Sunday, March 09, 2014

Tales from the Grave

Another grave site has been discovered, this time in Mullaitivu. The GoSL blames the LTTE. 

We do not have much to go on, but an analysis of the reporting of the story tells us quite a lot. To begin with this is a major story, especially a month ahead of the UNHRC summit in Geneva.

The news of the discovery emerged on Twitter on the 28th of February (Friday). When I first saw this I was uncertain as to its veracity and searched around but there was nothing on the web.

Within a few hours however, it had been picked up by the news wires and full stories were being put out. It could have made the Saturday morning papers here, but did not.

Now Sunday is the day on which newspapers in Sri Lanka have the greatest circulation. It is the day on which people have some time to relax and look through the advertisements, to buy or sell a car, a house or even find a prospective partner for an unmarried relative in the matrimonial columns. The perfect day on which to carry a major new story.

If splashed across the front page, this story could have sold a few thousand copies more of whatever paper carried it. Once upon a time, when the newspaper was a major source of news, some would have even done a special early edition, just to carry this piece, preferably with some special insights, pictures, interviews or something that would differentiate a particular paper's reportage from that of its competitors.

We have a number of different newspapers, the variety is seen as a sign of a vibrant free press. 

Yet from the English press there was complete silence. (I can only comment on the English press since these are the only ones that I read).

On Monday, once the news had spread and was impossible to conceal, the Daily News ran a headline story blaming the LTTE. Only once the state owned daily broke the story did the other 'independent' press carry the story. The largest circulating English daily, the Daily Mirror rather timidly carried an AFP report on page four of its Tuesday edition. Not even its own story, something picked off the newswire that any overseas paper might carry. No local insight or analysis.

Since then, the rest of the press have mostly toed the official line, putting out little boxed stories echoing whatever comes out from the state channels.

Examining the GoSL reaction to the story is also useful. If we assume, and it may certainly be true, that the LTTE were responsible for this, then the GoSL reaction to this is muted and completely out of character.

Facing the challenge in Geneva, this discovery should have been a godsend. What better opportunity to deflect the arguments of our opponents? Why do we need to talk of old atrocities when evidence of new ones is just emerging? The ministries responsible for this are usually masters of the dark arts, why have they failed to exploit this? Where are the expensive advisers, Thompson Advisory Group? Are the people in charge asleep at the wheel?

We do not know, but the questions need to be asked. 


Saturday, March 08, 2014


It's time to be patriotic again and the assorted fools, knaves, thieves and courtiers almost seem to be falling over themselves, trying to be the most patriotic of all. A good time then to take a step back and ask ourselves what this all means.

The rocker Bob Dylan wrote a number of songs that became anthems of the US Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. His song Sweetheart Like You, carries a telling verse on patriotism. Very relevant to us, today.

"They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king
There’s only one step down from here, baby
It’s called the land of permanent bliss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?"

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Dealing with a new job

I moved in to a new job some months back. It has been a fairly tough period involving a lot of learning. Its in a completely new industry and one that is highly technical.

There is also the problem of added responsibility, having to carry the can, so too speak.

The pay is better, the work is 'real'-grappling with day to day issues in controlling the business; not doing meaningless plans, wasting time in interminable and pointless meetings or fiddling around with PowerPoint presentations.

While I now seem to be slowly getting on top of the work, it never seems to end. A bit like catching a tiger by the tail, as long as one keeps running one can stay ahead of the beast, the slightest slip or slow down results in a bite. A fall would be disastrous.

What worries me is exhaustion, how much longer can I keep running at this pace?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Who should run a country?

Two Provincial council elections are around the corner and voters have a choice of actresses, singers and other sundry characters, mostly unsavoury to choose from. I am wondering if it is even worth voting at all.

Should there be some sort of qualifying criteria for politicians? The problem with electoral democracy is that such a thing is not possible; it would be seen as inherently unfair. Other countries also have their share of lunatics in the fray, South Korea created a blacklist to filter unsuitable candidates; an idea that is worth exploring. This I will leave to others interested in governance to lobby for; it is a measure that can do some good in the short run.

This post is not about blacklisting, it is about examining the deeper question of who should really run a country. It is a serious business and should never, I repeat never, be left in the hands of politicians.

Since we are so enthralled with China these days it is only appropriate that we take a leaf from the book of governance that the Chinese developed.

The people who should really be running a country is its civil service. The politicians are merely figureheads who will suggest broad policies; it should be left to the civil servants to filter, refine and administer policies. I will come to this  a bit later but first lets be clear on the requirements for an effective service.

When I speak of a civil servant I do not refer to a crony who owes his appointment to some political master. A civil servant should be one selected on the basis of excellent academic credentials and a rigourous entrance exam. This ensures that only bright, intelligent people are brought in to the service. This is then followed by a period of internship where they learn the practical aspects of administration by working alongside senior colleagues. It is only then that they will be fit for the real administrative work in running a country.

Thus, the people we entrust with administration will have a minimum of three years of university study and two years of practical experience, even before they start real work. Remember that we have selected the best of the graduates (based on their grades) and subjected them to a further rigourous examination so we are reasonably certain that we are working with intelligent people whose minds have been trained to think. We have then invested a further two years in on-the-job training, which means by the end of a five year process we have the basic material with which we may hope to build a system of administration with some degree of success. 

With no entry qualifications, minimal or zero education and only the ability to appeal to the basest of popular sentiment; the politician is the most dangerous creature in which to vest the reins of power.

Yet electoral democracy calls for persons to be elected by popular ballot and the field should be open to all. How can this be reconciled to what I have just said?

The question is valid and merits a closer examination of the system of government. The system of administration will be broken into various departments (finance, local government, agriculture, trade etc) depending on the specific needs of the country. Each of these departments is headed by a senior civil servant who is the permanent secretary to the department. He (or she) is the person who is ultimately responsible for all the administrative work of the department.  His appointment is permanent; he cannot be removed by a politician or a minister; his appointment, transfers, pay and all other matters are handled by an independent civil service commission.

It is the permanent secretary who runs the show but although he is extremely powerful he is not unaccountable  - he is accountable to parliament, through the relevant minister. Therefore, although the civil servant, though well qualified and experienced must also lend an ear to popular concern, as expressed by the minister concerned.

The minister has no real power but has influence, so the hasty promises made at election time cannot be implemented ad-hoc: they are refined and adjusted in keeping with the constitution, the law and practical considerations. It is through this process that promises are turned into practical policy. Often the relationship between the two will be tense; the politician inexperienced and idealistic will demand things that sound nice but which may be unfair to some citizens (people outside his particular constituency), too expensive, unsustainable or otherwise impractical.

The comedy 'Yes Minister'/Yes Prime Minister is based on the tension between the well meaning but bumbling minister and the crafty permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby. Although the comedy portrays Sir Humphrey as being devious, he is performing a vital function in checking and tempering the enthusiasm of the minister.

The education, training and experience of the civil servant is thus essential in tempering policy. The politician is involved only at the larger policy level and unless there are pressing problems to be resolved has little role to play.  Belgium ran quite successfully for a better part of two years without a proper government (ie politicians)  and could have carried on for much longer with no serious difficulty; its administration functioning properly under its civil service.  

The ideas I propose are far from new or radical. They were first practised by the imperial Chinese, with the first formal exams being introduced in around 605AD.  This was refined and expanded over a period of 1,300 years until 1905. These bureaucrats, the Mandarins, were the scholar officials who ran the Chinese empire, at one time the greatest in the world.

This system was adopted and further refined by the British, who in turn ran their empire on these lines. It is estimated that only around a 120,000 people were involved  in running the British Empire, although only 4,000 were directly involved. Sri Lanka today boasts 1.2m in public service, about 500,000 of who are in the military, leaving about 700,000 to run the civil administration.

It is also the system that was used in independent Ceylon, until 1962 when short-sighted politicians, facing difficulties with implementing their various hare brained schemes decided to abolish the civil service; starting the rot that leaves citizens today wondering whether to even cast their vote at all.

An important check on the politicians was removed so now it is the irrepressible politician, who hold the reins of power. Unless checks are introduced, we can only close our eyes and hold on tight and hope that the descent will not be too bumpy.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sorry, we don't do locals

I was telephoning a few hotels in Embilipitiya, trying to find accommodation for staff on a site visit. I called a place that looked nice, had a decent review and was cheap.

The conversation was in Sinhalese and the fellow who answered the phone first wanted to know where I was calling from. I answered: Colombo. He then asked: local or foreign? Local, I replied.

He was a bit apologetic saying that they did not cater to locals. He explained that there had been problems with noisy groups resulting in complaints from other guests so that they had now stopped accepting bookings from locals.

I heard the same story from the owner of another small hotel a few years back. Again, we were conversing in Sinhalese and he said that the foreigners and Sri Lankan's had different ways of "enjoying" - he used the English word.

The locals, he said, wanted big noisy parties with lots of alcohol. This did not generally go down well with the foreigners so he had stopped catering to locals.

The question is: Is this discrimination? Certainly, but is it racism?

I myself abhor the large groups (referred to as 'Homeboys' or Yakko's) and quite understand the problem. Boisterous, noisy and generally drunk they are a nuisance to all around.

The problem is that the hotels are reacting by refusing all local custom. I think this is a racism of sorts, although rooted in something more complex than ordinary racism.

If the hotels had some finesse, what they should do is refine their polices to exclude large groups, which is the source of the problem. Small groups, especially families are generally quiet and will cause no disturbance to other guests. This is sometimes easier said than done, sometimes even a group of 10 may be noisy enough to annoy other guests. Clearly defined rules, stated in the booking and by way of signs may also help enforce some reasonable standard of behaviour.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The decline of mainstream print media

How many people bother to pick up and read a newspaper nowadays? I used to be an avid reader of the local press but my interest has waned in the last year or so.

The problem is that there is very little that is in any way challenging or interesting. Even when a decent story emerges coverage tends to be superficial.

I now glance at the printed papers on Sunday and occasionally flip through the weekday papers, usually a day or two late. The best thing in the Sunday papers are the Hit Ads; the Sunday Times is worth getting for this. The rest of the paper is worth glancing at, there are the occasional stories that are worth reading but the Hit Ads can be studied carefully over the whole week.

In a funny way things seem to have come full circle: I remember my parents saying that the Sunday Observer (and to some extent the Daily News)was bought mainly for the obituaries, the vacancy advertisements and sometimes the tender notices.

There is a major story that is breaking now: that of the Mannar mass grave, but it has (as far my limited reading allows me to judge) received scant attention in the mainstream press. Yesterday's Daily Mirror had banner headlines about a child being run over by a lawn roller in school but nothing on the mass grave.

The silence tells us something about the state of the media; either bought, controlled, mesmerised or kept; which in turn reflects on the health of our democracy.  

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The new aerial menace

I was amazed to read that there is now a new and growing aerial menace.

Are we being threatened, once again by the LTTE's air arm? Hordes of flying cockroaches? Perhaps vampire bats that descend from the heavens to suck the blood of the sleeping townsmen?

No, we are now being threatened by peacocks; not vampire peacocks, or even vampire ducks, just plain peacocks. 

They are a threat not to the population at large, the people in the surrounding areas or to the vast majority of the airline traffic to the country but to the handful of flights that touch down at the Mattala airport.

The authorities are, with admirably straight faces, now calmly proposing a mass cull. The only minor niggle that has apparently prevented the execution of this brainwave has been some religious beliefs surrounding the peacocks.

Lucky for the peacocks, but not so lucky for the multitude of other wildlife being threatened by the airport. The airports authority previously closed up all the waterholes in the vicinity, now they seem to torching the surrounding jungle as well but this has not had the desired effect since the airport happens to be in the middle of the Eastern Bird Migratory Path.

Aha! What we suspected all along! These are not local birds at all, as usual it is the interfering foreign intruders who are the problem.   

In the nine months since the airport opened the only airlines to touch down are the state carrier and one budget carrier. Few people seem to want to fly in that direction voluntarily, except the birds so the simplest solution would be to close down the airport. It will eventually have to close anyway, once the debt laden state carrier goes bust.

The airport itself seems to have cost something in the vicinity of Rs.35bn to build, which, funnily enough, is close to the loss that SriLankan Airlines seems likely to make this year.

In relative terms writing off the cost of the airport is not a huge loss. Besides, keeping it running will only incur further losses so on the principle of not throwing good money after bad it would be sensible to shut it down.

This will never happen, so I will leave my readers with a quote from a different aerial menace, a vampire duck. Its from one of my favourite cartoons: (watch the intro here, its pretty funny)

Castle Duckula, home for many centuries to a dreadful dynasty of vicious vampire ducks: the Counts of Duckula. Legend has it that these foul beings can be destroyed by a stake through the heart or exposure to sunlight. This does not suffice however, for they may be brought back to life by means of a secret rite that can be performed once a century when the moon is in the eighth house of Aquarius. However, the latest reincarnation did not run according to plan – and when tomato sauce was ineptly substituted for blood during his resurrection ceremony, Count Duckula was brought back to life as a vegetarian vampire.