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Justice Minister Ali Sabry on what he’s trying to do

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Omnibus interview with Saman Indrajith

Justice Minister President’s Counsel Ali Sabry is known in the legal fraternity as among the most brilliant lawyers this country has seen in recent times. He has embarked on an ambitious plan to reform the legal system especially in respect of addressing law delays. He is confident that he could bring about the change and that will ultimately help this country and its people to reach their true potential, Minister Sabry said during an interview with The Sunday Island.

Excerpts:

 

Q: What is your assessment of the current political situation?

A:

In the current political situation, when it comes to party politics, the government is of course in a very strong position with its two thirds majority in parliament. Of course there are differences of opinion within the ruling party. That is how democracy works. But still in the government we are all united, compared to the opposition which is weak and not effective.

 

Q: The government came to power promising constitutional reforms. There were reports that the reforming process had commenced months back under your leadership. Would you like to comment on the current statusd of that process?

A:

On the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and with the approval of the cabinet we have appointed an 11-member committee led by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva to report on constitutional changes. It is a committee with diverse opinions and representations of many religions and communities. There are jurists, legal luminaries, legal academics, and members of civil society, Buddhists, Catholics, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. They have been given a mandate to study and examine past attempts to amend the constitutions, to consult the public, religious leaders and political parties and to come up with a draft constitution. They have been working very hard. I understand that last weekend they traveled to Kandy to meet some of the people there to get their opinions as a part of the consultative process. They will submit their first draft in March. It would be then presented to the Cabinet to decide on its passage through parliament.

 

Q: There is a strong opinion that constitutions since Independence have not been able to support building what is known as a unique Sri Lankan identity but instead contributed to promoting communal identities. Do you think that the new constitution would be able to do something different and help promote a pan-Sri Lankan identity?

A:

Ideally that should be the case. But you have to understand that this is a country with a great history based on Buddhism. So Buddhism has to be preserved and given the foremost of place as it has been the case in the 1972 and 1978 constitutions. By doing so it should ensure we respect other religions too. We can embrace good qualities of all our communities and create a Sri Lankan identity that is acceptable to 70 percent of the Sinhala Buddhists. In that case we must promote the brand of Buddhism known in this country for centuries, helping people celebrate each other not despise each other, creating an identity which will help each other. That’s the brand of Buddhism known to people of this country for a long period of time.

The worst done to the Muslim community has been done by those promoting the ideology of Taliban and other extremist groups. They profess a brand of Islam that true Islam is never known for. It is a militant and non-tolerant, a rigid brand. Opposed to that we have a history of Sri Lanka known for its religious tolerance and love of peace. For example while the whole world was hating Japan at the San Francisco summit, Mr. JR Jayewardene, representing this country, who helped them to open their eyes to reality by explaining the Buddhist value that hatred never ceases by hatred but would only cease by love, respect and mercy. Whenever there were disputes between nations in the region, Japan and China, India and China and India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike met with their leaders and diffused those tensions by professing Buddhist values. When all the powerful nations were trying to write off Palestine from the world map, Mahinda Rajapaksa stood up and supported them.

Those leaders could achieve peace because our society is based on values Gautama Buddha had preached such as equality; respect for each other’s dignity and love. That is the brand I think that we should promote once again. If that happens we will be truly representing ourselves as true ambassadors of this great country and great philosophy of Buddhism which nobody can oppose or go against. It is a choice for all Lankans right now. As a Muslim I hate Taleban Islam. They have inflicted the biggest damage on the Islamic faith. We do not want any extremism of any sort. Every religion preaches peace, harmony, respect and brotherhood. Having said so, Sri Lanka should be primarily a Sinhala Buddhist country. We have been respected by the world as being primarily a Sinhala Buddhist country in the 1960s and 1970s. We must get a Sri Lankan identity which embraces everyone, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims so that all can feel proud and say that we, despite all our differences, are Sri Lankans. That is where I want to see this country going.

 

Q: There are news items quoting you of ambitious plans by the justice ministry to effect changes. According to some, the changes mean overhauling the system and that many archaic laws are being changed. How long do you think this would take?

A:

One of the main reasons that compelled me to take leave from the legal profession and enter politics was that the need to change the legal system. This system needs an overall change. In the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business in 2028’ world ranking we were at 112 out of 185 countries. In the index of ‘Enforcement of Contacts’ Sri Lanka was at 165 out of 189 countries because it takes such a long time to enforce a contract here. Countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda are ranked better than us because their legal systems are more effective than ours. It is not about the independence of the judiciary per se. With regard to the independence of the judiciary I think we can be happy where Sri Lanka stands today irrespective of the few cases of which people are complaining. Independence of the judiciary itself is not everything. It has to be effective, efficient, time-tested, and affordable. That is what the rankings are about.

Before I started politics I was involved in legal reforms from the Bar Association as an executive committee member, as a treasurer then finally as the deputy president. We have a very strong strategy to look into all matters carefully. In one of our research results we found that Sri Lanka has 15 judges per one million population whereas advanced countries such as Germany and Canada have almost 200; countries like Singapore have more than 100 per million people whereas Malaysia and Thailand have 65 to 68 judges, even India has 20 judges per one million. We decided to increase the number of judges and started it from the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. More judges would be appointed to lower courts in the coming months.

In addition we started improving infrastructure of court houses countrywide. We have not yet been able to embrace the advantages made available to us by technology. Other countries have done that and digitalized their systems. We recently started the digitizing process. The Supreme Court started e-filing rules. Magistrate Courts and Court of Appeal commenced to hear bail applications online. High Courts now accept e-filing and the Court of Appeal commenced e-hearing. There is so much to be done but we hope we can complete this in four years time.

We are also planning to bring about amendments to many laws that had not been visited for many decades. For that purpose we have appointed three committees on criminal law, civil law and commercial law. Altogether around 20 committees are now working on different specialized areas of law. I am happy to say more than 150 highly respected lawyers are serving in those different committees and most of them serve voluntarily without taking any fee for their services. There is an expectation in our legal community that something is happening and they need to be part of it. I am very optimistic that we could transform this system. It will take some time for results.

In some matters we have been able to see the results. When I assumed duties the backlog of cases stuck at the Government Analyst’s Department was around 16,000. Now, we have almost finished most of those case analyses and by the end of March we finish clearing the backlog. In January, we set a very high target of turning out 4,828 reports. We achieved 104 percent. That was something unthinkable six months ago. I am sure that we can transform the system.

Q: There were reports that Sri Lanka Law College Student’s Union had been agitating for some time demanding that there were academic, infrastructure and welfare issues of students that have been overlooked. There were also reports that the president and secretary of the union met you recently with all those matters presented in writing. The students complain that what they witness is a game of passing buck between authorities. In what way you can solve their problems because it was also your college once.

A:

I have a huge respect, love and admiration for the Law College. It is a great place which has turned out Lankan leaders such as Presidents JR Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapaksa. We need to preserve that place and maintain its standards and stature and independence. The Incorporated Council of Legal Education is an independent body. The Justice Minister can appoint few people to the council, but the majority is ex officio – the Chief Justice, two members of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Solicitor General, two members from the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and Secretary to the Ministry of Justice. It is an independent body and unfortunately there had been no funding from the government to the council for its functions. They have to meet their expenses with the funds collected as fees from the college. That is the problem.

I took over in August, and I did not want to remove serving members though some were appointed by the previous government. They are also respectable members of our profession. Though they have been appointed to the council by the previous minister, I did not want to be ungrateful and remove them in the middle of their terms. When their terms ended I appointed my representatives including Harsha Amarasekera, the Chairman of the Sampath Bank, Sanjeewa Jayawardena, Naveen Marapana, Sampath Mendis, all are President’s Counsels and Prof Camena Gunaratne and also the Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Colombo. I hope the new team will come together and study the situation and decide what is to be done. I agree the Law College needs to be upgraded and it has been long neglected in all aspects of its quality of education, infrastructure, welfare of students, extra-curricular activities, embracing technology etc. I am sure that his lordship, the Chief Justice and his Council will carefully re-look at problems and find a way to upgrade the Law College. I am ever willing to help.

 

Q: Many brilliant lawyers held the post of justice minister. Some of them after their stint in politics returned to the Bar not to be welcomed. For example it is said that when Felix Dias Bandaranaike returned to the bar after a stint in politics, the legal fraternity at Hulftsdorp considered him a ‘plague’. The fraternity including judges and other lawyers will keep in mind what the justice ministers do. How do you see your future?

A

: I do not have long term ambitions in politics. I want to positively contribute for the upliftment of our country. Some people misinterpret even a single word I may say. All my intentions are very pure. I have sacrificed a lot to come here. I firmly believe in a single Sri Lankan identity. I also firmly believe Sri Lankan Muslims should live and embrace Sri Lankan culture. There is a sub-Sri Lankan Muslim culture that is different to the Sinhala Buddhist culture. But it is a Sri Lankan Muslim culture. That has to be embraced. There is nothing for us to be afraid of each other. We can help each other. We must create that environment. That is one of the objectives in my coming to politics.

As I already told you I decided to come to politics because I want to see a change of system. I have seen the agony of clients and people because of the delays. On the other hand this country cannot reach its true potential when the justice system is in the lower slots of international rankings. As long as I am here I work 24 hours by seven. My staff in the ministry too work in the same manner. Those at the government analyst’s department worked many extra hours without even applying for overtime to clear the backlog of reports. I am so grateful to them because they work very hard. They work because they have felt something is happening and the whole bisiness is moving in the right direction.

All the officers in this ministry, I am so glad, are working to complete their tasks. Some of them are working even on Saturdays and Sundays. That means that they know that we have come here for a reason and we will transform this place. The ultimate beneficiary of this work is the general public.

We are interested in making the Sri Lankan legal system world class, to bring our rankings higher so ultimately that will contribute to the rule of law so people will be safe on the streets; that they do not need to wait for a long period of time to see justice being done. After completing this I will go back to my profession to practice law.

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Herd immunity and vaccination

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HERD IMMUNITY: A good analogy is protection of calves in a herd of wild buffalos from predation by leopards. A sizeable number of adult bulls and cows in the herd attack and repulse leopards. Once in a way, a leopard would succeed dragging a calf, but a large majority of calves survive to ensure the continuation of the species. (Picture courtesy HAP Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igx_pr6ptAg&ab_channel=HAPChannel)

By Prof.Kirthi Tennakone,
National Institute of Fundamental Studies
(ktenna@yahoo.co.uk)

With the advent of coronavirus vaccines, the idea of herd immunity is gaining ground – but often misunderstood or considered something hard to fathom. Herd immunity means the resistance a community develops against an infectious disease, when a fraction of its residents above a threshold acquires immunity either by exposure to the pathogen or vaccination. Thus, achieving herd immunity could safeguard individuals who cannot be immunized for reasons of being too young, convalescent or because of inadvertent inaccessibility.

A good analogy is protection of calves in a herd of wild buffalos from predation by leopards. A sizeable number of adult bulls and cows in the herd attack and repulse leopards. Once in a way, a leopard would succeed dragging a calf, but a large majority of calves survive to ensure the continuation of the species. If leopards prey exclusively on buffalos, they might be starved into extinction. Buffalos and leopards live in the jungle because the latter also hunt other animals. Similarly, in absence of non-human reservoirs of the pathogen, herd immunity provides a way of controlling an infection causing an epidemic or a pandemic and the elimination of the causative agent.

 

History and theory of herd immunity

Epidemics originate when a pathogen invades a population devoid of immunity. Science fiction writer H.G. Wells in his novel, “The War of the Worlds”, says Martian invaders were not immune to earthly microbes and all died due to an infection. We are not so alien to viruses here and the ability to make antibody machinery to fight them are genetically imprinted in our bodies.

Even in olden days when precautionary measures remained completely unknown or misunderstood, maladies ended before everyone caught the infection. Those days, epidemics were considered divine punishments or expressions of anger of deities. The cause that receded them; attributed to prayers, rituals or offerings to the demons, has been in fact the natural herd immunity.

The Mahavamsa and the Elu Athanagalu Vamsa refer to a catastrophe during the reign of King Sri Sanga Bodhi (252-254 CE). According to the legend in the latter script; a demon named Ratharaksha came to Sri Lanka and cast a spell reddening the eyes of people who stared at it in fear. Many who looked at the eyes of those afflicted also developed red eyes and contracted the illness. Very high mortality thinned the population of the land and the distressed king, ritualistically confronted the demon driving it to exile. The version of the story in Mahavamsa is similar but implicate a female demon Ratarakshi. What is the infectious agent behind this outbreak? From the symptoms described and the extreme contagiousness implied, the illness that ravaged the kingdom seems to be measles. The herd immunity threshold of measles exceeds 95%. There was also a famine accompanying the epidemic. Presumably, malnutrition and absence of immunity greatly increased the measles death toll.

Ages ago people lived in isolated communities. Therefore, an infectious disease which decelerated and vanished after reaching herd immunity did not remerge until the immunized percentage was lowered by people born subsequently. Many epidemics, notably small pox and plague followed cyclic patterns for this reason. Later on, the establishment of vast human settlements and extensive migration, turned epidemics into pandemics and many diseases remained endemic. Historians have also argued that the consequent wider dispersion of diseases, boosted the immunity of the global human herd thereby escalating the population growth.

The idea of herd immunity was first introduced by the American veterinarian George Potter in 1917; he noted a cattle disease disappeared on its own when animals were not introduced to the herd from outside. He said disease resembled a fire which extinguished when all fuel has been consumed.

In 1919 bacteriologist W. Topley infected a few mice in a large colony with a germ. He observed the infection expanded, subdued and stopped after infecting only a certain percentage of mice. Further clarification of difference between individual immunity and herd immunity followed from the work of American statistician A.W. Hedrick. He studied the epidemiology of measles in United States 1900-1911 and concluded measles epidemics ceased when 68% of children under 15 years became immunised after contraction of the illness.

The idea of herd immunity was firmly established after invoking mathematics into epidemiology – mathematician turned physician Sir Ronald Ross pioneered the theme.

Ronald Ross, born in India 1857, received his education in the United Kingdom and returned to his country of birth after qualifying as a doctor. He joined the Indian Medical Service 1880 and worked in Bangalore badly infested with mosquitoes. At the time malaria was suspected to be associated with mosquitoes. Curious, Ronald strived hard to understand how it was transmitted. Mosquitoes in the place he lived has been a nuisance; he closed all stagnant pools in the vicinity of his residence and found the mosquito number falling drastically, but realized complete elimination would be an impossibility. When Ronald Ross was transferred to a station free of malaria, he declined to work in a locality free of malaria!

In 1895, Ronald Ross identified the malarial parasite in stomach of anopheles mosquitoes proving its mode of transmission. He was awarded 1902 Nobel Prize in Physiology for this work done in India.

Having found the cause of malaria; Ronald Ross determined to find a way to eradicate it and resorted to mathematics in attempting to find an answer. His remarkably insightful mathematical analysis revealed malaria could be eradicated by reducing the mosquito population below a threshold dependent on human population density, and the impossible task of destroying every anopheles mosquito was unnecessary. Following work of Ronald Ross, another physician A.G. Kendrick and biochemist W.O. Karnack both well versed in mathematics generalized Ronald Ross’s hypothesis, concluding the progress of infectious disease in a community depends on the average number of infected persons reproduced by one single carrier of the pathogen. If this number referred to as basic reproduction number (R) exceeds unity, the infection could expand into an epidemic whereas when the number is less than one the disease subsides after infecting a few. From statistics pertaining to the growth of an infection, the basic reproduction number can be estimated.

It is easy to see how an infection evolves depending on whether R is greater or less than one. Suppose 10 persons contracted with an infection with R=2 enters a susceptible population. On average, they pass sickness to 20 individuals and this 20 in return reproduce 40 cases – an endless series of ascending numbers. If R is less than one you obtain a descending sequence – implying cases die down.

 

Herd immunity threshold

Suppose a population of N persons includes a number M of individuals immune to a disease. The fraction of immunes in the population is M/N (M divided by N). From simple school arithmetic, it follows that the fraction of persons not immune (susceptible) is (1- M/N). In the presence of immunes, the basic reproduction number scale down proportionately to the fraction of the susceptible population so that the effective reproduction number is (1 –M/N) times R, written as (1-M/N) R. The threshold happens when the effective reproduction number is exactly equal to unity, implying (1 –M/N) R = 1 or equivalently M/N = 1 – 1/R. The fraction M/N given by the above formula, referred to as herd immunity threshold is normally expressed as a percentage. For example, measles being highly contagious, the basic reproduction number can take values close to 20. Setting R = 20 in the formula, we obtain M/N = 0.95. Expressed as a percentage, the herd immunity threshold for measles is 95. To protect a community against measles, over 95 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated.

Vaccinating a community to exceed the herd immunity threshold would not abruptly halt an epidemic. Although the incidence of the disease gradually decreases, vaccinations and containment measures have to be continued until positive cases disappear completely – smallpox was eradicated this way.

 

Can we achieve herd immunity to COVID-19?

Coronavirus vaccines have arrived sooner than expected – many countries including Sri Lanka expeditiously commissioning inoculation campaigns.

Vaccinations and continuous adherence to precautionary measures will undoubtedly tame the virus. However, it is premature to assume global herd immunity would follow and the pandemic will soon end.

According to some estimates an upper bound to basic reproduction number for COVID -19 is around 2.5. Formula M/N = 1- 1/R explained previously, imply that the herd immunity threshold corresponding to R = 2.5 is 60 percent. Vaccines may not be 100 percent efficacious. For an 80 percent effective vaccine, the above thresholds increase to 75 percent. The other question is how long the vaccine induced immunity would last. At the moment sufficient information is not available to decide how the duration of immunity will interfere with the herd immunity threshold and how often vaccinations need to be repeated.

If faster spreading variants of the virus take over, the basic reproduction number and therefore the herd immunity threshold will also increase. The variants may turn out to be more resistant to vaccines. Remodeling of vaccines to make them effective towards variants is technically feasible but would delay the immunisation protocols. The answer to the problem of variants and temporary immunity is speedy vaccination – obviously constrained by real world practicalities.

 

Decreasing trends of COVID -19 incidence

Many regions of the world have begun to see a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths – plausibly a combined outcome of preventive safeguards and immunity derived from exposure to the virus or vaccination.

Israel has given more coronavirus vaccinations per capita than any other country – around 50 percent given one dose and 35 percent both doses. Covid-19 cases are declining and the world is awaiting see the outcome of the Israel experiment.

The United Kingdom has vaccinated more than 30 percent of over 80s and noticed a dramatic reduction in COVID-19 related deaths in this group.

Prompt inoculation of a sizeable fraction of a community is not an easy task. We need to await patiently to see the effectuality of the vaccines.

Dependence of herd immunity threshold on preventive measures

The preventive strategies or so-called non-pharmacological interventions significantly reduce viral transmission thereby lowering basic reproduction number and therefore the herd immunity threshold. Wearing masks, social distancing, hand-sanitizing and ventilation are proven safeguards. There is some evidence and theoretical arguments to the effect that preventive measures not only reduce the risk of contracting the disease but those who catch the disease under such circumstances develop milder symptoms or recover soon, adding to the pool of immunes. Argument rest on inoculum theory of viral transmission, according which the intensity of the infection a patient develops depends on the number of virus particles to which he or she was exposed. Emphasizing this point authors of a recent article published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet appeal to the world to continue strict adherence to preventive measures. This is most prudent method to safeguard against new strains until vaccines are remodeled.

Vaccination priorities

Vaccine production, procurement and organization of immunization campaigns decide the rate at which a community could be vaccinated. These limitations necessitate imposition of priorities. The World Health Organization and individual nations have laid down priority categories. Everyone agree the first priority should be frontline health care workers. The second category the older persons (generally above 65) more vulnerable and at the risk of death after contracting the sickness. Those living under conditions of extreme congestion and poverty are also a priority group identified by WHO. The younger working class, although they are less susceptible to danger of COVID-19, needs to be vaccinated. The policy of neglecting the older group in favour of younger working class is not only unethical but also epidemiologically flawed. In modern societies the percentage older persons (above 65) and socially active are significant. They, being most vulnerable to contracting the sickness because of impaired immunity, if infected, could also be the super spreaders. Recent studies have confirmed the presence of super spreaders, who are mostly elderly patients carrying larger viral loads.

Social reaction to vaccination

Societies react to vaccinations within confines of two extremes: vaccine hesitancy and vaccine overconfidence. The former has prevented eradication measles in localities where the herd immunity threshold stands inordinately high. In some parts of the world, vaccine hesitancy confuses mass COVID-19 inoculation. The latter misconception equally undermines the control effort. Not wearing a mask or not adhering to social distancing because you got the jab is not right. Vaccines are not 100 percent effective and immunity sometimes slacken. People not wearing masks, believing assurance of safety after the jab creates social stigma for those not vaccinated to abandon the precautions.

Vaccines and non-pharmacological interventions will certainly suppress the virus. Rapid decline in reported cases in some parts of the world may be a sign of a distant herd immunity in that region – but what we want is a global effect. As WHO Director Tedros said, “Until we end the pandemic everywhere, we will not end it anywhere “

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Unforgettable memories…

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The memorable meetup – Imran and Alston

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was in town last week. He has been here, before, as a cricketer, and also has a head of a charity organisation.

Meeting a personality, like Imran Khan, is almost an impossibility, one would say, but it became a reality for ‘Disco Lady’ hitmaker, Alston Koch.

On a trip to Sri Lanka, many years ago, as head of a Charity Organisation, Alston had the opportunity of meeting this flamboyant personality – Imran Khan.

According to Alston, meeting and chatting with Imran was a wonderful experience.

Imran was keen to know from Alston as to how he got the name Koch, and Alston had to explain about the Anglo Asian connection, etc.

Describing Imran, as a person, Alston said he was very pleasant and down-to-earth.

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Manilal does it with ‘Island In The Sun’

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We all know Manilal Perera as a singer, and with a voice that generally captivates…the fair sex, especially. But, what about his talents – as a composer!

I never knew about his ability to create songs…to produce originals, until I was told that Manilal had worked on a song, for an online Independence Day event, organised by the Sri Lanka American Association of Southern California.

And, yes, Manilal did indicate to us that he has been working on originals, during the days when he was associated with bands, and has about 15 creations to his credit.

This online Independence Day celebrations highlighted Sri Lanka in various formats – singing, dancing, etc.

The President of the Association, Sondra Wise Kumaraperu, was in touch with Manilal and requested him to do a popular English song, composed by another local artiste, for their online event

Manilal, however, convinced her to do something new and volunteered to create the song, himself.

Within a few days, with the help of fellow musician Kevin Almeida, the singer came up with ‘Island In The Sun.’

Manilal says he worked on the lyrics, while Kevin did the music.

The finished product, which took the form of a video, was shown during the telecast of the Association’s Independence Day celebrations, which was seen by many, via YouTube.

The Association’s President, Sondra, expressing her views, said that ‘Island In The Sun’ is a beautiful song and quite appropriate in glorifying the beauty of our paradise island.

Sondra has been associated with the Sri Lanka American Association of South California for many years. Her term 2020-2021 ends in April. Although she has been asked to stay on, she has declined to do so because of pressure of work, from other sectors, she is involved in.

Sondra runs a montessori school, and has a beauty salon, as well. So, the work load is heavy for her.

In Sri Lanka, Sondra had success, coming her way, as a singer, and even performed with Manilal, on a few occasion – not only in Colombo, but in California, as well.

She also won the Miss Working Girl contest, held in Colombo.

Due to the pandemic, Manilal does a duo scene now, performing at a five star venue, in the city, Sunday evenings.

He says he plans to hand- over the video of the song ‘Island In The Sun’ to the tourism authorities with the hope that his creation would do justice to their promotion of Sri Lanka.

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