by Sanjeewa Jayaweera
In the last month or so, the government’s attention and the public have been on Geneva, the purported sugar scam, illegal deforestation, and now contaminated coconut oil. The concern over Covid-19 and the faltering vaccination programme has taken a back seat. It might be because of the decline in the daily positive cases. Some have, however, attributed the decline more to reduced testing and tracing than getting on top of the virus.
Most countries have not been able to get on top of the pandemic other than for a very few. Till recently, India was lauded for having brought the virus under control. There was even talk of India having achieved herd immunity. However, in the last two weeks, there has been a sharp increase in the number of positive cases, and it looks as if India is facing its third wave.
Europe is also in the midst of a third wave, and in the USA., despite a vigorous vaccination programme, the daily numbers are once again increasing. The numbers coming out of Brazil regarding both positive cases and deaths are a damning indictment of a President who has mismanaged the fight against this dreaded illness by disregarding basic public health precautions that most other countries have embraced.
In Sri Lanka, we have done better. In a recent TV talk show, a member of the ruling party said that it is only because the government is on top of the pandemic that opposition politicians concentrate on sugar scams, illegal deforestation, and contaminated coconut oil when elsewhere the main topic is about Covid-19. In a perverse way, he is correct!
However, Sri Lanka can certainly do better, and the current comedy surrounding the approval of the Sinopharm vaccine from China is a case in point. On March 20, the Pharmaceuticals Production State Minister Prof. Channa Jayasumana said that The National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) of Sri Lanka had approved the use of the COVID-19 vaccine ‘Sinopharm’ manufactured by China.
A couple of days later, it was announced that NMRA had only approved the vaccine’s receipt as a donation and not for use! A few days later, it was announced that only Chinese nationals residing in Sri Lanka could receive the vaccine. I am confused because if the vaccine is not safe for use in Sri Lankan arms, how is it safe for Chinese nationals living here? Are we to assume that Lankan lives are more important than Chinese lives? Is the Government of Sri Lanka not responsible for the lives of Chinese nationals living in Sri Lanka?
A couple of days ago, the cabinet spokesman, who I believe was also a medical practitioner, said that the phase four trials information on the Sinopharm vaccine is only in Chinese and need to be translated to English before the NMRA can decide. In any case, we need to wait until the World Health Organisation (WHO) approves the vaccine.
This is the first time that I have heard of phase 4 trial data for a vaccine. For all other vaccines, the data from phase 3 has been the basis for approval. So, I am not sure whether the cabinet spokesman has got his wires mixed? The comment about the information being available in only Chinese seems a bit stretched.
The rationale for awaiting WHO approval is a bit puzzling, although some others have said the same. Most of the countries that have approved the use of various vaccines have not waited for WHO approval. They have been approved by their own approving authority. Why Sri Lanka needs to await WHO clearance is puzzling and seems to be a bit like passing the buck.
WHO has not endeared itself to many during the pandemic. Many feel that its inaction at the beginning of the pandemic contributed to the spread. As I recall, the WHO was critical of countries closing their borders and banning overseas arrivals at the pandemic’s inception in February 2020. They were also slow on recommending the mandatory wearing of masks and initially questioned its efficiency. They have, of course, subsequently gone back. The only aspect of what Donald Trump uttered during the pandemic that made sense to me was his call for the WHO to be investigated for their actions during the pandemic’s initial stages.
Some have accused the government of reconstituting the NMRA to replace some eminent personnel because they were preventing the approval of the Sinopharm vaccine. If this is indeed true, then it is regrettable because such organizations need to be independent and free of government interference.
Medical professionals also need to exercise a degree of flexibility in dealing with the pandemic. I know that most medical and engineering professionals have a great affinity towards what is manufactured in the West (the USA. and Europe). I suppose this is due to us being ruled for many centuries by the British, Dutch and Portuguese. We tend to accept whatever comes from the West but derides those produced in China and India. I remember in the 1970’s we used to laugh about the lack of quality of Japanese cars. The belief was that if you are involved in a severe accident driving a Japanese car, then your chances of survival were minimal. Today the story is very different, although a colleague did say that even now in Colombo, if you drive a European vehicle, your social status is much higher!
Sinopharm is approved for general use in China, UAE, and Bahrain. It has been approved for emergency use in 16 countries and limited use in two countries. UAE. granted emergency approval for the use of the vaccine on health care workers in September 2020 and, on December 9, 2020, granted general approval for the use of the vaccine.
The phase 3 trials of the Sinophram vaccine were conducted in the UAE, Morocco, Argentina, Peru and several other countries with over 60,000 participants. The UAE. authorities announced that the vaccine has a 86% efficacy against COVID-19, whilst Sinopharm said that the efficacy was 79.34%. According to the company, the discrepancy was the result of differences in how the trials were run. In January 2021, Hungary authorized the vaccine making the country the first European nation to use a Chinese vaccine. Sinopharm plans to raise the annual output of its vaccine to three billion doses a year. It appears that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, known as Covishield manufactured by the Serum Institute India, is going to be in short supply with India ramping up their vaccination programme in the face of a third wave. Most of the poorer nations are banking on this vaccine, and the demand is massive. As to where Sri Lanka will fit in the priority list of countries to receive their orders may well depend on the generosity of the Indian government.
Having not endeared ourselves to the Indian government due to the unprofessional manner in which GOSL unilaterally cancelled the East container Terminal agreement, the country’s options in procuring an effective vaccine are limited. In light of that, the comedy of errors blighting the approval of the Sinopharm vaccine to be used in Sri Lanka in the public’s full gaze is both unprofessional and unnecessary.
Patali Champika Ranawaka’s somersault into the political establishment remains one of the more interesting developments from the last quarter century or so. Beginning with the JVP, moving to the nationalist right, only to later turn to the neoliberal right, he remains shrouded in enigma, a cut above the rest: while most of his colleagues go round in circles, shifting parties as you would shift from one musical chair to another in a never-ending cycle, he prefers straight lines.
The issue has to do with where those lines are leading him. What are his beliefs and strategies? Who are his friends and enemies? Which side does he tilt to? These questions may remain unanswered for some time, well into the long run; to search for answers now would be futile.
Ruthless to a fault, yet quiet and tactful, our most perfectionist parliamentarian happens to be one of our most intelligent. He knows the numbers, and quotes them almost effortlessly. Even if he jumps to the wrong conclusions, he gives the impression of having taken a longer, more tortuous route to reach them. Whether he’s critiquing a development initiative or a financial scandal – of course while in the opposition – he resorts to logic, not speculation. His speeches are among the eloquent we hear from parliament today, at least by the standards set by both present government and opposition MPs in that unfortunate institution. He says what critics of the government want to hear, not what they’ve heard elsewhere. Insofar as opposition MPs are concerned, Ranawaka has thus laid the benchmark and set the yardstick, even if he lacks the charisma and charm of his opponents.
What explains his appeal? It’s not as though he’s been consistent throughout. The truth is that he has indulged in as much pole-vaulting as most of his colleagues and contemporaries: a dubious record to be sure, but one which hasn’t attracted for him the kind of outrage others have.
Take a look at his affiliations: the JVP, Jathika Chintanaya, Ratawesi Peramuna, Janatha Mithuro, National Movement Against Terrorism, Sihala Urumaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya, United People’s Freedom Alliance, United National Front for Good Governance, UNP, and finally SJB. His entry into the latter remains tenuous and debatable at best, yet it was with its formation that he let go of his past, for good: having served as leader of the most powerful nationalist party in the country, the JHU, he left that party, even if he did not disavow its ideology. What’s extraordinary about it is that regardless of where he has jumped to, his record has attracted less censure than that of most of his colleagues. Bottom line: consistency is not his forte, but his lack of it hasn’t worked against him.
If it’s isn’t consistency, is it survival? From the tail-end of the Cold War to the peak of a pandemic, Ranawaka seems to have been driven by two impulses: power and adaptability. But he’s hardly the only such politician who’s stuck to these credos. To say he’s survived due to some farsighted powers of adaptation is to overlook a crucial, inescapable fact: that adaptation for him signals not so much an ability to harbour different ideological affiliations across parties as it does an ability to adhere to the same ideology, the same worldview, while straddling different parties. In this, he is the superior of many colleagues and foes. Bottom line: he’s survived not because he’s changed so often, but because, at a fundamental level, he hasn’t changed at all.
At a Q&A session organised by a group of young activists a few weeks before last August’s election, Ranawaka was suave, confident, and a tad tired. He spoke about his journey from university student to political activist to politician, underscoring his achievements without bragging about them. The man has, if anything at all, a clean record as a minister, whatever his failings on other fronts may be, and this became apparent as one slide moved into another on the screen.
Yet what caught me wasn’t the conviction with which he outlined his achievements, but the answer he gave to my question as to why he abandoned his activism over alternative development paradigms (he called it Sanwardhanaye Thunweni Yamanaya, (“The Third Era of Development”). Ranawaka was polite, yet to the point with me: “We must bend when we have to, without clinging on to the same ideas, movements, and personalities forever.”
Does this offer a clue to his philosophy, if he follows a philosophy at all? Critics, especially from the Sinhala nationalist right, accuse him of peddling nationalism as a launch pad for his personal politics: a strange assessment, given that since at least the Donoughmore period politicians have been peddling nationalism, of all shades, for personal gain. What makes Ranawaka a target of nationalist vitriol here is not his tendency to shift parties so quickly, but his gift for dominating nationalist discussions while cohabiting with parties hardly amenable to such discourses: the UNP then, the SJB today.
That boils down to a simple truism: no matter the virtues he claims for pole-vaulting, no matter the vices he claims for sticking to the same ideologies, he’s achieved the best of both worlds, bending to the currents of political expedience while sailing on the same ship. If Ranil Wickremesinghe has been compared to a fox, Mr Ranawaka’s spirit animal, given these predilections, ought to be a leopard: not a leopard that doesn’t change its spots, but one whose spots can never change.
All this is peripheral to any proper discussion about the man, his dreams, and how he has set out to realise them. Far from concentrating on why he’s survived all these decades despite abandoning any pretence at ideological consistency, while sailing on the same (Sinhala nationalist) ship, it behoves us to consider the challenges his track record poses to his future prospects. Put in another way, what are the biggest obstacles he faces as he charts yet another new political course?
To ponder these is to ponder Ranawaka’s vision for the future. None of his critics, from the nationalist right or the pro-SJB opposition, has engaged him over that vision. In essence, it centres on the need to nurture what he calls “fifth generation leaders”, a meritocratic class of results-oriented politicians and officials. The emergence of that generation is, in fact, the objective of “43 Senankaya.” Rawanaka’s strategy to that end is to consolidate the Bandaranaike reforms of 1956 and the Jayewardene reforms of 1977, forming “an administration comprising of experts from various sectors.”
One can of course question how the reforms of 1956 will square with those of 1977 – can you think of a more contrasting, disparate set of policies? – but that is grist for another piece. For now, what needs to be understood is that Ranawaka’s political philosophy has engaged a suburban petty bourgeoisie, along with a young precariat milieu fresh out of university, engaged in part-time employment, and entranced by his talk of next generation leaders. The “43” in his brigade’s title refers to the year free education was enacted here: its aim, therefore, is the realisation of the hopes and aspirations of a post-1956, post-1977, and post-2000 educated class. This is ambitious, cutting across political differences and potentially unifying everyone from everywhere. Yet it is not without its problems.
Ranawaka’s showing at last year’s general election (he came second from last in the SJB’s Colombo district preferential results) confirmed two things: one, that the nationalist crowd he wooed long ago has defected to the SLPP today, and two, that despite a lack of support from this crowd, he could not canvass enough support from other communities and groups. The latter revealed a more fundamental failure: an inability to cut into a) Colombo’s upper middle-class and b) ethnic minorities from Central Colombo. In these constituencies he was upended by a neoliberal rightwing, populist centre-right, and minority bloc. Once these groups deserted him, he was left with only a Sinhala suburban middle-class: a paltry base from which you can aim for little, and achieve even less.
Ranawaka’s challenge then is two-fold, necessitating two strategies. Firstly, since he is locked into Colombo’s middle-class and ethnic minorities, he should cross the terrain, beyond city and district, canvassing popular support from other regions. Secondly, since he cannot do without city and district, he should scale the wall, winning support from non-suburban-Sinhala constituencies there.
To both cross the terrain and scale the wall is not easy. But given his dismal showing last year, he should opt for a strategy which squares the circle. Otherwise, he runs the risk of not only irrelevance, but also marginalisation: both of himself and of the “43 Senankaya.”
The problem for Ranawaka is that he has ruffled the feathers of three minority communities: Tamils (anti-federal postures, coupled with an ambivalent stance on devolution), Muslims (comments about them being outsiders 13 years ago), and Christians (anti-conversion campaigns vis-à-vis the JHU, following the passing away of Soma Thera). Simultaneously, his defection to the UNP and SJB has led to dwindling support from the Sinhala nationalist right. All these factors have led to losses on all electoral fronts, with no compensating gains.
Today, he courts support from a niche audience: an anti-Rajapaksist, pro-meritocracy Sinhala middle-class as conservative as rightwing neoliberals. Unless he claims real estate elsewhere, he will find it difficult to achieve either his aims or the objectives of his brigade, even with a Sinhala electorate on his side. In politics especially, the past cannot be allowed to determine the future. In Ranawaka’s case, the past seems to be coming back with much ferocity. He must do what he can to let go, paving a new road. A failure to do so can only condemn him to irrelevance and extinction.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Military Officer Cadets- A Nation’s Promise of the future
Major General Nanda Mallawaarachchi VSV’s article in the Sunday Island and Sunday Times of April 25, 2021 respectively titled ‘Being blooded into the Ceylon Army in 1971’and ‘The making of a soldier’ would certainly have brought back pleasant memories to army officers of their days at Diyatalawa while training as officer cadets.
A retired officer of the Armoured Corps residing in Canada puts it across very well in a letter “Good read … about what was normal, and common to all intakes. The analysis and mention of individuals and places also brings back fond and nostalgic memories of training days at Diyatalawa ……. Loyalty to intake mates is good”.
The Major General may be forgiven for not mentioning the landmark of Diyatalawa, Fox Hill and its environs, including a hill jocularly known as ‘R… kellage passa paththa’ where quite a lot of training is done, the White Gate at the top of the dominating steep hill from the polo grounds where senior cadet’s test junior cadet’s fitness and interaction with the SLAF cadets.
Diyatalawa is also the only Garrison town in SL, something even the Directorate of Legal Services at Army HQ appears to have forgotten to the delight of dozens of unchecked illegal squatters. Leaving out the demonstration platoon from the Gemunu Watch may also be excused as they may have added to the cadets’ tales of excruciating woe on tactical exercises like Frozen Trout on the Horton Plains.
The mission of SLMA Diyatalawa, called the Officer Cadet School when Maj Gen Mallawaarachchi was there, is to educate, train and inspire officer cadets to be good military leaders and good citizens.
However in what appears to be a misconception of the mission, possibly due excessive zeal and popular exaggeration, the writer has made a few avoidable declarations. The first is considerable and dramatic. It fuels myths. It states that the Chief Instructor Captain, (not Major as given – later Major General) Sena de Sylva SLLI in his opening address said ‘We will break you and remake you in such a manner that nobody… will be able to break you again”.
This cannot be. Is it due to a severe memory lapse and a mistake, 50 years on? At a time when Geneva is giving SL no respite, this description could be added manna for SL’s detractors to be made by no less than a Major General that the Army ‘breaks’ even its officer cadets. It could also cause considerable negative concerns to parents, teachers and future aspirants as well as the public that holds the Army in considerable esteem and to former instructors. Major de Sylva, a Sandhurst alumnus from Trinity College, now living in the USA, actually said the training would be ‘very hard’.
The article misinterprets the objectives of the SLMA. As the above retired SL officer in Canada expands with passion “there was nothing to be broken. Inherent characteristics, talents, qualities and capabilities were enhanced and corrected while new ones were added through training, leadership examples of instructors and later seniors in one’s regiment. It includes transparency, respect for law and order, common decency, upholding the highest ideals of human behaviour, not by someone in authority but as a normal human being.” Military training is certainly very hard, robust, grueling, and very tough and extremely challenging as surely it must be. However it is not intended to ‘break’ inductees, especially future leaders.
The aim at SLMA Diyatalawa is to produce an officer who is morally, mentally and physically able to lead soldiers. The motto of the Military Academy Diyatalawa is ‘Serve to Lead’. It means officers must first serve their men in order to lead them. The officer trains them in the field, looks after them when in barracks, plays with them, goes out on adventure training with them, helps solve their personal problems and generally builds up confidence and trust. It is said a good young officer will know his men better than their own parents. This is what makes a soldier risk his life in obeying his officer in battle as he knows the officer would have done the same to save his. Would the charter of Diyatalawa be compromised by ‘breaking’ them first?
Such methods may possibly be attempted in a penitentiary or by sadistic ‘seniors’ (IUSF members with complexes) on ‘freshers’ at Universities in SL, with pitiful consequences including sadly, suicides.
The idea at Diyatalawa is to encourage imaginative and flexible and predictable leadership that is sensitive, honest, develops group spirit, camaraderie and a sense of fun as seen in the article. There will be pride, friendship forged by shared suffering, military knowledge, basic skills, discipline and finally a willingness to risk their lives for their comrades, regiment and country. They should be quick witted, hardy, well educated, approachable and have the trust and esteem of their soldiers, being responsible for lives not only livelihoods.
The article for some strange reason also states that cadets were paid Rs 460 in 1971.This is quite curious as even subalterns (second lieutenants) starting pay was Rs 275 then and a captain was paid Rs 525. Cadets who went to Sandhurst in the 1950/60s were paid a soldier’s salary. It was Rs 60. No one was shy to say so.
The article goes on about doing night sentry duties in ‘fox holes’ at Diyatalawa when the 1971 JVP insurgency began. Fox holes are tubular and uncomfortable. Foxes may know! This is an American term for the wholly inadequate preparations they used to make to protect themselves from enemy fire. It was a shade better than their alternative ‘shell scrapes’. They found the bitter truth of this in the Korean War. That term and concept was not in use at Diyatalawa. Surely what was meant were fire trenches? They provide protection for two from enemy small arms fire and substantially from artillery fire. What is not known was why NCOs like Reeves (later Regimental Sergeant Major of the First Field Engineers and now living in Canada) were allowed to slip into the trenches ‘at night to catch anyone sleeping and punish them’. Corporals were never allowed to punish cadets anyhow. Why Reeves was not shot is the real question!
Whatever these asides are, the real finale to these experiences will be when the former Officer Cadet Gotabaya Rajapakse of Intake 4 takes the salute as the Commander in Chief (C in C) at the next commissioning parade at Diyatalawa. He will remember that day, 50 years back, when he too was among those who paraded on the same grounds at a similar but smaller parade to salute the C in C’s representative.
The many battles he fought against the terrorists and his comrades both soldiers and officers who died and were wounded, will flash across his mind. He will humbly recall the leadership promise fulfilled when he as Defence Secretary was a part of the triumvirate that headed the armed forces which ended the 30-year conflict bringing total peace to SL.
Retired and serving officers, parents of the cadets and the public watching the parade live and on TV and the cadets on parade will bring to mind an officer cadet who then became an elected president without being a politician and came back to Diyatalawa as the C in C to take the salute.
Thankfully he was not broken but challenged, encouraged, set examples inspired and made. Emulation is highly unlikely but the mountain was climbed right up to the top. What an achievement. What an Academy! What an unforgettable and unique moment it will be.
A former officer cadet/instructor
Covid-19 surge as an opportunity to re-calibrate
by Malinda Seneviratne
Lockdown. Isolation. Quarantine. Wave. Social. Spread. Cluster. These are not new words. They are however words that have acquired fresh currency courtesy Covid-19. And, as often happens, when used frequently, they lost meaning or rather they are treated with (cultivated) nonchalance.
That’s as far as the general public is concerned. Meaning, all those who are not directly involved in designing policies and developing strategies to prevent or curb the spread of the virus, enforcing safety protocols and of course treating the infected. Yes, from Day One we were told that every single citizen has a responsibility. Indeed such communications were relayed not just through state media but private media institutions, social media and through innumerable notices. We saw them all. We heard them all. We continued to see and hear. We still do. Therefore, if there’s virtue in soul-searching then that’s a national exercise which neither government, opposition, institution (private, public or cooperative) nor individual can brush aside saying ‘not my/our business.’ We can ask, ‘where did we go wrong?’ We can ask ‘where did they (say, the government) go wrong?’ We can also ask, ‘where did I go wrong?’ The yet-to-be-infected or say the non-infected can say/think ‘well, I must have done something right,’ but then again if such an individual violated the basic safety measure of avoiding crowded places he/she would have unknowingly contributed to increasing people-density in certain places (say a shopping complex, a supermarket, a party or religious gathering). You add yourself and you make it that much harder to maintain social distance protocols. That’s one way of playing the blame game. There’s another. You turn your binoculars on the government. It’s fair enough. It’s the state authorities that have to design policy and enforce rules. So we can ask a lot of questions.Did they become paranoid too soon (March to June, 2020)? Did they become complacent thereafter? Didn’t they anticipate a second and third wave? Were they foolhardy in opening the country to tourists? Did they go overboard or were too indulgent with the so-called magic remedies? Have they done enough in terms of preparing for the unforeseen? Was testing done in a systematic way? Did they select and procure the correct complement of vaccines and in adequate quantities? Were they administered prudently? Were preparations for a surge in infections adequate? Then there are questions that are not asked or are not shouted out. Is there some kind of fail safe formula to balance containment with the need to keep the economy moving? Can Sri Lanka afford an extended or comprehensive lockdown? What would you/I say if for instance such measures were put in place? Would we then whine about the economy grinding to a halt? Would you/I keep our mouths shut if businesses large and small were forced to shut down or lay off employees? Would you/I not lament the plight of the poor(er) employees?
Have we studied adequately the political economy of pharmaceuticals, including vaccines (procurement of raw materials, production and distribution)? If someone told me/you that the USA used its Defense Production Act to ban exports of the materials needed to make vaccines to India, resulting in a 50% drop in production, would I/you believe it and conclude that vaccination is not free of politics, free of the profit-motive?It’s all about how easy we want to make it for ourselves, isn’t it? It has something to do with political preference hasn’t it? In the early days of the pandemic there was fear and foreboding. Even paranoia. Things got better and people were less paranoid. The recent surge in infections has produced a hike in worry. People are frustrated. They need someone to target. Anyone. Anyone but themselves. They want everyone (else) to do their bit and the government to do much more than it can hope to, but many are reluctant to do their bit. It’s easy to vent and ‘someone else’ is always a better target. We are not rich in self-reflection. We are poor when it comes to responsibility. In the early days there was a sense of siege. Fear made people think of coping mechanisms at all levels. Maybe we will return to all that. Maybe the government will figure out a way to allocate resources prudently and design better balancing systems (of pandemic response and an acceptable/reasonable level of basic economic and social activity).Speculation, however, can only help so much. It is clear that a concerted effort by one and all would help. Criticism has a role to play in all this. If it is constructive. If it is motivated by decent intention. For example, a year ago, an opposition in disarray ranted and raved about ‘risks’ when elections were to be held. When the second wave hit us a couple of months later, some people got into we-told-you-so gloating mode. Obviously they knew very little about the behavior of the virus and cared even less. What does tomorrow hold? Can anyone answer? What should be done? What should not be done? Talk to 10 people. Make that eight persons who have an axe to grind about this government. They won’t speak ‘in one voice’. Talk to ten ‘experts’. Same effect, I would wager. Everyone is a self-appointed epidemiologist these days. Everyone is an expert on balancing pandemic-mitigation and managing the economy. Everyone is more or less in the dark and if you doubt this, check out the various measures put in place by various governments and how these strategies have been amended over the past 18 months or so. There’s a lot that a lot of people can do. There are some basic things that an individual can do. Perhaps it might be useful to go back to one of the rules-of-thumb that did the rounds in the early days of the pandemic: assume that you are infected (rather than assuming someone else is infected). Assume also, if you like, that the virus is in your face, so to speak. That might bring those who prefer to loaf in ethereal regions back to earth.
It’s about doing what we can. It’s about doing no harm. Dialing down anger. Being kind. Restrictions of any kind provide one thing: the space for sober reflection. Not a bad thing. It could even be seen as a blessing, an opportunity to re-calibrate a lot of things, not just the response to the virus.
[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views]
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