Coup Theories & Officers’ Motives

Coup Theories and Officers’ Motives – Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective, by Donald L. Horowitz, Princeton University Press, 1980.

The proliferation of military coups in developing countries of South and East Asia and in Africa in the period since World War 2 when many of these gained independence from Western colonial rule has given rise to numerous books in America theorizing on the causes of military coups. One popular explanation considered was the dichotomy of chaotic and corrupt political and social systems within countries on the one hand and disciplined, centralised, hierarchical militaries led by officers with technical and managerial skills. In this situation, army officers felt compelled to intervene to establish orderly government. Other explanations were based on ethnic and class differences, the ambition of army officers for power and wealth or military interventions by aggrieved segments of the officer cadre to regain their positions of authority. In some cases the military considered that they were intervening for the national interest and in others it was a personal lust for power. In many cases internal conflicts resulting from long suppressed cleavages within societies during colonial rule created a threat to governments and gave the justification for military interventions, sometimes sponsored clandestinely by external great powers.

The author takes the attempted coup of 1962 in Sri Lanka as a case study as the details of this coup were recorded in detail by evidence in the Sri Lankan courts and by statements voluntarily made by the majority of the coup participants with regard to their motives.

The author, apart from being a distinguished professor with many books on foreign affairs, is also a member of the US state sponsored organisation, The National Endowment for Democracy, whose assistance to developing countries often preceded US master-minded military coups. Nevertheless, the book contains an insightful analysis of the mindset of sections of the urbanised Sri Lankan middle class that motivated the coup leaders even though the author’s conclusions in some areas could be disputed. The author draws on research on social and political features of post-independence Sri Lanka that had been done in the USA by academics, viz. Robert N. Kearney, W. Howard Wriggins, Donald E. Smith, Bryce Ryan, Marshall R. Singer and B.H. Farmer and Janice Jiggins of UK. Apart from these, works by notable Sri Lankan scholars on social structures and internal conflicts were also available to him, viz. Michael Roberts, A.H.E. Sanderatne, A.J. Wilson, G.C. Mendis, P.T. M. Fernando, Tarzie Vittachi, etc.

Sri   Lanka was a fragmented society, as is the case with many nations, with divisions based on caste, race, religion and social status, but the traditional Sri Lankan values held society together. With the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist movement that came to power after the 1956 election victory of the first Bandaranaike government, the populist effort to dramatically redress the grievances of the hitherto marginalised rural Sinhala Buddhist majority, led to strong opposition from minority Tamils and Christians. Furthermore, an effective government bureaucracy was compromised by the newly elected politicians at all levels who held that a “peoples’ government” meant they could dictate to public officials on appointments, promotions, transfers and work programs without reference to merit, the public good, government regulations or even established law. The unrealistic expectations that were aroused also gave opportunities for the largely leftwing trade unions to undertake prolonged strikes in key sectors of the economy, creating more problems for the rapidly declining economy.

The “Sinhala Only” official language issue, the reaction in the form of Tamil protests which were dealt with a heavy hand by the government, the anti-Tamil riots in 1956 and 1958, the successive public service strikes, political interference in many areas of the administration including the police, all made the urban middle class feel that the country was falling apart. The author succinctly explains the dilemma of the elite urban middle class in the following terms. “They pondered how the machinery of state could be run by rulers who seemed less and less sophisticated and worldly. They were neither wholly indifferent to the interests nor wholly unadmiring of the aptitudes of the average Sinhalese village man. But they deplored the crumbling of established standards and the infusion of a crude variety of political personal patronage into the bureaucracy and public projects. They were aghast at the indifference of the new men of power to merit in appointments and to prudence in decision making. ….”

The author grants that such social unrest was often a feature of developing countries where marginalised sections of society sought to gain their place. In many other countries this had provided the opportunity for military leaders to organise coups and establish dictatorial rule to preserve their class interests. However, the unrest in Ceylon resulted from a democratic process and the euphoria of the victors could be a passing phase. The author points out that the coup plotters’ model of UK as an orderly society which needed to be emulated was misplaced as the British had already dealt with these social changes in an earlier era. Democracies do not function always in an orderly manner.

As in the case of all such coups, the core group was small and only 31 officers and one senior public servant (Douglas Liyanage) were finally arrested and charged. It is contended that if it succeeded many others would have been willing join in while still others were silent participants. The two principal leaders were from the Army, Col. F.C. (Derek) De Saram, Deputy Commander of the Army Volunteer Force and Col. Maurice de Mel, Chief of Staff of the Army and Commander of the Volunteer Force. F.C. De Saram, the most high profile and charismatic senior officer in the army, was admired and respected by the majority of army officers. In a status conscious society, he came from a distinguished family, was a Cambridge educated lawyer, had captained the national cricket team and was the most senior Ceylonese officer in the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) in the pre-Independence era during World War 2 as commander of the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Ceylon Artillery. His two senior subordinates in the Artillery Regiment were Maurice de Mel and W.S. Abrahams, both key coup leaders. Of the 16 regular army officers charged, 8 were from the artillery regiments. At the formation of the Ceylon Army after Independence, the personnel in the CDF were invited to join and the Army Commander, Brig.-Gen. Gerard Wijeykoon, was among them. He was not invited to participate as he was considered “weak”. The Inspector General of Police (IGP), M.W.F. Abeykoon, a political appointee loyal to the governing party, was also excluded, as was the Navy Commander, Commodore Rajan Kadirgamar. The retired Commander of the Navy, Rear Admiral Royce De Mel, elder brother of Maurice De Mel, was however among the coup leaders. The miniscule Air Force was under the command of a Britisher and was excluded as well.

The other principal partners were from the police who were brought in after the plot was hatched because the police presence was nation-wide and was essential for success. This was led by C.C. (Jungle) Dissanayake and Sidney De Soyza, both Deputy IGPs who commanded a large following within the police force. The IGP, M.W.F. Abeykoon, an elevated political appointee brought in from outside the police service, was widely unpopular with senior police officers for being a pliant tool of his political masters in addition to being an incompetent misfit. Unlike in the Army, the police had to work with civil authorities and were irked by the unprecedented level of political influence brought into routine police work. The Army, due to the nature of its role in the country, was spared most of this at the time. Their grievance was that the army was constantly used to run public services that were hit by strikes and also to deal with civil unrest which was essentially a police function.

The 1962 coup is often described in the country as a plot by Christian and Tamil officers to frustrate the aspirations of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. The writer finds no hard evidence to support this theory. On the contrary, it is pointed out that the acknowledged leader, F.C. De Saram was a Sinhala Buddhist as were several others. But what irked a disciplined organisation like the army was the ruling politicians’ consideration of race, caste and religion, apart from political loyalty, as factors in appointments to the top positions in the public services and the police. The author claims that the coup plotters freely expressed their reasons, barring eight, two declining and six being dead or out of the country. The seven principal reasons were: 1) unrest, strikes, no discipline; 2) ethno-religious discrimination; 3) power of Felix Dias Bandaranaike; 4) danger from Left parties; 5) general country situation; 6) political interference; 7) politicians pandering to the mob. Felix Dias Bandaranaike, then a young arrogant minister who was the prime minister’s principal adviser, was the bête noire of the coup plotters. The author grants that motives are hard to unravel as it involves both emotional and rational perceptions. In the case of some young officers, personal loyalty to the coup leaders was found to be a strong factor.

In all this, the author downplays the role of class conflict in the motivation, even though statements attributed to the coup officers and their contacts in the elite Colombo society contradicts this view. It is the members of the elite English educated westernised urban upper-middle class that the coup plotters empathise with when they socialise in exclusive Colombo clubs or the golf course to discuss politics, as described by the author. This class, which the author seeks to describe as “international” in outlook as opposed to the parochial forces they despised, felt threatened by the emerging power of the majority rural Sinhala Buddhist population and the left-wing urban working class. They believed that British colonial rule was better in comparison with democratic governments after independence. For these reasons the coup plotters were idolised by the Colombo business community that raised funds for their legal defence and offered them executive jobs in their businesses after their release.

It is acknowledged that unlike in many other coups in Third World countries, the principal coup leaders had no direct interest in political office or financial gain and were motivated more by a perceived altruistic sense of bringing order into the chaotic state of affairs in the country. They had nothing to gain personally and were officers and gentlemen in the best British military tradition. Maurice De Mel would have become the next Commander of the Army in the normal course of events and F.C. De Saram who had a successful law practice had no interest in further promotions in the Army or in holding political office. The stated objective of the coup officers was to detain the government leaders, dissolve parliament and establish an interim civilian government under the Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilake. It is now known from subsequent interviews attributed to Sir John Kotelawela, ex-UNP prime minister, that Sir Oliver, previous UNP Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and Kotelawela himself were apprised of the planned coup shortly in advance of events.

The story of how the coup plotters were betrayed at the last moment leading to its collapse is well known. In hindsight, it is clear that the coup would never have been successful. The coup plotters planned to use the Artillery regiments, the armoured regiment, the Signals regiments and the Colombo Depot Police for the initial takeover. The key Ceylon Light Infantry led by Col. Udugama, a government loyalist, was left out. Their plan for the creation of an interim government run by discredited former political leaders would have been rejected by the public. There is no doubt that there would have been sufficient pro-government forces within the army, navy and police, together with the mass of the public that had voted the government to office, to frustrate the objectives of the coup even if it was initially successful.

While the coup plotters sought to de-politicise the army, police and public administration, their failure had the reverse effect. Forever after, governments in Sri   Lanka would ensure that the armed forces, the police and key areas of the public administration (and even the judiciary) would be led by political loyalists without reference to established regulations or practices. Mrs. Bandaranaike herself went to extreme lengths to establish this after the coup was foiled by appointing her close relatives to key positions in the armed forces to ensure loyalty and weed out those suspected of disloyalty.

The author points to the effect of successful military coups in developing countries which leads to a recurring tradition of military interventions whenever military leaders felt they had to “rescue” nations from incompetent civilian rule. At least Sri Lanka was spared this tragedy.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

15 June 2014.


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Disce aut Discede

Disce aut discede

The RoyalCollege motto, Disce aut discede (learn or depart), engraved in large letters at the entrance to the RoyalCollege building, is unique, unlike any other, in its imperious command. It is traced back to 1871 and the Principal at the time, George Todd. One could develop many talents and skills in the school but if you did not study you had no place here. And RoyalCollege has a unique and honourable position in the history of education in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

The history of RoyalCollege reflects the developing government policies on education from its inception in colonial times. After British occupation of Kandy in 1815, the Christian Missionary Society was at the forefront of proselytizing through English education in Sri Lanka from 1818, setting up its first major schools in Baddagama, Jaffna, Kandy and Cotta (Kotte). Then the reforms recommended  by the Colebrooke-Cameron Royal Commission of 1833 saw the first steps towards liberalising the economy, encouraging private sector business and bringing local leaders into the Legislative Council. These and the development of a modern colonial administration required educated natives with a proper all-round education, not merely religious education. The implementation of these reforms initially fell on the British Governor, Sir Robert I. Wilmot Horton.

Governor Wilmot Horton had a special interest in education and personally attended the awards of the missionary society’s premier Christian Institution of Kotte in 1831. He was impressed by the students’ proficiency in Greek and Latin and declared: Nullum munus reipublicae afferre majus meliusve possumus, quam si dociamus et erudiamus juventutem (We can confer no greater benefit to the country than by educating youth.) From 1931 to 1934 the Christian Institution of Kotte was headed by Rev. Joseph Marsh. He left in 1834 and the following year he set up his own school in Colombo as the HillStreetPrivateAcademy. In 1836 Governor Horton made this a government school under the name of the ColomboAcademy with Rev. Marsh as the headmaster. Later, in recognition of its status as the premier government school, the colonial government in 1881 obtained the royal assent of the British Empress, Queen Victoria, to have it re-named as the Royal College of Colombo. Through the years, the school lived up to its expectations, producing the largest number of outstanding national leaders of any school in politics, the professions and the public services.

As could be expected, the school evolved with the political evolution of the country. Christian missionaries were replaced by laymen as Principals. In 1946, the year of my class, a Ceylonese, J.C.A. Corea, became the first non-British Principal of the school and since then, with independent Ceylon, it has always been so. But the dedication to the highest standards of all-round education and its privileged position in the government educational hierarchy remained. The Principal of Royal College had the substantive rank of Deputy Director of Education (now a Director, in the expanded education service) and it is also a magnet school to which the brightest from other government schools are sent on scholarship. Customarily, in former times, the Governor-General of Ceylon presided at the annual school prize-giving and made an oration. In 1953, the year I finished, it was Lord Soulbury, who had drafted the constitution for independent Ceylon. A short dapper man wearing a monocle in the aristocratic fashion, he was happy to exchange a few words when I came up to receive the Shakespeare Prize and English Literature prizes.

Principal John Corea was a stern no-nonsense administrator. Dedication to study was a demand. At the Senior School Certificate level, teachers evaluated all students and chose those who were regarded as potential for higher education for promotion to the higher class. Others were allowed to sit for the exam and were transferred to a “Remove Form” to do lighter subjects and leave school. No wonder academic results from RoyalCollege at the University Entrance examinations were always outstanding. The school was selected as “one of best innovative colleges” in the world by Microsoft Corporation 2009.

As a strict disciplinarian, Corea forbade loitering in the corridors during school hours. Any student found outside the classroom during school sessions needed a written authorisation by the teacher. Otherwise, no explanation was accepted and the student was taken to the office to receive “six of the best” from the cane visibly kept to deter truants. Later, when I was in the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya campus, John Corea came as the Warden of Ramanathan Hall. I was Student President of the Hall and President of the Peradeniya Campus Students’ Union. Since the students’ unions were in the habit organising protests and demonstrations to make campus life more lively, John Corea would invite me to his quarters to share a beer and discuss students’ issues. Yet, even then, I could not help feeling like a schoolboy in his presence.

The school had many excellent teachers who dedicated their lives to the institution. Invariably, it was the older teachers, too numerous to mention here, who were the ablest. Since teacher salaries are modest, it became more difficult to recruit the best in a growing economy but RoyalCollege attracted some as its teachers are on a higher service grade in the education department.

Our class of students also, typically, produced a variety of talents. C.V. Gunaratne who did not enter the university but took to politics became Minister of Industries, only to be brutally killed with his wife by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber. Jayantha Jayaratne, joined the Army, became a General officer, but died prematurely of ill health. Two entered the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service, Olcott Goonesekera and Gamini Irriagolle, but left the service after a while. Numerous others became medical doctors, engineers, architects, university professors, naval officers, public servants, school teachers, businessmen, corporate managers, etc., all too numerous to mention by name. One, Nimal Mendis, ignored studies and played music and later became a famous musician and song writer. I became a senior manager in the local Unilever company and later became chairman of State Timber Corporation before migrating to become an international business consultant.

The belief that higher education was a path to success was not always true. RoyalCollege excelled in several sports but the stars were the rugby players and cricketers. Many, though not all, of these star athletes tended to neglect studies. At the time, the majority of the tea plantation and commercial companies were owned by the British and the top managers were British. The British company managers sent to the colonies were less educated but considered tough enough to work in harsh tropical regions. Whenever they recruited local officers, they selected less educated boys with sporting achievements from leading schools to whom they could better relate as persons. It was only Ceylon Tobacco Company and Unilever that recruited university graduates as senior managers. Gradually, after independence, when the government restricted the recruitment of foreign managers, these Ceylonese officers were catapulted to the top management of their prestigious companies. But it is a testament to the all-round training at Royal College that even the academically less educated people who joined private sector companies became business luminaries in the country.

A member of the Class of 1946.


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A Lesson they didn’t teach in school

A Lesson They Didn’t Teach in School

(A true story) 

It was 1948. The Great War among the imperial powers was now over and, for the second time in the century, the Western Powers had triumphed. Ceylon was about to gain independence, with some strings attached, from her colonial master, Great Britain, for having enthusiastically supported the British in the war. India, which opposed the war, with their leaders preferring jail rather than support for their colonial master, had got independence the previous year.

We were a group of about a hundred schoolboys from one of the most prestigious schools, aged twelve to fourteen, in classes classified as Forms 2, 3 and 4, on our way on board the up-country train from Colombo to the boarding school in distant Bandarawela. During the Great War, all Colombo school buildings were requisitioned by the government for housing military facilities. Ceylon was the staging point from which the British South East Asia Command, under Lord Louis Mountbatten, was to despatch troops to re-capture their South East Asian colonies from the Japanese.  So a branch boarding school was also set up in the distant hills of the Uva province. It was recommended to parents as a place with clean mountain air that was good for the health of their boys.

If you thought it was a great holiday resort for us, you would be mistaken. We were going from our comfortable modern middle-class homes in Colombo with our loving Mamas and houseboys and housemaids who did all our chores to a rather miserable boot camp run by two frustrated middle-aged men who could not forgive the authorities for sending them to this isolated place where their professional advancement and social life would be constrained. Apart from these two house-masters, the other teachers lived in houses away from school with their families and were distinctly happier and friendlier people to be tutored by.

The school was a large one-time tea estate bungalow atop a hilly elevation, cut off from the poverty stricken villages of the region. This family home was too small for the school population. Beds were cramped together in rooms and corridors with small lockers for clothing. The lavatories were based on the type in use in temporary army camps, small partitioned wood closets each containing a small wood box with a hole in the centre. The British Army called these “thunder boxes”. The droppings fell into a bucket which was cleaned daily by traditionally low-caste Tamil latrine coolies. At four thousand five hundred feet above sea-level, it was cold and often foggy in the mornings. Wake up time was sharp at six o’clock. Then it was time to jog around the school perimeter for half an hours, wash in the icy cold water of the garden taps and dress for breakfast by 7.30 a.m. By 8.00 a.m. we were walking to the classrooms. Corporal punishments were readily meted out for every infraction of the many rules, both with canes and fists. But small boys do not complain of physical hardship when they are with their peers. It is against the macho culture they are taught to accept. Only evening games and a week-end sing-song sessions enlivened our rather bleak lives.

In the train compartments, boys gathered in different carriages keeping strictly to their age groups. One year of seniority meant superior status and a younger fellow had to keep away from bullying seniors. Our group of thirteen year olds started off by boasting to each other of their exploits during the holidays. But it was a long five hour journey with the train engines straining up steep mountain sides overlooking deep valleys lush with vegetation of the brightest hues of green, interspersed with terraced rice paddies and the distant tiny brown huts of the local villages. Tiffin boxes were opened and lunches prepared by loving Mamas were eaten and shared. After the initial outburst of energy, fatigue was setting. Even gazing out of the windows was not much fun for boys who saw nothing appreciative in the gorgeous scenery which could proudly adorn a European travel poster.

Barely noticed by us, a young village couple had entered our half-empty compartment and were seated as far away from us as possible near the windows overlooking the steep valleys. The man was dressed in a pressed sarong and shirt and the woman in a new green cotton sari. The young couple were perhaps newly married as the woman kept her head down, averting her eyes from the husband seated opposite her. They were clearly in their best suits and bound from one small village to another, perhaps for some important family event. But they had no interest for us. They were the type of people from whom our families recruited their ill-paid domestic servants whom we treated like lower level humans. It was unseemly to fraternise with such people. Or even look upon them with any interest.

But something quite unusual was now happening. We were very slowly passing Nanu Oya, one of the highest points on the line, with the engine noisily powering to take the strain of this steepest part of the journey. Three men were seen slowly moving along the narrow train footboard outside the carriages, holding onto the hand rails and window sills, peering into the compartments. Below them, the steep valley looked down a thousand feet. They were very respectably dressed in the manner of affluent village folk: palaykat sarongs, hitched with the traditional broad black elastic belt with its little leather money pouch, long sleeved shirts and a coat of the type that went with the business suits worn by upper-income men for work. Physically handsome, they were clearly not people who laboured in the fields but looked like affluent rural businessmen. They had climbed the train as it slowed down at this stretch.

Looking into our compartment, one man thrust his hand though the window and opened the door for the trio to get in. Once the door was closed and locked, they sat near the young village couple and began earnestly playing a card game called booruwa (donkey) or asking/hitting. It is a game only favoured by the hoi-polloi unfamiliar with more respectable middle -class card games like bridge or poker. Each person in turn calls a card before the dealer deals a card to each player. Every player puts in an equal sum of money. When a player holds the winning card, he scoops in all the money. It is man’s game. Women never play it. But now we were watching this game discreetly but with interest.

After seemingly enjoying a few rounds, the men turned to the young man and invited him to join them. His wife shook her head in quiet disapproval. But it must have seemed an honour to this village yokel to play with such men. Hesitantly, he placed a ten rupee bet and surprisingly won his first round. The men encouraged him. It must be his lucky day. They asked him to place a bigger bet. He pulled out the last ten rupee note in his pocket and added it to his winnings. He won again. Elated, he now placed his winnings on the table for the next round. And he lost it all. He was now downcast. But his fellow players encouraged him. Your luck will come again, they said. It always does. He said he had no money. They looked at the 24 carat gold ring on his wife’s finger, her wedding ring. They said that would suffice for cash and they would increase their own bets. The young man pulled the gold ring off his wife and placed it on the pile of cash put in by the others. The air was now very tense. All of us boys were now alert to what was going on. The stakes were high. The men started to play very slowly and deliberately. And then it was over.

One of the outsiders won. They scooped in the cash and the ring and put these in their coat pockets. They got up and without any parting farewell to the young couple opened the door and climbed on to the foot rest of the train. As the train started slowing down again near an approaching station, they nimbly leapt off and disappeared.

The young man was wooden faced and expressionless. His young wife was quietly sobbing into the end of her sari. We were speechless spectators to this human drama. The sobbing young woman’s face remains etched in my memory after all these years.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

05 April 2014.


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MacArthur’s War, Korea & the Undoing of A Hero

Book Review

MacArthur’s War, Korea & the undoing of an American Hero,

by Stanley Weintraub.

Published by Simon & Shuster Inc., New York, FY 2000.

This book was published 13 years ago about a war that occurred six decades earlier but it is still very relevant as it reflects international geo-politics even today. The Korean War (1950-1953) was the first major shooting war of the Cold War fought by the surrogates of the Soviet Union and the USA, Kim Il Sung in the North and Syngham Rhee in the South, both ruthless dictators, till it became a major international war between the US and its allies and China which intervened to support the North. The author of the book was himself a veteran of this war. His extensive research of original source material (detailed at the end of the book) allows him to illustrate the principal characters as a real life drama of absorbing interest.

Korea, which had been occupied by Japan, was divided into two halves by the USSR and the USA after WW2. The Korean War began in mid-1950 when, after a series of border disputes, the North invaded the South. The North, which was now home to the Korean army of anti-Japanese fighters who had fought for the Chinese communists in Manchuria and North China, had a battle-hardened army and soon occupied much of the South. The prevailing hysteria about communist expansion worldwide prompted the US government to enter the war on behalf of their staunchly anti-communist client, Syngham Rhee, whom they had installed.

War is the main business of the USA and it does this with political and propaganda finesse. United Nations Security Council authorisation was obtained as a cover and traditional Western allies (that remain unchanged to date, except for the then Aparthied South Africa) were cajoled into supporting this initiative which however remained a US military operation with smaller units of allied forces. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was the Supreme Allied  Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP) in Japan (a peace treaty with Japan was still not signed in 1950 and was only done in 1952 but even after that Japan remained a US military base) was made commander of UN forces. A war against communists in Korea, a country most Americans did not know existed, was widely acclaimed as anti-communism was the main platform of domestic US politics. It was the era of the Grand Inquisitor, Joseph McCarthy, when thousands of Americans lost their jobs and their freedom and the general population was cowed by his anti-communist witch hunts which mimicked the sham trials of the communist dictator, Stalin, to subdue any dissenting views.

Since the time he accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945, MacArthur had his office in the palatial Dai Ichi building in Tokyo overlooking the imperial palace grounds and conducted himself as the Viceroy of Japan. Japanese Emperor Hirohito personally called on MacArthur on eleven occasions but MacArthur never cared to visit his palace. Here, he held court surrounded by fawning courtiers consisting of media personnel and his favoured military officers. The Japanese people, long used to divine emperors requiring unquestioning obedience, took this in their stride. MacArthur was the most senior and most decorated US general, a living legend. But by now he was an aging prima donna (he was 70 years in 1950), vain, capricious and egotistical. His theatricals designed for self-publicity would have rivalled that of the Hollywood super-stars. With his overblown self-importance he had lost touch with reality. His minions at SCAP fed him information that he wanted to hear and even the Chief Intelligence Officer, Willoughby, ignored intelligence reports and pandered to his illusions that led to several military blunders.

More than anything military, MacArthur saw himself as the American statesman destined to save the Asian region from what he saw as the rising communist menace. In this role, he defied the Joint Chief of Staffs (JCS) in Washington, the Secretary of Defence, the Secretary of State and even the President of the US to further his political objectives. His pet project was to assist the defeated Chiang Kai-shek, whom history had passed by, to invade and re-conquer communist China. He made unauthorised visits to Taiwan, issued his views to the media and was backed in the USA by conservative Republicans opposed to President Truman. He was not only playing politics, with the support of the ultra-right wing Republican leaders in the US, he was keen on the US presidency and openly discussed this with visiting Gen. Eisenhower, his one time subordinate.

The war initially went badly as MacArthur, except for brilliant flashes, had lost touch with reality. A racist, like most US leaders of that time, he under-estimated both the North Koreans and the Chinese forces that later came to assist the North in its dire hour of need. He contemptuously stated that these races would flee at the sight of American forces. The reality should have surprised him but, in the traditional American style, he put a spin on all events, magnifying triumphs and explaining away heavy defeats (just tactical withdrawals). The one flash of his old genius was the Inchon landings. The US and South Korean military had been driven by the North Koreans to a small enclave around the Pusan. US troops were being evacuated from this area when MacArthur drew his plans to make a landing at the rear of the enemy at Inchon, a very difficult harbour where the landing of heavy craft was only possible during the short time of the highest tides. He argued with the Chiefs of the General Staff that this risky operation would assure total surprise as the enemy would never dream of such risk taking and he was proved right. It turned the tide of the war for a while. But the US sense of triumphalism allowed MacArthur to push to the YaluRiver boundary with China and threaten China which he proclaimed would not dare confront US forces. There were plans to drop atom bombs on Manchurian and North Chinese targets to prevent the flow of arms and material from China to North Korea.

The Chinese response came as a total surprise. In the freezing North Korean winter, 200,000 Chinese “Volunteers” first crossed the YaluRiver during dark nights without any of the US surveillance aircraft observing them, using blue painted wooden floats kept a few inches below the water level to avoid observation. When the river froze, they moved over the ice at night and swept the evidence with brooms before daylight. They avoided all radio communication to prevent interception. Attacking at night from mountain hideouts, they used bugles and metal drums as communications for attacking troops. The Americans and South Koreans fled South in disarray, terrified of an often unseen enemy that attacked at night. One American officer remarks that such a humiliating flight by US forces had not been seen in 200 years. Pushed far south of the 38th parallel, the US and allied forces re-grouped and re-assembled till the Chinese found their long supply lines untenable and were forced to withdraw. The US allies were able to regain the area up to the original 38th parallel boundary line when the heavy cost of this Asian war persuaded them to seek peace initiatives through the UN, initiatives which the Chinese rejected initially as they were preparing for a massive Spring offensive.

Every time the US forces were facing disasters, MacArthur, backed by many in Washington and publicly echoed by President Truman, talked of using atom bombs on China. This was in reality an American war and the UN, as happened on many later occasions, was only used as a fig leaf for US aggression. On one occasion, Prime Minister Clement Atlee of Britain rushed to personally warn Truman in Washington that there was no UN mandate to use atomic weapons (by then, the USSR also had the atom bomb). Towards the end of the war, when the atomic bomb option was seriously taken up (to firstly warn China and Russia they said privately) and bombs were transported to Guam in readiness for use, Britain and other allies had to intervene and insist that the peace process was the only option.

Wittingly or not, the book also reveals the chaotic inner workings of the US government where conflicting power bases make it impossible to have a coherent national policy. Unlike in a parliamentary form of government, the elected majority party in Congress and the President have no clear line of authority. Powerful politicians and interest groups backed by corporate money and the media guided political opinion and foreign policy issues. President Truman, a decent and rational man but without the strong leadership and personality of his giant predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, found himself buffeted by these groups. With the Democratic Party in a minority in Congress and his need to keep an eye on the next congressional elections, he had enough of a difficult time without the antics of MacArthur who kept disobeying orders and dealing directly with Republican politicians and the US media. Finally, after much hesitation by the JCS and by the Defence Secretary, owing to the awe in which MacArthur was held, President Truman decided to relieve him of his commands in April 1951.

The British Foreign Secretary in a cable to the UK Ambassador in Washington expressed the European frustration with Washington’s foreign policy and leadership as follows. “Our principal difficulty is General MacArthur. His policy is different from the policy of the UN. He seems to want a war with China. It is no exaggeration to say that by his public utterances, he has weakened public confidence in this country and in Western Europe in the quality of American political judgement and leadership. Here we seem to have a case of a commander publicly suggesting that his policy is not the stated policy of his government, not subject to the control of his government, and whom his government is, nevertheless, unwilling and unable to discipline.”

The stark contrast between the American and allied European military forces and those of the Chinese will be of special interest to military readers. Here we see the Americans, as always since World War 2, equipped with the most technologically advanced equipment in seemingly limitless quantities. They have the world’s most powerful navy and airforce, thousands of varied aircraft, thousands of battle tanks, armoured vehicles, trucks, long range artillery, the biggest bombs and a highly organised supply chain. It has hundreds of generals, a worldwide CIA intelligence and international subversion operation, as well as hundreds of local intelligence operatives in the theatre of war. MacArthur has the most advanced Lockheed Constellation plane for his personal use as well a navy flagship, MountMcKinley (on which the Japanese surrender was signed). The troops have hot meals and equipment delivered to the front, including special traditional Christmas and Thanksgiving celebratory dinners flown from the USA. The Americans and their allies mostly journey by road on vehicles to the frontlines.

In contrast, the Chinese strategy is planned in Mao Zedong’s small dwelling in Beijing which also serves as his office. Here he lives a simple life, like his generals. But the world’s leading practitioner and authority on asymmetrical warfare is able to outfox the world’s greatest military power. The US and its allied generals and their achievements are the at the centre of the international media while the lead Chinese generals, Peng Denhuai, Peng Hua and Cheng Geng are not even known by name to their own troops. A Chinese prisoner tells the Americans that their commander is the old hero, Lin Biao, who was sick and declined to lead the Chinese invasion force. The astute Mao does not declare war but surreptitiously sends troops as a Volunteer force (China was still not in the UN while small Taiwan was called China and sat in the Security Council). The Chinese army is a People’s Army. Field officers do not carry ranks and are simply called platoon leader, company leader, etc., and wear similar uniforms as the rank and file and live under the same conditions. They have no airforce or navy and no heavy equipment. They have only infantry weapons soldiers can personally carry, including light artillery that can be dismantled and carried by porters. Supplies are carried by porters on their backs, harnessed to wooden triangles that make the back pack. For security, plans are not carried as written orders and radios are not used. But field officers have a lot of discretionary authority and local plans are made in consultation with the soldiers. They travel over the mountains, avoiding roads which the US forces bank on. Mao famously says: “Two feet are better than four wheels”. Their success is due to surprise, exceptional discipline and bravery. A US pilot observes that even while they were strafing a Chinese column, they never broke ranks and marched four abreast. Chinese casualties were very heavy.

In the aftermath, MacArthur returned with hopes of attaining the US Presidency. Initially, the majority of the US public disapproved of his dismissal and President Truman was vilified. MacArthur was allowed to address a joint session of the US Congress and a gold coin was issued in his honour. During the 1952 Republican Convention to choose their presidential nominee, he was allowed the keynote speech. But he did not impress and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower got the nomination and went on to be President. Thereafter, public interest in MacArthur waned.

A worse fate awaited his brilliant Chinese adversary, Peng Denhuai, who led the Chinese Peoples’ Volunteer Army and signed the treaty that ended the Korean War in 1953. After a period as Minister of Defence (1954-1959) he fell out with Mao’s on his extreme policies. During the madness of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Mao’s senility led him to promote the excesses of the youthful Red Guards, General Peng was denounced and  imprisoned in 1970 and died in prison in 1974. After Mao died in 1976, he was posthumously rehabilitated and honoured for his services in 1978 by the new government.

For Mao’s views on asymmetrical warfare, read


Kenneth Abeywickrama

18 March 2014


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Revenge of the Weather Gods

Revenge of the Weather Gods

Catastrophic Arctic weather has plunged North American daily temperatures in the Mid-West, East and the South East to sub-zero levels for a good part of the first quarter of Year 2014. In a strange turn of events, many areas within the Arctic Circle are registering lower temperatures than farther south in the USA. Such continuing cold and wintry storms have never before been recorded in America since observatory records were kept. It is admittedly caused by global warming due to environment polluting greenhouse gases to which the USA has been the major contributor. China is the other main contributor to global warming but China’s population is four times larger than that of the USA. And while the Chinese government and people recognize the environmental damage they are causing and have a plan to reduce toxic emissions, the US is the principal home of climate deniers and administrations that have so far declined to take effective measures for a cleaner atmosphere on the grounds that it will adversely affect US economic recovery. Are the Weather Gods punishing the climate deniers?

The US mass media has been strangely silent on the causes or the long term effects of this climate phenomenon. Their agenda is driven by the giant corporations, especially in the oil, coal and motor transport industries that are a major influence on the elected representatives who run the country and are major contributors to atmospheric pollution. Yet this subject is of far more importance than a US economic recovery or the need to maintain a military presence around the world and dictate the internal affairs of other countries. The need to police other countries and dictate their politics is what mostly concerns the administration and the corporate controlled media. But this kind of Arctic weather is predicted to be a permanent feature of life. The extension of Siberian weather to North America is bound to affect the traditional agriculture patterns and some industries. Huge additional expenses will be required for more heating in offices and dwellings, snow clearance and more office and school closures due to snowbound roads and transport.

The scientific explanation of this phenomenon is the shift in the polar vortex. The North Pole has a very cold circular wind system above it. In recent years, due to progressive global warming, the polar ice has melted to the extent that the Arctic Ocean has become a shipping route for northern states. As the polar waters become warmer, it pushes the very cold polar winds outwards. The Jet Stream, a wind system circulating in the northern hemisphere, takes the incoming cold air around. Strangely, satellite pictures show that this extending cold air extends southwards mostly only into North America. Hence the temperature in places like New York and Washington can be colder than in regions within the Arctic Circle while the American Mid-West is even colder.

But it is not only freezing winters. The tropical and sub-tropical regions of the earth are experiencing the hottest weather in over a century. California in the East was in the grip of extreme heat with water sources drying up. This was suddenly followed by extraordinarily heavy rains causing massive mud-slides. This unpredictable pattern of severe heat waves, followed by torrential rains, is compounded by the increasing number of tornadoes and hurricanes that ravage coastal communities around the world. The Devil’s mischief!

The powerful leaders of the US-EU power bloc that presumes to run the world must have the simple good sense to realise that saving the earth for mankind is more important than fostering dissension and striving for perpetual political dominance. Otherwise, we are all doomed.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

03 March 2014.


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A Life Less Ordinary, by Baby Halder

Book Review

A Life Less Ordinary, by Baby Halder

Published by Harper Perennial

This book and the story of its author is quintessentially Indian, India being a land of startling contradictions that sometimes baffles and again pleasantly surprises the rest of the world. Home to fully half of the world’s poorest people while having some of the richest people on earth, a country where women are traditionally subordinated while still producing strong women national leaders, India constantly comes up with the unexpected. This book, the first of two others by its author, Baby Halder, took the Indian literary world by storm and gained international recognition, partly because the author was a poor woman with no formal education, coming from the wretched society of the poor of India. Suffering abuse, first by her father, and then physical violence at the hands of a brutal husband, ill-treated as a housemaid to wealthy families, she is finally taken in by a kind-hearted elderly retired academic who sees her potential talent and transforms her to become an acclaimed writer. Such miracles can happen in India, a land that also produces many saints, philosophers and social activists.

Baby Halder does not even have a proper first name. As the author says it, no one bothered about a name for her and she was always called Baby. Her family came from Kashmir to a West Bengal village not far from Durgapur. It is a dysfunctional family. In her early childhood the father leaves the family for work elsewhere for long periods and often fails to send money to support them. Her mother then walks away with her youngest child and is not heard of again till many years later. Her father takes one woman and then another as his wife. Though she is keen to study in the local school, she is taken out after a few years to do housework. To be rid of her, her father marries her off at age twelve to a man of twenty six who makes her a household slave and denies her love and basic comforts and beats her often. They have three children, while a fourth was miscarried after she was severely battered by her husband.

What makes the book interesting is the array of characters that come to life in the story. As in most Asian societies, Baby’s family has a large network of relatives. To find solace from her misery, she often manages to go and live for short periods with different family members who then become part of the broader background story. This gives her the reason to describe their characters, occupations and living conditions. What is interesting is that despite the poverty, suffering and cruelty, there is also plenty of kindness and generosity by others, sometimes even by complete strangers who are not much better off.

Finally, she leaves her husband and the village and travels to Delhi with her three children to work as a domestic servant to wealthy families. Her suffering continues as domestic service in affluent homes in India is usually a form of semi-slavery. By fortuitous circumstances she eventually becomes a maid in the house of an elderly retired professor of anthropology, Prabodh Kumar, who becomes her mentor. The kindly man recognizes her talents and encourages her to read and then write her own life stories. Through him and his circle of intellectual friends, the literary world in India then discovers her.

If the book was merely a collection of anecdotes about her life and its hardships, it would be an ordinary story. The language is simple and has the tone of a humble person relating a matter of fact story to another, face to face. Despite ill-treatment, the author harbours no ill-will towards those who mistreated her. What makes it exceptional is the portrayal of an indomitable woman who refuses to be ill-treated and marginalized within a society where women are handicapped and tied to abusive partners and her ability to climb out of this through sheer determination and love of her children. In keeping with her humanity, she continues to help her elderly benefactor as a housemaid even after she becomes an affluent writer with a house of her own.

This book was written in Bengali and translated into Hindi by Prof. Prabodh Kumar and was first published by a small publisher in Calcutta, Roshani Publishers, that catered to fostering women authors, under the title of Aalo Aandhari (Light and Darkness). It became a best-seller in India and was translated into several other Indian languages. In 2006 it was published in English under the title, A Life Less Ordinary, and that made her internationally famous. Her books have been translated to twelve languages, including English and German.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

23 January 2014.

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The Khobragade Affair

The Khobragade Affair

On 12 December 2013, Mrs. Devyani Khobragade, the Deputy Indian Consul in New York, was arrested when she went to a school to pick up her children. She was handcuffed and taken to a police station where she was strip-searched, including manual probes of her anus and vagina, had swabs taken for DNA testing, and was then locked in a cell with ordinary criminals till she was allowed bail. The charge sheet was, in summary, “making a false statement on a US government document at the US embassy in New Delhi and under-paying her housemaid in New   York in violation of a contract and US minimum wage laws”. It was another outrageous example of misconduct and abuse of authority by a US police department, so totally uncalled for, to humiliate an Indian diplomat when a court summons to answer the charges would have sufficed. No one can believe that such a violation of a person would have ever taken place if it was a European diplomat who was on a similar charge. In 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Frenchman, the head of the IMF, was involved in a rape in a New York hotel and was arrested. Would he have been strip-searched and cavity probed? Never! He was a European and White.

The current Indian government must take some responsibility for this very public humiliation of an Indian official. Highly placed Indian officials have been humiliated by US authorities on numerous occasions to muted protests by the Indian government while India dared not take similar reciprocal action against US officials in India. In 2009, the distinguished Indian nuclear scientist and former President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, was singled out for frisking by US Continental Airlines officers at New Delhi airport before he boarded a plane to New York. In 2011 President Kalam had already been through security at New YorkJFKAirport and boarded an Air India plane preparing for take off when US security officers forcibly entered the plane and removed his coat and shoes for examination for explosives. In December 2010, Indian Ambassador to the US, Mrs. Meera Shankar, on her way to speak at MississippiStateUniversity, was singled out for a body “pat down” at Mississippi airport despite the information that she was the highest ranking Indian diplomat in the country. Leading Indian actor, Shah Rukh Khan, has been detained at US airports for hours for questioning every time he arrives in the USA that he jokes about it. These are only a few of the indignities suffered by prominent Indians in the USA.

After every such episode a US official would issue a simple apology while insisting it is within their right to search anyone at airports. Can you imagine such treatment being meted out to comparable European leaders like ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair or ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy? Such treatment, Indians and other non-Europeans must understand, is reserved for them.

Sri Lanka, which endured three decades of terror unimaginable in Western society, never imposed such humiliating measures at airports or elsewhere on foreign diplomats or any other foreigners. In fact, it allowed foreign diplomats to visit terrorist strongholds and have sympathetic meetings with terrorist leaders. Norwegian peace brokers even smuggled sensitive military material like telecommunications to the terrorists while the supine Sri Lanka government of the time raised no objection.

The two main charges against Indian diplomat Mrs. Khobragade, in summary, are that (1) she made a false visa application declaration at the US embassy in India that the wages to be paid to her maid, Sangeeta Richard, would be $9.75 per hour with an 8 hour work day and two days off per week, plus medical benefits and paid sick leave, and (2) that she paid her only $575 a month (Indian Rs.30,000) while she had no 8 hour work day and no off days

Making a false declaration to the US government is an offense that could result in punishment, depending on the gravity of the circumstances and the stature of the person. People are punished but not always. In March 2012, General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, repeatedly lied on oath at a US Congressional hearing denying that the NSA was tapping into US citizens’ phone calls and e-mails, despite the fact that whistleblower Snowden had exposed the scandal and provided incontrovertible proof of it. Government officials regularly lie to deny malfeasance. Again the next year, he officially denied NSA searching through Google and Yahoo communications by the public when it was patently untrue. US officials at the highest level kept denying that the government widely tortured prisoners in secret prisons despite ample proof and official documents to the contrary. No one is punished for these grave offenses. People should be punished for deliberately making false statements to the government or the public but then the rule must be applied with an even hand to all.

Enforcement of the minimum wage is another area where the rules are often bent. Millions of undocumented illegal immigrants from South America are employed in farms and factories in the Southern US states in inhuman conditions and paid a fraction of the official minimum wage. Since these faceless people are essential for farming, it is rarely that state officials launch prosecutions. There are also exemptions to the minimum wage as restaurant and other service workers could be paid $4 or a little more per hour while they must strive to earn more by way of service tips from customers.

That the Indian diplomat underpaid her maid is true but there are some extenuating circumstances. The minimum wage in New   York is $8, not $9.75. Even if the maid was paid at the rate of $9.75 per hour for an 8 hour work day with the week-ends off, she would have received around $1560 per month. New York City is the most expensive place in the USA and her board, lodging and transport to the workplace would be at least a minimum of $2,000 a month, even to survive under the meanest conditions. Instead, she was lodged and fed in the diplomat’s comfortable house and her occasional financial needs, and presumably medical needs, were met. Additionally, $575 was sent monthly to her family in India, a large sum of money for any ordinary Indian family. What a clever US employer would have done in the circumstances would be to sign a separate contract with the maid to lodge and feed her for a sum of $1,500 which would be deducted from her salary!

The Indian government was outraged because there was evidence that this was a planned sting operation by the US authorities. The maid’s husband worked for the US embassy in India as a motor vehicle driver. Before Mrs. Khobragade was arrested and humiliated, the maid’s husband and children were given special visas and flown to the USA by the embassy at US expense and are also probably maintained there at US expense. It was then that the maid disappeared from her employer’s house.  Further evidence was disclosed by Mrs. Khobragade’s sister in India who had a letter sent earlier by the maid to her family stating that she was being treated very kindly by Mrs. Khobragafe and that she was very happy.

Whatever the merits of the US legal system and the US postures on human rights, the Indian public has realized that the world’s sole super power reserves the right to humble any non-European nation, even if it as large and as important as India. Will the Indian government in turn realize that it is more important to have good relations with its Asian neighbours than seek the favour of a distant super-power through subservience?

Thepanis Alwis

Baddegama, Sri Lanka.

12 January 2014.


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Colour Revolutions

Colour revolutions: Are they what they claim to be?

Colour revolutions – blue, green, orange, velvet – are a part of the current political landscape but this modern phenomenon has received modest attention by political and economic analysts. How can we classify the modern phenomenon of “colour revolutions” or “flower revolutions” which are basically non-violent but highly disruptive street protests extending over several weeks or months that seek to paralyse governments and force them out of power? We had such revolutions in Czechoslovakia (1989 Velvet revolution), Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003 Rose revolution), Ukraine (2004 Orange revolution), Lebanon (2005 Cedar revolution), Kyrgyzstan (2005), Kuwait (2005 Blue revolution), Iraq (2005 Purple revolution) and now the current street protests in Bahrain, Ukraine and Thailand using their national flags as symbols. Essentially, these are urban street protests by privileged middle and higher income groups that seek to change leaders but not the system of government, often, but not always, where democratically elected parliaments already exist. The term “revolution” for these street protests that only want the transfer of power to another privileged group is Western media hype.

These are distinct from the from the North African revolts of 2011 where armed opposition groups supported initial street protests to violently overthrow authoritarian governments and install alternative authoritarian governments. These were backed by Western arms and armed interventions, except in the case of Egypt where the Egyptian military dictators are clients of the West. It is also different from the situation in Central Africa where heavily armed rebel factions battle governments for rich mining territory, with interested Western powers aiding either the rebels or the governments for their benefit.

The word “revolution” has been abused by political propagandists. In the original orthodox version, a revolution (an expression popularised by Karl Marx and his adherents) is a violent uprising by workers and peasants against an oppressive state controlled by a privileged minority who have dispossessed the majority. This was the French Revolution (1789), the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Chinese revolution (1933-1949). These were the dreaded “Red” revolutions that terrified the privileged classes of Europe and send shivers down the spine of American leaders to this date. That these revolutions led in turn to abusive governments and had to change again is another story. The so-called American Revolution was not a revolution but a successful anti-colonial struggle led by prosperous American landowners and businessmen against an imperial Britain.

Other large and even more prolonged street protests are never called revolutions by the Western media. For one and a half years the “Occupy Wall Street” protests (beginning September 2011) around America by several millions of protestors calling themselves the oppressed “99%” received minimum media cover. Instead, peaceful protestors were beaten by the police, pepper sprayed, spied on by infiltrating secret agents and imprisoned by the hundreds. But still worse, these were ignored by the authorities and the mainstream mass media. Similarly, street protests against failed economic systems that rewarded corrupt bankers and imposed unemployment and austerity on the masses are an ongoing feature for two years in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and UK but no one calls these revolutions. But Western governments cannot be overthrown by street protests unlike elsewhere. The governments are too organised and powerful and the protesters see no alternative besides calling upon their leaders, futilely, to change the economic policies that have led to their hardships.

Street protests are dominating the news media even today. In Thailand, a democratically elected government is challenged by affluent urban street mobs in Bangkok. In Ukraine, an elected democratic government is about to fall due to street demonstrations in Kiev by the affluent urban classes. Is this an acceptable instrument for political change in modern society? It is time for historians and political scientists to evaluate and record the complexities of this form of political process.

Unlike the orthodox Marxist revolutions by workers and peasants, the modern colour revolutions are the work of the urban middle and upper classes that see their dominant positions and class privileges eroded by elected governments. It is the work of a small minority for even hundred thousand protestors in a population of fifty million people is inconsequential. But since the chosen site is the capital city where the government is based, it makes a newsworthy picture. But its success is assured by careful planning and organisational skills using the international mass media, communication networks like Facebook and Twitter and financial and moral support from friendly Western governments that highlight their cause in the international forums and mass media. In contrast, the year long protests by legally under-privileged Bahraini Shiites who constitute 70% of the population, are ignored by the Western powers and their just cause has no chance of success because Bahraini royals are vital to US military and economic interests in the Middle East. The Shiite Bahrainis are not seeking a change of government but equal treatment as in the case of Martin Luther King’s protests in the USA in the 1960s.

Many, but not all, of the colour revolutions are not as spontaneous as they appear on first sight. Mega-corporate power has created special privileges for the billionaires and millionaires in the USA and the EU at the expense of the rest of the population which is analysed elsewhere. Transferring this political ideology under the cloak of exporting democracy has been a major foreign policy objective. This is the task of many Western funded NGOs that have flooded countries in Asia, Africa and South America by the tens of thousands. They create networks of likeminded locals, fund media reporters, highlight criticisms of governments in the Western-owned international media and create a conducive environment for anti-government protests. It is a much more sophisticated approach and less expensive than military interventions.

Thepanis Alwis


Sri Lanka

30 December 2013.


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Genetically modified people

Genetically modified people

Genetically modified (GM) food crops are widespread in the USA and some countries but are banned in many others, including some countries that count as America’s closest allies. Why? Because independent studies in Europe and elsewhere have revealed that rats fed with GM foods developed genetic defects and became diseased. But GM food is accepted without reservation in the USA and the US government has waged a decade long campaign to persuade or even force other nations (through the World Trade Organisation) to accept the genetically modified seed that is made principally by one giant US corporation, Monsanto (makers of the notorious Agent Orange that decimated Vietnam’s fields) which has 90% of this market, followed by Dow Chemicals and Syngenta AG. These seeds include maize, wheat, rice, soya bean, rapeseed, cotton and even some vegetables.

The technology used to create genetically modified seed is highly advanced if not bizarre. It is called recombinant genetic technology. Scientists splice extraneous genes into the genetic make up (the DNA) of normal seed to produce plants that are resistant to pests and some common viruses faced by plants in the field in their natural condition. Commonly, the plant disease causing bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis, is introduced. It is known that these introduced genes are drawn from toxins that repel plant pests and viruses so GM seeds produce crops that are pest free and apparently healthy and more productive. But there is sinister evidence that there is more devilry at work here. Plants grown with GM seeds produce sterile grains that cannot be used as planting material. So farmers are forever wholly dependent on the corporations that produce GM seed for planting material.

In India, cotton farmers induced to use Monsanto’s GM seed discovered that these super-seeds led to the evolution of super-bugs requiring increased pesticide use and more irrigation, resulting in unexpected losses. Indian journalists claim that around 125,000 bankrupted small farmers committed suicide. The long term consequences of this new technology are still unproven.

GM seeds are protected by patents that are as secure as a chastity belt. If GM seeds are accidentally blown by winds from a farm into another that scorns GM, the recipient of this unwanted seed is held accountable by the courts for theft and must pay damages to the GM seed corporation. It is not funny, because fines had to be paid. If that sounds ridiculous to thinking people, pause awhile to consider this. The US Congress recently passed legislation which makes it a crime for independent laboratories to test GM foods for toxicity or any other reason. The US Food and Drug Agency, which is designed to protect consumers, does not do testing either but accepts the test results given to them by the GM seed manufacturers. So it is a crime for people to verify whether the food they eat is safe for human consumption. Even the much reviled North Korean dictatorship could not possibly dream of such a draconian law!

The rest of the world must know by now that the US is governed by corporate power. Corporations donate billions to get politicians elected to office and politicians repay them a thousand fold at public expense in numerous ways. It is a good deal. What about the citizens of this democracy? Are they blind to their self interest?

Not all of them. There has been an ongoing campaign by concerned and enlightened citizens to request the government to label GM foods so that consumers have a choice they can make at the point of purchase in the retail store. This has been accepted in some other countries but rejected by the US government. The citizens of the State of Washington in the USA, with a population of 5.9 million, put it to the ballot (Initiative 522) seeking a referendum on this issue, a few weeks ago. Three small counties in California were successful in doing this.

At first, public opinion polls suggested that 22 to 1 were in favour of labelling GM foods. Then the powerful corporate machinery stepped in. An advertising and propaganda blitz costing US$22 million turned the tide and the proposal was defeated. How? Why? The corporate propaganda informed consumers that labeling food as GM would increase food prices by 50%, adding to their current economic woes. The irrationality of this contention did not occur to a public trained like Pavlov’s creatures to accept as gospel what the corporate media advertisements told them. The proposition was only asking for the availability of information for a consumer choice. If labelled, some would choose the presumably cheaper GM product and others would opt to pay a little more to buy a natural product, if price was a factor. In fact, GM seeds have not made food cheaper, anyway. And labelling has no added cost. All foods in bulk or in consumer packs are branded and labelled and consumer packs are also required to list the ingredients. So additional labelling would include three additional words: “A GM product” or a “Non GM product’ on the existing label.

Has some of the world population itself been so genetically modified by corporate power to ignore their own self interest?

Kenneth Abeywickrama

12 November 2013.

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Is America Governable?

Is America governable?

A Sri Lankan perspective

For the second time in recent years, the US government shut down many of its key departments, this time for sixteen days (October 1-16), laying off  (furloughing) 800,000 federal government employees from work. With controversial issues unresolved, this will recur again in January 2014, as the federal budget was approved only for three months. People in Sri Lanka accept the idea that trade union strikes could temporarily shut down some branches of government, as Sri Lankan trade unions are very strong unlike in the USA where the government, responding to corporate interests, have mostly destroyed workers’ unions. But this is the only country where the government shuts itself down due to bickering politicians. Is this an ungovernable country, despite having the world’s largest economy (correctly, debt-based economy) and the world’s most powerful military to dominate other nations as the only super-power?

There are two structural issues that make America ungovernable today.

(1) America, like almost all nations, has always been governed by a very small ruling class consisting of a small coterie of its super-rich. As long as the rest of the population can be persuaded to accept this condition as a feature that ensures the common weal, everything works well. When this unwritten social contract is broken, the system will fail.

(2) The American constitution, unlike the parliamentary system, has established fixed terms of office for elected legislators, irrespective of whether the ruling party can legislate and govern. The legislature cannot be dissolved to make way for a fresh election and new choices if the governing party cannot govern because its major legislative proposals are defeated.

For all the bombastic rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln (Government of the People, For the People, By the People), all governments are run by a small coterie of people as this the only practical way, whether these are democratic, communist, monarchical or dictatorial. The USA was first governed by slave owning landowners, then by robber-baron industrialists and financiers and now the billionaires and multi-millionaires that own the mega-corporations that dominate the world economy. But in this age of many educated and enlightened citizens, the majority has to be persuaded that this is for the common good. In the past, the ruling class relied on traditional staples to gain acceptance: nationalism/ patriotism (and foreign wars) and religion. Two of the world’s greatest examples are Emperor Asoka of India in the 4th century B.C. and Emperor Constantine of Rome in the 5th century A.D. Today, we also have the mass media for propaganda, invariably controlled by the ruling class, and educational systems that extol the virtues of the nation and its political system. There is less need to resort to repression, as repression will not work.

The fact is that, uniquely among Western democracies, the USA political system is uniquely corrupt. Massive and sustained political propaganda through the expensive mass media and staged political dramas are the only path to elected office and only big money can buy this. It is the mega-corporations and its billionaires and multi-millionaires who fund these and elect legislators who will advance their interests. The last Presidential election cost the two contestants a total of US$ three billion. Every seat in the Senate and Congress costs several millions of dollars. In any other democracy this would be ruled unconstitutional but the US Supreme Court even ruled that corporations can fund unlimited sums to politicians and political parties and not even disclose these. Hence the numerous instances of the Congress taking measures that the majority of the public disapprove: foreign wars, iniquitous taxation, cuts in social benefits, etc. Public approval of Congress now stands at 10% but power lies with the Congress or, more accurately, those who sponsor its members.

At the same time, the greed of the ruling class in the USA has reached staggering proportions at a time when unemployment and poverty in the USA are at an all-time high. Four hundred members of the US super-rich earn 23% of the total annual income and own 48% of the national assets. One fourth of the mega-corporations do not pay taxes because of available tax-loopholes, and others, including the billionaires and multi-millionaires, pay an average tax of 8-13%, while paid workers pay 35-37%. At the same time, many large corporations, including the environment polluting oil companies and arms manufacturers, receive government subsidies. Corporations hide two trillion dollars in tax havens abroad and the government will not take remedial measures on any of these.

The USA has the most effective system of brain-washing from childhood. Every morning at the start of school sessions, students salute the flag, take an oath of allegiance to the country and sing the national anthem. No other country does this though some may begin school work with a common prayer. In some schools in Sri Lanka, prayers from all four major religions are recited by one pupil during morning assembly.

John Kenneth Galbraith in American Capitalism in 1952 expounded the theory of countervailing power. He theorised that American capitalism, with its enormous power over markets, only survived because of the counter-balancing power of trade unions, government regulation and citizens’ organisations. Today, the power of the American mega-corporations worldwide is based on near total control of the American political system, ownership of the major media networks for mass propaganda and its ability to buy over or emasculate organisations that would limit corporate greed. At the same time, the so-called countervailing powers – trade unions, government regulators and citizens groups – have been successfully marginalised. With a power in America and abroad, unmatched in history, corporate power has breached the social contract between rulers and ordinary citizens.

Among current US politicians, President Barak Obama, a very intelligent man, understands the importance of maintaining this contract. Coming into power with the support of billions of corporate funds, like all others, he forsook all the major campaign pledges he made to the voters: closing Guantanamo prison, abolishing torture in prisons, ending the never ending US wars, regulating out of control corporations, preserving Social Security, Medicare and social benefits, taxing the super-rich, creating a more open society, etc. This betrayal was inevitable if he was to survive in the corrupt system. There were mass protests against corporate control of the political system through the Occupy Wall Street movement all over the country for more than a year but the government violently dispersed peaceful protestors, arrested hundreds and, with the controlled media, ignored the public agitation. But President Obama knew there was a need to placate the poorest, whose ranks have swelled, and the Affordable Health Care legislation was his answer. Currently, 48 million Americans cannot afford health insurance in the country with the world’s highest healthcare costs. Insurance companies rule the market and many plans have caps on payments and will not insure persons with serious pre-existing health problems. President Obama’s bill was a gigantic compromise document of 900 pages that sought to accommodate the demands of the insurance companies, drug manufacturers, hospitals, doctors and other profitable stake-holders in the business. Yet it provides some relief for those deprived or denied services. After much lobbying and concessions it was passed a year ago. Still, the opposing Republican Party stalled the annual budget this year by demanding that the health care bill, already law but not to be implemented till 2014, be defunded. Without budgetary provisions the government ran out of spending money, closing most government departments from October 01 to 16.

That such a strange thing could happen is because the US constitution, which is unlike the parliamentary system in Sri Lanka which was built on the British model which is prevalent in all countries claiming to be democracies, is built on practices that give little weight to public opinion. In a normal parliamentary democracy, major legislation is prepared by the Legal Draftsman under government guidance and first published as a White Paper available for public reading and criticism or, as often in Sri Lanka, mass public agitation. The bills are usually hotly debated in parliament across the House floor. If an important bill is defeated, the government resigns and a new general election will determine public opinion through their choice of the new parliament.

In the US legislative bodies, the Senate (100) members are elected every four years and the House (435) members are elected every two years. The legislative houses are not dissolved if major legislation like the budget is defeated, or for any other reason till the fixed terms expire, making for new elections. White Papers are not available to the public but legislators will be discussing legislation with corporate representatives and power brokers (there are 35,000 lobbyists working on them!). And unlike in any other organised council meeting, legislators can tag on unrelated amendments to a piece of legislation and hold up a bill till they are accommodated. For example, a bill to allocate $100 billion for a set of military planes may have an amendment requiring subsidies for pig farmers in Iowa. And unlike any other legislative chamber in the entire world, there is no direct debate on the House floor. The allocated member holding the floor speaks to an almost empty house and the picture is transmitted to the public who care to listen on PBS TV channel. It is a comical scene of a speaker gesticulating and haranguing empty seats. Only at voting time will the members’ office staff get the members to rush to the House for voting.

It is the extreme right-wing of the extreme right wing Republican Party that does not seem to understand that breaking the unwritten social contract between the ruling class and the citizens will destroy the bond that allows the few to exploit the masses. It is a dangerous situation for that country.

Thepanis Alwis

Baddegama, Sri Lanka.

05 November 2013.

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