“Inconceivable is the beginning, O disciples, of this faring on. The earliest point is not revealed of the running on, the faring on, of beings, cloaked in ignorance, tied by craving.”– SAMYUTTA NIKĀYA
(FROM THE BUDDHA AND HIS TEACHINGS BY Venerable Nārada Mahā thera)
Rebirth, which Buddhists do not regard as a mere theory but as a fact verifiable by evidence, forms a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, though its goal Nibbana is attainable in this life itself. The Bodhisatta Ideal and the correlative doctrine of freedom to attain utter perfection are based on this doctrine of rebirth.
Documents record that this belief in rebirth, viewed as transmigration or reincarnation, was accepted by philo-sophers like Pythagoras and Plato, poets like Shelly, Tennyson and Wordsworth, and many ordinary people in the East as well as in the West.
The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth should be differentiated from the theory of transmigration and reincarnation of other systems, because Buddhism denies the existence of a transmigrating permanent soul, created by God, or emanating from a Paramatma (Divine Essence).
It is Kamma that conditions rebirth. Past Kamma conditions the present birth; and present Kamma, in combination with past Kamma, conditions the future. The present is the offspring of the past, and becomes, in turn. the parent of the future.
The actuality of the present needs no proof as it is self-evident. That of the past is based on memory and report, and that of the future on forethought and inference.
If we postulate a past, a present and a future life, then we are at once faced with the problem “What is the ultimate origin of life?”
One school, in attempting to solve the problem, postulates a first cause, whether as a cosmic force or as an Almighty Being. Another school denies a first cause for, in common experience, the cause ever becomes the effect and the effect becomes the cause. In a circle of cause and effect a first cause  is inconceivable. According to the former, life has had a beginning, according to the latter, it is beginningless. In the opinion of some the conception of a first cause is as ridiculous as a round triangle.
One might argue that life must have had a beginning in the infinite past and that beginning or the First Cause is the Creator.
In that case there is no reason why the same demand may not be made of this postulated Creator.
With respect to this alleged First Cause men have held widely different views. In interpreting this First Cause, Paramātma, Brahma, Isvara, Jehovah, God, the Almighty, Allah, Supreme Being, Father in Heaven, Creator, Order of Heaven, Prime Mover, Uncaused Cause, Divine Essence, Chance, Pakati, Padhana are some significant terms employed by certain religious teachers and philosophers.
Hinduism traces the origin of life to a mystical Paramatma from which emanate all Ātmas or souls that transmigrate from existence to existence until they are finally reabsorbed in Paramatma. One might question whether there is any possibility for these reabsorbed Ātmas for a further transmigration.
Christianity, admitting the possibility of an ultimate origin, attributes everything to the fiat of an Almighty God.
“Whoever,” as Sohopenhaeur says, “regards himself as having come out of nothing must also think that he will again become nothing, for that an eternity has passed before he was, and then a second eternity had begun, through which he will never cease to be, is a monstrous thought.
“Moreover, if birth is the absolute beginning, then death must be the absolute end; and the assumption that man is made out of nothing, leads necessarily to the assumption that death is his absolute end. ”
“According to the Theological principles,” argues Spencer Lewis, “man is created arbitrarily and without his desire, and at the moment of creation is either blessed or unfortunate, noble or depraved, from the first step in the process of his physical creation to the moment of his last breath, regardless of his individual desires, hopes, ambitions, struggles or devoted prayers. Such is theological fatalism.
“The doctrine that all men are sinners and have the essential sin of Adam is a challenge to justice, mercy, love and omnipotent fairness.”
“If we are to assume that anybody has designedly set this wonderful universe going, it is perfectly clear to me that he is no more entirely benevolent and just, in any intelligible sense of the words, than that he is malevolent and unjust.”
According to Einstein:–
“If this being (God) is omnipolent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also his work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an Almighty Being?
“In giving out punishments and rewards, He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to him?”
According to Charles Bradlaugh:
“The existence of evil is a terrible stumbling block to the Theist. Pain, misery, crime, poverty confront the advocate of eternal goodness, and challenge with unanswerable potency his declaration of Deity as all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful.”
Commenting on human suffering and God, Prof. J. B. S. Haldane writes:–
“Either suffering is needed to perfect human character, or God is not Almighty. The former theory is disproved by the fact that some people who have suffered very little but have been fortunate in their ancestry and education have very fine characters. The objection to the second is that it is only in connection with the universe as a whole that there is any intellectual gap to be filled by the postulation of a deity. And a creator could presumably create whatever he or it wanted. ”
In “Despair,” a poem of his old age, Lord Tennyson thus boldly attacks God, who, as recorded in Isaiah, says ?”I make peace and create evil. ”
“What! I should call on that infinite Love that has served us so well?Infinite cruelty, rather, that made everlasting hell.Made us, foreknew us, foredoomed us, and does what he will with his own.Better our dead brute mother who never has heard us groan.”
Dogmatic writers of old authoritatively declared that God created man after his own image. Some modern thinkers state, on the contrary, that man created God after his own image.  With the growth of civilization man’s conception of God grows more and more refined. There is at present a tendency to substitute this personal God by an impersonal God.
Voltaire states that God is the noblest creation of man.
It is however impossible to conceive of such an omnipotent, omnipresent being, an epitome of everything that is good — either in or outside the universe.
Modern science endeavours to tackle the problem with its limited systematized knowledge. According to the scientific standpoint, we are the direct products of the sperm and ovum cells provided by our parents. But science does not give a satisfactory explanation with regard to the development of the mind, which is infinitely more important than the machinery of man’s material body, Scientists, while asserting “Omne vivum ex vivo” “all life from life” maintain that mind and life evolved from the lifeless.
Now from the scientific standpoint we are absolutely parent-born. Thus our lives are necessarily preceded by those of our parents and so on. In this way life is preceded by life until one goes back to the first protoplasm or colloid. As regards the origin of this first protoplasm or colloid, however, scientists plead ignorance.
What is the attitude of Buddhism with regard to the origin of life?
At the outset it should be stated that the Buddha does not attempt to solve all the ethical and philosophical problems that perplex mankind. Nor does He deal with speculations and theories that tend neither to edification nor to enlightenment. Nor does He demand blind faith from His adherents anent a First Cause. He is chiefly concerned with one practical and specific problem — that of suffering and its destruction, all side issues are completely ignored.
On one occasion a Bhikkhu named Malunkyaputta, not content to lead the Holy Life, and achieve his Emancipation by degrees, approached the Buddha and impatiently demanded an immediate solution of some speculative problems with the threat of discarding the robes if no satisfactory answer was given.
“Lord,” he said, “these theories have not been elucidated, have been set aside and rejected by the Blessed One — whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or infinite. If the Blessed One will elucidate these questions to me, then I will lead the Holy Life under Him. If he will not, then I will abandon the precepts and return to the lay life.
“If the Blessed One knows that the world is eternal, let the Blessed One elucidate to me that the world is eternal; if the Blessed One knows that the world is not eternal, let the Blessed One elucidate that the world is not eternal — in that case, certainly, for one who does not know and lacks the insight, the only upright thing is to say: I do not know, I have not the insight.”
Calmly the Buddha questioned the erring Bhikkhu whether his adoption of the Holy Life was in any way conditional upon the solution of such problems.
“Nay, Lord,” the Bhikkhu replied.
The Buddha then admonished him not to waste time and energy over idle speculations detrimental to his moral progress, and said:
“Whoever, Malunkyaputta, should say, ‘I will not lead the Holy Life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One elucidates these questions to me’ — that person would die before these questions had ever been elucidated by the Accomplished One.
“It is as if a person were pierced by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and relatives were to procure a surgeon, and then he were to say. ‘I will not have this arrow taken out until I know the details of the person by whom I was wounded, nature of the arrow with which I was pierced, etc.’ That person would die before this would ever be known by him.
“In exactly the same way whoever should say, ‘I will not lead the Holy Life under the Blessed One until He elucidated to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or infinite. . .’ That person would die before these questions had ever been elucidated by the Accomplished One.
“If it be the belief that the world is eternal, will there be the observance of the Holy Life? In such a case — No! If it be the belief that the world is not eternal, will there be the observance of the Holy Life? In that case also — No! But, whether the belief be that the world is eternal or that it is not eternal, there is birth, there is old age, there is death, the extinction of which in this life itself I make known.
I have not revealed whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or infinite. Why have I not revealed these? Because these are not profitable, do not concern the bases of holiness, are not conducive to aversion, to passionlessness, to cessation, to tranquility, to intuitive wisdom, to enlightenment or to Nibbana. Therefore I have not revealed these. 
According to Buddhism, we are born from the matrix of action (Kammayoni). Parents merely provide us with a material layer. Therefore being precedes being. At the moment of conception, it is Kamma that conditions the initial consciousness that vitalizes the foetus. It is this invisible Kammic energy, generated from the past birth, that produces mental phenomena and the phenomena of life in an already extant physical phenomena, to complete the trio that constitutes man.
Dealing with the conception of beings, the Buddha states:
“Where three are found in combination, there a germ of life is planted. If mother and father come together, but it is not the mother’s fertile period, and the ‘being-to-be-born’ (gandhabba) is not present, then no germ of life is planted. If mother and father come together, and it is the mother’s fertile period, but the ‘being-to-be-born’ is not present then again no germ of life is planted. If mother and father come together and it is the mother’s fertile period, and the ‘being-to-be-born’ is present, then by the conjunction of these three, a germ of life is there planted. ”
Here Gandhabba (= gantabba) does not mean “a class of devas said to preside over the process of conception”  but refers to a suitable being ready to be born in that particular womb. This term is used only in this particular connection, and must not be mistaken for a permanent soul.
For a being to be born here, somewhere a being must die. The birth of a being, which strictly means the arising of the Aggregates (khandhanam putubhvo), or psycho-physical phenomena in this present life, corresponds to the death of a being in a past life; just as, in conventional terms, the rising of the sun in one place means the setting of the sun in another place. This enigmatic statement may be better understood by imagining life as a wave and not as a straight line. Birth and death are only two phases of the same process. Birth precedes death, and death, on the other hand, precedes birth. This constant succession of birth and death connection with each individual life-flux constitutes what is technically known as Samsara — recurrent wandering.
What is the ultimate origin of life?
The Buddha positively declares:
“Without, cognizable beginning is this Samsara. The earliest point of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and fettered by craving, wander and fare on, is not to be perceived. ”
This life-stream flows ad infinitum, as long as it is fed with the muddy waters of ignorance and craving. When these two are completely cut off, then only does the life-stream cease to flow; rebirth ends, as in the case of Buddhas and Arahants. A first beginning of this life-stream cannot be determined, as a stage cannot be perceived when this life force was not fraught with ignorance and craving.
It should be understood that the Buddha has here referred merely to the beginning of the life stream of living beings. It is left to scientists to speculate on the origin and the evolution of the universe.
UNFORGIVING CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION
By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake
A forest is much more than a group of trees. Clearing of forests for agriculture has been an age-old practice. We accepted chena cultivation as a traditional livelihood of the rural poor. Secondly, we had ample forestlands throughout the country. Another cause of deforestation is development activities, besides logging and gem mining in some cases. Because of these acts, either legal or illegal, our forest cover has fast dwindled posing many serious environmental issues.
According to the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2015, the estimated forest area in the world equaled 31 per cent of the earth’s surface area, most of which was located in tropical areas such as Africa, South America, and Indonesia. Today, according to experts, we have only 17 per cent of the forest cover left in this country.
People are the ultimate managers of forests and the higher their level of knowledge and awareness, the better their ability to conserve forests. It is unfortunate that recent incidents prove that people are not serious about the environment.
We are living in an era where climate change has become a major challenge. Ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, mainly by the burning of fossil fuels has caused global warming, which renders myriads of bitter consequences. In the meantime, deforestation has been identified as the second major driver of climate change. It is forests which can help us reduce the excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere playing a leading role in the fight against global warming. Forests act as a carbon sink and probably the only entity that is capable of carbon regulation. On average, the amount of oxygen produced annually by an acre of trees is about 2,500 kg while the annual oxygen consumption of a person is 750 kg.
Trees relieve people from stress and make them more comfortable while enhancing their well-being. Without trees, the world would not be beautiful and appealing. The earth has millions of different varieties of trees. Many trees do not remain the same throughout the year. When we plant a tree, we are emotionally attached to it and keen to observe its growth day by day. Sometimes we plant a tree to mark a special event and it may be our birthday, the day of marriage, or the demise of a close relative. Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which is used to measure happiness and well-being of its people. One of the four pillars of GNH is environmental conservation.
Even our tourism industry, which is one of the main sectors that bring us foreign exchange, vastly depends on the natural beauty of this country. If we fail to maintain its unique natural beauty, the country will cease to be a tourist attraction, jeopardising the industry.
The contribution of trees to the ecosystem is massive. Trees improve air quality by trapping solid particles, retard rainfall-runoff and thereby mitigate floods, increase groundwater recharge, and preserve soil by preventing erosion. The sustenance of our river system largely depends on the central forest area being the source of water. Not only forests but even green areas such as shrubs and turfs inside forests also contribute to the ecosystem immensely. Although they receive less attention, they can filter air by removing dust and absorb many pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.
Forests are home to wildlife. The same is true of humans and the survival of humans is also dependent on forest conservation.
The way forward
If the concept of vertical development is followed, not only in major cities but also in other areas, the acquisition of forest areas for human settlements can be significantly minimised as high rise buildings will obviate the need for many acres of land. Modern technology has to be used in agriculture together with methods that could contribute to high water use efficiencies to increase productivity rather than expanding agricultural land areas. Human settlements in less developed rural areas should be discouraged. There are large amounts of barren lands, including abandoned paddy lands, that could be used for afforestation if a proper mechanism is put in place to compensate landowners. These are several effective strategies which should be implemented sooner than later as policy interventions on all fronts are required to protect our existing forests. If the country’s forest cover shrinks further, we will all have to face bitter consequences sooner than expected.
(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specialising in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)
HYPOCRICY OF OUR COLONIAL MASTER!
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Irrespective of what happens at the UNHRC, there is one thing we should never forget; the arrogance and hypocrisy of our colonial master! The behaviour of the British Government is despicable. The UK has taken from the ‘nouveau-evil empire’––the US––the task of pressuring member nations of the UNHRC to vote against Sri Lanka! All this for the crime of defeating terrorism! Is this what is expected of the so-called leader of the Commonwealth?
It is a shame that the British representatives have not read Mathias Keittle’s excellent, well-reasoned piece “A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka” which appeared in The Island on 28 February.
Considering there are allegations that some friends of high-ranking politicians of the British government made a mint from Covid-19 epidemic, one begins to wonder whether the Tiger-rump has helped some of them line their pockets. After all, it cannot simply be for a few votes. It will be interesting to see if the British government can counter what Matias Keittle so emphatically stated:
“Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.”
My concerns perhaps are confirmed by what Lord Naseby, a government peer sitting in the British House of Lords, has stated. The following from the statement by Lord Naseby published in The Island of 5 March under the title, ‘Lord Naseby asks why Adele not prosecuted in the UK for child recruitment’, surely, is an indictment on the British government:
“I am astounded how the UK or any other Member of the Core Group can possibly welcome the High Commissioner’s so called ‘detailed and most comprehensive report on Sri Lanka’ when it is riddled with totally unsubstantiated allegations and statements completely ignoring the huge effort to restore infrastructure and rehouse displaced Tamils and Muslims, who lost their homes due to the Tamil Tigers.
“Furthermore, I question how the UK government knowingly and apparently consciously withheld vital evidence from the despatches of the UK military attaché Col. Gash. Evidence I obtained from a Freedom of Information request, resisted by the Foreign Office at every stage for over two years. These dispatches from an experienced and dedicated senior British officer in the field makes it clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces at every level acted and behaved appropriately, trying hard not to harm any Tamil civilians who were held by the Tamil Tigers as hostages in a human shield.
“This conscious decision totally undermines the UK‘s standing as an objective Leader of the Core Group; made even worse by the impunity for not prosecuting the LTTE leader living in the UK, largely responsible for recruiting, training and deploying over 5,000 Child Soldiers – a real War Crime. It is time that the UK Government acknowledges and respects the recommendations of the Paranagama Commission, which involved several international expert advisers, including from the UK – Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Rodney Dixon QC and Major General John Holmes.”
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has strived so hard to strengthen the Commonwealth of Nations so that the UK could successfully transform itself from a colonial master to a friend of the past colonies but Her Majesty’s Government seems to be behaving in a manner to undermine Her efforts. Her Majesty’s vision of friendship and cooperation seems to be countered by the bully-boy tactics of politicians.
The excellent editorial “Should SL follow UK?” in The Island on 24 February concluded with the following:
“Anything Westminster goes here. It is the considered opinion of the defenders of democracy that Sri Lanka should emulate the UK in protecting human rights. What if Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of the UK’s book in handling alleged war crimes? In November 2020, the British Parliament passed a bill to prevent ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of military personnel and veterans over war crimes allegations. This law seeks to grant the British military personnel, who have committed war crimes, an amnesty to all intents and purposes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ascertained evidence of a pattern of war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers against Iraqi detainees, some of whom were even raped and beaten to death. Curiously, the ICC said in December 2020, it would not take action against the perpetrators! Too big to be caught?”
the UK may argue that it has to protect military personnel against vexatious prosecutions. If so, they should understand the position of Sri Lanka. We know that the US administrations, be it under Obama, Trump or Biden, run more on brawn than brain but we expect better from the UK. Why or why do they have to behave like a poodle of the US.
Is this not hypocrisy of the highest order? Shame on you, the British government!
ASIAN DEMONSTRATORS AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
The US was always a selective supporter of democracy, and now it is a diminished one.
By Ian Buruma
One month ago, in Myanmar, protesters against the military coup gathered around the United States Embassy in Yangon. They called on President Joe Biden to make the generals go back to their barracks and free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a big victory in the 2020 general election, which is why the generals, afraid of losing their privileges, seized power.
But is the US Embassy the best place to protest? Can the US President do anything substantial apart from expressing disapproval of the coup? The protesters’ hope for a US intervention shows that America’s image as the champion of global freedom is not yet dead, even after four years of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationism.
Demonstrators in Hong Kong last year, protesting against China’s harsh crackdown on the territory’s autonomy, even regarded Trump as an ally. He was erratically hostile to China, so the protesters waved the stars and stripes, hoping that America would help to keep them free from Chinese communist authoritarianism.
America’s self-appointed mission to spread freedom around the world has a long history. Many foolish wars were fought as a result. But US democratic idealism has been an inspiration to many as well. America long saw itself, in John F Kennedy’s words, as a country ‘engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind.’
As Hungarians found out when they rose up against the Soviet Union in 1956, words often prove to be empty. The Hungarian Revolution, encouraged by the US, was crushed after 17 days; the US did nothing to help those it had egged on.
Sometimes, however, freedom has been gained with American help, and not just against Hitler’s tyranny in Western Europe. During the 1980s, people in the Philippines and South Korea rebelled against dictatorships in huge demonstrations, not unlike those in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar in the last two years. So, of course, did people in the People’s Republic of China, where a 10-meter tall ‘Goddess of Democracy,’ modelled on the Statue of Liberty, was erected on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The Chinese demonstrations ended in a bloody disaster, but pro-democracy forces toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines and South Korea’s military regime. Support from the US was an important factor. In Taiwan, too, authoritarianism was replaced by democracy, again with some US assistance.
But what worked in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan is unlikely to work in Thailand, Hong Kong, or Myanmar. The main reason is that the former three countries were what leftists called ‘client states’ during the Cold War. Their dictators were ‘our dictators,’ protected by the US as anti-communist allies.
Propped up by American money and military largesse, they could continue to oppress their people, so long as the US saw communism as a global threat. Once China opened for business and Soviet power waned, they suddenly became vulnerable. Marcos was pressed on American TV to promise to hold a free and fair election. When he tried to steal the result, a US senator told him to ‘cut and cut cleanly.’ Marcos duly ran for his helicopter and ended up in exile in Hawaii.
Similarly, when South Korean students, supported by much of the middle-class, poured into the streets, angry not only with their military government, but with its US backer, America finally came down on the side of democracy. Dependent on American military protection, the generals had to listen when the US urged them to step aside.
The generals in Thailand and Myanmar have no reason to do likewise. Biden can threaten sanctions and voice his outrage. But with China willing to step in as Myanmar’s patron, the junta has no reason to worry very much (though the military has been wary of China up to now).
Thailand’s rulers, too, benefit from Chinese influence, and the country has a long history of playing one great power against another. And because Hong Kong is officially part of China, there is little any outside power can do to protect its freedoms, no matter how many American flags people wave in the streets.
Dependence on the US in Europe and Asia, and the clout that Americans held as a result, was sustained by the Cold War. Now, a new cold war is looming, this time with China. But US power has been greatly diminished since its zenith in the 20th century. Trust in American democracy has been eroded by the election of an ignorant narcissist who bullied traditional allies, and China is a more formidable power than the Soviet Union ever was. It is also vastly richer.
Countries in East and Southeast Asia still need US support for their security. As long as Japan is hindered from playing a leading military role, because of a tainted past and a pacifist constitution, the US will continue to be the main counterweight to China’s increasing dominance. But as Thailand’s deft balancing of powers demonstrates, US allies are unlikely to become ‘client states’ in the way some were before. Even the South Koreans are careful not to upset their relations with China. The US is far; China is near.
This pattern is to be expected. US dominance can’t last forever, and Asian countries, as well as Europeans, should wean themselves from total dependence on a not-always-dependable power to protect them. Being a ‘client state’ can be humiliating. Yet, the day may come when some people, somewhere, might miss Pax Americana, when the US was powerful enough to push out the unwanted rascals.
(Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.)
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