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Midweek Review

US-China power struggle: Impact on Sri Lanka

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2021 developments

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Former President and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, MP, was a notable absentee at the Government Party Leaders’ meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, on Dec 25th. Twice President, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over the meeting. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who hadn’t obtained the membership of the SLPP (though he was that party’s nominee for 2019 presidential poll) was present at the three-hour long discussion that dealt with the current situation.

Tackling the Covid-19 situation, both local and foreign debt obligations and restoration of financial stability are formidable challenges, the government and all other political parties represented in the parliament should be concerned about. They cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current instability in every sector.

The Dec 25th discussion covered the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic, the simmering crisis over the cremation of Covid-19 Muslim victims, long-delayed Provincial Council polls, fresh threat posed by armyworm, how some officials exploited the absence of PC polls et al. Over two hours into the meeting, former CPSL General Secretary and ex-Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera sought approval from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to speak on a couple of issues.

Gunasekera received an invitation to the important government group self-evaluation in spite of him giving up the Communist Party General Secretary post on August 30, 2020 to pave the way for Dr. G. Weerasinghe.

The veteran Communist didn’t mince his words when he drew the attention of the top government leadership to the growing danger in Western powers exploiting the cremation of all Covid-19 victims as part of their overall strategy meant to undermine Sri Lanka, the rapidly deteriorating economic situation here, and the need to take the public into confidence and what the electorate expected from the SLPP government in the wake of the sweeping 2019 presidential election victory. Gunasekera also questioned how Asanga Abeygoonasekera, a civilian attached to the Defence Ministry, took an extremely hostile stand on China in a recent article carried in the state media. Gunasekera alleged that such a hasty stand could be severely detrimental to the country against the backdrop of continuing US-China confrontation at regional and global level.

None of those present therein responded to Gunasekera’s concerns. The warning issued at the party leaders’ meeting was nothing but a stark reminder of the daunting challenges the country faced in 2021.

Gunasekera’s awakening call should jolt the government to take stock of the situation and take tangible measures to address the issues. One-time COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Gunasekera’s unpalatable advice to explain the dire economic situation, to the people, must have caused quite a stir among those present.

No less a person than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, without hesitation, has acknowledged the difficulties faced by the country as a result of the Covid-19 eruption. It would be pertinent to point out that the President, on April 29, 2020, told the then Acting Ambassador and Chargé d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy, in Colombo, Hu Wei, that due to the nose-diving of the global economy Sri Lanka lost its key income generating sources, like the apparel industry and tourism. The President’s Office quoted Rajapaksa as having said that it might take a considerable time for the global economy to recover, hence the long-time impact on Sri Lanka.

At the time President Rajapaksa made that statement, the country was coping with the first Covid-19 outbreak better than most countries, due to prompt military-like reaction to it.

The situation was brought under control by June. However, former Minister Gunasekera has issued the warning at a time the country was struggling to overcome the far more deadly Covid-19 second wave. The economy is in tatters with the bankrupt Opposition seeking to exploit, even the good work being done by the government, to its advantage. Despite the national economy having suffered irreparable damage, all political parties continue to play politics with the issue at hand.

The second Covid-19 eruption happened in the first week of October 2020. The government owed an explanation to the public as to how the second outbreak happened. In the absence of proper inquiry into widespread allegations that Covid-19 eruption may have originated at Brandix apparel facility in Minuwangoda, Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, issued specific instructions to the then Acting IGP C.D. Wickremaratne on Oct 27, Oct 29 and Nov 05 as regards the inquiry. The President’s Counsel directed the police to investigate negligence on the part of Brandix, and government officials, in what he called the creation of the ‘Brandix cluster.’

The public is yet to be informed of the outcome, or at least progress, of the investigation. Public Security Minister, retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera should look into the status of the CID probe. A deeply concerned AG went to the extent of personally briefing the investigation team before the commencement of the inquiry. Most importantly, the AG stressed to the Acting IGP his (AG’s) legitimate duty and responsibility to issue instructions to the investigators, personally.

Against the backdrop of a much deteriorated economy, the government should establish how the second wave started. The government cannot turn a blind eye or conveniently forget the origins of the Covid-19 eruption. A really silly attempt was made by interested parties to blame the Covid-19 eruption on Ukrainian nationals. They also tried to pin the blame on members of a private airline crew who stayed at Hotel Ramada, Seeduwa, as well as group of technicians invited by the Air Force to inspect its AN 32s before them being dispatched to Ukraine for overhaul.

Let there be clarity and genuine understanding in this matter. The Opposition, the civil society and the media should push the SLPP government to bring the investigation to an early successful conclusion. The inordinate delay in finalizing the inquiry, or attempts to sweep it under the carpet, will only make matters worse.

Before we move onto other matters, the SLPP’s thinking on Provincial Council polls, too, should be examined. Several ministers, including Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Dayasiri Jayasekera, emphasized the need to conduct the much-delayed PC polls. However, some sections of the government are strongly opposed to the PC polls, in addition to the nine-member Expert Committee, headed by Romesh de Silva, PC, entrusted with the far more important and crucial task of formulating a new Constitution for the country. The proposal to conduct the PC polls under the ‘old system’ by moving an amendment in Parliament as suggested by the Chairman of the Election Commission, Nimal Punchihewa, can be quite disastrous as far as the formulation of constitutional proposals is concerned.

 

New Year wishes

Hiru’s main news bulletin on January 1, 2021, included statements issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and various others. Among them was President’s Counsel de Livera, who had followed an unprecedented path never even dreamt by any of his predecessor Attorneys General. Have you ever heard of a previous AG, on both print and electronic media, so much?

Addressing the AG Department employees, in Sinhala, De Livera said that as a functioning institution the department should definitely make a difference. But, making a difference wasn’t sufficient. The people should be able to realize and feel the difference. Livera emphasized the need to perform their duties and responsibilities in such a way, the public would know what was going on.

The New Year portends a series of challenges. The Office of the President, the Legislature and Judiciary face the daunting challenge of navigating a safer passage as the country faces both external and internal obstacles. Former Minister Gunasekera, in his own style, has reminded the powers that be of the need to identify major issues at hand and take remedial measures without delay. But, will there be political will to tackle the contentious issues?

The much-touted 20th Amendment, enacted in late Oct. 2020, hadn’t restored the desired political stability. The SLPP repeatedly assured that the 20th Amendment would be the panacea for all ills caused by the 19th Amendment, passed with an overwhelming 2/3 majority, in Parliament, on April 28, 2015. All those who had voted for the 19th Amendment, voted for the 20th Amendment whereas Maithripala Sirisena skipped the vote.

 

A silly strategy

Having backed the 19th Amendment to the hilt and prevailing on doubters in the UPFA to back it, Sirisena, now an ordinary lawmaker representing the Polonnaruwa District, excused himself from voting. However, 13 other SLFP lawmakers elected and appointed (Dr. Suren Raghavan) voted for the 20th Amendment. The SLFP group in the SLPP government is the second largest in the coalition. The SLFP is quite displeased over the way the SLPP managed coalition politics. As part of the SLFP strategy, the party sounded to the SLPP that it might go it alone at the next PC polls. Sirisena explained his party’s stance on several issues, including the possibility of contesting PC polls on its own devolution and the rights of the minorities, in an interview with Meera Srinivasan, The Hindu correspondent in Colombo. Even if the SLFP finally decides to go it alone, it is unlikely to pose a threat to the powerful SLPP, now in control of the vast majority of Local Government bodies, the Parliament and the Office of the President. The SLPP is unlikely to succumb to the SLFP tactics, regardless of Sirisena’s rhetoric and that of its General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera.

Let us reproduce the relevant section from The Hindu interview, posted on Dec 30, 2020, and updated on the following day. The Hindu Q: You recently remarked that the SLFP faced a “huge injustice” in the parliamentary elections and have hinted at possibly contesting the Provincial Council elections separately. Would you do that?

Maithripala Sirisena:

“We were treated unfairly when the candidates were picked ahead of the general elections in August 2020. Our party didn’t get a slot in either Kalutara or Nuwara-Eliya districts. In Gampaha, we were given only one. In Kurunegala, we were given only two slots. In the districts we are strong, we weren’t given a fair number of slots. We had asked for 30 candidates. Had we been given 30 slots in the last general election, we would have got at least 25 in Parliament. They [ruling party] organized political attacks on our candidates who had been nominated. So, while we still look forward to contesting the Provincial Council elections as a coalition, we insist on the fair share of seats due to us. If we get that, we will have no problem going to polls together with the government. If there is no fair treatment, our party will decide on a solo journey. We are ready for both options.”

The SLFP is in a pathetic situation. Formerly the major alternate political power, the SLFP, though being represented by 14 lawmakers in the current Parliament, is desperate. Of the 14-member group, only one is elected from the Jaffna District (Angajan Ramanathan) contested on the SLFP ticket (hand symbol). In other words, both the SLFP and the UNP, the two major political parties in the country, are reduced to one lawmaker each, elected under their own symbol. The humiliating and debilitating electoral setbacks suffered by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, caused permanent damage to the two parties. The emergence of the SLPP (145 elected members) and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB/54 members) should be examined against the backdrop of dilution of the UNP and the SLFP. Would it be too harsh, if one called for examination of the demise of those parties? The failure on the part of the UNP to resolve its leadership crisis, even five months after the last embarrassing defeat, is a grim reminder of its plight. The continuing disagreement on who should fill the only National List slot secured by the party at the last general election has further undermined the party. The party Constitution is silent on filling National List vacancies. In other words, if Wickremesinghe is so desired, he can keep the vacancy till the current term ends. The Expert Committee formulating the new Constitution should propose remedial measures.

The main Opposition SJB, too, is divided over policy. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and its partner Rauff Hakeem are struggling to cope with dissidents. Over half a dozen lawmakers, elected on the SJB ticket, and one of its National List MPs Diana Gamage, voted for the 20th Amendment, much to their embarrassment.

The SLPP must realize though the disillusioned political Opposition doesn’t pose a challenge, the Covid-19 and a plethora of other issues threatened to overwhelm the administration.

 

Destabilized by debt

The China-US clash is perhaps one of the major issues Sri Lanka should be seriously worried about. With the growing US-India nexus entering a new phase, vis-a-vis Chinese challenge, Sri Lanka is under heavy pressure to join the US-led strategic coalition. Indo-Pacific Defense FORUM, in a recent edition, extensively dealt with the Chinese challenge and counter measures that were being taken (Volume 45, Issue 1, 2020). The edition is a must read for our decision makers and members of Parliament. Under a section titled Setbacks to OBOR (One Belt, One Road), the US Indo –Pacific Command categorized Sri Lanka and the Maldives as countries destabilized by debt.

The MOC (Memorandum of Cooperation) entered into in late May 2019 by the yahapalana administration with India and Japan on the ECT (East Container Terminal) at the Colombo harbour should be examined against the US-led global coalition built against China. Contrary to promises made in the run-up to the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary polls, the SLPP is inclined to go ahead with the project. Against the backdrop of what can be certainly described as an economic downturn, even far more serious than during the height of the war, and intense pressure over the 99-year leasing of the H’tota port to China, the SLPP government may not have a way out of what can be safely called ECT imbroglio.

National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa MP, raised the finalization of the proposed agreement on ECT at the recent government party leaders’ meet. Weerawansa strongly opposed the deal on the ECT. His erstwhile colleagues in the JVP, too, are at least ostensibly opposed to the Indian role. They have quite conveniently forgotten that the original agreement was moved by President Sirisena’s government, which the JVP helped to install in 2015 and thereafter the comrades propped up that government nicely from behind the scene. The current crop of JVP Leaders no doubt came up in the aftermath of the then UNP government and its death squads wiping out the cream of the party and its leadership barring one, who managed to escape to India at the time.

A hard hitting statement issued by the National Joint Committee (NJC), carried in the Dec 30, 2020 edition of The Island, took a pretty hard stand on the SLPP move. Finely drafted statement flayed the government, the strongest warning issued by the NJC since the last presidential election.

Regardless of the US leaving Sri Lanka out of the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact recently over the latter’s hesitant approach, Washington continues to eye the country firmly. The US has already finalized ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in August 2017 though it was not successful with SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement).

In spite of repeated assurances given by Sri Lanka, Western powers remained seriously concerned about growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. In addition to the H’tota port, secured during the Yahapalana administration, China runs a major operation within the Colombo harbour. Set up during the UPFA administration, Colombo International Container Terminals Ltd., (CICT) is a joint venture Company between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited and Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). CICT is a listed blue chip company in the Hong Kong stock exchange. While H’tota lease covers a 99-year period, CICT agreement is for a 35-year Build Operate and Transfer operation. China holds 85% of the partnership while the balance pittance of 15% is being held by SLPA.

The Geneva sessions, in late February-March, can turn nastier with Western powers stepping up pressure on Sri Lanka over her decision to quit the 2015 Geneva Resolution. It would be important to keep in mind that those countries might gang up against Sri Lanka over her relationship with China and adopt a common stand in Geneva. That is the undeniable truth. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned human rights issue is nothing but a key element in their overall strategy meant to browbeat the country.

Some key recent happenings in Europe like the departure of the UK from the EU obviously with the intention to firmly align with its colonial cousins, like the US, Australia and Canada, the determination of Europe to complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia despite dire warnings from Washington (once completed, it is set to significantly increase Russian gas supplies to Germany), and even the recent signing of a free trade deal by EU with China despite Trump trying to line them up against Beijing are worthy fissures that might stand in good stead for us.

The growing hostility between China and India as well as the latter joining the US project against China certainly increase pressure on Sri Lanka, now in an unenviable position. Waste, corruption and irregularities in every sector and the failure on the part of Parliament to ensure financial discipline surely weakened the country, thereby paving the way for aggressive foreign interventions.



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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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