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WORKING UNDER PRIME MINISTER SIRIMAVO

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by Eric. J. de Silva

I came into close contact with Prime Minister Sirimavo during my second spell in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs unlike during the previous period. Mr. Jayasinghe (whom I shall refer to as WT for convenience) was an excellent boss to work with. One of his outstanding qualities was to let his officials take on responsibility, give them enough space to show their abilities, and avoid taking all the credit for the good work they do.

This no doubt enabled the Prime Minister to make an independent judgment of her officials without them being constantly overshadowed by the overall boss. What became clear to me during these interactions was that the P.M. did not want her officials to say ‘yes’ to everything she said, and that she wanted them to say what they honestly felt about a matter to enable her to take what she considered was the right decision.

Contrary to popular belief, she was always amenable to good advice and was prepared to listen to the pros and cons of a matter, once she knew that the advice was well meant. The Bavataranaya episode which I describe below was one instance where I was able to help the government to avoid making what would have been a historic blunder – namely, banning the last work of fiction that the doyen of our writers, Martin Wickremesinghe, wrote while in his eighties.

Although not a straight-forward Defence matter, any banning had to be done under Emergency Regulations then in operation, and as a result came under the purview of my Division. Let me now quote verbatim what I wrote to The Island Sat Mag of May 29. 2010 on the occasion of the 120th birth anniversary of Martin Wickremesinghe.

“Bavatharanaya was Martin Wickremesinghe’s last major work He wrote it when he was 83 years of age. In the introduction to its first edition written in 1973, he said that he wrote it in fulfillment of an idea he got into his head at a very young age that he should one day write the life story of the Buddha, rescuing it from the aura of mysticism that had been woven round it during the post-Asokan period in Indian history, under the influence of resurgent Hindu and Brahminical tradition that the Buddha himself had discarded.

“By the time its second edition came out in four months’ time, large sections of the Buddhist public led by some highly respected members of the Sangha like the famous scholar monk Ven. Yakkaduwe Pragnarama Thero of the Vidyalankara Pirivena and Ven. Pallevela Saddhatissa Thero of the Vidyodaya Pirivena mounted a campaign against Bavataranaya claiming it was disrespectful, if not derogatory, of the Buddha.

“Many lay Buddhist leaders like Sir Senarath Gunawardhana and Sir Cyril de Zoysa as well as leading Buddhist organizations like the BTS (Buddhist Theosophical Society) and the Colombo YMBA joined in the campaign.

“Not all Buddhists were of the same view. Leading literary figures like Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Gunadasa Amarasekara argued equally vehemently that there was nothing in the book that was disrespectful of the Buddha. Even more importantly, a number of well-known members of the Sangha like Ven. Akuratiye Amarawansa Thero, head of the Vidyaloka Pirivena in Galle (my own home town), Ven. Moratuve Sasanaratana Thero, Head of the Buddhist Philosophy Department in the Vidyalankara Campus of the University of Sri Lanka publicly came out in support of the book.

“However, the uproar against both Bavatharanaya and its octogenarian author was so deafening that it easily drowned the voices of those who spoke in support. The Executive Committee of the YMBA which met under the chairmanship of Sir Cyril de Zoysa in March 1974 took a decision to demand that the government bans Bavatharanaya, failing which to hold meetings against the government island-wide.

“Around the same time, a three person committee was appointed by the Ministry of Cultural affairs to go into the matter, consequent on representations made to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike by the Mahanayake Thero of Asgiriya.

“With many others joining in, the campaign against Bavatharanaya gathered further momentum and reached a crescendo as the year (1974) progressed. It did not take much time for it to gain support from political parties or groups opposed to the government as a means of embarrassing it or ‘putting it into a corner’ as the game of politics constantly demands.

“Government parliamentarians who were being pressurized by the anti-Bavatharanaya campaign were in turn pressurizing the Cabinet and the Prime Minister to ban the book. The Aganuvara Eksath Bauddha Bala Mandalaya went to the extent of asking that the author be taken into custody under the Emergency Regulations and put behind bars for the sacrilege he had committed.

“Bhavatharanaya had been the subject of debate even in the Colombo Municipal Council where a UNP member claimed that Martin Wickremesinghe started writing disparagingly about the Buddha after consuming vodka during his visit to Russia. Not been content with that, he added a new chapter to the octogenarian author’s life story by saying that he had been a Buddhist monk until he obtained his ‘upasampada’ and thereafter returned to lay life.

“For many, Bavatharanaya was part a diabolical Marxist plot to destroy Buddhism in this country. While all this was being said, the wise old sage remained unmoved maintaining a stoic silence, giving expression to the great Buddhist virtue of upekha”

During this period, I happened to hold the post of Senior Assistant Secretary (Defence) in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs, which came under Prime Minister Sirimavo. In this position, I was directly responsible to the Secretary of the Ministry, Mr. W.T. Jayasinghe. All matters relating to the Public Security Ordinance, then in operation, and regulations promulgated there under (commonly described as Emergency Regulations) came within my purview. Since there was no ordinary law in the statute book under which a book could be banned, it had to be done by an order issued under the Emergency Regulations.

One day, during the height of the uproar, the Secretary called me up and said that the government was under tremendous pressure to ban the book and asked me to have the necessary papers ready for the Prime Minister’s signature in case it were to take that decision. I was simply taken aback when I heard this, and asked him whether it was a wise thing to do. His reply was that it was not and he had already pointed this out, but we had to be ready in case the government decided to do so for lack of a better option.

Since neither he nor I had read the book that we were going to ban, I enquired whether he could give me a little time to be able to read it and advise him and, through him, the Prime Minister as to whether there was anything in the book that deserved such harsh treatment. I could not see how the life story of the Buddha written by our most widely acclaimed writer and novelist could endanger public security for it to be banned under the Public Security Ordinance, and felt that the government would look utterly foolish if it took that decision. Since the matter appeared to be urgent and there was no time to be lost, I gave him the assurance that by next morning he would have on his table a note on the subject after my having read the book.

So on my way back home, I went to MD Gunasena’s in Pettah and bought a copy of the book. Having got home, I turned over the pages of the book to find that it was not going to be easy reading after a hard day’s work in office. Those who have read it will agree that Bavatharanaya is no Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya, Yuganthaya, or any other novel written by its illustrious author.

But I had given an undertaking to the Secretary and had a tight target to keep. After an early dinner I sat down to my task in earnest having explained to my wife the nature of the ordeal I had inflicted on myself. It is no reflection on the book if I were to say it induced sleep to my weary eyes more than once despite plentiful sips of coffee, and I wondered whether this by itself was not a point in favour of not banning the book at all.

When the going got too tough, I decided to get up early in the morning and go through whatever remained unread. By the time I finished reading the book in the early hours of the morning, it was as clear as the daylight that soon began to envelop me that there was nothing in it that called for a ban. Bavatharanaya, in short, was not just another work of fiction which we usually call a novel, but a very thoughtful attempt to demystify the life of the Buddha (in fact, more than half the book deals with the life of Prince Siddhartha), which only the sophisticated reader would be able to sustain an interest in reading.

It immediately raised the question in my mind as to how many of those who demanded that it be banned would have really read it. I was convinced that banning the book would be counter-productive even from the point of view of those who wanted it banned, as people would want to get hold of a copy somehow to see what exactly led to the ban and thus increase its readership.

I put down my thoughts on paper with utmost care knowing well the dangerous ground I had chosen to tread, got to my office at Senate Square in Fort earlier than usual to be able to keep to my deadline, got it typed by the typist who had turned up in office early at my request, and placed it on the Secretary’s table so that he would see it first thing in the morning when he gets to office.

Task accomplished, I took a deep breath leaving it to higher authorities to heed my recommendation to abandon the idea of banning the book or to commit what would have been a historic error.

Later in the day, the Secretary conveyed to me the happy news that the Prime Minister had very carefully read my note and not only agreed with my recommendation but had expressed her appreciation of what I had done.

Thus, Bavatharanaya remained ‘unbanned’ and while the demand for its ban died down, it soon made its presence even in school libraries.

The above incident illustrates how much confidence the Prime Minister and the Secretary had in me as Senior Assistant Secretary.

(Excerpted from

A Peep Into The Past, a memoir of the writer)



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Features

Scarcity, prices, hoarding and queuing

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By Usvatte-aratchi

We live in a scarcity economy and will do so well into 2024, past the next Presidential elections if it comes then; it may not. (The new minister may open bets.) All economies are scarcity economies; otherwise, there would be no prices. We also live in plentiful economies; look at the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris or San Francisco during day or night. Scarcity is a relative term, as most terms are. A scarcity economy is one where prices rise relentlessly, where cigarettes are more expensive in the evening than they were the same morning. Scarcity economies will have two or more sets of prices: one official, others in markets in varying shades of grey until black. Scarcity economies are where everyone (producers, traders, households) hoards commodities, hoards everything that can be hoarded, at reasonable cost. Scarcity economy is one where productivity is lower than it was earlier, where both labour and capital idle. Scarcity itself may push down productivity. Observe thousands of people standing in queues to buy all kinds of things whilst producing nothing. That is labour idling. Others hang on to dear life in crowded trains arriving in office late to leave early, to get to ill lit homes where to cook each evening they repeat what their ancestors did millions of years ago to light a fire. Money is one commodity that can be hoarded at little cost, if there was no inflation. The million rupees you had in your savings account in 2019 is now worth a mere 500,000, because prices have risen. That is how a government taxes you outside the law: debase the currency. In an inflation afflicted economy, hoarding money is a fool’s game.

The smart game to play is to borrow to the limit, a kind of dishoarding (- negative hoarding) money. You borrow ten million now and five years later you pay 500 million because the value of money has fallen. US dollars are scarce in this economy. It is hoarded where it can wait until its price in Sri Lanka rises. Some politicians who seem to have been schooled in corruption to perfection have them stored elsewhere, as we have learnt from revelations in the international press. Electricity is not hoarded in large quantities because it is expensive to hoard. Petrol is not hoarded very much in households because it evaporates fast and is highly flammable. That does not prevent vehicle owners from keeping their tanks full in contrast to the earlier practice when they had kept tanks half empty (full). Consequently, drivers now hoard twice as much fuel in their tanks as earlier. Until drivers feel relaxed as to when they get the next fill, there will be queues. That should also answer the conundrum of the minister for energy who daily sent out more bowser loads out than earlier, but queues did not shorten.

As an aside, it is necessary to note that the scarcity economy, which has been brought about by stupid policies 2019-2022, and massive thieving from 2005 is partly a consequence of the fall in total output (GDP) in the economy. Workers in queues do not produce. The capital they normally use in production (e.g. motor cars, machines that they would otherwise would have worked at) lie idle. Both capital and labour idle and deny their usual contribution to GDP. Agriculture, industries, wholesale and retail trade, public administration, manufacturing and construction all of which have been adversely affected in various ways contribute more than 75% of total GDP. Maha (winter crop) 2021-22, Yala (spring crop) 2022 and Maha 2022-23 and fishing are all likely to have yielded (and yield) poor harvests. Manufacturing including construction are victims of severe shortages in energy and imported inputs. Wholesale and retail trade which depend directly on imports of commodities have been hit by the sharp drop in imports. Tourism, which is more significant in providing employment and foreign exchange, collapsed dreadfully since late 2019 and has not recovered yet. About 16 percent of our labour force work in the public sector. They have failed to contribute to GDP because they did not engage in productive work due to variegated reasons. Teachers were on strike for two months in 2021. In 2022, so far government employees have worked off and on. Wages of government employees are counted as contributions to GDP, by those that make GDP estimates. However, here is an instance where labour was paid but there was no output equal to the value of those wages. Such payments are rightly counted as transfers and do not count to GDP. For these reasons estimates of GDP for 2021 must be well below the 2020 level. The 3.6 growth in official estimates is unlikely. The likely drop in 2022 will be roughly of the same magnitude as in 2021. These declines are not dissonant with misery one sees in towns and the countryside: empty supermarket shelves, scant supplies of produce in country fares, scarce fish supplies, buses idling in parks and roads empty of traffic. There have been warnings from our paediatricians as well as from international organisations of wasting and probable higher rates of child mortality. It is this sort of sharp fall in wellbeing that engenders the desperation driving young and ambitious people to obtain passports to seek a living overseas. You can see those from mezzo-America amassed on the southern border of US. Will our young men and women end up beyond the wall of China?

Of this lowered supply of goods and services, this society is expected to pay a massive accumulated foreign debt. (Remember the reparation payments in the Versailles Treaty). In real terms it will mean that we forego a part of our lower incomes. Do not miss this reality behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts. It is not something that we have a choice about. That is where international help may kick in. Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after much senseless dilly dallying has started negotiations with the IMF. There is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge. Examine alternatives and hit upon an arrangement not because it permits the family grows richer but because it will make life for the average person a little less unbearable.

If prices are expected to rise people will seek resources to hoard: money to buy commodities, space and facilities to hoard, security services to protect the property and much more. Rice producers cannot hoard their product because animals large as elephants and small as rodents eat them up. Because of the unequal distribution of resources to hoard, the poor cannot hoard. In a scarcity economy, the poor cannot hoard and famines usually victimise the poor, first and most. If prices are expected to fall, stocks are dishoarded to the market and prices fall faster and deeper. In either direction, the rate at which prices change and the height/depth of the rise/fall depends on the speed at which expectations of change in prices take place. A largescale rice miller claims he can control the price of rice at a level that the government cannot. His success/failure will tell us the extent of his monopoly power.

When commodities are scarce, in the absence of a sensible system of coupons to regulate the distribution, consumers will form queues. A queue is rarely a straight here, nor a dog’s tail (queue, in French, is a dog’s tail which most often crooked). Assembled consumers stagnate, make puddles and sometimes spread out like the Ganges, with Meghna, disgorges itself to the Bay of Bengal. They sometimes swirl and make whirlpools and then there is trouble, occasionally serious. There is order in a queue that people make automatically. To break that order is somehow iniquitous in the human mind. That is why breaking the order in a queue is enraging. For a queue to be disobeyed by anyone is infuriating, and for a politician to do so now in this country is dangerously injurious to his physical wellbeing.

The first cause of rising prices, hoarding and queues is the scarcity of goods and services in relation to the income and savings in the hands of the people.

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Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine

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In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.

If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?

These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.

The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.

While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.

Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?

However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.

The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.

Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.

On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.

However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.

To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.

However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.

That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.

Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.

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At 80, now serving humanity

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Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.

Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.

No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!

At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.

Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.

“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “

And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.

It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.

“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”

Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.

“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day

“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”

“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.

“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.

“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.

“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.

“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.

“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”

Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.

However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.

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