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2016: The Year In Review

Just one more day to go and this exhausting, not altogether pleasant (to some of us, at least) year will come to a rather appreciated end. Regardless of whether it really has been that bad or not, we believe it’s important not to dive head first into a new year without looking back at the one that just passed, make note of lessons we ought to have learnt, and of what to keep in mind for the next year. And what better way to gauge 2016 than to take a look at what made headlines this year?

Without further ado, here’s a breakdown of 2016’s most important news stories:

Politics: Brexit, Trump, And The UNFGG’s Second Year

This year was a year of breakup (and no, we’re not referring to Brangelina) and bad decisions, at the forefront being Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. President.

Brexit, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on June 23, 2016, drew strong reactions from across the globe, with many world leaders expressing ‘regret’ at the UK’s decision. Sri Lanka was not exempted from the repercussions, although here at home the aftermath was felt mostly in terms of uncertainty.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump delivers his election victory speech. Image courtesy CNN

Similarly, Donald Trump being elected as the 45th President of United States of America shocked people across the world. Sri Lanka was in no way oblivious to the “Most Watched Presidential Run”, shortly after which President Maithripala Sirisena even called U.S. Vice President-elect Michael Pence to congratulate him on his appointment. The Government expects a leeway on the United Nations Human Rights Office through the (hopeful) assistance of the President-elect, who will be sworn into office in January.

Locally, the political stage was about as flamboyant and controversial.

In April, the Panama Papers had a considerable impact on Sri Lanka, when details of the 11.5 million confidential documents on 214,000 offshore companies were leaked from Mossack Fonseca. Three Sri Lankan companies and 22 of their shareholders were implicated in a massive exposure of money laundering. Following this, the Central Bank, together with the Finance Ministry, commenced inquiries into the names mentioned in the Panama Papers. The inquiries, as of now, have not borne any fruit. Shortly after the leak, however, consultant to the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development, Vidya Amarapala, stepped down from his position after his name was implicated in the Papers.

Notable veterans of the political arena passed away this year, including former Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, and former leader of the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), Somawansa Amarasinghe.

The Right to Information (RTI) Bill was passed in Parliament in June with several amendments to the initial draft. The RTI Act is expected to come into power next year, once it is properly integrated into the country’s governing system.

Despite it being the Yahapalana government’s second year in office, the previous administration was not entirely out of the limelight. Quite the opposite, in fact: members of the Rajapaksa family were taken into custody, interrogated, and remanded over the course of the year on various charges.

Crime And Corruption: Police Brutality And Justice Served

Sri Lanka’s police force faced allegations of brutality and abuse of power this year. Image courtesy colombotelegraph.com

2016 also saw a lot of developments ‒ both good and bad ‒ for the Sri Lanka Police. The Police force celebrated its 150th anniversary, and reported a small drop in crime during the latter part of the year, but also received a significant amount of censure for certain questionable actions on the part of the Police.

In January, it was reported that a clash that occurred between the Embilipitiya Police and several residents resulted in one death. Eyewitnesses claimed that the Police had forcefully entered a private residence, and created a fracas that had resulted in one man’s death.

Also in January, Police officers intervening during a student protest in Colombo were seen assaulting several students with batons, in an attempt to disperse the crowd. Following several lengthy inquiries in the light of serious injuries sustained by protestors, the police officers who had allegedly abused their right to use minimum force were suspended from work by the National Police Commission.  

Later in the year, two Jaffna University students were shot down by police in October, when returning from a party. The incident sparked protests and a hartal in the North and also allowed limited cynosure time for the AAVA group.  

The Colombo Crime Division of the Police meanwhile busted a large-scale human organ trafficking network in April. The investigators arrested several suspects who had allegedly been brought under false notions to donate their kidneys in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, it was reported that some 1,200 Indians have ‘donated’ kidneys in Sri Lanka over the last three years.

The controversial Wasim Thajudeen murder case saw some significant developments this year ‒ including the arrest of a suspect. The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) arrested former Crimes OIC of the Narahenpita Police, Inspector Sumith Perera, on charges of concealing vital evidence in the case.

The largest cocaine and heroin hauls in Sri Lanka were also reported this year. In April, the Sri Lanka Navy and Police confiscated over 100 kg of heroin worth Rs. 1 billion, from an incoming vessel intercepted off the Southern coast. The largest cocaine haul in the country’s most recent history was seized in a joint investigation carried out by the Sri Lanka Customs and the Police Special Task Force (STF) in June, at the Orugodawatta Container Terminal Yard.

In July, a sergeant attached to the army intelligence unit was arrested by the CID in connection with the murder of former The Sunday Leader editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

Where tackling protests was concerned, the Police weren’t the only ones in the limelight, however. Earlier this month, there was an incendiary incident involving the Sri Lanka Navy and workers at the Magampura-Hambantota Harbour. The protesting employees, who had forcefully occupied two foreign vessels, were dispersed by the Sri Lanka Navy, during the course of which a television journalist covering the incident was assaulted by Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne.   

Economics: Port Cities, Debt Traps, and the Falling Rupee

In order to escape the crippling debt trap of Rs. 9.5 trillion that was inherited from the previous administration, the present Government initiated several proposals, most of which were met with mixed reactions.

During the World Economic Forum in January, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe confirmed that Sri Lanka will be going ahead with the Colombo Port City Project. Accordingly, several amendments to the project plan were given the green light in August, officially re-starting the paused constructions.

In April, Sri Lanka and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reached a USD 1.5 billion deal to survive an impending financial crisis.

Professor Indrajith Coomaraswamy was appointed Central Bank Governor in July.

In October, the Premier revealed that the operations of the Mattala Airport and the Magamura-Hambantota Harbour will be handed over to Chinese companies on a Public Private Partnership. The agreements to these are still being discussed. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) issued its much-awaited report on the 2015 bond issue involving former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran.

Prior to the Budget of 2017, which was presented in November, the Government increased the Value Added Tax on essential goods to 15 per cent from 11 per cent. The Budget, which was passed in Parliament earlier this month, also included a pay hike for the President and Prime Minister, and a decrease in the allocation for Health and Education. However, budget allocations for telecommunications and digital infrastructure saw an increase.

The Sri Lanka Rupee recorded an all-time low in November and December. In December, it fell sharply by 35 cents to its lowest ever level at Rs 151.65 to the US Dollar.    

Environment: Natural Disasters and Climate Change

In May, a low-pressure area over the Bay of Bengal caused nonstop rainfall across the country, resulting in floods and landslides which affected half a million people. By the end of that month, the death toll stood at 101, with 100 people reported missing.

A majority of deaths and disappearances were due to a landslide in Aranayake, in the Kegalle District, which caused devastation across three villages. An estimated 301,602 people were affected by this disaster.

As a result of the floods and landslides, 623 houses were completely destroyed and 4,414 homes were damaged. On May 25, the Government of Sri Lanka estimated that a total of 128,000 houses had been impacted by the disaster, with 30,000 in need of reconstruction or rehabilitation.

The month of October brought about a significant contrast in weather conditions, when several parts of the country were hit by a severe drought. Over 200, 000 people were reportedly affected in the Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, Ratnapura, and Monaragala districts, where a scarcity in drinking water was prevalent.

There have also been reports of another drought that is predicted to arrive next year, prompting the Government to take steps to address the issue.

Social Media: Fake News, Racism Gone Viral, And The Syrian Crisis

Fake news reached new heights this year, both locally and internationally. It even caught the attention of President Maithripala Sirisena ‒ prompting him to propose new regulations for social media networks and activities.

In August, images and videos of a boy who was rescued from rubble in Aleppo, Syria, went viral after an airstrike on the city that night. Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh and his family fell victim to the airstrike that destroyed several residences in the rebel-held Qaterji neighbourhood in Aleppo. Omran was taken to a hospital to be treated for a wound on his head. Similarly, the Syrian crisis affected hundreds more children, and is believed to be increasing in severity each passing day, gaining a lot of social media attention over the last few months.

In May, Harambe was shot and killed. The Internet collectively wept about it for several weeks but the dead gorilla lives on as an internet meme.  

The world’s largest Christmas tree was constructed in Sri Lanka this month ‒ despite a number of critics claiming that it was a waste of funds and time, including the head of Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic Church, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith.

Racism was given a new name this year, with the rise of the Sinha-le campaign. What started out as a sticker campaign, portraying the superiority of a singular ethnicity, transformed into a group with a racist agenda, that was held responsible for acts of vandalism and the disruption of peaceful gatherings.

Sports: Cricketers Questioned And Olympic Contestants

Sri Lankan Particpants in the Rio 2016 Olympics

Sri Lanka Test and ODI captain, Angelo Mathews, was questioned by the Financial Crimes Investigation Division in January, regarding match-fixing allegations against players and officials at the Sri Lanka Cricket Board. Two other national cricketers ‒ Kusal Perera and Rangana Herath ‒ also provided statements on the matter.

Sri Lanka also took part in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July. The Sri Lankan team consisted of nine contestants who took part in various events.

Entertainment: Celebrities The World Lost

As far as entertainment went, Leonardo DiCaprio (finally) winning an Oscar for his role in The Revenant was probably one of the better highlights of the year ‒ the rest were, sadly, not as celebratory. Right up until this last week of the year, celebrity deaths seem to be a predominant characteristic of 2016.

The year began with the news of David Bowie’s demise at the age of 69 after an 18 month long battle with cancer. The music genius attracted millions of fans from all around the world including in Sri Lanka. Four days after Bowie’s death, yet another beloved persona ‒ actor Alan Rickman ‒ died on January 14, 2016. Rickman, who was best known for his portrayal of the character Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series, influenced many children all around the globe.

In February, author of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee, died at the age of 89. Most recently, much loved Star Wars actor Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa) and her mother Debbie Reynolds passed away due to medical conditions. Musician George Michael also passed away on Christmas day.

Sri Lankan celebrities were not spared by the Grim Reaper this year either.

A pioneer in Sinhala cinema, D.B. Nihalsinghe, passed away in April at the age of 77. Nihalsinghe, who made award winning movies like Welikathara, Maldeniye Simion, Kelimandala and Ridee Nimnaya, was the first person to introduce colour films to Sri Lanka. He was the pioneer who introduced cinemascope film technology to Asia and was also the first cameraman who used hand-held camera for film shooting in the Asian region.

On August 8, Wijaya Nandasiri, who used to make us laugh through his various characters in comedies like Yes, Boss and Nonawaruni Mahathwuruni, died of a heart attack at the age of 72.

Renowned musician, Pandit Amaradeva. passed away in November this yea. Image credit: Lalith Rathnayake

Pandit Amaradeva, who influenced many through his music, passed away at the age of 88 on November 3. His final rites took place with full state honours at the Independence Square with the attendance of many of Sri Lanka’s acclaimed individuals.

December 17 was another sad day for literature lovers in Sri Lanka, with the death of beloved poet Anne Ranasinghe.

That’s Roar’s wrap-up for the year 2016. What did we miss? Let us know in the comments, and stay tuned for all the latest news that 2017 has in store ‒ here’s to making headlines for all the good reasons. Happy New Year, folks!

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