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Sunday April 21st, 2024

Sri Lanka’s trade and cultural links across the Indian Ocean from antiquity

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s maritime trade links along the Indian Ocean dates back to pre-historic times and has helped nurture “the personality of Sri Lanka and shaped its landscape and cultural scape since pre-historic times,” according to a top archaologist and researcher of the island.

“By the early 4th Century BCE, this island was primarily a production-distribution portal within the Rim and reached even to the Mediterranean and the Far East,” writes Sudarshan Seneviratne Executive Director General of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Sri Lanka Secretariat.

“The discovery of large quantities of Mediterranean, East African, South Asian and West Asian imported luxury ceramic ware and beads including coins and foreign notices (from the Mediterranean to the Far East) confirms the status of Sri Lanka as a major trading hub through long-distance trade linked to multiple lands.”

Sudarshana Seneviratne is a former Professor of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya was Director General, Central Cultural Fund.

Legends, chronicles and material evidence place Sri Lanka as a recipient culture located in the center of the Indian Ocean, he says.

The antiquity of this convergence dates to the pre-historic period when people, floral and faunal evidence indicate migration to Sri Lanka from the Indian sub-continent, South East Asia and East Africa.

“The commercial vortex connecting the Indian Ocean Rim had developed a complex system by the Middle Historic period (post 3rd Cent AC),” Seneviratne writes.

“This period witnessed intense commercial activities reaching out to India, South East and Far East and West Asia. There are notices that Buddhist monks and nuns accompanied merchants to their travel destinations.

Monasteries housing Sri Lankan monks were established during 3rd Century AC in Nagarjunakonda (Andhra) and the Gupta period in north India.

The Mahavamsa also records the existence of residences housing foreign merchants.

“The discovery of a Nestorian cross at the citadel of Anuradhapura is a testimony to the presence of West Asian traders residents at Anuradhapura.”

The full article released by Sri Lanka’s foreign Ministry is reproduced below

Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean in Antiquity

The island of Sri Lanka is also known in history by different names, including Tambapanni, Lanka, Taprobane, Serendib, Ceilo, Ceylon and eventually Sri Lanka or the ‘Resplendent Island”. Legends and historical annals note peopling of Sri Lanka associated with the ocean or those who traversed the ocean arriving at the shores of this island.

It was the Indian Ocean that nurtured the personality of Sri Lanka and shaped its landscape and cultural scape since pre-historic times. It is also the Indian Ocean, which binds us to the larger oceanic scape and the communities of the Indian Ocean rim with a common thread.

The ocean is also the greatest repository that gifted the line of communication and resources. The cultural timeline of our connectivity with the Indian Ocean goes back to pre-4000 BCE. The earliest common term known for this ocean is Samudra, as recited in the Rig Vedic hymns (C.1500 BCE).

It is also known to have a western and eastern ocean. The earliest texts mention oceanic seafaring luxury trade (‘From every side, O Soma, for our profit, pour thou forth four seas filled with a thousand-fold riches.” RV 9.33.6). The ocean craft in Sanskrit Vedic literature is known as Nau (neva in Sinhala). Seafaring provided connectivity to multiple kingdoms, cultures and civilizations that thrived over time and space during the pre-modern period of the Indian Ocean Rim. Sri Lanka was a prime recipient of this Indian oceanic connectivity.

Our relationship with the ocean is an interdependent factor which is mainly due to the centrality of our location in the Indian Ocean and the commonality shared by its resident communities.

Pic 01. Austronesian proto-historic maritime trade network in the Indian Ocean Pre 2000 BCE

Antiquity of Connectivity

Legends, chronicles and material evidence place Sri Lanka as a recipient culture located in the center of the Indian Ocean. The antiquity of this convergence dates to the pre-historic period when people, floral and faunal evidence indicate migration to Sri Lanka from the Indian sub-continent, South East Asia and East Africa.

Pre-historic Austronesian engagement connected east Africa via South Asia and beyond. Legend has it that the pre-historic community, the Naga, were a sea-faring community associated with trade and gems.

In the world of antiquity, Sri Lanka possessed a nautical history involving ships, navigation and seafaring by its island community dating to C. 1000 BCE. By the 4th Century BCE, even before the discovery of the monsoon by Hippalus, Sri Lanka was connected with South East Asia, East India and the Bay of Bengal, trading mainly on precious metals, elephants, spices and pearls. The Bay of Bengal formed a sub-region in the Indian Ocean having its own dynamic in the history of trade and commerce.

By the early 4th Century BCE, this island was primarily a production-distribution portal within the Rim and reached even to the Mediterranean and the Far East. The discovery of large quantities of Mediterranean, East African, South Asian and West Asian imported luxury ceramic ware and beads including coins and foreign notices (from the Mediterranean to the Far East) confirms the status of Sri Lanka as a major trading hub through long-distance trade linked to multiple lands.

Pic 02.

Ptolemy’s Sri Lankan Map created by Claudius Ptolemy in 139 AD. The Greeks called Sri Lanka Taprobana or Taprobane.

Trading portals were located at convenient coastal sites suitable for safe anchorage (dating to the 10th Cent. BCE). In addition to events documented in the Mahavamsa and Jataka narratives, the most accurate and extensive travel catalogues perhaps are found in the cartographic evidence of Ptolemy’s Taprobane and the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a diary of a ship captain travelling between the Red Sea and India. Both mention Sri Lanka as an important travel destination for commerce, its emporiums and traded items including place names of the island.

It is not a coincidence that during the same period (according to notices of Pliny) and the Mahavamsa emissaries of king Bhatikabhaya (1st Cent. AC), the first diplomatic mission (headed by traders), arrived in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius Caesar. A second delegation from Sri Lanka arrived in Rome during the time of Emperor Julian (Circa A.D. 375). The latter period coincides with the reign of Mahasena, the age of great agrarian production, the construction of mega reservoirs and monasteries (Jetavana) and the intense expansion of foreign trade with the establishment of cosmopolitan Port Cities.

Pic 03. Emissaries of king Bhatikabhaya (1st Cent. AC) to Rome

The commercial vortex connecting the Indian Ocean Rim had developed a complex system by the Middle Historic period (post 3rd Cent AC). This period witnessed intense commercial activities reaching out to India, South East and Far East and West Asia. There are notices that Buddhist monks and nuns accompanied merchants to their travel destinations. Monasteries housing Sri Lankan monks were established during 3rd Century AC in Nagarjunakonda (Andhra) and the Gupta period in north India.

While the Mahavamsa also records the existence of residences housing foreign merchants.

The discovery of a Nestorian cross at the citadel of Anuradhapura is a testimony to the presence of West Asian traders residents at Anuradhapura.

Pic 04: Site locations in east Africa and South Asia in the Indian Ocean connectivity chain, 1st Cent. BCE

Pic 05: Teppam (outrigger boat)

Connectivity and outreach were possible due to advanced nautical technology dating to the pre-Christian period. It was a qualitative development beyond the outrigger canoe or teppam. The advanced development of this vessel is depicted on coins and inscriptions as single-mast and double-mast vessels that traversed the Bay of Bengal and South Asia.

Interestingly enough, it was also the famous spice and gem trail that connected Sri Lanka with the Arab traders of West Asia. Merchants, from this period and region, made their way to Sri Lanka through three trade routes: the Indian to the North, the traders to the East, and the Arab to the West. It is from this vantage point that we need to understand the movement of communities to Sri Lanka, especially from West Asia in the Middle Historic period.

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Widespread support for Sri Lanka debt workout, reform progress at IMF/WB meet: Minister

ECONOMYNEXT – There was widespread support for Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring and acknowledgement of progress made under an International Monetary Fund program, at meeting of the fund and World Bank, State Minister for Finance Shehan Semasinghe said.

“The strides made in our economic recovery and financial stability have been acknowledged as significant advancements towards our country’s prosperity by our stakeholders and international partners,” Minister Semasinghe said in an x.com (twitter) post after attending the meetings.

“Further, it was heartening to note the widespread appreciation and support for Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring process.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to reaching the restructuring targets and confident of smooth progress in the continued good-faith engagements for a speedy debt resolution that will ensure debt sustainability and comparability of debt treatment.”

Sri Lanka ended a first round of talks with sovereign bondholders in March without striking a deal but some agreement on the basis for a deal.

An initial deal with bilateral creditors have been reached, but they may be awaiting a deal with private creditors to sign formal agreements.

International partners have appreciated reforms made under President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Minister Semasinghe said.

“It was great to engage in productive bilateral discussions with all of whom appreciated the recent economic developments, progress in debt restructuring, strengthening of tax administration, and ongoing governance reforms,” he said.

Sri Lanka’s rupee has been allowed to re-appreciate by the central bank amid deflationary monetary policy, bringing tangible benefits to people in the form of lower energy and food prices, unlike in past IMF programs.

Electricity prices were cut as a strengthening currency helped reduce the cost of coal imports.

Related Sri Lanka central bank mainly responsible for electricity price cut

The currency appreciation has also allowed losses to the Employment Provident Fund imposed to be partially recouped, helping old workers near retirement, as well as raising disposable incomes of current wage earners on fixed salaries.

Related Sri Lanka EPF gets US$1.85bn in value back as central bank strengthens rupee

The IMF, which was set up after World War II to end devaluations seen in the 1930s after the Fed’s policy rate infected other key central banks, started to actively encourage depreciation after a change to its founding articles in 1978 (the Second Amendment).

The usefulness of money as a store of value, or a denominator of current and future values then decline, leading to loss of real savings, real wages and increases in social unrest.

Before that, members who devalued more than 10 percent after printing money for growth or any other reason, faced the threat of suspension from the organization as punishment.

Sri Lanka’s rupee has appreciated to around 300 to the US dollar now from 370 after a surrender rule was lifted in March 2023.

But there is no transparency on the basis that economic bureaucrats are allowing the currency to gain against the US dollar (the intervention currency of the central bank).

The rupee is currently under pressure, despite broadly prudent monetary policy, due to an ‘oversold position’ in the market after recent appreciation made importers and banks to run negative open positions as the usefulness of the currency as a denominator of future value declined with sudden strenghtening. (Colombo/Apr21/2024)

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Sri Lanka choices recalled in Vietnam debate on monetary and fiscal options to target output

FIRST SIGNS: Fuel queues and shortages were developing in Vietnam in 2022 with a BOP deficit of $15.6bn in 3Q when rates were hiked to stop inflationary sterilization. Photo/Vietnamnet.vn

ECONOMYNEXT – Vietnam can grow 6.0 percent in 2024, with ‘policy support’ but there is a debate whether it should be done through fiscal (widening deficits/worsening debt or state spending) or monetary means, a top International Monetary Fund official said.

The IMF projects 6.0 percent growth for Vietnam in 2024 “as it rebounds from a challenging 2023,” Krishna Srinivasan, Director of the Asia and Pacific Department told reporters during the Spring Meetings in Washington.

Western Statism

“Now, in the case of Vietnam, I would say that there’s an issue about policy mix, whether you could get more support from the fiscal and rely less on monetary,” Srinivasan said.

“So there is an issue of policy mix which we’re talking, which we’ve been engaging the authorities with.

“I would say that policy support should be more favorable and that should, and along with external demand, help raise growth to 6 percent.”

Sri Lanka used both fiscal and monetary mix to boost growth from December 2019, triggering an external default two and a half years later.

Vietnam’s forex reserves fell below 3 months of imports in 2022 after the State Bank kept policy rates down by inflationary sterilization of forex market interventions.

The currency was then stabilized with rapid fire rate hikes and credit controls to dial back inflationary policy, just as long fuel ques started to form at petrol sheds, with angry riders already hit by rising prices due to Dong weakness. 
The return to market interest rates averted wider social unrest from being triggered by depreciation and further losses at state energy utility EVN, due to fixed prices amid soaring coal prices.

The State Bank of Vietnam later cut rates and relaxed credit controls as the BOP shifted to a surplus.

The government has since cut value added taxes. Public sector salaries are set to rise further this year, possibly as much as 30 percent, after earlier wage restraint. (Related Link: Public employee’s salaries to increase by 30 per cent from July 1: Minister)

State Driven Growth Options

The IMF also said in an Article IV consultation report released in October 2023, that fiscal metrics should be effectively undermined for ‘growth’ but more through income redistribution, and possible support for a fallout from a weak property sector.

Some Vietnamese property companies are reeling from expansion during earlier low rates and Covid-linked construction delays, which could also hit banks.

“Building on successful fiscal consolidation in recent years, there is fiscal space to provide further support,” an IMF Article IV consultation report released in October 2023 said.

“The government could scale up social safety nets that would boost growth and protect the most vulnerable households.

“Given the slowdown and the constraints faced by monetary policy, going forward, fiscal policy can take a leading role in supporting aggregate demand.

“For instance, the government could scale up social safety nets—and consider cash transfers to provide swift relief to poorer households.

“If the current turmoil proves more damaging to the economy and the financial sector, targeted support could be considered, including to help real estate developers restructure.”

Dong on thin ice

In 2023, Vietnam’s balance of payments was only marginally in surplus by 1 to 3 billion dollars a quarter, indicating that credit was still resilient after a successful ‘soft-landing’, and any further shocks from macro-economists can destabilize the external sector easily.

In the fourth quarter of 2024, Vietnam’s BOP was only 2.4 billion dollars in surplus.

Any extra spending or tax cuts which boosts the deficit due to attempts to engage in ‘macro-economic policy’ and expand government borrowings would lead to money printing under a fixed policy rate, reversing gains made by the State Bank over 2023, and pushing the Dong down, analysts say.

Western macro-economists believe that expanding government action (through the Treasury or central banks) to tinker with ‘aggregate demand’ can boost growth numbers instead of giving a chance for people and businesses to engage in real production of goods and services by providing monetary stability.

Collapsing currencies and external imbalances are then blamed on ‘current account deficits’ and ‘structural deficiencies’.

Such Keynesian and post-Keynesian beliefs have worsened since quantitative easing was normalized in the US after the Great Recession and ‘stimulus’ re-captured Western media attention despite the hard lessons of the 1960s and 1970s, critics say.

In Sri Lanka, the IMF taught a central bank that had already busted the currency from 4.70 to 131 to the dollar to calculate ‘potential output’ just as the country was barely recovering from a 30-year civil war.

Sri Lanka defaulted within 7 years of ‘data driven monetary policy’ (flexible inflation targeting with output gap targeting) and three currency crises later in peacetime amid increasingly aggressive macro-economic policy as consecutive stabilization programs reduced growth numbers.

Aggressive Macro-economic Policy

After using higher deficits and inflationary rate cuts in 2015 amid low inflation, inflationary rate cuts despite tax hikes in 2018 (fiscal policy is tight therefore monetary has to be loose mantra), macro-economists took a proverbial Keynesian bull by the horns and cut both taxes and rates from December 2019 saying there was a ‘persistent output gap’.

Related Sri Lanka fiscal stimulus to close output gap

Analysts say there is no real choice between monetary or fiscal deterioration to achieve macroeconomic policy desires of interventionists, in a country with a bureaucratic interest rate.

A policy rate, unless hiked, will automatically result in inflationary monetary operations as domestic credit picks up, irrespective of whether it is driven by private or state credit.

Any so-called ‘fiscal support’ can only be given without harming the exchange rate in a country that has a reserve collecting central bank with a policy rate, by liquidating any sovereign wealth funds or borrowing abroad and pushing up net external debt, analysts say.

By worsening external net debt levels, desires of macro-economists can be satisfied without harming monetary stability and the living standards of the population in general or nutrition of the children of the poorest sections of society by so-called exchange rate flexibility or debasement.

In Sri Lanka, potential output is now written into a brand new IMF-backed monetary law even before the first default workout is complete. Potential output is mentioned in every monetary policy statement, not stability. (Colombo/Apr20/2024)

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Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: A Preventable Tragedy

ECONOMYNEXT – Five years on, Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings has left us with more questions than answers.

Both the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government and now the Ranil Wickremesinghe tenure has been shown up poorly in terms of ensuring the masterminds and those who failed to prevent the bombings are bought to book.

As one sifts through various reports and discussions on the Easter Sunday bombings which took the lives of 315 and injured at least 600, one must, as Sunanda Deshapriya, activist and investigative journalist told a webinar recently, ask whether that tragedy was preventable.

If it was, then why was it not?

The webinar was organised by the Solidarity Movement for Justice and Truth (SMJT).

One interesting fact that investigators discovered, Deshapriya said, was that a phone number used by one of the bombers, was amongst a series used by the infamous ‘Tripoli Brigade’ that is alleged to be behind the Lasantha Wickrematunga murder.

This brings up the question whether the Easter bombers were connected to these covert groups within the Armed Forces which some observers have blamed for a number of violent incidents.

There were other questionable events. In an interview with TNL in 2023 former CID Head, Ravi Seneviratne claimed that though the visit to Vanathavilluwa by his officers investigating the destruction of Buddhist statues in Mawanella, was not public knowledge, the military intelligence had turned up there.
Deshapriya says, “We have to ask who ordered the MI to go there.”

In his interview, Seneviratne also said that Zaharan, the leader of the Thowheed Jamat that carried out the Easter bombings, first came to their attention in January 2019. They received tips of Zaharan’s whereabouts from civilians he said, and those were always that he had been sighted in various locations in the East.

However, following the Easter attacks the CID had realised that while they were looking for Zaharan in the East, he had been moving around in Wattala, Negombo, Mount Lavinia and Panadura. He alleged that while Zaharan seemed to have been secure in these areas, the CID had had no inkling of it.

The CID has informants everywhere, so why were they not aware that Zaharan was living in the Western Province, he asks.

SSP Shani Abeysekara is on the record as saying that the Intelligence operatives had “deliberately mislead the CID.”

Evidence indicates that former head of State Intelligence, DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, had wiped out his phone and laptop prior to handing them over the investigators.

“Why did he do that? When did he do that? What did it contain? There are many secrets about the Easter Sunday attacks that are yet to be revealed,” Deshapriya said.

He also states that “there are also many holes in Azad Maulana’s story on Channel 4.”

Despite these discrepancies, Deshapriya says that the volume of information about Zaharan available to the Security Forces, particularly the intelligence arm was quite substantial.

The bombings and the aftermath, the hysteria around the need to save the country and future generations, the demonization of the Muslim community all pointed to one goal; a regime change. Those fighting these past five years to bring the masterminds to book must also now, determine whether that heinous deed was intentional.

The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and the Commission of Inquiry (COI), both appointed to examine the events leading to the Easter attacks, concluded that if the Indian intelligence reports had been acted on, the bombings on April 21, 2019, could have been avoided, the report noted.

On April 19, the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) released a report titled, ‘5 Years Since Easter Sunday Attacks: Still Awaiting Justice,” where it says that “various committees were appointed to collect evidence and provide a report of the findings.

‘A Presidential commission, a Presidential committee, and a Parliamentary Select Committee were appointed to investigate the Easter Sunday Attacks. The report produced by the Presidential Committee was not published while the Parliamentary Select Committee’s report was fully published, and the Presidential Commission report was partly published.

On 26th January 2023, the Right to Information Commission directed the Presidential Secretariat to make the presidential committee report public before 9th February 2023 after hearing an appeal filed by CSR. However, none of the major recommendations in the published reports have been implemented to deliver justice for the victims.”

“The reports reveal that authorities had sufficient time and enough intelligence to act on the suspicions and prevent the incident. SIS Director received intelligence reports from India on the 4th and 5th of April 2019 and again two reports on the 20th of April describing the possibility of the attack, naming the suspects, and the urgency of the terror attack.

Additionally, there was a dry run conducted five days before the bombings where a motorcycle was blown up using a remote-controlled device in Zaharan’s home base, and although the SIS learnt of the incident the next day, even after intelligence reports stated that Zaharan was planning a terror attack, proper investigations into this matter did not take place.

The amount of information that was received prior to the attack and the lack of action, investigation, and implementation of safety measures inevitably raised questions as to who was actually behind the attacks” CSR said.

“A less dysfunctional government might have still failed to connect incoming intelligence with the information on Zaharan in Sri Lankan police files, but it would have tried much harder,” it added.
The report goes on to note the lapses made by the Sri Lanka government’s leaders.

“Regardless of the number of intelligence reports both by the U.S and India, that had warned about imminent attacks targeting churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe both acted out of gross ignorance. Even, at the time the unfortunate incident has happened, the executive president Mr. Sirisena was out of the country and returned a considerable time after the incident.”

Fr. De Silva also asks as to how the Police would conduct an impartial inquiry into the role of the various personnel who were holding powerful positions at the time and still continue to do so.

Gen Salley remains as head of Intelligence. The DIG in charge of the area where the Katuwapitiya church is situated in that period was Deshabandu Tennekoon, who is now the Inspector General of Police. DIG Nilantha Jayawardene who was the Intelligence chief is now Senior DIG Administration, a post second only to the IGP.

“In seeking justice how can we engage with these leaders in power who are themselves accused of complicity in these incidents,” asks Fr. De Silva. “We are doubtful we can get justice without a change in the people holding office.”

As election fever hots up, the main opposition political parties are jostling with each other promising to bring the masterminds of the Easter attacks to book, under their regimes. Both the SJB and the JVP led NPP have put out official statements on the course of action they would take if elected to power.

Speaking at a zoom discussion organised by the Australia Sri Lanka Forum for Justice for Easter Victims on April 17, SJB’s Eran Wickremaratne said his party would introduce amendments to existing structures, to create an Independent Public Prosecutors Office to handle such cases.

The SJB plans to establish a permanent office with members of Scotland Yard and the FBI to work alongside local investigators to bring closure to the Easter tragedy, he said.

Meanwhile, the JVP led NPP presented a 7 point plan which would address the inaction of the authorities, and take legal action against all those directly and indirectly involved in the Easter Sunday bombings.
Both political parties have presented their proposals to Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. Let’s hope they are not mere election promises!

The Easter Sunday victims have been political pawns these past five years, just as the many others who lost family members in the various conflicts the country has been through.
They too, are still awaiting justice.

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