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A journalist of courage and deep conviction

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Robert Fisk (12 July 1946 – 30 October 2020) was a legendary journalist and author who penned down meticulously the sufferings of millions of people reporting not from secondary sources or keeping a safe distance from the theatres of the war but from the battle front, endangering his own life. He was attacked many times, once even with the possibility of losing his life.

by SUBRATA MUKHERJEE

During the period of the Cold War, North America and Europe never became war zones and the battle for ideological domination shifted to the non-European world primarily West Asia (Middle East) and Southeast Asia. This led to untold suffering for ordinary people in these areas. Whereas Southeast Asia has now settled for a relatively peaceful order, many regions of West Asia are still riven by strife and uncertainty.

Robert Fisk (12 July 1946 – 30 October 2020) was a legendary journalist and author who penned down meticulously the sufferings of millions of people reporting not from secondary sources or keeping a safe distance from the theatres of the war but from the battle front, endangering his own life. He was attacked many times, once even with the possibility of losing his life.

Fisk’s journalistic career began with covering the conflict in Northern Ireland as a London Times correspondent in 1972. His reports annoyed British authorities as it tilted towards the republicans. He earned in the process a massive following. Out of his reports he published a book The Point of No Return: The Strike which Broke the British in Ulster in 1975. In his Ph.D. thesis he explained the issues connected with Irish neutrality during the Second World War. Later on, he took up Irish citizenship.

He also had a stint in Portugal during the 1974 Carnation Revolution (April Revolution), which not only ended the authoritarian regime in Portugal but also led to the demise of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. But the most important evolution in his journalistic career was his appointment by The Times as its Middle East correspondent in 1976.

For the next forty-four years from Beirut where he witnessed fifteen years of Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), he reflected on the unfoldment of history in the region full of bloody conflicts, ethnic cleansing, wars, revolutions and uprisings. His parting of ways with The Times came in 1988, when he sent a report on the US warship Vincennes having shot down an Iranian civil airline. Fisk’s scoop was not published because by the time the report reached the newspaper editorial office the ownership of the newspaper had gone to media Mughal Robert Murdoch. He was also advised to take up more balanced reporting. Fisk switched to left-leaning British newspaper The Independent, where he spent the rest of his journalistic career (His contributions to both newspapers were re-published in The Statesman.)

As part of his journalistic requirements Fisk travelled extensively. That included Algeria, Libya, the Balkans and Turkey, strife torn homelands of Kurds and Afghanistan. What made his reporting different from other journalistic accounts was his understanding of both colonial and postcolonial history in comprehending contemporary conflicts in West Asia. He was trenchant in his criticism of the Western powers led by the USA and Israel as their policies and machinations had humiliated local people fuelling their anger.

Even when he was grievously injured after being attacked by Afghan refugees in Pakistan he wrote that this “brutality entirely the product of others, of us – of me who had armed their struggle against the Russians, and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the war for civilization” just a few miles away and then bowled their homes and ripped up their families and called them ‘collateral damage’.

In 1982, Fisk was amongst the few journalists to enter the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila where more than a thousand unarmed people were massacred by pro-Christian, Lebanese militia in the presence of Israeli armed personnel. He described this as a war crime. In 1993 in Sudan, he was the first Western journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden, whom he subsequently met twice. The title of his article was “Anti-Soviet Warrior puts his army on the road to peace”.

Laden in the first interview revealed that he was a construction engineer and an agriculturalist. But instead of taking the road of peace he became the most dreaded terrorist who successfully planned and meticulously executed the killing of 3,000 innocent people in the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. Laden praised Fisk for his neutrality. The latter tried to remain neutral but severely condemned the brutal attack and also reminded the need to highlight and investigate the motivation of the attackers.

Fisk examined in detail the Israeli-Palestinian animosity, the US led invasion of Kuwait and Iraq and the US entry into Afghanistan. He was critical of the former as he pointed out that there were no weapons of mass destruction. The US bombing of Kosovo under NATO auspices and other involvements of the USA in the Middle East were examined critically by him. Though he was critical of the USA, he was a frequent visitor and popular speaker in the USA. He analysed war but despised it as he was a proclaimed pacifist.

Regarding being neutral as a journalist, Fisk had this to say “if you watch wars the old ideas of journalism that have to be neutral and take nobody’s side is rubbish. As a journalist you have got to be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer”. His magnum opus The Great War for Civilization (2005) chronicled critically the relationship of former colonial powers with the ordinary people of Arabia. His journalistic outpouring was always controversial and divisive. Some even blamed him for self-promotion and for being biased.

The most serious controversy came up during the ongoing civil war in Syria. Fisk accompanied the Syrian army while fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) and Syrian independent militias. However, though he was critical and condemned the Syrian army’s atrocities before, he exonerated President Assad in 2018 for lack of evidence of using chemical weapons in Duma. A follow up book to the Great War for civilization would be published posthumously which would cover the period of US intervention in Iraq to present times.

Fisk was winner of many journalistic awards and is widely revered in the Arabian Peninsula. He was a critic like IF Stone. His journalistic accounts were not based on official briefing as these did not fully and properly reflect the actual situation. His account of the protracted civil war in Lebanon was published as Pity the Nation, a phrase that he borrowed from Khalil Gibran (18831931). He referred to reporting that was not based on first hand accounts as ‘Hotel Journalism’. He looked to journalism as search for truth and his enduring legacy is the dedication of his entire journalistic career to search for roots of conflicts and war.

(The Statesman/ANN)

The writer is a retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi

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Opinion

Is government in self-destructive mode?

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The government seems to have forgotten the two main factors that propelled it to power. One factor was the threat to the national interest that developed due to the evil deeds of the previous government in their disastrous tenure, and the other is the deleterious effect the ruined economy had on the poor people. Governments which never forget what helped them come to power and face electoral debacles.

Of the two political parties that had governed this country, the SLFP is more nationalistic and the UNP is more neo-liberal and pro-West. The latter governed this country from 2015 to 2019, and adopted policies that made the country almost a vassal of the West, and also ruined the economy by robbing the Central Bank. Nobody wants to invest in a country where the government robs its own central bank. Further, that government colluded with the separatists and Western powers to hound the war- winning armed forces. Those misdeeds on the one hand caused an upsurge of nationalism among the middle class and the professionals, and severe hardship among the poor. These two groups that account for more than two thirds of the population could easily be rallied against the government, as never before.

The electoral system that was in operation was not expected to allow anything more than a thin majority, but given the people’s frustration now SLPP won with a huge majority. The economy and nationalism are the two main factors that decide elections in Sri Lanka. Here it is the economy of the poor people, the large majority, that matters. This is evident from the fact that during the period 2010 to 2015 all economic parameters like the GDP, debt ratio, inflation, etc were favourable but the SLFP government lost the election, because their development effort, notwithstanding all indices, did not help the poor people. It seems those big projects that resulted in good economic indices like a high GDP, did not alleviate the hardship of the poor.

This government has the opportunity to base its economic policies on nationalism, to help those who improve the lives of the less affluent. More than 60% of people who voted for this government are poor rural people. The government should have focused on these people.

More than 70% of people live in the villages and are sustained by an agricultural economy. Yet, the government in its recent budget has allocated less than 6% to the development of agriculture. Although it has stopped the import of some goods that could be produced locally, and this has helped the local farmers to some extent, much more should have been done for the development of agriculture.

Not enough is done to initiate the local manufacture of seeds, fertilizer, aggro-chemicals, storage and machinery. At least 20% of the budget should have been allocated for the agriculture, plantations and fisheries sectors. These are the major areas of the economy that need to be developed to improve the living conditions of the rural population. It will also lessen our dependence on foreign imports.

Further, if more money is invested in this sector, it may be possible even to give employment to those workers who are returning from abroad due to Covid, and also reduce the number of people leaving the country for semi-slavery, which is a disgrace to the country, not to mention its adverse social impact.

This is the time for this government to lay the groundwork for the development of the rural economy, health, education, household income, housing, sanitation, availability of potable water etc. It has not allocated sufficient funds for the education of poor people. Economy cannot be improved without developing education. Rural schools lack basic facilities like toilets, pipe- borne water, electricity, buildings. We have seen on TV children and teachers holding umbrellas during classes as roofs are leaking. By developing the national economy the government can “kill two birds with one stone”. Economy of the poor could be improved without compromising the national interest. A national economy would make optimum use of natural and human resources. Experts need not be imported for simple development work and also for solving connected problems. For instance, entomologists need not be brought from abroad to deal with the problem created by the Sena caterpillar. Governments may not have to sell or lease valuable national assets like the harbours, airports, industries sector, if those are better managed. This government pledged in its election campaign to protect the national assets. But now it seems to have forgotten that promise. 6.9 million people who voted for it are disappointed. This is another reason why the government is losing its popularity. No foreign power should be allowed to force the government to sell the country’s national assets. In the context of today’s global geopolitics, Sri Lanka is in a position to resist such pressure.

Further, surely, we cannot be lacking in technical and managerial expertise to run state enterprises. If we are short of money, it is better to wait till we improve our economy and are in a position to find the money. Someday things will improve and we will be able to operate them profitably. If we sell even 49% that is almost half, and we may never get it back. Another area that the government has failed is the environment protection sphere. Unscrupulous racketeers are allowed to do much damage to forests, wetlands, lagoons and other valuable ecosystems which are detected only after the damage is done. Are the officials responsible for looking after these national assets blind, or are their palms well-oiled or are politicians behind these activities. These activities are anti-national and are viewed as such by the people. Unless the government remembers that 6.9 million voted for it, most of them the rural poor, and realizes quickly that the lives of rural people have to be developed based on national economic policies, which make optimum use of natural and human resources available in the country, look after national assets and protect the environment, it will be in trouble come the next election.

N.A.de S. AMARATUNGA

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Opinion

The ‘Sena’ Caterpillar invasion: Where are we heading?

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By PROF. ROHAN RAJAPAKSE

Emeritus Professor of Entomology, University of Ruhuna

This is a continuation of the previous article written by me, published in The Island on 19 Jan 2021. (Fall Armyworm: Strategies for Effective Management). I also wrote about this pest in 2019 and I have emphasised the following: The Fall armyworm – FAW (Spodoptera frugiperda known as sena caterpillar) female is a strong flier capable of flying more than 100 KMs per day, nearly 500Km of flying during lifetime, depositing 1500 eggs an average. The other factors that are centered on FAW are: FAW consumes many different crops but prefers Maize; also it spreads quickly across large geographical areas, and can persist throughout the year.

The FAW, originated in the Americas, invaded the Africans in 2016, and was detected in the Indian subcontinent, in 2017, and believe the FAW naturally migrated to Sri Lanka, from India, in 2018. Sri Lanka lost the initial opportunity in 2018, as we were not adequately prepared to stop the spread, although the Department of Agriculture did some work; but the FAW was present in all SL districts, except Nuwara-Eliya and Jaffna. The ban on cultivating maize, in the following year helped to contain the spread, but now it is spreading again, confirming the belief that once FAW invaded it will stay.

Hence what are the strategies available now? As we emphasized, the management of FAW has to be centered on Short, Mid and Long-term strategies.

 

Short-Term Strategies:

Destruction of FAW eggs found on leaves and developing whorl by hand. The middle level expertise in the Department, such as Agricultural Instructors, KVS and the development and Project Assistants, recently recruited to the Government service, along with the farmers, should be trained to detect the eggs and destroy them immediately on the ground. If we miss this opportunity, the eggs will mature and tiny first instars larvae could be seen. At this stage, the only opportunity is to apply a Department of Agriculture approved chemical pesticide, using a knapsack sprayer or power sprayer at the recommended dilution. The names of the recommended pesticides are available with all research and extension officers of the Department of Agriculture.

It is also recommended that no single strategy of FAW pest control will yield strategic results. The employment of Integrated Pest Management Strategies should be carried out, such as combining Chemical control with cultural and sanitary control practices, which will give satisfactory control. When the larvae are small, proper timing and spray of pesticides are critical for elimination of this pest.

 

Mid-Term Strategies

: It is of paramount importance to understand that elimination of these dangerous pests are to be carried out jointly by the Government and Provincial Councils for effective control. The US University researchers, after working jointly with USDA, have identified the effective parasitoids, and they have released millions of parasitoids using the federal government facilities and the Universities in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Sri Lanka should avail this opportunity by writing to the authorities of the USDA, and arranging to import the strategic parasitoids, already identified to suit tropical countries, such as Sri Lanka.

This reminds me of the imports of eggs. Larval and pupal parasitoids from Indonesia, Malaysia, and establishment of those parasitoids in the WP and Coconut Research Institute to eliminate the Coconut leaf boring caterpillar Promecotheca cumingii n early and mid -70s in Western Province, which is in practical operative till now.

 

Long-Term Strategies:

Sri Lanka should declare an Emergency if it wants to eleminate the pest. Maize is a staple food of many African countries. The Long-term strategies are early detection of the pest, stopping its spread, and initiation of research programmers to import tolerant varieties, and granting permission to import such tolerant varieties produced by SEEDS giants, such as Monsanto.

However, these could be controversial. The Director General of Agriculture should be the leader and chief executive of this strategy, and no one should undermine his authority, as we witnessed a team of Rwandan experts, from Ghana, coming here and advising farmers without the knowledge of the DG, and even the Minister himself. Still no one knows what sort of pesticidesethese Rwandan Experts have recommended?

(The writer is Former Senior Professor of Agriculture Biology, University of Ruhuna. Received his PhD in Entomology from the University of Florida, USA, in 1985, on a research assistantship. The title of this thesis is on the Fall armyworm, its parasitoids and Ecology for effective management)

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Opinion

How to avoid water shortages and power cuts

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A section of the Southern Expressway affected by floods (file photo)

 

It is a strange thing in this country with so many rivers flowing into the sea right round the island, as soon as the rains cease there is a drought and there are thousands affected with no possibility of getting anything out of what they have cultivated, be it rice or vegetables. And while the rains last there are a number of places that get inundated with roads impassable and people displaced from their abodes.

If one recalls the history of this blessed isle it was King Parakramabahu the Great who said that not a drop of water should be allowed to go into the sea without being made use of. That was the era when Sri Lanka exported rice to other neighbouring countries. How did they do this? They had neither sophisticated equipment nor machines that are available now. They also did not have the help of foreign qualified experts. But with whatever skills they had they were able to achieve what they wanted. All this was done by conserving the water from the seasonal rains the island had.

The weather patterns have changed and now we do not get rain as stated in our books on Geography. What we learnt from the books was that the south western monsoon will be from around May to end August/ beginning September. The North eastern monsoon brings rain from November to February. In between these two monsoons there will be convectional rain in the months of April and October. Does the rainy seasons occur as in the book now? Not at all. The weather patterns have changed completely. The farmers are not sure as to when the rains would come, unlike in the good old days.

The rains are unpredicatable. When it rains it pours for a short period. But in that short period there are floods and roads, paddy fields and houses get inundated. The rains cease and the flooding subsides. The authorities have forgotten what happened and they get back to their normal routine until the rains strike again with the same results.

Then there is a prolonged period of drought. Now the reverse happens. There is no water to cultivate and in some areas no water to drink. What has been cultivated has withered away. The farmers are in a quandary as they are unable to pay back the loans they have obtained to cultivate with the hope of repaying after the harvest.

When there is heavy rain for a long period the reservoirs and tanks swell up and then the sluice gates are open to let the excess water out. This water that is let out just gushes out and goes into the sea without being made use of at all. Why is it not possible for the irrigation authorities to have tanks at a lower level to collect the excess water and make use of this water too? There is such a large amount of water that is released like this which can be made use of for cultivation when there is no rain.

The large amount of water carried by the Kalu Ganga has been flowing into the sea from time immemorial without being used for anything other than for people to bathe and bathe their animals. This is a source where the water can be conserved and if possible diverted to the dry zone to assist the farmers in their cultivation.

Even in the city of Colombo when it rains heavily we have seen the same areas getting flooded. This has been the case for a long time. But so far nothing has been done and come the next rain we will experience the same problem. This is so in the areas in Galle, Ratnapura, etc.

It is time the relevant authorities looked into this and do the needful to conserve the large amount of water that flows into the ocean without being made use of. It may be possible to use this water not only for agriculture but also for generation of hydro power. If this can be done, this island will never have to face water cuts and power cuts.

 

HM Nissanka Warakaulle

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