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Midweek Review

‘Race’ and racism



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”.


Human race

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.”

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Midweek Review

Growing foreign dependency and India’s USD 4 bn lifeline



Baglay on an inspection tour of the State Printing Corporation

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Japanese embassy and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund, previously known as United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), on 16 March, 2023, issued a joint statement that dealt with the impact the developing political-economic-social crisis is having on the poor in Sri Lanka.

The statement focused on the suffering of the children and measures taken by UNICEF, in consultation with the Governments of Japan and Sri Lanka, to provide relief to the needy.

However, what really captured public attention was the declaration made by the Japanese Ambassador, in Colombo, Mizukoshi Hideak, that with the latest contribution, amounting to USD 1.8 mn, the total Japanese financial assistance, provided through UNICEF alone, exceeded USD 3.8 mn, since the beginning of last year. That is definitely a significant package provided through a single UN agency, particularly against the backdrop of the unceremonious cancellation of the Japan- funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, in late Sept., 2020, by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government.

The directive, in this regard, was issued on 21 Sept., 2020, by Dr. P. B. Jayasundera, in his capacity as Secretary to the President, to the then Transport Secretary, Monti Ranatunga. That move ruined Sri Lanka’s relations with Japan.

Whoever advised the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to terminate the project, without consulting Japan, as head of the Cabinet-of-Ministers, he couldn’t absolve himself of the responsibility for the ruination of vital relationship with Tokyo. Had it not been the case, Japan, most probably, would have delivered a substantial assistance to Sri Lanka, at the onset of the ongoing unprecedented crisis.

Sri Lanka made a failed bid to secure as much as USD 3.5 bn loan from Japan, during the tenure of Sanjiv Gunasekara as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Tokyo. Gunasekara, a close associate of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned in the wake of the 09 May, 2022, violence, that gave a turbo boost to the campaign against his government.

Unlike Japan, India provided direct aid in various forms to Sri Lanka, struggling to cope up with what became an insurmountable crisis to overcome on our own. India has repeatedly declared that the continuing assistance is in line with Premier Narendra Modi’s much touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Sri Lanka received concessional credit facility, amounting to USD 1 bn, in March last year. In addition to that, by the second week of March this year, Sri Lanka received other lines of credit, worth over USD 3 bn. Therefore, the total Indian assistance is worth over USD 4 bn, a staggering amount as Sri Lanka’s debt before the Japanese and Indian interventions stood at over USD 53 bn. Indian intervention cannot be compared, under any circumstances, with assistance provided by any other country.

The Indian assistance is of immense importance as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after much deliberation, promised USD 2.9 bn over a period of four years. The delay on the part of China to provide an assurance as regards debt-restructuring support, hindered the finalization of the tripartite agreement involving Sri Lanka, creditors and IMF. Finally, China gave that assurance, in writing, early this month.

Indrajit Coomaraswamy

The situation was so precarious, Sri Lanka couldn’t have even provided the free text books that have been given, annually, to the student population ,from the time of the JRJ regime. Those who had been at the helm of political power, over the past three decades, to varying degrees, ruined the economy, and, by 2021/2022, Sri Lanka was unable to provide even the basic requirements, like cooking gas, kerosene, petrol, etc., as even remittances from our expatriate workers, which in the past amounted to about seven billion dollars per year, dropped drastically due to the illegal underground banking system, hawala/undiyal, hijacking much of it from the normal banks. The government didn’t have the means to provide school text books for the 2023 academic year. In consultation with India, of the USD 1 bn concessional credit facility, over USD 10 mn was utilized by the State Printing Corporation, and private importers, to procure printing paper and other material from India. India met 45% (four mn students) of the total requirement. Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay visited the SPC, on 09 March, 2023, to dispatch a consignment of textbooks to schools. Education Minister Dr. Susil Premjayantha joined Baglay. The Indian High Commission statement, issued two days later,, was aptly titled ‘India’s support for text books investment in Sri Lanka’s future.’

The government and the Opposition should be ashamed of their failure to provide for the children’s need.

Perhaps, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) should be appointed to examine the circumstances leading to Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status. Decades of utterly irresponsible management of the economy, coupled with an explosive mixture of causes – waste, corruption and irregularities – caused the current crisis.

Political parties, represented in Parliament, are responsible for the continuing crisis, to varying degrees.

Controversy over ISBs

The Island discussed some of the issues at hand in last week’s midweek piece, headlined ‘All praise for Lanka’s saviours!

What Dr. Coomaraswamy didn’t say was that as the CB Governor, he was also directly responsible for the Yahapalana government borrowing a record USD 12.5 bn from the international bond market, at high interest rates, from private lenders, primarily in the West. So what did that government achieve with such huge borrowings? All that the Yahapalana regime achieved, with all that money, we cannot see, except to lay the foundation for the current debt crisis?

Our comment on the basis of recent claims that the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Coomaraswamy (2016-2019), only told one side of the truth, attracted responses from several parties, including the Central Bank.

Consequently, the writer discussed the borrowing of USD 12.5 bn, and related matters, and was told the following: First, it is important to point out that the Governor, Central Bank, has no authority to approve or undertake any borrowing on behalf of the government. The borrowing limit, in any given year, is set by Parliament. Therefore, the government cannot borrow beyond the limit set by Parliament. In addition, all external borrowing has to be approved by the Finance Minister, and the Cabinet of Ministers. The Governor and the CBSL only have an advisory role. On ISBs, they have marketing and issuance as additional responsibilities once the Cabinet approved the transaction.

It is also important to recognize that ISBs are only one channel for external commercial borrowings. Others include short-term SWAPs, foreign term loans/syndicated loans and external flows into government rupee securities. The article dealt with only one instrument, having ignored the switching that was undertaken during 2015-19 to increase the maturity and reduce the cost of foreign borrowing.

As regards the USD 10 bn increase in ISBs outstanding during 2015-19, USD 5 bn of this increase can be attributed to switching away from shorter term (one year or less) and more expensive SWAPs and highly volatile foreign portfolio investment (hot money) in Government rupee securities to longer term (5 and 10 years) and less costly ISBs. SWAPs were reduced from approximately USD 2.5 bn to USD 500 mn.

Volatile and foreign investment in government rupee securities was reduced from USD 3.5 bn to USD 600 mn. In addition, during the course of 2019, a second ISB of USD 2 bn was issued to create a stronger buffer of external reserves to address the inevitable increase in uncertainty going into elections due shortly thereafter. (The money required for 2019 had been raised through an ISB, issued in March 2019.)

So about USD 7 bn of the USD 10 bn increase in the stock of ISBs outstanding, during 2015-19 may be attributed to increasing the stability and reducing the cost of the ISBs outstanding by switching instruments and raising the buffer provided by external reserves prior to a period of uncertainty, associated with elections.

The remaining increase of USD 3 bn may be partly attributed to the fact that borrowing incurred earlier had not resulted in a sufficient increase and/or saving of foreign exchange. Hence money had to be borrowed to repay debt incurred earlier. In fact, Verite Research found that 89 percent of external debt, repaid during 2015-19, could be accounted for by liabilities incurred prior to 2015.

The adverse debt dynamics were recognized and the Medium Term Debt Management Strategy was published in April 2019 to chart the way to sustainability. In addition, the Active Liability Management Act (2018) was introduced to expand the tools available to the CBSL for managing external debt sustainably. The CBSL, as the economic adviser to the Government, also advocated that there should be a primary surplus in the budget and that non-debt creating inflows (such as exports, remittances, tourism proceeds, FDI, inflows into the CSE and government securities) should be increased to enhance the capacity to service debt while supporting the level of imports necessary to achieve the growth potential of the economy.

They also pointed out that only one of the ISBs, issued during 2015-19, has been settled to date. This amounted to USD 500mn. They expressed the view that it is not possible to sustain the argument that servicing ISBs, incurred during 2015-19 ,led to the standstill in debt repayments in April 2023.

Treasury bond scams and tax cuts

The US embassy released this picture of
Ambassador Chung at an event in
Colombo where the second shipment of
36,000 metric tons of Triple Super
Phosphate (TSP) was handed over to Sri
Lanka. It brings the total of USAID-supported
TSP and urea fertiliser to more than
45,000MT, over the last year.

Sweeping tax concessions to the rich and reduction of VAT, that had been introduced by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government to encourage business in 2019/2020, escalated the financial crisis, leading to the declaration of the state of bankruptcy, two years later. No one in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cabinet dared to challenge such far reaching tax concessions and VAT reduction.

How the loss of as much as Rs 600 bn in revenue, as alleged by the Opposition ,due to tax concessions and reduction of VAT, contributed to the current crisis, should be examined, also taking into consideration (1) Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb, 2015 and March 2016 at a time the CBSL has been under the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs (2) Enactment of new Foreign Exchange Act in 2017 in the wake of Treasury bond scams. Critics say the repealing of time-tested exchange control law that has been in place for decades paved the way for exporters to ‘park’ export proceeds overseas. Of the 225 MPs, 94 voted for the new law whereas 18 voted against. In spite of Justice Minister, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, taking up this issue, both in and outside Parliament, remedial measures hasn’t been taken, to date. The Finance Ministry owed an explanation as to how it intended to compel the exporters to bring back export proceeds (3) Continuing public-private sector partnership in corrupt practices, particularly mis-invoicing (under invoicing and over invoicing of imports/exports) (4) Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila, MP, has moved the Supreme Court against the Central Bank Bill. The Attorney-at-Law alleged that the new law violated Article 3 and 4 of the Constitution hence needing the approval of the people at a referendum. In addition to Gammanpila, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera and Jathika Nidahas Peramuna leader Wimal Weerawansa, too, moved the Supreme Court in terms of the Article 121 against the Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka.’ Former JVP MP Wasantha Samarasinghe, on behalf of the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB), too, moved the Supreme Court in this regard.

A warning from Hanke

The country is in a bind. In spite of the execution of the agreement with the IMF later this month, the situation remains dicey. The absence of economic recovery plan continues to cause further instability.

Therefore, the government and the Opposition should seek a consensus on a national action plan, even if Local Government polls cannot be conducted in late April, regardless of the Supreme Court intervention.

Steve Hanke, Professor of Applied Economics, at Johns Hopkins University, in the USA, recently issued a dire warning to Sri Lanka. Appearing on CNBC’s ‘Squawk Box Asia,’ Prof. Hanke declared Sri Lanka needs institutional reforms in order to achieve long-term debt sustainability.

Referring to Sri Lanka and what was described as emerging markets (Argentina and Montenegro), where he played a key role in establishing new currency regime, former economic advisor to US President Ronald Reagan warned “Unless you change the institutions and the rules of the game, governing these countries, they’re always going to remain in the same … situation that they’ve been in for a long time.”

Prof. Hanke added: “In fact, most of the personalities, involved in Sri Lanka ,at the high level, are exactly the same as they’ve been for years. So nothing has changed.”

In other words, those who have ruined Sri Lanka are spearheading the economic recovery process. The American is spot on. Sri Lanka is in a pathetic situation. Those who had systematically brought Sri Lanka to its knees, by pursuing ill-fated policies, emerged as its saviours. That is the bitter truth. The role of the executive, legislature, and judiciary, needs to be examined. Those who have moved the Supreme Court against the Bill, titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka,’ have quite conveniently forgotten how the Yahapalana government, and Central Bank, twice perpetrated Treasury bond scams. What would have Prof. Hanke said if CNBC raised Treasury bonds scams during ‘Squawk Box Asia.’

If not for Deepa Seneviratne, the then head of Public Debt Department, Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s role couldn’t have been proved. Former Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe said so at an event organized by the Colombo Municipal Council years ago.

Sri Lanka cannot forget Prof. Hanke’s remark in the CNBC programme. “You have to remember that we have a country that since 1965 has had 16 IMF programmes and they’ve all failed. You get temporary relief in anticipation of a bailout. But in the long run … none of these IMF programmes work.”

It would be pertinent to briefly examine how interested parties brazenly protected perpetrators of the Treasury bond scams.

Having named Mahendran as the Governor, regardless of the opposition from President Maithripala Sirisena, those planning to commit the first daylight robbery of the Central Bank moved Deepa Seneviratne to the Public Debt Department as its head, in spite of her not having had any previous experience in the particular division. It seems they had obviously felt comfortable in having a lady officer there they thought they could manipulate her to suit their need. But Seneviratne turned tables on the bond thieves by putting up a note to register her strong opposition to Mahendran’s move. She should have been rewarded for her fearless stand with at least a national honour if not an international one, even from bodies like the UN, the Transparency International, Amnesty International, etc. But it seems that even these international busy bodies have their own political angles.

It would be of pivotal importance to keep in mind that President Sirisena appointed a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in January 2017, about 10 months after the second robbery, and two years after the first.

The Commission comprised Justice K.T. Chitrasiri, the late Justice P S Jayawardena and retired Deputy Auditor General V. Kandasamy. Sumathipala Udugamsuriya functioned as its Secretary. CoI issued a devastating report that implicated Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) in the Treasury bond scams.

President Sirisena went to the extent of dissolving Parliament, in June 2015, to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) tabling its report on the first bond scam. SLFP leader Sirisena owes an explanation. Justice Chitrasiri’s CoI didn’t inquire into that aspect. Sri Lanka’s response to waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement is baffling. Let me end this piece reminding how the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) secured a substantial sponsorship from Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) deeply mired in a bond scam, in 2016, for the Law Asia Conference during the tenure of its then President Geoffrey Alagaratnam, PC. The BASL never explained why it obtained PTL sponsorship even after the exposure of Treasury bond scams. That partnership also escaped the CoI. The rest is history.

Knowing what is now happening to the US economy with a string of bank failures and unprecedented bailouts, especially due to hoodoo economics it introduced in recent decades, like repeated quantitative easing (blindly printing trillions of dollars leading many to say the dollar is now only good as toilet paper) that has been practiced to ensure its world hegemony, the whole world might be hit with bank failures and even by a depression worse than the one that befell with the stock market crash of 1929. Already the contagion has spread to Europe with some leading banks there also requiring help.

Washington’s debt now stands at USD 31 trillion and climbing, but our own debt burden is still under USD 55 billion. So if we can get our exporters, who have stashed export earnings abroad, to bring them back, the picture here will not be as scary as it is made out to be. Even Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse has said that our export proceeds that have been parked overseas is in the region of USD 55 billion.

Soonwe will start receiving the IMF bailout, but our economic whiz kids have not done anything to plug the massive foreign exchange leak that has been freely draining foreign currency from the country, since the nineties, by way of private foreign exchange dealers who have been allowed to sell foreign exchange to any Tom, Dick and Harry, including drug dealers, to take their sales proceeds out of the country!

We would also like to ask the relevant authorities what they have done to recover monies stashed abroad by Lankans illegally that were exposed in great detail by the likes of Panama Papers and Pandora Papers.

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Midweek Review

A Miscellany of Thought



N. A. de S. Amaratunga (2022)

A Review by G. H. Peiris

I cannot claim to have the scholarly competence to place under critical scrutiny all items in this collection of writings authored by Professor N. A. de S. Amaratunga, and published in The Island from time to time since the early years of the present century. Accordingly, this ‘review’ is no more than an attempt to convey to a wide readership my gratitude for what I have learnt from Professor Amaratunga’s insights on a series of metaphysical and secular issues that have figured prominently during the recent past in the arena of debate and discussion among our intellectual elite, my appreciation of his rational perceptions and his subtle banter in responding to bizarre elements in our public affairs.

As a brief introduction to the author I should state that Professor Amaratunga’s career record is featured by several decades of distinguished and dedicated service to the University of Peradeniya in teaching, research and clinical work. Acquiring advanced skills in the field of ‘Maxillofacial Surgery’, he has provided physical and psychological relief of life-long impact to thousands of patients. He is also credited to have trained several of his junior colleagues in the Faculty of Dental Science, had has served as its Dean. The offer he received from the Peradeniya University of the Prestigious Award of the ‘Degree of Doctor of Science’ is testimony to his eminence in Sri Lanka’s community of scholars and professionals.

What probably enhances Professor Amaratunga’s status among the intellectual elite of Sri Lanka is the fact that his talents, interests, and concerns have not been confined to professional expertise. He has authored several creative writings in Sinhala which the cognoscenti place at par with the best works of that genre. More relevant than all else to the present ‘commentary’ is his capacity for elucidating the essence of certain complex metaphysical issues – especially those of Buddhist philosophy ‒ with the same clarity of thought seen in his contributions to media forums on current affairs.

In his ‘Introduction’ to the volume Professor Amaratunga makes a categorical statement regarding the paradigmatic guidelines of his ‘thoughts’. They are rendered below in abridged form as follows:

(a) The distinctive elements of our island civilisation are derived from Theravada Buddhism and the Sinhala language.

(b) The leadership of Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics since the termination of British rule in the mid-20th century has continued to be impaired by a cultural duality – on one side of the divide, the ‘alienated’ whose behavioural values and norms bear the imprint of subservience to values prescribed by the ‘West’, and, on the other side, those who treasure our civilisational heritage and understand the needs and aspirations of the majority of our people.

(c) His standpoint is that of an ardent ‘nationalist’, in the sense that he is unequivocally committed to safeguarding and promoting Sri Lanka’s national interests.

On literature, Professor Amaratunga adds that he is inclined towards the need for ‘social relevance’ of the fine arts, and believes that the paradigm of ars gratia artis (‘art for art’s sake’) is inappropriate for Sri Lanka, especially in creative writing.

The ‘miscellany’ of this volume is structured to constitute four ‘Sections’ – titled as: 1. ‘Literature and Culture’; 2. ‘Religion’; 3. ‘Economy’; and 4. ‘Health’. The first two of these ‘Sections’, consist respectively of 25 and 19 essays of unequal length. In these ‘Sections’ the reader could pick out from different points of the temporal sequence in which they are arranged items that constitute a mutually cohesive group from the viewpoint of content. For example, in the first ‘Section’, there are six such items, each serving as a contribution to an ongoing media debate, but when considered as a group would be seen as an invaluable enrichment of understanding on a significant feature of the educational system of the country – such as, say, the impact of the nation-wide ‘Fifth-standard Scholarship Examination’ or ‘The general decline of standards in higher education’. Likewise, in the total of 18 articles in ‘Section’ 2, thirteen items could be considered as a mutually cohesive group of thoughts that illuminates certain vitally significant aspect of Buddha Dhamma and Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka.

The forgoing observations do not detract from the intrinsic value of the short contributions referred to. Indeed, in my amateur assessment, in Section 1, the items titled ‘Quality of University Education’, ‘Purpose of the Novel and its Appraisal’, and the twin items titled ‘Darwinian Evolution vs. Intelligent Design’; and in Section 2, ‘Truth in Buddhism and Realism in Literature’, and ‘Mind, Matter and Nirvana in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism’, are examples of the author’s extraordinary depth of understanding and his skill of disseminating that knowledge in a lucid form.

It is in the 3rd Section of the volume titled ‘Politics’ that the real ‘miscellany’ of Thought is found, consisting of 78 items, and accounting for well over half the total page-length of the volume. Since they have been presented in a chronological order ‒ with the first item published in 2001, and the last in 2021‒ the list of items, at first glance, looks like a total mess which, indeed, is how our politics look. But a closer scrutiny show that all items in this list could be placed in one or another of 6 ‘Sub-Sections’ titled as ‘Ethnic Relations’, ‘Foreign Affairs’, ‘Electoral Politics’, ‘Development Plans and Projects’, and ‘Constitutional Issues’, with the chronology of the list providing the vicissitudinous background of each contribution which Professor Amaratunga has made, and each discussion or debate in which he has participated.

Once again I should emphasise that foregoing observation does not imply that the ‘Thoughts’ in this section, read individually, are either uninteresting or irrelevant to our present concerns. On the contrary they offer ideal readings both as reminders of the volatile scenarios we have passed though during the past two decades as well as the unshakable faith our politicians appear to have on the widespread dementia among the voter-population and on their own ability to hoodwink the electorate. Professor Amaratunga’s thoughts could re-kindle fading memories, especially on repeated failures to fulfil campaign pledges, the large-scale losses due to financial malpractices, the allegations of ‘war-crimes’ and of ‘violation of human rights’ in the counter-attack by the major powers of the North Atlantic alliance in retaliation to Sri Lanka’s close relations with the People’s Republic of China, the ingredients of success in the US-sponsored ‘regime change’ effort culminating in the establishment in 2015 of a puppet government in Colombo, the betrayal of our national interests by our own self-seeking representatives at the protracted Geneva inquisitions, the constitutional fiasco of August 2018, the euphoric Gotabhaya victory about a year thereafter, and then, the stunning exposure by the pandemic of the fundamental weakness of our dependent economy.

In the 4th Section of the volume titled ‘Health’, most of the items are devoted to diverse experiences witnessed globally and in Sri Lanka during the Covid-19 pandemic, but in an unconventional manner in the sense that they emphasise significant aspects that have not received adequate attention in the analytical writings on the pandemic. In my view the most significant issue highlighted in this section is the need for Sri Lanka to adopt development strategies towards self-reliance, especially in the availability of medicinal drugs and on food-security. Implicit in several items of this section is a forewarning of the risks entailed in the pursuit of development policies that enhance Sri Lanka’s macroeconomic dependence on the major global and regional powers.

Many items in this miscellany of thoughts contain a prominent element of dissent and disagreement with other participants in the media debates and discussion for which The Island has served as a major forum. But that dissent has all along been featured by a laudable sense of “civilised intelligence”. As a professional whose skills have an intense demand, his interests and concerns have not remained confined to his professional expertise – a feature often seen among other ‘specialists’ including those of the university community.

This volume is, first of all, a demonstration of intense and well-informed concern on a wide range of issues of vital importance to Sri Lanka. Had that quality been more widespread it is unlikely that those earning six-figure incomes would threaten collective action to bring the economy to a standstill to express their dissatisfaction on a relatively marginal erosion of monthly emoluments at a time of unprecedented national crisis, attempting to conceal their avarice with a façade of safeguarding democracy, or eliminating public corruption, or on grounds of their capacity to earn higher incomes outside Sri Lanka.

Yet another exemplary feature I discern in this ‘Miscellany of Thoughts’ is that its contents are not angry knee-jerk reactions when provoked by thoughts different to his own. Professor Amaratunga’s dissent is entirely free of the crude clashes often seen in the so-called social media. Nor are his thoughts based on a hurried consumption of internet ‘short-eats’. In his thoughts that extend beyond brief corrective interjections of ‘common sense’, what we see is an extraordinary depth of knowledge acquired through serious reading and a thorough understanding of the issues on which he had focused.

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Midweek Review

Loneliness of the Bottom Half



By Lynn Ockersz

There you crouch by your hearth,

Seeing your fires sputtering out;

Your hopes of a bubbly pot of rice,

Ending in inflationary smoke spirals,

Leaving you with the painful thought,

That your dignity as mother and wife,

Is gravely harmed and beyond repair,

For, a turn of events not of your making,

Has reduced you and yours to penury,

So much for that Trickle-down Theory,

That Pundits say will end your misery,

But they tell you not to stop dreaming,

Because soon you will be bailed out,

Of your State of longsuffering;

Thanks to Princely tips from ancient Italy.

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