4th February 2001
Front Page
Editorial/Opinion| Business
Sports| Mirror Magazine
The Sunday Times on the Web

Thoughts from LondonIndependence Day - solemnise or empathise?

So today is Independence Day. Are we to celebrate or commiserate? Whatever is planned in Sri Lanka by the government to mark the occasion, it will be the usual ritual here in London.

The High Commissioner will hoist the national flag, the national anthem will be sung, our envoy to the Court of St James will speak and the Sri Lankans past and present will retire for a repast of kavun, kokis and kiributh.

Last year, the then High Commissioner Lal Jayawardena, economic adviser to Chandrika Kumaratunga when she first became President, whose premature departure from London is still shrouded in some mystery, made a lengthy speech. Like economists with academic inclinations tend to do, Dr Jayawardena traced the country's economy from independence to the beginning of the new millennium.

However perilously close Lal Jayawardena came to taking 50 years to get there, his central theme had obvious validity. It was, of course, a subject very close to his heart- the peace dividend or how much the country had to gain in terms of socio-political stability and economic progress if the on-going war is ended.

I do not know what the present High Commissioner Mangala Moonesinghe is going to say, not being privy to thinking in high places. But my guess is that he will keep it short, but his message could have a similar resonance. If his message is peace yes, but not at any cost, it would not come as any surprise.

Whether the message is drafted here or crafted in Colombo by the usual herd of spin doctors who have made a pretty mess of things over the last several years, the fundamental question Sri Lanka's so-called leaders should be asking themselves is this - why is the message not getting through, why is it not striking a responsive chord in the hearts and minds of the people.

Never mind the usual party hacks and hangers-on who will applaud in unison every platitude that droppeth like profundities from the lips of leaders on occasions such as this. Their positions from court jester to a conspiratorial Cassius depend on playing their allotted roles and singing the chorus of praise at the appointed time

But take Everyman, the average Sri Lankan, who refuses to respond with the same alacrity to all the pretentious prattle that gushes from the lips of leaders and are worshipped with hosannas by the faithful.

It is more than 50 years since Ceylon was given-not won, mind you-its independence. For more than half that time our leaders blamed the western colonisers without admitting that their own incapacities and political shibboleths were taking the country down the road of ruination.

I have no great admiration for the repressive and authoritarian city state that Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew created. It was devoid of political dissent and the media was a tool in the hands of the government. But I still remember what he told me one day about Sri Lanka and where and how it went wrong.

He said that at the end of the war all Asian leaders admired Ceylon and wanted to model their countries on Ceylon. You had, he told me, an excellent civil service, an impartial police force, very high literacy rate, a good economy, good health and educational systems. Ceylon was the richest country then.

You know what went wrong, he asked and like Pontius Pilate did not wait for an answer. He was quite clear what it was - too much politics.

In those three words he had summed up Sri Lanka's malaise. That phrase encapsulated what is dirty in our country's politics- the avarice, chicanery, corruption, fraud, thuggery, intimidation, greed, the hunger for power and the desperate desire to cling to it at all costs.

That was nearly 10 years ago. Since then we have slid further and further into a morass of our own creation. Today the country is in greater shambles than when Lee provided that capsuled assessment of post-war Sri Lanka.

One wonders what he has to say today. The economy is in a mess because it is handled by amateurs and dilettantes masquerading as economic know-alls. But most of all it is in tatters because corruption has seeped into the body politic and political and state agencies. And institutions that he once thought would remain neutral, transparent and incorruptible have been tainted by political association and collusion.

What could be negotiated and purchased without pay offs and bribes must now pass through a process where Mr. Five Percent and Mr. Ten Percent line the route to collect their dues and officials are sometimes bagmen for their political masters.

Can nothing in this country be done without having to oil somebody's palm or be somebody's somebody's somebody? And who are the people on the take? Perhaps it is not a question that deserves an answer, seeing how well known the answer is not only in Sri Lanka but in the wide world too.

No doubt we will be told today to be prepared to sacrifice, to help the country in its hour of need, that the government will not surrender to terrorism and all the other incantations we have heard, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

And what are our dear leaders going to sacrifice along with the people? Their swimming pools, duty-free vehicles, increased salaries and allowances, their goon squads and all the goodies they have collected over the years.

In 1981, we celebrated with much fanfare, the golden anniversary of our franchise. What have we done with it and what do we continue to do. Is it not a sad reflection on our political maturity that 70 years after we first got universal franchise- the second country in Asia after Japan- we are talking of setting up independent bodies for the judiciary, police and civil service having systematically politicised and destroyed the ones we had? Not only that, the need to re-establish them and convince people of good governance and transparency is not apparently a priority.

The government tries hard to convince the people and the world that Sri Lanka is in this plight because of terrorism and that it wants an end to the war. If people in Sri Lanka and outside are sceptical of such glorious claims is it not because the kith and kin of those in or close to the seats of power are in the arms trade.

Would anyone be convinced that the government sincerely wants to end the war and thus deprive its close associates of the millions of dollars they rake in as commissions by selling arms to this very government.

If it wants people to make sacrifices and the world to believe what it says, then it should ban the kith and kin of politicians and officials in high places from engaging in arms deals. Until the government does so and proves its sincerity and all its high faluting talk will be deposited between Aesop's Fable and the tales of Andare. And on this Independence Day may I make one suggestion? Every parliamentarian should have his/her waist measured on first entering the legislature. It should be repeated every six months. Every increase of an inch in girth shall be punishable with a proportionate cut in allowances or whatever is decided should be an appropriate penalty.

Sri Lankans - independent or dependent on alcohol?

By Nilika de Silva
Taverns close for 24 hours, but liquor stocked by people in advance overflows. It's Independence Day. And Sri Lankans have forgotten both independence and the struggle to gain freedom, which was based on the Temperance Movement of yore.

"The Temperance Movement was identified as the foundation for the independence struggle and many were killed," says Sri Lanka Temperance Council Secretary Dharmadasa Wagasenevi. The "Sura Virodhi Vyaparaya" against alcoholism launched by Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala in 1895, was seen by the British rulers as a direct attack on their regime which rented out taverns to get revenue for government coffers. At that time there were 2,038 taverns. After the Temperance Movement agitation there was a drastic drop to 190. 

"Ours has not been a bloodless independence campaign, though many have stated thus. There was no need to shoot and kill people just because they were fighting against alcoholism. They were killed because they were in the Temperance Movement, a strong foundation for the independence struggle and therefore seen to be a direct threat to the colonial masters," Mr. Wagasenevi says. 

The Temperance Movement launched as the 'Colombo Temperance Council' on July 14, 1912, at Ananda Vidyalaya with a membership of 25, was based on the message spread by the Anagarika who traversed the land delivering sermons. In six months the membership swelled to 3181, with 33 branches sprouting up around the island. In a year waves had joined the Movement with the membership growing to 14,993 with 100 branches. It is recorded that at a meeting in Meerigama, on August 31, 1913 a crowd of 20,000 gathered to hear the Temperance leaders speak.

The Sinhala-Muslim riots in 1915 were a good excuse for the British to erase the traces of the freedom struggle in then Ceylon, by cracking down on the Temperance Movement leaders. About 116 were shot dead, 83 sentenced to capital punishment and 60 to life imprisonment. 

"The rulers did not like the Sinhalese banding together and were worried when the Sinhalese formed the Temperance Movement. When the Sinhala-Muslim conflict occurred, the British put the Sinhalese leaders who were in the Temperance Council in prison. The whole committee was jailed. They were unable to capture only D.S. Senanayake," said Amarapura Maha Nayake and Temperance Association President Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha. 

He explained that the British later realised that what had been done was wrong and sent a new Governor to replace the one who had taken such a harsh decision. "The first thing the new Governor did was release these prisoners." Those who played a leading role in the Temperance Movement included Ven. Kalu Kondayave Pannasekera, the Anagarika, Dr. W.A. de Silva, Walisinghe Harischandra, Deshabandu F.R. Senanayake, Srimath D.B. Jayatilleke, Mahamanya D.S. Senanayake, John de Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena and Arthur V. Dias.

Those days the masses worked against alcoholism, even paying the heavy price of being put behind bars. Today people are more interested in earning money, whatever the means, he said. 

But the situation in Sri Lanka today is far removed from what it was then. Whereas the leaders spoke of abstinence and set an example to the people, today it is the people's representatives who issue the liquor licences. 

"If the leaders give a proper example, the public is ready to follow, whatever crooked international schemes may be underway," said Mr. Wagasenevi, adding, "Taverns are springing up even in front of schools. Unofficially and indirectly these taverns gain the blessings of the politicians." 

Buddhist Theosophical Society President Mr. H.T.A. Gunasekera said, "It is the Government that must put an end to this by prohibiting the distillation and sale of liquor. The availability of liquor at every street corner is one of the main reasons for the degradation of society." 

If banning is impossible, then at least all those who buy liquor should be compelled to show their identity cards and prove they are above 18 years, Mr. Gunasekera said. 

The WHO report, 'Profile of Alcohol and Tobacco - Sri Lanka' shows the number of liquor licences issued in 1996 as 650 to retail outlets, 100 to hotels and 350 to restaurants. Quoting the Government Gazette 928/1 of July 17, 1996, the report states that Colombo will be issued with 118 liquor licences for retail sale, while 26 will be issued for hotels and 68 for restaurants. In Gampaha 81 liquor licences were for retail purposes, 10 for hotels and 54 for restaurants. 

The trend of alcoholism is however being reversed in European countries. Seeing the ill-effects of alcoholism, 40 European countries have come together to work towards restricting alcohol consumption by 25 percent, Mr. Wagasenevi said. "But in our country it is being increased, as multinationals have migrated towards countries in Asia. The rulers have given them the space to destroy our country."

The Temperance Movement, which was the foundation of the independence struggle is not even known among the rulers. Only international NGOs are recognised by the Governments today, Mr. Wagasenevi said. 

From the time of Sri Lanka's independence to the era when R. Premadasa became President, the leaders of this country such as D.S. and Dudley Senanayake have been those who have come through the Temperance Movement. 

In the '70s there was a move to start selling Kasippu through Sathosa, but this attempt was halted by the intervention of the Temperance Movement, he said. "We are totally disappointed. With the earlier governments there was a feeling that they were listening to our opinions, now it appears that there is no listening taking place." 

Figures released by the Research Division of the Customs seem to reinforce Mr. Wagasenevi's argument. Sri Lanka had imported more than Rs. 164 million worth of whisky from January to June 2000 and over Rs. 7.7 million worth of vodka. " 

Meanwhile, statistics released by the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) stated that in 1999, more than 20 million proof litres of Extra Special and Molasses Arrack were being produced in the country. While close upon 2.4 million proof litres of Processed Arrack and 2.6 million proof litres of Blended Arrack were also being produced. 

Add to this the information that in Sri Lanka a family in the low income bracket (monthly income less than Rs. 2,000) spends one-third of its earnings on alcohol, cigarettes and narcotics and what you may. As Sri Lanka proudly celebrates its 53rd Independence Day, with or without thoughts of the valiant struggle by the Temperance Movement for freedom for the people, the main question that arises is: Have we become slaves to alcohol?

Index Page
Front Page
Mirrror Magazine

More Plus

Return to Plus Contents


Plus Archives

Front Page| News/Comment| Editorial/Opinion| Plus| Business| Sports| Mirror Magazine

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to 

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.
Hosted By LAcNet