ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 13
Financial Times  

Foot in the mouth

Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal has done it once again! Comments at a recent media briefing where Cabraal said earnings from tourism had dropped and the sector was insignificant to the economy, drew an angry response from hoteliers and industry stakeholders from the south.

More than 400 stakeholders comprising investors, hoteliers, trade union leaders, fish, meats, vegetable and other provision suppliers, shopkeepers, beach operators, beach vendors, taxi drivers and musicians met recently under the guidance of visionary tourism leader Prof M.T.A. Furkhan and condemned the comments.

Appealing to the president, in a letter, in the hope that Cabraal’s comments wouldn’t divert government attention away from tourism being an important segment in the Sri Lankan economy, the group said fortunately most people are able to differentiate between what is common sense in economics and that “which is flippant gibberish uttered in unguarded moments of arrogance.”

The comments were uncalled for particularly as tourism has a direct and indirect involvement of close to a million people who depend on this sector for their livelihood. Cabraal’s argument would also apply to the fishing industry in the north which has dropped in its standings in GDP growth due to the conflict. Do we ignore these regions too?

It was left to the small stakeholders in the tourism industry to protest over Cabraal’s comments while the big-time players either chose to ignore it or didn’t know it existed.

It was not only an embarrassing spectacle for Sri Lankan participants but also drew an angry retort from a foreign participant who wanted to know why politicians are invited for discussions they can’t understand.

The focus of attention was Sri Lanka’s Minister of Labour, Athauda Seneviratne during a session on Health and Human Rights of Migrant Workers at an international gathering on HIV/AIDS in Colombo. Asked what the government was doing about Rizana Nafeek, the 19-year-old Sri Lankan migrant worker sentenced to death for allegedly killing a four-month-old infant in Saudi Arabia, the minister – as our report elsewhere in this section correctly states – dodged the question and went ‘round the mulberry bush’.

What followed made matters worse. Seneviratne waded into a discourse of sex being a normal urge and so on amusing the international gathering and prompting a delegate to ask why politicians were invited for such meetings. The moderator had to virtually cut short the minister’s long-winding response and move to another question.

Two issues arise – what was the minister of labour doing at a session in which the health of migrant workers and HIV issues were being discussed? The other minister invited was the Pakistani Health Minister who didn’t turn up. Seneviratne handled the reins of foreign employment some months back, not anymore.

That subject is handled by Keheliya Rambukwella, Minister of Foreign Employment since January this year while health comes under Nimal Siripala de Silva. In another foot-in-the-mouth statement at the same session, Seneviratne spoke of an impending law banning mothers with children below five years from seeking foreign employment. For all purposes that proposal is on the back burner and hopefully won’t see the light of day.

The proposal was announced by the Women’s Affairs Ministry but subsequently, Rambukwella, responding to questions at a media briefing, said the proposal was being re-considered as there were complaints that it infringed on the rights of people. The Sunday Times FT condemned the proposal saying the government must come up with a compromise in offering alternate employment for thousands of women whose families depend on wages earned as migrant workers, before rushing through with ill-advised decisions.

Ideally it should have been Rambukwella who should have represented Sri Lanka as co chair of this forum rather than Seneviratne who is unlikely to keep abreast of developments of a subject he no longer handles. The organizers should have known that. The 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific however had a positive side when Standard Chartered Bank brought the business community together for the launch of the Sri Lanka Business Coalition.

The Coalition is to work towards preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The epidemic is no longer a public health issue. HIV/AIDS is an economic reality as it impacts on health (cost of treatment), families (social costs), productivity and GDP growth. That’s good reason for the private sector to join hands with civil society and the government in the battle against HIV/AIDS.


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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.