The National Peace Council (NPC)

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Last week there was an unexpected focus on events that took place 25 years ago and which had appeared to have fallen out of public memory. This was the Sinhalese militancy led by the JVP in a three year period of terror that gripped most of the country and excluded only the predominantly Tamil-speaking North and East. The general belief is that about 60,000 people perished in the period 1988-90. But there is no certainty about the figure. The numbers killed by the JVP were counted by the government at that time which gave precise numbers. These included 487 public servants, 80 of who were bus drivers, 30 Buddhist monks, 2 Catholic priests, 52 school principals, four medical doctors, 18 estate superintendents, 27 trade unionists, 342 policemen, 209 security forces personnel and family members of 93 policemen and 69 service personnel. But the numbers killed by the government side were not counted or shared.

The overwhelming present local and international focus has been on the final phase of the war against the LTTE and this has taken the country’s attention away from those terrible events. But suddenly the tragic past was brought back to life. The media ran several stories on what happened those days. In particular there was a vivid description of the last hours of the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera when he was held in captivity by the government forces. It showed how he was interviewed by the political and military leaders of that time who had been at the receiving end of JVP violence. It showed how he was subjected to their violence. It showed how people can act when they hold absolute power of life and death over those who have been their enemies, and why the laws cannot be silent even in a time of war, or when the war has just been won.



The readiness to politicize any issue came to the fore in the course of the landslide tragedy at Haldamulla. With presidential elections on the near horizon, there was competition to be seen as caring more for the victims than the other. The President, ministers, leaders of political parties and their party members all were seen on the media taking relief supplies to the area and commiserating with the victims. The government had the advantage as it could control access to the area. The media showed visuals of the relief supplies taken by the Democratic Party dumped on the side of the road as they could not gain access to site of the tragedy.

Both the government and Northern Provincial Council also expressed their intention to adopt the children who had been orphaned. The Northern Provincial Council even passed a resolution to that effect. On the other hand, the government said it would send the children to state orphanages. This hasty decision was in contradiction to the established policy of the Department of Childcare and Probation which is that children should be brought up in a family environment as far as possible. It is well known that state orphanages are poorly funded and generally under-resourced. The position of both the government and Northern Provincial Council were in violation of the “best interests of the child” which is the accepted norm both locally and internationally.



The Sri Lankan Airlines flight was full of tourists. But when the flight landed in Colombo nearly all of these passengers set off for the transit lounge. Their destination was not Colombo, which was only a stopover on the way to Maldives. That night Colombo airport was quite empty. The airport’s duty free shops were quite empty too. The staff at these shops stood outside their shops competing with each other to bring in the few passengers who had disembarked and come in through immigration. The contrast was so stark with other airports where the sales staff does not need to engage in high pressure salesmanship. The much advertised success of the tourist industry was not much in evidence at the airport.

Travel advisories of the developed countries warn potential tourists about the dangers they might have to face in Sri Lanka. For example the UK government has issued a travel advisory that states “The security forces have imposed restrictions preventing all foreign passport holders (including British nationals) travelling to the Northern Province. All foreign passport holders planning to travel to the north must get prior approval from the Ministry of Defence. Military activities are ongoing. You should obey orders from the security forces and signs warning of the danger from land-mines. See Local travel – North. Political rallies in Sri Lanka have sometimes turned violent. You should avoid any political gatherings or rallies. See Political situation. There is an underlying threat from terrorism. See Terrorism.”



It looks more and more likely that presidential elections will be called early next year regardless of other consequences. The government spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has announced that Presidential Elections will be held in January. He has also said that he knows the date but will not reveal it. What is happening of the ground also strongly suggests that elections are around the corner. The Elections Commissioner has completed the voter registration process early this year in October and not in December as is usual. The national budget has been presented to Parliament in October earlier than the usual month of November.

It is clearly an election budget as it offers many concessions to the public but for which the sources of revenue are unknown. The days prior to the presentation of the budget saw a massive advertisement campaign in the national media regarding the government’s priorities and the bright future that awaits the country. In addition, the media has been reporting incidents involving the utilization of government resources to prepare for the elections, in the form of poster campaigns and the constructing of stages for speakers to stand on at meetings. However, despite this evidence of preparations for early elections the government will have to be ready for negative fallouts if it goes ahead with its plans.

The media has reported that the Catholic Church is particularly affected following the delay by the government to confirm whether the presidential election is likely to coincide with the Pope’s visit which is scheduled to take place in the middle of January. Under pressure from the Vatican, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has written to President Rajapaksa requesting him to inform the church about the date of election. But there has been no official reply so far. This has put the local church on the horns of a dilemma as they are unable to advise the Vatican which needs to know the situation. The Vatican takes care to ensure that papal visits steer clear of local party political issues including elections. The usual protocol with regard to such papal visits is that they do not take place within one month of an election.



The decision of the EU Court of Justice to remove the ban on the LTTE on technical grounds has come as the government and political parties are mobilizing for snap presidential elections likely to take place in January. The immediate response of the government to the EU decision has been to describe opposition politicians and civil society activists who travelled to the West in recent times as traitors who contributed to the decision to lift the ban on the LTTE. This message is being repeatedly taken to the people by the state media. While the decision is a legal one taken by the Court, and not a political decision by European governments, this is unlikely to impress most Sri Lankans who will tend to see the relationship between law and politics through their own local experience which is not at all positive.

The timing of the European Court’s verdict comes even as the government continues to be investigated for war crimes at the behest of the UN Human Rights Council. The EU legal decision in favour of the LTTE is likely to further strengthen the government’s case to the people in Sri Lanka that the war crimes investigation into it is biased and a threat to national security. The UN investigation into war crimes is described by the government as an international conspiracy to punish the country’s leaders who defeated the LTTE and is to eventually seek the division of the country. This has evoked sympathy and outrage amongst the majority of Sri Lankans. The timing of the EU verdict is fortuitous for the government. It will enable the government to mobilize the nationalism of the people to its advantage.



During the Uva provincial council election last month the President Rajapaksa thanked the visiting Chinese President for having bestowed economic assistance on the country and reduced the price of petrol and electricity. This time there was no Chinese President to share the credit with. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed that the price of cooking gas should be reduced. The government is aware that economic considerations loom large in the minds of the majority of the electorate. During his ongoing visit to Jaffna and the Northern Province, the President is making major offerings to the people, of land, jobs and subsidized motor cycles, to mention but a few. Despite the high level of economic growth reported by the government, economic hardship badly affects the life of the masses of the people. If the economic concessions at the Uva elections were a precedent, the package of economic benefits to the electorate at this time points to imminent elections.

It is said that astrologers have warned the President that his star is on the wane and will wane faster after March of next year. This is not a particularly stellar prediction. Most political commentators in media and general life are in agreement that the government’s popularity is on the decline, which is not surprising as the Rajapaksa-led government has been in office for nearly ten years. The results of the Uva Provincial Council election were a confirmation of the fall in popularity. Whether it is written in the stars or not, the sooner a presidential election is held the better it will be for the government. This makes early January, which is the earliest in which an election can be held, the most likely time. However, there is one serious problem that arises, and that is the pre-planned and agreed upon visit by Pope Francis to Sri Lanka for which the Catholic Church has been making preparations.



While in the United States to attend the UN General Assembly, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa assured the international community that he would look after the Muslim people in the country when he met the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The meeting took place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Discussing religiously-motivated incidents that have occurred in the recent past, which he described as “isolated incidents” President Rajapaksa assured the international Muslim leader that the government will take immediate action to deal with any incidents against the Muslim community. "I will look after the Muslim community like my own brothers," President Rajapaksa said. He also encouraged Mr. Madani and other OIC member countries to visit Sri Lanka to see for themselves the ground realities in the country and how many diverse communities coexist peacefully.

However, the visit to Sri Lanka of Ven. Ashin Wirathu who heads the 969 Movement in Myanmar which has engaged in anti Muslim activities caused considerable unease amongst the Muslims in Sri Lanka. Leaders of the Muslim community lobbied with the government to deny him a visa. The Sri Lanka Muslim Council wrote President Mahinda Rajapaksa saying "The presence of such a person who has caused so much violence on the Burmese Muslims would be a real threat to peace and peaceful co-existence in Sri Lanka." However, those who had invited the Ven Wirathu to the great convention of Buddhist monks were part of the government's electoral constituency. By inviting Ven Wirathu the government was catering to this constituency. But this has been at the cost of the Muslims who had a fear that his presence would provoke more anti Muslim sentiment. The Muslim community even feared being at the receiving end of violence during the visit of the Ven. Wirathu. This was certainly not the government's intention. But the wounds of the anti Muslim riots in June in Aluthgama are still not healed.



The lack of unanimity within the UN Human Rights Council on the issue of the investigation into Sri Lanka continues. The government has continued to stick to its position that it will cooperate with the UN in general but not with the investigation into war crimes. The Indian government’s representative has queried how the investigation can go ahead without the cooperation of the Sri Lankan government. He has urged transparency in the investigation process noting that “The composition of the OHCHR investigation team, its work methodology and sources of funding have also not been shared with the Human Rights Council.” This Indian position is a strong criticism of the investigation as currently being adopted by the UN. The findings that come out of a process that is problematic will be liable to be challenged in the future.

The absence of transparency in the process is a problem. Except for the coordinator of the investigation team, the identity of the rest of them is unknown. This is not a transparent process and it will not lead to the confidence building necessary for acceptance within Sri Lanka. It adds to the perception of an international conspiracy that the government has been alleging. The inability of the UN system to deal with gross human rights violations in other parts of the world, in particular the Middle East, where strategic Western interests are at stake, is indicative of a selective targeting of Sri Lanka, which is the stuff that conspiracy theories are made of. This point was made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa when he addressed the 69th Sessions UN General Assembly last week.



It may have been due to serendipity that the visits of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping occurred within a fortnight of each other. As a result there seemed to be a competition between these two economic giants to be more generous to Sri Lanka. If China has reached the number one spot in terms of economic assistance to Sri Lanka today, Japan has historically been the most generous to the country in the long haul since Independence in 1958. Almost all of Japanese assistance has come in the form of outright grants or concessional and low interest loans. Therefore a basic sense of gratitude, which Sri Lankans are known to possess, would dictate that Sri Lanka’s leaders should be sensitive to Japanese concerns. This requires mindfulness on the part of Sri Lanka’s leaders.

While the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe was in Sri Lanka, the first Japanese prime minister to visit the country in 24 years, a Chinese warship and a submarine docked in the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) at the Colombo Port. According to media reports the two People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-Navy vessels were berthed from September 7 to 13 and left Colombo Port for international waters on September 13, three days prior to the Chinese President’s arrival. The media also reported that the two PLA naval vessels were due in Colombo again in October and thereafter in November and has sought official clearance for these visits with approval already being granted. It was after a two week hiatus that the mainstream media reported the entry into Colombo Port of these naval vessels.

It may have been a coincidence that the entry of the Chinese naval vessels into Sri Lanka occurred during the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister. It may also have been the case that the entry of the Chinese ships into Colombo Port during the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister was beyond Sri Lanka’s control. Japanese concerns were made clear in the joint statement of Prime Minister Abe and President Rajapaksa at the conclusion of the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka on September 7, the day the Chinese ships entered into Colombo Port. The significance of Sri Lanka’s physical location was a prominent feature of the Japan-Sri Lanka Joint Statement. It pointedly referred to Sri Lanka’s geographical relationship to the sea and was titled “A new partnership between maritime countries.”



It has become routine to say that today Sri Lanka is more polarized than ever before. For the past two years there has been anxiety within the Muslim community about anti Muslim propaganda and the possibility of targeted violence against them. Now this has found expression in the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein’s inaugural speech to the UN Human Rights Council. He said, “I am alarmed at threats currently being leveled against the human rights community in Sri Lanka, as well as prospective victims and witnesses. I also deplore recent incitement and violence against the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities.” Although the new Human Rights High Commissioner is reputed to be moderate in his views, he appears to be following in the path that has been set by his predecessor in office Navanethem Pillay.

Thus it can be seen that the UN mandated investigation into the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war is going ahead despite the efforts of the government to short circuit it. The government has invested in lobbying in the capitals of several important countries, not least the United States, but with no visible results in halting or derailing the probe. Even the replacement of former UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay has not had any impact on the probe which continues autonomously. The continuing momentum of the war crimes investigation will be causing anxiety in those in the government who are most likely to be at the receiving end of its strictures, and possible sanctions. The limited success of the government’s present lobbying efforts seems to have prompted a rethinking of the government’s approach to it.



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