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UN Resident Coordinator’s missive to PM and what an ordinary Sri Lankan thinks about it

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By Rohana R. Wasala

UN Resident Coordinator Ms Hanaa Singer’s outrageously meddlesome missive offering unsolicited advice on governance (November 12, 2020) to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, with copies to the Minister of Foreign Relations Mr Dinesh Gunawardane, and Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous  Medicine Pavithra Wanniarachchi hasn’t still elicited an official response from the Government; neither has it drawn any comment from the Opposition, at least by the time of writing. But concerned Buddhist monks and lay activists and other ordinary citizens who really care about the country, active  in the social media, have already expressed strong disapproval of what they consider to be her brash overstepping of the legitimate boundaries of diplomatic protocol relating to her job in Sri Lanka as an employee of the United Nations. They are within their rights for they are the well informed nationals of the democratic Sri Lankan state, where every citizen has an inviolable claim to a share in its sovereignty, and can question the legitimacy of words and actions of a non-citizen of whatever capacity who seems to dictate terms to the least of them, let alone to those lawfully and democratically elected to execute sovereign power on behalf of all the citizens. 

 Ms Hanaa Singer is the most senior UN official in Sri Lanka. When she presented her credentials to the then president Mr Maithripala Sirisena in September 2018, she assumed duties in a dual capacity as UN’s Resident Coordinator and UN’s Development Programme Resident Representative for Sri Lanka. However, as a result of a UN reform process in January 2019, the second job was given to another UN functionary, and since then Ms Singer has held only the key post of UN’s Resident Coordinator for Sri Lanka. In that capacity, she leads the UN Country Team of 22 Resident and Non-Resident UN  Agencies. She represents the UN Secretary-General in Sri Lanka.

 Before her assignment to Colombo Ms Singer held a number of senior managerial positions in the UNICEF offices across the globe, particularly in Asia and Africa. She was Associate Regional Director UNICEF Geneva; she was Country Representative for UNICEF in Syria, Nepal, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Ms Singer also led humanitarian programmes in Burundi and Haiti, and managed cross border operations including those to Afghanistan and Iraq. Ms Singer claims nearly thirty years of experience with the UN. As she comes from Egypt, she may be expected to be familiar with the problem of Islamic extremism that is  plaguing the whole world. An estimated 90% of Egyptians are Muslims, and most of them are Sunnis, with a small minority of Shia Muslims, and an even smaller minority of officially unrecognized Ahmadis. 

 Until recently, the majority of the mainstream traditional Muslims used to be Sufis who were sufficiently, almost seamlessly, integrated into the very tolerant Buddhist and Hindu cultural communities. Unfortunately, that peaceful religious coexistence is being threatened by the recent incursions of Salafist and Wahhabist extremists allegedly sponsored by Sunni Islamist Saudi Arabia. The 2019 April Easter Sunday church and hotel bombings which killed over 250 and injured more than 500 innocent men, women, and chidren, leaving some maimed for life, were carried out by some young Muslim suicide bombers who had been indoctrinated and trained by these extremist ideologists. There is a danger of such extremists exploiting the volatile sensitivities of sorrow stricken Muslims in this Covid-19 situation who, like people of other religions, are in need of emotional succour and are looking towards the traditional source that provides it.

 While expressing her/UN’s readiness ‘to provide any relevant support on this matter’ (the burial problem), Ms Hanaa Singer tells the PM that ‘dignified handling of bodies of persons dead of Covid-19 virus has been an important part of the COVID-19 response’ (as if he is unaware of this). What material support can she provide on the burial matter? She reiterates ‘the concern of the United Nations with the existing Ministry of Health guidelines which stipulate cremation as the only method for the disposal of bodies suspected of COVID-19 infection’. Why should the UN be ‘concerned’ about the Health Ministry guidelines which order the cremation of bodies of persons scientifically confirmed dead of COVID-19? It is not a case of disposing of bodies ‘suspected of COVID-19 infection’. Ms Hanaa’s ‘concern’ reveals her  unfounded suspicion that the government is abusing this situation to discriminate against Muslims. The government and the rest of the population have other prob;ems to worry about.

 Ms Singer refers to WHO circulars issued on March 24, 2020 and later the claim that ‘…..based on current knowledge of the symptoms of Covid-19 and its main modes of transmission (droplets/contact), the likelihood of transmission when handling human remains is low….’. This sort of harebrained wisdom, though it comes from the WHO (which is also manned by ordinary mortals), is unacceptable in a lethal situation. Let’s take a domestic example. Suppose you have a child who is allergic to peanuts, and that once, feeding him a peanut containing yoghurt almost killed him. Now, a friendly visitor brings him a chocolate. But before giving it to him you check whether it is safe for him, so you look at the wrapper and read the cautionary information printed there: it says ‘This product may have traces of peanut oil’. Will you allow your child to eat the chocolate? No, at all. Why expose your child’s health, or even his life to danger for the sake of a chocolate?  In the current pandemic situation, while obeying the broad WHO guidelines, each country must adopt measures that best suit local conditions as determined by qualified local experts, not by interfering politicians or diplomats. Burial of infected bodies in the current situation is dangerous because of its potential for contamination of the aquifers, which, in most parts of the country are quite shallow. In Sri Lanka, around 80% of the population in the villages and some people even in Colombo and suburbs obtain their drinking water from wells.The Covid-19 virus is a dangerous new virus which is still being studied by scientists. If the expert scientific opinion right now is that there is a real danger or even a likelihood (be it high or low) of groundwater contamination with this deadly virus as a result of burying corpses of Covid-19 victims, then religious sentiment will give way to science in any civilised country where the vast majority of people depend on groundwater for drinking  and other domestic purposes. This applies equally to people of all faiths. 

 It is not only the Muslims who traditionally only bury their dead; Christians also do. Buddhists and Hindus either bury or cremate, though they prefer the latter mode of disposing of the dead, after the performance of elaborate funeral rites, which in the case of Hindus take the longest time to complete among the four religious communities. They also feel as acutely as Muslims do in situations of bereavement.

 Apparently forgetting this Ms Singer warns our Prime Minister: ‘In the same context, I deem it important to inform you that I have received impassioned appeals from within and outside the Muslim community that perceive the current policy on burials as discriminatory. Against this background, I fear that not allowing burials is having a negative effect on social cohesion and more importantly, could also adversely impact the measures for containing the spread of the virus as it may discourage people to access medical care where they have symptoms or (a) history of contact.’  

 Instead of so undiplomatically lecturing to the PM, Ms Singer, should have educated the Muslims and others who, she says, appealed to her for undue intervention in a domestic nonissue like this about the fact that subjecting Muslims and others to the same health guideline which makes cremation mandatory is not discrimination and that the Sri Lankan leaders are not so mean or so lacking in selfconfidence as to make the Covid-19 pandemic emergency a pretext for discriminating against a minority. Ms Singer, it is not ‘not allowing burials (that) is having a negative effect on social cohesion’, it is cases of unwarranted intervention like yours that tend to destroy Sri Lanka’s social cohesion.

 Her parting shot is: ‘I recognize that during epidemics, for reasons of public health, Governments often need to take difficult, and at times unpopular measures. However, in this case, the negative consequences of not allowing burials seem to outweigh any potential epidemiological benefit. Considering the evidenced-based (sic) guidance of World Health Organization, as well as the commitments of the Government of Sri Lanka to uphold the rights of all communities, I therefore express my hope that the existing policy be revised so as to allow the safe and dignified burial of COVOD-19 victims’. In view of what I have written above, Ms Singer’s argument has little merit here. It only shows her own bias. How justified is she in allowing her personal biases to get in her way of judgement in the performance of her duties as an international civil servant who is certainly not a plenipotentiary?

 Articles 1 and 2 are described under Chapter 1 of the Charter of the United Nations signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945 (Kindle version of the UN Charter published in the US by Praetorian Press, LLC  2011)  which deals with the purposes and principles that determine its mandate. Article 1 is about maintaining international peace and security through collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace, to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends, etc. The ‘international’ nature of the UN’s responsibility should not be forgotten. The UN cannot poke its nose into a country’s internal affairs on somebody’s whim.

 Article 2 stipulates the principles in accordance which the purposes stated in Article 1 are to be pursued: Item No 1 of Article 2 states the crucial principle of the sovereign equality of the member states: ’The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members’. This and the other six principles specified in Article 2 implicitly emphasize the necessity for the UN as a single body and for all its individual members to desist from interfering in the internal affairs of member states. Items 4, 5, and 7 of Article 2 are especially important in this connection. 

 However, the important Item No 7 contains an exception to the observance of this principle.  Here is Item No 7 in full: ‘Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII’. When we read Chapter VII (i.e., Articles 39-51), it becomes clear that for any intervention or interference (which should only be of a non-military kind – such as, in the form of travel embargoes, trade sanctions, etc.) to be imposed, the unsettling domestic issues must be on a scale that calls for UN Security Council involvement. The burial (non)issue is not likely to assume such importance. 



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Opinion

Our long-forgotten friend can help mitigate impact of fuel shortage

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The importance of the bicycle as a mode of transportation is seemingly re-emerging in Sri Lanka. This sudden drive is mainly attributable to the ongoing economic crisis the country is faced with. The forex crisis, together with ever increasing fuel prices, has made the Sri Lankans remember their long-forgotten friend––the bicycle.

We see more and more people taking to cycling today for their daily activities out of desperation more than anything else. However, this trend needs to be encouraged not only for its economic benefits but also for its health, environmental, social (and many other) advantages.

The benefits of promoting cycling

Economic

– The economics of transportation has become a major woe. The main energy source used today in transportation in Sri Lanka is fossil fuel. This amounts to 2,081 Mn USD (or 64 % of the total fuel cost of the country) a year. In terms of percentage spending of the total foreign imports, this amounts to a whopping 10.3 %. (Source: Kumarage AS, Repositioning Sri Lanka’s Transport and Logistics Sector to lead the Economic Recovery in Sri Lanka, Organization of Professionals’ Association Journal, April 2022). By promoting the use of bicycles, we can expect to reduce a sizable amount of this colossal expenditure.

Cycling is also known to be conducive to the small-scale trader, as he comes in contact with the cyclists more often than the motorists. Thus, cycling will positively influence the small-scale economy of the country as well.

Health

– A number of studies have shown that cycling reduces the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as Acute Myocardial Infarction, Coronary Heart Disease, Cerebro Vascular Disease, Type 2 Diabetes, stress and many psychological diseases. Cycling, while improving the overall health of the people, will also reduce the healthcare costs, appreciably in the long term.

Environmental

– Increased use of fossil fuels for transportation has in turn become one of the leading causes of environmental pollution, global warming and climate change, the world over, three of the major calamities the world has come to be plagued with today. By cycling we can reduce air pollution by reducing the noxious gases, such as carbon oxides, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, benzene and particulate matter. It also reduces noise pollution, and helps in mitigating global warming and climate change.

Social

– Cycling is also known to promote social interactions among people by encouraging networking and collaborations between them. This will influence the social health of the community positively.

The activities proposed

– The programme to promote cycling should be implemented, as a pilot project, with the participation of the state sector employees in some selected districts. Depending on the success thereof, it could be extended to the other sectors and districts.

1. As the first step towards promoting cycling nationwide, we propose that it be promoted among the state employees as their main mode of travel (to work). In this regard, we propose that they be paid an incentive in keeping with the distance they cover.

2. Bicycles could also be used by those who live far away from their workplace; they can cycle to the main bus or railway station. In both these situations, the cyclists should be paid accordingly.

3. Cyclists should be provided with facilities for bathing and changing at workplaces.

4. The government should take all measures aimed at making travel, safe and hassle free for cyclists. New laws should be made for this purpose, if necessary.

5. To lessen traffic congestion and increase safety of the cyclists, one-way traffic for the motorists in parallel roads should be encouraged wherever possible.

6. Cyclists should be provided with facilities to purchase bicycles, spare parts and accessories at discount rates.

7. Encourage production of bicycles, spare parts and accessories in Sri Lanka. Promote bicycle repair services countrywide.

8. Plant and maintain trees on the roadside for the benefit of cyclists. This will also help reduce air pollution and ambient temperature.

9. Liaise with major cycling associations in the world like the World Cycling Association, the Dutch Cycling Embassy, etc, in order to update knowledge and skills relating to promoting cycling in the country.

10. In keeping with the principle of “polluter pays” a dedicated tax could be imposed on motor vehicles, and the revenue therefrom used to promote cycling.

Dr. PRASANNA COORAY

President

Consumers & Customers Union

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Opinion

Catastrophe that has hit Ukraine

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The coup, or revolution, in Ukraine in 2014, as a result of the Maidan Square uprising, enabled extremist forces to take control of Ukraine. Many of them have Fascist ideology even to this day. In 1945, Russia had chased the German Nazis back to Berlin at a terrible cost in Russian lives. Now, people with this same mentality have taken power in Kiev with the devilish help of the American CIA – and they are hostile to Russians in Russia and even Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who number about a third of the total population of 60 million Ukrainians.

This minority of Russian-speaking people are mostly located towards the East of the country, with many centred in the towns and cities known as the Donbas. These people did not want to be subjected to Nazi, Fascist unpleasant treatment, so they agitated to be independent. They formed their own militias, men from the army defected and brought weapons from the army! The army and the militias fought each other to a standstill. In response, the Ukrainian army-built lines of trenches and other defences along the Donbas, especially near towns with important or vital industries.

Over time, relations deteriorated and the army started indiscriminately shelling the Donbas – they were killing their own people! This tragedy occurred for a period of eight years. About 14,000 civilians were killed by illegal random fire. No reporting on this in the “morally correct” west, and this story was ignored. Fascist thugs made Mariupol steelworks their headquarters in the Donbas. Early this year, 2022, the Ukrainian army was seen massing nearby for a full-scale attack on the rebels of the Donbas. Around 200, 000 of the best fighting men of all the Ukrainian army were to be used to finally crush the Russian-speaking rebels of the Donbas.

At the same time, the US was gearing up to take some land in the Donbas area – possibly in Crimea. The US considered Ukraine as their backyard, and they wanted to control the Black Sea and pin down Russian access to the sea – more devilish ideas to undermine and weaken Russia!

Russian ‘Special Military Operation

’:

But Russia was watching, and on 24 February, it launched its ‘Special Military Operation’ to counter the hostile actions in the Donbas. The first thing they did was to destroy all the ground radars, rendering the Ukrainian air force incapable of targeting accurately. Then came a great parade of propaganda and lies about Russian failures and losses, all fictions and distortions which were untrue, but were misleading to those without access to the facts. President Putin had so many ailments he alone could fill a hospital! All fiction. The west’s propaganda war is a remarkable feature of this military excursion.

At the outset of the Special Military Operation there were many similarities between the Russian and Ukrainian forces, and their equipment. But there were some glaring differences, too.

Russian forces were full time, professional soldiers, well trained in the specific tasks they were responsible for: they were a fully professional, competent army operating advanced equipment. They had high-tech equipment and knew how to handle it and use it to its fullest, to its best.

Each aircraft, battle tank, drone or radar station carries electronic equipment. This creates a node forming part of a computer network which exchanges information. The information fed into this network is processed by powerful computers. The result is that the targeting of enemy positions is exact, resulting in highly efficient warfare. It is efficient, not least because the Russian army wants to avoid targeting civilians. In the Donbas, all the people were related kinsfolk, being Russian speakers.

This required much caution in targeting, as the Ukrainian army was hiding among the civilians. The Russian army was obliged to advance slowly, so as to do as little damage as possible. This targeting efficiency also had the benefit of using ammunition economically. It was a progressive, brutal de-militarization of the Ukrainian army in Donbas using the combined military forces of Russia.

No-body knows when peace will arrive in Ukraine. It seems likely that, after going to all this effort, Russia will continue on and conquer the port of Odessa, and may even continue onwards to link up with Transnistria.

Note that this death and destruction could all have been avoided if Ukraine had implemented the Minsk Accords. They acted in bad faith and now suffer the consequences of that dishonesty.

Wild speculations are made in the West about the dangers of nuclear war. But these generals, colonels and western elites should know, as a matter of personal professional pride, that the official “Russian Military Doctrine” spells out in sections 26 and 27 the criteria for the use of nuclear weapons. This will happen only when outside actions pose an existential (real) threat to Russia. Russia will react with Nukes either: if Russia is hit by a nuclear explosion or if an army invades and approaches the centre, say, Moscow.

A Professional Army using High–tech Equipment:

For this success, Russian soldiers had to be well educated in maths and physics, and because of the extreme complexity of modern war, they must have a serious attitude. They had to know all about military science: operational art and planning, informational nodes, and net centric warfare. The Russian army engages in reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, surveillance, and targeting. Radar can give targeting information in 23 seconds, requiring defence alertness and readiness.

It is unlikely the Ukrainian army is so well educated and trained. Firing indiscriminately on the Donbas and killing people and the use of prohibited cassette munitions as seen on world news sites, does indicate a lack of discipline. This unprofessionalism has cost them dearly.

The Ukrainian army gives losses at approximately: 20,000 killed, 64,000 missing in action, and perhaps 30,000 men wounded. Russians give about: 5,000 men in special Russian holding camps and 2,500 men in Donbas holding camps.

Legal experts in Russia, and Donbas experts, are, even now sifting through all the cases of the detained men. Normal soldiers will be given trials and sentencing for any wrongdoing, but those with a background of supporting Fascism will be shipped to Siberia for further investigation. One of the stated aims of the Russian establishment is to de-Nazify the Ukrainian army.

The Role of Education in Development of a Country

: Throughout their lives Russian children get much more science, physics and mathematics (STEM) than schools in the west. The standard set by the best Russian college entrance examinations is high, putting the American schools and colleges in the shade. There are no multiple-choice questions, answers are either right or wrong. These best Russian schools are attended by many bright, thirsty minds, each waiting to drink up the education offered.

This careful selection and development of bright scientific minds has enabled Russia to develop really advanced weapons and rockets, way ahead of the USA. For example, it launched the orbiting Sputnik into space well before the Americans. This act alone sent the US administration into a panic. They, in response, developed the high altitude U2 spy plane to go and see what the Russians were up to! Recently, because the US Shuttle was out of service, Russia was providing the Americans with a shuttle service to the international space station. A group of young engineers, all under 30 years, designed the SU 57, a highly successful fighter. Russia has designed and successfully tested hypersonic weapons – which the USA is struggling to catch up with.

In truth, the main war between East and West is being played out at the school desk, and Russia is winning!

See Larry Johnson’s film on YouTube – in English

PRIYANTHA HETTIGE

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Opinion

Save us from our govt.!

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When watching daily news bulletins, on several local TV channels, one could observe two significant matters.

One is how Gotabaya Rajapaksa shamelessly meets foreign diplomats and officers of international organizations, who are well aware of the grave situation of the country, and also the prime reason for it.

Remember, as kids, how we hide from our parents, or teachers, when some small mistake happens – that is because we were ashamed, and afraid of punishment. And ther, too, it would have been only our own mistake, not by the whole family of ours!

Next is how the Police and armed forces are let loose on the men, women and children who have been waiting in queues for hours or days. The authorities are not finding ways to stop queuing or at least maintain some order at those places, but chastise the people, for electing as Basil Rajapaksa had said, a stupid, clueless president and an incompetent government.

The greatest disasters we have faced since Independence are the JVP insurrection, the LTTE war and the tsunami in 2004, and during those times the people were protected by then governments; now Sri Lankans have to struggle against the government, which is steadily throttling them to death.

BUDDHI PERERA

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