Aftermath of X-Press Pearl
The recovery of the voyage data recorder (VDR) of the dangerous cargo laden container ship, X-Press Pearl, the burning and subsequent sinking of which caused this country an unprecedented and unimaginable environmental disaster may help ongoing investigations to establish where culpability for alleged negligence or irresponsibility lie. The VDR is the equivalent on a ship of the ‘black box’ voice and data recorder in the cockpit of an aircraft vital for investigation of a plane crash. Fortunately, merchant shipping authorities, assisted by the navy, were able to recover this instrument, from the bridge of the now submerged vessel. It is now available for analysis and a court order has already been made to begin this process.
But there have been reports that because there had been little, if any, navigation on the bridge since the ship’s crew was evacuated from the vessel on May 25, the VDR may not have recorded substantial new information about recent events on board. Nevertheless it provides an added resource for investigation of the disaster.
The matter that is most in contention at the time this is being in written is whether ship’s local agent had deleted email communications between the vessel and himself as has been alleged. The fact that there was a leak in a container of nitric acid on board the ship has been known several days before the vessel anchored in Colombo’s outer harbor. The vessel had in fact attempted to off load the leaking container at two other ports, one in the Middle East and the other in India. Hamad in Qatar said it did not accept transshipment containers while Hazira in India had pleaded lack of facilities.
If the port authorities here knew of the problem well in advance, it would most likely have permitted priority berthing to deal with the emergency. The Chinese-run CICT (China International Container Terminals) controlled by China Merchant Port Holdings, one of the world’s largest port operators, with state-of-the-art equipment, would well have been able to handle the task. This is what the head of the Ceylon Association of Steamer Agents said in a recent television interview.
But from the narrative now in the public domain, it appears that the port authorities here had not been informed of the problem when the ship entered anchorage on the night of May 19 although the local agent had the information. How true or not that is remains to be established. If emails have been deleted as alleged, it will be possible to retrieve them through the ship’s server and this has been ordered.
Events had subsequently unfolded rapidly. First a fire on hold number two was reported but Colombo was told that the fire fighting capability on board had dealt with it. Thereafter the fire reignited and winds blowing at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour fanned the flames. The massive effort mobilizing all available resources, including air support and fire fighting tugboats, to bring the blaze under control failed dismally.
According to international safety requirements, no dangerous cargo can be stored below deck and the nitric acid containers could not have been in the hold where the first fire was reported. Whether the leaking acid triggered the fire below remains an open question.
On top of all else, it is feared that we at risk of a massive oil spill as we stagger under the Covid pandemic Whether that will come to pass has not been made clear as this comment is being written. But we have to be prepared for the worst even with the limited resources we command. International assistance that will always be available to combat a catastrophe as big as this has already been mobilized. An Indian ship equipped for such emergencies is on standby at the scene.
The stricken vessel is reported to have been carrying about 350 tonnes of fuel on board when she arrived at the Colombo anchorage. The optimistic assessment, not yet confirmed, is that much of this would have been burnt in the massive fire that raged aboard before the ship began to sink. But pictures of what appeared to be an oil slick were beamed by at least one local television station that sent a crew to cover the sinking ship. Hopefully much of the fuel oil, if not all of it, has been destroyed in the fire.
The X-press Pearl was carrying among other cargo a large volume of plastic pellets, raw material for the plastic industry, some of which was consigned to Colombo, among other cargo like chemicals and cosmetics. Billions of these pellets have been washed ashore on our beaches and many more would yet be in the sea. Beach clearing operations have begun but how effective they would be even in the short and medium term is yet to be seen.
Dead sea creatures including turtles are being washed ashore and marine environmentalists predict vast damage that can extend to a hundred years. Fishermen fear for their livelihood. What would polluted beaches do to out tourist industry? It is unlikely that even if we are compensated in billions by insurers, as is being freely claimed, that this country can never again be what it was before the disaster. There is no escaping the reality that a long tough haul lies ahead.
Death-row prisoner’s undying quest
Tuesday 30th May, 2023
Prisons are gloomy places devoid of hope, and hardly anything uplifting emanates from behind their tall walls. In this country, they are veritable hellholes. In the developed world, the structure of prison life is re-engineered as a parallel universe, as it were; prisoners are trained to behave responsibly like the members of society at large, as part of their rehabilitation programmes. This novel approach is reported to have yielded very encouraging results, but hopelessness continues to reign in death row cells, especially in the countries where capital punishment is carried out. But amidst a national feeling of doom and gloom, an ennobling story has been reported from the Welikada Prison, of all places. It is about a death row prisoner’s undying quest for learning!
Ten prisoners are sitting the ongoing GCE O/L examination, and among them is a death-row inmate of the Welikada jail, we are told. Despite his criminal record, this particular prisoner could be considered a poster boy of sorts for the promotion of the value of education in a country where the school drop-out rate is disconcertingly high. Researchers have pointed out that a large number of students drop out in Grade 11 before sitting the GCE O/L examination or after failing it; the drop-out rate among boys is believed to be as high as 46.7%, and it is said to be 33.3% among girls. There are many causative factors, which have gone unaddressed by policymakers all these years.
We learn that the much-maligned prison authorities are considerate enough to encourage the inmates who are desirous of pursuing studies to do so and provide necessary facilities. They deserve praise for that, and one can only hope that more inmates will avail themselves of the opportunity to study and sit examinations.
Some lawbreakers having thus sought to enrich their lives with education, which enables one to acquire knowledge, broaden one’s understanding of the world and gain tools to achieve progress, the question is why not all lawmakers are not keen to do so.
The task of carrying out legislative duties and functions requires a certain level of education; a person without basic mathematical and language skills cannot read and understand vital documents such as the appropriation Bill, much less analyse economic data and make decisions based thereon. The fact that many MPs do not understand the annual Budget at all becomes obvious from their behaviour during the debate on it; they cannot have any serious discussion on the Budget; they resort to hurling abuse and filth, instead, to cover up their ignorance. In 2015, the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared in Parliament that most MPs did not know a Treasury bond from James Bond!
Parliament has not favourably considered media requests that the educational qualifications of the MPs be made available officially. Journalists have had to settle for what is provided by the MPs themselves voluntarily, and there is no guarantee of the accuracy of such information. How can we expect the national legislature to act in a transparent manner when it refuses to reveal the educational qualifications of its members officially?
Some Ministers look as confused and funny as Donkey, the deuteragonist in Shrek, the animated comedy film, when they meet experts, especially foreigners. They cut very pathetic figures, and their behaviour is cringeworthy. A country is known internationally by the representatives it elects, and foreign investors may not take Sri Lanka seriously so long as jokers remain at the levers of power. No wonder other countries such as Singapore have overtaken us.
Ranjan Ramanayaka set an example by sitting the GCE O/L and A/L examinations to obtain necessary qualifications for higher education when he was an MP. This is the right attitude that all adults who have missed opportunities early in life to complete their school education should adopt. His example is worthy of emulation, his theatrics notwithstanding.
It looks as if our honourable lawmakers who are refusing to reveal their educational qualifications for obvious reasons had to learn from the aforesaid lawbreakers who have realised the value of education.
When sinners cast stones
Monday 29th May, 2023
Sri Lankan politics has become such a lucrative pursuit that whenever one happens to go past the iconic House on the picturesque Diyawanna eyot, one remembers a popular saying associated with the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800: ‘There is gold in thar hills.” An Opposition MP who hoodwinked the people and struck a Faustian bargain with the current regime has come under heavy fire for a botched attempt to smuggle in three and a half kilos of gold and about 100 smartphones via the BIA VIP section. Many are those who are baying for his blood, as it were.
In what may be considered a rare moment of unity, some SLPP MPs have endorsed the Opposition’s demand that MP Ali Sabri Raheem be ousted from Parliament forthwith for his abortive smuggling bid, which caused him to be fined by the Customs, the other day. Declaring that Raheem has brought the entire Parliament into disrepute, and violated the MPs’ Code of Conduct, they have, in the same breath, urged the public not to tar all MPs with the same brush.
True, not all MPs are rogues, but those who actually do not deserve to be bracketed with the likes of Raheem are only a microscopic minority. There’s the rub. So, when politicians condemn their rivals for nefarious activities, which are legion, it is a case of sinners stoning sinners.
There are some educated, intelligent men and women of integrity among the MPs who are demanding that MP Raheem be made to walk the plank, but the fact remains that they have been members of corrupt regimes responsible for ruining the country; they also have a history of lionising corrupt political leaders as their ultimate heroes and heroines, and helping the latter gain legitimacy and take the public for a ride, and, therefore, the question is whether they themselves have any moral right to keelhaul the corrupt elements among politicians.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have ordered that hi-tech scanners be installed immediately at the BIA VIP terminal, which has functioned as a green channel for crooks in the garb of VIPs, all these years. Welcome as such technological measures may be, they will serve little purpose if smugglers happen to be powerful politicians and their kith and kin. Perhaps, MP Raheem would have been able to bring in the contraband gold and phones safely if he had been a Cabinet Minister or a trusted crony of the powers that be. The BIA VIP section represents, in microcosm, society at large, and the root cause of the problem of what may be called VIP corruption in this country is the existing culture of impunity.
Ironically, within the ranks of the SLPP, which has lent its voice to the Opposition’s campaign to have MP Raheem ousted, are some notorious lawbreakers, who should have been thrown behind bars long ago. In the US, a Trump supporter has been sentenced to four and a half years in jail for propping his legs on the Speaker’s desk during the Capitol riot (2021). But the Sri Lankan MPs who went on the rampage in Parliament, in 2018, tried to harm Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and damaged his desk and chair in a bid to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government, have got off scot-free. Interestingly, last year, those violent characters backed Wickremesinghe to the hilt when Parliament voted to elect a President, and have since been his die-hard supporters!
Impunity that politicians enjoy frustrates efforts to restore the rule of law and cleanse politics, as is public knowledge. If the main political parties and their leaders are serious about eliminating bribery and corruption, abuse of power, etc., they have to tackle the problem of crooks entering politics at source. They must end the practice of nominating disreputable characters to contest elections. If they field only decent men and women in electoral contests, the country will gain. The people, who take to the streets, condemning corrupt politicians and demanding a ‘system change’ are also responsible for the pollution of politics and the country’s bankruptcy, for it is they who elect crooks. Unless the political parties and electors get their act together, the corrupt will continue to dominate politics and go places at the expense of the country.
MP Raheem, we believe, must be sacked from Parliament. But he should not be singled out for punishment. The SLPP should take action against Chief Government Whip and Minster Prasanna Ranatunga, who has been given a suspended jail term and fined by the Colombo High Court for demanding money with menaces from a businessman. Action is also called for against the SLPP MPs who violated the MPs’ code of conduct by threatening the Speaker and damaging parliament property in 2018.
Honorable MP in the Customs net
Whether they will admit it or not, politicians in the country are well aware that they are not top of the pops where public opinion is concerned. Few people rate politicians positively although there are many exceptions. Last week’s gold and smartphone smuggling detection at the Bandaranaike International Airport served to aggravate this assessment. Puttalam District MP Ali Sabri Raheem arriving from Dubai was detected, on a tip off, by customs and found carrying contraband worth Rs. 75 million.
Telephones hummed and he was able to reach the highest in the land who reportedly promised to “go into the matter.” Thankfully, he got no respite, the contraband was confiscated and he was slapped with a fine of Rs. 7.4 million which was quickly paid. Raheem was free within hours and was able to be present in Parliament to vote against the government motion to sack Janaka Ratnayake, the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL).
He went over national television to plead his innocence blaming an unnamed golaya for the crime. This worthy, the MP claimed, had packed their bags and the politician said he did not know what went into them. That, of course, is a story that will be hard to sell. People are not as gullible as Raheem would like to believe. Though photographs of customs officers posing with the contraband detected have been widely published, the public is totally ignorant of many relevant details of this detection. In the first instance, who was this person who accompanied the MP? Was he a paid member of the MP’s staff? Was the contraband found only in the MP’s baggage or was it divided between the two passengers’ bags? If so, was the golaya, who the MP has publicly blamed for the scandal also been questioned and what did he say? Queries on all these matters and more remain unanswered and only the tip of the iceberg has surfaced.
Predictably there have been many developments since the smelly stuff hit the fan. It was reported on Friday that some 20 MPs, mostly belonging to opposition parties, have handed a letter to the speaker requesting an investigation. They have rightly said that a scandal of these proportions would result in all parliamentarians being tarred with the same brush in the court of public opinion. The cynic would say that they need ot bother on this score as this has already happened in the public mind, with politicians and not only parliamentarians, having been negatively viewed long before the newest scandal broke.
Be that as it may, we wonder whether the speaker has any role in such matters. MPs are very conscious of their rights and privileges and there have been occasions where the speaker’s permission – he is the custodian of such rights and privileges – were obtained before an MP is questioned by police in the case of an investigation. This has been demanded on occasions when need for such questioning arose. There is also a code of conduct for parliamentarians adopted in March 2018. Clearly the recent smuggling matter would (or should) be caught up it that.
People could well ask whether hurling missiles, throwing chilli flakes in the parliamentary chamber and not allowing the speaker to take his seat and perform his functions do not come within the ambit of the code. If it does, why did not what happened in the House during the “October Revolution” of 2018 when then President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed Mahinda Rajapaksa in his stead, come under the glare of that well-intentioned but seemingly impotent code?
Apart from the demand that the speaker looks into Raheem’s conduct and take appropriate action, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has seen a deeper conspiracy. He alleged on Thursday that the MP, free of the customs clutches, rushing to parliament post-haste to vote against the resolution to remove the PUCSL Chairman from his post was a government plot to lump Raheem with the opposition! That worthy himself is on record saying he voted against the government as there was nobody to help when he needed assistance. “So why should I vote for that government?”, he asked
Criminals are usually not apprehended committing a first offence. The fact that somebody knew that something was going on and was able to tip off the customs suggests that this recent detection is not a one off. Why should Members of Parliament be issued diplomatic passports and accorded VIP facilities at the airport? What differentiates them from ordinary people whose votes catapulted them into positions of privilege with perks galore at the taxpayer’s expense? Tipping off customs is, of course, a lucrative business with fat reward entitlements. Whoever blew that whistle which felled the MP will benefit tidily. Let us hope that such a person does not get a bullet in his head from a motorcycle gunman for his pains as is becoming all too common today in this island of ours.
A question was also asked in parliament why the fine imposed was relatively modest considering the value of the contraband. We believe that the law permits a fine three times the value of the smuggled goods. In this instance it had been a mere 10 percent. State Minister of Finance Ranjit Siyambalapitiya had replied that the fine that was slapped was highest for such offences in recent times.
Admittedly a fine of over Rs. 200 million might never have been collected. Such fines seldom are. Of course the confiscation of the contraband would have cost somebody very big bucks. Couriers are widely used for smuggling via passenger baggage and how tight a hold the customs has on this business method that is widespread is anybody’s guess.
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