by Rohan Pethiyagoda
This article is based on an unscripted speech made at the launch of the book ‘Memoirs of 33 Years in Parliament’ (Sarasavi Publishers)
by Nihal Seneviratne, Sri Lanka’s longest-serving Secretary General of Parliament.
Gotagogama has today captured the imagination of our nation. It encapsulates the mood of a people that has had enough of an incompetent and inarticulate leader who has, through sheer ignorance and pigheadedness, presided over not just the downfall of our entire agricultural system but also our economy.
He ignored unambiguous and reasoned public warnings that the tax breaks he announced in December 2019 would make Sri Lanka insolvent. Yet, in the two budgets passed since then, his government stubbornly refused to step back. When he foolishly banned agrochemicals in May 2021, mine was perhaps the first voice to raise the alarm. My 72-minute YouTube video received 28,000 views. But Rajapaksa persisted obstinately in his folly until both agricultural production and the economy collapsed.
So, let me be clear: I fully support Gotagogama. My words to the president are no different from those of Oliver Cromwell in 1653: “You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go.”
Gotabaya’s has been the worst government in the 91-year history of our democracy. But it is clear that even in the face of a nation calling in unison for his resignation, he is digging in, determined to sit out the remaining 30 months of his term as the head of a so-called interim government.
I admire the courage and perseverance of Gotago, especially those of Gen-Z, the under-25s, who have their whole future before them. They are in the struggle of their lives. Not just on Galle Face but across the country, the voice of protest fills the air. And most important of all, unlike in 1971 and 1987, this protest is peaceful. To a fault.
But I worry that elements of these protests may be perverse. For one thing, calling for Gota’s arrest once he leaves office is probably counter-productive. What man will voluntarily forgo his liberty? Peaceful protest has not budged him. Perhaps a general strike will, but I doubt it. Meanwhile, the economy is descending into chaos.
We must learn from the precedents of other leaders forced to resign office: people like Ferdinand Marcos, Richard Nixon, Idi Amin, Sánchez de Lozada and the Shah. They quit only after their safe conduct had been negotiated. Or else we risk dragging this struggle out interminably, and dragging the country down with it.
Short of ending the Gotabaya presidency by peaceful means, we risk escalating this struggle to violence, especially if a protracted general strike ensues. The problem with violence is that it rarely ends well, or even as intended. Just look at the outcomes for Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen. They all ended up the worse for it. Indeed, I suspect that by any objective assessment, every revolution left the concerned country worse off, with the arguable exception America in 1776. Revolutions are the bedrock upon which dictatorships are built.
The 74-year curse
I see this slogan a lot but am not sure what it means. So, I take it at face value to mean that our 74 post-Independence years have been a curse. I beg to differ. I’ve been around for 66 of those 74 years. These have not been years of uniform progress and prosperity. Of course, we could have, we should have, done better. But we did achieve a lot that Gen-Z should be grateful for: free education, free healthcare, 99% electrification (14% at Independence), a life expectancy that is three decades longer than in 1948, and infant mortality that is lower than several of the United States. We may not have done as well as Singapore, South Korea or Taiwan, but we certainly shone among our South Asian neighbours.
Indeed, it was during these 74 ‘accursed’ years that people like Lasantha Wickrematunge gave their very lives to sustain the democracy under which Gen-Z is free to protest today. It is from the sacrificial slaughter of two generations of our youth, the ‘Gen-Zs’ of 1971 and 1987, that we learned the importance of peaceful protest. Was Mahaweli, which irrigates a million acres of our land and provides a third of our electricity free, a curse? Was the sacrifice of the lives of thousands of soldiers in defence of this land a curse? Was achieving self-sufficiency in rice a curse? Were the hundreds of garment and other factories established by Ranasinghe Premadasa a curse? It was this last innovation that allowed tens of thousands of young women, for the first time in our history, to leave their village, become financially independent, and choose their own life-partners. If all these were curses, may we be cursed some more. And, Gen-Z, please learn to take some responsibility for yourselves: it was you who voted preponderantly for Gota in 2019 and 2020.
The 225 Must Go
I haven’t quite grasped what this means, but at face value it suggests that there should be a new general election. If so, fine, that is a legitimate request, in which case, ask explicitly for a dissolution of parliament. But I see vague calls that the 225 must be replaced by ‘intellectuals’. I have even seen my own name in lists of prospective ‘intellectuals’. I’m flattered, but I disagree. So-called intellectuals who dabble in politics hardly have a stellar track record in Sri Lanka. Just look at the dismal performance of G L Peiris and Tissa Vitarana who, if nothing else, have outlived their years.
The catastrophe that has befallen us happens to be entirely the work of ‘intellectuals’. The hyperinflation we see today was caused by Central Bank governor W. D. Lakshman, PhD, a professor of economics, printing trillions of rupees. Viyath Maga’s economics guru, Kenneth De Zylva, PhD, denies that there exists a causal link between money-printing and inflation (see if that works in your local Food City). And don’t forget that Dr P. B. Jayasundara, the father of this calamity, is also an ‘intellectual’. The architects of our agricultural downfall too, were intellectuals: Anuruddha Padeniya and Priyantha Yapa. It was the latter, by the way, who led Sri Lanka into becoming the only country in the world to prohibit the burial of covid victims, thus angering the entire Arab world, if not the civilized world.
What this government lacks is not intellectualism, it is common sense. Some of Britain’s most successful prime ministers, such as David Lloyd-George, Winston Churchill and John Major didn’t so much as have a university degree. Gordon Brown, PhD, on the other hand, was a dismal failure. But the fact remains that Sri Lanka is still to have a nominal head of state with a university degree. Except for Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore (1944-48), that is.
Many people see constitutional reform as a cure for our national ills. I am not so sure. We have had several constitutions in the past 70 years, and none of them really worked. To imagine we’ll have better luck next time is perhaps wishful thinking, but that isn’t to say we shouldn’t try. Likewise, our penchant for blaming the executive presidency for all our ills: Sirima Bandaranaike managed to reduce the country to ruin and penury without it (aided, to boot, by eminent ‘intellectuals’ such as N M Perera, PhD and Colvin R de Silva, PhD).
What I find vexing about Sri Lankan constitutionality is that it seems to lack a philosophy. The UK’s ‘unwritten constitution’, for example, is based on 800 years of custom, tradition and precedent. Its philosophy through the centuries has been to constantly erode the power of the Crown (the so-called royal prerogative) in favour of the people. As recently as 2019, the UK’s Supreme Court overruled the prorogation of parliament decreed by the queen, in effect amending the Constitution without even saying so.
The American Constitution, by contrast, rejected custom and tradition in favour of aspiration. Based on the philosophical writings of thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine, Jefferson crafted the Declaration of Independence not for the world as it was, but for the world as he wished it to be. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”, he wrote, while still owning slaves. Some may call that hypocrisy; I call it aspiration.
It has never been clear to me what the philosophy of our constitution is. The precedence accorded Buddhism, harking to the Kandyan Convention, recalls custom and tradition. And then, we are awarded a bunch of aspirational rights and liberties such as Speech, Assembly and Association (though, to poor Prageeth Ekneligoda’s cost, not Life), none of which amounts to very much given that “All existing written law and unwritten law shall be valid and operative notwithstanding any inconsistency with the preceding provisions of this Chapter”. In other words, none of those rights actually amounts to much.
In my view, this philosophical muddle is because our constitution is written not for the people by the people (or else how would Ranjan Ramanayake end up in prison?), but by politicians for politicians, or worse, by lawyers for lawyers.
To Gen-Z out on Galle Face then, my unreserved admiration. Don’t ever stop thinking about tomorrow. But you must find consensus in your messaging. Anarchy only causes problems: it does not solve them. Be careful what you wish for.
Is it impossible to have hope?
So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.
Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.
You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.
I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.
As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.
Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?
There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.
Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.
Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line
Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.
While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.
The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.
As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.
Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.
The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.
Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.
It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.
Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.
Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.
For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.
The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.
The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.
Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.
The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.
Doing it differently, as a dancer
Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently
According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.
had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:
* How did you start your dancing career?
Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.
* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?
Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.
* What made you chose dancing as a career?
It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.
* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?
Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.
* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?
I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.
* What is your opinion about reality programmes?
Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.
* Do you have your own dancing team?
Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.
* What is your favourite dancing style?
I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.
* Why do you like this type of dancing?
I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.
* How would you describe dancing?
To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.
* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?
Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.
* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?
Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.
* Are you a professional dancer?
Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.
* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?
I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.
* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?
To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.
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