Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons from history

I have always had a fascination for history, something I may have inherited from my grandfather, who was a teacher of history. I have often wondered if something like this could actually be inherited; I did not know my grandfather very well, I was about ten when he died, yet I find myself treading a path that was surely familiar to him.

When I was in school, I wondered what history could possibly teach us, but somewhere in the barren sand a seed sprouted and has kept growing. What history teaches us is that the problems men have faced have not changed much and the wider ones view the more the patterns make sense. In tracing our footprints in the sands of time we see patterns emerging, patterns that recur and in identifying some of these patterns in the present, we may well see our future.

A little short of a century since the Great October Revolution, the Tsar has returned to Russia. The title is no longer used but the system of government increasingly resembles Tsarist Russia.

This was suspected to be the case, when Putin stepped down in 2008. He left the Presidency but became the Prime Minister. His supposed successor turned out to have no real power and the announcement of Putin's candidacy for the Presidency next year confirms the identity of its real ruler. Strip away the democratic facade and one finds power in the hands of a tightly knit group, not a ruling family as in the old days, but a brotherhood of the KGB.

Putin should be able to serve until 2024, unless there is a change in the constitution, and, quite by coincidence, he can keep our Dear Leader company.

Our leader will serve until 2024; the second term expires in 2018 and he will certainly contest at least a third term before questions of primogeniture come into play.

Incumbency is a powerful thing and the recent constitutional changes have made it more powerful still. It worth noting that in thirty years no incumbent has ever been unseated, except by the term limit and once by assassination.

The first thirty years post independence saw parties changing at almost every election, in the second thirty years it happened only once and that too following an assassination.

The newspapers used to carry frequent references to seventeen years of UNP rule but these mysteriously dried up by end 2009, possibly because the PA has now ruled for seventeen years.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New visa requirement for tourists

The current system of issuing a visa on arrival to tourists is to be suspended on the 30th of September. Tourists will be expected to apply for a visa in advance.

The issue visas on arrival will be restricted to countries that reciprocate, which means Singapore and the Maldives. Everyone else will need to apply for a visa. This plan was mooted about a year ago but its implementation was delayed due to protests by the tourist industry, justifiably so because slow processing of visas could hurt the industry.

The Government has announced that visa's will be issued on-line and to make things even simpler, could be sought by applicants themselves, a third party, a registered agent or a Sri Lankan embassy.

This sounds fine, except that the site does not seem to work. It returns the error:

Error 404--Not Found
From RFC 2068 Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.1:
10.4.5 404 Not Found

The server has not found anything matching the Request-URI. No indication is given of whether the condition is temporary or permanent.

It gave the same error when I checked yesterday. Perhaps it has not yet been uploaded?


N had commented on the confusion this has sown amongst potential visitors, something that I had missed. Just checked on Trip Advisor, some questions and comments should be read by people in the industry. A few are reproduced below:


5. Re: Sri Lankan visa on arrival

Hi there

I am visting Sri Lanka later this month as a tourist and have seen conflicting reports about whether or not the visa-on-arrival facility is still operating. I am travelling on a New Zealand passport, so the visa-on-arrival option would apply in my case, if it is in fact still operating.

Can anyone confirm definitively whether it is operating? Otherwise, it's going to be a mad dash to get a visa next week before I leave for the Maldives next weekend.


Hi there.....

Visa BEFORE arrival still not in operation, was due around May time, but no confirmation yet.., so at this time, you will get your visa when you arrive..



This notice on Sri Lanka Immigration website ( has not been updated since early February:

"The on arrival visa facility (Visit Visa, Transit Visa) will remain unchanged until the internet based on-line visa service (Electronic Travel Authority) is established. The general public and the stakeholders will be duly notified when the ETA system is operationally ready."

Also no updates in local newspapers.

When I extended my visa 2 weeks ago I asked the controller at Immigration when the new system will be launched. He did not know.

With the 3 months pilot test that was announced in January I doubt the new system will be effective until August st the earliest.


Following a very recent difficult experience with the arrival visa stamped on the passport, I'd like to suggest that everyone check that the Immigration Officer has written the number of days [ normally 30] on the visa stamp and also initialled it as well. Usually you would assume that has been done - especially if you travel in and out very frequently - and just take your passport and hurry to baggage claim.

I'd suggest that those who were born in SL but travel on a different passport should be more careful about this. I'm just finding out that some unexpected hassles are being encountered on departure regarding this.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Colombo is Colombo: the need for a comprehensive development plan for the city

The Government has been doing quite a bit to make the capital city presentable; roads widened and resurfaced, new pavements, walls around old buildings broken down, the canals cleaned, some turf laid, some trees cut, some saplings planted.

There are bigger things that are hinted at; the reclamation of land from the sea, the clearing of slums and the construction of some infrastructure. So far, on the whole, the city is looking a lot better. I was distressed when the weeping willows on Independence Square were cut down but new trees (partly grown) have been planted and some turf has been laid, so its now looking rather nice, but there have been some disturbing reports on the clearing of slums.

What we do not know is the overall plan, if such a thing exists.

A comprehensive plan, drawn up with public consultation is essential to the success of such large-scale projects. There are many actors and issues that need examination. If embarrassing missteps are to be avoided public consultation is necessary. The process of consultation will also build confidence and bring in good publicity to the plan.

Such a thing has been in the works since the 1990's and Ranil Wickremesinghe, has written a good article on the its last edition. Its a little long, but it should be read by all who intend voting in the next Municipal election.

The plan for the development of the city needs to be placed with a wider policy framework, one that in my opinion should be based on a 'night watchman state' - ie one with limited involvement in business and confined largely to providing essential public goods.

A lower 'footprint' of the state would entail less expenditure, therefore less tax and enable a simple transparent tax code, all of which will stimulate business activity.

The opposition looks in disarray, the article above was buried on page 18 of the Sunday Times, not indicative of a good media campaign.


A letter from a former official on a public housing programme run in 2006/7 is quite interesting.

Although the letter is a bit garbled it tells a tale of a scheme opened with great fanfare only to fall apart after a promising start due to corruption. A mysterious Malaysian party is awarded a tender, even though they did not bid, an advance is paid and no more houses are constructed.

Why the driving on Sri Lankan roads is so bad

Just had a chat with someone who will be sitting for the driving test next month. I asked her if she had read the Highway Code. She said no, she had heard that it exists but no one told her to read it.

She has already sat the written paper where road signs and rules are tested. I asked how she studied for the paper, apparently the driving school provided the answers to the questions, which she memorised. The Department of Motor Traffic apparently has only three standard papers and answers were provided for all the papers.

The driving school charges Rs.15,000/- which includes a bribe of Rs.1,000/- to the examiners. What they seem to be teaching is control of the vehicle and whatever minimal knowledge (which side of the road to drive on etc) is necessary to get on the road.

I was wondering why the driving on Sri Lanka's roads was so bad, now I know why. I have noticed a spate of fatal accidents on outstation roads of late, one needs to be extra cautious when driving long distances, especially with long distance buses.

Perhaps we should use the train more frequently. Then again, perhaps not.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mansoor Ali Khan, The Nawab of Pataudi (1941-2011)

We are supposed to be a cricket mad nation, yet the death of a famous cricketer barely merits a mention in the news. Even the press in Singapore, which is fair way off the mainstream of cricket carried a story.

He was of course a cricketer of a different, more gentlemanly, era; a time when cricket was still a game and one dominated by Australia, South Africa and England. Playing for Oxford and Sussex he may well have played for England, like his father before him. He was one of India's most successful captains, leading them to their first overseas series win.

Even in India, his son, the actor Saif Ali Khan is now more famous than his father. He lived quietly avoiding publicity except once when he was caught up in it, charged with poaching.

The Telegraph carries a nice obituary, The Australian has a more detailed tribute.


Addendum: The Guardian has a good obituary.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The race for the mayoralty

I had not taken much interest in the municipal election, its not particularly important and I was quite disgusted with how things turned out the last time around.

To recollect what happened; the UNP could not gets its candidate approved in time and it then went on to ask voters to vote for a proxy party. The voters gave the proxy an overwhelming majority, but the proxy then proceeded to renege on the agreement with the UNP and we had the spectacle of a trishaw driver in the mayor's office. I had resolved not to vote this time around until I became aware of Milinda Moragoda's campaign.

I don't think Milinda Moragoda is a bad character, he is not thug and has reasonable ability, on his own he would be a good candidate for mayor. The question is, how far will he be allowed to follow his instincts? Will Moragoda end up playing the role that Medvadev plays in Moscow? The velvet glove on the mailed fist?

Tisaranee Gunasekara, whose analysis is usually prescient, seems to think so and Harsha De Silva, a UNP MP seems to have a similar opinion.

Would the voters be best served by voting for some opposition candidate? There is no guarantee that the office of the mayor will not be reduced a ceremonial one in the event that the opposition wins, especially if the plan for the Colombo Metropolitan City Corporation comes to pass. As it stands the UDA seems to be overriding much of the authority of the CMC.

Nevertheless it would seem better to vote for some opposition candidate, who may provide some trivial resistance, in the event that unpopular measures are being contemplated. Better that than a yes man.

Who do we have in the opposition? I don't even know, I have been told there are hundreds of candidates, someone shoved a few pictures under the door the other day, god only knows who he is. I'm still confused as to what to do; vote for an opposition which may be marginalised by the UDA and a CMCC or for a government candidate who will execute what he asked to do?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The need for limits on power.

KAL's cartoon (from The Economist), a good illustration of the mentality that seems to prevail in the USA.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts, absolutely.

Nothing underlines this well-worn saying more than this shocking experience by an American citizen, in her own country.

Terrorism is a tactic that is used by the disaffected, solving the underlying problems is the key to a long term solution. Unless an equitable and just solution is found for Palestine, it will remain a festering sore and a lightning rod for anger against the US.

Sort out the root problem, don't deal with the symptoms.

See Also, King Abdullah's letter of 1947, to the American people As the Arabs see the Jews.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sri Lanka in great leap forward

Today's headline in the Daily News gave me a bit of a shock.

Given the country's fascination with all things Chinese I was wondering if Mao's Great leap Forward had inspired our policymakers.

Phew! Luckily it seemed that it had not, although we see a renewed interest in state directed economic production.

Interestingly enough those who sing the praises of China and praise its ancient society conveniently forget the violence of its recent past. Nor do they remember the aggressive attempt to erase its past. In fact China under Mao was a terrible place, violent and chaotic; such drama naturally inspires political commentators and analysts, especially those with a fascination for power. Rulers with similar passions will naturally identify with these.

However, it is only after China started to shed its baggage of Mao and socialism did its people witness an improvement in their lives. So when China moves slowly Westwards, it does not make sense to go Eastwards. To be sure the path is the same, but the direction is opposite.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Studio Dharshi and the RMV - excellent service

I sold my vehicle (rather too cheaply it seems) and then went and bought another (paying too much because I liked it).

I went to the RMV to get the transfer forms and I expected a certain amount of hassle. Parking was not too difficult, I had to walk about a 100 yards but that was not too bad. The forms were issued from a window that opens on to the pavement so there was no need to go inside the building and there was no queue.

I was told that I needed two photographs (of myself) and a photocopy of my ID, both certified by a JP to transfer the car to my name. I spied a little studio (it was called Studio Dharshi or something similar) almost next to the RMV. They were doing the photographs, photocopies and as a bonus they had an in-house JP who would sign everything.

I walked in and they photocopied my ID, then went to the next room where a girl took my picture, downloaded it from the camera and printed it on a little Epson printer. While waiting I noticed that the girl was also doing the photographs for new vehicle registrations (these require a photo of the vehicle as well). She was downloading pictures of various kinds of cars from the internet and printing them out for the owners who had forgotten to bring a picture along.

Since the photographs were usable for visas and passports as well, I got an extra set printed. The charge is 250/- for four photos, my cost for eight pictures, a photocopy of my ID and the JP's signature on two photos plus the ID was 600/-.

The whole exercise would not have taken 20-25 minutes and Studio Dharshi provided an excellent service.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Lessons from India

I have taken to watching some of the discussion programmes aired on NDTV. I have been impressed by the quality of the panelists; the politicians, the public servants, the journalists and others who have participated.

Last night the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah talked about the controversy surrounding the unmarked graves all over the state. Watch it here.

Its rather refreshing to encounter a journalist willing to ask hard questions and a minister willing to give a proper answer.

Are we missing something here?

Addendum: See the debate on Truth and Reconciliation in Kashmir, here. Quite fascinating to see such seemingly familiar issues discussed with the advantage of distance.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Portuguese influence?

The Portuguese controlled part of the shoreline of modern Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1658. The left their mark on the cuisine (most importantly by introducing the chilli to the local populace) religion and language.

The Portuguese and Spanish tongues are fairly closely related and when a Venezuelan newsreader referred to the editor of a newspaper as un hijo de puta (“a son of a whore”), a bell began to ring....

Thats all folks, now get back to work, its only Monday.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Pascucci café and restaurant

Another new coffee house has opened, on 95 McCarthy Road (Wijerama Mawatha).

Tried one of their coffee's it was excellent. I never knew whipped cream could taste so good and with nougat and a few other things thrown in, it was one of the tastiest drinks I've had.

I have been haunting coffee bars from the time they opened in Colombo, starting with The Commons (when it was on Turret Road), Dons Cafe, Delifrance, then Barista and finally Coffee Bean.I always went to these places to hang around, not for the coffee or the food, although the Commons had some very good deals in the early days.

Pascucci is the first place where I have really enjoyed a coffee and where I might even return to purely for the coffee. This is not a proper review, as its based on just one drink, but I think the place is worth checking out.