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Unparalleled moment in history

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by Goolbai Gunasekara

(goolbai@gmail.com.)

I am no political analyst but I am a highly interested and vocal political voter and need to say what many like me are thinking at the moment.

This victory is unprecedented. Expected to be sure, but still unprecedented! There are lessons to be learnt and many of us have feelings of confidence that mistakes of the past will be firmly erased. We fervently hope so anyway. All of them made bad mistakes. Fluidity of memory is a great failing of political parties and the mistakes of former dysfunctional Governments, reaching far back to early days should not be forgotten either.

This is an unparalleled moment in Sri Lanka’s history but its significance has yet to unfold. Just this ONCE can Sri Lankans STOP this national pastime of fault finding and just be happy that we have so much more than do most countries of the world. Beirut, once the ‘Paris of the East’ is reeling under an unimaginable tragedy due to its Governmental carelessness and corruption. India is being hit again and again by natural disasters to say nothing of ongoing disputes internally. America has Donald Trump, who personally caused innumerable deaths thanks to his handling of the virus. That we escaped a similar fate, thanks to Gotabaya Rakapaksa, should cause us to thank God on bended knees DAILY. So, let us look at the plus points we Sri Lankans have to our advantage that less fortunate world citizens do not enjoy.

We have a two-thirds majority in Parliament with a strong leader. Allow us to hope this will be to Sri Lanka’s benefit. We have controlled the Covid-19 better than any other country in the world. We have held one of the best organized elections this country has ever seen. (Thank you, Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya). We have done all this democratically … that mesmerizing word that many regard as a utopian ideal despite the many examples to the contrary. We have a lush land. We have a wonderful climate devoid of typhoons and tornados. We have a clever population. In fact we are great!

Whether we are Rajapaksa supporters or not let us take stock of the POSSIBILITIES of having a very good government and governance ahead of us. Let prejudices not cloud our beliefs or hopes for the future because there is no doubt – we ALL have hopes for the future and we expect the Rajapaksa government WILL deliver.

Let us take a look at their strengths. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has proved his ability and total efficiency again and again. Mahinda Rajapaksa is by all accounts, a kindly man. Basil Rajapaksa has shown himself to be a fine organizer and Chamal Rajapaksa (I am told) is a pleasure to work under. Now what we need is for these four men to unite and pool their talents to ensure that nepotism and corruption are annihilated and that genuine talent is unleashed and used well.

Of course THEY must set the example. The younger Rajapaksas need to prove themselves and should not be allowed to cultivate personal friendships and enjoy themselves at the expense of the State. That all this CAN be done goes without saying. But it MUST be done if Sri Lanka is to become what is now within our grasp

Under the domination of previous governments and the recent yalapahana government the abuses that took place were unbelievable; favours were dished out to Ministers, salaries were raised for no reason, half the police was used as security guards for unimportant MPs, a Cabinet that was frighteningly dimwitted , Government spokesmen who were laughably incompetent and an uneducated Parliament of men who treated themselves to all kinds of undeserved benefits. The people groaned in frustration and in dismay. The leaders were so distanced from popular criticism that it seemed they had lost all sense of the fitness of things. It was the day of the sycophant.

The Rajapaksas will be surrounded by sycophants but they have some excellent men and women as advisors and by all accounts they intend to make use of them. The name of Lalith Weeratunga springs to mind; he is a man respected by just about everyone. And being a woman I am particularly happy that Kimarli Fernando’s efficiency and likewise Manouri Unambuwe’s has been recognized. (Does this herald a surge in female participation!) One hopes so. There are dozens of non- politically oriented women who can do wonders for the new Government. One hopes they will be used.

However, non-Rajapaksa voters are consumed by fears and uncertainties. Their minds can be set at rest by wise behaviour. (I have just listened to a 5 minute diatribe by an Indian lady who really has got things wonky.) She speaks of the Rajapaksa government stacking the Judiciary so that their crimes against humanity during the civil war will go unpunished. Not a word about the LTTE crimes. What short memories people have!

Let me now talk of common fears that harbingers of doom have been expressing lately. Certainly it would be wise to heed them so let me give a list of such thoughts.

1. The way is open for a Constitutional Dictatorship say critics. Perhaps it is but why assume straightaway that the two-thirds majority may not be used well? JRJ had enormous power and he certainly did not use it well but I don’t recall any criticism when he came to power.

2. “Sajith will be ineffective against Mahinda and Gota,” says one writer. ‘He is no fighter,”, Now I find this rather a superficial remark. Sajith is young. He does not need to ‘fight’. He will develop and mature for he has the time to do so. He is a leader in waiting and has the coming years to show that he can one day take over, what we hope, will now be an achieving Government.

3. “The motto of the Government going forward will be Gotabaya adoration more than Sinhala Buddhism.” I am quoting again-

I disagree most strongly. It is certainly a healthier situation to adore a leader than despise one. Many of Yahalpana stalwarts were laughing stocks towards the end.

4. The four Rajapaksa brothers will hold all constitutional power and put an end to Democracy is another remark. I am sure the Rajapaksas are aware that such views will be expressed. How come no one was worried about Ranil Wickremesinghe’s inability to run a democratic government properly despite his undoubted brain power? “Greatness was thrust upon him” says another writer. Ranil fell into the position of UNP leader after THREE others had been conveniently assassinated …Premadasa, Athulathmudali and Dissanayake. Alas, he was not equal to the task and in 25 years has brought the UNP to where it is now. So why worry needlessly about the future of Democracy? It did not do too well lately did it!

5. The young Rajapaksas will begin to show their power in unacceptable ways (e.g costly car racing at night) is another common worry. Of course, we hope older and wiser politicians will curb such activities and direct the younger members of the SLPP towards constructive acts .

6. There are fears that favours and positions may be given to hangers-on who are unqualified and unacceptable people simply because they were ‘loyal’. One hopes that this will not be the case and that important jobs are given to those who deserve them and can deliver.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s family is conspicuous for shunning publicity. This is much appreciated. Likewise the other brothers keep their private lives private. One hopes that the young Rajapaksas will do likewise and be careful and conscious of how easily their popularity can be lost however strongly popular their father and uncles may be. They must guard firmly against flatterers and fawning friends. There will be many critics of their behaviour and they should not expect, or get, immunity.

7. The system of checks and balances will be upset by a coterie of brothers controlling the Judiciary, Executive and Legislature say the pessimists. Not necessarily so. Even in the USA where a finely balanced system of checks and balances is PRESUMED to be operative has not proved effective of late. Why anticipate a situation which has not yet occurred?

Speaking for myself, I look forward to STERN and FIRM changes for the better. I would like to be able to watch the news on TV and see happy reporting. I would like to see ministerial faces as seldom as possible. (One hopes the Ministers will be otherwise gainfully occupied and too busy to be getting themselves on the news.) I anticipate the government putting an end to all those needless tamashas … schoolchildren standing in the sun, trees being planted, ribbons being cut, police cars waving traffic to a standstill while Ministers and unimportant underlings drive past.

No one is trying to harm Ministers. They certainly do not need more than one or two Security officers. And they certainly do NOT need cars following them for ‘protection’. They are not babies. Let them look after themselves and begin using public transport a la British MPs. (I’d love to see THAT.) Why do they or their near and dear need special ‘protection’ at all?

I leave serious questions like the economy of the country, the upward thrust of businesses, the repayment of our debts, the rise in the COL and suchlike important problems to those in the know.

What ordinary citizens and I long for is a visible reduction in Government waste that we can actually point to with satisfaction. We want to be able to boast of a good system of Education. We want to be proud of our Government. We want to be able to point with pride to our President and his three brothers who, with the supposedly enormous power concentrated in their hands, will give Sri Lanka a solidly effective Government. I know it CAN happen. Sometimes dreams do come true.

 


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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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