Connect with us

Opinion

A not entirely united government opts to be hard line

Published

on

By Harim Peiris

It is quite a feat for a powerful government to insult its own Prime Minster and party leader, but that is precisely what the SLPP succeeded in doing last week, when a carefully orchestrated measure to ease up the pressure on the Government through bringing Sri Lanka in line with the rest of the world on Covid-19 burials, went awry. The Prime Minister’s assurance to Parliament, to allow the burial of the Covid-19 dead, was welcomed in a tweet by the soon to visit, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan. However, this was not implemented and instead was contradicted by junior state ministers of the Government. Since the forced cremation of the Covid-19 dead, against the wishes and religious beliefs of the bereaved families, is a uniquely Sri Lankan practice, in non-conformity with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, the issue is being closely watched and monitored not just locally but also globally. Accordingly, the Prime Minister’s assurance was widely welcomed. But clearly, he could not carry the day. It certainly seems the Prime Minister is not totally in charge of the government; shades of the previous Ranil Wickremesinghe premiership.

However, in the context of Sri Lanka’s system of government, this is only to be expected because especially post the 20th Amendment to our Constitution, the governing authority has been totally centralized in the hands of the executive President. Accordingly, one might reasonably expect that the president’s slightest wish is government writ. Therefore, it was quite surprising to note, a few weeks ago, when the nearly half a billion-dollar, foreign investment by India’s Adani Group in the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port was to go ahead, this in a country that is starved of foreign exchange, that the President was seemingly very much on board. The President, quite correctly observed, at various fora, that international obligations cannot be unilaterally abrogated and more importantly that his government had negotiated terms where the Sri Lankan Government through the Sri Lanka Ports Authority would retain a majority stake and accordingly what was occurring was an investment into a minority stake in the ECT. This in the context of other such foreign investments with majority stakes, namely the Chinese Government’s CICT and the SAGT. However, quite surprisingly the President’s wishes to bring in the Indian private sector foreign investment did not quite carry the day inside the Government.

To cap quite a tumultuous first quarter for the Government, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, a leader of a minor political appendage of the ruling alliance, namely the National Freedom Front (NFF), stirred up a hornet’s nest in political circles, when he called for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be given the leadership of the ruling party, rather than its current incumbent, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The public call by Minister Weerawansa was met with the immediate demand by the ruling SLPP’s General Secretary, that the Minister both withdraw his statement and apologize for the same. Neither has happened and to the contrary the Minister has reiterated his stand. The call for a leadership change and that too between the president and the prime minister, was quite surprising because there was no reason for Minister Weerawansa to either be so public about a possible leadership role change in the Government or to be out of place by commenting on the affairs of a party he does not belong to. Leading as he does, his breakaway wing of the JVP, styled the National Freedom Front (NFF), a party which has the distinction of never yet having ever contested an election on its own but always in alliance with the Rajapaksa political party, first the UPFA and now its successor the SLPP.

A Government opting to be hardline

Next week the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), based in Geneva, will hold its 46th session, mostly in a virtual or online format and a country specific resolution on Sri Lanka, taking the government to task on our deteriorating human rights situation, will most likely pass. The Government is losing friends like India and alienating allies, like the 57 member nation, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). As political analysts have pointed out, the report by Human Rights High Commissioner and former two-term President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet focuses more on the new hardline policy being adopted since the election of November 2019. Policies, pronouncements and practices, which seemingly indicate a complete unwillingness to accommodate plurality, recognize diversity and defend democratic gains. The High Commissioner reports worrying signs of a government becoming increasingly authoritarian and militarized. The UNHRC report on Sri Lanka, namely A/HRC/46/20 in section 19, page 7 states “(i) militarization of civilian government functions, (ii) reversal of constitutional safeguards, (iii) political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations, (iv) majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric (v) surveillance and obstruction of civil society and shrinking democratic space and (vi) new and exacerbated human rights concerns”. As if in a great hurry to confirm the above contentions by its actions, the Government having earlier rejected the report in toto, the Minister of Public Security withdrew the Special Task Force (STF) guard provided to TNA spokesman and leader in waiting, MA Sumanthiran for his participation and support to a massive anti-government march styled (P2P), from Pottuvil in the Eastern Province to Polligandy in the Northern Province, a not too subtle reference to the “responsibility to protect (R2P), the global political commitment adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 to prevent or hold accountable for war crimes, prevent genocide, ethnic cleaning and crimes against humanity. The rationale given by the Minister was that MP Sumanthiran, a President’s Counsel, had violated court orders, which he denies doing. When the matter was raised by the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, many speakers pointed out that alleged violations of court orders should be met with prosecutions in court and not the withdrawal of security. Now we await the Hon. Speaker’s ruling whether it is the threat assessment against the MP, which the Minister himself readily conceded or political servility to the wishes of the government, which determines state security for minority and opposition MPs. The world meantime from Geneva is watching.

As the government domestically disregards plurality, tolerance of democratic dissent and accommodation of diversity and isolates itself internationally, with severe repercussions for our export driven, tourism, foreign investment and worker remittance dependent, globally integrated economy, the possibility of seeing a course correction by the SLPP’s Rajapakse Administration, is rather remote. This does however position Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa and his SJB, as the sole alternative to the government’s ideology, of being the sole representatives of the Sinhala people.

 

(The writer served as Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2016 to 2017)



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Opinion

A drive of great memories

Published

on

Pic.  – THE CAR: “We bought this car in London mid-1974. A few days later, four of us set out to drive for nearly six months to Sri Lanka.  This photo was provided by the present owner, whom I tracked down in 2019.”

Some errors had crept into this letter (published yesterday) in the process of being typeset. This is the correct version.

 

Sanjeewa Jayaweera’s recent recollections (The Island 25/2) of advantages of coming from Ceylon/SL – or rather ‘benefits’ accruing from Mrs B’s permitting Pakistan to use Ceylon/SL airspace in 1971 -– when he was living in Pakistan, remind me of similar experiences in 1974.

 Four of us drove overland (well, only one of us could drive then) in a Beetle from London to Sri Lanka, taking nearly six months.  At the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, neither side checked our heavily laden car. 

 We had got used to cooking for ourselves in many countries, and camping up to Turkey, so always carried basic food stuffs. In Pakistan, however, many things were rationed and towards the end of our stay we needed to stock up. 

 Just before leaving Lahore to head for India we went in search of rice and sugar (rationed).  One chap we happened to ask, got into the car (with four already in it) and said he would get us what we needed. He insisted on giving it free –– “You are my brothers!” Very strange – it was only later that we discovered the reason for this.  

 He jumped out near a shop and disappeared, presumably to queue somewhere. Returning with about 8 lbs of rice and 3 lbs of sugar, he absolutely refused to accept any money.  Instead, he insisted that we visit the Shalimar Gardens and wouldn’t let us pay there either.  We took a photograph with him which we promised to send him.  He was an Assistant Store-keeper at Pakistan Oxygen. 

 However, things were slightly different at the border. The Pakistan side wouldn’t let S, our Ugandan-Asian friend, cross.  No Hindu from any part of the world was allowed to cross into India.  Fortunately, our group was pretty mixed (with a Sri Lankan Buddhist, Sri Lankan Muslim and an Anglo-Asian atheist! – though fortunately, that wasn’t on the passport).  S’s “companion” insisted she’d become a Muslim by marriage, and signed a declaration form to that effect.  Problem solved! But a moment of anxiety at Indian customs when a cursory search was made of the car.  Officials were offended by the fact that we’d brought rice with us –– “We have rice in India!”

 Manel Fonseka

Continue Reading

Opinion

Muir Woods in San Francisco and deforestation in SL

Published

on

Pic:Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith at a recent media briefing on protecting the Muthurajawela wetlands from a multi-use development project.

“Any fool can destroy trees. They can run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or dollar could be got out of their hides. branching horns, or magnificent bole back backbones. Few that fell trees plant them, nor would planting avail much toward getting back anything like the novel primeval forests. It took more than 3000 years to make some of the trees in the woods –  trees that are standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing …. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time – and long before that – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease avalanches, tempests, and floods; but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.

John Muir, letter to William Kent , 1909

Muir Woods is a forest reservation in San Francisco – California named after John Muir as John of the mountains or father of the national parks. He was a Scottish American April 1838 to December 24th 1924.

William Kent was a member of the US House of Representatives representing California 

The Island of (2/3/2021 ) has several articles on deforestation being carried out for agriculture and commercial projects such as commercial cultivation of Aloe Vera or building of hotels. The government’s initial popularity is gradually on the decline and permitting deforestation is one reason. I wrote to The Island on 11 January this year, pointing out that it was not necessary to clear forests to increase agriculture output. Increasing productivity by modern methods is the way out.

Muir Woods is a National monument, which protects the only large, intact stand of ancient redwoods in San Francisco Bay area which, I and my wife were fortunate to visit, thanks to my daughter and son-in-law. All elements of old-growth forests are there: mature redwoods, young seedlings, standing snags, logs and a diverse community of animals and understory plants. The magnificent red – barked trees, California coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). A few hundred years ago over two million acres of redwood grew in California. Today, 150,000 acres of old growth redwoods remain, only about half of which are protected in national and state parks.

Redwood creek applies a spectrum of watery habitats fish need their life cycle. If you spot a fish in Redwood Creek, it’s a coho salmon or steelhead trout. Both are anadromous; born in fresh water homes, as juveniles they migrate to the ocean, and then return to their freshwater homes as adults to spawn. Spawning fish can be seen in the creek between mid December and March, and young fish populate quiet pools during summer months.

On the contrary, in Sri Lanka, deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate and the forest cover is likely to disappear completely in a few decades. In 1990, the total forest cover was 2990 ha and in the year 2020 it decreased to 1946 ha. The forest cover has been reduced by 1044 ha.

A tree called Sri Lanka legume was discovered in 1868. Eventually it was declared extinct 2012.

It was discovered in 2019 that only one Sri Lankan legume tree, eight meters high, was found in the north of Colombo  near Gampaha  

 This rare species tree that was in danger of felling was put on an orange cloth by Buddhist priests. That courageous forest officer Devanee Jayatillake also rose to the occasion again objecting to the removal of the legume tee. There were arguments that that there are similar trees planted in Gampaha Botanical gardens and also that the tree could be translocated safely. Ultimately sanity prevailed and the expressway will be diverted to save the tree. One should realise the tree would have survived thousand years or more, no one knows, but it’s certain that the tree is one of oldest trees. America’s redwood trees it is said, had taken more than 3000 years to make.

His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith expressed his displeasure at the government’s failure to protect the Muthurajawela wetland.

He said in a statement that the Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera, State Minister for Wildlife Wimalaweera Dissanayake and the Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority Siripala Amarasinghe had promised not to carry out any project or destructive activities in Muthurajawela during the discussion held at the Archbishop’s residence on January 21st.

However, it has been officially announced that Muthurajawela and the surrounding villages will be taken over by the Urban Development Authority. Therefore, the Cardinal has requested the government to remove the signs stating that the area is already owned by a private company and rename it as a Wildlife Conservation Zone in Muthurajawela National Park. The Cardinal has now court intervention on this matter.

The Diyawanna wetland close to which I live is being developed. It is not Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte which is said to be the administrative capital. it’s the reclaimed wetlands of Battaramulla. The land on which Sethsiripaya stands was a marsh.

 

 Upali Cooray 

 

Continue Reading

Opinion

Where are the Maha Nayakes?

Published

on

Coincidentally, February 26th was Navam Full Moon day, when after 20 years of attaining enlightenment, the Buddha preached the “Vinaya Pitakaya” or the code of conduct for Buddhist monks. It is sad that that the majority of them hardly heed the principles laid down there.

I was anyway, contemplating writing a piece on the conduct of Malcom Cardinal Ranjith on national issues when Dr Upul Wijayawardhana beat me to it with an excellent piece in today’s (26.02.21) The Island!

The Cardinal has been very discreetly and without undue emotions addressing the national issues at stake with substance and authority, and the appropriate actions the government should take. By contrast our Buddhist priests often deviate on political riffraff, praising the political leadership or criticizing it, rather than confining themselves to the matters at stake! Often their utterances over electronic media are disdainful, full of emotion and very unbecoming of monkhood! They are unaware that the moment one becomes emotional, one loses self-control and make a mess of things! They should take a ‘leaf from the ‘Cardinal’s Bible’, as it were!

There is no argument that priests, Buddhist or otherwise should take evidence-based stands on national issues and endeavour to move the political authority in the right direction. They should not go to praise the President or other politicians unduly, but confine themselves to facts of the matter as the Cardinal always does.

What is most disdainful is the manner in which Buddhist monks conduct themselves in protest rallies, often shouting slogans, forcefully breaking through security defenses, and even climbing windows! Very often the leaders of mass demonstrations, especially of universities, are priests. Of course, they do so, knowing that the police will handle them gently, with dignity and respect!

It is noteworthy that other religious leaders hardly participate in protest demonstrations. Even if they do so it is done in a peaceful manner. Our Buddhist priests should follow suit.

The question is where the leading monks who should discipline the juniors are. Many of them are, sadly, the culprits themselves! Have they at least read the “Vinayapitakaya”? Moreover, I am not aware of any instances of Mahanayakas endeavouring to discipline monks. Should they not at least ensure their conduct is on the key principles of “Vinaya Pitakaya”? It is time the Mahanayakas and other leading Buddhist monks addressed this vital issue of discipline of monks as matter of highest priority.

 

Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

Continue Reading

Trending