15 August, 2020

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Applying Old Sayings To New Sri Lanka

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

I must confess to having used the title of this week’s column previously when I invoked the memory of a father who was very fond of aphorisms of many kinds.  Even though my friends and I, in our callow youth, used to make fun of such “old-fashioned stuff,” over the years, I have found that those sayings had lasted through the years for very good reason: they expressed, to use that hackneyed term, the eternal verities.

But to business!  When I wrote the first piece which took as its jumping off point this aphorism, I referred to a slew of countries and governments the association with whom gave our government a particular complexion, even if “only” by virtue of association.

Among this lot was Myanmar/Burma (before the recent attempt at democratization began and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest), Libya prior to Gaddafi’s overthrow, China, Iran and Russia.

I do recall quite vividly the head of the Myanmarese/Burmese government of the day being accorded the singular honour of a special exposition of the Tooth Relic while on a state visit to Sri Lanka and the gift of a baby elephant to that country during the same period of its suppression of democracy and killing of demonstrators for democracy, including monks.

Gaddafi had already achieved pariah status in the world generally, primarily thanks to his erratic behavior and extreme violence directed at anything resembling dissent before state visits to Tripoli by “those who matter” from our shores.  A commonality held by both parties to this dialogue in North Africa at the time could well have been the fact that both male parents were convinced of the “sporting genius” of their progeny.  In Gaddafi’s case this extended into an effort to get one of his sons on to the team roster of a top European club and, failing there, an attempt to BUY that club!  As a coda to that son’s fading sporting ambitions, I recall Ben Johnson the Canadian athlete (remember him winning at the Seoul  Olympics only to be stripped of his medal for doping?) being hired as a personal trainer by the North African despot to take care of the “athletic progress” of his son!  Of course we’ve had our own “personal trainers” to our Royalty but I do not recall any of them doping themselves up to achieve “excellence” though their violent behavior after rugger matches is certainly reminiscent of that of users of cocaine or crystal meth!

Since the fall of Gaddafi, the silence of our regime about that nation and the need to cultivate relations with its new regime has been nothing short of deafening!

What is significant about events (or the lack thereof) since the sea change in Burma which resulted in the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the return of a number of democratic practices to the realm of governance, is that, as far as the Sri Lankan government is concerned, that country might as well have ceased to exist!  Leave alone state visits and special expositions of the Tooth Relic, there is not so much as a mention of Sri Lanka-Burma relations in the bought-and-paid-for-media (BaPFM ) of this country.   Given the fact that the BaPFM now comprises close to all the nation’s print publications, radio and television, this is really saying something, isn’t it?

As for China, we were very much in thrall to this new world power who was also developing a reputation as a modern-day Shylock to developing countries, a reputation that its recent conduct has done nothing to change as it sets about exploiting resources of every kind in countries that are in grave economic difficulty and have monumentally corrupt regimes.  The real “in” that China (and India) have in these efforts is that they don’t even make a pretence of ethical conduct in business relations with their client countries and treat every bribe and commission as a simple “cost of doing business.”  As one businessman friend of mine put it, the only reason Chinese businessmen were more popular than their Indian counterparts in Sri Lanka was that they didn’t go around whining and complaining about how much they’d paid for the privilege of supplying defective equipment (remember Norochcholai?) to corrupt minions of our Regime!

Russia?  Need one do more than simply refer to the term “Russian Mafia” as an indicator of its progress down the path of democratization?  The murder and incarceration of human rights activists and its suppression of dissent, up to and including “street theatre,” more than speaks for itself.  The icing on that particular post-USSR cake is Putin’s cavorting with assorted show-biz ‘starlets,’ and installing them in the national legislature.  Sound familiar?

Iran for which many have a soft spot because of its being “targeted” by the US and Israel, in pursuit of the fraudulent , “war against terrorism,” continues on its path of fundamentalist religion, all but institutionalizing Sharia law and crushing every emergence of dissent of even the mildest kind.

As for China, the monumental corruption that is being exposed as several of the outgoing leadership are exposed for their violence (inclusive of murder) and embezzlement of state funds, by the New York Times and Bloomberg News speaks for itself.  The fact that China is seeking to use the most blatant means of censorship to prevent this information reaching its own citizens makes interesting reading in a Sri Lankan context.

And then there are our new bosom buddies.

The most flamboyant of these and certainly the most outrageous is an Absolute Monarch.  Let me open my account of him with a recent news clip which is indicative of the kind of person he is and the regime he leads:

“Swaziland’s King Mswati has been betrayed by his childhood friend, Justice Minister Ndumiso Mamba, who was caught sleeping with one of his young wives, Nothando Dube.
Southern African newspapers and online sources say the minister and queen were arrested last week
.”

Just to spice up that account of His Majesty, here’s another little tidbit from Wikipedia:

In an attempt to mitigate the HIV and AIDS pandemic in 2001, the king used his traditional powers to invoke a time-honoured chastity rite (umcwasho), which encouraged all Swazi maidens to abstain from sexual relations for five years.[2] This rite banned sexual relations for Swazis under 18 years of age from 9 September 2001 and 19 August 2005, but just two months after imposing the ban, he violated this decree when he married a 17-year-old girl, who became his 13th wife. As per custom, he was fined a cow by members of her regiment, which he duly paid.

A reference to the accounts carried in the archives of any of our national websites, particularly the more blatantly sycophantic of them, dealing with this visit, will provide a picture of an African “Royal” who is the epitome of all that is good, gracious and modern, without any mention of the fine of a cow!

From the same continent comes Yoweri Musaveni of Uganda who was recently a guest of honour in Sri Lanka.

Musaveni, like Ceaucescu of Romania, Honecker of the former East Germany and other freedom fighters started his revolutionary career putting his life on the line for the freedom of his people.  In Musaveni’s case it was first Idi Amin Dada and then Milton Obote that he fought against.  However, like Honecker and Ceaucescu, he has ended up as yet another common-or-garden despot, embracing every kind of outlandish policy to create the typical “smoke and mirrors” or “bread and circuses” diversions to hide the ugly reality of what he now does.  In Musaveni’s case he has, for the second time, introduced a bill making homosexuality punishable by death and, for the second time, there is an international petition asking that he not proceed with this absolutely dastardly piece of law!  There has also been a huge uproar in Britain because of the embezzlement of funds provided by that country for the rescue of an education system that was well on its way to disappearing.

We now appear to be cultivating, from the remnants of the old Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, a country of 16.6 million people but covering a land mass larger than Europe’s.  An epitome of democracy this country is not, Nursultan Nazarbayev being the only President it has known since it first came into existence.  Again a quote from old faithful Wikipedia might be in order:

Kazakhstan is officially a unitary republic. The first and only supreme chancellor is Nursultan Nazarbayev. The supreme chancellor is also the commander in chief of the armed forces and may veto legislation that has been passed by the Parliament.

I have previously dealt with freedom fighters and brave patriots who have turned into despots once their primary goal was achieved – getting rid of the immediate danger or threat – and both Gaddafi, in getting rid of King Idris, and Musaveni are examples of this.  In addition, the following extract from Wikipedia about Uganda could well provide an “Aha!” moment for most readers:

Recent developments, including the abolition of presidential term limits before the 2006 elections and the harassment of democratic opposition, have attracted concern from domestic commentators and the international community

I will leave you, dear reader, to arrive at your own conclusions in the matter of why our government has, in the past, cultivated the least democratic of regimes and continues to nurture relations with those that continue on that path while dropping, like the proverbial hot potato, relations with such as Myanmar which has shown clear signs of charting a new course. Also, while consolidating relationships with the repressive among old friends, there appears to be more than a suggestion of deliberate cultivation of those of a similar stripe who have not been previously courted!

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    Birds of a feather flock together. Rajapakse strikes a common chord with petty dictators like Mswati and Musaveni. He hass no standing with the more arrogant ones like Mugabe.

    In the case of China, money speaks. On the anti imperialistic line he strikes a common chord with people like Ahamedinijad. Very few places he can go to or be recognised. His ego must be waering pretty thin these days. Maybe he should visit places like fiji, togo, solomon islands? He can get a topless reception in those places.

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    Emil thanks for the write up and info. I fail to understand with all the Philosophies of the Socialist and Communist kind, idolising an Utopia, which you yourself espoused more strongly during your day, you coming from one of the Richest Families of the landed gentry in this country. If I remember right the reason you adduced was that you were witness to the living conditions of Labour in the Estates, which was the patern in life in society then or for that matter to a lesser degree even now. Please do not infer that I condone with, such social styles. Yes I am with you that there has to be a better distribution of wealth in today’s context for the lowest stratar, to live as decent human beings, although I strongly believe that, the ‘equality’ mentioned in both Socialism and Communism is unattainable and only serves as Ideal Concepts, to mislead the masses for the Corrupt to secure Political power.

    I too hail from one of the oldest families in this country, where ‘Five Boodaleys were part of the wealth that consttuted our family powerloom, where there was land in vast extents stretching from the coastal to the centre. I remember going to our ancestoral home for the New Year where we used to spend a week or so to celebrate the Sinhala New Year with the villagers, in the ’40s and early ’50s. There used to be hundreds of people, whole families who used to visit and have a meal served. There were about ten to fifteen women cooking in the kitchen all the time. I remember there were people who used to bring salt from the salterns as Rajakariya. Majority of land had to be forfeited under the Waste Land Ordinance, but some of it was given with Crown Title. As for the Socialist Policies implemented, in the late ’50s the Paddy Lands Act was one to break the amity in the village in order to change the social structure. As you know according to the PLA the owner is entitled to 1/4 th share and has to collect it from the threshing floor. However, I get half share still and the villagers bring it free to the store in the house. This practise yet continues because we still preserve the old traditions of not disposing the entire harvest but retains sufficient quantity in stock, in case a harvest fails, for consumption for the andey farmers who work the fields. I believe what is important in Governance of societies today is not ‘isms’, but being Human, Honest and Truthfull. We do not carry any of this wealth when we go, but only good will.

    Therefore what I see that is important is not Capitalism, Socialism or Communism, where all have failed, but a System of Governance that provides the Poor the basics and climbing the social ladder to be Rich, left for ones own effort. As much as there are differences between able and unable, the sick and the healthy, the Rich and the Poor will continue as Life will never be Perfect.

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      To Gamini & Lasantha Pethiyagoda:
      First to G: I fear that, in your description of my earlier days, you may be confusing me with my siblings who were life-long revolutionaries. As for a belief in the need, beyond any “isms” to ensure a “Just Society,” as Pierre Trudeau described it, I am with you 100%, though I think that “utopia” as you seem to suggest it IS still within human reach.
      Lasantha:
      “Not guilty as charged in the matter of a “skewed” approach. Gaddafi did get rid of a rotten Idris regime and Musaveni played his part against Obote and Amin. I cannot, however, subscribe to either the Burmese junta or the clown from Swaziland having redeeming features!
      Thank you, both, for your considered critiques.

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    I would like to suggest that Emil’s piece is somewhat skewed in the contexts he uses analogies with third world dictators or despots. Some of the personalities he mentions, and the countries they represented, have some achievements to their credit, and are not quite how the western media would have us believe, via their biased reportage. Apart from that the humour is good, and the juicy snippets of the frolicking good times quite funny…

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