IN JULIUS CAESAR,THE SHAKESPEAREAN PLAY
Moral Depravity in Politics on Display
By DR. SIRI GALHENAGE
It is a measure of Shakespeare’s stature that he explores the complexities in human nature, so skilfully. For him, the ‘political theatre’, where humans compete with each other for power, provides a fertile ground for such exploration.
Vying for power in affairs of the state, exercised inappropriately, is a favourite theme of Shakespeare. Drawing from history, he gives dramatic expression to such a scenario in his popular play, ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’, in which the nature of politics and those who participate in it, and their motivations, seep into every aspect of the drama.
The plot depicts the assassination of Julius Caesar as the pivotal event of the play, preceded by the rationalization of the action by the conspirators, and the political consequences thereof. The propensity to manipulate the truth in political machinations is the prominent mode of the play – one of the most rhetorical in all Shakespeare. “Men may construe things after their fashion/ Clean from the purpose of things themselves” [Cicero: Act1- 1.3.34 – 5]. It brings forth the moral depravity in politics, making the main characters and their patterns of behaviour, the focus for interpretation – the purpose of this essay.
The Republicans had governed the city of Rome and its territories for over four centuries. The Roman Republic was founded by the inhabitants of the city who drove away the hereditary kings and took over power by electing their own to the Senate. The Senate was initially controlled by the patricians, the city’s aristocratic class, but in time, the plebeians, the common folk, campaigned for and achieved a greater say in the assembly by appointing their own representatives [tribunes] to safeguard their interests. Yet, the common folk remained a hapless lot, poor and disgruntled, and averse to any ruler gaining too much power.
The aristocrats continued to dominate the Senate, but with time their quality and integrity declined due to their extravagant life style and corrupt practices. Two of the generals who prevailed and formed the First Triumvirate – a cabal of three rulers – were Pompey and Julius Caesar, along with Crassus. Pompey was a defender of the Republic and statesman, and Caesar, a military expansionist. The alliance was put to the test as Caesar gained power following his successful campaigns in Europe, expanding the Territories of the Roman Republic. He became Governor of the vast region of Gaul [north-central Europe] where he commanded a large army. The contention for leadership of the Roman state, in its entirety, between Caesar and Pompey led to a bitter civil war. Following the defeat of Pompey and his progeny, Caesar emerged as the formidable leader of the Roman territories.
Shakespeare’s play begins at this point with Caesar’s triumphal return to Rome accompanied by his followers, including the military and political figures – Brutus, Cassius and Antony – to be welcomed by scores of cheering Romans.
Caesar dominates the drama from the start and his spirit lives on even after his departure in Act 3, justifying the title of the play. He was a man with a paradoxical mixture of characteristics: arrogance and towering authority on the one hand and a blemished physique on the other, with partial deafness and prone to attacks of epilepsy. ‘He fell down in the market-place, and foamed at mouth, and was speechless’. [Casca: Act 1. Scene 2.]
While the plebeians celebrate the arrival of their new leader from his military expeditions, bringing ‘many captives home to Rome….whose ransoms, did the general coffers fill’, there is growing concern among some of Caesar’s close associates that their leader may use his supreme power to override the Republican form of governance to establish a new monarchy. The two senior Generals – Cassius and Brutus – who too had leadership ambitions, were particularly concerned about Caesar’s rise to power: whether he will ‘soar above the view of men’, as the tribunes grudgingly described.
Cassius and Brutus fought with Pompey against Caesar in the civil war. Caesar, in his magnanimity, was merciful towards his defeated opponents, but was insightful about Cassius. Astute in his judgement of character, Caesar once remarked: ‘Cassius has a lean and hungry look/ He thinks too much: such men are dangerous’.
Cassius harbours a personal resentment towards Caesar: ‘So vile a thing as Caesar…he doth bear me hard’, at the same time being envious of his might: ‘Bestride the narrow world’ like a ‘Colossus’. He instigates a plan to remove Caesar from power and hatches a plot to draw Brutus and others into the conspiracy. He believes that his liaison with Brutus is beneficial, in order to avoid any accusations of self-interest and to lend respectability to the project, as Brutus is held in high regard by the populace.
Cassius is malcontent and conniving, reminiscent of Iago in Othello. Alerting his fellow conspirators to the danger of Caesar returning Rome to monarchical rule, also questions his fitness to govern in view of his infirmities. He tries to win over an ambivalent Brutus by planting forged letters of public discontent about Caesar in his house knowing that Brutus is receptive to the voice of the populace.
Brutus is faced with having to balance his personal friendship with Caesar against the general good of the Republic. Mark Antony, a strong ally of Caesar, wishes the new leader to be crowned. But, if crowned, broods Brutus, will he change his current nature and turn dangerous? How could it be stopped?
‘It must be by his death’. And for my part/ I know no personal cause to spurn at him,/ But for the general. He would be crowned./ How that might change his nature, there’s the question./ It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,/ And that craves vary walking, Crown him: that!’ [Brutus: Act 2. Scene 1]
Brutus’s dissonance of thought crystallises into a sense of resolve. At a meeting of the conspirators, a decision is made to assassinate Caesar. Brutus takes control of the plot. ‘Let not our looks put on our purposes/ But bear it as our Roman actors do/ With untir’d spirits and formal constancy’.
‘Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully/ Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods’ [Brutus: Act 2. Scene 1]
THE IDES of MARCH
Caesar, on his arrival at the Senate on ‘the ides [or 15th] of March’, which celebrated the first full moon of the New Year with festivities and sacrifice, is stabbed to death by the conspirators, one after the other. Before his last gasp, Caesar turns to Brutus, the last to attack, and utters his last words: ‘et tu Brute?’, [even you Brutus?], in bewilderment of his friend’s act of betrayal. The assassins bathe their hands with the blood of Caesar, an act suggestive of taking responsibility for bringing down a potential dictator, which they anticipate would be perceived by the masses as a deed of heroism.
In a funeral oration at the Forum that followed, Brutus explains to the masses his reasoning behind Caesar’s assassination: that despite his love for Caesar, he loves Rome more, and that Caesar’s ambition posed a danger to the Liberty of the nation. The speech pacifies the agitated crowd.
Mark Antony grieves the death of Caesar. A loyalist of Caesar, Antony, while harbouring the thought of avenging Caesar’s death, skilfully negotiates an opportunity for a funeral oration by engaging with Brutus by shaking his bloodied hands in a gesture of amity. Brutus grants him permission to speak despite the reservations of Cassius. Antony outdoes Brutus in a rhetorical speech with an energising opening triad: ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ [Act 3. Scene 2], the memory of which lives on as captivating lines. In his speech replete with irony, Antony repeatedly referring to Brutus as ‘an honourable man’ refutes the latter’s claim that Caesar acted out of ambition and self-interest. He declares that Caesar brought much wealth and glory to Rome and that he, on three occasions, turned down the offer of the crown [perhaps a theatrical demonstration of humility!]. Coming down from the pulpit, Antony exposes Caesar’s wounded body to the public and reads [after an initial reluctance] the dead leader’s deed bequeathing his [plundered!] wealth to the masses.
Following the stirring funeral oration by Antony, Cassius and Brutus are driven away by an enraged crowd, calling them traitors.
In exile, the two assassins raise an army to combat a newly formed alliance of Antony, Lepidus and Octavius, the latter, the adopted son and appointed successor to Caesar. Cassius and Brutus regroup after an initial dispute over funding, and Brutus is grief-stricken by the news that his wife, Portia, has committed suicide in his absence. Undeterred, Brutus is ready to march on to combat the enemy at Philippi:
‘There is a tide in the affairs of men,/ Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/ Omitted all the voyage of their life,/ Is bound in shallows, and in miseries…’ [Act4. Scene2]
But the tide did not lead to plain sailing. Cassius and Brutus witness the poor performance of their men at the Battle of Philippi. Cassius misconstrues an event in the battlefield as signalling defeat and falling into the shallows of despair gets one of his men to kill him with his own sword.
‘Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything’ [Titinius: Act 5 – Scene 5]
Brutus, learning about the death of Cassius, and facing defeat, commits suicide by running through a sword held by a colleague. He ended his life to avoid further dishonour.
ANTONY and OCTAVIUS
Antony and Octavius celebrate their victory. Antony speaks over Brutus’s body in a powerful closing speech eulogising the defeated Brutus as ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ [5.5.68], who acted ‘not in envy of great Caesar’ but ‘in honest thought/ And common good to all’. ‘This was a man!’. Octavius orders an honourable burial for Brutus.
The power sharing alliance by the three victors – Octavius, Antony and Lepidus, appear shaky. Octavius and Antony discuss how to eliminate Lepidus, and the struggle for supremacy between the first two continues. At the end, Octavius, exercises his authority by calling it a day: ‘So call the field to rest, and let’s away/ To part the glories of this happy day’ [5.5.80 -1].
‘The play’s thing’ in Shakespeare, as Prince Hamlet showed us in his play within the play. Through the portrayal of characters, and the situations they create, the playwright endeavours to alert our senses and raise our conscience about humanity, with all its strengths and weaknesses. He does not take sides, but prompts us to look into the patterns of behaviour that lie beneath the ebb and flow of history and politics that are deeply rooted in our collective psyche.
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare goes back to ancient Rome to discover a story with underlying themes that capture the imagination of his contemporary audiences at the end of the sixteenth century. He brings to life the so called heroes, the traitors, the conspirators, the betrayers, the assailants and the opportunists, who appear to cluster on the political stage; not to mention the gullible masses that constantly get carried away with the tide of rhetoric. The themes that emerge include: anticipatory anxiety about authoritarianism and militarism; fact and fiction in political rhetoric; personal interest against common good in the quest for power; war as a continuation of politics, as Clausewitz aphorises; and the lack of permanent friends or enemies in the affairs of the state. Shakespeare is, as always, our contemporary! Isn’t he?
And also, in Julius Caesar, the play, he conveys a few eternal truths about humanity: that beneath the bravado of a hero is a flawed man; that men of intellect who ought to show the way may be lacking in wisdom; that passion to save a nation may turn to hatred; and the so called honourables are prone to fall from grace. And, as the curtain comes down, one may recall [with apologies to Prospero in Tempest], ‘These our actors‘… ‘are such stuff as dreams are made on, and their little life is rounded with a sleep’.
Growing foreign dependency and India’s USD 4 bn lifeline
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Japanese embassy and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund, previously known as United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), on 16 March, 2023, issued a joint statement that dealt with the impact the developing political-economic-social crisis is having on the poor in Sri Lanka.
The statement focused on the suffering of the children and measures taken by UNICEF, in consultation with the Governments of Japan and Sri Lanka, to provide relief to the needy.
However, what really captured public attention was the declaration made by the Japanese Ambassador, in Colombo, Mizukoshi Hideak, that with the latest contribution, amounting to USD 1.8 mn, the total Japanese financial assistance, provided through UNICEF alone, exceeded USD 3.8 mn, since the beginning of last year. That is definitely a significant package provided through a single UN agency, particularly against the backdrop of the unceremonious cancellation of the Japan- funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, in late Sept., 2020, by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government.
The directive, in this regard, was issued on 21 Sept., 2020, by Dr. P. B. Jayasundera, in his capacity as Secretary to the President, to the then Transport Secretary, Monti Ranatunga. That move ruined Sri Lanka’s relations with Japan.
Whoever advised the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to terminate the project, without consulting Japan, as head of the Cabinet-of-Ministers, he couldn’t absolve himself of the responsibility for the ruination of vital relationship with Tokyo. Had it not been the case, Japan, most probably, would have delivered a substantial assistance to Sri Lanka, at the onset of the ongoing unprecedented crisis.
Sri Lanka made a failed bid to secure as much as USD 3.5 bn loan from Japan, during the tenure of Sanjiv Gunasekara as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Tokyo. Gunasekara, a close associate of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned in the wake of the 09 May, 2022, violence, that gave a turbo boost to the campaign against his government.
Unlike Japan, India provided direct aid in various forms to Sri Lanka, struggling to cope up with what became an insurmountable crisis to overcome on our own. India has repeatedly declared that the continuing assistance is in line with Premier Narendra Modi’s much touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Sri Lanka received concessional credit facility, amounting to USD 1 bn, in March last year. In addition to that, by the second week of March this year, Sri Lanka received other lines of credit, worth over USD 3 bn. Therefore, the total Indian assistance is worth over USD 4 bn, a staggering amount as Sri Lanka’s debt before the Japanese and Indian interventions stood at over USD 53 bn. Indian intervention cannot be compared, under any circumstances, with assistance provided by any other country.
The Indian assistance is of immense importance as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after much deliberation, promised USD 2.9 bn over a period of four years. The delay on the part of China to provide an assurance as regards debt-restructuring support, hindered the finalization of the tripartite agreement involving Sri Lanka, creditors and IMF. Finally, China gave that assurance, in writing, early this month.
The situation was so precarious, Sri Lanka couldn’t have even provided the free text books that have been given, annually, to the student population ,from the time of the JRJ regime. Those who had been at the helm of political power, over the past three decades, to varying degrees, ruined the economy, and, by 2021/2022, Sri Lanka was unable to provide even the basic requirements, like cooking gas, kerosene, petrol, etc., as even remittances from our expatriate workers, which in the past amounted to about seven billion dollars per year, dropped drastically due to the illegal underground banking system, hawala/undiyal, hijacking much of it from the normal banks. The government didn’t have the means to provide school text books for the 2023 academic year. In consultation with India, of the USD 1 bn concessional credit facility, over USD 10 mn was utilized by the State Printing Corporation, and private importers, to procure printing paper and other material from India. India met 45% (four mn students) of the total requirement. Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay visited the SPC, on 09 March, 2023, to dispatch a consignment of textbooks to schools. Education Minister Dr. Susil Premjayantha joined Baglay. The Indian High Commission statement, issued two days later,, was aptly titled ‘India’s support for text books investment in Sri Lanka’s future.’
The government and the Opposition should be ashamed of their failure to provide for the children’s need.
Perhaps, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) should be appointed to examine the circumstances leading to Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status. Decades of utterly irresponsible management of the economy, coupled with an explosive mixture of causes – waste, corruption and irregularities – caused the current crisis.
Political parties, represented in Parliament, are responsible for the continuing crisis, to varying degrees.
Controversy over ISBs
The Island discussed some of the issues at hand in last week’s midweek piece, headlined ‘All praise for Lanka’s saviours!
What Dr. Coomaraswamy didn’t say was that as the CB Governor, he was also directly responsible for the Yahapalana government borrowing a record USD 12.5 bn from the international bond market, at high interest rates, from private lenders, primarily in the West. So what did that government achieve with such huge borrowings? All that the Yahapalana regime achieved, with all that money, we cannot see, except to lay the foundation for the current debt crisis?
Our comment on the basis of recent claims that the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Coomaraswamy (2016-2019), only told one side of the truth, attracted responses from several parties, including the Central Bank.
Consequently, the writer discussed the borrowing of USD 12.5 bn, and related matters, and was told the following: First, it is important to point out that the Governor, Central Bank, has no authority to approve or undertake any borrowing on behalf of the government. The borrowing limit, in any given year, is set by Parliament. Therefore, the government cannot borrow beyond the limit set by Parliament. In addition, all external borrowing has to be approved by the Finance Minister, and the Cabinet of Ministers. The Governor and the CBSL only have an advisory role. On ISBs, they have marketing and issuance as additional responsibilities once the Cabinet approved the transaction.
It is also important to recognize that ISBs are only one channel for external commercial borrowings. Others include short-term SWAPs, foreign term loans/syndicated loans and external flows into government rupee securities. The article dealt with only one instrument, having ignored the switching that was undertaken during 2015-19 to increase the maturity and reduce the cost of foreign borrowing.
As regards the USD 10 bn increase in ISBs outstanding during 2015-19, USD 5 bn of this increase can be attributed to switching away from shorter term (one year or less) and more expensive SWAPs and highly volatile foreign portfolio investment (hot money) in Government rupee securities to longer term (5 and 10 years) and less costly ISBs. SWAPs were reduced from approximately USD 2.5 bn to USD 500 mn.
Volatile and foreign investment in government rupee securities was reduced from USD 3.5 bn to USD 600 mn. In addition, during the course of 2019, a second ISB of USD 2 bn was issued to create a stronger buffer of external reserves to address the inevitable increase in uncertainty going into elections due shortly thereafter. (The money required for 2019 had been raised through an ISB, issued in March 2019.)
So about USD 7 bn of the USD 10 bn increase in the stock of ISBs outstanding, during 2015-19 may be attributed to increasing the stability and reducing the cost of the ISBs outstanding by switching instruments and raising the buffer provided by external reserves prior to a period of uncertainty, associated with elections.
The remaining increase of USD 3 bn may be partly attributed to the fact that borrowing incurred earlier had not resulted in a sufficient increase and/or saving of foreign exchange. Hence money had to be borrowed to repay debt incurred earlier. In fact, Verite Research found that 89 percent of external debt, repaid during 2015-19, could be accounted for by liabilities incurred prior to 2015.
The adverse debt dynamics were recognized and the Medium Term Debt Management Strategy was published in April 2019 to chart the way to sustainability. In addition, the Active Liability Management Act (2018) was introduced to expand the tools available to the CBSL for managing external debt sustainably. The CBSL, as the economic adviser to the Government, also advocated that there should be a primary surplus in the budget and that non-debt creating inflows (such as exports, remittances, tourism proceeds, FDI, inflows into the CSE and government securities) should be increased to enhance the capacity to service debt while supporting the level of imports necessary to achieve the growth potential of the economy.
They also pointed out that only one of the ISBs, issued during 2015-19, has been settled to date. This amounted to USD 500mn. They expressed the view that it is not possible to sustain the argument that servicing ISBs, incurred during 2015-19 ,led to the standstill in debt repayments in April 2023.
Treasury bond scams and tax cuts
Sweeping tax concessions to the rich and reduction of VAT, that had been introduced by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government to encourage business in 2019/2020, escalated the financial crisis, leading to the declaration of the state of bankruptcy, two years later. No one in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cabinet dared to challenge such far reaching tax concessions and VAT reduction.
How the loss of as much as Rs 600 bn in revenue, as alleged by the Opposition ,due to tax concessions and reduction of VAT, contributed to the current crisis, should be examined, also taking into consideration (1) Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb, 2015 and March 2016 at a time the CBSL has been under the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs (2) Enactment of new Foreign Exchange Act in 2017 in the wake of Treasury bond scams. Critics say the repealing of time-tested exchange control law that has been in place for decades paved the way for exporters to ‘park’ export proceeds overseas. Of the 225 MPs, 94 voted for the new law whereas 18 voted against. In spite of Justice Minister, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, taking up this issue, both in and outside Parliament, remedial measures hasn’t been taken, to date. The Finance Ministry owed an explanation as to how it intended to compel the exporters to bring back export proceeds (3) Continuing public-private sector partnership in corrupt practices, particularly mis-invoicing (under invoicing and over invoicing of imports/exports) (4) Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila, MP, has moved the Supreme Court against the Central Bank Bill. The Attorney-at-Law alleged that the new law violated Article 3 and 4 of the Constitution hence needing the approval of the people at a referendum. In addition to Gammanpila, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera and Jathika Nidahas Peramuna leader Wimal Weerawansa, too, moved the Supreme Court in terms of the Article 121 against the Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka.’ Former JVP MP Wasantha Samarasinghe, on behalf of the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB), too, moved the Supreme Court in this regard.
A warning from Hanke
The country is in a bind. In spite of the execution of the agreement with the IMF later this month, the situation remains dicey. The absence of economic recovery plan continues to cause further instability.
Therefore, the government and the Opposition should seek a consensus on a national action plan, even if Local Government polls cannot be conducted in late April, regardless of the Supreme Court intervention.
Steve Hanke, Professor of Applied Economics, at Johns Hopkins University, in the USA, recently issued a dire warning to Sri Lanka. Appearing on CNBC’s ‘Squawk Box Asia,’ Prof. Hanke declared Sri Lanka needs institutional reforms in order to achieve long-term debt sustainability.
Referring to Sri Lanka and what was described as emerging markets (Argentina and Montenegro), where he played a key role in establishing new currency regime, former economic advisor to US President Ronald Reagan warned “Unless you change the institutions and the rules of the game, governing these countries, they’re always going to remain in the same … situation that they’ve been in for a long time.”
Prof. Hanke added: “In fact, most of the personalities, involved in Sri Lanka ,at the high level, are exactly the same as they’ve been for years. So nothing has changed.”
In other words, those who have ruined Sri Lanka are spearheading the economic recovery process. The American is spot on. Sri Lanka is in a pathetic situation. Those who had systematically brought Sri Lanka to its knees, by pursuing ill-fated policies, emerged as its saviours. That is the bitter truth. The role of the executive, legislature, and judiciary, needs to be examined. Those who have moved the Supreme Court against the Bill, titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka,’ have quite conveniently forgotten how the Yahapalana government, and Central Bank, twice perpetrated Treasury bond scams. What would have Prof. Hanke said if CNBC raised Treasury bonds scams during ‘Squawk Box Asia.’
If not for Deepa Seneviratne, the then head of Public Debt Department, Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s role couldn’t have been proved. Former Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe said so at an event organized by the Colombo Municipal Council years ago.
Sri Lanka cannot forget Prof. Hanke’s remark in the CNBC programme. “You have to remember that we have a country that since 1965 has had 16 IMF programmes and they’ve all failed. You get temporary relief in anticipation of a bailout. But in the long run … none of these IMF programmes work.”
It would be pertinent to briefly examine how interested parties brazenly protected perpetrators of the Treasury bond scams.
Having named Mahendran as the Governor, regardless of the opposition from President Maithripala Sirisena, those planning to commit the first daylight robbery of the Central Bank moved Deepa Seneviratne to the Public Debt Department as its head, in spite of her not having had any previous experience in the particular division. It seems they had obviously felt comfortable in having a lady officer there they thought they could manipulate her to suit their need. But Seneviratne turned tables on the bond thieves by putting up a note to register her strong opposition to Mahendran’s move. She should have been rewarded for her fearless stand with at least a national honour if not an international one, even from bodies like the UN, the Transparency International, Amnesty International, etc. But it seems that even these international busy bodies have their own political angles.
It would be of pivotal importance to keep in mind that President Sirisena appointed a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in January 2017, about 10 months after the second robbery, and two years after the first.
The Commission comprised Justice K.T. Chitrasiri, the late Justice P S Jayawardena and retired Deputy Auditor General V. Kandasamy. Sumathipala Udugamsuriya functioned as its Secretary. CoI issued a devastating report that implicated Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) in the Treasury bond scams.
President Sirisena went to the extent of dissolving Parliament, in June 2015, to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) tabling its report on the first bond scam. SLFP leader Sirisena owes an explanation. Justice Chitrasiri’s CoI didn’t inquire into that aspect. Sri Lanka’s response to waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement is baffling. Let me end this piece reminding how the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) secured a substantial sponsorship from Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) deeply mired in a bond scam, in 2016, for the Law Asia Conference during the tenure of its then President Geoffrey Alagaratnam, PC. The BASL never explained why it obtained PTL sponsorship even after the exposure of Treasury bond scams. That partnership also escaped the CoI. The rest is history.
Knowing what is now happening to the US economy with a string of bank failures and unprecedented bailouts, especially due to hoodoo economics it introduced in recent decades, like repeated quantitative easing (blindly printing trillions of dollars leading many to say the dollar is now only good as toilet paper) that has been practiced to ensure its world hegemony, the whole world might be hit with bank failures and even by a depression worse than the one that befell with the stock market crash of 1929. Already the contagion has spread to Europe with some leading banks there also requiring help.
Washington’s debt now stands at USD 31 trillion and climbing, but our own debt burden is still under USD 55 billion. So if we can get our exporters, who have stashed export earnings abroad, to bring them back, the picture here will not be as scary as it is made out to be. Even Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse has said that our export proceeds that have been parked overseas is in the region of USD 55 billion.
Soonwe will start receiving the IMF bailout, but our economic whiz kids have not done anything to plug the massive foreign exchange leak that has been freely draining foreign currency from the country, since the nineties, by way of private foreign exchange dealers who have been allowed to sell foreign exchange to any Tom, Dick and Harry, including drug dealers, to take their sales proceeds out of the country!
We would also like to ask the relevant authorities what they have done to recover monies stashed abroad by Lankans illegally that were exposed in great detail by the likes of Panama Papers and Pandora Papers.
A Miscellany of Thought
N. A. de S. Amaratunga (2022)
A Review by G. H. Peiris
I cannot claim to have the scholarly competence to place under critical scrutiny all items in this collection of writings authored by Professor N. A. de S. Amaratunga, and published in The Island from time to time since the early years of the present century. Accordingly, this ‘review’ is no more than an attempt to convey to a wide readership my gratitude for what I have learnt from Professor Amaratunga’s insights on a series of metaphysical and secular issues that have figured prominently during the recent past in the arena of debate and discussion among our intellectual elite, my appreciation of his rational perceptions and his subtle banter in responding to bizarre elements in our public affairs.
As a brief introduction to the author I should state that Professor Amaratunga’s career record is featured by several decades of distinguished and dedicated service to the University of Peradeniya in teaching, research and clinical work. Acquiring advanced skills in the field of ‘Maxillofacial Surgery’, he has provided physical and psychological relief of life-long impact to thousands of patients. He is also credited to have trained several of his junior colleagues in the Faculty of Dental Science, had has served as its Dean. The offer he received from the Peradeniya University of the Prestigious Award of the ‘Degree of Doctor of Science’ is testimony to his eminence in Sri Lanka’s community of scholars and professionals.
What probably enhances Professor Amaratunga’s status among the intellectual elite of Sri Lanka is the fact that his talents, interests, and concerns have not been confined to professional expertise. He has authored several creative writings in Sinhala which the cognoscenti place at par with the best works of that genre. More relevant than all else to the present ‘commentary’ is his capacity for elucidating the essence of certain complex metaphysical issues – especially those of Buddhist philosophy ‒ with the same clarity of thought seen in his contributions to media forums on current affairs.
In his ‘Introduction’ to the volume Professor Amaratunga makes a categorical statement regarding the paradigmatic guidelines of his ‘thoughts’. They are rendered below in abridged form as follows:
(a) The distinctive elements of our island civilisation are derived from Theravada Buddhism and the Sinhala language.
(b) The leadership of Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics since the termination of British rule in the mid-20th century has continued to be impaired by a cultural duality – on one side of the divide, the ‘alienated’ whose behavioural values and norms bear the imprint of subservience to values prescribed by the ‘West’, and, on the other side, those who treasure our civilisational heritage and understand the needs and aspirations of the majority of our people.
(c) His standpoint is that of an ardent ‘nationalist’, in the sense that he is unequivocally committed to safeguarding and promoting Sri Lanka’s national interests.
On literature, Professor Amaratunga adds that he is inclined towards the need for ‘social relevance’ of the fine arts, and believes that the paradigm of ars gratia artis (‘art for art’s sake’) is inappropriate for Sri Lanka, especially in creative writing.
The ‘miscellany’ of this volume is structured to constitute four ‘Sections’ – titled as: 1. ‘Literature and Culture’; 2. ‘Religion’; 3. ‘Economy’; and 4. ‘Health’. The first two of these ‘Sections’, consist respectively of 25 and 19 essays of unequal length. In these ‘Sections’ the reader could pick out from different points of the temporal sequence in which they are arranged items that constitute a mutually cohesive group from the viewpoint of content. For example, in the first ‘Section’, there are six such items, each serving as a contribution to an ongoing media debate, but when considered as a group would be seen as an invaluable enrichment of understanding on a significant feature of the educational system of the country – such as, say, the impact of the nation-wide ‘Fifth-standard Scholarship Examination’ or ‘The general decline of standards in higher education’. Likewise, in the total of 18 articles in ‘Section’ 2, thirteen items could be considered as a mutually cohesive group of thoughts that illuminates certain vitally significant aspect of Buddha Dhamma and Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka.
The forgoing observations do not detract from the intrinsic value of the short contributions referred to. Indeed, in my amateur assessment, in Section 1, the items titled ‘Quality of University Education’, ‘Purpose of the Novel and its Appraisal’, and the twin items titled ‘Darwinian Evolution vs. Intelligent Design’; and in Section 2, ‘Truth in Buddhism and Realism in Literature’, and ‘Mind, Matter and Nirvana in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism’, are examples of the author’s extraordinary depth of understanding and his skill of disseminating that knowledge in a lucid form.
It is in the 3rd Section of the volume titled ‘Politics’ that the real ‘miscellany’ of Thought is found, consisting of 78 items, and accounting for well over half the total page-length of the volume. Since they have been presented in a chronological order ‒ with the first item published in 2001, and the last in 2021‒ the list of items, at first glance, looks like a total mess which, indeed, is how our politics look. But a closer scrutiny show that all items in this list could be placed in one or another of 6 ‘Sub-Sections’ titled as ‘Ethnic Relations’, ‘Foreign Affairs’, ‘Electoral Politics’, ‘Development Plans and Projects’, and ‘Constitutional Issues’, with the chronology of the list providing the vicissitudinous background of each contribution which Professor Amaratunga has made, and each discussion or debate in which he has participated.
Once again I should emphasise that foregoing observation does not imply that the ‘Thoughts’ in this section, read individually, are either uninteresting or irrelevant to our present concerns. On the contrary they offer ideal readings both as reminders of the volatile scenarios we have passed though during the past two decades as well as the unshakable faith our politicians appear to have on the widespread dementia among the voter-population and on their own ability to hoodwink the electorate. Professor Amaratunga’s thoughts could re-kindle fading memories, especially on repeated failures to fulfil campaign pledges, the large-scale losses due to financial malpractices, the allegations of ‘war-crimes’ and of ‘violation of human rights’ in the counter-attack by the major powers of the North Atlantic alliance in retaliation to Sri Lanka’s close relations with the People’s Republic of China, the ingredients of success in the US-sponsored ‘regime change’ effort culminating in the establishment in 2015 of a puppet government in Colombo, the betrayal of our national interests by our own self-seeking representatives at the protracted Geneva inquisitions, the constitutional fiasco of August 2018, the euphoric Gotabhaya victory about a year thereafter, and then, the stunning exposure by the pandemic of the fundamental weakness of our dependent economy.
In the 4th Section of the volume titled ‘Health’, most of the items are devoted to diverse experiences witnessed globally and in Sri Lanka during the Covid-19 pandemic, but in an unconventional manner in the sense that they emphasise significant aspects that have not received adequate attention in the analytical writings on the pandemic. In my view the most significant issue highlighted in this section is the need for Sri Lanka to adopt development strategies towards self-reliance, especially in the availability of medicinal drugs and on food-security. Implicit in several items of this section is a forewarning of the risks entailed in the pursuit of development policies that enhance Sri Lanka’s macroeconomic dependence on the major global and regional powers.
Many items in this miscellany of thoughts contain a prominent element of dissent and disagreement with other participants in the media debates and discussion for which The Island has served as a major forum. But that dissent has all along been featured by a laudable sense of “civilised intelligence”. As a professional whose skills have an intense demand, his interests and concerns have not remained confined to his professional expertise – a feature often seen among other ‘specialists’ including those of the university community.
This volume is, first of all, a demonstration of intense and well-informed concern on a wide range of issues of vital importance to Sri Lanka. Had that quality been more widespread it is unlikely that those earning six-figure incomes would threaten collective action to bring the economy to a standstill to express their dissatisfaction on a relatively marginal erosion of monthly emoluments at a time of unprecedented national crisis, attempting to conceal their avarice with a façade of safeguarding democracy, or eliminating public corruption, or on grounds of their capacity to earn higher incomes outside Sri Lanka.
Yet another exemplary feature I discern in this ‘Miscellany of Thoughts’ is that its contents are not angry knee-jerk reactions when provoked by thoughts different to his own. Professor Amaratunga’s dissent is entirely free of the crude clashes often seen in the so-called social media. Nor are his thoughts based on a hurried consumption of internet ‘short-eats’. In his thoughts that extend beyond brief corrective interjections of ‘common sense’, what we see is an extraordinary depth of knowledge acquired through serious reading and a thorough understanding of the issues on which he had focused.
Loneliness of the Bottom Half
By Lynn Ockersz
There you crouch by your hearth,
Seeing your fires sputtering out;
Your hopes of a bubbly pot of rice,
Ending in inflationary smoke spirals,
Leaving you with the painful thought,
That your dignity as mother and wife,
Is gravely harmed and beyond repair,
For, a turn of events not of your making,
Has reduced you and yours to penury,
So much for that Trickle-down Theory,
That Pundits say will end your misery,
But they tell you not to stop dreaming,
Because soon you will be bailed out,
Of your State of longsuffering;
Thanks to Princely tips from ancient Italy.
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