By Kalinga Seneviratne
While Sri Lanka “celebrates” 70 years of independence from British colonial rule this month, its sovereignty is being threatened as never before since gaining independence in 1948 – tempting one to remark that Sri Lanka is celebrating ‘independence in chains’.
The strategically placed Indian ocean island is an important lynchpin in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which western powers – especially the United States and Britain – are keen to sabotage as its success would end their hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
Sri Lanka’s predicament started in early 2009 when the country’s armed forces were about to crush one of the most ruthless terror groups in the world – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
In April 2009, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner made a beeline to Colombo and met the then President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother Gotabaya Rajapakse to call for a ceasefire under the pretext of saving civilians which LTTE had taken as human shields. The Rajapakses told them in no uncertain terms that ‘it is not on and Sri Lanka will crush terrorism once and for all’.
Sri Lankan forces had already opened a “safe route” for civilians to escape and it was the LTTE that was not allowing them to do so. On May 19, 2009 Sri Lankan forces finally crushed the LTTE killing their entire military leadership on the battlefield.
It was no doubt a bitter bloody end to the conflict, but many civilians were able to escape to the safety of the military, thousands more were killed in the final battle, including an estimated 4,000 Sri Lankan soldiers. The formidable LTTE propaganda machine of Tamil diaspora in western capitals such as Toronto, London, Oslo and Washington was left unscratched.
With a war chest of an estimated USD 300 million they immediately went into action claiming war crimes involving 40,000 civilian deaths, which many western media reported uncritically – “fake news” as President Trump would describe it.
Miliband and Kouchner who went back like humiliated bullies, were quick to pounce on this propaganda with some of their own, to mobilize the “international community” that included many of the western media and also international human rights organizations as well as the United Nations – including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) head Navi Pillay (ethnic Tamil from South Africa).
They deployed arguments of accountability conveniently ignoring the fact that none of them had raised the question of accountability in respect of war crimes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. They embarked on a campaign to destablise the Rajapakse regime, which was enjoying tremendous support within the country for ending a 30 year-old civil war.
Geo-political issues related to Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the middle of important shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean also weighed in. When the West refused to sell arms to Sri Lanka, threatened to cut aid and bring the issue to the UN Security Council (that would have forced a ceasefire and saved the LTTE) it was China that came to Sri Lanka’s aid.
However, if Sri Lanka were allowed to get away with it, this would have encouraged many other developing countries to take the same path ignoring western pressure. With tactical support from neighbouring India – which was worried about China’s incursions into the island such as building a port and an airport – the West mobilized its media, human rights organizations and the UN – with Ban Ki-Moon and Navi Pillay happy to join on the bandwagon.
The western media ignored the frantic rebuilding efforts of the Rajapakse regime where soldiers – without their guns – were working with Tamil civilians to rebuild their homes, roads and bridges destroyed during the war. This effort was mainly aided by Asian countries such as China and India.
The western media kept on harping about accountability for alleged war crimes. Britain’s Channel 4, for example, regularly broadcast unauthenticated video clips shot on mobile phones provided presumably by the LTTE diaspora claiming evidence of war crimes by Sri Lankan forces.
Referring to these media campaigns, then presidential media advisor Lucien Rajakarunanayake described the modus operandi of what he calls an “ugly pattern of distortion” in the way Channel 4 used unidentified video clips claiming human rights violations.
“You get one side of the pro-LTTE operators abroad, especially in the West, to produce the fake and highly sinister material,” he noted. “You then get a western media outlet that is known for lack of attention to veracity and an open agenda against Sri Lanka and pro-LTTE to air it, you get a so-called independent news organization such as the BBC to spread the story wider, and then comes HRW (Human Rights Watch) or any such others, pontificating how the unverified news item in question, underscores the need for an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes.”
Having accused Sri Lankan armed forces of indiscriminate killings, Ban Ki-Moon appointed a Panel of Experts (POE) in 2011 led by former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darussman to submit him a report. Sri Lankan government refused to cooperate.
Thus, based in New York, they collected information by calling for submissions on their UN-based website. Failing to attract much interest, they subcontracted a Toronto based so-called independent, non-partisan, human rights organization Centre for War Victims and Human Rights (CWVHR) which provided sample letters and canvassed the Tamil diaspora to submit these to the POE.
When it produced the report claiming to endorse the figure of 40,000 civilian deaths, the Sri Lankan government seriously questioned its credibility, but, UNHRC used it to mount an accountability campaign against Sri Lanka leading to a UNHRC resolution in March 2012.
This campaign put enormous pressure on the Rajapakse government with threats of western economic sanctions held against the country. At the same time, the West funded many NGOs within the country to mount a pro-democracy and anti-corruption campaign against the regime, especially the Rajapakse family. This succeeded in unseating the Rajapakse regime in January 2015, when the president unwisely called early elections. Many young voters were swayed by the NGO propaganda.
An Asian version of the ‘Arab Spring’
This was an Asian version of the ‘Arab Spring’, which the West was able to successfully stage – much to the disbelief of many Sri Lankans.
President Maitripala Sirisena, who defected from the Rajapakse government, was elected on a yahapalanaya (good governance) platform to rid the nation of endemic political corruption. But, what has followed is a cunning manipulation of the political system to serve the needs of western powers.
The divisive issue of framing and adopting a new constitution has taken over from rebuilding the nation. There are attempts to “retrain” the military to serve U.S. needs in the Indian Ocean.
To top it all, the government has been entangled in the worst financial scandal in the country’s history perpetuated by the Governor of the Central Bank who was personally appointed by Sirisena’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The latter is currently doing his best to cover up the scandal.
This scandal, which has been widely reported and debated in Sri Lanka has been hardly taken note of by the western media. This multi-billion rupee bond scam has drained the treasury leading to the government doing a deal with China to pay off debts by giving a 99-year old lease of the China-built and financed Hambantota harbour last year. The government is believed to be negotiating a similar deal with India for the adjoining China-Built airport.
While we cannot expect the western media to question the credibility of a government that is subservient to the West, the tragedy is that the Asian media has not picked up on this story. If the West succeeds in “recolonising” Sri Lanka, next in line will be countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia and Cambodia that are also strategically important for China’s BRI.
For the Asian media, what is happening in Sri Lanka should be intriguing because it reflects a western mentality that has not changed since the 19th century.
One of the first foreign policy decisions of the Sirisena government was to co-sponsor a resolution in Geneva at the UNHRC in September 2015, to submit to accountability for war crimes even going to the extent of agreeing to have “hybrid” courts consisting of foreign judges to try Sri Lankan soldiers for alleged war crimes.
This has horrified most Sri Lankans and President Sirisena has been trying to backtrack on it recently.
In addition, the government has agreed to introduce constitutional changes that would make the country a federal state with police, land and education powers given to the provinces, that would give the LTTE supporters the separate state they could not get through terrorism. But, the biggest threat is not the decentralization of powers but its ability to politically destabilize the country as a nation state and making it easier for foreign powers to manipulate it.
Social critic Shenali Waduge has compared these moves by the Sirisena government to the 1815 betrayal by Sinhalese chieftains, when they handed over the Sinhala nation to the British. “Within no time these chieftains became sidelined and the white‐masters began rule over the servants using sepoys and lascoreens who were ready to betray their own for titles and perks” she noted, comparing the current government to such “faithful‐sepoys” who are happy to deliver a new constitution that would “remove the history and heritage of the Sinhala Buddhists who built this nation over 2600 years”.
The U.S. government is insidiously involved in this constitutional remaking project with a three-year multi-million dollar project that started in 2016, and is called the Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP). It has been subcontracted to a private U.S. Company DAI (Development Alternatives Inc) which Sri Lankan investigative journalist Lasanda Kurukulasuriya claims is a CIA front that was kicked out of Venezuela.
The U.S., which has been howling about Russian interference in the U.S. democratic system, is no stranger to such involvement in other countries. Kurukulasuriya writing in the Daily Mirror has listed a number of USAID projects in recent years that interfere in the domestic political system and have been outsourced to private U.S. companies.
“It may be seen that US government funded ‘projects’ over the past several years run the whole gamut of Sri Lanka’s institutions, including Local Government, the Bar Association, the Judiciary, Parliament and the Constitution,” Kurukulasuriya noted.
“While many would agree that there is need for improvement in the country’s democratic institutions, shouldn’t the political leadership be concerned that this task is being ‘outsourced,’ outright, to foreign agencies – and that programmes are being contracted to private US companies, selected by the US government and not accountable to the people of Sri Lanka?” she asks.
State Department statement and information that had been obtained under the freedom of information act by U.S.-based Sri Lankan journalist Hassina Leelaratne has exposed how U.S. government through its embassy in Colombo is targeting rural based NGOs with project funding grants.
Sinhalese rural communities are the strongest supporters of former President Rajapakse. It will be interesting to see whether this would have any impact on the island-wide local government elections on February 10, which Rajapakse supporters have called a referendum on the current national government.
US-Sri Lanka naval exercises
The U.S. is also seeking to deepen ties with the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN). Since the election of the Sirisena government, there have been frequent U.S. warship visits and training exercises with the SLN. The ‘first ever U.S.-Sri Lanka Naval exercise’ took place in October 2017 in the strategically located natural deep-water port of Trincomalee, under the tutelage of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.
Earlier in 2017 the Americans set up and trained an elite Marines Battalion within the SLN, described as “a master of amphibious operations,” and “fully fledged in undertaking any form of threat coming from the seas…”
Since Sri Lanka has no enemies who are likely to invade the island, this could mean that the SLN is being trained to support the U.S. in any perceived threat in this region. Which is China, on account of its maritime expansion.
“The question arises as to why the government of Sri Lanka is committing its highly professional and respected armed forces to someone else’s anticipated battle, most likely against a longstanding friend of Sri Lanka, and to what end?” asks Kurukulasuriya.
The western media has made a big issue out of China getting the Hambantota harbor – they helped to build in southern Sri Lanka – and some 1500 hectares of land surrounding it, on a 99-year lease in exchange for the debts Sri Lanka incurred in getting the Chinese to build it. This is seen as a sovereignty issue akin to British taking over Hong Kong from the Chinese in the 19th century.
But, it’s worthwhile to recall that when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited Beijing in 2017, China pledged over USD 300 million in development assistance to Sri Lanka for the years 2018-2020.
While it is true that Sri Lanka has gotten into a debt trap over Chinese infrastructure projects based on loans, it is also true that China does not make its money conditional on internal political and system change within the country.
“It could be argued that if Sri Lanka failed to negotiate skillfully in securing the Chinese loans (which it had the right to do as a sovereign state) and its bureaucrats and politicians were involved in corrupt deals, it has only itself to blame for those lapses,” says Kulakurusuriya.
Lord Naseby questions 40,000 civilian deaths
Meanwhile, the Sirisena government is coming under heavy domestic pressure to exploit a statement made in the House of Lords in October 2017 by Lord Naseby who has questioned the figure of 40,000 civilian deaths in the war crimes allegations.
Using UK foreign ministry documents, he has questioned this figure and claimed that the truth is about 10 percent of this. He has called upon the UN to drop these war crimes allegations against Sri Lanka. He has disputed the claims in Ban Ki-Moon’s POE report that was later used by the UNHRC. The UN – which often calls for transparency from governments – has put a 20-year ban on disclosing the names of those who have given evidence to the POE.
While Naseby’s disclosures have been welcomed by most people in Sri Lanka, the government has been muted in its response. Island newspaper’s editor Shamindra Ferdinando revealed in December 2017 that a Cabinet spokesperson had told him that the matter was not even discussed in Cabinet.
“Having plunged feet first into co-sponsoring the UNHRC resolution, based on POEs unsubstantiated claims, the government does not want to make use of Naseby’s compelling arguments because such action will be tantamount to admitting that it blundered by subscribing to the US-drafted resolution,” writes Ferdinando in an editorial.
He adds: “National reconciliation will never be possible unless tangible measures were taken to disprove lies propagated against Sri Lanka. The Tamil community will never pardon the Sinhala leadership as long as it believed that a slaughter had taken place on the Vanni east front (at the conclusion of the war)”.