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Looking forward to a hopeful future 

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By Rohana R. Wasala

All sensible adult citizens of Sri Lanka confidently hope that today’s youthful politicians will realise the importance of working together with their rivals in the national interest while maintaining their separate political identities, because, in the final analysis, all politicians of whatever party or faction they are affiliated to have no reason for their existence except their commitment to serve our motherland Sri Lanka . It is time they understood that any ethnic or religious or cultural community struggling to promote its own welfare disregarding the interests of other communities is not going to achieve permanent success. This has been demonstrated by the failure of the older generations which pursued such divisive strategies in the past, regretfully slowing down the country’s forward march. Though they may be committed to different political ideologies they should be able to resolve their differences democratically in a cultured manner. Only when an atmosphere of value-based politics becomes the norm will politicians, whether in the government or the opposition ranks, be able to make their fullest contribution to the survival of the nation as an independent sovereign entity and its future wellbeing.

Friendly personal relations among politicians who fiercely clash in public are nothing new. This has been always the case. But today such interaction between political opponents must be seen in a new light in view of the more widely shared socio-cultural and political sophistication of the Sri Lankan populace.

It can’t be denied that Sri Lanka has achieved some tangibly positive results at least in terms of a much larger proportion of the population being afforded a chance to dream of a better future. This is a direct result of a high rate of literacy achieved through free education. Economically, she may have lost the stability she used to enjoy at independence, as so often pointed out by those interested in the subject, and slipped a few notches down in the scale of overall development in comparison with some neighbouring countries. However, the generally growth-oriented policies of the successive post-independence regimes led in turn by the two main parties have brought about considerable human development, and a corresponding improvement of the lot of the common people, and that too in the face of unprecedented problems posed by a steadily increasing population, overt and covert foreign interference in our affairs, politicization of issues and institutions, terrorism, economic and political upheavals elsewhere, and other crises that threw a spanner in the works most of the time.

Within a generation our society has undergone tremendous change. The nation has emerged  victorious after one of the most trying periods of its history, which, though it slowed down the rate of growth, failed to arrest it altogether. Today our literacy rate is among the highest in the region. We enjoy fairly satisfactory healthcare services, both public and private, in spite of occasional lapses. More people own houses and cars than before, and more young people take part in cultural activities such as singing, dancing, and drama than their parents used to in the past. Increasingly accessible modern technology is revolutionizing every aspect of their life. People living in the remotest districts are aware that they too have a democratic right to a decent living standard like those placed in better circumstances in urban areas. Amidst all this, today’s young, particularly those in their thirties and forties, have known no life other than the one they have had to live under terrorism (which is now fortunately out of the way; the under-twenties  were spared any adult experience of it). They expect more from life, are less prepared to put up with privations, and are more aggressive in meeting challenges than earlier generations. Their expectations are high. 

These social, economic, and political realities influence the thinking of the youngest section of the population, particularly those below 30. They are almost completely insulated from any meaningful memory of the conditions that prevailed 30 to 50 years ago in which their parents grew up, and that helped form the latter’s values and attitudes, which may not be in tune with the existing state of affairs today. Youth are usually more responsive to change than the old. The former love the excitement of change, while the latter prefer the sedateness offered by a settled order.  The traditional clash between the old and the young in any age in opinions, values, and attitudes known as the generation gap applies to those involved in parliamentary politics too, though it is often obscured by an ostensible unanimity of opinion among members of the same party. In this context, the young are in a better position to decide what is in the best interest of the country. 

By this, however, I don’t mean to say that every young politician is invariably forward looking and progressive in outlook, and that every old one is incorrigibly retrograde. There are enough examples of senior politicians adopting fresh viewpoints in keeping with the changed circumstances in principled ways; there are also young novices who squander their youth and energy by aligning themselves with old fossilized elements of yesteryear with no future. In other words, a certain fossilization of ideas and attitudes is characteristic of an older generation; but there can be exceptions; some older politicians prove themselves more progressive, and more adaptable than their younger colleagues. 

When politicians decide to accept the membership of a particular party, they do so after committing themselves to the ideology and the policies of that party. It is important to adhere to these. But since situations may arise in which a particular party line is not the best position to adopt in regard to a critical issue, it becomes necessary in such instances to be flexible in order, for example, to avoid betraying the whole country through blind adherence to a particular policy such as some conservative politicians’ unrealistic commitment to a negotiated settlement of the separatist crisis in the face of the intransigence of the separatist terror outfit, which is now no more. A critical turn of events may demand that established beliefs and ways of behaviour be given up in favour of new modes of thought and action to serve the national interest.

Some time ago an MP from a prominent party, then in the Opposition, said that the main role of the Opposition is to bring down the government at any cost. If what he said was true, then no government would have an opportunity to rule or to implement any development plan without being baulked at every turn, irrespective of the soundness or otherwise of the policies pursued. The irrational way some opposition politicians criticise every move of the government suggests that this in fact is the principle that guides their conduct even today. Probably the same principle was at work when it was clear that not even the December 2004 tsunami nor the raging separatist terror led the opposition to join forces with the government to rescue the country from those disasters. However, in the critical last stages of the then MR government’s campaign against terrorism, it was thanks to the support extended by seventeen opposition MPs acting on their own in defiance of the party hierarchy that made it possible for the government to put an end to that scourge. Now that there are more young MPs who are capable of thinking  in terms of promoting the national interest rather than their own self-interest, we may be hopeful that the constitution making project embarked upon by the present administration will go ahead without a hitch.  

In terms of the ordinary people’s understanding of parliamentary democracy, the role of the opposition is to ensure that the ruling party governs the country well by monitoring its conduct and by criticizing its actions when they believe that it is not  performing its duty, and to be a potential alternative to the government. The broadest interface for positive government-opposition interaction includes the three interrelated areas of  the rule of law, human rights, and good governance. The opposition’s responsibility is to maximize the chances of these three things being realized for the good of the country through constructive criticism of the government’s performance. When faced with external challenges and threats, the opposition and the government must act as a single solid group in defence of the nation, based on the commonsense realisation that in geopolitics a country is obliged to interact with both friendly and hostile foreign rivals.

Such a political culture will evolve only when young broadminded politicians take the centre stage. Of course, they can’t act by themselves unless they have a similarly educated and inspired following. An electorate that will promote cultured politicians is already there to show their mind when the old fossils,  among the present-day leaders, either ensconced in positions of power or already kicked out into irrelevance, finally bow out or are successfully convinced to do so.



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Opinion

A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!

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Opinion

Alleviating poverty, the Chinese way

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China has released a white paper on poverty alleviation which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries. Sri Lanka being a friendly international partner of China should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and plan a scheme and send a team to China to learn the activities conducted under the scheme so that Sri Lanka will be able to handle the fight against poverty, successfully.

“China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, worldwide, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty, creating a miracle in human history.” These people were living in 128 ,000 villages all over in China. China through a sustained program was able to achieve its poverty reduction targets set out in UN 2030 agenda, 10 years ahead of its schedule.

A quote from a report released by the BBC outlines the success achieved by China.

:” In 1990, there were more than 750 million people in China, living below the international poverty line – about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 – the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available – it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population). So clearly, even in 2016 China was well on the way to reaching its target This suggests that overall, 745 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in China than were 30 years ago. World Bank figures do not take us to the present day, but the trend is certainly in line with the Chinese government’s announcement. (“Another large country, India, had 22% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2011 (the most recent data available) …:”}

The people living in extreme poverty suffer from the lack of extremely basic amenities, such as food. safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. It is a fact that those who come under this category are trapped in a vicious circle and for generations they cannot escape the deprivations.

Some of the policies followed by China in achieving the enviable outcome are discussed in the White paper. The most important condition to be fulfilled is the acceptance of the fact that governance of a country starts with the needs of the people and their prosperity is the responsibility of the government. “To achieve success, it is of utmost importance that the leadership have devotion. strong will and determination. and the ruling party and the government assumes their responsibilities to the people. play a leading role, mobilize forces from all quarters and ensure policies are consistent and stable’.

China has provided the poor with the guidance, direction and tools while educating them to have the ambition to emerge from poverty, Through farmers’ night schools, workshops and technical schools create the improvement of skills. The government identifies the economic opportunities in consultation with the people, then provides finances, loans for the selected projects, and strengthens the infra-structure facilities, including the marketing outlets.

While the macro aspects for the poverty alleviation is planned centrally, the activities are executed provincially and locally.

Sri Lankans living under the national poverty line was 4.1% of the population in 2016 (World Data Atlas). The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has dealt a severe blow to the living standards in Sri Lanka and it is assumed that the people living under the poverty line would have reached approximately 8% of the population by 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapakasa has realised this gloomy truth in his interaction with the poor in the villages on his visits to the remote areas in Sri Lanka. I would request him to study the success story of China and to work out a similar NATIONAL programme in consultation with China. In the White Paper, China says that she is ready to share her experience with other countries who desire to reduce the poverty levels. The President should appoint a TASK FORCE of capable and nationalist-minded individuals to steer the program with given targets as PRIORITY VENTURE. If Sri Lanka can plan a comprehensive programme for poverty alleviation and implement with determination under the capable, dedicated and willing leadership of the President, nearly two million Sri Lankans who live below the poverty line will benefit and would start contributing to the growth of the nation productively.

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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Opinion

Need in New Year is to heal the divides

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By Jehan Perera

One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future.  The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future.  According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness.  Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest.  There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.

Jaffna Mayor Manivannan was taken into custody by the Jaffna police for allegedly promoting uniforms and iconography of the LTTE, according to the police.  They had found that the Mayor had recruited five individuals to perform traffic duties in Jaffna town in uniforms that resembled those worn by the LTTE’s police during the time when they ran a parallel administration in parts of the north and east. Photos published in the media show a similarity.  Promoting symbols associated with the LTTE, including uniforms is an offence under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

However, the position of the Municipality was that the five individuals had been recruited to a Jaffna Municipal Council task force on a temporary basis to enforce penalties against environmental violations such as littering the streets.  According to Mayor Manivannan, the uniforms were, in fact, the same as those worn by a similar task force run by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). Media reported a striking resemblance between the task force uniform and the uniforms worn by the LTTE police but also that a parking meter initiative run by the Colombo Municipal Council has employed staffers who also wear a light blue shirt and pants of a darker shade, vaguely similar to the offending Jaffna outfit. 

 

JAFFNA VISIT

Ironically, a few days prior to this incident, I visited Jaffna to take part in the last rites for Fr Nicholapillai Maria Saveri who had headed the Centre for Performing Arts, in Jaffna, for over four decades.  Under Fr Saveri’s leadership the centre produced an entire generation of artistes who reached out across all barriers of ethnicity and religion and touched the lives of people everywhere.  Through his artistic and cultural productions, Fr Saveri tried to show the interdependence of those who live in the country and need to share it bringing to the fore their different talents, connections and capacities.   He sought to turn the diversity and pluralism in the country away from being a source of conflict into one of strength and mutual enrichment. 

The normalcy I saw in Jaffna, during the short period I was there, made me feel that the ethnic conflict was a thing of the past.  At the hotel I stayed I saw young people come and enjoy a drink at the bar and talking with each other with animation and laughter as young people do.  When I went to the District Secretariat, I was struck by the fact that they played the national anthem at sharp 8.30 am and all work stopped while the anthem played all three verses in the Tamil language and all stood to attention, even inside their rooms.  The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2011, had recommended that the national anthem be sung in both languages and I was happy to see that in Jaffna this was being implemented a decade later.

At the funeral service for Fr Saveri I met many people and none of them spoke of war and conflict but like people in other parts of the country they spoke of the economy and cost of living.  An administrator from the University of Jaffna spoke about his satisfaction at the large number of Sinhala students at the University and the mixing that was taking place as a result, between the communities.  He said that as the University did not have adequate hostel facilities many of the students from outside of Jaffna, including the Sinhala students, lived with local families.  He said that during the recent graduation ceremony, hundreds of their family members came from the southern parts of the country and joined their children in their places of accommodation which contributed to the inter community mixing.

 

UNIFYING THEME

The situation in Jaffna was so normal to my eyes as a visitor that one of the questions I had and to which I sought answers from those I met, was whether there was a common theme that bound the people together.  Despite my inquiries I could not discern such a common theme that was openly visible or explained to me as such.  It was much like the rest of the country.  At the last general election the people of the north voted for a multiplicity of parties including ones that are part of the present government.  The candidate who got the largest number of votes was one who was affiliated with the government.  At the same time nationalist parties got votes too that saw them enter Parliament and the more moderate parties emerged the largest. 

The arrest of Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan has now supplied a common unifying theme to the politics of the north.  There is distress that the popularly elected Mayor has been treated in such a manner.  If the uniforms that the Municipal workers were wearing too closely resembled those of the LTTE, he could have been informed that this was not appropriate.  It would have been possible to ensure that the uniforms were immediately removed and replaced with ones that were more appropriate while taking into consideration the sensitivities that three decades of war would bring.  As the Mayor is most closely associated with government Minister Douglas Devananda such a request would most certainly have been complied with.  As leader of the EPDP, Minister Devananda was at the forefront of militarily fighting against the LTTE.

The government’s determination to thwart any possible attempt to revive the LTTE can be understood.  The war with the LTTE cost the country enormously in terms of human suffering and economic devastation.  The government won the last election on the promise that it would give priority to national security and also develop the country on that basis.  However, sections of the Tamil Diaspora continue to be openly pro-LTTE and espouse a separatist agenda.  The loss of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, in which the Tamil Diaspora played a role, would make the government more determined to suppress any attempt to revive the LTTE.  Now that the immediate crisis has been defused due to the release of the Mayor on bail, it would be timely for the government to mitigate the political damage by a multiplicity of means, including by reaching out to the Jaffna Municipal Council about its Municipal law enforcement mechanism.

 

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