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Political pressure to revise 20A remains alive

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By Jehan Perera

It has taken more than a month for the concerns regarding the proposed 20th Amendment that have been expressed by a wide swathe of opposition political parties and non-partisan civil society groups ranging from religious clergy to professional associations to find expression within the ranks of the government parliamentarians. Their silence for so long can only be an indication of the dominance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who will be the primary beneficiary. In terms of the amendment, the President will be empowered to remove the Prime Minister, a member of the cabinet, any other Minister or a Deputy Minister and authority to dissolve Parliament after completion of sittings for a period of one year. This massive transfer of power to the Presidency has been justified to the electorate as stemming from the inability of the previous government to govern effectively under the 19th Amendment to the constitution.

The occasion for the show of dissent came with the seemingly routine release of a suspect detained by the police on suspicion of his involvement in a case but whom the police now claimed no evidence had been found.  But the fact that the case involved the suicide bombing that claimed the lives of over 250 persons on Easter Sunday in 2019 and led to the collapse of the country’s tourism sector gave both the arrest and release a significance beyond the ordinary.  It is a regular occurrence that people are taken into custody if they are suspected of being involved in a crime, but are released if no evidence surfaces against them. In the case of Riyaj Bathiudeen, however, there was always an element of politics in it. He was arrested a year after the bombings and after there had been a change of government that saw his brother’s political alliance lose power.

At the time of his arrest the police claimed that Riyaj Bathiudeen was implicated in the Easter bombing and there was evidence that he had close links with the suicide bombers and had met with one suicide bomber, prior to the attack on April 21. Five other suspects, including lawyer Hejaz Hizbullah who continues to be in detention, were arrested along with him. Even at the time of the arrest, it was surmised that it could have been done with a political motivation of putting pressure on his brother to switch his allegiance to the government. The question is how the evidence that the police claimed was sufficient for an arrest should turn out to be insufficient and why only one person should be released when the others continue to be detained. It is to be noted that the rule of law calls for equity in treatment.

 

CARDINAL’S LEADERSHIP

The most prominent critic of the police reversal has been the Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who lost more than 200 of his adherents who fell victim to the suicide bombings that occurred in two churches within the Colombo diocese.  The Cardinal has been persistent in his demand that there should be truth, accountability and justice to the victims and their families who hope that their tears will not be in vain. The Easter bombing in 2019 was a complicated terrorist activity with many elements to investigate as is evident in the personal testimonies being provided these days to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The Cardinal expressed his dissatisfaction on the release of a key suspect in the case and complained that police itself was contradicting their own statements.  He also indicated that the sudden release could suggest a political deal.

The political deal in question is to ensure that the government will have a 2/3 majority to pass the 20th Amendment.  The Cardinal’s concern about a political deal could be a reflection of the difficulty that the government is encountering in mobilizing the 2/3 majority in parliament required to pass the 20th Amendment into law.  There have been a few government parliamentarians who have had the courage to state that the 20th Amendment is excessive in its attempt to transfer power from parliament to the presidency. The proposed amendment as it currently stands is an emasculation of the protections available to the people and also to other institutions of state available in the constitution.  If even a few government parliamentarians do not vote for the amendment it will fail to achieve the 2/3 mark.  

The release of Riyaj Bathiudeen without satisfactory explanation has provided government parliamentarians with a justification to unite openly against any possibility of a political deal.  In an unprecedented action 100 of them, which amounts to over 2/3 of the government parliamentarians, have signed a statement calling on the President and the Prime Minister to conduct a full investigation on this act by the police and to re-arrest Riyaj Bathiudeen and enforce the law in a proper manner.  While there is no question about Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s commitment to getting to the truth of the Easter bombing and ensuring justice to the victims, the interest of the government parliamentarians is likely to be different.  They have made it clear that they would not wish there to be any possibility of a deal whereby his brother Rishad Bathiudeen’s party joins the government to make the 2/3 majority in parliament easier to reach.

 

REDUCE BURDEN

Faced with pressure from religious and civil society, and now his own parliamentarians, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has hastened to deny that the government has entered into any political deal.  He has stated “I am not prepared to hand over the power of arresting or arbitrarily releasing people to politicians, as happened in the past. I will also take actions to rectify any omissions or mistakes made by the relevant authorities or officials.”  In an attempt to dispel public perceptions that the government was prioritizing a 2/3 majority in parliament to pass the 20th Amendment he said, “I emphasize that our government has not entered into any political deal with Parliamentarian Rishad Badurdeen. I assure my citizens that I will not forsake the trust that they have placed in me and I will most certainly continue to work towards strengthening the built trust.”

The real problem is with the 20th Amendment which is akin to the elephant in the room for the government parliamentarians.  There is a strong demand from the people for a strong government that does not fail to perform like the previous government where the President and Prime Minister undermined each other.  The current government does not suffer from the same constraint as they come from not only the same party and enjoy a 2/3 majority in Parliament, but also the President and Prime Minister are from the same family.  But the proposed amendment is regressive in its focus on empowering the Presidency at the cost of all other state institutions, including parliament, the Prime Minister and ministers, and would reduce them all to a relatively powerless condition.  

President Rajapaksa is held in high esteem by his colleagues in government who would not wish to oppose him and want him to succeed in leading the country to development and national reconciliation.  In handing down its determination on the 20th Amendment Bill, the Supreme Court has ruled that four clauses need a referendum of the people along with a two-thirds majority in parliament unless suitably revised, while the rest can be passed by a two-thirds majority of parliament alone.  Hopefully, the process of revision at the committee stage within parliament will lead to constructive changes in the 20th Amendment so that it does not elevate the Presidency and diminish the other institutions too much and not put too heavy a burden on the Presidency that no single person can carry.

 

 

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Opinion

Covid-19 – a cause for grave world concern;

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Some thoughts and reminiscences

By Dr. V.J.M. de Silva

There is no doubt about the gravity and world concern about this serious disease. Every newspaper devotes a lot of space to it. Intellectuals and world leaders talk about it. Unlike in past pandemics, it has spread even to Arctica and Antarctica – almost every country in the world is affected – (even Greenland, though no deaths have been reported). It is, however, not as bad as previous pandemics, like the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century, when nearly 50% of Europe was wiped out.

All information given herein is from the Internet and is up-to-date. In passing, I would like to mention that I am now 91-years-old and all this information was collected throughout the last several years. The world today is at a ‘standstill’ due to control measures taken. Nonetheless, I would like to present some facts which I think would give readers some food for thought. India, our nearest neighbour, has a population of 1,360,000,000 (1 trillion, 360 million – a little over 13 million). This is six times the population of Sri Lanka. From these statistics, we should have about 1 million cases and 20,000 deaths (not 9,000 cases and 19 deaths). The Maldive Islands, also a neighbouring country, with a population of 1,300,000, however, has 11,600 Covid cases and 37 deaths. The island of Villivaru has been turned into the ‘world’s first Coronavirus resort’ with 2,500 beds, where patients enjoy a luxurious stay and free medical care! (Wikipedia).

I will give a few facts for the sake of comparison with Sri Lanka. From this it appears that India has a mortality of 15%, the USA 3% , Thailand 8%

From this table, Sri Lanka seems to be the safest country in the world to live in today. Obviously, Sri Lankans seem to have some sort of immunity. Various explanations have been given for this immunity. The most plausible is that our children have all been given BCG immunization.

We have undergone, and are still undergoing severe hardships due to the measures that the health authorities have, understandably, taken. The problem is, the symptoms of the disease caused by the Covid-19 virus, is so common, that it is not easily recognized, unless the specific diagnostic test is done. The cases of the disease in India and the Maldive Islands have increased. As of the end of October, the cases in India have risen to about 790,000 with 119,700 deaths – 677,000 have recovered. The population in India is about six times that of Sri Lanka. Going by these statistics, Sri Lanka should have about 20,000 deaths, not nineteen as is the case.

Globally, there are about 44,000,000 cases and 1,165,000 deaths. The USA has the highest number of cases – about 6,000,000 cases with 240,000 deaths. The worst affected country seems to be Thailand, which has a death rate of 8% (i.e if 100 people get the disease, 8 will die ).

This immunity may be something similar to Yellow Fever. Although we have the insect vector, Aedes aegypti, which spreads yellow fever, no one in Sri Lanka has ever had yellow fever, though it is a menace in North and South America, and Africa. This mosquito also spreads Dengue. This is also a reminder of the Yellow Fever epidemics in 1900. The Americans, who were interested in completing the work on the Panama Canal (about 50 miles long and 100 ft. wide), connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, spent a lot on men and material. The Isthmus of Panama, separates North and South America. Several scientists sacrificed their lives doing research on the diseases preventing its construction. It has been called the greatest achievement of the 20th century.

In conclusion, I would like to quote the words of Max Theiler in his speech at the Nobel Prize banquet. “I like to feel that in honouring me, you are honouring all workers in the laboratory, field and jungle, who have contributed so much, often under conditions of hardship and danger, to the understanding of this disease. I would also like to feel that you are honouring those who have given their lives in gaining knowledge which was of inestimable value. They were truly martyrs of science, who died that others might live.”

Generous and gracious words, indeed. Would there be scientists like that today! Alas, they are no more!, That generation has passed away. If I may mention their names – the team was led by Dr Walter Reed, well known for his work on infectious diseases. Others were James Carroll, Jesse James Lazier, Adrian Stokes, W.A.Young, Hideyo Nagushi (a Japanese American) and a nurse, Clara Maass. They were all ‘martyrs’ for science.

 

 

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Opinion

A bouquet to President and his team

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It was great to see Valaichchenai producing paper once again. Thanks to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his team, including Minister Wimal Weerawamsa, officials of the Paper Mill and the armed forces that contributed to reviving the factory.

Two years ago, I spent a few nights at Bay Vista in Arugam Bay, I made a detour to see what was left of the Valaichchenai Paper Mill, one of my favourite haunts during previous visits to the area. The gates were shut, held firmly by trees and shrubs. I alighted from my car, walked up to the gates, and looked at that factory which had gone to rack and ruin. That saddened me beyond measure.

We were lost in the jungle, near Tantirimale, recently when motoring to the Sandamal Eliya temple to donate a wheelchair. I had known the areas previously, but could not find the way in an illuk (spear grass) jungle at Mahawilachchiya. That was where I had led the Agrarian Services personnel on a national mission to make the country self-sufficient in paddy, but new roads had come up. Finally, when we reached Sandamal Eliya, I inquired from Ven Sangarakkita about the illuk grass. He said it was a nuisance and nobody knew what to do with it.

On our way back, I happened to recall that originally the Valaichchenai Paper Mill machinery was intended to make paper from illuk, which is a stronger product than straw, and did provide both the long and short fibre needed for paper making. The Valaichchenai mill devoured all the illuk within a few years. All was thought to be lost, but thanks to the ingenuity of our engineers and scientists, another raw material was found. They discovered that straw could be used as a substitute. It was then that I came on the scene, going behind the straw lorries for miles on end on my way to the East. The straw provided only the short fibre, and we had to import paper pulp to mix with the straw. Even then we produced paper. The production came to a standstill due to LTTE terrorism.

The irony is that we, who found how to make paper out of straw, stopped producing paper, while China and India went ahead with paper making.

I have, in my papers, suggested that a few small paper mills be imported from China or India, set them up in Padaviya, Tissa and Mahawilachchiya, and turn our straw into paper. The cost of the paper machines and installing can be recouped in one year from the savings from the curtailment of paper imports. Actually, we need not import any paper, from the end of 2021, if the government imports three small scale mills, costing less than a fifth of the cost of paper imports a year.

An article I wrote about illuk was published in The Isalnd on 29 Sept. 2020, under the caption “Illuk can reduce poverty and save foreign exchange”.

The Divisional Secretary, at Kotmale, once set up a small industry to make paper out of waste paper. It was a great success. It is sad to note that Sri Lanka is, perhaps, the only country in the entire world that wastes its waste paper, not making paper out of it. Go about anywhere in Colombo and one can see people collecting waste paper and waste cardboard. We do not process it to paper. Instead we export some 30 tons of waste paper a month to India, and the ridiculous part of it is that we buy paper and board from India. Truly we need to have our heads examined.

I remember that a few youth on my Youth Self Employment Programme, in Bangladesh, were collecting waste paper to make paper and they earned a decent income.

Installing a small scale paper mill, at Sandamal Eliya, can be done in three months, working at the speed I did once in 1971 in establishing the Mechanized Boatyard at Matara. Then my team found how to make crayons with experiments done at the science lab of Rahula College, Matara. Sumanapala Dahanayake the Member of Parliament, at Deniyaya, in his capacity of the President of the Morawak Korale Coop Union, established the handmade crayon factory, working day and night, in two weeks, and that Coop Crayon Factory provided all the crayons we needed. Harry Guneratne, the Import Controller, cancelled the import of all crayons, and Coop Crayon flourished until President Jayewardene’s government closed the factory, in 1978. That was the “development” that the UNP brought to our country!

I can only hope this note will reach the President.

GARVIN KARUNARATNE
Ph D Michigan State University
Former Government Agent, Matara

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Opinion

Mike Pompeo’s Predatory Diplomacy!

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Are we now in the Predatory Era of diplomacy?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given us much food for thought on this. He has described China as a predator in relations with Sri Lanka. At the Joint Media briefing, with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Pompeo said about relations with Sri Lanka that “US is a partner, China is a predator”.

 “We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way, we come as a friend, and as a partner,” Pompeo told a televised news conference in the capital, Colombo.

A predator is an animal that naturally preys on others. It is also a person or group that exploits others, such as sexual predators.

The predator is very much part of the socio-political trend in the US today, and Pompeo was obviously clutching this feeling. Coming here, representing President Donald Trump, who is in a largely dirty and unmasked electoral fight for the presidency, Pompeo could not have forgotten that more than a dozen US women came forward to accuse his boss, President Trump, of having groped them (an much worse, too) with headlines across the media labelling him as “Predator in Chief”.

The word predator is now widely acknowledged in the US to have racist overtones, and in the last election cycle, Hillary Clinton half-apologized for using it. She caught a break, too, as the predator label drifted away and stuck to her opponent, Trump, instead.

Way back in 1996, Hillary Clinton, in a speech supporting her husband’s 1994 anticrime bill, famously referred to a certain type of young person as a “superpredator” — a word coined by the political scientist John J. DiIulio Jr., who predicted that the nation’s inner cities would produce a generation of “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters” – the superpredators. 

It is up to the Chinese to take this non-diplomatic use of predator to describe the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore, China itself. Let’s look at the wholly racist trend in US politics and governance that has shown the predatory moves of its police and its supporters, such as President Trump.

Do we have to think a lot to recall how that non-white American, George Floyd, died after being arrested in Minneapolis, and held down by police officers, one of whom had his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck. He pleaded that he couldn’t breathe.

Protests broke out in cities across the US, and there were demonstrations in other parts of the world. ‘Black Lives Matter’ became a political organization with new power and meaning. The government of President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have not had any success in having a good democratic response to the anger of the people about such racist violence. 

Can we forget, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, who was shot eight times when officers raided her apartment, in Louisville, Kentucky. They were executing a search warrant as part of a drugs raid, but no drugs were found.

It has now been officially found that no policeman has been charged for this brutal shooting – but there is a charge against one police officer for  bullets striking a neighbour’s apartment!  Predatory delight.

Mike Pompeo must know very well that Breonna Taylor became a rallying cry at protests in the US, along with George Floyd, and the many other non-white, Black American persons who have been killed by these Police and State Predators. He was certainly not thinking of how Black people are much more likely to be stopped and searched, and even rapidly handcuffed by police than white people in the US. Who are the predators, if not the Police? The State Predators of the US!

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had already made his formal statement at this Joint Briefing, where Mike Pompeo came to his predatory trend in non-diplomacy. There was no opportunity for Minister Gunawardena to make any response, or is that so? Can a foreign guest, whoever he or she may be, insult a Sri Lanka friendly country in such a manner, with the least regard to proper diplomacy? Is the US in a special higher plane of international relations with Sri Lanka, than the other world power today?

Minister Gunawardena, in his diplomatic silence, may have been reminded of his father, the late Philip Gunawardena, whose move to politics here came after his studies in the US, where he became a socialist, moving with the leftist political groups there, who were in a rising movement against the capitalist powers of White supremacy.

He may have also remembered the Rubber-Rice Pact signed in 1952 when the UNP was in office, and saw the establishing of close relations with the People’s Republic of China, at a time when the US was in sway in global power.

Once he gets back to Washington, and sees Donald Trump reeling in the electoral fight with Joe Biden/Kamala Harris, he had better think more of the realities of predatory action in the US, and give thought to the possibility of the US being a ‘superpredator” in the world! 

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