By Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva
Sri Lanka has been working with a centrally implemented and a state centric approach to COVID-19 from the inception of the epidemic. Judging by the slow progress of the pandemic in Sri Lanka during what is broadly referred to as the first wave, it worked well in terms of identifying those with the virus, contact tracing, developing and implementing quarantine operations, introduction of preventive practices and broadly in terms of monitoring and control of the pandemic. This was reflected in the low prevalence of the COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality during the first seven months of the onset of the disease in Sri Lanka. Now that we are in the threshold of a possible community transmission of the disease with related challenges, we need to rethink about our approach to control the disease and minimize its fallout in the society, economy and the body politics in the country.
This is because a purely state-centric approach implemented by the health workers with ample support of the police and the security forces has its limitations when dealing with a large number of infections in multiple clusters some connected with economic nerve centres in the country as well as its wide ranging social and economic fallout affecting livelihoods, marketing arrangements, social cohesion, trust in systems and democratic governance in general. In order to address these challenges effectively, we need to have a broader community participation at all levels, inclusive decision making and a two-way flow of information in place of a purely top down communication pattern that dictates do’s and don’ts for people at all levels without having a sound understanding of ground realities and how the decisions made at the top will affect the various stakeholders, including the people who are most vulnerable to infection and related complications of a life threatening nature. A consultative process involving a broader spectrum of stakeholders is necessary in order to deal with a constantly evolving pandemic and its wide-ranging impacts.
Why a Change of Approach is Necessary at this Stage?
In dealing with the problem at hand we have to learn from Sri Lanka’s own rich experience in addressing massive public health emergencies in the past. For instance, the devastating malaria epidemic of 1934 to 35 that actually led to the emergence of several progressive social and political movements in Sri Lanka, including the Leftist movement itself. Many emerging political leaders in the country at the time, such as Dr. N.M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Philip Gunawardena and A. Rathnayake actually grasped the grass root level realities and living conditions of a wide array of local communities through their direct participation in relief work in the affected areas. This, in turn, shaped their political thinking and contribution to the development of Sri Lankan welfare state in time to come.i While we have to understand that COVID-19 is a different kettle of fish altogether when it comes to control and prevention, with restriction of movement and social distancing as a prerequisite for the control of the new disease, it is nevertheless the case that informed decision making is necessary in responding to a health emergency of this magnitude and social justice must be ensured in reaching out to the most vulnerable.
With a significant spread of the corona virus and related challenges particularly among vulnerable groups such as the urban poor, female garment workers, informal sector workers, prisoners, nattamis, fishermen, elderly and the like, quite apart from handling the disease burden, the critically ill, diagnostic and curative services, including ICU beds, the affected families and communities will need a whole lot of other services as well. This includes the need for counselling, social connectivity, livelihood support, food provisioning, relief services and addressing social issues such as stigma, discrimination and rights of patients and their family members too. This is where community participation is essential at all levels in order identify and overcome the gaps and deficits in the systems in place and establish a feedback mechanism whereby decision making responds to the felt needs from below as well as the need for compliance with disease prevention guidelines formulated by the health authorities.
Also it has to be noted here that blaming the upsurge of the pandemic on these vulnerable groups will be tantamount to blaming the victims. This is because they have become exposed to the disease largely due to circumstances beyond their control, circumstances imposed upon them by the institutions or social settings in which they are part of. The relevant organizations must be accountable and involved in identifying remedies for the problems encountered by the specific groups of vulnerable people within their ambit. As some commentators on the pandemic elsewhere in the world have pointed out, vulnerability cannot be narrowly defined in demographic or public health terms alone, as new clusters of vulnerability have emerged side by side with established social fault lines in the wake of this devastating pandemic all over the world.
As of now, the COVID-19 response in Sri Lanka relies entirely on a combination of a widespread use of electronic and print media for reaching out to the public with the latest information and legal enforcement of the relevant interventions. While this has its advantages in responding to the pandemic at a time when messages have to be disseminated to the public instantly expecting them to fall in line, this is unlikely to be successful in the long run unless there is an engaged social process beyond one-way communication leading to a broader community acceptance of the conduct proposed and established through a dialogue that also seeks to respond to ground level realities and problems encountered by people in implementing the safe practices introduced.
Effective social mobilization and broader community participation are necessary for prevention of COVID-19 infections and more importantly in containing the social and economic fallout of a rapid disease transmission. For effective control of the disease, all people with disease symptoms or have been in contact with possible infected persons must come forward to the authorities and get themselves tested or go through quarantine as required by the circumstances. This can be effectively ensured when the number of cases is small and the flow of information from the affected people to the relevant authorities is unrestrained. However, when the disease breaks out in a large number of clusters simultaneously the process of contact tracing becomes too complicated also due to stigmatization, criminalization of certain behaviours and an increased tendency towards a punitive approach to public health interventions. Potential vulnerability of health workers and other service providers including security forces personnel for infection due to lack of safety equipment or the need to deal with potentially infected persons who might not divulge their exposure to infection are other complications that may affect the disease response at a time of rapid transmission. While a suitable legal framework is certainly needed for addressing some of the relevant issues, beyond legal obligations we need a high level of trust and a sense of community responsibility among all parties concerned. The more we try to enforce laws and dispense punishments without simultaneously developing a sense of community responsibility and a sense of social justice, the more we may encounter transgressors who want to bypass laws and seek to pass through loop holes in law enforcement in order to attain their private goals at the risk of harming the community at large.
COVID-19 will certainly be a major blow to the Sri Lankan economy. This is because almost all our foreign exchange earning enterprises will be or have been adversely affected by the global pandemic. Tourism will be one of the most adversely affected as international tourists are unlikely to visit Sri Lanka and most other tourist destinations in the near future. Secondly, many of the overseas migrant workers have started returning to Sri Lanka and some are stranded overseas without any kind of social protection due to loss of employment, air travel restrictions and high cost of limited flights available in the wake of the pandemic. Migrant work overseas will not be a viable option for many people for a foreseeable future. The closure of certain garment factories following the outbreak of the epidemic initially in the Brandix factory in Minuwangoda have added to the economic burden of the country, hit another leading foreign exchange earner and resulted in livelihood losses for many male and female workers. This is an unprecedented macro-economic crisis for the Sri Lankan economy as a whole. Moreover, this is a personal disaster for the affected people, having reached a seemingly dead end situation where the livelihoods they were engaged in would no longer be feasible.
This situation calls for a serious reflection and collaborative action involving the state, private sector and any support groups among the relevant people, including civil society organizations themselves. Self-employment and micro-enterprise may be one option that should be explored particularly with returnees from overseas employment due to their international experience, any savings they may have accumulated over time but severely depleted due to COVID-19 related loss of income also utilizing concessionary bank loans, start-ups and training provided where necessary. All these require a serious assessment of where we are, possible state, private-sector and civil society partnerships and picking up the fallout from the pandemic and proceeding in completely new directions where necessary.
While it is always good to build on our own experiences where possible, there are also some important lessons we can learn from COVID-19 response in some other countries as well. The successful COVID-19 control in the urban low-income community called Dharavi in Mumbai, India, for instance, has received worldwide attention and admiration from international organizations such as WHO.ii Unlike the rest of India where the pandemic has spread like bush fire, the crowded community of Dharavi with limited water supply and sanitation facilities and congested housing did manage to gradually bring down infection due to a combination factors such as good leadership, active collaboration between the Mumbai municipal authority (BMC), community groups, private sector agencies in the city and all categories of health workers in the municipality, community workers including social workers. In an approach titled ‘chasing the virus’, community members took the initiative in encouraging fellow community members with symptoms to go for PCR tests and the contacts of COVID-19 positive people to go through quarantine in a makeshift quarantine centre established in a small playground, the only open space available in this crowded and poorly serviced community. The private sector agencies in the city contributed funds for running the quarantine facility and provided food and dry rations to the community members throughout the lockdown.
Several civil society organizations in Indonesia have developed strategies for digital marketing of farm products in order to overcome travel and marketing restrictions imposed by the pandemic. This has involved the development of simple Apps that can be easily used by ordinary farmers on their smart phones for identifying and contacting possible buyers in the local areas. In some instances, this has also made it possible to overcome market monopolies of middlemen, minimize post-harvest losses, reduce the time-lag between farm gate and outlets and empower women producers and small time traders. The important point is that producers and consumers equally demobilized by the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have developed innovative responses in addressing the new challenges they face. These innovations have come from creative partnerships among different agencies including the state, private sector and civil society organizations. I am also aware of similar initiatives in Sri Lanka by organizations such as the Women’s Development Centre in Kandy.
In order to develop a participatory approach to COVID-19 pandemic, I propose the following strategies:
First, broadening the scope of the national task force for control of COVID-19 to include other important stakeholders including civil society, private sector and a diversity of social actors and researchers drawn from relevant fields such as economics, social sciences and community health. This forum should have a capacity to understand, respect and respond effectively to social and cultural diversity in the country. Another possibility would be to establish a number of smaller committees with a diversified membership with participatory decision making and information feedback mechanisms supporting decision making on critical issues.
Second, an assessment that seeks to understand the reasons for the higher exposure to the pandemic by certain vulnerable groups such as residents in urban low income communities and flats, fish traders, garment workers, prisoners and construction workers, identify their health care and other socio-economic needs and explore possible ways of facilitating their economic recovery and livelihood development. Similar assessments will also be needed regarding the new police cluster of infection and the navy cluster before that in order to minimize their exposure to infection safeguard these frontline workers.
Third, identify civil society organizations including CBOs that are currently engaged in services to the communities affected by the pandemic, initiate a dialogue with them about possible ways of improving their services to vulnerable groups in order to facilitate prevention, care and economic and social recovery.
Fourth, critically examine available information about patterns of infections in diverse population groups so as to minimize infections and prevent the emergence of new clusters of infections.
Fifth, secure the inputs of those who recovered from the disease so as to tap their experiential knowledge about the disease and its cure, prevention of stigma and discrimination and identify ways and means of facilitating their livelihood recovery.
Sixth, efforts should also be made to revive the program of community policing where necessary from the angle of raising public awareness of health and safety issues and lockdown and quarantine procedures and securing public participation in maintaining law and order as well as in prevention and health promotion work.
Finally, a 24-hour telephone hotline must be established in Sinhala, Tamil and English for people who seek to get advice and clarifications about any health problems and interventions related to the pandemic. The public should also be encouraged to report any stigma or discrimination they experience due to infection or contact with potentially infected using the same hotline.
For a detailed contextual analysis of the social history of this epidemic see Silva, K.T. Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka. Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2014. For a novelist reflection on how the malaria epidemic touched the lives and political imagination of rural people, see Sumithra Rahubadda. Thammanna. Nugegoda: Platform for Alternate Culture, 2019.
. The author is thankful to Veranga Wickramasinghe for drawing his attention to this example.
Over a decade after the war ended:The threat persists
The LTTE ordered protests in Europe and Canada in 2009 in a bid to pressure Sri Lanka to halt the military offensive on the Vanni east front. Canadians of Sri Lankan origin protest in Toronto in March 2009 in support of the LTTE project. The UK Foreign Secretary Miliband and his French counterpart Kouchner made an abortive bid to stop the offensive late April 2009 (file photo)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Tamil community never explained why the predominately Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern districts voted overwhelmingly for war-winning Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 general election, after earlier accusing him, and his war winning Army, of war crimes, the writer told a webinar, organized by the Sri Lankan Canadian Action Coalition, on Sunday (Nov 22). The writer questioned the absurdity in war crimes accusations against the backdrop of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the LTTE mouthpiece, throwing its weight behind Fonseka, Sri Lanka’s only Field Marshal, at the crucial poll. In spite of the Tamil vote, Fonseka suffered a heavy defeat. Fonseka lost by over 1.8 mn votes.
Sunday’s webinar, moderated by Prof. Neville Hewage, was the latest in a series organized by the grouping. The 90-minute webinar dealt with Democracy Under Threat: Incitement and Glorification of LTTE terrorism during Maaveerar naal.
The writer made his presentation subsequent to one-time US Colombo Embassy staffer, and now US-based Daya Gamage (author of Tamil Tigers’ debt to America: US Foreign Policy Adventurism; Sri Lanka’s Dilemma) and Geneva-based Prof. Dr. H.C. Mehmet Guzel, of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies.
The writer’s presentation: Western Governments’ response to various situations is largely based domestic political concerns. The Western powers conveniently calling themselves the international community, is responding to post-war developments in Sri Lanka, depending primarily on the relationship between the Tamil Diaspora and major political parties therein.
Over a decade after the successful conclusion of the war, the separatist agenda remains a viable threat, though the revival of the once-feared conventional military capability of the LTTE is no longer in the horizon.
However, the LTTE’s defeat has made it easier for Western powers to work with influential Tamil groups, pursuing a common agenda, with some lawmakers represented in the Sri Lanka Parliament.
Regardless of what foreign governments, and Tamil Diaspora groups, say, it is nothing but a political arrangement meant to secure the latter’s support at crucial elections.
What the LTTE couldn’t achieve, through terrorism and military means, its rump and followers might be able to secure with foreign intervention. That is a reality, a possibility Sri Lanka cannot ignore.
Stimulation and glorification
The stimulation and glorification of terrorism, through costly propaganda campaigns and political exercises, at the expense of elected governments here, portend a grave threat to post-war Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s political setup conveniently ignored the growing threat much to the discomfort of those who strongly believe in the country’s unitary status.
In fact, the LTTE’s defeat has paved the way for Western powers to move the UN in support of those seeking a new Constitution, at the expense of the country’s unitary status; the October 2015 Geneva
The resolution co-sponsored by the treacherous Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is a case in point.
For want of cohesive action on the part of successive Sri Lankan governments, including the war-winning Rajapaksa administration, that brought the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009, some of those who had pursued a separatist agenda, though not really involved with the LTTE, during the war, are now at the forefront of high profile diaspora projects meant to divide the country on ethnic lines. Their successes largely depend on overseas political support and backing received from INGOs.
On one hand, a section of the international community accommodated separatist elements and made them a part of their domestic political system, while undermining Sri Lanka, by adopting the war crimes resolution in Geneva in 2015. The Geneva intervention is nothing but glorification of those who waged war against a member State of the UN. The Geneva project should be examined against the backdrop of the annual commemorative events, held in various parts of the world, with the backing of both governments as well as their Opposition political parties. Growing number of voters, of Sri Lankan origin, living in different countries, a lucrative industry in accommodating asylum seekers and human rights lobby, contribute to the mounting insidious campaign against Sri Lanka. Actually, Sri Lanka now faces a bigger threat in spite of the eradication of the LTTE’s military capacity.
One-time LTTE mouthpiece, the TNA succeeded in compelling Sri Lanka to launch a new constitution-making process, severely inimical to the country. That project had the backing of the US and the UN and could have succeeded, if not for Treasury bond scams perpetrated by the then ruling party, resulting in political turmoil. What Sri Lanka should keep in mind is that the absence of a military threat does not mean the country’s unitary status cannot be challenged and overwhelmed by other means. Having backed General Sarath Fonseka’s presidential polls campaign, in 2010, and Maithripala Sirisena’s five years later, the TNA proved its readiness to change its political tactics with an eye on its overall strategy to break up the country. Thanks to Wikileaks, the role played by the US in the formation of the UNP-led alliance, to back Fonseka, is in the public domain. It would be a grave mistake, on our part, to ignore such developments, while opposing propaganda exercises, such as annual commemorative events. The real threat comes from Western politicians seeking electoral arrangements, with Tamil groups in their countries, for votes.
Before discussing further the post-war relationship between foreign political parties and Tamil groups, let me recollect the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. Why did India militarily intervene in Sri Lanka in the 80s? The late J.N. Dixit, in early 2004, revealed hitherto unknown reasons for their intervention. Referring to Sri Lanka’s relationship with the US, Israel and Pakistan, Dixit explained why the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi threw her weight behind Sri Lankan terrorist groups. Dixit, one-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, asserted in ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy’ that Premier Gandhi could be faulted on two foreign policy decisions. Let me quote: “…her ambiguous response to the Russian intrusion into Afghanistan and her giving active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Whatever the criticisms about these decisions, it cannot be denied that she took them on the basis of her assessments about India’s national interests. Her logic was that she couldn’t openly alienate the former Soviet Union when India was so dependent on that country for defence supplies and technologies. Similarly, she could not afford the emergence of Tamil separatism, in India, by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils. ….” Dixit added: “In both cases, her decisions were relevant at the point of time they were taken.”
In other words, India jeopardized Sri Lanka to protect her interests. The Indian project paved the way for an attempt to overthrow the Maldivian government in early Nov 1988. Indian-trained Sri Lankan terrorists almost succeeded in seizing control of that country. Perhaps, such raids are not possible today though foreign governments overtly and covertly support those seeking to subvert other countries.
The British relentlessly pursue an anti-Sri Lanka policy. Maybe their approach is the worst among the countries still backing the LTTE agenda, a decade after the war ended, with the crushing military defeat of the Tigers. British actions promoted terrorism in a big way, while undermining Sri Lanka. Long standing
British policies are inimical to Sri Lanka. They brazenly played politics with Sri Lanka, throughout the war, finally making a last ditch attempt to save the LTTE, in 2009. If the British-French bid to halt the Sri Lankan military offensive succeeded, in April 2009, terrorism would have received unprecedented recognition. The British glorified terrorism, still do for political reasons though all politicians cannot be faulted. However, the British, now the leading country in the Sri Lanka Core Group is pursuing war crimes investigation against us under the 2015 Geneva Resolution by remaining its key supporter.
Having failed to save the LTTE, the UK, a member of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), now pursues war crimes probe as part its overall efforts to appease British voters of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. The UK has refused to consider wartime cables from its High Commission in Colombo! Those classified cables, dispatched by its Defence Advisor, in Colombo, in January-May 2009, and exposed by Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, disputed the very basis of the Geneva Resolution. Lord Naseby had to utilize the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to secure the documents. The British tried desperately to prevent the release of those documents.
A leaked May 2009 US diplomatic cable, originating from its mission in London, a few months after the war, proved the relationship between the Tamil Diaspora and the British establishment. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know why the British played dirty politics with Sri Lanka and still do. A statement attributed to the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband revealed the Labour Party’s dependence on Tamil voters. The ground situation remains the same. With the Sri Lankan Tamil population in the UK, numbering well over 300,000, and further growing, the British will continue their despicable strategy. That is the undeniable truth.
So it is no wonder the US and UK are now all-out to persecute (not prosecute) Wikileaks Head Julian Assange for exposing to the world the unpalatable truth about what happened to Sri Lanka and other victimized countries. Sri Lanka shouldn’t expect the British or the Canadians to give up their cozy relationship with the Tamil Diaspora for our benefit. Politics is a dirty game. The bulk of our own politicians and utterly corrupt parliamentary system, over the years, proved over and over again political interests always come ahead of national interests.
At the commencement of the new Parliament, several moons ago, two lawmakers, both leaders of the Jaffna-based political parties, C.V. Wigneswaran and Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam accused the war-winning military of genocide. The Speaker upheld their right to speak freely in Parliament.
Sri Lanka Parliament never found fault with the TNA, that functioned as the political wing of the LTTE, during the conflict, and went to the extent of recognizing Prabhakaran as the sole representative of the Tamils. The TNA glorified the LTTE. Some of its members participated in passing out parades of forcibly recruited children and, at the 2005 presidential election, ordered Tamils not to vote. But no one bothered to take up this issue with the TNA leadership. After the war, the TNA established a close working relationship with the UK-headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF). The GTF played its cards well. The GTF once employed Labour lawmaker Joan Ryan as its Chief Executive and Policy Advisor. Why should we be surprised over an MP being on the GTF’s payroll, especially against the backdrop of it having parliamentary recognition? Many do not know the inauguration of the GTF took place in the British Parliament, in early 2010, with the participation of top political party representatives. Later, Ryan returned to Parliament to continue her role. Perhaps, many Sri Lankans may not be aware of how Ryan along, with Siobhain McDonagh, MP, requested the Foreign Secretary to expel Sri Lankan Defence Attaché Brigadier Priyankara Fernando over what they called “inappropriate, unacceptable and threatening” conduct of the officer. McDonagh, in Sept 2011, declared, in Parliament, that the Sri Lankan military killed 100,000 Tamils, including 40,000 civilians, in January-May 2009 alone. In 2012, McDonagh, along with an Australian MP, nominated ITN Channel 4 team, that produced “Sri Lanka Killing Fields,” for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Balasingham receives special treatment
The British had a way with the Diaspora. The Special treatment afforded to British citizen of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, Anton Balasingham, underscored the UK policy. British citizen Balasingham, a former British High Commission employee in Colombo, was allowed to function as the LTTE’s advisor in spite of proscription of the group. The British policy remained the same, even after the LTTE assassinated Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi, in May 1991, and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in August 2005. Instead of stripping Balasingham of given nationality, the British facilitated a secret meeting between a high level Norwegian delegation, and Balasingham, in the UK, to discuss the Kadirgamar assassination.
Terrorism received a mega boost when the UK’s Conservative Party, in the run-up to the Dec 2019 general election, proposed, what it called, a two State solution to solve the Sri Lankan problem. The Conservative manifesto declared: “We will continue to support international initiatives to achieve reconciliation, stability and justice across the world, and in the former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, where we maintain our support for a two-state solution.”
Sri Lanka opposed that statement. In the wake Colombo’s opposition, the Conservative Party, claimed the two-state solution was a reference to the Israel-Palestine situation. The UK’s policy is nothing but horrible. Balasingham’s widow, Adela, often pictured handing over cyanide capsules to LTTE terrorists, is living in the UK.
Promoting terrorism the British way
The UK obviously promoted terrorism by bending backwards to appease Tamil voters. There cannot be a better example than the Tamils forcing Cineworld, Odeon and Vue to cancel the screening of Shoojit
Sircar’s ‘Madras Café’ in late 2013. Tamils threatened the UK with violence if cinemas went ahead. Have you ever heard of Diaspora of any origin threatening violence over the screening of a movie? What the Tamils couldn’t stomach was ‘Madras Café’ portrayal of the LTTE assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a despicable crime that deeply wounded India, the god father of terrorism in Sri Lanka.
In March 2011 ahead of the Geneva session, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, who was also one-time US Ambassador in Colombo, received a top GTF delegation in Washington. GTF’s President Rev Father S.J. Emmanuel led the delegation. I had the opportunity to meet the GTF President in London in early 2015 soon after him, in the company of other GTF live wire Suren Surendiran, met the Sri Lanka Government delegation, led by President Sirisena. Recent Canadian rejection of a petition by MP Gary Anandasangaree seeking government support for a legislative effort to remove sovereign immunity as a defense by States against genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and enforced disappearances is certainly something Sri Lankan-Canadian Action Coalition can be quite proud of. Canada also rejected Anandasangaree’s call to refer Sri Lanka to the Committee established under the Convention Against Enforced Disappearances under its Article 32. However, Sri Lanka should be cautious of on-going moves in different countries to pressure Sri Lanka over accountability issues.
The move to do away with the UK ban on the LTTE may give a turbo boost to separatist agenda. The UK’s Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission found that a 2001 decision to keep the ban on the LTTE was “flawed” and unlawful, and may open the way for the proscription to be lifted. It would be pertinent to mention that foreign governments tolerate various Diaspora groups because they can be used to exert pressure on targeted administrations. Nothing can be further from the truth that Western governments are interested in human rights. The world knows how US-British coalition cooked up Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) allegations to invade Iraq in 2003. Those Iraqis who cooperated with Western powers were hailed heroes. The US-UK project destroyed Iraq.
Sri Lanka needs a cohesive action plan to counter lies. Our failure has caused setbacks. In the absence of a tangible action plan, the country suffered badly. Sri Lanka remains in Geneva’s agenda it is proven by the fact that much celebrated Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva has been categorized as a war criminal on mere hearsay. Our failure to prove our innocence is even worse than glorification of terrorism.
Against flawed assumptions and false analogies
By Uditha Devapriya
“It is not enough to have a philosophy, you have to have the right philosophy.”
— Joan Robinson to the then Central Bank Deputy Governor, quoted by S. B. D. de Silva
Academics and students tend to subscribe to certain dominant ideological paradigms, the assumptions which underlie them, and the conclusions those assumptions lead them to. Given that universities, particularly local universities, have turned into knowledge factories preferring unconditional acceptance to critical thinking, false paradigms and analogies get perpetuated easily. They get embedded in school curricula, public forums, and of course the public sphere: as much in the lecture hall as in parliament.
Most of these paradigms delve into what the best way forward for the country should be, economically and politically, or what it should not be. For instance, the Vehicle Importers’ Association of Sri Lanka in a recent letter to the President cautions him against the belief that local manufacture and assembly is the answer to Sri Lanka’s mounting debt and foreign exchange crisis. The reason, whoever wrote that letter avers, is that the process “does not add any value to the country’s economy and is merely designed for tax evasion and higher profit margins.” Further, it warns that “setting up a vehicle manufacturing plant is a lengthy process with extensive planning and research and development.”
This is more or less a rehash of the line that advocates of free markets and free trade take up. The 2021 Budget, with its emphasis on import restrictions and concessions to local businesses, including manufacturers, compelled the same response from these advocates in Parliament. According to them, it favours import substitution over export orientation, cuts the country from the benefits of free trade, and isolates it from the rest of the world. The one leads to the other: if we manufacture locally, we lose out on trade. If we lose out on trade, we lose out on everything. Ergo, we mustn’t think or go local.
Intellectuals and commentators, especially in (but not necessarily limited to) the English language media, tend to extol the virtues of free markets and the evils of state-led growth. They seem to think that Sri Lanka for the most has been caving into the latter paradigm: the state has widened at the expense of the private sector. The solution, according to pundits and analysts, is to let the market decide, and to limit the government to the role of what Robert Nozick called a “Night-watchman”, formulating the rules of the game (the economy) without playing it (intervening in the workings of the economy). These pundits and analysts then point at societies that supposedly prospered under a night-watchman state: the Tiger economies of East Asia, the US, and Western Europe.
Now quite a lot of people believe this. They accept it as patently obvious: a tautology which, if denied, would lead to a contradiction. British philosophers of the 18th century made a distinction between two kinds of statements: “All thieves are criminals” and “Richard is a thief.” The first is self-evident: to deny it would be to defy logic. In other words it exists a priori: you know it’s true even if you don’t try to prove it. The second is not self-evident: you need empirical evidence to test its validity. Such statements of opinion require proof before one can know whether they are true or false. In the social sciences as in the hard sciences, then, critical analysis and logical reasoning are absolutely indispensable.
Unfortunately, much of the hype surrounding advocacy of free market principles and small government is built on a self-evident premise: people believe economic liberalisation will lead to growth, so they think it should be implemented in the country. Import tariffs must be reduced or preferably eliminated, export-orientation must replace import-substitution, let’s not think of local industrialisation or machine-manufacture yet because we’re an island, and let’s reduce the role of the state because, after all, in the US, Britain, and East Asia, it played a minimal role. Ignored in the emphasis on the success of the latter countries is the specificity of their historical experience.
Countries are not all endowed with the same levels or the same kinds of resources. Nor do they magically transit to free markets and small governments. To say economic liberalisation worked there and that owing to it these principles must be applied here is to assume that all it takes for a country to prosper is the implementation of policies to which those countries which are supposedly implementing them now resorted only after they had passed through certain stages. This assumption, quoting the late S. B. D. de Silva, is “a veritable non-sequitur of bourgeois scholarship.” Taking the earlier argument into consideration, such assumptions are paraded as tautologies when in fact they are not. What is missing from the argument, in other words, is the same thing its proponents accuse the other side, i.e. the Big Government protectionist lobby, of lacking: reasoned, analytical judgement.
The US got to where it is largely through its leap to industrialisation in the latter part of the 19th century. Much of the industrialisation which transpired at that time was financed, not by private initiative, but by the government: vast tracts of land running into millions of acres were handed over to railway companies. In Britain, the state played an important role in promoting local industry, smothering the up-and-coming textile mills of India. Discussions about the success of private sector led growth in these countries leave out or ignore the role played by colonial conquest, which happened to be financed by the government. “Is there any greater example of a rampant state than the English state in the world?” asked a friend at an Advocata Night-Watchman seminar years ago. “When you’re talking laissez-faire, they were basically robbing the seas around the world, installing slavery.” True.
In East Asia three distinct case studies can be identified: Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and Singapore. The foundation for Japan’s economy was laid down long before the war by the Tokugawa shogunate; it broke the stranglehold of petty traders, privileging industrial capital over merchant finance. Taiwan emerged from the war cut off from mainland China after the Communist takeover of 1949, yet American experts and economists who formulated that country’s transition to economic liberalisation didn’t embark on free market reforms right away: at first they oversaw rent reduction in 1949, the sale of public lands in 1951, and the commencement of a land-to-the-tiller program in 1953. Land reform limited ownership of paddy land to around 4.5 hectares, much lower than the 10-25 hectare limit imposed by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government in 1972. South Korea underwent roughly the same set of reforms before it attained first world status.
Singapore is a different case, not least because unlike other East Asian countries it lacked a rural hinterland in which a transition from agriculture to industry could take place. Yet there too the role of government intervention cannot be denied, economically and also politically. Milton Friedman once referred to Lee Kuan Yew as a “benevolent dictator”, the very same epithet Maithripala Sirisena used on Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014 after walking out from the then administration. In a 1993 essay, William Gibson described the country as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”, bringing to mind Jagath Manuwarna’s remark about Sri Lanka at a press conference in late 2014: “kalakanni Disneylanthaya.” Unlike Manuwarna’s statement though, Gibson’s essay was banned by the Singaporean government.
Liberals and classical liberals, and even left-liberals, tend to look up to Singapore and Yew’s reforms without realising that, as Regi Siriwardena observed, their achievements rested on the denial of democratic and human rights. Hence when one columnist, drawing wildly false analogies, argues that Singapore lacked a president, yet accomplished much (implying that Sri Lanka doesn’t need an Executive Presidency to get things done), he fails to acknowledge or chooses to ignore not only that Singapore had just one political party during its transition from third world to first, but also that it curtailed dissent in a way that makes any hounding of dissent in Sri Lanka today look haphazard in comparison; when asked why he refused to tolerate political cartoons, for instance, Yew bluntly told Fergus Bordewich that in Confucian society politicians ought to be seen as deserving of respect. To my mind no parliamentarian in Sri Lanka has ever said the same thing using Buddhism as justification. I suppose that has to do with how free the media here is compared to the media there: the latest World Press Freedom Index, for instance, ranks Sri Lanka at 127, and Singapore at 158.
The absence of a rural hinterland made it all the easier for Singapore’s government to enact capitalist reforms, since it could dispense with the need to abolish the kind of pre-capitalist social relations that existed in Taiwan and South Korea. Despite this, however, government intervention swept across the country; in the words of one economist, Singapore responded to international economic forces “through manipulating the domestic economy.”
Wage adjustments vis-à-vis a National Wages Council, a high savings and investment culture promoted via state enforced and state directed abstinence, the shift towards manufacturing in the latter part of the 1960s, the growth of public enterprises (believed to have accounted for 14% to 16% of manufacturing output), and tight government control of trade unions all played a part in bolstering its prospects. As Hoff (1995) noted, the paradox of Singapore’s economic success was that while investments came from the private sector, savings relied on the public sector. It is true that the contribution by foreign investment was significant, yet had Singapore not had a rigidly regulated economy where, for instance, compensation costs for production workers were one-third that of the US equivalent by 1993, it would not have become the third world to first success story it is touted as today.
The specific conditions under which the East Asian economies transformed from developing to developed, from inward-looking to outward-looking, make their emulation in other parts of the world untenable if not unlikely. At the time the governments of these countries were imposing reforms, Western Europe was struggling to recover from wartime recession and MNCs had not become as active in peripheral countries as they would decades later. Their geopolitical alignment with the US in the Cold War guaranteed the success of the East Asian Tigers. Moreover, these were hardly what one could call classical liberal societies: political authoritarianism cohabited with economic liberalisation. Even that dichotomy comes off as false when we consider that government involvement figured heavily in these economies, something that advocates of free markets don’t seem to be aware of.
There was another significant factor: the absence of a merchant capitalist class in these countries. The Tokugawa reforms extended to Korea and Taiwan after Japan turned them into granaries for its domestic needs. The US experts hired to oversee reforms in Korea and Taiwan facilitated, rather than reversed, these processes. In Sri Lanka and much of the Third World, by contrast, experimentation with free market classical liberalism has resulted in not only political authoritarianism, but also the defenestration of an industrial sector, leading to lopsided growth financed by a Pettah merchant class: rather than manufacturing goods, they are imported and resold. The call for “going local”, then, contrary to what intellectuals, institutions, and Opposition MPs think, say, and write, has to do with more than a hysterical call for a garrison state. COVID-19 has sharpened the contradictions of the global economy. The World Bank and IMF paradigm of outward-oriented development is clearly not the way to go about, if we are to resolve these contradictions.
False analogies, assumptions, and tautologies thus will get us nowhere. It is certainly ironic that think-tanks and institutions that privilege reason over guesswork end up indulging in selective scholarship. Even more ironic are statements uttered by academics from countries which passed through several stages before making the transition from a planned order to a free market advising us to bypass those stages when implementing policy reforms here. It takes not only foresight and hindsight, but also courage, to swerve from and dispute these assumptions, dig deep into history, and understand what drives the wealth of nations and the poverty of others. Free markets alone will not do, as even the history of countries where they flourish today tell us. Something else can, and something else must.
Footprints of Sarachchandra at Denison
UVPA delegation and Prof. Sandra Mathern-Smith meet Denison University President at his office, Granville Ohio USA. Photo Credit Dr Saumya Liyanage 2019.
By Dr Saumya Liyanage
This paper marks the 64th anniversary of the theatrical masterpiece, Maname written and directed by Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra and his legacy on Sinhala modern theatre.
I was busy, in early April 2019, with preparations to leave for the US for a two-week long creative arts residency at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. A group of academics, dance alumni and a few students from the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Modern Dance of the University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) and the Dept. of Fine Arts, University of Peradeniya, were invited to take part in the creative collaboration with the Department of Dance and Theatre at Denison University. Denison alumni and dancer Umeshi Rajeendra also joined the delegation. The project was titled ‘Challenging Borders: Embodied Cross-Border Encounters through Dance and Music’ funded by the Great Lakes College Association (GLCA) Mellon Foundation led by Associate Professor and Director of the International Studies, Taku Suzuki.
Our collaboration with the Department of Dance and Theatre at Denison is a long one. First, at my invitation, Sandra Mathern-Smith, Professor of dance at Denison visited the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Contemporary Dance at the UVPA Colombo in 2017. Since then I have had a privilege of working with a brilliant and enthusiastic academic community especially Prof. Sandra and Prof. Cheryl McFarren at Denison. These collaborations brought many academics to UVPA, provided professional and academic benefits to those who studied at the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Contemporary Dance. We arrived at the Denison University mid-April 2019.
Two weeks of intensive teaching, collaborative workshops, discussions, and rehearsals filled up our daily routine. Three academics, Dr Sudesh Manthilake, Senior Lecturer Asela Rangadeva and accompanist Ruwan Pushpakumara, and I stayed at a residential home, provided by the Denison University. It was a walking distance from the Dance department. Dancer teacher, Umeshi, our students, and alumni stayed at a two-storeyed house located at very close proximity to the Denison Performing Arts Centre.
During our stay at Denison, my close companion, Prof. Sandra Mathern-Smith asked me whether Prof. Sarachchandra’s daughter had taught at Denison. I wondered how it was possible that Prof. Sarachchandra’s daughter had worked at Denison. Prof. Sarachchandra had several daughters and I did not have adequate information to guess which one Prof. Sandra was referring to. But she somehow managed to get in touch with a professor at the Department of Religion Studies at Denison.
In the meantime, on that particular day, a lecture on Sri Lankan film and culture was organized by the Faculty of Social Sciences. I prepared my slide show and went to the lecture theatre. An enthusiastic group of students were waiting to see me and we had an hour of talks and discussions on Sri Lankan film and society. I was surprised that they had already watched some of the movies I had acted in. They had many questions to ask the teacher. Question, answers and discussions around key points took up at least two-thirds of the time allocated for the lecture.
Denison University has archived some paper articles published on Prof. Sarachchandra’s visit to Denison University in 1966. Images retrieved from Denison University Library archive.
Thereafter, I was invited to the Department of Religion, where I met John Cort, Professor of Asian, and Comparative Religion. He is a brilliant scholar in Jain religion studies, speaks several Indian languages, and translates poetry from those languages into English. His welcome was warm and cheerful. We had a long discussion about Asia, India and South Asian culture and religious traditions. With that conversation, I realised that as an Asian I had a lot to learn from him. While we were discussing theatre, I mentioned the name of Prof. Sarachchandra and his contribution to the modern Sri Lankan theatre.
I learnt that Prof. Sarachchandra had visited Denison in 1966. When Prof. Cort mentioned that, I was amazed because all this time I had been under the impression that I was the first one to visit Denison as a part of an academic exchange. Further, I could not believe the fact that 53 years back, a Sri Lankan scholar had visited Denison and stayed there for months to teach Asian aesthetics and Sri Lankan dance and drama.
Above all, I could not imagine how Sarachchandra went to Denison because, our experience to go to Denison was long and hectic though we have sophisticated flights and transport facilities. It is not simply getting in and out of a flight. It took more than 15 hours for us to get to our destination with our heavy luggage packed with costumes, masks, and drums. This man of letters had selected a place thousands of miles away from home and decided to share his expertise on Asian aesthetics, Buddhism, and Sri Lankan dance drama with academics and students at a place where liberal arts education flourished.
After a long discussion, Prof. Colt shared two important documents with me that the Denison University had archived. One was a paper article published on Sarachchandra’s visit as a Fulbright-Hays scholar. This old official document had been issued from the Committee on International Exchange of Persons Conference Board of Associated Research Council Washington D. C. It included the names of scholars coming from the Asia-pacific region and my attention was drawn to two of them. First one was Dr Sarachchandra and the other one was Dr Shanmuganathan Suppiah Senthe, a research officer in Biochemistry who used to work at Medical Research Institute in Colombo. But, unfortunately, I could trace neither his research work nor his affiliations.
UVPA – Denison contemporary dance collaboration choreographed by Umeshi Rajeendra. Photo credit Tim Black, Denison University Granville, Ohio 2019.
Sarachchandra was at the Denison University from February 1966 till December 1966. From January 1967 to March 1967, he was at Earlham College Richmond, Indiana. He was supposed to teach and conduct seminars on various subject and expertise he possessed including Buddhism, Hindu Philosophy, Indian Aesthetic Theory, Asian and Sri Lankan folk theatre and especially Indian classical music. The Fulbright-Hays document, to my surprise, refers to ‘demonstration on Sitar’. I wondered how he had brought his Sitar all the way from Sri Lanka. Denisonians must have benefited from his knowledge of aesthetic theories of Bharatha and other commentators. Sarachchandra did not visit Denison empty handed. As this Fulbright document says, for his lectures, he used slides and photos of Sri Lankan theatre and dance dramas, his own sound recordings that he had collected during his own personal visits to various parts of Sri Lanka.
I walked down to my resident hall, thinking how Sarachchandra must have been walking in these Denison trails, before me, talking to students and academics he had met in lecturer theatres, dining halls, and at his residence. I was thinking how the sound of his sitar must have echoed through the Denison theatre spaces, sometimes playing under leafy trees, surrounded by his followers and admirers bringing North Indian Classical music to an unknown world of listeners lived in Granville, Ohio. The Sri Lankan traditional masks he brought to Denison would have been an exotic treasure for Denisonians, slides consisted of ritual practices, dance, dramas, and audio recordings of numerous Sri Lankan rituals and folk songs would have been played and discussed over and over again at lecture theatres here. Now, I realise that I have not started this journey alone. My destiny has brought me here to realize this truth of my ancestral heritage. I remember that Eugenio Barba once said that ‘in my family of professional ethos there are no parents. There is an older brother, Jurek Jerzy Grotowski, Many uncles and relatives […] Ahead of them all, the two grandfathers: Stanislavski and Meyerhold’ (Barba 2003). I began to contemplate how I have lost the connection with my grandfather who has left his wealth behind unnoticed to me and to my siblings.
We had many workshops, seminars, and discussions not only at Denison. We also went to both Wooster and Kenyon colleges in the same region. It was a two-hour drive to Kenyon, which is similar to Denison; it is also a liberal arts University located in a remote country side. At Kenyon, I delivered a lecture on Sri Lankan film industry with special reference to the third wave of Sri Lankan cinema. The lecture was organized and facilitated by a Sri Lankan scholar working at the Dept. of English, Assistant Prof. Kathleen Fernando. Kathleen resided with her husband, a physicist, in a beautiful country house located in the corner of the 10 acres of the University land. Her husband was a friendly person who loved Sri Lankan cricket and pop music. Kathleen treated us with a Sri Lankan meal, basmati rice and many dishes. We in return entertained them with dancing and singing.
Professor Sarachchndra with sitar. Picture courtesy the Official Website of Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra (https://sarachchandra.org/index.php/about/)
Our final collaborative performance with Denison students was only a few days away. All my colleagues were still rehearsing at the theatre, preparing and doing final refinements to the pieces that we were developing for two weeks. I left a bit early to prepare a Sri Lankan meal for them. My colleagues, Prof. Sandra, Prof. Cheryl, Randy (Prof. Sandra’s husband), who drove me around throughout my stay at Denison, Prof. Ron Abraham, Prof. Lee and Prof. Christopher were to come for dinner that night.
The following morning, a Viber call woke me up. Several terrorist attacks had been carried out in some five-star hotels and prominent churches, killing hundreds of people who were celebrating Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Sarachchandra proved that theatre artistes and academics had a difficult world and a challenging journey ahead.
(The author of this paper wishes to pay his gratitude to Emeritus Professor John Cort, Denison University Granville, Ohio USA who provided useful archived material.)
Mahara prison riot: four killed, 26 injured
SLPP constituent hands over far reaching proposals
INSEE Cement continues investment in mason development across Sri Lanka
7-billion-rupee diamond heist; Madush splls the beans before being shot
The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes
Sri Lankan drummer succumbs to Covid-19
Sports5 days ago
LPL rocked by corruption scandal
news4 days ago
Majority of 300 luxury vehicles to be released
news4 days ago
Sumanthiran asks whether sovereignty only for the majority, if so then minorities will find their own
news7 days ago
Easter Sunday probe: CB not informed of Rs 4 bn Hizbullah et al received from overseas
Features4 days ago
ROYAL COLLEGE CADET PLATOON 1980
Business7 days ago
HIP helps ease congestion at Colombo Port
news5 days ago
Foreign force behind Easter Sunday attacks – Sirisena
news3 days ago
Did ‘Colossus’ factory owned by suicide bomber benefit?