US investors hold massive stake in stock and bond market; catastrophe if they pull out  Govt. media spokespersons lack common approach; faux pas over Afghanistan story UNHRC sessions to focus on Lanka; strong resolutions and other measures likely By Our Political Editor Media should know basics to use more than one source for a story. [...]


Iran-style economic crisis: C’wealth summit in balance


  • US investors hold massive stake in stock and bond market; catastrophe if they pull out 
  • Govt. media spokespersons lack common approach; faux pas over Afghanistan story
  • UNHRC sessions to focus on Lanka; strong resolutions and other measures likely

By Our Political Editor

Media should know basics to use more than one source for a story. Big problem in Sri Lankan media.
That gratuitous advice in the form of a tweet came from the Director (International Media) of the Sri Lanka President’s office.

There is little doubt about the wisdom of what she says. Those elements of journalism are taught to those who aspire to be hard-nosed newspersons. However, is that a big problem for the Sri Lankan media? Hardly any editor of the national media would agree there is indeed one, or that the media does not know their basics. Of course, there are the occasional misquotes or wrong stories that generate a denial. They are accommodated with corrections if the media is wrong or with strong assertions when the media is right. That is standard practice not only in Sri Lanka but the world over.

However, here is an instance where none other than the Director (International Media) of the President, has not followed the basic journalistic tenet of checking her own facts before saying what she said. That too, on her official twitter account. The cause for that public admonition was a news story that appeared in the official government website The story was picked up in Colombo by SMS news alert operators and the international media. The following account in Agence France Presse (AFP) moved across the globe gives one an idea:

COLOMBO, Feb 5, 2013 (AFP) – Sri Lanka said Tuesday it had rejected a US request to send troops to Afghanistan but retracted the claim within hours, triggering angry responses on social media about the government’s credibility.
“President Mahinda Rajapakse has rejected a call by US to send Lankan troops to Afghanistan,” the government’s information department said in an SMS news alert which was immediately rebroadcast by almost all local media outlets.US diplomats in Colombo appeared puzzled over the Sri Lankan government claim and privately said that there was no pending request.

A couple of hours later, presidential spokesman Mohan Samaranayake officially trashed the government’s own claim.”President Rajapakse has neither received nor rejected any requests by the US for Lankan troops to be sent to Afghanistan,” he said in a brief one-paragraph statement.

President Rajapakse’s own twitter account @PresRajapaksa admonished journalists to “double check facts w/multiple sources” before publishing and this drew sharp responses from Sri Lankan reporters.

“Are u saying we can’t even ‘TRUST’ what the Govt. Info is saying through its SMS service. Who can we trust?,” tweeted Gandhya Senanayake.

“So MR (Mahinda Rajapakse) wants us to verify official Gov info statements as well,” tweeted Azzam Ameen. “Journalists blamed not the Govt Info dept who created the blunder.”

How can the government information department make such a blunder. We have published the story on ______. Darn,” said another Sri Lankan reporter.

“Leaked US embassy cables had shown that Colombo expressed willingness to send troops to train Afghan forces in March 2009. It later changed its mind, fearing possible reprisals from foreign Islamic militants.

“Relations between Sri Lanka and the US have been strained as Washington pressed Colombo to probe alleged war crimes by its troops while crushing Tamil separatists in May 2009.”

It was hours after the story circulated worldwide did the Spokesperson for the President and Chairman of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), the national TV broadcaster, Mohan Samaranayake flatly denied the report. He asserted that neither has the United States requested troops for deployment in Afghanistan nor the Government of Sri Lanka rejected them. If the Director (International Media) had only checked before tweeting, the need for the President’s spokesperson to issue a denial on a story officially released by President Rajapaksa’s own Information Department would not have arisen. It seems a case of what the right hand does the left does not know. And as one veteran local language editor said using a local axiom “wandurantadelipihiyadunnahamamekathamaiwenne” (this is what happens when monkeys are given a barber’s razor) referring to the danger it portends the President when minions are given charge of using his name.

Official government spokesperson and Media Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella said an investigation was now under way. The remarks came when he briefed the media after Thursday’s weekly cabinet meeting.

Security was tight when President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Buddha Gaya on Friday. Pic by Sudath Silva

Perhaps for the first time in many years, official spokespersons have had to deny what is published or broadcast by different arms of the government. That it is becoming all too common and causing both damage and embarrassment to the UPFA government is an open secret. Such occurrences are taking place with rapid frequency, particularly at a time when the government is accusing those outside for all forms of “conspiracies and treachery.”

That their communications strategy is going awry when there should be a proactive effort is cause for concern. Yet, the events in the past weeks show, those responsible seem unaware leave alone measures for corrective action.

This is not only because Sri Lanka faces a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council later this month. The US has declared it would move another resolution. Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma arrives in Colombo today for talks amidst moves by some countries to call for the suspension of Sri Lanka’s membership. The reverberations of the controversial impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake continue to echo outside Sri Lanka. Here are a few more examples of blunders caused by the absence of a proper media strategy:

On January 31, official government spokesperson Rambukwella made a formal announcement at the weekly news briefing that Sri Lanka’s delegation to the UN Human Rights Council would be led by Minister MahindaSamarasinghe. The latter is the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights and led the Sri Lanka team at last year’s sessions of the Council. After his announcement, a government official was to confirm to the Sunday Times that Samarasinghe was indeed the team leader as reported in these columns last week. That is not all.

Based on Rambukwella’s announcement, officials in the Attorney General’s Department telephoned Samarasinghe to ask how many of them from their outfit should accompany his delegation. A source at the department said they even spoke of conducting a conference later in the week to further discuss Sri Lanka’s strategy. It has now come to light that there was no move to either designate him team leader or to ask him to fly to Geneva. President Rajapaksa has given his concurrence for Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Ariyasinha to head the country’s delegation.

Minister of External Affairs, G.L. Peiris will of course be present for a limited time. This is in marked contrast to millions of rupees being spent to send an “all and sundry delegation” last year, with some members not familiar with human rights issues. It even included a senior member of the Jamiathul Ulema now embroiled in a controversy with the BoduBalaSena over issuing “Halal” labels. Whether the new strategy in Geneva is after lessons learnt or conscious of an inevitable outcome is not clear.

That the official spokesperson of the government of Sri Lanka was ignorant of the factual situation then is one thing. During last Thursday’s media briefing, Rambukwella did an about turn. This time, he said, there was no decision still on Sri Lanka’s delegation to Geneva. He said the government would decide on its team only after “observing the developments.” If his assertion is correct, the government has two weeks to carry out its “observations.” The Human Rights Council sessions begin on February 25.

Another gaffe came when a delegation from the International Bar Association, tasked to probe the aftermath of the impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayake applied for their visas. The leader of the delegation was India’s retired Chief Justice of India Jagdish Sharan Verma. In the recent weeks, he chaired an Indian government appointed committee to probe mounting incidents of rape in New Delhi. Justice Verma, since retirement, was the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. He continues to hold a diplomatic passport. When he made his application for a visa to the Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi, it was accompanied by a letter from the Indian External Affairs Ministry.

It said he was making a private visit to Sri Lanka but Justice Verma had filled the required forms. His visa had been issued gratis. It had later been revoked. Similarly, three international jurists who obtained online visas from London also found that their visas had been cancelled. The External Affairs Ministry said that the “visit was not for the purpose of attending Conferences, Workshops and Seminars but undertaking activity surreptitiously which is of an intrusive nature to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.” That accusation by the Ministry, on behalf of the Sri Lanka government, is against a former Chief Justice of India and a team of respected judicial officers. In effect, it accuses the Indian External Affairs Ministry of being a party to a ‘surreptitious act’.

Dr Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the International Bar Association hit back in a statement: ‘It is disappointing that the Sri Lankan authorities have missed the opportunity to cooperate on a visit by respected foreign members of the legal system. It will suggest to the international community that the Sri Lankan authorities are fearful of having independent eyes on the issues of interest to the legal profession.”

The International Bar Association also contradicted the Sri Lankan External Affairs Ministry assertion that the visa application was filled wrongly. They explained how it was filled, according to the boxes that had to be ticked. There was no space in the application form for any further explanations. And in any event, the visa has been first granted, so it does not mean that the visa was filled wrongly.

It was only last Monday, President Rajapaksa declared in his address to the nation to mark the 65th anniversary of the country’s independence,” We respond to the publicity against Sri Lanka carried out abroad by inviting foreign countries to come to Sri Lanka. We have seen that the best answer to false publicity and propaganda carried out in foreign countries is development and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Do not believe something just because it is said, because you have read reports, critics have said it or the media has published it. We tell the people of the world – Come! Come Over and See for yourselves! Friends”.

But his own Government does not allow the people of the world to “Come! Come Over and See for yourselves”.
At Thursday’s media briefing, when the issue was raised, official government spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella replied “We have to also make ourselves sure to tell them that they can’t come and mess around with our Constitution and where our sovereignty is concerned. It (the impeachment) is absolutely constitutional. It cannot be questioned from anybody outside.” Would it not have been better for the government to have made clear to the International Bar Association delegation that the impeachment was “done constitutionally” and thus “it cannot be questioned from anybody outside.” This is particularly since the government insists that there was nothing wrong in the procedure used and that the Chief Justice was in fact guilty. So then, what was there to be afraid of?

There was also a faux pas in the English translation of President Rajapaksa’s address to the nation during last Monday’s National Day ceremonies.

The English version sent out by the Presidential Media Unit said “….it is not practical for this country to have different administrations based on ethnicity…’

Acting on that, the Chennai based Hindu newspaper reported that Rajapaksa has ruled out autonomy for the Tamils. DMK leader, Muthuvel Karunanidhi shot off a letter to Indian Premier Manmohan Singh not to allow Rajapaksa to visit India (last week) since he has shown his “true colours.”

However, it was later corrected in the version posted on the President’s official Website. That version said ‘…it is not practical for this country to be divided based on ethnicity.

It is in the midst of these developments that Sri Lanka is preparing to face a second US sponsored resolution at the UNHCR Council in Geneva. A document titled “Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on advice and technical assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka” was to be released anytime now. This report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillai, was to be posted on their official website.

A copy had already been handed to Ambassador Ariyasinha in Geneva. The report will list the measures adopted, and not adopted, by the government of Sri Lanka consequent to the US backed resolution moved last year. Initial accounts of the report, diplomatic sources say, expresses disappointment that many aspects of the resolution have not been implemented. The report is also said to refer to the government not responding to request for information by the office of the High Commissioner.

Diplomatic sources say High Commissioner Pillai’s report could come up under Agenda Item 2 where there will be a general debate on High Commissioner/Secretary General thematic reports. It is expected to be either on February 28 or March 1. It is also likely that issues concerning Sri Lanka would be raised under Agenda Item 4 which is “Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.” That is to take place both on Monday March 11 and Tuesday March 12. Besides this, Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report will come up for debate on March 15 between 9 a.m. and 12 noon. This report calls upon the government to give legal effect to a number of international covenants and introduce other measures. It contains brief remarks from different country representatives.

Although a 19 page Annual Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been released, there is barely any detailed reference to Sri Lanka. There is also no mention of the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. The only reference to Sri Lanka is in a chapter titled “Impunity, rule of law and democratic society.” The one-line mention states “In September, an OHCHR mission visited Sri Lanka to explore possible areas of co-operation.” Perhaps most of the other references would come in Ms Pillay’s specific report on Sri Lanka. Yet, the one-line reference is relevant in another aspect. When the OHCHR team visited Sri Lanka, the External Affairs Ministry took up the position that the visit had nothing to do with the Human Rights Council sessions last year. That claim has now been rubbished.

However, diplomatic sources say there would be mention in the latest US backed resolution to be introduced towards the end of the Council sessions. Its contours are now being drafted, as the US is reaching out to its allies in the Council, to evolve a final document. As revealed in these columns last week, India is now certain to back the US resolution much the same way it did last year. Although President Rajapaksa was on a private visit to India, this time, he has not been invited to New Delhi for meetings on the sidelines. On Friday, he was in Buddha Gaya in the state of Bihar at the invitation of the Maha Bodhi Society of India. Later in the evening, he travelled to Tirupathi in the state of Andhra Pradesh to be in time for last morning’s Supra Matham Dharshanat the famed temple- which houses Venkateswara, believed to be a form of the Hindu God Vishnu. Ventakeswara means “the Lord who destroys the sins of the people”. The temple is known for offering protection, and is now commonly known as the lord of riches because of the number of rich people who come for blessings and the amount of riches offered to it by worshippers seeking its protection.

The Indian government had enhanced security for Rajapaksa and his entourage in the wake of protests by different Tamil groups in South India. Protests were held in the state of Tamil Nadu by the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) with its frail leader M. Karunanidhi leading the black-shirted, black flag, black saree protest. His daughter Kanimozi and one-time Indian Cabinet Minister A. Rajan, both of whom recently jailed for fraud, were also in attendance. In New Delhi, the LTTE’s mouthpiece N. Vaiko led a protest and courted arrest, while sections of the Indian criminal law on unlawful assembly were invoked in the state of Andhra Pradesh to ensure Rajapaksa and his family had smooth access to the Tirupathi temple. The special Sri Lankan Airlines flight that took President Rajapaksa to South India remained there until his return. On the onward leg it was piloted by Ranga Amadoru and Kapila Gunasekera for a three hour ten minute flight. Since there were no other commercial flights out of Buddha Gaya,the two pilots remained there until the Airbus A320 returned yesterday. On the return journey it was piloted by Nimal Rambukwelle and Pravin Wettimuny for the 1.10 minutes return journey to Colombo. They all returned to Colombo last evening after performing these religious prayers. Ironically, while President Rajapaksa was praying at the 1,300 year old Thirupathi Temple, Opposition UNP Leader RanilWickremesinghe was offering prayers at Kataragama, which has a recorded history even older than Thirupathi.
The previous US resolution titled “Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka” had three main elements. They were:

(a) to call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations made in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report and to take all necessary additional steps to fulfil its relevant legal obligations and commitment to initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans.

(b) Request the Government of Sri Lanka to present, as expeditiously as possible, a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps that the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations made in the Commission’s report, and also to address alleged violations of international law;

(c) Encourage the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special procedures mandate holders to provide, and the Government of Sri Lanka to accept, advice and technical assistance on implementing the steps mentioned, and requests the Office of the High Commissioner to present a report on the provision of such assistance to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-second session.

The fresh US resolution, according to diplomatic sources, is to take note of the Sri Lanka Government for measures it has taken so far to enforce the resolution by either “welcoming” or “praising” it. However, thereafter, it is to highlight the areas where action was found wanting, the failure to address reconciliation and human rights issues as well as the impeachment of the Chief Justice. In the case of the latter, the US concerns also centre on the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary in terms of Sri Lanka’s constitution.

The latest US resolution against Sri Lanka, some analysts say, could also portend serious economic and financial consequences. This is particularly in a situation where the government has no clear strategy. The absence of one has long been demonstrated by the ineptness of the Ministry of External Affairs. It comes at a time when the Government is in the market to raise another billion dollars from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A delegation is in Sri Lanka till February 14 for what is termed an Article 1V (or annual) consultations. Colombo is using the routine meeting to make informal soundings on the possibility of a new billion dollar loan. For the standby arrangement of US $ 2.6 billion (Rs. 325 billion) obtained from the IMF, in the current year Sri Lanka would have to repay nearly $ 500 million (SDR 320) by way of interest and capital. Needless to say that a fresh facility would further increase the debt burden of future generations and become a burden for the citizen.

That naturally turns the spotlight on whether there is an imperative need for being in the good books of United States of America. That Washington wields heavy clout in the IMF is no secret. Thus, any IMF board decision to cede a new billion dollar loan would, if not officially, at least informally, carry the blessings of the State Department. These are regularly monitored by the Economic Bureau of the Office of Monetary Affairs in the US State Department. Sri Lankan diplomats, both in Washington and Geneva, have their work cut out to make sure the country does not face a financial crisis.

Although by no means forecasting such a crisis in the months to come, being prepared to avert such disasters, like the one now facing Iran becomes a fundamental requirement. A primary responsibility of Sri Lanka diplomatic missions overseas is to avert such situations. Of course, that requires able guidance from the External Affairs Ministry. That again means keeping itself well informed of developments and having a clear communications strategy instead of the current policy of just naming and shaming those expressing divergent views.

The wrong notion that “generous” financial support from China would stave off a crisis, needless to say, has to be dispelled. China’s generosity in the form of loans albeit at high commercial interest rates is with substantial insurance with their own state owned company as a safeguard towards default. The newly emerging world economic leader cannot be faulted for that. A subtle reminder of the enormous economic clout US wields on Sri Lanka surfaced when the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Michele J. Sison and the Embassy’s Economic and Commercial Affairs Counsellor Allison V. Areias-Vogel gave an exclusive interview to the Sunday Times. It appeared on January 27. They revealed what the Central Bank has jealously guarded as a top secret so far.

They announced for the first time that the US holds 75 per cent of rupee denominated and 40 per cent of the foreign currency denominated debt, making it possibly the single largest international investor in the Government’s securities market. As revealed in the Sunday Times, this means, of the total US $ 3 billion worth of rupee denominated Government securities held by foreign investors, US investors hold a massive US $ 2.4 billion. Ms Areas-Vogel was quoted as saying that “in terms of international and foreign currency dominated debt, the US holds US$ 1.4 billion worth of the total US $ 3.5 billion issuance in Sri Lankan sovereign bonds.

Several days ahead of the duo going public on the level of US investor holdings of Sri Lankan bonds, US State Department spokesperson Vicoria Nuland also sounded a note of caution. Commenting on the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake at a noon news briefing, Ms.Nuland said “We’ve also made very clear our view that actions undermining an independent judiciary would impact on Sri Lanka’s ability to attract foreign investment.” Ambassador Sison also expressed similar sentiments at an event in Matara when she said “actions that undermine an independent judiciary in Sri Lanka may also undermine Sri Lanka’s ability to attract foreign investment.”

The Sunday Times has learnt that one US investor has around a billion dollars (Rs. 125 billion). Of this amount, some US $ 800 million (around Rs 100 billion) will mature by July this year. Financial analysts say any move to dump these bonds ahead of maturity would have catastrophic consequences. However, if such a move is on maturity, there would not be a similar threat, they say, though it would hurt reserves and trigger a chain reaction. Says one analyst, “the choice in such an unforeseen situation would be to face an Iran-style financial crisis or borrow more money to maintain reserves and head for a Latin American style debt crisis.” He warns that Sri Lanka could look to friends in India and China for a bailout but the price to be paid would be colossal. However, other analysts opine that the investor in question, emboldened by the commanding position his company has now been placed, want a new deal with a newer rate of interest. Ceding that would also mean an increased debt burden.

Another area of concern for the Government is the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) Meeting to be held in Hambantota in November. The fact that the Government is making a diplomatic push to prevent the venue being changed emerged when External Affairs Minister Peiris was in London. Though Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma is due in Colombo today, Peiris still sought an appointment with him. Later, in a media statement which he sent to the External Affairs Ministry, Peiris was to assert that Commonwealth rules prevented Sri Lanka from being listed in the agenda of itsMinisterial Action Group. The remarks drew some critical responses in Colombo’s diplomatic community. “The developments in the Maldives not only led to the Maldives being listed in the agenda, but also being suspended from the Ministerial Action Group,” said a diplomat from a commonwealth country. He said there was nothing to debar Sri Lanka from being listed and added that “tough diplomatic battles lay ahead.” Peiris’s efforts in London came after Sajin Vass Gunawardena, Monitoring MP for the External Affairs Ministry,met representatives of Commonwealth countries during meetings at the London Park Lane Hilton.

The remarks underscored the heavy pressure on the Commonwealth Secretariat for action against Sri Lanka. This is particularly after the impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayke. Canada is spearheading a move for strong action. Though yet to be specified, it could be as drastic as a suspension of membership and the cancellation of CHOGM in Sri Lanka. The fact Britain, described as the mother of the Commonwealth, is yet to decide on its participation at the CHOGM in Sri Lanka is an added factor. Saying no decision has been taken by Britain, has caused concern for the External Affairs Ministry which would have been content if there was representation at some level, any level. This week, External Affairs Ministry Secretary Karunatilleke Amunugama declared that all countries of the Commonwealth would attend the summit. However, it was only a few days earlier that Alastair Burt, Under Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who has responsibility for Sri Lanka, declared that Britain was still not decided. His government’s mood is reflected in answers he gave on the twitter after his visit to Sri Lanka. Here is a sampling;

  • UK has not yet decided on level of any attendance at CHOGM
  • We look to Sri Lanka to demonstrate those Commonwealth values of good governance
  • Essential that human rights defenders are free to speak out as we continue to make clear to SL authorities
  • The war ended in 2009 but the root of the conflict as set out by the LLRC still needs to be addressed
  • Yes. Still believe that although progress been made much remains to be done.

The developments in the recent weeks show that the Government needs a communications strategy badly. Those responsible for spreading the Government’s message are not only working at cross purposes but also providing the fodder for the so called conspiracy theories. They must win over enemies and influence friends. The sooner the UPFA leaders realise this, the quicker they will learn that sizeable damage is being caused from within than outside.

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