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Problems in Geneva: Facts that brought us here

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Dr. SARATH GAMINI De SILVA

The annual patriotic taunts and the laments of the majority are heard as the day of reckoning approaches in Geneva. We are shouting ourselves hoarse, complaining that the whole world is ganging up against the brave Sri Lankans, to punish them for eliminating the most brutal terrorist outfit the world has ever seen. It is true that what was achieved in 2009 is something that no other country could do in eliminating terrorism. But does that guarantee peace when the basic grievances that led to civil unrest over the years have not been addressed?

This article is not an attempt to justify violence, untruth or deplorable and unprincipled activities of other countries. Nor is it to devalue the achievements up to 2009. The intention is to open the eyes of my own countrymen to the reality of the hopeless situation facing the nation.

As was mentioned in earlier articles, seeds for racial disharmony were laid during the British colonial period. With their divide-and-rule method, they pitted the majority community against the minorities. This was done by establishing proportionately more schools in the North to ensure a better education, and thereby giving them superior positions in government service. Thus, with the country gaining Independence in 1948, and the Sinhalese gaining the upper hand, the minorities, mainly Northern Tamils, felt disadvantaged. They tried negotiations with the Southern politicians. Naturally, their demands like Ponnambalam’s 50-50 were unjust, but we could have negotiated that. With the watershed political upheaval in 1956, the situation became very volatile. With the Sinhala chauvinists becoming very influential and vociferous, taking politicians virtual hostage to achieve their aims, the minorities were getting increasingly marginalised. The Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact and later the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact were not honoured, without working on them to solve the ongoing disputes. There were several episodes of violence against unarmed members of the minorities during that period.

With the overwhelming electoral victory of the UNP in 1977 (followed immediately by another bout of violence), the majority assumed that whatever grievances of the minorities could be stepped over. Eventually, the Tamils were expelled from Parliament blaming their non-allegiance to the Constitution, leaving them with no forum to air their grievances. The terrorist outfits were taking shape in the North, claiming to be the sole representatives of the oppressed. The Southern leaders ignored the political sensitivities of India, which strengthened the terrorists calling them “Freedom Fighters”.

The pogrom of 1983 is the darkest patch in the recent history of our paradise. The unarmed Tamils in Colombo were killed, even burnt alive and their property looted. With the government not making any efforts to curtail the violence for several days, there was a worrying suspicion of state patronage. Many Tamils, who worried about their lives, escaped to Western countries. Naturally, they were warmly welcomed as refugees in those countries as their embassies here were witnesses to what happened in Colombo and elsewhere. From then on, the Eelam war escalated, and it is not necessary to detail here the damage done in both human and material terms over thirty years. Many subsequent peace overtures of the government were rejected by the terrorists, who were determined to establish their own Elam.

After eliminating terrorism in 2009, what actions have we taken to restore lasting peace? Have we had at least belatedly, an ongoing dialogue sans political rhetoric with the Tamil leaders to see what their grievances are and taken steps to address them? Instead, our politicians kept on boasting of their “victory”, further arousing separatist tendencies with communal rhetoric, purely to ensure that their success in winning the battles will keep them in power for generations. They were fighting with each other claiming credit for what was achieved.

The Tamil refugees who settled down in Western countries were establishing themselves. Well educated and employed, they are working according to a plan. With their natural energy, determination and ambition, characteristics we used to admire in our Northern countrymen for ages, they are flourishing making the best use of the opportunities provided there. The diaspora is making use of their increasing numbers to influence the local politicians, who are interested in winning their votes, to speak up for them at influential fora. They themselves have taken to politics and entered legislatures.

One can imagine the grudge they must be harbouring against us. They will tell the generations to come about barbaric violence they suffered. That generation, about everyone under 40 years of age at present, will not be informed of terrorism, suicide bombers, child soldiers, killing of innocent villagers, massacre of Samanera monks or bombing of Buddhist holy sites. They will be taught only about the 1983 pogrom and unsubstantiated allegations of civilian killings and the elimination of their “freedom fighters” in 2009. In fact, there is a campaign in Toronto schools to have a week declared every year to commemorate the so called “Tamil Genocide”. This and subsequent generations in the diaspora will be increasingly hostile to us. Though the LTTE remains proscribed in many countries, they have managed to operate freely with political patronage.

There is no use in shouting ourselves hoarse about the unforgivable crimes committed by the rebels during the war years if future security and peace is the concern of Sri Lankans. We will be facing this formidable force of the diaspora at every international forum in the future. Our diplomats, who are mostly the kinsmen or other acolytes of those in power and grossly unqualified to represent the country, have failed miserably to give the correct picture to those that matter. The whole world is well aware of the atrocities committed by the Tigers. Yet, successive governments have failed to exploit that knowledge to turn the world opinion favourable to us.

Despite all this, many educated members of the diaspora still love this country. Many of my colleagues there are still dreaming of the day they might be able to return after retirement. They keep visiting us regularly, having bought property here. Some have put up hospitals, churches and indulge in other public service ventures to help especially those in the North. So many doctors having achieved high positions in the health services overseas, help the country train our postgraduate doctors.

Sri Lankan politicians are still fighting among themselves without any concrete plans to counteract the allegations being made. Enough ammunition is being provided to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, UNHCR, to work against the country. After agreeing to various conditions imposed over the years, but dishonouring them immediately afterwards, the country has become one of the most untrustworthy to deal with. Those in power keep blaming the previous governments for the international agreements reached, without working for a common stance to face the imminent threat. Guarantees are being given repeatedly to the international community about an impartial judiciary to deal with various allegations emanating from the ethnic war. At the same time, new legislation is enacted to ensure that the opponents of the government are punished by a judiciary handpicked by the rulers. While saying that minority rights are being respected, the Muslims are denied their fundamental right to bury their dead.

It is meaningless to claim that other countries should not interfere with the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, which is a sovereign state. Having signed many international conventions and agreements, we cannot seek self-isolation when the situation suits us. We have allowed our internal matters to be discussed at international fora by failing miserably to solve them ourselves, often due to political expediency. This has forced our own citizens to seek relief from international organisations. If not for the influence and intervention of external sources, by now many countries in the world would have become ruthless dictatorships torturing their own citizens.

If the gravity of the issue was realised, a permanent secretariat should have been established in the foreign ministry long ago, with experienced diplomats purely to conduct an international campaign against the misinformation, and give the correct picture to foreign countries and various organisations that matter.

Our politicians know that they can fool most Sri Lankan voters all the time. But if they believe they can continue to fool the international community in the same way, they are sadly mistaken. Unfortunately, the whole nation will suffer paying for their folly.



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Opinion

What went wrong?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

I am stuck in the UK, badly missing trips back home, but I have been closely following the developments in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to the Covid-19 epidemic and the engulfing political drama. It was no great effort either, as plenty of time was available, being almost totally housebound, dreading to go out as the virus was killing thousands and thousands in the UK. What was remarkable, initially, was how badly the UK controlled the pandemic and how well Sri Lanka did. Total number of deaths in Sri Lanka remained very low for months whilst the Brits were dying in large numbers. It is the other way around, now; deaths due to Covid-19 in Sri Lanka are exceeding that of the UK now. What went wrong?

Whilst Sri Lanka is grappling with a resurgence, caused by the excesses indulged during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities, the British government recently announced significant relaxation of pandemic preventive measure. It expects the country to be ‘near-normal’ by mid-June, if the present trends continue. One may argue that normalcy cannot be guaranteed until the virus is controlled, globally, as well stated in the editorial “All hat and no cattle” (The Island, 10th May). The editor argued that “the only way out is to follow the motto—unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (‘one for all, all for one’).”

Although both are island nations, admittedly, the UK and Sri Lanka are poles apart, on many counts, most significant being the availability of resources. The UK is rich enough to buffer the resultant economic downturn, whereas Sri Lanka was struggling, economically, even before the epidemic. Therefore, attempts by the Sri Lankan government, to keep the economy afloat, are mandated by sheer necessity, although the Opposition accuses it of endangering lives. The big question is how to strike the right balance. At the time of Independence, our economy was in better shape than that of the Brits, but where are we, now? That, however, is another story.

At the start of the pandemic, the UK was slow to close its borders. Again, it was a tough call because Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. The UK paid heavily, in terms of lives lost, because of this. UK politicians took the advice of expert committees, and whether the initial failures were due to wrong advice by scientists or not, we will not know until the findings of the committee, to be appointed by the British government, is available. However, the UK government took serious notice of the advice by scientists, regarding the need for mass vaccination, and placed orders for vaccines, even before trials for their effectiveness were concluded. That strategy paid off. Already, two-thirds of the adult population in the UK has received one dose and one-third of has received the second dose, as well. It was interesting to follow the progress: as the vaccination drive proceeded, the number of cases, the numbers in intensive care, and the number of deaths, progressively plummeted.

If there are any vaccine doubters, they need to look at what happened in the UK. I am personally aware of many ‘so-called educated’ vaccine-doubters. The responses in a WhatsApp group, started by a friend of mine, are very illuminating. There is a nutritionist who argues against vaccination, suggesting that boosting immunity, by nutrition, is the way forward. Professor Emeritus Saman Gunatilake has addressed this issue, academically, in his illuminating piece “Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?” (The Island, 7 May). There is a media lawyer who supports the nutritionist and sends contrasting messages. Three hours, after forwarding a message which states that CDC data shows the survival rate, for under 69, is over 99%, he forwards another message stating that a site by the University of Washington predicts Sri Lanka will soon have 200 deaths daily. Both ‘experts’ take part in TV discussions and are very likely to be passing on wrong messages, as they are continually forwarding anti-vaccine messages, the latest being that vaccination has made the epidemic worse. Wonder why they callously disregard the success of the UK. Covid-19 has given rise to a plethora of experts who give widely differing opinions about many things, including the UK variant, but the UK is successfully controlling the epidemic, with vaccination, which is estimated to have saved at least 10,000 lives so far.

It is a pity these vaccine-doubters overlook the fact that some diseases are eradicated, thanks to vaccines. The most successful vaccine ever is the smallpox vaccine, which enabled the eradication of the dreaded disease that existed for millennia, killing more than 300 million, in the 20th century, and around 500 million, during the last 100 years of its existence, including six monarchs. Initially, before Edward Jenner introduced vaccination, with the cowpox virus, in 1796, direct inoculations, with smallpox virus, were used, which had a mortality rate of 3% but this was acceptable as the mortality rate of smallpox was around 30%-40%.

Some exaggerate the risks of vaccination. There is no drug, without side-effects, and vaccines are no exception. Concern about the Oxford AZ vaccine causing Superficial Cerebral Vein Thrombosis was made use of by the German Chancellor to promote the Pfizer vaccine, which was developed by a German bio-tech company. Medicine and Healthcare Regulatory Agency of the UK made a detailed study and recommended, when possible, those under 40 should be offered an alternative vaccine but emphasized the safety of AZ vaccine. To put in perspective, the birth control pill poses a greater risk of causing venous thrombosis; so does Covid-19 itself.

What went wrong, in Sri Lanka, is putting sentiment over science. The government failed to establish an expert committee, which could have been done easily as we are not short of real experts in the relevant fields. The decisions made by that committee could have been translated to practice by the committee, headed by the Army Commander. Another failing was the lack of proper communication. In the UK, the Prime Minister, or one of the senior ministers, together with senior scientists, hold regular press conferences.

Instead, what did we do? Our Health Minister polluted rivers with pots, devised by a faith-healer, and then drank a syrup, made by a charlatan. She wasted the valuable time of Professors of Medicine, as well as resources, to investigate a piece of garbage that was found to be useless, whilst the kapuwa minded money, at the expense of the gullible. Now, a member of my profession also has joined the band-wagon of deception. A non-specialist doctor has joined hands with his brother to sell a concoction of herbs etc.! Why hasn’t the Minister taken action against this errant medic?

We have a State Minister, a Professor of Pharmacology, who sees the benefits of Ayurveda for political reasons! The mother country of Ayurveda, meanwhile, is reeling with Covid-19. If Ayurveda is effective, surely that cannot happen!

All this happens while we have a State Minister, a specialist in communicable diseases, who speaks sense but is largely ignored!

The Minister of Transport reverses the decisions of Medical officers of Health and then blames the poor government servants, stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, for carrying out his orders. The virus is having a hearty laugh and now infecting his voters!

We thought the President would act decisively once he regained full executive powers from the 20th Amendment, but he seems less powerful than before! The need of the hour is not to protect errant politicians, or unproven systems of treatment, but directing all efforts at getting adequate stocks of vaccines to overcome the epidemic.

It is high time the President considered sacking the incompetent and idiotic ministers. Otherwise, he might as well forget about a second term!

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Opinion

The Organic Ideal – Killing Two Birds with One Stone!

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By I.P.C. MENDIS

The government has very boldly embarked on a long-delayed project of transforming our agricultural habits of heavy dependence on harmful chemical fertiliser to the old method of organic fertilisation. The chemical fertiliser lobby is as strong, if not stronger than the pharmaceutical one. The life story of Dr Senake Bibile speaks for itself! As for the fertiliser lobby, some decades ago, a high-up in a media institution confided in me how he was compelled to jettison his media campaign against chemical fertiliser, about which he was very forcefully using his pen through immense pressure brought about by the strong lobby.

Quite apart from the international connections, please permit the writer to relate a personal experience he had with a media institution, where a certain article he wrote, very much irked a then local high-profile businessman, almost ruling the roost at the time, where this powerful personality had come down hard on the Head of the media institution, threatening to withdraw his advertising budget of sizeable proportion! To the eternal credit of the Editor, he did not join his Boss who had decided to call on the irate customer (Head of a mighty Group then, mind you) who thought he had a right to intervene and control its media policy.

Being privy to the immense power, these lobbies wield, and how they will use it to sabotage any effort which would undermine their business interests, notwithstanding public and human interests, it would be utterly puerile, and even foolish, to confront them in any meaningful way, if political interests are to take precedence. Their money power and influence are capable of winning over, not only sections of the population, but also politicians. Governments can be toppled in the process.

The defeated forces have now received some oxygen, and we see even the high and mighty, who were sent reeling home at the polls, attempting to make their presence felt. There is everything which points to financing by the fertiliser lobby, against the organic fertiliser issue. It is left for the government to be wise about such and other possibilities, when steering on the drive towards its laudable goal. The government failed to rope in the hoarders of rice, despite its rhetoric, and now they are faced with a similar situation in the fertiliser shortage. The remedies the government suggests seem to be worse than the disease. People are sick and tired of seeing any government playing politics, and attempting to find solutions which would please the electorate or business interests, rather than what is needed, and good for the country. To hell with the next election and commission agents; people will rally round results eventually. It has the battle against the LTTE as a feather in the cap. 

Two birds with one stone 

While on the subject of organic fertiliser, the writer wishes to draw the attention of the authorities to the vast acreage of waterways, rivers and canals, covered and infested with water-based plants, like “Japan Jabara’ (water hyacinth) and other odd plants., causing, inter alia, a huge health hazard. This clogging has almost diminished, or made extinct, the fish concentrations, and adversely affected a popular inland fisheries network and breeding of new varieties. This can be a source of nutrition to a vast number of people in villages, and contribute towards employment, too. The water plants thus removed could be tested for their various properties, which could contribute in no small measure to the preparation of organic fertiliser, using it as a cost-effective input to the preparation of organic fertiliser. If I remember right, some research is already available in this regard. It is reported that some outfits have already been lined up to prepare organic fertilizer. These companies, or outfits, can do the clearing and preparation at their own cost, which could be far cheaper than importing organic fertiliser, or importing certain ingredients to manufacture the final product. Some of it could possibly be diverted to the Energy sector. Side by side, farmers can be mobilised to prepare their own needs, or part of them.

How about it, Mr President and Mr Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Services?

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Opinion

More on ‘Hi Machan’

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I wish to add my two cents to the above-mentioned article, well versed by MA Kaleel of Kalmunai in The Island of 10/5/21. I really don’t know whether he was in a university, either here or abroad, since some of the descriptions are mainly confined to the University vocabulary.

I wish to deal with some events from my University (Peradeniya) days where the word Machan had some relationship. The first episode was when a fellow student’s late father came to visit him at the Wijewardena Hall. The bathrooms, in the hall, at that time, were similar to a barber’s shop, where the door was used to hang the towel, until the bathing was finished. One day, a student was bathing in one of the cubicles, having hung the towel on the door. Someone shouted ‘Machan, your father has come to see you’. In his haste to meet him, he has forgotten the towel which was anyway not there, probably hidden by some of his Machans. This was a regular feature in the boys’ halls of residence. When he entered the room, in his birthday suit, his father was seated chatting with his roommate (who I think was a co-conspirator) . His father could only say Putha and he never repeated that act.

Dealing with the use of the word is confined only to males. I beg to disagree, since I have heard such conversations with my own ears, particularly if one lives close to a Hall of residence. (As to what a male student was doing in a female hall of residence is another story!)

When one studies in a University, with several disciplines, the word machan is very handy. When I returned to Sri Lanka, having completed my postgraduate studies, I had to obtain special permission to clear our baggage (including that of my wife). The clerk indicated that I would have to pay a hefty demurrage. Then I saw a gentleman, peeping through a glass door, and, lo and behold, he was the Commissioner of Customs, another machan Peradeniya. Everything was cleared in a few minutes. There are several such incidents where our sojourn at Peradeniya helped us in various ways. All these gentlemen were machans in the campus and I hear that the tradition is still maintained, but at a lower scale.

 

Dr. UPALI ILLANGASEKERA

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