Sri Lanka

Shared Prosperity: A Vision for South Asia

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Following article is based on the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture 2023 by the author as the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh in Colombo

I am profoundly honoured to have the opportunity to deliver this prestigious Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture 2023. I thank the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka Mr. Ali Sabry for this honour.

As an academician, it is my immense pleasure to share my thoughts with the esteemed audience of our close neighbour Sri Lanka. I am also happy to return to this beautiful island in less than a year after the BIMSTEC Summit held in Colombo.

At the outset, let me pay my homage to late Mr Lakshman Kadirgamar, one of Sri Lanka’s finest sons. He was Foreign Minister during some of the most challenging times in your recent history. Still, he steadily moved towards achieving his dream to build a multi-religious and multi-ethnic united Sri Lanka where all communities could live in harmony. He was a legal scholar and a leader par excellence. He served to raise the level of the political discourse of Sri Lanka, both at home and abroad. His assassination was one of the most tragic losses for the country. However, we are confident that Lakshman Kadirgamar will be remembered by future generations of Sri Lankans for the values and principles he lived and died for which are even more relevant in present-day Sri Lanka.

I am aware of the regard Late Lakshman Kadirgamar held for Bangladesh. I am also aware that my Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina knew him well. Let me share an anecdote. During one of his visits to Bangladesh, after meeting my Prime Minister, on the way out she impromptu took him to the stage of her political, public meeting and introduced him to the audience. He even spoke there for a few minutes. Mrs. Kadirgamar who is present here today, was a witness to that episode. That was an indication of how highly Late Kadirgamar was regarded by my Prime Minister. Perhaps all these prompted Mrs Suganthie Kadirgamar to think of hearing from Bangladesh at this year’s Memorial Lecture. I am deeply touched by this gesture. Thank you, Madam.

We see this as an extension of collaboration between LKI and our think tank BIISS.

Today I would like to share my thoughts on the theme “Shared Prosperity: A Vision for South Asia” which we hold very dearly to our heart.

It cannot begin without recalling our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who provided our foreign policy dictum “Friendship to all, Malice to None” which he later focused more on promoting relations with neighbours first. His able daughter Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina aptly picked up the philosophy and extended it and went for its implementation.

Before I delve into the theme, it would be pertinent to put Bangladesh-Sri Lanka bilateral relations in perspective. The relationship is based on multitude of commonalities and close people-to-people contacts. Last year, we celebrated 50th anniversary of the establishment of our diplomatic ties. We regularly exchange high level visits, are engaged in bilateral discussions on sectoral cooperation including shipping, trade and commerce, education, agriculture, youth development, connectivity and so on. Our relationship is all about friendship, goodwill and good neighbourliness. Therefore, it is comfortable for me to speak before you in a broader perspective involving the entire region’s development aspect.

Now, why do we think of a holistic approach to prosperity? It is firstly due to the compulsion of the contemporary evolution of global order. We are now going through one of the most significant phases of human history having already experienced an unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic. Just as we showed our capacity to tame the pandemic, another challenge came in our way–armed conflict in Europe. This has not only slowed down our recovery from the havoc done by the pandemic but also caused a global economic recession due to increase in energy and food prices and more importantly, disruption of supply chain and financial transaction mechanism owing to sanctions. Besides, we are also victims of rivalry between big and emerging economies and their strategic power play. All these necessitate the developing countries to get together.

The vision of shared prosperity becomes more relevant when we compare the development trajectory of South Asian countries. Indeed, we have made substantial progress. Some South Asian countries have already graduated to middle income status while others are making their way. Yet, poverty is still high in region.

One predominant characteristic is that our economies display greater interest in integrating with the global economy than with each other. Regional cooperation within the existing frameworks has made only limited progress being hostage to political and security considerations. The problems have their roots in the historical baggage as well as the existing disparity in the regional structure. In addition, there are a number of outstanding issues and bilateral discords.

All these realities have left us a message that for survival, we need closer collaboration among neighbours setting aside our differences; we must have concerted efforts through sharing of experiences and learning from each other.

In this backdrop, Bangladesh has been following a policy of shared prosperity as a vision for the friendly neighbours of South Asia. Guided by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, we are advocating for inclusive development in the region. Our development trajectory and ideological stance dovetail our vision of shared prosperity for South Asia. Let me tell how we are doing it.

In Bangladesh, human development is the pillar of sustainable development. Our Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in his maiden speech at the UNGA in 1974 said and I quote, “there is an international responsibility … to ensuring everyone the right to a standard living adequate for the health and the well-being of himself and his family”. Unquote.

As the top enabler of the country’s diplomacy, then the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, called on the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on February 26, 2005. [ File Photo]

This vision remains relevant even today. In that spirit, we are pursuing inclusive and people-centric development in association with regional and global efforts. 

In the last decade, we have achieved rapid economic growth ensuring social justice for all. Today, Bangladesh is acknowledged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. We have reduced poverty from 41.5% to 20% in the last 14 years. Our per capita income has tripled in just a decade. Bangladesh has fulfilled all criterions for graduating from LDC to a developing country. Bangladesh is ranked as world’s 5th best COVID resilient country, and South Asia’s best performer.

Last year, we inaugurated the self-funded ‘Padma Multi-purpose Bridge”. A few days ago, we started the first ever Metro Rail service in our capital. Soon, we shall complete the 3.2 kilometer Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Tunnel under the river Karnaphuli in Chattogram, the first in South Asia. Several other mega-projects are in the pipeline which will bring about significant economic upliftment.

Our aspiration is to transform Bangladesh into a knowledge-based ‘Smart Bangladesh” by 2041 and a prosperous and climate-resilient delta by 2100. We hope to attain these goals by way of ensuring women empowerment, sustainable economic growth and creating opportunities for all.

The priorities of Sheikh Hasina Government are the following:

First, provide food, Second, provide cloths, Third, shelter and accommodation to all and no one should be left behind, Fourth, Education and Fifth, Healthcare to all. To achieve these goals, she promoted vehicles like Digital Bangladesh, innovation, foreign entrepreneurs and private initiatives in an atmosphere of regional peace, stability and security, and through connectivity. Bangladesh has become a hub of connectivity and looking forward to become a ‘Smart Bangladesh’.

When it comes to foreign policy, we have been pursuing neighbourhood diplomacy for amiable political relations with the South Asian neighbours alongside conducting a balancing act on strategic issues based on the philosophy of “shared prosperity”. I can name a few initiatives which speak of our commitment to the fulfilment of the philosophy.

Bangladesh, within its limited resources, is always ready to stand by her neighbours in times of emergency-be it natural calamity, or pandemic or economic crisis. We despatched essential medicines, medical equipment and technical assistance to the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and India during the peak period of Covid-19 pandemic.

We had readily extended humanitarian assistance to Nepal when they faced the deadly earthquake back in 2015. Last year, we helped the earthquake victims of Afghanistan. Prior to that, we contributed to the fund raised by the United Nations for the people of Afghanistan.

Further, our assistance for the people of Sri Lanka with emergency medicines during the moment of crisis last year or the currency SWAP arrangement is the reflection of our commitment to our philosophy. These symbolic gestures were not about our capacity, pride or mere demonstration, rather it was purely about our sense of obligation to our neighbours. We strongly believe that shared prosperity comes with shared responsibility and development in a single country of a particular region may not sustain if others are not taken along.

In addition, we have resolved most of our critical issues with our neighbours peacefully through dialogue and discussion. For example, we have resolved our border demarcation problem with India, our maritime boundary with India and Myanmar, and also our water sharing with India peacefully through dialogue and discussion.

For an emerging region like South Asia, we need to devise certain policies and implement those in a sustainable manner. I would like to share some of my thoughts which could be explored in quest for our shared prosperity and inclusive development:

First of all, without regional peace and stability we would not be able to grow as aspired for. To that effect, our leaders in the region have to work closely on priority basis. We may have issues between neighbours but we have to transcend that to leave a legacy of harmony for our future generation so that a culture of peace and stability prevails in the region. We can vouch for it from our own experience. In Bangladesh, we are sheltering 1.1 million forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals. If remains unresolved, it has the potential to jeopardise the entire security architecture of South Asia. So, here the neighbourhood should support us for their own interests.

Second, we need to revitalize our regional platforms and properly implement our initiatives taken under BIMSTEC and IORA. We are happy that BIMSTEC is progressing better, but we should endeavour to make it move always like a rolling machine.

Third, we need to focus on regional trade and investment. Countries in South Asia had implemented trade liberalization within the framework of SAFTA but in a limited scale. Bangladesh is in the process of concluding Preferential Trade Agreement/Free Trade Agreement with several of its South Asian peers. We have already concluded PTA with Bhutan; are at an advanced stage of negotiations for PTA with Sri Lanka and discussions for PTA with Nepal are on. In the same spirit, Bangladesh is about to start negotiations on Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India.

Fourth, a well-connected region brings immense economic benefits and leads to greater regional integration. To maximize our intra- and extra-regional trade potentials and enhance people-to-people contacts, Bangladesh is committed to regional and sub regional connectivity initiatives. Bangladesh’s geostrategic location is a big leverage which was rightly picked up by our Hon’ble Prime Minister. She benevolently offered connectivity in the form of transit and trans-shipment to our friendly neighbours for sustainable growth and collective prosperity of the region. As for Sri Lanka, if we can establish better shipping connectivity which our two countries are working on, the overall regional connectivity would be more robust.

Fifth, We live in a globalized world, highly interconnected and interdependent. Our region has gone through similar experience and history. Bangladesh believes and promotes religious harmony. We have been promoting “Culture of Peace” across nations. The basic element of “Culture of Peace” is to inculcate a mindset of tolerance, a mind set of respect towards others, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, colour, background or race. If we can develop such mindset by stopping venom of hatred towards others, we can hope to have sustainable peace and stability across nations, leading to end of violence, wars, and terrorism in nations and regions. There won’t be millions of refugees or persecuted Rohingyas. Bangladesh takes special pride in it as even before Renaissance was started in Europe in the 17th century, even before America was discovered in 1492, in Bengal a campaign was started by Chandi Das as early as 1408 that says “সবার উপরে মানুষ সত্য; তাহার উপরে নাই”- humanity is above all and we still try to promote it.

Sixth, we have to look beyond a traditional approach of development and challenges and revisit the non-traditional global crises of the recent time. We are experiencing food, fuel, fertilizer and energy shortages due to global politics and disruption of supply chain; as littoral and island countries we face similar challenges of natural disasters; we have vast maritime area which needs effective maritime governance; we need to curb marine pollution and ensure responsible use of marine resources. Our collective, sincere and bold efforts are required to minimize the impacts of climate change as well.
In this context, I would like to share Bangladesh’s understanding and position.

Ocean Governance:

Blue Economy: Bangladesh is an avid proponent of Blue Economy and responsible use of marine resources for the benefit of the entire region. We are keen to utilize the full potential of our marine resources and have developed an integrated maritime policy drawing on the inter-linkages between the different domains and functions of our seas, oceans and coastal areas. Bangladesh also values the importance of sound science, innovative management, effective enforcement, meaningful partnerships, and robust public participation as essential elements of Blue Economy.  At this stage, we need support, technical expertise and investment for sustainable exploration and exploitation of marine resources. As the past and present chairs of IORA, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka should find out ways of bilateral collaboration particularly in Blue Economy in the Bay of Bengal.

Controlling of Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing:
IUU fishing in the maritime territory of Bangladesh needs to be monitored and controlled. Our present capability of marine law enforcement in this regard is limited. Here regional collaboration would be very useful.

Marine Pollution: Marine pollution is a major concern for all littoral countries. Micro-plastic contamination poses serious threat to marine eco system. Responsible tourism and appropriate legal framework underpinned by regional collaboration would greatly help.

Climate Change and Climate Security in the Bay of Bengal: We have taken a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to make the country climate-resilient. Our Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan was formulated in 2009. Bangladesh has pioneered in establishing a climate fund entirely from our own resources in 2009. Nearly $443 million has been allocated to this fund since then.

Moreover, we are going to implement the ‘Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan’ to achieve low carbon economic growth for optimised prosperity and partnership. Green growth, resilient infrastructure and renewable energy are key pillars of this prosperity plan. This is a paradigm shift from vulnerability to resilience and now from resilience to prosperity.

As the immediate past Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, we had promoted the interests of the climate vulnerable countries including Sri Lanka in the international platforms. Bangladesh is globally acclaimed for its remarkable success in climate adaptation, in particular in locally-led adaptation efforts. The Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) South Asia regional office in Dhaka is disseminating local based innovative adaptation strategies to other climate vulnerable countries.

To rehabilitate the climate displaced people, we have undertaken one of the world’s largest housing projects which can shelter 4,500 climate displaced families. Under the “Ashrayan” project, a landmark initiative for the landless and homeless people, 450,000 families have been provided with houses. Keeping disaster resilience in mind, the project focuses on mitigation through afforestation, rainwater harvesting, solar home systems and improved cook stoves. In addition, the government has implemented river-bank protection, river excavation and dredging, building of embankment, excavation of irrigation canals and drainage canals in last 10 years at a massive scale. We feel, our national efforts need to be complemented by regional assistance.

As the chair of CVF and as a climate vulnerable country, our priority is to save this planet earth for our future generations. In order to save it, we need all countries, specially those that are major polluters, to come up with aggressive NDCs, so that global temperature remains below 1.5 degree Celsius, they should allocate more funds to climate change, they should share the burden of rehabilitation of ‘climate migrants’ that are uprooted from their sweet homes and traditional jobs due to erratic climatic changes, river erosion and additional salinity. We are happy that “loss and damage” has been introduced in COP-27.

Seventh, South Asia needs a collective voice in the international forum for optimizing their own interests.

Finally, and most importantly, South Asian leaders need similar political will for a better and prosperous region.

We hope that Bangladesh and its neighbours in South Asia would be able to tap the potentials of each other’s complementarities to further consolidate our relations to rise and shine as a region. May I conclude by reminding ourselves what a Bengali poet has said, and I quote,

“মেঘ দেখে কেউ করিসনে ভয়
আড়ালে তার সূর্য হাসে”

Don’t be afraid of the cloud, sunshine is sure to follow.

With this, I conclude. I thank you all for your graceful presence and patience.

Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu!

Independence and Fraternity – A thought on Sri Lanka’s independence day

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Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” Thomas Paine

Independence Day in Sri Lanka has now both a national and an international connotation.

It is indeed curious that the 4th of February each year marks the commemoration of Sri Lanka’s independence which Sri Lanka achieved from the ruling British Raj in 1948 and The International Day for Human Fraternity, which was the collective initiative of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 2021.   The United Nations Resolution which adopted The International Day for Human Fraternity – which was co sponsored by 34 Member States of the United Nations – expressed deep concern for acts that advocate religious hatred and undermine the spirit of tolerance and recognized “ the valuable contributions of people of all religions and beliefs to humanity and underlines the role of education in promoting tolerance and eliminating discrimination based on religion or belief. It commends all international, regional, national, and local initiatives and efforts by religious leaders to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue”.

In recent times many significant attempts have been made by the religious leaders of Sri Lanka to eliminate discrimination based on religion or belief. Tolerance, recognition and respect for the Christian faith has been nobly demonstrated by the members of the Buddhist clergy and this recognition has been reciprocated by the Christian church leaders, thus bringing together a collective rejection of religious and cultural bigotry.  Both Buddhism and Christianity have commonalities, as was said by James Fredericks of Loyola Marymount University: “Practices that Buddhism and Catholicism have in common include monasticism and clerical celibacy, meditation and chanting (we call it the “rosary”). Catholics have lots of devotions. Buddhists also like devotional practices. We should teach each other about the Blessed Virgin and Kannon Bosatsu”. Pope Francis in 2020  called  on Catholics to “reach out to those who follow other religious paths” encouraging Catholics to enter into what he calls a “dialogue of fraternity” that is calculated to work together in the wider community to promote the common good and human flourishing.

One instance that brought to bear this empathetic trend was seen in   the aftermath of the Easter Sunday devastation on 21 April 2019 caused in three churches in Sri Lanka, as well as in  three luxury hotels in the commercial capital, Colombo.  More than 100 people were killed in the three churches as well as  39 tourists outside.  In a rare gesture of fraternity Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders joined the commemoration of the destruction on Easter Sunday at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, where they offered prayers and observed a two-minute silence to remember the dead.  Monsignor Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo said:”“ Catholics of Sri Lanka should play an active role, along with other religious communities, in creating a united country, giving space and respect to different ethnicities, faiths and political organizations”. Two years after the bombing, on Easter Sunday during Mass, Cardinal Ranjith is reported to have said: “ “Today Holy Father Pope Francis has visited Iraq and has had a discussion with the Shia leaders (in Iran). It shows religious leaders in the world think about unity and brotherhood, not about creating strife. Therefore, I request anyone inclined to create conflict on account of religion to give up that idea”.

Another significant milestone in the demonstration of fraternity was seen politically where, irrespective of religion or ethnic background, thousands of Sri Lankans demonstrated peacefully in what was called “ Aragalaya” in 2022 – an independent and collective effort of people power without visible single leadership – which forced the political leadership of Sri Lanka to vacate office.  The Aragalaya was a signal combination of the independence of the citizen demonstrated with abiding fraternity. The thousands of youth and elders invoked   what is now called “collective leadership” – a form of leadership that has become a trend where multiple individuals exercise their leadership roles within a group whereafter the entire group collectively provides  group leadership to the entire populace involved in protesting. Collective leadership has been further explained by David Trafford, Co-author of Beyond Default and Managing Director of Formicio, a strategy and change management consultancy, and Peter Boggis, Co-author of Beyond Default “It’s a fluid and flexible approach to leadership, where roles and resultant accountabilities evolve in response to changing circumstances”.

Aragalaya brought to bear the true meaning of independence of the people and was pursued by all without racial, religious and ethnic barriers. The protesters gave a valuable lesson in the context of the words pertaining to the extinguishing of impressions created by the flaws of constitutional democracy.  When they fought for removal of the existing leadership, the argument given by the rulers was that leadership could be changed only through a constitutional process which allowed the leadership to remain for a couple of years more.  The implication was that the people had no independence to summarily throw out an unacceptable regime. The attempt to kill the principles of the protesters by the argument seemingly based on democracy was obviated by the protesters who showed collective strength of the principle “salus populi est suprema lex” (the welfare of the populace is the supreme law). The Aragalaya has also did something very significant and valuable for Sri Lanka and its present and future generations: it finally put to rest the perceived implacability of the so-called democracy and parliamentary process behind which mendacious leaders take solace.  The protesters exposed  this fallacy and demonstrated their true independence.

True independence of the nation (people) was eloquently  elaborated by the Hon. D.S. Senanayake, then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka when the Union Jack was finally lowered to make way for the Lion flag on 4 February 1948: “Freedom carries with it grave responsibilities. Our acts and omissions henceforth are our own. No longer can we lay the blame for defects and errors in our administration on others. It is, therefore, the duty of every citizen of Lanka to grasp this opportunity and to strive and toil willingly for advancing the happiness and prosperity of the country. Our nation comprises many races, each with a culture and a history of its own. It is for us to blend all that is best in us, and to set ourselves with the resolute will to build up that high quality, and to join with the other nations of the world in establishing peace, security and justice for all peoples.”

If this isn’t a testimony to independence and fraternity and their symbiosis, nothing else is.

Sri Lanka: Surviving the 75th year of independence

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Sri Lanka will be celebrating its 75th Independence Day on February 4, 2023. As a republic the country has come a long way from the dominion it was at the time of independence. The shaky step with which President Ranil Wickremesinghe steps into the 75th year of independence, tells that his job to mend the fractured country left in disarray by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is far from over. His government has to survive at least one more year to ensure the economic recovery process is started as per IMF norms.

The former president Gotabaya’s flight to safety from the country to escape from the wrath of the people has a lesson for all political leaders. They cannot afford to take popular support for granted. That includes President Wickremesinghe, though he is not elected President by popular mandate. Embers of Aragalaya struggle are still smouldering; a small number of vested interests, nihilists and ultra-left wingers are trying hard to keep alive the protest movement. They have been indirectly helped by the government’s continued lack of accountability. People cannot afford the resurgence of another Aragalaya upsurge as it would shift the national focus from economic recovery. It is the government responsibility to get its act together to ensure the popular discontent is handled with sympathy, sensitivity and fair play.

Apparently, the government has shown signs of getting its act together. It has just released Wasantha Mudalige, Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation and one of the leaders of the Aragalaya protests, after holding him in custody under the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for nearly nine months. But much more needs to be done by the government to gain public confidence. It is in this backdrop that events in the month need to be understood.

Economic recovery

The seamless connectivity between external relations and the economic recovery of the country came into full play during the month. Early in the month, President Wickremesinghe addressing businessmen in Colombo, briefed them on the state of economic recovery. He had said Japan and the Paris Club, two of Sri Lanka’s major creditors, had expressed their willingness to assist. Talks had begun with India and China. “We discussed with China’s EXIM Bank and are currently debating on how to restructure our debt. The Chinese side has agreed to move quickly” he added. Japan’s State Minister of the Cabinet office Satoshi Fujimaru, China’s Vice Minister of the International Department of the CCP’s Central Committee Chen Zhou and India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited Colombo in that order. The US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs is currently visiting Sri Lanka to “offer continued support for Sri Lanka’s efforts to stabilize the economy, protect human rights and promise reconciliation” according to the State Department.

The Paris Club is said to have proposed a 10-year debt moratorium and a 15-year debt restructuring programme. Japan’s minister Fujimaru came with a delegation of Japanese businessmen and his discussions with the President focused on investment opportunities available in Sri Lanka in hospitality and tourism, mining and training of Sri Lanka’s workforce. Chinese Vice Minister Chen led a delegation with the avowed aim to meet leaders of the government and political parties to brief them “on the CPC National Congress decisions and enhance cooperation with friendly developing countries under President Xi Jinping’s policies.” On debt restructuring, he assured PM Dinesh Gunawardena that “several ministries and financial institutes of China are working closely on this issue for quite a long period. I’m confident that Sri Lanka will have good news very soon.” But “the good news” that China’s EXIM Bank agreeing to a two-year moratorium on Sri Lanka’s debts may not satisfy the IMF programme.

In contrast to China, India – the third largest creditor – validated its “neighbourhood first policy” by writing to the IMF Chief of its support to restructuring of Sri Lanka’s debts on the eve of EAM Jaishankar’s visit to Colombo. In its letter to IMF, India has said it will support medium to long term treatment of debts through maturity extension and interest rate reduction or any other financial operations that would deliver similar relief. India also said that it expects Sri Lanka to seek equitable debt treatments from all commercial creditors and other official bilateral creditors.

After bilateral talks, EAM Jaishankar addressed a joint press conference at the Presidential Secretariat along with President Wickremesinghe and Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Sabry. He said in Colombo that India will stand by Sri Lanka in its hour of need and expressed confidence in overcoming challenges. His words that India “felt strongly that Sri Lanka’s creditors must take proactive steps to facilitate its recovery” and extended financial assurances to the IMF to clear the way for Sri Lanka to move forward. Our expectation is that this will not only strengthen Sri Lanka’s position but ensure that all bilateral creditors are dealt with equally,” must be heart-warming to the beleaguered President.

He also said India will encourage greater investments in the Sri Lankan economy, especially in the core areas like energy, tourism and infrastructure. Apart from the use of rupee settlement for trade, he also suggested strengthening connectivity, encouraging Indian tourists to make RuPay payments and the use of UPI payment as helpful to Sri Lanka.

Implementing 13th Amendment

The Indian EAM’s talks with Sri Lankan leaders in Colombo seem to have nudged President Wickremesinghe to walk the talk on unfulfilled promises on ethnic reconciliation and implementing 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution in full.

The President informed an all-party leaders conference on reconciliation that the Cabinet was agreeable to fully implement 13A. In a statement issued by his secretariat, he said “The 13th Amendment has been in existence for over 30 years. I must implement it. If anyone is opposed, they can bring in a constitutional amendment to change it, or abolish it.” Explaining his stand, he said he was working according to a supreme court decision on 13A. “We are still in the bounds of a unitary state. I am against a Federal state but I support the devolution of power to provinces. The provincial councils don’t even have the powers enjoyed by the City of London. So, we can’t call this a federal state,” he said.

It is clear that the President has left the decision to implement or scrap the 13A on political leaders from all parties. it might be a political ploy to tide over a tricky political issue for a short time. But, his credibility as President is likely to be tested when he attempts to implement 13A. His statement has already received negative reaction from Tamil National Alliance as well as Sinhala right. And we can expect more political flak on this issue across parties.

This adds yet another rider to the political stability of the government, which does appear to be clear about conducting the local government elections(LG) in March. Already, the uneasy ruling coalition of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is divided over the conduct of LG elections in March. Lack of clarity on the issue is already causing scepticism about the government’s intentions among the public . In the face of a brewing political turbulence, it will be a tough call on the President to take decisive action even at the best of times. Now, when the country is trying to save itself, it is going to be tougher.

Tailpiece: Sri Lanka’s annual bilateral naval exercise ‘CARAT’ (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) was held on land and at sea in Colombo, Trincomalee and Mullikulam for a week from January 19. The exercise aims to promote regional cooperation, maritime partnerships, enhance maritime interoperability and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. These aims coincide with that of the four-nation Quadrilateral framework. The Japan Self Defence Force (SLDF) and the Maldives National Defence Force joined the Sri Lanka armed forces in the last leg of the exercise. These details reflect the changes taking place in the strategic narrative of Indo-Pacific theatre after the Quad. China is sure to take not of the strong strategic message CARAT is sending.

Sri Lanka’s Independence Day: Revisiting the Journey to Find Way Forward

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Whilst enveloped in deep socio-economic crises caused by the successive inept and divisive political leadership in power, since the island country gained its independence from the British colonial rule, in  February 1948, the preparations are afoot to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the existence of the country, as a free nation.  

At the time Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, was granted independence with the dominion status, it was a prosperous country with a comparatively strong economy. The country was regarded as one destined to be a model amongst the nations gaining their freedom from the colonial masters, after the second world  war. The trend was to decolonize the nations from the yoke of centuries of colonial rule of the European powers, some benign and some not so benign.  

The grant of independence to Sri Lanka was hurried and ill-thought through. The governance of the independent Ceylon as envisaged was nothing but a change from the colonial rule to the neo-colonial rule  of the Sinhala nation with a hardened Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. 

The Soulbury constitution which was the framework for the governance of Ceylon was most inappropriate as it failed to recognize the existence of the two distinct nations – the Sinhala nation and Tamil nation. It created a situation where the nations were reduced to the majority and minority communities. The Tamil nation was left at the mercy of the Sinhala nation who were handed over the gift of a perpetual supremacy  simply on the basis of numbers. Even basic safeguards to protect the interest of the Tamil nation were not written into the constitution except for a confused clause preventing “the majority community” enjoying  privileges which were not extended to the “minority communities”. 

The Soulbury constitution which was largely a replica of the unwritten Westminster styled constitution totally distorted the socio-political realities of Ceylon. Soon after the independence the Sinhala Buddhist government of the day took steps to ensure that a well pronounced section of the Tamil nation, who were  the backbone of the then economy of Ceylon lost their citizenship. This was aimed to reduce the representation of the Tamil nation in the governance of the newly independent nation.  

This was the first step in their long journey to deprive the Tamil nation of their rightful place in the economy education, employment and the political life of the country. The introduction of the constitutions in 1972 and 1978 further marginalized the Tamil nation from the body politic of the Sinhala led unitary state. These took away even the basic safeguards provided by the Soulbury constitution. The current socio political crises of the nation is a result of these deeply sectarian approach of the Sinhala Buddhist led governments.  

The Tamil nation reacted to this initially by entering into political dialogue. On realizing that the democratic concepts hardly had an impact on the thought process of the Sinhala nation, by then, well intoxicated with the political power gained over the decades, took to arms as the last resort to prevent the decimation of  the Tamil nation. The sixth amendment to the 1978 constitution took away even the breathing space for the Tamil nation to express its political will. The main justification for the armed struggle is the sixth amendment. If the parliament ceases to be forum where else the long oppressed Tamil nation can voice  its political expression? 

The international community is well aware of the brutal reaction of the Sinhala nation to the legitimate expression of the political will of the people of the Tamil nation for us to repeat those here. Suffice is it to  say that every armed struggle is not an act of terrorism. 

The post war oppression continues unabated. The state aided colonization continues to distort the  demography of the traditional Tamil homeland and the heavy presence of the armed forces takes away  even the semblance of the life without fear. 

The planned lobsided economic development over the decades has left the peoples of the Tamil nation  the “poor cousins” of the Sinhala nation. 

The war reparation, restoration of the civil society, and the accountability from the war crimes are foreign concepts to the Sri Lankan government. 

Even the attempt to implement the watered-down Indo Sri Lanka accord in the form of the “13th Amendment” is now being vociferously objected to by the Buddhist clergy. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. 

In nutshell, the democracy is practiced in Sri Lanka only in the breach and any hope of a internally evolved solution to the political crises in the island of Sri Lanka is fast disappearing, if not its has already  disappeared. 

The international community must not allow itself to be misled by the Sinhala nation any longer. The history of the island of Sri Lanka is too dire to be ignored by the civilized nations of the world.  

The international community must realise that continuing to support Sri Lanka in its current form will not bring prosperity to the country. For the Sinhala nation the current crisis is socio economic but for the Tamil  nation, it is an existential crisis. 

Unwarranted Defence Expenditure – A Main cause to Sri Lanka’s Current Crisis  

Among the several causes of Sri Lanka’s failure to secure its economic stability, the defence expenditure remains a major factor.  

The cycles of violence culminated in anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 and then the genocidal war of three decades, the effect of which will not be easily erased from Tamil peoples’ memory for several generation to come.  

Continued and the concerted military occupation of traditional Tamil homeland in the North & East make the return to normalcy impossible.  

While the international community gallops to save Sri Lanka from its current crisis, it must take note of the following and lay stern conditions. 

The historical data produced by reputable organizations prove that Sri Lanka’s defence spending has been in the increase. Macro Trends report provides that, Sri Lanka’s Budget Expenditure on Defence since 1960 have been as follows:

Period Total US$ Billion Average/ year US$ Billion
1960 to 1982 0.52 0.024
1983 to 2009 14.92 0.553
2010 to 2019 (Post war) 17.28 1.728
Total 32.72

The World bank reports provide that Sri Lanka has spent USD$ 34.3 billion on its defence up to 2020. This implies that Sri Lanka had spent USD$ 1.58 billion on defence in 2020 alone. The defence budget covering the post war period (US$ 17.28 Billion) is higher than that of civil war period (US$14.92 Billion). 

It is also noteworthy to consider India’s former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon’s statement that Sri Lanka’s internal war which ended in May 2009 had cost the country around US$ 200 billion. This US$ 200 billion is enormous and appeared to have gone unaccounted from the Sri Lanka’s records.  

From the foregoing details, it is unequivocally evident that Sri Lanka has been spending significant amount of its budget in increasing the military presence in the island even after the end of the war in 2009.

The military size increase by 94,000; from 223,000 to 317,000; after the war ended in 2009 signifies the increased deployment of military personnel in Tamil homeland of North and East of the island. We consider that the economic crisis of USD$ 50.7 billion foreign debts could have been mitigated to a large extent if only Sri Lanka had not wasted its resources on defence expenditure.

It should also be noted that Sri Lanka has more military personnel than the United Kingdom. Does Sri Lanka need that numbers of military personnel, while it has no external or internal threats when compared to the UK, which obviously has more security concerns.

In the interim, we would urge the international community to take preliminary actions to compel Sri Lanka to end the heavy militarization of North and East of the island and also to demobilize the military as a step towards mitigating the surging national expenditure.

Will the international community impose strict conditions before it takes ad-hoc measures to save Sri Lanka?

Resettlement of Tamil People

If the country were to prosper, the Tamil people ought to be allowed to live in their own land with their legitimate political rights acknowledged.

The state aided colonization, depriving equitable socio economic development, the war and the embargos have forced Tamil people to flee to other destinations. An estimate of over 200,000 such Tamil people, who should be living in their own homes in the North and East, are internally displaced.

Additionally, the civil war has caused over a million of Tamil people to seek shelter in foreign countries and about 100,000 who fled to India, are still living as stateless people.

It is imperative that all these people have the freedom of returning to their own homes to live in peace and dignity.

The Way Forward

Having mentioned the foregoing facts and figures, the British Tamils Forum urges the following as the way forward to not only make Sri Lanka a conflict free region and a prosperous country.

• Demilitarise the North East and demobilise the security forces in the island.

• As the united voice of the elected Tamil representatives in the North East calling for a political solution based on the federal principles and the right to self-determination, we request an international arbitration process led by India, USA and a core group of countries to find a long term political settlement.

• The “culture of impunity” must cease, and the perpetrators of atrocity crimes must be brought to justice under the international criminal prosecution mechanism.

• Apply all available leverages including further sanctions, travel ban, asset freeze, etc. on civilian and military perpetrators.

Statement issued by the Global Tamil Forum

Starvation in Sri Lanka: Is it A Product of Policy Makers and Professionals? – Part 1

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Self-sufficiency in food was the focus of the agriculture sector policy in Sri Lanka, even before the independence. But the quality and the display of the local food items offered to consumers in the market are yet to be improved substantially. The prices are exceptionally high compared to many citizens’ purchasing power and the country’s per capita income. According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey -2019, Sri Lankans’ average monthly household expenditure on food is 35.1%, leaving a low share for non-food expenses, which is an indicator of the poor quality of life. The situation could be much worse among the middle and low-income groups, and the malnutrition level is increasing. Sri Lanka’s agriculture, especially the food crop subsector, is yet to be modernised with new technology and commercialised. Despite those constraints, the country had reached near self-sufficiency in essential food items by 2022.

The aftermath of Covid-19 and the government’s policy mismatches suddenly brought the country into a catastrophe in 2022 without sufficient local or imported food. According to the Colombo Consumer Finance Index, food inflation in September 2022 has risen to 94.9 %, which means citizens’ food affordability has been reduced by almost 50%. According to the FAO, 78% of the population suffered from food insecurity in the latter part of 2022. Most people attribute the whole responsibility for the food crisis of 2022 to banning agrochemicals. Though it was the immediate and foremost reason, several other structural issues have aggravated the situation. The situation could be returned to the pre-2022 position in a few seasons after lifting the ban.  Still, the shortcomings inherited over a long period in local food production may continue unless those are adequately addressed. Food prices are yet to come down to match the income levels of the majority through improved productivity and quality. Therefore, this article aims to understand the present food crisis in relation to the policies and strategies followed by the different governments over eight decades and their pros and cons. The focus is to discuss some remedial actions based on historical evidence and my brief experience in the sector.

The Sri Lanka National Agriculture Policy paper, prepared by the government in 2020, says, “The agriculture sector will continue to play an important role in the application of strategies targeted towards planned socioeconomic development of the country. Rapid growth for the agricultural sector, particularly the domestic food production, floriculture, and export crop sectors, is essential to achieve self-reliance at the national level, ensure food security and bring about equity in the distribution of income and wealth for alleviating poverty.” It shows that policy-wise, the government has firmly committed to developing the agriculture sector as a strategy for macroeconomic development. According to the population figures in 2021, eighty-one per cent of Sri Lanka’s population lives in rural areas. As per the labour force statistics, in 2021, 27.3 % of the total labour -force was employed in agriculture. Still, their contribution to the GDP was only 6.9%, which shows that the farming population is relatively poor. As a cultural practice, almost all rural people in Sri Lanka engage in agricultural activities in one way or another. If not for their main employment, they do agriculture as a source of supplementary or secondary income or at least to produce their food. As such, the Sri Lankan labour force engaged in agriculture is much higher than the figures shown in labour force statistics. Despite many drawbacks, local food production had increased considerably by 2023, but at a very high cost to the public coffer for over eight decades.

Evolution

Under the colonial administration, plantation crops were the priority sub-sector of agriculture. Domestic agriculture, especially food production, was not a priority. In 1931, under the Dhonurmore Constitution, the decision-making power for local matters was substantially transferred to the State Council of Ceylon, represented by elected local representatives. Since then, the translation of nationalism and patriotism into action was commenced in many aspects of society. D. S. Senanayake’s vision as the Minister of Agriculture and Landin the State Council of Ceylon was that colonising the thinly populated dry zone is the only solution to land hunger poor peasants in the densely populous wet zone, self-sufficiency in rice and food security.D.S. Senanayake’s imagination in the colonisation programme seems to create a group of contented middle-class farmers like the rural elites in the traditional villages. Accordingly, 5-10 acres of irrigated and high lands were alienated to colonists. It was also expected to reduce the increasing pressure on land to produce food and housing in the hill country and the wet zone and generate full-employment opportunities for the peasant community. Accordingly, he prioritised domestic agriculture and the Dry Zone Colonization programme. After becoming the first prime minister of Ceylon in 1947, his son Dudley Senanayake was appointed as the minister in charge of the subject to continue the programme with the same priority. Also, the second World War outbreak validated the need for food self-sufficiency. The food scarcity in the war environment encouraged the peasantry to food production and the colonisation programme. During wartime, in 1942, a scheme to purchase paddy under a guaranteed price well above the market price was also established. Since then, the guaranteed price for paddy, above the market price, has become a permanent feature.

The colonisation scheme was a massive and ambitious program involving the supply of irrigation and drinking water, social and physical infrastructure, housing, land clearance for farms, settlement of people in a complex, unfamiliar environment, establishing the public administration and public service delivery system, etc. All settlers were allocated an equal extent of land, which could not operate with the family labour. Different from the wet zone, there was no agricultural proletariat or social arrangements to work on medium size farmlands, especially during the cultivating and harvesting periods. Unlike in the wet zone, sharecropping arrangements (Ande Cultivation) or hiring casual labour was impossible, as all settlers were landowners. Farm mechanisation was also rare in the early stages, but many colonists became unemployed during off-seasons. Unlike in the wet zone, there were no modern large plantations to find wage employment during off-seasons. The colonisation programme reinforced the same peasantry agriculture in local food production, creating a dichotomy between plantation agriculture and local food production. Though there were many economic and social issues at the beginning, with continuous and substantial government supports, these colonisation schemes became sustainable. In addition to the above programmes, in line with the then policy, government-owned farms were also established in different parts of the country under the department of agriculture. These were considered model farms to introduce new farming technics, increase food production, create wage employment, seed production, etc.

The colonisation program helped to reduce the population pressure in the wet zone and increase rice production to a certain extent. However, it was an extension of the area under cultivation with the traditional smallholder farming system, more than increasing productivity under modern farming practices using technology.  Also, most of the second and third generations of settlers became unemployed. Many of the settlers were socio-economically backward and needed to gain experience even in agriculture at the beginning. Under this socio-economic environment, only a few entrepreneurs ventured into non-agricultural activities to generate employment for the second and third generations.

Green Revolution

Though there were some shortcomings in the D.S Senanayake’s Agriculture policy and strategies (expansion of the area under cultivation through land alienation, irrigation facilities, colonisation, model farms, and guaranteed paddy prices Etc.), its positive factors were attractive. The policy continued without many changes during the Bandaranaike governments from 1956 to 1965. In 1965, Dudley Senanayake’s government also prioritised the agricultural sector and continued along the same path. Moreover, the international program of the Green Revolution influenced the agriculture policy and the program in this period. The agriculture sector benefitted from the productivity improvement agenda of the green revolution, such as farm mechanisation, chemical fertiliser, highbred seed, pesticides, weedicides, etc. Consequently, productivity and local food production have significantly increased.

In addition to the smallholder sector, the Dudley Senanayake government gave prominence to large-scale farming, enabling the transfer of new technology and thereby reducing the cost of production, improving quality, and providing wage employment for the rural poor. To this end, his government leased relatively large plots of land in the dry zone to the corporate sector and entrepreneurs. The government facilitated lessees to import machinery, equipment, vehicles, etc. This is a deviation from the previous policy of the dry zone colonisation program at a high cost to the national budget and reinforcing the smallholder system. However, large-scale farms and large landholdings were not compatible with the Land Reform Policy of Mrs Bandaranaike’s government, which came into power in 1970 with a coalition of left-wing parties. Under the land reform policy, land ownership was limited to 50 acres per person. Most of these farms were acquired by the government or abandoned by the owners due to the fear of acquisition and lack of government policy support. If this programme had been continued, it could have become much cheaper than colonisation schemes to create employment, increase production and productivity through technology, and transfer the technology to local farmers.

The newly established Mahaweli Programme had much potential for large-scale commercial farming. The open economic policy had been introduced by this time, and trade was liberalised. But the government followed the same concept of smallholder farming. Several large land blocks of marginal lands without water and infrastructure have been leased out to entrepreneurs. Due to the threats of wild animals, lack of water, agriculture proletariat and other infrastructure, the tenants abandoned most of such blocks. They passed them on to several hands with little development. All settlers in Mahaweli were equally poor, and most could not purchase agricultural equipment. Unlike their original villages, in the beginning, there were no entrepreneurs who could afford to hire equipment for small-scale farmers. If extensive holdings had been allocated to entrepreneurs randomly on arable lands, they could have been instrumental in diversifying and changing the economic structure. It could have been a facility for the poor settlers to obtain inputs and other services required for farming and daily needs. Also, they could have generated employment in off seasons and for the second generation. Sri Lanka missed both opportunities (Mahaweli and Dudley’s leasing scheme of more extensive holdings) to establish large-scale private-sector farming for rice and other food crops. If Sri Lanka had utilised the above opportunities, the food crops subsector would have been commercialised and modernised, leading to high quality and low cost with value addition, like in many other countries.

Import Ban/Restriction of Food Items

During the 1970/77 period, the policy of self-sufficiency in food and the promotional strategies for local food production has been further strengthened through import controls. Regulations were introduced to reduce rice consumption and encourage the consumption of locally gowned pulses, yams, grains, etc. A massive Food Production Drive named ‘’WagaSangramaya” was launched in 1973, and a vast enthusiasm was created among the citizen to cultivate and economise the food. All government-owned farms were fully utilised, increased seed production and introduced new crop varieties. Import bans resulting in high prices encouraged the cultivation of marginal land and uneconomical crops to the country’s agroecological condition. This overenthusiasm led to the mal-allocation of land and other resources and high-cost and low-quality products. The ban on importing all food items was not a result of the 5-Year Development Plan of the then government. Still, it was necessitated due to the foreign exchange crisis, like the situation in 2022. Before the 1970/77 period, local food production was mainly a subsistent activity of poor peasants. Due to the import restrictions, a dichotomous situation has been created in domestic agriculture. While poor peasants were doing subsistent farming, some people commenced commercial agriculture aimed at the broader local market but at low quality and high prices. However, during this period, many import substitutes, such as lentils, chillies, yams, milk, sugar etc., emerged from subsistent farming to commercial farming. Suppose the government had continued tariff protection and advisory services, with corrective measures for a few more years. In that case, some products with comparative advantages could have been established as viable economic activities.

Sluggishness

The free trade policy introduced in 1977 allowed the import of almost everything without restrictions. The market was flooded with imported cheap food and consumer items creating a new demand for foreign exchange. The newly open trade sub-sector did not increase the foreign exchange earnings to match the increased need for food imports. Due to the sudden and unplanned trade liberalisation, commercial farmers could not face the competition from imported foods and were compelled to abandon farming. It resulted in rural unemployment, especially among the agricultural proletariat. The poor peasants, who could not integrate with the new economic order, remained subsistence farmers. The Banking system also prioritised the trade sector, which is less risky and profitable than agriculture lending. Domestic agriculture lost the policy support and backup services such as research, seed production, extension services and bank lending. Meanwhile, Mahaweli Authority established its own system to provide advisory and input services for Mahaweli farmers undermining the regular agriculture department’s authority.

The Department of Agriculture is one of the oldest departments in the country, manned by highly qualified professionals. Sri Lanka had a well-organised extension service for the food crop sector under its department of agriculture, integrated with research, demonstrations, model farms, demonstrations, in-service training for officers and a comprehensive field network comprising district-level officers (assistant directors), subject matter specialists, zonal officers (agriculture instructors) and village-level officers (KrushiVyapthiSevaka). The extension division and the research arm at the centre supported the field network. From time to time, different systems of extension service have been experimented with and implemented nationwide with uniformity. As such, extension service has been developed over the years through an evolutionary process till the late 1980s.

After establishing the provincial council system in 1987, agriculture extension was devolved to provincial councils. Since then, the sub-national level network of the extension service has lost connectivity with research and other divisions of the Agriculture Department and the Ministry. Also, the village-level extension staff (KVSs) were absorbed into the cadre of Grama Niladari, creating a vacuum at the field level. Later, in 1999 a new cadre of field officers named “Agriculture Research and Production Assistants” was appointed, but they did not have professional qualifications or experience in research or extension works. They coordinate agriculture inputs delivery and enforce agriculture-related Acts of Parliaments such as the Agrarian Development Act, The Paddy Land Act etc.Agriculture extension, especially the food crops sub-sector, has been severely affected after the devolution of power to nine independent provincial councils. Occasionally extension programmes are being implemented by provincial and national agencies without proper coordination between the two levels. Sometimes, those are incompatible with each other. Since the government has an aloof attitude toward the extension service, unprofessional business-minded agrochemical vendors are filling the vacuum with non-scientific advice. Therefore, a comprehensive national policy and strategies with a coordination mechanism at the national and sub-national levels are paramount.   The extension service needs more recognition from the government at both national and provincial levels. When the government attempted for organic farming-only policy, vacuums of the extension service were visible. There was no field network of extension staff to educate farmers on organic farming, and neither the farmers nor the fertiliser vendors had scientific and practical knowledge of organic farming. 

Contented at a Low Level of Achievements

For several decades, with some degree of ups and downs, a unique smallholder farming system has been developed in the country with a combination of government subsidies, some degree of tariff protections, some elements of subsistence farming and the modern agriculture techniques introduced under the green revolution (highbred seeds, chemical fertiliser, other agrochemicals, modern machinery, and equipment etc.). Under this equilibrium, the labour component of the farm inputs has decreased, and the land and labour productivity increased considerably. The country became nearly self-sufficient in rice, vegetable, fruit, and coarse grains such as maise production. Inputs supplies, prices, farming practices, farmer behaviours, consumer preferences and logistic aspects had stabilised to match this equilibrium (sufficient quantities at a relatively high price and low quality, but all stakeholders are substantially satisfied). So, to a considerable extent, the security of essential food items was ensured through local productions.

Moreover, those developments have brought the country many social and environmental benefits. Childlabour, which was abundantly used under the traditional farming system, was released from farmlands enabling them to continue with education. The customary use of women’s labour in farming was also considerably reduced, allowing them time for childcare, family welfare and other non-agricultural activities. In addition to the family food needs, most farmers could produce a marketable surplus that improved the physical quality of life. The Chena-farming (slash and burn) system, which increases the demand for land and harms the environment, has been reduced dramatically. Instead of moving from one land to another, farmers started cultivating the same land regularly with the blessing of the improved farming system. Consequently, many new settlements have developed with urban facilities, which changed the lifestyle, bringing many social and economic benefits.

Interruption

However, during the Government of good governance (Yahapalana Government), from 2015 to 2019, except for chemical fertilisers, other necessary agrochemicals, especially weedicides,were suddenly banned. Sri Lanka depended for many decades on agrochemicals for weed and pest control.By this time, farmers had lost the traditional knowledge of insects and weed control.The Chena Farming system, which doesn’t require agrochemicals also not in practice. Characteristics of improved/highbred seeds were incompatible with conventional weed and pest control practices. Farm labour was not readily available, and the cost of manual wedding had become high. It is yet to develop planting and weeding tools/machinery and planting practices appropriate to our agroecological conditions, soil conditions, and terrain and acceptable to smallholder farmers. This new situation mainly affected tea plantations and Paddy cultivation. Seed broadcasting, the paddy cultivation practice commonly used by farmers, is inappropriate for mechanical weeding. So, farmers could not positively respond to the new challenge. Consequent to the new challenge, farmers faced increasing production costs, while productivity fell below the previous years. Some farmers abandoned the cultivation. After banning the agrochemicals, the Paddy production in the 2016 Yala season dropped to 1,517,392 metric tons from 1,942,408 metric tons in Yala, 2015. Further, the production of the 2016/17 Maha season has fallen to 1,473,832 from 2,902 693 metric tons in the 2015/16 Maha season. This downfall is not purely attributable to the agrochemical ban; climatic and other factors may have contributed to it.

For many years, the use of herbicides had been promoted as a cost-cutting technic in the tea plantation. When labour became more expensive, weedicides became a blessing in disguise for the tea plantations to reduce the cost of production.  Like the paddy sector, the country had not developed planting methods and appropriate tools/ machinery for weed control in tea plantations. Consequently, the cost of production increased, and productivity dropped. In 2016, tea production fell to 292,000 metric tons from 328,960 tons in 2015.

The Sri Lanka National Agriculture Policy- 2020 accepts that the productivity of the agriculture sector in Sri Lanka still needs to improve. It further says, “The agriculture sector was also not geared to absorb the rural unemployed compared to the other sectors of the economy. It is necessary to reverse this trend and improve the agricultural sector to meet the aspirations of the people, particularly that of the farming community.” Further, the policy highlights the need for promoting the production and utilisation of organic and bio-fertilisers and gradually reducing the use of chemical fertiliser through the Integrated Plant Nutrition System, ensuring timely availability of chemical fertilisers in sufficient quantities, and providing soil and plant testing facilities for their rational use and minimising the use of synthetic pesticides through promoting bio-pesticides and integrated pest management.  This policy and strategy about agrochemicals seem sensible and timely. However, any attempt to absorb the ever-increasing unemployed into agriculture would be an attempt to share poverty with the second and third generations.

Going Backword

While farmers were attempting to adapt to the situation created by banning agrochemicals by the the Mithripala government, banning the import and use of chemical fertilisers without prior notice, preparedness, and alternatives by the Gotabaya government in April 2021, affected the entire society and the economy facing famine by much of the population. It is contradictory to the documented policy and strategies of the agriculture sector.  The move is suspected of an attempt to save US$ 300 to 400 million in foreign exchange, which the country spends annually to import fertiliser. Before the public, the President justified this move as the remedy to prevent increasing kidney disease and materialise the Sri Lankans’ rights to non-toxic food. He further promised to compensate for the income loss due to organic fertiliser application and import organic fertiliser to fill the gap due to the sudden decision. He also expected Sri Lanka to be the first to adopt the 100 per cent eco-friendly organic farming policy.

The farmers’ attempt to produce organic fertiliser in homesteads failed due to a lack of sufficient biomass and the long gestation period. Fertilisers produced by some entrepreneurs were of inferior quality, not acceptable to farmers and many malpractices were evident. An attempt to import organic fertiliser from China failed due to the debate on quality and procedural issues. The desperate government attempted to import organic liquid nitrogen from India. But that also ended up with quality issues and corrupt practices. The production loss was enormous, and the government did not have sufficient funds to compensate for the income loss of farmers. Eventually, the government ended up with a nightmare of wasting more foreign exchange, which was in short supply, to import fertiliser and essential food items. The outcome is creating a black-market price for agricultural inputs and food items. Towards the end of 2022, 78% of the population became food insecure.Most of the farmers abandoned the cultivation of seasonal crops. The productivity and quality of plantation and perennial crops have dropped drastically. Paddy production in the 2021/22 Maha season dropped to 1,931,230 metric tons from 3,061,394 metric tons in the previous Maha season. The average production per hectare also dropped from 4,307 Kg. to 2,853 kg.

After creating a big socio-political and economic nightmare, the government wriggled out of the concept of organic farming. Restriction for importing and using agrochemicals, including chemical fertiliser, was removed in early 2022, leaving long-lasting adverse effects. Though the ban was lifted, the agrochemical market was distorted by unscrupulous importers and traders, making the price unaffordable to farmers. This distortion may remain for a few more cultivation seasons. Perhaps some farmers who have left farming may not recommence. This nonsensical policy decision of 100% organic farming destroyed the entire agriculture sector built through subsidies and some degree of scientific inputs for more than 80 years. The government should have realised that the country doesn’t have sufficient biomass to produce the organic fertiliser required for 100% organic farming. Most of the land used for seasonal crops in Sri Lanka cultivate for 2 or 3 crops a year without a fallow season, leaving little room for the natural process of soil enrichment. Therefore, using a high dose of fertilisers is a must.

The Mithripal-Ranil government and the Gotabaya Rajapakse government justified the ban based on the assumption that the cause of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin is the continuous use of agrochemicals in agriculture. However, it is yet to be proven scientifically. Though we exaggerate the ancient glory, the high price, periodical and seasonal scarcity of food and starvation was common problem till the recent past, which highly affected the poor. Though agriculture has not developed as it should, consequent to the green revolution and the Mahaweli scheme, the food supply situation improved, and the price became affordable for most of the population. Whatever the economic and political issues we face from time to time, farmers cultivated without room for famine. The immediate impact of the organic food policy was that food inflation in September 2022 had increased to 94.9%, per the Colombo Consumer Price Index. According to a survey conducted by WFP in September 2022, more than 1/3 of the population is in food insecurity, which rapidly increases child malnutrition.  Though organic farming is a good move to provide healthy food, if the country continues with that policy, most people will not be able to afford the high price of organic food. They may face starvation and periodic and seasonal food scarcity again. Then, the better-off, who can afford the expensive organic food, would live longer, while the life expectancy of the majority is decreasing.

Layman consumers believe that the frequent insecticide/fungicide sprays on vegetables and fruits are more dangerous than weedicides and chemical fertilisers. The fundamental problem in Sri Lankan agriculture is not the use of agrochemicals but the overdose for various reasons. The farmers’ knowledge of fertiliser and other agrochemical applications in what quantity, time, soil types, type of pest etc., are limited. They learn by trial-and-error method, not by understanding the chemical composition. If one chemical is not answering, they use another. Vendors prescribe those, and vendors also learn from the trial-and-error experience of farmers. In most farmlands, broadcasted urea is exposed to sun and rain, allowing a considerable amount to evaporate, or wash off.

To be Continued

Sri Lanka: Peace amidst Instability

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In a press release issued on January 25, 2023, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka noted,

…the maintenance of the prevailing tight monetary policy stance is imperative to ensure that monetary conditions remain sufficiently tight to rein in inflationary pressures. Such tight monetary conditions, together with the tight fiscal policy, are expected to adjust inflation expectations downward, enabling the Central Bank to bring inflation rates towards the desired levels by end 2023, thereby restoring economic and price stability over the medium term.

An economic crisis of unparalleled magnitude hit Sri Lanka in 2022. Inflation, at 4.2 per cent in December 2020, increased to 12.1 per cent in 2021, and surged to an alarming level at 57.2 per cent in December 2022. The Sri Lankan rupee (SLR) depreciated drastically against the dollar from 181.3 in January 2020, to 190.5 in January 2021, and at 201.2 in January 2022. By December 2022, the SLR had fallen to 367.5 to the dollar. As on January 27, 2023, it is still at 364.13. Foreign exchange reserves fell from USD 2362 million in January 2022, to USD 1705 million in October 2022, but began to increase thereafter, to touch USD 1896 in December 2022.

The crisis led to severe shortages of food, medicines, electricity, fuel and other essential items for months. In the face of the collapsing economy, Sri Lankans of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds came together in a broad-based protest movement commencing March 2022, to seek a change of leadership, accountability for corruption and economic mismanagement, and to seek more extensive reforms.

As protests intensified, the Sri Lanka Police shot dead one man, identified as Chaminda Lakshan, and injured 10 others on April 19, 2022, in the first fatal clash with demonstrators protesting the island nation’s crippling crisis. In a Tweet on April 20, 2022, the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared,

Sri Lankan citizens’ right to peacefully protest won’t be hindered. @SL_PoliceMedia will carry out an impartial & transparent inquiry the incident at Rambukkana which led to the tragedy for which I’m deeply saddened. I urge all citizens to refrain from violence as they protest.

According to an April 28, 2022, report, more than 100 trade unions, including some affiliated to the Rajapaksas’ ruling SLPP party, joined the general strike, as demands grew for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family members to resign.

Later, on May 6, 2022, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a State of Emergency effective midnight, May 6, 2022, for the second time in five weeks, giving Security Forces (SFs) sweeping powers, as nationwide strikes demanding his resignation brought the country to a standstill.

Subsequently, the then Prime Minister (PM) Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters attacked nonviolent demonstrators in Colombo, forcing him to quit as Prime Minister. Following this, there was widespread violence against those who supported the government around the nation, which resulted in the deaths of eight individuals and the burning or damage of the homes of about 70 lawmakers.

Finally, Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to resign on May 9, 2022. After weeks of political uncertainty, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed United National Party leader Ranil Wickramasinghe as PM of an interim National Unity Government. However, the economic crisis persisted, as did the protests. On July 9, 2022, hundreds of protesters invaded and occupied the offices and the official residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in Colombo. Ranil Wickramasinghe’s private house was also attacked by the protestors. At least 102 people, including two police officers, were injured in clashes during the protests on July 9.

Though both President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe offered to resign, President Rajapaksa finally did so on July 13, while Wickramasinghe managed to retain power as Parliament voted him in as President on July 20. Since then, a measure of political stability has been restored, with Wickramasinghe strengthening his position within the Government, as demonstrated by his success in ensuring the passage of the budget in the Parliament on December 8, 2022. While 123 Members of Parliament voted in favour, 80 voted against, while two Members abstained.

Meanwhile, on January 4, 2023, the Sri Lankan Election Commission (EC) announced that local government elections would be held across the island in March 2023, with nominations accepted between January 18 and 21, 2023. The elections must be held before March 19, 2023, when the current term of local government bodies ends. A positive result in these elections will help Wickramasinghe strengthen his position further, while any slip up may undermine the stability to his government. Indeed, fearful that popular anger may express itself in a humiliating electoral defeat, Wickremesinghe and his government have desperately attempted to call off the polls.

The economic situation remains precarious and has the potential to derail political stability at any time.

Despite the major politico-economic upheavals, the country remained free of terrorism, though one terrorism-linked fatality was reported. On November 28, 2022, a suspect linked to the April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, who was out on bail, was killed by unidentified assailants in Mattakkuliya in Colombo. According to the Police, the assailants had arrived in a car and killed the 38 years old suspect, whose identity is yet to be disclosed. There was no terrorism-linked fatality in 2021.

The Colombo High Court Trial-at-Bar continued to hear the Easter Sunday attacks cases filed by the Attorney General against 25 accused on 23,270 charges, including conspiracy to carry out terrorist attacks, and aiding and abetting the attack on Easter Sunday. On January 5, 2023, the Court rejected the bail request made on behalf of all 25 suspects who were in remand custody. The case is to be called up before the Court again on February 1, 2023. On September 1, 2021, a Trial-at-Bar Bench, comprising High Court Judges Damith Thotawatta (President), Amal Ranaraja and Navaratne Marasinghe, had been appointed to hear all cases related to the bombings.

Meanwhile, on January 11, 2022, a live hand grenade was found inside the premises of the All Saints Church in Borella in Colombo. Police later recovered four pistols, one revolver, two swords, a knife, and another weapon from the residence of a 76-year-old retired doctor, who was among the six persons arrested in connection with the incident. The case is still under investigation.

Further, on April 23, 2022, the Sri Lanka Navy arrested a suspect, a resident of Kuchchaweli, in possession of explosives, at Sallimunai beach, Trincomalee District.

Moreover, the threat to security from drug cartels with established foreign linkages, persisted. In over hundred incidents of drug seizures in 2022, around 350 persons were arrested. In a major incident, on December 23, 2022, the Sri Lanka Customs seized SLR 165 million worth of narcotics sent into the country from Spain, UK, Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands. Earlier, on December 14, 2022, the Sri Lanka Navy, along with the Police Narcotics Bureau and State Intelligence Service seized over 200 kilograms of Heroin and crystal methamphetamine from two multi-day fishing crafts in the deep sea, off Sri Lanka’s Southern seas. Seven suspects were arrested during the operation.

The continued respite from terrorism has been a big relief to the security establishment, even though residual challenges persisted. Indeed, in 2021, 18 organizations and 577 individuals had been blacklisted in the country for financing terrorism under the United Nations Regulation No. 1 of 2012, according to the Defence Ministry. Through an Extraordinary Gazette Notification dated August 1, 2022, the Ministry of Defence, removed six organisations and 316 individuals from the 2021 list, but added three new organisations and 55 new individuals to the list. Thus, as on August 1, 2022, at least 15 organizations and 361 individuals were blacklisted in the country. The organisations that were de-listed in the August 1, 2022, Notification included six international Tamil organizations – the Australian Tamil Congress, the Global Tamil Forum, the World Tamil Coordination Committee, the Tamil Eelam People’s Congress, the Canadian Tamil Congress and the British Tamil Forum. Of the 15 existing groups in the list five are Islamist groups that include National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ), Jama ‘athe Milla’ athe Ibrahim, Willayath As Seylani, Darul Adhar alias Jamiul Adhar Mosque, Sri Lanka Islamic Student Movement and Save the Pearls.

The island country is indeed going through a tough politico-economic crisis. Luckily for it, the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) no longer pose any significant threat, though the vigil against residual elements of the outfit remains a security imperative. Moreover, though the sweeping action has been taken by SFs against persons and organised linked to the Easter Sunday attacks, and these have hit Islamist extremist elements hard, forcing them into dormancy, given their established foreign linkages, it will remain necessary not to provide any leeway, lest they create significant threats in future.

Sri Lanka: Is recolonisation the final solution?- II

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10 mins read

This is the second part of this series. Click here to read the part one

To assert, as Mr Sirimanne does, that “From ancient times the Northern region in the island was a kingdom occupied by Tamils due to its closeness to South India…….. during the reign of King Elara, a Tamil, there was a war between the Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms…..” is completely wrong. It is a very irresponsible statement. The factual situation is that the young prince Dutugemunu of Magama in the south, after a long military campaign involving a series of hardwon battles, defeated usurper king Elara who had come from India as an invader. There had been no Tamil kingdom in the north or a permanent Tamil population in the north before the 13th century CE, as Professor Kingsley de Silva argues with evidence in his ‘A History of Sri Lanka’ (Penguin Books, London, 2005). Magha of Kalinga’s cataclysmic invasion with a massive army of twenty thousand Kerala and Tamil mercenaries and his ruinous occupation of Lanka for twenty-one years (‘moved thereto by the lust of wealth and power’ as the Mahavansa puts it), laid waste to the kingdom and the religion, and put an end to the achievements of the dry zone- based hydraulic civilization that the Sinhalese kings had built over the centuries. But during Magha’s reign ‘… there dwelt, scattered in the beautiful cities and hamlets that they had built for themselves in the great strongholds and mountainous parts of the country, some great and good men who defended the people and the religion from the disturber’ (Chapter 81 of the Mahavansa). This means that the Magha invasion caused the disintegration of the Lankan kingdom into a number of regional strongholds from which ‘great and good men’ (such as Subha Senadhipathi of Yapahuwa, a general, Sankha of Gangadoni, another military chief, and Bhuvaneka Bahu on the top of the Govinda rock) defended the rest of the country, until king Vijayabahu III of Dambabeniya’s son and successor, Parakrabahu II, was finally able to drive away the despoilers. In earlier times, South Indian invaders, when defeated and driven away, sailed back to India, but this time, Magha with his retreating army made a permanent Tamil settlement in the north.

Since a millennium before that time, the interactions between the island and the southern and eastern regions of the subcontinent were almost exclusively at the trade and cultural or religious levels, and the island’s sovereignty was not challenged. But occasionally, right from the earliest times, traders became invaders. Thus, as the Mahavansa (Ch.11 ) records, ‘Two damila (malabar) youths powerful in cavalry and navy, named Sena and Guttika’ (Sena and Guttika were horse traders with a fleet of ships.), after killing the reigning monarch Suratissa, who must have been very old by that time, ‘righteously reigned for twenty-two years’ from 237 to 215 BCE. But Suratissa’s youngest brother (most probably nephew) Asela defeated and put to death the usurpers, and restored Sinhalese sovereignty, and ruled at Anuradhapura for ten years. Then, another powerful trader (as recently concluded by historians) from South India named Elara killed king Asela, and ruled the country for forty-four years. But see how the Mahavansa (Ch. 11) records this event: ‘A damila named Elara of the illustrious “Uju” tribe, invading this island from the Cola country, for the purpose of usurping the sovereignty, and putting to death the reigning king Asela, ruled the kingdom for forty-four years, – administering justice with impartiality to friends and to foe.’

Following is how king Dutugemunu treated his fallen enemy king Elara, fully recognizing the latter’s noble reputation as a righteous ruler, though a usurper, as recorded in the Mahavansa Ch. 25: (Mr Sirimanne alludes to this episode in a rather offhand manner.)

‘Summoning within the town the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, within the distance of a yojana, he held a festival in honour of king Elara. Consuming the corpse in a funeral pile on the spot where he fell, he built a tomb there; and ordained that it should receive honours (like unto those conferred on a Cakkavatti). Even unto this day, the monarchs who have succeeded to the kingdom of Lanka, on reaching that quarter of the city, whatever the procession may be, they silence their musical band.’

(This royal decree is honoured by the Sinhalese Buddhists even today, after over two thousand years.)

Isn’t this something hard to come by in the history of war in the world, war being an ever present necessary evil, as it were, in human affairs? King Dutugemunu’s magnanimity in victory came from his Buddhist upbringing. At the beginning of his campaign against Elara, prince Dutugemunu declared: ‘This enterprise of mine is not for the purpose of acquiring the pomp and advantages of royalty. This undertaking has always had for its object the re-establishment of the religion of the Supreme Buddha…..’. (The country’s ancient Buddhist culture is a world heritage that must be protected.) The same compassionate and generous spirit was alive in the hearts of the young soldiers and their commanders who took part in the humanitarian operation in the north that put an end to the armed separatist terrorism in 2009. They could have brought the war to a quicker end and suffered a lot fewer casualties among themselves than they did, had they chosen to defy what was inherent in their cultural DNA. Unfortunately, the geo-poiltics driven superpowers have not recognized this fact, and have visited punitive afflictions on Sri Lanka for alleged violation of human rights that make life miserable for all Sri Lankans.

To return to my subject, geographical proximity no doubt was a factor in the stimulation of interactions between the two countries, but mass movements of population to and fro were not so easy as to be a usual occurrence. The fact that Sinhala kings sometimes brought queen consorts from South India (due to complicated succession problems that had nothing to do with the then existing demography of the country) is not something unique to them. Just look at the Wikipedia: The recently deceased queen Elizabeth II’s family tree has ancient roots in Germany, Denmark, Russia, etc.; but citizens of those countries do not seem to think of claiming that she was of their ethnicity or of assuming that the fact had any political significance.

Of course, as a result of these interactions, the Sinhalese acquired a great deal of Indian culture. But the important thing to remember while appreciating that fact is that over the past twenty-three centuries the Sinhalese have cherished their own language, their own distinct spiritual doctrine (Buddhism), and their island home with its rich abundance of recorded and unrecorded evidence of their prehistoric insular ancestry and their ancient Buddhist heritage. When it comes to sharing the natural resources of the land with minorities with different religious cultures, languages, ethnicities, etc. that joined them later in different contexts, there is no other race of people who are more humanely accommodating than the Sinhalese Buddhists in spite of the fact that they were the most persecuted community during the past half a millennium under the jackboot of three European colonial powers. Why were they singled out for such suppressive treatment? It was because the colonialists correctly identified the Sinhalese (under the benign sway of their spiritual masters, the Buddhist monks) as their only implacable enemy.

Traditionally, whenever the country and the Buddha Sasanaya were in jeopardy, the monks have come forward as defenders, on rare occasions even as armed soldiers. Warrior king Dhatusena who ruled at Anuradhapura from 455 to 473 CE, having defeated six Dravidian usurpers, was a Buddhist monk in his youth. King Senerath of Kandy (who reigned from 1604 to 1635 CE) was originally a monk. He disrobed to become king in order to try to rid the country of invading foreign powers. He fought against the occupying Portuguese and expanded the territory of his kingdom. The Sinhalese only thought of the country, the Buddha Sasanaya, and the commonality of people, not so much about their race. In modern times, sometimes Buddhist monks have cause to feel threatened by non-Buddhist extremists who forcibly enter the Buddhists’ religious space or when they vandalize or lay claim to ancient Buddhist archaeological sites (even violating the antiquities ordinances established in British times). It is natural that they try to raise awareness among the citizens about these things and to get the political authorities to set things right according to the law. People who have political or sectarian or religious axes to grind have no qualms about excoriating the monks and lay Buddhists for alleged racism, chauvinism, extremism, xenophobia, and so on, simply because they raise their voice against the covert and overt excesses of extremists that go undetected or unrecognized by local political authorities and the hostile foreign NGO brigade. Of course, it must be remembered that Tamil Hindus face the same threats from religious fundamentalists. Actually, Tamil Hindu and Sinhala Buddhist solidarity is indispensable for mutual protection from the proselytizing zealotry of mindless fundamentalists. Certain foreign funded NGOs and their local allies do everything possible to prevent the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus from uniting for making common cause against unethical conversion projects.

Mr Sirimanne seems to imply that colonizing of Sri Lanka by three European nations happened as a matter of course, apparently unopposed by the native Sinhalese and Tamils, and that they somehow benefited from the experience. The truth is otherwise. Our people were massacred, our places of worship were vandalized, desecrated, burned down, or alienated to strangers or converts, while the country’s natural resources were plundered, and the sons of the soil were oppressed, downtrodden, and exploited. Because of this historical reality, for all the missionaries’ efforts of four and a half centuries, only about six percent of the local population had embraced Christianity/Catholicism by 1947, and the rest 94% had willingly forfeited all claims to possible material rewards by refusing to abandon their no less humanizing hereditary faiths.

At first, under the Portuguese, Sinhalese Buddhists in coastal areas embraced Christianity under duress, but later, as Mr Sirimanne says ‘Many Sinhalese in towns and cities for favors changed their religion and acquired Portuguese names’. Serving or saving the Sinhalese was not the real concern of the Portuguese. They thought of their own people back home, just as the foreign powers involved in our internal affairs currently do. Portugal at that time was not as resource-rich as Sri Lanka, its people were enjoying a far lower standard of living than the contemporary Sinhalese. Provocation for plunder was high. And it didn’t go unheeded. (See Dr Susantha Goonatilake’s ‘A 16th Century Clash of Civilisations: Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka’, Vijitha Yapa, 2010) The Dutch who followed them introduced a network of canals for transport of local products for export for their own revenue, and introduced Roman Dutch Law for ease of administering the provinces they were occupying. It is true that in the course of time, these innovations became useful to the descendants of the people that they had indifferently robbed.

On February 4, 1948, Sri Lanka was granted dominion status (within the British Commonwealth) which was short of full independence. It was not something remarkable or memorable by any means. India was given the same status on August 15, 1947. But the wiser and more dignified Indian leaders implicitly eschewed the ‘benefits’ of membership of that body, and officially quit it on January 26, 1950, and asserted their country’s full independence, worthy of their many millennia of glorious civilization, which produced the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka, who introduced Buddhism to our country, and about whom H.G. Wells said: “……..amid tens of thousands of names of monarchs, “Ashoka shines, shines almost alone, a star” .

The patriotic progressive people of Sri Lanka under the leadership of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike declared Sri Lanka a republic on May 22, 1972. Now that was a momentous occasion for the whole nation to celebrate. But it was less than an ideal choice to remain a member of the Commonwealth. Probably the choice was made for us by the powers that be. Has any special benefit accrued to Sri Lanka as a result? Has it done anything to relieve the suffering inflicted on the peaceful citizens for having defeated terrorism and saved democracy? Has it ever intervened on our behalf in such situations?

Mr D.L. Sirimanne ends his interesting article “Celebrating 75th Anniversary of Independence” (The Island/Opinion/January 18, 2023) with the following paragraph, which prompted this response:

‘It is almost 75 years since Sri Lanka obtained Independence from Britain and unfortunately the country was misruled and ruined by ignorant avaricious unpatriotic Sinhalese leaders fighting for power. It is now a bankrupt nation and 80% of the population is starving without food, fuel and medicine. It a disgrace to plan celebrating 75 years of ‘misrule’ as ’75 years of Independence.’ The 4th February 2023 should be a day of repentance and religious prayers to God, Allah and all the Devas to make Sri Lanka a prosperous and happy nation, with freedom and equality to all its multinational and multireligious citizens in the very near future.’

That within the last seventy-five years since the end of British occupation there have been some ‘ignorant avaricious unpatriotic Sinhalese leaders fighting for power’ is undeniable. We have living examples in the highest places even today. But to say that the country has been misruled and ruined solely by these unpatriotic Sinhalese leaders is a crass generalization that arbitrarily transfers all blame to the leaders of the Sinhala majority, while exonerating the few communalists among the minority politicians, who are actually even more responsible for retarding the forward march of post-independence Sri Lanka by adopting hostile attitudes to nationally beneficial changes proposed by Sinhalese leaders.

The Sinhalese voters, whenever they have the chance to do so, democratically elect their parliamentary representatives, hoping or requiring that they make laws for governing the country for the good of all its citizens regardless of multifarious differences among them. On every occasion that they felt persuaded that the leader who would be able to bring in necessary changes to transform the country so that this goal could be fully realized, they elected him or her with tremendous majorities, which were augmented by at least some votes from the minorities as well, such as when they elected Mr Bandaranaike in 1956, Mrs Bandaranaike in 1970, Mr Jayawardane in 1977, Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaik Kumaratungae in 1994, Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010, and Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019. In all these cases, they were elected on a nationalist platform, not on a communalist basis. Although ordinary Tamil and Muslim voters are as fair-minded and as democratic as the ordinary Sinhalese voters, the ruling elite of each minority community rouse communal feelings among its polity against the majority for their own advantage, rather than for that of the community they claim to represent. The evil practice of political horse-trading between majority and minority politicians seems to have come to stay. Global and regional superpowers exploit this situation to push their geopolitical agendas at the expense of Sri Lanka.

Mr Sirimanne’s wish for ‘a prosperous and happy nation, with freedom and equality to all its multinational and multireligious citizens’ is what all right-minded Sri Lankans have shared and have been slowly but surely moving towards since 1948. The British adopted the infamous divide and rule imperial policy, which is still being used against us. The term ‘multinational’ is problematic for our small country in that it denotes a number of nations, which means it promotes division. To say that we are a multiethnic or multiracial and multicultural nation is better for establishing ‘freedom and equality’ for all Sri Lankans. They already enjoy these. If there are any lapses, they are common to all communities.

The solution is not to try to return to the alleged Utopia that the British are believed by some to have bequeathed to us at independence (for such wasn’t the reality), or to overlook the 1972 change as insignificant, but to make way for the young of the country today to make a correct assessment of what has been achieved and what has not been achieved by the previous generations since independence (who were no less patriotic, no less proactive than them) and forge ahead with new insights, new visions, and appropriate course corrections as our ancestors did during crises to ensure our survival for so long as one people in spite of manifold differences among us.

Concluded

Sri Lanka: A Paradise Misplaced

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7 mins read

Our island was called Lanka in pre-King Vijaya times. Valmiki’s immortal Ramayanaya had King Ravana ruling the land from the city of Lankapura. That was almost four thousand years ago. The Arab traders termed it Jaziratul-Yaqut, island of rubies. Some called it Serendib, some Ceilan, from which the Portuguese picked Ceilao and the European mapmakers coined Ceylon. Many were the names from the many that came. Bar none, everyone agreed and noted in their chronicles that this Island was indeed the complete Paradise.

We never created it. Let’s be honest about that part. We simply inherited. The gods from their celestial dome, in their infinite kindness, gifted this Paradise to us, the beautiful island of Lanka, to the people of Sri Lanka.

The privilege of being born to such a serendipitous place can only be  expressed if one could take away the corruption that has besieged us all since independence. We need to look through the veils of racial and religious disharmony that obscure the overwhelming beauty that lies beyond. The purity of the land still remains, vastly unspoiled. The occupants of Paradise, still smile, despite the battering they had received from the time they were reborn after the colonials left. Mother Lanka dawdles, whilst her sons and daughters drowse in ignorance, an ominous prelude to the torrential disasters that loom in the near horizon.

Times are sad and the question is paramount in any mind that carries an iota of sanity. “75 years, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE?” The sum total of the misfortunes that the majority of the proletariat suffer is directly related to the bad governance of the country. It is not the vegetable seller that is responsible nor the fisherman or the cobbler. It is neither the schoolteacher nor the clerical battalion.  None of these Lilliputian shareholders of Paradise are responsible for the doom that is staring at us in gloom.  Who is directly responsible for this megalomaniacal catastrophe? It must be the gods, not the ones from Mount Olympus but the ones from Diyawanna Oya. Everyone who sits in those 225 thrones, whether they were proposers or opposers or the ones who raised their hands in agreement or those who sinned in silence abstaining from their sworn duty. They are all responsible for raping this land. 

The ‘misplacing of Paradise’ is directly related to Diyawanna Oya. It is from there the fountains of corruption gush out from every orifice to drown the trampled denizens of Paradise.

And now they want to celebrate 75 years of independent ruination?

Galle Face gave birth to the Aragalaya. It was not born to racial or religious parents, not to political surrogate fathers or international stepmothers. Hired ‘andabera karayo’ (announcing tom tom beaters) and unethical scribes may attempt to blacken the purity of the protest that raised its head when living in Paradise became unbearable. But such camouflage will not eradicate the deep-felt anger that has soaked the ordinary man, woman and child who walked to Galle Face to give life to the Aragalaya.

Their participation in the protest had nothing to do with politics. There may have been a thief or two in the jury, but the majority came because they could not breathe any more. The suffocation of the common man and woman who were down to their knees is what made them gather at the Galle Face Green.

The mighty may assume the Aragalaya has fizzled out. Many were arrested and some were jailed. The political pack was re-shuffled and puppeteers looking for those willing to dance were gifted high pedestals. Nothing changed at Diyawanna Oya. It is still the same stage, only some actors are different. Mother Lanka weeps at the perpetual tragedy.The once bubbling Aragalaya breathes softly like a slow-burning fuse. It is the idea that remains, and ideas do not die, nor can they be eradicated.

When the sun goes down and the pavements become bedchambers for the super poor who pray for the rains to hold till morning.

Little children hear the music of the ‘Choon Paan’ tuk tuk and wonder when they can afford a ‘kimbula bunis’ again. Schools re-open, book lists are out but where is the money to buy? Hospitals have no drugs; power cuts are a daily torment, and they talk about extending the dark hours.

Tourists trickle in while Srilankans of all races and religions are queuing in hoards to jump ship and vanish to wherever they can.

These are no fairy tales of my redundant imagination. They are the stories of Paradise. The day-to-day events play sad and silent along with the cacophony of achievements and flash-pan plans to celebrate 75 years of independence. Don’t tell me the suffering is isolated, oh no, not by a long shot. They are the unheard, the ignored and the expendables of the displaced congregation of Paradise. The ‘boast of heraldry’ is loud and clear, so is the ‘pomp of power’ announcing to the world and beyond the inflated paths of progress. The air is filled with milk and honey stories and rainbow visions for the morrow. But isn’t there a big question mark? Isn’t there some serious filtering needed to seek and give room to the truth?

I am not talking of March provincial elections or who is joining hands with whom to ruin the country more. Politics do not interest me. I’m like the kids that run after the ‘Choon Paan’ tuk tuk with empty pockets. Hope is there but with hardly any reality. Just totally confused between right and wrong and where lies the light or is it only a long dark tunnel? I’m writing of the core expectation, the very basics that humans search for. We need peace and honest governance, the pursuit of happiness to which we are all entitled, like the simple ‘Kimbula Bunis’ the kids crave for. This is what Paradise should be made of, which unfortunately is missing. Yes, our Paradise is mired in a total political mess at present devoid of any reasonable and practical answers.

Everyone is trying to go abroad. Why do all these people leave Mother Lanka? Something must have gone wrong in the system. The exodus only began after we were reborn as an independent nation. Ludowyke and Van Sanden left in the sixties, Somasundaram and Gunesekara in the eighties the entire ‘jimband’ started migrating at the turn of the century. Hence, the blame is not with the colonials and their international shackles. It is ours and ours alone, lying firmly in the Pontius hands of the custodians who were chosen to charter our future. Isn’t it crystal clear today that the political leadership we voted for and sent to Diyawanna Oya has failed miserably in their delivery? 

Let’s get back to the theme of the hour, the forthcoming independence celebration.  I wonder what we are celebrating after 75 years of ruling by the sons and daughters of mother paradise. Is it the egg that is 75 rupees or the half kilo of dhal selling at 300 or the loaf of bread at 180? Maybe the 170 for the Sunlight soap has to be celebrated and the red onions at 720 a kilo. The coconut is over 100 rupees and a mere 400 gram packet of Rathi milk powder is 1,200 rupees.

No wonder the children are almost starving, and the parents roll onto a reed-mat after a hard day’s work on empty stomachs.   

Yet we are celebrating independence to tell the world how great our Paradise is. Never mind the begging bowl we carry internationally; on 4th morning the marching multitudes and the rolling armour must be on display. The cost of the aerial circus will be astounding. There will be at least 4 sets of different aeroplanes flying in formation over the heads of gods and demigods sitting under VVIP shade at the Galle Face green which is the scene of celebration.

You have to practice flying these air-displays. From a week before the 4th you will hear their engines roar from Kalutara to Katunayake.The jets shrieking, training for the fly-pass, will shatter the clear blue skies and disturb every student writing the ‘A’ level exams in that area. The F-7 fighter-jets in this aero-ballet burn 40 liters of fuel a minute at low levels. And we the minions of Paradise loiter in snaking ques down below with our QR codes to get 20 liters of fuel for one week. If I call it a mockery, that will be gross flattery.  Need to mint a new word to describe this folly.

Do I have to say any more? We the majority may be struggling for the crumbs that fall off the table, but the show must go on. After all it is independence, and it must be celebrated.

There are some solid silver lines too in our 75-year-old dark cloud. The free education is a wonderful achievement and so is the free health care scheme. Yes, at present the hospitals may struggle with the lack of drugs, but the system is there to help and heal any patient. The credit goes to the powers that were in a bygone era. There are other consolations too, one cannot be totally paranoid. Factory jobs are there for those without a trade. Stitching for Marks and Spencer and their likes help thousands to keep their home fires burning.

Some no-skills Paradisians pawn their souls to go abroad as domestics and for minor employment. They are the local Dick Whittingtons charging into the unknown, exploited at every toll gate. They slave in alien third-class status to send pitifully earned dollars to their loved ones to survive in Paradise. Wasn’t it their brothers and fathers who fought and died in the 30-year war to save their motherland?

Seventy-five years have gone by from the day of independence. The blameless blame, the nameless suffer and the shameless go on, rough-shodding their way to erode and annihilate Paradise. No need to further elaborate, the reasons are obvious. Some things are best left unsaid. Let me be the coward and let discretion become the better part of my limited attempts at journalism.

Call me a fool if it pleases you and I will accept it. But let me trickle some sanity to your thoughts. Just to kindle an interest. Totally non-political. I cannot and do not separate the villain from the venerated. The line is too thin, and the facts are wildly scattered. The truth certainly is in masquerade.

The Lankan Paradise is not lost, at least, not yet. It is certainly misplaced. That much can be clearly seen, lest one be blind. What happens in the end to things that are misplaced? They never get found and as time goes by, they will go permanently missing.

Ours is a Paradise misplaced. Let us all valiantly search for answers, it is not too late. Let us collectively find ourselves and our land, before it vanishes beyond the limits and becomes a Paradise Lost.

Sri Lanka: Ramifications of Sheer Negligence

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10 mins read

Liberal Democrats leader and MP for Surbiton, Edward Jonathan Davey, recently urged British Premier Rishi Sunak’s government to follow Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau on the Sri Lanka war crimes issue. Obviously, Davey was referring to the unprecedented unilateral Canadian sanctions, recently imposed on former Presidents, Mahinda Rajapaksa (Nov. 2005-Jan. 2015) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (2019 – Nov.-2022 July).

The occasion was what the Tamil Guardian called a night of festive celebration, musical performances and classical dance, in Central Hall, in Westminster, to celebrate Thai Pongal and Tamil heritage month. The event was described as a joint effort by the British Tamil community.

The Tamil Guardian quoted Ed Davey as having declared that the Canadian decision to impose sanctions on the Rajapaksa brothers was ‘absolutely right’ and that ‘the time for fine words has gone.’

The World Tamil Historic Society, Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, Tamils for Labour, Tamil Coordinating Committee, British Tamil Chamber of Commerce, and British Tamil Conservatives, contributed to the event.

As a result of sheer negligence, Sri Lanka has ended up being categorized as a perpetrator of war crimes, and those who had fought for the country are mercilessly targeted. There cannot be a better example than Air Marshal Sumangala Dias who suffered due to Sri Lanka’s failure. Canada refused to accept Dias as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner though the former Sri Lanka Air Force Commander has never been under human rights scrutiny. Subsequently, the government proposed Dias as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Italy. That move, too, failed. Italy, as a member state of the EU, pursuing war crimes accusations against Sri Lanka, declined to accept the retired SLAF Chief. The Foreign Ministry should accept responsibility for its failure to brief the inept political leadership of the stand taken by Canada and Italy on this issue. In spite of knowing what would be the outcome, the Foreign Ministry allowed the normal process to go ahead. At the end, both Canada and Italy declined to accept the retired Air Chief.

In fact, the Darusman report could have been used to counter lies. If acknowledged the discrepancy in the number of deaths caused during the final phase of the conflict. Darusman on the basis of unnamed sources alleged 40,000 deaths during Jan-May 2009 whereas the UN mission in Colombo on the basis of records made available by ICRC, hospitals et al reported between 7,000 and 8,000 deaths between August 2008 and May 2009.

There shouldn’t be any issue over the celebration of Thai Pongal, Tamil heritage month, as well as the contribution the Tamil community made to British society, with the participation of British politicians.

British politicians, at such events, reflected the importance of the British Tamils, of Sri Lankan origin, as a significant vote bank.

The Westminster event was attended by several senior representatives of political parties, including Chairman of the Conservative Party, Nadhim Zahawi. The event reiterated commitment of all stakeholders, for justice and accountability.

Labour MP for Eastham, Stephen Timms, too, urged the British government to impose sanctions on individuals who, the British knew, were responsible for war crimes. The MP underscored the need for an ‘independent, international investigation’ in the absence of a domestic reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.

Rishi Sunak and Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, sent video messages, appreciating the contribution made by the British Tamil community.

In the wake of the UK MPs’ demand for sanctions on Sri Lanka, Foreign Secretary, Aruni Wijewardane, received UK’s Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Sir Philip Barton, at the Foreign Ministry, in Colombo, on January 17. A lengthy statement, issued by the Foreign Ministry, described the discussion as a constructive bilateral engagement in the 75th year of UK-SL diplomatic relations. The visiting official was accompanied by British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Sarah Hulton.

The media release didn’t indicate whether Sri Lanka will take up the contentious accountability issue, as the UK spearheads the high profile campaign against Sri Lanka. Therefore, the writer rationally ascertained that no other matter had been taken up at the discussion.

With the Canadian declaration that the Rajapaksa brothers, during Eelam War IV (2006-2009), perpetrated ‘gross and systematic violations of human rights,’ the campaign against Sri Lanka has entered a new phase.

The international media quoted Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Mélanie Joly, as having said that they took decisive action to end international impunity against violators of international law. The Canadian measures, include travel bans and asset freezes.

The latest action should be examined against the backdrop of the Canadian Parliament recognizing Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka.

Over 14 years, after the successful conclusion of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is yet to counter lies. The failure on the part of successive governments to defend wartime political and military leaderships has facilitated the Western agenda. Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy has accelerated their despicable agenda.

Successive inept and treacherous Sri Lankan governments, and its often much compromised diplomatic service, never made a genuine attempt to set the record straight in Geneva, New York or Washington. In fact, they cooperated with those who propagated lies by conveniently failing to properly address issues at hand. Sri Lanka seemed determined not to defend its war against the LTTE, one of the half a dozen terrorist groups, formed by India.

Canada and the UK are not interested in inquiring into the origins of terrorism here. They do not care about the Tamils, who died in the hands of the Indian Army, during its deployment in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces. The loss of 1,300 officers, and men, and injuries suffered by more than double that figure in combat, during the period, 1987-1990, revealed the ferocity of fighting between one-time guardians of Sri Lankan terrorists and their ‘students.’

There had been numerous excesses and reprisals but such strategies were definitely not Indian policy at that time, but what happens in most wars. These Western paragons of virtue, what did their forces do, across the world, during the colonial past, and how do their law enforcers behave to this day, especially against blacks, natives in Canada, Australia and America.

Post-war national reconciliation hindered

During the war, there had been many excesses. The Sri Lankan military cannot, under any circumstances deny that fact. However, that hadn’t been the government policy. Unfortunately, in the absence of a cohesive strategy, Sri Lanka remains accused of genocide, and the recent Canadian actions meant that the two Presidents were now categorized as war criminals.

But the billion dollar question is where is the justice for far greater war crimes, committed by the West, in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, etc. Easily, more than a million innocent civilians would have perished by now, in these countries, because of those endless wars, fermented by the West on trumped up, or purely frivolous excuses, like Saddam Hussein is having weapons of mass destruction, or Gaddafi is butchering his own people, while everyone knew that a man like Saddam should be given a prize for keeping a divided nation, like Iraq, in one piece, or that Gaddafi was one of the most benevolent leaders in the entire world.

Foreign Minister, Ali Sabry, PC, in response to a query raised by the writer, at a Foreign Ministry media briefing, last year, said that sanctions had been imposed on entire fighting divisions. That was months before the categorization of the two Presidents as war criminals.

It would be a grave mistake, on the part of the Western community, to believe humiliation of the military would help post-war national reconciliation. On one hand, the Western community wants the Prevention of Terrorism (PTA) abolished, the remaining terror suspects released, and a one-time political arm of the vanquished LTTE, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) political demands met. On the other hand, the grouping wants the military punished on unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. Canadian measures are in line with that despicable strategy.

The Sri Lanka Parliament, as the supreme institution, should be ashamed of its pathetic response to the Western war crimes campaign. Sri Lanka has conveniently failed, at least to remind the Western community how R. Sampanthan’s TNA served the LTTE interests by declaring terrorist leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people.

The TNA bestowed that honour, on the LTTE, in 2001. The Sri Lankan military restored the TNA as the principal political group in the Northern and Eastern provinces, after the elimination of the LTTE, militarily, in May 2009.

Instead of recognizing Sri Lanka’s achievement, the Western community has targeted Sri Lanka, basically for two reasons, namely (1) Colombo’s relationship with China and (11) the Diaspora factor.

Actually, Sri Lanka never had a strategy to counter lies. That is the undeniable truth. Incumbent UN Chief Antonio Guterres’s predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, once compared the Vanni offensive with that of Ruwanda and Serbia genocides in the 1990s. Former UN Secretary General, South Korean Ki-moon played his part to facilitate the Western agenda, in spite of his own mission, in Colombo, contradicting unsubstantiated accusations.

How SL facilitated Western strategy

Sri Lanka never made use of a golden opportunity, given by British Lord Naseby, in Oct. 2017, to prepare a solid defence of the armed forces. His stunning revelation, in the House of Lords, two years after Sri Lanka, under the shameful Yahapalana regime, co-sponsored accountability resolution against our own country, at the Geneva Human Rights Council, exposed the British duplicity.

On the basis of hitherto confidential dispatches from the British High Commission, in Colombo, during the last phase of the war – January-May 2009, the Conservative politician contradicted the very basis of the three-member UN Darusman report. This report, released on March 31, 2011, had been the primary reason for the 2015 accountability resolution that faulted the Sri Lanka Army.

The World War II fighter pilot fought a near three-year battle with the British administration to secure the confidential dispatches and was finally able to obtain a highly redacted version, to contradict the lies, in the second week of Oct. 2017. Although the then Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, in his address to the UNHRC, made a reference to Lord Naseby’s revelations, Sri Lanka never requested Geneva to examine the British dispatches.

The author of British dispatches, Lt. Col. Anthony Gash, has never challenged the authenticity of heavily censored dispatches, disclosed by Lord Naseby.

Sri Lanka, in June 2011, squandered a similar opportunity to make a strong case for a revisit of the one-sided Darusman report. The then US Defence Advisor, in Colombo, Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, quite convincingly defended the Sri Lanka Army, at the 2011 Colombo Defence Seminar. The American contradicted unsubstantiated allegations, raised by a retired Indian Major General Ashok K. Metha, formerly of the infamous IPKF. Lt. Col. Smith must have made that declaration, based on information available to the US Embassy, in Colombo, as well as other dispatches from the war zone. And, most importantly, the American officer made the declaration within three months after the releasing of the Darusman report. Sri Lanka never used British and American dispatches in her defence.

Western powers continue to harass Sri Lanka on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes accusations Geneva moves to further investigate Sri Lanka should be challenged as the previous accusations, that led to the 2015 Geneva resolution, remained uninvestigated.

According to the Darusman report (paragraph 23: Confidentiality of the Panel’s records), the accusations cannot be examined till 2031. This strange stipulation has a further clause stating that the time bar could be extended for a further period. We must be the only country not allowed to examine specific accusations, directed at its armed forces. Successive governments never took the entire gamut of issues, into consideration, before making representations, on behalf of the country.

The incumbent Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration is no exception. In spite of repeated vows to defend the armed forces, the previous Gotabaya Rajapaksa-led government pathetically failed in its duty and responsibility.

Sri Lanka’s handling of accusations, relating to the Mannar mass graves, during the Yahapalana administration, revealed how the Foreign and Defence Ministries neglected their responsibilities. But even after the change of government, in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2019 presidential poll, Sri Lanka did nothing to change the strategy.

The Mannar mass grave lie was contradicted by a reputed Miami-based laboratory. It cleared the war-winning Sri Lanka Army of any responsibility for extra-judicial killings there. The independent carbon testing report, from the internationally recognized US laboratory, concluded that the victims likely died up to 615 years ago — predating even the first European colonization of the country by the Portuguese.

Sri Lanka’s Office on Missing Persons (OMP) funded the tests on the remains to determine whether the victims were killed, during the conflict.

But, by then, Geneva has directly blamed Sri Lanka for the Mannar Sathosa ground mass graves. The then Human Rights Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, audaciously went to the extent of referring to the Mannar mass grave site, in her annual report (section 23), submitted to the UNHRC. The following is the relevant section: “On May 29, 2018, human skeletal remains were discovered at a construction site in Mannar (Northern Province), Excavations conducted in support of the Office on Missing Persons, revealed a mass grave from which more than 300 skeletons were discovered. It was the second mass grave found in Mannar, following the discovery of a site, in 2014. Given that other mass graves might be expected to be found in the future, systematic access to grave sites by the Office, as an observer, is crucial for it to fully discharge its mandate, particularly with regard to the investigation and identification of remains, it is imperative that the proposed reforms on the law relating to inquests, and relevant protocols to operationalize the law be adopted. The capacity of the forensic sector must also be strengthened, including in areas of forensic anthropology, forensic archaeology and genetics, and its coordination with the Office of Missing Persons must be ensured.”

Geneva never expected the US report on Mannar mass graves to go against its strategy. The TNA, too, reacted as expected. The one-time LTTE ally never expected the US report to contradict high profile allegations. Colombo based diplomats, and foreign officials, visited the scene ,as interested parties propagated lies.

On behalf of the TNA, a lawmaker, representing the Vanni region, has called for a fresh testing in another lab in some other country. Our Vavuniya correspondent, Dinasena Ratugamage, quoted Mullaitivu District MP Nirmalanathan Sivamohan as having said: “This is not to say that we do not accept the reports sent by a lab in Florida, US, but given the importance of the Mannar grave site we need to get a second opinion.”

There were many other developments ranging from a spate of WikiLeaks revelations to political decisions that exposed the Western strategy. But, perhaps the irreversible defence of the military was provided by the Tamil community, living in the Northern and Eastern electoral districts, at the 2010 presidential election. The war-winning General Sarath Fonseka, in spite of suffering massive defeat in the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa, comfortably won all predominately The Tamil speaking electoral districts, in those provinces, despite the TNA and the Tamil Diaspora, having accused him and his Army of committing war crimes. The Tamil community overwhelmingly responded to the TNA’s call to vote for Fonseka, who contested as the common candidate, fielded by the UNP-led alliance that included the JVP.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka never bothered to officially take up this development to counter propaganda. Even if the TNA asked for the Tamil community to vote for Fonseka, the electorate wouldn’t have overwhelmingly done so unless it was convinced the eradication of the LTTE was a necessity.

Sri Lanka: If no elections, there can be a democratic uprising!

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In a month’s time, the future of Sri Lanka will be decided not only in democratic terms but also in economic terms. There will be a strong democratic uprising if the government fails to hold the local government elections scheduled to be held in March 2023. By next month, whether the government allows the Elections Commission to hold the elections will be clearer. This is going to be the litmus test.

Democracy and Free Economy are like twin sisters. No parent should try to neglect one against the other. Both are necessary to address people’s economic needs, human rights, and social wellbeing. Although Sri Lanka has been one of the pioneer countries to introduce universal franchise (1931), and democratic governance (1947), since the introduction of a presidential system (1978), democracy has taken a strong downturn, the predicament of which is experienced throughout the country by all sections of society.

Past Character of the President?

It is no accident that the present President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has now come to power by accident, was a strong supporter of the presidential system that his uncle introduced in 1978. Therefore, there is no further surprise that he now makes his full efforts not to hold local government elections, clearly realizing that his party or his (Rajapaksa) allies will not be able to win the elections.

It is well known that his popular support is minimal. An overwhelming majority of his UNP party broke away in 2020 and formed the Samagi Jana Balawegaya(SJB – United People’s Movement) under the then deputy leader, Sujith Premadasa.

When Ranil Wickremasinghe contested from the UNP for the Colombo District in 2020, he obtained only 30,875 votes (2.61%)! Therefore, some people called him ‘two percent leader’!He, however, obtained a nominated seat in Parliament through the ‘national list,’ a much controversial system that his uncle J. R. Jayewardene introduced to distort the electoral system in the country.

Now he is the President! This situation itself shows that there is much distortion in the democratic system in Sri Lanka which must be corrected as soon as possible with the support of the international community. Does this situation have any economic repercussions? Yes, this is my observation and opinion. Let me raise the question who brought him to this power? It is well known, but some people forget that it was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a war criminal, who brought him to this situation.

Of course, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a popular backing of 6.9 million at the last presidential elections. But this does not apply to Ranil Wickremasinghe. Among the poor-quality political leaders of the country, RW appears to have some knowledge of economics! But his ideology prevails over this knowledge or ability.

He talks about a ‘social market economy.’ But practicesa ‘pure market’ yet depending on friends and associates. He was directly involved in the Bond Scam in 2015. He is also largely responsible for the present economic crisis, being the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance during 1915 and 1919. Didn’t he know about the unbearable debt obligations that the country was burdened with by that time? He repeatedly took loans and even sold the Hambantota port to China!

Aragalaya and the President

There is no question that the burning of his house in Colombo during the Aragalaya (struggle) last year was reprehensible. No democratic struggle in the country should go to that extent although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights warn the governments that “if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law” (UDHR Preamble). 

Could there be any doubt that the rule of Gotabaya Rajapaksa was like ‘tyranny and oppression’? He was not elected for that purpose in 2020. People do make mistakes in voting, but democratic systems allow people to correct them through democratic discussion, dialogue, regular elections and believing in human rights. However, I have never heard Wickremasinghe talking about human rights even as deception! This is no surprise because he is a member of the International Democratic Union (IDU), which was founded by people like Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush. The members of this group call themselves ‘center-right,’ perhaps to avoid the more realistic characterization of ‘far-right.’

The last stages of Wickremesinghe-Sirisena rule in 2019, the Easter Sunday attacks happened like ‘Sri Lanka’s holocaust’ and until recently no iota of justice was served. Sirisena is the other culprit of economic-political disasters of the country like Gotabaya, Basil, and Mahinda Rajapaksa. All these people should go away from politics, and if not, they should be completely thrown out. Like Sirisena, Wickremasinghe also should be responsible for the Easter attacks.

Look at the way leaders in mature democracies behave. In New Zealand, Jacinda Arden was elected as the Prime Minister in 2017 from the Labor Party. She has now given her resignation allowing another leader to take over. Few months before Sri Lankan ‘holocaust,’ two Muslim mosques were attacked by a single terrorist on the other side. Arden stood for justice firmly. Almost everyone admired the courage and impartiality of her.

During the last couple of years, many countries faced similar crises and challenges with Covid 19, economic depressions, terror attacks, and global warming. Except people like Donald Trump or our lot, many leaders did not stick to power but duty. Duties are something that our political leaders are probably unaware of. When people have rights, the leaders have and should respect their duties. Otherwise, they should go home.

Importance of Local Governments

The local government institutions are the base of our democracy with ancient roots. Throughout centuries, people used to rely on GramaSabhas (Village Councils) for their day-to-day necessities and functions. When I was a child, I clearly remember what the Moratuwa Urban Council (now Municipal) did for our community. Collection of faeces and disposing of them; maintenance of roads and cleaning them; and looking after health of the people through PHI’s, Midwife’sand Dispensers are some I can closely remember. There were no major political rivalries. The best people were elected, but mostly left-oriented ones. No one appeared to make money or be involved in heinous activities.

During my academic career (1969-2010 with intervals), I have been involved in research on the local government system with colleagues and students in Monaragala, Badulla, Kalutara and Mahiyanganaya. The potential of Pradeshiya Sabha’s particularly in democracy and economic development were very clear. Visits to Jaffna and Kilinochchi had confirmed the same. This is what Ranil Wickremasinghe, and the Rajapaksa gangs are now trying to destroy.

Wickremasinghe’s uncle, J. R. Jayawardene, also postponed the local government elections in 1978 and thereafter, on the pretext of introducing a District Council system. I was in Jaffna in 1981 and experienced the repercussions just before the burning of the Jaffna Library. It was to the credit of R. Premadasa that the Pradeshiya Sabha Act could be passed in 1987 and resurrect the local government system again with a clear link to the social and economic developments in particularly the rural areas. Premadasa’s background in the old Labor Party perhaps engineered this connection. Wickremasinghe’s background in this respect was and is the opposite. 

For a Peaceful Uprising

I again would like to reiterate that the burning of Wickremasinghe’s house in Colombo and other houses of Ministers and MPs is completely reprehensible. The occupation and damaging of the President’s House and Presidential Secretariat also cannot be approved whatever the anger of the people and youth. These violations happened in line with Donald Trump’s instigations and politics in the USA.

However, Wickremasinghe should not lead the country in the same manner. If somebody named ‘Anil’ was involved in those burnings and violence, Ranil should not follow Anil, and abuse people’s political power and democratic system. If that is the case, the people have every right to protest and stage a democratic uprising. To avoid that,Wickremasinghe should allow the holding of local government elections without any interference. Otherwise, in my opinion, it would be his political suicide.

A peaceful and democratic uprising would be the most effective and legitimate. I would propose the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya to gettogether in this democratic and peaceful venture. The support of Tamil and Muslim parties also should be sought. Any Aragalaya (struggle) without a clear direction and leadership would be hijacked by unreliable, anarchist and misguided sections.

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