By Themiya L.B. Hurulle,
Former Minister of Science & Technology and Former Director-General, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has come a long way from the 1960s, when communicating instantly was limited to a few, was costly, and, at times, subject to long delays. I remember my father, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, having to wait three-six hours to make a long-distance telephone call to Colombo from his hometown Horowpothana even though he was a Member of Parliament and had OFFICIAL PRIORITY calling facilities
However, we tend to take for granted the communication facilities that we have at present. It is easy to forget the past and what led us to the present. The present pandemic, too, has accelerated the actions of more people using computers and telecommunication-linked facilities for purposes of commercial and domestic communication and this has helped all, greatly.
The purpose of this article is to outline the positive steps that all past governments took to develop Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Sri Lanka. Before that, Computers, Telecommunications and Media were almost ‘stand-alone’ activities. However, the convergence of computer, telecommunication and media, and their inter-dependency led to this field being called Information and Communications Technology.
With the formation of the government of President J R Jayawardene and Prime Minister R. Premadasa, Sri Lanka took a giant stride in development, moving to an ‘open economy,’ and this was done by enabling legislation to facilitate market competition and de-regulating imports and exports. As a result state corporations and the private sector adapted themselves to the free market economy to play vital roles. This included the Computer, Telecommunication and Media Sectors, as well.
During the 1989 government of President R Premadasa and Prime Minister D B Wijetunga, there were associations of software developers, hardware sales, and service providers, all working with dedication to establish the industry. However, more encouragement was given with Industries, Science and Technology Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe chairing meetings of the organizing committee to hold the first INFOTEL ’92 ICT exhibition that gave national attention to the use of computers for development.
Towards the end of the period of the government, the Department of Telecommunications was converted to a state entity, as Sri Lanka Telecom, with more autonomy and resources to meet the growing need for modern telecommunication services.
The 1994 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickremanayake took forward the predecessors’ efforts, expeditiously. Telecommunications Minister Mangala Samaraweera led the privatization of Sri Lanka Telecom. The privatization took place with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation of Japan (NTT) purchasing 35% of shares and the employees of SLT also being given shares to ensure more employee participation. The NTT corporation thus brought in Japanese management and expertise. This helped SLT eliminate the delays encountered in providing telecom services to applicants.
The government also took action to expand the post of the Director-General of Telecommunications to a fully-fledged commission named The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka by an act of Parliament.
This regulatory commission paved the way to clear many bottlenecks, including the assignment of radio frequency spectrum in a transparent manner. It further ensured that radio frequency spectrum was deployed in an effective manner for telecommunication services. Contentious issues, such as interconnection, caller party pays, were addressed for subscribers, to get maximum benefits from telecom services. It might be added that the service providers, at that time, were Sri Lanka Telecom, Suntel, Lanka Bell, Dialog, Celltell , Mobitel and Hutchison. The year1993 saw Mobitel being established as mobile service provider as a collaboration between Sri Lanka Telecom and Telstra of Sweden. However, Mobitel was later purchased by Sri Lanka Telecom Ltd. during Chairman Thilanga Sumathipala’s time.
The 2001 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe further advanced activities related to the ICT sector. This included the ending of the monopoly of SLT for international communications. External gateway operator (EGO) licences were issued to the rest of the telecom operators and new entrants. This resulted in a reduction in the costs of overseas calls and further helped the country to connect with the rest of the world.
During this period, the government and the TRC were supported by the World Bank to expedite reforms in ICT. Minster Milinda Moragoda of the Ministry of Economic Reform and Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, ICT and Public Policy Consultant, co-ordinated the reforms through the Ministry of Mass Communication where Minister Imithiaz Bakeer-Marker led the Ministry and the TRC came under his purview.
A notable event that took place was the public auction of radio frequency spectrum to mobile cellular service operators to further modernize the mobile telephone services. Bids were called for the allocation of RF spectrum and millions of dollars were raised. Therefore, governments should note that radio frequency spectrum is public property, should be assigned at the highest possible prices so that the resources of governments will be augmented by billions of dollars.
The then government also set up the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka by enacting enabling legislation in 2003. This new government agency succeeded the Computer Information Technology Council of Sri Lanka (CINTEC) which was the national policy maker and facilitator in ICT upto then.
As s result, the ICTA became the uppermost institution of government, mandated to take all necessary steps to develop government policy and action plans in relation to ICT. Since success in ICT relied greatly on having good telecommunication systems and networks, the TRC and the ICTA worked in consultation with each other in most development matters. The writer remembers attending progress review meetings at the ICTA during that time.
This agency was tasked with the formulation and implementation of thee-SRI LANKA development project. The project was used to develop the economy, reduce poverty and improve the quality of life of the people with effective deployment of ICT resources all over the country.
The 2004 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, took more positive and beneficial action to advance ICT . This included the induction of Bharati-Airtel Lanka as another mobile telecommunications service provider. This move ensured a wider choice for the public and ensured further competition in the sector.
With advancements in the Internet, the government recognized the need for a state agency to handle the matter of information security. This was to address cybercrimes and guide state agencies, including the police, on how to handle cyber-crimes. The ICTA created the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT) to ensure the protection of the information infrastructure. With the advancement of ICT, harassment of computer users, cyber-attacks on websites have increased exponentially. The police, other agencies of government and the general public rely greatly on the SLCERT to solve their cyber-related issues. This entity is presently headed by Chairman Lal Dias, a Chartered Information Technology Professional.
The Internet (World Wide Web)
In the 1960s, the American defence authorities funded work for their internet to provide internal communication amongst multiple computers over a single network. Thereafter, research progressed until the World Wide Web was launched in 1983 and was made a commercial activity which allowed other countries join the global internet thereafter.
In the 1990s, an initial demonstration for internet access in Sri Lanka was made under a project LEARN i.e. Lanka Experimental Academic & Research Network of the University of Moratuwa when Computer Engineers and Academics demonstrated a successful remote log-in from the University of Moratuwa that was connected to a computer at the University of Colombo.
Thereafter, in 1995, LEARN facilitated the joining of academic and research communities to the global internet. Sri Lanka’s first e-mail service, too, was initiated by the University of Moratuwa. The rest is history.
The past and the pioneers
This article would not be complete unless the beginnings ICT and the pioneers associated with it are not mentioned.
The 1960s saw organisations, and businesses, like the State Engineering Corporation, Central Bank, Insurance Corporation, Petroleum Corporation, AMS Data Services and Walker Sons using large mainframe computers to process their internal tasks. It might be mentioned that each of these computers were the size of a room, were comparatively slower, and consumed much electricity.
The pioneers who made significant contributions to ICT development, such as Prof. V K Samaranayake, Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, Prof.Gihan Dias, Dr. R B Ekanayake, Prof. Abhaya Induruwa, Ms. Nayani Fernando being amongst the many who devoted themselves for the advancement of ICT in Sri Lanka.
The LK Domain registry of Sri Lanka was set up in 1990. This registry has served Sri Lanka as its professional domain registration service and enhanced the development of internet infrastructure for internet. The registry provides the national domain name for Sri Lankan organizations and individuals to create their unique brand identity on the internet with domains such as…..lk, .com.lk, .org.lk and .edu.lk.
The JVP and LTTE insurrections
Sri Lanka had two serious insurgencies, from 1983 to 2009 where telecom exchanges were destroyed and broadcast relay stations were destroyed. However, state and private sector engineers and technicians worked with commitment, under trying conditions, during these times, to restore interrupted services and we appreciate their bravery and commitment.
In conclusion, Sri Lanka has come far in the field of information communication technology but further efforts to develop and regulate the sector in a fair and expeditious manner should be taken to enable all stakeholders to benefit.
Scholar, Advisor, Innovator and Great Friend
by AUSTIN FERNANDO
Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, son of Queen’s Counsel NE Weerasooria, studied at Royal College, and entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and won Harvard Memorial Prize and the Governor General’s Prize. He graduated in Law from Peradeniya, with First-Class Honours, and was later called to the Bar, as an Advocate.
I have known and associated with Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria in different capacities. First, I knew him as a pioneer Law Educator at Vidyodaya University. His students at Vidyodaya, and later even at the Post-Graduate Institute of Management, recall how he lectured, without even a short note in hand, attracting students’ attention, and enthusiasm. Additionally, he focused on teaching Commercial, Administrative, and Constitutional laws, and published texts in Sinhala, one on the Law of Contracts, another on Commercial Law.
His vast knowledge as an author was exhibited, mostly in Banking Law. Some of his publications were on Australian banking systems. Later, he delved into Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law, which produced a monumental work and a Treatise on Sri Lankan Statute Law and Judicial Decisions on Buddhist Temples and Temporalities.
His book ‘The Law Governing Public Administration in Sri Lanka,’ is a text that must be read by all public administrators and politicians. Whilst at Monash University, he wrote ‘Links between Sri Lanka and Australia: A Book about Sri Lankans (Ceylonese) in Australia’, dealing with Sri Lanka- Australia links.
With President JR Jayewardene in Office, Wickrema was appointed as the Secretary to the Ministry of Plan Implementation– a completely different role for him in public service. Working with him was also a novel experience and challenge for officers too, since he pushed them to the deep end to make quick, practical, non-traditional, sometimes unsavoury decisions for the benefit of the public.
He was the innovator of Integrated Rural Development Projects, for which he harnessed foreign assistance, and a performer, evaluator, programmer, and institution builder, proven by the establishment of Secretariats for Women, Children, Fertilizer, Nutrition, Population under his Ministry.
Sri Lanka Planning Service was made a professional service in 1985, for which the initiatives and support given by Wickrema were substantial. Accordingly, planners were made responsible for planning to achieve the goals of the respective institutions, formulate policies, strategies, and evaluate the development projects and programmes.
Wickrema was responsible for enhancing human resources among cadres through foreign exposures, which culminated with some officers obtaining post-graduate degrees, some even PhDs, and reaching apex ranks in public services, i.e. Secretaries of Ministries.
Specifically, his contribution to my work when I served as Government Agent, Nuwara Eliya was substantial. He was the guide, mentor, and sometimes savior. His involvement was on behalf of his brother-in-law Minister Gamini Dissanayake. Wickrema was instrumental in planning Nuwara Eliya through the establishment of Nuwara- Eliya Development Commissioners Committee, where I served as Chairman, with professionals as Commissioners. The initial planning was done by the Urban Development Authority.
He was the key organizer of the Spring Festival in Nuwara-Eliya. I remember how he planned the city and revived the Car Racing event, after a lapse of some years. I remember Upali Wijewardena taking part in the first motor car road race. The new Motor-Cross racing event on the newly constructed track was added to the Mahagastota Hill Climb for motor racers. Motor-Cross racing spread to other areas later. He attended these events and enjoyed the great company.
A little-known fact about Wickrema is that the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind (as President) and Sri Lanka Federation of the Blind (as Advisor) still appreciate his services rendered to the blind community, especially in resource mobilization and housing.
He was a person with subtle wit and humour. While teaching, he used this talent, as a student has reminisced, for “easing the pressure and stress of learning.” His lighter vein utterances and behaviour in groups made him a more sought-after teacher, friend, relative, colleague, and boss. His wit and humour depicted by cartoons in political campaigning, (i.e. The Family Tree), left an indelible mark in canvassing votes at the 1977 Elections. It is recycled even today, making Wickrema’s talent eternal.
I am reminded that even regarding efficiency creation he had humorous comments. I remember his “evaluation of the efficiency” of public officers. He used to quip that when asked to produce relevant documentation within two days to send an officer on a foreign scholarship, knowing it would take weeks, he would swear with utmost certainty that the officer would fulfill the requirement within two days. The best litmus test of the efficiency of an officer is the offer of a foreign scholarship! He lamented that such efficiency is lacking to serve the people.
I have a personal regret. Just before I left for India as High Commissioner, he promised to visit me in Delhi with his dear wife Rohini, which he could not fulfill, bidding adieu in weeks. Hence, I missed his company, advice, wit, and humor before departure.
I may say, he was a great student, scholar, academic, educator, public officer, diplomat, social worker, an advisor, innovator, and above all a great friendly human being, who enjoyed life and made others enjoy too, with his friendship, and camaraderie. Sadly, we will miss him forever.
May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!
Ethiopia: War in Tigray
By Gwynne Dyer
“Love always wins. Killing others is a defeat,” said Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in June 2018, shortly after surviving a grenade attack at a rally in Meskel Square in the capital, Addis Ababa. How was he to know that just thirty months after saying that he would have to stop loving and start killing?
That’s the problem with being a reforming zealot who becomes Prime Minister: you have to deal with some really stubborn people, and sometimes it’s hard to shift them without a resort to force. That’s why Abiy launched an invasion of Tigray state on 4 November, and so far it’s been doing very well.
“The next phases are the decisive part of the operation, which is to encircle Mekelle using tanks, finishing the battle in the mountainous areas, and advancing to the fields,” Col. Dejene Tsegaye told the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation on 22 November.
Here we are only less than two weeks later, and the federal government’s troops have already captured Mekelle, a city of half a million people that is Tigray’s capital. It’s not clear how many people were hurt or killed in the fighting, but it went so fast that the butcher’s bill can’t be all that high.
In fact, it has all gone so well that Abiy Ahmed’s soldiers are probably thinking they might be home in time for Christmas. When Col. Dejene talked about “finishing the battle in the mountainous areas and advancing to the fields,” however, he was talking about the nine-tenths of Tigray that has seen no federal government troops at all, or at most a brief glimpse as they passed through.
Tigray is exactly the size of Switzerland, with about the same ratio of mountains to fields (although the mountains are somewhat lower). In other words, it is ideal guerilla territory, and a high proportion of the seven million Tigrayans are rural people who know the land. Moreover, they have long experience in fighting the central government’s troops.
That was the old central government, of course: the Communist dictatorship called the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, that murdered the emperor and ruled the country with an iron fist from 1977 to 1991.
Tigrayans were the first ethnic group to rebel against Mengistu’s rule. They are only 6% of Ethiopia’s population, but the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the most effective of the ethnically-based rebel groups that finally defeated the Derg.
The federal government that took over afterwards, called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was formally a multi-ethnic alliance. In practice, however, TPLF cadres controlled most senior posts and prospered greatly as a result – a situation that continued until the EPRDF appointed Abiy Ahmed prime minister in 2018.
It was a non-violent revolution, conducted not in the streets but in ranks of the federal bureaucracy. Abiy was the ideal candidate: in religion and ethnicity he is Ethiopian everyman, with a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother. (In person he is Pentecostal Christian, and very devout.)
As a young man Abiy fought in the war against Eritrea; he has served as a senior intelligence official and knows where the bodies are buried; he is well educated and speaks Amharic, Afaan Oromo, Tigrinya and English fluently. His first and most important job was to prise the fingers of the Tigrayan elite off the levers of government without a civil war.
Unfortunately, Abiy’s approach – merging all the parties based on the various ethnic militias into a single ‘Prosperity Party’ – didn’t work. The resentful TPLF cadres refused to join, and gradually withdrew to their heartland in Tigray. They don’t yet openly advocate secession, but they do point out that they have that right under the current federal constitution.
Whether or not the shooting war began with an unprovoked attack by the Tigrayan militia on the federal army’s base in Mekelle at the start of last month, as Abiy’s spokesmen claim, it was bound to end up here. All Tigray’s cities have now been taken by federal troops, but almost none of the rural areas.
This could be a brilliant victory for the federal troops that puts a swift end to the fighting. It’s more likely to be the result of a decision by the TPLF leadership to skip the conventional battles they were almost bound to lose, and go straight to the long and bloody guerilla war that they might eventually win.
That would mean secession, in the end, for they can never win power back in Addis Ababa. The risk is that if the war goes on long enough, other major ethnic groups may break away from Ethiopia as well. Abiy’s loosening of the tight centralised control that prevailed under the emperor, the Derg and the TPLF has already unleashed ethnic and sectarian violence that has rendered 2 million Ethiopians homeless.
Abiy recently got a PhD in peace and security studies from Addis Ababa University, but he’ll be concentrating on the ‘security’ part for the foreseeable future.
Safety Equipment and Procedures and Exploding Fire Extinguishes
by Capt. G A Fernando MBA
RCyAF, SLAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, SIA, SriLankan Airlines
Former SEP instructor/ Examiner Air Lanka
By law the Regulator Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL) requires all Airline Crew to annually undergo continuous training and achieving proficiency in Safety Equipment and Procedures (SEP). At the end of the training, also answer a written examination to prove to all and sundry that the particular Flight Crew Member has sufficient SEP knowledge to continue serving in the Cabin or Flight Deck of that Airline, for another year. The SEP questions were relatively easy (no tricks) but each crew member had to score over 80% and carry out mandatory, practical proficiency tests such as operation of aircraft doors and Emergency exits, conduct evacuations, Life Raft operations (in the swimming pool), know the location and use of emergency equipment such as megaphones, Crash Axes, Asbestos Gloves, Emergency Locater Transmitters (ELT’s), the administration of Oxygen, First Aid and use of equipment such as smoke hoods and fire extinguishers to combat Cabin smoke and Fires, The airline is usually delegated to carry out these duties and functions at the behest of the Civil Aviation Authority.
The first year after Air Lanka was established (September 1979), crew members had to go to Singapore Airlines or get the instructors across to Colombo to carry out these checks on behalf of Air Lanka. After about the second year of existence, it was decided that a team SEP instructors/ examiners would be appointed ‘in house’ to carry out this training and mandatory checks. Three of us from the ‘Flight Deck’ crew were appointed to the team. They were First Officer Elmo Jayawardene, Flight Engineer Gerrard Jansz and yours truly. We had, had some experience in crew SEP training in Air Ceylon.
We were sent to the British Airways (BA) Flight Training (Cranebank), UK, during our regular stay overs in London, to undergo refresher training, so that we could incorporate some of the BA curricula in our own (Air Lanka) programs. The then Air Lanka Manager Operations had been an ex BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) Captain. As a direct result of our visit to BA, the then airline doctor (Dr Mrs Sherene Wilathgamuwa) was inducted to the SEP team to lecture the ‘troops’ on not only First Aid but also on delivering babies, with limited facilities on board! I believe that this information has been extremely useful many times during the last 40 years of Air Lanka. This was not taught to us in Air Ceylon. The training curriculum was developed by the SEP team.
The early days of Air Lanka wasn’t easy. While an operational profit was made, the ‘debt servicing’ put an unbearable strain on the overall profitability. We had neither a designated training department nor proper equipment. Our ‘wet drill’ constituted jumping into the pool in shirts and trousers for the boys and ‘made up’ Sarees without the ‘fall’ for the Girls, wearing life jackets of course. Initially the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Katunayake pool was used and subsequently the pools of the two hotels down Katunayake airport road were used till Air Lanka got its own pool. We didn’t even have a permanently deployed Slide/ Raft either for teaching purposes. It all cost money. I was the Instructor in charge of the ‘wet drill’. In contrast SIA I worked for subsequently, had a pool with a ‘wave maker’ to give a realistic experience. There was no doubt Air Lanka at that point of time was ‘pinching pennies’ where crew SEP training was concerned.
To provide fire fighting experience to the Flight Crews we were forced to use regular Industrial Fire Extinguishing equipment to keep the costs down. That was acceptable since the basic fire fighting principles were the same. The fire fighting part of the training was carried out by the Ground Safety Section Instructors who were mainly ex SLAF types. A few months before, Lalantha one of the Chief Stewards was practicing the use of a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extinguisher on a fire and the extinguisher exploded and flew off his hand, narrowly missing Leone who was just behind him. The on-board extinguishers were much smaller, lighter and more manageable than the industrial ones. A complaint was filed by me, but treated by the ‘Management’ as a one off case! It seemed as if one swallow doesn’t make a summer! The extinguisher had been certified as serviced. The Administrative Executive in charge of SEP those days was a young man who had a degree in Marine Biology and perhaps was clueless on safety issues and couldn’t champion our cause. We were all part time Instructors.
The annual recurrent training programme took two days. On one particular day, Chief Stewardess Jayantha and I were the instructors in charge. When it came to the Fire Fighting exercise, we handed over students of our class to the Air Lanka Ground Instructors and proceeded to the parking apron (opposite the Terminal Building), to check out a Lockheed L1011 ‘Tri-Star’ aircraft which was newly leased, by Air Lanka. It was a pre-owned, aircraft that had arrived the day before. Unfortunately, the locations of and the make of emergency equipment in the same type of aircraft (L-1011) differed from airline to airline. Therefore in the name of air safety and standardisation, it was important to resolve matters before the said aircraft saw service on the line on regular revenue flight services. It was a big deal as all Flight Crew had to know by memory as to where the specific locations of safety equipment were, so that when a ‘push’ came to a ‘shove’, no time would be wasted by the crew members involved, looking for these essential items. It could be a matter of life and death.
I was not too happy sending the participant boys and girls by themselves for fire fighting and had an uneasy feeling. On other hand, our task too was also extremely important. So it was a case of ‘risk management’ and gave in.
While we were checking out the new addition to our L 1011 Tri-Star fleet, we received a frantic message saying that another water type extinguisher had exploded and the injured had been removed to the Air Force Hospital across the runway to the Northern side.
Jayantha and I rushed to the SLAF Base Hospital in her ‘Mini -moke’ the long way around, up the Airport Road and via the 20th milepost main entrance along the Negombo road and found two crew members injured and in shock. Steward Senaka who had got the wheel shaped handle smack on his face, had injuries in the same shape and Naomal too had some minor injuries. We were assured by the Air Force doctor, Dr Narmasena Wickremasinghe that injuries were not too serious. We stayed there till the arrival of the next of kin who had been informed and went back to Office to meet Mr Wilmot Jayewardena, the Air Lanka Senior Manager Inflight Services.
When Jayantha and I sheepishly walked into his office he gave us the silent treatment initially and then softly declared that being responsible for the wellbeing of the participants, at least one of us Instructors should have been present when fire fighting was going on, even under the supervision of the Ground Safety Instructors. We accepted our mistake and defused the situation. When I look back now I am amazed as to how we coped with such limited resources to keep the National Carrier going. Safety Experts today, recommend that during risky activity, we should trust our ‘gut feeling’. It is usually correct as there is a connection between the brain and the gut resulting in feelings like ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. Needless to say the lesson was learnt.
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