Politics of majoritarianism, security, and scams Prevailed in Sri Lanka During October

By Col. R. Hariharan

Happenings in Sri Lanka during the month of October 2021 can be summarised as “politics of majoritarianism, security, and scams”. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is known for goal-oriented action. But two of his recent decisions, the abolition of the use of chemical fertilisers, and introducing “one country, one law”, are having ripple effects, not only on economy and ethnic peace, but also on relations with China and India.

The name of one of the Rajapaksas featuring in the Pandora Papers is probably yet another scam in the making.

This month saw India making news more than once in the media. Visits by External Affairs Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Indian Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane, the Indian and Sri Lankan armies’ joint exercise, and the visit by six warships of the Indian Navy highlighted India’s sustained interest in making India-Sri Lanka relations multi-faceted.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had imposed a total ban on agrochemicals, including fertilisers and pesticides, in May to make farming totally organic. It also helped the cash-strapped Government save around $ 400 million in fertiliser imports. The President’s action was ill-timed, as the economy was already reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The tea industry and farmers cried hoarse as the shortage of fertilisers peaked and food prices shot up. In August, the Government placed an order for the import of 96,000 metric tonnes (MT) of organic fertiliser with Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group, a Chinese company.

The samples of imported fertiliser were found to contain Erwinia and other harmful bacteria when tested by Sri Lanka’s National Plant Quarantine Service. The Chinese Embassy in Colombo condemned the tests, questioning the competency of the testing agency and maintaining that the fertiliser was found sterile on testing before export.

The Department of Agriculture banned import of all fertilisers from China, and the Agriculture Ministry suspended the $ 63 million contract awarded to the company. To make up Sri Lanka’s urgent needs, India organised the supply of 3.1 million litres of nano liquid fertiliser, which were tested and found to be free of contamination.

The whole episode was a big loss of face for China. China took exception to the Sri Lankan scientists’ actions and wanted the samples tested at another laboratory “acceptable to both sides”. The Chinese Embassy has blacklisted the state-owned People’s Bank of Sri Lanka for not paying the contracted amount. Sri Lanka has now announced that it was reversing the decision on import of fertiliser to help growers of Ceylon tea, one of the main foreign exchange earners.

President Rajapaksa’s appointment of a 13-member Presidential Task Force (PTF) headed by the controversial Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera to implement the concept of “one country, one law” (OCOL) has drawn a lot of flak from Opposition parties and civil society on many counts. The PTF is tasked to “make a study of the implementation of the concept ‘one country one law’, prepare a draft act for the purpose, and submit a report by 28 February 2022″.

The announcement of a PTF on OCOL comes as no surprise; the President had used it as a slogan during his 2019 presidential campaign to garner Sinhala Buddhist votes. The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), in a statement, has pointed out the concept of “one country, one law” smacks of majoritarianism. It added that it was “by no means an expression of a desire for equality or equal protection under the law”. It also questioned the President’s style of governance through task forces.

The appointment of Gnanasara Thera to head the PTF surprised many. Main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Harin Fernando pointed out that the PTF is headed by someone who happens to be blamed by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) which probed the Easter Sundays attacks of 21 April 2019, and whom the Commission has also called to be prosecuted.

The Island aptly editorialised: “It defies comprehension why the President has handpicked, as the head of the PTF, a person who was granted a presidential pardon while serving a sentence for contempt of court, which in other words means causing an affront to the dignity of the Judiciary.” Its question: “How come the President thinks a person sentenced to jail for violating the law is fit to carry out his ‘one country, one law’ project?” though relevant, will continue to remain unanswered.
Moreover, the PTF has been constituted a few months after the Cabinet took a decision to amend the country’s Muslim personal laws. At present, The Kandyan Law and Thesawalamai Law apply to Sinhala and Tamil communities, respectively. In view of this, it is doubtful that the PTF, composed of nine Sinhalese members and four Muslims, but no Tamils, is competent to sit and evolve a concept of OCOL that would deliver justice to all ethnic communities.

India-Sri Lanka relations appear to be seriously undergoing some repair. After India came with a supply of nano nitrogen organic fertiliser to bail out Sri Lanka from the fertiliser crisis, Sri Lanka was reported to be seeking $ 500 million credit from India to pay for petroleum purchases, as the petrol shortage reached a critical stage. India may accommodate Sri Lanka’s request, as an oil shortage can cripple the country’s economy already battered by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this context, it is interesting to note an issue of Sri Lanka finalising India’s long-standing offer to develop the oil tank farms at Trincomalee came up when India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla called upon the President during his three-day visit to Colombo. Elevating the bilateral relationship to a strategic level, bolstering foreign investments, and expanding strategic co-operation in defence and Indian Ocean security are probably some of the issues the Foreign Secretary discussed with the President and the Prime Minister during his Colombo visit. He is said to have stressed the importance of taking forward long pending projects beneficial to both countries, and enhancing air and sea connectivity. He reiterated India’s position on complete implementation of the provisions under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, including devolution of powers and holding of provincial elections at the earliest.

A week after the Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit, Indian Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane visited Sri Lanka. He is also said to have underscored the importance India attaches to expeditiously taking forward mutually beneficial projects. During his meeting with the President, Gen. Naravane said India “highly expects” the stability of neighbouring countries for regional security. According to the President’s Media Division, a specially designed training course for 50 army officers will be provided to Sri Lanka in the near future at the request of the Chief of Defence Staff and the Army Commander. It is interesting to note that the India-Sri Lanka joint army training exercise Mitra Shakthi was being held during his visit.

(The writer is a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, and served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Email: haridirect@gmail.com. Website: https://col.hariharan.info)