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Don’t give up on Sri Lanka

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By Remy Jayasekere

Chartered engineer

Periodically, we have presidential and parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka. After each election, the supporters of the winners hope for a better future while the defeated lick their wounds. The winners try to support the government while the defeated criticise and obstruct every move of the government. After the last season of elections the situation was no different. However things have changed after less than a year of the new government. It is difficult to find any support for the government now. The people who supported the governing party are disillusioned. The pandemic has contributed a lot to this but there are many other factors involved.

More than 20 million people live in Sri Lanka, each needing food, shelter, education, healthcare and many other services. Most people work hard to get these, with differing levels of success. As in any other country, people complain when they fail to get what they want. Their frustrations are reflected in what they write in mass and social media. Somebody reading these may think that people have given up on the development of this country, because they paint such a bleak picture. Most people are disillusioned and downhearted. Among other things they highlight corruption, political, racial and religious divisions, poverty and lack of leadership. Country’s financial debt is a major concern as well. Most of these claims appear to be true and have contributed to the mess the country is in today. Many, are trying to get out of the country as quickly as possible. However, we cannot give up – we need to soldier on. If we gave up, the situation would become even worse – more violence, increase in poverty, hunger, frustration and chaos.

The brunt of such criticism is aimed at the government. It is hard to justify getting a member of the parliament, the latest luxury car when there are thousands of schools without toilets or running water or when hundreds of thousands of children in the country are malnourished. The bond scam, Easter Sunday bombings have been investigated but no culprits have been found and punished so far. Both sides of politics seem to be equally corrupt and incompetent. More importantly they seem to protect each other. French philosopher Joseph de Maistre said that countries get governments they deserve. One wonders how this applies in the Sri Lankan context. Are we corrupt as a society to end up with such corrupt governments? Do we have to bribe every step of the way to get things done? Principals of schools are caught taking bribes. Remembering giving bribes is equally as bad as receiving one, what can we do to get rid of this menace?

Then we have our divisions – political, racial and religious – each responsible for massive bloodbaths. It is hard to find another country in the world that has a continuing history of such violence – 1958, 1971, 1983 (1983 – 2009), 1989, 2009. Then, when we thought bloodletting had ended, 2019 happened. In all these events, Sri Lankans were killing other Sri Lankans – Tamil Vs Sinhalese, Government Vs Sinhalese youth and in 2019, Islamic terrorists attacking Christian churches and hotels. Some accuse foreign powers of inflaming prevailing tensions but successive governments and political parties have created and made use of these divisions for their political advantage. If we are to succeed, we need to rise above these petty differences and act as one nation under one flag and end these uncivil wars. Our differences do not have to be raging fires destroying everything in their paths. We will always have our differences but the challenge is to live in peace and harmony in spite of our differences.

As a result of the above and a multitude of other factors, our economy has suffered. In round figures, we are a nation of about 20 million people with a nominal annual GDP of about USD 80 Billion.

Therefore our per capita annual GDP is about USD 4,000. While this is high in comparison to our neighboring countries, it is very low by world standards. Singapore’s number is above USD 60,000. Even more alarmingly, the annual production in the agriculture sector is 8% of GDP or about USD 7 billion. This sector employs one third of the population (about 7 million people). Therefore, the annual per capita product in the agriculture sector is only USD 1000 (7 million people producing USD 7 billion ) and their incomes are at a similar level. This is one of our biggest problems – a third of the population doing things the same old way and being condemned to eternal poverty. To illustrate what is possible, in the Australian agriculture sector, 300,000 people produce AUD 60 billion worth of goods, annually – per capita product of AUD 200,000 or about USD 150,00. The difference between the two countries seems to be the size of farm, level of technology and mechanization, education, training and commitment. This also explains the difference in the living standards of farmers in the two countries.

Healthcare is the key sector at the present moment, because of the pandemic, and so it should be. In addition to what I have written above, to develop our country, there are so many other sectors such as education, infrastructure, services and unity of the nation that need to be addressed.

None of the above can be achieved without committed and competent leadership. The sad state of Sri Lanka’s socio- economic development since independence is a good measure of the success or lack of It, of all past leaders. The present political system does not allow outsiders or new leaders to get in easily – No Donald Trumps, Emmanuel Macrons or Jacinda Ardern. We saw what happened to Nagananda and Mahesh Senanayake. However good you may be, you cannot helicopter in and win elections in Sri Lanka. There were a few exceptions such as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sirimavo Banaranaike, where family connections were crucial in their victories. As history in Sri Lanka and elsewhere has shown recently, armed struggles are out of the question – they do not succeed but only cause suffering and death for many. Unless something unforeseen happens the only way forward to a successful future seems to be talented people, taking up politics, and becoming leaders.

As a member of the common man brigade of Sri Lanka, what will I do to help and not give up on Sri Lanka? Here is my wish list.

First of all, one will consider becoming a political leader, if one has the necessary attributes, especially a vision for developing the country. It is just one good leader a country needs – Lee Kwan Yew developed Singapore to be what it is today almost singlehandedly. Everybody cannot become the President but there are many in the teams who can influence outcomes. If I have the ability but do not take up the challenge, how I can I blame the others for messing things up.

I will become an activist and an agent for change. I will campaign vigorously for a just society through mass or social media or by any other means. The need of the hour is to build a united country of love, compassion and inclusion. I will campaign against corruption and division – racial, social, political and religious. I will set an example by living according to these values.

I will do an honest day’s work at work. If we all did this, our workplaces will be happier and our country will benefit through increased output. The people who deal with us also will be happier.

I will learn as much as I can, on as many topics as possible. It is education that enables people to widen their horizons, identify opportunities and succeed. If I have the will and time, learning is so easy now, with so much information available on the internet.

Keywords in development these days are mechanisation and automation. Automation is going to make life much worse for countries like Sri Lanka. As an example, imagine rich countries developing machines to make clothing automatically and hugely reducing the labour content. They are working on this already. The need for importing clothing will dry up as they can produce their clothing themselves. I will try to be an agent of change in this field – think of mechanisation and automation wherever we can. Mechanisation need not be fancy. They can be improved ways of harvesting vegetables, drying your clothes or making string hoppers.

Governments cannot develop countries by themselves. They can create the right framework for businesses to thrive. It is mostly the private sector that grows food, manufacture goods and provides services. The higher the output the higher the GDP. To contribute towards this, I will start a business when I can. Consider the impact it will have, if a million people started new businesses. In most countries, while big businesses are important, the engine of growth is small and medium enterprise (SME). Most of what we consume including food, manufactured items and materials and parts for our service provision are imported. I will look at the opportunities these present and start my business and become rich, contributing to the development of the country as well.

All the above will be irrelevant, if in a few years the world has problems due to climate change. Climate change is going to change our weather patterns and sea levels. It is the duty of everyone to contribute towards reducing the effects of climate change. I will be an activist on this front and do whatever I can do and encourage others to the same as well.

If we do all the above, Sri Lanka will gradually develop but we should not expect quick results. Even if our GDP grows at the unlikely but very attractive rate of 10% annually, at the end of 2025, our annual per capita GDP will still be around USD 6000 – still a developing country. Development is a long- term game and requires patience, persistence and perseverance. The challenge is not to be disappointed but to keep working at it.

Finally, I will help those who are less fortunate than me. Sri Lanka is the 6th most generous nation on the planet but we need to keep giving even at a larger scale to minimise the suffering of the poor.

We should take note of what President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. We cannot give up now. The country needs a lot of “doing” by all of us. The future of our children, friends, relations and countrymen is at stake. We need to build a country that respects alternative viewpoints, inclusive of minorities and listen to all voices and accommodates the will of the majority. The situation seems grim but if we persist and work hard to achieve our goals, the results could be very pleasing.

May Sri Lanka prosper!



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President picks up the gauntlet

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by Jehan Perera

By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.

President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.

But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.

13TH AMENDMENT

Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.

At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”

The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.

IRONIC PERSECUTION

It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.

On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.

An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.

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Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka

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Student union leader Wasantha Mudalige with prison guards

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.

School children as “drug addicts”

A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”

Bhikku students as “alcoholics”

The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.

The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.

University students as “terrorists”

The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.

The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.

Privatization of Education

The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.

The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.

Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

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Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive

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Janaka Palapathwala: Recreating the Presley era…through song.......

For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation

Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.

Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.

However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:

“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”

Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.

Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.

“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.

“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”

Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.

“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.

“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.

Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.

“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.

“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”

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