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Saturday May 25th, 2024

Building Race Relations in Uneasy Batticaloa

ECONOMYNEXT – The Eastern city of Batticaloa in Sri Lanka is one of the most multicultural and multi-lingual in the country, but is riven with communal differences and is finding that building bridges is not easy.

The communities in the Batticaloa district range from Arab, East Asian and Indian traders who came by sailboat, to the Portuguese and Dutch who came to the island as invaders.

The majority community is Tamil speaking, split between Hindus, Christians and Muslims and the Sinhala speakers, who are a minority. Portuguese is still spoken here and there are half a dozen Tamil dialects you can hear as well. The ethnic Tamils, are, by far the larger community and consider this region as part of their homeland.

Batticaloa also was the epicentre of the conflict between the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the East of Sri Lanka from the early 1980s for nearly three decades. The fighting, particularly during the 1980s was intense and was often in urban areas of the district which was held mostly by government troops.

Although the fighting was between the Tamil separatists and the government forces, as in any war ordinary civilians from all communities were the victims.

In the early days of the conflict, there were some Muslims who supported the struggle for the separate state of Tamil Eelam, says former Vice-Chancellor of the Eastern University Prof. T Jeyasingham. “Nineteen-ninety was the year when the Muslims turned over, meaning they began welcoming the Army and became government supporters,” he told EconomyNext in an interview.

The Shia Mosque in Kattankudi where in 1990 the LTTE killed 147 worshippers/Pathum Dhananjana EconomyNext

That was also the time when LTTE cadres attacked a mosque in Kattankudy, a Batticaloa suburb which is exclusively Muslim, killing 147 worshippers. There were also instances when the Tigers looted shops in the area. By then the Tamils and the Muslims had become enemies.

Social Worker N Manoharan said, that the Muslims, by forming their own political parties won the support of the Sinhala-dominated government and then used that advantage to better their lot.

Because of the security situation, Tamil traders found it difficult to ply their trade to Colombo and other Sinhala majority areas.

Professor T Jeyasingham of the Eastern University thinks this is the best time for Tamils to negotiate with the Muslims/Pathum Dhananjana EconomyNext

“This helped the Muslims to take over the trade entirely. I think we made a few billionaires during that time,” Jeyasingham said.

The Easter Sunday attacks by an extremist group that had its roots in Kattankudy changed all that, the Professor says. “After the Easter (attacks) I think there were lots of changes in the dynamics. All the advantages they, the Muslims had, came to a standstill, so this may be the best time to negotiate with them where they can speak without all the flanks and this and that.”

Father Rajan Rohaan, Chair of the Inter-Religious Forum of Batticoloa says it isn’t easy to reconcile the communities/Pathum Dhananjana EconomyNext

One of the three churches hit by the suicide bombers on April 21, 2019 is the Zion Church in Batticaloa.

Fr. Rajan Rohaan of the American Mission in Batticaloa says soon after the attack Muslim Civil Society leaders contacted him as he is the current Chair of the Batticaloa Inter-religious Forum.

“They wanted to come to condole with the families and offer aid,” he said.

However, after discussing the offer with his fellow Pastors, Rohaan turned down the overture for the moment.

Rohaan says that the Tamils in Batticaloa saw the attack on the Zion Church as an “attack on the entire Tamil community, not just the Tamil Christians.”

As a result, the simmering anti-Muslim sentiments in the city and its surrounding area came to the surface. Groups of young Tamil men began distributing leaflets in the city urging their community to boycott Muslim shops and also forced Tamils working in Muslim establishments to stop.

This hugely disrupted the economy of the district. Many eateries are Muslim-owned in Batticaloa and Tamils are their customers. Trade is dominated by the Muslims as they have done over the centuries. The boycotts “robbed many vulnerable people of their livelihoods,” Selvarajah Ariyamalai, a Field Coordinator of the Suriya Womens’ Centre Batticaloa told EconomyNext in an interview.

Rohaan who is the Pastor of St John’s Church, observes that there is the rise of Nationalism in Batticaloa. “There is the rise of Tamil Nationalism and Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism. Then there is the Arabianisation of the Muslim community. So the people of Batticaloa are living with this extremism; that is the real challenge.”  

Ven Katugastota Mahindalankara Thero is hoping to build a program that will bring peace among the communities/Pathum Dhananjana EconomyNext

An hour’s bus ride from Batticaloa city lies the rural community of Oddamavadi and there resides Katugastota Mahindalankara Thero, the only Buddhist Monk involved in the inter-religious peace-building efforts.

His temple is in an area which once was a Sinhala-majority area, but now has more Tamils and mixed-race families. At the time of our visit, there were some local volunteers cleaning the temple grounds, and they were all Tamil speakers.

Mahindalankara Thero says the volunteers, mostly women, are children of Sinhala and Tamil parents. “Here we are trying to build a program that will bring peace among the communities,” he told EconomyNext in an interview.

Abdul Latif Sabeel Secretary of the Kattankudy Mosques Federation says relations with the Tamil community is good after the Easter bomb attacks/Pathum Dhananjana EconomyNext

For the Muslims, they have seized the opportunity to reach out to the other communities Abdul Latif Sabeel, Secretary of the Kattankudy Mosques Federation told EconomyNext.

“After this incident (4/21) the bonds between the Tamil and Muslim communities have strengthened,” he claimed. “We are working with Hindu temple Gurus and the Christian churches,” he said.

He went on to say that the Muslims cannot live in Sri Lanka as a separate group. “We have to build this feeling among all communities,” he added.

“At the same time we have to respect the other religious groups,” he said.

Kattankudy on a Friday afternoon in this exclusive Muslim suburb of Batticaloa all is quiet as the faithfull pray/Pathum Dhananjana EconomyNext

But, says Rohaan, it is not as easy as it sounds to build bridges to bring these communities together. The underlying tensions still remain, he believes.

He says, however, that there has to be a realization that all the communities have a single purpose.

He points out that as a “Civil Society actor I would like to work for democratic rights. As a Tamil, I cannot work for only the rights of Tamils. I have to work for the rights of the Muslims, Sinhalese and others.” (Colombo February 08, 2020)

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  1. F. Careem says:

    Not a Shia mosque! Kindly corect, this is a Sunni mosque!!

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  1. F. Careem says:

    Not a Shia mosque! Kindly corect, this is a Sunni mosque!!

Melco’s Nuwa hotel to open in Sri Lanka in mid-2025

ECONOMYNEXT – A Nuwa branded hotel run by Melco Resorts and Entertainment linked to their gaming operation in Colombo will open in mid 2025, its Sri Lanka partner John Keells Holdings said.

The group’s integrated resort is being re-branded as a ‘City of Dreams’, a brand of Melco.

The resort will have a 687-room Cinnamon Life hotel and the Nuwa hotel described as “ultra-high end”.

“The 113-key exclusive hotel, situated on the top five floors of the integrated resort, will be managed by Melco under its ultra high-end luxury-standard hotel brand ‘Nuwa’, which has presence in Macau and the Philippines,” JKH told shareholders in the annual report.

“Melco’s ultra high-end luxury-standard hotel and casino, together with its global brand and footprint, will strongly complement the MICE, entertainment, shopping, dining and leisure offerings in the ‘City of Dreams Sri Lanka’ integrated resort, establishing it as a one-of-a-kind destination in South Asia and the region.”

Melco is investing 125 million dollars in fitting out its casino.

“The collaboration with Melco, including access to the technical, marketing, branding and loyalty programmes, expertise and governance structures, will be a boost for not only the integrated resort of the Group but a strong show of confidence in the tourism potential of the country,” JKH said.

The Cinnamon Life hotel has already started marketing.

Related Sri Lanka’s Cinnamon Life begins marketing, accepts bookings


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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.


Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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