By Jehan Perera
The initial optimism that accompanied President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ascension to the presidency is wearing thin, in the face of the seemingly insurmountable problems he has to deal with, including the economic crisis, and, most unexpectedly the COVID-19 spread. But there are also the more traditional issues of abuse of power, corruption and inter-community tensions that are raising their heads. The recent prison riot, which has seen brutality, is what people remember of the past and must not recur under a government that cares for its people, regardless of their stations in life or communities. When he won the presidential election, in November 2019, there was a great deal of hope that the President was a leader with strong convictions who would immediately take charge and put things right in an efficient manner.
Although the first few months, that followed his election, saw little in the direction of such positive change, this was attributed to the fact that the new government, under him, still remained a minority government, with a Parliament elected in 2015. The dissolution of Parliament, in March 2019, was followed by decision-making by the executive without the check and balance of the legislature. There was anticipation that the change for the better would have to await the general elections. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic dealt a blow to these expectations by delaying the general elections. It was during this time that disturbing signs began to emerge that little had changed and that the old system was reasserting itself and limiting the scope of the changes that the people so eagerly awaited.
Despite the general elections of August 2020, and the large majority obtained by the ruling party, there was another roadblock to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that needed to be cleared according to the election manifesto of the ruling party. This was the 19th Amendment to the constitution which was a legacy of the previous government and intended to weaken the President’s powers and share them with Parliament. So once again it appeared that the President’s hands were tied. The President’s determination to have the 20th Amendment replace the 19th was therefore seen by the majority of people as an indication of his commitment to ensure a change for the better by re-concentrating power in the presidency. When the people voted overwhelmingly for President Rajapaksa, they did so in the expectation of a strong leader who would protect the people’s rights.
The popular desire for a strong leader arose from the failure of the previous government to give the people a sense that it was strong and cohesive and would protect them and the country. Like the present government, that government too was voted into power with high expectations of a corruption-free government that also respected people’s human rights and obtained the support of the international community and investors to propel the country forward in terms of economic development. However, the manner in which the former government was seen as giving in to international pressure, especially on the issue of the war victory and human rights issues related to it, was viewed negatively by a large segment of the population. The inability of that government to protect the people from the Easter Sunday bombings and their disastrous human and economic costs made the case very strong for a change of government.
It was in this context that there was a popular expectation that the passage of the 20th Amendment would empower the President to be the protector of the people from those who would exploit the country for their personal benefit, whether local or international. However, starting with the building of new roads in the protected ancient forest of Sinharaja, and the spate of lands in various parts of the country being acquired for private economic usage, the situation in the country is not working out that way. The 20th Amendment of October 2020 has re-concentrated power in the presidency. But this has weakened the system of checks and balances to make it appear that the government leadership wishes to limit the institutional obstacles to doing what it wants to do. There are numerous accounts of the destruction of the environment, including forest land and mangroves, for the economic profit of private interests.
It can now be seen that the country is plunging deeper into political and economic crisis. The legal system is seen to be failing to vindicate human rights and deeply felt religious sensibilities in the case of enforced Covid cremations even in contravention of the recommendations of the Human Rights Commission. The arrest of Shani Abeysekera, the former director of the Criminal Investigations Department, and his imprisonment in conditions in which he has contracted Covid, would send a chilling message to police officers about the dangers of pursuing wrongdoers who have political connections. At the same time there has been the acquittal of several government officials on trial for corruption, including those involving the misuse of state resources.
The weakening of checks and balances is also seen in the directive ordering closure of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the electricity sector regulator and the designated regulator for water services. The cancellation or overruling by the Presidential Secretary of an institution that has been established under an Act of Parliament sends a very concerning message that other laws be reviewed by officials outside of Parliament and be nullified. This will serve to undermine the powers of Parliament and the confidence of the citizenry with regard to the institutions of governance. This needs review to the effect that an Act of Parliament may not be nullified without the concurrence of Parliament to ensure that the system of checks and balances continues.
The deterioration in inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations taking place at the present time is another serious cause for concern. Ironically, this deterioration is not at the level of the communities on the ground, though it is likely that they too will be dragged into the polarization unless remedial measures are taken at the national level. The relations between people of different communities at the ground level are neither hostile nor confrontational with regard to each other. However, there is an element of confrontation that is building up between the ethnic and religious minorities and the state. In the case of the Muslim community it is on account of the enforced cremation of Covid victims who have died. In the case of the Tamil community it is on account of the issue of whether they can remember the dead.
The controversies over Covid cremation and memorializing the war dead is now becoming a national political issue to the extent of parliamentarians utilizing Parliament to debate the issue and to discredit one another and to instill fears of future security threats to each side. This has increased the level of ethno-nationalist rhetoric which will increase the polarization between the communities. This will have its impact on the ground which those who wish to utilize to their advantage even at the cost of social and community peace will seize upon. But this is not a formula for a society that seeks to encourage economic investments by corporate and private investors, local and foreign, which is essential to reach the goal of the economic development that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has set for himself and the country.
The question is how the government will seek to ensure the continuing confidence of the people in its governance and decisions it takes. Now that the 20th Amendment has been passed into law, President Rajapaksa is best positioned to make the decisions that call for sacrifice but which are fair by all. Although the situation in the country is not working out the way that it was expected to, the majority of people in the rural hinterlands continue to place their trust in the President and in the genuineness of his commitment to change that embraces all citizens. So would the people in other parts of the country if they see that sacrifices are being made all round, and that politically connected elites are not unfairly being enriched at their expense. As Mahatma Gandhi said a century ago, let not their leaders mistrust them, for theirs is a very responsive nature.
India at 75
By Gwynne Dyer
Last Tuesday, on the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to turn India into a developed country, within the next 25 years. If all goes well, that could actually come to pass, but it would have to go very well indeed.The demographic and economic signs are positive. The country’s population has grown fourfold, since independence in 1947, but population growth has now dropped to ‘replacement level’: 2.1 children per completed family.
The current youngest generation is so large that the population will keep growing, until 2060, when it will have reached 1.7 billion. The upside of this is that India will continue to have a rapidly growing young workforce for another generation, while its only rival, China, will have a rapidly ageing and dwindling population (1.2 billion and still falling in 2060)
India’s GDP per capita has been growing at about 5% for years, and if that continues for the next 25 years, it will have grown to $7,500 per person. That’s certainly within the lower ranks of developed countries (like Mexico, South Africa or China today). Given the size of India’s population, the economy would certainly rank in the world’s top five.
So, Modi’s prediction was certainly within the realm of possibility, but there are two big wild cards. One is climate: although only half of India, technically, falls within the tropics, all of it, except the very far north, suffers long, very hot summers.This summer has been the hottest ever, with many of the largest cities experiencing temperatures, above 45°C, for days at a time. Whatever we do about climate in the future, it can only go on getting worse for India, for the next 25 years.
That will bring the country into the zone where it literally becomes unsafe for people to do manual work outside, at the height of summer; death rates will go up, and food production will go down. Nobody knows exactly how bad it will get, but it will certainly get much worse that it is now.
The other wild card is war. Since the Indian and Pakistani tests of nuclear weapons, in 1999, the subcontinent has lived under the threat of a ‘local’ nuclear war that would devastate both countries (and also cause global food shortages lasting for at least four or five years).An Indo-Pak nuclear war is not inevitable, but, unlike the major nuclear powers, these two countries have fought real wars against each other – three in the past 75 years. The likelihood of such a catastrophe actually happening is certainly a lot higher than zero.
Each country now has about 160 nukes, and although both are now working to move beyond the dangerously unstable ‘use them or lose them’ phase where a a surprise attack might disarm the other side, there is no real stability to be found when the adversaries are so close and the hostility is so intense.So there is no harm in considering whether it might have been better to keep the entire Indian subcontinent, first united by the British empire, in one piece, at independence, rather than splitting it into two countries (and eventually three, counting Bangladesh).
The split was by no means inevitable. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the two main Hindu leaders of the independence movement, wanted an inclusive, non-sectarian republic, including all of British India, although they failed to offer Muslims sufficient guarantees to ensure their support.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the main Muslim leader in 1947, did want to carve a Muslim-majority Pakistan out of the country, but there was no obligation for the British government to satisfy his demand. He got his way because the United Kingdom was virtually broke after the Second World War and in a great hurry to dump its responsibilities in India.
Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never been east of Paris, had five weeks to draw the dividing line between the two new countries. Around 15 million people, who found themselves on the wrong side of that line, became refugees, mutual massacres followed, and within weeks India and Pakistan had their first war. But it could have been different.
The undivided ‘big India’ would have 1.8 billion people today, about one-third Muslim and two-thirds Hindu. That would virtually guarantee that both groups would be represented in every government and in most political parties.
Lots of countries, elsewhere in the world, manage to be both democratic and prosperous with comparable religious and/or ethnic differences. The ‘big India’ would not have wasted 75 years’ worth of high defence spending, and there would be no risk of nuclear war.All those energies would have been devoted instead to civilian priorities, and that united India might already rank as a developed country. Might-have-beens.
Ukraine War: Mother May I?
By Gwynne Dyer
“This obviously does not happen because of a thrown butt,” said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace. But the Russian Ministry of Defence insisted that the explosions that destroyed at least eight warplanes at Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea on 9 August were due to “a violation of fire safety requirements.”
The implication is that some careless Russian smoker tossed away his cigarette butt and caused a fire that set off explosions. That’s hardly a testimonial to the discipline of the Russian air force’s ground crews, but it’s better than admitting that Ukrainian missiles have reached 225 km behind Russian lines to destroy a whole squadron of Russian fighters.Moscow also claimed that no Russian aircraft had been damaged by the explosions in Crimea, although the wreckage of the destroyed fighters was clearly visible on the ‘overheads’ from satellite observations.
The Russian Defence Ministry played the same silly game in April when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the ‘Moskva.’, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It claimed that a fire had caused munitions to explode, and that the ship then sank while under tow due to “stormy seas” (although the sea was actually flat calm at the time).And what caused that fire? Careless smokers again, presumably, because even the most damning statements about the indiscipline and incompetence of Russian sailors and airmen are preferable to an admission that the Ukrainians are really hurting Russia.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry is having fun with this, reporting that it “cannot establish the cause of the fire [at the Russian airfield], but once again reminds of fire safety rules and a ban on smoking in unauthorized places.”
Taking responsibility for these strikes deep in Russian-controlled territory is not in Ukraine’s interest, so it’s happy for Russia to take the blame. Various anonymous defence officials in Kyiv further muddied the waters by suggesting that Ukrainian partisans were responsible, or Ukrainian special forces already operating far behind Russian front lines.
But why is it not in Ukraine’s interest to take ownership of these small but symbolically important victories?
It’s because the really decisive front in this war is how fast American and other NATO weapons systems are sent to Ukraine, and that is determined by a process that seems to be derived largely from the old children’s game of ‘Mother May I’ (also known as ‘Giant Steps’).The opening move is quite straightforward: Kyiv asks Washington for a hundred HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems so that it can counter Russia’s huge superiority in older artillery and rocket systems and drive Moscow’s forces from Ukrainian soil.
Washington replies that it can take two giant steps and a frog hop. No, wait a minute, it replies that Ukraine can have four HIMARS systems now. Once the crews have been trained and have demonstrated their proficiency in using the weapons, Kyiv can start the next round of the game by asking for more. This takes four weeks.
Getting into the spirit of the game, Ukraine then asks for only twenty more HIMARs, leaving the rest for later. Washington replies that it can take four baby steps and a pirouette – or rather, four more HIMARs now, but with the range still restricted to 70 km. and no thermobaric ammunition (fuel-air explosives). And so on.We are now in the fourth round of this game, with sixteen HIMARs promised of which Ukraine has already deployed between eight and twelve on the battlefield. At this rate, Ukraine will have the hundred HIMARs it needs to expel the Russians around April of 2024.
Similar games are being played with other badly needed weapons from NATO stockpiles like Western-made combat aircraft, modern anti-air defence systems, and longer-range missiles for attacks like the one on Saki Air Base. This is all driven by an excess of caution about such ‘escalation’ at the White House and in the National Security Council.
Washington is right to be concerned about Russia’s reactions, but it is prone to see the Russians as dangerously excitable children. They are not. They are poker players (NOT chess-players) who bet over-confidently, and are now trying to bluff their way out of trouble. The Russian ruling elite, or at least most of it, remains rational.
The Ukrainians, however, have to take American anxieties into account even when they use their own weapons, some of which have been modified for extended range, on distant Russian targets. The simplest way is just to pretend it wasn’t their weapons that did the damage.The same policy applies to the numerous acts of sabotage carried out in Russia by Ukrainian agents – and by a happy accident the Russians are willing to collaborate in this fiction. They’d rather blame the clumsiness, ignorance and incompetence of their own troops than give the credit to the Ukrainians.
Book Review : An incisive exploration of Sri Lanka’s religiosity
Title: ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ – Innovation, shared spaces, contestation
Editors – Mark P. Whitaker, Darini Rajasingham- Senanayake and Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran
A Routledge South Asian Religion Series publication
Exclusively distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo 5. (e-mail: email@example.com)
Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz
This timely publication could be described as a revelation of the fascinating nature of Sri Lanka’s religiosity. It is almost customary to refer to Sri Lanka as a ‘religious country’ but it is not often that one comes across scholarly discussions on the subject locally. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, a collection of research papers put together in book form, fills this void most adequately.
Although not necessarily synonymous with spiritual development, religiosity in Sri Lanka essentially refers to the widespread prevalence of organized or institutionalized religion in the lives of the majority of Sri Lankans. What qualifies the country to be seen as religiously plural is the presence in it of numerous religions, though mainly in their institutionalized forms.
What ought to pique the interest of the specialist and that of the inquiring layman alike is the fact that though falling short of the highest standards of spirituality most of the time, religion is used innovatively and creatively by its adherents to meet some of their worldly and otherworldly needs. That is, religion is a dynamic and adaptable force in the lives of Sri Lanka’s people. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’ explores these characteristics of religion in depth and underscores the vitality of religion in the consciousness of its diverse practitioners. A chief strength of the publication is the featuring of almost all the main religions of Sri Lanka, from the viewpoint of their innovative and adaptable use by devotees.
The research papers in question, numbering 16, were presented at an Open University of Sri Lanka forum held in mid-July in 2017. The editors of the volume have done well to bring these papers together and present them in book form to enable the wider public in Sri Lanka and abroad to drink deep of the vital insights contained in them, considering that religiosity has gained increasingly in importance in post-war Sri Lanka. Fittingly, ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, is dedicated to the memory of well-known Sri Lankan social scientist Malathi de Alwis who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but had contributed a paper at the relevant forum prior to her passing away. Her paper too is contained in the collection.
The thematic substance of the volume could be said to have been set out in some detail by co- editor Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake in her introductory essay titled, ‘Spaces of Protection, healing and liberation…’ She writes: ‘Religiosity appears as a means of coping with life’s transitions, celebrations, disappointments, diseases, conflicts and violence; and events such as birth and death, illness, exams, marriage, divorce, the sense of the sacred, the auspicious, and inauspicious (Sumangali-Amangali). Fundamentally, beyond the political, (multi-)religiosity provides an individual’s coping strategy and/or a social performance for negotiating with the perceived power, energies and structures that are greater than oneself, particularly the supernatural and transnational.’
When seen from the above perspective, the ability of many Sri Lankans to comfortably worship at multiple religious institutions and shrines, for example, while claiming adherence in the main to this or that religious belief makes considerable sense, because the average Lankan devotee is of a pragmatic bent and not a religious purist. Depending on her needs she would worship at a major Buddhist or Hindu temple, for example, and also supplicate her cause at a prominent Catholic church. Such practices speak volumes for the flexibility and innovativeness of the devotee. They also testify to her broad religious sympathies and her ability to share her religious spaces with others of different religious persuasions. A few places of religious significance in Sri Lanka that thus draw adherents of multiple religions are Adam’s Peak, Kataragama, Madhu Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo.
At these places of reverence the usually restricted adherence to a single religious belief or faith is easily transcended by worshippers as apparently part of a personal or collective coping strategy to deal with multiple personal and societal pressures. ‘Kataragama Pada Yatra – Pilgrimaging with ethnic “others” ‘ by Anton Piyaratne and ‘Religious innovation in the pilgrimage industry – Hindu bodhisattva worship and Tamil Buddhistness’ by Alexander McKinley are just two papers in the collection that deal insightfully with this aspect of worshippers’ abilities to comfortably manage multiple religious identities and spaces. These habits of the average Sri Lankan devotee highlight the potentiality of religiosity, among other things, to be a bridge-builder among communities.
For instance, Mckinley sets out in his exposition: ‘Religious innovation at shared sacred sites can thus blur or sharpen the dominant ethno-religious divisions of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Hindu’ in Sri Lanka. Saman devotion can simultaneously be interpreted as a sincere form of highland Hindu religiosity, a strategic innovation by Tamil workers to appease Sinhala pilgrims, as well as an opening for Sinhalas to either convert Tamils into Buddhists, or to cooperate with them towards common goals, such as environmental conservation’.
A conspicuous and continuing theme of the collection is the wide-ranging and often damaging impact of the Sri Lankan government’s 30-year anti-LTTE war. Quite a number of the researchers, thus, deal with its adverse impact on women, and quite rightly, because the war revealed as perhaps never before the marked vulnerabilities of Sri Lankan women in conflict situations. ‘Of Meditation, Militarization and Grease Yakas’ by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake and ‘Vijaya and Kuweni retold’ by Neena Mahadev deal quite elaborately on this subject and throw valuable light on the multi-dimensional impact the Northern war has had on women, besides focusing on the resourceful ways in which religion is used by women to cope with social and political issues.
‘Emerging innovative religiosities and what they signify’ by Selvy Thiruchandran continues with the focus on women and religiosity but introduces a wider societal dimension by bringing into the discourse the phenomenon of New Religious Movements (NRM). The researcher points to the immense popularity among mainly middle class women of two of these movements, the Satya Sai Baba cult and the growing interest in Brahma Kumaris Yoga centres, and elaborates on the roles they play in enabling women to deal with personal and societal pressures.
However, Thruchandran arrives at the thought-provoking conclusion at the end of her wide-ranging research that, ‘The old religion and the new so-called innovation that is sought in the new religions can be summarized in a well-known cliché – old wine in new bottles.’ That is, these New Religions are mainly forms of escapism. We have here a fresh perspective on issues relating to the liberation of women that calls for deep consideration. Moreover, these New Religious Movements do not help in any substantive way to change the fundamental and perennial reality of male domination over women; for, we are given to understand that some men actively discourage their wives from joining the Brahma Kumaris movement.
The role of Sri Lanka’s Christian Left in giving religion a progressive and socially emancipatory orientation in recent decades is the subject of Harini Amarasuriya’s paper titled, ‘Beards, cloth bags, and sandals – Reflections on the Christian left in Sri Lanka’. The researcher’s prime focus is on an institution of mainly Left political activism established by a Christian clergyman, Sevaka Yohan, in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegala in the seventies decade by the name Devasaranaramaya. Besides committing itself to robust Left political activism, the latter centre possessed an indigenous cultural ethos and sought to unite the country’s cultures and religions. In other words, the institution aimed at being a shared space where religions comingled on the basis of shared values.
Accordingly, the publication of ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka…’, is a welcome development. The book sheds invaluable light on the subject of local religiosity, which is a relatively unexplored but vital area of knowledge that has important implications for nation-building in Sri Lanka. Besides the papers discussed above, there are numerous other learned and insightful research papers on religiosity in this collection that call for urgent reading. Collectively the papers constitute a treasury of knowledge that those pursuing Sri Lankan Studies could ill-afford to by-pass.
Domestic debt restructuring will cripple EPF, ETF – JVP
Powerful CEBEU says yes to restructuring but on its terms
SJB opposes blanket privatisations
‘Dates have the highest sugar content to fight Coronavirus’
U.S. Congress to probe assets fleecing by US citizens of Sri Lankan origin
Sunday Island 27 December – Headlines
News6 days ago
Wide ranging rackets benefiting CEB engineers
News4 days ago
Thanks to QR code expenditure on fuel drops from USD 500 million to USD 230 million a month
News5 days ago
Delisting of Tamil Diaspora groups irks some; explanation sought
News3 days ago
SJB alleges Prez under SLPP pressure to give up power to dissolve Parliament
Sports6 days ago
Mathews regrets Mankading of Buttler
News3 days ago
Wimal blames Gota’s naivety, Basil’s arrogance for current situation
News2 days ago
State sector reforms: Herath endorses Ranil’s agenda
News4 days ago
Jugglery alleged in Constitution making process: SJB, Gevindu make strong case against jumbo Cabinet