This article is reproduced as a tribute to the memory of legendary filmmaker Dharmasena Pathiraja who passed away on Sunday 28, January 2018 at the age of 74.
In Sri Lanka, the '70s represented the rising tide of the revolutionary idealism and the sadistic brutality embodied by the State. The social and cultural fabric - fragmented by ethnic and class disparities - provided the breeding grounds for political discontent and radical activism. The disillusioned youth in the south stormed the bastions of power sending giant ripples across the subcontinent while the young men and women in the north drifted away from the 'mainstream' to confront the deep-seated racial injustices head-on.
In 'The Wretched of the Earth', Fanon wrote 'The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations'. The post-colonial Sri Lanka continued to be a society cut in two, where the frontiers were redefined and galvanized along new lines of oppression. The '70s pushed these hidden borderlines onto the surface.
Dharmasena Pathiraja's arrival epitomized this radical rupture with the past. He pioneered a powerful new genre in film making by capturing and creatively exposing the underlying political currents of the changing social landscapes. As one observer vividly puts it, Pathiraja's arrival re-defined 'a socially conscious 'Other' to Lester James Peries' gaze on bourgeois idealism'. His unconventional approach made him stand out from the rest, laying the foundations for a new school of filmmakers.
Dr Pathiraja, in an exclusive interview with the JDS, spoke to Manjula Wediwardane about his work, politics and contemporary cinema.
JDS: Recently, a young Sri Lankan filmmaker, said that “producing a war film is the dream of every film director.” Let me start the conversation by asking your comments on such views. Also, what do you think about the so-called 'Sri Lankan War Cinema' in general?
Dr Dharmasena Pathiraja: As I do not know in what context the other filmmaker made this comment, I cannot comment on its validity. Yet I can say this. War is a horrible thing and war is not there for filmmakers to make films. War happens when negotiation between people and authorities break down, or when social cohesion is shattered. One could make films about that, to capture the problems in modern politics. If you look at the war film genre in general, these films glorify violence. They are generally xenophobic or ultra-nationalist. They glorify militarization and male domination. That is the ideology of war films. If one is to make a film about war, it has to be about the people, people’s heroism, women as they contest male power and male domination within the masculinist ethos of war.
JDS: But instead of such serious attempts, we can only see two prominent tendencies. One is focused on reinventing a fictional past on the basis of "Mahavamsa" while the other trend trying to reinterpret the 'ethnic problem' in the context of 'war victory'. How do you reflect upon such trends?
Pathiraja: There is a culture of political quietism prevailing in the country today, particularly in the cultural sphere. Filmmaking is a mass medium and this political quietist trend is most evident in contemporary filmmaking. Looking to history, particularly as a glorification of the past as a Sinhala Nationalist/Buddhist one, which the political power of the regime is based on, is ideologically and politically very dangerous. This trend of making historical films may not last because the films that belong to this genre have not made any real impact on the cultural makeup of the people. Yet, filmmakers see this genre as a safe bet. The narrowness of this vision is detrimental to filmmaking. Filmmaking is an act of courage on many fronts: Politically, socially and financially. I hope we are able to produce courageous filmmakers who are willing to look at contemporary history and the past in the eye and deal with it honestly.
JDS: What do you think about the close collaboration between the state and the filmmakers?
Pathiraja: If you are talking about state support for films, I am not against it. Filmmakers need to demand support from state funds for filmmaking. This would free us from the vice-like grip of the market. But this support has to be completely free of political interference by the state in any form. This would make for a healthy climate of filmmaking and filmmaking culture would thrive then. If a filmmaker embarks on making films as a part of state propaganda machinery, then we are doomed, and sadly, that is happening amongst us today.
JDS: Since you made your first Tamil film 'Ponmani' in the late '70s, the Tamil people have gone through unimaginable horrors and sufferings. The social fabric in Jaffna now lies in tatters. Looking back, how would you view 'Ponmani' now?
Pathiraja: Ponmani heralds the era of violence/political violence that takes over the society of Jaffna in the ‘70s. Ponmani is about women, family and caste and hints at the non-viability of the Jaffna middle-class economy in the time to come. Though at the time I did not realize this, looking back at it today I see how prescient it is. There was something waiting to happen, and that something would be violent. The violence would be from outside, but importantly, from inside too.
This is a good time for Tamil films and I hope there is support for it. There is a developing space for films in Tamil, but how that space would be utilized is a question. There should be more cultural and political dialogue between all the different communities in Sri Lanka, in this post-war era, and that dialogue would create a space for collaboration as well.
JDS: But still the Tamil society is battling to come to terms with their harrowing experiences and they have hardly recovered from the shock. Whatever may be the intentions, don't you think it is too early - perhaps even wrong in a moral sense - to intervene and interpret their lives in our terms?
Pathiraja: I don’t think anything is too early for anything. But what we need is in-depth understanding and collaboration. I don’t think we should get stuck in binaries of Sinhala/Tamil and or Sinhala/Muslim/Tamil. Yet I can see what you are driving at. It is not the Sinhala perspective that is at fault here. It is the lack of understanding of where the Sinhala perspective fits into the overall scheme of things.
For instance, where does the Director as a Sinhala person figure in the film itself, within its coding? This is an important aspect.
To put it more simply, it is important to have an in-depth understanding of the society one is working with, the material. When I did Ponmani, Rajadurai’s story grabbed my attention. It was a very simple story, but I saw the depth of it. One has to feel strongly for the people, what is happening to the people, overall, have a strong social commitment, to be honest with oneself. This means one develops an intimacy not only with the people but also with the issues, the material. A combination of this intimacy with the people as well as the politics of the people would make you see that there is an organic link between the people, the issues, and the place. This takes time and time is important.
JDS: Your last film “In Search of a Road” drew considerable attention from many viewers as a serious attempt to explore the geographical and emotional terrains of war-affected regions in the island. What was the reaction of the Sinhala viewers?
Pathiraja: 'In Search of a Road' is not about Tamils per se. It is about the political life of Sri Lankans as ethnic politics and the Sri Lankan state as it impinged on the lives of the people. We were a three-member team of researchers and all of us brought our memories into the research and the script. Our research was driven by memory or personal engagement with events in the past and in contemporary times. This was our strength. When we did research, there was a personal investment. I had large amounts of footage at the end. The film went through multiple versions. What was important was a vision that we carried through the film about the dialogue between all sections of the people. We had an extensive dialogue with different segments of the people, displaced and living in the middle of an intense war.
The most important thing in 'In Search of Road' is about the links between the north and south; both socially and politically. The political links overlap and counter the social and economic links. In trying to trace these links over a 100-year period of history, as ethnic consciousness intensifies and the marginalization of minorities intensifies, leading to violence and war, in the end, I wanted to look at how people coped and how this has impacted on the people. It is the antithesis of a war film. Recently at a screening in Zurich, one of the spectators said, what a quiet film it is. And it is that inner quietness that we need as opposed to the pomp and pageantry of the war films.
The film has been screened in post-war Sri Lanka and continues to make an impact. Interestingly, it evokes different emotions and thoughts among different communities, Northern and Eastern Tamils, and Muslims, upcountry Tamils and the Sinhala people in the south. And all those feelings are important to engage with.
JDS: You belong to the first generation of political filmmakers in the country, who pioneered a new approach in the early '80s widely known as the 'Left Bank Cinema', which was named after Rive Gauche in the French new wave. Do you see any possibilities of reviving such a tendency?
Pathiraja: It would be good to revive a left bank cinema in Sri Lanka. There are so many budding filmmakers who are experimenting with form and content today. And they show a certain kind of sophistication in technique and in the visual medium. But for the most part, I feel there is a lack of a strong commitment to social change in those films. I wonder whether this has to do with our dependence today on film festivals. But this question has to be explored further. So, I too am in search of an answer as to how we can form a film movement that is not prescriptive, that nurtures innovation and experimentation both in form and content, and yet remain politically committed to questioning the status quo, the establishment.
JDS: In most of your films, the 'silence' is used as a form of expression. What do you intend to express through your silence at this time?
Pathiraja: I am biding my time. I have a few good scripts, but in this time of the domination of market forces, compounded by the fact that the space for filmmaking has shrunk and has become increasingly conservative, I must say, that when I do make my next film, it would be an outburst.
Source : JDS Sri Lanka
By Vinay Kaura
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charismatic personality and determined push for India’s economic development have made him immensely popular at home. Modi’s foreign policy initiatives are driven as much by his government’s domestic political strength as by India’s rising concern over rapid expansion of China’s economic clout and military might in Asia.
India’s rise is taking place in the shadow of China’s even more dramatic rise. China’s assertive, and often aggressive, behavior has been viewed as a huge challenge for India because it opens up the likelihood of China dominating India’s immediate neighborhood. By focusing a great deal of energy in the neighborhood, the Modi government is demonstrating that India has the capability to promote regional peace and economic integration. Rather than merely complaining about external intervention in South Asia, New Delhi is developing a regional strategy based on India’s natural geographical advantages, economic complementarities, shared cultural heritage, and preeminent strategic position. Modi is perfectly aware that New Delhi’s ability to deal with Washington and Beijing can be significantly enhanced if India achieves greater strategic confidence in South Asian geopolitics.
The “neighborhood first” policy is the striking feature of Modi government’s diplomatic approach. In his government’s strategic imagination, India’s relations with neighboring countries must receive topmost priority. If India does not resolve its differences with its small neighbors, it will only pave the way for China to exert growing influence in the region.
Modi often projects himself as an innovative and decisive leader who could make things happen. True to his style, he began his term as prime minister with a diplomatic first by inviting the leaders from the South Asian subcontinent to attend his inauguration in May 2014. After his first two years in office, Modi had already traveled to almost all of India’s neighbors in an attempt to establish India as a dominant regional power. His successful visits to South Asian capitals indicated that finally India had a leader for whom “neighborhood first” was not mere political rhetoric but a strategic necessity.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena interact during a meeting at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on March 13, 2015. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Sri Lanka's new leaders to grant greater autonomy to minority Tamils who suffered the most during decades of ethnic war. AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S.KODIKARA
Sri Lanka has long been in India’s geopolitical orbit, but its relationship with China has strengthened in recent years. As Western countries accused former President Mahinda Rajapaksa of gross human rights violations during the final stages of the civil war with LTTE, China extended billions of dollars of loans to the Sri Lankan government for new infrastructure projects, though these loans turned out to be economically unviable for the island nation.
In February 2015, Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena undertook his first official visit to India, and Modi paid a return visit to Colombo in March 2015. He was the first Indian prime minister to do a stand-alone visit to Sri Lanka in 28 years. While there, Modi not only addressed the Sri Lankan parliament but also made a trip to the northern province of Jaffna. Modi visited Sri Lanka again in May 2017, when he inaugurated a specialty hospital built with Indian assistance and visited the Indian-origin Tamil community there.
Just ahead of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in May 2017, Colombo refused to allow a Chinese submarine to dock. Under the previous dispensation, Sri Lanka had allowed a Chinese submarine to dock at the Colombo port, drawing protests from India. But Sri Lanka also sent its Prime Minister Ranil Wickremeshinghe to the Belt and Road summit, and was offered an estimated $24 billion in additional loans.
In early December, Sri Lanka handed over the strategic port of Hambantota, which is expected to play a key role in China’s BRI, to China on a 99-year lease. The opposition parties and trade unions in Sri Lanka have already dubbed the port deal as a sellout of their country’s national assets to China. It must be noted that Sri Lanka is struggling to pay back its existing $8 billion debt to China. Many critics feel that the lease could set a precedent for other small South Asian countries that owe money to China to accept deals that involve surrendering a part of their territory. In order to allay Indian concerns that the Hambantota port will not be used for military purposes, the Sri Lankan government has sought to limit China’s role to running commercial operations at the port while it retains oversight of security operations.
Beset by China’s offensive in its strategic backyard, the Modi government is determined to improve its ties with Colombo. Modi’s second visit to Sri Lanka in May this year was primarily aimed at reinforcing traditional ties at a time when China has been aggressively seeking to make inroads in the Indian Ocean region. Similarly, Wickremesinghe visited India in September 2015, his first overseas visit after being appointed as Sri Lankan prime minister. He has been a frequent visitor since. India is also likely to invest in Mattala airport in Hambantota district. It is hoped that India’s presence at the airport, which is just 30 kilometers away from the Chinese-operated port of Hambantota, will help New Delhi to monitor Beijing’s growing presence in Sri Lanka.
Maldives is one South Asian country that Modi has not visited since taking office. Although it was on the itinerary for his March 2015 Indian Ocean tour, the visit had to be canceled due to domestic political turbulence in Maldives. However, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen visited India in April 2016 and the two countries signed agreements in the fields of defense, taxation, tourism, conservation of mosques, and space research.
India’s ties with Maldives have been impacted by China’s growing footprint on the island. China opened an embassy in Male, the Maldivian capital, only in 2011. Many countries have non-resident embassies either in New Delhi or Colombo; the Chinese embassy in Colombo took care of Maldivian affairs until 2011.
In early December, Maldives rushed a much-criticized Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China through the Maldivian parliament at midnight, without any opposition members present. This is Maldives’s first FTA with any country, and also China’s second with any country in South Asia, after Pakistan. The manner in which China managed to secure this FTA is nothing short of a diplomatic coup by Beijing. On the sidelines of the FTA agreement, Yameen pledged full backing for China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR), which is part of the BRI. Given its security impact in India’s strategic backyard, China’s foray into Maldives has already aroused concerns in New Delhi.
Following the unexpected FTA deal between Maldives and China, India’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it is India’s “expectation that as a close and friendly neighbour, Maldives will be sensitive to our concerns, in keeping with its ‘India First’ policy.” Rather than allaying India’s concerns, the Maldivian government took the drastic step of suspending three local councillors for meeting with the Indian ambassador without seeking prior permission. In the past, Maldives would not have dared snub India in such a manner.
Modi’s initial outreach to Nepal in 2014 managed to strike the right chord, and captured the imagination of people and policymakers in Nepal. After the devastating earthquake caused great havoc in Nepal in 2015, India carried out extensive rescue operations and extended much-needed financial assistance for post-earthquake reconstruction projects.
However, things began to take an ugly turn when Nepal announced a new constitution, which, according to critics, disadvantaged ethnic groups such as the Madhesi people in the country’s Terai region. Consequently, Madhesi protesters’ blockade stopped all essential supplies from India from reaching Nepal and created a humanitarian crisis. Kathmandu blamed New Delhi for being complicit in an unofficial economic blockade and began to play the “China card” to balance India’s immense power over Nepal. In May 2016, the Nepali government went to the extent of cancelling the visit of the country’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to India and recalling its ambassador in New Delhi. This radical step was symbolic of the frosty relationship between the two countries.
The recent victory of the left coalition in Nepal’s parliamentary elections is expected to pose several challenges for the Modi government. Due to inconsistent policies and conflicting priorities from New Delhi as well as the emergence of a new crop of politicians and opinion makers in Nepal, India’s leverage in Nepal’s internal politics has shrunk to its lowest level. China is more than willing to fill this vacuum. Kathmandu has already signed on to the BRI plan, which is likely to cement China’s communication links with Nepal. It may be reasonable to argue that Nepal would prefer China’s model of economic engagement without political dictation to Modi’s “neighborhood first” policy.
On the way back from Afghanistan in December 2015, Modi paid a surprise visit to Pakistan, where he held a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in Lahore.
Leaders of India, Pakistan, China, and Russia meet pose for a photograph during the 2015 SCO summit in Ufa.(PTI file photo)
The move sparked a great deal of enthusiasm in public opinion, but later proved to have little real impact on improving ties between the two nuclear neighbors. Since the Pathankot terror attack and the invitation for Pakistan’s intelligence officials to join an investigation into the attack, the bilateral relationship has hit a dead end. The talks between India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart, Naseer Khan Janjua, have stopped. Frequent violations of the ceasefire along the Line of Control have also contributed to the failure of talks. In fact, relations are perhaps the worst they have been since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
The Modi government’s policy of diplomatically isolating Pakistan does not seem to be succeeding as Islamabad has stepped up its diplomatic efforts to engage Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran. Escalation of hostilities also inadvertently helps in reinforcing Pakistan’s narrative that India-Pakistan relations are facing a deadlock, which can only be removed if big powers intervene. New Delhi has always resisted international intervention in the bilateral dispute.
Moreover, Modi, during a recent election campaign, cast aspersions on a private dinner hosted for a visiting former foreign minister from Pakistan by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar and attended by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh along with retired Indian diplomats. In this climate, the risks of losing valuable intellectual and constructive inputs into the making of Modi government’s Pakistan policy are real. One cannot dispute the fact that India’s external affairs ministry is not the only source of wisdom on foreign policy, and such politically motivated allegations can destroy creativity in framing strategic thought vis-à-vis Indo-Pak relations.
Afghanistan is a real success story of Modi government’s neighborhood policy. Afghanistan underwent a change in its political leadership when Ashraf Ghani was elected president in September 2014. Ghani came to India for his first official visit in April 2015. Modi’s first Afghan visit came in December 2015, during which he inaugurated the Afghan Parliament building that was constructed with Indian assistance. In June 2016, Modi made another trip to Afghanistan and inaugurated Salma Dam in Herat, proclaiming that “Your friendship is our honor; your dreams are our duty.” India’s assistance for reconstruction and development in Afghanistan stands at $2 billion, making New Delhi the biggest donor among regional countries.
Ghani has been extremely eager to reduce landlocked Afghanistan’s reliance on Pakistani territory for trade and to corrode Pakistan’s undesirable influence over Afghan affairs by improving ties to India. New Delhi and Kabul have decided to improve transport connectivity through Iran’s strategically located Chabahar port, which is likely to ramp up trade between India, Afghanistan, and Iran in the wake of Islamabad denying New Delhi transit access for trade between the two countries. Ghani has even gone to the extent of threatening Islamabad that Afghanistan would block Pakistan’s access to Central Asia if Afghanistan is not permitted to trade with India via Wagah-Attari.
By reaching through Afghanistan into Central Asia’s road and railway network, India has the potential to shape events as a counterweight to Pakistani and Chinese influence. The first phase of Chabahar port has been recently inaugurated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This important milestone in India’s foreign policy came after the first consignment of wheat from India was sent to Afghanistan through Chabahar in October.
In view of Pakistan denying access through its territory, India and Afghanistan have also launched an air freight corridor in June this year. The decision to establish an air cargo route was taken in December 2016 when Modi met Ghani ahead of the Heart of Asia Conference held in Amritsar. Besides giving a boost to bilateral trade, the air corridor is also expected to help Afghan students seeking to pursue studies and patients seeking treatment in India. Growing convergence between India and the United States on resolving the Afghan conflict, as reflected in the Trump administration’s recently announced South Asia policy, is another shot in the Modi government’s diplomatic arm.
The real benefit for India of “neighborhood first” approach is that Bangladesh has provided great strategic opportunity to change South Asia’s geopolitical situation. In July 2014, New Delhi and Dhaka accepted the judgment of International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and settled a long-standing maritime order dispute. In June 2015, when Modi visited Bangladesh, the two countries exchanged the instruments of ratification on the historic land boundary agreement. In April this year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India, during which India announced a new credit line of $4.5 billion with an additional $500 million for Bangladesh’s defense hardware purchase.
Bangladesh continues to be bright spot for India’s neighborhood, policy despite attempts by pro-Pakistan radical groups and ISI-sponsored elements to derail the flourishing bilateral relationship. Bangladesh is now at the forefront of India’s counterterror strategy. Bangladesh has emerged as a key gateway for India’s sub-regional initiatives, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) initiative. Showcasing ties with Bangladesh as a testimony to India’s official policy of “neighborhood first,” India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has rightly said that “If there is one example where the neighborhood first policy has yielded good result, it is in case of Bangladesh.”
Despite growing bonhomie, the long-standing deal on the sharing of waters of the Teesta River is yet to be signed between the two countries. While New Delhi and Dhaka have been on the same page, the proposed deal has become hostage to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s reservations. As general elections are due in Bangladesh in December 2018, the Hasina government would try to push the Teesta deal to deny the opposition parties a chance to play the anti-India card. In order to brighten the electoral prospects of the India-friendly Hasina regime, the Modi government must expedite the deal making process on Teesta.
Countering China’s Push
China has embarked on a series of infrastructure development projects, most as part of its BRI, which many strategic experts fear can leave India isolated regionally and encircled by Chinese allies. India has serious apprehensions over growing ties between China and Pakistan, which are seen as compromising India’s national security. There is widespread concern in India’s policymaking circles of Beijing’s expanding presence in Pakistan and Nepal and now in Maldives. China’s relentless attempts to establish formal engagement with Bhutan has also highlighted Beijing’s aggressive posturing.
There are many reasons behind China’s ability to move much faster than India, including an authoritarian one-party governing structure that gives President Xi Jinping decision-making power far beyond what Modi is able to command. Besides the fact that Indian economy is only a fifth of China’s in size, India suffers key institutional constraints, including a notoriously slow and cumbersome bureaucracy. Hence, it is no surprise that India has been struggling to compete with China across different regions, where many nations are now economically dependent on China.
Despite this, Modi’s achievements in South Asia have been significant, if not exceptional. Some of his initiatives have admittedly fallen short, but they do not taint his larger record. The “neighborhood first” policy has seen some intense engagements with neighbors that are a high point of Indian foreign policy in recent decades. Yet these relationships need constant nurturing amid China’s relentless expansionism. As China has deeply entrenched its economic and strategic footprints in South Asia, the Modi government has a long road ahead of it to try to bolster India’s regional leadership.
Vinay Kaura, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. He is also the Coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Jaipur.
Japan Claims a Stake in Sri Lanka’s Ports
By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s visit to Sri Lanka earlier this month was the first by a Japanese foreign minister in 15 years. Governmental confirmation of Sri Lanka’s first liquefied natural gas (LNG) project came during Kono’s visit, when the prime minister’s office revealed that an MoU was to be signed with Japan to build a Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU). The FSRU and LNG terminal project will be a joint venture by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority with both Japan and India. The LNG terminal is to be located within Colombo port – one of the busiest ports in South Asia and an important trans-shipment hub in the region.
Japan’s public broadcaster NHK described Kono’s visit as being “part of Japanese government’s plan to promote cooperation for port expansion projects.” The low-profile visit concluded with a tour of Colombo port, and Japanese media did not hesitate to place it in the context of Japan’s concerns over China’s growing maritime footprint in the region. Before the port visit, according to NHK World, Kono told reporters who accompanied his delegation that “China is increasing involvement in port development in Sri Lanka,” and that “projects to build ports and other infrastructure should be open to any country.” The remark flagged Japan’s concerns over China’s major role in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development, especially the Chinese-built, Chinese-run Hambantota port in the south.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kano with the Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Affairs Tilak Marapana. (Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Japan’s concept is “to develop free and open maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region as an international public good,” Toshihide Ando, deputy press secretary of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a briefing with a selected group of local journalists in Colombo. Asked about the status of talks with regard to the eastern port of Trincomalee, the development of which Japan has indicated interest in, he declined to comment.
The increasingly anxious interest shown by Japan and India in investing in Colombo and Trincomalee ports would seem to be related to concerns arising from Sri Lanka’s recent finalization of the lease of Hambantota port to a Chinese company that holds a majority stake. The apparent loss of sovereign control over the port, strategically located near major East-West sea lanes, has led to fears that it may become a Chinese military base, in spite of Sri Lanka’s assurances to the contrary. “We want to ensure that we develop all our ports, and all these ports are used for commercial activity, transparent activity, and will not be available to anyone for any military activity,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was reported as saying in Tokyo last April.
With China being seen as a common enemy, Japan’s strategic interests have begun to converge with those of the United States and India, and a closer strategic partnership has evolved among the three. Japan now participates in the Malabar naval drills with the United States and India, and uses the same rhetoric, with terminology like “Indo-Pacific” to refer to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, blurring the boundaries.
Japan has always been generous with aid to Sri Lanka and is a major development partner. During Sri Lanka’s war years, Japan was one of the four co-chairs of the peace process; when the Western co-chairs threatened to cut off aid, Japan reassured Sri Lanka that it would not follow suit. Japanese envoys never fail to recall the speech made by Sri Lanka’s former president, J. R. Jayewardena, at the San Francisco peace conference in 1951, where Sri Lanka came to Japan’s defense. Then-Finance Minister Jayewardene quoted the words of the Buddha, saying “hatred ceases not by hatred but by love,” and asked that no reparations be exacted that would harm Japan’s economy. “The Japanese still remember that this speech supported Japan’s return to the international society after the WWII,” Kono said in a written interview with the state-run Daily News ahead of his visit.
Against this backdrop, Japan’s interest in investing in Sri Lankan ports would normally be seen as a welcome development. But with India a partner in the proposed joint venture, and given the evolving strategic landscape, it would now appear to be embedded in a larger trilateral project of countering Chinese influence. This could mean there is a hidden cost — in that Sri Lanka risks being unnecessarily drawn into a big power conflict if there is an escalation in tensions between China and the United States and/or India.
In tracking Japan’s role in shaping the regional security architecture, analyst Brian Kalan’s observation two years ago in Southfront would seem relevant. “The only question is how Japan will decide to utilize their naval power in the coming decades,” he said. “Will it be used in the pursuit of ensuring their independence and peaceful relations with their regional partners, or in the self-destructive pursuit of U.S. hegemony in the region?”
Lasanda Kurukulasuriya is a Colombo-based independent journalist, a correspondent for the New Internationalist and columnist for the Daily Mirror.
By Owen Bennett Jones
27 December 2017
Benazir Bhutto was the first woman to lead a Muslim country. The decade since an assassin killed her has revealed more about how Pakistan works than it has about who actually ordered her death.
Bhutto was murdered on 27 December 2007 by a 15-year-old suicide bomber called Bilal. She had just finished an election rally in Rawalpindi when he approached her convoy, shot at her and blew himself up. Bilal had been asked to carry out the attack by the Pakistani Taliban.
Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first democratically elected prime minister. His political career was also brought to a premature end when he was hanged by the military regime of General Zia-ul Haq. Benazir went on to become prime minister twice in the 1990s, but she was always distrusted by the military, which used corruption allegations to remove her from power.
At the time of her death, she was making a bid for a third term as prime minister. The assassination caused widespread civil unrest in Pakistan. Bhutto's supporters took to the streets, putting up roadblocks, lighting fires and chanting anti-Pakistan slogans.
The general and the 'threatening' phone call
A decade later, the general in charge of Pakistan at the time has suggested people in the establishment could have been involved in her murder.
Asked whether rogue elements within the establishment could have been in touch with the Taliban about the killing, General Pervez Musharraf replied: "Possibility. Yes indeed. Because the society is polarised on religious lines."
And, he said, those elements could have had a bearing on her death.
It's a startling statement from a former Pakistani head of state. Normally military leaders in Pakistan deny any suggestion of state complicity in violent jihadist attacks.
Asked whether he had any specific information about rogue elements in the state being involved in the assassination, he said: "I don't have any facts available. But my assessment is very accurate I think... A lady who is in known to be inclined towards the West is seen suspiciously by those elements."
Musharraf has himself been charged with murder, criminal conspiracy for murder and facilitation for murder in relation to the Bhutto case. Prosecutors say that he phoned Benazir Bhutto in Washington on 25 September, three weeks before she ended eight years in self-imposed exile.
Long-serving Bhutto aid Mark Seighal and journalist Ron Suskind both say they were with Bhutto when the call came in. According to Seighal, immediately after the call, Bhutto said: "He threatened me. He told me not to come back. He warned me not to come back.
Musharraf said he would not be responsible for what would happen to Bhutto if she returned, Seighal told the BBC. "And he said that her safety, her security was a function of her relationship with him."
Musharraf strongly denies making the call and dismisses the idea that he would have ordered her murder. "Honestly I laugh at it," he recently told the BBC. "Why would I kill her?"
The deadly plot
The legal proceedings against Musharraf have stalled because he is in self-imposed exile in Dubai. Benazir Bhutto's son and political heir, Bilawal, has rejected his denials out of hand.
"Musharraf exploited this entire situation to assassinate my mother," he said. "He purposely sabotaged her security so that she would be assassinated and taken off the scene."
While Musharraf's case is on hold, others have been acquitted of the crime. Within weeks of the assassination, five suspects had confessed to helping the 15-year-old Bilal assassinate Bhutto at the behest of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The first person to be arrested, Aitzaz Shah, had been told by the Pakistan Taliban that he would be the suicide bomber chosen to kill Bhutto. Much to his annoyance, he was kept in reserve in case the attempt failed.
Two others, Rasheed Ahmed and Sher Zaman, confessed they were mid-ranking organisers of the conspiracy and two Rawalpindi-based cousins, Hasnain Gul and Rafaqat Hussain, told the authorities that they provided accommodation to Bilal the night before the killing.
Even though these confessions were subsequently withdrawn, phone records showing the suspects' locations and communications in the hours before Bhutto's murder seem to corroborate them. Hasnain Gul also led the police to some physical evidence in his apartment.
DNA from Bilal's body parts gathered after his attack and tested in a US lab matched the DNA on some training shoes, cap and a shawl Bilal had left behind in Hasnain's residence when he put on his suicide vest.
Just a few months ago prosecutors were confident these alleged plotters would be convicted. But in September the case collapsed, with the judge declaring that procedural errors in the way the evidence was gathered and presented to the court meant he had to acquit them.
The five are still in detention pending an appeal.
Who was Benazir Bhutto?
A dominant figure in Pakistani politics, Ms Bhutto served twice as the country's prime minister, from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996.
Young and glamorous, she successfully portrayed herself as a refreshing contrast to the male-dominated political establishment.
But after her second fall from power, she became associated in the eyes of some with corruption and bad governance.
Ms Bhutto left Pakistan in 1999 but returned in October 2007 after then-President Musharraf granted her and others an amnesty from corruption charges.
She was set to take part in an election called by Mr Musharraf for January 2008.
But her homecoming procession in Karachi was bombed by suspected militants. She survived the attack, which killed well over 150 people, but would be assassinated two months later.
The husband who became president
In Pakistan, it is commonplace to hear people accuse Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari of having organised the assassination. The claim is normally based on the observation that since he became president after her death he was the one who benefited most.
The conspiracy theorists, however, have not produced a single shred of evidence to indicate that Asif Zardari was in any way involved in his wife's death. He has denied the allegation in the strongest possible terms. Those who make the allegation, he said, should "shut up".
Asif Zardari faces another accusation: that despite having the powers of the presidency, he failed to properly investigate his wife's murder. Secret official documents relating to the investigation and obtained by the BBC show that the police inquiries were so poorly managed as to suggest they never wanted to find guilty parties beyond the low-level plotters they had already arrested.
The inadequacies of the police investigations were especially apparent after an unsuccessful attempt on Bhutto's life on 18 October 2007 - two and a half months before she was killed. Two suicide bombers attacked her convoy and killed more than 150 people. It remains one of the deadliest attacks ever mounted by violent jihadists in Pakistan.
The police work was so half-hearted that the bombers were never even identified.
The leader of the inquiry, Saud Mirza, has said that one man he established to have been a bomber had distinctive features, suggesting he came from a long-standing but small Karachi-based community of people of African descent. This potentially significant clue about the suspected bombers identity was never released to the public.
Former President Zardari answers criticisms about the thoroughness of the police work by pointing out that he encouraged the work of Scotland Yard in relation to the murder and secured the appointment of a UN commission of inquiry to examine the circumstances of her death.
That inquiry, however, says it was repeatedly and blatantly blocked not only by the military but also Zardari's ministers. "There were many people in the establishment that we wanted to interview but they refused," said Heraldo Munoz, the head of the UN commission.
And he said some of the obstacles came from the politicians as well as the military. As the investigation progressed, he said, the safe house the UN team used was withdrawn, as were the anti-terrorist personnel who were protecting the UN staff.
A trail of dead people...
That there was a cover-up is beyond doubt. A BBC investigation found evidence suggesting that two men who helped the teenage assassin reach Benazir Bhutto were themselves shot at a military checkpoint on 15 January 2008. A senior member of the Zardari government has told the BBC that he believes this was "an encounter" - the term Pakistanis use for extra-judicial killings.
Nadir and Nasrullah Khan were students at the Taliban-supporting Haqqania madrassa in north-west Pakistan. Other students associated with the seminary who were involved in the plot also died. One of the most detailed official documents obtained by the BBC is an official PowerPoint presentation given to the Sindh provincial assembly.
It names Abad ur Rehman, a former student at the madrassa and bomb-maker who helped provide the suicide jacket used to kill Benazir Bhutto. He was killed in one of Pakistan's remote tribal areas on 13 May 2010.
Then there was Abdullah who, according to the Sindh assembly presentation, was involved in the transportation of the suicide vests ahead of the Rawalpindi attack that killed Bhutto. He was killed in Mohmand Agency in northern Pakistan in an explosion on 31 May 2008.
One of the most high-profile deaths related to the assassination was that of Khalid Shahenshah, one of Bhutto's security guards. Shahenshah was within a few feet of Bhutto as she made her final speech in Rawalpindi. Phone footage shows him making a series of strange movements for which no one has offered any reasonable explanation.
Although he kept his head completely still, he raised his eyes towards Bhutto while simultaneously running his fingers across his throat. Pictures of his gestures went viral and on 22 July 2008, Shahenshah was shot dead outside his home in Karachi.
The next victim was the state prosecutor, Chaudhry Zulfikar. A lawyer with a reputation for high degrees of both competence and doggedness, he told friends he was making real progress on the Bhutto investigation.
... and one who turns out to be alive
Finally, there is a man who was said to be dead but, in fact, is still alive. In their confessions, the alleged plotters said that on the day of the murder a second suicide bomber named Ikramullah accompanied Bilal. Once Bilal had succeeded in his task, Ikramullah's services were not required and he walked away unharmed.
For years Pakistani officials insisted that Ikramullah had been killed in a drone strike. In 2017 chief prosecutor Mohammad Azhar Chaudhry told the BBC evidence gathered by Pakistani investigating agencies, relatives and government officials established that "Ikramullah is dead".
In August 2017, however, the Pakistani authorities published a 28-page list of the country's most wanted terrorists. Coming in at number nine was Ikramullah, a resident of South Waziristan and involved, the list said, in the suicide attack on Benazir Bhutto.
The BBC understands that Ikramullah is now living in eastern Afghanistan where he has become a mid-ranking Pakistan Taliban commander.
So far the only people punished in relation to the murder of Benazir Bhutto are two police officers who ordered the murder scene in Rawalpindi to be hosed down.
Many Pakistanis regard those convictions as unfair, believing that the police would never have used the hoses without being told to do so by the military.
It suggests, once again, a cover-up by Pakistan's deep state - the hidden network of retired and serving military personnel who take it upon themselves to protect what they consider Pakistan's vital national interests.
By Taylor Dibbert
C.V. Wigneswaran is the chief minister of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka and a member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Maithripala Sirisena became president three years ago. What are the principal challenges for people living in the Northern Province?
No doubt the earlier environment is no more. Democracy, to a great extent, has returned. But our expectations have not been fulfilled. Over sixty thousand [acres of] private and state lands are still occupied by the armed forces nine years after the end of the war. The armed forces are in many places, cultivating and taking produce while owners await the return of their lands.
The state lands are mostly forest lands. Valuable timber are being cut and taken away, but we know not by whom. Elephants have been deprived of using their traditional corridors and they are entering civilian land and destroying crops, etc. Young women-headed families in the Vanni are not safe from human predators. Police refuse to take complaints directed against the armed forces.
Our fishermen who have been traditionally using discernible areas for centuries as their fishing grounds have now been deprived of the same by fishermen brought from the south with the protection given by the armed forces. In Nayaru in Mullaitivu [district] and other areas permanent living quarters are being built for these illegal immigrants into the Northern Province.
Lots of our tourist resorts have been taken over by the armed forces. They run many such resorts and take the proceeds. Buddhist temples are being erected in or around them and false history is propagated about Sinhalese being the original residents in areas such as Mathakal – now renamed Patuna in Sinhala. All name boards and notice boards there are in Sinhala.
It is made out that Sinhalese occupied these areas originally and the armed forces are bent on claiming the northern lands for the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese never ever occupied the north and east in large numbers. The Buddhist remains were left by Tamil Buddhists.
Our trade has been taken over by many a relative of the armed forces. Many Sinhala shops adorn the A-9 road from Vavuniya to Chavakachcheri.
They have recruited young Tamil girls at a high salary to conduct preschools for children. The teachers are given drills and allied military exercises and also given uniforms. The people often ask whether they are comfort girls. Preschool education is a subject for our education department.
The army cannot interfere in our matters. But who would question them? Our communications are often ignored. We could possibly go to court. But, knowing the Sri Lankan environment, what if the court declares for security reasons (whatever that may mean) in favor of the armed forces?
In the field of administration there is a three-tiered administration going on in the Northern Province. One by the governor, one by the district secretaries and their officers (both agents of the central government), and lastly by us – the people’s elected representatives.
We are not taken into confidence in the formulation and implementation of projects in the Northern Province. We are informed if it suits them. They use our officers to get their things done and often set up stories that we are incapable. Recently my office was given awards by the president for coming first among eight hundred-odd offices throughout the country – including all ministries of all central ministers and departments. The charge that we are incapable and inefficient nevertheless is kept going by powerful interest groups.
We are charged for returning money back to the center without doing our projects even though we have fulfilled all our commitments and expect three hundred-odd million [Sri Lankan rupees] from the central government out of the budget for last year due to us by December 31, 2017. Our contractors await this payment having finished their work.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not been withdrawn even though promised to the United Nations and others. Lots of suspects taken in under the PTA continue to be in incarceration without the filing of indictments. If filed trials are postponed for years, they languish in jail and our appeals to the president and others fall on deaf ears.
Nothing has been done to alleviate the suffering of those who lost their dear ones taken into custody by the armed forces even though according to international law it is the duty of the armed forces to explain what happened to those taken into custody by them.
The recruitment of Tamil-speaking policemen has only been in words. Still, over ninety percent of the police in the Northern Province happen to be Sinhala-speaking. Complaints are still made by people in a ninety-five percent Tamil-speaking province to Sinhala-speaking policemen. If it is to be taken down by a Tamil policeman, the complainant has to wait for hours.
Let me stop at this. There are many other challenges.
Will the north remain heavily militarized for the foreseeable future? Are you surprised that there’s been so little progress in this area?
The idea is to keep the armed forces forever. So the army has come up with a brilliant idea. Let us help the local population by building up houses and toilets and whatnot and earn the approval and appreciation of the people. Then we could continue to stay here forever. Mind you it is the same soldiers who brutally killed, maimed, raped and plundered our people earlier who have now taken a new avatar. I must congratulate the present army commander, Mahesh Senanayake, for formulating this scheme. He knew we would not deprive our people of housing and other amenities coming free from the army since we lacked finances to do them ourselves.
So long as a unitary constitution remains we would not be able to oust the armed forces. The government is finding many ways to avoid giving us a federal constitution. Unless federalism brings us powers to decide on our security and well-being, the armed forces will continue to occupy our territories.
Colombo seems deeply unserious about implementing a credible and comprehensive transitional justice program. What’s your take?
Colombo is conscious that they fooled the British and the minorities in Ceylon [the former name of Sri Lanka] when they ousted the British saying they would look after the minorities in a husband-like manner. They took over all powers wielded by the British after the British left and started to show their true colors.
Transitional justice entails, inter alia, devolution of power plus punishment of war criminals. The government does not want to share the power they usurped for themselves when the British left with the minorities, especially the Tamils and they do not want to punish the offenders who committed war crimes – including torture, rape, plunder and acted brutally, calling them heroes instead.
Do you think the government would ever be serious in furthering the transitional justice process? They are good at talking. They will go on talking and the world community and Tamils would be fooled again and again.
In terms of other countries’ engagement with Sri Lanka, many nations – including the United States – have enthusiastically embraced the Sirisena administration. Does this exuberant, congratulatory approach encourage reform?
They did three years ago. I wonder whether they feel the same way now. Maybe they have no alternative now. But certainly they are disillusioned by the lack of progress shown by the Sirisena administration. Their exuberant, congratulatory approach did not encourage reform. The Sinhalese leaders are members of a majority community suffering a minority complex. That complex will not allow genuine reform favoring the minorities, especially Tamils. Reform in the sense of transitional justice could only be obtained by pressure from the international community.
Do you have any predictions regarding the forthcoming local government elections?
Sri Lanka: A comprehensive understanding of non-interference with judiciary is a dire need in Sri Lanka
By Nagananda Kodituwakku and Basil Fernando
It was heartening to hear from the incumbent Chief Justice, Priyasath Dep, that Sri Lanka’s judiciary is free from any interference. This statement comes as a relief, given that we can recall a long period of the most despicable forms of the interference with the judiciary in Sri Lanka and how, unfortunately, even the Supreme Court learned to adjust to such interference. It all started with JR Jayawardene, the first Executive President, who believed that being the Executive President meant having the judiciary under his thumb. The whole constitutional design was changed to achieve this purpose. Unfortunately, this constitutional design still remains intact. Other Executive Presidents followed President Jayawardene’s example since then.
The worst betrayal of the very notion of the independence of the judiciary happened when a Chief Justice – Sarath Nanda Silva as Chief Justice – sacrificed the very notion of an independent judiciary and became a servant of the Executive Presidential system. The then government made the path clear for him by leapfrogging him from the office of President of the Court of Appeal to the office of the Chief Justice.
In a most sophisticated way, he sacrificed the independence of the judiciary by severing the procedural law from the substantive law, thereby making procedural law a plaything in the hands of the Executive President. This, accompanied by the most dramatic forms of bullying of the lawyers, and also some litigants, created a very abnormal judicial system in Sri Lanka. The most glaring examples of this bullying were the two cases relating to contempt of court, which brought Sri Lanka into international disrepute. The cases were those relating to Michael Emmanuel Fernando (known to the public as Tony Fernando) and SB Dissanayake, who was then a minister in Chandrika Bandaranayke’s cabinet.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in their Opinions, condemned both these judgements of the Supreme Court, declaring them to be violations of the human rights of the two persons concerned and recommending to the Sri Lankan government that they should make contempt of court laws in keeping with international norms and standards.
The trend of interference took an even uglier form during the regimes of Mahinda Rajapaksha. The culmination of this was the creation of a Chief Justice with the name Mohan Peiris, who even went before the newly elected government of Maithripala Sirisena to declare that he was willing to do anything that the Executive wanted him to. Such is the sad tale of the interference with the independence of the judiciary in Sri Lanka. What Mohan Peiris was saying to the new government was that he was willing to do what he did for Mahinda Rajapakshe’s regime. It is a credit to the new government that they not only rejected the offer, but that both President and Prime Minister themselves stated publicly the offer being made by Mohan Peiris. Under these circumstances, it is further heartening to hear from the incumbent Chief Justice that there is no longer any such interference with the judiciary.
However, the issue that needs to be considered is that such long years of terrible interference do not fail to leave traces within the system. What is required of any people concerned about what is at risk when the judiciary is interfered with is to do their utmost to reflect, in the most honest fashion possible, as to whether everything of such a dark period has been erased and gotten rid of so quickly.
In this, it is essential to consider what interference with the judiciary means in a comprehensive sense. Interference does not merely mean not receiving telephone calls and other forms of direct instructions on how judges should decide cases. The real test is as to whether the system of law and the administration of justice have gotten back to the point where it can be honestly claimed that the system functions well and that every element of the system has gotten rid of the corruption that it had been exposed to. Such victories should not be lightly claimed for all aspects of individual freedoms and the whole life of the nation depends on such things, like the way blood runs through the human body. The most essential element to consider is whether the competence of the judiciary that has suffered past interference has been restored fully.
In scrutinizing this aspect, it is essential to consider the fact that one of the most prominent ways of interfering with the judiciary was to make political choices about judicial appointments. For a litigant that goes before the courts, and for the lawyers who represent them, their faith in the system will very much depend on their belief that the judiciary has overcome the problems of the unprincipled way in which some judges were appointed in the not-so-distant past and that the practice has been brought to an end. This task of scrutinizing the system is not only a task for the Executive, but also for the Judiciary itself, and also the legal profession and the public at large. They should all be able to say that a damned and dark period is over, and that we are in a period where new light is shining. The real question is as to whether such a claim can be made honestly.
Does the legal process in Sri Lanka function sufficiently well that we could claim today that the due process of law can be assured within our system? If one is to go by the large numbers of litigants, who are the ultimate judges on this issue, we cannot yet claim such a situation has dawned.
There is an even clearer test. Can it be said that the administrative and political systems of Sri Lanka have gotten rid of corruption as a major issue? Of course, given the level of corruption that prevails throughout society, no one can claim that we have arrived at that point. The test of the independence of the judiciary is the test of the efficiency of the legal system to control corruption, abuse of power and the interferences into the freedoms of the individual.
The real test that the system is beyond the interference of anybody is, ultimately, whether the administration of justice is functioning well. In a practical sense, the test is as to whether the country’s corruption-control body (CIABOC) is adequately competent and efficient to investigate allegations of corruption and prosecute the cases successfully. If the CIABOC is at fault, the country’s judiciary shall take it to task.
*The recent report furnished to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by the activist-lawyer, Nagananda Kodituwakku, who fights government corruption in all three organs of the government suggests that there is a long way to go to.
The U.S. and Sri Lanka held their second Partnership Dialogue in November. The first took place in Washington, D.C. in 2016. This one was held in Colombo. The meeting didn’t seem to feature any big surprises – which means that it was a missed opportunity for U.S. foreign policy.
The predictable joint statement deals with trade, aid, economics and maritime security, among other topics. It’s about emphasizing how robust U.S.-Sri Lanka ties are at this point and ignoring what’s really happening in the island nation.
There are also references to rights, justice and the UN Human Rights Council resolution that Sri Lanka cosponsored in 2015. “Sri Lanka and the United States recalled their co-sponsorship of a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2017, reaffirming Sri Lanka’s commitment to promote reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in pursuit of lasting peace and prosperity.”
Regrettably, a lot about the joint statement – including the above-mentioned words – aren’t remotely connected to reality. To begin, Colombo is committed to neither reconciliation nor accountability (for alleged wartime abuses). And, Sri Lanka is obviously insincere about that Human Rights Council resolution; in fact, Colombo has spent the past two years largely ignoring the commitments pertaining to it.
'US will continue to partner'
The joint statement also mentions that “bilateral security sector cooperation continues in parallel with Sri Lanka’s ongoing reconciliation, rule of law and judicial reform efforts. This also includes U.S. support for demining, joint military engagements, human rights training of Sri Lankan officers, and visits by ships and military officials.”
At the dialogue, remarks made by U.S. Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon were disappointing as well. “Today is a great day for the U.S.- Sri Lanka relationship. As the government of Sri Lanka moves ahead with its reforms to promote justice, accountability, reconciliation, and human rights, the United States will continue to partner with Sri Lanka to foster economic development and advance equal rights and opportunities for all persons in this great nation,” Shannon noted.
Three years into President Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure, American officials seem unable to accept reality or reconsider U.S.-Sri Lanka ties anew. Colombo is deeply unserious about reconciliation; we know this because even smaller efforts to reach out to ethnic Tamils haven’t happened. More generally, rather modest reform benchmarks are not being met.
Furthermore, the flurry of increased U.S.-Sri Lanka security cooperation is an especially bad idea—because such activity ensures that legitimate security sector reform won’t come anytime soon. Recent Associated Press reporting has reiterated that sexual violence and the torture of ethnic Tamils continue to be big problems. (The alleged perpetrators are Sri Lankan security personnel.)
It’s good that the increasingly authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency in 2015. But Sirisena’s administration shouldn’t be able to rely on relativism, fears of a Rajapaksa resurgence or false promises and continue to be celebrated by countries such as the U.S. The reality is that Sri Lanka’s reform agenda is in shambles.
In terms of American policy, heightened pressure over human rights and governance issues may come from legislators on Capitol Hill. That’s undoubtedly vital but, absent new ideas and changes from the Trump administration, congressional pressure alone may not matter all that much. Besides, this isn’t about tinkering at the margins of the U.S.’s existing bilateral framework. What’s sorely needed is a bold re-examination of how best to engage an administration in Colombo that’s fallen remarkably short of expectations.
In recent times, Western appeasement and American bear hugs have not encouraged reform in Sri Lanka. Continuing with the current approach is bound to produce similar results.
Source : JDS Sri Lanka
16 January 2018
By Taylor Dibbert
By Surajkumar Thube
With talk of inviting ASEAN members for the upcoming Republic Day celebrations in India, New Delhi’s diplomatic overtures toward the Southeast Asian countries are increasingly clear. At the same time, with India set to look for greener pastures beyond South Asia, it’s hard to ignore the palpable fissures developing in the so-called “neighborhood-first” policy. The grand initiative to increase bonhomie with neighboring countries since 2014 has become hopelessly mired in episodic yet fundamental practical diplomatic hurdles. This anxiety can be sensed through recent developments, beginning with Nepal and Bangladesh.
The victory of the “left alliance” in Nepal has been seen as a failure of Indian diplomacy in the region since 2015. Former (and likely future) prime minister K.P. Oli’s frosty relations with the Indian government, especially during their intervention in the constitutional crisis and the five month economic blockade that followed, further intensified the already existing tension between the two countries. The left alliance is much closer to the Chinese, and especially intent on not relying on Indian investment — almost akin to King Gyanendra’s positive relationship with the Chinese authorities in 2005. Oli continues to evince a similar interest in opening up the economy in a big way to the Chinese.
Nepal is one existing unresolved issue; another issue concerning Bangladesh has the potential to spoil a relatively stable relationship. The Rohingya crisis has been conveniently ignored till date by both parties. However, both of them will be compelled to address the issue soon, especially with the first draft of the National Register of Citizens of Assam now on the negotiating table. The Indian government faces the dilemma of either fostering a peaceful domestic situation or protecting one of its few stable relationships with a neighbor. The possible Indian option of deportation can exacerbate this nervousness, as Bangladesh has been vocal recently in expressing their displeasure with India for not pressuring Myanmar to take back the refugees.
Apart from dealing directly with its neighbors, India has to deal with the overweening economic clout of China. Along with China’s continuing diplomatic heft across Asia, it has also significantly managed to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. The recent China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement is a case in point. The covertness and the suddenness with which it was made public has irked the Indian establishment. Another development saw the handing over of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka to the Chinese state-run company, China Merchants Port Holdings. In its relationship with China, Sri Lanka has made it amply clear: Colombo is not relying entirely on economic assistance coming from India. In fact, there has been virtually no progress on India’s comprehensive economic partnership with Sri Lanka. India seems to have fallen back again as the Chinese FTA with Sri Lanka is underway.
The Chinese seem to be winning not just economically but also in the diplomatic race, especially when one takes into account the ambiguous position of Bhutan vis-a-vis the stationing of around 8,000 Chinese troops spread across the Chumbi valley. Bhutan, even while stating clearly their stable relationship with India, cannot afford to incense the Chinese, thus sidelining the immediate, tangible economic investment on offer. India-Bhutan relations, irrespective of the Chinese factor, have seen tensions develop in the recent past with Bhutan’s reluctance to give a green signal to the BBIN network over “environmental issues.” India has still not been able to convince Bhutan over the larger benefits of this initiative.
China and India have been engaged in a standoff in the Doka La area near the Bhutan tri-junctionsince June.
In Afghanistan, the country with which India has arguably the best relationship in the region, the economic investment in the Zerang-Delaram highway will not easily translate into political cooperation, let alone a geopolitical strategic partnership. Plus, Pakistan’s Gwadar port, propelled by the increasing consolidation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, appears more commercially viable than Chabahar port in Iran, which is envisioned as a way to link India and Afghanistan’s trade. Meanwhile, India will struggle to make Afghanistan more politically stable. Iran, which is showing no real signs of supporting India on the geopolitical front, let alone dealing with the Afghan Taliban directly, will leave it to India to bridge this all important gap.
At the moment, the optimism surrounding the invitation to SAARC countries for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014 has petered out. Some of these developments are largely of India’s own doing, while the rest emanate from a rapidly rising China. In either case, India has to re-imagine its neighborhood policy afresh.
Surajkumar Thube recently completed his post graduate work in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He has previously contributed to India Today’s DailyO, Countercurrents, Raiot, The Hoot and The Book Review magazine.
PIC: MEA India
What do we need? "Laundromats" or a "Clean house"?
05 January, 2018
The Bond Scam Report isn't out in public domain. Yet with much pre-publicity on President Sirisena making a public statement on the report on Wednesday (January 03) evening, quite a large number it seems have listened to him on air and later through the internet. What the media plays around with are bits and pieces picked from his pre-recorded statement that was aired on all TV channels. This was a carefully written Sinhala statement that tried to position him as a decent, non-partisan national leader, with the tactful mention about PM Wickramasinghe's responsibility and former Finance Minister Karunanayake's complicity.
Public response, especially in social media, was of two minds. One applauded and appreciated the work of the Presidential Commission of Investigation (PCoI) and the stand taken by President Sirisena in taking up the issue of corruption without "politics" and being firm. The other, while agreeing it was necessary, was also quoting petty issues (those with populist flavour but nothing serious) against President Sirisena, posing the question when this country would be "corruption free". They sort of hinted if President Sirisena is "clean", the whole country would be clean. That was mostly by those wondering flies that hurried to land on the post-January "anti-Rajapaksa" dining table. Those who are very comfortable with the Wickramasinghe brand of politics that pushes for further liberalising of the economy, giving the "Filthy Rich" more and better space for wealth and income accumulation.
Duplicity in public sentiment was no real indicator of what politics is in this public statement by President, made at the start of an election. In less than 24 hours, in a "dug in" exposure, the website "EconomyNext" said on 04 January afternoon, "President Maithripala Sirisena's office has put out several versions of his bond commission statement in an apparent attempt to soften the blow to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his party."
The "EconomyNext" also said, "The President's website carried the first translation and later swapped it with the new version which was once again amended bringing back-references to Ravi Karunanayake but without including Wickramasinghe's name". Next day, Minister Faizer Mustapha in a media intervention took pains in clearing PM Wickramasinghe of any wrongdoing.
The Bond scam is not just about the UNP and its elite leadership. The argument that President Sirisena was not in favour of Arjuna Mahendran being nominated as Governor CB of SL stands negated after he agreed with PM Wickramasinghe and appointed Mahendran as Governor CB of SL. It means that he compromised with PM Wickramasinghe to have Mahendran in order to have a government that accepts and accommodates him. It is for that single reason he had then Leader of the Opposition and the UNP, Ranil Wickramasinghe sworn in as PM an hour after he was sworn in as President on January 09 (2015).
With no change of government, constitutionally D.M. Jayaratne with a majority should have continued as PM after the 2015 January presidential election. Constitutionally Wickramasinghe was not qualified to be sworn in as PM with only 47 MPs and far less than the required minimum number. The Constitution requires the President ensure he appoints as PM one who commands a majority in parliament which means a minimum of 113 MPs.
Sirisena though elected President was in a major dilemma. Having defected from SLFP and contesting against the SLFP presidential candidate, he had to bank himself on the UNP that could not establish a government. As president Sirisena, therefore, fished out the most rustic in the Rajapaksa government to fill in the blanks for a UNP led government. Thus appointment of Arjuna Mahendran as Governor CB of SL was an extension of that political compromise. These political compromises cannot and should not be answered with a-political legal arguments. President Sirisena thus cannot claim total innocence after politically compromising for Mahendran's appointment.
The Russian warship deal that was directly under President Sirisena and then the 03 billion rupee Spectrum deal that had ICTA boss Muhunthan Canagey forced out also prove there are very much complicity and political compromise between the two major partners in government. A warship was no priority to be purchased by revitalising a Russian credit line that by then had lapsed. It wasn't accepted as necessary hardware by the Naval high command. The navy had 02 brand new warships provided by China and India. Why then did President Sirisena present a cabinet paper as Defence Minister to purchase this Russian warship and why did not the Cabinet of Ministers and the PM reject it? On the 03 billion rupee Spectrum deal, how and why did the TRC that comes directly under the President, sell frequencies to Maharajas without calling for tenders? In this modern world, frequencies are "public property" no government or State agency can sell. Frequencies have to be rented or leased on short-term through public bidding. Revenue from frequency rentals is public money. Therefore public should know who bought how much frequency for what duration and at what price. Why is the UNP not asking for investigations? Their Telecom Minister perhaps has a finger if not a hand in it. There is complicity everywhere and in everything between all parties in this government.
The governing system that "free market economies" puts in place is such, Commission Reports however accurate and complete, ultimately depend on further investigations and prosecution by the State. In free market economies these State departments are not left "independent". It was AG who was summoned to parliament by the Speaker to have the ruling that all Amendments to the Local Government Elections Act at the third reading could go with only a two-thirds majority and without a public referendum. According to the PM's statement on the present Bond Scam Report, the AG had been provided with the COPE Report 01 year ago to take appropriate action. He is now given the Bond Scam Report by the President.
It is the prosecuting agency that filed charges against former Secretary to the President Weeratunge and TRC Chairman Pelpola under Section 386 of the Penal Code instead of indicting them under the Public Property Act for misappropriation or misusing Rs.600 million of public funds. The difference being, under the Public Property Act, misuse or misappropriation of public money is a non-bailable offence whereas it is not under the Penal Code. In most instances, State prosecuting agencies know how to prosecute big dealers with minimum or no damage
There was heavy speculation former Secretary to Ministry of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would be arrested when FCID made submissions to the Colombo Fort Magistrate's Court on misappropriation of public funds estimated at Rs.65 million for the construction of his father D.A. Rajapaksa's memorial monument, in Weeraketiya. Buddhist monks met with President Sirisena to request that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa should not be arrested. The Appeal Court has ruled he should not be indicted under the Public Property Act. His anticipatory bail application was allowed and thus prevents the FCID from taking any legal action against him. The temporary stay order was extended for the third time on 15 December. That perhaps is what is meant by an independent judiciary in a free market economy.
Forty years of the free market economy as in all other countries have redefined the role of the State. The State is no more the regulator and monitor of economic activities. Thus its role as implementing agent of government policy has also changed drastically. In a free market economy, the State is turned into a facilitator, promoter and also into a custodian of private investment. The State hierarchy thus sits with governments (politicians) to formulate policy and legislation that encourage, promote, facilitate and safeguard private investments with as many incentives as possible.
With the State repositioned that way to play for the free market economy, the theoretical definitions of the "State" and the "Government" have got blurred to the extent, they are seen as one and the same. It means, it is not only politicians who are in tow with the "Filthy Rich" that grows politically powerful, but also the State at policy and decision-making level. That includes not just the top administrators, but also prosecutors and judicial officials as well.
In short, in a free market economy that allows the free growth of a new "filthy rich" urban collective, corruption becomes inherent at every level of governance and across State and society too. That, in turn, creates a new lifestyle and an urban culture that stands on heavy consumption. It is the urban middle class that gets dragged into this new high consumption lifestyle that demands unending supplies of money. This vicious cycle does not allow the urban middle class to think in terms of reshaping this "economic model" into a more decent, all-inclusive "development model".
There thus is a serious absence of a discourse for alternatives in national terms. We are now left with very narrow, small-time options for quick 'washing and drying' of dirty politics. It is thus about amending few laws and punishing a culprit or two that is now offered as "independent" recommendations. No one is questioning the competency and credibility of the present politicians and this parliament in legislating better laws. With all mainstream political parties run by the "filthy rich", can they and will they? Will this prosecuting authority including the AG's department and this judiciary be efficiently independent than what they are with new laws provided to them?
This is nothing more than what the old Sinhala idiom හොරාගෙ අම්මගෙන් පේන අහනවා (Asking the rogue's mother to read the fate) plainly say. These Bond Scam Commissions, PRECIFACs, FCIDs and the rest are all about moving with "Laundromats" with different branding. What we need is a paradigm shift that can provide a new and alternate system to keep the house permanently clean without regular visits to "Laundromats". That discourse needs to be kick-started, before the rest of this society falls apart.
Alongside the famed Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives is also home to some of the most enchanting and diverse coral reefs in the world, its crystal clear waters bursting with colour and life.
However, since 2014 this tropical paradise has been struck by severe coral bleaching, affecting between 60 percent and 90 percent of its coral, depending on the area.
Corals become bleached when under stress because of changing conditions, such as rising seawater temperature. This causes the coral to expel the algae living in its tissues, turning white.
The coral is not dead, but it is starving, as the algae provide up to 80 percent of its nutrients. Prolonged higher temperatures can kill the corals completely, with a cascade of negative effects on the many species that depend on them, including the human communities that they support.
Bleaching episodes typically last one year, but the most recent has been going since 2014. Australia's Great Barrier Reef has also been affected, with more than two-thirds of it experiencing "shocking" amounts of bleaching.
"In 2014 reefs around the world were hit with one of the worst coral bleaching events on record", said Thomas le Berre, a French coastal oceanographer who is responsible for some of the top environmental projects in the Maldives.
The previously vibrant corals, which help attract over one million tourists a year to the archipelago, have turned into a ghostly shadow of their former self.
Le Berre says part of the blame goes to El Niño, a cyclical weather event that takes place every few years resulting in warmer waters passing through the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Combined with global warming, it has seen water temperature reach new highs of 34 degrees in some area, causing the corals to go beyond their thermal limit, which results in bleaching and sometimes death.
A study conducted by the University of Exeter confirms that, as a result of a strong El Niño in 2016, an increase in surface ocean temperatures has led to a major coral die-off in the Maldives. It has also found that some species of fish, particularly parrotfish, are eroding the reefs more intensely following the bleaching event.
According to Le Berre, although bleaching is "quite low on the government's list of priorities" he is working closely with them with them to ensure it is on their agenda. His project, the Reefscapers Coral Reef Restoration programme, aims to make the Maldivian reefs resilient to these changes in temperature and increase their rate of regeneration.
Using metal frames, small branches of coral can be attached and spread out to create 'coral nurseries'.
Corals compete for the nutrients in the immediate environment around them, so by spreading them out, they can recover faster. Using this method, researchers here have seen a four-fold increase in growth rates, over an array of about 560 frames.
Recovery can take a long time. The last severe bleaching event was in 1998 and it took almost 12 years for the reefs to recover.
Worryingly, the bleaching affects not just corals: "Habitat for small fish is also lost," said Shiham Adam, the Maldives' Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture.
Great Barrier Reef 'cooking and dying' as seas heat up, warn scientists
"Long-nose hawk fish feed exclusively on live corals, and they are now almost gone. Butterflyfish abundance also is gone."
The Four Seasons and The Banyan Tree in the Maldives are both leading the charge, with their own team of researchers leading coral recovery programs: "it's very difficult for us to monitor the coral bleaching so it's important for us to work very closely with some of the resorts," sad Thoriq Ibrahim, Minister of the Environment.
But some relief most come from a more global perspective: "The Paris Agreement was a huge milestone for us in progress to minimizing global warming," Ibrahim added.
"This is what we need to happen in order to save our reefs."
Source : CNN
By Aaquib Khan
More than three years ago, in August 2014, Ahmed Rilwan disappeared after being abducted at knifepoint. Aside from his abductors, no one knows whether he is alive or dead — perhaps buried on one of Maldives’ 1,200 islands or thrown into its famous blue water.
If Rilwan is alive, shackled somewhere in a tiny cell, his abductors may have already told him about the brutal murder of his close confident and good friend, Yameen Rasheed, in April 2017.
Sri Lankan civil society activists and exiled Maldivian nationals residing in Sri Lanka protest Yameen Rasheed's murder outside the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo, Sri Lanka (May 8, 2017). Photo Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena.
Political unrest, radicalization, and the intimidation of journalists and human right activists have plagued the island nation in recent years. Some politicians are even suspected of hiring gangsters to issue death threats – or worse. Rilwan’s disappearance and Rasheed’s murder are just two signs of the increasing danger of religious or political dissent in Maldives.
Maldives: Torn Between Democracy and Autocracy
An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Maldives was long a sultanate. In 1953, after a period as a British protectorate, Mohamed Amin Didi, the first president, abolished the sultanate temporarily. He led the country to progress in education and women’s rights. But these transitional years were interrupted by turbulent events. In 1978, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became president and led the country into a dictatorship. Political opponents were crushed under his regime.
The pendulum swung again in 2008, when several political parties came forward to contest Maldives’ parliamentary elections. Mohammad Nasheed, a historian and journalist and a strong critic of Gayoom, became president.
However, Nasheed was forcefully ousted in 2012. Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of Gayoom, took over as Maldivian president in 2013. Yameen moved to crack down on dissent, whether opposition parties or media criticism.
Since Yameen came to power, the media has been under increasing threat in Maldives. Journalists who speak against government corruption or religious radicalization are now confronting radical violence, harassment, and defamation lawsuits in the light of a controversial law passed in 2016. As a result, Maldives stood at 117th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 Press Freedom Index. The detention of journalists and activists is common practice to restrain critical voices. Worse, those who express dissent could face extralegal abductions or even violence.
In one high profile case, Afrasheem Ali, a religious reformist and member of Parliament, was brutally stabbed to death in October 2012. The same year, a journalist named Ismail Rasheed, nicknamed “Hilath,” was attacked. The attackers slashed his throat, but he survived because a vital artery was missed by millimeters.
Ahmad Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed
In August 2014, Ahmad Rilwan, a prominent independent journalist with the news website Minivan News (now Maldives Independent) who frequently wrote about secularism and religious extremism, disappeared. Later, police found he had been abducted at knifepoint. There was reason to believe that he was kidnapped by members of Kuda Henveiru, a violent group in Malé. The government was reluctant to investigate the case too deeply, which led some to suspect a state-supported attempt to silence those who criticize the government or radical Islam in Maldives.
Rilwan had adopted moyameehaa, which translates as “madman” in Dhivehi, as an online pseudonym. Rilwan explained the choice himself: “the one who speaks rationally will be considered a madman when living among an irrational people.” He was right.
Rilwan’s abduction cannot be seen an accidental crime. It is an attempt to shake the secular, liberal, and progressive image of the country. Enforced disappearances are nothing new in South Asia. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka all have long records of enforced disappearance cases. In each country, institutionalized impunity has ensured that almost no one is brought to justice for human rights violations in such cases. Sadly, the same proved true in Maldives.
Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed had been close friends. Rasheed left no stone unturned in seeking justice for Rilwan’s abduction. For three years, Rasheed questioned the administration, wrote extensively, and organized protest marches against the disappearance of his friend, but Rilwan’s whereabouts are still a mystery.
Rasheed with a poster of his friend, Ahmed Rilwan, who was abducted in 2014
A young IT professional, Rasheed was a social media activist. Through his blog, The Daily Panic, he presented bitter but factual observations of the daily politics of Maldives. Rasheed used The Daily Panic as a platform to, in his words, “satirize the frequently unsatirizable politics of Maldives… also it provides a platform to capture and highlight the diversity of Maldivian opinion.”
Rasheed was pained with the increasing Islamic radicalization in the country and could not keep himself from speaking against it. That led to the first death threat against him in 2011. He also did not remain silent after the alleged coup against President Nasheed in 2012. Through his blog, he fought to keep democracy free from autocracy.
In one of his blog posts, Rasheed recalled Rilwan once told him Islamism was a “tool to prey on the young and vulnerable who became foot soldiers in a political power struggle between corrupt forces – one made even more distasteful to him because it invoked the name of God and employed it for the basest of human desires.” His friend’s abduction made Rasheed speak against religious radicalization and politicization of religion even more vocally. For this, Rasheed received several death threats. He reported it to the police, but to no avail.
In a tragic case of irony, ten days before when Rasheed himself was brutally murdered, he shared a Facebook post in remembrance of Mashal Khan, a journalism student from Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, Pakistan who was lynched to death by a mob of students who accused him of posting blasphemous content online.
On the night of April 23, soon after returning from an award ceremony in London, Rasheed was murdered in Malé, the capital of Maldives. He was stabbed in the stomach, chest, neck, and head several times. He was declared dead shortly after being taken to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital.
According to critics, the investigation into his murder was misdirected. His murder scene was tampered with; evidence was displaced. Police tried to prevent Rasheed’s family from making public calls for justice, which raises questions as to authorities’ seriousness in pursuing the murder case.
Throughout South Asia, ideas and opinions challenging religious doctrines have not been tolerated. In this, Maldives is no different from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, where proponents of moderate and secular ideologies come under widespread criticism, and often meet with violent ends. Rasheed and Rilwan, along with many others, became the victims of such extremism. More worryingly, the violence was supported by militant groups and even politicians, who spread the idea that secularists are anti-Islam.
For those Maldivians who staunchly believe in democracy, individual freedoms, and justice, these are dark days.
Aaquib Khan is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Bombay, India.
By Meera Srinivasan
S. Indira Gandhi owns a brand-new house now. She is one of the first few from Sri Lanka’s hill country Tamil community – that has a two century-history in the island – who can call this home, and the piece of land beneath it, her own.
A full-time worker in a tea estate, the 33-year-old, along with her husband, is busy giving finishing touches to her cement-walled home in Dayagama, in Nuwara Eliya district in the Central Province. They have recently cut a path leading to the entrance of their home, where saplings bearing sprightly pink flowers pop up from either side. For the young couple, the home is much more than a secure place of residence, or a permanent dwelling.
From the time the British brought down hundreds of thousands of Tamils from south India in the 19th century to Sri Lanka, successive generations have been toiling in the country’s plantations. Even today, most of them live in colonial-era line rooms — closely packed match-box like dwellings on the hills — and many still work in the estates in difficult working conditions and with poor wages. Their story is better known as the global rise of the famed Ceylon Tea, a product that fetches precious foreign revenue, about $1.2 billion in 2016.
Following the transition from being stateless to becoming citizens in 2003, the ongoing change from being landless to owning a modest house on a small plot marks another significant shift for the community. Neither was an outcome of state benevolence. In fact, both followed persistent struggles by the nearly million-strong community and larger political dynamics.
Houses such as Indira Gandhi’s have been built by the Indian government as part of an initiative to construct 14,000 dwellings for Hill Country Tamils, to supplement the Sri Lankan government’s own efforts towards providing housing in the region. In an earlier project, India built 46,000 homes in the island’s Tamil-majority North and East for the war-displaced.
Malayaha (Hill Country) Tamils are quick to appreciate India’s attention to their community. As Tamils of most recent Indian origin here, they have been invisible not just to the Sri Lankan state, but also to New Delhi and Tamil Nadu for most part. Without doubt, they feel some affinity towards Tamil Nadu and India, through ancestral and cultural links. “My father gave me that name because I was born the day Indira Gandhi died,” says her namesake, smiling brightly.
All the same, many in her generation feel that the oft-used “Indian-origin” tag is both dated and distant. “Even my national ID defines me as a ‘Sri Lankan estate worker’,” says her husband, K. Vijayakumar. “We are people of this country.” That is how they would like to frame their demands to the state – in the unmistakable voice of a rightful citizens, without tags that bear the baggage of uneasy histories.
In an apparent recognition of that emphatic voice, the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government put out an ambitious National Plan of Action for the social development of the plantation community, spanning five years beginning 2016. Among other initiatives, the plan envisions building 1,60,000 homes, financed partly with a government grant and the remaining with a 7.5% interest-loan. About 30,000 homes have been constructed so far.
For pensioner E. Sellappan, his new home in Hauteville Puram, built by the Minister of Upcountry New Villages, Estate Infrastructure and Community Development, is the only asset for his children. “This sonda veedu (own home) is the first recognition of my labour for my 36 years’ work at the estate,” he says.
The road ahead
The government points to its share of challenges. Despite a widespread campaign from workers for 20 perches land each, the government could manage only seven (about 2,000 square ft). “Finding land is our main challenge. The plantation companies are rather reluctant to part with productive land, or end up giving land that has no easy access to the main road,” says M. Vamadevan, an adviser to the Minister.
The gap between required resources and the actual allocations is also glaring. While the national action plan points to an estimated 15 billion Sri Lankan rupees investment in 2018 needed for the project – it will cost 70 billion rupees over five years – the annual allocation in the recent budget is only 2 billion rupees.
Housing is only one of the many long-ignored demands of the workers, who face historic neglect and exploitation. From education, to health to fair wages, many of their concerns remain unaddressed.
“Even if wasps attack us, we have to put in our own money and get treated. Our struggle for a minimum wage of 1,000 (Sri Lankan) rupees earlier this year also failed after our political leaders signed a collective agreement with the companies. We are now stuck with 630 rupees a day,” says estate worker R. Pushparani, squinting her eyes against the glaring sun, while she rapidly plucks tea leaves with both hands.
In pointing out their current reality, she highlights the difference between a few workers owning homes, and all of them feeling at home.
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