Monday 28th June, 2021
These are really bad times for health ministers across the globe. They receive more brickbats than bouquets. Some of them have even lost their jobs. New Zealand Health Minister David Clark had to resign, last year, having breached lockdown rules to take his family to the beach. Jordon’s Health Minister Nathir Obeidat had to step down owing to an oxygen shortage that killed six patients at a Covid-19 treatment centre, about three moons ago. In Brazil, three health ministers have so far lost their jobs for their country’s failure to contain the pandemic. Sri Lankan Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi got into hot water by ingesting a shaman’s herbal concoction touted as a cure for Covid-19, and dropping clay pots into rivers by way of a ritual to ward off coronavirus. She contracted Covid-19 and came back from death’s door. British Health Minister Matt Hancock, too, has had to resign. But he has stepped down not over his failure to fight the virus but over a kiss, which amounted to a breach of heath regulations. According to The Sun newspaper, he was caught on a security camera throwing caution to the wind and smooching with his mistress in his office in violation of Covid-19 protocol.
Across the pond, former US President Bill Clinton, who turned the Oval Office into a gymnasium of a different sort, but escaped even after committing perjury, must be guffawing, muttering to himself, “Poor Matt!” Ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has gone scot-free despite having caused tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians including half a million children to be killed in an illegal war, must also be feeling sorry for Matt, who has lost his job due to a kissing footage as it were.
Some of the Brits, scandalised by the kissing episode, pressed for Hancock’s resignation on the grounds that he had violated health regulations. Others were out for his scalp on moral grounds. They insist, according to media reports, that Hancock should have resigned or been sacked even if the smooch had not been in violation of the health regulations because his conduct was morally reprehensible; it is doubtful whether many of them have any moral right to condemn Hancock. In 2018, the wire services reported, quoting The Sun, the findings of an interesting study, which revealed that ninety percent of Brits surveyed had confessed to having had sex in their offices. Among the places where they got steamy were boardrooms, kitchens, stairs and even stationery cupboards! The Sun quoted a psychologist as having called the office a hotbed of hormones. A pollster who conducted the research told the media that a common theme was that people enjoyed the thrill of having sex while they were meant to be working. Is this why some people are having lockdown blues and averse to work from home; they must be missing office cupboards, etc. (Irate Sri Lankans who have to kick their heels at public institutions, where officials do everything except their work, may wonder whether the aforesaid British pollster’s observation applies to this country as well.)
It is often asked why the British politicians are not well-disposed towards their Sri Lankan counterparts. We think the Brits are jealous of the latter. Our guys seem to have all the luck; besides living in clover at the expense of the taxpaying public, they are free to do virtually anything; never do their concupiscence and sexual misconduct land them in trouble. A number of British MPs were named and shamed for making some questionable expenses claims, which were exposed in 2009. (Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin finds herself up the creek, having used public funds for her family’s breakfast at her official residence; she has pledged to pay back the money! Here, in this land like no other, not only politicians but also their families and cronies indulge in feasts for which taxpayers meekly pick up the tab.)
One may recall that a rotund Sri Lankan Health Minister once got caught in flagrante delicto, in his ministry office itself. His wife burst in on him and his female secretary. The minister had not only egg but also a slipper (belonging to his infuriated significant other) on his face. He did not lose his job, though. He is going great guns. Another randy minister did a Tarzan to avoid security cameras on an upper floor of a foreign hotel in a bid to get into an adjoining room, unnoticed, to spend the night there only to have a nasty fall from the balcony of his suite in the process. He was treated at the expense of the Sri Lankan taxpayers! He, too, is doing well in politics. One of the pre-election promises of the yahapalana government (2015-19) was to bring to justice a Pradeshiya Sabha head, who had allegedly raped hundreds of women and even celebrated those crimes, under the previous regime, but he joined the yahapalana camp and got away.
Hancock must be thinking that he became the Health Minister in the wrong country. Ordinary Sri Lankans, troubled by various deprivations, must be hoping for British citizenship, but the pleasure-seeking British politicians must be wishing they lived in this country.
From Esmond to Edmund and beyond
Tuesday 3rd October, 2023
Elaborate preparations have been made to felicitate a veteran editor, today. Edmund Ranasinghe is his name. He needs no introduction and deserves to be honoured for his outstanding contribution to Sri Lankan journalism. We extend our congratulations to him.
Today’s felicitation ceremony is scheduled to be held under the patronage of President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Presidential Secretariat, of all places. The fact that the President’s late father, Esmond Wickremesinghe, was also a colossus in Sri Lankan journalism makes today’s event even more significant. The felicitation of a nonagenarian print media great, we believe, is time for reflection.
Esmond died in 1985, and Edmund retired some years ago. They made their mark in two different eras, but the print media was without much competition then. The world of newspapers has since moved on at a rapid pace, and is facing numerous unprecedented and unforeseen challenges, some of which are of existential nature.
Technology keeps pushing the envelope, opening up new frontiers in human communication, and throwing up more challenges to the ‘traditional media’; the newspapers are the worst affected. The emergence of social media, and news portals with digital agility and ability has done to print media what T20 did to Test cricket. Due to the proliferation of web publications and the expansion of social media and instant messaging, news cycles have come down to minutes, if not seconds. Most newspaper readers have become netizens thanks to the rapid expansion of the digital realm, and their needs and expectations have undergone radical changes, as never before. Artificial Intelligence has revolutionised communication, and one may say, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, that for the print media it takes all the running it can to keep in the same place, and if it wants to get somewhere, it must run at least twice as fast as that. How would Edmund propose to overcome these challenges if he happened to be in active journalism at present?
The keynote address at today’s felicitation ceremony is scheduled to be delivered by former Editor of the Divaina and the Rivira, Upali Tennakoon, who was Edmund’s understudy. Upali’s presence evokes our memories of a dark era, when he had to flee the country following an attempt on his life during an SLFP-led regime. That incident happened years after a grenade had been flung at Edmund’s house during a UNP government, which went all out to silence the Divaina and The Island, but in vain.
Today, the UNP has joined forces with those who were blamed for many crimes against journalists, such as the attack on Upali, the abduction of The Nation Deputy Editor Keith Noyahr, and the assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. The UNPers who alleged that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government had a hand in Lasantha’s assassination, and went so far as to coin slogans like ‘saatakaya gaathakaya’ are on honeymoon with the Rajapaksas!
The Rajapaksa Brothers may be maintaining a low profile at present, but trouble for journalists is far from over; now, they have Big Brother to contend with! The SLPP-UNP regime is determined to steamroller the Online Safety Bill through Parliament despite vehement protests from the media, the Opposition, lawyers and many others who cherish democracy. Ironically, this draconian Bill, which reminds us of the plight of Winston Smith in Orwell’s, dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has been crafted and is to be passed by Parliament on the watch of Esmond’s son, under whose patronage Edmund is to be felicitated today!
The highest honour that can be conferred on veteran journalists is to support the causes they have held dear and safeguard media freedom. One can only hope that the Online Safety Bill will be withdrawn forthwith, and the perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media institutions, such as arson attacks on television studios and printing presses, brought to justice without further delay.
Guilty until proven innocent?
Monday 2nd October, 2023
There are no signs of an early détente between India and Canada. The two countries continue to trade allegations. Other nations are divided along the lines of strategic alliances rather than anything else. Interestingly, the US government is seen to be tilting towards Canada.
What the ongoing diplomatic row of epic proportions, and Washington’s stance thereon signify is that India has not received full membership of the club of powerful nations. The US firmly stands behind India only when the latter locks horns with China, which the West is all out to keep at bay for economic and security reasons, but when India happens to cross swords with a western nation, it cannot depend on the US to have its six, so to speak. The US has no permanent friends, as has been the experience of Pakistan, which Washington used in the Cold War era and then discarded. Perhaps, the painful diplomatic knock New Delhi has received from Ottawa could not have come without Washington’s knowledge; it could be attributed to strong economic ties India continues to maintain with Russia, refusing to toe the western line over the war in Ukraine. The Indian refineries are reported to have snapped up discounted Russian oil since the West imposed sanctions against Russia.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may not have expected India to strike back with might and main, resorting to tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats when he went public with his ‘credible allegation’ of India’s involvement in the killing of a Khalistan activist on Canadian soil and ordered an Indian diplomat out of the country. Indian commentators have asked how an allegation could ever be considered credible. Whether the term ‘credible allegation’ is a contradiction in terms, as India has claimed in a bid to deride PM Trudeau, may be a moot point, but it can be used against Canada as well. One can argue that India’s allegation that Canada has become a haven for terrorists is credible, and therefore Canada should be dealt with in the same manner as the other countries that harbour terrorists and face hostile action at the hands of the West.
The Trudeau government’s judgement and its ability to engage in critical inquiry, which involves gathering facts, questioning assumptions, evaluating evidence, considering multiple perspectives and arriving at well-reasoned conclusions, are in serious doubt. It was only the other day that a nonagenarian Nazi veteran was mistaken for a Ukrainian freedom fighter, brought to the Canadian parliament and honoured during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit. (The Fuhrer would backflip in his grave in glee if he knew the Canadian government’s faux pas!)
An extreme course of action such as expelling diplomats is something that a country should resort to as pis aller, if at all, only after ascertaining irrefutable evidence to substantiate an allegation against another nation.
Whether India actually did what it is accused of having done in Canada, one may not know, but it behoves Canada, which PM Trudeau proudly calls a country that upholds the rule of law, and other nations which have taken upon themselves the task of protecting global democracy, to respect the cardinal principle of justice that every person accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent unless and until his or her guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt. Before crossing the Rubicon, Trudeau should have ascertained irrefutable evidence to support his claim that India had a hand in the killing of the Sikh activist.
Credibility is something subjective influenced by various factors including an individual’s beliefs, experiences, knowledge and biases. If ‘credible allegations’ are to be accepted as the basis of offensive action or casus belli, PM Trudeau would find himself on a sticky wicket; a former Indian diplomat named Deepak Vohra has accused Trudeau of having been high on drugs during his recent visit to India to attend the G20 summit, and claimed Trudeau’s plane was found to be full of cocaine. Trudeau’s office has denied this allegation vehemently. What if the Canadian public were to go by the inversion of the principle of presumption of innocence, buy into the former Indian diplomat’s claim and consider Trudeau guilty of drug abuse until he is proven innocent?
Trudeau may have thought India would take his ‘credible allegation’, and the diplomatic offensive based thereon, meekly, the way Sri Lanka did anent his genocide allegation. It is popularly said in this country that the woodpecker, which damages trees by drilling holes in them, finds itself in a bind when it sinks its restless beak into a fibrous banana trunk.
The India – Canada spat
Opinion will surely be divided on whether Foreign Minister Ali Sabry should have waded into the ongoing spat between India and Canada on the assassination of a Sikh Canadian citizen allegedly by Indian agents according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sabry got a lot of media play in India characterizing Trudeau’s statement to Parliament as “outrageous.” Colombo, of course, continues to smart under the Canadian PM’s recent remarks about “genocide” in this country which Sabry says “everybody knows” did not happen. No wonder then our minister thought it fit to tell an Indian television station that “sometimes Prime Minister Trudeau comes out with outrageous and unsubstantiated allegations.”
Given India’s generosity to Sri Lanka during the ongoing economic crisis ,Colombo would surely like to score brownie points in New Delhi. This despite clear knowledge that free lunches are not part of global international relations and the need to steer clear of rivalries between India and China in big power contests. Sri Lanka professes non-alignment and is even now grappling with issues arising from an upcoming port call by a second Chinese research ship about which Indian and U.S. concerns have been expressed.
In such situations it makes sense in not resorting to the tit for tat reactions of the kind displayed by both Ottawa and New Delhi over the Hardeep Singh Nijjar assassination. Many would regard Minister Ali Sabry’s remarks on the India – China row as partly reflective of Colombo’s resentment of genocide and pro-LTTE references emanating from Canada.
Lankans, of course, are well aware that pro-LTTE rhetoric is part of domestic politics in Canada. Some 200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, comprising about 0.7 percent of the total Canadian population live in that country. These numbers are sufficient to make a difference between the two major parties at elections and much of the Canadian political discourse reflects that factor.
Similarly, Sikhs are also a significant segment of the Canadian population with the highest population of Sikhs outside their home state of Punjab living in that country. According to the 2021 census, 770,000 Sikhs live in Canada and they would therefore be a more influential factor than Sri Lanka Tamils in Canadian domestic politics. Hence the various statements tilted towards these communities emanating from Canada.
Good relations with India must always be a cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Such relations sank to abysmal depths during the civil war when India allowed the separatist LTTE to train and stage from Indian territory much to Sri Lanka’s detriment. The war would have probably ended long before it actually did in 2009 if Operation Vadamarachi was not aborted by India’s incursion into Sri Lanka’s air space and the infamous parippu airdrop.
The Indo – Lanka Accord and the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) followed. Today it can be said that relations between us and our giant neighbour have never been better. True there are reservations that Big Brother is taking economic advantage of Sri Lanka’s current predicament but these are issues that must be sensibly navigated.
It must be noted that Prime Minister Trudeau did not claim ironclad evidence on the assassination of the Sikh activist in British Columbia. He merely said there were “credible allegations” (emphasis ours) on that score. Whether hard evidence could ever be unearthed on this matter is an open question. There have been media reports of early signs that both Canada and India, after the initial sound and fury, are resorting to quiet diplomacy to resolve their differences. That would be in the interest of both countries as well as the wider world.
There have also been reports that intercepts of diplomatic communications from the Indian High Commission in Ottawa possibly by the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence grouping between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the U.S., had a role in Trudeau’s allegations. However that be, the Canadian premier would not have got out on a limb with his allegation, rightly or wrongly, if he was not convinced that he was on terra firma.
End of IMF review mission
Despite the polite noises made at its closing press conference, there appears to have been no agreement yet between the Government of Sri Lanka and the IMF review mission which concluded its two weeks-long visit on Wednesday. There was no word on when the disbursement of the second tranche of the deal would begin. There is no way that the IMF board will disburse the next tranche until the staff level agreement is concluded.
The closing statement reported “remarkable resilience” of the Sri Lankan people in the face of enormous challenges and “commendable progress” in implementing much needed reforms. While reporting a string of achievements it said that “discussions are ongoing” and the authorities are making progress on their revenue mobilization targets and anti-corruption efforts. But there was no word that a desired staff level agreement has been reached or when the funds will be released.
Two weeks ago when the review began, then acting Finance Minister Ranjit Siyambalapitiya said he was “very hopeful of getting the second tranche of $330 million” from the IMF. But obviously there is more ground to cover and the funds are not likely to be available in the short term. The Financial Times in Britain reported on Thursday that Sri Lanka has failed “to reach agreement to unlock the IMF bailout tranche” and “the delay threatens to slow the country’s recovery from the worst economic crisis in its history.”
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