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Reconciliation Initiative- the bigger picture

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­By Dr Nirmala Chandrahasan

It has been announced that the government of Sri Lanka is on a reconciliation initiative. In pursuance thereof, President Wickremesinghe has invited all Tamil MPs for talks next week to discuss issues faced by the Tamil people and how to resolve them amicably without outside interference before the 75th Independence Day. This is Indeed a laudable project, although some sceptics have described it as being due to the result of relentless pressure from outside and future international economic assistance and support being tied to the resolution of this issue. If this is true then it is all the more important that it be approached in a way which goes to the root of the problem and brings the ethnic parties together again in friendship and harmony, which is what reconciliation means.

President Wickremesinghe has mentioned certain subjects for the discussion which include the release of prisoners presumably those held in respect of the civil war, issues pertaining to truth and reconciliation again presumably those arising from the civil war. The list also includes development plans for the North and East which includes assessment of renewable energy potential in the North, and finally development of Trincomalee for Tourism.

Although the above are all worthy objectives, it fails to deal with the subject of reconciliation per se. Reconciliation means restoring friendship and harmony between parties who have been divided, and would include settling or resolving the differences between them. To my mind the most important question to be resolved is whether this Country is to be regarded as a Sinhala Buddhist State where all the other ethnic, religious groups are treated as guests, or as a multi- ethnic- multi-religious, secular country where all citizens have equal rights.

During the previous regime of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it was publicly asserted to be a Sinhalese Buddhist state where other ethnic and religious entities were being allowed to live. This ideology was propounded by ethno-nationalist Sinhalese politicians, academics and media houses. The sole Sinhalese Politician of Stature who was brave enough to repudiate this claim was the late Mangala Samaraweera. He had to bear the consequences of stating that the country belonged to all the ethnicities and religious groups and was denigrated by ethno- nationalists. Even today this policy continues in the Eastern province, where under the pretext of Archaeology, and Buddhist ruins, Tamil speaking farmers of the area are being dispossessed of their lands, although historically many of these ruins are Tamil Buddhist ruins. In the Trincomalee district, administrative boundaries are being sought to be changed so as to make demographic changes to the population of the district. All these actions are analogous to those of Israeli settlements in Palestinian lands, and is only breeding bad blood between the communities, instead of reconciliation. It is also noteworthy that the Archaeological Task force for the Eastern province appointed during the previous regime does not contain a single member of either the Tamil or Muslim communities who constitute the majority in this Province. The above actions would call in question the credibility of the present reconciliation process to even the international observers, and should be discontinued.

This claim that the island belongs only to one ethnic religious group, is not entirely new, although it was given a public endorsement in the regime of President Gotabaya. From 1949 itself with the passing of the Acts disenfranchising the upcountry Tamils and the passing of the Sinhala only Act in 1956, this policy began to reveal itself. There were also pogroms against Tamil speaking people from 1956 onwards, culminating in the pogrom of 1983 which was said to be state inspired and directed. In the aftermath of the 1983 holocaust, the non-violent Satyagraha methods which had marked the earlier Tamil political resistance movement came to an end as people began to doubt its efficacy.

I might add that in my view, it was not the Sinhalese people who were responsible for this policy and the consequences thereof, but self-serving politicians and members of a political class, who found a path to power, position and wealth by espousing this ideology and deceiving their own people. It was this ideology that resulted in Sri Lanka losing so many of its professionals and talent, as sections of the population began to feel that they had no place in this Country. First the Burgher community which had made this their home since the 17th century, emigrated to Australia, subsequently many Tamil professionals who had skills that could benefit the country left for the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and other first world countries. After the major pogrom of 1983, there was an outflow of Tamil refugees who had suffered the effects of the violence, to all parts of the world. The armed struggle also began to take shape, as the military repression caused many young people of the Tamil community to join the ranks of the militants and take up arms because they did not see themselves as equal citizens in this nation. All these factors had a bearing on the present catastrophic economic downturn which we now see. This of course is not the only reason as the incompetence and corruption of the rulers and the political class was also a major factor.

So, we can see that for true reconciliation to take place there must be a recognition that this Country is a Multi- ethnic, multi- religious country in which all citizens are equal and have an equal stake. We must welcome and be proud of our diversity as do countries like Canada and South Africa. Even in the United Kingdom our former colonial ruler, a Hindu of Indian origin is able to take his place as Prime minister. The British Conservative party has chosen to give recognition to ability and talent and not race or religion. We have to look to the day when the Sri Lankan nation will do likewise. In a country where all the citizens of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds are accepted as equal partners, all the constituent peoples would be enthused to work together for the upliftment of ‘their’ country. The Tamil diaspora too would come forward to assist and invest in the Country. For this change of heart /mindset to take place there must be a revamp of the text books in the schools and particularly in the- Sinhalese medium. History books must show the common cultural links between the communities and not portray them in an adversarial way. The historical linkages between the South Indian kingdoms and Lanka should be brought out. The fact that South India was Buddhist too for many centuries, and the Chola Kings who ruled Lanka for almost a century were also patrons of Buddhism should be made known to the public, both Sinhalese and Tamil, as Tamils too are largely unaware of the common heritage they share.

It also behoves the Tamil community to move away from a mindset of victimisation and constant harping on the Civil war. Every war has its brutalities and crimes and these are not confined to one party alone. The Tamil community has to look to the future and while safeguarding their culture and identity they also have to break away from their insularity. Where the hand of friendship and reconciliation is genuinely extended, they should take it and go forward. We might take a lesson from the civil war in the USA, between the Northern States of the Union and the Southern states in the 1860s. Here too the Southern states, (the Confederacy) tried to secede from the Union and form their own state. The war that followed was a very brutal one. It is said that the northern Army of General Sherman followed a scorched earth policy while marching through the Southern states. But once the war was over and the North had won, the Union government followed a policy of Reconciliation. In the National War Memorial in Arlington Virginia, there is a memorial to the Confederate soldiers of the South too, thus honouring the dead on both sides. The reunited USA, a Federal state, went on to become a great power and one of the most prosperous nations in the world. In Sri Lanka too as a measure of reconciliation some memorial to those who died fighting for their cause would go a long way in assuaging the feelings of their relatives and friends, rather than the policy of destroying their cemeteries and preventing their family members from remembering them, as hitherto. The release of the prisoners who participated in the Civil war, some of them still imprisoned, while awaiting trial after so many years, is a good beginning, as too the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation commission which is being envisaged.

Next, I would also like to touch on the question of sharing of powers, as a necessary constituent of reconciliation. Since the Indo- Sri Lanka peace Accord of July 1987, there has been a process of putting in place a system of Devolution of powers. This Treaty gave recognition to the Tamil people as Historical inhabitants of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and provided for a system of devolution of powers through Provincial Councils. Under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act the Provincial Councils were set up. Under the 13th Amendment, powers are given in respect of a wide spectrum of subjects, which are set out in the annexed Lists and Annexures. However, the Provincial Councils Act stultified many of these powers by giving the Governor control of Finances and the Provincial administrative services. Furthermore, the Central Authorities kept encroaching on the subjects allocated to the Provincial Councils. Hence the Provincial Councils have not been as effective as they might have been. This has given rise to the view expressed by some persons including Tamil politicians that the Provincial Council system is not workable, and should hence be done away with. To this, it must be pointed out that since independence seventy-five years ago the Tamil parties have been agitating for some measure of power sharing while seeing a federal Constitution as the ultimate goal. This agitation has been through Parliament and through peaceful ‘satyagrahas’, and through negotiations and pacts with Sinhalese majority Parties and Governments. Finally, the militants having lost faith in negotiations took up arms and a protracted civil war of almost 30 years ensued. But for all this the only political gains in the way of power sharing and devolution that the Tamils have obtained has been the Provincial Councils and that too through the good offices of the Government of India.

Hence good sense dictates that the Tamil political leaders make the best use of what they have in hand. With the ongoing reconciliation process, they could press for the necessary amendments to be made to the Provincial Councils Act, which could be done through legislation with a simple majority in Parliament, or a two third majority where some Provincial Councils do not agree to the changes. No Referendum is required Furthermore, it must be conceded that the Northern Provincial Council could have exercised greater authority and made more progress by making use of the powers to pass statutes on subjects allocated to the Councils, which I might point out the Northern Province Council as of date has been very remiss in doing. Even in the matter of spending funds allocated to it by the Centre the Council has been remiss and even returned such funds in some instances. So in my view, with greater commitment on the part of the stakeholders a more efficient administration can be ensured, once the necessary amendments are put in place.

The alternative is to return to the long-drawn-out process of endless negotiations and drafting committees. After the passing of the legislation in 1987, efforts to make improvements and changes were many, i.e. the Mangala Moonesinghe committee report in the 1990s, the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga draft Constitution of 2000, which was incidentally the closest to a federal form of Government. Again in 2006 there was a multi -ethnic expert Committee appointed under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government which presented a report which was not implemented, next the APRC, (All Party Representative Committee) Report 2010, was shelved by the Government. With the change of Government in 2015 it was sought to revive the process and in 2016 a Constituent Assembly was formed to work on a new Constitution. Speaking on the recent reconciliation proposals Mr. Sumanthiran, MP on behalf of the TNA said that President Wickremesinghe had presented a draft of the new Constitution proposals to Parliament on 16th January 201 9 in the capacity of Prime minister, and this has to be taken forward. This is a sensible proposal as it is not worth restarting the same process again. I might mention that the Parliamentary Sub- Committee on Centre-Periphery relations, which was part of the above Constituent Assembly, made some very good proposals on the reforms to the Provincial Council system in its Report of 2019, which incorporated proposals in the 2006 Expert Committee Report and the APRC Report, and these can be drawn upon when making the amendments to the Provincial Councils Act, as proposed above.

With a view to making reconciliation a reality and restoring friendly relations and harmony between the communities, I have examined the background to, and underlying ideologies which have contributed to the estrangement between the communities. The strategies and steps to be taken in order to change perceptions and fixed prejudices and ideologies will require courage and transformational steps some outlined above. Reconciliation cannot be a one sided effort and both communities must be willing to make the effort. President Ranil Wickremesinghe is well suited to taking this process forward given his long experience of the political processes and understanding of the historical background.



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Opinion

Power tariff hikes and need to revamp CEB

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By Ordinary citizen

Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has again requested for an increase of 70% in electricity tariffs to settle its past losses. What are these losses and how can the CEB be run as a profit-making Institution? Recently, the Chairman of Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL) has claimed that the CEB had a net profit of Rs. 1 billion last month owing to the increase in rates a few months ago. Is it fair to burden an already economically oppressed public with a 70% increase in rates? While the CEB is making these unfair claims, the minister is silent on solving the problem which is the CEB itself. He even claimed that half the employees of CEB are redundant and what has he done to remedy this situation? CEB and Ceypetco are the biggest loss-making state-owned enterprises (SOE). In spite of losses they continue to pay bonuses and huge salary increases to its employees. They get a 25% salary increase every three years and recently CEB paid Rs. 3679 million to its employees under various ruses. In spite of that CEB employees recently demanded a 36% salary increase and the management has agreed to pay the usual 25% increase and this is at a cost of Rs. 9 billion! A meter reader in the CEB gets a salary of Rs. 120,000, about twice paid to a graduate teacher. General Manager of CEB gets a salary of Rs. 655,310 and a Grade 1 engineer gets a monthly salary of 533, 895 according to their own circulars. In addition, they get additional remuneration for site inspection, overtime, fuel allowance, telephone bill reimbursement etc.

These disproportionate salaries have arisen owing to the high handedness of the Board of Management which has taken decisions against court orders, cabinet decisions and Management services decisions. Since the whole country is dependent on the electricity supply, all Governments in the past have conveniently sidestepped confronting the CEB employees and given all what they ask for.

The Auditor General has pointed out that CEB has paid 1712 million in 2018 and 1873 million in 2019 going against cabinet decisions made in 2007 and Management services circular of 2009. In 2014, CEB Board proposed a 100% salary increase to only Engineers (circular no. 2014/GM/46/Pers dated 27 November 2014 and according to a Court decision (CA/WRIT/193/2015) this circular is illegal, null and void and any payments based on this circular is illegal. However, flexing its muscle, CEB granted a 85% of the salary as an allowance to engineers through Presidential decision on the advice of the attorney general which tantamount to contempt of court. Our politicians have been intimidated with the threat of strikes so as to cripple the entire country and they have no spine to oppose such exorbitant salaries and allowances of CEB employees. They have openly flouted the Government rule that limits all allowances to a maximum of 65%. If we consider other allowances on top of this 85% salary it comes to a whopping 138% of the basic salary! Furthermore, even the PAYE tax of its employees is paid by the CEB in clear violation of the Inland Revenue Act which specifically says that the income tax of an employee has to be paid by the individual and not the employer. These matters have been questioned by the COPE on several occasions but no corrective actions have been taken.

This reminds me of the courage Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew had in dealing with a work to rule campaign of the Singapore airline pilots union in 1980. He summoned the pilot’s union representatives and gave them a choice. In his legendary remarks, he told them, “If you continue this I will by every means at my disposal teach you and get the people of Singapore to help me to teach you a lesson you won’t forget. And I’m prepared to start all over again or stop it,” Lee said. He further said, “They know that I’m prepared to ground the airline. They know that I can get the airline going again without them. And let there be no mistakes about it. Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I spent a whole lifetime building this. And as long as I’m in charge, nobody’s going to knock it down.” And with that, the matter with the Pilots union was resolved. We do not have leaders of Lee Kuan Yew’s calibre and put the country first leaving aside politics. They meekly surrender to unfair demands of strong unions such as those of the CEB who hold the whole country to ransom with strike actions.

Other actions of the CEB have contributed to the losses incurred by the CEB. They have continuously scuttled cheaper energy options such as solar and buy power from private power plants at exorbitant rates. The powerful Engineers union has blocked new power generating projects such as the 300 MW LNG plant Sobodhanavi. According to them it is cheaper to purchase emergency power from private power plants which is far from the truth. Also, some of these plants could have been absorbed by the CEB through the initial agreement, yet they continue to pay not only the unit cost but also their investment expenditure. CEB has procrastinated actions on at least eleven low cost renewable energy projects in the Long Term Generation Expansion Plan (LCLTGEP) for reasons best known to them and although former President Gotabhaya in his election manifesto promised to get 70% of our energy from renewable sources, the high handed CEB Engineers: union has continuously opposed the implementation of any of the renewable energy projects. Some examples are the 100 MW solar projects at Siyambalanduwa and Pooneryn and the 100 MW wind power project at Pooneryn.

It is grossly unfair to burden ordinary consumers with high electricity tariffs when a complete overhaul of the CEB is what is needed. If the engineers’ union completely blocks such low-cost projects, it is better to go for a 100% privatisation of the CEB, which appears to be the only solution. No politician either present or past have the courage to face the unfair practices at the CEB and this requires the action of the Government at the highest levels and the parliament should debate this crucial issue in parliament and come out with a long-term strategy to provide for our energy needs. Our President appears tough on hapless student leaders and what actions he proposes to take against them. However, he has been silent on this crucial issue while the treasury is pumping around Rs. 500 billion annually to sustain the corrupt CEB and this amount has not even been included in his budget speech. No wonder why we are in such a precarious position where our economy is crumbling.

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Alan Henricus- A Stalwart Sportsman Of Yesteryear Passes Away

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Alan Henricus (10-Feb 1933 – 26 Nov 2022)

by Hugh Karunanayake

Alan Henricus the youngest of five outstanding sporting brothers who represented their school Royal College, and their country then known as Ceylon, passed away a few days ago. He would have been 90 years of age if he survived up to his birthday in February next year.

The Henricus brothers grew up in Kohuwela where their father a former Feather Weight Boxing Champion of Ceylon lived. He served as an administrator of the sport first as Hony Secretary of the Amateur Boxing Association of Ceylon and later as its President. He helped build the Baptist Church in Nugegoda and was its Treasurer for 25 years. The road leading to their property was named Henricus Mawatha in honour of this outstanding family.

Alan represented Royal in Boxing, Athletics and Rugby, and won school colours in all three sports. He was also a school prefect, highly respected and regarded by both his schoolmates and staff. The family consisting of five brothers and two sisters were all nurtured in the best sporting traditions of colonial Ceylon. Eldest brother Barney represented Ceylon in boxing at the Empire Games and won a gold medal winning the feather weight title. The next, Basil, held the national record for 100 yards sprint and I believe his record still stands. He also represented the Havelocks Sports Club and All Ceylon at Rugby. The next brother George, for many years the Master Attendant in the Colombo Port was also a champion boxer, as was Derrick the fourth in line.

Remarkable sportsmen such as Alan reached their great heights from a base of raw innate talent fostered by regular training and a disciplined approach to life. When I was a 10-year old schoolboy I used to watch with awe and admiration Alan doing his training run at 6 a.m in the morning, jogging all the way from his home in Kohuwela to the Havelock Park and back on most weekends. Alan was senior to me in school by about three years and in those days that was an age gap filled with respect and admiration for a senior student. To us younger kids the high achieving Alan was a hero.

I recall in one Public Schools Athletics meet for the Tarbat Cup, either in 1950 or 1951,Royal College was able to obtain a total of 15 points only, and were never serious contenders for the trophy. However the 15 points that Royal earned was almost single handedly collected through Alan’s efforts. He won the pole vault event, was first in the 120 metres hurdles, and was a member of the 4 X 400 metre relay team which won the event. Although the Tarbat Cup was won by another school, the assembled gathering of Royalists carried Alan shoulder high around the grounds!

From school he was selected for training as a Naval officer cadet in Dartmouth in Devonshire in England. Fellow Royalists the late Norman Gunawardena, and Humphrey Wijesinghe were among the cadets who were selected for Dartmouth together with Alan. On returning to Ceylon after his naval training at Dartmouth, he served the Royal Ceylon Navy and its successor Sri Lanka Navy for several years until retirement. On retirement from the Navy he served for a short period as an Executive in a Mercantile firm in Colombo, before migrating with his family to Australia.

The stint at Dartmouth would carry many precious memories for him, as that was where he met Maureen the love of his life. On migrating to Australia in the 1970s Alan joined the Royal Australian Navy which he served with distinction as Lieut Commander. On my migrating to Australia in 1984 I met Alan and Maureen at a Sunday luncheon hosted by the late Brendon Goonratne. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and Alan and Maureen remained very close friends of ours.

Over the years we used to meet every three months at lunch at the Rosehill Bowling Club organized for old Royalist Seniors through the initiative of Chandra Senaratne. Other social engagements over the years have strengthened our friendship, and it is with deep distress that I heard of his terminal illness about two months ago. I rang him immediately and he was stoic as ever, the brave naval officer that he was. He said in no uncertain terms that he was not seeking to extend his life on this earth, and that he would wait in his home until the final call.

Alan’s departure marks another severance with the old Ceylon we knew, and its traditions and honorable ways. The Last Post will be played at his funeral at the Baptist Church, Epping on Friday December 2 at 3pm. He is survived by his dear wife Maureen, sons Andrew and Richard,, daughter in law Caroline, and grandson Ryan.

“The song is ended but the melody lingers on “

Farewell dear Alan.

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Opinion

Controversy Over Female Teachers’ Dress To School

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Our country and its people always get involved with unnecessary things which is of no interest to the majority of people. The latest debate in this never -a -dull -moment country (as always for the wrong reason) is the dress the female teachers are expected to wear to school. This is something that should be decided by the Ministry of Education in respect of the teachers of government schools.

I recollect when we were students the majority of female teachers wore saree to school. Then there were several teachers who wore frocks. These were the Burgher ladies. And there was no problem at all. I am not indicating this to show support that the teachers should be left to decide on their dress.

Now the strange thing about this controversy is that Buddhist monks have got involved in the debate and they are trying to determine the dress that teachers should wear. They do not seem to realize that the teachers must pay for the sarees. And they need to possess several sarees as they cannot wear the same saree over and over again. Given the monks get their robes free from the dayakayas, they should never get involved in matters of this nature, even though the female nurses may be happy to have one as the president of their union!

This controversy, if settled in favour of the teachers being given the option to decide on the dress and if they wear various types of dresses, the students too might get a bright idea to wear anything they want rather than the uniform that they have to wear at present.

It might be a good thing if the Ministry of Education could decide on a uniform for female teachers in Government schools. Some private hospitals, private firms and Sri Lankan Airlines have uniforms of their own and one could identify them easily. If there is such a uniform in saree and blouse for teachers in government schools, everybody outside too would be able to identify them as teachers and give the respect due to them.

However, this is not the time to worry about dress for teachers when there are children who do not get a proper education and suffer from malnutrition. It seems our rulers always get their priorities wrong, and this always affects the country and the people adversely. First, the teachers must do their job properly so that the schoolchildren do not have to attend tuition classes. We hear that sometimes only one teacher is available, and as a result the children keep away from attending school.

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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