Asia in Review Archive 2021

Sri Lanka

Date of AiR edition

News summary

30 March 2021

UN Rights Council gives green light to investigate Sri Lanka war crimes

(lm) The United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) decisively approved a mandate on March 23 to collect information and evidence of war crimes committed during the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983 to 2009), which killed more than 100,000 civilians and over 50,000 fighters from both sides of the conflict. The vote was 22 countries in favor, with 11 against – including China, Bangladesh and Pakistan – and 14 abstentions, including India [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. [Deutsche Welle] [The Straits Times]

The resolution, led by the so-called Core Group on Sri Lanka comprising Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and the United Kingdom, ramps up international monitoring and reporting mechanisms on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. It also mandates the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet to collect, consolidate and preserve evidence for future prosecutions and “develop possible strategies” for pursuing prosecutions of the perpetrators. The resolution comes in the wake of a scathing report by the OHCHR, which documents the alarming retrograde trends on human rights in Sri Lanka, urging that the steps taken by the current government are a “warning sign” of future violations [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [Amnesty International]

The UN HRC also urged Colombo to review its Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which rights groups consider an abusive law used to crack down on dissent and forcibly disappear people. Two weeks ago, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced new rules under the PTA in the name of “de-radicalization” of religious extremists. The measures would allow the detention of anyone suspected of causing “acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony.” [AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]

The vote was a diplomatic setback for President Rajapaksa, whose government had lobbied foreign governments intensively in recent months to try to block support for the initiative [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. Sri Lanka’s diplomat denounced the resolution as politically motivated, reiterating the words of Foreign Minister Dinesh at the start of the four-week UN HRC spring session, which began on February 22 [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].

 

30 March 2021

Sri Lanka releases 54 Indian fishermen

(lm) Sri Lanka on March 26 released 54 Indian fishermen who had been arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy two days earlier, after the Indian government reportedly made it clear that the arrest of fishermen coming on the heels of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution [see article in this edition] was seen as a hostile move. [South Asia Monitor]

The Indian fishermen were apprehended on charges of engaging in illegal fishing and using prohibited fishing methods off Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Following the fishermen’s arrest, the local fishery union in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu pressured the state and federal government to secure their release, and even threatened to boycott the upcoming Legislative Assembly election. [The Hindu]

The fisheries crisis in the Palk Bay – the water body between the southeast coast of India and Sri Lanka – has been festering for over a decade with frequent arrests of Indian fishermen who allegedly trespass into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. The series of arrests made late on Wednesday comes after the Sri Lankan Navy resumed patrolling in December, after months of limiting arrests amid fears of contracting COVID-19 from Indian fishermen. Dozens of Indian fishermen were arrested in December last year [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].

23 March 2021

India, Japan likely to abstain from UN HRC vote on Sri Lanka

(lm) India and Japan are likely to abstain from voting at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) on March 23, which will take up a resolution over what is seen as deteriorating human rights conditions in Sri Lanka, India media have reported. Forty nations, mostly from Europe, have either become co-sponsor or additional sponsors of the pending resolution; 12 of these are currently members of the council and have voting rights. [The Citizen] [The Print]

On March 12, the so-called Core Group on Sri Lanka comprising the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro had submitted the final version of its resolution. The resolution will be informed by a scathing report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet, which documents the alarming retrograde trends on human rights in Sri Lanka and notes that the steps taken by the current government are a “warning sign” of future violations [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].

The zero draft which had earlier been circulated was further strengthened during the consultations between the member states. For a start, the changes in the final version inserts language calling on Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitment on devolution, including the holding of provincial council elections, as defined in the thirteenth amendment (13A).

The amendment is a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord which sought to resolve the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) by creating provincial councils and enabling Sinhalese and Tamil as national languages while preserving English as the link language. New Delhi takes the view that a devolution of power to the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Province is essential for ethnic reconciliation and lasting peace in the island nation. Thus, India has routinely urged Colombo to fully implement the amendment at various platform, most recently when Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited New Delhi in February.

Moreover, the draft resolution notes the “persistent lack of accountability of domestic mechanisms” and calls to support trials in foreign countries. It also calls for strengthening the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in collecting and preserving evidence related to human rights violations in Sri Lanka, in order to use them in future accountability processes. Further, the draft has been revised to state that Sri Lanka would be featured on the UN HRC’s agenda every six months till September 2022. It also asks the OHCHR to give an oral update on Sri Lanka in September 2021, followed by a written report due in March 2022.

Anticipating a hostile resolution, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa previously wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, among others, seeking support at the 47-member Council. To follow up on his letter, President Rajapaksa two weeks ago held a phone conversation with Modi but India – unlike China, Russia, and Pakistan – has not officially declared its support to Sri Lanka. [The Hindu] [The Wire]

 

23 March 2021

Sri Lanka: No final decision on burqa ban, according to foreign minister

(lm) After facing widespread criticism, Sri Lanka rushed to clarify on March 16 that no decision has been taken to ban the wearing of burqa, an enveloping outer garment which covers the body and the face that is worn by women in some Islamic traditions. The previous day, Pakistan’s envoy to Colombo had criticized the island nation’s move to ban the burqa, saying it was a ‘divisive’ step impacting Muslims in Sri Lanka and across the globe. [Arab News] [The Straits Times]

Last week, the minister of public security of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka had created a controversy, seeking Cabinet approval for the ban of burqas on national security grounds. The minister had also revealed plans to ban more than 1,000 out of the nearly 2,300 Islamic seminaries, or madrasas, which, he said, were ‘flouting national education policy.’ [AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. If implemented, the proposed ban could be the latest move impacting Sri Lanka’s minority Muslims, who make up nearly 10 percent of its total population of 22 million, where Buddhists account for 70 percent of the census.

There is a good case to believe that the ongoing 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) has led to Colombo’s change of heart. For several Muslim-majority countries are among the 47 UN HRC’s member states that will vote on a resolution on Sri Lanka’s accountability and post-war reconciliation at the end of the four-week spring session next week [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. A UN resolution passed against Sri Lanka could allow for prosecutions of government and military officials involved in ending a decades-long civil war in 2009, and Colombo is sensitive to anything that may impact voting there. [Anadolu Agency]

Further, almost a third of the UN HRC’s member states are also members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which recently criticized a Sri Lankan policy to forcibly cremate coronavirus victims in the country, in violation of the Islamic tradition of burial. The policy was repealed last month. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]

16 March 2021

IMF says it is closely monitoring Sri Lanka’s financial developments

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said it was closely monitoring recent economic policy financial developments in Sri Lanka, including Colombo’s recent agreement on a currency swap facility with the People’s Bank of China. Last week, China had approved a $1.54 billion currency swap with Sri Lanka. [International Monetary Fund] [Reuters]

The IMF last year prematurely ended a loan program to Sri Lanka after disbursing $1.3 billion of an agreed $1.5 billion facility, leaving the South Asian nation scouting for ways to tide over the pandemic-induced downturn. Faced with low foreign-exchange reserves and looming debt repayments, Colombo then turned to China to negotiate further swaps and loans to build its reserves buffers, affirming Beijing as lender of the last resort [see AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2].

Colombo had previously sought a fresh currency swap deal with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). However, the RBI this February refused to provide the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) a further extension of an existing facility saying that the rollover would require Colombo having a successfully negotiated staff-level agreement for IMF program [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].

16 March 2021

Sri Lanka: Government to ban burqa, shut many Islamic schools, says minister

(lm) Sri Lanka will ban the wearing of the burqa – an enveloping outer garment which covers the body and the face that is worn by women in some Islamic traditions – and shut more than 1,000 Islamic schools, a government minister said on March 13, citing national security. The wearing of the burqa in the majority-Buddhist nation was temporarily banned in the wake of the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings that killed more than 260 people and injured 500 more [see AiR (4/4/2019)]. [The Straits Times 1] [Al Jazeera

The decision is the latest move affecting the Indian Ocean island nation’s minority Muslims, coming as it does after the government had recently suspended its policy of forced cremations of coronavirus victims [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. Ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permit both burials and cremations, Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka had made cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory, arguing that burials in accordance with Islamic tradition would pose a public health risk. Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations had resented the policy, saying authorities used it to purposely hurt the country’s religious minorities [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3].

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2019 after promising a crackdown on ‘extremism’ has promulgated regulations that give sweeping powers to authorities to detain people suspected of hate crimes. [The Straits Times 2]

The new regulations, effective on March 12, have been set up under the contentious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and allow the detention of 24 months of anyone suspected of causing ‘acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities’ at ‘re-integration centers’.

Before, under the PTA, a person can be detained for periods up to 18 months (renewable by order every three months) without charge and without being produced before a judge. Human rights groups have long been criticizing the PTA, calling it an abusive law used to crack down on dissent and forcibly disappear people [see e.g. AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4].

 

9 March 2021

Sri Lankan health authorities yet to approve Chinese COVID-19 vaccine

(lm) Sri Lanka continues to find itself in the midst of a diplomatic tug of war between India and China, which revolves around free consignments of COVID-19 vaccines [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. On March 3, China offered afresh to donate 600,000 doses produced by its state-owned company Sinopharm for the second phase of COVID-19 vaccination. However, Sri Lankan health authorities have so far refused to approve the vaccine, saying Sinopharm had not submitted papers relating to phase three trials. [The Hindu Business Line]

Late last month, Sri Lanka ordered 13.5 million doses of India’s Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom) in addition to the 500,000 doses gifted by New Delhi earlier. For the second round of vaccinations, Colombo will also receive another 1.69 million doses from Covishield under the COVAX initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO). [WHO]

Meanwhile, health authorities on March 4 approved the Sputnik V vaccine, which was developed by the Russian Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, making it the second jab available in Sri Lanka. [Reuters]

9 March 2021

China offers $1.1 billion to Sri Lanka under loan and currency swap facility

(lm) China will endorse a $500 million loan and a currency swap facility worth $600 million to Sri Lanka within the next couple of weeks, local news reported on March 5, after Colombo late last month had made public its intentions to seek $2.2 billion from Chinese banks to avoid a serious foreign exchange crisis. [News First] [WION]

Leading up to 2021, several rating agencies downgraded Sri Lanka’s sovereign credit ratings, indicating concerns about Colombo’s ability to fulfill foreign debt repayments. At the end of January, then, Colombo’s foreign reserves plummeted to $4.8 billion, the lowest since September 2009.

Besides imposing import restrictions, to manage its foreign debt problem Sri Lanka has mainly relied on currency swaps, largely obtained from India. Colombo obtained a $400 million currency swap facility from Reserve Bank of India (RBI) last June [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]. However, the RBI this February refused to provide the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) a further extension of the facility saying that the rollover would require Colombo having a successfully negotiated staff-level agreement for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].

2 March 2021

Sri Lanka: Easter bombings investigation calls for former president to be prosecuted

(lm) An investigation into the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings has called for Sri Lanka’s former President Maithripala Sirisena as well as senior police and intelligence officials to be prosecuted. In its report, which was handed to Parliament on February 24, said the ‘balance of probability’ was that Sirisena was told by his intelligence chief about the warnings before the attacks. [Al Jazeera] [CNN]

On 21 April, 2019, suicide bombers started a coordinated series of attacks on three Christian churches and four hotels across the island nation, killing more than 260 people and injuring 500 more [see AiR (4/4/2019)]. It quickly emerged that Indian intelligence, following a tip-off, had warned Sri Lanka of a potential terrorist act 17 days earlier. The former President at the time acknowledged that he was abroad ‘for a personal holiday’ when the intelligence memos were sent to Sri Lankan defense ministry and police chiefs. However, he also claimed that he had not been alerted to such warnings [see AiR (1/7/2019)].

The report by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry also said then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had a ‘lax approach’ towards Islamic extremism, which ‘was one of the primary reasons for the failure.’ Furthermore, the report found that Wickremesinghe was not invited by then President Sirisena for any National Security Council meetings. While testifying before the commission last October, the former Prime Minister had acknowledged a clear breakdown in the country’s security apparatus at the time of the bombings [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3].

Testifying before the commission shortly thereafter, the country’s former Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) had claimed reports about a possible terrorist operation had been known as early as April 4, and shared with foreign embassies, intelligence services and police officers in Sri Lanka’s Western Province [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4]. The country’s former intelligence chief had been dismissed in December 2019 after a parliamentary committee had concluded that he was primarily responsible for the intelligence failure. However, he refused to step down and appealed to the Supreme Court over his ‘unfair dismissal’ [see AiR No. 50, December/2019, 2].

2 March 2021

Sri Lanka: Government lifts ban on burial of COVID-19 victims

(lm) Sri Lanka’s government issued a gazette on February 25 suspending its policy of forced cremations of coronavirus victims. Before, authorities had continued to defy calls for burials despite a pledge two weeks ago by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahindra Rajapaksa to permit them [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3].

Ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permit both burials and cremations, Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka amended its rules on burials and cremations last April, making cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3]. Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations had since resented the policy, calling it unscientific and insensitive of Muslim religious beliefs. The United Nations and the United States have also raised concerns with the government [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].

Timing and context of the announcement are noteworthy: For a start, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan concluded a working visit to Sri Lanka earlier this month, after holding separate meetings with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and attending an investors’ conference [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]. Furthermore, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) raised the forced cremation policy at the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) last week. [Eurasia Review]

There is a good case to believe that Sri Lanka considers its reversal on the cremation policy a bargain with Muslim countries. For the UN HRCR is likely to adopt a resolution on Sri Lanka’s accountability and post-war reconciliation at the end of the four-week spring session, which began on February 22 [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. [The Indian Express]

2 March 2021

China to push ahead with Hambantota port project amid reports of Sri Lanka having second thoughts

(lm) Beijing will push forward with a plan to develop Hambantota port, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a phone conversation with his Sri Lankan counterparty on February 3, amid reports that Colombo was seeking to renegotiate the deal. Wang also said that both countries would continue to cooperate to turn the Hambantota and Colombo ports into ‘the twin engines’ of Sri Lanka’s industrial development and economic growth. [South China Morning Post 1]

Construction on the project started in 2008, with China providing 85 percent of the funding. After the port incurred heavy losses and couldn’t generate enough revenue to repay the loan Sri Lanka had received to build it, the previous government in 2017 leased the port to China for 99 years. In return, the deal gave the government $1.1 billion that were used to strengthen US dollar reserves and pay short-term foreign debts unrelated to the port [see AiR December/2017, 3].

Since then, the port has been the subject of intense international scrutiny amid accusations Beijing is using ‘debt trap diplomacy’ for geopolitical clout [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2]. Hambantota’s location at the southern tip of Sri Lanka – within 10 nautical miles of the main shipping route from Asia to Europe – makes it a key maritime hub on China’s Maritime Silk Road.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he wanted to renegotiate the deal with China soon after he took office in late 2019, but later denied he had such a plan [AiR No. 52, December/2019, 4]. Last September, then, the government mandated the foreign minister to reassess existing bilateral agreements, and to investigate whether they may have a detrimental effect on the local economy [see AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1].

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena added to the uncertainty over the deal on February 27 saying the 99-year lease of the Hambantota port to China could be extended to 198 years, calling it a ‘mistake’ made by the previous government. The minister, however, did not say whether the government intended to make changes to the agreement. [South China Morning Post 2]

 

2 March 2021

Sri Lanka urges rejection of resolution at 46th UN HRC session

(lm) Sri Lanka has urged the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) to reject a forthcoming resolution which voices ‘serious concern’ over the ‘deteriorating’ rights situation in the island nation. Addressing the Council through video link, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said on February 23 member states would have to decide whether time should be spent raking over Sri Lanka or if the resolution was politically motivated. [Al Jazeera]

In the run-up to the session, the Britain-led Core Group on Sri Lanka comprising the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro, had circulated a draft of the resolution among UN HRC member states [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]. It is expected to be adopted at the end of the four-week UN HRC spring session, which began on February 22. [BBC]

Against the larger backdrop of a strategic competition between India and China, Beijing on February 26 extended its support for Colombo saying it would oppose politicizing human rights to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. [Republic World]

India, on the contrary, took a moderate stance sticking to just one key issue – the non-implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka (13A) which aims at creating provincial councils, while also enabling Sinhalese and Tamil as national languages. New Delhi takes the view that a devolution of power to the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Province is essential for ethnic reconciliation and lasting peace in the island nation [see also AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. [Eurasia Review

The resolution will be informed by a scathing report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet. It documents the alarming retrograde trends on human rights in Sri Lanka and notes that the steps taken by the current government are a ‘warning sign’ of future violations. This explains why Bachelet recommends UN HRC member states consider a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation. She also recommends the Council to establish investigations and prosecutions under universal jurisdiction, and to impose sanctions on Sri Lankan officials implicated in international crimes [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [United Nations Human Rights Council]

Sri Lanka earlier this month strongly rejected the report, saying it contained ‘speculative, presumptive and unsubstantiated opinions [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].’ Colombo also approached several member states, including India, in the run-up to the UN HRC session, asking them to lobby other member nations of the body.

 

23 February 2021

To oust Chinese firm, India offers grant for power project in northern Sri Lanka

(lm) In an effort to undo the presence of a Chinese company in its immediate backyard, India has reportedly offered Sri Lanka $12 million in grants to set up hybrid wind and solar energy projects on three Sri Lankan islands only 45 kilometers off the coast of Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. [The Hindu]

The Cabinet of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in mid-January had selected a Chinese company to develop the projects – just weeks before Colombo also pulled out of three-party agreement with India and Japan for operating the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT). Back then, New Delhi had lodged a strong protest with the Sri Lankan government, citing the project site’s proximity to the Indian coastline. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]

Meanwhile, a group of political parties representing Sri Lankan Tamils – an ethno-linguistic group whose people live both in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka – have voiced opposition to Chinese involvement in the project, citing “security threats” to Tamil people and India.

 

23 February 2021

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visits Sri Lanka as Colombo balances ties with India

(lm) Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan concluded a working visit to Sri Lanka on February 23, after holding separate meetings with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and attending an investors’ conference. [Hindustan Times]

Close partners in trade and defense, both sides developed strong bilateral ties during the Sri Lankan Civil War, when Islamabad supplied high-tech military equipment to Colombo’s military. Shortly before Prime Minister Khan’s arrival, however, Sri Lanka cancelled a scheduled speech of the Pakistani prime minister in Parliament, apparently over fears it could further harm ties with India. [The EurAsian Times]

Observers suggest that Prime Minister Khan may have suggested that Sri Lankan officials accept Pakistani support in the upcoming 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC), which will feature a resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. Further, in return for giving its explicit support Islamabad might ask Colombo to adopt Pakistan’s position on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. [Foreign Brief]

However, the two parties are unlikely to agree on such arrangements, considering that these would only heighten tensions between Sri Lanka and India. Colombo currently finds itself in a tight spot since it earlier this month pulled out of a three-party agreement with India and Japan for operating the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. Prior to the decision, India had shipped free consignments of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom) to Sri Lanka.

Moreover, the island nation is witnessing a rising islamophobia. Until recently [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], the government had made cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory, arguing that burials in accordance with Islamic tradition would pose a public health risk. Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations had resented the policy, saying authorities used it to purposely hurt the country’s religious minorities. 

16 February 2021

Core Group on Sri Lanka confirms to bring resolution at upcoming UN HRC session

(lm) The Core Group on Sri Lanka comprising the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro, will present a resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka at the upcoming 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC). [Colombo Gazette] [Tamil Guardian]

The announcement comes only days after thousands of ethnic Tamils joint by members of the Muslim community conducted a five-day protest march around the country’s independence-day celebrations on February 4, defying court bans, brutal mob assaults and police intimidation and harassment [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. [Human Rights Watch] [The Hindu]

The resolution will be informed by the recent report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet. Published in January, the report documents the alarming retrograde trends on human rights in Sri Lanka and notes that the steps taken by the current Sri Lankan government are a “warning sign” of future violations. This explains why Bachelet recommends states consider a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation. She also recommends the Council to establish investigations and prosecutions under universal jurisdiction, and to impose sanctions on Sri Lankan officials implicated in international crimes [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. Sri Lanka earlier this month strongly rejected the report, saying it contained “speculative, presumptive and unsubstantiated opinions.” [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]

Prior to the release of the report, major Tamil political and societal leaders in mid-January signed a joint statement in which they declared that there was “no scope” for a domestic accountability mechanism and called for the establishment of an International Independent Investigatory Mechanism (IIIM), including a referral to the ICC [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3].

Sri Lanka has approached several member states, including India, in the run-up to the upcoming session of the UN HRC, asking them to lobby other member nations of the body. New Delhi is one of the 13 members states currently representing the Asia and the Pacific Group. In 2015, India had refrained from co-sponsoring the Council’s landmark resolution 30/1 that gave Colombo another two years to o promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country. The decision was taken as India had to carefully navigate its complex relationship with various parties within Sri Lanka, as well as its own domestic politics. [The Citizen]

Five years later, however, there is little chance that India will plead Colombo’ case. The reason being that Sri Lanka last week decided to undo the 2019 cooperation pact offering India and Japan the right to operate the long-stalled Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal (ETC), drawing strong protests from both New Delhi and Tokyo [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].

16 February 2021

Sri Lanka, Japan hold second round of policy dialogue days after Colombo’s U-turn on port deal

(lm) Representatives from Sri Lanka and Japan on February 10 participated in the second round of the Sri Lanka-Japan Policy Dialogue through video channel. Separately, Japan on February 11 announced it will provide approx. $620.000 for a project funding mine clearance in northern Sri Lanka. [ColomboPage] [Daily Financial Times] [EconomyNext]

The meeting came at a time when Sri Lanka is yet to officially inform India and Japan about its recent decision that the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) will be exclusively operated by its state-owned Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). 

Last week, the Cabinet of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa voted to undo a 2019 cooperation pact offering India the right to operate the long-stalled container terminal project at the Colombo port, leaving the latter red-faced, especially at a time when New Delhi is pursuing varied strategies to counterbalance China’s maritime and geopolitical assertiveness in its own backyard. The deal called for a three-way joint venture framework, with the SLPA retaining a 51 percent controlling stake and the remainder split between Indian and Japanese partners. Tokyo was to provide a loan to SLPA to finance the project. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]

Officially, the decision was made in light of growing protests by labor unions and influential sections of the Buddhist clergy. At the same time, however, observers keeping a close eye on the matter have been abuzz with talk of back-door pressure exerted by Beijing on Sri Lankan counterparts to pull the plug on Indian investment, a possibility that is tied to two aspects: China’s high-stakes investments — covering the Colombo International Container Terminal and the Hambantota port — and a recent flare-up in border issues between the two countries. [JOC]

16 February 2021

Sri Lanka: Government allows burial of COVID-19 victims

(lm) Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahindra Rajapaksa said on February 10 authorities would begin giving permission for Muslims who die of COVID-19 to be buried. Last April, Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka had amended its rules on burials and cremations, making cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3]. [Al Jazeera] [Anadolu Agency]

Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations had since resented the policy, saying authorities used it to purposely hurt the country’s religious minorities. Non-governmental organizations and minority groups in Sri Lanka had filed petitions with the Supreme Court, citing the right to bury according to rituals as a fundamental right. However, the court dismissed all such petitions [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].

Timing and context are noteworthy: While the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) is gearing up to launch its 46thsession virtually on February 22 [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2], the bloc of countries known as the Core Group on Sri Lanka has confirmed that it will present a resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka [see articles in this edition].

9 February 2021

Sri Lanka rejects UN report, calls human rights body “tool for vanquished terrorists”

(lm) The Sri Lankan government rejected on February 3 a report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, saying it contained “speculative, presumptive and unsubstantiated opinions.” [Tamil Guardian 1] [News First]

The report was mandated by Resolution 40/1 (2019), which directed the high commissioner to assess progress – or actually the lack thereof – on the implementation of the HRC’s recommendations related to reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka. Published on January 27, the report inter alia puts emphasis on the continued impunity, retrograde trends on human rights and transitional justice, in addition to increased militarization and the re-emergence of ethno-nationalist rhetoric. The high commissioner also calls for the International Criminal Court to investigate the commission of international crimes during the civil war and the entrenched impunity [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].

In 2019, Sri Lanka withdrew its co-sponsorship from the council’s landmark Resolution 30/1 (2015) amidst a deteriorating human rights situation on the island [see AiR (3/3/2019)]. As such, it was at first anticipated that any resolution to come out of the HRC this year would be contested (and thus subject to a vote). But new reporting suggests that the bloc of countries known as the Core Group on Sri Lanka –the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro – is working to negotiate a consensus resolution [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4].

Moreover, in his first address to the UN General Assembly on February 28, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York accused the UN HRC of being a tool for terrorists. In remarks that invoked a strong response from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the permanent representative accused the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of collaborating with “vanquished terrorists“ who allegedly appeal to the UN HRC to “unleash a different kind of terrorism.” [Tamil Guardian]

 

9 February 2021

Sri Lanka pulls out of three-party agreement with India and Japan for operating Eastern Coast Terminal

(lm) Scuttling a 2019 trilateral agreement with India and Japan, the Sri Lankan government has decided that the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) will be exclusively operated by the state-owned Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). A cabinet meeting held on February 1 further decided to offer the West Container Terminal to India for possible investments, instead. [The Hindu 1]

India and Japan consider their presence in the Colombo Port a strategic necessity in the face of China’s presence in the adjacent Colombo Port City project, a flagship $1.4 billion project in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. According to the 2019 Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC), which was signed by the administration of then-President Maithripala Sirisena, the tri-nation project was to be developed with 51 percent ownership by Sri Lanka’s government and the remaining 49 percent as an investment by Indian multinational conglomerate Adani Group and other stakeholders, including Japan.

India has an additional reason to seek a foothold in Colombo Port as approximately 70 percent of the throughput at Colombo port is accounted for by Indian transshipment. But what is more, observers believe New Delhi’s assertive role in Sri Lanka to be part of larger efforts to regain strategic ground India has lost to China in its own backyard. Thus, the project has figured in talks at the highest levels, including when Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Colombo in January, laying down unequivocal terms for the Indian-backed development of a container jetty in the port [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Nikkei Asia]

A week later, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told agitating trade unions that his government decided to take forward the 2019 triparty MoC after it had reviewed “regional geopolitical concerns” [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]. The concessions came at a time when Sri Lanka has been holding out a virtual begging bowl for a nearly $2 billion financial lifeline – a $1 billion currency swap arrangement and $960 million debt moratorium – from India to service its multibillion-dollar international debts and to run a current account deficit estimated at $1.1 billion annually [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3].

However, twenty-seven trade unions instigated by the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna [People’s Liberation Front] (JVP) have been agitating against the deal on the grounds that it is a “sellout” of a national asset to India. The JVP and the trade unions are exploiting the fact that the ruling Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA) had come to power in the 2019 Presidential election and last year’s parliamentary elections after campaigning on a platform aimed at stoking ethnic Sinhala nationalism, promising not to barter away national assets like ports and airports to other countries [see e.g., AiR No. 47, November/2019, 3].

Such a pledge was given following the SLPFA’s trenchant criticism against the leasing out of another deep seaport located in the south of the island after the port was operating at a loss and could not generate enough revenue to repay the loan the country had received to build it. The $1.12 billion deal, first announced in July 2016, allowed a Chinese state company to take over the port in Hambantota, which straddles the world’s busiest east-west shipping route, on a 99-year lease [see AiR December/2017, 3].

Soon after the Sri Lanka government succumbed to pressure from the trade unions, India asked all sides to abide by the existing understandings and commitment of the trilateral agreement. Further, India’s High Commissioner to Sir Lanka met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on February 3. [Economy Next]

On February 5, then, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) refused to provide the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) a further extension of a $400 million currency swap facility set to expire on February 1, saying that the rollover would require Colombo having a successfully negotiated staff-level agreement for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program. Commenting on reports that the denial of an extension was retributive, India’s High Commission to Colombo explained that the initial $400 million currency swap facility was provided last year for an initial period of three months and a 3-month rollover was provided lasting till the 1 February 2021 [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]. [The Hindu 2] [Tamil Guardian]

In light of Colombo’s change of heart, another event assumes added significance: As early as on January 18, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa selected a Chinese company to set up hybrid wind and solar energy projects on three Sri Lankan islands only 45 kilometers off the coast of Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. Back then, India had lodged a strong protest Sri Lanka government, citing the project site’s proximity to the Indian coastline. [The Hindu 3] [The Indian Express]

 

9 February 2021

Sri Lanka: Ethnic minorities hold protest march, while authorities celebrate Independence Day

(lm) Joint by politicians, civil and religious leaders, hundreds of ethnic Tamils began a four-day protest march from the Eastern to the Northern Province on February 3 to demand the release of prisoners and seek information on thousands of Tamils missing since the end of the country’s civil war 11 years ago. Police obtained court orders banning the protests, but thousands joined the marches anyway, shouting anti-government slogans and displaying black flags of defiance. [Tamil Guardian]

Members of the Muslim community, the second-largest minority on the island, joined the protests to demand the government to halt its policy of forced cremations of coronavirus victims. Ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permit both burials and cremations, Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka amended its rules on burials and cremations last April, making cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3].

The same day, the government held a military parade in the country’s capital Colombo to commemorate the Sri Lanka’s political independence from British rule in 1948. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa used the occasion to present himself as leader of the ethnic Sinhalese, who make up the largest ethnic group on the island, promising strong security policies and centralized leadership. [AsiaNews]

9 February 2021

Sri Lanka launches CONEX-21 naval exercise

(lm) The Sri Lankan Navy on February 7 launched the third iteration of its annual Colombo Naval Exercise CONEX- Conducted off the coast of Colombo, the exercise will also involve both naval and air assets of the Sri Lanka Air Force to enhance the interoperability over the maritime domain. [South Asia Monitor] [Sri Lanka Ministry of Defense]

2 February 2021

Sri Lanka to establish diplomatic relations with Lichtenstein

(lm) The Sri Lankan government is considering establishing diplomatic relations with the state of Lichtenstein, a member of the United Nations and a member of the European Economic Zone (EU), with a low-income tax system and a developed banking system. [ColomboPage]

2 February 2021

EU and Sri Lanka hold 23rd meeting of joint commission

(lm) The European Union (EU) and Sri Lanka virtually held on January 25 the 23 session of their EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission. During the meeting, the EU expressed its “strong concern” over import restrictions Colombo had put in place last April as a response to economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the Sri Lankan government confirmed its intent on amending the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). [Daily Financial Times]

Under the PTA, a person can be detained for periods up to 18 months (renewable by order every three months) without charge and without being produced before a judge. Human rights groups have long been criticizing the PTA, calling it an abusive law used to crack down on dissent and forcibly disappear people [see e.g., AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4].

2 February 2021

UN human rights experts call cremation of COVID-19 victims in Sri Lanka a violation of human rights

(lm) UN human rights experts on January 25 urged the Sri Lankan government to halt its policy of forced cremations of coronavirus victims, a practice they warn could exacerbate existing prejudices, religious intolerance and intercommunal violence against the country’s Muslims and other minority populations. [UN OHCHR]

Ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permit both burials and cremations, Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka amended its rules on burials and cremations last April, making cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3]. The decision to make cremation mandatory followed alleged expert advice, including by the chief epidemiologist who claimed that burials could contaminate ground drinking water. The UN experts noted that while the government in November had tasked an expert committee to reassess the mandatory cremation policy, the advice of a panel of experts to include both burial and cremations as options was allegedly ignored. [Al Jazeera]

Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations have since raised concerns over the policy, saying authorities use it to purposely hurt the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities. However, when the groups petitioned the country’s Supreme Court, citing the right to bury according to rituals as a fundamental right, the court in December refused to hear the appeal and dismissed the case [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].

2 February 2021

UN report calls for urgent steps to address worsening human rights situation in Sri Lanka

(lm) The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) has warned that Sri Lanka’s persistent failure to ensure accountability for crimes committed during its decades-long civil war has further entrenched impunity and exacerbated victims’ distrust in the system. [ColomboPage]

Among the early warning signals the report highlights are: the accelerating militarization of civilian governmental functions, reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, exclusionary rhetoric, intimidation of civil society, and the use of anti-terrorism laws. [UN OHCHR]

In the report published on January 27, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, calls on the international community to enhance monitoring and take measures against credibly alleged perpetrator of grave human rights violations, even floating the prospect of a referral to the International Criminal Court. Bachelet also suggested that Sri Lanka’s contributions to UN peacekeeping operations – which totaled 655 people as of December – must be kept under review. [The Diplomat]

The report will be formally presented to the UN Human Rights Council (UN HCR) on February 24. At its upcoming 46th session, scheduled from 22 February to 23 March, the Council will also consider the steps taken to implement the Council’s landmark 2015 resolution 30/1, although the government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last January withdrew its co-sponsorship [see AiR No. 8, February/2020, 4AiR (3/3/2019)]. During the session, all eyes will be on a bloc of countries known as the Core Group on Sri Lanka –the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro – which is expected to present a resolution on Sri Lanka [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4].

Earlier this month Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a 3-member Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate findings of preceding committees appointed to investigate allegations government troops committed war crimes during the civil war. Appointed on January 21, the commission was given 6 months to produce a final report. [AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]

 

26 January 2021

Sri Lanka: President appoints commission to look into war crime investigations of previous committees

(lm) Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a 3-member Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to look into findings of preceding committees appointed to investigate allegations government troops committed war crimes during the decades-long civil war with the Tamil separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Appointed on January 21, the commission was given 6 months to produce a final report. [The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka] [The Straits Times] [ColomboPage]

Context and timing of the announcement are noteworthy: In March, the UN Human Rights Council (UN HCR) will consider an important report by the High Commissioner on human rights, reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka. Specifically, it will consider the steps taken to implement the Council’s landmark 2015 resolution 30/1, although the government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last January withdrew its co-sponsorship from the resolution [see AiR No. 8, February/2020, 4AiR (3/3/2019)]. Observers expect a bloc of countries known as the Core Group on Sri Lanka –the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro – to present a new resolution during the upcoming meeting. [World Socialist Web Site]

What is more, in an unprecedented show of unity, Sri Lanka’s major Tamil political parties last week signed a joint statement, calling on members states of the UN HRC to declare that Colombo has failed to establish a judicial mechanism to assess violations of humanitarian international law committed during the civil war. [AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]

Between 2006 and 2013 alone, there have been at least a dozen domestic commissions of inquiry, often created to forestall international pressure on human rights. However, their findings have often gone unpublished and none has led to prosecution. Instead, successive leaders have even promoted some perpetrators of war crimes to top positions within civilian and military institutions [see e.g., AiR No. 7, February/2020, 3]. [Centre for Policy Alternatives]

19 January 2021

European Union provides EUR 35.75 million in grant to Sri Lanka

The European Union (EU) announced the signing of three grants worth EUR 35.75 million which will support Sri Lanka’s justice sector, help improve food safety, and strengthen efforts to mitigate climate change. The grants were signed on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka by Secretary to the Treasury and were presented by the Ambassador of the Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka. [ColomboPage]

19 January 2021

Sri Lankan Tamil parties call on UN to probe war crimes during Sri Lankan Civil War

(lm) In an unprecedented show of unity, Sri Lanka’s major Tamil political parties have signed a joint statement, calling on members states of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) to declare that Colombo has failed to establish a judicial mechanism to assess violations of humanitarian international law committed during its Civil War. Noting that there is “no scope” for a domestic accountability mechanism, the signatories also call for the establishment of an International Independent Investigatory Mechanism (IIIM). [Economy Next] [The Hindu] [Tamil Guardian]

Context and timing of the announcement are noteworthy: For a start, the UN HRC is scheduled to hold its 46thRegular Session from 22 February to 19 March later this year. It also comes just a week after authorities announced they would rebuild a war memorial commemorating the Mullivaikkal massacre, just two days after they had ordered its demolition [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2].

Last January, the government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa withdrew its co-sponsorship from the UNCHRC’s landmark resolution 30/1, which sought to promote reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka [see AiR No. 8, February/2020, 4AiR (3/3/2019)], instead promising to pursue a national effort to achieve “sustainable peace” through an “inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process”. However, to this date, Sri Lanka has not delivered on the commitment it made to ensure justice is served for the Tamil community. What is more, successive leaders have steadfastly refused to investigate allegations of war crimes or prosecute their perpetrators, even promoting some of them to top positions within civilian and military institutions [see e.g., AiR No. 7, February/2020, 3].

19 January 2021

Sri Lanka: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announces revival of tripartite East Container Terminal (ECT)

(lm) While meeting with trade unions, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced on January 13 the revival of the East Container Terminal (ECT) investment project to develop a deep-sea terminal in Colombo harbor. Further elaborating, the president said the terminal will be developed with 51 percent ownership by Sri Lanka’s government and the remaining 49 percent as an investment by Indian multinational conglomerate Adani Group and other stakeholders, including Japan. [Al Jazeera]

In the run-up to the general election, Colombo last year had suspended the tri-nation project, which India, Japan, and Sri Lanka were to jointly implement [see AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. New Delhi and Tokyo consider their presence in the Colombo Port a strategic necessity in the face of China’s presence in the adjacent Colombo International Container Terminal, a flagship $1.4 billion project in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. Considering that approval came after Colombo had reviewed its “regional geopolitical concerns”, the recent visit of Indian Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, assumes added significance [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].

In December 2017, Sri Lanka had handed over another deep seaport located in the south of the island after the port, after the port was operating at a loss and couldn’t generate enough revenue to repay the loan the country had received to build it [see AiR December/2017, 3]. The $1.12 billion deal, first announced in July 2016, allowed a Chinese state company to take over the port in Hambantota, which straddles the world’s busiest east-west shipping route, on a 99-year lease.

 

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 

19 January 2021

Sri Lanka: New Constitution will be tabled in Parliament before the end of the year, says minister

(lm) The government is planning to draft a new constitution and present it to Parliament before the end of this year, the minister of education said on January 18. Further elaborating, the official said an expert committee chaired by the President’s Council has already been appointed for this purpose. [ColomboPage]

12 January 2021

Sri Lanka: Authorities promise to rebuild war memorial, just two days after demolishing it

(lm) Sri Lankan authorities decided to rebuild a war memorial commemorating the Mullivaikkal massacre, just two days after they had ordered its demolition. The decision to bulldoze the statue had sparked outrage among locals, students, and politicians, who gathered late on January 9, protesting the demolition of the war memorial. [EconomyNext] [The Hindu]

During the closing stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the government under then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa between January and May 2009 in phases designated three No Fire Zones (NFZs) within territory controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Each of these NFZs was smaller than the previous, and further east towards the coast as the LTTE retreated further and further back, ultimately ending in a tiny strip of land in Mullivaikkal, a small village at the country’s northeastern coast. Even though the government had assured it would not fire in government-declared NFZs, military troops heavily shelled the area, including hospitals, UN centers and Red Cross ships, while the LTTE held hostage much of the civilian population for cover, and enforced this by shooting escaping Tamil civilians. [The Print]

12 January 2021

Sri Lanka: Government to continue cremating COVID-19 victims, despite opposition from religious minorities

(lm) The Sri Lankan government will continue to cremate those dying from COVID-19 as per the recommendation by an experts panel appointed last November [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4], the country’s health minister said on January 7, despite strong opposition from the minority Muslim community. [Outlook India]

Ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permit both burials and cremations, Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka amended its rules on burials and cremations last April, making cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3]. Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations have since raised concerns over the policy, saying authorities use it to purposely hurt the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities.

12 January 2021

United States charges 3 Sri Lankan nationals for role in 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings

(lm) A recent example of Washington’s resolve to prosecute international terrorists, three Sri Lankan nationals are facing charges in the United States for supporting an Islamic State (IS) cell. The local group, called ISIS in Sri Lanka, has been blamed for a coordinated series of suicide bombings in three Christian churches and four hotels in three Sri Lankan cities on April 21, 2019, killing more than 260 people, including five US citizens [see AiR (4/4/2019)]. [United States Department of Justice] [Colombo Gazette]

All three defendants are being held by authorities in Sri Lanka. However, it is not clear whether they will be brought to the US for trial and whether the government of Sri Lanka would agree to send them. [Voice of America]

5 January 2021

Sri Lanka: Government decides to postpone provincial council elections, citing COVID-19

(lm) After meeting with party leaders representing the ruling Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA), the government has decided to postpone the provincial council election, citing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Elections are due in eight out of Sri Lanka’s nine provincial councils. [ColomboPage]

The National Elections Commission, meanwhile, announced that the voting mechanism would be decided on only once the Provincial Council Elections Act is passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The previous government under then-President Maithripala Sirisena enacted a piece of legislation demarcating provincial boundaries in 2017 but failed to get the recommendations of the report adopted by Parliament [see AiR (3/8/2018)]. In 2019, then, the Supreme Court held unanimously that it was not lawful for provincial council elections to be held in the absence of a redrawing of the boundaries of electoral districts, thereby effectively postponing the polls until after the presidential elections. The incumbent government is yet to introduce legislation that demarcates the provincial boundaries. [Daily News] [The Hindu]

5 January 2021

Sri Lanka signs currency swap agreements with China and India

(lm) To boost its foreign currency reserves and maintain short-term foreign exchange liquidity, Sri Lanka is seeking currency swap facilities with the respective central banks of China and India combined worth $2.5 billion. The negotiations come at a time when Colombo is gearing up to repay a daunting $4.5 billion of its outstanding foreign loans this year. The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that is, desperately needs cash to service its multibillion-dollar international debts and to run a current account deficit estimated at $1.1 billion annually. [South Asia Monitor]

Colombo’s financial vulnerability is providing a fresh opportunity for both Beijing and New Delhi to deepen their influence in the island nation as they engage in a growing contest to gain the upper hand in the strategic Indian Ocean. China, which styles itself as an all-weather friend to Sri Lanka, already provided $500 million ‘urgent financial assistance’ last year, to help cope with the economic knock-on effects of the pandemic [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3]. India, in turn, provided a $400m currency swap facility last year through the Reserve Bank of India, its central bank, helping to boost the island’s reserves [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4].

5 January 2021

Indian External Affairs Minister to visit Sri Lanka between January 5 and 7

(lm) Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will pay an official visit to Sri Lanka from January 5-7 at the invitation of his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena. Scheduled to hold discussions with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Jaishankar is also expected to take up the release of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu, who had been arrested last December on charges of poaching. [Hindustan Times]

The latest in a series of effort’s by New Delhi to further smoothen bilateral relations, Jaishankar’s visit marks the second high-profile trip to Colombo in two months. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval made a three-day visit to Colombo last November, meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to discuss trade, new investments, and security amid plans to bolster bilateral ties between the two countries [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].