The world faces huge crises now, such as the economic crisis, the ecological crisis and the social crisis. The world has passed lots of ecological crises both natural and manmade. Why do people destroy nature? There is a main reason that could be found for environmental destruction in the world. The world thinking pattern focuses on increasing economic value and taking care of economic goods. That is the main focus of every state and many people that live in the World. Since five hundred years ago, knowledge has been used to protect the economy and their patterns. William Petty introduced the Gross Domestic product (GDP) to measure economic value as a need of the King of England in 1660.
GDP is the total monetary or market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country's borders in a specific time period. As a broad measure of overall domestic production, it functions as a comprehensive scorecard of a given country’s economic health.
After Bretton Woods agreements in 1944, the world considers GDP as the best indicator to measure development in a country. If any country has a higher GDP rate that is considered as a developed country while another state with a lower rate is considered as an under developed or poor country.
However, GDP has many problems on its measurement. For example, if some people or community grow their foods and eat themselves without buying any food in the market, that activity or other self-sustainable activities or services cannot be measured by GDP.
GDP concerns self-sustainable communities and states as poor. If any communities want to be developing according to GDP, the community has to give up self-sustainable activities and should join with the market economy.
Indicators determine policies. The almost universal use of GDP-based indicators to measure progress has helped justify policies around the world that are based on rapid material progress at the expenses of environmental preservation, cultures, and community cohesion.
Economic development could not sustain the natural world. That is the main debate that we have after Covid-19. With the lockdown, lots of people in western countries started to talk about the value of human health and happiness. As the Buddha said, “Aroghya Parama Labha Santushti Paraman Dhanan” (good health condition is our profit and happiness is our uncountable capital).
We knew that money couldn’t bring healthy life for the people and it could not bring real happiness for the society. That’s why we are in trouble as a global village. People create fear for every animal and plant. They destroy every water shade and jungle. They destroy natural mountains and create garbage mountains. No one feels safe about the future.
That is the reason why we need an art for living ‘which can bring happiness, health and safety for the world, animals, trees and human being”.
The Royal Government of Bhutan adopted the Gross National happiness (GNH) index in November 2008. GNH has four pillars: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values and conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance.
The GNH indicators have been designed to include nine core dimensions that are regarded as components of happiness and well-being in Bhutan, and are constructed of indicators which are robust and informative with respect to each of the dimensions. The nine dimensions were selected on normative grounds, and are equally weighted, because each dimension is considered to be relatively equal in terms of equal intrinsic importance as a component of gross national happiness. Within each dimension, several indicators were selected that seemed likely to remain informative across time, had high response rates, and were relatively uncorrelated. The nine dimensions are:
In this perspective, happiness comprises having sufficient achievements in each of the nine dimensions. The Royal Government of Bhutan has 60% of natural forest cover out of the total land area of the country. The King of Bhutan promised not to destroy the forest cover of the country and protect its rich bio diversity for sustaining not only the country but also the global village on this planet earth.
Not only Bhutan but many indigenous communities try to protect their traditional way of living with mother earth. They know that real happiness entails protecting the animals, trees, rivers and ecosystems with the people. We need a holistic way of thinking and living to protect our society and natural world. Now we are late but not too late for an art of living.
The health officials never visited, but he did get a knock on the door from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police. They handcuffed him and placed him under arrest, without explaining why. When Hejaaz’s relatives asked if the police had an arrest warrant, they were warned not to ask any questions.
The CID officials then rummaged through his office, casting through his legal files and seizing his phone and laptop. They asked him to dial numbers on his phone and asked if he recognised them. Before leaving with Hejaaz, they took two files from his drawers – both relating to District Court cases on properties owned by Yusuf Mohamed Ibrahim, a client.
Hejaaz’s family believes he is being targeted for his professional work as a lawyer and his peaceful activism for the human rights of Sri Lanka’s embattled Muslim minority.
Hejaaz is currently serving a detention order for 90 days authorized by the Sri Lankan President, even though a detention order can only be made by the Minister of Defence and Sri Lanka has no cabinet Minister for Defence. Under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), one of the main tools used to perpetrate human rights violations in Sri Lanka, any “suspect” can be placed in detention – without charge and without being produced before a judge. The detention order can be renewed for a further 90 days and continue to be renewed for up to 18 months.
The PTA has long been criticized as an abusive law that has been used to crush dissent and forcibly disappear people, along with other violations. The Sri Lankan authorities have acknowledged the inherently abusive character of the PTA but have failed to repeal it as promised. The last government proposed its own legislation to replace the law but failed to amend the draft law in order to secure sufficient support for it before being replaced themselves.
Hejaaz, who has only been able to see his lawyer and family a few times and always in the presence of the authorities, could remain under arbitrary detention until October 2021. While in detention, he will have been subjected to arbitrary deprivation of his liberty and had a myriad of his rights violated, without being able to mount an appeal in the courts. The authorities have plunged him in this predicament on the basis of nothing more than his legitimate associations with Mohamed Ibrahim, the father of the bombers who perpetrated attacks on churches in Sri Lanka over Easter 2019. The authorities have publicly stated that the reason for his arrest were his interactions with the bombers and their family.
Mohamed Ibrahim’s sons, Inshaf and Ilham, were two of the seven bombers who set off six explosions across Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019, striking three churches and three five-star hotels on Easter Sunday and killing more than 250 people. The attacks were later claimed by the armed group calling itself ‘Islamic State’, but the connection with the group remains uncertain.
Hejaaz was connected to Mohamed Ibrahim in two ways. For the past five years, he had served as his lawyer, handling legal cases related to his business. Hejaaz and Mohamed Ibrahim were also part of the “Save the Pearls” organization, a charity that supports the education of underprivileged children, hoping to lure them away from criminal activities and drug abuse. Mohamed Ibrahim served as the organization’s treasurer as part of his wider philanthropic activities, a role he later handed over to his son Ilham, one of the bombers. Ilham was asked to step down from the role in 2016 by the organization’s board, barely a few months after taking over the post. Hejaaz, a member of the board, only attended eight of its 52 meetings in a span of 5 years.
This connection is being used to justify Hejaaz’s detention. The detention order says that Hejaaz is being investigated for allegedly “aiding and abetting” the Easter Sunday bombers and for engaging in activities deemed “detrimental to the religious harmony among communities”. No credible evidence has surfaced to establish any link between Hejaaz and the 21 April 2019 bombings. According to his family, all that the authorities are acting upon is a far-fetched suspicion.
Amnesty International is extremely concerned that the case and evidence against Hejaaz may now be subject to fabrication. A new allegation has emerged that a school supported by the Save the Pearls charity was responsible for preaching “extremism” and even providing the children “weapons training”. These charges lack credibility because nearly three months since his arbitrary arrest, authorities have so far been unable to substantiate their claims with evidence. Children who were interviewed by the police are now initiating legal action on the basis that they were interviewed without the presence of a parent or guardian. Through their parents and guardians, the children have filed Fundamental Rights applications with the Supreme Court seeking an interim order for the police to produce all arrest notes, video recordings and statements that the children were made to sign.
The Colombo Fort Magistrate has stated that CID officers tried to show the children pictures of Hejaaz before asking them to identify him as a hate preacher at their school. The identification parade has since been called off after objections were raised by Hejaaz’s lawyer, however this ordeal demonstrates a frank disregard for due process and the willingness of the authorities to attempt to frame Hejaaz.
Hejaaz has been subject to an unfair character assassination in local media by the authorities in an environment where anti-Muslim sentiment is rife, and prominent Muslim professionals have been unfairly targeted in the recent past. Hejaaz’s background is far from the picture that the authorities have tried to paint. Educated at a leading Anglican boys’ school in Sri Lanka, he is a lawyer at the Supreme Court and worked as a state counsel for the Attorney General’s department. He has a master’s degree in law from University College London, for which he won a Chevening scholarship. His legal expertise includes constitutional, contract, employment, human rights and property law. Beyond his legal work, Hejaaz has been involved in interfaith and reconciliation work, including through many high-profile cases, tackling the rising tide of Islamophobia that is now a key concern for human rights groups when it comes to Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan government must immediately restore Hejaaz’s due process rights, including producing him before a judge, allowing him to challenge the grounds of his detention, ensuring that he has unfettered access to his family and lawyers, and, in the absence of any charges of credible evidence of a crime being committed, release him. And to stop further such travesties of justice taking place, the Sri Lankan authorities should finally repeal the abusive PTA, and provide people who have suffered because of it the justice they are owed in the form of remedies and reparations.
Last month’s eagerly awaited general election in Sri Lanka ended with a landslide victory for the Sri Lanka People’s Front, led by former President Mahinda Rajapksa who was formally appointed as prime minister for a five-year term.
The party gained 145 seats to obtain a near two-thirds parliamentary majority, underlining public support for the government’s successful management of Covid-19 and securing the mandate of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of Mahinda elected in 2019.
Speaking with the Asia Society after the younger Rajapaksa’s triumph last November, Dinusha Panditaratne, an expert on Sri Lankan foreign affairs, said the new president’s view of Sri Lanka’s place in the world could be summarised as “Sri Lanka must develop itself,” alluding to an emphasis on the word “development” which appeared over a 100 times in Rajapaksa’s election manifesto.
Central among the government’s domestic challenges will be to revive a heavily indebted economy expected to contract by 3.2 percent, with the pandemic hitting the country’s tourism industry, which already faced a downturn after the Easter terrorist attacks in 2019.
To do so, Colombo plans to drive an economic development agenda by itself and as a partner with other countries while leveraging its strategic importance.
“The new administration will be able to take more decisive steps given the ideological alignment of the prime minister, president and parliament,” Dr. Kadira Pethiyagoda, a foreign policy expert and author of ‘Indian Foreign Policy and Cultural Values’, told TRT World.
Pethiyagoda suggested that a development-led engagement with China and its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would feature prominently, as a realist approach to foreign policy that balanced great powers like the US, China and India with its own interests was likely to be pursued.
A crushing $55 billion debt burden, coupled with geopolitical competition underway in the Indian Ocean, are likely to be significant factors in determining the direction of its foreign policy.
In the immediate aftermath of the August election, a number of developments might indicate that the orientation of the government’s foreign policy has begun to take shape.
One has been the responsibilities assigned to the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Relations Dinesh Gunawardena, who now wields the ability to reevaluate existing bilateral agreements and remove clauses considered economically or socially harmful.
Another is the creation of the ‘state minister of regional co-operation’ portfolio, to be helmed by Tharaka Balasuriya, a member of parliament known for his focus on financial and economic issues.
Among Balasuriya’s duties will be to foster trade links with Asian nations and strengthen ties with regional multilateral bodies like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
Pethiyagoda believed that the new ministerial portfolio “sends a signal of the focus the administration will place on South Asia and Asia more broadly.”
“An Asia-first approach aligns with the government’s ideals and the views of much of its political base,” he said.
An Asia-centric foreign policy was echoed by retired navy admiral Jayanath Colombage, part of a cabinet reshuffle that saw him appointed as secretary to the ministry of foreign relations, a post traditionally held by career diplomats.
Given Sri Lanka’s desire to acquire much-needed investment to jumpstart its ailing economy, forming expedient partnerships in Asia presents less hurdles than it does in the West.
“If you look to the US or Europe, the issue of human rights crops up, which is less the case with potential Asian partners,” Price told TRT World, adding that Colombo’s tilt towards Asia would take place while resisting a binary choice between India and China.
A Senior Analyst at Control Risks, Hemant Shivakumar maintained that these developments will not come at the expense of economic ties with Western nations.
“Countries like the EU and the US will remain key export destinations for the majority of Sri Lankan goods and products, and it is unlikely that the government will imperil these economic avenues,” he told TRT World.
Ultimately, Colombo will have to reconcile the competing interests of two Asian giants vying for influence in the Indian Ocean.
In an attempt to assuage New Delhi’s fears of Colombo being ensnared by Beijing, Colombage reiterated that “as far as strategic security considerations go, it's an ‘India first’ approach.”
The stance will be welcomed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, who was the first to congratulate the Rajapaksa following August’s elections.
For India, Sri Lanka is increasingly viewed through the prism of its strategic maritime objectives, and it has long harboured concerns over the growing Chinese footprint on its southern neighbour’s shores, heightened after a controversial ‘debt-equity swap’ of the Hambantota Port to Beijing in 2017.
Fears that China is practicing ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ are unfounded; a Chinese SOE paid the Sri Lankans to lease Hambantota Port and provided Colombo with liquidity to repay Western creditors, to which it owes the majority of its debt.
“It was poor decision-making on the Sri Lankan side that led to the debt more than any kind of Chinese scheme,” said Price. “The problem with the previous Rajapaksa government was that there were a lot of vanity projects, and Chinese investment poured in because they wanted them to.”
If there is an underlying logic that will drive Sri Lankan diplomatic strategy, it is economic – and India might be at a disadvantage despite the positive rhetoric coming from the new government.
The overriding imperative for the Rajapaksas is to reduce the country’s foreign debt burden and partners will be prioritised on the basis of who can provide funding to stimulate commercial activity. If India cannot deliver on implementing projects and spurring investment, the administration will look elsewhere.
“Sri Lanka needs financing and infrastructure investment, and China can do it better than India. China’s capacity to build is greater than India’s, and its pockets are deeper. Particularly now with India’s economy taking a major hit,” Price noted.
“If Sri Lanka was not looking to be beholden to China, looking to the Southeast Asian countries would make a lot of sense.”
There is enough evidence to suggest that Sri Lanka will continue to deepen engagement with other Asian states.
“The previous government between 2015 and 2019 had stepped up economic and commercial relations with Singapore and Malaysia,” Shivakumar said, highlighting that Singapore was among the top ten investors in Sri Lanka and Malaysia had indicated in 2018 plans to pursue a free trade agreement. Bangladesh and Japan could follow soon.
Shivakumar also believed that the Rajapaksa administration will continue to favour economic ties with China, despite security objections from those like India.
“Effectively, though the [Sri Lanka] government will seek to pursue commercial opportunities with India and Japan to help offset domestic criticism over dependence on China, this will remain limited.”
In May 2019 India and Japan signed an MoU with the government for a high-profile Colombo Port project worth $500 million, which faced domestic opposition from parties who saw India and Japan following China’s lead in trying to “spread their tentacles” in the country’s strategic assets.
The government assured both sides that the project would be expedited after the elections were over, but questions remain.
Foreign ports are a transshipment hub for nearly 30 percent of Indian export-import cargo and the Colombo port accounts for a large chunk of it, making Sri Lanka an invaluable “blue water” access point for India.
Washington’s $480 million grant for development projects has also faced setbacks.
“Alternatively, the government will likely intensify efforts to secure a moratorium from foreign lenders on debt repayments even as it initiates fresh negotiations for a new IMF loan programme,” Shivakumar added.
While the government hardly wishes to get involved in a Sino-Indian or US-China power struggle, it may not have a choice as it seeks to preserve its long practiced policy of non-alignment. With heightened external geopolitical fissures in the region, balancing infrastructure diplomacy between China, India and the US will be a daunting challenge.
There are reasons for the more aware citizens to raise concerns over government’s recent shift in approach in controlling COVID-19. Perceptions that top bureaucrats responsible for the health sector are not independently so, also contribute to serious concerns. However much they brag about their independence in service, their work seem more aligned to the election agenda of the governing party. On July 03 when an individual in Jinthupitiya, Colombo 13 who was in self quarantine was identified as COVID-19 positive, DG Health Services Dr. Anil Jasinghe told media he would not be a “virus carrier” as he had completed the 14 day quarantine and was thereafter in self quarantine. But then, if Dr. Jasinghe was that certain the affected person would not be a “virus carrier” why was taxpayer money wasted on 154 persons to quarantine them for 14 days? This sounds no different to the Coast Conservation officials who said they expect sand from Ratmalana dumped to the sea from Mt.Lavinia would collect in Wellawatte.
Much different to them, the head of the taskforce responsible for prevention of COVID-19, army Commander Lt. General Shavendra Silva’s media briefing on 10 July on the new surge in COVID-19 positive numbers at Kandakadu and Senapura drug rehabilitation camps was quite objective. He clearly said, apart from the already identified 57, there were 196 affected cases reported in the morning, totalling 253. He had also told they were awaiting reports on 375 PCR tests already done and they may have positive cases, further increasing numbers. His assumption he had told media is that this outbreak could be from visits allowed for 116 of their relatives, or from those drug addicts the Courts decided to transfer, in the past few days.
He had also told media all precautionary steps have been taken to control any further spread. Yet he had warned, as there are expatriates also flown in, there can be reports of new cases tested positive and therefore community spreads cannot be totally ruled out. People should therefore take precautionary measures, he had warned.
That in fact is the reality. On the side of the people, COVID-19 has become a threat in the waning. Face masks are often forgotten in public. Social distancing seems no more relevant. Such social neglect does not come without change of priorities in government approach to COVID-19 prevention. The government removed most precautionary measures and restrictions imposed for COVID-19 prevention, in order to create social space for electioneering. Inter district travel that was in place, was removed. With very short notice, all island curfew was completely removed. Social distancing was gradually left aside and private buses came on the roads, reopening of schools in stages began, 500 students in a lot was allowed for private tuition, restaurants and hotels were allowed usual businesses and the situation at ground level seemed so much like that of the 2019 presidential elections.
With that, restrictions and conditions for election campaigning was only applicable to opposition campaigns and not for candidates of the government party. This open discrimination made COVID-19 control look irrelevant and the danger a bygone issue. These campaigns with media coverage make people feel the situation is “normal” once again creating a social psyche, COVID-19 is no more an issue in life.
Although election campaigns don’t have huge hoardings, massive public rallies, large and open public campaigns with huge money spent, there is public debate about who should be voted. With the election date nearing and an election mood slowly giving into collective engagements, social dialogue leaves COVID-19 unimportant and has lost attention in society.
In such context, increase in positive COVID-19 numbers have also lost notice in society. The 253 cases from Kandakadu and Senapura rehabilitation camps the Army Commander announced on 10 July morning reached an all time high of 300 in a day by evening. The Jinthupitiya case, Welikada remand prison case with another addition on 10 July and a Kandakadu rehabilitation camp Counsellor from Kottaramulla, Chilaw district tested positive with another Counsellor from Habaraduwa, Galle district tested positive too add to a growing possibility of community spread. Their number of contacts, the numbers subjected to PCR tests and possible positive numbers out of them are yet unknown. Meanwhile in Hambantota district, 15 from Ambalantota and 22 officers and prisoners from Angunakola prison and another 15 from Pelmadulla in Ratnapura district have been sent for quarantine. This gives an idea of the new spread that is creeping around.
There is no clear indication how Kandakadu and Senapura rehabilitation camps came to be COVID-19 clusters. If as the Army Commander suspects, it was with relatives who visited inmates, then not only the 116 visitors but their close contacts in hundreds would have to be traced. If the outbreak was due to drug addicts transferred to those camps on Court orders, again their close contacts can be very many. It could also be both sources that infected the camp inmates.
Tracing their contacts to the last and testing them for COVID-19 would mean PCR tests in thousands, not in hundreds. The extent of the possible spread cannot be otherwise traced, assessed and controlled. Till then we would be speaking about numbers in a social context that assumes everything is “normal” once again and is dominated by an election mentality. Maintaining and nurturing such social freedom till elections are over, may lead to a second wave. This second wave can be more severe than the first, with all indications of the spread now taking hold in the community.
But there is still the possibility of restricting it within controllable limits. That first needs re-imposing of an all island curfew from 09 in the night till 05 in the morning next day. Curfew will impose some restrictions in social life. But would not seriously effect election campaigns. Election campaign meetings, pocket meetings by candidates and collective election interventions should be totally banned. All schools should remain closed at least till elections are over. Private tuition classes should also be banned. Also, all detailed information about identified positive cases, their contacts and the number of PCR tests done should be made public. That allows others to avoid contact with suspected cases.
In summing up this whole essay let me say, COVID-19 prevention measures should be immediately slammed, and election campaigning should be allowed only within the space that would remain. Priority should be in electing a parliament with COVID-19 completely controlled and not one in a society threatened by a second wave that would be disastrous to everyone. Thus it is the responsibility of political parties and candidates in how they would design their election campaign within the space that COVID-19 prevention measures allow. If they cannot be innovative in meeting that challenge, they prove they are not competent in addressing the serious crisis the whole country is already in raising the question, “why elect them at all?
Villagers in “Lankagama” a very small village in Galle district bordering Gin ganga (river) and Sinharaja rainforest and few Environmental activists have conflicting claims over widening and repair of an existing 10 ft partly cemented road. The villagers claim their village is over 500 years old and live with minimum basic common utilities that are sub-standard. They claim they have been requesting every government to widen and repair their access road to Neluwa, but no government has ever delivered on the promise. Neluwa hospital is where pregnant women must be taken a distance of about 18 kms where transport and travel is the most painstaking thing in an emergency. Tragedies that occurred in the past the villagers say, have not been of any worth to the media.
The existing road through Sinharaja - photo courtesy Lakdasun trip] That the village is over 500 years old is disputed by Environmentalists. A senior activist posting on FB said it is sheer romanticising of the village. Neluwa Divisional Secretariat (DS) sources accept the village is around 300 years in existence. Lankagama villagers say there are around 700 families. Neluwa DS website says the population of Lankagama grama niladhari area was 655 in 2018. Perhaps, the figure 700 quoted by villagers is the present number of “people” and not “families”. Geographically, Lankagama grama niladhari area is one of the largest in Neluwa DS division.
Environmental activists claim the new Rajapaksa government is using security forces to widen and carpet the Lankagama – Neluwa road to construct tourist hotels in Sinharaja. Yet, there is no clear and confirmed information on hotel construction. An NGO, “Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies” (CENS) writing to the President, the Ministry of Environment, the Central Environment Authority and Wildlife Department claim the road that is being constructed is “illegal” and is within the Sinharaja World Heritage Site, a good enough reason for them to write to the UNESCO as well.
Environmentalists believe the environment cannot be compromised for “human development”. A very short comment I posted on FB regarding this controversy, was immediately responded to by a very respected senior Environmentalist. He was very frank asking, “Do you say we have to compromise a virgin rainforest, which is also a national and a world heritage for human development?”
This in fact is the main issue. People in the village want their road done. Environmentalists don’t. People in the village believe widening the existing road is a long overdue necessity for them. Environmentalists don’t. People in the village believe widening the road will not be a threat to the national and world heritage site. Environmentalists don’t. People in the village who want the road done, live adjoining the Sinharaja forest reserve. Environmentalists don’t.
On 28 November last year, Principal of the Lankagama model school organised a felicitation ceremony for his own teaching staff, attended by the Neluwa DS, parents and few others. At this ceremony he said some years ago, most teachers came late on Monday from distant places, roughed out the whole week and left early on Friday. Now, most teachers are from neighbouring villages. They walk to school every day, a distance of about 06 to 08 kms each way. They have been exceptionally helpful and committed in improving the education of Lankagama children, a service that needs to be appreciated. The school has around 175 children in daily attendance and has classes up to G.C.E O/L.
An isolated village where teachers must walk many kilometres to school and back, says a lot about lack of basic needs. Improvement in the quality of life, easy access to public utilities and services, better and improved linkages to markets, are all part of development people want. They in fact are the most basic needs in present day human life. All these depend on good and efficient transport and commuting. That is why roads become an indispensable part of daily life. Lack of, absence or denying of basic needs, define poverty in its crudest manner.
What environmentalists stand for is this crude poverty, in the name of safeguarding the environment. That is precisely the undertone the question posed to me carried; we don’t compromise the environment for human development.
This hard line, blank position compels environmental NGOs to draw on their own assumptions as “facts” to argue their case. The “illegal road” mentioned by CENS as running through Sinharaja, had been there for many decades as a gravel road, used by villagers in Lankagama and in neighbouring areas. Out of the 18 kms, only a very short distance of about 03 kms run through Sinharaja forest reserve and that too in short segments. Short or long distance, any path people use for daily commuting over decades without any restrictions and objections recorded, becomes legal by default. In 2010, this road was paved with concrete, from funds allocated by State authorities through Neluwa DS. What then is “illegal” is therefore never imaginable. Ironically, it is such factually distorted and wrong information these environmental NGOs often provide to State authorities and international organisations to gain legitimacy to their protests.
That apart, getting back to the dichotomy “human development vs environment”, never in the history of human civilisation has progress been achieved, without breaching and trampling nature and environment. The 2,500 BC Indus river civilisation Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, was a fire burnt brick based civilisation. Without doubt, clay was dug up in mega quantities for bricks and forests were cut down to burn bricks in constructing big and orderly cities and roads. So were all other civilisations, whether constructions were wood, or iron based.
In ancient Ceylon too, construction of giant tanks for agriculture would not have been possible without breaching and damaging the environment. Culawamsa, the Pali chronicle says, King Parakramabahu restored tanks and built new tanks, all totalling 163 major tanks. One that covers an area of 30 sq.km is named after him as “Parakrama Samudraya”.
In post independent Sri Lanka all “development” initiatives from colonisation schemes to hydro-power projects came with restoration of reservoirs, construction of large dams and tunnelling. From Gal-oya in 1952 to accelerated Mahaweli development in 1979 and Samanala weva project in 1986, all such projects stepped on the environment. In the past, Gal-oya, Kantale, Rajanganaya and other similar developments were technically approved, but never had EIAs and none would know what environmental damage they brought about. Fact nevertheless is, new habitats, new eco-systems have evolved thereafter.
We have come a long way from Parakramabahu and from Gal-oya. We have also learnt much from the accelerated Mahaweli development programme. We have expertise, technology and past experience to “plan development better and save the environment better”. What is still lacking is a new people centric thinking in environmental activism. Worst is that most environmentalists have also turned Sinhala-Buddhist “patriots” on the run. They and their NGOs also believe “people are outsiders to environment” and human development is no priority. They work on the premise; it is their duty to fight legal battles to stop any project they decide should be stopped and protest any they believe cause destruction.
We need to come out of this primitive thinking. This thinking in environmental NGOs as exhibited in Lankagama contributes to sustained poverty, denying development. We need to know, “human development” cannot be compromised as much as the environment cannot be played about with, as “Climate Change” clearly teaches. We therefore have to learn that “protests” are no answers. Though isolated, Lankagama by the side of Sinharaja rain forest is a classic case that challenges these protesting environmentalists to come up with their “solution” to the conflict without denying the people their right to better and improved life.
Environmentalists have to leave agitating against single, isolated issues and propose a “National Environment Policy” that should cover everything from urban air and sound pollution to landslides, from domestic waste disposal to surgical and industrial waste, from coast conversation to reforestation and management, from urban planning to town and housing development and honouring all international conventions the SL government is a signatory to and have ratified and should ratify. It should include regulating and monitoring agencies and have a special complain investigating mechanism, independent of ministries and politics.
Such cannot be drafted and concluded by “experts” alone. This requires an open social discourse at every stage of its drafting. It needs to draw the participation of social activists and community leaders. In short, when the “National Environment Policy” becomes law, it must be a social product owned by the People.
The ancient style of taking up issues as and when they become politically important and worth for environmental NGOs to agitate and protest is no more valid. Environmentalists must leave those old sectarian practices and face the challenge of drafting a “National Environment Policy” with people’s participation and take over the responsibility of social monitoring and lobbying for answers within the national policy.
In post COVID-19 global and national life, this is a new era with a new challenge demanding new answers. An era, where strengthening democracy is the beginning. Hence social participation and ownership in planning and implementation. I would not know if environmentalists could stand up to this new challenge. Lankagama therefore would be the first test for environmentalists in post COVID-19 Sri Lanka.
2020 August 21
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).
‘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).
This is truly an existentialist moment for all Sri Lankans; each individual must make meaningful choices and the choices they make will define Sri Lanka's future for generations to come.
Are we to define a future for our country based on our fears and prejudices? Or are we to define a new future based on our hopes and aspirations for a better Sri Lanka for all? Are we going to allow a handful of religious and racial megalomaniacs and other fundamentalist zealots who monopolise the sensationalist media to define our future while we silently wonder if moderation and tolerance are becoming bygone values of a distant and more civilised era?
The loud and violent sounds of extremism make better news than the democratic pronouncements of the silent majority. The silence of the majority in the face of extremism, intolerance, hatred and the pseudo patriotism of the vociferous few since independence has finally culminated in the massive crisis we face today as a nation. The root causes of the crisis we are facing are economic, religious or socio political in nature and an educational system which has totally failed to provide the knowledge, experiences, critical and analytical thinking as well as values needed to meet the challenges of a developing country like Sri Lanka.
A renewal of the consensual democracy that looks beyond the adversarial politics of the left and the right is an urgent necessity. Aristotle in his treatise “Politics” of 350B.C. writes about the ‘middling element’ as the substance that bridged the chasm between the rich and the poor echoing Siddhartha Gautama from a century before. Today, as Sri Lanka stumbles from one crisis to the other the middling element may prove to be our only alternative.
A vigorous reiteration of liberal values is the need of the hour; a radical center. The center should be home to a radical commitment to liberalism and centrist values. The need now is to create a new political culture based on reviving the value systems drawn from Lord Buddha’s middle path to Mahatma Gandhi’s path of non-violence, from Nehru to Martin Luther King, from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama.
The middle path or ‘Radical Center’ is based on the principles of democracy, freedom, equality and justice as the four pillared foundation for a just, caring and prosperous society. Although many may say that a radical center is a contradiction in terms, a radical recommitment to liberal democratic principles is an urgent necessity along with the courage of one's convictions even to wage a non-violent struggle if and when necessary to protect and achieve these values. The Radical Center is a platform of moderation providing the silent majority to oppose and fight authoritarianism, racism and all other forms of extremism actively and vigorously.
The ‘Radical Center’ entails the creation of a centrist middle way where dissenting voices and opinions from every part of the political spectrum would have a place within a democratic framework of decentralised governance. It is a system where diversity in all its manifestations is celebrated; the years of deep mistrust between the different communities must lose its sting within a non-violent, democratic framework where pluralism and secularism flourish. The radical center should show the intolerant that those they hate are in fact, quite similar to themselves and have the same dreams and aspirations as well as the same fears and concerns as human beings. The radical center should be the point where all Sri Lankans can discover their common humanity going beyond the boundaries of race, creed and caste.
All right thinking people across Sri Lanka must break their silence and unite to protect democracy. The tyranny of the few can only be defeated if the silent majority - the true patriots - wakes up from their somnambulist stupor to say ‘enough is enough.’ True to the saying by Samuel Johnson, patriotism in Sri Lanka has now become the ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’; patriotism as encouraged today is thinly veiled racism and overzealous chauvinism which has been the main cause of our downhill journey since independence.
Patriotism needs to be redefined to reflect the goals and aspirations of a modern Sri Lanka rejecting the feudal/tribal attitudes and ‘big frog in a small well’ mindset of the post ’56 era. While celebrating the diversity and glory of our respective ancient cultures and religions, the new patriots of Sri Lanka - nationalistic and cosmopolitan - must unite to march hand in hand with the rest of the world towards freedom, happiness and prosperity.
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.
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.
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”.
In the first few months of Gotabaya’s presidency, the Rajapaksas—Sri Lanka’s most prominent political family—moved swiftly to centralize power, with Gotabaya immediately appointing Mahinda as prime minister. The two other Rajapaksa brothers, Chamal and Basil, hold important political positions as well; the former is a Cabinet minister, and the latter is both Gotabaya’s “chief strategist” and the national organizer of the Sri Lanka People’s Front, the Rajapaksa-backed political party relaunched in 2016. Gotabaya has also surrounded himself with current and former members of the Sri Lankan military who have been credibly accused of serious wartime abuses during the country’s civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers.
With the return of this powerful family and their supporters to power, a climate of fear has returned for Sri Lanka’s dissidents, ethnic and religious minorities, and others. Under Gotabaya’s leadership, the space for dissent has shrunk and self-censorship has grown, while surveillance, repression and intimidation have been on the rise. In a critical statement last month, Clement Voule, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, warned that lawful peaceful assemblies were reportedly “prevented from taking place, or … met with physical and verbal violence at the hands of individuals, without public intervention.”
But the Rajapaksas are not just unapologetic authoritarians; they are also enthusiastic Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists, enforcing a view of Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese-Buddhist nation, to the exclusion of minority populations. Since November, Gotabaya and his allies have further militarized civilian institutions and stoked Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism to consolidate political power. Fear of discrimination and repression has returned to the island nation, whose long civil war ended brutally in 2009.
In a few weeks, on Aug. 5, Sri Lankans will once again go to the ballot box to take part, finally, in parliamentary elections that have been delayed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic. In Sri Lanka, both the president and the prime minister wield executive power. If the Rajapaksa-backed coalition, the Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance, is able to secure a majority of seats in Parliament and keep the prime ministership, there will be no significant check on Gotabaya’s rule.
The Rajapaksas are likely to use that vast political power to dismantle Sri Lanka’s institutions, rework the constitution and perpetuate a hard-line, nationalist agenda. More than a decade after the end of its civil war, and five years after an election that had seemed to put it on a more firmly democratic path, Sri Lanka is haunted again by the specter of growing oppression. The war may be over, but the ethnic conflict and the pain that emanates from it have persisted. With the Rajapaksas back in charge—disparaging transitional justice efforts and encouraging political, ethnic and religious tensions—Sri Lanka won’t be able to build a durable peace.
A Rajapaksa Resurgence
Some Western observers attributed Gotabaya’s electoral victory to last year’s Easter Sunday bombings, the horrific suicide attacks that targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels across the country, killing 269 people. The attacks, which prompted criticism of the previous government’s intelligence collection, security provision and political infighting, certainly helped the Rajapaksas in their election campaign. Gotabaya announced his candidacy just days after the attacks, promising to return stability to the country. Nevertheless, the degree to which the bombings changed Sri Lankan politics has been largely overstated.
The bombings didn’t save the Rajapaksas from political defeat; rather, the family had been steadily gaining ground for years. After overseeing the devastating end of the country’s civil war and then steering Sri Lanka toward authoritarianism, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency in 2015 to Maithripala Sirisena, a former health minister in Mahinda’s Cabinet and longtime member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Mahinda lost in large part because of corruption allegations and the growing sense that he was taking the country along a dangerously authoritarian path. But the Rajapaksas, especially Mahinda, continued to be influential players on the political scene. The Rajapaksa-backed Sri Lanka People’s Front dominated local government elections in February 2018. Then, in October 2018, with the Rajapaksas poised to return to power in the next round of national elections, Sirisena illegally appointed Mahinda as prime minister in an effort to preserve his own future and regain political salience. But the move set off a constitutional crisis that lasted for more than seven weeks. While Mahinda eventually “resigned” from the post, the debacle underscored both Sirisena’s feckless leadership and Mahinda’s continued relevance.
In the leadup to last November’s presidential election, Sri Lankan voters had become extremely frustrated with Sirisena’s leadership. Under Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the coalition government—led by Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Wickremesinghe’s United National Party—was plagued by infighting, incompetence and missed opportunities. It promulgated an ambitious, wide-ranging reform agenda—including improved governance, constitutional reform, transitional justice and economic adjustments—but failed to deliver on almost all of it.
Gotabaya, in response, capitalized on his credentials as a military man known for getting things done, pointing to his role in defeating the separatist Tamil Tigers and ending Sri Lanka’s civil war. He had served as secretary to the Ministry of Defense from 2005 to 2015, in his brother’s government, through the end of the civil war, and today both Gotabaya and Mahinda are still greatly admired by many Sinhalese-Buddhists as courageous leaders and war heroes. Gotabaya almost certainly would have won without the Easter bombings, and a victory by his opponent, Sajith Premadasa, the ruling coalition’s candidate, would have constituted a big upset.
Since returning to office, Gotabaya has ruled ruthlessly, causing consternation among human rights activists, minority groups and others. Still, after years of rudderless coalition government, the Sri Lankan electorate yearned for decisive leadership, and Gotabaya and his family remain quite popular among Sinhalese voters.
The Ethnic Conflict
At the heart of Sri Lanka’s civil war was a longstanding ethnic conflict over state power, a conflict that still hasn’t been resolved today. Ethnic Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhist, constitute the overwhelming majority—about 75 percent—of the country’s population. Tamils and Muslims are the largest minority groups. Since Sri Lanka became an independent country in 1948, Sinhalese have always dominated the state’s institutions, including the police and the military. In contrast, Tamils, who make up just 11 percent of the country’s population, have faced widespread discrimination. They have had their land forcibly appropriated by the state and their language denigrated. They have been deprived of educational and employment opportunities through discriminatory policies. In 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983, mobs of Sinhalese targeted Tamils in violent pogroms. Black July, as the series of riots and pogroms against Tamils that occurred in July 1983 is known, led to thousands of deaths and mass displacement, and is widely considered to be the start of the civil war.
The rise of Tamil militancy throughout the 1970s culminated in the emergence of the Tamil Tigers, which fought an insurgency against the government from the early-1980s until 2009, seeking to create a separate Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The Tigers were well-resourced, disciplined and ruthless. They pioneered suicide bombing, conscripted child soldiers and committed other serious human rights violations.
Over the course of the conflict, both sides committed serious wartime abuses. But during the final campaign overseen by Mahinda and Gotabaya, Sri Lankan government forces are credibly accused of a range of abuses, including the deliberate shelling of hospitals, enforced disappearances, targeting civilians intentionally and mass rape. By the time the civil war ended, massive numbers of Tamil civilians had been killed, as well as almost all the Tigers’ leadership, who are widely and credibly thought to have been killed extrajudicially, both throughout the war and during its bloody finish.
Sri Lankan soldiers remove debris after anti-Muslim riots in Digana, Sri Lanka, March 6, 2018 (AP photo by Pradeep Pathiran).
In the years that followed the end of the fighting, rather than seeking to reconcile a fractured country, Mahinda Rajapaksa prioritized economic growth and governed increasingly as an autocrat. The impunity that characterized the end of the war carried over into the postwar period, and Sri Lanka became one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Self-censorship became more common, as the state cracked down on civil society and imposed new limits on free speech. Activists and others at odds with the state were targeted by notorious gangs of kidnappers, many of them snatched off the street into white vans. Corruption and nepotism were huge issues, with Mahinda, his brothers Gotabaya and Basil, his sons, and high-ranking government officials accused of stealing a total of $18 billion from the country’s coffers, among other concerns.
To defeat Mahinda at the polls, his opponents formed a broad and diverse coalition to back Sirisena, and snatched a surprising victory from the rising authoritarian. Sirisena’s campaign focused largely on curbing corruption and improving governance. Although the government subsequently committed to a broad transitional justice agenda later that year, there was never any electoral mandate for that program.
Throughout Sirisena’s presidency, ethnic tensions remained a significant issue. Muslims were targeted by the state and others, including in massive riots in 2018, when Sinhalese-Buddhist mobs burned and vandalized mosques and homes and attacked scores of Muslims, killing at least two. In the wake of the Easter bombings, too, police and the military reportedly stood by as mosques and Muslim-owned shops and homes were torched and vandalized. There is a widespread perception that Sri Lanka’s state security personnel allowed the violence to happen—and, yet again, perpetrators have not been held accountable.
The lines between state-led violence and community-driven attacks are often blurred in these kinds of communal riots in Sri Lanka. State actors have actively participated in pogroms going back decades, and in some instances, state security personnel have reportedly acted as orchestrators or organizers. On numerous other occasions, state security personnel looked the other way and allowed community-driven violence to occur or continue. In all these cases, minority communities are sent a clear message: The law is not applied equally in Sri Lanka, and the state is unwilling, or unable, to protect them.
When the surges of violence die down, Tamils and Muslims are left to contend with other types of discrimination. In the wake of the Easter attacks, non-Muslim Sri Lankans boycotted Muslims places of business, and more recently they have circulated false rumors blaming Muslims for spreading the coronavirus. The state, for its part, has targeted Muslims unjustly under the pretext of an investigation into the Easter bombings. Further, the government’s decision to enforce “mandatory cremation” for coronavirus victims, despite the fact that cremation is forbidden in Islam, has reinforced the widespread sense that an anti-Muslim campaign—one that enjoys the backing of the state—is underway.
Meanwhile, the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the historically Tamil regions where most of the fighting occurred during the war, remain heavily militarized. The military, which is almost entirely Sinhalese, regularly intervenes in civilian life there, at times even determining where Tamils can live. It also plays a large role in the agricultural and tourism sectors, depriving civilians of sorely needed economic opportunities. To be sure, the militarization of civic space is an issue throughout the country, as postwar demilitarization has yet to occur. But it’s noticeably worse in these provinces, fueling resentment among the civilian population and making Tamils feel like they are essentially living under military occupation.
Gotabaya’s new government, meanwhile, has made it clear that it truly does not care about symbolic gestures of unity, preferring instead to send the message that Sri Lanka is a land for Sinhalese Buddhists. On Feb. 4, Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, the government decided against including a Tamil version of the national anthem in its celebrations, a practice introduced by the previous government as a show of good faith to the Tamil minority. At the same time, Gotabaya has extended policies that seek to establish Sri Lanka’s identity as an exclusively Sinhalese-Buddhist state. A continued process of “Sinhalization” in historically Tamil areas is supplanting local heritage with Sinhalese culture, through government programs to change the names of villages, build Buddhist shrines at Hindu religious sites, and offer land grants to Sinhalese migrants. Sinhalization is also taking place in the Eastern Province, which includes significant Tamil, Muslim and, more recently, Sinhalese populations. The military’s prominent and sustained presence in these locations further strengthens this process of cultural transformation.
Discarding Transitional Justice
In 2015, Sirisena’s government co-sponsored a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka that stressed the need for a comprehensive transitional justice agenda, including a truth commission, an accountability mechanism and offices to handle both disappearances and reparations. The move inspired hope that the country’s new leaders would pursue the postwar reconciliation processes Mahinda had neglected.
Yet in the years that followed, the government sought and was granted two extensions on its 2015 commitments, in the form of other co-sponsored resolutions. Gotabaya has gone even further: In February, his government announced that Sri Lanka would be withdrawing from the resolution entirely.
The reality is that Sri Lanka’s ambitious transitional justice process had been in trouble for years. It’s far from clear that the previous government, outside of a small collection of well-meaning individuals, ever intended to comply with those U.N. resolutions. The previous government did succeed in establishing an Office on Missing Persons and an Office for Reparations, although these bodies have yet to produce major results. The Office on Missing Persons, for example, still has not traced a single missing person. Besides, the body is not empowered to legally hold perpetrators to account.
The current administration has stated that it will pursue reconciliation on its own terms, yet such an assertion lacks credibility. Under Gotabaya, there’s been no real talk of establishing a legitimate truth commission or, most controversially, an accountability mechanism. On the contrary, military officers who are alleged war criminals, such as Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, continue to be promoted; Silva is currently leading the government’s coronavirus response efforts. Relatedly, Sri Lanka has shown no signs that it has any interest in reforming its security sector, something that’s urgently needed. After all, Sri Lankan security personnel are responsible for ongoing acts of torture and sexual violence; absent real reform, these extremely distressing trends will undoubtedly continue in the coming years.
The truth is that the Sri Lankan government has never adequately explained the processes of the U.N. Human Rights Council to the Sinhalese majority—nor has it explained the urgent need for transitional justice and building a durable peace. The loudest voices making this case have come from civil society efforts, including the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, a group of civil society leaders that carried out wide-ranging public consultations pertaining to transitional justice mechanisms. Despite the fact that the task force was appointed by Wickremesinghe, its findings were largely ignored by the coalition government.
To this day, many Sinhalese lack an understanding of the importance of transitional justice and the need to finally resolve the ethnic conflict. Why, they ask, should the majority community move to address Tamil grievances when the Tigers lost the war? These Sri Lankans view Sinhalese soldiers not as possible human rights violators to be investigated, but as war heroes who, having defeated an insidious terrorist insurgency, should be venerated. According to this view, holding Sri Lankan military personnel accountable would not just tarnish the reputation of the military, it would tarnish the reputation of the entire country, and any attempts to do so, or to address wartime abuses of power more generally, are looked at askance.
Tamil women hold portraits of missing relatives to advocate for a post-war reconciliation process, in Colombo, April 6, 2015 (AP photo by Eranga Jayawardena).
“It has been fed into the psyche of the Sinhalese that the Tamil Tigers were terrorists—whatever it shall mean—and they were trying to divide a Sinhala-Buddhist country, to the prejudice of the Sinhalese,” said C.V. Wigneswaran, the secretary general of the recently created Tamil People’s National Alliance who is running for a seat in parliament, in an email interview. “The irony of all this is if the Sinhalese feel so strongly about the innocence of their soldiers, they should allow impartial investigation into the conduct of the Sri Lankan soldiers during the war, so that they could clear their names,” Wigneswaran adds. Nevertheless, Gotabaya, too, has promised to protect the nation’s “war heroes.”
Yet as long as the country fails to follow through with a credible and comprehensive transitional justice program, a return to another period of open ethnic violence at some point in the future cannot be ruled out. Despite those risks, the prevalence of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism makes it politically fraught for any party or leader to be seen making concessions to minority communities. These dynamics mean that talking about issues like Tamil and Muslim rights, or a more inclusive Sri Lanka, would require extraordinary political courage. Worse still, political calculations aside, there is little evidence to suggest that Sinhalese political elites would even like to implement these bold changes.
Parliamentary Elections Amid COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic is only making all of this worse. Gotabaya dissolved Parliament on March 2, six months ahead of schedule, to pave the way for an early election that was initially slated for April 25. Less than three weeks later, the National Election Commission postponed the election due to concerns over COVID-19, first to June 20 before again being moved to August. Though it’s unlikely, there are concerns that the election will be postponed again after a recent spike in coronavirus cases raised alarms.
If elections proceed on Aug. 5, Sri Lanka will have gone more than five months without a functional Parliament. That is extremely worrisome and bodes ill for the country’s democracy. Sri Lanka’s constitution states that a new Parliament must be sworn in within three months of the old one being dissolved, meaning by June 2 in this case. Various civil society groups and opposition parties filed petitions protesting the postponements on constitutional grounds, but Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court dismissed all the cases.
Some political observers have suggested that Gotabaya should reconvene the Parliament he disbanded in March, an option he has rejected largely because he doesn’t want parliamentary oversight over the executive. He can wield more power as long as the current Parliament remains dissolved. The fact that Gotabaya has been able to rule without checks on his authority for so long sets a terrible precedent for the country’s messy and majoritarian democracy.
Gotabaya’s government has used this power to launch a heavy-handed response to COVID-19, relying excessively on the military. Its leadership in the coronavirus response has led to unnecessary arrests, detentions and the further shrinking of civic space. A senior human rights activist, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concerns for their safety, told me that although Tamils residing in the north knew that daily life for civilians would worsen during a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, “the pandemic has fast-tracked this, unfortunately. Militarization is in your face now.”
In this political context, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s United National Party could have a pivotal role to play, were it not in disarray. After a bitter feud at the top, the party selected Premadasa over former Wickremesinghe as its presidential candidate in last year’s election, and the rivalry between the two men has persisted since his defeat. As a result, Premadasa is now leading the United People's Front, a new political alliance that includes a breakaway group from the United National Party and is competing for its own seats in parliament.
A weak and rudderless United National Party amid a divided opposition is bad news for proponents of democracy, making it easier for the Rajapaksas to win more control of Parliament. To have any chance of serving as a significant check on the rule of the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka’s unwieldly political opposition would need to remain united. Yet the space to create such a movement seems far narrower now. To be clear, even if the United National Party or others opposed to the Rajapaksas’ rule regained power, the longstanding issues pertaining to the ethnic conflict would almost certainly continue to be ignored. That said, continued Rajapaksa rule will make the situation even worse.
The Road Ahead
The early days of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency have done nothing to allay widespread worries, in Sri Lanka and internationally, about how he would govern. He has clamped down on dissent, and his government has continued to disregard the root causes of the country’s unresolved ethnic conflict. Healing Sri Lanka’s war wounds will require an adequate transitional justice program, including a truth commission, an accountability mechanism, some form of power-sharing arrangement with minority ethnic groups and meaningful reparations. None of that seems viable right now. Even worse, the Rajapaksas are deepening the country’s already persistent ethnic and religious divides.
There’s a real possibility that the Rajapaksas and their allies will emerge from next month’s election with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. If that happens, they will be able to change the constitution at will, making it even easier for them to dismantle the country’s institutions, and to do so with a veneer of legitimacy. Even if they do not pass that two-thirds threshold, it’s widely believed that the Rajapaksas will still have a comfortable majority to tighten their grip on power.
As flawed as its governance has been, Sri Lanka has always been a democracy, albeit on majoritarian terms. Mahinda Rajapaksa took the country to the edge of full-on authoritarianism as president. His brother Gotabaya, who also proudly espouses Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism, could go even further. The future of Sri Lankan democracy is now very much at stake.
*Taylor Dibbert is an adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rajapaksa won the election in November, taking the seat once held by his brother. In February, at his first Independence Day celebration, he declared, once again, his respect for human rights: “The responsibilities of the civilian and military establishments need to be clearly understood, and we must always remember that citizens have individual as well as collective rights.” Dressed in civilian attire, Rajapaksa nonetheless donned badges awarded to him during his long military career. Perhaps it was a hint of what was to come.
In the last several months, Rajapaksa has embarked on rapidly militarizing the state administration. He has appointed a number of retired military officers to key positions in the civil administration, and his government has moved more than 30 agencies under the remit of the defense ministry.
Moves such as his lengthy dissolution of Parliament and his shock pardon of a sergeant recently sentenced to death for killing eight civilians, including children, during the country’s civil war suggest a disdain for the legal system and constitution. With each passing day, Sri Lanka appears to be edging closer toward military totalitarianism.
Rajapaksa’s authoritarian transition should not be surprising. A brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa—who served as president from 2005 to 2015 and has since been appointed as prime minister—Gotabaya Rajapaksa is best known for defeating the separatist Tamil Tigers and bringing an end to a three-decade-long civil war in 2009. An estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians died during the final months, and as many as 100,000 civilians from both sides were killed since the start of the war in 1983. Tens of thousands more forced disappearances took place during and after the civil war, and efforts to provide justice for the victims have stalled. Earlier this year, the government withdrew altogether from a co-sponsored United Nations Human Rights Council resolution to investigate and prosecute those responsible for civil war atrocities.
There is little chance that such justice will be forthcoming. Speaking at a remembrance ceremony for fallen soldiers in Colombo on May 19, Rajapaksa vowed to protect those who fought in the civil war and said that he would not hesitate to withdraw from international organizations that target them. Already, the president appears to be signaling that security forces and police can act with impunity. In March, Rajapaksa pardoned and released Sunil Ratnayake, a former Sri Lankan army staff sergeant convicted of the brutal murder of eight Tamil civilians, including three children—one of the very few soldiers to face trial.
Rajapaksa himself has faced, and denied, repeated accusations of war crimes and atrocities. In his eight months in office, he has appointed a series of military commanders who have been accused of serious alleged international crimes during the civil war—commanders who currently hold high-level government positions. Sri Lanka is “intentionally and deliberately promoting … impunity by appointing alleged war criminals to positions of power,” the International Truth and Justice Project said in a recent investigation.
Former senior military officials have been put in charge of the Ministry of Law and Order, the Ministry of Human Resources, the Ministry of Finance, and, now, with the COVID-19 crisis, the Ministry of Health. In addition to appointing ex-military officers into civil sector positions, the government has also started handing civil administrative functions to the military. Reporting by the Tamil Guardian shows that at least 37 agencies including the police, the telecommunications regulator, and the nongovernmental organization secretariat have been wholly placed under the Ministry of Defense. Separately, the president has set up at least seven new task forces, with vague and far-reaching mandates, staffed heavily by military officials.
Recent wrangling in Parliament, meanwhile, shows the extent to which Rajapaksa is willing to bend Sri Lanka’s constitution to his will. On March 2, Rajapaksa legally (but six months ahead of schedule) dissolved Parliament, setting the election date to April 25. Since then, in response to the coronavirus crisis, he has repeatedly pushed the date back, with elections now planned for Aug. 5. The constitution mandates that Parliament meet again within three months of its dissolution, but Rajapaksa has denied requests by opposition parties urging to reconvene. The Supreme Court has also refused petitions to order Parliament be reconvened and has ignored challenges on the delayed poll date, although it has yet to explain its reasoning.
Yet reconvening Parliament is now even more urgent thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. The only legal way for the government to formalize budgets for fighting the virus is to go through the legislature. Finances are now being appropriated and disbursed by the President’s Fund, which is allocating nearly $2 billion in pledged foreign assistance to combat the coronavirus—though without parliamentary oversight there is little transparency to the process.
While Rajapaksa’s machinations over the past months may have drawn withering criticism from watchdogs and rights activists, it is unclear how this has affected his popularity among the wider public. Rajapaksa is hoping the Aug. 5 vote will seal his grip on power after he won last year’s election on a seemingly popular national security agenda. If his Sri Lanka People’s Front party can obtain a two-thirds majority, he has promised that one of his first efforts will be to repeal the 19th Amendment, which limits executive power.
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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