Sri Lanka is NOT fifth among world’s worst polluters, but we have a crisis

by Namini Wijedasa

Widely published information that Sri Lanka is the fifth largest polluter of seas is based on an erroneous statistic first released in a World Bank study which was then used by researchers to compile a list of worst offender countries, the Sunday Times found.

Domestic and international media continue to report that Sri Lanka falls only behind China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam in how much plastics it dumps into the sea. This is drawn from a February 2015 article in the peer-reviewed Science Magazine which states, among other things, that Sri Lanka generates 5.1kg of waste per person, per day; that 1.59 million metric tons of this is mismanaged plastic waste; and that it dumps between 0.24 and 0.64 million metric tons of plastic into the sea each year.

But the information that Sri Lanka’s per capita waste generation rate is 5.1kg per day is an unsourced, unverifiable statistic first published in the 2012 What a Waste (WaW) report of the World Bank. There is no reference for this calculation; nor is it divulged how it was arrived at.

The World Bank has now confirmed that there was an error in the waste generation number. It was identified only because the Sunday Times called for verification. A spokesperson also said: “As you know, this is a report that came out in 2012 and it is currently in the process of getting reviewed and updated. We will be able to provide you with updated data as soon as the report is available.”

In collecting data for the South Asia region for 2017 WaW, the Bank will use the Comprehensive Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan for Targeted Provinces in Sri Lanka by UNHABITAT and the Data Collection Survey on Solid Waste Management in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The reports are still being reviewed but per capita generation rates roughly range between 0.46kg and 0.52kg.

The 2012 WaW has depended on two sources for Sri Lanka data. One is a 2009 report from the United Nations Statistics Division which captured waste generation figures from Dehiwala-Mt Lavinia and Moratuwa. The former is 0.73 kg per person, per day and the latter is 0.67 kg per person, per day. There is no national level information cited.

The other is An Overview of the Issue of Solid Waste Management in Sri Lanka authored by K. L. S. Perera for the 2003 Third International Conference on Environment and Health. The Sunday Times accessed it online and also interviewed Mr. Perera, a retired Senior Lecturer at the Siyane National College of Education in Veyangoda. His paper states that Colombo faces a “severe crisis with respect to the disposal of around 1,500 tons of solid waste material per day” but makes no reference to 5.1kg per person, per day.

These shortcomings in WaW went unnoticed. But in 2015, a seven-member research team released an article in the academic journal ‘Science Magazine’ listing Sri Lanka as one of the worst polluters of seas based on WaW data. Headed by Jenna Jambeck, Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, the group also estimated the percentage of waste inadequately managed by each country using a “logistic regression model”. Sri Lanka fared miserably.

The Sunday Times contacted Dr. Jambeck, who is a committed environmentalist, as far back as 2015. She said, while the data taken from the World Bank and Sri Lanka estimates had also seemed high to her team, they could not cherry-pick countries to correct. She recommended that localised data from the respective countries be examined to see if waste generation estimates could be refined.

When we reconnected with Dr. Jambeck this year – as Sri Lanka’s worldwide ranking was being publicised again owing to the collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage dump and related issues – she pointed out that the goal of their work had been to create a global number. “We state that in-country data should be confirmed by on-the-ground data and research,” she explained.

Dr. Jambeck said, as she did at a press conference in 2015, that the paper is not about pointing fingers. “The data was provided to be transparent so that exactly what you are doing is possible,” she explained.“We want people to look at the data and refine it over time. We used the best available data at the time.”

But the team also created a list. This is what most media – including local journalists – pounced on; and how Sri Lanka suddenly gained global notoriety based on a statistic nobody can still account for. The list, Dr. Jambeck said, was a means of looking at “influencing factors”. As lead author, she did not single out any country (except USA, where she is from) for discussion. Journalists decided to do that.

“It is a snapshot in time,” she continued, about the list. “Ten years ago, it would be different, and ten years into the future, it would be different.’ The researchers found that middle-income countries with rapidly developing economies, large coastal populations and coastline, and where infrastructure has lagged behind this development, had larger issues with waste.

Sri Lanka fits the bill. Even ten years ago, however, waste generation figures were not as high as cited in the 2016 WaW. The Central Environmental Authority does not have a centralised repository of historic data, said J. M. U. Indrarathne, Deputy Director General (Waste Management).

But the 2003 JICA Study on Improvement of Solid Waste Management in Secondary Cities in Sri Lanka found average waste generation rates in seven study towns to be 0.98kg per person, per day (from 0.88kg in Matale to 1.18kg in Kandy). That the CEA lacks its own data in a country floundering about in waste generation and disposal issues is a matter of discussion.

In the end, however, lists and rankings are immaterial. Sri Lanka has a serious problem with waste generation and disposal. The status quo has not improved for decades. Whether it is fifth or 50th in the global rankings, this country is a serial polluter and successive governments have done nothing to mitigate this.

Waste management study: SL repeatedly failed to fix issues
A 15-year-old Japanese-funded study into waste management exposes how Sri Lanka has repeatedly failed to fix longstanding issues despite expert suggestions for improvement.Environmentalists warn that world rankings – wherever the country may stand in them – are purely academic.

“The fact stands that our seas and land are badly polluted and increasingly so,” said one campaigner, who did not wish to be named. “And our Government is doing precious little, if at all, to mitigate it. I do not care where we rank. Being anywhere on the polluter list is equally bad. The message or objective of that ranking is to shock people into realising we have to change.”

The 2003 JICA Study on Improvement of Solid Waste Management in Secondary Cities in Sri Lanka identified eight leading problems. These are just as current today as they were then. They comprise widespread scattering of waste in towns; the terrible condition of landfill sites; and huge solid waste management expenditure (20 to 30 percent of the budget of local authorities). There is difficulty controlling the many waste collection workers; and a high absentee and turnover rate, ranging from 10-20 percent.

As early as 15 years ago, the study also pointed to little remaining capacity of existing landfill sites. There were many complaints from citizens, it said, but there was also lack of public cooperation. There was also no plan for the future. “Most of these are not technical issues but institutional ones,” the study warned. “Technology alone cannot solve these problems.”

“Good governance is the key,” it stressed. Improvement could be made through institutional and managerial capacity, “without spending much money”. The report also stated plainly that there were two main problems faced by local authorities. One was the rapid increase of waste, which meant they had to collect more and more. Another was that the standard environmental requirements for landfills were becoming stricter.

“Therefore, you cannot simply dump waste anymore,” it warned. “You have to improve landfill operation to reduce the environmental impact.”

Experts identified an insufficient understanding of solid waste management. The sections in charge of solid waste management in local authorities were considered low in status. Organisation was weak owing to poor cost control and planning. There were no future plans. Most authorities dealt with issues using their own staff and equipment without considering citizen involvement.

Exhaustive recommendations were made, covering everything from improving garbage collection efficiency and final disposal to reducing solid waste management costs and increasing public participation.

The 2016 JICA Data Collection Survey on Solid Waste Management in Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka observes that generation in Sri Lanka has increased from around 6,400 tons per day in 1999 (UNEP, 2001) to 10,786 tons per day since 2009 (University of Moratuwa and NSWMSC, 2013). The reason for this is economic growth after the end of the civil war.

Generation in the Western Province is largest, accounting for 33% of the country’s total. The Uva Province occupies the smallest share at just 5%. Some local authorities operate several disposal sites so the number of final disposal sites was 349 in 2013, exceeding the number of total local authorities which is 335.

Waste generation will keep going up. It will not matter what list Sri Lanka is, or isn’t, on. Experts agree that solutions – many of which have already been offered through research and study – have to be implemented, now.

(This article was published in the Sunday Times)

The Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry’s untenable communications policy

LKI

I would like to start with a caveat. I am not a student of the relationship between foreign policy and media. I am a journalist. So my talk is based on personal experience and my own analysis of situations my colleagues and I have faced during the last two decades, with emphasis on the recent past. The context is Sri Lanka.

I have, for some years, been on the mailing list of the Foreign Ministry. Ninety percent of press releases I receive, with due respect to the compilers, go unopened into the trash. As a journalist, the last thing I look for is how our missions celebrated national festivals. Reports about Sri Lankans wolfing downing “kiribath” at Avurudu or singing “bhakthi gee” at Vesak add no value to my journalism.

I only recently emptied my trash. But I found some stragglers. There was one on Ifthar celebrations at the Doha mission; another on a workshop organised by the Nairobi mission; another on Members of Parliament attending an exchange programme in Washington; some on flood donations.

These media releases achieve nothing outside of pandering to the egos of a few. They are a dire waste of time and resources. They do not push any agenda or direction of Sri Lankan foreign policy. Nor do they provide media with meaningful insight into how our missions are achieving national diplomatic objectives. On a surface reading of what is widely and numerously disseminated as news, we seem to have an expansive network of event planners.

Occasionally, there are newsworthy communiqués. One dated May 26th, which I didn’t trash, for obvious reasons, relates to a joint declaration on enhanced cooperation between Australia and Sri Lanka. The document is attached and conveys information of national import. But these are few and far between.

Having covered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I know that officers who head its publicity division are typically educated, capable, savvy men and women. Today, they are reduced to releasing meaningless drivel. I do not know that they can be blamed. They are the implementers, not the drafters of this absurd and futile communications policy. They are often treated as marginal in the Ministry. They are the last to get relevant, useful information. Heads of other divisions consider them a nuisance.

Before we address the role of media in publicizing Sri Lankan foreign policy, therefore, there must be recognition at every level–including by the Minister and Secretary–that such dissemination has value. You cannot promote your foreign policy if your every instinct is to maintain secrecy.  Not only is there a lack of imagination, there is a mental block at the Foreign Ministry as regards the media. They must remember the Right to Information act now supersedes the Official Secrets Act.

A good attempt was made in 2015 to introduce daily press briefings but this was shelved. There is no recent tradition of providing even background briefings to journalists covering foreign policy. I was made to understand that most junior diplomats in India’s Ministry of External Affairs are assigned to its media wing so they are trained to handle journalists. The official spokesperson of the ministry is an important position with time, access and political sanction to deal with media queries. We do not see that here.

So what do we journalists work with? The speeches of the minister are one way but they are formulaic propaganda and insufficient to provide media practitioners with a deeper understanding of how the wheels turn.

The media forms the crucial channel between foreign policy makers and the public as well as other stakeholders such as the private sector and professional bodies. The breakdown of this relationship is one reason why issues like the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement have become so sensitive and warped. These are areas where the media and Foreign Ministry can work together to fix.

While the tendency of governments is to think foreign policy is about engaging with outsiders, there is a component of it, I feel, that involves interacting internally and presenting a unified policy to the world.

If, by chance, that engagement does take place in future, I would hope there is also a crystal clear understanding in the Ministry that foreign policy and media can be uncomfortable bedfellows. There must be a policy of allowing the media its due freedom to report objectively on the pros and cons of Sri Lanka’s engagement in the world. These are the checks and balances needed to ensure that foreign policy brings meaningful returns to Sri Lankans.

When communication with local media is so bad, I do not know what you can say of relations with the foreign media. You only have to look at how India pushes its foreign policy to see where we are going wrong. Has Sri Lanka looked beyond traditional methods? Is there a team at the foreign ministry devising a communications strategy that suits the modern age?  Do diplomats attached to our embassies abroad promote Sri Lanka on the digital space? How many have twitter accounts?

Years ago, I was invited to be part of a group the Foreign Ministry envisaged setting up in order to guide its engagement with foreign media. I turned this down because it is not my job to make Sri Lanka look good with anyone. That is the job of diplomats. Expectations must be realistic. During the ceasefire with the LTTE, we journalists were expected do practice “peace journalism.” During the war, we were expected to practice “war journalism” which required us to put badly defined “national interest” before anything else.

I say, let us practice journalism. You do your diplomacy. But give us the information we need to work with and help us understand what guides your policies. At present, there is next to nothing. And one hopes that this is not a reflection of a certain elitism that seems to guide the thinking of those who form part and parcel of the diplomatic community.

I must also raise a point about internal policies. If a government sticks to democratic principles and proactively promotes democratic institutions, then their reputation becomes incredibly stronger on the world stage, which in turn feeds into their engagement. This is especially important for a small country like Sri Lanka that is heavily dependent on a rules-based international order because we are simply too small to engage with the US, India or China in any other way. I would argue that foreign policy is good internal policy shown off the world. In that, the media will always hold an integral role; one that already exists and does not need to be manufactured.

Having said all of this, I do understand that there are many areas the media must work on to fix. I know that journalists can ask misguided or ill-informed questions. Some do not do their research. Others have agendas. This naturally creates apprehension among diplomats about interacting with media practitioners.

Part of this is due to flagging standards which is reflected across all sectors, not just media. But part of it is because there has been an absence of engagement and information sharing for so long that nobody has any background to work with. When you dumb down your press releases to the extent that you do, why do you expect any better from your target audience?

Regular briefings and meaningful interactions could change that. It could lead to the creation of a press corps that is well versed and capable of understanding the nuances, absorbing and analysing the information and reporting accurately on foreign policy. We see that in other sectors such as education, labour or health. I see no reason why it will not happen here. All this could be supplemented with regular background chats, with the minister, if need be.  Maintaining current levels of communication, however, is unsustainable in the short, medium and long-term.

(This talk was delivered on June 28, 2017, on the second day of a seminar organised by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute titled ‘Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy: Choices in the Changing World’)

A man and his dog

I met G A Leelasiri in Yatagampitiya, at the foot of the Nagahadola landslide in Agalawatta. He was sitting on a log.

I saw him rubbing his head tiredly, shaking it to and fro. His dog sat closely at his feet, occasionally staring at its master’s face and prompting a few words of acknowledgment.

I saw Leelasiri cry. He said he lost two grandchildren when the landslide dammed the river and caused it to overflow with great force. One of them was a 14-day-old baby girl. There’s nothing standing where his sons’ homes were. They don’t know what to do or where to turn.

The graves of Leelasiri’s grandchildren were in the garden. He asked whether we could take a photo of him and his two sons, the fathers of the dead babies, near them.  The clothes of one of the children, salvaged from the water, were hanging nearby.

The dog’s name is Buddy, the old man said. He’s never far away. “He and my five-year-old grandson were always tagging behind me,” he said, making a gesture of hopelessness with his hand. That boy was the other child that died.

You see a lot of pain in this job. But you never get used to it.

 

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Paying the price for development

 

 

 

15. Castle Hotel 2,The Castle Hotel at sunset, January 2014, Majidul Jamiah Rd, Slave Island(Pictures used with permission from Abdul-Halik Azeez)

 

A heritage building in Colombo has been pulled down to construct a US$ 400 million township by Tata Housing.

The Castle Hotel in Masjidul Jamiah Road, Kompanna Veediya, is at least 140 years old. Nothing stands at this address today. This beautiful building, erected in British colonial style, was demolished on an approval granted by the Archaeology Dept in May.

Put up by the great philanthropist Charles Henry de Soysa, Castle Hotel was tenanted to various entrepreneurs through the years. The last of them was Mahinda Perera. He (like his father, Douglas Jestus, before him) ran a working class bar there and let out the rooms upstairs.

The deeds to this property and the adjoining De Soysa Building are held by the descendants of Charles: his great-grandchildren Ranil, Malathie and the late Geethal and Jayalath. The family had once wanted to start their own development project on the site. In the ’90s, Ranil even found an American investor for it. “We could have had the first Sri Lankan twin towers there,” he said, wistfully.

But the proposals were abandoned because the authorities repeatedly told them the building could not be touched. The tenants were once instructed in writing not to colour-wash the facade in various tones or to change the structure of Castle Hotel as it was of historical value. Only restorations could be permitted.

So, Ranil dreamed up a plan to convert the beautiful edifice into a “nice, decent wine bar plus British-type pub”. Granted, the building needed work. And the tenant would have had to be evicted. But it never came to that.

In 2012, President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued an order under the Urban Development Projects (Special Provisions) Act to acquire the whole lot. Further steps were taken under the law to gain possession of the land. Not only did Mr Perera have to wind up his bar operation, the de Soysas lost their property. They have not, to this day, received a cent in compensation.

Deborah Philip, an Assistant Lecturer at the History Dept of the University of Colombo, was concerned about what would become of Castle Hotel after the takeover. The area was earmarked for a US$ 400 million mixed development project by Tata Housing. The company had already cleared adjoining lands to erect housing for families evicted to make way for the township.In February 2016, she wrote to the Archaeology Dept, retracing the history of Castle Hotel. Local knowledge has it that, the building was first associated with Cave & Co., a well-known Colombo enterprise founded by H.W. Cave who arrived in Ceylon from England in 1872. “The present tenants have, however, verified they transformed the building into a hotel in 1875, which would mean the building is at least 141-years-old,” she pointed out.

In February 2016, she wrote to the Archaeology Dept, retracing the history of Castle Hotel. Local knowledge has it that the building was first associated with Cave & Co., a well-known Colombo enterprise founded by H.W. Cave who arrived in Ceylon from England in 1872. “The present tenants have, however, verified they transformed the building into a hotel in 1875, which would mean the building is at least 141-years-old,” she pointed out.

Ms Philip confessed in her letter that efforts to find out what would become of Castle Hotel had proved futile. There was talk that Tata Housing will use it as an office space for employees. This would require them to carry out extensive renovations to make it more habitable.“The present tenants informed me that, in the past, the Dept of Archaeology has visited Castle Hotel and given them specific instructions as to what kind of repairs they could or, could not do, due to the archaeological and historic value of the building,”

“The present tenants informed me that, in the past, the Dept of Archaeology has visited Castle Hotel and given them specific instructions as to what kind of repairs they could or, could not do, due to the archaeological and historic value of the building,” Ms Philip told the Dept.In response to her appeal it

In response to her appeal that it be listed under the Antiquities Act, the Archaeology Dept sent a team to inspect the building. In June 2016, Director General Senerath Dissanayake wrote to the Urban Development Authority (UDA)–the agency overseeing the Tata Housing project–saying his officers have determined that the 141-year-old Castle Hotel must be preserved.“Its architectural style appears to belong to the British colonial era,”

“Its architectural style appears to belong to the British colonial era,” Dr Dissanayake told the UDA. “As such, when this building is being developed by the Tata project, I request that instructions be given to the relevant institution not to make any alterations that would damage its historic and architectural value.”But, in May 2017–amidst torrential rains,

But in May 2017–amidst torrential rains, floods and landslides–the Castle Hotel was taken down. This week, the UDA said the Archaeology Dept had issued written permission for the edifice to be demolished. The latter confirmed it. Between June 2016 and May 2017, the Dept took no steps to gazette Castle Hotel as a protected monument. So there was nothing standing in the way of it being razed to the ground.

Under the law, any monument constructed before March 2, 1815, is automatically protected. Something erected after that date needs to be gazetted by the relevant minister. Despite its initial assessment that Castle Hotel deserved to be preserved, the Archaeology Dept reversed its decision.Tata Housing, meanwhile, absolved itself of responsibility. A spokesman said the project was still in a planning state and the company has not started any work on the site. This is correct. The mixed development part of the Slave Island initiative falls under Phase II, which is yet to receive the necessary approvals for construction.

Tata Housing, meanwhile, absolved itself of responsibility. A spokesman said the project was still in a planning state and the company has not started any work on the site. This is correct. The mixed development part of the Slave Island initiative falls under Phase II, which is yet to receive the necessary approvals for construction.

The UDA says the paperwork is on the verge of being completed. It claimed that the first two floors of whatever Tata erects on the Castle Hotel plot will possess the same facade and aesthetics of the old building. Every line and angle was measured and recorded before it was torn down, insisted Prasad Ranaweera, UDA Director (Project Management). The new designs were made in close consultation with the Archaeology Dept.

Mr Ranaweera also said the Castle Hotel was “decayed and about to tumble down”. “It was like a hellhole inside,” he maintained. “It was not maintained for years by the tenants. There was nothing even to salvage. It would have collapsed.”

The Sunday Times could not obtain independent verification that the building was structurally weak. But an independent source did confirm that “There is a proposal in the new development to accommodate the same architecture and facades.”

Curiously, Mr Ranaweera said he never received Dr Dissanayake’s letter instructing the UDA of the historic and architectural value of Castle Hotel. He only got communication saying the demolition could go ahead as the relevant building was not a listed monument.

(A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times)

AIA requirement: None ordered, none doneSri Lanka’s law requires that an Archaeological Impact Assessment (AIA) be done in respect of every development project to be carried out on land exceeding 0.25 hectares in extent. The Tata Housing project in Slave Island clearly qualifies–but no AIA was ordered or, done.

These surveys are carried out to determine whether there are antiquities on the land, to gauge the impact of the project on these antiquities and to recommend alternatives. These provisions are contained in the orders made by the Minister of Cultural and Religious Affairs under the Antiquities Ordinance and gazetted in April 2000. They are cited as Project Procedure Orders No 1 of 2000.

The written permission of the Archaeology Dept should be taken before any project over 0.25 hectares is implemented. The development of transport systems and construction of housing complexes is included. But the UDA official in charge of the Tata Housing project said this week that, he was not aware of such a requirement.

Prasad Ranaweera, Director (Project Management) said all approvals had been obtained in keeping with UDA guidelines for Phase I of the project. It was the responsibility of the Legal division to inform him if an AIA was required–and that was not done.
There is concern now about other heritage edifices falling within the boundaries of the Tata and other proposed development initiatives. The historic De Soysa Building is in line for destruction next, under a planned road widening.
The Archaeology Dept now says a list of historic buildings in the Fort area will be gazetted in the near future. (The De Soysa Building, however, falls within the street line). “I recently assigned a separate officer to oversee this,” said Mahinda Karunatilleke, Acting Assistant Director (Western). “We are listing a large number of buildings. We started doing it because of this problem, and will expedite it.”

Among those to be gazetted are protected monuments such as the Accident Ward of the Colombo National Hospital and the Rajya Osu Sala in Town Hall. But, not all buildings that are over 100 years qualify automatically to be protected monuments, clarified Prof P.B. Mandawala, the new Director General of Archaeology.

The edifices in Slave Island and Fort will be surveyed, Prof Mandawala vowed. But it was too early for him to give a full account of what had been done in the past. If an AIA had not been carried out as regards the Tata project, however, the Archaeology Dept would be within its rights to file legal action, after determining the facts of the case.

Not your everyday ride, this!

 

Some of the happier images that emerged from our coverage of natural disaster in the Kalutara district were of novice monks having fun on the armoured personnel carriers (APMs) deployed to reach marooned families and distribute aid.

On June 1, the Kalutara district was still in the throes of natural disaster. Heavy showers that pelted down remorselessly over a period of a few hours caused floods and landslides. People were devastated and fearful.

The government called out the military. Among them was the armoured regiment of the Sri Lanka army which deployed its APMs in the Matara, Rantapura and Kalutara districts. Some of these were stationed in a plot belonging to the historic Kekulandara Raja Maha Vihara in Agalawatta. Like many other Buddhist monks, the chief priest there had worked day and night to help those hit by disaster.

The temple has a school for novice monks. For these small people, having the APMs parked in their backyard was the best thing since sliced bread. As the floods receded and the roads were cleared, the APMs were needed less and less; so men and machinery spent a lot more time at the temple.

Every day, after lessons and lunch, the young monks bounded over to where the hardware was parked. They clambered up with incredible nimbleness. And they did not leave till around 6pm, the latest deadline set by their superiors.

Twice, they badgered the commanding officer to give them a ride through the narrow roads. This was a well-organised operation. They lay in wait till he returned from fieldwork and surrounded him. Then they pleaded, cajoled, bargained and nagged. There was quite a racket. And there was no giving up till he agreed.

Off they went atop the APMs, the cynosure of many eyes.They looked self-satisfied and slightly smug, but who could blame them. It isn’t everyday that little monks get chauffeured through the streets of Agalawatta on APMs, chaperoned by uniformed soldiers.

 

My rights are an entitlement, not a favour.

You know what, I’m not comfortable with the yardstick used by some to measure the performance of this government. I’m not happy with being asked to appreciate and be grateful for regaining some of my most basic rights, such as the freedom to express myself freely.

I am entitled, as much as anyone is, to my rights. Just because one government deprived me of them does not mean another is granting me a favour by allowing me to exercise them. I was born with certain privileges and they are enshrined in the constitution. Having them honoured is not a matter for praise. It’s a question of prerogative.

And, yes, I know firsthand that I did not have that under the Rajapaksa regime. I have visits from state intelligence to prove it. But I’m not willing to settle when it comes to this government or any future governments.

I joined journalism in 1994, when Chandrika Kumaratunga had just assumed the presidency. I know some journalists had issues with her. But I came into my own. I discovered my strengths. I even dabbled in political satire.

Then came that awful Rajapaksa tenure when you didn’t know where the threat would come from and for what. What a slap in the face. It was a time of abject self-censorship, though we still wrote. Yes, we still wrote. And some of our articles were quoted on political stages and talk shows by the opposition during election campaigns.

In my darkest moments, I would ask a trusted mentor how to survive; when this would end; when we would be free again. And he would tell me–completely unmoved–that if I had lived and worked under Premadasa, I can live and work under anyone.

Premadasa had been worse. Does that mean Rajapaksa deserved my gratitude and appreciation for having been better than him? How could I even contemplate that?

Do we really want to go down the path of comparing one government against another and settling for the least bad or slightly better? Shouldn’t each government be judged on its own merits and demerits? And how long must one keep harking to a past that was worse with the objective of adding some shine to the present?

I called a political contact today to ask about some irregular appointments. He gave me a familiar refrain: “We’re not like the Rajapaksas. We are not doing what they did. Don’t you remember what it was under them?” Sure, I remember. But to be proffered this to deflect criticism of the present government is repugnant.

The presidential, then government, change was no ordinary one. It was hard won and there was a lot at stake. Much was promised. Lofty, lofty pledges to eradicate corruption, bring wrongdoers to justice, and to not tread down the same path again. Yes, crucially, to NOT TREAD DOWN THE SAME PATH AGAIN.

It was a promise. I expect–and I have taught my children–that promises are meant to be kept. Pledges are meant to be honoured. I’m not willing to settle for anything less. And to be told that I should be eternally beholden towards the politicians that promised me this in exchange for my valuable vote is, frankly, bullshit.

For a while, yes, I was grateful. I enjoyed the freedom in the air, the feeling of not being afraid, of democracy–or some form of it–returning. But I believe this has an expiry date. I cannot be expected to indefinitely compare the present with the horrible immediate past and accept the morsels that are thrown at me.

So if the COPE report came out today and it held a protege of the prime minister to account, it’s no less than what I expect and will continue to expect from our elected representatives. I’m not going to sit on my haunches and say, phew, what an admirable and praiseworthy development it is that we, the voting public, have one mechanism among many others that actually worked for us.

And let’s not forget how we got here. The UNP faction of the government did everything it could to avoid this result. Everything.

I investigate. That’s my job. And let me tell you that new deal-makers have entered the scene. They are every bit as bad as the old ones. The tenders are being fixed, the prices are being inflated and it will only get worse. Look at the reaction of the police and the relevant minister to the shooting of students in Jaffna. Happy with it? Better than before? Grateful?

Even the bond scam: The prime minister and the opposition tried to cover it up and to exonerate their man. I’m not saying he is guilty. I would need to see the evidence to arrive at that conclusion. But from the very start, it was warned that Arjuna Mahendran should not be the governor of the Central Bank because of an obvious conflict of interest. This went unheeded.

Either way, the bond scam is not the point. I’m no longer willing to compromise on the highest ideals of democracy. I no longer desire to have the wool pulled over my eyes. I will neither be co-opted nor enlisted to campaign or make excuses for this or any government. I acknowledge the advances and the positive developments–but from a position of entitlement, not indebtedness.

If I settle, my readers would also be led down that path . And that is unacceptable.

Mother, you matter

On their wedding day.
On their wedding day.

Your death certificate came in the mail the other day. It was the first time I was seeing it. And I’m thirty-nine. That is how long you have been gone.

It is hard to describe how I felt. You lived only a few hours after I was born. My father never talks about that day. He does not talk about you. Once he is gone, I will never know. I will spend the rest of my days on earth tortured by aching questions to which I will not have answers.

You are my mother. But I have no memory of you. I have no memory of your voice, of your smell, of your warmth. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to remember what it felt like to be in your womb, wafting in a cocoon of amniotic fluid. I pray that, by some miracle, I will recall those precious moments when I was one with you. I am special, I imagine. I can recollect what others cannot.

I can’t, though. I do not remember any of it.

You existed. By writing about you—for the first time in my life—I want to honour that undeniable fact. I was young when someone told me in anger that my paternal aunt was not my mother and that my mother was dead. I asked my father if it was true. “Yes,” he said, next to tears.20151009_220151_LLS (1)

I had to find out. It was inevitable. But my world shook a bit. Not much. I was too young. I spent the next few years trying to analyse how I felt about this earth-shattering revelation. Nobody else seemed to care that you had lived; and that you didn’t anymore.

In moments of sadness, when I felt abandoned by the world, I imagined that you were alive. Or, I imagined that you had left me siblings. We would stand up for each other and not be alone. I’ll be honest. I did not spend the major part of my childhood wishing you back. There were other battles to fight.

Without contact with my father’s or your relatives, the puzzle was hard to piece together. I had no photos, no date of birth, not even a name. I did not know your wedding anniversary. I do not know whether you were buried or cremated and at which cemetery. I have no clothes you wore, not anything. Not even your wedding ring or some other trinket that had once touched your skin.

Nobody ever realized these things would be important to me. My father does not see it even now. I need to know. I may not ever get you back. But it will complete a part of me that is still missing. Fill a gaping hole.

Every time I think of you, my chest tightens. I want to know what you looked like, how long your hair was and how short—because you were short—you really were. I want to know your personality, whether you were a good lawyer and if you made friends easily. Did you cook better than I do? Did you know to bake? Did you sew? Were you neat and tidy? Did you read? Were you compassionate? Where you kind? Were you short-tempered?

And how did you die? My aunt told me you haemorrhaged. She said there was another surgery in the operating theatre of the private hospital at the time so they could not take you in immediately. She said my father and she looked for blood so you could receive a transfusion. That is all I know.

You were just 31. And I was your first and only child. I’m sorry.

This is one story I haven’t written. I just don’t have the information and my sources are not forthcoming. I have tried to find your friends but the memories of the few I know are so distant. They are also too general. They’d say you were bubbly or kind or friendly. But people usually say that of the deceased, don’t they?

Your relations got in touch with me after many years but they don’t seem to remember much either. Your parents are gone. Your father once cried so much when he saw me after a long absence. And he wrote me letters. I wish I had visited him more.

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Your niece, Anusha, said you were wonderful. She said you would bring her chocolates after work and call for her often. That is not much to go on.

So I’m faced with the unpalatable reality that I may never know anything more about my mother than I do now. I will never see anything of her but a handful of photographs and the tiny handwriting on a field notebook given by her employer, a bank, to record developments related to her cases.

The last entry is on September 4, 1976—a month you before died. It says: “Left Colombo by 6.05 train to Kurunegala to reach Kurunegala by 9.30 am.” On the 20th of September you have signed your name. That is all.

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I want to tell you this, Amma.  I acknowledge your existence. I accept that you once lived and breathed. Whoever else might have forgotten you, I have not. I yearn to know more about you. I am tired of suppressing all this in order not to hurt somebody else. Because you matter. You matter to me.

As I grow older, I spend even more time wondering about you, perhaps because time is running out. But till I die, I will never stop thinking about you. You are important to me. Nobody can change what we mean to each other. And I hope you are at peace, wherever you are.

(My mother, Sri Suddha Sinharatna Bandara Dona Nandaprema Jayawardena, died on October 25, 1976. She was a lawyer. Her parents were from Ja Ela. At the time of her death, she was working for the Kurunegala branch of People’s Bank).

Stopping the Rot

A speech from three years ago: “But the objective, in my personal view, should not be to topple governments. Any fool can see that the alternatives are not viable. And if the systems remain the same what’s the point in changing a government anyway? Besides, that objective will defeat the purpose. The fight will once again be about personalities and not about systems.”

Members of the Citizens Movement for Good Governance and friends,

This is an honour indeed. And yet, I am more than a little daunted at having to speak before an audience whose experience and memories stretch so back into the past. When Dr. Visvalingam invited me to address you, I was delighted. But as the days flew by, I became more and more uncertain of what I could say to people who already knew so much more than I do. And who have lived much longer than I have.

So I stand before you as an ordinary journalist who makes no pretence about the depth and extent of my knowledge or insight. I present to you my views based on what I have learnt of my country through the exercise of my profession.

It is the practice today that when somebody presents a view contrary to that which is held by the government and its henchmen, that person and his opinions are loudly denigrated. He must have an agenda, they say. And the word ‘agenda’ is almost always used negatively.

If you criticise the way foreign relations are conducted, you’re being bribed by the West. If you speak about human rights abuses, you are a grasping NGO agent. Either way, you are embroiled in a certain conspiracy to topple the government.

If you oppose the mass ordination of Buddhist children because you think it is not the healthiest way to alleviate poverty or to protect the Buddha Sasana, you’re part of an international religious plot to destroy Buddhism in Sri Lanka. If you eat bread or noodles, you’re a slave to those evil multinational companies—despite the fact that the person making this claim is a noodle himself.

If you criticise your rulers, you’re just downright ungrateful because they won the war—and that should suffice for the next several decades. Indeed, “if you are not with us, you are against us”. Still. Three years after the war ended.

This bigotry and intolerance is untenable. It is wholly detrimental to the free thought, free speech and the advancement of society. Why in this day and age is a government afraid of a diversity of views? Why do they feel so threatened by detractors and critics that they feel it necessary to classify them as conspirators or traitors?

As journalists, we have to avoid all these labels. And yet, you could still be sold out by colleagues who have aligned themselves so closely with this government that they are irreversibly indebted to them. If there are stooges in all other sectors, so it is also with the media. Carrots are certainly more powerful than the stick.

This is not a phenomenon unique to the prevailing regime. Ranil Wickremesinghe had media lackeys who treated as heretics those colleagues who did not blindly follow the leader. So did Chandrika Kumaratunga and no doubt those before her. I may be mistaken but it feels so much worse now. If there is one change I would like to see in the media industry, it is that we do not let our political preferences erode relations among ourselves to the extent that we are unable to tolerate each other in a room.

I have an agenda. That agenda is set by me, based on certain principles, and is not financed by anybody. It comes from wanting a better life for my children. It comes from having made a choice to stay in Sri Lanka when leaving was an attractive option.

As with any journalist, I have had access to many policy and decision makers over the years. I have observed how politicians think, how they work and the difference between the two. I have been able to compare how systems, and the attitudes of those that run them, have changed. I have witnessed half-baked attempts to introduce some semblance of independence to our public institutions through the 17th amendment. Then I saw how easily, and flippantly, even these efforts were reversed through the passing of the 18th amendment.

Having covered the story from the day the law was passed, I will be the first to admit that the 17th amendment was flawed. I remember writing that the law was riddled with more holes than a string-hopper. But it could have been improved for the greater benefit of this country’s citizens and its public officials. Instead, the opposite was done. Our public institutions have lost every semblance of independence and are completely and wholly controlled by the executive. And this includes the judiciary.

When the judiciary depends on the executive for survival and career advancement, and the executive is of the type that expects complete subservience, what hope does this country have?

I don’t have to go into detail here about just how politicised our institutions are. My audience knows it. What is despairing is that it appears to be a bottomless pit. You keep falling, and falling, and falling. The level of submission required is suffocating and even extends to the arts, particularly to the world of film. Since the war ended, Sri Lankans have been allowed to view the conflict only through the eyes of the Sinhalese or through the eyes of the military.

Their story of loss, grief and victory must be told. But what of the others who died, who suffered, who grieve? What about the Tamils? What about the LTTE fighters, many of whom even the government says were conscripted by force? They have a story to tell too. If we don’t tell it, a foreigner will. And then we won’t like it. Then we will whine about it. And somebody out there will join the growing ranks of traitor, of conspirator, of enemy.

I remember visiting a Tiger cemetery once, during the ceasefire. It was for a story. Back then we were encouraged to report these things. A mother and her daughter were laying flowers out on a grave. The woman said her son was buried there. He had been 16 at the time of his death. I saw the same pain in her eyes that I have seen in the eyes of other mothers, Sinhalese mothers, Muslim mothers. Sorrow has no ethnicity, no bias, no race or political preference. So why do we give it these attributes?

Everyone is doing politics everywhere now. The end result is that we don’t get our services. It’s politics at the municipal council, at the police station, in schools, universities and in the health sector. Sportsmen do politics, actors do politics, soldiers, even very senior ones, do politics on behalf of politicians. Politics, politics, everywhere. To prep up a regime, or to topple it. Nothing in between, where the people are.

Then there is this business of how people have come to accept the unacceptable. Some months ago, I walked to the top of our lane with our five-year-old daughter, Anshula. We were heading to the little bookshop near Jubilee Post junction. When we got there, there was police tape around the shop and policemen outside. So we turned back.

I asked some three-wheeler drivers parked at the stand nearby what had happened. As my daughter listened open-mouthed, they described how some men had come the previous evening—not too late—shoved the owner of the bookshop into the inevitable white van and taken him away. They had guns, these drivers said, with great relish. Don’t know where they took him. “Oh well,” I told my daughter, “let’s come some other time”. “Will they find that uncle?” she asked. “I don’t know darling,” I replied, noncommittally. “But there are other bookshops.”

It was only at night that it hit me. My reaction was not normal. It was not normal for me to have accepted the abduction of this man. I don’t know if guns were actually used, but it was also not normal for me to have accepted that a bunch of guys could turn up with guns at the local bookshop. What had happened to me?

But this how it goes. We Sri Lankans are getting so used to things being done wrongly that we forget what the right way is. Does it make me an NGO puppet when I say all this? A traitor? A conspirator? A misguided fool? A plant of the West? An anti-Rajapaksa ingrate? Of course. To some people. But I’m none of those things to me. And that is what matters.

So… how do we reverse the rot? Heck, I don’t know. If the whole distinguished lot of you failed to get it done over the years, what chance do I have of prescribing or enforcing solutions? Most times, the situation seems so hopeless that the worst option seems to be the best option: That is, if you can’t beat them, join them.

But there has to be a way. And here is a little of what I figured out through my interactions as a journalist. First and foremost, we must fight on behalf of institutions and systems while separating personalities and politicians from the same. Politicians, regardless of their parties, have taken ownership of institutions and systems that do not belong to them. The public must bear on politicians to run them in a manner that benefits us.

So often, since the war ended, we have heard that we must be grateful to the government. Yes, we must. But this notion of gratitude has been taken too far. Today, we are expected to be grateful for everything, particularly services that are our entitlement. And those services, too, are delivered so grudgingly, so lackadaisically and so incompetently that it makes you cringe. This is a country that can’t conduct an advanced level examination without a breakdown. Need we look further?

I say that now, three years after the military victory, it is time to stop focusing solely on gratitude. It is time to demand good governance. The regime must be grateful to the people for tolerating its inefficiency thus far. All the international conspiracies in the world can’t mask the fact that things are not right here.

So how does the public know that they are being poorly governed, that politicisation is eating way at the very heart of our systems? The message must go to the grassroots, to the members of local government and provincial councils, of village societies and women’s groups. Teachers, clergy, business people, professionals, agricultural workers, everyone, must be made aware of their rights and entitlements. People must be educated about how proper systems work because we are so entrenched in what we have now that we cannot see or remember a better time.

As a journalist, I have found the public eager to learn about alternatives. I recall a discussion I had with a group of law students at the Colombo High Court last November. It was a vibrant dialogue about the importance of separating the judiciary from the executive. It seemed all the more relevant because we were waiting for the judgement in Sarath Fonseka’s ‘white flag’ case. They, and I, went away more enlightened than when we came in. And I wondered whether the legal education system was today independent enough for similar debates to take place at student level. My guess is, no.

When the message goes to the grassroots, stuff happens. Changes occur. We may not see them now, but things start moving. Politicians get nervous and feel more accountable. If the voices circulate only in the capitals, nothing will change. I had a scheduled interview with a senior VIP government minister recently. I was to meet him at 2 pm. At 1.30 pm, his aide called me and said the minister would be delayed because he was in meetings at Anuradhapura. Two o’clock came and went. I waited because the interview was an important one. We have waited a lifetime for Chandrika to get to places so this was nothing.

At 3.30 pm, I called the aide. So sorry miss, he said. The minister was still at meetings and hasn’t even had his lunch yet. What’s the problem, I asked. “Big problem, miss,” he said. “All the local politicians are fighting with him about so many things and he can’t get away. He’s been stuck since morning.” The minister did not return till late that day. He had been given a tough time by the people that matter.

This pattern needs to be repeated. People from the bottom have to get their rulers to listen. They have to cut through the rhetoric about international and local conspiracies and get to the root of the problem.

But the objective, in my personal view, should not be to topple governments. Any fool can see that the alternatives are not viable. And if the systems remain the same what’s the point in changing a government anyway? Besides, that objective will defeat the purpose. The fight will once again be about personalities and not about systems.

I don’t know whether we can achieve this. I do know that the job can’t be left to journalists alone or to civil society alone or to anybody else alone. Everyone who has the knowledge and the exposure must encourage people at the grassroots to demand more from our rulers. Governing, after all, isn’t the sole prerogative or business of governments, and of particular political parties. The agenda has to be set by us. If we can’t get the people we elected to do their job, then we are responsible for the rot we so despise.

(Keynote speech delivered by journalist Namini Wijedasa at the Annual General Meeting of the Citizens Movement for Good Governance in May 2012, held in the auditorium of the Organisation of Professional Associations, Colombo.)

If parliament was a paddy field and parliamentarians were buffaloes

(Photo from internet, labeled for reuse)
(Photo from internet, labeled for reuse)

This column was published in Lakbimanews on October 7, 2007. I’m going to dedicate this to the timelessness of Sri Lankan politics. When all else falls apart, our politicians remain honest and true to their complete lack of morals or principle.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was chasing buffaloes last week. And not metaphorically speaking either.

Nobody could have missed the president in his buttercup t-shirt, diving into a good sized patch of paddy with the intention (we think) of getting everyone to grow rice. Hiking up his checked sarong–stick in hand–he trailed a pair of fierce-looking buffaloes while the shutterbugs clicked furiously from the sidelines.

It was a photo to die for–the kind that Ranil Wickremesinghe fails to supply, time after time. There’s something about Mahinda Rajapaksa that makes great pictures. And Sri Lanka loves great pictures, to hell with good governance.

Wear a sarong at Number 10 Downing Street and, boy, you’ve got it made. Rig oneself out in a three-piece suit under the blistering sun (as Ranil often has) and you really have lost the next election.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about metaphorical bull-chasing. Or buffalo trailing (whichever applies) because there is a LOT of that happening Sri Lanka side. Out in the real paddy fields, hundreds of varicose-veined farmers have enlisted the assistance of buffaloes to plough the soil. Some use these animals because they prefer the old-fashioned method. Not only are they good work beasts, they fertilise the field while turning the soil. Many farmers fall back on buffaloes because they can’t afford mechanisation.

In Sri Lanka, however, other farmers mobilise buffaloes for other reasons. In fact, there’s no shortage of farmers and certainly none of buffaloes. Let’s imagine–for a moment–that parliament was a paddy field and parliamentarians were buffaloes. And that party leaders were farmers. Doesn’t Sri Lankan politics now become far simpler to understand?

Party leaders desperately need buffaloes (metaphorically, speaking) for survival. The mechanisation option is not open. This would explain why just the other day Rajapaksa, the chief farmer, called upon yet another bunch of buffaloes to hoe his patch of paddy field, if only for one year.

It was the JVP buffaloes he was wooing this time. Speaking at the wap magul ceremony after doing his bit for the cameras, Rajapaksa insisted that JVP support was essential if his government were to deal with the ethnic issue and economic problems. “Join my government for at least a year,” he implored.

Only hitch is that competing farmers have been trailing the same buffaloes in recent weeks. Our Ranil goiyya even banished federalism from his vocabulary in an apparently vain attempt to get our Marxist buffaloes to draw his capitalist plough instead. So far, however, the JVP has shown little interest in cultivating–and fertilising–anything but their own acreage.

Does this mean other beasts would have to be approached before the budget in November? Upcountry buffaloes, perhaps? Muslim buffaloes? Sinhala Buddhist buffaloes? The whole damned lot?

Ultimately, Sri Lankan politics in recent times has seen nothing but buffalo canvassing by this party or that. Every year–as the budget vote nears–some farmer or the other claims he will topple the government and promptly starts chasing buffaloes.

And, so, a futile, pre-budget frenzy begins. Journalists whip out their notebooks and start doing the numbers. How many in this farmer’s party and how many in that? Which parties did all these buffaloes originally contest with? How many, if ten buffaloes cross to the other side? How many, if twenty buffaloes come back? Which buffalo is most likely to defect? How much would he go for and to whose patch of paddy? Which buffalo has no intention of defecting but is claiming he would? How far would farmers go to keep these buffaloes back?

Journalists start interviewing farmers–and buffaloes–about which way they would vote at the budget. With quite an unnecessary sense of foreboding, the media begins stories about possible elections. Some farmers say an election is coming soon and even start campaigning. Other farmers–and the buffaloes that work under them–go around the country saying they’re not scared of any bally election.

And nothing happens. Every year… nothing happens. The budget vote comes. The budget votes goes. There is no toppling. Not even close. Months are wasted in an unprofitable, vapid debate that produces nothing at the end. Not even fertiliser.

It is, to be sure, a clean case of janathawa gonata andanawa. How’s that for a good picture?

National government: A suppository like no other

Ranil Mahinda
(Photo from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s twitter feed)

THE idea of a national government has been bandied about in the past, often to facilitate crossovers. It is a concept that helps parliamentarians save face while defecting for personal gain. While going through my old files, I stumbled upon this column I wrote in the Lakbimanews of December 2, 2007. It was another time; a another national government. Here is a slightly edited version of that column.

Our chieftains are blithering again about a national government. Strictly speaking, this is not news – because there is a national government founded every year.

You see, a national government is very much like a suppository. It is cheap. It can be easily inserted into the Sri Lankan psyche where, just moments later, it brings instant relief to a multitude of painful symptoms. (Does not cure the ailment, but it covers the symptoms).

And like every good Sri Lankan national government, a suppository melts and dissipates in minutes. It is, therefore, not uncommon for various politicians of various hues to start gibbering about a national government when things get a little sticky.

Not to imply that Mahinda Rajapaksa is stuck in a pot of glue or something. But it cannot be nice lingering till December 14– twiddling the proverbial thumb–to see whether his government will make it through the third budget vote.

After all, Ranil Wickremesinghe (in moments of rash bravery) has been boasting about toppling the Rajapaksa regime. Unlikely as this may be… what if it were TRUE?

The ground situation is also politically precarious. The war may be going Gotabayesquely well but, even at the best of times, war is such an unreliable political gimmick. Success, one moment; abysmal failure, the next.

More importantly, the cost of living has become a symptom that even a suppository is hard pressed to appease. Bandula Gunawardane, who knew more economics than Adam Smith while he was in the Opposition, is proving more of an economic disaster in government.

The Central Bank says the economy is doing great. The ordinary man (clichéd as that sounds) only knows it would be cheaper to DHL a cow than to buy milk powder. And that the Government wants him to starve himself while they splurge money on themselves without accountability.

On top of this, the JVP has gone inconveniently mutinous. The CWC and a few other parties, who are being heavily wooed by the Opposition, cannot be trusted. And Tamil millionaire Charles Gnanakone is reportedly lurking in corners with bags of money to lure members from the Government to the Opposition on the orders of the LTTE.

So what better suppository than a national government to cure the symptoms? To banish the fever, vomiting and diarrhoea, verbal or otherwise.

Just talking about the possibility of a national government brings with it a degree of relief. It makes the public think that the light at the end of the tunnel may not be a train. It fools them into forgetting those unnecessary, sticky issues that a government cannot solve. And, it might even encourage the opposition to mull over something other than the defeating of a government.

We hear that it is the UNP breakaway faction, led by Karu Jayasuriya, who is mooting the idea of a national government this time. After decamping en masse–and piling portfolios upon themselves like cheap tinsel on a Christmas tree–they have now generously offered to campaign for Ranil’s appointment as prime minister in a future national government.

Luckily, our Wickremesinghe has not been fooled by the latest ruse. One reason may be that, the last time he decided to experiment with a national government, he got–not a suppository–but a kick up his backside.

The 2006 deal he signed with Mahinda Rajapaksa became the double-crossing joke of the century. The president smilingly flourished the agreement to the international community while simultaneously sneaking out UNP members from under Wickremesinghe’s very nose. One hell of a national government that was.

So here we are, heading towards yet another budget vote as if there’s no other business in the country that requires attention. Bombs explode as the war continues; corruption goes on as the MPs get richer and richer; inflation is ballooning as the prices climb higher and higher… and all they can offer us is a cheap, miserable suppository.

Welcome to Sri Lanka. We wish you a pleasant stay.