by Liyanage Amarakeerthi
(Speech, delivered via Zoom at the Convocation of the Open University,
Sri Lanka, on 15th of December, 2020)
Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Registrars, Deans, Directors, librarian, professors, lecturers, other dignitaries , graduating students, ladies and gentlemen,
It is with a sense of pride and gratitude that I deliver the convocation address of this year at the Open University. We are in the middle of a pandemic. In addition to taking and harming many lives all over, the pandemic has robbed me of the opportunity of standing in front of you in a grand convocation hall looking at your faces lighted with happiness. But today, we are celebrating the occasion, in a historic manner. Let us collectively show that human spirit will cope with and survive any pandemic.
The epidemic has been destructive indeed. Some scholars argue that access to education will fall back to the level in 1980s, and, in some countries, 9 out of 10 children will fall out of schools. In our country, too, the long–term impact of the epidemic on education is likely to be much worse than we think. Perhaps, the need for the kind of education provided by the Open University will be greater in Sri Lanka after Covid-19.
The Open University has a special place in my heart for several reasons. For one, I have some of my close friends at the Open University, and they are among the most renowned literary writers, scholars and intellectuals in the country. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, the concept of education at the Open University is also dear to my heart. Teaching at a conventional university, I have had the luxury of meeting and teaching a group of brightest young men and women in our country. But all of them come into the university through a single, narrow opening called GCE (A/L). I wish I had students entering my own university through other legitimate doors making our student population even more diverse.
At crucial points in our lives, we all sit down to reflect on the way things have been, and at those times, we often look for the help of new sources of wisdom in order to reorganize ourselves. At such moments, if someone wants to return to formal education that person should be able to find her way there. The Open University has been a haven for those who rethink, reconsider, reevaluate, and reorganize their lives. A society is truly free, truly just, truly democratic, when people have a second chance – another opportunity of taking a shot at a better life, a qualitatively different life. The Open University has provided many of you that chance. A great Sinhala poet, Ariyawansha Ranavira said in a short poem,
යළි එති කවිය වෙත
මහළු හිස් නමමින
return to poetry
aging heads down.
Not just to poetry, people do return to many good things later in their lives. As poetry, all areas of life should be beautifully prepared to welcome those who return. Not just bending their heads over but the heads held high, people should be able to return to formal education.
Other meanings of openness
Let me now introduce a few other meanings of ‘openness’ I like to see in education. For us in Sri Lanka, education is not just a mode of acquiring knowledge and wisdom. It is the greatest social equalizer in modern Sri Lanka. Ours is an extremely unequal society. We are unequal in ethnicity, religion, gender, class, caste, region and so on. Education was the most important mechanism that has brought about at least some sense of equality in our society. Let me give you a quick example. In 1881, female literacy in Ceylon was 3%; By 1921, it had increased up to 21%. When the University College of Ceylon was established in 1921, there were only four female students in the first intake. Just four!
Nearly hundred years later, at the faculty of arts, the University of Peradeniya, 85% or more are female students. Still in many areas, women are underrepresented and underemployed. But if it wasn’t for free education the inequality between men and women could have been so much worse. Graduating ladies today, imagine living in a country where female literacy rate is just 3 %. Graduating gentlemen, I hope you also don’t want to live in such a country.
All of us––teachers, students and administrators––must remember that free education has been the greatest social leveller in our country. So, we must not forget the significance of leaving it open to people from diverse backgrounds.
Openness of other kinds
Let me touch on another aspect of being open in education. Human beings struggle with natural and social conditions everywhere in order to create a life with justice, equality and freedom; in order to create a finer co-existence with the natural world. In the process, human beings create knowledge everywhere and at different circumstances. Being open to such knowledge, without being parochial, is one key aspect of being open in education.
In a time of celebration of cultural difference, one of our challenges is to recognize the shared history of humanity. What we have in common is often overlooked, in celebration of uniqueness and singularity. Throughout human history human communities have had numerous connections with each other. In terms of sharing knowledge and culture, globalization is much older than we think it is. A goal of our education should be to see why and how those connections are made.
Some of those similarities come into being because we humans are similar to one another in our biological hardwiring. Roughly at the same time in history, human beings everywhere have decided to put an end to, their hunter-gathering lives and remain at one place farming a garden and raising a family. This similarity occurs because we human animals are alike in our basic nature. Interestingly, in nearly all those places women were the ones to domesticate plants and animals. Perhaps, they might have told themselves, ‘now it is enough of wandering dragging these children around. Now, we want to stay foot and make home.
That thought, womanly thought, motherly thought, if you will, might have been a key thought that led to the creation of present civilizations. That thought may have unwittingly end up domesticating women themselves.
We may have discovered farming at different places unknown to each other. But our connections have developed to such a degree that manioc/cassava, potato, sweet potato domesticated in South America, are our own now, several centuries later. Though we have borrowed potato from South America, we have more than four hundred ways of cooking it in South Asia.
In our higher education, there should be an openness of another kind. Let me briefly touch on it and it will be the last point I will be making my speech. In our education system, different fields of studies need to be open to each other and to develop conversations on key concepts in those specific fields. Working in the field of literary and cultural studies, I should be able to engage in serious discussions with scholars in natural sciences, for example. Our education needs to foster such conversations.
Rational Thought and Emotion
Descartes made an error in over emphasizing rational mind and considering other sensory experience to be secondary in cognition. Perhaps, it is the case in cognition; but cognition, acquiring rational knowledge, is only a part of human existence. We are human beings not only because we think, we are human beings because we feel – emotionally feel. Recent studies in neuroscience have shown that emotions, our feelings, are important even for our rational thinking. American neuroscientist Antonio Damascio’s research on brain-damaged patients has demonstrated that patients with injuries in areas in their brains that deal with emotions are not capable of making, rational decisions about appropriate behavior and so on. In our brain, the areas that deal with emotions are physically separated from the areas that deal with reason and logic. Though physically located in separate domains, the emotion-compartment of the brain is required for the reason-compartment in making sound decisions. Damascio’s eye-opening book, Descartes’ Error, can be an invaluable guide in rethinking our education and in opening the doors of our specific fields to other fields.
Moreover, Descartes’ error has led to a kind of anthropocentricism where human beings are made supreme on the ground that they alone have rational consciousness. Recent studies have shown that even trees have their own collective consciousness, and they ‘consciously’ act for survival. For example, when one tree is attacked by a swarm of locusts, that tree emits a hormone-like compound so that wind can take the news of attack to other trees. And those trees now have time to emit another chemical compound, that might repel the locusts. As long as we are closed in our educational habits and habitats, we cannot know that trees do communicate with one another, perhaps even with us. This is another reason for me to argue for more openness in education.
Such openness is not possible, if scholars are like the lion of Sinhabahu, the play, who practically imprison their intellectual progeny in the caves of narrowly specialized knowledge. We need a generation of Sinhabahus who are capable of holistic thinking not just of breaking the rock door of the cave, the compartmentalized knowledge.
In our times, specially learned person is able to put his specialized knowledge in meaningful conversations with other areas of human knowledge. Respected professors in natural sciences, attending this convocation, please pardon me if I am stepping into your own areas of specialty. And I am making a case of such trespassing, anyway. Biologists talk about a part of our brain called “amygdala”. When we accidentally chew on, rotten food or something, a chemical reaction occurs in that part of the brain and we instantly throw up that food even before conscious thought occurs.
Here is what fascinates me: the same part of human brain gets chemically activated, when we see something morally disgusting, such as an old woman is being physically attacked. Now, see brain chemistry of the faculty of science, and the ethics of the faculty of arts, are much more connected than we have made them look. I learned these connections from a stunning book by Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
Ladies and gentlemen, you are graduating from the Open University today. I wanted to stir your mind a bit about possible meanings of ‘openness’ in education. I hope you will be able to strive for more open conversations at your world of work and the world of leisure. After all, the idea of openness is in the name of your own university. You are graduating today taking that name with you. That alone makes you special.
From Peradeniya, I send you all, all the good wishes!
(Liyanage Amarakeerthi is a professor at University of Peradeniya)
Deteriorating rural economy, and food security
By Dr. C. S. Weeraratna
Sri Lanka is a land of villages. There are around 14,000 of them. According to the Dept. of Census and Statistics, around 80% of the Sri Lankan population live in villages and estates. Most of them are farmers who are supposed to be suitable to be kings if the mud on their bodies are washed out. According to recent estimates, about 30 percent of the total households, in therural districts of Sri Lanka, live below the poverty line. A socio-economic survey, conducted in the recent past, indicates that although the rural sector has the ability to engage in productive activities, there are many constraints.
Wild elephants roaming in some of the dry zone villages,causing death to many and destroying property, aggravate the socio-economic hardships the rural sector has to face, affecting their health, education and many other aspects of the lives.
Chronic Kidney Disease:
Around 70,000 people of the country are affected by a chronic kidney disease (CKDu) . They are mostly in the rural areas of the country and are affected socially and economically. The patients in the final stages of CKDu have to go for dialysis which again affects the economy of rural people . In some families both parents have died and their children are helpless.
In spite of the country receiving around 100 billion cubic meters of water, annually, there are frequent water shortages, mostly in the rural areas where there are around 12,000 tanks. Most of them are silted, reducing the water holding capacity of these tanks, causing rural communities to face shortage of water which seriously affects crop production and various domestic activities.
Lack of reasonable transport facilities, in the rural areas, is one of the main setback to Sri Lanka’s overall prosperity. People living in some rural areas have to cross rivers, using inflated rubber tubes, as there are no bridges. A large number of rural roads remain in a dilapidated condition but, the authorities were more interested in constructing highways.
Fertilisers are a major input in crop production. During the last two cropping seasons, inorganic fertilisers, and pesticides, were not available due to the utterly foolish decision of the former government. Currently, fertilisers are available but they were not available at correct times.
Farmers are forced to obtain seeds at a high cost. For example, a kg of chilli seeds is around Rs. 170,000 and a kg of cabbage seed is sold at Rs 400,000 in the market.
Pest attacks cause considerable problems to farmers. Last year there was the sena caterpillar called “Fall Armyworm” (Spodopteria Frugipedera) which destroyed large extents of cultivated crops. According to press reports, the same pest destroyed thousands of hectares of maize in Ampara causing severe difficulties to the farmers. Brown Plant Hopper tends to destroy paddy.
Those farmers who manage to harvest the crop of rice/vegetables are unable to sell it for a reasonable price. Currently, paddy farmers are unable to sell their Yala paddy crop to cover the costs. Often vegetable farmers are forced to destroy their produce due to inability to market their produce at reasonable prices. Marketing of agricultural products, at a profit to the farmer, is an issue which the authorities need to take cognizance of.
Unemployment is rampant in the country. As a result of government-imposed restrictions on imports, commercial activities of thousands of companies are slowing down, seriously affecting the private sector in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those companies have been compelled to reduce employment, non-renewal of employment contracts, and halting new recruitments, resulting in an increase in unemployment. Thousands of workers, in the construction sector, have already lost their jobs. These business enterprises are currently facing liquidity issues due to a loss of revenue and difficulties in the importation of raw material. Thousands of SMEs have closed down mainly due to lack of inputs, resulting in an increase in unemployment.
As a result of these limiting factors, rural economy is deteriorating. For the success of any development programme to improve the rural economy, it is essential to address the problems of the rural communities. However, the previous governments did not give priority to these critical issues, faced by farmers, who continue to live in abject poverty as a result. Most of them have to pawn their jewellery, or resort to some other ways ,to obtain finances to obtain agricultural inputs, such as seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and labour. Some of them have become prey to micro-credit companies.
All these issues cause untold hardships to thousands of farmers and have a negative impact on the rural economy. No effective actions appear to have been taken, by the relevant authorities, to implement appropriate solutions to these problems, except appointing committees. Those representing the farming community, in the Parliament, appear to be not concerned about the plight of our farming population who have voted them to power.
There is no centralized planning in farming in the country which, sometimes, leads farmers to cultivating the same crop/s, ultimately resulting in gluts. Previous governments attempted to solve this problem by implementing programmes, such as Api Wawamu-Rata Nagamu and Divineguma. But we continue to spend nearly Rs.300 billion, annually to import food. If the authorities are genuinely keen to improve the rural economy, they need to address these issues.
Food Security is closely related to rural economy. According to the United Nation’s Committee on World Food Security, food security is at maximum level when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. According to World Food Programme’ s latest food security assessment, about three in 10 households (6.26 million people) in Sri Lanka are food insecure. Cost of essential foods has increased during the last few months hindering the population’s ability to consume nutritious food in sufficient amounts. The food security situation is worst among people living in the estate sector.
Nutritious food to meet the dietary requirements of people need to contain mainly carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals. The local production of carbohydrates (mainly rice and sugar), and proteins (fish and milk) is inadequate to meet the demand. Hence, these food items are imported. During the last few years, we have spent nearly Rs. 300 billion, annually, on food imports, although it has decreased during the last few months, mainly due to restrictions on import of some food.
Availability of rice locally has decreased mainly because of inadequate availability of plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) through inorganic fertilisers. This has caused large amounts of rice to be imported. There appears to be no effective programmes to increase sugar production in the country. About two decades ago, in the1990s, sugarcane was cultivated in about 25, 000 hectares. At present, only about 12,000 ha are under sugarcane. The sugar factory, in Kantale, remains out of production, for nearly 15 years.
Availability of fish and milk has reduced due to a number of factors which the government appears to be not taking appropriate measures to increase the production of these items. According to press reports, the government is planning to import cattle from India and Pakistan to increase local milk production. It is foolish to import cattle to enhance milk production in the country without implementing an integrated programme to upgrade local cattle, making available cattle feed and improving veterinary practices in the country.
In Sri Lanka, during the last two decades, perhaps a few thousands of research studies, related to food security, involving billions of rupees worth of scarce resources, have been conducted. It is important that we utilize these research findings to find solutions to the pressing problems of the country. But there appears to be no effective system to make use of the research findings. Lack of an integrated plan is a factor responsible for the decline in food security. There has been rhetoric on rural economic development during the last few years. It is meaningful and effective actions that are necessary.
A first indication of readiness to go on a new path
By Jehan Perera
None too soon, President Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be putting the brakes on the government’s policy of repression in dealing with public protests. His decision to initially sign the Gazette notification declaring key areas of Colombo to be High Security Zones was roundly criticised by human rights organisations including the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. The business sector also complained that this decision which appears to have been made by the security establishment would be injurious to business. Revoking the High Security Zones made practical sense in view of the dubious legal basis of the declaration. The High Security Zones were to be set up under the Official Secrets Act which has hardly anything in common with the purpose of the new regulations.
The High Security Zone concept, which was practiced in the North and East of the country during the time of war, would have made it difficult for vehicles to even park on the roads without first obtaining special permission. There were also legal cases filed in the Supreme Court alleging violation of constitutional rights. The president would also have been aware of the resolution on Sri Lanka that is about to be presented for a vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. As many as 26 countries have agreed to co-sponsor the resolution, of which 10 are current members of the UNHRC. Sri Lanka is finding itself isolated in terms of human rights in the eyes of the international community which can have costly consequences in terms of reducing the international sympathy and support that the country needs at this time.
The president’s early resort to the security forces to clamp down on the protest movement came as a surprise as his prior track record would have suggested a more nuanced approach to dealing with public agitation. As a follow up to the revocation of the High Security Zones, the president needs to consider revamping government policy on addressing the protest movement. So far the government approach has focused on suppressing the protest movement, on the justification that it will destabilise the economy through strike actions and by chaos on the streets. However, in Sri Lanka’s democratic system a policy of repression is unlikely to be workable. A government that is reluctant to go to the polls must not use the security forces as its prop. The president’s withdrawal of the High Security Zones in Colombo may be understood as an acknowledgement of this reality.
There is general acknowledgement that the President is the most suitable for the task of negotiating with, and making the political case, for more international aid to come to Sri Lanka. During his recent visits to foreign countries he met with top world leaders and would have made his mark. However, it is also important that the president should make his mark on the Sri Lankan people. He needs to win the trust of the people who did not vote for him. Having consolidated himself following his election by parliament to be president, he needs to take a more pro-active role in addressing the roots of the protest movement and not simply quashing its manifestations. There is a need to inform the people what the government will be doing to directly address the terrible impact of the economic crisis on the poorer sections of the population.
There is a widespread sense that those arrested for being members of the protest movement ought not to be subjected to the heavy hand of the law. At the present time, both in Geneva and in Sri Lanka, government spokespersons are denying the severity of the problems that exists. Successive governments denied the excesses that occurred during the war period, both in Geneva and at home. In Sri Lanka the majority of the population were prepared to go along with the denials of war time excesses due to the nature of the ethnic conflict that pitted the ethnic communities against one another. However, a policy of denying the impact of the economic crisis on the poor will not be able to garner similar support from any community in Sri Lanka and will end up pitting the majority of people against the government, just as happened during the height of the Aragalaya.
A declaration of an amnesty for all those accused and arrested for being part of the protest movement would be an act of follow-up statesmanship considering the controversy these arrests are causing both internationally and nationally with the human rights groups and the general public. The ongoing arrests of some who have been part of the protest movement have been justified on the basis that they engaged in violence or supported it. Others are accused of having burnt down the houses of government ministers, including the president’s own ancestral house which contained his family library and valuable works of art. Some have been arrested without being charged before the courts.
Magnanimity, empathy and fairness are very powerful in binding the community together. This is an opportunity for the president to show his empathy with all those others who down the years have lost their own homes to violence, during the two JVP insurrections and during the long period of the ethnic war. The government plans to compensate its members who lost their houses. It needs to also compensate those who lost their lives due to government failure, the most recent being those who died standing in long lines, or when their substandard gas cylinders exploded.
At present, the government is denying the veracity of studies done by international organisations, including UN organisations, on the extent of the malnutrition and stunting that affects children. They are also denying the veracity of claims of corruption in the procurement of fuel and other large contracts, even in the midst of economic crisis. It is also doing little to ameliorate these problems. The government points to the restoration of reasonable supplies of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and electricity which can create an impression of normalcy, but only for those who can afford the much higher prices at which these commodities are available. The government denials of the unequal distribution of the burden will ring hollow with the masses of people, whose support is needed if the government is to govern in a stable political environment.
Instead of denying the existence of problems, the government needs to accept their existence and take measures to address them. This applies to both the problems within the country and that are being discussed internationally. It needs to recognise that its denials have got no traction in Geneva, which is why Sri Lanka has had to face nine resolutions, each one getting more difficult to respond to. The resolution that will be voted on in the UN Human Rights Council later this week will call for greater support for the UN’s evidence gathering mechanism that has already been set up and to provide more support to those countries that pursue universal jurisprudence for crimes committed by Sri Lankan political and military leaders anywhere in the world.
The government needs to use every opportunity it can to seek the support of the international community. With the draft resolution now presented, the eyes of the international community are upon Sri Lanka. While it is too late to change the draft resolution, which will be soon voted on, the government can still seek to restore goodwill among those that are pursuing the resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva. An amnesty for those who participated in the protest movement could send a positive signal that the government is willing to heed the concerns of the international community regarding human rights and democratic freedoms. The possibility of amnesty to be part of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which there is acknowledgment of past violations, expression of regret and accountability for them can also be explored.
Treaty for a Lost City – inconvenient facts or legal myths?
By Andrew Sheng
Asia News Netowrk
Is Hong Kong a lost city or being re-born after its baptism of fire? Hong Kong was always a “borrowed place, borrowed time”, to quote the legendary journalist Richard Hughes (1906-1984), immortalised in John Le Carre’s novels on the intersection of media and espionage in cities like Berlin or Istanbul located at the borderlands of great power conflicts. Having returned the city on 1 July 1997, can Britain hold China to the terms and conditions of the 1984 Joint Declaration with China?
Chinese University of Hong Kong Law Professor CL Lim’s book, ” The Sino-British Joint Declaration” is a meticulously researched legal history of how the Joint Declaration came into being and whether it still has the force of law on both parties. There is a presumption that the Joint Declaration granted democratic rights to Hong Kong. The legal story is much more complex. This book draws on the British National Archives and study of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (1990), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) [ICCPR], United Nations Charter, etc., to lay out the facts and opinions for the reader to judge who is right or wrong.
Cities and states are defined by their Constitutions, communal values, geography, cultures and histories. Prior to 1841, Hong Kong was a barren rock that was indisputably part of China. Hong was ceded under the Treaty of Nanjing after the First Opium War (1839-42); but the expiry of the 99 year New Territories lease meant that Britain could not hold onto Hong Kong after 1997. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), following earlier Chinese governments, has never recognised any “unequal treaty” with the Western Powers, but adopted the face-saving principle that “a sovereign may delegate under international law such control or authority to another for a limited period.” Once that sovereignty is resumed, the PRC will not brook any interference in its internal sovereign matters.
This book reads like a series of Queen’s Counsel briefs, densely argued on complex and subtle points presenting different opinions and perspectives. In normal legal disputes, the arbiter would be an independent court, but there is no final decision between China and United Kingdom, which are the five members of the UN Security Council that can veto any rulings at the United Nations level. The only appeal left is to the court of global public opinion, which is today dominated by the English-speaking media. As media today becomes more and more ideologically driven, it is unlikely that deeply held views will be changed by legal or rational arguments.
The genesis of the Joint Declaration was the need to ensure a smooth return of Hong Kong to China. In 1983, when the New Territories lease (covering 92% of Hong Kong) was running out, Britain initially sought to renew the lease, but found that China under Deng Xiaoping was adamant that China would resume sovereignty over Hong Kong. With confidence slipping, the Hong Kong currency was under attack, only to be restored by a peg against the US dollar. This gave impetus to settle the terms and conditions of return. As the book painstakingly pointed out, British negotiators were operating from a weak hand, wanting to retain as much influence and economic benefits as possible post-1997.
As described in Chapter 3, democracy under colonialism was never part of the negotiations. Hong Kong representatives played no part in the discussions between two sovereign powers. The Joint Declaration itself did not mention the word “democracy”. It basically stated that the Hong Kong SAR “will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” (Article 2) and that rights and freedoms will be ensured by Hong Kong SAR law (Article 5). Since the Basic Law, HKSAR’s constitution, is PRC law, the final interpretation falls to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, not necessarily by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeals.
The real point of dispute lies in the National Security Law, which was passed by the National People’s Congress in 2020, after the Hong Kong legislature was unable to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law. As public disorder arose with violent protests, the practical issue was whether HKSAR government could handle them without a National Security Law. Hong Kong was uniquely handicapped because in every other international financial centre, there exists very draconian national security laws that protect the integrity and security of the financial system, economy and sovereignty. Hong Kong was deeply polarised. No compromise seemed possible, and continued protests and violence would have destroyed Hong Kong. Between a rock and a hard place, the National Security Law was the least painful alternative barring more physical violence.
Treaty on a Lost Place highlighted the absurd situation of two sovereigns signing one piece of paper having different points of view. Such constructive ambiguity papered over destructive alternatives. The last British Governor Chris Patten was successful in persuading some Hongkongers that one man-one vote was what they deserve. Whether that is a cure all for Hong Kong’s ill is another matter. That his Conservative Party leadership was elected opaquely by of British people shows that different systems may not always practice what they preach. Hong Kong elites failed to correct the injustices that many young faced in not providing them affordable homes with meaningful, well paid jobs. Beijing’s mistake perhaps was to trust that Hong Kong could on her own resolve these contradictions within the larger struggle between China and the West on many fronts.
A Treaty is only a piece of paper. A city is not lost to Britain or China, but lost in its own direction, which must be re-found. The answers will not be found in international law, because that is itself being rediscovered in a new age of multipolar contestation. This book is a major contribution to our understanding of how international law is only one of many guides to the future. Hong Kong has to rediscover her own identity inside a larger identity. That is the tragedy and opportunity facing all islands within the grand ocean of mankind.
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