By Shamindra Ferdinando
The margin of the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) victory, at the Aug 5, 2020 general election, stunned the ruling coalition. The best possible result the SLPP expected was around 130 seats, including National List slots. SLPP Chairman and its top National List nominee, Prof. G.L. Peiris, about aproximately 30 minutes after polling commenced, countrywide, told the writer they expected around 130 seats.
About two weeks earlier, the leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) and Attorney-at-law Udaya Gammanpila, too, privately acknowledged they could secure around 130 seats.
Experienced campaigner and turncoat, S.B. Dissanayake, also of the SLPP, placed the number of seats, anticipated, a little less than 130 seats. But, they all predicted a very comfortable victory for the SLPP, though two-thirds seemed quite unrealistic.
The Aug 5 result proved a two-thirds majority was achievable, under the Proportional Representation (PR) system, though so-called experts thought otherwise. However, the margin of victory surprised even the three-and-half-year old SLPP, as well as the tattered UNP, established over 70 years ago.
For the first time, in our political history, a party (that ruled the country on several occasions) ended up without a single elected lawmaker. The UNP managed to secure one National List seat. The JVP did much better than the UNP by securing three seats, including one National List slot, but it was a comedown when compared to its previous performance at the August 2015 general election.
General Secretary of the UNP, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, on Friday (7), blamed their worst defeat ever on their ‘own actions’ and those of others. The latter was definitely a reference to former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa causing a split.
It would be pertinent to examine what Kariyawasam meant by ‘own actions’ in his pathetic attempt to explain the debilitating setback the once proud party suffered. The EC decision not to count preference votes, received by candidates of political parties that didn’t receive seats, saved them from further humiliation. If not, the paltry number of votes received by Ranil Wickremesinghe, Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake, National Organizer Navin Dissanayake, as well as financier Daya Gamage, would have become public, adding to the humiliating defeat.
The emergence of the SLPP, at the expense of the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), should be studied, taking into consideration the deliberate wrongdoings, blunders, lapses, treachery and utterly irrational policies followed by the yahapalana administration, consisting of the UNP and a section of the SLFP-led UPFA.
Before we discuss why the voting public handed over such a massive mandate to the SLPP, it would be pertinent to mention that those who served the ruinous yahapalana coalition ended-up in four groups. The largest group formed (1) the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), (2) remained in permanently damaged UNP, (3) what was left of the SLFP and (4) those who returned to the Rajapaksa Camp, having served Maithripala Sirisena for some time.
Having publicly alleged that he would have ended up six feet under if Mahinda Rajapaksa had won the 2015 January presidential election, Maithripala Sirisena, too, returned to the Rajapaksa Camp to avoid being politically eliminated. If Sirisena’s SLFP contested the recently concluded general election, on its own, it, too, could have suffered the same fate that befell the UNP. The SLFP obviously avoided the disgraceful defeat by contesting under the flower bud symbol.
The SLFP, on its own, winning a seat in the Jaffna peninsula, is an exception. The SLFP contested the electoral districts of Jaffna and Kalutara. Final result of the Kalutara district reflected the ground situation, in 18 districts, where the SLPP recorded landslide victories. The SLFP polled 10,979 votes (1.57%), in the Kalutara district, and was placed 5th, whereas the SLPP obtained a staggering 448,699 votes (64.88%). The SLFP survived a political massacre by accepting the SLPP’s terms. The SLPP, quite rightly, dismissed the SLFP’s efforts to contest both the presidential and parliamentary polls, under a common symbol. Polonnaruwa district candidate Sirisena, in spite of being verbally abused and humiliated by fellow district SLPP candidate Roshan Ranasinghe, as well as Gampaha District SLPP leader Prasanna Ranatunga, polled the highest number of preferential votes from the Polonnaruwa District. Sirisena polled 111,137 preference votes, whereas Roshan Ranasinghe obtained 90,615. The SLFP, due to consensus with brazen SLPP, even at biased terms, has managed to save face.
The UNP suffered an irreparable setback, at the third parliamentary poll, since the conclusion of the war, in May 2009. The UNP’s loss, at the 2010 general election, was understandable. The then SLFP-led UPFA obtained 144 seats, including 17 National List slots, whereas the UNP secured 60. The UPFA taking the parliamentary election was a foregone conclusion in the wake of Mahinda Rajapaksa defeating General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 January presidential election. But, the UNP obtained a respectable 60-member group and, five years later, used it to spearhead a high profile project to bring down Mahinda Rajapaksa.
But, the UNP, at the general election just concluded, has been reduced to just 1 National List MP. The UNP General Secretary should explain what he really meant by ‘own actions’ contributing to its downfall. Let me examine what these ‘own actions’ were as the SLPP triumph transformed the political landscape.
The SLPP can easily secure two-thirds with the backing of the SLFP (one elected from Jaffna) and three other Tamil and Muslim parties. Perhaps, it would be much better to amend the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, in consultation with the SJB (54 MPs), TNA (10), Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB/3) and the UNP (1) than exploiting the overwhelming majority to its advantage.
Sri Lanka is in such a political-economic mess, the SLPP should act responsibly. The formidable political power shouldn’t pursue abusive policies against the backdrop of annihilation of the Opposition. It would be a grave mistake on its part to tinker with the Constitution for its benefit. Perhaps, a consensus can be reached soon, on an amendment, to allow the President to hold the Defence portfolio.
Treasury bond scams
Having ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the 2015 January presidential poll, a cocky UNP leadership brought in Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran as the Governor of the Central Bank, in January 2015. Wickremesinghe simply ignored Sirisena’s concerns as regards the appointment. Under heavy pressure, Sirisena handed over Mahendran’s letter of appointment. The Singaporean moved into the Governor’s Office, on January 26, 2016. The then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake made the recommendation in this regard. The first Treasury bond scam was perpetrated just four weeks later.
Kariyawasam’s reference to ‘own actions’ without doubt include the 2015 Treasury bond scam and the second perpetrated 13 months later, after the 2015 general election. The government was so cocky, it not only once but twice perpetrated massive Treasury bond scams at the expense of the national economy. In spite of the then yahapalana partner, the SLFP, making a big noise about Treasury bond scams, Sirisena’s party solidly stood by the UNP. Sirisena went to the extent of dissolving parliament, on the night of June 26, 2015, to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) presenting its report on the first Treasury bond scam to parliament. Sirisena exposed himself by delaying the appointment of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) to probe the Treasury bond scams, till January 2017; over seven months after Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy succeeded the Singaporean.
The top UNP leadership caused the party downfall by its ‘own actions.’ The SLFP, too, contributed to the rapid deterioration of the yahapalana government by playing ball with the UNP. Having allowed the UNP to ruin the yahapalana arrangement, Sirisena resorted to a constitutional coup, in late Oct 2018, to take back control of the government. Sirisena failed miserably.
The new government now faced a huge challenge in bringing the Treasury bond scams case to a successful conclusion. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ravi Karunanayake embroiled in Treasury bond cases are no longer lawmakers. Wickremesinghe and Karunanayake, having first entered parliament in 1977 and 1994 (National List), respectively, served as members of parliament successively until last week. Wickremesinghe and Karunanayake now face the bleak prospect of facing a long drawn out case.
Between the February 2015 and March 2016 Treasury bond scams, the UNP betrayed the country, at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Sirisena did absolutely nothing but to publicly criticize the Geneva betrayal. The President, in spite of being the Commander-in-Chief and the Defence Minister, answerable to the people, stayed with the UNP decision. In a bid to deceive the public, the yahapalana lot replaced the then Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, who directed the then Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva Ambassador, Ravinatha Aryasinha, to co-sponsor the controversial resolution, with Ravi Karunanayake, in May 2017. In spite of on and off public criticism, Sirisena, and those SLFPers who received ministerial portfolios, remained with the UNP. Karunanayake, embroiled in the Treasury bond scam controversy, continued with Samaraweera’s Geneva project. When Karunanayake was compelled to resign in the second week of August 2017, over shocking revelations before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, Wickremesinghe brought back Tilak Marapana to the cabinet. One-time Attorney General Marapana, PC, took over the Foreign Ministry. Marapana, too, faithfully continued with the Geneva project. The Geneva betrayal was part of the UNP’s agreement with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the US. Sumanthiran revealed the existence of a treacherous agreement, in June 2016, when he addressed a gathering in the US. Sumanthiran declared that he negotiated with the US and Sirisena’s government, on the Geneva resolution, and the inclusion of foreign judges in war crimes courts.
Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, gave Sri Lanka a golden opportunity to counter war crimes allegations. Based on secret dispatches from the UK High Commission, in Colombo, in 2009 (January to May), Lord Naseby successfully countered the primary allegation, regarding the massacre of 40,000 Tamil civilians on the Vanni east front. The UNP turned a blind eye to Lord Naseby’s revelations. Yahapalana partner, the SLFP, too, followed the same policy. When the writer inquired about how the government intended to use Lord Naseby’s revelations for Sri Lanka’s defence, at the post-cabinet media briefing, co-cabinet spokesman Dayasiri Jayasekera reacted angrily, though he quickly calmed down. An irate Jayasekera accused the writer of raising unnecessary issues with a view to causing problems. Jayasekera revealed that up to the time the question was posed to him, the cabinet hadn’t at least discussed the matter. Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, as well as the SLFP spokesman Mahinda Sanarasinghe, at separate media briefings, in response to questions posed by the writer, admitted that the cabinet didn’t discuss the Geneva matter.
The Foreign Ministry’s thinking reflected the despicable UNP policy towards the armed forces. The initial Foreign Ministry response, to Lord Naseby’s Oct 2017 bid to save Sri Lanka, revealed its role in a high profile anti-Sri Lanka project. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement in response to a query posed by the writer to the then spokesperson. However, the Foreign Ministry cannot be faulted for following the instructions given by the Prime Minister, and the Foreign Minister, at that time.
The SLFP cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for the Geneva betrayal. Today, those SLFPers, who had fully cooperated with the UNP (2015 August –Oct 2018), are in parliament, on the SLPP ticket. They survived by contesting the Aug 5 parliamentary election on the SLPP ticket. If not, the SLFP, too, would have ended up with perhaps one National List MP, like its partner in ‘crime’ the UNP.
In the wake of the Geneva betrayal, several countries imposed travel restrictions on senior military commanders. Field Marshal Fonseka, Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage and Army Chief Shavendra Silva are among those who were slapped with travel bans.
Now, it would be the responsibility of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government to set the record straight. The UNP and the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi-led TNA, responsible for the Geneva betrayal, suffered serious setbacks at the general election. Having campaigned for 20 seats, the one-time LTTE mouth piece was reduced to 10 seats, including one National List slot. In the last parliament, the TNA had 16 lawmakers, including two National List slots. Obviously, the Tamil electorate snubbed the TNA by causing the ITAK leader Mavai Senathirajah’s defeat. The TNA, too, plunged into crisis with a section of the former LTTE proxy demanding that Senathirajah be appointed to parliament through the National List whereas the TNA, at the behest of Sampanthan, named Chairman of Ampara Navindaveli Pradeshiya Sabha Thawarasa Kalaiarasan as their National List member.
Prez-PM failure in 2019
The Treasury bond scams (February 2015 and March 2016) and the Geneva treachery (Oct 2015) was followed by the indefensible failure to thwart the April 2019 Easter Sunday carnage. In this case, too, both the UNP and Sirisena failed the country very badly. The revelations, made before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), in 2019, and the on-going Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI), proved beyond doubt the culpability of both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for the Easter Sunday carnage. In spite of knowing the imminent threat, posed by Thowheed Jamaat, Sirsena went on a pilgrimage to neighbouring India. Sirisena, wife, Jayanthi Pushpa Kumari, and other members of their family, offered prayers at the hill shrine of Lord Venkateswara. Sirisena took part in the ‘Suprabhatha’ ritual and offered prayers to the presiding deity of Lord Venkateswara. From there, the Sirisenas flew to Singapore. They were on holiday when Thowheed Jamaat carried out the near simultaneous attacks. Sirisena got caught lying to the PSC regarding the delay on his part in returning to Colombo in the aftermath of the attack. The PSC, in its report released to the public in Oct 2019, revealed how Sirisena shunned two earlier Sri Lankan flights to return in the early hours of the following day on a Singapore Airlines flight.
The SLPP will have to deal with media furore when the P CoI releases its report later this year. Sirisena, who held the Defence and Law and order portfolios at the time of the attack, in addition to being the Commander-in-Chief, cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the unprecedented security failure.
H’tota deal and FTA with Singapore
Sirisena authorized the 99-year-lease on Hambantota port, in lieu of what Sri Lanka owed China, as well as the controversial Free Trade Agreement with Singapore (FTA) during his tainted presidency. On behalf of Sri Lanka, Sirisena’s nominee, Ports and Shipping Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, signed the agreement with China. Sri Lanka and China finalized the Hambantota port deal, in late July 2017, and the FTA with Singapore, in January 2018. Malik Samarawickrema signed the agreement on Sri Lanka’s behalf. It was finalized after six rounds of talks. Both Sirisena and Samarasinghe re-entered parliament on the SLPP ticket. Samarasinghe even took SLPP membership in the run-up to the general election. Samarawickrema, who was accommodated on the UNP National List in the previous parliament, quit parliamentary politics.
The SLFP has conveniently forgotten that it held the post of Deputy Speaker in Parliament till May 25, 2018. Thilanga Sumathipala served as the Deputy Speaker and the Chairperson of Committees of parliament. Sumathipala was replaced by Ananda Kumarasiri, who later headed the PSC that probed the Easter Sunday carnage. The Supreme Court has been moved by seven parties, including the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), against the FTA with Singapore. The SC last heard the case in the second week of July, 2020. It will be taken up again on Nov 03, 2020. A committee, appointed by the government after the last presidential election to review the FTA with Singapore, is yet to release its final report.
Having promised to review the Hambantota deal, the incumbent administration subsequently dropped the idea after China, in no uncertain terms, objected to that move. Those who represented the previous parliament and those who elected to new parliament should keep in mind there is no difference in the 99-year-lease on Hambantota port and the outright sale of such a valuable asset.
ACSA et al
Sri Lanka first entered ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in March 2007. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, signed ACSA on Sri Lanka’s behalf for a period of 10 years. Sirisena, in his capacity as the President, authorized signing a far more comprehensive ACSA, in August 2017. Sirisena’s government also discussed SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with the US, in addition to finalizing the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact.
When the writer raised the issue with Wickremesinghe at the final government media briefing, at Temple Trees, two weeks before the Nov 16, 2019 presidential election, the Premier, without hesitation, declared it would be signed. Now, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government will have to decide on the controversial agreement. The government is obviously in a dilemma. Having secured a near two-thirds majority, the SLPP cannot, under any circumstances, accept the agreement in its present form against the backdrop of Prof. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan’s damning report, in Sinhala, on it. Perhaps, copies should be made available to all members of the new parliament.
Sri Lanka shouldn’t accept SOFA, under any circumstances. Instead, Sri Lanka should guarantee that it wouldn’t engage in /allow foreign activity inimical to regional or world powers. The new government cannot be unaware how the majority community reacted to the UNP’s response to ACSA, SOFA and MCC. The SLPP campaign, against US agreements, gave Gotabaya Rajapaksa a tremendous boost at the presidential poll, as well as the recently concluded general election.
Paddy at Mattala airport
Having ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa, in January 2015, and then won the 2015 August general election, the UNP brazenly stored paddy at the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA). Wickremesinghe repeatedly called Sri Lanka’s second international airport a white elephant. Storing paddy at MRIA was nothing but political suicide. It was meant to humiliate the war-winning President and his administration.
Storing paddy at MAIA is as bad as betraying the war-winning armed forces in Geneva. Five years later, the majority community, through overwhelming votes at the presidential and parliamentary polls, sent the UNP home. Sajith Premadasa and his group survived by contesting under a different symbol. Whoever secures UNP’s solitary National List slot, one UNP lawmaker in parliament would be a grim reminder to those who destroyed the once great party.
leaves out Gash dispatches, Swiss embassy abduction drama and India’s accountability
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Veteran journalist Tim Sebastian interviewed Foreign Secretary, retired Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage, in the immediate aftermath of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopting accountability resolution in respect of Sri Lanka.
Twenty-two countries voted for the resolution, 11 against, whereas 14 abstained. The vote on Sri Lanka took place on March 23. Among those who abstained was India whose intervention here in the 80s caused a war that was brought to a successful conclusion in May 2009. But Sebastian was only interested in accountability on Sri Lanka’s part. He wasn’t concerned about Adele, who played a significant role in building a female fighting cadre for the LTTE, either.
“In the last few days, the UN Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution highlighting your government’s failure to ensure accountability for human rights violations and mandating UN investigators to collect and preserve data that can be used in the future judicial proceedings. They did that Mr. Secretary because your abject failure to do it yourself and because of the worsening human rights climate in your country. Aren’t you ashamed of that?”
It was internationally acclaimed Sebastian’s opening question to Foreign Secretary Colombage in ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview titled: Is Sri Lanka on the brink.
Admiral Colombage responded: “Well, Tim let me say the World War ended 78 years later… earlier and we still see the residual effects on the environment on the physical things and the Good Friday agreement was in 1998 and there are 116 walls which is called peace walls. Still…”
Sebastian interrupted Colombage. “We are not talking about Northern Ireland; Mr. Secretary We are talking about Sri Lanka and your failure to ensure accountability for human rights violations… which you have denied in other interviews.”
One-time Navy Commander, and the Additional Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Foreign Relations, Prof. Colombage received appointment as the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry following the last general election.
Admiral Colombage, who had served the SLN for 36 years, was its 18th Commander. He received the command in 2012, three years after the end of the war. Following his retirement, Colombage served as the Director of the Centre for India-Sri Lanka Initiatives and Law of the Sea Centre at the Pathfinder Foundation. At the time of his appointment, as Foreign Secretary, Colombage was the Additional Secretary to the President on Foreign Relations and the Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL).
Relying on a backbencher’s speech
Let me examine the latest Geneva resolution against the backdrop of the ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview and the Daily Mirror interview, titled ‘Govt. committed two mistakes’, with one-time Permanent Secretary to the Justice Ministry Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama published on March 27, 2021.
Responding to a query, Dr. Jayawickrama asserted: The mistake that the government appears to have made was to think that it was all about “40,000 deaths”, and to rely on a backbencher’s speech made in the House of Lords. It was never about that. Another mistake that the government appears to have made was to convince itself that the Resolution was initiated by “Diaspora Tamils” when it was not.”
Tamil Diaspora, based in the UK, Australia, and Canada, vigorously circulated the article in the wake of accusations the government compelled the newspaper to ‘kill’ it. The paper denied the accusations. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesperson Suren Surendiran tweeted: “Remarkably honest replies from Dr. Jayawickrama to some pertinent questions from the “Daily Mirror” Surendiran posted the entire text alleging government-imposed censorship.
Dr. Jayawickrama referred to Lord Naseby as a backbencher whereas Sebastian never referred to the Conservative Party politician’s disclosure in the House of Lords on Oct 12, 2017 or Admiral Colombage cared at least to mention it. If the government relied on Lord Naseby’s revelations, as Dr. Jayawickrama asserted, the former could have exploited the disclosure. The incumbent government conveniently refrained from taking advantage of Lord Naseby’s ‘work’ much to the dismay of the former Royal Air Force pilot who exposed the British duplicity.
A fresh Geneva initiative
Sebastian’s reference to fresh authorisation for UN investigators to collect and preserve data that can be used in the future judicial proceedings should have prompted Admiral Colombage to remind British television journalist and novelist how the UK government suppressed wartime dispatches from its High Commission in Colombo (January-May 2009). The proposed inquiry is scheduled to take place over a period of 12 months, commencing Sept 2021. In fact, during the entire interview, Sebastian conveniently never referred to how the UK suppressed dispatches from Colombo. Lord Naseby obtained some sections of the dispatches after nearly a three-year struggle. He had to seek the intervention of the UK Information Commission to lay his hands on those dispatches.
Leader of Sri Lanka Core Group in addition to being UNHRC member, the UK still refuses to release dispatches despite Geneva authorising a new Inquiry Team, led by a Senior Legal Advisor, to collect all available evidence pertaining to the war and post-war events. Those desperate to prevent the full disclosure of British dispatches from Colombo, obviously advantageous to Sri Lanka, call it a political statement. It was certainly not. Former Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva, in an interview with ‘Get Real’ anchor Johnney Mahieash, and subsequent queries from the writer, asked why the UK wanted to suppress dispatches from its own man in wartime Colombo Lt. Col. Anthony Gash who served as the British Defense Attaché throughout the Vanni war. The former CJ was of the view that Geneva should seek access not only to the UK dispatches but from other major countries, particularly the US, India, Germany and Canada. He pointed out that the wartime US Defense Advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith contradicted war crimes accusations in 2011, six years before Lord Naseby revealed the existence of British wartime dispatches.
NPC and GTF back thorough inquiry
The Island sought National Peace Council (NPC) Executive Director Dr. Jehan Perera’s views on the following query: “Geneva set up a new inquiry mechanism at a cost of USD 2.8 mn to gather and examine evidence and information pertaining to the whole gamut of war crimes allegations and current developments. What is your stand on SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris public call to the UK to submit Gash reports against the backdrop of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Dr. Harsha de Silva, who once led the government delegation to the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) of Sri Lanka’s human rights record at Geneva backing the government call? Dr. de Silva’s all available info should be made available to the new Geneva inquiry team.”
Dr. Perera responded: “All evidence should be placed before the UN investigation unit and this includes the dispatches of Lt Col Anthony Gash as revealed by Lord Naseby. The UN unit needs to seek that information itself to get a rounded perspective on the problem.
“On the other hand, if the government formally makes a request for the Gash reports it will be accepting the legitimacy of the UN unit which is not its current position. Instead I would wish that the government resolves the issues laid out in the various UN reports through internal mechanisms that have the support of the political parties, including the minorities, within the country.
“It is only if the country is internally united that we can go on the path of development that the government intends and respond successfully to international pressures. Otherwise it looks like our country is locked in a vicious cycle.”
Dr. Perera represented the country at the Geneva sessions during the yahapalana administration.
The writer posed the same question to GTF’s Surendiran, who, too, backed examination of all evidence and information available. Surendiran said: “Of course all available evidence should be made available to the investigative team that will collect and analyse this evidence. No one should hinder that process of collection of evidence, be it the UK Government or the Government of Sri Lanka. In that regard, Sri Lanka if it has nothing to fear about should allow the investigators free access so that the collection process can be comprehensive and complete.”
In fact, Wikileaks revelations pertaining to Sri Lanka, too, should be examined along with submissions received by the UNSG’s Panel of Experts’ (PoE/Darusman Report) that paved the way for the 2015 co-sponsorship of an accountability resolution. Would the new Geneva re-visit previously collected information, particularly by the PoE, covered by UN a 20-year confidentiality clause (2011-2031)?
UK bending backwards to protect
relations with Lanka
The FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), in its objections filed with the Information Commission, following Lord Naseby’s bid to gain dispatches from Colombo, stated; “Lt. Col. Gash was the FCO’s defense attaché at the British Commission in Colombo during the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Many of his dispatches contain information provided directly to him by his contacts in the Sri Lankan government, the Sri Lankan Army or other military sources. His reports indicate, he had access to reports on troop movements, Sri Lankan military strategic thinking, the movements of the LTTE and assessments of casualty figures. The effective conduct of international relations depends upon the free, frank and confidential exchange of information such as this. If the UK does not respect these confidences, then its ability to protect and promote UK interests through international relations will be hampered which will not be in the public interest.
Subsequently, the FCO asserted that it was of the view that releasing the information redacted on the basis of section 27(l) (a) would be likely to prejudice the UK’s relationship with Sri Lanka and would negatively impact on the information that they would be willing to exchange with the UK in the future. It further stated, the disclosure of the withheld information, in this case, was not in the public interest as it would be likely to damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Sri Lanka. This would have the effect of reducing the UK government’s ability to protect and promote UK interests through its relations with Sri Lanka.”
The Information Commissioner, on June 26, 2016, dismissed Naseby’s appeal for full disclosure of the Gash dispatches.
So, according to the FCO, disclosure of Gash dispatches would harm the UK’s relations with Sri Lanka. In the absence of proper examination of British role in promoting terrorism in Sri Lanka, successive UK governments allowed the LTTE a free hand. Wikileaks exposure of a secret meeting between the Norwegians (handling disastrous peace process) and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in the immediate aftermath of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination in August 2005 underscored the privileged status enjoyed by the LTTE. Balasingham, one-time British High Commission employee who received British citizenship for services rendered to Her Majesty’s government lived freely there until his death due to natural causes in Dec 2006.
Over the years, the UK provided the wherewithal required by the LTTE to wage war in Sri Lanka. The British. contribution grew over the years in the wake of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991. It must be noted that the UK only removed the LTTE International Secretariat, established in London for many years, only after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi for the obvious reason that its presence there was becoming too embarrassing even to the British. In fact when a visiting journalist from The Island, accompanied by a group of media persons from several countries, raised the issue of the LTTE having a big presence in the British capital during a visit to BBC Headquarters at Bush House in Central London around the time of the Rajiv assassination that year, he was given the lame excuse that the Tigers had not violated any UK laws. Despite the much-publicised British proscription of the LTTE, the latter operated a major fund-raising project that funded their war until the very end.
Perhaps, Foreign Secretary Colombage, during the interview with Sebastian, should have referred to the Wikileaks revelation of the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner making a desperate bid to halt the military offensive on the Vanni east front. Towards the end of the ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview, Sebastian queried about Inspector Nishantha Silva fleeing the country in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 presidential election.
Focus on Shani, Nishantha
Referring to the arresting of SSP Shani Abeysekera, Director, Criminal Investigation Division (CID) who inquired into several key human rights cases, Sebastian said: “…and another Nishantha Silva from the same Division had to leave Sri Lanka because of threats immediately after the last presidential election and you tell me that is the way a democracy which you claimed to have pursues justice does not look like it? Does it? Questioning how Nishantha Silva left the country suddenly, Prof. Colombage alleged it was all part of a conspiracy while strongly denying Sebastian’s accusation the officer was threatened. “All these things were planned. They were probably given lots of money to do these things…” Sebastian insisted: “You do not know that Mr. Secretary…”
It would have been better if Prof. Colombage pointed out that the Swiss Embassy involvement in the Nishantha Silva affair against the backdrop of one of its employees Garnier Francis (former Siriyalatha Perera) falsely accusing government agents of abducting her outside the mission and sexually abusing her. Sebastian conveniently refrained from referring to Garnier who had been Silva’s contact at the Swiss mission. The Swiss went to the extent of trying to evacuate Garnier and her family in a special air ambulance after their project meant to smear President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went awry. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa opposed the move to evacuate them. If not Garnier, too, would have ended up in Switzerland and a key campaign issue against Sri Lanka.
At one-point Sebastian chided Prof. Colombage whether he was proud of living in a country where child killers get presidential pardon? Sebastian was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa releasing a soldier convicted of killing several persons, including children in the Jaffna peninsula. Colombage responded well, pointing out how post-war, Sri Lanka rehabilitated 12,000 terrorists, including children. Colombage posed a pertinent question whether presidential pardon is available only in Sri Lanka. Sebastian insisted he focused on Sri Lanka and not the rest of the world. Perhaps, Prof. Colombage should have reminded Sebastian how funds made available by those living in the UK prolonged the war in Sri Lanka. None of those shedding crocodile tears today bothered to protest when the LTTE used children as cannon fodder. The fact that children were used in suicide attacks, too, cannot be forgotten. Didn’t Rajiv Gandhi perish in a suicide attack carried out by a female Tiger cadre? A proper inquiry is required to ascertain and identify those members of Sri Lankan terrorist groups living in the UK and the rest of the world. The proposed new Geneva probe can facilitate Sri Lanka’s efforts to track down those living overseas, under assumed names, while they continued to be categorized as war disappeared.
Sebastian also raised the issue of disappearances and missing. In fact, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe explained the cases of missing and disappearances during the yahapalana administration. Wickremesinghe pointed out how the so-called disappeared either died in combat or were now living overseas.
Prof. Colombage responded: “…most of the human rights defenders are receiving money from the West. We know their bank accounts. We know how much they have received.” The Foreign Secretary alleged they were not bona fide human rights defenders. Sebastian hit back: “You just smeared the whole lot of them in one sentence…”
Now that Prof. Colombage has quite rightly raised funding received by NGOs/civil society groups, let there be a public disclosure of the funding secured over the years. A Norwegian examination of its involvement in Sri Lanka released in 2011 revealed substantial funding made available to various civil society groups. The Norwegian report revealed how generous Oslo had been to those who facilitated its Sri Lanka project. As Geneva stepped up pressure on the country, the government should approach the issues at hand sensibly. Geneva should be priority No 1. The government cannot forget that no less than Commander of the Army Gen. Shavendra Silva, earlier the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division/formerly Task Force I was blacklisted by the US. Sebastian warned Prof. Colombage of dire threats posed by targeted sanctions imposed by individual countries. Member states might start applying targeted sanctions, asset freezers and travel bans against your state officials and others…. Are you ready for that?
Prof. Colombage responded: “If individual countries have a separate agenda not necessarily human rights but using human rights as a weapon there is very little we can do. Let us wait and see.” However, the former Navy Commander missed a golden opportunity to ask Sebastian what he thought of the Tamil community overwhelmingly voting for war-winning Army Chief the then General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll. Fonseka won all predominately Tamil speaking electoral districts in the northern and eastern districts, including Jaffna. In fact, bogus human rights campaign should have ended the day, Tamils declared their support to tough talking Fonseka, who survived a suicide attack in April 2006 to finish off the LTTE. If the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka and the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2006, terrorism would have triumphed. But fortunately for Sri Lanka both survived two separate LTTE suicide attacks targeting them in Colombo itself. That is the undeniable truth.
Convincing storytelling with engaging dialogue and three-dimensional characters
‘10.34’ By Aditha Dissanayake, a Vijitha Yapa Publication
Reviewed by Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana
Former Deputy Director-General, United Nations.
’10:34′ is a dramatic love story of a poetic and tender quality written with a deep respect for both the beauty and the danger to our blue planet seen from space as a vulnerable blob in the vast universe.
It is a contemporary romance that follows a woman, a committed environmentalist, as she navigates her life among men with differing feelings of the imperative of conservation stewardship.
This book is Gratiaen Award winner Aditha Dissanayake’s fourth novel, by far the best. This book is enjoyable to read due to the simplicity of the prose style and vividness of imagination. Though simple but thoughtful, the story is fun enough, and the unexpected twists and turns keep the reader engaged.
It is the story of two people finding love in unusual circumstances, albeit differently than either of them intended.
Aditha narrates a 24-year-old schoolteacher’s unexpected detour of accompanying her banker fiancé and migrating to New Zealand. The deviation begins when Kumi alights the morning Udarata Menike to visit her hometown in the fictional village of Maliyadda on the banks of the Kothmale Oya. She goes there directed by her Uncle in London to make the final arrangements to sell her grandfather’s ancestral property. Kumi finds the dilapidated property a piece of heaven on earth. Lush greenery with a creek flowing through the property has become the perfect home for all that nature creates. An ideal home for her as well she realises. She could hardly tear herself off from the allure of the place to return to Colombo, which she must, to see her fiancé off. He was going ahead to settle affairs in the new country they were moving to before Kumi arrives.
During her vacation to her ancestral village, abandoning her plans to stay at the bed and breakfast place where she had an eventful night with an unexpected visitor, she moves into the abandoned house that had once belonged to her grandparents. Kumi also struck a friendship with Vino Coomaraswamy, an editor of a publishing house in Lancaster, on holiday in Maliyadda, searching for his roots.
On return to Colombo, she finds her favourite mango tree, that shaded her room and to its rustling sounds which she fell asleep in the night, had been a victim of the insensitive confidant who failed to understand that perhaps her first love is nature. Incensed by the developments that followed and tugged by the spell cast over her by the sanctuary in Maliyadda, she makes an unintended quick return to the place she had felt at peace.
There, she finds comfort in her friends Vino and a Professor turned recluse whom she had met on her previous visit. The Professor was intruding on the property to record the often-ignored weeds and lesser-known plants in the mid-country for his next book.
Abandoning her plans to move to New Zealand with her urbanized banker boyfriend, she decides to make home the abandoned house that had once belonged to her grandparents. But in addition to preventing her Uncle from selling the land, Kumi must also prove to the Professor that she has no wish to harm the plants that he so loves.
Easily the best part of the book is how, as the story unravels, it becomes clear that Kumi and the Professor progress towards saving not only nature but themselves from their toxic relationships and past mistakes.
An essential aspect of the book is the author’s tender, discerning look at nature that is ever-present and is the thread that runs through the novel.
Aditha makes her characters very vibrant and three-dimensional and true to life. The main characters are compelling and enigmatic. Kumi is beautifully drawn – warm, bold, outspoken, intelligent, and kind to all living beings, whether human or part of nature, the type of character that carries an endearing story. Vividly portrayed, the men around her – Nadush, bright and bold as an up-and-coming banker, Kavan, intelligent and warm as a professor, and Vinoo, intelligent and outspoken as an editor would be.
The characters in this book are remarkable. The author shows a deep understanding of their roles and places them cleverly to keep the story moving. There are also secondary characters introduced for a few cameos. Even some of those who barely appear have a chance to shine, which tell us a lot about the storytelling.
The book is sprinkled with enjoyable dialogue, which is hard to write – and extremely hard to write well. Two people merely talking are not always engaging on the page, no matter how scintillating the dialogue. Novel writers are not screenwriters whose story is brought to life by an entourage of directors, actors, sound engineers, cinematographers. A novelist must describe the setting and provide all five senses for the reader. Readers will not know what things look like unless you show them.
Aditha’s text reads like a screenplay. The conversation between Kumi and the Tuk Tuk driver is such that a reader can hear it as if spoken aloud; the words do not lie inert on the page. When discourse flows, it’s easy to read and understand; it’s funny, revealing, poignant, and devastating all in one single sentence. The story is interspersed with engaging dialogue, and that’s part of what makes it effective. The dialogue is so catchy, so snappy, so utterly say-able, that the story could easily be made into a movie…
This is a wonderfully written novel with a captivating story that touches your heart, an engaging plot with so many twists, and endearing characters who were believable. The book affirms the depth of humanity’s relationship with nature and adds particular urgency to the cause of protecting the environment that nourishes all living beings. It is a delightful book.
‘Human Rights’ And Ecological Crisis In Sri Lanka
‘The origin of the contemporary ecological and social crisis can be traced to the colonial period and the incorporation of the country into the global capitalist economy.’
By Prof. Asoka Bandarage
The recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution A/HRC/46/L.1/Rev.1 of March 16 has brought extensive charges against Sri Lanka over alleged human rights violations, but is arguably seriously flawed. Opportunistic and strategic use of human rights by the western powers to maintain hegemony continually ignore violations of the rights of nature and humanity rooted in the destructive model of economic development the same powers introduced to the world.
Ancient Sri Lanka was known for its Buddhist eco-centric approach to life. The origin of the contemporary ecological and social crisis can be traced to the colonial period and the incorporation of the country into the global capitalist economy.
Vast tracts of forest were cut to establish mono-cultural coffee, tea and rubber plantations and local people lost rights to ancestral lands and resources. Deforestation destroyed water resources that irrigated the rivers leaving village tanks dry. Multi-crop subsistence agriculture was undermined, leaving people to become dependent on imported food supplies.
Sri Lanka’s forest cover declined from 84% in 1881 to 70% in 1900 and to around 50% in 1948, when the British left. Deforestation and plantation development laid the basis for land erosion and loss of animal habitats and biodiversity.
The origin of the current human- elephant conflict is attributed to deforestation starting in the British era, along with the widespread colonial practice of killing animals for sport and trade. The revered elephant was declared a pest and a reward of a few shillings was given for the head of an elephant.
With the introduction of the Open Economy in 1977, Sri Lanka became subjected to neo-liberal policies such as privatization and structural adjustment, largely as conditions to loans from the World Bank and the IMF. The massive Mahawaeli River Development Program of this period provided access to land for the poor and a significant increase in the country’s food production and power resources. However, the construction of dams and irrigation networks, roads, and similar infrastructure also radically altered soil and water systems including degradation of watershed conditions and loss of wildlife habitat and populations.
A related agricultural reform began in the 1960s (the “Green Revolution”), with a campaign to promote the use of agrochemicals and transgenic crop varieties, resulting in the loss of original indigenous seed varieties. The Mahaweli program and irrigation have supplied the water for most of the rice cultivation in the North Central Province. This area is also – likely not coincidentally – the site of the nation’s highest incidence of chronic kidney disease among poor farming communities.
The rich industrialized countries in the Global North are responsible for nearly 80% of historical global carbon emissions. Yet poor countries in the global South, such as Sri Lanka – whose carbon footprint is negligible – are the greatest victims of climate disasters. The current and looming impact of climate change on Sri Lanka is massive:
Annual mean air temperature has significantly increased by between 1961- 1990 increasing 0.016 °C per year;
Annual average rainfall over Sri Lanka has decreased by about seven percent between the 1931-1960 period and the 1961 to 1990 period;
Forecasting the rise in sea level, Sri Lanka is faced with a predicted devastating coastal erosion rate of 0.30-0.35 meter a year, with adverse impact on nearly 55 percent of the shoreline.
The 2004 tsunami drastically highlighted the vulnerability of the low-lying plains in the coastal zone to any future rise in sea level. Northern and eastern coastal areas claimed as traditional ‘Tamil homelands’, are vulnerable to submersion as they are flatter than other coastal areas. This has serious implications for both population displacement and renewed political conflict, concerns totally absent in UNHCR Resolutions that focus on identity politics and calls for political devolution.
In 2015, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), an international aid NGO, identified Sri Lanka ‘as the country with the highest relative risk of being displaced by disaster in South Asia. For every million inhabitants, 15,000 are at risk of being displaced every year in Sri Lanka’.
In 2017 alone, the country experienced seven disaster events, mainly floods and landslides, and ‘135,000 new displacements due to disaster. Sri Lanka is also at risk from slow-onset impacts like soil degradation, saltwater intrusion, water scarcity, and crop failure’.
Sri Lanka was ranked second among countries most affected by extreme weather events in the Global Climate Risk Index 2019 and sixth in 2020.
Deforestation is considered the greatest environmental threat facing Sri Lanka today. Sri Lanka ranked fourth among countries with worst deforestation of primary forests in the world in the 2000-2005 period. Forest cover, which had declined to about 50% at the end of British rule, has further declined to 44% in 1956 and 16.5 % in 2019.
A highly controversial current case is the housing development supposedly constructed for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on Willpattu National Wildlife Park. The housing will remain despite a recent court judgement that declared it illegal. The ‘polluter pays’ principle was upheld, but this only requires that the offender reforests other lands ‘in any area equivalent to the reserve forest area used for re-settlement of IDPs’. Even this court decision is under appeal by the 7th respondent, former Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishard Badiuddin. Moreover, as ecologists point out, mere tree planting elsewhere will not lead to recovery of the intricate forest eco-systems that were destroyed.
Another major controversy involves the Sinharaja Rainforest covering an area of 18,900 acres. It is home to over 50% of the country’s endemic species and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Deforestation is now taking place in the Sinharaja area for the construction of a road for an isolated village bordering the Forest Reserve and for the suspected building of hotels, shops and other encroachments.
A National Plan based on surveys and clear demarcation of boundaries of Forest Reserves, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Conservation Areas and enforcement is urgently needed to avoid conflict and encroachment over remaining forests.
A recent announcement was made by the Government Minister of Irrigation, Chamal Rajapaksa, regarding proposals to construct two irrigation tanks inside the Sinharaja, each spanning an area of five acres, with Chinese involvement. A 30-kilometer water tunnel to transport fresh water to areas in the South (including possibly Chinese controlled Hambantota port) is also reported. This announcement has raised alarm over environmental impact and likely loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status.
Mining, Dumping and Export-led Growth
There are, unfortunately, many other environmental controversies, the most destructive of which involve export-led growth and foreign companies.
In 2017, 263 waste containers carrying biomedical, plastic and other waste from the UK was brought for illegal dumping in Sri Lanka. Such toxic dumping by rich Northern countries in the poor countries of the South is sadly a common practice. After a legal victory by environmentalists, the containers are being sent back to the UK.
A proposed new project in the Eastern Province is the Eastern Minerals Project of Capital Metal, a company from the UK which plans to mine the ‘highest-grade’ mineral sands containing ilmenite, rutile, zircon and garnet. While it promises to be a highly profitable venture, environmentalists fear massive and irreversible damage to the vulnerable eastern coastline.
Yet another controversial mining project is proposed by Titanium Sands, an Australian company,that wants to mine titanium on the island of Mannar off the northern coast of Sri Lanka. Mannar is a bird paradise and local environmentalists blame the Australian company of ‘illegal conduct’ and plans to dramatically transform the ecosystem and limit land use by the local community.
Just as the world is at the cusp of a new era of technological and corporate authoritarianism, Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, is also at a decisive historical juncture. The island is facing new forms of external intervention and competition primarily involving the expansionist and national security efforts of China, USA and India. These three countries are also the biggest carbon polluters, pursuing unbridled economic growth despite the impending global climate catastrophe.
Sri Lanka is centrally placed in the maritime route of China’s Belt Road Initiative. China is now in control of the Hambantota port, the Colombo Port City, a terminal of the Colombo port and a hybrid renewable energy project on three islands off the Jaffna peninsula, just 50 km from the Tamil Nadu coast.
The Quadrilateral Alliance of the USA, India, Australia and Japan is challenging this Chinese expansion, and is, in turn, in control of key strategic positions and natural resources.
India, for example, is in control of the British colonial era Oil Tank Farm in the seaport town of Trincomalee. It is reported that the development of the west terminal of the Colombo port will also be given to the company of Indian billionaire Adani.
The US Millennium Challenge Corporation’s proposed Compact with Sri Lanka was turned down by Sri Lanka due to local protests over resource exploitation, land grab and an effort to splinter Sri Lanka into two separate entities under the control of the United States. However, there is suspicion that some of the main objectives of the MCC to digitalize land registers and privatize land to make them available for development by transnational corporations maybe be continuing in other ways.
The US signed an Acquisitions and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) with Sri Lanka in 2017 making the island a ‘logistics hub’ allowing US military vessels open-ended access to Sri Lanka’s seaports and airports. The ACSA is part of the ‘grand strategy of a united military front between the US and India in the Indo-Pacific’.
A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the USA and Sri Lanka, which could turn Sri Lanka into a US military base, has been proposed but not yet signed due to local protest.
Neo-Colonialism and Eco-Social Implications
While the implications of Neo-Colonialism for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity have been much discussed in recent media, the ecological and social implications remain relatively unexplored. Some of these include:
Conflicts between Chinese interests and farming families around the Hambantota port over Chinese offers to buy ancestral properties of locals.
Protests and legal action by environmentalists over Chinese Port City, especially coastal sand excavation and dumping of chemical waste.
Control of the west terminal of the Colombo harbor by India’s controversial Adani Group, which has a history of environmental and financial violations in Australia and India.
Effects of militarization of the island under the ACSA and possible SOFA agreements and military confrontation between the Quadrilateral Alliance and China in the Indian Ocean.
Future Survival with the Wisdom of the Past
Sustainable agriculture has a long history on the island, as in any long-lasting indigenous culture, and it needs to be brought back to the fore. Local self-sufficiency and agro-ecology are the only solutions to future food scarcity and surviving the vicissitudes of the global economy.
Both Sri Lanka and the world have enough natural resources to support people if resources are shared equitably and sustainably used. It is the apocalyptic destruction of the unregulated greed of neoliberalism that must end.
For this to happen, policies of corporate regulation must be put in place at both the national and global levels. These policies also need to incorporate a broader definition of human rights that includes the rights of nature and people’s rights to natural resources and livelihoods. 250 major civil society organizations from around the world have signed a declaration calling for an end to ‘corporate control and cooptation’ of the United Nations including the U.N. Convention on Climate Change. Indeed, the moral authority of the United Nations and its partisan approach to human rights need serious questioning.
There is an urgent concurrent need for environmental education that transcends political party and ethno-religious divisions and unites people both with each other and with a survivable environment. Environmentalism is also humanism that looks to the future, and the rights and survival of future generations.
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