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Midweek Review

The toolbox of intelligence

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We humans are proud of a lot of things, from rocket science to particle accelerators and even to fine poetry, just to mention a few. All of them are there because of something the Homo sapiens value most, the enigmatic attribute called intelligence. We think of intelligence as a trait, like height, weight or strength but when we actually try to define it, things get a little blurry and somewhat difficult. It is by no means a finite entity. This article attempts to delve into a few aspects of the ocean of knowledge that constitutes “Intelligence”, from instinctive behaviour to learned patterns.

How can we determine levels of intelligence? Based on a person’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) perhaps? IQ is a type of somewhat nebulous quantification of intelligence, assessed through standardised testing. Most of the human inhabitants of the world have an IQ averaging around 100, though it differs from place to place. However, the real level of intelligence is part nature and part nurture. We are all born with a certain type of entrenched common sense, yet a special few have an incredibly cryptic attribute known as intelligence. Intellect and cleverness are generally nurtured by the environment that we are born into and the opportunities that are presented to us from very early on in our lives. On a careful evaluation, it is apparent that even animals have been shown to display numerous signs of advanced intelligence and cognition. Intelligence is a multifaceted assortment of tools that is not uniquely species-specific and which enables us to survive in an increasingly complex world.

In a nutshell, intelligence may be delineated as a mechanism to solve problems, especially the problem of staying alive and propagating the species, which involves finding food and shelter, fighting sexual competitors or fleeing from predators, among many other things. Intelligence is not just one single thing but it involves the ability to gather knowledge, to learn, to be creative, form strategies and engage in critical thinking. It manifests itself in a huge variety of behaviour patterns. This latter could vary from hard-wired or instinctive responses to different degrees of earning and even to some sort of awareness of very many things. However, not all scientists agree about where it begins or what even should count as intelligence. To make it even more complicated, intelligence is also connected to consciousness since awareness is essential for problem-solving.

Therefore, all what this means is that intelligence is not all that clear-cut. We can perhaps think of it more like a flexible set of skills: a kind of a toolbox containing a variety of different tools. The most basic tools in this intelligence toolbox are the abilities to gather information, save it and use it to learn. Information about everything around us is gathered through our special senses such as vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The gathered information helps us to navigate through life and react to the external world fittingly and properly. However, living things also need to keep track of the state of their own bodies, monitoring things like hunger and fatigue. Information is the basis of action for all living organisms, including humans, and without it we will be at the mercy of our surroundings, unable to react properly or flexibly. Information is extremely important and much more powerful only if we can save and keep it. Therefore, in such a perspective, a second vital tool is memory, which is the ability to save and recall information. It implies that a living being does not have to start from scratch, every time it perceives something relevant. Memory can be about events, places and associations as well as behaviour patterns such as hunting and foraging methods. Some of these like flying an aircraft have to be repeated or practiced over and over, again and again, till they are mastered. This is what is referred to as learning; the process of putting together a sequence of thoughts and/or actions. This process is basically a thread of repeatable behaviour patterns that can be varied and adapted according to needs as well as changing circumstances. It is most important to recognise that these three tools; ability to gather information, memory and learning, enable seemingly stupid creatures to act in surprisingly intelligent ways.

Some examples from other species of animals help to further explain some of these concepts. The acellular slime mould, which is just a single large slimy cell, shows a behaviour pattern similar to an animal with a very simple brain. When put in a maze with food at one end, the slime mould explores its surroundings and marks its path with slime trails; a sort of smearing memories of a path already taken on the ground. As it continues on this venture of exploration, it avoids the marked pathways and finds its way to the food. Thereby, this organism, instead of getting stuck in dead-ends, adapts its behaviour to save time and effort. This behaviour is hardwired and scientists have failed to agree whether it is a manifestation of intelligence although it does give the slime mould a certain advantage.

Bees are an example of more adaptive smart behaviour. Scientists trained bumblebees to move a coloured ball into a goal post for a sugar reward. Not only the bees were very skilful at this behaviour pattern, which really was not a natural phenomenon for them, but they got more and more efficient over time. When several balls were made available, the bees chose the ball that laid closest to the goal, even if it was a different colour to the ball that they were trained with. This was a fine example of learning, followed by appropriate and intelligent behaviour.

For more challenging problems, we need even more flexibility and a higher degree of adaptability, and even fancier tools. Building on the basic tools, the more complex animals have a wider range of problems that they may be able to solve. They can memorise all kinds of associations, connections and even mechanical tricks. We call this tool ‘The Library of Knowledge’. As an example, look at raccoons. Their favourite type of food is the same as human food. Their approach to getting hold of such treats depends upon an admirable assortment of theoretical and practical skills that makes them super master burglars, able to open windows or even pick locks. In a research study, raccoons were given boxes secured with different kinds of locks, such as latches, bolts, plugs or push bars. They actually needed less than 10 attempts to figure out how to open each box. Even when different locks were put together into increasingly difficult combinations that had to be solved in a given correct order and with different amounts of strength, they managed to open them without much of a hassle. Quite surprisingly perhaps, even a year later, the raccoons remembered how to open the boxes and were as fast as when they had first solved the puzzle. These experiments documented assessment, adaptation and useful memory as some of the important components of intelligence in the animal kingdom.

Beyond our library of associations and skills, the most impressive tool in our toolbox is creativity; a kind of mental duct tape. Being creative means producing something new, useful and valuable, from apparently unrelated things. In the context of intelligence, this means making entirely new and unusual connections. It involves pairing input with memories and skills, to come up with a unique and new solution to a problem. In another raccoon study, researchers showed these animals, that by dropping pebbles into a narrow water tank, into which they could not get in, they could raise the water level sufficiently to enable them to reach a marshmallow floating at the top. Quite surprisingly, one raccoon came up with a much better solution: it just tipped the tub over…, an impressive example of innovation.

 

Another facet of creativity is applying a new resource to a given task, like physical tools and implements. This is like primates that use sticks to fish for termites in trees, or some octopuses which assemble collected coconut shells around themselves as a kind of portable armour to hide from enemies. Collecting materials for later use is connected to an even more advanced dimension of problem-solving, which is planning. This component of planning means considering the activities required for a desired goal and putting them together into a strategy. When unforeseen circumstances and new possibilities present themselves, they need to be assessed according to whether they match the plan or not. A classic example of this type of intelligent behaviour, particularly seen during these Covid-19 days, is hoarding of food to eat it later. This is also an instinctive behaviour in squirrels. However, even though hiding food comes instinctively to them, they still need to use advanced thinking skills to make the best decisions. They examine every nut and weigh the time and effort that would take to hide it, against the benefits they would get from each nut. Damaged and low-fat nuts are eaten right away while those that still need to ripen go into the stockpile. Squirrels also pretend to bury nuts when they feel that they are being watched. Such empty caches distract rivals from their real treasures. This indeed is pretty advanced strategizing because to make a plan to distract another, one has to first be aware that there are others like you who want the same things.

The more complex the problem, more are the tools that would be needed in combination, to solve it. So, the more tools that are there in the intelligence toolbox, the more flexibility an animal or a person has, to solve the problems and challenges that life throws at them. However, even for complex problems and challenges, each animal’s individual situation is what counts. For example, squirrels are omnivores that defend their territories fiercely. For them, it seems to make sense for them to be able to remember where there is food available in different locations and trick their enemies away from food, to improve their own chances of survival. In contrast, sheep do not have any such refined tricks up their sleeves. In point of fact, they do not actually need to have such guiles. They are grazers and live in flocks. The skills relevant to them are social ones. They recognise and remember many different sheep, even humans, for years; a completely different skill. Evolving and retaining a complex set of mental abilities such as safeguarding food security, which they might never have to use, would be a sheer waste of precious resources to them. This is indeed a form of differentiating ability of intelligence which enables the animal to just concentrate on things that matter.

As the most advanced creatures in the animal kingdom, humans have gone in the opposite direction and invested in an unusually diverse intelligence toolkit. While this may have been helpful, we have added another set of tools on top, perhaps by accident. That is the thing called culture. No single person could ever build a space rocket or a particle accelerator. However, thanks to our ability to work together and to share knowledge across even generations, we can overcome challenges beyond the capabilities of any single individual. That is the culture of collaboration. Unbelievable achievements, bordering even on fiction, could be accomplished through such a culture of collaboration. This has also allowed us to shape our planet to our liking. However, in that process, we have also created new problems such as climate change and antibiotic resistance, just to name two. To solve these, we will need to look well past short-term survival and think about the distant future. In such situations, we will be compelled to delve deeply into our intelligence toolbox. We do have a really superb toolbox; we just need to use it judiciously.

Some of the material presented has been extracted from Defining Intelligence Through Science – BabaMail. “What is intelligence? Where does it begin?” Available from https://www.ba-bamail.com/video.aspx?emailid=37761;

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Midweek Review

A deeper scrutiny of ‘intelligence related matters’ needed

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Public Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera Monday, 18 at his ministry met Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, to discuss ways and means of strengthening law enforcement operations. Public Security Ministry Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis and IGP Chandana Wickremaratne participated in the discussion.

Former Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) of Police H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, having read our last week’s column, further elaborated on the revelation by retired SDIG Merril Gunaratne pertaining to what he called the unprecedented expansion of the DIG cadre during Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s tenure as the President (May 1993 to Nov 1994).

Kotakadeniya, one of the most outspoken senior cop, while in service (if one had cared to canvas his opinion) and now in retirement, said Wijetunga’s intervention had been far worse than mentioned and caused the further deterioration of the service. The retired Senior DIG sent us the following statement in the wake of the writer’s comment on Gunaratne’s latest work ‘Perils of a Profession’, titled ‘Perils of a Profession jolts scandal- ridden police’ published in the January 13, 2021 edition of The Island:

“In the chapter, titled ‘Violation of the line of seniority – a major cause for decline,’ it is stated President Wijetunge ordered the DIG cadre to be increased from 19 to 30 and that there was speculation about this increase benefitting an officer who was a favourite of the President. I would like to add two relevant facts regarding this issue.

“Shortly after Wijetunga assumed office as the President, in 1993, he summoned me to the Presidential Secretariat. At that time I was based at Police Headquarters as DIG Headquarters and DIG Administration. My parents and I had the privilege of being acquainted with Wijetunga from my childhood as we were from the same village.

“When I met the President, he told me that the welfare of Police officers hadn’t been given the due importance and, therefore, to redress the situation he had an idea to appoint a DIG to handle welfare work in each DIG Range. He inquired from me whether I would endorse the proposal.

“I reflected for a few seconds and replied that the subject of welfare in each range was being looked after by an Inspector, and therefore the appointment of an officer of a rank of DIG was not quite necessary. The President did not appear to be pleased with my response.

“If few days, after this meeting, with the President, I was transferred as the DIG Logistics on 1.10.1994 and thereafter to Chilaw on 4.10.1994. I felt that the move by the President, to appoint several DIGs’ in charge of ‘welfare’, was meant to fulfill his desire to expand the DIG cadre to allow his favourite officer who was very junior, to also become a DIG.

“The other matter was that the DIG cadre increase was not from 19 to 30, but much above 40 since the officer concerned was at that time 44th in the list of Senior Superintendents. “

Kotakadeniya refrained from mentioning names. The Island inquiries revealed that ironically highly respected Frank Silva had been the IGP at that time and Mahinda Balasuriya the beneficiary.

Kotakadeniya, who had served as Defence Ministry advisor during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President following the 2005 November Presidential election, was the only retired officer to respond to The Island piece.

Deterioration of the public sector

The deterioration of the police should be addressed at the highest level. Unfortunately, successive governments, in spite of their grandiose plans to restore the dignity of the once proud service caused further deterioration. Political parties cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current predicament.

But at least it is no longer a runaway rogue force, hand in glove with the underworld, due to the current government’s no nonsense line on law enforcers. Yet the current dispensation, too, is still struggling to cope with the situation against continuing revelations on the depth of its rot. The revelation of the clandestine dealings involving the elite Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) and heroin Mafia sent shock waves through the entire security establishment. Gunaratne, however, hadn’t at least made a reference to the PNB fiasco or the controversial release of Easter Sunday massacre suspect Riyaj Bathiudeen who had been held in CID custody in terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Mahinda Balasuriya received the appointment as the IGP in early November 2009 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President. Balasuriya resigned in early June 2011 following the killing of a 21-year-old worker, during a protest, by police fire at the Katunayake Export Processing (EPZ).

The government rewarded him with a diplomatic appointment. Balasuriya, perhaps is the only retired IGP to receive an appointment as head of a diplomatic mission in spite of stepping down under controversial circumstances. Balasuriya served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Brazil. With the Parliamentary High Posts Committee, chaired by the Speaker, nothing but a rubber stamp for successive governments to accommodate their favourites, at the taxpayers’ expense, without any difficulty.

Balasuriya received significant media coverage when he was investigated by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that Inquired into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC). The yahapalana outfit probed why Balasuriya provided armed police security for members of Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF), who hadn’t been at least members of Parliament.

The Commission sought clarification on what grounds Balasuriya provided security in the period 2010-2015.

The Commission estimated the exercise could have cost the taxpayer approximately Rs 30 mn.

Gunaratne dealt with officers with political patronage at different levels exploiting the much abused system to secure promotions. In the chapter referred to by Kotakadeniya, Gunaratne depicted an extremely negative picture of the service.

Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section that referred to the pathetic situation of some influential persons securing key posts and promotions for stooges at the expense of the deserving: “The pattern, so monotonous since 1977, had seriously demoralized the service. Some have been adept not only in the ‘long jump,’ but also in ‘hop, step and jump,’ by obtaining more than one promotion outside the eligible criteria.

Backdoor entry into Parliament

But should we be surprised by irregular police promotions? In a country where defeated candidates can be accommodated in Parliament through the backdoor or ruling party perpetrated Treasury bond scams twice in 2015 and 2016, ‘rape of the seniority line’ as underscored by Gunaratne seemed not so serious an issue. In fact, the rot in the police is just one symptom of the overall deterioration of both public and private sectors.

In spite of the creation of the National Police Commission (NPC) in terms of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution followed by the 19th and the recently introduced 20th, the crisis-ridden department is in bad shape. The PNB’s alleged involvement in drug dealing, Riyaj Bathiudeen’s sudden shock release, alleged attempts to undermine police investigation into Easter Sunday attacks, handling of the probe into negligence on the part of Brandix and government officials in respect of the second Covid-19 eruption highlighted fundamental flaws in law enforcement.

Police continue to play politics and politicians continue to play with the police. Both parties engage in ‘politics’ at the expense of truth and credibility. The Parliament remains indifferent. Yahapalana IGP Pujith Jayasundera, in the wake of the Oct 26, 2018 constitutional crisis caused by the sacking of Wickremesinghe government, immediately switched his allegiance to the Rajapaksas. Jayasundera returned to the fold as President Sirisena’s ambitious project collapsed.

Over the years, politicians have set up systems that took care of problems. Actually, Gunaratne in ‘Dilemma of an Island’ (2001), ‘Cop in the Crossfire’ in 2011 and the latest ‘Perils of a Profession’ launched this January dealt with perhaps some broader issues though a fully-fledged Presidential Commission as suggested by the author is required to reach consensus on genuine remedial measures.

Former Sub Inspector and defeated candidate at the August 2020 general election Palitha Range Bandara recently received the appointment as the General Secretary of the demoralized UNP. Bandara succeeded Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, who was rewarded with the post of Assistant Leader.

Beleaguered UNP leader Wickremesinghe picked Bandara in spite of him being accused often of divided loyalties. But in relation to ‘Perils of a Profession,’ it would be pertinent to mention that Bandara received backdated promotion to the rank of ASP in Dec 2017, courtesy the NPC.

The NPC recommended promotion for cop-turned-politician Bandara to the rank of ASP on the grounds the previous Rajapaksa administration victimized him, politically, though he had left the police long before Rajapaksa came to power in 2005. The NPC made the recommendation to the Law and Order and Southern Development Ministry. The NPC responded to Bandara’s appeal and recommended that MP Bandara be reinstated in the Police Service from 24 August 2000 and promoted to the ASP rank on the 27th of the same month and sent him on retirement. Promoting an SI to the rank of ASP cannot be an issue for those yahapalana grandees who brought back Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake from retirement to name him the Commander of the Army. The National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) carried out the Easter Sunday attacks during Senanayake’s tenure as the Army Commander. Instead of accepting responsibility for the failure on the part of the Directorate of Military (DMI) to thwart the NTJ project, Senanayake exploited the police lapses to contest the last presidential election. Senanayake couldn’t poll even 50,000 votes. The results of the Nov 2019 presidential poll placed Senanayake fourth behind JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

The yahapalana administration also brought back Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah from retirement to place the Navy under him. However, it is pertinent to mention that Sinniah led some of the most successful operations on the high seas against the LTTE arms smuggling vessels.

Need for clear cut procedures

The government will have to set up specific mechanisms to deal with both law enforcement and military officers claiming political victimization, rightly or wrongly, instead of looking at them through a political lense as has been happening under various governments. Gunaratne mentioned several instances of how retired senior officers brazenly exploited the political setup for their advantage. In the absence of procedures, any wrongdoer can secure benefits at the expense of the truth.

The author dealt with an attempt made by a Colombo-based diplomatic mission to recruit a police intelligence officer in the early 70s. Having named the officer concerned as Ananda Jayasekera, who passed away in 2019, Gunaratne discussed the case that ended up with the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike being alerted to the foreign mission’s bid to run an agent within the State Intelligence setup.

During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second presidential term, the US Embassy made an abortive bid to recruit Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe. The offer was made at a party hosted by the then US Defence attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith on January 20, 2011, in honour of a senior officer from the US Pacific Command.

Samarasinghe not only turned down the offer to secure permanent residency in the US for him and his family by betraying the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he promptly brought the US bid to the latter’s notice.

Against the backdrop of foreign powers stepping up their clandestine activities over the years, the circumstances under which Inspector Nishantha Silva of the CID secured political asylum for himself and his entire family a week after the last presidential poll underscored the pivotal importance of the intelligence services keeping a track of developments. Did the State Intelligence Service (SIS) headed by SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena know of the connection between Nishantha Silva and the Swiss Embassy?

Subsequent inquiries revealed a much wider conspiracy involving Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Francis, (former Siriyalatha Perera), the Swiss Embassy and the police officer who prominently figured in the leaked audio tapes of the then UNP State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake. Did SIS at least know the controversial CID investigator’s plan to flee the country in the event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the presidential poll? Did the then Director, CID SSP Shani Abeysekera know of his subordinate’s plan?

If the Swiss government succeeded in evacuating Garnier Francis in an air ambulance amidst accusations that government personnel molested her and threatened her with death, immediately after Inspector Silva fled the country, the issue would have been raised in Geneva at the forthcoming 46th UNHRC sessions as if it was the gospel truth. However, the possibility of the matter still being raised during the Feb-March 2021 sessions cannot be ruled out as the West is quite capable of making an untruth a truth, especially through their ‘independent’ media as happened with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the maligning of Gaddafi just before his ouster and gruesome killing in public.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa placed the SIS under intelligence veteran Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally. The SIS had never been under a military officer before. The crisis-ridden police are now placed under retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera as the Minister of Public Security with retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis as the Secretary to that Ministry. The Office of Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), too, has been placed under retired Maj. Gen. Ruwan Kulathunga. In spite of the much tighter hold on the intelligence setup, the government was caught flat-footed when the demolition of the LTTE war memorial on January 8, 2021 in the Jaffna University triggered chaos. The incident placed both Sri Lanka and India in an embarrassing position as the demolition of the memorial took place close on the heels of Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s high profile visit to Colombo.

Although the author made reference to the failure on the part of the police to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks, an issue as important as how the Indian intelligence managed its operations aimed at the NTJ hadn’t received due attention.

Did India alert SIS regarding their NTJ hunt or just provided the finished intelligence product on April 4, 2019, regarding the planned operation? Sri Lanka should be really worried about foreign intelligence services engaged in clandestine activities here, especially against the backdrop of growing US-China rivalry, with the former receiving the backing of India, Japan and Australia.

PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran killing outside the Maldivian HC in Colombo in July 1989 revealed the possible involvement of the Indian intelligence. The killing took place in the wake of the PLOTE bid to overthrow the then Maldivian President Gayoom at the behest of a Maldivian businessman. The sea borne PLOTE raid went awry even before Indian troops landed there to bring the situation quickly under control.

A deeper scrutiny of ‘developments’ is required as China-US hostilities take a turn for the worse with both seeking to enhance their spheres of influence. The need for the intelligence services to be prepared to face multifarious threats on different levels is of paramount importance. The Easter Sunday carnage is certainly not the first intelligence failure and it wouldn’t be the last.

The assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993 exposed the entire intelligence setup. The infiltration of President Premadasa’s inner circle by the LTTE is perhaps the worst single intelligence failure that proved the importance of the intelligence services being on top of the ‘political game,’ too. For intelligence services, there cannot be a worse period than President Premadasa’s tenure (1989-1993). An ignorant President played pandu with national security leading to the Eelam War II in June 1990 with disastrous consequences. Retired SSP Tassy Seneviratne didn’t mince his words when he appeared before the LLRC. Seneviratne explained how President Premadasa’s interventions caused debilitating losses at the onset of the Eelam War II. The rest is history.

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Midweek Review

The Royalty and its ‘Yes’ Men

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By Lynn Ockersz

The air is thick once again,

With the familiar refrain,

That you, the ‘Sovereign People’,

Are at centre stage,

In this wearying racking of brains,

On how the notoriously Nodding Land’s,

Primal law must take shape,

But here’s the truth none can escape:

You have descended from wage labourer,

To an alms-seeker of the street,

And your hearth’s flames,

Are sputtering to an ominous end,

But the timeless moral remains:

You are hapless pawns,

In a decades-long power game,

Featuring dynastic heavyweights,

And their 225 ‘Yes’ men.

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Midweek Review

From Jaffna library to University – politics of identity

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By Harim Peiris

A centre of Tamil learning in Jaffna was attacked and destroyed. No, not last week, but 40 years ago, in 1981, the iconic Jaffna Library, a seat of Tamil language, literature and learning was burnt to cinders by a mob of what then cabinet ministers Cyril Mathew et al were watching, perhaps not entirely as innocent bystanders, from the veranda of the old Jaffna Rest House termed as “an unfortunate rampage by a few drunk and off duty police officers”. Coming a full circle, four decades later, once again a seat of Tamil learning, this time namely the University of Jaffna, witnessed the destruction of its memorial to the dead. The police officers were again there, now on duty and very sober, as under cover of darkness, they guarded the backhoes which did the demolition. The contexts were different, the events eerily similar, while the rhetoric is strikingly the same.

Back then there wasn’t even the pretence of trying to justify the actions and two years later in 1983, we had a pogrom and were in the midst of a civil war. Now, a decade after the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, we must learn from the lessons of the past. It is former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who paraphrased Spanish philosopher Santayana to state in the House of Commons that “those who did not learn from the lessons of history were destined to relive it”.

Post the civil war, the urge to curb Tamil nationalism from taking on any form of militancy or armed expression is an entirely legitimate and desirable objective. No one in his or her right mind would wish or desire Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations to once again lead to a civil war. However, towards this end, what is required is an intentional and purposeful, domestic process of post war reconciliation, which includes reparations and guarantees of non-reoccurrence. Unfortunately, more than a decade after the end of the civil war, dealing with either the effects or the causes of the war has not occurred in a meaningful manner. After the war, in the former conflict areas, the roads have been repaired and the public buildings reconstructed, but the shattered lives of especially the most vulnerable sections of Northern society, the widows, the orphans and the rural poor, remain largely as they were a decade ago.

Playing demolition derby in the University of Jaffna is not the means of advancing reconciliation. In fact, the University of Jaffna provides a useful safety valve and escape outlet for the frustrations of Tamil youth and curbing non-violent expressions of ethnic nationalism only drives it to less non-violent spaces. Neither does destroying the memorial to the dead, do anything to moderate Tamil opinion. Engagement and dialogue would have been better. It is a point that was reiterated most recently by visiting Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar and likely to be reiterated by a majority of the International community at the upcoming sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva.

 

Memorialising and remembering the dead

Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations and social tensions extend beyond life and into the realm of death. It is a key aspect of our humanity that we mourn our dead. The religious faith or belief systems by which we make sense of life and death and especially find the strength to move on after the death of loved ones, especially under tragic and violent circumstances are crucial aspects of our personal and community life. Accordingly, the need and right to mourn the dead, is fundamental to us as humans and crucial to providing healing and closure, especially in the aftermath of a brutal and long drawn civil war, which resulted in the destruction of considerable life and property of both combatants and non-combatants on all sides.

Sri Lanka’s current controversy over the remembrance of the dead is not just confined to the Tamil populace seeking to mourn the loss of loved ones during or at the tail end of the war. On our new battle front of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka has become the only country in the world, to prohibit the burial of the dead with the religious rites and rituals of the deceased and in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin. The decision of the government, through its Ministry of Health, which bears the responsibility, is on the flimsiest of pretences based on the views of its own handpicked “experts” who are contradicted officially by public communique not only by the independent and distinguished College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka but also by the WHO and the practice of the global community of nations. Even with the far more contagious Ebola virus, the dead are buried with no adverse effects and the view of the government’s “experts”, truly make us a land like no other.

It is my friend and colleague, University of Amsterdam academic Dr. Ram Manikkalingam who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote a Sri Lanka, which was the Sinhala equivalent of what Prabhakaran and the LTTE sought to create, a mono ethnic nation governed on ethnic lines.

Sri Lanka’s strength and moral superiority over the separatism which was defeated at Nandikadal, derives from the fact that we are multi-ethnic and multi religious and we should cherish that strength and, in its defence, desist from governing exclusively by the prism of ethnic Sinhala nationalism. Bulldozing monuments does nothing towards that end.

 

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-17)

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