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Midweek Review

Pompeo follows Jiechi to Colombo

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense chief Mark Esper meet Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval (pic courtesy Hindustan Times)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Yahapalana President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe hadn’t been able to reach a consensus on almost all major issues – ranging from economic policy to making available tabs to undergraduates. In spite of forming an administration, on the basis of the 19th Amendment, enacted in early 2015, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe didn’t see eye to eye on many matters. On many occasions, the former President publicly criticized Wickremesinghe’s approach to the Treasury bond scam,s allegedly perpetrated by the then Central Bank Governor, Arjuna Majendran, handpicked by the then PM, being the primary bone of contention.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Austin Fernando, who had been Secretary to Sirisena (July 2017-July 2018), quite rightly pointed out that the unprecedented Treasury bond scams caused a major rift between the yahapalana leaders. Fernando endorsed the appointment of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) to probe the Treasury bond scams. What the one-time Defence Secretary Fernando didn’t say was that the appointment of the P CoI took place in January 2017- nine months after the second Treasury bond scam, and 22 months after the first.

Saman Ekanayake, who had served as Secretary to Wickremesinghe, in another interview, also published in the Oct 18, 2020 edition of the ST, asserted that the Treasury bond scams hadn’t been the major cause of the conflict between the yahapalana leaders.

Fernando and Ekanayake discussed a range of issues, and controversies, that led to the collapse of the much-touted yahapalana arrangement. As a result, the UNP ended up with one National List seat, whereas the SLFP managed to secure 13 seats on the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) ticket, and one on its own, at the last General Election.

The UNP parliamentary group consisted of 106 lawmakers, in the last parliament (2015-2020). In addition to the 106-member group, there was one elected on the SLMC ticket. The SLFP led UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) commanded 95 lawmakers. The UPFA is no longer represented in parliament.

Fernando and Ekanayake, who enjoyed a ringside view, deliberated the yahapalana downfall. The discussions were quite useful and essential to understand the circumstances leading to Sirisena sacking Wickremesinghe, on Oct 26, 2018. Sirisena made his move, having failed to convince Wickremesinghe to give up the premiership, close on the heels of the debilitating setback the UNP and the SLFP suffered at the Feb 10, 2018 Local Government polls. However, the former officials failed to discuss the crucial and weighty US intervention here that facilitated Maithripala Sirisena’s emergence as the common candidate, at the 2015 presidential poll. The US intervention, both overt and covert, by way of the unpalatable Geneva accountability resolution, also contributed to the ultimate downfall of the yahapalana arrangement. Interestingly, there hadn’t been any reference to the Geneva resolution at all.

 

Pompeo here in the wake of Jiechi

 

Let us now discuss the US role here against the backdrop of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit this week, close on the heels of former Chinese Foreign Minister and the current Communist Party Politburo Member Yang Jiechi meeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Earlier, Pompeo was scheduled to arrive in Colombo on June 27, 2019, on a short visit, during the yahapalana administration. Although the cancellation took place, amidst the SLPP and nationalist groups protesting against the finalization of SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) agreements, the US Embassy in Colombo, however, gave this excuse: “Due to unavoidable scheduling conflicts during his upcoming visit to the Indo-Pacific region that includes accompanying President Donald J. Trump to the G20 Summit in Japan, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo is unable to visit Sri Lanka as previously announced.”

Ahead of Pompeo’s arrival, the US threatened Sri Lanka, struggling to cope up with the deadly coronavirus, over its close relationship with China. “We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity,” attributed to Dean Thompson, the top diplomat in charge of South Asia, is nothing but a threat. The message is clear.

Obviously, in spite of the change of government, in Nov 2019, the US expects Sri Lanka to remain committed to a hidden agenda, reached with the previous yahapalana administration. With China quite stubbornly pursuing its strategies, at both regional, as well as global level, the US seems hell-bent on subverting Sri Lanka, now experiencing the worst ever financial crisis, since independence.

The US warning reminds us of the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s demand, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term, that Sri Lanka terminate/take back all major Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, including the Colombo port city, as well as the Hambantota port. The US-India-Japan coalition is determined to thwart China’s growing strength, at both regional and global level.

Australia joining India, the US and Japan, in the Malabar naval exercises, in the Indian Ocean, in Nov 2020, should be examined in the context of the US-led confrontation with China.

Carried out annually, since 1992, the strategic manoeuvres have grown in size, and complexity, in recent years, to meet what the US Navy has termed as a “variety of shared threats to maritime security in the Indo-Asia Pacific.”

The participation of Australia means that all four members of the Quad aka Quadrilateral Security Dialogue will be participating in the exercises, amidst growing Indo-China and China-US tensions.

Pompeo is the second US Secretary of State to visit Colombo. in 50 years. John Kerry was here in the first week of May 2015. amidst the deepening turmoil over the first Treasury bond scam. Having called on Sirisena, at the Presidential Secretariat, Kerry held bilateral talks with the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among those on Samaraweera’s team, at the talks, were the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake (embroiled in the first Treasury bond scam), Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, who was later sacked by Sirisena, at the behest of Wickremesinghe, and then Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington Prasad Kariyawasam, who, years later, turned up at the Parliament as Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s advisor, paid by the USAID. Kariyawasam served as the Foreign Secretary before taking up the USAID paid controversial appointment. Wickremesinghe hosted Kerry for lunch at Temple Trees.

Five years later, Pompeo’s visit takes place against the backdrop of the political setup here undergoing an unprecedented change. The UNP is irrelevant in today’s political context with its leader Wickremesinghe failing, at least to regain his Colombo seat. Samaraweera and Karunanayake are no longer members of parliament either, with the latter under investigation by the CID over the Treasury bond scams. Sirisena and Wijeyadasa Rajapakse represent the SLPP and one-time US citizen, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. With the passage of the 20th Amendment, the way is now cleared for the President to assume duties as the Minister of Defence, properly.

 

US interventions in 2010 et al

 

In the wake of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE in May 2009, the US feared the Rajapaksas forging closer ties with Beijing. The US pushed one-time LTTE mouthpiece, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to throw its weight behind the then common candidate, the war-winning Army Chief, General Sarath Fonseka, at the January 2010 presidential election. The Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK)-led TNA had been reluctant to participate in the high profile political project and was really embarrassed by what it was asked to do. But, the US insisted on the TNA participation. The US had no qualms in backing Fonseka, despite having accused him and his Army of war crimes.

Thanks to Wikileaks revelations, the US role in the formation of the UNP-led coalition, to back Sarath Fonseka, is in the public domain. A confidential cable from the US Embassy, in Colombo, dated January 1, 2010, leaked by Wikileaks, revealed how Samapanthan provided a copy of an agreement signed by Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the UNP leader and the common candidate Fonseka to implement, what the then US Ambassador here Patricia A. Butenis called, a genuine power sharing agreement acceptable to all communities. The JVP, as well as the SLMC, backed Sarath Foneka’s candidature. In spite of winning all predominantly Tamil and Muslim districts, in the Northern and Easter Provinces, comfortably, Fonseka suffered a humiliating defeat as a result of the majority Sinhala community rejecting him. The war hero lost by a staggering 1.8 mn votes.

Five years later, a very much similar US clandestine project, with the active participation of India, succeeded here. The same coalition successfully backed Sirisena’s candidature, at the 2015 presidential election. Having installed Sirisena, as the Executive President, the UNP implemented its programme. Former top aides to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe explained how Wickremesinghe pursued his objectives, though the Geneva issue didn’t receive attention at all.

In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, the UNP-led coalition repeatedly warned that Sri Lanka faced international sanctions if Mahinda Rajapaksa secured a third term. The yahapalana coalition repeated, like a mantra, that Western powers would impose crippling sanctions over war crimes accusations, unless Sirisena’s victory paved the way for a negotiated settlement with the Tamil community. In the wake of Sirisena’s victory, the UNP moved swiftly and decisively to reach consensus with the US over accountability issues.

As a result of negotiations, Sri Lanka, on Oct 1, 2015, co-sponsored the despicable Geneva resolution against one’s own country, sponsored by the US and its pliant allies. The war-winning Rajapaksa government, in no uncertain terms, declined to co-sponsor a resolution against its own armed forces, regardless of the consequences. The yahapalana government finalized the Geneva resolution, just over a week after Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha strongly advised against the move at the first informal talks on the draft proposal in Geneva. The UNP dismissed his objections

Less than a year later, TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran revealed the existence of an understanding among Sri Lanka, the TNA and the US as regards the Geneva resolution, inclusive of foreign judges and other experts in a proposed war crimes court. The revelation was made in Washington, with the then Sri Lanka’s Ambassador there, Prasad Kariyawasam, by his side. Although the Sri Lankan mission, and the Foreign Ministry here, conveniently refrained from making any reference to Sumanthiran’s shocking disclosure, in their media statements, the TNA released the MP’s full speech.

A government appointed Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanism (CTFRM), too, recommended the participation of foreign judges in war crimes courts, to be established in accordance with the 30/1 Geneva Resolution, adopted in Oct 2015. The CTFRM, headed by Manouri Muttetuwegama ,comprised Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu (its Secretary), Gamini Viyangoda, Visaka Dharmadasa, Shantha Abhimanasingham PC, Prof Sitralega Maunaguru, K.W. Janaranjana, Prof. Daya Somasundaram, Dr. Farzana Haniffa, Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe and Mirak Raheem.

 

Sirisena saves UNP

 

In spite of the bad blood, between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, over the first Treasury bond scam, blamed on the latter’s choice as Governor of the Central Bank (Arjuna Mahendran), the President went out of his way to save Wickremesinghe, and the UNP. Wickremesinghe quite easily forgot how Sirisena ensured the support of the UPFA parliamentary group, sans that of Sarath Weerasekera, for the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Wickremesinghe was able to secure over 200 votes for the 19th Amendment, though the UNP had less than 50 members in parliament at that time. This was in spite of the perpetration of the first Treasury bond scam, several weeks before the vote on the 19th Amendment.

The UPFA backed the UNP initiative, though, by then, on Sirisena’s directive, the SLFP had lodged a complaint regarding the first Treasury bond scam with the CIABOC (Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption). Sirisena dissolved parliament on the night of June 26, 2015 to deprive COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Dew Gunasekera of an opportunity to present its devastating report on the first Treasury bond scam, though some blamed the President for not dissolving the parliament on the third week of April 2015 on the completion of the 100-day programme.

 

UNP-SLFP alliance

 

If not for the hasty dissolution, the COPE report would have been presented to parliament, ahead of the general election. Had that happened, the UNP would have suffered a major setback. Sirisena not only saved the UNP from an extremely difficult situation, but also delivered a stunning blow to his own party, the SLFP, a couple of weeks before the election. Sirisena declared that even if the SLFP-led UPFA won the general election, Mahinda Rajapaksa wouldn’t be appointed the Prime Minister, under any circumstances.

There had never been such a treacherous statement by a leader of a political party, in the post-independence era, though treachery and duplicity were all part of the game. But Sirisena did just that!

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe ensured that the 19th Amendment provided constitutional foundation for the UNP-SLFP coalition. They exploited the very law meant to restrict the number of ministers and non-cabinet ministers to 30 and 40, respectively, to authorize the expansion of the cabinet as well as non-cabinet positions. Member of the UNP-led coalition, R. Sampanthan, who had betrayed democracy by recognizing the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils, in late 2001, was chosen as the Opposition Leader, and accommodated on the Constitutional Council.

The US and its allies, who shout so much about transparency, conveniently turned a blind eye to what was happening in parliament. They wanted a situation in parliament, conducive for the implementation of their overall sinister strategy. By Sept 2016, the US had reached an agreement worth Rs 1.93 bn (USD 13 mn) to influence the decision-making process here, whereas Wickremesinghe pursued a new constitution making process as part of that strategy.

Parliament owed the public an explanation as to how the US-funded project was implemented and the benefits received by Sri Lanka. It would be pertinent to mention the UPFA Joint Opposition Group (now SLPP), too, cooperated with the UNP in the constitution making process. The National Freedom Front (NFF) quit the process, in mid-2017. However, its efforts to persuade the rest of the JO to discontinue its participation failed.

Having formed the government, with Sirisena’s help, following the August 2017 general election, the UNP perpetrated the second much bigger bond scam, in late March 2016. Still, the UNP pushed hard for the extension of term for the Singaporean as the Central Bank Governor, who was under heavy fire over the Treasury bond scams. At the time of the fraudulent transactions, the Central Bank was under the purview of UNP leader Wickremesinghe, who held the policy planning and economic affairs portfolios. Within two weeks, after the January 8, 2015 presidential election, Wickremesinghe, by way of a gazette, brought the Central Bank and the Securities and Exchange Commission under him. They had been under the Ministry of Finance, a portfolio held by UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake at the time Wickremesinghe stepped in. The Public Utilities Commission, too, was brought under Wickremesinghe.

If not for the Treasury bond scams, perhaps Wickremesinghe could have succeeded in bringing the Geneva-backed constitution making process to a successful conclusion. Contrary to some disagreements, the yahapalana leaders basically agreed with the script written by the US.

Sirisena quietly allowed the finalization of the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) in early August 2017. The ACSA, first signed by the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during Mahinda Rajapakas’s first tenure as the President, received the President’s approval, though the President subsequently vowed he wouldn’t allow any agreement inimical to Sri Lanka as long as he enjoyed executive powers. This declaration was made at a meeting with editors of national newspapers and senior representatives of both print and electronic media at the Janadhipathi Mandiraya. When the writer sought a clarification regarding the ACSA, Sirisena acknowledged the finalization of the agreement, in the first week of August 2017. The UNP never found fault with Sirisena for giving the go ahead for the ACSA finalization. As far as the yahapalana policy, vis-à-vis the US, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe took one stand though sometimes, Sirisena tried to distance himself from Wickremesinghe’s Geneva policy.

Don’t ever forget, the yahapalana government never took tangible measures to use Lord Nasby’s disclosure, in Oct 2017, in the House of Lords, to save the country from the Geneva trap. Sri Lanka did nothing even after the US, in June 2018, quit the Geneva body, alleging it was nothing but a cesspool of political bias. For some unknown reason, the SLPP administration, too, is yet to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure properly to clear its name. Now that Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has alleged that Army Chief Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva was black listed by the US, as a result of the Geneva resolution, the government should take appropriate measures to have the country cleared of war crimes. Lt. Gen. Silva cannot get out of the US listing as long as Sri Lanka didn’t successfully challenge the Geneva resolution, based on unsubstantiated allegations.

The incumbent government is yet to adopt comprehensive measures to deal with the Geneva resolution. In spite of various declarations, made by the government, the Geneva resolution remains active, with the UK in charge of the project. The US, though being out of the Geneva body, continues to back the Geneva process to pressure Sri Lanka to accept its combative proposals. The recent US State Department statement is a case in point. Pompeo’s visit further amplifies the danger Sri Lanka is in as already the economy is in a tailspin, due to the rampaging coronavirus. The possibility of those eyeing Sri Lanka, exploiting weaker economic conditions and creating further complexities, cannot be ruled out. It would be important to keep in mind how the yahapalana government made an attempt to cut off China, by halting the Port City project, in 2015, but ended up not only rescinding that directive but handing over the Hambantota port, on a 99-year-old lease, to Beijing.



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Midweek Review

leaves out Gash dispatches, Swiss embassy abduction drama and India’s accountability

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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.

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Midweek Review

Convincing storytelling with engaging dialogue and three-dimensional characters

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‘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.

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Midweek Review

‘Human Rights’ And Ecological Crisis In Sri Lanka

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‘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.

Historical Background

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.

Current Realities

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

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.

 

Neo-Colonialism

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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