Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

The Numbers Game and Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking and Ethics

I have long gained deep intellectual satisfaction from the application of critical thinking. Critical thinking has been defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”[i]

A number of writers have analysed the obstacles to successful critical thinking. I have been assisted by reading the works of philosophers such as Nigel Warburton, Stephen Law, Jamie Whyte, AC Grayling, Raymond Williams, Alec Fisher and Anthony Weston. These writers describe the strategies often used to undermine critical thinking. I have also taken an interest in writings on ethics and have been guided by Bernard Williams, Peter Singer, Henry Sidgwick, Simon Blackburn, Sissela Bok and the Lord Buddha. I try to lead an ethical life.

Enemies of Reason

With this background, I would have expected to be able to engage in calm and rational discussion on most topics. Sadly, this has not always happened. I try to avoid any discussion of the policies and actions of the Israeli government because I know that my Zionist friends will eventually call me an anti-Semite. Similarly, it seems to be impossible to discuss Sri Lankan politics without encountering bizarrely false assumptions about my character, beliefs, allegiances and associations. I have been called a government stooge, a Sinhala-Buddhist Chauvinist (despite my Irish Catholic upbringing) and a Tiger sympathiser sent by sinister foreign agencies to undermine the state. Discussions about animal welfare can also be very fraught as there are many warring factions among animal lovers.

Kenan Malik

My taste for critical thinking with an ethical and humanist background led me to the writings of Kenan Malik, an Indian-born writer, lecturer and broadcaster who was brought up in Manchester. He studied neurobiology (at the University of Sussex) and history and philosophy of science (at Imperial College, London). He has lectured at a number of universities in Britain, Europe, Australia and the USA. He writes: “My main areas of academic interest are the history of ideas, the history and philosophy of science, the history and philosophy of religion, the philosophy of mind, theories of human nature, moral and political philosophy,  and the history and sociology of race and immigration. “

Malik has long campaigned for equal rights, freedom of expression, and a secular society. He has defended rationalism and humanism in the face of what he has called “a growing culture of irrationalism, mysticism and misanthropy”. Like me he campaigned for the Anti-Nazi League. He is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and a trustee of the free-speech magazine Index on Censorship.

Unlike me, (although I was a subscriber to the paper Socialist Worker and accompanied them on many a protest march) in the 1980s, he was associated with a number of Marxist organisations, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).  Nick Cohen, the Observer columnist and author of What’s Left: How the Left Lost Its Way (2007), has called RCP “a vicious movement” and “the smallest and nastiest of the Trotskyist sects”. Malik stood for Birmingham Selly Oak in the 1992 general election, coming last out of six candidates with 84 votes. Malik wrote for the RCP’s magazine Living Marxism, later LM. Although the RCP has since disbanded, Malik has written for later incarnations of LM, and for its on-line successor, the British web magazine Spiked. Jenny Turner wrote in the London Review of Books about “the LM network’s habit of supporting freedom of expression for all sorts of horrible people: BNPers and child pornographers and atrocity deniers. Of course it’s only the right to speak that is supported, not what is said: members of the LM network are always careful to stress that they’re no less opposed to racism, sexual exploitation and mass murder than everybody else, it’s just that they think unpleasant opinions should be not banned but ‘battled’ with, in open debate.”[ii]

Opinion without Knowledge

The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.” Voltaire wrote, “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice.

Kenan Malik Comes to Sri Lanka

Mr Malik took the opportunity of his visit to the Galle Literary Festival in January 2016  to recycle the fictional figure of 40,000 plus civilian casualties at the end of the war against the LTTE.[iii] I have given this matter of “the numbers game” a great deal of thought. I have attended think tanks and seminars, had a long conversation with the author of the IADG report[iv], reviewed Gordon Weiss’s book on the subject,[v] had a dialogue with Callum McCrae and published several articles. I do not think that Mr Malik has studied the matter in so much depth.

I have no desire to whitewash the Rajapaksa government or the Sri Lankan military. I have looked at this matter in a perfectly calm and logical manner which is what I would have expected of a public intellectual with Mr Malik’s reputation. My conclusion is that the figure 40,000 cannot be correct and it is not helpful to any reconciliation process to continue to bandy it about.

Darusman Report

Mr Malik responds to criticism by Professor Michael Roberts by citing what he calls “The 2011 UN report on the final stages of the war.”[vi] In reality, this was not an official UN report but a report by a “panel of experts” called by the UN General Secretary as a preliminary to further investigation and action. The panel did not carry out any investigations of its own (and recognized that it had no mandate to do so) but had to rely on second-hand “evidence” that was not evidence in the normal sense of the word. The Marga Institute evaluation of the report said that this forced the panel “into an adversarial stance with the Government” in which it assumed the role of prosecutor. “The Panel’s dismissal of the Government’s position prevents it from making a more searching assessment of the military necessity claimed by the Government. It prevents the Panel from analyzing the crucial elements of intentionality and proportionality as should have been done in any investigation of war crimes in the Sri Lankan situation.”[vii] The Darusman report was also challenged in the report of the Paranagama Commission.[viii]

This is not the place to go into a further detailed analysis of the shortcomings of the Darusman Report. Mr Malik claims to have “done his homework” before coming to Sri Lanka but seemed to be unaware of the vast amount of research that has been done. Professor Michael Roberts has given an extensive list of citations on Mr Malik’s blog. Suffice it to say that the Darusman report is dishonest in the way it pumps up a previous UN figure of 7,221 civilian deaths and in the way it elides “credible allegations’” into self-evident proven war crimes.

In one of my articles I say: ‘Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.’ The Darusman report arrives at its figures by a process of recycling hearsay.

Moving the Goalposts

My sole point in my original critical comment on Mr Malik’s blog was that it was not helpful to cite the figure of 40,000 deaths upwards as if it was incontrovertible fact. I believed that he should have mentioned that there were many closely argued interpretations that set the figure much lower. In his response he shifted his ground and brought in the idea of “apologists for the Sri Lankan Army.”

“The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making. The figures I have come across vary from around 9,000 to around 100,000. I rejected the figures that came from either side in the war and took instead figures from independent third parties, such as the UN and ICEP. It may be that, as you say, these figures, too, are myths, and I have no reason to dispute your research (though I have not seen it in full). However, where the figures are disputed, it makes sense to settle for the more those provided by more objective collectors of those figures, which is what I did.”

I would contend that the figures I cited were even more objective as many of them were calculated by Tamils, including Navi Pillay of the UNHRC and the Tigers own website. To argue that, “The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making” is disingenuous. His argument now seems to be that the SLA deliberately targeted Tamil civilians. The true number of civilians killed is crucial to that very argument. If one takes a spectrum from the zero casualties ludicrously asserted by the government at one time, to the 147,000 claimed by Frances Harrison, zero casualties would demolish the contention that the SLA was targeting civilians (unless their aim was very poor). If it is true that 147,000 were killed the case for deliberate targeting becomes very strong. The numbers do matter.

Hypotheticals and Counterfactual History

I have never been a fan of counterfactual history or hypotheticals so I was not keen to take up the thought experiment posited here by Mr Malik:  “Suppose that I had written something critical of the actions of the Syrian government in the current civil war, and particularly of its mass killings of civilians. And suppose a respondent had suggested that the real problems lay not with the actions of the government forces but those of the al-Nusra Front and of the Islamic State, and that it is rebel activities that drives the Syrian government to take the actions that it does, an argument that can be heard quite loudly in certain parts of the media today. Would a robust response not be justified? And if it is justified in that case, why not in this case? (Before anyone jumps on me, the analogy I am making is not between the conflicts in Syria and Sri Lanka, but between the attempts to use insurgent actions as a means of justifying unjustifiable government actions).”

That seems to me to be rather feeble and unnecessary. He is assuming before he enters the discussion that the government actions are “unjustifiable”. He is explicitly comparing the situation in Syria with the situation in Sri Lanka at the same time as saying that he is not comparing. Why bring Syria up at all? I have coined an aphorism which I repeat in a most tiresome fashion at every opportunity: “The road to hell is paved with false analogies”. I most often use it when people try to compare the Irish peace process with what was happening in Sri Lanka. Martin McGuinness came here to tell us that a military solution to the Tiger problem was not feasible and that we must achieve a political solution through negotiation. I used to think that myself. I made the decision to come and live in Sri Lanka when Ranil Wickramesinhe, in his previous stint as prime minister, was maintaining a cease fire with the LTTE. I was very dismayed when Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated him in the 2005 presidential election. I was severely dismayed when the Rajapaksa government decided to try to defeat the Tigers militarily. I realize now that I was seriously mistaken.

Never mind about hypotheticals; why not keep it simple and concentrate on what actually happened in Sri Lanka? The LTTE used cease fires to regroup and re-arm. Peace talks had failed over many decades because Prabhakaran had no intention of compromising. Eventually, the legitimately constituted armed forces of a democratically elected government of a sovereign unitary state decided to make a determined effort to defeat a group that was systematically slaughtering civilians in order to set up a separate state.

War Crimes Apologist?

Mr Malik is putting words in Professor Robert’s mouth when he says he was arguing that “that the actions of the LTTE somehow justified the actions of the Sri Lankan Army”. I have read and re-read Professor Roberts’s words and he is saying nothing remotely like what Mr Malik attributes to him. This was not about revenge or what-aboutery. The actions of the SLA may legitimately be discussed and if necessary condemned but they did not behave badly because the LTTE behaved badly and Roberts is not arguing any such thing. Malik claims “You do not, as far as I can see, contest the empirical claim that the Sri Lankan Army fired into what it had declared to be No Fire Zones or on hospitals or civilian areas.” Michael Roberts[ix] and many others have indeed contested that claim.[x]

Universal Expertise

In his helpful book Thinking from A to Z, philosopher Nigel Warburton lists alphabetically the many tropes used to manipulate argument. One trope is “truth by authority”. Warburton writes: “Unwary members of the public may make the unreliable assumption that because someone is a recognised authority…in a particular area he or she must be capable of speaking with authority on any other subject”.

The problem is that when one covers a vast array of subjects, one exposes oneself to the danger of being downgraded from polymath to dilettante or to jack-of-all trades. There is no doubt that Noam Chomsky has a huge brain but his speciality is linguistics. Because he speaks with the authority of a specialist on that subject (although many other linguists disagree with him even about linguistics) that does not mean he speaks with equal authority on the many other issues on which he chooses to intervene.

I could never hope to have such a huge brain as Kenan Malik but there are some subjects on which, in all humility, I think I can speak with more authority than him because I have studied them in more detail than him.(Isiah Berlin’s essay about the hedgehog and the fox springs to mind.) I have assembled a good deal of evidence and opinion that convinces me that the oft-cited mantra that over 40,000 civilians were killed in the last days of the defeat of the LTTE is factually incorrect. Disagree with me if you wish but do so from a position of knowledge and do so with specifics and civility.

Tropes Employed by Online Commenters

My main interest here is, rather than going over the casualty figures yet again, is to discuss the manner in which my argument has been dealt with by Mr Malik and others. Some interesting tactics were employed. I found it impossible to get anyone to actually deal specifically with the different estimates of numbers killed.

One Facebook commenter chose to place his trust in the UN. He wrote: “I doubt if the UN plucked this figure out of thin air”. He ignored the many analyses which showed in detail why it seemed that the UN figure was plucked out of thin air. He then brought in some assumptions based on anecdotal ‘evidence’. “I personally had contact with several intelligence agencies from Canada, US, UK as well as Sri Lanka and Amnesty International”. At no point does he look at the various calculations of casualty figures and explain why he thinks they are incorrect. He does not explain why he does not accept criticisms of the Darusman Report but relies on faith: “The UN report was done by eminent legal personalities and it is doubtful if they would quote numbers which they cannot defend in a court of law. If not their reputation would be in tatters.”

Immunising Strategies

In his book Believing Bullshit philosopher Stephen Law uses the term “immunising strategies”. He shows how Young Earth Creationists counter the arguments of evolutionists by claiming that, however much evidence is presented, they will still claim it is provisional and incomplete. Those who claim high figures of civilian casualties dismiss contesting calculations with responses like: “It was a war without witnesses” or: “No-one can know without forensic evidence”. Well-argued estimates have been made which could be refuted or accepted. “Comparing high-resolution satellite images of the second No-Fire-Zone between February and April 19, indicates that the No-Fire-Zone as a whole did not witness anything like the scale of sustained bombardment required for there to have been more than 40,300 fatalities”. [xi]There were witnesses.[xii] Murali Reddy wrote in the Tamil Nadu magazine Frontline: “It must be said that the ‘journalistic team’ associated with TamilNet did a marvelous job of relaying the scenes of the last hours of Eelam War IV as they unfolded. Obviously, they were in regular touch with LTTE leaders in the war theatre. The news, nuggets and nuances that reflected in the TamilNet reportage, minus the blatant propaganda that both sides excelled in, gave a fairly good idea of the last hours and minutes as experienced and relayed by the last batch of Tiger cadre and the LTTE top brass.”

Guilt by Association

I asked one Facebook commenter to give his opinion on the many calculations which gave a lower figure of civilian casualties. I pointed out that many people had demolished the Darusman Report. He responded: “Those demolitions are in my humble opinion by personalities who are no match to the legal personalities who authored the report. All reports could be demolished, but on legal scrutiny I would suggest that the demolishers will get demolished”.

When I pressed on this point, he brought in Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin and said the calculations of one or two of the people estimating were “buddies of Gota”, the defence secretary and brother of the president. I responded : “I am not talking about Hitler, Mussolini etc. I am talking about different people’s views of how many civilian deaths there were in the final days of the defeat of the LTTE. I am merely asking you to specifically address those views. It is a common trope on comment threads to avoid discussion by saying ‘He’s not worth considering because he has an agenda or he is close to so and so or his father did blah’. You are not even being specific about which person is close to Gota. You cannot dismiss all the arguments because, according to you, some unnamed person is a buddy of Gota.”

 

He wanted to avoid dealing with the specific points that I was making by citing his superior inside knowledge. However, the very fact of his inside knowledge prevents him from naming names.  “I don’t want to be specific because both are known to me, one being a close friend for several decades. I repeatedly warned him to stay away from Gota. I accept that different views must be considered, but surely you should also be able to assess if certain views are even worth considering. I would seek enlightened views and discount pedestrian views “

I asked  why would Sir John Holmes (of the UN) , Navi Pillai (of the UNHRC), Tamil Net (website of the LTTE), Rohan Guneratna (of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research), the Voice of the Tigers (the LTTE media organisation) , the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Rajasingham Narendran , Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (of the Point Pedro Institute of Development), Dr Noel Nadesan, the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka, all come up with lower figures? Are they all buddies of Gota? Have you read any of their arguments?”

Do Numbers Matter?

The aim of the SLA was to defeat the enemy (at that point the most vicious terrorist group ever known) with as little harm to civilians as possible. It was not to punish Tamil civilians for the crimes of the LTTE. I do not believe that the aim was genocide of the Tamil people. I do not believe that civilians were targeted as a matter of policy. I do believe that the aim was to limit the number of civilian casualties as far as possible in a situation where the enemy was using its own people as human shields. Mr Malik has  every right to disagree with me about this, even though he is less well-informed than I or Professor Roberts. To state these beliefs does not make myself or Michael Roberts an ‘apologist’ for any atrocities that might have been committed by the Sri Lankan army. To use that loaded word is rather manipulative and dishonest.

In this context, the number of dead being cited is of crucial importance if one is making the assumption that the government deliberately engaged in the punitive “mass killing of civilians”. Mr Malik, having raised the issue brushes it aside when challenged as “not central to his argument”.

 

[i] Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

[ii] http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n13/jenny-turner/who-are-they

 

[iii] https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/in-the-haunting-light-of-jaffna/

[iv] http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf

[v] http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=78825

 

[vi] http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/POE_Report_Full.pdf

[vii] http://margasrilanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Truth-Accountability.pdf

[viii] file:///C:/Users/HP/Downloads/Maxwell_Paranagama_Final_Report.pdf

[ix] https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/cartographic-photographic-illustrations-in-support-of-the-memorandum-analysing-the-war-in-sri-lanka-and-propaganda-debates/

[x] http://www.peaceinsrilanka.lk/for-the-record/the-brutal-misuse-of-hospitals-by-the-ltte-and-the-darusman-panel

 

[xi] http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf

 

[xii] http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2612/stories/20090619261200900.htm

 

Death of an Editor

January 8 2016 marked the seventh anniversary of the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the charismatic founder and editor of the Sri Lankan English-language newspaper, the Sunday Leader. Lasantha started out as a lawyer but later turned to journalism and politics. The Sunday Leader was established by Lasantha and his brother Lal (with the silent support of UNP presidential contender Gamin Dissanayake) in 1994 and soon developed a reputation for in-depth investigative reporting and fearless exposure of corruption. Lasantha told Reporters without Borders in an interview that his aim as a journalist was to “denounce the greed and lies of the powerful.” When he died, he was 51 years old and the father of three children from his first marriage. He had only recently married his second wife, Sonali. Wickrematunge and was the recipient posthumously of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2009. He was declared a World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute in 2010.

 

Despite the promise by then president Mahinda Rajapaksa of a thorough investigation, no one has been charged with Lasantha’s murder. January 8, 2016 is also the first anniversary of the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in a presidential election. The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, also promised a thorough investigation. Still we wait.

 

On 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed on his way to work. He was in his car driving to the Sunday Leader office at Templars Road, Mount Lavinia from his residence at Nugegoda, when four men on motorcycles blocked his car in rush-hour traffic about 100 metres from an air force checkpoint in a high security zone. He died after three hours of brain surgery by a team of twenty surgeons. It was initially assumed that he died of gunshot wounds to the head but there was later speculation that the immediate cause of death was a metal spike rammed into his brain through his eyeball.

 

Witnesses told police that two of the assailants had stopped their motor cycles at a distance and watched for a while. They smashed the window of his car with a steel bar before shooting him at close range in the head, chest and stomach. After the first man shot him, a second man bludgeoned him with a blunt instrument and fled the area.

 

Police said that there was evidence he had been trailed by his killers all the way from Nugegoda and pounced on after he reached the particular spot near the Malagala Model School on Attidiya Road, which is “a lonely area”. Police said: “For a number of days, Wickrematunge’s movements to and from his office had been followed”.

A few years before his murder, Wickrematunge was assaulted when a gang blocked his vehicle on a narrow lane. On another occasion, gunmen attacked his house. The printing press of the Sunday Leader media group was destroyed in an arson attack by a group of gunmen in November 2007.Wickrematunge told Reporters without Borders at the time that the attack was “a commando operation supported by the government.” According to police, Wickrematunge had complained that he had been threatened with death over the phone on a number of occasions. Wickrematunge was often the target of intimidation attempts and libel suits. The most recent lawsuit had been brought by the president’s brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who got a court to ban the newspaper from mentioning him for several weeks. President Rajapaksa called Wickrematunge a “terrorist journalist”.

After Wickrematunge’s death, the Sunday Leader published an editorial purporting to be a prediction of his own death. The editorial drew international attention and was movingly read by distinguished actor Bill Nighy on the BBC. The editorial quotes Pastor Niemoeller and addresses President Mahinda Rajapaksa as his friend of long-standing: “In the wake of my death, I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too depends on it.”

Rajpal Abeynayake, who was at the time editor of Lakbima News but later moved on to the Rajapaksa organ the Daily News, was convinced that Lasantha did not write that editorial,  claiming that it was written by Rohan Pethiyagoda after Lasantha’s death. No-one, to my knowledge, has challenged Abeynayake’s assertion, although some have said it does not matter who wrote the editorial. Dilrukshi Handunnetti wrote: “Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote a powerful editorial which was published posthumously. It does not matter if he wrote the whole of it or only a part of it or even none of it – the style, spirit and panache of it is unmistakably Lasantha Wickrematunge.”

 

There has been much speculation about who killed Lasantha. In July 2009, controversial government minister and Gampaha district MP Mervyn Silva held a meeting where he publicly stated “Lasantha from the Leader paper went overboard. I took care of him.”  No action has been taken against Silva who led a charmed life under the Rajapaksa government and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party after doing dirty work for the other main party, the United National Party. He is now out of office and parliament but trying to curry favour with the current UNP-led government by accusing the Rajapaksas. On January 17 2015, Silva filed a complaint with the CID against former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brothers, former Minister Basil Rajapaksa and former Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Silva told the press that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa intensely hated Wickrematunge.

 

From early on, there was suspicion of military involvement in the assassination. Seven soldiers belonging to the Sri Lankan Army’s Military Intelligence Unit were detained and held for further questioning by the Terrorist Investigations Department and the Criminal Investigations Department. The seven soldiers were separated from an original seventeen soldiers taken into police custody. All the soldiers were eventually released because of lack of evidence.

 

In the euphoria after the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in May 2009, a relieved and grateful nation saw president Mahinda Rajapaksa, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army Commander Sarath Fonseka as a triumvirate of heroes and saviours. The Tamil Tigers had been thought invincible for nearly 30 years but these three men had proved the doomsayers wrong. Things soon turned sour as Fonseka became resentful that the Rajapaksas were getting too much credit and side-lining him. In 2010, he ran as the common opposition candidate to Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential election. He lost but won four million votes.

 

The role of the Sunday Leader in Fonseka’s candidacy was bizarre. The paper was owned by Lasantha’s brother Lal who had heard speculation that Fonseka, as Army Commander, must have had some knowledge about Lasantha’s assassins. According to the Sri Lankan Sunday Times: ”In Parliament, UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said that there was a separate unit in the Army that was carrying out these strikes against the media.”  Mangala Samaraweera, a former foreign minister in the Rajapaksa government, who switched to the UNP and is now foreign minister under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership, voiced the widespread suspicion. “It’s an open secret that there’s been a killer squad in the Defence Ministry for the last two years.”

 

On Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 66th birthday, November 18 2011, Fonseka was sentenced to three years in prison in what became known as the White Flag case. Fonseka was accused on three counts including inciting violence by violating the Public Security and Emergency Regulations Acts. In an interview given to Frederica Jansz of the Sunday Leader, published on December 13 2009, Fonseka claimed that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had ordered Brigadier Shavendra Silva to shoot dead those LTTE leaders surrendering with white flags during the final stages of the Sri Lankan armed forces victory in May 2009.

 

Jansz and Lal Wickrematunge would also have known of allegations that Fonseka was alleged to be implicated in the near fatal assault on Keith Noyahr, deputy editor of The Nation Sunday newspaper, and assaults on Namal Perera of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and Mahendra Ratnaweera, of the British High Commission. The Leader has been thought of as a UNP paper and Lasantha was thought to be close to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Ranil told the Working Committee of the UNP that Lasantha’s murder was carried out by a special team reporting directly to Fonseka. Ranil and Lasantha were considered to be close friends. Despite this, Ranil agreed to Fonseka being the opposition candidate for the presidency and the Sunday Leader supported Fonseka’s presidential campaign.

 

During the White Flag trial, Frederica Jansz, then editor of the Leader, said that in an interview she had directly asked Fonseka if he knew who had killed Lasantha but could not get him to give an answer. On the 6th of October 2010, in the High Court, according to the Sunday Times (October 10 2010), she said she went to another interview with Fonseka accompanied by a “trainee reporter”, a photographer and Lal Wickrematunge. At one point, Lal had asked the trainee and the photographer to leave as he wanted to raise a personal issue with Fonseka. Lal asked Fonseka who was responsible for killing Lasantha. Jansz said, in response to questioning in the High Court, that she “did not pay attention to what was said by Fonseka in response to that question”. Ms Jansz was a very experienced investigative journalist who over the years had been the scourge of many a corrupt businessman and countless criminals. Her paper had been running a long campaign to bring to justice the killers of Lasantha.

 

Jansz admitted in an article of 6 June 2010 that the UNP was paying the Sunday Leader one million rupees a week to increase the number of copies printed in order to support Fonseka’s presidential campaign. Jansz claimed: “The financial transactions of a privately owned newspaper/publishing house are nobody’s business.”  Jansz claimed that she was receiving death threats but received little sympathy from other journalists because most of her editorials were full of complaints against them and against the Editors’ Guild.

 

In September 2012 Asanga Seneviratne, an ally of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, bought a 72% stake in The Sunday Leader. Shakunthala Perera was drafted in as Editor to replace Frederica Jansz. Perera had tried to continue the Leader’s tradition of exposing corruption. On Friday the 13th February 2015, Seneviratne forced her resignation. Despite his previous ties with the Rajapaksas, Seneviratne had been seen consorting with members of the new government had had asked Perera to forward critical articles to him before publishing.  In her letter of resignation Perera wrote: “I am therefore surprised that while any pressure from the previous political regime has ceased, I am being asked by you as the publisher, to curtail from carrying on my duties as the Editor of the newspaper, and engage in practices that go against the principles and ethics I have hitherto exercised.” Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema became editor on June 29, 2015. On September 2013, an armed group had barged into her home, searching for a dossier and holding her family at knifepoint. One intruder was killed during crossfire with the police. Following the incident, Mandana and her family left the country before returning last year and contributing much to the attempt to oust the Rajapaksa regime.

 

 

This is what the Sunday Leader said on Lasantha’s third death anniversary in 2012: “The investigation into his death is floundering. Kandegedara Piyawansa, a soldier with the Sri Lanka Army Intelligence Unit taken into custody … was released on bail after he accused senior officers in open court. A statement he made in chambers to the magistrate prior to being granted bail by a higher court was forwarded to the Inspector General of Police for a report which is yet to be filed. … Fifteen army intelligence officers held previously by the TID handling the investigation were released when an adviser to the government informed high officials that the soldiers would ‘sing’ about other operations by the Army.”

When Sirisena was elected president, Lal Wickrematunge called on him to bring the investigation back to life. Sirisena seemed to agree to do this. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliates the Free Media Movement (FMM) and the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) welcomed the new Sri Lankan government’s decision to reopen investigations into Lasantha’s murder. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index 2014, Sri Lanka is ranked fourth in the world for failing to address impunity in the nine murders of journalists in last ten years. The high level of threat against journalists also forced many journalists into exile.

 

Cynics might have some doubts about the new government’s true intentions. Knowing the allegations surrounding Fonseka, nevertheless, they created a new rank especially for him and promoted him. He is now Field Marshall Fonseka.

The Rajapaksa regime blocked a number of websites, such as Colombo Telegraph, operating from abroad. The ban on critical websites was lifted after Sirisena came to power but Sirisena now complains about them criticizing him. In opposition Wickremesinghe spoke up for media freedom. Now in power, he abuses journalists who criticise him. He has warned a newspaper against contravening the Parliament Powers and Privileges Act by discussing the COPE bond report and said that the former chairman of COPE, DEW Gunasekara, could also be punished under the same law.  Sirisena has threatened to sue critics for defamation and has re-introduced a Press Council which will allow his appointees to jail journalists and publishers. Ranil was prime minister before and agreed a cease-fire with the LTTE. Many believed that he made too many concessions to the Tigers. An English journalist, Paul Harris, was deported from Sri Lanka by RW at the behest of the LTTE. The new government is dragging its feet on a promised Right to Information Act.

Some action has been taken in the investigation into the disappearance of Prajeeth Ekneligoda, a cartoonist who dabbled in politics. He has not been seen since two days before the Presidential Election of January 2010. In January 2015, fresh inquiries were initiated and investigators have found evidence that Ekneligoda was taken to the Giritale Army Camp. A Sunday Leader editorial on December 13 2015 said that many of the abductions and murders during the Rajapaksa years had the “whiff of barrack rooms” about them.

 

On 27 December 2015, the Sunday Leader reported that the CID had questioned former Inspector General of Police Jayantha Wickremaratne and several other senior police officers over the loss of Wickrematunge’s notebook at Mount Lavinia police station following the assassination.  Pages of police records with details about the notebook had also gone missing. The paper reported that military intelligence officer Kandegedara Piyawansa was to be interrogated again and that “Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka is likely to be questioned by the Criminal Investigations Department”.

 

The December 13 2015 Leader editorial said: “Policemen or officers of lower ranks in the armed forces do not go about dragging suspects out of houses or trailing editors and killing them on highways. Killing of journalists has not been a blood sport of those of lower ranks in the forces but they might do so under orders – overt or covert. On this hypothesis it could be presumed that there are high ranking officials that may have passed the orders given to them by their VIP bosses to be carried out by their minions. On this basis, loyalty could even stall investigations under the new regime and that may be the reason why murderers of journalists still remain free.”

 

Watch this space!

 

Ten Years After

 

This article was written in December 2014 to mark the tenth anniversary of  the tsunami.

 

Did the children and I come to you when the waves came?

Were the kids there with you when death came?

In eternity, do you want to be mine again?

Will you come back at least in my dreams?

Those words were written by a grieving husband on the side of a rusting railway carriage at Peraliya in southern Sri Lanka. On 26 December 2014, it will be ten years since 36,000 to 50,000 people (the numbers of dead vary depending on the source) died in Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami. Between 1,700 passengers 2500 on the holiday train, Queen of the South, perished as the wave engulfed it at Peraliya, between Colombo and Galle. Rescuers recovered only 824 bodies, as many were swept out to sea or taken away by relatives without informing the authorities. The village itself also suffered heavy losses: hundreds of inhabitants died and out of 420 houses, the great wave spared only ten.

At 0.58 UTC, 6.58 Sri Lanka time, December 26 2004, there was a seismic subduction on the sea bed off the west coast of Sumatra. Scientists called it the great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake. The earthquake moved a 1,200-km section of the sea floor, releasing energy equivalent to 550 million Hiroshimas. The earthquake was the second largest ever recorded – between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale. Lasting up to ten minutes, the earthquake had the longest duration ever recorded. The entire planet vibrated about 1cm and there were shocks as far away as Alaska.

On Christmas Eve, 2004, we were having dinner with our 95-year-old friend and her son at his plantation bungalow. We were discussing the possibility of a trip to Galle on the south coast or Trincomalee in the north east, in a brief hiatus in a thirty-year conflict because of a cease-fire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Luckily, we decided to stay put in our home up in the Namunukula Mountains.

On Christmas Day 2004, we had heard news that our local government veterinarian, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip to Galle with a party of about 20 people. He and 16 others died. His wife and one child survived because they went back to the hotel for a newspaper.

Everyone in Sri Lanka knows someone who lost someone. The wave took away a friend of my wife’s family and her brother in Galle. She was Sri Lankan but lived mainly in London and was here on a short holiday. Her husband was inconsolable and sorry to have survived. Ten years on, he is still suffering.

A strange phenomenon occurred in Yala National Park. Few of the animals seemed to have perished because they moved to higher ground before the wave hit. Was this because they sensed the tremors?

At Batticaloa, in the Eastern province, there were 1,200 dead and the naval base at Trincomalee was submerged with about 800 reported dead in that district. In Amparai district in the north east, the death toll was 5,000. One thousand dead were counted in Mullaithivu, in the Northern Province, which was controlled by the Tamil Tigers. Many of the dead throughout the country were children and elderly people. One and a half million were displaced from their homes.

Agriculture was badly affected. Vehicles and equipment were ruined. Drains and canals were blocked and water supplies contaminated. 259 square km of paddy land was destroyed or damaged by salinization or deposits of garbage. 23,449 acres of cultivated arable land was affected by salinity

Thousands of houses and other buildings, railways, bridges, communication networks, and other infrastructure and capital assets suffered massive damage. Assets valued at US$900 million were lost. 150,000 people lost their livelihoods – 75% of the total fishing fleet was destroyed. 89,000 houses were destroyed. 183 schools were destroyed or damaged, affecting 200,000 children. 102 health facilities were destroyed or damaged. 53 out of 242 large hotels were damaged along with 248 small hotels. A total length of approximately 800 kilometres of national road network and 1,500 kilometres of provincial and local government roads were damaged. The railway infrastructure on a 160- kilometre-long stretch along the tsunami-affected coastline was also severely damaged.

One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dhane, the alms-giving.

Back in 2005, just outside the town of Hambantota, plastic chairs were stranded on the banks above the stained salt in the lagoons of the Lanka Salt Company. Fishing suffered because of fear that fish were contaminated by corpses. Apparently, there was a greater danger of corpses contaminating the salt.

We saw the first derelict house, then another. A graveyard was littered with broken trees. Whole villages along the shore were obliterated. Young men in masks carried spades; soldiers and police carried boxes of food and water; girls distributed tea and biscuits. Cargill’s supermarket was boarded up on our first visit and gone completely on our second. The sign outside the Jade Green Restaurant dangled and clanged above holes in the walls. A large dead bat hung from telephone wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records did not exist to account for the missing. Walls of empty houses were tattooed with telephone numbers and photos of the missing were stuck to trees and telegraph poles.

A canal was clogged with orphaned furniture. A child’s dress swayed from the ceiling in the shell of a house. Saris hung like strange fruit high in the trees. Small slippers sat in the middle of the back lanes. Crushed three-wheelers littered the verges. There was mud everywhere and it seemed as if the earth had halitosis. There were odd reversals – a bus nose-down in the sea; boats marooned in the main street and stacked against a mosque. A mangled telecoms tower jutted from the sea.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service courageously resisted panic calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and carried out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari (village official) at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

On our next visit, there weren’t as many people at the temple. This did not mean that problems were solved. There was a meeting going on elsewhere. The people who were at the temple insisted that we should hand out the supplies ourselves. Those receiving feel better if they “receive from the hand”, that they have a direct relationship with the giver. The giver can look into the eyes of the receiver.

 

We distributed rice, lentils, sugar, coconuts, books and pens from the car. The first arrivals were calm and slow; gradually new arrivals became more hurried, breathless, their lateness a sign of having travelled a greater distance than the first-comers. Soon our supplies were gone. The late-comers did have a certain look of panic on their faces. They did show disappointment, but with resignation rather than anger.

We were at a Buddhist temple but it was an ecumenical event. Many were Muslims. Some were Christians. Some were Hindus. People seemed to be united in adversity. Nature had not discriminated, although some middle class Christians told us that the disaster was their god’s punishment on heathen Buddhists.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone to market with their child. They did not return. A woman could not control her tears as she told about losing her husband in the flood. One woman claimed to have lost 30 of her family. All behaved with dignity but said they had lost their dignity. “We were not rich but we were comfortable. We had a good life. Now we have nothing. We are just like beggars.”

By this visit, the miasmic odor had gone. Some tents belonged to house-owners camping outside their own houses. A neat sign in magic-marker, in an empty plot at the junction, said “Ayub Khan 348 Tissa Road, Hambantota” to stake a claim against squatters. A gathering of orange-robed priests sat under a battered sign: “Baby’s Dream Pre-school”. Some broken houses were festooned with washing and had goats and chickens in the yard.

There are complaints in Sri Lanka today about militarisation. Ten years ago, 20,000 soldiers were deployed to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences.

When we travelled to Galle via Hambantota, four years after the tsunami, there was a wide new bypass allowing travelers to avoid the town centre. Along the sides of the highway are neat little housing developments reminiscent of suburban homes in the west.

Ten years on Hambantota is unrecognisable. Hambantota has a natural harbour close to international shipping routes. Construction of the Port of Hambantota (also known as the Magampura Port) by the China Harbour Engineering Company and the Sinohydro Corporation, has given the town  the largest  port in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and able to accommodate 33 vessels at any given time. There has been resistance from Colombo enterprises. A plan to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port authorities and some in the motor trade. “The port in Hambantota will be the catalyst to make Hambantota the new commercial capital of Sri Lanka in the next three years,” said Dr Bandu Wickrama, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

A new international airport has been opened near Hambantota. The airport at Mattala has one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than Singapore Changi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi? There are still concerns about the environment and the unique wild life in Yala and Bundala National Parks. Peacocks have endangered flights.

 

There are also concerns that these projects are wasteful and designed to enrich the ruling family.

Critics see the port, the airport, sports stadiums and convention centres as white elephants that serve no useful purpose except to boost the egos and bank balances of politicians at the same as getting Sri Lanka in hock to the Chinese.

Soon after the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be running for his third term, after using his two-thirds majority in parliament to introduce the 18th amendment to the constitution to allow him to do so.

The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Today the outlook is promising. Hambantota is the fiefdom of President Rajapaksa. He and his brothers currently dominate Sri Lankan politics, and he is grooming his son Namal, who represents a Hambantota constituency, future greatness. It should also be noted that Sajith Premadasa, who is (somewhat ineffectually) challenging for leadership of the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), also represents a Hambantota constituency.

Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka have long been concentrated on Western province and the financial hub of Colombo. The government’s stated aim is to establish a gateway for investment in the south and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but also in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara. As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear in Sri Lanka that anything that was not Colombo was described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.

 

 

Hugh Thomson at the Galle Literary Festival 2016

The Thwaites Wainwright Award May 8th 2014 at The Royal College of Surgeon's England. Won by author Hugh Thomson for his book 'The Green Road into the Trees'.

It’s not about the quality of the journey; it’s the quality of the writing.

The Galle Literary Festival is back in business. The festival was founded in 2005 by Anglo-Australian hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs and last took place in 2012. Those attending GLF in 2012 included Tom Stoppard, Aminatta Forna, Richard Dawkins, Simon Sebag Montefiore and David Thompson. Tickets for the 2016 event, which takes place from January 13th to 17th, are due to go on sale from the first two weeks in December. The first list of participants was released on November 11 and the full programme will be announced at the end of November.

Among those participating in January 2016 is the multi-talented Hugh Thomson. I would like to introduce him to Sri Lankan readers who are not familiar with his work. Hugh is a veteran of the literary festival circuit and has previously been invited to Hay-on-Wye, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cheltenham. His most recent book, The Green Road into the Trees: A Walk through England, won the inaugural Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. Dame Fiona Reynolds, the chair of the panel of judges, described the book as “a narrative journey spiced with humour and anecdote, gritty reality and evocation of place and history.” I have just read the book and agree with Dame Fiona. Hugh himself says: “The thing about The Green Road is the idea of treating your own country as a foreign country. A travel journal can be written about anywhere. It’s not about the quality of the journey; it’s the quality of the writing.”

green road

Hugh has certainly led an exciting life. He’s ridden, driven and hiked across Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, the Himalayas and Afghanistan and cruised down the Amazon. I have been to some of the places described in Hugh’s books and, although his explorations have been more adventurous than mine, the books bring back memories for me. When he was just 22, Hugh led his first expedition to the Peruvian Andes looking for a site that had become lost following its initial discovery.  In 2002 he co-led the expedition which discovered the Inca site of Cota Coca and returned to Peru in 2003, making extensive finds at Llactapata, near Machu Picchu. I can vouch that Hugh’s first book, The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland, is an enthralling read. It was the result of a twenty-year long quest to explore and understand the Peruvian Andes in the area beyond Machu Picchu.

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If you want a quick taste of Hugh’s writing on Peru I can recommend a Kindle Single which was released on October 11 2015 and costs only $4.99. Two Men and a Mule: The Last City of the Incas, is a brief account of an expedition to Peru undertaken by Hugh with fellow explorer Benedict Allen and a sympathetic mule called Washington. The short work gives a brief reprise of some of Hugh’s previous visits to Peru and provides an introduction to a BBC Radio 4 series, for which they travel down from the high Andes towards the Amazon basin and Espíritu Pampa, the pampa of ghosts, the very last city of the Incas, built at the lowest level of the cloud forest, almost in the jungle. It was here that Tupac Amaru and his pregnant wife were captured by the conquistadores and later brutally executed.

IMG_8640-2-Men-and-a-Mule-lo-res-300x200

History comes alive in the current day experiences of the three intrepid explorers. They meet many interesting characters on the way. At one point, they stayed at the home of Don Juvenal Cobos, who helped American explorer Gene Savoy uncover Espiritu Pampa in 1964.
I have memories of consuming in the Andes what seemed to be dog and dishwater soup out of cracked blue plastic bowls. Benedict has learnt to be tolerant in his eating habits, so the local delicacy of guinea pig is no problem: “I did try camel once. It was tough, Very tough”. Thomson fears for Washington’s state of mind and has a private chat with him: “He was in a little bog that he clearly liked and was looking particularly sweet, ears twitching, happy after a good night of grazing and munching on the lush pasture”. Thomson told the mule that he knew of Allen’s reputation for eating his travelling companions (camel, mule) but he would not let that happen to Washington. “I felt he was telling me that, whatever happened, he wouldn’t let Benedict eat me either”.

tuking in
Thomson tries to explain his own fascination with Peruvian history. Something about the Inca sites made him, even on his first visit at the age of 21, aware of his own mortality. Benedict, who has crossed the Gobi desert and travelled the Arctic with a dog team, finds Peru a new experience. In other places he got the feeling that exploration was coming to an end. “Here you’re in the amazing position where you can still find cities, or at least ruins.”
There are vivid descriptions of the high mountains and of the steaming jungles, “Where fruit such as mango, granadilla or papaya grew, bright yellow mountain tanagers, one of the most frugiverous of Andean birds, gathered in gregarious groups”. One can sense the serpents lurking in the undergrowth and the appalling insects fastening on to one’s blood vessels. There are compensations for the discomforts. “The call of the oropendola bird… a long looping noise best described as being like water being flushed down a pipe”. Hugh is not being ungallant when he says this reminds him of his wife. The sound had enchanted her too.

tequila
Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico, was an account of an early journey through Mexico in a classic Oldsmobile 98.  It was serialised by BBC Radio 4. Another of Thomson’s books, 50 Wonders of the World: The Greatest Man-made Constructions from the Pyramids of Giza to the Golden Gate Bridge, is only 200 pages long but the format is coffee table, bigger than The Times Atlas. Hugh says it “would actually make quite a nice coffee table in itself if you put legs on it.”

Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary is about the sanctuary on the border between Tibet and India, long closed to all visitors by the Indian government. For his BBC TV series, Indian Journeys, Hugh collaborated with former GLF attendee William Dalrymple to make three ambitious films about India, winning the Grierson Prize for Best Documentary Series.  More recently he collaborated with Jonathan Dimbleby to make another major series for the BBC, this time on Russia.

He was BAFTA-nominated for his ten-hour series Dancing in the Street: A Rock and Roll History, which set out to tell the epic story of the “devil’s own music” from its beginnings in the 1950s to the present day. It took four years to make and went on to win numerous awards for the BBC around the world. His passion for documentaries led him to be a founding member of Doc/Fest; an international documentary festival in Sheffield described as the Cannes of the documentary world. It’s still expanding after 21 years.

I have long been planning to write about cruise ships, so I found Hugh’s Kindle Single, At The Captain’s Table: Life on a Luxury Liner, full of useful information. Hugh provides some great tips on getting the most out of a city in one day. The Captain’s Table shows what it’s like to travel “…round the world the soft way.”

cruise

Thomson’s vast array of experience makes him a resource for aspiring writers. He has tutored on a variety of courses for organisations including Arvon and Bristol University. “I enjoy teaching,” he says. “It’s a chance to re-engage.” Hugh is now working on his first novel, which is set in Peru. I asked him what else he had been up to of late and it seems he is pursuing that RL Stevenson Travels with a Donkey theme.  He told me that he had “been in the middle of doing this quixotic trip with a mule across the North of England for my next book”.
With his experience of broadcasting and his knowledge of travel writing as well as his fund of anecdotes about his own travel, Hugh is likely to be a star attraction at GLF 2016. Book early to avoid disappointment.

 

This article appeared in the Sunday Island on 21 November 2015.

http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=135739

 

Corporate Social Responsibility

This article appeared in the December 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) with the strapline: “Cosmetic Concessions? Michael O’Leary draws attention to what he believes is hidden under the cloak that is CSR.” I have corrected some of the pusillanimous censoring edits that the editors perpetrated.

 

Is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) an idea whose time has come or is it a huge cloak woven by big business to conceal the elephant in the room? Many businesses are aware of the concept, but how do they practise it? I’ve been trawling through some Sri Lankan corporate websites and noticed that I  only come up with ‘under construction ‘when I click on the CSR page.

 

CSR has been defined as the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development, while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as that of the local community and society at large.

 

Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary defines a corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility”. The corporation is a legal construct, a charter granted by the state to a group of investors to gather private funds for a specific purpose. The concept maintains the fiction that the corporation is a person, but the practical reality is that the organism develops in such a manner that the entity cannot be held accountable for morality in the way that a human being could be.

 

If the corporation is a person, that person is a psychopath, according to corporate researcher Joel Bakan. “Human psychopaths are notorious for their ability to use charm as a mask to hide their dangerously self-obsessed personalities.” For corporations, social responsibility may fulfill the same function as charm. “Through it, they can present themselves as compassionate and concerned about others when, in fact, they lack the ability to care about anyone or anything but themselves.”

 

Corporations put into practice the concept named by the German philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, as ‘repressive tolerance’. The most effective means for governments and large organisations to keep their hold on power and to fend off revolt is not by direct confrontation but by co-opting the rebels, inviting them in, offering some cosmetic concessions and making them complicit in the enterprise.

 

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth went to war with multinational corporations over their environmental depredations. Today, the corporations invite the environmentalists into the fold and seek their advice on how to clean up their act.

 

The number of companies reporting on their CSR activities in the UK has shot up in recent years, which at least demonstrates its growing popularity as a PR tool. Ninety-four per cent of company executives believe the development of a corporate responsibility strategy can deliver real business benefits.

 

A third of businesses in the UK do not pay any corporation tax, which results in a shortfall in the common purse of US$ 93 billion each year. Corporate profits in 2006 and 2007 were the highest on record. Top executives’ remuneration packages in May last year were double what they were ten years ago. The average pay for directors in Britain’s top companies rose 37 per cent in2006, whereas the salaries of workers grew by just 3.3 per cent. CEOs of large US companies make as much money in a day as an average worker makes in a year. The financial meltdown has not seriously brought these profiteers down to earth. It was good for them while it lasted and governments are now bailing out these risk-taking buccaneers.

 

“We do not want children to smoke,” a multinational tobacco giant declares on its website. But in Malawi, Mauritius and Nigeria, the company used marketing tactics that are well-known to appeal to youth: advertising and selling single cigarettes, and sponsoring non-age-restricted, product-branded musical entertainment.

 

Allan M Brandt wrote in his great book, The Cigarette Century, that for US tobacco companies, “responding to critics marked a challenge to be met rather than a moral or ethical dilemma restricting action”. More than one in five American adults still smoke regularly and tobacco kills more than 435,000 US citizens each year. The public in the West has responded to persuasion, to consider the health risks of smoking. Kenneth Clarke was Secretary of State for Health in the UK. His ministry developed and funded a number of ‘Healthy Nation’ projects. After he left office, he was paid GBP 100,000 a year by a tobacco company to peddle cigarettes in the Third World. His bid for the Conservative Party leadership was undermined because he was distracted at the time of the election by visiting Vietnam at the behest of this tobacco manufacturer.

 

It is projected that in the course of the 21st century, one billion people across the globe will die, probably in protracted agony, of tobacco-related diseases. Gallage Punyawardana of the Swarna Hansa Foundation says that in Sri Lanka, 27,000 people die every year from diseases brought on by the use of tobacco.

 

Senior marketing officers of CTC (Ceylon Tobacco Company) are claiming that their company is a ‘responsible organisation’. What this responsibility means in the real world is shrouded in management jargon about ‘business-building programmes’ and ‘value-added services’ that may very well be a case of avoiding that elephant in the room. The elephant is smelling rather rank.

 

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Lessons from Ireland

This article appeared in the November 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) with the strapline: “Michael O’Leary recounts Ireland’s battles with corruption, which tarnished the offices of two of its Prime Ministers”.

 

Corruption thrives everywhere in the world. It is endemic in the US through what are known as ‘earmarks’ or ‘pork’. The saga of the ‘Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere’ has forced one US Senator to face criminal charges while the Republican Vice- Presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, is now also implicated.

 

Ireland finds itself at a respectable No. 17 in the Corruption Perception Index (CPF) while the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) places it at the top of its Quality Of Life Index. Ireland has the world’s fifth-highest

GDP, although world conditions are currently de-fanging the Celtic Tiger. There has been a general recognition that to retain its attractiveness to foreign investors, the Irish state needed to tackle a culture of corruption. The ‘brown envelope’ (or bribing of planning officials) has long been a feature of Irish life – politicians at all levels have had a tendency to confuse party funds with their own personal income. ‘Gombeenism’ describes the kind of parish-pump, pork-barrel politics in which those elected to be legislators devote themselves to cronyism and self-aggrandisement rather than honestly representing their constituents’  interests.

 

It is a matter of public record what a Taoiseach (or Irish Prime Minister, pronounced ‘tea-shock’) earns. On this fairly modest amount, Charles Haughey enjoyed an opulent lifestyle. The McCracken Tribunal in 1997 unearthed illegal payments by businessmen into offshore accounts and Haughey faced criminal charges for obstructing the tribunal. It reported that the bribes, “when governments led by Mr Haughey were championing austerity, can only be said to have devalued the quality of a modern democracy”.

 

The tribunal concluded that Haughey had received around GBP 10 million from businessmen. A significant portion of funds donated for a liver-transplant operation for his former colleague Brian Lenihan was misappropriated by Haughey for personal use. Charlie’s protégé Bertie Ahern presided as the youngest-ever Taoiseach over a booming Irish economy and helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. Ahern signed the cheques from the Lenihan account, and this and other matters from the past came back to haunt him, forcing Ahern to set up the Mahon Tribunal which brought about his downfall.

 

In 1999, the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) published a discussion paper, ‘The Accountancy Profession and The Fight against Corruption’, which urged accountants to help root out corruption. In Ireland, bankers and accountants colluded with and were protected by the perpetrators.

Des Traynor, Haughey’s own accountant, helped 120 of the country’s richest men to divert their money through London and the Cayman Islands, and back to Dublin, to evade tax. Allied Irish Banks (AIB) operated 50,000 bogus overseas accounts to avoid Deposit Interest Retention Tax (DIRT). AIB also wrote off Haughey’s huge overdraft. The phrase ‘banana republic’ was often bandied about at the time.

 

So, what is corruption? One definition is “the misuse of entrusted power for private gain”. For ordinary citizens, it is more up-close and personal than an abstract definition. It means citizens struggling to get what should be their right. ‘Speed money’ to fast-track public services might be seen as being akin to tipping a waiter at a restaurant, but this is part and parcel of a toxic culture.

 

Codes of conduct and training will remind officials that they are public servants. Corruption thrives when the wealth and potential of the public sector are used without the consent of those who happen to work in government. Economic theory and empirical evidence both demonstrate that corruption impedes economic growth by discouraging investment, deterring entrepreneurship, diverting public talent, reducing the quality of public infrastructure and distorting public finances. Regression analyses have shown a correlation between corruption and income inequality. Corruption leads to an unfair distribution of state resources and services.

Corruption also inhibits citizen participation, which in turn lowers the quality of public services and infrastructure. The poor suffer disproportionately from low-quality public services. When people perceive that the social system is inequitable, their incentive to engage in productive economic activities declines.

 

In 1997, Professor Robert Klitgaard, the world’s leading expert on corruption, recommended the following:

 

  • “Fry a few big fish…”. Major corrupt figures need to be convicted to undermine the culture of impunity.
  • Anonymous groups should conduct diagnostic studies of corrupt systems of procurement and contracting.
  • Collect information to raise the probability of corruption being detected.
  • Link officials’ salaries to success, so they earn enough to control temptation.

 

The corrupt would be comfortable if the citizenry took a pessimistic view that because corruption exists everywhere, nothing can be done about it. No one would argue that because pollution and disease exist in every country, nothing should be done to reduce them.

 

The Irish tribunals made a difference, in that they undermined the public’s tolerance for unethical behavior, and they destroyed the culture of silence in the process. Senior politicians such as Prime Ministers Haughey (death saved him from criminal conviction) and Ahern, Foreign Minister Ray Burke (who was jailed), and EU Commissioner Padraig Flynn and his daughter Minister Beverley Flynn (who was working for a bank when, in the Hiberno-English phrase, “the firm’s cash got mixed up with their own”) were named and shamed – and they paid the price.

 

 

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Economic Growth

This article appeared in the November 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest).The strapline was: “To grow or not to grow? Michael O’Leary goes in search of an answer to this conundrum”. I think that what I was trying to get across to a business audience was that I was not a fan of growth but I would like to see established in Sri Lanka some of the measures of good governance that growth proponents recommended.

 

Seventeenth-century Spanish Conquistadors in America destroyed all the settlements in their path and returned from their wanderings to starve, because there was nothing left to loot. Are we, 2lst century conquistadors, destroying our planet in the never- ending quest for economic growth?

 

As long ago as the 1960s, Robert Kennedy warned that GDP “is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of streets alike”. He added: “It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning. Neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

 

There are four basic arguments against pursuing growth:

 

  • Growth has negative effects on the quality of life. ‘Pleonexia’ means pathological greed that can cause stress, addictions and compulsions, ‘affluenza’ and loss of moral grounding.
  • Artificial needs are created. Zygmunt Bauman wrote that capitalism has made consumers immune to satisfaction. Desire no longer desires satisfaction. ‘Desire desires desire’, which is the basis for our new ‘constant greed’.
  • Growth depletes natural resources and is ultimately unsustainable. If everyone consumed at the US rate, we would require nearly five more planet Earths! According to the Red Cross’s World Disasters Report, the frequency and cost of natural disasters will increase due to a combination of environmental degradation, climate change, urban population growth and economic globalisation.
  • The gap between the richest and poorest is widening. Although there was never enough income at the peak of the pyramid to allow an egalitarian distribution to raise the bottom very high, the magic process of growth would – or so it was thought in the 60s – bring the bottom near to the top during a period of only a generation or two.

 

According to Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch, as a society becomes wealthier and more engaged in a positional contest for consumption, it becomes more difficult – not easier – to arrange for the redistribution of income by government. “The flaw in the affluent society lies not in the false values of affluence, but in its false promise,” Hirsch theorised.

 

Even when Sri Lanka was boasting an official growth rate of 7.5 per cent, this growth was not converted into poverty reduction. The income of the poorest in this country fell from 18.9 per cent of the income of the richest in 1963 to 13.4 per cent in 2002.

 

In the US, the wealth gap is currently at its widest since 1929. ln 1968, the CEO of General Motors (GM) took home 66 times the amount earned by the typical GM worker. In 2005, the CEO of Wal-Mart earned 900 times the pay of his average employee. There are more than 600,000 millionaires in the UK and35 billionaires. More than 2.5 million children – around a quarter of the total – are living below the official poverty line.

 

The Growth Report recently published by The World Bank (WB) is in no doubt that growth is the answer to the world’s problems, particularly poverty in the developing world: “In short, we take the view that growth is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for broader development, enlarging the scope for individuals to be productive and creative.”

 

Since 1950, 13 economies have grown at an average rate of seven per cent a year or more for 25 years or longer. Nine of them are in Asia: China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. They share common characteristics: engagement with the global economy, macroeconomic stability, high rates of savings and investment, the market allocation of resources, and credible and capable governments.

 

The Growth Report provides a handy checklist of bad ideas:

 

  • Subsidies, except for those targeted at highly vulnerable groups.
  • Dealing with unemployment by creating false state-sector jobs.
  • Cutting infrastructure investment for short-term gains.
  • Providing open-ended protection of specific sectors.
  • Dealing with inflation through price controls.
  • Treating environmental concerns as an unaffordable luxury.
  • Underpaying civil servants, including teachers.
  • Excessive interference in the banking system, which prevents the development of an efficient system of financial intermediation and reduces productivity.

 

Whichever side one takes in the debate about whether the pursuit of growth is good or bad, The Growth Report offers some sound advice about good governance and economic management. It stresses the importance of an effective and accountable civil service free of any taint of corruption: “Government leaders send powerful signals about values and the limits of acceptable behaviour when they decide on how to respond to cases of misbehaviour. Mild responses send the clear signal that while the misbehaviour is not right, it is not all that serious.”

 

According to the WB report: “The historical record shows that growth requires broadly stable prices, a currency that is not debauched by hyperinflation. Growth is about more than economics. It also requires committed, credible and capable governments …The country’s policy-makers must communicate a credible vision of the future and a strategy for getting there. They must be trusted as stewards”.

 

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Flip Side of Tourism

This article appeared in the August 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) with the strapline: “‘Enjoy the real world while it lasts’, Michael O’Leary quips, critiquing contemporary tourism trends.” Except that is not what he said.

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Over 30 years ago, Professor Emeritus Dean MacCannell composed a study of the phenomenon of tourism. His theme was that the middle classes of the West felt alienated by their comfortably dull lives. Although they had been programmed to believe the fiction that everything centred on the individual, they felt the disjunction of living in a depersonalized historical epoch. If there was an authentic reality, it must be elsewhere. If it was out there, it could be bought.

 

MacCannell employed Karl Marx’s concept of ‘fetishisation’. Pure experience, which normally leaves no material trace, is manufactured and sold like a commodity. The tourist thinks he or she can buy the authentic experience, which is located somewhere exotic beyond her or his normal experience. The tourist experience is built on the fiction that it is outside historical time, in a virtual world.

 

The touristic world is filled with people who are just passing through. It is a world furnished by the social production of highly fictionalised versions of the everyday life of traditional peoples, a ‘museum-isation’ of their quaintness. There is inevitably a tension between the moderns’ nervous concern for the authenticity of their touristic experience and the traditional folks ‘difficulty in acting out someone else’s fantasy version of their life. Culture is tailored to suit those who pay for it – until, in the words of a Masai man: “We have ceased to be what we are; we are becoming what we seem…”.

 

It is but a short step from the museum-isation of culture to the objectification of the people themselves. Tourism often turns people into commodities. There is a conceptual linkage between sightseeing, voyeurism and sexual exploitation. Part of the holiday experience is to hand one’s life over to one’s guide.

 

A character in a Don De Lillo novel says: “You can exist on this level for weeks and months without reprimand or dire consequence. Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools.”

 

Because the tourist is just passing through and has money to pay for ‘services’, what might be unthinkable back home becomes possible – and any taboo can be broken. For the organised tourist, the other – the ‘native’ of colonial times – is there to serve and to be exploited. The spiritual poverty of the West meets the economic poverty of the post-colonial world. In Thailand, beer is a dollar a bottle and a woman is available for GBP 10 or less. It’s the “last place you can be a white man”, says one bar-owning Westerner. This is the colonialism of the 21st century.

 

So, how about responsible and ethical tourism? There is a joke in the travel industry: “What’s the difference between an eco-holiday and a normal holiday?” Answer: “Thirty per cent surcharge.”

 

Between 1999 and 2005, the total GDP of the Galapagos Islands grew by 78 per cent, mainly because of eco-tourism. GDP per head only grew by 1.8 per cent because the population increased by 60 per cent. The fragile ecosystem i s crumbling under the increased population caused by ecotourism.

 

The Honduran Government designated 107 areas as protected, comprising 24 per cent of the nation’s territory. Almost all of the 80-square-mileis land of Roatin is part of a national marine park. In reality, only eight miles of its shoreline is officially protected. Locals make jewellery from the shells of critically-endangered turtles to sell to the ‘eco-tourists’ and those passing through on cruise ships.

 

The prospect of jobs has enticed people from the mainland to start building shanty towns without septic tanks. When the rains come, untreated sewage will slither down to the ‘protected ‘eight miles. The sediment reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the coral, killing it – which, in tum, slowly kills the fish that live there.

 

Tourism is an extractive industry and not much of its benefits go to locals. Resorts are usually operated by foreign companies. Any local benefits that do accrue must be offset against the downside – such as the commandeering of scarce, clean, fresh water by resorts to the detriment of local communities.

 

Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, but tourists are not encouraged to be self-reliant. I remember being on a boat in the middle of Lake Titicaca when the engine failed. I was not worried, because I had paid for this experience and had an inalienable right to be rescued.

 

Tourism is based on delusion. Before I came to Sri Lanka, I studied the Lonely PIanet Travel Guide and was interested to read about some local initiatives that sounded very worthy. After living here for many years, I realise that those initiatives are dubious enterprises that bear no relation to the guidebook’s description.

 

Somewhere in Colombo, a UK-based website employs Sri Lankan students (who may never have left Sri Lanka) to plagiarise other websites peddling fantasies about hotels all over the world. This website tells its visitors that Bom Jesus do Monte is in County Cork, in Ireland – whereas, in the real world, it is in Portugal. Does it matter? This is globalisation and fantasy tourism in action.
So, enjoy the virtual world – the real one is fast disappearing. . .

Omagh Part 3 An End to Terrorism?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 13 2015.

peace process

On 15 August 1998 at 3.04 p.m. an explosion in Omagh killed 31 people and injured 220. This was done in the pursuit of a united Ireland by dissidents objecting to the Good Friday Agreement signed earlier that year. Although the police knew who the culprits were, the families of the victims were frustrated that no one was prosecuted and they raised funds to bring a civil action. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness expressed their support but refused to give any information that would help bring the bombers to justice. The case was not concluded until 2009. Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? The authorities believed the actions of the families were unhelpful to the peace process. Compromise and forgiveness were the order of the day with their corollaries of impunity and surrender.

Good out of Evil?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real IRA into giving up the “armed struggle”. With arms being decommissioned in 2005, we were told that the war was over and the Provisional IRA was no more.

McGuigan Murder

kevinmcguigan

On August 12th, 2015, former Provisional IRA member Kevin McGuigan was shot dead outside his Belfast home. It is believed that he was killed in retaliation for the killing in May of IRA leader Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison. PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) Chief Constable, George Hamilton said  that the Provisional  IRA still exists and IRA members may have been involved in the McGuigan murder.

mcguinnessstorey

Bobby Storey was arrested. Storey is a close ally of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and has an office at Stormont. Stormont Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, said he was “surprised” to learn about Mr Storey’s arrest. “Bobby Storey is a valued member of Sinn Féin’s core leadership. He has played a leading role in the development of Sinn Féin’s peace strategy and is a long-standing and loyal supporter, defender and advocate of the peace and political processes.”

coffin

Terrorists and Ordinary Decent Criminals

 

Before the Good Friday Agreement, the Provisional IRA enjoyed links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale suppliers for parts of the UK drugs markets. The Provisional IRA funded its terrorist activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. Martin McGuinness, former IRA Commandant for Derry, and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. As a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland, McGuinness   visited Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation.

 

The Real IRA has been responsible for murders and pipe bomb attacks in the Republic and has taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The group is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The dissidents are also believed to be selling some of these bombs to gangs including criminal elements within the Travelling community. In 2009, the Irish Army Ordnance Corps dealt with 61 live bombs and 140 hoax bombs. In 2010, they dealt with 40 live bombs, mostly in Dublin.

 

In Sri Lanka, the LTTE was mainly dependent for funding in the early days on robberies and extortion.  Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports, other papers, and also engaged in human trafficking.

Real IRA Still in Business

According to Forbes, the Real IRA is currently the ninth richest terrorist organisation in the world, with an income of around £32m, (ISIS is top of the league with £1.3bn) largely generated from smuggling and organised crime. The Real IRA remained active immediately after Omagh. A car bomb exploded at midnight on March 4 2001 outside the BBC’s studios in London. British authorities suspected the Real IRA had planted the bomb as retaliation for a Panorama programme about Omagh.  There was also a bombing in Ealing on 3 August 2001 and an attempted bombing in Birmingham city centre on 3 November 2001.

Did the Provos Really Lay Down Arms?

There has been informed speculation recently that the Provisional IRA did not fully decommission its arms as officially announced in 2005. According to Mitchell Reiss, former US special envoy, during negotiations on decommissioning, Gerry Adams asked that the IRA be allowed to keep guns to counter dissident threats – a request that was accepted by the Blair government but rejected by Dublin. Arms  that Adams wanted to keep as a defence AGAINST  dissidents disrupting the peace rare now available TO dissidents to disrupt the peace process. Reports, issued by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) acknowledged that the IRA had retained weaponry. Did the retention have the approval of the British, Irish and US governments? Neither the IMC nor the IICD ever specified the precise nature of the weaponry, although there is a hint that high-powered weapons, such as automatic rifles were held back. Neither body reports that the withheld weaponry was recovered or destroyed, or explained what happened to it. Kevin McGuigan was killed with an automatic rifle.

Arms Caches Still Being Found

In July 2013, Gardaí uncovered the largest ever dissident republican arsenal buried on land at the Old Airport Road in north Dublin. It included explosives and guns that the Provisional IRA should have decommissioned years earlier. The haul included 15kg of semtex that the Gaddafi had supplied in the 1980s. The buried weaponry also included handguns, shotguns, an Uzi submachine gun, electronic devices to disrupt mobile phones and more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition. In September 2013, Gardaí in Meelick, County Clare, seized weapons, explosives and circuit boards that could be used to trigger massive bombs.

In May 2015, when the Republic’s security forces prepared for a visit by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, six republican dissidents from two hard-line factions were arrested. Irish Defence Forces’ bomb disposal teams were sent to Courtown in Wexford and Dundalk, Louth. Bomb components were found in the security operation near the border with Northern Ireland.

Terrorists Could Govern in Dublin

Sinn Féin, formerly the proxy of the Provisional IRA, is confident of winning enough seats in the next Dáil to lead the Opposition in the Republic of Ireland, with a chance of being the leading party in the election after that. A scenario can be imagined in which the governing party in the Republic of Ireland is influenced by someone who has been questioned about the IRA execution of Kevin McGuigan.

 

Could the LTTE Rise Again?

For nearly 20 years, we have been hopeful that peace would endure in Ireland. Perhaps we were too complacent. Following the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, there have been no terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka. Lower level cadres were rehabilitated and senior figures like Karuna, Pillayan, Daya Master and KP entered the mainstream. In the 2015 parliamentary election former LTTE fighters contested (unsuccessfully) for parliamentary seats. Currently the TNA, which during the war was the proxy of the Tigers, is now the official opposition party in the Sri Lankan parliament.

Does this mean that separatist militancy has been absorbed into the mainstream Sri Lankan polity or is it lying dormant? There is plenty of funding available from the diaspora and many people who still long for Eelam.  Could a reduction of military presence allow a resurgence of violence?

 

Noise about Silence

This article appeared in the August 2011 edition of Living magazine.

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There has been a lot of noise about silence, a lot of words expended.

For example, Sara Maitland wrote a lot of words about silence.  Before writing A Book of Silence, published in 2008, she spent silent time in silent places – on Skye in the Hebrides; in the Sinai Desert; in forests and mountains; in a flotation tank; in monasteries and libraries. Then she did a lot of talking to promote the book.

I used to live in Lewisham and even without rioters it was noisy. As well as the usual car and burglar alarms, there were police helicopters flying low in the small hours of most mornings. Skulks (that is the collective noun apparently) of foxes used to sun themselves on the surrounding  lawns and at night forage in dustbins and set about reproduction. The nocturnal screaming of ravished vixens was indescribable.

Later we lived  in sparsely  populated rural Ireland and became  used to a certain level of quietness.  Meditation was relatively easy in our little cottage surrounded by fields.  I first visited Sri Lanka in 2001 and spent  twelve days in a meditation centre, practising the art of “noble silence”. Sri Lanka was a bit of a shock to the senses, especially hearing.

I wrote a poem about it at the time.

The Silence Within

A bhikkhu sneezes. Anicca. Bless you.

Inside the meditation hall, buttocks squirm,

Noses sniffle, throats tickle and phlegm.

Geckos squeak. Outside, temples and mosques

Decibel their faithful to prayer. Sirens police the roads.

Helicopters take the air highway to the war.

Semtex gouges rock from the earth. Rifles shoot wild boar.

A demon hectors on my left shoulder, mocking

My ambition of equanimity.

One can hope for quietness but  it’s all relative. In 1952 at  the Maverick Hall  in Woodstock,  New York State, the penultimate piece of a piano recital by the young piano virtuoso David Tudor  was John Cage’s latest “composition”, 4’33”. Tudor shut the piano and sat still. The wind rustled in the maples and rain could be heard falling on the roof.

The American Catholic monk, Thomas Merton wrote: “I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators” . The more accepted theory behind the practice of monastic silence is that it is a means to access the deity, to develop self-knowledge and to live more harmoniously.

Jenny Diski found it difficult to live harmoniously with her neighbours because of their Led Zeppelin albums. She also discovered that she suffered from tinnitus and found that there is a medical condition known as hyperacusis  – an inability to tolerate everyday sounds. Many sounds that were previously perceived as  normal can be painful, annoying, seem amplified, or irritating.

It seems to me that what Sara Maitland is writing about is not silence, which is unattainable, but solitude. One reviewer  of A Book of Silence commented, “One unmentioned side effect of silence, on Maitland at least, seems to be solipsism.” Maitland’s craving for partial isolation raises significant questions as to the nature of silence and relationships. Monastic silence and monastic solitude might be liberating but could also cause derangement and hallucinations. Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote in  A Time to Keep Silence: “I had asked for quiet and solitude and peace, and here it was; all I had to do now was to write. But an hour passed, and nothing happened. …So much silence and sobriety! The place assumed the character of an enormous tomb, a necropolis of which I was the only living inhabitant.”

Visitors from Colombo to our mountain retreat  remark on the meditative calm. However, it is certainly not as silent as the tomb. Sometimes I find Colombo quieter.  Mother Nature is a noisy old whore.  As I write this,  hornbills are cackling derisively, squirrels are noisily complaining about the attentions of the dogs, monkeys are fighting over guavas, parrots are just scolding for the fun of it.

There is no such thing as silence.

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