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Opinion

Open letter to US

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I know quite well that Americans do not like too much formality, and let me address you by your first name, Julie.

So, dear Julie,

Let me introduce myself first. I am a Fulbright Scholar (1998-2000), and I am extremely proud that I am one. After my Fulbright period, I was awarded a series of other fellowships by the University of Wisconsin to finish my PhD. Before joining the University of Peradeniya, I taught for four years at Cornell University. All those 10 years in the US and the education I received there enriched my vision of life and the world. After my education in the US, I was able to develop as a relatively influential public intellectual and a literary writer. While always appreciating the opportunities given to me by the US, I have always opposed imperialisms of all kinds.

As a scholar in Comparative Literature, I have been a cosmopolitan person all through my adult life, teaching literary works from nearly all the countries of Europe, the US, Russia, Japan, India and so on. In that sense, I am familiar with some of the ‘best thoughts’ happened in those countries, and I have worked hard to familiarise my students with those thoughts. I believe that no single culture can provide everything needed for human flourishing within that culture.

Having established the fact that I am not a parochial nationalist with a heart full of xenophobia, I must tell you this: I am quite active in the on-going protests against our ruling family. With thousands of other Sri Lankans, I too believe that the entire Rajapaksa family and its close relatives, have to vacate their posts in the country’s power structure. You know that more than seventy five percent (75%) of the country budget is controlled by them. The ministerial portfolios they hold are the most powerful ones. That is what they are right now. Or course, a slight change has happened as of today.

You must have seen that there is increasing pressure from people to the ruling family and its cronies to step down. They have no legitimate reasons to hold on to power. People from all walks of life, women, children, even infants, have taken to the streets to send a message to a single greedy family. And some of the key members of that family are US citizens. I do not want to claim that they are your puppets political or otherwise. Real US citizens resist being the puppets of the government; and it is in both democratic and republican tradition. But here in our country, there are growing concerns that the US and other powerful countries will eventually ensure that the Rajapaksas get safe havens, and their loot will also be safe. Speaking of the loot, it is already in such countries in the form of money and property. Given the strength of your intelligence services, you must already know where the Rajapaksa assets are. Some WikiLeaks communiques revealed that the US mission in Colombo always knew that the Rajapakasas were disgustingly corrupt. You must have inherited that knowledge of your predecessors.

I am writing to you to request that you must not, by any means, help this family to escape with their stolen money because that money belongs to the people of Sri Lanka. Perhaps, you can begin right now the process of freezing their accounts in your countries.

What you are witnessing is something historic. Please, do not interpret these as a ‘communist riots’ or something. It has been one of your old cold-war mistakes to see ‘communism’ in all our protests. You, Julie in particular, must give up the perennial habit of hating even a mild form of ‘socialist economic policies.’ With or without that phrase, what we are trying to create is an economic system whose achievements are shared by everyone with relative equality and a sense of justice.

Neoliberal economic programme carried out with your blessings for many decades in Sri Lanka has created a huge gap between the haves and have-nots. The majority of the population has no access to quality education and healthcare. On top of that failure, in the neoliberal ideology, corrupt political families such as the Rajapakasas have robbed the country so bad that we can no longer tolerate this crime. As of today, many people do not have access to the basic needs of everyday life. If neoliberalism was so good, how come it collapsed here within a few difficult months?

When people demand social justice, economic democracy, free education, and free healthcare, and the like, you tend to be alarmed. Here, I am speaking especially to you, Julie. Please stop interpreting those as communist demands; you have all those ideas of justice and democracy built into the US public life and public virtue. Yes. You do not have free health care in the US; but you cannot be proud of that fact. There is significant demand for such things in the US, too. And you have a host of programmes for giving an initial support to underprivileged people to take a shot at a decent life.

Please allow us begin working towards establishing a new form of government formed on the principles of economic justice and democracy. If you cannot help us do that, because of your ideological commitment in the global scene, please do not at least disrupt our efforts.

Julie, your country has an inglorious history of supporting corrupt politicians such as Pinochet, Marcos and so on, as long as they stood with you in the theater of the cold war. Many such enemies of the people ended up living peacefully in the US. In our case, today you are especially obligated to be responsible and considerate because some members of our ruling family are American citizens. You must be considerate of our people, not with a family that happened to have blue passports.

What prompted for me to write this urgently is a slogan in the ongoing mass struggle: “Gota go home!” The ‘home’ in this case is the US.

The family might have already communicated to you that some ‘extremist communists’ are threatening them to step down. They know that a term like ‘communist’ can open up the diplomatic hearts of the West. I am sure you know enough of the corruption of the family. If you want to see social justice, lasting peace, and true democracy in the country, let us see what people can come up with through these struggles. I hope you, Julie, and others in powerful diplomatic circles, will not intervene to save a family of crooks and the failed economic programme they oversee.

Once this is over, and, hopefully, a new structure for the Sri Lankan state is created, you all can help us reimagining Sri Lanka. As an activist related to the National People’s Power (NPP), I like to see significant structural change in our economic system and the state. But by writing this letter, I am not representing the NPP, and let’s see what will really emerge at the end. We do all we can to assure that people will not turn violent no matter how much they are provoked.

If you are interested in justice and democracy in the country, please let the ruling clan know that they must not use violence to stay in power. I hope you do not want to see military rulers in South Asia. We certainly do not want dictators here.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely yours

Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Professor

University of Peradeniya



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Opinion

The lasting curse of Janasathu

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Kataboola tea estate

Let me begin with two anecdotes.

In the 1960s, my father would pull into the local Shell petrol shed and a smiling pump attendant, smartly attired in a uniform (khaki shirt and shorts) would come up to the driver’s side and inquire what was needed. While petrol was being pumped, the attendant would wipe the windscreen and check the engine oil. The toilet was clean. The air pump worked. To my delight, large, colourful road maps were given out, for free. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? All this for about Rs. 1 (one) for a gallon of petrol!

The next anecdote. In 1978, I visited Brian Howie, a former classmate, at Kataboola Estate in Nawalapitiya. Brian was an SD – assistant superintendent – and his bungalow was in a remote corner of the estate, so remote that it had its own mini hydroelectric plant. Mrs. B’s government, which had nationalised the estate, had recently fallen and the estate was now under new management.

The bungalow was sparsely furnished, and I noticed that a corner of the living room was blackened. Brian told me that the previous occupant, a former bus conductor turned “SD”, had not known how to use the kitchen stove, so he put some bricks together and had created a lipa in the living room to do his cooking. Meanwhile, every appliance and item of furniture in the bungalow had been stolen by the same man.

Janasathu has a false ring, meaning “owned by the people”. But, as everyone knows, the term instead means a nest of thieves, running up millions in losses at the cost of the people. A place where friends and political supporters are given employment, showered with generous perks, and given a free run to plunder. Government owned corporations, companies, and “other institutions” run into the hundreds, and perhaps a handful make a profit. The rest are leeches, sucking the blood of the nation.

Do we need a corporation/board for salt, ceramics, timber, cashew, lotteries, fisheries, films, ayurvedic drugs, handicrafts? For a publisher of newspapers? They are so swollen with employees that their raison d’être appears to be employment, perks and plunder that I mentioned above.

I recently read that Sri Lankan Airlines, the CTB, the Petroleum Corporation, and the Ceylon Electricity Board are the biggest loss makers. The Godzillas among them appear to be Sri Lankan Airlines, which reportedly lost Rs. 248 billion in the first four months of this year, and the Petroleum Corporation, which lost Rs. 628 billion in the same period. (The Petroleum Corporations is owed billions of rupees by both Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board.) The Ceylon Electricity Board appears to be a mafia, subverting efforts to promote renewable energy, while promoting commission-earning fossil fuels. While the poorest among our population are starving, the crooks that run these organisations continue to deal and steal.

In Hong Kong, where I lived for 20 years, no airline, bank, petroleum company, telephone service, LPG or electricity supplier is owned by the government. The buses belong to the private sector. In Japan, where I live now, in addition to the list from Hong Kong, even the railways and the post offices are privatised and provide a courteous, efficient service. In Japan, the service at petrol stations is reminiscent of Ceylon’s in the 1960s that I described above.

At least in one instance, Mrs. B attempted to correct her folly in nationalising plantations. The de Mel family owned thriving coconut estates in Melsiripura. After nationalisation, the estates declined to such a sorry state that Mrs. B personally invited the de Mels to take them back. Today, the estates are thriving under efficient management.

As a nation, we need to admit that janasathu has failed, and take steps to remedy the situation ASAP.

GEORGE BRAINE

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Opinion

Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions

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I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.

In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.

Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.

Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”

Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!

LIONEL RAJAPAKSE

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Opinion

Need for best relations with China

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(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future

ANANDA MEEGAMA

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