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Editorial

First things first!

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Tuesday 12th October, 2021

The government apparently does not care to get its priorities straight. It also bites off more than it can chew. It is now talking about a new Constitution and a different electoral system instead of doing something to ameliorate the suffering of the people, who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door.

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa came forward to run for President, he may not have had the foggiest idea of the mess he as well as the country was getting into. Today, he finds himself in an unenviable position. He has many seemingly intractable problems to contend with on all fronts. The pandemic is far from over, and the people are behaving in such an irresponsible manner, ignoring as they do the Covid-19 prevention protocols, that an explosive spread of the disease may come sooner than expected. It is doubtful whether the country will be able to afford another lockdown to save lives. The prices of essential commodities have gone into the stratosphere and are still rising. The economy is in very bad shape. The country’s foreign exchange reserves are woefully low. The rupee is unstable. As if these problems were not enough, there have been warnings of threats to national security, according to media reports. The President thus has his plate full, and why he has undertaken to introduce a new Constitution expeditiously is the question.

True, the present Constitution has some serious flaws, which need to be rectified. But the real problem is not the flawed supreme law as such but the kind of leaders we elect. The late J. R. Jayewardene, who was long in the tooth when he became the Prime Minister in 1977, wanted to savour as much power as possible in the shortest possible time. He appointed himself the Executive President by introducing the existing Constitution, and changed it according to his whims and fancies. His successors were no better except perhaps D. B. Wijetunga. What else is to be expected of politicians who cannot think, much less act, like statespersons?

There have been only two progressive constitutional amendments, and both of them came into being under weak governments. Unfortunately, they are now defunct. The 17th Amendment was passed to whittle down some powers of the executive presidency while President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government was on the verge of collapse in 2001. The 19th Amendment was introduced after the 2015 regime change while the yahapalana government was wooing the public to win the general election, which came a few months later. President Maithripala Sirisena was enthralled by euphoria, and therefore did not mind being stripped of some of his executive powers. When he wised up to what was going on, he objected. All draconian constitutional amendments were introduced by powerful governments at the behest of their leaders. The 18th Amendment (2010) was the brainchild of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the incumbent President, following in the footsteps of his elder brother, had the 20th Amendment enacted.

It, however, needs to be added that the 17th Amendment was not without flaws, which were mainly due to the mighty hurry on the part of its architects to secure its passage. They telescoped the process of drafting it into a few weeks. The 19th Amendment contained some questionable provisions introduced to empower the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to act as the de facto head of state.

So, in our book, before pressing for a new Constitution, we need a radical rethink about our assessment of the persons we elect as our leaders; given their insatiable greed for power, even if we were to write the best Constitution in the world, some leader down the line thirsting for self-aggrandisement would still change it in case of being able to secure a two thirds majority in Parliament. Electing the right people as our representatives is half the battle in ushering in good governance with or without the present Constitution.

President Rajapaksa has not mentioned when he is planning to unveil the new Constitution, but as for his offer at issue, it is better to let sleeping dogs—feral ones at that—lie at least until the many problems that the country is beset with are sorted out. Street demonstrations for or against a draft Constitution is the last thing we need while struggling to contain the worst-ever health crisis and make ends meet. First things first!



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Editorial

When chickens come home …

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Tuesday 19th October, 2021

The world is mourning the death of a senior British lawmaker. The coldblooded murder of Sir David Amess, which shook the world, has been widely condemned. The British government lost no time in calling the savage crime an act of terrorism, and the British MPs declared equally fast that terror would not win. They no doubt mean what they say anent the assassination of Sir David and threats to them as well as their country’s national security, but the question is whether they have the same concern for the other nations affected by terror.

Scientists who experiment with dangerous germs to produce biological weapons run the risk of being hoist with their own petard. The same could be said of the powerful countries that use terrorism to advance their hidden agendas, Britain is no exception. It has been harbouring various terror activists, and some of its MPs are unashamedly abusing their positions to help further the interests of foreign terrorist groups in return for votes and other such favours.

Following the killing of Sir David, there have been strident calls for stern action against terrorism. They must be heeded. Curiously, this is not the way Britain reacted to the assassination of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005, or the killing of any other political leader for that matter. It together with the other self-appointed Co-Chairs of what was then known as Sri Lanka’s peace process pressured Colombo to continue to negotiate with the LTTE, which killed Kadirgamar. That the LTTE had assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Opposition Leader Gamini Dissanayake, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and a large number of Sri Lankan Tamil political leaders also did not matter to the UK, and other western nations.

Britain’s counterterror strategy has not worked. It was to safeguard British national security interests that the UK joined forces with the US to wage war on Afghanistan. In 2009, the then British PM Gordon Brown publicly called the Afghan mission a ‘patriotic duty’ to keep the streets of Britain safe from terror attacks. His Foreign Secretary David Miliband also maintained that the Afghan war would ensure the safety of Britain. But they thought wrong.

Much is being spoken about the radicalisation of some Muslim youth, who carry out terrorist attacks in various parts of the world, and the role that the ISIS plays therein. The UK, the US and their allies must take responsibility for creating conditions for the emergence of ISIS, through their invasion of Iraq. The West has also provided a perfect foil for Islamic extremists by carrying out hostile campaigns against the Muslims. If the US had cared to develop Afghanistan after achieving its strategic goal of getting rid of the Russians from that country, the Taliban would not have been able to emerge so powerful. The UK and the US also provided assistance to terror groups in Iraq and Syria and thereby facilitated the development of the ISIS terror network. In 2015, the UK suddenly terminated criminal proceedings against a man accused of being involved in terrorism in Syria, when it became known that the British intelligence had provided arms and other military assistance to the terrorist group, of which the accused had been a member!

It is high time the British Parliament realised the danger of its members being swayed by the agents of terrorists, who offer votes, etc., in return for various favours they receive. The need for the UK to abandon its double standards on terrorism cannot be overemphasised. Chickens come home to roost.

Terrorism is an evil—never a justifiable means to an end—which must be eliminated in all its forms and manifestations for the sake of humanity. Time was when the western powers laboured under the delusion that they were too strong to be affected by terrorism, which they were using to further their interests, but today they have become as vulnerable as others. The World Health Organization’s pithy slogan as regards the current pandemic is applicable to the scourge of terrorism as well: No country is safe until every country is safe.

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Editorial

Leave animals alone!

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Monday 18th October, 2021

A move to set up a zoo on a 72-acre land (in Piliyandala), which has been allocated for the construction of a veterinary hospital, and a factory to manufacture food for zoo animals, has incensed the Dehiwala zoological gardens workers. The protesters have blamed Minister of Power Gamini Lokuge for the controversial zoo project, and warned of trade union action if he is allowed to have his way. They are reported to have made representations to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in this regard. Lokuge’s response to the zoo workers’ protests was not known at the time of writing.

Minister Lokuge is one of the senior politicians who have, to borrow a one-liner from Bob Hope, reached ages when candles cost them more than their birthday cakes. It is high time they concentrated on meritorious deeds more than anything else, and showed some compassion towards dumb animals whose rights must be safeguarded. Lokuge and other government worthies ought to heed what Arahat Mahinda told King Devanampiyatissa: “King, you are only a custodian of this land held in trust. Not only human beings but also wild animals and birds have the right to move freely in this land.”

It may be recalled that Minister Lokuge made a song and dance when the Kesbewa public health officials imposed travel restrictions in the Piliyandala area, which had become a Covid-19 hotspot, a few moons ago. He had their decision reversed immediately and the area reopened because he did not want his supporters’ movements restricted in his electorate. But he wants hundreds of animals held in a prison for life in the same electorate.

A zoo is an animal prison, which should have no place in the civilised world. Animals must be allowed to live in their natural habitats free from human interference. Human interventions are permissible only when they are aimed at saving animals in danger. Many species are endangered because humans destroy their habitats such as forests depriving them of food and water. This is the main reason for the human-elephant conflict in this country. When the affected wild animals invade human settlements in search of food and water they are killed. The incumbent government seems to have a problem with animal habitats, especially forests. We have recently reported, quoting a senior environmentalist, that the government has decided to hand over 6% of the land in the Anuradhapura District to a private company for cultivating Aloe Vera. This deal is bound to worsen the human-elephant conflict in the area.

There are other reasons for wild animal invasions, we pointed out in a previous comment, quoting Dr. Nishan Sakalasooriya of the University of Kelaniya, who has said that the prolonged neglect of forest tanks or kuluwew built for special purposes such as storing rainwater, enriching groundwater level, providing water for wild animals, maintaining the food chain, etc., has caused the problem of wild elephants, monkeys, porcupines, giant squirrels and wild boar invading village ecosystems and threatening the settlers in an unprecedented manner. Insects, rats and snakes also enter residential and farming areas as a result, he has said, concluding that if the kuluwew are renovated systematically and forest ecosystems restored, the wild animal threat can be reduced by about 80 percent. Instead of doing so, the government is alienating forest land for plantations and encouraging its henchmen to encroach on animal habitats.

When a human is wrongfully detained, there erupt protests, and rightly so; fundamental rights petitions are filed, and street demonstrations held to pressure the state to release the victim. But the rights of animals are taken for granted; thousands of them are held in ‘prions’ in this country, but no action is taken against the perpetrators.

The practice of animals being used as exhibits must be discontinued. They are not there to be kept in cages or in ‘open prisons’ for people to have the pleasure of viewing. They must be able to live freely in forests and other such habitats where they belong.

As for the Piliyandala land, where Lokuge reportedly wants animals imprisoned, we have a suggestion; an open-air prison should be set up there for the politicians who abuse their power to commit various crimes, steal public assets, and have become a threat to society.

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Editorial

Will exposés become fish wrappers?

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Journalists the world over are familiar with an expression worn thin over decades and more: ‘yesterday’s news is only fit to wrap the fish in!’ That’s exactly what’s happened to the Pandora Papers that made big news a few days ago in this country and many others globally who’s leaders/citizen had been fingered. A week later, with three weeks yet to go for the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption to respond to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s one month’s deadline for a report, the whole business is nearly forgotten. Hardly a bleat is heard. Readers would remember that the Panama Papers where a massive data base of some 11.5 million files from Mossac Fonseca, the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm made global waves; and a number of Lankans and companies incorporated here were named. But this is now less than a dim memory. That was over five years ago and, as far as we know nothing much has happened since, anywhere, about that exposé, also by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Will that material, and this, eventually become fish wrappers?

However that be, there are many matter that arise that deserve attention not only from governments but also from the wider public. All of us are aware of the numbered bank accounts that have made Swiss banks both rich and famous. Such accounts, with multi-digit numbers known only to the client and selected bankers, add another layer to banking secrecy. But they are not completely anonymous. That’s because the name of the client is still recorded by the bank and is subject to what’s called “limited warranted disclosure.” Such hiding holes are widely sought by the wealthy to stash away both legitimate and ill-gotten wealth from the prying eyes of governments, law enforcement agencies, taxpeople and sometimes even spouses. Lesser known is the fact that such facilities are no longer the exclusive preserve of the Swiss. They are now available in over a dozen countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Apart from numbered bank accounts, there are many tax havens in several parts of the world widely used for both money laundering and tax avoidance. They are useful not only to those anxious to exploit their possibilities but also to the service-providing countries to enrich national coffers.

Since the Pandora Papers hit the headlines, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has made several noteworthy speeches into the expose` which linked hundreds of Pakistanis, including members of his cabinet to wealth secretly moved through offshore companies. Khan has promised action if wrongdoing is established just as much as our own president has done. Ownership of offshore holding companies is not illegal in most countries including, we believe, Sri Lanka. But they are frequently used to avoid tax liability or to maintain secrecy about large and shady financial transactions. Even before the smelly stuff hit the fan with the publication of the Pandora Papers, Khan addressing the UN International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity Panel called upon countries he termed tax havens to “adopt decisive actions” and return wealth looted from developing countries. Saying that the figures were staggering, he estimated that perhaps a trillion dollars were siphoned off in this manner and much of that were bribes received by corrupt white collar criminals. Demanding that the bleeding of poor and developing countries must stop, he urged that stolen assets of developing countries including proceeds of corruption, bribery and other crimes must be returned immediately.

Where Sri Lanka is concerned, the liberalization of the economy in 1978, not 1977 as commonly stated, resulted not only in devaluation of the currency and the stupendous increase in the money supply, but also the commencing of massive and expensive infrastructure and other development projects of which the Accelerated Mahaweli Development was perhaps the largest. This resulted in the award of gigantic contracts on a scale previously not known in this country. Such contracts also meant commissions, and what these were and who collected them was largely unknown. Since then we have had many other very large projects. While the country knows what the taxpayer paid for these as revealed in the figures presented to parliament and budgeted for, what kind of commissions were paid and to whom, is information largely outside the public domain. While decision-making politicians and perhaps bureaucrats are widely suspected to have been beneficiaries of such loot, companies, some well known and others less so, have been identified as agents of various contractors. Whether such funds were duly accounted for and the taxes thereon paid remains unknown.

Whistles have been blown here but we have unfortunately not been able to obtain the cooperation, for example of the Government of the United Arab Emirates about loot allegedly stashed in Dubai. Nobody can expect companies providing haven to ill-gotten gains to cooperate with bloodhounds on their trail. Imran Khan’s appeal to tax haven providers can only fall on deaf years as has happened before and will continue to happen in the future. Third world countries claiming to pursue criminals who had bled their economies will only do so if the quarry belongs to an opposing camp. Governments will only chase opponents and when they change, investigations already undertaken, not without influence of ruling powers, will be abandoned as we have too often seen. As the late Sunil Perera of the Gypsies so memorably sang, Lankawa ehema thamai, I don’t know why!

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