Interviews

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Interview: We Are Eelam Tamils

Sri Lanka will not become an economically viable country without a political resolution to the demands of Eelam Tamils, Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran a New York-based Attorney who served as the legal advisor to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, told Sri

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Sri Lanka Debt Cancellation: Responsibility of Global South 

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INTERVIEW

It is time for the nations of the global South to build their own way, to self-organize, Gary Dymski, a well-known economist and Professor of Applied Economics at the Leeds University Business School in UK, said in an interview with Sri Lanka Guardian.

Who will lead them? Not Modi, nor Jinping. Who is the Kwame Nkrumah or Julius Nyerere or Sekou Toure of today;” he asked.

Gary Dymski is an excerpt on monetary economics; macroeconomic theory and policy; banking and financial institutions; economic development; political economy; urban economics; inequality; stratification economics. He has been a visiting scholar in universities and research centers in Australia, Brazil, Bangladesh, Colombia, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, and Mexico.

“Sri Lanka’s situation has to be widely publicized; there are other countries too – less prominent globally, smaller – who have unpayability problems, but none with the tortured contemporary history that your country is now living,” he observed.  

“We need a repurposed set of development banks, controlled by progressive forces willing to move past the capitalist system. This does not yet exist,” he suggested.

Being a member of the council of the Post Keynesian Economic Society (UK), Prof Dymski also is an advisor to the Debt and Development division of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question: Are we passing through a period of the worse global recession that could lead to an unprecedented catastrophe? If yes, what is the way out?

Answer: We are in a global recession that could develop in an alarming way. There is already an emerging debt crisis that is catastrophic in many developing countries, and will likely get worse. The slowdown of economic activity as such is unlikely to degenerate into a collapse. But the stagnation will most likely continue. So it is more like strangulation of the economies of countries that are lower in the currency hierarchy. Businesses will fail; financing arrangements will either be sustained on a pretend-and-extend basis or will lead to default. India and China have somehow managed to sustain positive growth rates, but this is offset by the damage that Russia’s Ukrainian war is doing to supply chains and agricultural exports.

Q: Collective action and collective responsibilities are two sides of the same coin which will help us to overcome present challenges. But, I wonder, how we can advocate for all countries to come together in a deeply polarized global society. Give us some food for thought, please.

A: Only when an acute crisis emerges, with the mechanisms for leading out of that crisis prove to be broken, will we see a global consensus for a new global framework toward cooperation emerge. The success of right-wing nationalist movements looking backward to conditions for economic reproduction that no longer exists is a huge barrier now; as those seeking softer ways forward look like naïve idealists, and those wanting to put up barriers to the outside world look like defenders of national honour.

The hope I can give you is this: we must see a renewal of impetus – the broad participation in – the ‘global social forum’ movement when it first began. A global generational mobilization, I think, which is pro-equality and pro-sustainability, critical of capitalism, and esp of financial globalization in the way its developed to now – feeding hyper inequality. I think it’s possible. But this bottom-up, across-the-globe aspect has to be there, I think.

Q: You are one of the signatories who called for Sri Lanka debt cancellation. Do you think it is a realistic approach where all stakeholders shall come to a common platform to execute your demand?

A: The stakeholders have diverse interests; they must be forced to the table. Sri Lanka’s situation has to be widely publicized; there are other countries too – less prominent globally, smaller – who have unpayability problems, but none with the tortured contemporary history that your country is now living. I think it has to be framed in terms of the ‘harm and loss’ debate that is now linking climate-change damage to legacies of colonialism and imperialism, not to mention the greater energy/non-renewable consumption of the elite global-North nations. This can be the basis of a common cause for debt forgiveness, I think. But the nations of the global South have to build their own way, to self-organize. Who will lead them? Not Modi, nor Jinping. Who is the Kwame Nkrumah or Julius Nyerere or Sekou Toure of today?

Q: Why do you think the case of Sri Lanka is essential to rethinking and reshaping the global economic order?

A: As answered earlier – the unique conjuncture of colonial-era imperialism, debt crisis, political instability and ethnic violence are a unique toxic mix, leading to unparalleled challenges.

Q: You have raised a vital point by alleging that International Financial Institutions of not living up to their responsibilities at a time when they are most urgently needed. Do we have an alternative?

A: There is no alternative now. We need a repurposed set of development banks, controlled by progressive forces willing to move past the capitalist system. This does not yet exist. The alternative can be imagined in a post-capitalist framework, in which nation-states are led by progressive leaders – enough of them – to force a global transfer mechanism for supporting the financing of the SDGs and climate sustainability on a world scale. I wish I had a different answer. For now, we must attempt to understand the scale of changes in systems of provision, supply chains, in localized production and consumption, required around the world.

The entities that have the capacity to support this are either too tied to capitalist priorities or they are not seeing the need to think holistically. It is not – it is never – too late. But we have to think beyond the limits that have prevented us from being strong enough to see the required planning framework clearly.

South Africans Are Fighting for Crumbs: A Conversation With Trade Union Leader Irvin Jim

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In mid-December, the African National Congress (ANC) held its national conference where South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa was reelected as leader of his party, which means that he will lead the ANC into the 2024 general elections. A few delegates at the Johannesburg Expo Center in Nasrec, Gauteng—where the party conference was held—shouted at Ramaphosa asking him to resign because of a scandal called Farmgate (Ramaphosa survived a parliamentary vote against his impeachment following the scandal).

Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), told us that his country “is sitting on a tinderbox.” A series of crises are wracking South Africa presently: an unemployment crisis, an electricity crisis, and a crisis of xenophobia. The context behind the ANC national conference is stark. “The situation is brutal and harsh,” Irvin Jim said. “The social illness that people experience each day is terrible. The rate of crime has become very high. The gender-based violence experienced by women is very high. The statistics show us that basically people are fighting for crumbs.”

At the ANC conference, five of the top seven posts—from the president to treasurer general—went to Ramaphosa’s supporters. With the Ramaphosa team in place, and with Ramaphosa himself to be the presidential candidate in 2024, it is unlikely that the ANC will propose dramatic changes to its policy orientation or provide a new outlook for the country’s future to the South African people. The ANC has governed the country for almost 30 years beginning in 1994 after apartheid ended, and the party has won a commanding 62.65 percent of the total vote share since then before the 2014 general elections. In the last general election in 2019, Ramaphosa won with 57.5 percent of the vote, still ahead of any of its opponents. This grip on electoral power has created a sense of complacency in the upper ranks of the ANC. However, at the grassroots, there is anxiety. In the municipal elections of 2021, the ANC support fell below 50 percent for the first time. A national opinion poll in August 2022 showed that the ANC would get 42 percent of the vote in the 2024 elections if they were held then.

Negotiated Settlement

Irvin Jim is no stranger to the ANC. Born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1968, Jim threw himself into the anti-apartheid movement as a young man. Forced by poverty to leave his education, he worked at Firestone Tire in Port Elizabeth. In 1991, Jim became a NUMSA union shop steward. As part of the communist movement and the ANC, Jim observed that the new government led by former South African President Nelson Mandela agreed to a “negotiated settlement” with the old apartheid elite. This “settlement,” Irvin Jim argued, “left intact the structure of white monopoly capital,” which included their private ownership of the country’s minerals and energy as well as finance. The South African Reserve Bank committed itself, he told us, “to protect the value of white wealth.” In the new South Africa, he said, “Africans can go to the beach. They can take their children to the school of their choice. They can choose where to live. But access to these rights is determined by their economic position in society. If you have no access to economic power, then you have none of these liberties.”

In 1996, the ANC did make changes to the economic structure, but without harming the “negotiated settlement.” The policy known as GEAR (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution) created growth for the owners of wealth, but failed to create a long-term process of employment and redistribution. Due to the ANC’s failure to address the problem of unemployment—catastrophically the unemployment rate was 63.9 percent during the first quarter of 2022 for those between the ages of 15 and 24—the social distress being faced by South Africans has further been aggravated. The ANC, Irvin Jim said, “has exposed the country to serious vulnerability.”

Solidarity Not Hate

Even if the ANC wins less than 50 percent of the vote in the next general elections, it will still be able to form a government since no other party will attract even comparable support (in the 2019 elections, the Democratic Alliance won merely 20.77 percent of the vote). Irvin Jim told us that there is a need for progressive forces in South Africa to fight and “revisit the negotiated settlement” and create a new policy outline for South Africa. The 2013 National Development Plan 2030 is a pale shadow of the kind of policy required to define South Africa’s future. “It barely talked about jobs,” Jim said. “The only jobs it talked about were window office cleaning and hairdressing. There was no drive to champion manufacturing and industrialization.”

A new program—which would revitalize the freedom agenda in South Africa—must seek “economic power alongside political power,” said Jim. This means that “there is a genuine need to take ownership and control of all the commanding heights of the economy.” South Africa’s non-energy mineral reserves are estimated to be worth $2.4 trillion to $3 trillion. The country is the world’s largest producer of chrome, manganese, platinum, vanadium, and vermiculite, as well as one of the largest producers of gold, iron ore, and uranium. How a country with so much wealth can be so poor is answered by the lack of public control South Africa has over its metals and minerals. “South Africa needs to take public ownership of these minerals and metals, develop the processing of these through industrialization, and provide the benefits to the marginalized, landless, and dispossessed South Africans, most of whom are Black,” said Jim.

No program like this will be taken seriously if the working class and the urban poor remain fragmented and powerless. Jim told us that his union—NUMSA—is working with others to link “shop floor struggles with community struggles,” the “employed with the unemployed,” and are building an atmosphere of “solidarity rather than the spirit of hate.” The answers for South Africa will have to come from these struggles, says the veteran trade union leader. “The people,” he said, “have to lead the leaders.”

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

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

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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.

We Provide a Neutral Unbiased Assessment – UNCTAD

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“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 news.slpa.lk, 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 (http://stats.unctad.org/maritime) 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: https://unctadstat.unctad.org/CountryProfile/MaritimeProfile/en-GB/144/index.html

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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Interview:  Why did Mahathir lose election so badly?

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“For the first time in Malaysia’s history we are facing a hung parliament,” Pearl Lee, Managing Editor of Kuala Lumpur-based news website, Twentytwo13 told Sri Lanka Guardian in an exclusive interaction from the capital of the Country. With the outcoming of this election, “Malaysia will see a 4th pm being sworn into office in 5 years. Another unprecedented thing in the nation’s history.”

“None of the coalition parties, especially the main three, namely – Barisan Nasional, Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional managed to secure a simple majority (112 from the 220 contested Parliamentary seats) to form the government,” she said.

According to Pearl, “The 15th General Election also saw Barisan Nasional’s worst-ever performance. Barisan Nasional is the country’s longest-serving political ruling coalition.”

“It is now up to the main coalition parties (mainly Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional) to present to Malaysia’s King that they are able to form alliances with the other smaller coalition to form the next government,” she added.

“This is the first time in the country’s history that a unity government will be set up. The national palace or Istana Negara had today given the coalition parties a large number of seats to present their alliance and name their prime minister candidate by 2 pm on Monday (Nov 21, 2022). If all goes well, the King could possibly announce the name of Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister by tomorrow evening,” she further observed.

While talking about the worse-ever defeat of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the modern father of nation-building in Malaysia, 53 years of his undefeated political journey, Pearl said that “Dr Mahathir Mohamad set up Pejuang in 2020 (after he resigned from his previous party, Bersatu and as Prime Minister for the second time). Pejuang lost all the seats that it contested in this general election (115 parliamentary seats). Even his son Mukhriz, who is Pejuang’s president, lost. Dr Mahathir contested in Langkawi while his son, Mukhriz, (a former chief minister of Kedah and federal cabinet minister) contested the Jerlun seat; both in their home state of Kedah.”

Why he lost this election, according to Pearl, because his newly established political party “is fairly a new party. It’s also a sign that the people are tired of his narrative, that every other coalition is wrong, and only his is right.”

“For the record, Dr Mahathir’s coalition (made up of smaller parties) is called Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA) but it did not contest under that name in the election as Dr Mahathir claims the authorities have refused to register the coalition. As such, GTA contested under Pejuang’s logo,” she added.

However, when we asked about the significant challenges that the winning party is going to face, she says that “the challenge right now is who is willing to work with who, and this will be resolved once the King makes an announcement on the matter (earliest possibly tomorrow evening).”

“What lies ahead will be interesting to watch, as two coalition governments had to be set up following Dr Mahathir’s resignation in 2020. The nation saw Muhyiddin and later Ismail Sabri (of Barisan Nasional) being sworn in as the 8th and 9th prime minister respectively within a short period. Muhyiddin served 18 months as prime minister while Ismail Sabri served barely over a year as PM. The collapse of Muhyiddin’s coalition in 2021, was due to Barisan Nasional pulling out its support,” she added.

“The leader of the new alliance that will be formed now must ensure it can obtain continuous support from political parties that will form part of its alliance. But this could very well translate into a bloated cabinet line-up in order to please all parties. They would also have to convince the people how they plan to work with parties that they previously regard/openly declared as foes,” she further observed.

Exclusive: China and Pakistan are India’s two major competitors – D Jaishankar

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“China and Pakistan are India’s two major competitors with which it has major disputes over territory and other issues,” Dhruva Jaishankar, Executive Director of the Observer Research Foundation America (ORF America) told in an exclusive interview with Sri Lanka Guardian. Mr. Jaishankar is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia and is a regular contributor to the media.

Jaishankar holds a bachelor’s degree in history and classics from Macalester College, and a master’s degree in security studies from Georgetown University. He has been an IISS-SAIS Merrill Center Young Strategist (2013), a participant in the ORF-Zeit Stiftung Asian Forum on Global Governance (2016), and a David Rockefeller Fellow with the Trilateral Commission (2017-2020).

Excerpts of the interview;

Sri Lanka Guardian:  You are heading ORF America; what is your mission and what are the challenges you are facing in achieving your objectives?

Dhruva Jaishankar: I joined the Observer Research Foundation in 2019 and moved to Washington DC with the intention of building up a think tank focused on policy for the United States, India, and their partner countries. I had worked previously in the U.S. at the Brookings Institution and German Marshall Fund, and in India at Brookings India (now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress), and had had affiliations with think tanks in Singapore and Australia, and hoped to build upon these experiences. I’m proud to say that in two plus years my colleagues and I have set up a small but dynamic U.S.-based institution, working on research and convening in four areas: international security, technology policy, energy and climate, and economic development. Our work is global in scope, including development in Africa, cyber security in Latin America, entrepreneurship in the Middle East, U.S.-India climate cooperation, and strategic cooperation involving the Quad and Europe, and we have a small but growing team of 10 staff. In some ways, ORF America occupies a useful niche, not just on U.S.-India relations but as the only developing world-affiliated public policy think tank in Washington.

SLG:  Who is India’s main enemy in the context of foreign policy?

DJ: I don’t think we’re in a world defined by easy ‘enemies’ and India is not in a state of war with any country at the moment. However, India does have two major competitors with which it has major disputes over territory and other issues: China and Pakistan. In the past, the rivalry with Pakistan was predominant, involving Pakistani revisionism and its support for terrorism against India. However, in recent years, differences with China have become more acute, not just over the disputed border, but on trade and technology, regional politics, and a wide range of multilateral issues. Given that China’s economy and capabilities are significantly greater than India’s, it is fair to say that India’s biggest strategic challenge today is China, not Pakistan. Pakistan remains politically sensitive, but is more an irritant than an existential challenge to New Delhi.

SLG: India, not only, is supporting Quad but an active member. Simultaneously, India is keeping a strong relationship with Russia. However, many small countries in the same region argue that India continues to maintain its hegemony and does not allow those countries to take their own decisions; for example, Chinese investments. May I have your take, please?

DJ: Every country is sovereign and can make its own decisions, but the reality is that decisions made by neighbours do have political, economic, and security implications for each other. India has lots of natural alignments with the Quad on security and non-security issues, including over 20 active working groups. At the same time, India has important relations, particularly on defense trade and technology, with Russia. So it is natural for India to try to improve relations with the Quad partners, while preserving aspects of its relations with Moscow that are vital for national security and for its economy, such as energy costs and food security. Regarding the region, India has interests in a peaceful, stable, and prosperous South Asia, and has been taking steps to improve those relationships. These include greater diplomatic attention, improved connectivity, economic and technical assistance, and regionalism. At the same time, just as India has been sensitive to its neighbors concerns, it expects an understanding of issues that might implicate Indian politics, its economy, and its natural security. As a friend, it is important and healthy for India to voice concerns when decisions made by its neighbors might have negative spillover effects. Overall, India can always do more to treat its neighbors with respect and sensitivity, but that respect and sensitivity must be mutual.

SLG: Compare to other regions in Asia, South Asian countries in particular is having lower socio-economic unity. Many argue that it is because of the rivalry between India and Pakistan. Because of that, organizations like SAARC have become paralyzed. Why can’t these two nations come together for a serious development plan?

DJ: I think there were some integral design flaws in SAARC. In the 1980s because both India and Pakistan had concerns about the body being used to isolate them, it was agreed that it should operate by consensus. Yet on many issues – think for example about the proposed SAARC satellite – Pakistan blocked consensus. Pakistan also blocked connectivity between India and Afghanistan, including during the recent food crisis, before relenting. As a consequence, in recent years, there have been steps by India to operate regionally without relying on consensus. One example involves greater road connectivity between Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Maritime coordination between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives has also improved. Barring Pakistan, there have been many positive developments on regional integration and connectivity: India and Nepal enjoy an open border and special relationship, India is among the largest investors and trade partners of Bangladesh, and India has led emergency lending to Sri Lanka. The questions of Pakistan must really be answered by Pakistanis: why has there been so much resistance to normal relations with India? The expectation that normal relations can coexist with state support for terrorists against Indian targets is unrealistic.

SLG: Most Indian media houses have absolute anti-China stances. Isn’t it toxic to the bilateral relationship between the two countries?

DJ: I’m not sure that’s the case. The India-China relationship is mixed. Until quite recently there was cooperation on economic and trade issues, students, and on multilateral issues such as global governance reform and climate change. But under Xi Jinping, China has adopted a very different attitude to international affairs – and not just with India. As Chinese power has grown, its decision-making structures have become more opaque, it has engaged in non-market economic practices such as predatory lending, corporate espionage, and distortive subsidies, it has attempted territorial revisionism in the South China Sea and the disputed boundary with India, and it has made efforts to undermine many global norms and institutions, including on non-proliferation, outer space, and the law of the sea. These concerns are shared by many countries. With respect to India, we have seen China violate almost three decades of written agreements on border management, its dumping of exports while denying Indian companies market access, its undermining of India’s regional security environment, and its blocking India at multilateral forums. Obviously, China deserves greater study and understanding, but some of the frustration reflected in Indian and international commentary reflects the recent actions and behavior of the Chinese government.

SLG: Do you believe the Asian Century is an achievable reality?

DJ: It depends on what is meant by the Asian Century. It is quite clear that the future of global economic growth and international security will be decided in large part in Asia, simply because it is home to more than half the world’s population and because of regional economic dynamism. But questions of whether Asia will be more cooperative or divisive will depend in large part on China’s ability to respect other countries in its periphery. Unfortunately, that has been found wanting, and with slowing Chinese growth, other countries in the Indo-Pacific are naturally attempting to promote alternative values – freedom, openness, inclusivity – that should define an Asian Century.

SLG:  Do you think there will soon be a time when China, India and Russia will work together? If so, how do you formulate India’s strategy?

DJ: China, India, and Russia do have some areas of commonality, and these have been explored in forums such as the RIC, BRICS, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Initially, this involved issues such as greater representation on forums of global governance and managing security in Central Asia. But the past few years have also shown limitations to such cooperation. Differences between China and India have been more acute, with China emerging as India’s most significant strategic challenge. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have presented some dilemmas to China and India. Barring security and some areas of strategic cooperation, the India-Russia agenda remains thin, largely on account of the limitations to the Russian economy. While we are likely to continue to see India engage with these forums, decisions made in Moscow and Beijing will ultimately determine how useful they will be.

Exclusive: Champika ready to join President Wickremesinghe

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2 mins read

Former Cabinet Minister who served in several ministries, including Power and Energy Patali Champika Ranawaka, in an exclusive interview with Sri Lanka Guardian, confirmed that he is optimistic about joining President Wickremesinghe when the President accepts the proposal he made on political and economic restructuration.

“This is not the time to play dirty politics but to find ways to be part of a collective effort to overcome the gravest crisis the country has faced,” Mr Ranawaka told.

Time to release all the ex-LTTE members who are currently in jail

Champika Ranawaka MP

He says, that President Wickremesinghe will try his best to bring the country’s situation back to normal despite the many hereditary weaknesses that have affected his political power. But, unfortunately, some political parties created a hostile situation for him. Therefore, the former minister proposed the formation of an all-party government, which was talked about by many, to revamp the country’s degraded governance system.

While talking about his new political initiative, the 43 Brigade, he says that there is a significant number of Tamils and Muslims have rallied around it and now the movement is penetrating into the grassroots.

While responding to the government’s idea of establishing the South African Model Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the former Minister says that could be an unnecessary opening up to reemerge adverse elements who acted against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.

“In post-conflict time, what we as the country have done is domestically exceptional. Thousands of former LTTE cadres were rehabilitated and empowered them. But no one in the so-called “Tamil Diaspora” or international community recognized them as they were leading by ulterior motives,” he observed while proposing the immediate release of all imprisoned former LTTE members.

“Let us forgive and move forward together. It is time to release all the ex-LTTE members who are currently in jail and give them proper guidance to lead a meaningful life,” he suggested”, he suggested.

Meanwhile, talking about the economic calamity the country is currently facing, the former minister reaffirmed that “those who are responsible should be held accountable and prosecuted. They are the real criminals.”

When we asked about the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship, the former minister expressed his concern about the weak strategy in our foreign policy-making and did not forget to express his gratitude for India’s support.

China and Japan are the most important friends who can help us restructure the debt and secure our banking system

Champika Ranawaka MP

“It is sad to see that India’s much-vaunted foreign policy is now being run by a group of businessmen and thereby bringing adverse consequences. However, India was part of QUAD to prove that they stand with the West, but when the Ukraine-Russia war broke out, India took a strategic path to increase trade with Russia. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s how diplomacy works. But India should allow other countries to do the same. They cannot force us to sign off on the project without competitive bidding just because they offered aid during hard times,” he suggested.

Meanwhile, presenting his views on Sino-Sri Lankan relations, he did not hesitate to rebuff fabricated theories such as “China’s debt trap diplomacy” and said that China is Sri Lanka’s inseparable partner in overcoming the current economic quagmire.

“China and Japan are the most important friends who can help us restructure the debt and secure our banking system before we end up like Libya,” says the former minister. “China and Japan can salvage us, it’s time for us to convince them and I hope they will help us,” he said.

In response, when we asked him if he has ambitions to lead the country in the future, the former minister outlined his plan to rejuvenate the nation based on meritocracy and the introduction of a strong anti-corruption mechanism. “As a pragmatist, I believe the political context will determine my course. The next presidential election is the biggest turning point in our history and we will seize that opportunity,” he said with confidence.

Our Foreign Policy: Friendship to all; Enmity to None

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25 mins read

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.

Offloading Climate Responsibility on the Victims of Climate Change

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6 mins read

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length from the author’s conversation with Nnimmo Bassey on October 7, 2022. For access to the full interview’s audio and transcript, you can stream this episode on Breaking Green’s website or wherever you get your podcasts. Breaking Green is produced by Global Justice Ecology Project.

In this interview, Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian architect and award-winning environmentalist, author, and poet, talks about the history of exploitation of the African continent, the failure of the international community to recognize the climate debt owed to the Global South, and the United Nations Climate Change Conference that will take place in Egypt in November 2022.

Bassey has written (such as in his book To Cook a Continent) and spoken about the economic exploitation of nature and the oppression of people based on his firsthand experience. Although he does not often write or speak about his personal experiences, his early years were punctuated by civil war motivated in part by “a fight about oil, or who controls the oil.”

Bassey has taken square aim at the military-petroleum complex in fighting gas flaring in the Niger Delta. This dangerous undertaking cost fellow activist and poet Ken Saro-Wiwa his life in 1995.

Seeing deep connections that lead to what he calls “simple solutions” to complex problems like climate change, Bassey emphasizes the right of nature to exist in its own right and the importance of living in balance with nature, and rejects the proposal of false climate solutions that would advance exploitation and the financialization of nature that threatens our existence on a “planet that can well do without us.”

Bassey chaired Friends of the Earth International from 2008 through 2012 and was executive director of Environmental Rights Action for two decades. He was a co-recipient of the 2010 Right Livelihood Award, the recipient of the 2012 Rafto Prize, a human rights award, and in 2009, was named one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment. Bassey is the director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an ecological think tank, and a board member of Global Justice Ecology Project.

Steve Taylor: Climate change is a complex problem, but maybe there’s a simple solution. What might that look like?

Nnimmo Bassey: Simple solutions are avoided in today’s world because they don’t support capital. And capital is ruling the world. Life is simpler than people think. So, the complex problems we have today—they’re all man-made, human-made by our love of complexities. But the idea of capital accumulation has led to massive losses and massive destruction and has led the world to the brink. The simple solution that we need, if we’re talking about warming, is this: Leave the carbon in the ground, leave the oil in the soil, [and] leave the coal in the hole. Simple as that. When people leave the fossils in the ground, they are seen as anti-progress and anti-development, whereas these are the real climate champions: People like the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta, the territory where Ken Saro-Wiwa was murdered by the Nigerian state in 1995. Now the Ogoni people have kept the oil in their territory in the ground since 1993. That is millions upon millions of tons of carbon locked up in the ground. That is climate action. That is real carbon sequestration.

ST: Could you talk about the climate debt that is owed to the Global South in general, and African nations in particular?

NB: There’s no doubt that there is climate debt, and indeed an ecological debt owed to the Global South, and Africa in particular. It has become clear that the sort of exploitation and consumption that has gone on over the years has become a big problem, not just for the regions that were exploited, but for the entire world. The argument we’re hearing is that if the financial value is not placed on nature, nobody’s going to respect or protect nature. Now, why was no financial cost placed on the territories that were damaged? Why were they exploited and sacrificed without any consideration or thought about what the value is to those who live in the territory, and those who use those resources? So, if we’re to go the full way with this argument of putting price tags on nature so that nature can be respected, then you have to also look at the historical harm and damage that’s been done, place a price tag on it, recognize that this is a debt that is owed, and have it paid.

ST: You’ve discussed in our interview how some policies meant to address climate change are “false solutions,” particularly those intended to address the climate debt owed to the Global South and to Africa in particular. Could you talk a bit about the misnomer of the Global North’s proposals of so-called “nature-based solutions” to the climate crisis that claim to emulate the practices and wisdom of Indigenous communities in ecological stewardship, but which actually seem like an extension of colonial exploitation—rationalizations to allow the richer nations that are responsible for the pollution to continue polluting.

NB: The narrative has been so cleverly constructed that when you hear, for example, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), everybody says, “Yes, we want to do that.” And now we’re heading to “nature-based solutions.” Who doesn’t want nature-based solutions? Nature provided the solution to the challenges [that Indigenous people have] had for centuries, for millennia. And now, some clever people appropriate the terminology. So that by the time Indigenous communities say they want nature-based solutions, the clever people will say, “well, that’s what we’re talking about.” Whereas they’re not talking about that at all. Everything’s about generating value chains and revenue, completely forgetting about who we are as part of nature. So, the entire scheme has been one insult after another. The very idea of putting a price on the services of Mother Earth, and appropriating financial capital from those resources, from this process, is another horrible way by which people are being exploited.

ST: How does REDD adversely impact local communities on the African continent?

NB: REDD is a great idea, which should be supported by everyone merely looking at that label. But the devil is in the detail. It is made by securing or appropriating or grabbing some forest territory, and then declaring that to be a REDD forest. And now once that is done, what becomes paramount is that it is no longer a forest of trees. It is now a forest of carbon, a carbon sink. So, if you look at the trees, you don’t see them as ecosystems. You don’t see them as living communities. You see them as carbon stock. And that immediately sets a different kind of relationship between those who are living in the forest, those who need the forest, and those who are now the owners of the forest. And so, it’s because of that logic that [some] communities in Africa have lost access to their forests, or lost access to the use of their forests, the way they’d been using [them] for centuries.

ST: As an activist, you have done some dangerous work opposing gas flaring. Could you tell us about gas flaring and how it impacts the Niger Delta?

NB: Gas flaring, simply put, is setting gas on fire in the oil fields. Because when crude oil is extracted in some locations, it could come out of the ground with natural gas and with water, and other chemicals. The gas that comes out of the well with the oil can be easily reinjected into the well. And that is almost like carbon capture and storage. It goes into the well and also helps to push out more oil from the well. So you have more carbon released into the atmosphere. Secondly, the gas can be collected and utilized for industrial purposes or for cooking, or processed for liquefied natural gas. Or the gas could just be set on fire. And that’s what we have, at many points—probably over 120 locations in the Niger Delta. So you have these giant furnaces. They pump a terrible cocktail of dangerous elements into the atmosphere, sometimes in the middle of where communities [reside], and sometimes horizontally, not [with] vertical stacks. So you have birth defects, [and] all kinds of diseases imaginable, caused by gas flaring. It also reduces agricultural productivity, up to one kilometer from the location of the furnace.

ST: The UN climate conference COP27 is coming up in Egypt. Is there any hope for some real change here?

NB: The only hope I see with the COP is the hope of what people can do outside the COP. The mobilizations that the COPs generate in meetings across the world—people talking about climate change, people taking real action, and Indigenous groups organizing and choosing different methods of agriculture that help cool the planet. People just doing what they can—that to me is what holds hope. The COP itself is a rigged process that works in a very colonial manner, offloading climate responsibility on the victims of climate change.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Exclusive: Ranil is a very articulate politician – Dr Swamy

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1 min read

A few days after his visit to Sri Lanka, a controversial politician and well-known economist Dr. Subramanian Swamy talked to Sri Lanka Guardian about prevailing situation of both countries briefly.

Subramanian Swamy is a Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha. He was one of the founding members of the Janata Party. He was the party’s president since its inception in 1990 till 2013, when it merged with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Bureaucrats of Ministry of External Affairs and National Security are poisoning the Prime Minister over Sri Lanka.

Dr. Subramanian Swamy

Before Swamy entered politics, he was a Professor of Mathematical Economics at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, where he was asked to leave his position for promoting liberal economic policies.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question(Q): Dr. Swamy, you were in Colombo a few days ago, do you see any positive development in terms of political and economic sustainability of the country?

Answer (A): As for as the mob-disturbed law & order in concerned, there is complete restoration of sanity. But economy needs expert handling since the debt, especially foreign debt is very high.

Q: You have met former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Would you like to share the details of the meeting?

A: I broadly discussed what was the accusation against him in the media and mob propaganda. I found these accusations flippant and silly. I am opposed to legally elected official being forced to flee by mobs. I admire Gotabaya Rajapaksa & Mahinda for finishing off the LTTE.

Q: Do you think President Wickremesinghe will be able to overcome the current economic challenges?

A: Yes he is a very articulate politician. If he stays in coalition with the Rajapaksas, then he will stabilize Sri Lanka.

Q: You are a senior BJP leader. However, we see that the ruling BJP is not keen to maintain a strong relationship with President Wickremesinghe. Wonder if you can give us an insight into this political development?

A: It is not BJP, but the bureaucrats of Ministry of External Affairs and National Security who are poisoning the PM. Our Colombo-based new High Commissioner is very good, however.

Q: Election for Congress party President to be held soon. What is your take? Will this political move by main opposition change India’s political landscape?

A: No. There is no Opposition. Only I am the defacto opposition today.

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