Sri Lanka

Dayan Jayatilleka spoke at a recent event organized by the Sri Lankan Committee for Solidarity with Palestine, to commemorate the UN Day for Solidarity with Palestine . The Sri Lankan government has made it a general point to sympathize with the Palestinian cause, though in recent years it has also become increasingly pally with Israel, with an envoy in the country and multiple arms deals.

DJ himself has a long and robust history of support for the Palestinian cause. But his speech on that day smacked of opportunism aimed at capitalizing on one of the world’s most tragic human rights issues in order to express the grievances of Sri Lanka’s government.

His attempts to equate the troubles of the Palestinian people with the ‘troubles of the Sri Lankan people’, whatever that may mean drastically trivialized the Palestinian problem. According to him, Sri Lanka and Palestine are two sides of the same coin, because they are both subject to double standards by ‘hegemonic Western regimes’.

I don’t quite know what Sri Lanka DJ is taking about, unless he’s talking about the extremely poor or the post-war disenfranchised, but even they don’t experience problems remotely close to what Palestinians experience everyday; sewage flooding their streets, constant threat of death by drone strikes/air strikes/deranged Israeli soldier strikes, frequent checkpoints, the inability to enjoy one’s rights in one’s own country, constant threat of expulsion and murder at the hands of an opressive regime etc etc etc. The list goes on.

To say that Sri Lanka and Palestine have something in common because we are both subject to double standards by Western regimes is like equating an advanced cancer patient with someone complaining about a visit to the dentist.

Also consider that in the eyes of the West, the government of Sri Lanka is accused of crimes that liken them more to Israel than Palestine; cast more in the mold of the oppressor than the oppressed. And all it seems to be doing is playing the part of the prosecuted street thug plaintively pointing at the gangland boss going free. This posturing is an admission of guilt, not of innocence.

DJ went on to make an explosive exhortation for David Cameron to visit Palestine, and not Jaffna, if he cares about human rights. I think David Cameron is quite aware of the tragic state of Palestine. He staunchly ignores it everyday, never meaningfully addressing the problem that the ‘Western Hegemonic Powers’ Dayan talks about created in the first place. But unlike Palestine, Sri Lanka’s problem is completely internal. We have the power to solve it, address it and move on from it. The Palestinian people do not have this luxury.

The moral agency of the West (what moral agency of the West?) is just a diversion, and it’s sad to see someone like DJ actively engaging in promoting it as the predominant point in Sri Lanka’s post war discourse, dialog and search for truths. Instead we should be looking inwards, into our own history, into our own morality. I have always been and still am staunchly against the LTTE, and I am more grateful than I can say that the war is now over, and the terrorists ‘defeated’.

But i’d be lying if I said that I believe the conflict has ended. Sri Lanka’s conflict is living on, and it is constantly being aggravated in its sleeping underground state by inaction, jingoism and distraction. And no one seems to be taking a meaningful public stand to address it. The conflict is a sleeping dragon, and eventually it is going to wake up. 


Galle Face (and a shameless plug for my Instagram)

Washed out streets and a clean Colombo welcome the start of SAES2013. A literary metaphor for a fresh beginning? Perhaps. But also an ominous symbol of one the themes of the conference. The weather in Colombo hasn’t been normal for years now. When I was a kid, the monsoon was like clockwork, April was always hot, August was rainy, and December offered slight relief from the repressive humidity.

Over the last year mostly, and the year before that somewhat, Colombo has felt more like a mildly warmer version of the Central Hills. Not that I’m complaining. I hate the humidity, and now I just need some mosquito repellent to grab a good night’s sleep on most nights. The reprieve gave way to a month or two of absolute scorchers, but that is a price I’m willing to pay. I like the new Colombo weather.

However, this post is not about weather, at least not in the conventional, hi-how-are-you-doing-its-very-hot-no? kind of way. Climate change, the likely culprit of Colombo’s newfound coolness (a very relative term still), is a major problem for the region. And a topic that the South Asian Economic Summit (SAES 2013) where I’m sitting at right now, is quite concerned about.

The unpredictability of monsoons, while mildly inconveniencing the city’s cubicle warriors with cumbersome umbrellas, plays havoc in the region’s agricultural sector, the rise in sea level threatens low lying islands, the melting of ice caps in the Himalayas threatens norms of water flow and while Colombo may have been benefitted with a welcome bout of cooler weather other parts of the region have feced extended spells of debilitating heat. Besides, of the sea level rises that stroll along Galle Face could soon turn into a wade. All these changes affect millions of lives and threaten the already struggling development processes of the region.

The carbon neutral conference happening in Colombo right now is talking about how to address this and many other problems. It’s easy to be cynical in adventurous discussions like the ones taking place today, especially being in a region bogged down by political corruption and policy blindness. Economists and policy wonks can talk and talk but you and I know that when it comes to implementation it always boils down to what the politicians stand to gain on the ground.

But ideas are important. Ideas, if powerful, can eventually trickle through the political processes, even those as mired as the ones in S. Asia, and create some change down the line. People here are talking about regional integration, investment promotion, collective agricultural initiatives, regional transportation and energy management etc. All very adventurous stuff for countries with long histories that are used to justify enmity just as much as to justify friendship.

The conference live streams here. Join the discussion on Twitter on #saes2013.


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.

Image from the BBC: Hajj 2011

It’s Hajj season again. From all over Sri Lanka, a few thousand fortunate Muslims have already left to perform the actual pilgrimage, a once in a lifetime obligation for those who can afford it, to join hundreds of thousands more in Mecca. The Hajj is the pilgrimage of Abraham and has been followed by the ‘people of the book’ ever since the time of that illustrious prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him.

But the time of Hajj is also especially significant to those who remain at their homes. According to Muslim belief; good deeds carried out in the first ten days of the month of Hajj bear great merit in the eyes of Allah.  Aside from fasting, charity and reflecting on the Quran; a special good deed carried out by Muslims is the Uduhiyyah or the Hajj sacrifice.

Racial tensions

In Sri Lanka where Muslims are a minority, the sudden influx of animal slaughter during Hajj has sometimes drawn the ire of Buddhists and attracted a lot of bad publicity over the years. This is especially significant now in a climate where certain political opportunists are spurring ethnic rivalrybetween Muslims and Sinhalese.

Here in Sri Lanka animals are killed on a daily basis for meat, and this goes largely uncontested. The majority of Buddhists also eat meat, though many abhor beef. The beef industry is largely monopolized by Muslims and has always been a target for elements seeking political gain.

Lately Sri Lanka has seen a range of anti Muslim activity. The Dambulla mosque attack is the most illustrative. And this has been followed up by pockets of unrest in various parts of the country evidently carried out under the leadership of certain members of the Buddhist clergy. Leading to speculation of a rise in ‘Buddhist extremism’ in Sri Lanka.

But to paraphrase Indi, the ‘beef with beef’ has long been an endearing locus of political opportunism. Notorious thug/politician Mervyn Silva for instance, famously demanded the closure of all beef stalls in his district last year, claiming they offended his Buddhist sensibilities (the same minister has no objection to liquor shops being open. In this case his religious sensibilities are overshadowed by the need to sustain a lucrative source of income). In the same year Silva was warned about creating trouble during the Hajj sacrifice.

Furor also rose in recent times in Sri Lanka over ritual sacrifice of animals in the Hindu Kovil of Munneswar, again led by the same minister, but backed by a faction of Buddhist clergy. The sacrifice was allowed to go ahead despite protests as the penal code in no way prevents the slaughter of animals in the country.

The issue to my mind is not the slaughter of animals per se, since by and large this seems to be OK. But the high sensitivity of the majority of Buddhists to graphic display of slaughter that can sometimes take place during Hajj, or other religious festivals that can be used by opportunistic forces to stir up trouble in the name of religion. And when Muslims themselves neglect to follow proper Islamic protocol in carrying out the sacrifice, the issue is only exacerbated.

Openly displaying the animal to be slaughtered, letting its dying cries be heard by neighbors and unhygienic disposal of waste matter is guaranteed to rub people up the wrong way. These practices are frowned upon in Islam in accordance with the Prophet Muhammad (May peace and blessings be upon him)’s example of respect for the faith and sentiments of non-Muslims. And of course hygiene is a central tenet of Islam (the Prophet said ‘cleanliness is one half of faith’). The above was highlighted in Friday sermons throughout the country on the Friday preceding Hajj, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the country’s collective of Islamic scholars has a nose for this sort of thing.

To conclusively sort out the issue once and for all and immunize ourselves to forces trying to sabotage peace both Muslims and Sinhalese must try and understand where the other is coming from. Muslims must understand that religious obligations can still be fulfilled without hurting the feelings of non-Muslims, actually they are probably better fulfilled that way, and non-Muslims must understand the significance of the act and the importance Islam gives to animal rights. And not be led astray by misconceptions and political opportunists.

Animals in Islam

The Quran explicitly states that animals can be used for human benefit (Qur’an 40:79-80)* and it stresses equally that animals have their own lives and existences that must be respected and honored by man (Qur’an 6:38, 24:41). This may appear contradictory, but Islam teaches that all objects, from plants to stars, exist in submission to the will of Allah. And on Earth, man is the ‘vice-regent’ of Allah and can use the planet’s resources in accordance with Islamic law. This law is strict on preventing abuse however, and when it comes to animals prohibits overworking, overburdening and the infliction of cruelty on them and allows hunting only for the sake of food.

An animal that is to be killed for meat must be treated in kindness and given food and water; it is prohibited for instance, to sharpen a knife or to slaughter another animal in front of it. The knife must be as sharp as possible so as to make the death as quick and painless as possible. The meat sacrficed by Muslims does not go to waste, all of it is either given away or consumed.

Some accuse that the Islamic method of slaughtering animals is cruel. Actually, you’d be hard pressed to find a method of killing anything, even a tree, that someone somewhere will not call cruel. But that aside, the Islamic way is proven to be a humane and hygienic method of killing a beast. The cutting of the throat, windpipe and the blood vessels in the neck (the spinal cord is kept intact) prevents the flow of blood to the nerves that cause the sensation of pain in the brain (the animal struggles and writhes due to muscular contraction). All the blood is drained before the head is removed, blood being a medium for germs and bacteria. This ensures that the meat is clean and stays fresh far longer.

The significance of the Hajj sacrifice

The significance of the Hajj sacrifice is the commemoration and remembrance of the devotion of Abraham (may peace be upon him). In a divinely inspired dream, Abraham saw himself sacrificing his oldest son Ismail to Allah. When he told this to Ismail, Ismail asked him to obey the command and said that he would be patient with the will of God. But when the blade descended upon Ismail’s neck, it failed to cut; Allah did not take the life of Ismail, providing a ram to be sacrificed in his stead.

This act of complete submission on the part of Abraham is remembered by Muslims worldwide by sacrificing a lamb, cow or another suitable animal. They keep one third of the meat for themselves, give one third to neighbors and friends and the final third to the poor, ensuring that no one goes hungry during the feast of Eid-Ul-Adha, the Hajj festival.

The day starts with a congregational prayer in the mosque. Muslims celebrate by visiting family and friends, exchanging gifts and remembering and thanking Allah for His blessings. The sacrifice of an animal is purely a measure of faith, as the Qur’an says “it is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him..”(22:37).

*Refer for the translation of verses

A version of this post was originally published in The Platform blog

What Growth is Good Growth?

Standard Chartered’s 2010 report titled ‘The 7% Club’, examined how merging nations can achieve sustained 7% growth levels. Any economy growing at 7% a year on average stands to double its economy in roughly ten years. And if your domestic economic mix is good enough to hit 7% on a sustained basis, you’re on the path to the big time.

Since the second world war, all countries known for outstandingly rapid development like China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have recorded growth levels of 7% or more for 25 years. Botswana and Vietnam have growth at 7% for more than 15 years.

Before we start slavering at the prospect let’s start by looking at how Sri Lanka can get this ‘mix’ right. There are four ways an emerging market can reach growth levels of 7%, based on historical evidence.

One is through a commodity boom, Angolia, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan are examples of countries that joined the 7% club this way. But reliance on commodity exports can often cause negative effects on other parts of the economy. Although rumors that Sri Lanka could hit oil next year are beginning to excite certain circles, the discovery of oil could just as easily become a curse as a blessing if it is badly managed (and similar experiences in other countries, most famously in Africa, show that it doesn’t really take much to badly manage a resource windfall).

The other is through a ‘Recovery Bounce‘.Basically coming off a ‘low base’ from a very bad situation. Take Sri Lanka’s growth over the last two years; above 8%. That was a recovery bounce. Emerging solely from the end of the war, increased optimism in investment and productivity gains from the North and East. However, that kind of growth is largely a thing of the past. Most predictions put Sri Lanka’s growth in 2012 around the 6-7% mark, our ‘Recovery Bounce’ might keep us afloat for a little while longer, but unless we enact the measures needed for serious sustained growth, it’s only going to be a temporary bubble.

That brings us to the next two methods of growth,‘Overheating Booms’ are purely debt and spending driven nightmares, guaranteed to crash and burn and bring about Apocalypse Now.

However, what Sri Lanka can aim for is a model based on ‘Industrialization oriented for exports‘. That is, fast growth based on mobilizing savings towards manufacturing and exports. The idea is to start off with basic products and then gradually move up the value chain. At the high end of the value chain you have industries like electronics, shipbuilding and cars. Japan, the Asian Tigers and more recently China and Vietnam have followed this model with great success. But Sri Lanka’s manufacturing share of GDP is just 16% and the sector is plagued by high protectionism, dominant State Owned Enterprises and ranks behind regional competitors in ‘technological readiness’ for FDI and technology transfer.

How Does Sri Lanka Get There?

Standard Chartered’s October 2012 report ‘Economic Reform: The Unfinished Agenda’ highlights a few key areas for Sri Lanka to improve on. However, it’s rather positive on Sri Lanka’s reform trend so far and actually says that with speedier reform Sri Lanka will grow at 8%, as opposed to the 7% growth it is already forecasting for us.

A lot of this has to do with a stable government. Say what you like about the autocracy of the Rajapakse’s, but they’ve bought one thing that Sri Lanka has been lacking for ages; political stability. By effectively converting the Sri Lankan government from a faux public owned entity to a privately owned entity it is setting itself up for the long term. And so is less likely to use up current resources at the expense of their long term benefit. And hopefully, its degree of economic exploitation will tend to be much less than that displayed by the several short termist Sri Lankan governments seen over the few decades after the war.

Though Sri Lanka’s economy continues towards greater freedom (Sri Lanka is the 97th freest out of 179 countries) taxation (both rates and regulation), inflation, bureaucracy, transparency and policy instability, corruption, lack of sufficient infrastructure, access to financing and labor issues are still a major problem. The government is making clear progress on some of these issues, but is stagnant on others.

Anyway, we still have a few worrying areas to fix. The primary factor is trade and domestic investments. Trade has been on a declining trend as a share of GDP and domestic investments which are at roughly 29% need to increase to at least 35%. The biggest hindrance here is high state involvement in the business sector, painstaking bureaucracy and corruption is turning away many domestic and foreign investors who would otherwise be contributing to long term growth.

Though Sri Lanka’s economy continues towards greater freedom (Sri Lanka is the 97th freest out of 179 countries) taxation (both rates and regulation), inflation, bureaucracy, transparency and policy instability, corruption, lack of sufficient infrastructure, access to financing and labor issues are still a major problem. The government is making clear progress on some of these issues, but is stagnant on others.

How the government approaches these problems in the next few years will be key in determining Sri Lanka’s growth.

The Central Bank just released the first six months of trade data for Sri Lanka. Trade is an important component of the Balance of Payments  (BOP). Which computes the sum of a countries transactions with the rest of the world.

Sri Lanka’s BOP is perpetually in the red. In 2011, massive imports in consumer durables and investment goods made the negative balance worse.  High imports last year were facilitated by low interest rates and a propped up exchange rate. But this year the government has tried to discourage imports by floating the rupee, increasing interest rates and actively discouraging banks from lending with a lending cap. There’s also the new taxes on vehicle imports that, together with other restrictions have just begun to impact durable imports in a big way.

The revenue the government gets from vehicle imports is important for its budget deficit (which is total government revenue less its spending). An increase in taxes like we’ve just seen is likely to actually reduce government revenue even further because potential vehicle owners will be completely discouraged to buy.

But so far this year, imports have failed to ease up as much as they were hoped to. And floundering global economies have reduced the demand for our exports. Globally, fuel prices are looking to rise but this will impact fuel imports less than local demand which is likely to increase the more we use thermal power in response to our ongoing electricity problem.

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.

Sri Lanka’s GDP increased by 7.9% in the first quarter of 2012. But what does this mean exactly? I made the following infographic to explain. Click to see a larger and clearer image. I used data from The Department of Census and Statistics, The World Bank and Trading Economics. (*Image updated to correct a mistake in Sri Lanka’s annual GDP, which was showing the 2010 figure – 50bn).

UPDATE – Small error on the 4th tier where it says ‘Rupees Million’, Read that as ‘Rupees Billion’. Until I get around to editing it (Corrected – Jul 19).


For minorities to know their place in this country all they have to do is to look at its national flag. Here’s a picture. There are the minorities colored in green and orange, and the Sinhala have a big patch of red.. Hey that’s fine, proportional representation ain’t no crime, but what’s that there in the red patch? is that… A lion? wielding a drawn sword..? Roaring in the general direction of the minorities? Keep out, its saying. This is my turf I’ve pissed all over it, one foot where it doesn’t belong and you’ll soon be ingesting several feet of sword.

No matter.. Minorities here know their place. The Muslims especially have always known their place. In Sri Lanka it seems to me that it is patriotism that is the opiate of the masses. and the Middle classes the biggest consumers. The rich are too busy getting richer, the poor are too busy being poor, but the middle class is upwardly mobile.. Asiff Hussein the anthropologist mentioned this in passing once and the thought has been running around in my head and gelatinizing and taking shape.

The middle class want wealth, the politicians and oligarchs steal that wealth and direct middle class anger towards the Muslims. It’s a classic strategy. Take the USA that stronghold of democratic justice, despite all the problems its people face what do they argue about the most come election time? Gay marriage, abortion and yeah, Muslims. Everything else is secondary. The whole political-media mechanism gears itself around these issues and the people are nicely distracted from the real issues. The wars the corporate abuse the widening wealth gap.

The war here is done.. The upwardly mobile middle classes are hungry, educated and success has been long in coming and now they won’t let anything stop them. They’re really starting to chew on what’s stopping them but it would be disastrous if they start chewing on how their leaders are screwing them out of so much money and opportunity.. So the Muslims, probably the most peace loving people in this country are painted black.

Easy job right? global propaganda is already helping them along. All they need to do is translate books of Ayaan Hirsi Ali or of some incident of barbaric cruelty perpetrated against a woman that has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam and sell them on the pavements of Nugegoda. All that needs to be done is to channel the appropriate funds to bhikkus and organizations willing to sell their souls and you’ve got a racist ‘movement’ that operates in increasing legitimacy.

Facebook statuses I see, pictures being shared around by educated Sinhala youth, sometimes even my direct friends and people I like and who I think like me.. They are all wasting their youthful exuberance. Muslims aren’t the enemy. Muslims in Sri Lanka have made it a habit of living off local prosperity. If you the majority aren’t rich then who will buy our goods? We’ve never had any political ambitions that threaten your sovereignty. If you prosper, we prosper and vice versa. In the past we both prospered by working together against the Portuguese, Dutch and English. Crack open a history book, a real history book, not the one you get from school.

Something is sucking your energy, young people here have always been activists, always headstrong and now something is trying to make you blind. The drug that does it is patriotism, in a context far removed from any form of economic prosperity, which is to say a bastardized form of patriotism. You are blind to the social injustice around you.. That effects you everyday. That shuts you out and closes the door; that invisible barrier beyond which true power and wealth lies in this country.

So wake up and smell the plain tea… It’s got a coating of grime on it called patriotism, but actually it’s just trickery.

Sri Lanka’s poverty line uses somewhat of an outdated system to calculate poverty. But of course, to be fair, the whole world uses an outdated system to calculate poverty. I was at a forum organized by the Center for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) yesterday and a few interesting things were voiced.


The Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) takes a value of how many calories a person needs to consume; 2030 calories per day in 2002. Then it looks at how much money you need to buy this many calories and arrives at the food poverty line.

Add to this the estimated costs of other requirements and you have the official poverty line. In 2002 this was Rs. 1423 per person per month. This is inflated every year to reflect the change in price levels. By that measure, it should currently be something like Rs. 3646 per person per month. Successive Household Income Expenditure Surveys (HIES) done by the DCS has revealed the number of poor people as a percentage of the population to have dropped as follows.

By the standards of nutritional measure at least, living seems to have gotten better here. Although the statistics do appear a little fantastic. Harsha De Silva for example asked how poverty levels of Estate workers could have sunk from some 30% in 2002 to something  like 12% in 2009. Admittedly Sri Lanka has gone through some serious socio-economic changes since the ceasefire. And while i doubt the DCS would put a number in public view without reasoning to back it, paranoia and doubt is warranted because it certainly does behave very suspiciously at times.

Lies and Statistics

The CDS remains incredibly cagey and protective about its statistics. When i say ‘incredibly’ however, i mean marginally. But even marginal cageyness when it comes to statistics can render any objective party almost impotent when it comes to interpreting economic numbers for itself.

Take inflation for example; inflation is calculated by tracking the prices of a ‘basket’ of consumer goods that a household is typically assumed to consume. The items in this basket is divided into broad categories (food and beverages, clothing and footwear, education, transport etc)  and further divided into subcategories (like the food category would contain, beets, beans, samba rise, anchor milk etc). These items are then assigned weights based on their relative importance (e.g. food would have 40% of the basket while clothing has 10%). A survey is done on weekly prices and the prices are multiplied by the weights to arrive at the overall inflation figure.

Now i might sound pedantic, but bear with me here. While the CDS gives the weights for the broader categories it fails to give the weights for the sub categories in the basket. And sub-categories are the most important thing here because knowing the relative importance of Anchor milk in the index is the only thing that allows us to accurately calculate the real impact of a milk price hike to inflation.

When i asked why the CDS isn’t transparent about inflation, especially when the government has repeatedly come under fire of accusations of manipulation, Suranjana Vidyaratne, Director General of the CDS, dodged my question. I suppose there is no smoke without fire.

Government data in Sri Lanka is generally like this though. A lot of the Central Bank data that comes out suffers from mysterious lags and occasional omissions and corrections that raise the eyebrow.

What is Happiness?

But is money and food a sufficient measure of poverty? And should we be measuring poverty in the first place? Traditional measures of poverty fall a little short of conveying the real deal of what it means to be poor and human by their valuation of poverty via a measure quantified purely in terms of money.

Since the seventies however, a movement towards including more dimensions into how we measure poverty has been gathering force. The Multidimensional Poverty Index attempts to incorporate factors like education, health and standards of living into a numerical measure of poverty that tries to be sort of more holistic.

Countries like Bhutan are already way ahead in measuring what they like to call ‘happiness’ using their GNH (Gross National Happiness). It takes data that can be quantitatively measured such as health and education but also gives importance to culture, spiritual progress, good governance and other qualitative, and critics accuse; subjective, measures.

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