President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
By Jehan Perera
As the new year dawns, the government appears to be moving in the direction of more inclusivity in both domestic and foreign policy. The most contentious domestic political issue over the past nine months, and growing in intensity to include public demonstrations, has been that of the disposal of bodies of persons who succumb to the coronavirus. The Sri Lankan claim to be exceptional in the world in respect of the practice of enforced cremation has been met with the opposition and increasingly public agitation of the Muslim community to whom burial is a matter of religious faith and is a human right guaranteed under the constitution and international law. Until recently the experts in the medical and scientific field consulted by the government and elevated to government committees were adamant in taking the position that burials should not be permitted on safety grounds.
The willingness of the government to go ahead for over nine months with a policy that has been challenged both on scientific and religious grounds both locally and internationally needs to be understood. Muslim countries worldwide have joined hands to ask the Sri Lankan government to respect the right to burial. However, the proponents of cremation, both amongst the scientific community and general public, have a worldview that is centered around their own ethnic identity and its historical experiences. They see the need to assert their dominance or risk losing ground as occurred in the distant past. When these primordial fears are set in opposition to those of the ethnic and religious minorities who are vested with equal citizenship rights, and in addition are contrary to international practices, the outcome is bound to be contested, divisive and harmful to the country as a whole.
A more recently appointed expert committee by the government, on the issue of the disposal of bodies of Covid-infected persons has adopted a more pluralist perspective and recommended both cremation and burial as options. This will provide the government with a science-based rationale to change the present policy that has divided the country. It will be to the credit of the government that even as it moves towards accommodation within the country, it is moved to accommodation in the foreign policy sphere as well. The government’s ability to eschew polarization in foreign policy can be seen in its ability to tide over the foreign exchange crisis by negotiating to raise USD 3.5 billion in currency swaps from China and India who are rivals on the international front as well as in relation to Sri Lanka where they have both being vying to take the first place. In recent years the Chinese presence has increased significantly in terms of economic enterprises operating within the country including the country’s ports.
With Sri Lanka being just 30 km away from India and having overlapping territorial seas that can harbour security threats to itself, it can be expected that India would have concerns about Sri Lanka’s growing closeness and dependence on China for both economic and political sustenance. The Sri Lankan government would have no interest in taking sides in the rivalries of China and India and making itself part of a big power struggle by siding with one over the other. The decision to lease out the Eastern terminal of the Colombo port to an Indian-owned company, which is in partnership with the Japanese government, can assuage Indian concerns regarding China’s potential security threat to itself by giving them also a similar presence in the country’s ports. This is a positive action as India is not only physically close to Sri Lanka, but is also culturally close, which makes it the closest to Sri Lanka in more ways than one.
For the past three decades since the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, India has sought to be a benefactor to Sri Lanka offering more and asking for less. The cynical actions of the Indian government in the early to mid-1980s, when it decided to train and arm the Tamil militancy that pushed the country into a protracted ethnic war will always be remembered in Sri Lanka. However, the Indian efforts to make amends needs to be appreciated. During the final decade of the war, India gave its military and diplomatic support to overcome the LTTE threat. The amends that India has made comes in three important ways. The first is economic, in which India has emerged to be among the top three aid donors along with China and Japan. Indian economic support is wide ranging including the construction of railways, providing housing for war victims, ambulances countrywide and educational scholarships. India has also offered to sign a free trade agreement which Sri Lanka has not been prepared to accept so far due to fear of being overwhelmed by much bigger and wealthy Indian economic enterprises.
The second area of India’s support has come in the form of political support in international forums, particularly those in which Sri Lanka is politically vulnerable due to its blemished human rights record due to wars and authoritarian rule when it was capable of doing much better. In the votes taken at the UN Human Rights Council, India invariably voted along with Sri Lanka in opposing international sanctions of any sort being imposed on Sri Lanka. Only once did it abstain from voting for either side in 2014. India’s support has been particularly helpful to Sri Lanka as it provides leadership to other developing countries which tend to look to India for guidance. The forthcoming session of the UNHRC in Geneva in March will be particularly important as the issue of the UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 will be coming up, and the present Sri Lankan government’s unilateral withdrawal from commitments made by the previous government will be taken up.
The third area of Indian support to Sri Lanka has been in regard to supporting a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the country that has dogged it since the time of Independence and which successive government leaders have tried to bring to a conclusion. The current framework of devolution of power which is suited for ethnically and regionally diverse countries such as Sri Lanka is an outcome of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord of 1987. It induced the Sri Lankan government to amend the constitution through the 13th Amendment to establish Provincial Councils. This was a challenge that previous Sri Lankan leaders, starting from S W R D Bandaranaike in 1957 to Dudley Senanayake in 1965, had attempted to do but failed. The early models of devolution of power, which those earlier generations of leaders proposed, would have given the ethnic minorities the power of limited self-government in the areas in which they are a majority. They were akin to asymmetrical devolution as they were not meant to be operational outside of the Northern and Eastern provinces.
It was India’s pledge to stop the ongoing war with the LTTE by disarming it that prompted President J R Jayewardene to give the necessary political leadership to ensure that the 13th Amendment was passed into law. This constitutional amendment provided the framework for devolution of power on a uniform basis to the entire country rather than to the North and East alone on the principle of one country, one law, which the current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa champions. The Provincial Council system has been in operation for over three decades. Those who have been a part of the system and been chief ministers and government officials within them have expressed their belief that this system can be improved. The ethnic minorities, too, support the system of Provincial Councils but the ethnic majority and nationalist politicians are opposed to it.
The decision of the government to further postpone Provincial Council elections till the proposed new constitution is formulated is an indication that the present government or some of its leaders may wish to amend the Provincial Council system or eliminate it entirely. However, there are also other reasons that may have motivated the government to make this decision, including the widening Covid infection and the expense involved in holding the elections which could be used for other urgent purposes. In any event, if the Provincial Council system is to be modified, abolished or replaced with another system of power sharing, this needs to be done with the concurrence of the ethnic minorities and not be unilaterally imposed on them. At a time when Indian is supportive of Sri Lanka it needs also to be kept in mind that India lost the lives of over one thousand of its soldiers to implement the Indo- Lanka Peace Accord, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was the co-architect of the Accord also lost his life as a result. Any change in the system of devolution of power needs to be a considered one.
SLAF on hazardous wall, Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement……
Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement in response to an article (That hazardous Ratmalana Wall) published on 21 Jan.
It is with regret that I would like to inform you that the newspaper article titled “That Hazardous Ratmalana Wall” published in The “Island” newspaper of 21 January 2021 contains false information which has not been clarified from the Air Force Director Media nor any other official channel of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).
It should also be highlighted that the Sri Lanka Air Force does not wish to challenge the freedom of reporting information by journalists. However, news articles of this nature published with the use of unsubstantiated information tarnishes the image of Sri Lanka Air Force.
The newspaper article in concern has caught the attention of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force. As alleged in the article, the Commander has not declared on behalf of the SLAF that there is no objection for the removal of the wall and replacing it with a fence. On the contrary he had in fact stated that a collapsible wall could be put in place of the permanent wall which should have a solid finish obstructing the view from outside due to security reasons.
In addition, to date there has been no incident/accident reported at the Ratmalana Airfield related to the wall along the Galle Road. Further, vehicles such as passenger coach/container etc; travelling on the main road would be taller than the wall in concern and according to the article, the main road would also have to be closed each and every time when an aircraft approaching of taking off from that end of the runway. International runway due to limitations which is also can be considered as hazardous to flight safety, SLAF consider Flight Safety is a paramount important factor as an organization which operates different types of aircraft over the years from this airfield.
It is pertinent to mention the wall in concern was erected by the SLAF before year 2009 with the consent of the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL) to address the security concerns at that time and maintained to date. The outer perimeter security of the Colombo International Airport at Ratmalana is being provided by the SLAF free of charge over years. As a measure of gratitude, with the consent of AASL and the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), SLAF authorized to erect hoardings along this wall and to utilize the funds generated for welfare measures of airmen.
Further, publishing of an article which has an author with a fictional name will have serious and adverse effects on the newspaper as well as the goodwill which prevails between SLAF and AASL. The goodwill which prevails between the SLAF and your esteemed Organization will also be adversely effected by articles of this nature. SLAF Directorate of Media always provide accurate and precise information to media institutions which has an impact on general public as well as to other organizations. Undersigned is contactable any time of the day through mobile (0772229270) to clarify ambiguities of SLAF related information.
In conclusion, I would like to express our displeasure regarding the newspaper article in concern and the damage which has been done to the good name of the Sri Lanka Air Force and in particular to the Commander of Air Force.
for COMMANDER OF THE AIR FORCEs
By Rajitha Ratwatte
There is an old joke that goes around regularly about Sri Lankans’ in hell. How absolutely no guards are needed to keep Lankans in hell because they do a very good job of pulling each other down into hell when anyone even looks like they will escape. When you extrapolate that into real life in the Pearl, the examples are plenty. All of us have personal experiences of neighbours, peers, relations and even our bosses “cutting us” as the popular phrase goes. It is mostly those who either realise and watch out for these pitfalls or those who clearly identify a powerful figure to “bum suck” for want of a better word that display pure unadulterated sycophancy to, that “progress” to propagate these trends in the future. This I believe is something that is triggered by the basest of all human emotions, jealousy, and probably egged on by a sense of insecurity as well.
One would expect that in a nation of devout Buddhists such reprehensible behaviour would be addressed and controlled. Alas it is not to be and looks like it never will be.
It is rather disconcerting to observe that this behaviour is ‘going strong’ among the Lankan community in this the land of the “long White Cloud” as well. The more I live here and mix with the community, the more I hear about people who try to start new projects or give fruition to new and possibly brilliant schemes who have been stymied by fellow citizens born in the Pearl. They indulge in the anonymous letter method (that dates back from time immemorial) made even easier by using false identities, and “one-off” e mail addresses on the web. They inform all government authorities of what they believe are attempts to break the law of their adopted country. If there are bilateral trade agreements, they diligently contact the other parties and try to cast aspersions on the people concerned. They even inform the management of any company that these people with the new ideas may be working at, that their employee may be breaking a sub clause in his contract and thinking of doing some other business while working for them. All triggered by a wonderful sense of self-righteousness from people who don’t think twice about breaking the law when it concerns their own affairs!
As a result, those who have had a measure of success, guard their positions very carefully and a few who have tried to include other Lankans in their operations have learned hard lessons from those who stole their trade secrets and started rival businesses on their own. I daresay this happens in other communities too, but among the Chinese and Indian communities that form similar minorities in Aotearoa, there are official networks formed to help new immigrants. There are schemes and methods in place to help their people do business, especially in the field of imports, to try and reach some sort of equilibrium with regard to the balance of trade between Aotearoa and their home countries. Sri Lanka imports so much milk from New Zealand but almost nothing of our spices, gems and jewellery, tourism products or even our tea that used to have a much larger share of the market, are imported.
In these desperate economic times, shouldn’t the government be looking at ways to improve our export trade? There are so many pockets and communities of Lankans in so many different countries who are doing well enough to be able to afford some luxuries from their home countries but have to pay exorbitant prices or do without. A recent import of ‘sweet meats’ for Sinhala New Year saw such a massive offtake that great plans for expansion were disrupted by Covid-19, before the Lankan rivals could put paid to it. Although such plans were in place!
Something that is rather obvious to those observing the antics in the Pearl from outside is that there seems to be no plan. Innovative thinking, especially in the field of ‘non-traditional’ exports does not exist. We have all seen how fickle tourism is. Using our fertile soil and the artistic skills of our people to build a reputation for quality exports has been totally neglected in recent times. I daresay the relevant ministries and export bodies exist, but it is a well-known fact that they simply serve as JOBS for political catchers, who do nothing except enjoy a foreign junket or two every year on account of the taxpayer.
That brilliant marketing idea of the Ceylon Tea Centers was so far ahead of its time that no one really understood it. We had the best retail locations in some of the greatest cities in Europe and the UK and were building up a great reputation for serving quality tea and promoting our cuisine. It should have been expanded to handle handicraft products on the lines of Laksala and even spices. Of course, promoting our culture, hospitality and tourism would have followed. There are two ways to handle a crisis. We can either put up our shutters and slide deeper and deeper into the mire of debt and economic ruin, or take some bold steps, make innovative investments and take a gamble on products and ideas that are endemic to our country.
Even if the latter method fails the end result couldn’t be much worse! Go down fighting I say! Rather than ask expatriates to come back and try to work in a totally corrupt and politician dominated society, approach expatriates with ideas in other countries and back them to promote those ideas if they show real economic benefits to our land. Not everything will work but even a 5% success rate is better than nothing at all.
It is also acknowledged that RANIL has been reappointed as leader of the UNP. Now then, what does this mean? Is it that the Uncle-Nephew party has stuck to tradition or does it mean that at least some people have realized that an experienced politician with world recognition and a certain amount of credibility in the first world, is useful to have around? Search your minds all you critics who blamed absolutely everything on Ranil. Have a dispassionate look at the Muppets in parliament and think for yourself what sort of account they would give of themselves on the world stage. After you do this, place Ranil on the world stage next to those morons and realize for yourself the DIFFERENCE!
Lenin comes to town (again)
By Gwynne Dyer
When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow on Sunday after convalescing in Germany from an attempted poisoning by the FSB domestic spy agency, the regime-friendly media loyally failed to mention his arrival. With one striking exception: Vremya, the flagship news show of Russian state television.
Presumably, somebody there was hoping to win favour with the Kremlin, because they briefly mentioned Navalny three-quarters of the way through Sunday’s two-hour programme. In fact, they compared Navalny’s trip home to Vladimir Lenin’s famous return to Russia in 1917, and suggested that he was as great a danger to Russia as Lenin had been.
As every Russian knows, the Germans plucked Lenin from exile in Switzerland in the middle of the First World War. He was sent across Germany in a ‘sealed train’ (so he wouldn’t spread the infection of Communism there) to St. Petersburg, then in the throes of Russia’s first democratic revolution – and he did just what the Germans had hoped he would.
Lenin overthrew the fumbling democratic ‘Provisional Government’ in a military coup, took Russia out of the First World War – and launched a 73-year totalitarian Communist regime that cost at least 20 million Russian lives in purges, famines and lesser acts of repression. Is Navalny really that great a danger?
The ambitious presenter at Vremya probably won’t get the job he wanted, because President Vladimir Putin really won’t have liked seeing his noisiest critic compared in stature to Lenin, a genuine world-historical figure. Putin himself never mentions Navalny’s name at all.
Russians cannot even put a name to the system they live under, as the poor Vremya presenter’s confusion illustrates. It’s certainly not a democracy, although there are regular elections. It’s definitely not Communist, although most of the regime’s senior figures were Communists before they discovered a better route to power and wealth.
It’s not a monarchy, although Putin has been in power for twenty years and is surrounded by a court of extremely rich allies and cronies. And ‘kleptocracy’ is just a pejorative term used mostly by foreigners, although Navalny does habitually refer to Putin and his cronies as “crooks and thieves”.
In fact, Putin’s regime is not a system at all. Its only ideology is a traditional Russian nationalism that is lightweight compared to blood-and-soil religious and racist movements like Trump’s in the United States and Modi’s in India. It’s a purely personal regime, and it is very unlikely to survive his dethronement or demise.
Putin has been in power for twenty years, and he has just changed the constitution with a referendum that lets him stay in power until 2036. But that seems unlikely, partly because he is already 68 and partly because the younger generation of Russians is getting restless and bored.
Navalny is a brave man who has gone home voluntarily to face a spell in Putin’s jails. (He missed two parole appointments for a suspended sentence on trumped-up embezzlement charges because he was in Germany recovering from the FSB assassination attempt.) But his role in Russian politics so far had been more gadfly than revolutionary.
His supporters do their homework and make clever, witty videos detailing the scandalous financial abuses of the regime (the latest is a virtual tour of Putin’s new $1 billion seaside palace on the Black Sea near Novorossiysk), but he is probably not the man who will finally take Putin down. What he is doing to great effect is mobilising the tech-savvy young.
Since 2018 the average age of protesters at anti-Putin demos, mostly linked to Navalny one way or another, has dropped by a decade, and their boldness has risen in proportion. Moreover, their attitude to the regime now verges on contempt. Rightly so: consider, for example, the last two assassination attempts by regime operatives.
In 2018, the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, sent two agents to England to kill defector Sergei Skripov and his daughter Yulia. The agents made two trips to Salisbury because they couldn’t find the right house, they were tracked by CCTV every step of the way, and in the end, they left too little novichok (nerve poison) on the doorknob to kill the targets.
Equally crude and bumbling was the FSB’s attack on Navalny in Tomsk, where the novichok was put on his underpants. Once again, the target survived, and afterwards the investigative site Bellingcat was able to trace FSB agents tracking Navalny on forty flights over several years before the murder was attempted.
Neither agency is fit for 21st-century service, nor is the regime they both serve. Russians have put up with it for a long time because they were exhausted and shamed by the wild political banditry of the 1990s, but Putin’s credit for having put an end to that has been exhausted. He may still be in power for years, but this is a regime on the skids.
SLAF on hazardous wall, Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement……
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