“Canada has this image internationally of a great defender of human rights violations, the protector of human rights throughout the world, but in its own backyard it’s violated the rights of the First Peoples indiscriminately for years and years. And the greatest human rights violation has been the imposition of the residential school experience.”
Phil Fontaine, Aboriginal Canadian leader
By Sudharshan Seneviratne
A recent announcement featuring the news, Tamil Genocide Education Week by Scarborough MPP Vijay Thanigasalam’s Bill 104, received third reading at Queen’s Park on May 6th. Let us look at the “messenger” first and his credibility and secondly, the nature of the Canadian State i.e. hidden political agenda Canada has for the dependent diaspora as a cat’s paw. The man himself has a dubious history and was a one-time LTTE sympathizer even after the Elam war ended in 2009 (CDN 14th May 2021 Sugeeswara Senadhira).
Quite naturally Thanigasalam’s antics immediately sparked off a debate within Canada and the overseas resident Sri Lankan community. The mindset of the pro-LTTE diaspora is inevitable. It is another step in the long march consolidating its racial identity and legitimacy within a white-dominated country and the West. It also needs a bogy to legitimize the very existence in the eyes of its host country, the international community, and funding agencies, mostly, to the next generation and generations yet born. Mythifying the heroic struggle opposing this evil is an instrument unifying the larger Tamil community and a convenient “oppressed people’s theory”. On the other hand, it is an essential ingredient imaging the “enemy” i.e. the Sri Lankan state, Sinhala speaking community, and Buddhists.
There is a certain dialectic in this process. While projecting the “Evil” Sri Lankan state, Sinhala people and Buddhists, simultaneously whitewashes the genocide carried out by the LTTE. It will be an education to learn to what extent this “education” will list the human and cultural genocide and the carnage carried out by the LTTE. The abduction of children transforming them into killer machines and feeding them with cyanide pills; physical liquidation of opposing Tamil political parties and their leadership; the killing of Sri Lankan leaders, civilians (Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese), Buddhist monks and the destruction of cultural property is an unending list of scalps that need to be listed as ‘genocide’ even by UN standards. Huge funds they amassed by robberies, intimidation carried out on the helpless Tamil-speaking diaspora by pro-LTTE thugs will not feature in the awareness programme. They also will not speak of the untold racial discrimination they themselves faced in White Canada. This will provide a comfort zone to the Canadian State to whitewash and present itself to the international community as the “moral state”, which ironically emerged by default as a champion of the oppressed when President Trump was doing his number in the neighbourhood. Ironically, Canada’s own track record on human rights needs a new chapter on the history of genocide.
Will the learning material highlight the genocide carried out by the LTTE and unfold the genocide track record of the masters of the Pro-LTTE diaspora – Canada? These are the antecedents of rewriting history to be introduced to the school system perpetuating a mythical story of the birth of a new “Nation” to the next generation. This is the long-term plan of laying the foundation of its own future Eelam State which will be the next step towards demanding or carving out a Province within the State of Canada. It may be too late when Canada wakes up to a replay of the “Quebec Syndrome”! It will dilute Canada’s banal excuse of inclusivity is nothing but empty rhetoric. Only a week back it was reported that the highest number of racial attacks on Asians is in Vancouver. With almost 1 out of every 2 residents of Asian descent in British Columbia experienced a hate incident as it was reported in the past year (Bloomberg Equality + Businessweek May 7th 2021). Of course, this is happening in Canada, in case the pro-LTTE diaspora forgot the map! It will be interesting to document the nature of discrimination the newly arriving Tamil-speaking immigrants faced in Toronto and other cities. Either they are silent or consciously hide such facts without causing embarrassment to the Canadian White Master.
Conversely, the pro LTTE diaspora will never educate their children on how the LTTE gunned down their own people while escaping along the eastern beach front; they will never speak of Tamil-speaking people who were fleeing not so much from the Sri Lankan military but from the LTTE and how many of them were also hunted down overseas. It is unlikely that the humanitarian aid given by the Sri Lankan Army to the public in the North and the East as the war ended; social development carried out in the north and the east, where inclusivity programmes and systems were placed on track and among other people-friendly measures. Will they educate the children that in almost all metropolitan centres such as Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna, Batticaloa, Galle Trincomalee and Nuwara-Eliya the Sinhala and Buddhist population is less than 50% of the resident population and there is coexistence among language, religious and ethnic groups? Will they be educated on the quantum of investments made by the diaspora in such places during the post-war period and the rich harvest they reap from such investments?
There is another important factor we often tend to forget. This is conscious support and the nurturing of pro-LTTE elements and lovingly embraced by the Canadian State. The great saviour and knight in the shining armour crying and lamenting on Heroes Memorial Day who actually shed tears and how their voices break down at such events. Full marks to the Canadian political leadership for the Oscar-winning performances. Seeing this, Niccolo Machiavelli may have added another volume to his thesis on The Prince pleased that the pro-LTTE diaspora followed his famous dictum, “the end justifies the means”! Of course, Canada will not shed any tears for its own indigenous people nor will it take the state of Israel to task for the current massacres carried on the Palestinian people!
Hero worshipping Prabakaran is a God-given excuse to sweep under the carpet Canada’s own miserable history of slavery, racial discrimination, exploitation of indigenous people and brutally putting down its own French origin white citizen’s aspirations and silent support for multinationals that undermine environment protection within Canada and overseas. This is the diaspora’s His Masters Voice that was screaming on Sri Lanka’s genocide record at the UNHRC this March! A press release from the Scarborough-Rouge Park MPP, however, said the Conservative government, bypassing the bill, “demonstrated its commitment to fighting injustices and standing up for the Tamil people who call Canada home”. (MAY 11, 2021 BY MIKE ADLER. SCARBOROUGH MIRROR). Amen!
The thread of history: Multiple narratives
The study of history and its dynamics needs to be seen in the motion of events and people. This dynamic is seen in cyclical and spiral movements. However, if the circle or spiral is stretched, it becomes linear. There is linearity representing the History of Canada as multiple narratives connecting it from the past to the present. Canada’s ruling cabal may wish to hide behind the sympathetic engagements of the pro-LTTE diaspora and presenting itself as the greatest exponent of human rights (bleating from the UNHCR pulpit). But it cannot wash away the sins of the past, its double standards, and crimes against humanity which is yet a living reality in its sub- stratum culture and psyche.
The Tamil diaspora is not monolithic; it is differentiated by class, excludes certain castes and is gendered in its exploitation. The mobilisation of the diverse Tamil diaspora abroad and the rhetoric used have become the rationale for reinforcing the security establishment in Sri Lanka. A democratic Tamil leadership from within the country should challenge the larger Tamil diaspora to change course and work constructively towards building a plural and democratic society out of the ravages of war.
Ahilan Kadirgamar ” Tamil Diaspora: Classes, State and politics”
Economic & Political Weekly. July 31, 2010 vol. xlv no 31
Narrative 1: Colonialism
As in the case of most countries “discovered” by the West, Canada was founded under Colonialism with a history of discrimination and cruelty to humanity. Colonialism commenced as early as 1600 though Canada became a nation in 1867. Formalizing genocide as a policy of the state then commenced with state patronage and blessings. Controlling land and resources was imperative. Indigenous people had to be physically liquidated that provided the space to appropriate their land (mainly resource areas) by force. They were expelled to unproductive land unworthy of good soil, water resources, and game including sacred spaces. The most successful system of liquidating the indigenous people was: the forced sterilization and disenfranchising them of their indigenousness thus mentally and physically deculturalizing those communities. The most damaging strategy was by culturally absorbing them to the Western ethos introducing by force the damning colonial school system and the creation of stolen generations. This was practiced in the USA, Australia and Africa with great success and Canada fine-tuned this system by establishing the Resident or Industrial School system. Since the Pro LTTE Diaspora is targeting the school system, let us look at the roots of the Canadian school system under Colonialism and how subordinate people were educated, and its tragic consequences.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in 2015, released its final report, documenting the tragic experience of at least 150,000 residential school students. Residential Schools “were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.” (“Genocide and Indigenous people in Canada”. The Canadian Encyclopedia). Policy on indigenous education was primarily based on assimilation and colonization. Assimilation was carried out by removing children from their parents and families to “educate” and to be deculturalized and isolate them where “children had to be caught young” (1879 Devin Report). Residential School (RS) system run by the Federal Government and the Church totally removed children from parents, who were not permitted to visit their children. They in fact never saw their children again. Between1890-1970 over 100,000 children were forced to attend 139 RS. Half the day they had no education but menial work in school, barns, and farms. It was slave labour and hardly any time for education. Girls were taught to cook, sew, and household work to become maids. Eventually, when they left school after 10 years, their level of knowledge and education was at the level of a Grade 2 child. In the final count over 70% of children were tortured, sexually abused by school teachers, priests, and nuns. This is cultural genocide at its best!
These children were unable to adjust to an alien space and society nor were they able to receive higher education or skills. They often resorted to larceny, drug and alcohol addiction, ending up as urban poor and plantation workers and often without livelihood as urban poor. The memory of their cultural past was obliterated and abuse blocked out the indigenousness. School leaving children who lacked family love, parental guidance, and poor family life and pauperized in turn also resorted to child abuse of their own children. Five generations of children went through this school system and the next generation of indigenous people was diluted & devastated and had no identity. Only in 2008 did the Prime Minister of Canada, Steven Harper, apologized to the indigenous people, again too late.
Similarly, the Australian Prime Minister too apologized for the wrong done to the indigenous people only in 2008.
“It has been very trying for Indigenous populations to have their existence annulled—that’s what the last 150 years have been. The 150th anniversary has to be marked by the fact that things have to change. We must confront our colonial thinking and attitudes and redefine what Canadian-ness means. We must move beyond the false notion that Canada was founded by the French and the English, recognizing that we started off with the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, and have become a society that thrives on diversity and knows how to share resources fairly among everyone.” – Karla Jessen Williamson (Inuk), June 2017. Canada’s Dark Side. Origins Vol. 11 June 2018)
Will the pro-LTTE diaspora convey this dark history to their children by instructing them on Sri Lanka’s imagined genocide and sweep under the carpet the history of their White Master’s ugly history? They are only perpetuating the White Man’s history and not looking at their own history taught in the school system (Justice Murray Sinclair).
Narrative 2: French separatist Movement.
The Quebec Sovereignty Movement (Mouvement souverainiste du Québec) emerged in the 1960s as a political movement and presented its ideology advocating an independent movement for the province of Quebec. Its antecedents ran to a much earlier period. The 1837 Patriotes Rebellion was the first attempt by French Canadians to overthrow British dominance since 1760 conquest. An entire literature has grown up around the theme of the exploitation of the French-Canadian people. Until the II World War, the French-Canadians, who constituted more than two-sevenths of the population, disposed of only one-seventh of the wealth.
Of the 31 richest mines, 12 were owned by Anglo-Canadians and nineteen by Americans. The 497 mining companies listed employed a grand total of seven French-Canadian engineers (“French Canada and the war”. TE Wood. VQR.1940). It is their ethnic and language identity that propelled the French-speaking Canadians to move towards separation.
In 1969 the FLQ stepped up its campaign of violence with the October Crisis. The group claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange, and in 1970 the FLQ kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte was later murdered. The silent repression that followed is not popularly recoded.
Many of Quebec’s francophones felt that the 1982 constitution significantly eroded their status and powers and threatened their survival as a people. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifically acknowledges the multicultural character of Canada. The tension between the bi-communal and emerging multicultural aspects of Canadian society and politics is at the root of the current threat to Canada’s survival as a country. (Vol. XVII No. 2, Fall 1997 Ethnic Structure, Conflict Processes and the Potential for Violence and Accommodation in Canada. by David E. Schmitt).
Here is another thread in history the Pro-LTTE school book may wish to include. They may well borrow Charles de Gaulle’s famous slogan expressed in Montreal during a state visit to Canada, “Vive le Québec libre!” only with a slight twist, “Vive le Scarborough libre!”
Narrative 3: Environment and genocide
One of the focus areas of colonialism was its predatory expansion into land held by indigenous people that had resources of water, precious metal and minerals, supply of fish, animal skins and furs, and by the mid19th Century striking crude oil. The height of eviction of indigenous people, massacres, forced sterilization, enhanced expansion of Industrial (Residential) schools coincided with this period. They were placed in reservations and had little ownership over their traditional land.
The First Nation or indigenous people are yet alienated from their land and resources and are on a relentless confrontation with the Federal government of Canada. To cite some case studies. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation community has expressed concern regarding its proximity to chemical plants over a falling birth rate. This is due to the adverse effects of maternal and exposure to the effluent and emissions of the nearby chemical plants.
Protests broke out in many parts of Canada including Wet’suwet’en community, triggered off by arrests of dozens of protesters on traditional indigenous land along a route for TC Energy Corp’s TRP.TO planned Coastal GasLink pipeline. The flashpoint was police arrests that started in northern British Columbia of protesters who opposed the pipeline’s construction on the traditional land of the Wet’suwet’en indigenous people. Some 28% of the pipeline route runs through Wet’suwet’en lands. “Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, whose province depends on oil and gas revenue, called for police to step up enforcement, saying the protests are about ideology that is opposed to fossil fuels, not indigenous issues”. (Reuters Feb. 13th 2020).
In addition to pipelines, coal deposits salmon fishing zones and timber growing areas are on or adjacent to indigenous residential areas. There is a constant conflict between these communities and investors who are covertly supported by authorities.
The worst of it comes from the conduct of Canadian companies outside Canada (see Report to UN Committee in Mining Companies Pervasive abuse against women Oct. 4th, 2016. The Mining watch/Canada) Human rights advocates’ report shows that the government has actively supported abusive companies, rather than holding them accountable (Ottawa/Washington, D.C.) “A majority of the world’s mining companies, operating at over 8000 sites in over 100 countries, are headquartered in Canada. Many of these mines are also sites of serious human rights violations, including direct violence against local women and environmental degradation. One recent study found that Canada’s mining companies are involved in such abuses and conflict more than any other country. The report, submitted to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), charges that Canada has been supporting and financing mining companies involved in discrimination, rape, and violence against women in their operations abroad, when it should be holding those companies accountable for the abuse”.
I hope this part of environmental and human degradation will be taught to the diaspora school programme enlightening the students on the violence and abuses supported by the magnanimous state of Canada while it sheds tears of genocide against Sri Lanka over the fallen heroes of LTTE!
The greatest hope and asset to the Tamil-speaking diaspora is their children, the next generation. Let their minds open up to the world, inquire, question, and think for themselves. This is all about education and not something that is poured into one’s head tainted with biases and prejudices. Let them be exposed to their parents’ and grandparents’ place of origin and learn for themselves what Sri Lanka is and its inclusive history and heritage.
This account does not point the finger at all resident individuals of the Tamil-speaking diaspora. I personally know of high-end professionals, intellectuals, and friends who are very close and dear to me. Some of them cannot voice their sentiments in an invisible draconian social environment that has taken root over 40 odd years making them a potential “voice of the voiceless”. This is in some ways is dedicated to such individuals who one day will rise up and question the residue of a fascist rule controlling their thoughts and mind. Please reach out to your brothers and sisters across the ocean in Sri Lanka.
Shades of Beddegama in teeming Hong Kong
By GEORGE BRAINE
Even after being closely connected to Hong Kong for 26 years, I am still amazed by the contrasts there. Professionals earn the highest salaries in the world while destitute old women scavenge for cardboard boxes. Tycoons live in the world’s most expensive mansions while the poorest live in tiny subdivided flats. Perhaps the most striking contrast is the crowded urban areas of Central, Kowloon, and Mong Kok, and the deserted villages in the rural parts of the New Territories, where I lived.
Hong Kong is barely 500 square miles, and only half of that is inhabited; the rest is given over to hillsides and country parks. They are seven million tightly packed people. Then, how does one explain deserted villages?
Wong Chuk Yeung
Leonard Woolf’s classic Village in the Jungle, set in colonial Ceylon, narrates the slow decline of a small, isolated village, Beddegama. As the people leave or die out, the jungle gradually covers the crumbling, miserable huts. The last survivor is Punchi Menika. In the final scene, as Punchi Menika lies in her dilapidated hut, a giant wild boar glides in like a mythical devil to gore her. This scene came to mind when, during a hike, I stumbled upon the village of Wong Chuk Yeung. Located about 3 km uphill from the lovely seaside town of Sai Kung, the village lies within a country park, at the end of a narrow, twisting road. On the way up, the road winds through a steep slope on the left and a forest to the right. Uphill, trees press on the road from either side, forming a canopy.
At its first appearance, the village gave the idea of being inhabited, with strands of electricity, street lights, and a functioning water service. The one mailbox overflowed with recently delivered mail, mainly electric and water bills. However, the lichen-covered houses and the trash-strewn, weed-choked alleyways indicated a lack of life. Rice fields and fruit trees long abandoned and overgrown with weeds surrounded the village. Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered. Signs of rooting by wild boars was everywhere, and the fragile barking deer scampered off at my approach. Five-meter long Burmese pythons had been seen nearby. Old graves stood sentinel.
Long ago, the village was occupied by rice and vegetable farmers of the Li clan. They lacked proper roads, schools, electricity, or water service, but this simple life style suited the villagers. Then, imported rice became much cheaper. Rice also became hard to grow because a nearby iron mine caused a drop in the water table. Lacking even public transport, the younger generation preferred the comforts of urban Hong Kong or emigrated to Britain.
The last survivor Since that first encounter, I visited the village, on and off, over a number of years. An elderly man dressed smartly in a jacket and trousers, carrying a rolled-up umbrella, would pass me by on his way to town. I would also see him in town, chatting with people his age or doing a little shopping.
Later, I also noticed a younger man from the village, laboriously pushing his bicycle uphill, laden with plastic shopping bags. He would pause often on the way, squatting on the ground to rest before attempting a further stretch of the steep road. He did not make eye contact or return my greetings.
Then, I stopped seeing the elderly gentleman. He had died. I also learned that his wife used to carry home-made cakes on a shoulder pole for sale in Sai Kung. She had passed away before my time. The younger man, the last survivor of the village, was their son. The family had emigrated to Britain but returned to Hong Kong and to Wong Chuk Yeung for some reason.
As the years went by, the last survivor no longer had his bicycle. Instead, three dogs with matted fur would accompany him all the way to town and back. I would sometimes see him in town, feeding the dogs with scraps of bread, and reading crumpled racing sheets that he may have found in trash cans. At the village, I had noticed a ramshackle house with garbage strewn outside, the dogs loitering at the door barking fiercely at my approach. That’s perhaps where he lived.
Eventually, only one dog was left. For the last survivor, life must have been horrendous. The eerily quiet nights would have been fearsomely lonely, perhaps the ghosts of departed ancestors his only company. Occasionally, a police vehicle would pass me on the way to the village, so they must have been keeping an eye on his safety.
On my way down to Sai Kung town, splendid views of the island-studded bay, a golf course, and of a distant reservoir opened up. Although other hikers appeared on weekends, the road was mainly deserted during weekdays. Domestic helpers walking their employers’ dogs could be seen, but they too become fewer when the heat of summer set in. On some mornings, paragliders would be floating down towards Sai Kung town, adding colour to the clear blue sky.
Driving home from Sai Kung on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I saw the last survivor struggling home and stopped to give him a ride, going out of my way to the village. As my car struggled up the steep climb on first gear, we drove in silence. When he opened the door to get down, I extended my hand and said “George”. He repeated “Georgie” in the Cantonese style that I find so affectionate. Pointing to himself, he said “Li”. He had finally spoken.
The front page banner headline in the South China Morning Post came like a bolt from the blue. Forgotten Wong Chuk Yeung was in the news, with a bang, for illegal deals between developers and villagers domiciled in Britain.
Villagers profit in secret land deals
Indigenous residents sign away small housing rights in exchange for HK$500,000 or a new flat at the site, which helps developers avoid rezoning and premiums
Cheung Chi-faiNov 04, 2011
The article mentioned that the village was 350-years old, and once contained 96 houses. Obviously a substantial village, although I had not seen that many ruins; some crumbling structures may have been covered by weeds, or dissolved into the ground. But, every plot had an owner, and the developers were methodically buying up all the plots.
I had been writing-up my visits to the village on a blogsite, along with photos, and former villagers now in Britain had been reading my entries. In the comments section of the blog, the following message appeared:
Hi George, found your blog and found it fascinating. Great pictures. This is my family’s village, it is a lovely village, though very run down I still like to go and visit it whenever I am in HK – with much sadness all the villagers involved have now signed the papers for the land to be sold off to a development company. Not everyone wanted this but the majority won and it is now in process of exchange. I am extremely sad about this as the land has a lot of history. The buildings, the wildlife (the numerous beautiful butterflies!) in the land all needs to be preserved – Hong Kong needs to preserve old ancestral lands such as Wong Chuk Yeung before it’s too late.
Another villager in Britain, fiercely proud of his heritage, commented that he “will do everything it takes for Wong Chuk Yeung to stay in the Li family name”. He, and the last survivor, Mr. Li, may be what stood between the village and “development” that would erase all traces of a bygone-era.
I stopped visiting the village, but would see Mr. Li in Sai Kung town, sitting at McDonalds, engrossed in a newspaper that appears to have been salvaged from the garbage. He held the paper very close to his face, which probably meant he was nearsighted. That may have also accounted for his shyness and avoidance of people, because he couldn’t see well.
Over the years, his favourite place in town had been the Hong Kong Jockey Club betting centre. Even in the last days I saw him, he would be squatting on the pavement near the betting centre, carefully reading the racing sheet. He had shirtless, shoeless, the bicycle and the dogs long gone. He was become much scrawnier and unkempt over the years. Even when I said “Hello Mr. Li”, he would not look up or return my greeting.
I left Sai Kung in 2015. Recently, I saw that the following message had been left on my blogsite:
I’m sorry to announce that the lone survivor died at the beginning of this year (2015) and within weeks the developers moved in and put up 10 foot high corrugated hoardings fencing off the land from the public access road. This is a major eyesore and even worse is the bulldozing of the trees and wildlife areas (lush green grasslands that covered former paddy fields that were farmed by the villagers in the 50s and 60s).
I wonder about Mr. Li’s last days. Were they as wretched as Punchi Menika’s in Beddegama? Did he die alone, and discovered days later, or did someone find him before it was too late?
As for Wong Chuk Yeung, I have no wish to return. I prefer to remember it from all those years ago.
The trust deficit
Nelum Kuluna: “It’s the folly of such investments that has created the debt problem.”
‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
When this government was elected to office, there was wild jubilation, almost countrywide. People danced in the streets. But totally unexpectedly that ecstasy lasted a short time. This was no more strongly revealed than when the Cardinal, the leader of the Roman Catholic community in the country, publicly prayed to God that as he and his community could not get justice from secular authority. May God mete out justice to those who destroyed the lives of many members of his community! It was a pitiful cry of desperation (crie de coeur) that touched many people, no matter their religious faith or lack thereof. There were several well-known members of the Bhikkhu Sangha, who spoke most unhappily about the government for betraying the undertakings that had been given to them, when the now government sought election to office. The betrayal was bitter to a large sections of the population when the saubhagyaya (plentifulness), so prominently promised by the winning political party in 2019, turned out to be simply its opposite in 2021. The impending economic austerity, after the yahapalanaya government, glared in the face of all thoughtful people in 2019 but the winning party impressed upon the electorate that the party had worked out strategies and policies that would bring in prosperity which the opponents failed to achieve. The public were not shown the strategies and policies. When something is too good to believe, it is either not genuine or not true. It was sheer stupidity on the part of the electorate to believe that the key to El Dorado was in the hands of one individual or even the few who were on the path of wisdom (viyath maga); perhaps, inevitable given the alternative. It took three serious unexpected disasters to persuade two ministers of the government to explain in Parliament the dire economic situation in the country and their lack of policies to meet those perilous challenges. The first was the invasion of the SARS-CoV-2 infection that came along with tourists. After a promising start, the government floundered helplessly in 2021, failing to use effectively a fine public health structure that had many victories to its credit, including control of malaria, elimination of polio, typhoid and DPT. In mid-2021, the death rate among those infected rose above 1 percent, double that which prevailed in May 2021 and yet better than in most parts of the world. The government could not make use of the work of government servants who had information on the location and the age of people who lived there (Electoral lists in the offices of grama niladhari). The disaster that the Ministry of Shipping cluelessly invited into our seas destroyed not merely the eco system but with it the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, not necessarily only along the coast. The claim by a government minister that deaths on a large scale of sea creatures, both large and small, soon after the shipping disaster, was a regular feature in the stormy season (varakan) was shockingly disingenuous. The government handled both these disasters so incompetently that the electorate lost whatever trust they had about the government’s capacity to govern the country. The ill-timed policy to eliminate the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture (which itself is not a bad idea in an ideal world) raised the ire of the mass of peasants and farmers and threatened the supply of food in the country and the continued production of tea and rubber. The persistent assertion by the Minister of Agriculture that there was plentiful fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides flew in the face of demonstrations by thousands of cultivators all around the country. Are these protestors true hirelings of fertiliser importers? The threat to import organic fertiliser is fraught with untold dangers, because that fertilizer carries organisms that could be dangerous to human, animal and plant health, here. More directly, that policy openly contradicted the pledges given in the manifesto of the party that fertiliser would be given to peasants free and freely.
In liberal democracies, governance is a matter of trust between the government and the governed. Governments are elected by the people periodically on the basis of manifestoes issued by political parties in which the parties lay out the policies that they would implement, if elected to office. Some unexpected emergencies inevitably arise and the policies they adopt to meet those emergencies must be governed by approaches to policy announced in their manifesto. The governed expect that government has spoken honestly in their manifestoes and would implement them in the people’s interest and not for the pecuniary gains of those that govern. When parties seeking office (not power, as we commonly say) systematically lie to seek election and the voters are either not sharp enough to see through the falsehoods or are swayed by other propaganda, (e.g. finding a small ethnic or religious group in the country whose electoral strength is petty, against whom a political party can whip up a frenzy) governments have a problem retaining the trust of the governed. ‘These leaders might invoke a lost imperial grandeur …. (Rajarata, in our case). They adopt sophisticated propaganda techniques (which may include events of spectacular destruction) in which to demolish adversaries and bolster their own egos… This charisma is leveraged to project an aura of virility that is supposed to protect a helpless citizenry against lawlessness and an endangered nation against the invasive impurities of alien and internal enemies.’ (Ariel Dorfman, 2021.) When lying came to light, the governed lost trust in government.
A fortnight ago, two Ministers who spoke in Parliament to defend the decision of the government to raise the prices of petroleum products (which itself is reasonable) laid out clearly, for the first time, the economic plight of the nation and the impecuniosity of the government. One was the redoubtable Bandula Gunawardana; the other, the lawyer Gammanpila. Later the new Minister of finance, whilst taking office, spoke about the ‘grave situation (bararum thatvaya)’ of the economy and the finances. We wish him well, in a difficult job. Why did it take 21 months for the government to take the people into confidence and explain the dire situation of the economy and the finances when they took over from the yahapalanaya government? There was, then, the added advantage of an escape goat ready for slaughter, a second time.
The government was so keen on standing by their propaganda that the president, soon after taking office, abolished the PAYE scheme, drastically reduced both direct and indirect taxes and renewed his promise to give new employment to hundreds of thousands of university graduates, which promise he fulfilled later under pressure. (The public were told, very late, that tax revenue had fallen sharply in 2020.) Independent observers were taken aback by these decisions which may have been so enthusiastically adopted only by a government, with an economy with strong sinews and a Treasury with bottomless reserves. The public awaited a miracle. They should not have, because the horn of plenty is only a fairy tale for toddlers not economics for adults. In government, one should have ‘soft hearts and hard heads’ and not the other way around, which seems to be partly the problem with the new government.
Now that some members of the government have given expression to the true nature of the economic situation and the financial imbroglio of the government, what about the way out of these predicaments? There was widespread antipathy to the idea of seeking assistance from IMF on account of the eventual necessity to agree to conditions they would lay down to come to the assistance of the economy. The IMF lays down those conditions because it wants to ensure that the objectives it sets out to achieve, require countries to follow those policies. The IMF conditions that the government disapproved of included austerity measures to ensure that the economy has a surplus with which to service debt. (It is the obverse of more resources than we produced when we borrowed from abroad.) There is no escape from seeking such drop in the domestic use of domestical output to pay back debts incurred. In addition, there was an equally widespread objection to seeking assistance from abroad and much enthusiasm for working out our own solutions. These strategies and policies now on display feature the following. There is widespread austerity in the country, fulfilling the first condition that could have been demanded by the IMF. The supply of goods of all kinds has fallen. That scarcity has resulted from many measures that government implemented. The direct reduction of imports is the most visible. Any shopper in a supermarket can observe empty shelves. Fertiliser and agrochemicals are scarce. The Covid epidemic, the shipping disaster and the scarcity of fertiliser and agrochemicals will reduce incomes cutting down total demand and demand for imports. The other means of enforcing austerity is to raise prices to make goods and services beyond the budget of most people. Fortuitously, the fall in employment has reduced levels of income and cut down living conditions. Printing money large scale brought about the rise in prices. Whether the government wished it or not, austerity which IMF would have recommended is here with us. No matter which party formed the government, this austerity was inevitable, not because we borrowed but because we invested foolishly. The public are in austerity. What is absent is a programme to reschedule debt repayment.
Individuals, corporations and governments all borrow and prosper out of debt. The secret is in the uses made of the loan proceedings. Large scale borrowing was resorted to in the years 2010-2015. We had been impoverished by a long drawn out civil war. Borrowing was welcomed by society because there were large scale projects, employment in construction ran high and the rate of economic growth was elevated. By 2015, the rate of growth had come down and the government was voted out of office. Among other reasons, the poor performance of the economy was of major importance. With large investments in the early years which helped raise the growth of the economy, the failure of the investments to raise output (summarily, high incremental capital/output ratios – ICOR) dampened the rate of growth. The failure of investments to earn a return on it was all too clear to see: Hambantota Port still does not make an adequate return; the International Conference Hall lies idle; Mattala airport receives an occasional flight; Nelum Pokuna has a more attractive garden than audiences shouting acclaim for plays on its fine stage; and the Nelum Kuluna stands solitary guard over the Colombo Port City. It is the folly of these investments that created the debt problem, not borrowing itself. Yahapalanaya government failed to realise that unless they explained to the public the dire situation in the country and imposed austerity to pay back the loans, that they would hand over to the successor government a debt burden impossible to bear. That is exactly what has happened. Saubhagya government that succeeded the Yahapalanaya government completely failed to read the economy correctly or imagined that they could hoodwink the public to believe that they had strategies and policies to meet these exigencies. The public evidently took in the latter, hook, line and sinker. That the same strategist who promoted the infrastructure programmes in 2010-2015 was appointed today to manage the economy and that his first project was an infrastructure project is cause for deep concern.
We need to put in place a programme to restructure debt service payments so that the government can manage to avoid a catastrophic further fall in living standards of the people. To agree to reschedule debt repayment, creditors need an organization, in which they have faith, that it will enforce an agreed upon reschedule. Most of the time that organization has been the IMF. Interest rates in international capital markets have begun to rise with widespread fears of incipient inflation in developed countries. The prices of materials like aluminum, copper and rare minerals have been rising for several months. The tendency for interest rates to rise is further strengthened by the initiative of central banks to disgorge their bursting portfolios of financial assets. The cheap credit regime may have come to an end. A reschedule itself may be now more expensive than earlier.
If the government does not wish to use the IMF, they will have to find a substitute. There are no other solutions.
From ‘multi-ethnicity’ to multiculturalism
by Susantha Hewa
Being able to speak only one language (monolingualism) is becoming the exception rather than the rule. More and more Sri Lankans whose home language is either Sinhala or Tamil are learning English as their second language (L2). Not many Sinhala speakers or Tamil speakers select each other’s language, namely, Tamil or Sinhala as their L2 for a few obvious reasons.
With due respect to both Sinhala and Tamil, neither of them has the social recognition that English commands in this country. Secondly, being perhaps the widest read and spoken global language, English has a utility value far exceeding that of Sinhala or Tamil, for all those who engage in higher studies, research, preparing for private sector employment, administrative work, translation, journalism and diplomatic service, among others. Many graduates realise at job interviews that a good command of English can often eclipse academic excellence, which has resulted in English becoming a major ingredient in all recipes for gainful ‘employability.’ In short, proficiency in English can be a big bonus for anybody aspiring to move ahead in any chosen path. That monolingualism among Sinhala or Tamil speakers is now appearing to be an anomaly and a deprivation needs little persuasion. However, opinions differ on how early a child should start learning English as his L2 to reap all its benefits. Is early exposure to an L2 harmful? Will it make him culturally rootless?
Let’s take an example from the Sri Lankan context. It’s not news that if a child’s parents spoke two languages, say, Sinhala and Tamil, the child would learn to speak both almost equally fluently provided that they were spoken often enough at home. So quite reasonably, she will have two mother tongues – Sinhala and Tamil, and thus be a bilingual if she were to continue speaking both languages into her adulthood. Alternatively, if only one language was spoken to the exclusion of the other at home she would be monolingual, which could be described as an instance of a lost opportunity given the time and difficulty involved in learning the other language at a later stage. What’s more, the former who acquires both languages simultaneously will have an edge over the latter in more ways than being fluent in two languages.
For instance, she would develop a better empathy with the speakers of either language and an increased awareness of their respective cultures, language being the most pervasive and fluid transmitter of the shared values of a community. Surely, it would be a better option than being excluded from one ethos depending on which of the two languages is to be her home language. Further, the exposure to two cultures would be an excellent opportunity for her to take a balanced view of both and grow up to be more unbiased about each. Such a child is unlikely to be overemotional about one culture and will find herself at home with either community as a grownup. Thirdly, as linguists point out, a bilingual is better adapted than a monolingual to learn a new language. Thus, early bilinguals in general will be more versatile than monolinguals in socialising, language learning and more open-minded about and less susceptible to synthetic divisions based on imagined/self-imposed identities. In other words, multilingualism may significantly bring down the volatility inherent in the so-called “multi-ethnic” societies.
Our longstanding tradition of being moulded by a single culture with only one home language may urge us to cast doubts about the soundness of being multilingual/multicultural from childhood, prompting us to consider it a denial of the right to have firm roots in a single culture. However, those who entertain this view may perhaps be ardent believers of “uniqueness” and “sanctity” of each culture- those who rely on “purity of stock” to be the mainstay of best human behaviour. Just take the above example of the bilingual child. If her Tamil speaking father or Sinhala speaking mother was adamant that only his or her language would be spoken at home wouldn’t it lead to a serious crisis? Can anyone determine with any justification whether mother or father’s decision should carry the day? On what grounds can anyone say that one linguistic/cultural environment is better than or superior to the other? If the parents had saner heads they would let the language mix be a blessing in disguise instead of making it a recipe for disaster. Surely, it would apply with equal validity on the broad canvas of society.
Come to think of it, it is usually our cultural seclusion that makes us feel rootless when we are placed in an unfamiliar social milieu as a grown up, which is more likely than not in the modern world where many cannot afford to stick to one job or place for long. Young children who migrate find it easier to adapt to the new setting than their parents do. As we have seen, children living in multicultural settings don’t seem to suffer any “rootlessness” whatsoever; on the contrary, they are often more confident and skilled in socializing. A bicultural is unlikely to be feeling any more estranged than an amphibian in water. It is often the insularity resulting from our cultural segregation in childhood that seems to prompt us to demonize cultural intermixing as a dangerous dilution, or worse, an out and out contamination of “inherited” values.
As such, linguistic “isolation” in childhood may contribute in no small measure to the emergence and hardening of divisive feelings continually attributed to “ethnicity” – a label which has always proved to be more harmful than useful. If bilingualism or, better still, multilingualism can dilute this unserviceable sense of segregation, why thwart it? Can we think of any instance where humans have run in to a crisis for not knowing who belonged to what “ethnicity?”
However, being a bilingual from the cradle is too good to be true. In most families, children have to be content with one home language, often, Tamil or Sinhala. Thus, to compensate for this customary language seclusion in early childhood, the L2 has to be made available to children as early as possible. As linguists claim, changes in brain plasticity make delayed L2 learning more taxing- the older you get the more laborious it becomes. In the L2 learning continuum, the earlier you start, the closer you are to the natural L1 acquisition process, which gradually shifts from its “acquisition mode” to a more artificial “learning mode” as you age, and the latter is far less effective than the former notwithstanding the extra time and effort it requires. Furthermore, while early acquisition of an L2 tends to be more comprehensive and enriching, late learning is often narrowly focused and inhibited. Many adult learners, for example, a good number of undergraduates grudgingly learn it to fulfill a necessary condition to get their degree certificate and “be employable.”
A child’s growing inhibition towards learning a second language with the passing of years is nowhere more manifest than in universities where students wanting in English language skills are conspicuous in their absence in kaduwa classes. Thus, undoubtedly, the most prudent, scientific and result-oriented approach to teaching English, or any L2 for that matter, is to focus on primary and secondary level students without delaying it until their language learning mechanisms have risen to their, so to speak, “level of incompetence.”
Surely, university entrants aren’t at their best age to contend with English because they are in an age category in which their L2 assimilation mechanism is shifting gear from acquisition to learning. The most affected by this change are those whose medium of instruction happens to be English. Their lack of proficiency in English, which is the result of inadequate exposure to it during their primary and secondary education, makes them pay a heavy price now, at least in three ways. Firstly, it makes them cut kaduwa classes to avoid looking “foolish” in the presence of their more privileged colleagues. It also drastically reduces their grasp of academic lectures, which directly affects their performance at exams, especially, in the first semester. What is most unfair is that in a system in which the first semester grades of the academic subjects determine their eligibility for field selection, those who get lower grades due to their lack of English language skills but with no deficiency in cognitive skills, are often denied of getting into their desired field. This is just one undesirable outcome of prolonged monolingualism, which can be easily avoided by placing more emphasis on early bilingualism.
Therefore, the most prudent, profitable and scientific approach to teaching English as an L2 is to focus on the young students in primary and secondary grades which will ease the pressure exerted on undergraduates who are compelled to mug up English for passing exams and be “employable.” A good command of the English language can help create a level playing for all new entrants. Only a few of them enter university to study English as a subject and all those who learn other subjects – particularly, those who study in the English medium must not be penalized for being deficient in it. After all they belong to the brightest bulbs of our youth. That English is given an excessive importance in higher studies amounts to making those who lack kaduwa pay for the “sins” of a flawed L2 teaching system, which is made absurdly top-heavy to compensate for the lack of sufficient attention given to English in early years.
With so much evidence in support of early bilingualism, ‘better late than never’ policy would only be a good joke when it comes to teaching English as an L2 in our country. In a broader sense, making English accessible to all young students may help reduce the ills of an unproductive and costly “multi-ethnic” system, which should have long been upgraded to a truly multilingual and multicultural system sans “ethnic” fault lines. Bilinguals will outdo monolinguals even if we are forced to learn another language- let it be any language from China to Peru.
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