by Kumar David
This column will argue today that the opposition to the current regime – political parties, trade unions, religious institutions and non-governmental organisations – should collaborate in a unified action plan to stall, pushback and defeat the authoritarian project, and it will dispute efforts to foster or formulate common-programmes for an alternative (future) government, yet. Let’s focus on the first and eschew the latter; that’s my refrain. Before getting my teeth into this I wish to suggest that the regime seems to have retreated a little. There has been some mobilisation; not formally but on the trade union side and on the streets. Protest movements are more numerous than the formal media cares to report. Be it farmers’ fertiliser anguish, protests against the Kotalawela Academy Bill, piloerection at elevation of prodigal Duminda into the stratosphere, nurses’ defiance, anger of the Catholic Church and petitions against the persecution of Muslims by the state, these manifestations of public ire have thrown the would-be Palace Junta on the back foot. Or so it seems to me. And the big ones are yet to come – widespread mass unrest about shortages and prices and the final showdown, a General Strike. The expression of outrage by all opposition entities (except pissu-Sira’s SLFP) against authoritarianism and abuse of power has been a big help to protesters. That’s the good news for now; I need to go on.
There are indeed powwows among the like minded – the Left, Sajith-Champika-Ranil-TNA like Liberals, NPP (including the JVP) arranged discussions, trade unions and reformist confessional bodies. These are either limited pandemic-restricted gatherings or by Zoom. There is however a disjuncture between the objectives of the different gatherings, or within them. If you strip to the core, the disjuncture is in three categories: Are we talking of (a) a programme/manifesto for the next or a future government, or (b) planning to pull together in common actions for defending democracy. And (c), in either case what are the terms on which we do (a) or (b), as the case may be. I will argue that (a) is counterproductive and will obstruct progress when the right opportunity arrives; (b) even on a limited scale has shown results and we must persist with it. So the more fruitful discussion is what are the does and don’ts, what are the (c)s, in respect of (b). Sectarian attacks against each other or within any of the aforementioned groupings at this time is stupid; let us focus on the common enemy.
Infeasible Alternative-Government Manifesto
Let me explain why doing (a) now will be a flop. Every one of us has been privy to one or other discussion or media report about some demand, suggestion, video or Zoom meeting. Consider what we have seen and also read between the lines. Some leaders, Champika and Sajith for example, are actually advancing the case why they should be the Next Great Leader. They are quite entitled to put forward their CVs, that’s their right; but let’s face it, nobody else is going to climb down and accept another’s CV right now. What is emerging in some forums about objective (a) is plain shadow boxing. Each one says this or that but the hidden agenda is “Anoint me! Anoint me!” This renders ostensible programmatic discussions numinous. People talk through each other but the real show is in the corridors where back-biting flourishes. A stark recent example is Champika’s demand in an interview with Kelum Bandara that “The JVP should give up its ideology and team up with us”. Meaning bugger your philosophy and identity, back me for the top-job. I take this opportunity to say: “Ranawaka why not you discard your hard-earned racist credentials and team up with the NPP to advocate devolution and power sharing with Muslims and Tamils?” Strategy (a) will make no progress at this time since Champika, Sajith, even emasculated Ranil and voiceless SF will not lie down and play dead. All of them daydream. This is opposite to the serendipitous conjuncture in the 1970 United Front where it was incontestable that in the event of victory Sirima would be PM. The same was true of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in India’s 2019 election.
The more serious obstacle to (a) is not the greed of putative starry-eyed leaders/presidents. It is that the systemic obstacles to a joint Manifesto are insuperable. Yesterday I tuned into a Zoom presentation on Tik Tok on HiruNews. Sumanthiran held forth: “I have the backing of all Tamil parties to say that while we stand with the opposition against contraventions of democracy, the opposition when it comes to office cheats us. We have been cheated repeatedly. Unless you make a clear articulation of your position on the Tamil question and you tell it openly to the Sinhala people, we cannot travel far with you. Our people are willing to come on the streets for democratic rights and face the consequences, but unless you tell the country ‘This is our solution to the National Question’, count us out as long-term partners”. Will Champika, Sajith, Ranil or SF ever come before the Sinhala Buddhist masses and say “Devolution”? The sun will rise in the West before that day dawns. A common opposition governmental manifesto-programme is a chimera. Forget it for now. Maybe later, after restructuring the institutions of state power it can happen.
The National Question is not the only insuperable obstacle to a Common Manifesto. Another big one is the Executive Presidency (EP) and with it the writing of a new or substantially amended constitution. Neither Champika nor Sajith can subdue their greed for securing an all-powerful EP. Notwithstanding proclamations of fealty to Buddhism they are slaves to thanha (craving). That’s OK, as someone who disregards religion I don’t really care. My point lies elsewhere, it is that abolishing EP is another point on which agreement will not be possible until someone is chosen as leader; then all the rejected sour-grapes cases will come on board!
I have so far not mentioned the most intractable stumbling block, the socio-economic content of a presumed common programme. There are those who desire socialism but will compromise at social-democracy, there are the champions of free-market capitalism, entrepreneurial export-oriented enterprises and labour-market reforms (that is putting the working classes in their place) and there are dreamers hankering after an idyllic society akin to the long-gone village. How do you persuade Karl, Adam and Friedrich Hayek to sit round the same table and decide on a menu? Come on get real! Let’s pull together to do what can feasibly be done together, and that too is just what urgently needs to be done.
The intelligence to focus on what can be done
Citizens have the right to resist attempts to nullify the
Constitution when other remedies to do so are infeasible
(Article 20 of the German Constitution – A rough translation)
The common minimal plan that I believe the whole opposition (and a goodly part of government supporters and parliamentarians when the government splits) can agree on, consists of a few basics. Let me have a go at enumerating them. The dimension that will weld every decent activist into a united force is the need to constrain the Powers of the State. That is to resist excesses that reach beyond the rule of law. Closely allied to this is the protection of Fundamental Rights from infringement by the (Raja) Paksa regime and by the police and armed forces. Maintenance of Order and Security are vital, but this is a two-edged sword. It is in the name of order and security that the state and the establishment carry out the most egregious violations of human and democratic rights. Hence vigilance and intelligence must be exercised in monitoring the state.
Action must ensure that the next election cycle is held on schedule. I am not in a hurry to advance it for the somewhat perverse reason that that the Paksas are so adept at hanging themselves that I would like to give them rope and time to finish the job. The worry of course is that the integrity of future elections may be corrupted. A comment that I frequently encounter is that the regime will fix future elections and that fraud, bureaucratic, physical or digital will be rampant. The Elections Commission is already embroiled in controversial transfers. The danger is most real but it can be overcome; best done by sharpening public vigilance right from now and paying closer attention to domestic and international monitoring mechanisms. I guess this falls between Regulatory Enforcement and Civil Justice. The other major item for an action plan to concern itself with is the judiciary; preserving judicial independence in respect of Criminal Justice and Civil Justice.
I will not ask for more, I am a realist. So long as the Rajapaksa-clan regime stays in office I am not asking for the moon. Eliminating Corruption, winning transparency and Openness in Government and creating traditions of Informal Justice, that is a fair society, is too much to hope for in these times. No one can guarantee that the next government will be a bunch of angels, but right now the urgency is to stop repression. We cannot wait till a perfect option arrives to take steps to avert looming disaster. This is the minimal, if nothing else that January 2015 achieved. When a house is on fire, pull the entrapped children out first!
Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security
The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :
‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’
The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.
Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.
Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.
But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.
Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :
“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”
And that :
“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”
These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.
Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.
Encouraging signs, indeed!
Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving
Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.
They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.
The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.
On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.
Constructive dialogue beyond international community
by Jehan Perera
Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.
In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”
Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”
The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.
There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.
President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.
An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.
The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.
Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.
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