Sunday, October 30, 2011

Goings-on in Arsik Land

Arsik Land is a fictional place, ruled by the Hon Pusswedilla (Campaign slogan: Puss for Boss). This popular political satire was originally set in Sri Lanka but its latest reincarnation had to take place in Arsik Land due to some rather strange circumstances. Perhaps art was imitating life too closely? Or was it the other way around?

Anyway, now it appears that websites are to be monitored and television is to be censored.

Neither is foreign to this country, indeed television is already censored; scenes with alcohol or tobacco are pixalated. The mania was at its height during the war but things had become a little more relaxed after its end, so the renewed interest is rather surprising.

Clearly, the rulers feel threatened by something, but what?

Could the recent spate of activism surrounding the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting unnerved them? Could it be the murder of Bharatha Lakshamn, which sent ripples of discontent through the party? Perhaps his family's plan to seek justice abroad? Do the soothsayers foretell hard times ahead?

A combination of the first two is likely. More difficult economic conditions may be foreseen by pessimists but the Central Bank is good at managing the statistics so this should not present any unusual difficulties. It is the other rumblings that need to be kept out of public view. In case they set off a chain reaction?

Housing the homeless

Lack of housing is a common problem in many developing countries, the late President Premadasa launched a scheme to build a million houses in 1977.

Although we are a lot richer than we were in 1977, there are still enough homeless people around, from slum dwellers to IDP's from the war.

It is therefore welcome that a new programme to build shelters has been launched. Commendable, too that the people selected are the most deserving of all: the honourable members of parliament.

Given that many of the honourable members are drawn from the ranks of footpads, vagrants and the like, none could be more deserving.

Some appropriate theme music is available, which could be accompany any television publicity of the event, news crews please note.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Gaddafi: a question

Regular readers (all six of them!) will know that this blog looks into many burning issues, particularly those missed by the mainstream.

The death of Gaddafi, who died horribly at the hands of a mob, leaves many unanswered questions. What does his death say about those who overthrew him? What prospects beckon for Libya and for the rest of the Middle East?

Amidst all of these issues a crucial question has been missed. What became of the late Colonel's famed team of female bodyguards? Were they by his side or did they desert the ship?

I'm glad I'm not the only one to pose this question...

Some facts are emerging, but most of them seemed to have vanished in a puff of smoke, speaking of which, whatever happened to Poonam Pandey?

Further reading here.

Post script:
An excellent article on the killing of Gadaffi was contributed by a reader, access it here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

WW: The inner voice of government?

Wimal Weerawansa plays a useful role for the Government. He voices opinions or carries out acts that more respectable members of Government would rather not do. Thus a message can sent without embarrassment, if the opinions or actions come in for criticism the Government can safely distance itself from it.

A case in point is the incident at the UN mission, or his later fast.

He has now issued a statement on the death of Gaddafi that surely comes from the heart.

The regime has viewed the 'Arab Spring' with barely disguised horror. The state media gave the matter minimal coverage, with various columnists sniping on the usual theme of hypocrisy. Gaddafi however was a special friend and his passing was surely mourned, yet fearful of annoying a potentially useful supplier of oil/credit no official statement praising the late leader could be issued. Wimal Weerawansa obligingly steps into the breech.

Who needs wikileaks when we have the voice of Wimal?

Monday, October 24, 2011

How many is a billion?

The word 'billion' is now in common use, but how many zero's make a billion? Nine? This is the most commonly used but it not strictly correct.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

billion, purposely formed in 16th c. to denote the second power of a million (by substituting BI- prefix for the initial letters), trillion and quadrillion being similarly formed to denote its 3rd and 4th powers. The name appears not to have been adopted in Eng. before the end of the 17th … Subsequently the application of the word was changed by French arithmeticians, figures being divided in numeration into groups of threes, instead of sixes, so that F. billion, trillion, denoted not the second and third powers of a million, but a thousand millions and a thousand thousand millions. In the 19th century, the U.S. adopted the French convention, but Britain retained the original and etymological use (to which France reverted in 1948).

Since 1951 the U.S. value, a thousand millions, has been increasingly used in Britain, especially in technical writing and, more recently, in journalism; but the older sense ‘a million millions’ is still common.

The confusion resulted in a question being put to the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson in 1974

Mr Maxwell-Hyslop asked the Prime Minister whether he will make it the practice of his administration that when Ministers employ the word “billion” in any official speeches, documents, or answers to Parliamentaty Questions, they will, to avoid confusion, only do so in its British meaning of 1 million million and not in the sense used in the United States of America, which uses the term “billion” to mean 1,000 million.

The Prime Minister: No. The word “billion” is now used internationally to mean 1,000 million and it would be confusing if British Ministers were to use it in any other sense. I accept that it could still be interpreted in this country as 1 million million and I shall ask my colleagues to ensure that, if they do use it, there should be no ambiguity as to its meaning.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cairn oil strike: All Gas and no Sh*t?

There was a relatively small news item almost three weeks ago announcing that Cairn Lanka had struck gas. After that announcement, there has been near silence on the matter.

When blocks from the Mannar basin were initially offered to bidders, we were treated to banner headlines, for weeks on end, about the enormous wealth that would flow from this. The regime is a great exponent of the art of 'spin' so the muted response to the discovery is completely out of character.

Some have speculated that the discovery was bogus, a piece of 'spin' for the local government elections held that week. While this is certainly plausible it is untrue, Cairn has made a formal announcement of the fact and the discovery has been covered by the press elsewhere. In any case, Cairn is a reputed operator, they are highly unlikely to be making false announcements.

Could there be a problem in geopolitics? There seems to be an issue with India on tendering for the other blocks, but there does not seem to be a problem with the one that Cairn is exploring. There was a Reuters story that the Minister of Petroleum Industries announced that they intended calling for tenders, although I do not recall seeing this in the local press.

Behind the scenes however, there seems to be a flurry of activity with with rumours of all manner of strange characters appearing out of the woodwork and meeting various high ups. Natural resources have proved to be curse for most of the countries that have had the misfortune to stumble on them and one hopes that the lack of news is simply the lack of activity, not an attempt to keep people in the dark. It is a lot easier to loot under cover of darkness, which is why transparency is so despised.

Perhaps this is all speculation, our worst fears may never be realised but if the discovery is commercially viable how does a responsible government go about exploiting it? There is help at hand, the Natural Resource Charter provides an 11-point plan prepared by a group of high-profile economists, lawyers and political scientists, including Michael Spence, 2001 laureate of the Nobel prize in economics; Robert Conrad, an expert on natural resources economics at Duke University, and Tony Venables and Paul Collier, professors of economics at Oxford University.

"We want to provide a policy toolkit," says Collier, who is also the author of the 2008 book The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. "We're not here to tell government off. We are saying to them: 'If you want to turn national assets into broad-based development, these are the key steps that you need to get right. These steps are not obvious, as governments and societies have got them wrong over the years." (Quote taken from here)

It is not hard to find the route to prosperity, the world has fifty years of experience, mostly bad, to chose from. The paths are well trodden, the choices are easy, if the wisdom and the political will are present.

For another interesting piece on the impact of a natural resource find have a look here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Here's wishing Deshamanya R Dumindha Silva a speedy recovery

Today's Daily Mirror has reported that two US neurosurgeons have visited Deshamanya R Dumindha Silva; who is in hospital recovering from gunshot wounds.

It is important that he makes a speedy and complete recovery, not only because he is a prominent member of the Government but also because his recovery will prove to be a worthy test of the system of justice and the rule of law in the land.

Should he succumb to his injuries popular opinion will see it as his karma, justice would seem to have been meted out by the gods and the matter can safely be closed by the Government. Should he, as one hopes, survives and makes a full recovery not only will he be able to serve his country, his very survival will test the political system.

The incident last week raises a number of questions: first and foremost, are the police treating the investigation as murder? Are they investigating if the firearms used were properly licensed and if not how these came into the possession of the people involved? Where did the ammunition come from? Is it necessary for ministers to carry bodyguards around?

If these questions are dealt with by the system thoroughly and fairly, justice would have been done and we may sleep safely in our beds knowing that the system is intact. If not, it leaves many disquieting questions.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Changing habits

Has anyone noticed that very few people chew betel anymore? The habit was ubiquitous amongst the working classes: masons, plumbers, drivers, labourers and domestic servants would been seen chewing and spewing long streams of bright red sputum.

One had to be careful walking around public markets to avoid stepping in spittle or being inadvertently hit by a passing stream.

The habit of smoking beedis, a cheap type of cigarette also seems to be near extinct.

There was a public campaign to stop the chewing of betel (it causes cancer), so perhaps that has worked, or it may simply have become unfashionable. People have become richer so they no longer want to have a habit that is associated with the lower classes? The same fate may have befallen the beedi, which despite being cheaper than cigarettes is now very rarely seen.

Indeed given the price of blasted things, I sometimes wonder how anyone can afford to smoke.

Changes in taste have claimed other victims, notably the pipe. I hate smoking but if one must smoke, the pipe is the way to go, the fragrance of a pipe is pleasant, (that from a hookah pipe, most deliciously so) and the whole process has a certain old world charm about it.

The cigar, the other form of tobacco that has a certain 'cachet' does not seem to have been affected by changes in taste, it may in fact have benefited, although I am not quite certain of this.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Good upcountry tea

I have always liked drinking tea, especially in the morning, brewed strong, sweet with milk. It is not hard to find decent tea, most brands in the shops are alright but in the past few years we have been drinking a lot of Dilmah.

I have a friend who has another friend who knows someone (you how the network works) who works in a tea company. The staff are entitled to buy tea direct from the company and my friend offered to get me some. I agreed and we tried it out at home about a month a ago.

It was not bad, but it had a rather unusual aftertaste, a hint of something that lingered on the tongue. It was something I had never experienced before and which I found a bit odd. I did not like that aftertaste much, the tea was drinkable so I thought I would just finish the packet and go back to the old brand.

After about a week this taste was beginning to grow on me and after about two weeks I was well and truly hooked. I had heard that the upcountry flavoury teas had this slight lingering aftertaste; this was the "flavour" that was much sought after by buyers. I was under the impression that most upcountry teas tend to be light so are best drunk without milk. Since I like a strong sweet cup in the morning I never thought this would work for me, but it seems I was wrong.

How badly I was hooked hit me when we ran out of the tea and had to buy the usual tea until fresh supplies arrived. It was strong as usual, but I found it lacking any kind of character, nothing to excite or interest the palette.

The estate where our source gets his tea from is Mattakelle estate. When asking around other friends in the tea industry I was told that this indeed was one of the top estates in the country, one that fetches premium prices. A quick search on the web revealed that it was being sold at pretty high prices. Dilmah was selling it as a single garden tea.

Lucky for me I can get it direct from source. My mother made hoppers for breakfast today, which went down very well with the tea. I'm off now to see if there is anything left in the pot.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jamaica and Zambia

Came across a couple of rather interesting reports, one from Jamaica and the other from Zambia.

Drug gangs in Jamaica are entangled with politicians to an extent that is shocking. It was this story and this that prompted the comparison with Jamaica.

Jamaica acts as a transit hub for drugs to the US. Although there are no firm numbers, the US is likely to be one of the biggest and therefore most profitable drug markets.

This means the money made and consequently the influence wielded by the drug barons is enormous. Unfortunately, the rest of Jamaica's economy is small and weak, which tends to magnify their influence still further.

Because Sri Lanka's drug market is small and its economy more advanced, the drugs barons are never going to be as big as in Jamaica, but the parallels are worrying, nevertheless.

On a lighter note, Zambia's opposition leader voiced concern over growing Chinese influence in his country “We want the Chinese to leave and the old colonial rulers to return,” said the populist Michael Sata. “They exploited our natural resources too, but at least they took good care of us. They built schools, taught us their language and brought us the British civilisation…at least Western capitalism has a human face; the Chinese are only out to exploit us.”

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Three killed in election violence

Two politicians from the same party, neither of who is actually contesting the municipal election (for the position of mayor) engage in a shoot out that has claimed three lives.

Does that make sense to anybody?

One of the politicians is dead, the other is in hospital, but if neither was contesting and both belonged to the same party then one wonders what caused the violence. Speculation on the street suggests a turf battle over business.

Another news report links it to a killing the day before. Both were thought to be supporting rival candidates, who would presumably return favours if elected.

In the meantime, rumours are that Bharatha Lakshman's supporters have taken the fight to the streets, torching shops and rioting. A police curfew is apparently in place is some areas.

Why so much excitement over an election that most voters are not taking very seriously? There must be more booty than we thought, in the Municipal Council and it may the stepping stone to greater things.

Seeing what things are getting on the electoral ladder makes one wonder if its time to board the next ship that is sailing out of Colombo.

Some links that point to a possible cause, this took place in the same area as the shooting.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Wahabi cult and Islam

I am trying to understand the rise of militant Islam and from the little I've read, it seems that the problem is not with mainstream Islam per se, but with the Wahabi cult.

The Wahabi cult originated in the mid eighteenth century and its doctrine is taken from the Kitab al-Tawhid, a work that was considered, extreme and unIslamic in its day. Its writer was forced to flee into exile. He found a patron in Muhammad Al-Saud, whose decedents ended up ruling Saudi Arabia.

The Wahabi's caused continuous headaches for the British in the Northwest Frontier, but they were not recognised as a single movement, with various incidents being put down to the work of individual fanatics. They were fanatics all right, but there seems have been some method to the madness.

In more recent times, following the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia and its subsequent independence, it appears that the Saudi's are taking the cult, or at least parts of it, to the mainstream.

There is a good article on the subject here and I am also working my way through Charles Allen's God's Terrorists, which is very well written. I have not yet finished the book and I don't enough on the subject to assess it, but its a fascinating read, have a look at the Amazon reviews on the same link.

To try and put things in context, I have also just picked up Angelo Rasanayagam's Modern History of Afghanistan, another very readable book.

This is not intended to stir up controversy, just an attempt to understand, would welcome comments on this, especially from Muslims.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The trouble with international schools

Overheard at a cafe:

The trouble with international schools is that they are full of children, whose parents have earned a lot of money, very fast. These children have the notion that money can buy anything and that money can substitute for love.

Children who go to these schools thus tend to end up with the wrong set of values, unless the parents are really careful.

Never thought of it like this but its quite true, isn't it?


"International" school is term used in Sri Lanka to describe fee levying schools that teach in English. They operate outside the normal educational system, come in all shapes and sizes. A few are known to offer a good education, many are abysmal.

Monday, October 03, 2011

What the heck is wrong with Blogger?

Every time I try to put a hyperlink into the text of a post I get some garbage being posted.

This piece of random text gets thrown in somewhere on the post:

Even if something wrong was being pasted, I would expect it to paste where the cursor was placed, but no, this text can lodge itself anywhere on the post, sometimes where it was intended, sometimes where it was not.

The actual link itself gets pasted either next to the above or where I intended it to go.

What gives?

I have been experiencing this for a couple of months, does anyone know what to do about it? Its very irritating to have to keep going back and editing and re-editing posts, especially when one doing so sneakily during normal office hours.

Uneasy villagers

Strange things are happening in little towns and villages away from the capital. Some incident or the other leads to a mob attack on a government institution, usually a police station. The latest was in Dompe.

There was a spate of attacks over fears of a Grease Yakka (or Grease Devil) over a period of about two months. It sounded a lot like mass hysteria and it ended shortly after reprisals by the military.

Was this anything more than hysteria? It is difficult to tell, but a couple of things are clear: a) the people don't trust the authorities, b) they are turning to vigilante violence as a 'solution'.

There are enough cases of mass hysteria, from UFO sightings to the El Chupacabra in Mexico, but while people in these instances tend to distrust the government turning to violence is unusual.

What do these incidents tell us? People do not see the authorities as being able to solve their problems, in some instances the authorities are the problem and the anger boils over into violence.

The culture of impunity that has been nurtured during the last few years must take much of the blame for this state of affairs. In order to boost morale, the political leadership showed a willingness to back the military, unquestioned. Extraordinary powers were necessary for extraordinary circumstances so oversight was unnecessary and political 'cover' was provided if anything blew up. The result? Deaths in custody soared.

As long as these were confined to the minorities and happened in areas with little access to the media, these went either unreported or could be easily denied. However as the new culture began to take root, it spread to other areas.

To recall a few incidents, just off the top of my head, two boys were killed in custody Angulana, a man was drowned by police and most recently, a worker was killed during a protest.

The reaction of the authorities is usually to deny that the event took place and if denial becomes impossible either to cover it up make some token changes. Nobody seems to want to ask why the problem keeps recurring.

In any case, following a spate of attacks on the media, few have the appetite to ask hard questions. The Dompe incident was given little publicity until a few days after the event when some newspapers ran feature articles on it. It should have been front page news the day it happened.

The recent conviction of the policemen responsible for the Angulana murder is the first action we have seen, so it any wonder that people take to vigilante violence?


There was another death in custody this week. When the spokesman was asked about it he had replied "“you must remember that they are criminals and there is a limit to the protection we could provide." How a suspect could become a criminal and if so whether the judiciary is really necessary are thoughts that have never crossed their minds. The story end with the following:

Meanwhile the Free Media Movement (FMM) said that police have erased a video tape of journalist Indika Sri Aravinda who interviewed the victim's family at the police station.

The MCNS head said, "if journalists behave in a manner that obstructs police duty, they are compelled to take legal action".

Some ideas on reforming the police are available here.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sri Lanka: Animal-Rights, Multiculturalism And “Purity”

A thoughtful essay by Charles Saravan on the above is to be found here.

Worth reading, if you missed it in the paper.