THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS
It was on July 31, 2010 that UNESCO inscribed The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka comprising Horton Plains, Knuckles Conservation Forest and the Peak Wilderness- Protected Area, as a World Heritage Site. In fact this site was one of the two which were classified by UNESCO as ‘Natural Sites’ the other being Sinharaja Forest Reserve(1988).
Horton Plains which is a Wonderland of Nature is undoubtedly the most popular of the three places described under the Central Highlands.
Under the shadows of Sri Lanka’s second and third highest mountains, Kirigalpoththa ( 7,854 feet ) and Thotupola ( 7,733 feet ) and at an elevation ranging from 6,900 feet to 7,500 feet lies this chilly, mist covered, 12.2 sq mile undulating plateau which was named in honor of a former colonial governor, Sir Robert Wilmot Horton (1831- 1837) A more descriptive name was given by our own people – Maha Eliya Thenna’ meaning the great open plains because here will be seen montane grasslands or high altitude grasslands and cloud forest which due to the abundant layers of mosses is also called a mossy forest.
Its awesome remoteness and varied biodiversity will make you forget the tumultuous world which you would have left behind before starting on this trip. It is a strange, silent, world that you have entered and prompts the writer to adapt a line from Gray’s Elegy, for here in the Plains you will be –
‘Far from the madding, crowd’s
ignoble strife, With only the sound of silence and
endemic life. Your plodding footsteps passing
gurgling streams And whistling winds like in your dreams’
Its high elevation, the sudden sharp showers, the incessantly blowing ice cold wind, makes it necessary that you wear woolen clothing and over this a leather jerkin with a hood /cap attached covering your ears would be the best. As you will realise it’s your ears that are most sensitive to the cold.
Of the alternate routes to the Plains the one from N’Eliya to Pattipola is the most enjoyable. Driving at a leisurely pace you can admire one of the most picturesque areas in Sri Lanka, like the sprawling Kande Eliya tank, vast meadows of shrubbery and montane forests with their characteristically conically shaped trees, the rich green pastureland of Ambewela farm and then on to Pattipola.
This little town has set a record of being the highest in the entire railway network in our island. From here to the entrance of Horton Plains will take you just a few minutes. The best time to start your exploration of the Plains is at least by 6.30 in the morning. As the sun begins to rise, a vast blanket of mist descends on the entire area, preventing you from enjoying the attractions which nature has to offer you. What is worse is that you may lose your way, walking aimlessly while stumbling over the slippery stones and precipitous pathways.
Here in the Plains are the headwaters of three main rivers which wind their way through the country and then pour out into the sea at different coastal towns. Mahaweli, which is Sri Lanka’s longest river (at Trincomalee ), Kelani ( at Colombo ) and Walawe ( at Ambalantota ) . The Plains also feed the Belihul Oya, Agra Oya, Kiriketi Oya, Uma Oya and Bogawantalawa Oya. Horton Plains it must be noted is one of the most important catchment areas in the island. Like a sponge it soaks up the water from the heavy rains which frequently fall and then from this high elevation, the water gradually seeps its way through the soil into streams, rivers and even into wells, located at lower elevations.
But it’s ‘World’s End’ which is the main attraction of Horton Plains. This is a sheer precipice. A drop of 4,000 feet, which is three quarters of a mile. As you stand at the edge of this steep massif which is in the Central Province and look right down below without getting a bout of acrophobia, you will be seeing the green foliage of trees of the Sabaragamuwa Province. Gazing a little farther you will see like tiny specks, the silvery, glinting, roof tops of plantation factories, hamlets and meadows.
And as you gaze still farther, you will be able to see 50 miles to the South, the hazy blue of the sky meet the shimmering blue of the sea. There are no protective railings at the edge of this escarpment, so forget about ‘selfies’ while standing here. In November 2018 a German tourist fell to her death while taking a selfie. It took the Sri Lanka Army, Sri Lanka Police and a group of volunteers, six hours to find her body which was in Non Pareil Estate located in the Sabaragamuwa Province. So the tragic and ironic fact is that she fell from one Province into another.
Passing on from this spectacular cliff there is another enchanting attraction. This is Baker’s Falls. Located on a tributary of the Belihul Oya it was formerly called ‘Gongala Falls.’ Here again the original Sinhala name was discarded and renamed in 1845 after Sir Samuel Baker who it has been claimed discovered it. Then, one may ask how was it that perhaps centuries before Sir Samuel Baker even stepped onto the shores of this island, our people knew about these falls and gave it its name? Also make note that this ‘eminent’ colonialist had the dubious distincti on of killing over 50 elephants right here on the Plains!
But never mind the name. It’s the sight that matters. It is 66 feet high and the icy cold water splashes in cascades at multiple levels before crashing into the 40 feet deep pool down below. Other than being the widest water falls in the country it is also claimed to be the most spectacular.
But that is certainly not all that the Plains has to offer. As you continue to plod your way, look around and observe the abundance of flora. Amongst the high altitude shrubland referred to as ‘pathana’ in Sinhala you cannot but fail to see the evergreen forests like coniferous and eucalyptus. The coniferous trees can be identified by the fact that they sprout long pointed green needles instead of leaves and cones instead of flowers. Amongst the tall trees there is Calophyllum walkeri called ‘ Kina’ in Sinhala. Its hard, durable, reddish, wood with dark streaks is used for making door frames, beams and rafters.
Another tall tree is Syzygium rotunifolium which grows to a height of over 30 feet and is commonly called ‘batapath damba.’ Amongst the smaller trees are evergreen bamboos (Indocalmus ) which grow up to about six feet. Cinnamon, Cinnamomum Zeylanicum are plentiful. Myrtaceae which belongs to the myrtle family is a shrub and one such is Syzgium aromaticum which produces cloves. Decorating the trunks of many of these trees are ferns, lichens and orchids. Sixteen of these orchids are endemic in Sri Lanka .
Here amongst the trunks of trees, you must peer closely and search for a species that looks like the tangled, unkempt beard of a lazy old man. This is Clematis Vitalba and its alternate name is ‘Old Man’s Beard’. Walking carefully by the water logged swamps and slow moving streams you will notice a variety of aquatic plants such as macrophytes which have large flowers with white petals and a yellow center. Search closely for another most interesting plant species which are the carnivorous bladderworts – Utricularia. They have a bladder– like trap which ensnares water fleas, nematodes ( tiny microscopic worms ), mosquito larvae and even tadpoles. Two renowned botanists, Peter Taylor Francis and Ernest Lloyd have stated that the vacuum driven bladders in these plants are the most sophisticated carnivorous trapping mechanisms to be found anywhere in the plant kingdom.
The fauna found here is much more fascinating. Do not be deceived by the silence for there is plenty of activity around, for you to listen and perchance to see. If you attune your ears you will be able to pick up the distant, muffled grunts and squeaks of monkeys such the as the Toque macaques, ‘Rilawa.’ In Sinhala, which has a whorl of hair on top of its head very much like a skull cap and the purple faced leaf monkey, called ‘kalu rilawa’ in Sinhala. You may even be able to hear the faint sawing of the Sri Lanka leopard which is endemic in Sri Lanka.
But if you are specially observant you might spot their faeces along the path on which you are walking. Take it as a warning that they are around. Similarly you would be able to see some freshly made patches on the ground. These have been made by wild boars when they dig the soil in search of worms and grubs. And if by chance you hear a barking noise that will be the Indian muntjacs, a species of deer which makes this peculiar noise when it is frightened specially when it sights a predator like the leopard.
Also living on the Plains is the Rusty Spotted Cat which is the smallest of the cat species, called in Sinhala ‘balal diviya.’
Then there is the Fishing Cat called the ‘kola diviya’ or ‘handun diviya’ in Sinhala which can not only swim but can even dive under water to catch fish. Looking up at the branches, it is hoped that you will be able to spot the Rhino Horned Lizard as it lies as if in deep meditation, with an occasional nodding of its head. It is a type of chameleon having a small white horn on its forehead, like the legendary Unicorn.
If you wish to see and indeed you must, a species listed as a global conservation priority and found only in Sri Lanka then
endure the shivering cold of the night and be rewarded with the sight of the big eyed, shy, Red Slender Loris which sleeps
by day and ever so stealthily gets active at night. Do not be concerned about snakes. There are only two types, both being non-venomous. One is the Rough Sided Snake called ‘dalawa medilla’ in Sinhala. It burrows into the earth and its cylindrical body shape facilitates this manoeuvre ever so easily. The other type of snake is the docile rat sna
ke, called in Sinhala ‘garendiya’.
However even if you fail to see any one of the species mentioned, it is most likely that you will see the her
ds of sambhur which roam about proudly displaying their large antlers which adorn their heads. They seem to be inv
iting you to video/ photograph them in all their majesty. So why disappoint them ?
Of bird life, it has been recorded that in Horton Plains there are 21 species, which can be found only in Sri Lanka and of these three can be found only in Horton Plains. For this reason Horton plains has been classified as an Important Bird Area ( IBA ). This classification was done by the BirdLife International which is an NGO having worldwide partnerships.
It is interesting to note that seven of these species have been honoured by being featured on postage stamps. They are the Dull Blue Flycatcher- ‘anduru nil masimara’, the Sri Lanka White Eye – ‘Lanka sithasiya, the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon – ‘manil goya, the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie- ‘kehi bella.’ This species is quite different from the magpies you see in your home gardens. This one’s conspicuous colour is bright blue and as an added attraction has a reddish brown head. Then there is the Sri Lanka Spur Fowl – ‘haban kukula,’ the Yellow Fronted Barbet – ‘rath nalal kottoruwa’ the Orange Billed Babbler – ‘rathu demalichcha,’. But the most attractive of all the bird species found on the Plains is the Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl- ‘wali kukula’ A much deserved honour was bestowed on the Jungle Fowl when it was classified as the National Bird of Sri Lanka.
But these are not the only species of birds found in Horton Plains. There is a group of seasonal migratory birds which perform a two way marathon testing their endurance to the very maximum. Getting away from the bitterly cold winter countries of the Northern Hemisphere they arrive here to the pleasant climes of Sri Lanka in August/September and leave around May/ April. Here they find in abundance the food they require and more importantly the most suitable breeding places. It must be remembered that Sri Lanka is the farthest point away from South India with no land mass until the South Pole is reached.
Amongst these migratory birds are the Swiflets. This species make their nests entirely with saliva. Do not feel nauseated. Because these nests form the basis of that delicacy called ‘bird’s nest soup.’ Then there are the Alpine Swifts which spend as long as six months on the wing and remarkably, sleeps and – hold your breath, even mates while flying. The Mountain Hawk Eagle which is referred to as an opportunist predator, because it ambushes its prey of which it has a wide range from small birds to squirrels. Then there is the Black- Winged Kite. The male of the species has the habit of establishing ‘territories’ for themselves and defends such territories by fighting any intruder. After a noisy courtship the female obligingly enters the male’s territory. The writer wonders whether there can be a better example of female obedience!
Finally there is the Peregrine Falcon which is reckoned to be the fastest bird in the world with a speed of 240 mph as it swoops to grab it’s prey. These species are associated with falconry whereby such a bird is trained by a handler to catch and bring back small animals such as rabbits. It has been reported that Falconry (it was called a sport ) began in Mesopotamia around 2,000 BC. Fortunately, it never caught on in sports loving Sri Lanka and hopefully will never.
This being the Olympic Year or to be accurate the postponed Olympic Year, here is something to take note of. The world record for long distance flying is held by the Artic Tern which flies 12,430 miles from the Artic in the North Pole to the Antarctic in the South Pole and then back again doing another lap of 12,430 miles. Researchers have claimed that each year it sees more daylight hours than any other creature on the planet . And here is another world record for migratory birds, with a wingspan of 10 feet and a weight of 33 lbs, the Andean Condor is the largest flying bird in the world. Anyway neither of these record holders visit Horton Plains. So let’s hope that at least our athletes will break a record or two at the Tokyo Olympic Games if and when it is held.
Prospects for NPP/JVP at the next election
by Kumar David
Several months ago I brought to my reader’s attention a straw-poll that I had conducted among my friends on the left of the political spectrum, university colleagues and liberal intellectuals on two matters; (i) their own voting intentions, (ii) what they perceived were the electoral prospects of the NPP/JVP. The replies were consistent. Most said that they would vote for the NPP/JVP or that they were mulling over it. Almost all declared that would not seriously consider Sajith or Ranil led outfits and that anything linked to the Rajapaksa-Porotuwa garbage heap was out of the question. Regarding whether the NPP/JVP could win an election most people in my straw-poll had reservations. While they were themselves satisfied that the JVP would never again repeat the madness of 1971 and 1989-91 they reckoned that the electorate at large was still anxious (minissu thaama bayai). I am grateful to all who wrote to me (actually everyone I contacted replied) for their frankness and careful evaluation of ground realities.
The National Peoples Power (NPP), an alliance of about 28 political parties, trade unions and grass-roots organisations conducted a public seminar on January 24, 2023, which was jam packed, not enough seating room. The keynote speaker was Anura Kumara Dissanayake (Anura hereafter) who was very clever in how he handled the seminar by declaring right at the start “People are concerned about our economic policies; they want to know how we will handle the economy”. Now indeed this is true, but it also let him off the hook about the insurrectionary folly of 1971 and 1989-91 and allowed him to skirt the concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities. I will touch on all three issues, economy, minorities and political adventurism in this short article while giving priority to the economic discussion in the light of the enormous success of the January 24 Seminar/Symposium/Consultation.
Yes, there is considerable interest in the JVP’s economic programme since it has never been explicitly spelt out in the past except as simple anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal slogans. Anura, as expected focussed on the great hardships the people were suffering because of the ongoing economic crisis, the unbearable increase in prices and the breakdown in public services – hospitals for example are short of medicines, dressings for wounds and beds.
I will begin by picking up six crucial economic issues that arose from the January 24 seminar without stating whether the questions were or were not adequately addressed by the panellists on the stage. It is the right answer to the questions that matters most not whether the panellists got it right or are still working towards adequate solutions. What’s the rush, the elections aren’t tomorrow?
Will an NPP/JVP government be friendly to private-sector businesses?
How will Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) be encouraged and financed?
What is the attitude of the NPP/JVP to loss making state enterprises?
How will foreign investment be encouraged?
What is the is the right approach to Free Trade Agreements with other countries?
How will digitisation of production and of enterprises be encouraged?
I will now proceed to comment on these seven economic issues without indicating whether my comments are the same or different from what the panel members said. There is lots of time more to the next election; we are in the midst of a discussion in progress. Let’s go step by step. Yes, the NPP/JVP should aim to consolidate a mixed economy and therefore the role of the private sector must the recognised. As will become clear when I answer questions lower down what has to be consolidated is a dirigisme economy where the state directs fundamental policy, emphasis being on the word fundamental. In Singapore, South Korea and above all in China (Deng Xiaoping onwards) the private sector prospered although the directive role of the state in the broad sense was retained.
Making resources available for SMEs has to be undertaken as a matter of policy. Certain banks must be identified for that purpose, policy instruments create and funding provisions made via the Treasury. Support for SMEs has to be a state responsibility.
In my view policy towards loss-making state enterprises needs to be well defined. White elephants like Sri Lankan Airlines should be sold off. Loss making state enterprises have to be divided between those who make a loss because they carry a huge consumer subsidy (electricity for example) and others which are fattening an excessive work-force (some portions of the petroleum industry). In respect of the former the NPP/JVP has to decide to what extent and for how long a subsidy is a political necessity, and in respect of the latter a ruthless but time diversified closure policy adopted. Time has to be given for people to learn new skills to find alternative employment avenues. Digitisation is a specialist topic and I was pleased with the response of the relevant member (I am unable to recall his name) of the Seminar Panel who spoke briefly on digitisation and showed an expert grasp of his subject.
From a left propaganda point of view to speak of the tremendous hardship that the sudden economic crisis and the post-Covid and post global-recession period, had created is straightforward. Anura drew attention to the great hardships of the masses, the need to provide additional resources and made a fairly straightforward moral argument. The practical point is how to get this done without cutting other contending demands and how to persuade China to restructure rather than defer (postpone) debt repayment. Though I am a member of the NPP and have been an electoral candidate on the NPP National List slate what I say in this article is not NPP policy, rather is an open-ended contribution towards the ongoing discussion and it is intended to help formulate NPP policy. There is a long way to go before the next election and the lot more water will have to flow under the bridge before the NPP finalises its positions.
It is in this spirit that I make the comment that the NPP needs to openly declare that its model can, broadly, be described as social-democracy. Obviously, it is absurd to focus on prescriptive details but alternatives such as a USSR type state directed economy or the outdated Cuba-Venezuela-Angola-Ne Win Burma models are out of the question. Pakistan with the tacit approval of the Imran Khan opposition, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Mongolia de facto, in the context of post-Covid, global recession threatened world, have explicitly or all but explicitly endorsed social democracy. The NPP must have the gumption and the courage to explicitly state that it stands for social-democracy. It must tell the JVP that the old model of in the Wijeweera days is all dead and useless.
“Pepe” Mujico (Jose Mujia) the 40th president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015 is described as the world’s humblest head of state. He donated 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities. He was an outspoken critic of capitalism. A former guerrilla with the Tupamaros, he was tortured and imprisoned for 14 years by the military Uruguayan dictatorship (1973-85). Military dictatorships are the foulest and most abominable of regimes in the world. In Argentina for example the military dictatorship (1976-83) threw its opponents, alive into the sea out helicopters and that included pregnant women. Have no doubt that a military dictatorship in Sri Lanka will do the same. Have we not had enough experience of what unfettered military power can do? Sixty thousand young men and women perished when military power ran unchecked in 1989-91. But this comment is by the way, what I wish to say is something else; it’s about social-democracy. Pepe’s most famous quip is that if Uruguay was a big European country it would have become famous as the home of modern social-democracy. The point then is that in this complex and uncertain period the correct model to explicitly assert is social-democracy. The NPP must openly and explicitly declare itself a social-democratic entity.
I promised to comment briefly on minority concerns and the insurrectionary history of the JVP before I sign off. I would like to see the NPP explicitly reject the Wijeweera-Somawana storylines. That is reject Wijeweera’s fifth lecture and his general antipathy to plantation Tamils. Likewise, I would like to see the NPP dissociate itself from the Somawansa – Sarath Silva intervention that dissolved N-E provincial unity. More broadly I would like to see the NPP declare itself in favour of devolution to minority communities and to provinces. Obviously specific details remain to be clarified and that should be the topic of many fruitful discussions in NPP forums.
On the matter of apologising for the insurrectionary excesses and anarchist folly of 1971 my friend Prof Eich persuaded me that this is an unrealistic expectation and I should drop the matter. I agreed and remained silent for about two years. But as the NPP/JVP influence spreads more broadly into the Sinhala petty-bourgeois and rural classes the topic is raising its head again – (minissu bayai). An election winning strategy cannot plaster over that. The pathological madness that, as in the Cultural Revolution, the past has to be utterly destroyed in order to build the world anew may have influenced some in the extremist ranks of the JVP some decades ago. I have indeed run into many admirers of the Cultural Revolution in “those” times. However now the NPP must be uncompromising; there is no room for sympathy for any of this in its commitment to social-democracy.
75 Years: How a halcyon start became a horrible sorrow – A tale of two compacts and two economies
by Rajan Philips
Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, became independent in the best of times. Almost all contemporary accounts said so. A model colony was becoming independent unexpectedly soon with no struggle or sweat. No other emerging polity apparently had it so good. The economy was on a roll by the measures of foreign reserves and local consumption levels. As a small island it was easy to be overcome by modernization. Road and rail networks crisscrossed the island, telecommunications and postal services were bringing people closer. Public education was free and public health was looked after, the two anchoring a robust welfare system that was unique among comparator colonies. The population was under seven million and even though the vast majority of the people were relatively deprived, there was optimism that there was opportunity for everyone.
Universal franchise had been introduced 17 years earlier, in 1931, and the people had had a head start in experiencing electoral democracy – uniquely among non-western polities and well ahead of quite a few western ones. Independence arrived on the back of a new constitution, which was a simple text crafted by unassuming legal drafting and not the exalted product of a ponderous constituent assembly. Yet Sri Lanka’s first constitution, unlike its successors, was a compact document that possessed too many virtues and too few faults. Most importantly, it underwrote the communal compact that was the necessary and sufficient prerequisite for the colonial rulers to handover power to their local successors.
“Communal Compact” (AJ Wilson) is the idea that the (Soulbury) Constitution and the granting of independence were the result of a political agreement among the country’s constitutive “communal groups.” Put another way, the British had to either assume or believe that there was such an agreement among the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims before deciding on the timing and the terms of their departure. Before long, however, the communal compact came under stress and eventually broke.
After 75 years, the controversy is over a different and somewhat narrower compact – the ‘devolution compact.’ Equally, the seemingly salubrious economy that greeted independence in 1948, has now become a deflated and damaged economy requiring intensive treatment in 2023. Hence, the tale of two compacts and two economies. But how did we get here?
The answers go back to the circumstances in which Sri Lanka became independent. There was more to them than the rosy pictures painted by contemporary accounts. There were already economic fissures and sociopolitical fault lines. These fissures and fault lines defined the political questions of the day and the political alignments that arose out of them. How they unfolded is the story of Sri Lanka after independence. It is an overtold story, but there are always new takes on them as new generations come along to live through the same old problems.
For all its consumption complacency, the economy in 1948 was the “classical colonial export economy”. Plantation exports paid for consumption imports and left a not too small Sterling surplus as bonus. However, the situation was structurally unsustainable. A fast growing population and a politically demanding consumption culture could not be supported indefinitely by the export earnings from tea, rubber and coconut alone. Within a decade, foreign reserves fell from one year worth of imports to four months of them. There has been no looking back since, albeit the wrong way.
The decades following saw severely imposed import restrictions that did not, however, serve the textbook purpose of stemming consumption and accumulating aggregate savings for productive investments. Import scarcities also had to pay a heavy political price. Unemployment became the new scourge along with the chronic mismatch between the outputs of free education and the labour needs of the economy.
Free education expanded the imparting of academic learning and not the technical mass education needed for the development of industries. Industrial development itself was circumscribed by the small national market of the island, its total lack of non-agricultural raw material resources, and indiscriminate import restrictions. State led industrialization proved to be too capital intensive and addressed neither the unemployment problem nor the needs of consumers.
The open economy alternative did unleash the potential for private industrial development and shifted the economic base from its sole reliance on plantation exports. But skyrocketing consumption levels, privatization of education that serves no social or economic purpose, criminal neglect of and corruption in the vital energy and transport sectors, and economically inappropriate and graft generating infrastructure investments have brought the national economy to its current parlous state.
In the assessment of Sri Lanka’s current President, there is no economy left to be reformed! He is promising, among many other promises, a new take off for a better landing at the hundredth anniversary of independence, which neither he nor his followers and critics will be around to witness.
One beam of light that needs to be added to this rather bleak recounting is the story of domestic agriculture, which has been an impressive one in terms of overall growth, if not quite so in terms efficiency of input allocations and certainly not in terms of the distribution of its outputs. Whether comparatively advantaged or not, agriculture is the bulwark of livelihood for the majority of Sri Lankan households; and inclusive of the plantations, it also provides the main domestic base for local industries. Any government can ignore agriculture only at its peril, and the punishment for anyone choosing to monkey with it will be the swiftest and the severest. The organic fertilizer fiasco just proved that, and rightly so.
In 1966, concluding his monograph, Ceylon: An Export Economy in Transition, Donald Snodgrass saw only one certainty “from the historical perspective of 120 years of modern Ceylonese economic development;” and that was, “the search for an economic system that will provide a politically acceptable and economically viable replacement for the classical export economy will continue.” The economy now is far more diverse than what was there in 1948. But the point about the elusiveness of the search for a “politically acceptable and economically viable replacement,” is spot on, 75 years on.
Of the two, political acceptability and economic viability, it is the political part that has been playing the weightier role in Sri Lanka’s political economy. Politics itself has been swayed by non-economic pressures and compulsions than it has been informed by economic imperatives. The current debate over devolution would suggest that nothing might change even now. Economic doldrums, notwithstanding.
Political divisions along party lines were in their embryonic stage at the time of independence in 1948. The newest political party, the United National Party, had just been formed by DS. Senanayake to contest the 1947 parliamentary elections on a rightwing platform. GG Ponnambalam had formalized his Tamil Congress a few years earlier. And the country’s oldest political party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, that had just been freed of its proscription was already in two parts marking the second of its many splits. Rounding off the Left was the Communist Party that had come into being as the first splinter of the LSSP.
Many candidates ran as independents in 1947 and an unhealthily large contingent of them were returned as MPs. The UNP did not win an overall majority (50 of its 92 candidates lost in the elections) but was able to form the new government with the help of independents and Appointed MPs. The efforts of non-UNP MPs, through their historic gathering at Yamuna, the Havelock Road house of highly respected lawyer politician, Herbert Sri Nissanka, to present an alternative bid for power ended in failure, marking the first of many such failures to come. (To be continued).
Sri Lanka at 100
by Ram Manikkalingam
Sri Lanka’s future is hanging in the balance as we turn 75.
On its 75th birthday Sri Lanka is divided. There is a stand-off between the people and the political institutions. The people reject Parliament and the President. And Parliament and the President fear the people. This standoff cannot last indefinitely. It will lead to authoritarianism, anarchy or reform. The decisions made, not only by politicians who control our political institutions, but also by the people who want them changed, will determine where we end up.
If there is one person, who has a decisive role in where our country will be in 25 years, it is President Wickremesinghe. While parliament and the people can no doubt make a difference, their decisions must come through political persuasion and mobilization. But President Wickremesinghe can act on his own.
He was picked by the Rajapaksas to protect their interests. But he is not of the Rajapaksas. He protects the Rajapaksas indirectly, by protecting the system that they, and other politicians have benefited from. This system is a combination of rentier capitalism and majoritarian democracy. Businessmen make their money from permits, contracts and quotas provided by politicians. In turn, these businessmen fund the politicians, who run campaigns that favour the majority. Breaking out of this is not what the leading politicians of Sri Lanka want. When the Aragalaya peaked, and the Rajapaksas found themselves rejected, they looked for the next best leader. Someone who would maintain the system the Rajapaksas required for their survival. So Ranil Wickremesinghe was chosen. But he also has a choice.
He can hang onto the Rajapaksas and let the Rajapaksas hang onto him. Or he can begin a serious process of reform that by its very definition will require ditching the Rajapaksas and their ilk.
If he chooses the former option, he will preside over the rapid erosion of the economy and the gradual deterioration of democracy. Because the Rajapaksas very much represent the faction against both political and economic reform. This would prevent him from making the kind of economic reforms required to restructure our debt with the creditors, attract investors, promote equality, and improve public services. As anti reformists, the Rajapaksas would prevent Wickremesinghe from making critical changes required to move the country forward. Instead, they will act as a reactionary force, hostile to any democratic impulse and economic changes that reduce their corrupt grip on power.
This alliance between Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas would, in terms of policy, transform itself into an alliance between Sinhala extremism and neo-liberalism. This would precipitate political opposition, not just from political parties, but also from newly mobilized political groupings, including the youth, the students, the middle class, the trade unions and civil society. This opposition, in turn, can lead to state repression, as the government uses its control over the security forces to crack down on the newly revitalized Aragalaya, leading to authoritarianism or anarchy.
Ordinary people, spooked by threats and suffering under the burden of a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, would not even have the wherewithal to protest. They would be struggling to make ends meet, feed, clothe and educate their children, while taking care of the elderly and their struggling kin. The result would be a dispirited country, submitting, once again, to the authoritarianism of a narrow political elite, that unites in the face of popular mobilization.
Instead, the crackdown may also lead to greater mobilization, spiraling out of control despite the armed forces using excessive force. And in an echo of last year, gets rid of the President and this time the parliament, as well. In the absence of a sensible political programme, this systemic change brings neither reform nor revolution. Instead, Sri Lanka becomes saddled with a series of unstable governments that lack the capacity to advance democracy or the economy. Sri Lanka becomes a country where governments come and go, not because of fundamental political changes, but because an influential faction in or out of government is dissatisfied with a particular policy or leader.
This leaves Sri Lanka with a narrow path to political and economic reform that must be picked within the next couple of months.
At the end of February, President Wickremesinghe would have the power to dissolve parliament. He may fear doing so, because the new parliament will be dominated by political parties that are his rivals. He will then have to negotiate reforms with a prime minister who may have more popular support than he does. But does he really have the power to enact reforms, today? Even his positive efforts to release military occupied land and PTA prisoners, and implement the 13th Amendment are being met with hostility by his own faction in parliament. Moreover, any effort to balance the budget, strengthen welfare measures for the poor and vulnerable, raise taxes, restructure loss making State Owned Enterprises – would require a government that has the support of the people, not one that fears them. It is not too late for President Wickremasinghe to lead such a government that includes all political parties.
Sri Lanka has a narrow window to begin a process to deepen democracy and enact economic reforms that would bring us dignity and equality when we celebrate our centenary.
(Ram Manikkalingam is Director of the Dialogue Advisory Group. He was an adviser to then President Kumaratunga and was a Visiting Professor at the University of Amsterdam)
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