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Midweek Review

Vision for a Holistic Education

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Closer Connections among Different Branches of Human Knowledge:

by Liyanage Amarakeerthi

(A shortened version of a plenary speech given by Prof. Amarakeerthi at the International Conference of Sabaragamuwa University, Sri Lanka, on 03 December)

Every year I teach a course in aesthetics and non-linguistic arts. In that, I discuss what we ‘get’ from visual art works such as painting. One of the difficulties I constantly have is to explain to my students what they gain from looking at a painting, watching a dance performance, or listening to a piece of music.

Getting something out of art is a tricky business. Visual arts appeal to our eyes and through that sensory agent, a painting creates a certain aesthetic effect on us. Alexander Baumgarten, the first philosopher to open up the field what is now called “aesthetics”, thought that human beings gain a certain knowledge of themselves and the world through aesthetic objects. That knowledge is, he argued, acquired through our senses, eyes, ear, skin, tongue. This bodily perception he thought is inferior to rational knowledge. For him, only the rational mind can produce superior knowledge. In his book, Aesthetica (1750), he famously said, ” Aesthetics is the sister of logic.” One can easily see the Cartesian separation of mind and body here. Descartes’ has it that, “I think, therefore I am.” Here think means, logical thinking, the activity of the mind. But the ‘aesthetic cognition’ of Baumgarten was about bodily perception, about what we feel with our senses. Descartes or card-carrying Cartesians would never say, “I feel, therefore, I am.”

In the Western discussions about knowledge after Descartes, a tragic separation of the rational mind and emotional body takes place and it has continued to exist and widen despite numerous attempts to bridge it. My speech today is about creating points of contact across this divide. This is not a new theme in the scholarly discussions, of course, but in Sri Lanka this requires much more attention.

Professor Antonio Damasio has demonstrated in his excellent book, Descartes’ Error, maintains that the mind/body separation was a mistake made in the rationalist tradition. According to him, rational thoughts and emotions nurture and supplement each other. In fact, it is in the fertile ground of emotions that rational thought achieves its richest form. Damasio claims in the fields of neuroscience and biochemistry emotions have been given the due place they disserve: “Contrary to traditional scientific opinion, feelings are just as cognitive as percepts”(xxv). After all, it might not all that wrong to call, ” I feel, therefore, I am.”

Taking cue from scientists

Taking a cue from scientists like Damasio, I think that these new developments in natural sciences can be wisely used to create a new dialogue between sciences and the humanities, the latter being often regarded as fields that deal with human emotions.

In a striking paragraph in their Primordial Bond, Stephen Schneider and Lynn Morton state,

“Along with the attempt to separate himself from Nature, man has also separated himself from his fellow man. We have subdivided ourselves into groups: professions, nationalities, religions, sexes, and even intellectual sectors like artists and scientists”(1981, 21).

Separations of this kind might be somewhat conceptual in the West, here, in Sri Lanka, the separation is physical, social, and even political. It is physical in the sense that those of us who are in these separate subject areas are physically distanced from each other as exemplified in the way different faculties are separated at the best-planned university, Peradeniya. The separation is social because those who have the expertise in different subjects are hierarchically organized – doctors at the top and others are bellow at different degrees. At least in the public imagination, this is usually the case. That separation is political in the sense powerful trade unions of doctors to continue to the get the lion’s share from the country economy. Remember, those were the ones who go the lion’s share of the country’s education in the first place.

This kind of intellectual or cultural attitudes are absent, at least in a crude form like the above, in countries where the idea of liberal arts has persisted for centuries. A typical liberal arts curriculum includes natural sciences, mathematics, history, literature, economics, languages, fine arts and so on. All these subjects are taught all the way up the university entrance level. At the university, students are required to take humanities and social science courses no matter what subject they are going to major in. For example, to get into the medical school, one has to pass some pre-med courses which typically include the following: Biology, biochemistry, calculus, ethics, psychology, sociology, statistics, genetics, humanities, public health, and human physiology.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, I have met pre-med students and students from the School of Engineering, and the Business School taking courses in literature, drama and philosophy at the school of Arts and Sciences.

Even this long tradition of liberal arts in such powerful countries has been under threat in recent times. But when that happens over there, numerous educationists come forward to defend that concept of holistic education. One such scholar, Mark William Roche wrote an excellent book, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? when the idea of holistic education came under attack nearly decade ago. Let me quote a paragraph that might resonate with all of you: “Liberal arts students are encouraged to develop not only an awareness of knowledge intrinsic to their major but a recognition of what that discipline’s position within the larger mosaic of knowledge. The college or university citizen invested in the search for not only specialized knowledge but also the relation of the diverse parts of knowledge to one another. To be liberally educated involves knowing the relative position of the little one knows within the whole knowledge. Mathematics helps us see the basic structures and complex patterns of the universe, and the sciences help us understand and analyze the laws that animate the natural world, the inner world, and the social world. History opens a window onto the development of the natural and social world. The intellectual fruits of arts and literature, the wisdom of religion, and the ultimate questions of philosophy illuminate for us the world as it should be. In essence, the arts and sciences explore the world as it is and the world as it should be (pp. 21-2).

A rethink needed

In Sri Lanka too, it is time for us to reconsider the separation of various branches of knowledge and to imagine the ways by which we can reconnect- most rewarding ways to reconnect. Regular discussions with some of my colleagues in natural sciences at Peradeniya, and engineering have convinced me that there are so many intelligent and creative people on the other side of the divide, eagerly waiting to hold on to a friendly hand extended from our side.

This does not mean that the disciplinary hierarchies within the world of education have suddenly fallen down, and all have become equals. That is hardly the case. The subordination of all other subjects to natural sciences still continues. Publishing industry, funding mechanisms, ranking systems, the methods of rewarding scholars are more or less dominated by the scientific way of thinking. Scientism, that is elevating science to an object of worship, is also visible.

But still it is worthwhile for those of us in the humanities to engage in discussions at least with some branches of natural science. In fact, I think that, as a first step towards initiating this dialogue, everyone enters the faculties of arts should be provided with opportunities to learn the basics of science. In addition, a course in philosophy of science will show them both potentials and the limits of science.

A Union of Nature and Culture

Already, in cultural studies, there is a closer dialogue between natural sciences and social sciences in the effort understand how much of our ways of being in the world owes to nature and how much can be attributed to culture, and more importantly how much of culture gets into our psyche during the course of evolution or history. The way we carry ourselves in the world has been determined by both culture and Nature. Much of human nature is in that sense both cultural and natural.

Constructivism

Cultural constructivism had a major blow after that famous Canadian experiment in 1960s failed. Let me remind you that famous case. When a Canadian baby boy being circumcised, a doctor accidentally cuts off a large part of the boy’s penis. It was the heyday of cultural constructivism and the baby’s parents and the doctors decided to remove the remaining part of the penis, and to turn the boy into a girl. The plan was to raise the child as a girl, and surgically change the penis into a vagina, and, when she comes to the age of puberty, they would give her required hormones to help her move into complete womanhood. The parents named her “Brenda.” Famous psychologist named John Money advised the doctors and parents about how culture constructs gender, and Brenda was raised as a girl. Her clothing, toys, games and so on all were the ones typically assigned to girls. But Brenda never felt at ease with any of these. She did not feel comfortable among girls. The carefully planned socialization program failed.

But the textbooks on gender difference instructed the parents that the project should succeed. John Money the psychologist did not want to admit that it was a failure because of the impact it was likely to have on his career. By the time, Brenda was going to be given hormone injections to transform her completely into a woman, she rebelled and the parents decided to tell her what really happened. Brenda gave up all her cultural identity of a woman and took a male name. Of course, he is unable to father children. He married a woman who had two children from a previous relationship and became the father to them.

Culture and socialisation

Culture and socialisation, two mechanisms, the constructivists thought could transform a boy into normal girl, failed making a huge impact on the constructivist school of thought. Our biological hardwiring and genes are so crucial in deciding who we are. The culture, society, ideology and the like are still important creating and sustaining our identities. A much finer understanding between natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities can help us get the bigger picture of being human. We might never understand the final or the most perfect picture of all realities of the humanity. One of the remarkable truths the study of genes reveals is that a minute genetic uniqueness can result in giving each of us a unique identity, and end up making us significantly different from each other. Culture and socialization can only strengthen, even overdetermine, that difference. Moreover, socialisation can make us see our shared humanity as well. One may recall here Simone de Beauvoir’s famous sentence, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. (The Second Sex).

These scientists are not suggesting at all that we should return to biological determinism to argue, contrary to de Beauvoir’s point, that all the attributes of a woman are natural and she is born with them. No. We know much of what makes a woman is socio-culturally determined. But Brenda’s case invites us to come up with much richer understanding of nature/culture divide.

What I am suggesting here is that the humanities will certainly benefit by paying closer attention to some meticulous research in natural sciences. Yet, I am no expert to use scientific knowledge in a scientific manner. Therefore, what I am saying here might be incomplete and partial. But still, these facts, I hope, that make some sense.

Amygdala, the Almond

Let me tell you about the story of Amygdala – a small segment of the human brain. In Greek, Amygdala means, ‘almond’ because it is what this particular part of the brain looks like. This small area of the brain is so crucial in determining human behavior, especially various behaviors related to aggression. We in the humanities and social sciences, often study causes of human aggression. In the field literature, we interpret aggressive behaviours looking into their social-cultural origins. We often use one person’s actions as windows into human action in general in a given social or historical contexts. I truly believe that scientific explanations about the workings of Amygdala reveals us certain realities of human life that we cannot ignore. Incorporated into our culturalist or behaviorist explanations about human affairs, these scientific revelations can deepen our understating of ourselves. Extreme naturalists too can learn one or two things from the humanities and social sciences.

Scientists have experimented with Amygdala for years using various animals in addition to human beings. When this particular portion of the brain is damaged or wounded by some scientific methods, rates of aggression in that animal significantly decline. Conversely, when the Amygdala is stimulated by implanting electrodes there, aggression of the animal increases. In humans too, scientists have found out that the functioning of amygdala is so crucial for aggressive behaviour.

Human aggression has some important pathological source, and by scientifically controlling Amygdala aggression can be controlled. In other words, surgery knife, electric shocks or injections can be more useful in suppressing riots than armies or police forces! Perhaps, that is already happening.

Robert Sapolsky discusses two cases, one from Germany and another from the US, where two perfectly normal people turning into gangsters and murderers simply because their amygdala is damaged. In the two cases, more than socio-cultural causes, the damaged amygdala was the most apparent reason for them to become what they later became. The whole story of two cases are the stuff of novels and films- things we regularly discuss in our classrooms, lecture halls and in our literary or cinematic criticism. We are more than likely to use these two cases as points of departure to embark on much larger socio-cultural analysis.

Not only aggression

Amygdala is related to many other emotions, mental traits and behaviors. Anxiety, fear, and certain phobias might have their origin in certain parts of amygdala. This part of the brain plays a crucial role in making social and emotional decisions. Even at the risk of this speech turning into a lesson in neurology, please allow me to cite some more examples.

When we accidentally chew on some rotten food, we instantly spit it out even before we could make a conscious decision of it. That is amygdala at work. A chemical reaction happens there, gets what is harmful to us out of our body. What is interesting for us is this: When see something morally disgusting such as woman being subjected to violence, the same chemical reaction takes place in amygdala and prompts us to take appropriate actions. Here amygdala and the frontal cortex of the brain work in unison to alert us about the right kind of behavior.

It is not surprising perhaps that amygdala gets activated by rotten food because it is nature’s way of protecting us from harm. But we activate amygdala when we think about morally disgusting things. Remember, when we think about them. In other words, a mental image of such a thing can still get us physically activated. Perhaps, this explains how and why literary works and films can move us into moral actions.

But there are ways this becomes complicated. These chemical reactions to disgust occur in the brain, for examples when accidentally chew on a cockroach or think about doing so. Things get still more complicated, my friends- still more complicated! Similar chemical reactions in our brain take place when we feel that a neighboring tribe, a group of people are like ‘loathsome cockroaches'(Sapolsky. Behave. 41-2). Now, you can see that neuro-chemistry in our bodies participate in our nationalism, racism and the self/other divide.

I do not want to argue here that nationalism, racism or political rivalry is all about a set of chemical-electric work within the body. I am just drawing your attention to the fact that our biochemistry has a significant role in our cultural, social and political life. No scientist, whose work I have studied so far claim that our culture, our social relations and so on are all about biochemistry. They certainly acknowledge the significance of socio-cultural contexts. In the concluding section to his monumental book, Behave, professor Sapolsky puts it four words: “Brains and cultures coevolve.” (672)

US and Them

Human beings, like some other animals, separate the world into Us and Them. This division often takes to be fundamentally cultural. Many of signs that are interpreted as US are indeed cultural. But the function of amygdala tells us something interesting. Us and Them separation may have a biological foundation. Explaining how empathy and brain are related, Sapolsky states,

“‘…Amygdala activates when viewing fearful faces, but only of in-group members; when it is an out-group member, them showing fear even might be good news — if it scares Them, bring it on”(395).

In winding up, this speech, let me repeat my main argument: The isolation of different branches of knowledge from each other has been a perennial problem in our education. Specialized knowledge is important indeed. But still there must be intense discussions among those fields because for a holistic understanding of our lives, societies, and the world can only be arrived at by attempting to create an organic whole in which each field of knowledge has a gap to fill. Where the gap is seemingly filled by one branch of knowledge, still other branches of knowledge might be able to fortify filling even further. And there may be certain gaps the humanity will never fill, and that is where we need much more engaged discussion among ourselves.

In this speech, I suggested that liberal arts model followed in the US and elsewhere, could guide us to think of model of our own to integrate various forms of knowledge. To begin this process of integration, those of us in the humanities should consider the ground-breaking new research, some of which, I have summarized above. Those of us in the natural sciences too need to learn the art of writing science in a manner that can be understood by the non-specialists.

(Amarakeerthi is professor of Sinhala at University of Peradeniya)



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Midweek Review

President’s agenda on track

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the inauguration of the Cephalosporin Injectable Plant and the unveiling of the "Meldol" Reliable Relief Manufacturing Facility at Ekala, Ja-Ela, on June 06. During his address, Wickremesinghe declared his intention to introduce the Economic Transformation Bill which he called the first step in economic revitalization (pic courtesy PMD)

In the wake of the SLPP reiterating its commitment to President Wickremesinghe, two groups of MPs – New Alliance and the SLFP among the ruling party – announced their partnership at a meeting held at Ambalantota on Saturday (08). Among the lawmakers present were Leader of the House Susil Premjayantha, Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, Trade Minister Nalin Fernando, SLFP leader (Chairman) and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and Nimal Lanza, who spearheaded the move, along with Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Their common agenda is obviously for the Wickreemsinghe’s benefit and at the expense of the SLPP, the Opposition, as well as the Maithripala Sirisena camp, now more or less a spent force due to his own doings, especially when it came to betrayals.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The outcome of the recent vote on the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill proved that President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s agenda cannot be reversed as long as the Sri Lanka Podujuna Peramuna (SLPP) continued to back him for whatever reasons.

Of the 225 MPs in Parliament, 103 voted for the Bill on June 06. Only one UNPer (Wajira Abeywardena) was among them. The government was deprived of one vote by Kandy District MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage who sent fellow Kandy district lawmaker Gunatilleke Rajapaksa to the Military Hospital on the evening of June 03. The alleged assault on Gunatilleke Rajapaksa received front-page attention of all print media, while the electronic media, particularly the social media, thrived on the incident.

On the following day, the Public Debt Management Bill was passed without a division. Posting on ‘X’ (formerly Twitter), State Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe declared that the Bill will provide for Public Debt Management, including the authorization to borrow, issue and to service the public debt. It would also enable issuing guarantees, on-lending, enter into suppliers’ credit and financial lease agreements for the establishment of the Public Debt Management Office and for matters connected therewith.

In spite of having just one MP, President Wickremesinghe ensured the enactment of new laws with the SLPP’s support. If National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa’s recent declaration that under Wickremesinghe’s watch 75 new laws had been enacted is true, the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill is the 76th law pushed through by the Wickremesinghe-led regime.

However, the one-day debate and the vote on the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill – the first division shown after SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa’s declaration on May 12 against rushing through with new legislation on the eve of a major national election and despite grave shortcomings pointed out by the Supreme Court determination – demonstrated that the SLPP would stand by President Wickremesinghe.

No less than twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa voted for the controversial Bill that the SC determined is inconsistent with the Constitution as a whole. Against the backdrop of the Rajapaksa-led move on June 06 in Parliament, his May 12 two-page declaration against ‘The sale of national assets and state-owned enterprises’ is irrelevant. In other words, the SLPP has discarded its own declaration.

What really compelled the Rajapaksas to vote for the Bill, in spite of allegations that the new law is intended to facilitate the Adani Group, led by billionaire Gautam Adani, whose Adani Green Energy, the renewable energy unit secured approval in February 2023 to invest $442 million and develop the 484 megawatt wind power plants in Mannar and Pooneryn.

Jathika Jana Balawegaya MP Vijitha Herath during the June 6 debate alleged that the new law was introduced to facilitate Adani operations here.

Former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and his son Shashendra Rajapaksa voted for the Bill whereas SLPP’s National Organizer Namal Rajapaksa quite conveniently skipped the vote. The lawmaker, aspiring to be party leader and their presidential candidate, owed the discerning public an explanation why he missed that vote. Having skipped the June 06 vote, Namal Rajapaksa appeared on stage at an SLPP meeting held in Rattota on Saturday (08) where he vowed to pursue the SLPP strategy. The National Organizer was surrounded by SLPP MPs who voted for Wickreemsinghe’s Bill a few days before. In the run-up to the June 06 vote, MP Namal Rajapaksa declared that Wickremesinghe was appointed as the President only up to the time for the next national election.

Regardless of the SC finding fault with the Bill, President’s Counsels – Foreign Minister Ali Sabry and Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse and several other lawyers in the SLPP group voted for that Bill.

Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa should be seriously concerned over his failure to ensure all his MPs, excluding Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara, voted against that Bill. If not for the SLPP dissidents and the three-member JJB group, the Opposition would have been embarrassed by an extremely poor show. The SJB won 54 seats, including seven National List slots at the last General Election. But over one fourth of them were missing at the time of the vote.

The Opposition should realize that President Wickremesinghe needed that Bill enacted at any cost, regardless of the consequences, as his political agenda depends on it. That is the truth. Let me name those MPs who voted against President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Bill. The list prepared by the Chief Opposition Whip’s Office has been divided into three sections namely dissident SLPP MPs, JJB MPs and SJB MPs.

The list of SLPP dissidents: Prof. G. L. Peiris, Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, Jayantha Samaraweera, Wasantha Yapa Bandara, Chandima Weerakkody, Shan Wijeyalal de Silva, Dallas Alahapperuma, Weerasumana Weerasinghe, Dr. Upul Galappaththy, Thilak Rajapaksha, Gunapala Ratnasekera, Jayaratna Herath, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Prof. Channa Jayasumana, Sarath Kumara Siri, Dilan Perera, Gevindu Kumaratunga and Prof. Charitha Herath (altogether 20)

The list of JJB members: Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Vijitha Herath and Dr. Harini Amarasuriya (20+3)

The list of SJB members: Sajith Premadasa, Dr. Harsha de Silva, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Mano Ganeshan, S.M. Marikkar, Ajith Mannapperuma, Kavinda Jayawardena, Harshana Rajakaruna, Lakshman Kiriella, Abdul Haleem, Velu Kumar, Rohini Kaviratne, Palani Digambaram, V. Radhakrishnan, M. Udayakumar, Gayantha Karunatilleke, Buddhika Pathirana, Dilip Wedaarachchi, Imran Maharoof, M.S. Thawfeek, Asoka Abeysinghe, Thushara Indunil Amarasena, Nalin Bandara, Niroshan Perera, Hector Appuhamy, Kings Kumar Nelson, Varuna Priyantha Liyanage, Thalatha Atukorale, Hesha Vithanage, Kabir Hashim, Sujith Sanjaya Perera, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Eran Wickremaratne, Mayantha Dissanayake and Mujibur Rahuman (23+3+36=59).

The entire 10-member Tamil National Alliance (TNA), in spite of being divided over various political and personal issues, backed Wickremesinghe’s Bill by skipping the vote. That group included another President’s Counsel. Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran is his name. The TNA, too, owed an explanation regarding its decision to be absent. Did India, in any way, advise the one-time LTTE’s partner to keep away from the crucial vote?

SLPP National List MP and business tycoon Dhammika Perera, widely believed to be interested in contesting the Presidential Polls, didn’t vote along with SLPP MP Maithripala Sirisena and SJB Chairman Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka.

Prez tightens his grip on SLPP

Wily President Wickremesinghe, like his late uncle and mentor JRJ, dubbed the 20th Century Fox, cannot be faulted for exploiting the SLPP to the hilt. Wickremesinghe’s strategy is certainly not rocket science. Having offered Wickremesinghe the premiership (in April 2022), Finance portfolio (May 2022) and Presidency (July 2022), the SLPP created an environment in which it simply has no option but to cohabit with the UNP leader.

How could the SLPP take a different stand on any bill presented on Wickremesinghe’s directives after having accepted him as the leader of its parliamentary group, head of the Cabinet and their saviour in the face of the murderous onslaught launched by Aragalaya. So is it the fear of another instigated Aragalaya, where they would be defenceless with the police and security forces turning the other way, that is holding them back, as happened on May 09, 2022?

In fact, opposing Wickremesinghe’s agenda is ridiculous against the backdrop of the party having accepted Cabinet portfolios, with MEP leader and PM Dinesh Gunawardena being the leader of the severely compromised SLPP parliamentary group. Two Finance State Ministers, namely Shehan Semasinghe and Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, are part of the Wickremesinghe team. Both obviously voted for the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill.

Last week’s high profile vote proved beyond doubt that at least for the time being Wickremesinghe and the SLPP are inseparable. MP Namal Rajapaksa, being the SLPP’s National Organizer, under no circumstances can absolve himself of the responsibility for the passage of the Bill. In a way, in the case of the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill, avoiding such an important Bill is, perhaps, far worse than voting for it. Why do MPs fail to turn up for important Bills that are of national significance? At the time of last week’s vote, 61 MPs hadn’t been present in Parliament, whereas SLPP MP Udayakantha Gunatilleke’s vote (Kegalle district) though being present was not marked.

The overall deterioration of the country can be gauged by the conduct of political parties represented in Parliament. The systematic decline over the past couple of decades has eroded public confidence in the House to such an extent, unless immediate remedial measures are taken, collectively, those now wielding power can expect an Aragalaya-type uprising. Dissident SLPP MP Gevindu Cumaratunga gave such a warning during the debate on the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill.

The SLPP vote, on June 06 ,can be confidently declared as an outright rejection of the massive mandates that had been received at the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary polls. The SLPP’s candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa handsomely won the contest by polling a staggering 6,924,255 (52.25%) whereas at the parliamentary election the party secured an overwhelming 145 seats. Regardless of their much touted assurance to reverse the Yahapalana economic policies, against the backdrop of Aragalaya, the SLPP has teamed-up with Wickremesinghe.

The SLPP’s bid to empower Wickremesinghe as a stopgap measure has backfired and now is threatening the very basis of the party. The June 06 vote has tied-up the SLPP with Wickremesinghe who seemed to have taken hold of the party, regardless of tough talk by some lawmakers over the past several months. The SLPP has suddenly realized that the entire political environment changed with Wickremesinghe vigorously pursuing an agenda at the SLPP’s expense. But, the top SLPP leadership (the Rajapaksas) fearing that a large chunk of their parliamentary group would switch allegiance to Wickremesinghe and voted for a controversial Bill to avert a damaging split.

Daunting challenge

The Opposition seems to be in disarray. The leader of the main Opposition party should muster all his MPs or be prepared to face the consequences. Wickremesinghe’s triumph in Parliament, on June 06, proved yet again that highly critical SC determinations in respect of controversial Bills that had been presented to Parliament cannot be efficiently exploited by the Opposition, primarily due to the SLPP-Wickremesinghe tie-up. That is the reality.

The SLPP’s stand on Wickremesinghe’s controversial Economic Transformation Bill (ETB) is clear. There is no ambiguity in the ruling party’s position on ETB though dissident SLFPers have been vigorously campaigning against it.

State Finance Minister Semasinghe’s recent declarations, in and outside Parliament, underscored the SLPP’s support for that Bill. While the Parliament voted for the Sri Lanka (Electricity) Amendment Bill on June 6 late afternoon, Wickremesinghe had been at Ekala, Ja-Ela, at the opening of a medicine producing facility where he emphasized the importance of ETB. SJB heavyweight Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, contemplating his next move in a dicey political environment, was with Wickremesinghe. Another SJB dissident, Harin Fernando, now a Cabinet Minister, participated at the event. Both Dr. Senaratne and Harin Fernando were among those who missed the vote.

Wickremesinghe and the SLPP have stayed together though many speculated of a break-up of the alliance over the President’s refusal to accommodate a list of MPs in the cabinet – a request made in July 2022, immediately after he was sworn in as the President to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term. Relations further deteriorated in the wake of Wickremesinghe turning down the SLPP’s plea to advance the General Election ahead of the Presidential Poll. But, the fear of the Opposition exploiting a break-up has compelled the SLPP to remain committed to Wickremesinghe. As the Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatuga declared on many occasions, the SLPP should throw its weight behind Wickremesinghe at the Presidential Poll.

Against the backdrop of the SLPP’s June 06 vote, there cannot be any other reason whatsoever not to officially declare support for Wickremesinghe.

With the Presidential Poll now inevitable, though Wickremesinghe’s Camp sought to influence speculation on a referendum on holding of the poll, political parties, and even MPs, seem busy in seeking arrangements with the powers that be. SJB MP A.H.M. Fowzie’s stand on Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill is a case in point.

Among the 103 MPs who voted for Wckremesinghe’s Bill were several elected on other party tickets. Colombo District lawmaker Fowzie, who entered Parliament early last year to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Mujibur Rahuman, voted with the SLPP parliamentary group.

In spite of Nazeer Ahmed of SLMC losing his Batticaloa district seat in Oct last year, on SC judgment, MPs still continue the despicable practice. SC faulted Ahamed for voting for the SLPP Budget 2021, regardless of an SLMC decision to vote against. Wickremesinghe rewarded him with comfortable office-Governor of the North Western Province.

President Wickremesinghe is on record as having said that the ETB intends to ensure the political parties do not deviate on economic policy that had been forced on the incumbent government due to economic fallout. Then there must be a consensus on members switching sides at will for their convenience, at the expense of those who voted for them and the parties they represented.

MP Cumaratunga’s June 06 speech in Parliament highlighted the pathetic state in the House. The first time entrant to Parliament pointed out the failure on the part of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to provide an opportunity for MPs to express their views on this piece of legislation. Cumaratunga fiercely attacked the Speaker for not extending the debate by another day. The Yuthukama leader questioned the chair whether he, Cumaratunga, was allocated five minutes to silence him.

However, the dissident MP must be told that even if the debate on that particular Bill had been extended by another day, the outcome wouldn’t have been any different. The SLPP has been compelled to go along with Wickremesinghe, at least for the time being. No one should be surprised if the SLPP declared its support for Wickremesinghe soon after the Election Commission announces the Presidential Election in a few weeks.

The inordinate delay in the SLPP’s announcement indicated that the party remained unsure of its strategy and may go along with Wickremesinghe, as repeatedly suggested by Minister Prasanna Ranatunga.

It would be pertinent to mention that among those who voted for Wickremesinghe’s Bill were another group of dissident MPs seeking to reach an agreement with the President in respect of both presidential and parliamentary polls. That group includes Nimal Lanza, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Education Minister Susil Premjayantha who is also the Leader of the House and Trade Minister Nalin Bandara.

The SLPP initially backed Wickremesinghe without hesitation. Some even went to the extent of finding fault with Gotabaya Rajapaksa for being inexperienced. The party felt confident of Wickremesinghe’s leadership as he was expected to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term and leave. Obviously, the SLPP didn’t expect a political threat from Wickremesinghe. In fact, some even asserted that Wickremesinghe would be grateful to the SLPP for choosing him. Ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his memoirs declared Wickremesinghe as the best person to restore law and order.

But a slew of new laws enacted over the past two years has strengthened Wickremesinghe’s hands and tied the SLPP to the UNP leader. The passage of the Online Safety Bill, the Domestic Debt Optimisation (DDO) Bill and the Inland Revenue (Amendment) Act No. 14 of 2023 were among the laws that couldn’t have been approved without the SLPP’s backing.

Regardless of challenges, Wickremesinghe has succeeded in maintaining tight control over his partnership with the SLPP. That is a situation some cannot stomach but they cannot do anything about it, for the moment.

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Midweek Review

Sellasamy’s Sorrow

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By Lynn Ockersz

Sellasamy is broken with grief,

These long, weary decades,

Over his son’s Disappearance,

In the isle’s Longsuffering,

But there’s no hatred in him,

Towards any living being,

Except that he’d like to know,

The Truth behind his great loss,

So that his agonized heart,

Could finally be at peace,

But what he’s being promised,

By smug Sires at center Stage,

Is a little bit of scrub jungle,

In the badly mistaken notion,

That Reconciliation is tradable,

For a Mess of Pottage.

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Midweek Review

Ranil reveals bid to get rid of him while GR was fleeing to Trinco on board SLNS Gajabahu

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President Wickremesinghe participates in the “What’s New” dialogue on legal reforms with young legal professionals at a workshop held at the Presidential Secretariat (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attempts had been made to compel UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to give up the premiership immediately after the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had left Janadhipathi Mandiraya in the early afternoon of July 09, 2022.

That had been the devious Aragalaya strategy meant to pave the way for Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to assume executive powers as a mere figurehead and with them easily controlling him with the threat of further upheaval. Obviously Aragalaya strategists wanted to force Wickremesinghe out of office before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit the presidency.

However, they may not have expected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee President’s House immediately after protestors breached its main gates.

As we recall the law enforcers simply did nothing to halt the advance of the mob right into the President’s House, as people like US Ambassador Julie Chung openly prevailed on law enforcers not to act against what she repeatedly termed “peaceful protesters”, even after they, in a preplanned operation, meticulously burnt down more than hundred properties of government politicos and loyalists, across the country, on May 09/10, 2022. So they were on the whole the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing working with the Western regime change project here as was previously done in places like Libya and Iraq.

President Wickremesinghe discussed the challenge faced by him at the time of the Aragalaya, when he addressed a group of young legal professionals at the Presidential Secretariat on May 28.

Among those who had been at the head table was Colombo District SLPP lawmaker Premanath C. Dolawatte, an Attorney-at-Law and now widely believed to be one of those pursuing the UNP leader’s agenda.

Stressing the importance of the executive presidency in restoring stability, President Wickremesinghe recalled the situation as Aragalaya forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of Janadhipathi Mandiraya. The President said that some persons had asked him to resign as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was on board a ship and on his way to Trincomalee.

The President’s Media Division (PMD) quoted him as having told the young professionals how he declined to resign unless an MP, who commanded the confidence of the majority in Parliament, emerged against the backdrop of chaos. The President said that even if he wrote a letter of resignation, he couldn’t have handed it over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he was on his way to Trincomalee in a ship or flying to the Maldives to escape mob justice.

The President said that if he resigned, due to pressure brought on him by a particular person, or due to the destruction of his residence, at the top of 05th Lane, in Colombo 07, near Royal Primary, also on July 09, 2022, someone would have secured power outside the democratic process.

The President’s comments on Aragalaya didn’t attract sufficient media attention. In fact, the coverage of the Presidential Secretariat event had been influenced by the PMD media release. Both print and electronic media focused on the President pointing out that none of those contesting the forthcoming Presidential poll had assured so far that executive powers would be done away with.

Actually, at the 2019 Presidential election, SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa never referred to the abolition of the Executive Presidency or further dilution of executive powers. The wartime Defence Secretary aspired to be an all-powerful Executive President and, in fact, further enhanced the presidency with the enactment of the 20th Amendment, enacted in late October 2020. The move to introduce a new Constitution was also meant to further enhance the Executive Presidency. That report, prepared at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer, is gathering dust, probably at the Presidential Secretariat. Perhaps Gotabaya Rajapaksa should inquire from his successor Ranil Wickremesinghe what he intended to do with it. The former President has every right to seek an explanation, not only from the President, but the Cabinet-of-Ministers as well.

Let us get back to President Wickremesinghe’s disclosure of the bid to force him out of office soon after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa boarded SLNS Gajabahu (formerly Sherman of the US Coast Guard), at the Colombo harbor, to escape the pursuing mob.

Now that President Wickremesinghe again made reference to Aragalaya’s bid to get rid of him, who could have asked Premier Wickremesinghe to resign on July 09, 2022? Had there been similar demands/requests in the run-up to Wickremesinghe receiving the appointment as President on July 14?

Perhaps, President Wickremesinghe would never reveal the identities of those who demanded his resignation, obviously on more than one occasion during July 09-14 period.

Political party system in a bind

Post-Aragalaya political leadership conveniently refrained from inquiring into the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Nearly two years after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, there hadn’t been an effort, at any level, to conduct a thorough investigation into Aragalaya.

No holds barred investigation into Aragalaya shouldn’t be mixed up with individual cases, such as the killing of SLPP lawmaker Amatakeerthi Atukorale and his police bodyguard, at Nittambuwa, on the afternoon of May 09, 2022, or the killing of a protester at Rambukkana on April 19, 2022. A proper probe into Aragalaya should focus on the circumstances leading to the eruption of violent protest campaign, outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on the night of March 31, 2022, and the period till President Wickremesinghe deployed the military and the police, including the Special Task Force (STF), on July 22, 2022, to clear the Presidential Secretariat of protesters. And all those who were threatening to die for the “system change,” they were ostensibly clamouring for, simply vanished into thin air. How convenient! And how conveniently Julie Chung’s trap, too, shut on behalf of Aragalaya?

Had Wickremesinghe lacked the courage to do so, regardless of “international “condemnation”, the Aragalaya could have been still in control of the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat, etc. Wickremesinghe acted swiftly and decisively as he realized the danger in failing to bring back the situation under control, within a short period of time. Or was that all a show to hoodwink the country? May be he knew too much about JVP shenanigans, especially with the West for them being the principal mover of the demand for system change, too, to go silent, like obedient kittens, with Ranil at the helm.

National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, MP, in April 2023, named outgoing US Ambassador Julie Chung as one of the key Aragalaya conspirators. The former JVP heavyweight went to the extent of alleging that Ambassador Chung personally met Speaker Abeywardena at the latter’s official residence in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing Janadhipathi Mandiraya.

Speaker Abeywardena never denied Weerawansa’s claim, though Ambassador Chung dismissed the allegation. However, President Wickremesinghe latest disclosure should be examined, taking into Speaker’s declaration in March this year that those who spearheaded Aragalaya even threatened him unless he cooperated with them. Speaker Abeywardena declared that Aragalaya wanted him to accept the presidency, though the Constitution stipulated that the Premier should succeed the President.

Then, obviously, those who demanded Wickremesinghe to resign, and Speaker Abeywardena to accept the Presidency in July 2020, must be the same. There cannot be any dispute whatsoever regarding the Aragalaya strategy. Obviously, ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his widely read book ‘The Conspiracy to Oust Me from Presidency’ failed to properly deal with external intervention, particularly the interventions made by Ambassador Chung.

The US, through Ambassador Chung’s interventions, ensured protection for Aragalaya throughout the high profile project as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s control rapidly eroded. The then government never really comprehended the grave implications of the April 19, 2022 Rambukkana incident. The senior police officer in charge of Kegalle, Senior Superintendent of Police K.B. Keerthiratne, had to undergo the humiliation of being arrested and remanded over a police shooting that claimed the life of a protester. Had Keerthiratne failed to order that shooting, the protesters would have set ablaze a fully loaded bowser, carrying petrol, strategically placed across the rail tracks there to create chaos and disrupt rail transport By the time the SSP and three other policemen received bail, in August, Wickremesinghe was the President.

The former President should have dealt with the Rambukkana issue in his memoirs. There cannot be any doubt, or dispute, that the utterly irresponsible government response to police firing at Rambukkana discouraged the military from taking tangible measures to thwart the overrunning of Janadhipathi Mandiraya.

The Aragalaya opened Janadhipathi Mandiraya and Presidential Secretariat for the public and they remained in their hands until President Wickremesinghe regained control on July 22, 2022.

Prez draws sharp criticism

Sri Lanka couldn’t have continued with chaos caused in the wake of the political-economic-social crisis that threatened the ruination of the war-winning country that also successfully undertook so many development projects, like building expressways in the country for the first time, badly needed new international airport and even an international harbour, that became the envy of even our giant neighbour. Speaker Abeywardena, whatever his shortcomings and failures, should receive the respect and gratitude of all for saving the country from a horrible fate. Sri Lanka’s unitary status had been at stake and the country faced the risk of disintegrating.

Having been elected as the 8th Executive President on July 20, 2022 by the SLPP parliamentarians, who had the majority in the House, the UNP leader moved swiftly to regain control. Since then, Wickremesinghe, in spite of being reduced to just one National List MP in Parliament, never looked back as he advanced his agenda.

The President’s decision to do away with the Galle Face protest site earned the wrath of those who hoped for a different outcome. They expected Speaker Abeywardena, as Head of State, at least for a brief period, pending post-Gaddafi-style Libyan administration.

The following are some of the statements issued by the “usual suspects” who blindly tow the US line, in the wake of President Wickremesinghe’s directive:

UN Human Rights Commission:

“We are alarmed by the unnecessary use of force by security forces to break up a protest camp near presidential offices in Colombo. We condemn reports of beatings of protesters, journalists and lawyers and urge authorities to halt the use of force.”

The UNHRC Sri Lanka Core Group (consisting of Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, the USA and the UK):

“peaceful protest is fundamental to any democracy and dismayed at the violence which took place at Galle Face on Friday.” The grouping called for full respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Amnesty International South Asia:

“…the attack on ‘GotaGoGama,’ the peaceful protest site in Colombo by the police and the military is unacceptable and authorities must stand down immediately. The right to protest must be protected. Sri Lankan authorities must immediately cease these acts of violence and release those arrested unlawfully in this manner. Authorities must also protect the freedom of the press. Journalists must not be barred from ‘GotaGoGama’. Blocking journalists from doing their jobs directly violates freedom of the press.”

Human Rights Watch South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly said:

“President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been telling donors and friends that he is committed to resolving the economic crisis, and yet among his first acts was to deploy a midnight security forces raid to disperse the peaceful protesters. The international community needs to act now, send a strong message that the global efforts are directed to support the people of Sri Lanka, and not to prop up abusive political leaders who undermine fundamental freedoms.”

UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said she was gravely concerned by the use of force to disperse protesters.

“Journalists and human rights defenders have a right to monitor demonstrations and their functions should not be impeded. Actions that stifle protests and right to peaceful assembly can worsen economic and political stability in Sri Lanka. Peaceful solutions in accordance with broad public consultations is the only way forward.”

The European Union:

“Freedom of expression proved essential to Sri Lanka’s current transition. Hard to see how severely restricting it can help in finding solutions to the current political and economic crises.”

UK High Commissioner Sarah Hulton expressed concern over the attack and said:

“We have made clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest.”

US Ambassador Julie Chung:

“Deeply concerned about actions taken against protestors at Galle Face in the middle of the night. We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured.”

Canadian High Commissioner David McKinnon:

“It is crucial the authorities act with restraint and avoid violence.”

The Presidential Secretariat remained in the hands of protesters till midnight July 22, 2022, out of the three State properties they took control of on July 09. Protesters evacuated from the other two – the President’s House and Temple Trees ahead of any confrontation with the military tasked to remove them!

In the absence of proper investigations…

Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatunga is one of the few lawmakers to question the failure on the part of relevant authorities to investigate organized attacks on government MPs. When the writer raised this issue with Minister Ranatunga a few moons ago, the Gampaha District SLPP strongman expressed serious disappointment over the status of the investigations.

Declaring that his properties at Udugampola, Gampaha, had been set ablaze in the presence of law enforcement officers, Urban Development and Housing Minister Ranatunga said that he was still awaiting the conclusion of the investigation undertaken by the Human Rights Commission. None of those who had been identified as responsible for systematic destruction of houses and other properties belonging to government members and in some cases supporters hadn’t been dealt with.

President Wickremesinghe’s recent disclosure of efforts to force him out of the Premier’s Office revealed that there hadn’t been a proper investigation into the Aragalaya at all. What is the mysterious evil hand preventing justice being done to victims of mob justice by Aragalaya? But the evil West leaves no stone unturned in seeking “justice” on behalf of the LTTE and its sympathisers, who tried to break up this country through sheer raw terror.

It would be interesting to know the status of the investigation promised by the Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, into the May 9/10 attacks on politicians’ properties. A case filed by a group of politicians, demanding an investigation into these incidents, had been withdrawn in late May, 2023 on an assurance given by the Attorney General.

The State Counsel appearing on behalf of the Attorney General assured Court that the AG had received an assurance from the Public Security Ministry that there would be a formal investigation into the incidents and secondly, the Secretary to the President promised that the Wasantha Karannagoda Committee report on the May 2022 incidents would be brought to the attention of the President.

What is the status of the promised investigation? President Wickremesinghe cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for ensuring a comprehensive investigation into violence perpetrated during 2022.

In spite of allegations that the JVP instigated an attack on Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa at the Galle Face protest site on the afternoon of May 09, 2022, the main Opposition party never pushed hard for an investigation.

Recently MP Premadasa confirmed the alleged JVP plot when the writer sought his response to SLPP MP Johnston Fernando’s declaration that Premadasa would have been lynched if his driver failed to reverse the vehicle at high-speed after the JVP mob surrounded Premadasa. Sunil Handunetti declared that both Johnston and Sajith should have their heads examined. But JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake was virtually received with open arms by the same Aragalaya activists on the same day at the same venue

Another matter for serious concern is that all suspects arrested in connection with the killing of MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale were granted bail without the AG being consulted. The accusation has been made by the AG in respect of the decision taken by the Trial-at-Bar of the Gampaha High Court. We would refrain from commenting on the issue at hand as the matter is pending before the court.

The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government has completely ignored ex-President’s allegations that the military deliberately failed to thwart the public protest campaign that was launched on March 31, 2022. Gotabaya Rajapaksa went to the extent of alleging that Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General (retd.) Shavendra Silva and Defence Secretary General (retd.) Kamal Gunaratne may have failed to take tangible measures as they were under pressure due to war crimes accusations directed at them by the US. However, it must be pointed out that General Silva hadn’t been at the helm of the Army at the time Aragalaya overran Janadhipathi Mandiraya with ease.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa replaced General Silva on June 1, 2022, following the May 09 incidents which shook his government with Vikum Liyanage, also of the Gajaba Regiment as the Commander of the Army, though various interested parties found fault with Silva, who headed the celebrated 58 Division that in way spearheaded the war victory, for not protecting Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government.

The UNP also provided muscle to Aragalaya. Former MP and current presidential advisor Ashu Marasinghe and SJB MP and Minister Harin Fernando had declared the UNP’s direct role in Aragalaya whereas the JVP and its breakaway faction the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP/Peratugami Pakshaya) played a significant role. However, the vast majority of those who provided the real strength to the protest campaign were not members of any political party but angry Sri Lankans influenced by the collapsing of the economy. They also engaged in looting in some instances but there were organized groups which caused massive destruction, systematically at the behest of Aragalaya masterminds operating from behind the scene.

President Wickremesinghe should name those who had asked him to give up the premiership. Speaker Abeywardena, too, should reveal who threatened to harm him unless he fully cooperated with the Aragalaya.

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