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On Yahapalanaya, Corruption, Integrity and How You Can Make a Difference

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss!” -The Who, We Won’t Get Fooled Again

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I think every sane, responsible Sri Lankan, at some time during the past 30 days, has wondered whether the new Yahapalanaya government will turn out to be the same as the old regime. It was a risk we took.

One month later, things are rolling roughly in the direction we wanted it to, though I’d be a fool if I agreed with the draconian business taxes now being levied. I’m talking about the “super gains tax”, which obliges companies earning over Rs 2 billion to hand over a lovely 25% of their profit.

Now, there is a fine line between kicking Packer out, taking away China’s chokehold on the country and screwing over local businesses. The average Gunapala and Sirisena, earning 20 thousand bucks a month, will have no qualms about some rich dude getting taxed. In fact, Ravi Karunayake’s banking on that particular “Robin Hood” type of rhetoric. What people forget is that is that while there are only about 40 companies that are being taxed this way, these companies provide thousands of jobs, bring in millions of revenue and, in short, keep a sizeable chunk of the country’s economy running. Look up giant companies like Dialog and John Keells. Take away a lot of their money and, because Shit Flows Downhill (Universal Law No.1), what that translates to is unhappy investors, jobs lost and possible loss of growth, albeit temporarily.

But big companies,being big companies, will sort this out.

The next thing is corruption. Has Maithri weeded out corruption? No, not even close. And I don’t think the government can, unless they resort to Draconian measures like chopping the balls off those found guilty of bribery and corruption charges (in which case about half the Parliament will become eunuchs overnight). I don’t think that kind of top-level laying-down-the-thunderbolts is what we need.

I think that it’s something we need to work on. Yes, us. You. Me. The guy next door who passed his driver’s exam by tipping off the instructor. The tuk tuk driver who crosses the lines and shape ekey folds Rs 500/= to the cop that strolls up. Corruption is rooted in culture. It is a moral question more than a legal one.

A man, regardless of the laws governing corruption, are held in check by the culture that surrounds them, and by how that culture defines and respects integrity. A society that respects honorable men will produce honorable men, because social respect is a reward in itself.

Our problem is that we don’t seem to have this in place. If we did, it’s disintegrated. Cop coming? See if you can bribe him. Ignore the fact that you made a fault that could have killed someone. Big deal going down? See if you can palm some away for your daughter’s wedding expenses. In a society with no respect, and thus no reward for being honest, there is no reason for anyone’s hands to be clean.

We need to build that society. That’s our job. While Maithri and his Parliament get their shit together and fix the big patches in this leaky ship, you, I, your school, your district, our nation, we need to pull together and relearn what it means to be honorable. We can’t hang around for the Parliament to fix it. Too many skeletons in that closet. It’s a bunch of pots calling the kettles black. No, this is our duty. Next time the cop rolls up we sigh and accept that we crossed the line. Next time the exam comes around we still the hand that urges us to cheat and take what’s coming to us.

It’s nowhere near as easy as I make it sound, but only then can the corruption end.

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Division is in our blood

“I’m not Sinhala! I’m a Jaffna Tamil from my mother’s side. Yeah, I was born in Colombo, but, you know.”

“My people are Portugeuse! My great-grandfather was Portugeuse. They’re my people.”

“Schoolboy? Nonsense, man, I’m a Royalist.”

“Hah! Them Royalists. Ponces. Isipathana! Green blood!”

“We don’t talk to them. They’re Museities.”

“Are you a Kandy Buddhist? Because you say “Appachchi” isntead of “Thaaththa”, so you can’t be from the low country. My family comes from Kandy.”

“Don’t jabber like a Tamil, child.”

“You look like a Muslim with that beard.”

“She’s young and she just got her medical degree, but poor child, she’s black! Who will she marry?”

“Those Ratnapura Thambiyas….”

“The only reason we let you live is because your people are 3/4ths of this country. The only reason.”

“Try not to act like some buffoon from Kottawa”

“All those rich people in Colombo…”

21 million people. 65,610 km². A country ten times smaller than the state of Texas. Divided for reasons of race, religion, school, class, skin color, fashion and language.
Welcome to Sri Lanka. 

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Janus month. Januwary.

January has been a bad month.

For some reason, I’m reminded of the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. I don’t know why. I’ve been over that poem many, many times, and my predicament bears nothing in relation to that poet. January, for me, has simply been a month of delays; of overdue things; of missed deadlines and half-complete projects; of will and attention wasted on frivolities.

There is this particular zone I live in. It’s a mental state, that same state that allows you to burn the candles, drink the coffee and power on through the night, slinging words from the keyboard like a gunslinger firing his six-shooters. Its what you come home after a day-long event and have a thousand-word essay up before you hit the sack. I haven’t had that this month; I have (to psychoanalyze myself) genuinely been feeling tired, spent and withdrawn. Even the random small events I’d meant to hit seemed like pretentious twaddle for people with too much time to waste.

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Part of it is due to disappointment. One thing you forget when working from home and through the wee hours of the morning is that not everyone runs the same mile as you do. Some have different roads, by which I mean different priorities, and while I have a deep distaste for people who don’t do what they’re supposed to do, it’s still useful to kick back and divorce yourself a bit and let the matter go, lest you become too involved and end up making an ass out of yourself. January has literally been Janus-month, with me looking forward to promises to be delivered and looking back to promises that weren’t.

Another part of it is because of this foot. It’s tired with me. It’s tired of me putting my weight on it and going places when I should be resting. It let rip this month, almost completely incapacitating me. The pain is annoying, the painkillers a buzzkill. Sleeping late and waking late doesn’t help, either; it’s disconcerting to stumble around while the world has gotten into full swing. To wake up at the crack of dawn is a far, far better thing, and if that means sacrificing the nightly game of Dota 2, it shall be done.

Despite the setbacks, though, I’ve managed to achieve three very important milestones in January. Two are classified, and in the web space; the third is this.

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I have (finally) bought the bike I wanted: a Honda CD125T Benly. They don’t make these anymore: my bike was build in 1990, registered here in 1992, and has run hundreds of thousands of miles – more than’s shown on the odometer, anywway. It’s a hunk of steel and weighs a lot. Mechanically, it’s perfect. Electronically, it’s not. So while I wait for my leg to heal, I have something to do: to fix this bike. This shall be my hobby, and once complete, my mode of transport. An anchor of sorts to the world of the real and the tangible. Words typed into an online textbox can only go so far.

On a different note, Maithripala Sirisena’s now-famous 100 Days manifesto seems to have instilled in everyone a much-needed sense of accountability. That makes me happy. One small step for a man, one giant leap for a nation. Let us not make kings out of those we elect to power.

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Yahapalanaya, 12 Days Later: Late Promises, Lamborghini Witchunts


Sri Lanka cried out for the arrest of UNP Parliamentarian Palitha Thewarapperuma
, a man apparently competing for former Minister Mervyn Silva’s records for public humiliation (note to self: I think there’s a bondage fetish there somewhere). A lo and behold, Thewarapperuma was arrested. Whether he will stay arrested or be miraculously restored is still up for grabs, but my money’s on busted. What’s up with those pants, though?

The “Lamborghini witchhunts” began, targeting the three sons of former President Rajapakse
for all manner of corruption, but mostly for running expensive cars bought with public funds. The results: one Lamborghini, which turned out to be a Nissan GTR (illegal on Sri Lankan roads to the average mortal), unregistered and with false plates. The biggest fingers are pointed towards Rohitha Rajapakse (I.E: NOT Namal), who has a known penchant for cars and a brief but practically meteoric career in oddball racing.

For example, he’s raced an Ariel Atom against a Honda Civic (kind of like racing a horse against a toilet seat) and won. (http://www.ft.lk/2014/09/10/rohitha-drives-to-triple-at-drag-race-championship/)

More to the point, photos on his Facebook account show him with an unlicensed GTR (which he apparently raced during Namal Rajapakse’s Night Races). Rohitha’s also crashed a GTR outside the Bishops Auditorium. There really aren’t that many of these cars here.
rohitaAll in all, the systematic machine of public hate is being turned against the Three Lambs, and it doesn’t look like it’s going well for them.

I’m neither for nor against this. It’s a public secret that the Rajapakse sons do have a whole number of ill-gotten gains – everything from educational degrees to pilot licenses to get-out-of-jail-free-cards. I like the fact that the world’s against them. However, I don’t agree with them being made scapegoats for everything. What they did was made possible because of a whole bunch of corrupt people. You can’t run an unlicensed GTR and spend millions in taxpayer money and shut down entire cities for ludicrous street races without people willing to let you do that. If someone’s going to fry, everyone should fry.

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The Pope (arguably the coolest Pope ever) arrived in Sri Lanka, fought briefly with the wind and then decided to let it go.

The President’s brother, Kumarasinghe Sirisena, was appointed the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom. That’s the old nepotism creeping in, alright. On one hand, the dude is qualified. He has a Bsc in Public Administration Management, a Bsc in Management (wait, isn’t that the same thing? Is one more corrupt than the other?), and MBA and something called a “Master of Public Administration.” Google thinks he’s a whole bunch of hot women.

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Either way: he’s qualified. But in a general sense, and not specifically to run a country’s biggest Internet and fixed-line voice services provider. He apparently worked for 19 years in the RDA, and also has time a Director of the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation.  The RDA has historically been one of the best ways of skimming money off the public account. Until people got ambitious and started building entire airports, the easiest thing was to do a shitty job of building a road and then do it again.

However, the man has skills. He was the CEO of the State Timber Corporation since 2006, until Mahinda fired him last December for being the Common Candidate’s Brother. He’s also served as Maithripala’s Coordinating Secretary. He apparently also consults for his brother Dudley Sirisena, who, well, controls a sizeable chunk of the rice in this country.

Maybe he can actually make SLT better. Maybe not. It’s a better appointment than many under the Rajapakse regime – he isn’t a young, fetching girl or a politician who failed Education 101, but he definitely is not the most qualified person for that particular job. The last I checked, a tar road, however useful, is not a data cable.

 The 100Days plan is falling behind

behindThis was expected. Despite an early start, three of the last few deadlines – appointing the Cabinet, forming a National Advisory Council and convening Parliament – have been set back by a day (but nevertheless completed). Standing Orders have not been amaended.

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Je Suis Rajupoksa

Have you seen Muhinda Rajupaksa? No? Here.

Muhinda is a parody – a parody of recently rejected President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. I don’t know who runs it; I don’t have any idea why they’re doing it. What I do know is that it’s damn funny. I’ve seen insane amounts of meme’d mud-slinging on all sides, but Muhinda is special. Special. Because some smart wit has not only gone and parodied MR, but also created supporting accounts for almost everyone in the story. Shirunthi Raupaksa? Nomal Rajupoksa? Ronil Wickrumosinghe? There’s a whole gang of these new pages interacting and joking with each other, and it’s hilarious.

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It speaks volumes that, in a world where meme-making is commonplace, it took an election for this kind of slapstick humor to emerge. Humor and jokes – especially those of a derogatory nature – are a universal part of human culture. Where three men meet, two will gang up and laugh at the third; in the cultural crossroads that is an entire society, the attention commonly shifts to public figures, stereotypes, and to making light of issues that, in the light of tomorrow, can be safely laughed at (see Humor across cultures: an appetizer). Even, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, things that cannot be safely laughed at…

But I digress.

Jokes about the Rajapakses were never common, unless one counts Awantha Artigala’s amazingly astute political cartoons. The Rajapaksa clan is-was practically taboo – partly from their actions, partly from the rumors that spread behind their backs about what happened to people who dared speak against them. Stories of Lasantha  Wickrematunge gunned down in cold blood. Stories of beatings and and strong-arm guards and white vans that would whisk you away. I rant – but tell me, how much subconscious fear does one have to instill in a populace to prevent it from doing this very basic thing from happening?

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I think it’s good that the humor is coming out – as acid-like as it is, it’s important that the country get over this fear, this combination of awe and terror of the King In The South. Parodying a man and his family is not the wisest course of action – definitely not one I would take. But if laughing at a man diminishes that subconscious fear, if it reduces that errant unease that prevents people from speaking their minds for fear that Mahinda Rajapaksa might return to power,  then I think it’s time for some humor.

Or perhaps people, being people, are always ready to kick the dog once it’s down.

Slow clap, anyone?

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What Color is the Hansaya – Green or Blue?

I just watched a live news broadcast on Sirasa TV. In it, members of the SLFP, by authority and (apparently) majority, proudly announced that President Maithripala Sirisena was the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, replacing ex-President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Now here’s the interesting part. Maithripala Sirisena, the former General Secretary of the SLFP, ran for the President largely under the auspices of the Opposition – the United National Party. Sure, there were other parties in the coalition that supported Maithri towards the win, but the UNP – a party that has consistently grabbed more than 40% of this country’s votes in every election – was undoubtedly the force behind the New President.

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Maithripala’s symbol was the Swan. So this begs the question: what color is this creature? Most people thought it was green. Everybody else says its blue. It looks like the UNP pulled off not a victory, but a matrydom of sorts.

The big point here is that despite the massive UNP push, Maithripala was ever a Common Candidate – not legally a UNP nominee, but a nominee of a hasty coalition (welcome to multi-party politics). In fact. in an an interview published on the 24th November, Maithripala stated that he had not left the SLFP, was still the Secretary and, in fact, that the UNP “had made a sacrifice.”

Members of the SLFP  confirmed this today, sticking to the legal clause in their charter that automatically makes any party member who becomes the President the de facto Chairman of the SLFP.

Basically, what we’ve gotten is an President with apparently no major party opposition whatsoever. How can you be opposed when every party champions you? How does this work?

Interestingly, this raises a question as to what Mahinda Rajapakse is now. Unless I’m missing something, it looks like a supremely legal and classy about-face by many of his regime. It also raises the question as to what the MP’s reported to be crossing over are actually crossing to.

Useful link: This is our government structure right now: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_unity_government 

Update: it’s clear that there is a split in the SLFP over this matter now. See https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/slfp-divides-crisis-worsens/

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Holy Shit. Did MR Just Call the North and East voters “Eelam” ?

Throughout the Presidential Election, my Newsfeed’s been inundated with people praising the former President of Sri Lanka, His Excellency Mahinda Rajapakse, for stepping down peacefully after a decade in power. Many were expecting a bloodbath. Despite reported last-minute attempts by H.E to use the military to suppress the voters, that didn’t happen (thanks to a few strong civil servants who had their heads screwed on right) and Sri Lanka was spared a wave of violence that would have torn the country apart. And for this, we called Mahinda Rajapakse a gentleman and sang his praises.

However, today my Newsfeed is full of something else: a damning clip of Mahinda Rajapakse speaking to a crowd. In this video, which was recorded off a mobile phone, the audience questions him as to why he did not kill <Maithripala, I presume> and seize power. Replying to this, he goes on to rant and brand the voters in the North and the East as “Eelam” – a taboo word in Sri Lanka, a word that inspired three decades of civil war, re-branding much of Sri Lanka as the terrorists he successfully suppressed. He categorically states that the country’s new government will not be stable without him, mocks the proposed Parliamentary changes, and vows that he will not leave.

See for yourself.

The video in question first appeared on Facebook approximately nine hours ago, uploaded off a private user profile. In the name of privacy I’ve located what seems to be a fresh upload of this to YouTube. I cannot verify the time or location of this video. 

Just to clarify the social ramifications of this: the term “Eelam” – the name and the values it’s associated with – bears the weight of 30 years of death for men, women and children, and many, many sacrifices by the Armed Forces; a history of suicide bombings, assassinations, orphans, body parts strewn over streets. To the best of my knowledge the very mention of the word is banned. Here is the former President of Sri Lanka, who, after much struggle and conquest, liberated the North and the East from the clutches of Eelam, branding this half-integrated part of the island with the fresh flame of terrorism and rousing those that listen against them. It cuts both ways. Even those who voted for MR are now disgusted by what they see as this cheapest of tricks – nobody wants that war again.

But there are always people stupid enough to listen, and in listening, to act.

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Buying a bike is bloody difficult!

Right. As some of you may know, I’ve been looking for a bike.

Not just any bike. I refuse to buy a modern Indian bike (apologies, Indians, but the last thing I need is an overpriced, underpowered piece of crap with more plastic than metal and a tacky-sounding name). It has to be Japanese, simply because the Japanese know how to make bikes that run forever.

Logically, it has to be secondhand, because the latest commuter bikes from Japanese brands – take the Yamaha Fazer, for example: a stupider lump of plastic has yet to be conceived – are all of Indian make an manufacture. If any unintentional racism’s visible here, it’s justified: I don’t want to spend over Rs 300,000 on something that’ll fall apart after 30,000 km. With the exception of the Pulsar NS, most Indian bikes are just…crap.

Well, scratch that. How could I forget Royal Enfield? Or KTM? But that shit is expensive here. The search for secondhand has not been easy. In fact, bloody hell, it should be a lot easier than it is right now.

My first port of call was a Yamaha TZR. A TZR is a very sporty-looking bike 2-stroke affair. Yamaha made these from 1987 to 1997; it was extremely popular in the UK, apparently. Unfortunately, a little bit of research revealed that these things had horrible fuel efficiency and were (rather disappointingly) small. A bloke around the 5′ 3″ mark is going to look right at home on one of these. I’m taller and somewhat wider than ye average bloke. Scratch that one off the list. I’m confess I spent way more time than I should have looking up YouTube videos on this bike.

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The next try was a surprise: a Hondal Rebel 250 which appeared on Ikman.lk for a mere Rs 95,000. I was hooked – not on the bike per se, but on the classic cruiser styling and the promise of chrome and a throaty engine. Vroom. Off we went with all haste to see this bike. The best part about the Rebel is that it’s still in production, so while parts are rare, they can be found. 

It turned out to be that all was not well in the land of the Rebel, though – its surprisingly cheap price marked out some major issues, the biggest of all being that the bike was a scam. It didn’t start. Heck, I should have known the moment we rolled up to find the bike with an empty tank, a flat battery and a vague promise that it “started four months ago”. So much for that.

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It was about this time that I went ham on ikman. I’m pretty sure that site saw a massive surge in traffic. That was me. I flipped past pages of bikes. Old bikes. New bikes. Ugly bikes. Overpriced bikes. I found Yamaha Viragos. Gorgeous bikes, but expensive. My cousin, who knows his bikes inside out, told me to look for a Suzuki GN125 – it had epic fuel economy and parts were easily available. I looked at it. I didn’t like it. It’s exactly the kind of bike a middle-aged man living in Pettah would drive his wife to work on. There’s a significantly better-looking variant called the Marauder; I wanted that, not this horsy little commuter.

It’s bloody hard, this bike lark.

Current hopes reside on two bikes: a Yamaha Enticer (a gorgeous-looking bike nobody’s heard of) and the eternal, ultimate survivor, the darling or Sri Lanka and the only truly immortal thing in this universe: a Honda CD 125 “Benly”.

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Mahinda’s out. Good Game – but get ready for Round Two.

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Mahinda Percy Rajapakse is out. Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena is in. These are the facts.
While waiting for this to happen, I’ve chewed through three bags of Jumbo Peanuts, approximately three dozen grain bars and drunk enough tea to fill up a reservoir. This is also fact.

But seriously. History has just been written, if not re-written, and I’m not sure how to take it. In all honesty, I didn’t like Mahinda Rajapakse – and nor was I a fan of Maithreepala Sirisena: to many of us in Sri Lanka, Maithreepala was simply a puppet, a figurehead for legal, political and constitutional change that we badly wanted to see happen

And it worked. We wanted the Rajapakses and their corruption out, and we did it. The election actually worked. Despite an almost Goebbels- level propaganda campaign, despite seeing Mahinda’s face plastered on public property every three feet, despite fears of military hanky-panky and coup de etats, Sri Lanka pulled off a free and fair election and people made their choice. I’m grateful to this, and to the Elections Commissioner – a man of amazing integrity and courage who did the job he had to do in the midst of what must have been tremendous, and potentially life-threatening pressure.

Let’s take a step back. I’m not going to commemorate President Rajapakse – read Indi’s post here for a balanced and graceful farewell to MR. What I want to say is that it ain’t over yet. We’ve voted in a government. We’ve put men in high places, men who made us many promises. Now it’s time to see them delivered. I didn’t vote for the man, I voted for his promises.

HERE is Maithripala’s manifesto in Sinhala. Read it. Know it. Know what that purple finger bought you. 

Here is is in English. And here it is in Tamil.

Some of these promises are bull. Free Wi-Fi at major places? Yeah, right. Given the current status of SLT’s free WiFi at Majestic City, I’d rather pay for data. Technology, dear Watson. But that’s trivial. Read the big promises, and make sure this new government sticks to them.

It’s a new age in Sri Lanka, and the people have spoken. But speaking isn’t enough: going forward, we need accountability.

Jayawewa. ♦

PS:

Continue Reading →

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The Devil We Know: Stories from the #PresPoll

As the elections approach, shit gets real. Here’s some of it: 

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dogs head 2Severed dogs’ heads are delivered to the houses of  Brito Fernando and Prasanga Fernando, two of the activists behind the “Change with Reform” campaign.

Former diplomat Dr Dayan Jayatilleke chats with a man with a fake accent, revealing his ideas of a perfect nation:  Russia (a country that once recorded a 140% voter turnout) and China (a one-party state).

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Major telecommunication service providers sell out their customers to spam SMSes and recordings of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithreepala Sirisena asking for people’s votes. Some calls turn to threats.

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In fine Sri Lankan tradition, people kill, stab, loot and otherwise inconvenience each other in the name of politics. 

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Polls conducted by the University of Kelaniya and Colombo lead to questions regarding the integrity of both Universites.

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Namal Rajapaksa, lawyer of dubious qualification, Member of Parliament and the Rajapaksa clan’s Heir Apparent, denies misuse of public funds amidst photographic evidence. Meanwhile, Hirunika Premachandra discloses / hints at Namal’s true power within the regime.

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False ballot papers, with the Common Candidate’s mark altered, are found in Chilaw.

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 The nausea-inducing spate of ads on local newspapers disappears, as per the rules. However, the myriad of Facebook pages hijacked by Rajapakse advertising remain hijacked.

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icons-bought2Popular media icons, bought over by the Rajapaksa regime’s advertising arm, back off after doing what they were paid to do. The most surprising acquisition is still Iraj, whose controversial rap lyrics have often seen the rapper’s videos banned from local TV stations. 

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The Bodu Bala Sena, presently the country’s foremost terrorist force, vow support for President Rajapaksa.

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In apparent desperation, the President suggests using the next generation to pay off today’s debts.