By Brian Senewiratne –
On January 8, 2015, what everyone thought was impossible occurred. Mahinda Rajapaksa who intended to be there for the foreseeable future, was tossed out of office at a Presidential election – a ‘political coup’ if ever there was one.
Maithripala Sirisena was elected President. He has now had a year in office and it is possible to see what changes he has done and will do in the future.
Of particular concern is the plight of the Tamil people in the North and East who have suffered the most serious violation of human rights at the hands of the (Sinhalese) Armed Forces who run the area and behave as an Army of Occupation and treat the people in the area as the ‘Spoils of War’ to be used and abused.
Will any of this change? The information to date, a year later (January 2016), is that it will not change. Sirisena has been emphatic that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces will remain in the North and East. Since the members of the Armed Forces are primarily responsible for most of the violation of human rights it is simply not possible to believe that anything will improve.
A premature Presidential election
With signs of dwindling political support in the country (as shown by a major setback in the recent provincial council elections), the then President Rajapaksa decided to have a snap Presidential election in January 2015, two years before it was due. In the Uva Province and Western Province elections in 2014, his party got a hiding. In Uva, votes for his party slumped from 72% in 2009, to 52% in 2014; in the Western Province, from 63% to 52%.
With the confidence of a dictator, he claimed that he will be the only candidate, implying that no one would (or dare to) contest him. The Opposition, and even his own party, had other ideas. In the scramble for a ‘common candidate’ to oppose him, several people were approached –including Chandrika Kumaratunga (the former Head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to which Rajapaksa belongs and who was sacked by him) and Ranil Wickremesinghe, (leader of the main Opposition Party – the United National Party – UNP). There was no decision.
On 21 November 2014, in one of the most amazing ‘political coups’ the country has ever seen, President Rajapaksa’s close friend, Cabinet Minister Maithripala Sirisena, Minister of Health and General Secretary of the SLFP, said he would contest President Rajapaksa as the ‘common opposition candidate’. President Rajapaksa promptly sacked Minister Sirisena, but that was not the end of the story – rather, the beginning.
At a media conference, flanked by Chandrika Kumaratunga and several SLFP heavyweights, he said:
“Thuggery, embezzlement, crime, drug mafia, nepotism and corruption have institutionalized under the Executive Presidency but alas President Rajapaksa or his government has done little to arrest this horrible and dangerous situation”. He said that the incumbent regime was “engulfed in nepotism, corruption and the abuse of the rule of law”.
Sirisena was, of course, part of Rajapaksa’s government. The question is why he continued to remain in the government and not resign in protest .
With no holds barred, he went on to say why he was coming forward:
“The entire socioeconomic and political systems of this country have been taken over by one family. They have ruined this country that is now engulfed in corruption and blatant abuse of power. It is against this that I am coming forward as the common candidate of the opposition”.
He went on to say what he would do if elected:
“I will abolish the Executive Presidency in 100 days after being elected as the President. I will restore the rule of law by reactivating the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and make the Police, Elections, Public Service and the Judicial Service Commissions fully independent. The President will be made answerable to the legislature and create a people’s government that enjoy real peace, prosperity and happiness”.
Unfortunately he did not say that he will allow internationally credible human rights organisations such as Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and International Crisis Group (ICG), into the country, demilitarise the Tamil areas or remove the obnoxious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which has been condemned by every major human rights group in the world and been used for extensive violation of human rights.
Exiting the SLFP with Sirisena were several Ministers and MPs. Other parties joined in. This included the Buddhist monk’s party, the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya), the Tamil National Alliance and the Muslims.
Short of massive election rigging, the murder of Sirisena or a military coup, Sirisena was set to win the elections.
The 2015 Presidential election
There are several factors, internal and external, that were responsible for the Presidential election and the appearance of Maithripala Sirisena as ‘The Common Candidate’ to contest Rajapaksa.
The internal factors were the escalating cost of living (because of increasing foreign debt, borrowing from the IMF and the inevitable conditions imposed by the IMF which always have an adverse effect on the people in the country), gross misuse of power with no accountability, corruption at a level not seen before, a complete breakdown in law and order with thugs and hooligans who seem to be protected by the Rajapaksa regime, and the fact that the war might be over but there were no flow-on benefits for the majority Sinhalese.
The external factors are complex and secretive. The truth might never fully be revealed. The United States was probably involved. Mahinda Rajapaksa was looking more and more towards Beijing and not at Washington. China was getting too much of a foothold in Sri Lanka – astride the economically and militarily crucial Indian Ocean. The US administration wanted a regime change. India was getting concerned at the Chinese presence on its doorstep.
There are important points about Sirisena’s victory.
- Sirisena won a majority in virtually every district with a large minority presence – Tamil, Muslim or Catholic. The Muslims in Mutur gave him a thumping 87%, the Tamils in Jaffna 78% and the Negombo Catholics 67% of the votes. If the Tamils and Muslims in the Tamil areas had not voted for him, or had abstained from voting, Sirisena would have lost.
- Sirisena lost in every district with a Sinhala-Buddhist majority, except Polonnaruwa, his home..
- To say that “Sirisena was swept to power” is nonsense. He scraped in, getting less than half a million votes more than his opponent.
It was a very close call. If the Tamil-speaking people in the North and East had not voted for Sirisena (or had abstained from voting as they did in 2010), Sirisena would have lost. He would have been heading for jail (as happened to Rajapaksa’s opponent in the 2010 Presidential election, ex-general Sarath Fonseka) or to use his words “I and my family would be seven feet underground”.
Attempted military coup
There were strong rumours that as the election results were coming in and defeat was highly likely, President Rajapaksa attempted a military coup which was prevented by Attorney General Yuvanjan Wijayatilake, Solicitor General Bimba Thilakaratne and a handful of fellow public servants. This was an attempt to get legal permission from the Attorney General for what was treason, which fortunately failed.
The new Government has said that this planned coup will be investigated. If it is and there is evidence that can be presented in a Court of Law, the criminals responsible could be convicted of treason.
While this alleged coup was only a rumour, Mangala Samaraweera, the External Affairs Minister (Foreign Minister) in the Sirisena government addressed the Sri Lankan parliament on 2 February 2015:
“I hope the honourable members of Parliament remember that I have made a complaint to the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) based on reliable information that Mr. Mohan Pieris (the ‘Chief Justice appointed by Rajapaksa) was part of the conspiracy to prevent this government taking office – attempting to impede the one democratic process most crucial to the proper functioning of our society”
If the alleged ‘plotters’ – President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, Western Provincial Council Minister Udaya Gamanpilla, and the sitting Chief Justice of The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, the Highest Court in the Land, Mohan Pieris, are found guilty, they could find themselves behind bars for treason.
Will Sirisena allow all this? I doubt it since he has already made it very clear that he will not allow members of the previous regime (in which he was one) or the Armed Forces, to be ‘punished’. That is not surprising.
What has changed
The authoritarian regime run by President Rajapaksa, his family and supporters has ended. The extensive Presidential powers might come to an end if Sirisena gets a 2/3 majority in Parliament which is needed to change the Constitution and restore Parliamentary government.
What has NOT changed
There is no evidence that the authoritarian military regime in the Tamil North and East will end.
The question now is whether Sirisena will address the problems facing the Tamil people (whose vote resulted in his election as President). There is nothing so far that he has said or done that is optimistic (for the Tamil people).
1. The Army stays in the Tamil areas.
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have stated in the clearest possible language that the Army will stay in the Tamil area. If the Army that has been responsible for much of the most serious violations of human rights in the Tamil North and East is to stay there, there is no reason to believe that anything will improve for the Tamils.
2. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) will not be revoked
The ‘terrorists’ have been crushed. As such there is no valid reason to have a PTA except to terrorise the people (in the North and East – the Tamil and Muslim people.)
This is the Act under which so many illegal arrests, detention without charge or trial, disappearances, rape, torture and other human rights violations have occurred. This completely unacceptable Act which has been condemned by every human rights organisation, will stay.
3. International Human rights groups (AI, HRW, ICG) will not be admitted
There is no mention that these internationally credible human rights organisations will be admitted to the country indicating that there is something to hide.
4. He will not cooperate with the UN Human Rights investigation into war crimes
Sirisena has emphatically stated that no external body will investigate anything in Sri Lanka. He will have a domestic investigation. Given the history of such investigations, this does not generate much optimism.
The outstanding 60-page publication by Amnesty International “Twenty Years of Make-Believe. Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry[i] sets this out better than any other.
When interviewed on 6 February 2015 by Inter Press Service about President Sirisena’s statement that he will conduct a domestic investigation, Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch said “We do not expect the government to conduct serious investigation”. He specifically mentioned the former Head of the Army, Sarath Fonseka, being a member of the current government thereby politicising any such domestic investigation.
While Sirisena has probably rescued Sri Lanka from a Totalitarian regime, and will probably restore the rule of law in the Sinhalese areas, none of this will be of any interest to the Tamils in the North and East whose problems are insecurity. If he is genuine about his claim that he will bring peace to all the people in the country, he cannot do that unless he implements the first three of the above list – something he is very unlikely to do.
As for dismantling the Executive Presidency he needs a 2/3 majority in Parliament which is necessary for changes to the Constitution. He simply does not have this and as such, can do nothing.
Militarisation of the Tamil North and East
Militarisation of the North and East continues at unacceptably high levels, with soldiers and police engaged in the monitoring of the civilian population. There is one member of the Armed Forces for every five civilians. The military controls virtually all aspects of life, including a large part of the economy. After her 2013 visit to Sri Lanka, the then UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay said that “the prevalence and level of involvement of soldiers in the community seem much greater than is needed for strictly military or reconstruction purposes.”[ii]
She said that the high militarization was “seen by many as oppressive and intrusive, with the continuing high level of surveillance of former combatants and returnees at times verging on harassment.”
The Armed Forces maintain a network of informers in every village creating an atmosphere of fear.
The military have to be informed of every meeting or function in the North and East, even a private event such as a funeral or a wedding, resulting in a feeling of intimidation and insecurity.
President Sirisena says that lands will be returned to their rightful owners. He has already abrogated on this and said that some of the land currently occupied by the Armed Forces will be ‘needed for security’. I cannot see that land ‘acquired’ (stolen) by the Armed Forces and others, and developed into thriving businesses, will be handed over to Sirisena or anyone else.
At the time of writing in Vallikamam North in the Jaffna District in the North, the Army holds 6,000 acres of land, originally belonging to private citizens. The Government announced in the first week of February 2015, that only 1,000 acres would be handed back to the original owners. It appears that the Government can ‘extract’ only 1,000 acres from the military, which is precisely what has just been stated. Even this has not been done, indicting that President Sirisena has already lost control – in that the Armed Forces can simply ignore what he says and can get away with it.
A process of ‘Sinhalisation’ (moving Sinhalese from the South to the Tamil areas) is underway. In an interview (Daily Mirror 4 July 2013) Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said it is “unnatural” for the North to be predominantly Tamil:- “If the situation was normal there would have been more and more Sinhalese in the Northern Province… When 78% of this country comprises Sinhalese how does such a vast landmass in the North become 98% Tamil? Isn’t this unnatural? This was forced. Natural growth was prevented.” [iii]
Sinhalese officials are increasingly becoming the decision makers in the administration.
Scores of Buddhist temples have been erected in the Tamil North and East even though the people in the area are Hindus or Christians. A new word had to be coined ‘Buddhistisation’
War monuments glorifying the army are being erected and cemeteries where Tamil militants (and even Tamil civilians) have been buried are being bulldozed, so that the Tamils cannot even grieve.
Street names are being changed from Tamil to Sinhala to wipe out anything that is Tamil – even a street name.
Education of Tamil children is being conducted by Sinhalese (almost all of them former military people) who have no expertise in teaching and even less knowledge of Tamil or Tamil culture. This is a deliberate erosion of Tamil culture.
The clear intention is to make multiethnic, multireligious, multilingual, multicultural Sri Lanka into a Sinhala-Buddhist nation. This is religious, linguistic, economic and cultural genocide, in addition to being physical genocide.
There does not seem to be a change in this attitude consequent to the appointment of the new President. Although it is hoped that this will change, it is a hope that is not founded on evidence.
Sirisena, who knows all this, still says that he will not allow an international investigation but he will conduct a national investigation. There is a very real possibility that a proper international investigation might well find him, a senior member of the Rajapaksa regime and the acting Defence Minister in the closing stages of the war when most of the serious violations of human rights were taking place, culpable.
Governor of the Northern Province
Sirisena in a much-trumpeted move, replaced the military Governor of the Northern Province, G.A.Chandrasiri, by a civilian Governor, H.M.G.S.Palihakkara, a veteran diplomat. He might be a veteran diplomat but is also a downright liar. He was the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations (August 2008- August 2009). During the final months of the armed conflict, he defended the Sri Lankan military at the United Nations Security Council, denying that they fired heavy weapons into the “No Fire Zone”[iv][v] That was a blatant lie as was amply documented by (UK) Channel 4 News Killing Fields of Sri Lanka and my dvd Sri Lanka: Genocide, Crimes against Humanity, Violation of International Law. The latter, obtained from actual footage obtained from the ground, clearly shows bombing and shelling of the area which Palihakkara assured the UN Security Council did not happen. That makes him a downright blatant liar, and a liar to the UN Security Council. He is hardly the man to be appointed as the Governor of the Northern Province.
Palihakkara has recently announced that anyone can settle anywhere in Sri Lanka. That clears the way for ‘Sinhalisation’ of the Tamil areas.
Poverty levels in the former conflict zone continue to be unacceptably high, notwithstanding the government’s frequent references to efforts aimed at reconstruction. Some sources estimate that as many as 90,000 people still remain displaced in the North and East,[vi] although precise figures are not available. One recent report noted that children in these areas are dropping out of school due to the effects of poverty on their families, and yet this is an area where families insisted that children go to school even under bombardment during the war[vii].
The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay described civilians in the former conflict area as “scratching out a living among the ghosts of burned and shelled trees ruined houses and other debris of the final battle of the war” She spoke of the “profound” and “massive” trauma of the survivors and questioned why the Sri Lankan government restricted NGOs from performing counselling work.
According to Sri Lanka’s own Department of Census and Statistics, 53% of the urban population, 73% of the rural population and 81% of the tea estate (Tamil) population do not receive the minimum income necessary to pay for food and other basic needs:
“A family of four in the urban sector needed an income of Rs 59,000 for their monthly food and other basic requirements, while a family of four in the rural sector needed Rs 37,560 and a family of four in the estate (tea) Rs 29,000.”
The majority of families in all three sectors do not earn this minimum monthly income. The result is malnutrition, especially in the Tamil North and East, and especially in children. It also results in bribery and corruption.
For example, bribing the Armed Forces and the Police is often the only way to rescue people who are being held by them in detention (and tortured or sexually abused) or for people to escape from the country.
Although there are many reasons for poverty in Sri Lanka, an important one is the robbing of the country by members of the Rajapaksa clan and their henchmen. Another is maintaining a massive Army, some 300,000+ – the largest number of military people per capita of civilians in any country in the world. While the former might change with the new President, the latter will definitely not change since he has not, so far, mentioned anything about the reduction in the military. Indeed, military expenditure is escalating (see below).
The new President has said that ‘white van’ abductions will stop. While the ‘white vans’ run by Gotabaya Rajapaksa will stop, those run by others will not stop since it is such a lucrative business. The usual sequence is – abduct, torture, assault and sexually molest until ‘ransom money’ is paid. Unless the penalties are severe, I cannot see that this will stop. Sirisena is too weak and insecure to see that the penalties are severe
Protection of religious minorities
Protection of religious minorities is of growing urgency in an environment of resurgent Buddhist extremism.
Hundreds of Christian churches and Hindu temples have been destroyed by mobs, often led by Buddhist monks. They have either not been repaired or if repaired, destroyed again. In many places they have been replaced by Buddhist temples or statutes.
Recently the Muslims have come under attack by militant Buddhist monks. This is a new and dangerous phenomenon. These attacks are tacitly supported, if not encouraged, by the government.
Nobody has been prosecuted in connection with any of these of these violent attacks. As a result, these attacks are increasing. The message is that this is a Buddhist country.
One political group in President Sirisena’s disparate collection of political groups is the Buddhist extremist group, the Jathika Hela Urumaya JHU). This is an extremely pro-Sinhala-Buddhist group. I cannot see them allowing the ‘Buddhistization’ of the Hindu Tamil North and East to stop.
The new President has to this day not even dared to mention that he will address the political problems faced by the Tamils. He has not even mentioned the word ‘Tamil’ for fear of offending the majority Sinhalese. I simply cannot see how he will address the considerable problems faced by the Tamil people which have been at the bottom of the entire conflict between a succession of Sinhalese-dominated governments and the Tamils from the dawn of Independence in 1948.
Life in the Tamil North and East
The most serious problem facing the Tamil people in the North and East is that they cannot live a normal life, they can only exist. They have lost their lands, they cannot fish, do agriculture or commercial activity. All of this is now done by the Armed Forces or by Sinhalese brought from the South and encouraged to settle in this area with financial and other help from the Government. The Tamil people can only watch and hope for a change which is certainly not coming despite the brutal barbaric Rajapaksa regime being replaced by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.
The problems facing the Tamil people in the North and East
There are major problems facing the Tamil people in the North and East which have not even been focused on, let alone addressed by President Sirisena and the de facto President Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Judging from what has gone on in the past year in office there is absolutely no indication that they will be.
Fear is the major problem and is based on day to day life. It is fear of the (Sinhalese) Armed Forces and Police. It is fear of sexual violence, especially of the Tamil women and girls and even Tamil boys, by the Armed Forces, Police and their friends. This will obviously persist as long as the completely ruthless Armed Forces and Police (said to one the most corrupt in the world) remain in the North and East.
Insecurity and suicide
It is insecurity in a number of areas – .physical, economic, educational, religious, and cultural. This is the result of the “Mahavamsa mind-set’ of the rulers in Colombo – whether they be the Rajapaksa or the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe duo. Any hope that this will change is totally unrealistic.
Professor Daya Somasunderam, Professor of Psychiatry, Jaffna University, has just released his research findings for suicide in Jaffna. At the beginning of what has been called ‘Eelam War IV’ (August 2005-May 2009), the suicide rate in Jaffna district was 23 per 100,000 population of a total population of about 500,000. It fell to as low as 15 per 100,000 at the peak of the ‘war’ when Tamil society was under severe threat. After the ‘war’ it has risen sharply to exceed 25 per 100,000.
He said that this was because during the ‘war’ frustrations were better managed because there was a strong social support system cushioning the various kinds of trauma and stresses.
After the ‘war’ social cohesion and social support systems under the brutal Sri Lankan Armed Forces that run the area, began to wear thin as families got splintered. Economic deprivation, which continues to this day as the Armed Forces and supporters of an unimaginative government ‘rehabilitation’ policy, created family splits and interpersonal issues. ‘Social capital’ has dwindled, and there is no longer a fall back position during stressful situations which include economic deprivation by the Armed Forces taking over economic activity and the entirely justified possibility, indeed reality, of arbitrary arrest for ‘questioning’, detention, torture and rape.
The only thing the Tamils in the North and East can do is to leave the country. It is only a minute number who can afford to pay ‘people smugglers’ for this very expensive (and hazardous journey. The rest have no option but to remain ‘non-people’ to suffer in silence.
Loss of hope
Not surprisingly, the Tamils in this area have lost hope. Psychiatric problems, especially depression and suicide are on the rise. None of this is reported in the media in Sri Lanka or outside the country. The situation is serious and has not improved by a change in the (Sinhalese) governing party in Colombo.
The chaos in education was dealt with by Professor Somasunderam in the Anandarajan Memorial Lecture 3rd October 2015, in St. John’s College, Jaffna. It was titled “A Lost Generation of Tamil Youth – Impact of Past War Trauma, Present Psychosocial Context, Education and Globalization” It is an extremely worrying address which is available on the net.
Tea Plantation workers
In my article on Sri Lanka submitted for publication a few hours ago, one of the most serious omissions was any reference to the Plantation Tamils in the tea estates. I can only express my sincere regret. I immediately contacted Colombo Telegraph to ask whether this could be corrected.
The Plantation Tamils, erroneously referred to as ‘Indian Tamils’ have been the most neglected group of workers in Sri Lanka and have been, since Independence in 1948., The first act (1948-1949) of the newly independent country, then Ceylon, was to decitizenise and disenfranchise nearly a million of them, one seventh of the population of the country at the time, in one of the most outrageous acts of political irresponsibility anywhere in the world. This was followed by the deportation of thousands of workers to India, a country their ancestors had left in mid 1855 and which they did not know.
There no space here to go into their plight over the years that followed. All that can be done is to draw attention to their current state – workers whose sweat and toil under impossible conditions has put Sri Lanka on the map and continues to do so.
A few weeks ago I obtained photographs of their outrageous living conditions which are no different to what they were when I worked with these people back in 1968.It is a national disgrace unknown to the outside world or even to those in Sri Lanka.
Their ‘trade unions’ function as the industrial police for employers and the government.. All the trade unions have played an utterly treacherous role in suppressing any independent struggle by plantation workers.
* In 2006, amid a huge strike movement, the unions fell into line when President Mahinda Rajapakse accused them of sabotaging the war effort against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
* In 2009, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) signed a sell-out deal with employers while the Upcountry People’s Front (UPF) and other oppositional unions claimed to support a go-slow campaign by tens of thousands of workers. But this was only to bring the opposition of workers under control and shut it down.
* In 2011, the trade unions, under government pressure, hurriedly signed a collective agreement with the companies that tied workers to a no-strike clause for two years in return for an insignificant wage rise. When workers took strike action against arbitrary increases to production targets, the CWC declared their action illegal and collaborated with management and the police to intimidate the strikers.
* In 2013, the unions secretly signed a collective agreement in violation of the democratic rights of plantation workers which granted another meagre wage increase in exchange for a productivity clause that is being exploited to arbitrarily increase the workload of workers.
All the unions are tied in one way or another to the political establishment. The CWC was part of the previous government and did its bidding. The leaders of the UPF, the National Union of Workers (NUW) and Democratic Workers Union (DWU) are all ministers in the present government. They promised a wage rise to plantation workers after the August parliamentary election, but then denounced the CWC for demanding too much!
Employers are pressing for a far-reaching restructuring of the work regime that will abolish all social benefits, while empowering management to unilaterally decide production targets for each worker, as well as the payment per kilogram of leaves.
The Plantation Association (PA) is dragging out negotiations and enlisting the support of the government and trade unions in imposing these harsh measures on the workforce. Citing cash flow problems, it emphasised the need for government support to “extend the existing Collective Agreement on wages for a further one year period” and to “strike a deal with the trade unions.”
Here is just one example. More than 200,000 plantation workers have been forced to work for an unprecedented nine months without a new wage contract, after the previous one expired in March 2015. Their In fact, the daily gross pay of a worker is only 620 rupees (US$ 4) and can be even lower after deductions for days absent and unfulfilled targets. This is lower than any other working group in the country and their living standards are worse than the living conditions of any other workers. Their trade unions have colluded with successive Sri Lankan governments, rather than act to improve their living conditions work and pay of these people who continue to struggle What the PA is targeting is all those benefits that have been traditionally granted to workers , including paid leave, medical support, child care services and housing. The employers do not regard these as basic rights for workers but as illegitimate deductions from company profits.
The Planters’ Association has rejected, not only a new daily wage of 1,000 rupees ($US7) initially proposed by the trade unions, but any pay rise, and is seeking to make deep inroads into the living standards of workers.
The unions have colluded with the government and employers to block any struggle by estate workers for decent pay and conditions. With the complicity of the unions, police arrested dozens of workers in May 2015 and again in July 2015 in the Maskeliya and Norwood plantations in the Nuwara-Eliya district and the Ganepalla estate in Kegalle district. Their “crime” was to take action to oppose the unfair and arbitrary increase of workloads and they now face court on trumped-up charges
The situation is set to get worse. Action is even more urgent today amid the deepening crisis of global capitalism. The tea plantations in Sri Lanka are going to be “restructured”, so that plantation workers do more work for less pay.
Workers have no illusions in President Maithripala Sirisena, who was installed with Washington’s backing in the January election, or the United National Party (UNP) government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP and Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are both big business parties with long records of defending corporate profit at the expense of working people.
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe came to power claiming to have carried out a “democratic revolution.” Yet, not even a year in office, the government has used the police against rural protesters demanding clean drinking water and students demonstrating in defence of free education, as well as plantation workers taking action to defend conditions.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is unlikely to address this outrageous situation. President Sirisena’s ‘100 day’ program did not even mention the problem, let alone a promise that it will be addressed.
Abuse of power by Police
Human Rights Watch has just (October 2015) released a worrying report[i] “We live in constant Fear” Lack of Accountability for Police abuse in Sri Lanka.. It says:
“We found that police frequently use torture to try to obtain confessions rather than undertaking the more difficult and time-consuming process of gathering evidence through investigations. Police also use beatings and other forms of torture to punish suspects they believe are guilty, instead of leaving the matter properly to the courts. Our findings corroborate those of domestic human rights defenders who report that the use of torture and other ill-treatment is common, even for minor offenses”.
It deals with the situation in the whole country, not just the Tamil area. In fact, most of the cases in the report are of Sinhalese in the South.
It refers to the new Sirisena regime:
“The president, prime minister and other senior government figures should start with a clear message that police abuse will not be tolerated and that violators will now be held to account for any past and ongoing human rights abuses”.
Sirisena is too weak to do anything about this outrageous situation.
It has been widely reported that the Sri Lankan Police are the most corrupt in the world, and that is unlikely to change.
A country with two Presidents.
Since the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as President in November 2005, the country has had two Presidents – an elected President, Mahinda Rajapaksa and a de facto President, his brother the Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Raja[aksa.
The same continues under the new regime. The elected President is Maithripala Sirisena and the de facto President, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
It is the de facto President who runs the country and makes the decisions. Examples will be found in my book: ‘Sri Lanka: Sexual Violence of Tamils by the Armed Forces’ part of which is on the net. The elected President is a mere figure-head who in the current regime is not even that. Some five months after being elected, Sirisena actually said “I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing.” If the President of the country does not know what he should be doing, it is obviously a serious matter.
The ‘Mahavamsa mind-set’ The legend
One of the most serious problems – if not the most serious, is the ‘Mahavamsa mind-set’ of the Sinhalese. This is based on an absurd legend The Mahavamsa (the ‘Great Chronicle) written by a Buddhist monk Mahanama in the 4th Century AD about what he thought occurred in the 5th Century BC. It says that the Sinhalese are the descendents of an Indian Prince, Vijeya, the grandson of a lion (hence the lion on the Sri Lankan flag).
It then gets into dangerous nonsense by claiming that Buddha on his death bed said that Vijeya was landing in Lanka ‘today’ and could the ‘King of Gods’ make Lanka the custodian of his teaching. Hence, Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist country. It glorifies the Sinhalese as protectors of Buddhism and saviours of the nation, and derides the Tamils as invaders, vandals, marauders and heathens. To be fair by the author, he said he was writing this ‘for the serene joy of the pious”. He did not say that it was a textbook of history – which is what the Sinhalese believe.
As Voltaire so rightly said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”. This is what has happened in Sri Lanka since Independence in 1948, and for years before that. This is the “Mahavamsa mind-set” of the Sinhalese. The foremost proponents of this ethno-religious extremism are the politically active Buddhist monks who have been the curse of Sri Lanka.
If the Sinhalese do not abandon this Mahavamsa mindset – that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist country, there is no alternative to the establishment of a separate Tamil State, Tamil Eelam. It is as simple as that.
It is obvious that Sirisena has the same ‘Mahavamsa mindset’. If he does not, he simply does not have the courage to do anything to challenge this mindset of the majority Sinhalese, in particular that of the Buddhist monks who wield enormous power in Sri Lanka.
The blatant lies of the Sri Lankan President
A serious problem has been the downright lies of the Sri Lankan government – be it under J.R.Jayewardene, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa, or Maithripala Sirisena.
Rajapaksa dismissed overwhelming evidence of war crimes saying that the Army was involved in a “humanitarian operation with zero civilian casualties”. On the first anniversary of the end of the conflict, Rajapaksa said that his troops went to war “with a gun in one hand and the Human Rights Charter in the other”.
Repeating this in 2011, he said, “I will recall what I said in the past that 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.”
Today, they are not marching anywhere, but are hanging around raping Tamil women and girls in the North and East.
Rajapaksa when questioned about the repatriation of Sri Lankan soldiers from Haiti accused of raping Haitian women and girls said that they were “the most disciplined forces in the world. They have not killed or raped anybody.”
This has not changed with the Sirisena government. The claim has been made and repeated that there are no political prisoners in Sri Lanka despite overwhelming evidence that there are at least 200 Tamil people locked up in various prisons and other detention centres held without charge or trial for years, some for more than a decade. Sirisena has done nothing to release them.
The situation came to a head when Tamil people held in prisons in several places (Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna) under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) decided to go on a hunger strike demanding that they either be charged or released. With the possibility of death from starvation, the Sirisena government said that it will release the prisoners (whom it denied existed!). The promised day came and went, no one was released. This is evidence of what has been mentioned that nothing that the Government, be it under Rajapaksa or Sirisena can be believed.
The lies are so blatant that it is simply not possible to even find out how many members of the military are present in the Tamil North. What this means is that not a word uttered by the Sri Lankan President or any of his cronies (including Sri Lankan Ambassadors abroad) can be believed.
This is why it is mandatory that international human rights groups such as AI and HRW should be admitted immediately to Sri Lanka in general, the Tamil North and East in particular, not only to determine what has gone on during the closing stages of the war, but what is going on today, more than six years after the end of the armed conflict.
Investigation into war crimes
There has been no credible domestic investigation into multiple allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the war from 2008-9. These allegations include the shelling of hospitals and “no fire zones” packed with civilians, extrajudicial executions of surrendered fighters and mass disappearances. Sri Lanka conducted its own closed door Military Court of Inquiry into allegations of war crimes, but to date has not released its deliberations or findings. The Defence Ministry says the inquiry exonerated the security forces, who had strictly adhered to the President’s “zero civilian casualty directive” This is despite overwhelming well-documented evidence that the civilian death toll in the final phase of the conflict in 2009, was very high, running into tens of thousands.
During her mission to Sri Lanka on 31 August 2013 the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, remarked that, “appointing the army to investigate itself does not inspire confidence.”
Escalating military expenditure
An important paper has just been published by Ana Pararajasingham in The Diplomat of 30/12/15 “Colombo’s Military Build-Up: A Strategy of deterrence. What might explain the recent increase in defense spending? Pararajasingham was a Director in the Centre for Just Peace and Democracy (CJPD) and the author “Sri Lanka’s Endangered Peace Process and the Way Forward”. Here is what he wrote:
“Contrary to expectations that with the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka would reduce its spending on defense, Colombo has in fact increased its defense expenditure. Defense spending in 2009, the year the civil war ended with the comprehensive defeat of the Tamil Tigers, was Rs 175 billion ($1.2 billion). By 2011, this had risen to Rs 194 billion, and in 2013 it was Rs 235 billion. In late 2015, Colombo was looking to procure 18 to 24 new fighter aircraft to replace its obsolete fleet of MIG-21s by 2017. The budget allocation for defense in 2016 is Rs 307 billion.”.
In a personal communication with me he wrote :
“The point of my paper was to suggest that New Delhi’s capacity to influence Colombo is fast diminishing. I will not be surprised if New Delhi is sidelined as Colombo moves close to the Western Camp. China will of course having invested heavily in Sri Lanka continue to challenge this and the contest will be between China and West rather than India notwithstanding its self-proclaimed role as the Regional Power.
The ‘Independence Day address – 4 February 2015
President Sirisena’s Independence Day address was, from the Tamil point of view, one of the most traumatic addresses given by any Sri Lankan ‘leader’ ever. Given that Sirisena is the President s entirely due to the mass electoral support he got from these people, one would have expected at least a word of sympathy for the terrible violence – crimes against humanity and even Genocide – unleashed on these people. There was not a word, indeed the opposite. Here is what he said:
“As we celebrate the gaining of Independence, today, we recognize our bounden duty to give all honour and respect to the members of the Security Forces who made great sacrifices to protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity in the battle against terrorism”.
The ‘honour and respect’ is for people who committed acts described in this book, and which the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been asked to conduct an Inquiry.
Just before praising the barbaric Armed Forces whose cruelty has no parallel in Sri Lanka, he praised the previous Government in which he was a senior member for nearly a decade:
“The light of freedom, which remained covered under the shadow of terrorism, began to shine again after the eradication of the brutality of terrorism by the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Year 2009”
If the world expects the new President to do anything different from what the previous President did to the Tamils, they must surely fail to see that where the Tamils are concerned, Maithripala Sirisena is another word for Mahinda Rajapaksa. Nothing will change.
He ended this dreadful address with:
“On this commemoration of independence, let us make a joint commitment to provide a truly good, ethical, virtuous, wise and fair service to all, living in brotherhood and reconciliation, and thus raise our country and State to one that is second to none other in this world.”
Appointment of Jagath Dias
By far the most serious action of Sirisena (so far) is the appointment of Jagath Dias, an internationally documented war criminal as the Army Chief of Staff, one of the most important posts in the Army.
As commander of the 57th division Dias was responsible for attacks on civilians in protected zones as well as for the bombing of hospitals, places of worship and humanitarian facilities.
After the end of the fighting (May 2009), in late 2009 he was appointed as the Deputy Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Germany, Switzerland and the Vatican.
However, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR)), Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) and TRIAL (Track Impunity Always), did a detailed investigation into the war crimes he had committed. They documented that as commander of the 57th division General Dias was responsible for attacks on civilians in protected zones as well as for the bombing of hospitals, places of worship and humanitarian facilities.
With mounting pressure on the Sri Lankan government (in which Sirisena was a senior member), in 2011, Dias was recalled to Sri Lanka.
The Swiss went further. Following a criminal complaint by Swiss organizations STP and TRIAL the Swiss Office of the Attorney General announced in September 2011 that it would open a criminal investigation against Dias for war crimes should he ever return to Switzerland, stating that some “episodes of the conflict highlight his personal engagement in the military operations and in the abuses committed”.
Over the past years Australia, the USA and other countries have denied entry to Dias and blocked his participation in military exercises on account of his role in the ethnic conflict.
Sirisena has now appointed this war criminal as the Army Chief of Staff. ECCHR, STP and TRIAL said:
“The promotion of a suspected war criminal to the post of the Army Chief of Staff is a serious setback for the Sri Lankan process of reconciliation announced by President Maithripala Sirisena on taking office in January”.
International Criminal Court
The International Criminal Court (ICC), governed by the Rome Statute, is the first permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.
On 22 May 2015, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera addressed the German Council on Foreign affairs on “Contours of a new Sri Lanka”. If it is a new Sri Lanka his Government can sign the Rome Statute. I can say with absolute confidence that it will not do so.
Part of the Sirisena government or backing it are two former Heads of State – Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Neither of them would sign the Rome Statute, nor will Sirisena. All this talk of a ‘new’ Sri Lanka, are just words with no real meaning.
Tamils without a leader
One of the serious problems faced by the Tamils is that they have had no leaders even back to Independence. The only leader has been S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, leader of the (Tamil) Federal Party that split from the main Tamil Party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). After Chelvanayagam’s death in 1977, there has been a void.
The TNA is currently split, with its leader, the ageing Sampanthan and his stooge Sumanthiran, a man with no political experience, and the rest of the TNA. The Sampanthan-Sumanthiran duo is almost part of the government, leaving the Tamil people with no effective representation.
For several years, Bishop Rayappu Joseph, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar, was the only one to whom the Tamils could turn for help and who spoke for them. Unfortunately, he has had a devastating stroke from which he is unlikely to recover.
Today, a new leader is emerging. He is C.V. Wigneswaran, Head of the Northern Provincial Council, a highly intelligent former Supreme Court judge, an articulate speaker and one totally committed to the welfare of his people. He has spearheaded a new group, the ‘Council of Tamils’. It is a non-political group consisting of civilians of eminence, religious dignitaries, and members of some political parties. The Council and the TNA leadership (or rather the pro-government Sumanthiran) are at loggerheads on several issues like genocide, international investigation, and relationship with the dilly dallying Sirisena government. There are reports that Sumanthiran has demanded that Wigneswaran be sacked from the TNA!
The inactive Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is performing no better than the previous Rajapaksa junta in relation to problems of Tamils.
The economy is in crisis. Most of this was the massive spending by the Rajapaksa regime to militarily crush the Tamil Tigers with no concern for the Tamil people in the area. Blatant corruption and the life style of the Rajapaksas added to the problem. It was compounded by the Governor of the Central Bank whose primary concern was to keep the Rajapaksa regime happy and not to safeguard the economy.
That said, the new Sirisena government has done little to correct this dangerous situation. The Governor of the Governor of the Central Ban was replaced by someone who is competent but the situation has not improved.
On 4 January 2016 , W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, published a detailed paper, “Sri Lanka’s Looming Economic Crisis”[ii]. The first two paragraphs say it all:
“….moves made by the Central Bank in the recent past have been tantamount to an open admission that Sri Lanka is in a deep economic crisis. Of course, the crisis……., was not the creation of this Government, but something which it had inherited from the previous administration.
Yet, this Government is at fault for making several mishaps by itself: Not making a proper assessment of the economy despite the warning by independent analysts; signing off the inflated growth numbers produced by the previous administration in the reports it has put out; not disclosing the crisis to prepare people for hard choices and failure to take immediate corrective action to come out of the crisis. Now the crisis is looming large over the country calling for firm action. But the authorities appear to be taking palliative measures to fix”.
The economic crisis and the ineffective action of the Central Bank have resulted in a marked depreciation of the rupee which has fallen from Rs. 131 per US dollar at the beginning of 2015 to Rs. 145 per US dollar by the fourth week of December 2015. This is a depreciation of 10% over the year.
The massive increase in ‘military pending referred to earlier, will make things much worse, and send Sri Lanka into a ‘Failed State’.
The overwhelming probability is that the violation of human rights of the Tamil people is going to continue, if not increase. Getting rid of the murderous Rajapaksa junta is not likely to deliver anything better for the Tamil people.
Is there any hope for the Tamils in the North and East? There does not seem to be any hope unless the international community acts – in conjunction with Justice Wigneswaran’s new group.
It is well-known and long-recognised that when international geopolitics and economic interests are pitted against human rights, the latter always loses. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch can testify to this. However as these outstanding human rights organisations, one of them a Nobel Prize winner, have shown, there is no alternative other than to continue the relentless ‘fight’ to protect human rights. To abandon the fight is to allow tyranny to triumph.
As Edmund Burke, the Irish politician, philosopher and statesman (1729-1797) so famously said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”
[ii] Transcript of Press Conference Sri Lanka, 3 August 2013
[iii] “I deplore any form of extremism”, Interview with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, The Daily Mirror, 4 July 2013.
[iv] Hindustan Times .Press Trust of India 29 March 2009
[v] Berenger, Leon The Sunday Times(Sri Lanka) 29 March 2009
[vi] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Sri Lanka: Almost five years of peace but tens of thousands of war-displaced still without solution, February 2014.
[vii] Why Sri Lankan children in North Drop Out, IRIN, 7 February 2014. http://www.irinnews.org/report/99606/why-srilankan-children-in-north-drop-out