Friday 21st July, 2023
Minister of Wildlife and Forest Resources Conservation Pavithra Wanniarachchi finds herself in an unenviable position. The two sectors under her purview are perennially in crisis, and sorting them out is a Sisyphean task, which no minister has been equal to all these decades. Among the intractable problems she is facing are the fast receding forest cover and the ever-worsening human-elephant conflict (HEC); the two issues are interconnected.
Minister Wanniarchchi has undertaken to formulate a policy and work out a strategy to resolve HEC, according to media reports. She is right in having done so, and deserves encouragement and support, given the gravity of the situation. Researchers have pointed out that since 2019, HEC has left 125 people and 370 elephants dead in Sri Lanka, which has recorded the highest annual elephant deaths and second-highest human deaths due to HEC. The human death rate has increased by approximately 42% over the previous three decades, we are told. Year 2022 was particularly bad for humans and elephants in this country with 145 people and 133 elephants being killed.
The number of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka averages one a day, according to the conservation web portal, Mongabay, and the leading cause thereof is human intervention. Scores of elephants suffer violent deaths at the hands of humans, who resort to cruel methods such as shooting, electrocution and hiding improvised explosive devices in food bait, in dealing with marauding wild elephants.
There are a significant number of Sri Lankan experts who have done extensive research on HEC, and they are willing to help save humans and elephants. It is hoped that Minister Wanniarachchi will enlist their support and ensure their active participation in the formulation of policies.
The intensification of HEC and the resultant high death tolls have come as no surprise. A study conducted by a group of experts in 2019 has found that humans inhabit about 70% of the elephant range in Sri Lanka, and nearly 40 percent of land outside the protected areas is shared by humans and elephants. Rapid deforestation has caused elephant habitats to shrink rapidly, driving wild jumbos to invade villages, destroy cultivations, houses and human lives and run the risk of being killed in the process.
It defies comprehension why in this day and age, when technology has enabled things that were considered impossible a few years ago, we cannot save elephants from moving trains, which kill quite a few of them every year. We should be able to find a technological solution to the problem of train-elephant collisions.
There have been some half-hearted attempts to resolve HEC during the past so many years but they did not reach fruition as there was no consensus among the stakeholders on a strategy to be adopted. Most experts have been working in silos, but their research has yielded valuable data, which can be utilised to mitigate, if not end, HEC. If Minister Wanniarachchi cares to bring them together and ensure that they make a concerted effort to break the back of HEC, it will be possible to save the precious lives of humans and elephants.
The success of any strategy to resolve HEC will hinge on the conservation of forests and the reforestation of denuded areas to ensure that the elephant habitats will be preserved. This is one of the reasons why we opposed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to transfer the authority over ‘peripheral’ forests from the Forest Department to the District Secretaries purportedly to promote rural agriculture. The ulterior motive behind that move was to allow government supporters to grab land, which has to be kept free from human activity to ensure the wellbeing of forests. Unfortunately, what we feared is happening.
Most of all, it is hoped that Minister Wanniarachchi has overcome her unhealthy fascination with the occult, which she amply demonstrated by helping promote a shaman’s herbal concoction as a cure for Covid-19, and dropping pots containing ‘miracle water’, into a river to rid the country of pandemic while she was the Minister of Health. Otherwise, it may be difficult to adopt a scientific approach to resolving HEC.
Friday 22nd September, 2023
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa yesterday created quite a stir in Parliament by demanding to know why President Ranil Wickremesinghe had taken some SLPP MPs to New York. Premadasa said those who were responsible for bankrupting the country must not be allowed to junket at the expense of taxpayers. He must have struck a responsive chord with the irate public, but going by his line of reasoning, the question is whether any member of the current Parliament can be considered eligible to accompany the President during his foreign visits. All the MPs are responsible, albeit to varying degrees, for the country’s bankruptcy caused by unsustainable debt, which accumulated under successive governments.
All governments, after 1977, borrowed heavily from both domestic and foreign sources, making the country’s debt unsustainable, and mismanaged the economy. They allowed their members and cronies to indulge in corruption and steal public funds, and did nothing to prevent the waste of state resources. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, which was characterised by mismanagement, inefficiency, corruption and waste, precipitated the economic collapse, which would otherwise have taken a few more years to manifest itself.
Thus, all those who were members of the governments led by the UNP or the SLFP, and the SLPP MPs are responsible for the current economic mess. The same goes for the MPs who supported terrorism, which bled billions of rupees, if not dollars, from the national economy for years, and drove investors and foreign tourists away, thereby severely retarding the country’s economic growth.
Most MPs, including those who craftily marketed Gotabaya as a messiah and duped the public into voting for him, have sought to absolve themselves of the blame for the current economic crisis by claiming that they were not aware that the country was heading for bankruptcy, and nobody warned them. But is there any need for anyone to provide these self-proclaimed mavens with such information? They are known for their economic punditry, aren’t they?
On listening to our legislators, who speak very authoritatively on virtually anything either in Parliament or elsewhere, one wonders whether they are omniscient. Some of them would have the public believe that they have found out what the police and special committees and commissions have failed to ascertain all these years; they claim to be aware of who masterminded the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks!
Besides, they play the roles of prosecutors and judges and conduct trials in the House, to all intents and purposes, although the Constitution says the judicial power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament through courts, tribunals, etc., except in regard to matters relating to the privileges, immunities and powers of Parliament and of its Members. While claiming to be so knowledgeable and usurping the powers of other institutions, these worthies have had the audacity to claim that they were not aware that the economy was nosediving and the country was heading for bankruptcy!
Even some SLPP dissidents including former Cabinet ministers have claimed that they had been kept in the dark about the state of the economy, and the declaration of the country’s bankruptcy came as a surprise to them! Among them are some experts who never miss an opportunity to parade their knowledge of economic and financial affairs. Their claim is tantamount to a confession that they neglected their legislative duties and functions, and did not keep a watchful eye on the economy. Will they be able to convince the public that they are capable of managing the economy better?
One cannot but fully endorse the Opposition Leader’s demand that no MP who is responsible for the country’s bankruptcy be allowed to spend public funds on foreign junkets.
Grave diplomatic issue
Thursday 21st September, 2023
The recent killing of a prominent Sikh activist named Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Canada, has triggered a diplomatic row between Ottawa and New Delhi. Canada lost no time in ordering an Indian diplomat out of the country, accusing India of having had a hand in the assassination. Denying Canada’s allegation, New Delhi reacted with a tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsion.
The so-called great powers have carried out numerous assassinations on foreign soil over the past several decades, with the US and Russia leading the pack. So, it is only natural that the spy outfits of powerful nations become the prime suspects when the people who are hostile to them happen to be murdered in other countries.
The diplomatic fallout of Nijjar’s assassination shows how concerned powerful nations such as Canada and India are about what they consider threats to their sovereignty. In a hard-hitting statement on the expulsion of its diplomat, the Indian External Affairs Ministry said Canada’s allegations sought to ‘shift focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided with shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’. Referring to Ottawa’s allegation against India, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said, “If proven true, this would be a great violation of our sovereignty and of the most basic rule of how countries deal with each other.” (Emphasis added.)
Curiously, going by the Canadian Foreign Minister’s statement, the basis of Ottawa’s angry reaction is a mere allegation that has not been proved yet. Shouldn’t Canada have investigated the allegation against India thoroughly and made an informed conclusion instead of plunging head first into lighting the diplomatic blue touchpaper, as it were?
Whether India had a hand in the assassination at issue, one may not know, but what it has said about Canada stands scrutiny; Canada harbours foreign terrorists of all sorts, and, worse, it allows terror fronts to influence its policies simply because they are capable of delivering block votes and campaign funds to the Canadian political parties and politicians, who are no better than their Sri Lankan counterparts notorious for looking after the interests of lawbreakers in return for votes and campaign funds. This, Canada is doing while claiming to be promoting democracy and human rights globally. Can a country that allows terrorist groups and their fronts to use its soil and institutions to raise funds and drum up international support for violent conflicts in other countries expect the world to buy into its claim of being a champion of democracy?
Meanwhile, the US has called for an investigation into the assassination of the Sikh activist in Canada, according to foreign media reports, but one should not be so naïve as to think that Washington is driven by a genuine desire to get at the truth and ensure that justice is served. While making much-publicised calls for investigations for the consumption of the world, Washington is likely to intervene to reconcile Canada and India, for they are its strategic allies, and it does not want them to be at loggerheads.
The US is no respecter of human lives when it comes to safeguarding its interests. How it handled the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a case in point. The US intelligence agencies concluded that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in 2018, but Washington did not target Salman with sanctions, financial or otherwise.
India has realised that it is really hurtful to have other countries harbouring terrorist groups who pose a threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ironically, it once did to Sri Lanka exactly what it has accused Canada of doing at present; it sheltered Sri Lankan terrorists.
If only the great powers heeded the Golden Rule, and did unto others as they would have others do unto them.
House of hypocrites
Wednesday 20th September, 2023
Opposition politicians are making the most of Channel 4’s recent claim that the Easter Sunday attacks were part of a political conspiracy, and the Rajapaksa family and its loyalists in the state intelligence agencies were behind it. They are flogging the issue really hard in a bid to gain political mileage, which they are badly in need of, on the pretext of trying to have justice served for the victims of the carnage.
The past few days have seen the Opposition top guns going ballistic in Parliament, condemning the government and demanding an international investigation into the Easter Sunday terror attacks. Curiously, while calling for a fresh probe, they are demanding that criminal proceedings be instituted against certain individuals on the basis of the recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which investigated the Easter Sunday bombings. They find themselves in a contradiction. If they consider the PCoI findings credible enough to be the basis for criminal proceedings or any other form of punitive action against the persons they are hauling over the coals, why should they ask for a fresh probe, international or otherwise?
The Opposition yesterday renewed its call for legal action against Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, who was the Head of the State Intelligence Service at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks. Speaking in Parliament, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella vehemently protested against a government decision to hold a meeting where Jayawardena was scheduled to brief the MPs on the ongoing investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks. He called for an explanation, condemning the government for having promoted Jayawardena.
The government should have implemented all PCoI recommendations, especially the one that former President Maithripala Sirisena and those who held key positions in the state intelligence agencies at the time of the 2019 terror attacks be prosecuted. But it found itself in a dilemma because Sirisena had closed ranks with the SLPP. It must be regretting its decision not to have him prosecuted because he has welcomed Channel 4’s allegations against the Rajapaksas and called for an investigation thereinto. He seems to consider them credible evidence, which will help prove his innocence! He is trying to wriggle out of trouble at the expense of the Rajapaksas!
The Opposition is right in condemning the government for having promoted the police officers whom the PCoI has asked the Attorney General to prosecute for their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks. But it should not be selective in calling for action against those the PCoI has held accountable. Let the Opposition bigwigs be urged to read at least the pages 470 and 471 of the PCoI’s final report, wherein it is clearly stated that the entire Yahapalana government was accountable for the tragedy. The PCoI has said: “Since 2015 the Government did not give priority to national security … failed to properly appreciate the magnitude of the threat faced by the country due to IS and Islamic extremism and other forms of extremism. This was aggravated by the breakdown in trust between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe …. The dysfunctional Government was a major contributory factor for the events that took place on 21st April 2019. The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy. (Emphasis added.)
Thus, as we argued in a previous comment, it is clear that all those who were in the Yahapalana Cabinet in 2019 are also accountable for the tragedy, and have no moral right to condemn others. They are currently in the UNP and the SJB.
The SJB MPs, who held Cabinet posts in the Yahapalana government ought to explain why they did not press for criminal action against the police and military officers concerned or an international investigation into the carnage, while they were in power. Equally culpable are those who backed the crumbling Yahapalana government, which neglected national security and did nothing to neutralise threats to the country; they include the JVP and TNA politicians.
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