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As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

With the perceived failure of its leadership to appropriately address its problems, there is an increasing vacuum for a movement that truly incorporates the Muslim community from the grassroots-up into collective decision making, the recently established Interim Shura Council is attempting to do just that.

puttlam mosquePic: Puttlam Grand Mosque

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community suffers from both internal and external issues. Externally; recent troubles with the BBS and other similar groups have witnessed Islamophobia in its worst global manifestations taking root in Sri Lankan society.

Internally the community has long grappled with rifts along fault lines of geographical differences, norms of religious practice and ideology. Although rather insignificant in nature (the various factions agree on a broad level on the basic principles of the religion but tend to squabble on minor aspects of practice), these differences have over the years developed into major conflicts that have at times torn the it apart (the 2009 clashes between two mosques in Beruwala for instance, which saw two dead). In recent years the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU) has attempted to restore a semblance of balance by striving to form an umbrella body that incorporates all of the various factions, with marginal success.

Leadership Losing Respect

The perceived political impotency of the vast majority of Muslim politicians, themselves as a group ferociously prone to petty squabbling, have led to mass scale disgust. There is a strong sense that Muslim politicians have long since abandoned pursuing the goals of their people, opting to enrich themselves and pursue their own agendas instead.

The lack of cohesion and unity within Sri Lankan Muslims, largely perceived as a monolithic group by the outside observer, was exposed like a raw nerve as it came under attack from hardline Sinhala Buddhist racist elements. The first major attack, on a mosque in Dambulla in North Central Sri Lanka in April 2012, was quickly followed up by a broad based hate campaign against Halal certified foods, Islamic legal support frameworks and the Hijab.

At that point the ulama (Islamic scholars) played a key role in managing the tension. Its patience and fortitude in the face of rising racism have been continuously bolstered and reinforced by preaching and messages of peace. Their exhortations for Muslims to continuously look at their own faults and errors in order to find the root causes of their troubles have turned what could have been a mood of collective belligerence that could have escalated into unwelcome reactions, into one of patience and reflection.

However, there is feeling that the ulama themselves have a share of blame in the problems afflictng the people. Many feel that the halal issue for example was an unwanted intrusion into the lives of ordinary Muslims. The Halal certification emerged as a result of demand from businesses rather than end consumers and was managed and implemented by the ACJU, the islandwide umbrella body of ulama. The case of recently executed housemaid Rizana Nafeek left the impression that local scholars did not do enough to examine the integrity of the case against her, buckling down to pressure from Saudi Arabia instead.  These incidents coupled with the inability of key members of the ACJU to appropriately defend their position of endorsing the collapsed Ceylinco investment vehicle CPSI makes a case for the establishment of an accountability framework to ensure that a two way relationship between the people at large and the religious leadership is maintained.

There is also sentiment that the current set of ulama, generally lacking ‘secular’ or worldly education in their strictly theological backgrounds, could use a support framework comprising of people from different areas of expertise to enable them to better serve the community.

The Civil Alternative

This dual failure of the political and religious apparatus of Sri Lankan Muslims has created a strong vacuum for the emergence of a civil solution to Muslim issues. Enter the Shura Council. ‘Shura’ is an Arabic term that means ‘consensus’, an idea believed to be of paramount importance in any collective action in Islam. Practiced by the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) and his companions, obtaining consensus is put forward in the qur’an itself and is meant to function as a mechanism to ensure that rulers and the ruled are accountable to each other. Modern Islamic political discourse often points to the idea of ‘Shura’ to highlight the essential compatibility of the original idea of an Islamic government with the idea of democracy.

This fledgling Shura Council in Sri Lanka, now in an interim stage, was first convened in early May, but the idea for it appears to have originated right after the Dambulla attack. It aims to work towards establishing a National Shura Council with the goal of reaching into the grassroots in order to involve them in decision making, and to achieve a broad consensus among the various factions. The movement has the full approval of the ACJU (indeed key members of the scholarly organization have encouragingly been at the forefront of endorsing it), and that of the various other powerful bodies in the community such as the tableeq jamat, tawheed jamat and tareeka organizations (that comprise of sufistic orders in the country) whose differences have caused much of the division within it.

The council, led by professionals and social activists, aims to set up sub councils at the district, town and village levels at local mosques. However the process isn’t easy. Many decisions yet remain to be made. The degree of political involvement is one. Skeptics and think that too much involvement will quickly result in the ‘politicization’ of the body; preferring to instead maintain a one way relationship with politicians, hoping that the latter would have no choice but to listen to them once the Shura Council becomes the large, national, community pressure group it intends to.

The council is currently in the process of obtaining feedback from various communities in the country as well as Muslim professional bodies and other organizations, aware that without full consensus the idea will not work. Matters such as what criteria individual members of each town Shura council should possess etc are still to be decided. There is general agreement that members must be upstanding Muslim citizens, be pious and concerned for its problems. But such a system can all too soon fall prey to opportunism, as evidenced by the sad state of many of the Trustee Boards of Muslim mosques in the country, whose members grapple and play politics simply for the social status associated with being on the board, serving their communities becoming a secondary concern.

Risks on the Horizon

Its emergence into the spotlight will also no doubt open it up to criticism from Sri Lanka’s hard right which until recently engaged in a virulent public campaign against quadi courts (small outfits that deal with Muslim family affairs) in the country, planting fears of the wide scale imposition of ‘sharia law’ among the public. The local Islamophobia machine will not stay quiet at the emergence of a large scale body aiming to bring together the whole of the Muslim community into one cohesive body.

But the biggest need of the hour will be figuring out not how to save the Shura council it from outsiders, but how to save it from itself. The integrity of the council is of paramount importance if it is to function with any credibility and that will mean coming up with an organizational system that has checks and balances to prevent corruption. This is usually nearly impossible without moral people. And as an organization built around a fundamentally religious purpose one would expect that this would not be a problem.

But the truth is that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is currently at a heightened state of awareness. It has just woken up from a decades long stupor and taken note of some of the major damage it has inflicted upon itself. It is worried and eager to set things right, and for now its disparate factions have come together in order to achieve a purpose more noble than mutual bickering. For consensus to happen, the parties convening must want it to happen. And for now at least, its recent troubles have galvanized it into placing the objective of unity above and beyond the petty differences that used to dominate its various factions. ‘The fear of God’ so to speak has been instilled within it via tribulation and trial.

Whereas previously a whole bloc would rather have walked out of the room than compromise even a little, there is sacrifice, setting aside of ego and the recognition of unity as a strong need of the hour. Indeed this is highly in line with Islamic teaching, which deplores fractionalization and internal disagreements, but given that an external enemy had to emerge to make it happen, one wonders if the natural complacency of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community will eventually cause it to slip back into the dreamlike state it was in before the Bodu Bala Sena saw fit to wake it up.

Originally published for The Sunday Leader

Azath Salley was arrested yesterday. One of the allegations made against him is making comments that incite religious hatred.  Azath Salley in recent months has built a reputation of of sorts of being pretty much the only Muslim politician with the courage to go up against the BBS in public.

This affidavit penned by the General Secretary and Leader of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) Dr. Vickramabahu Karunarathne, gives a bit of broader context to what Salley was up to in the run up to his arrest. The NSSP, Salley’s NUA and several other parties were part of a “Movement for Unity with Power Sharing” with a mandate that involved tackling racism.

According to the Defense Ministry, Salley has apparently said that Muslims must start an armed struggle like the LTTE, and that they are actually ready and waiting to be armed. Salley is also suspected of having links with the LTTE. No evidence has been brought forth to prove these allegations as yet.

After some heavy drama where he was denied medical care and had to resort to a hunger strike he was admitted to hospital on Friday afternoon. Where his case will proceed is still not clear. Hopefully we will see a fair and transparent legal process. Anything else could be a serious setback to perceptions of government support for ethnic harmony.

But double standards are not nice. For instance, the Bodu Bala Sena has clearly engaged in hate speech and incitement of ethnic hatred. Yet the BBS has only been allowed to grow and prosper. They seem to have quietened down lately, and rumors of anti-BBS foreign pressure have been heard on the grapevine, but there is no telling if the BBS is now a thing of the past; a mere spike in the long line chart of public distractions giving away to the next (Duminda perhaps?); or in fact a sleeping dragon.

The BBS bias though, begins to make clear sense in the murky twilight of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik. Sinhala Buddhist supremacy is nothing new to the country. It has always been there and maybe it always will.

What is worrying to me is not that the government is responsible for unleashing the BBS, because that would imply that it was actually capable of controlling it. What is worrying is that the government, if those that allege that it is behind the BBS are right, is only trying to appease it. Because it plainly poses fatalistic threats to near term stability in Sri Lanka.

From an economic angle, Sri Lanka has a consistent savings to investment gap, so the only way to seriously grow the economy is to attract solid foreign direct investment (or to borrow, but that way lies disaster). But foreigners are notoriously sensitive to political instability; and ethnic strife along with human rights allegations, the Chief Justice fiasco and sudden price hikes just add to the list of cons when it comes to investing in Sri Lanka, especially given enough safer options in the region like the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia etc.

So the argument that this is merely another ‘distraction’ pre-supposes an extremely short-termist, even stupid government. Because for it to invent ethnic disharmony out of thin air as a distraction from a flagging economy, a tactic that can only worsen the economy’s prospects would be a very stupid thing indeed.

But I don’t think the Rajapakse’s are short termist, in fact, they could just be one of the most long termist entities in power we’ve had. But they are still playing a balancing act, despite their outward show of power. Mark Juergensmeyer has a few great passages on Sri Lanka in his “The New Religious State” (the whole of it is well worth read). This was written in ’95 but still sounds coldly relevant today.

The present rulers in Sri Lanka face the same dilemma as their predecessors: they need Sinhalese support, but they feel they can not go so far as to alienate the Tamils and other minority groups. They have been attacked viciously by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists for attempting to achieve what might be impossible: a national entity that is both Buddhist and secular. The use of Buddhist symbols is meant to appeal to the Sinhalese, and the adoption of a secular political ideology is supposed to mollify everyone else.

With elections approaching and Sarath Fonseka back on the campaign trail, powers are converging against the status quo. To take Juergensmeyer’s view, this rise of extremist nationalist forces could be the Rajapakse’s first ‘attack’ at the hands of  “Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists” for trying to achieve a “national entity that is both Buddhist and secular”.

I still think that the Rajapakse model of government, while far from ‘good’, is the best we can have in our current context. We can help improve it, but if it is toppled we would probably descend into disarray. From a policy and historical perspective, and in line with examples of East Asian success stories, a ‘benevolent autocracy’ is probably the only model of government capable of giving Sri Lanka the stability it needs to grow in the longer term. Maybe what John Kotelawala said in 1974 is still largely relevant.

Sri Lanka is not ready for democracy. In a country like Sri Lanka democracy becomes government by bloody mugs and idiots.

But how benevolent is this autocracy? Evidence so far has proven that it can be quite belligerent and reactionary. But is that due to this balancing act, this need to keep all sides happy? And now, how autocratic is it? With movements like the BBS emerging, the stranglehold the Rs have on power is beginning to be questioned as well.

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Sri Lankans have a fascination with everything foreign. Going ‘to the foreign’ or ‘ab-road’ is considered to be the epitome of success. For after you are ‘in the foreign’ life there is going to be all feather beds and high disposable income.

I’ve run into many people like that in my time, who hasn’t? Once i had someone explain to me in great detail how to make a convincing case to seek asylum in Canada. The process involved coming up with a newspaper article/advertisement calling me a wanted man, going through highly exciting cut-throat late night border crossings and conning Canadian judges. I was sixteen at the time.

Just yesterday i met someone who expressed a strong urge to go to Germany. Why? because it is ‘awesome over there’. Praneeth (name changed) is a low level executive at a multinational corporation. In other words, he has a job and background that many would kill for. Initially I just thought he wanted to visit, how naive of me.

A friend of his: “do you know what he did? he’s working in a garage in Germany.”

And I say, wow yeah that’s great. Praneeth gets a wistful look in his eyes as I ask him ‘so you want to get a work visa?’ But apparently there are no work visas for Germany, which  brings us to the thorny question; “how is your friend working in a garage there?”

His friend (let’s call him Channa) ingeniously played the system. He didn’t go all ‘Machang’ and escape the hotel the night before the big handball game, but he still lied and connived for all he was worth.

He went there for a holiday, stayed with a monk he knew and somehow negotiated a deal with a local restaurant which produced a letter attesting to the German immigration authorities that ‘Channa is absolutely the best, and pretty much only, cook in the world capable of cooking at our restaurant and it is absolutely essential that you help him come work for us”.

This enabled him to get a five year stamp the next time he applied. And now Channa works in a garage, painting cars and doing other garagy things, cooking be damned. His education is wasted, but he tells Praneeth during his frequent visits home that he feels “very secure” and wouldn’t give it up for the world. And now poor Praneeth wants to quit his corporate job and do the same thing.

If you thought Channa was quite the ‘arch bugger’, let me tell you about Praneeth’s other friend Nimal who is some kind of an ‘international player’. His life involves shuttling between several high profile foreign countries every five months or so. He’d work for five months in the US, come to Sri Lanka, and go work for five months in the UK. I am fascinated, how in the world does he manage this?

Nimal, like Channa, initially went for a holiday. He then came back to Sri Lanka and applied again, and this time got a much longer stamp on his visa. He used this to surreptitiously get a job being a waiter, cleaning stuff or like Channa, working in a garage. Unglamorous, but it pays the bills for a glamorous image back home.

Actually, he is part of a whole network of such ‘international players’ who simply switch jobs with each other when their visas begin to expire; ensuring a constant supply of international jobs that will not cause them to overstay their visas and impinge on the hospitality of their hosts in any way (other than by stealing their jobs of course).

So for example Nimal would give his job in the US over to his friend Riyas as Riyas leaves his job being a street cleaner in the UK which he gives to Nathan who gives up his job as a logger in Scandanavia to Kamal who in turn will leave his job as a shop assistant in Italy just in time for Nimal to come back from a short intermediate stay in Sri Lanka to claim it. And they keep switching ad infinitum. Praneeth thinks its brilliant.

No wonder us unambitious Sri Lankans get so much shtick from Western visa authorities. I don’t blame them either. We enter their countries by the boatload, clog up their social security nets and even contribute with our own brand of organized crime, with raging chain gangs in countries as diverse as Canada, UK and Italy hailing from places like Ja-Ela and Wattala (town names just an example, nothing personal if you live there).

I’ve spoken to others who are a lot more honest about this kind of living. And apparently, hard labor is hard labor whether you are in a developed country or not. Some work three jobs and barely get enough sleep. They show a pretty picture to everyone back home, but they live on the fringes of society and become anonymous automatons with no identity. No life even. And many regret ever leaving home.

*Abroad Yamuda Machang?: Shall we go abroad, mate?

islamophobia1

In this Daily News article penned by one Shenali Waduge on Muslims in Sri Lanka and why Buddhists should be scared of their ‘encroachment’, she displays a high level of confusion, connecting disparate events in the Muslim world (fabricating where it suits her), taking them out of context and then applying them to Sri Lanka.

Particularly absurd is her apparently iron clad statistical theory of Muslim’s 4 phased strategic and collective effort to ‘take over’ the locality, wherever they are, and install an Islamic ‘theocracy’ whatever that may mean.

Ms. Waduge, I WISH the Muslim community was as united as you appear to think it is. Even if you appear to think that such unity is always used for nefarious aims. I WISH our leaders were half as focused on the problems affecting the community as you appear to allude. At least you seem to have more faith in their selflessness that I.

While she appears to think that Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf States are synonymous with Muslims everywhere in the world, as if they are the ideal representation of what Sharia law and collective Muslim life is like, when it suits her, she likes to equate all of us with ‘extremist terrorists’, taking an about turn, since most of these ‘extremists’ are extremely anti-Saud. I wish she’d make up her mind.

She also doesn’t seem to have heard of a little event they call the Arab Spring where millions of Muslims stood up to depose tyrannical rulers, oppressing them since their so-called independence from the West. There’s a lot of dissent against existing rule in Gulf States too, but this writer doesn’t seem too interested in specifics, sweeping generalizations are her forte.

Around 1400 people have liked it on Facebook. And at least two of them are people I actually know. This is almost as hard to stomach as the fact that this bit of rubbish journalism was actually published in the Daily News. Which, while not exactly a journalistic stalwart, is significant in its position as the closest thing we have to a state sanctioned English language newspaper; are we to assume that this anti-Muslim vitriol is also state sanctioned? Or at the very least published with the assurance that no one up there is going to seriously mind?

The Daily News is legitimizing this garbage by publishing it. Is this is a glimpse of the next wave of erosion in Sri Lanka’s print media, heralding the advent of anti-Muslim sentiment from the underground world of pithy Facebook groups and into the edges of the mainstream? Stuff like this is dangerous, when you have a climate of growing social unrest. People susceptible to hate are not going to verify things that confirm their bias, especially when it’s published in a leading newspaper.

Conspiracy theories that gain a widespread following don’t just pop out of nowhere. If anti-Muslim sentiment finds an ever broadening audience it’s because it actually perceives what it takes to be a very real indication of ‘Muslim supremacy’ happening in society. But this can be based on misinformation and bias.

I was chatting to Indi about this, and he talks about this a little in his post as well. He thinks Muslims have increasingly appeared to distance themselves from the rest of Sri Lanka. Case in point the niqab or the veil.

While I sympathize with his argument; I do think that without the veil’s modern connotations (a misconceived notion that it symbolizes gender abuse, repression and Islamic extremism) it would have been much easier for people to accept it as a personal choice of consenting individuals in society. Indi to his credit, doesn’t think this warrants racism against Muslims.

Halal food does not mean that some secret chemical compound is inserted into all items certified Halal in some underground plant in the Empty Quarter (although admittedly this would make for excellent dystopic fiction). Halal just applies to the way food is prepared, according to certain standards of religious guidelines which include hygene and ethics.

Paying to obtain the Halal certificate is a decision purely based on choice and the profit motive. No one is compelling anyone to eat Halal. There’s plenty of non-Halal choice out there. No one is shoving Halal meat down feebly protesting throats.

Quite the contrary to what Ms. Waduge states, non-Muslims have full legal rights in Sharia courts by Islamic law. In fact, just consider that in the UK, non-Muslims are also turning to Sharia courts to settle some disputes in certain cases. If anything, it is a parallel system of law, and does not contradict the integrity of the country’s main legal system in any way.

In Sri Lanka, Sharia courts are merely a legal support structure for the Muslim community. There are no widespread plans to convert everyone to Islam and forcibly make them accept sharia law. And neither is here any such thing happening in France, England or anywhere else with a minority Muslim population.

To dissect the full scale of half truths, convolutions, blatant fabrications and outright lies in Ms Waduge’s article would take reams of text, and the question arises if it is actually worth refuting, as most of what she says in my eyes reeks of hate-speech and blatant fabrication, hardly the sign of a person looking openly for honest feedback. But if anything, it’s a good place to go for to get a gist of the prevalent misconceptions that are driving this new wave of Sri Lankan Islamophobia.

I met Nathan on a bus bound for Hatton. Nathan lives in a shop at pettah. A hotel. He’s a career hotel worker. Having worked in Nawalapitiya. He now juggles three jobs in pettah in order to raise his kids of which he has four. He is also a karate master. Owns five cows. And farms a small patch of land of about 90 perches in Bogawantalawa. His pet peeve is hating on Muslim Tamil, he thinks we bastardized it. For example, our word for ‘eat’ is what real Tamil speakers use when feeding dogs. So when a group of Hindu priests from India arrived at his shop in Pettah and the Muslim waiter boy asked them if they want to ‘eat’ they looked at each other’s faces and got up and left.

On young men and the pitfalls of living ‘alone’…

Nathan gets up at 5am and starts work at his uncle’s hotel, making roti for about an hour or two. He gets free lodging there and also a salary of 1000 bucks a day for making rotty. I asked why he doesn’t get a proper room with some privacy. But apparently it costs too much. Like 10k. And also being alone. It’s not good for your head. Apparently you get all sorts of ideas. One young man who lived alone, he says this as if that young man was indulging in some extravagant luxury, started smoking ganja and got caught to the cops.

Lots of young men, fresh from the mountains so to speak, fall into various traps. Like women. One guy from Nuwaraeliya met a girl from Batticaloa and was ‘carrying on’ with her four about for years. Whereupon she left him with about four lakhs of his money. He got ‘mental’ and eventual drank ‘medicine’ which is probably weedicide. He didn’t succeed in killing himself but Nathan and others eventually returned him to his village. Four lakhs is a fortune. Four lakhs is four cows. But before I elaborate on the cows, another young man who met a girl from Anuradhapura while working as a waiter in a shop. She eventually stole a gold chain from him and left. All these girls are sluts, says Nathan. They are no good. They come to shops to eat, flirt with the waiters and ensnare them in their putrid honey traps.

On working in tea plantations…

But Nathan is self assured. He’s been through a lot and wears the experience like a generalissimo. Both his parents were estate workers but he refused follow in their footsteps. His wife works in the estate however and he says it isn’t that bad. You don’t get paid much. Rs 500 a day. But the estate gives you 10kg of flour for just Rs1000. There’s also a one time payment of 15k per child. They also cut a little bit for the Employee’s Provident Fund (EPF). The EPF is the best thing about the whole deal. At the end of a long lifetime if plucking tea, the worker can look forward to about 5 to 10 lakhs to retire with.

Cows…

I’m guessing some of his parents’ EPFs were used to buy Nathan’s cows. He has five. But minister Thondaman gave them two on an easy payment scheme. These cows aren’t like the ones in Colombo, they’re imported from Australia and can deliver about 20 liters of milk a day. His five cows earn him about 60000 a month. He has to spend about 20000 on punnakku. So 40000 is clean profit. A cow can typically give birth to 13 calves in its lifetime. So having a cow says Nathan is better than having gold. It earns and earns you money. So how can you even think of eating its flesh? A man who eats a cow’s heart and does so for six months will soon find his own heart getting bigger, too big for his chest. He will have trouble breathing and will have to go to a clinic. A cow is sacred. It is like a mother. Eating its flesh will make humans cows by nature. Cows are allowed to die in peace and are then buried. No such care is taken with bulls though. Male calves are allowed to grow upto full size and promptly sold to a butcher.

On surviving…

Nathan juggles his life between Pettah and Bogawantalawa. He has to do a lot of work in his small plantation. He has to cut grass to feed his cows. Which are kept locked up in a shed 24/7 because ‘that’s how you’re supposed to breed them’. Also cattle thieves are everywhere. In addition to this, his job making rotty in pettah Nathan also makes short eats. After his two hours of morning rotti making he grabs a bit of sleep and uses his uncle’s kitchen to make all sorts of short eats which he sells by about 3pm. Then once in every two days he does Nataami work which is hard labor lifting and carrying sacks of produce. Nataami work typically starts at 12 midnight and lasts for about 90 minutes. It’s not easy work, Nathan must be in his mid to late thirties. But you get paid about 1500 rupees. And you have four kids to raise.

He told me a horrible story about something that happened to his wife. Who he refers to as his Samsaram. She went last year to Saudi for work. And returned after one month and seven days. She lived in the third floor of a four story house with a family of three. The son was vey abusive and would touch and fondle her and cut her hair. She eventually escaped from her third story room by tearing her bedsheets into strips and using them as a rope to climb out of the window. Many housemaids return to Sri Lanka as corpses says Nathan. In the house his wife lived in a Sri Lankan girl had been killed previously.

and wrapping up with a conspiracy theory..

It is obvious that Nathan is well liked. Especially among the residents of the Gunasinghapura koreas where he lives. He likes to make fun of their Tamil and they return in kind. When his daughter attained puberty a whole load of them came to Bogawatalawa and he took them to see Siripada.

Nathan shares my ambivalence for bus music. Ok he fair well hates it. The only song he liked was the Hindi dam arey dam.

Oh yeah. Apparently in the US the authorities have imposed a new kind of ID. It is a microchip. They implant it in your arm if you’re a man, forehead if you’re a woman and at the top of your skull if you’re a child. They can track all of your movements and actions. He doesn’t seem quite clear on whether this is already happening or is still at some experimental stage. Anyway it’s somehow connected to the number 666 and 18digits like the barcodes you find in products everywhere. Somehow this long number will become the ‘last number in the world’ just before apocalypse hits. I didn’t get that bit either.

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.
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