Friday, March 29, 2013

So, the violence returns

The first stone has been cast, an attack on the Fashion Bug warehouse in Pepiliyana.

Well, not quite the first stone, there were smaller ones before. A mosque in Matara, some shops in Kuruvikotuwe Pahamune, stones thrown at a Mosque in Kurunegala (Asian Tribune has a list of some of the recent ones) but this looks like the biggest so far. 

It will only be followed by more, gradually increasing in intensity, the only thing is we do not know where, when or how big it will become. Its a bit like waiting for the other shoe to drop, the suspense is; well, killing.

Four years after the last round of fighting end we start a new round. Thus is the isle of Serendip cursed.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Odd things in the news

I noticed two unusual stories in the news today, the Ceylon Today report that a special police squad is being trained, amidst great secrecy to deal with mass protests and riots.

The Government must be expecting trouble, but from where? Certainly not from the BBS, which has been rabble rousing quite imperviously. Could a series of tax hikes be on the way? Something so bad that they fear it could trigger a mass uprising? Fuel went up and an electricity hike is on the way, is there a lot more to come? Or is it the formation of the joint opposition that has spooked them? Perhaps something like a referendum to extend the life of the presidency or parliament? Something is definitely up, I wonder what?

I don't know how many people read the Ceylon Today but they carry some interesting titbits, the paper is worth checking more regularly.

The second bit of news was tucked away on page 2 of the Sunday Times; a little story (not available online) that stated that Defence Authorities have identified the man who provided the battlefield photographs to pro-Tiger groups abroad. The man had, who had been attached to one of the "lesser known television stations"  had been at the front lines in 2009. He has since fled abroad with his family and sleuths are apparently busy tracking his past activities. Update: The Colombo Gazette carries a detailed story.

Hmm and more hmm. I will leave it to others to work out the implications but this is the strangest story I have come across. According to rumours that circulated at the time only the state media were given access to the battle front.

Wikileaks is now old news but the story on Sri Lanka's kidnapping saga of 2007/8 is explosive. Why did the spate of kidnappings die down  after the UNP named him in parliament in 2007? Five years on, what has become of him? Have we all forgotten?

-Updated with a link to the journalist story-   

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Grinling Gibbons, master carver

I came across the name of Grinling Gibbons, generally supposed to be amongst the greatest of wood carvers, this afternoon. Writer David Esterly who abandoned literature for carving after seeing some of Gibbons' work has just published a book on his experience.

More details on the man and his art here, also check the Wikipedia entry.

David Esterly's work is also very impressive.

Just thought it was worth sharing.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Tickle me please, need some stimulation...

Intellectual stimulation, that is, although I would not necessarily object to being tickled in a more conventional sense.

Seriously, though I tend to feed on ideas and there are not enough around. The company I work for has subscribed to an online education system from Harvard, which fairly good. Just finished the session on creativity and it made me realise what I am missing. A quote from the session stuck in my mind

When all men think alike, no one thinks
very much. 

–Walter Lippmann

I read The Economist (which I have persuaded my employer to subscribe to) religiously, every week, primarily for stimulation - for new ideas or different ways of looking at things. It has a fairly well-rounded approach - apart from the politics, economics and business there is a small but interesting section on science and the arts-which, incidentally, are my favourite sections.

I used to get a lot of ideas from blogs and some of the debate was pretty good but that died years ago. Too many friends have migrated and there only a very limited set of people that one can have a conversation with in Colombo. After a while, one finds oneself going stale, the same ideas, the same people going around and around.

I need some new company, a little tickling, so to speak. 


Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Marie biscuit

One of my favourite types of biscuit and the foundation of the chocolate biscuit pudding, I'd always thought that they were a local biscuit, probably invented by Maliban.

Apparently they were created by an English bakery Peek Freans in London in 1874 to commemorate the marriage of the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia to the Duke of Edinburgh.

Who would have thought that this simple biscuit had such a great pedigree?

Anyway, chocolate biscuit pudding is supposed to be a genuine, authentic, Ceylonese pudding. We may have got the biscuit from overseas but what we did with it was our own. I wonder who invented it?

Whoever it was, they, and the pudding are something that we can be justly proud.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Airports, infrastructure and development

The new airport in Mattala opened this week, to a fairly lukewarm response (if I'm any judge of sentiment) by the public. There are a few obvious issues with the airport that I will write about later, but first lets try to get the broader picture right. What makes infrastructure work and how should a Government go about prioritising its investment?

Infrastructure: roads, rail and transport systems, power, telecommunications, ports and airports are all important and investment should take place where it is needed; but how should we decide on need?

1. Clearing bottlenecks in existing infrastructure would be the obvious first step.
2. Forecasting future bottlenecks, based on a realistic study of demand patterns would be another step.  

There needs to be demand for services, which means that it should be sited where there are people. If not many people live in a location and few people visit then there seems to be little point in building anything. So far, so obvious.

How about the argument that "if we build it, people will come", which seems to be the basis of the Mattala airport and the adjoining port? For example, since we have an airport and port close by, why not start some export industry there? Garments or something sexy like silicon chips? Port and airport at hand, there should be land, voila, the perfect place to create jobs.

Things are not quite so easy, there are some fundamental policies that are more important than the infrastructure and which we need to get right first; before people will even look at investing. In a word, a favourable investment climate. What should this comprise?

1. A simple, clear and above all, workable legal and tax system. The spectacle of having a CJ ejected through a dubious process on the whims of the Government, expropriation of land, abrupt changes on the status of foreign ownership of land and a tax code that changes overnight do not contribute towards this.

2. Availability of basic infrastructure - power, water, waste disposal/sewage, telecommunications, etc. Some basics have just been built but are the telecommunications, water and waste disposal available? I don't know, but fixing these should not be a huge issue.

3.  Some competitive advantage in the location: cheap labour, raw, materials, proximity to supplies or markets. Favourable tax treaties, free trade agreements, highly skilled labour or preferred access to markets (via concessions like GSP+) would count towards a competitive advantage. This is the trickiest question and most of these are not location specific to Hambantota. If investment is already pouring in then we know that we have some advantage to offer; it is then merely a question of tilting the attraction towards Hambantota.  Is this happening? 

4. Availability of labour and ancillary support services, as required (depending on industry).

5. A general perception, formed in part through consistent policy, that the Government is interested in encouraging investment. When the "cost of doing business" includes corruption to a level that makes most businesses unviable, the perception will be negative.

In truth, there is a lot that needs to go right in policy, before infrastructure will work; except in cases where is it eases existing bottlenecks. An interesting essay on third world development notes the biggest obstacle was the "dirigiste dogma". Ghana is a good example.

When it became independent in 1957, Ghana was the richest country in the region, with the best-educated population. Kwame Nkrumah, the country's leader at independence, was a spokesman for the newly independent Africa. He said the region needed to develop its own style of government, suited to its special circumstances. According to this analysis, the problem started with the philosophy

A major legacy and burden of tribal and feudalistic societies is the notion that leaders have the power to solve problems and bring justice. The village chieftain takes resources from the villagers and to the powerless villagers the chieftain seems like a potential foundation of wealth and luxury.
To those who aspire to be chieftain it seems that if only they could achieve that status they could not have a pleasant living but could do good for the villagers. In the American idiom they could be fairy godmothers, solving all problems with the waive of a magic wand. So the possibility of becoming a fairy godmother is a powerful motivation for those who seek leadership. On the other hand, for the powerless who have no hope of becoming a leader the notion of there being fairy godmothers who can solve all problems is likewise a powerful influence.
But of course there are no fairy godmothers and can be no fairy godmothers. The resources that the village chieftain dispenses come only from the productive efforts of the people themselves. If the people neglect their own productive efforts in seeking benefits from the chieftain then soon even the chieftain has no resources.
The romance of Third World leaders with socialism is just an attempt to create the status of the village chieftain on a larger scale. Socialism's main function ideologically is to provide a rationale for having all power concentrated in the hands of the central government.
 Following this line of thinking:
He spent vast sums on megaprojects. As economic troubles mounted, he nationalized companies and followed with capital repression. Under his regime capital flew abroad, and people with skills and money did the same. The kleptocrats (government officials who steal large amounts) ran the country into the ground.  

Does all of this sound rather familiar? We are just setting off on the journey that Ghana embarked on in the 1960's, we may dream of miracles but all we chase is a mirage.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Digging yet another grave

The politicians are busy, digging yet another grave in which they intend to bury more consumers. Changes are afoot, to pull the teeth of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, rendering the requirement to run a proper budget unnecessary.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act was passed by the UNP Government in 2003 and was designed:

a) to increase transparency by publishing regular statements on public finances;
b) to limit the size of Government debt.

The proposed amendments are to allow further borrowing and (probably) reduce the frequency of disclosure.

This means that the Government can continue its unsustainable spiral of spending, borrowing from commercial sources to do so. Why does the Government love to spend? Because the spending results in purchasing, on the most favourable terms, of goods and services supplied by politicians and their cronies. Most favourable for the suppliers that is, not the public.

This is extremely lucrative for the cronies who are seen running around in the most expensive luxury vehicles and jetting off on exotic holidays. No wonder BMW sales are up 280%, even while small car sales are down 84%.

The debt does need to be repaid, and this is where the public come in. At the moment there is a proposal that will increase electricity tariffs by between 58%-126%. This is the inevitable result of the policies followed. How else are the public supposed  to pay for the armies of unemployed graduates and the colossal waste that takes place at this institution? As I noted before, producers of private power (more cronies) are laughing all the way to the bank, while we must stump up so that they can party.

In the latest absurdity, even while we are contemplating yet another attack on our wallets, the poor, long suffering casino owners are to be given a tax break.  This is not just wrong headed policy, its positively evil.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Deyata Kirula - a front for clearing forest reserves?

The Sunday Leader reported that

More than 10 acres in the Buddhangala sanctuary and over four acres of forest lands situated opposite the sanctuary have already been bulldozed to use as a vehicle park for the exhibition.

When I checked with a friend whose company was involved in the exhibition last year, he said that 500 acres was cleared from the Wilpattu reserve for the exhibition last year.

The modus operandi  appears to be to site the exhibition in some area close to the forest. Then, under the guise of preparing for the exhibition, clear all the trees, using state funds and equipment. The timber, being cleared at 'no cost' (ie with state funds) is then sold at 100% profit by the organisers.

Since the exhibition is being organised by the military the concerns of wildlife rangers and others can be overridden in the interests of "national security". 

Looks like what we have going is a free-for-all smash-and-grab operation.

Then they came for the Christians....

The Sinhala Ravaya, another shadowy Buddhist supremacist organisation that works with the BBS has reportedly carried out a "raid" on a house in Nawala.

Meanwhile, the Ceylon Today newspaper reported that two raids took place on catholic religious centres in Nawala and Galle, in addition to the raid on the house in Nawala. 

The Centre for Policy Alternatives has recorded 65 instances of attacks on places religious worship since May 2009, the vast majority being Christian. Skimming that report, my impression was that most of the attacks were small and concerned localised disputes.

With the involvement of the Sinhala Ravaya and the BBS, I think we are moving in the direction of a centralised, organised, campaign against all things deemed to be non-buddhist and non-Sinhala.

Update: A pastor threatened by a mob in Weeraketiya.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

We have had 7 years of jobless growth, apparently.

A research firm, Verité Research, has published a new report which claims that:

Excluding the Northern and Eastern Provinces the labour force and employment statistics data for Sri Lanka recorded the existence of 7,105,322 jobs (number employed) in the country, in 2006. Since then, despite the real GDP growing in excess of 40%, job growth was less than 1%. (The number of jobs recorded in the second quarter of 2012 was 7,120,518).
The lack of job creation in the domestic market explains why there is so much pressure for jobs in the Middle East. Those who propose to ban the export of labour should first consider how jobs can be found for the hundreds of thousands that leave school every year.

It is also worth noting that the net job growth of 1% is after the state created 179,675 new jobs in the public sector, between 2006 and 2012.  This means that the number of jobs actually shrank. (Public sector employment stood at 1,134,561 in the second quarter of 2012, compared to 954,886 in 2006.)

So what does growth, sans jobs, mean? Not as much as it should, I'm afraid.

GDP is simply a measure of output (see calculation here) so it may mean that the level of activity has increased. Even if no new jobs were created, if there is a general increase in activity it will translate into higher profits, salaries, rents etc which means that the people should be better off. Are we? Do we feel that we can lead a much better lifestyle, save more or invest than we could in 2006?

I would bet that except for a small band of cronies, the answer would be in the negative. One reason is that the GDP figure looks good is because of the enormous government investment and expenditure that takes place. The Norochcholai coal plant, the Mattala airport and similar infrastructure projects help boost the GDP figure. Infrastructure brings long term benefits in the way of improved productivity, but if it is badly designed, the potential benefit will be small. 

The second reason the GDP looks good is because of an incorrect measure of inflation. GDP is reported net of inflation (ie nominal growth minus inflation). Therefore the lower the inflation figure, the higher the GDP.  According to official statistics inflation was 9.8% last year but how accurate is that figure? Private estimates put the figure at double that.

Therefore, despite some impressive statistics, we may conclude that the real benefits to the people have been small.  Anyway, read the published excerpts, there are some interesting points that have been discussed. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The path we tread

It is almost four years since the fighting ended in May 2009, perhaps it is a good time to pause and to ask if the country is headed in the right direction.

The future is never easy to foretell, but reflecting on recent events should tell us if the path ahead is rocky.

On the Governance front, in October 2010 we had the 18th amendment, in November 2011 the expropriation act, and in January 2013 the impeachment of the CJ. Three very significant moves that have altered the politico-economic landscape radically, for the worse.

There were other events, mysterious, unsolved events that people have all but forgotten. The killing of beggars in 2010/11 for instance. The PM is reported to have claimed that the beggars were from the LTTE, whether this was true or if it was part of the Colombo beautification project we will never know, but thankfully it stopped, after an outcry.

Winding back the clock a bit, the kidnapping of Tamil and Muslim businessmen was all the rage in 2007/8 (see wikileaks for some titbits on this). Many millions were paid as ransom, fortunately that too seems to have died down. At the time, analysts pointed out that there were two types of kidnappings: the political and the commercial. The commercial kidnappings were thought to be 'freelance operations' by the same teams that carried out the political kidnappings. No one knows for sure, but that too seems to have died down, although the occasional political kidnapping still seems to take place. The political kidnapping died down after a botched attempt on a minor political figure, seemingly exposed some of their links.

The strange thing is that these mysterious events generally cease after an outcry in the media, locally and overseas. It is never a case of the police investigating or the system of justice working to eliminate the problem. An outcry takes place and then the culprits go back into the wood work. The problem of course is that since the root cause is not addressed, the worms only await a suitable opportunity to return.

Sometimes I think it is good to just sit back and join the dots, the incidents I've picked out are just some of the bigger ones. There are a myriad others that could be cited.

Any way one looks at it, the picture that emerges is not an encouraging one.


Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Protests and protests

The powers-that-be treat protests differently, depending on who is protesting about what. Usually the subject of the protest determines the treatment. For instance, protesting against the evil colonialists, the UN and the West usually accords the protesters the red carpet treatment including a visit from the Head of State.

On the other hand, protests about the cost of living, wages or similar things generally accords the protesters tear gas and a baton charge.

In the latest development, protests that are ostensibly about the same thing have attracted different treatment.

The morbidly named Dead and Missing Persons front has held a protest requesting the UN carry out an investigation of the LTTE's role in disappearances and killings. They held their protest and handed over their petition.

On the same day, another group of protesters were prevented from coming to Colombo. They were on their way to "hand over a petition about their loved ones who had disappeared". To whom they were protesting is not certain but it appears even the dead and the disappeared are not accorded equal treatment.

The police apparently took this decision "for the purpose of maintaining law and order in the area". Instead of handing over their petition, they spent their time in Vavuniya Urban Council Grounds, guarded by riot police armed with water canons.

The Government has now said that there were no formal complaints for over 60% of disappearances.

Should artefacts in museums overseas be returned?

The Sri Lankan Government has apparently made a fresh request that artefacts in British Museums be returned. This request has been made before but Britain has not responded.

Given the fact that Sri Lanka's politicos were almost certainly complicit in the robbery of the Colombo Museum, I think there is a very good case for leaving them where they are. Why should they be returned, if they are only to be stolen and either sold or used to decorate the houses of the politikka's who are now competing with one another to build palatial houses in Colombo 7?

Better that they be kept safe and secure in museums overseas, where they can be studied and enjoyed by humanity at large. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The role of hate media in fanning the flames of communal violence

My last post referred to an article by Dayan Jayatilleka (DJ). There is another aspect that he mentions that I see taking shape. He says:
"I refer to the years from ‘77 to ‘83, a period covered by the Sansoni Commission, the violence of ‘77, ‘79, ‘81 and finally the massive explosion of 1983. The road to July ‘83 was paved, prepared, though perhaps not intended in that form, by anti-Tamil propaganda. At the time, it came from within the Government. You had anti-Tamil propaganda with illustrations being sent out in envelopes with a stamp of the then Minister of Industry, Mr. Cyril Mathew. It is the same kind of toxic waste material that is being put out today against the Muslim community, though not officially, not from within the government."
I see this happening today. People who never looked at a product to see what markings it has are now raising questions about the halal certification. These claims have the same validity as the Kosher conspiracy theories - indeed they repeat the Kosher claims almost word to word,  but are difficult to dispel easily in a short conversation, so the BBS rhetoric carries the day.

Ordinary, reasonable people are saying doesn't the BBS have a point? The Muslims seem to be everywhere these days, of course we don't support this violence but still......

This is the effect of the relentless propaganda. It is effective because it plays on subconscious fears.

It is true, the culture amongst the Moors has changed over time, the hijab and the abaya have become more common, more men seem to wear long beards. All communities now enjoy leisure more, so since people spend more time outside their homes, their visibility increases and gives the impression of a large increase in numbers. It may not be true, but people may think it is true, especially if someone puts false ideas about.

I don't think the pious Muslims differ very much in mindset from, say, evangelical Christians, another fast-growing sect but the crucial difference with evangelical Christians is that they do not look any different from the rest of us, so are easy to ignore.      

What the propaganda is doing is heightening awareness of differences and creating fears about those differences.  DJ's point that the violence against Tamils between 1977 and 1983 was enabled by the anti-Tamil propaganda must be taken seriously. The question he rightly poses is whether the anti-Muslim propaganda will set the stage for a violent reaction against that community.

It is worth noting that the propaganda of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines played a significant role on the Rwandan genocide of 1994. To quote Wikipedia:
"The station is considered to have preyed upon deep animosities and prejudices between the Hutu and Tutsi populations. The hateful rhetoric was placed alongside the sophisticated use of humor and popular Zairean music". 
After the plane crash killed the Rwandan President, the station joined the chorus of voices blaming Tutsi rebels, and began calling for a "final war" to "exterminate" the Tutsi. What followed was the worst genocide in recent times. The UNHCR states:

The Rwandan genocide resulted from the conscious choice of the elite to promote hatred and fear to keep itself in power. This small, privileged group first set the majority against the minority to counter a growing political opposition within Rwanda.
Isn't this the the same reason why the Government supports this campaign?  The danger is that unless the hate media is countered effectively, the probability of another round of violence will surely grow and everybody will pay the price.

 -Updated -

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Bodu Bala Sena's house to house campaign

Was chatting to a friend of mine. He had received a visit from a party lead by the Buddhist monk from his nearby temple. The monk had my friend's name and address, which they had obtained from the Grama Sevaka's office.

They had explained to him the danger that the Sinhala Buddhists faced from the rapid expansion of the Muslim population. He was given a written invitation attend to a meeting that will be held at the temple tomorrow, where the there would be a further discussion on this.

The campaign is being carried on in secrecy: only those invited or their nominees could attend. The temple would know who was attending and the identity of anyone who sent a nominee. 

The cloak-and-dagger approach and the focus on population is menacing, as Dayan Jayatilleka, notes in an illuminating article :

I am particularly worried, anxious, that the current wave of the anti-Muslim propaganda is on population growth rates. Why this makes me worry is that violence in such a context would not be preeminently anti-property but anti-persons, because if the name of the game is numbers, and rates of population growth, and the number of children that the Other has, then any violence is bound to seek to address that particular problem. In other words, the solution would be seen as one of an ethnic cleansing or ethno-religious cleansing.  

Another worrying aspect about this visit is the fact that they had my friend's name and address. It was no random visit, they had a list of all the Sinhalese households and were visiting them in turn.

Householders lists are supposed to be confidential, how were they obtained? People may recall that during the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, many of the gangs were armed with voters lists: they knew exactly where the Tamil houses were, and these were systematically attacked.

Such lists are once again in circulation, amongst dangerous hands.