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Proposed Amendment to Antiquities Ordinance – a boost to destruction of antiquities

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A dagoba damaged by treasure hunters. (File photo)

 

By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Executive Director
Lawyers for Human Rights and Development

It has been reported that the Ministry of Justice is moving to amend the Antiquities Ordinance, repealing the provisions therein preventing the courts from releasing persons charged with or accused of offences under the Antiquities Ordinance on bail. Under the proposed amendment, the Magistrate’s Court is to be given power to release such persons on bail. This proposal is made in the guise of a measure to reduce prison congestion.

Theft of antiquities, demolition of the Buddha statues and causing damage to archeological sites by treasure hunters and the willful destruction and damage of antiquities and archeological sites by interested parties have become serious problems that need to be urgently addressed with deterrent action.

As reported in the media, from 1977 to 1994 the Police received 242 complaints of theft, damage and destruction of antiquities; from 1995 to 2001, the number of complaints the Police received was 424. There is a sharp increase in the number of incidents reported in the recent past. In 2019, the Archaeological Department received 630 complaints of incidents where antiquities were either damaged or destroyed. During the first nine months of 2020, 430 such incidents were reported to the Archeological Department.

The Antiquities (Amendment) Act No. 24 of 1998 was enacted by Parliament with a view to preventing the incidents of theft of antiquities and willful destruction and damage of antiquities and archeological sites. This Act introduced three new provisions enhancing the penalties for offences under the Ordinance and requiring the offenders to be kept in custody without bail till the conclusion of the trial.

S.15A. Any person committing theft of an antiquity in the possession of any other person shall be guilty of an offence –

S.15B. Any person willfully destroying, injuring, defacing or tampering with an antiquity or willfully damaging any part of it shall be guilty of an offence –

S. 32. Any person who commits a breach of (a) any provision of S. 21 (commencing or carrying out any work of restoration, repair, alteration or addition in connection with any protected monument except upon a permit issued by the Commissioner General of Archeology), or (b) any regulation made under S. 24 shall be guilty of an offence – punishable on conviction after summary trial before a Magistrate with a fine not exceeding Rs. 50,000 or with imprisonment for a term not less than two years and not more than 5 years or with both such fine and imprisonment. Same penalty has been laid down for all offences under the Act.

S. 15C. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Code of Criminal Procedure Act or any other written law, no person charged with or accused of an offence under the Antiquities Ordinance shall be released on bail.

The penalties laid down in the Act for these serious offences are hardly adequate to have a deterrent effect on the culprits. The Court has the option of imposing a fine instead of a jail sentence. The maximum fine that can be imposed is Rs. 50,000. Quite often a fine of a lower amount is imposed. It is very seldom that a sentence of imprisonment is imposed on an offender in these cases.

Only the provision that a person charged with or accused of an offence under the Antiquities Ordinance cannot be released on bail by any Court has some deterrent effect on the offenders. They have to remain in custody for a few weeks or a few months till they are charged in the case. Once they are charged, in most cases they plead guilty and pay a fine and walk away.

In response to certain media reviews critical of this move to amend the law enabling Magistrates to release the suspects on bail when they are produced in Court as something detrimental to the protection of our archeological heritage, Chief Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Justice, Mr. U. R. de Silva, P. C. has issued an explanation justifying the Justice Ministry decision to relax the law, enabling the Magistrates to release the offenders on bail. According to his explanation:

a.

All those who are arrested and produced in Court by the Police are not treasure hunters. Abusing the law, the Police arrest and charge innocent people. As an example, he cites how the Police produce drug addicts in Courts as drug traffickers, preventing them from being released on bail by the Magistrates.

It is no secret that the Police have heavily contributed to the congestion in prisons by producing in Courts many drug addicts as drug traffickers, abusing the law and thus preventing them from being released on bail by the Magistrates. The Attorney General is also aware of this. That is why the Attorney General, following the Mahara Prison riot, stated that he had instructed the Inspector General of Police several times to consider filing cases under S. 78(5) of the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act instead of S. 54 (a), which has been the usual practice, in order to reduce prison congestion.

Why doesn’t the Ministry of Justice propose to amend the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Act, enabling Magistrates to grant bail to persons arrested with small quantities of drugs instead of keeping them in custody for years without bail, in the same manner it proposes to amend the Antiquities Ordinance?

If the Police abuse the law by arresting and producing in Courts innocent people as treasure hunters and keep them in custody without bail, why can’t the AG and the IGP direct them to strictly comply with the law and take action against the police officers who abuse the law?

b.

This is a state of affairs totally different from what the legislature expected.

It is an erroneous statement. Parliament enacted this law in 1998 specifically for the purpose of protecting antiquities by taking stern action against those who damage or destroy them. S. 15C clearly states that whatever the other laws may state, no person charged with or accused of an offence under the Antiquities Ordinance shall be released on bail.

c.

As the Immigrants and Emigrants Act has been amended enabling Courts to release suspects on bail, it is a grave mistake not to amend the Antiquities Ordinance enabling Courts to grant bail.

This is also not a correct statement. The Immigrants and Emigrants Act was amended by Act No. 31 of 2006 to grant relief to hundreds of suspects held in custody being unable to obtain bail due to the Supreme Court Judgment given in 2006 in Thilanga Sumathipala case (Attorney General & others vs. Thilanga Sumathipala – (2006) 2 SLR 126) depriving the Court of Appeal of its jurisdiction to grant bail.

This Act made provision for release on bail of all persons held in remand without bail on the date on which this Act came into operation due to the Supreme Court Judgment in the Thilanga Sumathipala case.

This Amendment Act did not grant power to the Magistrate’s Courts to release on bail all suspects held in custody in respect of all offences under the Immigrants and Emigrants Act. Under this Amendment, a Magistrate can grant bail only for an offence in respect of which there is no express provision made for granting bail. – S. 47A (2) Where there is an express provision for granting bail, a Magistrate cannot grant bail in respect of such offences.

Only a High Court can grant bail to a person accused of an offence under S. 45C of the Act upon proof of exceptional circumstances.

S. 47 (1) of the Act states that, notwithstanding anything in any other law, the offences mentioned therein shall be non-bailable and no person accused of such an offence shall in any circumstances be admitted to bail.

d.

Whenever any digging is done anywhere the Police have the habit of arresting persons and producing them in Court as suspects under the Antiquities Ordinance. They have to languish in custody for months till the certificate is produced showing that it is not a place coming under the Antiquities Ordinance.

The Antiquities Ordinance clearly states what are the offences coming under it. Instead of amending the law enabling Magistrates to release the offenders committing all kinds offences under the Ordinance on bail at the time they are produced in Court, there are many things that can be done to prevent the Police from acting arbitrarily abusing the law.

The Police cannot arbitrarily arrest people and produce them in Court for digging any land; If they do so a complaint can be made against the Police to the Supreme Court or the Human Rights Commission for violation of fundamental rights.

The Attorney General can direct the Police not to arrest and prosecute without ascertaining from the Archeological Department whether it is a site with antiquities.

The Court can promptly call for the certificate from the Archeological Department.

 

e. Another sorry state of affairs is that, though the place where the digging was done is not a place coming under the Antiquities Ordinance, the Police file action on the opinion of the Commissioner General of Archaeology that charges can be brought if it appears that the digging has been done in search of antiquities.

No such action can be filed under the law. It is an arbitrary action taken totally contrary to law. One cannot understand why the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the lawyers appearing in these cases remain silent without challenging the legality of such actions.

 

f. As they cannot obtain bail, in many of these cases suspects plead guilty for an offence which they have not committed and pay the fine of Rs. 50,000 getting their image tarnished. Having understood this practical reality, the Ministry of Justice has taken action to address this issue.

This is a strange story. Why should a person plead guilty for an offence which he has not committed? How can a lawyer advise his client to plead guilty to an offence which he has never committed?

What are these cases in which the innocent people have pleaded guilty for offences which they have never committed and paid fines of Rs. 50,000 tarnishing their images? Before which Courts? Can the Ministry of Justice issue a list of these cases?

Why should they pay Rs. 50,000 in each of these cases? Rs. 50,000 is the maximum fine a Court can impose for any of these offences. As laid down in the Act, the penalty is a fine not exceeding Rs. 50,000. The Court has the discretion to impose a lesser fine. Depending on the circumstances of the case it may be a fine of Rs. 10,000, 20,000 or 25,000.

All these are false premises.

Archeological sites and antiquities in a country are the national historical heritage of the people of the country. Not only the present generation, but all the future generations also have an equal right to them. Destruction of archeological sites and antiquities will result in the destruction of the historical national heritage of the people of the country. It may be a deliberate attempt at turning the history of the country upside down by erasing historical evidence. It is worse than any act of destruction of environment.

If any forest is destroyed it can re-forested. But if an antiquity or an archeological site is destroyed it can never be restored to its previous condition. Bamian Buddha Statues destroyed by Talaiban in Afghanistan is a clear example. A replica may be erected in its place, but it has no historical or archeological value. Any change, alteration, removal or addition of parts in an antiquity or an archeological site will result in the diminution of its archeological value. That is why even commencing or carrying out any work of restoration, repair, alteration or addition in connection with any protected monument without a permit issued by the Commissioner General of Archeology has been made an offence punishable under the law and all offences under the Antiquities Ordinance have been made unbailable by any Court of law.

Frequently our media, both print and electronic, disclose incidents of destruction of antiquities and archeological sites throughout the country. Many of these incidents reported from the Northern and Eastern Provinces, are not acts of treasure hunters, but deliberate and planned acts of destruction of archeological sites by interested parties. Though hundreds of such incidents are reported, very seldom legal action is taken against the culprits due to lack of adequate resources in the Archeological Department and lethargy or insensitivity of the officials.

In the face of the threats currently posed, antiquities and archeological sites remain survived even to this extent due to the provision in S. 15C of the Ordinance that no person charged with or accused of an offence under the Antiquities Ordinance shall be released on bail by any Court. Even the Court of Appeal has no jurisdiction to release such a person on bail. If the Antiquities Ordinance is amended as proposed by the Ministry of Justice granting jurisdiction to Magistrate’s Courts to release on bail offenders charged with offences under the Antiquities Ordinance, any offender who has deliberately destroyed any priceless antiquity or archeological site will be able to obtain bail and go home on the day he was produced in Court itself. This will amount to giving an open license for the destruction of archeological heritage of our people. As the maximum fine that can be imposed is Rs. 50,000, any offender can pay the fine and get the license. By paying the fine he can get away after destroying any antiquity.

The Chief Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Justice has suggested to increase the penalties for the offence while granting jurisdiction to Magistrate’s Courts to release offenders on bail. If the offenders can get bail from the Magistrate’s Court when they are produced in Court, even if the amount of fine that can be imposed for the offence is increased to Rs. 500,000, that will not have any deterrent effect in preventing deliberate and planned activities of destruction of archeological sites in the North – East and other areas in the country.

If this amendment proposed by the Ministry of Justice is brought about that will seal the fate of all our unprotected antiquities and archeological sites. It will wide open the gates for destruction of our invaluable antiquities and archeological sites.as happened in the case of Devanagala, Kuragala and Vijithapura. No museum, antiquity or archeological site will remain safe thereafter.

It is an unshirkable duty and responsibility of the Government to protect this national heritage of our people for the posterity. It can be done not by relaxation of the laws enacted for the purpose protecting them, but by further strengthening the law against this destruction. If a mandatory minimum jail sentence coupled with a fine, such as imprisonment for a term not less than two years and not more than 5 years and a fine not less than Rs. 50,000, is laid down for the offences of theft of an antiquity and willfully destroying, injuring, damaging, defacing or tampering with an antiquity then the penalty may have a deterrent effect on persons prone to commit this type of offences. Persons committing these anti-national crimes must be kept in custody without bail till the conclusion of the trial as in the case of offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

 

 



Features

Port City Bill Requires Referendum

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by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC

The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.

Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.

The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.

The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).

Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).

Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.

Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.

In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.

The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.

Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.

The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.

Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.

The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.

The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.

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Features

Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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Features

The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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