From the time I can recollect, Sri Lanka has been called the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” by writers and awe-struck visitors on seeing the beauty and variety of this resplendent isle.
If memory serves me, Jesus Christ warned his disciples not to “cast pearls before swine”. His admonition was not to waste something valuable by offering it to those who do not understand its worth. But Christ could not perceive then who would rule this once-blessed island.
They did not wait for the pearl to be cast. The two-legged kind that inhabited this land grabbed it with both hands promising to make this island pearl a global rarity, a wonder to behold.
They did keep faithfully to their promise. Except there was a cruel twist to the tale. It was not this island that turned out to be a wonder to behold but those who pledged to make it one. Before long it was transformed into an abode for bribe givers and bribe takers, a den of corruption in which the people suffered and those who pretentiously claimed to represent the people, prospered.
That came naturally to those ever ready to steal what belonged to the people. So politics did not turn out to be a service to the people but a vocation in which one fattens self and family and stashes away ill-gotten loot abroad in off-shore accounts and fake companies.
It mattered not who ruled, for most of them looked after each other as they stole the people’s assets to enhance their unprecedented lifestyles. Thankfully there were and are the honest, the upright and the decent but too few to matter as a vanguard of societal change and to clean the Augean stable called the public service which is fast becoming corrupt to catch up with their political masters.
But now there is another pearl. Not of the Indian Ocean but in it and several metres deep down in the water. If the original pearl has been a happy hunting ground for political scavengers, their graft-gathering officials and kith and kin, the ship X-Press Pearl that went down two years ago in our territorial waters, polluting man, animal and plant with disastrous ecological results that could well affect even generations to come, appears to have provided an unexpected game plan.
Even though some evidence appears to have been destroyed or mysteriously vanished, whatever remains hints at a collective cover-up or at least several hands in the pot.
This sunken pearl, it seems, has turned out to be another lucrative source for the shameless money-grabbers — whoever they may be — the kind that parades before the public as the country’s saviours and the cleanest of the clean, while concealing their tainted hands.
Just last week Justice Minister (let’s leave doctorates aside for now) Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told parliament that somebody named Chamara Gunasekera had been the recipient of US$ 250 million which had been deposited in an account in a London bank, implying it had to do with this pearl business.
Though Minister Rajapakshe broke the news of this alleged transaction, he would not vouch for its veracity, saying it was information he had received, cautiously staying clear of any personal knowledge of this deal.
Sadly, all this including his recent contacts with previous president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ascertain the truth or otherwise of some other information relating to this burnt-out ship, is emerging only now, almost two years after what is documented as the worst maritime disaster in our times and only a couple of weeks or so before the time to file legal action expires.
This sudden outburst of ‘information’ does smell rather suspicious, what would be called a ‘plant’. Whether this was deliberately planted on Justice Minister Rajapakshe so he would be the source of breaking news as though he had just uncovered the Dead Sea Scrolls inside some discarded container from the ship and let the trail lead in some innocuous direction, cannot be ruled out. The timing makes one wonder.
Particularly so when nobody so far has been able to unearth the identity of the lucky recipient of $250 m. My own inquiries in the last few days from relatives, friends and acquaintances to find out whether any of them knows a Chamara Gunasekera drew a blank. But then, London is a large city and he — if he does exist — could be anywhere.
Rajapakshe told parliament he had passed on his information to the IGP to initiate an investigation. That’s a good laugh. It is like adding a comic denouement to a tragic drama. Those aware of the recent history of our police might well suggest he calls the Keystone Cops instead of the IGP for all the good the police chief could or would do.
There are a host of unanswered questions which those concerned over the lethargic and wayward proceedings connected with this disaster, find increasingly troublesome.
Why has it taken the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government and its successor administration so long to act to claim compensation when every bit of evidence pointed to the sinking ship releasing toxic substances and pollutants that threatened our ecosystem and peoples’ livelihoods?
There are more fundamental questions. Why was a ship with damaged toxic cargo which had already been refused entry to two ports in the Arab Gulf and India allowed to enter Sri Lanka’s territorial waters? Was the Harbour Master personally responsible for the clearance to enter or was he following orders?
Is it not customary for the previous port to inform shipping and other possible ports of call, of the condition of the ship and its cargo? If the Indian authorities had done so — and there is no reason to doubt it — then Sri Lanka’s Harbour Master would have been aware beforehand of the plight of the X-Press Pearl. Yet who allowed it into our territorial waters?
What happened to the recorded communications between the ship and the Colombo Port authorities which are said to have disappeared thus eliminating evidence which would have cast light on what shenanigans took place right from the start?
In November last year, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry told the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Council of Ministers meeting in Bangladesh that the catastrophe was “considered the largest ship disaster involving plastic pellets, hazardous and noxious materials, in the world. The geographic bounding of the incident remains unknown given its developing nature”. He added that a “substantial proportion of the plastic pellet pollution would remain mobilised in the Indian Ocean for decades to come”.
Publicly acknowledging the inestimable long-term destruction caused to the country’s ecology and man himself by the polluted waters, why is it that our drum-beating patriots and their fellow travellers in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government and the present lot allow this case to drag on when even those who could count up to 10 knew that time was running out for any compensatory claims that Sri Lanka had a right to file in court. And why, pray, do so in Singapore when Colombo seemed the more obvious choice as it happened in our territorial waters?
What was Ali Sabry who articulated the catastrophe confronting his country and who was Justice Minister at the critical time in the Gotabaya government and later its finance minister and now as foreign minister, doing all this time?
What did he do to ensure that claims were filed in the Sri Lankan courts instead of breaking into pseudo-oratorical outbursts as he did last week in parliament, trying to tell Eastern Province MP Rasamanickam what he could say and what he could not?
Not being an elected MP but one installed under the National List system, Ali Sabry seems to have little or no idea about the basic responsibilities and duties of an elected member representing the voters of a constituency.
Will the former justice minister and the present one tell the public more of the missed opportunities to claim more compensation at a time when Sri Lanka is pressed for hard currency despite all the hoopla about the IMF throwing a lifeline?
(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.)