THE NATIONAL QUESTION AND DEMOCRATIC DISCOURSE IN THE NORTH – JAVID YUSUF

Sri Lanka Brief22/09/2018

During the time of Sri Lanka’s ‘Civil War’, there were regular interventions by Human Rights (HR) activists on the sidelines of the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions. Foreign Ministry officials as well as others such as the Attorney General had to travel to Geneva to present the Sri Lanka Government’s case.

Today, the situation has changed somewhat, with pro LTTE sections of the Tamil Diaspora (TD) and Sinhala hardline groups regularly locking horns, whenever the UNHRC meets on what, on the face of it, looks like a series of unproductive clashes. The vocal TD that attends these sessions, keep leveling the allegation of genocide against the Sinhalese community, while the Sinhala groups keep trying to disprove the pro LTTE lobby’s claim, that the North and East are the traditional homelands of the Tamil people.

Neither of these efforts help take forward the process of resolving the national question. Instead, it is a dissipation of energy on matters that are at variance with the facts or, irrelevant to the core issues.

The issue of genocide

By no stretch of imagination can it be said there have been any attempts at genocide of the Tamils by either the Sri Lanka State or, the Sinhala community, before, during or after the armed conflict. This is not to deny that the Tamil community did undergo untold suffering, ranging from HR violations, discriminatory practices and even excesses committed by the armed forces during the conflict.

The actions that came closest to attracting the label of genocide was the forcible eviction of Muslims from the North by the LTTE in 1990. But it would be inaccurate to describe even such actions by the LTTE as genocidal in nature. A more accurate description would be to call it ethnic cleansing. The campaign against the Rohingyas in Myanmar, on the other hand, would more accurately fit into the definition of genocide.

The use of inaccurate terminology in pursuing one’s cause has multiple negative effects. Such inaccuracies, in fact, contribute to further distancing the Sinhalese from the Tamils, because fair-minded Sinhalese would naturally be peeved by such accusations, which are not based on facts. It would provoke Sinhala hardliners to become more rigid in their positions and, in turn, throw back further allegations against the Tamils.

The traditional homelands

A discussion on whether the North and East are the traditional homelands of the Tamils or not, is not of much significance, in the context of the substantial number of Muslims and Sinhalese currently living in the East. While it may be factually true that the Tamils of the North and East have lived in these two Provinces for a long time, it does not give them any exclusive ownership to the North and East.

In fact, the contrary is true. The Muslims and Sinhalese have co-existed with the Tamils in the East as equal citizens, until the divisive call for a merger of the North and East, as well as the conflict, caused a breakdown in the trust between the communities. What the Tamils are concerned about is the fear of the demography of the East being changed by State sponsored colonisation, which has caused anxiety among Muslims as well.

Clearly, this problem can easily be resolved in a manner that is fair and acceptable to all 3 communities, if the search for a solution is embarked upon with an open and flexible approach, and a problem solving mindset.
Sanity must prevail in any discussion on any proposed reforms, leading up to a resolution of the National problem. The Tamil community must realize that, if slow progress is currently being made on Constitutional Reforms (CR), it is not because of an unwillingness on the part of the national leadership in the South, but because of the opposition by the Sinhala hardliners who find the bogey of Tamil separatism a useful slogan to create insecurity among the Sinhalese, with a view to advancing their own political fortunes.

Flexibility displayed by the TNA

Fortunately, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by R. Sampanthan have realized this home truth and are doggedly staying the course and engaging with the Government in the CR process.

For its part, the Sinhala polity has to acknowledge the flexibility displayed by the TNA in resolving this contentious issue. The TNA Leader has repeated, ad nauseum, that he is prepared to accept a solution which ensures that Sri Lanka will be an undivided, indivisible and united country and is acceptable to all the communities — the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. It is up to the political leadership to flesh out a solution that gives meaning to this formula, so forcefully articulated by Mr Sampanthan.

The Government, for its part, must pursue the CR process with vigour, undeterred by the critics who see (or pretend to see) Tamil separatism behind every bush. The detractors opposed to the CR process make various allegations that it is an international conspiracy, an NGO plot, TD pressure and so on. They dared not make such allegations when a national dialogue on the subject led by the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera was ongoing in the country, prior to his demise.

The slogans of genocide and betrayal being articulated in some sections of the Tamil polity, also highlight the importance of re-establishing a democratic discourse within the Tamil community. The LTTE legacy of branding anyone who disagreed with them as traitors, has continued to haunt Tamil society in the North. This is similar to the Sinhala hardliners who find it easy to label anyone with differing views as traitors or sellouts.

The North has to increase the democratic space available for discussion and create an environment that celebrates the diversity of views necessary for progress. Such conditions must be created now. Only then will the Tamil polity be ready to exercise any powers that may be devolved, as a result of the CR process.

It is axiomatic that the devolution of powers alone will not address the aspirations of the Tamil community, and ensure dignity and justice for its people. Such a reform will only facilitate the realisation of such a goal.Whether it will succeed will depend upon a robust democratic engagement among the different actors in the Tamil community. If the groundwork for such an environment is not created now, it may result in a repeat of the disastrous experience that the Tamil community had to face under the EPRLF-led North Eastern Provincial Council (NEPC) that came into existence in 1987, following the Indo-Lanka Agreement.

Disastrous experience

The various indignities and harassment at the hands of the NEP Government that the Tamil community had to undergo, if repeated, will only serve to discredit any scheme of devolution that may be put in place.

It may, therefore, be an opportune time for civil society in the North to take the lead in creating a culture of democracy, preceding any political reforms that may be implemented. Organisations such as the University Teachers for HR and Sri Lanka Democracy Forum which valiantly espoused democratic values, despite adverse conditions during the conflict, can team up with like minded groups and work towards such an objective.

(javidyusuf@gmail.com ) / Sunday Times

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Shielding Wijegunaratne Amounts To Abuse Of Power & An Assault On Democracy!

Shielding Wijegunaratne Amounts To Abuse Of Power & An Assault On Democracy!

logoA fuming President Sirisena summoned a special cabinet meeting just two days after the regular cabinet meeting held on Tuesday, September 11, 2018.  On that day the Cabinet adopted a 77-page draft Counter-Terrorism Law presented by Foreign Affairs and Development Assignments Minister Tilak Marapana. This Bill, when passed by parliament, will replace the current Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1978 which vests the police with broad powers to search, arrest, and detain suspects. It was first enacted as a temporary law in 1979 under J. R. Jayewardene presidency, and then made permanent in 1982.
This is one of the assurances Sri Lanka gave to UNHRC in terms of Resolution 30/1 of October 01, 2015 titled Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.  The following are some of the key commitments the Government of Sri Lanka undertook to implement within a time frame.
(1) To undertake a comprehensive approach to dealing with the past, incorporating the full range of judicial and non-judicial measures; also the proposal by the Government to establish a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence, an office of missing persons and an office for reparations;
(2) To uphold the rule of law and to build confidence in the people of all communities of Sri Lanka in the justice system, notes with appreciation the proposal of the Government of Sri Lanka to establish a judicial mechanism with a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, as applicable; affirms that a credible justice process should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality; and also affirms in this regard the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators.
(3) To accelerate the return of land to its rightful civilian owners, and to undertake further efforts to tackle the considerable work that lies ahead in the areas of land use and ownership, in particular the ending of military involvement in civilian activities, the resumption of livelihoods and the restoration of normality to civilian life, and stresses the importance of the full participation of local populations, including representatives of civil society and minorities, in these efforts;
(4) To a political settlement by taking the necessary constitutional measures, encourages the Government’s efforts to fulfil its commitments on the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population; and also encourages the Government to ensure that all Provincial Councils are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka;
(5) To sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances without delay, to criminalise enforced disappearances and to begin issuing Certificates of Absence to the families of the missing as a temporary measure of relief.
Although some progress has been made to comply with Resolution 30/1, the Government has been dragging its feet over the above commitments. The Government has not done anything about (2) above. An independent investigation into war crimes committed during the war is a pre-requisite for genuine reconciliation.  However, the President has taken the stand that the army has not committed war crimes and no member of the armed forces will be put on trial courts with foreign judges.
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17 Tamils massacred by SL army and Muslim homeguards remembered

17 Tamils massacred by SL army and Muslim homeguards remembered

Home22Sep 2018

The massacre of 17 Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan army officers and Muslim homeguards on September 21, 1990 in Puthukkudiyiruppu, Batticaloa, was remembered yesterday, 28 years on.
Gathering around the memorial previously erected in memory of those who were massacred, families of those killed and locals laid flowers in remembrance.
On September 21, 1990 the Muslim homeguards backed by the Sri Lankan army broke into homes in Puthukkudiyiruppu village during the night and rounded up 44 Tamils, including children and women.
The Tamils were dragged to the beach where the homeguards and soldiers attacked them with knives and swords.
Seventeen Tamils were killed during the attack, whilst 27 were seriously injured.
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The forthcoming UNGA sessions

The forthcoming UNGA sessions

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By Neville Ladduwahetty-
According to media reports President Sirisena is planning to attend the forthcoming 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, where he hopes to use the opportunity presented to amend the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 co-sponsored by the government. General Assembly sessions are normally occasions for broad policy statements. However, in the case of Sri Lanka presenting its case before the General Assembly is in order to bring to the attention of a world body such as the UN with nearly 193 members, the unique circumstances associated with Sri Lanka’s Armed Conflict unlike conflicts in other parts of the world. Such a unique approach is needed particularly because such relief is not possible with the UNHRC with only 47 members with a mandate that focuses on Human Rights, while the conflict in Sri Lanka being an Armed Conflict is clearly governed by International Humanitarian Law.
Although the nature and scope of the amended proposals the President hopes to present is not known at this time, it is reported that both the Secretary General of the UN and the High Commissioner for Human Rights would be presented with Sri Lanka’s proposals. The main thrust of the President’s proposals is reported to focus on restoring the pride and dignity of the security forces that were engaged in the Armed Conflict. This is of special importance because the present UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet who is a citizen of Chile, was imprisoned during the dictatorship of Pinochet. Therefore, it would be natural for High Commissioner Bachelet to view conflicts from the perspective of her own experiences.
Under the above circumstances, it is imperative that Sri Lanka makes a strong case to bring to the attention of the UNHRC and in particular the entire UN body, that the conflict in Sri Lanka cannot be judged by the same parameters as what had happened in Chile, or in several past and present conflicts in other parts of the world which incidentally are Human Rights violations and which therefore would be judged under provisions of International Human Rights Law. The conflict in Sri Lanka on the other hand, was an Armed Conflict. This being the case, the applicable parameters for judging the conduct of the conflict is International Humanitarian Law.
THE FLAWED OISL PERSPECTIVE
The fact that the entire investigation conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigations on Sri Lanka (OISL) was based on violations of International Human Rights, and is admitted by the following quoted from its report:
1. INVESTIGATIONS BASED ON VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS: Paragraph 4 states: “OISL’s mandate derives from Human Rights Council Resolution 25/1 which required OHCHR to ‘undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka’…”.
2. DEROGATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS DURING EMERGENCY:
Paragraph 175 state: “OISL notes that has submitted a Declaration of a State of emergency, dated 30 May 2000 derogating from articles 9 (2). 9 (3). 12 (1). 12 (2). 14 (3). 17(1).19 (2). 21. And 22of the ICCPR. Measures taken pursuant to derogation are lawful to the extent they comply with the conditions set out in international human rights law”.
3. APPLICABILITY OF INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW:
Paragraph 182 states: “Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions relating to conflicts not of an international character is applicable to the situation in Sri Lanka… “
Paragraph 183 states: “In addition, the Government and armed groups that are parties to the conflict are bound alike by relevant rules of customary international law applicable to non-international armed conflict”.
Therefore, by its own admission, if the conduct of the armed conflict is to be judged by International Humanitarian Law, why is the UNHRC holding Sri Lanka accountable for violations of Human Rights Laws? Had the UNHRC adopted the appropriate rules of International Humanitarian Law to judge the manner in which the armed conflict was conducted, the OISL report would have recognized the relevance of the principles of “distinction”, “proportionality” and “precaution” when evaluating what would amount to “violations”.
A glaring example of the disparities that exist when a “violation” is evaluated from a perspective of Human Rights violation as against International Humanitarian Law violation, is in regard to the delivery of drinking water, scarcity of food, sanitation and insufficient health care and medicines. While shortcomings in the delivery of humanitarian aid and relief is a serious violation when judged from a Human Rights perspective as reflected in the OISL report in paragraphs 981 and 982, it is NOT a violation from an International Humanitarian Law perspective, because under provisions of ICRC Rule 55 which states: “parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need…and Rule 56 states:”parties to the conflict must ensure the freedom of movement of authorized humanitarian relief personnel essential to the exercise of their functions”.
It is crystal clear that what is claimed as a Human Rights violation in the OISL report for short falls in the delivery of humanitarian relief is NOT a violation under provisions of International Humanitarian Law, because parties to a conflict are not expected to deliver such aid to another party to the conflict. Instead, all that is expected is to permit access to relief agencies and nothing more.
Another charge is the death of “hundreds of thousands” of civilians. It is a well established fact that during the final stages of the conflict the LTTE violated the Principle of Distinction by shedding their distinctive military uniforms, thus blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants. This aspect is reflected in paragraph 1266 which states: “The LTTE caused further distress by forcing adults and children to join their ranks and fight on the front lines. The fact that the civilians were forced to remain in the conflict area by the LTTE and suffered reprisals if they tried to leave added to the trauma that they lived through”. Consequently, how one could realistically establish the number of bona fide dead civilians is next to impossible. This is stated in paragraph 1267 of the OISL report which states: “Counting or estimating the number of civilian casualties during the final stages of the armed conflict is impossible…..”.
FAILURE TO PRESENT SRI LANKA’S CASE
Despite several appearances before the UN Human Rights Council Sri Lanka has failed to make a strong case that the actions of the Security Forces should be judged by International Humanitarian Law. Consequently, Sri Lanka’s Army has stated that those who represented Sri Lanka in Geneva have failed to present the Army’s case in the correct perspective.
During the course of an interview, the Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake is reported to have stated: “The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) will also engage in fighting its own case now, with regard to allegations of war crimes…We want to clear our name…All these years we were depending on someone else. We thought they would tell our story”. For the Commander to expect a positive response to their story, and clear their name conclusively, their case should be presented on the basis of International Humanitarian Law. The statement by the Commander is however, a serious indictment on the capabilities of the Foreign Ministry both past and present, and all those who represented the government of Sri Lanka in Geneva.
This failure has resulted in UNHRC Resolution 30/1 compelling Sri Lanka to implement a whole array of recommendations in the name of Transitional Justice. The most serious of these is the one on Accountability.
These recommendations have not taken into account that some recommendations need involve amending Sri Lanka’s Constitution, while the issue of accountability by itself could seriously impact on communal relations because it would be next to impossible to undertake an accountability exercise that would ever meet the expectations of the communities concerned.
CONCLUSION
The President is hoping to use the opportunity presented at the 73rd sessions of the UN General Assembly to present a perspective that hitherto had not been presented by all those who represented Sri Lanka’s case in Geneva. While this represents a serious flaw on the part of those who were tasked to represent Sri Lanka’s interests in a credible manner, this task has now fallen on the shoulders of the President. It is hoped that the President would bring to the attention of the world body that the very basis of UNHRC Resolution 30/1 as mandated by the Human Rights Council is seriously flawed, because it is based on violations of Human Rights whereas it should be based on International Humanitarian Law as amply demonstrated above. Therefore, the President has every right to declare that Sri Lanka has been wronged, and that the accountability exercise demanded by Resolution 30/1 is inappropriate for any country following the cessation of an “Armed Conflict”, because it is realistically not possible to meet the expectations of all parties to a conflict. Instead, what follows is dissatisfaction and frustration by at least one of the parties to a conflict judging from the accountability exercises conducted in other countries, the most prominent being the one by South Africa. This would seriously impact on Communal Relations and lay the ground work for the recurrence of conflict. Therefore, the amendment sought should be to forego the accountability exercise and focus on Missing Persons and reparations for the victims of the conflict if Sri Lanka is to consolidate its hard won peace.
The failure of Sri Lanka to have an impact in Geneva is because of the perspective that issues relating particularly to accountability are politically motivated causing it to plead its case. This approach has failed Sri Lanka. The only credible approach is to adopt a professional approach that cannot be disputed.
Neville Ladduwahetty
Sept. 20, 2018.
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Applying Toynbee’s “Challenge & Response” 

Applying Toynbee’s “Challenge & Response” 

logoArnold Toynbee (1889-1975) who was at the London School of Economics was not as well acknowledged as he was outside the UK after he suggested that the Chinese and their language were well positioned to be dominant soon. He I think is proving to be right in almost two generations after his demise.  His magnum opus, however, I think was his theory of “Challenge and Response” – explaining why some civilisations did well while others fell back. This theory is that challenges together with our response to them are what makes or breaks a people. If there is no challenge, the civilization becomes one of lotus eaters. He applied this to tropical Africa which, well-endowed by nature, led to little progress. 
If a challenge is too strong, the response it evokes may break the civilization. When the ice age set in, the igloo exploiting the fact that ice is a good insulator, was a major advance in technology. A little candle in the ice-insulated igloo, can raise the temperature significantly to protect the people from the cold. However, this response, the igloo, took the Eskimo civilization nowhere.
On the other hand, when there is a challenge to a society that is not so severe as to crush it, that society develops a response under elite minorities who lead it to growth and advancement. Thus when Sumer faced the threats from the swamps of Southern Iraq, their response led to irrigation systems and growth in the Sumerian way of life. Similarly, the challenges of winter led to the use of fire which in itself was an advance that in turn led to other advances in cooking, and food preservation. While all this is not against any race, it should be no surprise that Toynbee was accused by some of being a racist. I simply think he was correct and brilliant.
Application to the Tamils of Sri Lanka
Toynbee can be applied with some profit to the challenges faced by Tamil society in Sri Lanka. When the challenge of the civil war overtook us, there were three broad responses. Some of us fled abroad. Did that response lead to growth? I think the Diaspora has done economically well. Jaffna  really had no sustainable society. We produced many educated people who had to leave Jaffna to get jobs. They came back for wives but essentially left us. They left for Colombo but that too was not sustainable when a small group qualified for the best jobs through missionary education. The tensions were mounting – through standardization for example – when the 1983 riots opened many doors to us in the West. Those who never would have gained entry to universities here see their children becoming professionals speaking good English. That and their family discipline make them professionally successful in the West. Culturally? Whether they will remain Tamil is a question. From Tamil society’s point of view, it is a terrible calamity when they marry outside and cease to be Tamil. From their point of view, assimilation is the road to success. In the long term, the cultural values that make the parents successful are likely to disappear in time. Whether they continue to be Tamil or not should not be a measure for their success as individuals. The social ills that beset our now-western brethren may lead their response to turn them into failures. However, it is too early to tell.
The Challenge of those who Resettled in the South
These who moved South have certainly been liberated from Jaffna’s strict way of life. They quickly become bilingual, even trilingual, and are a lot more successful than if they had stayed on in Jaffna. They see more success as those who went to the West come back to pick the best of them as spouses. Whether that s good or bad is, as noted, too soon to tell. Some are becoming Sinhalese. As a Tamil I do feel uncomfortable and even resentful when I see potentially good matches for my children marrying Sinhalese. There is a tendency among Tamils to label them as traitors. However, are they? When they marry Sinhalese and become successful, who are we to say that is wrong? The Tamil community certainly is diminished in numbers and strength. But the individual who left the community probably will be more successful as a Sinhalese. There is nothing from his individual perspective to say it is wrong. 
To be sure, most Sinhalese would say we are one people so what is wrong? It is easy to say that when such mixed couples almost invariably become Sinhalese whose existence in this country is not under threat – whether to life or to culture. In fact, we can see from our own life-time that the West coast North of Colombo has switched from Tamil to Sinhalese. Those who so switched are successful as Sinhalese, although that process has weakened the Tamil community. In fact I would go so far as to say, we were all once Tamils (or Dravidian speakers of some sort) and Buddhism created the Sinhalese people. Is there any right and wrong in that? 

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Patriotic truth and plain truth

Patriotic truth and plain truth

“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite That ever I was born to set it right!” [Hamlet, William Shakespeare]

BY SARATH DE ALWIS-23 September, 2018

HomeThe war was unendurable. It was mind-blowingly vicious. Suicide bombers made a fine art of painting the earth with blood-soaked human innocence. Babies refused to be lulled to sleep. Grandmas stopped praying. Mothers dared not hope. Fathers were marooned in fear and despair.
Mahinda Rajapaksa ended the war. It was under his presidency that the wild screams stopped and the clash of arms ceased. But then, discord took refuge in the deep crevices of human breasts that learnt to breathe silently but surely. The purpose of this essay is to comprehend the silence of that discord that has gained a voice of its own.


Last week, a Sinhala Buddhist Patriot- an Academic and a Professor of the Rajarata University addressed the world in Geneva and focused on that post war discord.

He is described as a Professor of Pharmacology. It explains much about the state of medical education in our seats of higher learning. His attempt before the United Nation’s Human Rights Council to make demonstrated documented history into a Faustian Pharmacology was a shame and much more. It dramatized the lack of respect for human dignity among the so-called professional elite who wants Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be our next President.

When oxygenation of our land ceased to be blemished with the smell of burning human flesh, when we stopped getting shell-shocked by explosions, Gotabaya Rajapaksa presided over the war effort, Chamal Rajapaksa presided in Parliament and Basil Rajapaksa was minding economic affairs.

Therefore, as it was in the case of the mad prince Hamlet, the Rajapaksa family of Medamulana Giruwapattuwa brought sanity to our land. Mahinda and his brothers, his three sons and his entourage found that the time was out of joint and they and they alone readjusted the time, and time was put right.

During his visit to India, in an interview with the Defence analyst and commentator Nitin Gokhale the former President was asked how he managed to do what was considered impossible – vanquishing the ruthless monster Prabhakaran. The interviewer and flatterer extraordinaire Gokhale amplified, “How did you do something that all previous presidents failed to do? I remember you told Prabhakaran that just as he was from the jungles of the North, you were from a similar geography in the deep South”.

A beaming Mahinda responded: “Ah yes! I remember.You see, I had studied Prabhakaran from the ‘70s”.

Here the writer must add a personal note. As a lobby correspondent of the then Evening Observer I had the privilege of reporting the maiden speech of young parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapaksa who seconded the Motion of Thanks on the first policy statement of the 1970 Sirimavo Bandaranaike government. I was privy to the contents of the speech as it was drafted by friend and neighbour the late Prof Mendis Rohandheera, also an eminent son of the soil from Pallaththara in Giruwapattuwa.
Supremely at peace with himself in formulating his alternative truth of how he won the war, he assured the interviewer that he was always convinced that Prabhakaran could be militarily defeated. “I had studied him from the seventies and I knew it could be done.”

The interviewer interposed slickly, “But then, did you not try to negotiate with him?”

“Oh yes. There was the ceasefire agreement. I offered to personally go to the North to negotiate. We sent our team to negotiate in Geneva. The Norwegians were involved. Prabhakaran recalled his representatives.”

The end of the war catapulted President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the peak of political power. His hold over the nation was such that it could be equated with any other post-independence leader. No one held or even dared to aspire to hold such immense authority.

He was absolute master of all that he surveyed. He was much more than President of the Republic. He was the liberator of a vast swathe of occupied territory. He had accomplished what was thought to be impossible. He had no rivals to match his grip over an adulatory nation. His hold on the public psyche of the majority Sinhala people was absolute.

He did what any sensible politician would have done. He decided to consolidate his position of unassailable power. He sought a fresh mandate prior to the expiration of his term in 2011 instead of holding parliamentary elections which were due in 2010.

The opposition – UNP, JVP and the TNA then committed a strategically myopic, politically infantile blunder by fielding the then Army Commander as their common presidential candidate.

A civil war against a separatist terrorist movement to liberate part of its territory became a war of national liberation and a sacrificial struggle to secure the sovereignty of the State.

The opposition decision to co-opt an ambitious General to thwart the politics of a popular President was a disastrous distortion of parliamentary democracy. It had severe repercussions. It bestowed an undeserved political prestige on a soldier whose ambitions far surpassed the worth of his accomplishments and the arrogance of his limited achievement – that of commanding the army – a principal part – but only a part of the tri-forces. It opened the flood gates for military involvement in civilian politics.

The consecrated myth that has mesmerized the Sinhala Buddhist tribe – the ‘Ranaviru’ legend took form. Khaki gained parity with Saffron.

“Our troops went to the battlefront carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other, food for the innocent displaced on their shoulders, and love of their children in their hearts. They did not target any communities or religions and did not march ahead with hatred towards anyone.”

Mahinda Rajapaksa created his authoritative truth. Authoritative truth is not the plain truth. It is not the common-sense truth. All the same it is a form of truth that can develop a life and an existence of its own and even acquire strengths and attributes its creator could not foresee!
Authoritative truths are spiritual truths. They cannot be trifled with. It comes with a kind of expertise that brooks no opposition. It subverts obvious truths to make way for more convenient constructed and made to order versions of truth.

Take the case of the man who appeared before the UNHRC in Geneva, described as an academic and a professor of the Rajarata University. He is a live wire in the Viyath Maga and Eliya that champions Gotabaya Rajapaksa for Presidency. He is a happy musketeer in league with the more prominent two, Dr.Nalaka Godahewa and Admiral Sarath Weerasekera. This academic Professor Channa Jayasumana told the world in Geneva:

“When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka the Sinhalese people were the majority in the Jaffna Peninsula as well as in the rest of Sri Lanka. The Dutch who occupied the coastal areas of the country around 1650 brought the Vellalar Tamils from the present Tamil Nadu for their tobacco plantation in Jaffna”.

The Pharmacologist Academic has not heard or read Philip Baldeus the Dutch Missionary and Ethologist. His narrow exposure to knowledge has exempted him from reading the commentaries of Fernao De Queyroz. Perhaps, his other colleagues – the marketeer and the admiral would have dismissed such literature as an ancient western conspiracy hatched in the 15th and 17th centuries.

Then he offered the final solution. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa solution that waits us. “In 2009 the entire Tamil racist movement was defeated and there is nothing to talk further as the military solution given in Nandikadal is nothing but a political solution. Studying genuine history shows there is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka”.

Sinhala epistle poetry of Sri Rahula thero in the Kotte period makes no reference to the Mahawamsa. That Alagiyawanne Mukaveti wrote Subhashithaya in order to inculcate ethical niceties among the Sinhalese not conversant with civilizational purities known only to those who spoke Sanskrit or Tamil, has escaped the simpleton who a few days ago told the UNHRC in Geneva that Mulaivaikkal was the final solution for the grievances of minorities. But then, he represents the Eliya and the Viyathmaga that wants another Rajapaksa at the helm.

A British Civil Servant discovered the Mahwamsa chronicle in the 19th century. Translated to English and later into Sinhala, it is today, the standard text for power brokers of the post-colonial nation state. It overrides the civic values of our modern Republic.

In that tradition upheld by a self-perpetuating Sinhala first and Buddhist second clerical order Mahinda Rajapaksa became Mahinda the Magnificent- Prince of the Republic.

As the post-war redeemer and liberator, he was our version of a Satya Sai Baba. He produced the ‘Ranaviru vibhuti’ a powerful potion of magic that has managed to intimidate even the successor regime.

Satya Sai Baba predicted that he would enjoy good health and die at the age of 96. He died when he turned 84. His disciples are not deterred. They hold their Bhajans.

Now, S.B. Dissanayake who was a Minister in the Cabinet of President Rajapaksa has remembered that some ‘Ranaviuwos’ may have dispatched some to the great beyond following their capture. In war that kind of thing happens, declared the eminent alumni of Sri Jayewardenepura University.

Inadvertently, but no less significantly, the bumbling Dissanayake admitted that he had knowledge that the security forces had committed a war crime, when they killed LTTE Col. Ramesh after he had been taken alive into custody. The admission came despite the best efforts of his erstwhile colleague Dilan Perera who desperately tried to interject to prevent Dissanayake’s major faux pas.

The ‘Ranaviru’ truth has turned into a terrible menace. That has distorted our sense of civic propriety and the universal concept of the ‘rule of law’. “Our version of the Rule of Law seems to have an exception that allows ‘Ranaviru’ heroes accused of subverting the law to taste ‘tacos ‘in their original home! Viva Alamo! Viva Santa Ana!

The authoritative Ranaviru truth has now turned in to an esoteric truth of the great redeemer who is using his ‘Eliya’ to illuminate the ‘Viyathmaga’ into a new brave world where unmitigated ignorance is unbelievably rewarding to the Sinhala Buddhist Patriot.

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Sri Lanka: Rajani’s questions the Tamil elite have refused to answer

Sri Lanka: Rajani’s questions the Tamil elite have refused to answer

amil Nationalist politics from the LTTE’s legacy and the glorification of Prabhakaran. After all, politicians of the TNA (Federal Party), TNPF (Tamil Congress), Chief Minister Wigneswaran, miscellaneous academics and the mainstream Tamil media compete for ownership of this legacy.

by Rajan Hoole- 

( September 22, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Rains and early gloom harbinger the dying year. Fields are ploughed and sown in readiness for the earth’s renewal and the yield of her bounty. It was at such a time that Rajani was killed by the LTTE 29 years ago. Her questions and aphorisms often challenged our assumptions at their core. The following Appeal authored by her in October 1988 appeared in Laying Aside Illusions signed by 50 academics in the common room of the University of Jaffna:
“We have to examine not only our relations with the Indian and Sri Lankan States, but also ourselves. Our obeisance to terror within the community, our opportunism and lack of principles in the face of many internal killings, have made it easy for external forces to use the same weapons to control us. In the face of our acquiescence to anti-democratic tendencies within the community, our plea for democracy becomes a meaningless exercise. Many individuals and young persons who voiced criticism of the political forces have been victimised, driven away, or killed while we looked on.”
Displayed in that very common room are photographs of our late academics since the inception of the University. The exclusion of Rajani’s picture has been commented upon by visitors for many years. The university authorities in 2014 (I think in retrospect it is wrong to single out the Vice Chancellor) blocked the observance of the 25th Anniversary of her murder while in harness. Her conducting examinations to a timetable made it easy for the killers to plan her murder.
A short stroll away from the common room, the 31st Anniversary of the LTTE’s Thileepan, whose ‘Gandhian’ fast to death under duress, to enable the Leader to snatch a political prize, was, this fall, celebrated as act of martyrdom in a grand ceremony; where the Vice Chancellor gave the lead. A few days later the installation of a monument to the LTTE-inaugurated ‘Tamils Arise’ (Pongu Thamil), was likewise graced by senior university officials.
The result is surreal. These proceedings take place under the tolerant eye of the Sri Lankan security forces, the same forces that in 2014 stopped the Medical Students Union’s commemoration of Rajani by issuing a threat to the Dean by phone.
The same university officials, who are prominent at current ceremonies glorifying the brutal extreme of Tamil Nationalism, put on a different face when dealing with the powers that be in Colombo, by whose tolerance the University continues its course of congenial decay. Its keeping out well qualified academics in order to reinforce a closed tradition of mediocrity, is in keeping with Pongu Thamil and its cult of heroism by which the most intimate and poignant aspects of our history have been reduced to gossip. That is one reason why Rajani is anathema.

Accidental gunshout injury

As a medical doctor in 1982, when hardly anyone else was willing, Rajani readily went in the night to nurse and save the life of Seelan, a favourite of the LTTE leader, who suffered an accidental gunshot injury (see Palmyra Fallen). About two years later in England, she learnt of the internal brutality and intolerance of the movement, and how Seelan was driven to harbour a death-wish, bitterly regretting his actions: In particular his murder of PLOTE’s Sundaram (‘who was a freedom fighter like me’) at the Leader’s behest. Seelan had remained in a marked camp in Themaratchy despite urgent entreaties to vacate and was ambushed by the Army in July 1983.
The zeal Rajani showed in helping the LTTE was transformed into a determination to go back to Jaffna University in 1986, and to challenge it by her activism: How many of our young went to their deaths, after being broken from within by the Movement’s inhuman culture, only to be celebrated as martyrs by our cynical elite? Contempt, and fear, of Rajani’s legacy is again to do with the Tamil elites’ love for the mediocrity of decadence. Her life and experience militated against purveying cheap history of an era that played havoc with our lives and emotions.
On education, one of the priorities after the war should have been to improve the outlook for students and staff by strengthening secular traditions and encouraging a free flow of scholars from around the world. But today instead, religious and political sectarianism stares us in the face in several universities, with the deceptively benevolent connivance of the State.
A political settlement has waited 70 years and will perhaps wait another 70. But the debasement of Jaffna University is fatal to the Tamils remaining a viable community. That in my judgment is the greatest failure of the TNA, which it could easily have corrected. That goes back to the origins of Tamil Nationalism and Rajani’s unanswered questions.
The same questions were raised in the young Tamil journalist Jude Ratnam’s internationally acclaimed documentary Demons in Paradise. The reactions to it from some well-heeled young Tamils provided by BBC are revealing. Jude cannot be accused of being blind to what the Tamils have suffered from the State, but the main criticism of his work presumes that it is necessary to focus on the brutality of the Sri Lankan Army before any attempt at exploring the brutalisation of Tamil culture and its entrapment in an abyss, not allowing us to open our minds and see what the world and its heritage have to offer.
The state of society may indeed be likened to demon possession. The University is not the hub of this phenomenon. It is supported by a worldwide network of pseudo-scholarship, closely aligned to elite Tamil society.
Rajani held that the brutality of the State is secondary in relation to our internal decay and, importantly, that Tiger brutality and intolerance are fruits of the bankruptcy of the Parliamentary politics of the Tamil elite. This was not something that came to her from discussions and browsing around in comfortable surroundings. It began with the huge sacrifices she made in helping the LTTE.

Tamil Nationalism: Loss of Direction and the Fatal Betrayal

We need not waste time today trying to separate Tamil Nationalist politics from the LTTE’s legacy and the glorification of Prabhakaran. After all, politicians of the TNA (Federal Party), TNPF (Tamil Congress), Chief Minister Wigneswaran, miscellaneous academics and the mainstream Tamil media compete for ownership of this legacy. A pseudo-logical argument currently in vogue is that Chelvanayakam who had lost faith in the Sinhalese leadership, blessed the incipient militancy by garlanding Sivakumaran’s statue in Urumpirai, and therefore Prabhakaran as saviour. Rajani trashed the basis of such claims in the Broken Palmyra.

Several Sinhalese MPs who had the interests of the Kandyan peasantry at heart voted against the Citizenship Bill, which sought to deny citizenship to the Plantation Tamils. They included T.B. Subasinghe, T.B. Ilangaratne, H. Sri Nissanka, N.M. Perera, Robert Gunawardena, Kusuma Gunawardena, R.S. Pelpola and I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla. They had to overcome the legacy of hate spawned by Senanayake and Bandaranaike.


Take Sinhalese Nationalism as a political force. Its main authors were Senanayake of the transformed Ceylon National Congress and Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Maha Sabha. From the 1930s they competed tooth and nail with one another, painting apocalyptic scenarios, to deny the vote to the Plantation Tamils. Having by the grace of Governor Caldecott been in power from 1941 without holding elections, by 1946, they rightly discerned that the electoral map had shifted after the slow advance of the Left since the early 1930s. The two rivals thus formed the UNP in order not to split the Sinhalese nationalist vote.
The 1947 Parliamentary elections brought in a minority UNP government which had won 42 of the 95 contested seats and might have not survived, but for divisions in the Left and British support behind the scenes – apart from the tame votes of the five appointed MPs, four Englishmen and a Burgher. With a view to consolidate its tenuous hold, the first two major Bills after independence in February 1948 were anti-labour, the Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill of June and the Citizenship Bill against the estate labour in August.
Senanayake discerned that the successful execution of these Bills involved getting the Tamil Congress (TC) with seven MPs to support the Government. G.G. Ponnambalam fell for the bait of a proffered cabinet portfolio. The Trade Unions Bill was to be the test run for the larger prize. What it sought to do was to weaken the unions by reversing the process in Britain. The British Act of 1927 placed several restrictions on affiliation and federation of unions of government servants. Ceylon’s Act of 1935 followed the British Act. In 1946, the Labour government repealed the 1927 British Act. The Ceylon Government in 1948 moved to tighten the screw further on affiliation and federation in a new Act.
G.G. Ponnambalam’s closing words in the debate were, “I shudder to think of the possibilities when, if collective political objectives are granted, they can become a willing or unwilling instrument of totalitarianism in this country.” It was an invocation of the Communist Bogey. The Tamil Congress, including Chelvanayakam, voted with the Government on the Trade Unions Bill. It was Chelvanayakam’s first and major political blunder. The two Tamils who actively opposed the Bill were Somasundaram Nadesan and E.M.V. Naganathan, in the Senate.
The cost to the Tamils was enormous, when the Tamil Congress pitted itself against the constellation of the most enlightened and sympathetic Sinhalese MPs of all time. Senanayake gave Ponnambalam his portfolio after testing his obedience in the Citizenship Bill.
The record suggests that in order to save his political skin over the Citizenship Bill (20 Aug.), Ponnambalam improperly secured censorship of the Hansard publishing the list of votes by name. One infers that the arrangement was for Tamil Congress MPs to stay in the sidelines away from the debating chamber. Chelvanayakam, for whom it was a question of the heart, broke ranks and spoke and voted against the Citizenship Bill. Although silent, Ponnambalam felt constrained to accompany Chelvanayakam and to also vote against the Bill. It passed 53 for and 35 against. There would have been 40 against, but for the absence of five Tamil Congress MPs. An enterprising journalist revealed how the MPs had voted in the Times of 21st August. In the Senate, Nadesan and Naganathan voted against the Bill. By 2nd September, Ponnambalam had been made Minister.
The Citizenship Act, the greatest blow to the minorities, could have been either stopped or made costly for the Government to proceed with, had the Tamil Congress shown determined resistance.
Having pledged the Plantation Tamils that he would stand up for them, Ponnambalam with his powerful intellect did not utter a word. Had the message been carried loud and clear by the Tamil Congress that the future of the minorities was in jeopardy, the Tamils and Muslims who voted for the Bill, including Ministers Suntheralingam and Sittampalam, would have found it a costly exercise. It was, after all, a weak government selling favours to ensure support for the Bill. The appointed MPs could have been told firmly to keep off.
In this betrayal of the Plantation Tamils, and thereby the minorities, Ponnambalam was urged on by several of the big Tamil names of that time for whom joining the Government was seen as a means of protecting the position of Tamils in government service. Among them were Senators A.B. Rajendra and Chellappah Coomaraswamy. A.J. Wilson in his biography of Chelvanayakam gives several names of prominent Tamils who wanted the Tamil Congress to cooperate with the Government. Among these Tamils were Handy Perinpanayagam and K. Nesiah of the Youth Congress; which appears to have been largely silent on the plight of Plantation Tamils although it was a leading issue during the Donoughmore era.
The greatness of Chelvanayakam lies in his standing by the Plantation Tamils despite the taunts of his own circle of elite Tamils. He would have been terribly isolated if not for Naganathan and the scholarly backing of Nadesan. The relations between the three are an area that remains unexplored. In that phase where the Tamil leadership failed dismally, why Chelvanayakam failed to take the battle into his own hands and move forward, cries for explanation.
The Tamils were thus betrayed by their own elite with its overblown sense of importance. That is hard to swallow and the obsession with finding traitors to blame for our losses has left us with the likeness of demon possession and an ill-disguised satisfaction in the vicarious killing of dissent. The tremendous violations by the Sri Lankan forces, for the sake of the country, require a thorough and credible judicial inquiry; but remember that those who knowingly start a war must bear primary responsibility. All wars in this country from October 1987 were needlessly begun by the LTTE to get control, not over the Sinhalese, but over fellow Tamils, regardless of the accompanying losses in land, human and other assets. Among the poorest, the feeling of loss was compounded by the Government’s neglect of prompt resettlement.
By the beginning of 2009 it was clear to most Tamils which way the civilians wanted to escape in the face of the Army advance, and that the LTTE was killing Tamil escapees. Yet many leading Tamils and TNA leaders kept blaming the Army exclusively for the suffering of Tamils. How little things had changed over 20 years. Rajani described the Indian Army’s massacre at Jaffna Hospital on 21st October 1987:
“The Tigers were there: maybe it was a deliberate ploy on the part of the LTTE. They came in two lots. When the doctors had pleaded with them to leave, the Tigers went away only after firing some rounds widely and leaving some weapons inside. The Indian army came an hour or so later, at which time there was no retaliatory fire.”
To start a war is to play with chaos and murder. There is a limit to which you could blame a soldier on the frontline fighting a war not of his choosing. Those who sustain a war by lies and propaganda, and make the lot of their own people insufferable, are the ones most worthy of blame. That is why the accusations of partiality against Jude Ratnam’s Demons in Paradise have a sinister ring.
Natesa Iyer, one of the great men we were fortunate to have among us, after witnessing the hapless plight of the Plantation Tamils for nearly 20 years, became convinced of the pointlessness of relying on the British or the Indian Government to settle the issue. He averred that they could only resolve the issue by talking to the Sinhalese. Several Kandyan leaders, including Bernard Aluwihare and Senerat Gunawardana held him in high respect, and even after his death in 1947, his hopes were not disappointed. Several Sinhalese MPs who had the interests of the Kandyan peasantry at heart voted against the Citizenship Bill, which sought to deny citizenship to the Plantation Tamils. They included T.B. Subasinghe, T.B. Ilangaratne, H. Sri Nissanka, N.M. Perera, Robert Gunawardena, Kusuma Gunawardena, R.S. Pelpola and I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla. They had to overcome the legacy of hate spawned by Senanayake and Bandaranaike.
It was the Tamil Nationalists who spurned potential Sinhalese allies and isolated themselves by aligning with the Sinhalese Right over the 1948 Trade Unions Bill. We Tamils have gone to the West, to New Delhi and Geneva in search of a settlement that eludes us. Is it not time to look to the Sinhalese through different eyes? That would be something close to the heart of Rajani.
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Menstrual Hygiene, A Necessity Not A Luxury

Menstrual Hygiene, A Necessity Not A Luxury

logoOf 4.2 million menstruating women in Sri Lanka, only 30% use disposable sanitary napkins.[1]Given the stigma surrounding menstruation, many Sri Lankans – including policy makers – are unaware of the impacts of poor menstrual hygiene management (MHM). [2]This is worrying because poor MHM poses significant health risks including urogenital infections and cervical cancer. Additionally, poor MHM may adversely impact female educational performance and female labour force participation.
The problem is not that Sri Lankan women don’t know that menstrual hygiene is important or that they don’t know how to practice better menstrual hygiene.[3]Menstrual health products, like sanitary napkins, are simply too expensive. Indeed, as noted below, the annual cost of good menstrual health management can equal the amount the average household would spend on a two-month supply of rice!
On September 19th Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister indicated that sanitary napkins would be exempted from Cess. This is good progress towards making menstrual hygiene products affordable, however eliminating border taxes won’t fully address poor MHM. By itself, this policy may only advantage a wealthy subset of Sri Lankan women. To impact lower and middle-income households, I recommend the government also exempt sanitary napkins from the Value Added Tax (VAT) and Nation Building Tax (NBT). I further recommend the government provide subsidised menstrual hygiene products to women who cannot afford them.
Health Risks 
The health risks associated with poor MHM include bacterial vaginosis (BV) and urinary tract infection (UTI).[4]A 2017 hospital-based cross sectional study shows that the incidence of UTIs in Sri Lanka is increasing and that increasing resistance is likely to add a significant burden to Sri Lanka’s health budget. UTIs, while common, should not be taken lightly. If untreated, microbes can spread from the urinary tract and cause permanent damage to the kidneys.[5]Cases of BV, another health risk associated with poor MHM, reportedly doubled in Sri Lanka between 2006 and 2010.[6]Numerous studies show that women with BV may be at higher risk of early or preterm birth, loss of pregnancy, pelvic inflammatory disease and the acquisition of sexually transmitted infections.
Studies also consider poor menstrual hygiene a risk factor for cervical cancer[7]- which incidentally, is the second-most common type of cancer for Sri Lankan women.
[8]According to the HPV Information Center, “current estimates indicate that every year 1721 [Sri Lankan] women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 690 die from the disease.”
A controlled study of 486 women concludes that, compared to women using disposable pads, women who used reusable absorbent pads were more likely to have symptoms of urogenital infection or to be diagnosed with at least one urogenital infection.
Gynaecologists recommend products such as disposable sanitation napkins (pads), tampons or cups for better menstrual hygiene. Because such products are intimately linked to a woman’s well-being, they are not ordinary consumer goods, but ought to be considered necessities.
Menstrual Hygiene is currently a Luxury

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The politics of free trade: the Split-Executive and the Joint Opposition

The politics of free trade: the Split-Executive and the Joint Opposition

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Rajan Philips-
It would have been a breath of fresh air for Sri Lankans concerned by the falling rupee to hear the Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy address the country’s currency crisis while participating in a cyber-security forum in Colombo. Contrast that with the odourful nonsense that emanates from the country’s principal political forum. It is the Central Bank more than the cabinet or parliament that is at the wheel for the daily management of the economy. The Governor’s message was grim but honest, and it conveyed the assurance of watchful competence. That is all one can ask for in any and all professional or political decision makers. Contrast again to the time of Dr. Coomaraswamy’s two predecessors, both page boys in buttons to their presidential and prime-ministerial benefactors, and who like drunken sailors ran through the precious forex reserves to protect the rupee only to end up depleting the reserves and depreciating the rupee anyway. The takeaway from the Governor’s message is that the rupee is under attack from powerful exogenous forces, and that the path to replenishing reserves and stabilizing the rupee depends on boosting exports and FDIs.
To be charitable to the UNP half of the government, its pursuit of free trade agreements with different countries may well be intended for the purpose of boosting exports and facilitating FDIs. What is frustrating, however, is that the government has done very little to prepare the domestic economic platform for leveraging the free trade agreements that it is hurrying to forge on multiple external fronts. Even more frustrating, the government has not done the political homework to ensure that the agreements it reaches will have broad support in the country, beyond its MPs in parliament. On top of everything is the country’s split-executive – a president and a prime minister who are supposed to be working jointly but who are pre-occupied with facing off each other at the next presidential election.
All that the government’s sworn detractors have to do is to shout out loudly that the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Singapore is a sell-out, and it is enough to scare the President into ordering a review of the signed agreement by his own panel of experts. And it took a visiting Australian trade expert to publicly admonish the government of the risks involved in retracting from a formal trade agreement which has only recently been signed and is yet to take off. Breaking agreements is Trump’s forte and Sri Lanka is not big enough and cannot be bullying enough to emulate Trump, however much local admirers might be crazy about Trump’s crazier methods.
Multiple Fronts
Regardless, the same UNP half of the government keeps going on pursuing other trade agreements on multiple fronts. Just last week, Sri Lankan trade negotiators were in Bangkok for round two of the trade talks between Sri Lanka and Thailand. The negotiations do not seem to have got the same news coverage in Colombo as they did in Bangkok as well as in other South East Asian media outlets. The news from Bangkok is that the Thai government is quite keen about striking a trade deal with Sri Lanka as soon as possible and is aiming to expand the bilateral trade five-fold from $320 million today to $1.5 billion by 2020. The Thai expectation is to invest in Sri Lankan tourism and to use Sri Lanka as a gateway to the Indian market, as well as to benefit (it is not clear how) from China’s One Belt, One Road initiative using China’s infrastructure footholds in the island. Currently, Thailand has a trade surplus with Sri Lanka – exporting dried fish, rubber and auto-parts totalling $272 million, and importing jewellery, gold and plant products valued at $48 million.
What are the Sri Lankan government’s plans to facilitate export diversification and expansion to take advantage of the trade expansion that Thailand is targeting? Will Sri Lanka exports grow beyond gold and jewellery? More importantly, is the country’s split-executive of one mind on the trade talks with Thailand? Or will the President break loose once again and appoint another committee to review the potential trade deal after the fact? When will the busybody GMOA doctors and other self-serving professionals get in the act to do their mite as accomplished spoilers?
There are other countries besides Thailand that the Sri Lankan government is courting for making trade deals. India and Sri Lanka have been negotiating a new Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA) between the two countries for over two years and involving ten rounds of talks. The government is pursuing ETCA given the political anathema to reaching a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with the big neighbour. The Sri Lankan political misgivings are focussed on Sri Lanka’s apparently large trade deficit with India, and the irrational fear of Indian nationals flooding into Sri Lanka’s job markets. The more practical irritant is the non-trade barriers at the Indian customs to Sri Lankan exports, especially when Indian officials refuse to accept Sri Lankan quality assurance certificates for processed food exports. The Sri Lankan negotiators have been quite insistent on removing these barriers before any finalization of the ETCA.
The fear of an Indian professional and labour invasion is overblown political nonsense but one that cannot be eliminated except through the lived experience under a free trade agreement. The large trade deficit, however, can be explained by the type of traded goods between the two countries and the increasing Indian market opportunities for Sri Lankan exports. In the 15 years after the Sri Lanka-India FTA came into force in March 2000, bilateral trade has expanded seven-fold from under $700 million to $4.9 billion. Sri Lanka’s exports rose nearly twelve-fold from $55 million to $640 million and cover over 4,000 product lines; imports from India rose by a much lesser proportion from $600 million to $4.3 billion. India is the third largest single country importer of Sri Lankan goods and services after the US and the UK,and the second largest exporter to Sri Lanka after China. Also, the imports from India are primarily motor vehicles, fuels and oils, pharmaceutical products, and heavy industrial products like cement, iron and steel, all of which are presumably price-competitive compared to importing from other countries.
Sri Lanka also has had a trade agreement with Pakistan since 2005. The volume of bilateral trade is around $325 million and Sri Lankan exports to Pakistan are valued at $75 million. Sri Lanka is also pursuing free trade talks with China (which is demanding 90% tariff liberalization from Sri Lanka), and with South Korea in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding. Singapore, on the other hand, is a fully liberalized importing country and so there is no need for an FTA to remove tariffs for Sri Lankan exports. The incentive is for facilitating the flow of FDIs and services from the City-state while removing tariffs on 80% of imports from Singapore over a period of 15 years. The broader benefits could be access to the regional markets of ASEAN countries and the even wider RCEP markets – the potential Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership involving the ten ASEAN countries and the six Asia-Pacific countries comprising: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
In the end trade agreements are easier signed than politically sold. Governments with strong and purposive leadership can navigate them through troubled waters. Unfortunately, the present government is not only weak on its feet, but is also split in its head. The opposition to free trade has no serious alternative to offer. Its more voluble members consider themselves to be distant cousins of Brexit supporters in England and the Trump base in the US. But Sri Lanka is neither Britain nor the US, and cannot survive without trade. What is more, there are serious second thoughts about Brexit in England, and there is deep buyers’ remorse among the Americans over the Trump presidency.
Free trade has its advantages and disadvantages. The answer is not blind patriotism or protectionism, but smart regulations that have been tried in many agreements and can be adapted to suit different situations. The onus is on the Sri Lankan government to demonstrate that its agreements have the necessary regulations to address such concerns as labour migration, working conditions, environmental protection and cultural preservation. The duty of the opposition and other stakeholders is to make sure that these regulations are, in fact, in place.
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Money Talks: some facts around the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee

Money Talks: some facts around the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee

GROUNDVIEWS- 

The Sri Lankan rupee has depreciated against the US dollar on several occasions this year first on June 11 and then on June 20, when its value stood at Rs. 161.17. Reports that the value of the rupee was falling again began the week of September 17, when it was at Rs. 165.34, and continued till the 21st, where it now stands at Rs. 170.56 against the dollar.

In the past few months, the media has reported continuing currency depreciation. Reactions on social media indicate that there is limited understanding of the factors that contribute to the drop and its implications. This has become a topic of discussion in the political sphere; many are quick to blame the government and various other actors for their negligence of the economy.

Shiran Fernando, Chief Economist of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, notes that in the year 2017, currencies like Sri Lanka benefited from a better environment globally,  supported by a weaker US dollar. In a comment to Groundviews, he explained that this year, factors such as a strengthening US dollar – which is based on improving indicators in the US economy and expectations for further interest rate hikes – coupled with the US-China trade wars have dampened global investment confidence. The impact has been felt therefore in emerging markets like Sri Lanka. He clarified that currencies of India and Pakistan have seen above 10% depreciation against US dollar so far this year, while the Indonesian rupiah has lost almost 10% and is currently at its lowest level since the Asian financial crisis two decades ago.

Nevertheless, there have been certain myths perpetuated as a result of the discussion on currency depreciation. There are several factors at play in determining exchange rates of a country’s currency. They are far from clear cut, and the explanations that Groundviews has provided are given assuming that all other factors remain constant. The following was compiled with information provided by several economists working in the public, private and development sectors.

  1. Most people interpret the depreciating rupee as having a negative impact on our ability to pay back national debt.

There is a currency mismatch, in that we borrow in dollars, generate rupees and still pay back in dollars. Therefore while the our debt increases in rupee terms, weakening our debt indicators, it doesn’t make an impact in terms of debt repayment. The key is to ensure that we are earning enough dollars to be able to pay back our dollar liability, through increased exports of goods and services or through Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

In these cases, Sri Lanka would still be paying back more in terms of the rupee, and the increase of foreign exchange reserves is key to ensure that debt doesn’t balloon beyond the existing value. In May 2018, the Central Bank stated that the country ‘has sufficient reserves to meet its external debt servicing obligations’. It is important to note that these reserves are also borrowed, and their depletion would contribute to the debt amount. Therefore Dr. Harsha De Silva, State Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs, stated that the depreciation could not be managed by releasing these reserves.

  1. The depreciating rupee will increase Sri Lanka’s oil import bill in line with global trends, and Sri Lanka’s recent fuel price adjustment was necessary to respond to this.

Fuel price hikes are often met with widespread protests, especially from farmers and fishermen. Their dependence on fuel for their livelihood is compounded by the low yield or unpredictable weather that can often impact these two industries.

  1. While a depreciating currency is not necessarily reflective of a weakening economy, the Sri Lankan rupee is a currency that is constantly depreciating.

This indicates structural imbalances that have gone unaddressed, such as low productivity in the economy and imports being persistently higher than exports.

The drought that persisted across the North-Western, North-Central, Northern and Eastern provinces last year is likely to have contributed to the current situation. Rice harvests nearly halved during this period, pushing communities into food insecurity. To encourage imports, taxes were cut further, and an emergency stock of 500,000 tons of rice were imported.

  1. An appreciating rupee doesn’t necessarily indicate a strong economy.

This would make imported goods cheaper for the Sri Lankan consumer. However, given that Sri Lanka is not earning enough from its exports, over-dependency on cheap imports could, in the long run, negatively impact the economy. A stronger rupee would make Sri Lanka’s exports relatively more expensive for buyers in the global market, because the USD can now buy less, therefore making us less competitive.

While the country’s exports reached an all-time high of 1108 million USD in March of 2018, the economists Groundviews consulted were of the opinion that the country’s trends and consistency of exports do not warrant this confidence.

  1. Exchange rates: if the US Dollar (USD) appreciates, the Sri Lankan Rupee will automatically depreciate, this is not reflective of the economy of individual countries.

The rising USD has impacted the currencies of other emerging markets, in some cases more sharply than it has impacted Sri Lanka. This is because of changing United States federal policy, and is not determined by the strength of other countries’ economies.

Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera pointed out that the Sri Lankan rupee has depreciated by 7.4 per cent while Indian rupee has depreciated by 13.5, Pakistan rupee by 12.1 per cent, Indonesian rupiah by 9.1.

Ravi Ratnasabapathy, a fellow of the Advocata Institute, thinks that some of the panicked reactions to the depreciation are likely to be informed by the recent report published by Nomura Holdings Inc. It erroneously noted Sri Lanka’s short-term external debt and listed it alongside Argentina and Turkey on an index of countries likely to experience crisis in the period ahead. The Central Bank has since issued a clarification and has requested that Nomura do the same.

Undue pressure by politicians and other actors sometimes push the government to take hasty, reactive measures to depleting currencies. It was hasty measures such as this, where the country’s borrowing far exceeded its export value, that helped Sri Lanka’s fall into the debt trap that it is in today.

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