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Editorial

Muddle getting messier

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Friday 6th November 2020

The US presidential election full of suspense is like a Hollywood thriller; it has kept everyone on the edge of his or her seat across the globe. Democratic candidate Joe Biden was inching towards victory with several key states remaining to be called, at the time of writing. The winner may be known shortly. Biden has already broken Barack Obama’s 2008 record for the most votes; Obama received as many as 69,500,000, and Biden had polled more than 73,330,000 votes by yesterday evening. (The increase in the US population since 2008 should, however, be factored in, and it is too early to compare percentages.) President Donald Trump, who declared victory prematurely on the election night itself, is preparing for a legal battle.

The bone of contention that has marred the US election is the delayed arrival of mail ballots in some states. There are two schools of thought anent this issue. One that represents the Republicans insists that the postal votes that reached the counting centres after the close of polling should not be accepted; the other that favours the Democrats is of the view that such action amounts to the disenfranchisement of voters and, therefore, mail ballots postmarked either on or before the polling day should be considered valid and counted; and this is what the elections officials have chosen to do much to the consternation of the Trump camp, which claims there has been a fraud.

The current pandemic has upended the whole world, and a need has arisen for extraordinary measures to ensure safe elections, and therefore, many Americans, troubled by COVID-19, which has carried off about 235,000 people in the US so far, opted for mail-in voting. The Democrats and the Republicans are divided on how to tackle the pandemic.

The Democrats, who abide by the health guidelines recommended by the World Health Organisation, promoted postal voting, and the Republicans follow Trump, who encouraged his supporters to vote in person. So, the mail-in ballots, many of which arrived late were for Biden and narrowed Trump’s path to victory in the states, where he had an early lead, thus, prompting him to protest against the counting of those votes and threaten legal action. It is only natural that the Democrats want every vote to be counted. The counting process has got protracted due to the mail-in votes arriving late.

Sri Lanka overcame the challenge of voting amidst a national health emergency, a few moons ago, thanks to the Election Commission, which acted with foresight and took all possible precautions to ensure the safety of voters without leaving anything to chance. In big countries, the challenge is even more difficult, but the issue of delayed arrival of mail ballots in the US could have been avoided if a serious effort had been made to ensure that they would reach the counting centres without undue delay so that there would be no room for objections.

Trump, who has publicly declared that he hates losing, is already a bear with a sore head, and he is sure to act like a bull in a china shop if his dream of reelection is shattered officially. An epic legal battle is bound to leave the US electoral process scarred the way it happened when the 2000 presidential election was taken to the Supreme Court over the contentious recount in Florida. Following intense sparring between the lawyers of George W. Bush and Al Gore, the court settled the election in favour of Bush although it was widely thought that the other one deserved victory. That’s the way the cookie crumbles in courts.

No country should labour under the delusion that the various systems in place to safeguard its democracy are strong enough to take care of themselves, for humans, especially those in positions of power, are greedy and overbearing by nature, and their actions have a corrosive effect on such mechanisms. The unfolding drama in the US serves as an example.

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Editorial

Ministerial barks

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Monday 30th November, 2020

Wildlife Officers are protesting against a recent unfortunate incident, in Polonnaruwa, where State Minister of Wildlife Protection Forest Resource Development Wimalaweera Dissanayake had conniptions, when they refused to follow his order that villagers be allowed to graze their cattle inside a wildlife sanctuary. He was shown on television yelling at the officers menacingly in full view of the public. What he was forcing the officers to do was to violate the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Thankfully, he failed in his endeavour, and his despicable action must be condemned unreservedly.

Minister Wimalaweera and his bosses should realise that forests, wildlife sanctuaries, rivers, lakes, etc., do not belong to the people who live near them, and politicians have no right to bend laws and regulations in place to protect such national assets, to score political points. Wimalaweera is not alone in trying to gain political mileage at the expense of the environment.

At the beginning of this year, State Minister Sanath Nishantha made a public display of his ignorance of ecology and other such matters, during an argument with a female forest officer named Devani Jayathilaka, who courageously opposed a government move to clear a mangrove forest for the construction of a playground. She pointed out that mangroves were essential to ensure that the people got enough oxygen and maintain the ecological balance of the environment. Defending his decision to build the playground, the Minister demanded to know whether oxygen could be ‘eaten’.

Rishad Bathiudeen, responsible for destroying forests, is also a creation of the present-day leaders, who allowed him to launch his deforestation drive about a decade ago. The yahapalana government also gave him a free hand. The Kallaru forest reserve has suffered irreparable damage, as a result.

The climate emergency has taken its toll on the entire world, and Sri Lanka is among the worst affected countries. Its ill-effects are already felt here; we have been experiencing extreme weather events. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, revealed in Parliament, on Thursday, that Sri Lanka’s water table was receding fast, and called upon the government to adopt remedial measures. One of the main purposes of the huge reservoirs built by the Sri Lankan kings in ancient times was to increase the ground water levels, thus, facilitating the cultivation of crops and the natural growth of forests, which help retain ground water. Those kings also conserved forests, the value of which they had realised.

The present-day leaders consider themselves the reincarnations of the great kings who built reservoirs and conserved the environment, but we think they may have been lumberjacks in their previous births, given their callous disregard for forests, wildlife and water resources. They have, in their wisdom, removed the ‘other state forests’ from the purview of the Forest Department and brought them under the District and Divisional Secretaries so that they could be utilised for cultivation purposes. There is absolutely no need to clear these forests for growing food as enough cultivable lands are available elsewhere, and some of them have been abandoned. On the other hand, if the colossal postharvest losses are curtailed, most locally produced food items will not be in short supply, and the need for exploiting more land for agriculture and adding more agrochemicals to the environment can be obviated.

The government has set up a storage complex in Dambulla to help onion farmers, we are told. That is a baby step in the right direction; there is a pressing need for many more such facilities to prevent vegetables, etc., from going to waste during bumper harvests and in extraordinary situations like the current national health emergency which has affected the food distribution network.

Budget 2021 has unveiled a grand plan to increase the country’s forest cover ‘by using the lands available on both sides of the roads, in schools, government and private offices, and urban environments ….’ (Those who prepared the budget have mistaken the ‘tree cover’ for the ‘forest cover’.) Welcome as these measures may be, what the government must do immediately is to take action to conserve the existing forest cover as a national priority. The close canopy forest cover is disappearing rapidly; it decreased from about 69% in 1900 to about 22% by 2000, according to studies conducted with the help of the UN. It does not make any sense to allow the ‘other state forests’ to be cleared while trees are planted in urban spaces, etc.

The government should listen to the protesting Wildlife Officers, and allow them to carry out their duties and functions, free from political interference. It should also heed the grave concerns expressed by the Forest Officers and environmentalists about deforestation. Most of all, it had better keep its barking ministers on a tight leash. They must be made to keep their dirty hands off forest reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and other such environmentally sensitive areas.

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Editorial

A different case

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Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter, Ahimsa, and four others have written last week to Attorney General Dappula de Livera appealing to “protect the life” of former CID Director Shani Abeysekera held in a military-run facility for covid-19 infected persons, having contracted the virus while in remand custody. There is no escaping the fact that our overcrowded prisons, literally bursting at the seams for many years, are a hotbed of covid with both prisoners and officials highly vulnerable to infection. All those who have signed the appeal to the AG are victims of grave and violent crimes under the laws of this country. While Lasantha Wickrematunge, an outspoken editor who had courageously courted death by hitting out at the high and mighty, was brutally clubbed to death in broad daylight in a high security zone, the others say their kin had been abducted and “disappeared.”

What the AG can or will do to protect a now interdicted senior policeman remains an open question. The authorities are very well aware that jailed or detained law enforcers are under grave risk in prison where they are at the mercy of hardened criminals who cannot bear the sight of a cop. In fact, Abeysekera was accorded personal security by the state until November last year when he was removed from the CID. Such arrangements are made on the basis of threat assessments made by specialists in the subject who would have had little difficulty in determining that he was at high risk given the work he was doing. Following his removal from the CID this security was withdrawn and he was interdicted without a charge sheet, according to the appeal now before the AG. What is stated there is easily verifiable.

Persons subject to investigations, including high profile politicians in office, will have many axes to grind against policemen who either investigated or supervised the investigations of matters involving them. Thus it was a matter of no surprise that Abeysekara was removed from his high profile position and subsequently harassed, if not persecuted, after the change of government. Many persons in office have accused him by name of framing them. How true or not such allegations are remain to be established. But there is no escaping the reality that there had been political direction on who was or was not investigated. A high-powered committee is alleged to have operated from ‘Temple Trees’ determining priorities and direction of investigations. Much has been made of the fact that former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran accused of involvement in the bond scam was allowed to return to Singapore, where he is a citizen, without let or hindrance. He has since been out of reach.

That some are more equal than others is a fact of life in this country. How many persons of importance or wealth including politicians, either convicted or in custody, have spent time in the Merchant’s Ward of the National Hospital or in the Prison Hospital? Even people convicted or murder and sentenced to death who had been (or should have been) in Death Row have been beneficiaries of such privileges. Former President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned the young man found guilty of murdering his girlfriend’s sister at the Royal Park apartment complex towards the end of his term. He provided justifications for this act of clemency that many found lame. The beneficiary, conscious no doubt of the possibility of the wheel turning left the country and, as far as we know, had not returned since. It is well known that privileged persons in jail are handled with kid gloves and accorded semi-luxury facilities. We do not know whether there are arrangements in jails for the safety of vulnerable convicts or suspects (eg. policemen) even under special circumstances. With the best will in the world, these would be hard to provide under present congested conditions in prisons.

Bloodhounds set on political opponents are massively vulnerable following changes of government, and Abeysekara probably belongs to that category. It is now nearly 12 years since Lasantha Wicrematunge was bumped off by a group widely believed to be a state-connected hit squad. While some suspects have been identified and bailed, no indictments have been served up to now. His daughter and the other signatories to the letter sent to the AG say that after years of stonewalling, “Abeysekara was one of the few impartial police officers who had the courage to seek justice for our families.” They have also said in their letter “If every public servant has the backbone, integrity and conviction of Mr. Abeysekara, our loved ones would still be alive today. By doing his job and seeking justice for those we lost, Mr. Abeysekara’s own life is now in danger. We owe a debt of honour to speak on his behalf.”

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had said in parliament as this is being written that Abeysekara should be moved to the Infectious Diseases Hospital on humanitarian grounds. It has been reported that his family too have been in contact with the Human Rights Commission regarding his welfare. We hope that the concerned authorities would take note of what has been urged and treat this police officer who has been both highly praised and strongly condemned with due consideration. Who he investigated is not relevant in this context. Travails of investigators, such as he, would be a deterrent to other law enforcers performing their duties without fear or favour especially in sensitive cases. The worst case scenario for most cops properly doing their jobs and rubbing politicos on the wrong side would be a transfer. But this case is different.

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Editorial

Name that evil foreign power!

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Saturday 28th November, 2020

Mystery surrounds some vital aspects of the Easter Sunday attacks although those who carried them out have been identified and their confederates arrested. That a group of National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) terrorists, led by Zahran Hashim, carried out a series of suicide bombings, on 21 April 2019, is known to one and all, but who actually handled them has not yet been found out. The police have confirmed that the NTJ had planned a second wave of attacks on places of Buddhist worship and the Kandy Dalada Perahera. So, if Zahran had been the real terror mastermind, he would not have chosen to die in the first wave of terror without waiting to ensure that his outfit would be able to carry out the second wave of bombings, as we argued in a previous column. Former DIG CID Ravi Seneviratne, has recently told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, probing the Easter Sunday carnage, that someone handled Zahran, and he had to be traced if threats to Sri Lanka’s national security are be neutralised effectively.

Now, no less a person than Maithripala Sirisena, who was the President, at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, has confirmed that there was a foreign hand behind the carnage. On Wednesday, testifying before the PCoI probing the Easter Sunday terror, he declared that there had been a foreign power behind the terror attacks. All information about the terrorist bombings at issue was available to him as the President and Minister of Defence, and his statement must, therefore, be based on credible intelligence. He should name the foreign power; not only the Sri Lankan public but also the whole world have a right to know what that evil force is. It may be responsible for terror strikes in other parts of the world as well.

On an earlier occasion, Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and former Justice Minister, Rauff Hakeem, made a similar statement before the PCoI. He said the NTJ and its leader Zahran were only pawns, and there had been a hidden hand behind the Easter Sunday attacks, which, he said, had been aimed at destabilising the country. Asked by the commission to name names, he did so in camera.

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjtih, however, was the first to state, in public, that the Easter Sunday attacks had been part of an ‘international conspiracy’ to destabilise the country. He said so, in July 2019, addressing a congregation at the Katuwapitiya St. Sebastian’s Church, where as many as 118 people had been killed by an NTJ bomber only three months back.

SLPP MP Mahinda Samarasinghe revealed, in Parliament, the other day, that during the closing stages of Eelam war IV, a foreign power had sought to remove Prabhakaran to safety, and one of its ships had been waiting in international waters, for the mission. He said the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had not given permission for the vessel to enter the Sri Lankan waters. He should have named the country.

Foreign powers move resolutions against Sri Lanka on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, but the Sri Lankan politicians lack the courage to name and shame the countries that tried to save terrorists and were behind the Easter Sunday bombings, according to them.

Now that former President Sirisena has revealed that there was a foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka must seek international assistance to trace the terror mastermind. The UN could be of help in this regard. First of all, let Sirisena be urged to name the foreign power concerned. Having pathetically failed to prevent the Easter Sunday terror strikes, despite intelligence warnings, he should, at least, make public information about the perpetrators of the attacks. He must do so for the sake of the families of those who died on his watch as the President. On the other hand, the act of suppressing information about a crime is a punishable offence.

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