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Port City hurry, Pandemic sorry, Palestinian misery

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by Rajan Philips

The government may have wanted to change the political channel from gloomy pandemic news to hopefully sunshine Port City news. Instead, the government is stuck on a split screen with double-whammy news stories. On the left half, you can see a botched-up Port City Bill, heavily bandaged by the Supreme Court, limping through parliament with as many amendments as there are commas. On the right half, is the daily and depressing news of rising Covid-19 infections, mounting deaths, multiplying variants, shortage of hospital beds, long winding queues for short supplies of vaccine, and new restorations of old restrictions. In the background, you can see the burning silhouette of Modi’s India, a subcontinent of mass cremations. The images sum up the Sri Lankan government’s quandary. Desperate for China’s helping hand in Port City, the government’s default setting for managing the pandemic in Sri Lanka has been to follow Modi’s disastrous footsteps in India.

There are always competing news stories in the globalized news media. The present juncture is no exception, except there is the exception of Covid-19. It is not often in a millennium of years do you see the whole planet caught up in a pandemic. But even the pandemic has not been a strong enough deterrent to stop the current flareup in the Middle East. The ‘next’ Palestinian intifada was always expected after the failure of the earlier Israeli-Palestinian accords, and the decade-long machinations of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s Prime Minister. The recent ‘Abraham Accords’ brokered by Trump’s son-in-law, establishing new ‘deals’ between Israel and less than a handful of Arab states, have been comical overall but provocative to the Palestinians. The Biden Administration wouldn’t even call them ‘Abraham Accords’, only “normalization process.’

 

Palestinian Misery

Yet, the timing of the current outbreak raises some valid questions for conspiracy followers. Why now when Netanyahu’s future as Prime Minister has never been as precarious as it is now? Buffeted by corruption allegations and a trial to boot, and unable to form a government after yet another election, Mr. Netanyahu is hanging in as PM only because he has started a fight with Hamas. Why now, and not earlier when Trump was President? President Biden is rightly being criticized for not being hard enough on Netanyahu to force a ceasefire. The US is also blocking a potential UN Security Council resolution calling for ceasefire. A US President arguably has some leverage over Netanyahu given America’s annual bankrolling of USD 3.8 billion as military assistance to Israel, although under Trump there would have been full-throated US support for Netanyahu and his government. President Biden has reportedly taken four calls to the Israeli Prime Minister, apparently getting more insistent with each call.

What is new this time is that the calls for a more balanced US approach (i.e., to lean a little hard on Israel) are coming from within the US, more stridently from among the Democratic Party progressives, and even from within the Administration. There are expectations that if the scale of fighting were to exacerbate, social media could play a heightened role in mobilizing public opinion in the US against Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. What is new within Israel unlike in past intifadas is the specter of mob violence between Israeli extremists and Arab citizens of Israel. As against these new developments stand the old geopolitical realities. The PLO which has its contacts with the west and the US is a spent force among Palestinians. On the other hand, Hamas which controls Gaza has no window with the west given its total dependence on Iran. The US officially dismisses Hamas as a terrorist organization, but the Biden Administration does not want to totally alienate Iran because it is keen to restore President Obama’s agreement with Iran that Trump rescinded to please Netanyahu and the Republicans in the US. The vicious circle goes on.

For Sri Lankans, in the days of the Old Left and non-alignment, taking a principled position on the Middle East was much more straightforward as the world then was in the grips of a Cold War between two ideologically opposite superpowers. Except for universal principles, Sri Lanka was not implicated in anything external. Not anymore. Given Sri Lanka’s recent history of civil war and current goings on over human rights violations, anything anywhere in the world is naturally viewed through the lens of the country’s experience. That experience also includes closer relationships with Israel that grew during the war. But the people’s current experience is only about the pandemic and the government’s handling of it. For the second year in succession the government has not been able to lavishly celebrate the war victory of 2009 because of Covid-19.

And new detractions will keep coming, courtesy this time of the recent passage in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario in Canada of “An Act to proclaim Tamil Genocide Education Week,” in that Province. Not to be outdone, former Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran has called for an “internationally supervised referendum” to end the suffering of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. This is puerile Tamil diasporic politics, but one that will have equal and opposite reactions among no less immature Sinhala nationalists. Midsummer madness produces midweek reactions. Already Canada’s history from birth to its current politics has been given a rather harsh but wholly ignorant archaeological treatment. No one is wiser from these exchanges.

For people everywhere including Ontario, and including Tamils living in Sri Lanka, the need of the hour is not education on genocide or referendums that will never happen, but protection from Covid-19. People in Sri Lanka have only the government of Sri Lanka to turn to for protection from Covid-19. So, the only question that now matters in Sri Lanka is – how well or ill equipped the government of Sri Lanka is to protect Sri Lankans from the global pandemic. As the Sunday Times editorially put it last week, “there’s little point any more in blaming the Government for allowing the COVID-19 pandemic to slip into virtual free fall. Reports coming in from all parts of the country are distressing. The time for blame-games is over, it’s time for action.” But is the government up to it? Will it play port city politics to improve its pandemic image, or seriously take a new direction for managing Covid-19?

 

Port City Questions

By the time this column appears in print, parliament would have passed the Port City legislation by a simple majority, if not a simpletons’ majority, as a result of the government accepting all the amendments that were marked up in the Supreme Court’s ruling. I do not think Minister GL Peiris was quite accurate in saying that all the amendments in the ruling had been proposed by the Attorney General before the Court. In addition to AG’s amendments the Court added its own in a number of instances. But the real question that Minister Pieris as a former law professor needs to answer to the country is how come a bill that needed so many amendments could have left the drawing board to become law, and would have become law without any amendment were it not for its objectors and the Courts intervention.

Worse, in its original form the bill stood for weakening Sri Lanka’s economic interests and enhancing foreign investors’ profit making interests by withdrawing oversight across the board and offering incentives with no one to oversee. It is a sad commentary on the government’s usual apologists, who brought the sky down over the Millennium Corporation Compact screaming sovereignty, that they were ready to give this bill a pass and give abuse to those who raised valid questions about the bill. Even the epithet Sinophobia got flung in the melee, likely for strawman effect. Sovereignty has been reduced to a worthless red herring, and the referendum mechanism is not a real safeguard. A successful referendum cannot turn a bad bill into good law; it will only enshrine it as bad law.

No one in the government has been able to explain why the bill was presented in its original form in the first place. And as far as I can say there are still a few questions that have not been persistently (or rather not at all) asked; and only someone like Anura Kumara Dissanayake can vigorously pursue THEM in parliament. Opposition MPs like Champika Ranawaka, Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne are eminently knowledgeable, but they have all had their right hands in port city during their time in government and seem to be having only their left hands to swing at the blunders of this government.

The CHEC (China Harbour Engineering Company) Port City Colombo website includes plenty of information about the discussions and agreements reached between the private company and the previous government of Sri Lanka. There is a sense that the bill drafted by the present government significantly deviates from the earlier understandings and documentations. This point was publicly asserted by Yuthukama Group leader Gevindu Cumaratunga, who is also a government National List MP. But no one has described what this deviation is and why it was made. Champika Ranawaka or Ranil Wickremesinghe should be able to shed light on this matter. Neither has, nor likely will. Hopefully, the JVP leader will add this to his list of national questions.

The second question is about the Port City Bill’s deviations from the financial and economic assumptions underlying the Economic Impact Assessment of the Port City Colombo, a report prepared in February 2020 by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Colombo. The government has been using PwC’s assessment to make its economic case but then went ahead and invalidated the report’s assumptions by the tax exemptions included in its Bill. With the new amendments, parliament’s approval will be needed but getting a simple majority will not be a problem for this government. Economic assessments are good as the assumptions on which they are made, and as far as I know no one in parliament has brought attention to PwC’s report and the need to provide updates on how its assumptions are faring as port city developments get under way.

So far, much has been made of CHEC’s initial USD 1.4B investment in the Port City venture, but nothing has been said about how much the government Sri Lanka has spent, directly and indirectly, in cash as well as in kind. And how much more the government is on the hook for spending in the future. I do not think PwC’s report sheds any light on this matter. There is also no clarity about how rate payments for utilities and services to the Port City lands will be determined and payments collected by Sri Lanka’s service agencies. Extending infrastructure to provide service connections to a new luxury city is an expensive undertaking. Who is paying for it? And where is the capacity to expand these services coming from? I am not suggesting that these details have not been worked out. But in the new culture of sovereignty assertion over technical projects, technical details and their significant costs are getting sidelined not only from public’s view but also from the scrutiny of parliament.

 

Pandemic Humility

There is no need to recount how Prime Minister Modi and the BJP have turned India into a pandemic crematorium. As “India’s utmost isle,” Sri Lanka has the advantage of being small to get away with manageable difficulties. Even as the Covid-19 situation is getting worse by the day, government policy can draw some consolation if Sri Lanka’s numbers (of infections and deaths) stay under India’s totals divided by 70. India’s population is 70 times Sri Lanka’s. India’s current totals are 25.7 M infections and nearly 300,000 deaths. Sri Lanka at just over 150,000 infections and 1,000 deaths, is still well under the threshold totals of nearly 400,00 infections and 4,000 deaths. However, the proportionality threshold is in danger of being breached.

According to Dr Hemantha Herath, of the Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka is facing the risk of surpassing one million COVID-19 cases within the next 100 days. Independently, forecasting done by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluations (IHME) at the University of Washington has reportedly indicated that Sri Lanka may experience over 20,000 COVID-19 deaths by September. So, by more than reasonably reliable predictions, Sri Lanka could have reached one million infection and 20,000 death totals by August/September. And Sri Lanka would be far worse off on a per capita basis than where India is now. India’s case total is showing a declining trend, whereas cases are going up in Sri Lanka.

The fallouts will be catastrophic in every respect. One would hope that the government will not waste time arguing that these projections are not correct, but make every effort to prevent them from occurring. Since it has been a virtual one-man show, or no show, so far, it is up to the President to show the greatness of humility and think of a new approach by taking good advice from people who know more about public health. He should seriously think about and seek advice on striking an All-Party Parliamentary Committee that could function as a pandemic cabinet (without perks or titles, for god’s sake) under the President’s direct leadership. Medical professionals will report to this committee and will be responsible for all the medical public health decisions and communications. The Armed Services could operate in parallel providing practical and logistical support.

The President should invite Dr. Tissa Vitarana to serve on this committee. The President would do well to read the two public statements by Dr. Vitarana on pandemic management, both of which were published in the Sunday Island. The statements are expert applications of the current state of knowledge of the pandemic to Sri Lanka’s specific circumstances. They include the following propositions which have also been expressed by other experts in every other country: (1) There is no permanent state of herd immunity for this global pandemic. But the virus can be contained and controlled. (2) Vaccines are not the panacea for this virus. They are currently effective and useful, but their long term effectiveness is still a study in progress. (3) For potential herd immunity at the global level, at least 12 billion doses will be required for full (two-shot) vaccination. The total global production is still under 1.5 billion doses. Their distribution is another story. (4) Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Australia have shown that Covid-19 can be managed through effective public health measures and public participation. There is no reason why Sri Lanka should not follow their example, while securing whatever vaccines it can get.



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Features

Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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