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SL expatriates in US use ‘diplomatic tool’ to promote trade-commerce-investments

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Two officials of the U.S. Department of Commerce’ Office of the General Counsel’s Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP), Zmarak Khan, Senior Counsel (Standing 4th from left) and Attorney Advisor Jocelyn Steiner (seated 2nd from right) met with directors of the Sri Lanka-America Chamber of Commerce, led by its President Sanje Sedera (standing 2nd from left) for a four-hour discourse in Las Vegas

… and dispel misconceptions about Sri Lanka

by Daya Gamage

During the two-and-a-half-decades of foreign affairs work with the U.S. Department of State assigned to its Colombo diplomatic post as a Foreign Service National, this writer saw how trade, commerce, investment, aid – both economic as well as military – were well tied to diplomacy and correct understanding of both nations, and the importance of clearing perceived misunderstandings and obstacles.

In 1987, a couple of months before the Vadamarachchi Offensive to combat the separatist LTTE, the US Department of Defense administratively directed several US arms manufacturing companies to refrain from selling military equipment to Sri Lanka requested by the Jayewardene administration. This decision was based on two documents jointly written by the US National Security Agency and the State Department in 1984 and 1986 which determined that such military sales could be used against the minority Tamils and that the Tamil-majority North-East needs a political solution with devolved power structure under a federal setup.

When the Sri Lanka America Chamber of Commerce, in which this writer is a founder director, launched by a group of professional Sri Lankan expatriates in Las Vegas, Nevada as a US national entity, commenced its operations, clearly found that the two areas – promoting trade-commerce-investment, and diplomacy – are even more inter-twined because of misconceptions Washington has toward Sri Lanka’s governance and rule of law.

Ascertaining the ‘road blocks’, while focusing on trade and commerce, the Chamber entrusted itself with broad diplomatic assignment to strengthen rapport with lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and develop new contacts even with policymakers in Washington, especially the US Departments of Commerce and State.

While identifying possible investors, the president of the Chamber Saje Sedera in fact took an American billionaire to the then Sri Lanka president Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he was visiting his son in Los Angeles as one of the initial moves to activate trade and investment between the two nations.

Meanwhile, three Board Members of the Chamber met officials of the Board of Investment (BOI) for discussions in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo.

Two senior officials of the US Department of Commerce flew to Las Vegas, Nevada to have a discourse with officials of the Chamber on investments in the newly launched Colombo Port City. Two officials from the Sri Lanka embassy in Washington D.C. and Consulate in Los Angeles too attended.

The two US officials and the Chamber were aware that in 2002, Sri Lanka and the U.S. signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), which facilitates bilateral discussions to resolve frictions at an early stage. Despite holding more than a dozen TIFA meetings Sri Lanka is still not on the U.S.’ radar for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

The two senior officials of the South & Central Asia Division of the Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP) of the U.S. Department of Commerce were in Nevada, to ascertain the feasibility of establishing a better flexibility for trade, commerce and investment between the two countries. They had already met with Sri Lanka’s finance minister and had discussions with the Econ-Commercial Division of the American Embassy in Colombo.

During an interview in August 2021, the then US Ambassador, Alaina B. Teplitz, “expressed concern that the government should create the best possible business environment to attract investment to Port City” and warned against poor practices or even illicit finance like money laundering and corruption. The Chamber officials discussed the above aspect with the Commerce Department representatives.

With all these initial efforts, the Chamber officials found that without effective diplomacy with US lawmakers and policymakers such endeavours could face obstacles. Sri Lankan diplomats on the American soil – all these years – and the authorities in Colombo had failed to achieve this task.

Focusing deep into the obstacles, the professionals in the Sri Lanka America Chamber of Commerce found:

U.S. policy was based on an inadequate understanding of the underlying causes of the civil war—an understanding that does not include unwilling to adapt to the post-independence democratic order; the origins and dynamics of two competing nationalisms; demographic and economic pressures in an island state; and the imperative in a young democratic system of policies to expand economic opportunity to the disadvantaged majority of all ethnic communities domiciled in the 70% of the rural sector. A biased understanding of the separatist struggle led to a misguided strategy for constraining the violence, negotiating a ceasefire, and imposing a political resolution based on a more decentralised political structure. U.S. bilateral policy was driven astray also by the common narratives of well-meaning but naïve international organizations and human rights ideologues that seized on the Sri Lankan conflict to burnish their credentials as arbiters of international morality.

The SL-US Chamber further found that there has been a perverse lack of appreciation internationally for the threat that a dictatorial, criminal, terrorist organization posed to the security of the great majority of Sri Lankans, including Tamils. Tragically, the U.S.’ simplistic perception of an ethnic majority oppressing a righteously rebellious minority prolonged the bloodshed, alienated a historically reliable partner, weakened a beleaguered democracy, and strengthened the influence of U.S. antagonists in the region.

In an official notification dated October 21 by the Sri Lanka embassy in Washington to two members of the Sri Lankan expatriates, one to this writer, and the other the president of the Chamber Sanje Sedera, provided a list of US Members of Congress Sri Lanka ambassador to Washington Mahinda Samarasinghe had met since his arrival in Dec 2021 obviously the dialogues were to apprise the ‘correct’ situation in Sri Lanka.

Subsequent developments showed that the embassy had failed to adequately provide ‘Sri Lanka’s true story’ to the American lawmakers.

In late Sept this year, two US House Members the ambassador had previously met, signed an official letter, with another six members, to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to “investigate and hold accountable alleged perpetrators of war crimes during the Sri Lankan Civil War, including former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family. We also urge you to use all diplomatic tools available, including sanctions, for the State Department to hold accountable those who are credibly alleged to have been responsible for gross human rights violations”.

Ambassador Samarasinghe, according to the official letters sent to the two Nevada Sri Lankan expatriate activists, had met Congressman Henry “Hank” Johnson twice. He was one of the signatory to the letter addressed to Blinken. Another signatory to the letter was Congressman Bill Johnson, Ambassador Samarasinghe states he had met, who too wanted war crimes investigation. What was not mentioned by the US Congressmen in the letter the crimes committed by the terrorist LTTE which was designated by the State Department in 1997 as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). In 2010, US Supreme Court determined that “Material Support’ to a terrorist organization is amount to helping a terrorist organization – in this case LTTE and PKK- violating US Statutes. US lawmakers were not apprised that there are several such ‘material supporters’ living on American soil. Looks like the signatories were unaware that a terrorist organization had committed war crimes, and that this organisation – well connected to a global network – threatened the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a friendly nation for 26 long years, and that it used unarmed innocent Tamils as ‘human shield’ endangering their lives. This is just one example how Sri Lanka diplomacy has failed to change the ‘mind-set’ of American lawmakers and policymakers.

The expatriate officials of the Chamber fully understood the handicap Sri Lanka was facing in its foreign relations to undertake discourses with US lawmakers with the sole intention of bringing Sri Lanka out of this political stalemate while discussing trade and commerce.

The Congressmen’s letter to Secretary Blinken further declares: “Only by bringing justice and redress to victims of past human rights violations during the decades-long civil war will Sri Lanka be able to fully address its current economic crisis and political situation. The United States must remain committed to holding perpetrators accountable and work to establish an international justice mechanism for war crimes and crimes against humanity from the Sri Lankan Civil War.”

A Zoom meeting was initiated by the Chamber on December 14, 2021 bringing in SL ambassador Mahinda Samarasinghe and US Congresswoman Susie Lee focusing on socio-economic diplomacy between the two nations. Ms. Lee declared the importance of strengthening the bonds between the two nations and said she was prepared to work with the Congress to assist Sri Lanka in whatever manner, a prime target of the expatriates handling the Chamber. Sri Lankan expatriates never saw the Sri Lankan diplomats reaching them to have a coordinated effort to remove the tarnished image of Sri Lanka in Washington.

The Sri Lankan expatriates in the State of Nevada who founded the Chamber of Commerce – working hand-in-hand with Sri Lanka’s premier civic organization in Las Vegas, maintaining a constant rapport with the Sri Lanka Foundation in Los Angeles, keeping in touch with US lawmakers and policymakers, taking into account Washington’s misunderstanding of social developments and the structural changes in Sri Lanka endeavour to perform certain duties Sri Lankan authorities and her overseas representatives so far failed as facilitators to disseminate a better view of Sri Lanka toward opening better opportunities for trade, commerce and investments.

(The writer is a Board Member of the Sri Lanka America Chamber of Commerce in US and a Trustee of the Sri Lanka America Association in the State of Nevada)



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Easter Sunday: “Accept guilt with contrite hearts,” says Kurunegala Bishop

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by Norman Palihawadane

If those responsible for the Easter Sunday terror attacks do not accept their guilt with contrite hearts, then nature will follow suit, says President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka and the Bishop of Kurunegala Catholic Diocese, Rt Rev Dr Harold Anthony Perera.

While delivering his homily at the Holy Mass offered on behalf of the children who received Sacrament of Confirmation at the Church dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes at Yakadapatha, Bishop Perera said that justice has not yet been meted out to the Easter Sunday victims.

“Nature will surely stand against those responsible. Nature will ruthlessly follow them at every step they take and their conscience will not keep them at rest. This is what I believe,” he said.

He said that Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith had stated that those responsible for the terror attacks on Easter Sunday must come forward and accept their guilt. “If those who masterminded this crime fail to do so, I strongly believe that Nature will follow suit,” Bishop Perera said.

“Perusing the pages of history we know well that kings and state rulers had been elevated to positions of power by many means. Also we know for certain that none of them ruled for eternity. None will rule forever.”

He said that if the present day rulers while hiding the truth of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, do nothing to mete justice to the victims and their families, they will suffer immensely.

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TNA accepts president’s overture, MP suggests party ready to talk federal

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ECONOMYNEXT —Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will engage constructively in sincere attempts at resolving the ethnic issue, legislator M A Sumanthiran said responding to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s overtures to the opposition, while also suggesting that the TNA was open to a federal solution.

“We will engage constructively in every sincere attempt as we have always done but will not allow any farcical process,” Sumanthiran tweeted Thursday November 24 afternoon.In a speech made in parliament the previous day, the Jaffna district MP said there can be no reconciliation by sweeping the truth under the carpet.

“It is only by the ascertainment of the truth that there can be true reconciliation,” he said.

“Your actions must be louder than words. All we have are words, words and words. As I speak, more lands are being acquired,” he added, highlighting an example that prompted a response from President Wickremesinghe that he would look into the matter.

Wickremesinghe on Wednesday re-extended an open invitation to opposition parties to a discussion on a permanent solution to Sri Lanka’s decades-long ethnic problem. Talks would begin after December 11, he said, with a view to agreeing on a solution by February 04 2023 when the island nation celebrates 75 years of independence from the British.

“We welcome the president’s initiative. He said everyone must agree on the solution. We want all the people of this country to be content and be satisfied and feel secure that this is their country,” said Sumanthiran.The MP said there is broad consensus already on the issue and that only a few things need to be ironed out.

“That can be done in a day’s sitting. You don’t require three months,” he said.

President Wickremesinghe agreed in his speech that there is nothing new left to talk about.If the president is looking at the South African example, said Sumanthiran, it must be noted that that country underwent a political transformation “before they could look at accountability issues”.

“That fundamental change must happen and must precede other measures,” he said.

Among the issues that Sri Lanka is confronted with with regard to reconciliation between communities is the matter of alleged human rights abuses, particularly during the final phase of the 26-year armed conflict. Missing persons, militarisation and alleged land grabs have also figured prominently in various international fora where Sri Lanka’s human rights record has come up for discussion.

“Of course you need to do many confidence-building exercises because there is a serious lack of trust because of the long history and what happened,” said Sumanthiran.

The MP said it is crucial that the core, root issues are settled first before considering issues of justice and accountability, which he said would provide the people a different outlook on resolving those issues.He also paid what has lately been a rare compliment to President Wickremesinghe from the TNA.

“We recognise that perhaps you are the only person in this House today — although you’re not a member of this house — who’s had the longest experience in this matter. You were part of the government negotiation team that negotiated with the TULF from the middle to the end of 1986, which ended with the Indo-Lanka accord, and the 13th amendment which we did not accept as a meaningful scheme of devolution,” he said.

The 13th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution emerged out of the controversial Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 as a purported solution to the worsening ethnic conflict. Provincial councils came in the wake of this amendment, but land and police powers have yet to be devolved to the provinces as originally envisioned. Both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists have opposed the 13th amendment, the former claiming it devolved too much, the latter complaining it didn’t devolve enough.

Wickremesinghe knows “everything that is to know about the resolution of this”, said Sumanthiran. He also acknowledged the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“Though we did not participate in the APRC, that’s a good report. Many members in the front row today in the government were members of the cabinet in August 2000 when President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga brought a constitution bill to parliament. The UNP at that time led by President Wickremesinghe opposed it only because of a transitional provision with regard to executive presidency, not because of the devolution arrangements in that,” he said.

The UNP government notoriously burnt the draft bill in parliament when the Kumaratunga government presented it. Analysts have revisited that event as a possible misstep in Sri Lanka’s path to a lasting peace, though others disagree.Sumanthiran said consensus is already there and all that is required is for decisions to be made.

“That is what has been entrusted to the president now,” he said.

The president’s call for a permanent resolution by the 75th Independence Day celebrations is a good ideal to work towards, but there isn’t much time, the MP warned.

“So we are willing to work with you constructively to achieve the objective you have enunciated. We’re willing to achieve the reasonable and legitimate aspirations of our people and indeed all the people that live in this country,” he said.In his speech, Sumanthiran was emphatic that his party does not wish to do anything behind the back of the majority.

“Everyone must feel secure. That is our desire as well. That the majority of this country must accept it.”

The MP then said that more than 40 percent of the world’s population live in federal countries. (There are 25 countries with a federal form of government).

“Those are the strongest countries in the world,” the MP claimed.

“You have others who are quasi federal, who sometimes call themselves unitary, like Great Britain, where the extent of devolution is far more than even in a federal form of government.

“We don’t ask for something that is not found anywhere in the world. We’re asking for something that is reasonable and is practised all around the globe. That will ensure that all our people will live with dignity and self respect in this country. We want the majority people to accept and understand that. You are, after all, a preponderant majority. No one can shift that. It was Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike who in 1926  introduced the idea of federalism to this country, not the Tamil leaders,” he said.Sumanthiran recalled that it was in fact the Kandyan chiefs who had asked for a federal form of government on two separate occasions in the early 20th century.

“So it can’t be bad for the Sinhala people, it was the Sinhala people who asked for it,” he said, noting that over time wrong messages have been communicated to the country.

“There are suspicions those must be allayed. We must resolve this in a just way, so that we can all can then stand up as the president envisages by Feb 04 2023 as the children of one mother,” Sumanthiran said.

Federalism has been a highly controversial and politically inflammable idea in Sri Lanka over the years, with many nationalist or even some moderate parties in the south vehemently opposing the very suggestion of it. It is unclear whether this stance has softened over the 13 years since the end of the war, but to date no Sinhalese-dominated party has come out in support for it.

Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Gevindu Kumaratunga who now sits in the opposition responding to Wickremesinghe’s invitation on Wednesday cautioned that they can only support a proposal that will honour Sri Lanka’s unitary character.

“If you’re asking for a consensus within a unitary Sri Lanka, we’ll agree. Outside of that, I don’t think a majority of people will agree. There is a ground reality here. Our soldiers laid down their lives to protect the unitary state,” said Kumaratunga.

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Women MPs to wear orange on Dec 1 to protest gender based violence

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Women MPs will attend parliament on Dec. 1 in line with slogan ‘Let’s unite to end gender based violence’ of the UN-led global campaign – 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV).Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus (WPC) Chairperson, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle said that a wristband with the message “Let’s Unite to end Gender Based Violence” will also be worn as a solidarity measure with the global campaign against GBV.

She said: “The global theme of the campaign 2022 is ‘UNITE! Activism to end violence against women and girls.’ It emphasizes that without unity, GBV cannot be fought. It calls on governments, development partners, youth, media and all other stakeholders to come together to fight against GBV.

“Therefore, the 16 days of activism against GBV is an important advocacy period for our goal to advocate for and ensure equal grounds for women in Sri Lanka,” Fernandopulle said.

She said that a recent survey on Women’s Well-being by the Department of Census and Statistics had reported that during their lifetime, 20 percent of the ever-partnered women have faced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner and that 25 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner or a non-partner after 15 years of age.

Eighteen percent expressed that they were subjected to economic abuse by a partner in their lifetime while 21 percent of the women who experienced violence by a partner had never expressed it to anyone before the interviews.

WPC’s Deputy Chairperson, Matale District MP Rohini Kaviratne said that GBV was nothing new to women in Sri Lanka. “We as women have had to face it always. As women parliamentarians we always face verbal abuse based on our gender,” she said.

Kaviratne said that during elections, and whenever someone needs to disgrace the female candidates, the most common weapon used is their gender roles. “The stereotypical thinking stigmatizes our roles in the public sphere and stepping out of the house to be a leader in politics as a female parliamentarian. We should fight this. We should fight any form of GBV.”

JVP-led NPP MP Dr Harini Amarasuriya said that the WPC was in the process of supporting the drafting of a Women’s Bill to be presented to parliament.  “However, we are conscious that laws alone do not effect change. There is a lot of work that needs to be done both institutionally and politically to ensure that the Bill when passed will make a meaningful difference in the lives of Lankan women.”

Tourism State Minister Diana Gamage said: We urge all Lankans to have zero tolerance for any kind of violence or sexual harassment committed against any human being. We should act, not be silent and passive observers.”

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