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Friday February 23rd, 2024

Biden-Harris: What’s in store for Sri Lanka?

ECONOMYNEXT – If all goes well – not a small ‘if’, given recent events – Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States later this evening, Sri Lanka time. Outgoing President Donald Trump is boycotting the inauguration, and words like “civil war” are being thrown around freely, but – CNN’s premature frenzy notwithstanding – the transition should be mostly smooth. Mostly. In a few hours’ time, Biden will be conferred the increasingly dubious title ‘leader of the free world’ and Kamala Harris will create history by being the first woman and first person of colour to be Vice President of the US, an “enlightened” country that was mysteriously lagging behind on that count until November 2020. While this is all arguably good news for America, what are the short and long term implications of a Biden-Harris administration for Sri Lanka?

EconomyNext reached out to three experts, an economist and two former senior and reputed diplomats, for their views.

Research Economist at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Kithmina Hewage predicts a return to multilateralism after years of isolationist foreign policy under Trump.

“This means that in many ways, Biden’s foreign policy will closely reflect Obama’s and his proposed appointments to the State Department and Defence Department show that. However, there will be some significant shifts between the Biden and Obama foreign policies. The world Biden has inherited is very different to the one Obama left in 2016 – China is a much more powerful player in global politics and traditional US allies like South Korea, Japan, EU, and the UK have started seeking alternate alliances amongst themselves due to US policy inconsistency under Trump. Therefore, Biden will likely continue to be somewhat aggressive against China whilst trying to rebuild US alliances at the multilateral level,” he said.

This muted aggression notwithstanding, Hewage believes that Biden is less likely to continue Trump’s controversial trade war with China. This, coupled with the promised return to multilateralism, he said, will be in Sri Lanka’s favour.

“Biden will attempt to push back through multilateral forums such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on issues like copyright infringement and other trade concerns. This is good news for Sri Lanka as it will create a much more stable global economic environment. The US might also attempt to reinvest in developing stronger economic alliances in South and East Asia (with India and former TPP partners) to try and balance Chinese economic interests in the region. That might provide more opportunities for Sri Lanka to join regional and global value chains, so long as we get our macroeconomic fundamentals in place,” he said.

Despite attempts to balance Chinese interests, Hewage does not see a Biden administration forcing a “with us or against us” choice on smaller nations, as was seen during the hurried visit of outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Sri Lanka in October last year.

Another area of importance for Sri Lanka, according to Hewage, will be possible attempts under Biden to restart the Iran Nuclear Deal. This is because Iran has historically been a significant oil supplier and an important destination for the island nation’s exports. He also believes the new administration’s focus on climate change will be in the interest of Sri Lanka.

“As a particularly vulnerable economy to climate change, this will benefit us in the long run, both in terms of mitigating climate change as well as promoting greater global investment and innovation into green tech and sustainable energy,” he said.

Economic implications aside, the new administration’s approach to Sri Lanka’s human rights record will be of utmost concern to the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). The US is widely expected to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) under Biden and once again assume a role of global leadership in addressing issues of human rights. It was the US, under a Democratic administration, that took the initiative in holding Sri Lanka accountable at the UNHRC for the country’s alleged violations of human rights in the final phases of the separatist war.

A retired senior diplomat who spoke to EconomyNext on condition of anonymity said the intensity of focus on Sri Lanka will depend on a number of factors.

“A Biden administration will rejoin all multilateral processes, including the UNHRC in time to come, but by March this year it will be too soon for any significant US interest to manifest. Given that several Democratic party leading functionaries have had a focus on South Asia including  Sri Lanka, US interest in Sri Lanka at the UNHRC will manifest in time to come. However, the level of that focus will be a function of the quality and quantity of interaction at Congress,  the State Department, and the White House by Tamil and human rights lobby groups on the one hand and the GoSL and the Embassy in Washington on the other,” the diplomat said.

With regard to China, he said, ongoing US-China dissonance will essentially remain the same. “But in style it will manifest differently and Sri Lanka, too, will come under focus accordingly. However, it’s likely that the US will let India handle that issue as a QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) partner given that US-Sri Lankan relations have now reached an all-time low,” he said.

The diplomat further said that the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to Sri Lanka will depend on how Sri Lanka handles its own reconciliation process and human rights issues as well as economic policies. Another factor, he said, will be how best Sri Lanka can manage the ‘Comprehensive Partnership Dialogue Process’ between the two countries initiated in 2017.

Another former senior diplomat who also spoke to EconomyNext on condition of anonymity said that though it is unclear at present whether the US under Biden will get back to piloting the Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC, they will likely play a proactive role in using international mechanisms to enforce human rights in various countries, especially in the developing world.

“They have picked Samantha Power to be the head of the USAID. She was very much active on the human rights front and very much focused on Sri Lanka during the former administration. So you can expect a more active stance. Whether that stance will be an aggressive one is not clear,” he said.

There has been some speculation that the ethnicity of Vice President-elect Harris, whose mother was born in Tamil Nadu, will factor in newfound resolve on the part of the US to see that Sri Lanka is held accountable for its alleged war crimes. Asked to comment on this, the diplomat said it is unlikely that Harris would be guided by her ethnic origins.

“Quite frankly, I think the American administration works more on institutional guidance rather than personal compulsion. I’m not sure Harris would be guided by her ethnic origins rather than by the interests of the US. They also understand that they have to work with Sri Lanka because Sri Lanka is strategically important for the new Indo-Pacific strategy. They understand that more pressure on human rights on Sri Lanka could make Sri Lanka gravitate more towards China. They’ll be cautious of that,” he said.

Asked if the new administration might continue to pressure countries like Sri Lanka to resist Chinese influence, the diplomat said, echoing Hewage, that the US is unlikely to adopt a zero-sum, “if you don’t deal with China, you’re better off with us” approach.

“But they will certainly discourage Sri Lanka from entering into strategic partnerships with China. They will also be cautious about Sri Lanka getting into undeliverable financial commitments like the so-called debt trap. At the same time, they understand that China is a good source of investment and purchasing power for Sri Lanka.

“I believe they will have a more nuanced, perhaps balanced approach to let Sri Lanka deal with China on commercial matters, but without giving China any strategic or military or other advantage,” he said, cautioning that this is still speculation as the new administration has yet to articulate their foreign policy in full.

However, he expressed confidence that the US under Biden will not follow Trump’s “doctrine of zero sum thinking”.

The inauguration ceremony will begin at 10.30pm tonight, Sri Lanka time. (Colombo/Jan20/2021)

Comments (4)

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  1. Dalit Prawasi says:

    Democrats have never been good for smaller countries like us. Who ever are the individuals running USA from Biden to the lowest poor and powerless countries will be doomed.

  2. Robbo says:

    He’s senile, he doesn’t even know where he is, let alone Sri Lanka LOL. So sad what has happened to America. So, so sad for the world. Fingers crossed I guess, we can only hope for the best.

  3. Chulie says:

    A comprehensive analysis. Thank you.

  4. Shan says:

    When it comes to strategic importance India is now a much more important country to USA and the west. This is the result of growing power of China. India is determined to get involved in Sri Lankan matters not to protect Tamils but for its own geopolitical interest. Their geopolitical groups. Indian Ocean’s strategic equation has changed. The reason is, while India was sleeping mired in its internal politics China has grown by leaps and bounds, economically, technologically and militarilly. Now India is gearing up to grow rapidly while the Sri Lankan government plays ethnic politics to win votes.

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Comments (4)

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Dalit Prawasi says:

    Democrats have never been good for smaller countries like us. Who ever are the individuals running USA from Biden to the lowest poor and powerless countries will be doomed.

  2. Robbo says:

    He’s senile, he doesn’t even know where he is, let alone Sri Lanka LOL. So sad what has happened to America. So, so sad for the world. Fingers crossed I guess, we can only hope for the best.

  3. Chulie says:

    A comprehensive analysis. Thank you.

  4. Shan says:

    When it comes to strategic importance India is now a much more important country to USA and the west. This is the result of growing power of China. India is determined to get involved in Sri Lankan matters not to protect Tamils but for its own geopolitical interest. Their geopolitical groups. Indian Ocean’s strategic equation has changed. The reason is, while India was sleeping mired in its internal politics China has grown by leaps and bounds, economically, technologically and militarilly. Now India is gearing up to grow rapidly while the Sri Lankan government plays ethnic politics to win votes.

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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