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humber dates

Picture by Sanjaya Senanayake

ප්‍රශ්න නැතිවට ප්‍රශ්ණ is an old famous Sinhalese saying. The creation of problems because of shortage of problems in other words. The mysterious case of the ‘Humber’ dates smacks of just this. Unearthed at Cargills, Sri Lanka’s largest supermarket chain’s, now apparently racist, shelves their presence was first alerted (to me at least) by the ever watchful Sanjaya Senanayake.

The word ‘Hamba’ or ‘හම්බ’ certainly smacks of a racist slur. It’s been used enough of times in recent hate campaigns by the Bodu Bala Sena and affiliated groups to bring it permanently out of the rather murky folds of history it had retreated to, giving way to the more civilized slur (if such a thing exists) ‘Thambiya’ (read my post on their origins here).

Anyway, after months and months of racism and hate speech against Muslims in Sri Lanka from a small but loud minority of extremists/jingoists, where we saw everything ranging from attacks against Halal certification, the hijab, animal slaughter, non-existent sharia laws and fictional terrorists in the East, things had finally seemed to subside. And now this happens.

It is not clear yet what form of contraceptives these dates carry, if any, and precisely what age group of Muslim girls’ wombs they threaten, of what bodily organs of Muslim children unlucky enough to eat them. But these darn Humber dates are threatening to inject a new wave of paranoia into what many was hoping were steadying race relations in Sri Lanka.

I jest of course, no one is claiming the Humber dates are lethal to a specific ethnic group yet (strangely enough, only No Limit has so far succeeded in developing confectionery with such precise targeting), but eyebrows are being raised, ears are being perked, there is something in the air again. Epic fail, subtle racism or attempted mass murder?

Vikalpa has tried to get to the bottom of it. But with no results.Their calls have been ignored, and aside from a single name, Cargills has so far been mum on the suppliers. Very strange indeed.

මේ බිහිසුනු බව නිසාවෙන්ම එම නිශ්පාදනය අලෙවි කරන කාගීල්ස් ෆුඩ් සීටී ප්‍රධාන කාර්යාලයට ඇමතු අතර පැයකට ආසන්න කාලයක් උත්සහ කළ මුත් සාධනීය ප්‍රතිචාරයක් අපට ලබා ගත හැකි වූයේ නැත. ‘රටගැන හිතන, ඔබ ගැන හිතන‘ වැනි අසිරිමත් ආදර්ශ පාඨයන් අසමින් දුරකතනය තුළ පැයකට ආසන්න කාලයක් රස්තියාදු කරමින් අපට ලබා දුන්නේ එම නිශ්පාදනය ෆුඩ් සිටී ආයතනයට ලබා දුන් තැනැත්තාගේ නම පමණය. නමුත් අප කල්පනා කරන්නේ වෙළද ආයතනයකට, එයට එහා ගිය, සමාජ වගකීමක් ද ඇති බවය.

For now i’m inclined to agree with Sanjaya and go with the ‘it was an epic fail’ conclusion, though Groundviews remains vigilant to alternative possibilities. For one thing the spellings, ‘Humber’ smacks more of an English Lord than a coastal Moor. The ‘er’ at the end brings it. A packager’s attempt at adding some refinement to the brand perhaps? completely failing due to a lack of cultural awareness and utter ignorance? Or a sinister attempt at a subtle disguise and fallback excuse? And Cargills hedging and dodging the matter could be a simple case of PR paralysis. Sri Lanka isn’t alien to those.

Sermons at the mosque, to me, are a good indicator of the levels of prranoia and fear among Muslims and consequently the intensity of the racism out there. When this whole thing started, it took a couple of months for the ulama to start talking about it in Friday sermons, advising and cautioning the community. Now with most of the extreme voices dying down, preaching is back to timely topics such as Ramadan and exhortations to be better Muslims.

people are still very raw and sensitive however, I hope this blows over soon. Ramadan kareem everyone. 

After stewing about it for more than two days ‘Team Mobitel’ appears to have finally come up with a response.

Mobitel response

It’s actually quite ridiculous. They apologize for any ‘inconvenience or pain of mind’ caused but reiterate that the racist ringtone will remain on their site on a ‘revenue share basis’. Apparently they still care about upholding the ‘true values of unity and ethnic harmony’ by allowing an organization that stands for just the opposite to make money off its site, and on a revenue sharing basis too.

The image is accompanied by an expanding thread of comments of largely unimpressed people. Mobitel’s social media team and at least one fake account is also feebly attempting to respond, but are only succeeding in digging itself deeper into this hole.

Many are asking if Mobitel would allow an LTTE song to be put up to fund the terrorist group on a ‘revenue sharing’ basis too. The answer, even though it has not been articulated yet, is obviously no. Why in the world would Mobitel do that? Therefore Mobitel definitely does NOT consider the Bodu Bala Sena to be a hate group or a group with any negative social connotations at all.

The utter chutzpah of this response is rather hard to digest, I will say that at my next tea party. The lyrics of the BBS song call for a “Holy War” to destroy the “rallying cry of the unrighteous” and “the heathens” “who have all united into one camp”. Yup, practically dripping with peace and harmony there.

Actually if this song came from any other group, or was just a song released by an individual artist. Its message could have been construed as one meant purely to inspire and provoke steadfastness on a personal level or whatever (the lyrics are actually quite well written). But the BBS has made its intentions clear through its actions, they possibly really do want a holy war. In denouncing imaginary Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka and countless other made up threats, the BBS is fast mirroring its non-existent worst enemy.

Therefore by allowing the BBS to make money from its ring back tone services (and sharing in the moolah no less) Mobitel is sending a strong message that they support, or at least are indifferent, to its extremist standpoint.

Here’s a poster being shared around on Facebook, which carries the full lyrics of the song and calls for a boycott of all Mobitel products.

The BBS ringing tone on Mobitel had recorded nearly  a 1000 buys as of 9am, 27 March

The BBS ringing tone on Mobitel had recorded nearly a 1000 buys as of 9am, 27 March

Racist and hate groups are supposed to remain on the sidelines of society, screaming their subversive rhetoric in order to appeal to the seedier side of the collective conscience. Their funding usually comes from shadowy sources with powerful interests and money to be made from destruction and chaos. All of them invariably will remain behind the scenes, after all  who in the name of God would want to be publicly associated with hatred?

Mobitel, apparently. Mobitel the subsidiary of the publicly listed Sri Lanka Telecom. One of the country’s largest telecom services companies, and one of the most visible corporates in Sri Lanka. Mobitel has been openly funding hate groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Sinhala Ravaya. Evidence of Mobitel support for extremists first emerged at a BBS rally held in Panadura when it was announced that a ringing tone available for download via Mobitel would help fund the organization’s racist activity. Images (later published on Sanjaya Senanayake’s facebook profile, who by the way i must thank for much of the research for this post) revealed Mobitel advertisements in a newsletter of the Sinhala Ravaya. Uncharacteristically, Mobitel’s Facebook group has been avoiding all contact and even deleting posts of protests against this, for now, their once dynamic social media team seems to have slunk under a rock.

Widely known for their extremist nationalism, these groups have already attacked mosques, churches and even other Buddhist temples conducted illegal raids, spread fear and paranoia and generally taken a very loud and belligerent stance toward the country’s minorities. After initially targeting the Halal certification of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (which was peacefully resolved thanks in part to the ACJU’s good sense), the BBS has now turned its attention on the Hijab an element of Muslim culture that in some form or the other has been present in this country for centuries, and always in peaceful coexistence with other communities. The emergence of apparent large scale corporate backing for their activity is worrying to say the least.

A quick look at the ownership of Sri Lanka Telecom reveals some unsurprising and surprising details. Unsurprisingly you would find that the majority of the shares (49.5%) is owned by the government, 5.5% by the general public. This is kind of well known. SLT was fully owned by the government until it was partially privatized some years ago. But surprisingly, if you’d forgotten this little detail, shares owned by the Japanese NTT Communications were then sold to Treasury and Global Telecommunication Holdings N.V. This is supposedly an entity based in Netherlands but is actually a fully owned subsidiary of Usaha Tegas Sdn. Bhd  an investment firm based in Malaysia. Usaha Tegas also owns Maxis a Malaysian telecom giant. Sandip Das and Chan Chee Beng from Usaha Tegas serve on the boards of both Maxis and SLT.

It is rather ironic that Mobitel’s second biggest shareholder and the lifeline of its management and capital is based in a Muslim country, while at the same time it funds extremist right wing organizations pursuing strong racist agendas against Muslims and other minorities in Sri Lanka. If the BBS is anything to go by, Mobitel’s senior management probably has no issue with this glaring inconsistency in its moral standpoint. Last week I heard an Australian-Sri Lankan citizen and a member of the BBS, Chanaka Perera, comment on help received from a monk based in Malaysia to the BBS whilst at the same time condemning Muslims as a whole purely based on his views on Saudi Arabia. Hate is deaf to reason they say.

Mobitel has so far shown a complete lack of responsibility in responding to the thousands of calls for it to stop funding these extremist groups. Its continued silence is a gross violation of its public accountability. Cricketers like Mahela Jayawardene are brand ambassadors for Mobitel. I respect Mahela, and as a public figure and a person of influence being sponsored by Mobitel he should step up and say something about this.

Sri Lanka just came out of a 30 year war. I’m just saying that out loud you know, in case anyone has forgotten. The government so far seems to be perfectly happy to allow the BBS and its affiliated groups to carry on with their campaign of hate, although voices of dissent have begun to emerge; you know things are getting really out of hand when Mervyn Silva himself stands up for what is right. The president has been strong worded on the racist issue, but so far all of that has been lip service and none of it directed at any specific racist organizations. The all powerful Government of Sri Lanka has failed to take any concrete steps to stop this spread of hate and violence. Meanwhile, the Police is cooperating with extremists, and now government owned companies are openly funding them.

UPDATE: Mobitel has since issued a highly inadequate response.

The Krrish project has been making waves, if only for its absurd proportions. The complex’s tallest tower is going to be the third tallest residential tower, are you ready for this? In_the_world. I hear three quick bangs on a bell; the crowd goes wild as the fighter in the right corner shrugs off his glittering robe. All hail the Krrish project, destroyer of third world woes.

But seriously. I snooped around a bit (and by now this is relatively common knowledge) and found that Krrish doesn’t really have any completed real estate projects anywhere in the world. Closest thing they have is a few projects underway in Guragon, India. As a company laying claim to such a massive venture, Krrish has virtually no media mentions in India, and its only ties to solid listed corporate are a claim to own a stake in Cobra Beer. And in fact Krrish is better known for its brewery business than anything else.

It’s projected to bring about $560mn into the country. But that number exists only on paper. In reality these projects bring a fraction of that amount, usually 10%, and try to source the rest locally. Krrish, which hasn’t started building yet, is rumored to only have brought in $5mn, as a 10% down payment for the value of the land. The completed project will have some 750 apartments plus equal amount of office spaces, each of the apartments are priced at roughly a million dollars.

The plan is to pre-sell them to raise money to build.  But as you can see from the chart below, demand for apartments hasn’t exactly been booming. If demand does not meet supply, the project will have to be abandoned. Far worse though, is the prospect of the project being bankrolled by a country eager for any kind of investment (especially something with a result so grandiose) ending up with the local banking system owning roughly $500mn of bad loans. And this will probably at the very least result in a major banking/debt crisis for the country. Just putting some thoughts out there. What does everyone else think?

krrishh

take it easy and you’ll do fine: Upali

Upali is what industry insiders call a ‘professional tuk tuk driver’. He bought his first tuk tuk 27 years ago. Currently driving a four stroke TVS,  he claims that it is better than its Bajaj equivalent. The TVS is the latest of 8 three wheelers he has owned throughout his career. He gets a new one every three or four years.

Though he makes a successful living (he has built two houses), the idea of sitting back and having others drive his tuk tuks for him never appealed much. His past experiments have all failed. At one time he owned 3 tuk tuks simultaneously. But the problem with having others drive your tuk tuks is that well… others drive your tuk tuks. Accidents are a norm. He has lost count of the visits he paid to the courts. Drivers don’t pay you on time, if ever. So no thank you but i’ll drive my own, he says. Even if it means less money, the peace of mind is worth more.

His lease costs him Rs.10,500 a month. Petrol about Rs 500-600 a day. Servicing costs about 7500 every 3 months. But spare parts are a problem. Tyres cost in excess of Rs 2000 and other parts don’t come cheap. This is why its important to use your vehicle very carefully, he thinks. He needs to earn about Rs 2000 to be happy; a decent figure.

Upali recently switched to a meter. He says he gets more hires this way but the fares are less, so in the end it probably amounts up to the same. Asked why he refuses to join a taxi company and get even more hires that way, he balks. Taxi companies don’t give you time to relax. They’re always calling you with hires.

Instead Upali has nurtured a strong network of contacts. He regularly transports light cargo for a firm in Piliyandala. This morning by nine he had already earned about Rs 600 through other hires who called him personally. He’s relaxed and at peace with his job. His years of experience have served him well and i’m sure he can teach a thing or two to budding professionals in the field. Like for instance; so long as you don’t do crazy stuff like running whores and other dodgy things, you’ll make a good living.

Are a thorny topic. officially the unemployment rate is pretty low. But unofficially people are just not happy with their jobs, or employers are not really happy with the type of people who work for them. This is underemployment, or mal-employment and im not sure the latter qualifies as a proper economic term.

Add to this, there are the myriad economic factors that affect education. How dynamic is our tertiary education system, How much money is pouring into the system, Is the money pouring being used properly, Is the government really focusing on developing human resources, what are the other policy measures the government can and must take and what if anything, is wrong with the people?

On the latter, more than you think. Or just as much as you think. Sri Lankans have propensities to either engage in government bashing or people’s-attitude bashing seemingly based on their mood. But actually the government and the people are highly intertwined within the issue of education. And word on Intelligentsia Avenue apportions equal blame to both.

The government can initiate reform. But the people are just too damn backward and intent on handouts to brave the new world of competitive spirit. Kishu Gomes, at an IPS organized panel discussion on the topic (accompanied by a Twitter discussion) yesterday, voiced the opinion that Sri Lankans have knowledge, but that knowledge is not ‘commercially viable’. While this might seem like blasphemy to puritans who believe in knowledge for its own sake, Gomes has a point. Economically speaking, within the traditional measures of wealth such as GDP, knowledge that cannot make money is of no use.

Another interesting point that Gomes raised was that people here don’t aspire enough. They aren’t motivated for progress. Sri Lankans are much less inclined to want great things out of their lives than workers from countries like India, China or the US (examples are my own). I agree, we do have this islander tendency to kick back. And personally i find the idea of converting myself into a sweating, steaming corporate machine geared to achieve a definition of greatness outlined by materialistic frameworks of human well being repulsive (some might read this as: But I’m just a lazy bugger). But wanting some downtime in your life doesn’t mean you can’t be a productive citizen.

And here’s the other point, on the employee’s side there is sentiment that the jobs available don’t really accommodate their needs. They aren’t customized to their skill sets or they don’t respect their knowledge levels. This ties in with Gomes’ first argument. Knowledge does not match job availability. And the unemployed graduates can scream all they want, those empty board room seats (I’m assuming) aren’t getting filled. But it isn’t only because graduates are under qualified. Many people who are more than qualified and have shining skill sets to boot, leave the country in droves because the job market here simply cannot offer them what they want. This results in maybe more foreign remittances to the country, but betrays a chronic inability for it to hang on to its most valuable human resources.

One of the biggest drivers of the economy, what am i saying, THE biggest driver of the economy, is business. And how easy is it for people to start businesses in Sri Lanka? Given that Sri Lanka ranks 89 in the world for doing business, starting a business especially for a young person out of school with only a plan and no capital is like climbing a grease pole during Avurudu, you deserve a prize for doing it. At least that’s what young entrepreneur Gayan Panditharathne says. He started a drink bottling business but received virtually no help from the government, his many approaches to various government offices proving useless. The one’s who’ve somehow managed, have a hard time doing their first year taxes, for instance. Sri Lanka ranks a shocking 173 globally in the efficiency of paying taxes, and has actually slipped two places in 2012.

Another big issue is stigma. Parents don’t like their kids venturing into business. It is seen as risky and crass. The riskiness can be improved. With proper policy reform and support mechanisms, but for this the government has to really get involved. But the image problem of business is not something that policy can cure. Being a lawyer, doctor or an engineer is seen as infinitely more respectable than being a wheeler dealer bringing in the millions.

Talking about tertiary education and ‘education sector reform’ almost seems useless. The topic has been bandied and boxed around for fifteen rounds. And like a doddering prizefighter with nerves of steel, is refusing to go down. On both sides there is inertia and unwillingness to change. I sympathize with FUTA’s call to increase spending on education to 6% of GDP (this interesting slide set from Moratuwa University claims to make a case, well worth a read) but do not sympathize with how the local education system is run. And i think feeding more money into a broken system is pointless.

More money going into education is all very well. But i worry when i see protests, seemingly based on nothing but vested interest, denying the implementation of a private medical college for instance in the country. The opposition to private education from the so called ‘free education’ system and its politicized left wing student unions is nothing short of irrational and downright scary.

Add to this a government that wants to make the country an ‘education hub’ but displays absolutely no intention of investing in any form of research whatsoever and allows its best academic minds to leave the country in flocks for want of sufficient benefits and you have an ‘education system’ that reads like an analysis of one of Freud’s most difficult patients.

So what’s the alternative? The market. The economy, if it keeps doing well, will attract more investment, and people will do whatever it takes to get those jobs coming in. We already have ample private education in IT, design, tourism, finance, marketing and business. Vocational training isn’t doing too badly either i hear. All being said though things right now are a bit of a Charlie Foxtrot.

Is already underway. As we speak hundreds upon hundreds of unsuspecting Sinhala shoppers are being innocently handed colorfully wrapped pieces of candy. Pieces of candy which, when consumed, will abruptly abort the fetuses of any Sinhala women unfortunate enough to be pregnant at the time and destroy  the kidneys (and all other organs) of any Sinhala kids unfortunate enough to try it.

And why is No limit on this despicable rampage to annihilate its biggest market? Well it seems that its all a part a wider Muslim agenda to secure dominance in the island. This is not the first time the clothing chain has exhibited such impertinence. Sometime back they had the gall to actually give Sinhalese customers (who keep them fed and yes, even clothed) free calendars callously (unbelievably!) printed in certain areas with actual Arabic script. Sacrilege! These people are obviously capable of and bent upon mass murder.

The secret ingredient (which is printed boldly right there on the wrapper, the devils!) that causes all this carnage is Malic Acid E296. Now don’t be fooled by the fact that nowhere in the internet does it indicate that Malic Acid E296 is bad for human consumption. The internet is also owned by the Muslims. This is all just a part of their grand, diabolical scheme to kill every non-Muslim in the world.

So what must patriotic Sinhalese do in this festive season? Why, stop digging the graves of your own race of course! Buy clothes from Sinhala business, its for the good of your children, the good of your unborn fetuses and the good of your country and race. Yes come give US all your money instead of those Muslim traitors. At least this way it stays within the family. Who cares if the actual clothes are imported from Pakistan?

*saw this pic doing the rounds on FB, I’m just having a laugh. Whoever created it had a pretty low estimate of the average intelligence level of your standard Sri Lankan Facebooker. But more scarily, judging by the exposure its getting, was that estimate correct?

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