30 May, 2023


The Past Is Never Dead 

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

“The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” ~ William Faulkner (Requiem for a Nun) 

The government recently announced a decision to import 6,000 metric tons of Basmati rice from Pakistan under the provisions of the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement.

Responding to a question from the press, Mass Media Minister and Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella offered his explanation.  

“Our “Paddy Farmers” were not getting a high price for their crops. The idea is to import Basmati rice for those who seek it which in turn will “reduce the competition for local rice variants. “ 

Almost immediately, a quipster on some social media which I don’t recall ( I am not savvy with the stuff and rely on my granddaughters to follow these gems)  responded: 

“Why not permit the import of more BMWs for those who seek it? It will reduce competition for Altos!” 

Said Thomas Carlyle “Teach a parrot the words ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ and you have an economist. 

It is a shame that the Minister in charge of the subject of Information missed this excellent opportunity to explain how free trade agreements help regional trade. Perhaps the import of Basmati would have helped our Betel exporters. 

The SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry has published a review of the FTA with Pakistan. 

“Pakistan’s exports to Sri Lanka grew from US$ 97 million in 2004 to US$ 355 million in 2018. Similarly, Sri Lanka’s exports to Pakistan grew from US$ 47 million in 2004 to US$ 105 million in 2018. “  

Instead of informing, the Minster peddled propaganda. In this age of fake facts, this gambit is known as ‘Spinfluence’.

It is the use of language to peddle biased idea. It is the art of interpreting events to shape perceptions. It is the voodoo that, manipulates cognition. It is the wizardry that directs behavior. 

It is called the battle for hearts and minds of the crowd and the mob. Some call it populism. Its disciplined exponents call it authentic democracy. 

But the magic works. Weak arguments become counter thrusts of immense force. All that is required is the language that can invade the mental and emotional territory. It obliterates the space between fact and fiction. 

A few days before the Parliamentary Elections in August 2020 I penned an essay – “A super majority is a bad idea

I was way off the mark. An emphatically persuaded constituency, vast in size, strong in its determination to be on record, thought that a super majority was a damned good idea. 

This explains why this writer has ceased his once frequent explications on democracy and good governance. That grand wide eyed naivete of a just society no longer summons the passion it once commanded.   

But something happened that compelled me to write this missive. I got a new year’s gift of two books.

One is the Autobiography of Sarath Amunugama- the ‘Kandy Man.” The other is Arundathi Roy’s ‘Ministry of Utmost Happiness.’ 

As is the case with books, curiosity coerced a little browsing of both.  

The blurb on the back over informs that Arundhathi Roy lifts the veil on India’s chaotic beauty with her radical anger and warm compassion. 

My preference was to read ‘Kandy Man’ first. My hometown is nearby Matale.  Reading it is easy and restorative. After all, Yesterday is today’s nostalgia. 

His recollections of days in Trinity, set up by Anglican Missionaries to make Gentlemen out of the genteel class in the Kandyan heartland is heart warningly instructive. It reminds one of V.S. Naipaul’s autobiographical novel ‘Mimic Men’.   

Receiving both books at a time when the pandemic has reduced normal life to watching shadows in a cave was unnerving. It alerted me to abandoned and a forgotten world. 

As Faulkner says “memory believes before knowing remembers.  

This digression I hope will explain the melancholic meandering that follows. There is no greater sorrow than to recall happier times when one is miserable. And I am miserable. 

This is an anguished effort to get some weight off my chest. A few weeks ago, I read an observation made by Professor Rohan Samarajiva in a webinar on the 20th Amendment.

He spoke in Sinhala. Rendering it to English, I have followed the dictum that the ‘translator is a ‘faithful accomplice.’ 

The good professor offered a marvelous analogy in explaining the purpose of a constitution and how constitutional provisions differ from ordinary legislation.  

“A constitution of a state is different from ordinary, regular law. A constitution stipulates what is possible and what is not possible within the accustomed political process. It is analogous to the rules of a game of cricket.  Cricket rules are not determined by the winning team. Those rules are decided by either the International Cricket Council or by the Decision Review System of Umpires. “

This forthright, faultless, analogy made in Sinhala is a master stroke. Pun intended. It has the power of metaphor. It has the drive of an authentic narrative. 

It captures our present predicament. This is about civility and common decency that Sarath Amunugama recalls during his days at ‘Trinity’.  

The game of cricket must have two teams. It is played on an agreed set of ground rules. Both sides comply with the ruling of the umpire. The winning side doesn’t claim the right to frame the ground rules.  

These simple home truths constitute the fulcrum that upholds the principle of debate in a democracy. A democracy is not determined by laws. A democracy has a simple choice – to be decent or indecent. 

It all depends on the ‘demos’ who make up the democracy – we the people. 

George Orwell the intellectual of the common man who gave us the ‘Animal Farm ‘and 1984 often used the term ‘common decency’ in his essays.

Simplicity, honesty, warmth, respectability, stoicism and grit were all embodied in the catch phrase called common decency.  These attributes are no more! 

The word ‘democracy’ creates problems to elected leaders who happen to be closet autocrats. A closet autocrat still claims proprietary rights over the cadaver of the party that was formed by the natives to claim independence. Not that it matters.   

 A country calls itself a democracy when it needs to show a veneer of respectability. Often it is used as praise of a country. All types of regimes can and do claim title to democracy.

 But when the term democracy needs to be tied down to any one solid meaning, the theatre stops. Puppetry begins. 

Let us not take refuge in humbug. These common decencies were not observed by the drafters of the 19th amendment. We must not allow history to perpetuate distortions.

One of the architects of the 19th Amendment told this writer some time ago why Justice Mark Fernando then the most senior judge in the apex court was bypassed. The 1994 reformers who promised to abolish the executive presidency discovered that JRJ’s market economy can be humanized. 

They did not want a doctrinaire jurist at the helm to hamper their proposed constitutional reforms.  

We must learn to live with the 20th Amendment.  

The committee stage debate on the 2021 budget revealed something that Plato discovered in his famous tract – The Republic written in 380 BC. 

Plato describes the democratic man.  

‘The ‘Democratic process would replace moderation with grand slander and abuse. Insolence would be substituted for good breeding. Self-gratification would be regarded as magnificent.’

No autocrat can succeed alone. It can be done only with the acquiescence of ‘we the people.’ 

The moral psychology of the state cannot be far from the moral psychology of the citizenry.  

It is our desire for freedom that creates the space for genuine democracy. When we abandon that desire, we slide to tyranny.

We do not know, for certain what happened with sovereign bonds before 2015. But we do know what happened with sovereign bonds in January 2015. 

A multitude of interests unleashed in haste, under the guise of a reform agenda unleashed a skirmish that snowballed into a washout that couldn’t be contained. The 20th Amendment was inevitable. 

The people or most of them were convinced that only a strong leadership could unite the plethora of passions. 

It is the authentic process. This  genuine product is called  populism. 

Stanford University Political Science Professor Josiah Ober explains Plato’s reading of populist tyranny in lucid contemporary terms. 

“This desire for a strong leader who can guide the diverse pluralistic uncoordinated desires ultimately produces a kind of tyranny.” 

Populism transforms democracy. It vests the government with a moral authority that can never be claimed or commanded amidst democratic chaos.  

When the state becomes the embodiment of moral authority, the virtuous people willingly give up the mechanisms put in place to prevent tyranny.

The mechanisms thus dismantled are called the checks and balances that Professor Rohan Samarajiva likened to the rules of cricket. 

When the oppressed people are liberated from the grip of democratic elitism, they become loyal adherents of their liberators. 

Periodically they are offered a syrup that will keep them protected from all types of viruses that invade both body and mind.  

Linguist Philosopher Noam Chomsky and Economist and Social Critic Edward Herman explained this process in 1988 when they noticed the  early signs of the information age. 

They called it the Manufacture of Consent. Today it is a much-practiced science. 

It has claimed two victims- truth and trust. Today, we do not recognize truth. We confuse trust with fancy. 

Until about ten years ago, our politics had at least the semblance of a foundational civility and an intrinsic sense of decency. 

Today we are incapable of sympathy. We are totally bereft of empathy. We must first unravel the two. 

Sympathy is the ability to put yourself in the place of another. That helps to understand the feelings of others by identifying with them.

With empathy, you put yourself in the other person’s predicament. Then you will feel much more deeply than just plain sympathy. 

At age seventy-eight I look back. There was a time when we regarded sympathy and empathy as unexceptional virtues. They were simple human qualities known to the rich and poor, the privileged and the deprived.    

There was a norm for acceptable, permissible behavior. Even when some travesty was committed, there appeared some dignified and quiet signs of remorse. 

Though with some reluctance, a minimum standard of behavior was observed by the political class. Now the bottom has dropped. The abyss is deep. 

Democracy is not a periodic election. Democracy is the ability and the means of reaching cohesion amidst diversity. 

Global rise of populist autocracy has produced much scholarly research on the death or imminent death of democracy. 

Benjamin Carter Hett, a  professor of history at the City University of New York, has produced a master piece – “Death of Democracy and the fall of the Weimar Republic.”  

A moral crisis, he maintains must precede a moral catastrophe.  Does it sound familiar? It all began in 1983. 

There are some inviolable truths about democracy.

“No democracy can function for long, however, unless ultimately the divided groups are willing to compromise with one another.”

More importantly, when people are tired of reason, when they are tired of thought and reflection, we the people stop in our tracks and then ask “What has reason done? “  

Democracies don’t die easily. Democracy cannot be strangled by someone or some group. Democracy cannot be killed by some constitutional amendment. 

Democracy can only die due to our apathy, our indifference and our failure to nourish it. 

Undernourishment caused by a dissipated civic culture is the usual cause of democracy’s death. 

A long time ago, Socrates suggested an experiment for ancient Athenians. 

“Let us place the most just regime side by side the most unjust, and when we see them, we shall be able to compare…” 

Today we have earned that strange privilege. Let us sit back and compare what we were and what we are. What we had and what we have lost over the last 72 years.  

Thank you for the patience with which you reached the end of this story that began with Basmati Rice. Moghuls feasted on Basmati then. Moghuls feast on Basmati now.  

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Latest comments

  • 9

    Dear Sarath,
    You say that you are miserable, but it is still true that this was a refreshing read. You started with your inimitable humour, and you have made the misery somewhat bearable for us by demonstrating the fortitude with which you bear it.
    I’m sure that when your own autobiography comes it’ll be a treasure. What impresses about your writing is its sincerity. It wouldn’t matter if relatively little is achieved if so much wisdom is shared with us.

  • 7

    Welcome after that long break. A good article.

    With the Sinhala/Tamil education interest in this kind of thinking has lessened. Today teachers only enable the students to just read and write in a basic way. The teachers themselves take gossip for truth and bias for ideology.

    In the Sinhala language there is no objective thinking, only praise the culture and religion .

    For politics to mean anything that culture must have greater depth and variety. Otherwise the culture can only produce the Rajapaksa type clones

    • 21

      Not surprised you wanted a break after the loss of face from the presidential election.
      But you don’t seem to have learnt the lesson.

      Democracy in Sri Lanka means the rule of the majority (Sinhala Buddhists who built an advanced civilisation), with due recognition of the minorities including the Sinhala ‘lascarins’ who converted in to Henry VIII cult, adopting the coloniser values.

      Therefore your gripe about the direction of the nation sees to have a terminal affliction. Hope you’ll learn to live with it the rest of your days.

  • 7

    Democracy plus racism have made SL ungovernable.

    Only solution – split the island into 3 mono-ethnic nations of Muslim Elam, Tamil Elam and Sinhala Only Elam. Relocate about 15% of the population to achieve it. All islanders will have permanent peace, absolutely no discrimination, no more political solutions, no more riots, no more wars, etc. All 3 will develop (Muslim Elam will develop faster as they have generous donors followed by Tamil Elam).

  • 9

    Sarath, after a long absence. I was really concerned about you. I am happy you are back.

  • 3

    The Past Is Never Dead ,The present will be live in future who will solve the loan that is taken in the past
    that was taken in past present and live in future Five dollars earned And seven dollars spent equals an unhappy life.

  • 8


    Look at your president blabbering about security and politics.
    He is not grown up at all like you and rest of the Sinhala/Buddhist bigot.
    BBC HardTalk Sri Lanka 3-9: The Tamils & the North – 7June 2010 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hnzj7–hXXw

  • 9

    Dear Sarath
    Welcome back after a very long silence. I wandered why we have not had any articles from Sarath.
    I understand your disgust if that is what you meant in your beginning of the above piece.
    Yes, most of us are really and truly cheesed of to put it mildly.
    of all things, “Basmati rice” had to trigger your appetite for penning the above. We are in interesting times. These so-called media spokes fellows, “can’t organise a piss up in a brewery “, leave alone briefing the media; for what’s it worth
    Talking about “desire” I quote Nepoleon Hill, when he was asked by Andrew Carnegie (in my book the greatest benefactor the world has ever seen, much bigger than the Rocker fellows of or Gates)) to write about wealth or put it simply “How to get rich quick- “Think and Grow Rich”
    Napoleon Hill had a lot to say about “DESIRE”. What drives a human being is the desire…. This may be a story for another day and time perhaps.
    Democracy on the other hand is too alien for present SL; in my view for a democracy to thrive the climate has to right. You cannot float democracy on vacuum or on a half-starved nation. How do you create or attempt to create desire on a Populus which have been subjected lies and more lies? Elections after elections?
    None are so blind who refuse to see. None are so deaf who refuse to hear

  • 14

    Reading this article one wonders if the writer is from a long forgotten era of common decency now a vague memory. The values that seem to drive his writing are long replaced with opportunistic spin doctoring. Even his very eloquent language speaks of sincerity, good upbringing and common decency that are now almost extinct in Sri Lankan society. How many of us can still enjoy such a rich heritage? (With or without Basmati)

    • 3

      “George Orwell …………often used the term ‘common decency’ in his essays. Simplicity, honesty, warmth, respectability, stoicism and grit were all embodied in the catch phrase called common decency. These attributes are no more! “
      Dear Mr S De A.
      While agreeing to above in general that the majority do not have these qualities, I wonder why you brought in STOICISM in that lot.
      It is only that which keeps us going in this age of “ today’s topsy turvy turmoil” (alliteration intended). Stoicism and Grit.
      From the tenor of your essay, may be, that same stoicism and grit keeps you sane.
      I wonder.

  • 2

    Further, the author is too late to recognize that none of these talking to be working with Royals. This was Tamils’ position in 1970 and they went for armed struggle, lost that after 30 years, and now for 12 years in diplomatic persuasion. From the time DS disenfranchised part of Tamils, they did know the democracy is not possible in Ceylon and they wanted a federal state for self-rule. Author believes people handed over full authority believing virtue and now has no guard. There is a little truth when Solomon talked about Panchamaha Pala Vegaya. JR too had little success in with his own Tharmista rule gimmicks. But people think when Chandra started Sudu Nelum, they believe she was true, but Tamils do not feel that way after her War for Peace. Practically Old king didn’t depend on his Chitanta games, but stopping Tamils from voting. So he paid in hard currency for that that is a full turn from all other past election. What author saying is did really happened in Yahapalanaya; people handed over to New King and Ranil expecting to restore law and order. But they both only hospitalized all the rascal criminals, including King & Old King. After the failed of Yahapalanaya’s Law and Order, people wanted only a Hitler to stop Muslims ISIS group hijacking their country.

  • 0

    Lot of misunderstanding is there at every pointing in past 72 years by voters. This time, thought they elected a Hitler, they got the first feeling of that a Hitler is in the seat was when the SC Judges feared to take up the case filed against government, functioning after the three moth of dismissal of parliament, without fixing an election date. Judges action indicated they lean to Hitler side and ruled that the law is supporting the lawless Hitler’s position. That was a situation to plead with Hitler to be virtuous, citing other countries laws and those countries leaders’ gentleman ship of resigning when they lost the confidence of people, but not waiting for election. Even Ranil did it in November, 2019. Even this type of author’s writing is pleading with Royals to follow the path of virtue. Otherwise these are time wasting effort after electing a Hitler with the support of a parliament with 2/3. Author has to recognize that “Azhuthazuthum Pillai Avale Peraveedum”. (Hooting or crying, only the pregnant woman who can bear the child; nobody else can do it for her!). Now undoing is only Sinhala Buddhists Mahajan can do. So there is no point in Tamil sit with the pregnant lady and they too cry & hoot until she bear the child, rather than they minding their business.

  • 2

    “The Past Is Never Dead”. If that was the case, our country and the people would not be in the present state. Let me remind you, that “PAST” is “DEAD” and NO MORE, and that has decimated individually and collectively.

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