Asia in Review Archive (2019)

Sri Lanka

Date of AiR edition

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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]

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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.