Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)

Sri Lanka

Date of AiR edition

News summary

29 December 2020

United States spending bill provides conditional assistance to Sri Lanka, Cambodia

(lm) Sri Lanka and Cambodia are among 31 countries that may benefit from US assistance under a $2.3 trillion COVID-19 stimulus relief and omnibus spending bill, which US President Donald Trump signed into law on December 27. Coming against the larger backdrop of an increasingly dysfunctional Sino-US relationship, US financial support will, however, be contingent on the US Secretary of State certifying that both countries, inter alia, assert their sovereignty against influence by China. [Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021

Colombo, for one thing, is also expected to promote reconciliation between ethnic and religious groups, increase transparency and accountability in governance, and bring perpetrators to justice. The development comes after the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Board of Directors decided to discontinue the proposed US$ 480 million compact with Sri Lanka earlier this month, citing a lack of partner country engagement as reason for the decision [see AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3]. [Economy Next] [Daily FT] [Colombo Gazette]

As for Cambodia, the US spending bill states that the country must be able to verify that its Ream Naval Base, other military installations, and “dual use facilities such as the Dara Sakor development project” [see AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4] maintain their neutrality. These conditions follow expressions of concern from US officials about the potential for China to host military assets in Cambodia. At the center of concerns has been the Ream Naval Base, where new satellite images show further work underway to prepare for an expansion of the facilities [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. Denying Chinese involvement, at the ASEAN summit last month, Cambodia’s Minister of Economy and Finance reinforced the country’s stance on not allowing foreign military presence within its borders, referring to the nation’s sovereignty and neutrality [AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. [Nikkei Asia]

29 December 2020

Sri Lanka: East Container Terminal (ECT) in Colombo Port not for sale, says minister

(lm) Sri Lanka’s government has no plans on selling the East Container Terminal (ECT), the second deep-water facility at the Port of Colombo, according to the country’s minister of ports & shipping. Two committees are currently studying a proposal to hand-over the management of ECT, which begun operations earlier in November, to the Indian multinational conglomerate Adani Group [see AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1]. [News First]

In the run-up to this year’s general election, Colombo had suspended the tri-nation project, which India, Japan, and Sri Lanka were to jointly implement [AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. New Delhi and Tokyo consider their presence in the Colombo Port a strategic necessity in the face of China’s presence in the adjacent Colombo Port City project, a flagship $1.4 billion project in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1].

29 December 2020

Sri Lanka: Buddhist chapter calls on government to allow faith-based burial of COVID-19 victims

(lm) One of the country’s biggest chapters of Buddhist monks has called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to permit the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities their faith-based burial rites for relatives who die of COVID-19. This is the first time that a major group of Buddhist monks has taken a stand to allow burials since the controversy broke in April [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3]. [Economy Next]

Outrage has been mounting in Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, after the forced cremation of a 20-day-old COVID-19 victim against family wishes and in contravention of Islamic tradition earlier this month – the latest in more than a dozen such cremations in the Buddhist-majority country since the outbreak of the pandemic. [AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4

22 December 2020

Millennium Challenge Corporation terminates grant to Sri Lanka, citing lack of partner country engagement

(lm) At its quarterly meeting on December 15, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Board of Directors decided to discontinue the proposed US$ 480 million compact with Sri Lanka, citing a lack of partner country engagement as reason for the decision [see AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3]. In part, the money will be made available to Sierra Leone, which was selected as new partner country for the MCC’s five-year grant program. [ColomboPage] [Millenium Challenge Corporation]

Last year, the Board of Directors of the MCC approved a five-year, $480 million Compact with the Government of Sri Lanka aimed at reducing poverty through economic growth [see AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5]. Under the current government, which came into power at the end of last year, little headway has been made. Following the recommendation of four-member committee, President Rajapaksa on November 1 announced that the MCC would not be signed under his administration [see AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1].

22 December 2020

Sri Lanka: Government considers registering foreign digital operators

(lm) Performing a volte-face, Sri Lanka’s minister of mass media and information on December 21 said that the government was considering registering foreign digital operators, denying a previous statement on plans to register local users of all social media platforms to curb ‘inappropriate content’. Clarifying his previous statement, the minister said the government’s intention was not to register social media users but to acknowledge concerns that digital multinational conglomerates were overwhelming and alienating local businesses through data colonization. [News First]

22 December 2020

Sri Lanka: Anger grows over forced cremations of deceased Muslims

(lm) Outrage is mounting in Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, after the forced cremation of a 20-day-old COVID-19 victim last week against family wishes and in contravention of Islamic tradition. The incident was the latest in more than a dozen such cremations in the Buddhist-majority country since the outbreak of the pandemic. [France24]

Ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permit both burials and cremations, Sri Lanka amended its rules on burials and cremations in April, making cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3]. Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations raise concerns over the policy, saying authorities use it to purposely hurting the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities. Several of the Muslims whose bodies were cremated by the authorities had not been tested for coronavirus, or had even tested negative. [The Diplomat]

In November, the government appointed an expert committee to reassess the mandatory cremation policy. In its report submitted later the same month, the committee reaffirmed the policy without citing any reasons. When the Muslim and Christian groups petitioned the country’s Supreme Court, citing the right to bury according to rituals as a fundamental right, the court earlier this month refused to hear the appeal and dismissed the case. [Al Jazeera] [The Guardian]


15 December 2020

Sri Lanka on agenda for upcoming meeting of Board of Directors of Millennium Challenge Cooperation

(lm) Sri Lanka has been placed on the agenda for the next meeting of the Board of Directors of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) scheduled for December 15. During the meeting, board members will discuss fiscal year 2020 eligibility and selection process and hear an update from the MCC. The MCC is a bilateral United States foreign aid agency that works to alleviate poverty by providing time-limited grants intended to promote economic growth, reduce poverty, and strengthen institutions. [Daily Mirror]

Last year, the Board of Directors of the MCC approved a five-year, $480 million Compact with the Government of Sri Lanka aimed at reducing poverty through economic growth [see AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5]. Under the current government, which came into power at the end of last year, little headway has been made. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a four-member committee to review the compact and the committee handed over its review report to the Prime Minister and the President in June this year. In the wake of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Colombo visit, President Rajapaksa said on November 1 that the MCC would not be signed under his administration [see AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1]. [Nation Online]

Nepal, meanwhile, is also facing increased pressure to endorse the MCC during parliament’s upcoming winter session, if the country wants to ensure the continued viability of the program, and to being perceived as a reliable partner for future cooperation. With parliamentary ratification delayed, the agreed deadline of June 30 to start the implementation of the MCC compact has already been missed. [The Kathmandu Post]

Under the MCC agreement signed in 2017, the US government agreed to provide $500 million in grants to support infrastructure projects in Nepal, while Kathmandu would chip in $130 million. However, the agreement has not yet been ratified, as sections within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) consider the compact a part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is aimed at countering Chinese influence in the region. Only recently, leaders of the NCP in September agreed to amend and subsequently endorse the compact [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3].

8 December 2020

British mercenaries investigated over Sri Lanka war crimes

(lm) British mercenaries who were involved in the Sri Lankan civil war are being investigated for potential war crimes by the British Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), the UK force responsible for investigating accusations of war crimes or human rights abuses. The MPS launched a scoping exercise in March into allegations of war crimes committed by the firm, and this has now been elevated into a fully-fledged inquiry – the first of its kind. [bbc]

At the suggestion of Thatcher-era politicians, private security company Keenie Meenie Services (KMS) trained an elite unit of the Sri Lankan police called the Special Task Force (STF) to fight Tamil separatists. The STF has been implicated in a number of human rights abuses, including a 1987 massacre at a prawn farm in eastern Sri Lanka, in which 85 Tamil civilians died. KMS also taught the country’s air force and allegedly provided or flew helicopter gunships that took part in massacres. [The Hindu]

Much of the evidence concerning KMS’s involvement in Sri Lanka has come from declassified UK government documents and freedom of information requests submitted by an investigative journalist who is also taking the Foreign Office to an information tribunal over the release of files relating to the extent of UK diplomatic support for the training of Sri Lankan security forces by the company. [The Guardian]

1 December 2020

Sri Lanka, China agree to deepen bilateral ties

(lm) Coming less than two months after a short-notice Colombo visit of a high-level Chinese delegation in October [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], the foreign and deputy foreign ministers of both countries respectively held a virtual meeting last week. [ColomboPage]

The discussion of possible Chinese assistance for poverty eradication and livelihood support in Sri Lanka is in line with President Rajapaksa’s earlier pledge to pursue ‘China-style development’ in the island nation, and to disprove the popular ‘debt-trap’ analysis about Chinese loans [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2]. While Sri Lanka has sought a financial lifeline from Beijing in the face of a major economic crunch [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3], President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the newly appointed Chinese ambassador to Colombo earlier this month that Sri Lanka ‘seeks investments not loans’ from Beijing. [The Hindu]

1 December 2020

India, Sri Lanka strengthen trade, security ties

(lm) India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval concluded a three-day visit to Colombo on November 29 after meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to discuss trade, new investments and security amid plans to bolster bilateral ties between the two countries. [Arab News]

The trip marked Doval’s second official visit to Colombo this year, after he visited the island nation in January — on the heels of President Rajapaksa’s resounding election victory in 2019 — and held discussions on strengthening military ties [see AiR No. 3, January/2020, 3]. It also is the latest in a series of visits by top foreign officials to Colombo, first by a high-powered Chinese delegation early in October [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], and later by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1].

Doval on Friday took part in the 4th National Security Adviser (NSA)-level meeting on Maritime Security Cooperation, a trilateral forum with defense ministers from the Maldives and Sri Lanka, with officials from Mauritius and Seychelles attending virtually. The trilateral forum had been revived after a six-year gap to expand the scope of intelligence sharing, including terrorism and cybersecurity, based on ‘common security threats’, according to a statement published afterwards. [Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence] [The Hindu]

Before, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated President Rajapaksa over the phone on the first anniversary of assumption of Office. Reiterating New Delhi’s commitment to support Colombo’s fight against the COVID 19 pandemic, Modi also expressed confidence that the full potential of the bilateral relationship will be realized. [ColomboPage]

1 December 2020

Sri Lanka: Detainees nudged to sign prepared statements, according to Human Rights Commission

(lm) In a letter to the Inspector General of the police, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka alleges that detainees who are in custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) have complained of pressure in relation to self-incriminating statements. Specifically, the commission, which is charged with monitoring the conditions of persons in custody, alleges that detainees are offered inducements such as promises of release if statements are signed and threats such as charges based on falsehoods if they are not signed. [ColomboPage] [MenaFM]


1 December 2020

Sri Lanka: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa brings newly-created Ministry of Technology under his purview

(lm) A day after he established two new ministries [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4], Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a much-decorated former Naval officer as minister of the newly created Public Security Ministry, which supervises the island nation’s 88,000-strong police force, inter alia. [Outlook India]

Further, Rajapaksa, who already concomitantly serves as Minister of Defense, also added the newly-established Ministry of Technology to his own portfolio. As a result, the president now has nearly 30 agencies under his purview, including the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka and the Colombo Port City Project [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]]. [Economy Next]

1 December 2020

Sri Lanka: UN HRC resolution violates constitution, says foreign minister

(lm) While addressing parliament, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister justified the current government’s decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, saying it infringed the people’s sovereignty and violated the constitution. Remaining committed to the resolution would require the repealing of major legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act and empower foreign judges to adjudicate on grave allegations relating to war crimes in the country. [News First]

In 2015 the government of then Prime Minister Maithripala Sirisena co-sponsored a landmark UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution, 30/1, making commitments to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. It renewed these commitments in two further UNHRC resolutions in 2017 and 2019 [see AiR (3/3/2019)]. Following the general elections in 2019, the new administration of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in February made public its intentions to withdraw its co-sponsorship of the resolution’s commitments, most importantly the accountability of war crimes – of which his former administration that was then followed by the Sirisena administration was accused of [see AiR No. 8, February/2020, 4].

24 November 2020

Asian countries divided over UN death penalty moratorium

(dql) In a poll on a resolution which calls for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment eleven countries from the Asia-Pacific region were among the 39 countries which voted against the resolution in the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. They include Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, China, India, Japan, the Maldives, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Tonga.

120 countries voted for the resolution, including over 15 Asia-Pacific countries. Among them are Sri Lanka and the Philippines. 24 countries abstained from the vote. Asia-Pacific countries among these are Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. [Human Rights Watch]

24 November 2020

Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa establishes two new ministries, reassigns departments

(lm) Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has created two new ministries – Public Security and Technology – and reassigned some of the functions previously held under him and his elder brother and State Minister of Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management, Chamal Rajapaksa, as a consequence. [ColomboPage]

The new Ministry of Public Security will be responsible for supervising the police department, the civil security department, the police training college and the multi-purpose development task force, all of which had been hitherto managed by the State Ministry of Defense. The newly established Ministry of Technology will be in charge of the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Regulatory Commission as well as the Sri Lanka Telecom, among others. [EconomyNext]

17 November 2020

Sri Lanka: Alternative proposals for new constitution handed over to PM Mahinda Rajapaksa

(lm) Representatives of the Buddhasasana Task Force and the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress have handed over alternative proposals for a new constitution to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Titled ‘A Proposal for an Alternative Constitutional Arrangement for Sri Lanka’, the document was compiled by the National Policy Council and the Subcommittee on Law, Public Administration, National Security and Foreign Policy of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. [ColomboPage]

Last month, Sri Lanka’s parliament approved the 20th Constitutional Amendment Bill that concentrates powers under the president and allows duel citizens to hold political office. The amendment was passed with several changes because the country’s Supreme Court had earlier ruled that certain clauses in the original proposal required approval in a public referendum. [AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4]

10 November 2020

India, Sri Lanka: Local political leaders call on central government to prevent destruction of fishing boats

(ng) Leaders of political parties from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu have called on the central government to take immediate steps to ensure the release of 121 Indian mechanized fishing boats belonging to local fishermen and held by Sri Lankan authorities. Previously, a Sri Lankan court has reportedly permitted authorities to destroy boats that were seized between 2015 and 2018 for allegedly illegally crossing into the Sri Lankan waters. [The Times of India] [Deccan Herald]

In September, the Sri Lankan government pledged to take measures aimed at preventing frequent poaching by Indian fisherman in the island nation’s territorial waters. Before, fishermen in the Tamil-majority Northern Province had launched a protest demanding Fisheries authorities to take actions against intruding Indian trawlers. [AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3]

10 November 2020

Sri Lanka: Rights activists criticize UN Country Team for inviting PM Rajapaksa as ‘Chief Guest’ to event

(ng/lm) Human Rights Watch has criticized the UN’s Country Team in Sri Lanka for inviting Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as ‘Chief Guest’ to a virtual event commemorating the world body’s 75th birthday. The rights groups said that the responsibility for many of the alleged crimes committed during the final stages of the country’s civil war rests with Rajapaksa, who served as President between 2005 and 2015. [Human Rights Watch]

In the final months of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009, the armed forces, as well as the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), allegedly committed numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity, including attacks on civilians and civilian buildings, and executions of combatants and prisoners. For their part, Rajapaksa and his government denied all allegations of war crimes and have strongly opposed any international investigation.

Human Rights Watch further alleges that the current government, led Mahinda’s brother and incumbent President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is currently undermining post-war reconciliation efforts guided by the UN Human Rights Council resolution passed in 2015.

For a start, the United States in February issued a travel ban on Sri Lanka’s Army Chief Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva over accusations of human rights violations, including extrajudicial execution of unarmed rebels and systematic torture of people in government custody [see AiR No. 7, February/2020, 3]. In March, then, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned and released an army officer sentenced to death for killing civilians, including children. The year before, the Supreme Court had unanimously rejected the officer’s appeal and upheld the death penalty [see AiR No. 13, March/2020, 5].

Moreover, the government has rapidly expanded the military’s control over numerous aspects of civilian life, including policing, the COVID-19 response, and the supervision of nongovernmental organizations. In June, the president created a task force with the responsibility to maintain national security, discipline and a lawful society. Some members of the task force have been credibly accused of war crimes and other abuses [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2].

Most recently, Sir Lanka’s parliament approved the 20th Constitutional Amendment Bill which concentrates powers under the president and allows duel citizens to hold political office, which could strengthen Rajapaksa’s familial political clout [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4]. Raising concerns over the impact the amendment will have on the independence of key institutions, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in September called for ‘renewed attention’ to increasing intimidation of journalists, lawyers and rights activists in Sri Lanka [see AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4].

In fact, Sri Lankan rights groups have recorded an increase in intimidation and targeted detention of minority Tamil and Muslim communities, lawyers, journalists, and activists in the past year [see e.g. AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1AiR No. 22, June/2020, 1].

3 November 2020

Sri Lanka: Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal inaugurates operations with arrival of first ship

(ng/lm) In the latest effort to soothe the waters with New Delhi, Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) inaugurated its operations with the arrival of the first container carrier ship on October 27. Moreover, the public sector Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA) is planning to hand over the management of the ECT to Indian multinational conglomerate Adani Group. [The Sunday Times] [Colombo Page]

In the run-up to this year’s general election, Colombo had suspended the tri-nation project, which India, Japan, and Sri Lanka were to jointly implement [see AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. Although Japan and India are keen to see the deep-sea container terminal implemented, there have long been no signs that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapak thought of reviving it. In September, then, Colombo announced its ‘India First Policy’ [see AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1], which was soon followed by a virtual summit between Rajapak and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1].

India and Japan consider their presence in the Colombo Port a strategic necessity in the face of China’s presence in the adjacent Colombo Port City project, a flagship $1.4 billion project in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. India has an additional reason to seek a foothold in Colombo Port as approximately 70 percent of the throughput at Colombo port is accounted for by Indian transshipment. [Maritime Gateway]

Read between the lines, the island nation which finds itself at the crossroads of two strategic policies in the Indian Ocean (US Indo-Pacific Strategy & Chinese BRI) is peeved at being taken for granted in matters of maritime security and spheres of influence in the Indian Ocean. These concerns, at least, were revealed by Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage. Speaking at a webinar on deepening India-Sri Lanka ties on October 29, Colombage asserted that Sri Lanka was a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-aligned’ country. Further elaborating on the issue, he added that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had also conveyed this message to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo [see article in this edition], as well as Yang Jiechi, a Communist Party Politburo member and top foreign policy official [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2]. [The Wire]

3 November 2020

US Secretary of States visits Sri Lanka in an effort to sway Colombo away from its pro-China bent

(lm) Less than a week before the American presidential election, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday called the Chinese Communist Party a ‘predator’ who had brought lawlessness to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Earlier the day, Pompeo arrived in Colombo, the second stop on a four-nation tour [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3], marking the first visit of a high-level US diplomat since 2015. [Al Jazeera] [The Straits Times]

In an effort to bolster allies against China’s growing assertiveness in the region, Pompeo called on the strategically located island nation to be on guard against lending and investment by Beijing, which American officials allege is Chinese exploitation. Meeting with Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Pompeo said Sir Lanka could be ‘a beacon’ for freedom and democracy in the region as long as it retained its ‘full sovereignty.’ [Associated Press]

Defending Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, however, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told Pompeo that he was not ready to compromise his country’s sovereignty in relations with other nations. Moreover, Gunawardena appeared unwilling to get involved in the spat with China, saying that Sri Lanka ‘is a neutral, non-aligned country committed to peace’. [The Diplomat]

Earlier this month, Beijing announced that it would provide Sri Lanka with a $90 million grant to help rural development, after President Rajapaksa sought help from a visiting Chinese delegation in disproving a perception that that the Chinese-built Hambantota port is a ‘debt trap’ [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2]. In the run-up to Pompeo’s visit, China had already fired back at Washington’s message, accusing the United States of ‘importing risk’ to an island nation battling the coronavirus and of bullying smaller nations. [South China Morning Post]

Not surprisingly, there is little indication of headway being made around the pending US proposal on the $480 million Compact of the ‘Millennium Challenge Cooperation’ (MCC) [see AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5] and a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Washington has been pressuring Colombo since July 2019 to renew its SOFA, which allows visa-free movement of US security and defense personnel in and out of Sri Lanka. In the wake of Pompeo’s Colombo visit, President Rajapaksa said on November 1 that the MCC would not be signed under his administration. [News First] [The Diplomat]

After his 12-hour visit to Colombo, Pompeo traveled to the Maldives later on Wednesday, another Indian Ocean country struggling with a mountain of Chinese debt incurred to finance big infrastructure projects [see below]. Further, he is due to hold meetings in Indonesia, which is also locked in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, on Friday. The Vietnamese Government on Wednesday said Pompeo would visit Hanoi on Thursday and Friday as part of his tour of Asia.The U.S. State Department has not yet confirmed the announcement. [Reuters]

27 October 2020

Sri Lanka: Parliament by a large majority approves 20th Constitutional Amendment Bill

(lm/ng) Sri Lanka’s parliament on Thursday approved the 20th Constitutional Amendment Bill after an acrimonious two-day debate during which the opposition accused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of becoming a constitutional ‘dictator’. The government on September 3 had gazetted and soon thereafter tabled in parliament the amendment that concentrates powers under the president and allows duel citizens to hold political office, which could strengthen Rajapaksa’s familial political clout. [South China Morning Post] [Colombo Page]

The Amendment Bill was passed with a two-third majority with 156 lawmakers in the 225-member parliament voting in favor. Sixty-five lawmakers from the voted against. One member of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party broke ranks undermining the two-thirds necessary to pass the bill, but eight opposition defectors saw the legislation through. The amendment was passed with several changes because the Supreme Court had earlier determined certain clauses in the original proposals were against people’s sovereignty and they needed approval in a public referendum to become law [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. [The Straits Times]

Introduced by President Rajapaksa`s predecessor Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, the 19th Constitutional Amendment had strengthened the role of parliament in order limit the ability of presidents to amass extensive powers. During its electoral campaign the Rajapaksa family-led SLPP vowed to roll back the amendment, positioning themselves as stalwarts of national security and decisiveness. [AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]

Raising concerns over the impact the 20th Constitutional Amendment will have on the independence of key institutions, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet last month called for “renewed attention” to increasing intimidation of journalists, lawyers and rights activists in Sri Lanka. [AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4]

27 October 2020

Sri Lanka: Nearly 15,000 people knew in advance of Easter Sunday bombings, according to former SIS head

(lm) Reports about a possible terrorist operation had been known as early as April 4, the former Director of the State Intelligence (SIS) said when testifying before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday bombings last week. According to the country’s former spy chief, these reports were then shared with 10,000 people, including foreign embassies, intelligence services and 8,000 police officers in Sri Lanka’s Western Province. [Asia News]

On 21 April 2019, Sri Lankan citizens had pledged allegiance to ISIS and killed more than 260 people by detonated backpack suicide bombs in three churches and four hotels. The country’s former intelligence chief was dismissed last December after a parliamentary committee had concluded that he knew of possible attacks nearly three weeks before the actual bombings took place but was slow to share the intelligence with relevant parties. However, he refused to step down and appealed to the Supreme Court over his ‘unfair dismissal’ [see AiR No. 50, December/2019, 2] [Colombo Page]

Testifying before Commission last week, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had acknowledged a clear breakdown in the country’s security apparatus at the time of the bombings. [AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3]

27 October 2020

Sri Lanka: Amnesty International calls on government to release prominent human rights lawyer

(lm) Rights groups have raised concerns over the continued incarceration of Hejaaz Hizbullah, a prominent human rights lawyer and government critic, who has been held in detention for more than six months under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Under the PTA, any ‘suspect’ can be placed in detention – without charge and without being produced before a judge. Hizbullah was arrested on “terrorism” charges in April and is currently serving his second period of detention, which expires on 17 October [see AiR No. 29, July/2020, 3]. [Amnesty International]

According to the two detention orders authorized by Sir Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Hizbullah is being incarcerated for alleged links to the perpetrators of the 2019 Easter Bombings, which left more than 260 people dead and injured more than 500 – the Indian Ocean island nation’s worst attack since the end of civil war in 2009. Hejaaz’s family, however, believes he is being targeted for his professional work as a lawyer and his peaceful activism for the human rights of Sri Lanka’s embattled Muslim minority. [Al Jazeera]

20 October 2020

Sri Lanka: Son of PM Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed prime mister’s Chief of Staff

Yoshitha Rajapaksa, son of incumbent prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has been appointed his father’s Chief of Staff. After concerns were raised on Yoshitha Rajapaksa’s position within the Navy in the wake of the appointment, he resigned from the force. The appointment was made public only after a congratulatory tweet by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo. [Daily Mirror Online] [Colombo Gazette 1] [Colombo Gazette 2]

20 October 2020

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit Sri Lanka, Maldives after Delhi talks later this month

(lm/ng) Against the backdrop of further Chinese advancements [see above], a highly-anticipated Colombo visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assumes added significance. Pompeo was previously scheduled to come to Sri Lanka in June 2019 but the visit had to be cancelled over concern about growing sentiments against a proposed American military base on the island.

Pompeo, who will visit Sri Lanka en route to New Delhi in the coming weeks [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], will presumably press Colombo on the pending US proposal on the $480 million Compact of the ‘Millennium Challenge Cooperation’ (MCC) [see AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5] and a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Washington has been pressuring Colombo since July 2019 to renew its SOFA, which allows visa-free movement of US security and defense personnel in and out of Sri Lanka. [The Indian Express] [South Asia Journal]

Significantly, Sri Lanka has not hosted a high-level United States’ diplomat since John Kerry’s visit in 2015 – a clear sign that the United States regards Sri Lanka – situated just north of the main naval trade routes across the Indian Ocean that serve as China’s economic lifeline – as a crucial part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Still, the Sri Lankan government may not bend to the United States on the issue of the MCC or the SOFA as both agreements have come under heavy flak from Sri Lankan nationalists. [The Diplomat]

Indicating how closely Washington monitors political developments on the island, the US Department of Defense in its annual report to Congress last month named Sri Lanka as one of the countries where Beijing ‘is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces.’ [US Department of Defense]

20 October 2020

Sri Lanka: Financial lifeline from China when repayments on outstanding loans are due

(lm/ng) Following on the heels of a short-notice Colombo visit of a high-level Chinese delegation last week, negotiations are reportedly underway for a $1.5 billion currency-swap agreement between Sri Lanka’s Central Bank and the People’s Bank of China. During last week’s visit, Beijing offered a $90 million grant towards COVID 19-related medical assistance [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], and is now likely to favorably consider the Rajapaksa government’s request for an additional $700 million. In yet another follow-up, both sides on October 14 signed a supplementary agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on water research and technology cooperation, aimed at providing clean drinking water to several areas of the island country. [Xinhua] [The Hindu 1]

The negotiations come at a time when Sri Lanka is gearing up to repay a daunting $4.5 billion of its outstanding foreign loans next year. The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that is, desperately needs cash to service its multibillion-dollar international debts and to run a current account deficit estimated at $1.1 billion annually. [Nikkei Asia Review]

Notably, this was the third loan request by Colombo to Beijing this year, after the $500 million ‘urgent financial assistance’ that China sanctioned in March, to help cope with the economic knock-on effects of the pandemic. Earlier, Sri Lanka had relied heavily on China to construct $1.5 billion port in Hambantota in the country’s south. After the port was operating at a loss and couldn’t generate enough revenue to repay the loan the country had received to build it, the port was leased to China for 99 years in return for $1.1 billion which eased its position [see AiR December/2017, 3].

As for India, New Delhi promised to consider Colombo’s request for a debt moratorium – Sri Lanka owes $960 million to India – and a $1 billion currency swap arrangement [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. The Reserve Bank of India already signed an agreement for extending a $400 million currency swap to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4], and is perusing a further $1 billion requested by Sri Lanka. [The Hindu 2] [Observer Research Foundation]

As Sri Lanka is exploring different options to repay its debt, including additional loans from China, opposition lawmakers have raised concerns over the Rajapaksa administration’s growing reliance on Beijing, cautioning the government not to completely burn bridges with other creditors, especially Japan, once the country’s largest lender for development projects. Further, government critics urge the administration to seek for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, a move they say would not just avoid the country defaulting on foreign debts, but also build up the confidence of international investors and enable the country to borrow gain.[EconomyNext]

Last week, the minister who initiated and spearheaded the Colombo Light Rail Transport (LRT) Project in a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologized for the government’s sudden decision to cancel the project. Last month, Sri Lanka suspended the $1.5 billion light rail project for its capital that had been finalized by the previous government, on the grounds that it was not a ‘cost-effective solution’.[Reuters] [News in Asia]

20 October 2020

Sri Lanka: Former PM says he would have prevented the Easter Sunday terror attack if he had received the available intel

(lm) Testifying before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday bombings, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe acknowledged a clear breakdown in the country’s security apparatus at the time of the bombings. On 21 April 2019, Sri Lankan citizens had pledged allegiance to ISIS and killed more than 260 people by detonated backpack suicide bombs in three churches and four hotels. [ColomboPage]

A special board of inquiry, set up in the aftermath of the attacks by then-President Sirisena, had recommended to launch an investigation into alleged security lapses. At the time, Sirisena himself faced criticism for failing to act on intelligence warnings prior to the attacks. The president, though, claimed to have not been alerted to such warnings. [AiR (1/7/2019)]

A second probe into the suicide bombings was launched in last September after allegations had questioned the independence of the initial investigation. While carried out by a cross-section of lawmakers, many opposition members boycotted the fresh inquiry, saying the commission was being used by political parties to deflect responsibility for failing to stop the attacks. [AiR No. 39, September/2019, 4]

Later the same year, the leader of Sri Lanka’s State Intelligence Service (SIS) was dismissed after the parliamentary committee had concluded that he was primarily responsible for the intelligence failure. the country’s spy chief, however, refused to step down and appealed to the Supreme Court over his ‘unfair dismissal’. [AiR No. 50, December/2019, 2]

20 October 2020

Sri Lanka: Leaked document details Supreme Court’s determination on 20th Constitutional Amendment

(lm/ng) A document purporting to be the determination of the Supreme Court (SC) on the proposed 20th Constitutional Amendment Bill, which aims to remove the checks and balances on the president, on October 10 appeared on the internet. According to the unconfirmed determination, the ruling leaves the basic structure of the proposed bill untouched while making a referendum necessary in the case of four provisions. [Economy Next] [see the full 20thConstitutional Amendment Bill here Sri Lanka BRIEF]

Earlier this month, the SC concluded a hearing from petitioners challenging the bill, including political parties, human rights activists, the Bar Council and other groups, and conveyed its confidential decision to the President and the Speaker of Parliament [see AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. A parliamentary debate is scheduled to take place from October 20 -21 [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2]. However, Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary Opposition is demanding the postponement of the debate, citing regulations imposed on gatherings by the government last week in light of a second wave of COVID-19 infections. [ColomboPage] [EconomyNext]

Denouncing the SC’s verdict, opponents of the bill say the decision would fall short of a ‘serious analysis or indeed understanding of the ways in which the Bill affects popular sovereignty and constitutional government’. [Associated Press]

During a Cabinet meeting on Monday, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reportedly proposed to introduce three changes to the proposed 20th Constitutional Amendment. Specifically, clauses pertaining to auditing in the 19th Constitutional Amendment should remain untouched. The Cabinet further decided that emergency bills be moved only in the case of natural disasters and national security issues. Finally, the limit set by the 19th Amendment on the number of Ministers, too, will reportedly remain unchanged. Previously, Sri Lanka’s Attorney General (AG) on September 29 day had informed the SC that the government would introduce multiple amendments to the proposed legislation [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. [The Island Online]

13 October 2020

China provides $90 million grant to Sri Lanka

(lm) China announced on Sunday that it was providing a $90 million grant to Sri Lanka to support medical care, education and water supplies in Sri Lanka’s rural areas. Further, plans are afoot to restart discussion on a free trade agreement last held in 2017 [see e.g. AiR (1/6/2018)], and to swiftly complete the China-backed Hambantota Industrial Zone and the Port City in Colombo, according to a statement from the President’s Office. The announcement followed a visit to the strategically located island nation on Friday by a Chinese seven-member delegation led by Yang Jiechi, a Communist Party Politburo member and top foreign policy official. [The Hindu] [South China Morning Post]

During talks with Yang, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa reportedly asked Beijing to help him in disproving a perception that the Chinese-built Hambantota port is a “debt trap” aimed at expanding China’s footprint in Sri Lanka. In 2017, Colombo had signed over control of the port, which is located near busy shipping routes, to a Chinese company for 99 years to recover from the heavy burden of repaying the Chinese loan the country had received to build it [see AiR December/2017, 3]. [Arab News] [Reuters]

Earlier this month, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, had visited the Port City project in Colombo – a flagship $1.4 billion project in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – and called for the construction to be accelerated [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1].

13 October 2020

Sri Lanka: Debate on 20th Constitutional Amendment upcoming

(lm) A parliamentary debate on the 20th Constitutional Amendment that is aimed at removing the checks and balances on the presidency is scheduled to take place within the next parliamentary week, beginning on October 20. Earlier, the Supreme Court had concluded hearing from petitioners and subsequently submitted its confidential decision regarding the constitutionality of the bill to the President and the Speaker of Parliament [see AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. Accordingly, after the presentation of the decision of the Supreme Court on the 20th Constitutional Amendment by the Speaker of Parliament, the respective debate will be held. [Colombo Page]

6 October 2020

India, Sri Lanka hold first virtual summit

(lm) At their first virtual summit on September 26, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed to expand maritime cooperation between their countries to stabilize the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal in the face of China’s growing ambitions in these regions. After Sri Lanka last month had announced its “India First Policy” – a reiteration of its commitment not to allow a third country to use its land or waters for anti-Indian activities [see AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1] – India clearly continued to step up efforts to win back ground lost to Beijing. [South China Morning Post] [Deccan Herald]

Firstly, India promised to consider Colombo’s request for delayed debt repayment and a $1 billion currency swap arrangement. In July, the Reserve Bank of India had already signed an agreement for extending a $400 million currency swap to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) until November 2022 in order to help the CBSL balance the country’s payment requirements [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]. Further, in a bid to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence on China, India is reportedly working on a plan to offer Sri Lanka $50-million Line of Credit (LoC) in the defense sector. [The Economic Times]

However, on at least two issues – the East Container Terminal (ECT) project in Colombo and the implementation of the 13th Amendment – the Rajapaksa brothers so far have not yielded to pressure from New Delhi. [The Diplomat]

In the run-up to the August general election, Colombo had suspended the ECT project, which India, Japan, and Sri Lanka were to jointly implement [AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. Although Japan and India are keen to see the deep-sea container terminal implemented, there have been no signs so far that Mahinda is thinking of reviving it. What is more, Mahinda visited the Port City project in Colombo earlier this month and called for the construction of the project to be accelerated, saying the BRI project would be the country’s future main source of revenue. The Colombo Port City project is being executed by a subsidiary of the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). [Xinhua]

Neither did the meeting result in a bridging of the gap in their positions on the question of Sri Lankan Tamil rights. Just hours after both countries had issued a joint statement, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office released a separate statement, making no mention of Mr. Modi’s call, or the 13th Constitutional Amendment which provides for devolution of power to provincial councils. [The Hindu]

6 October 2020

Sri Lanka: Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of proposed 20th Constitutional Amendment

(lm) Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court on October 5 concluded hearing from petitioners challenging the 20th Constitutional Amendment that aims to remove the checks and balances on the president. Among the 39 petitioners are the opposition bloc Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), that represents the country’s Sri Lankan Tamil minority. Previously, Sri Lanka’s Attorney General (AG) on September 29 day informed the SC that the government would introduce multiple amendments to the proposed legislation. The court was given three weeks to rule on the amendment’s constitutionality, starting on September 22. The confidential decision of the court regarding the constitutionality of the bill will be conveyed to the President and the Speaker of Parliament in due course. [Outlook India] [Bloomberg] [Colombo Page]

Rajapaksa’s government on September 3 had gazetted and soon thereafter tabled in parliament the amendment that would replace the 19th Constitutional Amendment introduced in 2015 by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa`s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena. Since then, various individuals and organizations have petitioned the SC [see AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4]. Noteworthy, the nation’s legislative and judicial systems do not accept any court challenges on laws passed by parliament. Hence, most of the petitioners, including the SJB, are rushing to push the justices to rule that the 20th Amendment requires a two thirds majority in the 225-member parliament, in addition to being approved by a national referendum. [The Week] [Colombo Page] [South Florida Times] [Nikkei Asia Review]

Moreover, the nine-member committee appointed by the President’s brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, on September 14, has already started to prepare a draft for a new constitution. The government is therefore expecting to submit the first version to Parliament within six months. [South Asia Monitor]

22 September 2020

Sri Lanka: Prime Minister appoints committee to study 20th Constitutional Amendment

(lm) After meeting with opposition even from within the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) parliamentary group, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed on September 14 a nine-member committee to study the proposed 20th Constitutional Amendment that is aimed at removing the checks and balances on the executive presidency. [The Hindu 1] [The Hindu 2]

The government had published on September 3 a draft version of the 20th Constitutional Amendment that would replace the 19th Amendment introduced by President Rajapaksa`s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, in 2015. The announcement followed the ruling Rajapaksa brothers’ election pledge to reverse the preceding 19th Amendment that imposed curbs on presidential powers, while strengthening the role of parliament and independent commissions in order limit the ability of presidents to amass extensive powers. [see e.g. AiR No. 32, August/2020, 2AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4] [see the full draft here Sri Lanka BRIEF]

Since then, various groups have come out against the proposal [see e.g. Sri Lanka BRIEF]. While the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has vowed to petition the Supreme Court (SC) along with other opposition groups, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) has appointed a special committee to study the draft version of the 20thAmendment. A ruling of the SC on the amendment’s constitutionality is expected soon. [Colombo Gazette 1]

The amendment also found mention in the statement made by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Speaking at the opening session of the 45th UN Human Rights Council session, Mrs. Bachelet raised concerns over the impact the amendment would have on the independence of key institutions, including the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission. Responding to the references the following day, Sri Lanka’s representative called the High Commissioner’s comments on the proposed 20th Amendment “unwarranted” and pre-judgmental”. [Colombo Gazette 2] [The Island Online]

15 September 2020

Sri Lanka: Foreign Ministry to order back diplomats from ten overseas missions

(lm) Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Relations has taken steps to recall ambassadors and high commissioners from 10 diplomatic missions for reasons of age. Other suitable ambassadors and high commissioners will be appointed in the future to fill the vacant missions, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Meanwhile, former Minister Milinda Moragoda has been nominated as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India and former Foreign Secretary and former Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dr. Palitha Kohona has been nominated as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to China. [Colombo Page]

15 September 2020

Sri Lanka: Government pledges to increase maritime security to prevent poaching

(lm) Sri Lanka’s government announced on Thursday it would take measures to increase security in the Northern seas to prevent Indian trawlers from poaching in Sri Lankan territorial waters. The previous day, fishermen in the Tamil-majority Northern Province had launched a protest demanding Fisheries authorities to take actions against intruding Indian trawlers. [Colombo Page]

15 September 2020

Sri Lanka: Former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, 15 others summoned to appear before the Presidential Commission

(lm) The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) investigating allegations of political victimization re-issued summons on former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on September 7 to appear before the commission on October 19. The three-member Presidential Commission was appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in January 2020 to investigate allegations of political victimization of public servants during the tenure of the past regime from 2015-2019.

In particular, the PCol currently investigates the Anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat (ACCS) which was established in 2015 under the Wickremesinghe-led government to investigate frauds and corruption cases of the previous regime. Last week, Mr. Wickremesinghe, who was then chairman of the committee, testified that the ACCS was not a legal entity and thus had no legal capacity to file a lawsuit or file a complaint against a natural person or an institution. [Colombo Page] [South Asia Monitor]

1 September 2020

Sri Lanka: “India First” while retaining control over foreign investment

(ls) Sri Lanka’s new Foreign Minister Jayanath Colombage emphasized that his government’s strategic security policy will be focused on “India First”. At the same time, it remains open to other key players for economic development. However, he also said the Sri Lankan government would not hand over total control of strategic national assets to a foreign power. This was an apparent reference to the Hambantota port, where 85% of the stakes were given to China Merchant Port Holding for 99 years. In the future, Sri Lanka would retain at least 51% of stakes in any project with foreign investment. [Hindustan Times]

The newly elected Sri Lankan government has given the Foreign Minister “special responsibility” to reassess existing bilateral agreements. This includes the mandate to investigate whether they may have a detrimental effect on the local economy. Such responsibility was not previously assigned to the Foreign Minister in such explicit terms. Observers also expect that there will be a new emphasis on strengthening ties with India, China and other neighboring Asian nations due to the creation of a State Minister for Regional Cooperation portfolio. [Lowy Institute]

25 August 2020

India is working on balancing against Chinese influence in Myanmar

(dql) For Delhi, China’s rise forms a constant challenge to India’s dominance of its backyard currently tested in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. After India’s foreign minister visited Bangladesh last week to work on bilateral ties, Myanmar is the next country on India’s wooing list, a country where India and China compete for dominance.

Timing seems well for the Indian chief diplomat though. First, from a Myanmar perspective, India has handled its role in mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Rohingya issue rather well. Second, China is currently regarded as playing a dangerous role in relation to two of Myanmar’s insurgent groups. On July 2, the Myanmar commander-in-chief referring to the Arakan Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) alleged that terrorist groups in the country were being backed by ‘strong forces’ implying China. A military spokesperson then clarified the army chief was referring to the fact that AA and ARSA fighters had used Chinese made weapons when attacking the armed forces in a 2019 attack.

Another pain point Delhi could press has been revealed by Myanmar’s auditor general who had raised alarm over loans from China: “The truth is the loans from China come at higher interest rates compared to loans from financial institutions like the World Bank or the IMF” he was quoted, adding: “So, I would like to remind the government ministries to be more restrained in using Chinese loans.” Other criticism came up with regard to Chinese investment projects like the Muse-Mandalay Electric Railway built by a Chinese company or plans to erect a new Yangon city in cooperation with China.

These disturbances notwithstanding, China is present in the country as well and has also been working on deepening its ties with Myanmar with President Xi Jinping having visited the country at the beginning of the year.

To make things even more complicated, geostrategy and domestic politics are increasingly intertwined with Myanmar’s generals inclined to quest the Chinese card which becomes more attractive for Aung San Suu Kyi after having been put under pressure by the West over the Rohingya issue. [The Week]

25 August 2020

Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa says country is going to roll back 19th amendment of the constitution

(lm) Sri Lanka is going to remove the 19th amendment to the constitution (2015), which curtails presidential powers and limits the presidential term to two, and will then work on a new constitution, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said while addressing legislators during the inaugural session of the parliament on Thursday. His address followed the recently concluded parliamentary election in which the Rajapaksa family-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was able to secure 145 seats in the 225-member parliament. [Al Jazeera] [Arab News] [Foreign Brief]

Introduced by President Rajapaksa`s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, the 19th amendment strengthened the role of parliament in order limit the ability of presidents to amass extensive powers. During its electoral campaign the SLPP has vowed to roll back the amendment, positioning themselves as stalwarts of national security and decisiveness. Earlier this month, Mahinda Rajapaksa, older brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was sworn in as the country’s new Prime Minister, after Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA), of which the SLPP is a majority stakeholder, won in a landslide. [AiR No. 32, August/2020, 2]

11 August 2020

Sri Lanka: Mahinda Rajapaksa sworn in as new Prime Minister

(cm/lm) On Sunday, Mahinda Rajapaksa, older brother of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was sworn in as the country’s new Prime Minister, after his party together with its allies secured a two-thirds majority in the recently concluded parliamentary election.

Last week, the brothers’ Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA), of which their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is a majority stakeholder, and its allies secured more than 150 seats in the 225-member house. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was elected as president in a similar landslide victory in November, campaigning on a platform aimed at stoking ethnic Sinhala nationalism, promising strong security policies and centralized leadership.[AiR No. 47, November/2019, 3] [Al Jazeera 1]

The worst setback was suffered by the United National Party (UNP), which had 106 seats in the outgoing parliament, but entered the polls on the back of years of mis-governance and, more recently, a split into two separate parties ahead of the polls. In February, the UNP’s presidential candidate in the November presidential election, Sajith Premadasa, formed the United People’s Force (UPF), breaking away from the UNP and taking the majority of the party’s members of Parliament with him. Both parties, however, fared poorly at Wednesday’s poll, with the UPF coming in second with 54 seats, and the UNP managing to secure just one seat. Even the minority Tamil and Muslim parties, traditionally strong in the north and the east, conceded space either for the SLPP or its allies. [South China Morning Post] [Al Jazeera 2]

Having secured sufficient numbers to deliver constitutional changes, the Rajapaksa brothers may now increase executive authority, reversing the 2015 19th constitutional amendment, which brought about a more even distribution of power between the PM and the president to prevent a centralization of power. It is also expected that independent commissions watching over elections, police and public services might be weakened as well. A coming amendment could also increase the presidency’s two-year limit and allow Mahinda to continue his candidacy in the next election. Moreover, the brothers have also planned to extend their MPs to other Rajapaksa family members, such as the PM’s sons. Furthermore, after its election victory, the SLPP is less inclined to make compromises with other parties in a polity in which religious and ethnic minorities are worrying about the Rajapaksa’s policies. [BBC News] [Time]

Against the background of the election results, Human Rights Watch and the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) see heightened fears “that the government will exacerbate policies that are hostile to ethnic and religious minorities and further repress those seeking justice for abuses committed during the country’s 26-year civil war”. The rights activists also voiced their concern about the “inner circle” that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed for the Presidential Task Force [see AiR No. 29, July/2020, 3]. According to the international NGOs, the majority of the appointees are either bureaucrats, have committed war crimes or contributed to Sri Lanka’s corruption. In the ITJP’s recent infographic, it depicts six military officers who have been given powerful positions, such as Chief of Defense Staff or Commander of the Army. The Director of ITJP has stated that the military officers “will have to answer in a court one day for their complicity in the alleged killings of tens of thousands of their citizens in both 1989 and 2009, as well as alleged corruption”. [Human Rights Watch] [ITJP] 

4 August 2020

Sri Lanka: Human rights organizations call on government

(cm) Last Wednesday, a statement was published by eleven human rights organizations that demanded the termination of intimidation of human rights defenders, journalists, activists, lawyers, and targeted detention. In their joint announcement, the rights activists cite the case of a Muslim lawyer, who had been sent to a detention center for criticizing the ban of burials during COVID-19. The organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists among others, demanded to end “all forms of harassment, threats, and abuse of legal processes and police powers against lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists”. However, the current President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksas, has yet to issue a response, as his priorities may be with Sri Lanka’s elections that will commence this Wednesday. [Reuters] [Human Rights Watch] [Tamil Guardian 1] [Tamil Guardian 2]

4 August 2020

Sri Lanka: NGOs decry human rights violations

(cm) Last Wednesday, eleven human rights organizations published a statement demanding an end to the intimidation and targeted detention of human rights defenders, journalists, activists and lawyers. A recent case in point has been a Muslim lawyer who spoke out against the ban of burials during Covid-19. He was later sent to a detention center. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and other NGOs demanded to end “all forms of harassment, threats, and abuse of legal processes and police powers against lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists”. [Human Rights Watch] [Tamil Guardian]

4 August 2020

Sri Lanka: General elections on 5 August

(ls) Sri Lanka is holding general elections this Wednesday, 5 August. Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the party of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, aims to win the majority of the seats and subsequently install Rajapaksa’s elder brother and former president, current caretaker Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, formally as Prime Minister. The latter has been in office without a parliamentary majority for several months. A two-thirds majority, that would allow constitutional changes to give the president extended powers, appears to be an ambitious but not impossible goal. 

Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority population is largely supporting the Rajapaksas who had ended the country’s 26-year civil war with the Tamil minority. The opposition is largely formed by the United National Party (UNP) and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which, however, have been entangled in political feuds to settle old scores rather than mounting a credible challenge against the Rajapaksas. The elections are also ending the uncertainty since early March, when the President dissolved the parliament five months ahead of schedule for an early election that was first scheduled for April and which has since been delayed twice. [Reuters] [Nikkei Asian Review]

28 July 2020

Sri Lanka-India currency swap agreement signed

(cm) Last Friday, Rajapaksa sought monetary assistance from India through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The president’s agreement was for the Reserve Bank of India to extend a 400-million-dollar currency swap to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) until November 2022. This would ultimately assist with CBSL balancing the country’s payment requirements. However, the agreement is a temporary ease to Sri Lanka’s public finances.  [Colombo Page]

28 July 2020

Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa requests support for strong Parliament amidst faltering economy

(cm) On Sunday, the President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, speaking at a public gathering,  requested the citizens’ support in fulfilling the presidential election manifesto’s pledges and voting for a strong parliament, reassuring that in the upcoming years pledges made in his National Policy Framework will be implemented. Rajapaksa’s request is unsurprising due to his political party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, being in the minority in parliament. This poses a challenge to reach the president’s goal of a two-thirds majority in parliament in the upcoming election in order to reverse the 19th amendment to the constitution which limits his presidential power.  [AiR No. 29, July/2020, 3] [Daily Mirror] [Nikkei Asian Review]

21 July 2020

Sri Lanka backsliding on human rights

(cm/ls) A Muslim lawyer and human rights activist has been put into a 90-day detention, ordered by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. According to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), any suspect can be placed in detention without charge and without being produced before a judge. The detention order can be renewed for a further 90 days and continue to be renewed for up to 18 months. The PTA has long been criticized as an abusive law used to crack down on dissent and forcibly disappear people, along with other violations. [Amnesty International]

The UK Human Rights Report of 2019 has labelled Sri Lanka’s human rights situation as deteriorating. It emphasized, in particular, intimidation of human rights defenders and violence against minority groups. Though the country ratified the Convention on Enforced Disappearances, open-ended periods of detentions against minority groups, violence and discrimination against the Muslim community still occur frequently. [Colombo Page]

21 July 2020

Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa’s faltering evidence of democracy 

(cm) Besides Rajapaksa’s aim to repeal the 19th Amendment limiting his executive power as president, his party aims to introduce a completely new constitution by “seeking a 2/3rd majority in Parliament”. Moreover, Rajapaksa has created a presidential task force of senior military figures that includes several officers who are accused to have committed war crimes, moved not less than 30 government agencies under the Defence ministry’s umbrella, and delayed elections numerous times. [Foreign Policy]


14 July 2020

Sri Lanka: Election Rallies Postponed due to Spike in Covid-19 Cases

(cm) In the north-central town of Rajanganaya, voting was postponed indefinitely due to threats of COVID-19 cases as 500 new infections arose in clusters in the respective district. [Devdiscourse]


14 July 2020

Sri Lanka reviews Colombo Port Deal amidst rising tensions between India and China

(lf) President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has recently issued examinations and reports from five designated committee members, within 45 days, that lays out maximum benefits towards Sri Lanka in regards to the East Container Terminal (ECT) at Colombo Port. The development of the ECT is an agreement between Japan, India and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka wants guarantee of full control of the facility. The port customarily “handles more than 7 million twenty-foot equivalent units of cargo annually”.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s government is additionally reviewing an existing port deal that was signed between India and the Sirisena Government in the past. This could potentially hinder India relations as Sri Lanka is amidst the China and India tensions. Sri Lanka is currently under debt to China. Especially since China assisted Sri Lanka in many financial crises, one of them being COVID-19. [Nikkei Asia Review] [SCMP]

7 July 2020

Sri Lanka: Regrouping LTTE members arrested

(cm) Sri Lankan security forces have recently been arresting 22 Tamil youths who were attempting to revive the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northern part of the country. The LTTE had been defeated 11 years ago by the military. Reportedly, the raids were accompanied by police brutality and one death. More military checkpoints and presence have been placed around Tamil communities. In addition, the leader of the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), Gajen Ponnambalam, was warned of being arrested if any commemoration towards the LTTE’s Black Tigers, an elite LTTE unit, were to be conveyed on Black Tigers Day. [Sunday Times] [Tamil Guardian 1] [Tamil Guardian 2]


7 July 2020

Sri Lanka: Ongoing concerns over illegal sand mining

(cm) Concerns have been voiced from local people with regards to the environmental damages of illegal sand mining in the North-East of Sri Lanka, around the Per Aru River. The significant damages have been causing ongoing tensions between security forces and Tamils as the mining damages trees and banks. Tamil groups have stated that the mining is backed by the police and other state authorities. [Tamil Guardian]


30 June 2020

US Report on Sri Lanka’s Maritime and Border Security

(cf) The 2019 Annual Report on Terrorism from the US Department State places Sri Lanka in a vulnerable stance. The report refers to the 2019 Easter Sunday event in the Batticaloa and Colombo area. Sri Lankan citizens had pledged allegiance to ISIS and killed approximately more than 260 people by detonated backpack suicide bombs in three churches and four hotels.

Sri Lanka aims to strengthen their border management systems at their Colombo International Airport by working with Japan and the United Nations. Furthermore, Sri Lanka has secured its maritime border by partnering with the United States to train Sri Lankan navy personnel and Coast Guards on security operations and maritime law enforcement. [Colombo Page]

30 June 2020

Sri Lanka launches probe on rebel leader turned politician

(lm) According to Human Rights Watch, Sri Lankan authorities have ordered an investigation into a former commander of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), after he publicly boasted of killing thousands of Sri Lankan soldiers as part of the LTTE’s capture of Elephant Pass in 2000. Addressing a political rally in the East, pro-government paramilitary leader Karuna Amman reportedly said that he had killed more soldiers during the country’s civil war than Sri Lankans had died from the coronavirus. [HRW] [Tamil Guardian]

30 June 2020

Sri Lanka: Curfew lifted along with safety measures in place

(cf) On Sunday, the Sri Lankan government lifted curfews after the severe lockdown since March 20 to battle the coronavirus. The ease of curfews was due to confirmation of control on the virus in the Indian Ocean island nation. However, Sri Lanka’s plans to open the international airport will be postponed to “meet the needs of some stranded Sri Lankan workers returning home”, and has extended visas for foreign citizens to 11 July. The Ministry of Health has additionally granted public health inspectors the right to take legal action against citizens who violate the election guidelines for health and safety. [Colombo Page 1] [Miami Herald] [Colombo Page 2]

30 June 2020

Sri Lanka: Concerns over final report review of Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) Agreement

(cf) The Expert Committee of Sri Lanka recently submitted their final report of the MCC Agreement to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The agreement aims to reduce poverty by the United States granting a $480 million Compact within five years to the Government of Sri Lanka. The grant would be used to aid specific transport and land projects.

However, there are concerns over the final report. It stated that the MCC had signed 7.4 million USD in 2017, and 2.6 million USD in 2018. However, the US Embassy in Colombo clarified that no grant has been transferred to the Sri Lankan Government. Moreover, a former Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary states the government should not sign the agreement due to intrusive clauses, such as US personnel would be granted extensive immunities or special privileges, and Sri Lankan law would be substituted with international law. Dr Gunaruwan, chair of the committee, states this would violate the Sri Lankan Constitution.

The President Gotabaya Rajapaksa plans to review the matter and make the final report public for all citizens to view. [MCC Government] [Colombo Page 1] [Colombo Page 2]

23 June 2020

Sri Lanka: Torture locations revealed by ITJP and JDS 

(cm) As International Day in Support of Victims of Torture approaches, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) has collaborated with the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) to assemble a map of 219 torture locations in Sri Lanka. Many of the victims are Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who have been tortured by police, army, paramilitaries and the navy in police stations, training institutes, cinemas, factories or the Faculty of Law of Colombo University. 

The map shows places of torture over the last 30 years. Tens of thousands of disappearances occurred during this period too. ITJP and JDS gathered evidence of 24 alleged perpetrators, one of them being current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Military officers had committed crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Tamil population. There has been limited investigation by Sri Lankan authorities into the allegations. [ITJP] [Tamil Guardian]

23 June 2020

Sri Lanka: Voting and counting to take place on different days

(cm) The Sri Lankan Election Commission announced that the parliamentary election, scheduled for 5 August, will have separate polling and counting days due to Covid-19. Customarily, both takes place on the same day. The election date itself, which had previously been moved from 25 April, has not been delayed further. [Devdiscourse]

16 June 2020

Sri Lanka II: Senior Army officer to institute legal action against Head of NGO

(cm/lm) The Director of the State Intelligence Services of Sri Lanka (SIS), Major General Suresh Tuan Sallay has sent a Letter of Demand to Ms. Yasmin Sooka, Executive Director of the Foundation of Human Rights of South Africa and the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), the Ministry of Defence reported in a statement on Monday. [Sri Lanka Guardian]

The said letter stated that Ms. Sooka, in her capacity as Executive Director of the ITJP had published an alleged defamatory press statement on the ITJP Sri Lanka’s website on 1 June. The letter further claims that the publication had damaged the intelligence officer’s prestige, and even had “resulted in parties with vested interests making attempts on the life of Major General Sallay”. [see the original statement here: ITJP]

In light of these allegations, Major General Sallay, in his letter states a claim for money damages worth 1 Billion Sri Lankan Rupees directly against the ITJP and MS. Sooka, and further emphasises he was prepared to seek further litigative remedies should neither Ms. Sooka nor the ITJP desist from issuing further defamatory remarks. [Ministry of Defence Sri Lanka]

16 June 2020

Sri Lanka I: Sri Lanka holds mock election to test coronavirus measures ahead of parliamentary vote

(cm/lm) A mock election was conducted on Sunday to test new health measures that will be implemented at polling booths and counting centres. Sri Lanka is due to hold its general election on Aug. 5, the chairman of the nation’s Election Commission said at a news briefing on Wednesday. The parliamentary vote had originally been scheduled for April 26, but was postponed twice due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. [Reuters] [Al Jazeera] [AiR No. 16, April/2020, 3]

The country is currently caught in a political vacuum, because it is past a three-month period allowed by law to operate without a sitting parliament to check the executive’s power. Last week, the Supreme Court rejected petitions by the opposition parties and civil activists seeking an annulment of Rajapaksa’s order dissolving the parliament in March. [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2] [DW]


9 June 2020

Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa creates security task force 

(cm) Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa has created a task force of 13 military chiefs with the responsibility to maintain national security, discipline and a lawful society. The task force shall deal with battling drug crimes, investigating prisons and taking legal action on antisocial activities within and outside Sri Lanka. Critics question if this brings back military rule. Some of the task force members have been accused of war crimes. [The Times]


9 June 2020

Sri Lanka: Supreme Court approves parliament dissolution

(ls/cm) The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has refused to annul the dissolution of the parliament. Civil groups and opposition party petitioners had filed the motion, arguing that the constitution mandates a parliamentary sitting within three months. President Rajapaksa on 2 March dissolved the parliament and called for snap elections on 25 April. However, the Election Commission postponed the elections to 20 June due to the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, the Election Commission announced that the election will be postponed another time. [NY Times] [The Week]


2 June 2020

Sri Lanka: Human rights lawyer receives death threats on social media

(dql) Fearing for her life due to police inaction, a Sri Lankan supreme court lawyer defending victims in several cases of grave human rights violations allegedly committed by members of the security forces has lodged a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for the second time within a year against men who had repeatedly posted death threats against her on social media. [JDS]


19 May 2020

Sri Lanka: Muslims continued to be cremated against their will

(jk) Muslim activists and religious rights bodies continue to express concerns over the ban on burials in Sri Lanka which they see as part of anti-Muslim rhetoric amid the pandemic. Earlier this month, another Muslim woman has been cremated against her family’s will. In addition, two days after the cremation, test results emerged that showed she did not actually die from Covid-19. [Al Jazeera 1]

Sri Lanka initially amended its rules on burials and cremations earlier in April, making cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory despite guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO) that deem burials safe. Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations raised concerns this policy is purposely hurting minorities in the country. [Al Jazeera 2


19 May 2020

Sri Lanka: Supreme Court begins hearing petitions against government actions 

(jk) The Supreme Court has begun hearings into several petitions that have been filed challenging the timeline of the government’s dissolution of parliament and the new poll date set by the Election Commission. [Daily FT] It will look at potential constitutional impasses over the fact that  the new parliament must meet within three months of dissolution. The petitions also raise questions over parliamentary approval of public expenditures. [Asia in Review No. 18, May/2020, 1Asia in Review No. 16, April/2020, 3]

5 May 2020

Sri Lanka: Opposition calls for convening parliament over public budget  

(jk) Sri Lanka’s opposition is demanding to reconvene parliament instantly as the current budget has only been authorised by legislators until April 30. Beyond that date, they claim President Rajapaksa does not have the power to make use of public funds. They urge a parliamentary sitting is therefore necessary, in particular in the light of the current public health crisis. [The Week]

Rajapaksa’s office responded that they had no intention to reconvene parliament and will go ahead as planned with the election set for June 20. [Social News]

28 April 2020

Sri Lanka: Human Rights Commission insists on proportionality in police arrests over social media posts

(ls) The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has requested the police to comply with law when arresting people for making statements in social media. In particular, the HRCSL pointed out “that any action taken to limit freedom of expression and other such rights in a democracy, even during a period of emergency, must be within the framework of the law. In this instance the applicable law is the Constitution and also Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations. Those laws require that limitations on rights should comply with the tests of legality, proportionality (limitation must be proportionate to the threat) and non-discrimination.” [Colombo Page]

21 April 2020

Sri Lanka: Election Commission sets election date for June 20 

(jk) A gazette notice by the members of the National Election Commission was released this week, announcing the date of the upcoming parliamentary election to be June 20. [Devdiscourse]

With regards to the potential constitutional impasse due to provisions that the new Parliament must meet within three months of dissolution (which took place on March 2) [Asia in Review No. 14, April/2020, 1], the EC has asked the President to seek the highest court’s opinion. He however stated that it is the EC’s job to set a date and the Supreme Court does not need to get involved.

14 April 2020

Why Sri Lankan political reform efforts have failed so far

(ls) Two articles published by the East Asia Forum inquire why Sri Lanka has not been able to introduce meaningful political reforms but rather brought the Rajapaksa family back to power. The first piece argues that former president Maithripala Sirisena and his prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s reform coalition was ultimately unable to make a coherent political offer, despite election promises of strengthening democracy and social justice principles and fighting corruption. Institutional resistance and the prevalence of informal networks have been firm barriers against actual change. [East Asia Forum 1]

Another article looks at how governments have dealt with the large-scale disappearances of Tamil civilians during the country’s civil war. The author argues that, without greater accountability and reform of the Sri Lankan security apparatus, Sri Lanka’s political future will involve more inhumane violence against its own citizens. [East Asia Forum 2]

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka commemorated last year’s Easter Sunday attacks on Christian churches by which 253 persons lost their lives and several hundred persons were injured. A generally hostile environment for minorities contributes generally to radicalization and violence in Sri Lanka and is directed against Muslims as well. Moreover, the weak response to the attacks by the former Sirisena/Wickremesinghe government led to calls for a strongman, prompting former defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to run in the presidential elections and eventually win in 2019. [Open Democracy]

7 April 2020

Sri Lanka: Solution needed for constitutional impasse over new poll date

(jk) As recently reported, the parliamentary election in Sri Lanka are now indefinitely postponed beyond the initially announced date of April 25. [Asia in Review No. 12, March/2020, 4] One particular problem this situation causes, is that the country’s constitution states that the new Parliament must meet within three months of dissolution, which took place on March 2. Pushing back the date into late May or June will not allow for this to happen. According to the head of the independent election commission,  “it is now up to the president to seek the Supreme Court’s view” on the matter. [Devdiscourse]

31 March 2020

Sri Lanka: President pardons army officer convicted of killing Tamil civilians

(ls) In a controversial move, Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned and released an army officer sentenced to death for killing Tamil civilians, including children, during the country’s ethnic war. In a widely reported verdict last year, the Supreme Court had unanimously rejected the officer’s appeal and upheld the death penalty. The case was widely cited as a rare instance of accountability. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who as an army officer served in the same regiment as the convict, and his brother Mahinda, now serving as prime minister, had lead the defeat of separatist Tamil rebels to end the country’s 37-year separatist war in 2009. [Al Jazeera]

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Blanchett, called the pardon an “affront to victims” and another example of Sri Lanka’s failure to hold war criminals to account. Opposition lawmakers and human rights organizations also condemned the pardon. [Straits Times] [Human Rights Watch]

24 March 2020

Sri Lanka: Nominations close, polls postponed 

(jk) As widely expected in the last couple of weeks, Sri Lanka has now indefinitely postponed parliamentary elections that were scheduled for April 25 due to the spread of the coronavirus. Nominations for the parliamentary elections were closed just before the announcement by the election commission. [Groundviews]

17 March 2020

Sri Lankan Defense Ministry takes legal action against rumor spreaders

(hg) The Sri Lankan Defense Ministry takes action against those spreading rumors and posting false and misleading information on the corona outbreak to create panic. Two persons who have posted false and misleading information on their Facebook accounts have already been arrested and are awaiting a potential maximum punishment of five-year imprisonment under the No.24 of the Computer Crimes Act of 2007.

Moreover, the government ordered all foreigners who are violating quarantine procedures to report immediately to officials under the threat of punishment for violations according to the Quarantine Laws. [NewsIn Asia]

10 March 2020

Sri Lanka and India score highest on “inclusive internet index” for South Asia 

(jk) The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) ‘Inclusive Internet Index’, commissioned by Facebook,  rates countries on the “internet’s availability, affordability, relevance and the readiness of people to use it.” In South Asia, India ranked highest (46th out of 100), followed by Sri Lanka (56th). Pakistan ranked the lowest (76th), Bangladesh at 70th place. Both India and Pakistan did particularly bad in the “availability” category, examining the quality and breadth of available infrastructure required for access and levels of internet usage in relation to the other three categories. [EIU]

3 March 2020

Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa dissolves parliament and calls parliamentary elections

(tk/ls) On Monday, Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa made use of his constitutional powers and dissolved parliament six months early with effect from midnight on March 2, 2020. The constitution gives this power from the completion of four and a half years of a five-year term. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected president last November, leads a minority government with his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. He justifies this action saying that he couldn’t work freely because his powers have been reduced, as the opposition commands a majority in parliament. The election for the new parliament will be held on 25 April 2020, and the new parliament will be summoned to meet on 14 May 2020. [Al Jazeera] [Colombo Page]

It is widely expected that Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP, or People’s Front) party will win the polls comfortably. The opposition’s main goal may therefore be to prevent the SLPP from securing a two-thirds majority, which would allow for constitutional changes. [Straits Times]

25 February 2020

Sri Lanka: Sirisena (re-)joins Rajapaksa in alliance

(jk) Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Party)  and former President Maithripala Sirisena of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party  (SLFP) have signed an agreement for an alliance in the upcoming parliamentary polls this year. With the move, Sirisena, who previously left the Mahinda Rajapaksa government before being elected to office in 2015, has re-joined the alliance with the current Prime Minister. [The Hindu]

25 February 2020

Sri Lanka: Withdrawal from UN rights resolution

(tk) On Wednesday, Sri Lankan government announced to withdraw from a 2015 resolution co-sponsored by the previous President and 11 other countries with the U.N. Human Rights Council. This resolution soughed to investigate alleged serious human rights violations committed during the country’s 26-year civil war by both government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels. During that war, current Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa played an important role as a top defense official, while his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was President. [The New York Times]

It is rumored that the move is a response to the U.S. imposing a travel ban on Sri Lanka’s army commander Silver amid alleged human rights violations. [Asia in Review No. 7, February/2020] [Jurist] Rights groups accused the army of killing at least 40,000 civilians in the final months of the war in 2009. [Al Jazeera]

18 February 2020

U.S. travel ban on Sri Lanka’s Army Chief

(tk) The U.S. government on Friday issued a travel ban on Sri Lanka’s army chief Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva over accusations of human rights violations including extrajudicial execution of unarmed rebels and systematic torture of people in government custody during the country’s civil war. [Al Jazeera]

After the war, Silva was promoted to major general and became Sri Lanka’s army commander last year amid international condemnation. According to the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, “the allegations of gross human rights violations against Shavendra Silver, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible.” Sri Lanka’s government, however, condemned the U.S. measure and said there were “no substantiated or proven allegations” against General Silva. On Sunday, it asked the U.S. to review its decision. [The Diplomat]

18 February 2020

Sri Lanka: Families of ‘disappeared’ threatened

(tk) According to Human Rights Watch, Sri Lankan security forces and intelligence agencies have intensified surveillance and threats against families of victims of enforced disappearance and activists supporting them since Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president in November 2019. Instead of fulfilling its commitments that the previous government had made with the UN Human Rights Council in order to promote “reconciliation, accountability and human rights”, it has repeatedly denied government involvement in serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearance in state custody between 2005 and 2015, when the current president was defense secretary and his brother, current Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president.

The previous government also started criminal investigations and legal proceedings concerning enforced disappearance. Under its relatively open environment, many relatives of the disappeared had chosen to speak out about their cases and started victim’s meetings. The current government, however, not only halted those criminal investigations and proceedings. [Human Rights Watch]

On Friday, February 14, hundreds of family members of enforced disappeared persons gathered in Colombo to commemorate their missing family members, and demand justice, truth and reparation. Amnesty International has demanded support for truth-seeking families by the government and immediate provision of information by the authorities, as well as independent criminal investigation in those disappearance cases. [Amnesty International]

11 February 2020

Sri Lanka: Police crackdown on demonstrators just days after freedom speech

(tk) Last week, armed police commandos were deployed against dismissed Dengue Eradication Campaign workers who were demonstrating outside the presidential secretariat. The demonstration was directed against the recent dismissal of 15,000 government employees from different sectors by the Rajapakse government, which claims that the previous administration “irregularly” hired them. 

After thousands of dismissed workers have demonstrated outside the presidential secretariat in the past weeks, Rajapakse’s office stated that the protests were an “inconvenience to the general public”. Thereupon, the Police forced protestors into an established “Agitation Site” where all demonstrations should be held surrounded by armed police commandos. The events happened only two days after President Rajapakse’s “freedom” posturing during his Independence Day speech. [World Socialist Web Site]

4 February 2020

Sri Lanka: A country at risk of conflict in ICG’s Watch List 2020

(tk) Sri Lanka has been identified as a country at risk of conflict or escalation of violence in the International Crisis Group’s early-warning Watch List 2020 among nine other countries worldwide. The report says that the new government has initiated fundamental changes to policies on ethnic relations, the legacy of a 26-year civil war, and the rule of law. It has the intention to abandon many key legislative achievements and policy commitments of the preceding government, including promises on post-war reconciliation, accountability and inclusive governance made to the UN Human Rights Council and to the EU. This policy shift partly rooted in the ethno-nationalism of Sri Lanka’s majorities, which threatens to increase ethnic and religious tension and dangerously weaken checks on executive and state power. [International Crisis Group]

28 January 2020

Sri Lanka: Government plans to walks back on UN obligations made after civil war

(tk/jk) After the 30-year civil war, the previous Sri Lankan administration made commitments at the U.N. Human Rights Council in October 2015 which included the obligations to set up an office for missing persons and to establish legal mechanisms to investigate alleged war. “The Rajapaksa government now wants the Office of Missing Persons to shutter operations” and plans a new law “to grant immunity to Sri Lankan soldiers who had allegedly committed war crimes during the conflict.” [Nikkei Asian Review]

In response to the Sri Lankan president’s statement of last week declaring that more than 23.500 missing Tamils were dead, [Asia in Review No. 3, January/2020] the EU as one of its major trading partners came out with a statement making clear it would use its economic relations to motivate Sri Lanka to remain committed to its human rights obligations.  [EEAS]

21 January 2020

Sri Lankan president says that thousands of missing Tamils are dead

(ls) In a widely reported statement, new Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that more than 23,500 people who were missing for a decade since the end of the country’s protracted Tamil war are dead. Rajapaksa himself was defense secretary at the time when many of these disappearances took place. In his statement, he claimed that of the thousands of disappeared most of them had been conscripted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which was defeated in a major offensive that ended in May 2009. [Tamil Guardian]

A government-appointed commission established in August 2013 received 23,586 reports of people missing throughout the separatist war. International rights groups claim that at least 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the final stages, but the government has disputed the figures. Under current law, families cannot access property deeds, bank accounts or inheritances left by missing relatives unless they can conclusively prove they are dead, which is often an impossible task. [Straits Times]


21 January 2020

Sri Lanka: Concerns about serious jeopardy of human rights

(tk) After Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as president in November 2019, human rights organizations see fundamental human rights in Sri Lanka in serious jeopardy. Human Rights Watch states: “There is every reason to fear that any progress Sri Lanka has made in recent years in restoring basic rights and rebuilding democratic institutions will be overturned with a vengeance. The new president seems intent not only to wipe away the Rajapaksa’s past abuses but clear the path for future ones.” [Human Rights Watch

Also Amnesty International is concerned by multiple reports of harassment, intimidation and attacks on human rights organizations, media outlets and journalists by officials and law enforcement agencies in the last years. According to Amnesty International, such incidents create fear in organizations and individuals defending and promoting human rights and can have a negative impact on their work. However, Sri Lanka has the obligation to protect Human Rights Defenders under several international human rights treaties to which it is a state party. [MENAFN]


21 January 2020

India and Sri Lanka to intensify security cooperation

(ls) India and Sri Lanka are in negotiations to enhance their existing security cooperation. India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met with recently elected Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and discussed setting up a maritime research coordination center as well as intensifying military and coastguard cooperation. Sri Lanka has traditionally been allied to India, but China invested and loaned large amounts to the island nation during the decade-long (2005-2015) reign of Gotabaya’s elder brother, Mahinda. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was tilted significantly towards China under Mahinda. In December, Gotabaya said that Sri Lanka would need more financial assistance from China if other countries, particular India and EU countries, do not invest. [Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, Indian concerns over Chinese ties with Myanmar are growing. Through the construction of the Kyaukpyu port, China will be making its presence felt on India’s eastern flank. India is already wary of China’s presence at Gwadar in Pakistan (in the west) and Hambantota in Sri Lanka (in the south). Though India and Myanmar have conducted several joint military operations along their borders, with China moving in with economic and other incentives, there could be pressures on the India-Myanmar relationship, according to observers. Chinese President Xi Jinping just visited Myanmar over the weekend. [Livemint]

An often-overlooked organization in this region is the Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec). Its member states are Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan. These countries have been negotiating on and off since 2004 for a free trade agreement (FTA) but differences between India and Thailand over market access remain a major problem. However, in 2017 India made a commitment to hold more regular and high-level meetings. While China is physically disconnected from the Bay of Bengal, Chinese investment has poured into Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where Beijing has made its presence felt. A piece in the Bangkok Post discusses Bimstec’s challenges and chances. [Bangkok Post]


7 January 2020

Sri Lanka: Human Rights concerns under new Rajapaksa leadership  

(lf/jk) Human Rights Watch has called out Sri Lanka for withdrawing a proposed replacement law supposed to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The PTA was put in place in 1978 as a counter-terrorism law during the civil war against the Tamil Tigers. 

The move goes against pledges made towards the UN human rights commission and the EU and is not the only step taken by newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa threatening human rights protection in Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa also placed several civil security instances such as the police under the Defence Ministry and is seen to increase the influence of the military.  [Human Rights Watch].


31 December 2019

China-constructed Port City Colombo off Sri Lanka’s coast – strategic competitors are looking closely 

(jk) A Chinese-built island off Colombo, which is intended to become a kind of special economic zone, has been completed and officially handed over to Sri Lanka earlier this month. [Dredging Today] Critical observers see the strategic location of the island as the main reason for the Chinese investment and are particularly worried about the economic zone requiring “a new legal regime and regulations that some observers are likening to the ‘one country, two systems’ formula China uses with Hong Kong”, which would also require a change to the country’s constitution. The US and its allies fear a dual-use or even a purely military facility to be eventually set up there by China. [Nikkei Asian Review


24 December 2019

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa retracts from Hambantota port renegotiation remarks

(jk) Against expectations that the newly elected Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, will establish closer relations with China, the new government announced early in December that it wants to renegotiate the previous regime’s 99-year lease of the strategically located port of Hambantota to China. [Asia in Review, No. 49, December/2019, 1]

Now, things seem to revert to the more expected path with President Rajapaksa stating that his government will not renegotiate the existing agreement and the Chinese embassy immediately after releasing a statement saying that it appreciates the President’s clarification. [WION]

17 December 2019

Sri Lanka arrests Swiss embassy employee

(lf/ls) Diplomatic relationships between Switzerland and Sri Lanka have tensed after Sri Lankan officials have arrested an employee of the Swiss embassy for allegedly making false claims. The employee and the Swiss embassy had previously accused Sri Lankan police of kidnapping the employee and forcing her to disclose information about asylum seekers to Switzerland. This comes after a high ranking police officer, who investigated former president and now Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and who had left for Switzerland in fear of his safety. [AlJazeera] [BBC]

The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) said that in this high-profile case Sri Lanka’s reputation as a country that upholds the rule of law is at stake. It criticized the 30-hour interrogation to which the employee was subjected over three days despite being in poor health, and the public statements by senior Sri Lankan officials questioning her account before the investigations had been completed. [Colombo Gazette]

10 December 2019

Sri Lanka suspends Parliament ahead of early elections

(jk) President Rajapaksa, after announcing a snap election to be held in March next year which he hopes will give him a majority in parliament, [Asia in Review, No. 48, November/2019, 4] has now suspended parliament and said the new session will commence in early January. Reportedly, “the official announcement of calling a fresh session of the legislature will give the minority government of Mr Rajapaksa more control over parliamentary oversight committees.” [The Straits Times]

10 December 2019

Sri Lanka: Military officer appointed as new intelligence chief

(jk) Sri Lanka’s State Intelligence Service (SIS), which has been heavily criticized after failing to prevent the Easter Bombings this year has a new chief. For the first time, a military officer – Brigadier Suresh Sallay, the former director of the Military Intelligence – has been appointed.

The previous SIS leader was dismissed after he was asked to take responsibility for failing to pass on information that could have prevented the Easter Bombings that killed over 250 people. He refused to step down and appealed to the Supreme Court over his “unfair dismissal”. [India Today]

3 December 2019

New Sri Lankan government wants Hambantota port back from China, commits to India

(ls) Despite expectations that the newly elected Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, will establish closer relations with China, the new government announced that it wants to undo the previous regime’s 99-year lease of the southern port of Hambantota to a Chinese venture in return for $1.1 billion. That arrangement was made after it had turned out that it would be difficult to pay back the loans taken from China to build the project. Now, an economic adviser to the new government, citing national interests, said that it would be best if “we pay back the loan in due course in the way that we had originally agreed.” Whether China concurs with this remains to be seen. [Business Standard]

Meanwhile, on the first foreign visit by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to New Delhi, India extended two additional lines of credit worth $450 million for infrastructure and counter-terrorism. After a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Gotabaya stated, “whilst with India the cooperation is multifaceted with priority given to security-related matters, with other counties the initiatives for cooperation are by and large, economic and commercial.” He also said that he would not allow any third force to come in between cooperation with India. Modi replied that “Sri Lanka is not only India’s closest neighbor but most trusted friend.” [The Wire] [Eurasia Review]

India and Sri Lanka traditionally have close cultural and historical links. Still, New Delhi had watched with concern the growing ties between Colombo and Beijing, particularly when Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power between 2005 and 2015. Observers consider that China will remain important for Sri Lanka in terms of aid and economic cooperation, whereas ties with India will continue to be marked by unavoidable ups and downs. [Straits Times]

26 November 2019

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa family widening its influence

(jk) After Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential election win just over a week ago in Sri Lanka [Asia in Review No. 47, November/2019, 3], he has wasted no time to announce two major decisions.

First, he appointed his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minster following the resignation of former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mahinda will now serve at the head of the new cabinet in addition to his portfolio as Finance Minister. To top it off, he is only one of two Rajapaksa family members in the cabinet with another brother of the two Rajapaksas holding further two portfolios – agriculture and irrigation, as well as trade.

Secondly, President Rajapaksa announced a snap election to be held in March 2020 which he hopes will give him a majority in parliament if he can build on the momentum and success of the recent presidential polls. [Straits Times 1, Straits Times 2]

Additionally, as stated in the constitution, no court proceeding can take place against a ruling President. As a consequence, a court dropped corruption charges against Gotabaya last week for which he was indicted at the end of last year. [Wion]


19 November 2019

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa wins presidential election

(ls) In Sri Lanka’s presidential election on Saturday, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, won 52.3 per cent of the votes, while ruling alliance candidate Sajith Premadasa had 42 per cent at the final count. Gotabaya, who ran for the nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party, secured his victory mainly by capturing votes in Sinhala-Buddhist southern provinces, while Premadasa had large majorities in the Tamil-dominated north. [South China Morning Post]

The Rajapaksas thus return to power on the strategically located South Asian island after an interlude of nearly five years. Gotabaya was a key figure during the nearly 10-year presidency of Mahinda, whose two terms were marked by his authoritarian grip. Observers consider that a Gotabaya presidency is likely to become a Rajapaksa family affair and will bring Mahinda, who could not contest the 2019 election due to Sri Lanka’s presidential term limits, back into the limelight. [Nikkei Asian Review]

It is expected that the Sri Lankan government will again tilt towards China, given the Rajapaksa’s past preferences as well as Gotabaya’s strained relationship with the United States, which has often raised his role as defence secretary during the war against the LTTE in 2009 amidst allegations of human rights violations. Sri Lanka’s debt situation will also likely mean a greater role for China, which is the island’s biggest investor and creditor. [The Hindu]

Some analysts predict Gotabaya’s election may escalate ethnic tensions, while others hope he can deliver on his promises on security as Sri Lanka still recovers from the Easter Sunday bombings by Islamic State militants earlier this year, which killed more than 250 people. [Daily FT]

Displaying the ethnic tensions, gunmen fired on buses carrying Muslim voters who were travelling to a neighboring district where they were registered to vote in the north-west of the country. The incident came as police and troops were locked in a standoff in the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna where residents complained about military roadblocks ahead of voting. [Straits Times]


12 November 2019

Sri Lanka likely to have new PM after presidential elections

(jk) With presidential elections fast approaching, it now looks very likely that the country will also have a new PM after the elections coming Saturday. Both leading candidates for the presidency, the opposition candidate Gotabhaya Rajapakse and PM Wickremesinghe’s own party’s candidate Sajith Premadasa have now publicly stated that they would appoint a new PM in case they win the election. Wickremesinghe is the leader of the United National Party, Sajith Premadasa’s party, but his leadership is heavily contested. [Asia Times]


5 November 2019

Sri Lanka: Analyses before the upcoming presidential election

(ls) In the lead-up to Sri Lanka’s presidential election on 16 November, Marwaan Macan-Markar analyzes Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election strategy and his family’s persistent influence in Sri Lankan politics. He argues that the Rajapaksas are set to fight this election on the populist staples of security, ethnicity and religion, and that the vote could profoundly shape the direction of Sri Lanka’s politics, as the clan was working to establish a political dynasty, threatening to unwind more than four years of democratic progress. [Nikkei Asian Review]

From a constitutional law perspective, Asanga Welikala predicts that the winning political bloc will summon up all political muscle, possibly with little respect for the formal procedures set down in the Constitution. He argues that, while the Constitution now embodies an institutional model of executive power-sharing, the winner-takes-all political culture may not yet be ready to embrace the implications of that framework. [Sunday Observer]

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s governing party presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa, who is the main opponent of Rajapaksa, has also pledged to refocus the country’s security policy and introduce tough laws to tackle religious extremism, illegal drugs and corruption. He also aims to introduce new legislation to provide severe penalties for hate speech and misinformation. [Al Jazeera]


29 October 2019

Sri Lanka: Dark future for Sri Lanka’s Democracy?

(jk) The presidential election next month may well return a member of the Rajapaksa family to the presidency. Some observers fear that should this happen, Sri Lanka’s democracy may not survive. It is feared that Gotabaya may repeat some of the patterns of his brother’s reign, which critical observers characterize by nepotism, human rights abuses, and a foreign policy oriented towards the People’s Republic of China not always strictly in the national interest. [Australian Strategic Policy Institute]

The orientation towards the PRC is something that the presidential candidate would “restore”, according to one of his advisors. [Reuters]


22 October 2019

Money-laundering and terrorism financing: Pakistan remains under investigation as Sri Lanka is white-listed

(ls) Pakistan remains on the grey list of countries that have not yet fully complied with recommendations made by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) vis-à-vis anti-money laundering and combating financing of terrorism (AML/CFT). The FATF is an intergovernmental organization that develop policies to combat money laundering and terrorism financing. It monitors through “peer reviews” of member countries. Placement on the grey list is a warning for a country that it may be put on a “blacklist” in case of its failure to take effective measures. Currently, only Iran and North Korea are in this lowest category. [Dawn] [Economic Times 1]

Sri Lanka, however, has been removed from the grey list. According to the FATF, the country made significant progress in addressing the strategic AML/CFT deficiencies identified earlier. It will therefore be relieved from the FATF’s close monitoring procedures. [Economic Times]

8 October 2019

Sri Lanka: Sirisena not running for re-election as Rajapaksa’s qualification is affirmed

(ls) Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has decided not to run in the country’s presidential election next month (16 November). He was not listed on the candidate list. Last year, Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former political rival. The Supreme Court, however, ruled against Sirisena’s action and reinstated Wickremesinghe. Sirisena also faced criticism over the government’s handling of an intelligence report warning of the Easter Day bombings that killed 250 people. [Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Appeal Court dismissed a legal challenge to presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s qualification to run in the election. The court ruled that Rajapaksa holds Sri Lankan citizenship and no additional U.S. citizenship. Sri Lanka does not allow dual citizens or non-citizens to contest national elections. Rajapaksa is widely seen as the election frontrunner because of his popularity among majority Sinhala Buddhists for his role in ending a 26-year civil war in 2009. [Reuters]

1 October 2019

Sri Lanka: Presidential polls to be held on November 16

(jk) The Election Commission has announced that the presidential polls will be held on Sunday 16 November with nominations expected by October 7. Currently, possible candidates include the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena (who has however not said he would run again) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa, also from the ruling United National Front.

As reported previously [Asia in Review No. 33, August/2019, 2], the main opposition candidate is likely to be Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who himself is not qualified to run for President but may have an eye on becoming PM. [Washington Post]

Before the route to nomination for Gotabaya Rajapaksa is free however, he faces a court test over his nationality by a three-judge panel that was set up earlier this week. Activists who petitioned the court to look into the matter claim that he did not properly obtain dual Sri Lankan citizenship in 2005, when he was a United States citizen after he renounced his native citizenship of Sri Lanka a few years earlier. Since the “double-citizenship” process was flawed, as was his regaining of Sri Lankan citizenship, his citizenship is null and void which would make him not eligible for the presidency. [Reuters] The Court of Appeal has decided to hear the petition later this week.

24 September 2019

Sri Lanka: New investigation into Easter bombings

(ls) After allegations that current probes are not independent, a fresh inquiry into the Easter suicide bombings that hit Sri Lanka and killed at least 258 people was ordered by President Maithripala Sirisena. While the newly launched inquiry is being carried out by a cross-section of Members of Parliament, many opposition members are boycotting it. They say the commission is being used by political parties to deflect any responsibility for failing to stop the attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks, the government blamed a local militant group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) while the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group also claimed responsibility. [Straits Times]

24 September 2019

Sri Lanka: Presidential candidate Rajapaksa vows to forge closer ties with China

(ls) Sri Lankan presidential nominee Gotabaya Rajapaksa would restore relations with China, the country’s top lender, if he wins the November 16 election. Opposition politician Rajapaksa, who is the brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is widely seen as the frontrunner in November’s election due to his popularity among Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority for his role in ending a 26-year civil war in 2009. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ruling United National Party (UNP) will name its candidate this week. Ties between Colombo and Beijing soured when current president Sirisena, upon his election in 2015, suspended all Chinese investment projects, citing allegations of corruption, overpricing and violation of government procedures. [Reuters] [Xinhua]

17 September 2019

Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port links up with Ranong Port in Thailand

(jk) The Hambantota International Port of Sri Lanka has signed an agreement for port-to-port cooperation with the Ranong Port in Thailand, in order to build synergies under the framework of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). [MenaFN]

17 September 2019

Sri Lanka: Constitutional Court does not drop corruption charges against Gotabaya Rajapaksa 

(jk) Sri Lanka’s constitutional court rejected an appeal last week by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to dismiss corruption charges against him. Rajapaksa, brother of the former President, is by many seen as the most likely frontrunner in the upcoming presidential elections.  Should he be found guilty of the charges however it is possible that he might not be allowed to run. [Colombo Page]

Date of AiR edition

News summary

Web links

16 July 2019

China-gifted frigate arrives in Sri Lanka

(jk) China has gifted a frigate to the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) which will be in charge of diverse operations of the SLN, such as offshore patrol, environment monitoring or anti-piracy combat. It is considered to be the SLN’s most advanced ship. In addition to the vessel, the PLA Navy has conducted training for over 100 Sri Lankan naval officers in China. [SLGuardian]

16 July 2019

Sri Lanka: Political and religious aftershocks of the Easter attacks

(ls/jk) The Sri Lankan government defeated a no-confidence motion brought by an opposition party over what it called “criminal negligence” in failing to prevent Easter Day bomb attacks on hotels and churches that killed more than 250 people. The defeat of the motion is likely to strengthen Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been at odds with President Maithripala Sirisena since Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis last year. Their political differences widened following the attacks. [Reuters]

The head of the Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) has invited his followers and members of the group to meet and discuss matters such as who they will be backing in presidential elections scheduled for December this year. [Straits Times]

During the rally, he said his group should “aim to take democratic control of parliament to protect the community” and create a Sinhala government themselves. Buddhist hardliners led by BBS have fuelled increasing hostility against Muslims in Sri Lanka, especially since the Easter Bombings, saying they are influenced by the most conservative and radical Muslims of the Middle East. [Adaderana]

9 July 2019

Following Easter bombing, Sri Lanka wants to curb Saudi Arabian influence

(ls) After the Easter Sunday terror attacks in Sri Lanka, the government announced that the Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs will start to monitor previously unchecked money flows to Sri Lankan mosques from donors including prominent Saudi families. Since the attacks, a Wahhabi scholar was arrested, and the government may take over a Saudi-funded school.

However, until now, ongoing investigations have not shown that any Saudi money flowed to the plotters of the attacks. Long before the Easter attacks, minority Sri Lankan Muslim felt under unjustified suspicion and critics attribute the recent government moves against Saudi influence to some degree to a rising Islamophobia. [Reuters] 

9 July 2019

Sri Lanka: Supreme Court suspends executions

(ls) After Sri Lanka’s president Sirisena has signed four death sentences last month effectively ending a 43-year moratorium, the executions have been suspended by the Supreme Court granting interim relief. Sirisena claims the new policy is in part inspired by the Philippines’ bloody drug war. [Reuters]

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe stated, however, that a majority of MPs were against resuming executions. The president defended his decision in a telephone conversation with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres by claiming the need to “save the country from drugs”. He also accused the European Union critical of the policy change of interfering in internal affairs. [Straits Times]

In recent years, thousands of committees were formed in schools and villages to create awareness about drugs. These committees were vocal in demanding the government to hang hardcore drug dealers. But Sirisena is also likely to eye his reelection: Prior to the Easter Day terror attacks, his approval ratings were strong. He was expected to get votes from both liberal and conservative sections of the country. The attacks marred this image. [DW]

2 July 2019

Sri Lanka’s special board of inquiry finds ‘major lapses’ led to a failure to stop Easter bombings

(jk) A special board of inquiry, set up by President Sirisena, has recommended to launch an investigation into the former Defence Secretary over “major lapses” in failing to prevent the Easter bombings that killed over 250 people. Sirisena himself was heavily criticised for failing to act on intelligence warning against the bombing prior to its occurrence, but he claims to have not been alerted to such warnings. He vowed to take action against officials who failed to share it and set up the special board of inquiry as a consequence. [Al Jazeera]

2 July 2019

Sri Lankan President signs death warrants for four drug convicts to end moratorium on death penalty

(jk) Sri Lanka, after just six months ago voting in favour of a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty at the UN General Assembly, still intends to abandon long-standing moratorium on the death penalty. President Sirisena in February announced the country would carry out the executions, saying he had been inspired by President Rodrigo Duterte, but the country has not gone ahead yet, partly due to difficulties in filling the required job vacancy of a hangman, which has yet to be completed [SCMP]. The story has come to the fore again with international human rights organisations and foreign governments concerned that recent preparations indicate executions will be resumed soon. [Channel News Asia, UK Foreign Office, New Europe] In addition to external pressures, there are a number of administrative hurdles to pass internally, such as deliberating petitions that have been filed against the move to resume executions. [SCMP II]

11 June 2019

“Neighborhood First”: Indian PM Modi visits Maldives and Sri Lanka

(ls) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first overseas trip since being elected to a second term by travelling to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, reflecting the importance India attaches to its ‘Neighborhood First” policy.

In the Maldives, Modi and Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih signed six Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) in the fields of hydrography, health, passenger and cargo services by sea, customs capacity building, training of civil servants and the sharing of white shipping information between the Indian Navy and the Maldives National Defence Force. In March, the countries had signed a USD 800 million Line of Credit Agreement for assisting the Maldives to achieve sustainable social and economic development. [Business Today]

Modi also inaugurated a coastal radar system and military training center in the Maldives. The two leaders pledged to combat piracy, terrorism, organized crime and trafficking through “coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information, and capacity building.” [Al Arabiya]

Solih reaffirmed his government’s “India first policy” and pledged full support toward deepening “the multifaceted, mutually beneficial partnership between India and the Maldives”. Solih’s stand was a marked shift from his predecessor Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who developed close ties with Beijing. [South China Morning Post]

In Sri Lanka, Modi started his short visit by paying respect at one of the sites of the Easter Sunday attack. He said that he was confident Sri Lanka will rise again and cowardly acts of terror cannot defeat their spirit. [India Today] During his Maldives visit, Modi had already called for a global conference to tackle the threat of terrorism in the region and around the world. “The international community has actively arranged for global convention and many

conferences on the threat of climate change. Why not on the issue of terrorism?” he said. [Reuters]

11 June 2019

Sri Lanka to introduce anti-fake news legislation

(ls) Following a rise in online disinformation after the Easter suicide attacks, Sri Lanka’s government will introduce five-year jail terms for those caught spreading fake news and hate speech on social media. The cabinet of ministers approved a respective proposal. However, the text of the respective provision has not yet been released. following the attacks on three churches and three hotels on April 21, a nine-day ban on platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp had been introduced. Sri Lanka also shut down Internet access in March last year to prevent further violence during anti-Muslim riots. [Straits Times]

11 June 2019

Sri Lanka: Stand-off between parliament and president over bombing investigation

(ls) Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena said he would not cooperate with a parliamentary investigation into security lapses before the Easter suicide bombings and would not allow defence or police officials to testify before a select committee. In response, the speaker of the parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, said that any public servant summoned by the committee was obliged to give evidence.  The committee began its publicly televised sittings since late last month. Evidence that has surfaced so far suggests that Sirisena failed to act on advance warning of the attacks. On Saturday, Sirisena’s office fired his national intelligence chief who testified that the attacks against three churches and three luxury hotels could have been avoided. [Bangkok Post]

4 June 2019

Sri Lanka: Muslim ministers resigned to protest the vulnerable state of Muslim minority against mob violence

(jk/jyk) The resignation of Sri Lanka’s Muslim government officials—nine ministers and two provincial governors—came amid the nation-wide persecution of Muslim community following the Easter suicide bombings. The bombing has given rise to anti-Muslim sentiment in Sinhala neighbours, where the mobs attacked and looted the Muslim community [Aljazeera 1], and the hard-line Buddhist monks demanded the Muslim provincial governors and minister to resign. One cabinet member who resigned said Muslims had cooperated with security forces to arrest suspects, but the community faced collective victimisation. The resigned Muslim leaders said they will remain in the back of the parliament for a month and accept police investigation to prove their non-involvement in any Muslim terrorist activities. [Aljazeera 2]

In the meantime, Sri Lanka’s suspended police chief has petitioned the Supreme Court, accusing President Sirisena of failing to prevent the attacks. Sirisena has suspended the police chief after he refused to take responsibility. He also says he met him and other top official less than two weeks before the attack and no one had raised the possibility of imminent attacks.[Straits Times]

28 May 2019

Sri Lanka: Nearly 100 alleged extremists detained

(jk) Amidst words by Sri Lankan President Sirisena to foreign diplomats that the current situation in Sri Lanka was “99%” secure”, the military deployed around 3.000 personnel for an operation that saw the detention of nearly 100 alleged extremists related to the Easter bombings earlier this year. On Wednesday, Sirisena has extended the state of emergency that was put in place after the bombings by a further 30 days. [All India Radio; Channel News Asia]

19 March 2019

Sri Lanka: Opposition leader Rajapaksa warns government not to “betray” Sri Lanka at the UN

(jk) Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s latest report on Sri Lanka begs the question whether Sri Lanka remains a sovereign nation and he criticized the government’s intention to co-sponsor another resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). According to Rajapaksa, the government has announced that they will again co-sponsor a resolution re-affirming previous resolutions which “committed the government to among other things, setting up a hybrid war crimes court with the participation of foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators and to removing by administrative means, individuals in the armed forces suspected of human rights violations even if there is insufficient evidence to charge them in courts.” [Adaderana] He would like to see Sri Lanka stop co-sponsoring resolutions against itself as it did in 2015, as well as rejecting allegations made in previous UNHRC reports. Last week President Sirisena already questioned pledges his country had made to investigate war-time atrocities, saying he did not want to “re-open old wounds”. [AiR 2/3] The 40th session of the UNHRC is currently underway in Geneva and a report on Sri Lanka will be submitted later this week.

11 March 2019

Sri Lanka: No intention to investigate war crimes

(ls) Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena put into doubt pledges his country had made to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to investigate war-time atrocities, saying he did not want to “re-open old wounds”. He said he will formally ask the United Nations rights body to reconsider a 2015 resolution which called for credible investigations into alleged atrocities. A previous deadline ended without any progress in bringing war criminals to justice. Although the UNHRC can pass resolutions, it has no mandate to implement resolutions or impose sanctions. [Channel News Asia]

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe presented to cabinet a memorandum to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to what was established in post-apartheid South Africa. There was, however, no mention of any probe into alleged war crimes. Sri Lankan government troops were accused of killing at least 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians in the final months of the island’s 37-year guerrilla war that ended in May 2009. [Asia Times]

In a separate development, the United Kingdom Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, overturned a lower court’s finding that an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka organized his own torture to strengthen his claim to stay in Britain. It is expected to make it harder for authorities to say that accounts of torture are not credible where there is strong medical evidence to the contrary. [The Guardian]

4 March 2019

Sri Lanka: International Monetary Fund revives and extends Sri Lanka bailout

(jk) The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has agreed to re-activate a three-year loan worth US$1.5bn, as well as extending it by one year to mid-2020. An installment of the fund had not been released back in October 2018 due to the political and constitutional crisis that unfolded then and the bail-out was put on hold. Sri Lanka faces tough financial challenges, owing several creditors at an economically difficult time. [Financial Times / Channel News Asia] Its move to give away a strategically important harbour to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on a 99-year lease made headlines last year and became a poster-child for the PRC’s “debt-trap diplomacy”.

4 December 2019

Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis is further intensifying

(jk) As AiR readers know, Sri Lanka remains stuck in a political and constitutional crisis with no breakthrough in sight after the Sri Lankan President appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to replace the sitting prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Now, after losing but refusing to accept not one but two no-confidence votes, the court of appeal has said it will not allow Rajapaksa to act as PM for this would cause “unpreparable damage” to the country. [Al Jazeera] 

A judge issued an interim order against Mr Rajapaksa and his cabinet, which will be in place until the final verdict is delivered. Rajapaksa has said he will appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.

The decision will likely also continue to impact the economic situation which has worsened since the crisis started and has seen the currency exchange rates dropping. The court order also stopped the presentation of an interim budget for the first few months of 2019 which may now impact the payment of salaries and pensions as well as foreign debt repayments. [ABC]. Whilst politics are staying still, the judiciary is working overtime as Sri Lanka’s highest-ranking military officer was finally put in custody last week after weeks evading arrest for allegedly protecting the chief suspect in the murder of 11 people during the civil war. [SCMP]

The embattled government has previously – in a desperate attempt to become more popular – slashed a tax on sugary drinks, reversing older anti-diabetes policies.[Channel News]

Currently, the government of Rajapaksa is only recognised by China and Burundi.