Wednesday 18th August, 2021
The US had its Saigon moment over the weekend in Kabul. The Americans have left behind another unfinished war. The US and its allies invaded Afghanistan two decades ago, promising to wipe out the Taliban, which harboured al-Qaeda, and bring order out of chaos. But today that country is back to square one. The Taliban are now in power, and their return to their old ways is only a matter of time. Although they have pledged, as part of the peace deal with the US, that they will respect human rights, it is not possible for them to honour this pledge because what drives them is religious extremism. Capturing territory is one thing, but running a country is quite another. The Taliban are desperate for some international legitimacy and claim to have no links to terrorist organisations. Ironically, what they have been doing all these years—executing dissenters, torture, violent suppression of people’s rights, especially those of women, etc— is terrorism in itself!
The US, which declared, after the 9/11 attacks, that it would never talk to terrorists, started making overtures to the Taliban. Washington would never have done so if it had not been convinced that it was fighting a never-ending war and had to get out of the Afghan imbroglio.
It has been reported that a whopping sum of USD 88 billion was spent on building the Afghan military to fight the Taliban, but its members surrendered en masse without a fight. All the money, mostly from the US taxpayers, has gone down the gurgler! This reminds us of the fate that befell the Tamil National Army (TNA) here after the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF); the TNA cadres ran away just like the Afghan soldiers, unable to face the LTTE. Ironically, both the LTTE and the TNA were created by India, which, too, lost more than 1,400 of its military personnel at the hands of the LTTE.
The US wanted to give the Russians their Vietnam in Afghanistan, and succeeded in its endeavour in the late 1980s, when the Russian troops had to withdraw, unable to defeat the US-backed Afghan guerrillas. The US owes an apology to the people of Afghanistan fleeing the Taliban, formed by a group of hardcore Mujahideen guerrillas, who, backed by the CIA, fought the Russians in the 1980s. If Washington had continued to help Afghanistan and developed the vital sectors there, especially education, after Russia’s pullout, the Taliban would not have emerged. If it had done so, bin Laden, created by the CIA during America’s proxy war against the Russians, would not have been able to use Afghanistan as a base later to launch his terror attacks, and perhaps the World Trade Centre complex would have been safe.
The US has been hoist with its own petard. It was able to have the Russians humiliated and driven out of Afghanistan, but a little over three decades on, had the same degrading experience; it had to swallow its pride, negotiate with the Taliban and make a tail-between-the-legs exit. Worse, the US had not assessed the Taliban properly even after fighting them for 20 years; it had made the same mistake in Vietnam about six decades back. Last month, President Joe Biden declared: “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan … The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” He was left with egg on his face when the Taliban captured Kabul with ease.
While a red-faced Biden administration is trying to have the world believe that the humiliating US retreat from Kabul was not its Saigon moment, the success of the Taliban is sure to inspire other extremist outfits all over the world. The US and its allies have demonstrated that they are not equal to the task of fighting terror in spite of their military might.
One only hopes the Taliban have learnt their lessons and will mend their ways without turning Afghanistan into a hellhole again.
Justitia in tears
Thursday 28th October, 2021
Power befogs governments, and makes them muddle along, impervious to reason. When intoxicated with power, politicians think they cannot be wrong and resort to ill-conceived actions, and box themselves into a corner, in the process. This, we have witnessed under all governments with steamroller majorities.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is no stranger to controversy. This time around, he has triggered an avalanche of criticism by appointing General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, of all people, as the head of a 13-member Presidential Task Force (PTF) to ‘make a study of the implementation of the concept, One country; One law, and prepare a draft Act for the said purpose’. The PTF is also required to study the draft Acts and amendments prepared by the Ministry of Justice and submit a proposal, we are told.
The other members of the PTF are Prof. Dayananda Banda, Prof. Shanthinandana Wijesinghe, Prof. Sumedha Siriwardana, N.G. Sujeewa Panditharathna, Attorney-at-Law Iresh Senevirathne, Attorney-at-Law Sanjaya Marambe, Eranda Navarathna, Pani Wewala, Moulavi Mohamed, Mohamed Inthikab, Kaleel Rahuman and Azeez Nizardeen. Why hasn’t anyone been appointed to represent the Tamils? There should be members to look after the interests of all communities including the Veddas. The need for an outfit tasked with such a serious task to be inclusive cannot be overemphasised.
It defies comprehension why the President has handpicked as the head of the PTF a person who was granted a presidential pardon while serving a sentence for contempt of court, which in other words means causing an affront to the dignity of the judiciary. How come the President thinks a person sentenced to jail for violating the law is fit to carry out his one-country-one-law project?
Opinion may be divided on what led Gnanasara Thera to commit contempt of court, in 2016, and languish in prison. He has been hailed in some quarters for taking up the cudgels on behalf of some military intelligence personnel, but by no stretch of the imagination could this be cited in extenuation of the offence of disrupting court proceedings. If everyone starts doing so, courts will not be able to function. However, it will be remiss of anyone who is flaying Gnanasara Thera to turn a blind eye to a far worse incident that took place in the Colombo High Court about a decade ago. When the judgment in the White Flag case was delivered on 18 Nov. 2011, a group of lawyers and outsiders went berserk, smashing court furniture and threatening judges; the police had to rush in to protect them. Nobody was prosecuted for that ugly scene, which the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, and all those who are fighting for the independence of the judiciary chose to ignore. However, two wrongs do not make a right.
The idea behind the one-country-one-law programme is to ensure that the law of the land applies to everyone equally. So, a person who has shown disrespect for the law and the judiciary and been jailed for that is ipso facto disqualified from heading the PTF in question. This, however, is not the only reason why the President’s wisdom of making the controversial appointment stands questioned.
Hasn’t anyone in the government read the report put out by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks? The PCoI has, in Chapter 22 titled, Contributory Factors, recommended that the Attorney General consider whether criminal proceedings can be instituted against Ven. Gnanasara Thera. It has also recommended that the BBS be proscribed because its actions pose a threat to religious harmony. Observing that ‘some of Gnanasara Thera’s actions and utterances have contributed to Muslim youth taking to extremism and joining Zahran’, the PCoI says: “It was in evidence that Zahran used the speeches and actions of the Thero to rally support for his cause. In the final video made by Zahran spelling out the reasons for the attacks, reference is made to the actions of the Venerable Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero … The actions of Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero resulted in reciprocal radicalization of Muslim youth.”
Is it that the President has not taken the PCoI findings and recommendations seriously? However, some recommendations have already been carried out. Criminal proceedings have been instituted against former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and ex-IGP Pujith Jayasundera.
Why weren’t the PCoI recommendations taken into consideration when the aforesaid controversial appointment was made? An explanation is called for.
Wednesday 27th October, 2021
The government is behaving as if it had no problems to contend with. It is now talking about a proposal for the construction of a Formula One racing track, of all things, in Hambantota, of all places, while the country is struggling to replenish its oil supplies.
What has been proposed is a purpose-built circuit, according to media reports. The Cabinet will take up the proposed Formula One project for discussion soon, we are told. Don’t our ministerial worthies have any other important matters to concentrate on? The fertiliser crisis is far from resolved. Farmers are staging street protests and threatening to march on Colombo. Experts are warning of a drastic drop in the national agricultural output. Essential commodities are in short supply, and their prices have gone into the stratosphere. Public health experts have warned of another explosive spread of the pandemic in December and the possibility of another lockdown. The economy is in bad shape. But government politicians are living in cloud cuckoo land, dreaming of racing tracks!
The government should not be in a hurry to discuss the proposed F1 track, for there may not be any need for it. Unless funds are raised for oil imports urgently, or the petroleum prices are jacked up again, ordinary people will not be able to drive or ride, and the existing roads will be so deserted that it may be possible to hold car races on them.
It is said that the proposed F1 track will be a private sector project, which will bring in the much-needed forex, but we will have to wait for future Pandora Paper leaks to see who is really behind those who are said to be willing to invest in the racing track. There is the possibility of a fraction of the funds stolen from Sri Lankans returning to the country as investment. Private sector investors cannot be so naive as to invest in an F1 track in this country. They cannot be unaware how difficult it will be to have races held here, given the difficulties experienced by countries like Singapore, India, etc., with F1 tracks.
If the proposed F1 track is built by any chance, Hambantota will set a world record as the town boasting the highest number of white elephants. It already has an inland port with only a few ships. Hardly any summit has been held at the Hambantota International Conference Hall for years. The Sooriyawewa International Cricket Stadium is deserted, and its only attraction is said to be the bushmeat served in eateries in the neighbouring township. Then there is the Mattala International Airport, where deafening roars are heard more from wild jumbos roaming the area than from jumbo jet engines. Add an F1 track, and we will have a port without ships, an airport without planes and a racing track without cars! (Hambantota has an excellent road network which is almost deserted. Perhaps, the government may be able to use it as an F1 road/street circuit.)
Car racing is one of the main reasons for the collapse of the previous Rajapaksa government, which closed busy roads in Colombo and Kandy for races, and turned a blind eye to late-night drag races, which became a real nuisance to the residents of Colombo. The organisers of the racing events even disregarded protests by the Maha Nayake Theras. The rathagaaya (local slang for excessive desire for driving or racing) of the young members of the ruling family made that administration extremely unpopular.
Let the government be urged to concentrate on pandemic control to prevent lockdowns, take steps to eliminate corruption and make the country attractive as an investment destination by improving its ease-of-doing-business ranking. If the government leaders get their act together, foreign direct investment will flow in. This is what countries like Singapore have done to achieve progress. An F1 circuit has never helped develop a poor country.
Of that ‘hug in the ring’
Tuesday 26th October, 2021
There is an uneasy truce between the government and the warring teacher-principal trade unions. What looks like a hug in the ring, however, is deceptive; the two parties to the current dispute are actually in a clinch, which they are likely to break from to resume throwing killer hooks at each other, given half a chance.
The government started reopening schools last Thursday, as previously announced, but most of the protesting teachers and principals did not report for work on that day. Instead, they resumed work yesterday. They obviously sought to teach the government a lesson by keeping school attendance extremely low on Thursday and Friday. Whether their action had any impact on the government is doubtful, but students lost two more days of schooling, as a result. Both sides to the conflict would have the public believe that they are trying to safeguard the interests of students, but they are obviously driven by self-interest.
One only hopes that schools will remain open, and the protesting trade unions and the government politicians, most of whom should be sent back to school, will work out a compromise formula. Losses that students and the country have already suffered due to prolonged school closures caused by the pandemic are unprecedented, inestimable, and irrecoverable, and, therefore everything possible must be done to ensure that schools will not be closed owing to a teachers’ strike.
Teachers and principals have warned that they will intensify their trade union action unless their demands are granted. The government has undertaken to solve their salary issues through Budget 2022, to be presented to Parliament next month. The rectification of teachers’ and principals’ salary anomalies is likely to make other categories of state employees resentful. The public sector salary structures are very complex; they are in fact a minefield. A decision is said to have been taken to make teaching a closed service, as a way out, but it is too early to say whether the proposed solution will be acceptable to others.
General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers Union Joseph Stalin has said teachers will confine themselves to teaching, and will not take part in school cleaning campaigns and other such activities. Teachers and principals carry out various tasks besides teaching for the benefit of their students without expecting or receiving anything in return, and their voluntary work should be appreciated. But, sadly, teaching is exactly what a considerable number of teachers do not do properly. Complaints abound that many teachers and principals neglect their duties; almost all students are dependent on supplementary education to prepare themselves for competitive examinations. The proliferation of private tuition centres throughout the country is an indictment of government teachers. This is something the teachers’ unions which are all out to win their demands ought to take cognisance of. They should ensure that each member of theirs earns his or her keep without being a burden on the taxpaying public.
Meanwhile, the government is sure to print more money to meet the protesting teachers’ and principals’ demands, causing inflation to rise further. An increase in the public sector salary bill, or other state expenses, generally leads to tax hikes. This will be a double whammy for the general public already struggling to make ends meet. But the government will have to fulfil its pledge to teachers if schools are not to be closed again.
No reasonable person will grudge teachers—or any other category of workers, for that matter—better pay, but the latter will have to work harder and help straighten up the education sector which is in decline. The least that the protesting trade unions can do is to make teachers carry out their duties and functions properly to obviate their students’ dependence on shadow education to pass competitive examinations.
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