Wednesday, 4 February 2004  
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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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Independence and inward healing

"Smiling, friendly faces, lush, abundant greenery and golden beaches" - these are just a few threadbare images from our tourist brochures, eulogising this country which has stepped into another year in its post-independence history. Sri Lanka may continue to be the "Paradise Isle" of old for the touring sojourner from the West in particular, but for the local populace which has taken the bitter with the sweet, this country has had to offer over the years, Sri Lanka represents a land of promise which is yet to bear the blessings of sovereignty.

Yet, the need of the hour is courage and fortitude and not despair and forlornness. Despite having told ourselves this several times before, we need to take stock of our achievements and failures since 1948, and turn the searchlight of self-criticism inward, to enable a new start to be made and a brave, new future won.

Before we go any further, we need to remember those brave sons and daughters of yore who disregarded caste, creed and religion to win our independence. Today we also remember our armed forces who have preserved our territorial integrity and unity.

It is possible to recollect the times when Sri Lanka was one of the most economically vibrant states in Asia. In the early sixties, for instance, the Lankan Rupee was twice the value of the Indian Rupee. But today, the tables are turned and the reverse is true of the Lankan Rupee against the Indian Rupee. In other words, while India has forged ahead to a better economic future, we have steadily wilted in a morass of economic decline, poverty, political instability, societal degeneration and runaway violence. Countries which were far behind us in socio-economic terms are today, far ahead of us.

The political impasse facing us today, epitomises some of the problems which have been dogging us.

We have clearly failed to forge unity in our ranks and advance ahead as a nation. Political power, immediate wealth and pelf are valued over long-term health, prosperity and national solidarity. Self-aggrandizement and quick success are the gods of many. "Each man for himself" seems to be the guiding philosophy of both the powerful and the powerless. Small wonder, then, that Sri Lanka is marred by political conflicts, separatist insurgencies, general societal violence and crime.

We clearly do not answer to the romanticized descriptions of ourselves in the tourist brochures. On the contrary many of us are deeply traumatized, inwardly bruised and bloodied people in need of spiritual healing.

The hour is bleak but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Instead of genuflecting before pelf and power there is a need on the part of those who have strayed, to seek out true righteousness and to respect it. Right needs to take the place of might and large-heartedness and selflessness needs to supplant the niggardly spirit of seeking out the "mote" in one's "brother's eye" while ignoring the "beam" in one's eye.

All these spiritual truths and more are contained in our religions. However, they are ignored and religious and racial bigotry given pride of place by some. Hence our great difficulties and miseries. It is time that we became a light unto the world and there is no better time to make this resolve than on a day like today.

The intelligence dilemma

The US and its allies waged war against Iraq based on intelligence reports which suggested that Saddam Hussein was capable of unleashing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) on designated targets in just 45 minutes. US Defence Secretary Colin Powell made a strong case for war, citing recordings of intercepted conversations between Iraqi military officers, spy satellite photos of military sites and testimony of Iraqi defectors. Months after US President George W. Bush announced an end to major combat operations in Iraq, WMD stockpiles have not been found, although Saddam was captured alive. Now President Bush has ordered an independent inquiry into pre-war intelligence on Iraq's alleged banned weapons, leaving allies Australia, Britain and Spain under pressure to follow suit.

The probe, in Bush"s own words, will be conducted by "an independent, bipartisan commission to analyse where we stand". The US President's decision was precipitated by former chief US arms inspector David Kay's assertion that he believed Iraq did not possess chemical, biological or nuclear weapons at the time of the US-led invasion. Kay said massive intelligence failures led to the mistaken belief that Iraq had such arms. Most experts believe that Iraq indeed did have such weapons before 1991 - they were probably destroyed after the Gulf War.

The Iraq experience shows that even the most sophisticated technology may not ultimately extract the truth. Nothing really beats a man on the ground for intelligence gathering. Cold War spies, as immortalised in John Le Carre's novels, are a prime example for these men of steel who traverse enemy territory and pass on valuable information to their controllers.

We in Sri Lanka too have experienced intelligence debacles. The Army had to abandon a major intelligence operation in LTTE-held areas after the infamous police raid on the Athurugiriya safehouse. More than 20 Army and civilian intelligence operatives were killed after this raid, dealing a severe blow to the Army intelligence network.

Machines do have a place in intelligence gathering - our own Air Force has used robotic drones for surveillance - but they should be backed by human eyes on the ground. Such an integrated approach may prevent intelligence blunders and tragic wars.

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