By ROHANA R. WASALA
The feature article: ‘False historical perspectives of Wigneswaran’ jointly written by Rienzie and Kusum Wijetilleke (The Island of September 4, 2020) provided the cue for the following comments. The Wijetillekes’ article makes interesting reading, though Wigneswaran’s tribal perspectives are hardly worth talking about, except for the danger of their acquiring a false validity due to halo effect (for, after all, Wigneswaran is a retired Supreme Court judge).
His attempt to falsify the long history of the country of the Sinhalese (the unrecorded part of it is much longer than the recorded part, as being archaeologically established at present) is like trying to chip off a splinter from the Sigiriya rock with his bare head. Be that as it may, the more recent post-independence history of our country is more relevant to the point, I think. The young people today may or may not know that, before our country was made a republic by their heroic parents and grandparents in 1972, our country had been officially regarded as a ‘dominion’ (i.e. ‘a semi-independent state’ under the British Crown) since 1948, the year of independence. So, it was a monarchy until then under the British monarch locally represented by an appointed official called ‘the Governor General’.
In terms of the 1972 Republican Constitution, the last was replaced by a figurehead president. A few years later, the currently operative 1978 Constitution created the post of executive president. But the official naming of the country as ‘Sri Lanka’ in 1972 was a shortsighted, though significant, change introduced as a novelty. The people were heroic; but the leaders were not wise enough to retain the traditional name/s of the island, which were the formal ‘Lanka’ or the informal ‘Lankawa’ (for the Sinhalese majority, and its Tamil version ‘Ilankei’ for the Tamil speaking minorities) and ‘Ceylon’ for foreigners and the English speaking local elite. The important point is that ‘Ceylon’ was a derivation from ‘Sinhale’ (the Land of the Sinhalese), which had been the historic name of the country from time immemorial until 1815. The interior part of the island which had remained independent of the British, known as the Kandyan Kingdom, was still called ‘Sinhale’, while the surrounding littoral part under British imperial occupation was identified as ‘Ceylon’, which means that, actually, the whole island was a single entity known as Sinhale/Ceylon.
In their opening paragraph, the writers express the view that ‘Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s recent comments regarding racial and religious politics were most timely. In a climate where religious leaders seek to become political leaders, to hear the Archbishop state so unequivocally that religion and language should not be the basis for a political party is ‘at least mildly reassuring’ OK. But why only ‘at least mildly reassuring’? From my point of view, the Archbishop, who abhors divisive politics, is putting his finger on what is ailing the Sri Lankan body politic today: racial and religious politics and we know what the parties are that depend on race and religion issues.
But the writers seem to have mixed up or equated with each other the extremists following racial and religious politics, and whom they call ‘religious leaders seeking to become political leaders’ (by which they probably mean the three monks who are currently engaged in an unseemly struggle over a national list seat in parliament won by a certain political party, or all monks including the three, who have been agitating against a number of longstanding issues affecting the majority community, the Buddhist establishment, and the unitary status of Sri Lanka, which are aspects of a single entity, but whose approach is apolitical.
If the writers mean by ‘a climate where religious leaders seek to become political leaders’ the handful of vocal Buddhist monks who are raising a voice for rescuing the country from the aforementioned anomalies, and from what the Archbishop himself is denouncing (pretty much the same as the issues that the former are raising), they need to correct their terminology. These monks cannot be identified as ‘religious’ leaders among Buddhists. The Buddhists’ religious leaders are the Nayake and Maha Nayake monks, who are what the Archbishop is among the Christians. The activist monks feel obliged to do what they are doing because the Maha Nayakes are not seen (as clearly as the Archbishop for some reason) to be doing for the Buddhists what the Archbishop is doing for the Catholics. (The Archbishop is trying to ensure that the government fulfills its obligations to the Catholics for whom he is responsible as their ordained leader, without stooping to politics; but we know that his concern is for the welfare of all Sri Lankans without discrimination. Buddhists also felt protected under his moral leadership in the critical aftermath of the April 21 bombings, because he had won their trust as he had already repeatedly stressed the vital importance of preserving the age-old Buddhist religious cultural heritage our country). The monk-politician-centred episode that is being currently staged should be regarded as the last flicker of the culturally embarrassing Buddhist-monks-in-parliament politics novelty introduced in 2004, which hardly survived the few years of its experimental stage.
Talking about racial politics, the enduring nationalism that the first prime minister (of post-colonial, at least nominally independent, Sri Lanka) D. S. Senanayake championed was Ceylonese nationalism. That’s why, asked by the Soulbury Commissioners how many Tamils he wanted to have in his cabinet, he replied without hesitation, as H. A .J. Hulugalla, his biographer recorded, ‘I don’t mind the number if they act as Ceylonese’, a non-racist attitude that is still alive among the vast majority of the majority Sinhalese community; although it is not acknowledged by the few real racists who currently have sway among minority politicians. While D. S. Senanayake and other Sinhalese leaders were committed to non-communal nationalism, the racists among Tamil leaders opposed them. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike left the UNP to form his own party because he found the trust that his and party’s leader D.S. placed in the treacherous Tamil leaders was not being reciprocated by them. Bandaranaike understood that his boss’s expectation that they’d come round to accept his kind of Ceylonese nationalism was not going to be fulfilled. Because of this fact I see no justification for the writers’ apparent treatment of Sinhalese and Tamil leaders of the time as equally guilty of racist prejudice.
Bandaranaike, who was as much a Ceylonese nationalist as DS, was not wrong to speak in terms of the following in the then prevailing circumstances in mid-1950s, as quoted in the Wijetillekes’ article: “… the fears of the Sinhalese, I do not think can be brushed aside as completely frivolous. I believe there are a not inconsiderable number of Tamils in this country out of a population of 8 million. Then there are 40-50 million Tamil people in the adjoining country. What about all this Tamil literature, Tamil teachers, even films, papers and magazines? … I do not think there is an unjustified fear of the inexorable shrinking of the Sinhala language. It is a fear that cannot be brushed aside”. Bandaranaike was opposed by those who did not care about the existence of the native Sinhala and Tamil languages or about the serious anomalies that the Sinhalese majority suffered because they were Sinhalese.
Maybe there were only 40-50 million Tamils in India (Tamil Nadu) then. But today, there are over 72 million there, and a several more millions of Tamils scattered across the globe. And some ethnic Tamils, not necessarily of Sri Lankan origin, occupy powerful positions in international bodies that can exert adverse influence on Sri Lanka if they wish, though this is unlikely as they are also originally from a non-violent, peaceful, cultural background. However, if unreasonable viewpoints are promoted among them against the beleaguered global minority that the Sinhalese are, it will be nothing short of something genocidal, because Sri Lankans are engulfed in much more dire circumstances than in the 1950s, being constantly threatened by potential exigencies that could become reality in the boiling geopolitical cauldron that is fast emerging in our region.
It is the sort of nationalism that DS believed in that inspires today’s nationalists. Recently, some bogus critics of the founder of the UNP have started promulgating the misconception that the word ‘national’ in the name ‘United National Party’ was divisive, because it was an erroneous recognition of the alleged presence of a plurality of ‘nations’ (based on race, religion, etc.) in Sri Lanka. Nothing could be further from the truth. This sort of thing is nothing but false propaganda spread by the few separatist racists there are and their opportunistic sympathisers. The UNP has been decimated in terms of parliamentary representation, but that is due to the inefficiency and lack of love for the country on the part of its ageing, narrowly self-seeking leaders. This affords a good chance for a vibrant young leadership to emerge who can bring the divided party together, ousting the current squabbling, leadership qualities lacking leaders, and forge it into a strong oppositional force that can work both with as well as against the SLPP government, to make Sri Lanka the kind of prosperous stable country that the traditional Guardians of the Nation, the Maha Sangha, are determined to help forge, with the cooperation of our other spiritual leaders like the Archbishop. This is an urgent need of the hour. The SLMC leader Hakeem’s justification, at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Attack, of a separate administrative unit for Tamil speaking Muslims in a part of the Eastern province is ominous. Are these purveyors of racial and religious politics seeking cooperation or confrontation with other Tamil speakers (Hindus)?
His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith urged the authorities a few days ago, at an annual religious service held at the Tewatta National Basilica Church at Ragama, to expose and punish, without any further delay or vacillation, the evil extremist forces and their agents who were actually behind the April 21 attacks that left 269 innocent persons killed and over 120 permanently disabled; who provided the perpetrators of those crimes financial and logistical support, he demanded to know. He was unequivocal in condemning religious extremists who believed in killing adherents of other faiths to affirm their faith in their own god. The Cardinal wanted the responsible persons at the highest level under the previous administration, not only the politicians but also the officials, to be dealt with according to the law for failing to prevent, at least in the name of humanity, those heinous crimes, even though they had been previously warned many times by intelligence agencies; and his incidental but no less urgent call for a ban on political parties based on religion and language, still reverberates in our ears.
For so boldly expressing his personal conviction regarding the subject, the Archbishop has already earned the deep respect and gratitude not only of Sri Lankan Catholics but also of ordinary Sri Lankans of other faiths as well, including the majority Buddhists, who are helpless victims of the oppressive trends set in motion by the policies of such parties and the sectarian religious movements behind them.
The Archbishop’s call needs to be heeded by the leaders of the present administration who have been democratically elected by the pan-Sri Lankan electorate, with overwhelming majorities to rescue the country from, among other things, the undue pressures exerted on parliamentary decision-making by parties based on race and religion, which enjoyed their heyday during the Yahapalanaya, taking cover behind bogus reconciliation politics imposed on the country by external interventionist forces. However, this does not mean that the opposition must step aside and look on passively, leaving everything to be accomplished by the government.
The most recent triumph of nationalism that the patriotic people have achieved (in November 2019, and August 2020) under the SLPP transcends, in its reach, promise and potential, all the previous watershed moments arrived at in 1956, 1972, and 2009, which, unfortunately, were reversed by racists. The same reversal should not be allowed to happen this time. It should not be forgotten that, without the selfless exertions of the Buddhist monk activists, the nationalist triumph would never have been possible. The united Maha Sangha will remain the anchor sheet and guarantor of the wholesome unitary state of Sri Lanka. But that historic role of the monks is intrinsically non-political, and eminently compatible with the principles of modern secular democracy. The Maha Sangha have been the Guardians of the Nation without a break (even during periods of foreign invasion) ever since the official establishment of Buddha Sasana in the island by Arhant Mahinda Thera twenty-three centuries ago. Politicizing the Maha Sangha, despite the existence of the Maha Nayakes, is the surest way to undermine its power.
Road accident killer:
One every three hours
There is a spike of serious traffic accidents and the number of fatalities reported from all parts of the country during the last few weeks. They have snatched many precious and valuable human lives. Media reports, quoting Traffic Police sources indicate, despite the country being in lockdown for three months due to COVID–19, that this year from January to the end of August, 1,418 persons have been killed in traffic accidents
A person is killed every three hours on our roads due to road accidents, and annually 3000 persons die in road accidents. Nearly 8000 serious accidents take place annually, and in many instances the victims end up never to lead a normal life again. In the last four years – in 2016 there were 3017 fatal accidents, while in 2017 it was 3147. In 2018 according to World Health Organization (WHO) data, Road Traffic Accident Deaths in Sri Lanka was 3590, and has been identified as the 10thcause of death in Sri Lanka’s top 50 causes of death, beating other serious diseases causing death in the country. In 2019 there were 2851 fatal accidents.
On September 2nd, a serious accident occurred in the Colombo city at Mattakkuliya. As reported in the media, in that accident three people died instantly when two three-wheelers were hit by a speeding lorry. Apparently, speeding, and driving the lorry without a valid license to drive, is sheer negligence and lack of responsibility of the lorry driver. Lack of care and responsibility for the life of others who share the road is a serious problem. Instilling road discipline in our drivers is paramount for the safety of all road users.
Drivers of motor vehicles need to be responsible and realise, the moment he/she sits at the driver’s seat and holds the steering wheel you are in control of a piece of heavy equipment, at high speed is mere seconds from a potential innocent victim. Furthermore, speed, while greatly increasing the risk of serious crash, increases the odds of an accident and increases its severity.
A driver under the influence of alcohol is as deadly, and similarly at risk of serious accidents. The harmful influence alcohol has on the crucial decision to drive is great. Drinker’s self assessment about whether he/she can drive safely is critical. The deadly influence alcohol has on the driver is great. Alcohol impairs the drinker’s ability of self-assessment. Reduces the driver’s ability to react to things that happen suddenly. The alcohol also blurs vision, impairs attention and reflexes are slowed.
The road accidents having reached such a horrendous proportion, random measures to instil road discipline in errant drivers are not effective. Speeding, reckless driving, and driving under the influence of alcohol are the major causes of serious traffic accidents. The Police launching limited enforcement and special operations during festive seasons, and operations targeting certain Police areas or specific Traffic Rule violations, are not enough to address this tragedy. Police must implement comprehensive long term programmes, employing technology and modern devices to detect traffic rule violations and make roads safe for all road users.
According to Colombo Traffic Police, there are 106 CCTV cameras operating in Colombo and use 3 Mobile CCTV Surveillance Vans to monitor traffic. Surveillance of Colombo using the Road Safety Camera system alone is not sufficient. Road Safety Cameras; Red Light violation detecting cameras, and combined Red Light and Speed cameras can detect a host of Traffic Rule violations. Sri Lanka Police should seriously consider expanding this method of surveillance using the Road Safety Camera system countrywide.
Road Safety Cameras installed at intersections in all cities and major towns, at strategic locations and high risk roads along the country’s entire road network, would be a deterrent to speed maniacs, and other road rule violators who know they are being watched all day and night. These cameras can be used as both detective and preventive measures. It’s a 24/7 surveillance.
The camera captures a host of data including the vehicle number plate, date, time and location of the offence etc., sufficient to prove the offence committed by the driver. In addition, mobile cameras mounted on Police vehicles positioned at strategic locations, and hand held cameras, could be used to book speeding drivers and other road rule violations.
As for alcohol-impaired driving, the government can do more to reduce the number of drunk-driving instances. Couple of years ago the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) proposed to reduce the maximum Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level of drivers; at present it is 0.08 grams per 100 mm, to 0.03 grams per 100 mm. There is no indication thus far of any initiative of the government taken in this regard. Australia and most European countries have the BAC level of drivers at 0.05. Norway and Sweden in Europe, and China has this level at 0.02, while in Russia it is 0.03. Canada, USA and some countries have it at 0.08.
The government could look into lowering the legal BAC level to 0.03 as proposed by the NATA. This approach would better respond to discouraging drunk-drivers. The government could also consider making instances of driving while exceeding the legally permitted BAC limit, a criminal offence; initially applying it to drivers exceeding the legally permitted BAC level and meeting with accidents, and finally extending to exceeding the permitted BAC level under any circumstances, a criminal offence.
Clearly, the law can’t work on its own. The key factor in the reduction of Traffic Rule violations is enforcement and stiff penalties. Police should be provided with technology and modern devices used in other Police Forces around the world. Police should be given authority to stop and demand to undergo testing from any driver at the roadside more often, rather than testing after accidents occurred.
Cross-disciplinary learning to meet graduates’ skills shortages
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has emphasized the importance of matching the skills acquired by University students with the demands of employers. Over the years, criticism has been directed at Humanities and Social Sciences programmes in local Universities, questioning their relevance to the needs of a developing economy. Besides, some of these graduates had problems finding jobs in the private sector. They have historically relied on public sector jobs, an expectation almost all recent governments have had to grapple with.
The employability of Humanities and Social Sciences graduates is not a puzzle unique to Sri Lanka. In Singapore, I encountered several contemporary students who feared their degrees were not well sought after by the industry. I have seen such students putting a lot of effort into studying a minor in fields of study that could give them an edge over their peers. A minor comprises a set of courses which helps a student to develop secondary expertise in addition to the degree requirements of one’s major field of study. Completing a minor is not compulsory in most cases, but it sends a positive signal to employers on the quality of their potential hire. Some of the most popular minors among my batch mates were Business, Computing, Economics, and Entrepreneurship.
Promoting such cross-disciplinary learning could be an immediate solution to the expectation set by the President. Local Universities already possess resources to implement such programmes. It eliminates the need for a hurried overhaul of the curricula in universities. Most importantly, a rapid increase in the output of graduates with qualifications demanded by the industry, could just be the solution to the critical skills shortage faced by sectors such as Information Technology.
Depositors and Stock Exchange
State Minister Nivard Cabraal recently requested Sri Lankans who have deposited money in banks and finance companies to use that money in shares on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Our ministers and officials who control state finances do not know that most of those depositors maintain those deposits not as investments. They live on the interest they receive monthly from those deposits.
Before 2015 too, Cabraal as Governor of CBSL and many others, encouraged those depositors to invest in shares, and many learnt the lesson as they were caught in the game of “pumping & dumping” by groups of some big fish. Cabraals are in a way hitting those depositors by ad-hoc reducing of interest rates, and now they ask them to follow the more easier path to think of committing suicide.
Have the higher-ups in the government ever investigated why people maintain those deposits and how many use the interest they receive to meet their daily needs, before playing around with interest rates in order to please the borrowers and lessees?
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