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Be prepared



There is little doubt among thinking people here who followed the U.S. presidential election that Donald Trump was bad news for a land which prided itself as being the cradle of democracy in the world. He did everything but “Make America Great Again,” leaving a legacy of blunders and a personal stamp of a man too small for the very big pair of boots he wore during the last four years. But as the ‘Trumpkin Pumpkin,” (orange on the outside and hollow inside) depicted by a cartoon on this page, is plotting his last stand to remain in office, there have been expatriate Lankans mounting social media platforms to express fears that the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket leaves openings for LTTE supporters, particularly those living in North America, to exploit Harris’ Indian ancestry to further their cause in a country where the Tigers remain a banned terrorist organization.

Given the worldwide media focus on the U.S. election, most Lankans are well aware that Kamala Devi Harris is the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. Her publicists took pains to project the vice-president elect as a politician who throughout her life took pains to preserve her Indian roots about which she was justifiably proud. We ran an appropriately illustrated story during the campaign of her fondness for idli, a favourite South Indian dish. Indians throughout the subcontinent, and more particularly those living in Tamil Nadu, have predictably exulted about what she has achieved in a country that is not only among the world’s richest and most powerful, but also a land that is justifiable considered a place where “anything is possible.”

Although we in Sri Lanka like to think that the LTTE is well and truly dead and buried, we cannot ignore the reality that a rump remains that is alive and kicking. This is true not only of Tiger sympathizers living this country, but of the Tamil expatriate community spread out through the wider world. They may not take arms on behalf of a separatist cause, but their sympathies lie there. Many of these expats, some voluntarily and others through extortion, were among the major funders of the LTTE throughout the 30-year war. The Black July pogrom of 1983, for which the J.R. Jayewardene government of the day, and a misguided section of the majority Sinhala community must take much of the blame, drove many Tamils out of the land of their birth. Among them were professionals, some the best and the brightest of this land, who fled particularly to the West. There were also the numerous so-called “economic refugees” who migrated to Europe and North America taking advantage of the climate created in many developed countries that Sri Lanka was not safe for Tamils.

The mere fact that the woman who will be vice-president of a world power has a Tamil ancestry, does not mean that she will be a puppet on a string easily manipulated by pro-LTTE lobbies. US foreign policy, like that of most countries in the world is anti-terrorist, and there is no escaping the fact that the LTTE was terrorist and what remains of it is separatist. It has been widely acclaimed that the Tigers were among the deadliest terrorist groups of their time. Nevertheless, expatriate Tiger sympathizers would do their best to exploit the slightest opening, the remotest possibility. During the height of the war, the LTTE ran a skillful propaganda campaign, often with a homely touch. There was a time when journalists would be invited to expatriate homes and wined and dined on delectable Lankan cuisine not easily available in restaurants and other eating places in those countries. As there is no such thing as a free lunch (or dinner), the guest would be brainwashed with a vengeance on what had happened and was happening in Sri Lanka with the intention of influencing whatever he/she would write in the media.

The various posts that have surfaced after the Biden-Harris victory have provided other tidbits, including that the new vice-president will have a woman of direct Tamil ancestry, Rohini Lakshmi Ravindran Kosoglu as her chief-of-staff. This lady is the daughter, a post said, of Dr. Wijeydevendram Ravindran who has been practicing for over 35 years as an Emergency Room physician in New Jersey. He had emigrated to the U.S. many years ago and presumably his daughter was born there. While there will be many here, and among the non-Tamil expatriate community overseas who are strong nationalists wary of incipient dangers, who would see this as a possible ethnic access route to the very top of the U.S. administration. This need not be necessarily true. Hopefully, vested interest lobbies will be seen for what they are. But it will be both useful and appropriate for Sri Lanka to be aware of a worst-case scenario and not let down its guard.

This is particularly true at a time that the incumbent administration, like all its predecessors, is making patronage ambassadorial appointments to important capitals abroad while at the same time recalling senior and experienced professional diplomats on a 60-year age rule. There has been a proposal under consideration that the public service retirement age to be raised to 62-years and this may be announced in the forthcoming budget. It is high time that a realistic cost-benefit assessment of our overseas missions is made and those that are redundant are closed down. We are massively over-represented in terms of the number of the high commissions, embassies and even consulates that we, as a country with limited resources, run abroad. Cutting them down to size is long overdue. This is true of nearly all areas of government, and in the context of sharply declining revenue and essential Covid 19 related expenditure, now is the time to grasp the bull by its horns.

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Gesture of solidarity



Thursday 25th February, 2021

Nothing could be more reassuring and uplifting in times of trouble than a true friend’s presence. Sri Lanka has only a few generous, altruistic friends, and Pakistan certainly is prominent among them. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit, albeit brief, could not have come at a better time for Sri Lanka, a badger facing a pack of growling mastiffs in Geneva; what it needs most at this juncture is moral support.

Many are the nations that have proffered loads and loads of unsolicited advice to Sri Lanka on how to protect democracy and human rights. But none of them helped remove the scourge of terror, the gravest threat to democracy and humankind. Pakistan stood unwaveringly behind Sri Lanka during the latter’s war on terror and helped the latter in numerous ways. It was the multi-barrel rocket launchers Pakistan rushed here in the aftermath of the fall of Elephant Pass garrison, in 2000, that enabled the Army put the brakes on the ‘unceasing wave’ of the LTTE. Otherwise, the Tigers would have laid siege to Jaffna with ease, forcing the Army to withdraw its troops. (Some countries even offered ships for ferrying soldiers to Colombo!) Today, Sri Lanka is free from political assassinations, massacres, child conscription, etc., as LTTE terrorism has been neutralised. If it had given in to pressure from the Western bloc and spared the LTTE’s military muscle, thousands of lives would have been destroyed during the last 12 years or so.

There were calls, in some quarters, for PM Khan to take up the issue of ‘forced burials’ with Colombo. They were obviously aimed at creating a media feeding frenzy and thereby giving the anti-Sri Lankan campaign in Geneva a boost. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have their own way of sorting out problems; never do they resort to megaphone diplomacy. But, the fact remains that mandatory burials have hurt the Muslim community beyond measure mostly because those who die of COVID-19 are allowed to be buried in other countries including those notorious for their antipathy towards Muslims. Some prominent Sri Lankan medical experts are of the view that the burial of pandemic victims should be permitted, provided the health regulations in place to prevent the spread of the pandemic are strictly followed. Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa, as a sensible leader, must have gone by expert opinion including that of the Sri Lanka Medical Association, when he said in Parliament recently that the burial of COVID-19 victims would become an option. Sadly, he was overruled.

It is significant that the Head of State of a prominent Islamic nation has been to Sri Lanka while the pro-LTTE groups are exerting a considerable pull on a section of the Muslims community who courageously stood up to LTTE terror and thwarted Prabhakaran’s efforts to extend his control over the Eastern Province. Some of the Muslims who became the target of a hate campaign following the Easter Sunday carnage have joined forces with the pro-LTTE political groups masquerading as crusaders for democracy, in the Eastern Province, which is of pivotal importance to the countries that seek to counter increasing Chinese presence here. This is something Sri Lanka and its Islamic allies such as Pakistan should take cognizance of.

Meanwhile, there are many areas where Sri Lanka and Pakistan can partner to realise their full potentials as developing nations. Besides trade, commerce and investment, they can concentrate more on agriculture, construction, science and technology, education, medicine, tourism, etc. PM Khan’s ‘Global Initiative on Debt Relief’ is something that Sri Lanka, as well as other nations in the Global South, should fully support.

There are some issues that Sri Lanka and Pakistan should address jointly. One of them is the narcotic trade, which has affected both countries badly. Drug cartels have established a supply route via Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which has become a narcotic transit point of sorts.

It is a pity that the Sri Lankan Parliament did not have the honour of being addressed by PM Khan, a brilliant orator and trusted friend.

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Should SL follow UK?



Wednesday 24th February, 2021

The Gash reports are in the news again. They are the diplomatic dispatches filed by Lt. Col. Anthony Gash, who was the Defence Attache of the British High Commission, Colombo, on the final stages of Sri Lanka’s war on terror. The UK, which leads the Sri Lanka Core Group in Geneva, has suppressed the Gash reports, whose revelations run counter to the claims, on which the war crimes resolution against Sri Lanka is based.

Surprisingly, Sri Lanka has not done enough to bring the Gash reports to the notice of the UNHRC. One should not be so naïve as to believe that facts will make either the so-called Core Group or UNHRC chief Michelle Bachelet change their minds. Their agenda is determined by the US, which uses human rights as a bludgeon to beat the nations that refuse to do its bidding. But placing the Gash reports before the UNHRC will help unmask the Core Group members and the US.

The UK is not alone in suppressing facts. The US, too, has chosen to ignore the facts that Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, who was its Defence Attache in Colombo, during the final phases of the Vanni war, placed before an audience at an international defence seminar in Colombo in 2011; he disputed the claim that the Sri Lankan military had committed war crimes. He would not have said so without evidence to support his claim.

Old habits die hard. The UK and the US have a history of falsifying reports to suit their geo-strategic interests. They produced fake intelligence dossiers to justify the invasion of Iraq although the British intelligence had found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in that country. They have adopted the same method in their war crimes campaign against Sri Lanka. Gash has said not more than 7,000 persons, including LTTE combatants, died in the war zone between 01 January and 18 May 2009. This number is in sharp contrast to the claim by the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts that more than 40,000 people perished during the final phase of the war. None of the UN experts were here during the war, unlike Gash and Lawrence, but the UK and the US have chosen to ignore facts their military experts have furnished. Why should the UK and the US have defence attaches at all in their foreign missions if they do not take their military experts’ views seriously?

What Lord Naseby managed to secure in the UK was a redacted version of the Gash reports. The UK has got redacting reports related to wars down to a fine art. In 2016, it released the Chilcot report on the Iraqi war. What observers have found interesting about that inquiry is it took longer to conclude than the war. What was released after a protracted delay was a heavily redacted version of the report, but it contains enough evidence to prove that the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, together with US President at that time George W. Bush waged an illegal war and, therefore, were responsible for war crimes.

Having taken upon itself the burden of protecting human rights and ensuring that crimes do not go unpunished in the developing world, the UK should set an example. Before levelling war crimes allegations against others and calling for action thereon, shouldn’t it bring Blair to justice for invading Iraq and causing deaths of millions of civilians, including more than 500,000 children, in an illegal war for oil?

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?

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The rape of forests: Govt. in the dock



Tuesday 23rd February, 2021

The government has apparently achieved what it set out to when it issued a gazette removing the peripheral forests from the purview of the Forest Department and placed them under the Divisional and District Secretariats, purportedly to promote traditional agriculture. Its supporters are encroaching on thousands of acres of forest land with absolute impunity. Nobody takes gazettes seriously, and the government is also not keen to deal with noncompliance; the declarations of maximum retail prices, and minimum purchasing prices are a case in point. They are flouted blatantly. But the gazette pertaining to the peripheral forests took effect immediately! Such is the high-octane performance on the part of the government when it wants to help its supporters.

We have argued, in this column, previously that the government entrusted the District and Divisional secretariats with the task of looking after parts of forests because administrators are scared of ruling party politicians and do the latter’s bidding. We reported, the other day, that a Divisional Secretary had accompanied a group of government supporters who grabbed land in the Somawathiya National Park. The public service is full of such servile officers, and what is in store for the country’s forests is not difficult to imagine.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, speaking at a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak event, last Saturday, faulted the Forest Department, the Wildlife Department, the environmental authorities and others for being involved in a tug of war, which, he said, had rendered the public confused and helpless. True, these institutions work in silos, and not all their personnel are honest and conscientious, but the real problem is not their rivalries; it is that public administrators are helping the ruling party backers grab forest land, and the government is doing nothing about it. If the government is really desirous of ensuring coordination among the state outfits responsible for protecting the environment, it should bring all of them under one umbrella, vest them with more powers and give teeth to the existing laws.

There are some sand deposits inside the Somawathiya sanctuary, according to environmentalists, and what prevents government politicians and their associates from exploiting them is the absence of a road. This is why some ruling party worthies are trying to pressure the Wildlife Department to permit cattle grazing inside the national park. When cattle and cowherds enter the forest, footpaths appear with the passage of time, and these tracks can be used by the politically-backed racketeers to access the sand deposits.

What is reported from the Somawathiya National Park is a textbook case of irony; perhaps, it also represents, in microcosm, the fate that befell the country after the successful conclusion of its war on terror. When the LTTE was around, nobody dared enter the national park for fear of terrorist attacks, and the place was safe, thanks to the absence of human activity. The present-day rulers liberated the area from the clutches of the LTTE more than a decade ago, but, unfortunately, the liberators are now supporting those who destroy the sanctuary.

The President has called for action against those who encroach on forests on the pretext of engaging in traditional agriculture. Defence Secretary General (retd) Kamal Gunaratne has said that he had found that some Divisional Secretaries were issuing licences to clear forest lands and the practice had to be stopped. We have published pictures of some land grabbers responsible for the rape of the Somawathiya sanctuary. They can be identified and hauled up before courts.

Now that both the President and the Defence Secretary are convinced that some errant state officials and encroachers responsible for destroying forests have to be stopped, the question is what prevents them from going the whole hog to have the racketeers brought to justice forthwith. For those who pride themselves on having killed Prabhakaran, stopping the destroyers of forests should be child’s play.

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