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

4 mins read

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.

Exclusive: Champika ready to join President Wickremesinghe

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

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

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

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.

Exclusive Interview: Time to Return Our Diamond

2 mins read

“Returning our Diamond will make us believe that Britain is remorseful for the exploitation of our people and our resources,” Vuyolwethu Zungula who is a Member of Parliament representing the African Transformation Movement (ATM), told Sri Lanka Guardian while joining the “Talk to Sri Lanka Guardian” series.   

Mr Zungula is the President of the African Transformation Movement. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Business Management from Nelson Mandela University, and an Honours degree in Business Management from Unisa. He has been a Member of Parliament since 2019.

“All stolen minerals and other artefacts must be returned to the rightful owners,” he said.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question:  Tell us about the African Transformation Movement (ATM) and its political vision to uplift the livelihoods of the country’s people.

Answer: The ATM is grounded by the ideology of Humanism where we subscribe to the concept of One race for everyone, the Human race. The ATM is a values-based organisation and one of our chief values is UBUNTU. We believe that corruption is the absence of UBUNTU. All those who abuse taxpayers’ money lack UBUNTU.

Q: You propose that South Africa withdraw from the Commonwealth while demanding “compensation for all damages done by Britain”. Tell us why your country should leave the Commonwealth.

A: The ATM believes in genuine sovereignty. The fact that a deal breaker to be a member of the Commonwealth is that members must agree that the Head must always be the Crown. This to us means agreeing to be subjects of the British Monarchy. We reject that notion. The continued exportation of our raw minerals to the UK is part of being a quasi colony.

Q: By endorsing the statement of known activist Thanduxolo Sabelo, you have reaffirmed that “the Cullinan Diamond must be returned to South Africa with immediate effect.” Tell us more.

A: We are told that Queen Elizabeth was a champion of Decolonisation. Returning our Diamond will make us believe that Britain is remorseful for the exploitation of our people and our resources. All stolen minerals and other artefacts must be returned to the rightful owners.

Q: What is the next step if the British authorities ignore your request?

A: They shall have declared enmity on the African people and we shall continue with our campaign against the disguised colonisation.

Vuyolwethu Zungula, President of the African Transformation Movement, South Africa [ Photo © Sri Lanka Guardian]

Q:  You are a dynamic and outspoken young politician in the country. Give us some thoughts on the current political situation and your plan to overcome the challenges.

A: The country under Ramaphosa and his administration has become a failed state. As ATM we have initiated an Impeachment or will continue advocating for a No Confidence vote remove Ramaphosa.

The ATM will work with other like-minded parties to Put South Africa 1st and rescue it from the failed state situation. The key to that is transforming the minds of South Africans so we get to work together in service to the country. South Africa must aggressively work on a localisation campaign where raw materials are processed in the country before being shipped to other nations, South Africa must produce what it consumes. The oligopolies dominating our economy must be dismantled to allow for more participation in the economy. With these, we believe poverty and unemployment would be tackled and South Africans would enjoy a better quality of life.

Interview: We Are Eelam Tamils

8 mins read

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 Lanka Guardian in an exclusive interview.

While recalling the memories of slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, he says that “his vision, his dedication, his determination, his passion, his resilience, are always with us.”

Rudrakumaran is the prime minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam which is a transnational organisation among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora which aims to establish Tamil Eelam, in the North-East of Sri Lanka. This interview is a part of our series of interviews with noted minds in Tamil Diaspora. The Government of Sri Lanka, recently, renewed its request in which they invited members of the Tamil Diaspora for political and social cohabitation.

Following are the excerpts of the interview;

Question: Rudra, it has been a long time since we last communicated. Thank you for taking the time to sit with us. What latest updates can you offer us on your organization TGTE?

Answer: Our main political program is that the Eelam Tamils, as a distinct Nation, have the right to self-determination and they should decide their political future through a referendum.

Today this vision is gaining acceptance in the international community. As you know, many former presidents, former UN undersecretaries and prominent academics regularly participate in our functions. 

Our viewpoint is also finding resonance amidst the Tamil domestic leadership, despite the oppressive military environment and threat posed by the  Sixth Amendment, which penalizes peaceful advocacy for an independent state. I also would like to highlight the fact that in a letter sent by the Tamil parliamentarians to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights dated August 9th, 2022, have called for the repeal of the Sixth Amendment.

We will be soon filing papers with the registrar of the International Criminal Court acceding to the jurisdiction of the ICC in the state of Tamil Eelam. Our accession is based on the fact that the de jure state of Tamil Eelam exists. As you know, the Tamils did not consent to the 1972 as well as the 1978 constitution- our argument is premised on the international legal concept of reversion to sovereignty. In this connection, I would also like to state that the former UN high commissioner Al Hussain called upon the Sri Lankan state to accede to the Rome statute.

I would like to mention that the continued proscription by the Sri Lankan government of the TGTE, which is committed to establish the state of Tamil Eelam through democratic and diplomatic means, is testimony to our effectiveness in the pursuit of our goal.

Q: We heard that your father was a government servant who worked as the Mayor of Jaffna from 1979 to 1983 and passed away in 2020. What legacy did he leave for you to pursue?

A: My father was not a government servant. He was a successful criminal lawyer. He firmly believed that Tamils can live with security and dignity only in an independent Tamil state. He quit practicing law in 1983, since he refused to take oath expressing allegiance to the Sixth Amendment of the constitution. I would also like to point out, when he was the mayor of Jaffna, he refused to receive the then Prime Minister Mr. R. Premadasa. Honesty, sincerity, hard work, commitment to the cause, and commitment to the people, are the hallmarks of his legacy.

Q: Do you recognize yourself as the successor of slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran?

A: I do not consider myself as the successor of the Tamil national leader. I believe that no one can be a successor to our national leader. However, I feel I have a moral and political obligation to contribute effectively to the struggle. The Tamil national leader has elevated the Tamil struggle to the international plane and made the Tamil national question an international issue. His achievement/contribution and vision in the realization of Tamil aspirations for an independent state will guide us in moving forward to the end. Our national leader once said that the mode of our struggle might change, but not the goal. We will move forward with democratic and diplomatic means to achieve our goal. The fact that Sri Lanka continues to remain a racist, ethnocratic state only strengthens our resolve.

Q: Do you miss him?

A: His vision, his dedication, his determination, his passion, his resilience, are always with us.

Q: Let us consider the preliminary document prepared by the Advisory Committee of TGTE where you have reaffirmed that Mr. S J V Chelvanayagam is “Eelam Gandhi”. Do you believe in non-violence?

A: I strongly believe in Peoples’ Power. As I mentioned in the answer to the earlier question, we have adopted a non-violent path to achieve our goal. I would like to point out the tradition of sacrifice by Thileeban and Annai Poopathi who also adopted a non-violent mode of struggle.

Q: What mistakes did the LTTE make?

A: The LTTE was committed to the Tamil cause that was not well matched with the interest of international powers. It can be described as a geopolitical conflict. Between the thirst of Tamils for an independent and sovereign state and the interest of the existing international powers. The reason for the way the war ended in 2009 was that the big regional and global powers did not want a new power center in the Indian Ocean. The powers did not want to make a change in the power structure and balance of power in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean. Given the present collusion between China and Sri Lanka, as demonstrated by the Hambonthota 99 years lease, the arrival of the Chinese submarine in 2014 and the arrival of Yuan Wang 5 last month, that position will surely change in the days ahead.

Q: The same preliminary report of your Advisory Committee lamented the plight of Muslims in Sri Lanka and advocated a secular state. But we don’t see any Buddhist or Islamic representatives in your top committee of TGTE. Why?

A: prominent Sinhala human rights activist, Dr. Brian Senewiratne who happens to be a relative of the former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, has been a prominent member of the TGTE Senate. In 2016, we recognized his contribution to the human rights of Tamils and gave him a “Lifetime Commitment Award”. In our Freedom Charter, promulgated with the participation of more than 100,000 people, rather than playing with words like in the Sri Lankan constitution, we stated in article 14 of the Freedom Charter that “Tamil, Sinhala, and English shall be the official languages of Tamil Eelam.

In the Freedom Charter, we explicitly recognized the distinct identity of the Muslims. Moreover, unlike Sri Lanka, which places Buddhism as the foremost religion, article 7 of our Freedom Charter states that Tamil Eelam shall be a secular state and no religion shall be given foremost place in Tamil Eelam. I must also say that a Sri Lankan Muslim academic also participated in the conference promulgating the Freedom Charter. We are also contemplating having a seminar with the Muslim community regarding our Tamil Eelam referendum campaign.

Q: You strongly believe that the only way Sri Lankan Tamils can protect their rights is to create a separate Tamil homeland. This position can be understood by assessing Sri Lanka’s past records that you have no real intention to solve the problems of the common men and women in the North East but lag behind the unrealistic goal. Correct us if we are wrong. 

A: I would like to first categorically deny the identity of our people as “Sri Lankan Tamils”. We consider ourselves as Eelam Tamils and People of Tamil Eelam. Sri Lanka is a Sinhala, Buddhist, fundamentalist state that has systematically been engaged in structural genocide of Tamil people. An independent sovereign Tamil state is the only solution for safeguarding Tamil people from the genocidal policies and actions of the Sri Lankan state.

In fact,  Ms. Michelle Bachelet, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights , in her report issued 6 September 2022 expressed concerns about “the trend towards majoritarianism… former president Rajapaksha actively promoted a Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian ideology with the support of the military and Buddhist monks.”

As the East Timor president and noble laureate, Dr Jose Ramos Horta at the fifth Mullivaikal Memorial lecture on May 18th 2020, stated “The ruling Sri Lankan state must ask themselves why Tamils are actively seeking a separate state and acknowledge what may be going wrong.”

The scuttling of the P-TOMS by the Sri Lankan judiciary and the utter failure of the provincial council clearly demonstrates that until a political resolution is reached, economic development cannot happen.

I also take issue with your characterization that Tamil Eelam is an unrealistic goal. In fact, the continuation of Sri Lanka as an ethnocratic state, ruled in perpetuity by racist Sinhala elites is an unrealistic goal. The growing recognition of the fact within the international community that the Tamils were subjected to genocide accelerates the process of realising our independence. Law and morality dictate that as a form of remedial justice in order to ensure “Never Again”, the formation of an independent state is the proper form of remedial justice.

I also would like to point out that given the fact that the island of Sri Lanka is situated in a strategically important place in the Indian Ocean, and it is the Tamils who inhabit two-thirds of the coastline, the evolving power dynamics should also be noted in this connection. As you know, since 1990, more than 30 states have been established. We believe that history is moving in the direction of Tamil people achieving their highest political aspiration.

Q: Do you hate Sinhalese? When was the last time you communicated with a Sinhala Buddhist?

A: Neither I nor other Tamil leaders and the Tamil people hate Sinhala people. Our struggle is against the chauvinistic and genocidal Sri Lankan state. I provide legal representation for many Sinhalese here in the US. Some of my Sinhala clients even seek my advice for their family matters. Some of my Sinhala clients have also stated, during the current economic crisis, that the reign over the whole country should have been given to Mr. Velupillai Pirabaharan. In their opinion he would have governed the country with honesty and discipline. I think you should check my reputation among the Sinhala and Muslim working-class diaspora in New York city.

Q: How do you read about the present economic meltdown in Sri Lanka?

A: The present economic meltdown is primarily caused by the atrocity crimes committed against the Tamils and the continued military subjugation of Tamils.  The militarization of the country contributes heavily to the present economic catastrophe.  The UN high commissioner, in her report dated September 6th 2022, stated that “the Defense Ministry was allocated – 354 billion Sri Lankan rupees (US $1.86 billion) which accounted for 15% of the total government expenditure making it the highest allocated sector in 2022″.

Coupled with the above, the disrespect for the rule of law for decades has enabled corruption to go so deep that it has destroyed the Sri Lankan economy. Another related factor in more recent times has been the reliance on China for high interest loans for useless projects. The Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine only tipped over a thoroughly rotten system.

Q: How can you support Sri Lankans to overcome the current challenge?

A: I take this question as how Tamils can support and overcome the current catastrophe. As we have stated earlier there first needs to be a political solution to the Tamil national question by holding a referendum to decide the political future of Eelam Tamils. I must state here that our current referendum campaign does not hinge the consent of the Sri Lankan state. A referendum for independence in Kosovo was held without the approval of Serbia.

Sri Lanka will not become an economically viable country without a political resolution to the demands of Eelam Tamils. Such a solution will bring peace and prosperity for everyone.   It will also motivate the Eelam Tamil Diaspora to invest in Sri Lanka also.

Q:  The President has invited the Tamil Diaspora to be part of rebuilding Sri Lanka. We believe it’s a great opportunity for you to put your feet on the ground and do something substantive. Would you like to communicate with the government?

A: I think the answers given to previous questions are relevant to this question too. When I left Sri Lanka in 1982, my intention was to finish my one-year master’s degree and return to Sri Lanka. After the 1983 racial pogrom I felt that based on my credentials, I could contribute to the liberation of our people more effectively by being outside. Given the fact, there’s no space for Tamils for justice or to articulate their political aspirations fully, it is imperative for me to continue to stay outside the island. I am sure I will return and put ‘my feet on the ground’ and that will be on the soil of an independent Tamil Eelam.

She was a Miracle: Arundhati Roy remembers her mother

1 min read

For Arundhati Roy, her mother Mary Roy, who passed Thursday, was a miracle. But the celebrated author was also generous enough to share the goodness of her mother — to whom she offered the last kiss Friday afternoon — with everyone that mattered.

Mary Roy, the renowned educationalist was cremated on the premises of ‘Pallikoodam’, the school that she founded.

Arundhati had dedicated her debut novel, ‘The God of Small Things’ to her mother: For Mary Roy, who grew me up. Who taught me to say ‘excuse me’ before interrupting her in Public. Who loved me enough to let me go.

A copy of the book that fetched her the Man Booker Prize for fiction had been placed by the side of Mary before she was cremated.

“All people have spoken about my mother, what an extraordinary person she is and I don’t need to explain that to anyone because all of us know what a miracle she was,” Arundhati told a small gathering of friends and family that grieved the death of Mary Roy.

“She was one of the fiercest, most fabulous person that ever walked this earth. But the reason I wanted to speak now was to say that she didn’t do it alone.

“All of you, all of you, your faith and your love in her, especially at a time she was a single, divorced woman with two little children, with no backing.”

Mary Roy’s Pallikoodam had a humble beginning before it revolutionalised the education system in Kerala. It is known how Arundhati had suggested that name to her mother, who had been the institution’s head for 42 years.

She was 89 and is survived by two children, daughter Arundhati Roy, renowned writer and activist who won the 1997 Man Booker prize and son Lalit Roy. [ Photo ©  maktoobmedia]

“We remember we were five and six years old. We used to arrive at the rotary club. We were little, we had ‘choolu’, we used to come in the morning, we used to sweep up the cigarette stubs.

“We used to clean up the place, we used to put up tables and stools and it used to be the school. That is how this school started,” she remembered. “It started with the faith from a very few people, who believed in Mary Roy,” she added.

Arundhati Roy thanked everyone that shared the ‘extraordinary journey’ of her mother. “Without you, we will not be we, my brother will not be who he is, I will not be who I am. This town made us, sometimes by being cruel but that’s good too, you know. We didn’t turn out to be people who expect the world to just open up for us. It’s been such an extraordinary journey.”

This story is a part of SLG Syndication. Click here to read the original article published in On Manorama.

Interview: Tamil Diaspora is the Product of Downright Failures

6 mins read

The government must realise, that the Tamil diaspora is the product of its downright failures and must go as far as to revise its failures in a substantive way, Rajasingham Jayadevan said in an interview with Sri Lanka Guardian. Speaking from his residence in London, Jayadevan did not hesitate to recall his past experiences with the LTTE saying that the “failure of LTTE was its own making. LTTE’s fundamental mistake was to move away from a just struggle of the people to a struggle for the redemption of traditional homelands.”

Mr Jayadevan is a social worker, writer, and influential voice of the Tamil Diaspora based in London. He is the Secretary, Eelapatheeswarar Aalayam, and Non Resident Tamils of Sri Lanka and private sector Finance Director.

“One needs to deep think whether Sri Lanka has the capacity to reform its path in a broader sense,” he suggested.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question: Jaya, thank you for joining us today. Let us briefly know your experiences before and after your captivity by the LTTE. True, LTTE is no longer active but we are sure you still have a strong memory that you would like to recall.

Answer: It is seventeen years since my incarceration by the LTTE. My experience post release was inhumane and calculated campaign against me for publicising my experience without fear. The brand name of ‘traitor’ was bestowed on me, and it was an experience worse than my captivity itself in Vanni. Friends became foes and foes became friends. Their campaign of harassment was relentless and all and sundry in anonymity. They campaigned to dehumanise me and my family in a disrespectful manner. Determination and fearlessness strived me through and I am whom I am in my onerous progression to best serve the suffering people in the post war Sri Lanka.

I have no hesitation in saying the failure of LTTE was its own making. LTTE’s fundamental mistake was to move away from a just struggle of the people to a struggle for the redemption of traditional homelands. People became victims to its hegemonic gun hoe mechanism to establish territorial control and the LTTE also failed to realise the fast-changing local and international realities on terrorism and suppression of civil wars. Over thirty years of war saw generational thinking change and the war inflicted untold suffering and pain for the people and LTTE could not preside over anymore when the Tamil feelings having negative towards the LTTE and further because of the untold misery burdened on them by the government forces.

I am very active and heavily engaged in post-war regeneration work in Sri Lanka. In the progressing decay in Sri Lanka, post war reconciliation and revival are facing hammer blow experience.

Q: At least three governments came to power after the end of the Civil War. Certain areas such as infrastructure and other social welfare facilities like education were tremendously improved in North and East since then. But we still hear the same criticism against the central government. We would like to know your take.

A: The post war effort of the government to regenerate the North and East has been bare minimum. It failed to harness meaningful resources for the regeneration of North and East of Sri Lanka. There was no laudable post war plan or consensus politics or even reparation for the victims of the war to revive their lives. Much needed international support was overtly disregarded as the government remained exposed of war crimes charges which is continuing to burgeon the country – a factor influencing the present socio-economic decay the country is facing at present.

The true cause of the war is the anti-Tamil Standardization Policy of the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike of the late 1960’s. It did collateral damage to the vibrant Tamil community and the aftermath was the painful history that is still impacting the country. Whatever the government facilitated post-war efforts are seen as just sweeteners and not substantive programme of work. The government does not have the resources, or the war weary Tamil community is capacitated to respond to needs on their own on the issues facing them.

Q: Tell us about your social project in the post-war period. How did you enable funds and what are the challenges you face?

A: I was a regular visitor to Sri Lanka, though last few years have constrained me due to Covid pandemic and my personal circumstances. I am heavily involved in post-war socio-economic revival work through the charity Eelapatheeswarar Aalayam – UK, I represent. Guided by my brother Late Dr R Narendran we initiated his unique idea of post war village development work. We adopted the downtrodden Pulayaveli Village in Chengaladi in Batticaloa. My bother gave us the much-needed energy to engage heavily in infrastructural development work. His sudden demise a year later in 2017 numbed us all, but his perseverance and determination laid the foundation for us to proceed further. It was uphill task as distance of 5,500 miles between London and Colombo was serious challenge for us. It has been day to day remote control management work. My day starts at 3.00am and with my other commitments in London the charity was able to build good working relationship that helped to proceed further to substantially develop the village.

Deep-rooted corruption from the office peons to the President was draining the state resources.

The devotees and well-wishers of the temple charity provided the funds for the costly work. As we progressed, we earned the goodwill of the people for our effective management and accountability. We are content that the very trust we earned with the diaspora community with our transparent engagement, is helping us to widen our work programme is in a greater scale.

I will be failing if I do not reflect my note of caution in such heavy engagement by anyone. The challenge in managing such broad-based programme has its downfalls as Sri Lanka has created a society that is habitual takers and would not doers they do not understand meaning of reciprocal engagement with their minimum contribution in return. The beggar bowl culture of yearning for handouts has weakened the capacity of the people to progress energetically.

Q: How do you see the present situation in Sri Lanka?

A: The present situation is dire. When international credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded the credit worthiness of Sri Lanka three years ago, the GoSL did not consider their findings seriously to address the failures responsibly. Instead, Sri Lanka went on the anti- Moody spree to belittle its findings. Following Moody, leading international agencies continued to downgrade Sri Lanka. With their negative assessments and the consequences of Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka paying a heavy price for its failures in its economic management. Deep-rooted corruption from the office peons to the President was draining the state resources. Post-war did not witness downsizing of the military and the bloated unproductive state sector employment. Instead of stretching their hands to the IMF and other reputable international actors, Sri Lanka was playing ping pong in the international arena. Sri Lanka’s hostile stance on war crimes claims by the UNHRC is another factor influencing the decay faced by the country.

Sri Lanka, since independence, has destroyed the four supportive pillars of its foundation. The Burgers, plantation Tamils, indigenous Tamils, and the Muslims were systematically marginalised to establish outright majoritarian rule. The whole political mechanism has now crumbled with the worst form of governance inhibiting Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, all and sundry can become president and legislators and it is norm to tamper with constitution for petty parochial reasons. The nation never produced a national leader to transform Sri Lanka, and election of nationalists have caused untold misery for nation. Mahinda Rajapakse had the golden opportunity to become a national leader with the defeat of the LTTE, but he too was part of the marathon race to extend the curse of nationalist politics.

In Sri Lanka, all and sundry can become president and legislators and it is norm to tamper with constitution for petty parochial reasons.

One need to deep think whether Sri Lanka has the capacity to reform its path in broader sense. It is endless pit to find an answer as the malice inhibiting is so entrenched that and any effort for real transformation will be a dream in Alice in Wonderland. The present economic decay is giving the right message for the need for broad based responsible governance. One wonders how long this will merit when belly aching hunger is addressed.

Q: Sri Lanka cannot effort another armed conflict, but many political commentators are worrying the current social upheaval may lead to an unprecedented violent conflict. How can you and Sri Lankans expatriates help maintain social normalcy?

A: Sri Lanka brewing for social unrest in an unprecedented scale if substantive efforts are not made to bring normally in its economic performance. Sri Lankan expatriate is a vibrant resource and expecting them to help redeem the malaise is daydream. The non-resident community too is going through transformation as the marathon sticks are being passed fast to the next generation who have very little engagement with Sri Lanka. The president of Sri Lanka has made some proposals for diaspora engagement, and these are kneejerk requests without consideration of wider issues involved. His appeal can be only responded if far-reaching package is offered to the expats by the government. The government must realise, the Tamil diaspora is the product of its downright failures and must go as far as to revise its failures in a substantive way for them to engage positively in Sri Lanka.

Interview: We are ready to facilitate negotiations

5 mins read

This is the time for the government and the President to agree to allow a body of technocrats to run the country for a couple of years to revive it from an impending humanitarian disaster, Suren Surendiran, spokesperson for Global Tamil Forum, said in an interview with Sri Lanka Guardian. Global Tamil Forum (GTF) identified itself as a Tamil Diaspora organisation committed to a non-violent agenda and seeks a lasting peace in Sri Lanka based on justice, reconciliation and a negotiated political settlement.

“If need be, GTF can play a major role in the negotiations and can be a source of investors, can also be a source of human resources that can bring to bear expertise, capacity and capability in various fields,” he responded to the Sri Lankan government, which has expressed interest in engaging with the Tamil Diaspora.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question: Suren, you are allowed to come to Sri Lanka as your name is now delisted. Is that something that you expected?

Answer: At a drop of a hat, the Government of Sri Lanka will list and then de-list, these arbitrary and irrational actions of Sri Lanka have minimal or zero effect on me or the organisation that I represent, the Global Tamil Forum (GTF). I am very sorry to disappoint you, as there wasn’t anything to expect or not expect.

Q: Have you ever been to Sri Lanka or are you planning to visit soon?

A. I was born and bred in Sri Lanka. Like many other Tamils who fled the country looking for safety for themselves and their loved ones after the many State sponsored riots in 1958, and 1977, we left Sri Lanka after the 1983 riots when yet again the State-sponsored pogrom during when many thousands of Tamils were massacred by Sinhala mobs and destroyed many millions of dollars worth of Tamil assets all over the country. I will fail in my duty if I didn’t mention the many kind Sinhala neighbours and friends who also protected many thousands of Tamils from these State sponsored mobs, risking their own lives.

The last time I was in Sri Lanka was in 2005 before Mahinda Rajapaksa became President. That year, I was there twice. I also paid a short visit in 2013.

Q: How do you see the prevailing political deadlock in Sri Lanka?

A: It is very unhealthy for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. Without reshuffling the same deck of cards (Government MPs and Ministers) who were fundamentally the root cause of this economic catastrophe, I sincerely hope that the government and the President will agree to allow a body of technocrats (specialists in the fields) to run the country for a couple of years to revive it from an impending humanitarian disaster.

Q: What is your take on a recent decision by the Sri Lanka Government to delist a few individuals and organizations?

A: Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapaksa listed a few Tamil diaspora persons and organisations in 2014 claiming that we fund and support terrorism. They quoted that this action of listing individuals and organisations was based on UN Regulation 1373. What they failed to follow was the clearly articulated process and procedures of this particular regulation. Sri Lanka didn’t produce any evidence of any sort to allege that these persons or organisations were involved in/or supported terrorism. In addition, these evidence/supporting materials should have been given to the accused and given a stipulated amount of time for them to defend their positions. None of these procedures was followed before prescribing to these organisations or individuals. This action was arbitrary, irrational, and outright abuse of the United Nations Regulation. This is perhaps why the international community, governments and international institutions including the United Nations itself completely ignored this proscription, whilst some issued public statements rejecting this action as arbitrary and many others at senior government representatives’ level continued to engage with us in public.

Then the Yahapalanaya government de-proscribed most from that list in 2015. Yet again the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government proscribed the same and a few more new ones in 2021. This again was done without following due process or procedure as described in the UN Regulation. Realising that this action doesn’t board well with anyone including the media of Sri Lanka, the Gotabaya government initiated a process of reversing this action in June 2022, which then physically materialised after Ranil Wickremasinghe took over as President.

Q: Recent reports suggested that President Wickremesinghe is planning to establish a “Diaspora Office” to strengthen the relationship between local communities and Sri Lankans aboard. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Unfortunately these actions and ideas are suspected to be to appease the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the High Commissioner for Human Rights just before her report on Sri Lanka which will be presented to the Council on 12 September. These steps and actions follow a pattern of steps Sri Lanka pretends to be taking as fake measures of reconciliation between communities just before each UNHRC session where Sri Lanka has been on the agenda in the recent past (since 2010).

I bet there will be further announcements of “progressive steps” leading up to the beginning of the 51st session where a substantial resolution is expected. Sri Lanka has a track record of making announcements of various “progressive steps” but never implementing any of them in a satisfactory manner.

Q: A recent statement issued by a group based in one of the western countries noted that “if Sri Lanka agrees to amicable separation, the Tamil Diaspora is ready to sign a treaty to pay Sri Lanka’s foreign debt.” Please give us some insights to understand the reliability and capability of this “Tamil Diaspora”

A: Well, I guess you should pose this question to the said diaspora organisation. However, if I were you I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity and capability of the diaspora community spread over the world.
Imagine the possibilities of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora business community jointly with the Tamil Nadu business community start to invest in business ventures in Sri Lanka, the prospects could become unlimited.

Q: Do you think the “Tamil Diaspora” as an exclusive entity is ready to work with the Sri Lankan government, and if so, with whom should the government initiate communication?

A: There have been several reports of widespread shortages and poverty due to price hikes in the South of Sri Lanka whilst the people of North have relatively being less affected by these shortages or price hikes. Amongst many reasons, one key reason has been the constant supply of foreign exchange from friends and relatives, abroad. This demonstrates the potential of the Tamil diaspora as a steady source of foreign exchange for the entire country if conditions are conducive.

Government should take steps to constitutionally devolve substantial powers to provinces including provinces where Sinhala and Muslim communities are in majority allowing these devolved provinces to encourage direct diaspora investments. The government must take strict measures to curb rampant corruption within various government structures including the cabinet of ministers. Also must reduce red-tapes to make investment prospects conducive.

Government should initiate conversations with the elected representatives of Tamils in Sri Lanka and with established diaspora organisations with the objective of resolving the seventy-four years old Tamil National Question.

Q: What role the GTF is going to play?

A: If need be, GTF can play a major role in the negotiations which we have done in the past and can be a source of investors, can also be a source of human resources that can bring to bear expertise, capacity and capability in various fields, which again we have demonstrated in the recent past.