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Editorial

Of those walls

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Friday 22nd January, 2021

Walls are meant to ensure safety. Most houses in this country have boundary walls that are as tall as those around prisons, for there are more criminals at large than behind bars, and the law-abiding people fear for their safety. But walls can also be a source of danger if they are jerrybuilt or happen to sit in the wrong places like the one along a section of the perimeter of the Ratmalana Airport near the Galle road. A veteran Sri Lankan pilot, who writes to this newspaper under a pseudonym, has been striving for the last 10 years or so to have this wall pulled down because he believes it poses a danger to aircraft. He has written many articles putting forth solid arguments for the demolition of the wall, but in vain; the last one appeared yesterday. One may argue that the airport wall has caused no accidents so far and, therefore, one should not worry, but anything that is a potential danger to aircraft should not be permitted in or around airports.

Walls could cause trouble on the political front as well. Donald Trump was left with egg on his face when he, as the US President, tried to have a wall built along the US-Mexico border. That wall never came up, and Trump has had to leave the White House. Walls that political leaders allow to be built around them could also be problematic.

Many of those who campaigned really hard to bring the incumbent Sri Lankan government to power are now climbing the walls. Their frustration knows no bounds. They think a favoured few have built a wall around President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and are misleading him. This is what, some prominent Buddhist monks who led the SLPP’s election campaigns from the front say, has happened.

Several senior Buddhist monks flayed the government at a religious function held on Wednesday to invoke blessings on Ven. Omare Kassapa Thera on his birthday, at Abayaramaya, Colombo. Ven. Murutettuwe Ananda, Ven. Medagama Abhayatissa and Ven. Elle Gunawansa Theras, in their speeches decried the way the government was mismanaging state assets which it had undertaken to protect. They said their voice had gone unheeded as some persons had built a wall around the President. Medagama Abhayatissa Thera recalled how a group of Buddhist monks had protested when Hambantota Port was leased to the Chinese; he said the Maha Sangha would go all out to save the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port.

One may recall that Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister of the yahapalana government, derisively called Abayaramaya ‘Mahindaramaya’ because it was there that ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa successfully rallied forces to make a comeback following his defeat in the 2015 presidential race. Today, staunch SLPP supporters are raking the government over the coals at the very temple, which served as the cradle of their anti-yahapalana campaign.

Gotabaya, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development, once demonstrated a deep antipathy towards walls. He had some of them pulled down in the Colombo city as part of his urban yuppification programme. But he is now under fire from government supporters for having allowed a wall to be built around him.

The wall of mistrust that has come up between the SLPP and its supporters, who show signs of utter disillusionment and frustration, presages trouble for the government, which has earned notoriety for signaling left and turning right, so to speak. The questionable ECT deal which has irked the forces that propelled it to power could be its undoing.

Defensive walls could fail to be effective in politics as in football, where skilled players know how to curve the ball past them into the goal. What Maithripala Sirisena did to his boss, Mahinda, in the 2015 presidential contest, is a case in point. It was a real kicker for the latter.

Most political leaders tend to forget, after being ensconced in power, that walls around them are no match for the power of people’s voice. They ought to remember that all it took to bring down the Wall of Jericho was a great shout people raised in unison.

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Editorial

Govt. in a spot

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Saturday 27th February, 2021

The rejection by the SLFP of the final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday carnage, has come as no surprise. It could not have done otherwise; its leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena is among those the PCoI has held responsible for the serious lapses that made the terror attacks possible. However, if the SLFP thinks it can defend its leader simply by rejecting the commission report, it is mistaken. Attorney General Dappula de Livera will decide whether to institute legal action against those named in the report; he will do so after perusing the report and other documents related thereto.

Sirisena, while he was the President, used to brag that he had a sword (read executive powers), which we jokingly likened to King Arthur’s Excalibur. He said he would not hesitate to use his ‘sword’ for the benefit of the people. In reality, he behaved like a child wielding a Samurai sword. He did not know how to exercise the executive powers which a leader must not monkey around with. The Easter Sunday attacks would not have happened if there had been a sensible President. Terrorist attacks are difficult to prevent, but in the case of the Easter Sunday carnage there had been several warnings.

Others in the yahapalana government were also responsible for the serious lapses that led to the terror strikes. The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe became the de facto head of state thanks to the 19th Amendment, which stripped the President of some vital executive powers and vested them in the Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe had the police, especially the CID, under his thumb. The entire Cabinet of ministers at the time was also responsible for the massive security failure that enabled the NTJ terrorists to strike at will.

The UNP is paying for its sins in the political wilderness. Some prominent UNPers who were in the yahapalana government, which failed to prevent the terror strikes, are now in the SJB. They seem to think the people have forgotten their past. They cannot absolve themselves of the blame for the UNP-led administration’s serious lapses on the national security front, but they have shrewdly put the incumbent government on the defensive over the PCoI report. These worthies have adopted a ruse pickpockets employ to make good their escape. When a pickpocket has to outrun his pursuers, he bolts, shouting ‘pickpocket, pickpocket’ so as to dupe others into believing that he is also one of the good guys. The SJB, which is the UNP in all but name, is now demanding to know the truth about the Easter Sunday carnage, which they did not care to prevent!

The SLPP, which, during its Opposition days, rejected a Parliamentary Select Committee report on the Easter Sunday attacks, undertook to launch a thorough probe to get at the truth and bring the culprits to justice, and flogged the issue of security failure hard enough to capture power, stands accused of having reneged on its promise. The SJB/UNP is now on the offensive, picking holes in the PCoI report. We are witnessing a role reversal, aren’t we?

What on earth possessed the government to delay the submission of copies of the commission report to Parliament and the Attorney General? A copy of the report should also have been sent to His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who was instrumental in bringing the post-carnage situation under control. But for his intervention, the country would have been plunged into another bloodbath. The government resorted to delaying tactics, giving the impression to the public that it was trying to suppress the PCoI findings and recommendations in a bid to defend Sirisena, who is now on its side.

Sirisena became a problem for the Rajapaksas, in 2014, by decamping and securing the presidency with the help of the UNP. They kissed and made up subsequently. It won the last presidential election in spite of Sirisena, whose sympathies were with SJB Presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa. It, in its wisdom, offered a piggyback ride to Sirisena at the general election; it has thus made him its problem again.

It is being argued in some quarters that the only way the government can prevent the Opposition from cashing in on the PCoI report is to throw Sirisena to the wolves, but the SLFP has 14 members in the SLPP parliamentary group. There’s the rub. The government finds itself in a spot.

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Editorial

Probes: More queries than answers

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Friday 26th February, 2021

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed the Easter Sunday carnage can easily be bracketed with the PCoI on the Treasury bond scams; both have not dug deep enough to reveal the masterminds of the crimes they were tasked with investigating. Obviously, Hashim Zahran, described as the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) leader was only one of the attackers. The NTJ stockpiled explosives, arms and ammunition sufficient for many attacks. It had a long-term strategy; it brainwashed children and conducted training and indoctrination programmes. It need not have done so if its goal had been to carry out eight attacks in a single day. Why should an outfit train scores of cadres when the need is only for eight persons to blow themselves up? If Zahran had had ISIS links, as claimed in some quarters, he could have easily smuggled in eight foreign Jihadists to carry out the Easter Sunday attacks. Why should an organisation procure huge amounts of explosives if the need is only for eight explosive-laden backpacks? The NTJ could have smuggled in suicide jackets or bought them from the former Tigers.

There is reason to believe that Zahran had a handler, who must be identified and dealt with. It is also possible that Zahran’s handler also had a handler, perhaps from a foreign spy agency bent on destabilising this country. Zahran’s base was in the Eastern Province, and he had been making preparations for a string of terror attacks spread over a long period of time, especially in that part of the country. He tried his hands at launching attacks against the state; he and his associates dipped their toes successfully by executing two policemen, at Vavunativu in 2018; they got away with the crime, which the CID wrongly blamed on the LTTE rump. Those who were in charge of national security at that time were intellectually challenged, and there was no need for Zahran to resort to suicide attacks on 21 April 2019; he could have attacked the targets without losing any of his cadres. What prompted him to carry out terror attacks away from the East, his stronghold? If he had been the leader of the terrorist movement, he would have known that his death would mark the end of it; he had planned a second wave of attacks, the PCoI was told. Why on earth did he choose to perish in the first wave itself? These questions have gone unanswered.

That the ISIS had the Easter Sunday attacks carried out is a tall story. They would have claimed responsibility for the explosions even before the dust settled on the blast sites if they had been behind them; they took time to do so. The real mastermind/s of the Easter Sunday attacks must be identified if security threats to Sri Lanka are to be obviated. So long as they are at large, threats will persist.

Among those who told the PCoI, in no uncertain terms, that there had been a hidden hand behind the TNJ are former President Maithripala Sirisena, SLMC leader and SJB MP Rauff Hakeem and former CID SDIG Ravi Seneviratne. His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith also said there had been a foreign conspiracy behind the terror attacks to destabilise the country. He must be privy to some information that others are not. So, no investigation that has ignored this vital aspect of the terror attacks can be considered complete.

In a previous editorial comment (28/01), we said we hoped the PCoI report would clear doubts as regards the following: why did the NTJ use two bombers for the suicide attacks at Shangri-La, Colombo? One of them was Zahran himself. He could have got the other bomber to take another target. Why didn’t he do so? Did his handler seek to send any message to the world through the Shangri-La attack? If so, what was it? Was Zahran duped into communicating with and taking orders from a fake ISIS created by a powerful spy agency? Is there any truth in the media reports that the police were denied access to a luxury hotel room, where explosive detection canines led them to, following the Easter Sunday bombings? The PCoI probe has not yielded answers to these questions.

There is a need for another commission to peruse the information the Easter Sunday PCoI gathered and conduct a fresh probe into the terror attacks from other angles which have not received due attention.

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Editorial

Gesture of solidarity

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Thursday 25th February, 2021

Nothing could be more reassuring and uplifting in times of trouble than a true friend’s presence. Sri Lanka has only a few generous, altruistic friends, and Pakistan certainly is prominent among them. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit, albeit brief, could not have come at a better time for Sri Lanka, a badger facing a pack of growling mastiffs in Geneva; what it needs most at this juncture is moral support.

Many are the nations that have proffered loads and loads of unsolicited advice to Sri Lanka on how to protect democracy and human rights. But none of them helped remove the scourge of terror, the gravest threat to democracy and humankind. Pakistan stood unwaveringly behind Sri Lanka during the latter’s war on terror and helped the latter in numerous ways. It was the multi-barrel rocket launchers Pakistan rushed here in the aftermath of the fall of Elephant Pass garrison, in 2000, that enabled the Army put the brakes on the ‘unceasing wave’ of the LTTE. Otherwise, the Tigers would have laid siege to Jaffna with ease, forcing the Army to withdraw its troops. (Some countries even offered ships for ferrying soldiers to Colombo!) Today, Sri Lanka is free from political assassinations, massacres, child conscription, etc., as LTTE terrorism has been neutralised. If it had given in to pressure from the Western bloc and spared the LTTE’s military muscle, thousands of lives would have been destroyed during the last 12 years or so.

There were calls, in some quarters, for PM Khan to take up the issue of ‘forced burials’ with Colombo. They were obviously aimed at creating a media feeding frenzy and thereby giving the anti-Sri Lankan campaign in Geneva a boost. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have their own way of sorting out problems; never do they resort to megaphone diplomacy. But, the fact remains that mandatory burials have hurt the Muslim community beyond measure mostly because those who die of COVID-19 are allowed to be buried in other countries including those notorious for their antipathy towards Muslims. Some prominent Sri Lankan medical experts are of the view that the burial of pandemic victims should be permitted, provided the health regulations in place to prevent the spread of the pandemic are strictly followed. Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa, as a sensible leader, must have gone by expert opinion including that of the Sri Lanka Medical Association, when he said in Parliament recently that the burial of COVID-19 victims would become an option. Sadly, he was overruled.

It is significant that the Head of State of a prominent Islamic nation has been to Sri Lanka while the pro-LTTE groups are exerting a considerable pull on a section of the Muslims community who courageously stood up to LTTE terror and thwarted Prabhakaran’s efforts to extend his control over the Eastern Province. Some of the Muslims who became the target of a hate campaign following the Easter Sunday carnage have joined forces with the pro-LTTE political groups masquerading as crusaders for democracy, in the Eastern Province, which is of pivotal importance to the countries that seek to counter increasing Chinese presence here. This is something Sri Lanka and its Islamic allies such as Pakistan should take cognizance of.

Meanwhile, there are many areas where Sri Lanka and Pakistan can partner to realise their full potentials as developing nations. Besides trade, commerce and investment, they can concentrate more on agriculture, construction, science and technology, education, medicine, tourism, etc. PM Khan’s ‘Global Initiative on Debt Relief’ is something that Sri Lanka, as well as other nations in the Global South, should fully support.

There are some issues that Sri Lanka and Pakistan should address jointly. One of them is the narcotic trade, which has affected both countries badly. Drug cartels have established a supply route via Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which has become a narcotic transit point of sorts.

It is a pity that the Sri Lankan Parliament did not have the honour of being addressed by PM Khan, a brilliant orator and trusted friend.

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