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‘COOL’ debacle in the hands of fools: He laughs best who laughs last! – I

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by Rohana R. Wasala

Addressing a gathering of jurists in Sinhala at a function in Colombo, Justice Minister Ali Sabry said (12): “To me as Minister of justice, and to us all as citizens of this country, people are the most important factor. It is because of them that this (legal) profession exists; judges sit because of them. Ultimately, the interest of the people must take priority over everything (else). I don’t think I will (Ali Sabry chuckled as he said this) seek to go to parliament again…. I state this without any fear… I will revert to my preferred occupation, that of supporting the judiciary…. We know that some laws of this country have not been updated for over a hundred years. This task (of modernising outdated laws) is our key focus… Some thirty committees are engaged in this work (at present) ….. Then the minister talked about the perennial problem of law’s delays. He claimed that even the Mahanayake Thera, when called on him, asked him to do something about the monks having to visit courts frequently (due to the slowness of court procedures): “We’ll introduce a small claims court as found in other countries; cases that involve less than (Rs) 2 million need no prolonged examination of evidence, except in special instances. A method for resolving these cases through an affidavit system will be put in place. This is to relieve pressure on the district courts”. (Explanations in parentheses are mine. I hope I have interpreted the minister’s meaning correctly. C.O.O.L in the title is a re-arranged acronym for One Country One Law)

The present ruling alliance, the SLPP, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa sought election on the main platform of One Country One Law. However sincerely both reached out to the Tamil and Muslim minorities, and had never practiced discrimination against them in the past, the level of support expected from them was not forthcoming. This was due to the influence that certain communalist Tamil and Muslim politicians exercise over those minorities. It was a fact that the two brothers came to power chiefly on the strength of the SLPP-ideology-inspired Sinhala votes. But, as could be expected, they assured the minorities that their interests would not be ignored in any way; they invited all of them to participate in nation building with the majority community. Steps were taken to ensure that Tamils and Muslims are fully represented in the administration. The key ministry of justice was given by the President to national list MP Ali Sabry. No Minister in the cabinet has to do more with the implementation of One Country One Law concept than Ali Sabry.

Surprisingly, he is now talking as if he has forgotten that all important (at least purportedly so) goal of the government, for which it received the strongest ever electoral mandate. One may think that Ali Sabry is having the last laugh! He implies that even the monks, the most vehement advocates of One Country One Law, are now only complaining about the chronic problem of law’s delays, which, of course, is not a political issue! The One Country One Law ideal involves politics, as it is opposed by a minority of communal and religious extremists.

The appointment of a whistleblower Buddhist monk, who had earned a bad reputation due to his own lack of basic self-restraint and discipline (in spite of his cause being a genuine justifiable one), as head of a presidential task force is as questionable and as irrational as the President’s later appointment of a trade union leader monk as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo; but that is a different matter. Bracketing Ali Sabry with the controversial monk could not be accidental. Though the two are handling closely allied subjects, they are diametrically opposed to each other in their education, religious beliefs, and personal attributes. Probably they were coupled together to neutralise each other, or just to make a mockery of the One Country One Law project.

But extremists are a vanishing tribe nowadays, for there are signs that indicate that these communalists will go out of circulation by the time of the next elections, replaced by the emerging progressive younger generation of Tamil and Muslim politicians, just as the old guard politicians of the two major national parties will be ousted by an alliance of smaller patriotic parties and groups led by a refurbished JVP further strengthened by the return to its fold of its earlier stalwarts,and also accompanied by a rejuvenation of its leadership. The concluding paragraph of an article of mine entitled JVP at a crossroads published in The Island Midweek Review on March 7, 2018 was as follows: “The JVP must take a long, hard look at its wasteful past and subject itself to serious reform as a party. It must get rid of its outdated ideologies and outmoded leaders. It must not condemn the voters as idiots for not voting for them. Most important, the JVPers must find political allies with whom they can coexist and serve the nation.”

(I would now use the term ‘save’ for ‘serve’ in the last sentence.)

I imagine that such a broad alliance will absorb emerging young political activists of all communities including Uvindu Wijeweera (son of JVP founder Rohana Wijeweera), Amith Weerasinghe, Dan Priyasad, Arun Siddhartan et al, and non-extremist ordinary young Muslim, and ex-Muslims such as Rishvin Ismarh (who has fearlessly appeared on national TV channels, speaking against Islamists, risking his life for the sake of the country). Such a winning alliance must have the last laugh. The One Country One Law ideal must be left for them to realise.

That was a sort of anticipatory digression. Let me return to the Ali Sabry factor that is the subject of this piece. A retrospective survey is necessary at this point. About a year ago,

Media secretary Viraj Abeysinghe of the Ministry of Health issued a press statement warning against spreading false information allegedly concocted by certain politicians and websites regarding the subject of whether to bury or burn the bodies of persons who had succumbed to the COVID-19 infection (lankacnews-Sinhala/December 28, 2020). It notified that the Ministry was turning its attention to some ‘politically motivated fake news’ stories featuring powerful politicians connected with the government. The statement further said that for the time being (daenata) cremation alone was done on the instructions of all the expert reports received by the Ministry until then. Very much the same news was carried in Hiru TV News (9:55 pm/December 27, 2020). We felt that this, despite the provisionality expressed by ‘daenata’, was signalling an end to needlessly prolonged dilly-dallying on the part of the authorities about an issue where evidence-based science ought to have had the last word.

Interviewed by two You Tube channels (Hari TV/Lahiru Mudalige/December 16 and Konara Vlogs/Avishka Konara/December 23, 2020) Ali Sabry PC, Minister of Justice, stressed that his struggle was to build bridges rather than walls between the communities. For over eight months by then he had been advocating burial of bodies of Muslims who had died of Covid-19, ignoring the decree of the competent authority, the DGHS (Director General of Health Services). The DGHS was acting on the advice of the local experts who knew best what was suitable for our country in the then existing context, i.e., cremation. The reputed lawyer was the legal consultant of (current president) Gotabaya Rajapaksa at least for 15 years from the latter’s defence secretary days; he had successfully defended the latter against false charges of various kinds fabricated by political opponents. Sabry’s aim of establishing intercommunal harmony had been laudable, and he might be sincere in his efforts in that direction, but how sincere was yet to be demonstrated. This was because it was puzzling that he repeatedly warned that young Muslims were likely to be pushed towards extremism by what they’d perceive as a denial of their right to freedom of religion if the health authorities did not allow the burial of bodies of Muslims claimed by Covid-19. His totally nonsensical stand on the sensitive issue (that had to be left for science, but not religion, to resolve) was likely to give a fillip to extremists and other miscreants opposed to the government to create trouble.

To be concluded



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Opinion

Why cry for Djokovic?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Cassandra, who uses her column liberally to criticise our politicians for giving special treatment to their kith and kin, is shedding tears for Novak Djokovic, who was denied special treatment in Australia! She opines that he should have been segregated and allowed to play in the Australian Open and states in her column, in The Island of 21 January:

“Now, the Aussie Open has lost its glamour and even interest to this ole soul – Cassandra. She hoped Nadal and others would withdraw from the OA. But since it was not their deportation, they go along. Hopefully they will publicly comment in support of their co-sportsman. Nadal already spoke out.”

She may have lost interest in the Australian Open as her favourite was deported but it has not lost its glamour as plenty more talented players are left to display their prowess in Tennis. If at all, the Australian Open has lost its glamour, it is due to the misdeeds of Australia Tennis. More than anything else, what I find ludicrous is her suggestion that Nadal and others should have withdrawn from the tournament in support of Djokovic! Nadal has already spoken out and, as mentioned in my piece which she refers to (Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace; The Island, 18 January), was very clear that if Djokovic makes a stand, he should be prepared to face the consequences. Djokovic has not had Covid vaccination and was well aware that it was a requirement for entering Australia.

Going even further, Cassandra faults our editor by stating; “The Editor of this paper commented on it and seemed to stand for ‘the Law holds for all’. He made no mention of the health waiver the world’s Number One tennis wizard received which he traded on to go to Melbourne in the first place.” It is a pity she has completely disregarded the fact that this waiver was on false premises as Djokovic could not substantiate that he had any medical contraindications to vaccination. In fact, another player stated that it is hardly conceivable for players who play competitive tennis to have contraindications for Covid vaccination!

Interestingly, Tennis Australia is evasive about the circumstances leading to the waiver; it has now been revealed that the Federal Government had informed them well in advance that dual vaccination was the criterion for entry. The State Government of Victoria has claimed that Tennis Australia kept them in the dark about this.

The position of the Federal Government has been vindicated by the unanimous verdict of the three-judge Bench of the Federal Court of Australia, which confirmed not only the legality but also the reason for cancelling the visa. In giving reasons for their judgement the judges state:

“The minister’s justifications for revoking the visa were not “irrational or illogical or not based on relevant material,”

Commenting on the minister’s argument that Mr. Djokovic’s position as a role model who chose to remain unvaccinated against Covid-19 could “foster anti-vaccination sentiment”, they found that he has exercised his disctionary powers lawfully and go on to state:

“An iconic world tennis star may influence people of all ages, young or old, but perhaps especially the young and the impressionable, to emulate him. This is not fanciful; it does not need evidence.”

Cassandra’s cry too illustrates how influential sport stars can be! Perhaps, she should reserve her tears for what may happen in the future. Unless rules are changed, Djokovic would not be able to play in the French Open. Protests, even in Serbia, have died down but it is reported that his sponsors are in talks with Djokovic.

There is yet another interesting twist to the story. According to a post “Mail Online” website , titled “Novak Djokovic’s astonishing Covid-19 decision before coming to Australia is finally revealed”(https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10420013/Novak-Djokovics-astonishing-Covid-19-decision-coming-Australia-finally-revealed.html):

“Novak Djokovic’s hesitancy to get vaccinated is well known – but it can also now be revealed the tennis superstar reportedly purchased a majority stake in a Danish biotech company looking to develop a treatment against Covid-19 in June last year.”

Reuters

has reported that the world number one holds an 80 per cent stake in QuantBioRes, who are currently developing a peptide which prevents the virus from infecting human cells. Djokovic, 34, is said to own 40.8 per cent of the company – while his wife Jelena owns 39.2 per cent.”

Djokovic’s vaccine hesitancy may be for totally different reasons!

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Opinion

Dollar Crisis: What aggravated it

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by Eng. D. Godage

Total foreign currency reserves of the country were around seven billion dollars at the beginning of 2021 but it decreased to around 1.2 billion dollars towards the year end, even though the Central Bank announced that there was a reserve of three billion dollars. The net foreign assets of the total banking system are said to be a US$ 4.1 billion deficit by 2021 end. Everybody knows the suffering and difficulties the countrymen undergo as a result of the depletion of foreign currency or dollar reserves. Without elaborating on those effects, it is the intention of the writer to examine how foreign reserves depleted so fast.

Politicians, officials, public speakers very often tend to blame every government since independence over the past 70 years for ruining this country, but with regard to foreign debt, it is not applicable. Moreover, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt globally but other countries in this region did not suffer as much and face such crises like the ones faced by Sri Lanka, so it is no excuse. It is not essential to elaborate on this fact as it is common knowledge. Consequently, the writer makes an attempt to understand how and when it happened. The focus of this discussion is on infrastructure development, and not other debt instruments.

Debt burden since independence

The Oya project implemented around 1948 using local funds comes to mind. Moreover, from 1950 the major port development scheme of Colombo Harbour created the Colombo Port, one of the most modern ports at the time, by 1956 under the leadership of the Minister of Transport and Works, Sir John Kotelawala in the Dudley Senanayake Cabinet, utilising local funds amounting to 110 million rupees. While work was in progress, the ship ‘Gothic’, carrying Queen Elizabeth II, berthed alongside the newly constructed Customs Quay to christen it the Queen Elizabeth Quay (QEQ). Incidentally, the QEQ was buried in the privately developed SAGT or South Asia Gateway Terminals around year 2000.

The Mahaweli Development Project, a massive irrigation cum hydroelectric scheme originally planned for 30 years but telescoped into about six years, was undertaken by the J.R. Jayewardene government using concessionary loans as well as grants. Funds were provided based on a thorough feasibility study, with eminent engineer late Dr. A.N.S Kulasinghe and his team of engineers working as consultants. Resultant benefits are well known and they did not lead to any debt crisis in the country.

Road and railway infrastructure development has been carried out with locally raised funds. After the 2004 tsunami disaster, the Railway Department staff rehabilitated the destroyed line to recommence operations with the least possible delay. It is said that northern rail line improvements carried out later on loans under Uthuru Wasanthaya had spent two to three times the cost.

Since 1980 the country has seen another major development programme in the port sector. Studies had been conducted at a time of increasing demand for container traffic, confirming the urgent need to expand port facilities. The first phase of expansion, requiring US$ 32 million, was funded in the form of a Yen currency loan. The project progressed systematically aided by further loans, through a transparent bidding process. As a result, the Colombo Port was elevated from the global rank of 127 in 1981 to 21st in 1997. These loans were granted only after proper feasibility studies were carried out and confirmation of loan repayment capability, as affirmed by the lending Japanese Agency. Extensive borrowing for project infrastructure became the norm only after about 2000 and not since independence.

Newer debt accumulation

A Sunday English newspaper on March 9, 2014 and May 1, 2016 reported, with details from the External Resources Department, on 28 projects funded predominantly by China Exim Bank loans amounting to US$ 7,671 million, with five-year grace and 10-year repayment periods; their interest rates are not indicated but is supposed to be over six percent. All these projects are said to have been initiated through unsolicited tenders. The same newspaper published a report under the caption, “Normal tender procedure not possible for mega projects: PBJ”. This is a questionable statement. Further examination of the above list shows seven projects, all in Hambantota, totalling US$ 5,054 million, for airport, port, highway extension, railway extension and local road network. None of them seem capable of generating revenue to repay the massive loans even though they have been in operation for around 10 years by now. These loans alone require about US$1 billion per year as repayment, burdening the country, and using up its dollar reserves. During the previous regime the Hambantota Port was given out on a 99-year lease.

Did the Treasury officials who handled these borrowings not see the danger of the debt burden or debt trap and the country’s inability to repay them without adequate future revenue? One can cite the shifting global financial structure and unforeseen circumstances as the reason. But they should have been taken into consideration in any plan. High costs due to unsolicited proposals without a competitive bidding process are also an issue. As for costs, the Treasury Secretary has said that it is the engineers who determine costs. This is not an acceptable excuse.

The Colombo Port South Harbour was found to be an urgent project, and proved viable after an extensive feasibility study by 2001. After producing detailed designs, cost estimates and all implementation requisites, it was not possible to proceed due to lack of funds. The Hambantota Port project was also given high priority by the same government though two feasibility studies failed to show the viability of the project. For the Colombo Port project, the Treasury Secretary advocated commercial borrowing claiming that the lending agency conditions were unacceptable.

In fact, only one lending agency came forward to offer approximately one third of the fund requirement. The Ports Authority managed to obtain very concessionary loan of US$ 300 million in 2006, to proceed with the project, albeit after a two-year delay. The new harbour was completed successfully within the stipulated time and cost while adhering to a transparent tender process. It is worthwhile to note that the lowest cost, approximately US$ 320 million, was quoted by the Korean contractor who successfully completed it, while the next bid was around US$ 570 million by a Chinese contractor. This project seems to be generating more revenue than budgeted.

In fact, the biggest container ship in the world ‘Ever Ace’, with a carrying capacity of 24,000 TEU, berthed in the Colombo South Harbour in October 2021 as it is the only port in the region that could accommodate a ship of that scale, bringing great honour and promoting the Colombo Port.

Most Chinese funded projects that commenced during the past two decades seem now complete and in operation, spread among power and energy, transportation, airport and aviation, ports, irrigation and water sectors. Debt distribution is US$ 1,553 million in power and energy, US$ 3.99 billion in transportation, US$ 232 million in airport and aviation, US$ 1,336 million in ports and US$ 101 million in irrigation. This includes projects indicated by the aforementioned 2016 news item, and subsequent major projects like the Central Highway are not included.

Expensive ventures like the Norochcholai coal power plant costing US$ 1,346 million have helped to meet the country’s energy demands and there has to be a post project evaluation to ascertain its financial gains and loan repayment capacity. Highway projects undertaken on expensive loans do not seem to generate enough revenue to meet dollar loan repayments. Although some benefits accrue, the post project economic and financial evaluations are not satisfactory. The highest revenue on a peak day on the Southern Highway has been 38 million rupees a day. Considering the average annual turnover minus the operation and maintenance costs it could take 100 years to repay loans. Authorities should perform a post project evaluation for the benefit of future planners.

Lessons to learn

This is history but should not be discarded, for the valuable information and data therein demonstrate the actual scenario and resultant repercussions. Decision makers and economic advisors to the government, especially of the Treasury and any other relevant officials could review them.

The debt burden has aggravated the dollar crisis during the past two decades. The COVID-19 pandemic during the past two years is not an excuse as other countries in the region too have faced the same but are performing better. The negative economic growth in 2020 and the considerable dollar debt burden, with the country’s reserves collapsing have not occurred suddenly. Severe import restrictions have made day to day life of the people inconvenient and led to the collapse of some domestic industries.

The worst is yet to come, as warned by the Secretary to the President, delivering a speech in Colombo, as reported by a Sunday English newspaper on 28 Nov. 2021. He was the Treasury Secretary during the past two decades, when China Exim Bank loans were signed to the tune of billions of dollars mostly for white elephant projects, The massive dollar debt seems the root cause of most problems faced today.

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Opinion

Territorial mindset, a recipe for disaster!

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By Chani Imbulgoda

I recall a documentary on animal life on a TV channel. Describing the behaviour of lions, a caretaker said, “These lions are from the Dehiwala zoo. They are vigilant of other lions entering their territory, if one crosses the boundary they fight to death. They won’t like other lions entering their territory.” The announcer remarked, “Just like humans!”

Exactly, just like us. In the animal kingdom the survival of the fittest is the norm and not crossing others’ territory is a rule of thumb. Since the beginning of human civilisation there have been tales of battles. The Trojan war, Alexander’s, Caesar’s, Napoleon’s wars degraded human values. Saddled with cynicism, hostility and jealousy, we humans, like beasts, are at war with ‘others’ who do not fit into our ideologies or our comfort zones. History is a storehouse of tales of human battles over territories in the guise of civilisation. So-called civilisation itself was won over battles. In the local context, the native ‘Yakkhas’ were massacred by Prince Vijaya to develop ‘Sinhale’. America, Canada, Australia inherit a dark history of looting territories of indigenous people in the name of civilisation. Portugal, Spain, Britain tasted the blood of their ‘colonial slaves’. Centuries later, we have not yet shed our primary animal instincts. We battle tooth and nail to protect our territories, our autonomy, values and interests all in the guise of civilised behaviour.

We rarely welcome outsiders into our territories. In the 40s and 50s, women were kept out of men’s territory. Late British Prime Minister aka Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, had to struggle many years to break through another of man’s territories, the Parliament. In the movie ‘Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley’, she sobs to her husband that contrary to what she previously believed, despite hard work she cannot win on merit and that dedication and passion are irrelevant. One-time Prime Minister, Edward Heath condemns Thatcher’s outspoken nature to force her out of politics. Heath says that the Parliament is akin to an orchestra made up of many musicians and Thatcher is a French horn more loud than appropriate, that threatens the orchestra’s harmony.

This is how men and also women of the same flock air their resentment towards outsiders, in their own words ‘intruders’ who are colourful and loud in action. Insult, indifference, suspicion, suppression, oppression are not uncommon experiences of pioneers in anything in history or at present. I once heard a senior Professor advising a young colleague attempting to change the system for the better, “Lady, look, do not swim upstream, people would not like it.” Yes, despite good intentions any novel act breaks the harmony…That is why the Buddha had many foes. That is why the notorious thief Barabbas was chosen by the crowd over Jesus.

I tried to uproot a tiny cinnamon sapling that grew through my interlock pavement blocks, failing which I crushed it. It made me realise that this is what happens, no matter how valuable you are. If you crop up in a place where you would not be accepted, every effort is made to root out, failing which, crush you, to ensure that you would not resurface. I suppose many of us had faced similar circumstances at work places, in politics or within social circles. Why does this happen, because of ego, envy, distrust or insecurity? Or because someone deemed a threat by another individual, a leader or a group enters their territory?

A pack of wolves has a leader; the protection of lions’ territory is the responsibility of the leader; the leader is the first to announce danger. No outsider can cross the boundary. We see certain lions, wolves and foxes as alphas. The mentality ‘I am the boss, I know everything’ blinds them. They live on ego, with a superiority complex, under the assumption that no one can challenge their power. If the newcomer is meek and sucks up to the leader, he or she survives and can slowly squirm their way into the pack.

I have heard parents complain about how difficult it is to enrol their kids into various sports clubs in schools. I have worked in private as well as public sector organisations, local and overseas. I have experienced antagonistic behaviour in these organisations. Driven by their insecurity, superior or inferior complexes, they would go to any lengths to harass the outsider and go to any extreme to protect his or her territory. They are myopic to the point of rejecting ideas foreign to them no matter how good they are, as they see ‘danger’ in ideas alien to them. Some group ideologies are thicker than blood. Certain professional groups rarely welcome females. They believe that women cannot meet challenges as men do and can be fiercely territorial. Many qualified and capable individuals are ostracised from organisations or industries or expelled from positions because of this territorial mindset.

A person with a territorial mindset is often overcome by thoughts of safeguarding or enhancing his or her power, control, influence and self-proclaimed status. These are primitive emotions. Taking ownership and defending what people believe belongs to them is a positive trait. But it is this mentality that subjects newcomers to agony when they grow too smart for their own good. They are stifled when the power of those with a territorial mindset is threatened. Many novel ideas and skills go to waste while some newcomers or ‘misfits’ are forced to leave their workplaces, others would continue the fight or be forced to conform.

We talk of harmony, reconciliation, tolerance and unity in diversity. Why cannot we synergize each other’s differences? A French horn would add glamour and at least amuse the audience. A garden consisting of a variety of flowers is more awe-inspiring than a garden of roses alone. Poet Khalil Gibran said that when a river enters the sea, the river is no more, it is diluted in salt water and one cannot trace the river in the sea, but the river grows larger and so does the sea. When we come out of our confining shells we are exposed to greater opportunities as well as benefits for both the newcomer and those already in that society.

(The writer holds a senior position in a state university and has an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management [PIM], Sri Lanka and is currently reading for her PhD in Quality Assurance in the Higher Education Sector at PIM. She can be reached at cv5imbulgoda@gmail.com)

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