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India’s Neighbourhood Policies and Neighbours

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By Austin Fernando

Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India

It is ‘Neighbourhood Policy, ‘Look East,’ ‘Act East.’ All deal with the Indian neighbours. A recent article motivated me to revisit this issue. The author has conveyed happenings between India, Nepal, and Bangladesh and proposed amending Indian policies and actions towards neighbours. For the sake of inclusivity, I wish to supplement some attributes on the subject.

India and Nepal

The friendly relationship between India and Nepal was affected due to an issue regarding the Kalapani District boundary. A new map produced by India after Article 370 caused it. Nepal objected to this map. The Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responded that the Indian map accurately depicted the sovereign territory of India, and it had not revised the Indian boundary with Nepal. Nepal disagreed.

In May 2020, Nepalese PM said that Nepal would “bring back” the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura-Lipulekh area “at any cost.” However, India responded calmly. Minister MEA Dr. Jaishankar was reported saying that the “sharp positioning” by the leadership would have been “magnified by the media.” (Hindu-20-8-2020).

Recently, the Nepal Cabinet released a political map, which showed the questioned tri-junction as a part of Nepal. Nepal has two tri-junctions with India. The currently disputed is the Lipulekh Pass, at the border of Uttarakhand with Nepal. Nepal contends that the Lipulekh Pass belongs to them, as per the Sugauli Treaty signed between the British East India Company and Nepal in 1816. Nevertheless, India wishes to hold on due to strategic security reasons.

For India, this could be minor. But, the principle of Indian action may be a concern for any neighbour. For us, it arises from the potentiality of possible Indian behaviour on the Palk Bay, which could arise from the operations purportedly discussed by PM Mahinda Rajapaksa on the fishery issue lately. The fishery issue is very sensitive in India. On the pressures from the politically powerful South Indan fishermen lobby, India can demand operational adjustments to the international maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India to ease the Indian fisherfolk. If it happens, hardly anything could be done. Our experience at the aerial food drop in June 1987, blatantly violating our air-space, showed how other powerful countries avoid responding negatively against India.

India -Nepal issue has escalated with Nepal seeking identity cards from visitors from India. Nepal relates this decision to COVID-19. Will Nepal make the identity card requirement permanent? The Nepalese PM Sharma Oli has blamed India for the spread of COVID-19 in Nepal. The ID-cards requirement for Indians is a step to tighten the cross-border movement. It affects the benefits for traders of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Some constructs that Chinese influence and domestic political problems for PM Oli are relevant for the Nepalese attitude. Therefore, there is business, politics, and hence the response from India also could affect economics, business, and politics of landlocked Nepal. Accordingly, Chinese intrusions cannot be discounted. We have seen these issues play around in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Nepal (Sri Lanka is not exempted!) can learn a lesson regarding Indian wrath if past experiences are perused on how India responded to Bhutan in 2012, when then Bhutanese PM Jigme Thinley met the Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao, at the Rio+20 Summit. India has retaliated by withdrawing fuel subsidies to Bhutan. From that point on, ‘possessiveness and domination began to outweigh respect and trust in public perceptions of the Bhutan-India friendship.’

 

India and Bangladesh

Take the Bangladesh issues with India. The events usually quoted are the continuations of others arisen between India and Bangladesh. Of course, China would have executed its strategies to move Bangladesh willingly. China becoming the biggest trading partner of Bangladesh or large-scale infrastructure projects cannot be overnight developments.

Last October, Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina signed seven bilateral treaties with India. This act disappointed and infuriated Bangladeshis that “they could not expect their leadership to look out for country’s interest and well-being.” (https://asiatimes.com/2020/01/how-indias-caa-nrc-affect-bangladesh/). This was almost concurrently timed with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India. So much so, when anti-India sentiments were expressed in Bangladesh, India assured that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would not affect Bangladeshis.

Developments in India overtook these assurances. This created concerns for Bangladeshis, as stated by Sabria Chowdhury Balland, as follows (https://asiatimes.com/2020/01/how-indias-caa-nrc-affect-bangladesh/)

(i) Though Indians state that there will not be any adverse effects from CAA and NRC, Bangladeshis have genuine concerns and apprehensions that they might unleash an exodus of Bengali-speaking people from Assam and the Muslims attempting to escape persecution in India.

(ii) The Bangladeshis are worried whether an issue like Rohingya refugees would repeat.

(iii) They are concerned that denial of Indian citizenship to Muslims anywhere in India will trigger strong reactions from Islamist parties in Bangladesh and even within the Awami League.

(iv) Bangladesh considers the criticism that Hindus in Bangladesh are persecuted and tortured is wrong, baseless, and unwarranted.

(v) India’s attempts to equate Bangladesh to fundamentally theocratic Muslim nations (e.g., Pakistan and Afghanistan) are unacceptable to Bangladeshis.

(vi) The Bangladeshi government has declared that it will allow people to enter from India only upon proof of Bangladeshi citizenship, which is problematic.

(vii) Hence Bangladesh cannot be used as a dumping ground for ‘bigoted regimes’ such as those in Myanmar and India.

These show the neighborhood issues between the two countries are deeprooted and somewhat ugly. Though Pakistan openly criticized the Kashmir issue, Bangladesh was comparatively toned-down. When we ambassadors met Vijay Ghokle, Secretary MEA, to hear the Indian government’s version on Kashmir, the Bangladesh diplomat would have been hiding his country’s natural stance, and bogusly showing that the issue is an “internal affair of India.”

However, the CAA legislation was different from Article 370 on Kashmir and created a bizarre situation in the case of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan called off their visits to India over the situation arising out of the CAA, giving scheduling problems as the reason. But, he cancelled it a day after Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that Bangladesh was persecuting its minorities, especially Hindu women, adding that “uncertainty in India is likely to affect its neighbours.” It could even be conceived as a threat. Separately, Momen was a bit harsh, telling the BBC’s Bengali Service, praising communal harmony standards in Bangladesh and adding “If he (Amit Shah) stayed in Bangladesh for a few months, he would see exemplary communal harmony.”

Next was the Bangladesh Deputy Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam, who canceled his participation in high profile Raisina Dialogue. The Bangladesh Foreign Office, however, said that Alam was accompanying PM Sheikh Hasina to the UAE, and his absence had nothing to do with Dhaka’s unhappiness over the CAA.

 

Money as a game-changer

India has shared financial assistance to boost its neighbourhood policy. To wit, I may mention that when the new Bhutanese PM paid the first State Visit to India, PM Modi assured to play an important role in Bhutan’s economic development and announced INR 4,500 crore for Bhutan’s 12th Five-Year Plan. When the new Maldivian President made his first State Visit, PM Modi pledged the Maldives $ 1.4. Billions of financial assistance to relieve the debt with China. We have the same problem, but are unfortunate!

Additionally, Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had made their first State Visits to India earlier, and they were nicely treated by India “with sweet talk,” not in the same fashion with those quoted above. For President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, this attitude changed.

However, I do not discount the strategic value of those countries to India, especially in the northern and north-eastern boundaries and in the Indian Ocean Region. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is of no lesser strategic value for India.

Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman earmarked INR 8,415 crore for neighbourhood countries: INR 1,050 crore to Nepal, INR 2,802 crores to Bhutan, INR 1,100 crore for Mauritius, INR 576 crore to the Maldives, but, to Sri Lanka INR 250 crore. Compare the population statistics of Bhutan (800,000), Maldives (436,000), Mauritius (1.2 million), and Sri Lanka (22 million). If considered on population, the logic of distribution by Madam Sitharaman is unexplainable. Of course, there are “extraneous reasons” for such “favouritism.”

During the last decade, Bhutan has received INR 32,280 crore, Afghanistan 4,855 crore, Nepal 4,166 crore, Mauritius 2,520 crore, Sri Lanka 2,317 crore and Maldives INR 1,787 crore. What Bhutan receives for one year from this Budget is more than what we have received over a decade! This distribution was skewed against us.

India has shown extraordinary empathy to the Maldives, which endorses that Indian neighbourliness depended on their wishes. I may quote a few recent decisions to prove. PM Modi’s good gesture was expanded with a package for the Maldives on August 13th, 2020. It was a $100 million grant and $400 million new line of credit, for the Greater Malé Connectivity Project (GMCP). The request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa purportedly made for $1 billion reported in the media, does not seem to be forthcoming. If China assists us, there will be negative comments, though. The MEA Minister Dr. S Jaishankar also announced the creation of an air bubble with the Maldives to facilitate peoples’ movement from both sides for employment, tourism, and medical emergencies. Further, Minister Jaishankar announced the commencement of the regular cargo ferry service between the two countries.

When we compare with neighbouring Sri Lanka, these happen when we haggle over the Eastern Container Terminal, Trinco Oil Tanks, Mattala, etc., and seeing LTTE threats over resuming of the ferry service and when competitor Maldives is accommodative. Hence, this assistance makes sense for India because the recipient of benefits will be India while turning away China from the Maldives. Anyway, if competitive financing is kept open, it may be another like-minded country organization that may evolve, and power play in the region also may adjust accordingly, as the Indian author insinuates.

 

China factor

As the writer has said, the size of China’s economy gives it a significant advantage over countries. I mention Adarsh Varma, who says that China’s foreign direct investments outside China exceeded 220 billion dollars in 2016, surging 246 percent from 2015. He pointed out that Chinese loans to many IOR littorals in Asia and Africa far outstrip the loans that these countries receive from IMF or other developed countries, and FDIs tend to monopolize resources and favor the investor while supplanting domestic enterprises and creating a balance of payment problem for recipient countries. Political and diplomatic dependence follow shortly if the countries are unable to pay the loans. We faced this.

The challenge for India with the neighbourhood is to counter this status. The Chinese not only intrude into development but strategically deal with politics (e.g., Sheik Hasina and Imran Khan reference). For Sri Lanka, China has throughout stood with us at the UN interventions. She assisted the war effort through. These are registered in our minds. Therefore, anyone posing to compete will have to muster resources and consistently back the assisting countries. This is why China has a foothold even in the BIMSTEC countries, irrespective of the organization being an Indian product.

I am reminded of what Avathar Singh Bhasin wrote about Indian expectations from neighbours. He said that they should not seek to invite outside power(s), and if any assistance is needed, they should look to India. “India’s attitude and relationship with her immediate neighbors depended on their appreciation of India’s regional security concerns; they would serve as buffer states in the event of an extra-regional threat and not proxies of the outside powers…”

China does not show Indo-phobia or Americ-phobia or Jap-phobia when extending support under BRI. They go on a ruthless path. They develop maritime, railway connectivity, not being limited to String of Pearls or the Silk Route. Therefore, the challenges for India are to match this vast machination and to rid of phobias. As the writer emphasized, policies and actions to foster upgraded neighborhood relationships will be a must.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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