26 October, 2020

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The Sacred & Profane At Cross Roads

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

The church and the whorehouse arrived in the far west simultaneously. And each would have been horrified to think it was a different facet of the same thing. But surely they were both intended to accomplish the same thing: the singing, the devotion, the poetry of the churches took a man out of his bleakness for a time, and so did the brothels.” ~ John Steinbeck in East of Eden 1952

Listening to President Maithripala Sirisena at the Matara rally threating to reveal secrets of the joint opposition, instinctively I recalled this exquisitely emblematic confluence of the benign and the bawdy that Steinbeck describes in his novel East of Eden. It was Steinbeck’s greatest work in which he explores the good and evil in the human condition.

Steinbeck saw the confused world as a poem, a habit or dream. Sen though a peep hole its inhabitants were “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant everybody. Seen through a different peep hole they could be “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.” Since it is the same eyes seeing through different peepholes they were ‘the same thing’Maithri-Ranil-Chandrika

The Presidents exhortations at Matara on corruption committed and corruption that is likely to be happening presented me- and my fellow citizens the same conundrum seen through Steinbeck’s two different peep holes.

The Matara display of popular support was to mark the first year anniversary of aimless meandering interspersed with some positives by the UNP –SLFP parliamentary coalition. Their first year balance sheet is short of positive gains but registers some amelioration of earlier mayhem, tyranny and fleece.

A few days earlier, the nation watched the audacious attempt of Mr.Upul Jayasuriya the boss of BOI reaching for a pie in the sky. President Sirisena he claimed would go in to history as the Mandela of Sri Lanka. His Zulu dance was performed at the Law Asia confab held in Colombo. It seems that we are definitely narrowing the gap between sanctity and profanity in political discourse.

Sycophancy or adulatory superlatives cannot camouflage the ground reality of a government under siege economically and politically. It is the poor, make believe Mandela who bears the brunt of the negative public perceptions. It is President Sirisena who has to appease public discontent over a sluggish economy and worsening living costs. In times of scarce resources he has the unenviable role of the proverbial harlot- responsibility with no authority.

He does not decide on priorities. His Prime Minister with an elite coterie determines priorities. He then keeps revising them, dismantling the great myth of Ranil the technocrat. The stock response of the government today is ‘we may not have achieved all that was promised but we are certainly better than them.’ A skeptical public refuses to buy that line because the kleptocratic elite remains in command of the decision making process.

In effect we live in a post factual democracy where there seems to be a shadowy collusion between the ousted Rajapakse camp and a powerful UNP coterie pursuing an agenda of its own. They are both sliding towards this post factual democracy by common consent. The signs are there for anybody who bothers to look closely.

The main UNP spokesmen have remarkably excelled in reducing their policy programs to slogans. They now pay only lip service to their original vision. The MR led joint opposition has developed a genius to make up any shit however implausible if such would help tide over their immediate hurdles.

The Prime Minister’s open taunt of joint opposition provocateur Wimal Weerawansa of favored treatment he sought is philistine at best and nauseating at worst. The two hundred percent proof demanded before charges are framed and indictments filed coupled with exceedingly slow grinding of the wheels of justice are a part of the post factual democracy.

In mob oratory, President Sirisena is no match for his opponent Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is not a mercurial orator. Mahinda Rajapaksa is mercurial and more. He exhorts his listeners to trust his proven expertise and demonstrated authority.

In contrast, Maithripala Sirisena in his sage, measured Presidential tone, resorts to illustrations, narratives and facts. Mahinda appeals to emotions. Maithri pleads for ethical propriety. The two antagonists are locked in battle for prescriptive rights over the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Pathos versus Ethos. Logos is nowhere to be found. No wonder the people are in a state of incredulous confusion!

Today’s broad debate between the two groups battling for control is not about the SLFP- the political party. It is about the structural convenience that evaded the grasp of President Sirisena immediately after 8th January 2015. That failure helped the dislodged President to augment his formidable economic clout with discernible political muscle. A position that suited the UNP.

In his ten years of untrammeled power, Mahinda Rajapaksa did to the SLFP in particular and to multi-party discourse in general what the Ottomans did to the Balkans. He entrenched a patriarchy. He made corruption systemic. He made the judiciary a servile agency. Above all he embedded a political and financial elite that is not easy to dismantle.

A few months ago, the President was the attesting witness at the wedding of the son of a Ministry Secretary who is fortunate to retain his influence and mastery under the new dispensation. He is the archetypal Rajapaksa apparatchik. Rural peasant origins. Excellent academic background. Steady advancement in public service. In a land where flaunting unaccounted wealth is no crime he thrived under the benign grace of the patriotic regime. The proud father told guests at the wedding that the young couple would honeymoon in Europe and the price tag was around Rs. Two Million. It hurts. He is not Zukerburg who made millions with software. Nobody makes that kind of money by saving on electricity and cycling instead of driving.

What the Matara rally demonstrated was that the institution called the political party does not occupy center stage in discursive politics. The public is increasingly inclined to decide their political allegiance on the basis of personalities instead of parties. The demand for two ballot papers – one for the candidate and the other for the party is more than adequate evidence of public disenchantment with the choice of candidates by parties.

The only role of the party in today’s context is that it provides the enabling frame work for recruiting political leaders at grass roots. It goes without saying that close affiliations and a history of connections through family is a sine qua non to be processed in the conventional party system.

But the Rajapaksa tribe are not the primary villains. The roots of evil can be traced to the epochal changes brought about by the lopsided yet decisive mandate of President J.R.J. With five sixth of seats in parliament he kept to his promise and rolled up the electoral map with the referendum of 1982. The Referendum of 1982 was a gang rape of democracy planned by the party that claims to be the party that negotiated our independence.

President Jayewardene then proceeded to do something that totally undermined the multi-party parliamentary democracy. Presiding as Zeus in his throne atop Olympus he unleashed and presided over a shadowy war among the lesser gods Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamani Dissanayake. Each Minister launched his exclusive gravy train. The Gam Udawa, the Mahapola, and the Mahavali were grand triumphal marches in the tradition of the vulgar opulence of corrupt Rome. They were populist pageantry at tax payer’s expense. The purpose was to propel each one of them as ‘capo de tutti capi ‘in their respective camps in to prominence. The Giant bill boards announcing development initiatives with huge silhouettes of the patron which became an exclusive art form under MR has its genesis in the grand plan of the Jayawardene government. It had its funny and disgraceful episodes too. Both the President and Prime Minister accompanied by their wives attended the Charles and Dianna wedding at West Minster Cathedral. Profligacy is not a Rajapaksa discovery. If at all they fine-tuned it to an art form.

The political trajectories of the three prominent aspirants to the executive presidency in the JRJ cabinet is contemporary history. Yet do they not remind us of the victors and vanquished at the Battle of Pharsalus. Did it not lead one to the pinnacle of power and then to the beyond, spelling the end of the Republic? President Wijetunge was an exception. His altruistic presidency was as exceptional as the circumstances that propelled him to office.

One could find many faults in the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga. Just as her imperious father, she frowned on petty corruption but allowed them to pass as permissible indulgences of the hoi polloi. Of course, there were some glaringly revolting indulgences. One was her Presidential security chief who became an influence peddler operating in stealth. But he did go to jail. The other glaring exception is that of a man grown too big to be discovered. He openly leveraged access to power under her Presidency. Nothing will touch him today because he is a bosom pal of both Viagra John and his boss. He is also friends with crooked Hillary.

Chandrika has not been recognized for her genuine attempts at Constitutional reforms in 2000. One could blame her for not attempting it earlier in her first term. It is the Ranil Wickremesinghe led UNP that undermined her democratic reforms. Hers was a regime that suffered and tolerated ordinary corruption. If there was corruption it was corruption in stealth. Not corruption with impunity. The Day light robberies came after her term when the CJ chosen on the recommendations of the Hunch Back of All Souls told her that the six year term commenced from the day she was elected for her second term.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga through her two terms was torn between assertive governance – the first imperative of the executive presidency and her inherently Bohemian ‘vision du monde’ that was natural to her and her late husband Vijaya. Perhaps the frequent soirées on the left bank made her indifferent to the mechanics of power. Of all executive Presidents of the past her presidency was exceptionally devoid of planned and deliberate abuse or misuse of power.

Of the two major political parties, the UNP is institutionally resilient and can resist external raids. More than a party, the UNP is a cooperative of the power elite. It is a political conglomerate made of several interest groups. If some of them found refuge under the Rajapaksas they have now returned to the fold. If some of them withdrew to the margins under Premadasa rule, they patiently bided their time to surface when appropriate.

The present power dynamics of the SLFP come as no surprise. It is the party that is worth fighting for. Other than the JVP which is yet to break loose from its Doctrinaire rigidity and the Minority parties, the SLFP remains the party that holds political promise. Nobody knows it better, than Comrade Vasu and Dinesh the son of Philip.

The SLFP is the only political group that exists in the psyche of the majority community with the semblance of a political party capable of mass mobilization. The SLFP, thanks to its two formative leaders Solomon and Sirimavo produced an ill-defined ideology of selective socialism. Shepherded by a manor born elite portraying a ‘Siddhartha’ type renunciation captured the imagination of the native elite suffocating under the comprador class. It would not have survived but for the peasant ideology of T.B. Illangaratne politician, novelist and trade unionist. He was a Sri Lankan combination of C.P. Snow and Stafford Cripps. This peasant from Thumpane wittingly or unwittingly etched the SLFP in the social conscience of the majority community. There is no doubt that Illangratne who had the good fortune of assembling a team of nativist academics and bureaucrats of the caliber of G V S De Silva, Jayantha Kelegama, P.B.Karandawela, Charles Abeysekera to name a few made the Sri Lanka Freedom Party the ‘structural metaphor of Lankan society and the cultural understanding of the nation.’

When Chandrika persuaded Maithripala Sirisena to challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa she was an instrument of history. She was a determined pilgrim who wished to cleanse a defiled shrine. I know I will be much reviled for saying this. I wish Chandrika Godspeed in the task ahead.

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Latest comments

  • 3
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    Sarath

    Breathtaking stuff!

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    Few can match Sarath’s power of expression and lucidity barring Vishvamitra and Thisaranee(Yakshanee).

    That said,

    “She was a determined pilgrim who wished to cleanse a defiled shrine.”

    threw me off balance.

    What BS. She was a determined marauder intoxicated with a cocktail of hatred, jealousy and vengeance.

    Soma

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      Vishvamitra and Thisaranee don’t even come close. Hats off to Sarath. Like to read more of his enthralling stuff.

      • 0
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        They are utterly biased and unashamed of displaying their own agendas. Sarath is genuine. You often have to disagree.

        Soma

  • 4
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    Mr.De Alwis

    You are right about one thing.You shall be much reviled about trying to hold Brief for CBK.Her Sins may be of lesser degree compared to previous Executive Presidents and the present Regime and yet she is no Saint.

    What significant achievements could CBK or any of Bandaranaike clan could claim when they were in power ? Her late father started the mess by making Sinhala only policy and the Mother followed with the Nationalization fiasco.

    Much as we would like to see the end of MR same goes for CBK as well.Let both retire gracefully for neither of them have the Country at heart in their dealings.

    If you want to wish CBK Godspeed it should only be for a happy retirement .

    Perhaps it must have been one of your Off days for trying to cannonize CBK

  • 3
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    Sarath;
    Thank you for another greater read. One small quibble: as someone who has read pretty well everything that Steinbeck wrote, including his wartime diaries, I don’t think East of Eden was his best work!
    Thanks, again and do keep up the good work.

  • 3
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    CBK was uneducated, not an intelligetn leader and was not suitable to lead the country. She demonstrated it very well. Even now, she wants to be the Sirisangabo and destroy Sinhala majority dominance. Her objective is to screw up the country and become popular internationally. Both gorbachev and Putin are leaders. Only Putin looks after Russia. Gorbachev destroyed his own country which he headed. CBK is not a pilgrim. She is doing just kitchen – politics full of hatred and jealousy. She was corrupt too. The evidence is how she bought a luxury bungalow in exclusive negighbourhoods in London. Long ago, she had been used to transfer blocks of lands to her trustworthy servants and later to sell those. She brought Mervyn to politics. That shows her judgemental ability. Any fox can fool her. Even before Mahinda Rajapakse becoming they were sworn enemies. She wanted to give the card to his brother but it did not work.

    It is not proper to accuse JRJ for everything. It is correct that every executive president used what JRJ did for their adantage and collected wealth, ruined the adminsitrative system. Mahinda rajapakse showed that he is the Satan of all the evils. It is not proper to praise his oratory skills too. Because, street corner “koduru thel” sellers too have very good oratory skills. but for what ?. That is to sell their coconut oil in a differently labelled bottle.

    I think MY3 should not be criticized severely right now. But, he should getrid other theives in the party too. He should not listen former theives who are retied or the JO.

    Anyway, It is the UNP which has done anything good for Sinhala buddhists. Even SWRD did not have backbone. He could not finish any project that he started. SLFP even talks about the country but they did not do anything. UNP was better. that does not mean Ranil wickramsinghe is a leader. Ranil, Mangala, CBK his christian party members are working for all others except the majority sinhala people.

    If Sajith comes, he won’t be different from his father. Sajith is another person who could not pass an exam but he thinks he is suitable for leading the country. If that happens that is another unfortunate period of Sri lanka. All the signs are there already that they will destroy the country.

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      Nobody is perfect, but Sarath de Alwis is quite right! He writes lucidly but with a complexity that you cannot comprehend:

      “Of all executive Presidents of the past her presidency was exceptionally devoid of planned and deliberate abuse or misuse of power.”

      That is true. It is also true that her approach did not allow her to defeat the LTTE. Let us be grateful to him for finishing the War; you place great stress on lack the lack of “her judgemental ability.”

      Well, she has nothing to do with Mervyn Silva any more, but we are indebted to her for bringing Maithri in.

      By the way, what HAVE you got against Sajith? I didn’t like his father’s way of doing things, but he’s going on fifty, and it’s high time he was given leadership of the UNP.

      At what stage did he not pass an exam? He speaks sense in Sinhalese. He seems to avoid using English because his brand of it is too British. Want to read about a guy who couldn’t get past Grade 8 in school, but still got on to a Board which deals with education. You will have to read this carefully to discover that fact, because it is worse cheating that is described:

      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-thomian-pharisees-are-unrepentant-why-this-matters-to-all-sri-lankans/

      However, before going to that blog, look at what a reader there has posted today about something totally off the beaten track:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSTh4Pefl8k

      Those are the otherwise unsung heroes who remain in the village. Why do we always want to go on about the same old thing, closing our eyes to dedicated work and perseverance elsewhere?

      So, please study the inspiring SECOND clip first, then go to the depressing things that happen in far more prestigious places.

  • 2
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    Great article full of rhythmic prose. Spells out the troubling nature of Sri Lanka Elite and Aspiring Elite ever since independence (a culture in dormancy ever since the advent of colonialism…….because our Sri Lankan people are that stupid,).

    Even Chandrika played her “Bohemian ‘vision du monde’’” not in Sri Lanka but on that west bank (France)….as so did a great many of our other diplomats. Couldn’t have they made Sinhala/Tamil culture cool? Great amounts of money would have left the shores for the soiree experience.

    Hoi-polloi were thus made to feel very uncomfortable in their skin. Masses felt ashamed of their very being. Cultural nationalists then force-fed them culture under threat. Sinhala culture took on the arrogant form, but with nothing else to sustain it.

    The big and proud thing of Ranil’s technocracy is VAT. Great thing of course, to pay back loans. But if e.g. garbage is to be collected from the streets, VAT is of no use. VAT is to pay back Chinese loans. For garbage collection, each neighborhood has to pay property taxes, pertaining to their neighborhood. Now, do any Elite pay property taxes? Instead, the Elite are sitting around and moaning as if they are starving because of VAT, and expecting VAT to take care of their garbage.

    And VAT to pay back Chinese loans is quite unnecessary. We can always tell the Chinese “so-wrong”, and hold America’s hand. Then the horror of Financial-City will not befall us. Unfortunately, Financial-City sounds too grand and important. And Lankans of all walks are suckers for the sky-scraper look. America will allow it because that’s a good way to get rid of the South, whilst they hold the hands of the N&E and consolidate their American interests with India and N&E (land-bridge included). South can go to China all they want (after all, they need China to sustain, because if China falters, US$$ also goes down).

    Ranil in the end, is not clever enough, or brave enough, to do the nitty-gritty of working at local level with Comprehensive-Tax-Reform. So, he too succumbed to that pie-in-the-sky scheme at the expense of country unity and sovereignty (Rajapaksa succumbed to “pie-in-the sky” with the threat of international sanctions against us, on our heads).

    Since Lankans can’t do it, we must approach America to show us the way to implement our constitutional structure to work for the better of the masses – Comprehensive-Tax-plan and all. Instead, America is approached to devolve our country on ethnic lines, so technocratic aspirations will be cut and dried – the ultimate betrayal of our land.

    What is needed is someone like communist WW to install the Comprehensive-Tax-Plan that will save our country from the ever expanding foreign-loans debt-trap.

  • 0
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    Dear Sarath: Good presentation. I made this available to a few of the University students, International School students and some of the “Officer” level (Middle & Lower level management)employees both in the Government and Private sector with the intention of (1) Keep them “informed” and (2) create “awareness” and enable them to make decisions in the future. I selected this segment, because they are the people to be “informed” and create “awareness”. Sadly a large “Majority” of them threw it at my face (via e mail) saying: “how the hell you expect us to read and understand the “Tough” English words written”. Two of them told me me they wasted lot of time referring to “Dictionary” and in that “madness” gave up “half way”. Please note this is not in any way to undermine the relevancy or the value of your presentation; but to request you to make an attempt to “Target” the growing young people of the country, who need to be “empowered” and “knowledgeable” to make decisions in managing the affairs of the country. I consider you to be one among such patriots who could render that service. Good work; keep it up.

    • 0
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      Dear Douglas,

      All those who “threw your e-mail at your face” are those who think themselves superior to the rest of Sri Lankans. Our tragedy is that “they are the people to be “informed” and create “awareness”.” A little above your comment, you will find another by me, in which I draw comparisons between the corrupt practices in some of our most prestigious schools, and the remarkable work done in a village school.

      Before returning here, I had a phone chat with a village man from Kurunegala who has risen in the Education Ministry and is now working on a PhD thesis on “Bi-lingual Education”. The “Ketawala miracle” is real, he says, but it depends on one one remarkable teacher who worked particularly hard. In other words, it cannot be replicated – which means that what that teacher says at the end of the YouTube clip will not really take place.

      Douglas, I appreciate both your comment, and all Sarath de Alwis’s articles. They are wonderful, and I have read below his explanation of why he writes. Let me JUDGE him to be a wonderful guy!

  • 1
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    Emil,

    Steinbeck wrote of common folk of depression times. All his books are great human commentaries. On Cannery Row, where did all the Sardines go? In to cans?
    Let me guess.Of Mice and Men is your pick.
    Thank you for the nice things said.

    • 0
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      Sarath:
      We seem to have the beginnings of a mutual admiration society here, at least as far as Steinbeck is concerned!
      It’s been a very long time since I read or re-read any of his material.

      Maudlin as it might be, I remember “Travels with Charley” fondly, but the material that really came from the heart was about the “Okies” and the depression years. Can’t resist the narrative based on the experiences of a real marine biologist and set in the tidal flats of California.

      Sorry about this comment ending up as a (yet another) ramble down memory lane!

  • 4
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    Jim Softly,
    CBK is not uneducated. Mahinda is not evil. One of the reasons I write is to leave a commentary of my times for my Grand Son who is sixteen sitting for his O levels this year. I will explain this piece to him after his exams. When I do come around to it, I will bear in mind your remarks. No body is educated enough to determine another to be uneducated. No body is saintly enough to determine the evil of another. Last December holidays I got him to read Eichman in Jeruslam and explained to him about Hannah Arndt. I am not sure but I think the boy knows about the banality of being judgmental. Now JRJ was definitely not evil. But he was Damn well cynical.That is not judgmental. An objective inference!

  • 2
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    So everything is wrong with EVERYBODY and dare I say it RAJAPOXY is the best of the bad lot ?

    Talk about barking mad !

  • 0
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    At a time when I was thinking about what to say of BOI head’s comments, you wonderfully said enough of it to my amazement. Thank you.

  • 1
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    Great piece, Mr Alwis. As you predicted, you did get lambasted for being soft on Chandrika. But I do agree with you. Her heart is in the right place. She is absolutely free of racist jingoism, and is rumoured to drink whisky to boot. She just might have settled the ethnic conflict without bloodshed with her “package” if the UNP had let it pass.

    • 0
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      Well, she’ll certainly be a change from the other 3. But one wonders about her love of country separation. Or is she more enlightened these days? Chandrika-Sirisena-WW can be the next trio, or maybe just Chandrika and WW (remove Sirisena and Rajapaksa will be appeased).

      • 0
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        Ramona,
        “Separatism” has become a 4-letter word in SL, like “federalism”. In civilized countries people are simply allowed to vote on it. Quebec and the Czech Republic come to mind.David Cameron is Scottish but he allowed a referendum on Scottish separation.

        • 1
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          old coger,

          Quebec has no French speaking US to encroach territory and take away Quebec from Canada.

          Czech republic and Slovakia have countries bordering all sides that keep their national borders in check and balance.

          Scotland has no Scotland-Nadu to the North to be a threat to England…..and yet they voted against seperatism.

          Little Sinhala Sri Lanka is at the threat of giganteous Tamil Nadu in the North, with no entity on any side to secure her one-and-only unique culture and heritage.

          A country-wide referendum would be useful for Sri Lanka in light of the continual terrorism and disputes. A N&E referendum wouldn’t be democratically appropriate for Sri Lanka vis-a-vis geographic and demographic reference of seperatism/unity of other countries.

  • 0
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    old coger,

    Quebec has no French speaking US to encroach territory and take away Quebec from Canada.

    Czech republic and Slovakia have countries bordering all sides that keep their national borders in check and balance.

    Scotland has no Scotland-Nadu to the North to be a threat to England…..and yet they voted against seperatism.

    Little Sinhala Sri Lanka is at the threat of giganteous Tamil Nadu in the North, with no entity on any side to secure her one-and-only unique culture and heritage.

    A country-wide referendum would be useful for Sri Lanka in light of the continual terrorism and disputes. A N&E referendum wouldn’t be democratically appropriate for Sri Lanka vis-a-vis geographic and demographic reference of seperatism/unity of other countries.

  • 0
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    ramona theerese/ old codger

    Sri Lanka is not an oceanic island. It is in a continental shelf. Without the Nadu to the north Sri Lanka has no future in the global economy. We cannot fool ourselves with Quebec , Slovaks etc unless we retreat to an inconceivable primitive cocoon. Thank you for the peg on which I shall hang another story.

    • 0
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      Sarath,
      I await your next story with interest. I suspect you spend a lot of time polishing your text. I don’t think anybody can write that well in one go!

    • 1
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      Fishes of the continental shelf do not constitute our genetic and heritagal make-up. Yes, we can certainly trade with Tamil Nadu and the whole of India. But vast migration of people between countries is quite unnecessary. We can also trade with the whole world.

  • 0
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    Mr.de Alwis claims that “It is President Sirisena who has to appease public discontent over a sluggish economy and worsening living costs. In times of scarce resources he has the unenviable role of the proverbial harlot- responsibility with no authority”.
    If President Sirisena does not have the right ideas,programs etc.Mr de Alwis,why don’t you provide some concrete proposals in stead of engaging in these carping criticisms?Fine prose and cute literary allusions are merely exercises in vainglorious self presentation that that will entertain the readers of these pages but will not have any practical impact on the condition of the people of this country.

  • 1
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    Kavi Sunderam ,

    The end of witting is to instruct. The end of elegant prose is to instruct while pleasing. I apologize for the unintended disruption of your tranquil repose. The purpose of my piece was a comparative performance of the several executive presidencies and an explanation of the current turmoil in the SLFP. If I need to be vainglorious I can do it in front of my bathroom mirror. You are an annoying self eccentric prick who is in search of a quarrel. Now, ,that is not good prose isn’t it?

  • 0
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    De Alwis:
    You are right,of course.I forgot that the works on this forum were essay contest! Please keep writing, eccentric prick though I am,I do enjoy reading them.
    Nevertheless,what do we tell Sirisena …

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