Asia in Review Archive

Sri Lanka

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18 September 2018

Sri Lanka-Indonesia relations: Deepening economic cooperation

(jm) At the World Economic Forum (WEF) on ASEAN in Hanoi, the Indonesian President and the Sri Lankan Prime Minister agreed on strengthening cooperation in the industrial sector to improve economic growth of the two countries. Indonesia offered to build a “complete package” of railway facilities and infrastructure in Sri Lanka. In addition to the railroad sector, the Governments of Indonesia and Sri Lanka also followed up on previous agreements in the trade sector. One of them is the joint efforts of the two countries to export ready-made garments to the European Union. [Ada Derana]

11 September 2018

Sri Lanka: Military cooperation with India and Russia

(jm) Amid growing influence of China’s in Sri Lanka, the island nation is conducting a week-long maritime exercise together with India involving three navy ships on each side and around 1000 naval personnel. [Times of India]

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka and Russia signed an agreement on military cooperation during the visit of Sri Lankan Secretary to the Ministry of Defense to Russia last week. [Daily Ft]

4 September 2018

Sri Lanka court begins probing Rajapakse-era graft

(jm) A new court set up for corruption started its work by hearing the former president’s chief of staff for embezzling millions of dollars from a state insurance firm. While the court is looking into graft allegations against members of the former administration, the former president Rajapakse wants run in the next presidential election despite a constitutional provision that prevents him from being elected a third time. [Channel News Asia]

4 September 2018

External Powers increasingly vying for influence in Sri Lanka

(jk/jm) Japan’s defense minister has recently been on a 2-day trip to Sri Lanka where he as one item on the agenda visited some of the island’s port facilities. Japan as well as other nations are concerned over Chinese influence in the strategically important area in the Indo-Pacific, especially after the much reported on issue surrounding the Hambantota port facility. Sri Lankan officials have talked in particular about plans to develop Trincomalee port, a former British naval and air base and then commercial deep-water port, potentially with help from Japan and India, but nothing specific has been announced yet.

Following the defense minister’s visit, the Japanese foreign minister oversaw the commissioning of two naval vessels that have been gifted by Japan to the Sri Lankan Coast Guard recently. [Forbes] In related news, the US coast guard has also gifted a vessel to Sri Lanka. The US Coast Guard cutter will be the Sri Lankan Navy’s largest ship when it will be handed over in 2019. [Economy Next]

 China and India in the meantime are also competition over the development of rural areas in Sri Lanka as China announced its plan to build 40 000 houses in Northern Sri Lanka, in an area where India built some 44 000 houses already.  [The Economic Times]

Sri Lanka has some evident opportunities here while it wants to be careful not to over-rely on one partner or another. Another strategic opportunity for Sri Lanka is its upcoming chairmanship of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a regional organization that gathers Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, discussed here [The Diplomat].

28 August 2018

Sri Lankan-Japanese cooperation in the spotlight

(jm) On the occasion of the Japanese Defense Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka last week, Sri Lankan officials invited Japan to support the country’s maritime strategy. They also assured that the China-financed Hambantota port will be open to every country and that Sri Lanka will not allow China to use the port for military purposes. [NHK World Japan] [Daily Mirror]

28 August 2018

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa wants a third term despite constitutional limits

(jm) Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served two consecutive terms in office from 2005 to 2015, plans to run as a candidate in the next presidential election held next year despite a constitutional provision preventing anyone from serving more than two presidential terms. The “joint opposition” has called on Rajapaksa for being their candidate at the next election and announced to challenge the retrospective effect of the 19th amendment in the Supreme Court. [The Hindu] [Daily Mirror]

21 August 2018

Sri Lanka: Uncertainty over the coming provincial council elections

(jm) The Sri Lankan government enacted a piece of legislation last year to modify the provincial election system. But the new law has still not been adopted by the parliament and the Election Commission expressed doubts on the possibility to implement this system for the next polls that should be held in January. [Daily Mirror 1] But the government rejected the idea of keeping the old system for this specific election by announcing that the polls won’t occur before the Parliament has pronounced its decision on that legislation. [Daily Mirror 2]

21 August 2018

Sri Lanka: UK will provide US$ 1.3 Million for resettlement program

(jm) The United Kingdom announced its wish to help its former colony to recover from the 26-year civil war in partnership with the United Nations Development Program launching a project worth US$ 1.3 Million to support more than 2,500 conflict-displaced persons returning to their homes.[Daily Mirror]

14 August 2018

Sri Lanka: $39 million given by the United States in Foreign Military Financing for Sri Lanka

(jm) The U.S. Department of State announced that it would provide approximately $39 million in Foreign Military Financing for Sri Lanka, pending Congressional approval. It is supposed to support Sri Lanka’s humanitarian assistance but also the US’ Bay of Bengal initiative. The US Department of State’s Spokesperson said that this investment aims to ensure a free, open, and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. The $39 million granted to Sri Lanka is just a part of the $300 million that the USA wish to invest in the region. [Daily Mirror]

7 August 2018

Sri Lanka secures US$1 billion Chinese loan

(jm) The Island Nation that was warned in 2016 by the International Monetary Fund for its heavy debt has secured a US$1 billion Chinese loan according to its Central Bank. The first half of the loan will be released later this month and the balance will be received in October. Since Sri Lanka is a strategic partner for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, China repeatedly offered financial support to the island over the last years, but the International Community and the Sri Lankan population now fear that it could be debt trapped further [Channel News Asia]. 

31 July 2018

China’s military gifts to Sri Lanka and the Philippines

(dql) In a latest attempt to increase its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, China will donate a frigate to Sri Lanka and four new patrol boats to the Philippines. While China will add to the frigate trainings for the Sri Lankan military and also build a auditorium complex at the Sri Lanka Military Academy, Manila will receive – besides the patro boats – 200 rocket propelled grenade launchers and ammunition. [South China Morning Post]

24 July 2018

European Union’s warnings against Sri Lanka and the Maldives

(jm) EU ambassadors warned Sri Lanka on Monday against ending its 42-year moratorium on capital punishment and said the island risked losing trade concessions if it went ahead. Sri Lanka could lose the benefit of the generalized system of preferences (GSP Plus), which is a favorable tariff scheme to encourage developing nations to respect human rights. The system had been temporarily removed in 2010, but restored by the EU in 2017. [Ada Derana]

Meanwhile, The European Union (EU) decided to put pressure on the Maldives’ government in response to the political crisis that lasts since February in the Island Nation by threatening the application of sanctions. Though no sanctions are imposed yet, “this decision makes it possible, if the situation does not improve, to impose a travel ban and an asset freeze on relevant individuals and entities,” said the EU. The Maldives are reproached for breaching principles of democratic rule and separation of powers even though the presidential election should be held in a few months. [Reuters]

The Maldives’ government hailed victory after this decision, saying their efforts avoided sanctions from the EU. [Avas]

24 July 2018

China-Sri Lanka relations: Beijing’s 295 million USD grant 

(dql) In an attempt to expand its influence in Sri Lanka China offered island nation a 295 million USD grant. President Sirisena announced to have received the offer and to use the money to build houses in all electorates across the country.  Sirisena, in office since 2015, at the beginning of his presidency had halted most of the Chinese-backed infrastructure projects started under his predecessor Rajapaksa on grounds of suspected corruption, overpricing and flouting government procedures for more than a year but then allowed the projects to resume after a few changes in some of them. [Reuters]

17 July 2018

Sri Lanka: With possible executions looming, Sri Lanka to hire two hangmen

(jm) In Sri Lanka, drug trafficking carries the death penalty, but no one has been executed for any crime in the country since 1976. All death penalties since have been commuted to life in prison. Nonetheless, last week President Sirisena said he might sign off on the execution of convicted drug traffickers who were arranging drug deals from inside prison amid growing concern the policies on drug offenders have been too soft.  Prison services have now announced its plan to hire hangmen, getting ready for the President to act on his threat. [Reuters]

10 July 2018

India to take over the control of Hambantota airport in Sri Lanka

 (am) Sri Lanka is in talks with India for operating the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Hambantota as part of a joint undertaking that gives India an upper hand in the deal. The airport is estimated to be worth $210 million and has been labelled as the world’s emptiest airport and has incurred heavy loses. The Mattala airport was named after former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and was financed using high-interest commercial loans from China. [Scroll]

10 July 2018

Sri Lanka: Wave of unrest after the publication of an article from the New York Times

(jm) Recently, the New York Times (NYT) published an article that accused former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to have been corrupted during his term and China to have pushed the island nation into a debt trap and to achieve military purposes with the Hambantota port project. [The New York Times].

After a statement made by the former President Rajapaksa which publicly denied the NYT’s allegations and criticized the journalists who cooperated with the newspaper, two organizations and the NYT expressed concerns over what they called a campaign of intimidation directed at the journalists. [Ada Derana 1] [Ada Derana 2]. Rajapaksa and some opposition lawmakers denied this accusation saying that “just like the media has a right to criticize politicians [they] also have the right to “publicly criticize” reporting [they] believe to be faulty.” [Daily Mirror 1]

China also refuted the allegation of a “debt trap” saying that such reports seriously distort the facts. A Chinese representative added that the cooperation on the Hambantota port project is conducive to the economic development of Sri Lanka, the regional interconnection and the common prosperity of regional countries and is the wish of successive governments and people of Sri Lanka. [Daily Mirror 2]

Sri Lanka started to shift a naval base to the controversial port only a few days after the NYT’s report was published. The prime minister assured that “Sri Lanka has already informed China that Hambantota port cannot be used for military purposes” and there is no need to fear because “the security of the port will be under the control of Sri Lanka Navy.” [Channel News Asia]

26 June 2018

Sri Lanka: Should the former Tamil Tigers (LTTE) combatants be compensated?

(jm) The Sri Lankan Resettlement and Rehabilitation Minister recently submitted a memorandum about a system of compensations granted to the victims of the Sri Lankan civil war. The controversial document included compensation claims for former Tamil Tiger combatants and their next of kin and therefore faced strong opposition. [Daily Mirror 1]

In a sharp reaction, the joint opposition (JO) called on people to stop paying taxes, claiming that they would be used to fund former LTTE combatants and their families. [Daily Mirror 2] [Daily FT] In many countries, including Sri Lanka, LTTE is officially designated a terrorist organization, therefore, the opposition claims that compensating former LTTE combatants would mean compensating terrorists. Based on these quarrels and further questions around legitimizing the separatist campaign of the Tamil group by compensating them, the Sri Lankan President decided to reject the proposal. [The Sunday Times Sri Lanka]

3 June 2018

Sri Lanka: free trade, foreign investment and Chinese, Indian, US competition

(jm/hg) Sri Lanka seems to have difficulties to find the right formula in defining its free trade activities with China and, to a much lesser degree, also with India.

China has given loans and invested billions of dollars to build ports, roads and power stations across the country as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Against the background of some political volatility, concerns have grown in recent months that the 21 million people nation might develop even deeper into debt which might finally undermine its political independence. After ten years, Sri Lanka wants now to review its free trade pact with China amid a big trade deficit with Beijing, which, however, seems to not agree on that. Talks have come to a standstill as Sri Lanka wants a review clause that would allow it to change some of the deal´s terms if they are hurting national businesses which is refused by China. Another bone of contention are tariffs. While China wants zero tariffs on 90 percent of goods the two countries sold to each other, Colombo wants rather to start with zero tariffs on only half of the products concerned and to be expanded gradually over 20 years. Currently, Colombo is separately negotiating a trade pact also with India where it faces also difficulties of how to prevent detrimental competition from a flood of cheap goods made by India.[Reuters]

These difficulties and popular resistance notwithstanding, Chinese influence is growing while there is also more to bilateral relations than just the fact that Sri Lanka is integrated in the BRI. China has politically supported Sri Lanka in the last phase of its severe civil war when it positively responded to then Prime Minister Rajapaksa´s request to provide both weapons and diplomatic cover when Western countries focused on Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights record. [South China Morning Post]

In this situation, a bipartisan group of notably influential US lawmakers has visited Sri Lanka to gauge the ground-level situation of Chinese investment in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure. The delegation, which is headed by Congressman Mac Thornberry, Chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, visited extensive infrastructure projects financed by loans from China and managed by Chinese companies. [Ada Derana]

Giving reference to the purpose of the visit, Thornberry said that it was clear that the strategic value of Sri Lanka was not lost on China.

The delegation met Sri Lankan President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Parliament Speaker Jayasuriya and Opposition Leader Sampanthan along with Tamil National Alliance leaders. Thornberry emphasized the shared values of democracy, rule of law and freedom of the seas and said: “One cannot overstate how important it is that a prosperous, stable democracy hold this strategic ground.” [Ada Derana]

Meanwhile, Richard D Fisher, Senior fellow at International Assessment and Strategy Centre, told members of the House Select Intelligence Committee during a hearing on ‘China’s Worldwide Military Expansion’ that the Chinese economic and ‘debt trap’ pressures will likely result in China gaining greater access to bases in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and perhaps the Maldives. [Ada Derana]

3 June 2018

Sri Lanka: National Human Rights Commission accredited “A” status

(jm) The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, an international institution which assesses National Human Rights Institutions regarding to their credibility and effectiveness in accordance with the standards defined by the Paris Principles (1993), has finally re-accredited the Sr Lankan an “A” status. Previously, two applications in 2007 and 2009 have been unsuccessful. [Ada Derana]

27 May 2018

Sri Lanka / United Kingdom: Files on Tamil Tigers and MI5 in Sri Lanka erased at Foreign Office

(jm) Britain’s Foreign Office destroyed 195 files dating from 1978 to 1980 about the Sri Lankan Civil War in which, British military intelligence – MI5 – and special operation forces – SAS – secretly advised the Sri Lankan security forces.

Under the UK Public Records Act 1958 government departments are obliged to preserve historic records. The government argued however the files’ content “may be [merely] of a policy nature but might also be administrative or ephemeral”.

Having filed a complaint with UNESCO, the international body that protects world heritage, an academic called the discovery “very concerning” referring to cases of the deliberate destruction of files on the Kenyan context which were motivated to conceal and deny abuse during the Kenyan anti-colonial struggle.

The executive secretary of the London based Tamil Information Center said: “The Tamil community is taking strenuous efforts to collect and preserve records on history and the human rights situation in post-independence Sri Lanka […] We are horrified to learn that the UK’s Foreign Office has destroyed vital information on the British government’s training and arming of Sri Lankan security forces, which were involved in widespread human rights violations against the Tamils.” [The Guardian]

20 May 2018

Sri Lanka: Beginning of a new transitional justice process

(jm) With the Office on Missing Persons having hold its first public consultation, a new process of transitional justice is claimed to be inaugurated, facing great skepticism, however, from the onset. Obviously, it es even challenge to talk not of ‘missing’ people but ‘victims of enforced disappearances’ as some affected relatives demanded at the meeting. [Daily Mirror]

20 May 2018

Sri Lanka: New high-level corruption arrest

(jm) The newly appointed Chairman of the State Timber Corporation (STC) was arrested for an alleged involvement in a fraud case what is especially delicate as he was just appointed after the former chairman has been removed on corruption charges. [The Sunday Leader]

6 May 2018

Sri lanka: High Level Bribery

(hg) The President’s recently appointed Chief of Staff and the Chairman of the State Timber Corporation (STC) have been arrested by the Bribery Commission while accepting a the first rate of a bribe of a total amount of Rs 540 million by an Indian investor attempting to acquire shares of a state owned sugar factory. [Ada Derana 1]

President Sirisena ordered to interdict the two suspected persons with immediate effect demanding to take strict legal actions. [Ada Derana 2]

Ironically, the President´s administration came to power to root out corruption which then was particularly found on the side of Chinese investors.

22 April 2018

Sri Lanka: Parliament suspended after failed no-confidence vote

(ls) Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena has suspended parliament until May 8, days after a failed no-confidence motion attempt against the prime minister and the defection of several ministers forced a cabinet reshuffle. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe survived the confidence vote which was sponsored by opponents who blame him for failing to prevent an alleged scam in the bond market and anti-Muslim riots last month. But 16 lawmakers, most of them ministers, from Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) voted in favor of the no-confidence motion. They resigned their portfolios and decided to sit with the opposition, weakening the SLFP’s coalition with Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP). [Reuters]

In The Print, Taylor Dibbert argues that Sri Lanka’s widely acclaimed democratic transition has fallen far short of expectations, citing anti-Muslim destructions and the strong performance of the new Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) in local government elections in February which reiterate that Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is an important political force in Sri Lanka. [The Print]

22 April 2018

Sri Lanka: China’s geo-strategic investment into the empty port of Hambantota

(ls) The Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, built with Chinese money and an example of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road trade and infrastructure initiative, sees almost no container traffic. Sri Lanka borrowed from China to build the port, could not repay the loans, and then gave China a 99-year lease for debt relief. The port’s weak performance has fuelled impressions that it simply serves China’s broader strategic interests to secure crucial trade routes and international supply chains. [The Straits Times]

China this week dismissed speculation that the Belt and Road Initiative had a military dimension, with a foreign ministry spokeswoman saying it was “open and transparent.” Hambantota was mutually beneficial and would aid Sri Lanka’s economy, she said. [The Print 1]

However, new research by Washington-based nonprofit research group C4ADS suggests a clear political agenda behind the initiative, aided by the exercise of ‘corporate obfuscation’ by the Chinese companies involved. Quoting unofficial Chinese reports, the authors said the ports were chosen to build political influence and create “strategic support states”. [The Print 2] While there is no official policy document linking Belt and Road to China’s national security interests, Chinese analysts have written that developing the program and pursuing Chinese security are “intimately linked,” the report said. [The Economic Times]

15 April 2018

Sri Lanka: Unity government struggling to survive

(hg) Sri Lanka´s unity government, a coalition of the President´s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Prime Minister´s United National Party (UNP), has just survived a no-confidence vote. Initiated by the opposition, some cabinet members from the SLFP, 15 ministers and one deputy minister, have voted against the Prime Minister (UNP). While a meeting of the SLFP central committee had decided now to remain with the coalition  [Economy Next], the SLFP cabinet members who had voted in favor of the no-confidence motion have resigned from cabinet now. They will switch to the opposition benches as a separate group in Parliament but vowed to continue support of President. [Daily Mirror] [Xinhua]

Although the opposition failed to axe the government, the latter remains weak. This is first due to the fact that the opposition had gained momentum with the recent local elections, second because strong rivalries between President and Prime Minister, third because  the government´s, especially the Prime Minister´s basis of legitimacy is eroding. Having claimed to bring good governance and fight corruption in opposition to the government of then Prime Minister Rajapaksa who received a boost in the local elections, the Prime Minister lost credibility with the handling of a major bond scam scandal. The [Sri Lanka Guardian] provides a thorough analysis of the government coalition’s branding as a good governance-movement and its failure to live up to the claimed standards.

15 April 2018

India accuses Pakistani diplomat in Colombo of plotting terror attacks against US, Israeli and Indian targets

 (hg) Referring to crucial inputs provided by US intelligence, India’s National Investigating Agency (NIA) has accused a Pakistani diplomat, who was posted in Sri Lanka as a visa counsellor in the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo, of plotting to attack the US and Israeli consulates as well as installations of the Indian Army and Navy in southern India. The NIA is preparing a request to Interpol, seeking red corner notice against the diplomat, who was repatriated to Islamabad soon after his cover was blown. Notably, this is the first time that India has put a Pakistani diplomat’s name on the wanted list or sought a red corner notice against one. [Colombo Page]

15 April 2018

Sri Lanka fostering relations with Japanese/US forces

(hg) Sri Lank a Navy welcomed a Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer of the Murasame class at Hambantota Port on a goodwill visit with a delegation led by a Rear Admiral (Commander Southern Naval Area) and the Director Naval Operations. [Colombo Page]

Meanwhile, a delegation from the US Pacific Command (PACOM) met with the head of Sri Lanka’s army to discuss “career development prospects in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region” and “further expansion of security cooperation”. [Tamil Guardian]

The visit reflects increasing inter-service relations between Sri Lanka and the US after a US military delegation ‘saluted Sri Lanka’s War Heroes (August 2017), the US Marine Corps inaugurated a medical training program with the Sri Lankan Navy, Sri Lanka and the US co-hosting an air force exercise (both September 2017), the US conducting anti-terrorism trainings for Sri Lankan troops and USS Nimitz and its strike group making a port call on Colombo, as first U.S. aircraft carrier to do so in three decades (both October 2017), the US including Sri Lanka in its second year Pacific Partnership visit program (February 2018), and the US agreeing to reestablish Peace Corps in Sri Lanka (March 2018). See also [Stars and Stripes]

15 April 2018

Sri Lanka: Chinese firm about to invest $800 million on Port City

(hg) China Communication Construction Company (CCCC) through its subsidiary, the state-run China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), will invest $800 million to build an underground road network to Sri Lanka’s Port City, a $1.4 billion project built on reclaimed land, a government minister said. Reclamation work for the 269-hectare site near Colombo’s main port is more than 60% complete, expected to be complete by the end of the year. Seen by China as a strategic node in its Belt and Road Initiative, Port City will have housing, marinas, health facilities and schools. Once completed the Port City will function as a separately governed entity with its own economic and commercial laws to facilitate operations of global multinational corporations. [Colombo Page] [Reuters]

8 April 2018

Sri Lanka: After defeating the no-confidence vote government remains instable

(hg) Following increasing tensions between President and Prime Minister, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has resoundingly defeated a no-confidence motion on Wednesday by 122 votes to 76, leaving the coalition government, however, deeply divided.

The motion was initiated by the ‘Joint Opposition’ consisting of loyalists of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose opposition party won 225 out of the 340 directly-elected local councils in February. He has since then demanded that the government step down and call early elections, currently scheduled for 2020 and now attempted to capitalize on the intra-coalition tensions. Constitutionally, the current Parliament can only be dissolved before February 2020 with a two-third motion of the 225 member assembly in favor of snap elections.

PM Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) has 81 MPs in the 225-member Parliament leading a coalition of 107 MPs depending heavily on President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and smaller coalition members such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the All Ceylon Makkal Congress and the Tamil Progressive Alliance. But the coalition has been plagued by the animosity between the president and the PM.

After both major governing parties, UNP and SLFP, fought the February local elections separately, 13 SLFP members voted against the PM in the no-trust vote, while President Sirisena blamed the Prime Minister, a free-market champion, for mismanaging the economy, unemployment and voter discontent. A central bank scandal led the President to furthermore strip the finance portfolio from the Prime minister – the central-bank governor is a trustee of the PM who was seen protecting him when his son-in-law allegedly made profits of $72 million from bond dealings while the state lost about $55 million -, while a sudden outbreak of communal violence targeting Muslims even worsened the political climate with accusations that supporters of former President Rajapaksa were involved. Another reason for intra- coalition tensions was Sirisena’s attempts to extend his presidential term by a year until 2021, a move that was eventually rejected by the Supreme Court. [The New Indian Express] [The Hindu] [The News Observer]

The defecting SLFP Ministers who voted in favor of the no confidence motion convened two separate media briefings on April 5 saying they offered the President to step down if necessary. [News First] The smaller coalition parties, the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) each led by a cabinet minister, voted against the motion. [Daily Mirror] [Colombo Page]

Meanwhile, the three-bipartite competition among President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime minister Wickremesinghe and their common rival, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa remains to define the political process´ center. [The Hindu] Noteworthy, Sirisena had been an ally of Rajapaksa until 2015 when he quit his government to join hands with Wickremesinghe, the then main opposition leader, to end Rajapaksa´s 10-year rule in the elections. [NDTV] It will have to be seen if President and Prime Minister might be able to reunite against a common adversary and reformulate a sustaining, workable and convincing political agenda of change.

Whereas Wickremesinghe has already announced talks with President Sirisena, the task seems difficult due the personal difficulties between the two leaders but also the fact that SLFP ministers were among the defectors who voted against the government. [South China Morning Post] This group of defecting SLFP Ministers has, however, offered the President to step down if necessary. [News First]

8 April 2018

Maldives shifting away from India – now towards Pakistan

(hg) The Maldives, traditionally part of the Indian backyard, are shifting away from what India would like to see as its sphere of great power influence, coming closer not only to China but now also to India´s arch enemy Pakistan.

For a long time, India was the island state´s big brother, sometimes helpful, sometimes dominating. Thirty-year ruling autocrat Gayoom, now one of the leaders of the joint opposition, has received crucial military support as a pro-Indian leader for instance  when he was threatened by an attempted coup d’état led by Maldivian separatists and assisted by PLOTE, a Tamil secessionist group from Sri Lanka.

When the Gayoom dictatorship came to an end with the 2008 elections, first democratically elected President Nasheed, representing the other wing of the Maldivian opposition, continued good relationships with India until he had to resign in 2012, while Chinese investment started already to flow in. Current President Yameen, a half-brother of Gayoom, turned then decisively to China since 2014. Since then, Yameen has helped China to continuously beef up its presence economically but also by allowing the Chinese navy to dock in the archipelago. The Indian – Chinese rivalry has strongly influenced the present domestic power struggle with former President Nasheed having called for a military intervention by India to protect his country to be sold out to China. [International Policy Digest]

China has warned, however, that it would resist any Indian military intervention which has been ruled out by Delhi, while the Indian relationships to the Yameen government even worsen.

At a time when bilateral relations “are clearly in a free fall”, the Maldivian government has asked Delhi now to take back one of two naval helicopters it had gifted to the Indian Ocean archipelago saying that Male wanted a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft instead of the “Dhruv” Advanced Light Helicopter it has received. Male is said to be also considering asking India to remove the other Indian chopper too which operates in an atoll where China is said to be considering building a port. [The Times of India] Moreover, has declined an invitation by India to send a ministerial-level delegation to the Defence Expo, a biennial exhibition of weapons and military hardware, to be held in Chennai next week, after having declined India’s invitation to participate in the eight-day major naval exercise “Milan” from March 6-13 too. [Global Village Space]

Now, the surprising visit of the Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa is another step in the Maldives´ shift away from India. The most worrisome outcome for India are reported discussion about joint patrol by Maldivian and Pakistani naval forces in the vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the island state, which is regarded as a ‘redline’ for India. So far, India has been the only country with whom the Maldives have conducted such joint patrols of its EEZ. Not too long ago, India and the Maldives have still been defense partners – even when China became already economically increasingly important already – leading to the conclusion of a significant MoU on defense cooperation in 2016. The latter formalized a process of setting up a coastal surveillance radar system for “real-time surveillance of the EEZ of Maldives”. Back then, India has supported the surveillance of the EEZ of the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles unrivaled. [The Wire] A Pakistani – Maldivian joint patrol of the Maldivian EEZ would mark a major setback, seen as an intervention in the Indian backyard and a dangerous encircling of the sub-continent.

Another potential issue of Pakistani – Maldivian cooperation will be counter-terrorism with a team from the Maldives´ National Counter Terrorism Centre said to soon travel to Pakistan to further cooperation. In fact, Maldivian nationals received scholarships for religious study in Pakistan which seems to have contributed not only to their radicalization in general but also to the high number of Maldivians joining the Islamic State. [First Post]

1 April 2018

Sri Lanka: After the violence (I)

(hg) After the Anti-Muslim violence is over and the nationwide state of emergency lifted, social and religious problems have only intensified with two persons killed, more than 20 mosques having been attacked, 465 houses, vehicles and businesses having been destroyed or damaged. [UCA News]

Violence broke out after a Sinhalese truck driver was killed by four Muslim youths causing Sinhalese Buddhist mobs to cause havoc which happened mostly during a curfew with the police being accused to not have interfered. [UCA News]

Buddhists make up about 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people. Tamils, most of whom are Hindu, account for 13 percent, while Muslims make up about 9 percent of the population. [Al Jazeera]

The Terrorist Investigation Division has meanwhile arrested 161 people including leaders of Buddhist extremist organizations and few also of the major opposition party while the responsible district secretariat in Kandy has paid compensation to victims of violence – around US$3,200 for a damaged house as well as for the two victims´ families.

While temporary restrictions on social media have been lifted, Sri Lanka plans now to clamp down on hate speech by enacting laws and setting up an institution to monitor social media and censor inflammatory postings. [UCA News]

Besides Buddhist extremist organizations, ex – President Rajapaksa’s party is also suspected by its political enemies to have contributed to the outbreak which is reminiscent of the anti-Muslim media campaign during the end Rajapaksa’s regime when rumors were spread that Muslims were planning to take control of Sri Lanka with global Islamic forces such as Islamic State. [UCA News]

For more detailed accounts on the background of anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka see [National Herald India] and [Eurasia Review].

1 April 2018

Sri Lanka’s disappeared persons: After the violence (II)

(hg) Nine years after Sri Lanka’s 26-year long bloody civil war finished, tens of thousands of Tamils have to deal with the consequences of the disappearance of around 100,000 disappeared according to Amnesty International representing a practice that has been described as systematical and on a massive scale by a UN team. [ITV]

ITV

1 April 2018

Sri Lanka: Constitutional politics in motion

(hg) After the local government elections and with forthcoming provincial, presidential, and parliamentary elections beginning the end of next year, three political forces are defining an increasingly dynamic national power struggle in Sri Lanka, led by three prominent politicians, President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

For two detailed assessments of the current state of Sri Lankan politics see [Sunday Observer] and [The Indian Express].

Two developments are dominating at present. First, the ‘unity government’ of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe is in a serious crisis for the past weeks with deep divisions between President and Prime Minister pushing the entire government into a state of paralysis amidst notions of political scandal. [The Indian Express]

Now, President Sirisena has reduced Prime Minister Wickremesinghe´s responsibilities by moving the Central Bank and the Stock Exchange Commission (SEC) that were under the Premier who also heads the National Policies and Economic Affairs Ministry to the Ministry of Finance. The President also abolished the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) headed by the Prime Minister and re-assigned several other institutions that were under the National Policies and Economic Affairs Ministry including the National Youth Council, National Youth Corps, National Youth Awards Authority, Public Utilities Commission, Department of Project Management & Monitoring, Employees Trust Fund, and several others. [Colombo Page]

Second, Sri Lanka’s former strongman Rajapaksa is back in the political arena with realistic chances to return to power. Due to constitutional constraints unable to contest Presidential elections, he will probably try to become an all-powerful Prime Minister such as Vladimir Putin did a few years ago. A Rajapaksa-led government would mean a U-turn in terms of policies including also the country´s even greater opening to China. [The Indian Express]

The recent communal violence against the Muslim minority population in Kandy is suspected to be somehow linked with the national power struggle. The Law and Order Minister said violence in Kandy was “well organized” pointing at an involvement of Rajapaksa´s new party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), that scored a huge victory in the recent local elections. [Al Jazeera]

1 April 2018

Sri Lanka´s openness to China

(hg) Under former President Rajapaksa who is working for his comeback Sri Lanka was an early participant in China’s infrastructure-building project that eventually became the Belt and Road Initiative. That created a huge debt burden for the country which was finally forced to sell the Hambantota port to China Merchants Port Holdings after Rajapaksa was gone who swiftly criticized the move. Ironically, public anger over Chinese debt had helped the present Sirisena – Wickremesinghe administration rise to power over Rajapaksa three years ago. Despite pledging to reevaluate China-funded projects which they alleged were corrupt, the new government soon saw itself negotiating concessions to China as well while pushing ahead with the inherited projects. [Bloomberg]

Now, the government seems increasingly to put its hopes in even more Chinese investment albeit desperately seeking also for Indian and Japanese investment that just does not come enough or quick enough.

Last week, the Bank of China has opened a branch in Colombo in a high-profile event attended by the Prime Minister who announced Sri Lanka would now work with China on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that would complement the FTA Sri Lanka is discussing with India. He also expressed hope that the Bank of China, which is the world’s fourth biggest in terms of assets, would create an opportunity for his country to develop into a financial hub in Asia. [Colombo Gazette 1]

Against this background, the Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka has once more remembered of the fact that the China-Sri Lanka friendship dates back to ancient times and China attaches great importance to the bilateral relations. Reiterating the Chinese promise of harmonious coexistence he assured that China will never interfere in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and never attach additional conditions to its assistance: “While pursuing building a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness and justice, win-win cooperation, China is actively working together with Sri Lanka to promote the latter’s economic and social development and bring benefit to the two peoples,”. [Colombo Gazette 2] 

1 April 2018

Sri Lanka-Bangladesh links

(hg) Sri Lanka has called for stronger maritime and air links with Bangladesh to boost bilateral trade and investments and, especially, to link the ports of Hambantota and Colombo with the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh. Announcements like this stands might well be seen as reflections of a new overall dynamic in inter-state relations in the region reflecting a remarkable dynamization in seeking a new order. [Xinhua]

25 March 2018

Sri Lanka: State of emergency ended, but role of social media in riots under scrutiny

(ls) Sri Lanka’s president announced on Sunday that he was lifting a nationwide state of emergency, citing improvements in the security situation. The state of emergency was imposed to stop anti-Muslim riots in Kandy in which three people died and hundreds of shops were destroyed. This was the first state of emergency imposed in Sri Lanka since the end of a decades-long Tamil separatist war in 2009. Sri Lanka’s parliament issued an apology to the Muslim minority, which constitutes 10 per cent of the country’s population. Sinhalese account for about three quarters of the population. [South China Morning Post]

The clashes in Kandy are among several incidents throughout Southeast Asia that have allegedly been aggravated by the use of social media, in particular Facebook. During the riots in Kandy, the Sri Lankan government took the unprecedented step of blocking the app across the country, fearing incendiary content would incite further damage. But also the Rohingya crisis as well as political trolling on behalf of Philippine President Duterte appear to have been supported by Facebook messages. [Asian Correspondent]

18 March 2018

Japan: Strengthening bilateral security cooperation against China

(dql/thn) During his six-day visit to Japan, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena met Prime Minister Abe on Wednesday. The two leaders agreed on promoting bilateral cooperation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region and advancing bilateral defense exchanges, with Japan pledging to provide assistance in capacity building for maritime law enforcement to Sri Lanka. Abe and Sirisena also agreed on cooperation in upgrading the Indian Ocean country’s infrastructure, such as port facilities in Colombo, to boost connectivity in the region.

The agreements signals Japan’s efforts to bolster its “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” in which Sri Lanka is viewed central in the wake of China’s growing maritime presence in Indian Ocean as the country is located near major sea lanes. [The Mainichi]

At the same time, Japan is strengthening its military and diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia by sending an extra defence attaché to its embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Japan has already sent two military officers to embassies in the Philippines and Vietnam last year. The appointment in Kuala Lumpur was confirmed by a spokesman for the ministry. However, he declined to explain Japan’s act. The appointments are being seen as another move by Tokyo to counter Bejing’s military  assertiveness. This concern is shared by some governments in Southeast Asia. [South China Morning Post]

11 March 2018

Sri Lanka: President declares state of emergency

(ca/ik) Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena declared a nationwide state of emergency for two weeks in the wake of communal violence and criminal activity in Kandy. [The Island] Tension has been growing between two communities in Sri Lanka over the past year, with some hardline Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam and vandalizing Buddhist archaeological sites. Some Buddhist nationalists have also protested against the presence of Muslim Rohingya asylum-seekers in Sri Lanka. [Nikkei Asian Review] The outbreak of violence caused loss of lives and damages to property. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the and several arrests were made. [Sunday leader 1]. To crackdown on hate speech all communal posts via social media would be curbed, the government said [Sunday Leader 2].

4 March 2018

Sri Lanka: Northern Province wants International Court to rule over alleged war crimes

(hg) The Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution to request the UNHRC to establish an International Court to look into the alleged war crimes committed by the armed forces during the wartime in the province. [Daily Mirror]

4 March 2018

Sri Lankan government under pressure

(hg) After the governing coalition´s losses in the recent local elections, the governing coalition is increasingly troubled that by heated discussions over a reform of the governing United National Party [Daily News], a far-reaching cabinet reshuffle that has affected several key ministries [Sunday Leader] and growing tensions between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe [Daily Mirror].

18 February 2018

Sri Lanka: Local elections as a game changer?

(hg) Last week, local elections were held in Sri Lanka. With high voter turnout of over 75% the elections were the most peaceful in the country´s often violent political history featuring as a novelty also the requirement of parties to field at least 25 percent female candidates.

The results were unexpected and immediately unfolded an impact normally not expected from the outcomes of local elections. With the country’s first post – civil war government having disappointed the electorate, the election victory of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen by many as a referendum on the government´s fate and definitely indicates the route to the 2020 elections. Rajapaksa made his comeback under a new political banner, those of the SLPP, after leaving his former party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP). [The New York Times] [Open Democracy]

Rajapaksa is an experienced as charismatic as disputed ex-president, for many Sinhalese he is the man who ended the civil war, for many others the one responsible for the unnecessary death of thousands, accused of war crimes and blatant corruption. Moreover, he is favorable of his country´s partnership with China.
Rajapaksa lost the presidency in 2015 when incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena, who now represents the SLFP, won 51% of the votes with support of the minority Tamil and Muslim communities. For decades, Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa were both SLFP core cadres with Sirisena serving as the party’s general secretary for 13 years. In 2015, he left the party to run against his own incumbent leader Rajapaksa, presenting himself as a unifier above party politics, who, however, soon after becoming president took over the party leadership of the SLFP while Rajapaska’s wing of the party formed the SLPP. Sirisena on the other hand joined forces with incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his rightist United National Party (UNP) and together they politically dominated Sri Lanka albeit with increasing tensions coming up between them and especially the Prime Minister coming under mounting pressure on serious conflict of interest charges. First poll results suggest that out of 341 local councils Rajapaksa’s SLPP won 225, the Prime Minister´s UNP 41, and President Sirisena’s SLFP, along with smaller allies, got 14. [The New York Times] [Open Democracy] [News First]

While the UNP already announced decisive changes [Daily Mirror], Rajapaksa is presenting himself as a strong, popular leader in a polity whose toxic mix of high-level corruption and bad governance appears almost a constant. [Sunday Times]

In 2020, when the next presidential election will be held, Rajapaksa will however not be able to contest the presidency due to tenure regulations. Though of his brothers working closely with him might become a candidate. [Open Democracy]

For the time being the governing coalition parties of Pres. Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, whose government leans towards India and Western powers, reached an agreement to continue the coalition for the next two years and to set up a committee to consider policy changes, in particular regarding a crackdown on corruption.

Uncertainty emerged however, when reports came up, that Sirisena consider to remove Wickremesinghe as prime minister to rule on without his UNP. [Nikkei Asian Review]
Meanwhile the Sri Lankan rupee hit a historical record low. [Reuters]

18 February 2018

The Singapore – Sri Lanka FTA revisited

(hg) The January concluded FTA between Sri Lanka and Singapore underlines the latter´s search for trade and investment partners beyond South East and East Asia, and the recognition of Sri Lanka’s potential as a trading hub in the fast-growing Indian Ocean region. This FTA signed by Sri Lanka since 2005 among only a handful it has concluded altogether is also the most comprehensive covering goods, services, investments, trade facilitation, intellectual property rights and government procurement. Given that Singapore is one of the world’s most open economies with 99 per cent of all imported goods entering duty-free market access to Singapore was no problem for Sri Lanka even before the agreement which will now eliminate tariffs on 80 per cent of goods over 15 years, a relatively long adjustment period. Besides, Singapore, who will be the 2018 ASEAN chair, should support Sri Lanka’s eventual participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which promises to be the world’s largest free trade agreement: the 16 participating countries represent 31 per cent of global GDP, and among their numbers are the 10 ASEAN nations, China, India and Japan. See for a thorough analysis of the context and consequences of the FTA Ganeshan Wignaraja and Divya Hundlani. [East Asia Forum] 

18 February 2018

Maldives: Unrest to escalate into international crisis?

(hg) The unraveling political crisis on the Maldives (see above) is increasingly overlaid by an interlocked great power competition between China and India whose immediate outcomes are unclear.

One day after President Yameen has declared a 15-day emergency, the opposition called on New Delhi to militarily intervene, while China insisted that the international community should “play a constructive role on the basis of respecting the sovereignty of the Maldives, instead of further complicating the situation”. [Nikkei Asian Review]

After President Yameen had declared the state of emergency, the European Union ambassador with his German and UK colleagues arrived in Malé, the capital, to meet with him but could not meet anybody. [The New York Times 1]

On the other side, the united opposition seems to count more on external involvement than direct negotiations in the moment largely rejecting the government´s invitation for dialogue by setting stiff pre-conditions including the release of jailed opposition leaders, saying further: “There’s nothing one can discuss with someone who’s very nature is corruption and embezzlement. Or someone who actually finds happiness in cruelty.” [Avas]

For India, the Maldives are historically part of its backyard as much as the South China Sea is for China. Therefore, there rapid Sino-Maldives rapprochement, which unfolds since 2011, is seriously threatening what might be dubbed an Indian ‘Monroe – doctrine’.

In 1988 for instance, New Delhi successfully intervened to help then President Gayoom – now arrested by pro Chinese President Yameen – to repel an attempted coup supported by Sri Lankan mercenaries. When a renegade Maldivian businessman-smuggler tried to topple the government mainly supported by hired Tamil Tigers, Gayoom reached out to US President George H.W. Bush for help. Bush turned to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who swiftly dispatched a para commando brigade and the Indian Navy who cleared the situation [Financial Times] [The Straits Times] [The New York Times 2] [The Print] For background information see Sushant Singh’s Operation Cactus: Mission Impossible in the Maldives (New Delhi, Juggernaut, 2016) with a good review here [The Wire].

The difference between then and now is, however, that it is now not the sitting president, but the opposition calling for help. [Nikkei Asian Review] [The New York Times 1]

After all, India´s attempt to help out the Sri Lankan government to counter the Tamil Tiger insurgency from 1987 to 1990 turned disastrous both in military terms and regarding the assignation of Rajiv Gandhi by a LTTE cadre, which might influence decision making on side of some in Delhi.

Another factor is the fact that many Muslim in the Maldives perceive India´s governing right-wing Hindu BJP as an anti-Muslim party – issues are the government´s approaches towards Kashmir, the Rohingya and the Indian Muslims – which could be used to rally massive Anti-Indian sentiments if India advances too forcefully. [Business Standard]

When President Yameen sent his foreign minister recently to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the appeasement came too late with India issuing an unusually strong statement saying that it was “imperative” regarding the Maldivian court that its orders be followed. [The Straits Times]

India has shown its regional assertiveness since long and sometimes significant consequences as Ravi Veloor points out with some noteworthy examples. In 1985, it imposed an economic blockade on Nepal after Kathmandu awarded to China a key road-building project running along Nepal’s open border with India, a decision that triggered a chain of events that ultimately saw the kingdom’s monarchy toppled. Around the same time, the late Indira Gandhi decided to train and arm Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, after Colombo allowed Voice of America to set up a transmitter in Jaffna and sold strategically important oil tank farms to a company said to be linked to the CIA. In 2014 India was again said to have imposed a blockade on Nepal, this time eventually supporting the cause of the communists and Nepal´s new Prime Minister Oli. Three years ago, Indian intelligence is said to have orchestrated a Cabinet revolt against then President Mahinda Rajapaksa who now celebrates his comeback after last week´s local elections. [The Straits Times]

On the opposing side, there is Beijing having successfully invested in the Maldives to became the Yameen government´s most important partner. Hundreds of millions of dollars in grants have been invested, one-fourth of the country´s tourists come from China while Chinese companies are executing mega infrastructure projects across the archipelago which is a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partner nation. A 2015 amendment to the Maldivian constitution permitting foreign ownership of land paved the way for entrenching influence that was crowned by the recent FTA.

The question is how assertive China might be to keep its influence, how important the small country really is for unfolding the plan to make China Asia´s leading power before assuming global leadership as outlined by President Xi at the 19th National Party Congress in October last year.

As much as the economic value of the entrenched investments is insignificant for China as much are the Maldives strategically important, a true pearl in the Indian Ocean regarding China´s aim to establish a blue-water navy that is capable of protecting crucial trade routes, ensuring energy supplies and securing overseas Chinese assets. Last year the first PLAN frigates docked in Male for a “friendly” visit. [Al Jazeera]

Now, however, hard choices might have to be made in a scenario in which an Indian military operation seems currently not probable, whereas the Maldivian government could nevertheless come under intense domestic and international pressure. To not support the Maldivian government and the related strategic asset ‘Maldives’ then would give a benchmark for Chinese partners and adversaries alike how determined China pursues its BRI.

Both, India and China have already set limits to an escalation of the international involvement. Meanwhile, all sides will advance along overt and covert channels to secure their interests with those supporting the opposition having the advantage. Any outcome which is not a compromise will send a strong signal to those considering in many nations whether to take the Chinese or the other side. Even less than India, China would be likely prone to send troops. [Al Jazeera]

The political development in Sri Lanka and Nepal albeit being rather in favor of China will also increase the stakes from the perspective of adversary powers which further complicates the situation.

Other international players worth are Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia albeit less than the US and EU putting pressure on the government. Noteworthy is the visit of Saudi Prince Salman of the Sunni Muslim nation after the Yameen government failed to deliver on a deal to hand an entire island to Saudi interests. [The Straits Times]

Until the end of the 15-day emergency there will be probably no stark official move by any involved power but bargaining and covert attempts to gain the upper hand.

If these charges could be undermined by sufficient evidence and judicial assistance from abroad would confirm them, the situation could appear internationally in a different light. The fact that the Yameen government has in any case developed into an autocratic and repressive regime, would then be inclined to remain the problem of the Maldives electorate, at least for the meanwhile.

In a sophisticated move whose success remains to be seen, the government decided to seek help from other countries to investigate the charges of corruption against the arrested judges.

Allegedly the judges “made at least 12 visits in the past few months to various countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Netherlands and UK”, so the government, “And they have bought or acquired very expensive items (or) properties, […] Hence, we would need assistance from other countries for the investigation.” The judges are also accused of having conspired and attempted to persuade the other three Supreme Court justices to pass rulings “at midnight, out of the blue and without any new evidence”, to free political prisoners and order the retrial of ex-president Nasheed, as well as to remove the attorney-general, prosecutor-general, police commissioner and President Abdulla Yameen. [Reuters]

11 February 2018

Sri Lankan politics and the competing Indo-Chinese influences

(hg) Despite heavy Chinese investment Sri Lanka is currently ruled by a pro-Indian coalition government that is just about to face a litmus test of its policies in the first local elections since it has been elected in 2015. In case that former pro – China leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Sri Lanka People´s Front (SLPF) would win the elections, Chinese stakes would gain a significant boost. Rajapaksa`s SLPF has realistic chances to win the elections over President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP). [Nikkei Asian Review]

The local elections seem meanwhile to turn out to become the most peaceful ever recorded. [Xinhua]

In context of the elections, a former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations has just given a speech to mobilize support for a strong Sri Lankan engagement with the Chinese OBOR plan and a corresponding SLPF government which is interesting due the actual contours and the arguments regularly fielded in favor of the OBOR plan. Outlining a map for an “own development path”, he envisions an “investment bonanza that […] could revive the glory days of the ancient Silk Route” with its expected financial backing of stunning USD 4-8 trillion vis-à-vis the USD140 billion provided under the U.S. Marshall plan, at 2017dollar values, an investment that could be reinforced by the recent recognition of the Yuan as a reserve currency by the IMF easing China´s move to do international payments in Yuan.

The former diplomat also stresses the Chinese investments in Europe giving examples such as the Toulouse Blagnac airport, Volvo, the AC Milan football club, Piraeus harbour which is owned to 70% by COSCO, or the leading, formerly German robot manufacturer Kuka, the rail link between Piraeus Harbour and Serbia and Hungary.Pointing also at the current U.S. defense strategy with its hostile view on China, he claims that the OBOR concept would raise “concerns, especially among the former colonial powers who ruthlessly ravaged Africa and Asia when they had the opportunity” while it “can be used by countries of the Indian Ocean region and beyond to enhance their mutual prosperity without being constrained by the fears and suspicions inculcated by the colonial past […] without territorial occupation, racial discrimination and forced alteration of cultures.” Read extensive excerpts of the speech under [InDepthNews].

Meanwhile, the American Center in Colombo which is being operated by the US government has been closed indefinitely until further notice. Reasons for the closure are not reported. [Daily Mirror]

4 February 2018

Sri Lanka requested to repeal draconian security law

(hg) Reiterating calls from the UN and the EU, Human Rights Watch has requested the Sri Lankan government to abolish its Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) as announced. The PTA has been the legal base to arbitrarily detain sus-pects for months and often years without charge or trial vulnerable to widespread practices of torture and other abuse. [Human Rights Watch]

4 February 2018

Appreciating Singapore’s Sri Lankan heritage

(hg) Another recovery of historic ties between an important ASEAN state and a South Asian power is displayed by a recent piece in the Straits Times highlighting the inspiration some Southeast Asian states received from Sri Lanka in the early days of their post-colonial emergence including Singapore. Among the Sri Lankans that came there in the early 1900s with many active in the fields of civil service, law, medicine, education, and engineering was also the late Mr S. Rajaratnam, who was Singapore’s first foreign minister, whereas Singapore’s present Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is also a descent from Sri Lankan immigrants of whom, most were however not from the dominating Sinhalese population but Tamils from Jaffna. [The Straits Times]

4 February 2018

India’s new military presence on the Seychelles and concerns over Chinese influence in Sri Lanka 

(hg) India and the Seychelles signed a revised agreement that will allow India to build military infrastructure on Assumption Island, that will expand its strategic reach in the Indean Ocean.

Initially, the agreement had been signed in 2015 to be suspended because it had not been ratified by the Seychelles parliament prompting previous President of the Seychelles, Faure announced last year it would have to be re-negotiated.

The agreement shall enhance the cooperation pertaining anti-piracy operations and enhanced EEZ surveillance to prevent intrusions by potential economic offenders indulging in illegal fishing, poaching, drug and human trafficking and generally the Seychelles’ defense assets and capabilities. [Jane’s 360] [The Times of India]

The final conclusion of the agreement follows an unannounced visit of India’s Foreign Secretary Jaishankar to the Seychelles after the Seychelles-China cooperation has been rapidly growing in the recent past. Giving the Indian military interests on the islands, the deal securing them is indeed of great “strategic significance” for India. [India Today]

Meanwhile, India is indicating security concerns over Sri Lanka handing over the control of Hambantota Port to China with Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman having publicly raised doubts whether China would confine itself only to [peaceful] port activities, hinting at the port’s ‘dual use’ capacity. [Daily Mirror]

4 February 2018

Japan expanding its influence in Sri Lanka and beyond, partly in cooperation with India

After Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s visit to Sri Lanka the Japanese engagement in Stri Lanka takes shape as well, both economically and militarily, – partly in concert with India. Now, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority with both Japan and India plans a joint liquefied natural gas project, the first in the country, to be located within Colombo port – one of the busiest ports in South Asia. [The Diplomat]

At the same time, the Japanese government plans to expand its assistance to strengthen naval security capacities to nations in the Indian Ocean with Sri Lanka and Djibouti as first targets. [The Japan Times]

26 January 2018

Sri Lanka caught in great power politics

(hg) With Japan and India seeking to deepen their influence in Sri Lanka, the poor country which has become an integral part of the Chinese ‘maritime silk road’, seems to be caught between the need for foreign investment and the risk to be taken away by great power competition. [AiR 3/1/2018] [The Diplomat 1] [The Diplomat 2]

Adding to its recently expressed interest in infrastructure investment, Japan also plans to increase its naval security aid to Sri Lanka and Djibouti in support for the joint Japan-U.S. “free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy” which is not just countering the emergence of a Chinese sphere of influence abstractly but representing a new willingness to actively move very close to core areas of Chinese interest and investment. [The Japan News]

Besides, Sri Lanka’s increasing geopolitical importance has also been reflected currently by the visit of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to witness the signing of the Sri Lanka-Singapore free trade agreement. [Channel News Asia]

The agreement, which is the first modern and comprehensive FTA for the South Asian nation after an attempt to reach an agreement in 2004 failed. [Today Online]

Adding to the overall picture, also Indonesian President Widodo has just visited the island to discuss matters of bilateral investment cooperation. [Daily Mirror] 

12 January 2018

Maldives/Sri Lanka: Maldivian Foreign Minister meets Japanese counterpart, who also visited Sri Lanka, and travels on to India

(jk) Amid China’s growing influence in the region, much has been said about nations of previously less strategic significance such as Sri Lanka or the Maldives and how China seeks influence there. This week, the diplomatic news out of the Maldives have more to do with hedging than betting exclusively on China. For the first time, a Japanese foreign minister visited the Indian Ocean Nation to discuss Tokyo’s interests in the Indo-Pacific. [The Japan Times]. Shortly after the visit, the Maldives’ foreign minister embarked on a three-day trip to India [The Times of India]. The Japanese FM came from Sri Lanka, where he stressed that Japan places great importance on a maritime order based on the rule of law in general and its relation with Sri Lanka in particular [Nikkei Asian Review].

15 December 2017

China-Sri Lanka relations: Formal hand over of Hambantota Port

China now controls Sri Lanka’s strategic southern port of Hambantota, in a move that is supposed to help the impoverished country repay more than $8 billion USD it reportedly owes Beijing. Sri Lankan opposition leaders call the $1.1 billion USD 99-year lease a “sell out”.  The ports are expected to play a key role in China’s global Belt and Road initiative. Analysts say that while China gets an industrial-economic zone and strategic deep water port with tremendous military potential on the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is stuck paying back massive loans far into the future without the benefit of an income stream from the port due to the large tax concessions granted to the Chinese firms who manage the lease [NDTV].

8 December 2017

Government backing away from conflict resolution vows

The Sri Lankan government has failed to live up to promises to address the issues that led to the long and bloody civil war between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, alleges the author of this piece. It has disregarded the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that called for significant war-related reconciliation steps to be taken and has continued to commit egregious human rights abuses, while pandering to “ultra-Sinhala” nationalism. The situation in late 2017, says the author, appears to be no different to what prevailed before the conflict erupted into war in 1983 [Asia Times].

1 December 2017

Clashes between Muslims and Buddhists

Muslim and Buddhist extremists fought in the streets of a southern coastal town in Sri Lanka after Buddhists posted fake news on social media. According to the rumors, Muslims were planning to attack Buddhist archaeological relics. Tensions have increased between the country’s Muslims and hardline Buddhists, who accuse Muslims of forcibly converting people and vandalizing Buddhist religious sites. About 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is Buddhist, while only 9 percent of the population is Muslim. Tensions between the two groups have been exacerbated by the nearby conflict in Myanmar, in which military forces have driven out the Muslim Rohingya minority and sent around 600,000 Muslim refugees fleeing to Bangladesh [Newsweek].

24 November 2017

Officers ordering soldiers to sexually assault Tamil detainees?

Earlier this month, the Associated Press published an explosive report documenting more than 50 Tamil men’s allegations that Sri Lanka’s security forces sexually assaulted and tortured them. Their accounts of gang rape, sexual humiliation, and penetration with barbed wire are supported by medical records and psychiatric evaluations. The news broke at an inconvenient time for Sri Lanka, which is up for its Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council this week. The government delegation’s assurances of a “zero tolerance policy” on torture sat awkwardly alongside reports of shocking—and shockingly routine—abuses. The author of this piece notes that despite these human rights abuses, the international community continue to treat Sri Lanka like a good faith actor, restoring preferential trade arrangements and deepening military partnerships [The Washington Post].

24 November 2017

PM reveals secret debts of former regime

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe testified before an investigative commission this week regarding the secret accounting practices of the former regime which had misled even the International Monetary Fund. Wickremesinghe detailed questionable practices involving bond sales before the “Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into the Issuance of Treasury Bonds”, to include failure to put government projects “on the books” and failure to pay contractors. The government still has liabilities of 500 to 600 million dollars as a result of the “creative accounting of the former regime”, but still is investigating the degree of additional unaccounted-for debt [Daily News].

24 November 2017

Dutert’s concern for the environment

Maybe surprisingly to some, President Duterte is sticking to a ban on open-pit mining for its damaging impact on the environment. The ban had been imposed under a former Environment Secretary, defying calls from the business community that point towards large revenues created by mining. Duterte stated that he wants the extraction of minerals to continue, but less environmentally damaging ways needed to be found [Deutsche Welle]. The efficacy of the ban is highly contested however, with some arguments brought forward against it here [The Philippine Star].

17 November 2017

Human rights and reconciliation after the civil war

After the more recent visit of UN ‘Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence’, Pablo de Greiff, and the very recent third human rights examination by the UN Human Rights Council´s Universal Periodical Working Group in Geneva, Sri Lanka´s human rights situation remains critical [Hiru News].

Uncovered by an Associated Press investigation, Sri Lanka’s government faces allegations of more than 50 men who said they were raped, branded or tortured as recently as this year. All men belong to the Tamil ethnic minority that lost the 26-year civil war that ended 2009 with at least up to 40,000 civilian casualties in its final months only. The torturers who accused their victims of trying to revive a Tamil rebel group are alleged to belong to both the police’s Criminal Investigations Department and the Armed Forces [The Washington Post].

Almost at the same time, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena spoke unprecedentedly to a representative gathering of more than 350 commanding officers, adjutants and regimental sergeant majors of the Army stressing that military camps in the Tamil dominated North will not be removed and the government has not conducted any type of investigation against soldiers having been accused of severe human rights violations during the civil war. The President vehemently turned against those civil society sectors asking for investigations claiming that no single ‘war hero’ having been involved in the war should face such investigations [Colombo Page].

The continuing tension between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority is also reflected by reactions to a recent report on constitutional reform discussions. Proposals to introduce a devolution principle in the constitution to empower the provinces – including the Tamil dominated Northern and Eastern ones – sparked fierce resistance by the politically active Buddhist clergy and other Sinhalese nationals [The Diplomat].

In fact, the country’s highly centralized unitary system has been counted as one of the reasons for the decade long civil war. Even years after the Tamil Tiger’s military defeat by massive conventional military force, the splits are not healed in many ways. This is only reinforced by the significant poverty allocation of the former rebel strongholds. After the end of the civil war an expanding credit and loan practice with predatory interest rates entrenched a serious poverty trap which hit especially the Tamil regions [The Hindu].

17 November 2017

Sri Lanka: In the geopolitical focus of the great powers

With an increasing competition over the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has shifted into the geopolitical focus of the major actors struggling for influence. In this context, Indian Prime Minister Modi has assured Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena of all possible assistance in response to Sri Lanka’s request for emergency petroleum shipments and India’s generally continued support for development cooperation [DDI News]. At the same time, a Chinese foreign minister official stressed that China would not attach any strings when extending financial assistance to Sri Lanka and not use an investigation into alleged human rights violations or war crimes as a precondition for aid [Daily Mirror].

A similarly vexatious game has been staged at the security front. After ships of the US Nimitz Carrier Strike Group have recently pulled into Sri Lanka for the first time since 1985 [Defense.gov], the Chinese People’s Liberation Army – Navy Ship ‘Qi Ji Guang’ has not visited the country [Defence.lk].

10 November 2017

Mixed assessment of human rights situation

A delegation of the European Parliament visited Sri Lanka last week, to obtain updates on developments since their last official visit in 2016 and to discuss issues with Sri Lankan authorities and civil society representatives. While the delegation welcomed a number of positive developments that have taken place since their last official visit, its members express concern on Sri Lanka’s slower than expected progress on its implementation of international conventions on human rights, good governance, labour rights, and the environment. The MEPs noted, however, that the foundations for that progress were now mostly in place [Sri Lanka Brief].

The United States supported Sri Lanka’s post-civil war reconciliation process as the two countries convened the second Partnership Dialogue in Colombo this week. In a joint statement issued following the meeting, the U.S. expressed support to Sri Lanka in the implementation of civil war-related Human Rights commitments, and Sri Lanka’s objectives to strengthen democracy, democratic institutions and practices, good governance, and the rule of law. Also discussed was a vision to develop Sri Lanka as a regional hub for trade and investment in Asia, and a wide range of other on-going and envisioned areas of cooperation [MENAFN].

10 November 2017

China: Show of outer space and naval capabilities

Following last week’s announcement of the launch of the world’s first spaceplane in 2020, China on Sunday sent a navigational satellite to the orbit with the potential to compete with GPS. The launch is part of a plan to install within three years a satellite network capable of supporting military operations across the globe independent from existing foreign navigational systems [South China Morning Post]. In an assertive show of power, Beijing unveiled its ‘island maker vessel’ just the day before President Trump’s Asia trip kicked off on Sunday with his visit to Japan. The vessel is said to be deployed for further land reclamations in the highly contested South China Sea [BBC]. Meanwhile, China’s largest and most advanced training ship is scheduled to arrive in Sri Lanka this week for a four-day goodwill visit.  The PLAN ship Qi Jiguang is heading towards Sri Lanka from Italy, as part of its mission to conduct visits to Portugal, Italy, Sri Lanka and Thailand [The Daily Mirror].

3 November 2017

Chinese foreign policy towards South Asia, Eurasia and East Asia

Being nuclear powers which account for almost half of the world population, the relations between China, India, and Pakistan build up one of the most tensest and explosive strategic configurations [China Policy Institute: Analysis 1]. Within this triangle, the strengthening of the Sino-Pakistani relations has put India under pressure to find strategies to counter China’s growing influence in South Asia [China Policy Institute: Analysis 2].  A latest example is New Delhi’s launching of a satellite program offering communication and meteorological data to its neighboring countries, such as Sri Lanka for which China had installed a satellite in 2012 and with which it has established strong economic and defense cooperation since 2015 [China Brief: The Jamestown Foundation].

The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with its members Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia is a core element in China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative as it not only secures China’s connection to Europe and provides economic opportunities due to the wealth of national resources in the EEU-region, but also stabilizes the relation to Russia as the first and foremost condition for the success of OBOR [East Asia Forum].

South Korea and China have signaled efforts to overcome their differences on the deployment of US anti-missile systems on South Korean soil to pave way to re-vitalize diplomatic relations. At the margins of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus in the Philippines, the defense ministers of both countries met and had talks for the first time since 2 years [Channel News Asia].

28 October 2017

Efforts for early conclusion of China trade deal

Sri Lanka is keen to reach agreement soon on a free trade deal with China, its foreign minister said on Tuesday, describing Beijing as a close friend and ally, despite strong local opposition to some major Chinese-invested schemes. In July, Sri Lanka already signed a long-delayed $1.1 billion deal to lease its southern Hambantota port to China, ignoring an appeal by opposition parties to debate the pact in parliament [Reuters].

29 September 2017

China-owned port in Sri Lanka could alter trade routes

One of China’s largest state-owned companies, China Merchants Group, is in the final stages of purchasing a majority stake in loss-making deep water container port from Sri Lanka. Focusing on the strategic shift enabled by the purchase the article provides an optimistic outlook of how the Chinese OBOR’s grand strategy could significantly manifest at the small village of Hambantota which is seen as becoming the main Chinese-operated transshipment hub in the Indian Ocean adding to the port projects in Pakistani Gwadar and in Kenya and turning Hambantota port into the key Indian Ocean deep water port between Suez and East Asia. By itself evolving in a disruptive occurrence Hambantota is expected to reconfigure the large trade flows across the Asian sea lanes in India´s backyard. Noteworthy, the author also projects the possible impact if an inter-ocean ‘Thai canal’ across the isthmus of Southern Thailand would also be build by China which would re-route business away from Singapore and the Malacca Straits – notwithstanding the fact that the project is currently not discussed by the Thai government.

22 September 2017

New constitution as a neo-colonial project?

The debate surrounding the creation of a new constitution continues and one sentiment expressed in this speech is that with too much “help” from the United States, the new constitution could turn out to be a “neo-colonial project”.

7 September 2017

President seeks to shield General from war crime case

Fairly little progress has been made in Sri Lanka on war crime and human rights cases in the aftermath of the bloody civil-war that raged in the country until 2009. SL President has now said he will not allow prosecution of any “war heroes”.

31 August 2017

Sri Lankan ambassador accused of war crimes in Brazil

Human rights groups have filed lawsuits in Brazil and Colombia against Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Latin America, accusing him of war crimes. Law-yers seek to expel Jagath Jayasuriya, ambassador to Brazil, over abuses in final phase of offensive against LTTE.Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Brazil has fled the country after human rights groups filed lawsuits accusing him of overseeing war crimes on Monday night. Meanwhile the former general has returned to Colombo via Dubai after fleeing Brazil on Sunday.

4 August 2017

Two interviews on politics and the prospects of reconciliation in Sri Lanka

In an exclusive interview four-time Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe describes his hopes of restoring unity and reconciliation among all communities after Sri Lanka’s past 40 years of very difficult times, whereas S. K. Senthivel, General Secretary of the New Democratic Marxist Leninist Party, describes the case of one “oppressed class” village engaged in this struggle, and the decline of the popularity of Leftist political organizations in such villages.

16 July 2017

Sri Lanka’s Current Political Impasse

Sri Lanka is facing a three-fold political crisis, namely at the regime level, governance level, and its broader political transformation process [The Sunday Leader].