Book Review

Unstoppable, by Ralph Nader, published by Nation Books, New   York, NY, USA, 2014.

Ralph Nader is the doyen of the consumer protection movement in its enduring struggle against corporate malfeasance in search of super profits. By challenging the powerful US motor industry with his 1965 book, Unsafe at any Speed, he gained national prominence when it was revealed that General Motors Corporation (GMC) had hired agents to carry out a sustained campaign of harassment against him, personally and publicly.  The compensation he obtained by suing GMC for invasion of his privacy provided the initial funds for his consumer safety movement. His lobbying was largely responsible for the creation of the US Consumer Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. A brilliant lawyer and thinker, Nader has devoted his life to oppose the corporate control of the US political system which increasingly makes a mockery of the much touted American Democracy which is held as a role model for other nations. In the years 2000 and 2004 Ralph Nader contested the US presidential elections against the massively corporate funded candidacies of the Republican and Democratic parties and even got three million votes (including mine). Despite these setbacks, Nader, an octogenarian, continues his struggle in his advanced years.

The book is spiced with dozens of stories about his encounters with politicians and public officers that are presented in Nader’s lucid and readable narrative style. But his theme is that despite the monopoly of power by the duopoly represented by the two main political parties in America, there are still opportunities for seemingly opposing factions to be united on certain important reform issues when some common ground is identified.

He analyses the contradiction between agreed party policies that are endorsed by the membership within the party and the reality of what is played out by the elected politicians once they gain power. Meaningless ideological labels, like liberal or conservative and their numerous variations, are used to justify policies and win the approval of the rank and file party members and obtain their votes. The ordinary member is made to feel empowered but once in power it is the agenda of the corporate sponsors who massively financed the political campaigns that prevails. It is made easier because of the apathy of the majority of voters who don’t even bother to vote because they are conditioned from childhood to believe in the superiority of their system.

Nader’s premise is that the people are fooled by political labels such as liberal, conservative or libertarian (no socialists or, God forbid, communists in the USA). Conservatism, in all its varied forms, is given legitimacy by the carefully propagated myth that it has its ideological bases in revered political/economic thoughts of Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, Edmund Burke, David Ricardo, Friedrich Hayek and later gurus like Frank Meyer, Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk and Murray Rothbard. However, the economic/political system that has developed today with the dominance of mega corporations was never contemplated by them (it was only by V.I. Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest stage of Capitalism, in 1916) and does not accord with their theories. People tend to label themselves on these (false) premises and support parties and politicians who flaunt these labels. Not having studied their ideological icons, they tend to quote what has been offered to them by the media or other corporate propagandists as isolated quotations taken out of context. He analyses how easily people can be made to support policies that directly impact them adversely through the power of political slogans like “less government is better government”, “let the market decide”, “de-regulate for economic prosperity”, etc.

Ralph Nader optimistically believes that there are convergences of interests which can be used by activists to carry out reforms for the public good.  For example, a person favouring de-regulation of business could be asked whether a company that made a dangerously faulty product should be required to correct it and he would agree. Then, when asked whether government agencies should monitor product safety ignored by manufacturers, the position of the ideological de-regulator becomes indefensible. Nader’s position is that there are many platforms where conservatives thrive through political sloganeering to justify programmes inimical to the public interest that can be challenged when it is explained to people how these would adversely affect their lives.

Nader outlines how this could be done in 19 areas of public interest, some of them being these: annually audit the Department of Defence budget (not done at present though it represents half of government spending); evaluate claims for corporate subsidies (at present, annual government subsidies to corporations amount to over dollars 600 billion); establish efficiency in government contracting (large areas of administration, usually reserved for government in other countries, are contracted in the US to private companies), adjust the minimum wage to inflation (the minimum wage in the US is the lowest among developed countries); reform the tax system and collect uncollected taxes (most large corporations pay barely 8-15% of profits and many don’t pay any due to numerous tax concessions they have obtained while others hide profits amounting to about two trillion in secret foreign tax havens); etc. All these may seem common sense to people in other countries where such levels of legalised corruption haven’t existed!

The author outlines strategies for finding common ground among opposing power groups and then organising unified campaigns. It is admitted that such campaigns require something beyond mere discussion groups with powerful politicians. It requires enormous funds and the support of the corporate owned media to mobilise public support for such public goods, especially considering the apathy of the general public even when it involves their own self interest. These are almost impossible to obtain in that country today and the author records some of the failures suffered by well intentioned activist leaders.

The current issue of the National Geographical magazine carries an article about the rejection of science by many in America: over 50% do not believe climate change is due to human activity; many regard evolution as a conspiracy and hold the view that humans were created in their present form 10,000 years ago by God, many even believe that moon landings by US space travellers is a hoax, etc. With such a nation guiding the world, the future for mankind is not promising.

One cannot help but realise that the optimism of this great person is unjustified. He himself quotes Gore Vidal who says of the USA political/economic system that it “is a unique society where you have free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich.”

Comparing the political situation in India and its emerging corporate power based on the current economic model as described by Vandana Shiva in the previous review on this site, one cannot help observing that India, despite its widespread poverty compared to the wealth of America, is a more vibrant democracy. Unlike in America, Indians are willing to fight for their rights through sustained mass agitations, even when confronted at times with death by police bullets.

Thepanis Alwis

27 February 2015


Book Review

Making Peace with the Earth by Vandana Shiva.

Published by Fernwood Publications of Canada, 2013.

Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, almost apologetically, on the environmental impact of industrial farming on wild birds. Al Gore and his ilk have sought to demonstrate that climate change and environmental damage is mostly man made, and even then faced criticism and ridicule from corporate sponsored scientists and their media. Vandana Shiva and fellow activists, working for the marginalised and oppressed majority in developing countries, come to the heart of the issue. It is the Western inspired neo-capitalist economic system, with its unlimited appetite for corporate profits, with little concern for the environment or people in their way, which is the cause of environmental destruction and the marginalisation and impoverishment of the people who have traditionally lived in agriculturally or mineral rich lands that corporations want to acquire. While it happened in the past mostly in the industrialised Western countries, the large multinational mega corporations are now focussing on developing countries, like the India which this book describes, because they are rich in natural resources and have an abundance very cheap labour for production

But the theme is not just about corporate malfeasance but the conflict between two philosophies of life: the traditional community based life that has depended on sparingly and sustainably using the earth’s natural resources of land and water and the modern globalised economy that creates environmentally disastrous mega projects that bring vast profits to a few and are abandoned when market forces shift, leaving localities destroyed. It is conflict between the Earth People, as the author calls them, and the mega transnational corporations in search of vast profits. In this context, the UK based Oxfam has just released a report that states that just 80 wealthy people own as much wealth around the world as half the total world population of the three and a half billion poorest people. US Senator James Inhofe, just elected the chairman of the US Senate Environment Committee, wrote a book in 2012 called The Greatest Hoax: How Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, denying climate change and global warming. This is the great divide that will determine the future of the world as we know it.

Vandana Shiva has won international acclaim becoming an advocate for the poor and the marginalized communities that are the direct victims of unsustainable and destructive economic activity in the name of national development. They reject the economics of development that does not take account of the livelihoods and well being of the ordinary people. She states

“Rewriting the rules of economy and trade in favour of corporations also rewrites the rules of governance. Governments mutate from welfare states to corporate states as they deregulate corporations and over-regulate citizens. This then is defined as “free market democracy”. Since corporate freedom is based on extinguishing citizen freedom, the enlargement of “free market democracy” becomes a war against Earth Democracy.

Since the rules of free-markets and free trade aim at disenfranchising citizens and communities of their resources and rights, people resist them. The war against people is carried to the next level with the militarisation of society and the criminalisation of activists and movements. We have seen this on the streets of Seattle and Genoa, and we are seeing it in India everywhere”.

Vandana Shiva, who is a qualified physicist, deals with the impact of environmentally disastrous corporate and government activity on the marginalised and most vulnerable sectors of Indian society that do not have the political power to resist this invasion. The book recounts in detail several dozens of cases where Indian and multinational corporations obtain local government support to set up some of the world’s most polluting industries such as steel, aluminium and electricity production based on local coal extraction. These demand large extents of fertile agricultural or forest lands near major water resources amounting to land areas as big as 10-15,000 acres each. In the process of each, several tens of thousands of farmers, fishermen and forest dwellers are forcibly dispossessed of their traditional lands and livelihoods and paid a meagre compensation that drives them to be impoverished urban slum dwellers thereafter. While short term corporate profits and tax revenues are publicised, these do not take into account the long term consequences of land, water and atmospheric pollution which will eventually become a public liability. The claimed employment prospects are over-estimated and, as technology advances, employment declines. Special Economic Zones (SEZs) set up by governments to attract investment allows corporate investors to by-pass labour regulations and exempt them from raw material import taxes and corporate profit taxes for about 15 years.

The book, written in narrative style, is profusely illustrated with actual stories of mega corporate behaviour in India that is supported by state governments and the central government and their impact on local populations and the environment. It deals with the forced acquisition of traditional agricultural lands, acquisition of community water resources, devastation of the climate, destruction of forests, confiscation of local seed banks and the monopolisation of the seed market, the destruction of self-sufficient farming and fishing communities, all in the name of development. With export oriented large scale agricultural projects and industries, small farmers and the poor are sacrificed to make way for higher national wealth which is concentrated in the hands of a privileged poor. The book quotes that 250,000 Indian small farmers, driven to bankruptcy, have taken their own lives.

Fortunately for India, there are many politically and morally conscious activists, supported by a fairly independent judiciary, who are able to thwart some of these plans. The situation is unlike in the USA where coercive corporate power is so overwhelming that they can obtain official compliance for such destructive projects as fracking for gas and lengthy inter state pipe borne transport of tar sands for processing.

The author, who has made it her career to be in the forefront of political agitation for four decades on behalf of affected communities in India, describes the actual situation in the country in its drive to become a “modern” industrial power in imitation of the Western model of economic development. Popular economics is daily driven by the rise in stock market figures and GDP growth which have only vastly increased the economic gap between the small coterie of the super rich and the vast majority which is becoming marginalised. The book is an important contribution as we often only tend to associate corporate and government malfeasance with the USA or other Western nations. Vandana Shiva is a hero of our times who needs to be better known worldwide.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

25 January 2015.


This Town by Mark Leibovich

Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York 10014, USA, 2013

Many people around the world are astonished that successive US governments are able to flout the wishes and aspirations of its citizens while it is still “the greatest democracy in the world.” Right now, 90% of the public polled are against another Middle East war that the government is determined to pursue. Most people, except the miniscule super-rich, want their old age Social Security benefits (which they have paid for) and their Medicare after retirement which the government keeps pruning. Most people want the super-rich and the giant corporations to pay their fare share of taxes which they avoid through legislative loopholes. Most people (most US citizens don’t even know of this) would want the government to prevent rich corporations and billionaires hiding around dollars two trillion a year in foreign tax shelters without meeting their US tax obligations. But all governments are quite deaf to the wishes of the people and suffer from amnesia regarding their election promises that propelled them to power. This is how democracy works!

This incisive book with its authentic stories of the rich and powerful shows how democracy works in the USA. The Town is Washington, the centre of world power politics. This is the story of the centre of this town, the “insiders” who wield real power, consisting of an elite group of 500 to 600 people. They are the very top leaders of two the great US political parties, the financiers, the giant corporate heads, the key administrative officials, media chiefs, current and former top officials who sometimes have no official designation but are nevertherless power brokers who can make or unmake big decisions. They move in the same circle of parties, weddings, funerals and social occasions and make sure they are seen and heard. They have their pecking order but they will endure to perpetuity, even in the same cemeteries after death. They enter the circle with the claim “to serve the people” and end up serving themselves.

There was some apprehension when a “black President” was elected in 2008 for the first time. But never fear: he and his people were absorbed in no time.

The author is the chief national correspondent for the New York Times magazine with plenty of access to the ruling establishment in the USA.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

06 January 2015


Book Review

Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh.

Khushwant Singh, who passed away in March this year at the age of 99, was a man of many parts, apart from being an outstanding Indian journalist and a novelist. Educated in England as a barrister, first practicing law in Lahore which is in Pakistan today, he eventually moved to Delhi after the partition and worked for a while in the Indian Foreign Service as a Press Office, was elected as a politician to the Indian Lok Sabha and finally took on his true role as a journalist and writer. He rose to fame as the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India (1969-1978) which he transformed with his entertaining social commentaries, laced with acerbic wit and self depreciation, on the humbug and hypocrisy prevailing in Indian society. Coupled with attractive and even sexy pictures and an entertaining take on current events, it rose to be the leading English news magazine in India to which I myself subscribed during those years. He later edited two major Indian dailies, the National Herald and the Hindustan Times. His two outstanding books were the comprehensive History of the Sikhs and the novel titled Train to Pakistan. Almost till the end he kept up writing his widely read column “With Malice to One and All”. He was both loved and hated, so much that he was sometimes given an armed escort to protect him. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest Indian civilian award, in 2007. Earlier, in 1984, he had returned his earlier award of the Padma Bhushan in protest against the military invasion of the SikhGoldenTemple.

This book is set against the background of the greatest tragedy of the modern Indian sub- continent – its partition into India and Pakistan and the ensuing Hindu-Moslem riots that caused over a million gruesome murders and affected many more millions who were physically and mentally maimed and eventually created two large nations that are scared forever by anger and hatred of each other. The story is set in a small obscure Indian village, Mano Majra, which is noteworthy only because of its small station on the Indo-Pakistan railway link. The good people of this mixed village of Hindus and Muslims have lived in peace for centuries with cordial relations among both religious communities that respected each others religions and customs. They have isolated themselves from the brutality that prevails elsewhere, even despite the arrival of trainloads of dead bodies of Hindus from Pakistan that are buried here in secrecy on the orders of higher government authorities seeking to contain the violence. But lower level public officials and military officers conspire to instigate violence against the local Muslim community with plans to create discord.

Hukum Chand, the magistrate and the deputy commissioner for the district, is the quintessential Indian government mid-level babu that the author loves to hate. A corrupt, lecherous fellow who has risen in the ranks by toadying to his superiors, he puts together an elaborate plan to create dissension and violence in the village which he could later use to obtain commendations from higher authority by pretending to avert the tragedy he has secretly plotted.

The protagonists are Iqbal Singh, a young foreign educated communist social worker who comes to the village to awaken the poor, and Juggut Singh, a notorious illiterate bandit descended from a family of dacoits. Both of them are prepared as the fall guys for the violence against the Muslim community that the officialdom has plotted. They are arrested and detained by the police on false charges of creating public disorder and then freed before the planned mass murder of Muslims which can later be blamed on incitement by them. But when the train to Pakistan is loaded with Muslim villagers who are set to be massacred shortly after leaving the train station, the mettle of the two heroes is tested. Iqbal Singh, the communist social worker and idealist who came to save the village is unwilling to intervene in the impending tragedy and finds rational intellectual reasons for his non-intervention. It is the fearsome illiterate dacoit, Juggut Singh, outraged by the actions of outsiders creating this violence in his own village, coupled with the love for his Muslim girl in the train, who bravely executes a desperate plan that foils the murderers and in the process willingly submits to an act of heroic self-sacrifice and a horrible death.

It is a novel of suspense and riveting tension. It is a story of the contrived corruption of innocence and the final triumph of simple rural values over ostensibly superior urban sophistication.

Kenneth Abeywickrama,

03 November 2014


Deng Xiaoping and the transformation of China, by Ezra F. Vogel.

First Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 2013.

The crisis created the man. Out of the nationwide chaos caused by Mao Zedong with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping emerged to transform China and put it on the road to being an international economic and political power. This was only possible with the physical decline and subsequent death of Mao whose schemes for permanent revolution and state sponsored mass hysteria outrivaled even those of the present-day North   Korea. Both were among the outstanding leaders of the 20th century who changed the course of world history: Mao by freeing China from two centuries of foreign imperialism and Deng by leading China to economic dominance.

The author is a distinguished Harvard University Professor who is an authority on East Asia and chaired the Department of Asian Studies. His services have been sought by successive US governments and international organisations like the World Bank. Unlike many US studies which seek to denigrate China, Ezra Vogel’s study stands out for its depth and detailed knowledge. Running into 850 pages, it is a monumental work on this turbulent period of Chinese history.

Deng Xiaoping was the great survivor. From the time he was sent as a teenager to work and learn in France, his return as a lowly communist organiser, his role as a military leader in the internecine and anti-Japanese wars and the Long March, the rise to be Secretary-General of the party, the denunciations which stripped him of all offices and once again made him a lowly labourer in a machine tool factory, none of these triumphs and humiliations made him lose faith in the Communist Party of China. Aware of Mao’s Mephistophelian personality and the chaos he was creating for the Chinese people, Deng never wavered in his subservience, even while he had divergent views. He was the ultimate survivor who finally emerged as the unchallenged leader of this vast nation of over a billion people and led it on a new path to prosperity.

Other brilliant leaders of the Chinese communist revolution had no such luck. Mao Zedong, like Joseph Stalin, was a megalomaniac once he achieved supreme power but, of the two, Mao was worse, and unlike Stalin, left his country in economic ruin at his death.  Like Stalin, Mao was a brilliant self-taught intellect and used his ability to constantly scheme and manipulate his subordinates and through his propaganda controlled and directed the gullible masses to carry out his disastrous social and economic experiments, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) followed by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During this period famine, the brutality of the Red Guards, and extreme hardship, killed off tens of millions of people. Marshall Peng Dehuai, Minister of Defence and a military hero who had successfully led the Chinese armies in Korea against the US, was imprisoned and died in custody. The economy of the country collapsed. His leading subordinates, Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, lost their lives and their reputations for gently trying to introduce some reforms while Deng, who was counted among them and sent to labour as a machinist in a factory and constantly humiliated in public, survived by abject capitulation, confessing to his “errors” in show trials and writing regularly to Mao to proclaim his undying loyalty and acceptance of Mao’s “thoughts”.

Deng was partially rehabilitated and recalled to power by Mao shortly before his death in 1976. Mao, severely ill by then, had realised that he needed some experienced people in the government to bring order out of the absolute chaos he had promoted. Deng, still surrounded by powerful opponents in the radical revolutionary left that Mao had sponsored, acted with great caution, proposing what he called the “Four Modernisations”. Hua Guofeng, a colourless survivor with limited vision, became the head of state after the demise of Mao and Deng only held the position of Vice-Premier. Yet he never gave up, despite numerous setbacks and criticisms from his opponents, till he finally became paramount leader when the mass of the people recognised that he was the one who could lead China out of chaos and poverty.

China, since the communist revolution, had been deliberately isolated from the rest of the world. This enabled communist propaganda to create a picture of an oppressive and primitive external world where Communist China stood out as a model. The intelligentsia and the wealthy upper classes that had travelled abroad had been liquidated or silenced. But Deng, as an assistant to the brilliant Zhou Enlai in foreign affairs, had seen that the Western world and Japan, with their dominance in science and technology, was far ahead of China in material and social development. An organisation man with the discipline of the military officer, Deng arranged a planning secretariat to study requirements and methodology for economic development, with an emphasis on science and technology. But the implementation of plans was sequenced according to political exigencies. Part of Deng’s propaganda was to give the Chinese masses a glimpse of the advanced state of Japan and the West through media outlets while showing pictures of Deng’s visits to Japan and the USA to obtain their cooperation for development within China.

Deng recognised that the survival of the Chinese Communist Party and its dominant role was essential for the advancement he sought for China. He had seen how Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin had led to the weakening of the USSR Communist Party and its ultimate collapse which left a power vacuum that led to a decade of economic and social woes. He wanted a reformed communist party led by technocrats who could guide the economic transformation of China through economic liberalisation, foreign investment and the import of modern technology and science. It was a daunting task as the party still had a large number of dedicated orthodox communists who strongly resisted open market reforms, the import of foreign capital and encouragement of private sector development. The cautious Deng did not covet high office titles but sought authority for his projects. Between 1978 and 1984, when he initiated what were radical reforms through the party organisation and was the most powerful person in the party, he only held the titular post of Vice Premier.

Deng was convinced that the Communist Party alone should lead the country and he would not compromise on this. In retrospect, in view of the collapse of the USSR after loosening of the party leadership, he was right. A country of over a billion people who had constantly been involved in ideologically based violent mass movements could not be governed without a strong hand. But reform and liberalisation brought out the central problem of a communist state: how much freedom of expression should be permitted to people within and outside the party to criticise the functioning of the party and the leadership? Deng himself sometimes strongly criticised the party workings in general terms but he would not allow others to go too far in this direction: the preservation of the party as the governing body was too important for him. When there were clashes between the conservatives (in China, the leftists) and the reformers over practical work, Deng chose to diffuse the confrontations. At worst, a persistent attacker would be moved to another post where he would not be involved in the contentious issue. The critic would rarely be punished.

It is interesting to see the inner workings of the Communist Party during its transition from a monolithic structure under Mao to a more inclusive organisation where different views had to be resolved by emerging leaders with tact and concessions. This has to be considered in the context of the Chinese Communist Party as the largest single political party in the whole world (currently with 80 million active members). One of the great achievements of the Deng era (1976-1992) was the broad-basing of the communist party’s leadership. Deng was the last paramount leader and he paved the way for a leadership by proven technocrats who held on to a maximum of two terms in office. The successful development of China which enabled its meteoric rise as a world economy was due to the structure of the reformed communist party. Unlike in parliamentary democracies where the leadership, once elected, can carry out policies and programmes irrespective of public opinion, often for the benefit of small special interest groups, the Chinese Communist Party debated policy issues within the Central Committee, the small select Politburo Standing Committee and, where the military matters were concerned, the Central Military Commission, with an objective view to national development and public welfare. Decisions were incorporated in long term national plans and closely monitored, as in a good business corporation.

Deng was no Mao, no other could ever be. Mao lived in a rarefied universe where he read Chinese classics, wrote poems and put down his thoughts in many writings. Mao, with his deified stature, had only to utter his thoughts in public and hundreds of millions obeyed his call. Deng’s strategy for reform was based on gradually indoctrinating the party about the advantages of a more open economy with foreign investment and technology and of his own survival as national leader, as no other reformer had the national stature to carry through his plans. To carry out his plans, he initially promoted some of the party’s ablest like-minded reformers, notably Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Xi Zhongxun and Li Xiannian, who cleared the path by successfully guiding pilot schemes for private ownership of village farmland, private marketing of local produce and most notably the experiments with special industrial zones with foreign owned industrial enterprises. When the schemes succeeded, Deng would endorse them and pave the way for the expansion of open market policies. He would not take responsibility for failure. Despite this caution, Deng had a long term view which was progressively incorporated in the national plans approved periodically by the party.

Deng is also remembered for his use of traditional Chinese aphorisms as well as his own invention of pithy slogans to explain his policies to the masses. Thus we have “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”, “One country with two systems”, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “Becoming rich is good”, etc.

Deng was also an astute diplomat yet tough and unyielding when Chinese interests were involved: with the Soviets over their expansionist projects in Vietnam, with the USA over its arms sales to Taiwan, with the British over the transfer of Hong Kong to China, with the Dalai Lama over Tibet. During his visits to Japan and the USA he won over his hosts and secured their support for plans to modernise the Chinese economy. He secured approval for Chinese students to study in the USA and the West and by 1984 over a million Chinese had gone abroad for specialised studies. Initial investments in manufacturing in the special zones came from Japan and from overseas Chinese, especially from Hong Kong. With the expansion of these special economic zones, investments started flooding also from Japan and Europe. During each of these foreign visits, films were made of depicting foreign manufacturing facilities and foreign societies which were shown in China to expanding TV audiences to convince ordinary people that they had a lot to learn from more advanced nations.

The Chinese experience of revolutionary mass movements under Mao was unique in world history for the length of its struggles and its untrammelled violence. The new social and economic advances created by economic reform and the opening of the minds of university students to Western concepts of democracy resulted in the ever growing agitation for even more political freedom by the educated urban youth, though the vast rural population remained indifferent to this. With the past example of the Red Guards and their destructive power through mass youth agitation, the period from 1977 to 1979 saw increasing university student strikes, mass student demonstrations against communist party authority and the protracted occupation of Tiananmen Square and other public squares in large cities by violent means. The city police were overwhelmed by student mobs on the move. After a very tolerant hesitation of over two years, the party eventually used the military to disperse the violent mobs, resulting in pitched battles which killed around 200 people from among the students and the military. This became a black mark which will always be used by the Western media and critics of China to demonise the Chinese Communists Party on ideological grounds.

National security was also a matter of grave concern for Deng. The USSR was trying to extend its presence in South East Asia through their ally, Vietnam. Deng saw this as a major challenge to security and persuaded the party that Vietnamese expansion into Cambodia and ambitions in other neighbours must be curtailed by a swift and decisive military attack. To prepare for this attack, the Chinese made sure that the USSR would be deterred from an attack on North China and that the tacit approval of the USA was secured. Once the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan failed, Deng felt that China was safe from a Soviet attack. Despite pleas from military leaders, he strongly opposed heavy military expenditure for modernisation and argued that the main investment should be to develop the national economy and that modernisation of the military would come afterwards.

The success of reform policies enabled Deng to gradually overcome opposition to these by conservative (left wing) party leaders and their replacement by new leaders with more reform oriented ones in higher councils. By the time Deng retired in 1992, China was already an industrial power house. In 1984, China’s exports stood at US$4 billion. Thirty years later it was one trillion dollars and China was the world’s largest manufacturer, international trader, foreign aid giver and overseas investor.

Kenneth Abeywickrama,

26 September 2014.


Public Opinion & Opinion Makers

Opinions, usually the majority opinion, influences society and govern our conduct. Governments and politicians in the West pay attention to periodic public opinion polls conducted by professional polling agencies to assess their chances of survival in future elections. So how is opinion created?

In the mid to late nineteen eighties, while living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I was a member of a small club of retired elderly gentlemen of some distinction in that country known as the Public Interest Committee (PIC). At the age of sixty, I was the youngest member. Our membership included retired senior businessmen and public servants: Neville Karunatilake, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, Baku Mahadeva, retired Permanent Secretary, my uncle Freddie Kohobanwickrama, retired Secretary to the Cabinet/Permanent Secretary, General Anton Muttukumara, former Commander of the Army, P.C.S. Fernando, retired Chairman of Shaw Wallace & Hedges, Carl Wijeratne, proprietor of Rockland Distilleries, and some others. We met once a fortnight in Carl’s office. Our mission was to identify local problems that could be studied by members and then brought to the notice of public authorities for a solution. Usually these were mundane problems associated with damaged roads, flooding drains or damaged culverts: issues that could be easily solved if brought to the notice of the relevant public authorities by our respected senior members.

But Neville Karunatillake designed a major politically loaded proposal. It was to request the government to give a grant of Rs.20,000 (about US$500 at the time) to every poor family in the country that could identify a small business project. He concluded that this would alleviate poverty in the country by creating gainful employment for the under-privileged and also activate the economy. This proposal was too hot to handle and members agreed that Neville himself should meet the then President of the country, Premadasa, and present it. President Premadasa was fascinated by the project, which could greatly enhance his support base among the rural poor. But he posed the simple, rational question: “How could the government find the funds for such a major project?” Neville’s answer was equally simple: “Make me the Governor of the Central Bank and I will find the money.” Neville had been smarting under the fact that he was by-passed for the post of Governor and had to retire as the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank. President Premadasa readily acceded, Neville was made Governor of the Central Bank and the Janasaviya (poverty alleviation) Project was launched.

I was involved in another PIC project which had unpleasant consequences for me personally. General Muttucumaru, a fine gentleman in the old British Army tradition, made a proposal for a project to create beneficial public opinion on national issues based on the free availability of factual information. So the PIC had discussions with the Marga Institute, the most prestigious local think tank, to stage a public seminar on the subject. The seminar was very well attended and the meeting room was packed. Speaker after speaker dwelt on need to have more factual information through the mass media and other public sources. I was dismayed by these simplistic arguments and took the floor. I told the audience that I was a professional marketing communicator and I had been involved in creating public perceptions of many products and services. I said that it was not possible to create opinion through a deluge of facts as the ordinary citizen had little time for such detail and was usually happy to accept conclusions that were cleverly presented. I said that an example was Prime Minister Premadasa’s (he was at the time Prime Minister and not yet President) National Housing Project which we all believed had created a million houses. In that case, as Sri   Lanka had only three million households, every third person must now live in a government donated house. But the few people who researched the facts by reading the Central Bank reports would know that only 45,000 houses had been built and another 15,000 people had received grants of Rs.15,000 to buy materials to build a house.

At this stage there was an uproar in the hall. Pro-Premadasa activists who were in the hall got up and started abusing me and threatening me with bodily harm. Two of my good friends who were senior opposition members of parliament, Dharmasiri Senanayake and Mangala Munasinghe, were in the hall and they came up to me and led me out of the place, each holding one of my hands. They kept telling me never to cross the Prime Minister as he was a dangerous man who would even kill those who offended him. They were politicians with their own private bodyguards but I was only a helpless citizen. I took their advice seriously. Later, a good friend of mine who was a district organiser for the government party came home to warn me that the prime minister had been informed of my disloyalty and that I should be very careful. Since then, our house would regularly receive abusive and threatening phone calls till a later date when President Premadasa himself was blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb. On that sad day, people in Colombo lit firecrackers and danced in the streets.

Fast forward to USA today. A week ago we attended the birthday party for a neighbour’s little child. There was a young American fellow who had been hired to take photographs. He sat next to the host and loudly proclaimed that US Presidential hopeful, Ms. Hillary Clinton, was a hypocrite because she stated that “global warming is the greatest threat to the world today.” He went on to say that global warming was a myth invented by the Democratic Party and anti-American interests in the country. He then said that the US should remove all income taxes as it burdened the people. There were enough gas (petroleum for non-Americans) reserves in the USA, he said, obtainable through fracking, to pay for all government expenditure.

That global warming has now reached an irreversible point and that its climatic effects are evident around the world can be confirmed by ordinary people affected by prolonged droughts, heat waves, unusually fierce storms and flooding, leave aside the studies of climate experts, including those of the UN. As for dependence on oil revenues, take the case of ExxonMobil, the largest US oil company. On a declared profit of around $40 billion in 2013, it paid an effective federal income tax of 13% or $5.2 billion, after tax breaks. In the same year, the US government budgeted for $3.45 trillion in expenditure and a deficit of $680 billion. Its reduced Defence allocation alone was $472 billion. Its government debt now stands at over $18 trillion.

But who are we to tell these to dumb-witted folks around this country whose opinions allow US politicians to stay in power and govern the globe? The lack of informed opinion allows politicians to plunder their small countries that are of little consequence. But the stupidity of public opinion in the USA can wreak havoc around the world.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

14 September 2014.


Book Review

Zealot: The Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Published by Random House, New York, 2013

This New York Times bestseller tries to de-mystify the life and times of Jesus Christ who is the centre of Christianity, the largest and most influential religion in the world today with 2.3 billion passive or active adherents. There is no more astonishing story than that of a youthful day labourer from a peasant family, Jesus, from an obscure village called Nazareth, in a remote part of the mighty Roman Empire, who claimed to be a messiah and preached social revolution in society for three years, earned the wrath of his Jewish priests and was ignominiously executed for sedition by the Roman authorities like hundreds of other similar rebels, only to become a cult figure and centuries later become the centre of the new religion of the Roman Empire that eventually spread around the globe. If he was preaching the same message today, denouncing the avaricious priesthood who make a good living by deluding the gullible population, pouring scorn and curses on the wealthy who oppress the masses through their power, defying imperial occupation by predicting its overthrow by God, he would be denounced as a dangerous communist or a terrorist. But indeed official Christianity has transformed Jesus and his message to suit current needs during various stages of subsequent history.

Based on a study of the original gospels written in Greek, the Old and New Testaments, and the historical documents of that time, the author finds variances in the descriptions of the same events with the passing of the years from Mathew, Mark, Luke and John (Greek-speaking diaspora Jews to whom the gospels are ascribed) which he tries to resolve. To the question of how Jesus was transformed into the Son of God, the answer is: “practically every word written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus while he was alive. With possible exception of Luke, the gospels were not even written by those after whom they were named”.

The Greek and Roman Empires were sophisticated and literate, producing histories, dramas, scientific and mathematical treatises, among the best in the ancient world, and still a source of study and inspiration. Compared with the historical writings of the time, the author finds that stories relating to the birth and childhood of Jesus have no basis in fact – his virgin birth in Bethlehem, the coming of the three Magi, King Herod ordering the massacre of one year old babies, the flight to Egypt and the return, and even the birth in Jerusalem and not in the home village of Nazareth. If these dramatic events were true, they would be in contemporary history.

Jesus himself was very much a product of the Jewish society of Palestine, which itself was one of the poorest and least important parts of the mighty Roman Empire. By the time Jesus was born, the Jews had been constantly rebelling against foreign invaders for nearly six centuries to establish their own state, even while twenty four Jewish sects were competing with each other for dominance. The Jewish priesthood of the GreatTemple in Jerusalem was often allied for convenience with the conquerors and were drawn from the highest ranks of Jewish society. Their wealth and lifestyle was partly supported by their earnings from the temple which held rituals and sacrifices to cleanse people and bring them in sight of God. Centuries of oppression by foreign conquerors and the grinding poverty of the masses gave rise to numerous Jewish Messiahs who claimed to have a mission from God to overthrow the rapacious priesthood and prosperous landowners and free the people from foreign rule. Messiah means the Anointed One chosen by God, like King David, the greatest of the Jewish heroes, from whom all the messiahs claimed descent to obtain legitimacy. The best known among them were Hezekiah, the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Athronges the shepherd, Judas the Galilean and John the Baptist. They were all captured eventually by the government, tortured and executed for sedition.

Jesus of Nazareth, a man of humble origin, still in his late twenties, was one of these revolutionaries who fought against this oppression during his short life and paid the penalty. Jesus was born in Nazareth, one of the poorest villages in Palestine in the province of Galilee, an obscure place of a hundred or so impoverished and illiterate families. Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, probably out of wedlock, as there is no mention of a husband till much later and, consequently, was named Jesus, Son of Mary, whereas it was customary to name men after the father and not the mother. This was later the basis of the story of the virgin birth. Jesus himself was an illiterate day labourer till he was attracted to the calling of a prominent Jewish messiah, John the Baptist, who was baptising followers in the River Jordan to cleanse them. Jesus went to him in Judea and was baptised in the river by John and took on many of his views as he railed against the temple priests, the rich and the onerous tax burdens of the Roman Empire, forecasting the end of the world and the coming of the kingdom of God. Having first gained a small following of his own, Jesus returned as a preacher to Nazareth, but not finding much acceptance in his own village where people knew him, he went to Capernaum, a coastal fishing village on the coast of the Sea of Galilee where he established himself as a miracle worker.

Jesus gained a reputation as a miracle worker in Capernaum, one among many that roamed the Palestinian countryside (akin to the miracles of the God Men of India even today). The difference was that while the others charged fees for curing the sick and performing magical deeds, Jesus performed these free and was therefore able to gain his following. Here, according to Luke, he had 72 disciples, including women. Among them were the chosen twelve, who became apostles (ambassadors) who were granted the right to preach on their own, the number twelve representing the twelve lost tribes of Israel.

Jesus himself never refers to himself as the Son of God, a subsequent interpretation, but as the Son of Man, as is found 80 times in the New Testament. This is an oblique reference to Daniel’s vision of a Messiah who would establish God’s rule on earth.

After three years as a successful Messiah aspirant in Capernaum, Jesus felt confident to march with a band of his ardent followers to Jerusalem where he invaded the outer part of the GreatTemple and created havoc by chasing the money changers and releasing the animals brought for sacrifice. This is the high   point of his campaign against the oppressors of the poor. He proclaimed: “I will bring down the temple made with human hands and in three days I will make another not with hands.”

Before the temple authorities can capture him, he hides in the Garden of Gethsemane with his armed followers, prepared for a confrontation. But when a large mob appears to get him, his disciples abandon him and he is taken prisoner and shortly afterwards, is tortured and executed on the cross. None of his promises of the release of the Jews from bondage and the establishment of the Kingdom of God are fulfilled when he dies or even afterwards. Instead, the Romans later viciously put down a Jewish rebellion, destroy their temple and their cities, kill thousands of Jews and send them scattering as refugees.

The author finds the story of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate meeting privately with the captive Jesus and being so impressed that he finds him innocent, incredulous. There is no external supporting evidence for this story beyond the gospels. Pontius Pilate was bloodthirsty despot who despised the Jews and sentenced hundreds to death without a thought and the author finds it inconceivable that he would care to meet with a rabble rousing Jewish peasant. The crucifixion of Christ is central to the Christian religion. Public torture and crucifixion was the standard punishment by Rome for rebels and serious criminals and Golgotha (field of skulls) was a place where it was done. The idea, common to many old societies, was to make an example to deter others, and the body was never removed from the cross but kept to rot till the bones could be finally thrown away. This contradicts the Bible story of Jesus’ burial and resurrection.

To the Jews, who are a poor and marginal race in the Roman Empire which encompassed most of the powerful races of Europe, they were the chosen race of their one God whose kingdom would be established as foretold by their prophets like Moses with its centre in Jerusalem and its holy temple. They lacked the resources to fight their conquerors but what they had instead, according to the author, was zeal. So they were in constant rebellion, led by zealots who offered their own leadership as messiahs to free the Jews from oppression and accomplish this sacred mission.

The first section deals with the history of Palestine from the comparatively orderly period of the rule of King Herod (37 B.C.- 4B.C.), a Roman nominee, to the ensuing chaotic period when the Jews revolted constantly against Rome while Jewish aspirants to leadership battled each other in internecine warfare, each claiming to be the true messiah. Finally, in the time of Emperor Vespasian, the Romans violently subjugated these unruly subjects by destroying the rebels, their great temple, imposing a harsh tax on all Jews and driving most of the population out of their lands.

While Jesus and his personal following, including his 12 apostles, claimed that he was the messiah who would liberate the Jews and lead them to the creation of the Kingdom of their God, it was the literate outsiders who took him away from the Jews and sought to internationalise him who eventually succeeded in creating a world religion. Saul of Tarsus, later called Paul, a Greek speaking Pharisee who had never met Jesus during his short life, claimed that Jesus came to him in an earth dazzling storm of light and enlightened him about his divinity and God’s purpose.

The original personal followers of Jesus, including his brother James the Just, were humble illiterate Aramaic speaking peasants who kept his cult alive in Jerusalem through their piety. Paul, who became an architect of the new religion saw Jesus not as a reformist Jewish messiah, a claimant to descent from King David and a follower of Moses, but as the flesh and blood Son of the universal God of mankind. Paul was summoned four times by the 12 apostles of Jesus to Jerusalem to recant and repent of his heresy. Eventually, Paul, as well as the lead apostle Peter, fled to Rome where they were executed by Nero on the false suspicion that they were leaders of the Jewish revolt against Rome. James suffered a similar fate in Jerusalem at the hands Jewish Temple leaders. The crushing of the Jewish revolt in C.E. 70, the total destruction of the Jewish temple, the massacre of Jews and their expulsion from Jerusalem, left no room for a Jewish Christ (Christ means messiah but Paul gave it a new meaning by naming Jesus Christ instead of Jesus the Christ). Henceforth, Christianity could only survive as a religion of Rome.

Modern Christianity is the result of the Council of Nicaea summoned by Christian Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E. to formulate a Christian theology appropriate for a world power like the Roman Empire. The nearly two thousand bishops of disparate Christian factions summoned to develop a consensus doctrine were all Roman. After months of heated discussion and commands by Constantine for a resolution of differences, the council came up with the Nicene Creed which would become the basis of the Christian religion.

Religious faith defies logic and invents arguments to refute the obvious contradictions. So the humble birth of Jesus is transformed into a miracle that is foretold and blessed. His failure to establish the Kingdom of God on earth for the Jews is made into a promise of the Kingdom of God in heaven for mankind. His ignoble death is explained as a need to cleanse the sins of mankind and dignified by his resurrection from death. The story of Jesus is no different from the story of all religious founders of a past age when colourful stories about the nature of man and the universe inspired people, rather than rational scientific analysis, to fill the void in their quest for understanding the universe and the meaning of life in relation to their own circumstances. Yet Jesus himself was a simple yet extraordinary man of his time who deserves to be acknowledged for his zeal as a reformist of his small Jewish society.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

22 August 2014.

Foreign funded NGOs in Sri Lanka

The recent transfer of the National Secretariat for Non Governmental Organisations to the Ministry of Defence to ensure fuller implementation of the Voluntary Social Services Organisations (Registration & Supervision) Amendment Act No. 8 of 1998 has predictably resulted in noisy protests by some beneficiaries of huge sums in foreign funding and the embassies of their benefactor nations. Though there are now 1,428 registered NGOs, it is known that the actual number is much higher. Susantha Goonetilake, in his well researched book, Re-Colonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs in Sri Lanka, 2006, notes that the Government NGO Commission of Inquiry in 1990 discovered that there were nearly 6,000 NGOs in Sri Lanka at the time. Most of these small local NGOs, many of them rural based, are doing excellent work in low key fashion. They are usually funded by the members and office-bearers usually do not receive salaries for their work. It is often the large NGOs with big foreign funded budgets and highly paid office bearers who receive many benefits that are a problem, as Susantha Goonetilake has illustrated in his book. They are lauded abroad by their sponsors and receive numerous foreign awards though their achievements are not apparent in Sri Lanka itself.

Critics choose to ignore the fact that the NGO Secretariat was not set up to destroy NGOs but merely to curb abuses by some NGOs whose corrupt practices have given this institution a bad name and others that are a national security risk that are funded by foreign governments with ulterior political agendas that harm the nation. Most countries have rules governing non-profit NGOs, including the USA, UK, Germany and India, which are the principal donors to selected Sri Lanka non-profits. These countries have strict supervision of foreign donors.

All NGOs in the USA have to be registered and their accounts have to be submitted annually to the Internal Revenue Service (Income Tax Department in Sri Lankan terms). Additionally, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires any person or organization (U.S. or foreign) that is an “agent of a foreign principal” to register with the Justice Department and to disclose the foreign principal for which the agent works. Foreign principals can include governments, political parties, a person or organization outside the United States (except U.S. citizens), and any entity organized under the laws of a foreign country or having its principal place of business in a foreign country. FARA requires people acting as agents of foreign principals under certain circumstances to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities.

India enacted the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act in 1976 and this was strengthened again in 2010. The amount of foreign funding of Indian NGOs was estimated at Indian Rs.10,000 crores.

In Bangladesh, realising the threat to their nation from the subversive activities of some foreign funded NGOs, the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2014, would regulate operations and funding for any group with foreign funding.

In early 2013, Russian law enforcers launched a nationwide inspection of NGOs and established that 650 Russian NGOs received a total of $1 billion in foreign funding in the first four months of 2013 alone. In Ukraine, after $5 billion worth of funding by the USA for democratic awareness projects, the elected government was overthrown by violent mobs this year.

Prominent NGOs around the world often provide a good living for the office bearers. It was found that 70-80% of funds are usually devoted to salaries and administration. A study of US charities in 2011 by Charity Navigator found ample evidence of this to state:

“In its analysis of 3,929 charities, the charity research group found that 11 nonprofits paid their CEOs more than $1 million in annual salary and bonuses in 2011. CEOs at 78 of the charities were paid between $500,000 and $1 million.”

No wonder that many enterprising people around the world are anxious to set up charitable NGOs that are classified as non-profit where fund-raising is the most important activity with media advertising, glossy magazines, attractive websites and frequent contacts with government agencies and private charity sponsoring foundations. All this is possible if they can base it on a story that accords with the aims of  their sponsors When the 2004 tsunami devastated southern Sri Lanka, hundreds of foreign-based Sri Lankans and foreigners hastily set up new NGOs to assist the country. Compared to the funds donated by generous foreign citizens, the benefits received were modest. Once the tsunami funds dried up, some of these enterprising fund raisers, who had even given up their jobs to become professional charity managers, used their experience to create new NGOs to fund their livelihood.

The other profitable NGO business in Sri   Lanka is Human Rights. Throughout the Eelam wars, when LTTE suicide cadres and terrorists were killing tens of thousands of non-combatant civilians, foreign-funded Sri Lankan NGOs were giving lectures at seminars and conferences sponsored by their foreign benefactors on the inhumanity of the government for waging war to protect national security, without ever condemning the terrorists. Terrorists were equated with freedom fighters. In the USA, these seminars were sometimes chaired by former US ambassadors to Sri Lanka, to give them credibility. To American audiences, minorities in Sri Lanka were treated the way coloured people were treated in America till recently.

The Government of Sri Lanka has now awoken to the extent of the problem of non-supervision of NGOs and the new monitoring systems will hopefully result in more productive work for the country.

Thepanis Alwis


Sri Lanka.

28 July 2014.











6 Responses to

  1. Milinda Hettiarachchi says:

    very interesting indeed !

  2. Sohan Pieris says:

    Very thought provoking and stimulating. Keep it up.
    Aloha nui loa

  3. Dushyanthi Abeywickrama says:

    Thaththi, your article on , “Will the crisis hit Asia? ” is insightful. Many countries like Greece, Italy , and Portugal most probably wouldn’t have been in the EU, if some of them didn’t falsify documents. I am sure that is illegal too.

  4. Chula Wickramasinghe says:

    Thanks for your Indian adventure…

    When India…liberated Goa…I was a student at the University of Singapore…
    I can remember…many of the Singapore Indians…proudly wearing an armband…
    with a Indian flag….

    Prior to Liberation of Goa…
    there was liberation movements were on going in the Portuguese Colonies of Guinea Bissau –
    Portuguese West Africa (Angola) & Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique)…
    as a student at the Ceylon Technical College…I took part in demonstrations outside the Portuguese Embassy in Colombo…
    I personally cut the Portuguese flag off the flag pole….

    Now I live part-time in the largest Portuguese speaking nation in the World….Brazil..
    as an permanent resident…and can speak Portuguese…

    Thus is life…

  5. Chula Wickramasinghe says:

    Ken –
    Thanks for your most informative article re “Money”…..
    Yes – the US $ is declining in value vis-a-vis many other Currencies….
    but its still the World’s “Numero Uno” ( Number one ) Currency.

  6. Thaththi, I recollect that in Germany during World War 2 money was worthless. Germany was going through a financial crisis and they beleived by printing large amounts of money it would help the country.Instead people carried money in wheel barrows to go grocery shopping, and plastered their walls with money.Germany is no longer like this, I think the US can get some tips from them.

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