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The New Cabinet: Somewhat lean, poorly structured, and rather untalented

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The new Cabinet of Ministers: Sitting from the left – SM Chandrasena, CB Ratnayake, Bandula Gunawardena, Janaka Bandara Thennakoon, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa, Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Prof GL Peiris, Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Gamini Lokuge. Standing from left – Dullas Alahapperuma, Namal Rajapaksa, Ali Sabry, Prasanna Ranatunga, Mahindananda Aluthgamage. Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Keheliya Rambukwella, Mahinda Amaraweera, Udaya Gammanpila, Johnston Fernando, Ramesh Pathirana and Douglas Devananda

by Rajan Philips

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gets full marks for creating a comparatively lean and applaudably mean cabinet. Leaving out the likes of Maithripala Sirisena and Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa is among the best cabinet making decisions in Sri Lanka’s 73-year history of cabinet government. The less said of them the better, and, hopefully, there will be no second thought on the matter. After ten years of sickeningly bloated cabinets, five under Mahinda Rajapaksa monarchy and five more under Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dyarchy, the new cabinet looks lean and trimmed. There is room for more trimming, and what was trimmed as ministers has been more than padded as state ministers. What is more lacking, however, is structure and talent. There is much room for structural improvement. Talent is all the dearer considering the twin challenges facing the country – a globally uncertain pandemic and an equally global crippling of the economy.

But what more can the President do? To paraphrase Pieter Keuneman’s timeless wit, you cannot perform a cabinet miracle with a pack of jokers and no aces. At the same time, and in spite of all the constraints, the Administration would seem to have missed a great opportunity in not using the long interval between dissolution (in March) and elections (in August) to create a well thought out cabinet design, identifying requisite portfolios and matching them with available talent and experience. Unfortunately, the new cabinet does not indicate much functional thinking or purpose behind it.

We know from Sir Ivor Jennings that DS Senanayake wanted to limit the cabinet size to 20 in the constitution, but was advised against it by colonial officials. It would be restrictive for future governments given the reality of expanding government roles. That was the reasoning against too small a cabinet. AJ Wilson used to say that Mr. Senanayake was a master manager of men (as Ministers) and that he ‘federalized’ the cabinet to mirror the plurality of Sri Lankan society – its religions, languages, castes, and locales. After the first cabinet of DS Senanayake, the most stable cabinet was under Dudley Senanayake in 1965. The cabinets in between were not necessarily unstable, but chaotic.

The United Front cabinet (1970-1975) was the most programmatic cabinet in that it bore a direct correspondence to the UF Manifesto on which it won the election. And the cabinet had both talent and experience due to the presence of the Left Parties. NM, Leslie Goonewardene, Bernard Soysa (NM’s alter ego at Finance) and Pieter Keuneman knew how the government worked inside out; Colvin was known to master any file in a matter of minutes. An unintended shortcoming of that cabinet, however, was that the distribution of portfolios went along Party lines at the expense of cabinet ‘federalization.’

President Jayewardene had started identifying Ministers for his cabinet even before the 1977 elections and before some of them became MPs. A few of them were from outside the UNP. And his cabinet was ‘federalized’, talented, and experienced, including first time Ministers who had earlier been senior Civil Servants or senior professionals. All of them were elected in the last first-past-the-post election that was held under the parliamentary system. That was also the last time Sri Lanka had a cabinet government, that Jennings wrote a textbook on, and which had sunk strong roots in Sri Lanka. Cabinet government was left to wither and die thereafter in Sri Lanka, under the presidential system that President Jayewardene left behind.

The new cabinet is by no means a restoration of the old cabinet government. No one expects that. But is it sufficiently structured and enabled to deliver on all the lavish promises that the SLPP has been making? And all the expectations that people have been made to project on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa? On all the matters that need to be done and have been promised to be done? How will the new cabinet and its ministers relate to the various Tasks Forces that were established in the pretext of the pandemic, when parliament was dissolved? These are the questions that are arising in the early days of the new government. Answers will come eventually in the actions of the government and their results, and not out of speculation.

Subject matters

In the allocation of ministerial subjects, the President has assigned himself Defense, the bogey of the 19th Amendment notwithstanding. A glaring omission in the constitution. This is odd. The SLPP vigorously campaigned for a two-thirds majority, to overhaul the constitution and go beyond even the limits of JR. In the new cabinet, the constitutional file is not assigned to any Minister. A logical location for it would be the portfolio of Justice. But assigning it to the new Minister of Justice, Ali Sabry, would raise the hackles of Sinhala Buddhist organizations who are already protesting the appointment of a Muslim to the Justice portfolio.

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) is also concerned about Mr. Sabry’s appointment, but not for ethno-religious reasons; it is over ethical concerns. Ali Sabry was the defence lawyer for apparently 14 SLPP politicians who were unsuccessfully arraigned on charges of corruption under the last government. Another oddity, at least optically, is appointing a supportive Muslim lawyer to Justice while trying to prosecute a politically unfavourable Muslim lawyer, Hejaz Hizbullah, allegedly based on his professional work as a lawyer. Stepping over professional courtesy, a senior government lawyer even compared Mr. Hizbullah’s professional work to that of the LTTE’s Anton Balasingham. That was not a legal argument but political grandstanding. Not that Mr. Sabry is going to have anything to do with Mr. Hizbullah’s case, given the depoliticized independence of the Attorney General’s Department that is only too well known. But it is difficult to miss the awkward appearances of conflicts of interest whenever Rajapaksas are in power.

To get back to the Constitution, if there is no Minister assigned to the subject, is it being outsourced to a task force? One headed by the non-playing coach of all departments of the game, Basil Rajapaksa. Is there a realization of the pitfalls of constitution-changing and an internal decision has been made to step slowly on the constitutional pedal? Or, are there internal differences about the scope and extent of constitutional changes that need to be resolved within the family before embarking on a formal public process? There are areas, such as the electoral system, where changes are needed and on which it would be possible to achieve a broad consensus in parliament. A minister in charge of the file would be the person to stickhandle the passage of positive changes. May be the President and the Prime Minister do not find anyone in the current parliament who could be entrusted with this task.

G.L. Peiris looks too burnt out for the constitutional task now, not quite the new spark that he was when he forayed into politics from the academia in 1994. So, he is now assigned education. It seems a comprehensive assignment, and not the chop suey that Ranil Wickremesinghe created when he cut education into pieces and stitched up higher education and highways in one ministry. While education is one subject, it is not clear whether the two State Ministers on related subjects – Piyal Nishantha de Silva (Women and Child Development, Pre-School and Primary Education, School Infrastructure and School Services), and Seetha Arambepola (Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research and Innovation) – are supposed to work with the Minister of Education, or independently on their own. There is also no indication of the parliamentary support to the Minister in the core areas of the Ministry: schools and universities.

The distribution of support responsibilities is similarly unclear in the other social infrastructure portfolio – Health. Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi continues as Minister despite the spat she ran into with Public Health Inspectors during the election. There is no indication of the parliamentary support she will have in the core areas of the Health sector. The one State Ministry role in related area involves – Promotion of Indigenous Medicine, Development of Rural Ayurvedic Hospitals and Community Health, and is assigned to Sisira Jayakody. There is no special mention of anything regarding the current pandemic situation either as specific responsibility, or as an individual assignment. This is the pattern of linkages between all the cabinet ministers and the state ministers.

In the old system, each Minister had a Deputy Minister, or Parliamentary Secretary, and occasionally more than one if the Ministry had multiple subjects. State Ministries were created after 1978 to address specific subjects or undertake critical projects over a limited period of time. Now they seem to have morphed into another layer of sub-ministerial positions as pseudo-ministerial rewards to MPs for their political loyalty, and not for any special project assignment. The cabinet portfolios are limited to 28 (with the Prime Minister looking after three of them), while the number of state ministers is kept at 40, along with another 23 MPs appointed as District Co-ordinating Committee Chairmen (no one seems to have been assigned to Batticaloa).

There is no intelligible correspondence between subjects looked after by cabinet Ministers and those assigned to State Ministers. The oldest Rajapaksa brother, Chamal. is both the Minister for Irrigation and State Minister for Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management. This is another pickle portfolio like Highways and Higher Education in the same Ministry during the last government.

That said, the state ministry system has been used to serve a special presidential purpose in the new cabinet: that of accommodating Viyath Maga MPs, all but one of whom are newly elected, as Ministers of State (three elected MPs and two National List MPs) and as Chairman of District Committees (three elected MPs).

Their appointment as full cabinet ministers may have been vetoed by the Prime Minister to keep the cabinet positions open only to the older MPs not only from the SLPP (19), but also from the SLFP (two), and one-off ministries to the one-MP constituent parties (six) of the old UPFA. Vasudeva Nanyakkara gets Water Supply, while the old LSSP and the CP get nothing. Of the Viyathmaga MPs, even Sarath Weerasekera and Nalaka Godahewa who topped vote tallies in the Colombo District and Gampaha District, respectively, have had to settle for positions as State Ministers. So has Nivard Cabraal, who enters parliament for the first time but on the National List. Sarath Weerasekera, a former Rear Admiral in the Navy, and the only MP to vote against the 19th Amendment in 2015, is the new State Minister for Provincial Councils and Local Government Affairs. This is a mystifying appointment. Is he being set up to preside over the resuscitation of the Provincial Councils, or their liquidation? Time will tell.

Key Sectors and Old faces

There is nothing mystifying about the appointments in the key sectors of the economy and employment – finance, agriculture, industry, the export sector, and infrastructure. The old faces have returned generally to the same old, or occasionally new, positions. The structure and the composition of the ministries in these areas, in whatever thinking that may have gone into them, do not convey any sense of urgency in trying to come to grips with the current economic crisis. There is no clear lead minister in charge of such an effort. The Prime Minister takes charge of Finance, but not just Finance, as finance portfolios are universally assigned. He is also padded with Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, on the one hand, and Urban Development and Housing, on the other. The two additions could easily have been consolidated in other ministries.

Still better, Finance should have been assigned solely to a single Minister with economic gravitas – like JR Jayewardene (1947-52), UB Wanninayake (1965-70), NM Perera (1970-75), or Ronnie de Mel (1977-88). Not that they were infallible or their records are unblemished, but they conveyed the seriousness with which governments here and everywhere approach finance and economic management of the country. This is more so in the current context of a global economic crisis. It may be that there is no one else in the SLPP, other than the Prime Minister to tackle this task. In which case, the SLPP should have invited some new talent to the Party and enabled her/his entry to parliament at the last election.

There are about nine individual ministries (Agriculture, Plantations, Land Irrigation, Industry, Fisheries, Trade, Tourism, and Ports & Shipping) that are pertinent to the economy, employment, and export earnings. There are many more scattered across state ministries. They could have been easily consolidated into fewer portfolios with tighter mandates. The ministerial appointments are hardly inspirational, and it is mystifying why anyone of the Viyath Maga MPs could not have been considered for some of these positions. It is the same story in the areas of infrastructure, the environment and energy. I could not find the pigeonhole where airlines and aviation are nestled in; unless, they are already airborne in Ravana’s helicopter.

On the bright side, there might be more method and purpose in the making of the new cabinet that sideliners like us cannot quite see through. There is also the opportunity for creating cabinet sub-committees and parliamentary committees and tasking them (not as task forces) with specific responsibilities. There is no minimizing, however, the gravity of the challenges facing the government – preparing a credible budget, meeting debt payments, protecting jobs and redressing those whose jobs are not protected, ensuring food production, and preventing a collapse of the export sector. All of this and more while struggling to keep the new coronavirus at bay. It’s a tall order. One that dwarfs the two-thirds majority.

 

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Features

Whither the Proposed Elephant Reserve?

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Land grabbing in Hambantota

The following is a shortened version of a communiqué sent to us by the author on behalf of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform

2019 marked the worst year for human-elephant relations. With 405 elephant deaths at the hands of humans and 121 human deaths at the hands of elephants, the year saw a surge in a conflict which has dragged on for decades, if not centuries. Among the root causes are the eviction of elephants from their natural habitat, the fragmentation of their territory, and the use of that territory for development work and for illegal activities.

The recent surge in encounters between elephants and humans has been almost purely due to certain interventions by successive governments, in the Hambantota District, that has led to elephants intruding on human territory and humans encroaching on elephant territory. In that sense, we feel the present government ought to be held to account over two decisions taken by the Cabinet before and after the parliamentary election.

Two fateful decisions

As per the provisions of Circular No 05/2001, issued by the then Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife on August 10, 2001, areas categorised as “residual forests” were taken under the jurisdiction and protection of the Forest Department.

We have learnt from reliable sources that owing to pressures exerted by certain powerful Ministers, moves have been made to amend this Circular and to transfer these areas to Divisional and District Secretariats. This has facilitated the theft and plunder of those lands, among them those demarcated as the site of a Proposed Managed Elephant Rreserve in Hambantota which we will look at below.

Another key decision of this government, after the election, was Gazette Notification No 2192/36, issued by the Land Commissioner General, which sanctions the use of state lands for the purposes of investment and local milk and food production.

Accordingly, applications have been called from interested parties, and once they are received authorities will screen them before giving the green light for the transfer of these lands. We can verify that certain businessmen are, through powerful politicians, lobbying for the transfers of property which belong to the Elephant Reserve.

Some of the affected territories

We have identified four broad areas that these illegal activities have affected. Firstly, 2,000 acres extending from Gonnoruwa to Buruthankanda, encompassing Gal Wewa, Weli Wewa, Kurudana, Katan Wewa, and Galahitiya Wewa, have been marked for bulldozing and will be flattened completely. On the authority of a former Air Commander, moreover, 500 acres in this territory have been cleared to make way for a solar power plant.

Secondly, the Mahaweli Authority released certain lands between the Proposed Elephant Reserve and Madunagala to locals, resulting in the isolation of 18 to 20 elephants. This has considerably heightened the human-elephant conflict in the area.

Thirdly, around 20 elephants are isolated or trapped within a 2,500 acre territory that formed part of a 5,000 acres taken over for the Magampura Port Project. Again, this has led to a heightening of the human-elephant conflict.

Fourthly, the coridoor taken by elephants from Gonnoruwa to the Bundala Wildlife Sanctuary has been wiped off. The path has been obstructed mainly due to deforestation. Once again, it has only contributed to a heightening the human-elephant conflict.

The consequences of not opening the Proposed Preserve

Development projects throughout Hambantota until now has led to the loss of 20,000 acres, to say nothing of a spike in human-elephant encounters that have, in the last three years, caused the deaths of 31 elephants and 15 humans (with eight more villagers disabled for life). It was to remedy these issues that a proposal was made to the Department of Wildlife Conservation to construct a Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve. To date, no progress has been made on this, with the result that forest land ostensibly reserved for the purpose has been flattened to make way for illegal sand, rock, and clay mining.

The vacuum created by the failure to declare the area as belonging to the Reserve has been filled by an unholy trinity of powerful politicians, corporations, and local thugs. The previous regime, moreover, built villages and farms on lands in this area. That speeded the pace at which they were later taken over by various unscrupulous interests.

Authorities have thus far failed to declare the Proposed Reserve and start work on it. That has resulted in a proliferation in illegal transactions and a deterioration in relations between humans and elephants. We shall look at each in turn now.

A snapshot of some of the illegal activities

The ongoing construction of a solar power plant commissioned by various companies has resulted in the clearing of over 600 acres of land in Saddhatissapura and Buruthakanda. The ongoing construction of a “solar village” near Valaspugala and Divulpalassa has affected 300 more acres which elephants used to frequent.

A former Air Force Commander has, through the Mahaweli Authority and by his sanction, reserved around 60 hectares for the construction of the Solar Power Plant. Forty acres have been transferred to a company called Senok, while 20 acres of forest have been cleared. All that, by the way, in violation of the National Environmental Act.

Property developers have managed to transfer to themselves 6,000 acres of prime land encircling Maginkaliyapura,

Gonnoruwa, Katan Wewa, Pahala Andara Wewa, and Kada Idi Wewa. As usual, the most discernible and immediate outcome of this has been a surge in encounters between elephants and humans.

Oil remains a lucrative field, and the localities of Lolugas Wewa, Matigath Wewa, Parenhi Wewa, Lin Wewa, Swarnamali Wewa, and Mayiyan Wewa encompassing some 1,500 acres have been isolated to make way for an oil tank farm. Among other problems, this will affect 90 acres of paddy land adjoining Swarnamali Wewa.

2,000 acres adjoining Hamuduru Wewa, between Sooriya Wewa and Pahala Andara Wewa, have been felled for banana cultivation; eight persons have been identified as running the plantation. The illegal enclosure has been fenced off electrically, disrupting the lives of elephants who used to frequent the area. The villagers of Andara Wewa, Valaspugala, Karuwala Wewa, Tissapura, and Ranamayapura complain of these beasts encroaching into their lands and destroying their livelihoods.

 

Meanwhile, the waters of Andara Wewa are being rapidly drained, leaving precious little for cultivation by resident farmers: a significant threat to an entire way of life.

Can we lay aside the sand, clay, and rock mining operations these illegal land transactions have led to? By no means. In addition to the unauthorised cultivation of crops, forest land in Veheragala which belonged to the Department of Wildlife Conservation has been allocated for stone mining, in addition to areas such as Mayurapura, Seenikkugala, Katan Wewa, Ihala Andara Wewa, Kuda Idi Wewa, Galahitiya, and Gonnoruwa.

What has caused all this?

Two reasons can be pointed at for what’s happening in Hambantota District: the apathy of relevant authorities, especially the Mahaweli Authority, and the spurt in mega-development projects. We shall look at each briefly now.

Regarding the apathy of relevant institutions and authorities, all that needs to be said is that the silence of the Wildlife Conservation Department, the Central Environmental Authority, the Divisional and District Secretariat of Hambantota, and of course the Mahaweli Authority continues to be deafening. Certainly, it is on their doorstep that we lay the blame for what is happening today, not just to the people but also to the environment.

Take the Mahaweli Authority. Around 40% of the land concerned belongs to this institution. As per Section 3(1) of the Mahaweli Authority Act of 1979 and Gazette Notification No 137 dated April 16, 1981, it took over land in the Walawa Division. At no point was forest land in the vicinity taken over to release them later on for development work.

The continued felling of trees and isolation of elephants are in clear violation of the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980. According to Gazette Notification No 772/22 of June 24, 1993, clear, unequivocal permission from authorities is needed for deforestation of land in excess of 2.5 acres. Laws are generally more honoured in the breach than they are in the observance, and as far as these laws, gazettes, and circulars are concerned, there has been very little observance, much less enforcement.

Regarding the mega-development work in the region, we have already noted that it has led to the deforestation of more than 20,000 acres. Three projects in particular have aggravated the problem: the Magampura Harbour, the Mattala International Airport, and the Southern Expressway from Matara to Hambantota. No proper Environmental Impact Assessments have been conducted for them. In the absence of an environmental audit, we are forced to conclude that the beneficiaries of these initiatives, in particular certain Chinese firms, have chosen to ignore their impact on wildlife. We need not add that it has served to aggravate not just deforestation, but also human-elephant encounters.

The need to open the Elephant Reserve

A total of 25 reservoirs belonging to the relevant area in Hambantota come under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, while 17 more come under that of the Mahaweli Authority. The forest area bordering these reservoirs comprise a flourishing ecosystem, preserved for centuries despite the encroachments of colonisers. They contain some of the most diverse hotspots in this part of the world, populated by more than 450 elephants and other birds and beasts. We cannot let them be destroyed at the whims of politicians, corporations, and thugs. They must be preserved.

The road ahead

It is clear that the most immediate solution to these problems is to commence work on the Proposed Managed Elephant Reserve. If not, the illegal transfers of and transactions over land belonging to it will continue, pitting elephants against humans at a level unparalleled in recent history. The protection of natural habitats and areas populated by elephants should thus be our number one priority.

To that end the ongoing transfer of 15,000 acres for the construction of an Investment Zone must stop, at once. We cannot allow development projects to undermine of wildlife conservation. We say this because it is not just the welfare of our generation that we must look to but also that of generations to come. Otherwise, no matter what happens in the short run, in the long run the environmental costs of these projects will outweigh their economic benefits. That obviously does not bode well for anyone.

Sajeewa Chamikara

Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform

Translated by Uditha Devapriya

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Smaller, Smarter and More Sustainable

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by Dr Sarala Fernando

Former Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinghe recently referred to the need to reshape Sri Lanka’s outward migrant flows to become “smaller, smarter and more sustainable”. From where does this concept derive? Internet sources point to a recent GTZ document on SME Reporting in Global Supply Chains. Whatever its origin, this vision offers a valuable guide for government policy in the new normal that is emerging in the aftermath of Covid 19 and in the background of deglobalization trends. It is in keeping with our Buddhist heritage of proportionality and human development including gender empowerment within a framework of environmental protection and compassion for animals.

Around the world even in the most advanced societies, infrastructure growth seems to have reached a dead end – renting is slumping in hi-rise buildings (as prestigious as the Empire State Building in New York) as workplaces get smaller with social distancing, automation is replacing on site workers, many of whom are being made redundant or asked to work from home. Everywhere, mobility is being reduced with current disincentives on global tourist travel and transportation while new modes of transactions like ecommerce and online sales are booming in place of retail sales in traditional malls. The question is, however, whether our new government which has scored a huge victory at the recent election and amassed a massive majority in the new Parliament, will see that as an endorsement of an opposite vision, more prestige buildings and large scale projects in manufacturing and agriculture, irrespective of their cost to the environment.

It is not only the government but also the private sector which seems to find it difficult to adjust to the “new normal”. Projects for 600 room hotels in fragile environments are being mooted, huge office cum shopping malls and apartment blocks are still coming on stream around Colombo, all of which raise public concerns on the distribution of limited supplies of water, electricity and stress on sewerage and waste disposal capacity. Is it too late to offer a new paradigm that all this new building infrastructure should be ” smaller, smarter and more sustainable” with resort to solar power instead of tapping the national grid, recycling water use instead of just relying on the mains and even handling its own waste disposal on site. This is particularly important in respect of the new Port City which has the technical capacity and is well placed to support municipal assets instead of drawing them down. The Port City enticement of opening park areas to the public is welcome but what price leisure if water pressure is reducing and electricity and telecommunication supply becomes more erratic and more expensive for city residents?

At the same time, there is hope in that many small groups organized and driven by young volunteers are mobilizing entirely on their own, to spruce up railway stations and clean pilgrimage sites and beaches.These scattered efforts are being supported by the security forces especially the Navy under its blue –green programme. It is also good to hear of local companies developing cost effective composting machines for household to industrial waste, networks for collecting and converting plastic waste and a factory for disposing of hospital waste. There is even an ongoing initiative to make a machine to collect plastic and other waste from the river mouths before this goes on to contaminate the ocean.

A concerned citizenry determined to protect the environment and connected through social media can help form a national green movement to put the environment first. Perhaps a start could be made in the debate over the proposed new constitution calling for a clause to be added on the lines of the Indian example: Fundamental Duty: (I) Article 51-A(6) : By Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976. … “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures”.

President Rajapaksa appears to be aware of the challenges as he has shunned extravagance preferring to operate out of his own home and with minimum security and entourage. He would however have access to all the “smart” security infrastructure, data and equipment although it may take time to train a “smarter” human support. In his previous work on urban renewal he has given indications of sensitivity to the need to green the city, restore its heritage assets and keep it clean. He has had to strength so far, to limit the ambitions of the palm oil lobby to cultivate more acreage at the cost of drying up local water resources but has allowed the controversial road to be cut through Sinharaja rain forest opening the way for uncontrolled development which may jeopardize its UNESCO Heritage status.

Today environmentalists are worried whether the government’s financial crisis will lead to the destruction of forests, alienating lands reserved for the environment and for its denizens to make way for example to foreign multinational companies to resort to large scale agriculture using genetically modified (GM) seeds. Already conflicts have arisen on the ground with Mahaweli lands to be given to foreign investors, removing local cultivators from these lands. Can we not learn from across the waters where a different struggle is taking shape to restore traditional farming practices and saving indigenous seed varieties from foreign exploitation? Recent full page press advertisements by a multinational famous for its pineapple products, which entered Sri Lanka in the past by using reserved forest lands for growing a monocrop of Cavendish bananas, hints of the controversies of the “new agriculture” that is coming and the dangers posed to the wealth of indigenous varieties and seeds in this country.

Instead of allowing the destruction of forest lands for commercial exploitation and foreign investment, why does the government not make an assessment of the many buildings and lands currently occupied by government ministries and departments in the major cities, organize all the public services in a few strategic locations, thereby releasing the excess for sale or other uses? Not so long ago the Department of Poor Relief was located in Colombo 7 and even now government staff quarters are located in this same area which commands a high property value. Construction of huge buildings coming up for local assemblies could be discouraged which include those famous imported chairs and other extravagance at public expense. It is said that many school buildings around the island are in need of essential refurbishment and are empty for lack of students or teachers and a monk mentioned to me recently that there are hundreds of temples abandoned for lack of resident monks. How could these be brought back to life for services to the communities near by?

Some rationalization of renting buildings for government departments is required. I had some experience of this in Geneva having overseen bringing back of the consular office from an outside location to the Sri Lanka mission leading to savings of 25% of the mission budget without loss of productivity. In Sri Lanka, a specific example is the Foreign Ministry consular division which has been moving from rented location to rented location in Colombo while,logically it should be housed within the Immigration building for the sake of public convenience. Similarly should not the CEB and Water Board share city offices for the convenience of the public, leaving their headquarters separate for reasons of data and critical infrastructure security? My perspective is based on personal experience, having visited many offices after retirement and rather appalled at these flashy new buildings constructed for revenue generating Ministries like Immigration and Customs where the public entrance is open to the elements while the portico covered entrance is reserved for VIP vehicular traffic. It seems that computers are all networked together in these buildings so that one failure sends the whole system down and customers are forced to wait or return another day. This is definitely not smart. Too late to make “smaller” but certainly opportunity for making more user- friendly and more sustainable.

This vision of “smaller,smarter and more sustainable” is attached to a larger vision of urban renewal but how to bring this about? The lack of organization and neglect of cleanliness is seen by a simple example, the chaos in the rail yards in the south clearly visible when taking the train from Colombo to Jaffna, and from that chaos then like a miracle, entering into to neat fenced areas in the North. Some may argue that this is not a good example because new reconstruction has come to the North and the smaller population makes management easier. Yet, the question arises whether the chaos in the south is symptomatic of a deeper problem, an unconcerned local citizenry or the lack of caring leadership? Driving through Kurunegala town recently I was wondering how this urban mess, dug up roads and pavements, has come to pass, given that this constituency sends some of the most powerful Members to Parliament. The city of Galle sometime ago was another example where the entrance to the city along the coast was cluttered with heaps of garbage, ignoring the importance of the first impression, (a basic lesson in diplomacy). I am remembering also former Foreign Minister Kadirgarmar who told me once that on setting foot inside a mission and seeing its arrangement and upkeep he would know instantly the state of that diplomatic mission.

 

(Sarala Fernando PhD, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. She writes now on foreign affairs, diplomacy and protection of heritage).

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Brainwashing and Freedom of Religion

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by Vijaya Chandrasoma

The terms “Freedom of Religion” and Freedom of Worship” are often used as interchangeable concepts. They are not. The difference in the meaning of these concepts is responsible for much of the religious strife and violence in the world today.

Freedom of Worship is practiced where the government and society will protect the rights of all citizens to practice their religions, so long as they confine their worship to the religion of their birth; a nation whose government or society “encourages” its citizens to believe in the dominant religion, and penalizes those who wish to embrace other beliefs and faiths.

The most extreme examples of this practice of Freedom of Worship are the Islamic nations, which stigmatize, persecute and penalize citizens who convert to a faith other than Islam. A custom which prevails, in varying degrees, in many nations in the world.

Freedom of Religion, according to a 2012 study by George Moses, is the “more expansive term. It includes freedom to worship their own religion, but also protects the rights of believers to evangelize, change their religion, have schools and charitable institutions and participate in the public square”.

As President Obama proclaimed on Religious Freedom Day, 2017, “Religious Freedom is a principle based not on shared ancestry, culture, ethnicity or faith but on a shared commitment to liberty. Our nation’s enduring commitment to the inalienable human right of religious freedom extends beyond our borders as we advocate for all the ability to choose and live their faith.”

The words “ability to choose and live their faith” illustrate the difference between Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Worship.

America’s confusing religious history began with the arrival of the English Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620, fleeing religious persecution in England. The constitution of the United States, subsequent to the establishment of a sovereign nation in 1776, provided the framework for the government of the Commonwealth of the 13 colonies.

Separation of Church and State is a legal principle in the United States, but the phrase appears nowhere in the constitution, the closest being “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of (any) religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, as part of the First Amendment.

Although Christianity is the dominant religion in the USA, representing 73% of its population, with its motto “In God We Trust” in US currency and the phrase “One Nation Under God” in its Pledge of Allegiance, no one is persecuted or penalized for converting to another faith, or indeed, for practicing no religion at all – which may not be apparent in today’s religious landscape. Politicians of every stripe are outshouting each other as being true, God fearing Christians publicly, while breaking every commandment in the Bible in private. No politician will be elected to the US Presidency today unless he holds a Bible in one hand, an AK 47 in the other, all the while professing enduring support of Israel.

Strangely, American evangelists have also demonstrated their religious hypocrisy in their devotion to a president who has had five children with three wives, been convicted of multiple financial frauds, accused of pedophilia and sexual assault, and broken just about every commandment in the Good Book. They continue to revere such an evil man as “The Chosen One”, in spite of his self-serving dalliance with science and truth, which has cost tens of thousands of American lives through climate change and a global pandemic.

When Russia established a Communist state, Marx’s theory about religion being the opium of the people was embraced. The USSR, in 1922, was the first nation to officially eliminate religion, and to prevent the propagation of religious and spiritual beliefs, with the ultimate goal of establishing an atheist state.

“Atheists waged a 70-year war on religious belief in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party destroyed churches, mosques and temples; it executed religious leaders; it flooded the schools and the media with anti-religious propaganda; and it introduced a belief called ‘scientific atheism’, complete with atheistic rituals, proselytizers, and a promise of worldly salvation”. But, in the end, “a majority of older Soviet citizens retained their religious beliefs and a crop of citizens too young to have experienced pre-Soviet times acquired religious beliefs.” (G. L. Mosse).

Communist China took a different route. The Communist Party of China is officially atheist. Party members are discouraged from publicly participating in religious ceremonies, on the basis that religious beliefs are tantamount to “spiritual anesthesia”. However, China does recognize five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism. While the practice of religions is prohibited, any offence is honoured more in its breach than its observance. The US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report estimates that there are 650 million religious believers in China, primarily made up of Chinese Buddhists, followed by Christians, Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. With China’s modernization and economic boom, China’s religious believers are, perhaps ironically, on the increase.

Which goes to prove that there’s no propaganda machine in the world with the capacity to successfully combat infantile and adult brainwashing.

To quote Buddhist scholar and translator, Dr. Alexander Berzin on the Buddhist view of other religions, “Just as there are billions of people in the planet, there are also billions of different dispositions and inclinations. From the Buddhist point of view, a wide choice of religions is needed to suit the varied needs of different people. Buddhism recognizes that all religions share the same aim of working for the well-being of mankind”.

In other words, a person of faith should welcome the world to challenge that faith. Whether the universe was created and designed by a Superior Being, or originated billions of years ago in rapid expansion from a single point of nearly infinite energy density, and evolved to its present state, is a decision to be made by individual faith, reasoning and logic. A free nation, where people are sovereign and encouraged to practice their own religion in all its diversity, is a nation with no official religion at all. Challenging thoughts, beliefs and faith is not meant to be easy or popular. It is meant to make us free.

Just as a newborn child is pure and innocent, with no prejudices of race, caste or creed, it is brainwashed and corrupted from the day it is born. It is a fact that 90% of the world’s population believes in the religion of their parents. If your father is a believer of Islam, you will, almost certainly, adhere to the teachings of the Qur’an. If your mother is a Christian, you will believe in the tenets of the Bible. As the Catholic Church says, “Give us your child till he is seven years old, and we’ll have him for life”, a maxim enshrining infantile brainwashing credited to St. Ignatius Loyola himself. And so with Buddhists, Hindus and every other religion practiced in the world. Not even the sage advice of the Buddha, that every religion should be respected and honoured, has been able to stifle the power of brainwashing, which almost every child in the world has been subjected to, and etched in their subconscious for life. Any doubts that may arise will be overcome by the power of their initial and continuing brainwashing, which is rampant, influencing every age, at every turn; in schools, in places of worship and business, in society at large.

All religions have one goal in common. They have the spiritual well-being of humanity and an orderly, just society at their core; they teach their adherents to follow a path of ethical behaviour, of love, compassion and forgiveness. It is just the reward that awaits you if you follow the path, and the punishment if you don’t, that form the basis of the main differences of all religions.

The need for an afterlife is caused by the denial of the ego to accept the finality of death. The final destination is a testament to the human imagination, and includes a surfeit of virgins, the Pearly Gates, and rebirth. Why is there so much strife, anguish, even violence over a concept that can never be conclusively and logically proved? Science has proved that the light at the end of the tunnel is the figment of one’s own faith. But then, the best minds in the world once thought that the earth was flat, so what do we know?

 

At least 4.5 billion people in the world identify with one of the four organized religions, and the numbers are rising. Religion remains the most powerful force in society today. And the crimes committed in the name of these religions are also increasing in many countries, democracies and authoritarian regimes alike.

No government has yet been able to quell the human need for faith, a belief in a deity or a spiritual law which has been instilled into the human psyche from birth. As long as people continue to be brainwashed from their infancy, religions will thrive. As will religious wars and crimes in the name of religions.

On the bright side, the concepts of atheism and agnosticism are gaining currency in Scandinavia and Northern European countries, where there is a preponderance of “heathens”. And these countries are known to be the most economically developed and socially just countries in the world. Not coincidentally, they are also recognized as countries where their citizens are happy, healthy and cared for, “from womb to tomb.” The fact that they also have some of the highest substance abuse and suicide rates in the world is another one of those quaint paradoxes of human nature.

Perhaps the evolution of these nations has achieved the “herd immunity” necessary to ward off the twin plagues of brainwashing and organized religion.

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