Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: DBS Jeyaraj

Death, Democracy and Lexical Ambiguity

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on May 9 2020.



On a mission in Augsburg, in 1604, Sir Henry Wotton said: “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” A novel concept is an ambassador going abroad and accusing his president of lying. Is our ambassador to Russia more loyal to the president of Russia than he is to the president of Sri Lanka?

Democracy has not been doing too well lately. Trump is busy wrecking the USA and its reputation and causing unnecessary deaths after winning three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the UK, Boris Johnson struggled to “get Brexit done” with a majority of minus 43 and now struggles to cope with a pandemic with a secure majority of 80. The authority of the Irish Cabinet is diminished by the fact that three of its members were voted out of the Dáil (parliament) in the general election on February 8 but remain in Government. The Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar is getting good world press for the way he is handling the crisis (and working one day a week as doctor – medical, not political science) but his party was defeated in the election. The Dáil hardly exists at present and its committees are in abeyance. The most influential body in the management of the crisis, is the NPHET (National Public Health Emergency Team). Neither elected representatives nor the media have access to its meetings.

In Russia, Putin was re-elected in 2018 with nearly 80 percent of the vote and faces no serious threats to his power. He has not been having a good pandemic. According to Andrew Higgins in the New York Times, “the pandemic has only highlighted what has always been Mr Putin’s biggest vulnerability: a pronounced lack of interest or success in tackling intractable domestic problems like dilapidated hospitals, pockets of entrenched poverty and years of falling real incomes.”  Putin has been sheltering at his country villa and has not been pictured in public for nearly a month. Higgins described his Orthodox Easter message to the nation as “what, me worry?” Russia has had 1,537 deaths out of a population of 144.5 million.

Sri Lanka tackles the current pandemic well compared to the UK and the US and does so without a parliament. I understand the need to get back to normal for the economy as a whole and for individuals who are suffering grievously. I appreciate the risks to democracy of government by task force. I also appreciate the danger of going back to ‘normal’ too soon. Remember how ‘normal’ coped with the Easter bombings.

Dayan Jayatilleke PhD, former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the Russian Federation now has time on his hands  to impart some wisdom on the domestic situation in the homeland. He published an article in the Daily FT on April 23. I advise you to try to read it.

Grasping the Main Thrust

I had to read the article several times before I could get anywhere close to grasping the main thrust. One problem is the usual epic name-dropping: “My old friend and fellow doctoral student of Immanuel Wallerstein, Prof. Jan Nederveen Pieterse of the University of California, Santa Barbara” (two name-drops for the price of one, there folks!). “My late father Mervyn de Silva, who edited the Daily News, the Times of Ceylon and the Lanka Guardian, would certainly have asked…” “I must admit that the College hosts an Annual Oration in memory of my paternal uncle Dr. A.V.K.V. de Silva, Univ of Edinburgh gold medalist, top epidemiologist and WHO program coordinator on AIDS.” What has any of this got to do with the price of fish? How many readers know or care about these names?

I have noticed a tendency with Sri Lankan columnists (and academics) to favour style  over substance. Rather than laying out a clear narrative line to help the long-suffering reader to establish what the writer wants him/her to take away from the article, he (it’s usually a he) prefers to launch a piece with rhetorical flourishes and move on with curlicues and rococo grace notes rather than setting out the Gradgrindian hard facts.

Dayan posits the case for a general election on June 20 against the arguments of “liberal critics”.  I am not sure what “liberal” means in 2020 – the word seems to have been fatally flawed by lexical ambiguity. I note that on his much-muted Facebook page, Dayan describes himself as a liberal and a Catholic rather than a Marxist. He describes himself as a politician rather than a political scientist or diplomat. He brings in “neo-liberal” at one point too. Anyway, let us judge these liberals by their arguments, which are “legalistic-constitutionalist points”. Unfortunately, he does not specify these arguments but describes them as “prissy proceduralism and legalistic literalism”.

Sinister Scenarios, Unnamed Plotters

Let’s recap. Those who are opposing an election are “legalistic”. Dayan concedes that their arguments may be true but they are irrelevant “because the real-world question is what if the Executive ignores all the ‘simply can’t do’ points they make and simply does them?” Simply can’t do what? Simply does what?

“Clearly the PM does not place himself among the ‘many [who] opine that there is no need for elections AT ALL’ (my emphasis – DJ)”. ‘Opine ‘is a favourite of Sri Lankan columnists and is rarely used anywhere else. Mahinda Rajapaksa does not want to ditch democracy, apparently. Neither does his brother. “It is not that President Gotabaya has a zero-election project or extra-constitutional preference”. Let us work up a panic anyway and create a froth of hypotheticals involving sinister scenarios created by unnamed figures from “the postwar Far Right ranks”.

Dayan graciously gives the government a (dimmed) gold star for the way it has handled the Covid19 crisis so far. This faint praise is effectively withdrawn when he compares Sri Lanka (to its detriment) with Israel and South Korea. He concedes, “There are few citizens who are not thankful that it is this administration rather than the previous one, in charge at this time. The armed forces and personnel of the State machinery as a whole are going flat out, motivated and functioning as they never would have been under the decrepit, languid, lackadaisical Ranilist UNP governmental sub-culture. “

Shifting Enthusiasms

It is difficult to keep up with Dayan’s political philosophy and allegiances. He worked with Tamil separatists and the UNP. He often describes himself as a progressive (but resists defining the term) and endlessly cites men of the left like Gramsci and Castro. To my face he praised Trump’s fascist adviser, Steve Bannon and, in writing, defended Jeremy Corbyn’s Stalinist apparatchik, Seamus Milne. He has expressed his admiration for Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as well as the grand old mass murderers, Stalin and Mao. In the Daily FT article itself he offers the apartheid state of Israel as an exemplar (is this because Mahinda Rajapaksa has long been a supporter of the Palestinian cause?) Now I hear that he is working for his former boss’s son, Sajith Premadasa.

Sri Lanka Coping Well

How does he think Trump and Johnson are coping with Covid? What would Corbyn have done? Dayan thinks Brexit is good for Britain. He writes, “What are the ethics, values and morals of those who would put hundreds of thousands of people in harm’s way, by fudging or embellishing evidence in a severe epidemic which has dealt suffering, death and bereavement to so many around the world? “He seems to be saying that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is lying.  His heroes Trump and Johnson are widely acknowledged to be serial liars. This is a very serious charge for a fomer  ambassador to level at the government that paid  him.

I have no wish to make unwarranted boasts about the way Sri Lanka is dealing with the crisis. However, I do find it odd to see the western media saying this country or that country is doing better than Britain. True, Britain is among the worst for total incompetence and mendacity. At the time of writing, Britain’s official death toll was over 30,000, and climbing.  Ireland is held up as a good example. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 7 May, the Irish Department of Health has confirmed 1,429 deaths. Sri Lanka’s population is 21.4 million and there have been nine deaths. There is of course the danger of complacency but let’s give ourselves a little encouragement in these dark days.

In the hope of establishing what the point of Dayan’s article was, I went to the last paragraph. The very last words were a bit of pointless name-dropping. Before that, this: “It is not that there is no political motivation as well, but that isn’t a simplistic one of pushing for a premature general election. It is a more complex two-pronged tactic, or more to the point, an ambush, a trap. The two prongs are on one flank, a snap election on unfavourable terrain for the Opposition and at a dangerous moment for the voter, and on the other, the project of zero-elections and open-ended rule by the President plus a “power cartel” “

Where does that leave us? I would advise readers to check out an article by DBS Jeyaraj who covers similar ground in simple prose without obfuscation.





Tsunami Today

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday December 30 2014.


Colman's Column3

tsunami today2

I wonder what little Liam Cutler in Melksham, Wiltshire, would think of the current politicking for the presidency in Sri Lanka. Well, Liam is not so little any more. Ten years have passed since Liam’s heart was broken by the tsunami. He must be around seventeen years old by now. Have things improved in Sri Lanka since Liam decided to do something positive at the age of ten?

I wrote in these pages recently about the art of giving and the nature of the gift relationship. Reactions to the tsunami ten years ago highlighted many aspects of the gift of giving and the relationship between people and politicians. It is particularly instructive to examine the actions ten years ago of two politicians who are still in conflict today – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

International Compassion

The feel-bad effect of the disaster triggered a feel-good factor internationally as people rushed to make donations for the relief effort. Tessa Doe is a friend I met on a tour of South India in 1994. Tessa and Frank live in rural Wiltshire in the UK. In 2005, Tessa sent me some cuttings from her local newspapers showing what the residents of Seend Cleeve and Melksham were doing in response to the disaster.

Melksham resident  Pete King took it upon himself to travel to Sri Lanka to deliver and distribute 700 kilos worth of supplies from Wiltshire hospitals and pharmacies which Krishan Perera of Sri Lankan Airlines agreed to carry free of charge (the same man was very helpful to us when we transported our three cats from Ireland to Sri Lanka). Pete King reported: “Over the last two weeks I have seen many individuals in Sri Lanka doing their bit … every little effort helps”.

Seend Cleeve village primary school organized bring-and-buy sales. One pupil, Hannah, was in Thailand when the tsunami struck but was safely inland. Many of the pupils expressed empathy with those who were suffering. Jenny said: “It’s amazing how the whole world is sticking together and sending money to the places worst affected. Even if people didn’t get killed themselves, they probably have lost family and have nothing”.

Seven-year-old Liam Cutler was so upset by his Aunt Sara Mapp’s experience in Thailand that, according to his mother, he “stayed very quiet. He always keeps his worries inside him.” He asked to speak to a teacher in private and came up with the idea of setting up a cake stall for the benefit of tsunami victims. “He has organized the whole thing himself. He got most of the parents making cakes and the rest of his class making posters to advertise the event.”

A group called Mums of Melksham held an auction of men in the Assembly Rooms. Sheila Ward said: “I decided to get involved after seeing mothers and children separated because of the tsunami. It must be horrendous and I can’t bear to think what it would be like to rebuild your life without your children”.

I was particularly touched to read about the children at St Michael’s school who raised money for the appeal by decorating and selling heart-shaped biscuits. The interesting thing about this was that the children were encouraged to undertake this task quietly with soothing music and to meditate upon the suffering of those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami. Headteacher Beverley Martin said: “We wanted the children to think about what it would be like to have no clean water, no food, nowhere to live, no clothes and, most importantly, no family left.”

Feelgood even in Sri Lanka.

Amid all the suffering, there was a hint of a feel-good factor even in war-battered Sri Lanka itself. Unlikely partners were working together, including combatants on both sides of the conflict. There was initially hope that there might be harmony with the Tamil Tigers as everyone pulled together to cope with the tragedy. Alas, this was not to last long. There was a fragile cease-fire in operation at the time but the Tigers were using this to re-arm, re-group and to impose even more securely their grip on the territories they held.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: “Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them. Illustrative of the genuineness of this response was the remote Eastern province temple of Arantalawa. Here LTTE death squads had once hacked to death young Buddhist monks. Now Arantalawa opened itself to nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were from the Tamil community and may well have included the very assassins who had hacked the young Buddhist monks”.

Even within the government itself, harmony was short-lived. The immediate state response was weak and the government took some time took some time to set up a co-ordinating committee. Despite government failings, an effective, spontaneous immediate response was organized locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings, and tents. Communities and groups cooperated across barriers that had divided them for decades. Sinhalese and Muslims wanted to go to the North and East with supplies but the LTTE refused to allow them into  areas under its control. Up-Country Tamils went to the South to help Sinhalese victims.

Role of the Army

Today there are concerns about the role of the army in various aspects of life after the victory over the LTTE. After the tsunami, twenty thousand soldiers were deployed in government-controlled areas to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order after sporadic looting. It is probably inaccurate to call this looting. As in the immediate aftermath of Katrina people had to get supplies from somewhere and normal conditions did not pertain.

Some security personnel lost their lives trying to save civilians during the tsunami. Tamils in refugee camps flocked around soldiers without any fear. Members of the armed forces even helped Tiger cadres. The LTTE too helped save affected security personnel. On our first visit to Hambantota in January 2005, Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit. Cynics had warned us that soldiers would pilfer relief supplies. Our experience was that soldiers refused to take supplies from us saying that people would appreciate receiving gifts from our hands while looking us in the eyes.

On our visit three months after the tsunami, there was no sign of the army.



CBK set up the Post Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS), the joint mechanism, after a Sri Lanka donor conference in mid-May indicated that much of the promised $S3 billion in aid depended on a resumption of peace talks. Many critics saw this as in irreversible step towards conceding Eelam. Wimal Weerawansa said the JVP would “defeat this betrayal with the sacred intention of safeguarding our motherland”. He accused Kumaratunga of taking the decision without informing her coalition partners.

Tsunami Today

Part of the reason for the muddled initial state response was the rivalry, which continues to this day, between CBK and MR. As prime minister, MR set action in progress from Colombo in the absence of CBK who was on holiday in Britain. According to DBS Jeyaraj, as soon as she returned, she set about unpicking his plans and placing all reconstruction and relief under presidential control. Mangala Samaraweera has his own view of MR’s contribution.

Worldwide sympathy for the victims meant that funds were flowing into the country. However, CBK decided to go for over-ambitious plans, which excluded not only input from victims but also input from the rest of the government or the opposition parties or politicians from affected areas. Government spokesman, Tilak Ranaviraja, admitted to the media that after five weeks 70% of the tsunami victims in government-controlled areas had not received government aid.

Speaking recently at an event at Crow Island in Colombo to mark the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, CBK recalled that soon after the tsunami, political parties had united for one cause and this ensured the country recovered from the disaster within a short period of time. She said that the unity among the several political parties backing Maithripala Sirisena for President guaranteed they could win.

Mangala Samaraweera, who once served as MR’s foreign minister, previously served as CBK’s media advisor, and previously planned Sarath Fonseka’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, also brought up the tsunami in the current election campaign. In a speech on December 26 2014, he gave CBK credit for the public’s generosity. “Ordinary citizens across the world stood in solidarity with us, and on then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s request gave generously of their resources and time.” He contrasted this with “a man who is contesting to be President of this country does not care for people’s suffering. He has consistently put his own private gain above the people’s pain.”

Ten years ago, the tsunami generated harmony and compassion. Today it is exploited for political advantage. I wonder what Liam Cutler, Pete King, Sheila Ward and Beverley Martin in Wiltshire, would think.




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