Sri Lanka perspectives: October 2015
by R Hariharan on 09 Nov 2015 0 Comment
Dealing with war crimes and rights issues

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tabled in parliament the UN Human Rights Investigation report as well as the reports of the Udalagama and the Paranagama commissions. The two commissions were appointed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The UN Human Rights Council resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka and adopted unanimously on October 1 calls for a domestic internal inquiry involving foreign expertise over the alleged human rights violations during the 26-year long war against the Tamil Tigers that ended in 2009.


The Udalagama Commission was mandated to investigate and inquire into 15 incidents of alleged serious violations of human rights since August 1, 2005. The Commission has concluded the investigation into seven of the 15 incidents. It found the LTTE had “exposed” the girls to the air strike at Sencholai camp, which was a legitimate military target. Fifty one school girls were killed in the air attack in August 2006.


With regard to the shooting down of  17 aid workers of a French NGO in Mutur in August 2006, the panel said it was possible that LTTE “perpetrated this crime to blame the armed forces.” In respect of four other instances, including the killing of 98 Navy personnel near Sigiriya in October 2006, the panel blamed the LTTE directly or indirectly.


The Paranagama commission rejected the UN estimated figure of 40,000 as the number of people killed during the final phase of the conflict. However, it found the allegations of Sri Lankan army committing war crimes credible. It called for an independent judicial investigation into war crimes allegations. In an apparent reference to the “white flag killings” incident towards the end of the war, Paranagama has said an investigation team of the Commission would conduct an independent inquiry into the alleged extra-judicial executions of surrendered LTTE leaders.


Both President Maithripala Sirisena and the prime minister have made it clear the inquiry would be a domestic one, carried out within the parameters of the constitution. As the government sponsorship of the UN resolution has already drawn heavy criticism from the opposition, the government has the delicate task of putting together a mechanism acceptable to local and international audiences, while safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty and judicial independence.


There was near consensus on a domestic mechanism at an all-party meeting called for by President Sirisena to evolve a broad political consensus. Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader R Sampanthan asked the President to “build a process for Tamils to have confidence in the authority. Hold an impartial inquiry where the Tamils could place faith. The government would probably set up a local mechanism with judges, prosecutors and defence counsel chosen by it, assisted by expert opinion and technical expertise from foreign experts.


Sri Lanka’s dismal economic situation


The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in its 2015 report on Sri Lanka: State of the Economy, on the theme of “Economic Reforms in Sri Lanka: Political Economy and Institutional Challenges,” has examined many interrelated reforms relating to economic policy areas - trade and investment, labour market, foreign employment, education, health, social protection, agriculture and the environment. Given the array of issues, the report argues for coherence and prioritization in the design of reforms on several fronts, so that they add up to a plausible overall economic strategy to achieve sustained high growth in the long-run.


Speaking on the occasion of the release of the report, Sri Lanka’s deputy minister of state enterprise development, Eran Wickramaratne, acknowledged that the government was facing a lot of economic challenges left over by the Rajapaksa government. He said the country was facing deficit on two fronts: current account deficit as well as budgetary deficit. Sri Lanka’s export share of gross domestic product has shrunk to less than 15 percent and global market share for exports and must be reversed.


These sentiments were echoed by the Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran who said Sri Lanka’s tax system was regressive and needed to be boosted through fresh measures to reduce stress on State banks by loss-making state-owned enterprises. According to Palitha Ekanayake, former director-general at the Ministry of Rural Economy, the country’s foreign debt had grown from 36 percent of GDP in 2010 to about 65 percent; and it was likely to rise to 94 percent this year. Foreign reserves had fallen from US$ 9.1 billion in August last year to US$ 6.8 billion by the end of September this year. He added “debt installment and interest obligations already exceed government revenue. That means we have to borrow to square existing loans.”


However, we can expect the government to face political challenges in executing difficult reform options. So inevitably, it is likely to temper economic reforms considering the political and social realities. This would mean a long haul for economic recovery of the country.


Fishing in Sri Lanka waters


The apprehension of as many as 120 fishermen of Tamil Nadu fishing in Sri Lankan waters during the month triggered the vexing issue in Tamil Nadu political circles. Sri Lankans had also impounded 40 fishing trawlers, seriously affecting employment opportunities for fishermen. Stung by strong criticism of the state and central inaction on the issue by the DMK leader M Karunanidhi, a delegation of India’s AIADMK MPs met Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and sought a permanent solution to the problem. They also demanded the Centre’s immediate intervention for release of 86 Indian fishermen languishing in Lankan jails. Briefing reporters after the meeting, Mr Thambi Durai said the External Affairs Minister has assured them that the matter would be taken up with President Sirisena. The delegation also sought Rs 1520-crore special package for improving deep fishing facilities in Tamil Nadu.


Ironically, on the day the delegation met the minister, 34 more Tamil Nadu fishermen were apprehended, underlining the urgency for finding a durable solution. However, as Tamil Nadu would be going for assembly elections next year, political parties are unlikely to agree upon any consensus to resolve this issue for fear of a backlash.


Interestingly, on October 23, the Indian Coast Guard apprehended two Sri Lankan trawlers along with 29 Sri Lankan nationals off Chereapani reef in Lakshadweep waters for poaching of sea cucumber, an endangered marine species. This underlined that the problem also involves Sri Lankan fishermen fishing in Indian waters.


Written on October 31, 2015

Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group


Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, October 20015, Volume 9 No 11

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