22 May, 2024


Gods & Soldiers

By Ravi Perera

Ravi Perera

Across the world these are dismal times, a highly contagious pandemic runs amok, curtailing movement, bringing in its wake an economic slow-down, adversely impacting the lives of millions. Some countries are better equipped than others to face this unusually difficult challenge. Countries with strong financial reserves can withstand prolonged emergencies, their economies are less vulnerable to work stoppages and even if economies slow, can financially support their people. Countries with high quality administrations can also rise to the occasion better, able and motivated public officials are an advantage when in crisis. Having followed sound policies for decades, the Developed countries are also blessed with other advantages when facing a pandemic. Several of them have the necessary knowledge as well as the capabilities to develop and produce effective antidotes, as events show, a tremendous bonus in an unexpected health crisis such as the Covid-19 threat. Every Developed country may not produce the vaccine, but have the wherewithal to procure them without difficulty.

Even a casual examination will tell us that the Sri Lankan situation is perilous. The country is hugely in debt to foreign lending agencies, our currency is in a near free fall, a double jeopardy for a small country crucially dependent on imports. Two of our major income sources, tourism and foreign employment, are grievously hit by the pandemic. Many a breadwinner is unemployed today.

In the preceding decades, several Asian countries transformed their economies, becoming successful export hubs, raising their industries to global competitiveness. We have however continued as a net agricultural exporter, with a sprinkling of relatively low-tech industries such as garments and basic accessories. Here too, newcomers like Bangladesh and Vietnam have now stolen a march over us.

When confronted with harsh realities it is the nature of many to wish them away, glossing over their obvious inadequacies by denial, even resorting to fantasy. A make-believe world is far preferable to the hurtful truth of unsuccessful ambitions and botched ventures. Only a few have the courage to face the truth of their failings. While our unhopeful record may bring to question the competence of the nation to achieve its goals, grandiose talk becomes an irresistible drug, a useful escapism. Every bad news is dismissed as propaganda of hostile sources, attributing one’s own lack of truthfulness, to all.

Further we fall behind, deeper the country’s economic ills, more intractable its social dilemmas, louder it seems, our claims of success. Hardly a day passes, without someone claiming a high achievement of a global magnitude. This can be illustrated with a hypothetical example. Our team to the Olympic games will be tiny (much smaller nations, have bigger contingents), many of our athletes will fail to achieve even the qualifying standard to participate, there will be no medals to show, but we may claim an achievement-  the largest contingent of officials per athlete!

To say that everything is relative, is trite, but nevertheless true. One’s perception of people and events is conditioned by many factors, the observer seeing them through a culturally conditioned mind-set. A leader we consider above average, may well be just about average, or even below average in different eyes. An organization/institution that looks formidable from the local point of view, may be considered wanting, or even pitiful to another way of seeing. With every national disappointment, with every lost day, we realize that our “truths” are not necessarily, every bodies “truths”.

Our daily life is made up of hundreds of everyday scenes. What we personally make of them is subjective, however, collectively, what everyone sees, make up a day, in a story of a nation.

The other day, I saw on the local media some photographs of a Covid-19 related inoculation exercise. A few elderly women who had come for their Covid-19 vaccine were being helped by medical assistants prior to the injection being administered. Having stood in a long line for a considerable period, the women were visibly tired. The assistants, in the globally recognized uniforms of medical staff, were helping them to walk the last few steps.

Explaining the pictures, the reporter described the medical assistants as “Gods walking on Earth”

This is an everyday sight in nearly every medical facility in the world. These are professionals, trained and paid to help those needing medical assistance. A reassuring atmosphere plays a pivotal role in the healing process, reputed health providers around the world pride themselves on their empathetic approach to patients. Besides, assisting a weak or sick person is basic human benevolence, requiring no hosannas. On the contrary, it is the opposite that ought to concern a society, when a simple bread and butter act of assistance becomes unusual, a matter to be highlighted in hyperbole.

In this country, there are very regular references to the concept of “god”, generally in the plural. Although none can claim personal contact, the gods are endowed with supernatural powers and are also attributed with superior human virtues. Just like us puny humans, “gods” have strong emotions, and, can also be angered or appeased. To the reporter, those female health assistants guiding the old females who had stood long hours in the sun, represented “gods” on earth.

The other scene that left an impression on my mind recently was a random military check point near Narahenpita. In that dilapidated urban sprawl, a few armed soldiers were stopping vehicles on a main road for what looked like a routine questioning of the driver. As I was driving in the opposite direction I only caught a brief view of the exercise. That image struck me for several reasons.

In their neat uniforms, with their military posture, the soldiers contrasted sharply with the surrounding shoddiness; the noisy traffic, small shabby shops, grotesque billboards, blackened overhanging cables, zig-zagging tuk-tuks, overloaded lorries belching black smoke and the endlessly hurrying crowd; poorly and harried. The young soldiers had an air of men apart, those who had escaped their accustomed condition; impressive outfit, shinning boots, sleek automatic rifles on the ready, crackling radios conveying constant messages, the powerful four-wheel drive vehicle that could take them out of the run-down surroundings in minutes. There was nothing sub-standard about their equipment or dress, down to the cap and epaulettes, undoubtedly everything was of foreign origin.

We do not know if these check points have borne results, thwarted potential terrorists or drivers without their license. Generally, in other countries, the military is there to counter foreign threats, the alien is the enemy. When your own army is on the road, it is either a huge crisis (like the Covid-19 inoculations) or a sign of deep going social instability. In this country there is no right to bear arms, very few people have firearms, fewer still can shoot straight. Since 2009, we haven’t seen a single situation where guns were immediately needed to bring under control.

Since those far away days of 1948, we have been grappling with endless social issues, confounded by a very mediocre economic performance. Presently, all our hopes are placed on creating a financial hub in Colombo, promoting ourselves as a centre of peace, stability as well as ability and advanced skills.

The road to the promised land, two images; gods and soldiers, a nation in desperate crisis. Seventy years of waiting in hope has exhausted us. In our enervated state, even recent images are blurred, clarity is lost, the two images interweave, gods are soldiers or soldiers are gods? 

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Latest comments

  • 15

    Sri Lankan’s lack competitive instincts. Thousands of years of caste based marriages has meant the weakest has breed with the weakest – creating a physically and psychologically weak race. This goes for India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Look at the Olympics. None of these countries with huge populations can win a single medal. SL sent 9 athletes , one them from Sweden, and 17 officials. 17 officials for 9 athletes. This sums up Sri Lanka. We are surrounded by the Ocean. Yet we can’t produced a single swimmer. There must be thousands of people in Ampara, Trincomalle, Matara, Hambantota etc, who are world class Swimmers. Yet we can’t be bothered to find them. Until we can produce Olympians , Play in the Football or Rugby World cup,- there No point blaming X, Y and Z. As an collective Sri Lankans are useless. We are just one step ahead of Africa.

    • 10

      creating a physically and psychologically weak race
      And yet they claim to be of a ‘superior aryan race’

      • 4


        I meant all Sri Lankans and south Asians. The Tamils and Muslims are worse than the Sinhalese. Since they are all inbreed. Sinhalese women to their credit slept around with Greeks, Persians, Romans, Indians, Moors and Portuguese. I personally don’t find it immoral for a women to “dig around” and find the right partner.

        • 2

          “Until we can produce Olympians , Play in the Football or Rugby World cup,- there No point blaming X, Y and Z. As an collective Sri Lankans are useless. We are just one step ahead of Africa”
          Perhaps you should do some reading before you preach about African backwardness. Don’t you know that the world’s best Olympic athletes are from Africa? Have you heard of the South African rugby team? And don’t forget that Egyptians built the Pyramids.

    • 7

      Ravi perera,
      The way you talk about the soldiers almost sounds homo erotic.
      Surprised you didnt walk up to them and run your hands over their
      ‘toned bodies’

  • 10

    From all accounts, Sri Lanka is under an undeclared military dictatorship.
    Nothing can be done about it in the short term. May be very soon, there will be a mass uprising of the citizens which will be suppressed by the military, as is happening in Burma.
    This will be the beginning of a “military dictatorship” like in that country.

    I remember my childhood in the early nineteen thirties when there was peace and harmony among citizens and going to school was an enjoyable episode, daily, There were “attendance inspectors” who went to homes of children who did not go to school during each month and inquire why, and rectify whatever cause for same.
    I also remember the “Independence Ceremony:” in Colombo in 1948 which was attended by children from a few schools in the provinces, including mine.

  • 5

    Yes ….The road to the promised land, two images…..
    Unfortunately images are of blunders.
    First ban chemical fertilizer imports overnight. Suddenly today, imports allowed for nitrogen and potassium derivatives. We are blundering through without foresight.

  • 9

    Both Sinhala Buddhists and Tamils Politicians have failed to find the common cause to achieve economic progress. It’s easy to capture Power by stressing on the differences and setting up inter racial riots. Had we all considered ourselves as Ceylonese since Independence and had practiced Meritocracy, we will NOT be in the current horrible situation.
    It’s stupid to spend more than 10% of the GDP on defence of the country. It’s is to protect the rulers and NOT the Civilians

    • 1

      The point made by you is well taken. Meritocracy is and should be that way. No but’s and if’s. I see your point and to resolve this matter, we need to address and seek answers and process of remediation.
      Who, How, when and what made inroads into the meritocratic manner in which this country was governed and all process therein.
      I can remember half a dozen instances, of which I list few below:
      1. University admissions and Z score or related and differentiation of areas differently (1970)
      2. Independence of Public Service Commission tampered and/or abolished (Post 1960)
      3. Parliamentary Review (Senate) Chamber – to ensure legislative process is w/o blemish has been abolished (1970 – because herd of B’s did not want correction and used 2/3 majority)
      4. The same 2/3 majority and herd instinct is being used the FINANCE BILL, before Parliament.
      5. Same 2/3rd majority magic was used for impeaching an incumbent CJ and 18th amendment.
      6. Same 2/3rd majority sought by the President before G election to ensure good governance.
      When identified and ill-advised process are reversed/remediated, then there would be an ensured process of meritocracy, not otherwise. This is a prime necessity to ensure meritocracy works and superior to Aristocracy or Autocracy, we have and enjoy blissfully at present!

      • 1

        Abolition of the Upper House/House of Review/Senate (you may call it whatever) has removed the possibility of the citizens of SL being able to have 2nd opinion on the legislative process of SL Parliament, using their wisdom and knowledge of learned personae, instead of Herd instinct to enact SL Legislation process.

    • 1

      “Both Sinhala Buddhists and Tamils Politicians have failed…”
      Sinhala Buddhists failed because of actions taken by narrow minded Tamil politicians.
      At the time British gave Independence, Native Sinhalayo were the most oppressed people in this country while a small group from the Tamil community had become the most privileged group by helping British to exploit the country of Sinhala people. Even after Independence, the country was ruled by Sinhala and Tamil ‘Kalu Suddas’. Majority of them were Christians who worshiped Brits. So, Sinhala Buddhists had to face enormous challenges to put the country into the right track as a Sovereign State. The biggest challenge came from separatist Tamil politicians. Separatism and anti-Sinhala campaign by Tamil politicians started while the country was ruled by British. After Independence, separatist Tamil politicians resorted to use violence against Sinhalayo using various pretexts and destabilized the country. Under those circumstances the country had to spend a colossal amount of money for defense because of the threat from separatist Tamils for the territorial integrity of the country.

  • 14

    Its funny how its encouraged when the NE of the island is overrun with soldiers, to the point where it is one of the most heavily militarized areas on earth!
    But soon as the southerners get a taste of it, now all of a sudden ‘its a problem’

    • 3

      Humble, there is a difference, the South is not full of terrorists trying to divide the country.

      • 0

        Is this an outcome of post 2009/10 census? Very enlightening.

      • 4

        The terrorists in the south dont want to divide the country because
        they want to colonize all of it and wipe out the others.

  • 6

    Oh….so well written.

  • 1

    Devolution is not Division. The Supreme Court has already given a clear ruling on that point.

  • 4

    I think I understand what the writer is attempting to convey to the reader. That is that the medical staff are absurdly put on a pedestal for merely performing their duty (no doubt under trying conditions and with not much relief). If one only watches Rupavahini news in the evening, they will imagine that Sri Lanka is indeed a paradise the way official govt policy is praised and promoted. No protests, disturbances, public inconveniences or grievances are aired. The writer also sees the military as being elevated in status and essentially an aloof, elite sophisticated class far removed from the squalor of Narahenpita. This is a dangerous sign, and shows the hallmarks of a military dictatorship in the making.

  • 7

    Humble, in all potentially dangerous spots of the world there are army camps-Afghanistan, Kashmir, Israel, Korea, etc. That is the price people pay for safety and peace.

    Old Codger , the meat eating protein rich diet of Africans and others may help to play Rugby and Soccer. They are much bigger than us and a lot more athletic. Olympic results show it-India/Pakistan/Bangladesh more that one billion people-how many medals for South Asia ?

    Old Codger, you go on about the Pyramids and various words and a few ideas that came from old history of Arabia.

    As a person I far prefer voting rights, independent judiciary, electricity, tap water, internet , newspapers, sliced bread and the billion other things that enrich our lives today. More democratic and meaningful to everybody-not only to Pharos, Sultans, Mullahs and other feudal lords

    • 1

      deepthi silva
      That is the price people pay for safety and peace.
      So by that logic you are one of the few southerners who does not have an issue with the growing military presence in the south.
      So you wont have any issue with the army breaking into your house in the middle of the night, or interfering and controlling every aspect of your day to day life.
      You wont have a problem if they steal your livelihood.
      You wont have any problem if they steal your land or home. You wont have a problem if narcotics are given to your children to encourage them to self destruct, all in the name of ‘safety and peace’

  • 1

    deepthi silva
    African meat eating habits are similar to sri lankans.
    The poor africans eat mostly vegetarian food as meat is expensive or hard to get.
    The richer ones eat plenty of meat but so do rich sri lankans.
    And the original egyptians were africans. Arabs gradually displaced them.
    Mizraim (egypt) was originally the name of one of the sons of ham.
    The other sons being ethiopia, libya and canaan. Africa is the land of ham.
    Arabs are from ishmael who come from the line of shem.
    So no! The ancient egyptians were not arabs!

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