Moves to salvage the economy amidst Covid
ECT becoming an eyesore Ranjan cynosure of all eyes?
BY OUR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT
Sri Lanka welcomed the return of tourists last week after a near ten-month break and the Sri Lanka Tourist Promotion Bureau launched ‘hello again’, a comprehensive information portal for visitors to navigate their way through the gamut of quarantine do’s and don’ts. After the pilot with the Ukrainian tour group and the ensuing fiasco, the tourism authorities will be keen to save themselves from further embarrassment. The country has reopened her airports for travellers at a time when the numbers of Covid infected in the country are rising. The current count is more than 56, 000, a jump from 3, 000 not that long ago in October and 276 dead.
Nevertheless, tourism authorities are optimistic. ‘There were ten arrivals on the 21st, which was the first day and a lesser number on the second. We are not expecting too many people to come at once. It’s going to be a slow process but already about 15 airlines have confirmed that they will be flying to Sri Lanka. These include Emirates, Qatar airways, Etihad and Gulf Air. Confirmation from Polish airlines is still pending’.
A German delegation to promote ayurveda tourism came on the second day after the airport re opened. They were from the Fit Reisen group which promotes itself as a leading company in health and wellness tourism and Neue Wege FmbH, a travel agency that promotes ayurvedic tourism. There were also two lifestyle journalists in the group. According to the press release issued by the Tourist Promotion Bureau, their accommodation and transport will be sponsored by the ayurvedic hotels in Sri Lanka and the air tickets and mandatory PCR costs will be borne by the Bureau.
Tourists to Sri Lanka will have to spend the first 14 days in a bio bubble at a Level 1 safe and secure hotel which has been audited and certified by KPMG. To pass the test the hotels have to comply with health and tourism protocols. To maintain the bio bubble tourists will not be able to mix with local communities during the 14 days, nor will the hotels be able to take bookings from locals. Hotels have been criticized for this exclusion which is being perceived as reverse discrimination but may be helpless to do anything about it if it is a government directive to ensure the bio bubble is kept. Tourists will also be required to have Covid 19 health insurance cover for one month initially and also be required to have PCR tests done both before and after arrival, even if they have been vaccinated already.
Besides, Sri Lankan leaders were quick of the mark to tweet their congratulatory messages to the new American leaders on their inauguration. Both President Gotabaya Rajapakse and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse said they looked forward to strengthening the bond between the two countries. Army Commander Shavendra Silva did the same. Sri Lanka and the US have bilateral cooperation in trade and security and while the status quo on some of these fronts are expected to continue, with others the changes might not be immediate.
In the case of exports to the US, Sri Lanka has a niche market and this historical trade will continue. The decoupling from China following Covid-19 has seen the US diversifying its supply markets and while this move will benefit many South Asian countries Sri Lanka is yet to benefit from it. There is some likelihood that money will flow out of the US into emerging markets but it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will be a contender because of it’s a debt -risk country. A senior economist based in Colombo did not expect too many upsets in trade between the two countries. ‘I don’t see any change for better or for worse’.
Sri Lanka will however come under the microscope about her human rights commitments. The Trump administration soft peddled this area and although Biden who is a supporter of multilateralism reversed several of his predecessor’s policies on his very first day in office by rejoining the Paris Climate Change Agreement and wanting to remain with the WHO, the new administration is likely to talk tough on human rights. Kamala Harris did this when she was talking about Kashmir during her election campaign. The thinking that Harris, because of her South Indian origins will be more of a stickler is unlikely to hold as she is likely to put her country’s interests before any personal ones.
While it might be too early for there to be any hard US influence at the impending UNHRC sessions staring February, there has already been a flurry of activity from other international quarters and also from Sri Lanka. It is reported that the core group that sponsored the last Resolution on Sri Lanka is planning to move another one for an accountability mechanism to be put in place.
Last week the leaders of Tamil political parties, civil society and religious leaders wrote a letter to the heads of missions of the 47 member states of the UNHRC calling for decisive action at the Council. The signatories were R. Sampanthan the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, G. G Ponnambalam the leader of the Tamil National Peoples Front, C. V Wigneswaran the leader of the Tamil Makkal Tesiya Kootani, Rev. Fr Leo Armstrong of the Tamil Heritage Forum in Mullaitivu, Sabharathinam Sivayohanathan of the eastern Province Civil Society Forum , Rasalingham Vikneswaran who is the president of the Ampara Civil Society Forum, Amarasingham Gajenthiran the general secretary of the Tamil Civil Society Forum, Yogarasa Kangaranjini who is the president of the Association for Relatives of Enforced Disappearances in the north and east, Subramanium Sivaharan the president of the Tamil Thesiya Vaalvurimai Iyakkam, Velan Swamikal of Sivaguru Aatheenam and Rt. Rev. Dr C. Noel Emmanuel who is the Bishop of Trincomalee. In their letter, they urged member states to bring a new Resolution whereby other organs of the UN including the Security Council and the UN General Assembly take up the matter and refer it to the International Criminal Court and other appropriate international accountability mechanisms to inquire into the crime of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. They also asked that the OHCHR is mandated to continue monitoring Sri Lanka for ongoing violations and to have a field presence in the country and that steps are taken to establish a time-bound evidence-gathering mechanism like the International Independent Investigatory Mechanism in Syria.
A source who commented on the UNHRC sessions to come said that ‘the Resolution for accountability has been in place for nearly ten years. Nothing has happened and clearly, there is no scope for it. Therefore it has to be taken out of the Council because there is an intention to move it before other fora like the International Criminal Court’. However, a Tamil political activist was sceptical about the move saying it will come to nought.
Meanwhile, the UNHRC is reported to have sent an advance copy of the Report it will present at the sessions to the GoSL for its comments. Sources who are aware of it spoke about the Report being a damning one where the names of personnel, including those in the army, are alleged to have been mentioned. Reportedly, the GoSL has to respond to it by the 27th of January.
The issue concerning the imprisonment of Parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake is still fresh in the minds of the people and is visible through various posts on social media sites. Presidents Counsel MA Sumanthiran, the lawyer for MP Ranjan Ramanayake in the meantime, urged Parliament to enact laws for the offence connected to Contempt of Court since it has not been prescribed in the constitution or any other statue. Sumanthiran, himself a parliamentarian, told the legislature how exceptionally severe and unprecedented the sentence was because of this serious lacuna in the Sri Lankan law. ‘By failing to enact laws it has been like the freedom of a wild ass where anything can be given as a sentence and that is not a good thing’, he said.
Because Sri Lanka does not have a statue law, English law is the substantive law. Elaborating he said that in English law scandalizing the court does not amount to an offence of court. The legislator regretted the court had disregarded this point. ‘My position is that the court misdirected itself’, he said. Sumanthiran who is conversant with constitutional law also reminded the Minister of Justice of the provisions of the ICCPR law which prescribes at least one appeal for a criminal offence. The contention is when the Supreme Court assumes original jurisdiction the accused is entitled to an appeal arising from the sentence.
Legal experts also point out the Supreme Court itself could assume appellate jurisdiction with a fuller bench to hear the case but of course, it all depends on the mood of the Court and moves are underway by top lawyers to give the idea a go.
Another issue which is taking a considerable time on TV talk shows and newspapers is the controversy over the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port of which 49 per cent of the stake is to be given to India for the development of a new container terminal. Port unions are up in arms over the matter and the Buddhist clergy has taken exception to create a stir against the Rajapaksa government to prevent the ECT being handed over to India for further development. Several Buddhist monks reprimanded the government stating they will go an extra mile to protect the ECT from outside interference in the way that they protected the Sacred Tooth Relic from invading marauders in the past. There had been instances where monks sacrificed their lives for the sake of the safety of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
It now appears that the matter will fuel more resistance making it a rather tough task for the President and the government to go ahead with the ECT development with India as a partner. The SLFP, a constituent party of the alliance too had caused ripples within the government when former President Maithripala Sirisena who is an ally of the present regime had expressed his opposition to it at a meeting in Kalutara. President Sirisena had said that they too had approached him during his tenure but he had the gumption to say otherwise. He also said he is averse to any Indian involvement in the development of the Eastern Container Terminal of the Colombo Port to which the government should give serious thought in order to overcome the issue without yielding to current political quicksand.