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Justice Minister Ali Sabry on what he’s trying to do

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Omnibus interview with Saman Indrajith

Justice Minister President’s Counsel Ali Sabry is known in the legal fraternity as among the most brilliant lawyers this country has seen in recent times. He has embarked on an ambitious plan to reform the legal system especially in respect of addressing law delays. He is confident that he could bring about the change and that will ultimately help this country and its people to reach their true potential, Minister Sabry said during an interview with The Sunday Island.

Excerpts:

 

Q: What is your assessment of the current political situation?

A:

In the current political situation, when it comes to party politics, the government is of course in a very strong position with its two thirds majority in parliament. Of course there are differences of opinion within the ruling party. That is how democracy works. But still in the government we are all united, compared to the opposition which is weak and not effective.

 

Q: The government came to power promising constitutional reforms. There were reports that the reforming process had commenced months back under your leadership. Would you like to comment on the current statusd of that process?

A:

On the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and with the approval of the cabinet we have appointed an 11-member committee led by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva to report on constitutional changes. It is a committee with diverse opinions and representations of many religions and communities. There are jurists, legal luminaries, legal academics, and members of civil society, Buddhists, Catholics, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. They have been given a mandate to study and examine past attempts to amend the constitutions, to consult the public, religious leaders and political parties and to come up with a draft constitution. They have been working very hard. I understand that last weekend they traveled to Kandy to meet some of the people there to get their opinions as a part of the consultative process. They will submit their first draft in March. It would be then presented to the Cabinet to decide on its passage through parliament.

 

Q: There is a strong opinion that constitutions since Independence have not been able to support building what is known as a unique Sri Lankan identity but instead contributed to promoting communal identities. Do you think that the new constitution would be able to do something different and help promote a pan-Sri Lankan identity?

A:

Ideally that should be the case. But you have to understand that this is a country with a great history based on Buddhism. So Buddhism has to be preserved and given the foremost of place as it has been the case in the 1972 and 1978 constitutions. By doing so it should ensure we respect other religions too. We can embrace good qualities of all our communities and create a Sri Lankan identity that is acceptable to 70 percent of the Sinhala Buddhists. In that case we must promote the brand of Buddhism known in this country for centuries, helping people celebrate each other not despise each other, creating an identity which will help each other. That’s the brand of Buddhism known to people of this country for a long period of time.

The worst done to the Muslim community has been done by those promoting the ideology of Taliban and other extremist groups. They profess a brand of Islam that true Islam is never known for. It is a militant and non-tolerant, a rigid brand. Opposed to that we have a history of Sri Lanka known for its religious tolerance and love of peace. For example while the whole world was hating Japan at the San Francisco summit, Mr. JR Jayewardene, representing this country, who helped them to open their eyes to reality by explaining the Buddhist value that hatred never ceases by hatred but would only cease by love, respect and mercy. Whenever there were disputes between nations in the region, Japan and China, India and China and India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike met with their leaders and diffused those tensions by professing Buddhist values. When all the powerful nations were trying to write off Palestine from the world map, Mahinda Rajapaksa stood up and supported them.

Those leaders could achieve peace because our society is based on values Gautama Buddha had preached such as equality; respect for each other’s dignity and love. That is the brand I think that we should promote once again. If that happens we will be truly representing ourselves as true ambassadors of this great country and great philosophy of Buddhism which nobody can oppose or go against. It is a choice for all Lankans right now. As a Muslim I hate Taleban Islam. They have inflicted the biggest damage on the Islamic faith. We do not want any extremism of any sort. Every religion preaches peace, harmony, respect and brotherhood. Having said so, Sri Lanka should be primarily a Sinhala Buddhist country. We have been respected by the world as being primarily a Sinhala Buddhist country in the 1960s and 1970s. We must get a Sri Lankan identity which embraces everyone, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims so that all can feel proud and say that we, despite all our differences, are Sri Lankans. That is where I want to see this country going.

 

Q: There are news items quoting you of ambitious plans by the justice ministry to effect changes. According to some, the changes mean overhauling the system and that many archaic laws are being changed. How long do you think this would take?

A:

One of the main reasons that compelled me to take leave from the legal profession and enter politics was that the need to change the legal system. This system needs an overall change. In the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business in 2028’ world ranking we were at 112 out of 185 countries. In the index of ‘Enforcement of Contacts’ Sri Lanka was at 165 out of 189 countries because it takes such a long time to enforce a contract here. Countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda are ranked better than us because their legal systems are more effective than ours. It is not about the independence of the judiciary per se. With regard to the independence of the judiciary I think we can be happy where Sri Lanka stands today irrespective of the few cases of which people are complaining. Independence of the judiciary itself is not everything. It has to be effective, efficient, time-tested, and affordable. That is what the rankings are about.

Before I started politics I was involved in legal reforms from the Bar Association as an executive committee member, as a treasurer then finally as the deputy president. We have a very strong strategy to look into all matters carefully. In one of our research results we found that Sri Lanka has 15 judges per one million population whereas advanced countries such as Germany and Canada have almost 200; countries like Singapore have more than 100 per million people whereas Malaysia and Thailand have 65 to 68 judges, even India has 20 judges per one million. We decided to increase the number of judges and started it from the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. More judges would be appointed to lower courts in the coming months.

In addition we started improving infrastructure of court houses countrywide. We have not yet been able to embrace the advantages made available to us by technology. Other countries have done that and digitalized their systems. We recently started the digitizing process. The Supreme Court started e-filing rules. Magistrate Courts and Court of Appeal commenced to hear bail applications online. High Courts now accept e-filing and the Court of Appeal commenced e-hearing. There is so much to be done but we hope we can complete this in four years time.

We are also planning to bring about amendments to many laws that had not been visited for many decades. For that purpose we have appointed three committees on criminal law, civil law and commercial law. Altogether around 20 committees are now working on different specialized areas of law. I am happy to say more than 150 highly respected lawyers are serving in those different committees and most of them serve voluntarily without taking any fee for their services. There is an expectation in our legal community that something is happening and they need to be part of it. I am very optimistic that we could transform this system. It will take some time for results.

In some matters we have been able to see the results. When I assumed duties the backlog of cases stuck at the Government Analyst’s Department was around 16,000. Now, we have almost finished most of those case analyses and by the end of March we finish clearing the backlog. In January, we set a very high target of turning out 4,828 reports. We achieved 104 percent. That was something unthinkable six months ago. I am sure that we can transform the system.

Q: There were reports that Sri Lanka Law College Student’s Union had been agitating for some time demanding that there were academic, infrastructure and welfare issues of students that have been overlooked. There were also reports that the president and secretary of the union met you recently with all those matters presented in writing. The students complain that what they witness is a game of passing buck between authorities. In what way you can solve their problems because it was also your college once.

A:

I have a huge respect, love and admiration for the Law College. It is a great place which has turned out Lankan leaders such as Presidents JR Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapaksa. We need to preserve that place and maintain its standards and stature and independence. The Incorporated Council of Legal Education is an independent body. The Justice Minister can appoint few people to the council, but the majority is ex officio – the Chief Justice, two members of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Solicitor General, two members from the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and Secretary to the Ministry of Justice. It is an independent body and unfortunately there had been no funding from the government to the council for its functions. They have to meet their expenses with the funds collected as fees from the college. That is the problem.

I took over in August, and I did not want to remove serving members though some were appointed by the previous government. They are also respectable members of our profession. Though they have been appointed to the council by the previous minister, I did not want to be ungrateful and remove them in the middle of their terms. When their terms ended I appointed my representatives including Harsha Amarasekera, the Chairman of the Sampath Bank, Sanjeewa Jayawardena, Naveen Marapana, Sampath Mendis, all are President’s Counsels and Prof Camena Gunaratne and also the Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Colombo. I hope the new team will come together and study the situation and decide what is to be done. I agree the Law College needs to be upgraded and it has been long neglected in all aspects of its quality of education, infrastructure, welfare of students, extra-curricular activities, embracing technology etc. I am sure that his lordship, the Chief Justice and his Council will carefully re-look at problems and find a way to upgrade the Law College. I am ever willing to help.

 

Q: Many brilliant lawyers held the post of justice minister. Some of them after their stint in politics returned to the Bar not to be welcomed. For example it is said that when Felix Dias Bandaranaike returned to the bar after a stint in politics, the legal fraternity at Hulftsdorp considered him a ‘plague’. The fraternity including judges and other lawyers will keep in mind what the justice ministers do. How do you see your future?

A

: I do not have long term ambitions in politics. I want to positively contribute for the upliftment of our country. Some people misinterpret even a single word I may say. All my intentions are very pure. I have sacrificed a lot to come here. I firmly believe in a single Sri Lankan identity. I also firmly believe Sri Lankan Muslims should live and embrace Sri Lankan culture. There is a sub-Sri Lankan Muslim culture that is different to the Sinhala Buddhist culture. But it is a Sri Lankan Muslim culture. That has to be embraced. There is nothing for us to be afraid of each other. We can help each other. We must create that environment. That is one of the objectives in my coming to politics.

As I already told you I decided to come to politics because I want to see a change of system. I have seen the agony of clients and people because of the delays. On the other hand this country cannot reach its true potential when the justice system is in the lower slots of international rankings. As long as I am here I work 24 hours by seven. My staff in the ministry too work in the same manner. Those at the government analyst’s department worked many extra hours without even applying for overtime to clear the backlog of reports. I am so grateful to them because they work very hard. They work because they have felt something is happening and the whole bisiness is moving in the right direction.

All the officers in this ministry, I am so glad, are working to complete their tasks. Some of them are working even on Saturdays and Sundays. That means that they know that we have come here for a reason and we will transform this place. The ultimate beneficiary of this work is the general public.

We are interested in making the Sri Lankan legal system world class, to bring our rankings higher so ultimately that will contribute to the rule of law so people will be safe on the streets; that they do not need to wait for a long period of time to see justice being done. After completing this I will go back to my profession to practice law.



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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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