Archive for the ‘Sri Lanka’ Category

By Sonia Sarkar


(NEWS ANALYSIS) Sri Lankan Christians had reason to worry much before the six serial blasts on the island that killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday.

April 14, 2019: A Methodist prayer center was attacked in Anuradhapura, a three and a half hour drive from the Sri Lankan Capital, Colombo. The president of the Methodist Church, Bishop Asiri Perera, was held hostage along with a number of church members by locals.

April 7, 2019: At 9:10 am, six Buddhist monks and 50 villagers entered the premises and questioned the pastor during the Sunday worship service at a church at Morawaka, a three-hour drive from Colombo. The monks allegedly accused him of carrying out religious services illegally. A policeman dressed in civilian clothes arrived to look into the legal documents and allegedly assaulted a congregant who tried to record the proceedings.

April 2, 2019: At 11:30 pm, a pastor’s home in Medirigiriya, a four-hour drive from Colombo, was allegedly attacked by unidentified individuals.

March 19, 2019: At Ja-Ela, a suburb of Colombo, a mass protest reportedly led by over 1,000 people held outside a church demanding its closure.

On Tuesday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and upscale hotels, targeting Christians and citizens of countries fighting ISIS. Based on early investigations, the Sri Lankan health minister Rajitha Senaratne had blamed the homegrown Islamic militant group National Thowheed Jamaath for the attacks. ISIS has repeatedly called on its followers worldwide for attacks on churches.

Sri Lanka is 70 percent Buddhist. Just over 15 percent are Hindus, about 10 percent Muslims and seven percent Christians. Christians are often ostracized and labeled as “unpatriotic.” For example, the majority of state-run schools do not teach Christianity as a subject but teach Buddhism or Hinduism. And while Sri Lanka calls itself a secular state, its constitution calls for the state “to protect and foster… the teachings of the Buddha.” Other religions are not given the same fundamental right of state protection.

In the past two years, Sri Lankan Christians have been attacked by various hardline Buddhist and Hindu groups. Minor Matters, a public movement dedicated to protecting the rights and liberties of religious minorities in Sri Lanka, recorded 40 incidents of discrimination, violence, and intimidation targeting Sri Lanka’s Christian community so far this year. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), a collective of 200 churches and organizations, reported 86 incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians in 2018.

In September last year, a group of about 100 people stopped the worship of a church at Beliatta, Hambantota District. They damaged the window of the church and two motorcycles parked outside, and removed religious symbols hanging at the front door. In 2017, after a Sunday morning service, a group of about 50 people, including Buddhist monks, forced entry into a Christian Fellowship Church in Ingiriya and threatened the priest. According to NCEASL, there were 97 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation and violence in 2017.

Recently, there has also been tension between Hindus and Christians. Last year, some Hindus allege that more than 200 Christians in Mannar led by a pastor attacked a group of Hindus when they were building a temple on land reserved for them. Some Hindus also allege that a Christian mob tore down a Hindu temple archway in March. Meanwhile, Christians are concerned about a growing number of radical Hindu groups under the umbrella of the India-based Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Sectarian violence in Sri Lanka has also made international headlines recently after a series of attacks against Muslims by the hardline Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Last year, a young BBS monk raised a battle cry against Muslim Sri Lankans by saying, “The sword at home is no longer to cut jackfruit; so, kindly sharpen it and go.” Again last year, monks circulated posts on Facebook accusing Muslim shopkeepers of mixing sterilization pills in food meant for Buddhist customers.

Some sections of Sri Lankan Buddhists continue to justify the actions of the BBS as preventing what they see as an erosion of Buddhist values and the dominant place of Buddhists in Sri Lanka, according to the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES).

The Muslim community had always been a staunch supporter of the Sinhala-Buddhist political establishment, as it similarly suffered at the hands of the LTTE rebel group, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who expelled all Muslims from northern provinces. The anti-Muslim propaganda has been widely spread across the country.  Now that the ISIS has taken responsibility of the Easter attacks,  Muslims in Sri Lanka may be subjected to more atrocities owing to public outrage. No one knows yet what that will mean for Christians.

A version of the story appeared in Religion Unplugged on April 22, 2019:

There is a trend among some Buddhist monks to rage against Muslims on social media

By Sonia Sarkar

Radical rage: Bodu Bala Sena monks clash with police while calling for the release of Gnanasara Thero

Lately, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have been losing their temper a little too often. There was that incident from March this year, when a young monk raised a battle cry against Muslim Sri Lankans. “The sword at home is no longer to cut jackfruit; so, kindly sharpen it and go,” he exhorted. In September, when three men bared their bottoms at the sacred Buddhist site of Pidurangala Rock, had pictures taken and posted them on Facebook, the Buddhist clergy erupted. The flashers were eventually arrested. In the first case, the violent message was put out on YouTube and Whats-App. In the second, social media seethed with hate and threats.

Many violent posts by the monks have been reported in the past one year. These related to national politics, loss of Sinhalese lives in the civil war against Tamilians and anti-Muslim rants. The last category is probably the most rampant and robust. (The Sinhalese are the ethnic group native to Sri Lanka.)

One Facebook post said, “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant.” A photograph of some makeshift weapons against a list of targets was circulated on WhatsApp by a monk. It read: “Thennekumbura mosque and the mosque in Muruthalawa tonight. Tomorrow, supposedly Pilimathalawa and Kandy.” Another YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray. They say this is close to their culture. They want to claim that their faith is like ours…”

Earlier this year, monks also circulated posts on Facebook accusing Muslim shopkeepers of mixing sterilisation pills in food meant for Buddhist customers. Around the same time, a truck driver at Medamahanuwara in Kandy was beaten up over some petty traffic dispute, but monks spread the fake news that Muslims had killed him. Reason cited: apparently it was part of their larger strategy to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority.

That as many as 25 Buddhist monks are in jail for committing some hate crime or the other is proof that not all is well between Sri Lanka’s communities.

Most of the radical posts have come from monks who believe in the extremist ideology of Buddhist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Ravana Balaya, Sinhala Ravaya and Mahasohon Balakaya.

Buddhist monks have set out on a mission to “protect” the motherland and they are trying to enlist mostly uneducated and unemployed youth from the lower middle classes into their fold. A senior Sinhalese monk tellsThe Telegraphover phone from Colombo, “Inn ko jawani ka josh hai… These monks are young and hot-blooded.” He does not sound appreciative at all.

In March, soon after violence instigated by social media posts went out of control, the Sri Lankan government declared a state of Emergency and temporarily blocked access to social media platforms. Facebook, which has over 55,00,000 users in Sri Lanka, was also asked to introduce more filters on Sinhalese content and hire Sinhalese-speaking content screeners besides instituting a direct point of contact with local authorities.

Post crackdown, some Facebook pages have become dormant. Messages to the Facebook pages maintained under the BBS name remain unanswered. According to those in the know, BBS is one of the most violent groups.

Amalini De Saryah of the Colombo-based civil society group, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), studies these groups and their activities on social media. She says, “While we can’t be sure which of the dedicated hate pages and groups have been created by the monks themselves, we’ve seen both public profile and personal profile pages in monks’ names, sometimes sharing posts with violence or hate speech and commenting in support of other posts that do the same.”

Researchers who have been studying changes in Sri Lankan society point out that “religious confrontation” has started to supersede ethnic confrontation post-2009 — when the Sri Lanka Armed Forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

In fact, a paper titled “Self, Religion, Identity and Politics” by the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) states, “What was considered to be ‘radical’ in the 1980s was no longer valid twenty years later. There are also certain kinds of “radicalism”, which the Buddhist public may find acceptable… For some sections of the Buddhist polity, even the actions of the BBS were legitimate and valid, and the BBS activism was a justifiable intervention to prevent what they saw as the erosion of Buddhist values and the place of Buddhists and Buddhism in our country.”

Some regard the involvement of Buddhist monks in hate politics as a recent development and a response to Islamist fundamentalism. These people allege that Muslims are attacking pagodas, destroying Buddhist colonies, cutting their sacred peepal trees and constructing mosques everywhere.

But traditionally, Muslims in Sri Lanka have been accommodative and maintained cordial links with Sinhalese Buddhists.

From time to time, Sinhalese Buddhists have argued that they are the majority in Sri Lanka and therefore they must rule. They also say that there is no other country for Sinhalese Buddhists, and hold that they are a minority in the world and must protect their race. It seems, in this fight to protect their kind, some monks are going to extremes and are unprepared to heed saner voices even from within the community.

Social scientist Pathiraja explains, “Earlier, monks played a significant role in the village temples. They were considered leaders of villages. With time, temples have become irrelevant. But the monks wanted to get back their lost recognition in society. How else could they do it other than by using religion as a tool? And that is why they created the notion of an ‘enemy’ by showing people that the growing Muslim population is trying to eliminate the Buddhists from their own land, by extremism.”

YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray.
YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray.”Image: Facebook

Recalling a conversation he had had with the hardliner, Gnanasara Thero, a professor of Buddhism at Colombo’s Buddhist and Pali University, he says, “When I asked him to change his way of speaking, he used cuss words I have never heard before.” Gnanasara Thero is currently languishing in jail on charges of contempt of court. Adds the professor who does not want to be identified, “They (radical monks) are doing it in the name of nationalism.”

That’s not a new phenomenon. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anagarika Dharmapala, the father of Buddhist Protestantism in Sri Lanka, founded Buddhist schools and strengthened the Sinhala language and Buddhism. When the Sri Lankan Constitution was framed in 1972, it said Buddhism has the foremost place and, accordingly, it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana. A Sinhala army song, said to be composed by a Buddhist monk, goes thus: “Linked by love of the religion and protected by the Motherland, brave soldiers, you should go hand in hand.”

Mario Gomez, executive director at the Colombo-based research group, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, talks about how these violent monks enjoyed tacit support of the State under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidentship — especially between 2009 and 2015. Rajapaksa’s brother and former defence minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is considered close to the BBS monks. He was also the chief guest at the opening of Meth Sevana, the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS, in 2013.

With the political equations fast changing in Sri Lanka, the fear is that radical monks will get a new lease of life. Some reports suggest that an appeal has been submitted to the government by hardline monks to release Gnanasara Thero on bail. “It’s a lull so far as violence by monks is concerned, but it might be unleashed the moment he is out,” says the professor from Pali University.

A young monk, Ratana Nanda Bhante, who has chosen to separate himself from his violent peers, says, “BBS is bringing a bad name to the entire community. People think all Buddhist monks are violent. The problem is some monks apply their intellect to save the nation, some adopt militancy. But in Buddhism, there is no place for militancy.”

Published in The Telegraph, November 25, 2018


Interview of Mario Gomez on State’s relationship with Buddhist monks:

Q.  Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have always participated in the national politics and charted hate politics in Sri Lanka. What are the recent changes noticeable in their conduct?


A. Buddhist monks have always played a role in politics: they were involved in the assassination of a Prime Minister in the 1950s and have been Members of Parliament! Yet, it would be incorrect to say that they have always advocated ‘hate politics’.  There are many political opinions within the Buddhist sangha. Some have been vocal, violent and have advocated strong nationalist positions. Others have been moderate and have advocated for more tolerant views and the celebration of diversity, more in line with the Buddha’s precepts and teachings. Unfortunately, the more extreme views have dominated the public discourse and the media, especially in recent times. In recent times, mainly because of tacit support from the State (especially between 2009 and 2015) the more radical groups have engaged in hate speech and other violent  activities against other ethnic and religious groups. There was impunity till very recently: the Buddhist clergy were seen as being above the law. However, recently the courts have become more independent and robust. There was a particularly important judgement in August 2018 where a well-known radical Buddhist monk was convicted of contempt of court under the Constitution. This is probably a ‘first of its kind’. There was also a recent case (July 2018) where a religious minority (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) succeeded in a fundamental rights case on the grounds of illegal arrest and the violation of equal protection of the law. One of the problems in Sri Lanka has been the lack of law enforcement, especially in the case of anti-Muslim violence. Police have stood by and let mobs attack Muslims. In some case they have actively participated in the violence. Law enforcement officers need to enforce the law, and the Attorney General’s Department needs to prosecute violations of the law, if ethno-religious relations in Sri Lanka are to improve. 

Q. Are they using social media as a tool to spread hatred as their target is the youth because youth shapes the nation?

A. Radical Sinhala Buddhist groups are increasingly using social media to spread hatred. In the recent riots in Digana, Kandy, social media was used to incite people to commit violence. They are targeting youth and other groups that may subscribe to their ideology of ‘hate’. Building a counter-narrative to hate speech is important, both in the social media and other domains.

Q.  Are  these radical monks taken seriously by the youth of Sri Lanka? Do they have enough followers? What impact do they have on the youth?
A. Some radical monks have a following. It is unclear however, to what extent. In recent times, many of the radical monks received prominence because of tacit support from the State.  While radical monks will continue to advocate for their extreme positions, support from the state exaggerates the influence they have and their importance.  My sense is that most Sri Lankans favour moderation. Yet sometimes the space for moderate voices to speak is missing.  All institutions of the state need to celebrate diversity and promote a culture of tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity. The Police and the Attorney-General’s Department need to act impartially and ensure that law and order is maintained, and that perpetrators of hate speech and religious violence are prosecuted, irrespective of whether they are members of the clergy or not. 



– He was once referred to as ‘rajarshi’, or the wise one. Today, four years into his term as chief minister of the island nation’s Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran has alienated nearly all with his fickle ways. Sonia Sarkar reports.


Four years ago, when Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Wigneswaran took the plunge into Sri Lankan politics, he was, in his own words, a “reluctant politician”. Today, everyone else – his own party and the alliance it is part of – has turned reluctant about him and his brand of politics. “Nobody really knows what is going on in his head,” says a senior Tamil nationalist politician of Sri Lanka, who does not want to be identified.

In July 2013, Wigneswaran, a former judge of the Sri Lanka Supreme Court, was named the chief ministerial candidate by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – the political alliance that represents the Sri Lankan Tamil minority – for the upcoming election to the Northern Provincial Council.

The north had been the stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or the LTTE, Vellupillai Pirabhakaran’s feared armed formation that once fought for a separate Tamil state, arguing that the community had been discriminated against under successive majority Buddhist Sinhalese parties. The civil war ended in 2009, but not before it had ravaged the Northern Province in every possible way.

The 2013 elections were the first in the region since the end of the 26-year-long civil war. That year, Wigneswaran contested from Jaffna, won, and became the first Tamil chief minister of the Northern Province.

Considered a moderate in his pre-politics avatar, Wigneswaran started to change his spots at the time of campaigning itself. One of the first giveaways of the hardliner stirrings within him surfaced when he hailed the deceased Prabhakaran and likened him to Keppetipola, a Sinhalese rebel at the time of the British rule.

Four years down the line, Wigneswaran’s transformation is complete. Tamil politicians claim he is a complete hardliner. It’s an open secret that the TNA boss, R. Sampanthan, who handpicked Wigneswaran to contest the 2013 polls, isn’t happy with him.

In 2015, when Wigneswaran floated a group called Tamil People’s Council (TPC) including a section of leaders from the TNA, the extremist Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), the academia and civil society members, it was perceived as Wigneswaran’s first open challenge to Sampanthan’s leadership.

Then again, during the 2015 parliamentary elections, Wigneswaran supported the more extremist TNPF. After Maithripala Sirisena took over as Sri Lanka’s President, representatives of the country’s main Tamil party, the TNA, attended the Independence Day function in Colombo, signalling a potentially new era of cooperation between the Sinhalese and Tamil political leadership, but Wigneswaran was against it.

And now, many say, Wigneswaran wants to succeed Sampanthan as TNA chief, upon the latter’s retirement, though the buzz is Sampanthan and others want to hand over the mantle to the younger and more dynamic M.A. Sumanthiran.

Recently, some TNA leaders openly revolted against Wigneswaran when he asked two of his ministers – P. Sathyalingam and B. Deniswaran – to go on leave on charges of corruption without any substantial evidence against them. Twenty-one of the 30 TNA councillors of the Northern Provincial Council demanded his resignation. Even Wigneswaran’s own party, the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), is upset with him. Party chief Mavai Senathirajah is open about it. He says, “Only two ministers were found guilty of corruption related to irregular transfer of teachers and renovation of agricultural wells. But Wigneswaran asked Deniswaran and Sathyalingam to go on leave even before the inquiry was over. This was absolute high-handedness,” ITAK president Senathirajah tells The Telegraph over phone from Jaffna.

Another accusation levelled at Wigneswaran is that he is whimsical. “There is no consistency in his statements. He will say something today and then retract his own statement tomorrow. He is not a mature politician,” Senathirajah adds. In 2014, he had insisted that the word “genocide” be dropped when the National Provincial Council passed a resolution calling for an international probe into human rights violations in the Northern Province. But a year later, he himself moved the “Genocide Resolution” accusing successive Sri Lankan governments of committing genocide against Tamils.

Senathirajah says, “He has fallen prey to the ‘hidden’,” but won’t elaborate on the “hidden”. Political experts, however, say it a reference to the backroom boys – Tamil hardliners of civil society, ultra-nationalist leaders and radical academics of Jaffna – advising him at every step.

In a 2016 TPC rally, Wigneswaran spoke against the erection of Buddhist statues in the Northern Province. A staunch Hindu, he is mostly aggressive at public meetings. He is also anti-Centre and never forgets to point out how the Centre never bothered to rehabilitate LTTE cadres and war widows. The pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora, that pumps in a lot of money for developmental work in Jaffna, love to hear this, a Jaffna-based political expert adds.

The Telegraph‘s efforts to contact Wigneswaran via texts, email and phone, did not elicit a response. But Veerasingham Anandasangaree, leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front or TULF, who is openly pro-Wigneswaran and anti-Sampanthan, says, “Wigneswaran has a lot of local support. It’s only a section of TNA leaders who consider him radical.”

Some say, it’s a well-thought political strategy. “A section of Tamils used to see Wigneswaran as the Colombo man. He was born in the capital Colombo and schooled in Kurunegala and Anuradhapura before entering the elite Royal College, where children of Sri Lanka’s ruling class enrol. He wanted to be more accepted by common Tamils, by speaking against the Centre,” says an ITAK official.

India too is not exactly ecstatic about Wigneswaran’s radical views. Top officials at the Indian High Commission in Colombo have apparently urged him to stop all radical posturing that could jeopardise the Lankan government’s bid to find an amicable solution to the long-standing Tamil question. India would rather he focused on the welfare of Tamils instead.

Senathirajah, however, alleges that Wigneswaran, who projects himself as the messiah of Tamils, has done very little for them on the ground. Unemployment, widespread indebtedness, deteriorating social and educational institutions, and rising social violence, remain the concern of the Tamil people. “He is not even allowing industries to come to the Northern Province,” Senathirajah adds.

The Indian Chambers had organised the Jaffna Trade Exhibition in May this year. Many Indian entrepreneurs attended it, but Wigneswaran stayed away.

Even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Jaffna in 2015, Wigneswaran’s focus was not development. Instead, he requested Modi to release four rape convicts, followers of Swami Premananda, whom he held in high regard. Premananda himself was convicted of multiple rapes and murders in 1997.

“He should have asked for more houses and rehabilitation packages for Tamils from the Indian PM. Or he should have raised the issue of fishermen, where our men suffer because of the south Indian fishing trawlers. Instead, he asked for something which has nothing to do with his chief ministership,” says Douglas Devananda, leader of Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and member of the Sri Lankan Parliament.

Every time fingers are pointed at his poor administration, Wigneswaran blames Colombo for not giving enough powers to the Northern Provincial Council. But according to Devananda, he returned 80 per cent of the funds allocated by Colombo for the development of the Northern Province.

His detractors say that he has done nothing for the sectors he is in charge of as the CM. “Sectors such as health, education, agriculture, fisheries and industries are in his hands. What work has he done?” asks Senathirajah.

Wigneswaran better have the answers before the provincial council elections next year.


The major bone of contention between the Northern Province and the central government is the 13th Amendment, a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord

It establishes provincial councils. Also prescribes devolution of powers related to land, police, health, education, finances, tax collection, housing and construction to the provincial councils

The reality, to date, is different. For instance, the central government continues to formulate policy with regard to land use. All major financial powers and imposition or abolition of tax lie also with the Centre. And so does law and order, and national security

Wigneswaran wants devolution of powers in all sectors.

Link :

minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province

The war in Sri Lanka may be over, but the battles continue. The 30-year-long civil war in the Northern Province ended five years ago. Yet, for the people of this troubled area, there is no end to the conflict.

“The official war has ended but the unofficial war has just started,” says C.V. Wigneswaran, the province’s first Tamil chief minister.

Four years after the rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was wiped out by the Sri Lankan army, elections were held in the war-torn Northern Province of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya. Wigneswaran was appointed the CM in the 2013 polls, which was held after 25 years.

The chief minister, who was in Delhi last week to attend the World Hindu Congress, organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, may be looking at informal alliances in India. “There is need of Hindu solidarity as far as the Northern Province is concerned. So I came,” he says in his first interview to an English paper in India after his election.

Many Sri Lanka watchers in India, however, stress that Wigneswaran’s attitude towards India has been ambivalent. For instance, he refused to be part of the Sri Lankan delegation, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May.

“It was nothing against India,” he clarifies. “By asking me to be part of the delegation, Rajapaksa wanted to show the world that we were all together. That was nonsense.”

How does he compare the two leaders of the neighbouring nations? “Modi is like Rama and Rajapaksa is like Ravana,” he laughs. Does he see Modi as a strong leader? “He could be strong but those who are strong need to be humane too. Your humanity shouldn’t be deadly,” he replies.

The chief minister is more direct when asked to comment about the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which have been espousing the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Wigneswaran believes that it’s time they stopped worrying about the Lankan Tamil community.

“There is no need for the political parties in the South to become our spokespersons. Now we are here to voice the issue of Tamils.”

A staunch critic of Rajapaksa, Wigneswaran says that his presidency is no less than a dictatorship. He accuses the government and the army of human rights violations.

The huge presence of the army in the Northern Province is a reason the region is still troubled. “The soldier to civilian ratio in the north is 1:8,” Wigneswaran says. “Acres of lands have been taken by the army to set up camps. There are areas where even I, as chief minister, cannot enter without the permission of the army,” he complains.

He blames the “flawed” 13th Amendment for much of the province’s problem. The amendment was a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, signed by then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene.

Under this, the “only official with executive powers” is the governor, who is appointed by the President. “Without the governor’s approval, the council and the chief minister are ineffective,” he points out.

He says that there is starvation in some areas of the province, but the government has neither given it funds nor allowed the UN World Food Programme to reach out to the people. He also accuses the government of discriminating against Tamil fishermen who, unlike Sinhalese anglers, are not allowed to use trawlers.

What about the issue of Indian fishermen who are often jailed in Sri Lanka? On Wednesday, Modi thanked Rajapaksa in Kathmandu for releasing five Indian fishermen sentenced to death for drug trafficking.

Wigneswaran is not impressed. “Rajapaksa wants to show the world that he is majestic enough to oblige Modi by releasing the five fishermen,” he says. But the irony, he says, is that three Sri Lankan fishermen, who were also sentenced to death in the same case, have not been pardoned.

Wigneswaran, who calls himself a “reluctant” politician, was a judge in Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court and a fierce critic of Rajapaksa even before he joined politics.

Getting into politics was accidental, he explains. He was persuaded to fight the election five months before the polls by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a conglomeration of five groups – Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi, the Tamil United Liberation Front, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation. The TNA won 30 seats in the 38-member provincial council.

He believes that India should now follow in the footsteps of the European Union and lift the ban on the LTTE. The 75-year-old politician, sitting in his room in a five-star hotel in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, Chanakyapuri, shrugs off apprehensions voiced by Sri Lankan government officials that giving away too much power to the Tamil-dominated TNA could lead to the resurgence of the LTTE.

“This is nonsense. There has been no activity of violence for five years,” he says.

Wigneswaran believes that Rajapaksa’s popularity is diminishing in Sri Lanka and he predicts that he will face a drubbing in snap polls scheduled for January 8, 2015. Rajapaksa’s fading popularity is evident from the fact that his party won the recent polls in the southeastern province of Uva, but with 21 per cent fewer votes than in 2009. Many members of his government and party, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, have joined the Opposition, unhappy about the concentration of power round Rajapaksa and his family members who hold key positions in the government.

“The Rajapaksa family has taken control of the economy, power and the party in the country. They should go,” he says.

Lanka regrets Singh cancellation

Sri Lanka has described as “unfortunate” Manmohan Singh’s absence from last month’s Commonwealth meeting in Colombo and denied information about a visit by the Prime Minister announced by finance minister P. Chidambaram last week.

“It was unfortunate that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo,” Sri Lanka’s high commissioner in India Prasad Kariyawasam told The Telegraph over a fortnight after the November 15-17 conclave.

The envoy’s comments come days after Chidambaram told a Chennai conference that the Prime Minister would visit Sri Lanka’s war-scarred northern province of Jaffna.

Chidambaram had mentioned no dates for Singh’s visit at the conference, whose theme was “Sri Lankan Tamils’ right to livelihood and India’s stand”. The finance minister had, however, justified as “wise” the Prime Minister’s decision to skip the Commonwealth (CHOGM) meeting and send foreign minister Salman Khurshid instead.

But high commissioner Kariyawasam termed Singh’s decision an “opportunity lost”. He said not only would have Singh’s presence at the CHOGM been widely applauded, he would have also had the chance to see the “enormous progress” in the work done with Indian help in the northern province of Jaffna that is home to Tamils.

“The progress we have made in the northern province with Indian help is enormous. Had the PM visited Jaffna for CHOGM, he would have been able to see it himself. It would have helped the India-Sri Lanka partnership and the reconciliation process further. It was an opportunity lost,” Kariyawasam said. The envoy said the Lankan government had no information about any forthcoming visit by Singh.

Sources said Colombo had got an impression that it was Chidambaram and defence minister A.K. Antony who persuaded the Prime Minister not to attend the meeting to protest alleged rights violations of Tamils in the civil war with the LTTE and its aftermath.

Pressure had also come from Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, who repeatedly urged Singh to stay away, and an Assembly resolution calling on the Centre to boycott the CHOGM meet.

But Colombo voiced dismay. “It is sad that Manmohan Singh succumbed to internal pressures without thinking about the long-standing relationship between the two countries,” a senior official in the Sri Lankan high commission here said.

A diplomat in Delhi said President Mahinda Rajapaksa was “highly disappointed”. “When heads of all states were arriving at CHOGM, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif got the biggest applause. This applause would have gone to Singh if he had attended the meeting because he would have appeared as the tallest leader of the region who did not succumb to any internal pressure,” the diplomat said.

Speaking at the Chennai conference, Chidambaram said Singh would during the forthcoming trip meet the newly elected chief minister of the northern province, C.V. Wigneswaran, who had invited Singh earlier to visit Jaffna.

But some parties in Sri Lanka are not happy about Singh’s proposed visit. John Amaratunga, a senior leader of the main Opposition United National Party, is opposed to it because Singh did not attend the Commonwealth meet.

Other Sri Lankan officials said India’s leverage on the island nation had been reduced. “Now, we will not feel obliged to do things India tells us to do. For example, we conducted the northern province elections because Congress leaders here (in India) persuaded us to do so. We are afraid we will not have such negotiations with this (UPA II) government in the future,” a Sri Lankan official said.

Sri Lanka conducted the provincial polls in north in September after 25 years according to the 13th Amendment, which was a byproduct of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in 1987 and focused on the devolution of powers to provinces. Since the conflict in Jaffna ended in 2009 after LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan Army, there have been allegations that the Rajapaksa government has engaged in toruture and killings of the Tamil minority.

Widespread protest by human right actvists worldwide also provoked British Prime Minister David Cameron to demand that the Sri Lankan government order an independent inquiry on war crimes by March next year.  But Colombo is defiant about not accepting deadlines from Cameron.

“We do not accept deadlines from other countries. Deadlines in democracies are determined only by their own people,” Kariyawasam said.

“We require time and space to solve issues. External interference is counter productive. It can vitiate the carefully nurtured reconciliation process. The current excessive international attention by some parties in the West and in Tamil Nadu is a product of a campaign by Tamil separatist elements who are determined to bring disrepute to Sri Lanka and to get even with Sri Lanka for defeating the separatist LTTE,” he added.


But Sri Lanka has started counting the number of people dead, wounded or missing in the civil war.  “We are doing it primarily because it was a recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the Government in 2010,” Kariyawasam clarified.

( A shorter version of the story appeared in The Telegraph, December 5,2013)

Lanka regrets Singh cancellation

Sri Lanka’s move to review — and perhaps repeal — the 13th amendment to its constitution has sent India in a tizzy.

It seems India’s troubles with its neighbours will never cease. Even as Pakistan keeps up the pressure on the line of control, another neighbour, Sri Lanka, seems to be gearing up to make India uncomfortable. In Sri Lanka’s case, the issue is a legal one — albeit something that is the internal matter of that country.

Sri Lanka has formed a Parliament select committee to review the 13th amendment to its Constitution. A product of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, signed between former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene in 1987, the 13th amendment created provincial councils in Sri Lanka. There was devolution of powers related to land, police, health, education,finances, tax collection, housing and construction to the provincial councils, which were to work on the model of India’s state governments. The amendment came into being mainly to safeguard the interests and rights of Tamils who were agitating for self-determination and separate statehood in the northern province of Jaffna. The accord also made Tamil, along with Sinhala, one of the official languages of the country.

Needless to say, India is concerned about the possibility of Sri Lanka doing away with the amendment as that may impact the interests of ethnic Tamils in the country. Especially as provincial polls are going to be held in September after 25 years.

But Sri Lanka feels that the 13th amendment has lost its relevance today. “When Sri Lanka was a conflict state, the 13th amendment was thought to be a solution. But we have peace now. This is the time for reconciliation, reconstruction and development,” says Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lankan high commissioner to India.

Sources in the Sri Lankan government too assert that the provincial council system was “forced on Sri Lanka” by an external power like India. Hence, doing away with it would be the best option.

But that argument doesn’t go down well with India. “Sri Lanka’s 13th amendment is a constitutional provision. So we want the Lankan government to wait till the provincial councils come into being. We want to ensure that it follows a political process for deciding the fate of 13th amendment,” says a ministry of external affairs (MEA) official, adding that the decision to dilute or repeal the provision should take place only after the September elections.

But strategic affairs experts say that Sri Lanka is ignoring this plea, leading to huge embarrassment for India. “It would be a slap on India’s face if Sri Lanka dilutes or repeals the 13th amendment,” says V. Suryanarayan, former director of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. “India should pursue this harder as it has to live up to the commitment that it has made to the Tamils in Sri Lanka that it cares for them,” he says.

Experts say that there is a conflict of interest between India and Sri Lanka over the 13th amendment. India thinks this is the best mechanism to safeguard the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka while the latter is clearly not convinced.

“It is not sacrosanct since we have run into problems in implementing the provisions relating to land and police powers,” says Kariyawasam.

Many say that the 13th amendment was drafted in a way that control in most affairs related to land and police remained in the hands of the central government. As it stands now, land is a provincial subject as all rights related to land tenure, transfer and alienation of land use and settlement are enjoyed by the provinces. But there is a national land commission set up by the central government that formulates policy with regard to land use. And the 13th amendment states that the powers shall be exercised by the provincial councils with due regard to the national policy.

The situation is the same in the case of police powers. Public order and the exercise of police powers related to law and order is supposed to be under the provinces, but not national security.

In fact, the Sri Lankan government now seems to want to do away with the powers related to land and police that were given to the provinces. “A dominant section of the United People’s Freedom Alliance government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa feels that since the limited police and land powers vested with the provinces were not practically implemented, there should be a move to devolve only the implementable portions,” says N. Manoharan, a Delhi-based independent researcher.

Experts also say that the Lankan government wants to do away with the 13th amendment before the provincial elections in September because it fears that if the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) comes into power, the latter will demand that the 13th amendment be implemented in full.

Kariyawasam won’t admit that the TNA is a cause of worry. But, he says, “Our provincial councils have not matured enough to handle the full range of police powers. We fear that these powers could be misused.”

However, the Government of India too has its compulsions in seeing to it that Sri Lanka does not follow through on its move to ditch the 13th amendment. Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh twice to urge Sri Lanka not to repeal or dilute the amendment. And last month Singh assured her that India was serious about the devolution of political powers to ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka and would ensure that they were “masters of their own destiny within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.”

Naturally, the powers that be in Sri Lanka resent India’s position on this. “India is trying to pacify its local Tamil political parties by creating a noise about this. There is an impression in Sri Lanka that India is meddling too much into our internal matters,” says a senior Sri Lankan government official.

But the Indian government refutes these allegations. “There is no internal pressure,” insists an MEA official.

But experts say that if Sri Lanka does dilute or repeal the 13th amendment, Lankan Tamils might be greatly aggrieved. “The disgruntlement may lead to conflict in the north again. And it is India’s responsibility to see that there is no new trouble in the neighbourhood,” says P. Sahadevan of South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

So India is clearly caught between a rock and a hard place here — putting pressure on Sri Lanka will be construed as meddling in its internal affairs and not doing so will be treated as a reluctance to safeguard the interests of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamils. It remains to be seen how the Indian government tackles the problem.

Lanka’s Legal Salvo