I write to complement Mr. Sangadasa Akurugoda’s essay “Why get rid of our linguistic heritage, and move back to English?” in ‘The Island’ of 8th February 2021. This is nothing to get excited about. It is not long ago that the Sinhala people (Sinhalayo) began to lose their love and pride of Sinhala – the language that gives identity to the people. We developed its syntax, grammar, and the beautiful cursive script over a period of two millennia. Spelling and pronunciation pose little room for error and embarrassment. It is the language of the Thripitaka, Guttila Kaavya and the modern masterpiece in drama – Singhabahu.
English is written in the Roman script and its spelling and pronunciation have to be learned almost word by word. Bernard Shaw showed how ‘fish’ could be written as ‘ghoti”. With my entire education and work in English, I learned the proper pronunciation of the word ‘vignette’ at the age of 76. when I pronounced it as written, a friend of mine corrected me. While I was familiar with the word, both in literature and in photography; I had never had to speak it until then. I didn’t know that the ‘g’ was silent and there’s an unwritten ‘y’ between the n and e. The problem never arises in Sinhala.
I am not disparaging English, which has adopted many words from other languages. Great works of literature have been written in it. As professor Higgins told Eliza – “English is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible”. Today, it is also the language of science, technology, commerce, and communication among nations. Everybody should learn it.
However, no nation with a long history would ever sink so low as to denigrate its mother tongue into a pidgin language – which is what’s happening now to our Sinhala. In general conversation among people, and in all forms of communication over the electronic media, there’s hardly a sentence spoken without a couple of English words thrown in, for which meaningfully perfect Sinhala words are easily available. Contrast this with the same person speaking in English; she would never use a single Sinhala word. It is equally relevant to the Tamil people because I am told by my Tamil friends that even the Tamil language is being similarly corrupted with English.
Why is this so? I am inclined to believe that it is the expression of our covert slavishness to the conquering white master of yesteryear. Let me explain. However much we know that English is important, it is a language difficult to learn when it is not your mother tongue. No one can learn a new language without making mistakes. But we have been brought up to think that it is shameful to make mistakes in English. No such strictures apply to Sinhala. Therefore, one has to give the impression that she has mastered English. So she mixes the few English words she has learned to pronounce properly, into the Sinhala speech. Of course, with this approach she will never master either language.
There’s more to this slavishness. We worship English. How many of the hundreds of privately built apartment buildings in the city, posh and not so posh, have been given Sinhala names? May be there are, but I haven’t seen a single. From a different standpoint, not infrequently, a Buddhist monk explains a word in Pali while delivering a sermon in Sinhala giving the English word instead of the Sinhala term! Isn’t he also telling the listeners that he knows English?
Then there’s the debasing use of the word godak (ගොඩක්) – a collective noun meaning ‘heap’. It has become cancerous and has effectively displaced about thirty words into oblivion. It is repetitively used by everybody including professors of Sinhala, learned monks, and teachers. (If this hasn’t struck you, listen to any Sinhala programme on electronic media.) But when speaking in English no one would say a heap of water, a heap of elephants, or even a heap of wind. We were taught in school to avoid using the same word over and over, but to use appropriate synonyms. This sloppy usage appears even in writing, particularly in sub-titles on TV. It is sad that even 65 years after Sinhala was made the state language, there is no dictionary of synonyms in Sinhala. Apart from thoughtless mixing of English, Sinhala is also being defiled and disgraced with a usage that is distinctly crude and degrading – particularly in speech. This happens mostly among younger persons. This phenomenon is addressed in a book captioned ‘patta arthal singhala’ by Bandara Wevagedara. At present there are several other crude ways of perverting Sinhala.
The writing on the wall is clear. With our very identity under relentless attack, we have not far to travel. All component things are subject to decay. Other great civilizations have perished in the past. So might it be with Sinhala. But I know that there are some sinhalayo who would want to avert that sad fate. I hope they would try and succeed.
Repression not a sustainable option
by Jehan Perera
The country to which President Ranil Wickremesinghe returned after his international successes in the Americas remains in dire straits. In both Cuba and New York, the president made his mark at the podium holding his own with giants on the world stage. Addressing heads of state at the G77 Summit in Cuba, the president spoke of the significance of science, technology and innovation in shaping the future of developing nations. He referred to the new technological divide emerging in the 21st century, necessitating the adoption of digitalisation and new technologies, such as Big Data, IoT, AI, Blockchain, Biotechnology and Genome Sequencing, to bridge the gap. He also reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s commitment to supporting the new Havana Declaration and called for the collective voice of G77 and China to be heard in international fora.
Addressing heads of state at the UN General Assembly, the President drew upon his experience in peacebuilding when he called for the expansion of the UN Security Council’s composition as essential for world peace. He also highlighted the reforms he initiated in the economic, financial, institutional and reconciliation fronts as being directed towards rebuilding trust and confidence between the people and the government and as laying the foundation for economic stabilization and recovery. However, the president faces formidable challenges in this regard. The country’s economy, which shrank by over 7 percent last year and by 11 percent in the first quarter of this year, continued its downward plunge with a further shrinkage by 3 percent in the second quarter. The much touted absence of shortages and queues is not due to the economic performance picking up but because people have less money to spend.
With inflation in the past year having halved the real income of people, and high taxation of those in the tax net further impoverishing those in the middle income and professional categories, they are leaving the country in droves leaving behind gaping holes in various sectors of crucial importance to the economy. But the tax reforms that have impacted on the middle and professional classes directly and the increased sales taxes that have impacted on the poor are still not covering the gaping hole in the country’s finances that need to be filled for IMF support to be forthcoming. Government revenue has seen a shortfall of Rs. 100 billion as compared to the revenue target agreed with the IMF. There is a clear need to utilize tax money in a more streamlined way without it being misallocated or pilfered on a large scale which is widely believed to be a continuing practice in the country.
The indications are that further economic hardships will need to be placed upon the people. The problem is that the government is placing the burden disproportionately on the poor and not on the rich. Dr Nishan de Mel who heads the Verite Research think tank that has been doing in-depth analyses of Sri Lanka’s encounter with the IMF disagrees with the government’s position that banks would collapse if the banking system had to bear some burden of domestic debt restructuring. He points out that this conclusion had been reached without any analysis. “All the other countries that restructured debt shifted part of burden debt restructuring on to the banking sector. There are ways of protecting banks during debt restructuring. The government has placed all the burden on the pension funds and says that the impact on these funds are limited. It also claims that banks will collapse if they are affected by domestic debt restructuring. So, which claim is true? Why can’t the banks share part of the burden?”
There is a general consensus that the burden of economic restructuring is falling disproportionately upon the poorer sections of society. Dr de Mel has also pointed out that the government has been privatising profits while socialising losses because of the lack of accountability. “When those in power work for the benefit of themselves and their friends, they ensure that a small group of people enjoy the benefits of growth or implement policies that benefit targeted groups. However, when things go wrong, for example, when we have to restructure domestic debt, those in power make sure that the people in general bear the losses. This is what we have seen in Sri Lanka.” This view is also to be seen in a Civil Society Governance Diagnostic Report produced by a collective of civil society organisations and authored by Prof Arjuna Parakrama which states that “The current growing sense of economic injustice has been exacerbated by the fact that the architects of the economic crisis do not bear any part of the burden of its proposed reform, which has been, again, firmly thrust, without any public dialogue, on the victims of this very crisis.”
Making the situation more prone to instability is the fact that this inequitable burden sharing is being done by a government that has little political legitimacy. Barely a year and a half ago, those who are currently ministers in the government were on the run, hiding from the wrath of vast multitudes of people who were demanding that they be held to account for having bankrupted the country through their corrupt and venal deeds, whether real or imagined. All of those who are now ministers (with the exception of a handful who have crossed over from the Opposition) were compelled to resign from their ministerial positions. They were legally reappointed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe after he was legally elected president by the votes of 134 parliamentarians. But a legitimacy deficit continues to haunt the government and makes it an insecure one though presently firmly ensconced in power. The way to gain legitimacy to bridge the trust deficit is to be fair and just in making decisions that impact upon all the people.
Unless remedial steps are taken the government’s current engagement with the IMF may be difficult to sustain. This is not only because the government is failing to meet the targets set by the IMF. There is also a lack of confidence about the IMF programme among the general population. A public opinion survey conducted by Verite Research has shown that about 45 percent of Sri Lankans believe the IMF will make things worse for the economy in the future. Only 28 percent of the population believes Sri Lanka’s ongoing programme with the IMF will make things better for Sri Lanka’s economy in the future. The mounting difficulties faced by people in coping with their economic circumstances can lead to protests and agitation campaigns. The logic of competitive electoral politics can also come into play with different political parties making their own promises to alleviate the economic hardships on the people even at the cost of the economic reform programme agreed with the IMF.
There appear to be trial balloons put out by government members that safeguarding the IMF programme may require a moratorium on elections. The government has shown itself willing to take this route ostensibly for the sake of the economy. Even before the agreement with the IMF, the government postponed local government elections that had been set for March of this year citing the need to focus on economic recovery rather than hold elections. Recently, MP Vajira Abeywardena, chairman of the UNP of which the president is the leader, has stated that the government would not be able to meet the economic needs of the people if funds were allocated through the 2024 Budget for the presidential election which is due in a year. The emergence of two controversial laws that can restrict freedom of expression and the ability to engage in public protest may need to be seen in this context.
The draft Anti-Terrorist Act which seeks to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act is wider in scope and gives the government the power to arrest persons who are engaging in public protest or trade union action. Those who are charged as “intimidating the public or a section of the public” can be arrested under this law. The Online Safety bill has the potential to curtail the use of the internet for political communication purposes. It will establish a five-member commission, all of whom will be appointed by the president, and they will be tasked with determining the veracity of online content. The commission appointed by the President will be able to proscribe or suspend any social media account or online publication, and also recommend jail time for said offenses. The Bar Association has said that both these draft laws seriously impinge on the liberty and freedom of the people, will have a serious impact on democracy and the rule of law in the country and called for their withdrawal. If these two laws are passed by parliament, they will make it more difficult to challenge the government even when it is going on a wrong path. But with the economic situation continuing to get worse, and the suffering of vast masses of people increasing, repression through the use of law and the security forces will not be a sustainable option.
Lawyers Collective condemns Anti-Terrorism and Online Safety Bills
The Lawyers’ Collective condemns the latest version of the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the Online Safety Bill gazetted in September 2023. The Government of Sri Lanka has failed to respond to the serious and fundamental concerns raised about the Anti-Terrorism Bill gazetted in March this year. The government also failed to adopt any transparent and accountable process through which the Bills were explained, justified and robust public consultation facilitated before they were gazetted. The definitions adopted for ‘terrorism’ and ‘false statement’, and related offences created under the two Bills are excessively broad and vague, and thus do not represent a measured and proportionate means of serving specific and necessary law and order objectives.
Indeed, the Anti-Terrorism and Online Safety Bills represent an attempt to institutionalise excessive executive discretionary power over a broad range of ordinary activities of the citizens of Sri Lanka. At a time when the country’s democracy quotient is at a historical low, attempts to rush into enactment dangerous laws that have a high potential to crush dissent and curb civil liberties causes much alarm. Citizens of this country are currently making a wide range of demands on their elected representatives and government officials in the context of the deep economic crisis and the bearing it has on their lives.
Democracy demands that the widest possible space be created at this time to hear citizens’ grievances and to engage citizens and citizen groups, especially vulnerable communities. The intolerance represented by the two proposed laws towards legitimate dissent, critique, opposition and organising around different ideas and solutions for governance in Sri Lanka is a direct threat to democracy, civil liberties and the role of the judiciary in protecting citizens’ sovereignty against executive capture.
Sri Lankan recent history is marked by terrible violence and social and economic devastation caused by repressive approaches to unrest and inequality in our society and polity. Having emerged from decades of war and violent insurrection, the government and opposition parties would be mindful of the responsibility that they bear towards the current and future citizens of this country. In this moment, the legal profession has a role and responsibility to act to safeguard people’s treasured freedoms.
The Lawyers’ Collective calls for the immediate withdrawal of the two Bills. The Collective also calls for the adoption of a transparent process of consultative law making and the proposal of executive and legal measures that are proportionate and responsive to the needs of the people. The Collective demands that the government desist from enacting laws that will harm the very foundations of democracy in Sri Lanka. Such laws that grant the executive excessive powers to curtail citizen’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression and thought, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and liberty erode the sovereignty of the people that is the very basis of Sri Lanka’s constitution.
On behalf of the Lawyers’ Collective
Rienzie Arsecularatne, President’s Counsel.
Upul Jayasuriya, President’s Counsel
Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel
Geoffrey Alagaratnam, President’s Counsel
Dinal Phillips, President’s Counsel
Saliya Pieris, President’s Counsel
Lal Wijenayake, Attorney-at-Law
Upul Kumarapperuma, Attorney-at-Law
K.W. Janaranjana, Attorney-at-Law
Nuwan Bopege, Attorney-at-Law
Recently, I have made it a point to listen carefully to dhamma discourses by erudite Bhikkus , very specially on the consumption of meat by Buddhists and the Vinaya rules laid down by the Buddha on this subject.
To begin with it was one of the conditions which Devadatta insisted on as mandatory, which the Buddha in his profound infinite knowledge declined as impractical. He even cited instances where previous Buddhas declined such requests. What the Buddha said was that killing was not at all permissible, but the consumption of meat was left to the discretion of the persons concerned whether it be the lay persons or bhikkus.
Some may dislike meat out of sheer sansaric habit while others may relish it, but the Budhdha laid down certain important pre-conditions on the consumption of meat. He prohibited eating the flesh of 10 animal species like the lion, elephant, tiger, leopard, bear, horse, dog, cat, snake and human flesh.
On the other hand he prescribed an important Vinaya rule known as the ‘thri kotika paarishudda‘ which literally means that whoever gives it as an offering or consuming it must make sure that the meat comes from an animal which was not specifically slaughtered for the purpose. Meat bought at a market is without doubt such a meat and may be offered to and received by a Bhikku..
A previous Buddha has even assisted a bhikku through his infinite knowledge by suggesting that he should go begging for alms on a particular street where a lay dayaka was preparing a meal of rice with crab curry. The bhikku concerned was extremely pious but could not attain arahat status as he had an excruciating earache. No sooner he ate the crab meal his acute pain ceased and he concentrated his mind on the dhamma and attained Arahathood then and there. The layman who offered the crab meal noticed the difference in the Bhikku and was thrilled to know that he had given alms to an Arahat.. This hppy thought came back to him at the time of his death, whicn occurred very much later.
His Chuthi chiththa was so powerful that he was born in a splendid divine abode with a huge mansion which had the insignia of a large golden crab at its entrance to remind him and all of the crab meal which was offered to an Arahat.
A lay person once asked the Buddha whether it was correct to recommend the eating of foul smelling flesh like fish for instance and the Buddha has replied that tanha irrsiya krodha maanna dhitti are more foul smelling and should be eschewed completely if you wish to attain the bliss of Nibbana. Looking down on people who consume meat is also a sinful thought which should be avoided , as it does not benefit anyone.
Dear friends, I have tried to tell the English speaking folk who do not have the opportunity to listen to our Sinhala sermons some profound truths. They even do not know that there have been more than 500,000 Buddhas in the past aeons of time and a Mahaa Kalpa is an enomous space in time which only a Budhha can comprehend. The knowledge of a Sammaa Sambuddha is infinite.
Lastly a word of caution to those who obstruct the doing of good deeds. They cannot even receive the Anumodnaa Kusalaya by a mere wish of happiness at a good deed, [sadhu] but will certainly reap the evil rewards of obstructing good deeds, May you all be well and happy.
Cecil de Mel,
Tel. 011 2648565
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