By Shamindra Ferdinando
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem, MP, recently told The Island that Sri Lanka had no option but to involve India in the development of the deep water facility, the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port, which has been built to accommodate the largest container ships that ply around the world carrying as many as 16,000 containers (TEUs), like its competing Chinese-run Colombo International Container Terminal also in the more recently built and what is known as the Colombo South harbour.
The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Kandy District lawmaker said so in response to the writer seeking an explanation as regards his stand on the issue at hand in the wake of his quite controversial statement on Derana ‘Wadapitiya’, anchored by Chathura Alwis.
In response to The Island assertion that the SLMC leader took a bold but factual stand on the matter and responded: “Why beat around the bush? That is the truth.”
He hit the nail on the head, when Attorney-at-Law Hakeem declared that due to the Colombo harbour’s very heavy dependence on Indian transhipment cargo, there was no choice.
Having first entered Parliament in 1994 on the People’s Alliance (PA) National List, Hakeem took over the leadership of the SLMC soon after its founder leader M.H.M. Ashraff was killed in a helicopter crash in September 2000.
Amidst a simmering dispute over alleged Indian investment in the ECT that had engulfed the SLPP administration, Hakeem is the only lawmaker to publicly come out with the somewhat unpalatable truth that the bulk of Colombo port’s business come from Indian transhipment cargo. Hakeem, who has been in the PA, UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) and the UNF (United National Front) governments as a Cabinet Minister didn’t mince his words and quite surprised the other participants, Wasantha Samarasinghe (former JVP MP and its current Anuradhapura District leader) and State Ministers, D.V. Chanaka (Hambantota District) and D.B. Herath (Kurunegala District).
Hakeem joined the programme after its commencement but lucidly explained his stand on a number of matters, including the simmering dispute over cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims and the high profile ECT transaction. The SLMC group, within the 54-member SJB, consists of five lawmakers, including Hakeem. Hakeem recently suffered a severe setback when his four other MPs in Parliament voted for the SLPP’s 20th Amendment last October, while he alone from his party voted against it.
Besides the yahapalana regime, in which Hakeem’s SLMC was a full partner, had already muddied the Lankan waters by giving away the Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease. So it is only natural for New Delhi to have a foothold in Colombo with the ECT. Even our comrades, the JVP, though now making lots of noise over ECT going to the Adani Group of India, hardly murmured a word in protest when it was cavorting with the yahapalana regime at the time of the virtual sale of Hambantota to the Chinese.
The Kandy District MP, who had previously held the Ports and Shipping portfolios, said that the SLPA (Sri Lanka Ports Authority) owned JCT (Jaya Container Terminal) in addition to Unity Container Terminal. The SLMC leader emphasized the need to further develop JCT whereas CMPH (China Merchant Port Holdings) managed Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) and Keells-led conglomerate owned South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT) conducted their operations successfully.
Amidst the simmering ECT issue, the former Minister declared that though some opposed foreign investment in such strategic projects, the country facing a daunting financial crisis had no option but to accept the Indian investment.
Ironically when the SLPA advertised the Colombo South Harbour for investment after it built its breakwater with a USD 300 million loan from the Asian Development Bank after the end of the war, India was not interested and for that matter no one else made any worthwhile offer other than the Chinese. However as in the case of Hambantota, New Delhi awakened to its value when the China Merchant Port Holdings singlehandedly bid and obtained the CICT berth on a 35-year Build, Operate and Transfer agreement after 2010, with the SLPA holding a mere 15 per cent stake in the venture.
Lawmaker Hakeem asserted that the situation here could be stabilized by Indian involvement in the expansion of the overall Colombo Port operations. The SJB constituent took up the position that the country was in such a desperate situation, the incumbent government couldn’t afford to antagonize India.
How Indian investments can stabilize Lanka
Hakeem took a very clear stand on ECT as well as overall foreign investment in the ports and shipping sectors. The former Ports Minister articulated that against the backdrop of foreign investment in SAGT, the first public private partnership container terminal in Sri Lanka and also CICT, there couldn’t be any issue with regard to the agreed Indian investment.
SAGT launched operations in 1999. According to the SAGT: “The Company is a Board of Investment flagship entity with approximately 60% of Sri Lankan shareholding, and is backed by John Keells Holdings, APM Terminals, SLPA and Peony investments (subsidiary of Evergreen Marine Corporation).”
State Minister Herath interrupted MP Hakeem to raise a question though the former ignored the SLPP politician.
Hakeem declared that under no circumstances he would say not to accept Indian investment though the final decision lies with the incumbent government. The former Shipping Minister made reference to current Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena declaration that 49 per cent of the ECT ownership would be foreign and the remaining 51 owned by the government. SLPA holds just 15 per cent each of SAGT and CICT. The SAGT deal is for a 30-year period on BOT (Build Operate and Transfer basis) whereas the agreement on CICT covers 35 years.
Hakeem’s stand drew opposition from all other participants, including Chathura Alwis. However, Hakeem stood firm on his stand regardless of consequences. The SLMC leader asserted that Sri Lanka couldn’t turn a blind eye to the need to appease India. Declaring that Sri Lanka had appeased India before, Hakeem, turning towards Wasantha Samarasinghe emphasized the country should come to terms with the reality.
State Minister Chanaka asked Hakeem whether the previous yahapalana government entered into a MoC (Memorandum of Cooperation) with India in respect of the ECT. Hakeem however conveniently side-stepped the query, while JVPer Samarasinghe said that was finalized in May 2019.
After having been an active team player in the much muddied yahapalana rule, MP Hakeem however had the nerve to ridicule the incumbent government’s much touted ‘neutral’ foreign policy. “I haven’t the slightest idea what this government meant by neutral or balanced foreign policy. If we took a non-aligned stand, the public can clearly understand what the government intended. How one can balance the foreign policy,” MP Hakeem said.
Hakeem silent on inter-terminal transport crisis
Trade union leader Samarasinghe alleged that one-time Ports and Shipping Minister Hakeem conveniently failed to mention the crisis caused by what the JVPer called inter-terminal transport.
Samarasinghe alleged that the inter-terminal transport was in a mess. For want of sufficient space within the harbour area, vessels couldn’t be unloaded. Samarasinghe claimed that successive governments caused unprecedented deterioration due to giving the relevant contract to immensely politically influential people outside proper tender procedures.
MP Hakeem without hesitation acknowledged the crisis within the harbour, in addition to the simmering issue over the ECT.
State Minister Herath sought MP Hakeem’s opinion on the leasing of the Hambantota Port for a period of 99 years to CMPH in late July 2017. Having been a partner to that pact, MP Hakeem naturally defended the agreement on Hambantota Port to the hilt. Hakeem had been a member of the Cabinet of the yahapalana government that finalized the controversial deal on the Hambantota Port. The then Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga strongly opposed the deal. UNPer Ranatunga’s stance finally led to him being replaced by SLFPer Mahinda Samarasinghe. Ranatunga was replaced on May 22, 2017. The former national cricket Captain received the Petroleum Resources Development Ministry as a consolation prize.
Both the Minister and his brother, Dhammika objected to the deal whereas Vasudeva Nanayakkara on behalf of the Joint Opposition, moved the Supreme Court against the port transaction.
President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe ensured the finalization of the controversial transaction following the delay caused by the opposition.
Panelist Samarasinghe asked Hakeem whether the yahapalana government used USD 1.2 bn received from CMPH to settle what we owed China. Warning Sri Lanka would run out of foreign reserves next year once debts were settled, MP Hakeem predicted an unprecedented financial crisis.
The SLMC leader asserted that except China all other countries were in deepening financial turmoil. The MP categorized Sri Lanka with Angola, Liberia and Lebanon. While acknowledging the economic deterioration started during the yahapalana administration, MP Hakeem faulted the incumbent government for not being able to tackle the situation.
Hakeem warned that unless the government and the Opposition worked together, the country would have to go down on its knees to international lenders as Sri Lanka had done before on many occasions. In spite of big boasts by some, those in power and others should be realistic and be aware of the challenges faced by the country. Hakeem predicted a massive tragedy. He expressed the view that against the backdrop of the incumbent government asking for foreign investments, it should be ready to consider investments in sectors preferred by those having the wherewithal. “We have to be realistic.”
Emphasizing the responsibility on the part of Sri Lanka to exploit the country’s strategic position in the East-West route on the Indian Ocean, the SLMC leader explained how the two strategic harbours in Colombo and Hambantota could be utilized.
Now that Sri Lanka had given controlling shares to one terminal at the Colombo harbour to China why not another to India, the SJB lawmaker asserted, demanding that Sri Lanka adopt a realistic approach as the country is desperately in need of foreign investment.
Subsequently, Hakeem suggested that the controlling shares of the ECT should be given to India, Japan though JVPer Samarasinghe insisted the SLPA could handle it. “With the installation of three gantry cranes, 400 m long ECT is in operation now. A further 800 m has to be built,” Samarasinghe said, asserting USD 400 mn investment was required. With the three cranes, ECT in op even now with the 440m already built, now had to build 800 m more, which required USD 400 mn.
Declaring the SAGT and CICT generated an annual income of USD 160 mn and 250 mn, respectively,
Samarasinghe asked why investors could not build a terminal in the remaining Western side. “It can be bigger than all existing facilities. Why do we have to give up lucrative ECT?”
Samarasinghe predicted in spite of claims that SLPA would receive 51 per cent and the investor 49 holding per cent, finally ECT, it too, was expected to be eventually shared in the proportion of 15 per cent to the SLPA and 85 per cent to the investor.
ECT aggravates Prez, PM dispute
The then President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe clashed over the ECT. The dispute caused rapid deterioration of yahapalana relationship in the run-up to the sacking of Wickremesinghe’s government on Oct 26, 2018. Wickremesinghe insisted on Indian investment whereas Sirisena rejected it. But, Wickremesinghe went ahead with the project regardless of the President’s intervention. Amidst deepening turmoil, Wickremesinghe brought in Japan into the picture.
On the instructions of Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka, Japan and India signed a MoC on the ECT on May 28, 2019. According to an SLPA statement issued following the signing of the MoC, the GoSL through the SLPA retained 100% ownership of the ECT, while the Terminal Operatiing Company, is jointly owned. Sri Lanka will hold a 51 per cent-stake in the project and the joint venture partners will retain 49%.
The ECT is positioned about 3 km away from the China-funded Colombo Port City on reclaimed land on Colombo’s sea front.
“Japan is likely to provide a 40-year soft loan with a 0.1 percent interest rate,” The Hindu quoted Sudarshana Gunawardana, Director of Development Communications at the Prime Minister’s office as having said. The SLPA then termed the “envisaged Japanese loan” as “one of the best loan terms Sri Lanka has obtained”.
What is not yet clear is whether the incumbent government intends to go ahead with the MoC finalized by Wickremesinghe or change it.
JVP, SJB on ECT deal
The JVP played a significant role in paving the way for the disastrous Maithripala Sirisena presidency. The likes of trade unionist Samarasinghe have conveniently forgotten how the JVP backed UNP’s presidential candidate Sirisena, the longstanding General Secretary of the SLFP. Having installed Sirisena, the UNP-led coalition comprising one-time LTTE mouthpiece Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the JVP, the SLMC pursued an agenda of its own. One shouldn’t be surprised by lawmaker Hakeem standing as a UNP breakaway faction the SJB still followed UNP strategies though Wickremesinghe obviously had no say in its affairs.
Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella’s recent declaration that the government should take advantage of the constitution making process undertaken by the previous yahapalana government is a case in point.
Lawmakers Kirieilla and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake recently flayed the government over the decision to involve India’s biggest ports and logistic company Adani Group in the operation. Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited seems to be confident of overcoming the obstacles. The project that had been delayed due to labour protests launched ahead of the last parliamentary polls in August drew stepped up condemnation of the SJB and the JVP.
It would be pertinent to ask whether the SJB and the JVP opposed only the involvement of Adani Group in the ECT development or disputed the MoC finalized in May 2019 in the run-up to Nov 2019 presidential polls by the previous regime, in which JVP and present day SJB members were partners?
SJB heavyweight Kiriella speculated whether the government intended to win over Indian Premier Narendra Modi by giving control of the ECT to billionaire Gautam Adani. Kiriella asserted that Sri Lanka couldn’t appease India by giving ECT to a close friend of Modi. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Obviously, the SJB hasn’t taken into consideration the roles played by India and Japan as well as Australia in the overall Indo-Pacific US strategy meant to counter the growing Chinese challenge. The US led coalition is still struggling to cope up with the vastly strengthened China relentlessly pursuing an anti- China policy.
A ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ with Japan
JVP leader Dissanayake is on record as having said that a director and a local shareholder of Shangri-La who had been involved with Viyathmaga, too, promoted the deal with Adani Group. The JVPer also alleged that the same person immensely benefited from recent government decisions to change import levies on sugar and coconut oil.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to New Delhi and Colombo highlighted their strategy. There is no doubt the Adani Group’s move on the ECT had been approved by the highest level of political leadership and the talk of Sri Lanka trying to appease India by involving Gautam Adani is nothing but bunkum.
The public should not forget the then Premier Wickremesinghe entered into a ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ with Japan in early Oct, 2015. In the following year on Oct 09, the training squadron of the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) was in Colombo to underscore the strengthening of the partnership. The writer had an opportunity to visit JS Kashima on the invitation of the Japanese Embassy in Colombo. Asked for a clarification as regards growing Japanese military role in Asia in support of the US as well as joint military cooperation among the US, Japan and India in response to the Chinese Challenge, Commanding Officer of the squadron Rear Admiral Hidetoshi Iwasaki explained the circumstances under which the Japanese forces could be deployed overseas along with the US.
Sri Lanka-Japan ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ should be examined taking into consideration three agreements sought by the US, the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement finalized in early August 2017), stalled MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact and SOFA (Status of Forces) agreement. The recent US declaration that Sri Lanka wouldn’t be accommodated in the MCC Compact is unlikely to be the end of the US efforts to bring Sri Lanka under its control.
As part of overall Western strategy, the US seeks a government receptive in Colombo. The US wants to deny China access to Sri Lanka. The US made an abortive bid to install the then General Sarath Fonseka as the President in January 2010. However, the US project succeeded at the January 2015 presidential election. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime initially took a hardline stand on China. Some members of that administration responsible for Treasury bond scams in Feb 2015 and March 2016 alleged corruption couldn’t be tackled here unless Chinese investments were drastically pruned. Having accused China of promoting corruption here, the yahapalana administration ended up handing over the Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease to China.
In the run-up to the July 2017 Hambantota Port deal, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa accompanied by ex-External Affairs Minister and Chairman of the SLPP Prof. G.L. Peiris visited Beijing where the issue was discussed. During the weeklong visit in late 2016, they also visited Southern China. They urged the Chinese to stick to the original Hambantota development project to avert possible protests. They suggested it would be better to utilize 750 acres as originally planned. This suggestion was made against the backdrop of the then Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema’s revelation that the Chinese wanted 15,000 acres of land in the Hambantota district for large scale development projects. In the second week of January 2017, Wickremesinghe launched the Hambantota project in spite of President Sirisrena’s objections. Wickremesinghe ignored Sirisena’s claim that the agreement hadn’t been finalized yet. Having launched the Hambantota project, Wickremesinghe declared that negotiations were underway with India and Japan for the development of the strategic Trincomalee Port.
With US-China hostility on the rise, Sri Lanka shouldn’t expect breathing space from either party. A much weaker economy as a result of the rampaging corona epidemic when compared with the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency in Nov 2019, should prompt Sri Lanka to adopt an austerity drive.
Let that begin at the Parliament, dubbed the most corrupt institution in the country by no less a person than one-time Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa, PC.
Former OMP Chief now at BASL helm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Editor of ‘Annidda’, Attorney-at-Law K.W. Janaranjana, in a piece in its Feb 21, 2021, edition that dealt with the election of Saliya Pieris, PC, as the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), asserted that the government hadn’t made a special intervention in the contest.
The government hadn’t made political intervention, though a group of people, including the Secretary of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), and its National List MP, and Attorney-at-Law Sagara Kariyawasam, made a bid to secure the backing of the government for Saliya’s rival. Such attempts made at the provincial level, too, failed to produce the desired results.
Saliya Pieris, who succeeded Kalinga Indatissa, PC, polled 5,093 votes at the election conducted on Feb 24. His rival, Kuvera de Zoysa, PC secured 2,797 votes. The winner secured a staggering 2,386 vote majority – just 321 short of the number of votes polled by De Zoysa.
Janaranjana, a leading member of the civil society grouping Purawesi Balaya, who played a significant role in the yahapalana political campaign, claimed that some of the lawyers who represented top government figures, too, backed Saliya Pieris. Emphasizing that all of them worked for Saliya’s victory, Janaranjana dismissed assertions that the victory achieved by Saliya Pieris was a severe debacle suffered by the Rajapaksas.
Janaranjana attributed the President’s Counsel’s victory to his commitment to the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and human rights throughout his legal career.
A battle between SLPP and Opp.
In spite of the government refraining from taking a stand, as pointed out by Janaranjana, the contest received unprecedented attention, with the lawyer electorate turning it into a battle between the SLPP government and the Opposition. Saliya Pieris, in an exclusive interview with Janaranjana, also published on the Feb 21, 2021 edition of Anidda, three days before the election, flayed the rival group. Pieris emphasized the responsibility, on the part of the BASL, to take a principled stand on contentious issues, regardless of the consequences. Pieris explained his public role since the arrest of High Court Judge Mahanama Tillekaratne, in 1998. Essentially, Pieris flayed the BASL for its failure to take up issues, such as the alleged attack on the Mannar Court by supporters of the then Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential term. However, Bathiudeen, leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), now represents the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).
Pieris also referred to the impeachment of Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake 43, also during the previous Rajapaksa administration. However, there hadn’t been any reference at all to the BASL receiving Rs 2.5 mn sponsorship, in 2016, from disgraced Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) in support of a high profile event conducted at a leading hotel, with the participation of the then Chief Justice, Attorney General, Solicitor General, the President and the Prime Minister. The BASL never explained why funds were obtained from PTL, despite its perpetration of Treasury bond scams, in Feb 2015, and March 2016.
The BASL should be also be seriously concerned about Hejaaz Hizbullah, a prominent lawyer arrested on April 14, 2020 over his direct involvement with the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. Hizbullah was recently produced in court on a directive issued by Attorney General Dappula de Livera. The lawyer’s arrest, too, caused a sharp division among BASL members and contributed to the overwheming victory achieved by Pieris.
When the writer asked a lawyer, who voted for the winner, why he did so, he explained his position, on the condition of anonymity. The lawyer said: “Voted at the DC polling booth in Colombo. I didn’t vote last time. Lawyers preferred an anti-establishment candidate since the independence of the bar is paramount. On the other hand, lawyers detested hitherto unseen level of inducements being offered to win votes, as well as fabricated false accusations. Anonymous accusations and despicable strategies resulted in further revulsion towards the losing candidate. Unprecedented number of members turned up to ensure a resounding mandate to the winning candidate.
Saliya Pieris responds
The writer sought views of the newly elected BASL President as regards several issues.
(Q) What would be your priorities?
(A) Securing the rights of lawyers in the profession; making a positive impact on issues pertaining to the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and protection of fundamental rights; supporting juniors in the profession and supporting the welfare of the membership.
(Q) You served as first Chairman, OMP (Office of Missing Persons), an apparatus set up in terms of the 2015 Geneva Resolution. GoSL in March 2020
quit the Geneva process. What can BASL do to address accountability issues, both during the conflict and the post war period?
(A) The role of the BASL is different from the OMP. As I have stated, upholding the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary will be a priority. All domestic institutions which address these issues must be independent so that the people who seek relief from them trust these institutions and have confidence in them.
(Q) You secured well over 2000 votes than your rival. How do you intend to win the confidence of those who voted against you?
(A) I have received support from lawyers, across the country and from every community and area. My support cut across all lines, be it party, race, religion or area. On the very day of the announcement of my election, I reached out to all those members who did not vote for me and will continue to.do so. At the same time, I am sure that the members who voted otherwise at the elections will work with me for the betterment of the bar.
(Q)What would you do to prevent deaths in police custody?
(A) Police torture and deaths in custody affect the rule of law and should be condemned. There must be zero tolerance. The Bar must carefully examine these issues and, if needed, lobby the government to ensure fair investigations and that the perpetrators are punished.
(Q) What is your stand on implementation of death penalty and presidential pardon?
(A) These have not been discussed at the Bar Council as yet. My personal view is that I am opposed to the implementation of the death penalty. On presidential pardons, I am of the view that the power of pardon must not be used unreasonably, and must be done by taking into account several factors including the nature of the crime and the views of the aggrieved party.
Let me remind the readers of nine previous BASL Presidents, before Saliya Pieris, who won the presidency: Desmond Fernando, PC (2005 – 2006), Nihal Jayamanne, PC (2006 – 2008), W. Dayaratne, PC (2008 – 2010), Shibly Aziz, PC (2010 – 2012), Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC (2012 – 2013), Upul Jayasuriya, PC (2013 – 2015), Geoffrey Alagaratnam, PC (2015 – 2017), U. R. De Silva, PC (2017 – 2019) and Kalinga Indatissa, PC (2019 – 2021).
Of those 17,200 eligible to vote at the Feb. 24 election, approximately 8,000 voted, though usually only about 6,500 voted in previous years. In other words, nearly 47 per cent chose not to participate in the process.
Who betrayed the country?
Janaranjana discussed how the rival camp depicted Saliya Pieris as a person who betrayed the country by being involved in a treacherous international conspiracy to undermine the armed forces. According to Janaranjana, the rival camp exploited social media and other propaganda means to depict Saliya Pieris as a traitor whose election would lead to the division of the country, on ethnic lines. Janaranjana pointed out how the unprecedented victory achieved by Saliya Pieris proved the failure of the rival camp’s strategy.
Against the backdrop of unsubstantiated allegations, directed at Saliya Pieris, as regards his role as the Chairman of the OMP, it would be pertinent to examine the failure on the part of the BASL to genuinely address accountability issues related to Sri Lanka’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The OMP was one of the four mechanisms established in terms of the controversial resolution 30/1 ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.’ The four apparatuses are (i) A hybrid judicial mechanism with a Special Counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law (ii) A Commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence (iii) An Office for Missing Persons and (iv) and Office for Reparations.
The previous UNP-SLFP administration established the first permanent official body, tasked with tracking down missing persons, in terms of Act No. 14 of 2016. This was done in line with one of the recommendations in the 2015 UNHRC Resolution co-sponsored by the Government of Sri Lanka. Due to political turmoil, the government was able to establish the OMP two years after the Act was passed. The OMP initiated ‘operations’ in May 2018 with members visiting Mannar to meet the families of those disappeared in that District.
The OMP’s mandate, according to Part II Section 10 of the Office on Missing Persons Act, No. 14 of 2016:
(a) To search for and trace missing persons and identify appropriate mechanisms for the same and to clarify the circumstances in which such persons went missing;
(b) To make recommendations to the relevant authorities towards addressing the incidence of missing persons;
(c) To protect the rights and interests of missing persons and their relatives as provided for in this Act.
(d) To identify avenues of redress to which missing persons and relatives of missing persons are entitled to, and to inform the missing person (if found alive) or relative of such missing person of same.
(e) To collate data related to missing persons obtained by processes presently being carried out, or which were previously carried out, by other institutions, organizations, Government Departments and Commissions of Inquiry and Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry and centralize all available data within the database established under this Act.
(f) To do all such other necessary things that may become necessary to achieve the objectives under the Act.
Saliya Pieris received the appointment as Chairman, OMP on May 1, 2018. The civil society activist quit the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) to take the leadership of the OMP. The outfit comprised Saliya Pieris, PC, Ms. Jayatheepa Punniyamoorthy, Major General (Rtd.) Mohanti Antonette Peiris, Sriyani Nimalka Fernando, Mirak Raheem, Somasiri K. Liyanage and Kanapathipillai Venthan.
The now defunct Constitutional Council picked the OMP members. The then President Maithripala Sirisena finalized their appointments. It would be pertinent to mention that OMP member Mirak Raheem had been a member of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTFRM), headed by Attorney-at-Law Manouri Muttetuwegama. The outfit called for full participation of foreign judges in the proposed inquiry.
OMP’s intervention helps Lanka
The then Joint Opposition campaigned both in and outside the OMP, alleging the outfit would pave the way for unprecedented international scrutiny of the war-winning armed forces. However, thanks to OMP’s intervention, Sri Lanka was able to disapprove the high profile accusations, pertaining to the Mannar mass graves. Whatever the accusations, the OMP helped Sri Lanka to counter an extremely serious allegation raised in the run-up to the March 2019 Geneva sessions by UN human rights Chief Michelle Bachelet.
Bachelet served as the Chilean President for nine years, beginning 2006. Bachelet had been in an indecent hurry to pressure Sri Lanka over accountability issues and she blindly blamed the Mannar mass graves on the Sri Lanka Army before a leading US lab, contacted by the OMP, tested the bones and found them to be several centuries old and belonged to the colonial period. Unfortunately, the then government never bothered to further examine the Mannar mass graves case as part of an overall investigation into unsubstantiated allegations. In fact, Sri Lanka never properly examined the campaign conducted by interested parties to undermine post-war Sri Lanka.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. Wartime disappearances are certainly politically sensitive issues, exploited by political parties here, as well as various other interested parties.
The scientific findings of Beta Analytic Institute of Florida, USA, in respect of samples of skeletal remains, sent from the Mannar mass grave site, quite upset the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). TNA appointed then Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswarn rejected the US findings. Michelle Bachelet went to the extent of commenting on the Mannar mass grave in her report that dealt with the period from Oct 2015 to January 2019.
The following is the 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.”
Disappearance of Ekneligoda
However, Sri Lanka cannot ignore the issue as disappearances took place during successive governments. Disappearances took place during the conflict and also in the post-war period. The disappearance of media personality Prageeth Ekneligoda on the eve of the 2010 January presidential election, is a case in point. The failure on the part of Sri Lanka to address Ekneligoda disappearance increased international pressure on Sri Lanka. The government owed an explanation as regards the media personality’s disappearance over a decade ago. There cannot be any rationale in blanket denial of accusations. In fact, efforts to deceive the public, and the international community in respect of perhaps isolated cases such as the Ekneligoda disappearance had facilitated the high profile Western strategy meant to subvert Sri Lanka on unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.
With Saliya Pieris at the helm of the BASL, it can certainly play a significant role in Sri Lanka’s effort to ascertain the truth. The new BASL Chief, with valuable experience as a member of the HRCSL as well as the Chairman, OMP, can undertake a thorough examination of events/developments leading to the final confrontation between the Army and the LTTE on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, in the Mullaitivu district, on the morning of May 19, 2009. The BASL had been largely silent on the Geneva issue though one of its high profile members, TNA lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran, declared, in mid-2016, the acceptance of foreign judges in local war crimes investigation mechanisms. The declaration was made in Washington in the presence of the then Sri Lanka’s Ambassador there Prasad Kariyawasam. The Foreign Ministry remained conveniently silent on the issue. In August 2017, Kariyawasam received the appointment as the Foreign Secretary, whereas President Sirisena brought in Tilak Marapana, PC, and a one-time Attorney General as the Foreign Minister. Marapana, too, followed the UNP strategy. The UNP-led government turned a blind eye to the UK House of Lords disclosure on Oct 12, 2017 how the British government suppressed confidential dispatches from its Defence Advisor in Colombo Lt. Col. Anthony Gash (Jan-May 2009). The UK, now leading the Sri Lanka Core Group targeting the country in Geneva, in the absence of the US, continues to shamelessly suppress dispatches, pertaining to Sri Lanka, as the disclosure of such would jeopardize the Western campaign against the country.
Perhaps the appointment of Saliya Pieris couldn’t have taken place at a better time for the country. The respected lawyer received the BASL leadership, the day Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena responded to Michelle Bachelet’s damning report. The writer is of the opinion that Minister Gunawardena, in his speech, should have requested Michelle Bachelet, as well as the 47-members of the UNHRC, to re-examine all available evidence, information and data. Minister Gunawardena should have formally requested the UK, a member of the UNHRC, to disclose all such dispatches sent by Gash to London. The UK released only a section of heavily censored dispatches, following the unprecedented intervention made by Conservative Party veteran Lord Naseby. Sri Lanka pathetically failed to exploit Gash dispatches in spite of Lord Naseby raising the issue, ahead of the Geneva sessions. Let me reproduce the relevant question raised by Lord Naseby and the response received.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, on Feb 16, 2021, told Parliament that the UK Government had not received any request from the Geneva Council for copies of dispatches written by the former defence attaché at the British High Commission in Sri Lanka Gash about events in Sri Lanka related to the civil war, and had not provided any.
Lord Ahmad was responding to Lord Naseby’s query raised on Feb 4, 2021, whether the UK government provided to UNHRC any (1) censored, and (2) uncensored, copies of dispatches from Lieutenant Colonel Gash, the former defence attaché of the British High Commission in Sri Lanka about events in that country between 1 January and 18 May 2009, relating to the civil war.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka for some strange reason, refrained from raising the the US disclosure, in 2011, that battlefield executions didn’t take place, or confidential UN report that contradicted the main Geneva accusation the military massacred 40,000 civilians.
Perhaps, the BASL, under its new leadership, can examine the whole gamut of issues, with the focus on the UNSG’s Panel of Experts (PoE) report (March 31, 2011) that prevented examination of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations on the basis of which Sri Lanka co-sponsored the 2015 Geneva resolution. According to the PoE (paragraph 23, titled Confidentiality of the Panel’s records), the examination of unsubstantiated allegations wouldn’t be allowed till 2031 in terms of the UN directive. Even after the 20-year period of classification as confidential records, those unsubstantiated allegations wouldn’t be examined without a declassification review. Let us hope the BASL undertakes a thorough study on accountability issues. Pieris, is certainly the most qualified to lead the inquiry.
Two colliding and coexisting Asian giants
CHINA and INDIA – History, Culture, Cooperation and Competition Editors
– Paramita Mukherjee, Arnab K. Deb and Miao Pang
SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd. (www.sagepub.in)
Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz
This book is itself proof that India and China, two Asian political giants, could come together in peace and work constructively and cooperatively towards worthy ends. ‘China and India – History, Culture, Cooperation and Competition’, is a product of profound, combined political science scholarship between India and China, which could not have come into our hands at a more appropriate time.
The reason for the latter observation ought to be plain to see: after a months-long military stand-off on their disputed border in the Ladakh sector, in particular, which at times claimed lives, the giants have decided to withdraw their troops, giving negotiations a chance. In fact, constructive engagement rather confrontation has been the dominant feature in India-China relations over the past few decades, although negative quarters, including those among the international media, have chosen to see otherwise.
That said, it could not be denied that India-China relations have been badly ruptured at times by divisive questions and conflicting interests. Some of these differences have been grave enough to prompt the giants to resolve them on the battle field. For example, their border dispute drove these powers to resort to a full-blown war in 1962. Other issues remain to be resolved as well.
However, Siparna Basu in his paper in ‘China and India…’ titled, ‘Multiple Paths to Globalisation – The India-China Story’, commenting on the history of India-China ties, reveals how India’s first post-independence Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reportedly declined an offer, backed by the US in the mid fifties, to allocate a UN Security Council seat to India, proposing that the offer should be made to China instead. Apparently, India considered this offer as a move against China. It is a measure of the cooperative spirit which existed between India and China at the time.
But the numerous papers in this book of combined scholarship, while being evidence of the unity of purpose the regional heavyweights could achieve, open revealing windows to also the achievements in numerous fields of the Indian and Chinese civilizations over the centuries.
The countries are revered civilizations that have fertilized the human spirit everywhere through their enduring and ennobling achievements and the papers in this book give us an ample description of these accomplishments, besides updating the reader accurately on the latest developments in India-China ties, in a multiplicity of areas, including inter-state politics.
A strong merit of ‘China and India..’ is the ample space it devotes to economic cooperation between India and China on the one hand and the numerous exercises in such cooperation featuring these key powers and their neighbouring states, on the other. That is, we are kept very much abreast of the latest developments relating to groupings, such as, BRICS, BIMSTEC, BCIM, SCO, to name just a few. This is as it should be because it is economics in the main that is driving international relations currently and not so much politics and military conflict, although the dominant tendency among major opinion moulders, such as the media, is to focus on ‘geopolitics’ to the detriment of economics.
In keeping with the overall spirit of the book, researchers continually focus on the huge potential for bilateral economic cooperation between India and China, besides drawing attention to the benefits of regional collaborative efforts in commerce, trade and investment. Just two papers that are of immense worth from this viewpoint are: ‘Driving Force and Constraints of BCIM Economic Corridor’ by Li Jingfeng and ‘Regional Inequality over the Post-globalization Era: A Study on India and China’ by Arindam Banik and Arnab K. Deb.
Accordingly, ‘China and India…’ gives us the actualities in India-China ties lying behind the smokescreen of sensational military developments between the countries. Besides, it’s a remarkable update on the potential for inter-country economic cooperation in the Indian Ocean region while focusing also on the major economic forces driving global and regional political change.
By Lynn Ockersz
With kingly poise he glides,
This milk-white wonder,
Whom we take for granted…..
The quickening Beira waters,
For him holding no terrors…
But study his every deft action,
And behold a stand-alone splendour,
Of the country’s ravaged eco-system,
Who is at peace with himself,
And is in no need,
To beg, steal or borrow,
Or cut deals that bring him dishonour.
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