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Friday February 23rd, 2024

Battle between Sri Lanka’s main opposition SJB and popular JVP-led alliance hots up

ECONOMYNEXT – With the likelihood of an electoral collapse of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) still reasonably high, the country’s main opposition the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the leftist National People’s Power (NPP) appear to be engaged in a low-intensity turf war over the coveted “system change” mandate.

Though an election has yet to be announced — indeed, opposition parties across the board have expressed fears of an indefinite delay — the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led NPP has been busy organising well-planned and well-attended public events around the country.

The SJB in contrast has been slow to step up, with only a handful of pocket meetings and other events highlighted by the media, apart from the odd, half-hearted press conference.

The JVP fired the first salvo. Former JVP parliamentarian K D Lal Kantha speaking at an event on Monday October 31 said there are crooks not just in the government but in the opposition benches too.

“Some people think that crooks are only on the government side. No, they’re there in the opposition too. Those who were in government before, held ministries before or were in cabinets before are all in the opposition too,” he said.

“The opposition also considers the NPP a challenge.”

SJB general secretary and MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara claimed that the JVP is attacking his party because it fears its strength.

“Having seen our strength and our capacity for victory, the JVP has started to attack us. They attack us because we’re strong,” said Madduma Bandara.

“The people know who the thieves are, who robbed the banks and who set fire to office buildings and murdered people,” he added, in a thinly veiled reference to the JVP’s second insurrection in the late 1980s.

Since the ouster of ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July this year after a wave of youth-led protests amid a crashing economy, Sri Lanka’s political landscape has been thrown to disarray with no apparent challenger to the once-mighty SLPP.

Meanwhile, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took the reins from Rajapaksa in July, has all but given up on his plans for an all-party government.

The recently passed 21st amendment to the constitution retained the president’s power to dissolve parliament and call a general election anytime after two and a half years since August 2020. Both the SJB and the NPP as well as other opposition actors have expressed fears that the SLPP, whose support was essential to Wickremesinghe in securing his presidential bid, have obtained an assurance from the president that parliament would not be dissolved until 2024. However, there is no clear indication at present that this is the case.

On the other hand, there is speculation of plans by Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), which he has been leading for 28 years, to regroup and contest parliamentary elections sometime after March next year. If this transpires, it may entail a return of some SJB seniors who turned their back on Wickremesinghe when they rallied behind SJB and opposition leader Sajith Premadasa in the run-up to the 2020 parliamentary polls. A number of SLPP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs are also whispered to join this surprise grand alliance.

Currently the UNP is represented in parliament by just one MP: Vajira Abeywardena, a staunch Wickremesinghe loyalist. UNP general secretary Palitha Range Bandara has also rubbished claims by the opposition that the president is a “prisoner” of the SLPP.

These developments notwithstanding, the SJB and the NPP are slowly but surely gearing for an election, whenever that may be. Political analysts say the NPP has the edge, given the role the party and its affiliates played in the Aragalaya (Struggle) protest that unseated the powerful Rajapaksa dynasty, and the JVP’s strong anti-corruption stance and, increasingly, its anti-austerity rhetoric that resonates well with the inflation-hit public.

The NPP’s detractors, however, have criticised it for “hijacking” what was essentially an organic people’s uprising and for claiming undue credit for the forced resignation of the former president. A notable incident that occurred on May 09, the day peaceful protestors were attacked by government-backed goons, was an unprovoked attack on Premadasa who visited the main agitation site in Colombo soon after news broke of the violence. A number of protestors were seen crowding around Premadasa and his entourage and attempting to hit him before his security personnel whisked him away. Incidentally, JVP and NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake who also arrived at the protest site was unharmed and was seen engaged in spirited discussion with some of the protestors.

Over the months since Wickremesinghe’s ascent to power, Sri Lanka’s economy has shown some early signs of recovery and, with a staff-level agreement reached with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a 2.9 billion dollar bailout package, a semblance of normality and economic stability has returned to the island. Daily scheduled power outages have reduced in length and frequency and the mile-long queues for fuel and cooking gas have all but disappeared, bringing much relief to the people. Inflation, though it continues to batter low income earners, is also on a downward trend after a painful but necessary tightening of monetary policy by the central bank.

Against this backdrop, the Aragalaya has lost some steam — certainly helped by an unexpected and largely disproportionate government crackdown which drew loud condemnation here and abroad — and the opposition parties have had to shift their gears somewhat in preparation for elections. But only just, as, even now, there is no shortage of weapons they can throw at the government: from skyrocketing food prices, increased electricity bills, alleged human rights violations and, most recently, a hike in personal income tax.

Incredibly, the leftist JVP has been at the forefront of voices speaking against the progressive tax reforms, baffling even their harshest neoliberal critics. The SJB’s position on the tax hike is less clear. Though the party has previously spoken in favour of boosting government revenue, very much in line with their ‘social market economy’ ethos, they now seem to have adopted a confused “this is wrong but we’re not entirely sure why” stance, which critics say isn’t all that different from their position on much needed state sector reform. Premadasa himself was heard proposing recently that, before increasing taxes on dollar-earning sectors, the government “take the dollars back” from the rupee-millionaires who became dollar-millionaires after the 2019 tax cuts.

It seems the JVP and the SJB are starting to battle it out for dominance in the opposition space, which has expanded considerably since the uprising. It also seems each is trying to out-populism the other, resorting to popular slogans that critics say are not only lacking in nuance but also contradict their own ideology. Since the success of the Aragalaya, the popular imagination has been captured by the possibility of a corruption-free, efficient state that is accountable to the people and is run by non-establishment figures who put the public interest first. A lofty ambition if ever there was one. While no one will fault the people for daring to dream, political analysts warn that this new reality may incentivise opposition parties to abandon reason and propose simplistic, social media-friendly solutions to complex problems that require the kind of foresight that was woefully absent in the past three years — solutions that may see a return to the very policies that nearly destroyed Sri Lanka’s economy for years to come. (Colombo/Nov01/2022)

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Sri Lanka’s Grisly Recent History Goes Unpunished

ECONOMYNEXT – They lie buried in numerous mass graves, all evidence of Sri Lanka’s murderous recent past which has been punctuated by multiple civil conflicts.

Whatever remains is evidence of Sri Lanka’s grisly history of the extrajudicial executions of rebels in both Northern and Southern insurrections.

Most of the bodies remain in mass graves that stretch from Chemmani and Duraiappah Stadium in  Jaffna to burial sites in the Colombo and Matale Districts and the Southern and Central Provinces.

The dead could be anyone; captured rebels, those caught in crossfires and others who were deemed to be “inconvenient,” according to a report titled ‘Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s War Time Role’ released by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) on 17 January 2024.

A horrific record

Sri Lanka’s recent blood-soaked history is replete with mass killings and many “disappearances” from the various incidents during the insurgencies of the JVP as well as the Tamil separatist war.

The activist group Journalists for Democracy and affiliated organisations claim that at least 32 mass graves have been identified across the island. A report published in Groundviews in January said these graves “dotted across the country that hold the remains of not just the casualties of the civil war but also those who disappeared during the two JVP uprisings in 1971 and from 1988 to 1989.”

A 1999 United Nations study noted that Sri Lanka has the second-highest number of enforced disappearances in the world with around 12,000 people missing after being detained by government Security Forces. Figures vary with Amnesty International reporting that the number of disappeared persons could be as high as 60,000.

There is no official government figure.

Evidence against GR

Now, fifteen years after the separatist war in Sri Lanka ended, mounting evidence has emerged against former President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for his pivotal role in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the civil war, say Human Rights lawyers in this new report.

Rajapaksa figures in two serious passages of time where suspected cadres of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna were killed at Matale in the 1988-89 period and LTTE cadres and civilians on the frontlines of Nandikadal which proved to be the final battle of the Eelam War.

The ITJP report quotes its Executive Director Yasmin Sooka as saying if Sri Lanka “is serious about dealing with its violent past, the litmus test is to hold (former President) Gotabaya Rajapaksa criminally accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The report presents detailed evidence connecting the former President when he was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence to numerous massacres of civilians. Although not the army commander, nor Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gotabaya had command and effective control of the security forces during the Civil War as the Defence Secretary and the younger brother of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The ITJP report says the then Defence Secretary Rajapaksa had “contemporaneous knowledge of the violations of international humanitarian law and international criminal law being committed, and failed to take any steps to prevent them, or to hold those under his command accountable. He and successive Sri Lankan governments have had countless opportunities since the war ended to initiate credible investigations into allegations of gross human rights violations and to establish prosecutions. Instead of allowing the truth to come to light, Gotabaya and his successors have perpetuated denial of the complicity of the security forces in these violations, rewarding and protecting the alleged perpetrators.”

The 104-page document examines evidence of Rajapaksa’s involvement in and knowledge of attacks on the No Fire Zones set up to protect civilians, his failure to prevent and investigate summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detention and the denial of humanitarian aid to civilians.

Individual stories that were leaked at the time gave credence to these incidents.

One was the evidence of the killing of LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s younger son Balachandran. The boy, according to some reports, had been escorted to the Sri Lanka Army lines by an LTTE bodyguard at Mullivaikkal. Photos purported to have been taken at that stage show the boy wrapped in a Sri Lanka Army issue sarong eating a biscuit behind the Sri Lanka Army lines. A second photo shows him dead at the same location, his body riddled with bullets.

Another set of pictures was that of the LTTE’s TV icon Issapriya whose image was widely circulated. There were unconfirmed reports that she had been sexually assaulted along with other young women who had been captured as the LTTE unravelled. That is followed by another picture of her corpse shot at close range.

Eventually, the Sri Lankan government during President Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure acknowledged that some 65,000 persons were missing and granted close surviving relatives rights to manage their properties, the ITJP report states.

Matale Mass Grave

Rajapaksa was the military Coordinating Officer for the Matale District in 1989 when the area was rocked by the so-called Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya a JVP offshoot. He was a Lt. Colonel at the time.

In December 2012, reports emerged that a mass grave had been found in the grounds of the Matale Hospital.

Accusations were made at the time that the remains unearthed were that of JVP cadres who had been captured and allegedly killed during the insurrection, a claim the party repeatedly made.

No government however pursued an investigation into the discovery because politics got in the way; after all the UNP was in power when the killings were supposedly carried out and the officer responsible, Gotabaya, was the brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the time, a prominent leader in the SLFP.

The government of the day meanwhile claimed the bodies were of victims of a landslide in the 1950s.

However, there was no proper investigation to prove which theory was factual.

The ITJP report also contains the names of former Army Commander, Lt Gen Shavendra Silva and others who are seen as Gotabaya loyalists in the Army.  The report also claims that Army top brass, other than Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka, who was Commander of the Army at the time the civil war ended, had close personal connections to Rajapaksa.

These incidents, however, are not the only horrific events of our island nation’s history; abductions and disappearances of young men, allegedly by members of the armed forces, the massacre of a group of Buddhist monks at Aranthalawa, the killing of pilgrims at Anuradhapura, the latter two by the LTTE, random killings of public servants and others by rebel groups, and more recently the Easter Sunday bombings, the list goes on. And the powers that be, govern with impunity.

So, it is unlikely that the relatives of the victims will find closure until justice is served and those whose hands are bloodstained are held accountable for their actions.

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India has given “lot of offers” for Ramayana Trail, Sri Lanka state minister says

ECONOMYNEXT – India has given a lot of offers to establish Ramayana Trails in Sri Lanka, State Tourism Minister Diana Gamage said, as the island nation is focusing more on Indian tourists to boost the hospitality industry.

Historians say, according to Hindu mythology, Sri Lanka was the kingdom of Ravana, the ten-headed demon king who abducted Sita, the wife of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, a smriti text from ancient India, one of the two important epics of Hinduism known as the Itihasas, the other being the Mahabharata.

The epic narrates the life of Rama, a prince of Ayodhya in the kingdom of Kosala.

With the opening of Ram Mandhir in Ayodhya, Sri Lanka has renewed the establishment of Ramayana Trails, which includes all the places believed to be associated with Ramayana.

The places include Sigiriya, Ashok Vatika, a garden in the city of Nuwara Eliya, which is believed to be the place where Ravana kept Sita captive, Ravana Ella Falls, Koneswaram Temple in Trincomalee and Divurumpola Temple in Bandarawela which is believed to be the place where Sita underwent a trial by fire to prove her purity among many other places.

“I think India is even willing to invest in it. They have given proposals that they are willing to invest in it. They will build hotels even around where they can have accommodation for the people who are visiting these areas,” Diana Gamage told reporters in Colombo.

“They (Indians) have given a lot of offers. If we do this in the right way, we can bring 5 million tourists from India alone.”

Indians topped the list of tourists to Sri Lanka last year with over 300,000 visitors.

“At the moment I am having discussions with some of them, and they are in touch with me,” Gamage said.

“If you look at Seetha Eliya, Seetha Temple is one of the main areas in this Trail. So that area also will be developed, specially.”

“I don’t know if you have seen how many millions visited the Ayodhya temple. There are so many millions from around the world. So, there is an interest in this and we have to grab that opportunity being in the country that it actually has taken place.”

“It is so unfortunate that why it has not been done so far. This should have been done a long long time ago. So now I am thinking that we should do it at least now.” (Colombo/Feb 22/2024)

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Sri Lanka offers fresh debt plan to bondholders amid Hamilton case extension hopes: Sources

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka offered a revised restructuring proposal to sovereign bond holders sources said, as the country tries to wrap up debt restructuring by the middle of the year and a holdout investor sues to force payment on one series of bonds.

A US court had stayed proceedings of case by holdout investor Hamilton Reserve for six months, which has the required volumes of bond with a ‘single series’ collective action clause to file action following request which was supported by the US, UK and France.

The deadline runs out on February 29.

An extension of at least three months may be sought to help wrap up the debt restructuring, sources said.

Sri Lanka is expecting to sign memoranda of understanding with Paris Club, within weeks, according to official sources.

Courts had earlier granted the stay saying Hamilton had the option of renewing case for summary judgement once it is lifted.

Sri Lanka rejected a proposal by bondholders to exchange a ‘downside’ bond linked to gross domestic product which will have a 20 percent hair cut with additional haircuts if GDP growth is low as forecasted by the International Monetary Fund.

Bondholders believe that the growth projections in an IMF debt sustainable analysis is too pessimistic

However bondholders are very keen on the structure, and it may be tough to convince them to accept a ‘plain vanilla’ type of solution, according to sources familiar with their thinking.

Bondholders also do not want a value recovery instrument detached from the underlying bond which is not ‘index eligible’. Earlier VRI’s used in debt re-structures have been upside instruments.

Bondholders had earlier expressed their unhappiness at what they said was “no progress” in negotiations.

Some bondholders were also of the view that the first ask by Sri Lanka from bondholders was deeper than the in-principle re-structure given by bilateral creditors. (Colombo/Feb22/2024)

A US court had stayed proceedings of case by holdout investor Hamilton Reserve for six months, which has the required volumes of bond with a ‘single series’ collective action clause to file action following a request from the US government among others.

The deadline runs out at the end of the month.

An extension of at least three months may be sought to help wrap up the bond restructuring, sources said. It is not clear whether courts will grant the extension.

Sri Lanka rejected a proposal by bondholders to exchange a ‘downside’ bond linked to gross domestic product which will have a 20 percent hair cut with additional haircuts if GDP growth is low as forecasted by the International Monetary Fund.

Bondholders believe that the growth projections in an IMF debt sustainable analysis is too pessimistic

However bondholders are very keen on the structure, and it may be tough to convince them to accept a ‘plain vanilla’ type of solution, according to sources familiar with their thinking.

Bondholders also do not want a value recovery instrument detached from the underlying bond which is not ‘index eligible’. Earlier VRI’s used in debt re-structures have been upside instruments.

Bondholders had earlier expressed their unhappiness at what they said was “no progress” in negotiations.

Some bondholders were also of the view that the first ask by Sri Lanka from bondholders was deeper than the in-principle re-structure given by bilateral creditors. (Colombo/Feb22/2024)

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