By Brian Senewiratne –
The Human Rights Crisis In The Tamil North & East: An Appeal For International Intervention – Part IV – [Part III of this series was published on 19 March, 2018]
China has a stranglehold on Sri Lanka. 4 years ago Sri Lanka built Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) in Hambantota (Rajapaksa’s home area) with Chinese assistance of $190 million. Today MRIA is running at a huge loss and Sri Lanka is unable to pay back dues to China’s EXIM bank.
China will lend money to countries at high interest rates which the recipient country is unable to repay. This leads to China getting a permanent footprint in the country.
Not far from the loss-making airport is the sea port of Hambantota also built by China. China has recently got a 99-year lease for running the Hambantota port.
For the Hambantota port project, Sri Lanka borrowed US $ 300 million from China at interest rates of 6.3%. Interest rates for loans from India to neighbouring countries is as low as 1%, and even lower.
Sri Lanka is currently unable to pay its debt to China because of its slow economic growth. To resolve its debt crisis, the Sri Lankan government has agreed to convert the debt into equity. This will probably lead to Chinese ownership of the project finally.
Sri Lanka’s decision to hand over the loss-making airport to India is a move against China’s tightening noose of debt.
China’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) project is a global partnership of China. Touted as a global partnership by China, OBOR is really an exploitative, colonial stratagem to gain vital assets in smaller countries.
Responsibility to Protect (R2P)
Responsibility to Protect is a global political commitment which was endorsed by all the members of the UN at the 2005 World Summit, to prevent genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
R2P is based on the premise that sovereignty is a responsibility to protect all its population from mass atrocities and human rights violations. It is based on a respect for the norms and international law relating to sovereignty, peace and security, human rights and armed conflict.
Clearly this is applicable to the North and East of Sri Lanka where the Tamil people are in need of protection.
Anne-Marie Slaughter from Princeton University called R2P “the most important shift in our conception of sovereignty since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648”.
Louise Arbour from International Crisis Group said that “The responsibility to protect is the most important and imaginative doctrine to emerge on the international scene for decades”.
Professor Damien Kingsbury, Deakins University, Australia, has written an entire book. Sri Lanka and the Responsibility to Protect: politics, ethnicity and genocide.
I will leave it to lawyers to decide where we go from here. As for me, knowing the talk-shop that the UN is, I will not be surprised if the Responsibility to Protect are just three words with no meaning.
Problems in the South
Maithripala Sirisena was elected as President in 2015 almost entirely because of the votes he received from the Tamil people in the North and East. In his ‘100-day’ program after he was elected as to what he would do, the word ‘Tamil’ was not even mentioned.
There is an outstanding recent article “Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere” published by the International Crisis Group on 16 May 2017. It spells out what is going on in Sri Lanka, including and especially the Sinhalese South. It is on the net.
Sirisena is the weakest and most insecure President that Sri Lanka has ever had. Ranil Wickremasinghe, head of the UNP and Prime Minister, is in effect the de facto President, Sirisena ( a breakaway from the SLFP) being the elected President.
It was Wickremasinghe who prevented Gotabaya Rajapaksa from being prosecuted (which he should have been on several charges of fraud and even murder). I am told that there was a specific order from Wickremasinghe that no action should be taken against Rajapaksa. The reason for this extraordinary situation is that if the Rajapaksas are wiped out,(which they will be if the necessary action is taken), Sirisena will lead the SLFP. By keeping the SLFP divided (between Rajapaksa and Sirisena) Wickremasinghe has less of a problem.
Wickremasinghe’s past political record is such that this is entirely credible.
One way or the other, at the next Presidential election I will be most surprised if Sirisena is re-elected. Into the vacant shoes will step in the Rajapaksas who are waiting in the wings. Sri Lanka could end up with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President and Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. That will be the end of Sri Lanka in general, the Tamils in particular. I will get back to this dreadful possibility later.
The Sirisena bombshell
On 12 October 2016 in a speech before the military, Sirisena angrily denounced his own government’s investigations into corruption, saying that those undertaken by the police and the Commission to Investigate Alleged Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) were politically motivated. This was met with shock and anger by civil society activists and sections of the public that had backed his government.
By criticising CIABOC and the Financial Crimes Investigation of the Police, demanding that they inform him in advance of filing charges in major cases and appearing to protect military suspects, he was seen as undermining the independence of the investigations.
Four days later, CIABOC Director General, Dilrukshi Dias Wickremasinghe humiliatingly resigned. In subsequent weeks, Courts released on bail all remaining military intelligence personnel held on suspicion of involvement in murder and abduction cases- including the January 2009 murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and the 2010 abduction of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. The speech and the releases cast a cloud over ongoing investigations and deepen doubts about the government’s willingness to pursue cases against the Armed Forces and the associates of the former regime in the face of military resistance.
Politically active Buddhist monks
Politically active Buddhist monks have been the curse in Sri Lanka for decades. It was one of them who assassinated Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the first political assassination in Sri Lanka. Venerable Somarama Thero who shot the Prime Minister was convicted of murder and hanged. Buddharakhitha Thero who was the master mind behind the assassination was also convicted of murder and sentenced to death. However, he was reprieved and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The power of these monks is enormous. Buddharakkitha Thero, a whiskey-drinking monk saw to it that Bandaranaike appointed his mistress Wimala Wijewardena as the Health Minister. I know all this because my mother was a devout Buddhist and worshipped in the temple where Buddharakhitha was the chief priest.
These Buddhist monks have blocked every attempt by every Government to devolve any power to the Tamils claiming that it is a sell-out of a Sinhala-Buddhist country to the Tamils.
They are now getting even more violent. The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) led by a very violent man in yellow robes who should have been arrested for threatening the Police and even Ministers in the Government, remains at large.
As this report is being written, on 6 March 2018, President Sirisena declared a state of emergency after violent Buddhist monks attacked Muslim temples, homes and businesses in Kandy. This type of anti-Muslim violence by extremist Buddhist monks will continue.
With some 20,000 Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka the possibility of an acceptable solution to the problems facing the Tamil people is not good.
The 2018 Provincial Council elections
On 10 February 2018, elections were held in 340 local authorities (divisional, urban and municipal councils). The results were a serious blow to the current government, in particular the President. The previous President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, launched a new party – the Podujana Peramuna- which virtually swept the board. Here are the results:
Party Local authorities elected
Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Mahinda Rajapaksa) 231
United national Party (Ranil Wickremasinghe) 34
Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Maithripala Sirisena) 7
Illankai Tamil Arasa Kachchu (Tamil party) 41
Presidential elections are not due till January 2020. If they are held now, it is very likely thet President Sirisena will be defeated and the Rajapaksas will be back in power. Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot contest the Presidency because he has already held the maximum number of terms. However, his brother, Gotabaya, a US citizen, can contest provided he renounces his American citizenship.
In a recent interview, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that if he is ‘called upon’ to do so (contest the Presidency), he will do so. So, in January 2020, there is the possibility of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Here is what the ICG publication, “Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere” said about a return to the Rajapaksas “Sri Lanka’s international partners should send a clear message to President Sirisena and his wing of the SLFP that reunifying the party around either Gotabaya or Mahinda Rajapaksa will not only damage Sri Lanka’s long-term prospects for sustainable peace but also endanger the international backing it has recently regained”.
Sri Lanka’s Coalition government is falling apart
In January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena, the Health Minister in the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and the General Secretary of his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), decided to contest Rajapaksa at the Presidential election, and won.
The presidential election was followed in August 2015 by the parliamentary election which was won by the United National Party (UNP)-led coalition over a group led by former President Rajapaksa and most of Sirisena’s own SLFP.
That allowed Sirisena to convince the fractured SLFP to form an unprecedented national unity government with its bitter UNP rival, led by Ranil Wickremasinghe who was elected Prime Minister.
Most of the SLFP politicians who quit the SLFP with Sirisena never accepted the SLFP-UNP coalition, especially since they were treated as the ‘junior partners’ rather than equals.
This has now come to a head especially because of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s arrogance and unilateral policy making.
There has been increasing tensions between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, with Sirisena asking Wickremasinghe to step down as Prime Minister – which, of course, Wickremasinghe flatly refused to do.
Much of the current chaos has been set out in the publication already referred to by the International Crisis Group (Brussels) titled “Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere”. For the current publication what is important are the “Recommendations”
- Restore civilian authority and build confidence in the north and east by:-
- expediting and making more transparent the return of military occupied land to its owners;
- ending military involvement in farms and shops that harm local businesses;
- ending military involvement of Buddha statues in Tamil and Muslim areas; and
- ceasing intimidation and surveillance of lawful political activities.
This very important paper was published on 30/01/17 and updated on 16/05/17 – well before the recent (March 2018) provincial council elections in which Sirisena’s party was routed by the new party formed by the previous President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
A follow-up publication by ICG will be worth reading.
The need for international pressure on the Sri Lankan government has been mentioned several times in this publication.
The ICG publication “Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere” states that ”Internationals have been too quick to celebrate a Sri Lanka success story and failed to maximise their leverage…….Without significant external pressure, the government is unlikely to pursue reforms seriously enough”.
There is no straightforward answer to this. What is important is that people should focus on this critically important issue which is the only answer to the continuing human rights problems in Sri Lanka.
Can anything be done?
Something will have to be done to save Sri Lanka, in general, the Tamils in particular. Here I will only deal with the latter.
In Sri Lanka
On 14 September 2016, there was a massive protest in Jaffna. Some 15,000 Tamils took part in the largest protest since the end of the armed conflict. Called ‘Ezhuki Thamizh (Let Tamils rise) thousands of Tamils from all eight provinces in the North and East came to protest in Jaffna which was ground down to a halt. Despite thousands of members of the Armed Forces, the crowd could not care less. It was ‘people power’ on show.
They were protesting against the military occupation of the North and East and the chauvinistic policies of the Sri Lankan government including Sinhalisation of the Tamil areas. A long list of problems faced by the Tamil people was displayed. I wrote a piece about this which is on the net (Colombo Telegraph, 4 October 2016).
On 10 February 2017, there was another massive rally in Batticaloa in the east denouncing the unitary state and genocide being envisaged in the Constitutional proposals.
On 12 October 2017, there was another complete work stoppage in Jaffna, a showdown against the Government which continues to practice inaction, duplicity and political chicanery.
These protests must be supported because they are crucial.
Outside Sri Lanka
With more than 1 million Tamils living in all the important countries in the world, these expatriate Tamils are the strongest force that those in the Sri Lankan North and East have got. Unfortunately, this massive force is divided for petty reasons or, more recently, have become apathetic and have not appreciated the gravity of the situation facing the Tamil people. Here is what they can do:
- Get the message to the world of what is going on in the North and East – especially the fact that the area is a military/police state.
- People cannot exist if their lands are taken over and their occupation, agriculture and fishing, are prevented.
- The Tamil people in this area do not live, they merely exist. Even that is becoming increasingly difficult.
- Jaffna is awash with drugs and alcohol brought by the Sri Lankan Navy from India. Those who disbelieve this must go to Jaffna and talk to the people. To go there and live in a 5-star hotel or with family and then say that all is well is adding to the problem, in addition to being untrue.
- Torture is taking place in at least 40 sites – mainly Police stations and Army Camps. The Joseph camp in the middle of Vavuniya and the CID 4th Floor in Colombo must be visited even if they are told that they are not a ‘tourist attraction.’
- Do what was done to Apartheid South Africa – isolate Sri Lanka.
- Say ‘No’ to Sri Lanka is worth supporting.
- Goods and services in and out of Sri Lanka, especially tourism, must stop. There are many places with golden beaches and sea such as Bali in Indonesia and Phuket in Thailand where the beaches are not blood stained.
- This publication and the dozen dvds I have recorded on the Tamil struggle must be distributed.
- The fact that unless the international community, especially the aid-donors act, the Tamils will cease to exist as a people. That is genocide.
- The best way to find out what is going on in Sri Lanka is by going there. Get your MP and others in positions of power to go there and see what is going on.
- Time is crucial. You must act now. Tomorrow may be too late for the Tamils.
- If you cannot go to Sri Lanka, let ‘Sri Lanka’ (asylum seekers) come to you. Listen to what they tell you. They know full well the ground situation in the Tamil areas.
- Check the outstanding publications of Yasmin Sooka – ITJP.
- Read what international human rights organisations such as AI, HRW and ICG publish.
- More important than all of these, get involved. The future of an entire nation – the Tamil Nation of Sri Lanka – is at stake.