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Garbage in London

London is one foreign city that many Sri Lankans adore. To the older ones it was made familiar by Enid Blyton and Charles Dickens. You wander around and gasp as you suddenly come across Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe or find yourself in Bloomesbury Square. You had heard Big Ben over Radio Ceylon and studied about the zero longitude running through Greenwich. You like the familiarity of dirt along Oxford Street and tolerate grime in your hair after a day of walking in London. Passers-by in Wales might even stop you as you ambled along chatting with a friend and comment on your intonation of English: "So like ours", they’d say and you take it as a compliment.

Vociferous protests

UK and London in particular and Sri Lanka have had another familiar shared patch. I refer to the road blocking and protest shouting opposite Westminster and the Sri Lankan and Indian embassies in London. It went on big in London by LTTE supporters and moved unpardonably to attacks on Sinhalese owned restaurants and a Buddhist temple. Our home grown maarayas meanwhile have demonstrated their ill breeding opposite the British High Commission some time ago and at the gates of the Canadian High Commission more recently. Protests are needed oft times and are most effective when staged in front of the embassy of the country protested against. But we do not want derogatory posters (read vulgar) and wild shouting of thugs, almost on the point of getting out of hand. It frightens and shames us. Even a protest must be dignified to be effective. And thus a rag-tag collection of loud mouths is laughable, as long as it does not go out of control.

Remember the protest staged in front of the Indian Embassy against High Commissioner Dixit and the parrippu drop and all that. People wore white mostly and sat or stood along Thurston Road opposite to India House, in silence, and the protest was all the more effective. It was a protest initiated by decent citizens of Colombo who felt deeply the insult of Indiainterference in our internal matter – again with the LTTE. The dignity of the mass protest was much more effective and taken note of than the shouting hoarse of bearded, scruffy looking burly men and hardly restrained yokels. We shiver with apprehension and dismay to see Buddhist monks in the melee. Impact lost since we guess it is not a spontaneously sincere uprising in protest but planned by hidden hands that itch to cause disturbance and do it shamefully. Who knows – money and alcohol may have been the incentives, not love of country and sincere outrage.

Stinking garbage

Another striking resemblance of now that makes the two cities of Colombo and London familiar is the overflow of garbage in the two places, with us being one up – our garbage is of two kinds: heresay and the real and stinking kind, rubbish visibly increasing in size – either not collected or dumped to form mounds in most unsuited places. The shared kind of garbage between the two cities is rumour regards corruption and in London it has spilled over off the printing press of the Daily Telegraph newspaper, as fact. Our garbage of the corruption kind gets us shrugging our shoulders with the inevitable resigned ‘what to do.’ The refuse kind now causes disease – dengue has increased 80 percent, we are told.

The London garbage has caused much discomfort and the Speaker, no less, of the House of Commons has had to walk the plank. This relinquishing of the speaker’s seat is after three centuries – the last time being 1695. What/who pushed Michael Martin over the brink? A newspaper and a woman journalist.

It all started in 2005 when American investigative reporter, Heather Brooke, made a request under Britain’s newly promulgated Freedom to Information Act for details in expense accounts of Members of Parliament. She had been a reporter in Washington and returned to her parents’ birthplace – Britain - ten years previously.

The request gathered momentum when some minion in an office of Parliament took home a computer disk and sold it to the Telegraph. All hell broke loose as information was given on expenses incurred by Parliamentarians from compensatory allowances given them. Members from districts outside London can be compensated for expenses deemed "wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred to enable a member to stay overnight away from the member’s main home." As one foreign newspaper reported it: "A large number of members have exploited this provision to pad their modest salaries (slightly more than a hundred grand per annum) in ways that the Speaker, Michael Martin, tried to keep secret."

The Telegraph published amounts and persons, taken from the bought disk: pounds sterling 2,000 for a 37 inch high-def plasma TV set; 1,625 for a garden table, chairs and parasol; 7,000 for a new kitchen; 519 for a weekend in a holiday cottage; 100 to remove moles from a garden (the real animal bugs); 2,200 for cleaning a moat; 2,000 to repair a pipe under a tennis court and so on. A wealthy Member of Parliament who owns seven homes in Britain and a part of one in France is supposed to have charged the taxpayers through the compensating fund pounds sterling 119 for a trouser press. MPs had also claimed for mortgage payments, though those mortgages had been paid off and closed. Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron are red in the face over their party members’ indiscretion.

Shocking in these times of economic depression and with persons like Miliband riding the human rights high horse and coming over to preach to us about conducting our war and managing our peace.

I wonder whether our Members of Parliament and Ministers of State and Deputies and Provincial Councillors and the whole lot that comprise the Body Politic ever used tax payers’ money to pay for their house building, construction of swimming pools and tennis courts, secret cottages for their illicit loves, holidays in Maldivian island resorts for two (certainly not wifey) and of course to buy even palaces abroad. One can think up such a long list of things our ministers and members of Parliament would certainly not have spent our money on. Of course we hear rumours, get reports and receive surreptitious e-mails. Remember some years ago the talk was that earlier only one man made site was visible from outerspace – the Great Wall of China. Then came a second sighting – the shine of waters of a swimming pool on the top floor of a palatial building in mid-country. Angry gossip of families going in numbers and living it up in the poshest of hotels when the man of the family goes abroad on business. So go on the tales, we hope purely malicious and baseless, since our country cannot afford one jot of extravagance, particularly of forex.

The TIME magazine of 1 June cited the Brit MPs extravagance as The Moment 5/19/09

I quote: "A Parliament democracy is how Britain describes herself, with both pride and occasional condescension. Right now neither pride nor condescension is the order of the day. Revelations of the tawdry behaviour of modern MPs exposing everything from improvement to second homes to their spouses’ porn have led to popular outrage in Britain. The scandal has exposed what every one who has spent time in the House of Commons knows well: that many of its members are has-beens and never-will-bes; self important rhetoricians inebriated with the exuberance of their own verbosity."

We call many of ours just windbags, devoid of rhetoric but full of sound and fury. It was a former prime minister, never mincing his words, who lamented that Parliament was filling up with tree climbers.

Our country has garbage but heavenly elements too: superb tacticians and speakers and doers among the very many drones or those who just shout and instigate others to holler. It was so very joyful to see and hear Dayan Jayatilleke and Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe acknowledging those countries who helped Sri Lanka gain justified success in the human rights issue in the UNHRC in Geneva. Rajiva Wijesinha, another person we are so gratefully appreciative of, was seated behind Jayatilleke.

P S

I am sure you noticed how the pendulum has swung in the reportage of the victory in Sri Lanka in the foreign press, and there is plenty about us, front paged, no less. I commented two weeks ago in this column on the blatantly biased reporting of Somini Sengupta. Her more recent articles have been congratulatory of our President, the Defense Secretary and the armed forces and their chiefs. Many have written as having lived and worked in Sri Lanka. One such, Kenneth Cooper, writing in the Boston Globe – 21 May - ends his congratulatory and laudatory article thus: "Here’s hoping the Sinhalese have learned a costly, painful lesson and in victory are big enough to negotiate a new dispensation for the Tamils. I think they might be."

P P S

I cannot resist stating the fact that even among the highly educated there are some who say: "They did it, why not us?" with reference to rioting in the name of protesting. Also an unforgiving spirit prevails. We have to rid ourselves of these behaviours and turn truly magnanimous, led by our leaders, of course.

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