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Editorial

What Next?

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In an opinion piece we run today, Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda, an accomplished scientist who had served the Tea Research Institute in a senior capacity and had also been the Director of the Coconut Research Institute and later Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Rome, has asked the question “What Next?” This relates to the Easter bombs that massacred 279 people in Catholic churches and high-end hotels about two years ago, permanently disabled many and injured many more. These suicide attacks occurred despite credible intelligence that was either ignored or not accorded deserved priority. The conventional wisdom is that these blatant acts of terrorism that attracted worldwide attention could have been avoided if only the available information was acted upon by those responsible for national security and loudly trumpeted allegiance to “good governance.”

Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected in November 2019 and the government headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that came into office a few months later campaigned on platforms largely focusing on the Easter terror and the failures of their predecessors to avert the massacre. At the time of the last presidential election, a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCOI), appointed by then President Maithripala Sirisena in September 2019, was already at work probing these terrorist attacks. Its final report following two interim reports in December 2019 and March 2020 was presented to the president on Feb. 1. But for reasons that have not been properly disclosed these reports were not published or made available even to Parliament despite a great deal of pressure that was applied. Such non-disclosure naturally triggered public suspicion that something was being hidden.

The reports were said to contain “sensitive material,” presumably relating to national security that could not be disclosed. Eventually one volume containing conclusions and recommendations was presented to Parliament but with no summary of evidence. The Attorney General is being asked to prosecute those found culpable but without all the recorded evidence at his disposal. “How can he do so?” is a fair question. He has called for such information and on Friday his office confirmed that the remaining 22 volumes had been made available to him following a request he made to the Secretary to the President after he was given only one volume. The whole business is shrouded in secrecy and there has been no clear indication or explanation on why this is so. The report, or parts of which have been tabled, was debated in Parliament last week. The main criticism made in the legislature as well as in the wider public domain is that the mastermind behind one of the worst acts of terrorism the world has recently seen has not been identified.

Whether the evidence that was presented to the PCOI headed by a judge of the Court of Appeal, assisted by another Appeal Court judge, a retired Court of Appeal judge, a retired High Court judge and a former secretary to the Ministry of Justice was insufficient to reach that conclusion though not known is likely. Many believe that if Zaharan Hashim of the National Thowfeek Jamaath was the mastermind, he would not have killed himself in the first wave of attacks. This theory has been widely propounded but whether the commission agreed with it or not is not clear. During the months when the PCOI sat, most of it in public but with evidence led in camera at the request of witnesses or at the commission’s own discretion, what emerged clearly was that there were serious lapses within the state intelligence agencies and the tendency of its senior officers to indulge in finger-pointing to cover their own backs. Even cursory readers of news reports of the commission’s proceeding reached that conclusion.

The former president has flatly denied that he ever received intelligence warnings but the commission has concluded that the “balance of probability” is that he had been provided intelligence reports. The head of national intelligence has been found to have “diluted” Indian intelligence. The PCOI has recommended that the Attorney General “considers” instituting criminal proceedings against the former president who was only briefly present during the parliamentary debate last week but did not participate in it. Naturally the opposition stated that “it would have been good” if he was there (presumably for a longer time). But Sirisena has not demonstrated in his long political career, capped by the presidency he won under fortuitous circumstances as a common opposition candidate, that he had the mettle to confront the kind of situation he would have faced.

A great deal of public money has been spent in this effort to get to the bottom of a crime that has deeply scarred this nation. But whether that objective had been achieved, judging by what the people know so far from sections of the PCOI report that have emerged in the public domain, is not known. Most people believe that the total picture has not been revealed by what was obviously a painstaking inquiry. The commission report, although not all embracing, cannot be considered a total failure. Like the proverbial curate’s egg, it must be good and bad in parts. However that be, there must be much in it that would be useful to rectify existing deficiencies and keeping public figures, be they political or official, on their toes.

But whether the primary object of what has been attempted has been achieved can only be seen if the labours of the commissioners have resulted in the unearthing enough material to bring the perpetrators of the Easter horror to justice. Given that the successful prosecution rate in this country is woefully small, that seems improbable if not impossible. So we go back to the beginning of asking “What next?”



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Editorial

When mutts try to be docs

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Saturday 8th May, 2021

The police are busy, these days, arresting, as they do, scores of ordinary people daily for violating the Covid-19 protocol. They are shown on television bundling offenders into police vehicles. They deserve public plaudits for taking such swift action against the quarantine law violators, who are a threat to others. But, unfortunately, these laws do not apply to the ruling party politicians.

Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge stands accused of having had the pandemic-related restrictions in Piliyandala removed against the advice of health professionals. No sooner had the Piliyandala police area been isolated, on Sunday, owing to a rapid spread of Covid-19 than it was reopened reportedly at the behest of Lokuge. Only the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) has the authority to impose and lift such restrictions, based on recommendations made by the Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) in the areas concerned. DGHS Dr. Asela Gunawardana insists he did not have restrictions in Piliyandala lifted.

The government, as a face-saving exercise, sent a team to assess the Covid-19 situation in Piliyandala; the latter has decided that there was no need for a lockdown in the area! The highest number of Covid-19 cases in the Colombo District has been reported from Piliyandala during the past several days. That was the reason why the MoH and the PHIs concerned had the area isolated. Only the naïve may have expected the government team to reveal the truth and incur the wrath of the powers by embarrassing them. The issue, on the other hand, was not whether the situation in Piliyandala warranted a lockdown; instead, it was why the restrictions imposed in the area had been arbitrarily lifted by someone other than the DGHS.

The thinking of the present-day rulers seems to be that if any illegal practice cannot be stopped, the solution is to legalise it. This is what they did when they were in power previously. The MPs sold their duty-free vehicle permits illegally, and when the racket got out of hand, the then Rajapaksa government legalised the sale of permits! Since the destruction of forests is illegal, the SLPP leaders have removed some forests from the purview of the Forest Department. Now, any government backer can encroach on forestlands on the pretext of engaging in traditional agriculture!

Likewise, since the likes of Lokuge cannot be reined in, will the government consider changing the current health regulations to empower its provincial potentates to countermand decisions taken by health professionals responsible for pandemic control? These politicians consider themselves more knowledgeable than medical professionals, and their bosses take their opinion seriously and defend them while refusing to take on board the advice of educated, intelligent ministers such as Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle. Therefore, a wag says the government should consider awarding medical degrees to its omniscient MPs and ministers and put them in charge of the pandemic control programme. Thereafter, the anti-Covid campaign in areas south of Colombo could be carried out under the supervision of Lokuge, who can also be appointed State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control while medical consultant, Dr. Fernandopulle, who currently holds that portfolio but cannot have herself heard on matters concerning public health, is made the Minister of Transport. This should be child’s play for a government that readily intervenes to have court cases against its politicians withdrawn, abolishes import duties on some commodities and tries to set up gyms countrywide amidst a crippling health crisis to help its financiers make a killing. One may recall that during the previous Rajapaksa government ‘Dr. Mervyn Silva’ took over the dengue control campaign in Kelaniya and even tied a health worker to a tree in full view of the police for being late for a meeting he had called.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is known as an allegory of the Bolshevik revolution and the situation in Russia thereafter, but we wonder whether Orwell foresaw what would happen in this former British colony, decades later, when he wrote that dystopian novella, especially where the proclamation by the Pigs that control the government in the enthrallingly satirical story is concerned: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ Nothing exemplifies this ‘commandment’ more than the manner in which this country is being run by those who came into power, promising a utopia.

 

 

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Editorial

Minister in china shop, and big ego trips

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Friday 7th May, 2021

Most government politicians are in the news, always for the wrong reasons. Minister Gamini Lokuge has not only endangered the lives of people but also caused what remains of the government’ popularity to plummet further by having Covid-19 travel restrictions in the Piliyandala area arbitrarily lifted recently. We thought the 20th Amendment to the Constitution would restore the dictatorial powers of only the Executive President, but it looks as if it had led to the emergence of dictators at the provincial level as well. These self-important politicians who countermand vital decisions of health professionals tasked with controlling the pandemic must be kept on a tight leash.

Close on the heels of Minister Lokuge’s high-handed action came a government announcement that the Cabinet had approved a proposal for setting up a large number of gyms countrywide. One wonders whether the ruling politicians have taken leave of their senses.

There is no gainsaying that physical fitness goes a long way towards warding off diseases and battling them. Not everyone can afford modern gym facilities and coaching, and the public will gain tremendously if they could be made available free or charge. Public walking tracks and recreational parks built under the previous Rajapaksa administration have stood the ordinary people in good stead. But the government must get its expenditure priorities right at this hour of crisis.

There is a pressing need to rationalise state expenditure on account of the current national health crisis; projects that can wait must be put on hold immediately. The country must remain maniacally focused on beating the runaway virus, which has brought even the developed world to its knees.

The government has sought to justify its irrational spending by claiming that it has allocated enough funds for the fight against Covid-19, but the truth is otherwise. The country is without enough PCR machines to detect infections, and genome sequencing equipment to identify new variants of the virus. The number of PCR tests conducted daily remains woefully low.

Aggressive testing is a prerequisite for curbing the spread of the pandemic. The state hospital network is under severe strain, and all pandemic treatment centres are bursting at the seams. The procurement of vaccines has become a problem. The poor are crying out for relief. This situation has come about mostly due to lack of funds.

Ideally, the country should go into another round of lockdowns if the rapid tranmission of the virus is to be halted and the number of infections brought down to a manageable level, as public health experts argue. But the government is wary of adopting this method, given the heavy socio-economic costs it entails; if the country is to remain open safely, there are some essential facilities that must be provided to the public.

The public transport sector should be given priority. The Covid-19 health regulations require the number of passengers in buses and trains to be drastically reduced so that physical distancing could be maintained. But there are not enough buses and trains, and the available ones are overcrowded. Private buses cannot be expected to run at a loss, and, in fact, it is not fair to force them do so. The government has to step in to solve this problem, but the fleet of state-owned bus service alone cannot cater to the demand. Everybody realises the value of the Sri Lanka Transport Board during crisis situations, but nobody cares to do anything to develop it. Thus, instead of procuring new aircraft and fitness equipment, the government ought to purchase buses to enable workers to commute safely so that the economy will not contract further.

There has emerged a pressing need for more ambulances for Suwaseriya, which has proved to be a huge success. Sri Lankans must be grateful to India, which made this service a reality, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dr. Harsha de Silva, MP, who fought quite a battle to set it up, under the previous government, amidst unfair criticism from those who are currently in power. The procurement of more ambulances to transport the sick ought to take precedence over that of fitness centres and choppers.

The government keeps faulting the public for lack of co-operation to beat the virus. True, people have to follow the Covid-19 protocol without leaving the task of battling the pandemic entirely to the health authorities. The government must also act responsibly; it must get its expenditure priorities right instead of embarking on ego-boosting projects, and rein in its unruly politicians who have become a nuisance to the public as well as health professionals.

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Editorial

Warning shot from Darley Road

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Thursday 6th May, 2021

The SLFP, which fears that legal action will be taken against its leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena, over the Easter Sunday carnage, has fired a shot across the SLPP’s bow, in the form of a veiled threat to go it alone at future elections. Its trepidation is understandable. Former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando have already been indicted for murder, etc., in the Colombo High Court as they failed to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite several prescient warnings.

Pressure is mounting on the government to refrain from shielding Sirisena and ensure that he is also prosecuted. The SLFP seems to fear that the government may throw its leader to the wolves when push comes to shove. There is no love lost between Sirisena and the Rajapaksas; they are only a bunch of strange bedfellows.

A split in the SLPP coalition is the last thing the government wants at this juncture; the SLFP has 14 MPs elected on the SLPP ticket. An SLFP pullout will not bring down the government, but the SLPP will be hard put to muster a two-thirds majority in the House in such an eventuality.

What are the issues that the SLFP is likely to use against the government in case of a split? One could guess the answer to this question from what Senior Vice President of the SLFP Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa told the media in Kandy the other day.

Prof. Piyadasa did not mince his words when he said that the biggest scam in recent times—the sugar tax fraud—had happened under the current government. Mentioning the VAT fraud and the bond scams under previous regimes, he emphasised that the sugar tax fraud was the biggest of them all. The SLFP had come forward to address corruption and irregularities under the present dispensation as it did not want the corrupt UNP to make political capital out of them, he added. Claiming that the SLFP was under pressure from its ranks and file to contest future elections alone, he said his party’s goal was to form an SLFP government.

So, the SLFP’s battle plan is now clear. If the SLPP tries to throw Sirisena overboard, the SLFP will not only pull out of the ruling coalition but also launch an all-out political campaign against it. It has already identified the key issues to be flogged, and prominent among them is the mega sugar tax fraud.

Having made use of the bond scams issue to destroy the UNP, which failed to win a single seat at the last general election, Sirisena is apparently planning to mete out the same treatment to the Rajapaksa government; he will use the fraudulent reduction of duty on sugar, among other things, for that purpose, in case the SLPP does not protect his interests. Sirisena may be having some more cards up his sleeve. He may not have used some of the damning information he had ascertained on the present-day rulers, while he was the President, because he did not want to burn bridges; he later joined forces with them. But he may not hesitate to use such information, if any, against them in case of being jettisoned.

Prof. Piyadasa has also told the media that other SLPP constituents are also disgruntled and having meetings to discuss their grievances. One may recall that they met at the SLFP headquarters a few weeks ago. The leaders of some SLPP constituents have likened the situation in the government to what the late Felix Dias Bandaranaike created in the United Front administration (1970-77); he was accused of driving the leftists away, and debilitating the SLFP-led coalition. The SLPP dissenters have stopped short of naming the grandee who, they say, is doing a Felix in the government, but their patience is obviously wearing thin. Perhaps, the SLFP is toying with the idea of forging an alliance with these SLPP constituents one day. This may be a tall order; the SLFP runs the risk of losing some of its MPs to the SLPP if it chooses to vote with its feet. But the government will be weakened both politically and electorally in the event of a split.

There seems to be no end to the problems Sirisena causes to the Rajapaksas, and vice versa!

 

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