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Editorial

The baby and the bathwater

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The 20th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution is now done and dusted and given the comfortable majority, though technically not the required two thirds by a whisker, it has all the support it needs for comfortable passage. Since its gazetting on Friday, a period of two weeks must elapse before it can be included in the parliamentary order paper. A legal challenge can also be mounted against it in the short term. But given the scale of the massive victories scored by the incumbent government, both at the presidential election last November and the more recent parliamentary elections, there will be little fire and thunder in whatever resistance is attempted.

Ever since the parliamentary election and the massive and unexpected two thirds majority it brought President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country has been treated to a litany of how horrible the 19th Amendment was and more than an earful on everything that was wrong with it. But none of the pundits who have expounded long and loud against the amendment has explained why, if this were so, all but one of them (Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera) voted for it. Their lack of eloquence on this subject is truly deafening. True, despite the two third majority that the UPFA and its fellow-travelers enjoyed in the 2010 parliament, the stunning defeat of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 left the whole caboodle of them in total disarray. This left ample room for the winner to take all and that’s exactly what happened.

Such was the situation when the 2015 election result was declared that the new President Maithripala Sirisena was able to instal a minority government under Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe despite the fact that Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne was yet in office. So also the reinstatement of sacked Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, albeit for a day, before Justice K. Sripavan (who incidentally administered the oath of office of the new president as his predecessor was in the dog house) was appointed. The defeated president, who sought a third term in an endeavour that went sour, metaphorically placed the SLFP leadership crown on his successor’s head. No political or legal challenges were mounted and the winning side, flushed with a perhaps unexpected victory, did exactly as they pleased. And how!

The 19th Amendment certainly was not enacted for the good of the country. It was done to suit the needs and wishes of those who won the election as too many of our laws have been and will be in the future. However, 19A was not without some virtue with the best known plus factors including the restoration of the two-term limit on the presidency, which Mahinda Rajapaksa removed by virtue of a two thirds majority (necessary for constitutional changes) he did not win in the country but engineered through defections. Events proved that to be his undoing, but he to his eternal credit, was able to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes. He refused to lie down and die as most would have given his situation. Like the proverbial tortoise, he withdrew into his shell during the aftermath of his defeat, to return vigorously to battle as the tide began to turn. Mercifully the two-term limit will remain under the new order. We don’t know whether there is an intention of going back to the previous age qualification of presidential contenders which was in 19A, obviously with Namal Rajapaksa in mind. It is no longer a necessity for a Rajapaksa dynasty as the years have since rolled by. Let us not forget that Namal himself voted for that amendment just as much as his father voted for 19A.

The Right to Information Act has also been applauded as a major achievement of the 19th Amendment. This too will remain, the people have been told. That is cause for applause although the Act itself was not used as effectively as it might have given the appalling state of governance in the country. Opponents of the proposed 20A are on record saying that several major democratic gains achieved through a mechanism of checks and balances like the independent commissions, are being done away with. There is no argument that President J.R. Jayewardene, intoxicated with the five sixth parliamentary majority he won in 1977, crafted the 1978 constitution to make himself the uncrowned head of Sri Lanka. He was fond of saying there was nothing he could not do except to make a man a woman or vice versa. He didn’t try to undertake that mission impossible although he did try to have two Members of Parliament representing Kalawana! But even that constitution, providing for the executive presidency in the manner of de Gaulle’s as many say, made fundamental rights justiciable. To give the devil his due, that was an enormous democratic gain.

In terms of the draft amendment, we are going to have a Parliamentary Council, instead of the Constitutional Council introduced by 19A. But this too, just like the other one. will be packed with politicians who are not exactly a breed that has endeared itself to the people. But the people themselves keep electing undesirables as we have seen over the years; and party hierarchies keep anointing them with their tickets regardless of loud (and useless) professions on their desire for good governance that has eluded us through the 42 years when we have had as many as 19 amendments to our constitution with the 20th in the pipeline. A correspondent, of Sri Lankan descent living in Washington, writing to this issue of our newspaper says that the American constitution written over 230 years ago has just 4,543 words and 27 amendments to date. Amen.


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Editorial

Gesture of solidarity

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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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Editorial

Should SL follow UK?

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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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Editorial

The rape of forests: Govt. in the dock

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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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