by Kumar David
The biggest domestic minority party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) an expatriate democratic Tamil organisation, have just concluded a series of consultations in Washington DC with the US State Department at the latter’s invitation. The proceedings have been reported by the TNA and GTF in press and YouTube videos mainly in Tamil but some in English as well. The US issued a brief statement. What transpired and what was agreed is pretty clear. The case that the Tamil parties laid before the Americans was: (a) Sri Lanka is on an authoritarian trajectory, (b) Tamils are facing an existential threat, (c) China’s aggressive engagement has implications not only for the region but for Lanka as well and (d) the US can and should play a transformative role. In respect of Tamil perspectives the delegation emphasised the turn to authoritarianism and dictatorship, militarisation of the North-East, need to preserve the Tamil and Muslim identity of the North-East, educational and economic empowerment and maintaining pressure for accountability as per the UNHRC resolution. This is on the whole a strong case though I believe that the ongoing persecution of the Muslims and continuing deception of Catholics should have found greater emphasis in TNA-GTF arguments.
Though the meetings were with the US Administration an essential behind the scenes presence was India for both strategic and Indian domestic reasons. The other two QUAD powers Australia and Japan have only indirect strategic interest. The turn to authoritarianism and disregard for human rights and democratic norms makes the country susceptible to Chinese pressure. Because Lanka is approaching bankruptcy and economic chaos Chinese economic support is an existential factor. This is buttressed by large infrastructure investments. The knock-need government has for its own survival turned into a de facto Chinese economic colony. This will give China leverage over Sri Lanka in Indian Ocean related strategic matters to the disadvantage of India and the US. This China play by the Tamil delegations is a smart move and even though the US statement after the meetings did not play it up. It must have fallen on fertile ground since QUAD versus China strategic tension in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea may intensify. It seems that the Tamil parties played their hand well except, unfortunately inadequate emphasis on the concerns of other minorities – Muslims and Catholics.
The American statement (no doubt in consultation with Delhi) has been drafted with great caution and Washington-Delhi did not show their hand on how to fix this lost in the woods regime. As expected the flag was raised high on human rights and democratic norms which is Biden’s current global slogan. This gives warning that both the regional power and the superpower will not remain quiet if the Gotabaya regime attempts further militarisation or makes a play to gerrymander the next election cycle.
While the US can quickly and effectively impose economic sanctions and travel bans (of course nothing like this was hinted at in the US statement) I do not see how it can influence an authoritarian constitution which the Sri Lankan regime is certain to attempt to inflict on the country, probably in 2022. India is in a much stronger position to demand respect for democratic norms and it can do so by continuing to demand full implementation of 13A, not for 13A’s own sake but as a lever to strengthen democratic norms. To want the US to go as far as press for devolution of power and regional autonomy is too much to expect. If the US is uncompromising on human rights issues that will be useful enough.
The rapport between the US and Lanka’s minorities has emerged as a patron-client relationship; but can it deliver to the satisfaction of either? It is unlikely that the client (the minorities) are strong enough in the domestic arena to shift of Rajapaksa politics from China stooging and shift Lanka’s Indian Ocean strategic alignment. For the patron (US more than India) the chat was in all likelihood exploratory. What the two patrons can do for the client concretely is not much. Maybe discourage a coup and prevent further erosion of human rights but on nitty-gritty specifics like devolution, articles of the proposed constitution, ethnic identity of the North-East, return of land sized by the military from Tamils and blocking anticipated anti-Muslim obscenities in the pending Gnanasara Task Force recommendations, it is likely the US will prefer to steer clear of what it may judge to be incidentals.
Hence, though I have devoted some space to the meeting, the thesis of this essay is to point out that neither the US nor India are the stars to which Sri Lanka’s minorities should hitch their future though they will of course be useful on the side-lines in disciplining a ship-wrecked regime. The way forward for the minorities is not to have exaggerated expectations of what foreign powers can do but to enter partnerships via what these days is called a Big-Tent (BT). The term BT gained currency in Europe in the last decade including the Italian Five Star and Spanish Ciudadanos “catch-all” parties. The difference between a multi-party alliance and a BT is that the former is a coalition or united front (the SJB, the 1970 United Front) while BT is a unique political party permitting a broad spectrum of views within itself and therefore called catch-all. The way forward for minority politics in Sri Lanka is permitting a range of views about say devolution or family laws to coexist internally (neither the TNA nor the Muslim parties in any case have specific but contradictory socio-political ideologies), but at the same time form working fronts with the JVP and SJB not only for the minorities sake but also influence these narrow minded (on the ethnic issue) entities to expand their intellectual horizons.
but at the same time form working fronts with the JVP and SJB not only for the minorities sake but also influence these narrow minded (on the ethnic issue) entities to expand their intellectual horizons.
What will happen if the TNA proposes to either the SJB or the NPP that it would like to work with them and form an alliance in exchange for a dialogue on the way forward for the Tamil speaking people? Will the latter Sinhalese entities suffer a heart-attack or maybe an apoplectic fit? In so far as the minorities are concerned it is not overseas patrons but domestic alliances that can win it some of its demands while at the same time building fortifications to withstand creeping autocracy. Historically Tamil politics has been conservative, reactionary, pro-capitalist and sometimes provided succour for caste-bigots. Offhand I cannot recall a single left MP other than Pokey Kandiah from the North or East. The electoral performance of the left in these two provinces have always been nadir. The TC and FP participated only in staunchly reactionary governments – GG and Tiruchelvam. Repeatedly the Tamils ended with egg on their faces. Yes indeed the Tamils can respond that they have been betrayed over and over again by Sinhalese leaders (BC Pact, DC Agreement, 1972 Constitution) but the current scenario reduces to this. Put your eggs in a QUAD basket and place all faith in global players (of course this avenue must be kept open), or try again and again to engage with domestic actors. Anyone who rejects this has no alternative but to return to civil war and the Thamil Eelam illusion. Frankly though, that door has been shut in perpetuity. This remark will provoke the ire some of my radical Tamil friends, but I have no choice but to call a spade a spade if that’s how I see it.
I am curious how the TNA and the Muslim entities will act in the next three years. Exactly how matters outside their control will develop is not easy to foresee other than to expect the government’s difficulties to multiply. Hence the JVP, SJB, TNA and the Muslims have all entered a period of positional warfare. This means manoeuvre into advantageous positions vis a vis the main enemy and also potential allies. To use an adage commonly used in recent times, nothing is off the table, organisation and alliance building are the keys.
How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October
Five armed Palestinian groups joined Hamas in the deadly 7 October attack on Israel after training together in military-style exercises from 2020 onwards, BBC News analysis shows.
The groups carried out joint drills in Gaza which closely resembled the tactics used during the deadly assault – including at a site less than 1km (0.6 miles) from the barrier with Israel – and posted them on social media.
They practised hostage-taking, raiding compounds and breaching Israel’s defences during these exercises, the last of which was held just 25 days before the attack.
BBC Arabic and BBC Verify have collated evidence which shows how Hamas brought together Gaza’s factions to hone their combat methods – and ultimately execute a raid into Israel which has plunged the region into war.
‘A sign of unity’
On 29 December 2020, Hamas’s overall leader Ismail Haniyeh declared the first of four drills codenamed Strong Pillar a “strong message and a sign of unity” between Gaza’s various armed factions.
As the most powerful of Gaza’s armed groups, Hamas was the dominant force in a coalition which brought together 10 other Palestinian factions in a war games-style exercise overseen by a “joint operation room”.
Prior to 2018, Hamas had formally coordinated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Gaza’s second largest armed faction and – like Hamas – a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and other countries.
Hamas had also fought alongside other groups in previous conflicts, but the 2020 drill was billed in propaganda as evidence a wider array of groups were being unified.
Hamas’s leader said the first drill reflected the “permanent readiness” of the armed factions.
The 2020 exercise was the first of four joint drills held over three years, each of which was documented in polished videos posted on public social media channels.
The BBC has visually identified 10 groups, including PIJ, by their distinctive headbands and emblems training alongside Hamas during the Strong Pillar drills in footage posted on the messaging app Telegram.
Following the 7 October attack, five of the groups went on to post videos claiming to show them taking part in the assault. Three others issued written statements on Telegram claiming to have participated.
The role of these groups has come into sharp focus as pressure builds on Hamas to find dozens of women and children believed to have been taken as captives from Israel into Gaza by other factions on 7 October. Three groups – PIJ, the Mujahideen Brigades and Al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades – claim to have seized Israeli hostages on that day.
Efforts to extend the temporary truce in Gaza were said to be hinging on Hamas locating those hostages. The structure was set up in 2018 to coordinate Gaza’s armed factions under a central command.
While these groups are drawn from a broad ideological spectrum ranging from hard-line Islamist to relatively secular, all shared a willingness to use violence against Israel.
Hamas statements repeatedly stressed the theme of unity between Gaza’s disparate armed groups. The group suggested they were equal partners in the joint drills, whilst it continued to play a leading role in the plans to attack Israel. Footage from the first drill shows masked commanders in a bunker appearing to conduct the exercise, and begins with a volley of rocket fire.
It cuts to heavily armed fighters overrunning a mocked-up tank marked with an Israeli flag, detaining a crew member and dragging him away as a prisoner, as well as raiding buildings.
We know from videos and harrowing witness statements that both tactics were used to capture soldiers and target civilians on 7 October, when around 1,200 people were killed and an estimated 240 hostages were taken.
Telling the world
The second Strong Pillar drill was held almost exactly one year later.
Ayman Nofal, a commander in the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades – the official name for Hamas’s armed wing – said the aim of the exercise on 26 December 2021 was to “affirm the unity of the resistance factions”.
He said the drills would “tell the enemy that the walls and engineering measures on the borders of Gaza will not protect them”.
Another Hamas statement said the “joint military manoeuvres” were designed to “simulate the liberation of settlements near Gaza” – which is how the group refers to Israeli communities.
The exercise was repeated on 28 December 2022, and propaganda images of fighters practising clearing buildings and overrunning tanks in what appears to be a replica of a military base were published to mark the event.
The exercises were reported on in Israel, so it’s inconceivable they were not being closely monitored by the country’s extensive intelligence agencies.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have previously carried out air strikes to disrupt Hamas’s training activities. In April 2023, they bombed the site used for the first Strong Pillar drill.
Weeks before the attacks, female surveillance soldiers near the Gaza border reportedly warned of unusually high drone activity and that Hamas was training to take over observation posts with replicas of their positions.
But, according to reports in the Israeli media, they say they were ignored. Brigadier General Amir Avivi, a former IDF deputy commander in Gaza, told the BBC: “There was a lot of intelligence that they were doing this training – after all, the videos are public, and this was happening just hundreds of metres from the fence (with Israel).”
But he said while the military knew about the drills, they “didn’t see what they were training for”.
The IDF said they “eliminated” Nofal on 17 October 2023, the first senior Hamas military leader to be killed during the conflict.
Hiding in plain sight
Hamas went to great lengths to make sure the drills were realistic.
In 2022, fighters practised storming a mock Israeli military base built just 2.6km (1.6 miles) from the Erez crossing, a route between Gaza and Israel controlled by the IDF.
BBC Verify has pinpointed the site in the far north of Gaza, just 800m (0.5 miles) from the barrier, by matching geographic features seen in the training footage to aerial images of the area. As of November 2023, the site was still visible on Bing Maps.
The training camp was within 1.6km (1 mile) of an Israeli observation tower and an elevated observation box, elements in a security barrier Israel has spent hundreds of millions of dollars constructing.
The mock base is on land dug several metres below ground level, so it may not have been immediately visible to any nearby Israeli patrols – but the smoke rising from the explosions surely would have been, and the IDF is known to use aerial surveillance.
Hamas used this site to practise storming buildings, taking hostages at gunpoint and destroying security barriers.
BBC Verify has used publicly available information – including satellite imagery – to locate 14 training sites at nine different locations across Gaza.
They even trained twice at a site less than 1.6 km (1 mile) from the United Nations’ aid agency distribution centre, and which was visible in the background of an official video published by the agency in December 2022.
Land, sea and air
On 10 September 2023, the so-called joint committee room published images on its dedicated Telegram channel of men in military uniforms carrying out surveillance of military installations along the Gaza barrier.
Two days later, the fourth Strong Pillar military exercise was staged, and by 7 October, all the tactics that would be deployed in the unprecedented attack had been rehearsed.
Fighters were filmed riding in the same type of white Toyota pickup trucks which were seen roaming through southern Israel the following month.
The propaganda video shows gunmen raiding mock buildings and firing at dummy targets inside, as well as training to storm a beach using a boat and underwater divers. Israel has said it repelled attempted Hamas boat landings on its shores on 7 October.
However, Hamas did not publicise its training with motorcycles and paragliders as part of the Strong Pillar propaganda.
A training video posted by Hamas three days after 7 October shows fences and barriers being demolished to allow motorcycles to pass through, a tactic they used to reach communities in southern Israel. We have not identified similar earlier videos.
Footage of fighters using paragliding equipment was also not published until the 7 October attack was under way.
In a training video shared on the day of the attack, gunmen are seen landing in a mock kibbutz at an airstrip we have located to a site north of Rafah in southern Gaza.
BBC Verify established it was recorded some time before 25 August 2022, and was stored in a computer file titled Eagle Squadron, the name Hamas uses for its aerial division – suggesting the paragliders plan was in the works for over a year.
The element of surprise
Before 7 October, Hamas was thought to have about 30,000 fighters in the Gaza Strip, according to reports quoting IDF commanders. It was also thought that Hamas could draw on several thousands of fighters from smaller groups.
Hamas is by far the most powerful of the Palestinian armed groups, even without the support of other factions – suggesting its interest in galvanising the factions was driven by an attempt to secure broad support within Gaza at least as much as bolstering its own numbers.
The IDF has previously estimated 1,500 fighters joined the 7 October raids. The Times of Israel reported earlier this month the IDF now believes the number was closer to 3,000.
Whatever the true number, it means only a relatively small fraction of the total number of armed operatives in Gaza took part. It is not possible to verify precise numbers for how many fighters from smaller groups took part in the attack or the Strong Pillar drills.
While Hamas was building cross-faction support in the build-up to the attack, Hisham Jaber, a former Brigadier General in the Lebanese army who is now a security analyst at the Middle East Centre for Studies and Research, said he believed only Hamas was aware of the ultimate plan, and it was “probable they]asked other factions to join on the day”.
Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer in security studies at Kings College London, told the BBC: “While there was centralised planning, execution was de-centralised, with each squad operationalising the plan as they saw fit.”
He said he had spoken to people inside Hamas who were surprised by the weakness of Israel’s defences, and assessed militants likely bypassed Israel’s surveillance technology by communicating offline.
Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Israel would have been aware of the joint training drills but “reached the wrong conclusion”, assessing they amounted to the “standard” activity of paramilitary groups in the Palestinian territories, rather than being “indicative of a looming large-scale attack”.
Asked about the issues raised in this article, the Israel Defense Forces said it was “currently focused on eliminating the threat from the terrorist organisation Hamas” and questions about any potential failures “will be looked into in a later stage”.
It could be several years until Israel formally reckons with whether it missed opportunities to prevent the 7 October massacre. The ramifications for its military, intelligence services and government could be seismic.
Rebuild trust with people to revive economy
by Jehan Perera
The government is facing an uphill task to rebuild the country which continues to be in a state of economic and moral decline which was evident in parliamentary proceedings last week. The initial hopes of a quick transition from the economic and moral decline that accompanied the pre-Aragalaya period ended with the accession of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to the presidency. The President made skillful use of the security forces, in the first instance, and the parliamentary majority thereafter, to restore the old order, government rule and stabilise the economy, albeit at a much lower level of economic wellbeing. But this won for him and the government the support of those sections of the population who could still live their regular lives and the international community who did not want Sri Lanka to fall prey to rival powers.
The Central Bank Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe has expressed confidence that Sri Lanka will receive the second tranche of the IMF loan before the end of the year. He has made this prediction despite the failure of the government to meet the basic IMF conditions, which include reducing the gap between revenues and expenditures. The ability to access IMF funds despite not conforming with its conditions is indicative of favoured status. The budget prepared by the government shows a widening of the chasm that are mitigated by optimistic predictions of increased tax revenues. The government has signally failed to deliver on the IMF’s “governance diagnostic” which highlighted the need for much greater efforts to tackle corruption and to be transparent in the signing of new contracts.
If social media reports and personal anecdotes are to be believed, corruption is thriving at all levels. Agreements with international companies continue to be entered into with little being known of the terms and conditions, and even the debt restructuring agreement with China continues to be a secret.
But there continues to be a belief amongst sections of the Sri Lankan population and international community alike that the present unsatisfactory governance needs to be tolerated until the country makes the transition to self-sustaining economic growth. There is concern that any change of government at the present time would jeopardise the economic stability that the country has achieved despite the unconvincing evidence to the contrary. The general population is expressing its lack of confidence in the future by fleeing abroad and giving votes of no-confidence in every public opinion poll they can.
Despite the government’s continued hold on undisputed power, and skillful use of its parliamentary majority and security forces to enforce governmental rule, it is not able to show that it has the backing of the majority of the general population. The government’s policies seem to have the support of the business and upper social classes whose position is that there is no better alternative at present, a view that is echoed in diplomatic circles. But this sentiment is not reflected in public opinion polls that equally consistently reveal that the government and its leadership get less than 20 percent of the support and even much less. This accounts for why the government has resolutely defied calls for the holding of local government and provincial council elections, the latter which are long overdue.
The President’s announcement that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held next year may be a recognition that the government has come to the realization that it cannot continue to justify holding on to power without obtaining a fresh people’s mandate. The proposed budget is an indication of the government’s preparation for those elections. There are efforts in it to provide benefits for different sections of the people, though whether these promises will materialize is another question due to paucity of resources. President Wickremesinghe has pledged to provide tens of thousands of farmer families with free hold title to the land they currently cultivate under state leases. The motivation to obtain the vote of people by providing them with economic benefits is one of the key features of the democratic process not only in Sri Lanka but worldwide.
However, the skillful use of state power to provide economic benefits, utilizing the parliamentary majority to come up with news laws and use of the security forces to enforce those laws are not the only ingredient for success in governance. The general population need to trust those who are in power. This trust comes from consistency in word and deed. One of the features of the present government is that deeds do not follow words. The exemplary anti-corruption legislation is being used to catch those at the lower levels of the hierarchy but those at the higher levels continue to escape. The recent Supreme Court decision that apportions blame for the economic crisis that plunged vast numbers of people into poverty has not been acted upon and there is no indication at the present time that it will be acted upon.
There are two other areas where the government needs to rebuild the trust of the people. First is to convince them that the burden of economic recovery will be apportioned justly and equitably. The restructuring of the EPF and ETF pension funds which affected the poorer sections of the people adversely while the sparing of the banking (and corporate) sector may have been motivated by the fear that the collapse of the banking sector was a real possibility. However, the evidence that is now coming out, as demonstrated in Parliament by the Opposition, that huge amounts of loans taken by companies have been absorbed by the banks is unconscionable. The government needs to promise that it will rectify this and other such inequities as soon as possible, including the tax holidays to favoured companies. The recent parliamentary debates have provided the opportunity for the Opposition to make presentations that highlight the need for consistency.
The second area that needs to be addressed is the ethnic conflict in the country. This is a problem that has receded into the background of the national discourse, due to the overwhelming nature of the economic crisis. However, one of the root causes of the country’s economic crisis is that huge amounts of resources were devoted to fighting a war that need not have taken place if there had been policies that promoted inter-ethnic justice and equity. The security forces continue to extract a large part of the budget. Sri Lanka is not a unique country when it comes to having different ethnic and religious communities. Other countries have them too, but most of those countries, especially those that are economically successful, have found ways to resolve their differences through dialogue and mutual accommodation that benefits the entire society. Provincial council elections have not been held for over five years.
There is a need to convince the ethnic and religious minorities that they are a part and parcel of the polity and treated as equal citizens. The provincial council elections cannot be postponed for another two years. There is no logical basis in the President stating they will be held in the year following the presidential and parliamentary elections. The wrong that was done to the Tamils of recent Indian origin at Independence has still not been rectified. They continue to be the poorest and most neglected community in the country. An issue that is scarring the Tamil and Muslim people at the present time is the takeover of grazing lands in the east by people from outside the area. The residents of those areas have no government to protect them. This is not the way to build trust that will unify the people with the government to uplift the economy.
Christmas and the New Year in the Seychelles…
Although the group Mirage has been relatively quiet, in the local showbiz scene, they will certainly be missed by music lovers, and their fans, during the festive period.
They leave on Sunday, the 3rd of December, for a month long stay in probably the smallest country in Africa – the Seychelles.
The group, comprising Donald Pieries (drums/vocals), Benjy Ranabahu (bass), Thushara Rajarathna (keyboards/vocals), Thilak Perera (guitar/vocals) and Dhanushka Uyanahewa (vocals), will be at the Hilton Seychelles for two major gigs – Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
They will also be entertaining guests throughout their stay at the Hilton.
The group’s male vocalist, the famous Manilal Perera, who is now very much a part of Mirage, is unable to make this trip due to prior commitments, in the local scene, as a solo artiste.
Dhanushka Uyanahewa, who is not a regular member of Mirage, replaces Manilal for this particular assignment.
Since this is their very first trip to the Seychelles, they say they are looking forward, with great excitement, to checking out that part of the world.
The Seychelles is known for its picturesque beaches, ecological diversity, dense tropical forests, and the bright blue ocean that surrounds it, all of which combine to make the archipelago world-famous.
Mirage will be back in early January, 2024, and then, a few weeks later, they will be off to Australia for a Valentine’s Day gig in Melbourne.
The band has been to Australia before but it will be the first time that the present lineup would be operating, Down Under, with Manilal Perera as their frontline vocalist.
Their female vocalist Dhanushka Uyanahewa, who will perform with Mirage in the Seychelles, will not be in the lineup to Australia.
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