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Recovering from Sri Lanka’s present crisis: Challenges and possibilities



Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa delivering his budget speech

By Chandra Amerasekare

The recently introduced Budget for 2022 shows some of the reasons why Sri Lanka fell into the present crisis. The pandemic affected the entire world, but its impact was worse in Sri Lanka as the present government failed to take the right decisions, at the right time, to manage it. Thus Covid-19 contributed to the present situation as the Government closed the barn after the horse escaped. It was pure mismanagement of governance that pushed the country into this mess. This government failed to implement appropriate policies to stabilise the economy and upgrade the standard of living of the masses. On the contrary, by following contradictory and ill-advised policies that defeated the very goals the government was aiming to achieve, and failing to listen to the woes of the people, it made the situation worse for the people and led the country towards bankruptcy, besides selling valuable resources to foreigners. As a result, the entire nation is now on a survival mode: political parties looking for ways to survive and come back to power and the general public struggling to survive in a situation of exploding cost of living and increasing police brutality.

Even in 2015, the country handed over to the Yahapalana government, by the previous Rajapaksa regime was falling apart due to mismanagement of fiscal and monetary policies, from 2005 to 2015, which destabilised the financial system and emptied the Treasury, limiting the incoming government’s ability to run the country. Ill-conceived policies and vanity infrastructure projects created a huge debt burden. By borrowing expensive Chinese loans, with short pay back periods, to construct large projects with no return on investment, like the Hambanthota port and the, airport etc., the Rajapaksa government caused annual debt servicing obligations to escalate sharply, making it impossible for the incoming Yahapalana administration to meet debt repayment obligations from the resources available at the time. The government was forced to go for early elections, hoping for a stable majority in Parliament.

Sri Lankans expected the new Yahapalana regime to bring the culprits, who plundered the country, before the law, but the Yahapalana government failed to do that. Did the lack of co-operation between the two partners of the Yahapalana government lead to this failure? The public continues to blame the UNP for allowing the Rajapaksas, and their supporters, to evade the law, and other political leaders are trying to exploit this to win votes by discrediting the UNP and accusing its leader of deals with the Rajapaksas. The report of the Commission on the April terrorist attack shows how some public servants performed their duties to the detriment of the country and this report might be a guide to understand why the Yahapalana regime failed to bring offenders before the law.

The current Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime, concerned with staying in power, has not changed direction after regaining power in Nov 2019 and continues to tread the same path as before taking the country towards bankruptcy, and the people to despair, spending time in queues to obtain the daily essential at unbearable prices.

People waited for the 2022 budget hoping for some relief. Sadly, this Budget has not given any relief to the people. It contains policy conflicts, shortsighted decisions, weak fiscal measures, statements to camouflage the truth and no substantial proposals to change the direction of the economy, to set it on a growth path, or address the critical issues holding back progress. The budgetary allocations among the Ministries show lack of far sight and concern for the people. The Budget does not say how it will bridge the gap between government expenditure and income in 2022.

During the Budget speech, the Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa, stated that the public service is a burden to the country, implying it is costly and bloated. Then in the same breath, a policy extending the retirement age for public servants up to 65 years and promising employment to all graduates next year was unveiled; is an example of blatant policy contradiction. Government has not learnt from its policy mistakes during the past two years. The number of gazettes issued and later withdrawn by this government is proof of this government’s shortsightedness, ineptness and inefficiency. Contradictory and foolish policies, such as import ban, including the ban on chemical fertiliser, price controls and then completely abandoning price controls of essential food items thereby creating blackmarkets, fiscal measures, like tax reductions, which reduced government income, while helping the politicians and government supporters to make money at the cost of consumers, are glaring policy mistakes proving this government’s inefficiency. The government is trying to survive by printing money, leaning more and more on China, selling valuable land to foreigners. All this make Sri Lanka’s future extremely bleak.

Almost 80 percent of the budgetary allocations are for Ministries under the Rajapaksas,including highways, and other departments with a lot of construction projects. The allocation for the military has been increased while the allocation for the Ministry of Health has been reduced in a situation where there is no war, but the pandemic is predicted to continue and become worse in 2022! Already the fourth wave of Covid has been noticed in China, Germany, Sweden, etc. In the US, an increase has been identified. Sweden is going for a country-wide lock down.

Education, too, is not sufficiently provided for, compared to the present need to improve online access to education for all children. Sri Lankan children have missed school for two years, and the majority of them have no access to online education as they are without internet facilities, phones, tabs or even the TV. Does the government realise that children are the future of the country and disruption to education for two years has enormous effects on this generation’s future and mental health? This Budget will not be able to make any difference in the country next year.

To bridge the gap between expenditure and revenue in the Budget, the government will probably resort to selling more and more valuable land, and other assets, to foreigners in the guise of bringing foreign investment. They might opt for more Chinese loans as other donors and multinational agencies are unlikely to support wrong policies that do not benefit the people and unproductive projects which only serve to boost the ego and fill the pockets of corrupt politicians.

Can Sri Lanka recover from this crisis situation?

As things are, it will take at least two years to turn around the economy by any government provided the next variation of Covid does not devastate the country and the world. The scientific community seem to believe that the new Omicron variant, now spreading, might be even more contagious. They also doubt the efficacy of the current Covid vaccines against new variants of the virus. It is difficult to expect a visible change for the better for the next two years if the Covid situation in the world does not improve. However, things could turn around for the better if people follow the instructions of the Health Ministry, and government acts sensibly. The chances of recovering from the current crisis depend on whether Sri Lankan voters succeed in bringing a leader into power who has the capability, experience and the overall knowledge required to manage the economy to get the maximum benefits from global trade and international aid programmes to stabilise the financial system while replenishing the reserves and finding affordable capital to finance development projects.

The challenges to economic recovery

1. The biggest challenge to recovery is the lack of dollars to do international transactions, be it private or governmental, and lack of capital to invest in projects to increase production. It is important to understand that Sri Lanka is an import- dependent country. There is no sector in the economy that can function without an imported input. Imported raw materials and machinery are needed for industries, agriculture, transport, construction and even banking. Dollars are required to import food and oil. The country depends largely on foreign employment, tourism, plantation and garment exports for its foreign exchange earnings. What are the prospects of an increase in income from these sources?

2. Impractical monetary policies that keep the rupee exchange rate artificially low for “show” are driving foreign exchange earners to use unofficial traders/brokers such as the Hawala system; thereby bypassing official channels and reducing the influx of badly needed foreign exchange into Sri Lanka. It is time to incentivise foreign exchange earners to transfer funds into the country through official means, and enact pragmatic monetary policies that balance all of the issues that are affected by exchange rates.

3. With disruptions to the global supply chains and low expectations of global economic recovery after the pandemic that stretched for two years, it is unlikely that global tourism will come back to the normal level, even in a year, since the fourth wave of Covid is already spreading in some countries. Local tourist hotels, except a few, need a substantial injection of capital to resume functioning smoothly. There is no capital available to revive this sector at the moment. Remittances from foreign employment in the Middle East, may not increase for another year or so because of the fears of another wave of Covid and the economies of these countries also have suffered due to global trends. Production in the tea plantations has already gone down due to the fertiliser policy.

4. Everybody knows what is happening in the garment sector. The threat of losing GSP + means losing the market for the garment sector and the industry will collapse. The market for apparels is in the west as most Asian countries and Latin American countries are garment exporters. The Middle East countries prefer branded western products and their traditional dresses. Hence the prospects of an increase in the dollar earnings from the present sources mentioned above are rather gloomy.

5. Attracting foreign investments is one way of overcoming the dollar crunch and lack of capital needed to finance projects that generate employment and exports. Investor confidence in the government of the country where their money is going to be invested is a precondition to attract investors. Enabling a policy environment which allows security for the investors’ profits, ease of doing business and political and economic stability in a country where there is good governance are the important considerations for investors to invest money in a country. This is the very thing that Sri Lanka lacks at present. Only an honest leader who commands the respect of the international community and has the ability to understand future trends in the global economy can succeed in creating such an environment to attract productive foreign investments (not casinos) to Sri Lanka.

6. Foreign aid in the form of loans with payback periods of 25 to 50 years at interest rates less than 2% and outright grants is the best way out for a country, like Sri Lanka, now burdened with external debt and lack of capital. China or Russia does not provide such loans. Only the West, international agencies and Japan provide such assistance. But a lack of good governance; a goal-oriented long-term development plan that does not contradict the donor criteria for giving aid; and a leader who is acceptable to the international community as reliable and experienced who honours international agreements; is preventing Sri Lanka from receiving such aid. Some politicians and opinion-makers, in Sri Lanka, who advocate rejection of help from “‘Imperialist West’ and the IMF and insist that Sri Lanka should depend on local resources, probably have no idea that even Russia and China have depended on foreign aid from the West to develop. US government and Japan still give aid to China considered as their potential geopolitical rival, to promote democratic values, such as free choice through Chinese voluntary organisations. China uses the aid at regional levels to overcome local opposition to some projects and for the technical knowhow that comes with the aid (Dr. Philippa Brant, Research Associate of Lowey Institute titled ‘Why does China still receive foreign aid’ and paper by Issac Stone Fish, both published in in 2013.)

7. The 20th amendment to the constitution created the possibility for a President to become a despot. The independence of the Commissions responsible for; a) conducting free and fair elections, b) disciplinary control, transfers and promotions of judges, c) transfers, disciplinary control and promotions in the public service, has been virtually revoked by the President by appointing his nominees to these Commissions. This amendment has given the power to militarize the administration. These Military men are in a position to override the decisions of civil administrators. These developments flowing from the 20th Amendment are not acceptable to donors or the UN as good governance is an important criterion for giving aid and democracies in the free world stand for human rights and rule of law.

8. Political culture in Sri Lanka is the last but not the least stumbling block to recovery. The voters responsible for making and breaking governments hardly consider policies or past performance of parties when they decide who should get their vote. They hardly think of the interest of the future generations. Their priority is to get an immediate benefit for the family. Sometimes they have a select memory that enables them to forget grave offences of some politicians while remembering the minor failures of other politicians. So, they keep electing the wrong people to parliament and rejecting better representatives. As a result, lawbreakers, sex offenders, thieves, drug dealers and even murderers go to parliament and its doors are closed to honest and educated people. Voters’ ability to take an enlightened decision is further stunted by the way politicians mislead them by lying and the way some electronic media houses playing the role of kingmakers, present their programs in a manner to mislead the viewers. Politicians know that most voters can be swayed by emotion at the last moment and they resort to using religion and race to sway the voters in their favor. Under normal conditions voter’s priority is to get immediate relief and the majority of them tend to vote for the candidate who promises employment for a family member or a free gift.

On the other hand, there is no visible alternative to this government at the moment. The main opposition has not presented a long-term plan to address the problem other than making promises. The JVP is acceptable to those who consider bringing the culprits who robbed the country’s wealth is the primary objective of changing the government. But JVP also has not talked of the ways to handle the ailing economy. On the other hand, they do not have even a limited experience in governance and economic development or dealing with the international community. Mere book knowledge of economics and organizational ability will not be sufficient to help the country at this juncture. This was proved by the mistakes of the current regime advised by Viyath Maga. The UNP has presented a skeletal plan and the leader is experienced and well received by donor countries and the international financial institutes. But the UNP has been rejected by the electorate at the last election. A coalition between the UNP, SJB and the JVP might be the last slim hope for the country.

(The writer is  retired CAS officer, who has served the country for over three decades working in the Finance Ministry and as a representative of Sri Lanka in the UN in New York (1991 to 94 )


Illegality of Urumaya programme



President distributing land deeds in Galle recently

by Neville Ladduwahetty

The Urumaya Programme, aimed at resolving land ownership issues for over two million Sri Lankans, was officially launched on 5 February in Dambulla by Minister Harin Fernando. During the press briefing the Minister is reported to have stated: “The programme’s aim is to provide permanent land ownership solutions. Over 10,000 land licensees currently holding Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi licences will be among the first beneficiaries of this programme. These licenses will be converted into freehold deeds, granting them full ownership of their land. This move is expected to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of millions currently struggling with land ownership uncertainties” (

Continuing he stated: “Our journey is far from over. Many of our citizens have lost homes, land, and their sense of security. To address this suffering, we have launched a special programme – “Urumaya” Through this initiative, we aim to bring about positive change for over two million people in Sri Lanka.    This involves granting freehold land deeds to those who currently hold licenses like Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi.     By empowering our people with ownership, we hope to spark a new era of stability and prosperity” (Ibid).


“Delivering the 2024 Budget proposals, President Wickremesinghe unveiled the ‘Urumaya’ programme, wherein he noted that the land slots distributed among farmers under the licences of the Land Development Ordinance in 1935 would be handed back to farmers” (The Morning, February 18, 2024).

“Although around 100 years have passed, the ownership of these farmlands has not been handed back to the farmers who own them. We are handing over the lands to farmers who lost the ownership of their traditional lands during the British colonial era. We expect to commence this task in 2024 and complete it within another few years. Two million families will get the ownership of land and farmland. I allocate Rs. 2 billion for this purpose,” (Ibid).


The granting of freehold land deeds to over two million people in Sri Lanka raises several constitutional issues. The most fundamental issue is whether the government has the authority to grant freehold titles to lands and its resources to some, while such authority belongs to the Republic of Sri Lanka and ALL its Peoples as an integral component of their sovereignty.

For instance, the Preamble to the Constitution, which some consider to be of little significance, while others consider it to be the very embodiment of the core values of the Constitution states: “The PEOPLE OF SRI LANKA having, by their Mandate freely expressed and granted …. entrusted and empowered their Representatives …to draft, adopt and operate a new Republican Constitution…whilst ratifying the immutable republican principles of REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, and assuring to all peoples FREEDOM, EQUALITY, JUSTICE, FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS…”.

Arising from these core principles, Article 3 states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable ….”  The fact that Sri Lanka is a Republic is what makes its assets part of the sovereignty of all the People.    Furthermore, since it is the PEOPLE of Sri Lanka that have “entrusted and empowered their Representatives to carry out functions on their behalf, such Representatives do not have the right to grant part of the People’s sovereign rights and/or its resources that are inalienable, to a select few. However, it is imperative that a strategy is developed to address the issue at hand without violating provisions of the Constitution.



“The Constitution declares that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. (Article 3).   Being a representative democracy, the powers of the People are exercised through persons who are for the time being entrusted with certain functions. The Constitution states that the legislative power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament, the executive power of the People shall be exercised by the President of Sri Lanka, and the judicial power of the People shall be exercised, inter alia, through the Courts created and established by the Constitution (Article 4)”.

“The organs of State are guardians to whom the people have committed the care and preservation of the resources of the people. This accords not only with the scheme of government set out in the Constitution but also with the high and enlightened conceptions of the duties of our rulers, in the efficient management of resources in the process of development, which the Mahavamsa, 68.8-13, set forth”.

Other Lordships of the Supreme Court have also commented on the fact that certain Constitutional procedures need to be followed when granting or disposing of State Lands or other resources that belong to the People in the Republic.    It is the unilateral action taken under the Urumaya Programme without following due process as called for in the Constitution, that makes this Program illegal.

A “Brief Guide on Land Rights in Sri Lanka” states:

“State Land is alienated: • By Permit • By Grant • By the President

“State land is all land that the State is lawfully entitled to, or land which may be disposed of by the State together with any building standing thereon, and with all rights, interests and privileges attached thereto. This also includes lands of various Corporations and Boards. State land is administered at national, provincial, district and divisional levels by the relevant government officials” (Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014).

By Permit:

“Permits are issued to particular categories specified in the relevant laws such as low-income earners and those who are landless.   Permit holders can use the land as specified in the permit including as a residence and/or for cultivation purposes.     Permit holders are required to pay a nominal monthly rental to the State. Permits can be issued as an annual permit or also known as ‘LDO permit’ when issued under the Land Development Ordinance” (Ibid).

By Grant

“(Swarnabhoomi, Jayabhoomi, R a n a b h o o m i, Ranbima – Permit-holders can convert their permit into a grant or a deed, if they meet specific conditions” (Ibid).

By the President

“The President can grant or lease State land at a nominal price or rent it for charitable, educational, religious, scientific or any other purpose” (Ibid).

Therefore, according to the “Brief Guide” State Land cannot be converted to freehold deeds that grant them full ownership of their land under the Urumaya Program without conforming to the above guidelines.

Since State-Owned Enterprises also form part of the sovereignty of the People, the intended proposal to privatise them, also faces the same restrictions. It is reported that the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters have in a letter addressed to the President appealed to him to exercise caution about the sale of national assets such as state-owned enterprises” (The Sunday Times, 18 February, 2024).


The reason for granting freehold deeds is to enable current Permit holders to use the asset as collateral to raise a loan since existing provisions cited above are considered too restrictive.     Therefore, it is pertinent to consider what the existing restrictions are and consider what refinements could be made to existing provisions in order to mitigate the administrative impediments as much as possible while conforming to Constitutional provisions.

The strategy adopted by current Permit holders of State-Owned Assets is to form themselves into a Cooperative. Each member of the Cooperative pays a monthly stipend.  These are forwarded monthly by each Corporative to the Development Co-Op Society for use by its members to secure loans relating to Paribooga Loan (livelihood) and/or Housing Loan.  The process involved to secure a loan is quite rigorous and involves an evaluation of the capability of the member to honour required loan commitments by the Grama Niladhari and members of the Development Co-Op Society. This procedure has enabled members of the Cooperatives to secure loans in the range of Rs. 800,000/= to one million.

The granting of freehold title to current Permit holders, amounts to converting State land on which the asset is cited into Private land. This is a violation of the collective sovereignty of the People. Therefore, existing provisions granted to Permit holders should be revised in a manner where the Permit has a legitimacy equivalent to a title deed for all administrative purposes, except for the land on which the asset is cited.

Furthermore, if Permit holders are entitled to nominate a beneficiary, the interests of the original Permit holder would continue as it would be if the asset has a freehold title. If on the other hand, the original Permit holder did not have a beneficiary of choice, the asset would revert back to the State.    Such possibilities should be explored with caution instead of rushing to grant title deeds to People that may have the potential to disappoint them if they find that the deeds they received are not legal.


The intention of the President to correct an injustice by handing back traditional lands belonging to farmers that were taken over 100 years ago during British Colonial Rule, is indeed noteworthy.  However, there is a need to be conscious of the present context. That context is that Sri Lanka is a Republic and Article 3 of the Constitution states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable”. That being the case, Sri Lanka’s lands, its assets and resources belong to the People. Furthermore, since nearly all Sri Lankans have endured injustices of one kind or another, it is Illegal to correct the injustices committed against some, at the expense of the rest. This is what the Urumaya Programme is all about.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the part of the President and others associated with the Urumaya Program to act cautiously and revisit the legality of the Urumaya Programme before it is too late. If they proceed regardless, there is a strong possibility that beneficiaries of the Urumaya Programme may have to face disappointment later if it is found to be illegal. A similar note of caution has been issued by the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters regarding State-Owned Enterprises.

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Among the Trobrianders: A Personal Journey



Royal Thomian. March 2023

By Uditha Devapriya

You are putting me in a hole.
No, I am taking you out of it!

Somewhere in 2016, I lost my first job.I had been working at my old school for two months, and had been led to assume that I would be retained to help them draft a communications policy. I was into PR, had hopes of entering advertising, and was looking for a suitable opening.

All of a sudden, I was told they didn’t need such a person.

I was 23 at the time. I had just completed law school and was waiting for my results.

It was not the best time to be idle. I needed a job.

And now, I was out of one.

I tried contacting friends and acquaintances, clinging to any mutual contact I could find.

None of it worked.

Frantically, I fired off one email after another.

I may have sent tens if not hundreds of emails. Many replied, and some asked me to come over to be interviewed. The interviews, however, all left a bad taste in my mouth. The jobs they had either paid too low or were outside my comfort zone.

Then an ad agency, one of many agencies I had emailed, got in touch. They scheduled an interview in December. There they said they wanted someone with “zero experience in advertising.” They thought I fitted the bill. They took me in.

By now I was freelancing to several newspapers in the country. I was writing on the arts, reviewing films, plays, the occasional exhibition. The pay wasn’t good, but the exposure was: it got me in touch with artists, directors, writers, dancers.

I had always been mad about culture and the arts. At school I had inclined to subjects like history and literature. Though I did not study them for my Advanced Levels – I chose Commerce, a “safer” stream, instead – I did not abandon them. I pursued such fields as a writer and a journalist after leaving school.

There was a problem, however. For more than a decade I had studied mostly in English, and had become ignorant of my language and culture. I came from a Sinhala speaking background, but since I spent six hours at school, two getting back home, and around five or six active hours at home, this did not amount to much.

In my time, the rage everywhere in the country was for English, Western, private education. Our parents had studied in the vernacular: Sinhala or Tamil. Yet after leaving school they had felt it would be better to have their children taught in English.

Public schools used to have English medium classes, but by the time I was born these had been abandoned. As a result, a new type of school had cropped up, catering to an ever-growing demand for English education.

The problem was that while we readily immersed ourselves in English education, many of us allowed ourselves to neglect our languages. Though our parents were concerned about what was happening to us and nationalist groups bemoaned what this was doing to our country and culture, there was little anyone could do about it. It did not help that in the classroom, we were tacitly discouraged from talking in Sinhala and Tamil.

June 2022

The result was that most of us came out knowing next to nothing about our language, religion, culture, society, even our people. I was no exception. Westernised, though in a half-baked way, I could not relate to the world I had been born to.

Lester James Peries recalled undergoing a similar experience at his school.

Some of us became snobs. Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly.

So did Osmund Jayaratne.

If, instead of Latin, we had been given a good grounding of our native tongue, Sinhala, I would have been very happy, but unfortunately this was not to be.

And so did Gamani Corea.
[F]or my generation, the lapse [in Sinhala] was a serious one and a handicap for later life.

These were sentiments I could relate to.

A few months after I began my job, I realized that things would only get worse. I may have been writing to newspapers on local art and culture, but I was writing in English, thinking in English, operating in English, living and breathing English.

My new workplace made me more conscious of these deficiencies. A good copywriter tends to be rooted in his surroundings. He or she tends to be bicultural, if not bilingual, and finds it easy to operate in both English and the vernacular.

My problem was that I was far from being bicultural, in any sense.

It was a hole I needed to get out of, and fast.

My coworkers had, in their own way, stepped in and helped me improve somewhat. Yet they were too busy. I realized I could expect only so much from them.

Someone else had to step in. Someone from outside.


Freelancing has its advantages and privileges. You aren’t constrained by deadlines, and you are free to write what you want to write. You get to associate with people who relate to you. You get to write on them. Often you get to learn from them.

One night in 2017, the Secretary of a school society called me. The society, the Library Readers’ Association, the oldest student-led association at the school, was organizing an exhibition-cum-quiz. They wanted a judge for the quiz, and an article written on the event. Since I had been a quizzer and was a writer, I seemed to fit the bill.

I duly served as judge, and the article, which the boys fortunately liked, duly got published. In Sri Lanka, however, events never really end: they lead to other events. Soon I was getting requests from them to write on other societies and clubs, including sports events. These were not typical press release articles, but full-length human-interest essays, different from the journalistic pieces that get written about such events.

It was then that I realised that most of these boys came from a world completely different to the world I had grown up in. Though they attended what was seen as the leading public school in the island, Royal College, they had entered it through the Grade Five Scholarship, and had been boarded at the school Hostel.

Hailing from villages that lay far away from Colombo – you had to fulfil a distance threshold to be boarded at the Hostel – they represented an antithesis of my personality. They had lived their entire childhood at home. As I talked with them, they regaled me with stories of the culture shock they underwent after they moved to Colombo.

At first our parents were worried. Would we grow up away from them?

The first English song I ever heard was our school anthem.

Some classmates mocked me, they made fun of the way I talked.

Becoming the butt-end of jokes, they adapted by either suppressing their identity or, in the more likely scenario, insulting the insulters.

In our first two years, we mocked those who spoke only in English in our classrooms.

They seemed too nerdy, too polite. They were like babies.

That, however, only heightened their fear of the language.

Of course, we were afraid of English. Some of us avoided it, others tried to master it. A few pretended it wasn’t important until it was too late.

Sri Lanka may be a small island, but it is home to an incredible range of cultures and subcultures. There is nothing monolithic about any of them.

A colourful bunch, these boys came from practically every corner of the country. In the way they talked, behaved, the way they interacted with outsiders and with me, they differed from one another. They were a microcosm of their country. Talking to them, I encountered the societies they hailed from, societies I had grown away from.

Slowly, but surely, our associations developed into friendships. As time went by, we realized that we looked at the world in different ways. Yet in one sense we were kindred spirits: we were all learning and absorbing a new culture.

For them, it was a process of discovery: living in a city, English, Western culture.

For me, it was a process of rediscovery: Sinhala language and literature, Buddhism.

In the end, we ended up teaching one another.

It was almost like Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders. The difference, of course, is that they were as much an exotic Other to me as I was to them.

And like Malinowski and the Trobrianders, there were points of disagreement, difference, and incompatibility between us, often too big to bridge.

I found their views on culture and society intriguing. Yet beyond a point, perhaps because of my cultural conditioning, I found it hard to accept them. As an agnostic, for instance, I couldn’t relate to their religious beliefs, particularly their belief in the supernatural. Still, they expressed such sentiments with a lot of conviction.

Gods do exist.

When we feel them, we believe in them, we give them power.

Come over one day, I will show them to you.

If this is one of the more insightful comments on God-worship in Sri Lanka, or anywhere, I have come across – the notion that it is our belief in them that gives them power – it’s because it was said by someone who spoke his mind, someone who responded instinctively to such matters without intellectual obfuscations.

In other words, these boys weren’t just teaching and guiding me. They were immersing me in their moral code, their cultural universe. It was not exactly an encounter between two worlds. But it was an encounter between two ways of looking at the world.

To be sure, I still have not got out of my cocoon. I am still ignorant of cultural matters. I still make gaffes. There are times when I feel like a foreigner in my country.

Yet, largely through the intervention of these boys, I have acquired a decent understanding about things I was unaware of.


Late last December, describing my attempts at introducing him to sociologists and historians and at getting him to talk to them, one of these boys expostulated:

You are putting me in a hole.

To which I replied:

No, I am taking you out of it!

Life ultimately amounts to the people we meet and the friendships we form.

It is about what we do for one another, the lengths we go for others.

It is about teaching new things and learning new things.

Or, as my friend put it, about falling into holes and getting out of them.

Like what these boys did for me – and like what I like to think I did for them.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He can be reached at .

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Tea Library Hikkaduwa comes alive



The Tea Library was opened recently in the heart of Sri Lanka’s most popular beach and surfing town Hikkaduwa. This is another venture of tea industry veteran Malinga Herman Gunaratne best known for ‘white tea’ – probably the most exclusive tea ever produced in the world. The Tea Library adds a new dimension to Hikkaduwa with its three story terracotta exterior and welcoming interiors.

It offers accommodation, a restaurant and a tea shop. The third floor which provides spectacular views of the beach and the Hikkaduwa town, features a mural covering the highlights of Herman Gunaratne’s life in the tea industry by artist Chandana Samarakoon. Architect Shayam Kumaradas has transformed this once derelict building into one of multiple uses and chic interiors. It features hand painted Mandalas by artist Maneesha Sewwandi on the walls of the bedrooms.

Opening times of Tea Library are 9 am – 10 pm daily and you can have an exclusive group tea tasting experience, or use the stunning upstairs restaurant space for events such as book launches.

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