Video: Sri Lanka’s Lost Generations: Systems Ecologist Ranil Senanayake on genepool implications of insurrection & war

Last year, I read an uncommon book with an unusually long title written by an unorthodox author.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right and Here I am Stuck in the Middle again: 30 years of attempting policy change in Sri Lanka was an author-published volume by systems ecologist Dr Ranil Senanayake. In it, he collected some of his more noteworthy media articles and non-technical writing on forestry, biodiversity, agriculture, conservation and the broader issues of sustainable development, published over three decades.

In his Epilogue, I came across one of the most chilling passages I read that year: “It has been commented that this nation twice removed from its gene pool the genes for activism. In 1971 the government ‘removed’ up to 20,000 or more of the educated. Those who attended university, demonstrated interest in radical politics, were young or unemployed were singled out for liquidation. The next programme was in the late 1980s when over 40,000 were ‘removed’ with hardly a word being uttered in protest on any international stage…These people never passed their genes on. Genetically speaking, we removed from our race a large percentage of the traits for high intellectual potential and activism. Metaphorically it has become the time of the bottom feeders to manifest themselves as intellectuals and leaders.”

I touched on this when I filmed a long interview with Ranil (now published on read Part 1 and Part 2). Here is the short video I edited, where his expressions match the gravity of his concerns:

Reproduced below is the full transcript of this short video (11 mins). My questions posed to him have been paraphrased on-screen; his spoken answers are verbatim.

You can debate Ranil’s views either on this blog, or on Groundviews where this video is also published.

Sri Lanka’s Lost Generations: Ranil Senanayake Speaks

An Eye for an Eye?

See, in 1971 and in the late 80s, when we heard these so called JVP revolution. We went out and we killed first 20,00 mass of men, more or less. And the second time, about 40,000. Young people, children of this country. Why? Because they were a threat to the established government of this country.

Now, I can see that if there is indeed a revolution, a country must respond. But responding in this brutal manner because the response was not merely a military response, it was a response of pure terrorism. It was terrorised the whole nation.

Collateral Damage?

One story that I can share with you is that a senior person who was involved in this, in the control, at a table made the statement that “If 10% of the people that we destroy were hardcore JVPers we would have broken the back of the revolution”. This totally horrified me. It, it…I was depressed for weeks when I heard that.

It meant 90% of those people they killed were innocent. Their only ‘crime’ was they were young, they were educated and they had the fire of youth in them.

I, as a person, said I could not live in a country that kills its own people — own children — for its survival and I left, I went away for sometime. I wrote a poem which Hon Lakshman Jayakody read into the Parliament, into the Hansard, pointing out where we were going wrong, in this case.

What Have We Done?

But worse, what that action brought was the REMOVAL from our gene pool of the genes for intellect, education. The genes for revolution. The genes that would drive people forward; the genes that produced people who would fight and die for a country, for a nation. We removed this and as from my genetics, as an geneticist, you remove 60,000 children from a population as small as ours, you are taking away a large ocean of the cleverest of our population. And we shot ourselves in the foot.

This is karma vipaka, as the Buddha says. For the action ghastly action, for the action of taking away of our youth, killing our youth, removing them from our gene pool, we will have to suffer the fate of having a gene pool, well, you see what we have today…

We ALL live with the consequences…

Unfortunately, there is something else, as a Sri Lankan and as a Buddhist, which I find loathsome and that is — when ever somebody dies for whatever reason even a murderer, it is our tradition to give a dana (alms giving). First, a week after they deceased, then a month and annually. We have lost 60,000 children for our own society, for maintaining our status quo. Has anyone EVER given a Dane to these people who have departed? Up to today, no!

So is it a surprise that as a nation we suffer what we suffer? We are responsible for that and yet uptodate we are not willing to accept the responsibility for the actions we did. I think that is something that we have to deal with. Sri Lankans will have to deal with in the future to come. Because, as Buddha says, karma vipaka — for every action there is a reaction. And for that action, look what we have today.

On Sri Lanka’s Separatist War…

The separatism that came after the youth insurrection was again something that was building up for sometime. It was the similar, shall we say almost parallel, political moment that happened in the North. Where the separatism when they were talking about it on a political platform then descended into a violent struggle, if you want to call it.

I think it was, it is still pointless, but I think what most people fail to realise is that it is rooted in our history. It’s rooted in 3,000 years of history. And that is why it is so difficult for us to deal with the subject of finding a common ground, to deal with the subject of extending our hands out, to deal with the subject of trying to understand the other position, because unfortunately we are still rooted in these many, many years, thousands of years of history.

Breaking Free of History’s Grip?

It is indeed, it should be the task of the leaders and the politicians to bring us into the modern age. To demonstrate that that history is past, that we have to now forge something into the future. That involves all of us.

But our shallow politicians have chosen otherwise, from both areas, from both sectors. They have chosen division as their power, division as their source of strength, because as I told you , because of the past history this is the easiest, this is the least common denominator — this is the easiest place to go to, it’s the shallowest political refuge.

And that’s what politicians from both sides have been doing. Not looking at the future, not working towards bringing us into the future but dragging us back into the past and opening up the old wounds and the old fears that we brought along with this for all these years and capitalising on them, from both sides.

Aren’t we ALL immigrants on the island of Lanka?

Indeed, you are absolutely right! Humanity has been wandering around this planet for thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of years. People have come and people have gone. I mean, this whole question of I came first or you came first is spurious at best, I mean, this is just the refuge of a cheap politician to say I came first, you came later, you came first, I came first, this is all ridiculous…

Prisoners of Our Fathers’ Hopes & Fears?

We are prisoners of our own constructs. Or, as the song goes, “We are indeed prisoners of our father’s hopes and fears.”

Fears. Fears is where the politicians move to. Fear is what they use as their tool of power. We are trapped in this thing and until that fear is removed, and until we are educated into understanding where we are, and we are educated into understanding that there is nothing lost, in treating another human being as equal and as a brother, we are lost.

We are a nation of people who claim to live by the words of the Buddha. If we do, this would never come about. Never. So it shows as a nation a loss, it shows as a nation, that we have failed to live up to what we claim we are – Buddhists…

Dr Ranil Senanayake
Interviewed by Nalaka Gunawardene
Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 19 March 2012

Released online: June 2012
Dr Ranil Senanayake Online profile

No copyright restriction.This video may be used by anyone, anywhere.

Open Moment, Closed Minds: New essay to mark 250 days of ‘Peace’ in Sri Lanka

Today marks exactly 250 days since Sri Lanka’s civil war officially ended on 18 May 2009.

In a new op ed essay — titled ‘Open Moment’, Closed Minds! — just published on, I look back and ask some hard questions.

Here’s an excerpt:

“We all knew the hard-won peace had to be nurtured and consolidated. We also realised just how formidable the challenges of healing and rebuilding were. But could anyone have imagined the dramatic turn of political events since?

“Who would have thought that the victors of the war would soon be engaged in a nasty battle for personal glory and power? Who expected the historical feud between ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ to be replaced so swiftly by a showdown between self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’?”

I raise these questions in the context of a fiercely contested presidential election scheduled for 26 January 2010. I note: “The two main contenders both claim to hold a mutually exclusive key to a better future for our land and people. Their dizzy campaigns bombard us with lofty claims and counter-claims 24/7 delivered through broadcast, broadband, mobile and other media.”

I ask whether either of the leading candidates has the open mind needed to seize the historic ‘open moment’ since the war ended. I recall how we completely missed the last such open moment created by the tsunami of December 2004.

I write: “Having missed the tsunami’s open moment, we cannot afford to bungle again. Rebuilding a nation of lasting peace, pluralism and prosperity will require many sections of society to change their mindset. This is especially and urgently needed in our media, much of which has become uncritical cheerleaders for patriotism and tribalism in recent years.”

Despite the many disappointments of the past 250 days, I still remain cautiously optimistic. But for how long?

The origins of this essay can be traced back to a blog post I wrote on 19 May 2009: Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace…

Read the full essay, and join the conversation at

Post-war Sri Lanka: Can we dial up a better future?

Chamara Pahalawattage: At 18, he is already using his 6th mobile (Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP)

Chamara Pahalawattage: At 18, he is already using his 6th mobile (Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP)

When many able-bodied young men and women of his age were joining the armed forces in large numbers, Sri Lankan school-leaver Chamara Pahalawattage chose differently. He decided to try his luck with odd jobs at construction sites.

That, by itself, was nothing unusual. Tens of thousands of young men and women like Chamara join the labour market every year. Schools don’t equip them with attitudes or skills for self employment, so most would idle years away looking for regular jobs in Sri Lanka’s public and private sectors. Frustration would prompt some to take to political agitation, or worse.

Chamara is at such crossroads in his own life, but he is unlikely to go astray. The enterprising young man has boosted his chances of part-time work by getting himself a mobile phone.

“After buying a phone, I get calls asking me to come for work. The phone makes it so easy,” he says. “Otherwise people will have to come looking for me…or I have to go to them.”

If a skilled mason or carpenter takes him on as an assistant, Chamara gets a daily wage of LKR 700 (US$ 6 approx) plus a mid-day meal. That income augments the modest LKR 4,000 a month (US$35) his mother makes cooking meals at a nearby factory.

In February 2009, we filmed a day in the life of Chamara, a resident of Gonapola, in Sri Lanka’s western province. This was part of a profiling of telephone users at the bottom of the (income) pyramid – or BOP – in emerging Asian economies, undertaken by TVE Asia Pacific on behalf of the regional ICT research organisation LIRNEasia.

Watch our short video profile of Chamara Pahalawattage:

Going by his household income, Chamara is BOP at the moment – but his aspirations extend above and beyond. An only child raised by his widowed mother, Chamara developed an interest in mobiles while still in his mid teens. He bought his first mobile two years ago, when in Grade 11 at school.

“Almost everyone had phones, so I also wanted one,” he recalls. “From then on, I got used to having a phone!”

And has he been keeping up with technology! He buys second-hand phones for better features: he currently owns his sixth phone in just over two years. He had paid LKR 7,500 (US$ 65) for his latest phone at the beginning of 2009.

Besides voice and SMS (texting), his phone supports MP3, video recording, song downloading, voice recording and some other functions. After a hard day’s work, he unwinds listening to the radio, or swapping songs with friends — all using their mobiles.

Chamra spends an average of US$3 to 4.50 per month on phone use, and – like all other BOP telephone users we interviewed in India, Philippines and Thailand – he is thrifty with value added services that cost extra. This is something that has been confirmed by LIRNEasia’s Teleuse@BOP 2008 survey.

“Some of my friends access the internet through their phones and download songs,” he says. “I then get these songs from them. My phone has bluetooth. I use it to transfer songs from my friends’ phones.”

Chamara has every intention of moving up the labour market – someday, he wants to hold a more regular job, with an assured monthly income. Right now, in spite of being connected, he can’t predict how many days a month he’d find work.

Hello, can you hear our dreams?

Hello, can you hear our dreams? Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

“I don’t check newspapers for jobs. Instead I ask the people I know…mostly my friends,” he says. This probably indicates another shift from a wide-spread habit among literate Sri Lankans scanning newspapers for recruitment notices.

LBO 9 March 2009: Sri Lankan low income customers can use mobiles more for business: study

The official end of the 30-year-long war should be good news for Chamara and millions of other tech-savvy, eager youth like him. Like me, they can once again start dreaming of better tomorrows.

Telecommunications would be a good place to start. For several years, it has been the fastest growing sector in the Sri Lankan economy — one that has not only connected people across distances and cultures, but also been a ‘social leveller’.

The telephone subscriber base grew by 35.5% in 2008 (and 47% in 2007). The country’s tele-density (number of telephones per 100 persons) jumped to 71.9 in 2008, from 53.4 in 2007 -– thanks largely to the phenomenal spread of mobile phones.

As I noted last year: “It is not by accident that telecom has remained the fastest growing sector in the economy for a decade. This was triggered and sustained by the far-reaching policy and regulatory reforms which ended the then fully state-owned telecom operator’s monopoly, and allowed the entry of new players, technologies and business models.”

Of course, improved telecommunications are necessary, but not sufficient by itself, for us to evolve into an inclusive information society. Building on technology and systems, we must become discerning creators and users of information. Knowledge – not paranoia or rhetoric – needs to form the basis of policy and actions that propel us to the future.

Photos courtesy Niroshan Fernando, TVE Asia Pacific