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Police questions young environmental activist: Little Bhagya unmoved by undemocratic forces

19 March 2021 07:00 am - 31     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • Threats and harassment: New World Order of Democratic governance?
  • Two ‘male’ police officers of the Rakwana Police had gone to her residence and recorded a statement inquiring as to who had influenced her to express these views

19-year-old Bhagya Abeyratne made headlines last week over a statement made during the ‘Sirasa Lakshapathi Programme’ which is aired during weekends on Sirasa Television. While environmental groups applauded her words government authorities responded swiftly to not only cover up what she said, but also attempted to prove her wrong. A day later, two officers from the Rakwana Police station visited her residence to obtain a statement. Wildlife Minister C.B Ratnayake said that she should know her facts prior to making such statements. Several rights groups rallied to sign petitions, to hold protests and voice for the protection of her rights. Contradicting statements have also been made by Public Security Minister and the Central Environmental Authority Chairman raising doubts as to whether the land in question actually falls within the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. 

 

Recommendations by Minister 

The environmental destruction taking place at the Sinharaja Forest Reserve has been exposed in various instances. Political affiliates have considered putting up individual projects from time to time irrespective of the government in power. 
After several requests from environmental groups, Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera has made the following recommendations during a meeting held on March 5, 2021; 

  • Land Reclamation Commission (LRC) should seek approval from Environment Ministry if private entities are looking at claiming ownership of LRC lands
  • A 500 metre area around Sinharaja Forest Reserve to be declared as an environmentally sensitive area 
  • The Department of Wildlife Conservation informed to declare the area between Delwala – Walankanda and Beragala Mukalana – Handapan Ella as a sanctuary and confirm it in writing
  • Forest Department instructed to speed up the process to acquire forest lands and declare the entire area as a sanctuary 


No hotel is being built on this land - CEA Chairman

“The land in question is another private land lying in between two forest reserves,” opined Central Environmental Authority Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe. “The central area has been utilised for individual housing projects since these are private lands. If somebody wants to build a house then they should obtain approval from the Divisional Secretary. If they want to cut a tree they should seek approval from the Grama Niladhari. When we visited the site we only saw the foundation being laid. The owner said he is constructing a three-bedroom house.” said Amarasinghe. 


“As per the National Environment Act an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has to be done when clearing over one hectare of land. But an EIA is not required if a house is being built on a private land. If a hotel is being built we will stop it immediately,” he added.


“Forest lands being taken under purview of Govt.”

Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Deputy Forest Conservator General Nishantha Edirisinghe said that forest lands are now being taken under the purview of the government as per the Land Acquisitions Act. “This is being done to prevent forest lands from being taken for private usage. Likewise, around 400 hectares around the Sinharaja Forest is being considered and currently we are looking at speeding up this process.” said Edirisinghe. 


FMM condemns actions of Govt. authorities 

The Free Media Movement strongly condemns the response and comments made by government authorities and officials against the concerns expressed by Bhagya Abeyratne of Rakwane, regarding the destruction of forest near Sinharaja, and the conduct of the police. This action is deemed as a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression.


Young Abeyratne, who participated in the ‘Sirisa Lakshapathi Programme’ on Sirasa Television, had expressed her concern and dissatisfaction regarding the deforestation taking place in her village. The next day, the Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation stated that her statement was factually incorrect.


Two ‘male’ police officers of the Rakwana Police had gone to her residence and recorded a statement inquiring as to who had influenced her to express these views. The proper course of action that should have been followed would have been for the authorities to investigate and take appropriate action regarding the environmental destruction she revealed and not to take such disturbing action against the person who pointed it out.
Requests calling for the severe reprimanding of Bhagya Abeyratne as well as threatening statements against her circulating on social media are actions that discourage free speech and threaten the safety of the person expressing dissent.


It is a social responsibility to comment on an event that affects the people within a democratic society. Both local and foreign courts have emphasised in their judgments that such dissenting voices are not necessarily required to be one hundred percent correct. The boldness in using the right of the youth to criticise and question the policy and actions of the State should be appreciated. Civilised societies around the world encourage such means of expressions; especially from children and youth.


In a democratic society, it is a citizen’s right to exercise freedom of expression and dissent with social responsibility and to expand its frontiers and scope. The Free Media Movement strongly urges the government to take appropriate swift action to prevent such incidents that discourage the right to freedom of expression, whilst reminding that the authorities at all levels of government have a constitutional and moral obligation to respect, protect and nurture media freedom, including freedom of expression.

 

“Right to freedom of speech violated” 

Several rights groups and civil society activists have condemned the actions taken by the Police and law enforcement authorities in questioning Abeyratne. “Everybody should express admiration towards this girl,” opined Prof. Camena Gunaratne, Head of the Department of Legal Studies at the Open University, Colombo. “It is good to see young people expressing their concerns over environmental destruction. The civil society should rally round her and speak for her rights. She has done nothing wrong and she hasn’t broken any law. This is a violation of her right to freedom of speech. She deserves admiration and support as she’s raising some pertinent questions.” said Gunaratne. 

hat she said was false  - Minister Weerasekara 

When asked about the response from the Police with regard to the incident, Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara said that it’s alright for the Police or law enforcement authorities to question someone to get more details. “She’s around 19 years old and is not a child anymore. In the end it was proven that what she said was false. It may have been the environmental police that went to question her because they are responsible for the environmental issues happening in that area.” said Weerasekara. 
Responding to a query on whether these actions violated her right to freedom of expression, Weerasekara responded negatively. “This is not a violation of freedom of expression. Anybody can criticise the Government or any politician. But what happened here was that her statement was false. As a result the public reacted and because of the actions of the Police the situation was brought under control,” said Weerasekara. 

 

 

Govt. intolerant of dissent”

“Freedom of Expression is being violated by intimidation, threats and when you scare somebody over what they said,” opined National People’s Power MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya. “This is what happened to Bhagya. She expressed her opinion and now she’s being taken to task by state officials. It was an unnecessary reaction as she hasn’t committed a crime or hasn’t done anything wrong. There’s no need for the government or the Police to intervene her opinion.” said Dr. Amarasuriya. 


She further said that environmental destruction is at an all time high and that the government sees environmental activists as a threat. “This government is signaling to the country and the world that it will protect people of its own while they harass those who are critical about its policies and interventions. This has been the government’s pattern. They are extremely intolerant of dissent. They don’t need to be edgy if they are doing the right thing. This government got elected with a 2/3rds majority so why should they be edgy?” asked Amarasuriya. 

 

I didn’t commit any crime – Bhagya

After several rounds of interviews, failed attempts and more calls, Bhagya Abeyratne made it to the hot seat at the Sirasa Lakshapathi programme. During the programme she exposed the environmental destruction taking place in the Sinharaja Forest. “The environment is for everyone. My house lies bordering the Sinharaja Forest. I see forests being cleared by day and by night and unfortunately I keep seeing these activities. There are three elephants in the Sinharaja Forest, but today there are only two. The elephant corridor has now become a barren land. The purple-faced langurs are subject to extinction. People and animals should ideally coexist. Relevant authorities too have turned a blind eye to these activities. Felling trees is like destroying my own house,” Abeyratne said during the programme.
In a brief interview with the Daily Mirror, Abeyratne expressed her concerns regarding the events that transpired after her statement went viral. 
Excerpts:

   Q    Tell us about yourself

I live in Kajugaswatta, Rakwana and my house lies bordering the Sinharaja Forest. I schooled at Rahula National School, Godagama, completed my A/Ls last year and am awaiting results. I live with my parents, elder brother and I also have a pet dog. 

   Q     How do you observe the changes in the environment  from then to now?

It is a change that I didn’t expect. Usually this area is covered in mist even during noon. But now there’s no mist and it’s like an area in the dry zone. When the temperature changes, it’s a threat to animals living in these ecosystems. 

   Q     What sort of projects are being done?

I see the areas being cleared every day. Irrespective of the projects that are being done there’s a mass scale destruction to the environment. This is what I revealed on television. Even if you take other areas this is the same scenario. 

   Q     But after you made your statement you were questioned by the police. What are your thoughts about the events that happened afterwards?

I didn’t commit a murder or any crime. I only spoke about the injustice happening to the environment and wildlife. Being questioned by the Police itself raises a doubt as to whether this country is really  democratic?

   Q     What are your future aspirations? 

I want to study about the environment and pursue a career in this field. Even though there aren’t many youngsters interested in protecting the environment in my area, I would like to see more youngsters getting involved in protecting our environment. 

 

Rocky barriers put up on once greener meadows

800 metre strip between Handapan Ella and Walankanda that also serves as an elephant corridor for the two elephants now under threat

A dense forest patch now shaved for commercial purposes

Trees felled and burned

Muddy waters, a result of ongoing projects

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  Comments - 31

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  • Big girl Friday, 19 March 2021 08:55 AM

    So they have started abusing "little girls"?

    Renu Friday, 19 March 2021 09:46 AM

    Rear Weerasekera must admit that everyone has the freedom of speech in this country until. Such time a military government is in place. She had seen what is happening there day in and day out to her knowledge it is distraction of forest and land and depriving animals the freedom to live suggest he goes there and see what is happening without giving his opinion from Colombo and exhibiting his ignorance as so far done with various statement

    Ranaweera Friday, 19 March 2021 10:05 AM

    Cutting trees is not hoping to help anyone. This child is doing a great service. Let us support this courageous child . Minister Sarath , you say that she said something false but you do not say what the truth is. Pictures tell the story. Do you say that these pictures are from the Internet or from Brazil. Disclose the truth.

    Sambo Friday, 19 March 2021 10:10 AM

    Well done. Proud to see a young girl as you speaking out while people in higher ranks keeps there mouth shut. It's good to see that young people care for our environment.

    OMG Friday, 19 March 2021 10:56 AM

    She's entitled to comment on anything of public interest. There's no question about that. But plz don't call her a 'little girl' ! She's over 18 and as such an adult. It's an insult to belittle her as a 'little' thing. May be call her a young woman or young adult.

    Mihindukula Friday, 19 March 2021 11:30 AM

    Hands off you dirty politicians from the "Greta Thunberg" of Sri Lanka. The entire nation is proud of that girl.

    Senaka Friday, 19 March 2021 04:52 PM

    You have a backbone to tell the truth, which don't have in many academics.

    Sunil Friday, 19 March 2021 05:00 PM

    Shame on this government for sending two male cops to question the girl. They should have at least had the courtesy to send women PCs. Incidentally the girl was speaking the absolute truth. The government should wake up to the fact that their henchmen are destroying the environment.

    Shalin Friday, 19 March 2021 05:14 PM

    Well.. bad show bad show.. never voting for the R family ever again in the future lajjai..

    ReaderD Friday, 19 March 2021 05:55 PM

    Photos show bigger destruction using even machine. Lot of paths are made all round. Not just construction of a house as someone say.

    Ramesh Friday, 19 March 2021 08:26 PM

    The picture shows fairly a large area of land has been cleared for a "three bedroomed' house by a private person. Would like to see the floor plan of that "small house" which is going to cover of that land.

    FF Friday, 19 March 2021 11:17 PM

    BE BRAVE BHAGYA. DO NOT WORRY, MANY WILL SUPPORT AND PROTECT YOU.

    Female Saturday, 20 March 2021 04:45 AM

    OMG: I totally agree with you. DON' T PATRONIZE HER, BECAUSE SHE IS A WOMAN. SHE IS AN ADULT

    Punchi Banda Saturday, 20 March 2021 06:13 AM

    How is it a police matter an action/talk on environmental issues. This is further indication to a progressive descent into barbarism since independence. The civilised world has to come to gather to smash this barbarism

    Punchi Banda Saturday, 20 March 2021 06:16 AM

    First they came for the Tamils who was asking for rights. We kept quiet and encouraged it. Then they started attacking Muslims we kept quiet and encouraged it. Now they are coming for us and there is no one to protect us

    K. Ranaweera Saturday, 20 March 2021 10:39 AM

    We are proud of your courage when so many government MPs of your area keep tacit and mum for this destruction.

    Umar Perera Saturday, 20 March 2021 03:12 PM

    Congratulations Bhagya. Please keep up the good work but never go out alone

    Sena Saturday, 20 March 2021 03:30 PM

    Up til now I thought Sarath Weerasekara is intelligent and very patriotic but now he says the young lady is lying. Of course she didn't talk about who go owbes the land or not bit merely raised the fact forest being cleared and valuable wildlife being threatened. Sarath pls think and understand before you commit!

    Martin Milton Saturday, 20 March 2021 07:51 PM

    Good on this courageous lady who dared to speak the truth. Shame on the Police to try and intimidate her, even though I guess she was NOT intimidated. great! However the GOSL is in collusion with these criminals - mostly it seems in Pradeshiya Sabhas and possibly, some in the Central GOSL as well who carry out rampant destruction of the invaluable Forest reserves for greedy personal gain. How long will it take to reforest these areas with those ancient traditional trees mercilessly chopped down to satisfy greed? Why is GOSL still silent on this? Why is President not taking an active interest in confronting those responsible? A terrible shame and a clear indictment of this present GOSL. SHAME! MM

    Martin Milton Saturday, 20 March 2021 07:58 PM

    The Police Minister must not be so defensive and should be acting on behalf of the PEOPLE and not trying to protect those who are engaged in criminal destruction of such valuable forest reserves. The politics of it all seems to have got into him. Very sad. MM

    Martin Milton Saturday, 20 March 2021 07:58 PM

    The Police Minister must not be so defensive and should be acting on behalf of the PEOPLE and not trying to protect those who are engaged in criminal destruction of such valuable forest reserves. The politics of it all seems to have got into him. Very sad. MM

    Ramesh Saturday, 20 March 2021 10:36 PM

    Mr. Punchi Banda, is that your real name? Never expected a person from the majority community to atleast speak the grievances of minorities of the country. Thank-you from bottom of my heart.

    Ranaweera Sunday, 21 March 2021 08:54 AM

    While I support the girl, the channel involved here is Sirasa which is basically politically alighted to India. They are masterminds of creating new trends. I wonder if they used this girl to create a new trend with a half truth .

    Tamil Muslim Sunday, 21 March 2021 01:43 PM

    @punchi banda. At last someone understood the TRUTH!

    Giripala Udadeniya Sunday, 21 March 2021 04:42 PM

    Nothing to do now! Wait and see - Hope will come out soon! Then the truth............

    Fauna Sunday, 21 March 2021 09:39 PM

    Ms.Baghya ..we stand behind you always to protect you against unwanted eliments. You have immense support by our fellow citizens with foward march to combat deforestation in the country.

    Bandula Monday, 22 March 2021 06:17 PM

    Easy way to climb the ladder...... Good luck

    Bernard Weerasinghe Monday, 22 March 2021 11:46 PM

    Bhagya is a valuable role model for younger generation. Instead of criticizing this intelligent and patriotic girl, what an intelligent leader should have done was to invite her and discuss her concern. After understanding her genuine interest in protecting our valuable forests and animal habitats, she should have been given all the support for her education on this subject.

    M kamil Tuesday, 23 March 2021 12:16 PM

    Since your working distance place it is , only you can feel the precious things are being carved out , like heart is being pulled out with bloody huge pain . All these comments from sorrowful page of heart may solace your damaged crushed heart. Seeking wonderful solution.

    Lanka peiris Tuesday, 23 March 2021 02:56 PM

    When did a 19 year old classified as a 'little girl'! Has this little Bahghya ever opened her mouth about deforestation in her lifetime. It's look a good set-up for publicity.

    lord pakeer Tuesday, 23 March 2021 04:28 PM

    ohh LITTLE POOR GIRL !


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