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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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India, China at cross purposes in Sri Lanka, both face Lankan anger

Many in Sri Lanka are voicing dissent – questioning the wisdom of handing over “national assets” of the island nation to China and India in the guise of regional economic development.

LKAHambantota port was developed by Sri Lanka with money borrowed from China/Reuters.

 Massive infrastructural development projects in South Asia sponsored by China and India – involving billions of dollars – are attracting sharp criticism.

China – with its far bigger investments and outreach – has been facing greater political resistance to its transport connectivity and energy sector related projects in Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

However, Sri Lanka is where the two most populous Asian countries have crossed each other’s path.

Now it is India’s turn to face indirect criticism from political circles in Sri Lanka over its involvement in developing the controversial Mattala airport.

Many in Sri Lanka are voicing dissent – questioning the wisdom of handing over “national assets” of the island nation to China and India in the guise of regional economic development.

There has been stinging opposition to the China-sponsored construction of the Hambantota port and development projects involving an investment of $1.5 billion.

The project was part of a grandiose dream of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In addition to the port, the Chinese had built a new airport at Mattala near Hambantota and a sports facility. The Chinese-built structures are linked by pristine new roads that Chinese companies have built.

According to the opaque provisions of the agreement between China and Sri Lanka – the terms of which were never publicly disclosed, let alone debated – Sri Lanka provided sovereign guarantees for meeting repayment commitments to the Chinese, incorporating a debt-for-equity swap in case of non-payment.

Sri Lankan’s dilemma

Now as things stand, Sri Lanka’s indebtedness to China has mounted sharply over the years to stand at over $8 billion.

Even partially repaying the high-interest loans have proved difficult for the new Sri Lankan government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena.

The major reason being – the Hambantota port is hardly being used by ships which prefer to call at Colombo port. The same dilemma applies for the Mattala airport which runs only one flight a week to Dubai.

In diplomatic circles, the buzz is that Western companies are none-too-keen to use the Chinese-built infra-facilities set up as part of One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBOR), unless there is no alternative.

Therefore, Colombo’s recent decision to hand over the Hambantota port facilities to China on a 99-year lease, retaining only a 20% share for itself, came as no surprise. China also took charge of around 6070 hectares of land and announced plans to set up a special economic zone (SEZ) – to turn the area into an economic hub to be run with Chinese finance.

Questioning the Chinese motive

India, Japan and the United States had expressed their fears that in the guise of building a port, China was really setting up a naval base at Hambantota with military implications. China strongly denied this. But once the administration of the port passed under its control, there was nothing to stop the Chinese from reducing public access to its facilities and running it the way they wanted to.

India has stepped in – never having swallowed the Chinese rhetoric about not using Hambantota as a key strategic port in the Indian Ocean conveniently placed in relation to Djibouti and Gwadar.

It has offered to help develop the Mattala airport, where reportedly rice is being stored at the hangars, not planes.

Significantly, the decision has not been debated in India at length either and the reasons for India’s going in remain obscure.

Sri Lanka’s Sino-Indian complex

The argument heard in diplomatic circles is that India is “buying out” Sri Lanka’s debt component to China with an initial investment of around $280 million or so.

To start with – Delhi will help build a flying school, run the airport jointly with the local Sri Lankan company that administers Colombo airport.

China had already spent over $250 million to build the Mattala facilities.

However, most analysts see the dangers of a big power confrontation developing in the region.

China has never strongly denied reports about setting up a naval base in the area.

Given this background, India could be interested in involving itself with a “lame duck” airport only with the interest of monitoring closely the movement of Chinese ships or other vessels in what it regards as its own backyard. Such maneuverings were bound to raise local political tensions and temperatures that would first hurt the Sri Lankans and their immediate interests.

In broad terms, these worries form the core of anxieties in a section of Sri Lankan observers, who feel that things could go wrong especially at times when delicately poised trilateral relations come under sudden strain.

So far, Indian authorities have not publicly reacted to such apprehensions at this stage.

However, this has not eased mounting concerns at Colombo. Prominent opposition MP Dullas Alahapperuma told reporters that handing over “national assets” to China and India – in the name of development – could prove to be a high-risk business. It could lead to “dangerous consequences.” Three opposition MPs were recently arrested for demonstrating outside the Hambantota port.

Meanwhile, influential Indian think tanks have advised Delhi to avoid specifically the high-handed approach adopted by the Chinese in relation to their ambitious OBOR scheme – projected cost $700 billion to over $1 trillion in phases. Eminent analysts feel that India should strengthen and further develop the win-win model of regional co-operation that exists between it and Bangladesh.

India has substantially improved the level of its internal infrastructure through better road and railway transit agreements and coordination of coastal vessel movements through effective planning and talks with Bangladesh. In return, Bangladesh has also increased its outreach to Nepal, Bhutan and major Indian states, not to mention its earnings through transit fees. Apart from a rise in national income and trade, fuel or time savings, there has been new job creation on both sides.

Ashis Biswas

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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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Three men who would dare not face a presidential election

Mainstream politics in Sri Lanka is so bankrupt, none of the 02 main political leaders can ever face the next 2020 presidential election with grit and confidence. The third, Mahinda Rajapaksa is ruled out on 19A as he had already completed 02 terms. President Sirisena who was elected with a promise to scrap the Executive Presidency has since been saying he would consider a second term, but could never contest and win, unless Rajapaksa backs him. But that thought is as cheating as a shooting star and would never happen. Recent LG elections would have taught him a bitter lesson in going out on his own without Rajapaksa.

His “Unity” government partner the UNP leader Wickremesinghe contested once in 2005 November when he lost to Rajapaksa and thereafter had avoided contesting the presidential election twice, going behind “Common” Candidates. All because his UNP fears to contest a presidential election with him as the UNP candidate. We thus have 03 leaders, one denied the chance to contest and 02 who will not have election platforms they can begin their campaign with convincing popular support.

If offered an opportunity to contest a presidential election without tenure counts, it is Mahinda Rajapaksa who would jump on it, before anyone else. But that needs an amendment to the Constitution. Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe would never allow such an amendment to the Constitution. Nor would concerned people of this country consent to such amendment.

That compelled few urban middle class Sinhala Buddhists and a few ex-military officers to believe Gotabhaya Rajapaksa could be an “alternative” to Mahinda Rajapaksa. Most unfortunately for Gotabhaya, he is not even endorsed by his own Rajapaksa family to declare himself a presidential candidate at the 2020 election. Despite allegations of heavy corruption and court cases against Basil Rajapaksa, he remains the most politically savvy organiser among Rajapaksa siblings. He also carries with him the “anti UNP” stamp, having been arrested and remanded by this UNP led “Unity” government. A situation Gotabhaya is mortally afraid of facing, and has been evading arrests through judicial rulings he obtained. During the past year, two attempts by Gotabhaya to prop himself up in politics, first with “Viyath maga” (Intellectual path) and thereafter with “Eliya” (Light) fizzled off without any public interest. A clear message, Gotabhaya is not accepted by the Sinhala Buddhist majority. He is not recognised as one who could give leadership to the Sinhala Buddhists sentiments that Mahinda Rajapaksa has rallied around himself. Gotabhaya also carries with him a baggage that makes him look a dreadful despot in power.

In short, Gotabhaya is not accepted within the Sinhala Buddhist majority, even to the extent, Basil is still tolerated. That is also why Mahinda Rajapaksa continues to have confidence in Basil as the necessary organisational prop for his popular Sinhala image. Thus it was Basil who was chosen by Mahinda to organise the new party, the SLPP and not Gotabhaya. The SLPP swept the LG elections without Gotabhaya in sight, but with Basil managing the election campaign for Mahinda. It proves that Mahinda Rajapaksa still remains the irreplaceable popular Sinhala Buddhist leader for more years to come.

For Mahinda Rajapaksa to reach the pinnacle of political power once again, he needs a parliamentary election and that should come before the 2020 presidential election too. One option would be to have a resolution passed in parliament with a two thirds majority. For now, to have that resolution passed with a two thirds majority seems a dream that cannot be given feet. The Joint Opposition is in a tiring struggle to find adequate numbers to have their ‘No confidence’ motion passed in parliament on 04 April. A man who always loves to walk on secured paths and would work on them patiently, Mahinda does not seem to be wasting time with that option of a resolution in parliament for elections.

My guess therefore is, Mahinda is stealthily working on a different option, he perhaps thinks is more pragmatic and solid. This leads the country into a political knot that Wickremesinghe tied with 19A. Mahinda Rajapaksa no doubt is eyeing that knot, Wickremesinghe would now want to untie, for his advantage. With mutual agreement or not, they both seem to be on the same page, in having a parliamentary election, before a presidential election. The Constitutional knot Wickremesinghe tied with 19A to keep this “Unity” government going for 04 plus years with him as PM, now seems an uneasy knot for him too to live with.

As it is, four and a half years from August 2015 would count beyond March 2020 for a parliamentary election. On the same 19A, the presidential election would come in January 2020. If Wickremesinghe cannot be assured victory at that presidential election, he will dare not contest the 2020 presidential election, to be defeated once again. Such assurance is hard to come for Wickremesinghe, even from his own party. In a situation where there is no guarantee on a presidential electoral victory for him, he will not have any other contesting the presidency from the UNP. Worst is, there is also none in the UNP for now who could stand up to a presidential election, except Mangala Samaraweera. But Mangala is still not accepted as a finely groomed UNPer to be allowed that privilege by the UNP hierarchy. The dilemma for the UNP that avoided the 02 previous presidential elections is, they cannot once again go behind a “Common Candidate”.

Where would this leave the UNP and Wickremesinghe and how does Rajapaksa come on their page? Their page is not very complicated to read. If the UNP and Wickremesinghe cannot be certain they could win a presidential election with Wickremesinghe as the candidate, then Wickremesinghe would opt to have a parliamentary election, with a Constitutional amendment to abolish the executive presidency and would allow for a parliamentary election. Presidential elections can then be scrapped to elect a non-executive President as in India through parliament. In fact, for the UNP that would be a more pragmatic move to claim power at an election as a single political party. Then comes Rajapaksa who is denied a third term and would therefore want a parliamentary election with the same Constitutional amendment. More because he now has proved he can lead the race, even without the support of the Sirsena faction of the SLFP.

That is how all other things seem to be now falling into place. Rajapaksa is perhaps working on a dual strategy. The ‘No confidence’ motion against the PM is what the Joint Opposition (JO) is working on to forge unity with the Sirisena group of the SLFP that wants to be seen as “anti UNP”. That would compel Sirisena to allow his men to vote for the ‘No confidence’ motion without any disciplinary threats. He is also seen further consolidating his power over economic policy of the government, right or wrong.

On the other side of the ‘No confidence’ motion, Rajapaksa avoided giving it his own popular identity. His strategy was to project a “I’m not there. I’m there” image by presenting it to the Speaker, without his signature. Thus he has already made certain, the ‘No confidence’ motion would allow the JO and other UPFA MPs in the government to go “anti UNP”, but does not seem to want UNP dissidents to join the “No Confidence” motion to oust PM. Wickremesinghe For he needs Wickremesinghe as PM to push through a Constitutional amendment to abolish the executive presidency with a two thirds majority and then the UNP to win the people’s “Referendum” that would follow. PM Wickremesinghe too needs Rajapaksa for the same reasons.

Perhaps Wickremesinghe believes he could win a parliamentary election with minority support while Rajapaksa believes he could win the parliamentary elections on his Sinhala Buddhist platform, even if President Sirisena would opt to keep away from an alliance with his SLPP. He has already morphed his SLPP into a novel SLFP at grassroots. LG bodies have shown, there is an organic anti UNP front taking shape, with Sirisena’s SLFP joining the SLPP to keep the UNP out of office even in places where they led the vote.

For President Sirisena, his new arrogant “anti UNP” stance within this “Unity” government, will not open any better window to see a better future than what Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa agenda would offer. A compromise to abolish the executive presidency to be President and a nominal head of State, elected by a new parliament, dominated either by Wickremesinghe or by Rajapaksa. For these two the boxing ring would be large enough to spend time shadow boxing for at least another whole year.

Kusal Perera

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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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India’s expanding security sphere

India’s foreign policy elites are grappling with a wide array of strategic challenges as the country’s power rises, writes David Brewster.

As India rises as a major power its security sphere is expanding beyond South Asia. But it still remains uncertain about the extent and shape of its future security role. India’s decisions about this will be key to the shape of Australia’s future strategic environment.

India’s security sphere – where it identifies key security interests and seeks to play a security role – is a function of its interests, ambitions, capabilities and constraints.

India has long had great ambitions, but its ability to protect its interests has been constrained by its limited capabilities. Despite its huge population and many natural resources, India’s sclerotic economy meant that it had little ability to project power beyond South Asia.

More than two decades of strong economic growth is now expanding India’s interests, and its capabilities to protect those interests. Still, it remains a poor country and its future economic trajectory is far from assured.

Ideology both propels India into the region and constrains it. India’s elite see it as having a destiny to become a great power with global interests. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented, India now has the “unique opportunity” to position itself in a “leading role” globally.

But many, from Mahatma Gandhi onwards, have also argued that India must exercise power in a moral way. In the decades after independence, this was expressed through the principles of non-alignment, which included refusing to enter into alignments and the promotion of non-violence, international cooperation and the primacy of the United Nations.

The force of these ideas is slowly fading. Narendra Modi has made significant efforts to promote India playing a more active security role in the manner of a ‘normal’ power. Both Modi and his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, have argued that India must act as a ‘net security provider to the region’.

But what is India’s region?

India is a ‘South Asian’ power and is increasingly taking a leading role in parts of the Indian Ocean. But it remains hesitant about assuming a security role in important areas such as the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea. Although New Delhi endorses the idea of the Indo-Pacific, there are still fears that India might be dragged into disputes far from its shores.

Even simple security agreements with the United States, such as arrangements to give logistical support to each other’s militaries, remain politically controversial in India.

South Asia is the core of India’s security sphere. India’s immediate neighbourhood presents major security challenges. Armed stand-offs with Pakistan and China keep most of India’s army on its borders. Other neighbours, such as Bangladesh and Nepal, have their own problems that directly impact India’s internal security.

While India’s neighbours have a very immediate security impact on it, contemporary security interests aren’t neatly defined by proximity. In fact, India’s external engagements operate unevenly and in ways that can transcend pure geography.

India has sought to transcend its traditional strategic preoccupations in South Asia, including through ‘de-hyphenating’ itself from Pakistan and through showing greater generosity with other neighbours. But the challenges that India faces internally and on its borders mean that security demands in South Asia will be the overwhelming focus of India’s security efforts. India will always look first at its own doorstep.

Over the last decade, India has claimed a much-expanded area of strategic interest in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian Navy’s 2015 Maritime Security Strategy lists the country’s primary areas of maritime interest as covering most of the Indian Ocean. Many Indian leaders see this as India’s sphere of influence.

While India hotly denies any hegemonic designs, it does wish to be acknowledged by others as playing a leading role. As famous RAND Corporation analyst, George Tanham once described it, India’s self-perceived regional role is that of a ‘friendly policeman’ that seeks peace and stability for the entire Indian Ocean region. These sensitivities cause India to often move slowly and cautiously, and in practice underplay its strategic strengths. Usually, India’s actual security role falls short of its aspirations towards leadership of the entire region.

India has a naturally dominant maritime security role in the Bay of Bengal. This is a key defensive space for India against potential threats that may come through Southeast Asia. Control over the sea-lanes that enter the Malacca Strait can also provide strategic leverage over rivals. In recent years, India has reinforced its capabilities in the Bay of Bengal, including ‘rebalancing’ naval resources to India’s east coast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, near the Malacca Strait.

Nevertheless, India’s relations in the region are uneven, as countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka try to hedge their bets through relationships with others powers, such as China.

The southwest Indian Ocean is another area where India is building a leading role. Its security interests in this region include protecting its key trade routes around southern Africa and, potentially, denying those routes to others.

India is now building a military base in the Seychelles, near the northern end of the Mozambique Channel, and is considering another base on remote islands owned by Mauritius. These represent a major departure from Indian policy that long derided foreign military bases.

But it is not clear to what extent India’s future security sphere will include the northwest Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

India has many interests in the Persian Gulf. It is vitally concerned with access to energy and the vulnerability of oil imports through the Strait of Hormuz. The Gulf Arab states are major economic partners and the home of more than seven million Indian nationals. Pakistan also has a big military presence in the Gulf.

These factors simultaneously make the Gulf an area of vital interest and constrain India’s security presence. For one thing, taking an active role in the region would be a big political risk for Delhi, not least because of the views of 180 million Indian Muslims.

India is developing closer security relationships with some smaller Gulf Arab States, but these remain tentative. Some see India and Iran as ‘natural’ strategic partners, although India will try to avoid taking sides in growing Sunni-Shia rivalries in the region. The recent deal to jointly develop Chabahar Port as a gateway to Central Asia may only be the first of many joint India-Iran projects in the region.

Despite its crucial security interests, India is not in a hurry to assume a major security role in the Gulf. US military predominance there provides stability at a low economic and political cost to India. But this will change if the United States draws down its defence resources in the Gulf, or that region becomes contested by China. Ultimately, that will be the true test of India’s willingness to assume the burdens that come with being a major power.

David Brewster is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Security College, Australian National University and a Distinguished Research Fellow with the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne. This article is based on the author’s chapter in the Oxford Handbook of India’s National Security (Oxford University Press, 2018).


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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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Replanting the Forests one Wild Mushroom at a time

When she was a girl, Nilanthi Kumarasinghe would fill a bowl with salt and chilli powder and head into the forest. Her parents were worried it was unsafe, but to her those were halcyon days. She and the other children ran wild, spending lazy afternoons climbing trees to pluck fruit, both sweet and tart; laughing and talking as they ate them with chilli powder. “We grew up relying on the resources of the forest. We found things there that we could not find anywhere else,” Nilanthi remembers, describing how her father used to return from his forays into the woods with large baskets of wild mushrooms. Their neighbours would bring home fruits, honeycomb and medicinal herbs.

Now 42-years old, Nilanthi is married and lives with her family in Mahakirindegama, a village near Mihintale in Anuradhapura. Her mushrooms come not from the forest but from a little shed behind her house. The seeds are grown in sawed-off PVC bottles, each container filled with a combination of mango wood dust, magnesium sulphate, calcium carbonate, soya and gram flour and gypsum to hold it all together. She uses only organic fertilizers to keep pests at bay and swears by fermented garlic juice.

Each container in her shed yields some 750 grams of mushrooms before it must be replaced. For every 200 grams of oyster mushrooms Nilanthi makes Rs.60; abalones get her a little more, at Rs.80 per pack. Her product is in demand, all her neighbours buy from her, and she also supplies the local shops. In total, in a good month she earns Rs. 40,000.

Training and supplies from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) helped her kick start what is today a thriving business. The Community Forestry Project is funded by AusAid and implemented by the Department of Forestry in collaboration with UNDP. It was initiated to reduce deforestation and forest degradation in the dry and intermediate zones of Sri Lanka.

At the heart of the programme is an awareness that the communities that live on the boundaries of the forest are in fact the best people to protect it. When empowered and equipped with knowledge of the ecosystem and best practices, technologies, market linkages, access to credit and ability to partner with the Government, private sector, NGOs and other entities, such communities can prosper. Field operations began in 2012, with the project being rolled out across 17 districts. 23,000 ha of forests were planted in 167 sites and productivity was enhanced in over 3,000 home gardens. As part of the support to the Department of Forestry, motorbikes and computers were provided to field offices, thereby helping to improve their capacity and access. A Programme Management Unit was established at the premises of the Forest Department to facilitate the implementation of the programme. In total, an estimated 10,000 households enjoyed direct benefits from the project, with indirect beneficiaries estimated to be some 90,000 people.

Before this work began, many of these communities were isolated, and lacking in access to basic infrastructure, water and other essentials. Most of the men in this area are daily wage workers, says Namali Ratnatunga, a forest extension officer with 15 years of experience in the department. To make money, they would often go into the forest, slashing and burning to create room for chena cultivation. Close to a small tank, this village would also see large numbers of elephants and monkeys ransacking their fields. Now Ratnatunga sees alternative livelihoods making a huge impact.

Nilanthi is one of a dozen women who work from home. Ratnatunga has helped others set up business where they raise chickens, grow lime, mangoes and betel leaves, and run a variety of small home businesses. In the next village, Ratnatunga helped the community plant teak trees, which have provided them with the wood they need to run their furnaces. Such initiatives have curtailed forest encroachments, while leaving the communities more prosperous, with sustainable sources of income. Ratnatunga feels the project’s focus on women has really paid off. “The work is being done by the women,” she says, explaining that the family benefits when women earn because women are more likely than men to invest in the household and in well-being of individual family members. Nilanthi puts her own earnings toward the education of her three children, the youngest of whom, a girl, is in Grade 5. “We, the women in this area, are the ones sustaining this project,” says Nilanthi with pride.

Source : UN Sri Lanka

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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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How I saw Stephen Hawking's death as a disabled person

How I saw Stephen Hawking's death as a disabled person
Ellis Palmer

16 March 2018

Stephen Hawking was a renowned scientist famed for his work on black holes and relativity.

He published several popular science books such as A Brief History of Time.

Prof Hawking was also a wheelchair user who lived with motor neurone disease from the age of 21.

Yes, he was an award-winning scientist, but a lot of the coverage after Prof Hawking's death has created a narrative of an "inspirational" figure who was "crippled" by his condition and "confined to a wheelchair".

 As a disabled person, I've found this discourse troubling and somewhat regressive.

I'm tired of being labelled an 'inspiration'

Stephen Hawking's death has reminded me why I'm tired, as a disabled person and a wheelchair user, of being labelled an inspiration just for living my everyday life.

Prof Hawking was an extraordinary scientist and an incredibly intelligent human being.

However, many disabled people, myself included, would take issue with calling him an "inspiration" as this term is often used in popular society to belittle disabled people's experiences.

I am fine with my friends and family members calling me "inspirational". However, I get labelled it by random strangers, who hardly know me and just see the wheelchair and my condition (cerebral palsy, which means I use a wheelchair), not the person.

People with disabilities are often framed as either inspirational (say, a Paralympic athlete) or scroungers (people to be cared for or, worse, demonised) by the media and on television screens.

Our everyday experiences are neither heroic nor those of scroungers: it's just life as we know it.

More role models, please

Kids in the playground of my Merseyside primary school would compare me, probably the only young wheelchair user they had encountered, with the "genius" that was Stephen Hawking.

This was not an entirely fair comparison, I must say.

To me what this showed, even from a young age, was that there was a lack of "people like me", disabled people in the public spotlight, people I could aspire to be like.

I can think of four or five disabled people who were in the public spotlight when I was growing up early part of the last decade: David Blunkett, the former home secretary who is blind, Stephen Hawking, and two Paralympic athletes, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Ade Adepitan.

Prof Hawking showed that, despite public perceptions of what a disabled person can do, people with disabilities can achieve amazing things.

Even today, there are still too few disabled people out there in the public eye on a daily basis who are relatable for ordinary disabled people growing up.

If you're a sporty individual, there are Paralympic and disability sport stars. However disability representation on screen in the media and in society as a whole is low, despite the fact that disabled people make up almost one in five of the population, according to the UK government's Family Resources Survey.

All too often, they are categorised using able-bodied people's terminology as "inspiring" or "confined to a wheelchair" by illness or otherwise - rather than language based on their own experiences.

Watch your words (and your memes)

For me, the most troubling moment in the reaction to Prof Hawking's death was when an image of him standing out of his wheelchair went viral on social media.

What this image suggested was a rather damaging trope: the disabled person should always seek to not use a wheelchair, rather than the impairment being something positive to reflect and work with.

Society still seeks to create an image of a disabled person's life as pitiable or a burden on society. This can be incredibly damaging to a disabled person's mental health and their perception of themselves.

Class matters

One cannot ignore the role of class, race and gender privileges when it comes to disability as these are often intertwined.

Prof Hawking was first diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21 and given a very short time to live.

However, prior to that, his experience had been one of an able-bodied upper middle-class male who studied at Oxford.

As my colleague Alex Taylor wrote for the New Statesman in 2014, Prof Hawking's social class and that he became disabled at 21 meant that he was afforded opportunities that would not have been given to a disabled person in his era who was born with their condition.

Often, the biggest barrier to a disabled person's advancement in society can be low expectations in the education system.

I grew up on Merseyside in northern England and went to a mainstream primary school and a comprehensive secondary school on a former council estate. I was sometimes advised to take "easier" subjects on account of my disability.

Fortunately, I persisted: I studied the subjects I wanted to. I went on to university and to get my dream job here at the BBC.

Only 44,250 of over 400,000 students declared a disability when starting their degree courses in 2015-16, the Higher Education Funding Council reported.

When you consider that there are 13.3 million disabled people in the UK, that's a very low number.

Social class is still a significant contributor to determining the life chances of disabled people, something that Prof Hawking's death has brought home for me.

Source : BBC

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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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Kandy Mayhem: Law enforcement failures!

As tensions spiralled into violence on the streets in the Kandy district, the Police came in for major flak for failing to stop the mobs and prevent loss of life and property in the affected areas, as Ministers and Opposition politicos charged that law enforcement had failed the people during the unrest.

“Every time this happens, the local level police are failing and it allowed the mob to go berserk,” said Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader and Minister Rauff Hakeem, who was scathing in his criticism and called the Kandy violence part of a “clear hate-crime pattern” in an interview last week.

The claim was backed by residents and eyewitnesses all over the affected parts of Kandy District, and forced the Government to keep flooding the area with security forces personnel to bring the situation under control.

“They just watched on” said Mohamed Nawaz, a local adding that the officers claimed they were outnumbered when people were pleading with them to take action on March 6, when Digana Village was attacked by over a thousand strong mob. “We were told to close our shops and go home” he said adding that a senior Police officer assured they will be protected. According to him they returned the next day to find their businesses burnt down and ransacked.

As emotions ran high “The Police tricked us” one local accused. “The Digana mosque gave them food but in the night they allowed our mosque to be attacked” another said.

Visibly upset Mohammed Moulavi of the Wattegama Mosque pointed out that his mosque was attacked despite being right opposite the Wattegama Police Station.

 Addressing these allegations yesterday at a meeting held with business leaders in Kandy, Commander of the Sri Lanka Army Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake said in discussions, many had directly pointed the finger at the Police and the Special Task Force (STF) for not being able to contain the violence. “By the time the Army arrived the situation had already escalated” he said adding that accusations such as acts of violence were committed while the Police watched on appeared to be commonplace. “It is unfortunate if such things had occurred” he said.

 According to many townsfolk across the Kandy district several days prior to the major unrest they had visited their respective Police stations to seek protection.

As one resident recalled officers of the Karalliyadde Police had told him to request more reinforcements for the towns Police force through politicians. “They said they only had few officers and cannot protect the whole town” he said.

As accusations mounted on March 7, questions were raised as to whether the Police had the required strength to face any possible mobs and attacks. With few officers being stationed in perhaps areas identified as prone to violence, large stretches of small towns had no security presence in the wake of the violence.

On March 8, passing by Hedeniya in Aladeniya one was able to witness an incident where the security officers placed in the town appeared to be overwhelmed as a unruly crowd gathered in the town centre. With just one Police officer and two soldiers placed in the town, the crowd outnumbered them.

However Police Spokesman SP Ruwan Gunasekara says the main fault of the incident is not with the Police. “The police didn’t make this incident happen,” he said, “but as always the blame eventually falls on the Police”.

SP Gunasekara pointed out that the Police took immediate action on March 4, when the tension started and two shops in Teldeniya were torched. According to him the Police arrested 10 people involved immediately.

He also pointed out that in Kandy, certain Police stations are far away from places of incidents and it was one difficulty faced by them during the past week. “This is why we have been increasing Police stations” he said.

According to him Police deployed many teams and even called additional officers for special duty to counter the situation. “The recent arrests made by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) including that of the main suspect Amith Weerasinghe is what mainly controlled the violence from spiralling further. ” This should be recognised, he insisted.

 However Gunasekara also said there were incidents that the Police did not anticipate in the beginning. “For example we did not expect violence in Digana as its away from Teldeniya” he said adding that the focus was therefore on the Teldeniya area while the Police found it difficult to grapple with incidents that appeared to be randomly cropping up in various pocket areas.

 He added that while the police had not received official complaints of Police inaction during the unrest the IGP would order an enquiry to identify the possible weaknesses and failures on the part of the Kandy Police Division.

Source : Sunday Observer

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