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People, places and crises from 1922 to 2022

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by Rajan Philips

In a rather depressing start for the New Year, 2022 appears to be a seamless continuation of 2021 insofar as the Covid-19 pandemic is concerned. The effects of the pandemic, both in public health and in the broader political and economic spheres, are likely to be significant through much this decade. Add to that the effects of climate change and the challenges of adaptation to its recurrent fire, drought and flood disasters. A hundred years ago, the 1920s began as a time of respite for much of the world after the debacles of the previous decade including the First World War and the Spanish Flu. But early signs of a positive turnaround soon disappeared and by the end of the third decade the world was into its worst economic depression and was set up for an even more devastating Second World War. Ominous signs for the third decade of the last century emerged in 1922. The historical events of 1922 provide a temporal framework as we look for people, places and crises that would be significant in 2022.

Chroniclers have noted that in 1922, while the old Ottoman Empire was finally abolished after 600 years, the British Empire was at the height of its imperial-colonial powers, commanding over a quarter of the world and its peoples. The Soviet Union came into being on December 30, 1922. Two months earlier in Italy, Benito Mussolini staged his Fascist March on Rome and became the youngest ever Italian Prime Minister at 39 years of age. That same year, Britain allowed the Irish Free State to be born, gave Egypt self-government, but sent Mahatma Gandhi to jail on charges of sedition in India.

1922 was also the year of Germany’s hyper-inflation (with the German mark losing value from 263 to a dollar in January to over 7,000 to a dollar by year end) triggering the insolvency of the Weimar Republic, its eventual collapse eight years later and along with it the rise of Hitler. The only noted event in the US that year was President Warren Harding’s introduction of radio as a mass communication tool at the White House. China in 1922 was internally destabilized and the Communist Party founded in July 2021 was a fledgling organization.

A hundred years later, the sun has long set on the British Empire and the new Britain, for a second year in succession, is among the worst affected countries by Covid-19 infections. Compounding Britain’s woes are the fallouts from Brexit – with plummeting British exports to the EU in spite of the addition of volumes of paperwork for clearing customs. In one telling instance, Britain’s traditional exports of handcrafted black iron cookware from Shropshire (the cradle of industrial revolution) to Germany are in danger of being abandoned as a direct result of Brexit complications.

Germany is more stable than Britain and calls the shots in the EU. The US that became a superpower after the Second World War is now in a cultural war within itself. Old cleavages (race and segregation) are finding new avenues (masks, vaccination, voting and abortion) to tear the country from end to end. Harding’s 1922 radio has been supplanted by a thousand social media platforms, that individually and collectively challenge and crowd out the voice of the President of the Union. Meanwhile, China has grown to be a rival superpower to the US. India has superpower aspirations, but under Prime Minister Modi, whose main political mission is to erase the Gandhi-Nehru imprint over India, the country is headed to becoming a regional bully at most.

The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, but Vladimir Putin has managed to thrust Russia, without any of the old Soviet trappings, into bilateral reckoning with the United States. It is a consequence of the West’s failure to accommodate Russia in the post-Cold War world without making it a new target of NATO expansion beyond its original purpose. The Russian President has had two long phone calls in less than month with President Biden to diffuse tensions over Ukraine. In 2022, the US will likely be constrained to deal with both China and Russia simultaneously, a nightmare scenario for Washington policy makers despite their best efforts to keep the two unnatural allies separate.

For their part, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have struck a mutually supportive understanding between them, with Putin supporting China over Taiwan and Xi backing Russia over Ukraine and NATO. But all three leaders along with others will also be constrained to work together over what will likely be the three dominant issues for 2022, viz. Covid-19, climate change and rising specter of inflation.

Sri Lanka’s Past & Prospects

In 1922, Sri Lanka was a British colony and was in the throes of nascent communal convulsions and constitutional trial and error. The bickering over a Tamil seat in the Western Province was the sum and substance of the political differences between Low-country Sinhalese leaders and Colombo-Tamil elites. The now familiar terminology of the national question was not in anyone’s vocabulary or part of their material experience. Moreover in 1922, Sri Lanka was under the “Temporary Constitution” of 1920. It would be nine years before universal franchise, 26 years before independence, and 50 years before becoming a republic.

It would be another 56 years before the sacking of parliamentary democracy and the imposition of an executive presidential system by President JR Jayewardene. And a full 100 years before the midlife presidential crisis of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 2021 by far has been the worst performance by a Sri Lankan Head of State and Head of Government in 73 years. President Rajapaksa’s apologetic admirers have been hoping for a course correction in 2022, aided by the hidden or unhidden hand of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The emergent signs are not of any course correction, no evidence of reaching out to helping hand from Mahinda Rajapaksa, but only a continuing course of denials, dismissals and resignations.

In his year-end meeting with a group of newspaper editors, President Rajapaksa provided only denials and dismissals on all the issues that have been bedeviling the country throughout 2021. On the controversial Yugadanavi LNG agreement, the President offered no explanation for the deal or an exposition of its benefits. He only blamed the Weerawansa-Gammanpila-Nanayakkara ministerial trio for their alleged failure to abide by their collective cabinet responsibility. Notwithstanding Justice Mark Fernando’s ruling that the President seems to have been tutored on, it is not the trio’s collective responsibility that is at issue. What is at issue is how and for what reasons did the cabinet headed by President Rajapaksa decide to grant New Fortress Energy the contract to build an off-shore liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal for Sri Lanka.

On gas leak explosions, the President reportedly said: “I do not see the gas explosions as incidents that occurred only under this government.” This is executive temerity in spite of all the evidence this year and the number of incidents in the months of November and December alone. The President seems annoyed with the “media publicity” given to the incidents of gas leak explosions on his watch. Media publicity only reflects the number and frequency of recent explosions. Still no explanation of what went wrong primarily at Litro Gas, who has been held accountable, and what steps have been taken by the government to ensure that standards are set and complied with, and to provide a safe supply of cooking gas cylinders.

On the fertilizer issue, the President finally seems to have conceded, “I admit that there has also been a mistake with regard to the fertiliser issue. The content of the Chinese fertilizer stock should have been tested before the issuance of the letter of credit to import them.” But who authorized the letter of credit, and why? There are no answers. Only blame, again, this time it is the fault of the Ministry of Agriculture for not correctly implementing the President’s “green agriculture programme.” Agriculture is always green, but what advice did the President ask for and receive from the Ministry before launching the programme by gazette notification?

On the ills of the economy, the President seems to be quite at peace with himself that he has nothing to do with it and it is all blamable on Covid-19. And he seems peeved that he is not being given due credit for the government’s commendable vaccination launch. Others see things quite differently and people’s experiences are diametrically opposite. And the President had nothing to say on what the government is going to do about the economy in the new year. And not a word about the IMF either. Is the government going to seek IMF help, or not? When will the cabinet, with collective responsibility, decide on this? And is Nivard Cabraal speaking for the cabinet when he insists that Sri Lanka will not seek IMF help?

Finally, as the new year dawns, the man behind the President and the source of all executive fiats and gazettes for the last two years is about to resign. The media has been reporting that Secretary PB Jayasundara has tendered his resignation to the President and is expected to vacate office later in January. The resignation apparently is the result of criticisms of Dr. Jayasundara by several Ministers for his exercising power over all ministries without being accessible to the subject Ministers. The President has publicly defended his Secretary, which is understandable, even though the same courtesy was not shown to other officials who have either resigned or gotten fired via WhatsApp. Puzzlingly, however, the President also chose to publicly berate the Ministers who have been criticizing Dr. Jayasundara, and suggested that some of the Ministers “maybe doing it to cover up their own weaknesses by just ‘playing to the gallery’.” The latter is a time-worn, old-English phrase that is hardly appropriate for a Sri Lankan President whose singular referential point in politics is the 6.9 million voters who voted for him.

After his victory in 2019, I wrote in this column (January 12, 2020) with a somewhat optimistic perspective for the GR presidency. That was the week of the hullaballoo over the arrest of actor-politician Ranjan Ramanyake (RR), and mere weeks before Covid-19 struck. I took a cue from RR’s One-Shot film, and interpreted the GR presidency, whether one term or two, as a One-Shot presidency. And given the still new (in 2019) President’s military background and unusual political path, I argued that Gotabaya Rajapaksa could become a ‘legacy president’, as opposed to being a ‘career president’.

Looking for potential ‘legacies’, I envisaged that the President would avoid touching the constitution and focus on meaningful hard infrastructure development in urban areas and the strengthening of the non-plantation agricultural sector for the rural areas. I have later argued that urban infrastructure and rural agriculture should be vigorously pursued to offset the economic setbacks caused by Covid-19.

The above were not unsolicited pieces of advice given to the Head of State, but a logical outlook for the administration of an incumbent with a non-political/non-civil-service background and elected to the country’s highest political office. Alas, the last two years have seen the GR presidency unfolding as it should not have. Of all things, the President picked constitution as his top priority and outsourced it to a committee of experts, so called. Their magnum opus of a draft is expected to be presented in parliament this January.

There is nothing to write home about urban infrastructure and rural agriculture has been temporarily destroyed by the stroke of a gazette ban on inorganic fertilizers. There are more woes, including fears of food shortage and cuts to electricity and water. For the first time since its inception 51 years ago, the islands petroleum refinery has been shut down for want of cash to ship in crude oil. In addition, the breaking news is that four turbines at the Sapugaskanda 72MW Power Station have also been shut down for want of fuel. In sum, the government offers no pleasing prospect that people can look for in 2022. It is a depressing start and there is no point in denying it.



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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