19th August 2001

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Arrest this fast gallop to disaster

By S L Gunasekara

The devastation caused by the terrorist attack on both the Airforce Base and the International Airport at Katunayaka and the repercussions of that attack have created the biggest crisis our country has had to face in living memory. The unofficial 'blockade' of our country imposed by insurance, shipping and airline companies and the mass unemployment coupled with galloping inflation which must follow in the wake of that 'blockade' will bring about the total collapse of our economy with a consequent descent to anarchy unless intelligent practical steps are taken to arrest that trend.

The devastation caused by the attack at the BIAThe devastation caused by the attack at the BIA

The 'blockade' caused by increased insurance premia and corresponding increased freight rates coupled with the reluctance of airline and shipping companies to touch down at Katunayake or anchor in our ports is necessarily born out of a fear that our government and defence establishment are incapable of safeguarding our ports, airports and vital installations from terrorist attacks.

The two priorities of the day are clearly to salvage our moribund economy and to revamp our defence establishment so as to create confidence in its ability to protect at least our vital installations from terrorist attack.

Regrettably, neither the government nor any of the opposition parties have realised these self-evident facts. They have failed to realise that neither repeated attacks on the United National Party or its leader through the state-controlled media, nor islandwide 'Paleyauw' meetings, nor enacting a new constitution, nor establishing five independent commissions for the judiciary, the public service, the police, the media and elections (however desirable they may be for the country), nor the holding of a general election nor the formation of a national government by the several parties in parliament is an answer to either of these two related problems which need immediate solution.

Today, we have a cabinet of 44 ministers responsible for the government of this country, and it is to that cabinet that one is compelled to look for solutions to these two problems which, if not solved, would without exaggeration, completely destroy our country. Yet, the members of this cabinet have not been picked because of their executive ability or knowledge or expertise in any field of activity. They have been picked entirely or largely through political considerations of rewarding the party faithful, rewarding seniority, rewarding those who can garner votes from various segments of the people, rewarding those who intimidated opponents and stuffed ballot boxes and so on. Less than a handful of this vast assembly of 44 persons (which is called a cabinet) has achieved distinction, recognition or success in any profession or lawful business or occupation.

Indeed their ability appears to lie more in the field of creating problems rather than solving them. A national government on party lines whereby members of parliament from different parties are given portfolios for the same or similar reasons for which portfolios were given to the present assembly of 44 (called a cabinet) could not improve the situation.

The Sinhala Jathika Sangamaya is of the firm view that the first step towards solving the aforesaid problems is to appoint a small and cohesive cabinet of ministers of between five and ten ministers, with each minister being selected not on grounds of party affiliations or any of the grounds on which ministers are today selected, but solely on the basis of his knowledge or expertise in a relevant field of activity, integrity and executive ability - in short a cabinet of ministers which is selected according to the yardstick of suitability for the job and no other. Ministers so chosen could be selected from those within parliament and outside parliament. The institution of 'National List' members of parliament makes possible the selection and subsequent appointment of experts/efficient managers from outside parliament to 'manage' our country at least until we get over this crisis. It is indeed regrettable that the criterion of merit and ability to do a job has not been the criterion used in selecting ministers except perhaps in a few exceptional cases. Let it not be forgotten that what the country needs today is not rhetoric or politicking but good, honest and efficient management.

However efficient the cabinet may be it could not perform its functions and salvage our country unless our defence establishment is re-vamped. The defence establishment under the leadership of the President and Minister of Defence, the Deputy Minister of Defence, the Defence Secretary and the Chief of Defence staff has, without exaggeration, failed miserably over the years. We have seen more avoidable military disasters during their stewardship in the defence establishment than at any other time in living memory and perhaps in our history. A singular lack of understanding of the functions and responsibilities of service commanders was displayed by the President when she congratulated them for having managed the crisis caused by the debacle at Katunayaka efficiently. She appears to be unaware of the obvious fact that the primary function and responsibility of service commanders is to prevent the occurrence of crises and to cause more and more crises to the enemy, and that they have to engage in crisis management only when they have failed in the discharge of their primary obligation.

The defence establishment has also failed to impose any kind of accountability among service commanders so that those who have presided over disaster after disaster were not held accountable for such disasters even where such disasters were avoidable such as the disaster at Katunayake, nor taken to task for such disasters, but given medals, promotions and extensions of service instead. The result is that the defence establishment has, at its top, a set of 'losers' when what we need are 'winners'. The 'winners', of course, are side-lined or kicked upstairs to ambassadorial rank.

Clearly, the defence establishment must be overhauled and overhauled completely and immediately. There is no reason why the President should remain the Minister of Defence. She is clearly not suitable for the job; there is no requirement in law that the President should be the Minister of Defence; and indeed the President of even the United States of America though he is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces is not the Minister of Defence. The 'losers' who head the defence establishment and those service commanders who presided over avoidable disasters such as Katunayaka and Operation Agni Khiela must be relieved of their duties and replaced immediately with 'winners'. We cannot win a war under the leadership of 'losers'.

The revamping of the defence establishment must also include new methods and procedures for military procurement. We have sat by idly too long and watched our country and our troops being betrayed by vultures who have purchased sub-standard or out-dated arms and military equipment and enriched themselves at the expense of the country and the lives and limbs of the flowers of our youth. The Sinhala Jathika Sangamaya states that given the present crisis, the independent commission that must be appointed as a matter of priority before any other independent commission is an 'independent military procurement commission' comprised of three men selected solely on the criteria of integrity and merit and not political affiliations or ethnicity, to be solely responsible for military procurement.

We must, even at this stage realise that personal friendships, personal or political loyalties, personal feelings, ambitions and relationships are of no importance or relevance whatsoever because the survival of our nation is at stake. The people in general, and both the government and the opposition in particular, must stop living in their respective dream worlds and face reality. If they do not do so now, the reality they will face belatedly may well be that we are without a country. (The writer is the President of the Sinhala Jathika Sangamaya)

Focus on RightsCaught like miserable rats in a trap

By Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

So, this is how a country goes mad. In the midst of the most appalling breakdown of basic economic, constitutional and social structures on which our society is based and a steadily decreasing faith in ourselves as a people, we have the appointment of an optimistically styled Truth Commission to inquire into the July '83 ethnic violence. It would, indeed be hilarious if it were not so immeasurably pathetic. Shame therefore on a subverted political regime that makes these kinds of things possible. Shame, however, even more, on a blinkered intellectual and activist community who acquiesce in - and even applaud- these happenings without any measure of critical reflection whatsoever.

The Truth Commission has been appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga under Section 2 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act to inquire into and report on the nature, causes and extent of the gross violation of human rights and the destruction of and damage to any property committed as part of the ethnic violence during this period. It will also report whether any person, group or institution was directly or indirectly responsible for such violence, the nature and extent of the physical and mental damage suffered by persons and what compensation or solatium should be granted to such victims or to their dependants or heirs. In addition, the Commission is expected to recommend institutional, administrative and legislative measures that need to be taken in order to prevent a recurrence of such violence. The Commission will receive representations within the next three months by affected persons and is reportedly expected to complete its work by January 23, 2002.

And if this was not enough, we have a gem of one of the Commissioners last week drawing similarities with the South African Truth Commission. As an immediate analysis will show, this comparison is as bizarre as it is ridiculous. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was not some 'instant' commission appointed by a government in power and expected to conclude its work instantly. Instead, its formation was preceded by a long process of discussion and consultation by all political parties in South Africa in the post-apartheid period. This was borne out by its detailed and carefully thought out composition. The TRC was, in fact, made up of three committees on Human Rights Violations, on Amnesty and on Reparation and Rehabilitation which had specific tasks allotted to them. The Committee on Human Rights Violations was responsible for collecting the stories of victims while the Committee of Amnesty heard evidence on political crimes committed during this period and considered whether amnesty could be granted if there was a full confession by the perpetrator. Amnesty meant that they would be pardoned for the crime that they had committed and if they were on trial, the trial would be stopped. The Committee on Reparation and Rehabilitation investigated ways to help people who had suffered. Besides this, it was mandated to recommend the manner in which a culture of human rights could be built in the police force, the prisons and other government institutions. In addition, the TRC itself had an independent investigation unit, made up of lawyers, members of the police force and international experts, which were given powers to question persons and to search and seize documents.

This experiment in national healing was accompanied by a total emphasis on its non-political objectives. The Commission was set up by an Act of Parliament and the Commissioners were individuals whose appointments were agreed upon by all the political parties. Before and during the sittings of the TRC, the South African people were made aware through public meetings, posters, leaflets and the media, of the purpose of the TRC which was to put together a complete picture of all the serious human rights violations that took place against South Africans between March 1960 and December 1993. It began its work in December 1995 and was mandated to run until December 1997. The contrast between this process in a time of national reconciliation when the South African people were ready to put the horrors of apartheid between them and present day Sri Lanka when national reconciliation has never seemed so far away given our compulsively confrontational politics, cannot be greater. So much then for spurious similarities between the TRC and the proposed Sri Lankan Truth Commission. One can only advise those unwise enough and un-informed enough to embark on such an exercise, to refrain from making the whole even more laughable.

The objections to the setting up of a Truth Commission in this manner in Sri Lanka are therefore fundamental. Witness thus the disastrous string of other Commissions appointed by this Government since 1994. Where the reports of some Commissions have not been markedly political exercises, like the 1995 Disappearances Commissions in particular, their recommendations have been bypassed and the reports themselves relegated to oblivion. Contd from page 10

These three Commissions, for example, also focused on another period of barbarism in the country and examined the involuntary removal of persons during 1988 and 1990. After two- and-a-half-years of inquiring into immense numbers of complaints and appeals for redress by the families of those killed by the Army, the paramilitary and the JVP, their suggestions as to the manner in which reconciliation could be effected between the victims and their accusers have been largely ignored while the report of a later 'mopping up' commission has not even been made public to-date.

This column wishes to make its point perfectly clear. In principle, the major human tragedy that 1983 undoubtedly was, needs a process of reconciliation and healing. However, the painfully inappropriate timing of the present Truth Commission, its non-consensual nature, its almost total lack of investigative powers and the pitifully short time given to it to carry out its mandate all serve to lend credence to the very easy assumption that this too, is nothing more than a political exercise. At this point of time, what we need is a People's Commission on National Reconciliation and hopefully, Political Accountability, not some state sponsored or opposition backed body able to attract only partisan support. Until that time comes, we will go round and round the same old cycle, caught like complacent rats in the trap of our own destruction.

A sail through stormy weather

By Victor Ivan

Although the at tack at Katu nayake has caused a major collapse in the already weak economy, the political parties which are involved in a struggle for power or the public do not seem to have a proper understanding of the seriousness of that attack. The conduct of all of them is akin to that of the crab which dances in a pot of water until it boils. Several attacks of the same type are not necessary to bring the economy of the country to a state of total collapse. One more such attack will be sufficient for the purpose.

Although in such a situation it would be essential to act with the greatest vigour to restore the economic machinery which has been paralised, the government does not appear to pay much attention to it, in the context of the existing political crisis which has caused political instability in the country. This fact has made the economic collapse in the country speedier.

If the PA had been a sensible government it should have understood the precarious position and would have followed a policy of permitting the enactment of these reforms for its own future protection. Such reforms would benefit not the governments in power but the oppositions. If the UNP comes to power with a background where the executive presidential system is reformed, the democratic opportunities that would open up in that process would benefit the opposition than the government.

If the government fails to reach an agreement on democratic reforms at this moment, it is the PA which would have to shed tears when the opposition comes to power.

In the context of the economic collapse that is taking place in the country, the President should summon Parliament immediately and give it the opportunity to form a government that would put an end to the political instability that prevails today. If the President fails to do so, the opposition should have the ability to defeat the autocratic actions of the President and to move forward. If that does not happen and the crisis is resolved through a parliamentary election that will be held without effecting the reforms, the collapsing economy will inevitably decline to a state of putrefaction. The adverse consequences that follow will inevitably affect not only the society but all the political parties too. (This artical has been condensed due to space constraints)

The writer is the Editor of Ravaya

Hotel turns into fiery deathtrap

MANILA - Shocking safety lapses and barred windows turned a hotel in a suburb of the Philippine capital into a fiery death trap yesterday as residents screamed in vain for help.

At least 75 people died after the blaze broke out on the third floor of the budget Manor Hotel in Quezon City at 4:30 am (2030 GMT Friday).

Firefighters battled to rescue hotel guests trapped in their rooms by iron bars on the windows and balconies.

Whole families could be seen gripping the metal grilles in terror, weeping and calling for help as firefighters doused them with water to try to cool them down.

Firemen used circular saws to cut through some of the bars and succeeded in pulling a few people through the windows and onto elevated ladders on the fire engines.

Although some of the victims suffered burns, the vast majority of those killed died from suffocation due to smoke inhalation. The only marks on their bodies were black patches of soot around their mouths and nostrils.

The large number of victims who apparently died of suffocation immediately raised suspicions that the hotel had not provided sufficient safety measures such as water sprinklers, fire alarms, emergency lights and well-designated fire exits.

Almost all the people in the hotel were members of "God's Flock", a religious group attending a conference for born-again Christians in Manila.

Rick Barcelona, a pastor of the group, searched through the hospitals to see if his son was among the injured."

I asked God, please don't take him yet. I need him because he is my successor in my ministry," Barcelona said in a television interview.

It was the worst fire disaster to hit the country since a 1996 blaze in Ozone Disco, also in Quezon City, which killed about 160 people. Most of them were teenagers celebrating the end of the school year. (AFP)

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