In this series of interviews on Colombo’s heritage, we cover the Great Department Stores of Old Colombo. Historian Asiff Hussein, the Author of The Great Days of Colombo.
by Ifham Nizam
Q: In your book ‘The Great Days of Colombo’ you had mentioned that by the 1950s Colombo Fort had four well known department stores in the best European tradition. These were Cargills, Millers, Whiteaways and Colombo Apothecaries. Could you tell us what were the reasons that led to their emergence and why they were so popular at the time?
Yes, I would call them Colombo’s Big Four. All of them emerged in the early 1900s and had their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. These were all based on the British model of a Department Store, in the fashion of Harrods of London.
In fact, they may have even been inspired by Harrods whose wedge-shape is reminiscent of Cargills, the biggest of our department stores. Harrods apparently had humble beginnings, having been founded as a grocery store by Henry Charles Harrod in the mid-1800s before expanding in the late 1800s when many new departments were added. The Harrods building we are familiar with was constructed in 1905 and housed about 300 departments. So my guess is that it served as a model for others in the English-speaking world and in the British colonies.
A shopping complex with various departments, under one roof, was of course, a great convenience to shoppers. Department stores of this nature also had a reputation to maintain and stocked only products of the highest quality and some even extended credit to more loyal customers. In one-time colonies like Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, patronising these high-end stores were a status symbol as well.
For instance, we have a Ceylonese writer, J.Vijayatunga stating in his book Isle of Lanka (1955): “It is the hour of shopping. To those not familiar with the ritual of the Cinnamon Gardens housewives, the scene would strike one as a scene after a Hundred Days’ Siege. There are two big department stores on York Street- they were known as European shops but the controlling interest is now in the hands of Jaffna Tamils and Burghers, though the floor managers and managers are still white men, and the saleswomen are as a rule Eurasian while the lesser salesmen and their assistants are Ceylonese and Malayalees. There are two more such shops on Prince Street”
Vijayatunga refers to a lady from Cinnamon Gardens breathlessly ordering fresh Australian butter to be delivered. ‘Account, Madam?’ the counter assistant asks, and no satisfaction he says is greater to Madam than that of being able to say “Account” and sign.
He adds “At these counters an ordinary mortal must be very careful – for he may unwittingly jostle a Ladyship or Knighthood or an O.B.E.-ship or a Chevaliership. These honours are nowadays lavishly strewn in Ceylon and are to be encountered in the most unlikely places”.
What is also interesting about Vijayatunga’s account is the glimpse he gives us what these stores offered back then-Australian beef, Australian cheese, Oxford sausages, tinned meats and fish, meat pastes and fish pastes, peas and asparagus and peaches and jams- anything that has a label stuck on a bottle or tin indicating that it was manufactured in Australia, New Zealand, or in Great Britain, all of which had “a hypnotic effect upon Colombo’s society ladies”.
Q: Cargills was obviously the biggest of these. Could you tell us something about how it looked like in the good old days?
Cargills was built on the site of Captain Pieter Sluysken’s bungalow at the junction of Prince Street and York Street. This Dutchman’s residence was in the corner of a block occupied by high ranking Dutch officials. History tells us that he was a gentle soul and had a Kaffir band comprising of black musicians who played sweet music on the lawn in front of his house.
Cargills that emerged in its place in 1906 was a much more grander edifice with its beautiful burnt sienna façade. The company was founded by D.S.Cargill and enjoyed the distinction of being the oldest departmental store in Asia at the time it was founded in Kandy in 1844 before moving into its purpose-built premises in Colombo Fort where it thrived. Even back then it was fitted with electric fans and hydraulic lifts. Arnold Wright in his monumental book Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907) observed of it a year after it had moved to the big city “These premises are deservedly considered the finest of their kind east of Suez”.
Cargills eventually added to itself as many as 40 departments that sold everything from basic household needs to very many luxurious items got down from the industrial powerhouses of the West. Its main departments, in the early 1900s, included groceries, furniture, dressmaking, gentlemen’s tailoring, horse feed, wines and spirits and drugs and dispensary.
By 1948 when the country gained independence, it had added many more departments, including Photo and Optical, Sports, Toys, Stationery and even a Book Department upstairs where a good many books could be purchased. The children of the post-war years who may well be called our very own baby boomers had their favourite books, many of which must have been got from Cargills. These included June Girls Annuals, Enid Blyton’s storybooks and Little Lulu and Dell comic books.
Cargills were agents for many a foreign brand. The long list included Arnott’s Australian Biscuits, Beehive Brand Australian Butter, Blue Band and Golden Mountain Margarine, Fray Bentos Corned Beef, Riverstone Tinned Meats and Sausages, Regal Chocolates, Del Monte Fruits, John West’s Salmon and Huntley’s and Palmer’s 4 O Clock Afternoon Tea Biscuits. They also sold HMV Radiogram, Singer Sewing Machines, Dinky brand miniature die-cast vehicles and Hornby Dablo trains produced by the Mechano Toy Company.
I was told that during Christmas time, that is until about the 1970s or so, Cargills kept a Santa to entertain children and had seasonal events like ‘Lucky Dip’ which involved shoppers having to pay a small sum of money to try their luck with brown paper bags filled with little toys and such things. The dozen or so bags would be kept in a wooden box and participants had to use a hooked pole to fish out the bags, each of which had a loop at its top.
Q: Millers was another major player at the time. What was it they offered that was different from what Cargills had to offer?
Millers Ltd was based in York Street and dealt in foreign goods as well though much of it differed from what Cargills dealt in. It sold among other things Cow & Gate Milk Food, J.Terry & Sons Chocolates, Kodak photographic products, Marconiphone Radios, Tunstalite Electric Bulbs, Tarzan’s Grip Paste, Magic Hoodoo anti-ant tape, Partridge & Sons Cigars and a variety of liquers such as Smith & Sons Yalumba Wines among other things. Around the time we gained independence, they were dealing in Elaine Chocolates, Walters’ Palm Toffees, Elizabeth Arden’s toilet preparations, Jean Valjean Manilla cigars, Austin Reeds Shirts, Mangold shoes, Columbia gramophones, Tungstalite electric bulbs and Brolac and Murac paints and enamels. In the 1950s we hear of Millers offering large Bedroom, Drawing Room and Dining Room Suites, Slumberland Matresses and Lampshades in Crenothine with Trimmings.
Q: Whiteaways was yet another well known department store of the time. What had it to offer its customers?
Whiteways or to give its full name Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co had its department store in a three-storeyed building in Prince Street (Present Sir Baron Jayatilleke Mawatha). It was topped by a dome, painted white or silver and is said to have had cargo hatches on its sides where the goods arriving from the harbour could be unloaded and conveyed to the basement or stores.
Whiteaway admittedly had fewer departments than Cargills or Millers and were mainly agents for British brands. Among these were grocery, tailoring, men’s wear, footwear, glass and china, confectionary, pharmacy, haberdashery and millinery. From what we gather they also had a toys department on its third floor where there was a model railway layout with running toy trains demonstrating Tri-Ang trains of British origin for which they were apparently the agents. They were also agents for Barb garments, Ciro Pearls, Snow White Sheets and Helena Rubinstein beauty products.
Q: Apothecaries is also said to have been a department store. So what did they offer their customers?
Colombo Apothecaries was at the corner of York and Prince Street and was housed in a four-storeyed building. It had got its name of Apothecaries from its humble beginnings as a little chemists shop that opened its doors in 1883 in the De Soysa buildings in Slave Island.
The later building, built in 1915 housed all its departments which were added as the years went by and included confectionary, grocery, pharmacy, photography, books, tailoring, furniture, watches, fancy goods, toys and games, clocks and jewellery, boots and shoes and even ladies outfitting which attracted many fashionable young women since it had the latest styles from the fashion centres of Paris and London. Apothecaries offered only a few exclusive brands like Rayner’s Essences, Leica Cameras and Frister & Rossmann’s Sewing Machines. ( Pictures courtesy Asiff Hussein)
Post-War Reconciliation Process: Human Rights violation
By Dr. S.W. Premaratne
At each session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in Geneva, at which the Post-War Reconciliation Process in Sri Lanka was considered, special attention was drawn to the issue of alleged violation of human rights, and humanitarian law, during the last stage of the war, and also the need for taking remedial steps for improving the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. In this article, attention of the reader is drawn to the inconsistency, and contradictory nature of the policy, adopted by successive governments, in Sri Lanka, in response to the role played by the United Nations, and the adverse effect of the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to be guided by a consistent and diplomatically pragmatic policy.
Joint Statement of the UNSG and the President of Sri Lanka in 2009
Immediately after the conclusion of the war, in May 2009, the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG), Ban Ki-moon, paid a visit to Sri Lanka and, after a discussion with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a joint statement was issued on May 23, 2009. According to the Joint Statement, Sri Lanka agreed to attend to the immediate needs of the people, affected by the war, and to initiate a reconciliation process, with the objective of achieving durable peace and economic development, for the benefit of all sections of the Sri Lankan population. The President also gave an assurance, to the UNSG, to attend to the matters that need the most urgent attention, such as the re-settlement of Internationally Displaced Persons (IDP), reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, rehabilitation and reintegration of former child soldiers, and ex-combatants, to civilian life. Of course, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government did not hesitate to attend to most of the above-mentioned immediate needs of the war-affected people, in the North-East.
In the joint statement of the UNSG and the President of Sri Lanka, the most significant part was the expression of the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, in keeping with the international human rights standards, and Sri Lanka’s international obligations. It is also very significant that the UNSG underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing the violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. According to the joint statement, the President agreed to the need for establishing a mechanism for holding an independent investigation into the allegations of serious violations of human rights, and humanitarian law, both by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces, committed during the last stage of the war. In expression of Sri Lanka’s strong commitment to fulfill the obligations, in respect of promoting human rights, the Sri Lankan government made a proposal, entitled “assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights,” to the UNHRC, on May 27, 2009.
The Sri Lankan government, thereafter, proceeded to appoint the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The LLRC has made a comprehensive analysis of the causes of the conflict and the remedial steps that should be taken by the government for restoration of durable peace and reconciliation. Regarding the issue of violation of human rights, the following recommendations were made by the LLRC:
(i) Launching a full investigation into incidents of disappearance of persons, after surrender to official custody, and, where necessary, instituting prosecutions. According to the LLRC recommendations, instituting prosecutions against the offenders is an imperative, also for the purpose of clearing the good name of the Sri Lankan Army “who have, by and large, conducted themselves in an exemplary manner, in the surrender process”.
(ii) To investigate the specific instances, referred to in the Report, and any reported cases of deliberate attacks on civilians. If the investigations disclose the commission of any offences, appropriate legal action should be taken to prosecute/punish the offenders.
(iii) Regarding the controversial “Channel 4 Video” the LLRC recommended an independent investigation to find out the truth, or otherwise, of the video footage. If such investigation reveals the commission of any offences, it is necessary to prosecute such offenders.
(iv) The Commission also recommended the investigation of alleged disappearances and provide material to the Attorney General to institute criminal proceedings.
(v) The LLRC also brought the attention of the government to instances of persons being detained in custody for a long period of time, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Although the government, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, initially indicated its willingness to fulfil the commitments undertaken, with respect to the violation of human rights, and humanitarian law, by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE, on the occasion of issuing the joint statement with the Secretary General, it became clear, subsequently, that the political leaders in power, led by President Rajapaksa, did not have the political will to act. They were guided by the mindset that by defeating the LTTE, who were generally recognized, at that stage, as a terrorist movement, the Sri Lankan armed forces had been able to unite the country and restore peace after making innumerable sacrifices and, therefore, there was no need for a reconciliation process.
The sponsors of the Resolution 19/2, adopted before the UNHRC, in Geneva, in 2012, required the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of the LLRC. The need for holding an investigation into the allegations of serious violations of human rights, and humanitarian law, during the last stage of the Eelam War IV, was emphasised in the UNHRC Resolutions, adopted in 2012, and the subsequent resolutions, adopted in 2013 and 2014.
Regarding the involvement of the international community, as members of the United Nations and the UNHRC, in a reconciliation process, the attitude of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government was that Sri Lanka being a sovereign state, the other countries, or even the UN, had no right to interfere with or make any recommendations, regarding the settlement of domestic issues of Sri Lanka. The representatives of the Sri Lankan government, who participated in the UNHRC sessions, argued that the officials of the UN and the UNHRC, interfering in the domestic issues of Sri Lanka, amounts to violation of sovereignty of this country. Therefore, such interventions are illegal and as such Sri Lanka was not bound to implement these recommendations of the UNHRC. Regarding the allegation of serious violations of human rights, the response of the Sri Lankan government was that Eelam War IV was a humanitarian operation, conducted strictly in adherence to human rights law, and humanitarian law, and in the course of the military operations, violations of human rights were committed, only by the LTTE.
Regime change in 2015
A change of attitude, towards the involvement of the international community, could be observed during the Yahapalana administration, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (2015-2019).
The representatives of the Sri Lankan government, at the UNHRC sessions, in Geneva, co-sponsored the Resolution 30/1, which required the Sri Lankan government to hold a credible investigation, by a hybrid tribunal, consisting of both local and foreign judges, to investigate alleged violation of human rights, and humanitarian law, by the members of the armed forces, and the LTTE, during the last stage of the war.
It can be stated that the Sri Lankan government, at that stage, adopted a pragmatic approach by co-sponsoring the resolution. At that stage, the Sri Lankan government felt the state of insolation from the international community, including India, that supported the sponsors of the Resolution against Sri Lanka. The Yahapalana government perceived serious negative consequences if the Sri Lankan government continued to oppose the UNHRC resolutions.
The Yahapalana government also took several constructive steps that contributed towards the creation of a conducive environment for meaningful reconciliation. Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Mangala Munasinghe, who participated in the UNHRC sessions, during which the Resolution 30/1 was co-sponsored, informed the UNHRC that the government would initiate a domestic mechanism, after consulting all parties who have a stake in an effective reconciliation process. The Yahapalana government was able to establish domestic mechanisms, such as the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), and the Office for Reparations. These institutions were able to function effectively, at the initial stage. Signing of the International Convention, on the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance, on May 25, 2016, and drafting a Bill for the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, are some of the progressive steps taken by the Yahapalana government.
Recapture of Political Power by Rajapaksa brothers
The Presidential election, held in November, 2019 and the General elections, in August 2020, brought back to power same political leaders who ruled the country, prior to 2015. This change of government resulted in the reversal of the Sri Lankan government’s policy towards involvement of the UN in the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. The government, led by the Rajapaksa brothers, opposed the Resolutions brought before the UNHRC, in Geneva, against Sri Lanka and adopted the same confrontationist approach towards the UN’s involvement in the reconciliation process. Co-sponsoring the Resolution 30/1 and co-operating with the UNHRC, by the Yahapalana government, was projected to the Sri Lanka electorate, during the election propaganda campaigns, as an unpardonable betrayal of the armed forces, and the Sri Lankan nation, by the Yahapalana government.
The Resolution, titled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights,” was adopted by the UNHRC, in Geneva, on March 23, 2021, during the 46th Sessions. By this resolution, a mandate was given to the High Commissioner for Human Rights for initiating a fresh inquiry, outside Sri Lanka, regarding the accountability issues. In this resolution, there is a provision according to which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is authorized to take on the role of collecting evidence to be used in such prosecutions in the future.
Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, making a statement to Parliament of Sri Lanka, subsequent to the adoption of the Resolution before the UNHRC, stated that by the adoption of this resolution, the UN sought to interfere in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of Sri Lanka. He further stated that there was no moral right to interfere into affairs of a sovereign country in this manner. The Minister said that “Sri Lanka categorically rejects this unprecedented proposal in the Resolution”.
48th, 49th and 50th Sessions of the UNHRC
In the reports submitted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelot, at the 48th, 49th and 50th Sessions of the UNHRC, she brought the attention of the Sri Lankan government to the concerns of the UNHRC, regarding inadequate progress in the human rights situation, and also the inadequate action taken regarding the investigation of alleged human rights violations, during the last stage of the war.
Her reports also dealt with the various aspects of human rights violations that occurred in Sri Lanka, under the Rajapaksa administration. She made special reference to the increasing militarization of the civil functions of the government, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, and journalists, and members of civil rights organizations, which criticized government policies, and detention of individuals, for long periods of time, without trial, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
In the report submitted at the 49th sessions, the High Commissioner stated that the OHCHR had already established a “Sri Lanka Accountability Project” and even allocated funds for it. In the report submitted at the 50th Sessions also she referred to this “Accountability Project” outside Sri Lanka, which may have serious consequences a far as Sri Lanka’s relations with leading democratic countries are concerned, especially at a time Sri Lanka is grappling with a veryserious economic crises.
Anti-government protests in Sri Lanka
Only a few hours after President Ranil Wickremesinghe assuming duties of his office, the armed commandos of the Police and troops of the security forces were used to disperse the peaceful, unarmed protesters from the Presidential Secretariat area of the Galle Face, in the early hours of 22nd July. Attention of the international community has been drawn to the undemocratic step of imposing a State of Emergency, and initiating an operation for arresting the protesters who played a leading role in the protest campaign. A message from the US and the Sri Lanka core-group of the UNHRC stated: “The Human Rights Council Sri Lanka Core-Group is dismayed at the violation which took place at Galle Face. We call for full respect for human rights and rule of law”.
Even prior to this unlawful act of attacking the protesters, on July 22, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, in his report to the UNHRC, at the 50th Session, held in June 2022, had already warned that Sri Lanka police frequently appear to respond to protests by arresting their participants, in violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly”.
The fact that the core-group, and their supporting members of the UNHRC, are determined to go ahead with a project, outside Sri Lanka, for investigating the allegations of serious violations of human rights, and humanitarian law, during the last stage of the war, and continued vigilance of the democratic members of the UNHRC, regarding the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, after the conclusion of the war, has caused irreparable injury to Sri Lanka’s friendly relations with these countries. There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan government is now concerned about the highly damaging consequences of the failure to adopt a consistent and diplomatically pragmatic policy in respect of the role assumed by the UN to ensure that Sri Lanka would initiate and proceed with a credible and transparent reconciliation process after the conclusion of the war.
Why record export earnings may not be good news
By Gomi Senadhira
The press release by the Central Bank on the external sector performance ,in June 2022, perhaps was the first piece of good news we had received for a long time. According to the press release, “Earnings from merchandise exports, in June 2022, increased by 23.9 percent over the corresponding month, in 2021, recording US dollars 1,248 million, which is the highest ever monthly export earnings recorded. An increase in earnings of both industrial and agricultural exports contributed to this favourable outcome, …. Cumulative export earnings, from January to June 2022, also increased by 14.3 percent, over the same period in the last year, amounting to US dollars 6,514 million.” So, most of us would think we have enough dollars to cover our essential imports. But, apparently, that is not the case.
Earlier, the Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, had said that exporters only converted about 20% of their export earnings into Sri Lankan Rupees and the rest was not brought back to Sri Lanka. That amounts to the US $800 million a month! The Governor had also said “… At least 40% of the total export earnings should be added to the formal financial system of the country. So exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system, and if that happens, then we can resolve the fuel crisis comfortably.”
(Diesel shipment that arrived in Colombo, on 16 July, still not paid for want of dollars – The Island July 30th) It appears as if the Governor is pleading with the exporters to bring back at least 40% of their export earnings. More notably, from Dr Weerasinghe’s statement, it is clear that the exporter had only converted 20% of their export earnings to rupees during the last five months. Did they convert their export earnings to rupees during the last year, or in the previous years? For how long has this been going on? When the Central Bank says “… exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system,” does that mean the foreign exchange earned, with the exports, is brought through the hawala network, or other similar arrangements?
Exporters deserve credit for the great service they provide and should be rewarded, appropriately. But not disproportionately. The export earnings are not earned by the exporters alone. These earnings are earned by all those who contribute to manufacturing the export products. All of them should be getting their fair share of the export proceeds. If not, there is something terribly wrong with the system. Is this normal in international trade?
During the last few years, some of the studies by Indian scholars, including Utsa Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, have placed in the public domain some of the less known facts on the effects of the British colonial rule on India. They explain how the British seized India, “… one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest,” and how during the period British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India.
How was this done? Patnaik explains, “In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path, similar to what Japan did in the 1870s. …, a third of India’s budgetary revenues was … set aside as ‘expenditure abroad’. The secretary of state (SoS) for India, based in London, invited foreign importers to deposit with him the payment (in gold and sterling) for their net imports from India, which disappeared into the SoS’s account in the Bank of England. Against these Indian earnings he issued bills… to an equivalent rupee value—which was paid out of the budget, from the part called ‘expenditure abroad’.” Patnaik underlines that this was “something you’d never find in any independent country,”
But it appears something very similar is happening in Sri Lanka, many years after the independence! If the exporters do not “bring back their foreign exchange ,through the banking system,” or only bring back 20% of it, then how do they pay for goods and services obtained locally? The local value addition for most of our exports is 70% to 80% or higher! The only major exception is cut and polished diamonds. Tea exporters buy tea with rupees. Some of the imported inputs, like fertiliser, or diesel, are sourced locally! The garment industry had moved up the value chain during the last 40 years and provide many value-added services, like designing, locally.
How do the exporters pay for all these goods and services, if they keep more than 60% of their export earnings outside the country? Do they get it through “hawala” or similar arrangements? During the British Raj, payments to local producers were done with the taxes collected by the Raj. In present-day Sri Lanka, how does one manage to raise a large amount of cash to operate such a system?
If a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings goes straight to banks in London, New York, Zurich, or elsewhere, severely hampering the country’s ability to import essential items, doesn’t that mean, Sri Lanka’s wealth is getting siphoned out through our exports? And there is not much of a difference between what happened during the colonial period and the post independent Sri Lanka!
So, June’s record export earnings also mean nearly US$ billion was siphoned off during the month! A new record for the month of June! And that means Patnaik was wrong when she said this was not “something you’d never find in any independent country”
That is not good news.
(The writer is a specialist on trade and development issues and can be contacted at email@example.com)
Improving trend needs to be sustained on multiple fronts
by Jehan Perera
The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term. So far President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to restore stability appear to be working. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept. It is a necessary element for international support to come in. One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi-billion-dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept. The protest movement has not mobilised public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinghe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government. The present governmental line that protests should be within the law is difficult, and also frightening, to challenge when a state of emergency is in force.
The government has shown its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumours.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.
Human Rights watch has pointed out that “these provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.” The midnight strike on the protestors who had camped for over three months at the main protest site at Galle Face would make any reasonable person think twice before getting into physical confrontation with the government. The social media coverage of events that night showed men in black uniform and wearing masks, attacking the unarmed protestors. As these men did not wear identification badges, there is a question whether they were part of the official security forces or drawn from other groups that work with them. This response brought discredit to the perpetrators and disturbed both Sri Lankan people and the international community that have the welfare of Sri Lanka at heart.
The government has also used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralised. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others. The government has also shown its willingness to offer high positions to those who are prepared to join it. This has led to a situation where two trade union leaders active in the protest movement have been treated very differently. One has been offered a high post while the other has been put into prison, although he has now been given bail. In a signal that he is sensitive to public pressure and human rights concerns, President Wickremesinghe had spoken to leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, after he was remanded and reportedly said he admires the members of the protest movement who talk of a system change.
Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilisation. The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13-hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement. It was during the period of long power cuts, when staying at home became unbearable, that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centres to hold candlelight protests. However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilomere-long lines in front of fuel stations are much less common. Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.
The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population. The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed. The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items. However, these funds will dry up soon. The question is what will happen after that. There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage. The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future. The government also needs to be trusted if it is to be believed.
The World Bank has given an indication that they are still to be convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka. Earlier this month, the World Bank issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place. Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households. To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.” This is extremely concerning as the World Bank is closely connected to the IMF on which Sri Lanka is pinning its hopes for a big loan.
The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws. There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments. However, the fuller picture needs to be seen. The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss-making state institutions.
The hoped-for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”
Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices. The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.
The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States. The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place and hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.
SJB MPs tell Speaker they received death threats
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