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Editorial

Pressure group in the making

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Today’s journalists carry more than a notebook and a pencil as their predecessors did. Thus we’ve had no “I was misquoted/misreported” or “I was reported out of context” claim from Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa who set a cat among the canaries in the country’s political firmament the other day.

The minister who leads the National Freedom Front did not deny his controversial statement for obvious reasons. His entire interview with the Sunday Lankadeepa was recorded and he could not take the well-worn route of blaming the media. He therefore chose to clarify that what he intended to say was not that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should replace Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as SLPP leader, but that a “suitable position” in the party should be created for him.

Observers of the political scene well know that Weerawansa is not disloyal to either the president or the prime minister. He owes them a lot for being where he is. They believe that he was targeting another Rajapaksa – who he thinks brought in Rear Admiral (Retd.) Sarath Weerasekera to run from the Colombo district at the last election rather than from Ampara he previously represented. That cost the onetime JVPer his coveted position of the top preference vote-getter in the district. It is unlikely that the prime minister took umbrage at Weerawansa’s unsolicited proposal, or if he did preferred to keep quiet about his feelings. Although opponents of the government would wish to see aiya – malli differences within the ruling coalition, there is no credible evidence that such is the case. But that did not stop SLPP General Secretary, National List MP Sagara Kariyawasa, from clearly rebuking Weerawansa. There was no angry denunciation, but the message was clear. It was totally unacceptable that the leader of another party, even though a member of the ruling alliance, should make proposals on who should lead the SLPP.

The president and prime minister have refrained from making any comment on this flutter. Doing so would have further muddied the waters. The always sharply dressed and immaculately groomed minister, whose eloquence in the official language must be acknowledged even by the ranks of Tuscany, has reined his tongue for once. He is not obliging the media chasing him with any sound bytes or quotable quotes to get himself into more trouble. His supporters predictably accuse his detractors of fishing in troubled waters and assure them that they will not bite. It wasn’t long ago that Weerawansa hosted a group of leaders from the smaller parties of the ruling coalition at his official residence to resist the government’s proposal on the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo port. The government wanted to run it on a 51-49 percent arrangement with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority holding the controlling stake and Indian, Japanese and other investors taking the balance.

That meeting was summoned when a great deal of dust was being kicked up by those who strongly supported the election campaigns of both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well as the SLPP-led government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that followed. The protesters included a formidable section of the Buddhist clergy that nationalist sections of the polity would not want to offend as well as port unions that hinted at strike action. It is doubtful that even old warhorses like Vasudeva Nanayakkara or newcomers like Udaya Gammanpila who has demonstrated rapid upward mobility in the political picture would have been able to get elected outside the SLPP umbrella and they well know it. Prof. Tissa Vitarana of the once-proud LSSP and Mr. Gevindu Kumaratunga of the Yuthukama Organization had to content themselves with SLPP National List seats. The Communist Party did not get even that and Mr. Dew Gunasekera is in retirement. While the SLFP is not down to zero like the UNP from which Mr. Bandaranaike broke away, it may have suffered a similar or near-similar fate but for its alliance with the SLPP. Even giant-killer Maithripala Sirisena, while retaining the leadership of the blue party, had to succumb to realpolitik and ally with the lotus bud to make sure he was returned to parliament from his Polonnaruwa stronghold.

After winning the ECT battle by trimming their sails to the direction in which the wind was blowing, the minor partners of the ruling alliance, sometimes called “name board parties,” appear to be in the process of setting up some kind of ginger group within the ruling party in the style of backbenchers in Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s UNP government of the middle sixties. But in this instance many of the movers and shakers are frontbenchers and not backbenchers. Gammanipila is on record saying that they planned to meet periodically obviously to take a collective stand on issues within the government. The leadership would normally be wary of the development of a pressure group signaling possible trouble down the road. But right now there does not appear to be any major differences within the ruling coalition.

To get to another subject, few will buy the feeble attempt to pretend that the Prime Minister did not last week say that the burial of Muslim Covid-19 victims would be permitted. Since he made this statement in Parliament, winning the accolades of deeply distressed Muslims both inside and outside the legislature, there have been attempts to change gear with Dr. (Mrs.) Sudarshini Fernandopulle, State Minister of Primary Health Services, Pandemics and Covid Prevention saying that a scientific committee is looking into the matter which was not one for an individual decision. Another woman government MP, Kokila Gunawardena, said that what the PM said was that burial will be permitted but did not say of Covid victims. Who is fooling whom?



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Editorial

Villains as heroes

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Monday 8th March, 2021

Pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar have dug their heels in. Demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of the military junta, they have urged the US to intervene to save their country from the clutches of the power-hungry Generals. Why they are making such desperate appeals is understandable; any port in a storm! But they would find themselves in a far bigger crisis if the US ever decided to make an intervention. The plight of the people of Libya, who enlisted US backing to get rid of their eccentric dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, serves as an example.

Human rights violations are a global phenomenon, which needs to be addressed. But the UN institution created for that purpose is ineffectual thanks to the servility of its officials and some meddlesome global powers. Today, the UNHRC has become a cat’s paw used by the western states to promote neocolonialism. Swayed by the geo-political interests of strategic alliances, it has become a playground for the world powers.

China sought to make light of the recent military coup in Myanmar by initially calling it a Cabinet reshuffle, of all things. Military takeovers in Pakistan did not matter to the US, at all, while Washington could use Islamabad to advance its geo-strategic agenda vis-à-vis India, which was not in the good books of Uncle Sam at the time. The US did not welcome the ouster of Shah’s repressive regime, in Iran, and backed evil military dictatorships to the hilt in several countries it considered its allies, Chile under General Pinochet being a case in point. Now, Washington is weeping buckets for the people of Myanmar! Had the Burmese Generals been pro-American, Washington would have had no qualms about defending them, and the human rights groups dependent on western funding would have chosen to ignore the coup.

The UK has taken upon itself the task of protecting human rights across the globe despite being one of the worst human rights violators in the world. One may recall that Britain expelled more than 10,000 people of the Chagos Islands between 1967 and 1973 for the US to build the Diego Garcia military base; it has refused to comply with a UN ruling that the displaced people’s right to return be respected. Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has gone on record as saying that the jurisdiction of the ICC will be invoked against Britian’s crimes against humanity. There is irrefutable evidence that Tony Blair, as the British PM, together with US President George W. Bush, carried out an illegal war in Iraq, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. The Chilcot Report, too, has revealed that military action against Iraq was not justified, but no case has been filed against Blair or anyone else for war crimes in Iraq. The British Parliament has introduced an indemnity law to protect its military personnel against war crimes probes. Senior LTTE leader, Adele Balasingham, who brainwashed thousands of LTTE child combatants, turned them into human bombs, and thereby committed war crimes, is living comfortably in London; the UK pretends that she does not exist while insisting that war crimes must not go unpunished! Some British politicians are dependent LTTE activists for votes and funds to win elections. Thanks to diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks, the world is aware that it was due to domestic political calculations and compulsions that, in 2009, the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband remained intensely focused on Sri Lanka’s war and even rushed here in a bid to save Prabhakaran.

UNHRC chiefs have also compromised their credibility by being servile to the western bloc. A few years ago, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay succumbed to US pressure and withdrew a statement she had issued condemning human rights abuses in Bahrain, which is a close ally of the UK and the US. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who once described missing UAE Princess Latifa as a ‘troubled young woman’ has now admitted that she was ‘horribly tricked’ by the victim’s family. Isn’t it possible that Robinson was tricked into issuing a strongly-worded statement on Sri Lanka as well? Incumbent UNHRC chief, Michelle Bachelet, has manifestly failed to act independently and impartially; she has prepared what can be described as a political report on Sri Lanka and blotted her copybook further in the process.

Perhaps, the only thing the Trump administration got right was its assessment of the UNHRC, which it called a cesspool of political bias. But, having pulled the US out of the cesspit, Washington continued to make other nations wallow in it, and the Biden government has plunged head first into it.

The UNHRC in the clutches of the worst human rights violators in the world, masquerading as champions of democracy, has faced a fate similar to that of Sri Lanka’s Police Narcotic Bureau, which has been infiltrated by criminals to further their interests. It looks as if human rights had to be protected against the UNHRC.

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Editorial

No quick fix

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That there is no quick fix to the globally raging Covid-19 pandemic is now all too clear. Countries worldwide seek to protect their populations as best as they could by inoculating them with vaccines hurriedly developed in some of the best scientific laboratories in the world. Billions of dollars have been poured into this research effort, thankfully marked by some significant successes, and the vaccination process is ongoing in most parts of the world including this small backwater called Sri Lanka. But the global supply of vaccine falls far short of demand and how this gap is to be bridged is a yet unanswered question.

However, it is very well known that untapped manufacturing capacity is available in many parts of the world. How such capacity can be harnessed to meet the crying need of humanity is not rocket science. The heart of the problem lies in the reluctance, nay unwillingness, of the world of commerce to share the research gains already made in an equitable manner and relax patents to enable maximum utilization of available manufacturing capacity, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, to break the back of if not significantly dent this problem that continues to confront mankind.

The global pharmaceutical industry, throughout its long history, has poured vast funds and resources, both material and human, to develop wide ranges of medicines to treat and protect living beings – human and animal – from the many illnesses that have always been a part of life. Many notable successes, ranging from penicillin to the various drugs and medicines that have defeated numerous scourges that have confronted humanity over the course of history, have marked this effort. It is well known that when new drugs are developed, their manufacturers recover the huge investments made in the research and development efforts to achieve the various outcomes, in pricing the various products they market. These are patent protected and such patents, most often ironclad, are zealously protected.

Unarguably, industry must be permitted to recover investments made in developing products and processes benefiting humanity. But this can, and often does, lead to profiteering and unjustifiable ripoffs of consumers. However that be, the immediate problem confronting the whole world is to find ways and means of relaxing the various patents and devices in force to maximize the production and availability of supplies of vaccines to fight the pandemic. It has been reported that the new head of the World Trade Organization has joined calls for pharmaceutical companies to share their coronavirus vaccine know-how and technology more broadly in the developing world. Whether this will happen or not, and the profit motive will remain the overriding consideration as has always happened in the past, remains to be seen.

The Associated. Press (AP), one of the world’s biggest news agencies, a non-profit organization owned by newspapers and broadcasters in the U.S., recently reported its findings in three continents that established pharmaceutical manufacturers could start producing hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines at short notice if they only had the necessary blueprints and know-how to get started. But that knowledge belongs to the large pharmaceutical companies that have produced the first three vaccines authorized in many countries both in the developed and developing world including Sri Lanka. These vaccines now in use in countries that include Britain, the European Union, and the U.S. are products of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. Responses from the patent holders to requests to enable more broad based manufacture, are awaited.

The WHO which is supplying countries in need, including our own, with free vaccine to inoculate a proportion of their population, has called on manufacturers to share their know-bow to “dramatically increase global supply” to stop the virus before it mutates into deadlier forms. This issue must be obviously looked at from a non-commercial perspective. The vaccine was not developed utilizing only private resources. Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds, largely from the U.S. and European countries, were injected into the R&D efforts of pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop now patented vaccines. Such money came out of the pockets of ordinary people in some of the world’s richer countries. There is no debate that the benefits of such efforts must also be shared with people in poorer countries.

These vaccines were developed at unprecedented speed after the disease, first seen in China and thereafter in many parts of the globe, spread like wildfire worldwide. However, sharing the knowledge discovered has unfortunately not happened as speedily. Although contracts and licensing deals are being negotiated with producers on individual case-by-case basis on the logic that the intellectual property of the vaccine developers must be protected, manufacturing capacity worldwide is not being boosted at the needed pace. All over the world, the supply of coranavirus vaccines is falling short of demand. Much of the limited supplies that are available are going to rich countries. The AP report said that nearly 80 percent of the vaccine thus far administered had been used in just 10 countries. WHO is on record saying that more than 210 countries and territories with 2.5 billion people have not received a single shot by the end of last month.

The shortcomings in getting the urgently needed results of boosting the supply and distribution of the vaccine to parts of the world most in need have been highlighted ad infinitum. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS recently said that “what we are seeing today is a stampede, a survival of the fittest approach, where those with the deepest pockets, with the sharpest elbows, grabbing what is there and leaving others to die.” The AP report said that governments and health experts have offered two potential solutions to the vaccine shortage. One, supported by WHO is a ‘patent pool’ modeled on a platform set up to fight HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis. The other is is to suspend intellectual property rights during the pandemic. But no progress in either direction is visible.

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Editorial

When ignorance kills

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Saturday 6th March, 2021

Superstition can be dangerous when taken to an extreme. A female exorcist who mercilessly caned a nine-year-old girl in a bid to ‘expel an evil spirit’, thereby, causing her death, in Delgoda, and the victim’s mother have been remanded. They are not alone in resorting to occult practices that have survived in spite of scientific and technological advancements during the last several centuries; humans have failed to overcome their atavistic fears.

The Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists (SLCP) has, in a statement published in this newspaper today, condemned the aforesaid incident, and scientifically explained the phenomena that crafty exorcists use to fleece the public. “These individuals who repeatedly go into trance and possession states should be referred for psychiatric assessments, following which they may be referred for psychiatric or psychological treatments. Today, every district in Sri Lanka has a general psychiatry and child psychiatry clinic that can investigate these abnormal behaviours and deliver treatment.” The SLCP has rightly said acts such as beating children to ‘expel evil spirits’ are an anachronism from the Stone Age. But it is doubtful whether the good doctors will be able to knock any sense into those with a Stone Age mindset.

Sri Lanka is said to be home to several great religions, but superstition apparently remains the prominent religion of feeble minds, and one wonders whether it even receives state patronage albeit unofficially. A few weeks ago, we saw a shaman being received by the Speaker, a group of ministers and some Opposition MPs at the parliament complex, where he distributed some herbal concoction touted as a cure for COVID-19. Even some doctors and scientists leapt to his defence when he came under fire for duping the public by claiming that a goddess had revealed the ‘cure’. Worse, a national university went so far as to grant ethical clearance for his product! Among the promoters of his potion was no less a person than the Health Minister, who contracted COVID-19 despite having ingested the concoction and performing what may be called a pot-dropping ritual to neutralise coronavirus.

It is generally thought that only crazy dictators such as Papa Doc, Baby Doc, Bokassa and Idi Amin let witchcraft take precedence over statecraft. Papa Doc of Haiti publicly cast a voodoo spell on the then US President John F. Kennedy, claiming that the latter would not live long. The assassination of Kennedy, which obviously had nothing to do with voodoo, helped the Haitian dictator frighten his people into submission even more effectively; his son Baby Doc followed suit. (The duo’s ascent to power would not have been possible without US backing!) There are, however, other countries where occultism holds sway, Sri Lanka being a case in point.

Influence that seers exert on superstitious politicians and even parliamentary affairs came to light during a vote of condolence on former Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara in Parliament, the other day. SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella boasted that in 2004 the then UNP-led Opposition had enlisted the support of an astrologer to have Lokubandara elected Speaker though the UNP did not have a majority in the House. The JHU, which had fallen out with the Kumaratunga government, would have backed Lokubandara anyway, and stars certainly had nothing to do with his election as the Speaker.

The 2015 regime change occurred because the Rajapaksa government followed astrological advice and opted for a snap presidential election. Political leaders’ dependency on occult practitioners was clearly seen in the early 1990s, when a group of UNP rebels joined forces with the Opposition to move an impeachment motion against the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who did not leave any stone unturned in his efforts to defeat his enemies. The Opposition MPs said that the President had hired a famous kattadiya, who had some charmed oil applied on their seats to make them switch their allegiance to him. Not to be outdone, they took phials of lard oil into the House and applied it on their seats to neutralise the effect of the President’s oil!

A fish is said to rot from the head down. When political leaders and some scientists promote the occult, it is well-nigh impossible to rid the country of superstitious beliefs and practices that cause harm to the public. Perhaps, it is these irresponsible characters who deserve caning.

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