Nilantha Ilangamuwa

The author is a founding editor of the Sri Lanka Guardian and has been the editor until 2018.

Colonial Legacies and Post-Colonial Realities: Vijay Prashad in Conversation

In this insightful discussion, Vijay Prashad, a prominent Indian historian and commentator, shared his valuable insights on various subjects, including the role of the Indian diaspora in shaping global perspectives on Indian politics and culture, his motivation to study the intersections of imperialism, capitalism, and globalization, and the enduring effects of colonialism on India and other colonized nations. Through his profound knowledge and expertise, Prashad provided thought-provoking perspectives that shed light on significant historical and contemporary issues.

As the Director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Prashad continues to shape critical discourse and provoke thoughtful analysis. Prashad has authored numerous influential publications, which serve as intellectual milestones in understanding historical and contemporary issues. With a profound understanding of global politics, Prashad’s works unravel the intricate intersections between power, culture, and resistance, offering invaluable insights into the complexities of our world.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question [Q]: As an Indian historian and commentator, how do you see the role of the Indian diaspora in shaping global perspectives on Indian politics and culture?

Answer [A]: The Indian diaspora is varied, oscillating between people who have almost no politics to people who are adherents of the far-right. There was a time when the Indian diaspora was the home of the Left. The first left-wing Indian political party was established in California in 1913. It was the Ghadar Party. Many of those who were attracted to it later went to the USSR to learn how to become Communists, and then went on to join the Communist movement in India. The Communist Party of India was founded in Tashkent (USSR) in 1920, mostly by emigré Indians, a different kind of diaspora. But, after independence, the nature of migration changed, as sections of the Indian middle-class left the country for economic reasons and their political life mirrored the journey of the Indian middle-class within the country. The middle-class Indian diaspora today is the exact complement of the Indian middle-class inside India.

Q: What motivated you to study and write about the intersection of imperialism, capitalism, and globalization, particularly in relation to the Global South?

A: I was born and brought up in Kolkata, India, which is a city of great marvels but also a city of immense inequality. To people like me, born into education and means, the striking aspect of our lives was the gap between what we experienced and the absolute devastation of poverty that defined the lives of people around us. That social inequality hit me hard and continues to strike me. It is what forced me to learn about why inequality is reproduced, to seek answers from the facts, and therefore to discover that the source of such inequality was the ugly profit-driven system of capitalism that had absorbed wretched hierarchies that predate capitalism, such as the caste system. Why was India not able to transcend the caste hierarchies and the ugliness of capitalism? It was not just because of the greed of the Indian bourgeoise and the landlords, but also due to the immense power of the neo-colonial structure maintained by the former colonial powers. You can’t understand the poverty on the streets of Colombo, for instance, without having a full understanding of the imperialist system.

Q: In your work, you often highlight the impact of imperialism on the countries and regions it has affected. How would you describe the lasting effects of imperialism on India and other colonized nations?

A: Firstly, it is important to note that British imperialism – which ruled India for centuries – stole tens of trillions of pounds from the Indian people. Several economists have tried to calculate this enormous ‘drain of wealth’. Profits made in India and wealth built in India were not reinvested in the country but taken and invested in the United Kingdom. This led to a cascade of underinvestment in India, and therefore the impoverishment of the country. Second, as a consequence of this underinvestment – the lack of use of capital formed in India – was that there was reduced employment opportunities for the people, including lack of investment in agriculture that led to the catastrophic famines of the Victorian Era. Third, the British imperial state in India failed to invest in social development – namely in health and education – which grievously impacted the living conditions of people. When the British were booted out of India, the literacy rate was a mere 13% (in the UK, during the same period, the literacy rate was about 98%). These three impacts – theft of capital to the UK, the underinvestment in Indian agriculture, and the lack of social investment – have had long-term, catastrophic impacts on India.

Q: Some critics argue that anti-imperialist movements and ideologies often romanticize and idealize certain regimes or leaders, even when they may have engaged in oppressive practices. How do you respond to these critiques, and how can anti-imperialist movements avoid falling into this trap?

A: The journey out of the neo-colonial structures is not easy. People in very poor countries, with backward state institutions, struggle to establish their sovereignty over their territory and to create dignity for their people. They face attacks ceaselessly, which often leads beleaguered states to turn inward. The problems within the path of anti-colonial projects are nothing compared to the problems that structure those failures, namely the neo-colonial system. It is convenient for the old colonial powers to point fingers at the problems inside the post-colonial states, but harder for them to accept their own role in creating the enabling conditions for state failure and oppressive practices.

Q: What are some key challenges faced by post-colonial countries in achieving economic and political sovereignty, and how can they address these challenges effectively?

A: The most important challenges are two: first, the obduracy of the old colonial powers who refuse to allow for sovereignty and thereby use any means (including invasions and coups) to hold onto power (even if they allow for flag independence), and second, the theft of wealth by the colonial powers that leaves the new states in a dependent relation to their former colonial rulers, but this time not through political power but through economic interconnections. If a post-colonial state tries to establish its sovereignty over its own territory and raw materials (such as Chile in the early 1970s), it faces economic sabotage and then a coup (1973). This story repeats itself over and over again.

Q: Your work often critiques Western interventionism and imperialism. However, some argue that there are instances where international intervention can be justified, such as in cases of genocide or human rights abuses. How do you navigate this complex ethical terrain?

A: Obviously, there must be room for external intervention in times of genuine genocide. That principle is not established by the United Nations. However, that principle is also misused by the West to fulfill its own aims. For instance, it used the term genocide to justify the destruction of Libya in 2011 (after the bombardment ended, Amnesty International showed that there was nothing like genocide happening in Libya). Furthermore, Western interventions – such as in Iraq – have led to massive destruction (including loss of life and human rights abuses). We need to be very careful when we hear talk of genocide, since the term has been used instrumentally by Western powers to justify their own military interventions for their own narrow imperialist ends.

Q: The concept of “third worldism” has been central to your analysis. Could you explain this concept and its relevance in today’s global context?

A: Actually, I do not use this term, since the term itself is not precise enough. I use the term ‘Third World Project’ to specify the social dynamic set in place at the tail end of the colonial era, when colonized states got together to drive a combined agenda against the neo-colonial system. These states met in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, and then later established the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. This Third World Project was destroyed in the 1980s during the Third World debt crisis, when they lost their political strength due to the devastation of their economies and the use by the West of the International Monetary Fund to damage the integrity of the new states. Today, we have a different context, different possibilities. That is our history.

Q: Marxist ideologies have been widely criticized for their historical association with authoritarian regimes. How do you address these criticisms, and what do you believe is the role of Marxism in building a just and inclusive society?

A: The term ‘authoritarian regime’ is an ideological term. Its most scientific basis was provided by Hannah Arendt in her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which made the case that fascism and communism are much the same thing. The association between fascism and communism is not only analytically lazy but it performed a task for the Western imperialist states that wanted to defame communism despite the historical role played by the USSR in the destruction of Nazism. So, what do we mean by authoritarian regimes? We do not add in their list the totalitarian regimes set in place by Western imperialism after the coups in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), nor the money-driven democracies in the West that have corrupted democracy and driven people into either total social passivity or neo-fascist rage. Marxists stand against these kinds of totalitarianisms.

Q: Climate change is an urgent issue facing the world today. What are your thoughts on the responsibility of wealthy nations in addressing climate justice and supporting the Global South in tackling environmental challenges?

A: My thoughts are not as significant as the treaty obligations of the Western powers, who signed the 1992 Rio framework of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, which means that they recognize the common problems of environmental destruction and climate change but see that there are differentiated responsibilities based on the historical abuse of the planet by the imperialist powers. This is a treaty obligation. And yet, the West has not lived up to their own obligation. They should be taken to the International Criminal Court for this malfeasance.

Q: Your book “The Darker Nations” focuses on the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Bandung Conference. How do you view the relevance and legacy of these movements in the present-day geopolitical landscape?

A: Today, the context of that period when the Third World Project shone is very different. Certain states in the developing world – China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, South Africa – have taken on an important role in global leadership. The establishment of the BRICS (2009) and the emergence of the New Non-Alignment has opened up new possibilities. This opening is built on the legacy of the past, but it does not repeat them. These large states no longer want to accept the claim by the West that their parochial interests are universal. These states want to put forward their own national interests. We have to closely study this New Non-Alignment.

Q: Identity politics has become a contentious topic in recent years. What is your perspective on the role of identity-based movements in social and political struggles, and how can they contribute to broader movements for justice and equality?

A: The term identity politics is very general. Of course, there are historical social hierarchies – such as the caste system and patriarchy – that have to be frontally challenged and defeated. These will take place by broad based struggles against caste and patriarchy. An idea has come to the fore that only the victims of these systems can fight in this struggle. This narrows the fight and makes it weaker. We need to assemble broad based struggles of all people to fight to liberate humanity from wretchedness.

Q: How do you view the relationship between Marxism and anti-imperialism? Do you think Marxism provides an effective framework for addressing the unique challenges faced by post-colonial societies?

A: Marxism is one of the only frameworks that properly addresses the crisis-ridden system of capitalism that produces imperialist tendencies amongst its most powerful countries. No other theory of the world properly explains the cycle of crises and the punctuality of wars. If another theory comes along, let me know.

Q: However, some argue that globalization and capitalism, despite their flaws, have brought significant economic development and lifted millions out of poverty. How do you respond to this argument, and what alternative economic models do you propose?

A: If you look at the UN data, you will find that the country that has lifted the most number of people out of poverty is China. And the Chinese people have not eradicated absolute poverty through globalization and capitalism. They have done so, as our Tricontinental study shows, by the central work of the Communist Party of China and the state apparatus, which in a very studious and clear way went after certain social problems that had to be overcome for poverty to be eradicated. Countries that have weakened state structures – a necessary byproduct of extreme neoliberalism – have seen their poverty rates rise.

Q: Your analysis often focuses on the negative impacts of imperialism and capitalism. However, can you acknowledge any positive aspects or unintended consequences that may have emerged from these systems?

A: Can’t see any.

Q: In your view, what are some key lessons that can be drawn from the history of anti-colonial struggles, and how can they inform and inspire contemporary movements striving for liberation, self-determination, and social justice?

A: The most important lesson is from the hard work of the people who built these movements, their patience in working to establish the mass character of their movements, and the sacrifices they underwent to establish their movements and our freedom. Hard work, patience, and sacrifice: three things that we have to learn for our own times.

Q: In conclusion, as artificial intelligence continues to advance, there are concerns about its potential impact on the global workforce. How do you envision the future of work in a world increasingly driven by AI, and what steps can be taken to mitigate any negative effects on employment?

A: Capitalism necessary applies the latest in science to enhance the productive forces, whose advancement lifts the productivity rate but then eventually leads to crisis upon crisis as the rate of profit falls. This is a cycle of increased productivity and then heightened crisis that has been ongoing since the late 19th century. AI is just the latest in a new technological breakthrough. The only way to mitigate the negative impact of unemployment is to socialize the gains from productivity, which is another way of saying to transcend capitalism and go to socialism.

Dr Jasinghe: China’s Centralized Approach To Controlling Covid-19 Is Successful


China implemented the most comprehensive mechanism to control Covid-19 compared the most of the Western countries, Dr Anil Jasinghe, a driving force behind the Covid-19 control in Sri Lanka said. He severed as the Director General of Health Services during the critical time of the pandemic. He gave me a rare opportunity to sit down with him to get his insights on this memorable national endeavour.

“China has to take tremendous efforts to identify and contain the virus when it first appeared in the human body as it was a new experience to everyone. Simultaneously Sri Lanka tried its best to learn from the Chinese methodology,” Dr Jasinghe said.

As per the official record, the very first patient with Covid-19 infection outside China was identified on January 13, 2022, that was in Thailand. But by the second week of November, the virus could be identified in 225 countries and territories around the globe. Meanwhile, the first patient infected with Covid-19 was identified in Sri Lanka on January 28, 2020, who is a Chinese tourist. And first Sri Lankan infected with the virus was diagnosed on March 11, 2020.

However, learning from how China was controlling the virus and understanding its impact on it, the first technical committee comprised of experts on the subject was established in Sri Lanka on January 14, 2020. Since then We were keenly looking at the behaviours of the virus and how to implement necessary measures against contentment, Dr Anil Jasinghe says.  

Dr Jasinghe who is now serving as the Secretary of the Ministry of Environment detailed the basic strategies that Sri Lanka used to control the pandemic.

“We were using five main strategies at the beginning. First, an emergency mechanism to restrict the movement. Second, advised people to stay at home as much as possible. Third, advised employees of non-essential services to stay at home without reporting to work. Fourth, established a mechanism to continue essential services without interruption. Fifth, imposed air restrictions to mitigate the risk of entering and spreading the virus in local communities,” Dr Jasinghe said.

There were two guiding principles that Sri Lanka followed to increase its readiness for this pandemic. First, take as much as possible precautions to prevent entering the virus into the country. Second, take every possible action to prevent the spread of the virus in local communities. In Sri Lanka, a historically strong time-tested public health system and apolitical but strong leadership enabled every possible action to control this pandemic.

Meanwhile, talking about the unique methods that China immediately used to control the spread of the virus, after it took some time to identify it definitively, Dr Jasinghe said that China did its best to protect lives from the virus.

“Someone might see China’s measures are drastic, but if you see the high mortality rate of the virus, no one can deny the need for such tough measures,” Dr Jasinghe said.

According to Dr Jasinghe, “when this Virus declared the Global Health Emergency, there were two main approaches were implemented to control the situation. First was liberalized approach and second was the centralized approach.  We implemented the centralized approach in Sri Lanka as well as in China. Because of that, we were able to save as many lives as possible. Whereas most of the countries in the West implemented the liberalized system by giving the priority to “herd immunity”. Consequently, many citizens of those countries lost their lives. I think most of the harm was caused by the UK. It shows, the West’s approach to controlling this virus was completely wrong and destructive.

When it comes to Vaccination, China played a pivotal role in administrating vaccines to every citizen in the country and sharing their vaccines with many other countries in the world. Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, once says at the turn of the year, tests and new treatments like anti-virals should also be available in every country.

“China prominently led the vaccination movement and always made sure to establish a policy of equal access to vaccines, but unfortunately, many vaccine manufacturers in the West and rich countries got their vaccine demand far in advance without caring about other low-income countries. So a huge disparity developed,” Dr Jasinghe said.

“China was reasonable enough to address this frustrating disparity between rich and poor countries and they quickly began distributing vaccines around the world. Many of them were dedicated to improving bilateral and multilateral relationships,” he added.

China’s zero-covid approach aims to prevent virus transmission using a number of different measures, including vaccination and non-pharmaceutical interventions such as contact tracing and quarantine. Although many criticize it negatively, it is important to ask about it as a public policy. Most likely, those attitudes can be connected with past tragic experiences in public health. In particular, some studies suggest that if China lifts stricter restrictions now, Omicron could infect between 160 and 280 million people – resulting in 1.3-2.1 million deaths, mostly among unvaccinated older adults.

“No one with an authentic knowledge of epidemiology can argue that stricter restrictions are not important to prevent such a tragedy,” Dr Jasinghe concluded.

Colombo Port: Highest Performing Port in South Asia 

United Nations Conference On Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in its new Review of Maritime Transport 2022 has revealed that the Port of Colombo is the highest-performing port in South Asia. The Review of Maritime Transport is a recurrent publication prepared by the UNCTAD secretariat since 1968 with the aim of fostering the transparency of maritime markets and analysing relevant developments.

The data in the report suggested that despite the challenges of socio-political turbulences, the country is struggling to overcome, the fact that Colombo Port has remarkably improved its Global rank. According to the Container Port Performance Index 2022 initiated by the World Bank and S&P Global Port Performance Program quoted in the Review, Colombo Port, which was ranked 33rd last year, has been ranked 24th this year.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah port, which ranked second last year, has been ranked first this year, while Japan’s Yokohama Port, ranked first last year, has ranked tenth this year.  

Meanwhile, the review finds that Asia remained the world’s leading maritime cargo handling centre in 2021, accounting for 42% of exports and 64% of imports. However, this annual comprehensive review of global maritime transport, warns that the maritime sector will require greater investment in infrastructure and sustainability to weather future supply chain crises.

The review further observed that in 2021, around 40% of total containerized trade was on the main East-West routes – between Asia, Europe and the United States. Non-mainlane East-West routes such as South Asia-Mediterranean accounted for 12.9%.

In 2021, maritime trade recovery was disrupted by supply chain problems, then in 2022 the situation deteriorated further with the impact of recurrent COVID-19 infections, especially in China, and labour strikes in ports and the logistics sector, including in the Republic of Korea. In 2022, there were new waves of COVID-19 infections that further disrupted supply chains, particularly in China, which had a zero-COVID policy.

Meanwhile, assessing the Review, the UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan says that, “We need to learn from the current supply chain crisis and prepare better for future challenges and transitions. This includes enhancing intermodal infrastructure, fleet renewal and improving port performance and trade facilitation. And we must not delay the decarbonization of shipping,” she added.

UNCTAD is the UN’s leading institution dealing with trade and development. It is a permanent intergovernmental body established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1964. UNCTAD is part of the UN Secretariat and has a membership of 195 countries, one of the largest in the UN system. UNCTAD supports developing countries to access the benefits of a globalized economy more fairly and effectively.

We Provide a Neutral Unbiased Assessment – UNCTAD

“We provide a neutral unbiased assessment of trends, challenges and opportunities,” Dr Jan Hoffmann who is the Chief of Trade Logistics Branch, Division on Technology and Logistics at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said in an interview with, an exclusive maritime news and views portal run by the Communication and Public Relations Division of Sri Lanka Ports Authority. The interview mainly focused on the just released, annual UNCTAD Review of Maritime Transport, co-authored by Dr Hoffmann.

Previously, Jan spent six years with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Santiago de Chile, and two years with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London and Santiago. Studied in Germany, United Kingdom, and Spain, Dr. Hoffmann holds a doctorate degree in Economics from the University of Hamburg.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question (Q):  The world is slowly but steadily overcoming the challenges of the pandemic. But the consequences are still disrupting the global supply chain. Do you see any difference in consequences on Global Supply Chain by this pandemic from what human civilization faced previously?

Answer (A): What was new and different in this crisis, compared to earlier crises which were more about financial and economic growth issues, is that we had a problem on the supply side. Intermodal transport networks were clocked up, ships spent 20% longer in port than pre-covid, and processes that were not paperless slowed down due to the need for social distancing. In that sense, I’d say we had a unique, new type of crisis.

On the positive side, as your question also points to “consequences” and thus the future, we have seen many reforms in digitalization and investment in more agile and paperless procedures.

Now, for the future, I hope that we can “lock in the progress made during lockdown” as regards this modernization achieved in response to the pandemic.

Q: Global population hits all-time higher, 8 billion, last week. This big number is telling us the need for more resilience Global Supply Chains. Tell us the importance of collective responsibility and inclusiveness between ports, shipping lines, and regulatory bodies.

A: Without shipping, the world could not feed 8 billion people, nor provide the necessary fuel and medicine for all of us. While the population grew, seaborne trade grew even faster, reaching 11 billion tons. That’s almost 1.4 tons of cargo per year for each one of us, and twice as much as 50 years ago, when it was about 0.7 tons per person. 

As much as ports and shipping are important for our trade, there is a responsibility for humanity for future generations. We need to ensure that those of us who benefit from the maritime transport services today, ultimately also pay for the negative externalities, notably pollution and green-house-gas emissions. We need a mechanism where a price on pollution and emissions can be used to pay for investments in the energy transition, and also to compensate and help those most vulnerable countries that were not the culprits of climate change. Many of these most vulnerable countries may now also be most negatively affected by climate change, and by measures to mitigate climate change.

Let me clarify this latter point: If we reduce emissions from shipping, the costs of shipping will go up a little bit (less than the costs of inaction), but these additional maritime transport costs will be particularly bad for small island developing States and other vulnerable economies. So, we need to help them find other ways to reduce their transport and trade costs, in addition to helping them adapt to climate change.

Q: All sets to launch this year, Review of Maritime Transports, a key recurrent publication prepared by the UNCTAD secretariat since 1968. Why should all industry stakeholders study this review?

A: We are effectively very proud of this publication. We write it ourselves, i.e. UNCTAD staff and not external consultants. We provide a neutral unbiased assessment of trends, challenges and opportunities.

I would also like to highlight that our Review is part of a broader “package”, which includes regularly updated statistics ( as well as 230 country profiles, where you can look up key data and trends for every economy of the world. See for example the maritime country profile for Sri Lanka here:

Q: How do you get real-time data and what are the challenges you faced?

A: We benefit from a wide range of partnerships with data providers, who are all duly acknowledged and sourced in the Review.

We do face challenges of obtaining reliable data from member countries. This process is slow and not always reliable.

But we are lucky that every ship in the world has a unique number – a so-called IMO number – and must continuously report its position. Thus, by looking at data about individual ships, we can see where they are built, owned, registered (i.e. their flag), their journeys and port calls. Combining this information with other data sets about prices, trade and freight costs, we have an increasingly comprehensive and reliable picture about the “supply chain” of maritime transport, from building to scrapping, and the participation of different countries in this supply chain.

Q: Beginning of the report is giving us a kind of frightening statement; “maritime trade recovered in 2021, but in 2022 faces a complex operating environment fraught with risk and uncertainty.” Does it mean there is no light at end of the tunnel?  What are you suggesting to overcome this uncertainty and mitigate the risk?

A: In fact, the brunt of the covid-induced supply chain crisis is largely over. Container freight rates are going down. But then we also have the war in Ukraine, which had led to a surge in grain transport costs earlier this year, which is now softened thanks to the Grain Initiative. For the transport of oil and gas, however, shipping costs are now surging, because more cargo has to be carried over longer distances.

And all this is but a precursor to the medium- and long-term challenge of decarbonizing shipping. Here, we do not know what will be the future energy mix for shipping, what will be the price of GHG emissions, and what will be the global regulations. We do highlight the need for a predictable multilateral framework, so as to avoid that investors delay investments in ports, ships, and energy distribution. Such delays could lead to future shortages of maritime transport supply capacity. Such a shortage – we have seen during the 2020-22 supply chain crisis – can lead to very high surges in shipping costs. 

Investments in resilient and sustainable maritime transport systems take time. We need forward-looking investments in reforms and infrastructure from the public sector, and the private sector needs to know under what conditions and prices and regulations port and shipping services will be provided in the future.

Q: The report revealed that “between 2020 and 2021, total emissions from the world fleet increased by 4.7 per cent, with most of the increases coming from container ships, dry bulk and general cargo vessels.” This is alarming. What would you recommend to stakeholders and other relevant parties?

A: The increase of emissions has been less than the increase in the fleet. So, on a positive side, we also report that efficiency has improved, i.e. we have fewer emissions per ton-mile. But then there is another “but”: An important part of this improvement is not due to real technological progress, but rather due to economies of scale and lower speeds. There are some really interesting novel data charts in the report in Chapter 4.

As regards global initiatives towards reductions of emissions, these are led by the IMO – the International Maritime Organization. We at UNCTAD work closely with the IMO in support of this endeavor. For example, we have undertaken a comprehensive impact assessment of what specific short-term measures to reduce green-house-gas emissions would mean for trade costs, trade, and economic development. This assessment helped the IMO membership to advance with decisions in this direction.

Progress is being made also on specific green corridors, and some “first movers” area advancing with investments in ships running on different alternative fuels.

Some stakeholders are – in my view – still too reluctant to take the necessary steps toward more ambitious goals at the IMO. They are afraid of the additional maritime transport costs this might imply. Now, if we see how a shortage of maritime transport supply capacity during the recent supply chain crisis led to significantly higher freight costs, I believe we need to avoid that investments in new port and shipping capacity is delayd. Put differently, the costs of inaction can be higher than the costs of the measures that we need to take to reduce emissions from shipping.

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Our Foreign Policy: Friendship to all; Enmity to None


What is Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and how Sri Lanka is pursuing its relationships with other countries during this most difficult period?  Nilantha Ilangamuwa sat down with Ali Sabry PC, the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, to discuss various areas of the subject.In this lengthy interview, he offered his thoughts on opportunities and challenges ahead of Sri Lanka’s moves to overcome prevailing challenges and become more global.

Excerpts from the interview;

Question: How do you define diplomacy and the role of a diplomat in Sri Lankan context?

Answer: Diplomacy is the most important area that defines our relationship with the outer world. It is kind of looking at the Sri Lankan perspective as well as regional and international viewpoints on how we become responsible international citizens, how we reach out to the outer world, how we protect our sovereignty while protecting and promoting Sri Lankan reputation and leveraging that notion to the nation’s benefits, regional benefits, and ultimately the advancements of global peace and prosperity. 

Q: We often called our foreign policy based on non-alignment but at the same time, it says our foreign policy is neutral. How can one become non-aligned at the same time being neutral? 

A: Actually, we have been nonaligned, for a long period of time, but the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), since the end of the cold war, where leading Asian politicians like Mrs Bandaranaike reaffirmed that we do not belong to this block and that block, is no longer active. Most of the members of the NAM have progressively become neutral. The principle that we are a neutral nation to the outer world is that we do not identify ourselves as part of any bloc against the greater good of humanity or global cooperation. That’s why we have become neutral. Sometimes people blindly become neutral, but we don’t do that. 

In the meantime, despite being neutral in a practical world, we have our own interests, at the multilateral and regional levels on our trade, international-external security and so on. Therefore, from time to time we need to abide by some decisions in the light of our own national interests. 

ON THE MINISTRY: I don’t always agree with this unfair criticism against our diplomats. We just have 170 diplomats in over 60 missions to represent Sri Lanka in the whole world. We don’t have resources compared with others.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Ali Sabry

Everybody is doing the same thing. For us, our foreign policy is impetus by President Wickremesinghe, and as the Foreign Minister, myself the commitment is, to be Sri Lanka first. If you say anything else, it’s not true. While being Sri Lanka first, how do we become a responsible international citizen and a regional player, instead of steering up tension, and how do we become a peacemaker? As a responsible and dignified member of the international community, our foreign policy is friendship to all, enmity to none.

Q: How can you help us to describe in one line if someone asked you what’s our foreign policy?

A: Our foreign policy is neutral. While remaining neutral, we act in strategic Sri Lankan interests.

Q: In your recent speech, you say, that “the United Nations is a table where every State can sit down, a forum where everyone can be heard and where everyone is equally important.” Is it a reality?

A: No, it is not a reality. What I tried to raise is that what we expect from multilateral platforms like the UN or other treaty bodies, is equal opportunity for all. But, in today’s geopolitical division, and global north and south division, it is no longer happening. That’s unfortunate. But, yet, we still don’t have another alternative than pursuing the same multilateral forums and advocating for great reforms within. It is like Sri Lankan judicial system. People sometimes criticize.Just because of the criticisms, what will happen if you decided to take it away? There will be absolute anarchy then. Likewise, what is important is how to improve such a responsible global body while being a part of it. That’s what we are promoting. 

Q: Do you think that Global South is looking for an alternative?

A: There is a little bit of talk here and there. But I don’t think a similar kind of movement like NAM from neutral bodies is any longer viable. Because big players are now aligned through different sectors and shapes, i.e. G7, BRICS, European Union, etc. These initiatives show that everybody is looking at their national interests. In a globalized world, national interests mean you continue to collaborate with the international community. That’s where the opportunities lie, but at the same time, that’s where the threats come from. Therefore, engagement is the most important principle in diplomacy. The first step is to continue engagement, as you can’t put Iron Gate and tell that we are not going to talk with you anymore, though sometimes we felt disgraced. But we must continue to engage on all available platforms. Give our perspectives and get the best out of them. 

Q: Earlier Sri Lanka’s voice was heard and the opinions of policymakers and diplomats were matters in international forums. But now there is a sort of opinion saying that our voice is declining. Do you agree? 

A: Comparatively, I would say, yes. But it has not been diminished, for example right now the First Committee of the UN which is involved in non-proliferation and disarmament is Chaired by a Sri Lankan. So we are influential and we are doing a lot of work there. And we are a much-respected member of the international community. In the region, we were the first country to open up but now that has changed and many countries have opened up. Almost everybody is into open trade and integrated with western markets. However, it is not that we have lost clout, but many countries emerged to contribute equally and sometimes even more. 

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Ali Sabry while talking to Sri Lanka Guardian at his residence in Colombo [ Photo: Laknath Seneviratne/ Sri Lanka Guardian]

Q: But, many people argue that unlike earlier, it is hard to see the substantive contributions from most of those who are working in Sri Lankan missions abroad. There are serious allegations over political appointees where many without a basic understanding of international affairs were installed in our missions. Isn’t it impacting the country’s reputation? 

A: I think we need to get foreign experts in particular areas to head our mission. Well, there could be good inputs from outside, for example, some of our best diplomats were not from Foreign Service. If you take late Mr Lakshman Kadirgamar who is the best Sri Lankan diplomat ever, he was not from Foreign Service. Likewise, we have to carefully pick and choose people to lead the mission not on political affinities or political leverage or our relationship with them but on merits. While we keep the Foreign Service as the backbone, Foreign Service alone cannot do this as we don’t have the required number of officers. Therefore, we need those with integrity to get into serving us, as happened in the past. Well, I agree with you, we need to professionalize this, and we need to get politics out of it in a practical sense. 

Having said that, I don’t always agree with this unfair criticism against our diplomats. We just have 170 diplomats in over 60 missions to represent Sri Lanka in the whole world. We don’t have resources compared with others. Like anything else we need to invest in diplomacy, we need to invest in their training. We have not recruited a batch of Foreign Service officers since 2018. If you look at the last fifteen years we have had just three batches of Foreign Service officers. So you can’t do that and expect the best. We need to continue to recruit them, at least, once in two years. But, ideally, I would suggest, every year. That’s why we need to look at alternative ways of getting our Sri Lankans who are well-settled in other countries, to get their service on voluntarily basis. 

Q: Undoubtedly, you are doing a remarkable service, since you were appointed as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. But wonder if you can tell us more about how you evaluate the service of our missions abroad. 

A: Basically, I addressed all of them via virtual platforms once in two months. Then I asked each desk responsible for each mission in the ministry to get detailed reports on the activities of every mission every two weeks. For the first time, I have introduced a bi-weekly meeting with the management of the Foreign Ministry, which means all additional secretaries to the ministry who are in charge of every mission and subject i.e. legal, trade, culture, etc. to sit with me and my state minister, to look at the progress. 

The duty of a diplomat is not just to go out and give a flash statement to the audience and come back, but a lot of hard work underneath has to happen. Unless everybody works in the same direction, same passion, and with the same vision achieving objectives is difficult. We have slowly put those principles into practice. 

Yes, we need a few resources too, for example, in the whole public diplomacy division in the ministry we just have one Foreign Service officer. We don’t have people to deploy there. The whole legal division has just four lawyers whereas about 200 treaties are pending. These are huge challenges. We need to carefully look at this and upgrade it. 

You would have seen when I was in Justice Ministry; a lot of reforms taking place. Likewise, some people might think ForeignMinister or a diplomat somewhere can go and do wonders and come. No, it is not like that. It is a reflection of the local policies. Local policies are important. Everything that is happening here goes public the moment it happened as we are not a closed country. Therefore, first, we need to achieve progress domestically in the required areas such as accountability, constitutionalism, power devolution, advancements in human rights protection, childcare, education, etc. before we blame a few of our diplomats abroad. Then we can go and represent somewhere else. Our domestic achievements are reflected in our diplomacy. Even to do that we need to have an organized structure. If that structure is not strong enough, it is very difficult for us to deliver.

Q: You meant to say the prevailing structure is weak?

A: Yes, extremely weak.

Q: What are the reasons behind this weakness?

A: We have not holistically looked into the system for a long period of time. The ministry has several limbs, it is not only about the faces talking at the UN and elsewhere but a lot of hard work involved. How strong our UN division, research division, how strong our West desk and South Asian Desk are, as well as other related institutes are very important. It is reflected in our foreign policy. What an individual can do is decorate the cake but the cake has to be baked properly with good ingredients. 

Q: Do you have a strategy to revamp the system?

A: Yes, even in the midst of economic challenges, we are making it work. I can’t go to the phase which I would love to go, in terms of recruitment and so on. But definitely, we are working on it. 

Q: Let’s talk about regional affairs, what is your opinion about SAARC?

A: In fact, SAARC has not achieved expected objectives fully though it was formed a long time ago. If you compared it with the ASEAN, they have gained a lot. Unfortunately, members within the SAARC are not united in their vision and mission. Hence it has hindered SAARC from real progress. I think, either we need to revamp the SAARC and have a very frank and open discussion about its progress or we may have to look beyond the SAARC. 

Q: I assume the same thought you will have about the Colombo Plan as well?

A: Yes. It is time to look for other pragmatic organizations. Even BIMSTEC had not given the expected returns. Probably, IORA, Japan and China-based Think Tanks and related initiatives, will be good places for us to be concerned. President Wickremesinghe is also concerned about the progress of regional bodies like SAARC. I know we need to look at them carefully, but so far it’s been a great disappointment, to say the least. 

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Ali Sabry while talking to Sri Lanka Guardian at his residence in Colombo [ Photo: Laknath Seneviratne/ Sri Lanka Guardian]

Q: As you say, ASEAN is one of the most efficacious regional bodies. Sri Lanka tried to get membership since the beginning but is yet to succeed. Why? 

A: I think probably the location per se if you see all members who are clubbed together in ASEAN. We are far away from them. However, we are an observer state, and we need to see how we can operate as ASEAN is a remarkable success in terms of tariff in trade, investments, and other bilateral and multilateral affairs. But, we have not achieved expectations, though we have opened our market at a very early stage. 

Unfortunately, we have gone back to protectionism. Protectionism is not the right way to do as the end of the day it will eliminate your productivity and ability for innovation, and you will never become an export-oriented country if you are going down with the protectionist past. That’s what exactly happened here. Sri Lanka has 31% of exports in the early 90s but now it has decreased to 15%, that’s because we don’t protect the local manufacturers to serve the Sri Lankan market and they are not competitive enough in the international market. Consequently, their products cannot sale outside. That is the simple formula. Luckily, tourism was gained, and the war ended though we did not realize the huge benefit of them. But then tourism came to end and we faced different social scenarios where our remittent drastically came down, then the reality called. That is what exactly we are facing today. The long-term strategy or long-term prosperity of Sri Lanka is dependent upon the economy which is based on sustainable exports. 

Q: Right now we are facing the worst economic crisis since our independence. Do you recognize this as a national calamity? 

A: Yes, of course. This is the biggest economic calamity this country has ever experienced. It is the result of a combination of reasons including bad debt inherited for a long period and bad luck due to the Easter Sunday Attack, Covid-19, and the War in Ukraine which caused international instability as well as bad monetary, bad agrarian and bad cultural policies which antagonized particularly the Muslim countries. So it is a combination of debt inheritance, bad luck, and bad policies that brought us here where we are today. We are in a very difficult time. Not only we, but we probably are the first but more than 50 countries are on the lope due to Covid-19 and subsequent international disorder in view of the Ukrainian crisis. 

Q: But, what prevented you from taking precautions, especially at a time when a person like you who has an in-depth understanding of contemporary issues, was playing an active role?

A: Unfortunately, what has happened is the economy was handled by a few people. It was never debated in detail at the cabinet. Most critical decisions were taken by a handful of officials. And they were not willing to listen. True, we were not economists per se but we had good readings and constructive discussions and went to the cabinet and suggested we must go to IMF, we must slowly depreciate the local currency to encourage the inflow of remittance which will avoid the “undial”, “hawala” or any other illegal practices. Not me but most of the cabinet colleagues were telling that the decision to go total organic fertilizer is not good, but then those voices were not heard and respected. Those are the problem we faced, and I fought very hard to reverse that forced cremation which has clearly antagonized the entire Muslim community here and abroad. These are all unnecessary things that have happened and we should learn from them. Sometimes you felt helpless, though you have views no one is listening to though you get time to put them, especially, when you are not in a decision-making position. 

However, during my time as the Minister of Justice, I was given free hand and I did a lot of work. That’s how I was able to increase the number of courts, appointments, recruitments, and clear backlogs. We have drafted around 10 new laws. We were taking a holistic approach to reengineering the existing system in the justice ministry. But in the economy, we were not the decision-makers. When not only mine but genuine experts’ opinions are being disregarded, then what can you do? They should have listened to them. 

Q: Right, do you think at the moment, that policymakers have diagnosed our real problem? 

A: Right now, one good thing is that we are now engaging with the world’s best institutes like IMF, World Bank, ADB, UNDP, etc., and taking steps to reshape our economy. When I was appointed as the Finance Minister, in a very short period of time, we took a firm decision including approaching the IMF and World Bank, Suspending the debt to ensure the right to livelihood of every citizen, hiring the world’s best to get support to normalize the situation. Luckily, President Wickremesinghe’s economic literacy is very high compared to any other leader. He knows that. And now he is leading the subject. I think we have diagnosed the problem properly. But it requires long-term medication. Stability is entirely depending on how we are going to continue this medication or if we are abandoning it halfway through. If we can do that like how India did in 1991, we will have a future; otherwise, our future is bleak. 

Q: So what is your gut feeling saying?

A: It all depends on how our leaders are taking action. I have a lot of confidence in the President but others need to follow and support him. And the opposition too must realize and understand not to play politics with Sri Lanka’s economy. India did it from 1991 to 2023. India opened its economy in 1991. Dr Manmohan Sing being the Finance Minister introduced the reforms. Every political party irrespective of huge differences in their political viewpoints supported and continued those policies. They are reaping the benefits today. They will become the third economy by 2029. That is because of the consistency of the policies based on national interests.

There has to be an unwritten yet conscientious agreement among all politicians and the parties here, we will all do our politics, and we will have our policy differences and all but there are two areas we should not get involved. First education, we must continue to invest in education, and give English and IT-based education. The second economy, economic policy must be pursued consistently by inviting and permitting foreign investments. Relying only on foreign remittance and tourism is dangerous as they are extremely vulnerable. Look at China’s case, and India’s case, even in Bangladesh when the whole world was closed their economies were growing. They are suppliers, but we are not. Their economy is based on a broadly strategically designed export orientation. Therefore, they are not vulnerable as us. We can open the country but no one is coming in because social scenarios, such as terror attacks and the pandemic, took us down. That is why we can’t solely rely on dynamic areas like tourism or foreign remittent. This is the time we must do the required changes in our economy. 

Q: Let me, once again, pay attention to your recent speech at the UN where you quoted President Wickremesinghe about social reforms, “I will implement social and political reforms requested by the nation”. Same time, a few media in the city have reported that Sri Lanka is going to establish a South African model truth and reconciliation commission. May I have your take, please?

A: That is one of the most important areas. Since the end of the war, we must accept that real reconciliation between the North and the South has not been undertaken. True, the war ended, and we have gained “peace” but real reconciliation has not taken place. We need to put effort into it. Because we have not done so, we are giving undue advantage to the enemy who’s against Sri Lanka all over the world saying that you have spoken about it but you have not done anything substantive. That’s very unfair because Sri Lankan forces, as a whole, did a tremendous job to restore peace and social order in this country. The benefits of that are for all Sri Lankans, particularly for Tamil people who were suffering the most because that was the theatre of the war.  

But pointing finger at the forces and naming them as perpetrators of human rights abuses is very unfair. They also need a platform to redeem themselves. And if somebody or a few of them had done something excessive they should also be looked into and prosecuted. We must prove that we are capable of doing that as a country. If we don’t do that, then we are keeping the case open for foreigners to come and meddle. The first step was already taken by the UN Human Rights Council by establishing an external evidence-gathering mechanism. If it goes to the next level, they will go and start to investigate Sri Lanka at various forums. In order to not only prevent that but also actually reach a true reconciliation through our undertaking is that we are coming out with the domestic mechanism.  

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Ali Sabry while talking to Sri Lanka Guardian at his residence in Colombo [ Photo: Laknath Seneviratne/ Sri Lanka Guardian]

It will help us to protect our overall military establishment. If you are concerned about all these issues, we owe a duty to the country to establish our own truth and reconciliation mechanism like in South Africa. Once and for all people can come and talk about it and move away from the very dark past. So we learn from it, in order to not to commit it again to do the same mistakes that we have committed. 

ON WAR ON TERROR: Then I told them, more than 26000 Sri Lankan forces and around 1200 Indian forces were killed. That was a fight against terrorism. Of course, there were casualties, representing every ethnic group. We need to get this clear picture out.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Ali Sabry

Q: How can you establish public trust in order to move forward with this, as you know whenever we talk about this subject, certain segments of society will come up and tell that this is a great plot against the armed forces and a few others?  

A: That’s important. But we need to have a mechanism to talk to different people and get a wider consensus as much as possible. Actually, we need to establish this to prevent the armed forces from being prosecuted outside. That’s precisely the case. Well, if you don’t do it, that danger is looming and it will become even closer. Already our top commanders cannot travel, some others have been closely looked at and their family members have been flatted. It is unfair for what they have done for this country. Some of the divisions in the army, which are the best divisions we have, all together have been blacklisted from UN peacekeeping. In order to get rid of it also, it is important to implement this mechanism. 

Another point I must emphasize is that some people give the impression to the outside world that Sri Lankan forces have committed Genocide. However, I saw some of them mostly Tamils abroad come on my social media handle and say that they want to contribute to real reconciliation as they feel that they owe to this country. They say that they are here today because of free education, free health, and other social welfare facilities in Sri Lanka at the time. But, certain groups are propagating that Genocide has been committed in Sri Lanka. That’s a blatant lie. We need a platform to show that there was no Genocide here. True, it was a dark conflict. When someone came and say this, I asked them, do you know how many Sri Lankan forces were killed; they don’t have any clue about it. Then I told them, more than 26000 Sri Lankan forces and around 1200 Indian forces were killed. That was a fight against terrorism. Of course, there were casualties, representing every ethnic group. We need to get this clear picture out. How can we do that? Well, through this kind of mechanism. It is not easy; it will be opening up a can of worms. But, there is no other alternative. The idea is not retributive punishment of people. It is a kind of reconciliation, truth-seeking, reparation-based mechanism. Only extreme cases of clear violations of human rights abuses need to be prosecuted. This is not a Nuremberg that we are talking about; this is a kind of South African model, a truth-seeking mechanism. 

Q: At the same time, there were talks about the devolution of power. Our neighbouring country, India, is suggesting to us full implementation of 13th Amendment to the constitution. Do you think it will solve our problem?

A: I think the parliamentary subcommittee should carefully look at devolution. Having come a long way on the 13th Amendment, we can’t now reverse it either. But there are areas of concern such as to which extent police power and land power we can give. Subject to that, governing by the people of the area is not a bad idea. They have most interests in their lands, subject to safeguards of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.  

Q: But what about the idea such as re-merging North and East? 

A: No. The Supreme Court itself has ruled out and de-merged it. I don’t think we should revisit that. Basically, let the North run on its own and let the East run on its own with respect to demography till we build trust between each other where ethnicity or religious beliefs are no longer the subjects but a meritocracy. There will be a day but till then we will have to find the best way we could to live together and move forward.  

Still, there is a campaign for a separate state. As long as that threat remains, very difficult for us to disregard the tendency for secession as 99% of Sri Lankans are not even in their wildest dream thinking of a Separate State. 

ON UN RESOLUTION: As per the constitution, even if you want, foreign judges or hybrid judges are not allowed. That’s the separate arm of the constitution.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Ali Sabry

Q: Do you think co-sponsoring the UN Resolution on Sir Lanka was a fatal mistake by the previous administration? 

A: I would not go back and find what was right or wrong. That was a different strategy, probably, at that time to overcome the challenges. But, we cannot do it because it goes against our constitution. As per the constitution, even if you want, foreign judges or hybrid judges are not allowed. That’s the separate arm of the constitution. They have been appointed by the judicial commission; even the President cannot do it. That’s precisely why having to cosponsor the resolution 2015; in 2019 our Foreign Minister who was a former Attorney General went to Geneva and explained this legal ramification. I think people understood that. Now, when I explained to the President, he also understood that. That is why after deliberating all options, we took this decision, the stance, which we have taken this time. We say that we will not allow you to meddle with our constitution. Internal matters are to Sri Lanka. But Sri Lanka will provide a total mechanism and we are serious about that.

Q: There were some thoughts spreading around that our relationship with India is weakening due to the Chinese presence here. Is that true?

A: Not really. We are continuing to strengthen our bilateral relationship at every level. Of course, challenges are there, like any other relationship, over each other’s perceptions on certain issues. As Sri Lankans we need all of them, we need regional powers. Indian security is important to us. We can’t have a stormy situation in our backyard. 

In the same meantime, China is also our long-term friend. They have maintained a steady relationship with Sri Lanka as well as with the international community. China is the biggest investor in the country. We can’t ignore it. We must find a way to work with all. 

Q: Many people are talking about Chinese Debt Trap diplomacy. Do you agree? 

A: No, I don’t agree with it. That’s a Sinophobic statement. China came here for investments, much-needed investments for Sri Lanka. For example, Hambantota Port was open to anyone, but the Chinese were shown the opportunity to put in their money and got it. Then Shangri-La that too was offered to everyone but the Chinese came and they invested in it. Colombo Port City is also the same. They are investors, and they take risks by investing in these massive investments. 

When it comes to debt, they have not come and offered us debt but we have gone and asked them. We borrowed them voluntarily. I meant nothing wrong in borrowing debt as long as it is properly utilized for the purpose. And you pay back accordingly. It’s not China’s problem but our problem. Having borrowed the money, whether we have used it smartly or invested smartly, in a manner which gives you return so then you can pay back. If you haven’t done that it is your problem. This is like going to the bank to get a loan to build a house and instead of building a house; you buy a car and blame the bank. 

We are not here to encourage Sinophobia, that’s why our foreign policy is neutral. We don’t want to take a side; our relationship is based on merits. We need India, the West and China and everyone else. All of them are equally important to us. China is the biggest investor, the West is the biggest market for us, and India is our neighbour who has stood for us during this extremely difficult time. And we managed to end the armed conflict due to India’s firm stance. Destabilizing these relationships is suicidal for Sri Lanka. The bottom line is everyone is important to us.  

This is a complicated situation. But we are doing our level best. Sincerely, engaging with them, and talking to them frankly without duping them or giving them false speeches is our way. The policy we are pursuing is honest with all our external relationships. 

Q: But, if you take the recent events, such as detaining of the Russian passenger flight and the controversy over docking Yuan Wang 5 Research vessel, telling us otherwise. Don’tthey? 

A: I think the Russian passenger flight (Aeroflot) situation is totally different where Sri Lankan government has not had any hand in that. That was an order given by the court. But later we looked into the matter, and Attorney General made the submission. Then the matter was sorted out. 

But, yes, Yuan Wang 5 is a different scenario. There were so many not only research but many military vessels docking at our ports that nobody has raised any concern. But this particular Vessel is different. Unfortunately, clearance had been given during the political turmoil, where most institutes were in dilemma. But, when someone comes and says that this is a threat, it is our duty to ask for evidence. If there is evidence, then we could have acted otherwise. In absence of evidence, it is not fair for us to recall permission which has already been given. Chinese are our friends and we requested them to pause it for some time until we relooked at it. Then we called our other friend to share the information. There was nothing that warranted for us to overturn the original decision of clearance. We decided to go ahead. 

CHINESE FERTILIZER SHIP: Sometimes it is not as simple as you see it. There can be sabotage taking place at individual interests. It is a great loss to the country and a great loss to our future just like what has happened because of the forced cremation.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Ali Sabry

Q: The third incident in a similar shape is the controversy over the Chinese fertilizer ship. 

A: It is nothing to do with diplomacy but a commercial transaction. But it is indeed complex. If you look at the company that bought the shipment, that is one of the biggest companies in the world that provide organic fertilizer. They will not tarnish their image for a small shipment like this. They have got clearance from Singapore and Switzerland, who have the best laboratories in the world, but not from Sri Lanka. I don’t know what exactly went behind this. 

Sometimes it is not as simple as you see it. There can be sabotage taking place at individual interests. It is a great loss to the country and a great loss to our future just like what has happened because of the forced cremation. So-called self-proclaimed geoscientists and a few others went against the whole world and the country was forced to follow which resulted in greater isolation of Sri Lanka. That was just because they maintained a kind of hate against a particular community in Sri Lanka. Their hate overtakes the rationale and national interests of the country. These are the incidents I’m really worried about and every Sri Lankan has a responsibility to see the holistic picture to be rational and strategic despite treating your ambitions. A decision has to be merit-based. 

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Ali Sabry while talking to Sri Lanka Guardian at his residence in Colombo [ Photo: Laknath Seneviratne/ Sri Lanka Guardian]

Q: For the first time in history, the UK is having an Indian-origin man as their Prime Minister. The UK Parliament is scheduled to have a debate on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation on November 9, in three days. What is your message to the Prime Minister and the debate that they are going to have on Sri Lanka?

A: We need to continually engage with the United Kingdom, as well as with other countries. We need to understand that both UK and Canada have a strong Sri Lankan Diaspora which can change the outcome of the votes in several electorates. That put a lot of pressure on the people who are being elected from those seats. That’s the ground reality. They may use it, and we need to give our side of the story. But, to get over the allegations against us, we also have to perform domestically. What they have been telling us for a long period is accountability. If you provide a truth-seeking mechanism and accountability mechanism domestically, then we will have something to go and present by saying ‘don’t come and interfere in this because we are doing it.’ Beyond that, we can’t do anything. These threats are there, particularly in UK and Canada because of their voting power. 

Sri Lanka’s relationship with the UK is longstanding. We have a lot of similarities between us. Instead of a few isolated incidents-based complaints, we are requesting the new Prime Minister to look at the larger picture of Sri Lankan democracy. An elected President is forced to give up and go halfway through. Sri Lanka has thrived in democracy since 1931. Our elections are free and fair. None of the government leaders stays beyond their mandate. Let’s work together. My message is very clear, let us work as partners and do not be misled by a few people with ulterior motives and hidden agendas for their political gain. Support Sri Lanka to recover fast. 

Q: In conclusion, please offer us your thought on President’s idea to establish the “Diaspora Office.” How are you going to attract Sri Lankan expatriates for greater contributions to do better for the country through this initiative? 

A: The idea is to connect all Sri Lankans overseas and foreigners of Sri Lankan origins. We will have a separate office here and we will connect them all through our missions abroad where we will provide our services including proper guidance to channel their investments in Sri Lanka. We are in the final process of designing it. Hopefully, we will be able to launch this initiative on the upcoming Independence Day.

Stop Fighting like Kilkenny Cats to Regain Sri Lanka

“Dr. Singh allowed me to formulate all taxation reforms and I worked them out with some brilliant officers of the Indian Revenue Service,” he recalled when I asked about the secrets behind the success in solving one of the most difficult economic crises India ever encountered. In his mid-twenties, he was the youngest collector ever in India and his journey is a very important trail to understanding what India is today. Revenue Secretary M R Sivaraman, who transformed the structure of excise and customs duties in India, shared his experiences not only on his personal journey but also on the institutions he worked for, including the International Monetary Fund. 

Joining the I.A.S. cadre of Madhya Pradesh in 1962 Mr. M. Sivaraman Ramanathan has worked in various departments in the state of Madhya Pradesh and the Central Government. With over 40 years of experience, he has held important positions at various levels in the Department of Finance, Planning, Finance Commission, Economic Affairs and Ministry of Commerce and Finance. He has worked as Director-General of Civil Aviation & Ex-Officio Additional Secretary of Government of India, Ministry of Civil Aviation & Revenue Secretary, Government of India, Ministry of Finance, New Delhi. He has also worked as Executive Director, International Monetary Fund and was an Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Committee to Counter-Terrorism. Currently he is engaged in delivering lectures on Budget, Banking, Fiscal and Monetary policies. While talking about the crisis in Sri Lanka he says, “Sri Lanka should not be attracted toward models of other countries. There is a temptation that the Chinese model is great or the American model is superb. These countries do not offer assistance for charity and they have their own agenda.” Acclaimed author on fiscal and monetary policy issues Mr. Sivaraman reaffirmed that, “dynasty rule should be avoided at all costs,” while identifying the foundation for a regime that sincerely respects liberty, equality, fraternity without hesitating to admit India’s mistakes in the past in dealing with certain issues in Sri Lanka.   

Excerpts of the interview;

Question: Mr Sivaraman, as a Chinese saying goes, we are living in an interesting time. Aren’t we?  The unpredictability of social calamities is becoming the norm. I, most of the time, was surprised to realize the gravity of the old Hegelian saying later popularized by Marx, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”  Let’s start this discussion on your early years as a dynamic youth. Born in British India in the 1940s and became the youngest collector ever in India at the age of 25, your footprints are a trail of what India today, as one of the main economies on the planet.  Let’s recall your early professional experiences and challenges such as corruption and bribery you saw, and how do you overcome them?

A: My first encounter with corruption was when as an assistant collector I was asked to trap a corrupt forest range officer.

The man who was asked for the bribe carried marked currency notes to the RO in a remote forest guest house and I was (all of 23 years) was waiting behind a tree near the guest house at around midnight. As soon as the notes were handed over to the RO I pounced on him with a few cops and arrested him. He tried to set his dog on us but it was caught. Then when I was collector I had caught red -handed, a senior Government of India official with a hefty bribe in his hands. Corruption is endemic in every society in different forms. There is also moral corruption when you see something going wrong and you do not stop it for fear of personal consequences. This is the worst form. In my 39 years service I was never afraid of speaking the truth almost following the Kantian categorical imperative excepting when I had to deal with my country’s safety. I had not tolerated corruption in my vast revenue department as its permanent secretary and sent a few to jail and a few I dismissed from service using a rarely used constitutional provision and my orders were upheld by the courts also.

Q: India faces several financial downturns. One of the known scenarios was during the late Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure. Political instability was on a rampage, social insecurity is at the helm and the forex balance was shaking. But, Rao’s political wisdom changed the fate of the nation. He took the firmed decisions to restructure the Indian system to benefit all walks of the society. Everybody knows, that his handpick Dr Manmhohan Singh was the man behind this remarkable achievement. However, it is a smokescreen that an individual thinks that he/she alone can succeed in complicated social issues without the genuine support of a reliable and efficient team. You were the Revenue Secretary of India when Dr Singh was the Finance Minister. I know you have discussed the secrets behind this success story in many national and international forums. But I would like to have glimpses of your role and memorable incidents that you could like to recall today?

A: I had known Dr. Manmohan Singh since 1977 when I joined the Department of Economic Affairs as Director and he was my Secretary. Later he was instrumental in my getting posted as Joint Secretary there giving me opportunities to lead many intergovernmental talks and also accompany the PM on her state visits. Dr. Singh allowed me to formulate all taxation reforms and I worked them out with some brilliant officers of the Indian Revenue Service. Never did he reject any proposal of mine in the 4.5 years we were together. On one occasion I had a serious difference of opinion with him in the matter of relieving from the post of chairman of a Tribunal (equal to a High Court Judge in India) I relieved him using my position as administrative head of the Department and Dr.Singh was under political pressure to continue him not because he considered him worthy but the pressure was intense including from the PM. I declined and offered to proceed on leave. He then took the papers, studied them and agreed with me and told the PM that he would not like to overrule me. The PM P V Narasimha Rao did not overrule me. Dr.Singh was gentle and humane and kept a clean conscience as Finance Minister.

Several political luminaries including senior Cabinet Ministers came under a cloud with the SC monitoring a case of corruption under investigation by my department. Never ever I was asked to do anything contrary to my conscience and some of the cases involving surviving politicians are still pending in the court.

In my 36 years of service in the IAS never had I done anything against my conscience and nobody ever asked me to do anything. Mr. Arjun Singh the CM of MP had to quit because of a court judgement that upheld my view as correct opposing a cabinet decision. Even opposition party chiefs were always happy with the actions being taken by me.  On a few occasions there were differences of opinion between me and Montek Singh Ahluwalia Secretary Economic Affairs but invariably Dr. Singh went along with me and so did Ahluwalia.

When I approved action against Sasikala the friend of Jayalalitha then CM of Tamil Nadu there was uproar in TN and a few people committed suicide. The PM who had the support of Jayalalitha did not stop me.  Was it sheer luck or a considered decision by the PM and the FM to stand by me in my tough actions so that the people of India would know that the govt. will allow rule of law to take its course. 

I would not know. But this puts the two political leaders on a pedestal at least during my time. Consistency in such an approach makes a person a great leader. But many fall on the wayside, unable to resist pressures or suffer personal consequences.

Q: You have redesigned and reengineered the function of the Central Excise and Customs of India. Why did you think it was such an essential area that needed to be addressed immediately?

A: The Customs and Central Excise department was characterised by corruption and the only way to reduce it was by making it rule based by removing discretion and all other changes in the tax system were toward that end. When for the first time the Delhi customs was to go online in a new building the construction of which I had supervised the then current Chairman would not come for its inauguration by Dr. Singh when four other former chairmen were present. He thought that it was my project an IAS officer’s and so he should boycott it. While all the 4 former chairmen lauded the effort this gentleman was absent. He was fired by Dr. Singh later when he refused to attend to even budget files. The Custom House Agents tried to sabotage the system with the assistance of subordinate customs officials whose outside incomes disappeared. But we did not budge. Similarly computers were introduced in the management of Central Excise also.

The Permanent Account Number (PAN) was introduced during my time and now it is ubiquitous in India, a dream of mine that has been realised. It is also the basis of the registration for the GST also which I had suggested when the PAN became a reality. This wholesale computerisation removed discretion at the hands of officers and drastically reduced corruption, speeded up procedures facilitating commerce and business and reduced transaction costs. Dr. Singh supported every one of these decisions. Today India’s taxation system is computerised from end to end thanks to the initial unfailing support by Dr. Singh and also the PM. Today’s GST Council of India has its origin in the first State Finance Minister’s conference organised under Dr. Singh to consider the introduction of the VAT in all the astes.

Q: Before we are going talk about your experiences at IMF, let me ask you about an existing socio-political issue on political leadership in South Asia and elsewhere. As Plato quoted Socrates, “no man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness”. I find this statement is remarkably true, not only in ancient Greek but its validity holds even in most of the social affairs today. Mr Sivaraman, Why do leaders fail, though they tried their best to revamp the rotten system?

A: Reforms have to be thought out in all its dimensions of their short, medium and long term impact on a nation’s people and also its external ramifications. When a government has formulated reforms with those considerations in view Leaders who do not devote their heart and soul in implementing those reforms and who are morally imperfect fail. This is true also of Bureaucrats who implement reforms and Political leaders who defend them in public and parliament. A leader must have a high moral calibre that he/she is incorruptible, courageous enough to sacrifice, put public welfare above self and be above suspicion. In today’s world you have to search to find one unfortunately. 

(from left) Expenditure secretary K. Venkatesan, minister of state for finance Chandrashekhara Murthy, revenue secretary M.R. Sivaraman, finance minister Manmohan Singh, finance secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia and chief economic adviser Shankar Acharya, in 1994.  ( Photo Courtesy: HarperCollins India)

Q: After successful years in Indian Administrative Service, your next hold was in International Monetary Fund (IMF). What triggered you to join the IMF? Who are the remarkable economists you worked with? 

A: Mr. P C Chidambaram a brilliant lawyer every inch an aristocrat succeeded DR. Singh as the Finance Minister but from a different regional political party of TN having resigned from the Congress.

I had a very good equation with him and we put through one budget together.

I never looked for any major assignment as I was certain that I had no political back up. But surprisingly Chidambaram called me in June 1996 and asked me why I had not approached him for a posting in the IMF or the Word Bank as ED, both the posts being vacant. I told him I was not aware of those vacancies. So I also offered to be considered. But after a few hours Mr. Chidambaram called me and said the PM Deve Gowda and some members of the cabinet wanted me to be the next Cabinet Secretary. I was taken aback as there were a few seniors in the service. Chidambaram told me that the seniors have been considered and were rejected and two of them could be appointed to the IMF and the WB. I told him I would accept whatever the government offered me. But political pressure mounted on the PM for Cabinet Secretary’s post as well as for the others. Finally, the PM called me and said that he was making TSR Subramanian a 1961 batch officer and senior-most, although with only 3 months service left as the Cabinet Secretary. He was a fine officer and richly deserved the post. So I had to choose between the World Bank and the IMF.

Montek Ahluwalia a fair man told Chidambaram that I should be sent to the IMF as there one had to actively participate in policy making and will be confronted with the views of some of the world’s leading economists and Surendra Singh the outgoing Cabinet Secretary not an expert in financial management who had been promised one of the posts by PM P. V. Narasimha Rao should be sent to the World Bank. That is how I got posted to the IMF.

Q: When you listen to many talks in day to day discussion it’s clear that many people do not know much about what IMF is and its structural functionality. Correct me if I am wrong, IMF is not a charity but another bank with enormous commitments and different capabilities compared to our local banks. It borrows money from various nations to make it work and lends guarantees or other financial packages to countries in need. So my question is what are the basic principles you need to keep in mind when you approach the IMF for relief?

A: The IMF is an institution which basically tries to maintain the International Monetary System and exchange rates stable, for an orderly conduct of global trade and prevent crises in one country affecting other countries. That is why the Fund has Article IV consultations with member countries built into its charter. In most cases it is an annual exercise and in some it may have different periodicity also. These consultations enable the Fund to evaluate a country’s policies from global a perspective as well from its national objectives. Its advice is not mandatory supplies but the Fund cautions a country when it sees dangers ahead.

When one approaches the IMF for assistance a country has to be sure that they may have to renounce populist decisions and adopt policies that initially may be unpalatable like pricing power and other forms of energy supplies like petrol and diesel at economic cost. Reform sales and income taxation to ensure that they are collected properly. To take measures to promote exports by having realistic exchange rate and monetary policies. On the fiscal front governments have to give up profligate policies. IMF these days are careful to ensure that their conditionalities do not affect the poor. Governments can negotiate conditionalities with the IMF.

Q: Do you think IMF is the panacea for the economic downturn? What are the success stories of IMF?

A: The IMF is not a panacea for all crises. IMF succeeded in the SEA crises by arresting the exit of international banks from the affected countries even though critics condemned many conditionalities of the IMF. I was there and some measures I had opposed myself. The IMF realised its mistakes as can be seen in the evaluation report on its performance during the crisis.

Q: Among other accounts, I was engrossed by a critical analysis of IMF and World Bank where the authors suggested these organizations are turning poor countries into loans addicted countries. I quote, “Once countries accepted the conditions of structural adjustment, the World Bank and the IMF rewarded them with still more loans, thus deepening their indebtedness—rather like a fireman pouring gasoline on a burning house to stop the blaze.” What do you think? Is there an example you would like to tell that the IMF could have done better than they did?

A: Some criticisms of the IMF are valid as the economists there are mostly theoreticians and have had very little practical experience in handling crises of any country. There are very few, probably none in the IMF who has been a Finance Secretary of a country handling such a crisis. Mere theoretical solutions to every crisis do not work as economics is not an exact science.

Q: Mr Sivaraman, let’s talk about Sri Lanka. I’m sure you need no foreword about the situation in Sri Lanka. You are one of the few who have in-depth knowledge reference to economic condition in this beautiful Island nation, your immediate neighbor. How do you read the situation, and what went wrong here in Sri Lanka? 

A:  I had the honour of representing Sri Lanka in the IMF. It is a beautiful country which successfully controlled its population, achieved near universal literacy, promoted health of every citizen and was attracting the attention of tourists and also administrators elsewhere on its success in achieving a satisfied society.

But political struggles amongst various groups became intense after the elimination of the LTTE. Actually, the return of peace should have catapulted the country to higher growth. This did not happen as the country could not resolve the Tamil issue. The hatred for Tamils by the Sinhalese and vice versa if not eliminated Sri Lanka will never be able to achieve its full potential. Both Tamil leaders and other leaders in Sri Lanka have to adopt a policy of give and take. Tamils must think as Sri Lankans and Sinhalese too have to cease being Sinhalese and be Sri Lankans. They cannot fight as they say like kilkenny cats as then only two tails will be left.

Q: You and one of the known intellects with whom I was fortune to keep fruitful communications for decades, Dr V Suryanarayan from the University of Madras, recently wrote an article about the Sri Lankan situation. The article ended by quoting the famous lines of Shakespeare in Macbeth echoes in our minds: “Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself. It cannot be called our mother, but our grave …” This, I believe, is an attempt to get the worse scenario correct. What is the way out? Apart from giving priority to monkey politics, how can the country’s resources be mobilized to overcome this tragic situation? 

A: Sri Lanka should not be attracted toward models of other countries. There is a temptation that the Chinese model is great or the American model is superb. These countries do not offer assistance for charity and they have their own agenda. Similarly putting one country against another is a game that should be avoided. You may ask what about India. Yes India has its own interests to protect like it does not want to have countries hostile to it having bases economic or military in its neighbourhood.

I know India’s record dealing with the LTTE has not been correct to say the least. But neither India nor Sri Lanka can forget that they are linked for over 2000 years culturally and historically. History may contain many mistakes but they have to be forgotten and move on for a better future.

India has a moral responsibility to ensure peace and stability in Sri Lanka so that its people live in peace.

As regards Sri Lanka’s future I would strongly advise that when once the situation stabilises fresh elections should take place and Sri Lanka should have a Cabinet controlled government accountable to its Parliament with a President as its titular head having limited powers. Dynasty rule should be avoided at all costs. I am not prescribing any measures for its economic stability as I do not have full details on its economy.

Sri Lanka: Unfolding Saga of Sara Jasmine

Who is Sara? Was she really a suicide bomber brained washed through Islamic extremism or a mole planted by a spy agency to track the motives of Islamic extremists who led the Easter attacks which killed nearly three hundred innocent people and wounded many more? Why is this mysterious lady continuing to dominate headlines while giving conspiracy theoreticians importance?  Let us take a close look at the events surrounding her life during the Easter carnage in 2019. 

Sara Jasmine ( File Photos)

Two days before the suicide attacks, Zahran Hashim’s wife Hadiya alias Siththiya, Muhammadu Hasthun’s wife Sara alias Pulastini Mahendran, and Mohammed Azad’s wife Abdul Raheem Feroza along with a few others left for Kanthankudy to find their safe place to buy time for possible subsequent attacks. They had brought a vehicle from Kattankudy to pick them up. The van was driven by Riyaz, a close associate of Zahran and his family. 

Sara and Zahran’s Wife left Colombo

On their way to Kattankudy, they did not forget to buy white colour clothes from Jayasundara Textiles, a shop located in Giriulla. Feroza carrying Hadiya’s daughter entered the clothing store followed by Hadiya and Sara. It has been confirmed that Hadiya had bought two outfits, Sara four and Feroza three. Authentic sources reaffirmed that they have bought white clothes to use during Iddah after the deaths of their husbands. According to Islam, Iddah or “Iddat is an Arabic term which means the period of waiting and is observed by Muslim women. It is a period of chastity which a Muslim woman is bound to observe after the dissolution of her marriage due to the death of her husband or by divorce before she can lawfully marry again.”

As per the Quran described, the observing period for a widow is four months and ten days.  But some sources suspected that they have bought the white clothes for detonating bombs at targeted locations though there is no evidence to support it. However, investigators have found substantive evidence to prove that they have dressed in white after the Easter attacks. 

It was in the afternoon of April 18 in Colombo for the first time that Zahran told Hadiya that he and his group is planning to leave for Hijra known as greater emigration, and request her and the kids to live with his parents if he did not return. “In the Islamic tradition, Hijrah refers to Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Makkah to Medina in 622 CE. However, the Islamic State (IS) has manipulated this term to attract Muslim followers to its territories.” Zahran vowed that all responsibilities would be taken care of by his brother Rilwan alias Abu Kital. Then Zahran asked Rilwan to take his wife and two children along with others in the group to Kattankudy immediately.

As scheduled, the group left Colombo for Eastern Province via Panadura on the morning of April 19 and reached a safe house in Nintavur, Kathankudy at around 2.30 am on April 20. The group included Hadiya, her two children, Sara, Rilwan, Feroza, and Riyaz, who drove the van. It was the first time in months that the extended family members, including Zahran’s parents, had met. From April 20 to 26, 2019, the group used various tactics to hide from the security forces. Investigations have revealed that they used several houses in the area as safe houses during this short period. Eventually, their last hideout was a single-story house in the Bolivarian village in the Saindamaradu area. 

It was the late afternoon of April 26th 2019, and the area, like many other places in the countrywas drowning in fear due to the most horrendous coordinated terrorist attacks in history. Several people in the mosque turned their attention to two men who went to pray at the Jumma Mosque that afternoon because of their suspicious behaviour.  It did not take long to spread the news; many people were sceptical about the newcomers to their village.

The group chose to hide in a house in Bolivarian village in Saindamaradu area and determined that no one would pay attention to them. But their assumption was wrong. Bolivarian village is a Venezuelan-funded housing project for tsunami victims. The land selected for this project was previously used for paddy cultivation but due to its environmental difficulties, it was decided to use for the project. As a result of this project, the area was renamed the Bolivarian Village.

The group chose to hide in asbestos sheeted single floor house which has only one gate to enter or exit. It is a two-door black colour gate about seven feet high. Surrounded by four walls, the house consisted of a fairly large living area followed by a small veranda, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a toilet with a small shower area. The toilet was located near the kitchen, bordering a blind high wall about three feet from the kitchen wall. The house has a back door that allows access to the yard from the kitchen and enters the toilet. Even though that door, there is only one main gate for anyone to leave the house.

As of April 26, 2019, nineteen people, including Zahran’s family members, were staying in the house. They had collected a large number of various items, including explosives, and currency notes. According to sources, Zahran’s father Hayatu Mohammed, mother Synthi, wife Hadiya and her son Waseeth and daughter Rudaiyna, Rilwan, his wife Fatima Nafna, their children Mhra and Saheed, Sheini, his wife Fatima Afrin, their children Hamama and Umar, Zahran’s sister Hidayah, her husband Rishad, and their daughter Rubeiyda, Zahran’s second sister’s husband Niaz, Sara and Feroza.

Rilwan’s video message

The security forces received a message that a suspicious group was staying in the house around 4 pm on April 26, according to information provided by the people living in the village and the trustee of the Jumma Mosque. The security forces in charge of the area decided to search the house accordingly. Before the search of the house, the Army immediately deployed security forces to cover the entrance or exit area of the house. That was the time that Rilwan issued the video message saying that the house was surrounded by troops in his term “dogs” and that they were carrying out their plan in the name of Allah.

“By the grace of Allah, by the grace of Allah, we will get ready for what we have planned to do. we will rid this country of dogs and non-Muslims for they have no place. We will continue our effort until they are punished, may Allah be with us. Even if we died, we will die as martyrs. What we plan to do will take place at every venue. Stay with us, stay strong, believe in our word. Allah never fails to answer the prayers of the faithful. these people who do us wrong will face three times the revenge of God. This is our Jihad. We ask for this on the day of Yamul Qiyamaha where every prayer is answered and every plea is heard by Allah. Allah never fails to answer those prayers,” a joint video issued on social media by Rilwan, his father, and Shaini who was holding his son Umar on his lap were pledged.  

However, the military operation was launched after they refused to surrender. Shaini and Niaz made a desperate attempt to prevent the army from entering the house and fired at the army. Niaz went out of the gate and tried to shoot at the army, but he was killed by the army in retaliation. His body was found about ten meters from the entrance gate of the house. Shaini’s body was also found lying in the yard of the house. Only Zahran’s wife Hadiya and her daughter survived with bad injures. Everyone else in the house was killed in the blasts. The other members of the household at the time were believed to beHayatuMohammed, Synthi, Rilwan, Fatima Nafna, Mihra, Saheed, Fatima Afrin, Hamama, Umar, Hidayah, Rishad, Rebeida, Sara, Feroza, and Zahran’s son Waseeth all of whom were believed to have died in the series of blasts. 

Here, the first focus of the investigation on how Hadiya and her daughter survived was a matter of fate. Accordingly, a lot of important data about the incident was revealed. Realizing that the security force members have surrounded the house, they all began to wash and clean their hands and feet as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Rilwan was preparing to blow up the gas cylinder in the house and the fuel tank of the motorcycle which was kept inside the living area.

Rilwan then assisted the others to tie up the suicide kits at home after tying up his suicide kit. Since then, Sara and Feroza have been wearing suicide kits. Hadiya has stated that she had witnessed the two of them wearing suicide kits and, Sara invites Hadiya to join them immediately to go to heaven. At that moment, Hadiya had gone with her daughter from the living room to the toilet first and then to the next bedroom. At that moment bombs exploded. Consequently, Hadiya fainted and fell. Hours later, security forces rushed her and her daughter to the hospital, and dead bodies were taken to post-mortems. Only a few bodies were found that could be easily identified. The bodies of all the others who remained in the house were dismembered.

On April 28 and 29, 2019, the forensic pathologist in charge of the area sent the bodies and body parts for post-mortem examination and obtained biopsy samples for DNA testing. After obtaining the approval of the court, the samples were referred to the Government Analyst. Unfortunately, three of those biological tissue samples had expired, the Analyst told the court on May 15, 2019. The police then referred the case to the CID for further investigation.

First and Second DNA tests

Permission was sought from the court on June 7, 2019, to obtain biopsy samples for DNA testing again from the relevant body parts, stating that three of the biopsy samples obtained were tainted. The bodies of ten adults and one child were recovered and samples were taken for DNA testing. The Judicial Medical Officer and the CID were present but for whatever reason, the Analyst’s Department officials did not attend. However, the DNA samples taken a second time were immediately sent fortests.

The results of those investigations were reported to the court three months later, on September 19, 2019. According to the relevant test report, the DNA tests could not confirm everyone in the house. Many questions than answers arose. Is it because they are not able to focus on certain parts when taking DNA samples? If not, was the number of persons in the house by the time of the explosions mentioned by Zahran’s wife wrong? Did anyone in the house escape before the explosion or at the time of the military operation? These questions made the incident even more controversial. Most people’s attention is drawn to Sara Jasmine, who returned from Colombo on April 19 with Hadiya and others. Because DNA tests could not confirm her body but all others. 

What happened to Sara Jasmine, the wife of Abu Muhammad alias Mohammed Hashtun, the man who bombed St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo? Some speculators and conspiracy theorists came up with many stories. One such story is that she has fled to India via Mannar with the support of a police officer as she was a mole of a spy agency. It has further complicated the investigations, though the most of stories were based on speculation and unsubstantiated rumours circulating throughout society. Therefore, it is important to look carefully at the actions taken by the officials of the law enforcement agencies in this country. 

However, what we can reaffirm now is that the officials responsible for the first DNA tests on the victims of the explosions at the Bolivarian village house in Saindamaruthu did not pay keen attention to taking biopsy samples. Then, samples were taken from only a selected few bodies during the second round of DNA tests. 

Evidence, meanwhile, showed that there was a difference between the number of people staying in the house and the number of bodies confirmed by DNA tests after the explosions. This discrepancy led to a wide social controversy and the truth was questioned. The basis for that controversy was that there was a political conspiracy behind this attack, and those who were the behind attacks helped Sara to escape. But when all the incidents in this chain of events are intertwined, it is very clear that there is no positive information or evidence to prove that there is a political conspiracy behind this or anyone who helped Sara to escape.

However, Hadiya has reconfirmed on several occasions that Sara Jasmine was present at the time of the explosions in the house. She also confirmed that she was wearing a suicide kit given by Rilwan. Shaini and Riyaz came out of the house and opened fire on the security forces, while three powerful explosions were reported inside the house. There is no credible evidence that anyone left the house after the explosions. As mentioned above, there is only one gate to enter and exit the house, which is surrounded by over seven feet high walls. It is also reported that a large number of people were watching the operation. Is it possible that anyone could have left the house at or after the explosions under such circumstances? Maj. Gen. Mahinda Mudalige, who commanded the Army in the operation, made it very clear that no one was able to escape after the Army surrounded the house since 6.00 pm on April 26, 2019. 

However, the manufactured story about Sara remains as no scientific evidence to prove that she was dead. Meanwhile, a senior police officer attached to the Colombo Crimes Division has been assigned to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate the Easter Terrorist Attacks. It was November 27th, 2019. He reported that Sarah Jasmine had escaped while presenting before the Commission a testimony given by one of his informants as an eyewitness to the incident. Reports indicated that he uses a single statement of the relevant informant without any substantive details to prove the allegation. It is also clear that no detailed background study or mobile phone analysis has been conducted on the informant before presenting the evidence. So this so-called informant had changed his statements from time to time on several occasions. 

According to the evidence presented in the Kalmunai Magistrate’s Court, the informant of the police officer who worked in the Presidential Commission had obtained information from his driver, Sivalingam Ravindran. Based on his statement, one Selvaraja Devakumar and a Chief Inspector Abubakar, both residents of Kalawanchikudi, were arrested by the Colombo Crimes Division. Both were charged with aiding and abetting Sara Jasmine’s escape. However, the person who allegedly provided information to the police officer’s informant has made contradictory statements on several occasions and later admitted before the Kalmunai Magistrate’s court that he had given false information. He also said that the police officer’s informant had asked him to tell him that he had seen the woman fleeing in the hope of getting a cash reward. 

Based on the findings of the investigations carried out so far, two basic facts can be inferred. The first is that his informant had misled the police officer who was in charge of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to settle certain personal grievances. Second, Sara Jasmine’s escape to India for some reason may have been a deliberate fabrication by all involved including the police officer to get possible benefits.

However, there is still no credible evidence to prove that Sara Jasmine died in the bombings at home. Also, there is no credible evidence to prove that she fled the house at the time of the explosions. But there were serious defects in two rounds of DNA testing and the nature of collecting biopsy samples. 

In this context, there are only several ideas that are said to have been given by people who claim to be informants and some of the assumptions that have been made are based on those ideas.

But here are a few basic facts to keep in mind. First, the allegations made by the informants that Sara Jasmine fled with the assistance of a police officer have been admitted by the court to be false themselves. Second, Zahran’s wife, Hadiya, has repeatedly stated that she witnessed Sara Jasmine wearing a suicide kit at the time of the blasts. It has also been confirmed that Shyam, a resident of Kalmunai, who was arrested on intelligence, has witnessed that Sara Jasmine was staying in this house. Confirming this, Rilwan also said in his final video message that he had three wives of three people who had gone to heaven a few days earlier with him and that they too would go to heaven soon. Based on these facts, it is not wrong to believe that Sarah Jasmine was present at the time of the house explosion.

Third DNA Tests

Mahendran Pulasthini alias Sara Jasmine was born on March 7, 1996 at the Kalawanchikudi Hospital. Hospital records reconfirmed that the mother had given birth to a baby girl at the hospital at 08.30 am on the same day. Born into a Hindu family, later converted to Islam due to a love affair, Sara’s life with many controversial events is very important to understand the different dimensions of the Easter attacks and the nature of the threats that may come in the future. Most importantly what happened to this girl who dreamt of becoming a medical doctor but turned into a suicide bomber for IS which led to the attacks on Easter in 2019? So it is very important to find out if she is alive or if she died in the explosions in the Bolivarian village house.

Against this backdrop, a third official request was made to the Security Council to obtain biopsies of the bodies of those killed in the explosions and to conduct DNA testing. That was two years ago, on the second day of February 2020. The request was made by Maj. Gen. Suresh Sallay, director of the State Intelligence Service. He made that request, focusing on several very important issues.

The head of state intelligence, over two years ago, observed that it was important to confirm the status of Sara Jasmine and the failure to do so could lead to serious security, legal, and social implications in the future. However, for a variety of reasons including the pandemic, the third round of DNA tests took a long time than expected. 

Finally, several senior police officers went with the Government Analyst on May 7, 2021, for a site inspection of the crime scene to resolve the controversy that was emerging throughout the society. They did not forget to take Zahran’s wife Abdul Cader Fatima Hadiya to reconfirm the place. Following the site inspection, on 16 August 2021, the Government Analyst submitted a report to the CID making recommendations and observations on the matter. Saman Weerasinghe, a Chief Investigating officer of the Police, was instructed to retrieve the biopsy samples for further DNA testing to implement those recommendations immediately. Unfortunately, Mr. Weerasinghe died of illnesses, and the process was taken more time to obtain the necessary court order to collect the relevant biopsies.

When the case was taken to court on March 21, 2022, the police were able to obtain the relevant court order and the court was given time from April 08 to April 12 to obtain the relevant biopsy samples. However, the forensic pathologist in charge of the area was informed that he could not attend due to the urgent duties previously assigned to him. Therefore, April 27 was the date on which all responsible parties could participate. Accordingly, the body parts were exhumed and the required samples were taken for DNA testing. This time, the Judicial Medical Officer, Government Analyst and the CID took action to collect samples from all the relevant body parts. Therefore, this time the test will be crucial. It is to be hoped that there will be a clear scientific answer to the widespread rumours about Sara Jasmine.

Enigma of Sara Jasmine

However, no one has the right to say for sure whether Sara Jasmine died in the incident until confirmed by the thorough investigation. The unknown factors of her life as well as her current status have had a more controversial impact. This incident teaches us that it is very difficult and tedious to get the true picture of the incident which is surrounded by misinformation spread in the society through various elements and prejudices. 

According to the evidence of those she last met, 23-year-old Sara Jasmine was born into a Hindu family and later converted to Islam and accepted violent extremism as the sole way to forever lasting liberation. Suicide bombers created by the LTTE and suicide bombers manufactured by Islamic extremism have opened up a new social dimension that we were reluctant to see. This abysmal transformation that takes place in someone who sacrifices their life for an individual or ideology highlights the need for an in-depth study of the society in which we live. Preventing the recurrence of such violent tendencies cannot be achieved by clinging to various conspiracies.

Social crises always make man think. How many people adapt to those temptations and focus on studying them? But unfortunately, many people tend to use any social event very easily to achieve narrow political objectives rather than seizing the opportunity to make a greater social contribution. If we close the path to the search for truth ourselves, we will become accustomed to gathering around the delusion. When delusion becomes the primary driving force in our lives, we inherit slavery over individual liberty. This is why the enigma of Sara Jasmine must be scientifically revealed. It is a form of collective social responsibility.

Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias KP speaks after years of silence

The story of a man who transformed his life to shelter and educate hundreds of kids affected during armed conflict and due to social disparity in Sri Lanka. He is widely known as KP. Selvarasa Pathmanathan is now a social activist and founded the North-East Rehabilitation and Development Organization

When the world’s one-time most wanted man is given the chance to speak, what does he say? When he is given the chance to walk freely, where does he go? When he is given time and freedom, what does he do? 

His name is Selvarasa Pathmanathan, but most people refer to him as a terrorist. Known as KP, he was a driving force behind the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world, the LTTE. Where is KP today and what has he been doing during the last decade since the brutal conflict ended in 2009?

In the second week of April this year, I visited Kilinochchi in the Northern Province and sat with a man, who today weighs his words more than he ever did. His life depends on his work and words more than ever before. 

He is a case study in searching for the true meaning of reconciliation. He has shown that reconciliation is not merely a game of rhetoric at international forums to gain personal desires but commitments toward helping society uplift livelihoods of ordinary men and women. 

Following are excerpts from the interview:

by Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Q: Tell me about Sencholai?

Thank you for visiting me and for your organisation to give us some publicity. I have to thank the President for giving me this opportunity to start Sencholai. While I was in custody in Colombo, I made a request to the President, who was at the time the Defence Secretary; I told him I wanted to do something useful for the rest of my life, particularly for children and elders. He gave me permission and allowed me to visit Kilinochchi and to select a place and start a children’s home. It was in 2010. 

We started Anbu Children’s Home in Mullaitivu then Bharathi Children’s Home in the same area. These lands were previously occupied by the Army and when we requested these lands they handed it back to us. Over 100 girls who were affected by the war were enrolled and we are successfully running the school. Most of them are without parents, others with single parents. They lived a very difficult post-conflict life. We wanted to support them through their education. At the beginning in Anbu we had 30, within six months we had over 100 children. And then we started Bharathi. There are over 100 girls there. We are very successfully running this orphanage. This one we opened in 2013.

When I was arrested I thought that they were going to deport me. When I landed here, I thought to myself that my life was over. When I heard of the Defence Secretary who is the President today, I conjured up the image that he was a very serious, stern and tough person. When I landed here I thought they would take me to the cemetery. I said bye to my family in my heart and thought to myself that this life had ended, that maybe in the next life I could meet them again.

They took me to the Defence Secretary’s house. When I entered I noticed in the entrance a statue of the Buddha. When I saw the light I got a feeling that I was safe. I was feeling very low at the time but when I saw this light, I felt a little energised. I sat down with the Defence Secretary and he came and shook hands with me. When he sat down and began to talk, I was thinking to myself, ‘What is going on? This cannot be happening to me. This is the opposite of what should be happening to me.’ 

He was seated so freely and talking casually, contrary to the picture people painted and propagated of him. I got the belief that I was safe. Within a minute, I went from hell to heaven. It is because of this experience that I know what it is like. We discussed both the past and the future. He gave many chances for the LTTE to come to a peaceful solution but they didn’t accept it, he told me. He asked me to forget the past and told me that they were not the kind of people who would take revenge. He told me I could live comfortably without any worries. We spoke for two hours that day.

From time to time he spoke to me and we also met. Within two to three days he let me speak to my family. I think it was the next day. My wife and daughter were worried but when I called them they were happy and he told me that my family could visit me anytime. Within one or two months my family arrived. I spoke the truth. The war had ended and we had to work for the betterment of the society and the country. A friend of mine told me that I was the only one from the LTTE to win him over. The politicians here have a different image of him. If I have a chance, I’d like to write about these stories.

Sencholai – when we took this land they had already named it Sencholai and we kept the name.  Neither the President nor the other officials said anything. This is not for military purposes. There are 140 girls and 40 boys.

Q: After going through all that you went through, how do you introduce yourself?

I am a social worker, I am going to devote the rest of my life to society and children. My life should end with these children.

Q:  Why did you choose to help children?

 Elders have completed their life but these children are like flower buds. If they go to the wrong side, the wrong hand, their life will be over. But if you give them a good life and make them independent, they can live a better life. Even after the end of the war, society is messed up. The children are not safe, there’s poverty, the girls are leading an unsafe life devoid of parents to care for them. We are looking after 300 girls and they are happy. During the last Government I couldn’t do much but now I wish to continue the good work.

Q:  What in your view is the biggest mistake you made?

 I believed the politicians’ lies and I missed the life I could have lived. When I was a student I was studious but upon hearing these speeches by various politicians I went over to the other side.

Q:  Tell me about your parents?

 We lived a very difficult life but they wanted to send me a good school as well as university. I did my Bcom at Jaffna University. But at the end of the second year, I was hunted by the Military. I didn’t enjoy my life as much at university because I became involved in politics.

Q: When was your first visit to Colombo?

In the 1970s by train. Life was different here. People were happy and lived by their culture. 

Q:  Tell us about your teachers growing up?

 I remember each of my teachers and both my principals. This college made me different. They were the real teachers. It was never difficult to learn from them, they even came home and taught us.

Q:  Why did society deteriorate from what you saw when you were schooling?

Certain countries prospered and others were far behind. It was all about the management. Some welcomed the changes and here we took those changes in a different way. They spoiled our country.

Q:  You mentioned that you were emotionally influenced by the politicians at your time. Tell us more?

 Yes, there were several politicians who gave emotional speeches and we were students at the time. They not only misled me, they misled the entire younger generation.

Q: You are a case study of reconciliation, how do you view it?

 Reconciliation is not an easy task. Many people do not follow it. Every day when the situation or occurrence comes to mind, I compare and analyse it myself. So even from 2009 until now I am with security personnel; sometimes I feel something but I analyse myself and find that they are right. There’s no need for me get nervous or worried. I make mistakes but this is a chance they gave me so I accept it. I can’t go back. I have to keep my dignity and also prevent others from going back.

Q:  Tell us why you chose to teach political science and history?

 Every person ought to know their history. Children now grow up with little or no proper knowledge of the country’s history. They need to know how so many visionaries built this country from the time it gained its independence; it is only if they know that they can help build the country in the same way. 

Q: Do you think the current education system fails to teach this?

 It’s all there in the syllabus but there is a lack of teachers. At certain times teachers need to teach particular subjects in-depth but fail to do so. We have struggled all these years because politicians ruled the game but if children are taught what political science is, they can decide what is right and wrong. If they know the country’s law, they won’t go against the law. But if they are not familiar with the law, they will break the law. When we were younger we broke the law because we felt if the leaders were doing it, we could do it too. Children should acclimatise with the law of the land.

Q:  You mentioned you were reading up on biographies. What titles do you recommend?

 Our country’s history, how the kings at the time sacrificed, how they kept the peace. They never compromised the sovereignty of the country for the sake of anything. You see where Japan is today; when the children learn of their country’s history, they are very proud of it. We also don’t have movies about the lives these kings led and wars they fought. We need to bring this to the younger generation.

Q:  When you take your life, you have two eras, one is your involvement with violence and the other one is right after that. You are the best person to understand what reconciliation means and how we should reconcile with each other. Your views?

 Humanity, who a human is, then you realise that Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, it is only a symbol, a mark of religion. We have to respect your religion as much as we respect others. If you understand it, you will find that there’s no difference among people regardless of their faith. Moreover, if children go to mixed schools, they know they co-exist. Even if we have a bitter experience in the past, we need to forget it and move on. What is the point of these differences, what makes one superior to the other? Nothing. If we had to go to France, we would end up speaking French, so why don’t we speak both languages here? It’s the politicians here who urged the villagers not to learn Sinhala, but their children are taught both languages in Colombo.

Q:  If a kid comes up to you and says they had a dream and want to achieve it, what would you say to them?

 I will try my best to see that they are able to achieve that dream. I would advise them not to look at the differences of each other, to respect elders and to be ambitious. Nowadays everyone talks about Geneva, but they don’t realise how much a Sinhalese mother weeps for her child. They don’t realise how many died. It happened on both sides, that is what a war is.

Q:  Now that you are in your 60s, how do you see violence, do you realise that it is not a means to achieve anything?

Most certainly. The only way we can achieve is through negotiations. Violence can help win a war or two, but how many lives and generations are lost in between?

Q:  Since you are well aware of this issue regarding Sri Lanka at the HRC in Geneva, what do you see as being misleading messages regarding Sri Lanka?

 This will not damage our motherland. This is a tool being used by politicians to show these people that they are working on their behalf.  They know very well that both parties made mistakes.  It’s been 12 years since the end of the war, what’s the point of talking about the end of the war?*

Q:  You mentioned that you were reading about Nelson Mandela and Lee Kuan Yew. What makes them your favourite leaders?

 How they created their countries. Lee Kuan Yew is Singapore’s architect and it is the same for Nelson Mandela for South Africa. I always dream about our President in the same manner. I find him to be a visionary and serious about his aspirations.

Q:  You mentioned you had both Sinhala and Muslim students here. Tell us about how you teach them here together?

 Children are children, they are not taught nor do they see the differences among each other. When they come out to play, their differences disappear.

Q:  You also mentioned that you’ve read a lot about the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, tell us more? What do you find fascinating?

 I learned about how when you cause harm, you have to also pay the price for it. I always weigh my words and never like to hurt anyone by any means even through words. But it took me over 20 years to learn this. It will not come to you in one day.

Q:  What is your dream?

 I want to see a peaceful, economically developed country where these children have the life they dream of. I’d like to see our people go to Buddhist temples and vice versa. No more mafia, killings and trucks.

Q:  What is your responsibility to achieve this?

 My generation felt it the most because when we were growing up there was no war.

Q:  How do you see the war?

 A game played by a few politicians. Even Prabhakaran misled the youth. When we were young, we were radicalised.

Q:  I’d like to know your view about Islamic extremism as we had a bad experience two years ago. How do you see it?

 We need to look at this seriously. Because believers of Islam are calm and devout people. But someone, people from somewhere, imported terrorism. It is a mistake of the past Government. If our President had been there at that time, it would not have taken place.

Q:  What is your message to the critics of this Government?

 To be patient. Because for over a year the President has been trying to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. But he is also engaged with Tamil politicians. But I am confident that he will deliver on his promise. What I find amusing are the speeches by local Tamil politicians. We call some of them ‘puthisali madayan,’ which means ‘intelligent fool’. They want to keep people under their feet because it is only then that they can control these people.

Q:  What is the alternative?

 It should come naturally, a better, healthier political climate.

Q:  Tell me about the Tamil diaspora? Do those living abroad play a responsible role or manipulate the locals here?

 There are few who are still manipulating but most of them know the truth. In a few years those who are manipulating will give up.

Q:  What do you see as being the role of the Tamil intellectuals?

 They should accept the truth and the reality, then only can they play a role as an intellectual. If they are bent on their views of a separate state, it’s in the past and there’s no need to talk of it.

Q:  When you pray, what do you pray for?

 A happy and peaceful life for all.

Q:  Who are your remarkable students?

 This girl who is the manager here and another girl at the Jaffna and Batticaloa universities, they are remarkable individuals. They are all special to me. I want to start a school and I want thousands of students to come here and study.

Q:  What is your advice to someone who believes that violence is a way to achieve their objective?

 When you speak to a child, you advise them not to put their finger into the electrical socket or fire, Sometimes these people will touch and return because of their experience. With our experience, our country faced very heavy losses, damage, loss of lives, but at the end of the day nothing was achieved. So violence never achieves anything. We can’t go forward with violence.

I lost more than half my life to violence. In 2010, I realised my life had gone by. There’s no point in crying over it. Even my mother, sister and daughter lost their lives when they travelled by boat to India, I never saw them again. It’s my feeling of loss. All of this happened because politicians messed up.

We have now learned from the past. We need to forget about the past and whatever happened in the past. It is our country and we should live happily and support each other. Everyone suffered losses, not just one ethnicity.

(This interview was originally published in Lanka Courier, an independent and non-profit initiative started in January 2021.)

Sanctions are bringing suffering and death – UN Special Rapporteur

The use of economic sanctions has throughout history been an integral component of the foreign policy of most nation-states. As a blunt tool of diplomacy, the concept of sanctions has been around at least from the time of the ancient Greeks, when Athens imposed a trade embargo on its neighbour Megara in 432 B.C. Since then, there has been a long history of countries blockading their enemies to compel a change in behaviour.

In the late nineteenth century, economic sanctions were generally used during times of war and took the form of Export controls on strategic supplies and blockades against targeted countries. But how did this tactic morph into today’s “targeted” or “smart” sanctions — measures such as arms embargoes, asset freezes, and travel bans on key individuals and organizations? They may be more humane and high-tech than a flotilla at sea, but are sanctions any more effective today than they were 2,400 years ago? History tells us, how sanctions failed.

The guest of this episode is Alena Douhan. Alena Douhan is a professor in the Department of International Private and European Law, Belarusian State University. Her research is focused on the law of international security, the application of sanctions by states and international organizations, the status of individuals in International law, Human Rights in the Cyber-Age, and the law of international treaties. She was appointed by the Human Rights Council, as the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. She took her office on 25 March 2020.

She talked to Nilantha Ilangamuwa, former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian from her residence in Minsk, Belarus. Click here to listen to the episode

Mafia group destroys my beloved nation Venezuela – María Corina Machado

Unfortunately, a group of criminals have robbed and destroyed Venezuela in the last few decades. Therefore, the prevailing political crisis is deepening day by day; people are struggling to get rid of this highly sophisticated mafia rule, María Corina Machado one of the leading opposition figures in Venezuela said. In this episode of The New Normal, Nilantha Ilangamuwa, former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian talked to María Corina Machado to have insights about the situation in the oil-rich nation in Latin America.

Maria is a founding member of Vente Venezuela. She was elected a Member of the National Assembly of Venezuela in September 2010, having obtained the highest number of votes of any candidate in the race. However, for her role in civil society, she was accused by the Hugo Chávez government of conspiracy and treason and was forbidden from leaving the country without judicial authorization for several years.

On March 2014, she spoke before the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, after the Republic of Panama, yielded its speaking rights so that she could denounce Human Rights violations in Venezuela. For this reason, according to her, she was arbitrarily removed from her elected post by the President of the National Assembly. She says it is a violation of due process and international customary law. She faces accusations of treason, terrorism and homicide, as well as repeated threats of incarceration. But her fight for democracy is continuing.