The tusker from 5th lane
by Maheen Senanayake
Continued from last week
What is your advice to someone who is interested in joining a party as old as the UNP, whose members have to take forward its history and carry the burdens of its past?
You join a party to see what they offer at the present. That is all. Nothing more. History is something else. This is history (pointing to the poster above him on the wall, the first election poster printed in Sri Lanka -in this case by the UNP for D.S. Senanayake).
I don’t know about that but today I feel that people join a party to see what they can get out of it?
That is also there. What I am saying is that there are people who are against us in one election and join us at the following election. History is not an issue.
It is rather like a man giving a bribe. These people don’t mind as long as the job gets done?
I am not talking about that. I am talking about people on political view points. There are for instance MPs who are against us in one election and with us in another.
In order to advance their electoral prospects!
Some do. Some don’t. For instance people supported us in 1977 because we represented change; not that they expected everything. Some elections you keep promising. That is why Lee Kwan Yu said we are auctioning non existent resources.
(A discussion on the UNPs 1977 landslide ensues and Wickremesinghe is told that the then United Front’s 1970 landslide, like the UNP’s 1977 success, resulted in tyrannies of absolute majorities. 1970 – 77 were periods of the worst hardships endured during the country’s contemporary history. Also the JVP, as a result of the way the 1971 insurrection was suppressed, had a hand in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s rout in 1977.)
Everyone agrees. But I would say not only because of political positions but also for economic reasons, etc. We were not sure of the two thirds (majority). About four or five days before the election, the last time I came to Colombo (I was staying in Biyagama) I met President Jayewardene and had a chat with him. He asked me ‘ What do you think?’ I said we will make it this time but will we get two thirds? He said ‘I am not sure Ranil, we are somewhere there but I hope we can get two thirds. Then he asked me ‘what do you think of Biyagama?’’ I said according to the last survey It looks as if I can win by a majority of about 1,500, so I think I will make it. (RW laughs reminiscing and says my majority was 6,500 and we had five sixth of the House. It came to a point where we were telling each other ‘ when someone said so and so had won’, “are you sure?”, because we had expected him to lose.)
If we look at the economy today what are your thoughts given that in any entity there is revenue and there is expenditure and everything happens in between. We have raised capital through a variety of debt instruments and payment continues to pile up as our own revenue does not increase. What would be the UNPs approach to managing the economy and steering it in a positive direction?
Look, in 2001 when I took over it (the picture) was negative. You remember we had problems with the LTTE. In 2015 debt was the biggest problem. Much bigger than we thought. So I spent most of my time looking at the larger picture. We worked with the IMF. We had to put down the VAT and in 2017 we had a primary budget surplus meaning that we could pay for all our expenditure except debt servicing. So we have to increase the surplus. The other problem was the Balance of Payments. We had a big gap there. That you couldn’t do overnight. For that we had to bring in investment and to bring in genuine Foreign Direct Investment we had to change macro economic policy here.
So it was only around 2017-2018 that people (investors) began to look at us. While they were looking came the 52 days (with two prime ministers in the country) and then the Easter bombings. But it (fundamentals) were there.
This government did not carry that on. A lot of the businessmen told them to cut taxes. Even in the first quarter of 2020 before Covid hit, us our performance was coming out (advancing). So again we have to do this and this time it will take longer. We must also have an economic framework that will attract people to come and invest here. To do that you need support. I told them to go to the IMF because they are the only people who may do this and a lot of countries have given them the authority to do so including China. But they said ‘No’ and said they will get it from elsewhere. Where can they get it from?
In 1977-78 and again in the 1990-91 period we see a new baseline for both the GDP and GDP growth for Sri Lanka. So much so that the people expect some magic from the UNP every time they are in government. However, the last time you were in power this was not the case. What do you think happened? What was missing? Was it talent? Young blood? What was it?
No, no, no. We handled the economy. Our first objective was getting a primary surplus. After Sir. John, no one has been able to achieve this. Not even President Jayewardene. We were able to stabilize the economy. The situation that prevailed between 2010 and 2015 was an artificial one.
In 1991 the JVP problems were over and there was a boost as we opened the country up. I did the negotiations with the IMF on that occasion. 2001 was a different situation getting it back to a positive. And if you ask the people or look at the number of vehicles that were coming in 2017-18 they were much better off than in 2010-2015.
If you have a primary budget surplus you have to be well off. Then what is it that you are looking at?
Debt too has to be serviced?
Within those five years, the middle class expanded in this country. We had put the debt on a sound footing. Money had to come in. We lost billions of dollars, 500 million on the East Container Terminal 400 million on the MCC and the other three LNG plants including one from China. We had also lost the money on the Trincomalee development. So we may have lost about four billion which would have given us a boost. And another billion would have come in with the start of the port city.
How would you describe the demonization of the MCC by the opposition and, since you appear to stand by it, what do you think went wrong?
Well it was a public offer and they turned it down. Now they are paying the consequences. Just like in 1970 When Mr. Dudley Senanayake wanted to build a highway to Katunayake, they all objected and they stopped it. It took another 20 years. There are so many things that we had started that they stopped. And they can’t show any other results.
What is your position on India, China, the USA and Europe in terms of interactions with them?
We will deal with everyone. We must know how to not align ourselves with anyone.
Are we still non-aligned?
Well we are not aligned with anyone, but I think we have lost the balance in our international relations. On the one hand we have antagonized India, Japan, the USA. We are fighting with the EU, Britain and the UK on the Human Rights issue. Now we are fighting with China on the fertilizer issue. As you know they have black listed the People’s Bank and we are fighting that. We deserve to go into the Guinness Book of Records because this is the only country in the world which has fought with all the big forces – anyone who matters.
What is your position on the global vaccination program? I am not referring to the roll out. I am asking you this from a fundamental perspective.
I am for vaccination. Unless you can be exempted medically I think from 12-years upwards, (12-18) you need parental consent). Remember vaccines are a way of controlling. They are not the solution. To get a drug out it can take five to 10 years. In this case instead of 50,000 guinea pigs you have now about three or four billion. But there has been so-called Vaccine Nationalism where the bigger countries had not given (vaccines to) the smaller ones in need. Delivery systems have also broken down and they – the G20, haven’t come out with an answer to that. It would have been good if China and the other countries – the QUAD – had worked together in the delivery and roll out of vaccines globally.
How do you see government information. I suspect that there is somewhat of a loss of confidence where this is concerned. As a citizen what is your view?
People have lost it (confidence). Also the government is not anxious in implementing freedom of information. We have the oversight committee which they want to scrap. In different ways they are trying to hinder progress on that front. Even in the case of central bank data, it is suspect.
What can parliament do to improve this situation and or at least bring in some form of due diligence?
We had it. In this parliament it is difficult. We have to now think of what the people want. Digitalization for instance will make information more accessible. Information will be more accessible if we go for a full digitalization programme.
When Arjuna Mahendran was selected as the Governor of the Central Bank, my first question was how could he champion the interests of the people of this country while he held dual citizenship – a question I raised with him when I interviewed him at the time. In light of the fact that the Central Bank at the time of your last government came under the purview of the Prime Minister, what are your thoughts on this?
I think as far as a country is concerned, we must get the best and the best systems. For instance the UK went through the difficult times with Mark Carney as their Central Banker. He was a Canadian. So there are instances when a country should get people down. Similarly Singapore went up when Dr Albert Winsemius (a Dutchman who was economic adviser to the Singapore government from 1961-84) was advisor. But my view is that elected members cannot have two citizenships, whether it is the president or members of parliament. Another is the Judiciary. The rest of it does not matter. Also dual citizenship is becoming a common thing. Another point is we have now removed restrictions on dual citizenship.
What would your advice be to youth in Sri Lanka within the framework of bringing in change to this country? What would your call to action be to those who will probably cast their first votes next year?
I don’t think that going to another country is the solution. Because those countries also are having economic problems during and post Covid. Also they will not welcome everyone. So going out is not an option. I can only think of giving them the same advice I gave myself in 1972. Stay, fight, change the system. But at the same time the political parties also have a duty to change themselves so that they respect the views of the young people.
As far as the UNP is concerned, we have opened up and at the moment we have about 10 new leaders who will be presented to the public soon. It will up to them to effect the change and hopefully by about next year you should see the change. We are working silently in changing the party to reflect the views of the young people.
In terms of campaign funding where are we headed and what is your position on capping campaign financing?
Well we have to take from those donors who give us (money). But it is not a satisfactory position. First we must cut down expensive elections. We must move towards a middle system. Parties will give (candidates) a percentage with restrictions on spending. Till 1977 we had restrictions on spending. Then President Jayewardene brought in the Proportional Representative (PR) system. Then it was not an individual candidate (but a list) and this law became irrelevant because now we were dealing with a list. The party then had to fund an entire campaign. After we took the law away we went and amended it to have the preferential system and that has led to a lot of corruption with people sometimes spending 50 million on a campaign. So I think that we should go back to a system of mixed (representation) with restricted spending. Media makes a lot of money (during elections) through advertising.
The Election Commission will have to control all this. And finally I am for state funding for political parties and election campaigns in the German style where you are responsible to the Elections Commission and the people. Anyone can go to courts against you. There are so many actions that have to be carried out including holding your branch elections annually. It is a very comprehensive system where even members have to disclose their income etc. because it is an exhaustive law. What I am saying is that we need not take the whole thing but we can certainly consider what is relevant to us and even add to it. And I must say it will require a year or two of discussion before we can do it. Then the parties have to act within democratic principles.
For instance there is now an inquiry in England against an MP where she had served cake to those in attendance (at an event) without declaring it. And this is in England where the laws are not so tough.
On the subject of Education, What do you – not as a politician but as ‘citizen’ Ranil Wickremesinghe feel or believes is the purpose of education?
One is the value system that is needed to be inculcated. Secondly you have to be prepared for the future for the country to develop economically and socially.
Do you believe in democracy? Do you think its relevant and do you think we are democratic and if not can we be democratic again?
We should be democratic. We shall be democratic. As Churchill said it’s the best of bad systems.
(End note by interviewer: Mr. Wickremesinghe is a knowledgeable man who carries with him years of experience. He was suave during the conversation and remained convinced on certain matters. I understood why he may have difficulty relinquishing power to another, who I think still does not exist, who can carry the mantle of party leader. President Jayewardene had successors. As for us citizens searching for turmeric, sugar, cooking gas, price hikes tantamount to hyperinflation and the possibility of a fuel shortage and consequently power cuts, we now understand The Time has Come. Cometh the man?)
Decolonising education and critical thinking
By Darshi Thoradeniya
I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.
Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.
As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.
Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.
This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.
History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.
When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.
In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.
Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.
The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.
If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.
(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!
Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.
In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.
Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.
It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.
Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!
The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!
Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.
The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.
There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”
Historic task—a non-racist and human security ideology
By Jehan Perera
The media has reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to Parliament at this inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago. The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet, and as many countries which had done so following traumatic events. President Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.
Indeed, it is unlikely that any other President could have faced the multiple crises the present government has got the country into and remained with its 2/3 majority intact, as it has done so far. The recent announcement of the SLFP, headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, that it would remain within the government alliance, while criticising it from within, is an indicator of the government’s stability. This follows the similar declaration by the three leading cabinet ministers from the 11 party alliance of small parties within the government, who have filed cases in the courts against the government. They too have said they would remain within the government and continue to challenge its decisions that they deem to be incorrect.
There are two key reasons why the government has a measure of stability despite the deteriorating economic situation that is impacting severely on the wellbeing of the majority of people. The first is the pragmatic calculation of the government leadership that it is better to have its critics within the government than out of it. It seemed possible that the sacking of Minister Susil Premjayantha for being overly critical of the government would be the start of a purge of internal critics of the government that could cause an unravelling. But so far it is only Minister Premjayantha, who has had to pay the price for his independence. This has been explained by the fact that the former minister was a member of the ruling party itself, unlike the other critics who belong to other parties.
Due to the multiple perspectives within the government, and which represent the diversity of the government alliance, it has been able to reach out to the widest possible swathe of society. At the same time, it is able to woo diverse sections of the international community, including the three big international formations that hold the key to the country’s economic progress. These are China, India and the Western countries. China is continuing to provide economic resources on a large scale along with India. Both of these big powers seek to improve their position of influence on Sri Lanka and ensure a physical presence in the country which is being granted. Dealing with China has been the easiest, as it only seeks to gain more economic and physical assets within the country to ensure its permanent presence.
Dealing with India and the Western countries is more challenging as they require political concessions as well. In the case of India it is a political solution to the ethnic conflict which involved power-sharing with the minority Tamil community. In the case of the Western countries it is progress in terms of protecting human rights. With Sri Lanka being a country of interest to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, this means that its human rights record is scrutinised every three months. The forthcoming session in late February, which continues through March, will be especially important. The Sri Lankan government is expected to present a written report on its progress in terms of issues of accountability, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform. The response of the majority of countries at the UNHRC can have a significant impact as it would influence the European Union’s pending decision on whether or not to suspend its GSP Plus tariff privilege which is a source of support to the Sri Lankan economy.
In this regard, it will be necessary for the government to rein in its champions of ethnic nationalism and national security that give emphasis to the perspective of the ethnic majority community alone. This is going to be the great challenge as the second strength of the government is its ideology of ethnic majority nationalism and national security which it invokes at frequent intervals, and especially when it faces challenges. These help to keep the ethnic majority’s loyalty to the government. But they alienate the minorities and also those sections of the international community who are concerned with human rights. The country remains deeply traumatised by three decades of internal war, in which acts of terrorism could strike anywhere, a separate Tamil state led by the LTTE was a short distance away and the centre itself was at risk of being taken over violently by the JVP. These crises led to extreme measures that have left indelible scars and memories on the people that are easy to reinvoke.
The botched attempt to explode a bomb in All Saints Church in Colombo and the botched police investigation into it have given the impression of a created event that has been questioned by the Catholic Church. The bomb discovery, in which the Catholic priests did more to uncover evidence than the police, served to divert attention from the 1,000, day commemoration by the church of the 2019 Easter bombings, which killed over 280 persons, set the stage for conflict between Catholics and Muslims and reinforced the need for national security, and racists, to take the centre stage of national politics. On that occasion, as on this, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, played a crucial role in preventing an escalation of the crisis and in calling for the truth behind the bombings to be known. Like the prophets in the biblical tradition, he is increasingly powerful in speaking truth to the rulers, even truths they do not wish to hear.
Events such as the Easter bombing, and now this latest incident, give the impression of security failure that is detrimental to the country’s internal communal harmony and to the international image of the country as a peaceful and secure one for both investment and tourism. Sri Lanka is yet to emerge from the thrall of nationalist politics, and its falsehoods and violence, where political leaders make deliberate and purposeful use of communal differences to win votes and come to power. They have succeeded time and again in this dastardly practice, but with it the country has failed to reach its full potential time and again. The costs have been unbearable, whether in terms of lives lost, properties destroyed and economic growth stymied. Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with the number of its military personnel being five times larger than that of Australia, though the populations of both countries are about the same. This means economic resources being taken away from development purposes.
The historic task for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government is to make a shift away from a mindset that emphasises the interests of the ethnic majority and national security being the preserve of the security forces to a new mindset that includes the ethnic minority and sees human security and wellbeing as the country’s need. The Sri Lankan state needs to consider all its people as citizens with equal rights, and not as ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities to be treated differently. And it needs to give priority to human security and wellbeing where gas cylinders do not explode and people have food and education at affordable prices. Both religious leaders and political leaders need to come up with an ideology of the wellbeing of all in which solutions that are beneficial to all are found, where basic needs of all are met, and there is no divide and rule, which is a recipe for long term failure.
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