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Mayhem starts in Mirihana! Where will it go? How will it end?

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by Rajan Philips

Thursday/Friday (March 31/April 1)

6:00 PM

– Protesters gather at the Jubilee Post in their “tens of thousands”.

7:30 PM

– March towards Pengiriwatte Road leading to the President’s private residence.

8:39 PM

– “Several hundreds” protest at Pengiriwatte Road, chanting “Gota, Go Home.”

9:48 PM

– Tense situation as protesters try to the break police barricades.

10:27 PM

– Tear gas and water cannons fired as protesters break through barricades.

11:51 PM

– Sri Lankan Army bus and jeep set on fire. Vehicles overturned.

12:30 AM

– Kandy-Colombo Road blocked by protesters at the Bulugaha junction.

12:32 AM

– Injured people admitted to hospitals in Colombo and Kalubowila.

12:43 AM

– Police curfew imposed in Colombo and Nugegoda Police Divisions.

05:59 AM

– Police curfew lifted.

Online media registered the above timeline as Thursday night and Friday morning as protests unfolded near the private residence of President Rajapaksa in Mirihana. Sri Lankans at home and abroad, from Colombo to California, saw live reporting of the events. Over 30 people, including journalists, have been admitted to hospitals with injuries. Over 40 people have been arrested. The Presidential Media Division (PMD) has called Thursday’s events “unrest” and “riot” and blamed them on an unnamed “extremist group.”

While social media has been telling everyone about a major protest planned for Sunday, April 3, there has been little or no public intimation about the Mirihana protests, except for reported warning by state intelligence sources. On Friday morning, The Daily Mirror reported continuing “public outrage against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa” on social media. And public demonstrations are reportedly expected to continue on Saturday with a ‘white cloth’ campaign outside the Nelum Pokuna theater. Candlelight protests have been going on in several parts of the country as it plunged into darkness with extensive power cuts.

There is no clear information about the organization of the protest planned for Sunday. A Whatsapp message sent out by a social media group has been asking people to come out to protest on Sunday morning. Political parties have denied involvement and a number of them have called on their members not to participate in the protest on Sunday.

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) is being accused of having it both ways – encouraging the protest but disclaiming involvement. “People are suffering in darkness, they don’t have gas, food. We have tolerated the government enough. It’s time to act therefore join us and take to the streets on April 3,” Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa reportedly posted on his Facebook page. The post triggered “harsh criticisms” against Mr. Premadasa and calls to political parties “to stay out of it.”

The UNP, whose leader Ranil Wickremesinghe attended the All Party Conference convened by President Rajapaksa, has indicated that it will not participate in the protest on Sunday. In a twitter statement, the UNP said “the United National Party will not be joining any protest organized by anonymous groups. We are committed to conducting our Sathyagraha Campaign around the country. The next Sathyagraha will  be held at Matara on April 6, 2022 .”

The JVP has also “cautioned against protest campaigns that cannot be traced back to a recognizable and accountable organiser or group.” While acknowledging “the people’s right to organize their own protests against Sri Lanka’s worsening economic crisis,” the JVP has warned of “dangers lurking in a protest movement that has no accountability.”

Last week on this page, I referred to a statement by David Beasley, the executive director of the UN Word Food Programme (WFP), that the food situation in many countries today is worse than the 2011 crisis of rising food prices that triggered the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and across North Africa. I went on to comment that in Sri Lanka “no one can predict how the public mood will change and what it will precipitate if the current shortages and high prices continue to worsen and the government fails to provide relief to the people.”

Mirihana is now evidence as to what the public mood is. Howsoever it came to pass, the Mirihana protest summed up the mood of the people and their boiling anger at the government’s utter ineptitude and its heartless insensitivity. For the first time, public anger directly targeted the highest in the land. Once public anger is breached, it is hard to predict what course it will take. The perception of inaction by opposition parties is also opening up space for seemingly spontaneous protests to fill in.

Before Thursday night it seemed that India was ready to do some heavy lifting to protect the Rajapaksa presidency. Now, all of India’s lines of credit in cash and kind may not be enough to either prevent Humpty Dumpty from his great fall, or patching him up after the fall. But India has no permanent interest in Gotabaya Rajapaksa or any other Sri Lankan political leader, for that matter. If Gota is gone, as he is being asked to go, India will look for the next best bet among aspiring contenders. But is there any way that Gota can stay?

Protests and Options

One way would be to emulate what President Lyndon Johnson did when he stunningly announced at the end of a televised address on 31 March 1968: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” After becoming President in 1963, following Kennedy’s assassination, and his landslide victory in the 64 election, Johnson was hugely successful on the domestic front with truly historic achievements in civil rights, social welfare and social justice. But he was undone by the Vietnam war which started dividing America and destroying his presidency. Lyndon Johnson opted to take himself out of office and out of politics for the sake of the country.

Short of resignation, the best that the Sri Lankan President can do is to announce that he will not seek a second term but will use the remainder of his single term to work with all the political leaders and parties in parliament to make sure that Sri Lanka avoids mass starvation and that its derailed economy is put back on track. He should also commit to dissolving parliament at the earliest constitutional opportunity in March 2023. Beyond the current term, the President and the family should forget about any more extended terms in office. They should consider themselves lucky to get through with what they have now.

For the country, getting rid of Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the weekend is not going to solve the country’s foreign exchange crisis and its chronic shortages. Deposing the regime is not going to bring shiploads of food and fuel next week. As the constitution provides, if the President were to resign, the Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, will become the acting President until Parliament elects, by majority vote, an interim President from one of its MPs to serve out the remaining term of the resigning President. Let us not mention impeachment.

In a situation where Gotabaya Rajapaksa finds no alternative but to resign, Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot conceivably continue as acting President. He too will have to reign, and Parliament will have to find a way to elect some other MP as President, who will then appoint another MP as Prime Minister and still others as cabinet ministers. In the same breath, Parliament can pass a resolution calling for its dissolution, which the new acting/interim President will have to duly comply with.

All of this can happen and can be even fun if the country were in normal times. But it will not be fun for parliament to become theatre when people are running out of food and the country has already run out of fuel and electricity. On the other hand, allowing the incumbent President to continue, but on a tight leash from parliament, will avoid disrupting the pressing tasks of keeping essential supplies flowing to avoid mass starvation and endless dark nights. For this scenario, it cannot be business as usual for President Rajapaksa and for the rest of the Rajapaksa family.

The President will have to find a way to engage all the parties in parliament and forming a new cabinet focused on immediate relief measures and negotiations with the IMF. On Friday, Harsha de Silva posted an article entitled, “The Government cannot go on this way,” in which he draws attention to the collapse of public and investor confidence in the government and calls for “the complete overhaul of the monetary board of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL),” whose decisions are the main cause for the current crisis. The President has no option but to do this if he is to stay in office, and along with overhauling the monetary board, the President should also surround himself with a new team of advisors who will recommend Sri Lanka’s negotiating team for the IMF. It cannot include GL Pieris, Ali Sabri, Nivard Cabraal and S.R. Attygalle.

If the SJB or the JVP have other alternatives they should let the country know what they are. The SJB and the JVP have been flogging the dissolution horse for a while, but they do not have the votes in parliament to ride the poor animal home. Udaya Gamanpilla is now threatening that he and Weerawansa would be able to muster enough votes from both sides of the aisle to force an immediate election. Why would anyone from the opposition join these two discredited weathervanes who want a new election to get a new Finance Minister?

If parliament can muster a majority resolution to dissolve itself, so be it. But it would be ill-advised to do so in the current circumstances. It will leave the Executive President in total control until a new parliament returns. Worse, it will be a disruptive diversion from the more pressing tasks now – to scour for foreign exchange, streamline supplies, and restore electricity. Even if an election were to be held this year, it would still be a ‘hung parliament’ under the proportional representation system. How would it make it easier to get things done than it is now?

One would like to see the lifting of the curfew within five hours on Friday morning as a positive sign that no one in the government or the family is thinking Rathupaswala (August 1, 2013). There are legitimate fears that the government may use the current protests to clamp down militarily. But any clampdown will only worsen the situation of food shortages and foreign exchange crisis. The sanction-happy West will impose itself with vigour and will make the IMF inaccessible. All the currently assured cash and kind lines of credit from India will cease. China alone cannot feed all Sri Lankans, and it will likely not even try. There are better options.



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Responding to our energy addiction

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by Ranil Senanayake

Sri Lanka today is in the throes of addiction withdrawal. Reliant on fossil fuels to maintain the economy and basic living comforts, the sudden withdrawal of oil, coal and gas deliveries has exposed the weakness and the danger of this path of ‘development’ driven by fossil energy. This was a result of some poorly educated aspirants to political power who became dazzled by the advancement of western industrial technology and equated it with ‘Development’. They continue with this blind faith even today.

Thus, on December 20th 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the Government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. This defined with clarity what was to be considered development by the policy-makers of that time. This fateful decision cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil-based. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. Everything, from electricity to cooking fuel, was based on fossil energy.

The economics of development, allows externalizing all the negative effects of ‘development’ into the environment, this being justified because, “industrialisation alleviates poverty”. The argument, is that economies need to industrialise in order to reduce poverty; but industrialisation leads to ‘unavoidable emissions. Statements like, ‘reduction in poverty leads to an increase in emissions’ is often trotted out as dogma. Tragically, these views preclude a vision of development based on high tech, non-fossil fuel driven, low consumptive lifestyles. Indeed, one indicator of current ‘development’ is the per capita consumption of power, without addressing the source of that power.

A nation dependent on fossil fuel is very much like an addict dependent on drugs. The demand is small, at first, but grows swiftly, until all available resources are given. In the end, when there is nothing else left to pawn, even the future of their children will be pawned and finally the children themselves! Today, with power cuts and fuel shortages, the pain of addiction begins to manifest.

The creation of desire

This perspective of ‘development’, the extension of so-called ‘civilised living’ is not new to us in Sri Lanka, Farrer, writing in 1920, had this to say when visiting Colombo:

“Modern, indeed, is all this, civilised and refined to a notable degree. All the resources of modern culture are thick about you, and you feel that the world was only born yesterday, so far as right-thinking people are concerned.

And, up and down in the shade of glare, runs furiously the unresting tide of life. The main street is walled in by high, barrack like structures, fiercely western in the heart of the holy East, and the big hotels upon its frontage extend their uncompromising European facades. Within them there is a perpetual twilight, and meek puss-faced Sinhalese take perpetually the drink orders of prosperous planters and white-whiskered old fat gentlemen in sun hats lined with green. At night these places are visible realisation of earthly pleasure to the poor toiling souls from the farthest lonely heights of the mountains and the jungle.” The process goes on still …

Develop we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of each process. Development must be determined by empowering the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights. Any process that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental rights.

One problem has been that, the movement of a country with traditional non-consumptive values, into a consumerist society based on fossil energy tends to erode these values rapidly. Often, we are told that this is a necessary prerequisite to become a ‘developed country’, but this need not be so. We need to address that fundamental flaw stated in 1979. We need to wean ourselves away from the hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. Which means moving from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy.

Fossil Fuels or fossil hydrocarbons are the repository of excess carbon dioxide that is constantly being injected into the atmosphere by volcanic action for over the last 200 million years. Hydrocarbons are substances that were created to lock up that excess Carbon Dioxide, sustaining the stable, Oxygen rich atmosphere we enjoy today. Burning this fossil stock of hydrocarbons is the principal driver of modern society as well as climate change. It is now very clear that the stability of planetary climate cycles is in jeopardy and a very large contributory factor to this crisis are the profligate activities of modern human society.

As a response to the growing public concern that fossil fuels are destroying our future, the fossil industry developed a ‘placating’ strategy. Plant a tree, they say, the tree will absorb the carbon we emit and take it out of the atmosphere, through this action we become Carbon neutral. When one considers that the Carbon which lay dormant for 200 million years was put into the atmosphere today, can never be locked up for an equal amount of time by planting a tree. A tree can hold the Carbon for 500 years at best and when it dies its Carbon will be released into the atmosphere again as Carbon Dioxide.

Carbon Dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere by plants and converted into a solid form through the action of photosynthesis. Photosynthetic biomass performs the act of primary production, the initial step in the manifestation of life. This material has the ability to increase in mass by the absorption of solar or other electromagnetic radiation, while releasing oxygen and water vapor into the atmosphere. It is only photosynthetic biomass that powers carbon sequestration, carbohydrate production, oxygen generation and water transformation, i.e., all actions essential for the sustainability of the life support system of the planet.

Yet currently, it is only one product of this photosynthetic biomass, sequestered carbon, usually represented by wood/timber, that is recognized as having commercial value in the market for mitigating climate change. The ephemeral part, the leaves, are generally ignored, yet the photosynthetic biomass in terrestrial ecosystems are largely composed of leaves, this component needs a value placed on it for its critical ‘environmental services’

With growth in photosynthetic biomass, we will see more Oxygen, Carbon sequestering and water cleansing, throughout the planet. As much of the biomass to be gained is in degraded ecosystems around the planet and as these areas are also home to the world’s rural poor, these degraded ecosystems have great growth potential for generating photosynthetic biomass of high value. If the restoration of these degraded ecosystems to achieve optimal photosynthetic biomass cover becomes a global goal, the amazing magic of photosynthesis could indeed help change our current dire course, create a new paradigm of growth and make the planet more benign for our children.

Instead of flogging the dead horse of fossil energy-based growth as ‘Economic Development’, instead of getting the population addicted to fossil energy, will we have the commonsense to appreciate the value of photosynthetic biomass and encourage businesses that obtain value for the nations Primary Ecosystem Services (PES)? The realization of which, will enrich not only our rural population but rural people the world over!

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Australia-Sri Lanka project in the news…Down Under

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The McNaMarr Project is the collaboration between Australian vocalist and blues guitarist, John McNamara, and Andrea Marr, who is a Sri Lankan-born blues and soul singer, songwriter and vocal coach.

Her family migrated to Australia when she was 14 and, today, Andrea is big news, Down Under.

For the record, Andrea has represented Australia, at the International Blues Challenge, in Memphis, Tennessee, three times, while John McNamara has also been there twice, representing Australia.

Between them, they have 10 albums and multiple Australian Blues awards.

Their second album, ‘Run With Me,’ as The McNaMarr Project, now available on all platforms, worldwide, has gone to No. 1 on the Australian Blues and Roots Sirplay charts, and No. 12 on the UK Blues charts.

Their debut album, ‘Holla And Moan,’ released in 2019, charted in Australia and the US Blues and Soul charts and received rave reviews from around the world.

Many referred to their style as “the true sound of soulful blues.”

= The Rocker (UK): “They’ve made a glorious album of blues-based soul. And when I say glorious, I really mean it. I’ve tried to pick out highlights, but as it’s one of the records of this year – 2019 – (or any other for that matter) it’s tricky. You have to own this.”

= Reflections in Blue (USA): “Ten original tunes that absolutely nail the sound and spirit of Memphis soul. Marr has been compared to Betty Lavette and Tina Turner and with good reason. She delivers vocals with power and soul and has a compelling stage presence. McNamara’s vocals are reminiscent of the likes of Sam & Dave or even Otis Redding. This is quality work that would be every bit as well received, in the late 1950s, as it is today. It is truly timeless.”

= La Hora Del Blues (Spain): “Andrea Marr’s voice gives us the same feeling as artistes, like Betty Lavette, Tina Turner or Sharon Jones, perfectly supported by John McNamara’s work, on vocals and guitar…in short words, GREAT!”

Yes, John McNamara has been described as an exceptional vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, whose voice has been compared to the late great Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, while Andrea Marr often gets compared to the likes of Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and Sharon Jones.

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Manju Robinson’s scene…

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Entertainer and frontline singer, Manju Robinson, is back, after performing at a leading tourist resort, in the Maldives, entertaining guests from many parts of the world, especially from Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, Poland…and Maldivians, as well.

His playlist is made up of the golden oldies and the modern sounds, but done in different styles and versions.

While preparing for his next foreign assignment…in the Maldives again, and also Dubai, Manju says he has plans to do his thing in Colombo.

Manju has performed with several local bands, including 3Sixty, Shiksha (Derena Dreamstar band), Naaada, Eminents, Yaathra, Robinson Brothers, Odyssey, Hard Black and Mark.

He was the winner – Best Vocalist and the Best Duo performer – at the Battle of the Bands competition, in 2014, held at the Galadari Hotel.

In 2012, he won the LION’s International Best Vocalist 2012 award.

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