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Thursday September 21st, 2023

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

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Sri Lanka’s 2022 EPF returns falls to lowest, single digit in near two decades – CB data

ECONOMYNEXT – The 2022 annual average return on Sri Lanka’s largest contributory pension scheme, the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), has fallen to its lowest in nearly two decades, Central Bank data showed.

The annual average return in the last year fell to 9.52 percent from the previous year’s 11.40 percent, a central bank response to a Right to Information (RTI) request showed.

Returns on EPF has raised concerns among contributors after the government decided to include EPF investments in the government treasury bonds under the domestic debt optimization (DDO) process.

Last year’s lower return has been recorded despite market interest rates being more than 30 percent towards the end of the year. In contrast, the fund has given a double digit return in 2020 when the market interest rates hovered in single digits.

Analysts have predicted the returns to be further low with the central bank opting for the government’s DDO option.

A central bank analysis on DDO showed the return on EPF could fall to as low as 6.79 percent if the DDO option was not chosen within the next 12 years as against 8.02 percent if opted for DDO.

Trade unions and some politically motivated fractions opposed the government move to include the EPF investments under the DDO. However, parliament approved the move early this month.

According to the data made available from 2005, the central bank, which is the custodian of the EPF, has given the highest return of 16.03 percent in 2009.

The island nation’s largest pension fund has almost 21-million member accounts including 18.3 million non-contributing accounts due to some members having multiple number of accounts.

The 3.38 trillion-rupee ($10.6 billion) worth fund as of end 2022 is managed by the central bank, including its investment decisions.

As of end 2022, the central bank has invested 3.23 trillion rupees or 95.7 percent of the total EPF in government securities, while 84.1 billion rupees has been invested in listed companies in the Colombo Stock Exchange, the central bank said quoting the EPF audited financial statement. (Colombo/September 21/2023)

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Malaysia to support Sri Lanka’s bid to join RCEP

ECONOMYNEXT – Malaysia has agreed to support Sri Lanka’s application to become a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a major regional trade agreement.

The RCEP is a free trade agreement among the Asia-Pacific nations of Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe met the Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim during bilateral discussions on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday (20).

During the meeting, the Malaysian Prime Minister expressed a strong desire to bolster economic ties between the two nations, according to a president’s media division statement.

He emphasized Malaysia’s eagerness to facilitate increased investments from Malaysian companies in Sri Lanka.

Ibrahim also expressed positivity towards Sri Lanka’s request to commence negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries, which could potentially open up new avenues for trade and economic cooperation.

Wickremesinghe is in a drive to bolster international ties and integrate the country with the global economy.

So far this week he met with the leaders of Bangladesh, Nepal, Malaysia, Iran, South Korea, as well as representatives from global bodies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, USAID, Meta, the Commonwealth, and attended other forums.

Sri Lanka aims to expand its economic reach first within South Asia and then extend further.
Data shows that Sri Lanka has been able to boost exports with FTAs.

Over the past two decades Sri Lanka’s exports have not grown as much as competitors.

Economists involved in trade have pointed out that Sri Lanka should make joining the RCEP a priority instead of trying to negotiate multiple smaller deals for which it does not have the bandwidth in government, or the technical resources to do multiple trade agreements. (Colombo/Sep21/2023)

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Is Tibet Prepared for a Post-Dalai Lama Era?

ECONOMYNEXT – Tibetans have shaped and sustained their lives for more than 60 years under the leadership of the 14th Dalai Lama. The spiritual leader turned 88 in July, and as his longevity is discussed amongst his followers, there is also concern about Tibet’s future without his physical presence.

In 2011, the Dalai Lama divested himself of all political authority, yet, as the architect of democratic governance, he continues to remain a larger-than-life figure for Tibetans.

Along with that come other challenges; safeguarding the democratic system he initiated, engaging younger generations in the cause for Tibet’s freedom, protecting the country’s environment, the influence of external forces and the possible geopolitical fallout of India’s continued support of the Tibetan cause.
Ever since the Lhasa uprising of 1959, and the setting up of a government in exile in Dharamsala, India, the first Tibetan Constitution introduced by the Dalai Lama in 1963 has undergone many changes.

In 1991 the Supreme Justice Commission was added to the other two pillars of democracy, the Legislature and the Executive. Along with that, an Independent Audit Commission, an Independent Public Service Commission and an Independent Election Commission were set up, and women were assigned two seats in the Legislature. The current operational body of the Tibetan government in exile is known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).

The debate on Tibet’s sovereignty, which fell under the control of the Chinese in 1951, is ongoing, with the Chinese government terming it the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ and the CTA and Tibetan diaspora referring to it as the “Chinese invasion of Tibet.”

Despite the reforms and the Dalai Lama divesting himself of all political power the spiritual leader exerts considerable influence and therefore there is still, a heavy dependence on him, notes MP Youdon Aukatsang. Speaking at a webinar titled “Tibetan Democracy in Exile’ organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, South Asia, on September 15, Ms Aukatsang pointed to a recent constitutional crisis which was finally resolved following the Dalai Lama’s intervention. “Tibetans must take full responsibility for political matters as envisaged by His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” she said.

There is also the challenge of dealing with the internal dissent amongst Tibetans, which she claimed is spearheaded by China.

The webinar moderated by Ms Tenzin Peldon, the Director and Editor-in-Chief of Voice of Tibet, included Ven Geshe Lhakdor, Director, Tibetan Library and Archives and honorary Professor, University of British Columbia, Gondo Dhondup, President of the Tibetan Youth Congress and Sujeet Kumar, an Indian parliamentarian and the Convenor of the All Party Indian Parliamentary Forum for Tibet.

The current Sikyong, Tibet’s political leader Penpa Tsering and Dr Jurgen Murtens, a member of the German Bundestag also addressed the webinar.

The democratic model, Aukatsang states is successful, yet it is a work in progress. The current make up of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile (TPiE) has 45 members representing the three provinces of U-Tsang, Do-med and Do-tod, the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the traditional Bon faith, Europe, North America and Australasia. It is headed by the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.

Aukatsang would like to see a modification in the composition with more representation from the diaspora, and less from the provinces to better reflect the changing demography. She also proposes an increase in the number of members of the Standing Committee from 11 to 15 and calls for the establishment of a dispute resolution mechanism rather than the direct impeachment process, which is the current practice.

Though the 1991 reforms made way for women’s representation in the TPiE, (currently 10 ministers and the Deputy Speaker are women), Aukatsang is hopeful there would be “more meaningful engagement of women in leadership roles,” for, as she points out, they are the custodians of Tibetan culture and language. Women have also distinguished themselves as founders of several non-governmental organisations and in the field of education.

Her sentiments were reflected by the Sikyong, Penpa Tsering when he said that unless the administration is ready to adapt to demographic and social realities, its relevancy will be challenged.

When the Buddha was on his deathbed, and his followers were fearful of being on their own, the Buddha had advised that the focus should be on his teachings and not his physical presence. Likewise, says Ven Geshe Lhakdor, Tibetans must continue to abide by the teachings of the Dalai Lama, and not worry about his absence. When Tibetans were prohibited from displaying photos of the Dalai Lama, they hung up empty picture frames, he said, aware that the Dalai Lama remains within them.

Ven Geshe Lhakdor also advocates a separation of Church and State, pointing out that clergy must involve themselves in the spiritual upliftment of society, rather than in politics. The idea of the religious ruling a country is outdated, he points out, adding that once clergy get into a “political mindset” they are unable to send out good signals to the people. He adds that their responsibility is to safeguard culture and harmony and be role models.

The principles of democracy are a reflection of Buddhist teaching the Venerable noted, pointing out its time to extricate oneself from a tribal mentality. The focus must be on a long-term, robust vision, rather than quick fixes. He also believes that Tibetans must safeguard themselves from internal fragmentation, even more than external threats.

One unique feature of the administration is that it is free of corruption, the Venerable notes, despite being surrounded by corrupt systems.

Even though Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, sought and had the cooperation of all Chief Ministers to offer refuge to Tibetans in 1959, MP Sujeet Kumar is of the opinion that the current Indian Parliament is rather diffident in openly rooting for Tibet against China.

While acknowledging that Indian parliamentarians have huge constituencies and are busy, he is hopeful his colleagues would take more interest in Tibet and her issues.

Tibetans alone have the right to decide on the Dalai Lama’s successor, says Kumar, and India must back that. India should also rally the support of other nations to help Tibet charter her own course in a post-Dalai Lama scenario.

Kumar would like to see more Tibetan youth become part of India’s trillion-dollar digital industry.
He is concerned, however, at the lack of enthusiasm amongst the youth to use social media to fight disinformation being circulated about Tibet.

Acknowledging that youth could be more engaged in social media to fight disinformation, Gondo Dhondup says all Tibetans are “born to be activists” and to the cause, even though it is difficult to envisage a freedom movement without the Dalai Lama.

Youth are the agents of change, and Tibet’s future citizens, therefore they must stay informed. The TYC organises leadership training, and Tibetans, even those scattered around the globe must take advantage of the programmes, Dhondup says.

While calling on India to introduce a national policy on Tibet, Dhondup cautions that India’s waterways that originate in Tibet are under threat. The rivers are either “diverted or polluted” affecting downstream villagers, and India must ensure her water security, Dhondup explains.

The recently concluded G20 summit was themed “One Earth, One Family, One Future”, and that gives India an opportunity to be more vocal about the environment, he says.

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