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In pursuit of a multi-ethnic Sri Lankan singularity

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By Kusum Wijetilleke
(kusumw@gmail.com)
Twitter: @kusumw

The mainstream media’s obsession with the re-entry to Parliament of Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) betrays an unsophisticated effort at constructing a narrative of an ineffective Opposition Party. What these contributions are actually alluding to is that RW’s seat signals a weakness in the Opposition. A missing X-factor, if you prefer; something the returning former PM is meant to solve. On the face of it, the proposition seems ridiculous, but is nonetheless still being propagated.

History suggests that RW never seemed to understand the aspirations of the rural masses that his UNP so callously abandoned. Perhaps he never appreciated the electorate’s genuine concern for the future of the country’s unitary structure and what it represents in the collective consciousness of the Sinhala-Buddhist working class and working poor. The gravitational centre of RW’s political capital, amongst the elites of Colombo and minority parties, consistently alienated large swathes of the majority.

Intellectuals of all stripes did their utmost to paint RW’s aspirations for, and interpretations of, the 13th Amendment as guaranteeing the unitary state. Actions speak louder than words and try as he did, RW was never able to convince the masses of his integrity on this critical issue. Every time RW repeated his desire to work within the 13th Amendment, preserving a unitary state whilst further devolving powers; the only thing the electorate heard was a call for a “federal state”, a model that has always been a poisoned chalice. The word ‘Federal’ is simplified for the base by RW’s opponents, pointing correctly to the fact that it weakens the centre. A Centre which must represent the majority and is seen by it as a guard-rail to prevent the national train from terminating at a station in Chennai.

 

From Neo-Liberalism to Social Democracy

As the decades ticked by, while RW remained rooted to his ideals, the electorate was moving past the politics of devolution. Their minds seemingly solidified around the project of a unified centre as opposed to the devolved structure which Nationalists fear would embolden reactionary, separatist elements within minority parties.

Those paying attention noticed the lack of upward social mobility amongst their classes and the dilapidation of their neighbourhoods and villages. They woke up to the reality that political structures aside, their children’s lives and those of their grand-children’s would be indistinguishable from their own. They saw in RW and the UNP, the same playbook from decades past, the same internationalist considerations and pandering to elitist liberal voting blocks of Colombo’s plush suburbs. They continuously chose the alternative, whether it was the top-down neo-liberalism of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the nationalist state-capitalism of Mahinda Rajapaksa or the ethno-majoritarian militarization of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The more vital project to build a multi-ethnic consciousness; a Sri Lankan singularity, was lost in RW’s confused maze of constitutional devolution. RW, struck by the realisation that he could not win this debate at home, went abroad to preach to and from British and European choirs.

The former PM has still not understood that the holy grail of a trans-cultural Sri Lankan consciousness is unviable if the majority remains so deeply insecure.

What does all this say about the current position and future direction of the SJB as the main Opposition Party? To the relief of many, the SJB has steered clear of some aspects of the UNP playbook. Sajith Premadasa (SP) is widely seen as to the left of RW, more in the tradition of D.S. Senanayake’s agrarianism and commitment to welfare.

On economic policy, the SJB seems to have the broad strokes of the Keynesian New Deal and Sajith Premadasa even alluded to this, specifically name-checking FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt) at a campaign event in Bataramulla during the Presidential campaign of 2019. Some of the ‘ideologues’ within the SJB, specifically MP Eran Wickramaratne and Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, could be associated with the economic policies of social democracy.

The Sri Lankan economy with its laundry list of structural weaknesses and a history of madness and mismanagement, requires its own list of solutions. Yet, more pressing for the SJB will be to stake its position on the national issue and this, one suspects, is where RW’s attempted intervention is targeted at.

 

Populism of the Progressive Centre

The former PM thrives in a circular firing squad of his own making; part of his modus operandi for decades. Whilst he astutely dodges fire, his colleagues take pot-shots at one another, leading to an inevitable truce carefully negotiated by RW himself. The SJB should refuse this bait. Whatever ideological differences exist within its major factions, they are far removed from the ‘Ranilism’ of the UNP and the confused Right-Wing Authoritarianism of the SLPP.

The challenge for the SJB is to cast aside the ghost of the UNP’s failed project of political devolution and embarrassing capitulations to even the mildest international pressure.

How? Many commentators have opined that the SJB must occupy the ‘progressive centre’ which might sound like an oxymoron at first, but upon further investigation appears apt. Progressive in policy but never stretching itself too far from the true centre of the polity (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/why-sajiths-sjb-ranils-unp-are-quite-distinct-and-sajiths-is-the-already-existing-progressive-center/).

Herein lies an opportunity to move beyond the politics of decades past and re-position the consensus. The Easter Attacks created a seismic shift in the political landscape. The emergence of Islamism and the possibility that it was homegrown came as a shock to many, not least within Sri Lanka’s diverse Muslim community. There was a collective gasp from Sri Lankans of varying backgrounds as news trickled down in the aftermath of the Easter Attacks of an alleged “Sharia” University in Batticaloa (https://www.sundaytimes.lk/190505/news/mystery-shrouds-batticaloas-shariah-campus-348098.html).

This brought even sharper focus on the ‘Arabization’ and ‘balkanization’ of the Eastern Province which has now been etched into the psyche of the majority, feeding their fears of cultural invasion and oppression by foreign interference. It seems the Easter Attacks were the result of too much religious freedom, or at the very least, lax regulation in the teaching of religious doctrine. Zahran and his cohorts were able to freely preach Wahabi/ Salafist Islamism under the guise of religious expression, to corrupt and manipulate a mass of Sri Lankans with theocratic nonsense. Did increased autonomy produce the conditions that led to the Easter attacks? (https://colombogazette.com/2020/07/05/pm-warns-against-becoming-prisoners-of-circumstances).

The psychological impact aside; the aforementioned balkanization led to tangible devastation on that fateful Easter Sunday. Queue the soul searching driven by post-Easter SLPP ethno-nationalist rhetoric which reinvigorated nativist elements within the country providing them with a glimpse of their worst fears. The innate insecurity of the majority is perfectly encapsulated by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the 1950s: “…the fears of the Sinhalese, I do not think can be brushed aside as completely frivolous. I believe there are a not inconsiderable number of Tamils in this country out of a population of 8 million. Then there are 40-50 million Tamil people in the adjoining country. What about all this Tamil literature, Tamil teachers, even films, papers and magazines? … I do not think there is an unjustified fear of the inexorable shrinking of the Sinhala language. It is a fear that cannot be brushed aside” (The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity- Harshana Rambukwella).

A Premadasa New Deal and Marshall Plan

The SJB must ensure it does not honour the UNP’s tradition of demonizing voters of the Government, casting them as racists or nativists. One is reminded of Hillary Clintons “basket of deplorables” or Barack Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion”. The opposition voter is not the villain of the piece; address their anxieties and take seriously the values they hold dear.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has already made the ‘progressive case’ for the SJB and Mr. Sajith Premadasa. Far from being an ideological, utopian framework, progressivism can only thrive within the boundaries of populism. (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/why-sajiths-sjb-ranils-unp-are-quite-distinct-and-sajiths-is-the-already-existing-progressive-center/).

There is also a dependable anti-provincial-council consensus shared by the majoritarian segment of the electorate. Factions within the SLPP openly discuss the abolition of provincial councils. These are political instincts of the right that the emergent new left of Sri Lanka must urgently acquire. (https://island.lk/gevindu-insists-on-abolishing-provincial-councils-under-new-constitution/).

The SJB may not yet be sufficiently self-confident, but should it seek to prove its progressive credentials, it may opt to do so by challenging moderate Tamil politicians to take Federalism off the negotiating table once and for all. Presenting a proposition to either reform or recalibrate the Provincial Council system.

Yes there are contentions surrounding executive powers granted to the Councils, but any meaningful de-politicization of this PC system, bringing it in line with the national objectives of the centre, will reassure the insecure majority that their guard rails are in place. If Provincial Councils do not fall in line with national objectives, Sri Lanka will never find a singular purposeful path to advanced statehood and a modern economy. Thus, without reaching advanced statehood, all attempts at a devolved structure of governance will remain at least several decades in the future.

The emergence of a younger generation of politicians rising up the ranks of the TNA and affiliated parties should provide fresh impetus. Youth that is unburdened with the heavy baggage of the 13th Amendment, unlike their forefathers.

P.K. Balachandran makes this point, referring to results from the General Election; “The polls in the Northern Province showed that Tamil extremism is on the wane, although some pro-LTTE radicals like Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and C. V. Wigneswaran won. The bulk of the seats was won by the moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) fighting under the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi’s “House” symbol. The elections in the North also showed that the Tamils now want economic development, besides federalism. This is seen in the success of the pro-government EPDP (2 seats) and the SLFP (1 seat)” (http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/69846).

 

A Grand Bargain

What might the SJB provide in return to the Indo-US axis, the nationalist elements and the Jaffna centric elites of the TNA and beyond? Power (money) and purpose (development).

The SJB could announce a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Northern and Eastern Provinces. A program of development planned and implemented by the people of those provinces through their elected representatives and appointed councilors. This would complement the “New Deal” aspirations alluded to by the Opposition Leader.

Such a project will dilute foreign claims of systemic oppression of these provinces. It could counter the Buddhist clergy with the allocation of funds from this Marshall Plan towards restoring the Stupas of these provinces or any other purpose deemed necessary to tame the Asgiriya Chapter.

Perhaps a long over-due ‘National Day of Mourning’ to mark the anti-Tamil pogroms of past decades and an admission of the failures of the State to protect its people. Why not a program of targeted reparations towards those that lost loved ones and livelihoods to those pogroms, failing which, a simple, earnest national apology? Now, would that not be progressive? Part of the funding for this Marshall Plan, however small, must come from the annual defense budget. A symbolic gesture of goodwill.

The SJB must seek to alienate not just the reactionary elements of the SLPP but also the separatist elements within minority parties if it is to truly occupy a progressive centre. The ultimate goal is to neutralize the narrative and blunt the tools of the UNHRC and allied multi-lateral machinations, truly exposing their imperialist double standards.

Any number of possibilities emerge when RW is absent from the negotiating table. The SJB has every opportunity to bury the ghosts of neo-liberalism, ushering in a progressive, populist and above all, patriotic pursuit of multi-ethnic plurality, led by a Premadasa.



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Opinion

Support move to generate electricity from garbage

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There had been several letters in the press where the Minister for Power, Dallas Alahapperuma, has enthusiastically declared to achieve 70% of power from Renewable Sources by the year 2030, without knowing the capability and the resources available with the CEB, and the time taken to provide transmission lines to connect the national grid, if international tender procedure is adopted or even otherwise.

I recall a letter sent to the press earlier, wherein I have stated, the garbage problem in Colombo is talked of as an urgent matter, but no action taken for over four decades, and the situation is getting worse day-by-day. The Colombo Municipal Council had once initiated action to set up an incinerator and there had been proposals from interested parties willing to undertake it, but for some unknown reason, these have been shelved by CMC or any other authority concerned.

A report submitted by an internationally famous foreign firm of consultants, Lahmeyer International of Germany, which produced a Master Plan for the Ministry for Power and Energy, touched on the possibility of setting up of an incinerator plant to serve a dual purpose – to eradicate the garbage problem and generate electricity.

What action the Ministry for Power or the CEB has taken is not known. It may be that the CEB has taken action to implement other recommendations and but did not pursue this matter with the CMC. The plant could also produce compost manure and reduce the foreign exchange spent on importing fertilisers. In this well compiled, meaningful and workable report, it is stated: “The incinerator plants use garbage to produce electricity. They are similar to conventional coal fired steam plants, but require elaborate refuse feeder, grate, firing and air quality control system. Also, the required land area is greater.

“Some two million people live in the Greater Colombo area, and the amount of garbage collected annually could be about 600 tons. About 65% is made up of organic substances. The garbage is at present dumped on marshy lands in the vicinity of Colombo for the purpose of land reclamation, that practice caused environmental problems [i.e., smells and ground and surface water pollution.]

“The average heat content of the garbage is not exactly known, but based on the few tests done, it may be in the region of 8 Joule per ton, compared with 40 to 45 Joule per ton of oil. Hence, the fuel saving potentially achievable with an incinerator plant could be 100,000 tons of oil per year [under 1988 conditions] . This would be sufficient for generation of some 400Mw of power, and at the same time would contribute to the solution of Greater Colombo’s waste disposal problem. “

The aforesaid estimates were prepared in 1988 almost 33 years back, and the present amounts will be very much more, perhaps thrice, due to increase of population. The report also states that without exact analysis of the moisture content and composition of the collected garbage, it is difficult to make an exact estimate but the investment may be around USD160 to 240 million at 1988 estimates.

If at today’s estimation at thrice the increase, then the production every day may be around 1200 Mw, which is far more than the 300×3 = 900 Mw. produced by the Norochcholai coal-fired project.

It is therefore suggested that either the Minister for Energy or the Minister for Agriculture, as Fertiliser Corporation comes under him, take up this matter with the Urban Development Authority or the Colombo Municipal Council to expedite it.

It should also be said that undertaking this project will also satisfy those who object to filling marshy land.

The government should give top priority to this project of producing electricity and fertilizer from garbage.

G.A.D. SIRIMAL [SLAS]
Retd. Former Asst. Secretary
Ministry for Power & Energy

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Opinion

A ‘painless shot’ from Army

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When I was told that the Army was administering Sinopharm Covid vaccinations at Viharamaha Devi Park with special provisions for individuals with disabilities, I decided to take my wife, herself a Rehabilitation Medicine Physician, but now afflicted with Alzheimers disease, for her Covid shot, not knowing quite what to expect.

At the driveway into the park an Officer in smart uniform stopped me and inquired politely if there was anyone with a disability. When I answered in the affirmative, indicating my wife, I was asked to drive in and given instructions where to park my vehicle. In the parking area, another army officer kindly directed me to park under the shade of a “Nuga” tree for my wife’s comfort and asked me to proceed to the Registration desk and obtain my vaccination card.

Walking the short distance to the registration desk I observed those awaiting the vaccination seated comfortably in shaded and green surroundings. There was even a vending machine which was, I presume to provide refreshments for those waiting.

The several registration desks were manned by smart young male and female army personnel. The gentleman who attended to me took down my details and when my contact number was given information that the owner of this phone number had already had the vaccination appeared on the computer correctly, as I had been already vaccinated. Now, I expected a typical “public servant’ response that the “rule” is that a contact number could be registered only once. However, the officer used his brain, and after listening to my wife’s situation proceeded to complete the form. Then came the consent form that had to be signed. When I explained that my wife was unable to do so again I expected him to say, “Then get a letter from a doctor saying she cannot sign.” But this officer who did not behave like a robot used his judgement and allowed me to sign the form.

The paper work having been duly completed, I was asked to bring my wife to get her shot. When I explained that it would be very difficult, but not impossible, I was directed to the doctor at the site. I walked up to the young yet professional looking doctor attired in scrubs. When I explained my position, he promptly directed a staff member to go along with me to the vehicle and administer the injection while my wife was still seated there.

I then inquired if the young man who was helping my wife could also get his vaccination, and “no problem” was the answer. And before I could say “Sinopharm” the whole procedure was done and dusted!

What first class service!

To be at the receiving end of empathy and kindness was indeed a satisfying experience.

My thanks and appreciation to the organisers of the vaccination programme at Viharmahdevi Park on Wednesday (21 July)

Those who are critical of the army playing a lead role in Covid pandemic control, please take note.

Dr. N.Jayasinghe

Physician.

Colombo 7

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Opinion

On ‘misinformation’ against Minister of Health

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Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana (UW) is a regular contributor to this newspaper. His articles are almost always interesting and sometimes they provide valuable perspectives.

I find his criticism/castigation of the Minister of Health (MOH) in an ‘epidemic of misinformation’ (Island 19.07.2021) unfair and baseless. UW singles the MOH out as ‘the leader of the pack, undoubtedly is the Minister of Health who conveys wrong health messages’. This is erroneous and unwarranted

The main issues that UW quotes in support of his argument is that ‘she recently went to a shrine to thank a goddess for protecting her’ and ‘that she dropped pots in rivers to prevent the spread of the pandemic’.

From the onset of this pandemic a multitude of rituals have been conducted and they are still in force; all night Pirith, Bodhi Pooja, continuous chanting of the Ratana Suthraya, etc. The MOH releasing pots to the rivers that would wash down the ‘pandemic’ to the sea was one such ritual. A salient point to be appreciated is that while there is the possibility that the MOH herself believed in the effects of releasing these pots; this ritual was done primarily for the country/public rather than herself- hence the coverage on TV and news.

In contrast to this, her fulfilling a vow that she and/or her family made on her behalf when she was at death’s door, is based on a personal belief, and unlike the previous public action was done as an extremely private affair. If not for the fact that she is the MOH and her actions got reported in the press, none of us would have been even aware of this act. One would be hard pressed to find anyone in this country who has not fulfilled a vow; be it for himself or herself / siblings/ parents /children with regard to examinations, illnesses, promotions, etc…

None of these actions has any bearing on how the MOH has advised the public based on the counsel that she has received from her health officials and as such she is certainly not guilty of conveying any ‘wrong health messages’.

The MOH contracted Covid -19 because she was at the forefront of this epidemic and was constantly in touch with frontline workers. Not because she abandoned good health practices in favour of a cultural ritual! She had to be admitted to the IDH, was in the intensive care unit and according to medical sources was quite sick. We now see her on TV, the effects of the Covid-19 are apparent, a person who has had a near brush with death, fully cognizant of the danger of her current position. Certainly this would not have been something she signed up for when she took on the job as the MOH! This being the case, for UW, a doctor of medicine, to refer to ‘There are other idiotic politicians around the world who paid with their lives for the folly of not accepting the reality of a viral pandemic’ is not worthy of a healer.

Having recovered from her illness the MOH at a press conference publicly thanked her medical team for the effort they put into saving her life. I am sure that she would have thanked them personally as well. UW concludes his diatribe against her saying ‘Her life was saved not by goddesses, but by the excellent doctors, nurses and other health professionals Sri Lanka is blessed with. A person who is unable to even grasp that reality surely does not deserve to be the Minister of Health’. Is UW seriously suggesting to this readership that the MOH is unaware of the difference between science and culture? Is it his contention that anyone who engages in a religious /cultural ritual has no grasp of reality?

As a side note I am amused by the use of the term ‘Sri Lanka is blessed with ’. Based on UW’s logic ‘who are highly trained in Sri Lanka’ ought to have been a more appropriate term as blessings have nothing to do with a scientific reality!

 

Dr. Sumedha S. Amarasekara

 

 

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