By Shamindra Ferdinando
The top government leadership last Thursday night (28) made a last ditch attempt to thwart an influential section of ruling party lawmakers from going ahead with the planned public meeting at the Solis Hall, Pitakotte, against the controversial energy deal with the US-based New Fortress Energy.
The meeting, held at the main hall of Temple Trees, with the participation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena, failed to convince the dissident members. In spite of the Prime Minister’s Office declaring that a consensus had been reached on how to address the issue at hand, the rebel group went ahead with their meeting.
Of the 145-member Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) parliamentary group, the following members, Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa (leader, National Freedom Front/Colombo district), Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila (leader, Pivithuru Hela Urumaya/Colombo district), Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara (leader, Democratic Left Front/Ratnapura district), SLFP General Secretary and State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera (Kurunegala district), LSSP General Secretary Prof. Tissa Vitharana (National List), National Congress leader A.L.M. Athaulla (Digamadulla district), United People’s Party leader Tiran Alles (National List) and Yuthukama civil society group leader Gevindu Cumaratunga (National List) participated at the launch of a public protest campaign. All of them had been present at last Thursday’s Temple Trees over three-hour long inconclusive discussion that actually appeared to have aggravated the situation.
In addition to them, Ven. Athureliye Rathana thera, MP, represented the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya at Friday’s meet at Pitakotte. National List lawmaker Ven. Rathana, facing possible expulsion from parliament, over a dispute with his party, in spite of frequent participation at SLPP events, is not a member of the government parliamentary group. Interestingly, Ven. Galagodatte Gnanasara, recently named as the head of the Presidential Task Force (PTF), assigned to make recommendations in respect of the ‘One Country, One Law’ project, is widely believed to be a frontrunner for the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya National List slot. The Ven thera’s new status has deeply disappointed the Muslim community, with Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, declaring his intention to quit the justice portfolio.
In the absence of the sole Communist Party member in Parliament, Weerasumana Weerasinghe, their General Secretary Geeganage Weerasinghe joined the head table. When the writer sought a clarification from lawmaker Weerasinghe as regards his absence at the vital meeting, he assured his commitment to the protest campaign. “I had to attend a previously organised event,” the Matara District lawmaker said, adding that he represented the party at Thursday’s meeting at Temple Trees.
At Friday’s meeting, the rebel group declared that it wouldn’t accept the US energy deal, under any circumstances. The group, in no uncertain terms, alleged the brazen manipulation of Cabinet procedures, in respect of the energy deal with the US Company. One-time JVP firebrand Weerawansa, on behalf of the group, emphasised that their effort was to save the government and not in any way promote the bankrupt Opposition. The dissident group alleged that the agreement would create, what Minister Gammanpila called, a permanent US monopoly in the supply of gas to Sri Lanka. The MPs vowed that they wouldn’t give up their opposition to the deal for perks and privileges.
While former President Maithripala Sirisena, who attended the meeting at Temple Trees, was represented by Dayasiri Jayasekera, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader and Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena, and Ceylon Workers representative Jeevan Thondaman, MP, weren’t present, though they attended the Temple Trees meet.
SLPP remains in control
In spite of the latest crisis, triggered by the rebel group that included the SLFP, the second largest party in the ruling coalition (14 members), the dominant power SLPP retains the most powerful group in Parliament. The SLPP group, in the government parliamentary grouping, comprises 117 members and strongly remains committed to the incumbent government at least for now.
The only exception is Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakha, PC, who broke ranks with the SLPP over the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, in May, 2021. However, the one-time Justice Minister refrained from voting against the Bill, though he appeared for the Chief Incumbent of the Narahenpita Abhayaramaya, the Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda, in the fundamental rights case against the Bill. Minister Weerawansa’s NFF consists of six members and is the third largest group therein. Although Dr. Rajapaksha didn’t join Friday’s meet, he is very likely to support the cause. Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda delivered anusasana at the commencement of the event.
Did the top SLPP leadership anticipate the SLFP, NFF, PHU, and several other political parties taking a common stand on the US energy deal? The crisis couldn’t have erupted at a worse time for the government, struggling on several fronts, ahead of the presentation of Budget 2022, on Nov 12. The government shouldn’t take the developing situation lightly. Over two dozen lawmakers, many of whom zealously rallied the nation behind Rajapaksas after they suffered the shock defeat at the January 2015 Presidential election, taking a contrary view to that of the SLPP, as regards the US energy deal, should be a matter of serious concern. In other words, the government’s near two-thirds majority is at risk. Unless the SLPP reaches some sort of consensus with its constituents as soon as possible, the overall government strategy can be undermined. It would be a grave blunder, on the government’s part, to go ahead with its plans, regardless of the growing opposition, within the parliamentary group.
Many an eyebrow was also raised over the presence of SLPP lawmaker Attorney-at-Law Premanath Dolawatte with the rebels, as he once called himself a lawyer for the Rajapaksas.
The public is quite likely to be concerned about the rebel group’s declaration that the US energy deal would betray the country’s future. Would this crisis undermine the much-touted government promise to enact a brand new Constitution? The SLPP’s predicament, due to a section taking a public stand on a contentious foreign and economic policy matter, should be examined against the backdrop of the Jathika Sanvidhana Ekamuthuwa (JSE) seeking Court of Appeal intervention as regards the US energy deal. Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, who threw his weight behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during a high profile campaign for the one-time Defence Secretary to secure the SLPP candidature, for the 2019 presidential election, spearheaded the JSE petition against the highly questionable energy deal.
Another one time major SLPP backer Ven. Elle Gunawansa, joining hands with Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, to move the Supreme Court against the US deal, should be a matter for concern to the government.
Minister Weerawansa questions brazen manipulation of cabinet procedure in controversial New Fortress deal.
SLPP constituent taking neutral stand
However, the MEP refrained from taking a public stand either way on the New Fortress deal. The rebels gathered at the Solis Hall, whereas the Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena and his son, Yadamini, of the SLPP National List, took that time to pay courtesy calls on the Chief Prelates of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters. MEP leader Gunawardena, who served as the first Foreign Minister under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in August this year, was made to switch portfolios with Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who is also the Chairman of the SLPP.
The MEP parliamentary group consists of Dinesh Gunawardena and Yadamini. The MEP has largely refrained from being part of the group that initially took up a public stand against the move to go ahead with the previous government’s plan to involve India and Japan in the East Container Terminal (ECT). Subsequently, the group defended member Gammanpila when the SLPP demanded his immediate resignation over the increase in fuel prices in the second week of June this year. As anticipated, political eruption over the US energy deal is likely to be far worse than previous disputes.
The SLPP onslaught, directed at Minister Weerawansa, over his call for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to play an active role in the party, cannot be ignored. Weerawansa recently reiterated his call for President Rajapaksa’s direct involvement in the political decision-making process. Weerawansa’s stand has caused quite a serious issue in the SLPP and the latest developments are likely to cause further deterioration.
Obviously, whatever the consequences, both sides are not in a position to take a step backward. Outgoing US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, who intervened on behalf of New Fortress Energy, and swiftly brought about the agreement, paid a courtesy call on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the Presidential Secretariat, the day before the rebel onslaught. Can the agreement be rescinded? Is there a remedy for the political crisis, caused by the Cabinet decision that had been quite interestingly titled ‘Investments into the West Coast Power (Private) Limited (WCPL) to reduce the Cost of Electricity Generation?’ Who actually prepared that Cabinet memorandum, dated Sept.06, 2021, that had been adopted through fraudulent means? And, most importantly, what can the rebels do in case the government went ahead with the Project irrespective of consequences? Would Sri Lanka be compelled to honour the agreement, whatever the fallout? The answer might be in the hands of the highest courts in the land as several petitions challenging the deals are already pending before them.
The rebels’ claim that the Cabinet approval hadn’t been secured properly should be examined, taking into consideration the Cabinet memorandum that revealed Secretary to the Treasury S.R. Attygalle entered into the agreement on July 07, 2021, in line with Cabinet approval, granted on July 05, 2021. In terms of the framework agreement with New Fortress Energy, listed in the NASDAQ: (i), the US company will receive 40 percent of WCPL shares held by the Treasury for USD 250 mn (ii) execution of the terminal project (floating storage regasification unit, mooring system and the pipelines) and (iii) supply of liquefied natural gas.
At the centre of this developing drama no doubt is the Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, a dual Sri Lankan/US citizen being the its prime mover. The SLPP that made quite a uproar over Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran helping to stage broad daylight robberies of the central Bank twice during the previous yahapalana regime as the Governor of the Central Bank, has nothing to shield it if the courts uphold the challenges to the more or less secret deals.
Political, financial imbroglio
A catastrophic political dispute, over the energy deal, with the US, has placed the government in an extremely difficult position, at a time a spate of other issues continue to undermine the ruling coalition. The whole gamut of issues should be examined against the backdrop of the much-deteriorated financial situation. The government seems satisfied with the Central Bank’s response to Moody’s Investors Service (Moody’s) further downgrading Sri Lanka. Expressing ‘strong displeasure’ on the recent assessment, the Central Bank declared: “Once again, Moody’s irrational rating action with regard to Sri Lanka comes a few days before a key event, namely the announcement of the Government Budget for 2022, and this apparent hastiness and the view expressed during discussions with Moody’s analysts that the nature of the Budget is irrelevant to the financing plans of the Government clearly demonstrates the lack of understanding of such analysts.”
The US deal has dealt a severe blow at a time the government is struggling to cope up with growing farmers’ protests against the shortage of fertiliser and agro-chemicals, unprecedented dispute with China over the refusal to accept a consignment of alleged contaminated carbonic fertiliser and remit payment that led to the blacklisting of the People’s Bank, controversy over the mode of payment for liquid nano-nitrogen fertiliser, ordered from India, continuing protests against the inordinate delay in implementing the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) recommendations, in respect of the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, failure to reverse accountability process, initiated by the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, Indian push for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, enacted in Nov 1987, in line with the Indo- Lanka Accord, of July 29,1987, Pandora Papers revelations pertaining to former PA and UPFA lawmaker Nirupala Rajapaksa and her husband Thirukumar Nadesan, shocking corruption charges in respect of the payment of over Rs 4 bn to a Chinese company given the Gin-Nilwala project during the previous Rajapaksa administration, dismissal of several high profile cases filed by the Attorney General and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), shortage of essential food items, including rice etc.
There is no point in denying the fact that the public stand taken by the SLPP rebel group, as regards the US energy deal, has severely undermined the government. In fact, the allegations, pertaining to the manipulation of the Cabinet process, should attract the attention of Parliament. Parliamentary watchdog committees, COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPF (Committee on Public Finance) and COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) should pay attention to the rebel accusations.
Now that three Cabinet ministers have publicly challenged the Cabinet process, they owe the country an explanation as to how the group would proceed, whatever the outcome of the judicial response be to cases filed in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. The cash-strapped government is experiencing a very fluid political situation.
Strategic political miscalculation
Perhaps, it would be pertinent to recall the political developments, in July 2014, that set the stage for the 2015 political change. The crisis began after lawmaker Wimal Weerawansa invited the convener of the Movement for Just Society, the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera, to discuss far reaching constitutional reforms, including the abolition of the executive presidency.
At the conclusion of the talks, Ven. Sobitha, spearheading a high profile campaign against the executive presidency and Weerawansa, agreed to continue their discussion. The media gave wide coverage to the unexpected. Weerawansa flexed his muscles, ahead of the Uva Provincial Council poll. Weerawansa, the then Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities Minister, warned the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to meet his demands or face the consequences. Weerawansa threatened to throw his weight behind Ven. Sobitha’s campaign, unless the SLFP accepted his demands, meant to bring in far reaching constitutional reforms. Among Weerawansa’s other demands had been an immediate halt to, what was called, the South African initiative meant to help the post-war national reconciliation process and the cancellation of the foreign investigative mechanism to inquire into accountability issues. The SLFP simply ignored Weerawansa’s demands.
Having caused a debilitating setback, Weerawansa threatened to go it alone, at the last Uva Provincial Council poll, in September, 2014. At the eleventh hour, Weerawansa’s NFF contested Badulla district, on its own, while contesting the Moneragala district on the UPFA ticket.
Subsequently, Weerawansa distanced himself from Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha, while the like-minded Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) teamed up with Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha. Their alliance quickly gained ground, in spite of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s efforts to reach an understanding with the influential monk, in the run-up to the January 8, 2015, presidential poll. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha and Ven. Athureliye Rathana thera, on behalf of the JHU, spearheaded a campaign that undermined the SLFP-led administration.
The Maithripala Sirisena seeing a chance to be king exploited Weerawansa’s attacks on the SLFP, and the Rajapaksa family, in the run-up to the 2015 presidential poll. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha played a critical role in the formation of an alliance that brought an end to President Rajapaksa’s rule. Weerawansa, as well as JHU stalwart Udaya Gammanpila, who switched his allegiance to the former President, accused those Buddhist monks, backing Maithripala Sirisena, of being involved in a foreign-led conspiracy to divide the country, on ethnic lines. Obviously, the Sinhala electorate didn’t take them seriously. The country overwhelmingly voted Maithripala Sirisena into power.
The then General Secretary of the Communist Party and senior minister, D.E.W. Gunasekera strongly opposed an early presidential poll. Having realised the President was hell-bent on securing a third term, two years before the scheduled date, Gunasekera, along with his colleagues, senior Minister Prof. Tissa Vitharana, and Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, urged Rajapaksa not to call an early poll.
Unfortunately, the former President had been convinced of a comfortable victory, regardless of poor showing at the Uva Provincial Council poll. The President’s astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, predicted an easy win for the twice President , while several other astrologers echoed Abeygunawardena, who held two lucrative posts as Director of Independent Television Network (ITN) and the National Savings Bank (NSB). The astrologers cheated the SLFP leadership in style. Both state-run and private television stations, as well as the print media, gave them time and space to hoodwink the masses. They did it in style.
DEW Gunasekera, Nanayakkara and Vitharana almost in unison briefed the former President regarding the danger in having an early election. Regrettably, their plea, made in early October, 2014, was ignored.
Constituents of the SLPP should initiate a genuine discussion among them without further delay or be prepared to face the consequences as in 2015.
Amidst political turmoil Dullas takes a courageous stand
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Media Minister Dullas Alahapperuma over the last weekend quite clearly criticised the government’s much-touted Rs 229 bn relief package.
Matara District lawmaker Alahapperuma is the first SLPP Cabinet Minister to do so.
The journalist-turned-politician didn’t mince his words when he declared that the financial package failed to address the grievances of the population at large, though it provided relief to the public sector, pensioners and Samurdhi beneficiaries. Alahapperuma received the media portfolio in August 2020. Previously, he held the power portfolio but was shifted before the finalisation of the Yugadanavi deal, now challenged in the Supreme Court.
The Minister was addressing a gathering at the Thihagoda Divisional Secretariat.
The lawmaker emphasised the failure on the part of the government to take the public into confidence and the responsibility of the Cabinet members and the officials to speak the truth.
Emphasising the pathetic response of politicians, ministers and members of Parliament in the face of unprecedented and daunting challenges, lawmaker Alahapperuma issued a dire warning. Unless those who had been elected by the people made a genuine effort by making much needed sacrifices, the public would simply dismiss politicians as a set of crazy men.
Pointing out that public servants were a fraction of the population, lawmaker Alahapperuma questioned the suitability of the financial package announced by his Cabinet colleague Basil Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Finance Minister. MP Alahapperuma reminded that the vast majority of people struggling to make ends meet, wouldn’t receive any relief. Therefore, the whole purpose of the financial package announced at a time when the country was experiencing severe economic pressure didn’t address overall public concerns.
The Media Minister also referred to Power Minister Gamini Lokuge’s declaration that there wouldn’t be power cuts whereas the General Manager, CEB, quite clearly indicated the real situation. Referring to social media, Alahapperuma, who had held important portfolios in the cabinets of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa underscored the responsibility on their part to tell the truth as the media couldn’t be suppressed.
Alahappeuma’s criticism of the Rs 229 bn relief package indicated that it hadn’t been properly discussed at the Cabinet level. Had it been deliberated at Cabinet level, perhaps MP Alahapperuma and some other ministers would have expressed their concerns. Perhaps, the media should raise this issue at the next post-Cabinet media briefing, chaired by Minister Alahapperuma, in his capacity as the Cabinet Spokesperson.
In addition to Minister Alahapperuma, Ministers Dr. Ramesh Pathirana and Udaya Gammanpila function as co-Cabinet spokespersons, though the latter had missed quite a number of briefings over the past few months. Mohan Samaranayake attends the briefing, in his capacity as the Director General, Government Information Department.
This week’s post-Cabinet briefing is scheduled for today (19) in view of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa opening the new session of Parliament yesterday.
It would be pertinent to mention that lawmaker Alahapperuma questioned the worthiness of the Rs 229 bn package at Thihagoda, Matara, while Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who is also the Chairman of the ruling SLPP presided over meetings in Galle, Matara and Hambantota, also on the same day to discuss ways and means of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formulated by the United Nations.
At the Matara event, chaired by Prof. Peiris, Minister Alahapperuma and State Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, too, addressed the gathering. But, Alahapperuma took up the Rs 229 bn package at a separate event at Thihagoda. Since Ministers, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila declared war against the highly questionable Yugadanavi deal in Sept last year, Prof. Peiris repeatedly attacked those who criticised the government policies in the open. The former law professor is of the view that whatever the disagreements, such issues should be taken up at Cabinet, parliamentary group or the party leaders level. Obviously, with the gradual deterioration of the national economy, as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic, unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement, dissenting views are growing within the ruling coalition.
The SDG goals such as education, gainful employment, clean water, safe environment, access to healthcare and protection of women and children are discussed at a time the government is struggling to meet the basic requirements of the public.
Lawmaker Alahapperuma should use the post-Cabinet media briefing today to tell the truth. Take the public into confidence. The country is in such a desperate situation, the SLPP can no longer play politics with the issues at hand.
The forthright stand taken by Minister Alahapperuma against the backdrop of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stripping Susil Premjayantha of his portfolios for being strongly critical of the SLPP’s agriculture policy, foreign currency crisis and runaway cost-of-living, should be applauded.
Three major groupings, namely the joint trade Chambers, Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) recently warned the government of a rapidly deteriorating financial situation. The organisations contradicted the government’s claim of having the situation under control. All primarily blamed the growing foreign currency crisis for the current predicament.
In spite of some difficulties the Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry, the apex pharmaceutical body responsible for the import of more than 80% of the medicines, contradicted the recent Health Ministry denial of medicine shortage. The Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry pointed out that the import of medicine is allowed only if the importer had foreign currency and certainly not taking into consideration the requirement. The powerful grouping warned soon there would be serious shortages as the foreign exchange crisis deepens.
Declaring that at the moment, medicines are the only commodity coming under price control, the Chamber urged the government: “There is no solution to this dilemma than removing the price control of medicines and implement a fair and equitable pricing mechanism which will link the price of medicines to the USD, inflation and direct costs such as raw material, fuel and freight charges, which will make the importing and marketing of medicines viable. As difficult as it may sound, the authorities will have to choose between having medicines at a cost and not having medicines at all.”
Overall, the joint trade Chambers, Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) painted a bleak picture. The government owed an explanation as to why the Finance Ministry announced a Rs 229 bn relief package at a time the current dispensation was struggling to cope up with an extremely weak financial status.
The country hasn’t been in such a desperate situation even at the height of the war though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) made determined efforts to cripple sea supply routes. Over 12 years after the successful conclusion of the war, the national economy is on the brink. Debilitated Sri Lanka has been compelled to continuously seek assistance from both China and India regardless of consequences. Having lived beyond our means over the past couple of decades, the country now finds itself bogged down in an economic quagmire. Recent deliberations with China and India as regards multiple financial assistance underscored the crisis the country is in.
The government should consult the Opposition regarding Sri Lanka’s response to the crisis. In fact, the government shouldn’t work on the issue at hand alone but initiate a dialogue with the Opposition. Those represented in Parliament should seek a consensus on a rescue operation regardless of whatever differences they have on other matters.
The proposed new Constitution, inclusive of electoral reforms, postponed Local Government polls and law reforms based on the controversial ‘One Country, One Law’ concept seemed irrelevant as the basic supplies are interrupted in the absence of sufficient foreign currency.
A new phase in foreign relations
Sri Lanka recently appealed for further Chinese and Indian assistance. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa requested China to help restructure debt repayments as part of the efforts to help Sri Lanka weather the deepening financial crisis.
The request was made during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Presidential Secretariat on January 09, 2021. In spite of repeated assurances given by Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal that foreign financial obligations would be met, the Opposition and some financial experts are on record as having said the country is on the verge of default, according to analysts.
“The President pointed out that it would be a great relief to the country if attention could be paid to restructuring the debt repayments as a solution to the economic crisis that has arisen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the President’s office said in the statement.
China is Sri Lanka’s fourth biggest lender, behind international financial markets, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan.
Sri Lanka has to repay about $4.5 billion in debt this year starting with a $500 million International Sovereign Bonds (ISB) which matured on Jan. 18 (yesterday). Central Bank announced that it was settled.
Although the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo Qi Zhenhong refrained from revealing China’s stand on Sri Lanka request when he met a selected group of journalists at Galle Face Hotel soon after Minister Wang departed, Beijing is very much likely to provide further assistance. Having invested in Sri Lanka in line with the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and its flagship project Colombo Port City gaining momentum, China will surely throw its weight behind Sri Lanka.
In spite of Western and Indian objections over the years, China has sustained its high profile project in Sri Lanka. The latest development is in the China Harbour Engineering Company’s (CHEC) spearheading the construction role in the second phase of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port. Politically influential Access Engineering PLC has teamed up with China Harbour Engineering Company of China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC). According to the Colombo Port City website, CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd through China CHEC is part of CCCC. The Chinese enterprise that has been active here since 1998, executed the Southern Highway, Outer Circular Highway, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, Colombo South Container Terminal et al.
An Indian High Commission press release based on a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi on 15 January 2022 underscored the unfolding crisis. The press release dealt with a virtual meeting External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr. S. Jaishankar had with Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa on January 15, 2022, consequent to Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi last month.
Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant sections of the Indian statement: *Dr. Jaishankar conveyed that India has always stood with Sri Lanka, and will continue to support Sri Lanka in all possible ways for overcoming the economic and other challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic. As close friends and maritime neighbours, both India and Sri Lanka stand to gain from closer economic inter-linkages.
*Both Ministers positively noted that extension of US$ 400 million to Sri Lanka under the SAARC currency swap arrangement and deferral of A.C.U (Asian Clearing Union) settlement of USD 515.2 million by two months, would assist Sri Lanka.
*The two Ministers reviewed the progress in extending the Indian credit facility of USD 1 billion for importing food, essential items and medicine and USD 500 mn for importing fuel from India.
*Mr. Rajapaksa recalled India’s long standing cooperation with Sri Lanka and deeply appreciated the gestures of support. He welcomed Indian investments in Sri Lanka in a number of important spheres, including ports, infrastructure, energy, renewable energy, power and manufacturing and assured that a conducive environment will be provided to encourage such investments. In this context, both Ministers noted that the recent steps taken by the Government of Sri Lanka for jointly modernising the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm will boost confidence of investors, apart from enhancing Sri Lanka’s energy security.
*EAM brought up the issue of Indian fishermen detained in Sri Lanka. He urged the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure early release of the detained fishermen on humanitarian considerations.
* The two Ministers agreed to remain in close touch for guiding mutually beneficial bilateral economic cooperation towards long-term economic partnership for shared progress and prosperity.
Dependence on foreign powers
As FM Basil Rajapaksa promised, a ‘conducive environment’ has to be ensured for the speedy implementation of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm project. The FM cannot be unaware of Ven. Wakamulle Uditha Thera, on behalf of the JVP, moved the Supreme Court against the Trincomalee project. In addition to that petition, prominent Buddhist monks Ven Elle Gunawansa Thera and Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera, too, have moved the Supreme Court against the Trincomalee deal. Whether we like it or not, Sri Lanka’s position on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm as well as large scale poaching by Indian fishermen will be influenced by the growing dependence on India. The proposed agreement on USD 1 bn Indian credit facility to import food, essential items and medicine as well as USD 500 mn for importing fuel from India underscores Sri Lanka’s plight.
Shouldn’t the public be duly informed of the actual situation? In spite of repeated warnings over the impending crisis, the government took an arrogant stand. The SLPP ruled out an arrangement with relevant parties with the intervention of the IMF to restructure loans. Having presented a lacklustre Budget in Dec 2021 for 2022, the SLPP caused a debilitating setback by declaring Rs 229 bn relief package. As former minister D.E.W. Gunasekera recently pointed out in an interview with the Communist Party organ Aththa the entire amount required for the controversial relief package had to be printed at the expense of financial stability. The outspoken former General Secretary of the CP warned of dire consequences due to excessive money printing to finance such political projects. However, Gunasekera had no objection if that vast sum went to increase production in the country. Minister Alahapperuma’s Thihagoda statement is nothing but a clear evidence of growing concerns among those who fear the path the government is treading. Such criticism shouldn’t be ignored.
The bottom line is economically weaker Sri Lanka can be far easily influenced by foreign powers. The Yugadanavi deal with US energy firm promoted by the US Embassy in Colombo as well as the recently signed agreement on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farms or the growing Chinese role here have to be considered against the backdrop of the confrontation between China and Quad alliance the (US, India, Japan and Australia).
Let ethics precede religion
By Susantha Hewa
Conditioning is persuading people to believe something by repeated exposure to it and preventing them, as much as possible, from being acquainted with any conflicting views. No matter what it is meant to serve, it is an unwelcome process, which goes against all norms of education and civilisation. However, religious conditioning, for centuries, has been viewed as innocuous because it has acquired a semblance of sanctity by being associated with religion. This is a pity because, conditioning, no matter where it happens, produces the adverse result of making the learners mechanically accept what is drilled. No matter how great a religion may be, we are not making full advantage of it, if we continue to use indoctrination as the primary method of teaching it. Specially, it targets children who have no escape from or defence against this apparently edifying imposition.
There may be some who feel that religion and conditioning are inseparable and the former would lose all its meaning without the latter. However, this view begs the question of what constitutes religiosity. Of course, programming of children will continue to be the best method, if its objective is to make them devoted to the teachings of the respective religion as they grow up, regardless of the possibility of such programming unwittingly driving some of them to fanaticism as history would bear witness, sadly. So long as we use conditioning as the primary method of teaching religion, it is unrealistic to expect a different outcome.
Since all the religions in the world intend to guide people to become better individuals, there should be a concerted effort to prevent the diversity of religion from being a serious cause of division in society. After all, the ultimate purpose of religion should be to help people rise above their narrow religious identities and become unbiased, sensible and intelligently ethical. If religion, instead, push people more towards clinging on to dogma drilled in childhood than making them cultivate qualities that make the world a happier place for all, the whole enterprise becomes meaningless and, worse, counterproductive. As such the hoary method of premature conditioning of children merits a rethink.
If we are ready to view religion as something not necessarily connected to or reliant on conditioning, it would allow us to look for an alternative method of instruction that will enable the forming of ethical people without making room for them to be segregated on the basis of their acquired faiths. In fact, religion would be doing its best for humans if it gradually helped everyone to shed their religious scales and look for similarities rather than differences in others, which all religions advocate. After all, religions should be a liberating influence; not one which restricts.
To own that our long accustomed method of teaching religion has room for improvement is not being derogatory of religion at all. Religion and its mode of instruction are not tied by a sacred knot. Changing the method which tends to create separation is not to change the content enshrined in any religion. On the contrary, it is the first step towards preventing religion from inadvertently being divisive and insular. Unfortunately, in a world which admires and advocate innovativeness and creativity in every imaginable field, we seem to be complacent about the routine and unproductive method of drilling young minds by way of teaching religion.
Let’s think of education, which is one of the best civilising agents in any society. Education, over the years, has slowly and steadily progressed in terms of teaching methods. We have come a long way from using rote learning, drilling and all sorts of intimidation and punishment; instead, today we encourage group learning rather than individual learning, comprehension rather than memorising, questioning rather than passive reception, discussion rather than lecturing or doling out notes. As for the teacher, today, he or she acts as a facilitator rather than an all-knowing dispenser of knowledge. In other words, we have shifted from the parochial teacher-centred education to a more productive learner-centred education. Why should religious instruction remain in a rut? After all, religious tutoring, of all things, need not have even the remotest associations of stagnancy. It’s time we found alternative methods of religious instruction without making the mistake of thinking that shifting to a more fruitful method of teaching religion amounts to being disrespectful of religion in any way. Such dormancy defies every notion of progress. One’s regard for religion had better not prevent one from seeing the shortcomings of the ineffective method of conditioning.
Even if we had the ideal situation of a single-religion world, indoctrination of the unformed minds is hardly the best method of imparting religion. It is far more productive to replace conditioning with discussion, where the participants can fine-tune and broaden their knowledge. It had better be aimed at expanding horizons rather than mugging up content. Of course, the prerequisite for such a dynamic method is the avoidance of premature conditioning and let children develop their general learning faculties through normal education till they can deal with religious content.
If those who are anxious that stopping the religious moulding of the young would make them immoral, then, surely, moral philosophers, educationists and other concerned scholars may help develop a common subject of “ethics” without any religious tones. It would be introduced to students at a suitable grade tailoring the content to suit their level of cognition. Such a method would be much better than drilling immature minds, even if the world had only one religion. The benefits of it would be manifold in the present multi-religious world where conditioning has significantly contributed towards religion based alienation. Wouldn’t an unconditioned mind be better equipped to understand religion or religions without being obsessed with one of them?
Conditioning, for one thing, flouts all the sound principles of education. For another, it denies children the right to select their religion when they are mature enough to do so; it’s not different to partnering babies to their future spouses at the discretion of the parents. In fact, tradition has denied all of us the right of choosing our religion. Had we been left to choose our religion at the right time, our choice may have been different. More importantly, such a refined form of freedom would prevent us from being fanatics who would be ready to die or kill for our preferred religion. Choosing your religion as a mature person would put you on a completely different relationship with it than when it gets foisted on you when you were a toddler who could not say, “No please, not now. Don’t I have a choice in this matter?”
The word “religion” usually evokes feelings of serenity, brotherhood and peace in many people. However, this is not the case with its plural form “religions”, which connotes disquiet, division and strife. Unfortunately, we hardly find societies with a single religion. As far as religions are confined to textbooks they have no rivalry, but they do when unformed minds are programmed by them for want of a better method. Turning a blind eye on this and continuing to exploit children’s helplessness will not ensure the ushering of a peaceful and enlightened society. Can we, of all things, expect a method, which violates a basic right of children to produce good results?
Liberal Arts Perspectives
Professor Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s address before the College of Psychiatry raised two questions in my mind: liberal arts education and the appreciation of a novel. I will write some notes on liberal arts education. I have not read the novel he analysed.
What is liberal about liberal arts education? To understand that you must ask the further question what was education liberated from? It was liberated from theology, from the Roman Catholic Church, from scholasticism, from Aristotle and from the dominance of Latin. People turned from the study of God to the study of humans and his environment, hence humanism and the humanities. Protagora’s line came back to life: ‘Man is the measure of all things ….’ Mathematics became ‘the language in which the book of nature was written’ rather an aid to astrology. Knowledge was freed from the supremacy of sacerdotum, the church. In France that dominance continued till the Revolution. That dominance was something that we now can only imagine. The Pope, claiming that he was either the Vicar of Christ or successor to St Peter, exercised enormous power over believers. He anointed kings, excommunicated them, kept repentant kings kneeling before his closed door in winter cold, contracted peace among feuding kings and chartered universities. On occasion, bishops exercised some of these powers. Henry VIII’s breach with the Pope, the dissolution of monasteries in England and the use of some of that wealth to set up Trinity College in Cambridge (and its eventual contribution to the advance of knowledge, especially in mathematics and physics from Newton to Hawkins) was a seminal to the spread of liberal arts education. The revolution in 1688 in England was, in part, a rejection of James II to attempts to re-establish the dominance of Catholicism, following his cousin in Paris. The first amendment to the constitution of US reads ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. The French Revolution threw out the privileges of not only kings and the aristocracy but also of the Catholic church. The thinkers of pre-revolutionary Paris Montesquieu, Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire, Quesnay, say (Say’s first name was Jean-Baptiste which Grenouille, which the protagonist in the novel Amarakirthi analysed, also bore) and many others contributed mightily to the outcome.
Knowledge was freed from scholasticism and Aristotle. Aritotle’s Organon was replaced with Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. Latin was replaced with vernaculars after Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and after a committee of clerics similarly translated the Bible into English to form the Authorised Version. The content of that liberal arts education kept on growing and growing until sometime in the late 19th century, universities began to award the B.Sc. Degree, although Harvard College had appointed a professor of science as early as 1756. In 1700, in Paris there was the Academie des sciences. A few centuries after education was freed, as the guild system dissolved itself, apprentices were liberated to choose a craft of their choice and employment wherever they wished. So arose the individual as the centre from which society was composed.
The modern threat to liberal arts education comes from the all-powerful state, the Leviathan that saved men and women from the state of nature, which with full blown power threatens to gobble up everything in society. It is paradoxical but the true, that the state simultaneously espouses, nourishes and promotes liberal arts education. Most liberal arts colleges and universities are owned by and operated under governments. But the threat is real mostly in states which have totalitarian governments. In others, the governance and management of institutions are pretty much in the hands of the education institutions. There are two German terms that define the freedoms that educational institutions in non-totalitarian societies wish to enjoy: lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) and lehrenfreiheit (freedom to teach). Students are free to learn what they wish to where they wish to, and teachers are free to teach what they wish where they wish. There is a varied and vast literature on these themes and academics here are far more informed of these than I. I will cite two well-known instances of gross violation of these freedoms, one from the US and the other from India. In the early 1950s, there was the McCarthy witch hunt for communists in higher educational institutions which seriously interfered with their freedom of inquiry. In India a few years ago, a minister intervened to insist that a book written by a teacher in Delhi University be removed from the reading lists for MA students. However, there are many ways in which governments and large corporations interfere with the direction of research and teaching in universities. By funding research and teaching programmes, the funding institutions decide the directions in which universities move. My knowledge of academic institutions in China and Russia is very scant and I refrain commenting on them.
Liberalism grew to free people and people became free when governments intervened to end societies that were ‘nasty, brutish and short’. The neo-liberalist view belies this history. That process contained two streams. One fed the growth of personal freedom, now espoused in extreme forms by libertarians. The other was the main political programme of liberals, best illustrated by the activities of the Liberal Party in Britain in the 19th century and of the Labour Party in the 20th. The expansion of government in society including the regulation of markets was a part of that programme.
Failure to be fed by either of these streams causes starvation of one aspect of society and the emergence of malformations. At one extreme is the insurgence of Donald Trump in US and the pursuit of neo-liberal polices in Chile, both of which threaten democracy in the respective countries. At the other extreme is China which, it has been reported to have raised millions of people from poverty in about 30 years, giving them opportunities for a better life but denied people the freedom to choose. Again, at the expense of a democratic society.
Back to the campus. Medieval universities had five faculties: arts, philosophy, law, medicine and theology. Of these the faculty of arts had the largest number of students and theology dominated them all in authority as clerics often were the teachers and the officials of universities. (The president of Princeton University, until Woodrow Wilson in 1902, was always a clergyman, a presbyterian.) The statutes of Oxford referred to the arts faculty as the fons et origo ceteris– the source and origin of others. It was necessary to obtain B.A. and M.A. degrees to proceed to the higher faculties, except in the case of laws. Much of present-day conventions can be explained in those terms. In US, one cannot proceed to study law, medicine, management or philosophy unless one has completed an M.A/M.Sc. As the teaching content in science became comparable to those in arts, B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees came to be their equivalents.
Right up to the middle of the 19th century, even small colleges from medieval times could teach all the subjects that were necessary for the award of university degrees. That changed rapidly after a decade or two from then. Few colleges, if any, could teach the whole range of subjects undergraduates undertook to study. When Conant Bryant at Harvard in 1926, introduced the ‘smorgasbord’ of subjects for undergraduates, he announced to the world the expansion of knowledge that had begun about 1850. University faculties asserted themselves and appointed teachers in science to teach in labs, which were expensive to set up. Similarly, social sciences came to be taught in university faculties. The subject matter taught in these faculties became strange to those in others and the problems of ‘two cultures’ emerged and multiplied.
Given the large volume of material now taught in both schools and universities (colleges), it is necessary to think out where do we teach best all students a common curriculum to enable students in each stream talk to others. After all, a Samskrit scholar must be able to read a railway timetable and a theoretical physicist must not put on ear plugs when Bhimsen Joshi sings Meghamalhar. Two characters in C. P. Snow’s (of ‘Two Cultures’ fame) novels Walter Luke in The New Men, a physicist, and Roy Calvert, an orientalist, in The Light and the Dark) exemplify what Snow had in mind. My understanding of the situation is that it cannot be done productively in college or university. In societies like ours where a miniscule fraction of all school children enters universities, it is far more productive to introduce a larger number of students to the world of learning in school. In Britain it, was tried in several newer universities. Columbia had the Great Books course. In France the Baccalaureate examination (Bac) seems a successful attempt to do this.
In our schools now, students enter a stream at age 16. By 18 they are non-returners, either in arts or in science. Children in C schools have one stream to choose from. Students in 1AB schools have the luxury of choice. Students in C schools have a tougher time to enter the other stream.
I was in school a long time ago. It was possible then for a student to learn one or two languages to a good level of proficiency and literature in one of them, learn mathematics (including elementary calculus, coordinate geometry and series in algebra), one science subject (often botany in the absence of a lab and teachers to supervise experimental work) and the three social studies subjects. Of course, those conditions required good teachers. I imagine good schools in urban areas then had facilities for all this and more and now most schools have them. But even a small government central school in some hick town, when under a good principal provided that education. With two years preparatory work in the sixth form, the quality of which varied enormously among schools, a young man or woman entered university, where if he/she were diligent, he/she would come out not altogether a stranger in other faculties. My impression, no more, is that it all depended on teachers and systems matter much less.
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