R Hariharan

Col. R Hariharan is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies

Sri Lanka Politics of Protests

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During the month, Sri Lanka government made some progress in the measures it had initiated earlier for economic recovery. After holding the staff level meetings with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government is hopeful signs of $2.9 bn loan materialising. However, some other measures it has taken like the formation of a bloated cabinet for political reasons, declaring focus areas of Aragalaya protests as high security zones (HSZ) and the use of draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to arrest some of the protest leaders have drawn flak both at home and abroad. These negative aspects have provided a rallying point for opposition political parties to come together and articulate their stand against the Wickremesinghe government.

Actions of the government to suppress public protests found a place in the report on Sri Lanka by the outgoing High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made at the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) at Geneva. The session slated to end on October 7, is likely to extend the time given Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitments to the international body on the accountability for its human rights aberrations during the Eelam war. At the same time, it is likely to add negative riders in the resolution on the way the government has been handling public protests.

Former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa who fled the country for his safety on July 13, returned home to a warm official welcome on September 2. Though he had been keeping a low profile, his return has reinforced the belief that the Rajapaksas will continue to call the shots in the Wickremesinghe government.

Politics of protests

The Aragalaya public protests that had dethroned the Rajapaksas from power have shaken up the political parties of all shades as much as the government. Recovering from the shock effect of four-month long socio-political protests, political leaders seem to have realised the Aragalaya phenomenon as the expression of the unheard, unheralded and deprived citizens who are fed up with the existing political order.

Prof GL Peiris, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), in an interview in the Daily Mirror aptly described the Aragalaya as the alternative of ideas, of policies of freshness. “A new departure. The Aragalaya had a visionary aspect to it. Later it degenerated into violence. That is not to be condoned in any manner.” He found “a kind of renaissance about it.” The SLPP leader, who has chosen to sit separately in parliament from most of the SLPP members supporting the government, saw in the creations of protestors as “an expression of creativity and deep desire for a system change. To reorganise the system.” Prof Peiris, while acknowledging that some of the measures taken by the government to revamp the economy and ease the fuel and food shortages have yielded results, said a bloated cabinet cannot bring a systemic change. There were fewer public protests during the month. However, the ultraleft elements of the JVP and its student body seem to be using the Aragalaya to rekindle the embers of the protest movement to expand their political influence.

In June 2022, before Wickremesinghe was elected president, the Sri Lanka government had told the members at the UNHRC in Geneva that it was imposing a moratorium on the use of the PTA. Even a month later when protestors were forcibly evicted from “sensitive areas,” the newly elected president assured foreign diplomats in Colombo that the government will uphold both Article 21 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 14 (1) (b) of the Sri Lanka Constitution which govern the right to peaceful assembly. However, these promises seem to have been forgotten by President Wickremesinghe after his election. The President who had once called the Aragalaya protestors as fascists, seems to be trying to weed out their influence, using teleological methods. This was evident from the mass arrest of protestors under the PTA.

The detention of several activists of Aragalaya under the PTA including the convenor of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) Wasantha Mudalige was condemned by many political parties across the ethnic spectrum. This may be considered a positive outcome of the protests. This was seen in the participation of many leaders of the opposition parties, civil society and trade union activists and retired public servants, in the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)’s mobile signature campaign against the PTA. When the protest launched in Jaffna reached Galle Facethe presence of former defence secretary Austin Fernando and trade union activist Joseph Stalin, apart from leaders from political parties like the ITAK, SJB and SLMC like Sumanthiran, Rasamanickam, Hirunika Premachandra and Rauf Hakeem, underscored its relevance in the present political environment.

Similarly, the government notification of several areas around key government buildings and their adjoining roads in Colombo as High Security Zone to prevent holding of public meetings and protest marches has also been condemned by large sections of society. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa called the setting up of HSZ as “acts of a dictatorship.” He said the cabinet had recently given the nod for setting up a committee to regulate and control media. Premadasa said it was a dictatorial move and warned the party “will take to the streets against all these moves in the future.”

President Wickremesinghe has sworn in a jumbo cabinet to satisfy the members from assorted parties, who support him. Apparently, he considers it only as a political exercise and not an effort to revamp the system in keeping with public sensitivities over the style of governance. Perhaps, conscious of this shortcoming, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena successfully moved a unanimous resolution in parliament to constitute a ‘National Council’ (NC) after three rounds of talks with all parties. The NC will be chaired by the Speaker with the PM, leader of the opposition, Chief government whip and not more than 35 MPs representing all parties as members. According to a statement the NC will determine the priorities for the formulation of national policies, agree on short and medium term common minimum programs to stabilize the economy. It will also organize special meetings with cabinet ministers, the NC, the chairpersons of special committees and observers from youth organizations.

However, for the present the public is likely to view the formation of the NC as a political expediency. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake speaking in the parliament said the JVP will not support the NC project. He called the NC as “a facade. It is another attempt to dupe the people and the rest of the world.” He said the NC would not help solve problems. Few would dispute the JVP leader’s description of the prevailing political culture as “tainted by corruption, no respect for the rule of law and politicians enjoying perks and benefits and placing themselves above the law.” Unless the NC can address these issues, it is likely to end up as yet another glorified commission, whose findings are confined to the archives. Sri Lanka’s problems are not merely economic or political but much more organic, reflecting the disconnect between the polluted political system of governance and the ordinary people. Aragalaya is a manifestation of this disconnect. Unless the President and the political parties can rework their equation with the people, politics of protests is likely to continue as the norm.

Dr Subramanian Swamy with former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa [Photo: Special Arrangement]

Tailpiece: Visiting BJP leader Dr Subramanian Swamy called upon Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after the former president returned home. In fact, Swamy was the first foreign visitor to call upon him. Swamy, a close friend of the Rajapaksas, was in Colombo to attend a conference on national security at the Kotelewala Defence University. He also met with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and attended the Navratri pooja at his residence. The Indian leader is well known for making shocking one-liners. In his twitter on July 11, he said the Sri Lanka crisis was engineered and India should ensure that later ‘this mob’ does not become refugees of India. What was he up to in Colombo? That is a question for twitterati and WhatsApp university to debate.

[Written on September 30, 2022.]

Sri Lanka’s First Firm Steps at Economic Reforms

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe took tentative steps to bring a semblance of orderly governance during the month. He ended the month presenting an interim budget to stabilize economic growth with the aim to create a surplus by 2025. After the exit of the Rajapaksa’s, the hopes of Wickremesinghe restoring democratic governance were belied when the government used the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to rounded up the Aragalaya leaders, drawing severe criticism from civil society and the UNHRC. There is a sense of disappointment among the people to see parliamentarians reverting to riding their hobby horse – jockeying for power, tinkering with legislation in the name of curbing executive powers of the president and endlessly talk of the elusive “all party government”.

On the positive side, the young energy minister Kanchana Wijesekara seems to be making honest efforts to tame and rationalise energy pricing and distribution. The talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have progressed, though efforts to reschedule creditors is making halting progress, with China playing truant. President Wickremesinghe seems to have succeeded in his tightrope act in foreign policy so far, despite the India-China differences coming alive over China berthing its spy ship in Hambantota port in spite of India’s security concerns.

Interim budget and economic reforms

Presenting the Budget, President Wickremesinghe said the government’s aim is “to create a surplus in the primary budget by the year 2025.” The Daily FT listed six salient aspects of the budget. These included the announcement on billions of rupees-worth social safety measures, quit notices to public servants over 60, restructuring for key 50 state owned enterprises (SOE), measures to kickstart revival in agriculture, industry and tourism, write off default loan of farmers and announcement of wide-ranging revisions to many existing legislations. Every Sri Lankan would agree with his remark that the country “can no longer be a nation dependent on loan assistance, we can also no longer be used as a tool of interference by other countries with strong economies. All our collective vision should be to make our country strong and stable, in order to stand independently.”

However, Wickremesinghe’s reiteration of the call to political parties to join the “All Party Government” probably has only some cosmetic value to the political discourse as the APG is a non-starter. While this may be the need of the hour, much will depend upon how the political cookie crumbles. As he said, if Sri Lanka “miss these opportunities, we will be marginalized globally.” But the credibility of his remarks is weakened as the same tainted political class is still calling the shots in the present government. There is talk of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa returning home on September 24 from his self-exile in Thailand. If that comes true, Wickremesinghe should get ready to handle the unsavoury task of yet another socio-political turbulence.

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has welcomed the budget. SJB MP and economist Dr Harsha de Silva saw it as an attempt by the President to change the course of the country into a ‘modern productive enterprise’ by undertaking serious reforms to stabilise and restructure the economy. To achieve this, the President has proposed the introduction of new laws like the Public Finance Management Act to run the affairs of the government and amendments to the Monetary Law Act to reduce the pressure on the Central Bank from Treasury and reduce money printing. The introduction of the new laws will have a more disciplined system of governance.

Well entrenched political and trade union interests in SOE and among public servants, Wickremesinghe is likely to face a tough task at every step in fulfilling this part of the agenda. As Dr de Silva pointed out “They (SLPP) opposed every type and every time reforms were brought up for four decades. It is a quirk of circumstances and fate almost that is them who will have to do these reforms now.” The state-owned Sri Lankan airlines is a case in point. It has accumulated a staggering $ 1 billion debt and dues comprising of $ 175 million government guaranteed international bond, $ 380 million payable to state banks, BOC and Peoples Bank and $ 80 million loan taken from BOC by mortgaging shares of Sri Lankan Catering. The government can no longer fund the national carrier given the country’s financial, forex and economic crisis.

However, the privatisation of this white elephant is going to be an uphill task, as leftist trade unions rule the roost in most of the SOEs and see a red flag in any talk of privatisation. Already, there are protests voiced against the proposed privatisation of retail distribution of fuel. Ultimately, when IMF’s structural reforms come into full play, Sri Lankans will have no option but to corral and weed out 60 odd white elephants of SOE. As PM in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, Wickremesinghe had co-sponsored the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 adopted in 2015. To retain his international credibility, he will have to bring the issue to a logical conclusion by establishing a credible judicial process to bring to book alleged right abusers. This is a humongous task as the President is dependent upon the SLPP support.

The first step in improving the government’s accountability process would be to abolish the PTA “one of the key enablers of arbitrary detention for over decades” as described by a UN body. Unfortunately, the government has used it to arrest Aragalaya protestors. Instead of doing away with PTA, the government efforts are on subsume its provisions in a National Security Act (NSA). This could only bring international criticism to the government, when it is trying to maximise its economic support. Of course, the larger question of implementing 13th Amendment in full is still lingering and this is yet another pressure point.

China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy in action

China’s “spy ship” Yuan Wang-5 docked in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port from August 16 to 22 disregarding the security concerns of both India and the US and turning down Sri Lanka’s request to defer the visit. The research ship belonging to the PLA’s 5th branch – the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) – created in December 2015, can carry out space, cyber and electronic warfare. It also has the capability to assist PLA’s land-based stations in tracking satellite, rocket and ICBM launches within a range of 750 km. There is more to China’s insistence on docking Yuan Wang-5 in Hambantota port than refuelling and replenishment.

China was testing the depth of India-Sri Lanka relations which have become closer than ever before. It is also a strong affirmation of China’s influence on Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean Region. This was indicated in an op-ed the Chinese ambassador to Colombo Qi Zhenhong wrote in Sri Lanka media. Hinting at India, he warned “any infringement on the national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka shall not be tolerated” (obviously by China). He further added, “External obstruction based on the so-called ‘security concerns’ but without any evidence from certain forces is de facto a thorough interference into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence.”

The Chinese ambassador also reminded Sri Lanka of the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council to be held in Geneva where human rights issues of Sri Lanka might be stirred up, where China could help. India took strong exception to the Chinese envoy’s article. The Indian High Commission in Colombo departing from the norm, let loose broadsides on the article saying, “His violation of basic diplomatic etiquette may be a personal trait or reflecting a larger national attitude.” It added, “His views of Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves. India, we assure him, is different. His imputing a geopolitical context to the visit of a purported scientific research vessel is a giveaway.”

It is evident, India is not prepared to tolerate any more needling from China. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar during his South American tour explained that the relationship (with China) cannot be a one-way street. “They are our neighbour, and everybody wants to get along with their neighbour…But everybody wants to get along with their neighbour on reasonable terms. I must respect you and you must respect me.” He stressed that each one will have their interests and we need to be sensitive to what the concerns are of the other party.

Tailpiece: Yuan Wang-5 is currently 400 nautical miles South-Southeast of Dondra Head at the southernmost tip of the island nation. It is a matter of detail that the vessel is mapping the ocean bed in an area close to the US military base in Diego Garcia.

This article is a part of Sri Lanka Guardian Syndication. This was originally published in Security Risks Asia, a Delhi-based Think Tank. Click here to visit the original source.

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The China-Lanka Conundrum

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The controversial visit of China’s “spy ship” Yuan Wang-5 to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port from August 16 to 22 is perhaps Sri Lanka’s most commented news story, next only to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s escape in stealth from the island-nation a few weeks earlier. The reason is not far to seek; the research ship belongs to the PLA’s 5th branch – the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) created in December 2015 to carry out space, cyber and electronic warfare. The ship is equipped with advanced electronic equipment, sensors and antennae to assist PLA’s land-based stations in tracking satellite, rocket and ICBM launches within a range of 750 km.

Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs originally allowed the vessel to dock in Hambantota from August 11 to 17. India expressed its security concerns over berthing the ship in Hambantota as soon as reports indicated that the ship was heading to the Sri Lankan port. The US also had expressed its security concerns. Perhaps in deference to India’s concerns, the ministry in a message to the Chinese embassy asked the visit be delayed until further consultations. The Chinese embassy clarified that the maritime research vessel’s visit was for replenishment and refuelling and did not pose a threat to any security or economic interests. It eventually succeeded in pressuring Sri Lanka’s defence ministry to allow the research vessel to berth in Hambantota port from August 16 to 22, after laying down conditions that it would switch off its tracking equipment.

There was much consternation in India over the Chinese spy ship docking in Sri Lanka. India expressed its security concerns over berthing the ship at the Hambantota port. The truth is that symbolism triumphed over substance

The media pundits in India went to town with analyses of how the ship’s berthing in Hambantota would compromise the security of our naval bases and satellite launch sites and missile launches. The plain truth is Yuan Wang-5 is capable of carrying out all these actions even without docking in Hambantota port. Many analyses across global media had been cautioning the US of China overtaking it as a strategic power. These analyses were basically revisiting the bogey of China’s growing military prowess in the Indo-Pacific.

Social media castigated Sri Lanka for its “ungratefulness” to India, which had gone all out to lend a helping hand in times of Sri Lanka’s economic distress, unlike China. Some critics called it a violation of the India-Sri Lanka Accord 1987, though the Accord has no specific clause forbidding the berthing of warships of other countries in Sri Lanka ports in peacetime. Moreover, Sri Lanka had been repeatedly reassuring India at various levels that it would not allow the use of its soil to pose a security threat to India.

The controversy over Yuan Wang-5’s visit is timed to draw attention away from growing India-Sri Lanka relations, which are on the apogee. Probably it is also aimed at reminding Sri Lanka that it cannot afford to ignore China’s interests, now embedded in the body politic of the island-nation. Moreover, for some time now, Sri Lanka is in talks with India at multiple levels to upgrade its transactional relations into a strategic relationship. These efforts have encouraged India to extend all out support to the people of Sri Lanka to meet their essential economic and energy requirements after the country went bankrupt. India’s support has continued, in spite of political uncertainties in the country after the unceremonious exit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the ascent of Ranil Wickremesinghe as president.

It is worthwhile to examine the Yuan Wang-5 issue in the larger context of the strategic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician and process philosopher considers “symbolism as no mere idle fantasy or corrupt degeneration. It is inherent in the very texture of human life.” His words: “there is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have consequences for the world around us” have great relevance in understanding the substance behind China’s acts of symbolism.

India celebrated Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav—75 years of India’s independence—on August 15. On that day, the Xinjiang command conducted live-fire drills near the LAC with a “new type of surface-to-air missile” at an altitude of more than 4,500 metres (14,760 feet). A report in the South China Morning Post quoted military observers to say the weapons appeared to be HQ-17A air defence missiles, part of an integrated system that can fit in a single vehicle. Yuan Wang-5 steaming into Hambantota a day after India’s Independence Day is also symbolic of China enforcing its writ in Sri Lanka despite India’s security concerns.

More than all this, Yuan Wang-5 is a demonstration of PLASSF capability as part of China’s power projection in space and cyberspace. The SSF is also designed to coordinate intelligence sharing and operations in the informatized battlefields in real time. Informatization has been the mantra of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ever since PLA thinkers drew many lessons from their observations of the US Gulf War (1991) and Iraq War (2003). In their assessment, the US used effective coordinated employment of global media, international law, and other psychological warfare techniques. The use of these techniques collectively referred to as “three warfares” could enhance results as military operations became more and more dependent on information technology tools.

The concept of “three warfares” was incorporated in the PLA Political Work Regulations for future conflicts in 2003. This has resulted in increased coordination of civil and military organs of state since then to get the best results of “three warfares”.

The timing of the Yuan Wang-5 controversy is uncanny. On June 6, India successfully carried out the training launch of the intermediate range ballistic missile Agni-4 from APJ Abdul Kalam Island off Orissa under the aegis of the Strategic Forces Command. The visit of Yuan Wang-5 is perhaps China’s way of flaunting its capability to track India’s ICBM launches. A month later, PLA tested an advanced PHL Multiple Lau­nch Rocket System (MLRS) at an altitude of more than 5,300 metres in the Xinjiang Region.

India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has been on a mission for some time to lay bare China’s double speak on matters related to India in many international forums. Only a month earlier, the 16th round of border talks between Corps Commanders of India and China ended in yet another stalemate. Last week in Bangkok, Jaishankar said the relationship between India and China is going through an “extremely difficult phase” after the Galwan incident in the Ladakh border in 2020. He emphasised that the Asian Century will not happen if the two neighbours could not join hands. “We very much hope that wisdom dawns on the Chinese side,” he said while replying to a question in Bangkok.

Now on a six-day tour of South America, Jaishankar said China has cast a shadow on bilateral ties by disregarding border pacts with India. He said the relationship cannot be a one-way street. “They are our neighbour and everybody wants to get along with their neighbour…But everybody wants to get along with their neighbour on reasonable terms. I must respect you and you must respect me,” he added. The EAM said “from our point of view, we’ve been very clear that if you have to build a relationship, then there has to be mutual respect. Each one will have their interests and we need to be sensitive to what the concerns are, of the other party.”

Sri Lanka is caught not only in the midst of muscle flexing between India and China in the Indian Ocean region, but it is also facing the flak of the strategic maelstrom blowing across the Indo-Pacific, after the visit of the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan on August 2. President Xi Jinping had spoken to POTUS Joe Biden, a month earlier to prevent the visit. According to media reports, President Biden not only told Xi that he “could not oblige” as the US Congress was an independent body, but also warned the Chinese president against taking any “provocative and coercive” actions if the visit took place. Pelosi’s visit may be considered a big loss of face for Xi, particularly when he is poised to be re-elected as the CCP General Secretary in the next few months. The invectives China has used to condemn the US and its allies on this issue show that the stand-off over Taiwan is likely to continue for some time. We can expect the spill over of the continuing US-China confrontation in the Indian Ocean region in the coming months. It is imperative that China’s symbolic acts are studied to gauge the substance behind them to understand its intentions.