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The New Cabinet: Somewhat lean, poorly structured, and rather untalented

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The new Cabinet of Ministers: Sitting from the left – SM Chandrasena, CB Ratnayake, Bandula Gunawardena, Janaka Bandara Thennakoon, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa, Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Prof GL Peiris, Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Gamini Lokuge. Standing from left – Dullas Alahapperuma, Namal Rajapaksa, Ali Sabry, Prasanna Ranatunga, Mahindananda Aluthgamage. Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Keheliya Rambukwella, Mahinda Amaraweera, Udaya Gammanpila, Johnston Fernando, Ramesh Pathirana and Douglas Devananda

by Rajan Philips

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gets full marks for creating a comparatively lean and applaudably mean cabinet. Leaving out the likes of Maithripala Sirisena and Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa is among the best cabinet making decisions in Sri Lanka’s 73-year history of cabinet government. The less said of them the better, and, hopefully, there will be no second thought on the matter. After ten years of sickeningly bloated cabinets, five under Mahinda Rajapaksa monarchy and five more under Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dyarchy, the new cabinet looks lean and trimmed. There is room for more trimming, and what was trimmed as ministers has been more than padded as state ministers. What is more lacking, however, is structure and talent. There is much room for structural improvement. Talent is all the dearer considering the twin challenges facing the country – a globally uncertain pandemic and an equally global crippling of the economy.

But what more can the President do? To paraphrase Pieter Keuneman’s timeless wit, you cannot perform a cabinet miracle with a pack of jokers and no aces. At the same time, and in spite of all the constraints, the Administration would seem to have missed a great opportunity in not using the long interval between dissolution (in March) and elections (in August) to create a well thought out cabinet design, identifying requisite portfolios and matching them with available talent and experience. Unfortunately, the new cabinet does not indicate much functional thinking or purpose behind it.

We know from Sir Ivor Jennings that DS Senanayake wanted to limit the cabinet size to 20 in the constitution, but was advised against it by colonial officials. It would be restrictive for future governments given the reality of expanding government roles. That was the reasoning against too small a cabinet. AJ Wilson used to say that Mr. Senanayake was a master manager of men (as Ministers) and that he ‘federalized’ the cabinet to mirror the plurality of Sri Lankan society – its religions, languages, castes, and locales. After the first cabinet of DS Senanayake, the most stable cabinet was under Dudley Senanayake in 1965. The cabinets in between were not necessarily unstable, but chaotic.

The United Front cabinet (1970-1975) was the most programmatic cabinet in that it bore a direct correspondence to the UF Manifesto on which it won the election. And the cabinet had both talent and experience due to the presence of the Left Parties. NM, Leslie Goonewardene, Bernard Soysa (NM’s alter ego at Finance) and Pieter Keuneman knew how the government worked inside out; Colvin was known to master any file in a matter of minutes. An unintended shortcoming of that cabinet, however, was that the distribution of portfolios went along Party lines at the expense of cabinet ‘federalization.’

President Jayewardene had started identifying Ministers for his cabinet even before the 1977 elections and before some of them became MPs. A few of them were from outside the UNP. And his cabinet was ‘federalized’, talented, and experienced, including first time Ministers who had earlier been senior Civil Servants or senior professionals. All of them were elected in the last first-past-the-post election that was held under the parliamentary system. That was also the last time Sri Lanka had a cabinet government, that Jennings wrote a textbook on, and which had sunk strong roots in Sri Lanka. Cabinet government was left to wither and die thereafter in Sri Lanka, under the presidential system that President Jayewardene left behind.

The new cabinet is by no means a restoration of the old cabinet government. No one expects that. But is it sufficiently structured and enabled to deliver on all the lavish promises that the SLPP has been making? And all the expectations that people have been made to project on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa? On all the matters that need to be done and have been promised to be done? How will the new cabinet and its ministers relate to the various Tasks Forces that were established in the pretext of the pandemic, when parliament was dissolved? These are the questions that are arising in the early days of the new government. Answers will come eventually in the actions of the government and their results, and not out of speculation.

Subject matters

In the allocation of ministerial subjects, the President has assigned himself Defense, the bogey of the 19th Amendment notwithstanding. A glaring omission in the constitution. This is odd. The SLPP vigorously campaigned for a two-thirds majority, to overhaul the constitution and go beyond even the limits of JR. In the new cabinet, the constitutional file is not assigned to any Minister. A logical location for it would be the portfolio of Justice. But assigning it to the new Minister of Justice, Ali Sabry, would raise the hackles of Sinhala Buddhist organizations who are already protesting the appointment of a Muslim to the Justice portfolio.

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) is also concerned about Mr. Sabry’s appointment, but not for ethno-religious reasons; it is over ethical concerns. Ali Sabry was the defence lawyer for apparently 14 SLPP politicians who were unsuccessfully arraigned on charges of corruption under the last government. Another oddity, at least optically, is appointing a supportive Muslim lawyer to Justice while trying to prosecute a politically unfavourable Muslim lawyer, Hejaz Hizbullah, allegedly based on his professional work as a lawyer. Stepping over professional courtesy, a senior government lawyer even compared Mr. Hizbullah’s professional work to that of the LTTE’s Anton Balasingham. That was not a legal argument but political grandstanding. Not that Mr. Sabry is going to have anything to do with Mr. Hizbullah’s case, given the depoliticized independence of the Attorney General’s Department that is only too well known. But it is difficult to miss the awkward appearances of conflicts of interest whenever Rajapaksas are in power.

To get back to the Constitution, if there is no Minister assigned to the subject, is it being outsourced to a task force? One headed by the non-playing coach of all departments of the game, Basil Rajapaksa. Is there a realization of the pitfalls of constitution-changing and an internal decision has been made to step slowly on the constitutional pedal? Or, are there internal differences about the scope and extent of constitutional changes that need to be resolved within the family before embarking on a formal public process? There are areas, such as the electoral system, where changes are needed and on which it would be possible to achieve a broad consensus in parliament. A minister in charge of the file would be the person to stickhandle the passage of positive changes. May be the President and the Prime Minister do not find anyone in the current parliament who could be entrusted with this task.

G.L. Peiris looks too burnt out for the constitutional task now, not quite the new spark that he was when he forayed into politics from the academia in 1994. So, he is now assigned education. It seems a comprehensive assignment, and not the chop suey that Ranil Wickremesinghe created when he cut education into pieces and stitched up higher education and highways in one ministry. While education is one subject, it is not clear whether the two State Ministers on related subjects – Piyal Nishantha de Silva (Women and Child Development, Pre-School and Primary Education, School Infrastructure and School Services), and Seetha Arambepola (Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research and Innovation) – are supposed to work with the Minister of Education, or independently on their own. There is also no indication of the parliamentary support to the Minister in the core areas of the Ministry: schools and universities.

The distribution of support responsibilities is similarly unclear in the other social infrastructure portfolio – Health. Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi continues as Minister despite the spat she ran into with Public Health Inspectors during the election. There is no indication of the parliamentary support she will have in the core areas of the Health sector. The one State Ministry role in related area involves – Promotion of Indigenous Medicine, Development of Rural Ayurvedic Hospitals and Community Health, and is assigned to Sisira Jayakody. There is no special mention of anything regarding the current pandemic situation either as specific responsibility, or as an individual assignment. This is the pattern of linkages between all the cabinet ministers and the state ministers.

In the old system, each Minister had a Deputy Minister, or Parliamentary Secretary, and occasionally more than one if the Ministry had multiple subjects. State Ministries were created after 1978 to address specific subjects or undertake critical projects over a limited period of time. Now they seem to have morphed into another layer of sub-ministerial positions as pseudo-ministerial rewards to MPs for their political loyalty, and not for any special project assignment. The cabinet portfolios are limited to 28 (with the Prime Minister looking after three of them), while the number of state ministers is kept at 40, along with another 23 MPs appointed as District Co-ordinating Committee Chairmen (no one seems to have been assigned to Batticaloa).

There is no intelligible correspondence between subjects looked after by cabinet Ministers and those assigned to State Ministers. The oldest Rajapaksa brother, Chamal. is both the Minister for Irrigation and State Minister for Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management. This is another pickle portfolio like Highways and Higher Education in the same Ministry during the last government.

That said, the state ministry system has been used to serve a special presidential purpose in the new cabinet: that of accommodating Viyath Maga MPs, all but one of whom are newly elected, as Ministers of State (three elected MPs and two National List MPs) and as Chairman of District Committees (three elected MPs).

Their appointment as full cabinet ministers may have been vetoed by the Prime Minister to keep the cabinet positions open only to the older MPs not only from the SLPP (19), but also from the SLFP (two), and one-off ministries to the one-MP constituent parties (six) of the old UPFA. Vasudeva Nanyakkara gets Water Supply, while the old LSSP and the CP get nothing. Of the Viyathmaga MPs, even Sarath Weerasekera and Nalaka Godahewa who topped vote tallies in the Colombo District and Gampaha District, respectively, have had to settle for positions as State Ministers. So has Nivard Cabraal, who enters parliament for the first time but on the National List. Sarath Weerasekera, a former Rear Admiral in the Navy, and the only MP to vote against the 19th Amendment in 2015, is the new State Minister for Provincial Councils and Local Government Affairs. This is a mystifying appointment. Is he being set up to preside over the resuscitation of the Provincial Councils, or their liquidation? Time will tell.

Key Sectors and Old faces

There is nothing mystifying about the appointments in the key sectors of the economy and employment – finance, agriculture, industry, the export sector, and infrastructure. The old faces have returned generally to the same old, or occasionally new, positions. The structure and the composition of the ministries in these areas, in whatever thinking that may have gone into them, do not convey any sense of urgency in trying to come to grips with the current economic crisis. There is no clear lead minister in charge of such an effort. The Prime Minister takes charge of Finance, but not just Finance, as finance portfolios are universally assigned. He is also padded with Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, on the one hand, and Urban Development and Housing, on the other. The two additions could easily have been consolidated in other ministries.

Still better, Finance should have been assigned solely to a single Minister with economic gravitas – like JR Jayewardene (1947-52), UB Wanninayake (1965-70), NM Perera (1970-75), or Ronnie de Mel (1977-88). Not that they were infallible or their records are unblemished, but they conveyed the seriousness with which governments here and everywhere approach finance and economic management of the country. This is more so in the current context of a global economic crisis. It may be that there is no one else in the SLPP, other than the Prime Minister to tackle this task. In which case, the SLPP should have invited some new talent to the Party and enabled her/his entry to parliament at the last election.

There are about nine individual ministries (Agriculture, Plantations, Land Irrigation, Industry, Fisheries, Trade, Tourism, and Ports & Shipping) that are pertinent to the economy, employment, and export earnings. There are many more scattered across state ministries. They could have been easily consolidated into fewer portfolios with tighter mandates. The ministerial appointments are hardly inspirational, and it is mystifying why anyone of the Viyath Maga MPs could not have been considered for some of these positions. It is the same story in the areas of infrastructure, the environment and energy. I could not find the pigeonhole where airlines and aviation are nestled in; unless, they are already airborne in Ravana’s helicopter.

On the bright side, there might be more method and purpose in the making of the new cabinet that sideliners like us cannot quite see through. There is also the opportunity for creating cabinet sub-committees and parliamentary committees and tasking them (not as task forces) with specific responsibilities. There is no minimizing, however, the gravity of the challenges facing the government – preparing a credible budget, meeting debt payments, protecting jobs and redressing those whose jobs are not protected, ensuring food production, and preventing a collapse of the export sector. All of this and more while struggling to keep the new coronavirus at bay. It’s a tall order. One that dwarfs the two-thirds majority.

 



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Sinharaja world heritage

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Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday

 

Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.

 

Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.

 

Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)

 

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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field

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As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul

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The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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