v2025 (2)



Sri Lanka: Weaponizing Archaeology?

By a Gazette notification, the Sri Lankan government appointed a Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province on June 4, 2020. The Task Force has been tasked to identify sites with archaeological importance, identify and implement appropriate programs, identify land that should be allocated for cultural promotion, and preserve the cultural value of identified sites. Of significance is that the force has been established exclusively for the Eastern Province, where Tamil and Muslim communities share the space almost equally.

The appointment of an “all Sinhala” task force has already evoked a sense of fear among my Tamil friends. According to Tamil media, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has condemned the move as a step towards Sinhalesization and Buddisization of Sri Lanka. For me, it evoked memories of the end of the war. So, I wrote on my twitter feed, “In the war against LTTE, the government forces took control of the Eastern Province first. Then they focused the energy on the Northern Province, which led to the total military victory.” I guess I am also nervous. I decided to share an excerpt connected to the archeology department from my recent (2019) book, Post-war Dilemmas of Sri Lanka: Democracy and Reconciliation (published in London and New York by the Routledge, pp. 128-9).  

The excerpt

‘What could be called the structural adjustment programs, where nationalist groups and institutions of the state collaborate informally, are aimed at limiting the presence and influence of Muslims in areas that are considered “sacred” by the Sinhala-Buddhists. One of the often-leveled arguments was that the Muslim structures including mosques, shops, and other religious symbols in the “sacred” territories are “illegal” (Wickramasinghe 2014, 400). The nationalists, at times, violently applied constant pressure on the state and the relevant institutions of the state to remove these illegal structures from the Buddhist sites. Consequently, many institutions, including ministers of the government, the Archaeology Department, the police, the Central Cultural Fund, and the Urban Development Authority (UDA), and so on, wittingly and/or unwittingly collaborated with nationalist groups to restrict the Muslim expansion and, in some cases, to remove their religious and commercial structures (Seoighe 2017). This pattern could be seen in places such as Dambulla, Balangoda, Anuradhapura, Deepavapi, and Devanagala.  

On the premise that the Masjidul Khaira mosque in Dambulla was illegally built on a sacred Buddhist site, a roughly 200 men-strong mob demanded the removal of the structure and attacked it in 2012. In response, Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne ordered the “relocation” of the mosque and the UDA asked that about 50 houses and 20 shops move out of the “sacred area.” Condemning the moves of the government, the Center for Policy Alternatives (2013) pointed out that the involvement of the UDA in this issue favoring the nationalist position “raises concerns that there is a concerted effort both by radical Sinhalese and the Government to evict Muslim families from the center of specific towns and cities” (59).

On the other hand, Muslims oppose and constantly protest new Buddhist structures, which the monks claim to have been approved by the Archaeology Department, the Land Commission, and the District Secretaries, in Deegavapi. The Deegavapi issue remains one of the important factors in the now contentious relations between Muslims and Sinhalese. Influenced by organizations such as the BBS, Sinhala Ravaya, and Parakum Sena, an organization in Devanagala, called the Devanagala Surakime Jathika Viyaparaya (National Movement for Defending Devanagala), has been formed to monitor and prevent Muslim expansion in the area (Silva, Niwas and Wickramasinghe 2016). A Muslim person from Devanagala claimed that “we cannot even dig a hole in our land to plant a tree as we may discover some archaeological object that will evoke an intervention by the Archaeology people” (Quoted in Silva, Niwas and Wickramasinghe 2016, 13).’
 Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.
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Why not Dinesh Gunewardena?

Sri Lanka won the cricket World Cup once, but never again. We started down the slippery slope almost the morning after we had reached the zenith of achievement. That was because we dismantled the winning combination which included Ana Punchihewa and Davnell Whatmore. The most crucial mistake we made was in the succession. The captaincy should have automatically devolved upon the vice-captain, who was one of the world’s best batsmen at the time; perhaps THE best. That was Aravinda de Silva. He was allowed to captain only sporadically.

The same mistake is being made by the Sri Lankan Opposition. In a situation in which the captain and commander-in chief of the national opposition, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, cannot run for Presidential office, the obvious front runner in the choice of candidacy should be the vice-captain. There can be no question as to who the vice-captain is because the country’s citizenry sees it every night on TV news, whenever there is footage from the center of the nation’s political life, the parliament. And that man, that vice-captain, is Dinesh Gunawardena.

Now the obvious question arises as to why, though I had been mentioning Dinesh’s name for years, I had suggested Gotabhaya as candidate at one time—and why I no longer do so. I did not push early on for Dinesh though I kept dropping his name, because I remembered what another political family had done to a worthy successor who was outside the family. My father, Mervyn de Silva, was perceived as even closer to the SLFP’s Deputy Leader and the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Maithripala Senanayaka, than he was to Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike. I therefore had a ringside seat watching the rise and fall of Maithripala, a left of center populist who had progressive views on foreign policy and was supported by the Left within the coalition. When Mrs. Bandaranaike’s civic rights had been removed and she was unable to contest the Presidential election of 1982, Maithripala, if given the SLFP candidacy, might have won. Instead he was overlooked, and double-crossed by his political ally Anura Bandaranaike. Hector Kobbekaduwa, a distant cousin of the Bandaranaikes, was chosen instead, but he too was backstabbed by the Bandaranaikes as was his ally and Mrs. Bandaranaike’s son-in-law Vijaya Kumaratunga himself.

Having watched the fate of both Maithripala Senanayaka and Hector Kobbekaduwa, I did not want the same fate possibly visited upon Dinesh Gunawardena. I was counseled by veteran observers that the Rajapaksas would only support one of their own, and I thought Gotabhaya would be a good choice, provided he could be persuaded to go with his best self rather than his ‘Tea Party movement’ type Alt-Right constituency at the core of which are irrational ex-military colleagues and militant monks, both verging on neo-fascism.

Even more simply, while I had advanced the slogan of ‘MR Plus’ for the Opposition Presidential candidacy, in which GR would be the Plus, the GR camp (NOT GR himself) had for many years planned the reverse: they thought of MR as the ‘Plus’ in a ‘GR Plus’ formula! Their project was not MR-centric, it was GR–centric. They felt that MR’s time had come and gone and he was to be merely a stepping stone for a leadership model and policy agenda which they felt was more advanced and superior to MR, because it was less populist, more nationalist, and ex-military driven. They felt the ex-military vanguard was superior to an experienced political vanguard. They felt that MR ran a ‘soft state’ while they wanted the dominance of a hardened state machine.

Military–corporate complex

In his historic valedictory address to the American nation, retiring US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, WW II military hero, warned the citizenry about the growing power of what he termed ‘the military-industrial complex’. If the Sinhala Alt-Right takes over, we shall be dominated by a ‘military–corporate complex’ or a ‘military-big business-managerial-monk complex’, which will replace the ‘Govi-Kamkaru’ component of the ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’.

I engaged constructively, tried to reason and persuade, and failed. Veteran leftists Vasudeva Nanayakkara and DEW Gunasekara (especially the former) were right all along, but I think my effort was worth it. As the Apostle of Cuban Independence, Jose Marti said: “I have lived in the belly of the beast and I know its entrails, and my sling is that of David.”

Now it is time to speak plainly. I firmly believe that there are two excellent, risk-free choices of candidate for the Opposition. One is, as Vasudeva has said, Chamal Rajapaksa. The other is Dinesh Gunawardena. Dinesh can probably get support from an improbably diverse array of leading players, namely two ex-Presidents and the serving one: Mahinda, Maithri, and perhaps even Chandrika.

After the shock defeat of 8 January 2015, opposition strategy pivoted on Dinesh Gunawardena. I recall a discussion 48 hours later at Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa’s residence in which Mahinda Rajapaksa correctly concluded: ‘Dan Dinesh thamai inne!’ best translated as ‘now it is up to Dinesh’ or ‘now it is Dinesh we have to rely on’. The Mayor of Matale Hilmy Mohamed was witness.

Dinesh played his role as Opposition Parliamentary leader and Mahinda’s deputy extremely well for years in Parliament under very difficult circumstances in which the numbers fluctuated, the official SLFP joined the Government and the real Opposition did not (does not) have the status of the Opposition. He has the respect of both the Government benches and the Opposition. When he speaks he does so with authority. His television performances, of which there are too few, are superbly skillful. In or out of Parliament, none dare trifle with him. He combines a steely temperament with civility, mischievous charm and a warm smile.

If the Opposition is looking for a presidential candidate who would be an effective yet safe proxy for Mahinda Rajapaksa, how can there be anyone better than Dinesh, who has played that very role splendidly since 2015?

Dinesh is a veteran of Opposition politics since the toughest days of the 1980s, coming into Parliament in the second term of a hegemonic administration, and after the Referendum of 1982 when the regime had hardened. He has served in Cabinet under two Presidents. His experience ranges from trade unionism to Parliament, from the Parliamentary to the extra-parliamentary, from Opposition to Government. With that richness of experience he is surpassed only by Mahinda and Vasudeva.

In a period of history when the tides are against the neoliberal elitist establishment the world over and running heavily in favor of change under the auspices of populism and nationalism, Dinesh is a populist nationalist with a socialist orientation. At a time when progressive, left of center populism is to be vastly preferred to the angry ultra-nationalism of the Alt-Right, Dinesh is a progressive nationalist and patriotic populist who has consistently been left of center.

Not only has Dinesh the benefit of learning from his father, Philip Gunawardena and being raised in a great political family that included his militant uncle Robert and aunt Vivienne (a socialist icon), he has also worked with Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike as an ally and fought against President Jayewardene in the 1980s, engaged sympathetically with the JVP in the 1980s, served in the cabinets of Presidents Chandrika and Mahinda in the last 20 years, and been a close comrade and parliamentary colleague of Mahinda’s for decades. Now that is what I call a wealth of political experience, in both senses of political combat and political engagement.

Constitutional reform

The balanced, mature style of Dinesh’s politics is best evidenced in his stance on Constitutional reform. He has been a sharp critic of the elitist establishment’s efforts to short circuit Parliament, as well as to perforate the unitary framework by means of slippery terminological deceit. It is a pity that the TV news failed to catch his strong rebuttal of Sumanthiran’s and Jayamapthy Wickremaratne’s responses to their critics, after their strong arm tactics were exposed within the Steering Committee. However, Dinesh has also engaged with President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe (his former classmate at Royal College) and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, in all parliamentary matters, including in the Constitutional Assembly and Steering Committee processes. While insisting on correct parliamentary and Constitutional procedure and practices, he has also insisted that the Opposition engage in the Constitutional reform conversation by presenting a 14 point policy paper. Dinesh believes in drawing broad parameters, red lines—not in rejecting reform or foreclosing the space for its consideration and deliberation.

For his policy of constructive engagement, Dinesh has come under heavy pressure and public criticism by the ultranationalist Far Right (e.g. Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, Dr. Wasantha Bandara, Ven. Elle Gunawansa), which insisted that the JO disengage from and boycott the process itself. When this ideology threatened to seep into the JO itself, it was Dinesh who beat it back, with Mahinda’s overarching support, since the latter believed in Parliamentary participation. If not for Dinesh’s excellent parliamentary tactics in a difficult and complex situation for the Opposition, the hegemony of the neoliberal establishment would have been entrenched.

Throughout, Mahinda has been able to rely on Dinesh as his right-hand man in the parliamentary battle since 2015; the one who manages the JO forces in Parliament and confronts the Government every day, while being at MR’s side or functioning as his representative at all important meetings with the President, the PM and the Speaker.

Dinesh Gunawardena has a shrewd understanding of international affairs and as a Realist he is a far safer bet than the Alt-Right GR bloc which criticises a solution to the Tamil question based upon ‘bala bedeema’ i.e. power-sharing, and refuses even to guarantee that the existing 13th Amendment will be respected. The Alt-Right bloc questions the very existence of a Tamil political question and a legitimate Tamil political identity i.e. a Tamil collective identity. Their ideology seeks to put the clock back, not merely to pre-1987 and the Indo-Lanka accord but to 1957 and the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact which was the first recognition of the political nature of the Tamil issue and the need for a political solution based on territorial autonomy and devolution/sharing of power between center and periphery.

The ideologues of this Alt Right camp regard any political reform based on territorial autonomy, indeed the very recognition of the need for territorial-based devolution/autonomy itself, to be separatist! If it assumes state power in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan state will face geopolitical consequences of a devastating and terminally destructive nature. By contrast, Dinesh Gunawardena as a presidential candidate and MR as powerful Prime Minister or Prime Ministerial candidate will be able to balance the Sinhala and Tamil nationalist concerns, with Sri Lankan national interests as a whole.

‘Smart Patriot’

Dinesh is a perfectly bilingual ex-Royalist who has a Colombo elite constituency just as he has a broad Sinhala Buddhist base. While a Sinhala nationalist, he is a pragmatist who knows that India must be kept on board and that the principle of devolution cannot be renounced, and the Provincial Council system cannot be dismantled. Dinesh Gunawardena is a ‘Smart Patriot’.

On the Geneva front, Dinesh has been a fiery critic of the 2015 Resolution while supporting the deployment in our defense, of the report by Sir Desmond de Silva. In this he was opposed not only by the neoliberals but also by the Alt-Right including one or two foreign policy/Geneva hawks within the Opposition.

Dinesh has been in the political struggle for longer and more continuously than any of the Rajapaksa brothers apart from Mahinda. With Dinesh’s wealth of experience in the political movement, he could fit into the role of the candidate for the highest political office in the land less controversially than anyone else. As the Parliamentary leader of the JO who has led the struggle day in day out in parliament, it is unthinkable, even inappropriate , that the JO Parliamentary Group should turn to anyone but their own parliamentary leader as the presidential candidate in a situation that Mahinda cannot contest.

Perhaps above all, society, civilian governance and our deep-rooted democratic system are safe with Dinesh. He has been a thoroughgoing democrat, combining principle with prudence, wedded to the parliamentary tradition for decades while being unafraid to brave bullets while leading demonstrations on national and democratic issues (one recalls the breaking of the ban on May Day celebrations in 1987, the demonstration at Abhayaramaya temple and the death by Police gunfire, of young Kithsirimevan Ranawake).

His proven, deep-rooted democratic conviction and commitment are without question. A strong opponent of economic neoliberalism and a staunch defender of the state sector of the economy, of social welfare and of students and workers rights and trade union rights in general, Dinesh Gunawardena is easily classifiable as a national-democrat and a Social Democrat.

Sri Lankan society has produced three great political families on the center-left: the Bandaranaikes, the Rajapaksas and the Gunawardenas. Dinesh is the son of one of the biggest names ever in the island’s politics-- Philip Gunawardena, the father of the socialist movement in Sri Lanka. With the Bandaranaikes breaking their alliance with the Rajapaksas of the South and allying with their erstwhile rivals, the dominant family of the center-right, the Rajapaksas turned to the Gunawardenas. The Gunawardenas, represented by Dinesh could have defected to the Bandaranaikes in 2015 but instead stayed with the Rajapaksas and remained loyal to Mahinda. It is time that loyalty be recognised and rewarded by making Dinesh the presidential candidate.

Dinesh has one political weakness but that could turn out to be a strength. He heads a small party, the MEP, and is not a member of either the SLFP or the SLPP. However, that means that he does not have the national mass base to be a rival to Mahinda or any of the Rajapaksas. This alone should reduce any apprehensions and insecurities, and render him a safe bet.

Which factor Mahinda Rajapaksa will go for—the high risk option of spectacular (pan-Sinhala) but geopolitically and geo-strategically unsustainable (zero-devolution, ‘Trumpian’) success, or the low risk option of moderation, experience, pluralism, sustainability and stability—is known only to him, and he may make the decision much later than sooner.

In these difficult years, Mahinda’s vice-captain and right hand man has been Dinesh and he should not be denied his due. From my perspective as a political scientist and student of international relations, what MR said on 10 January at Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa’s official residence, remains true today and will be truer still next year, the year of the Presidential election: “Dan ithin Dinesh thamai inney!”

dayan J 1000pxDr. Dayan Jayathileka



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Political parties should seal social contracts before religious leaders & chief justices

By Chandra Jayaratne
It is election time again - this time for aspirants to get elected and vest themselves with power in governance through the main legislature- the Parliament. The leaders of political parties and coalitions and their members nominated to contest will now be rushing to seek the blessings of the Chief Prelates and other Religious Leaders. They will hand handover copies of their manifestoes and explain how they will implement the policies in realizing the expectations of society. They will also confirm their personal commitments to serve the nation and its people with honesty, integrity and professionalism; and promise to abide by the most sacred codes of conduct, ethics and religious teachings.
The voters will silently watch this charade and even possibly be gullible enough to believe in these policy statements and commitments and exercise their votes in favour of the parties and candidates concerned.
The political leaders who pay a call and seek blessings from the Chief Prelates are now joined by key members of the Executive, including ministry secretaries, commanders of the armed services, chief of elections, those appointed as judges, diplomats, independent commission members and as civil society leaders. The latest meeting with the chief prelates was by the members of the March 12th  Movement; where the March 12 declaration seeking to create a favourable political culture was signed by the Chief Prelates of the Three Sects on March 7th. After signing the declaration, the Anunayake of the Malwatte Chapter said: “We are collective of the opinion that the corrupt individuals should not be given nominations. At the same time, there are monks who should be worshipped. If they are going on the wrong path, we should point them out. We are against selling our country and looting its resources. Selling chunks of our land on lease for 100 or 99 years is a serious crime.”
Once the elections are over and the elected are installed in their exulted positions of power, the manifestoes, policies, commitments and promises will be out of scope; and the elected members  will not be bound nor accountable to honour the solemn promises given in the run up to the elections. These commitments will also be forgotten by the majority of voters, who voted with expectations and belief in them being delivered as promised.
The Civil Society had on several occasions called for these manifestoes and commitments to be be codified in to Social Contracts. Despite recognizing that any such Social Contract is legally unenforceable against the political party or individual members of a party, the Civil Society was yet keen on extracting a ‘Moral Commitment’ from the elected leaders with options to name and shame them post victory, when thee elected fail to honour their commitments. Civil Society was inadequately backed up in this exercise of the demand of accountability and in the expression of ‘naming and shaming ‘ by  the society itself in the post-election periods.
Even when promises were dishonoured and violated with impunity, openly, blatantly and with much negative impact on the economy, society and the nations, there were little advocacy and pressure applied by civil society leaders; and certainly no impactful ‘naming and shaming’ nor street protests were seen actively supported by citizenry in general (ie. with the exception of some sporadic protests and media exposes). The Best example of this was an attempt by a leading Chamber to develop and publish a quarterly update feedback on annual budgetary commitments, which was stopped by black mail actions of the then Secretary to the Treasury. In the later years, especially during the last regime in power,  Verite Research made substantial progress and has succeeded in developing budget tracking and fact checks. Three Cheers to them and also to the initiatives simultaneously launched by the Parliamentary Public Finance Committee under the Chairmanship of MP Sumanthiran which also needs to be commended.
In the context of the impending elections, the recognition of the political advantages in being blessed and endorsed by the power and position in society enjoyed by the venerable chief prelates, and their willingness and commitment to endorse a civil society accord on good political governance, leads the writer to suggest that ; “Civil Society collectively canvas , advocate and pressurize all leading political parties and coalitions contesting the April 25th Parliamentary elections to have their manifestoes and commitments to be developed as a formal social contracts; and for these contacts to be signed at transparently broadcast ceremony by the key officials of the relevant parties, before the Chief Prelates, the Archbishop and the Presidents of  All Ceylon Hindu Congress and All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, all of whom will sign as witnesses along with the Chairpersons of the Elections Commission and Human Rights Commission and three most recently  retired Chief Justices.
This recommendation comes in the context of Singapore being held up as the most desired benchmark for effective good governance by most elders in Sri Lanka; whereas the Singapore Think Centre-Towards a Vibrant Civil Society- advocates in the following posting that  even “Singaporeans Need A Revitalized Social Contract”; this is an important lesson for civil society in Sri L:anka to follow as it sets out a ‘Way Forward’ path to evaluate its applicability; and adapt it appropriately, in the time prior to the next Parliamentary Elections;
“Our island state was founded more than 50 years ago on the basis of “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”. These ideals are enshrined in the pledge that is recited by all students before class starts every day and takes prominence during National Day celebrations.
Half a century later, these very ideals have been eroded to the point where the livelihood of citizens are threatened with rising housing, education and basic living cost with no assurance of any benefits from the wealthy state for citizens to ease their retirement after giving their lives to building the nation.

Instead, wealth inequality has not improved in the last 5 years and income growth has slowed across the board except for the wealthiest. No matter how much assistance the government gives, there will always remain a segment of the population that cannot catch up. This is when social expenditure of the government must increase.

We need a government that provides a living wage, basic health, retirement security, unemployment insurance, for everyone to support their families. We need decent work to support decent lives. The current exploitative nature of work is unsustainable where its workers clocked 2,371.2 hours in 2016, the longest in the world. Our aspiration to be the Switzerland of the East is nowhere realised after half a century when our workers are among the oldest in the world with a lack of minimum wage in an economy that ranks 4th in the world for the highest cost of living in a Mercer’s survey conducted in June 2016.
It is ironic that the hardworking and old Singaporean workers cannot afford to retire even after a lifetime contributing to the nation’s economy. This is because Singapore refuses to sign all the ILO’s core labour standards (signed 5 Core Labour Standards) after so many years of guaranteeing a minimum standard for its workers. Instead, it justifies its exclusion with its famed tripartite arrangement between government, unions and employers.
Even judging by its own justification, one is hard pressed to see how the workers’ welfare is considered when the unions are helmed by government officials, a role passing like musical chairs to prominent members of the Cabinet past and present along with other positions as heads of large government linked companies (GLCs). These giant conglomerates are built by the compulsory savings of ordinary Singaporeans who reaped none of the returns, except for miserable interest that barely keeps up with the inflation rate. The government is the largest employer in Singapore and together with the GLCs controls the economy of the country.
We turn now to ask, what then is the social contract of Singaporeans with regard to its employers and government? For this, we must look at the origins of the theory of the social contract which points invariably to the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius while tracing his inspiration to the scholastic theologian Francisco de Vitoria. From both we discern the values that undergird the concept of the social contract, an inherent concern for “a noble and liberty-loving heart, a sense of truth and justice which kept him from error… [and] condemned injustice wherever he discerned it.”

These ideals echo the aspirations of our early leaders who enshrined the values in the pledge all Singaporean students recite by heart daily. These are also the values encapsulated in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which the United Nations’ General Assembly, which Singapore is a part of, has agreed to support.

Specifically, goal 16 of the SDGs is dedicated to the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies with provisions to protect civic freedoms, ensure equal access to justice and uphold the rule of law. Goal 16 can only be realized if the role of civil society is respected and civic freedoms are protected.
But it is hard to believe that Singapore can promote or protect such freedoms when it goes to the extent of persecuting an individual for expressing his own opinions in a private Facebook posting to his friends. How can an august institution like the judiciary have its reputation compromised in any way by a single Facebook post? Must they impress their power and assert their authority to prosecute an individual however misguided his/her opinions might be?
How can we reclaim our freedoms and dignity when oppressive laws like the Internal Security Act and individuals being prosecuted for their opinions still loom over all citizens, casting a chilling pall across society? The concern to overcome terrorists’ threats is adequately covered by many other legislation and there is no need for such archaic and draconian laws. This is especially true when its use has been leveraged more against political opponents than real national threats. Of the hundreds of detainees incarcerated, many were ordinary citizens like teachers, social workers, theatre practitioners and lawyers.

We urge the government this national day to help citizens overcome various injustices, whether economic, social, political or cultural and truly realize the values in our national pledge”.

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When a Diplomat and 'once a Diplomat' cycle to nowhere

The Dutch are obsessed with cycles. The Ambassadress for Netherlands in Sri Lanka, Her Excellency Ms. Joanne Doornewaard, no doubt is too. She therefore proposed “cycling around” instead of “driving around”. Ms. Doornewaard with the Colombo Municipal Council Mayoress, launched the first ever project they called “CarFreeCMB”, for six hours in Colombo city on anything that is not motorised. “Car free Colombo” was Sunday 14 July, when Ambassadress Doornewaard and Mayoress of Colombo city, onetime diplomat Rosy Senanayake got on cycles and were given publicity in mainstream and social media.

What were they out to achieve? From what they told media, they intend reducing public dependency on motor vehicles and promote a healthier and more sustainable urban lifestyle. They called people to come play on the streets, roller skate, walk and do anything other than run on vehicles. This was announced as a “pilot effort” initially tried out once every month. The launch was not about reducing use of motor vehicles at least during the 06 hours announced. Vehicles were re-routed instead, by closing a few kilometres of city roads. Also, except for a media briefing, there was no campaign in creating awareness on why motor vehicle use should be substituted by cycle use. Most importantly, there was no stress and importance given to city air pollution and major traffic issues that has other reasons, why increasing numbers of private vehicles are on the streets.

Netherlands had a tradition of using cycles pre WW II. They gave up on that after WW II. Present Netherlands became a “cycling nation” once again through sheer public agitations in the 70’s. In the 50s and in the 60s with a steep rise in private vehicle use, Netherlands experienced an increasing number of road deaths that shook them as a society. In 1971, Netherlands experienced over 3,000 road deaths that included 450 children. In response, the “Stop de Kindermoord” (Stop Child Murder) public campaign that emerged, grew into a strong civil movement demanding safer cycling paths for children that changed the entire landscape of public commuting. The 1973 petroleum crisis also played a motivator and helped the shift to cycle use.

We have far more serious crises at hand, but don’t have such social outcry. The CEA official website says, “Annual averages of ambient PM10 level in Colombo over the years have remained relatively within the 60 to 82 µg/m3 range with a slight decreasing trend from 1998 to 2011.. ……These values, however, consistently exceeded WHO latest guideline value of 50 µg/m3 for PM-10. Thus Colombo city is very unhealthy in terms of its particulate pollution.” The same source says, “Regulations for vehicle horn noise control was gazetted (no details though) and vehicle horn noise testing program was implemented to aware and control noise pollution caused by vehicles.” (accessed on 17 July 2019). On police records, last year alone, 3,164 deaths had occurred on Sri Lankan roads.

The “car free Colombo” campaign, did not bring any of those major issues into focus. This “cycle campaign” therefore was seen as and is, an urban middleclass “health exercise” and nothing more. As Mayoress of Colombo, if Rosie Senanayake is serious about reducing vehicular volume on its roads, “CarFreeCMB” is not the campaign slogan to use. Nor is closing roads once a month for cycling going to be anything serious. A more practical theme would be “CycleToSchool”. All government schools from 1962 admit children to “Year One” on the distance to school from “home” that initially was a maximum of 02 miles. For all popular and leading schools in Colombo, that distance came to be reduced over the decades due to the crazy scramble for admission. Distance to them now is less than 01 km. One km is a distance all children can even walk to school and back. With over 55,000 students in the 10 leading public schools alone within Colombo city, campaigning for “CycleToSchool”, should technically stop school vans and buses and even cars that transport children to school.

Yet in Colombo, that would be one of the hardest tasks ever to achieve. It has other dynamics at play. Nevertheless, the campaign “CycleToSchool” if launched, would expose one of the biggest scams in this country, Rosie Senanayake could take pride in exposing as the City Mayoress. Almost 90 percent of the “Year One” admissions are on “false documents” obtained through official channels to prove “false residency” as permanent. That remains the reason for school vans, school buses and cars to operate from as far as Aluthgama, Eheliyagoda, Gampaha and Negambo. A phased out “CycleToSchool” campaign to remove long distance school transport stand valid in answering the major traffic issue in Colombo and air and noise pollution as well.


Cycling as a mode of transport can only be introduced as part of a “public commuting” programme in the City. As Mayoress responsible for convenient commuting in her city, she has every right to take over “city commuting” under the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). She could revive the “Tram car” or the “Trolley bus” service the CMC owned from 1944 and ran till M.H. Mohamed as UNP Mayor scrapped the service in 1965 instead of settling the Trolley bus workers’ strike. Bonus in having a fast moving, Tram car or Trolley bus service in the city is, they are “Carbon free”, running on electricity and is “green commuting”.

Sri Lanka’s eternal city traffic jams and increasing hazardous air and noise pollution has many vested interests and many unnecessary factors accommodated. There is no stopping people buying their own 02 wheel or 04 wheel private vehicle, in a society the governments ignore the responsibility of establishing an efficient, comfortable and an affordable public transport system. In that context vehicle buying is very much accelerated in a free market economy which promotes selling of any commodity with leasing and part payments; everything from a mobile phone to a high-powered super luxury four-wheeler. For governments in search of revenue, allowing unrestricted import of vehicles provide a source of steady revenue that in 2017 had been Rs.230,000 million (IRD Performance Report 2017) plus around Rs. 290 million from licenses issued by the Import and Export Control Department, for import of vehicles. There is more revenue at the RMV Department as well as with the “Carbon” tax added to the previous “emission tax”. The simple logic is, more vehicles on roads, more revenue for poverty struck governments. For politicians in power, adjustments to taxes and duties levied, often provide many untold and unspoken of privileges and profits.

Numbers say it all. In 2017 from new registration of 451,653 vehicles, around 50 percent were motor bicycles, around 15,000 were 3Ws, while the rest were all 04 wheelers. That works out to about 208,000 4W vehicles imported in 2017. Leaving a margin of about 10 percent for public and agricultural purposes, new private vehicles registered in 2017 total to about 190,000 vehicles. (calculated from RMV data)

It is a vicious cycle. More vehicles on roads for government revenue in turn increase import of fuel. That adds to city pollution as return. Once again, in a free market economy dominated by the “filthy rich”, fuel import is an extremely profitable business for middlemen. In 2014 Sri Lanka imported 36,480 crude oil barrels per day and was the 58 largest crude oil importer in the world, that year. The cost was 2.1 million US dollars per day (The World Factbook). Despite fluctuation of prices in the global oil market, the total burden on the national economy would not have had any worthwhile difference, in reducing the burden.

In terms of the burden People have to bear, in 2017, total revenue from “exports” was 17 billion US dollars (SLCB). That reads as 46.6 million US dollars a day. On a very conservative calculation, if the c.i.f value of importing a vehicle is left at 18,000 US dollars at an average, the total cost on private vehicle imports in 2017 would have been around 9.6 million US dollars a day. This proves, out of 46.6 million US dollar income per day, we are spending 11.7 US dollars a day for import of vehicles and fuel only. This chaos is in the increase. Currently Sri Lanka has a total of 6.6 million vehicles including 3.5 million motor bikes on the roads. Obviously, it is waste of fuel and productive time of People in disgusting traffic jams, morning and evening.

Yet Sri Lanka is one among the “eternally developing” countries that pays no attention to efficient, comfortable and affordable public transport as a profitable way out of this nightmare on city roads. The whole focus is on widening roads, construction of overhead bridges and adding “highways” with speed limits. Lately with the Megapolis urban transport project, the “light rails” are also on board at an unbelievably high cost. Within this awfully filthy, free market economy, every heavy construction related project with mega budgets are loaded as solutions to problems. That’s where the money is for everyone involved in numerous ways.

To get out of this dirty mess, Colombo “ratepayers” should demand for a “Carbon free” city with an efficient, comfortable and an affordable inter city public commuting service. Before cycles are brought in, Sri Lanka should replicate the Dutch slogan “Stop de Kindermoord” (Stop Child Murder) with our own “Stop killing our time” slogan. Demand for a decent public commuting service the CMC and the government are both responsible for.

Kusal Perera

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UNHRC session crucial for Sri Lanka's reconciliation

The 43rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which runs until March 20, will be crucial for Sri Lanka as the government has decided to withdraw co-sponsorship of resolutions 30/1, 34/1 and 40/1 under which the government undertook accountability and reconciliation after the civil war ended in May 2009.

In her statement to the UNHRC, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet conceded that while some progress has been made in promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights, she was concerned about the inability of the government to deal with impunity and to reform institutions, which may trigger a recurrence of rights violations.

She urged the UNHRC to closely monitor developments in Sri Lanka and called for full implementation of the resolutions.

Meanwhile, the government of Sri Lanka on Feb. 20, while withdrawing co-sponsorship of resolution 30/1, pledged to continue to work with the UN and seek capacity building and technical assistance in keeping with domestic priorities and policies. It also announced its intention to work toward closure of the resolution in cooperation with the UN.

Sri Lanka has until March 2021 to implement its commitments to the UNHRC, especially regarding the creation of a war crimes investigation panel.

Let us review the period of the previous unity government from Oct. 1, 2015, up to the appointment of a new government on Nov. 16, 2019.

As Bachelet made clear to the UNHRC, some progress has been made in promoting reconciliation and accountability and human rights in line with the co-sponsored resolution.

A step in the right direction and one that was absolutely essential for the accountability process was the creation of the Office of the Missing Persons as well as the Office for Reparations.

“The commitments made by the previous government had contributed to the lapses that resulted in the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019,” the government stated while declaring the unilateral decision to withdraw from co-sponsorship of the resolution.

A Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence was not established, though the government agreed to formulate mechanisms under the provisions of the constitution without the participation of international judges and proposed hybrid special courts. These were not established during the period of the unity government as the then prime minister and president were acting against each other in an ugly power consolidation process.

As promised, the reform agenda, the new charter, reforming the electoral process and solving the national question of federalism versus autonomy were not resolved.

Though they promised to abolish the executive presidency as well as set up of independent commissions, only the 19th amendment of the charter was passed by parliament on April 28, 2015 by an overwhelming majority of 215 votes. This paved the way to reducing the powers of the executive presidency and strengthen parliament and must rank among the success stories.

Reformist agenda

The impact of the 19th amendment has had on Sri Lankan society is enormous and self-evident. The civil service, police and judiciary are independently exercising their powers with renewed vigor due to the enabling situation created by constitutional reforms.

President Maithripala Sirisena in October 2018 sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa and dissolved parliament. However, due to the powers granted by 19th amendment, the judiciary declared these moves illegal and reinstated Wickremasinghe. That is how the reformist agenda was carried out during the previous regime.

It is interesting to know how the question of accountability came to the fore. When the conflict finally ended in 2009, President Rajapaksa met with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and agreed to an accountability probe. But Rajapaksa did not listen to the international community’s call for wartime accountability until he was defeated in January 2015.

The change of government averted possible international sanctions over Rajapaksa’s failure to adequately deal with war crimes. Some claim that up to 40,000 Tamils were killed in the final months of the civil war.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan delegation to UNHRC meeting in Geneva left on Feb. 25. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena officially informed the council on Feb. 26 of the government’s decision to withdraw from co-sponsorship of resolutions 30/1, 34/1 and 40/1.

“Procedurally, in co-sponsoring resolution 30/1, the previous government violated all democratic principles of governance and the resolution seeks to cast upon Sri Lanka obligations that cannot be carried out within its constitutional framework and it infringes the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka and violates the basic structure of the constitution and that is why Sri Lanka was prompted to reconsider its position on co-sponsorship.”

The Sri Lankan government has six months to devise new strategies before the rights body meets in September.

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Thierry Mathou (right), director for Asia and Oceania of the French Foreign Ministry, speaks to reporters in Colombo on Feb. 27 after talks with Sri Lankan leaders. France asked Sri Lanka to end impunity and ensure ethnic reconciliation a day after Colombo withdrew from a UN resolution investigating alleged atrocities during its civil war. (Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)
The Tamil minority is uneasy with the situation created by withdrawing co-sponsorship of the resolution calling for an investigation into alleged rights violations committed during the long civil war. Civil society organizations and religious leaders should address these issues as soon as possible.

Though the government has withdrawn co-sponsorship of the resolution, it is effective until March 2021. The government will have to face the UNHRC again in September. If the obligations set by the rights body are not fulfilled, an embargo could ensue.

“Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur,” Bachelet said in her address to the UNHRC on Feb. 27.

The reaction of the international community will become known to the public during the coming days of the UNHRC meeting.

As the government has asked the council to announce its intention to work toward closure of the resolution, one wonders whether there will be any accountability and reconciliation process in the future.

Replying to the government’s charge of treason against the earlier regime, opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said the Mahinda Rajapakse government, four days after the end of the conflict in 2009, acknowledged that human rights violations had occurred during the last stages of the war and agreed to an accountability probe. That is why the whole country is held accountable to the international community today and why the present government is charging others with treason.

Kingsley Karunaratne is administrative secretary of the Rule of Law Forum, which is affiliated to the Asian Human Rights Commission. His organization works for fundamental redesigning of justice institutions to protect and promote human rights. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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Open challenge to all aspiring presidential candidates

There are many who aspire to be the next President in a few more months. While main political parties are desperate in deciding who their presidential candidate should be and in what political alliance if any, there are also individuals staking a claim for the presidency from a distance. They all claim they have the magic answer to solve all problems.

While talking about all problems and solutions to them, I personally believe our education system needs urgent and serious attention. It is education that produces persons for every slot in the State from policymaking to implementation. Education produces politicians too.

It is education that produces personnel for national security, law enforcement and the judiciary also. All that is in dire straits. Our education system has only produced, and still keep producing, total misfits to all systems.

This education system also nurtures Sinhala Majoritarianism that results in this heavily polarised racist society.

Wonder how many of those who aspire to be the next President, know this. A complete breakdown in education is there at every level from pre-school to university and tertiary education.

This includes syllabi, curricula, textbooks, teaching quality and competence, school facilities, administration and policymaking. They have major disparities, inequalities and lapses in day to day school life, that makes Free Education a complete farce. It is school education that qualifies and promotes students for higher and university education. This school education obviously cannot produce good intakes for higher and university education.

There are 10,194 government schools on the whole island with 4.1 million students and a tutorial staff of 241,591 teachers. Of all schools, only 1,029 schools (1AB) have Science and Maths for A/L students. There are also 1,818 schools (1C) with Arts and Commerce streams for A/L students. Of the balance number, there are 3,288 schools (Type 2) with classes up to Year 11, which is up to the O/L examination.

Going into more details show how the whole concept of Free Education in Kannangara Reforms has been completely miscarried by now. Kannangara Reforms accepted every child’s right to education and proposed reforms to ensure “equal opportunities” within a “national education” system.

They focused on common facilities to all rural and urban children. It is important to note that Kannangara Reforms never opposed private and fee levying schools. Kannangara Reforms instead brought them into the “national education system” with the State taking over conducting of “national examinations”.

Within the national education system, the State was brought into level the playing field, to support parents who could not afford their children the same opportunities the affluent parents could afford. That makes taxpayer money important in national education and hold governments responsible for a quality education system for all children. Kannangara Reforms came into effect from 1947.

Central Colleges with good facilities including hostels were established in most rural districts. They supported a quality improvement in provincial education. Yet, the Kannangara Reforms were not carried through as expected and planned. Therefore, even in the decades of 50s and 60s, there remained serious disparities and anomalies within the school system.

The most serious reforms since independence were introduced in 1972 as the New Education System that was no answer in improving the quality of school education, nor in levelling the playing field for equal opportunities and facilities.

With the open and free-market economy introduced in 1977, during the past 40 years, education became a profitable sector for investments, while Governments relaxed on their responsibility of maintaining and improving school education. A parallel private-sector education thus emerged and dominates urban life. The free market economy being strictly a city-based market economy, rural schools were treated as mere political footholds for votes.

With that, for the benefit of all aspirants for the presidency, it is worth glancing through data on schools to understand how opportunities and facilities in schools have been glossed over in creating a gapping disparity for the disadvantage of the larger majority while education slipped into major chaos.

There are 1,486 schools with less than 50 students. There are other 1,560 schools with over 50 but less than 100 students. It means out of 10,194 schools, there are 3,046 schools with less than 100 students. They are all “Type 3” schools with classes up to year 05 or year 08 only. The question is, what facilities and opportunities do children in these 3,046 schools have? These certainly are wholly neglected schools.

This lot also need serious attention. There are 54 schools with only a single teacher. There are 97 schools with only 02 teachers. There are also 2,979 schools with less than 09 teachers. They add up to 3,130 schools with less than 09 teachers. What type of schools could they be? What education would children have in these 3,130 schools with inadequate teachers?

Note this yawning disparity too. There are 3,262 schools with classes up to year 11. Students in these schools who qualify for A/L studies, have to find another school for their A/L studies. If some of these students wish to pursue Science or Maths for A/L, there are only 1,029 schools scattered across the country. Of them, Western Province has 201 (Kalutara nevertheless is disadvantaged), while whole Eastern Province has only 99, North Central has 64 and Uva only 83. Not that other provinces are far better.

How many of those students in those provinces who wish to pursue Science and Maths studies for A/L would be able to find a “Type 1AB” school within the travelling distance? Public commuting is as bad as any other service and daily travelling is a hassle and time-consuming. The cost parents will have to bear, is another major issue. Some, therefore, end up in a school with Arts or Commerce that is reachable and affordable. Some give up higher education altogether. Are there equal opportunities and equal facilities in this free education system? Is it fair by all students?

"That in no way answers the major issues in the school system. Numbers above reveal a crumbling school system without basic needs; water, toilets and teachers."

It is far worse and certainly uncivilised too to have schools with no acceptable source of drinking water and schools without any water source. The Western Province has only 54 percent of schools with pipe-borne water supplied by Local Government bodies. 40 percent of the schools use an open well or a tube-well in the school premises. Northern Province has only 12 percent of schools with pipe-borne water from an Local Government body. 73 percent use open wells/tube wells, 05 percent are served by bowsers and 10 percent have no water. 25 percent of the schools in North-Western (Wayamba) Province have no water. In Uva Province, it is 26 percent, while 21 percent depend on streams/springs. In the North-Central Province, 21 percent have no water. In the Central Province, 23 percent have no water while 20 percent depend on streams/springs. In the Sabaragamuwa Province, 19 percent have no water and 20 percent depend on streams/springs In the Eastern Province, 13 percent have no water.

No water means, no toilets and latrines. What does that in reality mean? Schools that depend on streams/springs and open wells also would not have proper and decent toilets and latrines.

Thus, the number of schools without proper drinking water, toilets and latrines would be more than 20 percent at a minimum. That comes to 2,038 schools in the country. Yet the national figure 16 percent is only about schools with “no water” anyway. In actual terms schools without drinking water and without toilets should be much above the conservative calculation of 20 percent. What a yawning gap is between proposed Tabs and Toilets!

From 2017 the UNP government and its Education Minister kept proposing Tabs to schools with A/L classes that total 2,847. It was dragged on, with numerous allegations on their procuring. Last week at the cabinet meeting, President Sirisena is said to have reduced it to 353 national schools as a pilot project.

That in no way answers the major issues in the school system. Numbers above reveal a crumbling school system without basic needs; water, toilets and teachers.

The most honourable objective of Kannangara Reforms to ensure “right to education” to all children with common facilities and equal opportunities has turned out a dead project over the past decades. It has left an ailing and partly dysfunctional school system for the majority and a privately funded functional education network for the affluent urbans.

We need to have answers to all issues these numbers spell out (All stats and data – School Census Report 2017 / Ministry of Education). We need an education system that would positively contribute to the future of this country and produce as Kannangara Reforms said, citizens who would accept the diverse culture in society and work for the “common future” of the country. We need to have quality education on level ground from Kolombuthurai to Colombo city.

What “reforms” would the aspiring presidential candidates offer in solving these yawning disparities among schools? What “reforms” do they propose to ensure “right to education” for all children with equal opportunities and good quality facilities? To all 4.1 million children in school now and for new entrants in the

Will these aspiring candidates who believe they could as President-elect solve all problems, tell us how they plan to reform education worth the taxpayers’ money? Or do they have any? Waiting for answers, please.

 kusal perera cover picKusal Perera


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Beyond Rajapaksa's visit - are India and Sri Lanka on the same page?

By Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa just completed a five-day trip to India, making it his first foreign trip since his appointment as prime minister in late November 2019. While the trip highlighted some areas for collaboration between the two sides, it also left broader questions lingering about the future direction of ties.
By all accounts, Rajapaksa’s visit appears to have been a successful one. For instance, Mahinda touched the right cords in New Delhi even on sensitive issues by stating that developments relating to Jammu and Kashmir and Article 370 were India’s internal affairs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for his part, said in his press statement that he appreciated Sri Lanka’s importance not only to India but to the entire Indian Ocean Region. He added that “stability, security and prosperity in Sri Lanka” is an essential element in ushering peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.

In line with the “Neighborhood First” approach and the “Sagar” doctrine, Modi went on to say that New Delhi attaches “a special priority” to its relations with Colombo, which will no doubt be welcome. Sri Lanka also appears to be satisfied with the comfort level that exists between Modi and Rajapaksa and the pace of the relationship.

But there may be some disagreements that remain. For instance, according to reports citing diplomatic sources, Sri Lanka wants to see “cooperation and progress in SAARC,” whereas India believes that all efforts to strengthen regional cooperation should be channeled to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Even though Rajapaksa is not thought to have raised the SAARC issue with Modi, he raised this point in an interview with The Hindu where he made a case for SAARC saying “we have already gone a considerable distance with building SAARC and that should be continued.”

Sri Lanka pushing the SAARC is understandable – a Sri Lankan diplomat, Esala Weerakoon, has been appointed to be the next Secretary General of the SAARC Secretariat, and Sri Lanka would like to show some progress in the association. On March 1, 2020, Weerakoon will be taking charge of SAARC from Amjad Hussain B. Sial, his Pakistani predecessor, who has held the post since 2017.  Given this development, Sri Lanka is believed to have urged the Indian leadership to “at least restart the process of discussion on SAARC” but clearly it will be difficult getting India on board.

In addition to official meetings, Rajapaksa also reached out to the media and aired the Sri Lankan interest in some of the infrastructure projects on the bilateral agenda. Rajapaksa was categorical that Sri Lanka will no longer grant important projects such as the Mattala airport to other countries. Mahinda added that projects already approved by Wickremasinghe will be stopped. He also said that “his government has a firm policy on not allowing any national resources to be given to foreign control.”  However, at the same time, Rajapaksa seemed upbeat about the LNG project as well as the Eastern Container Terminal in Colombo, which will see joint investment by India and Japan.

On the debt repayment issue with China, Rajapaksa defended the Chinese by saying Beijing helped Colombo in Sri Lanka’s post-war reconstruction and development efforts. He went on to note that the debt toward China is only 12 percent of the overall external debt and that the funds from China was used for developing infrastructure. He faulted the previous government for giving away strategic real estate in the Indian Ocean such as Hambantota for the debt. Defending China of course probably earned Rajapaksa some brownie points with Beijing and gave some balance to Sri Lanka’s external alignments.

To be sure, Rajapaksa also stated India is a “relation” whereas others are friends. But he was uncomfortable with concepts like the “Indo-Pacific,” which he did not use though it was used by Modi, as well as with groupings like the Quad. Colombo clearly does not want to takes sides against China.

Of course, the thorny Tamil issue was also highlighted during Rajapaksa’s visit. In fact, Modi in his press statement said, “I am confident that the Government of Sri Lanka will realize the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and respect within a united Sri Lanka. For this, it will be necessary to carry forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.”

However, during the media interview with the Hindu, Rajapaksa made no commitment on how the 13th amendment will be implemented, except to say no solution to the problem will happen without it being acceptable to the majority community. He elaborated on the point saying “We want to go forward, but we need to have someone to discuss, who can take responsibility for the [Tamil] areas.  So the best thing is to hold elections, and then ask for their representatives to come and discuss the future with us.” Rajapaksa is hoping for a win in the upcoming parliamentary elections in April and thereafter to hold provincial elections that could pave way greater engagement with the Tamil population.

While the Rajapaksa visit has ended successfully, among the tricky issues, one that New Delhi needs to focus on is to find a balance between Sri Lanka’s interest in SAARC and the Indian preference for BIMSTEC. Given India’s larger strategic footprint across the Indo-Pacific and India’s Act East policy, BIMSTEC makes sense. But Sri Lanka is not keen. India needs to work on building support for it in other capitals in South Asia. Also, New Delhi has to be able to offer economic opportunities for these countries to make BIMSTEC attractive. Otherwise it will be seen as just empty anti-Pakistan rhetoric with no real worth for the small countries in the region. More generally, India should also be careful not to alienate the smaller countries who might not want to antagonize China.
*Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is Distinguished Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), one of India’s leading think tanks.Previously, she held stints at the National Security Council Secretariat, where she was an assistant director, and the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses New Delhi, where she was a research office.

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Sri Lanka: Power without authority

By Basil Fernando

An election can give political power to the winning political party and its leadership. Thereby, they could claim that their exercise of power is legitimate. From the point of view of formal legitimacy, that claim is justifiable.

However, elections cannot create the authority of the state if it has lost that authority. In quite a few Asian countries today, we can see how the power transfer is legitimate but the elected governments cannot exercise their authority in order to fulfill the purposes for which that power was given to them. This article explores how this conflict between political power and the authority of the state developed in Sri Lanka.

In essence, the state is supposed to exist regardless of the particular governing party in charge. The institutions of the state are supposed to function in accordance with certain innate principles and within their legal framework. When they do not, the elected governing party or coalition adopts two ways of dealing with this: one, institutions are taken over to serve political interests of the leadership or those they grant favours to; and, secondly, ad hoc methods of running of these institutions are taken up in order to fulfill the immediate needs of the moment. The illustrative example in this article is about the way police functions were handed over to the military, in contravention of the law and established norms, which revealed a deep failure in the underlying institutions of the state.

To understand this, we need to go back several decades. We may begin with the 1958 race riots and the declaration of emergency. The 1958 race riots and the manner in which the emergency regulations were used was one of the first examples of the failure to control violence by those who had the authority to deal with such a situation.

After the 1958 race riots, there was a secret meeting of the officers of the police hierarchy to have what they called a postmortem of what took place during this time, particularly on why the police failed to predict and control the situation efficiently. A related question was whether it had been necessary to call in the military to deal with the situation when there was a police force that had a large group of officers and also an adequate legal framework within which they could operate in order to prevent such occurrences and/or bring them under control within the shortest possible time.

The assumption that underlay this discussion, judging from a report of the meeting published by Tarzie Vittachi in his famous book Emergency 58, clearly shows that the police hierarchy at that time thought that it was the police’s duty to deal with the situation and the military need not have been called had the police ably carried out their duties. They admitted the general principle that maintaining law and order is the function of the police, and that the military could only be on standby. However, in 1958, the military had to be called, and they took control of the law and order function, and this was an indication of the failure of the policing system to deal with the situation. The postmortem, as they called it, was an attempt to understand how such a situation had occurred.

Top police officers of the time gave their opinions during this gathering, as recorded in the meeting’s minutes.

One clear agreement that seems to underline the comments that were made by these higher officers was that there had been a serious failure of the policing system and that, for various reasons, a tendency towards police inaction had entered into the system.

The discussion centered on the need to get back to the proper functioning of their system, and thereby to assert the authority given to the police. Some of the reasons that emerged for inaction within the policing system were as follows: that there was an apprehension widespread among the police that the top officers may not stand by the police carrying out the operations that needed to be carried out in a situation of tension and violence because they lacked the confidence that they will be protected by the headquarters. This apprehension has caused a certain levels of demoralization among the police force. Under those circumstances, a tendency to not to get too involved - meaning not to take necessary action - had developed among the police officers in general.

A further reason that was mentioned by one of the DIGs of the time, Sydney Soida, is that there had been an overall undermining of the rule of law. These background developments affected everyone. In these situations, rioters and those stirring up discord were encouraged because they were aware of the overall breakdown, and they perceived that this could be utilized to their advantage. Meanwhile, the police as the agency responsible for handling such riots was affected by the overall breakdown of the rule of law, which creates a crisis in all institutions, including the police.

However, in 1958, there was still the determination at the top to examine the problems that had developed within the system, and to make an attempt in order to regain the authority that they had lost.

1962 the Coup Attempt

There was a coup attempt to overthrow the government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, which was led by some officers of the armed forces and police. This coup has been well documented in the book of an American researcher who interviewed almost all of the persons who were later charged for attempting this coup. The primary objective of the coup was to oust Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike as a Prime Minister and to arrest all the cabinet ministers. In their place, the military was to appoint a ruling council, which would also include all the surviving prime ministers in the country. Their expressed belief was that this would be a bloodless coup, and while the ruling council prepared the way, fresh elections could be conducted in order to elect the next government.

The reason why they wanted this change was as a reaction to the forces that were unleashed in the 1956 elections in which Mr. S.W.D. Bandaranaike won a massive victory and became the Prime Minister, defeating the former ruling party, the United National Party, by reducing their numbers to 8 seats. The reason for this massive victory was the pressures which came from the rural areas particularly in the South where the people had a general feeling that, from the beginning of the British Colonial rule up to that time, they had been neglected and that the perks of whatever developments that had happened had gone to a small minority of persons who spoke English and who were educated in the few prestigious schools which were mainly situated in Colombo. These vast masses wanted a change of this situation so that their children would also be able to claim jobs in much sought after government services and professions.

This led to conflict between the more privileged sections of society and the overwhelming majority of people belonging to the rural areas, who happened to be mainly Sinhalese and Buddhist.

The leaders of the military and the police that had participated in the conspiracy for the coup were people who thought they had been disadvantaged by this social change and their children will not have the prestigious positions that they used to hold under former times.

The coup was defeated due to information leaked by someone who passed the information to political authorities who in turn got the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to act immediately in order to arrest the conspirators and to stop the execution of the coup. The coup was to happen at the midnight of a particular date, but by that morning the conspirators had been arrested.

What is important for the purpose of this article is to show that already there was a strong tendency at the top of the armed forces and the police to be deeply demoralized by the changes which were happening in the country, and that they wanted to alter the course of history. Thus, this marked a higher stage of demoralization when compared to the situation in 1958. Though the coup was exposed and defeated, and the coup leaders were brought to trial and convicted according to the law, nothing was done in order to examine the causes of dissatisfaction and demoralization.

1983 Anti-Tamil Pogrom

1983 marks a more prominent expression of police inaction than it has ever happened before. 1983 riots were spread nationwide, but were particularly strong in the South, closer to capital Colombo, and it was this event that marked Sri Lanka as a violent spot in the political map of the world. It has been extensively recorded how the police just stood by and hardly took any action in order to decisively intervene against the rioters, and that in many instances, the police themselves participated in provoking violence as well benefitting from the looting.

There were many reasons for this behavior on the part of the police. One was that the riots were reaction to the killing of about 13 persons by the LTTE in the North. The demand for burial for all the 13 together at the Colombo main cemetery was allowed by the then President J. R. Jayewardene, despite him being warned that riots would follow. It was considered politically expedient for his consolidation of power.

The police would have seen the attack on the military as an attack on themselves. It was the attack on the protective arm of the state of which they were also a part. Further, the cause of the riots was racial, between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The vast majority of the policemen were also Sinhalese; therefore their sympathies would have also lay with the rioters.

There was clear evidence that the military in many areas passed information informally to the police stations a few hours before the riots broke out about what might happen that day, and with a request that they should not interfere to stop the riots.

Above all, the attacks on houses, individuals, and business premises of Tamil people were led in many places by the local UNP organizers. That very fact would have indicated which side the government was in this matter, and that would have influenced the manner in which the police would have acted on those circumstances.

Above all, there was no clear evidence of strong assertions of authority by the top police officers in order to mobilize the police in order towards decisive actions. The failure of leadership, whether it was deliberate or not, was a factor of the police inaction which led to huge loss of lives and property, and created an undeniable mark of shame on Sri Lanka as a whole.

This was a key moment in the process towards entrenched inaction within the policing system, which had reached much higher stage than in 1958 or in 1962.

The two JVP uprisings

The 1971 and 1987-91 JVP insurgencies saw the police being used to commit heinous crimes, such as enforced disappearances and widespread torture, including the creation of torture chambers.

Such crimes took place on a large scale. Institutionally, this meant the breakdown of discipline. The creation of a disciplined police force takes a long time. When discipline can be flouted without consequences, institutional memory of functioning according to laws and guidelines begins to disappear. As people have said, the disappearance of persons was accompanied by the disappearance of a system. The influence of this factor remains unaddressed.

The fight against the LTTE

The former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence in Mahinda Rajapaksha’s regime openly admitted that in guarding Colombo against LTTE attacks, police were taken away from their policing duties and used for national security functions. Tha also contributed to the loss of whatever institutional habits were inbuilt over a long period beginning with colonial times to be lost. The result, once again, was transforming a civilian policing system into more of military functions. No real attempt was made since the end of the fight against the LTTE in order to have a drastic reform to bring back the institution into its primary function of enforcement of law and order, and for the protection of people.

21 April 2019: The Bomb Attacks on Churches and Some Tourist Areas

Perhaps more than all events, the attacks on three churches and several hotels and other places, which killed around 300 persons within a few hours, has shocked the whole nation.

The questions that are being asked is as to the responsibility of the inaction of the intelligence services, the police and also the political authorities even after intelligence from neighboring country about the imminent attack in which even the possible places of attacks and those who are seen as the masterminds were detailed out.

In this instance, there is no controversy over the conclusion that the inaction of the police including the intelligence services were at the root of allowing this attacks to take place.

That there was no leadership from the top of the police or intelligence services, and also from the political leadership in order to deal with an extremely dangerous situation has been an issue, which has unanimous consensus.

There is an attempt to discuss the causes of April 21 event. However, they are discussed in isolation and without going into the processes in which the policing and the intelligence systems came to the point of such neglect of their basic functions.

If a solution is to be found to the events of the 21st of April, it is essential to back into the process into which there was a transformation of the policing system, which gradually degenerated into what it is now. Without such a historic understanding of what has happened, there could hardly be any durable solution to this problem.

Thus, discourse aimed at understanding the events of April 21 requires serious attempts to understand the processes by which the state lost its authority while governments continue to be legitimately elected by the electoral process. The gap between formal legitimacy and the ability to exert authority for the protection of the people, which is the most important function of a state, needs to be looked at holistically with reference to the historical process by which Sri Lanka came to the position that it is in now.

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What is needed to keep Sri Lanka’s leopards roaming free?

What is needed to keep Sri Lanka’s leopards roaming free?
By Jagath Gunawardana

On Dec. 31, a fully grown male Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) was found shot and killed at the famed Uda Walawe National Park. It was also reported that the forelegs of the majestic beast had been severed and its teeth pulled out, giving rise to a fresh public debate about the protection afforded to this charismatic species and whether the current conservation efforts are sufficient.
The Sri Lankan leopard is the largest of the four wild cat species found in Sri Lanka, and the apex mammalian predator on the island. It is also a charismatic large animal that is popular among locals as well as tourists. There are some who visit Sri Lanka mainly to view leopards. It is a favourite subject of wildlife enthusiasts and widely photographed.

The leopard has been protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance since 1964, the first wild cat to be given legal protection. The initial legal protection was partial, as it was still possible to kill a leopard by obtaining a permit to do so. This situation remained so until 1993, when an amendment to the law made the leopard a fully protected species, along with the jungle cat (Felis chaus), the other wild cat that was unprotected until that time.

The other two wild cat species in Sri Lanka, namely the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) and the rusty-spotted cat (P. rubiginosus), were given protected status in 1970. That means the fishing cat and the rusty-spotted cat had more protection under the law than the leopard from 1970 to 1993.

Legal protection

The last amendment to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 2009 moved all four species into the newly established “strictly protected species” category. It is an offense to main, injure, harm or kill a leopard, or to keep a live animal, a dead body or any part of a body. It is also an offense to sell or expose to sell a dead body or any part or trade in live animals.

The offenses extend to the use of any implement, instrument or substance to commit any of these offenses. Furthermore, all these offenses are deemed to be cognizable offenses, that is, the offender can be arrested without a warrant. They are, in addition, deemed to be non-bailable offenses as well.

It is seen that there are quite strong legal provisions to protect the leopard in Sri Lanka. However, it is the enforcement of these provisions which is still the weakness. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) which is entrusted with the protection of all animals and plants and a large number of protected areas declared under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, is severely understaffed.

It does not have enough staff to proactively give protection to species and habitats; the staff serve mainly to protect the habitats and also to take action against offenders. The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance has empowered the police too, but the police are entrusted with a myriad of law-and-order issues and also lack specialized training on animals and plants.

Another vital area that needs to be revamped is the capacity of the professional staff within the DWC, and this needs more officers and more training. This includes, but is not limited to, specialized subject areas such as the identification of animals and plants by genetic testing, detection and producing expert evidence before courts during prosecution, animal forensic studies, and coordinated operations with other state institutions.

The last amendment introduced a provision that allows any officer in the DWC of the rank of ranger or above, and who has more than 10 years of experience, to become an “expert witness” in a prosecution. There is a need to provide more training in specialized areas to make the best use of this provision too.

Need for proactive measures

The conservation and the protection of the leopard needs other proactive measures as well. Even though the leopard holds such an important segment in the tourism sector, given how popular wildlife tourism is, the authorities are yet to team up with wildlife authorities to have a comprehensive plan of action to protect leopards so that tourists will still be able to see them in the future.

Such an action plan needs to be multi-dimentional, tourism being one dimension. There are leopards in both the low-country wet and dry zones, and in the hill country up to the highest elevations, with a population in Horton Plains National Park itself. Hence it is needed to consider the populations of the leopards within and outside the protected areas and to have conservation and management actions to cover both these populations.

It is said that there are no more than 1,000 leopards remaining in the wilds of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the subspecies found in Sri Lanka is an endemic one, found nowhere else on Earth.

But a number of leopards continue to be killed each year, both intentionally and accidently, taking a toll on the already low population. This animal is included in the National Red Data List as a threatened species within Sri Lanka.

It is very clear that time is fast running out for this charismatic carnivore and therefore urgent management action is needed to save this unique population for the future.

*Jagath Gunawardana is a Colombo-based environmental lawyer, lecturer and naturalist.

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Next Presidential Elections; Are We Missing The Point?

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Once again, maybe for the umpteenth time in the midst of election euphoria, we are talking about the upcoming Presidential Elections and its candidates. Who is coming from the United National Party (UNP), who is representing the Pohottuwa and is Maithripala Sirisena, the current President, preparing to contest again and if so, from what Party, if the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) fielding candidate, what chances are there for any candidate if the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) decides to field their own candidate etc. are amongst the questions one is asking oneself these days but to everyone’s utter dismay, no clear answer is forthcoming from any of these political parties and alliances.

When the election season arrives, those who gain most from it, at least in the context of financial gains, are the media organization owners, except perhaps the very candidates, among them those are at higher levels of prominence, who receive massive amounts of cash donations from their own sponsors, corporates, individuals and perhaps some foreign organizations such as the Diasporas of all denominations. Some of these Diasporas might have their own favourite candidates.

Yet one stark truth remains latent and unattended to. That is the fact that whether elections come and go, whether the candidates win or lose, whether the media organizations make profits or losses, the voters at large do not stand to gain anything, none whatsoever. Time after time, election after election, it has been shown that the ordinary voter, the average Saranapala and Siriyalatha, the average Subramaniam and Rasamma, the average Mohideen or Fathima, the ordinary folks who day in and day out sweat and spend all their waking hours to make ends meet, do not stand to gain any reasonable ground after the election.

The story is getting bleaker and bleaker with each election cycle; the successive generations in the country are finding it extremely hard to put up with each succeeding government; the politicians are, in fact, becoming more accessible but to no real material purpose. The economic status or the poor is becoming impossible; their children are messed up; either they are begging at the corner of an urban street or addicted to the dangerous drugs that are increasingly becoming available at affordable prices. While the drug industry, as an easy means to quick wealth, especially among those who are closest to politicians, and those who consume its products are being subjected to a pitiful way of life and livelihood far beyond one’s comprehension.

This melancholy element of life is fast becoming a reality among the young and uneducated. Birthday parties of the children who attend overseas schools are the breeding ground for these nefarious activities of experimentation with treacherous drugs. When parties are in session in the exclusive halls of McDonalds fast-food restaurants, what is most wretched scenery is of those children who cannot afford to either pay for such parties or not among the qualified to be invited to such parties, hanging on to the outside railing of the halls, with their mouths open, salivating and watching those who are better off than they are, dancing and cutting cakes, the taste of which they never ever had the opportunity to taste. The widening gulf between the haves and have-nots is visible and inviting many a social scientist to research and really find nothing as it seems for such social scientists do look for the nuanced aspects of life rather than at the obvious facts that surround an ordinary man’s daily life.

The influence of politicians and their greed and avarice play a huge role in defining the ordinary man’s ability to put food on the table. What the social scientists forget is one of the greatest demands of our people’s lives: a suitable school for his child. Those people who have had no special education, with no University degree or post-Advanced Level diploma, yearn to provide what they themselves could not achieve in their simple life. Provision of a better education with no extra fees and economic hardship is of paramount import for all our men and women in the villages. The village farmer has hardly had a chance to elevate his social status from that of a peasant to a farmer or a farming entrepreneur. The sophistication of a wealthy businessman is alien to our farmer and he has had not the opportunity to provide himself with such an erudite system of farming or any such modern scheme which lends itself as an educative tool.

Against such a cruel backdrop what can he do? His immediate attention goes towards those politicians who promise heaven and moon at the election time on those decorated platforms. The politician is corrupt; his very survival is directly dependent upon sustaining his friendships and connections to his sponsoring businessmen who have managed to gain vast profits from the businesses the politician has awarded them. This vicious cycle of corruption keeps turning and the poor villager does not see it nor does he seem to care as he has his own quota of worries.

Today’s politics is just that. Sheer greed for power attired in patriotic slogans has inundated the entire landscape of politics. Whether it’s the Rajapaksas or Sirisena, whether it’s Wickremesinghe or Premadasa, the mould is the same. Minor adjustments made to the customized exterior may change, but the inside core of all these men and women is rotting and stinking. To him, arguments and logic behind who will be the candidate, who will be the running mate and who is ahead of whom and who has to do what to get ahead of the other is all irrelevant.

Yet our villager, born in the North, South, East or the West, does not have the elementary capacity to understand this simple logic of power politics or he doesn’t care about such nuances. His preoccupation with his own worries overtakes the social scientists’ analyses. It is more tragic than pitiful; it’s more alarming than just cruel and it’s more man-made than natural- the cycle of power politics. Writers, including yours truly, have ignored these day-to-day worries of the ordinary man and woman. One may say that it’s the way of life, yet it’s no reason for a reasonable man or woman to pay no attention to those worries of the ordinary and examine the nuanced sides of human living.

As Minister Navin Dissanayake said the other day, all 225 must go; leave the well of the House of Parliament free and empty. Beginning at the beginning may be one of few choices still available for the well-being of our Land. As Dostoyevsky said in Brothers Karamazov, human life, for its sustenance need more than just staying alive. One needs a goal to live for. Our politicians have not provided that vision for our ordinary men and women. Empty election promises are not a vision; false election manifestos do not consist of a broad scope of work an ordinary man and woman should envision for themselves and their children. Leaving a legacy of failure and under-performance is not an option.

Come election time, these ordinary men and women should tell our wretched politicians to go to hell. Unless and until they map out a way and path to realistically achievable goals and targets, they must get out of the way. Brand new faces, brand new personalities who are well read and educated to a reasonable level must take to politics.

But I’m sure it won’t happen. The same old machine will grind its wheels and produce the same old noise and throw out the same old slogans and promises. The system is too corrupt to attract opposite revolt. The breaking point is yet to come. But social media has revolutionized the way we communicate with each other. That ordinary villager has access to such modern-day gadgetry and he is eager to use it. But social media too has its inherent wicked ways of being fake.

Then who is to blame and who is to take corrective measures. Democracy has shown us, amidst many a shortcoming and inadequacy, that it, amongst many, is the only decent and civil system of governance that a citizenry can tolerate. To withstand its inadequacies and adjust to its varying measures of demands is no way easy and a placid people would ultimately pay an unpalatable price.



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What Colombo-Beijing axis means to Sri Lanka

While the ongoing attempt by the US to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has run into fierce opposition, the gift of a 2,300-tonne warship by Beijing to Colombo in early July this year has been warmly welcomed by Sri Lanka’s authorities. The commander of the Sri Lankan Navy, Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva, thanked China for the frigate and proclaimed it to be a sign of the good friendship between the two countries. According to China’s mission in Colombo, 110 Sri Lankan Navy personnel spent two months in Shanghai being trained how to operate the ship.

Later the same month, Reuters reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping offered Sri Lanka a fresh grant of 2 billion yuan ($295 million), a clear indication that Beijing is looking to further expand its influence over Colombo. Surprisingly, this has not caused any outcry, although it is well known that Beijing, through an adroit combination of grants, bribes and “debt trap diplomacy,” has successfully encroached on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Instead, Sri Lanka’s nationalists, (a eupemism that best describes Sinhala nationalists) consider themselves indebted to China for helping crush the 30-year old Tamil rebellion. It is a matter of fact that if not for the help of the Chinese, who, in addition to their military aid, gave the Sri Lankan government diplomatic cover at the UN Security Council, Colombo could not have won the long-running civil war.

As a consequence, Sri Lanka’s nationalists are grateful to China for its enormous help in bringing to an end what was widely regarded as an “unwinnable war,” and are unable to regard Chinese actions as inimical to Sri Lanka’s interests or impinge on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. This, despite Sri Lanka having been forced to lease out Hambantota port in the south for a period of 99 years (to be managed and operated by Chinese state-owned China Merchants Ports Holdings) and China openly seeking to derail the Sri Lankan government’s agreement with Japan and India for the development of the Easter Container Terminal (ECT).

Instead, Sri Lanka’s nationalists are inclined to look upon Washington’s outright grant of $480 million over a five -year period in conjunction with the renegotiation of the SOFA agreement and negotiations for the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) as the country becoming “one of the territories of the USA, if not its 51st State.” Unfortunately, such hysterical and outrageous hyperbole appear to be typical of Sri Lanka’s nationalists.

The explanation for this apparent irrational loyalty to China is attributable to the well-established premise that Sri Lanka’s Sinhala nationalists are a “majority with a minority complex.” As such they entertain the fear that the Tamils of Sri Lanka, with the support of the huge Tamil population across the Palk Straits in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, may prove to be a threat to their own independence or even cause the Tamil homeland in the northeast to be annexed by India.

Hence, the blind, unthinking loyalty to China by Sri Lankan nationalists in whose view China was not only the only country that had helped them beat Sri Lanka’s Tamils into submission, but also the country that has the military and diplomatic might to counter India should it prove to be a threat.

Sinhala nationalists, that is, the overwhelming majority within the Sinhala population, fear India because they believe that on the long term, New Delhi, either due to pressure from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is angered by Sri Lanka’s ongoing mistreatment of their vanquished fellow Tamils, or to gain access to Sri Lanka’s port of Trincomalee, which New Delhi is known to covet, may directly intervene.

The Colombo-Beijing axis is primarily driven by Sri Lanka’s nationalists to counter their real or imagined threat from New Delhi. The opposition to Washington is a corollary, because Washington’s policy calls for a robust approach to break up the Colombo-Beijing axis and improve its own influence over Colombo.

ana Ana Pararajasingham

Ana Pararajasingham is an independent researcher focusing on political developments in the South Asian region with particular emphasis on geopolitical developments impacting Sri Lanka and India. He was director of programs with the Switzerland-based Centre for Just Peace and Democracy between 2007 and 2009.

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Counter the Potential for Anti-Muslim Actions with a Mass Education Campaign

By Jehan Perera

The wounds inflicted upon the body politic by the Easter Sunday bombings continue to fester and become more poisonous. They are not going away as might have been hoped for, and as might have been expected, in a country where much is eventually swept under the carpet to be forgotten by all except the victims, which increasingly looks like the fate of those who died or went missing in the three decade long ethnic war.

The much debated transitional justice process, dealing with the human rights violations which took place during that period, which was being pushed forward by initiatives from the international community, appears to have been derailed at this time, with political attention shifting to the Easter Sunday bombings and their fallout.

Two months after the six deadly bomb blasts that claimed the lives of 255 persons, polarisation between the country’s ethnic and religious communities continues to grow at a rapid pace. Even local government institutions are being subjected to division, with Tamils and Sinhalese joining hands in the eastern town of Kalmunai to demand an equal local government to match the one currently dominated by Muslims.

The highest ranking religious clergy are not immune to this polarisation that has the capacity to misguide them away from more universal values they are expected to uphold. One of the prelates recently called for an economic boycott of Muslim businesses. He has even said that the stoning to death of suspected offenders, on the other side of the divide, who are suspected to have engaged in illegal practices that are suspected to have cost many thousands of potential lives, is something that needs to happen.

It all sounds so irrational but it is deadly serious, because the mind is the forerunner of all states of being, and if we believe in absurdities we will be capable of atrocities. This includes mass riots and collective crimes against communities. These have happened in Sri Lanka and they have happened elsewhere. In Rwanda, people were described as cockroaches and a million were eliminated in a few days because they belonged to another ethnic community, though they shared the same religion.

Ten years after the end of the end of Sri Lanka’s three decade long war, Sri Lankans thought that our hard-earned peace would be sustained. But it collapsed in the debris of the Easter Sunday bombing of Christians by Muslim extremists which had no internal logic.

Past Evidence

Today we are reminded in different ways of how close we are to the brink. A colleague recounted this morning that a traffic policeman who apprehended him had also warned him that there was intelligence information of a possible attack, though it was not specified what type of attack or where.

There was supposed to be a larger presence of police on the ground on Sunday as a result, but there was no attack. If another bomb were indeed to go off, and take with it many lives, there could be a sudden descent into chaos.

An acquaintance referred to the discovery of many swords in the places of worship and homes of Muslims, which boded ill for the rest of the country. He spoke about the violent practice in “Muslim countries” of chopping off the limbs of those convicted of wrongdoing.

Not content with stopping at the issue of swords in the present day, my acquaintance also referred back two millennia, to the time of the great Buddhist kingdoms of India, and to the ancient Buddhist university at Nalanda which was looted, burned and utterly destroyed by invading Muslims who also slayed thousands of Buddhist monks.

He had no good faith or trust in the goodwill of Muslims towards Buddhists. On the contrary there is the irrational fear that continues to remain deeply entrenched in the psyche of many people, such as rumours that eating food prepared by Muslims can be dangerous on account of infertility drugs introduced to render non-Muslims sterile and unable to reproduce their communities.

Indeed, I have noted that when I express my conviction that it is not possible for a single doctor to sterilise thousands of women in the course of Caesarean operations, most of those I address remain dead silent, which makes me wonder if they think it is indeed possible and the truth.

The government has appointed an investigation committee comprising medical specialists in the field but there are protest marches being organised saying this is not enough. I say that I am sure that the story of the doctor sterilising women is implausible because he would be in the midst of teams of doctors and nurses who would be observing every step of the Caesarean procedure.

But I am aware that my audience may be rejecting my views.

Urgent Need

The tragedy is that this situation of polarisation, mistrust and hateful speech is likely to get worse and not better. There are two reasons for this. One is that business rivalries at the local and national levels make it advantageous to spread misinformation that causes one community to perpetrate economic boycotts upon the other, even at though it adds to the hatred and mistrust on both sides of the divide.

The second reason is that the country is careening into election mode, where each side is preparing to win by any means possible including whipping up inter-religious and inter-ethnic hatred. This accords with the long observed strategy of politicians who promote such negative sentiments because that can yield the harvest of votes that politicians so greedily want to prevail at the hustings.

In these deeply troubled circumstances, it is incumbent upon the rational elements in civil society to try and fill the vacuum of a speedy mass education campaign that the government and leaders of all political parties should be carrying out but are not. In particular, Muslim civil society needs to come out and publicly affirm that they do not subscribe to the agenda of the Islamic-State affiliated bombers when Sri Lanka is their home. Not once or twice, but all the time until the crisis ends as it will.

There is a special need to advertise widely that swords were found in only two out of several thousand mosques, and that it is not true that they were found in a large number of mosques.

The canard about infertility-inducing drugs being found in food distributed by Muslims needs to be similarly exposed.

They need to be advertised and broadcast on multiple news channels and in both print and electronic media. The millions and billions of rupees that business companies spend on their advertising campaigns need to be devoted to this more urgent and needed purpose.

This mass education campaign needs to be powerful enough to counter the political and social media campaigns of those who seek to widen the rift between the communities for their own purposes. It will need to be carried out at least until the presidential and general elections are completed, and a new government leadership comes to power that, hopefully, will have the moral vision and credibility to speak the truth and counter the untruths that now dominate the thinking of masses of people.

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