Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Obama, Osama, Blake and Prabakharan

This was posted on The Agonist on May 23 2011

Death of Bin Laden

President Obama decided not to release any photographs of Bin Laden’s body or video footage of the burial. He said it was important to keep photographic evidence from “floating around as incitement or a propaganda tool”.

The body was prepared for burial “in conformance with Islamic precepts and practice”, then placed in a weighted bag and dropped into the water from the vessel’s deck. Officials said this was to avoid his grave becoming a shrine.

Leon Panetta , Director of the CIA, said that, “Obviously, under the rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him.”

Death of Prabakharan

May 18 2011 marked the second anniversary of the death of Vellupillai , leader of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) at Nandikathal lagoon north of Vellamullivaikkal near Mullaithivu.

For some Tamils, Prabakharan had the status of a demi-god. A Tamil Catholic priest (Fr SJ Emmanuel, former Vicar-General of Jaffna, now living in Germany) compared him to Jesus. The surviving LTTE initially claimed that Prabakharan was alive but the government published pictures of the corpse which was conclusively identified by former LTTE commander in the Eastern province ”Colonel Karuna” (Vinayagamoorthy Muaralithan) now deputy leader of the governing SLFP party). Further confirmation was through DNA testing against genetic material of Prabakharan’s son, Charles Anthony, who had been killed earlier by the Sri Lanka army. Circumstantial evidence suggested that Prabakharan senior’s death was caused by massive head trauma, perhaps from a shot at close range. There are also allegations that he was executed.

Sutirho Patronobis, wrote recently in the Hindustan Times: ”army chief Sarath Fonseka had initially told me that Prabakharan and a few of his remaining lieutenants were shot dead in an ambulance while they were trying to crash through a Sri Lankan army deployment. The official version changed a day later: Prabakharan was killed inside a mangrove forest near the bank of a lagoon in a last burst of gunfire. His body was then burnt and the ashes scattered across the sea.

A month later, the defence ministry said it was after the chance discovery of the body of Prabakharan’s bodyguard that the army realised that the LTTE chief was possibly dead. Unlike the attack on Bin Laden, in which four or five others were killed, hundreds of LTTE cadres died in attempting to save Prabakharan; no stealthy helicopter strike, it was a bloody fight. Fonseka is currently on trial for saying in an interview that surrendering LTTE leaders with white flags were executed.

Prabakharan was a Sri Lankan citizen who had been at war with the Sri Lankan government since 1975. In that year, he made his first known killing. The ensuing conflict led to around 100,000 deaths (although it is impossible to arrive at a definitive figure) . He was killed by the legitimate armed forces of a sovereign nation answerable to a democratically elected government on its own territory.

The USA was rather lukewarm in its reaction to this major victory in the global war on terrorism: “The Department of State welcomes the fact that the fighting has ended, and we are relieved that the immense loss of life and killing of innocent civilians appears to be over. This is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to turn the page on its past and build a Sri Lanka rooted in democracy, tolerance, and respect for human rights. Now is the time for the government to engage the Tamils, Sinhalese, and other Sri Lankans to create a political arrangement that promotes and protects the rights of all Sri Lankans”.

The Rise and Crimes of the LTTE

In 1972, a group of students formed a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). One member of this group was Prabakharan, who was born in Jaffna in November 1954. On July 27 1975, the former mayor of Jaffna, SLFP politician Alfred Durayappah, a Tamil, was assassinated.  Later Prabakharan claimed that he had fired the fatal shot.

The TNT became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and by means of murder and intimidation became the dominant group. Separatist militancy was further fanned by the anti-Tamil riots which followed the 1977 general election, in which the UNP came to power. The LTTE were proscribed in 1978 by which time most of its rivals had been eliminated. The anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, Black July, sent many Tamils into exile from where they funded the growth of the LTTE.

Over many decades, Prabakharan used cease-fires to regroup and re-arm. Unlike the IRA leaders, he had no interest in compromise and would settle for nothing less than a separate state of Tamil Eelam, comprising one third of the island’s land mass and two thirds of its coastline, including the strategic harbour of Trincomalee. The LTTE continued to murder Tamils as well as Sinhalese. The distinguished foreign minister, Lakshman Kadigarmar, was one of the Tamil victims.

The LTTE was guilty of many crimes over the thirty years of the conflict. They assassinated Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka President Premadasa. An attempt on the life of President Kumaratunga failed but she lost an eye. In that attempt, 23 civilians were killed.

In 1985, LTTE gunmen shot dead 146 Sinhalese civilians and injured 85 others as they were praying at a sacred Buddhist shrine in Anuradhapura. A further 18 people fleeing from that massacre were shot dead in Wilpattu forest. Later in the same year, in Dehiwatta village, 100 LTTE men hacked to death 15 women and children as they were sleeping.

In 1986, an LTTE bomb exploded aboard an Air Lanka flight carrying mainly French, British and Japanese tourists killing 21 (including 13 foreigners – of whom 2 British, 2 German, 3 French, 2 Japanese, 1 Maldivian and 1 Pakistani) and injuring 41.

Throughout 1988 and 1989, there seemed to be an LTTE massacre of villagers every day. In June 1990, the LTTE marked the breakdown of ceasefire talks by overrunning police stations throughout the north east of Sri Lanka. The LTTE killed 600 police officers who had surrendered. On June 10, over 400 unarmed police officers were shot dead in police stations across eastern Sri Lanka.

On August 3, 30 Tigers attacked four mosques in the Kattankudi area, where 300 Muslims were prostrate in prayer. The Tigers sprayed automatic fire and hurled hand grenades at the worshipers. Most of the victims were shot in the back or side. Speaking to the New York Times, Mohammed Ibrahim, a 40-year-old businessman said, “I was kneeling down and praying when the rebels started shooting. The firing went on for 15 minutes. I escaped without being hit and found myself among bodies all over the place.” Mohammed Arif, a 17-year-old student who also survived the massacre said : “Before I escaped from a side door and scaled a wall, I saw a Tiger rebel put a gun into the mouth of a small Muslim boy and pull the trigger.”

Killings continued on a daily basis over the years. In 1994, presidential candidate and opposition leader Gamini Dissanayake (we know his son-in-law) was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber who exploded herself at a campaign rally in Colombo. Fifty others were killed in the blast and a further 75 were seriously injured.

The most deadly LTTE attack on a civilian target in the history of the group’s operations occurred in 1996. The Central Bank (located in the twin towers of the Colombo World Trade Centre) was bombed and 90 people were killed and 1,400 injured. In 1997, another bombing at the WTC killed 13 and injured hundreds.

In 1998, a Black Tiger squad drove an explosives-laden truck into the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, a major Buddhist shrine, killing seven and injuring 25. The attack took place just days before foreign dignitaries were expected to attend celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Sri Lankan independence at the temple.

Later that year the LTTE shot down a plane with 55 passengers (including 48 Tamils) and crew while it was flying over LTTE held territory. Everyone onboard was killed.

In 1999, Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam, a Tamil, who was working on a constitutional package aimed at ending the decades-long conflict, was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber.

In May 2000, the LTTE celebrated the holiest day of the Buddhist calendar, Vesak Poya, by detonating a bomb hidden inside an ice-cream box on a bicycle killing 20 people and injuring 75.

In 2001, a 14-man suicide squad attacked an air force base and the adjoining international airport. They destroyed many aircraft, crippling the country’s economy and reducing tourism.

In 2006, the award-winning author Nihal de Silva and seven Sri Lankan tourists were killed by an LTTE land mine in Wilpattu National Park.

In the same year, The LTTE bombed a bus carrying 140 civilians in the north east. The blast killed 68 civilians including 15 school children, and injured 78 others. It was caused by two claymore mines placed side by side on the bus by LTTE cadres, which sprayed the packed bus with millions of ball bearings upon manual detonation. Survivors, including school children, of the blast were shot as they ran away.

In the same year, a suicide bomber in a truck killed 103 sailors on buses going or returning from leave at a transit point and wounded 150 other sailors. Several civilians were killed. Two people were killed and 14 others wounded, mostly civilians who were passing by the site in an attempt on the life of defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

There are many more instances of LTTE cadres hacking to death unsuspecting villagers at home or at prayer, or on buses or trains (often using multiple bombs in several carriages) on the way to work or school.

The Military Solution

President Rajapaksa decided in 2006 that a negotiated settlement was impossible and began a military campaign against the Tigers.

By the early months of 2009, the LTTE was on the verge of certain defeat but  would not give up, perhaps hoping that other countries might save him. There was constant pressure on the government from the USA, UK, EU and Norway to call a cease-fire. The government resisted because the LTTE had a history of using cease-fires to regroup and re-arm and also to continue killing. The government argued that it was doing its best to get food and medicine to civilians in the north who were being held hostage by the LTTE.

The LTTE had always employed forcible recruitment, every family had to sacrifice a child to the cause of Eelam. This gained pace as defeat loomed. Children under twelve were recruited. Civilians who resisted were executed.
Civilians turned on the LTTE who attempted to forcibly recruit men and women in the Puthumathalan area. Several LTTE cadres were killed and many injured. This incident occurred when the LTTE attempted to forcibly recruit a young girl, despite her protests. According to civilians who escaped from the area, the LTTE had dragged the girl and torn her clothing until she was almost naked. This incident had incited her relatives and people in the vicinity who then attacked the LTTE cadres. At least six vehicles in which the group had come had been set on fire by the angry civilians. Later the people surrounded an LTTE political office in the area and set it on fire. In retaliation, a group of armed LTTE cadres came to the area and indiscriminately attacked unarmed civilians, killing and causing injuries to several of them in the presence of the humanitarian agencies working in the area.

In Outlook India Ashok Mehta, former GOC of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka wrote: “The LTTE’s principal handicap has been Prabakharan . Because of him, the Tigers missed several opportunities for a political settlement””from the devolution package to even better offers later from president Chandrika Kumaratunga and prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Chasing the chimera of Eelam,  became a liability.”

Robert Orris Blake and Human Rights

Assistant Secretary of State, Robert O Blake, recently visited Sri Lanka. Blake was previously US Ambassador in Colombo. In February 2007, he received minor injuries from a mortar blast while disembarking from a helicopter at a Sri Lankan air base in Batticaloa, where he was to attend a development meeting. The Tigers claimed they were not informed by the government that the ambassador was present and were only returning fire from the Sri Lankan Army.

Blake had been anxious for some time to visit Sri Lanka to lecture the government about the report to the UN General Secretary on human rights violations in Sri Lanka. That was before his government shot dead without trial a man who was not a US citizen in a nation that was not the USA.

Blake was asked at a press briefing whether his country’s battle against international terrorism was likely to be undermined by accountability issues on the grounds that Bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was shot. Blake’s six-foot seven frame swayed in the breeze somewhat. Although Pakistan comes within his area of responsibility, it was obvious that he had not been in on the plan to assassinate Bin Laden in that country.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (a South African Tamil who has long been a stern critic of Sri Lanka) and groups such as the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised such issues. Pillay has urged the White House to make public the “precise facts surrounding Osama’s killing to ensure the operation adhered to international law”.

A discomfited Blake dodged questions and hurried away after only a brief session. Blake said that he had been travelling around Sri Lanka so he wasn’t aware of specific allegations levelled against the US over the Osama killing. “Let me tell you, that Osama bin Laden was the leader of an armed group that was engaged in armed conflict against the government of United States. He was therefore a lawful target. We certainly stand by our actions”.

Was Prabakharan not engaged in armed conflict with the government of Sri Lanka? Was he not a lawful target?

Blake caused some alarm in Sri Lanka when he made a statement before the Senate subcommittee on the Middle East (West Asia) and South Asia. His address included a telling phrase. This is the first time he has gone on record to publicly state, “Positioned directly on the shipping routes that carry petroleum products and other trade from the Gulf to East Asia, Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the U.S.”

Once in Sri Lanka he tried to soft-pedal. ”In my official meetings today, I assured the Sri Lankan government that the U.S. is committed to a strong long-term partnership with Sri Lanka and that reports of our alleged support for ”˜regime change’ have no basis whatsoever. I expressed support for the government’s efforts to recover from its devastating civil war, and encouraged further steps towards reconciliation, and a peaceful, united, democratic Sri Lanka. I think the government has made some positive progress. It is very important that this progress be sustained. ”

Bin Laden has been hunted for ten years, Afghanistan and Iraq have been invaded and occupied because Bin Laden has been held responsible for the death of 3,000 people on 9/11. Prabakharan was responsible for countless more deaths, but Sri Lanka is accused of war crimes in defeating his evil campaign. Since the death of Prabakharan two years ago there have been no terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka and most of the Tamil groups fighting for a separate state of Eelam are now working with the government.

We shall see whether the assassination of Bin Laden will end Islamic terrorism.


Foreign Interference and Dirty Bottoms

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday September 18 2011


Lynda Snell

There is a UK radio soap that has been  going strong since 1950. Guest actors have included Princess Margaret and future (never?) Queen Camilla. It was originally billed as “an everyday story of country folk”, but is now described on its Radio 4 web site as “contemporary drama in a rural setting”. Lynda Snell is a character everyone loves to hate. She is a nouveau riche blow-in from Birmingham who is constantly trying to organise the yokels in amateur dramatics and other improving projects. The BBC website says: “The sight of Lynda Snell approaching on her trusty bicycle has sent many a villager scurrying for cover as they wonder what project she’s about to cajole them into”.


When the USA and the UK were criticizing the Sri Lankan military’s conduct at the end of the successful war against the LTTE, President Rajapaksa remarked: “Why should we listen to people who don’t wash their bottoms?”

I assure readers that, although I am a westerner, I am  housetrained and my nethers are immaculate.

His Excellency’s remark neatly encapsulates a number of ideas about relationships between the USA, UK, EU and the rest of the world. The former imperial power and the current imperial power look down contemptuously on the brown-faced nations and altruistically wish to bring them freedom, democracy and civilized values. The brown faces are not pleased and regard their critics as culturally uncouth and ignorant. Never the twain shall meet, as the imperial bard Kipling wrote.

It is difficult to avoid going down a tu quoque road on this subject.  I cannot avoid saying to foreign audiences that most people in Sri Lanka, even those who vehemently oppose the government, are apoplectic at the Galle Face and impudence of the US and the UK criticizing other countries when they have themselves committed such appalling atrocities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

On the other hand, there are some Sri Lankans whose resentment of foreign interference is strengthened by living permanently among foreigners, their patriotism intensified by their comfortable distance from the motherland.

Self-Exiled Patriots

When we still lived in Ireland, we were inundated with e-mails exhorting us to support the Sihala Urumaya. When I politely asked the sender to desist, I received a diatribe telling me that I should be ashamed of myself for my ingratitude for the benefits bestowed on me by Sri Lanka – the education system, the health service, the beautiful landscape. At that point, I had never set foot in Sri Lanka. I responded that Sihala Urumaya could not claim credit for any of these as it had never governed the country nor even had any MPs elected. I conceded that the country had bestowed one great benefit upon me – my wonderful Sri Lankan wife. However strong my gratitude for that, I did not see the need to give money to Sihala Urumaya.

Even those days, I was planning to live in Sri Lanka. I have now lived in Sri Lanka for nine years and have not set foot outside it for five years. I was amused to find that my patriotic interlocutor had lived in London for 17 years.

Ajit Randeniya

Last week I received a comment on one of my articles from one Ajit Randeniya. He thinks I am Lynda Snell.

He said:

“Usual arrogance of a blow-in from the British Isles (turned red by Asian and African blood) trying to dictate to us as to how to manage our national affairs. Should the bombers be sent over to Sri Lanka to save Canine Right to sterilization? May be the new hymie friend Zarcoseeeee will also want to join in! Or you can go home to the pure environs of London or wherever you came from.”

This is a somewhat incoherent diatribe but I admire Ajit’s inventiveness in managing to get anti-Semitism into a discussion of dogs!

Preconceived Ideas.

While researching an article about racial stereotypes, I came across an article by Terry Eagleton, Marxist essayist and Professor of English at Lancaster University.

“Just as one of the customs most native to Ireland was getting out of the place, so nothing is more indigenously American these days than otherness. Openness to the other is a rebuke to the parochialism of a nation which finds it hard to distinguish between Brighton and Bogotá; but it is also a piece of parochialism in itself, rooted by and large in the intractable ethnic problems of the US. These home-grown concerns are then projected onto the rest of the globe rather like a cultural version of nuclear missile bases, so that post-colonial others find themselves obediently adopting the agenda of a largely American-bred cult of otherness.

Critics in, say, Sligo or Sri Lanka are to be found busily at work on the ‘other’, partly because it is an important question in its own right, but also because this is the programme peddled for its own private reasons, as it were, by the nation which sets the academic pace in these affairs. When American critics come to write about Ireland or Egypt, what tends to catch their eye are questions of margins and minorities which loom large on the intellectual menu of their own culture, rather than, say, educational policy or religious architecture, which are less glamorous concerns in their own backyard.”

Valid Points

I see where Ajit is coming from but he is making unwarranted assumptions about me. There are valid points to be made about foreign interference. As  an interfering foreigner, I have made those points in these pages.

The foreign press often misses the target about Sri Lanka through simplification of the situation. I do not adopt any entrenched positions. I write in order to learn.  I am always happy to be corrected in the course of civilised debate. By civilised debate I do not mean incoherent racist diatribes.

Everybody has to live somewhere. These days not many people still live where they were born. My Irish forebears were forced to emigrate. Many others are forced to emigrate. I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. I am sensitive about my position as a guest in Sri Lanka. Do I turn a blind eye and live a passive life or do I engage with the community I have chosen?  Many Sri Lankans, not just the Tiger-supporting Tamil diaspora,  have escaped to other countries they find more congenial. From the comfort of a foreign couch they spout their punditry on Lanka Web and Huffington Post. Perhaps it would be more useful if they could reverse the brain-drain and come back home to join those of us permanently resident in Sri Lanka  and help to rebuild the nation.


Just because you’re paranoid…

This article was posted on The Agonist on September 30 2009. It still seems relevant following David Cameron’s visit in November 2013.


One can detect something of a siege mentality in Sri Lanka. There is a strong feeling that, after winning a long and brutal war, the country’s independence is threatened by unfair criticism from abroad. An important element in this is in the complex relationship with INGOs (International Non-governmental Organizations).

Susantha Goonatilake called his book on foreign-funded NGOs in Sri Lanka Recolonization.

In his conclusion he wrote:”Sri Lankan NGOs emerged in the late 1970s when the then government cracked down on democracy, transparency and accountability and killed locally-grown civil society… Sri Lanka thus became a partial NGO franchise state, with the NGOs attempting to erode the country’s sovereignty …The NGOs are now being squeezed and widely criticised, not only by the media, but also through massive street protests and countrywide posters. The coming years will see an outcome of the struggle between real civil society and foreign-funded NGOs. This struggle, which is partly between a reconciliation agenda and local voices, echoes Sri Lanka’s 500-year-old struggle with western colonial powers.”

There is a common resentment among Sri Lankans about the perceived arrogance of NGOs and the foreign correspondents that rely on them for access and information.

Gomin Dayasri has written about this: ”It’s a stopover in paradise for a Foreign Correspondent to live majestically on his overseas allowance. Such comfortable digs are not in the market in the recession-stung home country. There is exotic food and groovy watering holes at affordable prices. NGOs provide the freebies and roll out the red carpet…With the LTTE gone where they will go? After a few more horror stories to demean the Security Forces and back to the west to face the shock treatment of recession. War is an investment relief to the Foreign Correspondent. The order will soon come to pack the flak jackets and return to a not so sweet home and to wait patiently for a call to another exotic destination?”

I used to wonder why the Sri Lanka government was so paranoid about NGOs and foreign criticism. It seemed a bit crass to seek international help and get all huffy about foreign interference.

During the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), to the outside world it would have seemed that the Norwegian facilitators were doing a difficult job in trying to bring peace to the war-torn island and getting very little thanks for it.

The leader of the Norwegian team was Erik Solheim, currently Norway’s International Development Minister. He recently called on the UN to investigate charges of war crimes in Sri Lanka, following the screening of a video on Channel 4 purporting to show Sri Lankan soldiers shooting unarmed Tamils. The Sri Lanka government claims that the video has been proved to be a fake.

The interrogation of Kumaran Padmanathan aka ”˜KP’, the LTTE’s arms procurer caught over two months ago, is helping to expose an international network that kept the Tigers in fighting trim. It has been revealed that the Norwegian government helped the LTTE to establish relations with Eritrea, which allowed the group to purchase arms, ammunition and equipment from China on Eritrean end-user certificates and other documents. Erik Solheim had been directly involved in forming the Eritrean-LTTE relationship. The LTTE had used Eritrean and also North Korean end-user-certificates to procure arms from China which were smuggled in several consignments before the Sri Lanka Navy destroyed eight floating arsenals September 2006 and October 2007.

Sri Lanka recently established diplomatic relations with Eritrea with a view to pursuing LTTE assets in that country. KP has revealed that an LTTE-owned business venture was entrusted with operating the International Airport in Asmara and that during the last leg of the war, it had been planned to smuggle the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran to Eritrea.

Over 90 per cent of the entire Tigers’ heavy equipment, including a range of artillery pieces and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns captured by the Sri Lankan army were of Chinese origin.

Many Sri Lankans have long been suspicious about Norwegian influence in their country. Eyebrows were raised when Norwegian People’s Aid, a Norwegian Government-funded NGO said its heavy earth-moving vehicles, trucks & tractors had been ”stolen” by the LTTE. NPA had been implicated in smuggling arms to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. When the Sri Lanka Army captured the LTTE’s Stanley Base and other camps they found electricity generators, water pumps, tents, water dowsers belonging to INGOs. The massive bunkers could have been built with the stolen vehicles.

Norwegians were suspected of training LTTE Sea Tigers in Thailand. There was also speculation that Norway provided sophisticated satellite and communication equipment to the LTTE during the 2002 CFA truce.

CARE is a leading international organization based in Atlanta, Georgia which operates in more than 65 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. On its website it acknowledges that, although there is a great deal of poverty to be addressed in the USA itself, it prefers to work in foreign countries. It has more than 14,500 employees worldwide. More than 90 percent of CARE International staff are nationals of the countries where it operates.

According to the Kotahena Police, investigations have revealed that the bomb exploded at the Pittala Junction in Kollupitiya targeting Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was taken to Colombo from Kilinochchi in a vehicle belonging to CARE International. Police arrested Sivalingam Arunan, Patmanathan Iiyer Sriskandaraja Sharma and Arunasalam Arumugam Perumal in connection with the assassination attempt. The bomb material had been buried at a safe house in Wellawatte after being carried in a CARE International van. Later, it was transported to Modera and fixed to the three-wheeler of the suicide cadre Lateef Mohamed Faris.

Two Sri Lankan UN workers were arrested in June on suspicion of using NGO activity as a cover for aiding the LTTE. The two men in detention are a 45 year old employee of the UNHCR and a 31 year-old man employed by the UN Office for Project Services.

Recent reports indicate that five Russians were ”˜smuggled’ into the country in the guise of NGO personnel, to provide special training to personal bodyguards of Prabhakaran in the Wanni. A local bodyguard, who was arrested at a refugee camp in the Wanni, revealed that 35 bodyguards had been trained by the Russians. The training included firing, driving and dismantling a vehicle and reassembling it in a very short time. Prabakharan’s son Charles Anthony had received training from the Russians. An extensive investigation is under way to identify these Russians and the NGO that supported them. Defence officials suspect these Russians could be retired members of a Russian defence unit.

Police believe that some NGO employees in the IDP camps are Black Tigers whose mission is to assassinate VIPs visiting the camps. A report in The Island newspaper of 30 September claims that 20,000, believed to be LTTE cadres, have escaped from the IDP camps. Senior Superintendent Kasturiratne said special police teams from Kandy had been dispatched to the IDP camps in the north to conduct investigations. The SSP said that followers of the terrorist organisation were still moving around though the leadership of the movement had been destroyed. He said explosives and arms had been recovered from Pudikudiiruppu and other locations in the north and east on information provided by the LTTE suspects in custody.

Sri Lanka is waiting trepidatiously for the EU to report on GSP Plus, which, simply put, is a preferential tariff advantageous to the exports of the Sri Lanka garment industry. The EU created the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) from the early 1970s onwards, pursuant to a series of decisions made by the signatories of GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs).

Following a challenge from the WTO the EU had to redesign the GSP scheme. Countries lose the standard GSP scheme concessions when they are no longer classified as developing nations. The least-developed countries also lose their duty- free preferences once they become middle-income countries. They then fall into the standard GSP category and pay the 10% duty.

In order to qualify for GSP+ applicant nations had to ratify and implement 27 international conventions, account for less than one per cent of total imports into the EU, and its five main exports should account for more than 75 per cent of its total exports. If recipient countries fall short of the three GSP+ criteria, they will automatically be out of the scheme.

The EU seems to be implementing the GSP+ scheme in such a way as to spite the WTO for ruling against them. The EU is trying to disqualify Sri Lanka on the grounds that she is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. What the WTO seemed to have had in mind were de-selection criteria in keeping with the ”˜development, financial and trade needs’ of the recipient country and stability and predictability in tariff regimes.
The EU paid local NGOs to make representations to itself to the effect that Sri Lanka was not in compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Then they paid another committee of experts to examine the documents they had paid for earlier. Nobody knows who made submissions to this three-member committee of experts appointed by the European Commission.

The irony of the situation is that Sri Lanka is trying to recover from a horrendous thirty-year civil war and the garment industry has an important role to play in rebuilding the north and east by providing employment and helping rebuild the infrastructure.

The association of companies called Sri Lanka Apparel is contributing to post-war reconstruction by establishing a new garment factory, specialising in baby clothes, in the war-affected district of Trincomalee. The factory benefited from a special incentive scheme to attract investments into the Eastern Province and has generated 1,000 jobs. The factory opened in September, 2009 and will initially export all of its output to the UK. It has the capacity to produce 100 pieces per month and in six months will increase capacity to 1.2m – 2m pieces per month.

Another Sri Lanka Apparel member company has made water and sanitation the central theme of its corporate social responsibility programme. It has been building hygienic bathing facilities for displaced people in the camps at Menik Farm in northern Sri Lanka. The project employed people living in the camps and provided them with income.

That particular company has also supported the Government’s efforts to rebuild the economy of the Eastern Province by investing 250 million rupees in a factory at Punani in the Batticaloa District, which currently employs 220 people, most of whom are from families that were displaced by the conflict.

A key feature of the Sri Lankan garment industry is that it seems to do more than pay lip-service to the concept of corporate social responsibility. Sri Lanka, as a nation, has fostered enlightened, socially-responsible legislation and has committed itself to 27 of the ILO Core Conventions. The mission of the industry is to employ ethical practices, thereby contributing to the economic development of the country while improving the quality of life of the apparel industry’s workforce and their communities.

An initiative called Garments without Guilt enabled Sri Lanka Apparel to forge a niche for itself in western markets where companies and consumers were uncomfortable after revelations about Asian sweatshops. This success has been threatened by the financial crisis and will be further threatened if GSP + is withdrawn. Was ethical marketing merely a luxury of a booming world economy which will have to be jettisoned in grimmer times? Kumar Mirchandani of Sri Lanka Apparel told me that the association will not abandon its principles. Whatever the competition might try, Sri Lanka Apparel is committed to ethical business. ”There is no excuse for unethical behaviour, no matter what the economic conditions are. This is the message Sri Lanka Apparel is sending”.

It is ironical that because of the perceptions of the EU about human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, thousands of innocent Sri Lankan workers in an industry that achieved success because of its ethical business practices will be thrown out of work and factories in the war-torn north and east may have to close.

Much of what is called loosely ”aid” is in fact investment for a return or loans on which Sri Lanka pays interest. GSP + is not charity. Sri Lanka was one of the original 24 signatories to GATT in 1947, and what Article 1 of GATT envisaged was equal opportunity for everybody whereby member states would refrain from discriminating between one another and grant similar treatment to all countries. The stability as well as predictability of tariffs is essential for traders to make investment decisions. At the time they load their ships, they should know that the applicable tariff will not be higher when the goods reach the destination.

The EU may push Sri Lanka to the position where she has no alternative but to mount a challenge in the WTO.

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -


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Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal

Spreading resources for potential living.