and then jump from that to the conclusion that one should abolish the entire Executive Presidency rather than surgically remove the 20th Amendment—and in the case of the FSP-IUSF, abolish Parliament as well?
How can one justly accuse Gotabaya of having usurped all power through the 20th Amendment, thereby creating a powerless Parliament and Prime Minister, and then go on to lynch Parliamentarians for not changing the situation? How can one justly target an autocratic President and his oligarchic clan as concentrating power and wealth in their hands, and also attack the Parliament and parliamentarians?
These divisive slogans were imported into the original struggle firstly and mainly by the JVP-NPP and later, with more Tabasco by the FSP-IUSF, or should I say, IUSF-FSP.Then there is the question of violence and the character of that violence. The idea that it is somehow justifiable to lynch supporters of the government or even its opponents like Kumara Welgama, because Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thugs attacked demonstrators on Galle Face Green is bullshit.Liberal Party leader Benigno (“Ninoy”) Aquino was assassinated, shot in the back of the head, as he was getting off the plane in Manila, having flown in from the USA to lead the anti-Marcos struggle. Where was the rioting and lynching of Marcos supporters in the subsequent struggle? The massive, inclusionary demonstrations led by widow Cory Aquino (who later became President) and powered by the university student movement, especially of the University of Manila, was determined, militant, massive but non-violent. If there had been even the slightest lethal violence would the military have been neutralized and Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile broken ranks, thereby ending the rule of Marcos, forcing him to fly into exile?
Don’t excuse the lethal mob violence by reference to harsh economic conditions or the privileges of MPs. There has been considerably militant, even violent street agitation, in recent years in Latin America, against the terrible economic hardships created by the neoliberal model and its crisis. There was shooting, even lethal shooting, by the State. Examples range from Chile to the town of Medellin in Colombia. Chile has elected a leftwing president while a left populist is front-runner in Colombia’s election. Where was the mob violence against parliamentarians and the lynching to death of any of them throughout Latin America?
The stuffing of slogans and the justification of violence has blurred, even distorted the profile of the Aragalaya and caused cognitive dissonance among its impressively broad support movement and mobilization in the diaspora.
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Ideally, the triple commemoration of the birth, enlightenment and Parinibbana of the Buddha ought to be a religious affair, but we have made Vesak the most colourful celebration, which eclipses the religious aspects of the event. On top of decorations and illuminations in every house and street, there are pandals depicting the life of the Buddha. Although we share these with many other Buddhist countries, our unique contribution is the ‘dansala’. Having missed Vesak celebrations for three consecutive years due to the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 and the pandemic, there was great anticipation for a proper celebration this year, but unfortunately all hopes were dashed due to the prevailing politico-economic crisis.
In spite of shortages, some ‘danselas’ were held and few small pandals erected but even the weather-gods were against us, and overturned the pandal in Pettah. However, what was striking was the scant attention given by the mediat to the Vesak events. Perhaps, they had more important things to report on.
Being stuck due to the pandemic in UK, we had our own share of the problems. Most Buddhist temples here are not purpose-built; our temple Nottingham Shanti Vihara being no exception. We need to hire a venue on occasions like Vesak celebration and Katina ceremony to accommodate large crowds. We never got the opportunity to celebrate Vesak on the actual Poya day; celebrations were held during the weekends before or after that day. Due to the pandemic we had to make do with joining the celebrations via Zoom in the last two years. However, this year our Loku Hamuduruwo, Venerable Teldeniyaye Amith, was able to find a venue to celebrate Vesak, which fell on Sunday, and we were waiting in anticipation. Unfortunately, two days before the Poya Day, it was found that the venue had closed without any intimation! We had to make do with a Zoom ceremony for yet another year.
Although one of the most important messages of the Buddha is impermanence, not having developed a significant degree of detachment, I can’t help being a worrier. Therefore, these failings added to the gloom already created by the events back home. However, my mood was lifted thanks to Kirthie, Karunaratne Abeysekera’s younger brother, who sent me the link to a music programme, broadcast shortly before Vesak, where Ishak Baig sang Buddhist songs originally sung by his renowned father Mohideen Beg, whose beautiful voice entertained us for decades (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXBX8YcX5Ro).
It is one of the best music programmes I have watched for a very long time. Sparsha, a music programme by Derana TV, recorded open-air in Kande Vihara displayed what a gifted singer Ishak is. He sings from his heart and displayed a wonderful understanding, especially for a non-Sinhala Buddhist, for the superb lyrics written by the great Karunaratne Abeysekera. Surprisingly, one of the songs which many assume to be written by Karunaratne, because of the style, was by his younger brother Gunaratne, who was overshadowed by Karuayya. Ishak’s conversation with the presenter Kokila Pawan was very informative. He revealed how Gunaratna had volunteered to compose a song on Buddha Gaya, which Mohideen Baig desperately needed. Beautiful music provided by Naada orchestra well rounded an uplifting programme.
“Buddham Saranam Gachchami”, which reverberates throughout Sri Lanka during Vesak was the first song in the programme. It is from the 1960 Hindi film “Angulimaal” starring Nimmi and Bharat Bhushan which was later dubbed in Sinhala. The original song is sung by Manna Dey, who, according to Ishak, was in the sound studio when Mohideen Baig sang the Sinhala version and congratulated Baig for singing better!
The second song Minisamai Lova Deviyan Vanne, Minisamai Lova Thirisan Vanne–– ‘It is man who becomes both God and animal in this world’––has a special significance to the present as it has the words, eka kusa ipadeela, vairen mathwela, thama sohoura marai, wasa visa deela” (… though born in the same womb, maddened with hatred, kills own brother, giving poison)!
The third song, Budunge ama dharme, nothere jana me (‘eternal truth of the Buddha, the ordinary not understanding it’) is yet another song where Karu Ayya makes a fine blend of musicality and Buddhism.
The next song, Amataka karalamu perani katha, ekvemu jathiye diyuna patha (‘Let bygones, be bygones, let’s get together for the progress of the nation’), surely, should be our theme song at this perilous hour!
Suvade, mata seethala sulanga pava, himi buduwuna Buddhagayawe
(‘Even the cold breeze which comes from where He attained Enlightenment, Buddha Gaya comforts me’) makes you feel as if you are in Buddha Gaya. It has been penned by Gunaratna. Ishak considers it a great privilege that he was able to sing this song and Buddhan saranam gachchami in Buddha Gaya. He says this unforgettable moment was capped by his receiving a small Buddha statue made of sandalwood, which he kept on his lap on the return flight. Interestingly, a Catholic friend of his father, borrowed the statue and kept it with him till his death and then Ishak got it back. Is this not Sri Lanka at its best?
Sinahaven ho kathawen be manninata miniha, sithe athide, sithe athide kauda danne, kiyannata wimasa
(‘You cannot judge a person by his smile or words’) is about those who eat together, drink together yet harbour hostile feelings.
The programme ends with the well-loved song, Giri hel mudune, mahanel nopipe, hiru nonage, avara girehe (On top of a hill, water lilies do not bloom, and the sun does not rise from the West). This song concludes with Dinu jathiya vatina Sinhale, abhimnawu deya me Sinhale, ee niga sirithe geli, ha noga edinu deli, parasiritheni oba hela meni eida soketa heluwe (‘Born to great Sinhale, proud land this Sinhale, indulging in shameless behaviour … why did you bring sorrow to Mother Lanka with misbehaviour?’).
I watched the entire programme with tears welling up in my eyes, especially as Ishak’s powerful voice rang out, echoing in the plains below the Kande Vihara––Oba Hela Meni, Eida Soketa Heluwe–– ‘Why did you bring sorrow to Mother Lanka?’
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