ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 09
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Wijeya Pariganaka

Beheading a teenager

Somehow the plight of young Rizana Nafeek, the 19-year-old teen from the war-ravaged, poverty-stricken Eastern Province of Sri Lanka now on death row in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not kindled the outrage it ought to have -- and would have -- in most other countries. Certainly not within the Government. Her story is a saga in itself.

First, she obtains a Sri Lanka passport and employment abroad despite being under-age. The authorities say neither the job agency nor the passport office can be penalised. Nobody is culpable. Then, she gets into hot water in a strange land, is tried, convicted by an alien judicial system -- represented only by embassy officials -- and sentenced to die by beheading.

When the issue comes to light, the Government does not even bother to pay for her appeal, this being done by a foreign-funded rights group.

Now, there is a half-hearted attempt by the Government, despatching a junior minister who cannot even get a proper appointment. He, by the way, was scheduled to perform Umrah in Mecca at Sri Lankan and visiting Medina on state expense in the process of seeking the teenager's release.

The Ambassador accredited to the Kingdom is made the scapegoat for all this -- though indeed, most Sri Lankan Ambassadors in West Asia, mostly appointed to placate Muslim Ministers, are utterly ineffectual in those countries, far removed from the trials and tribulations of their countrymen and women. Very few, like Ambassador Amanullah Farook who risked life and limb in Iraq, the Lebanon and Kuwait protecting thousands of Sri Lankan workers during hostilities that broke out there, could say that they served their people and earned their keep whilst posted to those countries.

Yesterday's news was that even in this case, the Auditor General has just discovered that Sri Lanka's Foreign Employment Bureau has shortchanged these workers by producing forged reports of payment of UN compensation to them, pocketing the difference in the Rupee value vis-a-vis the Dollar in the process of exchanging the monies received.

This is the disgraceful state of affairs in Sri Lanka -- where almost one-fourth of all foreign exchange -- the monies sent to feed and sustain our country (Rs. 300 billion annually) comes from the remittances of Sri Lanka's nearly one million expatriate labour force, 60 per cent of whom are housemaids like young Rizana.

We have Ministries upon Ministries: Labour; Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare; Foreign Affairs; Human Rights etc., supposedly looking after the interests of these one million workers -- but what use they are to them only God knows.

The President was once a Minister of Labour. He has visited these countries, knows the difficult conditions our workers face and is generally regarded as a caring politician. But what good is it if he cannot get the act together and re-invest both money and human resources on a people who are keeping his Government, in many ways, financially afloat.

20 years after

On this day -- 20 years ago, Sri Lanka was in flames. Neighbouring India had arm-twisted the then Government of President J.R. Jayewardene into signing a so-called Peace Accord -- the 'agreement between the Government of India and the Government of Sri Lanka to establish peace and normalcy in Sri Lanka' together with some controversial annexures. Much blood, has flowed since then.

India, that then promised to provide all military assistance to Sri Lanka withdrew that clause in the Agreement after its Peace-Keeping Force suffered a bloodied nose, and a draft Military Co-operation Agreement between the two neighbours was shelved by India's non-cooperation. The southern Indian constituency keeps political pressure on a shaky coalition government in New Delhi to keep its distance from Colombo on such matters.

Mr. Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE, and India that was so touchy about President Jayewardene's pro-US posturing, is now engaged in a rollicking business partnership with the US.

The Agreement, something India might well choose to pretend, is not there, and in these 20 years, Sri Lanka, the then booming economy of South Asia has slipped into a veritable economic hell-hole while India, then in the dumps of a socialist regime, rightly boasts of an impressive growth-rate under a pro-market economy.

Sri Lanka is left with much of the legacy that was forced down its throat on that day -- one being the Provincial Councils, a white elephant in whichever way you look at it. The time is opportune for the Government to reflect on this historically flawed agreement, and chart a new course as an independent and sovereign nation and not the fiefdom it was reduced to at the time.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.