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Regaining Sri Lanka’s special status through statesmanlike leadership

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by Jehan Perera

There has always been something special about Sri Lanka.  In 140 AD the geographer Ptolemy drew a map of the island that made it much larger than it is.  This was probably on account of the stories he had heard about its diversity, where forests, mountains, oceans and cities inhabited by diverse peoples could only have existed in a much larger entity.  At the time of Independence from colonial rule, the British colonial administrator Leonard Woolf was so enamoured of the country and its potential that he described it as the Switzerland of the East.  After Independence, too, the country retained its attraction to foreigners.  Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore wanted his country to emulate Sri Lanka as late as the 1960s.

In the 1970s. Sri Lanka found a place in textbooks on economic development for its low Gini Coefficient (which measures income inequalities and its high PQLI index (that measured the physical quality of life).  This was on account of its social welfare-oriented economic and taxation policies.  It is no wonder that Sri Lanka enjoyed considerable international goodwill.  In 1976, Sri Lanka hosted the 5th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Colombo, and its Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike chaired the session in which 86 nations participated, with additional 30 observers and guests representing all the continents in the world.  China stepped in generously to provide the country with a world class conference centre, the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, as a donation which even today is unmatched for its beauty and facilities.

When Sri Lanka chose to chart a new economic path and open itself up to export-led development, the UK made a full donation of the Victoria Dam and other infrastructure.  Japan donated the new parliamentary complex and the 1001-bed Sri Jayawardenapura General Hospital.  Smaller European countries such as Norway and Sweden donated large sums of money for integrated rural development that sought to spread the benefits of economic development to all parts of the country.  Today, when the country is facing its biggest economic challenge, since attaining Independence, it needs to recapture the goodwill that once existed in the world and which it lost to a large extent in the aftermath of the three decades of civil war.

INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY 

But again, there is an opportunity to regain the place we once had. The peaceful nature of the protests in Sri Lanka as much as the role of youth in them have captured the imagination of supporters of democracy worldwide.  In many other countries, including those of the West, mass protests against the government are often accompanied by acts of vandalism and looting. So far in Sri Lanka there has been none of this.  Despite the heart of the protest being right opposite the country’s most opulent shopping centre, One Galle Face, and notwithstanding the dire economic conditions facing the majority of the protestors, they have behaved with a sense of social responsibility.  The images of families camping out at the protest sites and people of all ages and social classes, ethnicities and religions taking part in them are newsworthy ones.

Sri Lanka clearly needs external support urgently.  Even today there are ships anchored in port, loaded with fuel, but which are not unloading it due to the inability of the government to find the dollars to make immediate payment.  While anchored, they incur demurrage costs that add to the dollars that the government will eventually have to pay and for which the general population will be additionally burdened.  The present unrest in the country is due to the economy running out of dollars to pay for imports and people are suffering in queues and unable to purchase what they need because of the scarcity.

 Several countries have already shown goodwill to Sri Lanka in its time of need.  They are led by India which has been by far the most generous and which has promised to ensure that Sri Lanka will have the food and fuel to stave off the worst.  There is also generosity from China, Bangladesh, Italy and other countries.  But Sri Lanka needs much more and on a much larger scale if it is to bridge the period between now and the IMF assistance that is expected to put the country on a sustainable path to recovery.  The calculation of government leaders that they can stay in their seats of power and ride out the storm is a misreading of the lack of credibility they have.  If the Sri Lankan people are out on the streets protesting against the government’s corruption and Sri Lankan expatriates are refusing to send in their dollars to the country for the same reason, it is unreasonable to expect foreign governments to spend their taxpayers’ money on supporting Sri Lanka.

SPECIAL COUNTRY

Unfortunately, it appears that the orientation of the government leadership is to seek victory in a war of attrition in which the casualties will be the people of the country.  They seem to be hoping the protests will diminish over time and they can go back to business as usual.  If they think so, they are being misled which is easily possible as they are now confined to their high security encampments with scores of security forces personnel around them.  The evidence on the ground is otherwise. The one-day token general strike saw an estimated one thousand trade unions go on strike.  Even government departments were not functioning. The protests are expanding throughout the country, even if the numbers at Galle Face are lower than they were at the start of the protest campaign.

The government leadership needs to end this senseless war of attrition by acting according to the higher traditions of democracy.  They need to be forthright in accepting responsibility for the disaster that has befallen the country under their watch.  They can either step down or, in the alternative, agree on a roadmap where they would lead the process of reform according to a strict time frame.  The first two steps, in this regard, would be the appointment of a new prime minister, acceptable to the opposition in Parliament and the repeal of the 20th Amendment that gives super powers to the President at the expense of Parliament.  The final step in this sequence that would ensure the exit of the present government leadership would be the abolition of the executive presidency.

Such a statesmanlike approach to political problem-solving that is within the frame of the constitution, and born of the ethic of responsibility, would once again elevate Sri Lanka to the realm of a special country.  There will be the possibility of redemption that could serve the next generation of the government leadership well. By way of contrast, the longer that the government leaders stay on, as they seem determined to at the present time, the more likely is the country going to descend into a worse state of economic collapse.  This will spell the end of any hope to obtain the large-scale financial assistance that a new government leadership that is untainted by the human rights violations and corrupt practices of the past could obtain from the world. It will also help to avoid the further wrath of people suddenly thrust into unexpected poverty.



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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