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Towards a new realism, or why American interventionism fails



By Uditha Devapriya

In hindsight the interventionists got it wrong: they relied too much on the middle-classes, the civil societies, and the potential for permanent democracy in the countries they intervened in. After four years of entertaining doubts about interventionism, Condoleezza Rice argued, “A rising middle class also creates new centres of social power for political movements.” Today the middle-class in the Third World continues to grow and civil society continues to flourish. Yet democracy, apart from a roller-coaster ride of regime change which never seems to end and always produces electoral backlashes against it, has not. How come?

Charles Krauthammer called the US a “commercial republic.” If it is a commercial republic, it probably is the only one operating in a political system run by an oligarchy, maintained by an upper middle-class, tolerated by a lower middle-class, and suffered by a working class. In this it surpasses not only Athens, but also the European Powers.

What Clinton humanitarians and Bush realists failed to realise was that the rest of the world, barring Western Europe and South-East Asia, does not fit this description: we not only are averse to democracy maintained by a middle-class, we also don’t buy it. Joe Biden may write that “[t]he world does not organize itself” and that for 70 years the US “played a leading role in… animating the institutions that guide relations among nations.” Yet 70 years have ended in the present. Now is not 70 years back. Now is now. The world does not let one country, let alone one superpower, organise everything. The world does not wait.

In trying to intervene and imposing democracy, America hence strove to create an order in its image. “We’ll win hearts and minds”, ran the refrain when US forces pulled down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in April 2003. On the eve of the invasion a Congresswoman went on television and declared, “We’ll go in there, take out Saddam, destroy his army with clean surgical strikes, and everyone will think it’s great.” A year earlier, Dick Cheney made his case for regime change quoting Washington’s favourite Arab expert Fouad Ajami, who apparently believed Iraq would “erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.” But then the throngs didn’t greet the Americans in Kabul. They weren’t going to do so in Basra. What resulted from these interventions was an aberration.

US foreign policy has always been guided by national interest. Only once did it enjoy the status of a sole superpower, and that was between 1991 and 2001. Two camps surveying the world came up with two conclusions about the role of the US in the world order then: the end of history theorists and the clash of civilisations theorists.

The fall of the Soviet Union, which was less the work of Reagan Republicans and Thatcherite Conservatives than of Brezhnev’s entrenchment of the Nomenklatura and its contradictions with a supposedly egalitarian Communist state, was followed by ethno-nationalist-religious uprisings outside the West. Yet in the aftermath of Soviet collapse, the US gained supremacy. There was no one to challenge it. Not even Islamic fundamentalism.

The reaction in America was, as Charles Krauthammer put it, first of confusion, then of awe. Even so not all political pundits felt or believed that America should take over the rule of the world: the isolationists, or the paleoconservatives as they were to be called later, wanted out. But then this was not the time of the paleoconservatives: that would come a quarter century later with the Tea Party Movement, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump.

In the meantime, civilisation-states propped up their struggle for regional hegemony with one another: Japanese and Chinese in East Asia, Buddhists and Hindus (or rather Sinhalese and Tamils: the clash of civilisations theorists always get it wrong with South Asia) in Sri Lanka. Yet in the absence of a counterweight, the US attempted to carpet the world with the kind of order it had wanted to impose for over half a century. What resulted was the suppression of nationalism on the one hand and the frothing of nationalist tensions on the other.

Accompanying all this was a shift to the neoliberal right by political parties associated with the left or the left-of-centre: the Democrats in the US, the Labourites in the UK, the Congress in India, and of course the SLFP in Sri Lanka. Underlying them was one simple, undeniable fact: for the first time since the beginning of it all, a disparity of power put one country at the helm of the world. “There is no comparison,” Paul Kennedy famously observed.

I’ve observed that American foreign policy has always been driven by national interest. It has also been driven by the need to promote national interest. Yet with Bill Clinton’s presidency there came an impasse: a dove on the Vietnam War who rejected Reagan’s neoconservatism yet embraced his promise of free markets, how was he to reconcile his anti-conservatism with the imperative to exert US strength abroad? The Clinton administration did this by looking at the world through a new lens: liberal interventionism.

On four occasions under Clinton, liberal interventionism resorted to military action: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. How did Cold War doves turn into humanitarian hawks there? Simple, Krauthammer argued: they saw in these countries a cause for intervention “devoid of raw national interest.” In other words these were propelled by a call to promote US interests, but those interests weren’t national interests. They were more values than interests: they used the force of moral suasion, rather than the threat of war, to intervene.

The issue here was that while liberal interventionism operated on the premise of multilateral action, it didn’t need multilateralism to act. The truth was that US administrations, regardless of whoever was in power, could have gone there and bombed the living daylights out of an entire civilisation without requiring a by-your-leave from the UN or the EU. Reagan didn’t inform Margaret Thatcher of his intention to invade Grenada even at the tail-end of the Cold War, so why should Joe Biden defend the Chemical Weapons Convention on the grounds of the “moral suasion of the entire international community”?

Liberal interventionism, then as now, works best when one superpower rules them all. It does not work when two or more rising powers challenge the hegemony of the one superpower. It does not work when multilateral institutions are used by these rising powers to pre-empt the choices that the superpower has to make to impose its will upon us all. Thus it was perfectly suited to 1990s, when Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo could happen with consensus. It was ill-suited to the end of the 1990s and the 2000s, when tensions between civilisation-states no longer made “moral suasion” good enough grounds for US intervention.

What could a viable alternative be? Certainly not Kissingerian realism. Even realists had long abandoned Kissinger’s axioms about the irrelevance of morality in relations between nations. The world was too dangerous a place to try that out: unlike earlier, when nuclear powers banded themselves into either of the two main camps (Communist and capitalist, aligned and non-aligned), now they were left to their own devices. Indeed, the flip-side to US power over the world after the Cold War was the “nationalisation” of the nuclear programme: India and Pakistan now would use the bomb not in the backdrop of detente between the US and the USSR, but in the backdrop of clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Amorality was no longer a card on the table because no one dealt that card any more: while nation-states were guided by the force of authority, there was now a moral aspect to that authority.

Iraq would have wanted to bomb Israel to preserve its power, but it also would have wanted to do so because of Arab tensions with a Jewish settlement in their territory.

In other words, what worked for the world before 1939 – Wilsonian idealism – and the world before 1991 – Kissingerian realism – would not work for the world after 1991. Underlying this disjuncture between idealism and realism was another crucial one: between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. The two would meet in the Reagan presidency.

Under Reagan neoconservatism reared its head (mainly but not only) on the foreign policy front, and neoliberalism reared its head (mainly but not only) on the domestic economic front, promoting counterinsurgency in Latin America while cutting down the welfare state and also empowering the Christian Right and ballooning defence spending. It was a potpourri, and its relevance to post-Cold War US foreign policy lies in the fact that despite differences between the two, both tended to justify action with ideal: neoliberalism with its belief in free markets against government intervention, and neoconservatism with its championing of a traditional American order against internal threats and external enemies.

The neoconservatives found their home in the Bush II presidency. For a while, they grappled with what doctrine they could invoke to justify action. Then 9/11 happened. To validate US interventions in West Asia, the Bush troupe – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Perle – all resorted to what Charles Krauthammer called “democratic realism.” It strove to balance the concerns of liberal interventionism with the imperatives of realism; in other words, “We will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is strategic necessity – meaning, places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom.”

To say that democratic realism squared the circle would be putting it mildly: in one stroke it assuaged the concerns of liberal interventionists, who didn’t want to impose order without a humanitarian rationale for it, while alienating the isolationists, who didn’t want the US to get involved in any order imposing project, period. What it did was to substitute values for power as the overriding principle of national interest, thereby distancing itself from the Morgenthau-Carr-Kennan-Kissinger school of international relations thought.

Francis Fukuyama criticised this new realism on the basis that it was aimed at a threat far removed from Soviet Communism.

To that Krauthammer retorted: “So what?” Islamists may not have had the means of “actualising their vision”, as Fukuyama claimed it didn’t, yet as Krauthammer observed, borrowing an analogy from Nazi Germany, Hitler did not have the means of actualising his goal of overrunning Europe when he marched into the Rhineland either. The argument was convincing, and it won over mild neoconservatives in the Bush II presidency. You see it crop up in Condoleezza Rice’s article, quoted above: she envisions an “American realism for a new world”, a fusion of power and principle. Instead of imposing our will upon them, she contends, an international order “that reflects our values” would be “the best guarantee of our enduring national interest.”

How prophetic those words were – not. 12 years later, we’re gorging on the leftovers of the Trump presidency, which in the popular consciousness of Republicans got the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan, reduced its military obligations in Europe, steered the country from globalist-internationalists and democratic realists to America First, and got the job done in the economy. Were it not for the “China virus”, his supporters declare, Trump would have easily won, a point confirmed in less than expected Democratic victories even in states where they were expected to lead by wide margins.

If, for a brief moment at least, the paleoconservatives had their day in the US, it was because democratic realism, which combined the humanitarian ideals of the Clinton presidency with the neoconservatism of the Bush presidency, ended up promoting a variant of interventionism which could not really go or think beyond recreating the world in America’s image. In that sense one can say it differed in degree and not in substance from the Wilsonian idealism and the Kissingerian realism which it eschewed. Coming in the wake of the “unipolar moment” in human history, it could not survive China’s rise and Russia’s shift to the East, or the coming up of regional powers, unless it evolved a strategy of engagement with them.

America’s belief in messianism must end, not because it isn’t a superpower, but because it’s not the only major power. Therein lies the key difference between the bipolarity of the Cold War, the unipolarity of the 1990s, the nonpolarity of the early 2000s, and the multipolarity of now: this is a world which pits the US and China on a collision course with each other, with regional players siding with either side. Interventionism by the US, no matter how pure the intentions it exhibits to the world may be, will invariably end up as a failure because every country it intervenes in will oppose it. Thus the world, contrary to what President-elect Biden says, can and will organise itself, and it will do so to oppose any one power leading the race to sort everything out. Think of it as a more interlinked order in which Rome reigns in one corner and the Persians and Chinese reign in another. In that sense this is not a Cold War. It is hotter than any Cold War. And interventionism will only make it hotter. To prevent that from happening, the US needs a new doctrine. A new realism, for a new order.

The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag

Notes on a not-so radical class



By Uditha Devapriya

A little over a year ago, Devani Jayathilaka, the Gampaha Division Wildlife Officer now on a crusade against the government, stood up to a State Minister and got away with it. Objecting to Sanath Nishantha’s proposal to build a children’s playground on forest land, she stood her ground even as the Minister and his acolytes attempted to intimidate her.

Videos of Devani retorting to Nishantha and those acolytes gained supporters across social media. Public opinion being very much with her, the government quickly began feting her: Bandula Gunawardena said that the Cabinet took her side, and S. M. Chandrasena regretted the incident while half-heartedly exonerating the Minister.

Devani Jayathilaka’s courage was seen at the time as a symptom of the President’s resolve to make the bureaucracy more independent and efficient, free of bias and politicisation. As such, supporters of the government jumped on the bandwagon. The Daily News dedicated an entire editorial to her, calling her “the toast of all environmentalists, nature lovers and generally all those who cherish our country’s legal and constitutional integrity.” Hopefully, the laudatory piece concluded, “this signal act… will be a beacon to others in the public service to do their bit in fulfilling their public duty while resisting the pressures of politicians.” The subtext was unmistakably clear: the President’s reformism had empowered the officer’s activism.

A year later, and here we are: the premature love affair aborted, the feeling of celebration dampened. Yet could one have expected otherwise? At no point here in living memory have environmental concerns permeated every layer of society, from Colombo’s civil society to Sinhala nationalist outfits, as they are now. A broad conjuncture of oppositional forces, some drawn from organisations that fuelled the ideology which brought the government to power (such as the Sinhale movement), has pitted itself against that government’s apathy over the environment, while social media continues to enthrone activists: environmentalists and state officials. The President’s men, meanwhile, seem to be resorting to a policy of either ignoring or retorting to these voices. In both cases, it’s the government that has lost out.

It is hard not to side with the activists. They have a point: no regime has engaged properly with the environment. Between 2017 and 2019, forest cover reduced from 29.7% to 16.5%. It was the yahapalana government, remnants of which are tweeting against the present regime’s environmental record now, that held

the reins of power then. Yet the administration before it was no different: in 2012, to give just one example, roughly 1,585 hectares of primary forest land were lost, the biggest annual loss in a decade. The numbers for 2020 and 2021 have not been released yet, but there’s no doubting they are as big as, if not bigger than, these figures; according to the Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka, forest cover stands at 17%, above what it was in 2019, but well below the 30% promised by the president.

The politics of the campaigns against the government, however, goes well beyond a simple dichotomy between political representatives and wildlife activists. Frustratingly enough, it’s not easy to put a finger on the dynamics of these protests, to draw a line between protagonists and antagonists within them, not least of all because a simple twofold division – government versus us – has been replaced by a threefold one in them: the government (high level officials included) on one side, activists and officials on another, and us on yet another.

Led by a mostly Sinhala and Buddhist lower middle-class, including the clergy (no less than the Sinhala Ravaya), these campaigns, which have mobilised activists and officials, appear to have unearthed a rather interesting contradiction from within that middle-class: a distrust of political representatives, and an ambivalent attitude towards lower level officials. To identify this contradiction for what it is, and explore it, is not easy: that requires research, the mettle of an anthropologist or ethnographer, and I am neither. Yet from what little I have been able to gather, it appears that this recent spurt of activism has facilitated a shift in the character of anti-state activism, particularly in its class composition. How so?

Devani’s message resonates profoundly with a section of the country’s upward aspiring middle-class, educated mostly in Sinhala but idealising a better life: one to which they feel both government representatives and private interests are obstacles.

They hold contrasting views regarding the state. As far as the government proper – Ministers plus high level officials – is concerned, they are against it. It’s a different story with officials, not least because of the latter a great many hail from the milieu they do: Sinhala educated and upward aspiring. This is the demographic Patali Champika Ranawaka is targeting through his “43 Senankaya”, a demographic parties have not tried to court until fairly recently.

What explains their relationship with the state? Regarding government representatives, their opposition is easy to rationalise: most of these representatives are seen to have risen to where they are now by foul means, not fair. That irks an educated middle-class bereft of political or economic power; simply put, they feel hard done by, left out, unrepresented.

Such feelings of distrust cut through parties; indeed, a defining characteristic of the middle-class is the absence of a unifying political ideology. Any Opposition which believes that by coming to power on the strength of their convictions it can expect support from them forever is therefore walking on water, for this lower middle-class happens to be adamantly protean. It is their protean character, incidentally, that explains their response to state officials.

Their view of the latter is borne out by two main considerations: that they hail from the same class background, and that, since of late, these officials have taken up arms against political authorities, a group whose actions are seen as burdening the lower middle-class.

Indeed, far from berating officials like they berate political authorities, the lower middle-class rebelling against the regime share a desire to enter the bureaucracy as either professionals or administrators, though through education attainment, and not political backing. This desire is essentially a retread of the demand made by unemployed graduates: they want to fill a post in a state institution as soon as they leave university. Under Gotabaya Rajapaka their integration into the bureaucracy has been remarkably rapid: by September last year, for instance, around 60,000 graduates had been absorbed into the Public Service, as part of his “Rata Wenuwen Weda” programme. Yet even this rather modest realisation of lower middle-class aspirations has failed to dampen, or stunt, lower middle-class opposition to his government.

To sum up, what we are seeing here is a division between state officials, assumed to have entered the government through merit, and political representatives, assumed to have entered it through influence. That Devani Jayathilaka continues to be idealised by this class therefore points at the consolidation of a uniquely petty bourgeois consciousness, which at once aspires upward in the bureaucracy, and pits itself against the government overseeing the bureaucracy. Gravitating to meritocratic ideals, they have become a huge floating electorate.

This raises another point: their disavowal of party politics. Let’s not mistake karawala for mallum here, however; the line this milieu touts, that they lack party ideology, should not mislead one into thinking that they can’t be co-opted into any party ideology. For those who believe that a non-political middle-class rebelling against an elected government, even one infringing every other norm in the book, is incapable of political manoeuvring, the case of Anna Hazare offers a counterargument: opposed to political groups, what Hazare achieved in the end was an electoral landslide for just such a group, Narendra Modi’s BJP.

By no means am I saying that Anna Hazare was/is to India what officials crusading against political representatives are/will be to Sri Lanka. Yet not unlike Hazare, these officials have given what little of an Opposition that’s there in the country some much needed ammunition (with which to topple the government). Far from welcoming such a state of affairs, I see two problems with this: the lack of a proper policy on the environment from the Opposition (apart from a few perfunctory protests), and the risk of letting what environmentalists are combating continue under a future administration led by that Opposition. As environmentalists and Left activists have pointed out only too clearly, much of what is being protested against, including the Sinharaja debacle, can be traced back to the yahapalana period. How wise would it be to trust the party that held the cards then so much as to return them to power now?

To these two problems one can add a third: the contradiction between the social conditioning and the activism of the middle-class. That contradiction translates itself into another: between political ideals that pit this middle-class against political authority, and social aspirations that orient them towards personal achievement in education and employment.

One can ask why this is a problem, why it’s so problematic. In matters of political concern, so the idealists say, personal matters are of no relevance.

But that’s precisely the issue. How pertinent are one’s personal aspirations to one’s political inclinations? Not pertinent, some would say; pretty pertinent, in my book.

That leads us to a crucial issue, the most important to crop up from what we’re seeing today: the extent to which those leading the protests are willing to own up to how class aspirations, and not just state complicity, have contributed to environmental degradation.

Let me reduce this to a simple query: how much do you attribute everything wrong with the environment to the government’s doing and non-doing, and how much do you attribute it to, say, our propensity to import, a major factor in environmental degradation?

To be fair, of course, it’s not only imports. The truth is that degradation of the environment is linked inextricably to an economic model rooted in consumerism and urbanisation.

But that merely reinforces my point: consumerism is promoted by the private sector, and urbanisation by the public, because both have an audience: the same middle-class blaming the government for what’s happening to our forests, our rivers, our way of life.

To restate this as simply as I can, then, the problems of environmental degradation today are the result of a decades-long experiment with capitalism and neoliberalism that has failed. The crisis is thus a crisis of a consumerist and exploitative model based on a capitalist framework. Now no critique of what is happening to our forests can evolve without taking this model into consideration. As perhaps its biggest beneficiaries, the middle-class must hence recognise the need to formulate an alternative model to it, in line with their activist inclinations.

However, in continuing to ignore if not marginalise this need, those taking the government to task over the environment are offering an inadequate response, radical enough to question the regime for its failings, yet not radical enough to question our embracement of an acquisitive, consumption-led economic model that has contributed to the quagmire we are in. Now I hate gazing into crystal balls, but if this is what will continue in the future, then these protests, no matter how laudable, will someday, somehow, fizzle out. That would be a pity.

The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag




Our world needs transformational change, and it is time for us, those of the present generation to hold ourselves accountable for our role in the environmental crisis while also calling for bold, creative, and innovative solutions. This year marks the 51st anniversary of Earth Day and this Webinar is designed to commemorate the occasion and to support the worldwide efforts to conserve and revitalize the environment of the blue planet that is our home. If we are to succeed, we must listen to the children who will link hands from around the world during this webinar and voice their concerns and ideas to preserve a pristine environment for their generation.

This is the 17th of a series of virtual zoom panel discussions hosted by the America-Sri Lanka Photographic Art Society in Los Angeles California, USA (ASPAS); Member of Photographic Society of America (PSA) and The International Federation of Photography of Art in France (FIAP). The objective of the series is to showcase the beauty of world fauna and flora and promote environmental conservation in the context of nature photography and tourism, with a special focus on the grandeur of Sri Lanka’s natural habitat. The upcoming programme will commemorate World Earth Day 2021.

At a previous ASPAS Webinar, Dr. Peter H. Sand, former Secretary-General of ICUN, stated, “Pandemics, such as coronavirus, are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade, as well as the devastation of forests and other wild places, are the driving force behind the increasing number of diseases leaping from wildlife to humans.” The ASPAS Webinars are intended to offer a platform to discuss a more balanced relationship with these ecosystems and the tools that can help us reach this objective, so that future generations can continue to enjoy and benefit from them sustainably and responsibly.

Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970 which gave voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. Our planet is an amazing place, but it needs our help to thrive! That is why each year on April 22, more than a billion people celebrate Earth Day to protect the planet from pollution and deforestation and environment related issues. By taking part in activities like picking up litter and planting trees, we are making our world a happier, healthier place to live.

In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, the world was consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or the press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Until this point, the world remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health. Since, the great challenge for the environmental community is to combat the cynicism of climate change deniers, well-funded oil lobbyists, reticent policy makers, and a disinterested public. In the face of these challenges, Earth Day prevailed and established itself as a major movement for global action for the environment.

Over the decades, it has brought hundreds of millions of people into the environmental movement, creating opportunities for civic engagement and volunteers in 193 countries. Earth Day engages more than 1 billion people every year and has become a major steppingstone along the pathway of engagement around the protection of the planet.

Now, the fight for a clean environment continues with increasing urgency, as the ravages of climate change become more and more apparent every day. As the awareness of our climate crisis grows, so does civil society mobilization, which is reaching a fever pitch across the globe today. Digital and social media are bringing these conversations, protests, strikes and mobilizations to a global audience, uniting a concerned citizenry as never before and mobilizing generations to join together to take on the greatest challenge that humankind has faced.

It is quite apparent that the youth of our world should also be engaged in this vital conversation as an absolutely indispensable partner.

Governments have recognized this for decades and many have introduced some level of climate and environmental education into their education systems. But the truth is that impact of climate and environmental education is in some cases week, cursory, and still in many countries non-existent. In the decades since the launch of the global environmental movement, it is estimated that more than 3 billion young people have graduated from high school having learned little or nothing about one of the greatest issues that will shape their lives and their livelihoods for decades to come.

The time is now, indeed it is long overdue, for a massive environmental literacy campaign that can create a generation of citizens, workers and leaders who really understand why and how to stop climate change and environmental degradation, ensuring that every student around the world completes their formal education as an environmental and climate literate citizen. A citizen who is ready to take action and speak up for change and build knowledge and skills for the growing green sector of clean energy, efficient transportation, sustainable business and making themselves competitive for new jobs.

The youth must also equip themselves with the knowledge and skills needed to build a better future and be stewards of this planet. They must learn that to sustain a functional society and economy, natural resources must be used wisely and efficiently while protecting the ecological systems to ensure clean air, clean water, and food security for all.

But just as vitally, we need to equip future generations with the knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm to survive and indeed thrive in the decades to come. And that begins in school. Even world leaders recognized that pivotal role as far back as 30 years, when the countries that forged the original United Nations climate change treaty in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit enshrined climate education as an essential part of a national response to a global emergency.

Educationists believe every school in the world must have compulsory, assessed climate and environmental education with a strong civic engagement component. They have also pointed out that the onus for developing environmental consciousness in youth could not be the sole responsibility of schools as the young people need the help of adult allies. There is a role for everyone, parents, relatives, and society to support youth voices and stand alongside them.

It is in that spirit that the America-Sri Lanka Photohtaphic Art Society Los Angeles, led by its President, Suriya Jayalath Perera, has organized this Webinar to bring together 10 young people from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Sri Lanka to voice their concerns and present their ideas on the occasion of Earth Day 2021. Youth from ages six to 18, will address the entire gamut of environmental issues from climate change to plastic pollution. It would be a truly ground-breaking event, and you can be a part of it by virtually joining them on Sunday April 18th, 2021. The webinar will be moderated by Medini Ratnayake.

More Information:

Join us live on Sunday April 18th, at 8.30 P.M. 2021 Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana, Former Deputy Director-General, United Nations



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Sat Mag

How to flush cholesterol out of your body



Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all the cells in your body. Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need. The cholesterol in your body that you do not need comes from animal bodies.

If you have more cholesterol in your body than you need, then you are heading for heart disease and heart attacks. A build-up of cholesterol narrows arteries, causing a restriction of blood flow to the heart. Very often a person with high cholesterol levels has no symptoms until he has his first heart attack.

This is even more problematic if you are overweight – which you will be, because the food that causes an increase in cholesterol also increases your weight. Though some cholesterol components are stored in the liver and gallbladder, the main storage area is in fat cells called adipocytes. When you have too much cholesterol, these cells swell up and you gain weight. Too much cholesterol can be caused by eating too much fat or carbohydrates.


There are two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL

High density lipoprotein (HDL) is good cholesterol which protects you from hearts attacks, and strokes, by mopping up excess bad cholesterol. It takes the cholesterol that you don’t need back to the liver. The liver breaks it down so it can be passed out of your body. LDL is bad cholesterol. This blocks the blood supply and causes strokes and heart attacks. Non-HDL take cholesterol from the liver to the cells around your body. Too much bad cholesterol (non-HDL) can be harmful because it sticks to the inside walls of your arteries. This can lead to fatty material (atheroma) building up – this process is known as atherosclerosis.

Cholesterol is found in animal foods, meat, milk, butter and cheese.

There are only two things that raise cholesterol in the blood: saturated and trans fats.

Saturated fats are found in meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods like biscuits and popcorn, margarine, deep-fried, and processed foods, basically junk food.

Trans fats occur in some fried and processed foods, also in junk food.

In adults, total cholesterol levels less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered healthy. 200 – 239 mg/dL is borderline high. 240 mg/dL and above is high. LDL cholesterol levels should be less than 100 mg/dL.

How do you know that your cholesterol levels are high? You usually don’t. There are no typical signs if you have high cholesterol, which is why it is so important to get it checked. It is a hidden risk factor, which means it happens without us knowing until it is too late. Some people get soft, yellowish, growths or lesions on the skin, especially round the eyes, called xanthomas. If you are lucky you develop left-sided chest pain, pressure, or fullness; dizziness; unsteady gait; slurred speech; or pain in the lower legs. Any of these conditions may be associated with high cholesterol.

How do you flush cholesterol out of your body?

Stop eating meat or drinking milk. Avoid ghee, butter and paneer, and seafood like crabs, shrimps and lobsters. Don’t smoke. Exercise. Eat fewer refined grains such as maida. Foods to avoid if you have high cholesterol levels include white bread, white potatoes, and white rice, highly processed sugars. Fried foods should be avoided, as well as foods high in saturated fats.

Eat fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, every day.

A report from Harvard Health has identified foods that actively decrease cholesterol levels: Oats, barley and whole grains, beans, eggplant and okra, nuts, vegetable oil (canola, sunflower), fruits (mainly apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus), soy and soy-based foods. Eating just one and one-half cups of cooked oatmeal a day can lower your cholesterol by 5 to 8%. Oatmeal contains soluble and insoluble fibre – two types that your body needs.

In June 2020 a report, led by Imperial College London Majid Ezzati, et al.​ and involving dozens of universities, “Repositioning of the global epicentre of non-optimal cholesterol” ​was published in Nature. It said that while cholesterol levels have declined in high income countries, particularly Europe, since 1980 , they have increased vastly in lower and middle income countries, with Asia, specially Southeast Asia, now being the centre.

The reason for this is the consumption of animal-based foods, refined carbohydrates (maida) and palm oil. In short, the heart attack and stroke risks have been globally repositioned with the shifting of a high cholesterol diet.

A group of nearly 1,000 researchers, from around the world, analysed data from 1,127 studies comprising 102.6 million adults, to assess global trends in cholesterol levels from 1980 to 2018. This is the largest ever study of global cholesterol levels.

Previously cholesterol was considered a problem in high income Western countries.

The report said that Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland (the centre of the milk/meat diet) and Iceland (meat) had shown the steepest declines in cholesterol, going from the highest to the lowest. There has been a sharp drop in LDL cholesterol in the UK, according to the British Heart Foundation.

China, which had the lowest levels of cholesterol in 1980, was among the highest in 2018. India, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand have not covered themselves in glory either.

In 1980 Australian women ranked 32nd highest in the world in cholesterol levels. Today they are 146th . Australian men have fallen from 31st highest to 116th. 

Dr Avula Laxmaiah, National Institute of Nutrition, one of the authors of the research paper, said LDL cholesterol among Indian men ranked 128th in 1980 and remained the same in 2018.  Women are 139th in the global line-up.

Other conditions, that can lead to high cholesterol levels, include diabetes drugs that increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, such as progestins, anabolic steroids, and corticosteroids. India is one of the highest users of steroids – not directly, but through these being fed to chicken.

The authors have suggested that each country in Asia set into place prices, and regulatory policies, that shift diets to non-saturated fats. But, at the end of the day it is not prices that will decide – meat/chicken and milk are already expensive but it doesn’t stop you from eating them. You will have to take a personal decision, depending on how much you value your life or the lives of your family.

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