By Prof. Charles Sarvan
The following is an abridged version of a longer essay: “essay” in the earlier meaning of “to attempt”. Argument generates the heat of emotion but rarely the light of understanding – I attempt merely to share some perspectives on race and racism.
The signifier “unicorn” refers to a non-existent animal. Similarly, “race” seems to be a signifier without a signified. But we are loose in our use of language. We speak of colonialism and colonies in instances where it was imperialism and imperial territories. We talk of “black” (non-white) and “white” people though there are neither “white” nor “black” people. The paper on which we write is white but not the people classified as “white”: Jeffrey Boakye (‘Black Listed’) offers “pinkish beige”. But the dominant West has chosen “white” (associated with cleanliness and purity), and the rest of the world has followed suit through docility or simple laziness. Besides, we have a penchant for sharp dichotomy: the guilty and the innocent, good and bad, etc. Shades in between, nuance and complexity, are mentally taxing and troubling. “The first problem with being black is that it is literally not accurate.” No matter how dark my skin is, it is not black (Boakye). Often in the Western press “race” means a non-white skin-pigmentation. In an article written many years ago, I suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that a certain kind of racism be more precisely termed “Colourism”.
It’s argued that prior to the 1600s and the enslavement of Africans, white people did not see themselves as belonging to a ‘race’. In simple terms, the slaves weren’t Christian and, therefore, could be enslaved. But, as the slaves became Christian, another justification was needed, and it was found in whiteness. But language is conventional rather than individual, so though I am careful to distinguish between colonialism and imperialism; though I refer to the autochthonous as “Native Americans” and not as “Indians”, I find myself writing of “black” and “white” people; sometimes, of “people of colour”.
Those who believe in race are unable to agree on the number of races presently existing: it ranges from one (the human race) to about seventy. Shlomo Sand, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University in his The Invention of the Jewish People, first published in Hebrew for a Jewish readership (see, Sarvan, ‘Groundviews’, 07 March 2013), states that there is no biological basis for Jewishness, and that belief in a Jewish race is nothing but “racist pseudoscience”. Race is a social myth and not a scientific fact but “Zionist pedagogy produced generations who believed wholeheartedly in the ethnic uniqueness of their nation”. Another work by Professor Sand has the provocative title, ‘How I Stopped Being a Jew’. Opposition to Zionist policy and practice, particularly against the Palestinians, is deliberately and incorrectly besmirched as racism, more precisely, as anti-Semitism. But there is no Semitic race (Sand). What prevails is but ethno-religious nationalism. Israel today is made ugly by “brutal racism” and a crying failure to take others into consideration (Sand). Israel defines itself as a Jewish state but is unable to define who a Jew is: there is no Jewish DNA (Sand). Professor Sand asserts that he can’t be free unless others are also free. “My own place is among those who try to discern and root out, or at least reduce, the excessive injustices of the here-and-now”.
Yet another synonym suggested for discredited ‘race’ is ‘ethnicity’. However, the latter term can testify to the resilience and mutability of racism, and the disguises it can adopt. Ethnicity is an aspect of relations between groups where at least one party sees itself as being culturally distinctive, if not unique. This sense of difference influences the perception and treatment of others. Though there are similarities and differences, the former are glossed over, and much made of difference. However, the boundary delimited by one cultural criterion – system of government, language, religion, social customs and practices – does not coincide with those established by other criteria. In short, “ethnicity” may be a Trojan horse bringing back disgraced racism. Ethnicity is a term to be used after careful thought. The term culture can now denote something essential, now something acquired; now something bounded, now something without boundaries; now something experienced, now something ascribed. Race as culture is only biological race in polite language.
Finally, it’s a matter of defining terms and clarifying concepts. Take for example, the word “peace”: Is it peace for the conquerors only? Is peace merely the negative absence of overt war or the positive presence of harmony for all citizens which, in turn, is the product of elements such as justice and a sense of security? (Justice cannot be equated with Law because there can be unjust, discriminatory, laws.)
As with ethnicity, so it is with nationalism. It has been said that a patriot is one who loves his own while a nationalist hates all others. ‘Nationalist’ can be but a euphemism for ‘racist’: some nationalists claim that only members of their group constitute the real and authentic nation. Racists reject a nationality based on citizenship. Some Sri Lankans living abroad claim, often receive and enjoy, legal nationality but vehemently and violently deny it to other groups in Sri Lanka: there, they affirm, nationality is based not on citizenship but on ‘race’.
Though race does not exist, racism certainly does – and flourishes. Race is not the father of racism but its child (Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’). It’s those who are race-minded, who think and react in terms of race: see Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘The Artificial Nigger’. As Professor Amy Chua notes in ‘Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations’, the majority projects itself as the norm; others are deviations and subordinate. “Sri Lanka” means for many “Sinhalese Buddhist”, and secondly Sinhalese Christians. Tamils, Muslims and others are beyond the including circle. (The Buddhist scholar, Dr. K. S. Palihakkara, using figurative language, sadly noted: Soon after the death of the Enlightened One, the beautiful clearing he had made was overrun by the surrounding jungle, and now “almost all Buddhists practise more of Hinduism than Buddhism: ‘Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles’, Stamford Lake Publications, Pannipitiya, 109. If this is so, it obviates the question whether there are Sinhalese Hindus: Buddhists are also Hindu.)
Racism can strengthen the racial consciousness of a minority. While identity is neither single nor simple but multiple and complex, racism and ‘colourism’ focus on just one aspect: ‘race’ or skin-colour. I quote from an earlier article of mine:
“There was a time when most, if not all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement, temple and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being “Ceylonese”; a time when Tamils described themselves as Ceylonese and not (as some Tamils tend to do now) as “Sri Lankan Tamil”. When in 1915, D. S. Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake, were jailed by the British authorities, Tamil Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese… In 1925-6, when Bandaranayake, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka, he received no support for it from the Tamils (K M De Silva). In 1952, the Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayagam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a UNP candidate.”
Racism can erase class solidarity: I know individuals who were socialists but later in life proudly succumbed to racism. Even those who have chosen to live outside the Island, while asking for and enjoying equality in their new home, nourish racism in the Island. In the Bible, cruel and persecutory Saul changed dramatically, and became saintly Paul. But with politics, it’s a case of Pauls becoming Sauls, racist and corrupt: life can be corrupting.
‘We can’t breathe freely’
The trampling of the rights of others is often justified by a proclaimed sense of victimhood and vulnerability: “We are victims.” “We attempt only to balance the scales of justice.” “Our identity and survival are in danger.” The last is said even by an overwhelming majority in full control of the state and its apparatus. The struggle for equality by a minority group is deliberately miscast as an attempt at domination, and brutally suppressed: fear, imagined or real, can breed cruelty. George Floyd’s dying words (May, 2020), “I can’t breathe!” have resonated internationally. Oppressed minority groups may gasp: “We can’t breathe freely!”
Inter-racial social and personal friendships do not alter fundamentals, though they are touted as evidence of the speaker being above racism. It doesn’t help if you are against injustice but do nothing at all about it (Henry Thoreau, essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’). Perhaps, the ruling elite in Sri Lanka, including military officers, have Tamil associates, if not friends: “I have a Tamil friend, therefore I am not a racist.”
Racism is also more powerful than religious affiliation: white Christians in the USA joined their fellow whites in enslaving or lynching black Christians. If I’m not mistaken, Sinhalese Christians primarily don’t identify with Tamil Christians but with Sinhalese Buddhists. A sacred text in one hand can inflict more harm than the knife or burning torch in the other. Religion has often willingly lent itself to political and racist projects. Those capable of injustice and cruelty (irrespective of religion), transform those evils into the noble and, most importantly, the holy: sacred, therefore obligatory. Golda Meir asserted that Israel was brought into existence in order to fulfil God’s wish. Similarly, “the Buddha chose Lanka and us. Therefore, we have no choice but to dominate”: not, “Blame me on History” but “Blame me on the Divine”!
For Sri Lankan readers, the contradictions inherent in racism are illustrated by Anagarika Dharmapala .The Buddhism he ‘exported’ was a world religion; broad and inclusive; lofty and noble, but within Lanka, Dharmapala’s Buddhism was narrow and racist. As Patrick Grant writes (‘Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka), Dharmapala lauded Buddhist tolerance and inclusion but believed in Sinhalese hegemony. He preached that Buddhism was universal, breaking down boundaries and hierarchies of race, colour, caste, kinship but promoted a racist Sinhalese-Buddhist fundamentalism, one which even excluded Sinhalese Christians. He urged young Sinhalese to be scientific but credited the myth of the ‘Mahavamsa’ with literal truth (Grant). Evidently, the Anagarika was not troubled by cognitive dissonance. The “dreams” of some can become terrible and tragic “nightmare” to others. The Anagarika was an irredentist who wanted to recover a paradise that had never existed. In his “dream”, Lanka under King Dutugemmunu was a paradise: The Sinhalese people lived a joyously cheerful life in those bygone times … the streets were crowded day and night by throngs of pilgrims … The atmosphere was saturated with the fragrance of sweet-smelling flowers and delicate perfumes There were “no slaughter houses, no pawnshops, no brothels, no prisons and law Courts and no arrack taverns and opium dens”: see, Ananda Guruge: ‘Return to Righteousness’.
‘Worse than War’
Professor Daniel Goldhagen (Harvard University) sees racism leading to something much ‘Worse Than War’ (eponymous) which he terms eliminationism, racism at its very worst – the transformation, repression, expulsion or extermination of a group. It’s implemented “only when the perpetrators are confident of success, owing to the overwhelming superior force they can unleash against defenceless people” who, though they are fellow countrymen, are seen as foreigners and inferior. The enemy is pursued and killed with veritable “glee”. “They routinely talk to them, taunt them, conveying to them their belief in their deeds’ rightness and justice, and their joy in performing them”. Multiple acts of savagery not only precede and accompany but occur after the death of the victims. Bodies are stripped naked, mutilated and displayed to men, women and even children. The perpetrators express joy, gloat and boast. “They mock the victims and celebrate their death”. Not only dead bodies but places of worship and cemeteries are deliberately desecrated. The rape of women is part of the display of power, intended to humiliate and visit shame, not only on the victims but collectively, on the group.
Eliminationists view their victims as “having inflicted great injury upon them and their society”. Eliminationist action is justified as being essentially retributive and, secondly, preventive of (imagined) future attack. The victims, and not the perpetrators, are seen as the “problem”: They are the cause. They are to blame. They exist. Horrible and horrifying cruelty is seen as obligatory, laudable, even as “sacred”. The aim of eliminationism is to homogenize society, to usher in some dreamed-of pure state.
Language and visual images conveyed in talk and discussion, newspapers and radio spread the notion that an entire group of people are subhuman and dangerous. Therefore, any study of eliminationism that “fails to give primacy to language and imagery” denies the fundamental reality of how people are cognitively, psychologically and emotionally prepared. Language is the soil that contains the seeds of action. Such eliminationist attacks will not occur if the community in general disapproved, was shocked or expressed revulsion and distaste: there’s general complicity. Intellectuals, artists, university professors, academics, journalists are no different from the illiterate and the lowest in society. Indeed, having status and influence, they are far worse and more culpable.
Soldiers, the paramilitary and policemen play a major role in elminationism. They constitute “pre-existing institutions of violence”, and are either “the lead killing institution or in a critical support role”. During a period of conflict, other countries have difficulty knowing what is happening, and this gives licence to the military to act as it pleases. Soldiers often feel rage because of the danger they face, and because “their comrades, loved ones and people” have been killed, suffered injury or harm. They inhabit a brutalizing and brutalized world.
Detention camps set up by the government and its soldiers are “a spatial, social and moral netherworld” into which the perpetrators herd “a weakened, overwhelmed, unthreatening, and pliant population, including children” . “A principal operational purpose of camp systems is degrading the victims, to make them understand their subjugated, demeaned, and right-less state. Camps are “cruelty’s quintessential sites” and perpetrators create them in a manner guaranteeing the victims will suffer cruelty “regularly, daily and nightly”.
Changing perspective completely, one can argue that racism is inherent and makes us the most dangerous of all animals. We have made the planet and everything on it our prey (‘The Life of Pi’). There’s something fundamentally flawed in our human makeup. Jacques Lacan wrote of the mirror-stage in the development of a human being when it realizes that the image seen in the mirror is she, herself: that there is me here. The German word fremdeln refers to a behavioural pattern in the development of infants in which a child has a mistrust, dislike or fear of strangers. In a fundamental, biological, sense there is “Me” and everyone else is the “Other”. Is racism the result of the individual, rather than being single, seeing herself as belonging to a group, separate from, if not opposed to, other groups formed by other individuals? Does racism go back to our distant past when, armed with stones and sticks, we fought other animals and other groups of humans for our very survival? Professor Harari writes (‘Sapiens’) that tolerance is not a human characteristic, and a small difference in skin-colour, language or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are negligible yet figments of imagination are transformed into cruel and very real social structures and practice.
Although not based on fact and science, ‘race’ exists powerfully. ‘Race’ exists – for those who believe it exists. To the Stoics, the divine spark in human beings was reason, and Voltaire believed that though doubt is uncomfortable, and certainty can lead to criminality, progress can be made by the use of reason. To my limited knowledge, Buddhism is a philosophy; a moral and ethical code. But a moral position is based on reason. What has struck me about Buddhist doctrine is its beautiful reasonableness (reason + able): no wonder most follow the Buddhist religion and not Buddhist doctrine. Empathy too is needed to combat racism. And a pre-requisite of empathy is a modicum of imagination; the ability to “put oneself in the shoes of another”. Bu this imagination and empathy are lacking – even in academics teaching lofty, compassionate, literary texts.
Racism being irrational, can it be deconstructed by reason? After all, racists first form attitudes and beliefs, and then set about finding justification. Heraclitus famously said, “All is flux”, and the Buddha made transience one of his most important perceptions. But though some things change, some unfortunately don’t. Professor Harari observes that confronting racists with facts, evidence and statistics has no effect because their beliefs are not based on reason.
Professor John Gray argues (‘The Silence of Animals’’) that the idea that history is a story of increasing rationality, decency and ethical progress is a myth.
Lines from a once-popular song: “Oh when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” The question is really a sad exclamation. However, as Toni Morrison pointed out,, the more hopeless a just struggle, the greater the honour in not giving up. Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote that she no longer talks to white people about “colourism” because it’s futile. The speech-act theory is associated with J. L. Austin but it can be argued that all speech and writing are acts, and Reni Eddo-Lodge in saying she won’t talk does precisely that. Violence in any form, as Sartre noted, is the failure of human beings to resolve issues without resorting to the crudity of force. Reason and language are what we have to combat racism, and the peaceful existence of several multi-ethnic, multicultural countries attest to the fact “otherness” need not necessarily lead to conflict. Franz Boas insisted on the basic unity of humankind. There was no natural hierarchy of races, cultures or languages. He acknowledged that rejecting traditional beliefs and stories “in order to follow the trail of truth is a very severe struggle”. Boas used the German word “Herzenbildung”, meaning the training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another.
Racists will argue that racism is natural. But doesn’t “civilized” also mean the overcoming of our negative impulses and drives? As I wrote to Martin Jacques, author of ‘The Global Hierarchy of Race’: “Individuals like you have helped to make people confront their prejudices; to increase awareness, and so change attitudes and conduct. Our globe, planet Earth, rotates on its own but social change is the result only of human endeavour and action.”
Mandarin and Tamil – A historical perspective
By Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan
The recent discovery of name- boards in public institutions which have omitted one of the national languages, namely Tamil, only to replace it with Mandarin Chinese has caused a furor with Tamil members of Parliament and other politicians voicing their protests. Certainly, this is most unfortunate but rather than blame the Chinese it is the Government Authorities in charge of the implementation of the Official languages policy who should be blamed. They have been remiss in this instance which is only a small part of the general malaise in respect of the implementation of the official languages policy. This however is not within the remit of this article. In this article, I would like to focus on another trilingual inscription on a stone tablet stele, left by the Chinese Admiral Zheng He, and dated 15th February 1409, in Sri Lanka. It was originally inscribed in Nanjing in China itself and discovered in 1911 in Galle, and now preserved in the Museum in Colombo. This stone tablet with inscriptions in Chinese, Persian and Tamil signals the arrival of the Chinese fleet and invokes the blessings of Buddha and the Hindu God Vishnu whom the inscription mentions as “Thenavaran Nayanar” and refers to an endowment that Zheng He, had presented to the Vishnu Devale at Devinuwara and to a Mosque. Prof. Sasanka Perera in a very interesting and historically researched article titled “Veera Alakeshvaras Phlight signals from the past,” published in The Island of 28th April 2021, to which I am indebted, refers to this inscription as a “Subtle but obvious way of appealing to the socio political sensibilities of large and important communities in The Island at the time”. So it would appear that the Tamils were an important community in the island at the time. Sinhala does not feature in the inscription. Veera Alakeshwarar’s clash with the Chinese which I refer to in my article is part of the historical perspective which I wish to draw attention to. It has many lessons for the present , and brings to light the Chinese presence in this country many centuries ago.
To continue with the purpose of Admiral Zheng He’s naval journey, it was part of what was known as the “Ming Treasure voyages”. To quote Prof. Perera, the seven voyages under this naval scheme took place between 1405 -1433 AD and was the brainchild of the Ming Emperor Yongle. These voyages were undertaken to expand China’s military, political and commercial Authority across the oceans and to find local allies and establish Chinese spheres of influence in different parts of Asia, parts of the Middle East and places like Mogadishu and Mombasa in Africa. Before arriving in Sri Lanka Zheng He’s fleet had visited other south east Asian countries where also steles were left behind. All these interventions were made to ensure the stability of maritime routes for Chinese vessels. This is very much in line with what is happening today, with the Chinese “Belt and Road initiative”. The Chinese of that era were aware of the Tamil language and culture both because of the maritime traditions of the Tamils during the era of the great Chola empire but also because Tamil Buddhist monks from Kancheepuram had brought Buddhism to China. The Chola empire in South India which held sway over Sri Lanka also included parts of south east Asia , and had a large maritime fleet and merchant navy. Furthermore, Tamil traders and merchant guilds were active in the Indian occean and in south east Asia. With the decline of the Chola empire the seas were open for a new naval power and we find the Ming emperor making a strategic move.
To turn to Sri Lanka and Veera Alekeshvara’s encounter with the Chinese, I will have to go back in time to the Alagakkonara/Allagakone family, of which he was a member. This feudal family originally from Madurai or Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, settled down in Lanka and became very powerful in the Gampola Kingdom. The father of Veera Alakeshvara also known as Alakeshvara became a Minister in the Kingdom. He fortified a marshy region around the present city of Colombo and called the fortress he built there Jayawardenepura, and the area around became known as Kotte, (which means ‘fort’ in Tamil). From his fortifications he drove out the northern army of the Arya Chakraverti, who ruled the kingdom of Jaffna, and the tax collectors from this kingdom who were raiding the south western region. Thus, he came to overshadow king Vikramabahu I11rd of Gampola. Subsequently after some infighting with family members Veera Alakeshvara his son became king of the Gampola kingdom as Vijayabahu VI , and ruled from 1397- 1411 AD.
However, Veera Alakeshvara like some of our present China critics, was hostile to Chinese intentions in Sri Lanka and launched piracy attacks on the Chinese fleet in Sri Lankan waters with the help of some Muslim chieftains. As a consequence, Zheng He, left Sri Lankan waters as he had other ports of call, but returned to take revenge on Alakesvara. In 1410/11 Zheng He and his troops attacked Kotte and captured Veera Alakeshvara and his family together with other key political figures allied with him. He was taken as a prisoner to China. In the collected works of Yong Rong 1515, his capture is described as well as his subsequent pardon by the Emperor as follows “thus the August Emperor spared their lives and they humbly kowtowed making crude sounds ( a reference to their language) and praising the sage like virtue of the Imperial Ming ruler.” But this was not the end of the matter. As Prof. Sasanka points out regime change was the object, and Parakramabahu the Sixth ascended the throne. Chinese records reveal that the new king was chosen by Sinhalese emissaries present at the Ming Court, nominated by the Emperor and installed by Zheng He, using the Chinese military and naval power at his disposal, as a ruler more amenable to Chinas intentions. He created a political alliance with the Chinese that allowed expansive political projects such as the Ming Treasure fleet easy access to local waters as well as local political support.” It is also of interest to note that Sembagha Perumal alias Sapumal Kumaraya an ethnic Tamil and adopted son of Parakramabahu the Sixth subsequently conquered the northern Jaffna Kingdom and built the Nallur Kandasamy kovil in Jaffna and his exploits are commemorated by the poet Sri Rahula thera in the Kokila Sandesaya and the Selahini Sandesaya.
Aside from the sense of ‘deja vu’, which Prof. Perera remarks upon, Alakeshvarar’s story has many lessons for us today. We learn that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka was a powerful and respected one, hence the inscriptions in Mandarin along with Tamil and Persian. In the north the Kingdom of Jaffna under the Arya Chakravarti dynasty was as powerful as the other kingdoms and at that time was threatening kotte and even extracting taxes from regions in the South. Here too it was ethnic Tamils such as Alakeshvara senior who led the defense of the Kotte and Gampola kingdoms, and built Jayawardenapura, and it was Sembagha Perumal who later defeated the Arya Chacraverti and brought the Jaffna kingdom under the rule of Parakramabahu VI. The ethnic differences were subsumed, and Sinhalese and Tamils worked together as one people. The wars were for territory, with kings fighting kings and not between ethnic groups. It was only with the arrival of the western colonial powers starting with the Portuguese that ethnic differences surfaced, perhaps as a consequence of a divide and rule policy. Another lesson we learn is that the Chinese political presence i n the island is not something new. Furthermore Chinese trade was a key factor in the Sri Lankan economy as vindicated by the large collection of Chinese coins in Yapahuwe, which fact is adverted to in Prof. Perera’s article citing Prof. Sudarshan Senviratne. So, the resumption of Chinese political and economic activity in the island is not suprising. Chinese history records that after the great naval expeditions of Zheng He, there was a change in China’s policy and internal constraints made the Country turn inwards. It is now clear that China is resuming its old policy as evidenced by Admiral Zheng He’s naval expeditions, and is once again engaging in expanding its military, political and commercial authority across the globe vide the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Port City project in Sri Lanka is part of this grand design. The Port City project can bring benefits to Sri Lanka too, but it is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan Government and people to see that Sri Lanka’s interests are adequately protected and they cannot fault China for any short fall as every country looks after its own interests. In the context of the lessons we learn from the Veera Alakeshvara episode, Tamil politicians would be well advised to be more mindful when making protests at what they perceive to be Mandarin taking precedence over Tamil. We do not have to kowtow to the new Emperor in Beijing, and protests must surely be made when called for, but made courteously, recognizing that our cultures Tamil and Chinese, have co -existed enriching each other over many centuries as in the spreading of Buddhism by monks from the Tamil country, and the extensive trade as in the exchange of cotton goods for silk between the two civilizations. We have seen from the Galle Inscription that China gave the Tamil language pride of place in Sri Lanka at a certain point of time, and I may mention similar inscriptions have also been left by them in other south Asian countries. At that time Tamil was a language of commerce and trade in the Indian ocean region and the Tamil Kingdoms of South India were powerful entities. Similarly, the Persian language held sway for these reasons. Interestingly we learn from the Moroccan Traveller of the 14th Century, Ibn Batuta, who visited the kingdom of Jaffna, that the king Arya Chackraverti held control of the trade in pearls, had contact with foreign merchants and could speak Persian. It remains to be seen whether the Tamil language once again regains its lost position and the respect that entails. The Trilingual stele in Galle invokes the blessings of the Hindu deity the “Thenavaran Nayanar” Vishnu, for a peaceful world built on trade. For the present we have to recognize that China has come to stay as a power in the region, in a world built on Trade. We can be proud that two Asian nations India and China are emerging as the super powers of the 21st century and go with the trend giving due consideration to both countries in our political and economic policies.
How public sector corruption withers national economy: RJ’s insight
June 29, 2001: The late Rajeewa Jayaweera with the then CEO Peter Hill in Chennai where he was SriLankan Airlines Manager, Southern India. Pic was taken the night before Rajeewa left for France to take over as Manager, France (pic courtesy Sanjeewa Jayaweera)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
One-time SriLankan Airlines senior management employee, the late Rajeewa Jayaweera (RJ), in a series of articles, dealt mercilessly with the national carrier. The series of articles, published in The Island and The Sunday Island, reflected what can be easily described as the pathetic state of affairs in public finance.
The explosive reportage of the deterioration of SriLankan Airlines, between Feb 2015 and March 2020, underscored the overall failure on the part of the country’s supreme legislature, Parliament, to ensure financial discipline, not only at the national carrier, but the entire public sector, as well. The Colombo Telegraph, too, carried quite a number of RJ’s articles during this period.
Having perused the 143 page e-book, comprising 41 articles, recently, the writer asked COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath whether the national carrier came under the purview of his outfit, COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) or COPF (Committee on Public Finance). Lawmaker Herath responded: “Yes. Under the parliamentary watchdog COPE. We are going to summon them soon.”
Perhaps, RJ’s series of articles can be quite helpful to the parliamentary watchdog committees, if they are genuinely interested in taking remedial measures, in respect of the national carrier. RJ’s brother, Sanjeewa Jayaweera (SJ), himself a contributor to The Island, and other media outlets, as well, hadn’t been successful in publishing the series of articles on the national carrier, as a book, to coincide with the first death anniversary of his brother RJ.
SJ’s attributed his failure to secure consent of a leading publisher as he didn’t own the intellectual property rights. SJ’s efforts to publish RJ’s articles on foreign relations, too, has met with a similar fate.
RJ’s body was found at Independence Square, on the morning of June 12, last year. He was 64 years at the time of his death.
At the inquest into the death of RJ, before the Colombo Chief Magistrate, Lanka Jayaratne, on June 22, 2020, it transpired that it was a suicide. RJ committed suicide on the night of June 11. SJ assured court that he was certain RJ committed suicide. When the writer inquired about the circumstances leading to RJ’s suicide, SJ reiterated he never had any suspicions about quite the unexpected, but meticulously planned suicide.
In a country where the Central Bank has been ‘raided’ not once but twice and every public sector enterprise brazenly ‘raped’ by successive governments, a set of published articles cannot be launched, in book form, in the absence of intellectual property rights.
Focus on national carrier
Of over 300 articles, authored by RJ, only a section dealt with the national carrier. RJ’s relentless campaign against those who had been responsible for waste, corruption and irregularities at SriLankan must have angered many of those wrongdoers for being exposed after having got everything swept under the carpet, as happens so often in this country.
Having served SriLankan Airlines for over 15 years, RJ had been in a much better position, than many, to comment on the ruination of the national carrier.
However, thick-skinned politicians, and top officials, didn’t publicly react to RJ’s comments. If they really understood the implications of the continuing disclosures, RJ would have earned their wrath. In his first piece on the national carrier, titled ‘SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals UL loss is over Rs. 100 bn’ on Feb 6, 2015, RJ in one sentence explained what went wrong with the public enterprise. Referring to the launch of, what he called, the ‘Gulf Carrier of Dubai,’ with USD 10 mn investment made by the then Ruler there, in 1985, RJ declared; “The secret of their success was the Ruler never appointed relatives, his minions, civil servants, ex-army generals nor businessmen to run the airline.”
Having joined the national carrier, as a Marketing Executive, in June 1989, he received a promotion as Manager (Advertising and Promotions) and subsequently served as Manager Oman and Yemen, Manager Southern India, Manager France, Benelux, Scandinavia and Southern Europe before quitting in July 1995. Thereafter, RJ served Qatar Airlines (August 2005 to October 2009) as Regional Manager Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Myanmar. RJ rejoined Sri Lankan Airlines and served as Manager Germany from October 2010 till May 2011 (during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as President)
RJ had been in touch with the writer, though the national carrier was never the subject of discussions. The focus had always been on the conflict and post-war issues, particularly Sri Lanka’s failure to address accountability issues. RJ had been severely critical of the way the yahapalana lot responded to the growing Western threat and, essentially, there was consensus that the then administration deliberately discarded Lord Naseby’s strategy which could have been quite useful, if properly used. RJ took his life three months after the incumbent government withdrew from the 2015 Geneva Resolution. If RJ was alive today, he would have been quite disturbed over how the incumbent administration, too, handled the Geneva issue. RJ used to call the writer at the latter’s home. On many occasions, the writer’s wife, Dilhani, overheard our noisy exchanges and used to inquire as to what was wrong. We used to disagree on the response of the UNP-led government and Joint Opposition/SLPP as regards foreign policy and accountability issues.
Let me get back to the plight of the national carrier. In a follow-up piece, dated Feb 11, 2015, RJ stated that: “The general perception is that Air Lanka/SriLankan Airlines is an expensive toy of the rulers of the day, and a few of the elite – all at the expense of the taxpayer.” Having said so, RJ stated: “Even though there is some truth in it, it is indeed not the whole truth. Contrary to general perception, the national carrier has played a pivotal role, both in helping the nation’s economy and welfare of its people by bringing the world to Sri Lanka and taking Sri Lanka to the world.”
The writer is of the view that RJ made a futile attempt (Feb 11, 2015 piece) to restore the much tarnished image of the national carrier. One cannot find fault with RJ for being lenient in a way immediately after he initiated the onslaught on the national carrier. Subsequently, RJ meticulously addressed issues at hand, thereby exposed ‘white-collar crime.’
RJ exposed both the SLFP and UNP administrations. Catchy titles attracted, both print and online readers, including the writer, though going through all 41 articles at a stretch provided an entirely different insight. RJ didn’t mince his words when he zealously hammered those who undermined the national carrier, through waste, corruption, irregularities and outright mismanagement.
If RJ didn’t take his own life, perhaps he wouldn’t have ever thought of launching a book, at least on an e-form. Thanks to SJ, now the entire set of articles is available online and this writer believes, in addition to lawmakers, especially heads of the watchdogs (Prof. Charitha Herath/COPE, Prof. Tissa Vitharana/COPA and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa/COPF), leaders of the major political parties (the writer wants to consider the UNP a major political party though being reduced to one National List slot) and the media should access the material. Let me reproduce the catchy titles given to RJ’s articles (1) SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals loss is over Rs 100 bn (2) SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals loss is over Rs 100 bn: The unknown (3) What ails our national carrier (4) What ails our national carrier-continued (5) What ails our national carrier-iii (6) The passing of an aviation legend and lessons to be learnt (7) What ails out national carrier IV (8) National carrier’s Airbus story-going down the memory lane (9) All is not well @ SriLankan Airlines (10) SriLankan Airlines – a tale of state abuse and mismanagement, the ‘games’ Directors and VIPs played (11) SriLankan Airlines – exit strategy the need of the hour (12) Other side of the coin on Emirates deal – a comment (13) SriLankan Airlines – expensive toy of our politicians (14) A tale of two national carriers (15) Paris exit and Frankfurt exit by Airlines (16) Business Class divide at SriLankan Airlines (17) Independent Inquiry at SriLankan Airlines goes awry (18) Independent Inquiry at SriLankan Airlines goes awry-ii (19) What’s with 2015-16 annual report of SriLankan Airlines (20) Full time CEO to Part time CEO-pilot (21) No significant savings in procurement and fees paid to service providers (22) Brighter or darker skies over SriLankan Airlines (23) Total privatization only solution for SriLankan Airlines (24) SriLankan Airlines continues downward spiral (25) SriLankan Airlines total privatization or liquidation (26) More on SriLankan back on track (27) Saving the national carrier – a rejoinder (28) Minister Kabir Hashim’s hogwash (29) New brooms @ SriLankan Airlines (30) Who is managing SriLankan Airlines (31) Emirates remembers, the world remembers (32) More facts to remember on Emirates (33) India’s failed bid to disinvest Air India (34) Presidential air travel and the nut episode (35) Fleecing SriLankan Airlines (36) SriLankan violates Companies Act (37) Srilankan Airlines long overdue AGM (38) tale of woe continues @ SriLankan Airlines (39) SriLankan Airlines deal (40) USD 16.8 mn bribe at SriLankan Airlines and (41) Evidence given before Presidential Commission of Inquiry
Absence of accountability
RJ’s series of articles highlighted a bleak picture not only at the national carrier but the entire public sector. In a way, the parliamentary committee system had pathetically failed in its responsibilities. The accumulated losses suffered by the national airline now stands at a staggering Rs. 326 Bn with the two-state banks – BOC and People’s Bank – continuing to bear the losses. A year after RJ’s suicide, the national economy is in tatters. The country would have been in a much stronger position, to weather the Covid-19 fallout, if not for waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence. Both former major political parties – the UNP and the SLFP – mercilessly abused the national carrier to their hearts’ content. Articles titled ‘SriLankan Airlines deal’ and USD 16.8 mn bribe at SriLankan Airlines discussed how the Rajapaksa and Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration ruined the national carrier. The accountability on the part of President Maithripala Sirisena, as he was the head of the cabinet, cannot be ignored.
RJ alleged: “The Rajapaksas appointed relatives (This is not the reality). The Yahapalanites appointed friends from their alma mater and party hacks. The following are the Directors appointed by the Yahapalana government in February 2015 and their connections.
Chairman Ajith Dias (Prime Minister’s friend and ex-Royal College). Chanaka de Silva and Mahinda Haradasa, (PM’s friends, ex-Royal College, and members of UNP Working Committee), Rajan Brito (former President CBK’s friend), Hadindra Balapatabandi (former President Sirisena’s friend), Rakhitha Jayawardena (PM’s relative and old Thomian), Lt. Col. (Retd.) Sunil Peiris (Ravi Jayawardene’s friend and old Thomian), and N. De Silva Deva Aditya (PM’s friend and MP in European Parliament).
CEO Suren Ratwatte, a pilot by profession, was the younger brother of the PM’s financial advisor. Ratwatte’s ill-advised appointment had far-reaching consequences. At the end of six months, some directors wished to extend his probation period and assign Key Performance Indicators for evaluation in a few months. However, both the Prime Minister and Minister Kabir Hashim instructed the directors to confirm him in his post without delay (Board Minute 2.6 dated April 28, 2016)”.
RJ meticulously addressed contentious issues pertaining to the national carrier. Controversial SriLankan CEO Kapila Chandrasena received RJ’s attention. The expose of Chandrasena before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry should be re-examined against the backdrop of the arrest and the subsequent bail out of Kapila Chandrasena and his wife, Priyanka Niyomali Wijenayake over receiving USD 2 mn commission from Airbus Industrie in a deal that had been discussed in the official residence of the then Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa on March 1, 2013. RJ quite aptly compared Speaker Rajapaksa’s initial denial of any knowledge of the meeting with that of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayke’s performance before CoI on Treasury Bond scams.
The government owed a public explanation as regards the status of the bankrupt national carrier. The ruination of the national carrier can be easily blamed on the top leaderships of the UNP and the SLFP. There cannot be any dispute over that or for anyone to be offended by the revelation of that fact. The then President’s brother-in-law Nishantha Wickremesinghe conduct/misconduct received wide media coverage after the change of government. The Presidential CoI exposed the sorry state of affairs at the national carrier and how those at the helm caused irrevocable losses.
The shock return of Chandrasena
RJ, however, missed a crucial development in the national carrier close on the heels of President Sirisena sacking Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government.
Only a section of the media, including The Island, reported the unbelievable development pertaining to the national carrier. The change of government paved the way for the return of Kapila Chandrasena, though the shocking revelations made in the Presidential CoI were still fresh in public minds. In fact, Chandrasena was one of the first appointments made by the 50-day government.
Civil society activist Gamani Viyangoda was one of the few people to publicly question the appointment. In a brief interview with the writer, Viyangoda alleged that Chandrasena’s appointment as Chairman of the debt-ridden SriLankan, in spite of an ongoing investigation, indicated that those who had exercised executive power previously were back in business (Civil society seeks explanation on top Sri Lanka appointment made amidst probe, The Island, Nov 14, 2018).
In the wake of the growing storm created by his shock reappointment, the government removed Chandrasena. The question is whether Chandrasena acted alone?
Subsequently, a high profile criminal investigation undertaken by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO), too, implicated top SriLankan management in the bribery scandal. In the wake of media revelations pertaining to Priyanka Niyomali Chandrasena, nee Wijenayake, being offered up to USD 16 mn in bribes to pave the way for a massive deal involving a dozen new Airbus planes, President
Gotabaya Rajapaksa called for an investigation. This was in the first week of Feb 2020.
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ordered a comprehensive investigation into reports of allegations over financial irregularities said to have been committed during the deal between SriLankan Airlines and Airbus SE for the purchase of aircraft,” his office said.
Of the amount offered, at least USD 2 mn had been received by Chandrasena’s wife. Nothing has been heard of that investigation since then. In fact, examination of COPE, COPA and COPF proceedings reveal that greater the fraud/corruption/irregularity/negligence the chance in suppressing the wrongdoing is guaranteed.
SJ should ensure that even though the intellectual property rights law has deprived him of an opportunity to publish a book comprising an entire set of articles on the ruination caused to SriLankan Airlines, as many people as possible receive the 41 e-articles. If not for RJ, there wouldn’t have been such a collection of articles on the national carrier. It should be compulsory reading for lawmakers and the past and the incumbent presidents. Those who wielded political power should be ashamed of the way they allowed the deterioration of the once proud national carrier.
The top management, as well as a section of utterly corrupt employees, brought the national carrier to disrepute. Proper investigation would reveal how many SriLankan employees, past and present, lived well beyond their means.
RJ cleverly used his coverage of the SriLankan Airlines to expose the depth of corruption not only in the ‘land like no other’ but the public and private sectors as well. Such mega waste, corruption and irregularities cannot take place without the public and private sectors working together. Robber barons and their minions lived in luxury whereas the vast majority of people struggled to make ends meet. The Covid-19 virus has now made the situation even worse. Having sort of compared investigations into Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, and SriLankan Airlines, at different levels, RJ quite rightly asserted that they were ‘AN UTTER WASTE OF PUBLIC FUNDS.’ If proper investigations are conducted into waste, corruption and irregularities in public and private sectors, political parties will have to be disbanded.
Let me end this piece by repeating what one-time Justice Minister and BASL President Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, said, in June 2019, at a media briefing at the Sri Lanka Foundation. In response to a query raised by the writer, the lawmaker said: “Yes. Parliament is the most corrupt institution in the country.”
Having switched his allegiance to the SLPP, from the UNP, Dr. Rajapakse remains a member of the most corrupt institution in the country.
Do not abuse Sri Lanka Administrative Service and degrade university education
‘Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.’ – John Maynard Keynes
(The writer has not been a member of
either SLAS or of a university faculty.)
Parliament and government in our country in the 21st century so far have been dominated by persons with no post-secondary education and often with little secondary education. This has been accompanied by a lack of people with high level management experience. In contrast, parliaments in the 20th century have had a surfeit of persons with both university education and professional experience. There were Solomon Bandaranaike, Philip Gunawardene, S. A. Wickremasinghe, Pieter Keuneman, N. M. Perera, Colvin R.de Silva, G. G. Ponnabalam, S. J. V. Chelvanyakam, Dudley Senanayake, M. V.P. Peiris, W. Dahanayake, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranjith Atapattu, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sarath Amunugama, G. L.Peiris, W. B.Wijekoon and several others. We have yet to elect a local university graduate as the President of the Republic. Recent governments have forsaken such men and women, except for two or three, or more likely, such men and women have forsaken political activity altogether. Viyath Maga is a new emergence, that has yet to be tested. Jaffna was once rightly reputed for its educated public who actively participated in its civic life, but no longer. These changes are strange in a society where education at all levels has grown markedly during the last 70 years, not only grown massively but also diversified, both geographically and content wise.
Governments were assisted by a senior management team first recruited as junior managers from among the brightest output of the universities. Only university teaching challenged the attraction of the Ceylon Civil Service to bright students from universities. They accomplished brilliantly tasks of management, though often not innovation. While Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia saw opportunities in a new world of electronics, shipping and aviation, our bureaucracy failed to free themselves of the politicians’ infatuation with Rajarata and to lead us into the brave new world. Our entrepreneurs were hopelessly lethargic. The exception was the collective of public servants under President Premadasa, who took the garment industry to all corners of the island. If any group of people accumulated wealth during these last 20 years, they were politicians who were in government and occasionally a few other men who collaborated with those politicians. And those politicians accumulated wealth more rapidly and in larger bulk than in their wildest imaginations. That they are not in prison tells its own story.
The present government has gone further than any other. There are all too few men of university learning in the government but the intellectual heavy lifting in government (not withstanding Viyath Maga) seems to be in the hands of men and women of little post-secondary education and even less of relevant professional experience. See the confusion in the administration of the vaccination programme; this, in a country whose healthcare workers nearly eliminated malaria 70 years ago with no help from the WHO, the World Bank, the Doctors without Borders, OXFAM or Bill Gates––Malaria still kills more than a million every year in Africa––and poliomyelitis two decades later and still later childhood diseases DPT. Grave is the danger that the government has placed the public in when they failed to read the danger in permitting a ship turned down by two ports on their voyage to come to harbour in Colombo. So, is the crisis that peasants face in planting seed designed to grow with inorganic fertiliser, now using miniscule amounts of organic fertiliser. There is a strong case for going back to using organic fertiliser; but it is also necessary that plant breeders develop seed that respond with productivity to that fertiliser. Otherwise, we must take the responsibility for pre-1965 yields (before the introduction of H-4, BG 111 and later seed) and the consequent necessity to import large quantities of rice. The price of cereals in world markets are already up. VP tea growers face the same hazard as those plants may not respond to organic fertiliser as they do to inorganic fertiliser. Nor can plantations, given the price of tea and of labour, any longer employ labour for weeding, in the absence of chemical herbicides. The government has given an Apple IIG desktop to growers and asked them to mine bitcoin.
There is a saying in our villages:
‘ekak kadatolu hada gannata gihin mata vu kariya;
dekak kadatolu hada dunnai induruve achariya’:
the smith to whom I handed over (an implement) to repair one defect returned it to me with two defects’. Apt, indeed!
Young men and women who enter the Administrative Service are among the brightest output of our schools. Usually, they come into the arts faculties at universities having been admitted entirely on merit, not subject to entitlements on the basis if quotas. Pundits often blame these students from rural schools for choosing the arts stream. They have not looked at the preponderance of 1C schools in rural areas when 1AB schools abound in urban areas. Truthfully, the only stream available for rural children to swim in that desert is the Arts Stream. It is a pity that, like Amu Darya and Syr Darya that end in the Aral sea, they end up in a desert. These students receive little private tuition, being too poor to buy it. In SLAS, the best of them end up as CEOs, Secretaries to ministries. They may be poorly taught in universities, but intelligence cannot be mottled by bad teaching and stupidity emblazoned with sophistication. The present government has appointed as Secretaries to ministries and as Chairmen of corporations senior military men (retired or in service) under whom members of the Administrative Service must work. Military men and women may excel on the battlefield. But public administration in a modern complex society is a different ball game, as chess is from American football. It must gall these civil servants near the end of their careers to be denied opportunities of occupying CEO positions for which they have been trained for long years from the time they joined as junior managers. One cannot expect deep commitment from them. It is wrong to deny SLAS men and women what is their right.
Some assume that there exists a strong association between the number of graduates in STEM subjects and the rate of economic growth in a society. Read a little bit of history. In 1890, when the United States toppled Britain off its pedestal of top dog in economic wellbeing, the US had less than two percent of its population as university graduates, most of them in Arts. In 1890, there were no motor cars in US but by 1929, every household there had a car. Cars were not imported from Britain or elsewhere. When Britain brought down the industrial revolution to this world 1760-1840, ‘Formal education in Britain before 1850 was, with the exception of a very small minority, confined to what we would consider today an elementary education.’
(Joel Mokyr.2009). The two English universities in Oxford and Cambridge, did not have departments of engineering. As the official historian of Cambridge University wrote ‘In 1870 the university of Cambridge was a provincial seminary enhanced by a traditional prestige, by expertise in a small range of disciplines ….’ The Cavendish Laboratory was still to come. The University of London had not begun to throw in its weight. Redbricks showed their colours later. Yet, Britain had completed the first Industrial Revolution!
Britain did not have its students enrolled in foreign universities (though much was learnt from Germany in late 19th century) or steal science and engineering secrets from other countries to become the factory to the world. They had none to steal from. If entrepreneurs, whether private or state, work under the right policies, economic progress takes place and university graduates find employment in those enterprises.
In 1975, there were no courses in computer programming in colleges and universities in US for an electronics industry to blossom in 1990. When did you first hear of Tsinghua University and the Harbin Institute of Technology? When industries grow, university graduates take up jobs offered. During the last decade of the 20th century, there were letters in The New York Times from Ph.D.s in mathematics that they drove taxis to make a living. (There was a huge exodus of mathematics men from the USSR after its collapse.) By 2005, Wall Street firms and banks could not find enough of them for employment.
The relationship between education and employment is not as simple-minded as our rulers imagine. Both administrators and scholars had learnt those lessons from manpower planning in the USSR and the forecast for manpower in Britain the early 1960s. The number of doctors trained according to manpower plans was so low as to create a problem of running NHS. The first large scale migration of Indian doctors (some doctors from Ski Lanka also joined in) to Britain took place in that milieu. Nor have we heard of successful economies that stacked up loads of trained manpower and waited for economic growth to take place. Literacy is another matter, altogether, as we have learnt from China and Vietnam, unfortunately belied in Sri Lanka. The wheel is an old invention; it is too costly to invent it again.
SLAS men (and women) have the know how to work government programmes. Military men excel in the battlefield. Let not the latter invade the former lest disaster should overtake us all. Universities do not stack up graduates waiting for industries to grow to give them employment. Promote the growth of industries; trained personnel will come in. Do not abuse SLAS and do not degrade university education.
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