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Editorial

Udayanga, Covid and Tourism

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Nobody in his right senses would object to reopening the country to tourism if, and that is a very big if, the necessary precautions are in place to prevent such a measure triggering a new Covid wave here. This is imperative in the context of the ongoing global pandemic and is something that does not need underlining. Given the fact that our economy is greatly dependent on tourism earnings, and the livelihoods of hundred of hundreds of thousands of Lankans depend on this industry, even the smallest tentative step taken in that direction must be welcomed. This is what the concerned authorities attempted to do by bringing in some tourist groups from Ukraine into the country towards the end of last year with the first flights landing at the Mattala International Airport at Christmas time.

Whether this attempt has blown up in the faces of those who tried to swing it is something that is yet to be finally determined. There have been three positive Covid infected persons in the first tour group that arrived here. Some of these holidaymakers have already left the country, cutting short their vacations in the wake of the many necessary restrictions that had to be imposed to ensure that nothing untoward happens as a result of their arrival. There has been a public spat between Ms. Kimarli Fernando, the chairperson of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, and Mr. Udayanga Weeratunga, Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to Russia and Ukraine, over the bringing of these tourists here. Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has backed Fernando. It is public knowledge that Weeratunga is a close kinsman (first cousin) of the ruling Rajapaksa clan. The media has leaped on the fact that his official address has been published as Temple Trees, Colombo.

Therein lies the rub. It was nearly a century ago that a British judge, Lord Hewart, pronounced that “It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly, be seen to be done.” That famous quotation flowing from a minor court action involving a motorcycle accident and a fine of a mere 10 British pounds (even though money had a different value at the time) has since been accepted as basic norm of justice systems and become a common aphorism. What has been universally accepted in the judicial sphere must also necessarily apply elsewhere; and the fact that a close kinsman of the ruling family, a businessman with a well known past who had previously enjoyed Rajapaksa patronage, was chosen to pilot the ‘pilot project’ is a matter of no little consequence.

However that be, it can be credibly argued that Weeratunga was very well placed, or may even be said best placed, to kick start a project of reopening Sri Lanka’s beleaguered tourism industry to a Covid-wracked world. He had all the contacts and political muscle (not only here but also in Ukraine where he was once accredited) needed to get the project going. He has for good or bad, successfully or not, got it started. These obviously were factors that were weighed carefully before the first tourist flights from Ukraine were allowed into the country under his wing. Apart from the detection of the three Covid infected tourists, there have been video clips of the visitors with face masks covering just their chins widely telecast. Safari jeep drivers in Tissamaharama hired to drive the visitors to the Yala National Park have kicked up a public row over being quarantined following that assignment. Opposition politicians have waded into the fray alleging crony capitalism in the manner in which the business arising from the few flights that have already arrived has been allocated. The concerned authorities have been compelled to admit that there have been “shortcomings” in the experiment that was attempted.

But it is clear that what has been started will not be abandoned in the face of mounting pressure. It was reported on Friday that a fifth Ukranian flight had landed at Mattala the day before. The tourism minister, acknowledging the negatives already encountered, is on record saying that despite some hiccups the project was on track. There is no denying Ranatunga’s claim that what is being attempted is of pivotal importance to the country and it is to be hoped that all possible cooperation to make it succeed will be offered regardless of personal considerations. Weeratunga who was for long a fugitive from the law, and who attracted an Interpol Red Alert, did neither himself nor his patrons any credit by boasting that no indictment was served on him and that “I was smarter than them” (the law enforcers) appears to be going strong. Approximately 800 tourists from Ukraine have already arrived here and total of ten flights from there are due before the Bandaranaike International Airport is reopened on January 21. While the expected figure of nearly 2,600 tourists from that country is not likely to be achieved before the reopening of the BIA – previously postponed – with some of the previous bookings canceled, the majority will be coming, a report said.

UNWTO, the tourism agency of the United Nations has set up a Global Tourism Crisis Committee and developed a sector-wide response to the unprecedented challenges now facing numerous countries greatly dependent on tourism on both economic and employment considerations. The first set of recommendations in this regard has already been presented. We have no doubt that the concerned authorities here are keenly studying how the rest of the world is tackling the challenge. Each country will have problems that are unique to itself and will have to innovate measures to combat them. We too must do the same. So let us give a chance to what is being attempted without rushing to too hasty conclusions.

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Editorial

Of those walls

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Friday 22nd January, 2021

Walls are meant to ensure safety. Most houses in this country have boundary walls that are as tall as those around prisons, for there are more criminals at large than behind bars, and the law-abiding people fear for their safety. But walls can also be a source of danger if they are jerrybuilt or happen to sit in the wrong places like the one along a section of the perimeter of the Ratmalana Airport near the Galle road. A veteran Sri Lankan pilot, who writes to this newspaper under a pseudonym, has been striving for the last 10 years or so to have this wall pulled down because he believes it poses a danger to aircraft. He has written many articles putting forth solid arguments for the demolition of the wall, but in vain; the last one appeared yesterday. One may argue that the airport wall has caused no accidents so far and, therefore, one should not worry, but anything that is a potential danger to aircraft should not be permitted in or around airports.

Walls could cause trouble on the political front as well. Donald Trump was left with egg on his face when he, as the US President, tried to have a wall built along the US-Mexico border. That wall never came up, and Trump has had to leave the White House. Walls that political leaders allow to be built around them could also be problematic.

Many of those who campaigned really hard to bring the incumbent Sri Lankan government to power are now climbing the walls. Their frustration knows no bounds. They think a favoured few have built a wall around President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and are misleading him. This is what, some prominent Buddhist monks who led the SLPP’s election campaigns from the front say, has happened.

Several senior Buddhist monks flayed the government at a religious function held on Wednesday to invoke blessings on Ven. Omare Kassapa Thera on his birthday, at Abayaramaya, Colombo. Ven. Murutettuwe Ananda, Ven. Medagama Abhayatissa and Ven. Elle Gunawansa Theras, in their speeches decried the way the government was mismanaging state assets which it had undertaken to protect. They said their voice had gone unheeded as some persons had built a wall around the President. Medagama Abhayatissa Thera recalled how a group of Buddhist monks had protested when Hambantota Port was leased to the Chinese; he said the Maha Sangha would go all out to save the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port.

One may recall that Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister of the yahapalana government, derisively called Abayaramaya ‘Mahindaramaya’ because it was there that ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa successfully rallied forces to make a comeback following his defeat in the 2015 presidential race. Today, staunch SLPP supporters are raking the government over the coals at the very temple, which served as the cradle of their anti-yahapalana campaign.

Gotabaya, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development, once demonstrated a deep antipathy towards walls. He had some of them pulled down in the Colombo city as part of his urban yuppification programme. But he is now under fire from government supporters for having allowed a wall to be built around him.

The wall of mistrust that has come up between the SLPP and its supporters, who show signs of utter disillusionment and frustration, presages trouble for the government, which has earned notoriety for signaling left and turning right, so to speak. The questionable ECT deal which has irked the forces that propelled it to power could be its undoing.

Defensive walls could fail to be effective in politics as in football, where skilled players know how to curve the ball past them into the goal. What Maithripala Sirisena did to his boss, Mahinda, in the 2015 presidential contest, is a case in point. It was a real kicker for the latter.

Most political leaders tend to forget, after being ensconced in power, that walls around them are no match for the power of people’s voice. They ought to remember that all it took to bring down the Wall of Jericho was a great shout people raised in unison.

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Editorial

Virus and moral failure

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Thursday 21st January 2021

The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure, World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned, at a recent WHO Executive Board meeting, adding that more than 39 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in about 49 high-income countries while only 25 doses have been administered in one lowest-income country. We believe that the catastrophic moral failure has already set in. The WHO chief is right in insisting that equitable access to vaccines is not only a moral imperative but also an economic and strategic imperative, and failure to ensure it will only lead to the prolongation of the pandemic. However, he has not mentioned that not a single dose of vaccine has been administered in most countries, Sri Lanka being one of them.

Ghebreyesus has not named the lowest-income country where only 25 doses of the vaccines have so far been administered. It must be in the African continent if one hazards a guess by using GDP per capita as a yardstick. Paradoxically, the African countries are the richest in the world in terms of the value of their mineral deposits and other natural resources. They remain poor due to the plunder of their resources, which find their way into the West. The African nations have the world’s largest amount of gold, but this fact is not reflected in their currencies which are amongst the weakest in the world. Industries and banks in the developed world are heavily dependent on the exploitation of resources in Africa and funds generated therefrom. If the illegal trade of diamonds, gold, coltan, etc., is stopped, many corporations and banks in the West will go belly up. Exploiters are having the first dibs on the vaccine, and their victims have been left to their fate.

Meanwhile, one interesting aspect of the current global health emergency is that it has brought about a situation where the people of the Global North have become guinea pigs for Big Pharma. Time was when their counterparts in the developing world were used as experimental groups. It may be recalled that Pfizer had to pay millions of US dollars as compensation to the parents of a group of Nigerian children who died due of one of its drug trials. Today’s controversy over Pfizer products is reported from the developed world; in Norway, 29 elderly people have died after receiving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Given this situation, the Sri Lankan government, which is trying to procure the COVID-19 vaccines from several sources, had better heed the opinion of the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Forum (VIDF) of Sri Lanka, consisting of reputed medical experts, if disaster is to be averted. The VIDF has said in a media statement: “With the current dilemma of vaccine efficacy and safety issues and the uncertainty of the claims made by individual vaccine manufacturers, we fully understand the need to strictly apply the standard procedure of approval of any medicinal product in this country for approving a vaccine for COVID-19 in Sri Lanka too and wish to endorse the need for our regulatory authorities to act accordingly.” (See page five for the VIDF statement.)

The developed world is promoting human rights globally and resorts to punitive action such as sanctions to make others respect and protect them. The right to life takes precedence over everything else. Humans are faced with an existential problem due to the pandemic, which snuffs out thousands of lives daily. It is, therefore, up to the nations that have taken upon themselves the task of protecting human rights to practise what they preach, and help save lives by ensuring equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine across the world.

It is hoped that the absence of equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and the developed world’s inoculation frenzy at the expense of a vast majority of the global population will be taken up at the upcoming UNHRC sessions in Geneva. What we are witnessing is discrimination against the poor on a global scale. It could even be considered a form of apartheid. The outspoken WHO Chief should be invited to address the UNHRC so that there will be at least one useful item on the outfit’s agenda, which reeks with prejudice and duplicity.

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Editorial

ECT, Port City and Potemkin village

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Wednesday 20th January, 2021

The East Container Terminal (ECT) dispute remains unresolved. Protesting port workers have rejected a government condition for negotiations as a Hobson’s choice; they have said the government has offered to discuss the issue, provided they agree to consider the proposed joint venture between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and India’s Adani Group as non-negotiable. Having further talks on the government’s terms will be tantamount to an endorsement of the ECT deal, the protesters have said.

The warring port workers are likely to harden their position further and even flex their trade union muscles. This is something the country cannot afford at this juncture, but the government has sought to play a game of chicken. The economy cannot take any more shocks, and a port strike will send it into a tailspin.

Praise for the government has come from an unexpected quarter. Former Minister Mangala Samaraweera, one of the bitterest critics of the government, has commended it for having struck the ETC deal with India; in the former’s eyes the latter can never do anything right, but both of them are on the same wavelength where the questionable joint venture is concerned! Bashing the government is the raison d’etre of most NGOs, which are all out to have pariah status conferred on the present-day leaders for the country’s successful war on terror, but curiously they too have showered praise on the government for the proposed ECT joint venture with Adani Group as a partner!

Interestingly, the forces that propelled the SLPP to power are now berating the government for the ECT deal, which, they say, is detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests. Those who did their darnedest to have the SLPP defeated at the last two elections and are hell bent on demonising its leaders as enemies of democracy are supporting it on the ECT agreement. Thus, the government is receiving praise from its enemies and brickbats from its allies! What has caused this strange realignment of forces?

Adani Group, which is the Modi government’s most favoured company, has come under heavy criticism for the rapaciousness of its business practices both at home and abroad. Protesting Indian farmers have blamed it for their woes, and in Australia it stands accused of employing environmentally destructive methods in mining. In India, the Central Bureau of Investigation has booked the Adani Enterprises Ltd, which is considered the flagship company of Adani Group, for securing a government contract for supplying imported coal in an allegedly fraudulent manner. Sri Lankan politicians love to do business with such companies!

One of the main election pledges of the SLPP was to form a ‘patriotic government and undo what the yahapalana administration had done. But it has chosen to jettison its patriotism and follow the yahapalana policy on state assets, as evident from its decision to partner with a foreign company to operate the ECT, which the Sri Lanka Ports Authority is capable of managing on its own as a profitable venture. As for the ECT, the incumbent government has done exactly what the yahapalana regime did anent the Chinese Port City. The previous administration vowed to scrap the Chinese project, condemning it as an environmental disaster, but approved it in the end.

The government has said it will attract foreign investment without either selling or leasing the ECT; this is only an impressive façade that hides an unpleasant situation, or Potemkin village as political scientists call it.

If the SLPP leaders ignore the fate that awaits those who strike deals with companies notorious for questionable business practices, they will do so at their own peril. They ought to learn from the predicament of the UNP leaders who had dealings with Perpetual Treasuries, which carried out the Treasury bond scams.

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