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Editorial

Caged conscience

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Friday 28th August, 2020

It is ironical that the suspension of a workers’ protest against a move to shift the Dehiwala zoo to a suburb of Colombo has coincided with an expression of regret, such as it is, by a US zoo for having kept an African boy in a cage 114 years ago. Ota Benga, a Congolese, was only 12 years old when he was captured and shipped to the US, where he was made to share a cage with apes as an exhibit in the Bronx Zoo, New York, for about three weeks; large crowds gathered there to see him. When public opinion turned against the caging of a human, the zoo falsely claimed the boy was not an exhibit as such but one of its workers. Benga was later released owing to protests and taken to a seminary, but he committed suicide at the age of 25, as he could not cope with emotional and psychological trauma. More than a century on, thanks to the Black Lives Matter protests, the Bronx zoo had chosen to express regret, foreign media reported yesterday.

The caging of Benga, for a few weeks received a lot of media attention and the Bronx Zoo was condemned internationally for that act of cruelty. It is universally accepted that humans must not be denied the freedom of movement, much less kept in cages, unless they are convicted criminals who pose a danger to society. But the supposedly civilised world has no qualms about meting out such unspeakable treatment to animals. They are separated from their families, shipped all over the world to be kept in cages as exhibits. Worse, political leaders now practise ‘animal diplomacy’, which is to gift the dumb critters to their foreign counterparts. Animals also feel depressed when deprived of their natural habitats and loved ones.

It defies understanding why the practice of caging animals in zoos most of which are characterised by squalor is tolerated. There are many organisations to take up the cudgels for innocent humans thrown behind bars, but hardly anyone gives a tinker’s cuss about millions of animals imprisoned in zoos as a form of public entertainment. Humans realised how depressing it was to have their freedom of movement curbed, during lockdowns although they were in their own homes among their loved ones. The anthropause was a blessing to animals, which roamed about freely even in big cities in some countries.

Former Minister Mangala Samaraweera was once hauled over the coals for saying that Sri Lanka was not a Buddhist country. His was a political statement intended to rile his critics, but can a country that allows the imprisonment of animals, permits their slaughter and unflinchingly rakes in revenue from licences issued for killing dumb creatures consider itself Buddhist? The Buddha advised laypeople not to trade in living beings and flesh.

Some baby elephants in the Pinnawala orphanage, which, in fact, is a baby farm, are cruelly separated from their mothers even before being weaned and made to undergo immense suffering in the process of domestication.

We now have a government which makes a public display of its commitment to fostering Buddhism. But within the first few days of its formation, dozens of sniffer dogs that had served the police and the country faithfully and aged, were auctioned. The successful bidders were total strangers and the police even do not know whether they can look after the precious canines properly. The government has not yet ordered an end to the inhuman practice of selling the canine officers in their twilight years when they need comfort, care and companionship and, therefore, have to be with their handlers who shower affection on them. Throwing them out of the police kennels is as sinful and deplorable as throwing ageing parents into kennels, as we argued in a previous column. Let it be repeated that the canine sleuths of integrity, having served the public diligently, unlike some bipeds in uniform notorious for dereliction of duty and corruption, richly deserve an off-lead life with their caring handlers, as they grow old. We suggest that one of the V8 SUVs used by minsters be auctioned and proceeds utilised to look after the retired sniffer dogs worth their weight in gold.

It is time the ‘civilised’ world realised that animals are not there to entertain humans or be traded in as commodities.



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Editorial

An appeal to Japan

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Thursday 29th September, 2022

President Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have had several productive meetings in Japan and received assurances of more Japanese assistance. This is certainly good news amidst reports of doom and gloom. There is something even more uplifting; Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi has said, at a meeting with President Wickremesinghe, that Sri Lanka should handle development finance in a transparent and fair manner in conformity with international rules and standards. His statement has struck a responsive chord with all Sri Lankans, whose leaders have enriched themselves by stealing public funds and carrying out crooked deals, and ruined the economy.

Japan has been a true friend of Sri Lanka, which has tremendously benefited from the former’s munificence. There is hardly any sector here, which has not gained from generous Japanese assistance. Japan has thrown a lifeline to Sri Lanka, again; it has undertaken to help the latter with external debt restructuring, which is a prerequisite for IMF assistance.

It is being argued in some quarters that Japan is trying to further the interests of the strategic forum, QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), as a member thereof, by intervening to enable Sri Lanka to manage its debt, sort out its economy and lessen its dependence on China. It has also been claimed that two other QUAD members, India and the US, are also actively involved in helping straighten up Sri Lanka’s ailing economy as part of their strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region. However, there is reason to believe that Japan would have helped Sri Lanka anyway. There have been instances where Japan even went out of its way to help Sri Lanka financially. During the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, Japan had to curtail development assistance due to domestic economic compulsions, but it ensured that Sri Lanka would not be affected by its decision; it expedited the process of granting aid to Sri Lanka by having relevant agreements signed in Colombo instead of Tokyo ahead of the implementation of its decision. But the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government with Mahinda as the PM had no qualms about antagonising Japan by cancelling a Japanese-funded light rail transit project on some flimsy pretext. So much for its gratitude!

Let it be repeated that Sri Lankans should be grateful to Japan for its generosity, which has stood them in good stead. But Japan has to do something more to enable this country to come out of the present crisis. Japan should help eliminate bribery and corruption here. It is now public knowledge that a few moons ago, a Japanese diplomat made a complaint to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself that a Cabinet minister had asked for a bribe from a Japanese company. When Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa raised the issue in Parliament, demanding an explanation, President Rajapaksa asked Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva to resign pending an inquiry. But before a proper investigation got underway, President Rajapaksa had to resign, and his successor, Wickremesinghe, true to form, appointed a committee, which exonerated the minister, who was then reappointed to the Cabinet. Silva’s reappointment was a slap in the face of Japan! The silence of the Japanese government over the issue has made some Sri Lankans wonder whether its diplomat made a false allegation.

Sri Lankans hold Japan in high esteem for its zero tolerance of bribery and corruption and its unwavering commitment to upholding accountability in everything it does. They fervently hope that the Japanese government will call for a thorough probe into its diplomat’s complaint at issue, which has been swept under the carpet at this end. That is the best way to ensure that development finance will be handled in a transparent and fair manner here. There will be no hope for this country unless the corrupt elements in the garb of politicians and public officials are weeded out. One can only hope that Japan, India, the US, the EU, the IMF, the World Bank and all other nations and international organisations, which Sri Lanka is now dependent on to turn its economy around, will bring pressure to bear on the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government to put robust mechanisms in place to fight bribery and corruption.

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Editorial

Courting danger

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Wednesday 28th September, 2022

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime has received a stern rebuke from the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) for suppressing the people’s democratic rights. But it is doubtful whether the HRCSL will be able to knock any sense into a bunch of politicians intoxicated with power and determined to bulldoze their way through.

The government is running around like a headless chicken while the economic crisis is worsening. It is busy appointing ministers and setting up committees! It is all at sea. Public anger is rising, and the Opposition parties are all out to tap it to compass their ends.

Chief Government Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has recently called the SLPP dissident group a three-headed donkey. This term, in our book, suits the government better, for the current administration consists of the SLPP, the UNP, and some crossovers from the Opposition. None of them are capable of steering the country out of the present crisis. No wonder the government has failed to live up to the people’s expectations and is resorting to strongarm tactics to neutralise protests against it. The invocation of archaic laws, among other things, to suppress the people’s right to protest is an unmistakable sign of the government’s desperation, which obviously knows no bounds.

The HRCSL has said in no uncertain terms that the Official Secrets Act cannot be used to declare High Security Zones (HSZs), which violate the people’s fundamental rights. A crumbling government is like a dead man walking; it poses a grave danger to society, for it never baulks at anything to consolidate its hold on power, as could be seen from Saturday’s brutal police attack on a group of protesters in Colombo. The country is fast becoming a police state.

The HRCSL has urged the government to withdraw the gazette declaring the HSZs and ‘take measures to ensure that national laws are following the accepted international and national human rights norms and standards and to preclude declarations that violate those norms and standards’. It is only wishful thinking that the government will heed the HRCSL’s wise counsel unless sufficient pressure is brought to bear on it to do so.

Now that the HRCSL has determined that the HSZs have a foundation of sand, the government will have its work cut out to defend itself in courts.

Meanwhile, the JVP has declared that it will launch the next phase of Aragalaya, which is the name given to a leaderless mass protest campaign, which subsequently became politicised. It may be able to hold anti-government protests like the one which the police crushed on Saturday. It has thousands of highly-motivated cadres scattered across the country, and they can be brought to Colombo, from time to time, to stage protests, but there will not be a popular uprising as such unless the people take to the streets of their own volition, the way they did a few moons ago, causing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country.

The government continues to test the people’s patience, which is wearing thin. Crooks have crawled out of the woodwork and are having a field day. They are involved in various corrupt deals, and making a killing at the expense of the people. Those who bankrupted the country and inflicted untold suffering on the public are now using force to suppress the people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights.

The people have also been denied their right to vote; the Provincial Council and local government elections have been postponed, and there is no way the public can give vent to their pent-up anger democratically. The government is playing with fire.

At this rate, the day may not be far off when unbearable economic woes, abuse of power, rampant corruption and the suppression of people’s democratic rights triggers a tsunami of public anger, which will be far worse than the July uprising; the HSZs will face the same fate as the country’s littoral pummelled by the Boxing Day killer waves that barrelled across the Indian Ocean, in 2004; no one connected to the government will be safe. The people are driven by anti-politics, and the odds are that even the JVP leaders who have undertaken to play a messianic role may have to head for the hills in such an eventuality.

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Editorial

When ‘future’ starves

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Tuesday 27th September, 2022

Doctors have expressed serious concern about an increase in the prevalence of malnutrition among children, and called for remedial action. Their call should be heeded. But some medical professionals who curry favour with the government have sought to pooh-pooh the reports that child malnutrition is on the rise. Claiming that the issue has been blown out of proportion, they have even found fault with the use of internationally accepted yardsticks anent children’s weight, height, etc., in determining the levels of undernutrition and malnutrition here. Commenting on the much-publicised issue of a poor girl bringing coconut kernel to school for lunch, a pro-government doctor has extolled the nutritional properties and health benefits of coconut meat! He went on to say that there was nothing wrong in eating fresh coconut kernel, and, in fact, it was very nutritious and children should be encouraged to consume it! This is what Sri Lankans call a yanne-koheda-malle-pol answer; it was totally irrelevant. The issue is not whether coconut kernel is nutritious but whether it can be used as a substitute for lunch over a period of time. If so, why don’t the doctors defending the government give their children coconut kernel instead of balanced meals? Do they ask their children to take coconut meat to school?

It is unfortunate that some medical practitioners allow their political views to colour their professional opinions on issues of national importance, and have failed to be from the political riff-raff.

There has been a rapid deterioration of nutritional status in this country over the past couple of years, as is known to most Sri Lankans, especially the poor parents struggling to keep the wolf from the door. When inflation soars, people have to reduce food consumption, and nutrition disorders become inevitable. Sri Lanka is among the first five countries with the highest food inflation rates in the world.

Hunger however is not a problem confined to Sri Lanka or the developing world for that matter. It has manifested itself even in some developed countries. An article, Schools in England warn of crisis of ‘heartbreaking’ rise in hungry children, in The Guardian (UK) of 25 Sept., makes a shocking revelation. Quoting headteachers from across England, it says, ‘Children are so hungry that they are eating rubbers or hiding in the playground because they can’t afford lunch …. One school in Lewisham, south-east London, told the charity about a child who was ‘pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox because they did not qualify for free school meals and did not want their friends to know there was no food at home.” The article also quotes Naomi Duncan, the Chief Executive of a charity called ‘Chefs in Schools’, as having said, “Kids are coming in having not eaten anything since lunch the day before. The government has to do something.”

It is hoped that the ruling party politicians and their apologists here will not claim that Sri Lanka is ahead of England as regards child nutrition because in that country children eat rubbers in school but their Sri Lankan counterparts have at least coconut kernel. Given the severity of hunger among schoolchildren in England, it is not difficult to imagine how bad the situation in this country is.

What is reported from England is certainly bad news for Sri Lanka, which is dependent on the munificence of the developed nations such as the UK for food aid. When the rich nations face a food crisis and their children starve, they will be compelled to curtail funds for international aid. Hence the need for the government of Sri Lanka to stop relying entirely on other countries for food aid, and do everything in its power to meet the problem head on lest the situation should worsen. It has to pull out all the stops to increase national food production, and prevent food waste while eliminating wasteful expenditure and channelling funds so saved to children’s welfare programmes.

Children are called the future of the nation, and rightly so, and it is incumbent upon the government to ensure that they do not starve.

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