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Forest Governance in Sri Lanka: A political conundrum?

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Emeritus Professor Nimal Gunatilleke,
University of Peradeniya

Natural forests provide a variety of services that include forest products of utility value, water regulation, biodiversity and soil conservation, climate amelioration and a range of socio-cultural benefits to forest-dependent people. In good governance of natural resources such as that of forests, transparency and inclusiveness in ecosystem management planning, monitoring, and equitable sharing of benefits are safeguarded. Increased pressure on natural forest resources leads to land degradation, biodiversity decline and contribute to change in climate. Major drivers of tropical deforestation are economic, governance, technological, cultural, and demographic factors, all of which are interconnected and interactive. Among the governance factors which contribute to forest degradation and deforestation are i) policies encouraging forest conversion, ii) unclear land tenure, and iii) poor enforcement of environmental laws.

All these factors seem to be influencing the current wave of forest degradation and deforestation in Sri Lanka. A forest governance conundrum has emerged recently as a result of seemingly discordant interests in forest conservation vis -à- vie land development planning and implementation in Sri Lanka. This has become even more pertinent in this post-Covid era during which the concept of One Health is being actively promoted. One Health initiative is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach linking human, animal and ecosystem health which has a deep-rooted cultural significance in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a party to the three global environmental conventions related to sustainable development (viz. the Convention on Biological Diversity [UNCBD], UN Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC], and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification [UNCCD]). All of them have mobilised a strong political commitment as a potential accelerator of ecosystem restoration effort around the world in this United Nations’ Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) which is being advanced as a unified global strategy towards conserving threatened biological diversity, mitigating climate change, and curbing desertification. This has been further strengthened by the commitments made at the recently concluded UNFCCC -COP 26. Over 130 countries, with a coverage within them of more than 90% of the world’s forests, endorsed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use committing to work collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. It is said to be backed by the biggest ever commitment of public funds for forest conservation and a global roadmap to make 75% of forest commodity supply chains sustainable.

Sri Lanka has made a conditional pledge to restore 200,000 ha over this decade as its Nationally Determined Contribution to Bonn Challenge commitment, contingent upon the availability of adequate funding. Complementing this international commitment, the Government of Sri Lanka has incorporated in its National Policy Framework – ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor’, a strategy for an increase of national forest cover up to 30% (p.59). Among the proposed activities under this strategy are i) identification and reforestation of suitable lands, ii) restoration and rehabilitation degraded ecosystems and iii) activities related to urban and road-side tree planting. Similarly, in the sub-sector on land utilization in the same document (p. 57), strategies towards i) conservation of sensitive ecosystems to control human impacts on marshy lands and mangroves and ii) restoring barren and abandoned lands for sustainable agriculture and forestry have been proposed.

Despite these national policy proclamations on sustainable environmental governance while, at the same time, complying with international environment-related commitments, recent declarations (in the form of circulars) relating to ‘other state forest lands’ issued by the subject ministries appear to be undermining the laudable objectives in achieving the environmental pledges made by the government. These ‘other state forests’ reclassified in recent governmental circulars as ‘residual forests’ are those located outside the currently declared protected area network. It is estimated to cover about 400,000 ha or more that include fragments of both mature phase forests as well as regenerating forests serving as crucially important biological corridors connecting protected areas mostly in intermediate and dry zone districts.

The closed canopy forests amongst these other state forests are included within the current natural forest cover estimate of 29.2%. The government has pledged to increase this to 30% by 2025 and to 32% by 2030 by restoring degraded forests and deforested lands, mostly found within these ‘residual’ forests. Accordingly, there is a clear government commitment towards expanding the current natural forest cover by 200,000 ha, in honouring these national and international pledges.

However, a disturbing factor that has emerged in recent times is a steep increase of forest offences most of which are encroachments and unlawful extraction of forest products and services. The Forest Department has prosecuted these forest offenders that has steadily increased with over 27,000 court cases since 2006 (especially since 2019), according to the Forest Department records.

On top of this, there appears to be a move to release at least some of these other state forestlands reclassified in recent government circulars as ‘residual forests’ for agricultural expansion (commercial scale?), infrastructure development and human settlements. with a sense of urgency, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. Government’s thrust towards rapid development in land-use for agriculture, animal husbandry and plantations has put severe pressure on these ‘other state forests’, most of which are located in the Northern, North-eastern and North-central provinces in which only a limited amount of long-term land use planning has gone in since the end of the protracted war in these areas. Therefore, some of the critical areas for conservation in these areas have not yet been included into the national protected areas system.

In such a climate, a series of circulars have been issued since the issuance of the circular MWFC/1/2020 on 04 November 2020 by the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation rescinding all previous circulars related to administration of these Other State Forests (OSFs) or residual forests to be utilised for development activities. By this new circular, all OSFs, except those that are identified as important for conservation of biodiversity, soil, and water, to be handed over to the provincial and district administration for land development programmes, subject to conditions laid out for proper land use. The subsequent circulars and advisory notes issued by the Land Commissioner General and Forest Conservator General spelt out procedural details in speeding up the implementation process of the MWFC/1/2020 decisions.

This attempt appears to be at variance with the priorities of the National Policy Framework which proposes restoration of barren and abandoned lands to increase national forest cover to 30% by 2025. However, clearing of natural forests or regenerating forests for development-mostly agricultural – without identifying and prioritizing the ecological service value, these attempts may be counter-productive with time creating a forest governance conundrum.

While the Forest Department has identified 389,562 ha of ‘open and sparse forests’ under its jurisdiction in its 2015 Forest Cover estimates, the Land Use Policy Planning Department (LUPPD) has identified a further 373,387 ha of ‘shrub cover’ mostly in the category of other state forests, a total area of open and sparse forest/shrub cover of over 750,000 ha. While a certain level of overlap of these other state forest and shrub cover may be inevitable and hence to be expected, a speedy mechanism needs to be developed to identify these open and sparse forests as well as the shrub cover of LUPPD on the ground.

From amongst them, those which are important for biodiversity conservation, provisioning of ecosystem services, buffer areas for protected forests, riverine/gallery forests and stream reservations, corridors for animal migration and those that are in advance regeneration need to be set aside for increase in forest cover to 30% by 2025 as stated in the National Policy Document – Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor. From a sustainable land development perspective, the remaining degraded lands should be considered for development purposes.

The global priority when it comes to tradeoffs between conservation and development is to conserve relatively intact tropical forests. It has been categorically stated that forest restoration can no way be a substitute for habitat/landscape conservation. Pledges of restoration should not be used to justify forest conversion to other land uses in critical habitats as proposed in the case of construction of Madugeta reservoir near Deniyaya. This reservoir was designed for taking water from Gin Ganga to SE dry zone by submerging a portion of prime rain forest of Dellawa. In this instance, a claim was made to reforest over 100 acres of Hevea rubber as a substitute which was not endorsed by the UNESCO World Heritage Commission. Dellawa forest is in the buffer zone of Sinharaja World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.

It is clearly evident that Sri Lanka faces a formidable challenge in environmental governance in trading off her critical environmental interests with those of rapid development. This has been further confounded by the lack of employing a proper yard stick in estimating benefits and costs of each competing interest. One of the main impediments in moving along the path of good forest governance in Sri Lanka is our incapacity to estimate a more realistic value of its natural capital including the services the forests provide which can be traded against any proposed developmental alternatives. Valuing natural capital enables governments to account for nature’s role in the economy and human well-being. Estimating the economic value of nature’s benefits, as best as we can using currently available methods, can make the contribution of nature to livelihoods and economies more visible, enabling smarter decisions that account for nature in our economic systems (green economy) and ensuring that it can continue to sustain us.

In this green economic milieu, the green bonds or climate bonds are emerging as innovative financial instruments as the environmental issues are raising high on global investment policy agenda. Green bonds are like conventional bonds, but their only unique characteristic specification is that the proceeds be invested in projects that generate environmental benefits. A green bond could be used to finance or refinance projects that contribute positively to the environment and/or climate. Green bonds can mobilize resources from domestic and international capital markets for climate change adaptation, renewables, and other environment friendly projects.

Green bonds enable governments, corporations and the private sector to borrow capital to fund projects that promote environmental sustainability and a low carbon economy. They are commonly used to finance the following types of projects:

* Natural resources and land management projects,

* Energy efficiency projects,

* Renewable energy projects,

* Pollution prevention and control projects,

* Clean transportation projects,

* Wastewater and water management projects,

* Green building projects.

* Water projects

Some examples of green-bond qualified investment projects in different countries are nature-based solutions such as development of biological corridors, ecotourism projects, certified organic agriculture projects payment for watershed service improvements, and purchase of lands for conservation and restoration purposes and conservation easement projects.

Green bonds are emerging rapidly as key green economic financial instruments at a global scale with over half a trillion dollar investments have already been made during the first half of 2021and ‘1 trillion dollar annual sovereign green bond investment is in sight’ according to the Global Climate Bond monitoring website (https://www.climatebonds.net/).

There are a number of similar attractive opportunities in Sri Lanka to be explored for being eligible for green bond investments. They can even be used for refinancing international debt capital – as debt instruments which is quite appropriate for Sri Lanka at this post-covid state with a heavy burden of international debt. Central and provincial government agencies, municipalities, as well as private organisations, could consider issuing Green Bonds that are focused on biodiversity and sustainable land use, especially in regions that are known for their natural capital and ecosystems (e.g. wetlands in the Weststern Province, watersheds in the Central and Uva province).

The world-renown Sri Lankan agrarian system, the “ellanga gammana” or Cascaded Tank-Village system in the Dry Zone, which was designated as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) may be an ideal candidate for sustainable development. Further expansion of the Wari Saubhagya programme into the LUPPD identified ‘Shrub cover’ and the remainder of the other state forests having carved out the conservation areas first, could be considered in this context for green bond investment projects with community participation.

In the face of this current conundrum, estimation of the value of forest biodiversity and the ecosystem services they render, would pave the way for investing in green bonds that takes into account the natural capital in our economic systems. Since there are strict monitoring protocols in place for these green investments, the governance factors which contribute to forest degradation and deforestation such as policies encouraging forest conversion, unclear land tenure, and poor enforcement of environmental laws would be minimised.



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Decolonising education and critical thinking

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IN BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS (1952), FRANTZ FANON, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination.

By Darshi Thoradeniya

I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.

Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.

As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.

Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.

This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.

History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.

When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.

Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.

The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.

If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.

(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!

Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.

In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.

Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.

It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.

Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!

The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!

Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.

The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.

There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”

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Historic task—a non-racist and human security ideology

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By Jehan Perera

The media has reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to Parliament at this inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago.   The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet, and as many countries which had done so following traumatic events.  President Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.

Indeed, it is unlikely that any other President could have faced the multiple crises the present government has got the country into and remained with its 2/3 majority intact, as it has done so far.  The recent announcement of the SLFP, headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, that it would remain within the government alliance, while criticising it from within, is an indicator of the government’s stability.  This follows the similar declaration by the three leading cabinet ministers from the 11 party alliance of small parties within the government, who have filed cases in the courts against the government.  They too have said they would remain within the government and continue to challenge its decisions that they deem to be incorrect.

There are two key reasons why the government has a measure of stability despite the deteriorating economic situation that is impacting severely on the wellbeing of the majority of people.  The first is the pragmatic calculation of the government leadership that it is better to have its critics within the government than out of it.  It seemed possible that the sacking of Minister Susil Premjayantha for being overly critical of the government would be the start of a purge of internal critics of the government that could cause an unravelling.  But so far it is only Minister Premjayantha, who has had to pay the price for his independence.  This has been explained by the fact that the former minister was a member of the ruling party itself, unlike the other critics who belong to other parties.

SECOND STRENGTH

Due to the multiple perspectives within the government, and which represent the diversity of the government alliance, it has been able to reach out to the widest possible swathe of society.  At the same time, it is able to woo diverse sections of the international community, including the three big international formations that hold the key to the country’s economic progress.  These are China, India and the Western countries. China is continuing to provide economic resources on a large scale along with India.  Both of these big powers seek to improve their position of influence on Sri Lanka and ensure a physical presence in the country which is being granted. Dealing with China has been the easiest, as it only seeks to gain more economic and physical assets within the country to ensure its permanent presence.

Dealing with India and the Western countries is more challenging as they require political concessions as well. In the case of India it is a political solution to the ethnic conflict which involved power-sharing with the minority Tamil community.  In the case of the Western countries it is progress in terms of protecting human rights.  With Sri Lanka being a country of interest to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, this means that its human rights record is scrutinised every three months.  The forthcoming session in late February, which continues through March, will be especially important.  The Sri Lankan government is expected to present a written report on its progress in terms of issues of accountability, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform.  The response of the majority of countries at the UNHRC can have a significant impact as it would influence the European Union’s pending decision on whether or not to suspend its GSP Plus tariff privilege which is a source of support to the Sri Lankan economy.

In this regard, it will be necessary for the government to rein in its champions of ethnic nationalism and national security that give emphasis to the perspective of the ethnic majority community alone.  This is going to be the great challenge as the second strength of the government is its ideology of ethnic majority nationalism and national security which it invokes at frequent intervals, and especially when it faces challenges.  These help to keep the ethnic majority’s loyalty to the government. But they alienate the minorities and also those sections of the international community who are concerned with human rights. The country remains deeply traumatised by three decades of internal war, in which acts of terrorism could strike anywhere, a separate Tamil state led by the LTTE was a short distance away and the centre itself was at risk of being taken over violently by the JVP.  These crises led to extreme measures that have left indelible scars and memories on the people that are easy to reinvoke.

BOTCHED ATTEMPTS

The botched attempt to explode a bomb in All Saints Church in Colombo and the botched police investigation into it have given the impression of a created event that has been questioned by the Catholic Church.  The bomb discovery, in which the Catholic priests did more to uncover evidence than the police, served to divert attention from the 1,000, day commemoration by the church of the 2019 Easter bombings, which killed over 280 persons, set the stage for conflict between Catholics and Muslims and reinforced the need for national security, and racists, to take the centre stage of national politics. On that occasion, as on this, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, played a crucial role in preventing an escalation of the crisis and in calling for the truth behind the bombings to be known. Like the prophets in the biblical tradition, he is increasingly powerful in speaking truth to the rulers, even truths they do not wish to hear.

Events such as the Easter bombing, and now this latest incident, give the impression of security failure that is detrimental to the country’s internal communal harmony and to the international image of the country as a peaceful and secure one for both investment and tourism. Sri Lanka is yet to emerge from the thrall of nationalist politics, and its falsehoods and violence, where political leaders make deliberate and purposeful use of communal differences to win votes and come to power.  They have succeeded time and again in this dastardly practice, but with it the country has failed to reach its full potential time and again.  The costs have been unbearable, whether in terms of lives lost, properties destroyed and economic growth stymied.  Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with the number of its military personnel being five times larger than that of Australia, though the populations of both countries are about the same.  This means economic resources being taken away from development purposes.

The historic task for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government is to make a shift away from a mindset that emphasises the interests of the ethnic majority and national security being the preserve of the security forces to a new mindset that includes the ethnic minority and sees human security and wellbeing as the country’s need. The Sri Lankan state needs to consider all its people as citizens with equal rights, and not as ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities to be treated differently.  And it needs to give priority to human security and wellbeing where gas cylinders do not explode and people have food and education at affordable prices. Both religious leaders and political leaders need to come up with an ideology of the wellbeing of all in which solutions that are beneficial to all are found, where basic needs of all are met, and there is no divide and rule, which is a recipe for long term failure.

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