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Upali Wijewardene – an enigma and a legend

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by Ajith Samaranayake

Between Sri Lanka’s 35th independence anniversary and his birthday Upali Wijewardene boarded his executive Lear Jet at Kuala Lumpur and in a single fateful flash became solidified into an enigma and a legend. The flamboyant tycoon who had left with five others never arrived in Colombo. Somewhere over the Straits of Malacca the plane disappeared with not a clue or a trace.

The drama held the nation in its grip for months. Newspapers reported little else except the mystery of the disappearance. Speculation spread like a bush fire and as the days passed with no news the most fantastic cloak and dagger theories were spun. People gathered by the roadside to listen to the radio news bulletins and strangers become friends as they speculated about the fate of a man who was one of Sri Lanka’s most beloved sons.

Destined

For Philip Upali Wijewardene it was a strangely fitting apotheosis. It was as if his whole colourful career was destined for this final peak, this sudden and dramatic exit just as he was in the very centre of the public eye, a glorious accession to the heights of myth and legend.

For Upali’s life was of the kind which dreams are made of Though born to one of the most distinguished families in Colombo and into a charmed circle which constituted Sri Lanka’s ruling elite, Upali had carved out a career in an area totally aline to that class. He did not take to law or medicine or pursue an academic career as the more favoured sons of this affluent, anglicised and genteel elite were wont to do. Neither did he take to politics. On the contrary with nothing much except the most rudimentary capital and confidence in his own abilities he began a confectionery industry and business in a part of his ancestral home where such brushes with crude commerce had never before taken place. Down the years this fledgling business he was able to build and expand into a mighty conglomerate, Sri Lanka’s only multinational, until he acquired a worldwide reputation as Sri Lanka’s leading entrepreneur, an enterprising and shrewd businessman who could hold his own with the best of them in New York, London or Bonn.

But by February 13, that fateful day which again confirmed the hold of superstition, Upali’s mind was not preoccupied with his businesses alone. For about two years politics had replaced business as his central passion. The man who had conquered the commanding heights of commerce now wanted to conquer the commanding heights of politics. And like everything else he did, he wanted to do it soon.

In 1981 he had founded The Island and the Divaina which had immediately become the eye of the political storm. Their vigorous reporting and comments which did not spare even some of the most powerful politicians of the ruling UNP came as a stirring antidote to the flabby, tame-cat Lake House press which was then dominating journalism. Readers lapped up the new offerings avidly.

Upali Wijewardene’s name was bandied about freely in Parliament. He made no secret of the fact that he wanted to enter Parliament and become finance minister which raised the hackles of the Finance Minister, the fiercely combative Mr. Ronnie de Mel. It became quite commonplace for the bespectacled and owlish Minister to hurl fearsome thunderbolts at the absent Upali in Parliament while we parliamentary reporters of The Island in the absence of our owner became surrogates for the ministerial fury and the embarrassed focus of the eyes of our colleagues in the crowded press gallery of the old Parliament by the sea.

Following year

The following year was to be one of the most crucial in Sri Lanka’s politics. President Jayewardene, Upali’s cousin and mentor, called an early Presidential Election, and in the absence of his normal rival Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, incapacitated by her loss of civic rights, easily beat former Minister Hector Kobbekoduwa fielded by an SLFP in tatters. Then claiming that there was a Naxalite conspiracy to assassinate him if he had lost and claiming further that if General Elections were held on schedule a sizeable number of these horrendous Naxalites would enter Parliament he held a Referendum which the UNP won amidst widespread claims of thuggery, ballot-rigging, etc.

Anyway Upali was loyally by Jayewardene’s side during both campaigns, campaigning vigorously for the UNP at Kamburupitiya, his mother’s ancestral village, for which he had done much through his Ruhunu Udanaya programme for improving the conditions of villages in the South. The south he considered his heartland and it was from the South that he sought to enter Parliament for which there were vacancies even as he boarded his Lear Jet that day in the Malaysian capital.

Elections

For what had happened was that Jayewardene had asked for and received the resignations of 17 members of Parliament who had lost their electorates at the Referendum. Parliament had just been convened for the new session of the Second Jayewardene Presidency and the guns had boomed and the Jayamangala Gathas had been chanted. As that irrepressible Communist MP, the much lamented late Sarath Muttettuwegama quipped, “There was a 21-gun salute only the other day. And now 17 of you are gone.” Among the vacancies were Kamburupitiya and Devinuwara either of which Upali was planning to contest.

This was the backdrop to Upali’s destiny which during the next few weeks would hold the nation in its grip and virtually bring the country to a standstill. Among those on board with Upali in the plane which had left Malaysia’s Subang Airport at 8.41 p.m. on February 13 were Mr. Ananda Pelimuhandiram, the whiz kid Financial Director of the Upali Group and one of his most trusted lieutenants, a Malaysian lawyer Mr. S. M. Ratnam and Steward Mr. A. Senanayake. The jet was piloted by Capt. Noel Anandappa with Mr. Sidney de Zoysa as co-pilot.

They were to have reached Colombo by 9.45 p.m. that night but they did not come. Neither did they come the next day. By the morning of Monday February 14 Colombo was agog with the news. Soon it spread everywhere and the people paused in awe and wonderment as the enormity of the event sank into the public consciousness. Upali Wijewardene had mysteriously vanished with his three companions and two navigators leaving not a clue behind somewhere in that vast and empty night sky over Malaysia.

On Tuesday February 15 The Island, ‘Upali’s beloved flagship, broke the news soberly. Over a banner headline “Plane carrying Upali Wijewardene feared lost”. it told its readers that the jet had lost radio contact with the airport just 15 minutes after take off. The last message had said that the aircraft was at an altitude of 27,000 feet. Indonesia and Malaysia had launched a joint air and sea search operation but had failed to find any debris of an aircraft.

At The Island that Monday it was like something out of a novel by Kafka. We were in a daze. Was it possible that six people on board an aircraft in this miraculous age of technology could disappear without a trace? People huddled about the corridors talking, absorbing the news only slowly while the telephones rang incessantly as the other newspapers were getting in touch with us for the latest. But we could do little to shed light on the mystery. The most intensive search by several governments could not yield a single clue. These headlines from the papers which followed convey the flavour of those bizarre days.

February 16 —Air, sea search for Upali Wijewardene continues. Aussie plane may have seen missing jet.

February 17— Three planes with sophisticated equipment comb the ocean. No results yet from seven-notion search.

A flare and a weak signal but search proves negative. Search for missing plane in Andaman Island.

February 18 – Search for missing jet narrows to coastal area round Sumatra. Lear Jet reps suspect sabotage.

Wreckage

On the same day something happened which could well have been the tragic denouement of the whole drama but which was aborted at the last moment. On the afternoon of that Friday a Reuter report was received that the wreckage of the private jet and several bodies had been found off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. I was in Fort at the time having taken a brief respite from the bleak house at Bloemendhal Road. With me at one of Fort’s many hospitable hostelries where we were drinking more than usual was Joe Segera, the Daymon Runyonesque Lake House story teller and chronicler of Canal Row and Chandra S. Perera, the always nattily-dressed NBC reporter and man about town.

Slowly the story spread through Canal Row, Hospital Street and Baillie Street and people reacted with shock and grief. More pints were drunk and our senses numbed somewhat by what we had taken Chandra who had known Upali in London and had common friends with him and I repaired to Bloemendhal Road. There we were told by Editor Vijitha Yapa who had worked frenziedly during those days to bring out the paper in the midst of the tension that Reuter had denied the story within the hour. The next day The Island reported that it had been besieged with telephone calls following the story breaking. Reuters, Hong Kong had been contacted and The Island told ‘The story will be held back’, it reported.

And so the days passed. More headlines.

February 19 — Divers too join search near Sumatra. Another frustrating day of search.

February 21 — Top Sri Lanka cops arrive in KL for investigation.

Sabotage not ruled out.

February 22 — Wheel found by fishermen did come from Lear Jet. Oil slick found near Kumana not from Lear Jet. February 23 —Minesweepers deployed in Indonesia today to find Jet. Identification of Lear Jet wheel narrows search area. February 24 — If Lear Jet wheel was spare explosion may have occurred.

February 25 —Fishermen cleared: Minesweeper move into find jet. There was no black box on missing Lear Jet. February 26 — PM answers questions on Upali.

Unsolved

And so that unusually short month petered out sadly with the riddle unsolved. On the last day of February The Island headline was ‘Lalith thinks sabotage is likely cause of crash’. Under the by line of Lasantha Wickremetunge it said that the then Minister of Trade and Shipping Lalith Athulathmudali who had returned from Indonesia on February 26 as President Jayewardene’s special envoy had said that there were three possibilities for the disappearance of which the most likely was sabotage. Of the other possibilities, pilot error and a defect in the aircraft were most unlikely. Mr. Athulathmudali also stressed that his investigations had shown that Mr. Wijewardene had no commercial enemies. In a box in the same story the paper reported ‘Temporary halt to search’ saying that since the area searched by the minesweeper had yielded no clues the search; was being abandoned and would resume if fresh evidence is uncovered. Only a single wheel — the right outbourne wheel — of the whole aircraft was found.

And so ended a drama which had electrified the country that cruel month of February and still continues to bemuse the people. What happened to Upali? is still the most popular question asked by friends and acquaintances from anybody connected with the Upali Group. Upali fascinated the people in life and now that he is no longer to be found, lost somewhere in the vast ethereal emptiness, he has become a legend and a cult which continues to enthral the people. What would have happened if he had arrived in Colombo that February night with politics entering a fresh phase and plunged into what would have undoubtedly been d stormy political career will remain one of the most fascinating “Ifs”, of our contemporary political history.

Enigmatic fate

But what is clear is that the enigmatic fate of the man who built a commercial empire from nothing and captured a nation’s heart will always be looked upon with wonderment by them. Whether Upali could have stormed the commanding heights of politics by using the methods of advertising and self-promotion which he so successfully used in his business enterprises we will never know. Yet, like Icarus who flew but went too close to the sun so that his wings melted, the strange and fascinating destiny of Upali Wijewardene, Sri Lanka’s first tycoon who also chose the sun as his symbol, will always be a glorious legend of our times.

Newspaper

Looking back across ten more eventful years several memories crowd the mind. The memory which stands out most prominently is that of the collective effort to bring out the paper in the midst of the most terrible tension which could have pervaded any newspaper office. Editor Vijitha Yapa who was a loyal friend of Upali had to battle his feelings while he held the fort in the news room keeping in constant touch with the latest developments and answering the questions of local and foreign journalists. For him and Deputy Editor and News Editor Gamini Weerakoon it was a trial of endurance which they magnificently stood up to. Looking at the paper to which thousands turned during that fateful month for news of its proprietor there is no sign of the almost unbearable tension with which we were working.

Upali Mahattaya

Several days on end we did not go home and the bleak reaches of the night were spent on the bare office tables with the late K. C. Kulasinghe as my companion. Or some nights would be spent in the grimy digs of D. B. S. Jeyaraj located quite close to the Premil Sports Club which was often the hub of our social life where the owner, the late Rajendra Mudalali, would approach us sombrely, always dressed in spotless white sarong and shirt and inquire ‘Any news of Upali Mahattaya?’ And in the morning the sun would rise over the splendid dome of St. Lucia’s Cathedral and we would search the vast sky for an answer.

(This article first appeared in a supplement to mark the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of Upali Wijewardene and party on Feb 13, 1993)



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Features

Decolonising education and critical thinking

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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.

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.

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Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!

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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”

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Historic task—a non-racist and human security ideology

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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.

SECOND STRENGTH

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.

BOTCHED ATTEMPTS

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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