The New Year dawns with some dim forebodings for Sri Lankans in many spheres of activity.
Two years and seven months after the defeat of terrorist violence, one of the sectors which revived by leaps and bounds was tourism. Arrivals rose and resorts are continuing to mushroom countrywide. Some of the world's leading journals showered plaudits on Sri Lanka, 'the resplendent isle,' as one of the best destinations in the world. It was value for money and a tourist got more than his money's worth, they boasted.
This is why the idyllic Tangalle area, long ignored though endowed with blue waters and sandy beaches, attracts many tourists nowadays. The resorts there were full. The 32-year-old Khuram Zaman Shaikh, a physiotherapist with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the Gaza Strip and his girlfriend Victoria Alexandrovna (also with the ICRC) felt Sri Lanka was a safer place for their holiday. They should have known better.
The Gaza Strip, 40 kilometres long and ten kilometres wide, is home for 1.5 million Palestinians. Under Egyptian control for 19 years, it was seized by Israel during the 1967 war. The couple has seen deadly clashes between two militant factions — Hamas and Fatah. They have also seen frequent Israeli air strikes targeting militants. They were convinced that with the separatist war in Sri Lanka now over, they would not see violence, ghastly scenes of wounded victims or corpses. They were also convinced that there would be no sporadic bomb explosions or suicide attacks.
Last Saturday night, Khuram and Victoria were enjoying themselves at Nature's Resort, one approved by the Tourist Board. Khuram, who was of Israeli origin, is a British Passport holder while Victoria held a Russian passport. Christmas had dawned and there was much revelry. Suddenly, a local UPFA politician and his gang struck a discordant note. First they fired rapid bursts from a T-56 assault rifle into the air. That was to welcome the dawn of Christmas. Why pay for crackers when 7.62 calibre ammunition is available free?
In the ghastly incident that followed, Khuram's bullet riddled body lay on the beach outside. Victoria was badly injured and was first admitted to the Matara Base Hospital. From there she was transferred to a private hospital in Colombo. The Sunday Times learnt from authoritative sources that Victoria had been sexually abused if not even raped though embarrassed officials in Colombo denied it. The full details of the shameful incident appear on Pages 14 and 15.
More questions than answers
Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Nalaka Godahewa played down the incident, one of the darkest episodes in recent tourism history. He claimed such incidents — tourists being robbed, mugged and murdered — took place even in developed countries. He predicted it would not have a negative impact on Sri Lankan tourism. He said the culprits had been apprehended. On the one hand, Dr. Godahewa's remarks raise more questions than answers. It is not damage control but a feeble attempt at public relations. The question is whether his remarks would be taken as a credible statement that would dispel fears in the minds of tourists. This was proved on Christmas day when tourists in resorts in Tangalle vacated them rapidly. Fear of harm had gripped them. They were also angry with the way 'local thugs' with seeming political patronage were harassing tourists. Some even cut short their holidays and flew back to their homes.
|How the London Daily Mail reported the story on its website
The message it delivers? Sri Lanka is still not a safe place. Moreover, the tourist couple were not, unlike in other tourist destinations in the developed world, victims of touts, drug addicts, a crime syndicate or a confidence trickster. It was a politician from the ruling party and his cohorts. They used the protection provided by his goons to attack the helpless. Incidents of gun toting ruling-party politicians and drunken daredevils shooting dead a tourist in cold blood in the developed world is unheard of.
As is the disturbing practice when an incident involves local UPFA politicians, the first story centred on a tussle between two tourist hoteliers in the area. Khuram is claimed to have intervened to settle it when he received cut injuries. It was somewhat vague on how Victoria came to suffer injuries. When news reached President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he was very angry. It would have been a thorough embarrassment to him that the incident took place both, in his home-town and involving his party men. He ordered that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) conduct an impartial investigation. That itself raised questions because the CID has been tainted with political interference -- and its ability to conduct impartial investigations when ruling-party politicians are involved is severely tested. An official in the President's staff was also detailed to keep the British High Commission and the Russian embassy in Colombo informed of the investigation and to assure them that there would be no (political) interference.
This investigation has unfolded a worrying tale. The centre of attraction for the politician was Victoria. Khuram had resented sexual advances being made on her and a fight had ensued. He paid with his life. His girlfriend Victoria has lived to tell the tale. The incident has brought in its wake a number of pronouncements from different political personalities in the government. One wanted tourist resorts searched, and not local politicians, for illegal arms. Others pontificated piously at a news conference that the public should be educated, and not the local politicians, about how to handle tourists. Worse enough, the Khuram killing in Tangalle is not the only incident that has worried the tourism sector over the role of local politicians.
In most towns, particularly along the coastline, the hotels, resorts and guest houses approved by the Tourist Board have become literally isolated. The surrounding areas have become the hunting ground for thugs and touts who are supported by local politicians, and whose support the politician needs at times of elections. These low end budget guest houses lure the tourists for cheaper beer, fruits and food items than those sold by the recognised operators. The latter is frightened to complain to Police for fear of reprisals from the local thugs/politicians. For the same reason, the Police are also reluctant to act on their own. Hence the indiscipline continues.
Adverse impact on tourism
In the New Year that begins today, the fallout from the Khuram killing, there is little doubt, will have some impact on the tourism sector. A diplomatic source said yesterday that the British government was keeping close touch on the progress of the investigation. The move is being viewed as a prelude to a new travel advisory on Sri Lanka. With bi-lateral relations between Britain and Sri Lanka having taken a nose dive in recent years, it is almost as if Britain would be waiting for something like this to happen to give a dig. British media reported the incident in their print edition and their online edition and reader's asked if it was the "jungle law" that prevailed in Sri Lanka. Britain is known as a feeding market for Sri Lanka. During the separatist war between troops and Tiger guerrillas, one of the biggest worries for the tourism sector were the worldwide reportage of bombing incidents outside the north and east. They expressed fears that such reports dissuaded tourists from coming to Sri Lanka. Many took up cudgels with Colombo-based foreign correspondents for painting a negative picture of Sri Lanka.
This time, the Khuram killing has generated the same adverse publicity. The answer, as is clear, does not lay in saying it happens in developed countries. Instead, the mafia-backed local politicos who terrorise tourist resorts should be dealt with severely by the Police. For this, the Police should be given the fullest authority and any misuse of power by the politicos would have to be dealt with in a tough manner. Today, the Police are hesitant to deal with them. "The laws apply only to those outside the government," lamented a senior police official who did not wish to be identified. He said if the government did not act soon, it would lead to further deterioration of the law and order situation.
Another cause for serious concern deals literally with Sri Lanka's new generation, some 300,000 of them who sat the General Certificate of Education (Advanced Level) examination in August 2011. In an unprecedented crisis, the Department of Examinations has not been able to provide students the correct results. Consequently, students who planned studies abroad, those who wanted to go for educational pursuits locally and their parents are all exasperated. In what will surely find a place in Ripley's Believe It or Not, students who sat for the examination in the Arts stream had "A" passes in Science subjects and vice versa.
The long-delayed results became the subject of a question when President Rajapaksa met editors and media personnel on December 20. Rajapaksa asked his staff to immediately get Examinations Commissioner Anura Edirisinghe on the telephone line. He was not available. Edirsinghe later called back. Rajapaksa told him the media had asked why the GCE (AL) results were being delayed. Rajapaksa listened to Edirisinghe's remarks and was heard to say "…..then, why don't you keep the media informed of that position. They are asking me these questions……" The same afternoon, Edirisinghe held a news conference to explain that the results would be "out soon."
The Advanced Level results had been delayed as the Z-score was being calculated, he explained. The Z-score, the benchmark for the selection of students to universities was introduced in 2001 to avoid what is described as a discrepancy among students sitting relatively easy subjects for the GCE Advanced Level examination and gaining entry into universities. The previous system was based on the aggregate of the marks gained, but the current system is based on what is described as "a more scientific calculation." At the meeting with the media, Rajapaksa said at least three more days would be needed to release the results. However, since they were not released even by Friday December 23, the President had summoned a meeting the next day (Saturday) and on the following day the results were released.
When the results were announced on December 25, there were errors in district and island ranks. Elsewhere in this newspaper, we publish a report on how the colossal mess-up occurred. President Rajapaksa has appointed a Committee headed by Dhara Wijetilleke, a former Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and currently Secretary, Ministry of Science and Technology, to inquire into the blunder by the Department of Examinations.
The Committee's findings may also give an answer to the finger pointing by Ministers and officials on who is to be blamed and who is right. Whatever the outcome would be, it is no secret that the government has earned the wrath of the students and parents alike. Even worse, the credibility of the Department of Examinations has now been brought into question. Diplomatic missions that examine visa applications from students who want to travel for studies abroad might have doubts about some of the results. There again, it is the government's credibility that is dented. Even if the Committee's findings are made known, the question remains whether those responsible for playing with the future of 300,000 youth would be taken to task.
In the past year, ministerial mishandling has prompted President Rajapaksa to personally intervene. One such case is the GCE (AL) results where he has been forced to appoint a Committee to find out what had gone wrong. By implication, this means neither Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena nor Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake has been able to come up with satisfactory answers. Neither have they been able to initiate measures to rectify the colossal blunders made.
Weeks earlier, Colombo and principal towns went without vegetables. It was after Internal Trade Minister Johnston Fernando decreed that all vegetables transported to Colombo (to wholesale points) from centres outside should be packed in plastic crates. This created a storm in the vegetable industry with protests by vendors in Colombo, Dambulla and elsewhere. It became clear that those affected by Minister Fernando's decision were not consulted in advance. Rajapaksa had to keep his minister waiting for two hours for the cabinet meeting to talk to organisations representing the vegetable trade in Colombo. It was decided that only Thalana Batu (Solanum Melongera), Brinjals and tomatoes be transported in crates. The rest would be moved in much the same way it was transported before. Now, the same situation has arisen with the Khuram killing where he has asked the CID to conduct a full and impartial investigation.
LLRC and India
In these columns last week, I reported that matters arising from the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009 would be one of the most difficult challenges staring in the face of the government in 2012 which begins today. This is particularly in the light of the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) being placed in Parliament last month. The sequel continues.
Last week, the final week of 2011, saw the beginning of a new bout of shadow boxing between Sri Lanka and India. This came in the light of conflicting positions over matters relating to the enforcement of 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Reacting to the LLRC report, an Indian government official spokesperson, who responded to a question at a news conference, made some "preliminary remarks". The text of what he said was later released by the Indian External Affairs Ministry. It said:
"The report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was tabled by the Government of Sri Lanka in its Parliament on 16 December. While we are still studying the report which runs into over 400 pages, I can share with you some initial comments on its contents.
"The Government of India welcomes the public release of the LLRC report and takes note of the assurance given by the Government of Sri Lanka in Parliament about implementation of many of its recommendations.
"The LLRC has recommended various constructive measures for addressing issues related to healing the wounds of the conflict and fostering a process of lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. In particular, we have noted the proposed measures pertaining to information on missing persons and detainees, investigation of cases of disappearances and abductions, promotion of a trilingual policy, deployment of Tamil-speaking officers in all offices, curbing activities of illegal armed groups, reduction of high security zones, return of private lands by the military and demilitarization, including phasing out of the involvement of the security forces in civilian activities and restoration of civilian administration in the Northern Province. We have noted the assurance given by the Government of Sri Lanka in Parliament that it will ensure the withdrawal of security forces from all aspects of community life and confine their role exclusively to security matters.
"Implementation of assurances to ensure speedy resettlement and genuine reconciliation, including early completion of the process of the return of Internally Displaced Persons and refugees to their respective homes, restoration of normal civilian life in affected areas would mark a major step forward in the process of reconciliation.
"The LLRC report has underlined that the present situation provides a great window of opportunity to forge a consensual way forward towards reconciliation through a political settlement based on devolution of power. It recognises that a political solution is imperative to addressing the root cause of the conflict and notes that the Government should provide leadership to a political process which must be pursued for the purpose of establishing a framework for ensuring sustainable peace and security in the post-conflict environment.
"In this context, we have been assured by the Government of Sri Lanka on several occasions in the past, of its commitment towards pursuit of a political process, through a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil National Alliance, leading to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and to go beyond, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers and genuine national reconciliation. We hope that the Government of Sri Lanka recognising the critical importance of this issue acts decisively and with vision in this regard. We will remain engaged with them through this process and offer our support in the spirit of partnership.
"We have also noted the Government of Sri Lanka's intention to set up a mechanism to carry out further investigations relating to instances of alleged human rights violations and incidents involving loss of civilian life. It is important to ensure that an independent and credible mechanism is put in place to investigate allegations of human rights violations, as brought out by the LLRC, in a time-bound manner."
India has, among other matters, re-iterated its position that it wants the government to ensure "…… the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and to go beyond, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers and genuine national reconciliation….."
During his meeting with editors and media personnel on December 20, Rajapaksa ruled out such a move that would give police powers to the Provincial Councils. He said, "We know how the police powers are implemented in India. During the Mumbai attack it took two hours to contact the Chief Minister to get down the Police from New Delhi. Sonia (Gandhi) was not allowed to go. If police powers are given I will not be able to go to my village sometimes. Journalists will complain to me that they have been assaulted because they wrote something about a Chief Minister. There are good reasons not to give police powers. Already 750 Tamils have been recruited to the Police. In the past they did not allow the Tamils to join the Police."
Additional powers ruled out
The granting of limited police powers and land use powers to Provincial Councils was included in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. However, such measures were not enforced by successive governments. In interviews with selected Indian media outlets, Rajapaksa has explained why such powers cannot be conferred.
However, the controversial Joint Statement issued after External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris visited New Delhi last year for talks with his counterpart S.M. Krishna, among other matters said, "Both sides agreed that the end of armed conflict in Sri Lanka created a historic opportunity to address all outstanding issues in a spirit of understanding and mutual accommodation imbued with political vision to work towards genuine national reconciliation. In this context, the External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka affirmed his Government's commitment to ensuring expeditious and concrete progress in the on-going dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil parties. A devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation".
There was a lot of criticism of Dr. Peiris for having agreed to this statement, and the Indian side was quick to say that the draft (prepared by India) had been shown to the Sri Lankans before it was agreed to. It was obvious that the Sri Lankan side had not given much thought to it. Dr. Peiris was criticised for not taking a single Foreign Ministry official with him for those talks. The issue, no doubt, would turn into a bone of contention between Colombo and New Delhi now. Needless to say an unhappy India, when issues arising from the LLRC report come up for discussion at the March sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), would pose a formidable diplomatic challenge to the government. It is no secret that India was at the forefront of Sri Lanka's diplomatic campaign to avert an adverse resolution being adopted at the UNHRC in 2009. Instead a resolution that praised the Sri Lankan government for the military defeat of the LTTE guerrillas in May 2009 was adopted. In fact, the report of the UN Panel of Experts, recommended that this 2009 resolution, be rescinded. The government has three months to ensure that such a thing does not happen.