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Information and Communication Technology that benefits us today

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By Themiya L.B. Hurulle,

Former Minister of Science & Technology and Former Director-General, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has come a long way from the 1960s, when communicating instantly was limited to a few, was costly, and, at times, subject to long delays. I remember my father, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, having to wait three-six hours to make a long-distance telephone call to Colombo from his hometown Horowpothana even though he was a Member of Parliament and had OFFICIAL PRIORITY calling facilities

However, we tend to take for granted the communication facilities that we have at present. It is easy to forget the past and what led us to the present. The present pandemic, too, has accelerated the actions of more people using computers and telecommunication-linked facilities for purposes of commercial and domestic communication and this has helped all, greatly.

The purpose of this article is to outline the positive steps that all past governments took to develop Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Sri Lanka. Before that, Computers, Telecommunications and Media were almost ‘stand-alone’ activities. However, the convergence of computer, telecommunication and media, and their inter-dependency led to this field being called Information and Communications Technology.

1977:

With the formation of the government of President J R Jayawardene and Prime Minister R. Premadasa, Sri Lanka took a giant stride in development, moving to an ‘open economy,’ and this was done by enabling legislation to facilitate market competition and de-regulating imports and exports. As a result state corporations and the private sector adapted themselves to the free market economy to play vital roles. This included the Computer, Telecommunication and Media Sectors, as well.

1980s

During the 1989 government of President R Premadasa and Prime Minister D B Wijetunga, there were associations of software developers, hardware sales, and service providers, all working with dedication to establish the industry. However, more encouragement was given with Industries, Science and Technology Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe chairing meetings of the organizing committee to hold the first INFOTEL ’92 ICT exhibition that gave national attention to the use of computers for development.

Towards the end of the period of the government, the Department of Telecommunications was converted to a state entity, as Sri Lanka Telecom, with more autonomy and resources to meet the growing need for modern telecommunication services.

1994

The 1994 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickremanayake took forward the predecessors’ efforts, expeditiously. Telecommunications Minister Mangala Samaraweera led the privatization of Sri Lanka Telecom. The privatization took place with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation of Japan (NTT) purchasing 35% of shares and the employees of SLT also being given shares to ensure more employee participation. The NTT corporation thus brought in Japanese management and expertise. This helped SLT eliminate the delays encountered in providing telecom services to applicants.

The government also took action to expand the post of the Director-General of Telecommunications to a fully-fledged commission named The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka by an act of Parliament.

This regulatory commission paved the way to clear many bottlenecks, including the assignment of radio frequency spectrum in a transparent manner. It further ensured that radio frequency spectrum was deployed in an effective manner for telecommunication services. Contentious issues, such as interconnection, caller party pays, were addressed for subscribers, to get maximum benefits from telecom services. It might be added that the service providers, at that time, were Sri Lanka Telecom, Suntel, Lanka Bell, Dialog, Celltell , Mobitel and Hutchison. The year1993 saw Mobitel being established as mobile service provider as a collaboration between Sri Lanka Telecom and Telstra of Sweden. However, Mobitel was later purchased by Sri Lanka Telecom Ltd. during Chairman Thilanga Sumathipala’s time.

2001

The 2001 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe further advanced activities related to the ICT sector. This included the ending of the monopoly of SLT for international communications. External gateway operator (EGO) licences were issued to the rest of the telecom operators and new entrants. This resulted in a reduction in the costs of overseas calls and further helped the country to connect with the rest of the world.

During this period, the government and the TRC were supported by the World Bank to expedite reforms in ICT. Minster Milinda Moragoda of the Ministry of Economic Reform and Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, ICT and Public Policy Consultant, co-ordinated the reforms through the Ministry of Mass Communication where Minister Imithiaz Bakeer-Marker led the Ministry and the TRC came under his purview.

A notable event that took place was the public auction of radio frequency spectrum to mobile cellular service operators to further modernize the mobile telephone services. Bids were called for the allocation of RF spectrum and millions of dollars were raised. Therefore, governments should note that radio frequency spectrum is public property, should be assigned at the highest possible prices so that the resources of governments will be augmented by billions of dollars.

The then government also set up the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka by enacting enabling legislation in 2003. This new government agency succeeded the Computer Information Technology Council of Sri Lanka (CINTEC) which was the national policy maker and facilitator in ICT upto then.

As s result, the ICTA became the uppermost institution of government, mandated to take all necessary steps to develop government policy and action plans in relation to ICT. Since success in ICT relied greatly on having good telecommunication systems and networks, the TRC and the ICTA worked in consultation with each other in most development matters. The writer remembers attending progress review meetings at the ICTA during that time.

This agency was tasked with the formulation and implementation of thee-SRI LANKA development project. The project was used to develop the economy, reduce poverty and improve the quality of life of the people with effective deployment of ICT resources all over the country.

2004

The 2004 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, took more positive and beneficial action to advance ICT . This included the induction of Bharati-Airtel Lanka as another mobile telecommunications service provider. This move ensured a wider choice for the public and ensured further competition in the sector.

With advancements in the Internet, the government recognized the need for a state agency to handle the matter of information security. This was to address cybercrimes and guide state agencies, including the police, on how to handle cyber-crimes. The ICTA created the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT) to ensure the protection of the information infrastructure. With the advancement of ICT, harassment of computer users, cyber-attacks on websites have increased exponentially. The police, other agencies of government and the general public rely greatly on the SLCERT to solve their cyber-related issues. This entity is presently headed by Chairman Lal Dias, a Chartered Information Technology Professional.

The Internet (World Wide Web)

In the 1960s, the American defence authorities funded work for their internet to provide internal communication amongst multiple computers over a single network. Thereafter, research progressed until the World Wide Web was launched in 1983 and was made a commercial activity which allowed other countries join the global internet thereafter.

In the 1990s, an initial demonstration for internet access in Sri Lanka was made under a project LEARN i.e. Lanka Experimental Academic & Research Network of the University of Moratuwa when Computer Engineers and Academics demonstrated a successful remote log-in from the University of Moratuwa that was connected to a computer at the University of Colombo.

Thereafter, in 1995, LEARN facilitated the joining of academic and research communities to the global internet. Sri Lanka’s first e-mail service, too, was initiated by the University of Moratuwa. The rest is history.

The past and the pioneers

This article would not be complete unless the beginnings ICT and the pioneers associated with it are not mentioned.

The 1960s saw organisations, and businesses, like the State Engineering Corporation, Central Bank, Insurance Corporation, Petroleum Corporation, AMS Data Services and Walker Sons using large mainframe computers to process their internal tasks. It might be mentioned that each of these computers were the size of a room, were comparatively slower, and consumed much electricity.

The pioneers who made significant contributions to ICT development, such as Prof. V K Samaranayake, Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, Prof.Gihan Dias, Dr. R B Ekanayake, Prof. Abhaya Induruwa, Ms. Nayani Fernando being amongst the many who devoted themselves for the advancement of ICT in Sri Lanka.

The LK Domain registry of Sri Lanka was set up in 1990. This registry has served Sri Lanka as its professional domain registration service and enhanced the development of internet infrastructure for internet. The registry provides the national domain name for Sri Lankan organizations and individuals to create their unique brand identity on the internet with domains such as…..lk, .com.lk, .org.lk and .edu.lk.

The JVP and LTTE insurrections

Sri Lanka had two serious insurgencies, from 1983 to 2009 where telecom exchanges were destroyed and broadcast relay stations were destroyed. However, state and private sector engineers and technicians worked with commitment, under trying conditions, during these times, to restore interrupted services and we appreciate their bravery and commitment.

In conclusion, Sri Lanka has come far in the field of information communication technology but further efforts to develop and regulate the sector in a fair and expeditious manner should be taken to enable all stakeholders to benefit.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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