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Anti-corruption drive or political witch-hunt?

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Udayanga Weeratunga meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2006. by Kremlin.ru [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena was welcomed in London recently where he attended an anti-corruption summit hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron. It is unlikely that such an invitation would have been extended to his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, defeated by Sirisena in elections last year by on an anti-corruption, anti-nepotism platform. Sixteen months down the line, Sirisena’s pledges to root out corruption and nepotism are being put to the test, with opposition politicians describing the numerous inquiries launched by government to investigate corruption as an exercise in political victimization.

One case that gives credence to that view is that of Udayanga Weeratunga. A relative of the ex-president and former ambassador to Russia, he has been accused by Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera of having ‘sold weapons to pro-Russian separatist rebels’ in Ukraine.      

The allegations started in March 2015 when Samaraweera said that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s government had ‘complained’ to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, accusing Weeratunga of being involved in weapons sales to ‘pro-Russian separatist rebels’. The story was picked up and widely reported by local and foreign media. At a Foreign Ministry media briefing, reporters were told that Ukraine’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, who is based in New Delhi, had informed Sri Lankan officials that Ukrainian authorities were ‘investigating’ the alleged transfer of weapons by Weeratunga to Ukrainian nationals.  

However, the Ukrainian Embassy in New Delhi said on 10 May this year that ‘the Embassy does not have information concerning investigations against Mr Weeratunga’. The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry’s position had also been contradicted in a BBC Ukraine report on 23 March which quoted Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yevhen Perebiynis as saying: ‘This information has not been confirmed.’     

Added to the government’s statements on Weeratunga’s alleged misconduct were charges that the former ambassador was involved in the death of Noel Ranaweera, who was employed as a messenger at the Sri Lankan embassy in Moscow. Though he died in on 11 June 2014, Ranaweera’s family members are reported to have complained to the police of suspected foul play only the following March, on the same day that news reports first appeared regarding Samaraweera’s arms-sales-to-rebels allegations.     

Responding to a phone inquiry, Evgeniya Altukhova, Press Secretary at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Colombo, said that Ranaweera died in a motor accident in Russia. ‘The driver of the vehicle that ran over him, a Russian man, has been convicted and the case is closed,’ she said. ‘Udayanga was not a suspect in the case.’

The most recent allegations against Weeratunga were made a few weeks ago by a government MP who charged that he is wanted in Russia over ‘arms smuggling to rebels’. Ruling United National Party MP Nalin Bandara said the Russian government had even named the rebel groups.    

Asked for comment on the accusations, Altukhova asked: ‘Wanted – by whom? That is the important question. In Russia, Udayanga is not wanted for any questioning. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia has nothing to ask him. We have no suspicions of him.’ Referring to the remarks made by the MP, Altukhova said: ‘I can only question his sources,’ adding that the information ‘is not from us’.

Weeratunga’s ‘crime’ may be simply that he is a relative of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the government’s main political challenger. Weeratunga has issued statements repeatedly protesting that the Foreign Ministry was lying about him, arguing that it would have been impossible for him to live in Ukraine if the charges of supplying weapons to separatist rebels were true.  

He did not return to Sri Lanka following Samaraweera’s directive last year recalling all heads of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions abroad who were political appointees of the previous regime. Samaraweera pledged to maintain a ratio of 70:30 between career diplomats – meaning those drawn from the Foreign Service – and non-career diplomats, or political appointees. But according to media reports, that plan has been abandoned, with around 42 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 53 foreign missions being headed by political appointees of the new government.

Sri Lanka’s key institutions corroded and corrupted by conflict

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UN Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein addressing the press. by UN Colombo

UN rights chief asks the country to address needs of victims ‘on all sides’, Lasanda Kurukulasuriya reports.

Concluding a four day visit to Sri Lanka on 9 February the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the country has ‘come a long way in the past year’ but that its key institutions had been ‘seriously corroded and corrupted’ during three decades of conflict.

‘Virtually everyone agrees that there has been progress, although opinions differ markedly about the extent of that progress,’ he told a press conference in Colombo after having visited the war-affected North and East. In addition to political leaders and civil society representatives he said he met Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil victims of the war. ‘The element of fear has considerably diminished, at least in Colombo and the South, in the North and East, it has mutated but, sadly, still exists.’

‘When you visit Colombo you see a bustling city, a mass of construction sites, clean streets, and flourishing businesses. You see a thriving tourist industry. When you visit the North and the East, you see, in patches at least, damaged and depressed areas, poverty and continued displacement.’

As confidence-building measures that could be taken quickly Al Hussein said the military needed to accelerate the return of land taken over during the conflict to its rightful owners and further reduce its presence in the North and East. He called for quickening the process of either charging or releasing 292 security-related detainees the government says remain in prison.

This was the second visit to the country by a UN human rights chief since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 with the military defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. On 1 October last year the Human Rights Council adopted a US-sponsored resolution which endorsed the findings of a report by the Office of the High Commissioner and called for an investigation into alleged human rights violations that may amount to war crimes. The pro-Western government’s decision to co-sponsor the resolution has been criticized by many including coalition partners, largely on account of its call for participation by foreign judges, prosecutors, defence lawyers and investigators in the proposed accountability mechanism.


Photo by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya.

Chief monks of the Buddhist clergy whom Al Hussein visited told him that there was no need for foreign participation. In a recent BBC interview President Maithripala Sirisena said he would not allow it. ‘We have more than enough specialists, experts and knowledgeable people in our country to solve our internal issues,’ he told the BBC. But leader of the Tamil National Alliance R Sambandan, who is also the leader of the opposition, has reportedly called for the ‘full implementation’ of the HRC resolution.

Responding to journalists’ questions, the High Commissioner said ‘in the end it is the sovereign right of Sri Lanka to make determinations in respect of its future.’ While the HRC can make recommendations in respect of countries its resolutions are not enforceable. ‘The HRC has directed its spotlight in the past, almost always, on countries identified selectively for political reasons,’ Palitha Kohona, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN said. ‘The ability to muster a majority in the HRC appears to have been the defining criterion for focusing the HRC spotlight on a country rather than an objective consideration of the facts or the application of the same yardstick to similar cases’ he wrote shortly after the resolution was adopted.

Al Hussein said ‘It was our belief when we put the report together that this idea of a hybrid court was merited, and the Human Rights Council of course adopted the language that points in that direction.’

‘The suggestion of having an impartial and independent court is fundamental because it must address the needs of victims on all sides.’

President Sirisena’s government elected last year has engaged more closely with the UN and sought to befriend Western powers, in contrast with the Rajapaksa regime.

The Left takes a back seat in Sri Lanka

Election posters in Sri Lanka

Election posters for Mahinda Rajapaksa. SLFP members loyal to the ex-President have caused a split in the newly elected government. Meanwhile, leftwing parties have suffered a heavy defeat. Vikalpa/Groundviews under a Creative Commons Licence

The first sitting of Sri Lanka’s new parliament took place this week amidst some uncertainty. Following the United National Party (UNP) election victory, negotiations continue on the formation of a national government, with a number of MPs from the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) expected to be given ministerial portfolios. The new cabinet is yet to be announced. One thing that’s clear is that the Left will no longer wield much clout. Earlier, though few in number the leftist MPs held important positions.    

This time, parties from the traditional Left collectively won just 2 seats, down from 5 in the previous parliament. The worst-hit casualty was the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP, literally the ‘Lanka Equal Society Party’) which now has no representation. Its leader, Tissa Vitharana, says the LSSP is ‘used to this’ and will play a role in the opposition, continuing to be active in provincial councils, local government bodies and trade unions.       

The LSSP, founded in 1935, is the country’s oldest political party and has had a foothold in the socialist-oriented SLFP’s coalition governments since 1956. Vitharana was Minister of Technology and Research in former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLFP-led United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition. But the LSSP opposed the Executive Presidency and called for its abolition. It has also always opposed the language policy introduced by the SLFP in 1956, which made Sinhala the country’s sole official language. Tamil has since been given official status, but this single issue more than any other is believed to have contributed to the continuing discord between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.     

Vitharana had expected to be appointed an MP through what is called the National List. It allows for 29 of the 225 seats in the legislature to be filled through nomination by parties according to the proportion of votes polled by them.     

There has been much controversy over the UPFA’s National List because President Maithripala Sirisena, who is leader of both the SLFP and the UPFA, gave 7 out of its allocated 12 seats to SLFP candidates who lost out in the 17 August election. Others, like Vitharana and Communist Party leader D E W Gunasekera, who were in the original list, were dropped. The calculation behind this unexpected move may be the president’s need to consolidate his control over the party which, even after the election, continues to be split between those supporting Rajapaksa and his own loyalists. ‘The president “working with the UNP to set up a national government” really means the rightwing of the SLFP joining the UNP,’ says Vitharana. ‘Rather than having a strong opposition, which is what democracy is about, he’s trying to weaken the SLFP opposition.’     

Apart from a section of the SLFP that won’t join the national government, the other parties in the opposition will be the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The Marxist JVP is distinct from the ‘old Left’ in that the party had its origins in armed struggle. It won 6 seats, far short of its anticipated 10 to 15. Many say its campaign helped the capitalist UNP. ‘The JVP’s concentrated attack on Mahinda [Rajapaksa] only helped the UNP to gather extra votes,’ said D E W Gunasekera.

Gunasekera, formerly Minister of Rehabilitation and Prisons, says that the new government would be better described as a coalition between the UNP and SLFP. ‘From the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, the much-needed class unity has been achieved in order to face the impending domestic and international challenges. The prompt support from the West testifies to this fact of class unity.’

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s electoral success was hailed by Western powers, notably the US and European Union, which were wary of Rajapaksa’s tilt towards China. The US had brought 3 resolutions against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, the last of which called for an international probe into alleged wartime atrocities. In a significant policy shift, Washington recently said it would offer a new resolution in collaboration with Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in September, backing a credible local investigation.

The US has lauded President Sirisena’s determination to ‘win the hearts and minds of Tamils’, a task Rajapaksa failed to accomplish after defeating the separatist LTTE in 2009. But there is scepticism in the Left as to whether the government’s new best friend will really help.

There is no resolution that is “favourable”, according to Tamara Kunanayakam, a former Sri Lankan diplomat who has worked for over 15 years with UN agencies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. ‘The objective of the new government, whether run solely by the UNP or in coalition with the SLFP, which is also a bourgeois party, is to pursue a neoliberal economic policy,’ Kunanayakam said in an email interview. ‘Policies that make the country even more vulnerable to Western transnational corporations and banks cannot be done without abandoning national sovereignty and independence.’

Does Sri Lanka’s electoral outcome offer stability?

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UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe called on all parties to join together to create a ‘National Government’. Vikalpa | Groundviews | Maatram | CPA under a Creative Commons Licence

There is potential for a national government if parties can work together, reports Lasanda Kurukulasuriya.

Sri Lanka’s general election proved to be a tight race between its 2 main contenders, the United National Party (UNP) and the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition, leaving neither side with the simple majority required to form a government on its own.

The centre-right UNP that won 106 seats in the 225-member parliament – 11 more than its rival – will need the support of smaller parties to pass laws. The situation gives leverage to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which came in third with 16 seats in the north and east, where Tamil and Muslim minority communities are concentrated. The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which had hoped to be a ‘third force’ in parliament, came in for disappointment, getting just 6 seats.

On Wednesday, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe called on all parties to join together to create what he termed a ‘National Government’. Making a US-style statement to the press on the manicured lawn of Temple Trees (the prime minister’s official residence) he said ‘I will take oaths as Prime Minister and have a discussion with President Maithripala Sirisena on the need to take this concept forward, where we will build a consensus on our national policies.’ Sirisena, who is from the same party as former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, defected to oust Rajapaksa in the January presidential election. Wickremesinghe’s UNP facilitated his victory. Wickremesinghe was thereafter appointed prime minister by Sirisena, and led a minority government for 6 months. Rajapaksa, who contested the 17 August election from the Kurunegala district, a Sinhala stronghold, will enter parliament as an MP of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which leads the Left-leaning UPFA coalition.

Although crossovers have become commonplace in the aftermath of Sri Lankan elections, there is hope that the inter-party collaboration Wickremesinghe seeks will go beyond the opportunism of simply ‘joining the winning team’. Dr Godfrey Gunetilleke, Chair Emeritus of the Marga Institute, an independent think tank, noted that both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe explicitly said during the presidential and parliamentary election campaigns that they would try to form a national government.

‘I think the present balance of power offers an unprecedented opportunity for the formation of a national government which would be both stable and acceptable to the large majority of the electorate,’ Gunetilleke commented.

Support for the idea was also expressed by Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe, leader of the Liberal Party, who had in fact backed Rajapaksa’s come-back bid. ‘If there were a national government, it would be President Sirisena’s national government, owing allegiance primarily to him and his presidential manifesto. I think that would be a good idea, and it is eminently possible if the president asserted himself, as I think he will be able to do now, given the election result,’ Wijesinghe said.

The election has brought changes that present a complex political landscape. Days before the poll, Sirisena sacked the secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA (of which he became leader when he became president) and replaced them with his loyalists. At a time when the SLFP is divided between Sirisena’s followers and Rajapaksa supporters, the move has produced mixed reactions.

‘I was in the south when I heard the news, and there was much indignation there,’ said Wijesinghe. ‘In Colombo, however, there was a greater sense that any means that lay to hand were justified to stop a return of Mahinda Rajapaksa.’

The post-poll electoral map showed that Rajapaksa had lost support from the minorities, who mainly voted for the UNP, while the majority Sinhalese electorate was divided between the 2 mainstream parties which have traditional constituencies. Some political parties representing minorities, such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, contested on the UNP ticket. Ironically, even the Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) made common cause with the UNP to defeat Rajapaksa.

Gunetilleke warns of the challenges posed by attempting to form a national government:

‘First neither of these parties are well-knit, ideologically homogeneous bodies. They are riven by internal factions and rivalries which will come into play in the sharing of power. Second, forming a national government means re-negotiating the agendas with which they campaigned.’

Whatever uncertainties lay ahead, most Sri Lankans would agree that one of the most heartening aspects of the election was its remarkably peaceful character compared to previous polls. Both local and foreign election monitoring groups hailed it as credible, saying it met the criteria of democratic elections and reflected the will of the people.

Will Sri Lankan voters bring back Rajapaksa?

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The former president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his 2011 visit in Russia. Rajapaksa now wants to become Prime Minister. Alexander Nikiforov under a Creative Commons Licence

The stakes are high for the country in today’s election, writes Lasanda Kurukulasuriya.

Sri Lanka votes today, on 17 August, to elect representatives to its 225-member parliament in one of the most important elections in recent times.

Former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa was unseated in January by Maithripala Sirisena, a challenger from his own centre-Left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). But he’s back again, this time vying for the prime minister’s post with incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the rightwing, pro-Western United National Party (UNP), who was appointed prime minister in January by Sirisena.

The prime minister in the newly elected government will wield more power than before, on account of a constitutional amendment that reduced the powers of the much-abused executive presidency.

Wickremesinghe heads an unstable minority government while his opponents in the SLFP, though they form a majority, remain divided between factions loyal to President Sirisena and former president Rajapaksa. Sirisena, who assumed leadership of the SLFP as well as the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) after he became president, has made no secret of his hostility toward Rajapaksa.

The UNP’s well-funded campaign has focused on the same anti-corruption, anti-nepotism platform on which it helped Sirisena win the presidency. But some high-profile financial fraud allegations have marred the party’s own record during its 6 months in power. One case implicates the Governor of the Central Bank – a Wickremesinghe appointee – in a bond scam running into hundreds of millions of dollars. The president dissolved parliament a day before a Parliamentary Committee appointed to investigate the matter was due to release its report, which is now in limbo.

Mahinda Rajapaksa still enjoys huge popularity in Sinhala-majority areas, where he is seen as the war-winning leader who delivered the country from the scourge of terrorism. But he alienated the minorities who, by his own admission, brought about his defeat in January. However, analysts say that in a parliamentary poll the outcome will be decided in the Sinhala-Buddhist heartland’s electorates where higher population figures will translate into more seats in parliament. Ethnic Sinhalese form 75% of the country’s population, Tamils 11%, Muslims 9% and Tamils of Indian origin 4%.

Sri Lanka’s highly literate and election-savvy voters have typically delivered unambiguous verdicts. But this time observers say it may be too close to call, and the result may be a hung parliament. Uncertainty also stems from an opportunistic political culture, where post-election cross-overs to the winning side have become all too common.

In the present climate of ‘corruption fatigue’, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a small Marxist party which currently has just 3 members in parliament, could gain the most. It claims that none of its candidates face allegations of wrongdoing. It lambasts both mainstream political formations with relish. Though its support base is in the South, it has demonstrated its organizational prowess by fielding candidates in all 22 electoral districts, including the North and East. Undeterred by accusations of having abandoned its socialist ideals, and of tacitly backing the capitalist UNP, the JVP hopes to be kingmaker in the new parliament.

The UNP says it will introduce what it calls a ‘social market economy’ that will benefit the masses, though critics say the concept is incompatible with the UNP’s neoliberalism. The appeal of a government led by Rajapaksa would seem to lie in its record of rapid post-war infrastructure development, assurances on national security and a generally anti-imperialist orientation.

The most encouraging aspect of this election has been the relatively peaceful nature of the run-up period. This has been largely attributed to the Elections Commissioner who has made it known he will implement the law to its fullest extent to ensure a free and fair poll.

The police too have been credited with greater impartiality than in previous years. Though there have been over 1,000 complaints of election-law violations, the gravity of the incidents is less this time, according to Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director of election watchdog PAFFREL, who assured that ‘overall the environment is fairly okay’.

Between 13,500 and 15,000 local election observers are being deployed to monitor the election, while around 120 foreign observers will be present on polling day, including teams from the European Union and the Commonwealth, Hettiarachchi added.

Sri Lanka votes for democracy

Sirisena's inauguration

Sirisena's inauguration was watched by thousands in Independence Square. Indi Samarajiva under a Creative Commons Licence

On 8 January Sri Lanka voted for a new president in an election hailed by international monitors as being peaceful and free of the violence that has typically characterized the country’s past polls. The Chennai-based Hindu newspaper’s editorial declared the outcome an ‘unequivocal victory for democracy and a lesson to the whole region in peaceful regime change’. The Elections Commissioner came in for praise from many quarters for ensuring the integrity of the poll, which saw Sirisena take 51.28 per cent of the vote and Rajapaksa 47.58 per cent, and which had a record turnout of more than 81 per cent.

The opposition’s campaign was fuelled by widespread allegations of corruption and nepotism in the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Maithripala Sirisena, also from  Rajapaksa’s  Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had stepped up to lead the various opposition parties as a ‘common candidate’ in response to the chorus of disgruntled elements both in and outside government. Promising to restore good governance and rule of law, Sirisena’s ‘100-day programme’ pledged to reduce the powers of the executive presidency, transfer powers to parliament and establish independent commissions for institutions such as the police, judiciary and public service.

Having defected from government to challenge Rajapaksa, the former health minister is supported largely by the centre-right opposition United National Party (UNP), whose leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as prime minister at Sirisena’s oath-taking ceremony. The other key player in his team is former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, another member of the SLFP, who ushered him in as Rajapaksa’s challenger.

Sirisena’s camp had the backing of the main parties representing interests of minority Tamils and Muslims in parliament. Analysts say Tamil and Muslim votes played a large role in swinging the outcome in Sirisena’s favour. His highest vote shares were in the north and east of the country, where these minority communities are concentrated. Voter turnout in the north more than doubled.

‘The new president has to address urgently many grave issues the country faces, including an honourable resolution of the national question, to enable the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka to be true beneficiaries of democracy,’ a congratulatory message from the Tamil National Alliance said. Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Rauff Hakeem said: ‘This is a victory for democracy, the rule of law and the restoration of harmony among communities.’

Some analysts see the division of the vote along ethnic lines as potentially destabilizing. ‘The election results have indicated a most dangerous divide,’ former diplomat K Godage wrote in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror. ‘The diversity of the various groups that supported President Sirisena presents an unparalleled management challenge to the president.’

One of the parties in the new coalition is a hard-line Buddhist nationalist party unsympathetic to making concessions to minorities, while the UNP and SLFP have always been political rivals.

Religious harmony and national reconciliation have, however, been dominant motifs in the opposition campaign. In his address to the nation, President Sirisena called on all political parties in parliament to join hands and form a ‘national unity government’. Apart from the need to advance ethnic and religious harmony, there is another reason why such a coming together of diverse groups has become necessary. Some of the key reforms in the opposition manifesto, such as reforming the presidency, would require approval of a two-thirds majority in parliament, which Wickremesinghe’s UNP lacks, even with the support of minority groups. At least 26 government lawmakers defected to the Sirisena camp before the election, and others continue to switch loyalties in the 225-member legislature even after the election. This has resulted in split in the SLFP, as lawmakers do not automatically lose their party membership when they cross sides. With a continuing saga of political crossovers, many of which are patently opportunistic, the balance of power in parliament will remain uncertain until a parliamentary election is called and a new government formed. 

Pakistani asylum-seekers in Sri Lanka face deportation

Barbed wire

Owen Benson under a Creative Commons Licence

Sri Lanka has long been one of the few countries to which Pakistanis could travel freely. But at the end of June it suspended their visa-on-arrival facility, signalling that things have changed. The new rules come against the backdrop of the arrest and detention of 144 Pakistani asylum-seekers and refugees over the past several weeks. The government has been tightlipped about the operation.

There are 1,397 asylum-seekers and 202 refugees of Pakistani nationality in Sri Lanka, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of them are from the Ahmadi community, considered apostate in Pakistan, but there are some Christians and Sunni Muslims too. Last year saw a steep increase in arrivals; in 2012 asylum-seekers of all nationalities totalled just 200, and refugees103, according to the refugee agency.

The spate of arrests has caused much anxiety among the Pakistani asylum-seeker community, most of whom live in the coastal town of Negombo, 38 kilometres north of Colombo. Reports say the detainees are to be deported, although the Controller of Immigration has refused to confirm this. The UNHCR said there had been no deportations as of 30 June 2014, but it has not been informed of the government’s intentions with regard to the detainees, nor the charges on which the arrests were made. The refugee agency facilitated the release of four of the refugees.

‘Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor its 1967 Protocol,’ says Dushanthi Fernando, a spokesperson for UNHCR. ‘The co-operation with UNHCR is based on the agreement signed between the UNHCR and the government of Sri Lanka in 2005 that contains references to UNHCR Statute, 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. In addition, Sri Lanka is bound by observance of the principle of non-refoulement that has attained the status of international customary law norm.’ This norm prohibits the return of refugees to territory where they face danger.

The Ministry of External Affairs does not agree. ‘Non-refoulement is part of the 1951 refugee convention to which we are not a party, so we are not bound by it,’ says AMJ Sadiq, Director General of Public Communications at the Ministry of External Affairs. He says that the visa-on-arrival facility, which allows a 30-day stay with the possibility of extension, was designed to promote tourism, but has been abused by some Pakistanis who used it to gain entry to the country and then walked into UNHCR to claim refugee status.

On 20 June, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited asylum-seekers being held at a detention centre in Boossa. Assistance in the form of hygiene items, clothing, recreational items and mats were given to them, according to Sarasi Wijeratne, spokesperson for ICRC in Colombo. Family visits are also being facilitated.

‘No-one wants to leave their motherland. All we want is safety for our lives and for our children to have a future,’ says Maria*, a physiotherapist who has been living for over a year with her husband and son in Negombo. Speaking on the phone, she explains that she is a Christian who engaged in evangelism and faced death threats in Pakistan. She said she had a clinic there, but had to keep shifting and eventually had to close it. ‘We have religious freedom in Sri Lanka,’ she adds.

The task of ascertaining the genuineness of an asylum claim is said to take up to two years. UNHCR says once people are recognized as refugees the agency supports them ‘until a durable solution is found for them’. This usually means relocation to a third country ready to accept them.

The asylum-seekers in Negombo are assisted by local mosques and churches in this predominantly Catholic town. ‘My concern is for the children – there are about 60 – with no proper school education,’ says Father Terrence Bodiya Baduge, the parish priest of St Sebastian’s church. He had arranged informal classes for the children with volunteers from among the asylum-seekers, but the school had to close when three of its five teachers were arrested during the recent roundup. An Urdu language mass held twice a month was also discontinued as people were too fearful to attend. It is possible that not all asylum-seekers’ cases are genuine, the priest observes, but humane considerations take precedence. ‘I’m helping them because they are human beings,’ he says.

*Name changed

No tattoos please, we’re Buddhists

Buddha in a Sri Lankan temple

The Sri Lankan government promotes its Buddhist heritage to tourists. Ronald Saunders under a Creative Commons Licence

The Sri Lankan government’s approval of what it calls ‘integrated super-luxury tourist resorts’ has opened up embarrassing contradictions in its stance on religious matters. There has been strong opposition to the project which, it is believed, will mark the entry of big-time gaming enterprises into the country. The planned resorts have already attracted $1.3 billion from foreign investors, including Australian casino tycoon James Packer.  

Parliament recently passed regulations relating to lavish tax concessions for these ventures. Many members of the ruling coalition, including some cabinet ministers, absented themselves during the vote; the issue is seen to have signalled the first revolt of any significance within government ranks.  

The respected chief monks of the country’s three Buddhist chapters wrote to President Mahinda Rajapaksa asking for amendments to the regulations, expressing concerns about the erosion of religious and cultural values. They joined other critics warning that besides gambling, this venture will open the doors to other social ills, such as prostitution, which is illegal in Sri Lanka. Smaller casinos currently operate in the country, but their legal status is ambiguous.

In the face of strong protests, the government now says casinos will not be allowed in the newly approved resorts, although the website of Packer’s local company Crown Sri Lanka still advertises ‘world-class gaming facilities’. Sri Lanka’s tourism authorities use the country’s Buddhist heritage as part of its appeal to international visitors; Buddhism even has a special place in the constitution. But recent events have exposed hypocrisy in the government’s stance, both on religion and on tourism.

Last week, a British tourist was arrested and deported for the ‘offence’ of having the image of the Buddha tattooed on her arm. According to reports, she was harassed by the police, who solicited bribes, then brought before a magistrate who ordered her deportation without explaining the charges against her. Naomi Coleman described her experience to the media as ‘hellish’. Those who arrested her and ordered her deportation seem to have been unmoved by her statement that she was a practising Buddhist; she had visited Sri Lanka before, as well as Thailand and Cambodia, to attend meditation retreats.

Police spokesperson Ajith Rohana told the BBC that Coleman was convicted under a law which forbids ‘deliberately and maliciously outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’. Yet Naomi Coleman’s arrest and deportation took place at a time when other people were behaving in ways that far better fit the description of ‘deliberately and maliciously outraging the religious feelings’ of a certain class by ‘insulting its religion’.

Members of an extremist Buddhist nationalist group called the Bodu Bala Sena (‘Buddhist army’, BBS) publicly abused and intimidated a monk whom they accused of being pro-Muslim, disrupting a press conference held by him at a hotel. The police did not intervene to restore order. The organization’s saffron-robed members also stormed a government ministry building, alleging that the monk was hiding there. The insulting language and gestures used by the BBS – directed mostly at Muslim and Christian minorities – have been recorded on camera and broadcast on public television. Yet it would appear that none of this qualifies as ‘deliberately and maliciously outraging religious feelings’ of others.  

While it is true that the use of religious motifs for decorative purposes could offend some locals, the reaction of Sri Lankan authorities in the case of Naomi Coleman had more to do with a bid to extract a bribe than anything to do with moral outrage over her Buddha tattoo. ‘It is this state of lawlessness that should alarm everyone,’ said the Asian Human Rights Commission in a statement. Realizing the potential fallout of the episode, tourism authorities sought to make amends by buying her a business-class air ticket home and offering her a free holiday if she wished to return. The magistrate’s deportation order, however, remained in effect.

Sri Lankan farmers resist new seed law

Rice farmers in Sri Lanka

More than 70% of Sri Lankans are engaged in some sort of farming. Shehal Joseph under a Creative Commons Licence

Grassroots farmers’ organizations in Sri Lanka have joined forces with environmental activists, scientists and other concerned citizens to mobilize against a new Seed Act which they say will undermine farmers’ rights and threaten biodiversity. The draft ‘Seed and Planting Material Act’ under consideration by the government will, campaigners say, benefit the seed industry, controlled by big transnational corporations, at the expense of the country’s small-scale farmers who are the mainstay of the rural economy.

The new law will require, among other things, the compulsory registration of farmers and certification of all seed and planting material in Sri Lanka by a Seed Certification Service to be run by the Department of Agriculture. A ‘Director in Charge’ will exercise the exclusive right to certify seed and planting material, with the department maintaining and publishing a list of producers and suppliers of certified seed and planting materials. The draconian new law provides for officials to raid farmers’ premises to enforce compliance. It says that no person shall ‘import, export, sell, offer to sell, dispose in any manner or supply or exchange with commercial intention seed and planting materials except in accordance with the provisions of this Act’.

Among those worried about the new law is Sarath Fernando, adviser and founding member of MONLAR (the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform) and a longtime farmers’ rights activist. ‘The [proposed] law should be repealed,’ he says. ‘This kind of legislation is being pushed all over the world. It is an international plan, beneficial to big seed companies in taking control.’ Some of the transnational seed companies have agents in Sri Lanka, and promoting genetically modified seeds is part of their plan. ‘In Sri Lanka, there is a bid to promote a processed, hybrid type of seed called “Golden Rice”, to get rid of the nutritious, indigenous rice varieties,’ Fernando explains.  

Although the law is couched in terms that suggest it will ‘safeguard and conserve the genetic resources of indigenous seed and planting materials’, environmentalists believe it will do just the opposite. This is because the practices of monoculture and uniformity favoured by the big seed companies help to destroy biodiversity. Vandana Shiva, an internationally renowned Indian environmental activist, physicist and author, has drawn attention to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s finding that ‘more than 75 per cent of diversity in agriculture has been destroyed due to the spread of industrial monocultures’.

Vandana Shiva has critiqued the Sri Lankan draft Seed Act, at MONLAR’s request. She points out that the Technical and Advisory Committee to be set up under the Act has no representative from the farming community, nor any biodiversity expert to ensure the conservation of genetic diversity. However, it does have a genetic engineer, who, Shiva believes, should have ‘no role in a Seed Law’.

The new law also calls for the setting up of a Seed and Planting Material Advisory Council that will ‘co-ordinate with public sector agencies in working towards the development of the private sector seed and planting material industry’. Shiva says: ‘Private -public partnerships mean public subsidies for private profits. The public system will provide genetic material, research, extension. The private sector will take the intellectual property rights and walk away with super profits.’ She argues that farmers should be exempted from all restrictions placed on commercial entities and the seed industry.

Fernando says that MONLAR’s position on the proposed Seed Act is in line with that of Navdanya, an environmental organization which focuses on biodiversity conservation, and of which Shiva is a founding member. A recent Navdanya publication titled The Law of the Seed says the dominant legislation today relating to seed violates democratic processes. ‘An arsenal of legal instruments is steadily being invented and imposed that criminalize age-old farmers’ seed breeding, seed saving and seed sharing. And this arsenal is being shaped by the handful of corporations who first introduced toxic chemicals into agriculture, and are now controlling the seed through genetic engineering and patents.’

BRICS challenge dollar hegemony


Country leaders at the first BRIC summit in Russia, June, 2009.
Photo by the Kremlin under a CC Licence.

A decision made by the group of emerging economic powers known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to extend credit to each other in their own currencies could have important implications for developing countries and the Western-dominated global economy.

At a five-nation summit concluded in New Delhi at the end of March, the group signed two landmark banking agreements aimed at eventually replacing the dollar with their own currencies for trade among themselves.

The five world leaders also agreed to explore the possibility of creating a ‘BRICS Bank’ that would provide funding for infrastructure and development projects, thereby reducing dependence on Western-led financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

‘The euro and dollar are no longer seen as unquestionable monopolies in the role of reserve currencies. Clearly the world needs more reserve currencies,’ Russia Today reported the chief economist of Deutsche Bank, Yaroslav Lissovolik as saying. The Russian news service added that Russia and China have been trading in the rouble and yuan for several years, and now Russia plans to expand local currency settlement with India.

BRICS is a relatively new coalition of countries that collectively represents 40 per cent of the world’s population and 20 per cent of its GDP. Its ambitious plans offer hope to developing countries that the inherently exploitative North-South relationships dominating world trade could change.

States like Sri Lanka, for instance, that were hit by a ripple effect of US oil sanctions against Iran, can appreciate where these reforms are heading. Sri Lanka became a ‘third party’ victim, when the US banned from its financial system any financial institutions that paid (in dollars) for Iranian crude oil. India decided to ignore the US sanctions and is reportedly paying in gold for Iranian crude.

Although BRICS does not have an overtly political agenda, it is interesting that the summit’s joint declaration (the ‘Delhi Declaration’) expressed views on political developments in some of the world’s trouble spots.

On Iran, for instance, it expressed concern about the nuclear issue, while recognizing Iran’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy ‘consistent with its international obligations,’ and ‘supporting the resolution of the issues through political and diplomatic means.’

Welcoming the UN-Arab League peace effort in Syria, the Declaration called for ‘an immediate end to all violence and violations of human rights in that country,’ while advocating ‘broad  national dialogues that reflect the legitimate aspirations of all sections of Syrian society and respect Syrian independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty.’

By implication this suggests that BRICS does not support the ‘regime change’ agenda of some Western states, signalling its intentions to assert a stance on global issues that is independent of the West.

The Delhi Declaration made an indirect reference to India’s bid to become a permanent member of a reformed UN Security Council, when it said ‘China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to the status of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and support their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN.’

The Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted the spokesman for the Chinese delegation Qin Gang saying the summit was a success. But in spite of the show of unity, differences persist.

For instance, regarding the idea of a BRICS Development Bank, a Times of India report said Indian finance officials saw it ‘primarily as a way of legitimizing the use of Chinese currency overseas.’

They feel that ‘any BRICS bank would essentially be a Chinese bank, because none of the other countries have the financial depth to fuel such an institution.’ India wanted the global financial architecture to change but at a much slower pace, it said.

It will take some years before the newly signed credit agreements and the ‘BRICS Bank’ idea are translated into action. But these seem to be the boldest initiatives yet, aimed at changing an iniquitous global system in a context of global economic downturn where India and China are fast emerging as the world’s new economic power centres.

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