Sri Lanka commemorates its seventy-third anniversary of Independence today but celebrations will be conducted on a solemn and sombre note and on a relatively lower scale, given the current health crisis due to the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the country and the rest of the world.
This is the second Independence Day since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office, just over a year ago. It is also six months since the new Government assumed duties after obtaining a record near two-thirds majority at last year’s General Election. It is an opportune moment for looking ahead.
The incumbent government was elected on a platform of ensuring the country’s safety and security following the disastrous events of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks. This they have largely done, restoring confidence in the country’s Armed Forces and their ability to ensure law and order.
Easter Sunday terror attacks
The Easter Sunday terror attacks are still under scrutiny. Several Commissions of Inquiry have probed the attacks, including one appointed by this Government. The Commission appointed by President Rajapaksa handed over their report, reportedly containing over 1,000 pages, to the President this week.
The Easter attacks and the constitutional crisis in October 2018 highlighted the deficiencies created by weakening the Executive Presidency and the difficulties encountered when there were major differences of opinion between the Executive President and the Prime Minister and Parliament.
These weaknesses arose as a result of changes introduced to the Constitution by the previous government under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) therefore campaigned at the polls for a mandate to repeal the 19th Amendment.
Many political observers did not believe this was possible because repealing the Constitution required a two-thirds majority in Parliament, a near impossible target under the Proportional Representation (PR) system of elections. However, this was almost achieved by the SLPP which won 145 seats.
This was possible due to several reasons: the lack of popularity of the previous Government, the clinical efficiency with which the SLPP conducted their election campaign and the divisions within the Opposition leading to the virtual annihilation of the United National Party (UNP) at the election.
The Government then proceeded, as promised, to enact the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Despite being a few seats short of a two-thirds majority in Parliament, it was able to do so engineering eight defections from the major Opposition party, the newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).
As it reflects on its achievements of the past year and the challenges that lie ahead on this Independence Day, the Government will have to factor in the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic that has shown no signs of abating. At present, there have been 65,000 cases with 330 deaths in Sri Lanka.
Last week saw the Government commence an ambitious immunization drive in the country with the aid of vaccines received from India. More vaccines are due to arrive from China. The Government was also in discussions with Russia to manufacture the Russian Sputnik V vaccine for Sri Lanka’s population.
These developments came as the first doctor to succumb to the Coronavirus in Sri Lanka, Dr. Gayan Danthanarayana passed away this week despite the best efforts of his colleagues. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi has also been infected with the virus and is undergoing treatment.
Around this time last year, when the Coronavirus pandemic first emerged, the Government imposed a policy of strict lockdowns, enforced through a series of curfews. It was later noted that such stringent measures could not be sustained in the long term due to the hardships it caused to the population.
Thereafter, there has been a significant change in policy in dealing with the pandemic. The Government has now adopted a ‘business as usual’ model as far possible, but with restrictions, local area lockdowns and widespread testing which is a more feasible long-term strategy.
East Container Terminal (ECT)
On the political front, there have been issues that impinge on the country’s independence that the Government has had to grapple with in recent months and weeks. Among such issues making headlines was the proposal to lease the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port.
Leasing of part of the ECT to India was agreed in principle by the previous Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, there were concerns that this would not be in Sri Lanka’s best interests and would be to India’s advantage.
Former Premier Wickremesinghe clarified his Government’s position this week. He said that Sri Lanka was to retain a controlling 51 per cent stake of the ECT. Other conditions to ensure that Sri Lanka would not be at a disadvantage were being negotiated when the Government changed, he said.
There was however pressure on the present Government against entering into an agreement with India. At the same time, India was keen to go ahead with the project. There was also a work-to-rule campaign launched by the Progressive Workers Association for Commercial Industry and Services.
The matter was put to the Cabinet for a decision this week and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa indicated that the proposed investment project of the ECT with India would not go ahead now. However, the Prime Minister’s statement elicited a quick response from the Indian High Commission in Colombo.
The response stated that India hoped for the “expeditious implementation of the trilateral Memorandum of Cooperation signed in May 2019 among the Governments of India, Japan and Sri Lanka for the development of the ECT with participation from these three countries”.
Following the Cabinet meeting, the Government announced that, while operating the ECT as a wholly-owned container terminal of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, steps will be taken to develop the West Container Terminal (WCT) as a Public-Private Partnership with India and Japan.
The agreement for the WCT will be negotiated on the basis that Indian and Japanese entities will together develop the port and return it after a 35-year period and this will be in compliance with international agreements, Cabinet Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said.
The other issue that is looming ahead for the Government in the coming weeks is the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March where several countries are planning to move a resolution which is likely to censure Sri Lanka over alleged human rights violations.
This is against the backdrop of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) releasing a report which was critical of Sri Lanka. The report was released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on January 27.
In her report Bachelet said she was “alarmed by Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights situation”. She urged member countries to take action by pursuing prosecutions of alleged Sri Lankan perpetrators in national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction and by imposing sanctions.
Bachelet also called on the UNHRC to enhance the High Commissioner’s Office’s monitoring and reporting on Sri Lanka and support a dedicated capacity to collect and preserve evidence for what she called “future accountability processes, to advocate for victims and survivors”.
It will be recalled that the previous government of President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe had engaged in a co-operative exercise with the UNHRC that resulted in resolutions being passed in the Council that critics argued were inimical to Sri Lanka’s interests and advantageous to the Eelamists.
The present Government adopted a significant change of policy and had advocated a strategy of countering what is feels is propaganda that is tailored to cater to the international Eelam lobby which is still focused on prosecuting Sri Lankan authorities and the military for ending the Eelam war.
Evidence supporting this argument came when the OHCHR released a social media message stating that Sri Lanka’s failure to address past violations had heightened the risk of human rights violations being repeated. The message was carried with video footage of scenes from the war front.
Diplomats have noted that this is extremely unusual and a departure from the norm regarding communications from an office which is supposed to be impartial. “This is a total deviation from the procedure laid down in this regard. It is utterly biased,’’ Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said.
Cabinet Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said that Sri Lanka will most probably take part in the next session of the UNHRC in a virtual format and a “discerning and overwhelming reply” will be presented at the world body, highlighting Sri Lanka’s position on various allegations.
From the above responses, it is clear that Colombo is pursuing a policy of adhering to its stance of commitment to human rights but at the same time defending its actions during the final phase of the Eelam War which led to the end of a brutal conflict and has seen the advent of peace in the country.
Thus, the dawn of the nation’s seventy-third anniversary of independence has been tempered with the difficulties Sri Lanka faces in dealing with a persistent pandemic while at the same time addressing the challenges of diplomacy, both with its neighbour India as well as UN Human Rights lobbyists.