14 January 2021

The political economy of accusation, guilt and punishment

Whenever predictions are made about repercussions from the international community for things said or left unsaid or else things done or left undone, I am reminded of Libya. Muammar Gaddafi was for decades the bad boy. He decided at one point to try being the good boy. We all know how he was rewarded by those who saw him as an enemy and who he later thought were friends.

That’s how the international community operates. International community as in the movers and shakers who can and do move and shake on account of bucks and guns (to put it mildly). It’s all about playing ball. It’s all about conviction beyond any shadow of doubt that ball will be played. In other words, there are no brownie points for good behavior. There has to be an unblemished record of servility. One black mark and trust is compromised forever. An unblemished ball player is thereafter backed, groomed and even brought to power.  If there’s no such entity, then they go for the lesser evil option. Maithripala Sirisena for example.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a statement in jest in Ampara last week and it got a lot of play.  That is not a statement one expects from someone who refused to badmouth his political opponents. It was careless. It was crass. However, as often happens word was extracted from context, tone and flavor. We saw inflation. We saw extrapolation. His detractors warned that it will strengthen moves against Sri Lanka in the upcoming UNHRC sessions in Geneva. This, on top of ‘concerns’ over the cremation of Muslims who have died of Covid-19. They will no doubt add the demolition of a memorial erected for LTTE cadres who perished during the 30 year long conflict.

A word on the last is warranted. First and foremost students do not have any right to put up buildings or memorials on state university property unless so sanctioned by the relevant authorities. Whoever allowed that memorial to be put up needs to explain his or her actions. Secondly, having allowed it to remain and thereby providing consent by default, arbitrary demolition is questionable. Thirdly, some students have issued statements claiming that they are not interested in warring ‘with the Sinhala government.’ The wording indicates that they do not see themselves as part of this country. The Vice Chancellor’s claim that the monument was an affront to reconciliation and peace therefore does have some merit. His decision to lay the foundation stone for a replacement monument is therefore confusing.

Another word on the matter is warranted. It is not illegal for anyone to believe he/she does not belong to Sri Lanka. Theoretically, a monument to soldiers could be seen by some as a celebration of ‘wrongdoers and wrongdoing’ although not legally, at least ethically or just in terms of perceptions. A monument to JVP cadres could similarly be seen by UNPers as a celebration of terrorists and terrorism. The Jaffna University students are celebrating people who fought for a ruthless terrorist organization. We could play that back and forth and remain where we are, i.e. fighting a war along the alleyways of memory.

A third word. The President can be open about these things, speak with these students and ask them if they want to remain in the past or move to a different future. He could say, for example, that the only grief that is indubitably genuine is that which is felt by the near and dear of the dead, regardless of what the dead believed, fought for, killed and were killed for. The temperature of the tears shed for all the dead, combatants and civilians are approximately the same. The President could request the Jaffna University students to design a monument where everyone can grieve for what eventually proved to be a conflagration that produced nothing of substance but only delivered death, destruction, dismemberment and displacement.
Now whether the President moves in the above manner or in some other way that pleases the students and the Tamil community, he will not be applauded by those who want to bring him and his government down, here and abroad. It just doesn’t work that way.

There is a political economy of punishment and reward, censure and ‘let be’.  'A threat is often more powerful than its execution’ is a quote attributed to several top chess grandmasters and frequently used by chess coaches. That’s how it works.

We get a string of accusations, a string of recommendations and a spoken or left hanging ending, ‘…or else!’

This brings me to the most critical issue of the day. The East Terminal of the Colombo Port. India wants it. We are told that Sri Lanka will have a 51% stake. Operations, if the deal is done, would be controlled by an Indian company.  It is reported that the frontrunner-investor is the Adani Group of India. The very same group is building a port in Kerala. A competitor port in every sense of the word. Forget Adani. It will be an Indian company that would ‘run’ operations even as an Indian company is busy building a port that is designed to draw transshipment business away from Sri Lanka.

Giving the green light to such a move is suicidal. It would reduce the Sri Lankan transshipment footprint in the Indian Ocean. The JVP, FSP and others including trade unions of all political parties have objected. Groups that backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP have objected. The political fallout is not difficult to calculate.

In such circumstances why would a government accede to India’s not so veiled demand for the East Terminal? Is there some subtle, ‘diplomatic’ arm-twisting happening? Is a give-and-take being negotiated? If it’s a deal then obviously the costs and benefits are not contained by ‘port development.’ It has to do with sweeteners. The Covid-19 vaccine? ‘Support’ in Geneva? What? 

So, in essence, there’s no clean, neat, integrity-driven logic. The ‘international community’ will accuse and treat accusation as proven guilt. The ‘international community’ will say things that end with ‘or else….!’ The ‘international community’ will want to punish and will create guilt to do so. That’s politics. That’s economics. That’s political economy. 

Any government that does not play ball is in a lose-lose situation. And such governments (and we are not staying that this government is one of them) have one option. Side with the people. Trust their judgment. ‘People’ as in general sentiments and not those that come percolated through political interests or structured by possible benefits to individuals or specific groups.

10 January 2021

The Quad halved, then drawn and quartered

This column focuses on local politics. As opposed to global affairs. However, ‘local-global’ is, as sociologists would point out, a false dichotomy. What happens or rather can happen here is by and large determined by overarching global political and economic structures. Local affairs don’t always shape global processes unless the particular ‘local’ enjoys privileged position in the overall structure, but they can inform the manner in which particular countries or country-collectives  engage.

Let’s start with a few examples.

The previous government was the darling of Western powers. The leaders believed that the West would help. Then came Brexit. The leaders got the jitters. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suddenly opened his eyes and saw ‘The East’. This, after seniors in that administration, before and after the January 2015 election had made many disparaging comments about China, as one would expect for their view of the world was largely a matter of echoing the voice of Washington.
So, in essence, Britain sneezed and these ladies and gentlemen caught a cold.

That’s one side of the coin. The USA-led section of the ‘international community’ spared no pains to rubbish the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. It is no secret that Maithripala Sirisena’s campaign was actively backed by the USA. The language of engagement with ‘Sri Lanka’ changed. The US mission in Colombo, hell-bent on hauling Sri Lanka over the coals with respect to largely inflated horror stories about the war, suddenly wanted the local Tamil allies to go easy on human rights. Come 2019 November the tone changed. Now this is not strange. One does not deal with known friends in the same way that one engages with perceived enemies.

This week, the global touch was inescapable for different but not unrelated reasons. A US story and an Indian story dominated political headlines, the former on account of the assault on Capitol Hill, Washington by supporters of Donald Trump and the latter having to do with the visit by the Indian Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar. The former is distant but makes for interesting comment considering Washington’s use and abuse of democracy. Sorry, the term ‘democracy.’ So let’s start right there.

On Wednesday supporters of Donald Trump, convinced that their champion had been robbed, gathered outside the Capitol building. They forced entry into the chamber of the House of Representatives wanting Congress to discard the results of the November 3 election. Four died, one from gunshot injuries. Dozens were arrested. Congress prevailed and Trump, in a predictably roundabout way, grudgingly announced he would leave office.

Democracy is the word here. An election was held. Sorry, a selection, for that’s essentially the political process which produces presidents in that country. Some claimed that there was jugglery. Some went to court. Court dismissed these petitions. Now, in the name of democracy, a bunch of irate Trump supporters (a minuscule minority of the voting population) decided that Congress should submit to their will. Trump, remember, lost the popular vote by a massive margin.  

The entire carnival showed up the farce that is US politics. First, the vast majority of these ‘rebels’ were white. The way that the authorities responded was in stark contrast to the way that the police reacted to peaceful protests against white police brutality and racism over the past seven months. Racism is what colors the ‘fabric’ and racism tore that cloth a long time ago or rather, racism ensured that the threads would never make a textile worth talking about.

Secondly, we have to measure this against the standard US narrative on democracy and democratization outside its shores. No country has prostituted these terms the way Washington has. The US has invaded countries, mis-described rag-tag agitators as ‘pro-democracy masses’ who were then funded and armed, orchestrated military coups, supported the butchering of pro-democracy protesters who had been duly called ‘insurgents’  and dropped bombs. All in the name of democracy.

As a wit put it, ‘due to travel restrictions, Americans had to invade their own country this year.’ Here’s another that’s making the rounds on social media: ‘The US has invaded the US to spread democracy.’ And here’s the plum atop the pudding: ‘The US is honestly just a comedy show to the rest of the world right now.’

If only we could laugh! It’s no laughing matter to the victims of systemic brutality and racism in the USA. It’s no laughing matter to the recipients of ‘Democracy — US style.’

The Biden administration will no doubt say ‘that’s all Trump stuff’ and maintain the Washington Doctrine on International Affairs. Washington is quiet now. That ‘little affair’ has been sorted out. Democracy, they’ll say, has won the day. It will be business as usual. The US will resume lecturing the world about democracy, peace, human rights, co-existence and reconciliation. Representatives of the nations targeted will have to swallow down the giggles, IF they do see the hypocrisy that is — let’s not bet on that!

India. That’s the other big story. In your face and all. But first a preamble. India is part of the Quad, i.e. the shorthand for the Quadrilateral Security Dialog which includes the USA, Japan and Australia. The purpose is to contain China’s rise, the ‘Asian NATO’ as some call it, never mind that the USA is not part of Asia. The big Sri Lankan story for the USA in recent times was the MCC Compact. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government didn’t play ball. The US Embassy in a statement informed one and all that the deal was off. Chagrin was written all over it. The local ‘friends’ warned of serious repercussions. The UNHRC sessions are just weeks away. And we have Jaishankar visiting Sri Lanka.

Jaishankar, a retired diplomat and former Foreign Secretary, is well-known for working out ‘friendship’ with the USA and is mentioned for his role in the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. Just the other day, he signed on behalf of India, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) with the USA. The two countries are the more vocal of the four that make ‘The Quad.’ India, moreover, has expressed concerns about the so-called Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka, never mind the bloodstained Indian footprint courtesy the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The IPKF left, but the footprint remained. Jaishankar even mentioned it.

Sure, he spoke of the sweetener in all the deals he made or wanted to make with Sri Lanka in the pursuit of the eminently defensible ‘India First’ foreign policy of his government. He spoke of the Covid-19 vaccine. It is, as yet, untested. It is not expensive. India will give some vaccines FoC and some on a concessionary loan, most likely. Vaccine or not, only 0.5% of the infected will succumb to the virus. What’s the price Sri Lanka has to pay, though? Why, the 13th Amendment or more!

Jaishankar, addressing the media, used Eelam-speak. ‘A united Sri Lanka’ he said. Now ‘unity’ cannot be legislated. A federal arrangement does not necessarily mean unity and neither does a unitary system. Jaishankar doesn’t know, hasn’t been told or knows and ignores the fact that the two main candidates at the last presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa both pledged to uphold the unitary status of the country. Almost 95% of the country’s voting population voted for these two candidates.

Jaishakar doesn’t care. He has a script. He reads from it.

‘Our support for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is long standing,as indeed for an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony. It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled.that applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.’

That’s a lecture. He or rather India wants Sri Lanka to inhabit his/India’s version of Sri Lanka’s reality. What’s the reality? The 13th is a white elephant. Romesh De Silva, who heads the experts’ committee tasked to draft a new constitution said as much about ten years ago. We have not had Provincial Council elections in years. No one has complained. Things could be better but no will argue that things are worse on account of PCs remaining dissolved.
The Indian foreign minister met with the President, Prime Minister and his Sri Lankan counterpart. It might appear that his powwows with the leaders of Tamil parties and the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa were cursory affairs but one hesitates in concluding thus. After all, the proposals to the constitution-drafting committee submitted by both the Tamil National Alliance and the Thamizh Makkal Tesiya Kootani both want the unitary character of the state undone. ‘Unity’ is the word both these entities use. Just like Jaishankar.

India or rather Delhi has a political issue to resolve in Tamil Nadu. There’s opposition to Delhi’s drive to make Hindi a national language in that state. Tamil Nadu is ok with ‘One India’ but not a ‘One India where Tamil could get diluted vis-a-vis Hindi.’ Appeasing Tamils in Sri Lanka, perhaps Delhi believes, might help sort out the political problem in the southern part of the country. ‘Help’ is the key word. It won’t be enough, but it’s not a stone that they would want to leave unturned.

Any devolution that grants control of parts of the country to Tamil political formations, they might believe, would compromise the integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The US could obtain by way of price an MCC Compact without an MCC Compact, so to speak. We don’t know if Jaishankar murmured ‘Geneva’ in his discussion with the president, prime minister and the foreign minister, but certain things can be said in silence.

There would have been talk of the contentious Eastern Terminal. India’s port development operations in the Andaman Islands is not a secret. Compromise the Colombo Port and Delhi is in easy sea-street.

There’s more local play to this story. Sajith Premadasa appointed Dayan Jayatilleke as his advisor on international affairs. Dayan’s genuflection before India is legendary. Not surprisingly, in an article published immediately after his appointment, Dayan responded to an announcement by the Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong, who said, ‘China will promote the alignment of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” manifesto to promote economic and social engagement between the two countries.

Now, there are two ways to interpret this statement. One is to believe that whatever part of the BRI that’s promoted will be framed by what’s pledged in Rajapaksa’s election manifesto. Nothing wrong with that. Dayan worries that it’s the other way about. He asks the legitimate question: ‘If President GR’s Sri Lanka has joined hands with China to respond to challenging international and regional situations according to a consensus between the two leaders, how will it take a nonaligned, equidistant or balanced stand with regard to US-China internationally and India-China regionally?’

He is the international affairs guru of the Opposition Leader and therefore the ball is in the court of Dinesh Gunawardena. He has to respond to this question.

Dayan, in the same article (‘The Xi factor, Delhi’s deterrence, and the Pakistan model’ in the Daily FT), berates the government for postponing the PC elections.  He worries about what the new constitution would and would not do, never mind that we are yet to see a draft and never mind that obtaining the two-thirds parliamentary majority to get it passed will not be easy.

‘The new Constitution will kill the 13th Amendment and the semi-autonomous PC system, de-linking the Sri Lankan state from the Indo-Lanka Accord, removing not only a counterweight to de facto military rule over the island but also a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’

All this, yes, all of it, is almost like a speech written in Delhi. Consider this part: ‘a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’ That’s the Indo-Lanka Accord. The annexures do talk of foreign presence but entities OTHER THAN INDIA! For Dayan, India is not ‘foreign’. Her footprint is alright. Is India part of Sri Lanka? Would Jaishankar respond to this question, ‘Yes, most certainly!’? Of course not. The implication is that Sri Lanka is part of India or rather India’s plaything. Pawn. There’s Indian hegemony written all over Dayan’s and therefore Sajith Premadasa’s and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s position on these matters.

And Jaishankar, kindly, invites Sajith Premadasa to visit Delhi. Maybe he will also facilitate a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and the likes of M.A. Sumanthiran and C.V. Wigneswaran, a meeting that such politicians must have requested repeatedly from Indian diplomats in Colombo who they meet with frequently.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe although in desperately depleted circumstances has chipped in with a request of his own. Yes, Jaishankar covered all the bases, even those that have become politically redundant. Wickremesinghe requested Jaishankar ‘to expedite the supply of the COVID-19 vaccine to Sri Lanka.’ Yes, that’s the sweetener.

What’s the price and who pays it? No one will ask Wickremesinghe. The likes of Premadasa need not answer. The likes of Dayan Jayatilleke are not required to answer and anyway, as has been the practice of this colorful commentator, he will use one convoluted argument after another, replete with selective examples from history and convenient quotes from theoretical texts to conclude ‘it’s worth the price!’.

The Government on the other hand, cannot beat around the bush. What’s the price you want us to pay for India’s ‘amazing’ vaccine, Mister President? What was agreed on our behalf and why?

Well, folks, that’s it for this week. A week where the local was more-than-usually overshadowed by ‘the international’ and where one half of ‘The Quad’ dominated. We’ve drawn and quartered, but just in an analytical sense. We would not be presumptuous to claim anything more! 



07 January 2021

Subramanyam Jaishankar and pounds of flesh



The Indian Foreign Minister arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday. His schedule includes discussions with the President, Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.  Any visit by any Indian minister or senior official is important, this is undebatable. Not because ‘we are old friends’ or ‘have a long, shared history’ (the ‘friendship’ is debatable and the ‘history’ has been by and large sordid).

That said, things can change (very slowly, yes). Prime Minister Modi is not exactly a clone of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who thought the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 would be the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka. Nothing wrong in hoping that he has abandoned the age-old Kautilyan foreign-relations ‘non-negotiables’ of fighting with closest neighbors and being friends with those beyond. India is not friends with China (despite the massive volume of trade between the two countries). India is more than cosy with the United States of America and Jaishankar has had a lot to do with improved relations.

The USA is not Sri Lanka’s friend. Let’s get that straight and out of the way. So when the USA gets pally with India after showing disappointment that Sri Lanka wasn’t interested in the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, Sri Lanka should be wary of any Indian moves. The USA’s ideological and political allies in Sri Lanka (including ex-Deputy Governors of the Central Bank, SJB parliamentarian Harsha De Silva, and the [un]thinking tank Advocata) appear to be more upset than the US Ambassador over this non-event. Some have screamed, ‘repercussions!’

Well, India has buddied with the USA to set up the ‘Quad’ or the Quadrilateral Security Dialog which includes Japan and Australia, which is clearly a move to contain China’s rise in the region and of course the world. Some call it the Asian NATO. The Indian Defense Secretary recently insulted Sri Lanka during a visit to Nepal, warning (yes!) that country from getting assistance from China. China, by the way, is not Sri Lanka’s best friend in terms of aid. That ‘distinction’ goes to Japan.

This is not all the context there is. There’s the impending UNHRC sessions in Geneva. The by now par-for-the-course surrounding noise has been made by the Washington-led media and of course the Washington-dependent rights outfits. Sri Lanka is set to be hauled over the coals. Yes, the USA has pulled out from that ‘Cesspit of bias’ but that hasn’t stopped Uncle Sam from leveraging its allies to get the dirty work done. It’s an ideal time for India to play ‘friend!’ If there is a resolution against Sri Lanka, India won’t object. India might not even support it. However, India is most likely to do the friend-thing: dilute the resolution. And Sri Lanka would be required to applaud.

The big-deals will take place in this context. The Eastern Terminal for example. India is actively sabotaging the Colombo Port already through an Indian company and taking control of the terminal would put Sri Lanka at India’s mercy. India, once its port operations in the Andaman Islands are done, will ‘gracefully leave.’ And Sri Lanka would be required to applaud. Again. And again.

Subramanyam Jaishankar is no baby. He’s a seasoned operator. A career diplomat, Jaishankar was once the Secretary, Foreign Ministry. He knows India, Indian interests and how the world operates. No wonder that Tata made him ‘President - Corporate Affairs’ when he retired. Before that, though, he had already established excellent relations with the USA, playing a key role in hammering out the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. And just a few months ago on behalf of India he inked the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) with the USA.

So, friends, this is no routing courtesy call. It’s business. As usual. For India. Or anyone else for that matter. Jaishankar is taking care of Indian interests. As always there’s give and take, more of the former as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. We are not in the right market here, so we can haggle only so much about the price.  

Jaishankar will no doubt come with some sugar because deals often have to be sweetened. Going from the sound bytes we’ve heard or rather been made to listen to, it’s like to be something to do with a vaccine to combat Covid-19. India can easily spare a few pricks and offer the rest on a concessionary loan. Sri Lanka would be required to applaud.

So, friends, once the joint statement is released or when India or Sri Lanka or both issue statements, let’s resolve to read them carefully. Let’s read between the lines. Let’s keep context in mind. Let’s remember histories that have left bloodstains behind and whose shadows will invariably fall on Sri Lanka come the UNHRC sessions.

Does India want to start on a fresh page? Well, India would like us to believe they do. Will they? Will they? Unlikely. If that were the case, the Indian Defense Secretary wouldn’t have tossed around disparaging comments. If it’s about give and take, no-free-lunches and such, then India should not have any problem with the paid-for lunch or the lunch-on-credit (as per their preferred narrative) that China offers.

Subramanyam Jaishankar is a professional turned politician. That’s good for India. How good is it for Sri Lanka? Let’s not bet on such things, shall we?


04 January 2021

It will take a lot to bury 2020, but let's give thanks for being alive


The year 2020 was eminently forgettable and that has very little to do with politics. The obvious need not be stated. As for the political, we had parliamentary elections and the passage of the 20th Amendment. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna effectively consolidated its hold on power, securing close to a two-thirds majority. The UNP (official) was routed and the UNP (in new garb, i.e. the SJB) was a distant second.

The new parliamentary configuration resulted in the 20th Amendment being passed. Of course there were objections. Court was petitioned. The Attorney General promised that certain articles would be amended at the ‘Committee Stage’ and the court ruled, except with regard to just a single article, that if this was done a special majority (two-thirds) would suffice. Clarity in the structure of governance, sorely compromised by the 19th Amendment, was restored. Most of the powers clipped from the office of the president by the 19th Amendment (in order to strengthen the then prime minister, appointed in contravention of all established procedure and at the time not even enjoying a parliamentary majority), were restored. The dangers are obvious but that’s something that the Opposition cannot complain about.

So, in effect, 2020 was a ‘pohottuwa’ year. The Opposition, in disarray, did make a few noises towards the end of the year thanks to Covid-19 and little else. The Opposition could not even hold on to the worrisome incident at the Mahara prison where 11 persons died and over 100 were wounded. It was distracted by the controversial ‘Dhammika Syrup’. The UNP is yet to name someone to the national list slot that came its way. The JVP has gone silent. The strongest party in the Opposition, the SJB, seems to be readying for a cold war for party leadership.

Patali Champika Ranawaka launched a separate political project called ‘The Group of 43.’ Ranawaka, who left the Jathika Hello Urumaya, was named one of six Deputy Chairmen of the SJB which technically dilutes his position in the party. He is not even the Deputy Leader (there is no such post, at present). Tissa Attanayake, former General Secretary of the UNP and recently appointed as the General Secretary of the SJB, claimed ‘Sajith Premadasa will be the common candidate of the Opposition.’ There’s a long way to go before parties nominate presidential candidates but if Attanayake’s predictions come true, Ranawaka’s obvious political ambitions would take a hit. It is unlikely that he would let himself be shoved to the sidelines. Interesting times ahead, therefore.

With the two major elections done and dusted following a rousing victory for the SLPP in the local government elections (February 2018) which in fact gave that party its initial momentum, only the provincial councils are left to be fought over.  

The PCs have been dissolved for several years now. The administrative apparatus remains and of course Governors who are from time to time appointed, removed and replaced. Illegally constituted though they are, the PCs remain part of the overall governance structure. They are constitutional by habit, if you will. Have they served any purpose, though? They have certainly helped the career politicians, many of whom have seen PCs as stepping stones to Parliament. A lot happens at the provincial level, especially with regard to education and health, but as we’ve seen over the past three years or so, all you need for effective delivery of services is decentralization of administration. It is not as efficient as could be, but in the very least things are no worse than when the PCs were fully functional.

Anyway, whether or not to hold PC elections is a political decision. The Government is currently mulling comprehensive constitutional reform which could take the form of a fresh constitution. The future of the 13th Amendment is at stake here.  

Perhaps this is why the likes of Dayasiri Jayasekera and former president Maithripala Sirisena have made some noise on the subject (Note: the SJB, the JVP, the UNP and not even the TNA has uttered a single worry-word in this regard).

Dayasiri Jayasekera, State Minister and General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), while acknowledging that the electoral system should be amended has stated that any decision regarding PCs should be first discussed with India. That’s strange because India didn’t keep her part of the deal in the Indo-Lanka Accord signed in July 1987. It was, in the first place an Indo-Indo Accord; drafted by India, signed by Rajiv Gandhi who saw it as ‘the beginning of the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka’ and by J.R.Jayewardene (under duress) to secure India’s interests. Sri Lanka was only interested in getting the LTTE disarmed. India undertook to do it. India did not.  

Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the SLFP and former President, in an interview with ‘The Hindu’ told Meera Srinivasan that ‘abolishing PCs [would be like] playing with fire.’ That comment was taken as the headline. Sirisena, to his credit, wasn’t at all gungho about PCs, a point that ‘The Hindu’ has played down for obvious reasons. Sirisena clearly expressed disappointment with the PCs and proposes decentralization through ‘District Development Boards.’ It is only when Srinivasan pushed him on ‘abolition’ that Sirisena, slipped to diplospeak, alluding to (non-existent) ‘friendship’ between the two countries, speculating that ‘India could get a little upset’ and quickly upping it to the headline-possible, ‘abolishing PCs is like playing with fire.’

The Government, meanwhile, has decided that PC elections will not be held soon. That’s not good news to politicians looking to move up. The so-called lower ranks do play a role in the larger political game, but then again the next test, so to speak, is several years away. Postponement of elections is not a good thing. The previous government paid a heavy price in this regard. This government could too, unless abolition is being seriously contemplated. That would require a constitutional amendment where the two-thirds might be harder to secure than it was in the passage of the 20th Amendment.

Sirisena, in that same interview, has stated bravely that the SLFP is planning a rejuvenation program. He complains about SLFPers being treated like second-class citizens by the SLPP, forgetting that such is the fate of any small party aligning itself with one that is larger, more popular and far better organized. Srinivasan interjects the SLFP’s numbers (14), but doesn’t state the obvious that it is highly unlikely that the SLFP would have got so many members in had it gone alone in August 2020. Sirisena’s comments about the SLPP-SLFP alliance is a sad whine. If, for example, the 13 who contested under the lotus bud symbol were asked to choose one party over the other, the majority are likely to ditch Sirisena and the SLFP. The SLP is ready to go alone, Sirisena says. The SLFP did go alone just three years ago (Local Government Elections) and was well and truly creamed. There’s nothing to indicate a mass migration of people from the SLPP (or any other party for that matter) to the SLFP.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has discussed the matter of constitutional reform and concluded that it would call for a mechanism formulated with the involvement of the international community. The party has already drafted a 21-page proposal to the experts’ committee appointed to draft a new constitution. It is reported that this draft includes suggestions to formulate new laws pertaining to certain aspects such as education, law, land tenure, health, agriculture and irrigation on the Northern and Eastern Provinces. A 13+, so to speak, is what the TNA’s proposal would be, certainly not support for abolition or a shift to a district-based system of devolution/decentralization as the SLFP seems to be inclined towards.

The SLFP is not the only party that’s in crisis. Developments in the Northern Province indicates that  internal disagreement has cost the TNA. The elections of the Mayor of Jaffna by the Municipal Council following the budget being defeated twice resulted in Wishvalingam Manivannan of the EPDP with 21 votes edging out the TNA’s Arnold Emmanuel who got 20 votes. On the same day, the TNA candidate for the post of Chairman, Nallur Pradeshiya Sabha, Koomaraswamy Mathusuthan (8 votes) was pipped by Padmanathan Mayuran, the candidate filled by the TNPF, a party led by Ganendran Ponnambalam.

These losses do indicate that Tamil people are to some degree disenchanted with the TNA and may look for leadership elsewhere. That, however, would be later. These squabbles notwithstanding, it is likely that all Tamil political parties will resist any moves to abolish the 13th Amendment. They are also likely to welcome any move in any multilateral forum that had the potential to embarrass or wound the present government.

The most thorny issue at hand of course is that of how to dispose the bodies of people who have died on account of Covid-19. At present the Government has ruled out burials on account of infection worries. This has irked many Muslims, here and abroad, who see this as a racially motivated position. A Muslim organization based in the UK is to sue the Government. The BBC has put a spin on the story. Par for the course, one might say. It all points to one thing: all roads lead to Geneva when the government in power is not to the liking of Europe and North American governments.

Sri Lanka does not stand to win anything by appeasing those who knowingly or unknowingly play into the hands of the big boys and girls on the global stage. It’s a naduth-haamuduruwange, badmouth-hamuduruwange game, after all; a global version of the USA’s play on Sri Lanka with respect to the MCC Compact. It was supposed to be a gift which Sri Lanka didn’t seem to be interested in; so the offer was withdrawn with not so veiled threats of repercussions. It’s just about playing a game skewed against you under rules made by the powerful and amended at will by the same.

The issue of burial has been politicized. The Muslim leaders are guilty of this politicization — when a solution (burial in the Maldives) was proposed, those who take diktat from God and aspire to God’s kingdom suddenly became patriotic, wanting the dead to be buried in ‘The Motherland’. It has been politicized by extremists in the majority community who demand that the Government should not pander to the whims and fancies of the Muslims. The Government has not done itself any favors by doing zilch about necessary changes in accordance with the election promise, ‘One country, one law.’ The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act stands. The unchecked Madrasas still function.

However, it is wrong to dismiss the burial option simply because Muslim leaders have been intransigent, extremist and absolutely racist. It is also wrong to dismiss the dismissal of the burial option because it is espoused by Sinhala Buddhist extremists and chauvinists. Acceptance or rejection has to be based on scientific evidence.

As things stand and as the eminent virologist Dr Malik Peiris has explained, it is highly unlikely that burial is risky in terms of infection. ‘Highly unlikely’ sits this side of ‘absolutely impossible,’ but then again, if strict burial protocols are observed, it is less risky than, say, the possibility of infection in a supermarket by an unidentified carrier. Moreover, there are theoretically hundreds of locations on this island where burial would have no risk whatsoever. Sure, the chest-beating Muslims worried about the afterlife haven’t bothered to look for empty land in all-Muslim areas so they could say ‘if there’s a risk, we’ll take it.’ That’s beside the point.  

The question is simple: how should bodies be disposed? The answer, based on scientific evidence, should be expressed by the Government. Experts have been asked to give their recommendations. They’ve had enough time. Their conclusion should be made public. Clearly. Logically. Regardless of who is pleased or displeased. It is a communication problem, in essence. If ‘politics’ HAS to be injected (and we do understand that this is more probable than possible) AND if it’s an issue of allaying the anxieties of one community at the cost of aggravating the anxieties of another community, it has to be sorted out by addressing the full gamut of issues that come under ‘politics of religion.’ For example, if burial is deemed safe and it is felt that this would cause the Sinhalese to suspect that the government is pandering to particular minority, then all relevant and unresolved political issues need to be sorted out. As pointed out in this column previously, the full implementation of the recommendations tabled by the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Extremism (February, 2020).

Death-rites cannot wait, though. Politicians and officials are notorious for foot-dragging. Disposal is a ‘Right Now’ issue. The Government can, if it is concerned about political fallout, issue clear statements about what’s being done on other counts as alluded to above.

The disposal issue is likely to be sorted out soon. It won’t stop the USA, UK and other rogue states from beating Sri Lanka down with one or more heavy clubs at their disposal in Geneva in a few weeks time. Those are factors beyond anyone’s control. We saw what Mangala Samaraweera’s appeasement strategy did. Nothing.

In the end, the government can trust only one political entity. The people. Take the hard decisions, explain them and trust the people to understand. Do a lot, not just one thing, for in ‘the lot’ there will be several things that will be applauded. Otherwise, like what happened to the yahapalana gang, the tag ‘anti-people’ will be pinned firmly on the body of the government. Not by NGOs and foreign powers (their pins just won’t stick) but the people!

Writing this on January 1st, I am acutely aware that today is not unlike the 31st day of December, 2020. The world has not changed and change has little or nothing to do with the structure of a calendar.

But let's say hello to 2021 anyway. Let’s learn to live with Covid-19 until such time we can bury it for good. Let’s learn to live with one another, because we just can’t bury each other.


03 January 2021

The elephant is in the room and will not go away

No. Not THAT elephant nor the one which turned itself into a telephone. Neither are in the room. The compass is not in the room either and there’s palpable evidence that even the lotus bud has got displaced. That’s if ‘people’ constitute ‘the room.’

These days, the proverbial elephant in the room is the Coronavirus. The room is enormous and constitutes almost the entire landmass of the earth or rather those parts inhabited by humans. Today we are told that the virus is going to hang in there for quite a while, vaccines notwithstanding. We are told that we better resolve to live with the virus.

The elephant we are talking about is a tad larger than the virus. We are talking about the pachyderm, the behemoth, the elephant. Elephas maximus. And the room is the country or at least almost two-thirds of the territory.

I am not an elephant expert. However, a recent paper titled ‘First country-wide survey of the endangered Asian elephant: towards better conservation and management in Sri Lanka’ written by people who have studied the issue for a long time does shed some light. The article, principally authored by Prithiviraj Fernando, breaks it down to numbers.

There are approximately 6,000 elephants in Sri Lanka and over 4,000 of them are likely to use areas where people also live. Elephants roam in 59.9% of the island. Of the landmass a 44% slice is shared by both species. Put another way, people are resident in 69.4% of the elephant range. In other words, the ‘Human-Elephant Conflict Zone’ encompasses almost the entire Dry Zone of the country.

Given this spatial distribution and the behavior of both species, we should not be surprised at the outcome. There are fatalities on both sides. The factor that precipitates an act of aggression can vary, but deep down it is about both species wanting to survive. Individual humans and individual elephants both share a will to live and a fear of death.

For the last 61 years, the principal approach has been containment of elephants to protected areas and driving those outside into the same, as recommended by the  Committee on Preservation of Wildlife appointed by the then government. Initially, it was just elephant drives but it was found that the creatures backtracked to their original locations, some of them walking over 100 kms to what they consider to be their ‘home range’. So, in the early 1990s, the authorities came up with the idea of electric fences. It is reported that there are around 4,500 kms of fencing at present. Studies have shown that herds thus driven do not explore the protected terrain, but remain in comparatively small areas in the direction of their home range. They typically overuse their habitat and eventually face starvation.

Another problem with this strategy is that the fences have been erected on the border of territories that come under the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the Forest Department, following the basic strategy of holding elephants in protected areas. So in effect there are elephants on either side of these fences. Human encroachment on Forest Department lands obviously invites conflict. The obvious solution is to move the fences to the boundary that separates forest from human settlements.  

That however is only in places proximate to protected areas. As the above data indicates, elephants roam far afield from what we are taught to believe are their ‘habitat’ or the areas that humans have marked as ‘elephant land’ so to speak.

The solution has to take into account the fact that the elephant is in the room. Right in the middle of it. Right in your face or rather the face of the Dry Zone citizen. In other words, the conflict occurs almost entirely outside protected areas. For example, the study conducted by Fernando and his team concludes that the conflict remains a serious issue even in areas such as Polonnaruwa, Puttalam and Hamabantota where electric fencing of protected area boundaries have been completed. The study details the biological and ecological reasons including elephant behavior and carrying capacity which contributed to the failure of this strategy.

The study also points out that increasing the carrying capacity of protected areas is not economically feasible. Apparently it costs around Rs 2.4 million per year to increase the carrying capacity of a protected area by a single elephant. Thus, it would cost close to a billion rupees per year if we extrapolated to the approximately 4,000 elephants living in 'peopled' areas.

One of the human-centric ‘solutions’ proposed and implemented, if informally, has been to shoot the elephants. It’s a simple argument: either you die or I die and I do not wish to die.’ It’s not exactly ‘shoot on sight’ but people do empathize with would-be victims shooting what are called ‘rogue elephants.’ Yes, there are rogue elephants who attack and kill for reasons that are not apparent to humans. And sometimes when it is not possible to distinguish the rogue from the innocent you shoot anyway, ‘erring on the side of caution.’

Well, there are rogue humans too and don’t we know about these! Just as the average human cannot distinguish rogue, we can speculate, the elephant too has an identification problem and could also ‘err on the side of caution.’

There is another human-centric position that seeks a solution this side of ‘getting rid of the beast,’ you know, the kind of thing that many animal lovers abhor perhaps because their lives are not at stake and who, in their innocence, arrogance or outright ignorance, berate governments and relevant departments for not doing enough to save our ‘gentle’ giants. This position is one that takes into account ‘The elephant in the room,’ literally.

We need to take into account that elephants are not naturally aggressive towards humans and it is typically their experience with our species that make them belligerent. There are problem-elephants but it is a problem that humans create in the main. The fact that around 1,000 elephants have been killed between 2017 and 2019 indicate that removing the so-called ‘problem elephants’ is not a sustainable solution.

What has worked is a strategy that goes for coexistence. Living with the elephant, so to speak. No, it’s not about elephants and humans being all lovey-dovey all of a sudden. We live with snakes, we live with dogs who get infected with rabies. We take precautions. We protect households and communities. What has worked is community-fencing. They are eminently pragmatic given that large-scale drives have not and cannot work.

Of course such a strategy would have to be accompanied by awareness-creation campaigns, protection of ‘protected areas’ — poaching, livestock grazing and invasive plants remain serious issues that need to be addressed. Most of all, there’s a need to get the facts right and peruse them with sobriety.

The bottom line, of course, is that a sixty-year strategy has not worked. Bad medicine will not work just by increasing the dose. Mis-identification of the ailment will obviously lead to erroneous prescription. There is an elephant in the room; not in the rooms inhabited by humans who don’t have to worry about face-to-face encounters with pachyderms but out there in almost the entire Dry Zone. That elephant is not going to move.


29 December 2020

There's movement within and without (parties and nations)


Those who worship free markets would say, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch.’ Nothing comes free. Everything has a price which, they claim, is determined by the play of demand and supply in a market where everyone is endowed with the capacity to obtain all relevant information.

Nice on paper. But let’s go along with the story. So, if there’s no such thing as a free lunch, what do these pundits have to say about the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s purported gift (withdrawn recently after intense lobbying by the US Ambassador and MCC officials, backed by certain members of the previous regime, in particular Mangala Samaraweera)?  They say, ‘There will be dire consequences!’

Strange. Someone offers a free lunch, the would be ‘beneficiary’ says ‘thank you, but no’ or at least shows sufficient reluctance to exasperate the gifting party, the offer is withdrawn and the intended beneficiary is told ‘damn you, you will pay for this!’ So, pay if ‘gift’ is accepted (as per the theory of ‘no free lunches’) and pay if it is declined!

Not too long ago, the US Ambassador was rebuffed by the then Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, when he was told to go easy on the government, i.e. regarding the alleged human rights issue which, interestingly, the US had held like a massive rock over the head of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. We had resolutions moved against Sri Lanka in Geneva during that period. Come the Yahapalanists and the USA eases off. Obviously human rights were not the issue but whether or not the particular government was willing to play ball. Clearly the Yahapalanists were.

Wigneswaran upset the Ambassador. He is no baby in this game, but he stuck to his guns. Today, if the US Ambassador were to pow-wow with Wigneswaran, she wouldn’t say ‘back off, big guy,’ but is more likely to spur him on. 

The US Ambassador is doing just that, with the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance. Strategizing for Geneva in a few months time. Of course the USA, under Donald Trump, quit the UNHRC calling it ‘a cess pool of bias’ but that hasn’t stopped US representatives from deploying proxies to get its dirty work done. The noises we hear from London regarding Geneva 2021 clearly indicate that Sri Lanka can expect to come under fire.

Having opted out of Resolution 30/1 which was happily co-sponsored by a naive, nay pernicious, set of decision-makers, Sri Lanka would no doubt have raised the ire of her detractors, led of course by the USA and the UK. The US Ambassador, whose stint in Colombo seems to have been almost exclusively about pushing through the MCC, needs to wash off the egg from her face. Her not so behind-the-scenes maneuvers is just that.

The NGO lobby currently languishing in reduced circumstances are doing their bit. This time around they are in the business of disposing dead bodies. Yes, the ‘controversial’ issue of whether or not to bury those who have died of Covid-19. It’s the Muslims who are upset and that works well with their whine about majoritarianism. 

The Government has played into their hands by its indecision. To be fair, the entire Covid-19 story is about incomplete knowledge. London is now hit by a new strain of the virus. London will revisit policies. The lack of complete knowledge forces decision-makers to err on the side of caution. The government decided that burial was risky. The World Health Orgainzation says ‘it’s not unsafe.’ However, they’ve added that factors particular to the country need to be taken into account.

So far, the authorities advising the Government on the safety or otherwise of burials have ruled ‘unsafe.’ In deference to a need to be sensitive to religious sentiments, the Government explored the possibility of burying Muslim victims in the Maldives, following discussions with that Government.  Muslim leaders who have played the religion card in this issue seem to have suddenly found a patriotic card up their sleeve: ‘we want to be buried in our motherland,’ they cry. So far, representatives from exclusively Muslim populated areas haven’t offered to accept the bodies of their brethren who succumbed to Covid; those in Kattankudy, for instance, haven’t said ‘come, bury them here.’

The government is paying the price for trying to please everyone. They want to allay the fears of the general public and also want to sort out the anxieties of a particular community. It is best to let Science chair the decision-making process. What’s safest? Cremation, obviously. Is burial really risky? If the answer is, ‘there’s zero risk in buying the Covid-19 dead in certain parts of the country’ and this assertion is accompanied by a list of ‘safe spots,’ then the Government should go with it.

The decision should not be shaped by the interests of any particular community but instead framed by the interests of the safety of all citizens. If there’s no risk in burial, then the government could say ‘dispose as you will, of course subject to following protection protocols.’

So far, we’ve been getting mixed signals. Deciding that ‘burying’ will not win any friends in Geneva. If it’s not one thing, it will be another — that’s how the human rights game is played. The government cannot afford to ignore ‘Geneva’ but shouldn’t let the antics of that political theater frame decision-making here in Sri Lanka. Clarity is what is required and opaque is what the government has given us so far.

We mentioned Mangala Samaraweera. He sided with Sajith Premadasa when the UNP fell apart, but decided he wouldn’t campaign. He went into what could be called semi-retirement. However, he continues to be political, taking potshots at his favorite enemies, the Rajapaksas. More recently, he has targeted Patali Champika Ranawaka. Managala probably sees Ranawaka as a possible presidential candidate after the latter quit the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), clearing that obstacle to a bid to wrest leadership of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) at some point in the future.

Mangala has attacked Ranawaka using the hackneyed epithets of chauvinism and racism. Ranawaka’s backers have responded to Mangala, pointing out that this ‘great liberal’ was not averse to playin the caste card when contesting elections in Matara. To be fair, ‘caste’ hasn’t factored in Mangala’s decisions when in power. Race and religion have, though, in reverse: he’s shown a rabid aversion to the Sinhalese and Buddhists.

Someone might say, ’But he’s a Sinhalese and a Buddhist!’ True. Consider this, however. In a colonial theatre, the victims are relentlessly suppressed and ridiculed to the point that they begin to hate themselves. They source humiliation  to the truth of their reality, their history and heritage. The weak, by way of ‘escape,’ parrot and mimic the words and actions of their subjugator in a conscious or unconscious belief that this would qualify them for membership in the victor’s club. They seek in suddatvaya what they are denied on account of their sinhalatvaya, so to speak. The sudda attacked the Sinhalese and Tamils. The sudda attacked the Buddhists and Hindus. The sudda didn’t worry about caste. Does that tell Mangala’s story? He would know but even if he did, he probably won’t say it.

The Mangala-Ranawaka spat, however, is just a side show at the intra-party circus. Sajith Premadasa and other SJB stalwarts took to the streets over the Covid-19 burial issue. Ranawaka was a conspicuous absentee. Silences and absences also tell stories. This one is just starting.

However, a week ago, the SJB’s working committee met to ratify a party constitution. Sajith Premadasa was named leader. No deputy leader was named. Kabir Hashim was elected Chairman along with six others who were named ‘Senior Vice Chairman’ — Kumara Welgama, Rajitha Senaratne, Ranwaka, Thalatha Athukorala, Imitiaz Bakeer Markar and Sarath Fonseka. Ranjith Madduma Bandara is now the General Secretary and Tissa Attanayake the National Organizer. Officially, at least, Ranawaka is at the second-tier and he’s not alone. How his political fortunes unfold is left to be seen.

Another story that’s just moved out of the foreword or rather is being written in fits and starts is that of the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya (AJBP). The AJBP started its political life inauspiciously. Several lists were rejected. The party didn’t win a single seat from any of the districts it contested. However, they were accorded one slot when the numbers for each party from the national list was determined.

That was the second inauspicious eventuality. As is often the case with parties who secure just one slot in the national seat (e.g. the United Socialist Alliance in 1994, the Sihala Urumaya in 2000), there was a scramble (to put it mildly). The then Secretary nominated himself. Ven. Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thero of Bodu Bala Sena fame and Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero (formerly of the JHU, credited with precipitation the JHU parting ways with the Rajapaksa and making way for Maithripala Sirisena’s ascension to the presidency) objected.

It took four months for the protagonists to resolve the matter. Ven Gnanasara was ineligible since the list on which his name was had been rejected (he could make a come-back if the person who does get in resigns). The Secretary was removed. An election pact had given Ven Rathana the authority to endorse a nominee, i.e. he had veto power.

We do not know what kind of agreement was made between the interested parties, but as of now, Ven Rathana has the floor. What he does there is anyone’s guess, but it would not be wise to count him out. Ven Rathana has a long history of identifying key moments and weaknesses, he can mobilize forces almost like a magician producing a rabbit out of a hat. He should not be underestimated.

So now we have 223 Members of Parliament and the Speaker. That’s 224. How about the 225th? That’s reserved for the United National Party (UNP) and that too courtesy the national list. The party, having suffered the most humiliating electoral defeat in its history, has not shown the kind of bickering we saw with the AJBP, but neither have we seen any urgency regarding this matter.

Of course as things stand it is of little consequence. The party is in crisis and has to worry about survival. Ranil Wickremesinghe is still the leader and will remain so until 2023, unless he steps down. This was the decision reached when the party decided to nominate Sajith Premadasa as its candidate for president in 2019. All top posts will fall vacant at the end of the year. Wickremesinghe, not surprisingly, still holds the reins but of a party that’s in very real danger of following other ‘old parties’ such as the LSSP and CP into oblivion.

What will 2021 have in hold, politically? We are not soothsayers, but it is safe to say that the way of the virus and of course how it is responded to will shape things like few other factors can.

May the year 2021 bring peace of mind. Good health to all! Stay safe and don’t forget to abide by protection protocols. Be kind to others. Now, unlike any other time, this might make a different to self, family, community, nation and the world.


Victors, defeated and death-boxes that have to wait


Way back in the year 1983, probably in mid March, Amitha Abeysekera, who wrote a daily column for ‘The Island’ titled ‘This is my island’ wrote about the Royal-Thomian cricket encounter. It was a post-match story but one which had very little to do with the match. It was about the traditional post-match dinner which both teams attend.

If memory serves well, he referred to something his nephew or perhaps the son of a friend had told him. The boy was a Thomian cricketer. I believe his name was Mathangaweera. Royal, under Chulaka Amarasinghe, had beaten St Thomas’ by ten wickets that year. The victory had come after 14 years, the previous win having been in 1969 under Eardley Lieversz. St Thomas’ hadn’t tasted victory since 1964. Naturally, for the Thomians, it was a result that was hard to stomach. Anyway, the following is the gist of what the boy had told Amitha:

‘Uncle, we thought the Royalists would tease us no end, but they didn’t. It was just friendly conversation with no reference to the result of the match.’

Of course it is easy for the victor to be magnanimous, but few would grudge the exercise of bragging rights. After all the inter-school rivalry was already more than a century old and victories, as mentioned above, were few and far apart. The Royalists showed humility and the Thomians probably demonstrated grace.

The point is that the unyielding story of competition is left behind in the battlefield.

I recalled Amitha’s ‘match report’ after reading something that was sent to me by Sarath Weerakoon, a Royalist who played in the big match several years before Chulaka and his boys did.

It was a picture of two elderly men playing a game of chess in a highly ornate room. There was just a single spectator, a bottle of wine and three glasses on a side table. The players were clearly inhabiting a world that was made of 64 squares and nothing else.

That’s the setting. Here is the caption: ‘At the end of the game, the king and pawn go back in the same box; what happened during the game is what lives on.’

It is a line that resonates with Omar Khayyam’s ‘chess-poem’ in the Rubbayyat:

’Tis all a checker board of nights and days
Where destiny with men for pieces plays
Hither, thither, moves, cuts and slays
And one by one back in the closet lays.

Khayyam doesn’t comment on the game or rather the longevity of the encounter or its memory. That poem is a sobering comment on human effort and relationships. It also has a tinge of futility. We all die, so why get agitated one way or another with the this-way and that of life, the balance sheet, he seems to ask.

On the other hand, this side of death there’s life to be lived. There are engagements. Profit and loss. Joys and sorrows. Praise and blame. It’s good not to be fixated with the vicissitudes, but they are part of the story.

What happens in the game can outlive the players, but that depends on how the game was played.

‘The game’ in 1983 could very well have ended when Chulaka Amarasinghe hit the winning boundary, but it didn’t. Sometimes it spills out of the ground. At least for Mathangaweera (if I got it right), his teammates and the Royalists attending that dinner, it did. Thirty seven years have passed. So much has happened. I mentioned the match, but only because it constitutes context. This story is about what happened later, an after-taste that’s sweet.

The victor and defeated, the spectators and scribes will one day end up in the same death-box, so to speak. Someone might dig by Amitha’s article from the archives. Someone may come across this piece. Someone may smile or reflect on the eternal verities. Something has lived on, someone might note. Certain things don’t fit in certain boxes or take time to lay to rest, someone else might conclude. 

Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']

Do you have a plan? Strengths and weaknesses It's all about partnerships
Not all victories are recorded