Vinoth Ramachandra

Author Archive

South Asia comprises more than a quarter of the world’s population. It is home to ancient religious civilizations and thousands of ethno-linguistic groups. When it comes to human rights and economic inequality, it features at the bottom of global rankings.

Leave aside Afghanistan and Myanmar, where the sheer horrors inflicted by the ruling regimes simply defy the imagination (at least mine). One can only weep with anger (but still ask: who supplies these evildoers with the military and financial means to wreak terror?). But in India and Sri Lanka, ostensibly democracies in the eyes of the West, the voices and rights of minorities are suppressed, ignorant voters are routinely bribed, and honest police and judges often victimized. These are majoritarian democracies, not rights-respecting democracies.

In its annual report released on Monday, an independent commission investigating international religious freedom (USCIRF) once again called on the US Department of State to designate India and Sri Lanka as countries “of particular concern”. This label, applied to India since 2020, accuses a government of “systematic, ongoing [and] egregious violations” of religious freedom and opens the door to economic sanctions.

The commission reports that the Indian government “at the national, state and local levels promoted and enforced religiously discriminatory policies” in 2022. Those included “laws targeting religious conversion, interfaith relationships, the wearing of hijabs and cow slaughter, which negatively impact Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits and Adivasis (indigenous peoples and scheduled tribes)”.

Nearly 6,000 organizations are adversely affected by the financial regulations in India, including losing licenses to receive funds from abroad.

Moreover, Indian academics are under pressure to rewrite not only the history of India but their specialist courses so as to obliterate or diminish the contribution of Muslim, Christian and other minority communities. Liberal and Marxist scholars and journalists, no less than Christians and Muslims, are often the targets of vicious personal attacks. Christian non-profit organizations working among the poor (largely ignored by vocal Hindu politicians except at election time) are constantly harassed with allegations of making “unethical conversions”.

However, given that the US (and the EU/UK) always subordinate their human rights rhetoric to their own narrowly-conceived economic and military interests, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will act. The US is obsessed with China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, and it is also India’s largest trading partner.

If the sheer hypocrisy and double standards practised by Western governments (at least the Chinese and the Russians don’t talk of human rights) needs to be exposed more widely in Western media and by Western churches, the primary challenge we in South Asia face is to “deconstruct” the dominant religious-cultural narratives that support state tyranny.

My life-long exposure to religious communities (Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian) has led me to believe that the great majority have a purely functional understanding of their traditions: they are useful for meeting various felt needs, as rites of passage or as sources of consolation in periods of bereavement, calamity or national tragedy. The intellectual systems may carry some startling insights and sophisticated logical arguments; their rites and ceremonies may evince moments of great beauty and tenderness; but on the popular level, they are rife with superstition and gullibility, self-righteousness and oppression.

Politicians and business leaders in India and Sri Lanka routinely dabble in various occult practices, from using shamans to put “curses” on their rivals to consulting astrologers and personal gurus before making any major decisions.

Under the current BJP government in India, cow protection groups, operating with impunity, have killed Muslims and low-caste peoples simply for transporting cattle. In BJP-ruled states the lynching of Muslim men by Hindu mobs has been commonplace.

Anybody familiar with Indian cities knows that cows are treated far worse in India than in other countries. Malnourished cows, their ribs painfully sticking out and munching on discarded polythene bags, are a common sight in Indian cities. But anyone familiar with Indian politics knows that such contradictions are central to the nationalist ideology of Hindutva. Every nationalist needs a bogeyman, and Pakistan and the Muslim and Christian minorities in India serve that end.

If more Hindus in India and the so-called Indian diaspora in the West do not raise their voice in support of civil society activists in India who defy such cruel practices, they should not be surprised if the fear, anger and frustration of young Muslims becomes channelled in the direction of ISIS and other radicalised Islamist groups. If there is one lesson we have learned in South Asia in the post-colonial era it is that extremism breeds extremism, and the silence of elites strengthens the voice of the mob.

Regarding Sri Lanka, several civil society groups, church leaders and trade unions have, over the past few weeks, been vigorously protesting the attempt by the ruling regime to introduce an “Anti-Terrorism Act” which is even more draconian than the current Prevention of Terrorism Act which has been the target of human rights activists for years. The leaders of the influential Buddhist monastic orders, however, remain silent.

Amnesty USA has also called on President Biden to speak out against the proposed law. Since the only language this government seems to understand is the threat of economic loss, if Western democracies that profess human rights were to issue travel advisories cautioning their citizens from visiting Sri Lanka and businesses from investing here, in the event of this new legislation being passed, that would help us enormously in our struggle.

What is God’s word for South Asia today? The most scathing denunciations of empty religion (when religious devotion is divorced from basic morality) are found not in the writings of Marxists or secular “Enlightenment” liberals, but in the pages of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). Of hundreds of prophetic passages, here is one of my favourites:

I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

I cannot stand your assemblies.

Even though you bring me offerings,

I will not accept them…

Away with the noise of your songs!…

But let justice roll down like a river,

Righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5: 21f)

Easter Sunday is an appropriate day to be reflecting on the meaning of one’s life and what we will be remembered for- and by whom- once we shuffle off these mortal coils.

I’ve been watching the film “Living” (2022). It stars one of my favourite British actors, Bill Nighy, in a role perfectly suited to his customary soft-spoken, melancholy demeanour. Nighy plays a senior civil servant in the London of the 1950s, a creature of routine rather than reflection or action, whose childhood ambition rose no higher than to be a respectable “gentleman” of predictable habit. One day he receives a terminal health diagnosis from his doctor and the rest of the film deals with how he handles the last six months of his life. It is slow-paced, and the dialogue, while subtle, doesn’t sparkle. But it holds one’s attention throughout, as do all good works of art, by its understated, nuanced quality. The silences and facial expressions are more pregnant with meaning than the typical chatter of Hollywood.

The film is a loose adaptation of the Japanese classic “Ikuru”, and the screenplay was written by the Japanese-born British Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro whose novel “Remains of the Day” also deals with another emotionally repressed white Englishman of an earlier era (the ritualized handling of emotional disturbance, including not expressing grief publicly, seems to unite feudal Japanese and English cultures).

Staying with films, let’s put the clock back twenty five years. In the brave new world of “Gattaca” (1997), one of the most thought-provoking science fiction films, the earth belongs to those humans who have been engineered genetically to high IQs and long lifespans. They form the elite “valids”. The “in-valids” are those conceived by natural means and are a menial underclass. Vincent is an “in-valid” because he was born in the old-fashioned way, and his genetic tests show he has bad eyesight, heart problems and a life expectancy of about 30 years. He works as a cleaner in the space centre. Aspiring to join an expedition to one of the moons of Saturn, Vincent rebels against the system. Using an illegal DNA broker, he gets a new biological identity from a “valid” who has been paralyzed in an accident.

I learn from the IMDB website that “When Gattaca was first released, as part of a marketing campaign there were adverts for people to call and have their children genetically engineered. Thousands of people called, wanting to have their offspring genetically engineered.”

If “Living” raises the question whether there is more to life than merely occupying a place in space and time, “Gattaca” openly confronts the question, “Who has the right to decide which life is not worth living?”

The twentieth century began with the auspicious discovery of genetic inheritance by the Moravian biologist Gregor Mendel. He supplied the mechanism of inheritance that was missing in Darwin’s theory of “descent by modification”. Mendel’s work was seized upon by a breed of Social Darwinists who were eager to apply the new ideas of inheritance and the “survival of the fittest’ (a term coined by Herbert Spencer, not Darwin) to their dream of perfecting human societies by weeding out those who were “undesirable” in the way that animal breeders had been doing for centuries. (Infanticide of unwanted babies and restricting the reproductive rights of certain classes of humans have long been practised in many cultures.)

It was in the US that the new vision of Eugenics flourished. Doctors began sterilizing poor blacks, the mentally infirm, those deemed sexual deviants, recidivist criminals. The majority of states had coercive sterilization on their books for most of the 20th century, and somewhere between 70,000 to the highest estimates of 400,000 people were sterilized against their will or knowledge. New terms such as “feeble-mindedness”, “moron”, “imbecile” were given a pseudo-scientific status as ways to classify human intelligence. Many of the major universities in the US included a eugenics course in their curriculum.

From the US eugenics spread to Britain. It was embraced by intellectuals and politicians across the political spectrum, from the conservative Winston Churchill to the socialist George Bernard Shaw. Notable members of the British Eugenics Society included, apart from Churchill and Shaw,  Francis Galton, Neville Chamberlain, Charles Davenport, John Maynard Keynes and Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin and the president of the society from 1911 to 1928. During his time as Home Secretary under the Asquith government [1908-1915] Churchill proposed legislation for the involuntary sterilization of the “feeble-minded. Fortunately, the British parliament rejected his involuntary sterilization suggestions in the Mental Deficiencies Act of 1913.

The opposition by American conservative Christians in the 1920s to Darwinian evolution was partially fuelled by the political identification of evolution (a scientific theory) with eugenics (a program of social engineering that was both scientifically and morally defective).

American eugenicists visited Germany regularly, and the German eugenics institutions in Berlin were funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Well before Hitler took power in 1933, his biography Mein Kampf preached the Nazi doctrine of “racial hygiene”: “Whoever is not bodily and spiritually healthy and worthy”, Hitler wrote, “shall not have the right to pass on his suffering in the body of his children.” Hitler referred to “The Passing of the Great Race,  a  bestselling book written by American eugenicist Madison Grant, as his “Bible,” and it was the first foreign language book to be published in Germany after the Nazis came to power.

It was only after the Nazi doctors’ appropriation of it in the death camps that the bogus science behind eugenics became subject to widespread criticism.

I find it chilling how biological science was co-opted by some of the leading intellects of their day to promote both “scientific racism” and “eugenics” with terrible consequences for the twentieth century. It is important that science students learn the history of their discipline, and especially how it has been misused to degrade and exclude, rather than empower, the weak.

Standing on the bleak platform of a New York subway last week, I was captivated by a shabbily dressed stranger who dropped a bag by my side, unzipped it to produce a trumpet and began to play the most haunting jazz I have heard in some time. I decided to miss three trains so that I could stay and listen to the glorious music.

There was something ethereal about the experience: beauty in the midst of drabness, human creativity bursting through poverty and squalor. It recalled the late sociologist Peter Berger’s description of what he called “rumours of angels” or “signals of transcendence”- for instance, the universal human experiences of play, ordering, protesting evil, defying death, and so on.

Identifying such signals in the midst of the bleak political landscape of our times calls for a knowledge and imagination that exceed my own. And I invite readers of this Blog to share such explicitly political “rumours of angels”.

In my own country, people continue to peacefully protest the incompetence and corruption of a government that seeks to suppress them by means of repressive decrees. In Iran, the indomitable courage of schoolgirls puts to shame the protestations of armchair critics of tyranny that “nothing can be done”. The complicity of banks in Australia and Singapore in buttressing the military junta in Myanmar has been exposed, albeit too late. Bolsonaro has been evicted in Brazil; but, at the same time, a far-right politician takes over in Italy and fascist Jewish groups control Israel politics. (Indeed, the state of Israel, as I have often noted, is a classic example of how people brought up on a collective narrative of victimhood can become victimisers themselves. How different are the far-right Zionist settlers from the Nazi thugs who terrorized German Jews?)

Conventional economics separates economic outcomes from political and cultural practices. Marx turned such thinking on its head. Political ideologies reflected the economic forces of production. But Marx’s middle-classes are now themselves at the mercy of “market forces” shaped by oligarchs and oligopolies. And the proletariat (if it exists in its classical form) are seduced by the new opium of sport- World Cup football and T20 cricket- to be anything approaching a revolutionary force.

The Tory leadership in the UK represents the callous indifference of upper echelons of British society and are completely out of touch with the lives of the average Briton. (In this regard they are more like monarchies than Marx’s bourgeosie). As for both the Labour party leadership in the UK and the Democrats in the US, they have long become estranged from their historic bases in the lives and aspirations of blue-collar workers.

The unholy alliance of economic and political power is shown not only by the influence of the big merchant banks on government policies (remember the bailouts of 2008?) but by the erosion of all global and domestic efforts to ensure fair economic competition and moral accountability. Corporations routinely ignore the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Western corporations have meekly submitted to China’s draconian Community Party line in order to gain access to its huge markets and supply chains.

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is not simply an economic act. It has huge political ramifications, for Musk has significant business interests in China, just as Trump’s empire has in the Persian Gulf. China is Tesla’s second-largest market, and sales in China have increased significantly in the past couple of years. Tesla’s plant in Shanghai is the world’s largest electric vehicle factory. In January, Tesla opened a showroom in Xinjiang that was criticised by some members of the  US Congress and rights groups because of the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity targeted at the region’s Uighur community and political dissidents.

The Chinese government is sensitive about its image abroad and has repeatedly targeted Twitter uses in the country. It has jailed those who criticise the party, and forced them to delete sensitive tweets or close their accounts. At the same time, they have used the platform to spread false information, creating numerous fake accounts that defend the government’s positions on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, COVID-19 and other issues.

Online safety groups and human rights campaigners have expressed concerns about Mr Musk’s plans to relax content moderation and reverse permanent Twitter bans given to controversial figures, including former US president Donald Trump.

But Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has overjoyed the Chinese regime. It has now created an opportunity for China to reshape the discourse on that social media platform about its practices of cultural genocide, arbitrary imprisonments and forced labour.

Writing in The Times of India four decades ago, the well-known sociologist Rajni Kothari lamented: “As I talk to my friends, my relatives, my professional colleagues today, I get a feeling of total ignorance of the other India. When in fact they are forced to take note, such as when they walk through the pavements on which people are sleeping, there is a feeling of revulsion, of rejection, of contempt, not of compassion, empathy and least of all of any sense of guilt.”

Little has changed since Kothari wrote those chilling words. And they apply not only to India, but to the Western liberal democracies. The insularity and parochialism of current global politics, coupled with massive, unaccountable and concentrated economic power, threaten all humanity and future generations. From where will arise rumours of angels?

On 14 May 2022, ten black people were killed by an 18 year old white youth in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. He is said to have been radicalised by Internet message boards which are an outlet for white-supremacist ideology. They promote what has come to be known as the Great Replacement Theory, a seemingly respectable academic proposition that white people in Western countries are being replaced by non-white immigrants with higher birth-rates. And it then slips into claiming that this openness to non-white foreigners is a conspiracy on the part of left-leaning political elites to win elections.  

The shooter who opened fire on a Muslim mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, killing 51 people, also subscribed to such a conspiracy theory. A recent YouGov poll in the US showed that 61% of Trump supporters and 53% of Fox News viewers believe it to be true; and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson had mentioned replacement theory more than 400 times on his show before the shooting.

Mainstream political discourse in the United States has been infected by such racist scaremongering over non-white immigrants since the nineteenth century. First it was the Chinese, then the Japanese, and in the 1920s and 30s Jews from Europe who were seen as bringing disease, alien cultures and – along with the growing native black population- diluting white racial “purity” and weakening the power of northern Europeans who were the true Americans. The eugenicist policies of the 1920s, designed to weed out undesirable elements in the population, were imitated by Nazi doctors and politicians in Germany and directly influenced Adolf Hitler’s own pseudoscientific, anti-Jewish conspiracy theory.

Since the Second World War, similar sentiments have, from time to time, shaped immigration rhetoric and government policy in Europe and Australia. Far-right nationalist movements have made deep inroads among mainstream parties and media, playing on declining birth rates among white populations and highlighting immigrant crimes.

Suddenly Europe has become “Christian” in the rhetoric of right-wing politicians who have never opened a Bible or stepped into a church worship service. Two days after the Buffalo massacre, Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orban claimed on television that he was fighting against the “the great European population exchange” which was a “suicidal attempt to replace the lack of European, Christian children with adults from other civilizations- migrants.”

The irony, of course, is that it was white European settlers in the Americas and the Pacific who brought disease that decimated indigenous populations. But ignorance of history is rife even in countries with high levels of Internet access.

I am currently in Karlsruhe, Germany, attending the 11th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches. It is my first such Assembly, though I am very familiar with the history of the WCC (founded in 1948) and the various debates, some more acrimonious than others, that have marked its successive gatherings.

I was invited to give the keynote address on the theme “Christ’s Love and Borders” at a pre-Assembly theological track for ecumenical theologians, and am participating in the rest of the Assembly as an observer. I feel a little out of place in the midst of impressively robed Patriarchs, Metropolitans, Archbishops and Bishops. It is a surprise to discover several African Independent Churches and also Pentecostal churches affiliated with the WCC. And the Roman Catholic Church, though not formally affiliated, has been vitally involved in much of the work of the WCC through its ecumenical representatives. If only such a spirit of mutual respect and co-operation would be translated into local church ministries when the delegates return to their respective nations!

Every national church delegation brings its own agenda to the table, wanting the WCC to make official statements on this or that issue. There is criticism that the war in Ukraine has been given far more prominence than other bloody conflicts raging outside Europe. The Palestinians want a resolution condemning Israel as an apartheid state. It is strongly opposed by the Germans, including the German President who addressed the Assembly on the opening day. Talking with Germans and other Europeans, I discover so much ignorance about the Israeli citizenship laws, let alone the numerous violations of international law by the state of Israel. It looks like the Palestinians will continue to suffer from German collective guilt over the Shoa. And all the denunciations of colonialism will ignore Israel (the last European colonizer) and the numerous internal colonialisms in the Global South.

Whatever the outcomes of such resolutions, I hope that the WCC will continue to serve the churches as a forum where different theological voices can be brought into conversation with each other; and that whenever it does address the wider world, it will do so with a message and sensibility that are profoundly Christian.

I admire Nancy Pelosi’s guts in standing up to China ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, even as I deplore Biden’s pusillanimity towards Israel and Saudi Arabia.

President Xi Jinping is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin. He has promised to “unify” his “motherland” and is seeking an unprecedented third term as leader of the Chinese Communist party in order to be remembered in history as the one who achieved it. This also recalls Hitler’s dream of “unifying” the German people who lived in Czechoslovakia and Austria.

Global capitalism was once believed to be the handmaid of liberal democracy. Open up trade and markets, and political freedoms will follow. That was the myth behind which European and American companies and their governments hid in the early 1990s when relocating all their manufacturing industries to China. They chose to ignore the fact that capitalism is morally promiscuous and can climb into bed with both the best and the worst of political regimes. But, even in the history of Western nations, it was the spread of adult suffrage and the maturing of parliamentary democracy that curbed the excesses of capitalism and protected men, women, and children from the worst forms of exploitation.

It can, of course, be argued –as the Slovenian communist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has- that today’s China is the ideal capitalist country in which the main task of the ruling Communist Party is to control the workers and prevent their self-organization and mobilization. The Party’s power is legitimized by its undercover deal with the new capitalists, which takes the form: “You stay out of politics, and we will keep the workers under control.” (Zizek, Living in the End Times, 2011).

I shall return to China. But, first, a brief update on the latest turn in the self-destructive politics of Sri Lanka that I have been chronicling in recent weeks.

The new President, about whom I wrote two weeks ago on this Blog, has decided to govern under repressive Emergency Laws (a legacy of British colonialism!) which suspend constitutional safeguards of civil liberties and due process. He is aided and abetted by a dysfunctional, servile parliament. The leaders of the peaceful protest movement (which ousted the previous President and was admired the world over) are being hunted down and arbitrarily detained by the security forces. The activities of human rights groups are being curtailed. This stupidity is hardly likely to win friends among foreign governments willing to help Sri Lanka emerge from its economic nightmare- unless, of course, it is China.

However, I don’t agree with critics who want to blame China for the economic problems faced by countries such as Sri Lanka. Apart from Taiwan, China has limited military ambitions and is not driven by any political or religious ideology. Its goals are commercial. If poor nations have been borrowing heavily from China in unsustainable ways, it is because their politicians and bureaucrats have lacked economic competence, diplomatic skills and any sense of public accountability.

China has also exposed the hypocrisy and double standards of Western nations when it comes to the practice of human rights, contra the public rhetoric. Economic greed has always trumped human rights when it comes to American, French and British foreign policies. Even as Western banks and corporations enabled China to become a global economic powerhouse, their own nations’ economies were ensnared by China and their criticism of China’s human rights record was muted. Western universities, desperate for cash, have been wooing rich Chinese students and even lowering academic requirements in some cases in order to accommodate them. Moreover, Chinese political and military elites stash their wealth, just as do the Russian oligarchs, in Western cities and offshore tax havens such as Switzerland, Dubai and the British Virgin Islands. (See James Ball, “China’s Princelings Storing Riches in Caribbean Haven’, Guardian Weekly, 31 January 2014). The global financial system is complicit in much political evil.

Last month, in an unprecedented joint public appearance, the heads of both the FBI and Britain’s MI5 warned the West of China’s threat to their economic and military security. They claimed that China deployed cyber espionage to cheat and steal technologies “on a massive scale”, and with a computer “hacking programme larger than that of every other major country combined”.

Scrolling my old Blog posts, I came across this from 10 December 2011. It raises different security issues than those mentioned by the FBI and MI5, but much of it is still relevant:

“Is China the biggest threat to global security? It would seem so… for China’s domestic addictions and environmental problems have spilled over into the rest of the world. As its own forests, fields and mines struggle to satisfy an expanding national appetite, China is depleting Siberia’s forests and Mongolia’s ore deposits. To feed its growing livestock, China imports huge quantities of soya, much of it from Brazil, which has accelerated deforestation in the Amazon region. The high-protein, high-octane, junk-food lifestyle has consequences for global food security, climate change and South East Asia’s wildlife. Toxic dust from factories and deserts in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia drift across the Pacific to the West Coast of California. Dams and river diversion projects in Tibet and Yunnan are affecting millions of people living downstream in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. Chinese cash and political support is accelerating the filthy extraction of oil from Canada’s tar sands and propping up evil regimes in resource-rich nations like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma.”

As I have also written elsewhere, in the context of my own country as well as others, despotic regimes deliver neither bread nor security in the long-term. They not only inflict fear on others, they live in constant fear themselves. They are desperate to cling to political office and the fortunes they have plundered. They know that losing power will expose them to imprisonment. So, in their paranoia, they lash out at everybody, even their own supporters. Thus every tyranny, for all its apparent invincibility, is unstable. It is only a matter of time before it splinters and disintegrates. But the tragedy is that so many innocent lives are blighted on the long road to freedom.

The crisis in Sri Lanka has now attracted global attention, and I gave some of the background to it in my post of 22 April. But, quite frankly, I quail when asked to explain to outsiders the suicidal bent in Sri Lankan politics. Our post-independence history is a succession of “lost opportunities”.

Yet, we are not the only relatively well-educated polity to elect to power megalomaniacal Presidents or Prime Ministers. And the political challenge we face today is somewhat similar to what my friends in the UK, for instance, face: How, in a constitutional democracy, do we remove an incumbent regime to which we gave a massive majority in the last parliamentary elections? The economic meltdown has belatedly opened the eyes of the electorate and put them now at odds with the people who still sit as their representatives in government.

On the 20th July, parliament votes to elect a replacement for the ousted President who was forced out by a popular uprising and fled our shores to Singapore. The acting President, only a little less popular, was elevated to the position of Prime Minister three months ago by his predecessor despite having received a meagre number of votes in the last general elections and being the only member of his own political party to sit in parliament. (His appointment was ratified by the former President’s servile parliamentary majority). Despite being a veteran politician, and having served six tenures as Prime Minister (a world record), he has not a single political accomplishment to his credit. Incompetent, but with a messiah-complex, he is determined to become the next President. And, given the dysfunctional nature of our parliament, will probably succeed.

However, to blame a single family or political party for our national misery is naïve. Sri Lanka boasts a high literacy rate and a better-than-average educational system. It is home to all the major religious traditions. Yet religion, like politics, is amoral, its practice driven largely by self-interest, fear, superstition or wilful ignorance. Violence, dishonesty and corruption have become embedded in daily life.

Such corruption, taken to new heights by recent regimes, has cheated the poor, robbing them of their life-chances. It has crippled public health, education, public utilities and state institutions. Corruption on such a scale cannot be blamed solely on one family or party. It would not have been possible without the collusion of many in the business, banking, judicial, medical, IT and legal sectors.

The people who, since independence, been the primary foreign-exchange earners (tea estate workers, garment factory workers, rural poor sent abroad as housemaids and construction workers) have received little of what they have given to the nation. Foreign exchange has been siphoned off by the rich elites for the sake of education or employment abroad. Public hospitals and schools have steadily deteriorated in quality of services, while state funds have been diverted to private interests with political connections.

While wanting to attract foreign tourists, Sri Lanka’s politicians and business elites have routinely destroyed everything that tourists come for. We have felled our rainforests, polluted our rivers and beaches, built airports on the edge of wildlife sanctuaries, and wasted foreign exchange on other “white elephants” such as multi-lane highways and an inefficient national airline at the expense of developing eco-friendly rail services.

These are problems recognizable in many countries today. What the world’s media call economic or political crises are, at root, moral and cultural meltdowns. Widespread lying, for instance, makes it harder for voters to make good choices, since they either cannot trust traditional sources of knowledge or work with false information. There is plenty of data showing that societies with high levels of trust (sometimes, misleadingly, called “social capital”) have much higher levels of social well-being and political maturity than others.

Economics and business are also founded on trust and are parasitic on the basic honesty of the majority; and when this is lost or squandered, economies and businesses fail. All the more reason why our socio-political activism must transcend the narrow cultural perspectives of conservatism, liberalism or Marxism and work with a larger understanding of humanness and what constitutes human flourishing.

The global media spotlight on Sri Lanka will fade soon. Hopefully, the popular struggle by civil society movements, and not least the local churches, will continue. Calls by the IMF and Western states for “political stability” don’t go far enough. China and Russia have political stability. Do we want to be become like them? Yes, we need foreign investors in economic projects. But we also need support in helping build just and responsive political institutions. And foreign governments who recognize and repent of their own immoral complicity in the failure of states like ours.

I have often bemoaned the misleading rhetoric and double standards involved on both sides of the abortion debate in the US and elsewhere. My most recent foray was what I wrote a week before the last American presidential election (see “Re-Visiting ‘Public Reason’”, 25 October 2020).

The biggest tragedy is that rational “debate” is actually absent on both sides of the Atlantic. Liberal news media such as the BBC, for all their public posturing as balanced and rational voices, have whipped up frenzy over the U.S Supreme Court’s recent reversal of Roe vs Wade, irresponsibly referring to it as a “ban on abortion” and refusing to address the moral and legal complexity of the issue. This is the mirror-image of right-wing media such as Fox News. (I often feel like banging the heads of so-called conservatives and progressives in the U.S and pronouncing a “plague on both your houses”.) One longs for another Orwell to discipline our language in these days of insane politics!

Recall the late Zygmunt Bauman’s quip that, in postmodern ethics, Descartes’ cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) has been replaced by its neo-tribal version “I shout, therefore I am.” The one who shouts loudest, whether on social media or in the university, is the new moral leader. Paradoxically, tolerance is killed in the name of promoting tolerance, intellectual diversity suppressed in the name of valuing diversity.

I have, from time to time, argued on this Blog that the moral arguments against abortion should not ignore the legal challenge to protect both mother and child and ensure that poor women, in particular, are not victimized. The left-liberal chorus, on the other hand, needs to stop using such inane expressions as “the right to choose” and “reproductive rights” and accept that we are dealing here with the moral worth of two human persons at different stages of their human development. The fundamental right of a pregnant woman to understand what she carries in her womb, and the various options open to her, has been obfuscated (ironically) by many who claim to speak for such women.

I live in a country where abortion, on any grounds, is illegal. Despite this, abortions are performed routinely by some doctors as well as back-street quacks. Women are told that what they are undergoing is a “minor surgical operation” or “womb cleansing” or “menstrual regulation”. I don’t know any self-styled radical feminist who has openly confronted such deception of women by some in the medical profession.

As for the Republican lobby in the US, many of us are befuddled as to how a “pro-life” agenda re abortion can be combined with anti-gun control, anti-social welfare, and support for American militarism and the practice of torture and targeted assassinations by American allies (not least, Israel). Isn’t this a case of Orwellian “double-speak”?

If “guns don’t kill people, only people do”, why not apply the same logic to say that “abortion clinics don’t kill babies, only people do”- and, instead of banning them, persuade people not to go to such clinics by giving good reasons and providing alternatives in a civil manner?

In a Blog post of 13 February 2020 I suggested that Western Christians should not seek to return their countries to the age of back-street abortions. Also, that if the dominant secular culture in North America and Europe sees “pro-life” rhetoric tied to a right-wing political agenda, it will only deepen the popular resentment towards Christians. I wrote: “We would have won a battle only to have lost the larger war. Christians should work for cultural change which would make abortion unthinkable, by most people and in most circumstances, whether or not it is illegal.”

As for politically conservative Christians in the U.S, they can become more winsome and credible by being consistently “pro-life” and also being more willing to learn from non-Christians as well as other Christians. And the place to begin is by switching off from their parochial media networks, shutting down their white sectarian colleges and seminaries, living in ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods, and joining the mainstream of cultural and social life. That is how the rest of us live.

The British government is currently mired in a legal imbroglio over its plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. The controversial plan has divided the public, and all the Bishops in the House of Lords have denounced it. I do not fully share the thinking of the Bishops and do not wish to wade into these muddy waters; but simply to draw attention to the way the language and assumptions in these debates are often misleading.

The common distinction made between “legal” and “illegal” asylum-seekers is spurious. An asylum seeker enters a legal process which determines whether or not s/he is to receive refugee status. A person fleeing for his/her life from a conflict zone or the secret police usually has neither the time nor the resources to apply for an entry visa at another country’s embassy; and, in any case, visa applications even for tourism or social visits to Western nations are tedious, expensive, and often humiliating. Under international law, all of us have a human right to exit our country of birth or residence. But there is no corresponding right of entry to another particular country. Therein lies the rub.

Rwanda’s attraction to the British government is that it has a better record than most in receiving and protecting refugees from other African countries. There are legal safeguards for refugees, including freedom of movement and the right to work. On the other hand, it has a high rate of unemployment and a dubious human rights record, and has also been accused of targeting Rwandan refugees who have fled abroad.

The British Home Secretary (herself born into an Indian family that came to the UK from Uganda in the 1970s) believes that such an immigration policy will deter “bogus” asylum-seekers from coming to Britain on boats. This may well turn out to be the case, but it is extremely doubtful whether Rwanda or any other African country has the means to determine who is “bogus” and who is not. (As for the unscrupulous profiteers from people smuggling, I have never understood why the British and French police and navies cannot get their act together and track these people.) And, as the case of Ukrainian refuges has shown, there is a strong element of racism here in who is welcome and who is not.

The large-scale displacement of persons has its origins in the First World War and the draconian measures Western nations installed, including the visa system and the carving out of national borders and colonial mandates in North Africa and the Middle East. A fair number of the conflicts raging today in the world have their origins in Western colonial histories. And, of course, global warming has created huge numbers of environmental refugees. In 2009, the G8 nations promised $100 billion a year in aid to poor nations to help build resilience against the disastrous effects of climate change. A mere trickle of that money has materialised. Today’s BBC carries a reminder of how poor nations continue to feel betrayed by the West ( in this regard.

So, can we honestly discuss the problem of asylum-seekers and refugees without attending to such betrayals and hypocrisies, widening economic exploitation and environmental devastation in the Global South- as well as the deluge of arms shipments from the West (and Russia and Israel) into conflict situations and the strengthening of repressive regimes around the world?

Surely, these problems are all inter-connected. The future wellbeing of humanity (and the non-human creation) depends on fresh initiatives in multilateral disarmament, the effective regulation of finance-dominated capitalism, more widespread electrification generated by renewable sources- and, above all, the injection of moral thinking into nationalist politics.

“Hope begins with the ruin of our expectations.”

Both in print and in talks, I have often quoted these words from the Sri Lankan theologian and ecumenical leader, Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (1908-1970). They were words that sustained me during the 30-year civil war this country experienced and, at the close of which, I began writing this Blog. And I continue to cling to them in the continuing darkness that envelopes us and other nations.

Many languages do not have a word for hope. And even in English we have a tendency to identify hope with optimism or simply our aspirations. We pin our hopes on programs, parties or politicians and so are continually disillusioned. Christian hope, unlike optimism or mere wishful thinking, is based on the paradoxical triumph of the cross of Christ and Easter promise. The God of the biblical narrative is a God of surprises, working in unexpected places and through unexpected people. The light of God’s mercy continues to shine in the midst of the darkness.

The end of the civil war in Sri Lanka heralded the deification of the then President and his opportunistic brothers (the Rajapakshe family). They fell from grace in 2015, but made a spectacular comeback in the presidential elections of 2019 and the parliamentary elections the following year, largely as a result of the Easter Sunday carnage which they turned into both anti-Muslim hysteria and promises of ensuring “national security”.

Some of us suspected that the attacks had been conceived by elements in military intelligence that had remained loyal to the ousted President’s brother, the former defence minister, and that the Islamist bombers were merely their tools. Evidence regarding this has been hitherto suppressed. But a gullible and largely docile public gave the Rajapakse family a two-thirds majority in parliament which they promptly used to emasculate parliament itself and turn the Presidency into a virtual dictatorship. The President, Prime Minster, Finance Minister and two other cabinet positions were all occupied by a single family. This was nepotism and gangsterism at its most farcical!

Then came Covid-19. Sri Lanka’s economy has depended heavily on tourism, tea, textiles and foreign remittances from workers abroad. All these were crippled by the pandemic. The crisis was exacerbated by economic mismanagement, political arrogance and rampant corruption. By the beginning of this year, foreign exchange reserves had all been squandered and the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. The regime did what it only knows to do: run with a begging bowl to China and India. These have not been sufficient to meet the severe shortages of medicines and medical equipment, food and fuel. The country has, for the first time in its history, defaulted on its external debt and is facing its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

The ray of hope is that the economic crisis has led to a political crisis. Deprivation has affected all levels of society and finally opened the eyes of Sri Lankan people to the way they have been colluding, some actively but the majority through passive subservience, with the country’s impoverishment. Public street protests, calling on the President to resign and all his brothers to get of out politics, have erupted all over the island. What is remarkable is the way, for the first time in my living memory, the protests have united people from all walks of life and all ethnic and religious communities.

We are experiencing our own Occupying movement and Arab Spring. And we can only pray that it will be more successful than the latter.

Ridding the government of the Rajapakses, coupled with constitutional changes to restore democratic accountability, will not by themselves rebuild this country. Over the past few decades, many public institutions have been stripped of people with the necessary competence and moral integrity. Highly educated professionals, whether judges, doctors, lawyers or academics have been exposed as shamefully kowtowing to the political regime, even benefitting from their corruption. Businesses and banks have also profited by being bedfellows with the Rajapakshe brothers. We need a deeper transformation in the moral culture of this country.

And, of course, there is the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that has ruled this country since 1948 and which the Rajapakses embodied and entrenched. Unlike the religious philosophy called Buddhism which attracts many foreign tourists who seek in the East an alternative to the barren institutional Christianity of the West, Sinhala-Buddhism is a political ideology that undermines many of the moral tenets of Buddhism itself (just as the so-called Christian nationalism of Russia and the USA is the very antitheses of genuine Christianity). The Rajapakses and their political and business cronies fanned the flames of ethnic hatred, rejected human rights and regard for international law, and turned to shamans and astrologers for guidance in matters both public and personal.

Regime change is our immediate need. But it will only plunge us back into the mire if it does not also lead to a wide-ranging, forthright, moral questioning of how we have come to be where we are today.

Several followers of this Blog have asked me why I have not commented on the horrendous tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.

There are two principal reasons for my silence. The first is resistance to the seductive social media temptation to rush to comment on situations of which one is largely ignorant, let alone unable to change. Others closer to the ground realities, or far more knowledgeable than I am on Putin’s imperial ambitions, have flooded the news media with their “expert” analyses. Why add to the noise, unless one has something (fairly) fresh to say?

But, secondly, regular readers of this Blog would have observed that several of my repeated themes converge on what is happening in Europe today. For instance, there is the perennial double standard and selective outrage of global news media, Western governments (and, sadly, even Western Churches) when it comes to reporting on wars, conflicts and the plight of refugees. My last post was on the challenge that non-White theologies and perspectives pose to the racist underpinning of so much cultural and political life in North America and Europe.

Why does the war in Myanmar, for example, not register the same “news-worthiness” as Ukraine, despite the army there being as brutal as the Russians and guilty of so many war crimes? Why has Palestine, a country occupied by a foreign military power since 1967 (if not 1948), been forgotten- only to resurface in the media whenever a Jewish settler or soldier is killed? If Ukrainians were not blonde and blue-eyed, would their plight have occasioned the outpouring of compassion across Europe that is being celebrated in parts of the global media? And was there any political criticism, before the current war, of NATO’s military expansion and the short-sightedness of Western governments in relation to what may have been valid Russian fears?

It may be awkward, even offensive to many, to raise such questions. And the polarizing propensity of social media deter people further. Will what they say be used to belittle the suffering of Ukrainians, and even to blame it all on the West? Or, if I openly express my admiration for the courage of ordinary Russians, like the news editor Marina Ovsyannikova, who are standing up to the Russian propaganda machine at great risk to their lives, will this endanger the lives of the Russians whom I know?

Then there is the targeting of the assets of Russian oligarchs, companies and Putin’s henchmen. While this attracts huge media attention, it is unlikely to make much of a dent in their fortunes for the simple reason that much of the latter are hidden in the murky world of the “offshore” global financial system (of which I have had much to say on this Blog over the years). Russia has the world’s largest volume of dark money hidden abroad, about $1 trillion, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of its national GDP.

The Panama papers, followed by the Pandora Papers, exposed the staggering levels of wealth secreted away in tax havens and money laundering centres in the Caribbean (several of which are US or British protectorates) and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention anonymous, numbered bank accounts in other jurisdictions, including Europe and Southeast Asia. It is because Western corporations, politicians and the “super-rich”- and their equivalents in the rest of the world- benefit from this corrupt financial system that little or no action has been taken to clean it up and return wealth that has been siphoned away from poorer nations.

I live in a country that is experiencing its worst economic crisis in living memory. It stems from a combination of factors: economic mismanagement and incompetence, the collapse of tourism because of the Covid pandemic, corruption and a poor tax regime, heavy dependence on China which lends at excessive interest rates. The crisis is now exacerbated by the Ukrainian war, as fuel prices soar and trade with Ukraine and Russia (which, together, account for twenty per cent of all our tea exports) grinds to a halt. I am sure there are many other small countries facing similar plights, but which are rarely reported in the Western media which claim to be global media. Which international agency will track and freeze the illicit fortunes of the Sri Lankan politicians and businessmen that have been salted away in “offshore” tax havens? Will the Ukraine war be a wake-up call to the UN or the IMF to overhaul the banking system, strengthening transparency laws and closing all the existing loopholes? I doubt it.



June 2023