Bhagya- a whistleblower for environmental protection as Lanka faces challenges in Geneva on human rights issues

• Thousands stand in solidarity with Bhagya • The cost of MP Sarath Weerasekara’s move to ban the burqa • Sri Lanka faces the vote on the UNHRC Resolution next week

BY LANKATHILAKA

 Photo courtesy- web 

Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.

—Jimmy Carter

Has man’s love for nature been thrown out of the window because of his greed for money? It is an axiomatic assumption that from the early ages man lived with the help of nature.  The shining sun, the trees, waterways, the rain, the wind and the natural landscape, all of which helped the existence of man on earth.

Animals, birds and other creatures that add beauty to nature and its landscape and entire eco systems are now being destroyed and face extinction in the name of development.

Preserving nature is a sophisticated and daunting task in the face of the current political trajectory which overshadows the enthusiasm shown by environmental lovers to protect the environment from destruction and raise the voice against vandalism.

The tragicomedy enacted last week by the Policegrilling a 19 year old student who stood steadfastly against the destruction caused to nature has ostensibly sent ripples among right thinking people who have at least an iota of love and care for the environment.  The student, Bhagya Abeyratne, is from Rakwana and lives in the vicinity of the Sinharaja rainforest which is a UNESCO world heritage site.  More than 60 percent of the trees in the forest reserve are endemic and more than 50 percent of the country’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies live here. Bhagya took part as a contestant in the “Sirasa Lakshapathi” quiz and broke down in tears while describing the deforestation which is taking place in the forest area.

She is being accused of delivering the script of another party  and has now become a victim of political manouverings.  

Whatever the circumstances, the truth spoken by Bhagya has hurt many in government echelons.. The decision by the Rakwana Police to investigate her claim and to get a statement from her was perceived as an absurdity because other incidents of environmental destruction that are taking place rampantly all over the country have not been investigated, despite their very public denunciation. . It was another comedy in itself since the Police could not find where the destruction was taking place and the forest officers who met her were trying to verify ownership of the land.

Bhagya told the police officers that her concern was the elephants and other endangered species who have no place to go to and would face dire consequences if thedestruction continued.

If a teenager can feel for the devastation that is taking place and predict what is in store for the country in the foreseeable future, the government is encouraged totake these remarks seriously, without making it yet another political drama and employing social media lackeys to defame her.

Civil society, lawyers, conservationists, Opposition parliamentarians and the public have stood in solidarity with Bhagya and have come out openly to defend and take the cause to another level. The blessings of the Buddhist clergy will add strength to her mission as a whistleblower to protect the environment from destruction. One senior Buddhist monk who visited Bhagaya to inspire her said that environmental destruction is all pervasive and compared it to the ruination caused by the devils in legendry VishalaMahanuwara, dating back to the time of the Buddha.

Not so long ago the country witnessed how a politician queried from a forest officer why we need oxygen. The question was posed when the forest officer opposed a move by the said politician to clear mangroves near a lagoon. “Why do we need oxygen? We are clearing the area to build a playground which is more important than oxygen’, he said.

It was obvious that the politician was unaware that mangroves help water retention and generate natural gasses needed for human existence.

JVP Parliamentarian Harini Amarasuriya had this to say on Twitter to Bhagya.

Firstly, she is 19 years old so please stop infantilizing her.  She has amply demonstrated that she has opinions, is able to articulate her thoughts and has the courage of her convictions. Secondly, the way government officials are questioning her shows how unequipped they are to deal with confident, articulate young adults. Confronted with sassy young people, they hector, bully and intimidate.  Thirdly, the way in which she is being discussed in the media – as if she has no agency, objectified and sensationalised – both by those pro and against her – once again shows the shallowness of Sri Lankan media.  Fourthly, our ‘leaders’ are showing how petrified and insecure they are, if a 19-year-old girl can shake up the establishment with one public act of defiance.  Finally, this incident starkly reveals the huge gap in our society:  Bhagya is not the first (or last) 19 year old to speak out but she comes from a background that exposes her to all of the above.

Yet, how many of her peers from far more comfortable and secure backgrounds are even aware of this incident and are rallying around her?  Even those who claim to be as concerned as her about the environment?  Constantly calling her statement scripted won’t hold water when what she said seems to be factually correct.

Bhagya certainly doesn’t deserve abuse and harassment – nor should she be patronized.  Certainly, she shouldn’t be used and discarded when the news gets stale.  What Bhagya has shown is that all hope is not lost for our country – if we can still produce young people like her – there is still hope.  Let her inspire and lead – give her room to grow.  Let her breath freely.

Bhagya is a crusader for environmental justice, to preserve the environment from obliteration and a youth ambassador of the cause. She should be celebrated, not villainized. Conservation of the atmosphere is the answer to global warming.  Sri Lanka certainly should not be a contributor to global warming by ruining the pleasant environment we appreciated and enjoyed as children.  We have a responsibility to preserve it for future generations.

Besides, Sri Lanka is traversing on a rather dangerous political course without a proper realization of the harsh political realities. The proposal by Minister of Law and Order Sarath Weerasekara to ban the burqa, an outer garment worn by Muslim women to cover the body, is one which will see Sri Lanka skating on thin ice.

As a sovereign nation Sri Lanka is at a crossroads as far as the Resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council is concerned. The country is likely to face far-reaching consequences as a result of the Resolution if timely action is not taken to dilute it. The Western bloc, headed by the United Kingdom, is all out to put Sri Lanka in an awkward position. The UK and other sponsors of the Resolution have called on the international community to impose sanctions, travel restrictions, asset freezing and various other punitive action if the country fails to address accountability issues in respect of war crimes, serious human rights abuses and other similar issues. The arrogant stance taken by the Sri Lanka government its refusal to toe the line with international humanitarian laws and to devise an acceptable mechanism with expert input to resolve other connected issueshas aggravated the situation. Although the previous regime may not have been the panacea for all ills, it did something right to avoid what would have been an otherwise precarious situation and joined the persecutors to persuade them to water down the intensity of the Resolution. Some political analysts point out that it was a strategic moveby the government at the time, although the Rajapaksa administration branded the move as an out and out betrayal of the government and the country. Hence, the more pertinent question that has arisen from the purported concrete steps taken by the Rajapaksa administration is whether they can put the country on a better footing by withdrawing from the earlier Resolution.

Sri Lanka was dragged down to a position where the country had to reluctantly lobby for support from countries which are hostile to the civilized world in order to stay afloat. The worst human rights violators in the world have become friendly nations overnight to help wade through the difficult terrain, to the utter dismay of the civilized world.

And, at a time when Sri Lanka was lobbying for support from the Asian lobby and that of the Middle East, Minister Sarath Weerasekara spent more time strategising a media campaign to ban the burqa and madrasas. Weerasekara’s diplomatically short-sighted decision was fodder for the media that hit international headlines with the story.

The Minister may not have realized how important the support of the Middle-Eastern countries are for Sri Lanka when the country is facing a crucial vote at the UNHRC in the coming days. Besides, a considerable volume of the foreign exchange in-flow comes from employment opportunities in the Middle –Eastern countries. These countries have helped Sri Lanka in numerous ways in the past, including during the Tsunami in 2004.

It was only the other day that the older Rajapaksa sibling, Prime Minister Mahinda, had extensive talks with the visiting Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan to use his good offices to influence and muster the support of the Middle Eastern countries to vote for Sri Lanka at the UNHRC sessions on the 22nd of this month when the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet brings in a rather harsh Resolution on Sri Lanka.

As soon as the minister made the announcement while expressing his sentiments on national security, the High Commissioner for Pakistan in Sri Lanka tweeted, “the likely ban on Niqab #SriLanka will only serve as injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe. At today’s economically difficult time due to the pandemic and other image-related challenges faced by the country at international fora, such divisive steps in the name of security, besides accentuating economic difficulties, will only serve as a fillip to further strengthen wider apprehensions about fundamental human rights of minorities in the country.”

The timing was both questionable and bad. The minister may have done it unconsciously. By his action, the minister has indirectly proven that he is a political misfit and the sentiments did not take Sri Lanka anywhere other than appeasing a bunch of hardcore racist elements in the country.

In short, it was a diplomatic blunder on the part of minister Weerasekara that the foreign secretary had to intervene on behalf of the State to send out a hurriedly prepared statement, denying that there had been any discussion on the matter during last week’s Cabinet meeting.

Minister Weerasekara on numerous occasions tried to justify his existence as a Minister of Cabinet rank by attempting to introduce various measures to strengthen national security, but finally failed in all his endeavoursowing to opposition by the ministers themselves.

At present, Sri Lanka is persistently campaigning against what is more or less portrayed as an unfair Resolution against it by the UNHRC to put Sri Lanka in the spotlight concerning war crimes.

As a step towards making friendly overtures to India after Sri Lanka reneged from the controversial East Container Terminal issue, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made it a point to get in touch with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the telephone.

During the telephone conversation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had assured that India “will not do any injustice to Sri Lanka,”

Therefore Sri Lanka is hopeful that at the eleventh hour, India will come up with amendments to bail Sri Lanka out of a difficult situation.

In any case, India’s support is critical for Sri Lanka against the formidable line-up against her in the 47-member Council (UNHRC). The hostile Resolution calling for intervention and sanctions is likely to gain momentum since the United Kingdom and other countries vindicating the decision are campaigning against Sri Lanka vehemently.

China, Pakistan and Russia are unwavering supporters of Sri Lanka but that may not be sufficient. Sri Lanka therefore is pinning hope on the Asian bloc although it is rather difficult to fathom which way they would go owing to the strong Tamil diaspora lobby against Sri Lanka.

In Geneva, India’s Permanent Representative Indra Mani Pandey raised the issue pertaining to power devolution to the provinces under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which prescribes extensive devolution to the provinces with Police powers and land alienation rights.  He called for its implementation for meaningful ethnic reconciliation and national unity in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is now compelled to swallow all the bitter pills as a bargain for a vote in return and is nowkeeping her fingers crossed as the date of the vote on the Resolution draws nearer, with high hopes of Indian support at the last moment.

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