Wednesday 17th March, 2021
Anyone who has perused the final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on the Easter Sunday terror attacks will agree with Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith that the document is incomplete. The Commission’s hard work should not go unappreciated, as the prelate has rightly pointed out, but it needs to be added that the report hardly provides fresh insights or any individuated reading that can help clear doubts in one’s mind about the real masterminds of the terror strikes.
The PCoI seems to have belaboured the obvious although it was expected to dig deep enough to expose the masterminds of the carnage. It was public knowledge that the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) led by Zahran Hashim carried out the attacks; the yahapalana government (including President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe), defence bigwigs, the police in general and the IGP in particular, the intelligence chiefs and others failed to prevent the attacks despite repeated early warnings. What had to be found out was whether the NTJ had foreign handlers.
The PCoI seems to have dealt with the alleged foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday carnage rather perfunctorily. It has devoted only an eight-page chapter in its bulky report to the claim of a foreign hand in the attacks. This section, in our book, lacks clarity and proper analysis. The witnesses who expressly testified that there was ‘an external hand or conspiracy behind the attacks’, according to the PCoI, are Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, former President Sirisena, former Minister Rauf Hakeem, former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, former Governor Azath Salley, SJB MP Mujibur Rahman, former SIS Director SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena, former STF Commandant M. R. Lateef, former Chief of Defence Staff Ravindra Wijegunaratne, former SDIG CID Ravi Seneviratne and former CID Director Shani Abeysekera. Dismissing their statements as mere ipse dixits (assertions made but not proven), the PCoI report says on page 472, that it did not find any such foreign link. It has, however, recommended that certain identified parties be further investigated.
Factors such as the indoctrination of children, stockpiling of arms and explosives, and the establishment of a terror network complete with training centres suggest that the NTJ and/or its handlers had a long-term strategy. The PCoI would have us believe that it was the circumstances that made Zahran advance his terror attacks. The Commission report says (page 467): “The original plan of Zahran was to attack the Kandy Perahera. But it was advanced due to the recovery of explosives from Wanathawilluwa and international factors. IS was losing ground in Syria and Iraq and called on its faithful to launch attacks. He was also concerned that the law enforcement authorities may apprehend him soon.” But would Zahran have made such elaborate preparations for a one-off attack on the Kandy Perahera or any other target?
The mention of the military setbacks of the IS overseas as a reason for Zahran’s decision to advance his attacks is of interest. Was it from the real IS that he received orders? This question has gone unanswered. We argued, in this column, prior to the release of the PCoI report that it was possible that Zahran and his gang had taken orders from a fake IS created by a foreign spy agency. Senior DIG Jayawardena, who was the Director of SIS at the time of the attacks, told the Commission that there could have been a foreign involvement. The PCoI report (page 218) quotes Jayawardena as having said that an Indian named Abu Hind ‘may have triggered the attacks’; it says, “He [Jayawardena] went on to imply that the intelligence agencies that provided him with the intelligence on 4th, 20th and 21st April 2019 may have had a hand in the attack.” According to the report an ‘international expert on terrorism, who testified in camera, said, “Abu Hind was a character created by a section of a provincial Indian intelligence apparatus, and the intelligence that the Director SIS received on the 4th, 20th and 21st April 2019 was from this operation and the intelligence operative pretending to be one Abu Hind. Operatives of this outfit operate in social media pretending to be Islamic State figures. They are trained to run virtual persona.” (Emphasis added.) The report goes on to say, “The testimony was that Zahran believed Abu Hind was the Islamic State regional representative. Abu Hind was in touch with both Zahran and his brother, Rilwan, and had spoken to Naufer. This part of the evidence is confirmed by the testimony of Hadiya.” It is mentioned on page 220 of the report that according to the aforesaid international expert ‘the Indian Central Government was not aware of the intelligence obtained by the provincial outfit’. Curiouser and curiouser!
If it is true that the NTJ had foreign handlers, then the threat of terror will persist until they are traced and dealt with. There is a pressing need for a separate probe to find out whether an external force was behind the Easter Sunday carnage. Now that the PCoI has said that the aforesaid witnesses did not furnish credible evidence to support their claims that there was a foreign involvement, it is incumbent upon them to provide more information.
Unmasked by virus
Saturday 15th May, 2021
Coronavirus has both masked and unmasked the world, paradoxical as it may sound. It has frightened all humans into masking up and laid bare the true nature of global powers. The pandemic situation has somewhat improved in the rich countries, at long last, thanks to aggressive vaccination drives, but Covid-19 is surging in other parts of the world for want of vaccines, resources and proper political leadership, among other things.
International human rights organisations have expressed serious concern about the plight of the voiceless amidst the global health emergency. Amnesty International (AI) has called upon all States to remain focused on protecting the human rights of the marginalised and vulnerable groups at high risk, such as daily wage earners, prisoners, refugees and the internally displaced. Even when there are no health crises, the aforesaid sections of society, especially in the developing world, find themselves at a disadvantage; their voices and grievances go unheeded. They face a double whammy when health crises occur. The interventions of international human rights groups to have the rights and interests of the voiceless safeguarded are, therefore, most welcome. But these influential outfits must also address issues such as the inequitable vaccine distribution in the world, and the developed nations’ vaccine nationalism, which has put paid to the World Health Organization’s efforts to carry out an effective inoculation campaign across the world to achieve global herd immunity, the be-all-and end-all of humankind’s desperate fight against the pandemic.
Coronavirus seems to have iconoclastic tendencies, as it were; it has done to the so-called brand Modi what the entire Indian Opposition has failed to, all these years. Having totally mishandled the pandemic situation, PM Narendra Modi is struggling to shore up his image vis-à-vis the upsurge of Covid-19 and the failure on the part of his government to protect citizens, who are dying in large numbers. Coronavirus also brought the then US President Donald Trump, who thought no end of himself, down a peg or two, and has exposed leaders in several other countries, too, for what they really are––pathetic failures.
The developed world, which has taken upon itself the task of protecting human rights across the world and even bombs developing countries back into the Stone Age purportedly for that purpose, stands exposed for its hypocrisy. It has chosen to ignore the piteous appeals from other pandemic-hit nations for assistance and, worse, hoarded vaccines while tens of thousands of people are dying elsewhere. The pandemic situation in India would not have been so bad if the developed countries had responded to its appeal for jabs or vaccine raw materials.
AI has called upon the international community to fulfil its human rights obligations as regards cooperation and assistance by providing ‘lifesaving medical tools and removing legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede the production and supply of vaccines as the disease continues to ravage the region’. Its concerns and appeals on behalf of the poor nations should be appreciated, but mere words will not do.
The human rights outfits that bludgeon the developing countries at the drop of a hat out to mete out the same treatment to the rich nations that hoard vaccines and, thereby, endanger the lives of people elsewhere. UNICEF has urged the UK to share a part of its vaccine stockpiles with other nations. The US has pledged to part with 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab, but its much-advertised promise is far from fulfilled. One main reason why the world is short of vaccine doses is that the rich countries maintain huge stocks thereof. The US does not use the AstraZeneca vaccine, but maintains massive stocks of the jab while other countries such as its Quad partner, India, are crying out for help. Let it be repeated that thousands of lives in India could have been saved if the US had lifted the ban on the export of vaccine raw materials and released the spare vaccine stocks in response to New Delhi’s appeal several weeks ago.
The task before the international human rights organisations such as AI is to crank up pressure on the developed world to respect the most sacred of all human rights—the right to life—by parting with a fraction of its vaccine stockpiles, not as charity but at affordable prices.
Syrup in mouth and egg on face
Friday 14th May, 2021
The incumbent government always finds itself up the creek, so to speak, by trying to delay the inevitable and defend the indefensible. The explosive spread of Covid-19, which has led to the current lockdowns, came about as the ruling politicians played politics with the pandemic prevention measures and baulked at imposing travel restrictions in April. Pressure is now mounting on the government from doctors to impose a quarantine curfew as the pandemic situation is taking a turn for the worse with the death toll increasing rapidly.
As if the current health problems were not enough, some SLPP politicians are trying to justify their campaign to promote the Dhammika peniya as a cure for Covid-19; their efforts have left the government with egg on its face. An expert committee has determined that the shaman’s herbal concoction has no therapeutic value, but State Minister of Indigenous Medicine Promotion, Rural and Ayurvedic Hospitals Development and Community Health, Sisira Jayakody, says he is convinced otherwise!
Most government politicians consider themselves more knowledgeable than doctors. Minister Jayakody cut a very pathetic figure, trying to defend the Dhammika peniya, in a television interview, yesterday. Claiming that the expert committee, which rejected the syrup as useless, had not selected samples thereof properly, he insisted that two physicians at a government hospital had vouched for the efficacy of the concoction and recommended it. He did not name them.
Minister Jayakody took the wily shaman and his peniya to Parliament, of all places, and presented it to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena himself; Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarchchi took a swig of it at a media briefing, thereby endorsing it to all intents and purposes. Thousands of people from different parts of the country converged on a village, where the shaman sold the syrup at Rs. 10,000 a bottle and made a killing! Those who jostled and shoved to secure the syrup must have contracted Covid-19 and caused the formation of peni clusters across the country. This aspect of the shaman’s syrup has gone unnoticed.
Now that Minister Jayakody has publicly stated that two government doctors conducted clinical trials, as regards the Dhammika peniya, at a state-run hospital and recommended it, it is incumbent upon the Health Ministry to initiate an investigation. These doctors have committed a serious offence by testing the shaman’s syrup on patients, endorsing it and misleading the government and the public.
Let Jayakody be made to name the doctors involved in the fraud. The government must explain why no action has been taken to prevent the shaman from continuing to the public into buying his syrup; he is still selling the concoction. Is it that the government has refrained from taking any action against the shaman because some of its politicians are benefiting from his largesse?
The health authorities are trying their best to prevent people from gathering in large numbers and to make them maintain physical distancing, but large crowds can be seen at vaccination centres, where no physical distancing is maintained. There are complaints of inordinate delays and politicians and their supporters jumping the queue, but nobody in authority seems to care.
A mass vaccination drive is no easy task, given the financial and logistical constraints. The frontline health workers conducting the national vaccination programme are overworked, and some lapses on their part are inevitable. But such problems are aggravated when all the people to be vaccinated in a Grama Niladari division are made to rush to their vaccination centre together and wait.
Why should hundreds of people be asked to gather at vaccination centres and stand in winding queues for many hours, exposed to the scorching sun, rain and, above all, the runaway virus, to receive the jab? People to be inoculated in a particular area can be divided into groups and time slots allocated to them so that all of them do not have to rush and wait for long hours.
The vaccination process should be streamlined for the benefit of the public as well as the health workers who are going beyond the call of duty to save lives. Politicians are another problem; they must be prevented from visiting the vaccination centres and becoming a public nuisance.
Beds and talkathons
Thursday 13th May, 2021
The government has bowed to the inevitable at last. Countrywide travel restrictions are now in force. Belated as this measure may be, it will go a long way towards curtailing the rapid spread of the pandemic. If only the government had summoned the political moxie to do so during the recent festive season. It is hoped that the unruly government politicians who think they know better than doctors will desist from bulldozing the health authorities into lifting movement restrictions in their constituencies purportedly for the sake of daily wage earners.
The ruling SLPP has undertaken to manufacture 10,000 beds for the Covid-19 treatment centres. This campaign has drawn heavy criticism from the Opposition and a section of the media; it is viewed as an exercise aimed at gaining political mileage and covering up the many failings of the ruling coalition. True, nothing is devoid of politics in this country, and the bed-manufacturing mission smacks of a political project intended to shore up the government’s crumbling image, but its importance and usefulness cannot be discounted. The demand for more beds is bound to increase exponentially as infections surge. What other political parties should do is to stop scoffing at the SLPP project and make a contribution to the country’s fight against the pandemic. They can get together and provide pillows, bed sheets, pillowcases and other such materials for the benefit of the Covid-19 patients receiving residential treatment.
Meanwhile, there has been a call for an all-party conference to discuss ways and means of tackling the national health crisis. Parliament continues to meet, and it, we reckon, is the best forum for matters of national importance to be discussed and decisions thereon to be taken. After all, that is what those in the current Opposition demanded when the last general election was postponed for months on end due to the pandemic. They even demanded that the dissolved Parliament be re-convened to help solve the health crisis. A new Parliament was elected in August 2020, but the country’s problems have not been solved. So, the question is whether there is any need for an all-party conference, which, in our book, will end up being a political circus. The leaders of the political parties worthy of the name are in Parliament and have the ear of the Prime Minister. The President also visits Parliament and they can meet him there, if they care to.
Most political powwows are NATO (No-Action-Talk-Only) events, where politicians who have got talking hind legs off a donkey down to a fine art display their oratorical skills to the point of queasiness. It may be recalled that nothing came of such gatherings even in the aftermath of the worst ever natural disaster that shook the country—the Boxing Day tsunami (2004). So, why waste time on talkathons?
There are however several other ways in which the main political parties and their leaders can help the public in this hour of crisis. They receive colossal amounts of funds for elections, and, as is public knowledge, only a small portion of them is spent on electioneering, and the balance simply disappears. The last parliamentary polls were held less than a year ago, and the main political parties that are making a public display of their concern for the public should contribute a part of their surplus campaign funds to the fight against the pandemic. They can help look after the needy.
Hospitals and quarantine centres require manpower, the demand for which is increasing, and it is not fair to overtax the military personnel, who are rendering a commendable service. Frontline health workers are also exhausted due to the increasing caseloads. Will the patriotic political party leaders and their backers volunteer to do whatever they can at these health institutions under severe strain? Having talked the talk, shouldn’t they now walk the walk?
If political parties can make their leaders and rank and file behave responsibly, that will be the greatest service they can render. They should also prevail on their supporters to follow the Covid-19 protocol strictly and help stop the spread of the pandemic.
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