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Indian think-tank sanguine about Indo-Lankan ties, but calls for security redlines – Analysis

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By P. K. Balachandran

New Delhi is alive to the possibility of anti-Indian elements co-opting China to destabilize Indo-Lankan relationsTwo articles published by the influential New Delhi-based think-tank, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), on August 29 and September 8, give an idea of how the Indian Establishment is viewing developments in Sri Lanka from the point of view Indo-Lankan relations.

The articles say that the efforts of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda augur well for India-Sri Lanka relations, but challenges to the relationship could arise from traditional anti-Indian elements tying up with China, which is trying hard to wean Sri Lanka away from India.

The articles note the wholehearted and public acknowledgment of India’s timely economic assistance by President Wickremesinghe and the ceaseless efforts of High Commissioner Moragoda to keep bilateral relations ticking. At the same time, the articles also bring out the existence of a serious gap in the relationship on security matters as seen in the recent episode involving the docking of the controversial Chinese vessel Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota harbor.

Brighter Side  

Looking at the brighter side first, one of the articles said: “India may have every reason to feel relieved with President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) at the helm of affairs. India has been his ‘international safety net’ when he negotiated the ceasefire with LTTE in 2001. The quality of Sri Lankan diplomacy in India has undergone a sea-change since August 2021, thanks to the efforts of Milinda Morogoda, High Commissioner to India, and his equation with the political leadership and strategic community here.”

“RW has made two important statements on Sri Lanka-India relations. On Aug 14, he was present at a ceremony in Colombo to witness the handing over a Dornier Maritime Recce and Surveillance Aircraft to the Sri Lankan Navy. Even more importantly, he delivered an eight-minute speech giving his reflections on Indo-Lanka relations. It was very thought provoking. The speech and his presence at the ceremony have important connotations in the backdrop of the controversy over the permission given by Sri Lanka to a Chinese survey vessel to visit Hambantota.”

“Even in his Throne Speech (Aug 03) in Parliament, RW devoted several minutes talking about India. It was exceptional, as no other country was mentioned directly or indirectly. This is unprecedented in recent times in as much as no Sri Lankan Head of State has used the parliamentary platform or diplomatic event to articulate positive statements on India. It can be surmised that these are indications of relations moving to the next level and greater positivity as well. It also underlined that he feels secure in his job.”

“The impressive Throne Speech (TS) was RW’s masterstroke. Without ruffling feathers, he conveyed the sense that he is in command and expects to run his term till November 2024. By publicly closing the door on GR’s (Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s) immediate return to Sri Lanka, RW used the parliamentary platform to signal his distancing away from the Rajapaksas and their supporters. He is, however, unlikely to shake the cage at this juncture or till he constitutes the All-Party Government.”

“It is important to note that RW has received support across party lines. The SJB (the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya) is the latest to join the bandwagon. The minorities have vested faith in him, while some are keen to join the government others have expressed outside support. Government has lifted the proscription on overseas Tamil groups and has also banned some unnamed Muslim groups. The effect of both decisions needs to be examined.”

Road Is Still Hard

The good developments notwithstanding, the road ahead for India-Lanka relations looks hard.

“There is no pro-India constituency in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka still remembers the support India lent to the Tamils. India has now signaled that it has the ability to offer lines of credit quickly. But India’s ability to provide constant succor to Sri Lanka is limited. Many of the Indian previous proposals including the connectivity projects and bilateral energy grid, remain unimplemented.”

“India will have to follow a policy of close engagement, but not play favorites. While there is no pervasive anti-India sentiment, the Sinhala Buddhist political constituency uses that narrative to demonize India.”

“It is known that Sri Lanka has not been sensitive to India’s security concerns. It is critical for India to convey that point across to the Sri Lankans, reiterate the concerns and convey the red lines,” one of the articles said.

“India needs to increase the people-to-people connectivity as well as build infrastructural connectivity. In the recent past, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India had highlighted a ten-point agenda to increase bilateral engagement. It will be worth examining these again. India could focus on developing the Buddhist Bodh Gaya travel circuit. That would have an immediate appeal to a large population in Sri Lanka,” it added.

Ranil-Modi Meeting in Tokyo 

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to Tokyo to take part in the commemoration ceremony of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will give him a “golden opportunity” to meet the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “It will give India time to review past actions of the Sri Lankan government and to remove irritants preventing the growth and development of bilateral relations. RW’s interaction with the Chinese and other dignitaries including QUAD, ASEAN and Western countries should be watched with interest,” the VIF article said.

“The trust deficit that had presided over bilateral relations particularly since 2009 has receded, but it remains a source of worry for Indian foreign policy managers. The meeting between Indian and Sri Lankan leaders at upcoming Tokyo event must provide the solution to addressing the deficit trust,” the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) article added.

JVP-FSP Alliance

The articles also noted the rise in the popularity of the anti-India JVP and its impact on India. Referring to a survey conducted by the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the VIF said that JVP’s  leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka received an endorsement of 48.5% followed by Ranil Wickremesinghe with 36.65% with  Mahinda Rajapaksa at the tail end with 11.28%.

“The JVP veteran receiving top marks in the opinion poll is an important development which needs to be carefully analyzed especially its alignment with FSP (Frontline Socialist Party).” The FSP is openly hostile to India as it had had armed conflicts with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the late 1980s.

Options for India

The VIF stressed the need to identify fault lines and distrust in India-Lanka relations, considering them to be “urgent and important.” It suggested some options for consideration.

“One way forward is to focus attention on southern Sri Lanka and along the west coast that have remained bastions of Sinhala-Buddhist society. This is the heartland that decides major issues binding the parties in power to making decisions often not commensurate with contemporary developments.”

“The opposition to India’s participation in the West Coast Terminal project is one such example and there are others too. It is not difficult to identify the vested interests here. These have cast a deepening shadow on India-Lanka relations. Policy makers on both sides have an arduous task ahead to try and remove the irritants.”

“The CPA opinion poll has some interesting revelations especially about the JVP. The Inter University Students Front (IUSF) and Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) are of interest and may have the potential to influence people against India. The “united” JVP in the past had a clear anti-India agenda besides being identified as pro-Beijing. The presence of several parliamentarians from JVP to welcome the Chinese “spy” ship at Hambantota on Aug 16, 2022 is another example.”

Hambantota Port

“That Hambantota is an irritant in India-Lanka relations is to state the obvious. The recent visit of Yuan Wang-5 has proved it beyond doubt and also exposed the limitations of Sri Lanka’s strategic thinking on such critical issues. This may be the beginning of a new challenge to both India and Sri Lanka as more such visits will take place in the future. This fault line has to be addressed by both sides. Obviously, there are lessons to be learnt here especially for Sri Lanka policymakers,” the VIF said.

Need for Detailed White Paper

The need for a detailed White paper on India-Sri Lanka relations has become necessary with the objective of bringing balance to the relationship and highlight India’s contributions, the think-tank felt.

“There is not much that is written on India’s role along with Norway in brokering the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); India’s insistence of creating the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to monitor the ceasefire, the activities of two Indian Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in Humanitarian Demining efforts in Vavuniya and Mannar and India’s role in Tsunami relief. The list is endless.”

Study of China’s Activities

The VIF suggests study of Chinese activities in Sri Lanka in the past seven decades, particularly in the 21st century. “This will be an important strategy paper which should serve as institutional memory and a ready reckoner for present and future policymakers, opinion makers and practitioners.”

“China did not shed a tear for GR when he lost political office. The lesson here is that China has its national security interests as foremost in all its transactions and nothing else matters,” the VIF pointed out.

But China continues to woo Sri Lanka to set the latter up against India. The latest is the article the Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka circulated to the media which clearly indicated this agenda. The Ambassador said: “Sri Lanka and China should jointly protect their sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence in view of threats they face”. The article was built around the visit of US delegation led by Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan and the visit of Yuan Wan 5 to Hambantota. “

“Just like Sri Lanka, China had suffered a hundred years from 1840 till 1949. Because of similar dark experience, China has always been supporting Sri Lanka”.

The Ambassador’s article made no attempt to disguise criticism of India and went on to draw attention to the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in September in which, it said, it would be known as to “whether they use human rights as a cover-up tool to interfere in the Island nation’s internal affairs and continue to rub salt into the wounds of Sri Lankan people”.

Commenting on this a VIF article said: “For a country like China to abandon Sri Lanka when it needed assistance to overcome its severe economic crisis, the article by the Chinese Ambassador is like rubbing salt into the wounds of the Sri Lankan people.”



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Twin personas; reaction long after the action

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I am pleasantly surprised and marvel too most times I read the editorial in The Island. Why? Because they are so very apt on the most current issue in the land. The editor has the clever knack of hitting the nail right on the head and is fearless even when the nail represents a VVIP.

Friday 25 November had the sharp, truth writing editor commenting on President Ranil W and his stunning metamorphosis from a peace promoting, democracy advocating politician to a persona that he himself says is Hitler like. And as the editor has written, one wondered if he and his immediate predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had swapped bodies, for the former sounded just like the latter. Gota was expected to be a dictator; a monk called out to him to be Sri Lanka’s Hitler while his brother Basil bracketed him with the ‘Terminator’.

Ranil seems to hear cries for protection of human rights as a cover for violent protests. Gota, though an army man and later as a civilian, cosseted the army at great cost to the exchequer, did not threaten to bring the army out to quell protests. It was done once or twice: e. g at Rathupaswela and at an FTZ. These orders were not proven to be directly emanating from him nor directly connected to him. However, peace proclaiming Wickremesinghe with his new surname added on is outdoing the former army officer. He maintains the PTA and now says (probably in all truth and belief – scarce characteristics of politicians) that he will call out the army to quell protests, which have been and will be, mostly peaceful.

What this woman, a former teacher and counselor, opines with common sense and intuition is that he is going about it all wrong. He is inciting protest and lawlessness, even violence, since the youth of the country, with others, are utterly frustrated, angered, troubled and volcanic – waiting to erupt and so are the sideline catalysts: the terrorism promoting core politicized protesters of the IUSF, FSP and certain JVPers. Ranil should have been wiser and less outreaching, and negotiated with leaders of the groups mentioned, including trouble rousers like Stalin, and convinced them of the dire state the country is in. Negotiating with die-hard protesters may not be his cuppa; he shies away from direct contact with the hoi polloi. But talk to them he must. He should include persons like Guv CB to the negotiating table since Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe is one of the very few, if not the only high-up, that all respect. The rabble-rousers should be convinced, even threatened privately, that at this juncture what the country needs and the IMF promotes is encouraging money making projects, the surest and largest-inflow-of dollars earning tourism to resume and continue with peace prevailing in the country. With so many countries with so much to offer, why should tourists visit a near warring Sri Lanka? The reality of course is that this dot of an island has most to offer the tourist as pronounced by even Lonely Planet guides.

However, as is always the case, the country pleases but men in it are vile and utterly stupid. The protestors do not realize their protests will not change things immediately. But they most certainly cost the country much. These fire breathing, loud mouthed protestors and so-called protectors of peace and human rights are at present the principal harmers of the land.If after sincere one-to-one negotiation, some remain recalcitrant, then the police should be called in to deal with them.

Bang shut empty stable door

Mentioned many times before by Cass and other writers, Sri Lankans in general suffer short memories: will vilify a person today and praise him tomorrow not only because they are turncoats but because the people have forgotten and of course forgiven yesterday’s sins of leaders. Another characteristic is shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted. The preliminaries of the flight of the horse are seen but no alarm is raised. Once the horse has bolted; then come forth loud hues and cries of damage done.This last character trait of the Sinhala race mostly, was exhibited and exposed in the news telecast on MTV 1 Channel on Sunday November 27.

Villagers of a certain forest area, with voices raised women to the forefront, confronted a man who was in a new built, multi roomed hut-like construction. He seemed settled down. The crowd that walked across a vast area of bare land accused that the forest that covered this area had been illegally decimated. They demanded evidence of his right to settle down there. He said the police and other officials had cleared him. Trespassing was not even mentioned. Cass’ wonder at this loud fracas was why the fuss now with land bare and a house built when the villagers surely heard if not saw trees being felled en masse. Why had they not informed authorities then? Why wait for the deforestation and illegal building to be completed before protesting? Had they been waiting all these past months for the TV cameras to arrive to act angry and national minded?

It was suspected, if not known for sure, that vociferous Diana Gamage was a dual citizenship holder or maybe even a citizen of another country visiting her home turf. She was up front for long and since being made a State Minister by Prez Wickremasinghe, his hand guided by a crow pulling strings from even thousands of miles to the west, became prominently vociferous with forex earning projects foundationed on fun and good times. She proposed the growing of ganja plants; creating a Disney theme park; making Mannar an international gambling den and what else Cass fails to recall. Now firmly in Parliament as an elected member she faces the public rising up and declaring she is not eligible to hold a Parliamentary seat since the passage of A21 or 22. The mare had bolted to the green pastures by the Diyawanne and now people are a-rising to close the door she galloped through. Confine her at home with no powers and privileges or deport her to turf in her adopted country?

Bandula Gunawardena, holding the portfolio of Minister of Trade, held forth on the subject he thinks he is omniscient in. He claims economics as his forte of intellectual knowledge; certification of this fact being he was a tuition master in the subject. He refers to himself as Doctor Bandula G; the doctorate coming to him from where we know not. In a pontification in Parliament on the Sunday, he waxed eloquent on mismanagement of the Central Bank and trotted out figures in billions and decimals thereof of printed money. He blamed past CB persons. Why was this economist considering himself on par with Amartya Sen, Paul Krugman and Maynard Keynes, silent then when Nivaard Cabral kept the printing machines in the CB turning day and night churning out 5000 rupee notes? (PS. Cass wonders very much whether he has heard of Krugman and knows Keynes was one of the Bloomsbury Group. Cass can wager her life that he does not know who this group was).

Speaking of this Mr Cabral, he was recently seen on TV at a press interview passing the buck adroitly and proclaiming he was obeying orders to print money. Was he a robot and of whom?

Short take

A very good move was mooted recently in Parliament and will soon be law. Cass refers to the stricture that university students will be allowed one extra year after their graduating date whether they fail the final exam and wish to repeat or when they dodge sitting the final exam. Here again the closing of the loophole after damage is done. Firebrand Wasantha is said to have been in the University of Sri Jayawardenapura for eight solid years. Wasn’t this truancy of sitting the finals seen earlier? Authorities too scared to report the fact; saving their scalps by ignoring anomalies. just as they turn blind eyes to filthy and dangerous ragging in universities?

This land of ours which is truly incomparable, is derogatively a land like no other when speaking of it with tongue in cheek.

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Maris Stella College in 1950s and 60s

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By George Braine

Maris Stella College, Negombo, is celebrating its centenary this year. These are my recollections of the years I spent there.Maris Stella had classes from Standard Two. For lower and upper kindergarten (as they were called those days), all boys attended Ave Maria Convent, along with girls, of course. One teacher I recall is Sr. Mary Imelda, diminutive but a formidable force. As she taught, her two dogs, spoiled rotten by the children, roamed the classroom.

Maris Stella sits on the road that extends from Colombo to Chilaw, and beyond to Puttalam and Anuradhapura. Despite the heavy traffic on the road, the school displays a somewhat serene ambience because of the large, well maintained playground, and the lovely main building set some distance from the road. Two storied, with a lengthy Italianesque facade, the main building is reached along two narrow roadways lined by long, single storied classrooms. In the center, shaded by massive mara trees, is a smaller playing field – for soccer, softball cricket and gymnastics- in the 50s and 60s. These buildings, the trees, and the playing field, now a lush green, have been well preserved.

My father recalled that, during World War II, when Allied troops were stationed at the school, these mara trees were covered with camouflage nets to hide the anti-aircraft guns mounted below.

Teachers and students

My father had been at Maris Stella in the 1930s and 40s, and when I entered in 1957, some of his teachers were still there. Elias, dark, wizened, and with a tousle of grey hair, taught me in Standard 2. Capt. Jayamanne, a big man, tough as nails, had been the cadet platoon commander during my father’s time, and still was. Bro. Jonas had been in charge of sports for years. Obris, who taught English, had become the vice-principal. My father also recalled Bros. Nizier, Valentine, and Xavier, a Spaniard. Mahaboob, physical training instructor and Bro. Gerard had been his classmates. Undoubtedly, the most unusual teacher was Johannes, who taught Sinhala. The only teacher who wore a sarong to school, worn high up on the waist and held up with a broad belt, he had an owlish, scholarly air; our textbooks on Sinhala had been authored by him. Ms. Wallace, lustily playing the piano, taught us singing. Two younger teachers were Dabarera and Kurera.

One hilarious memory is that of Bro. Jonas, coaching the football team even during matches, running up and down the sidelines, grey hair and cassock flying. He was strict, liberal with the cane and slaps. Another is of Mahaboob, the PTI, in his impeccable polo shirt, pants, and tennis shoes, all in spotless white, taking us through various drills on the playground.

The principals during my time were Bros. Stanislaus and Peter, and the headmasters Bros. Nizier and Gerard.We were living near Ave Maria Convent when I joined Maris Stella, which meant a walk of more than a mile, crossing a railway track and walking along Main Street till I reached Copra Junction along the Colombo – Chilaw road. The street is chock-a-block with shops now, but, in those days, I only passed houses with well-maintained gardens, a couple of boutiques, a dispensary and a dental clinic. A well-off classmate was driven to school and passed me on the way, but never offered me a lift.

Most students walked to school or rode bicycles, in wave after wave. Others came by train or bus. The only person who drove was a senior student named Jayakody from Dankotuwa. This was extraordinary, when no teacher owned a car, and some rode rickety bicycles. His Peugeot 203 was parked under a mara tree while he attended classes and later stayed for football practice.

At Maris Stella, a Catholic school, most students were Catholic. But, ethnically, we were an eclectic band, marked by the Bharatha community and Burghers. The family names of schoolmates I can recall is evidence of this: Siriwardena, Jayawardena, Abeysekera, Swaminathan, Bolonghe, Salgado, Leitan, Tissera, Hettiaarachi, Jayamanne, Franke, Croos-Dabarera, Dabarera, Jayamaha, Coonghe, Aserappa, Rodrigo, Fernando, Pereira, Costa, Gomez, Mirando. Ives Swaminathan had immigrated from Mauritius, and sang French songs in a lovely voice.

After my brother entered Maris Stella, we were five cousins there: Roy and Lloyd Chelvaratnam, George Wambeck, George and Roy Braine. Roy C and Lloyd were in the Tamil stream. Two Georges and two Roys.Latin was compulsory from the Junior School Certificate (JSC) class. All that memorizations were intimidating, so I was relieved when the requirement was taken off when I reached the JSC class. But, Latin prevailed in the daily mass conducted at the chapel, and in the hymns sung there. I recited prayers and sang those hymns, without any idea of what was being said or sung.

Sports

Mention Maris Stella and sports during my time, and the name that springs to mind is Melvin Mallawaratchi. Tall and good looking, with a ready smile that lit up his face, Melvin was already legendary when I entered school. Our age gap was more than 10 years, so I had no opportunity to know him personally. All I knew was that, whenever he batted, he lit up the cricket field. I, along with other schoolmates, simply hero worshipped him.

Home games were thronged with enthusiastic spectators. When Melvin came to bat and took his stance, a collective hush fell on the ground.  Soon, we were cheering wildly as the ball sailed over our heads, over trees, onto the main road, or sped along to the boundary in a flash. In his stride, Melvin was unstoppable.

In one game against St. Anthony’s College, Wattala, I watched as he scored a blistering 96 in the second innings, having scored an unbeaten century in the first.  In 1957, playing Ibbagamuwa Central, Melvin had scored 96 in only 20 minutes, which included two sixers and 18 fours.

Melvin’s flamboyance did not stop at cricket. He was also a champion sprinter. Maris Stella’s rival school in Negombo, St. Mary’s, had a champion sprinter named Mello. At every meet where they met, he dueled it out with Melvin in the 100-yards sprint, running neck to neck. We stood near the finish line to see Melvin triumph every time.

Eddie and Rukmani

By 1958, we had moved to a house across the road from Maris Stella; 120 Colombo Road, if memory serves. Now, I only had a 5-minute walk to school. It also meant that we went to Sunday service at the Maris Stella college chapel.

Eddie Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi, husband and wife, were at the peak of their popularity. She was the reigning queen of Sinhala cinema, and the nightingale of Sinhala music. Eddie was less flamboyant, somewhat short, with curly hair and spectacles.  He was a comedian. Even to a mere schoolboy, Rukmani’s luminous beauty and grace was overwhelming.

So, on Sunday morning, a two-toned Buick convertible would drive up regally, passing those majestic mara trees, Eddie at the wheel, and the couple would walk up to the chapel. They did not put on airs, and behaved just like the rest of us, sitting on the benches, singing hymns, and walking up to the altar and kneeling to receive communion. After the service, they mingled and chatted. And nobody asked for autographs!

I think Eddie and Rukmani were fond of Maris Stella. They attended fund raising events, like the Maris Mela carnival and a football match, which I recall vividly. Their nephew, Gamini Jayamanne, was my classmate.

Scouting, and a school take-over

Cousin George Wambeck and I were Cub Scouts, Wolf Cubs as they were called those days. The chip-a-job weeks were the best, because we got to roam all over Negombo and beyond, with no adult supervision. Most people treated us kindly, giving 50 cents or even a generous rupee for the odd “job” we did, and also a snack and a soft drink into the bargain.

One day, cousin George and I, along with another friend, visited a relative’s house in search of a “job”. He had been drinking, and was stretched out on a hansiputuwa when we dropped-in. Thinking of having some fun with us, he assumed the role of a drill sergeant, lined us up, and put us through military “maneuvers”: attention, right turn, quick march, left turn, halt. Scouting doesn’t teach marching, and we were mere 8-year olds anyway. Our female cousins were watching from behind curtains, and we could hear the giggles. But, the man did reward us well, and also insisted that we have a meal before letting us go.On another day, we walked down Temple Road to Jaya-Ruk, the residence of Eddie and Rukmani. But they weren’t home.

Perhaps the most memorable event was planned take-over of schools by the government, in 1960. The Catholic church was opposed to the move. The conflict escalated, and, as a final resort, parents of students occupied some classrooms, bringing mats and pots and pans. They cooked, ate, and slept there. They came to “defend” the school, but from whom wasn’t certain. From a new principal appointed by the government, from the police, the army?

Classes were suspended, and we enjoyed loitering around the school, waiting for the confrontation to take place. Eventually, the matter was resolved, but, in Negombo, only Maris Stella and Ave Maria Convent remain as private fee-levying schools.

When my father moved to Nattandiya for work, my brother and I travelled to school from there, by steam train. We wore khaki pith hats and carried our books and lunch in little, cardboard suitcases. Every day was an adventure. Later, when father moved to Madampe, we were boarded at Maris Stella.

What I recall most from the boarding is the constant hunger. We didn’t have much pocket money, so gouging at the tuck shop was not an option. On Sundays, a long line of boarders was taken for a walk, most often to the beach. Going through town, the aroma from the thosai boutiques was irresistible. Despite Bro. Raphael, an Italian, keeping a sharp eye, boys would take turns to dart into the boutiques and buying up the vadais. Our pockets would be stuffed and we salivated at the feast to come.

In 1962, my last year at Maris Stella, my brother and I were boarded at a home on Temple Road. Bertram Fernando, a pioneer comedian of Sinhala cinema, also lived there. Every Sunday, a game of bridge went on for hours on the verandah around a round table. A regular attendee was Eddie Jayamanne, who drove up in his Buick convertible.

All our teachers named earlier have long departed. One by one, former classmates are also passing away. When I drive by Maris Stella now, the memories come flooding back. For some, the past is a foreign country. Not for me. Even after 60 years, the school anthem that we sang so robustly is fresh in my mind.

“All ye lads of Maris Stella proudly sing

May your voices boldly ring

Face life’s trials bravely

Act upon your motto gravely

Iter para tutum”

GEORGE BRAINE

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China’s Covid Trap

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by Gwynne Dyer

“Our COVID-19 policy is the most scientifically effective, the most economical, and yields the best result,” insisted the ‘People’s Daily’ newspaper in China after mass public protests against the government’s ‘zero covid’ policy last weekend. If President Xi Jinping believes that, he is in for a lot more trouble.

The protests were unprecedented in their scale and daring. They broke out spontaneously in twelve cities all across China after ten lockdown-related deaths in the remote province of Xinjiang. All sorts of people took part, from students to workers to pensioners. A few even called for the dethroning of Xi and the Communist Party.

That doesn’t mean the regime is on the brink of collapse. Public anger at the endless lockdowns and resulting loss of income is strong, but the regime’s surveillance technology is excellent. There was relatively little official violence last weekend, but many of the protesters will have an unpleasant visit by the police in the coming days.

Xi’s problem is that the protests will probably recur and may well escalate, because over-long mass quarantines and lockdowns are a non-political issue that can unite almost everybody against the government’s policy. Or rather, against Xi’s personal policy, for he has deliberately chosen to portray zero-covid as the greatest achievement of his time in office.

That made sense in the first year of the pandemic, for China’s relentless lockdowns and mass testing campaigns saved a great many lives then. Total covid-related deaths in China have been around 5,000 out of a population of 1.4 billion. The United States, with less than a quarter of China’s population, had more than a million covid deaths.

Xi and his propagandists naturally used this contrast as evidence that both Chinese medicine and the Chinese political system were superior to their Western equivalents. Was he even aware that the zero-covid policy could only be a stopgap measure until effective vaccines were developed, never a lasting solution?

His scientists must have tried to tell him that, but, somehow, he didn’t take the message on board. There was a vaccination programe, but not a very rigorous one – and Xi kept chasing the fantasy of completely eliminating the covid virus. He is caught in a trap, but he built it himself.

“Lockdowns should always be a temporary phenomenon, not a long-term strategy,” explained Dr Anthony Fauci, now President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser. Continuing them for almost three years “without any seeming purpose or endgame” is sheer folly. Moreover, Xi seemed unaware that the covid virus was growing more infectious with time.

The latest versions of the omicron variant, which first appeared a year ago, are estimated to be up to ten times more infectious than the original virus that appeared in Wuhan in late 2020.

Those versions haven’t reached China yet, due to drastic curbs on travel into and out of the country, but the Chinese population is so poorly protected that the only alternatives if they arrive would be semi-permanent nationwide lockdowns or nationwide carnage.

Chinese-made vaccines are only 70% effective against earlier variants of the virus, and may be wholly ineffective against the later omicron versions. The elderly are particularly vulnerable: only 40% of the over-80s have had even a single booster shot.

An article published in Nature Medicine last March estimated that ending the covid-zero lockdowns and quarantines in current circumstances could overwhelm hospitals, with 15 times more people needing hospital beds than those currently available. It predicted around 1.5 million deaths.

That would still be a far better outcome than the US record, but arriving all at once so late in the game, when the rest of the world is long past lockdowns and mass deaths, it could spell political disaster for Xi Jinping. Perhaps even for the Communist regime.There is a way out. First, Xi has to eat humble pie and import several billion doses of the highly effective mRNA vaccines. Let’s say six months for that.

Then he has to control the rising infections with the hated lockdowns and quarantines as best he can, containing popular anger as much as possible, until a high enough portion of the population is properly vaccinated – say another six to twelve months.

Then, sometime in 2024, he can relax the restrictions and let the Chinese rejoin the rest of the world. That strategy worked for the Australians and New Zealanders, who ended similar mass lockdowns as soon as most people got their (imported) mRNA vaccines.If Xi can’t bear the humiliation of doing that, he could gamble that an effective Chinese-made mRNA vaccine will become available soon. Several are under development, and one is allegedly about to enter Phase 3 clinical trials.But if he bets on that and it’s not ready soon, his newly acquired status of de facto president-for-life will become a nightmare. Covid infections are rising fast.

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