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Sunday July 14th, 2024

Military training: Misguided, Counterproductive, and Against Buddhist Values.

ECONOMYNEXT – Minister Sarath Weerasekara, a former naval Rear Admiral, insists that all Sri Lankans – especially youth – need military training in camps to build a disciplined society. I am sure he intends well, but his rationale doesn’t hold up.

I am uncertain what his definition of discipline is, so let’s look to the Oxford dictionary. It defines“discipline”as training people to obey rules through punishment and controlling behavior as a result. Is this unquestioning compliance driven by fear what Sri Lanka needs as a priority to create social wellbeing and progress? Is this approach consistent with our values?

Minister Weerasekara had earlier referred to the high incidence of traffic accidents as an example of lack of discipline. However, his method of discipline is already at play in obtaining and using a driving license in Sri Lanka, founded upon training people to obey rules. Failure when learning and later for breaking the rules results in punishment. Hefty fines and more if caught breaking rules, and at the stage of learning, failure is high financial and emotional costs to trainees.

During the learning, too, the disciplinarian instructors would scream at you even if you mess up even a wee bit.

Ultimately, the drivers who went through this training and are aware of the punishment that awaits still cause accidents. So, what keeps going wrong?

There’s a practical, and then, a conceptual test of road rules. If you stop to think deep enough, you will spot the problems right there. Rules are just that, and they do not give a reason why you should invest in them. For instance,learners are taught what each sign means, but they aren’t encouraged to think about and understand for themselves the practical reasons why they should be obeyed.

Neither are they taught to develop their awareness, values, and empathy. Accidents often happen when the driver isn’t aware – due to fatigue, intoxication, or distractions. Driving reckless knowing the rules is a lack of empathy for oneself and others on the road. Lack of values – including respect for human life and people’s wellbeing is increasingly becoming a hallmark of our society and governance systems.

The flaws aren’t limited to driving licenses. Success in our education system is predicated on repetitive memorization and compliance as opposed to critical thinking, scientific exploration, creative expression, and the building of practical competencies. There’s evidence aplenty that this colonial approach could be linked to the nations’ lack of innovation, entrepreneurship, and drive for progress compared to more enlightened nations.

Sri Lanka has an ex-serviceman as the president, and Dr. Weerasekara and many decorated ex-military men are now in top positions. Yet, the country is struggling on many fronts – economically, socially, dealing with the pandemic, and governance.

You’d argue they would be disciplined in their approach, then, what gives?

The governments – today’s and recent past – have not been great at critical analysis, systems thinking, and learning from their and others’ successes and failures. Unfortunately for them and us, skills such as critical thinking, adaptability, and a learner’s attitude are far superior in solving problems than one-tracked and often misguided notions of discipline.

In tackling the pandemic and elsewhere, the Sri Lankan government has failed to walk its talk. For instance, despite its commitments to using and succeeding through information technology, Sri Lanka has failed to use widely available mobile technology for tracing cases, facilitating vaccinations, or treatments during the pandemic. I’ve tried two systems set up by the government to register for vaccines, and they’ve both crashed.

Despite proclamations to otherwise, widely available technology was not considered – for instance, usage of mobile phones for tracing. And, no, it’s not a problem of lack of connectivity either. Sri Lanka has more mobile connections than people. Half the population has internet access, including an overwhelming majority in the urban areas that were and still are the epicenters of the pandemic.

Sri Lanka has failed at systems thinking and adaptability. Another critical failure is competence – and It’s evident in the gap of the leaders’ talk and walks on IT, economy, and else. And this problem isn’t limited to the current government but also previous ones, some opposition leaders, and many corporate sector organizations. Rather than competence, determining values in claiming high-profile roles seem to bepolitical loyalty, unquestioning compliance, and nepotistic links.

On the pandemic,the man who oversaw health services when Sri Lanka successfully tackled the first wave, was “upgraded” and moved to a post which is not his expertise as a reward. Competence rejected.
Governance and the rule of law have failed, too, with justice eluding ordinary citizens. Still, others with suspected links to high places seem to have gotten away and often thrived despite convictions of murder, theft, rape, and else with impunity.

We could discuss many factors critical to the nation’s success than coercive discipline but let me highlight a couple that should hit home for Minister Weerasekara. Especially given that he has MA and M Phil degrees in Buddhist Philosophy, according to his Wikipedia page.

Mindfulness – a fundamental concept of Buddhism – has been absorbed into educational and professional development systems worldwide. For example, UK primary education system is coaching young children on some of the skills. Skills cultivated through mindfulness include awareness, scientific observation, empathy, equanimity, and compassion. In addition to being skills on their own, modern psychology has recognized these as essential ingredients of intelligence – especially emotional.

Buddha was quite big on critical thinking, too – questioning, seeking evidence, and cultivating a learner’s mind. Sri Lanka’s primary religion stands out as one of the few in the world that is not predicated on punitive discipline but by intrinsic regulation based on building intelligence and skills to reduce human suffering and promote the wellbeing of people and nations.

The humble scribe here attended – albeit decades later – the same alma mater as Minister Weerasekara. While there was some serious glorification of Buddhism and rituals and “discipline”, unfortunately, not a lot was invested in building those above and other skills that the religion prescribes.

Media has quoted Mr. Weerasekara saying,“any course or training that enhances personality, could gradually turn society into a disciplined body.”Even a little knowledge of psychology would tell you this categorically is false. Training can be used to cultivate positive and productive and negative and counterproductive habits, and Buddhism agrees with the scribe here. Any training provided must further wellbeing, agency, and skills.

How training is conducted is as important as what the theme is. If punishment is the motivator – then any habits learned are built on negative motivations, and fear of punishment is likely to invite negative mental states, including anxiety and depression. Avoidance, illegal shortcuts, and social stalemates are more likely results of such as opposed to progress and wellbeing.

Sri Lanka had a proud history and civilization. That Ptolemy made the tiny Island nation larger than life and central to his map says how remarkable our ancestors were. But, unfortunately, we can’t claim the same pride anymore. Today’s morals seem derived from colonial oppressors than those that were the foundation of that marveled civilization.

Militaristic discipline is an idea borrowed from our colonial overlords. The same can be argued for many of the operational values. They only serve to enable momentary and colonial-like supremacy for a select few and those up corrupt hierarchies, but not for the people.

The minister could do far better looking at Buddhist philosophy that he is quite well-versed in. Well, philosophy is just a fancy word, and the teachings are ethics and skills to be cultivated. Presently, Buddhism is relegated to ceremonial rituals, stories, and as a tool for controlling the masses.

A better starting point than military discipline for the honorable minister and his colleagues in the government would be enacting the Buddhist values that they and our constitution claim to give primacy to. I would implore them to start with his government, with Dasa Raja Dhamma, to improve how they govern and the nation’s well being.

About the author: Nipuna is a specialist in communicating for positive social, behaviour, and policy change having worked for over 15 years with local and international development agencies. The views herein are his own and not of any organization he is or has been affiliated to. He can be contacted at nipuna@nipuna.net

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UNESCO DG to discuss archaeological endeavours in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s president has said that he will discuss initiatives for long-term archaeological endeavours in the Anuradhapura city with visiting UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay.

Azoulay will visit Sri Lanka from July 16-19 and take part at the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Sri Lanka’s membership of UNESCO at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre in Colombo.

She will also travel to UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the island, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

“I have invited the Director General of UNESCO to visit Sri Lanka and discuss initiatives for long-term archaeological endeavours in the Anuradhapura city. Several universities overseas have shown interest in supporting us for these activities, and we are moving forward with their collaboration,” Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

“Anuradhapura boasts a rich history spanning over a millennium, once renowned as a hub of trade and economics. Preserving and exploring this ancient city’s archaeological treasures remains a significant endeavour.”

“New archaeological efforts in the Anuradhapura district are now imperative,” Wickremesinghe said during a ceremony to inaugurate a 150-kilowatt solar power system installed by the LTL Group at the Sri Maha Bodhiya premises in Anuradhapura on Saturday (13).

Wickremesinghe pointed out that UNESCO has undertaken extensive archaeological projects in Angkor Thom in Cambodia, and Luang Prabang in Laos.

“However, we have not taken the necessary steps to implement these activities in Anuradhapura city. Therefore, I have advised both the Department of Archaeology and the Cultural Triangle to undertake these initiatives.”

These efforts are part of a comprehensive program aimed at establishing Anuradhapura as a globally renowned city, Wickremesinghe said.

While Sigiriya has gained international fame, Sri Lanka has not adequately highlighted Anuradhapura’s historical significance as a major trade and economic center in the past, the president pointed out.

“Cities like Tanjore (Thanjavur), Madurai, and Sanchipuram are often discussed, yet Anuradhapura, the fourth city, has been overlooked. Therefore, it is crucial to develop Anuradhapura city.”

As part of these initiatives, preparations are underway to establish new hotels in Anuradhapura, which will contribute significantly to its development, Wickremesinghe said. (Colombo/Jul13/2024)

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Government committed to improving living conditions in Jaffna: Sri Lanka PM

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s prime minister, who is in Jaffna “to monitor the progress” and “get a little feedback” has said the government is committed to improving living conditions of the people in the northern peninsula.

“This government is dedicated to improving the living conditions of the Jaffna Peninsula,” Dinesh Gunawardena told a Jaffna District Coordinating Committee meeting on Friday, according to a statement by his media division.

“In order to increase the living conditions, we have embarked on an increase in most of the expenditure needed by the departments, and also special allocations for rural and urban development in the local government area.”

Nationalist Gunawardena met with Tamil politicians at the Jaffna Divisional Secretariat Office and participated in the distribution of rice and egg incubators for low income families.

“A special privilege to be with you all, in order to monitor the progress made by all of you, as well as to get a little feedback where we stand today in relation to the reports given.”

Gunawardena joins a string of leading political figures who have visited the north ahead of upcoming polls.

The government was, he said, “committed to improve the services and living conditions, therefore, to provide the necessary infrastructure for developments, which means much to your area.”

The prime minister said he appreciated the efforts of farmers because “farmers are all private sector, I would say. Let us not forget, farmers are all in the private sector, either in the ownership or in the tenancy. They are private contributors to the national development of the economy.”

The poverty numbers are “fairly managed” in the country. Gunawardena said, pointing out that poverty was a key problems in any economy. “Any country, you would agree with me, the richest country, in the United States even, food stamps have been given. So all economies the world are going through difficult situations in relation to the poor.

“We have to look after the poor especially in these remote villages of the Northern Province…”

Minister Douglas Devanada, MPs M A Sumanthiran, Angajan Ramanathan, C Vigneshwaran, Dharmalingam Siddharthan, and other officials participated in the meeting. (Colombo/Jul13/2024)

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Sri Lanka leader’s presidential campaign faces dilemma over coalition: sources

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presidential election campaign is facing a dilemma over coalition due to rivalry parties with different political ideologies, sources said.

President Wickremesinghe is yet to announce his candidacy for the presidential poll which is expected to be declared by the island nation’s Election Commission after July 17.

However, his close allies and some ministers in the current coalition government have already started a campaign to promote him assuming that President Wickremesinghe will declare his candidacy.

Three sources who spoke to EconomyNext said legislators from the main opposition center-right Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) are ready to join, but they do not want to be in coalition with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujna Peramuna (SLPP).

“SJB members who want to join Wickremesinghe are bit nervous because people wanted to oust SLPP in 2022 for their past sins including corruption and wrong economic policies,” on source who is in a member in the core campaign strategy group told EconomyNext.

Another source said majority of nationalist party SLPP are with the president, but a few key SLPP leaders do not want to back Wickremesinghe because of his market-led economic policies.

“SLPP does not want to be seen as backing Wickremesinghe’s privatization moves. So a few leaders are worried to join the campaign and have different idea of fielding their own campaign,” the second source who is indirectly involved with facilitating meeting between Wickremesinghe and legislators said.

The SJB is leaned towards somewhat liberal economic policies and has ensured to treat all ethnic people equally, while SLPP has backed a state-controlled economy and has given priority for ethnic majority Sinhala Buddhists.

UNDECIDED VOTERS

There is no formal and transparent survey to assess the popularity of possible presidential candidates.

However, an informal survey shows Opposition and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa is leading followed by Marxists Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka.

The same survey has shown a gradual gain for Wickremesinghe in the last three months.

“He is confident of winning, but he has to win most of the undecided voters for that,” a third source, who is in the campaign planning team, said.

“Still things are very fluid. Majority of the people still don’t understand the benefits of economic recovery and the country getting out of the debt default under the current president. We will have a clear picture by end of next month.”

Wickremesinghe was elected as the president in July 2022 by the parliament after his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country in fear of his life amid mass protests and outside the presidential palace.

Wickremesinghe has implemented some tough economic reforms including raising taxes, imposing new taxes, freezing recruitments to state-owned companies, and privatizing loss making government-owned entities in line with commitments agreed with the IMF.

UNPOPULOUR REFORMS

Those reforms have made him unpopulour mainly among government employees and lower income groups.

He has raised the salaries of government employees from April this year while has introduced a new transfer payment called Aswesuma for lower income and vulnerable groups.

Sri Lanka faced an unprecedented economic crisis with a sovereign debt default in 2022. But it has recovered faster than expected under Wickremesinghe administration with difficult and unpopulour reforms.

People protested against the SLPP-led government in 2022 and ousted then leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all his relatives from the key ministerial positions for their alleged involvement in corruption and wrong economic policies.

The SLPP which had more than two-third majority in the parliament after 2020 general election, is worried about its perception and electoral performance after the economic crisis.

Analysts say Wickremesinghe has a greater chance to win if he join with SJB than SLPP because of the SLPP’s negative perception.

Sources, however, said they are in discussions with both SLPP and SJB legislators to agree on a common programme for Wickremesinghe’s presidency.

Presidential election is likely to be held either in October first week or second week, Election Commission officials say.

Wickremesinghe lost the parliamentary election in 2020, but entered the parliament in 2021 using the solo seat his party won through the national list.  (Colombo/July 13/2024)

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