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Editorial

Puttalam land grab: Dig deep

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Thursday 24th September, 2020

An attempt is apparently being made to sweep the issue of land encroachment and forest clearing at Aruwakkalu under the rug. Encroachers cleared a vast extent of land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation, in Aruwakkalu, Puttalam, in a bid to sell it, early this month. The area affected by encroachment is a part of land encompassing about 4,500 acres leased by the state. The original lessee was Thawakkal and the second one Holcim. The responsibility for ensuring the safety of state property under threat lies with Siam City Cement (Lanka) Ltd. (SCCL), the current lessee.

On Tuesday, SCCL published a newspaper advertisement, claiming that at an ‘emergency meeting,’ presided over by Forest Conservation Minister C. B. Rathnayake, an ‘urgent course of action’ had been agreed upon by ‘all stakeholders’ to address an incident of encroachment and forest clearing in a long-term leased land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation’. Were the environmental groups, that exposed the incident, present at that meeting? They are also stakeholders, aren’t they? The SCCL also listed some measures it had undertaken to adopt to prevent the encroachment of the state property. It has only made a virtue of necessity. Will it explain why it did not care to take such action earlier?

The Minister under whose purview the Cement Corporation land at issue comes is Wimal Weerawansa, who holds the Industries portfolio. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa goes all the way from Colombo to Deniyaya to inquire into complaints of threats to the Sinharaja rainforest, which is under Rathnayake’s ministry, and Rathnayake goes all the way from Colombo to Puttalam to inspect the Cement Corporation land, which is under Weerawansa’s ministry!

The Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation cannot chair a meeting to discuss a vital issue concerning a Cement Corporation property simply because there is a dry zone forest on it. No sooner had the incident of encroachment and forest clearing in Aruwakkalu been reported than Minister Weerawansa rushed a team of Cement Corporation officials there; they conducted an investigation and took up the issue with the police, the Divisional Secretary and the SCCL. In fact, the presence of any politician was not required there, at all, and the matter should have been left entirely to the senior officials representing the lessor (the Cement Corporation).

Grama Niladaris (GNs) are required to submit reports to Divisional Secretaries, every two weeks, and mention therein the instances of encroachment of state land, etc., if any. Land grabbing and forest clearing have gone on, for years, at Aruwakkalu, and why haven’t the GNs concerned reported such illegal activities to the District Secretaries or the police? GNs spring into action only when ordinary people happen to be on the wrong side of the law. Villagers are hauled up before courts for felling jak trees on their own properties, without permits, but organised racketeers are free to grab state lands, which they clear and sell with impunity.

Those who grabbed part of the Cement Corporation land at Aruwakkalu, cut down trees and set them on fire, have gone scot-free to all intents and purposes. They would not have been able to do so without help from the ruling party politicians in the area. The government must have them arrested and prosecuted under the Offences against Public Property Act without further delay. That is the only way it can prove that its politicians had no hand in the land racket. The police must be made to explain why they have failed to arrest the culprits.

Legal action must also be taken against the serious lapses on the part of the lessee, for they led to the encroachment of state land and forest clearing. The SCCL has said, in its advertisement, that on some previous occasions it had brought the issue of encroachment of the Cement Corporation land to the notice of ‘relevant authorities’, which it has not named. Can it prove that it reported land encroachment to the police or the Cement Corporation?

The lease agreement at issue has no termination clause, we are told. Such agreements are money-spinners for venal politicians and bureaucrats responsible for signing them. The Thawakkal deal was struck under the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in the 1990s. (Most of the self-righteous SLPP heavyweights were powerful ministers in that administration.)

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Editorial

Traps and duplicity

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Friday 30th October, 2020

Smaller states located in strategic locations in the world are in the same predicament as poor damsels in rough neighbourhoods; they suffer abuse at the hands of big powers that masquerade as liberators. The US has come forward to liberate Sri Lanka from what it calls a Chinese debt trap!

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has come and gone. He uttered some diplomatic sweet little nothings, as it were, in public, but the State Department had delivered its message to Colombo even before he landed here. Couched in diplomatese, it gave Sri Lanka a choice between China and the Western bloc; it can be paraphrased as ‘either you are with us or you are with our enemy’.

Opinion is divided on the much-propagated claim that Sri Lanka finds itself in a Chinese debt trap. The pro-western groups think it is trapped well and truly, and others are convinced otherwise; they maintain that the US and its allies are vilifying China, which poses formidable challenges to the US on all fronts, and has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance.

A trap by any other name is as constricting, one may say with apologies to the Bard. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, which the US is keen to sign with Sri Lanka, can also be considered a trap, given its subtext and what is explicit in the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Anyone who believes that the US is driven by altruism to help Sri Lanka is being naïve.

Following talks with Pompeo, the government grandees are behaving like the proverbial mute who gulped down a bitter herbal concoction or kasaya. Discussions with Pompeo have apparently dumbed their tongues. Before the last general election, they had the public believe that they would not sign the MCC compact, which an expert committee appointed by them has said, should not be inked unless it is presented to Parliament and approved with amendments.

Sri Lanka was made to walk into a trap in the early noughties, when the Tokyo Co-Chairs tied an aid pledge (USD 4.5 billion) to progress to be made in peace talks between the then UNP-led government and the LTTE. Lured by the prospect of receiving a huge aid package, that administration compromised national security to keep the LTTE at the negotiating table, but in vain. Even after the LTTE had walked away from talks, the US and other Co-Chairs, to wit, the EU, Japan and Norway, made Sri Lanka stick to a fragile truce, which the LTTE violated with impunity. That peace process, which the LTTE made the most of it to prepare for Eelam War IV, ended in disaster.

Sri Lanka has been caught in a human-rights trap, which the US laid in the form of a country-specific resolution, in Geneva, and cannot extricate itself try as it might. This resolution has been used to besmirch the reputation of high-ranking military officers who were instrumental in defeating terrorism, making this country safe for all communities to live in, and helping rekindle democracy in the North and the East. The US has imposed a travel ban on incumbent Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva and his family, citing unsubstantiated allegations of human rights violations during the final stages of war.

Pompeo gave an evasive answer, on Wednesday, when he was asked to comment on the current status of US action against Lt. Gen. Silva. He said: “It is a legal process in the US. We always continue to review it. We want to make sure we get it technically, factually and legally right.” He has left us baffled. It is before imposing a travel ban that the State Department has to ‘get it technically, factually and legally right’. The act of slapping a travel ban in a hurry and then reviewing it is nothing but unfair.

Washington has earned notoriety for its duplicity anent travel bans related to human rights violations. In 2005, the US denied the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi a visa owing to his alleged involvement in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in his state. The US government insisted that the travel ban on Modi was based on the Immigration and Nationality Act, which ‘makes any government official who was responsible for or directly carried out at any time particularly severe violations of religious freedom ineligible for a visa’. But the White House rolled out the red carpet for Modi after he became the Indian Prime Minister! The US did so because it needed a formidable ally in Asia to support its campaign against China.

As for ‘getting it technically, factually and legally right’, didn’t the US care to consult its own defence expert, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith, who was working at the US Embassy in Colombo as its defence attache during Eelam War IV, which ended in 2009? Having studied what had taken place during the war, Smith, attending an international defence seminar, in Colombo, in 2011, dismissed allegations of war crimes levelled against the Sri Lankan military. Forty countries were represented at that event. Is it that the State Department chose to ignore his evidence-based observations and embarked on a diplomatic witch-hunt? It is a shame that the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry functionaries did not allow journalists to question Pompeo freely on this issue; they allowed only one journalist to raise questions.

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Editorial

Reaping whirlwind

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Thursday 29th October, 2020

Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera, PC, deserves public plaudits for having directed the police to find out how an explosive transmission of COVID-19 came about, in Minuwangoda, and whose lapses led to the second wave of infections. This country needs more such intrepid public officials.

One can only hope that there will be no political interference with investigations to be conducted. The police already have a lead; some garment factory workers brought here from India are believed to have triggered the Minuwangoda cluster. They ought to find out whether those workers underwent quarantine for 28 days in keeping with the health guidelines. It is alleged that some of them did not complete the mandatory quarantine period due to service exigencies. Records of their quarantine period should be available with the health authorities. One, however, should not be so naïve as to expect that the police will be given a free hand to get to the bottom of it. One also need not be surprised if all documents pertaining to the workers concerned have already disappeared.

Leaders of the yahapalana government are being raked over the coals for having disregarded a warning of possible terrorist attacks and endangered the lives of people last year, when the Easter Sunday bombings snuffed out more than 250 lives and left over 500 others injured. Their lapses are currently under probe by a Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The leaders of the incumbent dispensation did not heed medical experts’ warnings of a second wave of COVID-19, and the lives of people are now in danger, as a result. During the first wave of infections, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) issued a dire warning to the government that the worst was yet to come, and called for stringent measures to prevent a resurgence of the disease. It also prepared a comprehensive exit strategy, which The Island has seen, but the government did not give a tinker’s cuss about the good doctors’ warnings, advice and proposals.

The Peliyagoda fish market is the Sri Lankan version of the Wuhan wet market, and the public health officials and all others tasked with battling COVID-19 should have monitored the place closely. They should have swung into action at least after the detection of the garment factory cluster in Minuwangoda. Infections have fanned out from Peliyagoda to all parts of the country. It is hoped that precautions have been taken to prevent a COVID-19 cluster from forming at the Dambulla economic centre, where traders from all over the country converge daily.

It is also possible that the virus spread during the election time, when people gathered at political rallies, throwing caution to the wind, and caused an explosive transmission, later on. The blame for this situation should be apportioned to politicians, the health authorities and the public because all of them lowered their guard and invited trouble. Only the Election Commission (EC) was wise enough to take precautions to prevent the spread of the disease on the polling day.

Head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who talks sense in a measured tone, has urged the countries battling the pandemic not to make COVID-19 a political football. Unfortunately, in this country, the government and the Opposition are busy doing exactly the opposite of what the WHO advocates; a game of football, as it were, passed for a parliamentary debate on COVID-19, the other day, with the Opposition trying to score political points by faulting the government and the latter ridiculing the former. Nothing worthwhile came of the ‘debate’ and a lot of public funds went down the gurgler.

When the government decided to have a general election in August 2019, cynics said that in New Zealand elections had been postponed in view of a possible second wave of COVID-19, and in Sri Lanka the second wave of COVID-19 had been postponed on account of an election. The government now has a two-thirds majority in Parliament and the 20th Amendment to boot; the people have COVID-19!

The healthcare system is being overwhelmed to all intents and purposes, and the number of deaths due to COVID-19 is increasing. What we are witnessing looks like the beginning of the worst-case scenario. The economy is on a ventilator, but we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot do without quarantine curfews, which are bound to make an already bad economic situation worse. Everyone’s life is in danger. The government has had to perform a high-wire act, and, therefore, deserves unstinted public support. The need for a truly national effort to beat the virus, and keep the Grim Reaper at bay cannot be overemphasised.

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Editorial

Terrorism and hidden hands

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Wednesday 28th October, 2020

 

The government is awaiting the final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which is probing the Easter Sunday attacks, to effect changes to the national security apparatus, Education Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris has reportedly said. The yahapalana government neglected national security and jeopardised public safety as never before. Those who were at the helm of that administration are now blaming one another. The incumbent administration has apparently straightened up the defence establishment, but much more remains to be done.

Religious extremism is not the only threat Sri Lanka’s national security is faced with although it is a very grave one, which has to be tackled urgently. Security threats emanate from other quarters as well. Who actually masterminded the Easter Sunday attacks, which were carried out by the NTJ, is not known. It is claimed that there was an invisible hand behind those terror strikes. Who is responsible for the serious lapses that enabled the terrorists to strike with ease is now public knowledge. What needs to be found out is who was actually behind the carnage, which may have been part of a strategy to destabilise Sri Lanka.

SLMC leader and SJB MP Rauff Hakeem, testifying before the PCoI probing the Easter Sunday attacks, said in September that the NTJ had not masterminded the attack, and it had been only a pawn. When the commissioners asked him to reveal who had been behind the attacks, he said he would do so in camera. He should have made his findings known to the public.

Hakeem is not alone in suspecting a hidden hand behind the attacks. In July 2019, no less a person than Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith said that the attacks were part of an international conspiracy, and the conspirators had used ‘misguided Muslim youth’ to carry them out.

The LTTE has not given up its struggle; its activists are all out to have its proscription lifted in the UK. Pressure is mounting on the British government to deproscribe the LTTE, and the pro-Tiger activists backed by their lawyers might succeed in preparing the ground for reviving the LTTE in Europe. There have been reports that the LTTE is active in Tamil Nadu; some of its activists have been arrested while trying to smuggle explosives here. In August 2018, the Rameswaram police took into custody seven suspects with 5,000 detonators which were to be smuggled to Sri Lanka by boat. In October 2019, a former LTTE cadre was nabbed by the army and handed over to the Serunuwara police, and a subsequent search of his house yielded several hand grenades, C4 explosives, 62 rounds of 9mm ammunition, a T-56 weapon, 154 rounds T-56 ammunition, one semi-automatic rifle, one magazine, two detonator cords, 62 different types of detonators, and a knife.

About 12,500 former LTTE combatants have been rehabilitated and released. However, there is no guarantee that all of them will never revert to their old habits simply because they have undergone rehabilitation. The former war zone is awash with lethal arms, ammunition and explosives. Worse, some politicians are openly espousing the LTTE’s cause and commemorating the dead Tiger leaders.

Sri Lanka has antagonised some powerful nations that do not hesitate to promote terrorism to further their geo-political interests. These countries did not want the LTTE defeated because the perpetuation of the war here would have served their interests; they even tried to throw a lifeline to a beleaguered Prabhakaran. Some of them went so far as to rush their foreign ministers here in a bid to stop the final battle and, thereby, save the LTTE leaders, albeit in vain.

In introducing national security reforms, the government ought to be mindful of the threats from not only the non-state actors but also the states that promote terrorism as an extension of their foreign policy.

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