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by Goolbai Gunasekera

The collective blood pressure of many educationists rises whenever the Press highlights the fact that new graduates in Sri Lanka are protesting publicly that they have no jobs. Truly these graduates look at the world through surreal optics. So let me describe the scenario which has resulted in this sad, bad and quite mad mess which is our educational system these days.

No country in the world gives their students anything like what our ungrateful university students are receiving and have been receiving from all successive Governments. It is a system that is wasteful and unproductive. The introduction of Free Education started the downward slide of standards as it was implemented without too much thought by a PM who was himself not an educated man.

Sociologists warned that the division of students according to language was dangerous in extreme. One of them said, “The Sinhalese and Tamils will be fighting on our doorsteps in 30 years”. Of course he was completely right but by then it was too late to make any corrections.

From Free education in school, things became even more expansive as far as expenses went. Books were free. Free food soon followed. Then before we could catch our breath cloth for free uniforms was being distributed annually. Votes were being bought with educational promises which cost the country dearly. And now new technological and non-academic courses are being introduced at an exorbitant cost to the government.

Added to this lunacy was Free University Education. Energy and understanding were conspicuously absent in subsequent governments as far as Tertiary Education went. The Heads of the Department of Education went tamely along with whatever the sitting Minister decreed. Famous civil servants like Mr. Walwin de Silva or the last Englishman to hold that office, Dr. H.W.. Howes, had long since departed and with them any hope of a sensibly structured system of schools, Principals and teachers.

In the organization of Sri Lanka’s ‘New Education’ thousands of circulars hit the press. Teachers and Principals were categorized into grades based on length of service rather than ability. The better schools of Colombo, which were foolish enough to join the free scheme were not able to replace their outgoing Principals with educationists of their own choosing. They had to accept whoever the Department sent along and recently I had the sad experience of calling the Principal of one of Colombo’s A Grade Girls’ Schools and finding that the Principal spoke no English at all. Chauvinists will probably say she did not need English since Sinhala is the National Language.

The downgrading of education began gradually but it continued remorselessly. The University of Peradeniya, one of the most beautiful in South East Asia, is now a mere travesty of what it was when Sir Ivor Jennings proudly showed its lovely buildings to new entrants 65 years ago. Writer Dr. Yasmine Gooneratne has rightly called that period the Golden Age of University life. Today four to six undergrads share rooms originally meant for just two and living standards are pathetic.

The original Wardens of Halls were themselves well known educationists like Vajira Cooke, Dr. Florence Ram Aluvihara, Mrs Westrop and others. It was a time of genuine learning. It was a time of culture and love of study. Only the best entered its portals. The sad ‘Quota system’ whereby undeserving students from the outstations (the best of a bad bunch from those areas) had not yet put in an appearance.

Today the ungrateful graduates of the Universities of Sri Lanka have arrived there without any personal expenditure whatsoever (except on their clothes.). They do not appreciate their good fortune but have now come to believe that it is their absolute RIGHT to demand more and more from a Milk Cow Government that does not know how to handle these young hooligans.

Not only are they educated free, but they actually want jobs to be waiting for them when they leave the University. Such expectations take away the breath of us poor taxpayers! An average young graduate’s knowledge is abysmal. He cannot read much around the subject since most books are in English. His reference work in his subject has been nil for the same reason and he has memorized reams of notes in Sinhala. Employable he is not.

Graduates have done nothing to justify being given salaries. They are certainly not justified in expecting a Government that has carried them from Grade one right up to a B.A. or B.SC Degree to now provide them with a living. They will soon be asking for a womb to tomb package. Graduates from the wealthy countries of the West struggle to find jobs and pay off their debts on University loans. They find their own jobs. They are forced to take lesser ranked jobs which may not be commensurate with their qualifications, but they keep trying. Governments do not help.

Having been at the receiving end of Government generosity (stupidity in my opinion) the Sri Lankan graduates expect the world to be handed to them gratis and yet they are probably the most poorly educated bunch of people ever to be found. I have had to interview many of them for teaching jobs but unless they come from the Department of English, or perhaps Department of Science, they remain unemployable.

As I write this (2017) the Yahapalana Government has been in power fora year. Has there been any significant improvement in the status quo? There has not. Indeed, we continue to churn out unemployable men and women and have the audacity to term them ‘Graduates’.

(Excerpted from The ‘Principal’

Factor first published in the Lanka Market Digest)

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What should we normalise?



By Uditha Devapriya

In 1977 J. R. Jayewardene came to power promising a weekly eta ata or eight kilos of grain. Perceived, rather unfairly perhaps, as an unmitigated disaster, the United Front government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike was accused by several groups – including Sinhala nationalists who faulted her for caving into minority interests and minority politicians who accused her of doing the same with chauvinist elements – of mishandling the economy.

Jayewardene was shrewd enough not to promise a complete turnaround from the United Front’s policies. Having expelled the LSSP and the Communist Party, the SLFP had, under Felix Dias Bandaranaike, turned to the right. Given these developments, it was obvious that any UNP government would take this shift further to the right.

For obvious reasons, Jayewardene could not promise continuity here. Instead he pledged to establish a righteous society, based implicitly on social democratic ideals. His promise of a guaranteed weekly rice ration was part of a wider strategy of demonising the Bandaranaike regime: he was, in effect, accusing it of failing to live up to its own ideals.

The result was a thumping victory for the UNP. The following year Jayewardene saw through the biggest constitutional overhaul in the history of the country. Having enthroned himself as its first Executive President, he quickly set in motion the policies he actually envisaged and embraced. These involved, if not centred on, the liberalisation of the economy. Hence, instead of increasing the rice ration, he did away with such subsidies.

In Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, it was the first real assault on Sri Lanka’s social services. Partly on the advice of the World Bank and the IMF, Jayewardene then let the rupee float. From seven to the dollar, it eventually depreciated to 30. In theory, this should have made exports more competitive. In reality, it made imports more expensive, turning a current account surplus of USD 142 million in 1977 to a deficit of USD 655 million in 1980. Except for a marginal surplus in 1984, we’ve been seeing deficits since then.

The impact on the poor was, to say the least, considerable. From 1978 to 1988 the real value of food stamps reduced by around half. From 1971 to 1981 social welfare spending as a percentage of total government expenditure fell from 40 percent to 11 percent. Imports of not just consumer, but also agricultural, goods dampened the market and crushed farmers: one reason why several electorates in Jaffna gave the Sinhala and Buddhist SLFP candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwa, a majority at the 1982 election. Sisira Jayasuriya (2010) has estimated that by 1981 over half the population had fallen below the poverty line.

And yet, despite his brutal crackdown of striking workers in 1980, Jayewardene obtained an easy victory in 1982. This had to do, partly, with the personality clashes in the SLFP: while one section of the Bandaranaike family supported Kobbekaduwa, another section, led by Anura, did not. But to a considerable extent, it also had to do with how people, in the face of a deteriorating economic situation, normalised the country’s descent into crisis.

Before making comparisons between 1982 and 2022 – for today, too, we are seeing a section of the population normalising a deteriorating economic situation – it would be apt to highlight the differences. Jayewardene’s policies had their biggest and most adverse impact on the poor. The middle-classes, by contrast, benefitted from them: by opening the domestic market to imports, he co-opted Sri Lanka’s highly consumerist middle bourgeoisie. Today, on the other hand, we are seeing a middle-class rebelling against the present regime because an iPhone costs two or three times what it did eight months ago.

Yet the similarities should be obvious to anyone. Sri Lankans, particularly the middle-classes, tend to normalise political and economic problems. They could not tolerate the queues of the United Front era because, historically, as a class, they are not capable of withstanding the drop in status that accompanies such deprivations. And yet, even when the United Front government extended the life of the legislature by two years – a move opposed by a few SLFP parliamentarians – people chose to go along with it, preferring to throw out the regime through the ballot box rather than through mass agitation.

If the goal of the Gotagogama agitators is to overthrow the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government through a campaign involving mass agitation, they should take stock of what happened in and after 1977. The people responded to an unpopular government by voting it out, then normalised a deteriorating economic situation five years later by retaining the new regime. Even at the height of the 1987-1989 insurgency, the middle-classes that threw out the SLFP and voted in the UNP sided with the latter. They only articulated their opposition to the UNP at the 1994 election, returning the SLFP to power after a space of 17 years.

If the aragalaya has sagged at all today, it is because a section within it has, for the lack of a better way of putting it, given up on it. One particularly eager young follower of the Galle Face aragalaya I personally know, who participated at the protests not once, but thrice, tells me now that the aragalaya has been a failure. Another young man tells me that Rajapaksa’s appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe was “the best thing Gotabaya could have done”, in effect faulting the #GotaGoHome protesters of disrupting his programme.

What are we to make of such developments? First and foremost, that they are natural and inevitable, especially in Sri Lanka. The LSSP and the Communist Party were the first to recognise this: that is why, having attempted to foment revolution outside the legislature, powerful factions in both parties entered into electoral alliances with the SLFP, preferring to side with a petty bourgeois dispensation in the hopes of radicalising the latter. The JVP also realised this: hence its entry to the democratic mainstream after 1994.

Sri Lanka’s middle-classes have historically been incapable of seeing through a revolution, even less a regime change. Only by recognising this point will the #GotaGoHome protesters be able to carry forward their campaigns. They can choose to ignore it, but at the cost of their very future: a fact we learnt last Monday, when, as several protesters were speedily being arrested, even former supporters denounced, not the government, but the Galle Face agitators, for disrupting discussions and negotiations with the IMF.

Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

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The simplest way to understand the crisis that Sri Lanka finds itself in is to understand it as if this country were an individual. It is the story of a middle-class person who had a gambling habit and has found himself on the street, a bum, begging for handouts, unsure when his next meal is or where it might come from. To make this story more accurate, Sri Lanka is a teenager who enjoyed a middle-class life whose family was bankrupted because his father was a gambler and a lousy one at that.

From where might salvation, liberation or even simple improvement come? Still more modestly, who and what might enable the country to hit the brakes before plunging over the abyss and into freefall?


We can rule certain things and people out. We cannot expect solutions from the country’s leader President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, because he kicked us into the deepest socioeconomic pit in our history since Independence. He was, if one may borrow Tina Turner’s lyrics, “simply the best/better than all the rest”.

Gota is taking two steps back and one sideways, for every step forward that he takes –such as canceling out by his Bloomberg interview and recent conduct, his address to the nation and pledge of the reintroduction of the 19th amendment.

Most damning of all, the ridiculousness of his initial, foundational assumption that he was insured by China and therefore could commit any economic craziness that caught his fancy and also proceed to dismissively discriminate against China (the highway tender), has now been revealed. Gota just doesn’t have what it takes to make rational evaluations and judgments.

Why doesn’t he phone President Xi, the “governance policy” of whose Communist Party he wanted to learn, thank his for the birthday greeting and ask him for a bailout? Better still, why doesn’t he fly to China, cap in hand? Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike had that kind of equation with Premier Zhou Enlai, to the extent that she never had to ask, he just brought it up in official conversation, recorded it in an official letter and handed her a very large cheque (1971).

Gotabaya Rajapaksa doesn’t know that he has a near zero-chance of achieving his stated intention of making it to the end of his term. The mass mood is such he may not even be able to make it to the end of the year.

He should have realized that the only way in which he could have lasted even half of the rest of his term, or even limped to the end of it, was to speedily divest himself of power by means of a robust—not diluted–21st amendment, transferring it to a diversity of democratic institutions while retaining only the power which a broad political consensus allowed him to, thereby reducing his target profile.

Gota has now given himself only one exit, because he has presented the citizenry with only one way to be rid of the source of their unprecedented suffering—and that is the way that autocrats from the Shah through Marcos to Suharto went.


The way to go should be readily obvious to the SLPP (‘Pohottuwa’) that unless it wishes to be buried electorally, politically and perhaps literally, under the rubble of the Gotabaya presidency when it falls, which it will, sooner than later.

When a social crisis was growing in the 1950s which erupted in the Hartal of 1953 and the so-called silent Revolution (with its Sinhala Only downside) in 1956, SWRD Bandaranaike broke away from the UNP and founded a new, center-left party. The solution therefore came from within, but through a rupture.

As I had noted in 1995 in my first book, Sri Lanka in 1988 faced a combination of all three types of crises a state can face: (a) an anti-systemic civil war in the south generated by governance and socioeconomic grievances, (b) a secessionist civil war in the northeast generated by ethnoregional/ethnolingual grievances, and (c) a foreign military presence on part of the island’s soil. The solution came from within the ruling party: Prime Minister R Premadasa who was readying his independent candidacy and campaign structure when he was given UNP nomination, accepted the challenge of a “torch blazing at both ends”, ran against the odds and won.

When Sri Lanka had failed under five presidents (JR, Premadasa, Wijetunga, Chandrika) to defeat the Tigers who were pounding Colombo with suicide bombers and truck bombs, while waging mid-intensity large unit warfare in the island’s northeast, Mahinda Rajapaksa rose to the challenge and prevailed. He was the ruling party’s candidate.

Is there anyone in the ruling party or the (now fractured) ruling coalition of 2019-2020 who might play a pale version of the role of these unconventional figures who arose within the establishments of their day? I can think of only two personalities, each one capable of bringing some talented players with them, and if they combine forces, could amount to something significant. One is ex-President Maithripala Sirisena, the other Dullas Alahapperuma (ably supported by Dr Charitha Herath and Dr Nalaka Godahewa, two sharp policy minds in parliament). But do they have what it takes? If so, they should surely manifest it at this late stage.

Much will depend upon whether this progressive tendency will crystallize soon enough to make an impactful intervention in the crisis, and whether it will succeed in creating an ‘ensemble’ –or as General de Gaulle called it, a “rassemblement”, a “rally” — of center-left forces, involving the SLFP and its leader, ex-President Maithripala Sirisena, and the nine smaller allies.

Former President Sirisena who successfully piloted the 19th amendment through, stitching together a two-thirds majority for it, knows from experience what the defects of 19A are, and has presented his party’s ideas for constitutional change to the experts’ committee drafting a new Constitution, should convene an all-parties roundtable to hammer out a compromise that can get the 21st amendment (building on Wijayadasa’s) 150 votes.


Politics is intervention. Let me record and reiterate my criticism of the non-acceptance of the Prime Ministership by Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa. My criticism stems from my understanding of political responsibility and opportunity in a situation of grave national crisis. In his autobiography, the philosopher Louis Althusser reminds us of what is vital in serious politics focused on state power and making history:

“…to seize the opportunity, the ‘chance’ as Machiavelli describes it… ‘the precise moment, the opportunity’ (Lenin) ‘have to be seized with both hands’ (Machiavelli, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao), since they may only last a few hours. Once they had gone, and with them the chance to change the course of history…”. (Althusser, ‘The Future Lasts a Long Time’, pp. 229-231)

There is a major move that the Opposition Leader can make. Convene a National Roundtable of the best economists and public policy experts in the island, discuss and debate in continuous session to a finish (over a weekend) and present to the Parliament and the public the Plan for the rescue of Sri Lanka. In the recent past the main Opposition has only been negativistic but it must now be creative and constructive.

All said and done, it must be recognized that the SJB and JVP are the only two cohesive, compact political parties and therefore, crucial change-agents. Whether or not they will prove decisive change-agents is another matter.


In terms of strategy and tactics, the JVP-JJB, the FSP-IUSF and the Aragalaya must have the courageous lucidity to admit the monumental blunder of the second half of May 9th. Let’s leave the rights and wrongs, the good and bad, the ethics and morals aside. Look at the balance of forces in the concrete situation.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was far worse off on the night the light-show was projected on the walls of the Presidential Secretariat, than when he woke up on May 10th morning. After the night of May 9th, Colombo woke up to effective military deployment on the streets and a shrunken Aragalaya. Society was shaken by the violence and relieved by the military presence. It wasn’t only Mahinda Rajapaksa who blew it on May 9th. He did so in the morning; Gotabaya’s opponents did so from the afternoon till the next morning.

So far, the discourses of the civil society liberal-legalists, the main Opposition (SJB), the Left (JVP, FSP) and the Resistance (IUSF, Aragalaya 2.0) – “abolish the executive presidency”, “all 225”, “74 years” –remind me of nothing so much as the famous phrase of the Swiss founding father of cultural history, Jacob Burckhardt: “terrible simplifiers” (“les terribles simplificateurs”).


The economy is ‘the real foundation’ (Marx) of society upon which politics and other levels of the superstructure spring. The economic factor is not the dominant factor every time in everything but is ‘ultimately’ or ‘in the final analysis’ the ‘determinant’ factor. The crisis of the Sri Lankan economic ‘foundation’ is so intense and all-encompassing that the we are living in ‘the final analysis’. The political ‘superstructure’ cannot but undergo transformation commensurate with the character and scope of the crisis.

Sri Lanka’s crisis is not a crisis of capitalism but rather of Gota Chinthanaya, and as such does not require a “system-overthrow” as the radical left would have it, but if the crisis and dysfunctionality of Sri Lanka’s capitalism has metastasized, and cannot be attenuated before people start dying of poverty, hunger, ill-health and cannibalistic violence over scarce resources; if our political class has failed us, then it may take a conversion to some form of socialism, merely to become functional again.

Left leadership also requires educating the masses that class consciousness is not social resentment.

The sheer survival of Sri Lanka as a society, a community and a people, and the preservation of Sri Lanka as a State in the world, is more pressing and more fundamental than the form or mode it takes, be it liberal-democracy or capitalism.


But what will be the decisive agency of change? Who will bell the cat?

Peter Youssuf, a member of Iraq’s Christian minority, a former member of the Iraqi Communist Party’s Central Committee who had been in jail for 22 years, broken jail on eight occasions and was the Editor of the ruling Ba’ath party newspaper Al Thawra, was escorting my father and our family on our visit to Iraq as guests of Tariq Aziz, Information Minister and Foreign Minister (later executed during the American invasion and occupation of Iraq).

Peter Youssuf and my father Mervyn de Silva (who died 23 years ago this week) were debating the question of “what is the decisive factor in a political crisis?”. Though I was a teenager at the time, I’ve never forgotten Peter Youssuf’s emphatic answer in the cold night air in the Iraqi desert: “In the final analysis, what is decisive are the men with the guns, and the men who control the men with the guns.”

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Rethinking Sri Lanka’s industrialisation



By Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lanka’s problems long predate the arrival of the Rajapaksas. Widely touted as an export-dependent economy, its reliance on imports of everything, from intermediate capital goods to bathware, has been its distinguishing feature for the last 70 years. The island’s shift to neoliberal globalisation in 1977 served to reinforce this dependency, making it vulnerable to external shocks. The ineptitude of the Rajapaksas is hence a symptom of a bigger malaise, one that is yet to be understood fully by think-tanks and policymakers.

Neoliberal commentators fault the country’s public sector. They contend that it is too bureaucratised, too politicised, a heavy, crushing burden on the economy. To be fair, they aren’t entirely in the wrong. The public sector has long been the preferred destination of unemployed graduates and the politically connected. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in 2019 he implied that he would end such a culture. About two years later he made a U-turn, recruiting more than 60,000 graduates to the government sector.

Heterodox economists disagree. For them the problems of Sri Lanka’s economy have to do with its failure to industrialise and shift to manufacture. Among the most vocal proponents of the industrialisation line has been Dr Howard Nicholas. Responsible for setting up the only real think-tank that advocated industrialisation, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Dr Nicholas has been tirelessly reminding Sri Lankans of the country’s potential in manufacture, be it in garments or even its traditional sectors, including tea.

The industrialisation discourse has been widely picked up, even by those who otherwise support neoliberal prescriptions. The neoliberal crowd disputes Nicholas’ line for ideological reasons: they think it entails a wider role for the State, which they oppose. Patronised and funded by Colombo’s well-oiled free market think-tanks, they caution against government intervention, pointing at the present regime’s economic policies, like its advocacy of money printing and import restrictions, that supposedly got us into this mess.

I have been a defender of industrialisation and local production. Not because I believe in greater government intervention as necessarily a good thing, but because more than three decades of untrammelled neoliberalism has not got us anywhere. In the 1980s and 1990s the country extensively resorted to traditional aid programmes. Except for the Ranasinghe Premadasa years, which saw at least some attempts at industrialisation, all other regimes in power during this time preferred a strategy of outright privatisation and deregulation. To be sure, in itself this is not undesirable. But taken to an extreme, it takes a country nowhere. By the mid-2000s, it had landed us in a middle-income trap.

Sri Lanka’s debt problems don’t have to do with the Chinese, though debt trap narratives suggest otherwise. They have more to do with the island’s dependence on sovereign bonds and hedge funds. These constitute a far greater share of Sri Lanka’s external debt than does China’s, Japan’s, or India’s contribution. We need to ask why we let ourselves run into this mess, and most importantly why we didn’t use opportunities, like the reduction of oil prices in 2009 and 2010, to shift to manufacture and local production.

Those who pinned hopes on the Rajapaksas thinking they would take us out clearly forgot that they were in power when these opportunities were in place. In the aftermath of the end of the war we could have linked infrastructure development to industrialisation: we could have, for instance, closed in on the then government’s own optimistic objectives of building nuclear power plants by 2030. This never came to be. In pinning hopes on Gotabaya Rajapaksa, we chose to forget their earlier record on industrialisation and production, even though their government was seen as more conducive to these development strategies than a neoliberal dispensation, which we associated with the UNP.

We need to admit that industrialisation was never at the top of the list of priorities for the present regime. True, they appointed W. D. Lakshman, who as an academic – a colleague and contemporary of the Indian Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik – relentlessly opposed IMF prescriptions. But they were only too willing to discard his policies, to manipulate them to serve their interests, and to finally let him go. His successor, Ajith Nivard Cabral, wasn’t exactly an IMF ideologue, but the policies that the Central Bank undertook in his last few months reeked of an urge to enforce IMF policies without going to the IMF: a line that was not necessarily opposed by Colombo’s neoliberal commentators.

I know people who would say that policies matter and personalities do not. This was the same mistake the Left made in 1964 and 1975. They entered into electoral agreements with a petty bourgeois dispensation in the hopes of fomenting a democratic revolution. To give them credit, they did see through certain important reforms, such as Workers’ Councils. But for every such reform, they faced a setback from the head of their coalition, the SLFP, which they eventually realised, at an exorbitant cost, was neither willing nor able to implement the far-reaching reforms necessary for a radical democratic revolution.

The bottom line, in a nutshell, is that the present crisis would not have come to pass if the government was committed to production and industrialisation. But the problem doesn’t end there. It also has to do with how the Rajapaksas’ electoral base views such complex issues as industrialisation. After all, even the Jathika Chintanaya advocates a production economy, but as one perceptive observer told me, the Chintanites are interested in local production only insofar as it benefits and entrenches a particular collective. They espouse anti-imperialist politics, the sort one can link to production discourses, but they do not, if at all, pursue anti-imperialist ends. Petty bourgeois ideologues hardly ever do.

Where does all this leave us? The same lesson we learnt in 1965 and 1970: relying on petty bourgeois formations take us nowhere and lead us to a shift to the right. In 1970 no one would have imagined that the SLFP would emerge as an advocate of Free Trade Zones. Five or so years later the Finance Minister, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, advocated them. In 2019 no one would have imagined the SLPP recommending the IMF line. Now the President has emerged as its biggest supporter. Those who batted for industrialisation and production, meanwhile, are left in the dark. This is sad. It should not happen again.

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist based in Sri Lanka who can be reached at

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