Opinion - Page 7

The “Canary in the coalmine” in UK’s energy market?


Those of us in Sri Lanka having never seen a coalmine, but most often have canaries as pets in our homes, may wonder what understanding of the real meaning of this English idiom, has to connect with the energy. But we also know an idiom is a group of words, which together assume new and different meanings, in the spoken word. 

Native speakers use idioms in everyday conversation, but the idiosyncrasy is when Brits use idioms to impress foreigners. It is as a technique to show their superiority. But, when Sri Lankans use quotations to impress foreigners of our mastery of the English language, we sometimes show our literary incompetence, but more often our lack of historical perspective. 

“Canaries in a coalmine” is an idiom especially apt today because coal is a fossil fuel which when burned, produces greenhouse gases, contributing to Earth’s warming. Thus its connection to what we call “climate change”. 

In simple language, this idiom refers to someone or something that is an early warning of danger.

Energy poverty 

The talk of the town today in England, in fact in UK and in Europe, is how much we are unprepared of the fuel price inflation, which now fuels inflation. Everyone connects it with Russia and the Ukrainian war. But we hardly understand how it is associated to the greed of the multinational energy suppliers who used energy prices, to boost their shares and in turn provide lucrative dividends to their shareholders.  

From what we can make out, it has been coming for years, well beyond the pandemic. We saw small energy companies mushroom in this energy supply market, offering customers cheap energy, over the years. 

Small energy providers, some from US, and dozens from UK and Europe did spring up boosted in the 1990s when the UK Government relaxed the rules around energy supply to consumers. We were told to shop around for cheap energy.

Over the past year, however, many of these very small suppliers hit the buffers and went bust. Customers were moved to larger more dependable sources/suppliers. When the larger suppliers, the likes of EDF Energy of France, and say Shell Energy, managed to cream off the market price for their existing customers, well in advance, the problem started. 

What they were not planning to cope with was the huge increase in the number of customer households, thus causing them to buy additional energy, to cope with demand at much higher prices than the prevailing market price.

This caused an increased cost of buying energy for thousands, if not millions of new customers at wholesale prices. What these larger energy providers added a new ingredient, a fixed amount called a Daily Standing Charge? This fixed charge was irrespective of the amount of energy used by households. 

This was a bonus to suppliers/providers of Energy, both gas and electricity. This was unfair especially to customers with low usage. People on the one hand were warned to conserve energy, with all the noise of “climate change”. Simultaneously customers who acted to save energy by lowering their usage were clobbered with new and additional charges. 

Fleecing the poor     

Ofgem, the independent UK’s National Regulatory Authority regulated the monopoly companies which run the gas and electricity networks, acting in the interests of the consumers, as well as helping the industries to achieve environmental improvements. Its role was to protect consumers by working to deliver a greener, fairer energy system. 

Ofgem became jittery of the balance between the interests of customers and the interests of the mighty, near monopolistic energy providers.

The Energy Ombudsman was an independent organisation, appointed by Ofgem to investigate consumer complaints and facilitate compliance of energy supplies. This was the recourse available for hard-hit customers?

Cause of energy inflation

One of the real causes for energy bills going through the roof this winter is the lack of foresight on the part of the Energy Suppliers and the Government. October 2022, is the date the existing “price cap” is removed. No one will now admit that this winter’s fuel bills will make for fuel poverty – the poor, much poorer.

Remission Awarded To The Rapists


What else could be more brutal than gang rape of a pregnant woman and murder of seven members of her family including her toddler daughter? That was 3 March 2002 and it all happened in a village near Ahmedabad India during the Gujarat Riots. The name of that 21-year-old unlucky Muslim woman is Bilkis Bano. 11 convicts were sentenced to life imprisonment for that brutality; now on India’s76th Independence Day, they all have been released by the Gujarat government under its remission policy.

Mockingly the culprits had to stay in Godhra jail for 15 years for their heinous crime. And more pathetic is the fact that the released culprits were given a very warm rather passionate welcome by their relatives and friends outside the Godhra jail. According to the Hindustan Times, a committee was formed a few months back to look into the matter of the 11 convicts which unanimously recommended ‘the remission of all the 11 convicts in the case. Later the recommendations were sent to the state government for final approval which issued the orders for their release. Injustice leading to cruelty, suppression and violation of basic human rights has been the most grievous issue of Indian society at the hands of the government. Though a large portion of the Indian society comprises people having a very moderate approach towards life a handful of extremist mindsets is also always there; unfortunately that extremist mindset is getting stronger and stronger and prevailing over the whole society simply because of the support and supervision of the BJP government.

Whatever happened there in the Illegally Indian Occupied State of Jammu Kashmir on 5th August 2019 is the worst example of the unethical and immoral support and supervision provided to the extremist element by the BJP government. That was the day when India took a very inhuman step against the people of the Illegally Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 and Article 35-A. Article 35A of the Indian Constitution was an article that empowered the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature to define “permanent residents” of the state and provide special rights and privileges to them. These privileges included the ability to purchase land and immovable property, the ability to vote and contest elections, seeking government employment and availing of other state benefits such as higher education and health care.

Non-permanent residents of the state were not entitled to these privileges even if they were Indian citizens. The female permanent residents would be deprived of these privileges if they married someone out of state; said to Article 35-A. On 5 August 2019, the President of India Ram Nath Kovind issued a new Presidential Order which nullified Article 35-A and took back all privileges earlier given to the people of Jammu-Kashmir State. The helpless people of the State raised their protesting voices against that abrogation but their voices were crushed by using military force.

After the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A, things are now at their worst in the Jammu-Kashmir valley. The Territory was given a special autonomous status through Article 35-Aand all the provisions of the Indian Constitution, which were applicable to the Indian states did not apply to the territory. Due to this Article, Jammu and Kashmir was a region, that (despite being a part of the Indian Union under the so-called Instrument of Accession) enjoyed a separate constitution, flag and official language. It was only because of this Article that except for defence, foreign affairs, finance and communications, the Indian Parliament needed the concurrence of the so-called government of Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, the abrogated Article debarred non-Kashmiris from acquiring property and jobs in government institutions in the territory.

According to various media reports, since 5th August 2019, more than 2 million non-local voters have been added to the voters’ lists in IIOJK. Experts are of the opinion that this new induction to the list of voters would simply change the demographics of the State and directly affect the right of self-determination of the native residents of the valley. This unfair addition of non-locals to electoral rolls will enable BJP &RSS to implement their fascist agenda more emphatically. Ultimately the fascist Modi government shall succeed in installing a puppet BJP Chief Minister in IIOJK to subjugate the masses. More shocking is the fact that India is doing all that injustice by violating the UNSC resolution and disregarding international norms. It seems no one is there to stop this ‘genocide’ and even the so-called ‘international peacekeepers are providing support to the Indian hegemonic designs with their criminal quietness. Silence over injustice in itself is a heinous crime and it simply encourages the ‘future criminals’.Providing favour and support to any criminal simply means encouragement of crime. The unjust remission ‘awarded’ to the criminals involved in the gang rape of Bilkis Bano would encourage other rapists behind the bars and they all would wait anxiously for the Independence Day of India every year.

Views are personal

Sri Lanka: Time to Initiate PDS


Sri Lanka has a long way to go before resolving its economic problems, President Ranil Wickremesinghe warned in his original policy statement earlier this month. The situation is still grave, and it is no exaggeration when Ranil says it is his duty “to light even one lamp rather than cursing darkness”.

He is still pursuing the plank of political unity to tide over the crisis collectively. His statement underlines the challenges the government has to overcome before setting the economy right: “Our country suffered disputes due to disunity. We were divided into ethnic groups. Divided into languages. Divided into religions. Divided into parties. Divided into classes. Divided geographically. Divided by castes… Ever since I entered politics, I wanted to create a society with a Sri Lankan identity. I suffered political defeats. I was criticised by extremists because of my continued stand against extremism, and bigotry. Some political parties slandered me as a racist. However, I will not deviate from my principle, from my policy.”

Inspiring words, but does it stand the test of actual governance? Though relatively peaceful at the time of Independence, the country soon plunged into civil wars, which made Sri Lanka one of the most notorious killing fields of the world—with Sinhalese killing Sinhalese, Tamils killing Tamils and the State killing all—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Ranil’s tall claims remind me of W H Auden’s words: “Beware of words. For with words we lie. We say peace when we mean war.”

With India, especially Tamil Nadu, rising to the occasion spontaneously, the government and people of Tamil Nadu rightly feel that food grains, fuel, milk powder and life-saving medicines should reach the neediest and most vulnerable sections of the population.

Recently, I received an email from a good friend, which makes for painful reading. To quote: “In the ubiquitous petrol queues—now all over the urban areas—mafia-like ruffians intimidate the innocent in the line-ups and sell petrol given by the Government at SLRs 250 per litre at SLRs 2500 and more. They force their ways, out of the line into the queues, again and again, to continue their brazen black-marketing on their own people, at a time of great suffering.”

The need of the hour is for India and the international community to persuade/pressurise Sri Lanka to introduce the Public Distribution System (PDS) throughout the country. With all its pitfalls and shortcomings, the PDS works satisfactorily in all parts of India, especially in Tamil Nadu.

The PDS was introduced during the Second World War when there was artificial famine throughout India created by the British colonialists. The PDS is a system of distributing essential commodities to the most vulnerable sections of society under the control of government departments and agencies at an affordable price. Thanks to the admirable zeal and commitment of civil servants like A D Gorwala, the Bombay Presidency was saved from famine. Even in native states, the PDS was introduced. In my hometown, Ernakulam, capital of the Cochin State, the

Maharaja not only introduced rationing but also made arrangements for serving standard vegetarian meals in government-run restaurants for four annas (25 Naya Paise). Textiles were scarce, and the ration shops distributed cheap cloth to the needy. The imported rice was stinking, but the people survived those difficult days because they were convinced that the government was doing its best to serve the people.

The PDS involves twin tasks—1) Procurement of essential items through imports and local procurement and 2) Its distribution through fair price shops or what we call ration shops in India. It is the duty of the Central government to implement these tasks. The items to be imported should be identified in advance, and they should be stored in warehouses spread throughout the country. It is essential to store an additional quota of food grains and essential items to meet unexpected contingencies like famines and floods.

In the Sri Lankan situation, the items include food grains, milk powder, sugar, and kerosene. As far as life-saving medicines and medical equipment are concerned, these should be handed over to the International Red Cross for distribution to the hospitals. It will be a good idea if the Government of Tamil Nadu volunteers to provide medical facilities, including surgery, to needy people. They could be airlifted to Chennai and treated in local hospitals.

Sri Lanka never had a PDS. According to the information I gathered, essential items are distributed through the Divisional Secretariat, a wing of the Central government. In order to strengthen participatory democracy, Sri Lanka requires strengthening the provincial governments, which came into existence as a result of the 13th Amendment. The opening of ration shops, distribution of essential items to the needy, and recruitment of personnel to carry out the public distribution should come under the provincial government, just as it is in India. A ration shop could be opened for every 5,000 families if one considers the Tamil Nadu example. Each ration shop employs four or five people. In recruiting this personnel, preference could be given to women who have been widowed, differently abled persons and refugees who have returned to Sri Lanka.

In the present situation, where unemployment is very high, the start of PDS will greatly boost the economy. The need of the hour is the constitution of an expert committee, which should visit Tamil Nadu to study the situation and make positive recommendations, avoiding the pitfalls of the Tamil Nadu experiment.

Views are personal

Media Tizzy and Myths on Yuan Wang 5


The Indian security establishment and media had gone tizzy with the Yuan Wang 5’s visit to Hambantota in Sri Lanka. The media was abuzz with many comments based on figments of imagination on the subject. The aim of this article is to dispel such false notions/interpretations based on legal provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), bilateral agreement between India and Sri Lanka and the basic tenets of submarine operations.

Myth 1: This visit is in violation of the clause in the India Sri Lanka peace accord of 1987 that a military vessel cannot berth in Sri Lanka without New Delhi’s consent.

First, there is no such clause in the agreement which primarily deals with the understanding between India and Sri Lanka on tackling the civil war then involving the Sri Lankan establishment and the Tamil Tigers.

Second, Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation, and it is well within its rights to permit any warship or any military support vessel to berth in their ports based on a diplomatic clearance.

As a diplomatic courtesy, New Delhi was informed of the visit.

Third, this is peace time and there is no hostility in the region which should have raised a question mark on the Chinese vessel’s itinerary.

Fourth, Sri Lanka had laid down two conditions to be followed by the Chinese vessel: The Vessel Automatic Identification System (AIS) was to be always kept on and that the vessel should not violate the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) norms of Sri Lankan waters.

These conditions would have been agreed upon by the Chinese establishment and thus the vessel was permitted to enter Sri Lankan waters.

Myth 2: The ship entered Hambantota to spy on Indian military-related sensitive activities on the east coast.

The Chinese research vessel is a satellite uplink and down link ship.

The ship has adequate EW (electronic warfare) capabilities, and it can easily monitor the Indian coast while operating in international waters as per the provisions in the UNCLOS.

She does not have to enter a port in Sri Lanka to fulfill this mission.

It may also be noted that Chinese research vessels have been operating in the Indian Ocean routinely and this is not the first occasion.

Myth 3: The vessel has been deployed in the Indian Ocean to gather oceanographic data for submarine operations.

Research vessels are well within their rights to gather oceanographic data in international waters as per the provisions in the UNCLOS (Articles 55, 56, 75, 221(1)).

However, there are restrictions whilst operating in the EEZ of a coastal State who has special rights regarding the marine scientific research, exploration and use of marine resources including energy production.

The difference between territorial waters and the EEZ is that the former confers full sovereignty over the waters whereas the latter confers merely sovereign rights for the coastal state below the surface of the sea.

If the Chinese vessel adhered to these norms, it was not violating any international regulations and operating within the framework of the UNCLOS.

Myth 4: Oceanographic data which is collected by research vessels adds to the data bank and could be interpolated for submarine deployment.

This data which is referred to is primarily the temperature profile visa vis the depth of water in an area which is useful for strategic deployments of submarines.

It made sense in olden days when such data was not available on open sources. In modern times, this data is readily available on open sources.

The US National Oceanographic Data Center and British Oceanographic Data Centre are established sources to get oceanographic data inputs.

Further, this information is more theoretical as the underwater medium is dynamic in nature and the data pertains to the time and date when it was collected.

Hence other than interpolating certain theoretical inferences, this data is of little practical utility for submarine deployment.

Moreover, in real time a submarine commander would ascertain the temperature layer in his patrol area and assess the situation before adopting the tactics to be employed notwithstanding the information available in the data bank.

As far as this vessel is concerned, the primary role is the tracking and support of satellite and intercontinental ballistic missiles as per directions of China’s People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force.

The vessel can also be deployed for other research activities like space tracking and satellite operation monitoring.

It may also be noted that the sequence of events that preceded the ship’s arrival clearly indicate that there have been extensive deliberations between all stakeholders prior to the government of Sri Lanka permitting this vessel to berth at Hambantota.

In this context, it is important to note that in the current crisis, Sri Lanka must depend on China to a large extent notwithstanding assistance from India, US, Japan and the IMF bailout.

Talks between China and Sri Lanka are in progress to work out a favourable debt restructuring which is also a pre-condition for an IMF bailout.

For this, Colombo will need to toe Beijing’s line which could have been a major factor to permit berthing of this vessel and in such a situation India needs to display diplomatic forbearance.

It appears that New Delhi has clearly taken a balanced view in this case.

Lastly, while the actual mission of the Yuan Wang 5 is not known, it is quite possible that she has been deployed for a genuine space-related assignment.

The article was originally published on rediff.com

How can we modify our weather by stealing a cloud?


Man has from time immemorial tried every means available to adjust our environment for none other than survival. Continuous high temperatures around the world have created drought. Drought is caused by low precipitation or no rainfall over an extended period of time. Atmospheric circulation such as climate change, ocean temperature, changes in the jet stream and changes in the local landscape are all factors that contribute to drought. Putting it simply, it results in a water shortage.

When there is a change in surface temperatures, particularly over the sea areas, air circulation patterns are altered. New weather patterns are most likely to throw water supply and water demand in an imbalance, or in sync.

Cloud seeding

We hear of how China plans to end drought with induced rainfall. This is called “Cloud Seeding”. This practice is a form of weather modification. It is nothing new as it has been a tool that involves using aircraft, rockets or now drones to release materials including silver iodide, which has a similar structure to ice into the clouds. This catalyses the process by which water droplets “clump together and falls as rain”. However, when cloud cover is too thin, researchers state this technique is not as effective.

Why is it not as effective?

The ability to alter the “weather at will” was practised as early as the 1940s. But, to be successful in producing appreciable quantities of rain, certain uncontrollable conditions have to be met concerning the types of clouds and the state of the atmosphere. It is also an expensive technique and although it can help lessen the impact of severe drought, cloud seeding does not solve its systematic causes. The technique needs to be part of a broader water plan that involves conserving water efficiency.

It is not just China that has attempted using this technology during the 2008 Summer Olympics when rockets were fired at clouds “to prevent the opening and closing ceremonies to be rain free”.

Ski resorts in US use cloud seeding in order to enhance snow coverage.

UAE is a particularly large investor in rain-making technology called “geo-engineering” for rain enhancement. These are some ways of “stealing a cloud” by Cloud seeding, which conducted 185 cloud seeding operations in 2019 alone. That year saw “torrential downpours in a country rarely associated with rain, with people wading through streets, workers pumping water from the flooded residential area and rainwater flowing down escalators at the world-famous Dubai Mall”.

Now Scientists have pointed out that weather manipulation can amplify drought conditions in one area or increase the risk of floods in another.

It is now possible for one country to steal another country’s rain water?

It is also now contemplated that the wars of the future will feature water manipulation?

Sri Lanka: Prelude to Elections


“What are we supposed to do when the system consistently yields terrible candidates?”

Nanjala Nyabola (The Kenyan Kakistocracy – The Nation – 12.8.2022)

Most politicians have a questionable relationship with reality. The Rajapaksas operate in a reality that is all their own. Asked why brother Gotabaya fled the country, Mahinda Rajapaksa replied, “Who accuses him of fleeing? He went for a medical check up.”

So the SLPP, that quintessential Rajapaksa party, acts as if the recent popular uprising happened in a parallel universe. As poverty engulfs new swathes of population and malnutrition ravages the young, the SLPP is planning to present a cabinet paper authorising the payment of 117million rupees to favoured ex-officials (civilian and military) on the spurious grounds of political victimisation. This in a land where the main children’s hospital is making urgent appeals for orthopaedic surgical supplies.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa might be fleeing from country to country; his family has learnt nothing from his fate. Sons and nephews remain as clueless as fathers and uncles. Namal Rajapaksa sent a letter to the Minister of Environment recommending two names as CEO of a subsidiary of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, one a Pradesheeya Sabha member and former secretary to acolyte-politician DV Chanaka. (Ranil Wickremesinghe set up a committee to review and approve appointments and transfers in the upper bureaucracy probably in response.) When outrage ensued, the Rajapaksa scion clarified matters by explaining he gives such letters of recommendation frequently!

The SLPP has submitted a should-be-ministers list to the president. This roll call of favourites sounds (in most part) like the broader populace’s index of undesirables. (Whether President Wickremesinghe accedes to that request will say much about his ability to chart a path that bypasses some of the worst Rajapaksa excesses.) Unfortunately, if an election is held today, SLPP faithful will ensure that many on that list are back in parliament.

The SLPP will not gain a majority in the next election. But it won’t be wiped out either. The Rajapaksa family party is likely to command a significant minority with around 20% of the vote, especially if Mahinda Rajapaksa leads the campaign. The diehard Rajapaksa voters, the kind who sees a national threat in every Tamil and every Muslim (and Christian too), will vote for the SLPP to save the Motherland from these encroaching enemy-aliens. And their preference will go not to the least objectionable but to the most deplorable.  

Commenting on the upcoming US midterm polls, Senator Mitch McConnell warned that rival Democrats are likely to retain the senate due to ‘candidate quality’; the fringe-nature of Trump-approved Republican candidates may propel many moderates either to vote Democrat or abstain. In a first-past-the-post system moderate voters have a considerable say in deciding the winners. In a preferential vote system, it is the died-in-the-wool party faithful who determine who’s in and who’s out.

If the next Lankan election is held under the preferential vote system, many of the most unsavoury characters on both sides of the aisle will be re-elected. The kind that had other priorities on the day the parliament was to debate the state of the economy. The debate was cancelled for lack of a quorum with a majority of SLPP and SJB members busy elsewhere; this in February 2022 when the economy was freefalling and a sovereign default looming. Then again, given the abysmal quality  of the current parliament, the debate would have degenerated into a slanging match. It is hard to imagine a sober, well-informed, fact-based discussion of the economy or any other subject in this parliament.

Down with 225 is a popular cry. But we elected 196 of them. If the next election is held sans a change in the electoral system, we’ll be back ere long shouting, Down with 225!

This counter-meritocratic polity

Almost every job imaginable requires some basic qualification or skill set. Politician is perhaps the sole exception.

“The purpose of government is not to look after the gifted minority,” Eric Hobsbwam argued, but to care for the ‘ordinary run of people’. “Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities” (On History). In other words, a meritocracy which is committed to ensuring a liveable life to the ordinary majority.

Lankan system has been engineered and habituated to look after not the ordinary majority nor the gifted minority, but a supremely mediocre political caste and its business, professional, religious, and societal satellites. Ours is a counter-meritocracy where the worst own the earth (and pass it on to their progeny) while the better are forced to leave.

In our political culture brawn trumps brain and willingness to violate all norms of decency is a prized quality. The preferential vote system amplifies this twisted ethos. Non-partisan voters may decide which party wins how many seats, but who adorns those seats is decided mostly by the hardcore of each party, via preferences. And the hardcore of whatever hue prefer loud-mouths to sober minds, slavish loyalty to knowledge or capability.

Our elections are billion rupee affairs. The source of this money is as much of a mystery as how it is spent. Campaign finance is lawless territory. The resultant absence of limits, oversight and transparency has turned elections into corruption hotspots. Where do parties and candidates get their money? If the money is their own, how did they earn it? If the money is donated, who are the donors? What are their affiliations and interests? None of these are known, since there is no law to compel parties and candidates to reveal how they got and spent their money. All we have is the reasonable assumption that a donor would give a bunch of money only if the potential return is high enough.

Ending this dangerous opacity through the introduction of a campaign finance law before the next election will go some way in correcting the distortions inherent in our electoral system. A related priority is to change the electorate from district to constituency. As long as district remains the electorate, money, family connections, political and muscle power will play a disproportionate role in deciding winners.

A hybrid system which combines the positives of proportional representation and majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems might give moderate voters a greater say in electing our next lot of representatives. Incidentally, all professional politicians (including retired ones) should be banned from the national list which should be for people with knowledge and expertises. Such a hybrid system together with a campaign finance law could weed out some deplorables and reduce the oversized role money plays in our elections. If the opposition does not want to join an all party government, it can perhaps focus on electoral reforms and the abolition of the executive presidency in the six months between now and the earliest constitutionally possible date for a dissolution.

Given the enormity of the challenge we need parliamentarians who can think beyond the old shibboleths of the left and the right. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and former World Bank chief economist, has been a harsh critic of the IMF for decades. But his stance has changed in response to the IMF’s own shift away from the neo-liberal Washington Consensus. He has praised the IMF’s 2022 agreement with Argentina for its non-insistence on austerity hoping it “may set a precedent for dealing with debt restructuring and financial crises” in other countries (Argentina and the IMF Turn Away From Austerity – Foreign Policy). In its official proclamation, the IMF stated that the Argentine deal included the government changing its spending priorities to accommodate “higher energy subsidies and appropriate social assistance to protect the vulnerable from the food price shock.”   

In this post-Washington Consensus climate, a deal with the IMF need not lead to austerity for the people. The choice of who tightens belts and how much will be made in Colombo. For instance, if the government hikes defence expenditure or re-embraces the failed infrastructure-led development model, budget deficit will be controlled by axing health, education and social welfare.

The ball is in the national court. Much will depend on whether the government can stand up to vested interests, be it politicians, business class, the military, monks, or state-sector trade unions. The role played by the first four in pushing through policies harmful to the national economy needs no belabouring. But the last might need a word of explanation.

The recent hike in electricity has been justly condemned for imposing a greater burden on low income consumers; the exception is the CEB. The hike might compel many old and new poor to lose access to electricity. But the CEB’s beef is that the hike is not high enough. It demands more rate-increases to reduce a 45billion annual loss while insisting on its right to bonuses.  If this is not a vested interest that works against common good, especially the good of the poorest of the poor, then what is it? Are state owned enterprises which burden the budget, and thereby ordinary people, national assets or national liabilities? 

An election sans electoral reforms, may land us where Lebanon is. There, no party got a majority, former PM is caretaker PM, politicians are trying to cobble alliances, and the president is busy promoting his son-in-law. The people suffer. Sounds familiar?

Motherland returns?

The brutal attack on Salman Rushdie reminds us again what obscenities the marriage of religion and politics spawns. As writer Adam Gopnik said, the attack “is horrific in the madness of its meaning and a reminder of the power of religious fanaticism to move people” (Salman Rushdie and the power of words – The New Yorker)

Religion and race played a decisive role in the 2019 and 2020 elections, and here we are. Minimising these deadly influences is necessary to ensure that the next election produces a parliament that is more moderate and more rational.

The unbanning of some Tamil Diaspora groups has created a hype among Rajapaksa supporters and other extremists. The Rajapaksas initially banned the Diaspora organisations in 2014, five years after the war ended, to shore up their waning Sinhala-Buddhist support. The ban was lifted by Mangala Samaraweera in 2015 and re-imposed by the Rajapaksas upon their return. The ban was always a political gimmick. Now it will be used by majoritarian extremists to raise the Undead Tiger in all its striped glory. The decision to sing the national anthem in Tamil at the upcoming 75th anniversary of Independence and the proposed return of some of the military-occupied lands to their original owners will be further grist to the Motherland-in-danger mill.

There are countless grounds on which the Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency can be criticised, starting with the ongoing repression targeting Aragalaya activists, a practice even the courts have questioned. The inclusion of poet Ahnaf Jazeem in banned people’s list is both silly and dangerous. Using the PTA to clamp down on democratic dissent will create a deadly precedent (This abuse is the best argument for the abolition of the PTA). Rising inflation, non-appearance of the promised social security net, the continuation of corrupt practices such as giving chairpersons of dissolved provincial councils and their attendants thousands of litres of fuel – all are condemnable and should be condemned.

The SJB is currently not playing the race-religion card, but the advent of the Weerawansa-Gammanpila group and the Dulles Allahapperuma group into the oppositional space might change this. These grouplets are likely to use the Motherland cry out of necessity (to cut into the SLPP base), inclination or both. Even if they fail electorally, they will shift the political discourse to the extreme, making ethnic and religious racism fashionable again.

When Pope Francis visited Greece, a Greek-Orthodox priest called him a heretic. That charge would have led to a gruesome death by fire in most of Europe just a few hundred years ago. If that past seems not just another time but another universe, it was thanks to the work of Christians and Catholics who struggled for religious reforms and the secularisation of politics, often at the risk of their lives. It is the inadequacy of such struggles or their failure that creates spaces for fatwas against authors and their brutal implementation.

The Rajapaksas regained power by riding on the collective back of Sinhala-Buddhist monkhood. Their disastrous performance discredited religion-in-politics for a brief moment. Political religion regained credibility and relevance by changing its tune. It is now back in its self-appointed role as supreme guide in all matters secular, from politics to economics, from marriage to why girls are born (A monk called Mahamewunava Saddaseela preaches that daughters are born to parents as punishment for the sin of lying. He obviously lack the gray matter to understand that going by his own logic, if all Sinhala-Buddhists eschew lying, the race will become as extinct as dinosaurs in one generation).

In times of national distress, when a secular path towards political, economic, and social justice is absent, the door opens for political-religions. If the idea of common good cannot be pursued, society will fragment and into the resultant chasms irrationalism will creep. That is why in this interim time before the election, the more moderate parties should form an understanding about not giving nominations to clergy of any religion and keeping religious symbols out of politics in general and electoral politics in particular. Allowing extremism of any kind a role in politics will take us not to a better future but to the worst places in our past. Those who believed in the Kelani cobra are still with us.

Sri Lanka: All talk and no action


Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results – Albert Einstein

“Where are the protestors, the system has drowned them. Where is the system, it is where it has always been. Where are the people? they’re all back in the hole they have always been” – paraphrasing the lines taken from the traditional Cossack folk song “Koloda-Duda”, by Pete Seeger for his famous song “Where have all the flowers gone”.

Pete Seeger was a legend in his own time. As the New York Times notes, this musician, songwriter and song collector-historian “helped spur the politically tinged folk music revival of the ’50s and ’60s. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and has remained an activist, notably on environmental issues.”
No one condones violence, and unruly, undignified behaviour. The original Aragalaya movement was the opposite of all this. It was a breath of fresh air, and for once, an embryonic discourse began about changing the system of governance. Unfortunately, it was hijacked by political opportunists who sensed there was a wave they could ride. They rode that wave and marched and occupied the President’s house, the Prime Minister’s house, the Prime Minister’s office and burnt the acting Prime Minister’s (now the President) private residence. A President and a Prime Minister were forced to resign. Some ministers resigned. Many who could not and still do not differentiate the original Aragalaya from the subsequent one, and many disgruntled members of the public cheered. They thought it was the dawn of a new era.
Systems are hard to change, and the hijackers action has managed to restore the status quo, and the breath of fresh air has turned stale. Self-serving politics is back. Deck chairs may have changed, but the farce lives on.

Rightly, questions are being asked whether the Aragalaya was akin to a Soda bottle, and whether the system has subsumed the fizz. Opposition parties led by the SJB are trying to cross every “T” and dot every “I” and there is no agreement in sight as to the kind of interim governance model they would support. The JVP has decided to oppose any kind of all party governance system. Plenty of talk, but no action on the all-party governance front.

Since Ranil Wickremasinghe, Sri Lanka’s accidental President ascended the chair, political parties have been brawling and struggling like schoolboys, each group trying to outdo others. All eying the next election, whenever that is to be held, rather than being empathetic to the plight of the ordinary people of the country and the dire economic situation in the country. Motherhood statements clog the media and airways, and yet no party is yet to come up with some specific immediate, medium, and long-term strategies to overcome the dire situation in the country.

Availability of fuel, even on a rationed basis, and cooking gas, has sent the country to a state of complacency, not realizing that this situation can only last if there is foreign exchange to purchase fuel and gas. No political party has stated how they would find that vital influx of foreign exchange to the coffers. No political party has come up with specific proposals as to how Sri Lanka could make the situation last even if some foreign exchange is found in the immediate term.

No political party has come up with specific proposals as to how the country would find rupees to foot the salary bills of public sector and private sector workers and for health, education, and other essential services

No political party has come up with proposals as to how numerous commercial sectors like the construction sector and the tourist sector, major contributors to the national economy could be revived.
The list of things not done is endless. Yet, there is much talk.

The president’s call for an all-party government, which all parties seemed to agree with in the past, has turned into many diversions. Some are supporting the concept, but are not willing to join one. Some are on the fence and wondering what their future political fortunes would be, should they join such a government.

The ordinary folk of the country are very likely sick and tired of this farce. They are concerned about their children’s schooling which has been disrupted for more than 2 years due to the Covid pandemic and the economic catastrophe. They are concerned about their jobs and how they will make ends meet if they lose their jobs. Those without jobs are struggling to find jobs as there are no jobs they can apply for. They are concerned about the high cost of living and spiraling prices of essentials, including medicines. To add to their frustration and sense of despondency, they are fearing what their next electricity and water bill would be considering the steep hikes in rates announced recently.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel for most such ordinary people of the country, while politicians argue about matters that affect them and their political future. They could have at least agreed on a common plan of action for the next 12 months, with some specific courses of action as to how foreign exchange is to be found for import of essentials, on measures as to how the country’s rupee income could be increased, and how the most affected citizens of the country could be compensated to relieve them at least of some pressure on their living expenses.

They could have agreed on some strategies to ensure how school children could continue their education in their schools. Transportation is a major issue for them as well as for those who use public transport for work or business as there are less buses on the roads and they are crowded to the brim as a result. It is no wonder the covid spread has increased. Without making this a political issue, political parties could have agreed to provide more fuel for buses and reduce the minimum quantum of fuel for motor cars, and increase diesel imports and reduce petrol imports, as most buses run on diesel.

Train services too could be increased combining bus services to and from rail stations so that more people could make use of train services. A similar arrangement could have been done for distribution of goods using train and a lorry service. Food distribution would have benefited greatly if such an arrangement was in place. There are many measures that could be taken to bring relief to the hardest-hit segment of the population and to revive the economy for the benefit of all. Under normal circumstances, if there was no crisis, one would have expected the incumbent government to take such necessary measures. However, the situation is not normal, and the incumbent government is an accidental, interim one. This is where governance must be a shared responsibility as an interim measure until the time is right to hold elections and test the will of the people. The time is still not right for that to happen.
It would benefit the country and its ordinary citizens if all political parties could agree on a few fundamental courses of action and take partisan, self-serving politics out of some crucial areas of governance. Some possible strategies are noted below.

  1. Agree that a general election will be held say in 12-18 months
  2. Agree to form a governance council with the leader of each party being a member of such a council
  3. The governance council should agree on a governance plan for 12-18 months and the President and a cabinet of ministers, with a maximum of 15 ministers tasked to implement the plan and report to the governance council.
  4. Collectively agree to vacate a total of 5 national list parliamentary positions to allow the President to nominate 5 technocrats with a proven record in economics, finance, education, commerce and agriculture as national list MPs and thereafter as cabinet ministers.
  5. Agree to combine foreign policy with international trade policy and appoint one cabinet minister for the combined portfolio. Investment promotion, the BOI, the Port City Commission, and the Export Development Board, among other relevant entities should be within this portfolio. It is strongly suggested that overseas consular activity should be outsourced to suitable private agencies and many of the overseas consular missions closed. Foreign Affairs should be about foreign policy, and Sri Lankan diplomatic missions should be located only in countries where the country could effectively project and promote a non-aligned foreign policy. High Commissioners and Ambassadors appointed should be persons who can promote such a policy and who can promote investments in Sri Lanka.
  6. Agree to have a Constitutional Council comprising of representatives from all political parties in and outside Parliament, representatives from the business sector, the academia, unions, women organisations, etc to seek views from the public, conduct discussions and present a blueprint for a new constitution.
  7. Agree on a blueprint for the economic revival of the country and measures to attract, and conserve foreign exchange, and measures to increase rupee revenue.
  8. Agree on a donor consortium and a meeting of members of such a consortium to extend long-term funding and/or credit facilities for essential imports such as petroleum, gas, medicines, food,
  9. Agree on a restructuring plan for entities like Sri Lankan Airlines, Petroleum Corporation. A Public/Private partnership model, complete privatization should be considered.
  10. Agree on appointing a nonpolitical expert committee to study and submit a plan of action to transform Sri Lanka into an export-oriented, import substitution industrial economy, with self-sufficiency in food to ensure food security.
    Politicians may not know it, and they may not wish to know it, but they must know that public confidence in them is at the bottom of the barrel like the economy of the country. They have an opportunity to take some concrete action now to restore even a modicum of confidence. If they do not do this, and the country’s situation gets worse, as many are predicting, the next Aragalaya will result in total anarchy. International vultures will descend on the country then and its sovereign status will become a just memory of the past.

The Great Million-Man Swim


They used to call it `the million-man swim.’  That was the US Navy’s sneering dismissal of any Chinese attempt to seize the island of Taiwan by a massive amphibious invasion.

The US Navy’s strike carriers, submarines and surface combatants, backed by the Marines and Army in Japan, Okinawa, South Korea and Guam, would tear to shreds any Chinese invasion force.  That, at least, was a decade ago. 

Today things look very differently.  US naval and air power in the western Pacific have declined by about 20%.  America is tired after waging its decade-long war in Afghanistan, which cost $1 trillion and achieved none of the US imperial goals.  While the US was blowing up Afghan villages and paying off Afghan mercenaries, the Chinese were diligently building up their amphibious and air forces.  Their goal was conquering next door Taiwan.

I’ve been over some of Taiwan’s fixed defenses.  Many of the island’s beaches are amenable to amphibious operations.  Rugged mountains with many caves further inland.  In short, excellent defensive topography.  Taiwan’s armed forces are well trained and motivated. Most Taiwanese appear to prefer independence from Red China and their current democratic system.  Taiwan is also the world’s leading producer of high-tech computer chips.  The world electronic industry would grind to a halt without Taiwan’s chips.

China makes a huge noise over Taiwan as it tries to whip up nationalism.  In fact, not so many Chinese care about Taiwan aside from a few slogans and drumbeating.  But it has become the Pacific’s version of Alsace Lorraine, a permanent ‘casus belli’ that provides the politicians with grist for their mills.  Interestingly, whether Taiwan has ever really been a part of China – or maybe of Japan – is uncertain. 

However, the rugged island appears fated to become of Greater China.  Those other non-Han Chinese regions, Tibet, Mongolia, and Eastern Turkestan have been absorbed into China.  This leaves northern Manchuria as the last remaining region of the former Chinese Empire.  It is ruled by Russia – at least for now.  Interestingly, I once asked a senior Chinese intelligence general how long it would take for China to capture the Russian port of Vladivostok, Russia’s principal Far East port.

‘Two days,’ he replied.

Confrontation over Taiwan has simmered between the US and China since the 1950’s when anti-communist Chinese forces fled from the mainland to Taiwan, or Formosa as it used to be called.  War almost erupted in the 1950’s over the small, Nationalist Chinese offshore islands of Matsu and Quemoy.  This could happen again.

To understand just how angry US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s whistlestop visit made the prickly Chinese, imagine if a delegation of Chinese Communist officials went to the US state of Hawaii and proclaimed its ‘independence’ from Washington.  The US has a less than noble record in Hawaii.  American planters staged a coup that overthrew its legitimate Hawaiian government and annexed the territory – rather as the US recently did in Ukraine.

What will Chinese do next?  Probably huff and puff and impose a limited naval blockade on the independent island.  Taiwan relies on maritime and air trade so any punitive Chinese action would be highly painful.  A full blockade cutting off oil, food, medicine and spare parts would be catastrophic.

In the recent past, China would not have managed to effectively blockade the island.  Its ‘brown water’ coastal navy could not confront the mighty US Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait.  Hence the ‘million-man swim.’  By wasting billions on useless colonial wars, the US has seriously weakened its naval and air forces.  Washington’s Asian allies are not anxious to go to war with China over Taiwan.

As Soviet Brezhnev used to say, ‘quantity has its own quality.’  The US Navy is a superb, deadly military instrument.  But China now has more warships, subs and coastal aircraft.  Even so, its military forces would be decimated.  But they could also impose severe damage on US Naval forces, notably with their new DF-21 anti-ship missile – if it really works as well as advertised.  In this case, US aircraft carriers could be in jeopardy.  The same applies to Chinese submarines firing volleys of anti-ship missiles.

Having said that, I’ve been at sea on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and nuclear attack submarine Minneapolis St. Paul and can attest to their crew’s impressive skills and professionalism.  Those skills began at the battle of Midway and Guadalcanal in WWII.  The Chinese are still in day one of naval school. 

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2022

Sri Lanka: Wickremesinghe – a feeble ‘strongman’

Ranil Wickremesinghe has to tread carefully. The victory of reaction is far from stable and the Sri Lankan revolution is not over. What is over is merely its first, most innocent chapter. Ranil’s regime exists because of a temporary retreat of the movement, and it rests upon illusions built up in him by the liberals. This has affected a thin, well-off layer of the middle class, who now yearn for some return to ‘order’, and hope that a stable government will unlock an IMF bailout and will lead to a kind of normalcy. This is a weak basis indeed. The imperialists certainly are not fooled by the outward strength of the new regime. As the international credit ratings agency, Fitch Ratings, explains:

“The new president was confirmed by a large majority in parliament, and his government has drawn in some opposition members. This gives some hope that it will have sufficient support to negotiate and carry out difficult reforms as part of efforts to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability. Such reforms could unlock funding support from the IMF, which we view as important for Sri Lanka’s emergence from default.

“The government’s parliamentary position appears strong, but public support for the government is weaker. President Wickremesinghe was prime minister in the previous administration under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was brought down by protests. Parliament and the government also remain dominated by politicians from the Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance, which is closely affiliated with the Rajapaksa family. This may increase the risk of further destabilising protests if economic conditions do not improve and/or reforms generate public opposition.”

It’s only a matter of time before the movement erupts once more. In just the past 24 hours, new protests of fishermen have erupted in Chilaw on the west coast, demanding kerosene oil. The conditions in Sri Lanka are such that the masses have no choice but to enter the struggle time and again.

This government, like the last, is neither capable of nor interested in solving the problems that the masses face. One class or the other in society must pay for this crisis. And this government, a servant of capital, will strive to restore the economic stability and ‘credit-worthiness’ of the country at the expense of the workers and the poor: through currency devaluation, austerity, scrapping of workers’ rights, etc. Only on this basis will the imperialist creditors like the IMF step in with a bailout.

With each passing day, it will become clearer to the advanced workers and youth that the victory of the Sri Lankan revolution means the overthrow of capitalism on the island, as part of the socialist revolution across South Asia and the world.

The temporary setback that the aragalaya has suffered will have proven to be a valuable experience. Right now, Ranil himself is giving the Sri Lankan masses a lesson in the ruthlessness of class war. If the urge for unity masked the real class content of movement in its advance, the selective repressive violence of the counter-revolution has exposed its true content in retreat.

As Marx explained in The Class Struggles in France, in reference to the setbacks suffered by the French revolution of 1848:

“With the exception of only a few chapters, every important part of the revolutionary annals from 1848 to 1849 bear the heading: Defeat of the revolution!

“What succumbed in these defeats was not the revolution. It was the pre-revolutionary traditional appendages, results of social relationships which had not yet come to the point of sharp class antagonisms — persons, illusions, conceptions, projects from which the revolutionary party before the February Revolution was not free, from which it could be freed not by the victory of February, but only by a series of defeats.

“In a word: The revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but, on the contrary, by the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution, by the creation of an opponent in combat with whom the party of overthrow ripened into a really revolutionary party.”

[ Excerpts from the article entitled, Sri Lanka: lessons from the struggle, published in www.marxist.com. Click here to read the original. Views are personal]

Thucydidean reality in Sri Lanka: Some comments on Yuan Wang 5

The small state dilemma is a complex discourse in the realm of International Relations, which dates back to the classical epoch of Thucydides whose seminal work “The History of Peloponnesian War” has been regarded as the first illustration revealing a realist outlook toward interstate relations. The most famous passage, which is known as the “Melian dialogue” from Thucydides’” History of Peloponnesian War epitomizes the genesis of the realist point of view in international relations, where a group of islanders from Melos argued by virtue of the law of nations they have the right to remain neutral in the conflict between Athens and Sparta. This contention was unpalatable for Athenians as they believed in their supremacy should be honoured by the weak city-states. While scornfully ignoring the Melian plea to remain neutral in the war, Athens emphasized that Melos should consider who they are and what they possess. In the speech delivered by Athenian envoys before the Melian delegation, Athenian delegate states
“You have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible. Since you know as well as we do the right, as the world goes is only in the question between equal power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

Those prophetic words in the Melian dialogue extend their significance to understanding the current geo-political trap challenging the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. The island nation with its unique significance as a geopolitical hub in the Indian Ocean currently undergoing its worst economic calamity since its independence from the British and the political instability followed by the economic crisis deepened the socio-political limbo of Sri Lanka. In the backdrop of such a chaotic internal atmosphere, the sailing of the Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese satellite tracking vassal to the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka has created a tense situation pushing the Sri Lankan government into a diplomatic quandary. The initial response of the Sri Lankan foreign ministry to the Chinese ship Yuan Wang 5 to call at Hambantota was altered as India and the US showed a critical concern over the issue. The foreign ministry in Colombo requested China to postpone its visit to Hambantota while adding that it wished to reaffirm the enduring friendship and excellent relations between Sri Lanka and China”. The main concern for both India and the US was based on the security of the Indian Ocean Region as they suspected that Yuan Wang would seek to track down certain intelligence information.

Sri Lanka caught in the tug-war between India and China over the dominance of the Indian Ocean has often faced diplomatic hullabaloos. More importantly, the island nation’s foreign policymakers seem to have a knack for making diplomatic blunders in handling both China and India. In particular, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, Sri Lanka tilted toward China in the post-civil war era, which resulted in the influx of Chinese influence into the Sri Lankan domain causing concern for India. On the other hand, Colombo’s partnership with Delhi took a doggy standard as Sri Lankan policymakers made no genuine attempts to show its primacy for India’s concerns under the thread of neighbourhood. It was in this background, India came to assist Sri Lanka to grapple with its worst economic crisis as New Delhi provided $3 billion in loans to replenish the economy. It seems that the Indian influence has grown rapidly with its monetary assistance to the default island nation by accelerating its influencing capacity to the state apparatus.

Taking the Yang Wang 5 incident and the pressure imposed upon Sri Lanka denotes that Sri Lanka has reached a point of no return from the orbit of both China and India, which signifies the Thucydidean reality.

However, Sri Lanka’s decision to allow Yuan Wang 5 should be understood in the critical juncture that Sri Lankan authorities faced from multiple fronts. From one side, Colombo was pushed by New Delhi and later the US to prevent the Chinese ship from entering Hambantota harbour, which was leased to China for 99 years in 2017. On the other hand, the request came from China as a major investor and a donner in Sri Lanka further increased the dilemma. The question that arises now is whether Colombo has any individual choice in opting for its foreign policy decisions. From a vantage point, the political-economic trajectories loomed after the civil war in Sri Lanka brought much of a sinister outlook for the country as the Rajapaksa regime made a rapport with China regardless of the country’s reputation for its nonalignment foreign policy.

Today Sri Lankan authorities stand between the devil and the deep blue sea before the “realpolitik” regarding the Indian Ocean Region security. China has been carving the niche for its position in the Indian Ocean for a longer period with much deeper ambitions of securing the Belt and Road Initiative through the maritime routes. Against this backdrop, some of the Chinese military strategists openly claimed that the Indian Ocean cannot be regarded as the backyard of India. In particular, since the People’s Liberation Army opened its first overseas military establishment in Djibouti in 20, China’s interest in Sri Lanka seems to have risen to a significant level. It was in 2010 Robert Kaplan predicted China’s long-term ambition for the hegemony of the Indian Ocean as he depicted the Chinese as well organized and deliberate in whatever they do. The comity built up by the US along with India, Australia and Japan to counter the Chinese threat in the Indian Ocean has been consolidating through the defence pacts such as QUOD and AUKUS.

This is the current power tango prevailing in the Indian Ocean and its effects on Sri Lanka continue to create detrimental impacts on the island. In applying the moral emanating from the Melian dialogue, it becomes evident the island nation possesses no ultimate agency in deciding its strategic affairs. Perhaps when Sri Lanka was governed by its wisest statesmen like Sir John Kotalawala who even challenged Nehru in Bandung, the island nation had the fullest competency in taking its stances. But, the ebbing of strategic thinking as a result of the bureaucratic decadence under political influence has curtailed Sri Lanka’s own external relations standards. Taking the Yang Wang 5 incident and the pressure imposed upon Sri Lanka denotes that Sri Lanka has reached a point of no return from the orbit of both China and India, which signifies the Thucydidean reality.

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