3rd June 2001
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Point of view

Cycle of violence and a frustrated people

By Tassie Seneviratne
Politics in Sri Lanka as practiced by the two main political parties that have been in power during the past 20 years or so, has been disastrous, with democracy being the main casualty. The extent of election malpractices resorted to by the two major political parties, creating general mayhem in the country, have established beyond any doubt to the discerning public eye, that elections in Sri Lanka are no longer free and fair, and therefore the party forming the government has no legitimacy.

So much for elections, but the rot does not end with that. Soon after the elections the priority of politicians forming the Government becomes, how to remain in power and amass finances and other nefarious means to remain in power, and do a repeat performance in the next elections. Politicians of the main opposition party plan to counter those in power by means no more scrupulous than what is practiced by its rivals, means not unknown to them, but getting more and more sophisticated with each turn of elections.

Public servants for their part back and counter back these political 'horses' as a means to ensure their survival and to enhance their progress.

The welfare of the people, whose votes were robbed by these vultures to come to power, is cast into the limbo of forgotten things, leaving them absolutely frustrated and despondent. Today, corruption and lawlessness is manifestly the order of the day. Proliferation of small arms is spreading unabated. Politicians are raising private armies to fight elections transforming democratic elections to armed battles.

Politicians, bootleggers, criminals and public servants have formed a nexus too strong for peace loving people to withstand. Individuals or groups trying to lead the people out of this morass are viewed as potential threats to the powers that be and are summarily dealt with on trumped up allegations, at which police stooges are quite clever. Public confidence in the judiciary too is fast eroding.

Due to all this, the more affluent and talented young people are leaving our shores in search of greener pastures. This brain drain is causing enormous loss to the country. The less fortunate unemployed youth are lured to criminality, drug addiction and all forms of morbid activities, often under the patronage of politicians. Youth joining the security forces are not unaware of what is going on. I would refrain from elaborating on that aspect here.

The new phenomenon of a drift towards the JVP, is not due to public appreciation of the political ideologies or principles of the JVP, but is a show of protest with a vengeance against the two main political parties.

It is a desperate attempt to use the JVP to do the dirty work of punishing politicians in power. Such desperate action with no alternate plan in view will only hasten the process towards absolute anarchy.

The ground situation is that the people are fed up with the existing political leadership and the prevailing political culture, and want statesmen of high calibre to lead the country. Sri Lanka is not without men and women of such calibre, but the prevailing political system, sans free and fair elections systematically brought about by the two main political parties, is preventing such people being voted to power.

In this context the following questions are pertinent :

1) What lawful means are available to the people to defeat an illegitimate government that resorts to unlawful and violent means to remain in power with the protection of the armed forces of the state and the judiciary?

2) How patriotic is it to simply look on at what is taking place for want of lawful means to defeat an illegitimate government?

A game of switching friends and foes

By Victor Ivan
The PA government is in a state of political uncertainty. In the face of a UNP-sponsored no-confidence motion gathering momentum, it has become suspicious not only of its political enemies but also of its allies. It appears that the government has lost its capacity to look into matters serenely and logically. Given its track record, it is quite natural that it entertains fears of losing power.

Although the PA government consists of a number of political parties, it does not have a majority that ensures stability. As a result a crossover by seven or eight MPs would be enough to change the government.

Even in the last parliament, the PA did not have a clear majority. But it managed to remain in office because a number of parties supported the government from outside.

Today's scenario is quite different. Although the number of parties supporting the PA government has increased, the number of seats they hold together in Parliament is fewer than what the PA had in last parliament. The former PA government had the support of 120 MPs including those of the SLMC and the CWC that had entered into an deal with the PA. The EPDP, which had nine seats and the TULF, which had five seats, followed a policy of supporting the government while remaining outside. Thus the gap between the government and the opposition was as large as 37 seats.

In the present parliament, although the PA and its allies have 117 seats, no party outside the government supports it. Although the UNP's strength in Parliament has also decreased from 94 seats to 89, the strength of the combined opposition has gone up to 108. Thus the gap between the government and the opposition has been narrowed to nine seats. In other words, to topple the government, the combined opposition needs the support of eight or nine MPs in the government. Not only are party leaders like Arumugam Thondaman and Rauf Hakeem unhappy with the present state of affairs in the PA, but several government MPs are also said to be unhappy with party policies. The President accused Mr. Thondaman and Mr. Hakeem of having received money from the LTTE.

Although Mr. Thondaman did not respond to the allegation, he remains displeased with the PA leadership. He thinks that the prospects of his party would improve if he goes back to an alliance with the UNP with whom his party had a long term alliance. The government's relations with the SLMC also have strained after the President criticised Mr. Hakeem over the Mawanella incidents and his refusal to back government plans to introduce local government reforms. The SLMC has 11 seats - more than what is required to topple the government.

In the meantime, there appears to be some differences of opinion among ministers as well.

Even certain ministers like S. B. Dissanayake, who are considered to be loyal to the President, are reported to be entertaining a view that the PA is facing a bleak future unless the leadership is changed. The President thought talks with the LTTE would help defuse the no-confidence motion. But with the LTTE placing a demand for de-proscription, this strategy has to be changed.

Although the President was willing to lift the ban for a limited period, she had to give up the idea because of the strong objection raised by Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. The result was that the opposition was able to have a strong basis to get the consent of all the Tamil political parties except the EPDP.

The common aim of the opposition parties is to defeat the government by a no-confidence motion and to set up a temporary all-party government for the purpose of carrying out democratic reforms. If the opposition succeeds in doing so, the President knows the process could go on until the abolition or a reform of the Executive Presidential System.

The opposition will be able to put into practice the idea of forming a temporary all-party government to implement democratic reforms, only if it is able to defeat the government through a no-confidence motion before October. After October, the President can dissolve parliament because according to the constitution, dissolution is possible only after a parliament completes one year.

Thus till October, she can gain time by employing various means, including proroguing it. However, Parliament can be brought to a standstill by a prorogation only for a maximum two months. The time available from June to October is five months. In any event, dissolution might also prove disadvantageous to the PA, given its record of broken promises and failures.

The writer is the editor of Ravaya

Point of view

Genetically modified foods: comedy or tragedy?

By Susantha Goonatilake
Two new technologies - information technology and biotechnology - are set to sweep and transform the world, much more than any previous technology. Information technology substitutes for, and enhances our brain power. Biotechnology could profoundly change 4,000 million years of life on earth and its products. No country wanting to be in the technology future, least of all Sri Lanka, will want to miss on these technologies.

But a most profound decision was taken in May to ban all genetically modified (GM) food products. With only a handful of biotechnologists in the country, we were the first country to have such a ban. Most biotechnologists and molecular biologists elsewhere, it should be noted generally support genetic engineering. Who said we, especially the present government is a defeatist one, bankrupt in ideas. We now lead the world in one field.

I was involved seven years ago on a major review for UN headquarters on the social and other implications of biotechnology across the globe . More recently I authored a monograph in the rather specialized field of general evolutionary theory on the long-term implications of biotechnology. And I have been on a UNESCO panel on bioethics. But biotechnology and bioscience is one of the fastest growing scientific disciplines. So one can be outdated on details very fast.

But this is a commonsensical article, albeit informed by some prior knowledge. Let me call it an informed citizen's view.

The gazette on the ban says that it affects the import or manufacture for commercial purpose, any food or food additive that has been subjected to genetic modification. It mentions that "genetically engineered food" means food that contains or was produced with a genetically engineered material. These are materials derived from any part of a genetically engineered organism. A banned additive means a genetic construct, its protein or expression product that is used as a result of genetically engineered food.

This ban was discussed at a recent meeting co-sponsored by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) and a local producer of non-GM foods. Dr. Beligaswatte, Food Authority chief, mentioned that he was the person entrusted with food safety. He was determined to avoid a "Thalidomide" situation (named after the medicine in the 1960s that gave rise to deformed children). Another he wished to avoid was the emergence of another "Mad Cow Disease" (BSE). BSE emerged due to cannibalism where cow flesh is fed back to cows. The process is similar to inhabitants of Papua New Guinea who ritually ate human brains leading to Kuru, the human form of Mad Cow Disease.

A scientist at the CCC meeting, a former SLAAS General President, gave a fair explanation on how genetic engineering works. Unbelievably though, he mentioned that animals have anything between 80,000-150,000 genes. These figures were not true; witness the recent results of the Human Genome Project. The big news here was that the Human Genome has only about 30,000 genes, a strong contrast to the 100,000 genes that had been the accepted figure earlier.

But further deep questions are raised. The reference to BSE was misleading, as there was no direct parallel in GM food. Neither were the parallels with Thalidomide true because Western regulators have tightened screening procedures since then.

A leading cancer surgeon mentioned to me that the rapid increase in breast cancer in Sri Lanka was probably due to hormones being injected to our chicken. This is anecdotal evidence requiring further research. I asked the public spirited Dr. Beligaswatte why he had not banned these as a precautionary measure. He gave no answer. As a food authority he could have also well alerted his medical colleagues about Western fast food - Pizza and hamburger chains - that have come in to the country and is being avidly consumed by upper class youth. Such fast food is a major cause of disease and death in the US. Promoted here, among our upper classes, these are mostly eaten in the West by the poor, especially under-educated Blacks and Latinos. They would cause far greater deaths than any GM foods that have passed Western regulators.

Genetic processes are producing a whole host of new medicines for infectious and non-infectious diseases like cancer. In the future such medicines could well be delivered through GM food. When I asked whether these too would be banned, our learned and well informed Dr. Beligaswatte had no answer. When I met Dr. Colvin Samarasinghe Chairman of the Pharmaceutical Corporation at a SLAAS meeting, he admitted readily that in the future most medicines would come out of genetic engineering. But, when asked what the effect of the ban would be on such medicines, he was reluctant to comment.

The varieties of rice and other crops that we use today came out of the Green Revolution that swept the developing world from the 1960s. These gave rise to new rice varieties that yield much more than our earlier varieties. If the average yield in Sri Lanka was about 15 bushels per acre, the new Green Revolution technology promised yields of 100 bushels or higher. Genetic engineering promises much higher yields avoiding some of the negative features of the Green Revolution.

The biotechnology revolution was slow to get off in developing countries largely due to the fact that much of biotechnology developments were in the Western private sector. In developing countries, there was no private sector in biotechnology - a notable exception being our neighbour, India. But genetic engineering was coming to the public sector as for instance, in IRRI in the Philippines that had already developed rice varieties using the technique. My agricultural scientist colleagues have informed me that such techniques have not yet entered Sri Lankan rice and other breeding programmes. But it is only a matter of time that they would.

In fact I asked the CCC panel what would happen if our scientists produced new rice varieties using such techniques. Would we ban them? They had no answer.

A reason given for the ban was that we did not have the expertise to judge for ourselves whether imported GM foods were good or bad. But some such expertise would be essential to implement the ban by testing imported food that could be falsely labelled as non-GM but was actually GM.

Lysenko was a notorious figure in genetics who tried to fit in genetics to the ruling ideology of Stalin using state ideology to justify scientific positions. The only example of Lysenkoism in Sri Lanka has been the use of cooked up ethnic theories to fit the present government's mixed up actions. The present GM exercise is similar in that it arrives at questionable policy decisions ignoring the most basic of facts.

After far more informed and deliberate discussions, we may still come to the same conclusion and totally ban GM food that have been accepted in other countries. But given that the rest of the world with far more scientists as well as informed environmentalists have come to different conclusions, I doubt it. It is a unique ban difficult to justify scientifically; will prevent developing our own biotechnology; will be ineffective as admittedly we cannot enforce it both because we do not have the expertise to do so and much more important, is probably against WTO rules.

There are other precautionary measures like labelling, instead of the ban.

The Minister for Science and Technology has sent out a message asking our scientists living abroad to return to serve the country. Looking at this ban, many are bound to think twice about returning.

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