Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Lakbima News articles

For Whom Nobel Tolls

I wrote an  article about the Nobel Prize and submitted it to Lakbima News for which organ I was writing a regular weekly column. The editor declined to publish it. He was fired soon afterwards and the paper eventually closed down. The Curse of Colman!


My esteemed editor, Rajpal Abeynayake,  scholar and gentleman, wit, raconteur  and all-round good egg, has written about the Nobel prize quite often. Some time ago he wrote something erroneous about the Nobel prize for literature.  I hesitated to comment at that time because I  was scared of Mr Abeynayake – I had, timorously from the sidelines, witnessed those bloody three-way battles between Rajpal, Malinda and Dayan.

I’m still afraid, but I can’t restrain myself. Sorry! I recall that Raj wrote praising the Chilean 2010 Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Actually Vargas  is Peruvian. I first tried to read Vargas  in Spanish in his own home city of Arequipa (beautiful colonial buildings towered over by snow-capped mountains). I was not very successful. I was not very successful either reading him in English – he does not use a straightforward linear chronology, he is somewhat “experimental”. Nevertheless, Vargas is undoubtedly a great writer as well as being very handsome and elegant. Beginners should start with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter which is very funny. There was a movie version featuring Peter “Columbo” Falk. Wish I could find a pirate copy in Majestic City.

Whatever about his qualities as a writer, Vargas’s politics are less than attractive. He ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990. Vargas is one of those people who has moved from the far left to the neo-con right. Castro’s pal , Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was once a great friend but they have not spoken since Vargas punched Marquez in the face in 1976. Vargas once supported Castro but during his presidential campaign he was described as “Thatcherite”.

Rajpal wrote about the Nobel again in an editorial: “When the international community is witnessing the award of Nobel Peace Prizes to presidents of countries who have worked towards peace, eschewing war, it must be rather disconcerting to the Rajapaksa administration that having ushered in peace, albeit by means of war, all that the government is getting from a significant part of the international community is ceaseless opprobrium.”

In the same issue, he also wrote about  the Nobel in his  column. After discussing some of the odd choices for the Nobel Peace Prize Rajpal remarks: ”John Pilger,  who in fact got his Nobel for literature, and not for his contribution to the cause of peace due to his numerous explanations on how governments including that in his home country cause wars.”

John Pilger is an excellent chap in many ways, but it would be a great surprise if he ever won the Nobel prize for literature. He has not done so yet. While enjoying many of his articles,  I have often been somewhat put off by the hyperbole and the whiff of self-serving sanctimony.

In the New Statesman dated May 14 2009 when victory over the LTTE was at hand, Pilger compared the Sri Lankan government’s actions to those of Israel in Gaza: “From the same masterclass you learn to manipulate the definition of terrorism as a universal menace, thus ingratiating yourself with the ‘international community’ (Washington) as a noble sovereign state blighted by an ‘insurgency’ of mindless fanaticism. The truth and lessons of the past are irrelevant. And, having succeeded in persuading the United States and Britain to proscribe your insurgents as terrorists, you affirm you are on the right side of history, regardless of the fact that your government has one of the world’s worst human rights records and practises terrorism by another name. Such is Sri Lanka”.

Note the scare quotes. It was not a real insurgency then,  John? His general line on Sri Lanka is that although the Tigers may have spilled some blood they had no choice because even before the LTTE was invented there was a master plan to obliterate the Tamil race.

When Obama, an inexperienced politician who had hardly settled his buttocks on the presidential chair in the Oval Office, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I was stunned enough to do a little research.

Kissinger won it in spite of bombing the shit out of Cambodia and delaying the end of the Vietnam War for purely presentational purposes. The Kissinger- Le Duc Thọ award prompted two dissenting Committee members to resign. Thọ declined to accept the award, stating, “There was never a peace deal with the U.S. We won the war”.

Other dodgy winners include that notable warmonger Theodore Roosevelt, Zionist terrorists (sorry – freedom fighters) and ethnic cleansers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini have been nominated in the past.

Foreign Policy magazine listed people who did not win it. These include  Eleanor Roosevelt, Vaclav Havel and Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before his death in January 1948, but never made the final cut. In 1948, following Gandhi’s death, the Nobel Committee declined to award a prize on the ground that “there was no suitable living candidate” that year. Later, when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell these Asiatic types apart.

The Nobel Peace Prize is not the only prize  to have attracted controversy. Look at those who haven’t won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ibsen, Strindberg, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Mark Twain, Joyce, Pound, Henry James, Graham Greene, Nabokov, Borges (who deserved a prize for his description of the Falklands War – “two bald men fighting over a comb”), Philip Roth.

There have been some dodgy choices among the 108 literature laureates. I would have no argument about Tagore, Mauriac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Saramago, Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, GB Shaw, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, Kenzaburo Oe, William Golding, Saul Bellow, Derek Walcott and Albert Camus. Halldor Laxness may be an obscure writer from a nation, Iceland, with a small population, but I have enjoyed two of his novels, The Atomic Station and The Fish Can Sing, although Magnus Magnusson’s new translation seemed a bit eccentric compared to the one I read in the 1960s.

Doris Lessing has lived a long time and has an impressive opus, although she has not produced anything in a long time that is other than eccentric. I love VS Naipaul’s writing, although much of his essays I would disagree with and the man himself seems disagreeable. Although Raj would not agree, I believe the  award to Orhan Pamuk was well deserved and drew attention to a national literature not well-known in other countries. Others are on the doubtful side.

John Steinbeck ignited my passion for American literature when I was a pre-teen and I still hold him in great affection, but I do not think he was up among the greats,  even when he won the prize. I wonder if Toni Morrison, for all her many virtues, is a worthy recipient. Who reads Elias Canetti today? Were Galsworthy and Sinclair Lewis any more than middlebrow entertainers? What was the claim to fame of Pearl S Buck?  Mikhail Sholokhov was a fraud. What about Henryk Sienkiewicz? Who would remember him if his novel Quo Vadis had not given Peter Ustinov the opportunity to ham it up as Nero in the movie version? Pär Lagerkvist is a name on everyone’s lips! Think of Anthony Quinn as Barabbas.

Will recent winners like Tomas Tranströmer, Herta Müller, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (not much available in English), and Elfriede Jelinek be remembered in perpetuity or will they be consigned to the same limbo as Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson (joint winners in 1974) or Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Grazia Deledda, Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont, Jacinto Benavente, Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan, Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam, Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf?

Winston Churchill has claims to be considered a great man – but 1953 prize for literature!? His histories are self-serving and ghost-written.

Perhaps John Pilger would not be an unlikely laureate after all.




Should we worry about cholesterol?

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday October 10 2010.


I was surprised when I first arrived in Sri Lanka to hear a dinner-party guest discussing her bowel movements and haemorrhoid surgery. I soon learnt that Sri Lankans of all classes were somewhere on a spectrum between health-conscious to hypochondriac. Everyone “knows their numbers” as they say in the States. A conversational gambit might be, “I have cholesterol. How high is yours?”

I was once a small part of the Study of Health and Stress carried out by Professor Sir Michael Marmot at London University. My cholesterol levels were “at the high end of the normal range”. Medication was not suggested. In London I was advised to avoid cashew nuts, avocadoes and prawns. In Sri Lanka I was told to eat as much of them as I could.

Why has cholesterol become such a villain? As Jenifer Anniston used to say: “Here comes the science”. Cholesterol is a natural substance produced by the liver to provide structure to animal cells. The brain is 70% fats and cholesterol.

High density lipoprotein (HDL) carries cholesterol from peripheral tissues in the arterial walls to the liver. From the liver it is excreted with bile. Cholesterol is transported from the liver to peripheral tissues. When cells need extra cholesterol they call for low density lipoprotein (LDL) to deliver the cholesterol into the cell’s interior. Up to 80% of cholesterol in the blood is transported by LDL. Why then does the common wisdom condemn LDL as “bad” and deem HDL “good”?

Perhaps some mental confusion has arisen because of a misunderstanding of the term “risk factor”. Risk factors are not the same as causes. Gary Younge wrote in the Guardian: “Because two things are co-related it does not mean that one causes the other. Shark attacks and ice cream sales both rise in the summer. That does not mean that ice cream attracts sharks or people react to fear of sharks by eating more ice cream”.

If heart attacks happen more often to people who have high LDL, smoke, are overweight and suffer from stress it would be wise to give up smoking, lose weight and relax. It would not be wise to take drugs to attack LDL while leading an unhealthy life style.

In 1953, Ancel Keys published a paper in which he argued that five times as many Americans as Italians died from heart attacks because Italians ate healthier food. Using data from six countries he claimed to prove the dangers of animal fat. If he had studied all 22 countries for which he had data the results would have been different. Even within Italy there were differences in the rate of deaths from heart attacks, even among people following the same diet.

The Framingham, Massachusetts, study is often used to argue the case for lowering cholesterol. The reality is that almost half of those who had a heart attack in Framingham had low cholesterol. Women with low cholesterol were as likely to die as those with high levels.

Professor Donald Light says 85% of new drugs offer few benefits, but risk serious harm . He cited the marketing of statins. Sponsored researchers and writers converted the complex relationships between heart disease and saturated fats into the simple message: “cholesterol kills”.

The first statin was launched in 1987. Pfizer’s Lipitor achieved sales of $10 billion a year, becoming the world’s best selling prescription drug.. Sales have soared further to around $27 billion because of huge increases in those with “high” cholesterol. In 1990, official guidelines meant that 13 million Americans “needed” statins. In 2001, “high” was redefined and the market increased to 36 million. Five of the fourteen authors of the new definition were paid by Big Pharma. In 2004, a further redefinition expanded the market to 40 million. Eight of the nine experts on that panel were taking money from the drug companies.

UK government heart advisor Professor Roger Boyle suggested every man over 50 and every woman over 60 should take a daily statin. This approach has been taken to ridiculous extremes with some “experts” recommending that statins be put in the public water supply. The American Journal of Cardiology recently published an article suggesting that statins should be offered in complimentary packets with burgers.

There can be side-effects from statins. They have been associated with pancreatitis, tendon problems, depression, sleep disturbances, memory loss, sexual dysfunction, cataracts, osteoporosis, peripheral neuropathy, hemorrhagic stroke and rare cases of interstitial lung disease.

Rhabdomyolysis is a very serious condition which may account for a quarter of cases of acute renal failure, and may have a mortality rate as high as 20%. It causes vomiting, confusion, coma, abnormal heart rate and rhythms and absence of urine production, usually about 12–24 hours after the initial muscle damage.

Dr H Brian Brewer Jr, a senior scientist at the NIH (National Institute of Health), wrote: “No cases of rhabdomyolysis occurred in patients receiving [Crestor] up to 40 milligrams”. The truth was that eight cases of rhabdomyolysis were reported during clinical trials of Crestor. The LA Times obtained FDA records under the Freedom of information Act. These records show that one patient got rhabdomyolysis while taking only ten milligrams. FDA records show that 78 patients got rhabdomyolysis taking Crestor during its first year on the market and two died. Baycol was withdrawn after at least 31 reports of fatal rhabdomyolysis.

While making recommendations on behalf of the NIH Brewer was being paid by the companies that sell the drugs.

Low cholesterol in itself can be harmful. It affects serotonin, a substance involved in mood regulation. Canadian researchers found that those with the lowest cholesterol had more than six times the risk of committing suicide as did those in the highest quarter. Dozens of studies also support a connection between low or lowered cholesterol levels and violent behavior. Low LDL has been linked to Parkinsonism.

All drugs mess with the kidneys and the liver. Why take that risk if you are not ill? Statins work by blocking 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase, an enzyme in the liver. Unfortunately statins cannot be specifically targeted on cholesterol. As collateral damage, statins inhibit other things the body needs. They deplete the coenzyme CoQ10, which is essential for energy requirements of cells. High levels of CoQ10 are found in healthy heart tissue. Statins, by reducing CoQ10 have been linked to an increase risk of congestive heart failure. The only cure is a heart transplant.

The Hippocratic Oath enjoins doctors to do no harm. They should not perform unnecessary surgery or take unnecessary risks by prescribing treatment of dubious value. Under the spurious banner of “prevention” harm is being done, anxiety is being created, resources are being misdirected and fortunes are being made.

I am not a doctor so don’t let what I say persuade you to stop taking statins. Different doctors have different views. You must decide for yourself which doctors to believe

Guinea Pigs International

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday October 24 2010.

Recent revelations that American “researchers” deliberately infected unsuspecting Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhoea show us what “science” can mean in the real world of medicine and pharmaceuticals.

Some time ago, I started a discussion about cholesterol and statins on a blog frequented by many medical doctors. I said that I was in favour of science and rational argument and instinctively against hippy-dippy, new-agey unsubstantiated nonsense. The problem is, science says one thing is good today, another thing is good tomorrow.

One blogging MD told me: “Alternative medicine purports to have access to ancient ‘truths’ or ‘wisdom’ that has not changed over centuries or millennia, but there is no such thing as ancient truth or wisdom.” One might retort that if something had been effective for centuries without ill-effects, why knock it?

She also said: “Doctors have had extensive, intensive and expensive training. They also keep up with the latest research and developments. They know more than the layman. In order for anyone to determine whether a treatment has merit or is a fraud, they MUST have a good working knowledge of science and statistics (or trust someone who does). Otherwise, they simply cannot accurately evaluate the alternatives.”

What does all this talk about modern medicine being more scientific than alternative medicine amount to? In an ideal world it would mean that modern remedies are superior to traditional ones because they have been subjected to rigorous scientific tests to ensure their efficacy and safety.

Does this happen?

In the US, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulates about a quarter of the nation’s domestic economy, including medical treatment. The Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), is the part of the agency that regulates prescription drugs. Before a drug company can sell a drug, it must sponsor clinical trials to prove to CDER that the drug is reasonably safe and effective.

CDER’s basic requirement is simply that most new drugs need to be proved to be better than nothing. The drug trial only compares the new drug with a placebo not with existing drugs. The drug companies pay fees for each drug reviewed, so it is in the agency’s interest to review as many drugs as possible as quickly as possible. This method of funding means that the FDA/CDER sees Big Pharma rather than the pill-guzzling public as the client. In 2003, the Health and Human Services inspector general found that 18 % of CDER reviewers felt pressured by their superiors to recommend approval of drugs against their better judgment.

We patients who want to trust our doctors and those dedicated scientists labouring to improve our health might still have in our minds the fantasy that drugs are tested in hospitals and universities by saintly white-coated, Mekon-domed boffins.

Today’s reality is somewhat different. One way or another it is the pharmaceutical industry that funds testing. The old way has proved too expensive and clinical testing has been privatised and out-sourced. About 70% of clinical trials now take place in the private sector, often in the offices of private physicians or at dedicated sites. Contract research organisations (CROs), such as Parexel, Quintiles, PPD and Covance, have built themselves into corporate giants. SFBC was named one of the best small businesses in America by Forbes magazine. For ten years it was paying immigrants to be test subjects at the largest testing centre in North America in a dilapidated former Holiday Inn in Miami with a record of numerous safety and fire-code violations. There are also offshoot businesses like patient-recruitment agencies who supply the human guinea pigs.

A contract researcher does not come up with original ideas, or design research protocols, or analyse research results, or write them up for scientific publications. The pharmaceutical company does all that stuff. A contract researcher earns big bucks for few hours. A part-time contract researcher conducting four or five clinical trials a year can earn an average of $300,000 in extra income. In 2000, a full-time clinical trial site earned an average of $1.6 million.

The raw material is not research intellect or even the drugs, it is the people who are “ready-to-recruit”, in the industry jargon. Ready-to-recruits are often sick people who are also very poor. A WHO official estimates that 20,000 clinical trials are initiated each year. The guinea pig pool in the west is becoming depleted because everybody is already on some medication. ‘Treatment-naive’ subjects are easier to find in the developing world. Between 1991 and 2005 the number of clinical trials conducted in the developing world rose from 10% to 40%.

The drug companies do not encourage their Eastern European testers to come up with bad results. One physician said she had done a clinical trial on a drug that appeared dangerous. The sponsor ignored her and successfully submitted the drug for approval. The drug was later withdrawn from the market. “We never got a contract from that manufacturer again”.

Industry-sponsored trials published in medical journals consistently favour sponsors’ drugs. Negative results are not published, positive results are repeatedly published in slightly different forms, and a positive spin is put on even negative results. Thirty-seven of thirty-eight positive studies of an anti-depressant were published. Of the thirty-six negative studies, thirty-three were either not published or published in a form that conveyed a positive outcome.

There have been more general criticisms, some of them reported by a Parliamentary committee, of the MHRA, the UK equivalent of the FDA. As with the US system, problems arise because funding is provided by the pharmaceutical companies, which leaves much room for conflicts of interest.

Bioethicist Art Caplan is concerned that CROs are often told by pharmaceutical companies to “just get us the data on the deadline”, and “don’t get asked questions on how that’s being done.” The Association of CROs boasts that CROs conduct clinical trials 30% more quickly than the pharmaceutical companies that hire them.

In the November 2008 issue of Prospect magazine, Jim Giles wrote about Merck’s painkiller, Vioxx: “It is no surprise that marketing divisions spin results, but we expect scientists to be objective. This assumption is dangerous. The company’s scientists did not receive an edict from the board demanding a cover-up, or an e-mail suggesting the deaths of patients be ignored. The problem was that so many scientists at Merck stood to gain if Vioxx did well. When it came to judging risks, risks that in many cases were borderline and could be ascribed to other causes, they were unable to make the right call.”

Forgetting to Forgive – Amnesia, Forgiveness or Revenge?

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday June 5 2011


Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.  Oscar Wilde


In cyberspace no-one can hear your virtual scream. There is blood on the blogosphere. I have been contributing to a US-based blog site for the past three years. Mostly, it has been a pleasant experience because there have been a lot of smart, cultured and knowledgeable people putting in their two-cents’ worth. I am trying to extricate myself now because I have attracted the attention of a paranoid stalker who persistently misunderstands and bad-mouths me.


One good thing that has come out of this is that someone I had a battle with a couple of years back has leapt to my defence and we have become firm friends.


The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in Hollywood movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Movies which show returning harm to those who harmed seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Blog-warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie.

The poet, Charles Simic, wrote about the genocidal crimes of the Croat Ustashi in the 1940s and the crimes of the Serbs in the 1990s: “Many the world over believe this is the only way; that the survival of their people justifies any crime they commit. They find the scruples of those who cringe at the shedding of innocent blood in pursuit of some noble cause naive and repugnant”.

Events in Sri Lanka in 2009 prompted a friend in the UK to write to me: “Why can’t they forget race and religion and just get on with each other?” People often say similar things about Northern Ireland. Ordinary people generally do want to get along and often succeed in doing so. Unfortunately, there are economic factors and historical myths stoking conflicts.

The non-violent civil-rights protests in Northern Ireland were hi-jacked by the Provisional IRA who appointed themselves protectors of the Catholic community and hitched the issue to their own nationalist agenda of a united Ireland.

On a visit to Northern Ireland the Dalai Lama said: “Some differences, some conflicts will always be there. But we should use the differences in a positive way to try to get energy from different views. Try to minimize violence, not by force, but by awareness and respect. Through dialogue, taking others’ interests and sharing one’s own, there is a way to solve the problems”. He put his arms around a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister and tugged their beards.

Irish nationalists have long memories about the crimes of Cromwell. Gloucester builder, Fred West, and his wife Rosemary murdered an uncertain number of young women in the basement at 25 Cromwell Street. He was charged with eleven murders but there were probably many more. Most of their victims were waifs and strays, but one was from a middle class family, an art student from a loving family who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lucy Partington, the cousin of writer Martin Amis, was waiting for a bus when Fred and Rose offered her a lift. Lucy’s sister, Marian, writes movingly about Rosemary West: “Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty. A life deprived of truth, beauty or love. I imagine that the deviant ignorance that fed her sadistic, egotistical crimes was rooted in her ruined, crooked childhood.”


I don’t know if I could be forgiving in such circumstances. There is a good deal of research which shows that forgiving is good for the health.[i] When people think about forgiving an offender, it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. The research of Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University shows that forgiveness can be learned. In Northern Ireland, Luskin found that people who are taught how to forgive, become less angry, more optimistic, self-confident. His studies show a reduction in experience and physical manifestations of stress, and an increase in vitality.

Harold Good was President of the Irish Methodist Church 2001-2. Both Jonathan Powell’s book Great Hatred, Little Room and Deaglán de Bréadún’s, The Far Side of Revenge, mention Harold’s discreet but vital role in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was Harold who announced, as spokesman for General de Chastelaine’s decommissioning body, that the war was effectively over and that the IRA had laid down their arms.

Harold served the poor in the Dublin City mission in the 1950’s. In the 1960s he was in Ohio and later served in the largely black Methodist church in Indianapolis. Back in Northern Ireland he witnessed the horrors of the Troubles. “I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.” In spite of this, he has referred, in a personal e-mail to me, to his “friend Martin McGuinness” , former IRA Derry Commandant and now government minister. Harold worked closely with both Republican and Loyalist prisoners with a view to their resettlement. He was the Director in the 1970s of the Corrymeela community, a centre for reconciliation between the communities. He was chair of NIACRO (Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners) and part-time prison chaplain at Crumlin Road prison. A key part of the Good Friday agreement was the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners.

In his acceptance address to the Gandhi Foundation when receiving their 2008 Peace Award, Harold quoted a child who wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.”

Seamus Heaney wrote:


“once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.


So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.”


My new blogfriend and I  studiously avoid returning to the matter of our previous dispute. We talk about different nuances of American and Asian English. We talk about his experience as a black man in the USA and in the US Marines and the LAPD. If we started to get nostalgic about our old fight, there might be trouble. When I lived in London, I walked to the train station every morning at the same time. Most days I would encounter a mother taking her small son to the kindergarten. One day she was scolding him for  fighting with a little girl. He defended himself by saying: “she hit me back first”. My blogfriend and I don’t want to go into who started it. I doubt if he will accept that he was wrong and I sure as hell know I was damned right. Forget about it!
Is amnesia more conducive to reconciliation than truth?




Riots, Witches and Yakas

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday August 21 2011

For the past couple of weeks, there has been much excitement in our Sri Lankan neighbourhood (near Badulla). Villagers are convinced that there is a serial killer on the rampage. The elderly ladies, Tewanee and Meenaachi, who work for us have been telling us that they know for a fact that women have been raped and killed in this vicinity, their breasts bitten off, their hearts torn out. Tewanee’s dogs were killed by having their throats slashed.

The fear is real. We have been told two men have been watching our house, one man dressed all in white, another dressed all in black. There have been reports of two strange men hiding in a drain near our house. A male worker who sometimes does jobs for us told us to be careful. He said the yakas jump from trees. Some might be suspicious about that worker himself. The husband of one of our workers has been expressing fears about our safety but did not worry about going away to work on lorry without telling his wife that he was going. Police have been calling at his house looking for him. His neighbour has three young daughters and his wife is always away working in the Middle East. The man is rarely at home and leaves the daughters to fend for themselves. The girls, aged from five to thirteen, are very scared by the stories of yakas.

Villagers are roaming the roads around our house with sticks and knives and setting fire to the jungle to flush the miscreants out. Strangers come under suspicion. We phoned the police one night when there were shouting mobs roaming the roads. The local police fobbed us off but we later heard that they did come to investigate. One villager said a policeman pleaded, “Please don’t hit me son. I’m a policeman. Hit the Yaka if you catch him. Kill him with your stick if you like but don’t hit me. I’m a police officer!” It does not seem that villagers suspect their own – the emphasis is on fear of strangers – but there is potential for the settling of old scores as in the Salem witch hunts and Guantanamo. The belief that the police are releasing culprits adds to the vigilante frenzy.

It is quite touching that Tewanee has invited us to stay at her home out of fear for our safety. Our neighbours are related to the people living below them. There is no love lost but they insisted that they all stay with them for safety.

We heard of an attack at two-mile post another at seven mile post. We heard that a man had been chased by a mob with sticks and knives and he had hidden in the jungle near the Tea Research Institute. We asked a doctor friend who works in Badulla near the general hospital if there was any truth in these rumours. He said there had been attacks but he had not heard of any deaths. Sightings got closer to our home. We phoned the local police chief. At that very moment he was in a meeting with the manager of the tea estate next to the one on which we live. The OIC (Officer in Charge) told us there was nothing to worry about, These were just wild rumours. He said there was no truth either in stories that children were being abducted from the lines (the estate accommodation for tea pluckers and labourers).

The manager on another tea estate, someone with whom we often socialise, also pooh-poohed the idea of attacks on women. However, later in the conversation, he admitted that he had taken a woman to hospital after she had been attacked on an estate road and badly scratched She had been with another woman who ran away.

The attacks are being blamed on bhuthaya, grease yakas or grease devils. Historically, a “grease devil” was a thief who wore only underwear or went naked and covered his body in grease to make himself difficult to grab if chased. Lately, the “grease devil” has become a night-time prowler who frightens and attacks women. Some of the reported attacks around here have been in daylight.

The name ‘Grease Devils’ was used in connection with the killings of seven elderly women in Kahawatte, near Ratnapura. On July 5, 2011, about 2,000 people protested about the ineffectiveness of the police. According to human rights campaigner Basil Fernando: “The most attractive aspect of policing in Sri Lanka today is no longer investigation into crime and serving the people. It now appears to be the improvement of one’s own position, and to make money. There are many avenues open to senior police officers to do just this which makes worrying about criminal investigations an inconvenience…the authorities are more concerned about damage-control rather than trying to arrest the culprits. After the scandal goes away it will be business as usual, meaning that criminal investigation will remain no one’s business, as before.”

A man was arrested on Friday July 7 in an operation conducted by a special police unit assisted by the CID and the Ratnapura police. He broke the necks of these women before he raped them and dumped the bodies in jungles around Kahawatte. The suspect is a 35-year-old  army deserter known as Dhananjaya. The killing spree began in 2008. It is said that the suspect is mentally impaired, having had a bullet graze his skull whilst serving at the front during the war. He deserted from the army while stationed at Vedithilathiv and moved to Kahawatte. He started by stealing women’s underwear and later peeped at women asleep in their beds or taking showers. This escalated to forcibly embracing women. “When I look at young women I am not attracted to them. But when I look at middle-aged women, I am sexually aroused,” Dhananjaya had told the police during interrogation.

There have long been rumours about feral bands of army deserters living in jungles and swooping on remote villages to plunder and rape.

Initially, there was not much in the newspapers despite accusations by the authorities against “the media” about distortion and panic-mongering. All the news was by word of mouth. There were rumours of incidents all over the country. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who lives in the Kalutara area on the west coast, told us that on three separate occasions she has been scared by three different men staring in through her windows. One of them was naked.

A 16 year-old boy who posed as a ‘Grease Yaka’ and attempted to rob a house in the Badulla area was arrested. The youth along with another friend had rehearsed for the robbery and captured his own photograph on his mobile phone before he was detained by the villagers and handed over to the Police.

Ushanar Marzuka, 31, a mother of two living in a remote area in Valaichchenai in the east, was accosted by two men clad in T-shirts and shorts with faces painted black. One of them cut her with a sharp object he carried in his hand. More than 100 villagers, some of them armed with clubs started searching for the two men. They caught a man and beat him up. He had said he was visiting one of his relatives.

A masked man who was terrorising people in the Sigiriya-Dambulla area was arrested by police on August 13. Police said the 34-year-old suspect was hiding inside a wooded area on the Sigiriya border when he was apprehended around 7.30pm. The police were led to the suspect’s hide out on a tip-off provided by local villagers. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of a bag loaded with women’s under wear.

There have been deaths. Police said that two unfortunate men killed at Thotalagala estate in Haputale, not far from us, were two travelling rug salesmen, though villagers identified them as ‘Grease Devils.’ The police identified the victims as Somasundaram Mahendran (29) and Sylvester Dias Jonny Peter (35). Fifty Special Task Force personnel had been deployed at the Thotalagala Tea Estate. Earlier in the day in the villagers had assaulted two men apparently in the presence of police. This led to a clash between the police and villagers, in which the OIC and a constable were injured. Because of this police had delayed about five hours reaching the scene at Thotalagala estate.

In Daulagala, near Kandy a 23 year old youth who was among a group of villagers giving chase to a suspicious person got entangled in a live electrical wire set to a trap wild boar and was electrocuted.

A mob attacked the navy camp in Kinniya, Trincomalee after assuming that a suspect had taken refuge inside the premises. The mob believed the suspect was a man with grease on his body. Over 500 people gathered around the navy camp, pelted it with stones and also set fire to a jeep which arrived at the scene with police reinforcements. The Sri Lankan police said that at least three people including a police officer were injured in the attack and 25 people were later arrested.

Triumphalism and foreign commentators

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday August 29 2010.

Some months ago, my fellow LAKBIMAnEWS contributor, Dayan Jayatilleka, was kind enough to mention my humble efforts in what he called “the prestigious Le Monde diplomatique”. In a series of short articles, I tried to convey to the western world the complexity of what was actually happening in our country. Most people who  commented on these pieces described them as  “professional” and “unbiased”, although an article caused one reader to call me a government lackey and another to call me a regurgitator of terrorist propaganda. I received an e-mail addressing me as “you crazed Irish monkey, you IRA fugitive. You should be in a zoo or an asylum”.

The August 2009 edition of Le Monde diplomatique carried an article on Sri Lanka by one Cédric Gouverneur entitled ‘The Time of Triumphalism.’ The editor of the English-language edition, Wendy Kristianasen, asked me for my views, somewhat pointlessly,  after the article was published. Unfortunately, she did not like my views.

She wrote to me: “It will be rather a statement of the obvious for you, but it is a good way to get the wider world interested in the country and its complex politics.”

My response was that it was unhelpful to get the wider world interested if the wider world gets interested in a distorted picture. Her response was : “I think, for what it’s worth, that the West knows very little about Sri Lanka, particularly outside of the UK. …Most ordinary people simply know that there was a long, difficult conflict. That’s all. Whereas what goes on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and particularly Israel, is widely reported on, in every detail, and closely followed. Every ordinary person has an opinion on those subjects, and may even feel him/herself to be an armchair expert.”

Cédric Gouverneur wrote about Sri Lanka back in 2004: “Many observers would wager that the LTTE will evolve mid-term, influenced by the Tamil diaspora (accustomed to Western democracy after 20 years of exile) and their own pragmatic leaders, who are increasingly political and less warlike.”

He clearly got that horribly wrong!

In this latest article he raises several issues which need to be debated, and which have been covered in some depth in LAKBIMAnEWS and other papers, such as the plight of the IDPs, the militarisation of the north, the fear of colonisation of predominantly Tamil areas.

The phrase “the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils” occurs in the body of the text. I doubt if that is actually telling us anything real or useful. This phrase suggests that the Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka form a homogeneous entity. Tamils are already divided by differences of origin, class, caste, religion, income, status and political views no matter what the government does. It would be more accurate to say “The government, overjoyed at electorally annihilating the opposition”.

In the article, theories are developed on the strength of vox pop statements from unreliable witnesses. “This triumphalism has exasperated Tamils recently liberated from Menic (sic) Farm”. This is based on the comments of a man who is nostalgic about the days of the LTTE. But even he says : “I appreciate that since the shelling, the army has behaved well towards civilians. They want to win our hearts and minds.”

Shanti Satchithanandam’s views are cited and she is described as a “victim” of the Tigers. Others have described her as a Tiger supporter.

It is implied that Sinhalese were gullible because: “They truly believe the media’s line that their army freed the Tamils from the clutches of a criminal organisation.” Why should they not believe it?!

The article is riddled with factual inaccuracies. There many serious howlers in the historical timeline headed “Thirty years of civil war”. I will not bore you with all of them. The thirty years begins with 1815 (surely something wrong with the arithmetic!). “The British finish colonising the island, previously divided into three kingdoms – two Sinhalese, one Tamil”. The most egregious error is “December 2009. Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results”. How could they dispute the results in December 2009 of an election which did not take place until January 2010?

Ms Kristianasen was not pleased when I drew her attention to these flaws. She said “I must ask you to commit yourself to responsible journalism”. Monsieur Gouverneur sent me an angry and abusive e-mail after she forwarded to him my e-mail address without my permission.

I urge you to read the article in full. Only paying subscribers to Le Monde diplomatique can access it on their own website ( but the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (whose Advisory Council includes Noam Chomsky, Bianca Jagger, Jake Lynch, Lakhdar Brahimi, who was once foreign minister of human-rights beacon Algeria,  and Edward Mortimer) have kindly reproduced it (historical howlers and all).

I am not one of those who use the tu quoque argument or says westerners are not allowed to criticise Sri Lanka because the crimes of the west are worse. However, Sri Lanka seems plagued by foreigners dropping in for a few days, becoming instant experts and disseminating a distorted picture. Cédric Gouverneur has written many of these “what I did on my holidays” pieces.

I urge LAKBIMAnEWS readers to study the article and engage in debate on it. Unfortunately, such debate is not possible with Le Monde diplomatique – they have no letters page, no readers’ editor, no complaints or corrections section, no facility to comment in any way on M Gouverneur’s article.

Travel Broadens. .. ?

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday January 23 2011

I have long doubted the veracity of the old adage “travel broadens the mind”. Looking at the European tourists slouching around Bandarawela or Kandy in their peculiarly unflattering travel garments it seems more a case of “travel broadens the arse”.

I now prefer to follow Pascal’s maxim: “I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room”. I endeavour to move as little as possible.

In my more mobile days, I visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Turkey, Peru, Morocco, most of Europe, the Pacific northwest states of America and British Columbia. My first long-haul trip was under the aegis of an upmarket package company. In their brochure, they were, albeit in heavily-coded language, marketing prostitution. Hotels in Thailand were described as “popular with bachelors”.

My later trips were, what might be regarded by some,  independent travel but, in fact, they were package holidays with dirtier hotels. In the wilder heights of the Altiplano one should not expect luxury, but a constant diet of dishwater and dog soup out of cracked plastic bowls palled. One does treasure memories and congratulate one’s adventurous younger self – drifting around in a malfunctioning boat in the middle of Lake Titicaca as the Bolivian navy (Bolivia has no coastline but does have a navy) passed by; learning that the Huancavelica police station had been blown up by the Sendero Luminoso the day after we had been inside it.

In the twilight of my years, I don’t want hardships or adventure. As I travel around Sri Lanka, I want comfort and cleanliness , if not luxury. Travelling from my mountain retreat to the Great Wen of Colombo can take eight hours and it would be good to be able to stop overnight at a comfortable and clean hotel but this humble desire has been thwarted.

My experience of a particular chain of hotels has not been pleasant. On my last visit to one of their hotels the food was simply inedible. Dinner on the first night was seer fish which was past its shelf date and had been microwaved from frozen, not grilled as I had requested. The second night we ordered chicken curry. The chicken was nothing but bone, cartilage and gristle.

The receptionist laughed when we asked if the room was clean and said of course it was. The room was not clean. There were cobwebs everywhere. The toilet and bidet had unpleasant stains on them. The shower did not work. An ash tray perched precariously on the balcony. It remained full of ash throughout our stay. Neither of us smokes. The table and chairs on the balcony were filthy.  I could see how a room a little further along was being cleaned. The boy was throwing the contents of ashtrays and bins over the balcony on to the ground. At one point he projected a red stream of betel juice over the balcony on to a tree.

Our afternoon snooze was disturbed by persistent hammering from the room next door and by a member of the “management” team shouting to a waiter across the width of the garden rather than taking the trouble to walk up to him and speak at normal volume.

The best feature of the hotel is the view which was not enhanced by mattresses, towels and bedding spread on the ground. The garden was strewn with paper plates covered in scraps of uneaten food. There had been a wedding the day before and no-one had bothered to clean up the detritus. The uneaten food was attracting swarms of flies.

All the chain’s hotels have had dirty crockery and stained tablecloths.

At least those dirty Peruvian hotels were cheap.

Over thirty years ago Dean MacCannell wrote a study of the phenomenon of tourism. His theme was that the middle classes of the west felt alienated from reality 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 depersonalised historical epoch. If there was an authentic reality it must be elsewhere. If it was out there it could be bought.

Professor MacCannell employed Marx’s concept of fetishisation. Pure experience, which leaves no material trace, is manufactured and sold like a commodity. The tourist thinks he can buy the authentic experience which is located somewhere exotic beyond his normal experience. The tourist experience is built upon the fiction that it is outside historical time in a virtual world. Sometimes sex is what is bought without the responsibility of a human relationship.

The touristic world is filled with people who are just passing through a world furnished by the social production of highly fictionalised versions of the everyday life of traditional peoples, a museumisation 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.”

As Don de Lillo wrote in his novel The Names:

“To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don’t cling to you the way they do back home. You’re able to drift across continents and languages, suspending the operation of sound thought. Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. 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, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysenteric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.”

Once I heard an American in a hotel in the Dolomites ask what she could eat. The receptionist said, “Here is the menu”. The American said, “Menu – is that Italian for food? How cute!”

Tourism turns people into commodities. There is a conceptual linkage between sightseeing, voyeurism and sexual exploitation.

Tourism is an extractive industry. 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.

Whatever about all that, if Sri Lanka really does want to attract quality tourists tourist hotel management will need to sharpen up their act and provide quality service and not just extortionate prices.

I brought my complaints to the attention of top management and they said they had immediately instituted improvements. That was 15 months ago. Soon I will be revisiting that hotel and will report my findings.



Language Is a Virus from Outer Space

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 6 2011

What did William S Burroughs mean when he wrote that language is a virus from outer space? He  argued  that language is infectious and exerts limitations and controls over people’s minds and  that the ability to think and create is  limited by the conventions of grammar and usage. Language is public behaviour which can be criticised. It can label and identify and categorise an individual. Linguistic factors influence our judgement of a person with serious consequences for identity and social survival.

Language can be divisive. India has (according to the 1961 Census) 1,652 languages, so it is not surprising that there have been language riots. Belgium with only two languages has also had language riots.

Language can be used to unite. Language is often an important part of nationalist struggle. In Ireland, the founding fathers of the Republic believed that language was intrinsic to the identity of the nation. Padraic Pearse believed the Irish school system raised Ireland’s youth to be good Englishmen or obedient Irishmen. Incidentally, Pearse’s father was a Brit  from Birmingham. The English put him before a firing squad for his part in the Easter Rising. Sean Mac Stíofáin, leader of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s, spoke fluent Irish with a cockney accent – his real name was John Stephenson and he was born in Leytonstone.

Brian Friel’s brilliant play Translations  deals with a wide range of issues, stretching from language and communication, to Irish history and cultural imperialism. A party from the Royal Engineers is working on new ordinance survey maps which involves turning Irish place names into English. The play focuses mainly on (mis)communication and language to tell of the desperate situation between these two countries with an unsure and questionable outcome.

There is no doubt that English as spoken in Ireland has a distinctive character. As Robert McCrum wrote in The Story of English,  “In England , the Anglo Saxons and the Celts hardly mixed. In Ireland the strange, and sometimes tragic, fusion of their two languages has made a culture, spoken and written, that is one of the glories of the English language. Irish English is the language of Edmund Spenser, Jonathan Swift, RB Sheridan, William Congreve, Oscar Wilde, JM Synge, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett (I know he wrote in French but he still sounds Irish when translated into English!).

My impression is that, in Sri Lanka,  Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims do mix. I was surprised that someone sent to do some work for us could not speak Sinhala, only Tamil. This was surprising because he had always lived in a Sinhala-speaking area and relied for his livelihood on working for Sinhala or English speakers. I was even more surprised and mightily impressed that others of a similar background were fluently tri-lingual, even though their formal education was limited. My optimism about his usefulness was soon deflated when he spent most afternoons reading my English papers and throwing bidis all over the garden. I also found that his polyglotism allowed him to lie to me in three languages and the English dried up when he was posed with a direct verbal challenge.

It is a truism that language has been a divisive issue in Sri Lanka. Perceived discrimination against the Tamil tongue was a contributory factor to 30 years of war. In 1956, the Sinhala-Only Act enshrined Sinhala as the language of administration and placed the majority Sinhalese speakers in a dominant position. This was not merely a cultural matter but  had a serious economic impact because, in a polity where government jobs were highly prized,  it  reduced the opportunities for Tamils to succeed in the administrative services or academia.

Sinhala linguistic nationalism was directed as much against English as Tamil, but the Brits were not going to fight back. In the 1950s, the marginalised underprivileged classes saw the primacy of Sinhala as a blow against the privileges of the elite urban English-educated classes.

During the colonial period, Tamil as well as Sinhala politicians espoused the idea of swabasha (or ‘native languages’).  The pressure  for swabasha was not about inter-ethnic conflict but to a certain extent reflected class connotations and  was a protest against the privileges enjoyed by the English educated elite, but denied  to the masses educated in the local languages. According to Prof Sasanka Perera, politicians and senior civil servants in the 1940s discussed the establishment of local languages as Official Languages replacing English

Language had not become a divisive ethnic issue even at this stage. Even SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP stated  in its manifesto: “it is most essential that Sinhalese and Tamil be adopted as Official Languages immediately so that the people of this country may cease to be aliens in their own land….”.

The divisive nature of language has been countered by the invention of artificial (or auxiliary, as many enthusiasts prefer) languages (ALs as they are known in the linguistic trade). Several hundred ALs have been recorded (including Klingon). Esperanto is the best known and has been used by people as different as Pope John Paul and Michael Jackson. Although proponents  of invented languages see them as a key to a brave new world of mutual understanding, clear thinking and peaceful-co-existence, their fervent advocacy in iteslef can cause antagonism. Esperanto has been frequently persecuted. In the 1930s the organisation was suppressed and many members arrstrd and shot.

Why invent a new language when there are existing languages used globally? In David Crystals magisterial Encyclopaedia of Language (1987, revised 1997), in the top 40 languages, English came in at number two, behind Mandarin Chinese. Since then English has been overtaken by Hindi and Spanish. Tamil was at number 20 and has gone up to number 17, with 77 million speakers worldwide. Sinhala and Irish do not make it to the charts.

Back in the mists of history, Latin was the global language, first because it was the language of the Roman Empire, then because it was the language of the universal church. Today the English language dominates (whatever the numbers of speakers recorded in the charts). First because it was the language of the British Empire, then because it was the language of the American (and Hollywood Empire) and now because it is the language of the internet. Irish is moribund in the sense that, although it is kept alive by governments and cultural enthusiasts, the Gaeltacht areas are shrinking museums or holiday destinations. Irish, like Sinhalese, is not an international language. Unlike Sinhalese, Irish is not used as part of daily commerce or social intercourse.

Chelva Kanaganayakam writes in the Nethra Review, that in Sri Lanka: “The idea that the adoption of English would eventually erase ‘ethnic thinking’ is clearly simplistic”. One practical problem would be finding enough competent English teachers. Reggie Siriwardene wrote back in 1992: “Catholics and Protestants have been fighting each other in Ulster for a long time although they have no linguistic difficulty talking to each other”. Up to a point, Reggie. That very use of the word “Ulster” is a good example of linguistic problems in Ireland. Irish nationalists would froth at the mouth at the use of “Ulster” to designate the six counties that from the statelet of Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Ulster is an ancient province of the island of Ireland and includes counties that are today part of the Republic. Even the use of the term “Northern Ireland” is avoided by some because it implies recognition of British rule. Also the northernmost county in the island is Donegal which is in the Republic. A government official I did business with in Dublin studiously used the term “the north eastern counties”. I once had dinner in Belfast with Chris Patten when he was minister for Northern Ireland. Patten (a Catholic) told how he had irked the Reverend Ian Paisley by using the term “Derry” instead of “Londonderry”.


Can we dream? In SRWD Bandaranaike’s time, English seemed to be the problem – part of the oppressive British imperial machinery. These days could English be the solution? Could English contribute to unifying Sri Lanka and helping it to better establish itsef in the global marketplace?




Only Connect, Only Congest

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday January 29 2012

Forster’s Connections

“Only connect” is a commonly quoted aphorism by EM Forster.  I have never quite understood it. Forster himself was quite keen to connect with policemen, bus drivers and Egyptian labouring men but that probably is not the wisdom of the aphorism. Forster’s literary output was small. The author of works such as A Room with a View and Howards End stopped writing in 1924, after he published A Passage To India. He lived until 1970. According to Wendy Moffat, associate professor of English at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, Forster had sex with a man for the first time at the age of 38  – an injured soldier on an Egyptian beach. He met his long-term lover – a married policeman – some years later.

Only one novel, Maurice, dealt with gay issues. It was written around 1910 but was not published until after Forster’s death. Edward Morgan Forster was known to his friends as Morgan. Prepare for an elaborate punning joke. Stay awake at the back there! 1966 was the 50th anniversary of the Easter rebellion in Ireland. One of the rebels executed was Roger Casement. Over the years, the British leaked Casement’s diaries in order to smear his reputation because of his homosexuality. Also in 1966, a film was released called Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment, starring David Warner and Vanessa Redgrave. The satirical magazine Private Eye published a spoof film poster announcing: “Morgan: a Suitable Treat for Casement – a tale of the Easter Rising”.

SLT Cancels Christmas

Enough digressing! The phrase “Only connect” has been in my mind lately because I have been trying to connect with my sainted aunt in Ireland in order to give her our seasonal greetings. SLT won’t  let me talk to her. She is almost 92 and in poor health but sharp of mind and tongue. I started phoning  through IDD on our SLT land line long before Christmas Day. Every time I dialled the Irish number, I was interrupted by a  female  Sri Lankan voice saying “Your call cannot be connected at this time because all our circuits are busy”. This was followed by a saxophone playing what sounded like George Michael’s  Careless Whisper. (I keep getting  it mixed up with Careless Rapture by Ivor Novello, Siegfried Sassoon’s gay lover. Sorry to get back on the gay theme!) Careless Rupture would be more appropriate.

Now, at least this SLT woman sounded civil when she told me she was not allowing my call. A great improvement on the creature I call “The Congestion Woman”. That one  sounds like a bossy woman in a sari – a huge mountainous woman who wobbles when she breathes. “You call cannot be connected due to the congestion” she shouts.


I kept trying to call my aunt in Ireland until way after New Year’s day. I was trepidatious about calling an SLT help line because I usually want to take my own life after trying to get through to the call centre. I really am not a misogynist but I always pray that a man will answer. The women usually start off sounding irritated that I have disturbed them and grow increasingly impatient as I try to explain the fault. They always sound as though they think I am stupid and to blame for the lack of connection.

Black Arts

Getting connected  to the call centre at all is a major  trauma. One is given a menu to choose from. On the internet help line two of the options seem appropriate but if one chooses the wrong number all one gets is a high-pitched screech which almost pierces one’s eardrum. Then one has to wait for an average of twelve minutes before anyone answers. If one could just drift into a meditative trance while waiting patiently, it would not be too bad. SLT will not countenance this. One’s ears are filled with noise, the noise of the black arts of advertising and marketing.

“Ayabowen –our call centre officers will assist you shortly”. One is subjected to that doomy, boomy Americanised voice one hears on movie trailers. Also those annoying children’s voices which assail one on trips to the supermarket  – God rot you and blast you Tiny Tim!

“Open your home to the world of Megaline”. Why should I? “Conversations drenched in memory”. My memory is drenched in frustration s I try to connect.

“A home where you are never alone”. What kind of hell is that?

“Your world is never confined”. Well, my world is actually confined when I keep losing  my internet connection and I am prevented from speaking to my family in Ireland.

Pump Don’t work ‘Cause the Vandals Stole the Handles

Before broadband became available in our neck of the mountains, I tried to get SLT to deal with the problems I was having with connecting to the internet. A very helpful man promised that he would get their best technical brains working on it and the problem would definitely be solved. Eventually he got bored and told me the problem was that I lived too far from the exchange. It seemed that I needed to sell my home and move somewhere else.

A couple of years later someone stole the SLT cables for the sake of the copper. I was without a phone line for two months and had to take a 36 kilometre round trip to check my e-mails. Despite these inconveniences I received a bill that was six times the normal amount.

When broadband did become available, SLT put on intense marketing pressure to sign up for it. I was persuaded. After paying the requisite fee, it took five months to actually enjoy the benefits of ADSL. Things have definitely improved and my outgoings have reduced. It is still frustrating however because the connection can be suddenly lost. When one gets through to the helpline, one is told “there has been a common service issue”. Nevertheless, I have been without an internet connection for three days at time. No sign of a refund.

Endless Buffering

I was looking forward to the joys of YouTube – salivating at the possibility of watching archive footage of my departed jazz heroes  like Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. It was not to be. The video clips keep stopping and starting because of endless “buffering”.

I looked at various internet fora on this topic – when SLT allowed me to c! I find that I am not the only one to have this problem and that it happens in Colombo as well as in my mountain retreat. One frustrated customer writes:  “I get Browsing Speed 512 kbps. But I get 47kb as Kilo Bytes. For Direct Download without IDM I get only 6 or 7kb. Same for some files that download via IDM – I got 5 or 60 before”. “Ya, ADSL is supposed to be fast, but of late, I have felt that internet has slowed down from about ten in the morning till about nine in the night”. “Yep, now I can’t stream YouTube even at six in the evening”. “From the beginning of august, my ADFSL (Home 512/128) connection got a huge slowdown in both down and uplinks. But the funny thing is torrent download speed is working same as past (normally 55kbps). Bur the direct downloads from rapidshare, medoafire, hotfile and filesonic were dropped own to 10kbps. (Before this slowdown these downloads came in at 60kbps). All the parameters in the router are the same as in the past(like attenuation, SNR margin). I called 1243 and opened a complaint. Then a guy called from SLT technical division and said there were no problems in the connection and the have NO BLACKLIST FOR HEAVY USERS.”

So, did I get to speak to my aunt in Ireland? Sort of. We phoned the SLT helpline and explained that I was not able to get through to any landline number in Ireland from my landline. This could not be simply a problem between my phone and my aunt’s phone. I asked if an operator could connect us to the Irish number. The answer was a resounding NO!

After several calls to SLT in Sinhala as well as English , the only solution they could offer was to try phoning on a cell phone. We did get through but it was difficult to have a conversation and the call was of course more expensive than a landline call. No one could explain why our landline calls were being intercepted. We learnt later that SLT’s way of following up the complaint was to ignore the time differences between Sri Lanka and Ireland and phone my aunt several times in the middle of the night to check the line. This caused her considerable anxiety.

Connect the Prose and the Passion

Forster’s ‘only connect” catchphrase comes at the epigraph to Howard’s End. Calm down! Howard’s end is a house, not an anatomical appendage. The full quotation is: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer”.

Never mind about connecting the prose and the passion. Can we just connect Badulla with County Cork?

Buddhism, Politics, Violence, War

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on July 17 2011
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris finds the differences between the Eastern and Western canons “startling”. In comparison with Eastern philosophical mystics, in the West “we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs”. He thinks that the fault lies with the emphasis on faith in the monotheistic religions of the book: “Faith is rather like a rhinoceros; it won’t do much in the way of real work for you, and yet, at close quarters it will make spectacular claims on your attention.” Harris chooses at random a passage from the Buddhist sage, Padmanasambhava, who was a contemporary of Muhammad. Harris claims that the passage he quotes is rigorously empirical – “the actual condition of things”- and not a statement of metaphysics.

I agree with Harris about the specialness of Buddhism, but I sometimes wonder if the militant atheists have been naive about the way Buddhism works out in real life. Buddhism is acceptable to atheists because there is no supreme being, no soul, no afterlife. It has a wise message at its core, but so do other philosophies.

Under Ashoka’s model of “Buddhist kingship”, a ruler legitimized his rule, not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha (priesthood). Such monarchs are portrayed as universally wise and generous but nevertheless do not abandon the state’s monopoly on force. This model of righteous kingship is the basis for the Buddhist warrior-kings of the Mahavamsa that continue to have national appeal.

Robert Kaplan writing in Atlantic Monthly September 2009 about his visit to Kandy, is more severe than Harris: “Buddhism holds an exalted place in the half-informed Western mind. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism are each associated, in addition to their thought, with a rich material culture and a defended territory, Buddhism, despite its great monuments and architectural tradition throughout the Far East, is somehow considered purer, more abstract, and almost dematerialized: the most peaceful, austere, and uncorrupted of faiths, even as it appeals to the deeply aesthetic among us. Hollywood stars seeking to find themselves—famously Richard Gere—become Buddhists, not, say, orthodox Jews.”

Nevertheless, because humans are material and materialistic, Buddhism is not immune from corruption consequent on institutionalisation or immune from the taint of politics. According to Robert Kaplan, Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism “is deeply materialistic and demands worship of solid objects, in a secure and sacred landscape that has required the protection of a military.” Kaplan states: “Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.”
In the 2004 election, all JHU candidates were Buddhist monks. Party member Venerable Medhananda Thera said, “Our sole intention is to establish a righteous Buddhist state with Buddhist values. Though there are invitations for us to join parties we will remain independent. No one can buy us with portfolios and perks.”

Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2000 about his visit to the military dictatorship of Myanmar, which reminded him of the East German communist regime: “But instead of Marxism as the official ideology, we have Buddhism.“ Ash writes: “The country displays all the familiar pockmarks of dictatorship: high gray walls, barbed wire, armed guards, bureaucracy, crude paper forms in quadruplicate, propaganda, censorship, inefficiency, and fear. Under the heading ‘People’s Desire’, faded red billboards proclaim, ‘Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.’”

Despite its peaceful message, Buddhism can also be turned to political purposes. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka have not been notably peaceful over recent decades. The Laotian communists of the Pathet Lao use Buddhism to justify socialism. The ultra-right-wing Thai priest Kittiwutto can say that “killing communists is not a sin”.

Brian Daizen Victoria shows how Zen Buddhists were complicit with the totalitarian imperial Japanese military and how the military in turn used the model of monastic life to make their killing machine more efficient and how Zen Buddhists helped war criminals evade capture. The Zen model was also used in the Japanese corporate world.
Aung San Suu Kyi told Ash that she recognised the need for compromise if one wants a nonviolent transition in Burma. Ash wrote: “Another important social group are the Buddhist monks. I heard quite contradictory views on the intriguing question of whether Theravada Buddhism encourages resistance to dictatorship and support for democracy, but there is no doubt that the monks have significant potential as both protesters and mediators… A senior monk sadly explained to me how the government had bought off the institutionalized Buddhist hierarchy with donations, televisions, cars, and a mixture of intimidation and flattery”.

Tessa J Bartholomeusz explores the arguments in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition, for and against war, analysing these ideas in relation to western ideas about just war and ethical theory. Her thesis is that, in spite of a rigorous tradition of non-violence, war can be justified if certain conditions are met. The precept against killing can be trumped by other considerations such as utilitarian considerations of sacrificing one life in order to save multiple lives.

Some scholars such as Damien Keown have argued that killing can sometimes be a legitimate response to suffering, others, like Rupert Gethin, have rejected this argument since it does not address dukkha as a reality that must be understood and worked through rather than suppressed. Eric Sean Nelson writes: “The issue is not that people claiming to be Buddhists at times engage in violence and war in the name of self-defense. It is difficult if not impossible to demand the saintliness according to which it is illegitimate to defend one’s parents, family, friends or community under any circumstances. The problem is when and how this reasoning can go wrong and become an ideological excuse for morally illegitimate violence and war.”


Rupert Gethin says: “Abhidhamma — and hence I think mainstream Buddhist ethics— is not ultimately concerned to lay down ethical rules, or even ethical principles. It seeks instead to articulate a spiritual psychology focusing on the root causes that motivate us to act… If you can intentionally kill out of compassion, then fine, go ahead. But are you sure? Are you sure that what you think are friendliness and compassion are really friendliness and compassion? Are you sure that some subtle aversion and delusion have not surfaced in the mind? In the end ethical principles cannot solve the problem of how to act in the world. If we want to know how to act in accordance with Dhamma, we must know our own minds”.

Elaine Scarry wrote in The Body in Pain: “It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

Is there room in Buddhism for the concept of a just war- dharma yuddha? Are the precepts descriptive rather than prescriptive? There is no Jehovah to threaten punishment for murder, because killing is absolutely sinful. This is dependent origination. If you engage in violence, the law of cause and effect means that there are likely to be unpleasant consequences. Karmic responsibility is unavoidable for killing. Shit happens! As Nelson puts it: “The Buddha does not claim that violence is only sometimes wrong but that violence, no matter how righteous, always produces more violence; and warriors, no matter how virtuous, always suffer the consequences of war.” One has to operate skilfully and appropriately.


Without arguing for relativism against absolutism, one can recognise that ethics are context-sensitive. Context-based ethics means an existential mode of living involving the interdependence of self and others and self and world. One must navigate moral challenges with sense of what is appropriate. When a principle becomes uncertain, it can only be interpreted rather than mechanically applied. Codes, precepts, and rules demand the ability to distinguish between the hypocrisy of breaking them for one’s own advantage and the moral insight to adopt them to circumstances. Eric Sean Nelson asks: “Is the Buddhist notion of skilfulness too open or ambiguous”.


Nelson looks at the Sri Lankan situation. “Buddhist lands do not only involve traditions of nonviolence and loving kindness. They also have had a long history of thinking about and engaging
in internal and external physical conflict. … Buddhism privileges non-violence while at the same time self-described Buddhists have justified and engaged in war under certain conditions…. As Mahinda Deegalle argues, this position is not so much Buddhist as it is Sinhalese nationalist, which appropriates Buddhism as a symbol of Sinhalese heritage Sri Lanka is the island of Dhamma (dhammadvipa) , the whole island is a sacred relic of the Buddha’s and the loss of its integrity would destroy this legacy”.


Bartholomeusz contends that it is paradoxically Buddhist beliefs that they are more fair, tolerant, and peaceful – that leads Buddhists to set themselves apart and turn to violence to protect the ideal of pacifism. Violence, once it is justified as an exception, becomes the norm from which there seems no escape.

Liverpool University’s Colin Irwin’s Peace Polls contributed to the Northern Ireland peace process. One of the findings of a survey throughout Sri Lanka was “Although all communities strongly support language and fundamental rights, Tamil concerns about the special status of Buddhism has increased after the war as a political issue”.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a speech in which he saw the special status of Buddhism as a positive thing. “The establishment of Buddha Sasana in the country ensures the protection of all living beings and the message by Arahant Mahinda Thero stresses the importance of treating all races and religion equally”.

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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