Chinese Satellite Not a Threat – Ex-CIA Boss

1 min read

The discovery of a Chinese satellite floating over Montana has created lots more heat than light. Hourly news reports make it sound like a replay of Pearl Harbor.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a balloon!
Fact is, the satellite itself presents zero danger, weapons-wise, and if it were on a serious spying mission, it could be easily neutralized.

“Really, it’s not a big deal,” former Air Force general and CIA director Michael Hayden told US-based SpyTalk.

“We can neutralize so I don’t think it’s a danger either.”

The Pentagon has said as much, too, but its calming message has been pretty much overlooked in the hysterical coverage afforded news the satellite’s discovery a few days ago.

“But out of an abundance of caution, we have taken additional mitigation steps. I’m not going to go into what those are. But we know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it is passing over. And we are taking steps to be extra vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk,” a Pentagon briefer said Friday.

There is a “variety of capabilities to render it unusable or mitigate the threat,” Paul Cobaugh, a retired Army information operations specialist also told SpyTalk. “It’s not a threat.”

The satellite might well have drifted off its intended path as an aide in an upcoming satellite launch.

“The near-term goal for the High-Altitude Balloon (HAB) is to act as a testbed for ground communications and CubeSat systems prior to launch,” said a 2021 paper from US Army Space and Missile Defense Command Space and High-Altitude Research Center at West Point. “ The long-term goal for the HAB is to develop a station-keeping subsystem that will enable HABs to maintain their relative position over a single point on the ground and demonstrate militarily relevant capabilities and concepts.”

Armchair generals in social media sites like LinkedIn have been crying for the Air Force to shoot it down. The Biden administration, citing the potential of civilian casualties from the falling debris, declined to do that.

If it posed any real threat, the Pentagon has a range of decades-old technology to neutralize it, experts say. It could “spoof” Bei Dou, the Chinese satellite navigation system, to guide it to the ground, Brian Barritt, chief technology officer at Aalyria Technologies, said on LinkedIn.

Bottom line: Everybody needs to calm down.

Source: Spy Talk

Sri Lanka: Surviving the 75th year of independence

5 mins read

Sri Lanka will be celebrating its 75th Independence Day on February 4, 2023. As a republic the country has come a long way from the dominion it was at the time of independence. The shaky step with which President Ranil Wickremesinghe steps into the 75th year of independence, tells that his job to mend the fractured country left in disarray by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is far from over. His government has to survive at least one more year to ensure the economic recovery process is started as per IMF norms.

The former president Gotabaya’s flight to safety from the country to escape from the wrath of the people has a lesson for all political leaders. They cannot afford to take popular support for granted. That includes President Wickremesinghe, though he is not elected President by popular mandate. Embers of Aragalaya struggle are still smouldering; a small number of vested interests, nihilists and ultra-left wingers are trying hard to keep alive the protest movement. They have been indirectly helped by the government’s continued lack of accountability. People cannot afford the resurgence of another Aragalaya upsurge as it would shift the national focus from economic recovery. It is the government responsibility to get its act together to ensure the popular discontent is handled with sympathy, sensitivity and fair play.

Apparently, the government has shown signs of getting its act together. It has just released Wasantha Mudalige, Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation and one of the leaders of the Aragalaya protests, after holding him in custody under the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for nearly nine months. But much more needs to be done by the government to gain public confidence. It is in this backdrop that events in the month need to be understood.

Economic recovery

The seamless connectivity between external relations and the economic recovery of the country came into full play during the month. Early in the month, President Wickremesinghe addressing businessmen in Colombo, briefed them on the state of economic recovery. He had said Japan and the Paris Club, two of Sri Lanka’s major creditors, had expressed their willingness to assist. Talks had begun with India and China. “We discussed with China’s EXIM Bank and are currently debating on how to restructure our debt. The Chinese side has agreed to move quickly” he added. Japan’s State Minister of the Cabinet office Satoshi Fujimaru, China’s Vice Minister of the International Department of the CCP’s Central Committee Chen Zhou and India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited Colombo in that order. The US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs is currently visiting Sri Lanka to “offer continued support for Sri Lanka’s efforts to stabilize the economy, protect human rights and promise reconciliation” according to the State Department.

The Paris Club is said to have proposed a 10-year debt moratorium and a 15-year debt restructuring programme. Japan’s minister Fujimaru came with a delegation of Japanese businessmen and his discussions with the President focused on investment opportunities available in Sri Lanka in hospitality and tourism, mining and training of Sri Lanka’s workforce. Chinese Vice Minister Chen led a delegation with the avowed aim to meet leaders of the government and political parties to brief them “on the CPC National Congress decisions and enhance cooperation with friendly developing countries under President Xi Jinping’s policies.” On debt restructuring, he assured PM Dinesh Gunawardena that “several ministries and financial institutes of China are working closely on this issue for quite a long period. I’m confident that Sri Lanka will have good news very soon.” But “the good news” that China’s EXIM Bank agreeing to a two-year moratorium on Sri Lanka’s debts may not satisfy the IMF programme.

In contrast to China, India – the third largest creditor – validated its “neighbourhood first policy” by writing to the IMF Chief of its support to restructuring of Sri Lanka’s debts on the eve of EAM Jaishankar’s visit to Colombo. In its letter to IMF, India has said it will support medium to long term treatment of debts through maturity extension and interest rate reduction or any other financial operations that would deliver similar relief. India also said that it expects Sri Lanka to seek equitable debt treatments from all commercial creditors and other official bilateral creditors.

After bilateral talks, EAM Jaishankar addressed a joint press conference at the Presidential Secretariat along with President Wickremesinghe and Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Sabry. He said in Colombo that India will stand by Sri Lanka in its hour of need and expressed confidence in overcoming challenges. His words that India “felt strongly that Sri Lanka’s creditors must take proactive steps to facilitate its recovery” and extended financial assurances to the IMF to clear the way for Sri Lanka to move forward. Our expectation is that this will not only strengthen Sri Lanka’s position but ensure that all bilateral creditors are dealt with equally,” must be heart-warming to the beleaguered President.

He also said India will encourage greater investments in the Sri Lankan economy, especially in the core areas like energy, tourism and infrastructure. Apart from the use of rupee settlement for trade, he also suggested strengthening connectivity, encouraging Indian tourists to make RuPay payments and the use of UPI payment as helpful to Sri Lanka.

Implementing 13th Amendment

The Indian EAM’s talks with Sri Lankan leaders in Colombo seem to have nudged President Wickremesinghe to walk the talk on unfulfilled promises on ethnic reconciliation and implementing 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution in full.

The President informed an all-party leaders conference on reconciliation that the Cabinet was agreeable to fully implement 13A. In a statement issued by his secretariat, he said “The 13th Amendment has been in existence for over 30 years. I must implement it. If anyone is opposed, they can bring in a constitutional amendment to change it, or abolish it.” Explaining his stand, he said he was working according to a supreme court decision on 13A. “We are still in the bounds of a unitary state. I am against a Federal state but I support the devolution of power to provinces. The provincial councils don’t even have the powers enjoyed by the City of London. So, we can’t call this a federal state,” he said.

It is clear that the President has left the decision to implement or scrap the 13A on political leaders from all parties. it might be a political ploy to tide over a tricky political issue for a short time. But, his credibility as President is likely to be tested when he attempts to implement 13A. His statement has already received negative reaction from Tamil National Alliance as well as Sinhala right. And we can expect more political flak on this issue across parties.

This adds yet another rider to the political stability of the government, which does appear to be clear about conducting the local government elections(LG) in March. Already, the uneasy ruling coalition of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is divided over the conduct of LG elections in March. Lack of clarity on the issue is already causing scepticism about the government’s intentions among the public . In the face of a brewing political turbulence, it will be a tough call on the President to take decisive action even at the best of times. Now, when the country is trying to save itself, it is going to be tougher.

Tailpiece: Sri Lanka’s annual bilateral naval exercise ‘CARAT’ (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) was held on land and at sea in Colombo, Trincomalee and Mullikulam for a week from January 19. The exercise aims to promote regional cooperation, maritime partnerships, enhance maritime interoperability and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. These aims coincide with that of the four-nation Quadrilateral framework. The Japan Self Defence Force (SLDF) and the Maldives National Defence Force joined the Sri Lanka armed forces in the last leg of the exercise. These details reflect the changes taking place in the strategic narrative of Indo-Pacific theatre after the Quad. China is sure to take not of the strong strategic message CARAT is sending.

Revival of Terrorism – View from Pakistan

4 mins read

Some people might be misguided by the thought that the menace of terrorism in Pakistan was successfully crushed to the roots a few years back and after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan things have become quite normal but actually the situation is not that way.  Terrorists and terrorism both are still alive; it seems they had hibernated themselves for a very short period of time. Once again, they are out of their short sleep and ready to ‘do more’. The recent bomb attack on a mosque in Peshawar on 30th January seemsthe beginning of a fresh wave of terrorist activities in Pakistan. The terrorists have chosen a time when Pakistan is passing through the toughest period of its history with a lot of political and economic instability. Different experts on security affairs were already apprehendingoccurrence of such incidents. It is also being feared thatmore episodes of the same type could take place in near future. Certainly the law-enforcement agencies will have to be more active and more vigilant against the peace-destroyers.

Even the last year had not been very peaceful regarding terrorist activities in Pakistan. According to a think-tank based in Islamabad The Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Pakistan had to face 254 militant attacks in the year 2022. More than 400 Pakistanis lost their lives in these attacks. The Arab News said referring to the report prepared by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies that ‘The toll is significantly higher than last year 2021, when 335 people were killed by militants in 207 incidents, and in 2020, when 146 attacks killed 220.’ The most affected area had been Baluchistan where foreign-patronized terrorists targeted security forces and particularly the Chinese nationals working on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project which is a multibillion-dollar project having a lot of possibility of strengthening Pakistan’s economy. Attacks on the Chinese nationals certainly effected the work on CPEC project as hovering security threats make things very difficult for the foreigners working on different development projects. It seems that the sole target of all terrorist activities was nothing but to create hurdles in the way to completion of the CPEC.

Now the beginning of 2023 does not seem very pleasant and hopeful with reference to the terrorist’s activities in Pakistan specifically in Baluchistan and KPK province. On 18th of January, according to the Voice of America, a militant attack from across the Iranian side of the border had killed four Pakistani soldiers.The attack took place in the remote Panjgur district in southwestern Baluchistan province. Sources say that the terrorists used Iranian soil to target a convoy of security forces patrolling along the border. The government of Pakistan, just after the incident, asked the Iranian side to hunt down the terrorists on their side. Whatever happened there at the Pak-Iran border was certainly very much unexpected and disappointing even for the Iranian government and the Iranian embassy in Islamabad strongly condemned the terrorist attack on Pakistani troops but this act of condemnation is not the solution to the problem. Without looking into the matter in detail, such incidents might reoccur in near and far-future.Panjgur district of Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province is an area which borders Iran and Afghanistan. The area surrounding Panjgur had always been terrorists’ hot favourite. In 2019, both PakistanandIran had expressed their desire toform a joint quick reaction force to counter and combat militant activitiesalong the border. Unfortunately that desire has yet not been materialized. Though no terrorist group has yet claimed the responsibility of blood-shed in Panjgur. On December 19th 2022, in another incident of the same type four members of Iran’s security forces were killed in a firefight near the Pakistan border. The killed ones were members of The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. These four were killedafter a fight with an unnamed terrorist group, said the Aljazeerareferring to a statement released by the Iranian state media.The incident reportedly took place in Saravan, in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, near the Pakistani border. The attackers allegedly fled to Pakistan when IRGC ground forces repelled the assault.

The situation in Afghanistan is also deteriorating with reference to the terrorist activities. Last year on 23rd September several people were killed and dozens more wounded when a car bomb went off at a mosque in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. The worshippers streaming out of the mosque afterthe ‘afternoon’ prayers were targeted. According to the Aljazeera,‘gunshots rang out several minutes after the explosion in Wazir Akbar Khan area which is the location of many foreign embassies and NATO. More than 15 people were killed and 41 wounded in that incident. Earlier on 18thAugust 2022, a huge explosion ripped through the crowded mosque during evening prayers, injuring 33 people and killing another 21. Prior to that in April 2022, two boys’ schools were targeted in the western Kabul. The targeted schools were Abdul Rahim Shahid high school and the nearby Mumtaz Education Centre, both located in the Dasht-e-Barchi area. More than ten students were killed and around 30 seriously wounded.

In short, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, all are facing the worst situation regarding terrorist activities. In present scenario, any type of blame-game would simply add to the gravity of situation. Be it Afghanistan or Iran or Pakistan; terrorism is in the benefit of no one. We all will have to join our efforts with all possible devotion and dedication to curb this menace. The government of Afghanistan will have to play the most active role in resolving the situation as a consistent peaceful atmosphere is the most-required and most-needed ‘element’ for the stability and firmness of that war-torn country.The point to rememberis that the flames of terrorism never remain limited to some particular area or some specific region; they are like a pandemic which goes on and moves on from one place to other. We must never forget the Twin-Towers tragedy which was the most horrible episode in the long series of terrorist activities. All self-proclaimed ‘Super Powers’ including the US, China and others must step forward and try to ‘Do More’ against the revival of terrorist’s era particularly in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

Sri Lanka: A Paradise Misplaced

7 mins read

Our island was called Lanka in pre-King Vijaya times. Valmiki’s immortal Ramayanaya had King Ravana ruling the land from the city of Lankapura. That was almost four thousand years ago. The Arab traders termed it Jaziratul-Yaqut, island of rubies. Some called it Serendib, some Ceilan, from which the Portuguese picked Ceilao and the European mapmakers coined Ceylon. Many were the names from the many that came. Bar none, everyone agreed and noted in their chronicles that this Island was indeed the complete Paradise.

We never created it. Let’s be honest about that part. We simply inherited. The gods from their celestial dome, in their infinite kindness, gifted this Paradise to us, the beautiful island of Lanka, to the people of Sri Lanka.

The privilege of being born to such a serendipitous place can only be  expressed if one could take away the corruption that has besieged us all since independence. We need to look through the veils of racial and religious disharmony that obscure the overwhelming beauty that lies beyond. The purity of the land still remains, vastly unspoiled. The occupants of Paradise, still smile, despite the battering they had received from the time they were reborn after the colonials left. Mother Lanka dawdles, whilst her sons and daughters drowse in ignorance, an ominous prelude to the torrential disasters that loom in the near horizon.

Times are sad and the question is paramount in any mind that carries an iota of sanity. “75 years, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE?” The sum total of the misfortunes that the majority of the proletariat suffer is directly related to the bad governance of the country. It is not the vegetable seller that is responsible nor the fisherman or the cobbler. It is neither the schoolteacher nor the clerical battalion.  None of these Lilliputian shareholders of Paradise are responsible for the doom that is staring at us in gloom.  Who is directly responsible for this megalomaniacal catastrophe? It must be the gods, not the ones from Mount Olympus but the ones from Diyawanna Oya. Everyone who sits in those 225 thrones, whether they were proposers or opposers or the ones who raised their hands in agreement or those who sinned in silence abstaining from their sworn duty. They are all responsible for raping this land. 

The ‘misplacing of Paradise’ is directly related to Diyawanna Oya. It is from there the fountains of corruption gush out from every orifice to drown the trampled denizens of Paradise.

And now they want to celebrate 75 years of independent ruination?

Galle Face gave birth to the Aragalaya. It was not born to racial or religious parents, not to political surrogate fathers or international stepmothers. Hired ‘andabera karayo’ (announcing tom tom beaters) and unethical scribes may attempt to blacken the purity of the protest that raised its head when living in Paradise became unbearable. But such camouflage will not eradicate the deep-felt anger that has soaked the ordinary man, woman and child who walked to Galle Face to give life to the Aragalaya.

Their participation in the protest had nothing to do with politics. There may have been a thief or two in the jury, but the majority came because they could not breathe any more. The suffocation of the common man and woman who were down to their knees is what made them gather at the Galle Face Green.

The mighty may assume the Aragalaya has fizzled out. Many were arrested and some were jailed. The political pack was re-shuffled and puppeteers looking for those willing to dance were gifted high pedestals. Nothing changed at Diyawanna Oya. It is still the same stage, only some actors are different. Mother Lanka weeps at the perpetual tragedy.The once bubbling Aragalaya breathes softly like a slow-burning fuse. It is the idea that remains, and ideas do not die, nor can they be eradicated.

When the sun goes down and the pavements become bedchambers for the super poor who pray for the rains to hold till morning.

Little children hear the music of the ‘Choon Paan’ tuk tuk and wonder when they can afford a ‘kimbula bunis’ again. Schools re-open, book lists are out but where is the money to buy? Hospitals have no drugs; power cuts are a daily torment, and they talk about extending the dark hours.

Tourists trickle in while Srilankans of all races and religions are queuing in hoards to jump ship and vanish to wherever they can.

These are no fairy tales of my redundant imagination. They are the stories of Paradise. The day-to-day events play sad and silent along with the cacophony of achievements and flash-pan plans to celebrate 75 years of independence. Don’t tell me the suffering is isolated, oh no, not by a long shot. They are the unheard, the ignored and the expendables of the displaced congregation of Paradise. The ‘boast of heraldry’ is loud and clear, so is the ‘pomp of power’ announcing to the world and beyond the inflated paths of progress. The air is filled with milk and honey stories and rainbow visions for the morrow. But isn’t there a big question mark? Isn’t there some serious filtering needed to seek and give room to the truth?

I am not talking of March provincial elections or who is joining hands with whom to ruin the country more. Politics do not interest me. I’m like the kids that run after the ‘Choon Paan’ tuk tuk with empty pockets. Hope is there but with hardly any reality. Just totally confused between right and wrong and where lies the light or is it only a long dark tunnel? I’m writing of the core expectation, the very basics that humans search for. We need peace and honest governance, the pursuit of happiness to which we are all entitled, like the simple ‘Kimbula Bunis’ the kids crave for. This is what Paradise should be made of, which unfortunately is missing. Yes, our Paradise is mired in a total political mess at present devoid of any reasonable and practical answers.

Everyone is trying to go abroad. Why do all these people leave Mother Lanka? Something must have gone wrong in the system. The exodus only began after we were reborn as an independent nation. Ludowyke and Van Sanden left in the sixties, Somasundaram and Gunesekara in the eighties the entire ‘jimband’ started migrating at the turn of the century. Hence, the blame is not with the colonials and their international shackles. It is ours and ours alone, lying firmly in the Pontius hands of the custodians who were chosen to charter our future. Isn’t it crystal clear today that the political leadership we voted for and sent to Diyawanna Oya has failed miserably in their delivery? 

Let’s get back to the theme of the hour, the forthcoming independence celebration.  I wonder what we are celebrating after 75 years of ruling by the sons and daughters of mother paradise. Is it the egg that is 75 rupees or the half kilo of dhal selling at 300 or the loaf of bread at 180? Maybe the 170 for the Sunlight soap has to be celebrated and the red onions at 720 a kilo. The coconut is over 100 rupees and a mere 400 gram packet of Rathi milk powder is 1,200 rupees.

No wonder the children are almost starving, and the parents roll onto a reed-mat after a hard day’s work on empty stomachs.   

Yet we are celebrating independence to tell the world how great our Paradise is. Never mind the begging bowl we carry internationally; on 4th morning the marching multitudes and the rolling armour must be on display. The cost of the aerial circus will be astounding. There will be at least 4 sets of different aeroplanes flying in formation over the heads of gods and demigods sitting under VVIP shade at the Galle Face green which is the scene of celebration.

You have to practice flying these air-displays. From a week before the 4th you will hear their engines roar from Kalutara to Katunayake.The jets shrieking, training for the fly-pass, will shatter the clear blue skies and disturb every student writing the ‘A’ level exams in that area. The F-7 fighter-jets in this aero-ballet burn 40 liters of fuel a minute at low levels. And we the minions of Paradise loiter in snaking ques down below with our QR codes to get 20 liters of fuel for one week. If I call it a mockery, that will be gross flattery.  Need to mint a new word to describe this folly.

Do I have to say any more? We the majority may be struggling for the crumbs that fall off the table, but the show must go on. After all it is independence, and it must be celebrated.

There are some solid silver lines too in our 75-year-old dark cloud. The free education is a wonderful achievement and so is the free health care scheme. Yes, at present the hospitals may struggle with the lack of drugs, but the system is there to help and heal any patient. The credit goes to the powers that were in a bygone era. There are other consolations too, one cannot be totally paranoid. Factory jobs are there for those without a trade. Stitching for Marks and Spencer and their likes help thousands to keep their home fires burning.

Some no-skills Paradisians pawn their souls to go abroad as domestics and for minor employment. They are the local Dick Whittingtons charging into the unknown, exploited at every toll gate. They slave in alien third-class status to send pitifully earned dollars to their loved ones to survive in Paradise. Wasn’t it their brothers and fathers who fought and died in the 30-year war to save their motherland?

Seventy-five years have gone by from the day of independence. The blameless blame, the nameless suffer and the shameless go on, rough-shodding their way to erode and annihilate Paradise. No need to further elaborate, the reasons are obvious. Some things are best left unsaid. Let me be the coward and let discretion become the better part of my limited attempts at journalism.

Call me a fool if it pleases you and I will accept it. But let me trickle some sanity to your thoughts. Just to kindle an interest. Totally non-political. I cannot and do not separate the villain from the venerated. The line is too thin, and the facts are wildly scattered. The truth certainly is in masquerade.

The Lankan Paradise is not lost, at least, not yet. It is certainly misplaced. That much can be clearly seen, lest one be blind. What happens in the end to things that are misplaced? They never get found and as time goes by, they will go permanently missing.

Ours is a Paradise misplaced. Let us all valiantly search for answers, it is not too late. Let us collectively find ourselves and our land, before it vanishes beyond the limits and becomes a Paradise Lost.

What are some fallouts of Davos 2023?

3 mins read

The annual meeting of world leaders including business leaders, at the World Economic Forum at the Swiss resort at Davos, included the usual topics of Trade, Tech and Climate Change, but this year Davos had far reaching implications, hardly contemplated.

Davos 2023 was the 53rd meeting this year, with the Forum President Borge Brende giving the closing remarks on 21 January 2023, summarising with the words: “We can shape a more resilient, sustainable and equitable future, but the only way to do so, is together.” The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterras stressed on 18th January, “There was no perfect solution in a perfect storm.” The sense of unity was contained in the messages, from Alain Berset (President Swiss Confederation) to Sanna Marin (Prime Minister,Finland) and Andrzej Duda (President of Poland) – all of whom expressed their continued support for Ukraine.

The need for collaboration is beyond Ukraine as global inter-world crises requires moral interlinked solutions, including supply chain disruption, with a looming global recession expected according to some economists later this year.

Kristina Georgieva, MD of IMF stated: “As we navigate an uncertain economic outlook about the future of work we need reskilling in order to prepare current and future workforces.

Agriculture and Food, Cybersecurity, Forests,Digital Economy, Trade and Investment also featured in the discussions among business and other leaders.

The Focus at Davos 2023

The focus was on the tension between quality and speed of action. There is the war in Ukraine, which has sent energy and food prices soaring. The resulting inflationary pressures have ignited a global cost of living crisis, leading to social unrest worldwide.

According to The Guardian, China may be forced to make friends again with the West.

This was seen at Davos, with Beijing hinting it may adopt a less hostile approach. Vice President of China, Liu He appeared at Davos to “assure foreign investors that after 3 years of COVID-19 disruption, China was open for business”. Proof of the pudding was when he stated: “We have to abandon the Cold War mentality, we must open up wider and make it work better.”

A number of themes also emerged from Davos. India’s Action, India’s Phenomenal Growth was reflected in responses from political and private leaders at Davos, this year. The Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) has predicted India will become the Third $10 Trillion economy by 2035, thanks to its demographic dividend. This was

also highlighted with top priority by India’s large delegation at Davos, during India’s current G20 Presidency until November 2023.

What was not stated but is now seen happening after Davos 2023?

About a quarter of the countries of the world are in debt, distress or on the brink of it. At Davos every one of the multilateral organisations that keep tabs on the financial fragility of poor countries did express concern on debt solutions.

As countries are having trouble paying their debts amid slower global growth, rising interest rates, urgent action was canvassed. In the case of Argentina and Brazil we are told are wanting to amalgamate their currencies. A new currency, the Austral may be introduced, which it is hoped will be more stable than the Argentinian Peso. The similarities between Brazil and Argentina debt problem is only skin deep. Argentina’s debt was mostly external; Brazil’s is mostly internal. Both sought Debt Restructuring by the IMF.

In the case of Sri Lanka both, India and China were “told to?” adjust with Sri Lanka in restructuring.

India pledged confirmation of its willingness to extend financial assurances as well as freeze debt for two years. India stated in its communique: “We hereby confirm our strong support for Sri Lanka’s prospective EFF (Extended Fund Facility) Support Plan and commit to supporting Sri Lanka with Financial/Debt Relief consistent with restoring Sri Lanka Public Debt Sustainability under the IMF Support Programme ensuring that the Programme is fully financed as projected by IMF Debt Relief. It is to be provided by Export Import Bank of India”.

China followed suit on 21` January 2023 and responded direct to Sri Lanka’s request on re-scheduling its Debt as a pledge to Bail Out by IMF, with an offer for a two year moratorium.

Japan and the Paris Club have already confirmed their financial assurances.

This gives Sri Lanka the potential for a total of $5 Billion that could be generated from these multilateral lenders. Davos was not the lever to this Bail out, it was World Public Opinion and Sri Lanka’s valid and reasonable request.

Three Ways to Restructure Debt?

“As to the debt problem itself, there are only three ways out:

1) An internal adjustment economically and politically within, a nation entailing a return to the free market system.

     2) An assumption of bad debt loss by the lending institutions, if a country is unable to repay its loans, or

 3) An assumption of risk on the part of the governments of creditor nations (and ultimately on their taxpayers.

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.  

The world’s biggest Tech Show at Las Vegas

2 mins read

Tech titans and gadget geeks were all at Vegas last week January 5-8, 2023, for CES – The Consumer Electronics Show. It is the premier event of the entire technology eco-system. It is the world’s gathering for the business of consumer technologies and new innovations. Who would doubt that it has to be in “Las Vegas Convention Center”, Nevada, US ofA.

BMW Chairman and CEO, Oliver Zipse was there among many business moguls/ dignitaries, to showcase how the future of mobility by car can merge the real and virtual worlds and present BMW’s vision of the “ultimate digital driving machine”. I leave it to my readers to create rather than elucidate. In this short piece,

Capturing imagination

In a world full of uncertainty and imponderables, it is no longer enough to capture a consumer’s attention, you have to capture the public’s imagination and learn how inventions are winning the hearts and minds of their devoted fans but followers.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, we are told the show was extraordinary, From the Robot “Wowwee” Dog, which has one million combinations of lights, sounds and personality traits, displaying texts and emoji’s when it wags it tail, to the colourful cars and fridges which changes colour to match your outfit or mood, BMW’s i-Vision Dee,(which stands for Digital Emotional Experience) the idea is to provide a more personal and customised driving experience, designed to push the boundaries between  physical with the virtual “digital perception” worlds. This so called, “fun model” will arrive in 2025. 

The CES Show, always has something utterly bonkers. This year the slot was reserved exclusively for “Withings U-Scan”, Wi-Fi connected, Urine Analyser, as you sit on your porcelain throne. Results are reported on the App – Alongside. The advert states it is an actionable tip to improve health.

The great thing about CES, in my opinion is discovering “Tech you never knew you needed”. This is shown in L’Oreal’s brilliant at Home Electronic Eyebrow make-up applicant. All you have to do is fire up the App ,Scan your face, choose the desired Shape, Thickness and Effect, say the instructions, then run it across your face,

But, for us men, it is LG brand’s Colour changing Cool Box –Mood-Up Fridge, to keep cans of beer, it can be customised to match your mood or your kitchen colour scheme.

It has a built in Bluetooth speaker, which will even sync with music for when you are in the party mood.

For the Laptop enthusiast, Lenovo “Yoga Book” 91, is completely rewriting the rules of portable computing, with multi-tasking, dual screen OLED Laptop, with No Key pad or Track Pad in sight. Instead, the Laptop comes bundled with a Bluetooth keyboard, stylus and stand, enabling it to prop up vertically on a desk or table. This seems to be the future of folding Laptops.

Life is but a dream?

Need I say that everything in the world of tomorrow. Is but a dream, an escape from reality. It is all about building your own connection, both physical as well as personal connection and community in a “Nonstop World”. To us oldies, it threatens “Reality”.

It seems as if we play life in a world of new experience. But it is not the world of tomorrow, but according to the CEO of Delta Airlines, USA, it will free Wi-Fi for all who fly their airlines from 1 February 2023.

How close to real life and health is all this experience?

Let us not be fooled, with all this “Americanism”. Visitors to the Show heard about the exploring ways that Technology Innovation is enabling, and in my view, impacting our health, in particular. We are warned that there is going to be a new model of patient care – one that blends in person care with virtual diagnostic and other tools for a more holistic and accessible patient experience, leading to better health outcomes.

My question is providing access to economic mobility, including physical mobility as we age, is the object for a changing world order, but how much of this commands everyone’s free choice and how much is imposed in the name of progress? This is an ethical question, which needs an ethical resolution?

What does Ranil Wickremasinghe have up his sleeve? 

9 mins read

Whatever it is, equipped with his education, native intelligence and acquired political wisdom, he will be able to hold the country whole until it passes lawfully into the hands of the uncorrupt patriotic young generation that is waiting in the wings in patient silence (not into those of the ignorant noisy buffoons in the ‘aragalaya‘). 

A number of sacrilegious attacks have been made in recent times on the Sri Dalada (the Sacred Tooth Relic) in Kandy, astonishingly by some Buddhists. The two most recent instances are: Sepala Amerasinghe, an elderly YouTuber, committing repeated verbal sacrilege by calling the Tooth Relic a ‘labba’ (an impolite word implying a pendant male sexual organ) in his videos; the other instance may be described as a form of desecration of the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy where the the Tooth Relic is housed: a kind of faith-healing veda mahattaya/native physician (a notorious charlatan and a crooked businessman according to social media accounts) by the name of Janaka C. Senadhipathi is building at Potuhera, Kurunegala, an unauthorized replica of the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, claiming that the sacred relic will be miraculously transported to his new shrine from the Kandy Sri Dalada Maligawa, which according to him, is polluted by the materialistic corruption of its present custodians). It is ironic that these acts take place (by design or coincidence) only a few days after president Ranil Wickremesinghe showed his desire to have a special exposition of the Dalada ahead of the next independence day due to be held in February. The president is obviously hoping to achieve something of tremendous importance for the nation that he seems to think is significant enough to be celebrated with a Dalada exhibition. What this epoch making development probably is not a mystery to adult Sri Lankans who have some idea about the dynamics of post-independence politics in Sri Lanka. It must be something to do with the final settlement of the so-called Tamil national problem or the implementation of 13A+.

This confronts the nation with a dilemma concerning Ranil Wickremesinghe as everybody’s  (225 in parliament’s and the general public’s) refuge/saviour: it is the general public perception that, at this moment, there is no political leader who can at least try to bring about some sort of economic stability to the country except Ranil Wickremasinghe. But will he be able to garner enough parliamentary support to implement 13A+? To compound the confusion, there is the problem of holding the lawfully scheduled local government elections, the likely result of which will not strengthen the mutually dependent parliament+president combine, nor benefit the nation economically or politically. The people will question: Why are you so particular about sticking to the electoral laws at this critical juncture where the flagrant violation of other existing vital laws such as the antiquities ordinances has introduced a previously non-existent religious and racial dimension to the country’s political divisions? But be that as it may. Let’s return to our present topic.

Since the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka in the 4th century CE (this is well recorded in the Mahavamsa and other chronicles), a tradition evolved according to which the ruler of the island acquired the legitimacy of his sovereignty by virtue of the possession of the sacred relic. The Dalada was held in a shrine within the palace complex. The shrine itself later came to be called ‘Maligawa’ or palace, the residence of the king, because of this connection between sovereignty and the sacred relic. Due to this reason, the Dalada was subject to changing hands between external invaders or internal rivals and the reigning monarchs in troublous times, as happened several times before the European advent in the island and after. The desacralization of the sacred relic and the attempted dilution of the sanctity of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy could be premeditated. Though it is  well known that the Dalada has neither any connection with, nor bears any responsibility for, the current economic and political crises, it has become a target for attack concerning even natural disasters. Sepala Amerasinghe mentioned above, before calling the Dalada a ‘labba’ for which offence he has been arrested and remanded till January 17, blamed the recent floods in Kandy caused by heavy rain on the ‘kunu datha’ (rotten tooth) in one of his videos. This was an oblique reference to the traditionally held belief among Buddhists that the Dalada has rain making powers. Such beliefs (and relic worship itself for that matter) are not found in Theravada Buddhism, but are imports from the Mahayana tradition which are now part of the local Buddhist religious culture.

So there seems to be a deliberate attempt by certain inimical forces  to dilute or totally negate the symbolic power of the Sacred Tooth Relic for the majority Sinhalese Buddhist polity. It is the bounden duty of the government on behalf of all concerned citizens to investigate what sinister force is behind these incidents and take remedial action. But there are no blasphemy laws in Buddhism. When a TouTuber brought the ‘kunu data’ insult to their notice by phone, the Anu Nayake Theras of both Malwatte showed little concern about it. It was when several concerned lay Buddhists complained to them again about Sepala Amerasinghe repeatedly making sacrilegious statements that the Mahanayake Theras and the Diyawadana Nilame, the guardian of the Maligawa, wrote to the president about it.

Incidentally, Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to be lurking protectively behind Senadhipathi. The former’s erstwhile sidekick Mervin Silva visited Potuhera, and ordered the demolition of the front part of the building in question, declaring that there should be only one Dalada Maligawa, the one in Kandy and that the rest of structures in the place must remain. Mervin Silva was reported to have threatened with death social activist Nilantha Ranasinghe who had raised the issue in public and exposed Senadhipathi’s questionable activities with audio, video and print evidence. Mervin Silva told another YouTuber (named Chaturanga Bandara) that Mahinda Rajapaksa phoned him to thank him for what he did.)  Mahinda exploited the nationalist groundswell to sweep the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary elections against the previous infamous yahapalanaya led by prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and president Maithripala Sirisena; but he totally betrayed that victory through the entrenched corruption he supported among his stooges and his own obsession with dynastic rule, which ultimately brought repeatedly rejected Ranil Wickremasinghe to the helm. Mahinda seems to have so morally weakened in parallel with his obvious physical degeneration as to make a futile attempt to salvage his lost popularity among the Buddhist voters by championing fake ‘Bosath’ Janaka Senadhipathi, with the help of thuggish Mervin. 

To return to the beginning, the media reported (December 24, 2022) that a request that president Ranil Wickremasinghe made for a special exposition of the Sacred Tooth Relic before February 2023 when Sri Lanka completes seventy-five years of independence did not get a positive response from either of the two Ven. Mahanayake Theras of the Siam Nikaya, Malwatte and Asgiriya, in Kandy, who are joint custodians of the Sri Dalada Maligawa. The president’s request was conveyed to the prelates in a letter from him personally delivered to them by prime minister Dinesh Gunawardane, who expressly called on them for the purpose. The Malwatte prelate, according to the news reports, suggested that the PM should approach the Asgiriya Mahanayake Thera about this as it is the latter’s turn at the moment to be in charge of the service at the Dalada Maligawa. When the premier visited the  Asgiriya Mahanayake Thera with the president’s proposal or appeal, the latter wonderingly asked him  if a Tooth Relic exposition at this juncture wasn’t a difficult task to perform.

With hindsight one would hazard a guess that the two Buddhist prelates of the Siam Nikaya, namely the Most Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera of the Malwatte Chapter and the Most Venerable Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter, especially the former, might accommodate the presidential wish, if  Buddhist public opinion also favours it. There are two other nikayas, Ramanna and Amarapura, which signed an agreement to merge in August 2019; the expected merger was a step in the right direction, for the Maha Sangha unity is indispensable for the survival of the Buddhasasanaya as a religious cultural establishment. The living component of the Buddhasasanaya is the ‘sivvanak pirisa’ or the fourfold community of male and female bhikshus and male and female lay Buddhists. This is not a political entity, but a religious one, though it needs state protection (just as it enjoyed full royal patronage under Sinhala kings before the time of foreign invasions); in this, the Sinhala Buddhist community  is not different from other religious communities. (In Sri Lanka, 70% of the ethnically and religiously diverse total population comprise Buddhists.) No religion is more compatible with the best form of government evolved to date, democracy than Buddhism, though it is not your average religion. Bhikkhus and Bhikshunis may personally hold different political views, and even exercise their voting rights as they please, as citizens, but it is not proper for them to engage in partisan politics, because that would definitely cause divisions within the fourfold community of Buddhists. The clergy must leave active politics involving campaigning and electioneering entirely to the lay Buddhists. May the Mahanayakes have the wisdom to tell the president not to desecrate the Sri Dalada by dragging it into politics.

However, traditionally and historically, Buddhist monks have wielded great power over the Buddhist community including the rulers. Currently though, they are becoming increasingly powerless, mainly because of their meddling in politics, patronizing corrupt politicians, and also because of the Mahanayake Theras’ incomprehensible inaction and disunity. President Wickremesinghe’s seemingly cynical suggestion must be viewed in this context. Is he, through having a special Tooth Relic exposition held to coincide with the implementation of whatever solution he proposes to the Tamil ethnic problem, trying to make palatable to the Sinhala Buddhist majority something they would not normally look upon with favour. Is he bringing back an earlier unpopular deal that sent him and his party home at the hustings? But Ranil is too intelligent to repeat past errors.

I am tempted to say this because Ranil Wickremesinghe, unlike his predecessors Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, does not usually make a show of unfelt religious piety for hoodwinking the masses. If he wants, he uses religion in a more street-smart way. Unlike the latter duo again, he is no religious hypocrite; he doesn’t even care to show if he is really a Buddhist (which of course is right, and befits a genuine Buddhist). The important thing, I think, is that he seems to know that ordinary Buddhist voters, true to their faith, do not worry too much about whether he is a Buddhist or a non-Buddhist. (Unfortunately, however, global scale media distortion against them demonizes Sinhalese Buddhists as racist chauvinists and religious fanatics simply because circumstances force them to raise their voice when their human rights are violated by others (such as unethical conversion of Buddhists, encroachment or vandalizing or desecration of Buddhist archaeological sites, deliberate distortion of historical and Buddhist doctrinal facts).

What is happening in Sri Lanka in this respect, hardly recognized or taken seriously by the global powers that be, is doubtlessly a crime against humanity carried out by an externally well funded medley of subversive organizations and individuals, that is getting more and more explicit and more and more overpowering in the Sri Lanka’s present economically and politically debilitated situation. It can be argued that the same forces that are behind this insidious barbarity are at least partly responsible for worsening the political and economic maelstrom that is currently engulfing Sri Lanka, despite the abundance of  rich natural resources and the  high quality of the human resources locally available, both of which its citizens can be justly proud of.

For president Wickremasinghe to want a special Dalada exposition he must be contemplating to consecrate, as it were, something momentous like a nationally important historic event concurrently with government celebrations that will mark the completion of seventy-five years of independence (whatever the last word is held to mean) from British colonial occupation. When it comes to true freedom from Britain, we believe that the 1948 independence was eclipsed by the promulgation of the republican constitution in 1972 under the United Front government of Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike. Yet, it looks like that Wickremasinghe wants to return to the Western fold by ignoring the 1972 change, which was not supported by the Illankei Tamil Arasu Kachchi (Lanka Tamil Kingdom/State Party/or misleadingly called the Federal Party in English) founded in 1949 by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, an immigrant Tamil from Malaysia. (The clamour for a separate state for Tamils started soon after the grant of so-called independence, which was actually nothing more than dominion status. The 1972 declaration of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was until then known among foreigners and English speaking locals) as a republic severed that last link with the  British empire.

 Sri Lankans are a democratic people. Ranil Wickremesinghe or any other political leader could easily accommodate the legitimate interests of the global and regional superpowers that the country’s geographical location makes it obligatory for it to satisfy, if he did it with the people’s full democratic approval, while at the same time preserving their national dignity, sovereignty and independence.     

When in 2019 Wickremesinghe and the UNP that he still leads got kicked out of parliament, he had spent forty-two years in that august body as elected member serving repeatedly in responsible senior positions over that long period as cabinet minister, opposition leader, and prime minister, and now as president at least by default. Ranil Wickremasinghe the politician has nothing more to win or lose in his life; he has nothing to look forward to, except perhaps a dignified obituary. But he suddenly finds ‘greatness thrust upon him’ by a strange turn of events in a context where  Sri Lankans of all religious and political persuasions are up against the wall economically and politically. The Sinhalese Buddhists, in addition to this adverse global predicament experienced, not only in Sri Lanka, but across most of the world outside, are simply facing a form of cultural genocide as argued above. It is expediently connived at by our corrupt traitorous self-seeking politicians and blithely indulged by an apparently unconcerned, blissfully ignorant Maha Sangha.

Ranil Wickremasinghe can still use his intellectual superiority and political acumen to rescue our nation.

The Winds of the New Cold War Are Howling in the Arctic Circle

6 mins read

In 1996, the eight countries on the Arctic rim – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – formed the Arctic Council, a journey that began in 1989 when Finland approached the other countries to hold a discussion about the Arctic environment. The Finnish initiative led to the Rovaniemi Declaration (1991), which established the council’s precursor, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy.

The main concern for these governments at the time was the impact of ‘global pollution and resulting environmental threats’ to the Arctic, which was destroying the region’s ecosystem. There was little understanding of the scale and implications of the polar ice cap melting (consensus about that danger was amplified by the research of scientists such as Xiangdong Zhang and John Walsh in 2006 and the Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007). The Arctic Council’s remit was later expanded to include investigations on climate change and development in the region.

More recently, at the 2021 ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Reykjavík (Iceland), Russia took over as the organisation’s rotating two-year chair. However, on 3 March 2022 – exactly one week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the other council members began to boycott meetings in protest of Moscow’s involvement in the group. In June 2022, these seven countries agreed to ‘implement a limited resumption of our work in the Arctic Council on projects that do not involve the participation of the Russian Federation’. In essence, the council’s future is at stake.

Yet, geopolitical tensions in the Arctic did not begin last year. They have been simmering for more than a decade as these eight countries have jockeyed for control over the area – not to stem the dangers of climate change, but to exploit the vast deposits of minerals, metals, and fossil fuels that are present within the 21 million square kilometres of the Arctic Circle. The region is estimated to contain 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas (although extraction from this region remains expensive). Far more lucrative is the mining of rare earth minerals (such as neodymium for capacitors and electric motors and terbium for magnets and lasers), whose value across the Arctic – from Greenland’s Kvanefjeld to Russia’s Kola Peninsula to the Canadian Shield – is estimated to be at least one trillion dollars. Each member of the Arctic Council is racing to establish control over these precious resources, which, until now, have been locked beneath the melting ice.

Because more than half of the Arctic is made up of international waters and the continental shelves of these eight countries (i.e., landmass that extends into shallow ocean waters), its regulation largely falls under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is ratified by 168 parties. According to the UNCLOS, the sovereignty of a coastal state extends to its territorial sea, defined as the area within 12 nautical miles from the low-water line of their coast. States also have the right to create an ‘exclusive economic zone’ within 200 nautical miles of that low-water mark, where many of these resources are located. As a result, exploitation of the Arctic’s resources is mainly the domain of the council’s member states and is largely outside of multilateral control. However, the UNCLOS does constrain individual state sovereignty by declaring that the deep seabed is the ‘common heritage’ of humanity and its exploration and exploitation ‘shall be carried out for the benefits of mankind as a whole, irrespective of the geographical location of States’.

The UN created the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to implement the UNCLOS treaty. In Kingston (Jamaica), the ISA’s legal and technical commission is developing a mining code to regulate exploration and exploitation of the international seabed area. It is worth noting that one fifth of the commission’s members are from mining companies. While there is no possibility of enacting a global moratorium on deep-sea mining – even in the Arctic, despite the 1959 Antarctic Treaty effectively banning mining on that continent – a mining code that favours mining companies will not only increase exploitation, but also increase competition and the risk of conflict between major powers. This competition has already intensified the New Cold War between North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) states – led by the US – and countries such as China and Russia and has led to the rapid militarisation of the Arctic.

Every member of the Arctic Council has already created military bases on the Arctic rim, with the race to dominate the region accelerating after 2007, when Russian scientists symbolically placed a titanium flag on the Arctic seabed, 4,302 metres below the North Pole. Artur Chilingarov, the Russian explorer who led this geographical expedition, said that he was motivated by science and a concern for climate change and that ‘the Arctic must be protected not in words, but in deeds’. Nonetheless, the Russian geological expedition was used as a pretext to expand militarisation in the region. For decades, the US has had a military presence deep inside the Arctic Circle, the Thule Air Base in Greenland, which it developed in the 1950s after Denmark – the colonial ruler over Greenland – joined NATO. Other Arctic littoral countries, too, have long had military forces that traverse the ice and snows of the north, a presence that has grown in recent years. Canada, for instance, is building the Nanisivik Naval Facility on Baffin Island, Nunavut, aiming for it to be operational in 2023. Meanwhile, over the past decade, Russia has renovated the Nagurskoye air base in Alexandra Land and the Temp air base on Kotelny Island.

The Arctic Council was one of the few multilateral institutions to facilitate communication between the powers in the region. Now, seven of them have decided to no longer participate. Five of these abstaining members (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the US) are already part of NATO, while the remaining two (Finland and Sweden) are being fast-tracked into the organisation. Increasingly, NATO is replacing the Arctic Council as a decision-making authority in the region, with its operations based out of the Centre of Excellence for Cold Weather Operations in Norway. Since 2006, this hub has brought together NATO allies and partners for biannual military exercises in the Arctic called Cold Response.

In May 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to the Arctic Council meeting in Rovaniemi (Finland) and accused China of being responsible for environmental destruction in the Arctic. Although China has launched a Polar Silk Road project, there is no real evidence that China has played a particularly deleterious role in the northern sea lanes. This hostile comment towards China and similar sentiments about Russia’s role in the Arctic are part of the ideological battle to justify the New Cold War. Less than a month after Pompeo’s speech, the US Department of Defence released its Arctic Strategy (2019), which focused on ‘limiting the ability of China and Russia to leverage the region as a corridor for competition’ (a mood repeated in the US Air Force’s 2020 Arctic Strategy).

In October 2022, Reykjavík hosted its annual Arctic Circle gathering, attended by all of the major powers, except Russia, which was not invited. Iceland’s former President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who was embroiled in the 2016 Panama Papers corruption scandal, chaired the keynote speech given by the Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer, chairman of the NATO Military Committee. Bauer said that NATO must have a more muscular presence in the Arctic in order to check Russia as well as China, which he called ‘another authoritarian regime that does not share our values and undermines the rules-based international order’. China’s Polar Silk Road, Admiral Bauer said, is merely a shield behind which Chinese ‘naval formations could move more quickly from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and submarines could shelter in the Arctic’.

During the discussion period, China’s ambassador to Iceland, He Rulong, rose from his seat to say to the NATO admiral, ‘Your speech and remark are full of arrogance and also paranoid. The Arctic region is an area for high cooperation and low confrontation… The Arctic plays an important role when it comes to climate change… Every country should be part of this process’. China, he continued, should not be ‘singled out [from] the cooperation’. Grímsson closed the session after He’s intervention to muted laughter in the hall.

Absent from most of these discussions are the indigenous communities who live in the Arctic: the Aleut and Yupik (United States); the Inuit (Canada, Greenland, and the United States); the Chukchi, Evenk, Khanty, Nenets, and Sakha (Russia); and the Saami (Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden). Though these communities are represented by six organisations on the Arctic Council – the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and the Russian Association of Indigenous People of the North, and the Saami Council – their voices have been further muted during the intensified conflict.

This silencing of indigenous voices reminds me of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943–2001), the great Saami artist, whose poetry rattles like the sound of the wind:

Can you hear the sounds of life
in the roaring of the creek
in the blowing of the wind

That is all I want to say
that is all

The Brazilian Hard Right Are Already a Political Cliché

2 mins read

On January 8, 2023, large crowds of people—dressed in colors of the Brazilian flag—descended on the country’s capital, Brasília. They invaded the federal building and Supreme Court and vandalized public property. This attack by the rioters had been widely expected since the invaders had been planning “weekend demonstrations” for days on social media. On January 1, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was formally sworn in as Brazil’s president, but during his inauguration there was no such melee. It was as if the vandals were waiting until the city was quiet and when Lula himself was out of town. For all the braggadocio of the attack, it was an act of extreme cowardice.

The man whom Lula defeated—former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—was nowhere near Brasília. He was not even in Brazil. He fled before the inauguration—to escape prosecution, presumably—to Orlando, Florida, in the United States. But even if Bolsonaro was not in Brasília, Bolsonaristas—as his supporters are known—were everywhere in evidence. Before Bolsonaro lost the election to Lula on October 30, 2022, Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil suggested that Brazil was going to see “Bolsonarism without Bolsonaro.” The political party with the largest bloc in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate in Brazil is the far-right Liberal Party, which served as the political vehicle of Bolsonaro during his presidency. The toxic right-wing stain remains both in the elected bodies and on social media.

The two men responsible for public safety in Brasília—Anderson Torres, secretary of public security of the federal district, and Ibaneis Rocha, governor of the federal district—are close to Bolsonaro. Torres was a minister in Bolsonaro’s government and was on holiday in Orlando during the attack; Rocha took the afternoon off, a sign that he did not want to be at his desk during the attack. For their complicity in the attack, Torres was dismissed from his post, and Rocha has been suspended. The federal government has taken charge of security, and thousands of “fanatic Nazis,” as Lula called them, have been arrested.

The slogans and signs that pervaded Brasília were less about Bolsonaro and more about the hatred felt for Lula, and the potential of his pro-people government. Big business—mainly agribusiness—sectors are furious about the reforms proposed by Lula. This attack was partly the result of the built-up frustration felt by people who have been led to believe that Lula is a criminal—which the courts have shown is false—and partly is a warning from Brazil’s elites. The ragtag nature of the attack resembles the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump. The illusions about the dangers of a communist U.S. President Joe Biden or a communist Lula seem to have masked the animosity of the elites to even the mildest rollback of neoliberal austerity.

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