Friday 9th October, 2020
Having risen from a blissful slumber, the health authorities with the help of military intelligence are doing their darnedest to figure out how the latest COVID-19 cluster, which turned Gampaha into Sri Lanka’s Wuhan, came about. There are two possibilities according to those engaged in contact tracing: it was caused by new infections from another country, or the virus had been spreading unnoticed during the last two months or so while the government, the health authorities and others responsible for tackling the pandemic were resting on their oars.
It is widely believed that some Indian workers caused the second wave of infections. Brandix and the Indian High Commission have denied this claim. Brandix has said, in a media statement, that no one from India or any other country had access to its Minuwangoda facility, the epicentre of the COVID-19 second wave, during the period at issue. However, it is not clear from its press release whether foreigners had access to its factories elsewhere and some garment workers from Minuwangoda came into contact with them there. Brandix has also said the workers who returned to Sri Lanka from India on chartered flights underwent quarantine for 28 days, and none of them visited the Minuwangoda manufacturing facility. The question again is whether they visited other factories of the company. According to the flight details leaked to the media, one batch of Brandix workers returned from Visakhapatnam, India, on 22 Sept. 2020. If this is true, those workers have to undergo quarantine until 20 Oct. 2020. Are they still under quarantine?
Thousands of workers have migrated here from other South Asian countries. Some businesses such as eateries, vehicle service stations and construction companies are dependent on foreign workers, most of whom are overstayers or illegal immigrants, due to a chronic labour shortage. Sri Lankans are reluctant to work in certain sectors, and this has created a huge demand for cheap migrant labour. Employers prefer foreigners to local workers, who are notorious for absenteeism and malingering and entitled to EPF and ETF. This issue which went unaddressed for decades has resurfaced owing to the explosive spread of COVID-19.
The government flaunted the success of its previous anti-COVID-19 operations, which stood it in good stead, at the last general election. Now, it stands accused of having done precious little to prevent the second wave of infections. In April 2019, the country was rocked by bomb explosions as the then government neglected national security. About 18 months on, a ‘viral explosion’ has left it in a state of shock due to negligence on the part of the present dispensation.
We are not short of conspiracy theories. It is claimed, in some quarters, that the COVID-19 second wave is part of a sinister plan to destabilise the country by making its economy scream. We are not in a position to disprove or support these theories, but one thing is patently clear; the economy will not survive another round of lockdowns, and the country will be at the mercy of foreign powers for survival in case of having to be closed again; their assistance will not come without conditions; they will get what they have so far failed to in return for their aid.
What really matters now is not whether the COVID-19 second wave was caused by foreigners, or Martians, but how to tackle it without shutting down the economy and prevent the already strained health system from being overwhelmed. The country’s battle against the first wave of coronaviurs succeeded thanks to protracted lockdowns and curfews besides the strict enforcement of quarantine laws and health guidelines. This time around, we have had to battle the virus without countrywide lockdowns and curfews as the economy is in tatters. This has made the task of beating the virus doubly uphill, and the need for redoubling our efforts to prevail over the pandemic cannot be overemphasised. Everyone should put his or her shoulder to the wheel, or brace himself or herself for a viral tsunami, the signs of which are already visible.
Hitler, Stalin and others
Wednesday 30th November, 2022
The Nazis of Sri Lanka (read the members of the current SLPP-UNP government, whose leader, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has called himself Hitler recently in Parliament) have gone into overdrive to suppress democratic dissent. They invaded an auditorium at Hanguranketha, on Sunday, in a bid to sabotage a conference held by a group of SLPP dissidents. Thankfully, they failed in their endeavour.
The fact that the Sri Lanka police are functioning as the Sturmabteilung or Brown Shirts under the Third Reich in Germany, and the prevailing culture of impunity seem to have emboldened the Nazis here to unleash violence to intimidate their political opponents. The Hanguranketha attack presages trouble for democracy, the Opposition and the distressed citizens who are left with no alternative but to take to the streets.
What is up the government’s sleeve is not difficult to guess; even a female ruling party MP has warned that there will be attacks on the Opposition. State Minister Diana Gamage warned Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, the other day, in Parliament; she asked him to cancel a protest march to be held from Kandy to Colombo lest the people should set upon him on the way. The term, ‘people’, is a euphemism Sri Lankan governments use for their goons. One may recall that in the early 1990s, when some journalists covering a DUNF leaflet distribution campaign near the Fort Railway Station were attacked by a gang of UNP thugs, the then Minister of Defence D. B. Wijetunga claimed that ‘irate train commuters’ had assaulted the media personnel who were blocking the entrance to the railway station! We asked him, in this column, whether commuters carried firearms, swords, bicycle chains, and knives. President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was in power at the time, may not have thought his beloved son would come under similar attacks by ‘people’.
The government has sought to justify the use of draconian laws such as the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) to curb public protests on the grounds that political upheavals adversely impact tourism. If so, will the SLPP and the UNP explain why they resorted to street protests to engineer regime changes? The UNP held a large number of protests against the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, and the SLPP unsettled the Yahapalana administration by means of mass protests. The UNP backed the Galle Face protest campaign to the hilt when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the President. No sooner had Wickremesinghe been appointed the Prime Minister than he appointed a committee to look after the interests of the anti-government protesters!
Power cuts, scarcities of essentials, attacks on democracy and the exploitation of foreigners affect tourism more than peaceful protests do.
Political stability is no doubt a prerequisite for economic revival, but it cannot be achieved by suppressing public protests. Similarly, it is well-nigh impossible to overcome political instability while the people are undergoing economic hardships and demanding relief. The government must not only take action to stabilise the economy but also be seen to be doing so. Unfortunately, it is seen to be busy solving the problems of the Rajapaksa family, the SLPP, the UNP and their cronies! It also lacks legitimacy because it comprises the SLPP grandees who ruined the economy, and other failed leaders who were rejected by the people at the last general election for neglecting national security and mismanaging the economy.
There are some troublemakers hell-bent on plunging the country into chaos on the pretext of fighting for the rights of the people. They are the ones who carried out arson attacks, assaulted people and even killed an MP during anti-government protests in May and July. But that is no reason why the people’s fundamental rights should be curtailed. All violent elements that break the law have to be dealt with separately. Interestingly, President Wickremesinghe, who calls himself Hitler, has condemned anti-government protesters as Fascists! Some violent characters among protesters claim to be ‘students’. The government refuses to accept their claim. It does not seem to be aware that the terrorists who have ruined Afghanistan are also called ‘students’ or Taliban in Pashto!
Meanwhile, the unfolding politico-economic tragedy is not devoid of some comic relief. In the 1940s, Stalin had Hitler on the run. But, about seven decades on, here in this land like no other, we see ‘Stalin’ running like a rabbit with ‘Hitler’ in hot pursuit! General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, Joseph Stalin, valiantly led mass protests against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the front, and was instrumental in engineering the collapse of the Rajapaksa regime, but today he is on the defensive, facing as he does harassment at the hands of the current dispensation. He has proved to be no match for Gotabaya’s successor, who calls himself Der Fuhrer; his bark is now worse than his bite.
Sport: Arousal of savage instincts
Tuesday 29th November, 2022
What is this world coming to when sport sparks violence and engenders animosity instead of unity and friendship? Riots broke out in Brussels, of all places, on Sunday during a World Cup football match between Belgium and Morocco, which pulled off a 2-0 upset win. It was too much for some football-crazy Belgians to stomach. But their reaction cannot be condoned on any grounds; violence engulfed several other Belgian cities as well with rioters setting vehicles on fire, pelting police with stones, and inflicting heavy damage on public and private properties while the football fans of Moroccan descent were painting the town red.
Football riots in Belgium occurred only a few weeks after a sport-related tragedy elsewhere. More than 130 people including children perished in a stampede at an Indonesian football stadium, where a pitch invasion led to clashes and police excesses.
Sporting contests are full of uncertainties, but most people cannot come to terms with this reality, much less defeats. These events have become ruthless competitions where sporting spirit has no place. Sport has long ceased to be fun, as a result. We are said to be living in a civilised world! The so-called enlightened Western nations that never miss an opportunity to take moral high ground have also failed to be different although they urge other nations to be tolerant of even terrorist outfits responsible for heinous crimes against civilians.
Sports and nationalism are an explosive mix, which turns sporting encounters into wars of sorts. Cynics say that one need not be surprised even if a cricket World Cup final between some nations in this part of the world happens to trigger a nuclear war!
Some Saudis are reported to have fired into the air in celebration of their country’s shock win against Argentina in a recent football World Cup match. It was no mean achievement for Saudi Arabia, but why should rifles be taken out? Such is their patriotic fervour; they are not alone in celebrating victory so passionately although in other countries, sports fans do not go to the extent of discharging their automatic weapons.
Meanwhile, religion has also wormed its way into the world of sport. Some sportspersons openly seek the intervention of supernatural forces to clinch victory in competitions, but such invocations often go unanswered if instances of inconsistency in their performance and ups and downs in their careers are any indication. Sri Lankan cricketers are a case in point. They make a public display of their religious faiths as well as superstitious beliefs. Some senior cricketers are reported to be followers of Gnanakka, a former hospital orderly, who claims to be a medium of divine revelations!
Sri Lankan cricket has become a confluence of politics, dosh, gambling, religion and superstition; it sadly lacks the sporting spirit. What they follow is the very antithesis of the core theme of Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada. Besides, their thick gold chains, bracelets, talismans, etc., seem to be weighing them down and impeding their performance.
It is only natural that all efforts to bring about global peace and save lives lost in conflicts have come a cropper. How can tensions among nations or groups of people be defused and armed conflicts averted or resolved in a world where even sport, which is meant to bring peoples together arouses ‘savage combative instincts’ and leads to aggression and even mindless violence?
Reports on football riots in Brussels reminded us of George Orwell, who has pointed out in his famous essay, The Sporting Spirit (1945), that football provokes vicious passions. He has made an interesting observation about all forms of sport: “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.” How true!
Mr. President abort this racket!
Monday 28th November, 2022
Some racketeers are making the most of Sri Lanka’s foreign currency crunch to put through various crooked deals on the pretext of promoting foreign investment and rake in billions of dollars at the expense of hapless Sri Lankans struggling to keep the wolf from the door. They are eyeing the country’s mineral resources among other things.
In June 2022, we exposed a sinister move by a foreign company and its local agents to carry out an ilmenite racket at Aruwakkalu, Puttalam, and the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promptly intervened to stop it, but six months on, the racketeers have made a comeback. They are so influential that they have gained access to President Ranil Wickremesinghe himself, who, we believe, is not au fait with the project. We hasten to add that the President is not involved in this racket; he may be driven by a genuine desire to bring in much-needed foreign investment to straighten up the economy, but some of his advisors seem to have misled him. That may be the reason why he summoned the newly-appointed Cement Corporation Chairman Jagath Dharmapriya on Friday (25) and instructed the latter to ensure that the project at issue was implemented forthwith. Sadly, the legal principle, Audi alteram partem (‘listen to the other side’), often goes unheeded!
Let the President be informed that about one and a half years ago, Sri Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd., and Sri Lanka Cement Corporation planned to embark on a joint venture to extract ilmenite found in overburden red soil removed for limestone quarrying on a 5,352-acre state land at Aruwakkalu. The project was expected to yield a great deal of foreign exchange for the country, but the aforesaid foreign firm, backed by a bunch of corrupt government politicians and officials, derailed it in a bid to secure the contract for ilmenite extraction; the country will get nothing from this firm other than royalty paid to the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, which is a den of thieves. The rogue company claims that it will invest a considerable amount of forex in the project, but it will bring in only machinery, which will be of no use to anyone in the end. Does the government want to swap ilmenite worth billions of dollars for a heap of scrap iron? The initial investment could be recovered in a few months, according to the project documents The Island has seen. No wonder some state officials and politicians are all out to have the contract awarded to the foreign firm!
The racketeers are so influential that they even had the then Cement Corporation Chairman Gamini Ekanayake, who together with some courageous state officials vehemently opposed the corrupt deal, removed from his post. But his successor Dharmapriya has proved to be equally intrepid; he too has chosen to protect the interests of the country by opposing the shady deal on the drawing board. He deserves praise. The country needs such upright officials.
Geologists inform us that what has surfaced with top soil at Aruwakkalu is only a fraction of a huge ilmenite deposit lying underneath. Sri Lanka will gain tremendously if it can export ilmenite as a value-added product. At present, a metric ton of ilmenite without value addition fetches about USD 300 in the international market, but its price will increase to about USD 2,200 if it is exported after being processed. What prevents value addition, which consists of several phases, and is very expensive, is that not enough ilmenite is excavated in the country at present to attract a foreign investor. Experts are of the view that the shortfall could easily be met with ilmenite found at Aruwakkalu for an investor to be invited in a transparent manner. The racketeers are striving to obtain ilmenite for a song with the help of corrupt politicians and officials here and make huge profits at the expense of the country.
The racket is being carried out at the behest of an ‘educated’ politician, who pontificates ad nauseam about the virtues of good governance and pretends to be a paragon of virtue. We will name him in this column when our legal team permits us to do so. We have no civil word to say about State Minister of Primary Industries Chamara Sampath Dissanayake but, credit where it is due, he has refused to help the racketeers. Thus, it should be clear that education alone does not make a good minister.
President Wickremesinghe may not be popular but he is widely considered an intelligent leader, and one can only hope that he will ensure that the country—and not a bunch of crooked individuals including some government politicians—will gain from the exploitation of ilmenite at Aruwakkalu. We wish to draw his attention to the historic Supreme Court judgment (2000) in Bulankulama and Others v. Secretary, Ministry of Industrial Development and Others—or the Eppawala case as it is better known; it specifies how to manage the country’s mineral resources for the benefit of the present-day Sri Lankans and generations to come.
We suggest that an expert committee be appointed to study the issue at hand. It should comprise officials from the Treasury and relevant ministries, the Land Commissioner, independent experts in the fields of geology, mining and economics, environmentalists, and representatives of the Attorney General’s Department.
President Wickremesinghe had better tread cautiously on this crucial issue lest he should have his reputation sullied again. The Treasury bond scams will pale into insignificance in comparison to the mega ilmenite racket to be carried out. The UNP does not want to be worsted ignominiously at future elections as well, does it?
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