(JVP – II) The tumultuous 1980s:
by Rajan Philips
The 1980s were the most tumultuous decade in 21st century Sri Lankan politics and history. It was the first full decade of the open economy. Politically, it had everything, mostly the bad and the ugly. There were two presidential elections (1982 and 1988), the chicanery of a referendum in 1982 that served to postpone parliamentary elections by 12 years, and a single parliamentary election (1989) in a span of 17 years. The country suffered ethnic riots again in 1981 – a second time in four years, and a major conflagration in 1983, which internationalized sri Lanka’s internal affairs and India took its license therefrom to intervene.
Tamil political violence escalated from isolated killings to major attacks and counter attacks. President Jayewardene’s captive parliament passed a dozen constitutional amendments at his behest and for his convenience. The 13th Amendment and Provincial Councils came out of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement. India sent a Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to defend the Agreement and to disarm the LTTE in the north. That set the stage for the JVP’s second coming (1987-1989) in the south.
None of the above was inevitable. Most of them were the doings of one UNP government and two UNP Presidents in a single decade. The rest were consequences. The die for the open economy was cast mostly outside Sri Lanka than within Sri Lanka. For the west, the 1980s were the decade of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and their transatlantic dominance vigorously pursuing the downsizing of governments and the deregulation of markets.
For the non-western socialist world, the 1980s unfolded as they should not have. The Soviet Union imploded, while China successfully changed direction towards a socialist market economy. Market globalization became a global fact of life, but opening up at the same its own antitheses both nationally and globally, and manifesting themselves in multiple forms: minimum wage insistence and basic benefits demand, opposition to corruption and cronyism and calling for accountability, checks on monopoly and profiteering, pro-democracy campaigns, and human rights monitoring.
Politically, for most of the 1980s, the Sri Lankan government and its supporters were in thrall to the Reagan-Thatcher leadership in the world. On the economic front, the Sri Lankan economy was opened up but not in structurally productive ways. The established trade unions were smashed rather than aligning them to the new openings in the economy. There was more mimicking of the experiences of other countries in economic policy than the modernization of Sri Lanka’s traditional economic sectors and their diversification. Opportunities were lost while corruption and cronyism thrived.
Again, politically the government would not brook any criticism or opposition to its economic policies. And whenever the government was put on the defensive on the economic front, it would lash out on the ethnic front. This ambidextrous approach came naturally to the government and its principal leaders. The late Lalith Athulathmudali said it best. To paraphrase, Mr. Athulathmudali said that the government can always ignore the criticisms of the open economy by the Buddhist clergy, but it will always listen to them on any real or perceived ‘concessions’ to Tamils or other minorities. This might have been a clever political tactic, but as a national strategy it set the country on ethnic fire for the entire decade and deprived the country from realizing the full benefits from the government’s economic policies.
The government started on the wrong foot right from the word go with the new (1978) constitution. Leaving aside whatever understanding there was between President Jayewardene and the TULF leadership at the time of 1977 election, there was widespread expectation and widespread support for the unqualified recognition of Tamil language rights in the new constitution. Rohana Wijeweera, newly out of jail, was in support of enshrining equal language rights in the constitution. But that was not to be. What would be done 10 years later in the 13th Amendment was too early for inclusion in the original constitution. The lack of positive symbolism was aggravated by the government’s aggressive put down measures.
The 1979 Emergency Rule in Jaffna was both high handed and ham fisted. One thing led to another and everything came to a head in 1983. There were major political fallouts from the catastrophe of 1983, whose ramifications have continued to this day: the consolidation of Tamil political violence that would go on for the next 25 years, the emergence of the Tamil diaspora, internationalization of Sri Lanka’s hitherto internal problem and India’s involvement in it, and the second coming of the JVP primarily in opposition to Indian involvement. The JVP’s second coming ended even more violently than the first, but the JVP has since transformed itself into a non-violent political party. Indian involvement also provided the impetus for the growth of a new strand of Sinhala nationalism with independent organizations outside of the two nominally national but substantively Sinhalese political parties – the UNP and the SLFP.
President Jayewardene’s knee-jerk reaction to the 1983 calamity was to pass the Sixth Amendment which effectively shut the TULF out of Sri Lanka’s parliament and packed them off to Tamil Nadu and New Delhi. The Tamil democratic political space in the island shrank and became the monopoly of Tamil militants whose politics was all about violent confrontations. And Tamil Nadu became the site and New Delhi the landlord for all Sri Lankan Tamil political activities – democratic and undemocratic, non-violent and violent. Much has been said and much more will continue to be said about India’s motivations and designs on Sri Lanka. But it should be clear that it was never possible for India to countenance the breakup of Sri Lanka at any time after 1983. Purely for practical reasons, a permanently broken Sri Lanka would have been a worse neighbourly headache for India than a country perpetually at war within itself. A breakup of Sri Lanka would have created problems for India’s own internal stability.
It is legitimate to ask the question if the Tamil militant groups and the LTTE in particular would or could have gone as far as they did without having sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu and without support from New Delhi. It is equally legitimate to ask whether successive Sri Lankan governments could not have acted smartly, wisely, and indeed generously towards Sri Lanka’s minorities, and avoided giving any excuse to India for getting involved in Sri Lanka. India was inextricably implicated in Sri Lankan affairs from the time the first UNP government after independence disenfranchised the domiciled community of Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin, and unilaterally made them an Indian transnational problem and not a Sri Lankan demographic problem. The 1964 Sirima-Shastri Pact over repatriation did not quite solve the problem but cemented India’s stake in the matter. The UNP government after 1977, while technically solving the citizenship problem opened a new window for India’s concern by failing to protect the plantation Tamils from communal violence against them in 1977, 1981 and 1983.
It is also appropriate to ask if President Jayewardene could not have forestalled India’s intervention or meddling after 1983 by far-sightedly including in the 1978 Constitution at least some of the provisions that were included nine years later through the 13th Amendment at India’s bidding. In the end, President Jayewardene’s belated turn to India for help exposed him to criticisms and opposition among the Sinhalese and precipitated the second coming of the JVP and the consolidation of a new Sinhala nationalist constellation. After Vietnam, Afghanistan (by both superpowers), and Iraq, India’s Sri Lankan experience also shows the inherent pitfalls in external interventions to resolve internal problems.
But it was not India’s foreign presence alone that complicated Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Rather, India’s involvement was exploited by different vested interests for their own reasons and to their own ends. The government itself was a house divided. President Jayewardene nearing the end of his second and final term as President, had no control over his government or even his cabinet to reach broad consensus, let alone unanimous support, for his agreement with India and the 13th Amendment. Prime Minister Premadasa and his chief cabinet rivals found that opposing their president’s agreement with India was the strongest starting point in the race to succeed the same president. It was not principle but opportunism that informed their opposition.
Outside the government, the official SLFP saw no electoral advantage in defending JRJ’s agreement, even if the SLFP leadership was ready to overlook what JRJ had done to Mrs. Bandaranaike in suspending her civic rights. From the old United Front, the Left Parties supported the agreement and even though their support did not carry anything of a following in the country, their remaining followers became targets for JVP attacks. Vijaya and Chandrika Kumaratunga were prominent supporters of the agreement.
Vijaya Kumaratunga paid with his life in 1988 for the principled position he took, leaving his widow to defiantly raise her fists in a political statement at his funeral. Within six years, Chandrika Kumaratunga would spearhead a movement to oust the UNP from after its 17-year rule. The point is that Vijaya and Chandrika Kumaratunga demonstrated that there is enough space in the Sinhalese political society for an alternative political course from what the JVP did in its second coming and others would do as successors to Chandrika Kumaratunga. Both the JVP and Mahinda Rajapaksa who succeeded President Kumaratunga were beneficiaries of a different alternative perspective and thinking in Sinhalese society, namely, Jathika Chinthanaya.
Jathika Chinthanaya (JC – the ‘way of thinking of a nation’) emerged as an influential source of opposition among Sinhalese Buddhist intelligentsia and cultural figures to the UNP government’s open economic policies and cultural alienations. Operating outside the formal political parties, JC has been more a school of thought than a movement. But it has provided cultural fuel and ideological support to political organizations who would operationalize their thinking in the political arena. JC’s emergence initially filled the vacuum created by the withering away of the Old Left. Its initial preoccupation was also against the UNP government’s economic policies and the culture of privileging western cosmopolitanism.
Invariably, however, JC went on to address another need as the vehicle for the Sinhalese intelligentsia to counter the political onslaught of Tamil separatism. In a sense, it was a common response in a majority community, or nationality, to counter insistent self-determinism on the part of minority nationalities. The kind of response that Eric Hobsbawm used to warn as the danger of confronting nationalisms. This was when the break-up idea was becoming fashionable in the British Isles and elsewhere after Tom Nairn’s celebrated book, The Break-Up of Britain.
(To be continued).
Ramazan spirit endures amid pandemic
This will be a sombre Ramazan, indeed, with the country under a lockdown. But the spirit of Ramazan lives on in all Muslims. Ramadan, also referred to as Ramazan, Ramzan, or Ramadhan, in some countries, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims the world over dedicate this holy month for fasting, prayer, reflection and community.
Although most non-Muslims associate Ramazan, solely with fasting, it is believed to bring Muslims closer to God and inculcate in them qualities such as patience, spirituality, and humility. Those of the Islamic faith believe that fasting redirects one away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and free it from harm. It also teaches self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate and encourage actions of generosity and charity. It is a time of self-examination and increased religious devotion.
Ramazan is a commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation, and the annual observance of Ramazan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars are basic acts, considered mandatory by Muslims, namely Muslim life, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation is believed to have taken place in 610 AD, in a cave called Hira, located near Mecca, where Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibrīl, who revealed to him the beginnings of what would later become the Qur’an. The visitation occurred on Ramazan.
Ramazan lasts from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next and the local religious authority is tasked with announcing the date. The Colombo Grand Mosque announced on Wednesday (12) that Sri Lankan Muslims will celebrate Ramazan on Friday (14). Because the Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the start of Ramazan moves backwards by about 11 days, each year, in the Gregorian calendar. Fasting from dawn to sunset is considered fard (obligatory) for all adult Muslims who are not acutely, or chronically, ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, diabetic, or menstruating.
During this month, Muslims refrain not only from partaking of meals, but also tobacco products, sexual relations, and sinful behaviour, devoting themselves to prayer or salat and recitation of the Quran. The pre-dawn meal is referred to as suhur, and the nightly feast that breaks fast is referred to as iftar. During Ramazan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the pre-dawn meal. This is considered the most important meal, during Ramazan, since it has to sustain one until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein food and drinking as much water as possible, right up until dawn, after which one cannot eat or drink anything. The day of fasting ends at sunset, the exact minute of which is signalled by the fourth call to prayer, at dusk.
It is believed that spiritual rewards, or thawab, of fasting multiply during Ramazan. Muslims do not Fast on Eid, but Sri Lankan Muslims believe that observing the six days of optional fasting, that follows Eid, multiplies spiritual rewards.
Eid-Ul-Fitr is the Festival of Breaking the Fast, also simply referred to as Eid, and marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan, as well as the return to a more natural disposition of eating, drinking, and marital intimacy. In Sri Lanka, this Festival of Breaking the Fast is also referred to, colloquially, as Ramazan. Eid begins at sunset, on the night of the first sighting of the crescent moon. Muslims hand out money, to the poor and needy, as an obligatory act of charity, before performing the Eid prayer.
Globally, the Eid prayer is generally performed in open areas, like fields, community centres, or mosques in congregation. In Sri Lanka, the prayer is performed annually in Galle Face Green and mosques. The Eid prayer is followed by the sermon and then a supplication asking for Allah’s forgiveness, mercy, peace and blessings for all living beings across the world. The sermon encourages Muslims to engage in the rituals of Eid, such as zakat, almsgiving to other fellow Muslims. After the prayers, Muslims visit relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or hold large communal celebrations.
After prayer, Muslims celebrate Eid, with food being the central theme. Sri Lankans celebrate Ramazan with watalappam, falooda, samosa, gulab jamun and other national and regional dishes. The festivals were said to have initiated in Medina, after the migration of Muhammad from Mecca.
This year, as well as last year, Sri Lankan Muslims will have to forgo the custom of communal prayers, and celebrations, due to the ongoing pandemic, and will have to settle for private prayers and celebrations of Ramazan during this period of curfew. While these preventive measures are in place, during this year’s Ramazan, the principles of this holy month remain the same. Devout Muslims all over the world, will still be honouring this pillar of Islam, albeit from the security of their homes.
Dip Corps Plum Job? I don’t think so!
I was reading an article in the papers the other day saying that the Attorney General (soon to retire) had turned down a “plum job” (interesting and archaic term) by refusing to go as the High commissioner to Canada. In the days when terminology such as “plum job” was used indeed any member of the Diplomatic Corps was considered elite. They usually came from people who had got degrees with a class and preferably a 1st class, and I believe they had to get through a tough civil service exam as well. Before they reached the top post of High Commissioner (if they came from the service) they had to spend many years learning the ropes. A few High Commissioners were appointed from among civil service retirees in other fields and if so, their role was largely ceremonial with the other staff in the embassy handling the actual policy matters.
Ever since the advent of “Kukul Charlie” to Scandinavia as H/C, during the R. Premadasa regime, this worthy actually had a mini chicken farm in the premises of the embassy, and slightly before that the actions of A.C.S. Hameed as the minister of foreign affairs during the J.R.J. regime.The Dip: Co: has degenerated into a mess. Most of the staffers are political appointees and even the progeny of Ministers and MP draw salaries from the embassy, to fund their overseas studies. Everybody seems to be running his or her own little racket to supplement his or her foreign currency incomes. Many of them don’t even come back when their terms are over. The Ambassador’s main role seems to be a taxi driver or to use modern terminology Uber driver for vising VIP’s and their assorted relatives.
Is it a wonder that the incumbent Attorney General chose to decline an offer of this sort? An offer that would have consigned him to oblivion (as seems to be what happens to all able-bodied, intelligent, and capable people in the Pearl) and to top it off, dealing with the freezing conditions of the Canadian winter. This is a blatant attempt to sideline a capable professional who is perceived as a threat to the government as he seems a bit of a maverick and his penchant to toe the line cannot be guaranteed. Now, instead of appreciating constructive criticism and the actions of a professional guided by his knowledge and ethics, the increasingly military regime wants order followers. Extensions of terms come very easily to those characterless wimps who fill and overflow the ranks of government employees! In this case, a “kick upstairs” seems to be what the powers that be require. I guess the inherent and ever-present guiding light of jealousy among his peers, keeps organisations such as the bar association from protesting these actions? I am sure they will find an excuse all covered in legalize. I fear Mr. Livera will have to carve his own path through the morass of muck that is the Pearl at present.
What demoralises me further is that editors of newspapers and even so-called “journalists” write and publish such articles when they are well aware of the true reasons and facts. Then again, I have read articles quoting government financial “geniuses” saying that printing money will not be detrimental to the economy and even some ministers saying that devaluation of the rupee simply means more money coming in from Middle Eastern remittances and a better lifestyle for the beneficiaries! I was even sent a link by a friend to a published article saying Sri Lanka has done a better job than New Zealand to maintain a low Covid death rate. Of course, the link came with the words “Ammata Siri” from a friend of mine!
On the subject of Covid, I am told the predictions for the Pearl based on statistics put out by American Universities, are dire. Now, I know that those ruling the country firmly believe that Sri Lanka is the centre of the universe and anything said by anyone other than themselves is utter rubbish. BUT I see an opportunity here … this is the time to form a “war cabinet” to overcome this catastrophe. Kick out all the idiots who are simply drawing huge salaries, and gadding about in flash new duty-free vehicles. Send them to their electorates and tell them to stay there, travel by bus, mix with the populace, and do their JOBS. Cut their salaries by 75% and use that money to give benefits to those affected by the virus and resultant recession. Form a Cabinet of 20 (maximum) and concentrate on saving our country and her people so that we can live to fight another day.
I have heard rumblings of discontent among the ruling clan. The big cheese is apparently being hampered by the blue cheese (old cheese) and his direct decedents. Be that as it may there certainly are around 70% of those currently in government who can be sent home to their electorates. There are a handful of those in Opposition who may be able to do a good job in these circumstances if included in this war cabinet. There certainly is a foreign minister in waiting, who doesn’t even have a parliamentary seat at present. The current sitting of parliament is said to cost an astronomical figure per sitting. Close it down and have cabinet meetings at Temple trees or TT as is the current local parlance. Another huge saving that can be distributed among those daily paid labourers who have no way to feed their families at present. Use the Parliamentary cooking facilities to make lunch packets for the needy.
There are opportunities even among this present and perceived chaos. All it takes is the will of a strong leader who is prepared to think outside the box. The current president certainly has the powers, but does he have the will? The country certainly thought he had done when they gave him that massive majority!
Vaccine need and experts vs political power
Manna from the skies and the drop of water to a man dying of thirst is for most now a jab in the upper arm which will hopefully keep at bay the dreaded omnipotent, omnipresent Covid 19 virus. It seems to be getting more virulent especially in poorer countries. But countries with massive daily numbers of those ill with C19 and large numbers dead, are fast returning to near normal e.g. USA. A young man who hibernated for the last fourteen months is away on holiday in the Big Apple – a separate State from his. And take it from Cassandra whose age, experience and potent gut feeling qualify her to judge situations, the improvement is due to President Biden’s leadership against that of Trump. Kudos go to Biden mostly for his selection of experts in relevant fields heading various government departments; selected solely on merit and matching the need; not considering relatives, sycophants, ethnic origin of the selected Americans. And he is totally receptive to expert advice. Judge his Secretary of State – Antony Blinken – a polar difference from big brash Mike Pompeo, in the mould of Trump. See how Dr Antony Fauci speaks now to the American media as shown us by CNN. He is confident; knows he is respected and trusted as Chief Medical Advisor to the President and also Director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases while with Trump he nearly had his head cut off for making statements about the pandemic contrary to what Trump wanted to hear. In this context why Dr Anil Jasinha was transferred as Secretary, Environmental Ministry, is still a mystery, since we Ordinaries do not believe it was a promotion. He did magnificently well, with the Army Commander and others in minimising the damage of the first C19 wave.
Many in Colombo are due for the second dose of AstraZeneca vaccine. When will it be given? We were lulled to complacency being told some time ago that the second dose was safely stored in time for vaccination three months after the first. Now we find the medical department’s cupboards are as bare as Mother Hubbard’s as regards the A-Z vaccine and there’s begging going on for the WHO to shower enough of this vaccine on poor Siri Lanka. Threatened is a cocktail of merrily mixed AstraZeneca with Sputnik or the Chinese vaccine. We all shout: No thank you!
We do sympathize with the government battered on all sides and reduced to begging. We appreciate what is being done, but go mad when we hear statements like “Development must go on” when development is a speedway to Ratnapura and purchase of helicopters.
Many approve of the move to lockdown regions and Grama Sevaka divisions and now even provinces since locking down the entire country is really too drastic a measure even though it will reduce mass infection.
Wise experts give of their expertise all the time.
The major issue that confronts the government at present is imminently losing the battle of the Covid 19 pandemic. Next, of course, is the mess of the second vaccine for which blame lies on the government. Then the fast-declining economy and solutions thereof, one solution being import of tourists and asylum given to those fleeing India. For this obvious blunder, blame is squarely on offshoots of the government like hoteliers, travel agents and leading the lot, Udayanga W with his Covid barrier-breaking influx of ‘ballooned’ tourists from Ukraine, one of the worst affected countries. The ‘balloons’ burst no sooner they landed in Paradise and were taken traipsing around Resplendent Sri Lanka.
Another disturbing situ inaugurated by the Prez himself is the fertiliser issue – his overnight banning of chemical fertilisers, to save farming community from kidney disease and win laurels as first country to ban such. Misfiring. Tests have shown the use of these fertilisers is not the cause of KDC. More damning: the sudden ban with no substitute organic fertiliser in large quantity will badly affect our primary cash crop and from the next Yala harvest itself our stomachs will rumble with hunger pangs and the poorer will surely starve. Nothing must be done with the sweep of the pen or the gush of words of command.
And here is Cassandra’s bone which she picks with the government. Experts abound in this country of intelligent people. They are not, apparently, consulted before decisions are made. As Prof, Rohan Rajapakse writes in his article Ban on agrochemical: where are we heading? in The Island of 11 May: “Three eminent scientists, namely Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha, Prof O A Ileyperuma and Prof C S Weeraratne have effectively dealt with the repercussions of the ban on chemical fertilizers.” (He gives their credentials in full). Prof Rajapakse goes on in his article to the sphere of pesticides and warns about that too.
No politician or army high-up nor even the Prez knows it all. So experts must be hearkened to, to serve the country and save its people.
Have you noticed as Cass has that the Minister of Sports and Youth is seen at very many meetings and exhibits involvement in fisheries, the environment, even the economy; far extended from his sphere of sports and youth. Latest sighting (Tuesday May 11) was him on TV news inspecting the marvelous hospital constructed in a couple of days by hard working, skilled young men. It will be manned mostly by young girls, nursing Covid 19 patients, at risk to themselves. So, Cass praises this young minister for being so interested in the welfare and well-being of the Ordinaries – we the people of Free Sri Lanka. A sports writer in the gossipy column on the last page of The Island of 12 May, gave him a paragraph, not complimentary like Cass’ paragraph (this). Also, we do not approve at all of exercise equipment being set up in villages. The villager has enough exercise in his farming and his spouse in house and garden work. Such centres, said to be open air, will only attract gawkers in their numbers, and laughter. Of course, someone will make money.
Dire danger of military in power
The youth of Myanmar are demonstrating to the entire world what the consequences are of military men ruling countries. Pro-democracy leader Daw Suu Kyi was given one term of half governing the country as Counsellor; the second time she and her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. She worked with the army leaders and going along with them – a la the Rohingya – was derided as a Nobel Peace Laureate.
The November 8, 2020 elections gave her Party a bigger majority. Then power was snatched off her and she was held hostage god knows where. (She suffered long years of strict house confinement after her first victory.)
The youth of the country rose up for democracy and for Suu Kyi being released. Listening to excerpts of conversations with two fighters for democracy – male and female – on BBC, Cass was overwhelmed with a fifty-fifty, long lasting spurt of emotion: sorrow and admiration for these young uns. Bless them and may they win the battle for a right of every human being – freedom from oppression and dictatorship. But these kids are being shot at with live bullets and more than fifty (if remembered correctly) are dead. Why-oh-why are base men so greedy for power?
The young of Hong Kong also fought unrelentingly but they were imprisoned and not killed deliberately. Their battle is against the growing power of China where a dictator resembling a military man rules supreme.
A bright spot
In media, whether print or visual, we long for news with optimistic effect to drive away, even temporarily, the doom and gloom that envelops us. Cass had her descending-to-depression spirits uplifted by watching a video clip of the Queen declaring the new Parliamentary sessions ‘open’.
Here was the mid-90s Sovereign walking steadily with her eldest son beside her and reading her speech about what ‘her government’ and ‘her ministers’ would do for the country in a steady voice with steady hands holding the script.
Top on this list was fast recovery from the pandemic followed by environmental, health and educational betterment. She hid signs of emotion that would have battered her because for almost seven decades she came in with her beloved Philip by her side at this ceremony.
Cass took courage from this marvelous woman.
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