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Get to grips, Gota!

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by Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

Oh! What a contrast it has been! As 2020 dawned we were dreaming of a new era. For the first time, we elected a president who was not a career politician and his initial actions gave hope like never before. It became pretty obvious that Gota was not there for the glamour of office but to get the country out of the mess created by Yahapalanaya. After all, he was elected not because he attacked his opponents but because he placed his track record before the electorate. Although the drafters of the ill-fated 19A predicted that he would be a puppet President, Gota showed how to use the limited powers to the maximum benefit of the country. He met the challenge of the totally unexpected devastating pandemic with finesse, earning plaudits all round. Notwithstanding Covid-19, we had one of the most peaceful elections in living memory in Sri Lanka, and the voters endorsed the President’s actions by giving his party a two-thirds majority, which enabled the passage of the 20th amendment.

As the year the world wants to forget came to a close, an air of despondency descended; even the strongest of supporters of the President are asking what went wrong. Was this all due to the second wave of Covid-19? True, it could have been handled better, but compared to the rest of the world Sri Lanka is not that badly off. Therefore, we need to look elsewhere.

To what extent is the President responsible for the current chaotic state of affairs?

In my opinion, most of the fault lies not with the President but the politicians around him! During the first part of his presidency Gota’s performance was superb, maybe, because they were not powerful. Then came the general election and the country has been on a slippery slope. Contrary to predictions that he would be a dictator, Gota has turned out to be a liberal President; perhaps, too liberal to allow the politicians to do whatever they like. He mistakenly believed that they would follow his example.

I am asking the President to get to grips as he is the only person who can prevent this slide down the slippery slope. The biggest problem the this government faces is that it has scored too many own goals! Adding to this is the poor communication strategy. People’s hopes have been dashed many a time, and to avoid a repetition Gota needs to do an immediate course correction.

Whilst the President has displayed exceptional diplomacy, many others in the government display a total lack of it. The first test for the President was the ‘abduction’ of the Swiss Embassy employee. The way Gota handled it embarrassed the Swiss Embassy, which had already smuggled a policeman who hounded yahapalana opponents.

Then there was the MCC. When Gota was silent about it even some of his supporters opined that he might sign the compact on the sly. Rather than shouting about it and antagonising the most powerful nation on earth, he moved diplomatically and did what was best for the country: not selling our sovereignty for a few millions of dollars!

What about his ministers? Except a few, ministers seem to be behaving in the traditional manner of Sri Lankan politicians. They express differing opinions which makes the government lose credibility. Let me cite a few examples.

Instead of admitting difficulties they face, some Ministers give bogus excuses which make them the laughing stock. It is a well-known fact that no government has been able to tame the rice-mafia, so far, for whatever reason. The Minister of Trade published a gazette notification fixing the prices of some rice varieties, but no one could buy rice at those prices. He gave the wonderful excuse that rice would be available at those prices after the next harvesting season! One does not have to be a genius or a tuition master to know that the price of rice always comes down with the harvest!

When the Mahara prison riot happened, some ministers concocted conspiracy theories. One spread the canard that diazepam had made prisoners behave erratically. Some others claimed deaths were not due to shooting but clashes among the inmates. When the Judicial Medical Officers presented their findings to courts, they must have been hiding their faces.

Coming back to Covid-19, the Army Commander, who heads the Covid-19 task-force said that a report had revealed how the second wave had started; it was widely rumoured that a tourist hotel in Seeduwa had triggered it and Brandix factory had contributed to it. Although it is agreed that what is important is controlling the pandemic and not making all facts public, one feels that the government is hiding the truth to prevent embarrassment to its ardent supporters.

The behaviour of the Minister of Health is disgraceful, to say the least. On top of the fiascos of the ‘removal’ of the Director General of Health Services and the appointment of the Director of MRI, she decided to pollute rivers with a concoction prepared by a faith healer and was joined by other ministers. She decided to taste a concoction prepared by a kapuwa, apparently on the basis of instructions from goddess Kali. After tasting, she requested all the Professors in Medicine in the country to check whether it was effective! Another minister promoted the concoction, equating the kapuwa to the great Sir Isaac Newton. Some have got Covid-19 in spite of drinking the peniya!

Rather alarmingly, there is a group of intellectuals who promote this type of cure. The leader of the pack is an ambassador who is convinced that useful information emanates from beings above humans. He who called Western Science a palpable lie (pattapal boru) now says he respects Western science but is against its domination. In a recent post he has stated that although he wanted to be a scientist in his youth, he was never one. This makes me wonder why the Kelaniya University had a non-scientist as the Dean of its Science Faculty!

The disposal of bodies of the victims of Covid-19 has been internationalised by the overseas Tiger rump ever willing to discredit Sri Lanka. As a Buddhist, I was embarrassed at the way some Bhikkhus behaved in a protest at Galle Face completely misinterpreting the concept of one country-one law. They seem to have a total lack of compassion, one of the noble characteristics of the Buddha, and were attempting to dictate to the President. I urge Gota to take a decision without further delay on the basis of expert opinion, without being swayed by the views of men in robes.

The appointment of Lalith Weeratunga to oversee procurement and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines is an interesting development and may be a pointer that Gota is taking corrective action. Lalith, a top administrator of the highest integrity, was a victim of “Temple Trees justice”. In spite of the guilty verdict, though later reversed, Gota chose him as his senior advisor, which was a bold move. Entrusting him with this vital task is certainly a move in the right direction and I do hope we would have an equitable vaccination programme soon so that economic recovery may commence.

Covid-19 is far from controlled. Therefore, any elections are out of question at this juncture because of safety concerns and the worsening financial situation. We have managed without Provincial Councils and even the TNA voted with yahapalanaya to postpone elections. As India failed to discharge its obligation why should we be bound by 13A? Neville Ladduwahetty, in an excellent article “Province unsuitable as the unit of governance” (The Island, 1 January), has pointed out the absurdity of holding elections before deciding on the unit of devolution in the new constitution. In spite of all these considerations, some government politicians are clamouring for PC polls! Perhaps, giving jobs to their kith and kin and henchmen is more important to them than containing the raging pandemic.

I am in total agreement with Laduwahetty’s well argued case that the unit of devolution should be the district for proper empowerment. I would urge the drafters of the new constitution to ensure that members of parliament are truly representative by being elected from an electorate, as in the past, not on the district basis. The present system of district-based election with preferential votes has resulted in many disputes.

Gota has started visiting remote areas to solve poor people’s problems and still commands great affection from the public. It is all the more reason why he should not let us all down. He should get tough and get rid of the useless politicians. We badly need a disciplined government. That is the only hope for Sri Lanka!

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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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