Foreign Ministry slow in handling Sri Lanka’s response to tough resolution in the US Congress Has the Ministry outsourced policymaking to the Pathfinder Foundation? Cardinal launches his strongest attack on the Govt; calls for course correction before further damage is done to the country Medical specialists say death toll and casualty figures are underreported in [...]


Proactive professionalism the need of the hour as public unease on the rise


  • Foreign Ministry slow in handling Sri Lanka’s response to tough resolution in the US Congress
  • Has the Ministry outsourced policymaking to the Pathfinder Foundation?
  • Cardinal launches his strongest attack on the Govt; calls for course correction before further damage is done to the country
  • Medical specialists say death toll and casualty figures are underreported in Covid war
A move to introduce a resolution before the United States Congress on the same lines as the one adopted in March by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva has only drawn a coarse response from the Government.

After the full text of this resolution and the implications it portends appeared in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) last Sunday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted with a four-paragraph statement last Wednesday. The main thrust was to charge that “it appears to be one influenced by a coterie of sympathisers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the US.” It added that it was to carry forward the separatist agenda of the LTTE, which is proscribed as a terrorist organisation in 32 countries including the USA.”

The Foreign Ministry’s answer is that it is in the process of submitting its response through the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Sub Committee on Asia, and the US Embassy in Colombo. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told the Sunday Times yesterday that Washington envoy Ravinatha Aryasinha has already met the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee to lodge a protest and explain Sri Lanka’s viewpoint.

Even if that accusation, which comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs albeit the Government is true, is it diplomatically wise to have insinuated that an unknown number of Congress members were carrying forward “the separatist agenda?” More so when the statement concedes that the LTTE is banned in the US and asserts that the resolution contains “unsubstantiated, unfounded and blatant lies.” This is almost the same position taken up by Sri Lanka when the United Kingdom, strongly backed by the US, pushed through the UNHRC resolution. In the case of the latter, the US and the UK, the prime movers have been in consultation with the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelet. The focus has been on follow-up action. One view is to wait until September when the issue comes up again and study Sri Lanka’s response. Another is for the two countries together with the European Union to initiate some steps which are being described as a ‘shot across the bow‘.

Addressing a news conference this week Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith called on Government to undertake a course correction to find solutions to burning issues. Pic by Akila Jayawardena

The Foreign Ministry statement is also mixed up with adjectives. It refers to the allegations as “unsubstantiated,” and “unfounded.” It then adds that they are “blatant lies.” Someone missed the point that blatant lies are of course unsubstantiated and unfounded. Ministry statements these days not only mix up names but also the language they use to voice their views. The other aspect – the statement only tries to address the preamble and not the seven main recommendations in the Resolution. After all, it contains the often-touted separatist propaganda. Regrettably, there is stoic silence on the seven main recommendations in the Resolution.

One cannot say with certainty that Resolution 413 (at the first session of the 117th Congress) will be adopted in its entirety. However, it must be borne in mind that the Joe Biden administration, that backed the Geneva resolution, has a majority in the Congress. In a sense, it is the Biden administration’s new policy towards Sri Lanka that is contained as key elements.

The Resolution is now being examined by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The issue here is not so much about the references to “separate homeland” or similar provocative jargon.  Since the end of the separatist war in May 2009, the Resolution notes that whilst “honouring the lives lost,” the Congress is “expressing support for justice, accountability, reconciliation, reconstruction, reparation, and reform in Sri Lanka to ensure a lasting peaceful political solution and a prosperous future for all people of Sri Lanka.”  These were all elements embodied in the latest UNHRC Resolution for which the Biden administration gave its full blessings. What gain is therefore made in accusing a set of Congress members and pushing them to a harder position? This is precisely what Foreign Ministry pundits in Colombo and those at the Sri Lanka permanent mission in Geneva did during the Human Rights Council sessions. History appears to be repeating itself.

It is known that Ravinatha Ariyasinha, Sri Lanka Ambassador to the US, travelled from Washington DC to New York to lobby groups that are opposed to Tiger guerrillas. Perhaps, protests and flag waving campaigns by them will boost morale and convey the message that the Government has backing too. Yet, that is not going to stop members of the Congress. This is where diplomacy comes to play. Sri Lankan diplomats in Washington DC will have to go beyond the news releases they send to Colombo, where they make themselves look like the local Henry Kissingers, and develop a personal dialogue with as many Congress members as possible. This cannot be done by the Foreign Ministry making broad accusations against those who serve in the legislature of the federal government of the US. One is not sure whether it is Minister Dinesh Gunawardena or Foreign Secretary, Prof. Jayanath Colombage, who was responsible for the official statement.

Going by the weeks and months since the devastating debacle in Geneva, not much appears to have changed. Take for example a webinar on June 1 titled “International Experts Dialogue on Genocide.” It was arranged by China’s Grandview Institution, described as an international think tank, and founded in 2013.  China is facing accusations of genocide of the Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region, a charge which Beijing strongly denies. Foreign Secretary, Colombage took part from Sri Lanka. At a time when Tamil diaspora groups were making accusations against government troops for “genocide of Tamil people,” which is totally baseless, this is what he said: “Allegations of genocide should be made only by competent legal authorities such as ICJ (International Court of Justice) and not merely by countries and individuals for their own agendas.” This is not the first time he has caused such diplomatic faux pas. Is he not, though unconsciously, suggesting pro-Tiger guerrilla groups should go to the ICJ with their accusations?

It is pertinent to ask what the Foreign Ministry or Secretary Colombage did when diaspora groups staged a “Genocide Week,” in Canada and later raised an “Eelam flag” near the Defence Ministry in London, also against so-called “genocide.” What is required by the Government in this situation is a cohesive programme of action and not rhetoric.

It seems ironic that the Foreign Ministry has lost its focus. Whilst it is adopting an aggressive posture, it has fallen on a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) to hand in a report to the Government on how Sri Lanka should improve its relations with the Biden administration. Has the Foreign Ministry outsourced that task to the Pathfinder Foundation, Foreign Secretary Colombage’s previous employer, which receives funding from many countries? Successive governments in Sri Lanka have come to power since independence by contesting elections where pledges are made through different manifestoes. Going by the role of Pathfinder, one is not sure whether it wants to become an adjunct to the Government in every sphere of importance.

This also raises the question of the founder of the Pathfinder Foundation Sri Lanka chapter, onetime Minister Milinda Moragoda. It is more than a year ago that he was named Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in India. He has still not taken up that position and the post remains vacant. Interesting enough, the Indian High Commission in Colombo tersely reminded Sri Lankans that it is to India that they first turn for help during a crisis. It came in a statement on how assets of India’s Coast Guard were used when both the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and the Sri Lanka Navy failed to douse the fire on board MV Xpress Pearl. The rear of the vessel, 180 metres long, has sunk to the bottom which is 22 metres. The front area is slowly sinking. The vessel in question had been refused entry for repair in ports in Qatar and in India. Now there is finger pointing over who allowed the vessel to come to Colombo. The war is between officials, who allegedly agreed, and the local shipping agent. The cause for the fire is said to be badly packed nitric acid leaking into the seas to mix with sea water and triggering a fire. It had earlier been billowing with smoke.

This incident is the second in less than a year. The super tanker MT Diamond, a tanker flying the Panama flag, caught fire in September, last year, in the seas east of Sri Lanka. It left a Filipino crew member dead after the vessel began burning intermittently. The compensation sought was highly publicised by the Attorney General’s Department. However, for how much the deal was concluded remains a mystery. The latest incident makes it noticeably clear that there is no one at the highest level to make decisions on whether such vessels that pose a danger should be allowed entry to Sri Lankan waters.

The UNP strategy

This second impending international crisis for Sri Lanka, the Resolution before the US Congress, comes at a time when the Government is confronted with twin major problems — combatting the uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 and coping with measures to shore up a deteriorating economy. On the plus side, for the Government, the absence of an aggressive opposition has been manna from heaven.

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) continues to remain in a crisis with many of its key members disappointed with leader Sajith Premadasa. He, however, is now down with COVID-19 and one can only wish him a speedy recovery. Some members allege that he was taking “unilateral” decisions placing the party in what they call “very embarrassing positions.” A case in point, one senior member explained, was a discussion on a ‘consensus’ reached during an informal discussion not to take part in the “Victory Day” celebrations attended by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He claimed that Premadasa concurred. “We later learnt that both Premadasa and wife Jalani took part in the ceremonies. He never told us he was going,” the member who wished to remain anonymous said. A source close Premadasa insisted that this was “a national event” and hence his presence was inevitable. The position, however, was different when Premadasa was in the United National Party (UNP). He did not take part. His participation, twelve years after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, was an endorsement of the actions of the ruling alliance — a course of action over which the UNP differed. The latter co-sponsored a Human Rights Council resolution to probe alleged war crimes by troops.

It no doubt was one of the reasons why the UNP was literally wiped out of the electoral map during parliamentary elections in August 2020. Thereafter, its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged he would quit the leadership of his party in December, last year. In marked contrast, the party’s Working Committee, over which he holds undisputed sway, decided last week that he should fill the only bonus seat vacancy in Parliament. That will see the beginning of another effort by Wickremesinghe and his close allies to revive the UNP. The UNP leader has in the recent days been sounding out senior SJB members by hitting a chord close to their chest — disgruntlement with leader Sajith Premadasa. Two others who he has chosen to be prime movers in the party have also come in for strong criticism. This is besides two others, including a lady, who were accused throughout of ‘controlling’ Premadasa.

Clergy turns against Govt

The silence of the opposition, except for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), notwithstanding, the Government appears to have made adversaries of some leading sections of the clergy. One such case is that of Ven. Murutettuwe Ananda Thera, the Chief Incumbent of the Abhayarama Temple in Narahenpita. He was a staunch backer of Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 presidential election. A vaccination drive was under way at his temple premises when, for unexplainable reasons, it was called off and the medical staff withdrew. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi declared publicly that she had nothing to do with it. The infuriated prelate had a heated exchange of words with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been using an office at the temple during his opposition days. The vaccination programme was hurriedly restored. Earlier, the Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera, another member of the Buddhist clergy and a strong backer of the candidature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, came out strongly against him.

This week, the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who appeared to lean in favour of  Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential election, came out fiercely at a news conference. He criticised bitterly the ruling alliance and charged that there was a conspiracy to save those responsible for the Easter Sunday massacres in 2019. Here are edited excerpts of what he said:

“We are deeply sorry about the current situation. There are several factors that contribute.  In general, we are unsure whether there is any rule of law in the country, The trajectory the country is headed is also questionable. Sri Lanka is a country which is situated in an incredibly special geographic location in the world, Those who pledged to protect the country and came to power are dragging the country towards a path of destruction. It is very saddening to talk about this.

“Expectations in our hearts and minds are shattered. Who is ruling the country? Who takes decisions? Our country has become a place where we are uncertain about these matters. We as people of this country, and not only as Catholics, what we can say is ‘please stop moving forward like this’.  Development is not selling the country’s resources. It must be easy to sell all the resources. Yet we have something called self-esteem and confidence. The politicians are responsible for protecting the country. Please do not offer our land to different countries.

“Government politicians, who supported us earlier when we were protesting against the MCC agreement with the US, are now doing the same thing in a worse manner. We are terribly sad about it. The former Attorney General has said that a huge conspiracy is taking place in this country. That means there is huge conspiracy behind the Easter Sunday attacks. We should know what that conspiracy is? If the former Attorney General said it, he should have investigated it.

“The Government have created a situation where action is not taken against some people over the Easter Sunday attacks. The Government did that by appointing a special six-member committee by the President few days after the (presidential commission) report was handed over. The committee was put in place to say that there are separate laws for us and them. The committee was given the task to verify what should be and should not be implemented. It did not create one country one law, but said you have one law, and we have another. That is why in this report it is clearly said that legal action should be taken against some officials. However, action is not taken, and those officials are protected. The report stated that the former President and former intelligence officials should be punished by law. However, they have not done anything regarding it.  The law is implemented for one group in one way and for others in another way. Apart from that, the Government is having media shows. It takes someone in and afterwards lets him go free. We saw the gimmick that they did to get Muslim MPs’ votes for the 20th Amendment in Parliament. This was a deal they engaged. Is this the way that they should rule the country?

“Have they introduced an administrative system which is somewhat religious, transparent or policy orientated or non-corrupt? This corrupt system would slowly engulf Sri Lanka and now it is doing so in the worst possible manner. We think why we should go to vote at an election. We ask why we appoint 225 members to Parliament. We are asking those questions from ourselves.

“Have we elected them to do such things by giving our votes? Do we need an election system if it is so? If they try to rule this country like this, the country would be destroyed. As Rev Father Gamini said the problem regarding the ship is another huge issue. Now our fishermen have faced a great deal of loss because of this ship. The minister in charge of ports and his board have not yet given a proper answer to this.

“Religious people live in this country; this is a country strengthened by the Buddhist civilisation. Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Catholics live in this country. Therefore, in this country we do not allow dictatorial rule with false games. We need a transparent, people-friendly government which takes decisions by thinking from the people’s point of view. We do not need leaders, who take decisions from thinking from the viewpoint of the rich and powerful or other countries,

“We do not need heavenly places. But people do not have fertiliser. They do not have enough to eat. Many have lost their monthly income. We do not even have money to buy COVID vaccines. We have fallen to the status of beggars. I wonder whether this is a curse when we see the actions of the leaders.

“Sometimes I think whether the environment is also angry with us. Please change your mind, change your trajectory. We did not hand over Sri Lanka to the Urban Development Authority to sell lands and resources. We did not appoint an Urban Development Authority via elections. We elected a leader who we thought was capable to govern the country through politics. If he is not, we won’t place our confidence in him. On behalf of the people, I ask please change the course of country’s trajectory. We want a person who loves our country, religions, culture and protects the environment. Even if we do not achieve technological development, we want to create a country where everyone can live happily within their homes. People want to have a family life with their livelihood.

“All the governments which came to power with different slogans such as Yahapalanaya and Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour only indulged betrayal. Therefore, I ask the people not to agree to this trend and do not support them. I ask the Government to take the correct path and work towards saving the country. The country is going off course and there are major economic, religious and culture effects due to this. We need to correct our course together.”

Cardinal Ranjith’s anger is the result of a new turn of events. Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera told Parliament that Naufer Moulavi, now in custody, masterminded the attacks. He cited the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and declared it had confirmed this position. However, the claim turned out to be factually incorrect and raised doubts whether his remarks were intended to take the official findings so far in a different direction. Such a situation, sections in the government fear, could have adverse repercussions on the country’s image worldwide, particularly from the global Catholic community.

COVID-19 battle in Disarray

These developments come amidst mounting public complaints that measures to counter the COVID-19 pandemic are still not being handled properly. This includes the Government’s vaccination programme. The Sri Lanka Medical Association answered a critical question that was raised in these columns last week – the lowering of PCR tests. In a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, last Friday, the SLMA noted that “there has been a significant reduction of the number of PCR tests carried over the last two weeks.” The sum effect of such an exercise: it lowers the number of afflicted cases. Thus, the figures given to the people are lower.

The SLMA letter pointed out that “we understand that the majority of reported PCRs are exit-PCRs that do not measure the extent of transmission in the community. Unless PCRs are carried out proactively, it is likely that the usefulness of the results of analysis of samples with most exit-PCRs will remain low despite the disease spreading rapidly. Similarly, unless the disaggregated test results based on context categories and geographical locations are analysed, the inference made by all PCRs together is likely to be most erroneous.”

The SLMA has made some disturbing revelations after interviewing consultants in clinical settings and laboratories. They are:

=    Physicians indicated that the brunt of the outbreak is now concentrated in the main hospitals and all wards are well over their full capacity with symptomatic patients. There are many COVID patients as floor-patients in medical wards.

=    Information from the ICUs indicated that other than the dedicated,

=    82 ICU beds, another lot of about 70 more patients are treated in ordinary ICUs at the time of discussion. This situation compromises the care given for patients with non-COVID issues. There are about 500 more patients on oxygen therapy, treated in High Dependency Units.

=    Consultants from laboratories indicated the same or higher rates of PCR positivity despite overall PCR positive numbers remain the same, when compared to previous weeks.

The SLMA points out that “this information confirms that hospitals are overwhelmed with cases. As expected, it is too early to see a visible impact of the lockdown on the healthcare system. Opening the country at this juncture would invariably facilitate the spread of the infection leading to increasing number of cases that in turn would cause a complete paralysis of the healthcare system.”

Even in the absence of correct facts about the havoc caused by COVID-19 not reaching the people regularly, not all statistics can hide the reality. Here are a few examples which tell a grim story:

The COVID-19 outbreak in Sri Lanka was first discovered from Chinese tourists on January 27, last year. Since then, until 6 a.m. last Friday, there were 195,844 cases. From this number, active cases turned out to be only 31,839.

Since May 1 till 31 this year, however, the rise in the number of cases has been alarming. During this period, there were 806 deaths and the total afflicted were 78,718. This quite clearly shows that this is the worst month for Sri Lanka. This means that during the period in question, 54% of deaths were caused and 42% of cases were reported. The daily average for deaths has thus been 26 deaths whilst the officially confirmed cases averaged 2,539. Medical specialists warn that the June and July could turn out to be much worse.

Mangala’s telephone call for US vaccines

A lesser-known fact over AstraZeneca vaccines is a telephone call onetime Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera made to his personal friend, Samantha Power, this week. This was after a government source made an appeal to him to expedite vaccines which the US was donating. Sri Lanka is to receive 600,000 doses. Earlier, Under the previous President Barack Obama’s administration, Samantha Power served as the US Ambassador to the United Nations. She wielded strong clout. Sri Lanka’s envoy in Washington DC had also made an appeal to US authorities. Samaraweera declined comment but a source close to him said it was done to help the “people who were undergoing hardships due to lack of vaccines.”

Recent developments over COVID-19 have brought home a very worrying factor – that the authorities have not been transparent enough in telling the people the whole truth. Thus, the public confidence has eroded to such a point that some people raise questions over official claims. Not all believe them. The US last week imposed a ban on its citizens visiting Sri Lanka. The United Kingdom has now imposed the same measure. They seem aware of the ground realities. Ruling alliance leaders are the ones who face the brunt over this lack of professionalism be it in the campaign against COVID-19 or on external relations.

This has become imperative. Otherwise, it is the leadership that will pay the high price and face the heavy embarrassment. Until then the colossal damage that is being caused will continue unabated and public unease will exacerbate.


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