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HYPOTHESIS: IS SRI LANKA A VICTIM OF AN INTERNATIONAL PLOT?

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by PROF. TISSA VITARANA

It is well known that the real rulers of the world are a few multi-billionaires, super-rich hegemonists, who control the economy of the USA, and use their financial power to decide who becomes the President of that country and forms its Government. So long as the USA remains the world’s number one economy it could control the global economy. The US dollar (USD) is still the currency of global trade. The USA can have enormous debts (an estimated USD 3 trillion to China), but this can be met by printing more USD.

This situation is threatened with extinction as China becomes the world’s number one economy and the Yuan possibly the currency of global trade. This will herald the end of the US control of the global economy and its exploitation by giant multinational corporations (MNC’s). The downfall of the US economy is being accelerated by the global crisis of capitalism, made worse by the Covid 19 pandemic.

The USA is doing everything possible to retain its glorious position. It has plotted and planned, and unfortunately Sri Lanka too is an essential part of this plan. The USA is doing everything possible to prevent the further expansion of trade led by East Asian countries like China, Vietnam and South Korea. Much of the expansion of East Asian economies led by China has been a result of the benefit of American investment and technology transfer to this region through outsourcing by American industrialists to East Asia, including China, so as to maximize their profits. The US Government is now countering this by raising the duty on imports from China. These moves have led to a trade war between the USA and China. The outcome is uncertain. In the event that the US efforts fail it may resort to the extreme level of a military war.

Both within the UN system and in international law there is recognition of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean as two separate entities. The USA, Australia and Japan belong to the Pacific Rim countries. India and Sri Lanka belong to the Indian Ocean rim countries. According to international law and UN conventions countries are entitled to have military bases on their own rim. During the time of the Sirimavo led SLFP/LSPP/CP coalition Government a resolution was moved by Sri Lanka in the UN general assembly that the Indian Ocean region should be a zone of peace, and this was passed with a big majority.

As a result USA lost its military base in Diego-Garcia and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled that this be handed back to the country it belonged to, Mauritius. The USA was directed to pull out by the ICJ in the course of this year. The USA has clearly decided to make Sri Lanka its Indian Ocean military base. To enable it to do this the USA has persistently joined the two oceans and used the term Indo-Pacific Ocean. This enables the USA and its allies like Australia and Japan which are in the Pacific Ocean rim to become a part of the Indo-Pacific Ocean rim, to enable them to make Sri Lanka a US military base. Already the USA has brought in India to an alliance call the Quad made up of the USA, Australia, Japan and India. Sri Lanka too can be brought into this alliance in due course.

The 2015 Yahapalanaya (UNP) Government signed the ACSA agreement (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) with the USA which permitted joint military action. But fortunately it was defeated before it could sign the MCC (Millenium Challenge Corporation) and SOFA (Status of Forces) agreements. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) is grateful to the SLPP led alliance Government for not signing these agreements. The MCC agreement would facilitate the complete exploitation of the Sri Lankan economy by the US MNC’s and Sri Lanka would have become a banana republic. The SOFA agreement would have made the whole of Sri Lanka a US military base. The LSSP as a partner in the present SLPP led Government was overjoyed.

But it would appear that our joy is short lived. The Yugadanavi incident, where our assets are being sold to a US company surreptitiously, and the passing of the 20th amendment to the Constitution, which has enabled a dual American citizen to become the Finance Minister of our country, together with the crude manner in which these have been done is suggestive of a deep desire of the USA and its local allies to go ahead with the MCC and SOFA agreements through the present Government.

It is well known in political circles that during the period of the Yahapalana Government there were advisers and researchers in the political, economic and military feilds working at Temple Trees, besides a CIA officer. During the short period of SLPP led Government coming into office in October 2018 for a period of three months, Ranil Wickremesinghe though no longer the Prime Minister (having been replaced by Mahinda Rajapakse), refused to leave Temple Trees residence/office because of the presence of these American think tanks. These continued to be active until the General Election of August 2020 when Mahinda Rajapakse was installed as Prime Minister.

During their period in Temple Trees neoliberal policies were fully implemented by the Yahapalanaya Government. The national economy that had been established by the Centre-Left Government was progressively dismantled and regulated by market forces, both here and globally. This led to a flood of foreign goods specially from USA and Europe, replacing our products. Local producers had to close down or dismiss staff. The national economy targeting self-sufficiency broke down. The result was an adverse foreign trade balance leading to a steep drop in our foreign reserve.

Foreign debt soared and foreign borrowing went up. Foreign reserves which averaged around USD eight billion dropped to USD 1.5 billion. Our assets were sold at low prices to American and other foreign buyers to cover our debts. These neoliberal policies originated and were implemented by the Yahapalanaya Government in the interest of the USA and its allies at the expense of the people of our country. Fortunately President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him by Mahinda Rajapakse as PM.

These events were designed to force the Yahapalanaya Government into economic and social difficulties so that they would sign the MCC and SOFA agreements. The defeat of the Yahapalanaya Government saved Sri Lanka and its people.

The SLPP-led present Government should ensure that those disastrous American neoliberal policies, which were strongly rejected by the people, are completely eliminated. The traditional humanitarian and collective policies which were the main features of Sri Lankan culture must fully replace these neoliberal policies, doing away with the priority given to individuals getting rich at the expense of the poor. The common good and the needs of all the people should be given priority. The LSSP strongly recommends some of the lessons to be taken from the experience of the Centre-Left coalition Government with Sirimavo Bandaranaike as PM and Dr.N.M.Perera as Finance Minister during the massive crisis of 1972/73 (when oil prices increased seven times and food prices by over 10 times). Dr.N.M.perera decided to place the burden on the rich rather than on the poor.

He restored the national economy, promoting local production, both agricultural and industrial, and cut down imports strictly. He increased the tax on the super-rich to 70%, while it is still kept at 14% during the present crises. The burden is now falling on the poor and 60% of families are struggling to live below the poverty line. Some people have only one meal a day. The malnutrition rate has gone up to 18%, so that a fifth of the population will grow up as thin, stunted and mentally impoverished people. This augurs badly for the future of the Sri Lankan nation.

The cooperative movement was strengthened, both producer and consumer dealt directly with each other, so that the profiteering of the middleman was prevented. Today prices of all items, specially essentials, are soaring and the people are starving as a result. It is the prime duty of the Government to ensure that every citizen of the country, whatever his race, religion or caste may be, is adequately fed and supplied with the essentials at a reasonable price. For instance the provision of a weekly dry ration free to all who are underfed should be given priority. A national development programme should be adjusted to enable this to be done.

All loss making institutions should be run on the “Solidarity Principle”, making the employees the owners, so that they get a share of the profit in addition to their salaries. This has worked in several countries in Europe and the third world, such as Argentina and India. For instance in India TATA’s owned 63,000 hectares of tea land but claimed they were running at a loss and couldn’t pay their taxes. The Left Government of the State applied the solidarity principle and now the productivity has increased and the plantations are making big profits.

Sri Lanka and its people do not need the loans being offered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while being forced to agree to observe their neoliberal conditions. These ultimately serve the interest of the American and foreign rich, but not the interest of the poor people in our country. Following the example of the LSSP leader and Finance Minister Dr.N.M.Perera, suitably adjusted to Sri Lanka’s present conditions, is the way forward.



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Features

The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level

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The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.

Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.

The Ambassador’s vehicle

Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.

Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.

Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.

Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.

Antecedents

The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.

In Sri Lanka

Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.

The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.

Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.

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Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait

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ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.

The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.

The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.

Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.

“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.

The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.

“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”

According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.

“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.

The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.

Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.

“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.

“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”

Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.

Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.

“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”

The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.

“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”

The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.

Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”

Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”

Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”

Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.

“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.

Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.

The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.

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HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)

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by Chandra Arulpragasam

I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.

My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.

On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!

Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!

To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.

On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!

The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.

I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.

Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!

I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.

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