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From soldiers to housewives: Women who fought as Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka are forced into traditional roles

by Holly Robertson 

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka — After her release from a rehabilitation camp for former Tamil Tiger fighters in 2011, one former member of the women-only ­Malathi Brigade was presented by Sri Lankan government officials with a sewing machine.

More accustomed to the rigors of warfare, the woman, who spent seven years fighting with the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after signing up as a teenager, had no interest in sewing. She tried raising chickens, but the venture failed.

“I’m tired of the burden I have become to my family,” said the 35-year-old, who asked not to be identified out of fear of repercussions. “Every time I go out, I have to ask my father for money. I don’t want this kind of life. I would have been a commander in the LTTE by now if it still existed.”

The LTTE’s three-decade campaign for Tamil sovereignty came to a bloody end in May 2009, as government troops crushed an insurgency that had cleaved the Indian Ocean island. Nine years later, the country’s north is picking up the pieces after being shattered by the lengthy war and its violent conclusion — and the women who fought with the rebels have had to navigate a perplexing transition.

Lured by an intoxicating promise of a Tamil homeland and female emancipation, women were recruited to the Tigers in large numbers and made up nearly one-third of the separatist organization.

But once the war ended, most found few options available to them aside from reverting to traditional roles. After years of equality with their male counterparts, they were suddenly expected to marry, have children and tend to household chores.
Jaffna 2
A monument in Puthukkudiyiruppu commemorates the Sri Lankan army's victory over the LTTE. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images)

There’s nothing else to do, said a former Sea Tiger — a veteran of the LTTE’s naval division — who also asked not to be identified.

The 39-year-old still has shrapnel peppered throughout her body from battles waged during the 1990s. (She signed up at the age of 12.) She managed to keep from being swept into the system of government-run camps set up to hold the defeated rebels, camps that have been dogged by allegations of torture and rape — and that has enabled her to avoid being placed under surveillance.

“I wanted to start offering karate and self-defense lessons to girls,” she said, “but my husband said, ‘No, don’t do that, it will draw attention to you, and people will start suspecting your background.’ ”

Even today, those who survived the conflict find themselves struggling for acceptance — and a steady income.

Alan Keenan, the International Crisis Group’s senior Sri Lanka analyst, said little has been done to address the basic socioeconomic needs of these female ex-combatants.

“Female fighters have suffered from a range of extra disadvantages — including heightened poverty and vulnerability to sexual exploitation and violence — and the government has developed no comprehensive policy to address these,” he said. “And ex-combatants continue to suffer ostracization from the rest of the Tamil community, for a variety of complicated reasons.”

In their desperate final days, the Tigers alienated many Tamil supporters — who for years had remained loyal to their cause — by forcibly recruiting child soldiers and cynically using civilians as human shields.

The army, for its part, incessantly shelled designated “no-fire zones,” killing thousands and setting the stage for a fraught path to normalizing relations between Tamils and the Sinhalese majority.

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Former Tamil Tiger fighters walk through Sri Lanka's parliament building just outside the capital in 2011. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

For female LTTE cadres, the defeat marked an end to the militaristic brand of feminism that had earlier liberated them from social strictures. Now they had to swap trousers for saris and grow out their short hair to appease judgmental families and neighbors.

Ananthy Sasitharan, the Northern Province minister for women’s affairs, whose husband was a high-ranking LTTE leader, is one of the few Tamil female politicians and is regularly in contact with former Tigers who come to her for “livelihood assistance.” She said many are living a sparse existence without husbands or jobs and are careful to conceal their ex-combatant status because of continuing state surveillance.

“They dress in a manner so you can’t see that they are injured, but they can’t work much because of that,” Sasitharan said.

Their hidden struggle is illustrative of a society that in many ways remains fractured, although those fractures are masked by torpid reconciliation efforts and a stable economy as the government pushes its ambitious “Vision 2025” to achieve upper-middle-income-country status.

The north saw major postwar infrastructure investment under hard-line former president Mahinda Rajapaksa — who was also responsible for crushing the Tigers. But according to Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, local workers were rarely hired for the projects.

Since President Maithripala Sirisena took office in 2015, the government has pulled back on large-scale infrastructure development in favor of housing projects that have had greater success in reaching the general population, Perera said.

“There has been a visible transformation, but the question is whether the benefits are going to the poorer sections of the population,” he said. “The people who are living in the rural areas and villages, or even in the main cities in the informal economy, have not benefited.”

The government has set aside approximately $80 million in its 2018 budget for reconciliation projects, including subsidies for businesses that hire at least five ex-combatants or war widows.

Announcing the budget — the first to contain a section specifically devoted to reconciliation — Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweeratold Parliament that for Sri Lanka to achieve its goal of becoming an advanced economy by 2025, reconciliation is “a must.”
“Despite winning the war, we have yet to win the peace,” he said, “and in order to do so, it is essential that we win the hearts of those in the war-affected areas.”

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A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard at the memorial for fallen soldiers in the capital, Colombo, during a ceremony marking the ninth anniversary of the end of the island's civil war on May 19. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

Another ex-Sea Tiger — who joined in 2001, at 16, and spent eight years in and out of the LTTE — moved to a modest home in her new husband’s small village, where she said she is “limited in terms of what she can do as a housewife in this area.”

“I got training in how to make small snacks to sell at shops, and I was doing that, but now I’m feeling too unwell,” said the 33-year-old, who was pregnant and had flesh wounds on her right leg that she said were caused by the shrapnel that remains lodged there. She sustained the injuries after leading a group of female fighters into battle with the army in 2008.

Her husband is disabled, so with the added responsibility, “I don’t feel like the second-in-command,” she said.

Still, she added, “it was very difficult coming into a family setting, as a wife and mother.”

Thulasi Muttulingam contributed to this report.

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Kashmir's religious harmony a lesson in troubled times

‘In violence-prone Kashmir, groups band together regardless of religion, despite tensions in India’

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir -Unaware of the tragedy that happened to his family, five-year-old Rohit Koul played in the courtyard while his three elder siblings sat in a dimly lit room of their house in Lavadora village, in south Kashmir's Anantnag district.

The children have not spoken much after their mother, Baby Koul, died three months ago due to chest disease. Nearly a year ago, their father, Maharaj Krishan, also died a natural death.

Muslim neighbours gathered at the home to offer emotional support to the Hindu children.

At a time of strained Hindu-Muslim ties in India, this unity in a remote village in divided Kashmir is exemplary.

Polarisation between the two communities has hit the country as right-wing groups engage in violence against Muslims because of their food and other social habits.

In April 2017, a Pew Research Center's study ranked India the fourth-worst country for religious intolerance out of 198 nations.

Indian-administered Kashmir is a Muslim-majority Himalayan region with Hindu, Sikh and Christian minorities, but living in harmony.

But the area divided by India and Pakistan had its share of tensions in the early 1990s, when turmoil forced many Kashmiri Hindus, known as Pandits, to abandon their homes and seek shelter in neighbouring Jammu and other parts of India.

According to one study, Kashmir had 140,000 Pandits in the early 1990s, but that number was reduced to 19,865 by 1998.

The Kouls are one family that decided to remain. The warmth and support demonstrated by their Muslim neighbours after Baby Koul's death vindicated their choice.
'Like our own'
To pay tribute to Baby Koul, villagers of differing faiths gathered to perform her last rites according to the Hindu tradition.

"Baby Koul and her husband raised their children while fighting poverty. Their death shocked everyone in the village. These children are innocent and losing parents in less than a year is a catastrophe for them. Their parents were young and very gentle," Sameena, a local woman, told Al Jazeera.

According to villagers, the children are reluctant to go with their relatives because "they get much love from their neighbours".

The children were not emotionally ready to talk to this reporter because their mother died just a few days earlier.

"Villagers have helped the family and we will keep doing this. They are like our own children and we will not let them suffer in any way," resident Ghulam Nabi Dar told Al Jazeera.

The example of Hindu-Muslim togetherness displayed in Lavadora village is not isolated.

During Amarnath Yatra, Muslims help their Hindu brethren to undertake the annual pilgrimage in the snow-capped mountains in southern Kashmir.

Earlier this year, villagers in Sumbal in Bandipora in north Kashmir cleaned the premises of a Hindu temple to perform puja (prayer) on the occasion of Maha Shivratri, an important festival for Pandits.

The acts of kindness have also been reciprocated by Hindus. Last November, a Hindu couple greeted the procession marking Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi the birthday of Prophet Mohammad, by distributing candies to Muslims as a symbol of love and affection. A video of the Hindu couple handing out the candies went viral on social media.
Worshipping togetherIn Mattan, the houses of worship for Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims are just a few metres apart.

Ramji, 60, is a priest at the temple in Mattan. "We share a good bond with our Muslim and Sikh brothers. We take part in each other's festivals. We also attend funerals when someone dies in Muslim neighbourhood," he told Al Jazeera.

The Tral area of Pulwama, which has been at the centre of anti-government protests in the last two years, also has Sikh population of 8,165 as of the latest census of India living happily with 98,632 Muslims.

"We never feel differences with each other. We are always there for each other in good and bad times. They even attend funeral prayers of militants," Faizan Ahmad, a student from Tral, told Al Jazeera.

Mehjabeena lives in a village in the Quazigund area. Twelve years ago, her husband abandoned her with two children. She returned to her home to live with her father for several years.

However, being poor, her father could not feed the family and she started living in a rented accommodation. "I used to wash clothes and dishes of the people to pay the rent and feed my family," she said.

Then a Pandit, Brij Nath, donated a piece of land to her where she built a one-room mud-brick house with the help of her father.

"I have lived in the village with her father and there was the association of oneness. I gave her a piece of land as she is very poor and has no place to live," Nath told Al Jazeera on the phone.
Generations of cooperation
In October last year, a church bell rang for the first time in 50 years at Holy Family Catholic Church in Srinagar. Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus inaugurated the bell weighing 105kg.

According to village elders, examples of communal harmony have been passed on through the generations.

"Kashmiri culture is a mix of three religions - Hindus, Buddhist and Muslims - which has come from our ancestors," said Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a Kashmiri poet and social activist.

"Temples have bells hanging at their entrance. Similarly, we have chains at Sufi shrines in the valley, which is a cross-ritual. We had some Hindu artists who have written Na'ats [poetry in praise of the Prophet] while there are Muslim artists who have written kirtans [divine Hindu songs]."
But Zareef accused politicians of trying to create barriers between the different communities.

"Our thoughts have been divided. We had oneness in Kashmir culture irrespective of religion," he said.

Source : Al Jazeera

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Sri Lanka Big Bad Wolf book sale from 28th June – 8 July

The 24-hour book sale returns to Sri Lanka with over 1.5 million books at 60%-80% discounts this 28 June – 8 July

The Big Bad Wolf Book Sale announced its return to Sri Lanka today at a press conference held at Park Street Mews, Colombo. Known as the world’s biggest book sale, the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale is set to opento the public from 28 June until 8 July 2018 at the Sri Lanka Exhibition and Convention Centre (SLECC) with 1.5 million books at 60%-80% discounts. Book lovers can enjoy 255 hours of non-stop book shopping at the Sale, which will be open 24 hours a day throughout the 11 days of the event.

Selected invitees will have the chance to attend a special preview of the Sale on 27 June from 10.00am – 11.00pm, a day before it opens to the public. Visitors can win preview passes through contests on the Big Bad Wolf Facebook pageand through their media partners.
The media launch saw the attendance of Andrew Yap, Founder and Managing Director of Big Bad Wolf Books, Dipak Madhavan, Partner of Big Bad Wolf Books and Nishan Wasalathanthri, Director of ProRead Lanka (Pvt) Ltd. The event is supported by The Ministry of Education of Sri Lanka. Event partner for the event includes, Bank of Ceylon – the official banking partner, Mobitel – the official telco partner, and The Capital Maharaja Organisation Limited.

“We are truly excited to be back in Sri Lanka with an even bigger and better book sale this year. Last year’s event was a huge success and an eye-opener on how enthusiastic Sri Lankans are for good quality, affordable English books. We’ll be bringing over a wider range of titlesforbook lovers in Sri Lanka this time around,” shared Andrew Yap. “We are grateful to our partners and other organisations who have pledged their support to empower Sri Lankans with more English learning opportunities.”

Speaking at the event was also Big Bad Wolf Books’ local partner, Director of ProRead Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd, Nishan Wasalathanthri. “We are pleased to bring the Sale back to Sri Lanka for the second time.Last year was the first time a book sale of this scale had ever been held at Sri Lanka and we pulled off an unforgettable event. We invite people of all ages to visit the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale this time around for an even bigger and better experience,” said Nishan Wasalathanthri.

Held in October last year, the Sale is returning earlier this year in June, much to the joy of eager readers. Readers can expect to find over 1.5 million new English books, ranging from fiction, bestsellers, literature, non-fiction, business books, cookbooks, art and design, coffee table books and more, priced at 60%-80% off regular retail prices.

Parents can also expect an extensive collection of children’s books, including bedtime stories, colouring and activity books, educational books and interactive books, all at 60%-80% bargains. 

“We anticipated a high demand for children’s books last year, but we were surprised tofind out that there was also an enormous demand for fiction titles, which flew off the shelves. We’ll be bringing over an exciting variety of fiction books and bestsellers to meet the demand of readers this year,” said Dipak Madhavan. 

In an aim to make affordable English books available to all, Big Bad Wolf Books will also be giving books to communities in need through their Red Readerhood programme, supporting the The Capital Maharaja Organisation Limited’s Gammadda initiative. Customers can participate in this worthy initiative by purchasing books at the Sale and donating them at the Red Readerhood booth.

As part of another initiative to advocate greater English literacy among people of Sri Lanka, Big Bad Wolf Books will be working with the Ministry of Education to provide local O/L top scorers with an opportunity to visit the international book sale. Last year, Big Bad Wolf Books invited top scholarship scorers from flood-stricken areas to the Sale and provided them with a trolley full of books to take home.

Book lovers will also stand a chance to nab limited edition books, exclusive Big Bad Wolf t-shirts and collector’s items at the Sale.Starting this year, they can collect official Big Bad Wolf shopping bags at the Sale, with the introduction of limited edition reusable cloth bags to replace plastic bags in a commitment towards sustainability. Hungry readers can also enjoy a variety of meals and snacks at the outdoor food court that is powered by uPay, organised by Hisham Cader of The Sandwich Factory.

Source : LBO

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Sugar cane planting beginsSugar cane planting begins

On April 2017 land for the cultivation of sugar cane is given and on September 17, 2017 the cultivation begins. At this point Mahanama once again threatens the investor that unless he receives his bribe he will retake the land earmarked for sugar cane planting. By this time the investor had brought his British and South African partners to Sri Lanka.
Feeling that he has no other choice the investor approaches the Bribery Commission on February 2018. According to what has been revealed, Dr. Mahanama has told the investor that he needs to take a bribe because he wants an income after he retires. Mahanama has claimed that he plans to construct a building near the University of Kelaniya and rent it out.
Extorting money from investors
One of the tactics used by unscrupulous people like Mahanama is that they prepare cabinet papers with that make it difficult for investors to commence work, unless a bribe is paid. For example when preparing the cabinet paper regarding this investment, Mahanama states that none of the old machinery of Kantale Sugar factory can't be given to the new company and that he proposes to sell the old machines as scrap iron. In fact he calls for a tender to sell these machines at an estimated cost of Rs 340 million after misleading the President and the Prime Minister.

Article  7.9 of the shareholders agreement states that : 

The investor/company agrees to take possession of land and premises from the GOSL described in Article 7.1.1 (other than that described in Article 7.1.1 (c) with all the infrastructure and machinery, on an as is basis and no guarantee is given that any infrastructure, machinery, buildings or implements subsisting on the land or premises are usable or suitable for any purpose. The company may do as it may deem appropriate with the infrastructure, machinery, buildings or implements at it’s own cost or use them as it may deem suitable.
Thus all the 'infrastructure, machinery, buildings or implements subsisting on the land or premises are usable or suitable for any purpose' must be handed over to the investor for the 51% stake the government gets. Mahanama attempts to create an impression that the company is trying to sell the machinery as scrap metal and obtains an estimate to sell them, since there is no assistance from the government, the investor gets into trouble. If they go for arbitration, that committee is appointed by the Ministry Secretary. Mahanama tried to obtain US $ 3 million to release these assets to the company or around Rs 540 million. Then he later reduces his demand to Rs 100 million.

MG Sugar goes for arbitration in Singapore against the constant harassment and Mahanama retires, only to return as President’s Chief of Staff. He again approaches the investor promising to iron out all the issues he has and brings in Chairman of the State Timber Corporation P. Dissanayake to act as a mediator. 

Dissanayake who was the secretary to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike is a past master of extortion. He was known as 'Bar Piya' among MPs in the 90s and early 00s and has amassed considerable assets including two two story houses at Gregory's Rad, an apartment at Union Place, three bars in Gampaha, one in Matara and two houses in Battaramulla.
However the two men didn't know that the investor had already approached the Bribery Commission and that a number of officials had been keeping an eye on this case for a while.
This incident must not be considered an isolated incident or an indication of increasing corruption under the UNFGG government. For decades the investors who come to Sri Lanka have learnt that they need to pay large bribes to get their work on track. An investor who refuses to pay a bribe has no one to turn to. The BoI, whose Chairman is the highest paid state official (Rs 1 million), takes no responsibility after the initial agreement. In fact accessing the Chairman is more difficult than reaching the President or the Prime Minister. The Kantale investor told me that the only person who listened to his grievance was former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake.
He is also a businessman who has been working in Sri Lanka since 1994 and has high level connections. Any other investor would have just quit and told his colleagues never to invest in Sri Lanka.
The other point to consider is how Mahanama became the Chief of Staff of the President. I have repeatedly complained about Mahanama and a number of other organizations have raised concerns about his behaviour. However despite all of that he is appointed Chief of Staff of the President. I have also raised concerns about seven other state officials but there has been no investigations against them. This makes the public disillusioned about the government, which can only benefit the Rajapaksa's.

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Facebook staff to learn Sinhala insults after Sri Lanka riots

Three months after Sri Lanka was rocked by deadly anti-Muslim riots fuelled by online vitriol, Facebook is training its staff to identify inflammatory content in the country's local languages.

The social network has been seeking penance in Sri Lanka after authorities blocked Facebook in March as incendiary posts by Buddhist hardliners fanned religious violence that left three people dead and reduced hundreds of mosques, homes and businesses to ashes.

Until the week-long ban, appeals to Facebook to act against the contagion of hate speech had been met with deafening silence, at a time when the California-based tech giant was reeling from unprecedented global scrutiny over fake news and user privacy.

"We did make mistakes and we were slow," Facebook spokeswoman Amrit Ahuja told AFP in Colombo.

The dearth of staff fluent in Sinhala - the language spoken by Sri Lanka's largest ethnic group - compounded the issue, with government officials and activists saying the oversight allowed extremist content to flourish undetected on the platform.

Ahuja said Facebook was committed to hiring more Sinhala speakers but declined to say how many were currently employed in Sri Lanka.
"This is the problem we are trying to address with Facebook. They need more Sinhala resources", said the island's telecommunications minister Harin Fernando.

Since the violence broke out in March, two high-level delegations from the company have visited Sri Lanka, where ethnic divisions linger after decades of war, to assure the government of its intent.

Ahuja said Facebook was working with civil society organisations to familiarise its staff with Sinhala slurs and racist epithets.

Complex local nuances have added to the challenge. The word for "brother" in Tamil - also an official language in the country - can be a derogatory term in Sinhala when a slight inflection is used.


Fernando said the decision to impose an island-wide blackout on Facebook - used by one in three Sri Lankans - was taken as a last resort to prevent an escalation of violence.

Buddhist monks freely shared images of masked men attacking mosques and urged others to do the same in the weeks before the riots erupted in Kandy.

Sinhala extremists used the social network to recruit rioters and organise their travel to the troubled area, from where violence later spread.
A meme in Sinhala, which remained online for weeks, urged death to all Muslims, including children.

A man who reported it to Facebook was told it did not violate "specific community standards".

In addition to government warnings, Fernando told AFP that Facebook users lodged thousands of complaints over extremist content, but were met with silence.

"It was not something that I liked doing. But if we didn't block Facebook, the violence would have spread out of control," he said.

Eventually the army was given special powers to restore order under the first state of emergency declared in the 21-million-strong nation since the end of the civil war in 2009.


Ahuja said Facebook has since taken down "hate figures and organisations" in Sri Lanka including the Bodu Bala Sena, a radical Buddhist outfit that is blamed for attacks against Muslims in recent years.

Its spokesman Dilantha Withanage complained the group and its leader - the notorious extremist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara - were being unfairly targeted.

"We can't even post a photo of venerable Gnanasara on Facebook," Withanage told AFP.

But videos of his sermons can still be seen on the social network. Other extremists have also slipped through the cracks, activists say, despite repeated requests to have their accounts removed.

Last year another extremist Buddhist group, Sinhale Jathika Balamuluwa, urged followers via Facebook Live to storm a UN compound sheltering Rohingya Muslims. Police had to be called in to protect the refugees from the mob.

Several Facebook pages for the group have been blocked in Sri Lanka but the same content can be viewed under alternate names, activists say.

"Facebook is only now being held to account over things that since 2013 were evident...(to) us," said Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher who has studied Islamophobia on Facebook in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's Centre for Policy Alternatives said Facebook needed to offer more than "cookie cutter" pledges to clean up its act.
"The time for promises has passed. Action is what's needed, and transparency and accountability," said Hattotuwa.

Featured : Channel News Asia

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Reporter's diary: the charge of the saffron brigade in Sri Lanka

Bodu Bala Sena leader Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara is a man whose words lead to action. When he threatens Muslims in a speech, mobs ransack Muslim neighbourhoods. And people die. Off the podium, the Buddhist monk remains the ultimate showman.

Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, secretary of Bodhu Bala Sena also known as Buddhist Power Force, gestures during a protest outside the Indian High Commission in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena) (AP Archive) 

Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara is a well-fed man. His jowly features and rounded fleshy shoulders belong to someone who has succumbed to at least one of life’s pleasures without too much resistance. Tall and sturdy, Gnanasara is far removed from the time-honoured image of a sinewy Buddhist monk who sustains himself on a bowl of rice daily as he puts his mind to matters that transcend the material world.
The Buddhist holy man is clearly seduced by all things material. His designer glasses, latest smartphone and plush four-by-four, complete with driver, are but superficial examples of this. 

What really gives it away is the fact that he has, over the years, embroiled himself in the fraught world of Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions to the point where he is now an influential – and many would say dangerous – player in some of the most contentious issues the country is facing. And he appears to be relishing every moment of it.

Gnanasara is the general secretary of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an ultra-nationalist Buddhist organisation. Gnanasara and the BBS, also known as the Buddhist Power Force, are blamed by many for inciting deadly violence against Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country over the last few years. 

I’m clearly dealing with no ordinary monk here, and for someone who is about to grill him on some of his most controversial actions, this poses a number of challenges, not least how to keep on the right side of him without compromising the nature of the interview.

Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, (centre) wearing spectacles, leaves with his lawyers and supporters after obtaining bail following his surrender to a magistrate in Colombo, Sri Lanka on June 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Tharaka Basnayaka) (AP Archive) 
I needn't have worried. The first time I meet Gnanasara at the mansion-like BBS headquarters in April, he seems delighted that I have a cameraman. The showmanship he displays when he’s the centre of attention lasts throughout the two days we spend with him.
He also appears to be unfazed by the fact that he's been in court all day, facing serious of criminal accusations of hate speeches that target Muslims and other minority groups, and inciting violence. 

Then again, this nonchalance may be due to the fact that he's faced these allegations for years, but has not been convicted so far.
Gnanasara is all smiles as he shakes our hands, and this affable manner remains constant during our hour-and-a-half long interview, even when I confront him with some of the many offensive and provocative pronouncements he has made. Still, it is not too long before the duality of his nature is exposed.

I remind him of the derogatory language he uses frequently when referring to Muslims and Islam, including when he referred to Allah as “an octopus.” 

During the course of the interview, I also bring up a speech he made in June 2014 in which he threatens Muslims and calls on the Sinhalese to “stop loitering, unite and fulfil your duty.” 

Within hours, a group of hardline Sinhalese nationalists stormed a suburb near the town where he made the speech and burnt down hundreds of homes and businesses. At least three men died in this attack.

"How do you respond,” I ask, looking Gnanasara directly in the eye. 

He does not flinch or show any remorse as he replies, “Yes, I will say that even tomorrow. It won’t change. What is said there is true. The truth is the truth.”

At times he is openly offensive, but he slips these comments in when I am least expecting them. 
Galagoda Atte Gnanasara says, “If a violent group arrives and starts attacking the non-violent people who are meditating, should we just wait and watch?” (AP Archive) 

When I ask him, “Do you believe Muslims are causing problems in Sri Lanka?” he starts off in the most diplomatic of tones. “We have Muslims who are traditional and moderate,” he says, “who have lived for generations in this country. Such Muslims and the Sinhalese lived in co-existence for years.”

But then he hits me with, "What country in the world does not have problems caused by Muslims? There is only one problem, and it is a global problem.”

His manner has been so appeasing that when he reveals what he really thinks, it completely throws me.

He talks about national unity and reconciliation, dialogue and non-violence. But when I ask him if he believes violence is unacceptable, his reply is quick and confident.

“If a violent group arrives and starts attacking the non-violent people who are meditating, should we just wait and watch?”
The threat is thinly veiled, and could very easily get lost because of the manner in which it is made, but human rights groups dispel any doubts about his real intentions.

“They have been open about their hatred towards many minorities, not just Muslims but also towards others,” says Omar Waraich, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for South Asia, referring to Gnanasara’s organisation BBS.

“We certainly believe elements of the BBS have been inciting hatred that has led to violence."

It is clear that incitement to hatred is having a pernicious effect within Sri Lanka, which is leading to minorities to being targeted.”

Waraich articulates a widespread concern but despite this, BBS’s popularity seems to be growing among more moderate sections of Sinhalese society, in particular those who fear their ethnic identity may one day become sidelined.

As Kalana Senaratne, a senior law lecturer at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, explains, “Some of his speeches have been clear cases of inciting violence. But he also advocates a more moderate position."  
"He knows the politics of Sinhalese nationalism and also how to respond or talk to a wide segment of Sri Lankan society.”
Gnanasara employs this tactic during the interview. He is articulate and charismatic, so it’s not too difficult to see why many are drawn in by him.
But when my questions get direct and uncompromising, and there are times during the interview I worry he might throw us out. Instead, Gnanasara offers us tea and I get the sense that he’ll just about do or say anything, as long the spotlight remains on him.

It’s the same showmanship on display when I meet him a few days later at one of his temples. 

I spend half a day filming him and he’s happy to do take after take under the blazing sun, to the point where my crew and I are certain that if I ask him for another three weeks’ worth of filming with him as the focal point, he would drop everything and oblige.

Our filming is interrupted at regular intervals by young monks who greet him with absolute reverence. He responds with an air of aloof grace usually seen in the mannerisms of royalty. 

He also stops every now and then to cuddle and cajole the young children who are attending Sinhalese cultural classes at the temple. They, in turn, look to him with adoring eyes, as if their favourite uncle is visiting with armfuls of gifts.
Gnanasara has close ties with sections of Sri Lanka’s political establishment, in particular with members of nationalist opposition parties. This has considerably elevated his status and given him more than a veneer of respectability across large swathes of the country. (AP Archive) 

His love of life manifests itself particularly at lunchtime, when he tucks into a plethora of dishes that include various kinds of chicken, at least half a dozen types of vegetables, a variety of salads and a generous choice of desserts and fruits. 

All this is provided by Sinhalese families with recently deceased relatives in the belief that feeding monks is a way to ensure their loved-ones will achieve eternal peace. Judging by the manner in which Gnanasara tucks in, it’s clearly a belief he readily subscribes to. 
There’s another reason for this exuberance. 

Gnanasara has close ties with sections of Sri Lanka’s political establishment, in particular with members of nationalist opposition parties. This has considerably elevated his status and given him more than a veneer of respectability across large swathes of the country.

“These groups have had links with politicians, are invited to parliament to have discussions with the president and various ministers,” Senaratne says. “So it is difficult as an observer to say if this is a classic hardline Sinhala Buddhist movement or if it is one of the broader Sinhalese nationalist groups.”

This also explains why Gnanasara is addressed as thero –  venerable –  by everyone, why his group is so well-funded and why he is often invited to give talks overseas.

As my crew and I leave, Gnanasara shakes our hands and tells us he’d be happy to talk to us any time. 

He is amicable to the end, most likely in the knowledge that he is virtually untouchable and nothing I or anyone else can do or say is likely to change that anytime soon.

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Economic Disparity and Nationalism – Part 3

By Dr. Lionel Bopage

Far right in Europe

Throughout Europe, racialist groups have used the war on terror to create new racist mono-cultural political platforms. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the nineties, uncertainty reigned for some time as free markets expanded and some aspects of bourgeois democratic institutions were established. A neo-liberal social development model started expanding horizontally sweeping through Central and Eastern Europe and was accompanied by structural reforms of economic liberalisation and globalisation.

A quarter century later, right wing populist currents gained ground in Hungary and Poland and then spread into France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In the past decade, new right-wing movements have developed into coalitions between Neo-Nazis and the free-market advocates. In a way, this has brought a superficial normalcy to the right wing fascist ideologies in some parts of Europe and they have even gained more electoral grounds. In countries like Poland and Hungary, such right-wing forces are in power. They used national security as a political platform for introducing racism and introduced systemic intolerance by restructuring education, immigration, and the judiciary.
In Italy, a populist anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) that contested the March 2018 Parliamentary elections under the slogan “Participate, Choose, Change” and a regionalist populist League that contested under the slogan “Italians First” formed an alliance this month to form government. The election environment also focused on the apparently irreversible decline of economy, persistent high unemployment and corruption.  The campaign of M5S was focussed on anti-corruption and a proposed Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all. The League was an anti-immigrant and anti-EU party like the National Front in France or United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain. It was formerly a separatist party that campaigned for autonomy of Padania, the richer northern parts of Italy.

In many instances, Islamic terror attacks and threats have been used to bolster surveillance and deportation with the tightening of search, arrest, detention and judicial oversight and restraints on ‘suspects’. Young people of colour are increasingly subjected to surveillance and are put on suspect lists and vilified. Immigrants and asylum seekers are threatened and deported even for minor offences. Non- white immigration appears to have been made into a deportable package with their human and democratic rights as citizens being scrapped. Some of the migrants, who do not fall within the scope of the dominant ethnicity or the reigning political ideology, and depending on their race, class, religion, immigration status, pre-internments and political beliefs, have no guarantees of their fundamental rights as citizens.
The right-wing political network advocates border protection, national purity and religious intolerance whatever the cost to life and social cohesion is. Internationally funded human right defenders are demonised as foreign agents; feminists and pro-immigration advocates are censored; offices of political parties, unions and other groups that are critical of the existing regimes are raided and their property detained; civilians and asylum seekers fleeing civil wars and persecution have their freedom of movement curtailed and held under conditions similar to rendition in overseas detention centres. Border protection through patrolled trenches, barbed wire fences and parapets and returning of boats have become the norm in many countries, especially in the west.

New right-wing groups such as neo-fascists openly advocate monoculturalism and hate crimes and maintain odious social media pages, take part in elections, hijack public space and maintain links with vigilante groups. Some patrol their suburbs, threaten business activities of immigrants, harass women wearing hijabs and pick fights at rallies. For example, in Greece, members of Golden Dawn attacked immigrant street market vendors. In Hungary and Bulgaria vigilante border guards target migrants. In others, they openly threaten Jewish communities.

Many extreme right-wing parties and far right groups such as the Front National (FN) of France, the Alleanza Nationale (AN) of Italy, the British National Party (BNP) of the United Kingdom, and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) of Austria operate within the countries of the European Union. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the previous leader of the Front National (FN) once said, “1 million unemployed - this means 1 million foreigners too many.”  Currently her grouping - European Union wide called the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) is engaged in a continent wide anti-immigration campaign supported by many far-right leaders of Austria, Netherlands, Czech Republic and Italy.  This group hopes to win a majority of seats in the European Parliament during the European Parliamentary elections to be held in May 2019.
The far right shares many ideological beliefs with fascism. They believe the issue affecting their nations is immigration with immigrants taking up their jobs. Despite there being no evidence to support their harmful contentions, they want to advance their nationalist agenda by getting rid of immigration except for some. Many of them believe that immigrants commit crimes against them and that immigrants misappropriate welfare benefits that should flow to citizens of their countries. They allege immigrants destroy their national cultures by protecting their own customs and traditions. They want immigrants to adopt the customs and traditions of their host countries. They believe by getting rid of the immigrants, they can stop the ‘cultural erosion’ of the respective nation states.

Such tensions have given rise to national resentment, which enables the rise of fascism. The national resentment directed towards immigrants appear to be caused by a combination of indignation and fear of the future. However, this national resentment by itself is not a sufficient condition to engender fascism. When these circumstances blend with a weak, democracy, it becomes the perfect political breeding ground for fascism to raise its ugly head.

Far Right in Australia

In Australia, the left is considered to have collapsed in 1975 with the toppling of Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Since then the Australian Labour Party began pursuing economic rationalism with a social democratic façade. However, the right-wing neo-liberal, conservative racialist ideologues continue to foreshadow possible threats from the “far-left” when one talks about the rising cost of living, static wages, crimes and inhumane treatment against asylum seekers. The dominant media and conservative groups continue to launch tirades against a non-existing “far left”. So, when someone is talking about looking after the other compassionately rather than focusing on showering the millionaires at the expense of the poor, that person is branded as a leftie.

Australia’s far-right groups have steadfastly carried out propaganda campaigns of vilification and demonization of communities such as Jews, LGBTIQ people, Muslims and non-European immigrants, particularly Asians and Africans.  Some far right anti-Islamic individuals and groups have united with the rallying cry against Islamist terrorism, Muslim immigration and the “Islamisation of Australia”. These groups with diverse objectives based on race and culture have coalesced into online movements and militant localised streams. They can be broadly categorised into three main streams: civic patriots, nationalists and racialists.

To be continued …

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Ranasinghe Premadasa: his leadership had style

By Krishantha Prasad Cooray

As a young man interested in politics, there were people I looked up to. There were people I believed had unique qualities. Ranasinghe Premadasa was not one of them. 
Indeed, my opinions about his policies and style of governance were a permanent source of friction between myself and his Press Secretary of thirty years, my uncle Evans Cooray. Much to the chagrin of Evans, I was openly critical of President Premadasa while he was in office, unable to resist the urge to contrast his brash and populist leadership style with the more learned and erudite ways of his political rival Lalith Athulathmudali. 

In his frustration, Evans cautioned me with words that today are no less true than the inevitability of sunrise at dawn: “Some-day, when there are no more leaders like him, you will appreciate the leadership qualities and commitment of a man like President Premadasa. Today, you are so young and inexperienced that you take them for granted,” he snapped.  I was confident that time will prove Uncle Evans wrong.

PremadasaRanasinghe Premadasa was killed exactly 25 years ago, on May Day.  He is the only elected executive president to be assassinated. Some would no doubt say that he himself was to blame for one of his glaring errors of judgment was giving arms to the LTTE.  The LTTE was not his only enemy. He holds the dubious distinction of being the only President in our history to have confronted a motion of impeachment by Parliament, one which he survived only through the most unprecedented and fortuitous political and constitutional maneuvering. One notes also, that among these firsts there is the fact that he is the last President elected from the United National Party, D.B. Wijetunga’s ascension being procedural consequent to Premadasa being assassinated.

Today, as I reflect on Ranasinghe Premadasa twenty five years after he was killed, the words of Evans Cooray haunt me.  They haunt me because I know of leaders and leadership, and I know what’s lacking.  When I reflect on such things, I remember Premadasa. 

Premadasa was alone among elected presidents or leaders of the United National Party in that he, unlike anyone else, had to struggle for everything he ever accomplished. He did not hail from a political family, nor did he have the benefit of a first-class education. In his era, many held against him what was then known as his “caste”, a snooty reference to his humble roots. As with so many others around the world, it was in these flames of adversity and discrimination that the tenacity, determination and leadership style of President Premadasa were forged. 

He saw the promise of the garment industry and made it a national priority for growth, taking radical measures to ensure that a fair share of the spoils of this thriving export industry made it to  the villagers and workers whose skill and sweat allowed that industry to thrive. President Premadasa was the architect of the revitalized “Samurdhi” program, which is still today the backbone of our national poverty alleviation effort.

While many can better expound on his accomplishments than I, my intimate relationship with perhaps one of his closest confidants Evans Cooray, has left me with a unique appreciation for how Premadasa accomplished so much in so short a time. 

He had an eye for talent, surrounding himself with none but the finest administrators and public servants of his era. He identified and brought into his circle rising stars such as R. Paskaralingam, Bradman Weerakoon, K.H.J. Wijeyadasa, Evans Cooray and Susil Siriwardena. These were dedicated, hard-working and disciplined government servants, who appeared to outsiders to exist for no other reason but to serve the institution of Premadasa around the clock. These are not qualities that they brought to Premadasa, but ones that they shared with him.

Ranasinghe Premadasa believed in discipline and hard work above all else. Rarely did he wake after 3.30am. Whatever he lacked in intellectual capacity and finesse, he sought to make up for with sweat. He knew that discipline involves sacrifice, and eschewed the luxuries and trappings of the presidency to spend his time building a legacy and achieving results. Whenever he was faced with adversity or disapproval, his solution was simply to work harder. 

His loyalty to those around him was unparalleled but conditioned on performance, best exemplified by his daily morning phone calls to his closest advisors, which more often than not, were made between three thirty and four thirty in the morning. Every day, he expected progress on his directives from the previous day, and he spared no quarter for his ministers or advisors who failed to perform.

It was this ruthless pragmatism that won him the support of many “doers” in the country. People who could perform and deliver results were drawn to Premadasa, who found room for them in his ranks. Being known as a villager himself, surrounded by the trappings of Colombo, Premadasa prioritized poverty alleviation above almost all else. Under his direction, several amenities that were taken for granted in the capital were brought to villages across the country – from clean water, to pothole-free roads, schools and medical facilities.

As a leader, he held his people accountable for not just results but also for their conduct. Under no-circumstances would he have sanctioned a government where nearly every supporting member of parliament was appointed to the cabinet or given a state or deputy ministerial portfolio. He kept an intimate cabinet and expected the rest of his MPs to focus on delivering in their electorates, ensuring that they had access to the funds and resources to do so. 

It is almost amusing to imagine how President Premadasa would have reacted to discovering that a number of his ministers and officials were gallivanting across the world with public funds at the drop of a hat, or spending our tax rupees on expensive furniture and adornments for their ministries and official residences. It is less amusing to recall that during his time, no public servant would have dreamt of participating in such abuses, which have become all too commonplace today.

Never satisfied with any particular accomplishment, Premadasa believed that a government, political party or individual had to keep growing in order to succeed. Not comfortable resting on his accolades, and despite lacking the formal educational background of most of his predecessors, he constantly struggled to adapt and surmount newer and greater political challenges.

As a man who struggled a great deal in his life, Premadasa was objective and practical. He had extraordinary determination. He believed that if you could see something in your mind, you could hold it in your hand. He never ever gave up. He was a tough man to work for but he would stand by his team members in a way no other leader would; thus did he secure their loyalty. 

President Premadasa had a way with words. He was a disciplinarian who was effective because he was so disciplined himself. No president and no leader since has followed up on matters he had delegated to ministers and officials and agencies in the way he did. This is how, after being at the helm of government and the UNP for only four years, Ranasinghe Premadasa came to be recognised as a kind of demi-god by the country's rural masses; and as the man who single-handedly lifted millions of Sri Lankans out of poverty and brought them dignity and hope.

Ranasinghe Premadasa had extraordinary energy, determination and skill. Indeed, in the words of Evans Cooray himself, Premadasa was not a man, but “an institution”.  

Many years ago I did not have much regard for Ranasinghe Premadasa. Today, when I reflect on that fateful May Day in 1993 and what followed, I remember what Evans Cooray told me. If I made my uncle turn in his grave over my opinions of Ranasinghe Premadasa, I am convinced he will now rest in peace.  He will rest in peace because today I am able to say with full conviction, that he was right.

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Economic Disparity and Nationalism – Part 2 

By Dr. Lionel Bopage 

Concentration of power

This situation usually leads to concentration of political and decision-making power in the hands of a few. This could lead to suboptimal use of human resources and cause political and economic instability. In turn, this will obstruct the ability to absorb foreign direct investment, which the capitalist governments mainly rely upon. Misery, poverty, and hopelessness could become pervasive in such a society. This provides an ideal environment for demagogues to raise their ugly heads.

These demagogues will make high pitch noises like saviours, without providing any solutions of substance. Nevertheless, such demagogues can raise a glimmer of hope among the ones whose lives have been adversely affected by this inequity. These nationalistic divisive demagogic leaders can emanate from any ethnic or religious background. Even if they utilise something that looks like a policy, it is solely a tactic used for grabbing power. Once in power they ditch or forget these policies, like those pledging to improve citizens’ economic circumstances and to eliminate their economic exploitation.

The 2008 economic recession that is considered the largest since 1929 created serious political repercussions. As a result, fundamentalist nationalist and religious currents came to the fore in many parts of the world. National and religious supremacy came to be asserted through violent extremism, mostly authoritarian and gave rise to many fascist trends. Simultaneously, political sentiments of certain segments of populations started moving towards extreme right-wing ideologies. Centralisation of decision making power in the hands of an autocrat as discussed is a manifestation of an extreme form of nationalism associated with fascist inclinations.

Concentration of power in the hands of an autocrat can be achieved via presidential and parliamentary elections or through extra parliamentary means. In the US, mostly racist fundamentalist right-wing groups brought Donald Trump to the Presidency. In many Nordic countries right wing groups have been elected to govern. Turkey extended the presidential term and also delegated prime ministerial powers to Tayyip Erdogan. Russian Federation concentrated power in Vladimir Putin’s hands and China made Xi Jinping president for life. Much closer to Sri Lanka, India, despite his hands being stained with Gujarati Muslim blood, Narendra Modi was made the Prime Minister.


Fascism is based on the superiority complex of a nation bound by race, ethnicity or culture. This nationalist ideology is upheld by an anti-democratic totalitarian state. A fascist state needs to be totalitarian to ensure that its citizens support controlling aspects of their lives such as leisure time, education and political activity to ensure their support for the regime. Democratic elections do not need to ensure that candidates have national interests at heart. Parliament can become a talk shop and a rubber stamp instead of being a forum that devotes time to discussing, formulating, enacting and implementing policies. If other parties exist, pursuing an ultranationalist goal may be challenged; hence the need not to have other competing parties in parliament.

Democracy can be weak when a regime is incompetent or unresponsive, or when democratic traditions are not entrenched in the social fabric of a country. As a result, citizens become disenchanted and are willing to abandon democracy for another ‘stronger’ and ‘stricter’ regime. Fascism in the guise of ultra-nationalism flourishes in such an environment where democracy is weak, and nationalism is strong. This provides an ideal environment for fascism to replace the weak regime and effortlessly flourish for some time.

How does one come to support demagoguery? When income inequality prevails, most people, especially those at the lower end of the income spectrum find it extremely difficult to meet their needs, whether they are basic economic needs, psychological or self-actualisation. So, it is not surprising that fundamentalism, discrimination, racism and sexism become prevalent in society. Humanity at one time or another has had to confront such issues. When faced with socio-economic and political crises, people will use whatever means available to realise their needs. That is when people start relying on demagogues. That is how fascist trends have established roots in many parts of the world. 

Over the past several decades in the western world, and certainly before that in some countries in Asia, totalitarian currents have surged under many pretexts. Humanity easilybecomes blind when they cannot satisfy their survival needs. This was the post-World War 1 scenario in both Germany and Italy. Italian and German democracies and democratic traditions were only recent and had weak roots. Unemployment grew with the economic crisis post-World War 1. The Treaty of Versailles made Germans culpable for starting World War 1. They had to accept punitive reparations and significant territorial concessions. Italians contended that they were not bestowed with the territory that should have been awarded to them. Feeling humiliated, national resentment became omnipresent. 

The Fascist and Nazi parties promised to restore their respective country’s national greatness. Hence, Italians and Germans started supporting fascism. Germany and Italy pursued their national superiority complexes via the Italian Fascist Party and the German Nazi Party. Benito Mussolini, the leader (Il Duce) of the National Fascist Party intended to “guide the material and moral progress of the [Italian] community.” Adolf Hitler (der Führer) of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party wished to re-position the German nation as “the culture-founder of this earth.” They wanted the loyalty to their nations to be above and beyond religion and social class."

To realise such goals, they needed an anti-democratic totalitarian state that would decimate any prevailing democratic systems and institutions. Mussolini removed all politicalopposition by employing his secret police and banning worker strikes. He and his followers of the Italian Fascist Party consolidated power by enacting laws and employing violent means that transformed the nation into a one-party dictatorship. His aspirations for creating a totalitarian state ended when he was deposed by the King. Yet, in a few months’ time, he established a pro-Hitler puppet regime in northern Italy and became the leader of the Italian Social Republic. In 1945, while fleeing with his mistress, he was captured and summarily executed. 

Hitler believed that the Jewish people were responsible for the economic exploitation of Germans during World War-II. Germans not only accepted Hitler’s falsified version of events, but condoned his savage barbarism, simply because this was justification for their own personal economic benefit.

Part 1: https://isis.lk/featured/1738-economic-disparity-and-nationalism-part-1

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Sri Lanka: May Day and Workers’ Rights

Sri Lanka: May Day and Workers’ Rights
By Lionel Bopage

May Day was declared a holiday in Sri Lanka in 1956 for the government sector, bank and mercantile sectors.  May Day celebrations have never clashed with the interests of or activities conducted during Vesak celebrations. Despite this situation and without consultation, the President has unilaterally decided to postpone May Day on the pretext that there will be a “Vesak Week” this calendar year. A gazette notification issued by Home Affairs Minister yesterday cancelled the May Day holiday which is due on May 1.

The President’s postponement of the May Day celebrations in Sri Lanka to May 7 is allegedly because of a request made by Mahanayaka Theros., This is a crass political ploy of exploiting religious sentiment to inhibit protests of the working people by diverting their attention away from the burning issues of the day. Some of the parties and unions who are supposed to represent workers’ interests have already fallen in line with the government. Others have decided to take their protests to the streets on May 1, despite a municipal ban on marches.
The issue of overlapping of May Day with Vesak Day has arisen many times previously. The façade of religiosity becomes apparent at times when this occurs. In 1967, the UNP regime postponed May Day celebrations to the 2nd of May. As quoted in news reports, the Communist Party (Peking Wing) opposed it and Maithripala Sirisena supported the Communist Party’s decision. Now he himself is displaying his opportunism by postponing May Day celebrations.  

Several trade unions in Sri Lanka have strongly objected to this decision to postpone May Day, emphasising that it is a right of workers to celebrate international workers’ day on May 1. The JVP has declared that they will go ahead with the May Day Rally but will hold the Colombo rally on May 7. It is holding its May 1st rally in Jaffna, which is interesting. One could question whether this option is utilised not to confront the issue giving prominence to religion over workers’ rights. According to the JVP, bringing large crowds to Colombo on May Day for celebrations would become an obstacle for Vesak celebrations that will be held in Colombo. This is not the first time the JVP seems to have wavered on this issue. In 2008, the JVP took the initiative to change the May Day from May 1 due to Vesak celebrations, by requesting the government to do so.

This year, Vesak Day does not fall on May 1. The clash is due to the declaration of a Vesak week this year. If the Vesak Week is turned into an annual event, it will be interesting to find out what the JVP position would be. One could easily interpret and equate the JVP position to “killing two birds with one stone”. Thus, they avoid having a May Day rally in Colombo on the May Day itself, despite the relevance of the International Working Day to the working people of the south of Sri Lanka, many of whom reside in Colombo.

When we were released from prison in November 1977, the position of the JVP towards the mobilisation of workers was to organise them in a single workers’ federation, without being concerned of their individual political affiliations. The slogan was One Trade Union for One Industry. However, this did not materialise and the JVP then formed its own trade union under the banner of “Socialist Workers Union”. This fragmentation of workers unity along party lines can be seen in many countries including Sri Lanka and India.

In Sri Lanka, workers have joined ranks with capitalist political parties such as the UNP, the SLPP and the SLFP. Even those on the left are associated with and scattered around, many political parties and groups. These political entities, when they were in power directly or as constituents of capitalist ruling coalitions, have violently suppressed many struggles led by the workers and the youth of the country. Sectarianism among trade unions contributes to not having joint May Day events, thus contributing to the weakness of the workers’ movement. This is also one of the factors that has affected the legitimacy of the trade unions in the public eye and has also contributed to the apathy of some sections of the working people.

Workers instead of mobilising independently to safeguard their own interests, are now paying lip service to their cause. Meanwhile the regime is working on the advice and agenda of the IMF and the World Bank by stripping hard-earned workers’ rights, including the eight-hour working day. This situation will not change, until trade unions organise on the basis of One Trade Union for One Industry policy. At the same time, the only guarantee for such unity will be to practice democracy within trade unions.

Apparently, one of the main trade unions that allow working people with diverse political views to come together for participative decision making is the Ceylon Mercantile Union that had been previously led by comrade, the late Bala Tampoe. However, despite workers with diverse political views being allowed to join the union, I note that during his long tenure, a solid grip was maintained on the union by the General Secretary till his demise.

Thus, this Government has declared May Day a working day. Furthermore, the Colombo Municipal Council controlled by the UNP has refused to grant permission to hold May Day rallies in public parks in Colombo on May 1. This is clearly a ban on all May Day celebrations in Colombo. The sort of repressive action this government takes against those organising May Day events on May 1, could very well be on par with the violent repressive action the previous regime took against e workers struggles at the time. As the United States and several other countries had done, the Government of Sri Lanka seems to have come forward to openly curb democratic rights of the working people.

One could observe historic parallels; when many socialist groups came into being during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Some of them were political parties and others just choirs. Many socialists were even elected to represent their constituencies. However, big businesses and the state controlled the political process. Seeing that there was no way they could advance for a better future, many rejected the available political space, which had been designed to protect the wealthy. Most of them broke away from political organisations to become anarchists. They stressed the need for worker directed industries and cherished direct action over bureaucratic political processes.
Working people all over the world celebrates their traditions, histories and victories on May 1, every year. The socialists and communists of the Second International commemorated the Haymarket Affair in Chicago on the first of May, which became May Day as we know it. It is now a public holiday in many countries with   workers around the world including Sri Lanka celebrating May Day with protest rallies and marches. For many millennia, May Day has been a day celebrating rebirth and fertility. Originally, it was a pagan holiday celebrating the start of summer. May Day is also related to the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and is associated with the spring festivals of the Renaissance, particularly in the northern hemisphere and to this day is celebrated in many cultures. Later, the pagan nature of May Day gave way to a more secular celebration in Europe and North America. In this sense, there is no contradiction or clash between the interests of those celebrating May Day as the International Working Day and those who celebrate it in a cultural manner.

Since the 1880s, it has been recognised as the International Worker's Day. At the time, working class movements had been fighting for fair working conditions including a standardised eight-hour working days and the rights of the trade unions. Under drastic and adverse working conditions, workers had to work 10 to 16-hour days with no holiday provisions.  Due to unsafe work practices, death and injury were a commonplace occurrence. During this time, the working class was in constant struggle to gain an 8-hour work day. However, it was only in the late 1880's that organized labour was able to gain sufficient power to declare the 8-hour working day, without the consent of employers.
In 1884, Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor) proclaimed that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labour from and after May 1, 1886." Many reiterated this proclamation and wished to support it with strikes and demonstrations. Initially, anarchists and radicals thought this was too reformist as it failed to strike "at the root of the evil." Despite these hesitations, “an estimated quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the crusade to implement the eight hour work day”. With this, the radicals agreed to fight for the 8-hour working day, but with the realisation that greater issues than the 8-hour day existed.

May 1, 1886 was the first May Day celebration in the world. In Chicago, 40,000 went out on strike. Parades, bands and tens of thousands of demonstrators on the streets illustrated the workers' strength and unity. Strikers responded to the police beatings by throwing rocks and the police responded with gunfire, killing several strikers and wounding many. The Chicago protests spread across Europe. Yet, many being not aware of this believe it is a day celebrated only by the communists and socialists. Despite this belief, May Day has continued to be associated with the objective of achieving social and economic fairness and justice for all working people.

Socialism became an attractive proposition to workers only at a later stage. The idea of working class control over production and distribution of all goods and services was new and very attractive. They came to the understanding that capitalism worked only in favour of owners of means of production by trading the labour and lives of workers for profit. With thousands of needless deaths of men, women and children at work, life expectancy was as low as early twenties in certain industries. When there was no hope but death and destitution, socialism offered them a humane alternative.

Nowadays workers in the west: coming from many faiths and ethnicities work together to protect the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. For the past several years, immigration policy has been a focus for mobilising at May Day events. In the modern movement for worker’s rights, immigrants and their supporters march in the streets.  Immigration has been compounded by the ruling classes into a divisive political issue; we need to transform it into a human issue.

History teaches us that people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today. There is a lot more to fight for. If we remember that people were shot for us to enjoy the eight hour working day; if we recognise that homes were burnt down for us to have Saturday as part of the weekend; if we recollect child victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labour only to be beaten down by the police and company thugs, then only can we understand that our current conditions cannot be taken for granted. The sacrifices so many people made cannot be forgotten. Otherwise, we will have to fight all over again to gain the very same rights our forbearers won. That is the historical lesson we need to learn when celebrating May Day, which is vital.

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Economic Disparity and Nationalism – Part 1

By Dr. Lionel Bopage

The cold war in the form that existed in the last century disappeared with the collapse of the state capitalistic model of ‘socialism’ as was practised in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. The world is left with a few countries that follow the same state capitalistic model. Despite the belief that the cold war ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new cold war appears to have emerged with a vengeance. Though the protagonists of this appear to be the corporate capitalist interests of the United States and its allies versus the Russian Federation and its oligarchs, the real focus of the west’s fear and ire could be the Peoples’ Republic of China.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the corporate capitalist system has reigned supreme almost all over the world, with its attendant severe socio-economic and cultural crises. Peoples’ democracy in the proper sense of the word has not been able to survive with the reappearance of unbridled capitalism in the corporate and state sectors. Such crises have made many western capitalist societies almost dysfunctional. Under open economy and free market conditions, economic disparity has continued to surge, mainly due to the regulatory environment imposed by the ruling corporate interests and the free hand given to them to increasingly monopolise global resources.

Historically and in the present era, governments elected by the populace that are not compatible with the interests of powerful capitalist conglomerates and states have been overthrown by killing tens of thousands of men, women and children to bring to power corporate friendly tyrants. The United Nations is also not immune; it has been made to toe the line of neo-liberal and conservative regimes with threats of sidelining it financially. It has been used against those who oppose the new neo-liberal agenda. In this sense, the United Nations has turned out to be an impotent, stranded entity, a mere voyeur, made to watch impotently as blood is been spilt in every corner of the world.

Economic Disparity

Corporate economists are neither concerned about humanity nor are they compassionate. They do not care about economic and income disparity; for them people are either consumers or units of production. Their logic is that people need to work harder to access upward social mobility. Income inequality they argue, keeps their motivation up. They assert that wealth redistribution through social security measures and other welfare programs are expensive. So, despite many faiths preaching compassion, the world has become a more miserable place. Opportunities for economic growth and development have tumbled further downwards.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are not institutions propagating humanitarian views. Yet, they have concluded that income inequality is affecting economic growth. The Center for European Economic Research (ZEW) has contested these findings, but realpolitik indicates that income inequality is on the rise and low-income households increasingly find it difficult to invest in higher education. Thus, their opportunities for upward social mobility are impaired.

According to the World Inequality Report, income inequality in all regions has increased in recent decades, and in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa inequality is obscenely high and persistent. Inequality in India and China are also of massive proportions. The gap between these countries and those in the west has become narrower, thus reducing global inequality. The global Gini Index  has dropped to 65 due to rapid economic growth in several Asian countries. By 2035, the Index is expected to drop to 61.

Rise of nationalism

Accordingly, global income inequality between nations though high is reducing, however the gap between the rich and the poor within countries has widened. Such trends as a whole and individually may explain the rise of populism, nationalism and protectionism in some parts of the world. Regimes pursuing a capitalist path of development have found it difficult to reverse or control this trend of increasing inequality. As recommended and sometimes demanded by the IMF and the World Bank, structural reforms in the form of privatisation of public assets have been carried out in many such countries with devastating results impacting on social fabric.

Regimes in Sri Lanka have pursued a similar path. The global experience during the past several decades is that such measures have made these countries rich as a whole, but with income inequality predominating. In this process, governments have become poorer. According to the World Inequality Report, this is one of the major factors restricting the ability of regimes in tackling inequality.

The current situation in Sri Lanka exemplifies this process. It is characterised by the loss of confidence in both state and corporate sectors and institutions, erosion of social bonds and increasing uncertainty about the future. Widening inequality has significantly affected economic growth and macroeconomic stability. Inequities related to accessing education, health care, and finance have become prevalent. Thus, certain segments of society are being subject to persistent disadvantage.

The article is part of a four part series by Dr. Lionel Bopage.

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Is Sri Lanka latest to fall into a China debt trap?

Indebtedness to China has obliged Sri Lanka to hand over a major port to its financier. Is this an emerging pattern in Asia? Nikkei staff writer Yuji Kuronuma reports.

PIC 2 chnWhen Sri Lanka handed over its southern port of Hambantota to China in December 2017, many saw the episode as a cautionary tale for other countries that are eagerly accepting Chinese finance to build major infrastructure projects.

Sri Lanka granted a 99-year lease on the port to China Merchant Port Holdings in the hope of cutting its debt to China, which is one of the highest among emerging economies. China, for its part, has gained an important beachhead that could help its attempts to expand military influence in the Indian Ocean.

Construction of the $1.5bn Hambantota Port began in 2008 under former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The first phase of the project, which ended in 2010, cost $361m. While details of the second phase are not known, Exim Bank of China financed 85% of the first phase; in other words, the port construction was greatly reliant on funding from the Chinese government.

But as the port’s losses began to mount, the Sri Lankan government found itself unable to repay its debts. While the country had an external debt of $48.3bn at the end of 2017, its annual external financing needs are $11bn – roughly the same as its annual tax revenue. Sri Lanka's debt to China totals $8bn and is said to carry a 6% interest rate.

“We had to take a decision to get out of this debt trap,” says Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s port and shipping minister, regarding the 99-year lease.

As a result, Sri Lanka, an island country with a population of 20 million, is being held up as a textbook example of a country caught in a so-called debt trap set by China. Government critics say Sri Lanka’s sovereignty has been compromised by the port episode, which came two months before the former president of the neighbouring Maldives warned that its debts could force it to cede territory to China as early as next year.

Gaining a strategic location

Sri Lanka is located at a strategic point for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The port of Hambantota is indispensable to China’s energy security as it imports two-thirds of oil through shipping lanes south of the port.

 PIC 1 chnSources: IMF World Economic Outlook

 In 2009, Mr Rajapaksa put an end to Sri Lanka’s civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and made a policy shift toward infrastructure improvements ahead of the presidential election in 2010. This included the development of Hambantota Port, which is located within his constituency.

China is also funding a Sri Lankan airport project. Mr Rajapaksa kicked off the construction of the country’s second international airport in Mattala, an inland town 20 kilometres from Hambantota, in 2009. Of the $209m construction cost, Exim Bank of China put up $190m with a concessionary loan. Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport is now often referred to as “the world’s emptiest international airport” because only four regular flights arrive and depart each week. The Sri Lankan government plans to sell the airport, too.


India’s concern

Across the border, this has led to worries in India that the airport could become a Chinese air force base, and an Indian delegation visited the airport in 2017 to discuss taking it over. However, according to an airport official: “I heard that it was not going well due to [a] mismatch in conditions from both sides.”

China is also involved in a $15bn project to build Colombo Port City on reclaimed land in the Sri Lankan capital. The $1.4bn first phase is being undertaken by a subsidiary of China Communications & Construction Co, which is shouldering the total cost of reclaiming 269 hectares of land.

Sri Lanka’s debt equals 81.6% of its gross domestic product (GDP), which the International Monetary Fund describes as “high compared with peers, with the ratio of gross financial needs to GDP being the third largest among emerging economies”. But to the Sri Lankan government, “there is no country or institution with ready cash other than China”, says a senior economic official.

Even after the debt problems at Hambantota became clear, in 2017 China proposed two joint $3bn and $125m projects to Sri Lanka for the construction of an oil refinery and a cement factory, respectively, around the port. This raises questions as to whether this will exacerbate Sri Lanka’s debt profile.


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