Sri Lanka: Peace amidst Instability

5 mins read

In a press release issued on January 25, 2023, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka noted,

…the maintenance of the prevailing tight monetary policy stance is imperative to ensure that monetary conditions remain sufficiently tight to rein in inflationary pressures. Such tight monetary conditions, together with the tight fiscal policy, are expected to adjust inflation expectations downward, enabling the Central Bank to bring inflation rates towards the desired levels by end 2023, thereby restoring economic and price stability over the medium term.

An economic crisis of unparalleled magnitude hit Sri Lanka in 2022. Inflation, at 4.2 per cent in December 2020, increased to 12.1 per cent in 2021, and surged to an alarming level at 57.2 per cent in December 2022. The Sri Lankan rupee (SLR) depreciated drastically against the dollar from 181.3 in January 2020, to 190.5 in January 2021, and at 201.2 in January 2022. By December 2022, the SLR had fallen to 367.5 to the dollar. As on January 27, 2023, it is still at 364.13. Foreign exchange reserves fell from USD 2362 million in January 2022, to USD 1705 million in October 2022, but began to increase thereafter, to touch USD 1896 in December 2022.

The crisis led to severe shortages of food, medicines, electricity, fuel and other essential items for months. In the face of the collapsing economy, Sri Lankans of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds came together in a broad-based protest movement commencing March 2022, to seek a change of leadership, accountability for corruption and economic mismanagement, and to seek more extensive reforms.

As protests intensified, the Sri Lanka Police shot dead one man, identified as Chaminda Lakshan, and injured 10 others on April 19, 2022, in the first fatal clash with demonstrators protesting the island nation’s crippling crisis. In a Tweet on April 20, 2022, the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared,

Sri Lankan citizens’ right to peacefully protest won’t be hindered. @SL_PoliceMedia will carry out an impartial & transparent inquiry the incident at Rambukkana which led to the tragedy for which I’m deeply saddened. I urge all citizens to refrain from violence as they protest.

According to an April 28, 2022, report, more than 100 trade unions, including some affiliated to the Rajapaksas’ ruling SLPP party, joined the general strike, as demands grew for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family members to resign.

Later, on May 6, 2022, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a State of Emergency effective midnight, May 6, 2022, for the second time in five weeks, giving Security Forces (SFs) sweeping powers, as nationwide strikes demanding his resignation brought the country to a standstill.

Subsequently, the then Prime Minister (PM) Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters attacked nonviolent demonstrators in Colombo, forcing him to quit as Prime Minister. Following this, there was widespread violence against those who supported the government around the nation, which resulted in the deaths of eight individuals and the burning or damage of the homes of about 70 lawmakers.

Finally, Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to resign on May 9, 2022. After weeks of political uncertainty, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed United National Party leader Ranil Wickramasinghe as PM of an interim National Unity Government. However, the economic crisis persisted, as did the protests. On July 9, 2022, hundreds of protesters invaded and occupied the offices and the official residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in Colombo. Ranil Wickramasinghe’s private house was also attacked by the protestors. At least 102 people, including two police officers, were injured in clashes during the protests on July 9.

Though both President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe offered to resign, President Rajapaksa finally did so on July 13, while Wickramasinghe managed to retain power as Parliament voted him in as President on July 20. Since then, a measure of political stability has been restored, with Wickramasinghe strengthening his position within the Government, as demonstrated by his success in ensuring the passage of the budget in the Parliament on December 8, 2022. While 123 Members of Parliament voted in favour, 80 voted against, while two Members abstained.

Meanwhile, on January 4, 2023, the Sri Lankan Election Commission (EC) announced that local government elections would be held across the island in March 2023, with nominations accepted between January 18 and 21, 2023. The elections must be held before March 19, 2023, when the current term of local government bodies ends. A positive result in these elections will help Wickramasinghe strengthen his position further, while any slip up may undermine the stability to his government. Indeed, fearful that popular anger may express itself in a humiliating electoral defeat, Wickremesinghe and his government have desperately attempted to call off the polls.

The economic situation remains precarious and has the potential to derail political stability at any time.

Despite the major politico-economic upheavals, the country remained free of terrorism, though one terrorism-linked fatality was reported. On November 28, 2022, a suspect linked to the April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, who was out on bail, was killed by unidentified assailants in Mattakkuliya in Colombo. According to the Police, the assailants had arrived in a car and killed the 38 years old suspect, whose identity is yet to be disclosed. There was no terrorism-linked fatality in 2021.

The Colombo High Court Trial-at-Bar continued to hear the Easter Sunday attacks cases filed by the Attorney General against 25 accused on 23,270 charges, including conspiracy to carry out terrorist attacks, and aiding and abetting the attack on Easter Sunday. On January 5, 2023, the Court rejected the bail request made on behalf of all 25 suspects who were in remand custody. The case is to be called up before the Court again on February 1, 2023. On September 1, 2021, a Trial-at-Bar Bench, comprising High Court Judges Damith Thotawatta (President), Amal Ranaraja and Navaratne Marasinghe, had been appointed to hear all cases related to the bombings.

Meanwhile, on January 11, 2022, a live hand grenade was found inside the premises of the All Saints Church in Borella in Colombo. Police later recovered four pistols, one revolver, two swords, a knife, and another weapon from the residence of a 76-year-old retired doctor, who was among the six persons arrested in connection with the incident. The case is still under investigation.

Further, on April 23, 2022, the Sri Lanka Navy arrested a suspect, a resident of Kuchchaweli, in possession of explosives, at Sallimunai beach, Trincomalee District.

Moreover, the threat to security from drug cartels with established foreign linkages, persisted. In over hundred incidents of drug seizures in 2022, around 350 persons were arrested. In a major incident, on December 23, 2022, the Sri Lanka Customs seized SLR 165 million worth of narcotics sent into the country from Spain, UK, Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands. Earlier, on December 14, 2022, the Sri Lanka Navy, along with the Police Narcotics Bureau and State Intelligence Service seized over 200 kilograms of Heroin and crystal methamphetamine from two multi-day fishing crafts in the deep sea, off Sri Lanka’s Southern seas. Seven suspects were arrested during the operation.

The continued respite from terrorism has been a big relief to the security establishment, even though residual challenges persisted. Indeed, in 2021, 18 organizations and 577 individuals had been blacklisted in the country for financing terrorism under the United Nations Regulation No. 1 of 2012, according to the Defence Ministry. Through an Extraordinary Gazette Notification dated August 1, 2022, the Ministry of Defence, removed six organisations and 316 individuals from the 2021 list, but added three new organisations and 55 new individuals to the list. Thus, as on August 1, 2022, at least 15 organizations and 361 individuals were blacklisted in the country. The organisations that were de-listed in the August 1, 2022, Notification included six international Tamil organizations – the Australian Tamil Congress, the Global Tamil Forum, the World Tamil Coordination Committee, the Tamil Eelam People’s Congress, the Canadian Tamil Congress and the British Tamil Forum. Of the 15 existing groups in the list five are Islamist groups that include National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ), Jama ‘athe Milla’ athe Ibrahim, Willayath As Seylani, Darul Adhar alias Jamiul Adhar Mosque, Sri Lanka Islamic Student Movement and Save the Pearls.

The island country is indeed going through a tough politico-economic crisis. Luckily for it, the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) no longer pose any significant threat, though the vigil against residual elements of the outfit remains a security imperative. Moreover, though the sweeping action has been taken by SFs against persons and organised linked to the Easter Sunday attacks, and these have hit Islamist extremist elements hard, forcing them into dormancy, given their established foreign linkages, it will remain necessary not to provide any leeway, lest they create significant threats in future.

Benefits of Demonetisation Now Lost in India

3 mins read

In November 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprang surprised the countrymen by announcing the demonetisation of high-value currency notes.  After announcing the decision,  Mr. Modi spoke to the surprised and confused people and explained as to why demonetisation was necessary.

Mr. Modi  said that considering the urgent need to wipe out black money circulating in the country, root out corruption and eliminate counterfeit notes, he had taken this measure.  While stating that demonetisation was one of the measures that he would initiate to achieve the objectives, Mr. Modi also implied that curbing currency in circulation is a pre-condition to achieve such objectives. 

The demonetisation announcement was followed by long queue in front of the banks,   causing hardships to people in several ways.

Of course, the pledged admirers of Mr. Modi appreciated his courage of conviction to take such bold decision and sworn critics of Mr. Modi opposed his move bitterly. However, the fact is that, by and large ,common people in India viewed   Mr. Modi’s move as necessary and appropriate, which became clearly evident when Mr. Modi’s party was voted back to power with clear majority in subsequent election to parliament.  The consensus view was that the demonetisation measure put huge fear in the mind of the corrupt people and black money holders and huge quantity of unaccounted money was brought to light, which justified the demonetisation measure.

Huge increase in currency circulation :

One of the claims made at the time of demonetisation by Modi government was that the currency in circulation would be significantly brought down and digitalisation would be promoted in a big way .

While the currency in circulation was significantly brought down immediately after demonetisation, the present ground reality is that the currency in circulation has now increased by over around 83% after the demonetisation period in 2016.

Soon after demonetisation, the currency in circulation fell to a low of about ₹9 lakh crore on January 6, 2017, nearly 50% of ₹17.74 lakh crore on November 4, 2016.

The currency in value terms has soared from ₹17.74 lakh crore on November 4, 2016, to ₹32.42 lakh crore on December 23, 2022.  Currency in circulation, which was ₹18.04-lakh crore at end-March 2018, jumped to ₹31.34-lakh crore at end-March 2022 and further to ₹32.42-lakh crore as on December 23, 2022.

Has the benefits been achieved now ?:

The question now is whether India has reaped the benefits of demonetisation measures subsequently.  It appears that it has not happened, which is unfortunate. 

Due to such a high currency circulation level  at present, the use of unaccounted  money  
( mainly cash)  has now soared.  Recently, record seizures amounting Rs.6.6 crore in cash were made in one single assembly constituency in Telangana.  Almost every day, news Is appearing in the media that  Enforcement Directorate and Incomes Tax authorities have been conducting raids and seizing a huge amount of cash from the black money holders. Some people think that the seizure of such black money is only the tip of the iceberg.

With such large currency circulation, the parallel economy is now in full flow in the country, accompanied by corruption in government departments and business dealings.  Real estate deals are now increasingly being done by cash transactions using black money.

The country seems to be back to square one at present, with a parallel economy happening and increasing at an alarming level.

What justification  ?:

Government of India has not so far provided any credible explanation for increasing the currency in circulation multi-fold, which is much against the objective pronounced by the Prime Minister at the time of announcing demonetisation. 

Some economists justify such huge cash in circulation by stating that it is necessary, as the national economy is growing at a very impressive rate and people and business houses need cash to meet their requirements.  Another argument that is advanced in favour of increase in currency circulation is that so long as people pay tax properly directly or indirectly, the total amount of cash in circulation is not a matter of concern.  To support this view, it is pointed out that the GST ( Goods and Services Tax) collection has been increasing steadily.  Further, it is argued that even as cash in circulation is increasing multi-fold, digital transaction has also been increasing significantly.

There appears to be some fundamental flaw in the above argument and there should be a better way of fiscal management than printing currency notes in a developing country like India, unlike USA.

Need for increasing currency circulation :

In the last few years, the Government of India has been spending huge money by way of subsidy support, extending cash benefits to the farmers and welfare measures and distributing free vaccines to the countrymen,  particularly to reduce to the suffering of the people during the COVID period. 

With the significant increase in currency circulation by the Reserve Bank of India, the Government of India collects money from the people in a variety of ways by issuing bonds etc. and several state governments also do so.

Benefits undone:

This strategy of the Government of India amounts to finding a short-term remedy for a long-term problem, which is bound to be counterproductive in the long run.

The net impact of the overall   Rs.32.12 lakh crore currency in circulation at present is that the benefit of demonetisation has been undone, resulting in a disturbing level of growth of parallel economy and corruption in the country. 

It is necessary to note that the increase in tax collection by the government is nowhere in proportion to the huge increase in cash circulation in the country.

Finally, the increase in currency circulation has resulted in a steep increase in the price of goods and services, creating a huge burden on the family budget of those living in the lower and middle-income groups, pensioners and those belonging to the unorganised class in the country.

Sri Lanka: If no elections, there can be a democratic uprising!

5 mins read

In a month’s time, the future of Sri Lanka will be decided not only in democratic terms but also in economic terms. There will be a strong democratic uprising if the government fails to hold the local government elections scheduled to be held in March 2023. By next month, whether the government allows the Elections Commission to hold the elections will be clearer. This is going to be the litmus test.

Democracy and Free Economy are like twin sisters. No parent should try to neglect one against the other. Both are necessary to address people’s economic needs, human rights, and social wellbeing. Although Sri Lanka has been one of the pioneer countries to introduce universal franchise (1931), and democratic governance (1947), since the introduction of a presidential system (1978), democracy has taken a strong downturn, the predicament of which is experienced throughout the country by all sections of society.

Past Character of the President?

It is no accident that the present President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has now come to power by accident, was a strong supporter of the presidential system that his uncle introduced in 1978. Therefore, there is no further surprise that he now makes his full efforts not to hold local government elections, clearly realizing that his party or his (Rajapaksa) allies will not be able to win the elections.

It is well known that his popular support is minimal. An overwhelming majority of his UNP party broke away in 2020 and formed the Samagi Jana Balawegaya(SJB – United People’s Movement) under the then deputy leader, Sujith Premadasa.

When Ranil Wickremasinghe contested from the UNP for the Colombo District in 2020, he obtained only 30,875 votes (2.61%)! Therefore, some people called him ‘two percent leader’!He, however, obtained a nominated seat in Parliament through the ‘national list,’ a much controversial system that his uncle J. R. Jayewardene introduced to distort the electoral system in the country.

Now he is the President! This situation itself shows that there is much distortion in the democratic system in Sri Lanka which must be corrected as soon as possible with the support of the international community. Does this situation have any economic repercussions? Yes, this is my observation and opinion. Let me raise the question who brought him to this power? It is well known, but some people forget that it was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a war criminal, who brought him to this situation.

Of course, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a popular backing of 6.9 million at the last presidential elections. But this does not apply to Ranil Wickremasinghe. Among the poor-quality political leaders of the country, RW appears to have some knowledge of economics! But his ideology prevails over this knowledge or ability.

He talks about a ‘social market economy.’ But practicesa ‘pure market’ yet depending on friends and associates. He was directly involved in the Bond Scam in 2015. He is also largely responsible for the present economic crisis, being the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance during 1915 and 1919. Didn’t he know about the unbearable debt obligations that the country was burdened with by that time? He repeatedly took loans and even sold the Hambantota port to China!

Aragalaya and the President

There is no question that the burning of his house in Colombo during the Aragalaya (struggle) last year was reprehensible. No democratic struggle in the country should go to that extent although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights warn the governments that “if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law” (UDHR Preamble). 

Could there be any doubt that the rule of Gotabaya Rajapaksa was like ‘tyranny and oppression’? He was not elected for that purpose in 2020. People do make mistakes in voting, but democratic systems allow people to correct them through democratic discussion, dialogue, regular elections and believing in human rights. However, I have never heard Wickremasinghe talking about human rights even as deception! This is no surprise because he is a member of the International Democratic Union (IDU), which was founded by people like Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush. The members of this group call themselves ‘center-right,’ perhaps to avoid the more realistic characterization of ‘far-right.’

The last stages of Wickremesinghe-Sirisena rule in 2019, the Easter Sunday attacks happened like ‘Sri Lanka’s holocaust’ and until recently no iota of justice was served. Sirisena is the other culprit of economic-political disasters of the country like Gotabaya, Basil, and Mahinda Rajapaksa. All these people should go away from politics, and if not, they should be completely thrown out. Like Sirisena, Wickremasinghe also should be responsible for the Easter attacks.

Look at the way leaders in mature democracies behave. In New Zealand, Jacinda Arden was elected as the Prime Minister in 2017 from the Labor Party. She has now given her resignation allowing another leader to take over. Few months before Sri Lankan ‘holocaust,’ two Muslim mosques were attacked by a single terrorist on the other side. Arden stood for justice firmly. Almost everyone admired the courage and impartiality of her.

During the last couple of years, many countries faced similar crises and challenges with Covid 19, economic depressions, terror attacks, and global warming. Except people like Donald Trump or our lot, many leaders did not stick to power but duty. Duties are something that our political leaders are probably unaware of. When people have rights, the leaders have and should respect their duties. Otherwise, they should go home.

Importance of Local Governments

The local government institutions are the base of our democracy with ancient roots. Throughout centuries, people used to rely on GramaSabhas (Village Councils) for their day-to-day necessities and functions. When I was a child, I clearly remember what the Moratuwa Urban Council (now Municipal) did for our community. Collection of faeces and disposing of them; maintenance of roads and cleaning them; and looking after health of the people through PHI’s, Midwife’sand Dispensers are some I can closely remember. There were no major political rivalries. The best people were elected, but mostly left-oriented ones. No one appeared to make money or be involved in heinous activities.

During my academic career (1969-2010 with intervals), I have been involved in research on the local government system with colleagues and students in Monaragala, Badulla, Kalutara and Mahiyanganaya. The potential of Pradeshiya Sabha’s particularly in democracy and economic development were very clear. Visits to Jaffna and Kilinochchi had confirmed the same. This is what Ranil Wickremasinghe, and the Rajapaksa gangs are now trying to destroy.

Wickremasinghe’s uncle, J. R. Jayawardene, also postponed the local government elections in 1978 and thereafter, on the pretext of introducing a District Council system. I was in Jaffna in 1981 and experienced the repercussions just before the burning of the Jaffna Library. It was to the credit of R. Premadasa that the Pradeshiya Sabha Act could be passed in 1987 and resurrect the local government system again with a clear link to the social and economic developments in particularly the rural areas. Premadasa’s background in the old Labor Party perhaps engineered this connection. Wickremasinghe’s background in this respect was and is the opposite. 

For a Peaceful Uprising

I again would like to reiterate that the burning of Wickremasinghe’s house in Colombo and other houses of Ministers and MPs is completely reprehensible. The occupation and damaging of the President’s House and Presidential Secretariat also cannot be approved whatever the anger of the people and youth. These violations happened in line with Donald Trump’s instigations and politics in the USA.

However, Wickremasinghe should not lead the country in the same manner. If somebody named ‘Anil’ was involved in those burnings and violence, Ranil should not follow Anil, and abuse people’s political power and democratic system. If that is the case, the people have every right to protest and stage a democratic uprising. To avoid that,Wickremasinghe should allow the holding of local government elections without any interference. Otherwise, in my opinion, it would be his political suicide.

A peaceful and democratic uprising would be the most effective and legitimate. I would propose the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya to gettogether in this democratic and peaceful venture. The support of Tamil and Muslim parties also should be sought. Any Aragalaya (struggle) without a clear direction and leadership would be hijacked by unreliable, anarchist and misguided sections.

Sri Lanka: Gota Ousted by Rajapaksa family, not the public – Ultra nationalist Media Magnate

1 min read

Dilith Jayaweera who is a known businessman and a head of an ultra-nationalist media outfit in Sri Lanka has revealed that arrangements were made within the Rajapaksa family to oust former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the office much before the general public rallied on the streets.

Jayaweera said former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshita Rajapaksa, who voluntarily resigned from the navy to serve his father, who was then prime minister, first created the famous hashtag GotaGoHome, which was later widely used by protesters.

In his confession, Jayaweera did not hesitate to admit that he was strongly opposed by the Rajapaksa family for supporting Gotabaya Rajapaksa and that other family members believed that Jayaweera was manipulating Gotabaya against the family’s interests.

When asked about the future of much-ambitious Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest son Namal Rajapaksa, he said that Namal has no political future. Jayaweera stressed these ideas in an interview with a young musician who runs his YouTube channel.

Sri Lanka: The Sacred and the Profane

9 mins read

“A tangle within, a tangle without…” ~ Jata Sutta – Samyutta Nikaya

In July 2020, Indika Rathnayake, a non-theistic online activist, was summoned to the Organised Crimes Prevention Police Division and questioned for three hours. ‘Propagating fictitious ideas’was his organised crime. The monk-director of the Buddhist Information Centre had complained about Mr. Rathnayake’s facebook posts claiming that Buddhism originated from Jainism. Why a police division set up to prevent ‘organised crime’should take such a complaint seriously is not even a question in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Rathnayake was fortunate; he got off with a warning not to speculate about the origins of Buddhism. Unlike that unnamed 43-year-old woman who was arrested less than three months later for insulting Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, thereby ‘sowing discord among Buddhists and Christians.’

According to Pew Research, 40% of world’s countries and territories have blasphemy laws, including Sri Lanka. Our blasphemy laws were bequeathed to us by the British. Britain abolished its own blasphemy laws in 2008. We still cling to ours and resort to them more than ever before.

The irony is obvious. The concept of blasphemy is alien to the Buddha’s teaching. His attitude to verbal abuse, including the vilest slander, is well known, Akkosa Sutta being an excellent case point. A Brahmin called Akkosa Bharadvaja scolds the Buddha in “foul and harsh words.” The Buddha waits until the tirade is over and asks what Akkosa does when he has visitors. Akkosa says he offers refreshments. The Buddha asks what happens to those refreshments if the visitors refuse them. Akkosa says then they will return to him. Says the Buddha, “You are abusing us who do not abuse, you are angry with us who do not get angry, you are quarrelling with us who do not quarrel. All this of yours we do not accept. You alone, Brahman, get it back; all this, Brahman, belongs to you.” He then explains, that when someone “returns the abuse, the quarrelling, anger in kind, it is called ‘associating with each other and exchanging mutually. This association and mutual exchange we do not engage in.” (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn07/sn07.002.budd.html)

            The British-introduced blasphemy laws seemed to have been observed more in the breach for close to a century. Until the early 1970’s there seemed to have existed in the island an environment conducive to free thinking, debate, and dissent. The response to myth-busting activities by Prof. Abraham T Kovoor, Prof. Carlo Fonseka, and the Rationalist Association indicate a public relatively open minded even about age-old superstitions, such as fire-walking associated with God Kataragama.

Was it this prevalence of critical thinking and writing which made the United Front government introduce blasphemy into its infamous Press Council Law of 1973? Section 15 criminalises any newspaper writing of ‘profane matter’ intending to “insult any religion or founder of any religion…any deity or saint venerated by followers of any religion” (http://www.commonlii.org/lk/legis/num_act/slpcl5o1973298/s15.html). This leap into legal backwardness, this attempt to criminalise free thinking was done by a government which is still considered left and progressive!

In 2000, journalist Manjula Wediwardana was arrested subsequent to a complaint by a Catholic priest that his soon-to-be-published book insulted the Virgin Mary. This was when the reign of the Rajapaksas was not even a blip on the horizon and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the president. In 2000, he got bail. Today he wouldn’t have, because he would have been arrested under the ICCRP, like Shakthika Sathkumara.

In Sri Lanka, a law that was crafted to prevent discrimination and injustice is being used selectively to promote both. The infamously famous Sammantha Badda thero has openly claimed that the Tooth Relic is really a porcine tooth (දන්ත ධාතුව කියන්නේ ඌරු දතක් – Samantha Badda – YouTube). Nothing has happened to him. But You Tuber Sepal Amarasinghe is in remand custody for insulting the Tooth Relic.

The charges against Mr. Sathkumara were dropped in Feb 2021 (after he spent months in remand custody). Was it because there was no legal possibility of the charges being maintained? Is the ICCRP being weaponised to intimidate those who anger political or religious authorities? In the absence of a legal pushback, will the ICCRP become a tool to stifle any public conversation about Buddhism and Buddhist monks, just as blasphemy laws were in Christian Europe once and are in most of the Muslim world even now?

Who insults the Buddha?

            In cash-strapped Sri Lanka, farce abounds. This month, news broke about a fake Dalada Maligawa being constructed in Kurunegala, using money and jewellery donated by devotees. The heads of Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters and the Diyawadana Nilame were roused into righteous indignation by the news. The latter wrote to the President demanding action. The President ordered the IGP to take action. Mervyn Silva too ordered the police to take action, after visiting the site.

            Had the fake Dalada Maligawa begun its religious services, would those too have been limited to monks of one caste, as religious services in the real one are?

At the 2019 launch of Chinese Academy of History, President Xi Jinping emphasised the need for “history research with Chinese characteristics”. In Sri Lanka, we seem to have a Buddhism with ethnic and caste characteristics. These distortions were created by two key historical corruptions of the Buddha’s teachings. The first was Bhikku Mahanama’s insertion of the concept of just and holy war into a teaching which was based on compassion towards all living beings. Mahawansa’s claim that there’s no sin in killing non-Buddhists in a war to protect Buddhism has seeped deeper into Sinhala consciousness than Buddha’s First Precept.

The second perversion happened in the 18th Century when a Kandyan king decreed that higher ordination be limited to members of the Govigama caste. The story is told, approvingly, in Mandarampura Puwatha by Labugama Lankananda Thero. By the time the second Nayak king, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe, was crowned, Buddhism had degenerated and higher ordination had ended. The King (with the corporation of the Dutch) brought higher ordination rites from Siam (Thailand). For about a decade, ordination in Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters was open to everyone. Then the King saw that certain monks from oppressed castes (hina janaya) paid obeisance to upper caste lay persons of wealth and power. The king then prohibited higher ordination to anyone outside the Govigama caste.

If this ‘origin story’ was true, the correct action would have been to de-robe the offending monks; not introducing caste into a caste-less religion. When non-Govigama monks in the maritime provinces banded together and established the Amarapura nikaya by bringing higher ordination rites from Burma, the Kandyan king banned it. Fortunately his writ didn’t run very far and the attempt to turn monkhood into the exclusive preserve of one caste failed. Had the Kandyan king vanquished the British instead of the other way around, we would have had a Sinhala-Govigama Buddhism! And many an exemplary monk would have been lost to the Sasana, like Miggetuwatte Gunananda thero of the Amarapura nikaya.

As Prof Richard Gombrich points out, Buddha’s teaching on the irrelevancy of caste in caste-ridden India and the opening of monkhood for everyone including those from the most depressed and despised communities caused “a substantial change in the intellectual climate” (Theravada Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo). The 18th century introduction of caste into monkhood caused a retrogressive counter-change and split the monkhood along caste lines. Wasn’t that a greater insult to the Buddha than Shakthika Sathkumara’s story or Sepal Amarasinghe’s intemperate remarks?

No religion is a hermetically sealed space. Every religious teaching is affected and changed by the times it lives in and has lived through. For example, according to Prof MMJ Marasinghe, former head of the Department of Buddhist Studies at the Kelaniya University, many of the rituals considered essential to Buddhism came into vogue in the tenth century during the reign of King Sena III – such as offering food and garments to Buddha statues. The story of Ananda Bodi comes not in the original Kalingabodhi Jathaka Pali but in Buddhagosha’s pali commentary. The belief that Ratana Sutta was first chanted by the Buddha to heal the city of Vesali of the Three Terrors was another Buddhagosha add-on, Prof. Marasinghe claims. He cites these as evidence of new rites and rituals being introduced into Buddhism. Once the translation into pali project was completed, the original Sinhala commentaries by Arhat Mahinda were burnt, probably to hide the alien nature of the new practices, he claims (Budu Dahama saha Buddhagama).

The influx of nobles and Brahmins from South India during the Kandyan Kingdom would have played a role in creating the necessary religious and societal consensus for the introduction of caste into Buddhism. Hinduism might not be the only influence in shaping ritual practices. According to John Davy, “I was once present in the Sanctum of the principle temple in Kandy during the whole ceremony of the evening service; what I saw strongly reminded me of the ceremonial high mass of the Roman Catholic Church” (An Account of the interior of Ceylon and of its inhabitants: With travels in that Island).

Not even religious teachings are immune to impermanence and change. The danger is when law is used to criminalise questioning and dissenting from prevailing orthodoxies. At the rate Buddhism in Sri Lanka is retrogressing, heresy and apostasy might follow blasphemy as high crimes, as they were in Christianity once and are in Islam now.

A world of unreason

            The Panadura Debate was a series of six debates which commenced in Baddegama and ended in Panadura. The participants were Buddhist monks and Protestant clergy. The debates seemed to have been both erudite and accessible, exhibitions of scriptural knowledge and rhetorical skills. Both parties cooperated to ensure that the encounters were peaceful and orderly. Once the final debate ended, the British editor of Ceylon Times, John Cooper, published an account of it highly complementary to the Buddhist side. That account introduced Buddhism to many a Westerner and was instrumental in Henry Steel Olcott arriving on these shores.

In his forward to Prof Wimal Abeyasundara’s 1991 book on the Panadura debate, President Ranasinghe Premadasa said, “The most valuable lesson we could learn from the debtate is the peaceful way of settling disputes” (https://www.dailymirror.lk/News-Features/Ven-Migettuwatte-Gunananda-Thera-and-Birth-of-Buddhist-Revival-Movement-years-ago/131-150546). He was right. Unfortunately, that habit no longer prevails in the religious sphere. Today, the way of settling religious disputes is not intelligent and rational debate but verbal and physical violence and/or repressive laws.

            75 years into independence, our minds are more enslaved, our conduct more servile, our intellectual climate more anti-intellectual. In our first national election (the parliamentary poll of 1947), secular left parties performed remarkably well, despite the UNP’s incendiary slogans about communist-threat to Buddhism and the left leaders’ refusal to engage in exhibitionist religious rituals. Today, no politician can get past the first hurdle if he/she is unwilling to worship at some shrine.  

Perhaps Carlo Fonseka’s debunking of the fire-walking myth was the last hurrah of those freer times. Prof. Fonseka organised a fire-walking demonstration as part of the September 1970 exhibition at the Medical College. He and a group of doctors, technicians, and students walked over a fire of 750faranheit after eating pork and drinking arrack. Among those present was Arthur C Clark (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2gAvTp_rak).

In response to numerous public challenges, including from monks, the deputy minister of cultural affairs of the UF government and NU Jayawardane, Prof Fonseka agreed to another demonstration. This was conducted on Feb 8th 1971 (poya day) at the Kataragama Devale in Attidiya. After its successful conclusion, ordinary people, including in far-off villages, conducted similar non-sacred fire-walking experiments.

Today, politicians and monks would have complained to the police and Prof Fonseka would have been arrested and held under the ICCRP for months, sans bail. His Catholic origins would have been held against him. Profs Kovoor and Clark would have been hounded out, one for being an Indian agent and the other a Western conspirator colluding to destroy pure Buddhism (not to mention the Sinhala).

            The consequences of our mental regression as a nation have been dire. The effect of the Kelani Cobra drama needs no belabouring. Would a majority of Sinhala voters have accepted Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Our Hero who Works in 1947 or even 1952? The Buddha, when he was indisposed, turned not to pirith chanting but to a human physician, Jeevaka, for relief and cure. In Kucchivikara-vattu of Mahavagga, when the Buddha comes across a monk neglected by other monks due to dysentery, he washed and treated the sick monk. In Sri Lanka, supposedly the sole refuge of pure Buddhism, the Rajapaksa government promoted the chanting of pirith and divine potions as counter to Covid-19. There was hardly any public dissent. We are happier with divine saviours as we are with human ones.

            Unquestioning obedience to religious orthodoxies is not the Buddha’s way. It is a tactic used by political and religious leaders for their own ends. Critical thinking is discouraged and penalised, not to save rata, jathiya, agama, but to protect vested political, economic, and religious interests. The next time, any politician places a hand on heart and promises to die to protect Buddhism, we should remember yesterday’s picture of Shiranthi Rajapaksa in a hijab attending a women’s conference in Iran. If that iconic image doesn’t make us think twice about the irrational path we have trod for 75 years, nothing will.  

Sri Lanka LG Polls: Would USD 27.2 million(Rs 10 Billion) address fundamental questions relating to democracy?

10 mins read

The following passage from Britannica is a good commencement point to discuss the much debated Local Government poll in Sri Lanka. Conducting the election is said to cost around 10 Billion Rupees of State funds, assuming such funds are available to spend in the bankrupt Sri Lanka. Besides State money, individual candidate spending would be substantial. Two serious questions need to be asked. Firstly, whether the country could afford such an extravagance at this point. Secondly, the current political system being what it is, what benefit such an election would provide to a bankrupt country and an increasing number of people already in poverty and others who are on the verge of poverty. 

Democracy as defined in the Britannica, “is literally, rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratia, which was coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the middle of the 5th century BCE to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens.

The Britannica goes onto say “etymological origins of the term democracy hint at a number of urgent problems that go far beyond semantic issues. If a government of or by the people—a “popular” government—is to be established, at least five fundamental questions must be confronted at the outset, and two more are almost certain to be posed if the democracy continues to exist for long.

(1) What is the appropriate unit or association within which a democratic government should be established? A town or city? A country? A business corporation? A university? An international organization? All of these?

(2) Given an appropriate association—a city, for example—who among its members should enjoy full citizenship? Which persons, in other words, should constitute the dēmos? Is every member of the association entitled to participate in governing it? Assuming that children should not be allowed to participate (as most adults would agree), should the dēmos include all adults? If it includes only a subset of the adult population, how small can the subset be before the association ceases to be a democracy and becomes something else, such as an aristocracy (government by the best, aristos) or an oligarchy (government by the few, oligos)?

(3) Assuming a proper association and a proper dēmos, how are citizens to govern? What political organizations or institutions will they need? Will these institutions differ between different kinds of associations—for example, a small town and a large country?

(4) When citizens are divided on an issue, as they often will be, whose views should prevail, and in what circumstances? Should a majority always prevail, or should minorities sometimes be empowered to block or overcome majority rule?

(5) If a majority is ordinarily to prevail, what is to constitute a proper majority? A majority of all citizens? A majority of voters? Should a proper majority comprise not individual citizens but certain groups or associations of citizens, such as hereditary groups or territorial associations?

(6) The preceding questions presuppose an adequate answer to a sixth and even more important question: Why should “the people” rule? Is democracy really better than aristocracy or monarchy? Perhaps, as Plato argues in the Republic, the best government would be led by a minority of the most highly qualified persons—an aristocracy of “philosopher-kings.” What reasons could be given to show that Plato’s view is wrong?

(7) No association could maintain a democratic government for very long if a majority of the dēmos—or a majority of the government—believed that some other form of government were better. Thus, a minimum condition for the continued existence of a democracy is that a substantial proportion of both the dēmos and the leadership believes that popular government is better than any feasible alternative. What conditions, in addition to this one, favour the continued existence of democracy? What conditions are harmful to it? Why have some democracies managed to endure, even though periods of severe crisis, while so many others have collapsed

These questions, and answers to them by the readers themselves will be quite relevant to the LG poll which is to be conducted at this enormous cost. Perhaps the poll could be considered from two key aspects

Firstly, is it the appropriate time to spend Rs 10 billion on the election, when

  1. The country is bankrupt with the forecast for 2023 even worse than the situation in 2022
  2. Would not the 10 billion rupees meet many other critical needs for people who are in poverty and on the verge of it?
  3. Will the local government poll result in a change to the National Parliament, and the effectiveness or otherwise of the national parliament? What power or authority do LG institutions have from a national perspective?
  4. How much would LG politicians be able to do for their constituencies at this stage if the entire country is bankrupt?
  5. Is it not best for the country for a national government to govern the country at this stage rather than spend Rs 10 Billion for a LG poll which will not address the issues that bankruptcy has befallen on the country?

Secondly, in relation to the questions posed in the Britannica

(1) What is the appropriate unit or association within which a democratic government should be established? A town or city? A country? A business corporation? A university? An international organization? All of these?

This has not been addressed and the structure/s of democratic government that establishes and makes good the adage of “a government by the people, for the people” has not materialised. A question must be posed whether the country should have more of the same or whether it should have a discussion on what type of a democratic structure is needed in order to make the masters, the people, dictating to the elected representatives and not the other way around. One has to question whether the best brains of the country are part of the policy making process or whether they are bi standers in a process managed by politicians who think they have brains.

Democracy “is literally, rule by the people.

(2) Given an appropriate association—a city, for example—who among its members should enjoy full citizenship? Which persons, in other words, should constitute the dēmos?

Is every member of the association entitled to participate in governing it?  Assuming that children should not be allowed to participate (as most adults would agree), should the dēmos include all adults? If it includes only a subset of the adult population, how small can the subset be before the association ceases to be a democracy and becomes something else, such as an aristocracy (government by the best, aristos) or an oligarchy (government by the few, oligos)?

There is a strong case to be made for universal franchise and for all citizens above a given age to be entitled to vote, rather than an aristocracy or an oligarchy. The question of what is “best” of course is very subjective while in fact, the “few” in fact is a reality in Sri Lanka considering that family politics has been the main stay of political power and governance in the country. The challenge is to have a system that is neither an aristocracy or an oligarchy, even by any other name, but a system that provides a wider collection of professional, academic, civil society organisations, unions, women’s organisations to participate in policy making, while policy administration should be entrusted to efficient and effective administrators and not politicians.

(3) Assuming a proper association and a proper dēmos, how are citizens to govern? What political organizations or institutions will they need? Will these institutions differ between different kinds of associations—for example, a small town and a large country?

As touched on earlier, this question is an extremely critical one relating to what democracy is and should be. How do people govern? Is it only by exercising their franchise once in so many years? What mechanisms should be there for people to have a say in governance, and chart their destiny and that of the country? If family power, influence and money results in personalities  being voted in rather than their policies or the policies of the political party’s they belong to, in effect, people will not have any input or a say in governance.

(4) When citizens are divided on an issue, as they often will be, whose views should prevail, and in what circumstances? Should a majority always prevail, or should minorities sometimes be empowered to block or overcome majority rule?

This is probably one of the most contentious issues from a Sri Lankan context and the long standing and ongoing ethnic issue, and which has a direct relevance to this question. The question of all citizens agreeing on all issues is an impossibility and is a highly impractical proposition and majority decision making, with whatever its shortcomings, is a realistic option. However, in Sri Lanka, the majority/minority composition has ethno-religious dimensions, with the minorities, primarily Tamils, but Muslims as well, feeling subjugated by a Sinhala Buddhist majority. It is this numerical strength rather than what is right and fair for all people, from within the majority or the minority, that has dictated how the country is governed. In this context, majority rule has not delivered fairness, justice, and equality for all people, and therefore needs minority empowerment to block and even overcome majority rule when situations demand it. Majority/minority rule issues would become less important  if there is better communication between people, and they understand each other better and they trust each other more.

(5) If a majority is ordinarily to prevail, what is to constitute a proper majority? A majority of all citizens? A majority of voters? Should a proper majority comprise not individual citizens but certain groups or associations of citizens, such as hereditary groups or territorial associations?

Another very valid question. In some countries, the USA being one, the average voter turnout at Presidential elections is less than 60%. If an individual gets 50 % of that 60%, plus one more vote, that person could potentially become the President of the country. One could argue that the other 50% who voted have opposed that candidate. In effect, a candidate becomes the President of the US with 30% of the eligible vote

In Sri Lanka, whether it is at Presidential elections or Parliamentary elections, the voter turn out is greater, perhaps averaging between 55- 70%. However, prior to the introduction of the district based proportional representation system, in 1970, a government was elected with a 2/3 majority with only 49% of the votes cast, and in 1977, with a 5/6th majority with just over 51% of the vote.

These lopsided election outcomes makes a strong case for a change to the system, and a greater involvement of groups or associations of citizens, such a business associations, academics, unions, women’s groups, other groups such as environmentalist groups, etc to play a more active part in political governance, especially policy development.

It is interesting to note the voter turn out in countries where voting is compulsory. For example in Australia, it is in excess of 95%

(6) The preceding questions presuppose an adequate answer to a sixth and even more important question: Why should “the people” rule? Is democracy really better than aristocracy or monarchy? Perhaps, as Plato argues in the Republic, the best government would be led by a minority of the most highly qualified persons—an aristocracy of “philosopher-kings.” What reasons could be given to show that Plato’s view is wrong?

This is a debate on fundamentals and probably suited for another occasion!. Two issues in response to what Plato postulated is (a) who will decide who is most “qualified” and what and who would comprise the aristocracy of philosopher- kings (2) would his theory be relevant and/or appropriate in an age of technology and communication access where information could be just a nano second away from each other, as compared to Plato’s time?

(7) No association could maintain a democratic government for very long if a majority of the dēmos—or a majority of the government—believed that some other forms of government were better. Thus, a minimum condition for the continued existence of a democracy is that a substantial proportion of both the dēmos and the leadership believes that popular government is better than any feasible alternative. What conditions, in addition to this one, favour the continued existence of democracy? What conditions are harmful to it? Why have some democracies managed to endure, even though periods of severe crisis, while so many others have collapsed

The maturity of a democratic governance system, traditions, how such a system fits within an overall framework of governance perhaps matters a lot for the sustainability of a democratic system. It could be argued that diffusion of power as against the concentration of power, particularly in the hands of a few, could encourage the few wielding that power to change the system if they feel their power is ebbing or there is potential for that to happen if pressure builds up to diffuse power. An independent Judiciary, other stakeholders such strong business entities, academic institutions, unions, women’s organisations, civic entities, and as many peoples organisations could act as deterrents to changing a democratic system to more autocratic systems. The democratic governance system in Sri Lanka has been minimally democratic as the demos or peoples component of it has limited themselves to voting in or voting out governments every five years or so. The money, power and acquiring more money symbiotic link has thrived, and it has been used basically to buy votes in one way or another. Policy debates have been confined to a few living rooms.

So, what is or should be the practical alternative to the LG polls? Assuming politicians love the country more than themselves, and considering the deep pit the country is in, a national government with no more than 15 ministers could govern the country under a national economic plan approved by all political parties in Parliament at least for a period of 2 years. During this period, a national political commission could be constituted with wide, nonpartisan political representation to seek the views of the people, political parties and others, to design a new political system for the country. If the existing system is retained, it will produce the same output of substandard politicians, and an ongoing policy vacuum that will lead the country further down the precipice. As Einstein would have said if he was around, Sri Lankans would be mad to expect different outcomes doing the same thing with the same system in place.

Sri Lanka: What will be the end of the crisis?

6 mins read

The object of this article is to point out an important aspect that has been ignored in analysing the crisis facing Sri Lanka, and also to explain what the end of the crisis could be, which I venture to do from the perspective of a critic who has foreseen the impending crisis in advance and had cautioned the authorities and the public about it repeatedly.  

A person who has gone too far on a wrong track may find it difficult or even impossible to get back to the right path even if he realises lately that he was trekking on a wrong track. This doctrine applies equally to social institutions, administrative machineries and states, albeit with some variations. The Heads of State who assumed the power after the establishment of a presidential system of governance in Sri Lanka, and the rebel leaders like Wijeweera and Prabhakaran, who attempted to usurp the political power through violent rebellions, can be considered as leaders who have proceeded so far on wrong paths that it was not easy for them to turn back. 

Even a machine may soon become unusable and ineffectual if it is continued to be used when faults occur, without rectifying them. The same principle applies to the state as well. If the state does not follow a consistent policy of rectifying the errors which may occur from time to time and maintaining the state machinery well, the state too, might become a dilapidated entity, ultimately ending up being a failed state.

Monitoring the functioning of the state 

Many countries adopt and maintain special institutions to monitor the performance of the state. The neighbouring India maintains a permanent commission called “Sarkariya Commission” for that purpose. The Sarkaria Commission was set up by the central government of India against M. Karunanidhi, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, when he clamoured for more autonomy for the state government. The Sarkaria Commission’s charter was to examine the central-state relationship on various portfolios and suggest changes within the framework of Constitution of India. 

The commission has been named after Ranjith Singh Sarkariya who was appointed the Chairman of the commission when it was established in 1983. He was a retired Supreme Court judge. I had the opportunity to meet him in a workshop held in New Delhi to discuss about the functioning of the judiciary in the SAARC, The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which I attended as a participant. Ranjith Singh Sarkariya was the chief guest of that workshop. A group of judicial officers and a group of lawyers nominated by SAARC countries also participated in this work. It was organised by the UNESCO branch in India. 

Apart from me, Sinha Ratnatunga, the editor of the Sunday Times who was also a lawyer and Asanka Welikala, a prominent personality in the field of constitutionalism also participated in it. I, who was neither a lawyer nor a judicial officer, was invited to attend the workshop to elucidate the facts about my struggle against Chief Justice Sarath Silva. I must state that it was the presentation I made that received the most attention of the judicial officials and lawyers who participated in the workshop. My presentation included the factors that led to the conflict with Chief Justice Sarath Silva, and an analysis on how that conflict was continued. 

One of the points mentioned at the conclusion of my speech led to an emphatic discussion in that workshop. When considering the crisis of Sri Lanka, that particular point I had raised in my presentation could be described as an important factor that has been completely ignored by Sri Lanka. I concluded my presentation by stating that the Parliament had moved two impeachments on two separate occasions against the corrupt chief justice to remove him from his position, but the president prorogued the parliament ending the session of the parliament in the first instance to protect his colleague and on the second occasion the parliament was dissolved by the president. 

At the end of my presentation, a senior lawyer of India who participated in the workshop stood up and asked what the Sri Lankan Bar Association did to remove the corrupt Chief Justice from his office when the attempts to impeach him by the Parliament failed, while explaining the policy followed by the Bar Association of India in a similar situation.

Identifying the culprits

As explained by that lawyer, an impeachment against two judges of the High Court of India on corruption charges was presented to the Parliament, but due to some reason, the Parliament was not able to take the impeachment to a logical conclusion. Since then, the Indian Bar Association followed a policy of boycotting the appearance for cases heard before the two judges concerned. In the end, he said that the two judges were compelled to resign from their positions to avoid humiliation. With that, he asked as to why the Bar Association in Sri Lanka did not follow a similar policy. 

What happened in Sri Lanka is fundamentally different from what happened in India. There only a small group of lawyers followed a policy of rising against the Chief Justice, which brought the judiciary into a humiliating state. A large number of people took maximum advantage of the situation by adopting a policy of defending the corrupt Chief Justice. There were other types of dancers who joined the procession. The owners of the mass media organisations that had lawsuits got their cases settled in their favour by adopting a policy that gave maximum protection to the Chief Justice in this crisis, through their publications and channels. Some politicians and certain political parties also took maximum advantage of that crisis by adopting a policy that supported the Chief Justice. Two political movements came forward to defend the corrupt Chief Justice and to safeguard his survival at that difficult moment, and for that, they obtained in return, judgments from the Chief Justice that added to the fame and reputation of their movements. 

According to what I learnt later from a university teacher who was attached to one of the political movements and also had participated in discussions held with the Chief Justice occasionally, they had received instructions from the Chief Justice on how to file court cases which are of interest to them. It was the Chief Justice who drafted the Fundamental Rights petitions for them. The irony was that the panel of judges who heard that petition was chaired by the Chief Justice himself, who has drafted the petition. The extent of the pathetic and comic situation into which the judiciary and the political system of the country had fallen into, even at that time, could be discerned from this incident. 

It is not only the misconduct or corrupt activities of the people who commit errors that can make a democratic political system weak and dilapidated. Even those who support the offenders when wrongdoings are being committed, and also those who are responsible for preventing such occurrences, but refraining from doing so, and letting the mistakes pass unheeded, should also be treated as active partners of such offenses. 

It can be further explained as follows. If the individuals who had supported the corrupt Chief Justice had abstained from doing so and stood up against him, and the opposition political parties and the Bar Associations which had the responsibility to act against the corrupt Chief Justice, had fulfilled their responsibilities properly, the Chief Justice would have been compelled to give up his position. When we requested the Supreme Court to conduct an investigation into the corruption charges levelled against Attorney General Sarath Silva, all the judges of the Supreme Court except three judges expressed their agreement to conduct an investigation. This shows that if others had fulfilled their responsibilities, there was a real possibility of ousting Sarath Silva, who was later appointed as the Chief Justice. 

Had it been the case, the country would have had a better judiciary than the existing one, and perhaps the country would not have fallen into a state of failure. Same principle is equally applicable to all serious mistakes that have been committed in the political level of the country. 

Another illustration that can be cited to explain this situation is as follows: According to the ‘78 constitution, a member elected to Parliament from a recognised political party couldn’t change the party without losing his/her seat. But when President Chandrika wanted to strengthen her government by persuading a group of opposition MPs to join the government, she was able to create a situation with the support of the judiciary (Chief Justice Sarath Silva) in which the MPs defected from the opposition could join the ruling party without losing their seats. It can be considered as an instance that led to distorting the Constitution severely. But the main opposition party in general or any other political parties represented in the Parliament refrained from protesting against this horrible violation of the Constitution. Consequently, this system introduced in violation of the Constitution has become a common feature of the political system. This situation has not only weakened the opposition parties but also led to distort the political system and accelerate its collapse. Along with that the Constitution, the supreme law of the country became an object of ridicule. 

Sri Lanka: Professionalism – Missing Links

5 mins read

The right to rectify the wrongdoings occurring in the country or the right to be elected as public representatives should be granted only to those who are committed to discharge or have already discharged the responsibility assigned to them in the respective scope of work or the little professional world they represent and had committed themselves in maintaining a good, clean and orderly state in their particular fields by correcting and remedying the wrongs that may occur in them.

Many positive changes would occur in the political system when the political parties and their leaders are composed of people, who could claim for such a record in addition to having their merits limited only to educational qualifications. However, it is obvious that many people who have become members of conventional political parties of our country as well as those who have entered the political stream newly, are not those who could claim such a record.

The professionals are at the helm of all important sectors in the country. If the professionals had functioned strongly and unreservedly to eradicate corruption and rectify other faults extant in the areas which were under their control, certainly Sri Lanka would not have fallen into such a big mess and disaster it has faced today. We know that politicians are rotten with corruption. Similarly, the role of professionals in Sri Lanka is also not in good shape or in ideal condition. There are many examples that can be cited to substantiate this observation. The programs that have been implemented for a long time to digitise the affairs of the state are one such example.

Digital solutions contribute immensely to improve the affairs of the state, facilitate better communication between citizens and government agencies; it will improve the efficiency of the functioning of government institutions and enable minimising of corruption and waste. For a long time now, despite a substantial investment been made for digitisation, it has not been possible to make a discernible progress commensurate with the cost incurred. However, the progress achieved in digitisation by companies like John Keells in the private sector, is huge.

For example, despite having a digital system, the allegations levelled against the Department of Registration of Persons and the Department of Immigration and Emigration are serious. A situation prevails in these two departments where, apart from obtaining genuine ID cards and passports, it is possible to obtain fake IDs and passports as well, by paying a large amount of money underhand. It has been identified that there exists a situation where computer data could be altered in some institutions that have adopted digitised systems.

It is alleged that a mafia of electrical engineers is operating in the Electricity Board. There are accusations that the electrical engineers are making undue wealth by abusing their authority, and also discouraging or not paving the way for moving to a policy that emphasises the use of renewable energy sources due to vested interests they seem to have in the use of thermal power plants in generating electricity. It can be said that the dishonest practices in the field of accountancy and the audit have also affected the decline in the financial sector. If the accountants and auditors had fulfilled their professional responsibilities properly, the incidents of fraud and corruption in the financial sector in Sri Lanka would not have escalated to a level which the society could not bear. Such degeneration could not have occurred in the financial sector.

The lawyers as well as the judicial officials are presumably responsible for the breakdown in the rule of law of the country. Similarly this accusation can be made against the other professionals as well. Although there is a national Organization of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka, which is a body of professionals presently belonging to 52 member associations catering to 32 disciplines with a total membership of over 50,000, apparently it has not been able to adopt a disciplinary control to govern its members and win the trust of the people about the organisation.

Correcting yourself before correcting the nation

Isn’t it important that the professionals should work strongly towards making the respective fields of their professions efficient and free of corruption, and earn the public trust, before they engage themselves in rectifying the entire system of the country? Shouldn’t they become leaders capable of solving national problems only through the launch of such programs? For example, the lawyers interested in entering politics, could initiate and run a campaign for necessary reforms to establish an independent judicial system with the power of judicial review, in addition to making a positive change in the legal profession itself. They can demand for the setting up of a regulatory authority with considerable powers to regulate the performance of lawyers.

Like in some Western countries, the legal career can be made into a profession that operates under a license system combined with a full professional indemnity insurance scheme that needs to be renewed every few years. In case of damage to the client and when compensation is due to be paid, it can be compensated by the indemnity insurance. Also, it would be possible to introduce a system for regulating the fees payable to the attorneys at law. Also a system could be set up so that the nature of the case, the law applicable, the client’s entitlement, the fee to be paid, the manner in which the payment should be made and the regulatory authority to be referred to in the events of misconduct or professional negligence could be indicated to the client in writing when a case is undertaken by the attorneys at law.

Also, action may be initiated to bring about positive and desirable changes in the Bar Association as well. Along with this, suggestions for an independent judicial system that would lead to earning respect of the public for the judiciary, as well as introducing a system that prevents delays in litigation can be made. Such a program will certainly create a strong platform to make far reaching changes in the field of legal profession and the judiciary as well, and offer an opportunity for the lawyers who appear for it, to earn a greater acceptance of the public while creating a strong background for them to enter politics.

Similar programs can be implemented in all other professional sectors. For instance, the professionals of the ICT Engineering (the Information and Communication Technology) could probe into the faults and drawbacks in the implementation of e-Sri Lanka projects in government institutions, which is an integrated approach to promote e-governance, and submit proposals to rectify the errors and implement them correctly at a low cost. It would be possible to make the professional association one belongs to, a catalyst against corruption that prevails in that particular sector, and also it can be made an exemplary institution where a proper code of discipline is maintained in regard to the conduct of the professionals of the association. If such a program can be implemented in almost every professional sector, it will undoubtedly lead to produce professionals who work with a deep sense of social responsibility in all professional fields, and through them to set up professional movements and create a vision that will contribute towards rectifying serious mistakes that had occurred in the fields of those professions.

The most important outcome of this process, in the sense of politics, will be that it will pave the way for laying a strong foundation for a distinguished group of professionals who have gained a certain amount of political maturity, practical experience and won public recognition in consequence of their involvement in fighting against and for rectifying the wrongs that happen in their own little worlds, to enter the national stream of politics. 

Sri Lanka in 2023: Challenges and beyond?

6 mins read

“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker – It’s not what you say but what you do that defines you – Buddha

“Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.” – Buddha

The year 2022 will end as the year that turned Sri Lanka on its belly. It demonstrated that while some political leaders were well-meaning and did what they thought was good for the country, the collective effort of 75 years of independent governance had ended in the economic bankruptcy of the country and owing more than what it is economically worth. It has demonstrated that the country is good at living on borrowed money, and it had demonstrated that the country has functioned without a clear vision and a clear strategy as to how to achieve that vision.

It is not the time to dwell on the past unless one is doing so to learn lessons from the past. What is more important is the present, and what one could do to avoid mistakes of the past, create a new vision for the future and move to a better future. 

Not blaming politicians alone for such mistakes is one lesson one should learn as they are a product of the political system in place. Creators of the system and its participants includes the people who elect the politicians. So, collectively, the people, their representatives and the system in place have all failed the country. In saying this, the vast strides made in different sectors of the country are recognized, and so are some leaders who spearheaded such improvements. The achievements of the country are however looked at from the prism of where it is now, an economically bankrupt nation.

One may argue that after 75 years of independence, this bankruptcy extends beyond economic bankruptcy and to social, moral, and ethical standards despite the teachings of three major religions of the world, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam which are well entrenched in the country. Some would take the view that the strengthening of cultural, ritualistic aspects of these religions rather than practices based on the original teachings of these religions have contributed to the social, moral, and ethical bankruptcy that is being experienced. In this regard, it is the religious institutions that should look inwards and question themselves of the part they have played by just mouthing, but not living the teachings of the founders of the major religions.

Politics and religion, or rather the religious institutions and the political establishment has a symbiotic relationship of inter dependance. This is markedly so when it comes to the Sinhala Buddhist institution and the political establishment. Early in independent Sri Lanka, the leader who is hated and loved in equal measure, one who is recognized as the one who gave the Sinhala Buddhist community their due place, and at the same time who is recognized as the person who was the cause of the Sinhala Tamil rift, SWRD Bandaranaike, born a Christian, converted to Buddhism. Whatever the reasons for this conversion, there cannot be any doubt that this helped his political objectives considering that in post independent history, being the first citizen of the country has not been possible unless one were a Sinhala Buddhist.

In terms of the future, a question must be asked where this symbiotic relationship would take the country? More of the same? If the status quo continues, how could leaders of the two institutions, the religious and the political, work together to advance the country rather than themselves? This is one of the most important challenges for the future. While the Buddhist institutions argue that their role is to ensure the protection of Buddhism, their activities have gone well beyond this. Divisions within Buddhist Monks, the institutions they belong to, and their partisan preferences and actions as to who and which party should govern the country, have clearly indicated the real motive of some individual Monks and more broadly the   institutions. This motive being the desire to be a key stakeholder in political governance. In this context, as influential stakeholders, they have contributed in equal measure to the sorry state of the country today. 

The Buddhist clergy is supposed to abide by the Vinaya Pitakaya, the code of conduct applicable to them as Buddhist Monks. Today, this is a joke if one looks at the behavior of some Monks. The Buddhist institution is replete with various internal judiciary positions, all of which are no more than figurehead positions that do not seem to be performing their tasks as outlined in the Vinaya Pitakaya.

While it may be controversial to some, the role and power of the religious institutions and Buddhist Monks, their conformity with the Vinaya Pitakaya and their influence on political governance arising from their political partisanship is a challenge that the country will have to confront with. If their political partisanship, power and influence should remain, and their role as stakeholders in political governance continues, a truly bi partisan economic framework will not be possible to take the country forward. This political bipartisanship has not happened partly due to the actions of some influential members of religious institutions who have exerted a significant degree of influence with the voters who elect politicians and political parties to govern. In this context, such an influence factor contributes either to the success or otherwise of the country’s economic development. If the present status of bankruptcy is to be a yardstick, it can be taken that this influence factor has failed the country. 

Ideally, no religious institution nor its members should engage in politics, and if they wish to do so, they should leave their religious institutions and do so as lay persons. The ability to make this happen is in the hands of the people, and they should clearly and unequivocally send this message to all religious institutions.

Another key challenge for the country and its public is the need for a long-term development framework, at least the contours of such a framework. The very nature of the political system of 75 years has resulted in short term planning of not more than 5 years. There has never been a bi partisan development framework, even within a span of 5 years, let alone any period longer than that. The country needs such a framework of not less than 10 years, and it is heartening to note that the current President is said to be working on a 25-year framework. 

It is vital however for such a framework to have bi partisan (or multi partisan) agreement, and for such an agreed framework to be periodically reviewed and updated to keep it in line with global developments including technological developments.

Such a framework should include major economic drivers such as an export development plan, an import substitution plan, a tourism plan, an agriculture plan to assure food security, a plan to maximize land and water utilization, an industrial development plan that includes Port development, sustainable energy development etc., and an education plan that prepares the future generations to meet the challenges posed by such an economic framework. Besides these, the health of the nation is paramount, and the framework should include plans for long term primary and curative healthcare in the country.

It is questionable whether the people nor their representatives, and other institutions that influence governance planning and decision making will have the foresight nor the guts to make far reaching decisions for the benefit of future generations. Ad hoc planning has been the order of the day for 75 years, and sadly, it is quite likely that this situation will continue for another 75 years if not more. 

Sri Lanka has faced its gravest economic and social crisis since independence, and this has not been sufficient for the political leaders and their parties, in particular the Opposition parties, to work with the governing party and agree on an economic framework to lift the country out of its morass. Calling for fresh elections is the only plan they have offered to the country.  

Even if elections were held, history has shown that generally, the vote between the governing party and Opposition parties have been split in the ratio of 55 % to 45%. 

If this were to be the case at an election the Opposition is clamoring to have, what will suffer most will be the way forward for the economy as political partisanship, split in the manner described above will stand in the way of a commonly agreed economic development framework.

The country is bankrupt, and yet, the singing and dancing goes on. It has been reported that the appointment of more cabinet ministers is imminent. The Titanic is sinking, but more deckhands are said to join the captain. This may defy logic, but it does fit in with the reality that the morals and ethics of most politicians have already sunk far below the level of economic bankruptcy. 

Sri Lanka: Beckoning the devilish anarchy

6 mins read

Since the ending of the internal civil war, I have been vehemently vocal on the need for directing Sri Lanka towards a profound reform program. Following the Black July of 1983, Sri Lanka remained in a bizarre state of persistent bloodshed for a long time, until the end of the internal civil war in 2009. The people of the country were compelled to live in an atmosphere overwhelmed by the fear of death during this long period.

The insurrections launched by the Sinhala and Tamil youth had resulted in the death of a large number of young people. The entire society was rendered more or less dead spiritually, by the brutality unleashed on the society by the Sinhala and Tamil rebels as well as the security forces that suppressed the riots. Though the security forces had succeeded in defeating the Sinhala-Tamil insurrections, both the victorious security forces and the State suffered serious damage from those insurrections.

Many things were destroyed in this ugly socio-political environment, and the things that escaped from being destroyed completely had become distorted and corrupt. This particular socio-political environment had caused to corrupt and distort the politicians of the country and the state including the government officials and the entire institutional system of the state. This situation had plunged the entire state into a dilapidated level.

My role

Introducing necessary reforms without delay, for rectification of the decline and the distortion occurred in the socio-political system and the state had become an essential condition for the very survival of the state and the social system. I used the 25th and 30th anniversary of the Ravaya held in 2012 and 2016 respectively, which were participated by the leaders of major political parties of the country, to point out to them the urgent need for having reforms introduced to overcome this situation.

But when it appeared that the political leaders of the country do not have a genuine interest or commitment in making necessary reforms, I reached the conclusion that, in the absence of essential reforms, the country will inevitably plunge into a great destruction, and consequently there will be a great collapse in the state and the social system, and eventually the country will be pushed into a state of economic bankruptcy and political anarchy.

In order to explain the situation, I wrote and published two books in Sinhala titled “Lankawa Galawaganima” (Rescuing Sri Lanka) and “Jathiye Kedavachakaya” (The Tragedy of the Nation). The number of scholarly articles authored and published by me in this respect could be hundreds. Besides these, I founded an organisation called the “Punaruda Vyaparaya” (Revival Movement) to enlighten the public about the great collapse destined to occur, and nearly 300 public discussions were held raising the public awareness on the impending downfall. I wish to assert that I have always appeared in favour of a profound transformational reform program implemented within a comprehensive framework centred on wide public participation.

I can be considered as one who was able to foresee and predict in advance with a considerable degree of certainty that Sri Lanka will soon fall into this abyss unless appropriate remedial measures were taken to arrest the trend. I was able to make such a prediction because I had focused my keen attention on this question long before it was going to happen. In fact, I had a deep intellectual involvement and emotional relationship with the crisis in Sri Lanka. It was due to the knowledge and discipline I had acquired through perceiving and evaluating the crisis well in advance that I was able to analyse it and make suggestions as to how it should be overcome as soon as Sri Lanka fell into the abyss.

At the time when the country has fallen into a state of bankruptcy and a massive public unrest had emerged in the form of the Aragalaya launched by the youth against president Gotabaya, I appealed to the protesters to take the Aragalaya into a constitutional framework without allowing it to be thrown into an anarchic state; and, at the same time I ventured to meet president Gotabaya and point out to him the importance of directing the country towards adopting a reform program that would make a profound change in the system which is corrupt, and handed over to him a list of reforms required to be introduced together with a methodology that could be adopted in implementing the proposed reforms.

What ought to be done?

I am not a political follower or a protagonist of Gotabaya. During the presidential election, my stance was that Gotabaya was not a suitable person to be appointed the president of the country because he remained indicted with serious allegations. Despite my stance regarding Gotabaya, in the face of the country falling into a state of bankruptcy, I ventured to meet him with my reforms proposals, not with the intention of gaining undue advantage, but with the view to persuading him to direct the country to a reform program without delay, and thereby reduce the possible destruction to the country. Not only did he express his agreement with my proposal, but also he had enlightened Ranil Wickremesinghe about it when the latter was appointed the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister also spoke to me about the proposal. It is interesting to mention that I had held two rounds of talks previously with Ranil Wickremesinghe about a reform program even before the country went bankrupt. Late Mangala Samaraweera also participated in those discussions. Three of us knew that the country was heading towards a big crisis. We had a rough idea about the need for intervention at an appropriate time and about the reforms to be introduced.

When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed the presidency, I felt that the opportunity had arisen to lead the country to a reform program. For that purpose I decided to extend my voluntary support to President Ranil Wickremesinghe without expecting any payment or personal benefit. After all, it is an essential condition to create a common consensus among the parties representing the legislature for launching a profound program of reforms. To achieve that purpose, we (the People’s Movement for Reforms) met the leaders of major political parties and discussed this issue with them.

The list of political leaders whom we met and discussed is as follows: Sajith Premadasa, the leader of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), Rauff Hakeem, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Basil Rajapaksa, National Organiser, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), M.A. Sumanthiran, media spokesperson of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Mano Ganesan, leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), Douglas Devananda, leader of the Elam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and Champika Ranawaka, leader of the 43rd Brigade.

The purpose of discussing with all of them was to explain the need for having a profound reforms program and the importance of creating a common consensus for adopting a framework which is acceptable to all of them, and would not allow anyone to act arbitrarily in implementing the reforms program. The need for having a profound reform program was accepted by all the leaders. It must be said that the time spent by some leaders for these discussions ranged from two to three hours.

It was evident from some of the statements published in social media that the discussion held with Basil Rajapaksa, the National Organiser of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), has caused great anger in some people. It is not difficult to understand that it was a special situation that has been created and maintained purposefully and systematically rather than being a natural or spontaneous reaction. Many of those who have commented had demonstrated amply, the negative characteristics such as poverty of their knowledge, sometimes their stupidity, political bigotry and their lumpen heritage. The failure of a country is not only an indicator of the failure of politicians and officials alone, but it should also be considered as an indicator of the failure of academics and the professionals of the country as well.

The black market economy of the country is larger than the formal economy. The size of the lumpen social group in the country is also unusually large. It can be said that the lumpen-style debase rowdy language has become the accepted linguistic usage of the revolution and the revolutionary academia. Due to political bigotry or bias, some are inclined to think that the crisis in the country is a matter to be solved by a government elected of their choice and not through the reforms implemented by the incumbent government. Also, they seem to think that whatever may be the reforms to be introduced, they should be implemented in the absence of those representing the Pohottuwa party.

Could the country survive without solving this crisis until the next government comes to power? What will happen to the country if no one gets enough power to form a government in the next election? Since the ruling power rests on the Pohottuwa party, a reform program cannot be implemented without the support of that party. If the Pohottuwa should not be involved in the reform program on the basis that it is corrupt and has committed serious mistakes, then, the same accusation can be levelled more or less against every party that has ruled the country and represented the parliament. Sri Lanka has received a golden opportunity for introducing profound reforms. If this opportunity is not utilised properly, there is no doubt that the nation will be compelled to pay a big compensation for missing it.

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