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Sri Lanka: Situation Normal, All Fouled Up


Sri Lanka Perspectives September 2023

Overview


The September Perspectives presents a cross section of major events. Sri Lanka’s continues to be hauled before the UNHRC session for accountability of its poor human record has become a standard feature since 2010. This year is no exception. International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff talks concluded its talks but disappointed the government by deferring the release of the second tranche of assistance to the cash strapped country. A Channel 4 ‘dispatch’ episode telecast during the month has alleged a conspiracy to facilitate the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa behind the Easter Sunday bombings. Lastly, the government’s doublespeak on ethnic reconciliation, while it allows Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists to run riot is exemplified by a Tamil judge fleeing the country to save himself.


Sri Lanka at the UNHRC


Sri Lanka has continued its denial mode when the UN Human Rights office (OHCHR) presented its oral and written update on the Sri Lanka Accountability project at the 54th session of the UNHRC. The Project was set up in accordance with Resolutions 46/1 and 51/1. Sri Lanka rejected the oral and written updates and its conclusions and recommendations and said it will not cooperate with it. The oral and written reports were scathing in their indictment of Sri Lanka. The written report said the country “suffers from a continuing accountability deficit - be it for war crime atrocities, more recent human rights violations, corruption or abuse of power. The country must address these to move forward”, it added. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk referred to the Aragalaya spontaneous public protests and said, “More than a year ago mass protests demanded better governance and an inclusive vision for Sri Lanka – in short, a renewal of the social contract.”


Referring to Sri Lanka’s proposed new truth-seeking mechanism, Turk said “Truth seeking alone will not suffice. It must also be accompanied by a clear commitment to accountability and the political will to implement far reaching change.” The report emphasised the need for meaningful and transparent consultations with victims and civil society on the current truth-seeking proposal. “The report called upon the authorities to accelerate investigations and prosecutions into “emblematic cases of human rights violations”, as well as the Easter Sunday bombings 2019. The report’s reference to the Easter Sunday bombings is significant. The report has also expressed concerns at the proposed Prevention of Terrorism bill and the legislation to regulate broadcasting. It noted the reports of disputes over land have continued despite the President set a “different tone” in advancing the reconciliation initiative and promised to stop land acquisition for archaeological or security purposes.


The six-nation Core Group on Sri Lanka called for effective governance reforms. It observed “Sri Lanka still has a long way to go to fulfil commitments to justice, accountability and reconciliation.” During the interactive dialogue, India’s Permanent Representative at the UN Indra Mani Pandey reiterated India’s desire to see the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and conduct Provincial Council elections “to ensure a life of respect and dignity for Tamils.”


IMF staff mission concludes


Sri Lanka’s expectations of obtaining a second tranche of $ 330 million loan from the IMF were belied when the visiting IMF staff mission to Colombo ended two weeks of discussion without an agreement. The mission said despite Sri Lanka showing early signs of stabilisation, full economic recovery is not yet assured. In March, the IMF awarded the first tranche of $330 million after it approved $ 2.9 billion rescue package to Sri Lanka. In a statement the IMF said, “the people of Sri Lanka have shown remarkable resilience and the authorities have made significant progress on important reforms.” It further said “discussion will continue towards reaching a staff level agreement in the near term that maintains the reform momentum needed to allow Sri Lanka to emerge from its deep economic crisis.” No time limit has been fixed for the release of the second tranche.


The IMF said though inflation has come down to below 2% in September from a peak of 70% a year ago but gross international reserves increased by $1.5 billion during the March-June period, the real GDP in the second quarter contracted by 3.1 percent on a year-on-year basis and Reserve accumulation has slowed in recent months. On the negative side, the IMF said, “Revenue mobilisation gains are expected to fall short of initial projections by nearly 15% by year end, in part due to economic factors.” It expressed concern at tax collection. It said it was “an important pillar of the program’s primary balance targets and remains committed to this important pillar of the program to sustain the essential expenditures of Government services like education, health, infrastructure, and support for the poor. The IMF pointed out there was a big gap between State revenue at 9% of GDP and expenditure at 19%. To fill the gap, it was important to have appropriate tax policies and tax administration systems, it pointed out.


With the demand for elections gathering momentum, reworking Sri Lanka’s tax policies and tax administration is going to be difficult. So in all likelihood the second tranche may be delayed and Sri Lanka is likely to court Asia’s biggest moneylender – China.


Channel 4 video


In the Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme aired on September 5 presented whistleblower’s Azad Maulana alleged that Suresh Sallay, Director of State Intelligence Service was complicit in the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 to bring Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power. He claimed he had put Sallay in touch with Zahran, leader of the National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ) extremist group. The latest Channel 4 video has introduced yet another conspiracy theory into the government’s inept follow up action taken after the bombings. The core issue is President Sirisena chose to ignore the advance intelligence of the attack received from Indian intelligence ten days before the attack due to his schism with PM Wickremesinghe. Though the findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) are out, the case has not been concluded.

Successive governments in Colombo usually appoint a presidential commission on any important national issue. In keeping with the tradition, President Wickremesinghe has appointed a three-member committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge SI Imam to investigate Channel 4 allegations on the Easter Sunday attacks. The public have lost faith in governmental inquiries, particularly after the controversies dogging the investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks. The public have become cynical about politicians and political leaders after the Aragalaya protests last year. So, the public may not have great expectations from the Presidential Committee on the latest Channel 4 video.


Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism on the rise


Since 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government decisions, based on Sinhala Buddhist ethnocentric considerations, rapidly reversed the progress on ethnic reconciliation made by his predecessors. The Archaeology Department’s controversial seizure of 400 acres of land in Thannimurippu area belonging to Tamils around Kuruthoormalai in Mullaitivu district in 2002 is a case in point. An archaeological map in 1932 assigned 78 acres of land in the site for religious worship. A resurvey was ordered and designated as Kurandhava Vihara archaeological site in 2020. This was the start of archaeological activities aided by the military in Kuruthoormalai in January 2021. Early in 2022, Vidura Wickramanayaka, minister for national heritage, led the consecration of a Buddha statue in the land. After two months, the department asked for the handing over of 400 acres surrounding Kuruthoormalai. Of this150 acres belong to Tamils of Thannimurippu, while the rest of it was under Nagancholai forest area. When Buddhist monks started building the vihara with the help of the military and the Archaeology Department, Tamils obtained a court order against further construction. Even when the case was pending in the Supreme Court, the ancient Murugan temple there was destroyed by soldiers led by Minister Wickramanayaka, according to MP MA Sumanthiran. In fact, the MP was invited by the archaeology department for a function at the site on May 19, 2023!


Last year, Mullaitivu court judge Saravanaraja had ordered a halt and removal of all new constructions, including an illegally built Buddhist shrine at the site of the ancient Hindu temple there. Since then, the judge was subject to constant harassment and threats. He told the media, “Constant pressure was applied by the government to reverse the orders I had issued in the Kurunthoormalai case.” He said members of parliament like Sarath Weerasekara and others have issued threats against his life. The Attorney General invited him to his office on September 21 and compelled the judge to reverse his orders in the Kurunthoormalai case. Two cases were also filed against him personally in the Court of Appeal in connection with the Kurunthoormalai case. So finally, he resigned from his judicial posts “due to life threats, pressures and harassments.” He is reported to have fled Sri Lanka to save himself from reprisals.


To sum up…


The UNHRC has presented a realistic picture of Sri Lanka and highlighted what is required to be done. Sri Lanka requires not just structural and institutional reforms, but a change in the mindset of the government as well. Reform must be structured beyond fiscal relations. It should include obligations and responsibilities of the government in a wide range of domains of good governance. If we go by the performance of the government since Aragalaya last year, the government does not appear to be in a hurry to improve its accountability. This applies not only to human rights, but also equitable treatment of all citizens. Judge Saravanaraja fleeing the country to escape official pressures is a disgraceful example for any country; but it is also a glaring example of the doublespeak of the government on ethnic reconciliation. As of now, the government of the day’s is best described by the military cliché - SNAFU – Situation Normal All Fouled Up.


[Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Email: haridirect@gmail.com, Website: https://col.hariharan.info]

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