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Constitutional Crisis in Sri Lanka and its Impact on Indo-Pacific Diplomacy

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Authors: Raghav Pandey & Adithya Anil Variath

The neologism – Constitutional coup, entered into the foray ofrealpolitik with President Maithripala Sirisena sacking his ally and incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and appointing former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, persona non grata with the regime as the new Prime Minister. The current capture of power has again put the Indian Ocean diplomacy in the international foreground following pandemonium in Maldives island over its recent presidential election. Sri Lanka has again dived into a stalemate menacing its democratic values and political stability.  The current crisis was unanticipated and serendipitous given the political realities of the nation, the verdict in the last parliamentary elections and the amended powers of the President under the Constitution of the country.

This is not the first time that a President according to his whims and fancies has ousted Wickremesinghe from his office. A similar scenario arose in 2004, the then head of state sacked him from his responsibilities and called for snap elections in the mid-term. Eventually, after winning the top post for the third time in August 2015, Wickremesinghe passed a Constitutional amendment to amend the Constitution to remove the President’s power to sack Prime Ministers to prevent a repeat of his earlier unceremonious ouster. 72 – year- old Mahindra Rajapaksa, considered as a war hero among the supporters was previously elected as the President from 2005 to 2015. But during Rajapaksa’s period of misgovernance, Sri Lanka warranted international criticism from economies worldwide and intergovernmental bodies for obstructing investigations into allegations of war crimes perpetrated and executed by the military officials against Tamil civilians.

A 2011 United Nation’s Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka estimated that as many as 40,000 Tamils may have been killed in the endmost months of the war alone. The panel on the basis of shreds of evidence inculpated the Tamil Tigers of committing atrocities against women, including recruiting child soldiers. During Rajapaksa’s regime, he concurrently was in charge as President and finance minister, among other cabinet positions, while his family members served as the defence secretary and ministries dealing with economy and ports. This political power and nepotism controlled about 80 per cent of the total national budget and was accused of corruption and major human rights abuses. The voice of dissent, both political opponents and investigative journalists critical of their governance often disappeared.

Sirisena as a Cabinet ranked Minister handled the Ministry of Health and Defence, ante defecting the party to join then Opposition in 2014. After which Sirisena loyalists in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) formed a coalition with the United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. He was voted into power in January 2015, relying on the promises of greater transparency and administrative accountability, protecting human rights and a crackdown on corruption and nepotism.  The fragile coalition government kickstarted an ambitious reform package, including measures to introduce constitutional and electoral reform. The Government also sent strong signals to international community to showcase its creditability and intention to protect and promote human rights by co-sponsoring a UN resolution in 2015 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights that required them to make concrete commitments on transitional justice, following the end of Sri Lanka’s nearly three-decade-long civil war in 2009. But these assertive projects began to crumble due to inefficiency and social divisions along the lines of ethnicity and religion. In the recent local government elections, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a breakaway faction of the SLFP consisting of Rajapaksa and his followers accumulated over 44% of the vote.

The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), headed by President Maithripala Sirisena won just over 8%. While the faction of United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe attracted a substantial voter base, the elections were seen as a bone breaker to the coalition government. Concatenation of Cabinet reshuffles and power successions led to a no-confidence motion levelled against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in April 2018.  Before suspending the elected Government, Sirisena also accused the UNP faction of not taking cognizance of an alleged murder conspiracy to assassinate him and former top Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, making a powerful statement from Temple Trees, addressed the people as “the elected Prime Minister of the democratic republic of Sri Lanka under the powers guided by Article (42) of the Constitution and the 19th Amendment. I trounced the no-confidence motion brought against me and relish a clear majority in Parliament. I shall remain Prime Minister for as long as I enjoy a majority in Parliament and support of people.”  Wickremesinghe’s faction of UNP has been counting on the constitutional principle of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, adopted with the guidance of President Sirisena in April 2015, which empowers the President to appoint a new prime minister, but not the power to remove one. Article 46 (2) after the infamous 19th Amendment to the Constitution, reads as; the Prime Minister continues to hold office, throughout the period during which the Cabinet of Ministers continues to function under the provisions of the Constitution, unless he: (a) resigns by writing or, (b) ceases to be a Member of Parliament. Meanwhile, there is high speculation that Sirisena and Rajapaksa have already entered into a secret deal which will empower Sirisena to contest the upcoming 2020 presidential elections against the UNP with the full cooperation of SLPP.

Wickremesinghe’s UNP and other political as well as non-political groups challenged the President’s decision in the Supreme Court, terming it unconstitutional. UNP’s main argument was based on the interpretation of Article 70 (1) of the Sri Lankan Constitution. The petitioners pointed out that this provision restricts the powers of the President to dissolve Parliament before the end of the four-and-half years out of the five-year term. Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court upheld the arguments raised by the petitioners, that the President’s move did not have the support of two-thirds of the members, which is an essential requirement under the said article. Taking into consideration these constitutional principles, the Supreme Court overturned President Maithripala Sirisena’s controversial decision to dissolve the Parliament and stayed the preparations for snap polls declared to be held on 5 January 2019. Immediately after the Court’s verdict, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya summoned a Parliamentary session on 14 November 2018, during which the Parliament passed the non-confidence motion against the recently appointed government led by Prime Minister Rajapaksa with the backing of 122 of the 225 lawmakers in a voice vote, followed by a signed document. But, President Sirisena in an official letter addressed to the Speaker said he could not accept the non-confidence motion as it appeared to have ignored the Constitution, parliamentary procedure and constitutional tradition.

In an unprecedented move, as a temporary solution, the political parties in Sri Lanka agreed to form a select committee to conduct parliamentary affairs amid the constitutional crisis. Sri Lanka’s Parliament which was convened yesterday for a third-floor test was adjourned just ten minutes after its commencement as the parliamentarians were unable to decide on the members of the committee. The Sri Lankan lawmakers have also submitted a motion which shall be out into vote on November 29, seeking the suspension of state funds allocated to the present illegitimate government. The current constitutional and political dilemma has hit the economy. On Monday, the Sri Lankan rupee fell to a record low of 177.20 per dollar and the foreign investors have pulled out more than 30 billion rupees ($169.5 million) since the decision of the Supreme Court.Sri Lanka’s politico-economic condition is already under duress with Forex reserves slithering, pressuring the local currency vis-à-vis economic problems in global emerging markets and weakening international investor confidence.

A stable Sri Lankan democracy is in the political, social and economic interests of New Delhi to further strengthen its blue water diplomacy.  Taking into consideration the tenets of Indian Ocean diplomacy, the current political scenario is a real gift to China, during Rajapaksa’s stint, Sri Lanka moved closer to China. While Wickremesinghe practiced a liberal approach to balance relations with India and China, Rajapaksa supports and endorses a tilted policy to accept Chinese money even in the face of unreasonable terms. Colombo is a real victim here due to the repercussions of this inarticulate economic policy, as it was forced to sell strategic assets to Beijing, including the Hambantota port, when it failed to meet liabilities. The United States has been vocal against China’s “debt trap diplomacy” and singled out Sri Lanka, contending the Chinese-built seaport will preferably become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy to exert dominance in the region.

Analysing the present economic situation, it is clear that there is an urgent need of foreign capital and international financial aid and Rajapaksa’s government will most likely accelerate more Chinese investments in the region. With this tapping of Chinese resources and monetary aid, other major foreign players operating in the island nation such as India and Japan are likely to experience unmitigated economic and political risks.  A recent election in the Maldives was a diplomatic win for India as the region witnessed the previous China funded government lose power to a pro-democracy party, attracting the island closer to New Delhi. The current political discourse in Sri Lanka would further facilitate the world’s second-largest economy steal a diplomatic victory against India as the two nuclear superpowers battle for supremacy in the Indian Ocean region.

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Ancestral Lineage of Hazaras: from Afghanistan to Pakistan

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While the origins of Hazaras are much debated, opinions differ when it comes to the ancestral lineage of Hazara community. According to some historians, Hazaras are the original inhabitants of Hazarajat (now central Afghanistan).Among Hassan Pouladi, Prof. Shah Ali Akbar, Fletcher, and Abdul HaiHabibi, J. P. Ferrier who was a renowned French scholar was the first who argued based on his explanations of the Greek historian Quintus Curtius about the battles of Alexander the Great and his travels to these areas, now Afghanistan that Hazaras were native inhabitants of Afghanistan since the time of Alexander the Great and have not migrated from any other places to this land.

Whereas, according to some, Hazaras have Mongolian ancestry under Genghis Khan. This notion that Hazaras have Mongolian origin takes its origin in the 19th century when European came to Afghanistan, and they distinguish people with Mongolian featured faces among other Caucasian faces. Hazaras were originally represented by the word ‘Ozala’ or ‘Hosala’ which, with the passing of time became ‘Hazara’. The very word ‘Hazara’ then was used to refer to the counting system in the armed forces of Genghis Khan i.e. ‘hazara’ that meant thousand, which comprised one level of the troops.

Yet, few opinionate, Hazaras have Persian and Turko-Mongolian ancestry. According to a report they descended from Genghis Khan’s Army that mixed with Persian and Turkic locals whom as a result of conflict had been settled in now Hazara inhabited areas of Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, some think, Hazaras have ancestral lineage with theKushan Dynasty that goes back two millennia when Bamiyan in Afghanistan was home to the largest statues of ancient Buddhist civilization. Patrons of this idea highlight the similar facial features of Hazaras to those of Buddhist murals and statues in the region. Whilst, some of the Hazaras believe that they are the descendants of one of the sons of Noah.

Although, all the above mentioned theories might differ when it comes to ancestral lineage of Hazara community, but they have one thing in common and that is the land of Hazaras which now constitute parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. People of Hazaras settled in the mountainous regions of central Afghanistan as early as the 19th century, with the majority of their inhabitants living in Hazarajat (the land of Hazara), which is situated in the rough central mountainous core of Afghanistan with an area stretch over 50,000 sq.km.The Hazaras speak a dialect of Persian (Dari dialect) that is called Hazaragi. Hazaragi was one of the two largest languages of Afghanistan. Hazaragi includes many Mongolian and Turkic words, which also maintains the theory that they have Mongolian ancestry.

Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country with almost 8 major and 10 minor different ethnic groups; among major ethnic groups are Pashtun, Tajiks, and Hazaras etc. Hazaras were once the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and constituted approximately 67% of the total population, but today their population hardly makes up around 9% of Afghan population. The reason for their massacred lies in their off target political action when they backed the wrong candidate in the accession struggle in the late 19th century, that had changed the life of Hazaras and their role in Afghan politics and ultimately in Afghan government.

Reports from the 20th century depict that arm forces of Afghanistan made pyramids out of Hazaras heads after some of the massacres, as a form of warning to the remaining Hazaras, yet this could not be regarded as the last savage and barbaric government repression of the Hazaras. Towards the end of 20th century during the rule of Taliban in Afghanistan, government specifically targeted the Hazaras for persecution and even genocide. This brutal history of persecution of Hazaras in Afghanistan resulted in killing more than half of their population with some migrating to neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran.

Whereas, according to historical evidence migration of Hazaras from Afghanistan to Baluchistan province, Pakistan took place about 150 years ago, initially due to economic purposes. But mass migration of Hazara population took place in the late 19th century, mainly due to their persecution and targeted killing at the hands of different afghan rulers and Taliban government that forced them to migrate to Pakistan, and so they settled here.

In Pakistan, the estimated number of people of Hazara community is between 0.6-0.9 million, living and residing in different parts of the country including Karachi, Parachinar, Sanghar, Nawabshah, Hyderabad, also in different parts of GilgitBaltistan and Punjab. In Baluchistan province, the bulk of Hazara population are residing in Quetta and other parts of Baluchistan such as Sanjawi, Much, Zhob, Harnai, Loralai, and Dukki, where their population makes up around 0.4-0.5 million.Unfortunately, along with their migration, the Hazara community brought with them the history of their persecutions based on their ethnicity, religious orientation of sect and also their ethnically unique facial curvatures, and so, their tenure of oppression at the hands Taliban and other terrorist organization like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah Sahabah, al-Qaeda and other Sunni radical militants organization that also includes ISIS in its list is on-going in Pakistan.

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Pakistan PM visited Sri Lanka to further strengthen the existing friendship to new heights

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Prime Minister Imran Khan during the Sri Lanka visit. PHOTO COURTESY: FACEBOOK/IMRAN KHAN

At the formal invitation of the Prime Minister of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, H.E. Imran Khan, paid a two-day official visit to Sri Lanka on 23-24 February 2021.

Prime Minister Imran Khan was accompanied by an elevated-level delegation comprising Federal Ministers and senior Government officials. The first-ever visit by the Prime Minister of Pakistan to Sri Lanka since the formation of the new governments in both countries clearly reflects the warmth and goodwill between the two countries’ governments and peoples. Prime Minister Imran Khan received a warm traditional welcome from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Sri Lanka’s Ministers.

During the visit, Prime Minister Imran Khan held delegation-level discussions with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka. Both sides comprehensively appraised the multifaceted bilateral relationship in various fields of cooperation. The talks were held in a warm and cordial environment, marked by mutual trust and respect. The visit offeredboth sides a timely opportunity to further shape upon their close and regular consultations, particularly in the areas identified during the recently held Foreign Secretary level Bilateral Political Consultations, Joint Economic Commission session, and the Commerce Secretaries-level Talks.

Both sides reached a wide-ranging consensus on ways and means to strengthen cooperation further comprehensively and decided to hold frequent meetings; promote high-level and delegation-level exchanges; and enhance the process of consultations, collaboration, and synchronization between their respective institutions. Prime Minister Imran Khan reiterated Pakistan’s support for the socio-economic development of Sri Lanka in line with the vision of a “peaceful neighborhood.”

The two sides reviewed the all-encompassing engagement between the two countries in promoting cultural linkages, human resource development, capacity building in diverse areas, and educational and technical cooperation. The Pakistan side announced 100 scholarships in health sciences and medicines (MBBS and BDS) as part of the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Higher Education Cooperation Programme (PSLHECP). The Sri Lankan side appreciated the cooperation being extended by Pakistan in human resource development and capacity building.

While comprehending the existence of boundless potential of religious tourism to Buddhist archeological sites and perceiving the close ancient and cultural ties dating back to Gandhara civilization, the two sides emphasized the importance of augmenting cooperation in the field of tourism and highlighted the benefits of sharing expertise in the hospitality industry, including training and capacity building. The Pakistan side declared its initiative of establishing the Asian Civilization and Culture Centre at the University of Peradeniya, Kandy. Both sides recognized the importance of enhancing air connectivity to promote people-to-people contact, tourism, trade, and culture.

In order to explore new avenues for enhancing bilateral trade and investment between the two countries, a high-level Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference was held on 24 February 2021. The Conference provided an opportunity for effective and meaningful engagement between the business communities of the two countries. At the Conference, both Pakistan and Sri Lanka sides reiterated the importance of strengthening economic relations in critical areas of mutual interest and diversifying trade and investment. The two sides emphasized the importance of realizing the goal of achieving a US$ 1 billion bilateral trade target and also agreed to work towards broadening and deepening of Pakistan Sri Lank Free Trade Agreement.

During the visit, the following MoUs between Pakistan and Sri Lanka were signed:

i. Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on Cooperation in Tourism

ii. Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation between the Board of Investment of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Board of Investment of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

iii. Memorandum of Understanding between Industrial Technology Institute (ITI), the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, and International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences, University of Karachi Islamic Republic of Pakistan

iv Intent Cooperation between Industrial Technology Institute of Sri Lanka and COMSATS University Islamabad

v. Memorandum of Understanding between University of Colombo, Sri Lanka and Lahore School of Economics, Pakistan

Prime Minister Imran Khan and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa together accredited the Sri Lanka-Pakistan Parliamentary Friendship Association reconstitution. Both sides highlighted the need to strengthen parliamentary cooperation between two sides.

Both sides expressed satisfaction at the existing bilateral cooperation in the field of defense. They noted that the elevation of staff-level talks to Defence Dialogue has further provided a prospect to expand security sector relations. Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a new $50 million defense credit line facility. The two sides stressed the need for a strengthened partnership to support and coordinate with each other to deal with matters related to security, terrorism, organized crime, drug and narcotic trafficking, and intelligence-sharing.

In his efforts to strengthen sports diplomacy, Prime Minister Imran Khan participated in a shared session with the sports community of Sri Lanka on 24 February 2021. At this event, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Sports and Youth Namal Rajapaksa, in the Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardane, stated the commissioning of the “Imran Khan High-Performance Sports Centre” in Colombo.

The Pakistan side declared its decision to provide PKR 52 million to promote sports in Sri Lanka, including through training and equipment.

Both sides stressed the importance of inter-religious dialogue and harmony as a key to promoting cultural diversity, peaceful co-existence, and mutual empathy.

The two sides observed the close cooperation between the two countries at regional and international fora on mutual interest issues. They agreed to strengthen a coordinated approach on such matters further.

Both sides restated their commitment to the principles and intents of the SAARC Charter. They stressed the need for SAARC Member countries to build on convergences for the region’s people’s greater good. Both sides emphasized the need to convene the Charter Based bodies and agreed to take forward the SAARC process for further strengthening regional cooperation to achieve prosperity in the region.

Discussing the regional and global environment developments, the two sides restated their shared commitment to regional peace, security, and stability. Prime Minister Imran Khan underscored the need for peaceful resolution of unresolved disputes through constructive dialogue in accordance with international legitimacy.

In the context of regional connectivity, Prime Minister Imran Khan highlighted the opportunities presented by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of BRI, for regional economic growth and prosperity.

Discussing the extraordinary challenges postured by Covid – 19, the two sides highlighted the need for combined efforts to deal with the pandemic. Sri Lanka thanked Pakistan for the tremendous assistance extended to the return of stranded Sri Lankans in Pakistan since the Covid pandemic outbreak.

While echoing the new government’s commitment to strengthen the bilateral relations further, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka thanked the government and people of Pakistan for the persistent support extended by Pakistan to defend the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan extended an invitation to the President and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka to visit Pakistan at their earliest convenience and thanked Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for the warm cordiality extended to him and his delegation.

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Huge blast on the Afghanistan-Iran border

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Migrants at the IOM Islam Qala Reception Centre. The Centre provided services to thousands of Afghan returnees daily, prior to the catastrophic fire on 13 February. IOM/Nick Bishop

On Saturday 13 February the Islam Qala reception center owned by the IOM was demolished at the border between Afghanistan and Iran, leading to a pause to repatriation service for afghans. This led to a devastating burn. At least 40 people were killed because of this huge blast, while 17 were wounded. Tens of thousands of repatriated Afghans obtained humanitarian relief from the center International Organization of Migration, (IOM) in 2020. None were injured in the fire by IOM workers or migrants returning from Iran.Whatever sparked this explosion was not instantly apparent. The provincial governor of Herat, Wahid Qatali, said the Afghan first responders did not have the means to light the enormous fires and required Iran’s assistance by firefighting aircraft.”We can’t even discuss the victims for the time being,” Qatali told The Associated Press. Emergency crews and Afghan security services moved hundreds of fuel and gas tankers from the region, while an appeal for air-firefighting assistance was made available to the International Resolute Support Mission, quoted by Reuters as quoted by Katali.

Mohammad Rafiq shirzy, spokesperson for the district hospitals of Herat’s Provincial capital and also called Herat, said that more than 500 trucks were carrying natural gas and diesel that have been destroyed by the severity of the fire, and he said that it was impossible for ambulances to reach the injured or to reach the explosion site. Hossein Akhundzadeh, a regional Iranian trade official, told Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) about the explosion of more than 300 coal, diesel, and petrol cars. The flash has not yet been contained, and precise evidence was not provided,”It’s not known whether the drivers were able to escape or not. The blaze has not been contained yet and exact information is not available,”We don’t know whether the driver might escape or not.The Power Supply Ministry Spokesman, Wahidullah Tawhidi, said the fire was continuing after nightfall and that Afghanistan was pressuring Iran to close down its electricity supply. It has been said that the burning of two pylons has disconnected 100 tons of electricity imported into the Herat Province by Iran. He said 60% of Herat, one of Afghanistan’s leading provinces, was powerless.A dangerous route Afghan people often pursue overnight because of fear of gangs of violence, attacks between Herat City and Islam Qalah. Taliban gunmen, on the other hand, travel freely across the area.Afghan government troops assembled defensive positions and aided emergency ambulances and cars from and to the border. According to Iranian State TV, the fire spread to the Irish customs facilities Dogharoon, and first responders, including the fire departments, the Iranian army, and the border guards, managed to extinguish the fire. The natural gas and diesel trucks were sent away from the scene.As part of a national concession exempting Kabul from US sanctions against Iran, the United States permits Afghanistan to import fuel and oil from Iran.

According to a statement from the Aghan organization, on Monday, “IOM anticipates a substantial decline in rates of return through the Islam Qala in the days to come as migrants are now re-routed from Iran into the main border crossing of Milak province of Nimroz, which lies over 1,000 km south-west.They have shown that in 2020, there returned a high number of Afghans.Nick Bishop, program manager of IOM reported in a cross-border return reply that “the initial inspection of reception centers for the return showed significant damage to the roof and walls.”The staff of the Afghan Ministry for Refugees and Returns (MoRR) are relocating people in need here to the IOM transit center in Herat before IOM staff are back, awaiting a full assessment and inspection of the safety situation before IOM staff can resume their work from here. “The organization takes exceptional steps to secure the continuing humanitarian assistance can take place.

Unfortunately, as the fire began all the returning residents, who had already moved to their next location at our reception center, that day.There was a drastic rise in return rates last year, as COVID-19 caused many Afghans residing in neighboring Iran to lose jobs and livelihoods. By 2020, the largest year of return was almost 860,000 illegal Afghan immigrants back from Iran.Approximately 15,000 people cross the Islam Qala border point daily, while nearly 1,500 per day need humanitarian assistance. Approximately 60% of Herat province was helpless as a result of flames, said DABS, an Afghan power supplier.Islam Qala is one of the main ports of Afghanistan that traffic most officially with Iran. Afghanistan has earned concessions from Washington to buy oil and gas from Iran amid the sanctions of the United States.A risky stretch of highway between Herat and Islam Qala, where Afghans barely ride by night for fear of criminal gang attacks. In the area, the Taliban are still free to work.Hope to rapidly repair all damage to the reception facility as soon as possible and continue vital humanitarian services to Afghans returning through this major transit route, but we will require increased support to do so.

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