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PIIGS on the Beach

At the end of a long and enjoyable evening on Tuesday, I asked Gehan Talwatte, an old school friend who has founded, grown and then sold several quite valuable companies in the US and Europe over the last few years, whether he enjoyed his work. Of course, was his reply, so I pressed Ajith Fernando, also an entrepreneur of the highest level, and also a classmate who was hosting us that evening, does he enjoy his work? Ajith though has lived his whole life in Sri Lanka, hesitated a moment. I could see doubt flicker over his features. When pressed by Gehan though, he seemed to agree with him, and I thought it was the time for my work and enjoyment story, which just seemed to bubble up.

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Sovereign or Orphan: Europa and Zeus

In an old Greek myth, Europa is a Phoenician women, who while gathering flowers with her attendants, sees Zeus the great god, who has taken the form of a white bull. She caresses his flanks, and gets on his back, and then bull rides off with her across the sea to the island of Create, and as they used to say in the old days, ‘seduces’ her.

Roles which seem to be reversed in the present day, Greece it seems has come under the will of a new Europe, than is really run by finance capital. At first pass, the matter seems to one of unpayable and mounting debt: Greek debt is more than 150% of its GDP. Pay cuts for civil servants, tax increases and the like do not seem to be able to get the state to breakeven point, debts keep mounting, even as protests against the already server austerities have rocked the streets of that country.
While debt in many European countries, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal among them is massive, as is debt in the United States (nearly 100% of GDP) and deserves a separate discussion, debt alone is not the reason for what seems to be an intractable crisis. Rather, it is the question of sovereignty.

To understand this, we need to understand the policy issues at stake here. Most sovereign states have two policy strands in their economic management, monetary policy and fiscal policy. Monetary policy, in short has to do with the issuing of money, that is to say currency, and is usually handled by a ‘central bank.’ This is supposed to be an institution quite independent of government and politics, yet part of a sovereign state apparatus. Fiscal policy, on the other hand, is made by a government through its ministry of finance or treasury, and it has to do with how it collects money and spends it. Now, as I said, these are two different functions, and should be independent of each other, but usually this mutual independence is over shadowed by the over arching sovereignty of the state.

Argentina, nearly a decade ago in December 2001 faced a debt crisis like Greece. They did not have the revenue to pay their loans. Yet, they were able to default; stop interest payments on their international bonds and devalue their currency, and while there have been some hard times since, there have been positive results also. Paul Krugman, a noted and Nobel prize winning economist says in his blog: “Argentina suffered terribly from 1998 through 2001, as it tried to be orthodox and do the right thing. After it defaulted at the end of 2001, it went through a brief severe downturn, but soon began a rapid recovery that continued for a long time.”

Euro zone
Greece can’t simply do this, because it doesn’t control its monetary policy. Europe does. And it isn’t Europa anymore, and Zeus seems to be dead. To be more precise and serious, euro zone monetary policy is governed by a European Central bank, since Greece, unlike Britain, Denmark and Sweden, has joined both the super-state European union, and the euro zone. It can’t devalue its currency, because it doesn’t control it. If it could, it might have been able to try the Argentinean route. So what can it do, since the prescription of austerity is not solving the problem?

Indeed, it can attempt to leave the Euro Zone, and this was the question to be asked at the referendum proposed by the Greek Prime Minister. First it seemed the question was going to turn on the acceptance of the austerity package, which 60% of Greeks naturally oppose because it would mean huge reductions in their incomes. Financial markets swooned, and emergency aid was cut off by the EU. Then it turned out that was not to be the question, but rather, as one high powered financial news service, Bloomberg, put it, the question was to be, do you wish to, “stay with the euro, or return to the drachma as an orphan state”? According a prior poll cited by editors at Bloomberg, 70% of Greeks don’t want to leave the Euro zone, so the question, put this way, would preserve the monetary union.

Yet it is by no means clear that George Papandreou, whose father and grandfather were also prime ministers, would have equated sovereignty to orphan-hood. Indeed, even though he has now, under pressure from his own finance minister backed away from the whole idea of any referendum at all, it must surely have been this equation that crossed his mind, and must cross the mind of his fellow citizens. What is the worth of ceding ones sovereignty for the sake of domineering parents?
Or perhaps roles have been reversed fully; and it is Europa who now pulls Zeus on to her back, and carries him off to Brussels?

(Published in print and on the web, in the Nation on Sunday, on 6th Nov., 2011)


Your Horror: Our Photo

Jon Snow, the Channel 4 news presenter, who has anchored several broadcasts about Sri Lanka’s civil war, including the now well known ‘killing fields’ ‘documentary,’ always turns aside in a grave and pained way, before he airs a clip: this film he says, contains ‘very disturbing’ images of ‘death, injury and execution.’ Indeed, this may seem required and important or even ordinary and mundane as a warning, given it is a public television broadcast, but I’ve been struck by it every time I’ve heard it. There is a lot more to this statement than is apparent at first.

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There is a view, very common internationally now, that ‘reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka will not come about, until there is ‘justice’ and ‘accountability.’ These arguments are well known now but it’s worth delving into the basic assumptions that underlie them. It is assumed, in the ‘reconciliation’ argument, that there were two sides which fought for a long time. That one side defeated the other side. Now, both sides must stand trial, so that charges, for which ‘credible evidence’ is available, can be proved. Once proved, the leaders or representatives of both sides must be punished. And then, all will be well. Really?

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Sri Lanka: What’s Left of the ‘National Question’?

My suggestion is that radical, democratic or liberal intellectuals and activists, both in the island and outside, should urgently rethink their relationship to nationalism(s). Undoubtedly, those I speak of here, are critical, and rightly, of violent Sinhala nationalism, and of course the excesses of the State, which are manifold. But should this violence excess be met by explicit or implicit support of Tamil nationalism? Surely nationalism, which operates through inherited colonial boxes, masks diversity and social inequality?

Where in a nationalist orientation is space for the rights of domestic workers, battered women, queer people and the pauperized? To think in terms of the rights of citizens, is also of course, to think in terms of language, religion, region and custom. These are group rights of course, as are the rights of plantation workers, or single mothers or journalists. Alliances across groups of citizens become inevitable, and those that are not blinkered by nationalism will see the power of such alliances, to make Sri Lanka a better home for all of us.

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The Colombo Art Biennale & "Other" Artists

That having been said, I would add that I missed,  to my disappointment, the work of an artist like Thamodarampillai Shanaathanan, whose location, sophisticated political orientation to question like identity, and unique iconographic vocabulary would have added so much to the Biennale.

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Jailing Journalists

Updated on Sat, September 5, 2009 by Registered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan

The sentencing of J.S. Tissanayagam is deeply distressing.

While I'm neither a attorney, nor conversant with the details of the evidence presented by the prosecution, nor the text of the judgment delivered -- and so can not comment on those areas, it seems clear that this judgment and sentence was only possible given the Prevention of Terrorism Act, of 1979. Two features stand out, given the PTA-- the narrow bounds allowed for freedom of expression, on certain themes, and the admissibility of a 'confession' as 'evidence,' which is not allowable under the penal code. Taken together they make for a curtailing of freedom which is telling. There is an appeal pending, I understand, and there may be a possibility of a pardon, if that process is exhausted to no avail.

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Sri Lanka's Common Future

“Every prospect pleases, but only man is vile” goes the racist, colonial refrain, which is still the dominant ‘international’ framing of ‘news’ of the coveted pearl that seems to hang from India’s ear. In this colonial story a ‘model colony’ become a ‘troubled paradise’ after the British left it kindly and quietly. In the hands of the natives, a pearl is but a frozen tear.

An anti-colonial narrative sees the not so hidden hand of identify, classify, divide and rule, in the making and managing ‘community,’ little different from a series of British colonial violations that have left ‘ethnic’/‘communal’ partitions or simmering, half-resolved resolutions in their wake. Ireland, India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, Fiji, Singapore/Malaysia. It’s a long list; differences apart, the heritage of colonial identify and divide is shared.

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Access to and Control of IDP camps

Ravana asks this question about access to the camps:

"I know Sri Lankan NGOs have access, right? Is that correct? The news reports seem to portray the impression that no one is allowed in. That impression is blatantly false, isn’t it? Indi - you’ve been there. What’s the deal?..." To which Indi says: "I haven’t been to the camps. I’ve been to the hospitals..."

Let me try to clarify, since I think I do know. If I'm wrong, feel free to correct me.

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Do the Tamils need a Political "Package" or Political Process?

In an important statement, published in the Island today (18/05/09) "[a] collective of Tamil opinion leaders called The Group of Concerned Tamil Citizens of Sri Lanka (GCTCSL)" make several points about the what was, when the statement was written, the on going war, and its already apparent aftermath.

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