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JVP stance on debt traps, fertilizer import bans, ports and PC elections

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by Saman Indrajith

The JVP says that the country is caught-up in what it calls ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ and warns that Sri Lanka is poised to lose more national assets in the immediate future. “Several rating agencies downgraded Sri Lanka’s sovereign credit ratings, the long-term foreign-currency issuer and senior unsecured ratings, while the long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating signalling concerns about the country’s ability to fulfil foreign debt repayments. In the face of this crisis, the government will either have to print more currency, borrow more or sell off national assets,” says former JVP Kalutara District MP and Politburo member Dr Nalinda Jayatissa in an interview with the Sunday Island.

Excerpts:

Q: Some ministers have made statements about the possibility of holding elections for provincial councils. Is your party ready for provincial council elections?

A: They started speaking of provincial council elections only after Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s recent visit. The visit has jolted the government into action. The elections are to be held not because people have asked for them but because India wants the government to have them. This indicates the present plight of our nation. In 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power under the slogan of ‘Rata Rakina Viruva’ (The hero who protects the country). Now that same hero has succumbed to pressure from India, the US and China and many other foreign powers.

Q: Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila says that Trincomalee oil tank farm had been given to India by former governments in 1987 and 2003. The present government tries to show they are on a mission get the tanks back from India. What is your party’s stand on this?

A: We believe that Trincomalee harbour and the oil tank farm were the reason for India shoving the Indo-Lanka Accord down our throat in 1987. The then President was supportive of US camp while India was supporting the USSR bloc. President Jayewardene was considering giving Trincomalee to the US. India was upset and invaded the air space of this country, dropped parippu and sent Indian ships to our waters to terrorize that government and coerce it to sign the Indo-Lanka Accord.

The correspondence between Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi before the signing of the Accord shows that India would not let Lanka make independent decisions about the use of Trincomalee harbour without India’s concurrence. But such conditions are not included in the agreement. In 2003, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government leased 99 oil tanks for 35 years to India for an annual fee of 100,000 US dollars. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed to reach an agreement in six months. It is only with the signing of such an MoU that the lease would have had legal effect. However there has been no such agreement since 2003. Therefore, India does not have any legal hold of the oil tanks and that land. Yet, they have paid the annual fee for the past 18 years.

Gammanpila is only putting up a show. The former ministers who had the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) under their purview, Susil Premjayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Chandima Weerakkody, got cabinet papers passed in 2011, 2014 and 2016 stating that those oil tanks belong to the Lankan government. India continues to hold those tanks illegally. One of our trade unions in 2017 filed a case at the Supreme Court against this. The decision is pending.

In terms of the provisions of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation Act No. 28 of 1961, only the CPC can import petroleum to this country. Ranil Wickremesinghe broke that monopoly in 2004 and gave permission to Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) to import fuel for 20 years with effect from January that year. That permission expires in December, 2023. Then the monopoly of petroleum importing, exporting, storing, refining, distributing and selling will return to the CPC. If government would not extend this permit, then India will lose its argument for the need to use Trincomalee Tank Farm. India’s present need is to get the oil tanks and the land they stand on for another 50 to 60 years. That was the primary objective of the Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit. Their actual target is the Trincomalee harbour and the oil tank farm gives them a foothold to move in that direction.

Q: So it’s all about Trincomalee harbour?

A: Yes, it is. Not a single harbour but many. The harbour in Trincomalee is considered one of the finest deep-sea, natural harbours in a strategic location. Sri Lanka’s geostrategic location is vital not only for the Asia-Pacific region but for the entire world. The importance of that location finally depends on the control of our harbours. We have three main harbours in Colombo, Hambantota and Trincomalee. What has happened to them? Hambantota is now owned by China for 198 years. It is China that controls the Hambantota port and its surrounding land of 15,000 acres. The Trincomalee harbour is being eyed by India. Then we have the Colombo Port, which is considered one of the busiest harbours in the Indian Ocean and is at No. 24 in the Top 50 World Container Ports list.

This position could be bettered if we could increase the depth of the access route to that port, deepen and expand the terminals and berths and increase the number of terminal operations opening the way for the world’s largest vessels to enter the Colombo Port. Now South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT) with berth of 18 meter depth is controlled by China. Mahinda Rajapaksa gave it to China for 35 years in 2012. Basil Rajapaksa recently brought a cabinet paper to give 13 acres of adjacent land to China to set up an operational and service center. So, even when the 35-year period ends, China will still have control there.

When China is given such hold, other countries also try to get a piece of the pie. The Selendiva project will enable selling many adjacent areas covering the Grand Oriental Hotel, Gafoor Building, York Building, Foreign Ministry and the old GPO. The Bank of Ceylon (York Street) is earmarked to be moved to Battaramullla, so that land too could be sold. There had been an attempt to give away the East Container Terminal (ECT) to an Indian company but it was suspended owing to protests. SAGT could be taken back by the Ports Authority in 2028. Currently it is under John Keells Holdings which is the local agent of India’s Adani Group that is involved in the West Container Terminal (WCT) development. After building that terminal, the two most important terminals of the Colombo Port will be controlled by China and India. This process shows how we have lost control of the three most important terminals during the past ten years. The income they earn is taken by foreigners to their countries leaving us with little.

Historical records show that the harbours have been among the most important feature in our civilisation. Recent archaeological findings yield evidence to prove that the Anuradhapura civilisation had been founded on the Mathota harbour which is said to be in Mannar. It was this harbour that supported the thriving Anuradhapura civilisation that constructed giant stupas and tanks during the 400 years from 150 AD to 250 AD.

During that period, South Indian traders invaded the Anuradhapura kingdom and ruled it intermittently when they had the control of Mathota and its resources. King Elara ruled that kingdom for 44 years and took away what it generated to South India. Later five other South Indian rulers before King Vattagamani Abhaya did the same. They took home what was earned from that harbour. They (the harbours) have been a principal prop of our civilisation.

Even when the Portuguese came here, they asked the King of Kotte only for one thing – that was to build a fort near the Colombo port. The present day rulers are depriving this country and its people the ownership of those harbours and thereby we lose the country’s geostrategic importance.

Q: The government describes those transactions as investments. Do not we need such investments?

A: China spent only USD 500 million to develop South Terminal of Colombo Port. The Lankan government took a loan of USD 1,400 million to build the Hambantota port. If the government took a loan of USD 500 million instead and developed the South Terminal of the Colombo Port, then we would have earned profits from there. China or India will not come here to invest in our health, transport or education sectors. Their investments have the objective of snaring us in a debt trap and taking control of our assets.

Even the previous governments used to have similar excuses. They used to say there were loss making enterprises which needed to be privatized. That has no place in the present times, so they use the word investments. For example, 40 percent of the Kerawalapitiya power plant is being sold to America’s New Fortress Energy (NFE). That plant is built and we could earn profits in the years ahead. Now it is being sold. The government is handing over the gas pipeline and floating storage system for the Kerawalapitiya power plant with the entire supply of gas to the NFE for a period of 10 years. There is massive waste, fraud and corruption in awarding this contract.

A contract has been awarded to the company without a tender to supply liquefied natural gas for 10 years at a cost of US$ 6 billion. Usually, we need electricity from the Kerawalapitiya power plant only between 6.00 pm and 12.00 pm. The ‘Take or Pay’ (TOP) deal to which we have committed ourselves is hugely disadvantageous as we will be paying for LNG we will not be using because we don’t need it. Could such deals be called investments?

This power plant is to supply around 35 percent of the power generated to the national grid. So NFE will have a near power supply monopoly in this country. It will also have the opportunity to place ships for floating storage near Colombo harbour permanently. These are not investments. If they really are investments, the government should have called for separate tenders for the floating storage and the pipeline and kept the ownership of the plant 100 percent. Gas could have been purchased at the world market prices through spot tender or term tender processes.

Q: The government says that there is economic instability therefore they are compelled to take such decisions. Is this true?

A: It is those whoz had governed this country since Independence, who should be held responsible for the current economic instability. As of now the country’s sum total of debt is nearly 17,000 billion rupees. Our total revenue is not sufficient to pay the loan and interest instalments. In this scenario, the government has solutions such as printing money, taking more loans and selling off national assets to pay the loans. It is said that the government has printed currency notes worth Rs 1,400 billions during the past 20 months. It is a sum equal to total government revenue for a year. This would certainly result in inflation.

People should ask the question why we have borrowed so much. We as a nation are trapped in debt raised for loans taken for mega projects some of which were not our priorities. A country with an economy like this should never have borrowed to build an International Cricket Stadium at Sooriyawewa, an International Convention Hall at Hambantota or the Lotus Tower in Colombo. These are neither essential nor priorities. The loans taken to pay for them were many times their actual cost with commissions ending up in the pockets of politicians. Whenever there are international exposés such as the recent Pandora Papers, many names of Lankans surface. They show how such commissions are stashed away in overseas accounts. What these political leaders do is show people a mega project and take their cut. When the loan cannot be settled they sell off national assets. This is the ultimate consequence of a process known as ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. We are in this plight because of a corrupt political culture.

Q: Hardly a day passes without a protest. Farmers stage protests everywhere in the rural hinterland demanding fertilizer. What’s the JVP standpoint on this fertilizer issue? Do you recommend continued use of chemical fertilizers?

A: The first excuse of the government when they abruptly stopped imports of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, weedicides and pesticides was that this was done to save dollars going out of the country. Then weeks later they said the ban was to save people from kidney disease and cancer. Organic fertilizers are fine but no country can switch from chemical to organic all at once. It is not feasible to ask farmers to go organic in the next Maha season soon after the end of Yala season. Farmers, agricultural scientists and everyone who dared to open their mouths in the Agriculture Ministry repeatedly said that this was not practical. But the President and the government did not listen. Now we are in a crisis. This will surely result in a food scarcity in a few months time.

The government says that it will compensate the farmers for crop losses if that happens. Such compensation would be sufficient only for few months for the farmers. But what about the food shortages? You cannot eat currency notes. This is just another example for the whimsical nature of this President. Apart from that there is a serious doubt whether this is just the beginning of a plan with the objective of compelling farmers to sell their land. When farmers cannot cultivate for two or three seasons, they have no option but to give up their livelihoods. They will have to sell their land or lease them to companies. This is an agricultural country. When agriculture is destroyed this country would go bankrupt in few years time.



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Features

Rising farce of Family Power

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Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.

He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.

He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.

“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,

 “If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again.  If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.

“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”

Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength.  In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.

It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.

While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.

Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law?  Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?

What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,

The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.

The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance.  There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser –  from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?

The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to

use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.

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A tribute to vajira

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By Uditha Devapriya

The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.

A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.

In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.

Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.

Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.

Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.

At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.

These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.

Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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It’s all about France in Kandy !

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Sarah Toucas, Director Alliance Francaise de Kandy

This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.

A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.

All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.

Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.

Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.

To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.

Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar

comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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