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The River that Sajith Premadasa Did Not Cross

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By Anura Gunasekera

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty- Winston Churchill.

The Rubicon, a small, shallow river, in the time of the Roman republic separated Rome from Cisalpine Gaul (now part of Northern Italy). This insignificant waterway would have been unheard of, but for a simple act of defiance in 49 BC, by Roman general, Julius Caesar, when, in disobedience of the “imperium”, he crossed the river at the head of Legion XIII and entered Italian soil. With that deed, reportedly accompanied by the words ,” alea iacta est- the die is cast”, he re-wrote Roman and European history in the five years that followed. “Crossing the Rubicon”, thus entered the global lexicon as an idiom, defining a decision and an act with potential for massive consequences, especially for the protagonist.

The “Aragalaya” protestors, in real terms, have achieved a previously unthinkable success. With song, dance, theatre, puppetry and slogans, in a Woodstockian extravaganza entering its 34th day, without the use of weapons- not even a pebble cast in anger- in 33 days they have toppled an autocratic regime. Despite a brutal physical assault by armed thugs inspired by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his lackeys, they regrouped within a matter of hours and resumed the “Aragalaya” with undiminished fervour. With that act they crossed a personal Rubicon, unhesitatingly discarding the option of retreat under fire. They have brought the Rajapaksa family, seemingly entrenched well enough to ensure uncle- to father-to son succession through the next decade, to its knees. They have compelled an obdurate, volatile and often witless president, and a vacillatory, self serving bunch of lawmakers to seriously consider options for a new governance.

They have ousted a once revered, deified leader and driven him to humiliating refuge in a heavily fortified cantonment, over 200 km distant from the scene of the action, the farthest he could have traveled in the country which he once bestrode as a colossus, without actually fleeing its shores; still, though, not far enough to escape the grinding noise of the approaching tumbrils. The Rajapaksa’s, including the president, are hunkering in their bunkers to escape the wrath of their former devotees. For Mahinda, who had publicly declared just 24 hours earlier that any new dispensation would naturally be headed by him, literally as an unquestionable entitlement, there can be no greater ignominy than his present position.

For the last several months Sajith Premadasa, Leader of the Opposition, has been leading the verbal battle, in parliament and elsewhere, against the Rajapaksa regime. With blistering rhetoric he has been demanding the resignation of both president Gotabaya and prime minister Mahinda. Now one wish has been granted, the cabinet dissolved as a consequence and the country awaits a new governance. The entire nation will stand behind the regime that is to follow, at least for a time, provided it is seen as principled. Religious leaders of all faiths, businessmen, trade unions, student unions, unaffiliated protest groups, lawyers, all have pledged their support to the righteous governance that they are demanding. It also appears that the infantile disunity which, for the last two years, has plagued the opposition, has been patched up, temporarily, in the face of the retreat of a common enemy. All factors considered, the stage seems to be set for a new governance headed by a new leader.

In a comprehensive media interview last night, aired on ‘Siyatha” TV, the respected, outspoken and pragmatic prelate, Ven Omalpe Sobitha, offered a critique of the current political situation, which could not have been bettered by the best of political analysts. He explained comprehensively the interventions that he, along with religious dignitaries of other faiths, have launched with both president Gotabhaya and with Sajith Premadasa; with the former the request for him to step down immediately and with the latter the request for him to accept the premiership of a new administration.

Significantly, he did not mention Ranil Wickremesinghe, the man sworn in as Prime Minister as this is being written. Nor did he refer to the other alternatives now being paraded before the public, the unctuous Nimal Siripala de Silva, the politically unreliable Wijedasa Rajapakse and the wily Dullas Allahapperuma.

The fact that these names are being proposed by former President Sirisena, immediately brings to mind the comedy that he enacted a few years ago, sacking Wickremesinghe and appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister after both Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya had declined the offer. Unlike Sajith though, Mahinda is a man who sees an opportunity in every difficulty. Therein lies the secret of his success as well. He accepted despite the patent unconstitutionality of the situation, though to be unseated a few months later by a Supreme Court decision.

It is clear that Sajith was awaiting the creation of the perfect scenario before he accepted the offer. All four main conditions he has set out, in the context of the Aragalaya driven demands, are reasonable. He wanted the pitch in perfect shape before he went out to bat. But, In the current, dire circumstances of the nation that was not a reasonable expectation. Whatever he could have done as premier would have only made things slightly better. To use a common term from my plantation background, ” the estate is in such bad shape that moving a stone from one place to another will be an improvement”. That applies to Sri Lanka as it is now.

The exchange of letters between him and the president clearly indicates that the revision of his stance was too late to change the president’s decision to appoint RW. However, given the relationship between RW and the Rajapaks family, and the desperation of a president cornered by the nation, it is entirely possible that Wickremesinghe was always their only choice. Sajith played in to their hands with his intransigence.

The venerable Sobitha also said that Sajith had been apprehensive about interference from GR in the delivery of his responsibilities, and the impact that his performance would have on his personal political future. The grim reality is that if Sajith refused to act because he was fearful of failure, he will never be successful. The true measure of any individual is in the delivery of his or her rhetoric, the ability to “walk the talk”.

As far as I am aware, Ranil W never featured previously in the Aragalaya manifesto, or in any protest elsewhere; obviously because his ascent was not considered even as a remote possibility. However, within minutes of the appointment the Aragalists have offered an unequivocally hostile response. It is an issue of great concern as the Aragalaya is the mirror of citizens’ opinion and, also, echoes the heartbeat of an agitated nation. The Aragalaya is also an opinion maker. RW’s appointment is a betrayal of all citizens’ expectations and, quite likely, was the outcome of a Faustian bargain between him and the Rajapaksa family. The immediate general reaction to RW’s appointment has been a combination of dismay and consternation.

RW as premier is unacceptable for many reasons. He is 73 years old and is at the end of his political career. He lost his constituency at the last election and was granted entry to parliament through the national list. Despite his continued presence in the political scene since 1977, in real terms he is one of the most unsuccessful party leaders of the last four decades. He has never completed a term in office. Under his leadership his party has suffered defeat after defeat. His path to leadership was facilitated by the assassinations of Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and reinforced by the tireless patronage extended to him by his uncle, former president JR Jayawardene.

It was not due to any fine qualities identified in his persona. He is associated with the infamous bond scam of 2015, and the alleged protection he has extended to its key suspects. He is also suspected of protecting the Rajapaks clan when he was prime minister, and of having prevented its members being investigated conclusively on alleged corruption chaarges. As Ven Omalpe Sobitha quite rightly questioned in his interview, as to how a political discard without a party behind him function as the prime minister, unless, as usual, the support is purchased. That support will have to come largely from Rajapaksa loyalists.

My understanding is that whilst RW’s appointment is constitutional, it will have to be ratified in parliament and one can only imagine, despite the agony of citizens desperately awaiting solutions to basic problems, the horse deals that are already being made across negotiating tables. What is constitutional is not necessarily ethical, though. RW’s appointment will divide loyalties within the SJB as well, a situation ideal for the Rajapaks clan. It is a family which thrives on chaos.

As for Sajith, Irrespective of all other considerations, he may stay long enough in politics to bitterly regret his stance which took him out of the reckoning today. Sajith decided not to cast the die but, in the same circumstances, his father Ranasinghe Premadasa would not have hesitated. “Seize the day, for tomorrow may never come”, said somebody.

Within the next couple of months the new regime needs to establish better lines of communication and negotiation with India, United States of America and with China. It needs to deal effectively with the IMF and set in place strategies to soften the impact of stringent conditions attached to aid, will have on the middle and lower middle levels of our society. Its bail-out package will not be realized until Sri Lanka is able to demonstrate a stable governance. China, with its stranglehold on the economy of Sri Lanka, will seek to further strengthen their geo-political position through supplementary aid to Sri Lanka, a situation which will cause India and the US serious concern.

The president, in his address to the nation lst week, hinted at a few personal concessions to the resolution of the current crisis but there were no promises. It is unlikely that they will ever come. In the meantime, the productive time of the country’s workforce, lost to endless queues, to strikes in essential services, the produce transport disruptions experienced by all manufacturers, agriculturists, the plantation sector and individual entrepreneurs, means loss of internal rupee revenue generation, loss of employment at the bottom tier, a decline in export income and the shrinking of the Gross Domestic Product. In totality, much of our society will surely be soon driven below the poverty line. I do not have to describe the social implosion that will be the outcome. Emergency laws and armed soldiers prowling the streets of the country, will not be able to deal with the madness of hungry parents who are unable to feed their even hungrier children.

Anura Gunasekera

12th May 2022



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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

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

Stephanie

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

* How did you start your dancing career?

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

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

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

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

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

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

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

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

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

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

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

* Do you have your own dancing team?

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

* What is your favourite dancing style?

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

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

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

* How would you describe dancing?

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

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

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

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

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

* Are you a professional dancer?

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

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

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

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

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

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