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Passage of 20A:

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Auspicious prelude to creation of a New Constitution

By Rohana R. Wasala

The Sinhalese in independent Sri Lanka have been nationalistic, but never narrowly communalistic; they have never illtreated non-Sinhala minorities on the basis of race or religion. Those who are wallowing in a sea of misinformation having been swept there by tides of hostile propaganda over the decades, may bristle at this, but the truth must be stated. The nationalism of the Sinhalese is not a construct of the last colonial era. Contrary to what Eurocentric theorists, their local clones, imperialist lackeys and their modern dupes believe, it is an inclusive nationalism. In their long history, the nationalism of the Sinhalese has been synonymous with patriotism or the love of their country, their island homeland. The JVP of 1971 and 1987-89 shed blood in the name of the country, not in the name of a race or a religion unlike respectively the defeated LTTE and the recent NTJ. To point this out is not being communalistic; it is only reacting to a false criticism. The racists and the extremists among the minorities raise false allegations of communalism against the majority community to justify their own communalism.

Today, even a section of the Sinhalese polity, including some young members of the FB generation, seem to think that to be a nationalist is the same as being a racist. That misconception is largely because they are not well enough informed about their own true history and truly admirable, multifaceted heritage, a legacy that is enjoyed by all communities in common: the still functional parts of the ancient hydraulic system, archaeological remains that attract foreign tourists and earn foreign exchange for the public coffers,and many other treasures. But anti-national individuals and agencies still censor Anagarika Dharmapala, the pioneer national revivalist of the colonial era, as a hate figure for ideologically rekindling, around the beginning of the 20th century, the nationalist spirit of the patriotic Sinhalese that had been choked in the course of a number of popular uprisings by force of arms by colonial invaders following the 1815 British intrigue. All the Sinhalese leaders who caused the 1948, 1956, 1972, 2009, and 2019 restorative revolutionary watersheds to happen were inspired by Dharmapala and were opposed by the real racists and received little support from non-Buddhist religious extremists. 

The ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British imperialists was naturally to the greater disadvantage of the majority community than to the minorities, who in fact stood to gain from it. The British exploited the minorities to weaken the historical defenders of the land. It may be plausibly argued that they used them as tacit allies to restrain the Sinhalese from rebellion, in return for privileged treatment (although this was limited to an elite that politically mattered to them, while the majority of the dispossessed mixed masses consisting of common Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims shared the rigours of colonial exploitation without discrimination). 

Particularly, the racist leaders of the Tamil minority feared that a parliamentary system of government where the Sinhalese would hold power because of their numerical superiority would mean a loss of their privileged status (hence the notorious 50-50 seat allocation demand of G.G. Ponnambalam which was contemptuously rejected by the Soulbury Commissioners in 1946. All the overtures that Sinhalese leaders, from D.S. Senanayake to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, made to the few but powerful racists (among the minority politicians) who somehow manage to hoodwink their people and persuade them to vote for them have failed to convince them to cooperate wholeheartedly with the majority in making unitary Sri Lanka a strong sovereign state where they harbour equal stakes and enjoy equal rights and share equal responsibilities. 

The false allegation of Sinhala communalism finds a convenient platform in the demand for the constitutional emasculation of the institution of the executive presidency (if complete abolition is not possible). This is because it is usually a Sinhalese who stands a chance of getting elected as president by the pan-Sri Lanka electorate. These minority politicians (the extremist few, not all minority politicians) propagate the idea that all Sinhalese are communalists, and that every president will be biased against their people.  But this is a fallacy. Though, at present, there is no likelihood of a minority politician becoming president because the minority polities are still mostly under the sway of racists and religious extremists, it is not an impossibility. If the non-racist, non-extremist politicians that there are among them are allowed to emerge dominant, they certainly will find more favour with the average Sinhalese voters than a conceited Premadasa or a clueless Sirisena, and a correspondingly modest and knowledgeable Tamil or Muslim president will no longer be just a dream.  There are many examples from the past to illustrate the possibility of such an eventuality, but this is not the time for dwelling on the subject.

 

Unwarranted dilution of the powers of the executive presidency was what was achieved by the controversial 19A, which, effectively divided people’s sovereign power between the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker. It was a three-headed monster, as a government minister recently said. As a result of it the sovereign people had to put up with a severely dysfunctional parliament that brought disaster to the country for an interminable four and a half years before it was finally dissolved by the President and a fresh Parliament elected.  The potential for the continuation of such a corrupt malfunctioning parliament is greater when the executive power of the President to dissolve it is curtailed or is completely taken away. That provides a situation open to exploitation by the Rishads and Hakeems of this world.

The Island

editorial/October 20, 2020 made the following comment, which suggests the despicable way they are ready to cock a snook at the sovereignty of the people: 

‘Bathiudeen brought down the hurriedly formed Sirisena-Rajapaksa government, in 2018, by refusing to vote with it in Parliament. That administration crashed, unable to raise a simple majority in the House. This time around, Bathiudeen can give the present regime the kiss of death by voting for the 20A. If he and his four MPs vote for 20A, as expected, those who claim that he and the government have struck a secret deal will be vindicated. The only way the government can avert such a situation is to engineer the crossover of some other Opposition MPs so that it does not have to depend on Bathiudeen…..’  

Who is this Bathiudeen? He was one of the Muslims forcibly evacuated from the North as a result of Prabhakaran’s ethnic cleansing policy. When Bathiudeen came down to Colombo he was a penniless youth with nothing but the worn out clothes on his body, it is said. Today, he is a billionaire with palatial houses here and there, and thousands of acres of land in his possession, with some more lands given to his relatives. He was able to help himself to such great wealth and also indulge in philanthropy at the expense of the state  because he became a politician and managed to join the winning side continuously from the previous MR government to the end of Yahapalanaya, and battened on the suffering of the fellow members of his own displaced community. During the near decade in power, he was charged by environmental groups with the devastating deforestation of the Wilpattu forest reserve; he was  rumoured to be complicit in importing cocaine hidden among goods in CWE containers, illegally exploiting the ilmenite containing mineral sand deposits at Pulmudai for personal profits, abusing the CWE to propagate extremist Islamist ideology, and he was even accused of having connections with the Jihadists who carried out the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels.  When the police finally started looking for him to arrest him on the charge of having abused state/public property by transporting by SLTB buses some 10,000 voters from their new places of residence to their old (for casting their vote a second time it was alleged in the media) on the day of the presidential election in November last year. How is it that an extremely unscrupulous, originally insignificant penurious politician has been allowed to invest himself with such power as The Island editorial has described?

This is because the minority communalists who stick that label on the majority have been empowered by the existing faulty electoral system being abused, and the majority community effectively disenfranchised in the process. Having to strike a deal with political criminals or to ‘engineer the crossover of some other Opposition MPs’ as The Island editorial suggests in order to get 20A or any other nationally important piece of legislation through parliament, is a wretched proposition for any sovereign nation even to contemplate. But, isn’t there any prospect for the nation to reverse this unfortunate self inflicted anomaly? In my opinion, there is. It is to get rid of our own fear of adopting strategies that might run the risk of being attacked as racist, Sinhala Supremacist, discriminatory towards minorities, contrary to international standards, etc. We have to learn not to give a fig to such unfounded accusations. 

At present, the Sinhalese are scrupulously guiltless in this respect. Still they are treated as if they were the worst racists, human rights violaters, xenophobes, chauvinists in the world. Sometimes their own leaders criticise them for being jaatiwadin, or racists as Premadasa and Sirisena have already done: 

Former President Sirisena was heard, at the Easter Sunday Attacks inquiry recently, referring to racists among the Sinhalese. In a Twitter message, which was only in English and Tamil, but not in Sinhala, during the presidential election campaigning period, SJB leader Premadasa charged that Muslims were subjected to discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese! He toured the North, presumably to show the northern Tamils that he was a champion of Tamil rights. He was given a heroic welcome in Jaffna and he garnered many Tamil votes, too. But it is not that they fell for stratagems; they knew that he was ready to betray his own people for a mess of (electoral) pottage.

 

Could a person who doesn’t care about his own kind be concerned about other people? 

 

The alleged Sinhala racists are none other than the few monks and some young Sinhala activists who are merely reacting to proven cases of harassment, aggression, and subversion against them by some extremist elements from among the minorities. Considerable numbers of young Tamils and Muslims are also among their supporters. Had the successive governments taken them seriously, the slaughter of innocents on April 21 could have been avoided. They represent millions, but are they taken notice of? Are they given proper media coverage? Global media (international TV channels such as Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC, etc) broadcast distorted news about them.

There’s no place for them on the You Tube, either. 

The true situation in the country is different from what is usually reported in these media. Why did the nationalists win very nearly two thirds of parliamentary seats, with the racists and religious extremists getting fewer than what they usually win? The result surprised even the nationalists. This shows that the Sinhalese electorate can decide the future of the country by themselves. But they naturally prefer to do so with the participation of the minorities. If the Sinhalese MPs in parliament forget their partisan divisions and remember the patriotism of their ancestors who shed their blood to save their motherland for all its inhabitants, they will voluntarily help the government to muster the two thirds majority required or even more for introducing a completely new constitution when the time comes for that.

Not less than the survival of the unitary state, the nation, the dominant Buddhist culture and the island territory is at stake.  The America-led West and India seem to have found a deus ex machina opportunity to further crank up pressure on economically doddering Sri Lanka in the fast expanding mysterious Brandix Covid-19 cluster and in a court judgement given in UK that is favourable to the LTTE rump still active there: It was reported in the media on Wednesday (October 21, 2020) that UK’s Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission has concluded that the Home Office decision to keep the LTTE  as a proscribed terrorist organisation was flawed and unlawful. So, the British parliament is likely to lift the ban on the organization in that country. Britain is one of the forty countries that proscribed the terror outfit. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, this will make little difference to the status quo, because the UK has practically always allowed its members to behave as if there was no ban on it. 

So, all MPs in parliament, please forget your party, ethnic, religious and interpersonal differences in the name of our motherland. At the time of writing, the ad hoc 20A is to be put to the vote. It will be passed with necessary amendments. It is good if this was carried out without the government having to strike secret deals with communalists or to engineer crossovers from the Opposition (which would be a slap in the face of the voting public). The more momentous responsibility that you are going to fulfill is  to create a sound new constitution for our country that will save our nation from squabbling geopolitical powers who are promoting their own separate national interests at our expense, leaving us in perpetual political instability and endless economic misery. You Hon. MPs, especially the fresh thinking young ones, owe our resplendent island homeland  no less.

(PS: The 20A was passed in parliament with 156 voting for it and only 65 against. The votes cast in favour  exceeds the required two thirds majority by 6 votes. It is obvious that the government did not have to make undue special overtures towards Muslim MPs. There were only 6 Muslim votes but they were not critical, they were dispensable. It is clear that the Muslim MPs thrust themselves on the government side without being asked. Probably, they did this on the prior instructions of Hakeem (and Rishad as well). I think so because, about two weeks ago, Hakeem  told media men that he wouldn’t vote for 20A but that the other members of his party would probably do so. The government had better be careful: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Only Faustian bargains can be made with fundamentalists. No reasonable democratic dialogue is possible with Islamists. The government, it seems, was short of only 2 votes for acquiring the required number of votes, which was 150. Those two votes came from Tamil MP Aravind Kumar and SJB’s Diana Gamage. The latter violated her leader’s injunction, for which she must be praised. In my opinion, it is obvious that the former president, Sirisena, didn’t take part in the voting, not because the controversial NGO drafted and promoted 19A was passed under his presidency, but because he couldn’t any longer get associated with the hypocrisy of its defenders. 

The drafting of a completely new constitution commenced two or three weeks ago. The process will get into top gear now. The multiethnic drafting committee is headed by the renowned PC Romesh de Silva, and includes other legal luminaries such as Manohara de Silva and experts in related fields such as geologist and geopolitical analyst and commentator Prof. Gerald H. Peiris. They who love Sri Lanka as their beloved motherland can be expected to collectively produce a document that will be as much acceptable to the minorities as it is to the majority.)   

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A year into Rajapaksa presidency amidst Covid-19 pandemic

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by Harim Peiris

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

 

 

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-2017)

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How rot set in

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Rubber:

By Dhamsiri Dasanayaka,

Ex-Advisory Officer, Rubber Research Board

Rubber could be considered bread and butter of bona fide smallholders. They have cultivated their lands with rubber plants and manufacture Ribbed Smoked Sheets (RSS) out of their harvest by using traditional knowledge. The government in order to help them initiated an extension service for cultivating rubber. This article attempts to show how this extension mechanism came about.

In 1972, the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) established two extension departments, namely Smallholdings Department (SHD) for rubber smallholders and Estate Advisory Department (EAD) for large estates. In 1974, both were amalgamated into a separate scientific extension department called Advisory Services Department (ASD). From 1953, under the Rubber Control Act, non-scientific Rubber Control Department (RCD) provided subsidies to rubber farmers. The RCD issued permits to relevant land owners for replanting and new planting. Copies of these permits were referred to the ASD of the RRI for initiating the extension activities. Rubber Instructors of the ASD carried out this extension service successfully. They guided the small holders in multiple ways, such as planting, processing, marketting, bark exploitation, and other agricultural activities. This was the rubber extension system that took place during the decade of 1970.

In 1984, Smallholder Rubber Rehabilitation Project 01 (SRRP1) was implemented with World Bank assistance. The Advisory Services Department (ASD), with its flexible financial management system, the well-set theoretical, and practical links with the RRI, functioned effectively to improve the smallholdings sector. Both RRI and ASD were under the Rubber Research Board (RRB) highlighting the “Research- Extension- Farmer” academically recognized agricultural development model, and the SRRP planners decided to entrust this project to the ASD, which consequently became a well-organised active Extension Department like the RRI structure under the (RRB). Chairman of the RRB was a rubber industry professional. RRI and ASD were headed by two PhD qualified Directors. The think tank of the ASD was a scientifically qualified active group competent enough to implement the SRRP project successfully. During this project period, the role of the RCD was to issue permits to rubber farmers.

The Rubber Control Department (RCD), which essentially consisted of administrators, appointed a field staff of rubber Inspectors to handle the extension programme on field. They were too involved in subsidy administration in the field thus duplicating field work of rubber which caused confusion among rubber smallholders according to administrators. To eliminate this farmer confusion from the field, the ASD, which constituted experienced scientific think tank was removed from the RRB in 1994 and attached to RCD think tank, which was mainly an administration body and formed Rubber Development Department (RDD), which was also an administration body. This non-scientific administration think tank (RDD) was not conducive to effective agricultural extension.

By 2002, there were too many irregular segments causing duplication and, hence, excess staff in the RDD were transferred to RRI without having a clear mandate. As a result, 35 extension officers of the RDD who came back to the RRI were entrusted to handle extension programme under the RRI Director. This again led to creation of a dual extension officer situation in the field as in 1994.

At present there are six more institutions formed by the MPI and the relevant authorities to supply services to rubber sector as mentioned below.

As a result, there are four officers from the institutions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the field handling extension and related functions. Now, the rubber farmers are again in a dilemma, unable to figure out which officer should be contacted to get advice on multiple services such as cultivation and processing, etc. Hence, it is questionable why the MPI and relevant authorities have ignored this multiple officer situation. This is in spite of a number of institutions dealing with rubber cultivation and wasting rubber growers cess fund meaninglessly.

 

Source: Rubber Development Department

Table 1 and articles authored by Mr. J. A. A. S. Ranasingha, Dr. L. M. K Tilakaratna and Professor. C. S. Weeraratna, in The Isalnd during the last few weeks indicate that the rubber production in the country has decreased substantially. Table 2 shows the production and imports of RSS in the year 2017. This implies that RSS manufacture should be increased which has a direct link with the smallholder production of RSS. RSS is an input to rubber industry. To improve the productivity of the rubber sector, which is on its way to extinction, there is a pressing need for an effective scientific rubber extension organisation to cater to the needs of rubber farmers. This will enable agronomically qualified think tank to assist rubber farmers to carry out agronomical activities such as outdoor farmer training , indoor training at Nivthigala Kelle, adaptive research activities, planting practices, soil conservation measures, establishing cover crops, fertilizer application, exploitation methodologies, manufacture of better quality rubber sheets, nursery management, smoke houses management, fixing rain guards and marketing, etc., more effectively like in 1994 and before.

One crucial factor which can be attributed to this calamitous situation in the rubber sector was the extremely unsatisfactory situation in the scientific extension, created by the amalgamation of the ASD and the RCD in 1994, removing the extension-oriented ASD think tank from RRB and forming the RDD administration think tank for the sake of development of the rubber sector. This action led to a breakdown of the well-established “Research – Extension – Farmer” inter faced academic development model. This model is a must in agricultural development and it must never be converted to a “Research – Administration – Farmer” model even though the extension label is affixed to the administrators. As a whole it was counter-productive as evident from the decreased production of rubber and increased imports of RSS due to the extension mechanism.

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Quadriplegic doctor aspires to walk again

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Dr. Dinesh Palipana Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021

By Sajitha Prematunge

Dr. Dinesh Palipana does not have the full command of his fingers and his usual offer of a handshake took the form of an awkwardly extended fist. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, like a good sport, fist bumped the quadriplegic doctor, gangster-like, an act of empathy Palipana appreciates to this day. Such are the trials and tribulations Sri Lankan-born Australian doctor, lawyer and disability advocate, Dinesh Palipana is faced with, on a daily basis. But such technicalities didn’t prevent him from recently being named Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021.

The quadriplegic doctor, the first of its kind in Queensland, and the second in Australia, is currently a lecturer at the School of Medicine, Griffith University; Adjunct Research Fellow at Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Senior House Officer (Emergency Department) at Gold Coast University Hospital. “Eleven years ago I was lying on an intensive care bed, I couldn’t move my arms and legs, I couldn’t eat or breathe. My life was falling apart all around me. But to be here after all that trauma seams surreal. But I am grateful for life, for my community, friends and family that supported me,” said Dr. Palipana.

He is a founding member of Doctors with Disabilities Australia, an advocacy group for physicians with disabilities and the ambassador for Physical Disability Australia. Palipana is a member of the scientific advisory committee of Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation. In 2019 Palipana was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine; Junior Doctor of the Year at the Gold Coast University Hospital; Henry Viscardi Achievement Award, a global award in recognition for his work in disability advocacy; and ‘Change Making’ in National Awards for Disability Leadership. All these accolades and achievements would have been impossible without the love and support of his mother, Chithrani Palipana. “My mother taught me what love, strength, commitment and perseverance are.”

 

Tragedy

Born in 1984, Palipana and his family migrated to Australia in 1994, when he was 10. Not only physical disability, Palipana knows only too well how debilitating mental health disorders are as well. He battled with depression, anxiety and panic disorder while studying law. “It took some time. I had to readjust my life and thinking. Finding my purpose really helped.” He realized that law was not his calling. He commenced his Doctor of Medicine at the Griffith University in 2008. When he was 25 and half way through his medical degree, he lost control of his car while driving home on a wet night. The car aquaplaned and rolled. When it finally stopped, he realized that he could not move or feel his legs. Palipana was far enough in his medical education to self diagnose it as a spinal cord injury. It left him quadriplegic.

He lost all sensory and motor function below his chest due to the injury. “I can’t move my fingers,” said Palipana. He has had to make a lot of adjustments to life. “Initially, going from a normal life to being paralysed, was very challenging.” Palipana pointed out that even day-to-day activities can be difficult with impaired movement. Despite a life-changing disability, Palipana decided to go back to medical school. Against all odds he graduated in 2016, with quite a few awards, as the first quadriplegic medical graduate in the state of Queensland, the second in Australia. He also completed a medical clerkship at Harvard Medical School.

Prof Harry McConnell of Griffith University was instrumental in getting Dinesh back on his feet, no pun intended. “He is a passionate believer in inclusivity and has always fought for the rights of those with different abilities. He did a lot of work to facilitate me coming back to medical school. He also helped me a lot with getting my life back together.” Palipana was inspired by Dr Harry Eeman, Australia’s first doctor with tetraplegia, who sustained a severe form of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder that left him paralysed, halfway through medical school. “Dr. Eeman spent time with me to figure out solutions to some of the physical challenges. His experience really laid the foundation for my journey.”

 

Medical school

Palipana adapted new methods to train as a quadriplegic doctor, in partnership with Griffith University and the Gold Coast University Hospital. Quadriplegia can turn everyday activities into obstacles, but he learned his way around them. “Before coming back to medical school I spent a lot of time finding solutions to challenges. I had a great team helping me.” And with persistence, he learned how to hold a stethoscope making use of the natural grip of his fingers. He learned how to examine patients. “I even learned how to insert a cannula with some assistance.”

When asked how inclusive Australian professional culture is, in terms of employment opportunities for the differently-abled, as opposed to a country like Sri Lanka, Palipana admitted that it initially proved difficult to secure an internship in medicine in Australia. Despite two years in clinical training as a medical student at the Gold Coast University Hospital, Palipana had trouble securing an internship. In 2016, he was the only Queensland medical graduate without an employment offer. “I worked really hard in medical school and got good grades. It was very frustrating that non of those things mattered.”

Palipana admitted that medicine is not the most inclusive profession, but said it has improved much in the past five years. Although he explored the possibility of pursuing a medical degree in a Sri Lankan University, Palipana said that most university administrations were reluctant to accommodate him, “Except for Kelaniya University. Other universities have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity.” As a quadriplegic doctor working in Australian, Palipana said that shortcomings of accessibility are not restricted to Sri Lanka. “Accessibility needs a lot of work globally.”

His perseverance paid off. He was eventually employed by the Gold Coast University Hospital as Queensland’s first quadriplegic intern. His disability makes him no less capable as a doctor compared to an able-bodies person. Gold Coast Health, Emergency Medicine Director, Associate Professor David Green, speaking to the Today Show Australia, vouched for Palipana’s ability to pull his weight, albeit on a wheelchair. “In a big, busy emergency with a lot of staff, his value is enormous…After a while you just forget about his disability,” said Green on the Today Show. Dinesh said that the team spirit gets him through. “Besides, there are plenty of patients, I can examine, who do not require me to perform any procedure.”

When asked whether his disability has made him more empathetic towards his patients and whether the accident and subsequent hospitalization made him more able to relate to his patients, Palipana said he remembers what it felt like to be a patient. “It can be disempowering and terrifying. Anchoring myself in my own experiences helps me to remember what it’s like being a patient.” On the other hand Dinesh said that he has never had a patient react negatively to him. “Every single patient has been amazing. I am privileged to be a part of their journey towards recovery.”

Cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques for spinal cord injuries has a major research appeal for Palipana, who is determined to walk again. As Griffith University’s Biospine Project co-lead, Palipana explained that thought-controlled rehabilitation involves translating thought patterns into movement. “For example, if someone’s thinking of walking, we can translate that thought to movement by electrically stimulating the leg.” Promising results suggest that it can re-programme the spinal cord to restore some function in people with paralysis. “Therapies such as thought-controlled rehabilitation, drug therapy and digital twins have separately shown to restore some function in people with chronic paralysis. It is our hope that people like me will be able to stand on their own power again.” His ultimate goal is to come up with a therapy for spinal cord injury.

 

Advocacy

After recuperating at hospital for eight months, Palipana came back to Sri Lanka, where he spent another year, recovering in the company of family and friends. While in Sri Lanka he raised awareness and funds for spinal cord injury victims. In fact, his disability was a catalyst to his advocacy for training medical students with disabilities in Australia. “I’m lucky to be in a position to advocate for people with different abilities,” said Palipana.

Palipana obtained his law degree from the Queensland University of Technology in 2007 and was admitted as a lawyer in 2020. His background in law gave new impetus for his advocacy work on inclusivity in medical profession and education in Australia. “Law is a great tool that can be used to do a lot of good. It allows us to navigate legal and social structures.” His advocacy work with the Australian Medical Association has paved the way for national policies on inclusivity in medical education and employment. He used his story to demonstrate how the community can work with disability, to overturn a set of guidelines issued by the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand in 2015, vesting Australian medical schools with the power to exclude students with a range of disabilities. “Another major obstacle faced by students with disabilities was the attitudes of education establishments such as universities and academics.” Palipana said that Griffith University was an exception.

Palipana is also vocal about disability rights in the times of COVID-19. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the inequities that differently-abled people face. Everything from healthcare access to employment has been an issue,” said Palipana. When health resources are scarce, some would argue that they are better utilized on those with a higher chance of survival. When governments of the developed world are forced to consider how to ration ventilators between people with disabilities and those without, how has COVID-19 affected those with disabilities?

If one with lungs as compromised as those of Palipana’s, were to contract COVID-19, the prognosis would indeed be bleak. Palipana explained that people with disabilities, depending on the disability, can be at high risk of increased complications due to COVID-19. “Many disabilities affect lung function. My lungs for example, don’t function as well, because of the spinal cord injury. It’s 30 percent of what it should be. If I were to get COVID-19 or even the flu, the chances of an adverse outcome is relatively high. Similarly, people with multiple sclerosis and stroke victims are susceptible,” pointed out Palipana. That should not justify sidelining people with disabilities. Palipana maintained that it is all the more reason to safeguard such vulnerable groups. “Through different forums and organisations, I am fortunate to be able to make a contribution in this important area.”

His message to people with debilitating disabilities and illnesses, who may be contemplating giving up on life is, “As a good friend once said, life is about ups and downs. Whenever there is an up, just know that there will be a down. Things can get challenging, but anyone can overcome them and live their dream, if they have the will. If I can become a doctor and lawyer others can too. Just find your passion and chase it.”

Going from being unable to breathe without the aid of a respirator, to advocating for disabled people and developing medical aid, real life success stories such as that of Robin Cavendish, never cease to inspire. Dinesh Palipana who proved his mettle by doggedly pursuing a career in medicine, while advocating for disability rights is, without a doubt, of that same calibre and hopefully will inspire multitudes more to achieve similarly extraordinary aspirations.

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