Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • November 2020
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Archive for November, 2020

A Tribute to My Mother-in-Law

Posted by harimpeiris on November 26, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 25th November 2020)

My mother-in-law, Mandrani Gunasekera, nee Malwatta, passed away peacefully in our home a few weeks ago. The funeral arrangements were complicated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic situation, and the resultant weekend curfew in Colombo.

It is a privilege for me to reflect on my mother-in-law and her role in our lives. Vocationally, she was a practitioner of one of the noblest professions on earth, that of being a teacher, with the responsibility of educating and molding young lives. First in the public-school system, then overseas, and finally in Colombo’s leading international schools. As someone who topped her batch at the Peradeniya University, teaching was an unusual and perhaps unglamourous choice, but it demonstrated her commitment to the service of others.

In private life, she, was a mother to two daughters, one of whom is my wife, and their strength of character are a tribute to her. Her four grandchildren, including my two sons, are, I am sure, left in no doubt, that their mothers were raised in the home of a teacher, with a strong commitment to both education and discipline. I saw first-hand, that my mum-in- law, was an enabler and facilitator, guiding and molding her family. Her eldest grand-daughter, Thisuni Welihinde’s wedding late last year, was a milestone for her and we were never sure who was more excited, the bride or her grandmother.

To me, she was always “Ammi” and having lost my own mother when I was very young, I was determined to treat my wife’s mother, as I would my own. After my father- in- law’s death, a decade ago, it was a joy to care for my mother-in- law, in our home. Ammi was retired and lived a life of leisure. Which was a good counter balance to our own lives, which always seemed to be so hectic and rushed. I also learned from my mother -in-law, that being effective did not come from being prominent.

Ammi was also regular at Church, every Sunday, and was also an active member of a mid-week ladies Bible study, and prayer group, who were also her group of friends. They always ended their meetings, with brunch if not lunch. It was special joy that we were able to celebrate her 80th birthday with a “surprise party” at home, with her friends, about six weeks before her passing.

Ammi enjoyed the simple joys of life, and of our home, whether it was meal times, the constant chatter and boisterous behaviour of her two teenage grandsons, our weekend activities or family vacations to most of which she accompanied us. She was also an avid rugby fan, especially of Royal College rugby, since her brother had captained Royal and now her grandson was playing. In fact, she used to attend many matches and the 75th Bradby encounter last year, held in the shadow of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, was her last, to witness her brother honoured on the field with other past captains and her grandson take the field, as a junior player.

This strange Covid-19 pandemic year, and its unprecedented lockdown ,enabled us to spend lots of time together, as family. Our lockdown daily routine, which included lots of sleep and rest, was centered on the daily family lunch, either preceded, or followed by family prayer. Ammi became the most committed and enthusiastic participant in our family mid-day gatherings. It was a great blessing, in disguise, that enabled us to spend the last few months, with noting much else to do, but enjoy each other’s company. While we miss her, we have the hope that she is with our Lord Jesus Christ. Her favourite Bible scripture in Psalm 91, states “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High abides under the shadow of the Almighty …. and with long life I will satisfy him and show him, My salvation”.

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Mike Pompeo Seeks to Stop Sri Lanka’s Slide to China

Posted by harimpeiris on November 5, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 03rd November 2020)

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was in Sri Lanka last week as part of his Asian tour that included regional power India as well as the Maldives. Coincidently his visit came not too long after one by former Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to Colombo. It was also on the eve of the November 3 presidential elections in the US, which will determine if the Trump Administration is re-elected for a second term or if the Democrats take the White House under Joe Biden, President Obama’s former Vice President.

Regarding Sri Lanka the American diplomats, never known for their subtlety, were unusually blunt even by their own standards. Days before departing for their Asian tour, delegation member Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson, stated that the US would “urge Sri Lanka to make the difficult but necessary choices” on its economic and development partners. Although not mentioning China by name, the inference was clear. Goaded, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, proving that beneath the benign smiles and frequent bowing of its diplomats lay very thin Asian skins, had the audacity to issue a statement that declared, among other reasons, that because Sri Lanka was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, we really shouldn’t be troubled at this time with a visit by the US delegation. So much for poor Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the ostensible host of the visit.

The US is the world’s largest economy and is Sri Lanka’s single largest export market. The EU is larger but that is made up of many nations. Over the past many decades, the US has provided more than US$ 2 billion in aid through various USAID projects while the multilateral institutions it effectively controls, such as the World Bank, have provided much more. Our export driven economy is quite dependent on its key export markets and we ignore their concerns at our own economic peril.

The focus of the US visit, being firmly fixed on Sri Lanka’s growing dependence and indebtedness to China, had largely to do with the Rajapaksa Administration’s foreign policy, which is viewed in global capitals and certainly in both Washington D.C. as well as New Delhi, as being solely and overly reliant on Beijing. This is a major departure from decades of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy that has always been a balanced neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, which was principled as well as pragmatic. Perhaps the best articulator of that policy in recent years was former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and, in an earlier era, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who cultivated a personal friendship with the Gandhi family in India but also succeeded in having the Chinese gift Sri Lanka the BMICH that enabled us to host the 5th Non-Aligned Nations Summit in 1976. A truly neutral non-aligned policy that served Sri Lanka well.

The world is changing from a unipolar world dominated by the US to a more multi polar world in which the Chinese, as well as other powers such as India and Russia, have real interests, strategic and economic as well as security, outside their own borders. Sri Lanka as a small nation and hence a threat to none but blessed with a strategic location and a highly literate population can, in our post-civil conflict era, well benefit from the various economic opportunities that arise thereby. However, this does mean that we must have a balanced foreign policy, as indeed we have had for much of our post-independence period.

Sri Lanka’s own foreign policy during our 30-year civil war was a very simple, single issue foreign policy; developing and maintaining international support and political space for the prosecution of a long drawn out conflict and indeed, in that context, we were successful. Sri Lanka won its war with no domestic armaments industry to talk of, with entirely imported weapons systems ranging from Israeli Kfir jets, American Bell Helicopters and Czech multi barrel rocket launches, among many others. Most importantly perhaps, the US led efforts to put an international squeeze on the LTTE’s money laundering and financing of terrorism efforts while Indian intelligence sharing and security cooperation were crucial in the interception and sinking of the LTTE’s rearmament ships in international waters by our Navy in 2009 that ensured the war ended.

However, post war, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has much broader strategic interests as well as strategic challenges. In terms of interests economic diplomacy, seeking to attract and increase foreign direct investment still at abysmal levels compared to regional peers and expand trade as well as access to new export markets, must surely rank first among our key interests while managing the challenges of an emerging multi polar world and its hot issues in our region, such as maritime security. In that context, it was very unwise for the former Rajapaksa Administration to allow Chinese nuclear submarines to dock twice in the Colombo port in 2014. A similar Chinese request in 2017 was turned down by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Administration.

The post war Rajapaksa Administration of 2010 to 2015 performed very disappointingly. It abandoned Sri Lanka’s traditionally neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, despite paying lip service to it, and took us firmly into a debt trap, notwithstanding protestations to the contrary by the Government, from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves. Sri Lanka’s project financing from China is not concessionary and is very expensive, even more expensive than what we source competitively in international capital markets for budgetary support. Project financing needs to be much cheaper. The debt for equity swap that the former government effected with regard to the Hambanthota port was inevitable and bought us some time and space to pay off our other loans. Although President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, just after his election, wanted to review the agreement, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the face of Chinese protests, declined. It is surprising that the critics and pandits who decry the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s grant (not a loan) of half a billion dollars, that is, free money that does not need to repaid, are totally silent about the expensive loans for the white elephant projects – a port with no ships, an airport with no flights and reclaimed land from the sea for more apartments and hotels, as if we are short of either in Colombo.

Before its departure the visiting US delegation took pains to point out its commitment to our shared values as a democratic society and also reiterated support for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post war undertakings to then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of accountability, justice and reconciliation. Time will tell if the SLPP Administration will recalibrate its foreign policy to a more balanced and neutral one. Early indications are to the contrary.

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