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.
A change of economic policies for Sri Lanka
Millions of Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to see what actions will be taken to make life bearable again.If we follow the example of successful countries we see them exploit their opportunities, and use the wealth created, not to import cars and go on luxury trips abroad, but to re-invest the money proceeds in further projects to bring in even more money. They proceed in this way until their citizens have good standard of living. Probably, the best example of that compounding of wealth is Singapore.
Singapore exploited its geographic advantages. It provided cruise ships with bunkering services and repair, later they provided airlines with refueling and expanded that to one night free stop- overs for passengers to buy luxury goods at their glamorous, tax-free shopping malls. The Japanese were making wonderful new gadgets: cameras, music players, portable radio cassette players, binoculars, all available in the malls and sold tax free!! Lee Kuan Yu forbade the ladies to wear denim jeans, and to wear dresses with hem lines coming down two inches below the knee! He even instructed the ladies to smile! No man could have long hair for fear of arrest. Littering was prohibited, so was chewing gum and smoking butts on the roads and pavements. The place was kept clean!
They used the proceeds arising from all this commercial activity to build housing blocks, develop new roads and other beneficial projects. (Individuals were not allowed to walk away with the profits, just to fritter them away.) Sentosa Island had installed a communications dish antenna connecting it with New York and the financial markets. This was an example of intelligent seizing of opportunities. I account for this intelligent development as due to the high educational and knowledge of Singapore’s progressive management. The result is a firm currency, holding its value.
Something similar has happened to Russia. Russia is rich. It is under progressive intelligent management. Stalin had developed the railway network across the full eleven time zones. But many areas remained to be connected. Putin found the finances to develop coal mines, develop oil and gas deposits and build railway bridges and tunnels for better access to markets and their demand for Russian products. Even as you read this, trains of 70 plus trucks, each with 70 tons of coal are grinding their way to China, day and night. Gas is flowing through an extensive network of pipelines, both east to China and west to friendly countries in Southern Europe. Mr. Putin and his men have succeeded in getting Russia fully functional. And the more Russians there are to spend money, so the more demand for goods and services: shops, etc., providing multiplying employment in Russia.
Mr. Putin wants to build a road and rail link south through Iran to India. A design plan is in the works. It is being discussed with Iran and India. Putin is displaying initiative for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Putin cares for the citizens of Russia and is creating both wealth and jobs too. Architects are designing attractive living spaces and buildings which provide a better environment for Russians and contractors are building it. Education of Russian citizens is playing a big part in Mr. Putin’s thinking, too. Russia needs a talented workforce.
The result is that the currency, the Ruble is strong and does not devalue. It keeps its value.Belarus, Russia’s neighbour, can also be praised for outstanding development. The population in the big towns is cossetted with amenities and facilities which provides a luxurious way of life for townspeople especially those with industrial jobs. However, it must be admitted, the standard of life for the minority 30% population living in the countryside has yet to catch up. The administration is strict and everyone is law abiding. For example, you can leave your hand phone at your seat while you visit the toilet conveniences and it will remain undisturbed until you return.
Belarus, being a mostly agricultural country has a big tractor manufacturing plant, it has a fertiliser mining and producing plant, it has a commercial vehicle plant, DK MAZ which produces industrial trucks such as fire extinguishing trucks and also produces the most comfortable, bright, low step buses and so on, and of course, Belarus makes its own industrial vehicle tyres. The towns are prosperous and clean and Minsk, the capital is a beautifully laid out city. Town apartment blocks are multi-storied living spaces, but are so well designed and fitted as to provide pleasant living spaces for its people. These reduce urban sprawl across the wooded countryside.
What are Sri Lanka’s strengths? It is a small island thus making communications short and sweet. Its location in the Indian Ocean is a plus, its scenic beauty is a plus allowing a thriving tourist trade for people from colder climates, and its soil and climate allows almost anything to be grown. Therefore its agriculture is a great strength. Its long coastline can provide fish if the fisherised. It has deposits of graphite and phosphates which can be exploited to produce profits for further investment in development projects. It has its illiminite sands which are an extremely valuable asset but need to be controlled and exploitation expanded. It has a whole gem mining industry which need to be managed in way beneficial to the government. It has several government owned businesses which need to be overhauled and modernized to convert losses to profits. The rupee in 1948 was equal to the English pound, now it is around 450 rupees to the Pound. That gives a good description of Sri Lankan past governance.
Profits from projects need to be ploughed back into further projects to bring about a higher standard of living for all its inhabitants. Then the Lankan reputation of being a paradise island with happy people will be restored.
Sapugaskanda: A huge challenge for RW
It will be interesting to see if anything fruitful will come of the so-called “investigation” announced by the Minister-in-charge, about what seemed like an outrageous overtime payment to the petroleum refinery workers.While waiting for the outcome of that investigation, I thought of highlighting again the real and central issue that cuts across all loss-making government undertakings in Sri Lanka, such as the CPC, CEB, SriLankan Airlines, etc. that have been mercilessly sucking off tax-payer’s money into them like “blackholes”.
These organisations have been typically sustaining a mutual understanding with corrupt or inept politicians. “Sahana milata sewaya” (service at a concessionary price) was the catchphrase used by them to cover up all their numerous irregularities, wanton wastage, gravy trains, jobs for the boys and massive corruption, mostly with direct and indirect blessings of the politicians.
Here, I’d like to bring out just one example to help readers to get an idea of the enormity of this crisis built up over the past few decades. You’ll only have to look at what seemed like gross over-staffing levels of the CPC’s Sapugaskanda refinery, compared to international standards as shown below:
* Sapugaskanda Refinery – 50,000 Barrels Per Day (BPD); 1,100 employees Superior Refinery, Wisconsin, USA – 40,000 BPD; 180 employees
* Louisiana Refinery (including a fairly complex petrochemicals section), USA – 180,000 BPD; 600 employees
* Hovensa Refinery (now closed) – US Virgin Islands; 500,000 BPD; 2,100 employees.
These are hard facts available on the Internet for anyone to see, but I’m open to being corrected. I doubt if any sensible private investor would even dream of allowing such a level of gross over-staffing in their businesses.
As everyone knows, this is the position in all government business undertakings, as well as in most other government agencies in Sri Lanka. One can say that Sri Lankans have been willingly maintaining a crop of GOWUs (Govt Owned Welfare Undertakings), primarily for the benefit of the “hard-working” employees of these organisations, but at an unconscionably enormous cost to the rest. Obviously, this “party” couldn’t have gone forever!
Will Ranil be up to this challenge? I doubt very much.
UPULl P Auckland
Edward Gunawardena: ‘The IGP the country never had’
On a seemingly fine Friday afternoon, day two of the England v India second Test of the LV Insurance Series (that turned out to be a day five thriller), oblivious to how his day would tragically pan out, our dad, retired Senior Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Edward Gunawardena, was glued to his television enjoying the contest between the two cricket giants. As time passed by that afternoon, he felt uncomfortable, weak and had minor discomfort in breathing. Our family doctor, Dr Lakshan Fernando, swiftly visited home and on strict instructions to bed rest, our dad enjoyed his chicken soup for dinner that was prepared by his beloved wife, our mum.
Later that night tragically he took the last breath of his life, and he completed the last heartbeat of his life in the presence of two of his most trusted people, our mum and our family doctor.
This day was that dreaded “Friday the Thirteenth” – in the month of August last year. Our tragedy was upon us.A year has passed, by but the loss is still deep rooted, although it was comforting that his passing was peaceful knowing that he had the assurance of having Dr Lakshan beside him, who in fact rushed him from our home to Central Hospital in Colombo that night in his own vehicle in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, ever so determined to save our dad’s life. It was a blessing to know that our dad had our mum and Dr Lakshan beside him as much as it was possible.
Edward Gunawardena had a successful journey starting his early years through St Joseph’s College, Colombo, Peradeniya University, Michigan State University, USA through sheer determination to succeed, despite him and his three brothers losing their mum when he was at a tender age of just four years. He served our country for nearly three decades in the Police Service in various capacities, including as the Director of Intelligence, Director of Presidential Security, DIG Metropolitan and Senior DIG Administration; and continued his services as the Special Advisor to the Chancellor at the University Grants Commission, Chairman of the National Lotteries Board and in the Board of Directors at the Lake House Newspapers Corporation.
Most would consider retirement in the ripe old age of sixties, but our dad was blessed to have joined JF&I Printing and Packaging Company, an international company with the head office close to our home. This enterprise was owned and led by renowned late Dr Neville Fernando and his son Neomal Fernando. Edward Gunawardena found his renewed passion and purpose of working with such a talented and committed group of colleagues, where he thrived in making a significant difference to a spectrum of many individuals with a common goal. There was a family atmosphere with abundance of gratitude whilst professionalism was being maintained. The feelings were mutual, and this was evident at a time when our dad was unwell and required a blood transfusion – seven of the junior colleagues at JF&I showed their willingness and donated their blood with heartfelt love and gratitude towards him. Knowing that such generosity and love existed in a working environment was a sincerely humble attitude. This is a true reflection of our dad’s character and personality of giving where reciprocation was demonstrated.
Patriotism and loyalty were two of his strengths. His dedication and professionalism in the Police Service were commendable. This was once clearly expressed by the late Professor Carlo Fonseka at the launch of our dad’s second novel “.. Edward was the IGP (Inspector General of Police) that the country never had”. A truly inspiring and a remarkable Officer and a Gentleman.
His generosity and care extended way beyond his professional arena. One of his many philanthropic contributions was the resurrection of the village Buddhist temple’s school ‘Daham Pasala’ with the support from the late Deshamanya H K Dharmadasa well known as ‘Nawaloka Mudalali’, the founder of the Nawaloka Group. Our extended family and many thousands of youth in the Battaramulla area have benefited and continue to imbibe the doctrine of Buddhism, thanks to the dedicated committee led by it’s Chief Monk, Jinarathana Himi.
As an enthusiastic writer and a passionate citizen, he wrote many thought provoking and fearless articles to the newspapers, which were very well received by the readers. He was not afraid to speak the truth and to stand up for those who did not have a voice, and he became a respected contributor maintaining honesty and integrity. One of his most poignant articles we recall was days after the tragic Easter Sunday bombings, titled “The Unpardonable Blunder” bravely challenging the chain of command and with deep sorrow on the devastating destruction, loss of lives and many innocent people maimed and scarred for their entire lives.
Today, we are relieved that he didn’t have to witness the dismal state of affairs our country is going through as a consequence of decades of poor leadership, mismanagement, and most of all, unprecedented levels of corruption in the recent era of respective governments.
As our dad, we are immensely proud of who he was, his achievements and most of all for how he has bettered many lives throughout his life, with his generosity, professionalism and willingness to help, advise, guide, nurture and mentor all with a selfless attitude. We believe that his legacy has been passed on through many who he has had close connections with. We are thankful that his writing legacy would also continue through his creations of the two novels “Blood and Cyanide” and “Memorable Tidbits…”.
Even until his last days and hours he was sharing his experience and wisdom with everyone around him, that was the calibre of the gentleman. His humble stories of meeting President Nixon at the Fulbright Scholar Dinner at the White House, meeting the 124th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito at the Akasaka Palace, and his conversations with the great Arthur C Clarke, will always be fondly remembered by us. One of the famous quotes that our dad hilariously shared was the quote from Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom about his political nemesis, the former and the predecessor Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. “The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: if Gladstone fell into the Thames it would be a misfortune, but if someone dragged him out again that would be a calamity.”
Our dad was and will continue to be our hero and mentor. Today, we wish to extend our utmost appreciation to each and every one of you who had a close bond with him and made his life purposeful, joyful and complete. We thank them sincerely.
His last day of life was instrumental to the creation of the Edward Gunawardena Memorial Trust that is being organically grown, currently sponsoring medical students at the Rajarata University who are striving to become medical professionals, and as with Dr Lakshan, who was taking care of our dad, these students will have the opportunity to potentially treat and care for many deserving people and make their lives better, and also save many lives.
Whilst we take this opportunity to once again thank all those who were in his life,we would love to hear and treasure all the memories they shared with him. We welcome your recollections, your thoughts and your appreciations of Edward Gunawardena and please do send them via the email
My sister and I would value and appreciate the stories that you have had the pleasure of experiencing with him and of him.
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