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The political hotchpotch Sri Lanka has been in recent years — especially the last couple or so — has served as a veritable gold mine to be exploited by those with creative minds. We have seen caricaturists, cartoonists, satirists, poets, and lyric writers making hay while the iron is hot, as someone once said, mixing his metaphors in his inordinate hurry.

While politics and politicians have been a treasure trove — and understandably so — for artistic and literary activity, even monkeys have not been spared through no fault of their own.

The other day I found in my inbox a ‘picture’ of hundreds of monkeys crossing a vast open ground. In the background was a building identified as the Emigration and Immigration Department. Most of us would know by now what this is all about and there surely would have been resounding rounds of laughter and doubtless applause for the clever cartoonist who authored this.

But for the monkeys, there are but a few concerned humans fighting to save them from being exported for an uncertain and most likely bitter end while politicians and their official lackeys satisfy themselves with a quick deal.

Perhaps with the new Anti-Corruption Bill, whose implementation is expected to be overseen by international bodies, hurrying near it must worry some with hands that are not as clean as they should be.

What intrigued me was the comment that accompanied the cartoon. Parliamentary elections will be held soon, it read. Anxious to know what logic prompted that presumption, I dashed off a quick email to the sender whoever it was.

The reply was prompt. “If the monkeys are exported that House by the Diyawanna Oya would be empty, no,” was the acidic response.

It would be unfair, of course, to describe all those in temporary occupancy of the Diyawanna Oya abode as monkeys, whether they be of an endangered species or not. But who in his right mind could deny there are some (or should it be many?) who have over the years been up to many monkey tricks or could teach the four-legged ones a trick or two.

I had intended to return to a subject that bothers the Sri Lankan citizens, some foreign states and diverse international bodies concerned with human rights and the individual and collective freedoms held out to them in international conventions and domestic law.

That is the new Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB) that is due to be tabled in parliament shortly by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe who told journalists rather naively recently that the Bill was “progressive” and had global consensus when it was presented in 2018.

He went on to say the Bill was “people-centric”. Whether it is people-centric or drives people eccentric we will know in the months and years ahead.

But for the moment, the intended response to Justice Minister Rajapakshe’s declared concerns over protecting the people (who could protect themselves if left alone by over-zealous politicians some might add) needs to be postponed for a later date to deal with the antics of Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera and his monkey tricks.

A president struggling to put the country back on its feet and inviting fellow politicians to join hands in a national government surely has enough problems without having to deal with a quirky minister who seems keen — for reasons that still need clarity — to export to China thousands of monkeys endemic to Sri Lanka, for reasons which are also dubious, who should be told to “shut up and sit down”.

Before Agriculture Minister Amaraweera’s enthusiasm to engage in the export business (of monkeys not agricultural produce) get’s infectious and spreads to other cabinet colleagues (Health Minister Rambukwella could be excluded as he is more interested in importing drugs from various sources), will he please answer a simple question.

Minister Amaraweera might recall that a few months back he made a quick return to Colombo from whichever part of the universe he was sojourning at the time, when the media reported that one of many persons who had entered the Yala Sanctuary driving SUVs and other luxury vehicles, revving their engines and driving in circles in an obnoxious manner and frightening wildlife, was his son.

Shortly after returning to Colombo he held a press conference denying that his son was involved (apparently it was a relative) and saying he had ordered an immediate inquiry into this incident that should never have happened. He promised to take appropriate action against those who had violated the rules and regulations applicable to visitors to the sanctuary.

Now Mr Minister whatever happened to that inquiry? Was an inquiry actually held though a battery of officials were seen at the media gathering and even made remarks on what investigations had been made up to that time? Apart from some seven persons who had been rounded up and some Yala trackers who had been suspended what of the drivers of the 29-30 vehicles and other visitors who blatantly violated the rules as video images showed? What of your nephew or whoever?

Some might well wonder whether Minister Amaraweera and his relative have some antipathy to animals. While some like to disturb wildlife in their natural habitat, the minister appears to like to bundle them up and despatch them to distant China for purposes unknown except what the prospective importer has purportedly said.

This leads to all sorts of awkward issues that surely raise a multiplicity of questions. Before Agriculture Minister Amaraweera and his ministry panjandrums began talking monkey business with a company in China, did they not have the brains to check whether the Sri Lanka law allows such a large number of animals, or for that matter, any live animals to be exported?

If the law prohibited such export of live animals then the ministry’s top bureaucrat Gunadasa Samarasinghe, need not worry whether the monkeys are sent in two and three or thousands.

Did Minister Amaraweera and his ministry wunderkinder check whether this species of endemic monkeys are an endangered animal as classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) and whether Sri Lanka is a party to any international conventions or laws that prohibit trade in such endangered animals?

The minister and his officials appeared to have charged into this monkey business like bulls at the sight of a China shop. Did they even take the trouble to check with the Chinese embassy in Colombo or our embassy in Beijing? Obviously not, judging by the reaction of the Chinese embassy in Colombo.

Perhaps the smell of filthy lucre was sufficient incentive to engage in business talk with a private Chinese company that wishes to exhibit the animals in their zoos which according to Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena numbers some 1000. Apparently, China has only 18 zoos of internationally-recognised standards.

Even if the reason adduced is true and the animals are not going to end up in experimental laboratories and some wealthy-Chinese dinner tables, how can Minister Amaraweera, and now spokesman Gunawardena, ensure that these free-living animals will live the rest of their lives in the so-called zoos. Are they going to make annual visits to China to count them?

With brains like these why do we want fertiliser. It has been suggested that we keep the monkeys and export our politicians and their obsequious acolytes.

That is a sound idea indeed and might well be proposed to the IMF as one way of getting rid of loss-making ventures — or misadventures.

But there is one hitch though. Who on earth would allow them in?

(Neville de Silva is a veteran
Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)



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