Colombo Telegraph

Escaping Armageddon, Living With Pessimism

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

The Prime Minister Mr. Ranil Wickremsinghe on Saturday 23rd July made a ferocious assault on two English Language Newspapers and its editors. He said that the Daily Mirror had demanded the ouster of Mangala Samaraweera the country’s Minster of External Affairs who had contributed immensely to restore the image of Sri Lanka as was demonstrated by the invitation to President Sirisena to attend the G7 parley in Japan. The Daily Financial Times he alleged attempted to sabotage the economy by publishing negative articles despite which the government succeeded in raising funds by the issue of sovereign bonds. His indignant denunciation of the Daily can be reasonably attributed to the article published in the Daily Mirror “Why Mangala must exit and Amunugama must enter” by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka.

It also stands to reason that his grievance against the Daily FT has to do with opinions expressed on the Central Bank Bond issues by the likes of Dr. W.A. Wijewardena Former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank and Mr. Chandra Jayararatne, a former chair of the Chamber of Commerce and an eminent and prominent civil society activist.

To begin with, I unreservedly share, approve and endorse the Prime Minister’s opinion of Mr. Mangala Samaraweera. In addition to his forthright performances in international gatherings that indicate to the world of our desire to move from a tribal society to a modern, he is the one senior Cabinet Ministers who consistently seeks to keep us reminded of the dark times of the deep state with its freebooting economy that we reeled under till 8th January 2015.

Offering specious advice on the composition of the cabinet of Ministers is the privilege of Dr. Dayan Jayatillaka. Observance of the principle of keeping readers informed of various hues of opinion is the professional obligation of the journalist. The editor of the Daily Mirror in this instance may have been also influenced by a previous report that the Presidential secretariat had invited Dr.Jayatilleka for a seminar on foreign policy which was held for the benefit of his Excellency the President of the republic.

This writer is convinced that Dr. Sarath Amunugama does not share Dr.Jayatiklleka’s current ethos of mongrel Sinhala nationalism. The last occasion I met him was at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies auditorium where Dr. Amunugama paid a moving tribute to fellow Anthropologist Stanley Thambiah which I described as a Buddhist requiem for the author of ‘Buddhism betrayed? ‘

That brings us to the free exchange of opinions in the columns of the daily FT on the controversy of bonds issued by the Central Bank under Governor Arjun Mahendran. We do not know what COPE will report to parliament.

Dr.W.A. Wijewardena former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank in an article ‘The Bond Scam and the story of selling government securities direct’ on 11th July 2016 sums up the predicament. Our small pond cannot be the preserve of a few giant toads. Direct sales which are now referred to as ‘private placements’ was an instrument available to exercise due diligence. Dr. Wijewardena narrates the reaction of former Governor A. S. Jayawardena when he was told that direct selling would impede the market. Said Governor Jayawardena: “There is no competitive market here because the licensed primary dealers are a group of oligopolists who can drive the rates to their advantage. The Central Bank, while seeking market development in the long run, has a right to prevent a situation that would lead to unfair trade practices by a few primary dealers who might have access to inside information. Hence, market development means market taming too.”

It is now clear that the Prime Minister has on this occasion decided to be ‘Casabianca.’

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,

As born to rule the storm.

That is his privilege. His choice. That said, this writer is convinced that Voltaire is correct. Common sense is not so common. The Prime Minister who is undoubtedly a clever and canny politician has for some bizarre reason decided to wage war on the media at a time when the right to information bill is before parliament. It seemed that he was losing his marbles.

There are other signals that are ominous. He has appointed his Additional Secretary –Media Mr.Saman Athaudahetti as acting chairman of the state owned ITV. One of his first acts in office was to invite a former ITV boss Newton Gunratne who was an ardent advocate of free media under the Rajapakse Presidency for a program that sought to map the future trajectory of ITV.

Tisaranee Gunasekara in her most recent essay observes tartly ‘The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is only marginally better than its Rajapaksa predecessor when it comes to corruption, nepotism and venality.”

His focus in Kandy with a captive audience of UNP apparatchiks was on two English newspapers. That in itself is another narrative. Our Sinhala print media does not focus on foreign policy or finance to the same extent and depth of its English counterparts. The present editors are poor substitutes for giants in the caliber of D.B. Dhanapala, Julius Lanerol, Dharmapala Wettasinghe and Gunadasa Liyanage. The editor of a Sunday Sinhala National Paper has been appointed to the Press Council by the ‘Yahapalanaya’ as a reward for appearing with firmer CJ Sarath Silva on a TV show justifying the impeachment of CJ Sirani Bandaranayake.

After 8th January 2015 we are a nation in transition suffering an acute sense of uncertainty. We turn to different sources for information- mainstream print and electronic media, alternate media, social media and the grape vine. The public does not expect impeccable integrity either from media or the politicians. A heighted state of anxiety is the reward of those who helped install this government in power. A video in which Gamini Viyangoda recites Professor Carlo Fonsekas Sinhala rendition of Berthold Brecht’s ‘The Buddha’s parable of the burring house’ has gone viral. An extract from it seems appropriate.

“Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I entered the doorway and called
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them,
While the heat was already scorching his eyebrows,
Asked me what it was like outside, whether there was
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought, 
Must burn to death before they stop asking questions.”

The learned Prime Minister seems to be living in the land of OZ where water is wet. He should heed to George Orwell’s opinion on the freedom of the press. “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose”

Some people feel the heat. The octogenarian performer Trini Lopez appeared before a packed house in Colombo. The tickets were prized at Rs.7,500, Rs.5000 and Rs.3000. When the audience was informed that the guest of honour was Finance Minister the packed house responded with a deafening BBBBOOOOOOO. The hapless Mr. Karunanayake had an audience different from that of the Prime Minster in Kandy.

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