Monumental blunders paralysing Sri Lanka
The late JR Jayawardena: Accomplished a disastrous programme of attacking the basic principles of democracy
Sri Lanka was hailed as a potential paradise, at the time it gained independence from British rule, in 1948. Sadly, after 73 years of misrule by the homegrown leaders, we are languishing as one of the poorest countries, on the verge of bankruptcy. It is worth probing into the past to identify what went wrong, and see whether even belatedly a course correction can be attempted. I will confine myself to the post-independence era, being born a “free man” just an year after that landmark event, but now just one of over 22 million citizens fully in debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of rupees each. The leaders that guided us towards this sorry state should bear the blame.
We are a nation with a rich heritage, an incomparable mix of multi-ethnic and multicultural diversity, adding colour and variety to the societal landscape. Our natural resources are known to be enormous, in proportion to the relatively small land area. Unfortunately, it appears that these are the very virtues that make the nation languish without progress on all fronts. By boasting incessantly about the glories of the past, without basing our efforts on those achievements for future progress, the nation is in an unenviable position. Bad economic planning with no long-term policies, political brinkmanship, and communal disharmony, created by shortsighted actions of the leaders, have been mainly responsible for our sorry plight. Unlike many other developing countries we have not had long-term plans, like a five year or a ten-year plan. With change of government, every few years, an entirely new “development plan” is instituted, discontinuing all good that was done by the predecessors.
From the very beginning, Sri Lankans were unable to reach a consensus for peaceful coexistence with the minorities. It is true the majority community had to re-establish its rightful position, after prolonged discriminative policies, during colonial rule. It is also true that the minorities all over the world tend to ask for more than their fair share. Yet our leaders were not far sighted enough to control popular sentiments, giving into majority demands to the dismay of others. The Sinhala Only policy after 1956 turned out to be one of the most disastrous. It showed the minorities, in no uncertain terms, that they will forever be second class citizens in their land of birth. That can be singled out as the most harmful event that initiated ethnic disharmony.
Free education has failed to adapt to present day needs, producing graduates and others who are not suited for productive employment. Educational reforms, to keep pace with the ongoing technological advances, are slow to come by. The arts stream, taking in a large proportion of undergraduates, continues to produce graduates with little prospect of employment. Eventually, the government is compelled to employ them in pensionable posts with little in return for development.
Masses in poverty
Democracy is considered as one of the best forms of governance. This is so only with an electorate with high literacy, good quality of life, everyone if not the vast majority above poverty line, and future prospects for peaceful existence guided by leaders with foresight and without greed for self-aggrandizement. In the absence of these vital components, democracy could be a recipe for chaos. This unfortunately has been the curse of Sri Lankans. Successive governments have failed to improve the quality of life of the people. Instead, it appears that the leaders would prefer to keep the masses in poverty, allowing the politicians to rule forever exploiting their misery. Though called a paradise blessed with vast natural resources and a manageable population, the country situated in a strategically important position in the Indian Ocean, all features ideal for rapid development, is cursed with a corrupt self-seeking leadership over so many decades since gaining independence.
The attacks on democracy started seriously with the postponement of elections in 1975, for two years. However, it was the advent of JR Jayawardena, as President of the Republic, in 1978, that was a watershed in the politics of the country. Here was a man people looked up to as a great democrat, with maturity, education and an upbringing in a respectable and economically sound family background. He had long term experience in politics, had actively participated in the independence struggle, and could stand shoulder to shoulder with any world leader. He did not have to worry about perpetuating a family dynasty and had only about 10 years to fulfill the great expectations of his people. He was given a thumping majority at the elections so that he could usher in an era of prosperity, a free and just society — his slogan for the election campaign, without any significant hindrance from the emasculated opposition.
Paradoxically, what he accomplished was a disastrous programme of attacking the basic principles of democracy. Those changes laid the groundwork for ongoing corruption and fraud by the politicians to this day, which we find almost impossible to extricate ourselves from, nearly half a century later. A new constitution, concentrating power in the hands of a president who could function above the laws of the country with immunity, was instituted in 1978, with hardly any public consultation. Removing the civic rights of the respected and well-loved lady Prime Minister, was an act of unimaginable vengeance, which could be considered as one of his worst acts. Removing Tamil members from parliament on the pretext of them not honouring the constitution, thus denying them the forum to air their grievances, was a major step that led to the escalation of terrorist activity. Obtaining signed but undated letters of resignation from the people’s representatives made them dummies, with no chance of giving independent opinions. He amended the constitution at will to suit his immediate petty needs. The Parliament, elected on the first past the post system was treated as if it was on proportional representation. The highly questionable referendum in 1982, to extend the life of the Parliament for another term, remains as one of the biggest black marks in parliamentary history.
Perks and priviges
Members of Parliament were given all perks and privileges to ensure that they were kept happy without hindering or questioning the President’s programme. Luxury duty free vehicles, residences in Colombo, even to those with private residences in the city, were among them. They themselves decide what their emoluments should be. The palatial official residences given to ministers, in the most fashionable areas in the city, makes one wonder whether we are living in a highly developed first world country. It is unimaginable that a life-long pension is granted after just five years of “service” (rather self-service) in Parliament, when an ordinary citizen has to toil for at least 20 years to earn a paltry pension.
The ex-presidents are given the choice of any residence in any part of Colombo for them and their spouses to live in retirement, until death. It is shameful that at least two of them still enjoy that facility even after they have returned to active politics. Why the government is obliged to provide office facilities and security details to even the widows of ex-presidents is beyond reason.
These measures have burdened our economy to such an extent that is impossible for a debt-ridden country like ours to bear. It is not possible to relieve ourselves from this burden, as current or future incumbents, are unlikely to be patriotic or generous enough to give them up. Opening the economy without any safeguards led to perpetuation of bribery and corruption. Whatever economic benefits from the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme, free trade zones and the like are far outweighed by the ongoing overbearing financial burdens described above. One wonders whether the main function of the Sri Lankan state is to maintain in comfort the past and present politicians and their families.
Interference with the judiciary, while professing a just and free society all the time, was most despicable. Residences of judges who gave adverse verdicts were stoned by their goons. This was taken to new low levels decades later, when a chief justice who gave a verdict unfavourable to the government was removed unconstitutionally, and more or less physically thrown out of her official residence. The one who replaced her was arbitrarily removed later. More recently, the amendment to the constitution that enabled the President to handpick the judges, will turn out to be the last nail in the coffin of an independent judiciary.
Youth unrest was simmering for some time. It was JRJ’s policies that created situations that led to the eruption of armed rebellions, both in the North and the South. The immense damage these did to the nation, on all fronts, domestically and internationally, is too well known to be dealt with in detail here, and is bound to plague the nation for a very long time. JRJ can be labeled as the leader who initiated the downfall of our democracy, despite having the full knowledge of how unbridled powers could derail the nation’s path to progress. The most unfortunate situation is that the leaders who followed, every one of them of a lesser predisposition, intellectually, have had no hesitation in using him as the benchmark to judge their own performance, and giving that as an excuse to justify their own antidemocratic and corrupt activities.
The unfortunate events of July 1983 were the beginning of the darkest period in the post independence era of this country. The cost in human and material terms of the ensuing civil war over nearly three decades is unimaginable. The Diaspora, that established themselves abroad as a consequence, continues to be an ever worsening international headache for the country. While winning the war in 2009 was a remarkable achievement, successive governments have failed to capitalize on that, and counter the international fallout regarding alleged human rights violations. Lack of a coherent policy in tackling this issue, compounded by very poor amateurish diplomatic efforts, is making the nation a “wanted criminal”. Political expediency blaming each other to remain in power is a continuing destructive saga.
With the entire country giving a sigh of relief by eliminating the terrorists in 2009, immediate action should have been taken to alleviate the suffering of the people in the North and East. A firm policy should have been developed to address whatever grievances that led to the rebellion in the first place. With the overwhelming popularity of the leadership, the Southern populace would have accepted whatever was offered by a hand of friendship to minorities. Most unfortunately, the war-winning political leadership was more interested in making use of the “victory” to perpetuate their dynasty in power forever. Towards this end the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists were encouraged in their divisive activities, further alienating the minorities. A golden opportunity for reconciliation was thus buried in political expediency.
Billions of dollars obtained as loans at commercial rates of interest, have been used for extravagant projects which do not bring in returns that would go towards paying them back. Now more loans are being taken, purely to service what has been obtained already. Caught in this vicious cycle, the nation goes down an abysmal path towards financial bankruptcy in the near future.
The North is languishing in a multitude of social problems which need political will, much planning and financial investment to be sorted out. Along with high rates of poverty, unemployment and landlessness is the added burden of drug addiction and resultant antisocial activities of the youth. The locals are under the impression that the police or the armed forces do not take any action to control the drug menace or may even actively promote that. While dealing with the civil society should be a function of the police, it is accepted that the armed forces should remain in the North and East at a sufficient scale to ensure the non-resurgence of terrorist activity. It should be kept in mind that the latter objective is best achieved by winning the hearts of the people. As the Northern and Eastern population is an integral part of the Sri Lankan citizenry, one cannot go on ill-treating them as the vanquished in a battle. However, many of the activities of the law enforcement authorities have caused suspicion with the local populace that could defeat the very purpose they are supposed to serve.
The role of the Army along with the Buddhist priests in establishing new places of worship or reviving temples that have remained dormant for many decades in areas with hardly any Buddhist residents is being treated with suspicion. Buddhist monks from elsewhere are being “planted” in these temples. As there are hardly any Buddhists in the vicinity, they are being serviced and provided with security by the Army. It appears that the local non-Buddhist population is coerced by the forces into participating in various religious functions. These activities may give the impression that there could be a sinister long- term plan to colonise the area with Sinhala Buddhists.
Rebels in the North
It is known that thousands of Sinhalese and Muslim long-term residents were driven out of the North by rebels at the very beginning of the conflict. They may be allowed to return if they so wish, although such voluntary return seems unlikely in the present circumstances. Although the concept of a Tamil homeland may not be recognized, the fact that Tamil Hindus were the vast majority in the North for hundreds of years should be accepted and respected. Any seemingly state-sponsored attempts to upset that demography will undoubtedly arouse much hostility. It is disappointing that the committee appointed recently to preserve the cultural heritage in the North and East has no representation of the minorities.
The local Tamil population naturally is thoroughly disgusted with all these infringements in their neighbourhood. It will not be possible to go on alienating the minorities any more, making them keep their dream of an Ealam alive. It is inevitable that they seek the help of like minded people in India or the influential Diaspora in the West as the Sri Lankan authorities are turning a blind eye to their grievances. As a result the allegations of human rights violations against the Sri Lankan state would be a continuing problem to deal with at the international forums, like the UNHRC.
The situation in the Eastern Province with demography of sizable proportions of all three ethnicities, poses a different set of problems to be sorted out. The sensitive issue of alleged intrusion by a culture foreign to what we have known so far, has to be solved with much foresight and care.
The way all the warnings about the possible Easter bombing were ignored is inexplicable. The resultant catastrophe should be fully blamed on the leaders in government and intelligence services at the time. Political games played without finding out the actual culprits who planned the massacre, would guarantee another attack in the foreseeable future. It is frightening to note that those close to the current leadership are being blamed, though without proof so far, as the masterminds of the mass murder.
Ignoring the lessons learned by giving overwhelming powers to one party in the past, the electorate has given two-thirds majority to the present government. To make matters worse the 20th Amendment to the constitution has concentrated immense authority on the President. All that was achieved by the 19th Amendment, despite a few shortcomings, by ensuring parliamentary control of presidential action has been reversed. Removal of independent Commissions dealing with the judiciary, public service, police etc has installed an autocratic President, who is not accountable to the Parliament, and hence to the people. With his military background and hardly any experience in politics, the President is increasingly showing faith in the armed forces, and a small group of unscrupulous businessmen loyal to him to rule the country. How even the obvious civilian function of controlling the Covid epidemic is under the leadership of the Army commander is a glaring example. It becomes evident with every passing day that civilian rule in a democracy and international diplomacy, cannot be left in the hands of the armed forces. The details of allegations of many corrupt activities of the leaders and their cronies are already in the public domain. How democratically elected autocrats turned out to be ruthless dictators in many countries in the world is lost on the electorate.
Having detailed all the blunders Sri Lanka as a nation has committed, is there a way out of this dismal situation? The electorate tired of the corrupt leadership chose to elect “non political” professionals at the last election. Their naivety in politics, with poor knowledge of the suffering of the masses is now fully exposed, making a mockery of governance. The periodic changing of the governing party at successive elections has been an exercise in futility. The civil society, along with well meaning religious leaders of all faiths without any political leanings, should take immediate steps to educate the people on the need to change this way of life. The press and electronic media should shed their political affiliations and work openly towards long term peace and prosperity of the nation. Social media should be fully mobilized and properly regulated, to keep people informed of the need for a radical change in their attitudes. All justifiable grievances of the minorities should be addressed with no further delay, so that they can be taken fully on board to forge peaceful coexistence and progress. The leaders should set an example to the people by being patriotic and truthful. It was exactly such a path that enabled Sri Lanka (and India) to overcome the might of the British Empire and gain independence. No doubt it is going to be an onerous task at a time when our own leaders are subjugating us.
A FREE THINKING
Ven Ajahn Brahmavamso visits Sri Lanka in May
by Nanda Pethiyagoda
The next month, soon to be upon us, is of special significance to the majority of Sri Lankans since we Sinhalese and Tamils celebrate our New Year, with festivities continuing for a week or more in mid-April. The month of May is significant to Buddhists as the three major events of the Buddha’s life are commemorated at the Vesak full moon poya. This year, May carries another significance, joyful and to be grateful for. Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso arrives here towards the end of the month for about two weeks. The Ajahn Brahm Society of Sri Lanka (ABS) has completed all arrangements for the visit which is full of great good happenings.
The last time Ven Ajahn Brahm was in Sri Lanka was 2017. I well remember the day long sessions of his speaking to the audience in the BMICH, delivering so easily and absorbingly the Word of the Buddha and conducting meditation. 7000 persons were present to listen to the venerable monk from Australia, spreading themselves in all the BMICH halls and a few even seating themselves in the corridors. The sessions, with Ven Ajahn Brahm moving from hall to hall, with of course TV presentations in them, were deep in significance and of immense benefit to us. However, as is his manner of presentation, the gravity of what was being imparted was tempered by Ven Brahmavamso’s informality and constantly smiling, benign face. One indication of his informality is shortening his religious name to Ajahn Brahm.
This time it is one session on May 30 that the monk will conduct at the BMICH. Passes were available at announced venues from the 15th of this month. I am certain they were all snapped up, so eager are we to listen to this great teacher.
His programme, most efficiently arranged and made widely known by the ABS under the guidance of Ven Mettavihari, includes a resident meditation retreat from May 22 to 30 in Bandarawela for 150 participants inclusive of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis and lay persons.
A singularly unique forum will be held exclusively for professionals and business persons at the Galle Face Hotel on May 29. These sessions are by invitation, sent out well in time by ABS.
The much looked forward to Dhamma talk and meditation instructions for the public will be at the BMICH from 7.00 to 11.00 am on May 30. Anticipatory of the large crowds that will flock to the BMICH on that day, the ABS has organised sessions with the venerable monk moving from the Main Hall to Sirimavo Halls A and B so all can see and hear him. He will speak in English, followed by summarizations in Sinhala.
More information could be obtained by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. For WhatsApp messages the number is 0720735837. The filled applications are to be submitted before 10th April 2023.
It seems superfluous to give details, even brief facts on Ven Brahmavamso, as he is well known in this country of ours. However, it appears pertinent to mention facets of the life of this very blessed Bhikkhu.
He was born in London in 1951. Having read widely on Buddhism, at the tender age of 16, this promising student and keenly interested teenager considered himself a Buddhist by conviction. When in the University of Cambridge following his undergrad course in Theoretical Physics, his strong interest in Buddhism and gravitation to meditation went alongside his studies. After earning his degree he taught for one year, He then decided to follow his greater interest in Buddhist philosophy and practice and so proceeded to Thailand. He followed meditation under a couple of Thai masters. Convinced of his future as a Buddhist Bhikkhu, he was ordained a monk at the age of 23 by the Chief Incumbent of Wat Saket. He then went for further training to the famous meditation teacher – Ajahn Chah. He spent nine years studying and training in the forest tradition. In 1983 he was invited to help establish a forest monastery near Perth, Western Australia. Within a short period he was Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery, Perth. He is also the Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia and Spiritual Patron to the Buddhist Fellowship in Singapore. These are but two of the spiritual responsibilities he undertakes. His pragmatic approach and his deep conviction in Dhamma have made him a much sought after Buddhist teacher throughout the world.
We Sri Lankans are truly blessed to have him visit our land and share his knowledge, his conviction in the Buddha Word and his encouragement to meditate.
The team that calls itself the Ajahn Brahm Society Sri Lanka of multi-talented and multi-skilled men and woman are all deeply dedicated to helping us, the public of Sri Lanka, benefit from Ajahn Brahm, acknowledged as an excellent teacher and exponent of the Dhamma. We are most grateful to them and Ven Mettavihari who guides the ABS.
Aragala in US
It was recently reported that Philadelphia would pay $9.25 million to a group of protesters over police use of tear gas and rubber bullets during 2020 unrest in which lots of hardships were caused to the protesters who quite rightly protested against the brtual killing of the black youth, George Floyd.
That is is how the social justice or the democracy are respected in the US. The American authorities are answerable for injustice caused to the general public.
I don’t have to elaborate on the gloomy and undemocratic situations prevailing in this country at present. Two persons have been killed and many others injured in protests during the past several weeks. According to the media there were doubts about the quality of the water and tear gas used on the protesters.
The whole world is well aware of the present state of affairs in our country.
The rulers’ undemocratic actions make use wonder whether ours is a “Democratic Socialist Republic’.
One of best development administrators SL ever had
Mr. K. Thayaparan (KT), who retired from the government service after serving as a development administrator for more than thirty years passed away on Jan 05 at the age of 86. He was born in 1937 in Malaya, which was then under the British rule; his father had migrated there in 1916 for employment. His father was employed in the Malayan Railways, and the family was living a happy life. In the late 1940s, there erupted a terrorist movement launched by Communists of Chinese origin. To fight with the terrorists the British Government had issued a conscription order for all school leavers above the age of 17 years to join the military. Many families with male children over 17 years fled to Ceylon to avoid conscription. Since KT’s family also had a male child who had been noticed to report for military duty, his family members too other than his father left Malaya in 1951 and came to live in Ceylon. In Jaffna, KT resumed and completed his school education. In 1958 he entered the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya to undertake studies in geography, economics and history.
During the university days, KT had won university colours in badminton. He graduated in 1961, and served as a school teacher in the Matara district. In 1962, after sitting a competitive examination, KT joined the Government Divisional Revenue Officers’ service. In 1963, together with the other officers of the DROs’ service and comparable services, KT was absorbed into the Ceylon Administrative Service that had been created in place of the Ceylon Civil Service, which had simultaneously been abolished.
Till 1975 KT served in the district administration in the northern districts, first as DRO, then as Asst. Government Agent and as Addl. Government Agent. From 1976 to 1979 he worked in the Ministry of Fisheries as Deputy Director Planning, and contributed to the development of the National Fisheries Development Plan 1979 – 1983. The Fisheries Development Plan, among other activities had concentrated on exploitation of the fish resources in the Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone, which was proclaimed in 1977, and utilisation of irrigation reservoirs and village tanks for development of inland fisheries. The Government made a policy decision to implement an accelerated programme to develop inland fisheries and aquaculture. For this purpose, a new Division called the Inland Fisheries Division was set up in the Ministry, and KT was appointed its director.
The accelerated development programme had a number of activities to perform. Establishment of fish breeding stations in different parts of the country, recruitment and training of scientific and technical officers to serve at fish breeding centres, import of exotic fish species suitable for culture in Sri Lankan inland waterbodies, training of youth in inland fishing and aquaculture, promotion of investments in shrimp farming, etc. Funding agencies like UNDP, ADB and individual countries on bilateral basis came forward to support the accelerated inland fisheries development programme by providing funds for development of infrastructure, providing technical assistance, providing foreign training for the scientific and technical staff who were mostly young people without experience, and providing advisory services. It was heavy work for KT, but he managed the Division and its work smoothly.
KT was a firm believer in team work. He knew workers in all outstation inland fisheries or aquaculture establishments by name. He distributed foreign training slots offered by donor countries or agencies to every scientific or technical officer on an equitable basis. He listened to everybody, and was quite loved by his staff. KT was quite neutral in politics. However, in spite of his hard work to develop the inland fisheries sector, he was transferred out of the Ministry in 1985 to the SLAS Pool.
In 1979 when KT took over the responsibility of developing inland fisheries and aquaculture in the country, the total national inland fish production in Sri Lanka was 17,400 tons. During his tenure of nearly six years, the national inland fish production steadily increased and in 1985, the year he was transferred it had increased to 32,700 tons, showing an increase of nearly 90%. Also, there were 4,500 inland fishing craft operating in reservoirs, and the number employed as fishers, fish collectors, fish traders, etc. was over 10,000.
After leaving the Ministry of Fisheries he served different assignments such as Director Regional Development, National Consultant or the World Bank funded Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Project, Secretary to the North-East Provincial Council Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries, and Secretary to the State Ministry Hindu Religious and Cultural Affairs. In 1995, he was appointed Addl. Secretary Development of the Ministry of Fisheries, but his stay in this post was brief since the then Minister replaced him with one of his political supporters. His last government assignment was as Addl. Secretary, Ministry of Plan Implementation, National Integration and Ethnic Affairs. In 1997, he retired from the government service, but continued in a few foreign funded projects as institutional development consultant. He once told that his most productive period in the government service was as Director Inland Fisheries. After retirement he authored several books, Reminiscences of Malaya 1937 – 1951, Stories of Some Brave Men and High Achievers, and Introduction to Some Known High Achievers.
Although he was quite suitable to be appointed the Secretary to a Ministry, he was never considered for such a post. In the final years of his career, he was compelled to serve under his juniors. But he carried on regardless and did the best in whatever the capacity he served.
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