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Wigneswaran’s tribalist shenanigans

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By ROHANA R. WASALA

The feature article: ‘False historical perspectives of Wigneswaran’ jointly written by Rienzie and Kusum Wijetilleke (The Island of September 4, 2020) provided the cue for the following comments. The Wijetillekes’ article makes interesting reading, though Wigneswaran’s tribal perspectives are hardly worth talking about, except for the danger of their acquiring a false validity due to halo effect (for, after all, Wigneswaran is a retired Supreme Court judge).

His attempt to falsify the long history of the country of the Sinhalese (the unrecorded part of it is much longer than the recorded part, as being archaeologically established at present) is like trying to chip off a splinter from the Sigiriya rock with his bare head. Be that as it may, the more recent post-independence history of our country is more relevant to the point, I think. The young people today may or may not know that, before our country was made a republic by their heroic parents and grandparents in 1972, our country had been officially regarded as a ‘dominion’ (i.e. ‘a semi-independent state’ under the British Crown) since 1948, the year of independence. So, it was a monarchy until then under the British monarch locally represented by an appointed official called ‘the Governor General’.

In terms of the 1972 Republican Constitution, the last was replaced by a figurehead president. A few years later, the currently operative 1978 Constitution created the post of executive president. But the official naming of the country as ‘Sri Lanka’ in 1972 was a shortsighted, though significant, change introduced as a novelty. The people were heroic; but the leaders were not wise enough to retain the traditional name/s of the island, which were the formal ‘Lanka’ or the informal ‘Lankawa’ (for the Sinhalese majority, and its Tamil version ‘Ilankei’ for the Tamil speaking minorities) and ‘Ceylon’ for foreigners and the English speaking local elite. The important point is that ‘Ceylon’ was a derivation from ‘Sinhale’ (the Land of the Sinhalese), which had been the historic name of the country from time immemorial until 1815. The interior part of the island which had remained independent of the British, known as the Kandyan Kingdom, was still called ‘Sinhale’, while the surrounding littoral part under British imperial occupation was identified as ‘Ceylon’, which means that, actually, the whole island was a single entity known as Sinhale/Ceylon. 

In their opening paragraph, the writers express the view that ‘Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s recent comments regarding racial and religious politics were most timely. In a climate where religious leaders seek to become political leaders, to hear the Archbishop state so unequivocally that religion and language should not be the basis for a political party is ‘at least mildly reassuring’ OK. But why only ‘at least mildly reassuring’? From my point of view, the Archbishop, who abhors divisive politics, is putting his finger on what is ailing the Sri Lankan body politic today: racial and religious politics and we know what the parties are that depend on race and religion issues.

But the writers seem to have mixed up or equated with each other the extremists following racial and religious politics, and whom they call ‘religious leaders seeking to become political leaders’ (by which they probably mean the three monks who are currently engaged in an unseemly struggle over a national list seat in parliament won by a certain political party, or all monks including the three, who have been agitating against a number of longstanding issues affecting the majority community, the Buddhist establishment, and the unitary status of Sri Lanka, which are aspects of a single entity, but whose approach is apolitical.

 If the writers mean by ‘a climate where religious leaders seek to become political leaders’ the handful of vocal Buddhist monks who are raising a voice for rescuing the country from the aforementioned anomalies, and from what the Archbishop himself is denouncing (pretty much the same as the issues that the former are raising), they need to correct their terminology. These monks cannot be identified as ‘religious’ leaders among Buddhists. The Buddhists’ religious leaders are the Nayake and Maha Nayake monks, who are what the Archbishop is among the Christians. The activist monks feel obliged to do what they are doing because the Maha Nayakes are not seen (as clearly as the Archbishop for some reason) to be doing for the Buddhists what the Archbishop is doing for the Catholics. (The Archbishop is trying to ensure that the government fulfills its obligations to the Catholics for whom he is responsible as their ordained leader, without stooping to politics; but we know that his concern is for the welfare of all Sri Lankans without discrimination. Buddhists also felt protected under his moral leadership in the critical aftermath of the April 21 bombings, because he had won their trust as he had already repeatedly stressed the vital importance of preserving the age-old Buddhist religious cultural heritage our country). The monk-politician-centred episode that is being currently staged should be regarded as the last flicker of the culturally embarrassing Buddhist-monks-in-parliament politics novelty introduced in 2004, which hardly survived the few years of its experimental stage. 

Talking about racial politics, the enduring nationalism that the first prime minister (of post-colonial, at least nominally independent, Sri Lanka) D. S. Senanayake championed was Ceylonese nationalism. That’s why, asked by the Soulbury Commissioners how many Tamils he wanted to have in his cabinet, he replied without hesitation, as H. A .J. Hulugalla, his biographer recorded, ‘I don’t mind the number if they act as Ceylonese’, a non-racist attitude that is still alive among the vast majority of the majority Sinhalese community; although it is not acknowledged by the few real racists who currently have sway among minority politicians. While D. S. Senanayake and other Sinhalese leaders were committed to non-communal nationalism, the racists among Tamil leaders opposed them. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike left the UNP to form his own party because he found the trust that his and party’s leader D.S. placed in the treacherous Tamil leaders was not being reciprocated by them. Bandaranaike understood that his boss’s expectation that they’d come round to accept his kind of Ceylonese nationalism was not going to be fulfilled. Because of this fact I see no justification for the writers’ apparent treatment of Sinhalese and Tamil leaders of the time as equally guilty of racist prejudice.

Bandaranaike, who was as much a Ceylonese nationalist as DS, was not wrong to speak in terms of the following in the then prevailing circumstances in mid-1950s, as quoted in the Wijetillekes’ article: “… the fears of the Sinhalese, I do not think can be brushed aside as completely frivolous. I believe there are a not inconsiderable number of Tamils in this country out of a population of 8 million. Then there are 40-50 million Tamil people in the adjoining country. What about all this Tamil literature, Tamil teachers, even films, papers and magazines? … I do not think there is an unjustified fear of the inexorable shrinking of the Sinhala language. It is a fear that cannot be brushed aside”. Bandaranaike was opposed by those who did not care about the existence of the native Sinhala and Tamil languages or about the serious anomalies that the Sinhalese majority suffered because they were Sinhalese. 

Maybe there were only 40-50 million Tamils in India (Tamil Nadu) then. But today, there are over 72 million there, and a several more millions of Tamils scattered across the globe. And some ethnic Tamils, not necessarily of Sri Lankan origin, occupy powerful positions in international bodies that can exert adverse influence on Sri Lanka if they wish, though this is unlikely as they are also originally from a non-violent, peaceful, cultural background. However, if unreasonable viewpoints are promoted among them against the beleaguered global minority that the Sinhalese are, it will be nothing short of something genocidal, because Sri Lankans are engulfed in much more dire circumstances than in the 1950s, being constantly threatened by potential exigencies that could become reality in the boiling geopolitical cauldron that is fast emerging in our region.

It is the sort of nationalism that DS believed in that inspires today’s nationalists. Recently, some bogus critics of the founder of the UNP have started promulgating the misconception that the word ‘national’ in the name ‘United National Party’ was divisive, because it was an erroneous recognition of the alleged presence of a plurality of ‘nations’ (based on race, religion, etc.) in Sri Lanka. Nothing could be further from the truth. This sort of thing is nothing but false propaganda spread by the few separatist racists there are and their opportunistic sympathisers. The UNP has been decimated in terms of parliamentary representation, but that is due to the inefficiency and lack of love for the country on the part of its ageing, narrowly self-seeking leaders. This affords a good chance for a vibrant young leadership to emerge who can bring the divided party together, ousting the current squabbling, leadership qualities lacking leaders, and forge it into a strong oppositional force that can work both with as well as against the SLPP government, to make Sri Lanka the kind of prosperous stable country that the traditional Guardians of the Nation, the Maha Sangha, are determined to help forge, with the cooperation of our other spiritual leaders like the Archbishop. This is an urgent need of the hour. The SLMC leader Hakeem’s justification, at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Attack, of a separate administrative unit for Tamil speaking Muslims in a part of the Eastern province is ominous. Are these purveyors of racial and religious politics seeking cooperation or confrontation with other Tamil speakers (Hindus)?

His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith urged the authorities a few days ago, at an annual religious service held at the Tewatta National Basilica Church at Ragama, to expose and punish, without any further delay or vacillation, the evil extremist forces and their agents who were actually behind the April 21 attacks that left 269 innocent persons killed and over 120 permanently disabled; who provided the perpetrators of those crimes financial and logistical support, he demanded to know. He was unequivocal in condemning religious extremists who believed in killing adherents of other faiths to affirm their faith in their own god. The Cardinal wanted the responsible persons at the highest level under the previous administration, not only the politicians but also the officials, to be dealt with according to the law for failing to prevent, at least in the name of humanity, those heinous crimes, even though they had been previously warned many times by intelligence agencies; and his incidental but no less urgent call for a ban on political parties based on religion and language, still reverberates in our ears.

For so boldly expressing his personal conviction regarding the subject, the Archbishop has already earned the deep respect and gratitude not only of Sri Lankan Catholics but also of ordinary Sri Lankans of other faiths as well, including the majority Buddhists, who are helpless victims of the oppressive trends set in motion by the policies of such parties and the sectarian religious movements behind them. 

The Archbishop’s call needs to be heeded by the leaders of the present administration who have been democratically elected by the pan-Sri Lankan electorate, with overwhelming majorities to rescue the country from, among other things, the undue pressures exerted on parliamentary decision-making by parties based on race and religion, which enjoyed their heyday during the Yahapalanaya, taking cover behind bogus reconciliation politics imposed on the country by external interventionist forces. However, this does not mean that the opposition must step aside and look on passively, leaving everything to be accomplished by the government.

The most recent triumph of nationalism that the patriotic people have achieved (in November 2019, and August 2020) under the SLPP transcends, in its reach, promise and potential, all the previous watershed moments arrived at in 1956, 1972, and 2009, which, unfortunately, were reversed by racists. The same reversal should not be allowed to happen this time. It should not be forgotten that, without the selfless exertions of the Buddhist monk activists, the nationalist triumph would never have been possible. The united Maha Sangha will remain the anchor sheet and guarantor of the wholesome unitary state of Sri Lanka. But that historic role of the monks is intrinsically non-political, and eminently compatible with the principles of modern secular democracy. The Maha Sangha have been the Guardians of the Nation without a break (even during periods of foreign invasion) ever since the official establishment of Buddha Sasana in the island by Arhant Mahinda Thera twenty-three centuries ago. Politicizing the Maha Sangha, despite the existence of the Maha Nayakes, is the surest way to undermine its power.



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Opinion

Monumental blunders paralysing Sri Lanka

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The late JR Jayawardena: Accomplished a disastrous programme of attacking the basic principles of democracy

Sri Lanka was hailed as a potential paradise, at the time it gained independence from British rule, in 1948. Sadly, after 73 years of misrule by the homegrown leaders, we are languishing as one of the poorest countries, on the verge of bankruptcy. It is worth probing into the past to identify what went wrong, and see whether even belatedly a course correction can be attempted. I will confine myself to the post-independence era, being born a “free man” just an year after that landmark event, but now just one of over 22 million citizens fully in debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of rupees each. The leaders that guided us towards this sorry state should bear the blame.

We are a nation with a rich heritage, an incomparable mix of multi-ethnic and multicultural diversity, adding colour and variety to the societal landscape. Our natural resources are known to be enormous, in proportion to the relatively small land area. Unfortunately, it appears that these are the very virtues that make the nation languish without progress on all fronts. By boasting incessantly about the glories of the past, without basing our efforts on those achievements for future progress, the nation is in an unenviable position. Bad economic planning with no long-term policies, political brinkmanship, and communal disharmony, created by shortsighted actions of the leaders, have been mainly responsible for our sorry plight. Unlike many other developing countries we have not had long-term plans, like a five year or a ten-year plan. With change of government, every few years, an entirely new “development plan” is instituted, discontinuing all good that was done by the predecessors.

From the very beginning, Sri Lankans were unable to reach a consensus for peaceful coexistence with the minorities. It is true the majority community had to re-establish its rightful position, after prolonged discriminative policies, during colonial rule. It is also true that the minorities all over the world tend to ask for more than their fair share. Yet our leaders were not far sighted enough to control popular sentiments, giving into majority demands to the dismay of others. The Sinhala Only policy after 1956 turned out to be one of the most disastrous. It showed the minorities, in no uncertain terms, that they will forever be second class citizens in their land of birth. That can be singled out as the most harmful event that initiated ethnic disharmony.

Free education has failed to adapt to present day needs, producing graduates and others who are not suited for productive employment. Educational reforms, to keep pace with the ongoing technological advances, are slow to come by. The arts stream, taking in a large proportion of undergraduates, continues to produce graduates with little prospect of employment. Eventually, the government is compelled to employ them in pensionable posts with little in return for development.

 

Masses in poverty

Democracy is considered as one of the best forms of governance. This is so only with an electorate with high literacy, good quality of life, everyone if not the vast majority above poverty line, and future prospects for peaceful existence guided by leaders with foresight and without greed for self-aggrandizement. In the absence of these vital components, democracy could be a recipe for chaos. This unfortunately has been the curse of Sri Lankans. Successive governments have failed to improve the quality of life of the people. Instead, it appears that the leaders would prefer to keep the masses in poverty, allowing the politicians to rule forever exploiting their misery. Though called a paradise blessed with vast natural resources and a manageable population, the country situated in a strategically important position in the Indian Ocean, all features ideal for rapid development, is cursed with a corrupt self-seeking leadership over so many decades since gaining independence.

The attacks on democracy started seriously with the postponement of elections in 1975, for two years. However, it was the advent of JR Jayawardena, as President of the Republic, in 1978, that was a watershed in the politics of the country. Here was a man people looked up to as a great democrat, with maturity, education and an upbringing in a respectable and economically sound family background. He had long term experience in politics, had actively participated in the independence struggle, and could stand shoulder to shoulder with any world leader. He did not have to worry about perpetuating a family dynasty and had only about 10 years to fulfill the great expectations of his people. He was given a thumping majority at the elections so that he could usher in an era of prosperity, a free and just society — his slogan for the election campaign, without any significant hindrance from the emasculated opposition.

Paradoxically, what he accomplished was a disastrous programme of attacking the basic principles of democracy. Those changes laid the groundwork for ongoing corruption and fraud by the politicians to this day, which we find almost impossible to extricate ourselves from, nearly half a century later. A new constitution, concentrating power in the hands of a president who could function above the laws of the country with immunity, was instituted in 1978, with hardly any public consultation. Removing the civic rights of the respected and well-loved lady Prime Minister, was an act of unimaginable vengeance, which could be considered as one of his worst acts. Removing Tamil members from parliament on the pretext of them not honouring the constitution, thus denying them the forum to air their grievances, was a major step that led to the escalation of terrorist activity. Obtaining signed but undated letters of resignation from the people’s representatives made them dummies, with no chance of giving independent opinions. He amended the constitution at will to suit his immediate petty needs. The Parliament, elected on the first past the post system was treated as if it was on proportional representation. The highly questionable referendum in 1982, to extend the life of the Parliament for another term, remains as one of the biggest black marks in parliamentary history.

 

Perks and priviges

Members of Parliament were given all perks and privileges to ensure that they were kept happy without hindering or questioning the President’s programme. Luxury duty free vehicles, residences in Colombo, even to those with private residences in the city, were among them. They themselves decide what their emoluments should be. The palatial official residences given to ministers, in the most fashionable areas in the city, makes one wonder whether we are living in a highly developed first world country. It is unimaginable that a life-long pension is granted after just five years of “service” (rather self-service) in Parliament, when an ordinary citizen has to toil for at least 20 years to earn a paltry pension.

The ex-presidents are given the choice of any residence in any part of Colombo for them and their spouses to live in retirement, until death. It is shameful that at least two of them still enjoy that facility even after they have returned to active politics. Why the government is obliged to provide office facilities and security details to even the widows of ex-presidents is beyond reason.

These measures have burdened our economy to such an extent that is impossible for a debt-ridden country like ours to bear. It is not possible to relieve ourselves from this burden, as current or future incumbents, are unlikely to be patriotic or generous enough to give them up. Opening the economy without any safeguards led to perpetuation of bribery and corruption. Whatever economic benefits from the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme, free trade zones and the like are far outweighed by the ongoing overbearing financial burdens described above. One wonders whether the main function of the Sri Lankan state is to maintain in comfort the past and present politicians and their families.

Interference with the judiciary, while professing a just and free society all the time, was most despicable. Residences of judges who gave adverse verdicts were stoned by their goons. This was taken to new low levels decades later, when a chief justice who gave a verdict unfavourable to the government was removed unconstitutionally, and more or less physically thrown out of her official residence. The one who replaced her was arbitrarily removed later. More recently, the amendment to the constitution that enabled the President to handpick the judges, will turn out to be the last nail in the coffin of an independent judiciary.

Youth unrest was simmering for some time. It was JRJ’s policies that created situations that led to the eruption of armed rebellions, both in the North and the South. The immense damage these did to the nation, on all fronts, domestically and internationally, is too well known to be dealt with in detail here, and is bound to plague the nation for a very long time. JRJ can be labeled as the leader who initiated the downfall of our democracy, despite having the full knowledge of how unbridled powers could derail the nation’s path to progress. The most unfortunate situation is that the leaders who followed, every one of them of a lesser predisposition, intellectually, have had no hesitation in using him as the benchmark to judge their own performance, and giving that as an excuse to justify their own antidemocratic and corrupt activities.

 

Unfortunate events

The unfortunate events of July 1983 were the beginning of the darkest period in the post independence era of this country. The cost in human and material terms of the ensuing civil war over nearly three decades is unimaginable. The Diaspora, that established themselves abroad as a consequence, continues to be an ever worsening international headache for the country. While winning the war in 2009 was a remarkable achievement, successive governments have failed to capitalize on that, and counter the international fallout regarding alleged human rights violations. Lack of a coherent policy in tackling this issue, compounded by very poor amateurish diplomatic efforts, is making the nation a “wanted criminal”. Political expediency blaming each other to remain in power is a continuing destructive saga.

With the entire country giving a sigh of relief by eliminating the terrorists in 2009, immediate action should have been taken to alleviate the suffering of the people in the North and East. A firm policy should have been developed to address whatever grievances that led to the rebellion in the first place. With the overwhelming popularity of the leadership, the Southern populace would have accepted whatever was offered by a hand of friendship to minorities. Most unfortunately, the war-winning political leadership was more interested in making use of the “victory” to perpetuate their dynasty in power forever. Towards this end the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists were encouraged in their divisive activities, further alienating the minorities. A golden opportunity for reconciliation was thus buried in political expediency.

Billions of dollars obtained as loans at commercial rates of interest, have been used for extravagant projects which do not bring in returns that would go towards paying them back. Now more loans are being taken, purely to service what has been obtained already. Caught in this vicious cycle, the nation goes down an abysmal path towards financial bankruptcy in the near future.

The North is languishing in a multitude of social problems which need political will, much planning and financial investment to be sorted out. Along with high rates of poverty, unemployment and landlessness is the added burden of drug addiction and resultant antisocial activities of the youth. The locals are under the impression that the police or the armed forces do not take any action to control the drug menace or may even actively promote that. While dealing with the civil society should be a function of the police, it is accepted that the armed forces should remain in the North and East at a sufficient scale to ensure the non-resurgence of terrorist activity. It should be kept in mind that the latter objective is best achieved by winning the hearts of the people. As the Northern and Eastern population is an integral part of the Sri Lankan citizenry, one cannot go on ill-treating them as the vanquished in a battle. However, many of the activities of the law enforcement authorities have caused suspicion with the local populace that could defeat the very purpose they are supposed to serve.

The role of the Army along with the Buddhist priests in establishing new places of worship or reviving temples that have remained dormant for many decades in areas with hardly any Buddhist residents is being treated with suspicion. Buddhist monks from elsewhere are being “planted” in these temples. As there are hardly any Buddhists in the vicinity, they are being serviced and provided with security by the Army. It appears that the local non-Buddhist population is coerced by the forces into participating in various religious functions. These activities may give the impression that there could be a sinister long- term plan to colonise the area with Sinhala Buddhists.

 

Rebels in the North

It is known that thousands of Sinhalese and Muslim long-term residents were driven out of the North by rebels at the very beginning of the conflict. They may be allowed to return if they so wish, although such voluntary return seems unlikely in the present circumstances. Although the concept of a Tamil homeland may not be recognized, the fact that Tamil Hindus were the vast majority in the North for hundreds of years should be accepted and respected. Any seemingly state-sponsored attempts to upset that demography will undoubtedly arouse much hostility. It is disappointing that the committee appointed recently to preserve the cultural heritage in the North and East has no representation of the minorities.

The local Tamil population naturally is thoroughly disgusted with all these infringements in their neighbourhood. It will not be possible to go on alienating the minorities any more, making them keep their dream of an Ealam alive. It is inevitable that they seek the help of like minded people in India or the influential Diaspora in the West as the Sri Lankan authorities are turning a blind eye to their grievances. As a result the allegations of human rights violations against the Sri Lankan state would be a continuing problem to deal with at the international forums, like the UNHRC.

The situation in the Eastern Province with demography of sizable proportions of all three ethnicities, poses a different set of problems to be sorted out. The sensitive issue of alleged intrusion by a culture foreign to what we have known so far, has to be solved with much foresight and care.

The way all the warnings about the possible Easter bombing were ignored is inexplicable. The resultant catastrophe should be fully blamed on the leaders in government and intelligence services at the time. Political games played without finding out the actual culprits who planned the massacre, would guarantee another attack in the foreseeable future. It is frightening to note that those close to the current leadership are being blamed, though without proof so far, as the masterminds of the mass murder.

Ignoring the lessons learned by giving overwhelming powers to one party in the past, the electorate has given two-thirds majority to the present government. To make matters worse the 20th Amendment to the constitution has concentrated immense authority on the President. All that was achieved by the 19th Amendment, despite a few shortcomings, by ensuring parliamentary control of presidential action has been reversed. Removal of independent Commissions dealing with the judiciary, public service, police etc has installed an autocratic President, who is not accountable to the Parliament, and hence to the people. With his military background and hardly any experience in politics, the President is increasingly showing faith in the armed forces, and a small group of unscrupulous businessmen loyal to him to rule the country. How even the obvious civilian function of controlling the Covid epidemic is under the leadership of the Army commander is a glaring example. It becomes evident with every passing day that civilian rule in a democracy and international diplomacy, cannot be left in the hands of the armed forces. The details of allegations of many corrupt activities of the leaders and their cronies are already in the public domain. How democratically elected autocrats turned out to be ruthless dictators in many countries in the world is lost on the electorate.

Dismal situation

Having detailed all the blunders Sri Lanka as a nation has committed, is there a way out of this dismal situation? The electorate tired of the corrupt leadership chose to elect “non political” professionals at the last election. Their naivety in politics, with poor knowledge of the suffering of the masses is now fully exposed, making a mockery of governance. The periodic changing of the governing party at successive elections has been an exercise in futility. The civil society, along with well meaning religious leaders of all faiths without any political leanings, should take immediate steps to educate the people on the need to change this way of life. The press and electronic media should shed their political affiliations and work openly towards long term peace and prosperity of the nation. Social media should be fully mobilized and properly regulated, to keep people informed of the need for a radical change in their attitudes. All justifiable grievances of the minorities should be addressed with no further delay, so that they can be taken fully on board to forge peaceful coexistence and progress. The leaders should set an example to the people by being patriotic and truthful. It was exactly such a path that enabled Sri Lanka (and India) to overcome the might of the British Empire and gain independence. No doubt it is going to be an onerous task at a time when our own leaders are subjugating us.

 

A FREE THINKING

SINHALA BUDDHIST

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Opinion

Absurd standardss on Cadmium and Lead in fertilizers

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An opposition member of parliament, Dr Harsha De Silva raised the issue of “contaminated” fertilizer stocks in the House. News reports and social media state that fertilizers “Laced with Unsafe Levels” of Lead and Cadmium have been released in Sri Lanka. Exposure to even small amounts of these heavy metals over time, mainly through the food chain, or by smoking, causes kidney, liver, bone and neurological damage in humans, leading to a variety of chronic diseases.

According to the news reports “The SLSI had suspended the release of the TSP consignment after it found that Lead and Cadmium in the imported fertilizer were higher than the maximum levels for toxic elements based on Sri Lanka standards specifications……However, following a meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, Director Senaratne authorized the release of the consignment into the market, on a strictly conditional basis, considering the food security of the country”.

Anyone reading the news would be justifiably alarmed, as both cadmium and lead are toxic substances that should not get into the food chain, even in small concentrations. However, we point out here that the fault is not in the imported fertilizer, but in the ridiculous standards stipulated by those who wrote Sri Lanka’s standards for heavy metal residues in fertilizers. This is a topic that I have addressed in newspaper articles as well as in technical studies [e.g., Dharma-wardana, Environmental Geochemistry and Health volume 40, pages 2739–2759 (2018) ].

This report must be taken in the backdrop of news about toxins in coconut oil, as well as the attempt of a TV-media host to make the SL Standards Institute (SLSI) Director Dr. Senaratne to reveal names of companies alleged to have imported contaminated coconut oil. She quite correctly stood her ground and declined to reveal names and make public accusations.

The Director of a scientific laboratory is not mandated to act as a public prosecutor. However, her answer showed that scientists are not media savvy and may give totally inappropriate answers that media outlets seek to create media hype. The fact that media hosts should try to destroy due process, and create “instant exposés” in an inappropriate manner, show the extent of the decline in public standards of justice and fair play in the country.

However, let us use this opportunity to educate ourselves regarding toxic substances in general, and heavy metals in fertilizers, in particular. Due to lack of space, here we examine only the case of cadmium, whose Sri Lankan standards are stated in SLS-812-standard-1988, amended and re-approved in 2008. This says that a kilo of TPS fertilizer cannot contain more than 5 mg of cadmium (or 10.9 mg per kg of P2O5). This is an absurd specification, which is impossibly LOW, such that there are very few mineral sources that conform to such a specification.

Let us look at this in comparison with the standards required by other countries for cadmium in fertilizer.

Each country, and sometimes each state or province of a country, sets its standards based on the naturally existing cadmium levels in its soil. Most parts of the UK have very high cadmium levels in its soil, and so inputs of Cd via fertilizers make little difference. Some parts of Western Europe (e.g, Brittany, in France, or parts of Holland) have low natural levels, while Belgium is as contaminated as the UK. So the European Union, as a whole, hopes to gradually tighten its standards and move to 20 mg/kg by 2040. But Sri Lanka has already, in 1988 itself, set its Cd limit at the impossibly low value of 5 mg/kg !

Was this very low limit set already in 1988 so as to disallow every imported batch of fertilizer, so that it can be allowed only when the right pockets are filled? Did the ring of racketeers with greased palms get broken, or did it not change with the change of government, and was this the reason why this matter had to go right up to the top for the “approval” of a perfectly safe and fine fertilizer? The fertilizer has been “condemned” as being “laced with cadmium” and other heavy metals using deliberately contrived specifications ?

How clean the food you eat depends fundamentally on the cleanliness and ecology of the soil to start with. It is only secondarily dependent on the purity of fertilizers in regard to trace metals, or the presence of traces of pesticides; even though a very different hype has been developed in the media for the consumption of a public frightened for its health and ready to even believe people like Dr. Mercola (see:

http://www.dailynews.lk/2018/11/07/features/167704/toxic-cocktail-myth-and-truth) or even “Dr”. Dhammika Bandara inspired by Kaali Amma.

All soils have a certain amount of naturally occurring toxins, as well as toxins from human activity, e.g, earth works, mining, farming, burning of fossil fuels or forests that cause acid rain and noxious fumes, and poor disposal of garbage. Even organic farming, often believed to be clean and “natural”, produces toxins similar to those in mineral fertilizers, as composting plant matter leads to the cyclic accumulation of heavy metals like cadmium and lead found naturally in the soil, and re-concentrated in plant matter used for composting.

Mineral fertilizers like triphosphate (TPS) are mined from the ground, usually from desert locations (e.g., in Morocco, Nauri Islands in New Zealand). These mineral deposits are becoming increasingly scarce and phosphates are a threatened commodity. Mineral fertilizers applied to the soil also contribute some cadmium (and other trace metals) to the soil.

Let us take an “extremely polluted sample” of fertilizer by Sri Lanka’s specification, e.g. Nauru phosphate which has some 90 mg/kg of cadmium, i.e., 15 times more than that specified by the current absurd SL standard. We have shown (e.g., https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-018-0140-x)

that it will still take many centuries to modify the cadmium levels in, say, Sri Lankan soil significantly by such fertilizer additions. Hence even such a so-called “bad” fertilizer, but used in Australia and New Zealand, would be perfectly safe for use in Sri Lanka too.

Sri Lanka has a deposit of phosphate minerals at Eppawala. While it is quite high in its arsenic contamination, it has very low cadmium contamination. Some people have urged the government to exploit the Eppawala deposits. I have opposed this as the conversion of the rock phosphate to usable TPS etc., is a highly polluting process that is best done far away from human habitations – i.e., unsuitable for Sri Lanka. In any case, a local production will also cost three to ten times more than what is available in the international market. Given the increasing scarcity of phosphate, the local deposit should be regarded as a national treasure that must be conserved for future use, until cleaner nano-technological methods for mineral exploitation become available.

Hence, I urge the government to change the cadmium and other heavy metal specifications used in Sri Lanka to conform to modern scientific knowledge, and align its standards with values used internationally. Having looked at the level of cadmium in Sri Lankan soils, I believe that an appropriate standard for Sri Lanka is to set its upper level for cadmium to be about 100-150 mg per kg of Phosphate, instead the current absurdly low value.

 

CHANDRE

DHARMAWARDANA

Canada

The author is currently affiliated with the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa, and the University of Montreal. He was a past VC and Professor of Chemistry at Vidyodaya/SJP university.

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Opinion

After Geneva Resolution: What Next?

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By Dr Laksiri Fernando

The adoption of the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka is a setback not only to the government but also to the country and the people. It is however not the end of the world. The government as the elected authority by the people should now seriously think about the effectiveness of their foreign policies, foreign relations and perhaps personnel who are handling these crucial matters.

Defeating the resolution undoubtedly was a difficult task, among other factors, given the last government was completely following an opposite policy. Who was correct may be a debatable matter for some, but not for all or the majority. If Sri Lanka had a better profile among the OIC countries and a counter strategy for ‘reconciliation and accountability’ along with preventing terrorism, defeating the resolution could have been feasible.

Motives Behind?

The recent statement by Mangala Samaraweera that resolution 30/1 in 2015 was not only something co-sponsored by his government but in fact drafted by Ranil WickremEsinghe and a group is quite a revelation. Why did Samaraweera wait for such a long time to reveal the truth is the question?

Whatever the different nuances or tactics between governments, foreign policy should be a common endeavor that all governments should adhere to. National interest is the primary concern of any foreign policy, political, economic, or other. The ball is now with the present government to build that consensus with the main opposition, as Wickremesinghe and his UNP are now categorically defeated.

During the campaign for the resolution against Sri Lanka the last government’s position was a major trump card in the hands of the UK and the US to win over around 14 countries other than their own Western countries. It was primarily a campaign against the present government on political and on other grounds. As a report by the Universal Rights Group stated,i

“Two country situations in particular dominated the Council’s attention during its 46th session: Myanmar following February’s coup d’etat, and Sri Lanka following the return to power of the Rajapaksa family. At the end of the session resolutions on both situations (the former led by the EU and the latter by the UK) were adopted, by vote in the case of Sri Lanka (22-11-14) – the first time a vote has been called since 2014, and by consensus in the case of Myanmar (though many LMG States disassociated from the text).” (My emphasis).

The report was equating the election of Rajapaksa leadership to coup d’etat in Myanmar! It is very clear that motive behind the resolution was political, against an elected government whatever its main composition. This was also very clear from the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka that paved the way for the resolution. They were angry with the government as it was not subservient to the international forces. One may agree or disagree with the government, but it was overwhelmingly elected by the people. It is still not known how far Ranil Wickramasinghe and his followers campaigned for the resolution. We may have to wait for Mangala to reveal it later! The politics of these people apparently are so treacherous to the country.

Legality of the Resolution?

There are people who wonder whether the recent UNHRC resolution is legally binding on the country or not? On this count, some have been even criticizing some Ministers on their statements. I have looked for authoritative statement from the OHCHR itself, but unfortunately clear procedures are not explained in their website for some (dubious!) reason. The best I could quote is from “The Human Rights Council: A Practical Guide” from the Swiss Mission in Geneva as follows under ‘HRC Resolutions.’ii

“HRC resolutions are the political expression of the views of its members, or a majority of its members, on specific human rights issues and problems that are of particular concern to the international community. They are sometimes also used to recognise the existence of certain ‘soft law’ principles (cf. e.g. Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, annexed to res. A/HRC/RES/16/1). Regardless of their content, HRC resolutions are not legally binding.”

The emphasis in bold in the above paragraph is not mine. They were there in the Guide. According to this authoritative guide, (1) HRC resolutions are political expressions of member countries, of course on human rights issues, thematically or on country situations. Therefore, it is a political task for countries through diplomatic means to canvass and bring support for their positions. (2) Except in the case when the HRC approves UN General Assembly’s ‘soft laws,’ the HRC resolutions are not legally binding on member states or the target countries. However, the High Commissioner and the Office are legally binding in implementing them.

In May 2009, Sri Lanka successfully managed to obtain 29 out of 47 votes for its own resolution at the UNHRC when a UK lead group was planning to bring a resolution against the country. That was the success of diplomacy of the country that time. Of course, when such a resolution is proposed, the incumbent country has a duty to implement it. It is something that you do positively, and not negatively. Not as a tactic but as a commitment.

After that resolution, there were no resolutions on Sri Lanka until 2012. Thereafter it was a period of tumble down for the country particularly in diplomatic terms ending in Ranil and the group proposing something completely disastrous to the country. Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka’s defeat at the last occasion is not a surprise. Most of the independent countries were puzzled because of the zigzags of different governments.

It is doubtful whether the Ranil Resolution in 2015 was proposed with a genuine effort for reconciliation or accountability. It must have done as a tactic. This is also clear from Mangala Samaraweera’s statement. The purpose appeared to be to satisfy the Western countries (the US and UK) and not necessarily the Tamil community or the victims although the TNA also supported that effort.

Although Sri Lanka is not legally binding on the HRC resolution, there are political imperatives and customary practices that the country may have to follow. As the first struggle is over (with a setback of course), the country may have to use different tactics. More than being tactical, Sri Lanka can be straight forward and true to its beliefs. It should restart good relations with all countries irrespective of how they voted or behaved at the HRC, including the UK, USA, and the EU.

Although Sri Lanka is not legally binding on the HRC resolution, the High Commissioner and her Office are legally binding. Therefore, they may have to soon start fact finding and even visits to Sri Lanka. A Budget of $ 2.8million is indicated for this task. Although I said in my last article that Sri Lanka should not allow anyone from the Office to visit Sri Lanka that could be handled tactfully and cautiously.

Conclusion

The most important is to be true to Sri Lanka’s beliefs and interests. This is political realism. Although some foreign countries and Tamil diaspora believe that accountability is the priority matter, Sri Lanka believes reconciliation is the most important. Some are even asking for the ‘pound of flesh.’ This is all after supporting LTTE terrorism unashamedly. No sustainable accountability or reconciliation is possible without allowing the government of Sri Lanka to protect national security, prevent terrorism and develop the country. These should have been included in a true resolution in ‘promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights’ in the country.

On the question of accountability, there is another difference. Sri Lanka has shown that the country is ready to ‘forgive and forget’ most of the past atrocities of the LTTE for the sake of the future of all communities if the perpetrators genuinely repent. This may even apply to Adele Balasingham. At the same time, it is not ready to punish the military leaders who must have made mistakes in their judgements or directives. This has nothing to do with any actual or factual crimes committed by anyone in the field. The government should be ready or cannot prevent even today anyone filing such cases in the Supreme Court or before in the High Courts. Instead, going behind foreign jurisdictions cannot be acceptable for the great majority of the people.

Even at this stage of great controversy, there is a possibility of the government, preferably with the agreement of the opposition, making a statement to all member countries of the UN on something like “Prevention of Terrorism and Promotion of Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights.” It should be made clear to the international community that without measures for the prevention of terrorism through national security, sustainable reconciliation and accountability cannot be achieved. It should also be made clear that in Sri Lanka’s view human rights should go along with promoting human duties and responsibilities.

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