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Politicians are the same, world over!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

“Since we’re in the Emerald Isles here, let me quote the Bard, William Shakespeare,” said the media darling and former President well known for his oratory, Barack Obama at the COP26 in Glasgow. Whilst the Scots in the audience would have considered it insulting, for others it would have been hilarious! He was wrong on two counts and even if he could be excused about the reference to Shakespeare, getting ‘Emerald Isle’ mixed up is an inexcusable gaffe, as it is pretty well known that ‘The Emerald Isle’ refers to Ireland. True, William Shakespeare, the English playwright is widely regarded as the greatest writer of all time in the English language and the world’s greatest dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon”, or simply “the Bard”. However, during Shakespeare’s time (1564-1616) England and Scotland were different nations; the two joining, by the Act of Union, only in 1707. Scots consider Robert Burns (1759 – 1796), also known as Rabbie Burns, their National Bard and is often referred to as Bard of Ayrshire.

Imagine what would have happened if Donald Trump made such a statement! However, because it was their darling Obama who made the gaffe, it was hardly reported in the British press. It was only when I watched the satirical programme on news and current affairs on BBC “Have I Got News for You” that I came to know of this gaffe, four days later. A Google search, after that, produced very few hits, one being in ‘The Scotsman’ of 9 November. Though it was titled “Barack Obama in ‘Emerald Isles’ gaffe during COP26 speech in Glasgow”, in the body of the article it was the speechwriter who was blamed! Surely, it is the responsibility of the speaker to ensure what is written is correct.

When our President visited Glasgow for the same summit, the Tiger rump organised a protest which was largely unsuccessful because most of the educated Tamils living abroad now realize that more could be achieved by negotiating with the government than with hollow protests. However, they published a full-page advertisement in the Scottish broadsheet, ‘The Herald’, which ‘Tamil Guardian ‘website claimed: “The advert, as a part of the campaign led by Scottish Tamils with the support of other Eelam Tamils from around the world, goes on to state that Rajapaksa, who has been nicknamed “The Terminator”, and the Sri Lanka armed forces are accused of Tamil Genocide”!

This advertisement is replete with many quotations, the most notable being from Barack Obama; “The UN failed to prevent ethnic slaughter in Sri Lanka”. Wonder on what basis has Obama come to such a conclusion? Perhaps, for a man who thinks Scotland is the ‘Emerald Isle’, it is easy to confuse ‘defeating terrorism’ with ‘ethnic slaughter’! Or, he may have been speaking ‘from the other side’ as the present US President did at the summit!! It was well known that the Tiger rump contributed to Obama’s election campaigns. To her credit, Hilary Clinton returned the contributions when it was pointed out that these were from the remnants of a terrorist group but Obama refused to take action stating that he is not aware who contributes and that contributors would not get favours. But this statement proves that he too talks for money! Is this not the dishonesty of the highest order?

Politicians are known to produce a lot of gas in their speeches but according to widely circulating reports in the UK, President Biden passed a lot of gas from the other side at COPE26 in Glasgow. It had been so long and loud that it disturbed Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall who sat next to him. It has amused her so much, it had been the topic of conversation with her friends for days, it was reported. Perhaps, poor Mr Biden did not know what was happening as he seemed to be dozing off most of the time, during COPE26!

Our politicians can take solace from the fact that there are political jokers around the world, too. In fact, they would love what is happening in the UK and may, perhaps, say that they learned from the mother of all parliaments! This revolves around the second jobs most UK parliamentarians do. One Barrister, who represents a very safe Conservative seat, has been earning millions by giving legal advice and appearing for a British Overseas Territory known for dodgy funds but, apparently, has broken no rules! Now, there is a clamour to prevent MPs doing second jobs but it is a long way off from being implemented. It is not only our lot that is keen to make a fast buck by entering parliament!

Since I wrote “Corrupt Cameron” (The Island, 14 August) as I guessed, more ‘Camerons’ have emerged but the worst is the saga around Owen Patterson, which Boris Johnson’s government handled pathetically, resulting in a U-turn. After the notorious “Questions-for-cash” affair that happened during John Major’s premiership, when many malpractices like fraudulent expenses claims were exposed, an independent body was set up to investigate malpractices of MPs.

Owen Patterson, a former Cabinet minister, was a paid consultant for a clinical diagnostics company and to a meat distributing company, earning a total of £100,000 a year on top of his MP’s salary. On being found by the Independent Standards Commissioner to have breached rules on paid advocacy by several counts, The Standards Committee recommended a suspension of 30 days from Parliament, an action that could lead to a by-election if over 10% of electors signed a recall petition. Though such recommendations are accepted without discussion usually, in a vain attempt, the government ordered its MPs to vote for an amendment to halt Mr Paterson’s case, on the excuse that it was considering to rejig the standards system. They seem to be learning a lesson or two from us!

However, many Conservative MPs rebelled, the public outrage coupled with opposition fury resulted in an about-turn within 24 hours which resulted in a severe dent in Boris Johnson’s prestige. Left with no choice, Owen Patterson resigned, but, if not for the fracas, he may well have returned to Parliament after the suspension. In the UK, governing politicians do U-turns when they have made blunders but all that happens in Sri Lanka is continuing arrogance.

Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, who was accused of giving Covid contracts to cronies, resigned only after he was found to be cheating on his wife. He was caught on CCTV kissing an aide, breaking his own rules on Covid! Again, the government was talking of starting an investigation to find out who leaked the CCTV pictures to the media but that seems to have died down!

Politicians of Sri Lanka, I bring good news to you: There are political jokers, cheats and daylight-robbers all over the world, just like you! You may not be the best!



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Opinion

Building trust, a better investment

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The government has allowed private companies to import chemical fertilisers. The farmers had been holding many a street protest against the government’s blatantly unwise policy of shifting to organic farming overnight, but to no avail. The Minister concerned and others repeatedly said that they would not change the government’s decision as it had been made for the good of all the people. The farmers had no problem with organic farming but insisted that the transition had to be phased out to avoid serious adverse effects. But no! The government never relented and tried to show that the street protests were instigated by interested parties including chemical fertiliser companies, to make the government unpopular. The government insisted that chemical fertilisers have caused many ailments including the dreaded kidney disease and turned a deaf ear to the farmers’ grievances.

However, hot on the heels of Mr. Modi’s U-turn last week, the Minister has changed track and tells us that the government, being one which is always ‘sensitive to people’s concerns’, has decided to make chemical fertilizers available through private imports, but would not import them on its own or change its policy of going fully organic. Questioned by journalists, another ruling party spokesperson quipped that the government’s decision came about neither due to the Indian PM’s ‘example’ nor in response to the loud protests. It is a result of the discussions held within the party, he assured.

However, it is unfortunate that the government had to wait for more than seven months to be ‘sensitive to peoples’ concerns’. If the ruling party members had only taken a few minutes to watch TV news headlines, they would have proved their ‘sensitivity’ months earlier, not waiting for Mr. Modi to steal a march on them, so to speak. To any reasonable person, the government obviously has responded to the rampant protests that were actually the climax of a prolonged process, which began with pleading, explaining their predicament, reasoning, chest thumping, expressing disbelief, which gradually culminated in loud protests, burning of effigies and threatening to come to Colombo in numbers. Surely, Mr. Modi didn’t make it any easier for the government to justify its ‘sensitivity’ to farmers’ grievances!

Thus, to any reasonable person, the government had actually responded to the unbridled anger of the helpless farmers, not to their grievances. What’s more, looking at how the government had handled the previous issues of a controversial nature, it is hard to recall any instance where it promptly responded to people’s concerns; it was always a case of responding to people vehemently protesting as a last resort- be it the Port City issue, Eastern Terminal, Teachers’ salary or Yugadanavi Power Plant issue, not to mention the pathetic state of innocent villagers being perpetually traumatized by wild elephant attacks often taking their lives wantonly. In each of these cases, the government, wittingly or unwittingly, seemed to regard the voices of concern, not as appeals worthy of serious attention, but as attempts at disruption or politically motivated interventions. This, surely, does not augur well for the government or support its claim to ‘sensitivity’ as regards people’s concerns.

The government’s decision to compromise on its strict chemical fertiliser ban, which has come soon after Mr. Modi’s reversal of sorts, allows room for the discerning public to make obvious inferences, despite the government’s claim about its decision not being influenced by that of the Indian PM. In fact, the government reps have nothing to gain by pretending to blush when journalists suggest that they perhaps took a leaf from their neighbour. Even at this juncture, people’s representatives seem reluctant to prefer sincerity to affectation; hence the government’s growing aloofness, which is causing a “severe trust deficit”- to borrow a pithy phrase from The Island editorial of November 19.

As the representatives of the public, what any government needs to foster are sincerity and empathy. It is this tacit bond between the people and the government, which will consolidate trust in the long term. Being the party that holds power, the onus is on the rulers to secure people’s faith. Instead, every party that has come to power since Independence has always helped the Opposition to make a five yearly ‘ritual cleansing’ in the eyes of the people. So, the wheel turns.

Susantha Hewa

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Opinion

Don’t harass whistle-blower

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Thushan Gunawardena, who alerted the authorities and the media to a serious fraud taking at Sathosa should not be harassed by the Police as it is clear that he has no political motives and has acted in the public interest.

The Cabinet minister concerned is attempting to show a conspiracy against him when he has failed to prevent such frauds at Sathosa and let it continue as there were benefits flowing to him in addition to his being able to employ family members and manipulate the system for personal profit.

It is patently clear that he is trying to take the investigation in a different direction and prevent changes that would clean up the mess that is contributing to the massive losses at Sathosa.

Mahinda Gunasekera

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Opinion

Stanley (Sam) Samarasinghe

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A TRIBUTE TO A PATRIOT

Even with the prior knowledge that the end was near, when the news of the passing away of Sam on the 23rd of November 2021 was conveyed to me, it was difficult to bear. Though living the better part of his adult life in the United States, to those with whom he had regular contact and dialogue, he was ever present. He succumbed to an illness that he bore with courage and fortitude for several years. In that time his enthusiasm to live his life to the full did not diminish. Except family and close friends none had even the slightest inkling that he was battling an invasive enemy within.

I have described Sam as a Patriot, if its definition is “one that loves his country and zealously maintains its interests”, then it fits him well, as he did that in full measure.

Having schooled in Kandy at Dharmarajah College, Sam completed a special degree in economics at the Peradeniya University where his father worked. Having being accepted by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, he turned to his mentor, Professor H. A. de S. Gunasekera, who had advised him to take Cambridge. He went there with his wife Vidyamali, whom he had met at Peradeniya and obtained his Ph.D. in Economics. They both returned to Peradeniya and Sam became a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics. He taught there until 1989, when he left for the United States with his wife and two sons, Mevan and Ranmal. He was appointed Professor of the Development Studies Programme at the USAID, a position he held for many years in Washington. But what is remarkable, is that he continued his abiding interest in the many facets of Sri Lankan life, especially in education and politics and of course, Kandy. He returned to Sri Lanka at least twice a year. While others would spend such breaks as a let up from work, Sam vigorously involved himself in many spheres of activity.

Along with Prof. Kingsley de Silva, he created the only intellectual hub outside of the Peradeniya University in Kandy at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). As Director, he secured funding for many academic projects that the Centre did. Sam was instrumental in the ICES buying its own place and then constructing a tarred road leading to the Center. The way he set about it will give the reader an idea of the man Sam was. The road served at least 12 houses. He arranged a meeting of all the householders and sold them a deal that none could refuse. Each household was asked to pay proportionately to the distance from the main Peradeniya Road to their house. At the end of the exercise. Sam refunded the excess in that same proportion!!

Sam was an academic, researching and writing extensively, sometimes collaborating with other academics such as Prof. Kingsley de Silva and Prof. G.H. (Gerry) Peiris. On several occasions, he brought out his post graduate students from the Tulane University, New Orleans (where he was Visiting Professor of Economics) to Sri Lanka and to Kandy, arranged field trips and had them interact with academics and professionals.

His particular interest in Kandy made him do a study of its traffic congestion and organised a public seminar with other experts on the subject. As the President of the Senkadagala Lions Club, Sam obtained funding for many of its projects. In fact, Sam had a penchant for writing up project proposals, an expertise he ungrudgingly shared with anyone who asked for it. He started a monthly local newspaper in 1994, the “Kandy News”, becoming its Chief Editor and its main sponsor. The last issue was a special supplement done in the run-up to the Kandy Municipal Council election in 2018.

When the tsunami stuck the country in 2004, Sam was the lead Consultant of a World Vision programme designed to make a qualitative assessment of tsunami and non-tsunami villages from Kalutara in the Western Province to Kilinochchi in the Northern Province. A task he successfully completed with his team under the aegis of the ICES.

He was an advocate for cooperation and harmony among the races. His involvement in the post tsunami work in Jaffna and Trincomalee with the Lions Club is proof of that, as much as it was when he asked the guests to the nuptial reception of his son Mevan, not to give presents but to contribute towards the project initiated by Mevan and himself in giving school books and equipment to the Tamil Primary School at the Gomorra Estate in Panwila.

My own association with Sam goes back to the time I ran for office as Mayor in 1997. He threw his weight behind me helping out in ways too numerous to mention. That friendship grew and grew and it embraced my family as well. He would ask me to criticise his writing especially on politics. He was a stickler for accuracy and uncompromising on facts. His opinions were rational, practical and unbiased. A bubbly personality, he was always a believer that there are better times ahead. His enthusiasm was infectious. His criticism of events and people were never personal. There is much to take from the life and times of Sam Samarasinghe.

We share his loss with his wife, the two boys of whom he was justly very proud of and his siblings whose welfare he always had. The country is poorer for his passing.

May he find peace in Nibbana!

Harindra Dunuwille

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