A lot can happen in April. This April hasn’t been good for the government: coming in weeks after its Geneva defeat, it now faces a major issue with the pandemic, with India reportedly suspending exports of AstraZeneca. The dilemma, as it stands, reminds us of the dangers of relying on one vaccine, and on one source of procurement.
April hasn’t been good for the economy either. This is import season. Workers’ remittances are down. Tourism may be on its way up, but it is hardly enough. Trade will in all likelihood be greater than this time last year, and yet, with disposable incomes coming down, the New Year won’t look like it used to. The merchants are optimistic: “It’s important that people are preparing to celebrate the Sinhala and Hindu New Year enthusiastically,” one of them tells a reporter. But then celebration isn’t everything, nor is there much to celebrate.
Not even with the import restrictions currently in place have we been able to narrow the trade deficit by as much as we should. This is natural: a lot of economic activity takes place in the informal sector. Indeed, given the unreliability of statistics and the state of the informal sector even in normal times, it’s likely the numbers aren’t telling us the whole story.
The government has taken some steps to “go local”, ranging from shoes to cinnamon cigarettes (though promoting it didn’t do much good to Minister Weerawansa). Going local are endeavours to be welcomed. However, the question can be raised whether this entails the establishment of local industry, which is what it will take to stem the tide of widening trade deficits and depleting foreign reserves.
To state the painfully obvious, a global pandemic has failed to keep us from continuing to be a nation of merchants, financiers, and importers. It is a little unfair to blame the government over a problem built into the economy and hardly attributable to one party. Yet in all fairness to those running the show now, they just don’t seem to have recognised the need to make the transition from going local to local manufacture.
Of course, there are silver linings. Regardless of what critics may say, those at the top are taking vaccination seriously. Close to a million have already got the jab, and while doubts do exist as to whether the second jab will come, no one’s complaining too much. Though it has been riddled with shortcomings you usually expect, and get, from government programmes – a lack of planning, a failure to communicate, and rumours of “vaccination lists” – these pale once you consider that the country is, somehow, getting inoculated.
Thus, as far as vaccination is concerned, the government is doing what it can. I only wish one could say the same of what it’s doing with, for, and to the economy.
Looking at it in retrospect now, the November 2019 election brought to power the largest and possibly most diverse political grouping in recent history. Going by the election results, it even paled the 2018 local government polls. The sheer size of the SLPP-led coalition, not to mention its handling of the first wave ?????, contributed to a bigger electoral landslide nine months later. The latter cannot be marginalised: it was the first two-thirds majority an administration achieved, without enticing crossovers, in a post-war setting.
The problem with large majorities, of course, is that they’re easy to lose, even without a virus around. This one was no exception: slowly at first, then picking up speed little by little, one half of the coalition has found itself battling the other.
If the ECT deal was what brought up these dissensions, their origins can be traced to the 20th Amendment, which transferred what little power one of the most popular prime ministers of the country held to the most no holds barred president this country has seen since 1977. The Amendment signified more than just a consolidation of presidential power: it symbolised a transition from the left-populist faction of the SLPP, milling around Mahinda, to the Viyath Maga Eliya (VYE) politico-military-corporate faction, centring on Gotabaya.
The Sinhala nationalist vote – the main vote that counts, for both sides – has traditionally been limited to the heartland of the south: Rajapaksa territory. Yet as the elections of 2019 and 2020 showed clearly, the SLPP, thanks to the VYE coterie, managed to woo and win over the Kelani Valley middle-class while cutting into the UNP-SJB’s traditional base: the Catholic belt. In other words, a party that canvassed votes outside Colombo found itself winning by massive, even unexpected, margins from electorates along the suburbs of the capital.
In doing so, it achieved what Chandrika Kumaratunga did in 1994: a defection of Colombo’s corporate class – a class now involved in the SLPP’s economic programme – from a dying UNP to a more Bonapartist outfit. As with Bonaparte, the upper bourgeoisie opted for the younger Rajapaksa; they chose to see him as their salvation, discarding the old compradore class now split between the UNP and a section of the SJB. Comparisons with Napoleonic France don’t end there, incidentally: Rajapaksa’s November 2019 win happened almost exactly 170 years after Louis-Napoleon dismissed the Royalist Ministry, and 220 after his uncle took power as the country’s First Consul. Who says history has to occur only twice?
Once you see in the coalition an unwieldy mix of corporate heavyweights and trade unions, of estate owners and estate workers, it’s easy to understand the contradictions that make up the government’s economic policies, both in the short run and the long.
What are these policies? In a recent interview with the Daily Mirror, Mr Kenneth de Zilwa (a capital markets expert, business cycle economist, and member of the Monetary Policy Consultative Committee of the Central Bank) makes a convincing case against conventional economic theory: that money printing leads to inflation, that trade must be based on comparative advantage, that neoclassical economics promote growth, and that we must look up to the IMF. In other words, the choice is between letting consumer imports flood the economy, and gearing the economy towards local production; no two guesses for which of these alternatives Mr De Zilwa, and I, prefer.
If this is the underlying philosophy of the regime’s economic programme, then all I can say is, it’s about time. As the history of monetarist theory, comparative advantage, neoclassical economics, and Bretton Woods financing – IMF and World Bank – shows well, there is and has always been a rift between precept and practice with regard to conventional development paradigms: what you read in theory isn’t what comes out in implementation. De Zilwa is therefore correct: we need a new macroeconomic framework, home-grown and free of import rent-seekers. (I can safely say this is the first time I have read an economist refer to “import industry rent-seekers” critically.) That is the reset we should opt for.
And yet, however laudable such a reset may be, one thing keeps it from seeing the light of day: the class contradictions within the SLPP. In a context where policymakers allied with the current government want it to deviate from conventional paradigms and affirm policies that are geared towards domestic industries and markets, how practical would “home-grown” solutions be when the government has wooed, and won over, the same import rent-seeking conglomerate class – the same class that overwhelmingly voted the yahapalanists to power years ago – opposed to such policies? To invoke a metaphor of my own, how can you fight the lion when the lion’s in the den with you, and the meat’s in your hands?
If must, of course, be noted that the pandemic has, for a moment at least, brought all these contending classes together. This is nothing to be surprised at: in times of major recessions, corporations do not necessarily oppose state intervention. They didn’t oppose it in the US in 2008, and they haven’t done so in other countries implementing tough measures to ward off the fallout of the virus. The fact that the country’s corporate upper class has gone quiet over policymakers invoking local industry, despite its dependence on import-driven consumer-led growth, should hence point at how depressions tend, in the short term, to dampen corporate opposition to state intervention.
The time bomb will start to tick once recovery kicks in. For obvious reasons, we will not be seeing that for some time – two years in the least, if not four – but when we do, I won’t be the first to wager that despite the government’s laudable position on local industry, it will start to see its most fervent advocates from the corporate sector turn to the other side if it continues to indulge in anti-rentier rhetoric. In other words, in the short run we’ll see an alliance between the interventionists and the importers, and in the long, we’ll see a rupture.
As far as the regime’s policy of “localising” and “domesticating” the economy is concerned, then, the solution would be to go full speed ahead, setting up factories, shifting from light consumer goods to heavy capital goods, establishing an industrial ecosystem linking different parts of the economy, and orienting ourselves to production, and not just trade.
The sooner it does this, the better it will handle the clash of interests between the advocates of going local and the opponents of going local. That is not going to be easy, for in co-opting a corporate class, the regime co-opted the biggest obstacle it has in seeing through what may be the most ambitious set of reforms since 1970-1977. The government should hence ensure that not even its most powerful backers prevent it from enforcing them. Put simply, it can’t afford to appease those backers. Not in the short run, and certainly not in the long.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
Save the Last Dance for me
By Capt Elmo Jayawardena
A few months ago, I was in Hong Kong, visiting a well-known charity organisation called Crossroads. It was to seek assistance for a project in Sri Lanka. Crossroads has an enormous warehouse filled to the brim with anything and everything; ready to be sent to places where people in need plead.
The store surroundings looked familiar. Then I realised I was standing where the old Kai Tak airport was, now pastured and replaced by the glamour of the new Hong Kong International Airport.
Yes, I have been here before, many a time at that, bringing jet aeroplanes into land on runway 13, turning at the famous Chequered Board at 600 feet and pointing at the short runway besieged by the sea. The final turn and approach was made between sky-scrapers that stood on either side, like sentinels, and one could spot the flat residents’ laundry hanging outside their windows.
The Chequered Board was fixed to the mountainside, big board with orange and yellow squares, clearly to say “Turn now, beyond this is damnation”.
That was Kai Tak, surrounded by hills, minimum length to stop, and the weather gods playing their fancy games so often that we, mere mortals who flew the machines were nothing but puppets on a string.
But we managed; day in and day out to put our aeroplanes down and brake like crazy to make sure we didn’t overrun and tip into the water.
When the skies were friendly, it was a thrill to land at Kai Tak. The runway usually was direction 130 (runway 13) and the wind rolled from the East, nice and steady and we came past Green Island and saw the Chequered Board in front to tell us we have to change direction lest we too got pasted like the Chequered Board on the same mountain. Then came the turn, low and precise to make the final approach, the laundry run, to fly between the buildings and place the wheels precisely at the touch down point to avoid going swimming.
Every time a pilot landed in Hong Kong in the olden days, there was that gleam in the eye. I’ve seen it a hundred times in my co-pilots and I’ve felt the same whenever I made the approach; the accomplishment of doing something right where the demand was high, which sent the adrenalin into overdrive.
The typhoon time was another story. The winds sheared, gusted, backed and veered and the rain swept across the field, diminishing visibility. Dark grey clouds hung low, covering the mountains and the Chequered Board was hardly visible. We went in by the leading lights, which were very powerful strobes that throbbed, giving us a path to follow to take us to the laundry lane. All this was with the wind playing wild symphony and the rain pattering down like machinegun fire. Most times, lining up on the runway for the short final run was almost impossible and that is where the pilot’s skill mattered, kicking rudders and wagging wings like a mad man playing drums just so that the aeroplane landed and stopped all within that little wet and slippery runway with the sea awaiting with open jaws for a luckless pilot’s mistake.
I remember my last flight to Kai Tak, in June 1998. I left home determined to do the landing. Most days, I would let the co-pilot fly, I’ve seen a lot of this airfield and the younger pilots were always grateful for a swing at Hong Kong. But this was my final flight to Kai Tak and I saved the last dance for me, just like the The Drifters sang.
The co-pilot was young and he mentioned he had never landed in Hong Kong. It was a hard call on me. I could not let this young man go and run through a flying career having never landed in Kai Tak. Maybe, years later his first-officer would ask about the infamous Kai Tak approach and my friend would have to answer that he had never done it.
All in all. the deck was stacked against me, there is something called professional courtesy and out went my last dance, “Son, you take it to Hong Kong”.
The weather was bad, the winds were howling, and we went in. The young man turned at 600 feet and the aircraft was bucking and jumping and he hung in there like a rodeo kid but that wasn’t enough.
With 300 feet to go we were pointing at mountains and the field was almost below us and then I took over and went around to the safety of the sky.
One thing I never did in an aeroplane is if I ever took over from a co-pilot, I never gave it back. I flew it and landed it – that was the golden rule, the safe approach.
The rodeo kid and I were now loitering in the sky to await our turn to make the next run. Then it hit me like a thunderbolt, same co-pilot, years later would be a Captain and when his co-pilot asked him about Kai Tak and how it was to fly in he would have to say “I got one chance and I blew it, couldn’t make the field and the Captain had to take over.”
There was no way I could crucify this young man’s soul, make him poor as gutter water in a field where professional prestige mattered most.
‘Son you take it in, go and land this aeroplane.”
That’s precisely what he did. He waltzed with the wind and came through the clouds and turned at the Chequered Board and flew down the laundry lane and lined up the big 747 on the short runway to land as smooth as Mr. Neil did on the moon.
Then I saw the glitter in his eye – Last dance or no dance, I wouldn’t have traded anything for that look. That’s what flying was all about.
It is possible that my rodeo-kid friend would read what I write and remember. It was all between him and me and the old Kai Tak Airport.
He, I am sure by now, is a Captain. I like to think that he too would at times give away his turn to dance just to see the gleam in a fledgling’s eyes. That should be the legacy.
If not, what would we be worth as professional pilots?
MICHELANGELO OF ITALY and BARANA OF SRI LANKA
BY Sampath Fernando
“Every block of stone has a statue inside and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” –
Michelangelo (AD 1475-1564). And he discovered THE DAVID inside a rock of marble around AD 1501-1504.
Barana, the Sri Lankan sculptor, performed a similar act in the 5th Century AD. He was supposed to have accomplished this around 455-477 AD during the reign of King Dhatusena. Avukana is a standing statue of the Buddha near Kekirawa in the North Central province of Sri Lanka. The statue, which has a height of more than 40 feet (12 m), was carved out of a large granite rock face.
BARANA, THE SCULPTOR
There are enough historical records about Michelangelo and his paintings and sculpture. Barana was virtually unknown. My speculation is that he was employed by the king, not for his artistry but merely for his skills to get a Buddha statue sculptured. In ancient Sri Lanka, kings were well known for creating Buddha statues and Stupas (dome shaped buildings to preserve relics).
Whatever the reason both Barana and Michelangelo deserve great honour from us. Why? It is amazing the genius of both of them, how they produced such wonderful work of art without the aid of modern cameras and computers, electromechanical drills etc. Also, how did the Romans carve their tall fluted columns which are perfectly proportioned. The magnificence of ancient Egyptian pyramids goes without saying.
Michelangelo later in life developed a belief in Spiritualism, for which he was condemned by Pope Paul IV. The fundamental tenet of Spiritualism is that the path to God can be found not exclusively through the Church, but through direct communication with God. I speculate than Barana was a devout Buddhist. Buddhism being the only organised religion at the time. As mentioned earlier the kings spent lot of wealth and employed skilled artists to honour the Buddha.
THE PERFECT BUDDHA STATUE
Carved out of the living rock with supreme assurance, Avukana Buddha is a magnificent image. His expression is serene and from his curled hair sprouts the flame called siraspata signifying the power of supreme enlightenment. Although the statue is large and stands straight up with feet firmly planted on the lotus stone pedestal, the body retains a graceful quality enhanced by beautifully flowing drapery clinging to the body.
THE TALLEST BUDDHA STATUE IN THE WORLD
The magnificent free-standing (still attached to the original massive rock) statue carved out of a single rock is the tallest Buddha statue in existence today. Following the destruction of similar but much larger statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, the Avukana Buddha has gained even greater significance in the Buddhist World.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
My parents were devout Buddhists and school holidays were combined with a family pilgrimage. So, I was taken to Avukana statue with my two brothers and the two sisters to worship the Buddha. I was only about 10 years old. As I reached my adulthood I began to look up to Buddha for his philosophy.
As an octogenarian, I visited the site on 7 December 2019 and venerated Barana for giving us such a marvellous image of art. A combination of philosophy and art!
“I am still learning” said Michelangelo at the age of 87. I can say the same thing now, seven years ahead.
(The writer taught Applied Physics at The University of Arts London (UAL) and retired as a professor.)
Identity issues continuing to fuel Mid-East conflict
On the face of it, the decades-long Middle-East conflict is all about who controls which plot of land in the chronically conflict-ridden region. For example, the powder keg city of East Jerusalem is claimed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians. On and off, the city erupts in violence on account of its disputed nature and we are just witnessing a new round of such blood-letting. Ownership of real estate seems to be at the heart of the conflict. But there is more than meets the eye in the conflict and land ownership is just one vital aspect of it.
As important as land and issues relating to material well being that grow out of it is religious identity and connected cultural markers that are seen by the Israelis and Palestinians as defining them as ‘nations’. This accounts for the centrality of East Jerusalem to the complex problem which is the Middle East.
In the latter city are places of worship which are seen as being of the utmost sacredness by the groups concerned. For example, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is sacred to Islam and therefore the Palestinians, and which came under attack in the current round of violence, is located in East Jerusalem. Likewise, numerous are the sites in East Jerusalem which are sacred to the Jews. The Temple Mount is one such structure which is revered by the Jews. But many of these places of religious worship are revered by almost the entirety of the communities of the region, although some groups proclaim exclusive ownership over them.
It is for the above reasons that pronouncements to the effect that ‘Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel’ could be anathema in the ears of a considerable number of Palestinians and many of those of the Islamic faith. Recognizing this statement as true and factual could be tantamount to conceding that all Islamic sacred sites in East Jerusalem should come under the complete control and jurisdiction of the Israelis.
To very many sections professing the Islamic faith in the region, conceding East Jerusalem to Israel would be unthinkable because East Jerusalem is integral to their identity as a people or as a ‘nation’. This is the reason why they would see themselves as fully justified in taking up arms to defend their perceived ownership of East Jerusalem. And ‘native’ places and locations are almost sacred to most communities and ethnic groups because those are the sites where they could practise their religions and cultures. The same line of reasoning holds good for traditional Jews. Since East Jerusalem is home to numerous sites that are sacred to them they would see themselves as justified in possessing the city by even the force of arms.
It is in view of the foregoing that former US President Donald Trump could be said to have destroyed peace prospects in the Middle East to a considerable measure by fully endorsing the position that ‘Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel’. By doing so, the former US President legitimised Israel’s complete hold over the city. But the truth is that ownership of the city is bloodily contested and this has been so for decades.
The question could be asked as to why one group should consider it unthinkable and revolting that the other group should exercise controlling power over religious sites that are claimed by it as well. In short, why are these group antagonisms so deep-rooted? We go to the heart of the Middle East conflict with this question.
In fact, the ‘enmity’ could be centuries long. Its roots could lie in the ‘myths of origin’ churned out by hard line sections in both communities. Both Judaism and Islam revere Abraham, seen as the originator of most theistic religions of the Middle East. Abraham is believed to have had two sons of different natures. At the popular level, each of the adversarial groups in the Middle East sees itself as deriving from the ‘better-natured’ of the sons. Like most popular myths, these notions die hard among the more impressionable sections.
However, there is no denying that land and territorial disputes have been keeping the flames of conflict and war ablaze in the Middle East. This is true of today as it was at the turn of the last century, when the British were seen as implanting the Jews in the land of Palestine at the expense of those who were already inhabiting it. That is, the Palestinians of today. The Jews were seen as growing in number in Palestine and they very soon laid claim to a state of their own in Palestine. Thus were sown the early seeds of the conflict which has bedevilled the region to date.
As matters stand, Israel controls to a considerable degree all contested areas in the conflict except the Gaza strip where the militant group Hamas exercises extensive governing control, backed by some staunchly pro-Islamic extra-regional states. At present, the religious unrest in East Jerusalem has invited the military involvement of Hamas, which development has, in turn, triggered off a spiral of violence between the Israeli security forces and Hamas. At the time of writing, the violence has claimed more than 30 lives.
It is highly regrettable that the violence is occurring in the holy month of Ramadan. It is hoped that the international community would intervene to end the violence and make a fresh effort to work out a political solution to the conflict.
A scrutinizing look at Middle East developments over the decades would indicate a close link between land issues and identity questions. These factors could be said to have been mutually-reinforcing. To the extent to which the Palestinians see themselves as being deprived of land and other means of livelihood, to the same degree are they seeing themselves as suffering on account of their religious identity. This trend aggravates religious tensions. Economic issues deriving from land questions trigger a sense of being victimized on account of religious and cultural markers.
Accordingly, US President Joe Biden has his work cut out. If he is serious about bringing peace to the Middle East, he will launch a fresh bid towards evolving the two-state solution. Under this formula there is a possibility of resolving land issues equitably.
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