Identifying ‘true friends’ in foreign arena | Daily News
Defusing Foreign Interferences and Influences

Identifying ‘true friends’ in foreign arena

Voters in the Northern Province.
Voters in the Northern Province.

Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Sabry, PC must be saluted for breaking the Ministry’s traditional ostrich policy. Sri Lanka is well versed with hostile acts from the West meant to undermine our integrity. Our usual response is to endure the geopolitical bullying in silence. Last week, Canada imposed targeted sanctions against two former Sri Lankan presidents.

However, the outspoken Minister did not lose time to summon the resident Canadian Government representative to the Ministry to convey Sri Lanka’s strong displeasure over Canada’s latest move to erode Sri Lanka’s credibility. This was an act, Foreign Affairs Minister Sabry unequivocally denounced as both disobliging and polarizing.

Two days after Canada’s unprovoked act, Bangladesh granted six more months to repay the USD 200 million SWAP. Thus underlines the importance of knowing who are one’s sincere friends. This is an important lesson as we have an unfortunate tendency to always look westward for assistance and guidance.

It is ironic that on the very day Canada imposed targeted sanctions on four Sri Lankan nationals, Sri Lanka’s top officials met with the Colombo based diplomats at the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Sri Lanka’s plans and progress on economic recovery as well as reconciliation were presented to the international community, which were received with much appreciation and praise.

Sri Lanka’s Top Officials Brief Colombo-Based Diplomatic Corps

As mentioned afore, the first diplomatic briefing for the Colombo-based diplomatic corps for 2023 was chaired by Minister Sabry last week at his Ministry. He was joined by Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms, Dr. Wijayedasa Rajapakshe PC, Minister of Tourism and Lands Harin Fernando, Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, Foreign Secretary Aruni Wijewardane and Director General of the Department of National Planning of the Ministry of Finance, Economic Stabilization and National Policies RHWA Kumarasiri participated.

Minister Sabry announced that Sri Lanka is looking towards 2023 as a year of socio-economic stabilization, reconciliation and recovery and outlined steps taken and progress made. On the progress of reconciliation, he explained:

* An All-Party Conference (APC) was convened by President Ranil Wickremesinghe in December 2022 at the Presidential Secretariat to discuss the ‘national question and other related minority issues’ with Tamil and Muslim parties. President stated:

* All political parties should agree to a solution to the ‘ethnic problem’ before the 75th Independence celebration.

* After the conclusion of the meeting, the President’s Office announced that President Ranil Wickremesinghe will brief the Cabinet in February 2023 on the progress of the decisions taken at the All-Party Conference to resolve the major issues in the reconciliation process.

* Functioning of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Reconciliation;

* Establishment of a Special Unit on solving Northern Province’s issues under the Presidential Secretariat;

* Setting up a Truth and Reconciliation mechanism, which the Foreign Affairs Minister spoke at length during the All-Party Conference.

He observed,

* Reports of the Lessons Learned Commission, the Udulagama Commission and the Paranagama Commission as well as the Supreme Court Justice Nawaz Committee will be considered.

* These reports indicate solutions.

* However, these solutions cannot be provided under the mechanism of a foreign country.

* Though a local mechanism has been promised, it has not thus far been implemented.

* Therefore, the present administration’s plan is to establish such a mechanism to comprehensively address the allegations. At the conference, the Minister noted that even the Sri Lankan military has asked for such a mechanism to clear its good name and punish anyone found guilty.

* Operationalization of the Office of Overseas Sri Lankan Affairs.

Justice Minister Rajapaksha outlined the,

* Progress in drafting comprehensive legislation on counter-terrorism to replace the PTA,

* Status on anti-corruption law,

* Progress on the reconciliation processes related to the Justice Ministry, including the status of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), Office for Reparations (OR) and Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR).

Tourism Minister Fernando detailed the measures put in place to provide all essential facilities for tourists. This includes continuous supply of fuel by issuing a fuel pass and exempting identified tourism zones from power outages. Afterwards, he encouraged countries to reflect on Sri Lanka’s current situation, especially in revising adverse travel advisories.

Central Bank Governor Dr. Weerasinghe made a presentation to highlight the current economic situation and the envisaged way forward.

Department of National Planning DG Kumarasiri briefed the social protection measures adopted for vulnerable groups.

Foreign Secretary Wijewardane stated that,

* Sri Lanka has submitted its national report under the 4th Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) - UNHRC, which is an entirely voluntary review process undertaken by individual countries by their own volition.

* In preparing the National Report, the Government undertook broad consultations with local stakeholders including civil society organisations and political parties.

By doing so, noted Foreign Secretary, Sri Lanka looks forward to a constructive and cooperative engagement with the UN and the international community.

The briefing concluded to the satisfaction of all. The diplomats were extremely appreciative of the Foreign Ministry’s initiative to keep them abreast of the progress of their host country.

Canada Imposes Sanctions against MR and GR

Yet, on the same day the Colombo-based diplomats met Sri Lanka’s top officials at the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Sri Lanka, the Canadian Government too was discussing their move against Sri Lanka. Accordingly, Canada imposed targeted sanctions against two of its former Presidents, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake and Lieutenant Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi (better known as ‘Navy Sampath’).

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced the sanctions against the Sri Lankan nationals for allegedly committing gross and systematic human rights violations during Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism, from 1983 to 2009.

As such, the Special Economic Measures Regulations imposed prohibits,

* Any transaction (effectively, an asset freeze) by prohibiting persons in Canada and Canadians outside Canada from engaging in any activity related to any property of these listed persons or providing financial or related services to them.

* Entry to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

The very next day, Foreign Affairs Minister Sabry summoned the new Canadian High Commissioner Eric Walsh and conveyed Sri Lanka’s displeasure to the Canadian Government over imposing targeted sanctions against former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Minister Sabry stated that imposing sanctions on two former Sri Lankan Presidents is a disobliging and polarizing act at a time Sri Lanka is engaged in deep-rooted economic and political reforms to resolve outstanding issues and attain reconciliation.

What is Canada’s Motive?

Canada’s decision to impose sanctions is a sudden move and without apparent catalyst. After all, the war against terrorism concluded in 2009. Hence, the sanctions come almost 14 years later. The two immediate questions that arise from this announcement are,

1.) Why now, when most of the present younger generations in Sri Lanka do not even recall the events transpired. In fact, while LTTE sympathizers in Canada relive the 1983 July troubles, Tamils in the North are focussed on an annual procession. As noted by Minister Sabry, the country is currently embroiled in the worst economic crisis in recent history. Since 1948, Sri Lanka has never before been this vulnerable.

2.) Why specifically target former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa? As noted by the announcement, the war against terrorism erupted in 1983. Thus, there were many other actors involved - most of whom took really bad decisions that prolonged terrorism and the associated miseries. Conversely, the Rajapaksa brothers not only eradicated terrorism, but did so while rescuing over 300,000 civilians forced by the terrorists to be their human shield against the advancing military.

At the time the war erupted in 1983, Mahinda Rajapaksa was in the Opposition. In fact, he had been in the Opposition since 1977 and only came to power in 1994 along with Chandrika Kumaratunga. In fact from 1977 to 1989 he was not even a Member of the Parliament. Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected as Sri Lanka’s Executive President only in 2005.

Soon after Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in 2005, his brother Gotabaya, who had a sound military background, was appointed as the Defense Secretary. Whilst President Mahinda Rajapaksa lent political will, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave military directive to end terrorism in 2 1/2 years, ushering peace after a lapse of over 30 years.

Ending terrorism brought the island nation freedom in many forms, including democratic space that was denied to the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Eastern Province held its second Provincial Council elections after a gap of 20 years in 2008 - just months after it was cleared from all terrorist activities. North had its first Provincial Council elections in 2013.

Since the end of the war in 2009, the Sri Lankan military had the unenviable task of clearing the province of anti-personnel (AP) mines. International bodies specializing in demining estimated a duration of at least 10 years to clear the province.

Upon hearing the estimate, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had queried if it was seriously expected of him to keep the displaced civilians in refugee camps for so long. It was at that point the military was entrusted with the task.

Within three years, the military made the place safe and habitable. This was not an easy task as the LTTE had not adhered to the expected guidelines when laying AP-mines. Not only the required maps or patterns were maintained, often two bombs were laid on top of each other - so that the danger lurked even after the topmost was removed. Most of these bombs were also ‘customized’ to hold more explosives. The military was also involved in much of the reconstruction and laying new infrastructure.

The Provincial Councils kicking back to life with the end of a terrorist organisation that believed in fascist and not democracy is significant. The Provincial Councils were established precisely as a means to allow a greater degree of self governance to Tamils in North and East. It is important to underline that Provincial Councils were not a need of any other community of Sri Lanka.

India believed that an administrative model along India’s own lines would redress the so-called grievances as expressed by the Northern and Eastern Tamil politicians. As such, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was included. This paved the way for the island to be divided into nine provinces. Along with it, the provincial councils were formed.

Much to India’s chagrin, the LTTE refused to accept India’s solution. Instead, LTTE ‘felt betrayed’ by India as LTTE wanted an exclusive homeland for Tamils and nothing less. As Canada is so keen to meter out extrajudicial judgement on a matter that Canada does not have any relations with, Canada’s attention is directed to this particular period.

In 1987, India too was similarly upset with Sri Lanka and was very concerned over the welfare of Tamils in the North and East. India thus directly intervened and stopped Sri Lankan military intervention. As a solution, India brought in the 13th Amendment. As India was upset with Sri Lanka’s military, the then President JR Jayewardene invited the Indian Army to ensure peace in the troubled regions.

This was how the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) landed in Sri Lanka. When the IPKF arrived, they were welcomed with garlands; when the IPKF left, they were deeply resented. The reasons for Sri Lankan Tamils to hate the very force they welcomed as heroes is a matter strictly between Sri Lanka and India. However, anyone else who does not know or understand this piece of history has no business judging any actor during this troubled period of over 30 years.

Shelley Whiting’s Acid Remarks and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Candor

For reasons beyond comprehension, Canada was never able to appreciate the peace ushered in Sri Lanka with the eradication of terrorism. By the time President Mahinda Rajapaksa reached the final year of his tenure in 2014, all killings, forced conscription, which especially included minors, extortion and other acts of intimidation, had stopped. All paramilitary groups had been disarmed. Most of the resettlement of the displaced back in their homes was completed. The Government had rehabilitated and released over 14,000 ex-LTTE cadres without any form of prosecution.

The then Government was working very hard to bring in investments and investors to these areas. However, none of those who are so bothered by the unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes have ever been interested in the welfare of the living.

In fact, the then Canadian High Commissioner Shelley Whiting opinionated that the victory parade to celebrate the fifth anniversary of ending terrorism was inappropriate and the Government should instead be concentrating on reconciliation. It is unfortunate, the then Foreign Ministry did not have a strong personality as Ali Sabry to educate the Canadian diplomat the true status of affairs.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa however did not mince his words as he corrected the misplaced comment as he stated, “We celebrate the victory of peace and not the victory of war.”

When this is the history of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political career, the reason for Canada to lock horns specifically with Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa is questionable. The world must be waiting for Canada to have similar sanctions to be imposed against former US President George Bush and British Premier Tony Blair.

Unfortunately, West is in the unhealthy habit of accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes despite the lack of credible evidence. We have been engaged in defending ourselves and trying to appease the accusers by accommodating their prescriptions. However, we need to stop for a moment and question the motive for this persecution and especially the obsession over the final phase of the war and not any other timeline.

Simultaneously, we have not addressed Canada’s culpability in funding terrorism by failing to prevent Tamil ethnic, Sri Lankan descent Canadian citizens from extortion and other intimidation acts on Canadian soil by LTTE’s international network. This has not been addressed by either GoSL, international body or civil society.

Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed

Bangladesh’s extension of the USD 200 million currency SWAP is in direct contrast to Canada’s action. According to an unnamed official from the Sri Lankan Central Bank, the central bank of Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Bank’s (BB) director board has extended Sri Lanka’s USD 200 million loan’s repayment deadline by six months.

Bangladesh Bank first lent USD 50 million and another USD 150 million to Sri Lanka in August 2021. This was scheduled to be repaid by April 2022. Instead, on April 12, 2022, Sri Lanka announced a ‘debt standstill’ defaulting on its entire USD 51 billion of external debt.

Sri Lanka was then to repay BB by March 2023. CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe assured BB Governor Abdur Rauf Talukder in October 2022 that the loan would be repaid on time. However, Sri Lanka’s forex crisis is still ongoing. Hence, BB extended the deadline to September 2023.

BB extends the deadline when its forex reserves are depleting at a faster pace. According to BB’s data, Bangladesh’s reserve as at January11, 2023 was USD 32.52 billion in contrast to USD 44.92 billion in the corresponding period in 2022. Bangladesh has already sought credit support from several multilateral lender agencies, including the IMF.

It is good to know that Sri Lanka has solid friends who negate nations who do not think twice to bludgeon Sri Lanka in her vulnerable state. With the economic crisis, Sri Lanka is having many wants. Yet, clearly all-weather friends are not among the list of shortages.

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