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Vidya Jyothi Gemunu Silva: The Ancient and Modern man



By Capt G.A.Fernando,

(RCyAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, Singapore Airlines, and SriLankan Airlines)

In April, 1971, not long after the JVP Insurgency started, I was amongst a large crowd of young men, gathered at the Government Services Grounds, on Parsons Road, Colombo, jostling with each other, as we waited to volunteer our services to the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF).

While waiting for our names to be called, we heard an officer yell out, “Stand back all of you, except for this boy [he said pointing at me], or I am going to shoot!” The voice belonged to Squadron Leader Rex Fernando, Commanding Officer Designate of the Volunteer Air Force Reserve. Not surprisingly, his order and threat had the desired effect, and everyone promptly stood back to give him ‘breathing space’.

My name was the first to be called. The next was that of Gemunu Silva. As we were the first two, Gemunu and I had time to sit and get to know each other. His first question to me was, “Are you a pilot?” When I said yes, he said that he was a Mechanical Engineer at the State Engineering Corporation (SEC), and that he had a Student Pilot’s Licence, although it had been “destroyed” by his mother who didn’t want him to fly! Thus began a friendship between us which lasted over 50 years, until his untimely demise on 2nd July, 2021.

 After recruitment, we went our separate ways. Gemunu to Diyatalawa, and I was posted to China Bay for flight and ground training. A few months later, we met again at Diyatalawa for our passing-out parade, and were subsequently posted, together, at China Bay.

 Many interesting hours were then spent at the Officers’ Mess bar, ‘shooting the breeze’ into the ‘wee small hours’ (unless I was scheduled to fly early the next day). Gemunu’s repertoire of both classical Sinhala and English songs, including some he’d learned during his ‘Varsity days, was incredible. He had a good singing voice, and his mannerisms were unique, too. Often, if he had a memory lapse, he would hit his hand on his receding forehead and exclaim, “Bloody curse!”

Gemunu was also widely read and could speak and hold the floor on any subject. I remember him telling me to hold on to my mechanical lever-motion wrist-watch because the new-fangled electronic digital watches, then in great demand, would soon be “a dime a dozen”.

Although not a qualified pilot as such, Gemunu’s passion for aviation burned strongly, so he never missed a chance to go flying with us. Even if it was to check the brakes of an aircraft that never left the ground! The process of speaking with the Air Traffic Control tower, starting up and taxiing out, would make his day.

In those days, TV had yet to arrive in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka then was), so, as movie buffs, we used our Air Force IDs to get us concessions at local cinemas. While in Colombo, on short breaks from China Bay, we would go from cinema to cinema, watching one movie after another, starting at the Savoy Cinema, Wellawatte, at 10.30 am, Majestic, in Bambalapitiya, for the 3.30 pm show, then the Liberty Cinema, at 6.30 pm, and finally the Empire (Slave Island) or Regal Cinema (Fort) for the late 9.30 pm show.

After I was demobilised and joined Air Ceylon, Gemunu continued to serve the RCyAF (which became the Sri Lanka Air Force, in 1972) as a Volunteer. But he and I kept in contact and ‘touched base’ off and on. He married his cousin and childhood sweetheart Swineetha. Because he was still with the Air Force, they had planned a ‘service wedding’. But, by the afternoon, before his wedding day, he still hadn’t engaged a band to play at the event. So, at the eleventh hour, I turned for assistance to Gamini ‘Gabo’ Peiris, drummer and leader of the popular band ‘Gabo and The Breakaways’, who in his ‘other job’ as a flight steward with Air Ceylon was by then a colleague of mine.

But when Gemunu and I arrived at Gabo’s home we learned that he and the band were ‘on holiday’. Wondering what to do next (I think I was more worried than Gemunu), while our bus was passing the Liberty cinema, Gemunu suggested that we should go watch a movie (which happened to be On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). Of course, by the time the movie ended, at 5.30 pm, we still hadn’t found a band to play at the next day’s wedding.

That was when I suddenly remembered my former neighbour and friend and Scout master from school, Nihal ‘Sam the Man’ Samarasinghe, another famous musician and bandleader in those days. Fortunately, after he made a few calls, Sam was able to find another upcoming band to play at short notice and thus saved Gemunu’s day. This episode was typical of Gemunu who took everything ‘on the bump’.

A few months later, the SLAF selected Gemunu Silva to study for an M.Sc. in Toulouse, the home of Airbus Industrie (as the company was then known) in the South of France. There he helped work out the algorithms for ‘fly-by-wire’ (FBW) aircraft. From what I’ve heard, it was a military project to which he was assigned, with the use of what was then the only hybrid computer in France. The research material thus gained was subsequently used in French fighter aircraft and, later still, the state-of-the-art Airbus A320 passenger airliner.

When Air Lanka was founded in 1979, Gemunu, now back in Sri Lanka, signed as one of the guarantors for my Boeing 707 training bond. Subsequently, I introduced him to the airline’s ‘flying Chairman’, Capt. S Rakkitha Wikramanayake, who was looking for aircraft maintenance engineers, but felt that Gemunu was “over-qualified”. To Gemunu’s credit, however, while in the SLAF he modified a fuel pump for the MiG-15 and 17 aircraft which prevented deterioration and fire in the engine after an inflight failure. He held the patent for that modification.

After Gemunu was finally ‘demobbed’ from the SLAF, he returned to the SEC where he would become the General Manager and, later still, Chairman (a post once held by the legendary engineer Dr. Deshabandu A.N.S. Kulasinghe). One of Gemunu’s many engineering accomplishments was changing the camber of the New Kelaniya Bridge, while traffic was on the move.

A long association with the Archaeological Department began when Gemunu Silva facilitated the use of a SLAF helicopter to place the crystal on the pinnacle of the Mihintale stupa which was being renovated by Dr Roland Silva, the Director of Archaeology, and his team.

Then the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa), in Kandy, began experiencing a problem. Monkeys, from the nearby Udawattakele Forest Reserve, used to play on the existing old roof and caused tiles to be shifted. When it rained, numerous leaks began, putting the Tooth Relic at risk. The solution was to build a canopy with gold-plated tiles, imported from Japan, over the existing temple roof. President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s ‘Sevana’ Foundation had promised to foot the bill in exchange for the honour of officially opening the finished project.

Amid objections to the modification from the Archaeological Department, the task was assigned to the SEC and Gemunu got involved. After the new canopy was built and the opening day drew near, it was discovered that the new structure was not steady and subject to swaying. One day, while wondering what to do about it, Gemunu discovered that there were a couple of holes, used as nests by resident pigeons, at the same level in the building adjacent to the golden roof. On investigation, he observed that there were metal beams inside the holes. So the canopy was duly welded to the beams, for additional support, and that stopped the swaying.

Then, there was the Maligawila Buddha Statue, in the Moneragala District. Carved out of limestone, with the head alone weighing some 50 tons, it was the tallest free-standing statue of its kind in Sri Lanka, and discovered in pieces in 1951 (presumably destroyed by treasure hunters). The project to restore it was abandoned by then SEC Chairman, Dr. Kulasinghe, in the mid-1970s. The challenge was subsequently taken up by Gemunu Silva in 1991, much to the satisfaction of President Premadasa.

Gemunu later mentioned that it was Dr Kulasinghe’s mentoring and guidance that gave him the confidence to embark on the project. And speaking of President Premadasa, when a colleague once asked Gemunu how he managed to get so close to the President, he replied that he didn’t get close to the President but the President got close to him!

When writing, or speaking of the late Gemunu Silva, it should not be forgotten that when the SLAF wanted to base their jet aircraft at the Sigiriya airport, and the Government followed up by proposing to build the next international airport there, Gemunu was involved with Dr Roland Silva, then Director General of the Central Cultural Fund, trying to stabilise the Rock, which was already chipping away, to prevent further damage from vibrations. So they appealed to President Chandrika Kumaratunga saying that jet operations at Sigiriya were not conducive to the future stability of the Sigiriya archaeological ‘treasure’. One option offered was to find another suitable site, so an RCyAF helicopter was assigned to the pair for two weeks in order to complete their survey. They found an ideal alternative within the Cultural Triangle on ‘crown land’ with no complications of land acquisition. But when a report was submitted, it never saw the light of day again!

In 1993, Gemunu became the youngest Vidya Jyothi awardee (for outstanding scientific and technological achievements) among greats like Geoffrey Bawa, Prof. E.O.E. Pereira, Prof. A.W. Mailvaganam, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Dr. A.N.S. Kulasinghe and Dr. Ray Wijewardene. Gemunu remained the consultant engineer for the restoration of ancient stupas, such as the Jetavanarama, Abhayagiri, Mirisawetiya and Tissamaharama dagobas. Typical of the man’s ingenuity, all his mechanical restoration solutions were reversible.

After LTTE suicide bombers attacked the Dalada Maligawa, in 1998, Gemunu Silva participated in the repairs and renovation. He was also the Chairman of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) at one time. Gemunu worked at world heritage centres in Lumbini, Nepal and Bodh Gaya, India, and in 2013 he received the Engineering Heritage Award from the Institute of Engineers. This year Gemunu also became the first recipient of the Dr. Roland Silva Memorial Medal.

Gemunu always said that the best engineers were the ‘baases’ he worked with. As he (non-academically qualified but practically skilled senior workmen and artisans) told it, there was nothing a good chat and cup of plain tea and a cigarette couldn’t solve.

Of Gemunu, one could truly say he was “a man who walked with kings, and didn’t lose the common touch.”

To me, Gemunu was more a brother than a friend. I am glad that I was able to take him on a joy flight in a light aircraft about two years ago. Although his health was deteriorating, he was always in good spirits. The last time I spoke to him was to ask how the Ministry of Defence acquired the Akuregoda land on which the World War 2 Talangama transmitters were originally sited and then owned by the Department of Civil Aviation, only to be ‘handed over’ to the UDA.

Farewell my brother, may you achieve the supreme bliss of Nirvana!

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Tribute to Dr. Nilanthi Cooray



I have known Dr. Nilanthi for more than 40 years since her marriage to my cousin Frank.Dr. Nilanthi was born in Moratuwa to a middle-class Catholic family. Her siblings include an older sister and a younger brother, and all three of them were studious. Her parents, especially her father. was a devout Catholic who was a frequent visitor to St. Sebastian’s church in Moratuwa.

Up to grade eight, Nilanthi attended Our Lady of Victories Convent in Moratuwa and then joined the Holy Family Convent in Bambalapitiya. She was accepted to the Medical College in 1972 after her successful results at the A-levels. She traveled daily from Moratuwa to the Medical college until such time she was able to get a place at the medical college hostel. During her final years at the medical college hostel, she succeeded in her studies and graduated as a doctor in 1976.

Her career began as an intern at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital Colombo for six months and another six months at the Castle Street Hospital, Borella working with leading qualified senior doctors. In 1977, she got married to her lifelong friend, Frank Cooray, who was working as a Technical Officer in the Irrigation Department. Her first appointment as a fully-fledged MBBS doctor was at the Narammala Base Hospital. Thereafter she got a transfer to the Lunawa Hospital.

After serving the required number of compulsory years (five or six years) she gave up the government job and started her own private practice. This decision seemed a calculated risk as at that time Moratuwa had enough and more reputed and recognized senior doctors such as Dr. Festus Fernando, Dr. Winston Perera, Dr. Cramer, Dr. Muthukumaru, Dr. Keerthisinghe, Dr. Guy de Silva and so on. However, within a short span of time, Nilanthi was able to establish herself as a remarkable young doctor and by the time the senior doctors retired or left Moratuwa, she had become one of the highly recognized doctors in Moratuwa with diagnostic excellence.

The demands of work and the up bringing of two little daughters made it difficult for Nilanthi to cope with everyday life. To support her, her husband gave up his job and went on voluntarily retirement after serving for 18 years at the Irrigation Department. He was just short of two years to qualify for the government pension.

In her prime of life Nilanthi was diagnosed for cancer. More time was spent in rest and prayers. Nilanthi and Frank would have prayed to God and all saints for a miracle healing. This was proved, when she went to Lourdes in France, a place known for Marian worship, to fulfill a vow, after receiving the good news from Dr. S. R. Jayatilleke, who was her oncologist, that her cancer has disappeared. This was the first thing she wanted to upon receiving the miracle healing. She got the green light from the doctor to fly. After her cancer Nilanthi slowed down in her practice and limited the number of patients per day.

Nilanthi was never interested in having a luxurious life or extra comforts like luxury cars or overseas holidays. Her life was centered around her family and her medical profession. She was a loving wife to her husband and devoted mother to her two daughters. As time passed, spending time with her four grandchildren brought her great happiness.

Only after her death that most of the people came to know about her charitable acts of kindness and in treating the poor without charging a fee. During her funeral service, a priest who gave the homily mentioned how students and staff of St. Sebastian’s College Moratuwa benefited by her treatment during their illnesses.

It was only a matter of telling her husband who was now attached to the staff at the College and he made arrangements for them to consult Dr. Nilanthi on a priority line. There was no difference between a priest, staff member, minor staff or a student (of course the student had to wear the uniform to identify their school), all were treated free of charge.

Attending the funeral service were several priests (including Bishop Anthony who was a past Rector of the College) and Christian brothers who served the college. I am certain that they came not only to pay their last respects but also to express their gratitude for taking care of them during their time of illnesses.

In the latter part of her life, her health deteriorated and with the help of her domestic aid, she had chosen a saree and a blouse for her final journey, which she did not disclose to her family members. However, when Frank came to know about it, he was upset and he had asked Nilanthi what this is all about. But she had not given any answer to that.

However, taking that opportunity she had given one more instruction to Frank, and that is after she is gone to give the gold chain round her neck to the domestic aid. For her final journey she was dressed with that particular saree and when everything was over the gold chain was given to the domestic aid.

She leaves so many special memories and a legacy of love. May her soul rest in peace.

-Ralph Gunawardena-

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Full implementation of 13A: Final solution to ‘national problem’ or end of unitary state? – Part IV



By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Executive Director

Lawyers for Human Rights and Development

(Part III of this article appeared in The Island yesterday (28 Sept. 2023)

President Jayewardene stands up against Ranil Wickremesinghe

President J. R. Jayewardene, on the occasion of the Opening of Parliament on 20 Feb., 1986 said: ‘‘Permit me to speak on the government’s attempts since 1977 to seek a political solution to the problems arising in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

‘‘Our first attempt to do so was outlined in the UNP Election Manifesto of 1977. These proposals were prepared in consultation with some of the TULF MPs at that time. I have in my Address to Hon. Members on 23rd February 1984 outlined the steps taken to implement them as follows:

‘‘Since 1977 the government has made Tamil a National Language in the Constitution; amended rules governing entrance to universities and removed any racial bias governing those rules; removed the regulations prescribing racial considerations governing entry to the Public Services and promotion in the services.

‘‘District Councils have been created and District Ministers appointed. The TULF accepted them and worked for them for two years and contested elections. Last year they withdrew from them as sufficient powers and finance had not been allotted to them.

‘‘The search for a political solution was the profound concern of the government of SL. It was this commitment to reach a peaceful solution to the problem that led SL to take the unprecedented step on the part of any Sovereign State of sending her accredited representatives to explore the possibility of reaching a settlement at two Conferences held in Thimpu, Bhutan in August 1985 … arranged with the Tamil groups through the good offices of India.

‘‘However, neither the TULF nor the groups who attended these talks showed any serious inclination to discuss any of the proposals placed before them by the Govt. of SL. Their final response was an outright rejection of the government proposals and an invitation to the Govt. of SL to make new proposals that would accord with the so-called cardinal principles which they enunciated, which were no more than a re-statement of the demand for Eelam.

‘‘On 12th July 1985 the 6 Tamil groups made a statement of the ‘Four Principles’ on which they were working. On 13th August 1985 the leader of the SL Delegation, Dr. H.W. Jayewardene responded to it with a statement on the ‘Four Principles’ mentioned by the Tamil groups.

‘‘He dealt with the (i) recognition of the Tamils as a distinct nationality, (ii) a separate homeland and (iii) self-determination for the Tamils; and (iv) the linkage of the Northern and Eastern Provinces as a reaffirmation of the demand for a separate state and could not be the subject of discussion and acceptance by the SL govt.

‘‘The SL delegation also submitted an outline of the structure of the sub-national units of a Participatory System of Governance on 16th August, but this too was not considered by the Tamil groups though it indicated areas on which discussion and agreement were possible.

‘‘The Accord reached in Thimpu and New Delhi were to be the basis of any future discussions. Such discussion would not reopen the Four Principles mentioned earlier in any form whatsoever. This was the basis of the understanding of both the Govts of India and Sri Lanka ….

There are certain principles which we cannot depart from arriving at a solution. We cannot barter away the unity of Sri Lanka, its democratic institutions, the right of every citizen in this country whatever his race, religion, or caste to consider the whole Island as his Homeland, enjoying equal rights, constitutionally, politically, socially, in education and employment are equally inviolable.”

“At present the Sri Lanka Tamils are in a minority in the Eastern Province while the Sinhalese and the Muslims together constitute nearly sixty per cent of the population. Since the Sri Lanka Tamils constitute more than ninety per cent of the population in the Northern Province, the object of the amalgamation of the North and the East is clear – the Sri Lanka Tamils will after amalgamation become the majority group in the combined unit of administration. Once the amalgamation is achieved the concept of the traditional homeland of the Tamils which has been a corner-stone of agitation in the post-independence period will be revived as this is the only ground on which the T.U.L.F.

denies the legitimate rights of the Sinhala people to become settlers in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Nor does the traditional homelands theory recognise any rights for the Muslims either except as an attenuated minority in the amalgamated territory. So, on the one hand while professing to urge the case for all Tamil speaking people in fact the T.U.L.F. is covertly seeking to secure the extensive areas for development, especially under the accelerated Mahaweli Program, for exploitation by the Sri Lankan Tamils alone. This in short is the duplicitous motivation behind the demand for amalgamation.

‘’ Quite candidly, the Sinhala people do not regard the demand for the amalgamation of the Northern and Eastern Provinces as a bona fide claim but as one motivated by an ulterior purpose, namely, as a first step towards the creation of a separate state comprising these two Provinces. The recent outrages by Tamil terrorists against the Sinhala civilian population settled in the North and East killing vast numbers of them, ravaging their homesteads and making thousands of them refugees in their own land has only made their apprehensions seem more real than ever before.

Even the most naive of people could not expect a single Sinhalese to go back to the North and/or East if the maintenance of law and order within those areas becomes the exclusive preserve of the political leaders and patrons of the very terrorists who chased them out. Could one for instance expect the survivors of Namalwatta to go back to their village if the leader of the Tamil Terrorist gang that murdered their families is the A S.P. of the area? Not only would those poor refugees not go back but those Sinhalese, including those in Ampara and Trincomalee, who are still living in the North and East, would necessarily leave their lands and flee to the South, if these proposals are implemented.”

These proposals are totally unacceptable. If they are implemented, the T. U. L. F. would have all but attained Eelam. It need hardly be said that even if the demand for a Tamil Linguistic State is granted, further problems and conflicts are bound to arise between that Tamil Linguistic State of the North and East and the Centre. Water, hydropower and the apportioning of funds are some of the areas in which conflicts could arise. A cause or pretext for a conflict on which to base a unilateral declaration of independence could easily be found.

There can be little doubt that what T.U.L.F. seeks to achieve by its demands is the necessary infrastructure for a State of Eelam, after which a final putsch could be made for the creation of a State of Eelam, comprising not only of the North and East, but of at least the hill country and the NCP as well.” (quoted in the Judgement of Wanasundara J in the 13th Amendment Case, Pp. 377 – 379)

With all our criticism of JR for the harmful consequences the country had to face with his open economy and executive presidency introduced after 1977, from the above statement it clearly appears that JR was not a traitor to this country, but a patriot who had some genuine concern for the country and its people. He had the wisdom to see through the danger posed to the very existence of this country as a unitary state by giving into unreasonable and crafty demands of the Tamil political leaders in the North-East.

President Jayewardene not only refused to accept these proposals of the TULF and other Tamil groups; he was not even prepared to discuss them. His firm response was that they are totally unacceptable.

(To be continued)

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Will RW go ahead with online security bill?




In 1914, Cambridge-educated D. R Wijewardena, arguably one of the most recognised entrepreneurs in the country, bought the Sinhala daily Dinamina. History also records that he purchased the English daily, Ceylon Daily News, in 1917. Consequently, Wijewardena is known as the press baron of the pre-independence of Ceylon. He fought for Independence from the colonial masters and was an early mover of the organised press. His son-in-law, Esmond Wickremesinghe, often referred to as one of the best political strategists in the recent history of Sri Lanka, masterminded the editorials of Lake House, the D. R. Wijewardena newspaper group.

Due to one person, even in 2023, the above names are still relevant in the media. He is Ranil Wickremesinghe, the eighth executive president of Sri Lanka. The grandson of DRW and son of EW has a deep understanding of the media business. It is, therefore, an irony that under his presidency, a new online security bill has surfaced. There is an uproar against the bill as, on the face of it, it is Draconian. There is little or no defence for the bill.

No doubt, the bill is lengthy and well-crafted. However, it is less than pragmatic, given how the internet and online world operate. Our view is that it is one-sided. Much more should be factored in if the government earnestly and with good-faith wishes to implement a bill of this nature that affects society so broadly.

Since he entered parliamentary politics in 1977, President Wickremesinghe has held all conceivable positions to have a rounded perspective of the country at large. Since 1994, he has received continuous attacks from politicians, civil society and the media. Even his family newspapers mercilessly attacked him without a pause. A man who withstood all these attacks does not have to be in a hurry to implement such a significant bill, especially when a presidential election is on the horizon. This bill seeks to grant a five-member committee appointed by the President sweeping powers to decide what is wrong and right. In a country known for gossip, lies, manipulation, corruption and nepotism, it is a recipe for disaster to enforce a bill of this nature. Imagine an executive president like President Maithripala Sirisena, whose character, integrity, and intelligence were doubtful to begin with, deciding right from wrong.  President Wickremesinghe should know this better than most. If Mahinda Rajapaksa had been given the power to determine what’s right or wrong, many would have been in jail by now!

Will President Wickremesinghe sanction this bill? Or, will he use this opportunity to emerge as the champion of free speech?  He is capable of both, as he plays his cards close to the chest all the time.

There are many defences for an online security bill. National security, pornography, blackmailing, character assassination, corporate espionage, media ethics, Ponzi schemes, and the list goes on. Sri Lanka has a history of all of the above. The recent pyramid schemes were promoted and activated online. Thousands of people lost billions in total. Given the country’s problems pertaining to national security, it is essential to keep a tab of the online space. Sri Lanka has earned notoriety for fake news. Sri Lankans love gossip, rumours, half-truths and lies. What most of the Sri Lankans don’t like is hearing the truth.

Forget the online activity, and consider how much mainstream media has propagated lies and fake news. Word of mouth is still the most terrific news tool in the country. There are many cases of fake news that end up in character assassination against not only political leaders but also ordinary citizens. In a country that has seen so much bloodshed, especially over the last 40 years, many have damaged minds. Suicide rate is at an all-time high, and the recent economic downfall has made people extremely vulnerable.

Understanding the digital media landscape in Sri Lanka is difficult. National security is of utmost importance. Providing a safe place for the public is essential. This could have been the underlying factor for this bill unless the government had a sinister plan to switch off public opinion. The country’s Constitution protects the freedom of expression under Chapter 3, section 14. The online security bill can be contested easily in the Supreme Court, and indeed, interested parties will move the courts to stand against this bill.

Online media, in one form, is an outlet to let go of frustration and anger. Why wouldn’t people be frustrated and angry, given how this country has been run since 1948? As one of the oldest democracies, Sri Lanka should allow decent public discourse. The public should have an opinion. The proposed online bill will fail even in a developed country with strict application of laws. However, we are confident that this bill will not be able to be implemented in the present form. If the existing system and regulations have been flawed over the years, we don’t see how this bill can be enforced. There are practical and technical issues of the proposed legislation as well. The global digital platforms cannot understand what is right or wrong. Right or wrong is highly subjective and all based on individual agendas or intelligence levels and life experiences.

Bills of this nature appear everywhere for governments that want to control the conversations. It is inevitable as the media proliferates.

George Orwell in 1949 wrote the book ‘1984’. He was talking about Big Brother watching all, and it was prophetic. It was a science fiction but now a reality.  The proposed online security bill goes way beyond Big Brother watching. In a country which lacks transparency and integrity, the system should not try extreme measures of this. The context is essential, and the government should open up public discourse and defend this case if they are accurate to the course.

Politically, such bills are often used to suppress online voices. It advantages the ruling group often but is disguised as protection for the weak (who usually are not online).

If a country has a workable criminal law, and the government understands the technology, then all such “crimes” can be prosecuted under the existing legal framework. There is no need for additional bills or bureaucracies.

Of course, the ability to investigate (i.e., understand the technology and access the data from the Telco) is critical to the policing of the online space.

Since the media is what the population usually trusts, by applying the law to an alleged online falsehood violator, the plaintiff or prosecutor can quickly start a “trial by media,” which can put the person at a credibility disadvantage for whatever he may say later.

Knowing such bills will be violently pushed back in a democracy that enjoys the freedom of speech, one has to be careful about the intention of instigating an uproar. If the government does not communicate clearly and gradually introduce the bill, as people need time and coaxing to understand and accept “what is in it for me”, it will undoubtedly add to the unsettled state of the nation.

Sri Lanka is at a crossroads. The last couple of years have been painful, and people are suffering. With the next presidential election on the horizon in 2024, it will be politically suicidal to anger further a 6 million voter base of people between the ages of 18 and 40. Civil society leaders and a few political leaders have voiced against the proposed bill, and many will join the bandwagon. The public discourse on this will be nasty, unless the government’s objective is to distract the public with the initiative. So why take a risk? What’s the end game?

With the AI revolution upon us, no one can understand the digital world. It’s evolving daily and changing the way we live, work and behave. The deep fake is reality, and the dark web is powerful. Today, without anyone’s knowledge, your pictures are being captured. The surveillance of humans is beyond anyone’s imagination. The un-erasable digital footprints and extreme eyeballing levels are enough to catch any wrongdoers, provided there is a robust legal system and laws. The punishment for wrongdoers should be visible, but importantly, it should be fair. Fairness is not something Sri Lanka is accustomed to.

The government authorities should start by enforcing the existing law. If acted upon with fairness and equality, people will recognise the gravity of fake news.  However, fake news cannot be eliminated. It is a losing proposition to assume what people think, grasp, say, and share can be controlled. The only way to combat fake news is to tell the truth. Told correctly, the truth will always win.

President Wickremesinghe has a grand vision for the digital economy. Sri Lanka should move with the world, not against it. The global corporate giants are too big to adhere to local regulations. No one understands where the world is moving, therefore, Sri Lanka should be open to learn from other case studies. No doubt, online security is important, but not in the proposed form.

(Alex is active in the Digital Government, Fintech, Trade Logistics, and Decentralisation industries. In addition, he held exco positions in regional think tanks and working groups with international organizations. He obtained his Electrical & Computer Engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and a Doctorate at Stanford University. Saliya and Alex, together advise governments, corporates and leaders.)

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