Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Politics of Protests

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

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

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

Politics of protests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Written on September 30, 2022.]

ADB in Sri Lanka’s Debt Crisis

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The following article is based on the speech by the author as a Government of Asian Development Bank and President of Sri Lanka in their 55th Annual Meeting

It is my privilege to address you today, as the chair of the 55th Annual Meeting of the Asian Development Bank. Today, members of ADB have gathered in-person, after three years, here, in this dynamic city of Manila for the Second Stage of the ADB Annual Meeting. First of all, let me express my sincere appreciation to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Government of Philippines for organizing this prestigious event. Amidst an unprecedented economic crisis that Sri Lanka is currently undergoing, we missed the opportunity to host the second stage of the Annual Meeting in Colombo. However, we are eagerly looking forward to welcoming you all in Colombo in the near future.

The ADB has made a very positive impact, which is being profoundly felt across the entire region. In 2021, the ADB committed $22.8 billion to members, and has mobilized an additional $12.9 billion in cofinancing through partnerships with other sources. The ADB’s Strategy 2030 seeks to respond to global challenges, including climate change and natural disasters, food and energy insecurity, whilst also embracing opportunities in the digital economy, sustainable energy, and leveraging technology for inclusive education and healthcare. Thus, the ADB has a crucial role in helping to shape and finance policies that improve people’s lives and livelihoods across Asia and the Pacific.

The supply chain shocks created by the COVID-19 pandemic is compounded with the prices of global commodities mainly food, fuel and fertilizer skyrocketing due to the Ukraine war. Higher food and energy prices are leading to stuttering the growth of middle class and has resulted in further insecurity amongst the vulnerable communities in the Indian Ocean region.

As a result of these shocks, there has been a spike in sovereign debt distress across emerging markets. The growth targets, both in East Asia and South Asia, have been revised downward. If this is not promptly addressed, it risks creating contagion of debt distress that threatens growth and financial stability across all economies. Countries with pre-existing economic vulnerabilities, including Sri Lanka, are the most affected. Therefore, creditors and debtor nations must work collectively in an equitable manner to ensure economic and financial stability across the region and indeed the world.

The developments on the global stage have further aggravated the self-inflicted economic crisis in Sri Lanka resulting in a political outburst that led to a change in Government. Today, we have stabilized the economy and many countries and stakeholders are keenly monitoring how we resolve this crisis. Many nations are keenly watching developments in Sri Lanka to see how we work with all stakeholders to resolve this crisis. We are well aware that the evolution of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis includes both domestic policy elements as well as external shocks. It follows that the resolution of the crisis also requires both domestic efforts and the support of external partners. It is incumbent upon Sri Lanka and our creditors and partners to set an example of how collaborative and good faith action can result in sustainable and equitable solutions to sovereign debt issues.

Towards this end, we have already undertaken major macroeconomic policy reform measures. I am pleased to inform you that we have now reached a Staff Level Agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a four-year program supported by the Extended Fund Facility. The programme is aligned with the commitment of the Government to implement an ambitious and comprehensive package of reforms that will help restore the sustainability of our public finances, addressing external imbalances, and restarting our growth engine through structural reforms and improvements in governance. Amidst major economic stress, Sri Lanka is undertaking an unprecedented fiscal effort as part of our commitment to restoring the country’s debt sustainability. It is our hope and expectation that Sri Lanka’s creditors, and all stakeholders, will support us in these efforts to restore our debt sustainability and help put the country back on the path of inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

Whilst Sri Lanka undertakes these deep and often painful reforms, we are experiencing rising unemployment and reduction in purchasing power of consumers. The Government is cognisant of the adverse impacts on the most vulnerable members of society. Accordingly, every effort has been taken to allocate greater financing and resources towards targeted support for social protection.

Asia has still to overcome the present global economic crisis. Unlike the financial crisis of 2008, in this instance, the economic levers alone are insufficient to stimulate global economic recovery. The factors underlining the main crisis is not only of economic origin but are also the consequences of evolving geopolitics. The result being the absence of cooperation amongst the G20 unlike the earlier crisis.

The Ukraine war on one side and the United States-People’s Republic of China rivalry, spurred on by military, trade and political differences, on the other side, are key contributors to this breakdown in cooperation. Added to this geopolitical rivalry are the droughts, floods and pandemic which are still present in Asia. All these challenges are compounded by the absence of global leadership – a time when the global economy is stuttering. As this global rivalry intensifies into a new cold war, which will determine a new global power balance by 2050, the inability of the major countries to give leadership to the mitigation of the global climate change crisis is becoming more apparent.

Sri Lanka: Nephew’s Patrimony

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For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong’ — H.L. Mencken (American writer and humorist).

The validity of this contention in Sri Lanka can be gauged if we listen to ‘pundits’ on radio and television providing solutions to the most devastating problem this country has faced in its 73 years after Independence.

Sri Lankan governments have been attempting to resolve problems in the usual way that all ‘democratic’ governments do: Appoint commissions of inquiry and investigations and even presidential commissions to determine what went wrong.  Maximum publicity is provided to the progress of commissions on radio, TV and the print media but gradually the pressure is eased till time erases memories of the devastating problem.

The financial and political abyss that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brothers and nephews confidently marched into with their military and civilian advisors was beyond the capabilities of presidential commissions to resolve and they remained in their bunkers until the GotaGoHome boys and girls rallied tens of thousands of protesters, stormed the bastions of power of the Rajapaksas, forcing them to resign and Gota to go home the way of ‘Parangiya Kotte Giya’ (The circumcircuitous way the Portuguese were taken from Colombo Fort to Kotte). Gota went home in a High Security Zone in Colombo by air via the Maldives, Singapore and Thailand.

But the problem remains: Sri Lanka has no money, little food or medicines, no fuel and has to keep borrowing.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was a free and defeated man with no problems to resolve but he seems to relish problems for power.

He volunteered to take on all the terrifying problems of the country left over by the Rajapaksas by volunteering to become the prime minister and then be elected president by politically destitute members of the Rajapaksa party, who are not his fans.

Wickremesinghe has done his job well in negotiating with the IMF and the Western bloc of nations but has kicked into his own goal by cracking down on the GotaGoHome boys and girls who had unwittingly paved the way for his political resurrection.

Wickremesinghe during the past week or so has gone through Westminster Castle and Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, chatted with King Charles III and been able to present Sri Lanka’s case in a favourable light, reports said.

This week he was in Tokyo with powerful Japanese politicians and in the Japanese Imperial Palace with Emperor Akihito in the vicinity of the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Japan has been our all-weather friend since the San Francisco conference speech of his uncle J.R. Jayewardene who pleaded for Japan at that critical moment when the world was sitting in judgement over Japan’s conduct in the War.  The nephew of JR pleading for Lanka’s cause now may have revived poignant memories way back.

Japan has been showering assistance on this country without any strings attached.  The Kotte Parliament in a picturesque setting, the Jayawardenapura Hospital, the Administrative Capital of Kotte and the development of the entire region of Colombo East that has now become the best residential area of Colombo are all spin-offs of Japanese munificence.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s wooden-headed military mind destroyed that seven-decade-old friendship by boorishly halting the Japanese light rail project which would have eased the traffic congestion in the area. Ranil Wickremesinghe now has the opportunity to undo the damage although he is working for the ‘Pohottuwa’ government.

From Japan, Wickremesinghe went to Manila to chair a meeting of the Asian Development Bank where he called for the support of creditors and stakeholders for Sri Lanka’s economic recovery.

Is Wickremesinghe the solution for Sri Lanka’s economic and political debacle?

There is tremendous opposition to him continuing as the President and there are daily protests demanding his resignation. But indications are that he has no intention of giving up the presidency and intends to carry on for the next two years till the presidential term ends. He has had no qualms in crushing opposition forces rising against him although it is being pointed out that non-violent protests against legal governments are permissible under Sri Lankan law.

The parallels between Ranil Wickremesinghe’s and his uncle JRJ’s careers are striking. JRJ even when he was in his seventies did not have control of his party, the UNP, which he had stood by in all adversities and also put it back on its feet.

Even after the rout of the party in 1970 by the Sirima Bandaranaike-led United Front, Dudley Senanayake continued to be the leader with JRJ trying his utmost to oust him.

At one stage, JRJ declared that he wanted to join Sirima Bandaranaike’s coalition but the left leaders including Samasamjist N.M. Perera and Communist Pieter Keuneman were vehemently against it. N.M. Perera declared: ‘If he comes through the front door, I go out through the back door and if he comes through the backdoor, I go out from the window’.

JRJ tried many tactics to oust Dudley. He even tried to storm Siri Kotha (then located at Kollupitiya) with elephants!

And then Dudley Senanayake passed away plunging the entire nation into grief.  The astute JRJ then played his master stroke. His funeral oration at Independence Square was a masterpiece of oratory in democracy and hypocrisy: Goodbye Sweet Prince…May a thousand Devas…..

JRJ took control of the party and in 1977 swept the polls with a five-sixth majority for the party to hold power for 17 years.

Ranil Wickremesinghe still is the leader of the UNP but the vast majority of members ditched him in favour of Sajith Premadasa and Wickremesinghe could not even win a single seat — not even his own. Speculation is that he will try to wean away former UNPers now with Sajith Premadasa and contest the next election as leader of a rejuvenated UNP and win like his uncle did.

Sajith Premadasa had only one month’s time to organise his presidential election campaign against the formidable Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He contested under a new party name with ex-UNPers backing him.  He polled a creditable 41.99 percent of the poll against Rajapaksa’s 52.25 per cent.  Premadasa is today the sole opposition leader directly opposing both Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas and is no lame duck.

Can Wickremesinghe repeat his uncle’s feat. Time will tell.

Growth of Artificial Intelligence and decline in Human Intelligence

A voluminous newspaper supplement in a state-owned newspaper last week aimed at boosting artificial intelligence in Sri Lanka had us wondering about the possible science fiction scenario of the takeover of the former Pearl of the Orient by electronic robots.

A determined effort, it appears, is being made to have robots with artificial intelligence (AI) to help us Lankans in our domestic chores as well as work in factories. Glancing through some of the articles we were impressed at the enthusiasm and optimism expressed which made us conclude that robots functioning on artificial intelligence will grow at an exponential rate.

This accelerated growth of artificial intelligence in Lanka per se was not a matter of concern to us. What concerns us is its rapid growth alongside the rapid decline of human intelligence in this country.  It began decades ago and this year accelerated blindly with

open eyes into the chasm of financial bankruptcy and political wilderness.

The scenario we envisage is not the usual sci-fi battle between robots vs humans because the robots have to be fed with instructions by humans into the foreseeable future.  Increasingly intelligent robots coming up with solutions with dumb Lankans may not be able to comprehend, is a challenge to those now nurturing artificial intelligence.

Crisis in Sri Lanka: The Root Cause

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in her report on Sri Lanka recognized that for Sri Lanka “the promotion of human rights and the prevention and fight against corruption are mutually reinforcing, that corruption can have serious negative impacts on human rights and the poor and those in marginalized situations, including women and girls.” She demanded the prosecution of the corrupt. The Sri Lankan delegate dismissed this statement as exceeding the mandate of the Human Rights High Commissioner.

The Sri Lankan Ambassador, Mr Chandraprema, suggested presumptuousness of the High Commissioner. The Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Ali Sabry, the lawyer who defended former President Gothabaya Rajapakse against the charges of corruption made against him, stated: “It is observed that the High Commissioner’s report makes extensive reference to “economic crimes”. Apart from the ambiguity of the term, it is a matter of concern that such reference exceeds the mandate of the OHCHR”.The Minister of Justice was pictured sitting by Sabry’s side as Sabry was giving the Council the benefit of his wisdom.

The link between corruption and human rights was not made exclusively in the context of the report on Sri Lanka. Concern over corruption and its impact on human rights had been expressed within the Human Rights Council from 2005. A document of the Human Rights Council in that year stated that the Council was “deeply concerned that the enjoyment of human rights, be they economic, social and cultural or civil and political, is seriously undermined by the phenomenon of corruption”. Since then several documents of the Human Rights Council as well as other UN documents have drawn the link between corruption and human rights. The use of the more embracing term, “economic crimes” includes corruption but also draws in other offences committed by those with public and private power abusing such power in a manner that offends the criminal law.

The concern in the area was with countries like Syria, Somalia and Sudan which had high levels of corruption along with massive violations of human rights. Now, Sri Lanka has joined these ranks. Events in Sri Lanka constitute a microcosm within which the linkage can be easily demonstrated. Successive Presidents from President Kumaranatunge, President Rajapaksa, President Sirisena and President Wickremesinghe (as Prime Minister during the Central Bank scam) have demonstrated the linkage between corruption and the violation of human rights. Their cronies and associates profited from the climate of corruption that these Presidents had created. These persons unfairly enriched themselves by stealing the wealth of the public and creating an unequal society in which many were driven into dire levels of poverty. The resulting inequality in itself is emblematic of the linkage between corruption and human rights violations.

Each of the Presidents demonstrated the need for the linkage to be made. I merely state the cases that constitute the tip of the iceberg of corruption in each Presidential regime and their links with human rights. The corruption became deep-seated after President Kumaranatunge. She was found guilty of corruption in the Water’s Edge Case which involved the eviction of several poor families from an area on which a golf course was to be built.

Corruption became a storm under President Mahinda Rajapaksa. His style of ruling was through patronage and reward, ensuring that his cronies amassed wealth while a part of it reached his family coffers. Mahinda Rajapaksa was alleged to have channelled the tsunami funds collected through charity into private accounts. The defalcation led to several victims of the tsunami being deprived of their right to housing and livelihood. The former Chief Justice, Sarath Silva, apologized for exonerating Rajapaksa from corruption charges, in the Helping Hambantota Case (Mahinda Rajapaksa v Chandra Fernando).

President Kumaranatunge had appointed her one-time crony, Sarath Silva, as Chief Justice by passing Justice Mark Fernando, a legendary judge noted for scholarship and independence- an instance of the subversion of the judiciary in Sri Lanka. An independent judiciary is the cornerstone of the rule of law and the protection of human rights. Kumaranatunge committed a corrupt act that more than establishes the linkage between human rights and corruption by compromising the independence of the judiciary in Sri Lanka. Sarath Silva delivered the judgement in the Sinharasa Case condemning a man to imprisonment without justification and earning international opprobrium. Naked interferences in judicial appointments during later Presidents are well known including the ousting of a Chief Justice who did not comply with the dictates of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. (Interference with the judiciary had commenced earlier with Felix Dias Bandaranaike and JR Jayewardene.)

The two Rajapaksa Presidents have been accused of large-scale nepotism and corruption. Their family was responsible for the expenditure of large chunks of the budget as ministers of the government. The opportunity for corruption was immense. They created opportunities not for themselves alone but for their business cronies of the Viyathmaga. Many of the cronies found their way into Parliament and were rewarded with ministries with attendant perks. They profited from scams like the sugar scam.

As public service employment and transfers became a privilege conferred by members of parliament, each member of parliament had great opportunities for accepting bribes. Corruption became endemic in the culture of Sri Lanka. Public appointments influenced by bribery denied people with merit access to employment. They were denied equal treatment under the law. The link between corruption and violation of human rights in such situations was clear.

In the interim, we had that yahapalana circus of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. The former used his presidential power to release a convict found guilty of murder. He appointed his relatives to high positions. His son and daughter became prominent in government circles. Wickremasinghe was accused of the Central Bank scam. The man who was the alleged central figure in its sojourns in Singapore. The people were deprived of the public money that was involved in the scam. No one has been held accountable for this crime.

Despite all this chain of corruption, the men sent to Geneva by the Government of Sri Lanka blame the UN Human Rights Commissioner for linking corruption with human rights, when one of the best examples of such a linkage happens to be their country. The UNHRC is not motivated by any malice toward Sri Lanka in seeking to link corruption and human rights. They prescribe what would be welcomed by the people of Sri Lanka – the prosecution of the corrupt and the prevention of the corruption that has continuously afflicted the public life of Sri Lanka. The people of the country face starvation as a result of the economic crimes committed by their politicians.

As an academic who has taught international law all my life, I know that there is a minority of academics who contest the linkage of corruption with human rights on theoretical grounds. The delegation of Sri Lanka was not animated by these theoretical niceties. They were more intent on protecting the corruption of their organ grinders. Every Sri Lankan woman with little money in her bag, searching for cheap food for her starving children, every man who goes to every chemist in the vain search for medicines for his sick mother, every farmer who looks with sadness at his crops wilting without fertiliser knows that the root cause of his or her misery is the corruption initiated and continued by successive presidents. The delegation sent to Geneva was not sent there to defend the corrupt but accept the reasons given by the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the suffering of the people they were to speak for. Instead, they are defending the indefensible, corrupt politicians of Sri Lanka. The public is entitled to ask whether these men are themselves corrupt, obtaining a trip to Geneva and its attendant perks in exchange for defending the corruption of their masters.

Glory of Sri Lanka-China Friendship

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Following are the excerpts adapted from the speech by the author at the event held yesterday in Colombo to celebrate the 73rd Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China Hosted by five major friendship organizations working for enhancing Sri Lanka – China friendship.

It brings me great joy and honour to join the Glory of Friendship Reception this evening. The reception is not only a Gala for friends but also a Reunion of families. Because all the guests present tonight from all walks of life in Sri Lanka, have always been following and supporting the development of China and China-Sri Lanka relations! You are the backbone of the friendship between our two people! On behalf of the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka, I would like to extend my sincerest greetings and most heartfelt thanks to you and your family.

Tonight, we are gathering here to celebrate the 73rd National Day of the People’s Republic of China. Over the past 73 years, China has gone through a long way, with continued hard-working, reforming and opening up, and has risen to the second largest economy in the world. In the past decade, under the strong leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has made great achievements in various sectors, eradicated absolute poverty, and realized the first centenary goal. All of you have witnessed, participated, and contributed to this great process in human history. At this crucial historical juncture, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will be held after two more weeks in Beijing. It will not only draw up a new grand blueprint for China’s development but also bring the international community stronger confidence and higher expectation of China. Let’s jointly wish Congress great success!

Tonight, we are gathering here to celebrate the  65th anniversary of China-Sri Lanka diplomatic relations, and the 70th anniversary of the Rubber-Rice Pact. In the face of the current challenging international situation, the spirit of the Rubber-Rice Pact, namely “independence, self-reliance, unity and mutual support” becomes ever more significant. And the traditional friendship between our two countries and two peoples is more precious. As we say, amity between the peoples holds the key to better state-to-state relations.

In the past decade, under the strong leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has made great achievements in various sectors, eradicated absolute poverty, and realized the first centenary goal.

I have been listening carefully to your speeches and stories, and deeply impressed and moved. We sincerely commemorate late Minister Philip Gunawardena and Madam Kusuma Gunawardena who pioneered the exchanges with China, and late Minister R.G. Senanayake who signed the Rubber-Rice Pact for their great contributions to China-Sri Lanka friendship; We are also highly gratified to see pupils from Devi Balika School in Colombo, Caihe No.3 Primary School in Hangzhou and many others from the younger generation, are now carrying forward our friendship in the new era. What a joy!

In the past year,  my colleagues and  I have set foot on all nine provinces of the island. We laid the foundation stone of “Hope Village” in Hambantota down the south, and distributed food packs to estate workers in the central district of Nuwara Eliya. We visited local villages and financed a housing project for underprivileged families on the eastern coast of Batticaloa, and donated fishing gear to poor fishermen in the Northern Province. I feel myself the severe challenges facing Sri Lanka at the moment, but I’m also deeply touched and greatly encouraged by the positive minds of its people. It’s worth mentioning that, when the Chinese Scientific Vessel Yuan  Wang  5 finally docked at Hambantota  Port last month, big crowd from both countries joined me and welcomed the vessel in Hambantota. It makes our belief even stronger that neither the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, the domestic political change nor the external interference can obstruct the friendly exchanges between our two peoples. Withstood all these challenges, our friendship will only grow unbreakable!

Brothers, Sisters, and friends, Challenges are only temporary, and we will work together to overcome them. Please join me in a toast, To the prosperity of our mother countries; Long live! China – Sri Lanka friendship!

Exclusive: Reaffirming our Unswervingly Stand with Sri Lanka

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Following excerpts adapted from the speech by the author as the President of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) at the event celebrates the 73rd Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China Hosted by five major friendship organizations work for enhancing Sri Lanka – China friendship.

It is my great honour to be invited to attend the reception hosted by five Sri Lanka friendship organizations with China celebrating the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. On this occasion, I would like to extend, on behalf of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), my cordial greetings and best wishes to the brotherly people of Sri Lanka, and express my heartfelt thanks and high respect to friends from all walks of life who have been long committed to China Sri Lanka friendship.

This year is an important year for both China and Sri Lanka to commemorate.70 years ago, China and Sri Lanka, two newly born countries, overcame difficulties and obstacles and signed the Rubber-Rice Pact, opening the door for friendly exchanges. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations 65 years ago, the governments of China and Sri Lanka have always abided by the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, treating each other with equality, mutual trust and sincerity. The two sides understand, respect and help each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests and major concerns and firmly safeguard our respective and common interests.

Last year marked the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. President Xi Jinping solemnly declared that through the concerted efforts of the Chinese government and people, China has won the fight against poverty on schedule, achieved the first centenary goal on schedule, and built a moderately prosperous society in all respects on schedule. The 1.4 billion people have been lifted from absolute poverty and embarked on the socialist modernization path of common prosperity for all.

Under the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China, China has created two miracles, namely rapid economic development and long-term social stability, which have not only benefited the Chinese people, who account for nearly 20% of the world’s total population, but also provided new options and more cooperation opportunities for developing countries including Sri Lanka. China has become an important force in safeguarding world peace and promoting common development.

For building a better world, President Xi Jinping has put forward the important concept of building a community with a shared future for mankind, as well as new ideas and measures such as the “Belt and Road” Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, and the Global Security Initiative. With the vision of new development, China is committed to win-win cooperation for common development with all countries.

We are pleased to see that important progress has been made in the cooperation of the Belt and Road Initiative under the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.  China has become Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner and a major source of investment and tourism.  Our friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation has brought tangible benefits to the two peoples. Colombo Port City, Hambantota Port comprehensive development project has become a flagship of jointly building the Belt and Road. The project has created more than 100,000 local jobs and trained thousands of technical and management talents and laid an important foundation for Sri Lanka to further realize its independent and sustainable development.

We have noted that “natural disasters” such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical “man-made disasters” such as the Ukraine crisis are coming one after another.  The security and stability of the global production lines, supply chains and capital chains have been severely undermined. The global energy, food and financial crisis have triggered crises in terms of production, life and survival, especially for the people in underdeveloped countries. Sri Lanka is one of the victims.  In this difficult time, please be assured that the Chinese government and people unswervingly stand with the government and people of Sri Lanka to overcome the difficulties. 

Facts have repeatedly proved that maintaining and developing friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Sri Lanka is conducive to the development of our two countries, conforms to the fundamental interests of the two peoples, and embodies the painstaking efforts of successive leaders of the two countries and the common aspiration of the two peoples.

In more than 10 days’ time, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will be convened. The congress will comprehensively and systematically summarize the historical achievements of the past 5 years, and scientifically plan the development goals, tasks, major policies and policies for the next five years and beyond. It will definitely have great and far-reaching significance for China and the world in the future.

The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries will never forget those old friends and good friends who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion of China Sri Lanka friendship over the past decades.  We are very sympathetic to the temporary difficulties faced by Sri Lankan friends. However, we are confident that Sri Lanka will achieve development and revitalization by giving full play to your regional advantages, natural resources and human resources. We are willing to share with Sri Lanka unreservedly China’s experience in reform and opening up and poverty reduction development, provide help to Sri Lankan friends to overcome difficulties, and support Sri Lanka to achieve independent and sustainable development and completely get rid of poverty.

The CPAFFC is willing to work with friends from all walks of life in Sri Lanka, uphold the spirit of the Rubber-Rice Pact, and actively promote friendly exchanges between local governments, friendly organizations, friendly personages, think tanks, media, youth and other non-governmental areas of the two countries, promote mutually beneficial cooperation in trade, science and technology, culture, education, capacity building and other fields, and contribute wisdom and strength in pushing forward the China-Sri Lanka strategic cooperative partnership featuring sincere mutual assistance and everlasting friendship to a new level.

I look forward to leading a delegation to visit Sri Lanka at an early date. At the same to time, we warmly welcome all our friends in Sri Lanka to visit China at an appropriate time. Let us work together to create a better future for China-Sri Lanka relations!

May the friendship between China and Sri Lanka last forever! May Sri Lanka enjoy prosperity and its people happy lives!

Sri Lanka: The Problem of the People

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8 mins read

Was there then no essential difference between the ruler and the ruled?” ~ Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

Sri Lanka, unravelled and unravelling, is mesmerised by a new wonder: the Lotus Tower. When that monumental symbol of Rajapaksa folly was opened to the public last week, people thronged to pay the entrance fee, ride to the top, and gaze down. A monk enthused that he felt close to the highest of Buddhist heavens. Women thanked Mahinda Rajapaksa for enabling them to have this wondrous experience.

It was as if economic ruin and social collapse was happening in another country, to another people.

According to a survey conducted by a group of doctors, 80% of children in Sooriyawewa, in the Rajapaksa home-district of Hambantota, are malnourished (unlike the international cricket stadium the Rajapaksas built in that water-starved locality which gets the water the people are denied). That distressing statistic alone suffices to bare the vacuity of the Rajapaksa brand of infrastructure-led development. In a 2007 cable, American ambassador, Robert Blake, wrote, “An empty port, an empty airport, and an empty vast convention centre would not generate the benefits that Hambantota needs…” One percent of the money spent on these vanity projects could have provided the people of Hambantota with every possible creature comfort for generations to come. Hambantota was poor when Mahinda Rajapaksa first became president in 2005 and is still poor seventeen years later.

Untouched by Rajapaksa development, yet solidly pro-Rajapaksa at every election.  

Infrastructure-led development was a key pillar of Rajapaksa economics. Build airports, ports, stadia, expressways, and prosperity will follow. The strategy enabled corruption on unprecedented scale, satisfied Mahinda Rajapaksa’s colossal vanity, and, against all reason, increased the family’s popularity. The projects, productive or not, often not, were tabula rasa on which dreams of national glory and illusions of popular prosperity could be inscribed.

An actor playing the role of historian once created for the Rajapaksas a lineage going back to the Buddha, via King Dutugemunu. The massive physical infrastructure projects were depicted as modern variants of the infrastructure projects of ancient kings, a historical continuum, Sandahiru Seya the descendent of Runwanweli Seya, Hambantota Port the descendent of Parakrama Samudraya. People were invited to come and admire a breakwater, a runway, a walking path masquerading as a marina. In that way, an illusion of ownership was created. People came, they admired, and they voted.

The habit is so ingrained that, even without the full effect of the Rajapaksa propaganda machine, the Lotus Tower looks like a shortcut to heaven to some Lankans. Not in the same overwhelming numbers as in the past. Not enough for the SLPP to win the next election, but enough for every single contesting Rajapaksa father, son, uncle, nephew and cousin to be re-elected. Perhaps even enough for the SLPP, with its consignment of deplorables, to hold the balance of power in the next parliament.

Basil Rajapaksa can see this future and he is readying the SLPP for it. The party’s new political academy will hone the next generation of Rajapaksa devotee-activists. Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism will be re-burnished with the usual talk of motherland being in danger. Lotus Tower, undead Tiger, and encroaching Muslim in combination can dazzle enough eyes and twist enough minds. And the Rajapaksas will have their path back to national relevance, kingmakers if not kings.

 Absurd Faith

In an interview with a private TV channel during the run up to the 2019 presidential poll, Udaya Gammanpila called Gotabaya Rajapaksa a composite of “the managerial skills of Mahathir Mohammad, farsightedness of Lee Kuan Yew, bravery of Vladimir Putin, spiritual approach of Jawaharlal Nehru, and patriotism of Fidel Castro.” The words seem grotesque now and should have seemed embarrassingly funny even then. Yet the interviewer didn’t laugh or even roll his eyes. The audience would have lapped it up.

An electorate that is predisposed to believe any absurdity, sans proof, sans fact, that was what the Rajapaksas needed and that was what they created with their propaganda. Illusions and delusions were their stock of trade. In August 2005, an outburst of mass hysteria about Buddha statues emanating luminous rays coincided with the Mavilaru operation, and shored up support in the Sinhala South for the fourth Eelam war. An elephant calf was said to have been born on the very day High King Mahinda won the war, a lie that was believed until it was inadvertently exposed in 2013. Credulity was nursed and fostered, turned into a political weapon and election winning strategy. To quote the late, great Hilary Mantel, “Did the Enlightenment really occur, or was it just someone by the Styx lighting a cigarette?” (Is it still yesterday – Children of the Revolution – London Review of Books).

In a recent You Tube interview, journalist Tharindu Jayawardana chronicled the anti-Dr. Shafi conspiracy which helped set the stage for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 victory. A gynaecologist singlehandedly sterilising 4000 Sinhala-Buddhist mothers by squeezing their fallopian tubes during Caesarean operations; a claim that seems too preposterous to rate even a denial. Yet it was believed by millions of people as nothing but the truth. The ‘story’ of a terrorist Muslim doctor working to annihilate the Sinhala nation was published just a month after the Easter Sunday massacre. Channa Jayasumana blessed the tale with his seal of approval. Wimal Weerawansa called it the War of the Wombs. Respected gynaecologists stated that women couldn’t be sterilised by squeezing their fallopian tubes, but most of the public and a large section of media preferred to believe a dentist who insisted it could be done. The CID investigated the issue and dismissed it as a non-issue. The police arrested Dr. Shafi on no evidence, recorded statements afterwards and backdated them. The confluence of the absurd and the illegal advanced Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Saviour pretension.

In Holy Bones, Holy Dust,  Charles Freeman argues that most medieval Europeans lived in a ‘community of the supernatural,’ and points out that “…to shift one’s consciousness to the supernatural, the space between ‘heaven and earth’, is to lessen one’s attention to the immediacy of the natural world…” Rajapaksa politics too operate in a similar politico-psychological space which ignores/denies reality. Delusions of divine signs, illusions of grandeur, and phobia of enemies are used to make voters forget their ordinary, day-to-day earthly problems. The Kelani cobra story was not a singularity, but the final landmark in this road of lies. Not even national bankruptcy has been able to end that mindset, as the adoration of the Lotus Tower demonstrates.  Facts have no role in this spectacle, it never did.

In a functioning democracy, people too bear a share of responsibility for outcomes, be they positive or negative. The culpability of 6.9 million of our fellow citizens in our national plight should not be denied. The people are not innocent or blameless. This is not a fairytale in which the monster holds a land in thrall forcibly. In this story, most people invited the monster to takeover their land and their lives.

Even where leaders are forward looking, progressive projects can suffer defeat if a majority of people are not in tandem. The outcome of Chile’s referendum is an excellent case in point. Such dangers are particularly acute in times of economic and social anxiety. When ‘everything solid melts into air,’ past, or an imaginary version of it, could seem the only mooring left. In Italy, an extreme rightwing party which traces its lineage back to Mussolini’s Fascist party, is expected to gain power this Sunday. The new March on Rome is electoral. A democracy is shaped not just by its leaders but also by its people. A system change is impossible if enough people remain unchanged.

The absurdity is obvious, or should be. A people cannot vote in the corrupt and expect an honest government, vote in the inept and expect an efficient government, vote in the stupid and expect an intelligent government. Holding leaders to account is not enough. Those who vote for them too should be held accountable. The people are suffering, but many of them brought this disaster on themselves. They were deceived but they allowed themselves to be deceived. That is why an election, however necessary, can easily become a part of the problem rather than its solution, let alone the panacea that some claim it will be.

Haunted by old mistakes

Yatharoopa was a highly popular late night magazine programme aired on Rupavahini from August 2016 to March 2018. The programme aimed at debunking myths and superstitions and promoting reason and rational thinking.

In its second season, it was suddenly taken off the air. Media reports claimed that President Sirisena banned the programme at the request of a group of astrologers. Astrophysicist Kavan Ratnatunga made the same claim subsequently. President Sirisena reportedly said that as a state institution, the remit of the Rupavahini was to promote and not debunk astrology. Little wonder he made Mahinda Rajapaksa the PM seven months later.

In 2018, the 19th Amendment was in force. President Sirisena did not have the constitutional right to make unilateral decisions regarding a ministry that was not under him. Yet neither PM Wickremesinghe nor media minister Mangala Samaraweera objected publicly. The reason for their public silence is not hard to fathom. President Sirisena was going off the rails already. The UNP tried to avert disaster by alternately ignoring and humouring his antics. It didn’t save the government. The anti-constitutional coup was defeated not via accommodation but through resistance.

Winning elections is another matter, the pragmatic would argue. One must confirm, be what people want their leaders to be. So Sajith Premadasa distanced himself from the government he had been a part of for almost five years and adopted a Rajapaksa-lite approach characterised by temple hopping and a refusal to do or say anything remotely controversial (the only exception was his courageous stance on menstrual products) – in vain. Mangala Samaraweera felt that he had to leave electoral politics in order to be able to speak his mind. Truth has become a costly mistake in Sri Lanka by then. Telling truth to power could be dangerous. Telling truth to people could be disastrous.

The electorate’s unparalleled credulity in 2019 was the result of a presence and an absence. The Rajapaksas occupied the propaganda arena, promoting irrationality and absurdity. Anti-Rajapaksa forces avoided such propaganda battles or fled them when the cost was deemed too high, as demonstrated by the banning of Yatharoopa. Their evasion and disengagement backfired. How could voters be weaned away from Rajapaksa politics if they were subjected to only one kind of propaganda-diet? A no-holds barred resistance might have worked better.

The present is becoming overshadowed by the shades of those past errors. The appointment of 38 state ministers the same month indirect taxes were hiked is reminiscent of the UNP’s failed attempt to contain Maithripala Sirisena through appeasement. The ongoing repression smacks of Rajapaksa flavour, from the use of PTA to the prosecution of lawyer Dushmantha Weeraratne on September 9th for tooting his car-horn to the tune of kaputu kak near Galle Face. The Rajapaksas too arrested a young motorist for tooting his horn against a road-closure. The difference lies in the judicial response. In 2021, the young motorist was lambasted for exercising his constitutional right to peaceful protest. In 2022, the magistrate threw out the case against the lawyer and warned the police to study the law bef ore taking legal action against a person.

In Geneva, the government opted to reject the resolution on Sri Lanka in toto. This is not the Wickremesinghe-Samaraweera foreign policy of 2015-19 when Sri Lanka was open to the world and willing to take on legitimate concerns of the international community. This is a reversion to the Medamulana foreign policy of the Rajapaksas. The Rajapaksa habit of dealing with challenges by denying their existence or their severity is also making a comeback. Health Ministry rejected the UNICEF report on child malnutrition. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s truth telling days seem distant.

While Ranil Wickremesinghe blunders and the opposition exists in a parallel universe where their electoral victory is written in the stars, the Rajapaksas are back to weaving their web of lies and deception. Those who believe that Aragalaya has rid the popular mind of the Cobraesque myth should watch again the rapturous reception to the Lotus Tower. Lost in that marvel, the contribution that monstrosity and other like it made to our economic bankruptcy is forgotten. More than forgotten; that column of folly is being hailed as the economic way to go, a boon capable of attracting tourists and solving our foreign exchange crisis in one go. If the Rajapaksas resurface their old idea of building airports on various mountaintops and constructing an expressway right round the country, they may even end up being hailed as the only solution to the economic crisis the UNP, the SJB, and the JVP created, with help from Tamil and Muslim parties, traitors all.

Sri Lanka Rated ‘Obstructed’ by a Global Alliance of Civil Societies

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3 mins read

Sri Lanka remains on a watchlist of countries that have seen a rapid decline in civic freedoms. Despite the removal of the Rajapaksa regime, brought about by mass protests – amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades – the new President Ranil Wickremesinghe has continued the governments’ crackdown on protesters and activists, CIVICUS which is a global alliance of over 10,000 civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world has stated in a statement.

Following Wickremesinghe’s election, according to the statement, sweeping emergency powers were once again imposed to restrict protests and clamp down on protesters. Security forces used excessive force to remove parts of a rolling peaceful protest site in front of the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo. Protesters have also been harassed, arrested and detained.

The new watchlist is released by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks the latest developments to civic freedoms, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, across 197 countries and territories. Other countries included on the list are Guatemala, Guinea, Serbia and Zimbabwe.

On 17 July 2022, emergency regulations were imposed giving sweeping powers to the police and the armed forces to search and make arrests of ‘suspects’ without due process safeguards. UN human rights experts have condemned the “extensive, prolonged and repeated use of state of emergency measures” since April 2022 by the authorities to crack down on peaceful protesters.

In the early hours of 22 July 2022, a coordinated joint operation by the Sri Lankan military, police and special forces forcibly removed parts of the three-month-long ‘Gotagogama’ rolling peaceful protest site in front of the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo. Security forces severely beat protesters and lawyers and removed many tents from the pavement. At least 50 people were injured andt nine protesters were arrested and granted bail on the same day. At least 14 protesters were hospitalised. Materials and electronic devices belonging to protesters were destroyed.

“The Sri Lanka authorities must investigate all human rights violations committed by security forces during the state of emergency including unlawful arrests, excessive use of force on protesters and the brutal crackdown at the protest site at Galle Face in July. Any pending charges against those arrested for peacefully exercising their rights must be immediately dropped. These repressive actions clearly do not meet Sri Lanka’s obligations under international human rights law”, said Josef Benedict, Asia researcher for CIVICUS

The security forces have sought to harass, arrest or detain activists and protesters seeking political reform and accountability for the country’s economic crisis. Journalists have also been targeted for their reporting on the crisis and protests

On 25 July 2022, the Colombo Magistrates’ Court issued a travel ban on Father Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest who had been prominent in the protests, and several others. Leading protester Dhaniz Ali was arrested by the police while trying to leave for Dubai on a flight on 26 July 2022. On 27 July 2022, unidentified men in civilian clothes abducted Veranga Pushpika, a former student activist and journalist who had also been active in the protests, from a bus in Colombo. Police did not disclose his whereabouts for several hours before acknowledging his arrest.

On 3 August 2022, human rights defender and General Secretary of Ceylon Teachers Union Joseph Stalin was arrested. The human rights defender was taken to the Fort police station and remanded despite suffering from poor health. He was granted bail by a Colombo Fort Magistrate on 8th August 2022.

On 18 August 2022, police intervened to disrupt a protest by members of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) in central Colombo by firing a water cannon and tear gas at them. The crackdown was followed by the arrest of members of the IUSF. According to reports, 20 people were arrested and 16 of the suspects were released on personal bail after being charged with unlawful assembly and obstructing the duties of police officers by blocking the road. One of those detained was human rights defender Chinthaka Rajapakse, the moderator of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), a human rights organisation focused on land rights, protection of natural resources and the environment.

Three of those detained around the student protests including Wasantha Mudalige, the convener of the IUSF, Hashantha Jeewantha Gunathilake, member of the Kelaniya University Students’ Union and Galvewa Siridhamma Thero, the convener of Inter University Bhikku Federation, have been detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government has used the PTA to target and harass minorities, activists, journalists and critical voices.

On 9 September 2022, the National Organiser of Youth for Change (YFC), Lahiru Weerasekara was arrested by Maradana police as he was returning on his bike from a peaceful protest at Galle Face.

“The arbitrary arrests or harassment of activists and protesters must end and those detained for exercising their right to the freedom of peaceful assembly must be unconditionally and immediately released. President Ranil Wickremesinghe should also immediately end the use of the draconian counterterrorism law to lock up activists for long periods ” added Benedict.

The violations against protesters are part of a broader trend of attacks on civic space under the Rajapaksa administration that civil society has documented in recent years including the targeting of activists and critics, use of the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), surveillance, intimidation and harassment of Tamil war victims and families of the disappeared, journalists and civil society organisations, particularly in the North and East, and failure to hold officials accountable for conflict-era crimes under international law.

Sri Lanka is currently rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 42 countries in the world with this rating. This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights.

USAID signs new five-year agreement with Sri Lanka 

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1 min read

Building on the USAID Administrator Samantha Powers’s recent visit, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung announced today that the United States, through USAID, will provide an additional estimated $65 million (more than 23 billion Sri Lankan rupees) in assistance to Sri Lanka over a five-year period. The assistance falls under the Development Objectives Assistance Agreement (DOAG) signed by Mr. Gabriel Grau, Mission Director for USAID Sri Lanka and Maldives and Mr. Mahinda Siriwardena, Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Economic Stabilization and National Policies.

This funding is in addition to over $60 million (21 billion Sri Lankan rupees) of new humanitarian and fertilizer assistance that Administrator Power announced last week in response to the current economic and political crises in Sri Lanka

In celebration of the start of this new bilateral agreement, Ambassador Julie Chung remarked, “The United States and the American people are proud of our enduring and robust partnership with the people and government of Sri Lanka. We remain fully committed to supporting locally led initiatives to advance a stable, prosperous, and peaceful Sri Lanka – critical to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific in which all nations are connected, prosperous, resilient, and secure,”

The U.S., through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is committed to supporting Sri Lanka to advance market-driven growth, environmental sustainability and resilience, and good governance. All USAID funding for Sri Lanka is provided as gifts or grants and is implemented by local and international organizations that adhere to strict monitoring standards.

The U.S. has provided more than $2 billion (approximately 720 billion Sri Lankan rupees) in development assistance to Sri Lanka since 1956.

Sri Lanka’s Blunder in Geneva Carnival

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11 mins read

Referring to the 51st sessions (Sept. 12 to Oct 07, 2022) of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, last week bluntly declared that Sri Lanka wouldn’t accept any “external mechanism, external evidence gathering mechanism, charging citizens outside the country, getting hybrid judges to come and hear the cases, all these are against the Constitution. So we can’t agree to that.”

The SLPP National List lawmaker stressed “Sri Lankan citizens will not be allowed to be charged outside the country” and “foreign judges will not be permitted to sit in judgment over cases in Sri Lanka.”

Former People’s Alliance lawmaker M.M. Zuhair, PC, (1994-2000 during the CBK presidency) quite rightly challenged Sabry’s stand on an external evidence gathering mechanism against the backdrop of Sri Lanka allowing the US and Australian investigators probe the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide attacks no sooner they were carried out. Emphasizing such investigations, that had been undertaken by outsiders, weren’t subjected to approval by the relevant judicial authority here, the former Ambassador to Teheran (2006-2012 during MR presidency) questioned the rationale in Sri Lanka’s rejection. Zuhair asked for urgent review of Sri Lanka’s stand.

Minister Sabry addressed the media, with Foreign Secretary Aruni Wijewardane seated next to him, at the Foreign Ministry. Wijewardane was called back from retirement in May this year to succeed Admiral Jayanath Colombage whereas President Ranil Wickremesinghe brought in Sabry as the Foreign Minister in place of Prof. G.L. Peiris, the famed legal academic who joined the rebel SLPP group that made an abortive bid to elect MP Dullas Alahapperuma as the new President, while the party backed eventual successor Ranil Wickremesinghe to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term.

Sabry had been the wartime Defence Secretary and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Counsel in several high profile cases, including the Ukrainian MiG-27 deal and a leading campaigner in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election, which GR won handsomely. When the writer sought a clarification from Sabry regarding the US snubbing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s request for a visa against the backdrop of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage being denied visas based on unsubstantiated war crimes accusations, the President’s Counsel pointed out that Western powers had blacklisted not only individuals but entire fighting Divisions deployed on the Vanni front (2007-2009).

The US in Feb 2020 announced that Gen Shavendra Silva and his immediate family would not be permitted to enter the US though they never applied for visas.

This is unlike substantiated crimes committed by the US, the UK and Australian forces as was revealed by their own probes from Guantanamo Bay to Iraq, and Afghanistan, but were swept under the carpet.

With the Geneva sessions underway, it would be pertinent to discuss issues at hand pertaining to accountability issues as the government struggled to cope up with the developing political-economic-social crisis that had overwhelmed the country.

A statement issued by the Foreign Ministry recently disclosed the pathetic situation and its further deterioration. On a request made by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Myanmar and Attorney-at-Law, J.M. Janaka Priyantha Bandara, the cash-strapped government recently received 1,000 metric tonnes of white rice worth SLR Rs 170 mn (USD 463,215) from that poor country also struggling with many woes. The Foreign Ministry stated: “The donation was granted in response to a request made by Ambassador Janaka Bandara when he presented credentials to the State Prime Minister of Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during the credential ceremony on 7 June 2022 and also in commemoration of the 73rd anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The former SLFP National List MP received the diplomatic posting amidst the worst-ever economic turmoil and took over the mission there seven days before Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa quit following SLPP goons going on the rampage at Galle Face on May 09, which was used as a pretext to unleash pre-planned and well-coordinated attacks on mainly SLPP ministers and MPs, which left scores of homes and other properties of such politicians being attacked, looted and torched across the country and also several killings, including that of Polonnaruwa District SLPP Parliamentarian Amarakeerthi Athukorala and his police bodyguard at Nittambuwa, lynched by a mob.

Zuhair pointed out to Sabry the need to change the strategy. Let me reproduce that verbatim. “At a time when the country is increasingly dependent on the assistance of foreign countries to tackle the deepening economic crisis and the steeply rising cost of living, the government must objectively address the human rights concerns alleged against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) commencing sittings in Geneva.”

Lanka’s assurance on foreign judges

At the time Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009, Rohitha Bogollagama served as the Foreign Minister (2007-2010). President Mahinda Rajapaksa brought in Bogollagama in early 2007 after sacking Mangala Samaraweera. Prof. G.L Peiris served as the Foreign Minister (2010-2015) and was replaced by Mangala Samaraweera in 2015 with the coming to power of the yahapalana (good governance) regime, which proved to be anything but that when its leading lights robbed the Central Bank twice.

The yahapalana administration thereupon moved Samaraweera to the Finance Ministry and brought in the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake as the Foreign Minister in the wake of shocking revelations at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Treasury bond scams. In the same reshuffle one-time Attorney General Tilak Marapana received the Foreign Affairs portfolio (August 2017-Nov 2019). Dinesh Gunawardena received the Foreign Affairs portfolio after 2019 presidential election but was replaced by Prof. Peiris in August 2021.

Following a split in the SLPP in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation and UNP leader Wickremesinghe being elected the President in July by Parliament, Sabry was brought in as the Foreign Minister.

In spite of the much publicized Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the Geneva Resolution 30/1, announced by Dinesh Gunawardena, at the 43rd session of UNHRC in March 2020, Sri Lanka firmly remained committed to the process. That is the undeniable truth. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva Ravinatha Aryasinha accepted the 30/1 on specific instructions issued by Mangala Samaraweera on the advice of then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. President Maithripala Sirisena, though he made public statements contrary to the position taken by his government, however did absolutely nothing to alter the status quo.

The yahapalana government entered into the Geneva Resolution on Oct 01, 2015 regardless of the strong criticism of the US-led move by Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that strangely backed General Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidates at the 2010 and 2015 presidential elections, respectively, declared its position on foreign judges in June 2016. On behalf of the TNA, the then National List lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, disclosed a tripartite agreement among the US, Sri Lanka and the TNA. The disclosure was made in the presence of the then Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US Prasad Kariyawasam, who subsequently returned to Colombo to receive appointment as Foreign Secretary at the time of Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana.

The TNA’s partner Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesperson Suren Surendiran at that time told the writer that this tripartite agreement had been the basis for the Geneva Resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka.

Sumanthiran didn’t mince his words when he insisted that foreign judges weren’t contrary to the country’s Constitution. Those who opposed Geneva interventions conveniently refrained from challenging Sumanthiran in Parliament. Actually, refusal to allow external evidence gathering mechanism is questionable as the country remains committed to the 2015 Resolution. That is the undeniable truth.

In response to The Island queries at the Foreign Ministry briefing, Sabry acknowledged that Western powers had already taken action against the findings made by the Panel of Experts (PoE) in 2011. Over a decade after the eradication of the LTTE, successive governments hadn’t been able to reach a consensus on a common stand on war against separatist terrorism.

Sumanthiran’s disclosure

The TNA made available Sumanthiran’s audacious statement, to The Island, soon after he delivered it at the ‘Congressional Caucus for Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka’ in Washington D.C. on June 14, 2016.

On behalf of the TNA, Sumanthiran claimed to have reached a tripartite consensus in respect of foreign judges, defence attorneys, investigators, etc., in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism to probe war crimes.

Sumanthiran told the gathering that the government of Sri Lanka, the TNA and the US had been involved in the negotiations leading to the agreement.

In his brief remarks, Ambassador Kariyawasam provided an overview of the measures taken by Sri Lanka to promote its two-pronged policy of reconciliation and development since the January 2015 election of the yahapalana government and reiterated in detail, measures taken by that government to vindicate its commitment to these processes and explained the several challenges that militate against government efforts. A statement issued by the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington didn’t make any reference to Sumanthiran’s shocking disclosure.

In another shameless and impudent act, the same yahapalana administration brought back ex-ambassador Kariyawasam as an advisor to then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya paid for by Washington.

Sumanthiran told the Washington gathering that the resolution was moved in Geneva following an understanding that the participation of foreigners wouldn’t be contrary to the Sri Lanka Constitution.

Declaring that he had been personally involved in the negotiations with the US and also participated in that particular process, Sumanthiran said there were some doubts created, as to whether the Constitution of Sri Lanka would allow for foreign nationals to function as judges and we went into that question, clarified it, and said yes they could.

Sumanthiran told the Congressional Caucus that the resolution accepted at Geneva had been negotiated and they settled for a hybrid model though they originally asked for an international inquiry.

When the writer raised this issue with Marapana immediately after he took over the Foreign Ministry, the former AG declared that the 1978 Constitution wouldn’t permit the inclusion of foreign judges in the proposed domestic Judicial Mechanism under any circumstances.

Marapana quite conveniently forgot that a government appointed body in January endorsed the Geneva Resolution. The Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTFRM) called for full participation of foreign judges, and other personnel, including defence lawyers, prosecutors and investigators, in a transitional justice mechanism to address accountability issues. The CTFRM comprised Manouri Muttetuwegama, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Gamini Viyangoda, Prof. Sitralega Maunaguru, Dr. Farzana Haniffa, Mirak Raheem, Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe, Visaka Dharmadasa, Shantha Abhimanasingham, PC, K.W. Janaranjana and Prof. Daya Somasundaram.

Perhaps, Sabry should receive a comprehensive briefing regarding Sri Lankan’s faltering process in response to the Geneva challenge. It would be pertinent to ask whether the Foreign Ministry submitted the relevant records pertaining to Geneva Resolution, including the entire set of declassified British diplomatic cables from its High Commission in Colombo to the UK Foreign Office (January-May 2009) and WikiLeaks revelations, as the new Foreign Minister.

On the basis of those dispatches, Lord Naseby has repeatedly stressed that the dispatches from Colombo didn’t collaborate the five main accusations levelled against Sri Lanka. The House of Lords member quoted Lt. Colonel Gash (wartime Colombo-based UK Defence Advisor) having denied accusations that the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the elimination of Tamil civilians, and there was no basis for claims that specific no-fire zones had been established by the military to kill those who gathered in them, and attempts had been made to starve the Vanni population.

There was absolutely no justification for claims of genocide, and the dispatches had cleared Sri Lankan military of holding civilians in clandestine detention camps such as Menik Farm. Lord Naseby pointed out that the ICRC had been present at the Menik Farm from day one. But, Sri Lanka never presented its case properly before Geneva. Sri Lanka lacked backbone at least to go on record how India caused a bloodbath here.

A dismal performance

Sri Lanka should set the record straight. The responsibility on the part of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Defence should be acknowledged. The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, National Defence College and Kotelawela Defence University should at least now initiate thorough examinations of accountability issues and make recommendations to the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence. Perhaps the Parliament should seriously consider a Select Committee to examine the entire gamut of issues as part of the overall measures to meet the Geneva challenge.

The following are the issues that need attention: (1) Dismissal of war crimes accusations by war time US Defence Attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith in Colombo. The then US official did so at the May-June 2011 first post-war defence seminar in Colombo, two months after the release of PoE report. The State Department disputed the official’s right to represent the US at the forum though it refrained from challenging the statement. (2) Examine the US defence attaché’s statement along with Lord Naseby’s Oct 2017 disclosure based on the then British Defence advisor Lt. Colonel Anthony Gash’s cables to London during the war. Sri Lanka never did so. (3) Wikileaks revelations that dealt with the Sri Lanka war. A high profile Norwegian study on its role in the Sri Lanka conflict examined some cables. However, the Norwegian process never strengthened Sri Lanka’s defence. Instead it merely sought to disown its own culpability in the events leading to the annihilation of the LTTE. One of the most important Wikileaks revelations that debunked the allegation Sri Lanka deliberately targeting civilians. The cable proved that our ground forces took heavy losses by taking the civilian factor into consideration. (4) Wide discrepancies in loss of civilian lives claimed by UN and various other interested parties. The UN estimated the figure at 40,000 (March 2011) The UN in a confidential report placed the total number of deaths at 7,721 whereas Amnesty International (Sept 2011) placed the number at 10,000 and a member of the UK Parliament (Sept 2011) estimated the death toll at 100,000. (5) Disgraceful attempt made by Geneva to exploit so called Mannar mass graves during the yahapalana administration. The Foreign Ministry remained silent on Mannar graves while Western diplomats played politics by quickly putting the onus on Sri Lanka only to be proved utterly wrong. Acting at the interest of those hell-bent on blaming Sri Lanka, Geneva faulted Sri Lanka before the conclusion of the investigation.

The then Northern Province Governor Wigneswaran rejected scientific findings of Beta Analytic Institute of Florida, USA, in respect of samples of skeletal remains sent from the Mannar mass grave site. The then Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet went to the extent of commenting on Mannar mass grave in her report that dealt with the period from Oct 2015 to January 2019. We come to wonder whether she was actually a victim of Gen. Pinochet or a mere manufactured victim.( UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently announced the appointment of Volker Turk of Austria as the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, following approval by the UN General Assembly.)

Had the US lab issued a report to suit their strategy, would they have accepted fresh tests in case the government of Sri Lanka requested? The following is relevant section bearing No 23 from Bachelet’s report: “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.” (6) Wigneswaran, in his capacity as the then Northern Province Chief Minister in August 2016 accused the Army of killing over 100 LTTE cadres held in rehabilitation facilities. Wigneswaran claimed the detainees had been given poisonous injections resulting in deaths of 104 persons. The unprecedented accusation made by the retired Supreme Court judge had been timed to attract international attention. Wignewaran is on record as having said a US medical team visiting Jaffna at that time would examine the former rehabilitated LTTE cadres, who he alleged had fallen sick because they were injected with poisonous substances at government detention or rehabilitation centres.

Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for its pathetic failure to counter a web of lies fashioned by interested parties, both local and foreign mainly funded by the West to coerce the country to adopt a new Constitution. Unfortunately, the incumbent government, too, is yet to examine the Geneva issue taking into consideration all available evidence, information and data into consideration.

Views expressed are personal