Episode 1: A Closer Look at Sri Lanka
Through the Eyes of a Human Rights Lawyer and a Human Rights Advocate
The first episode of "A Closer Look" brings us to Sri Lanka – the island nation just off the southeastern coast of India. Sri Lanka enjoys a large, well-educated population, great economic potential, a history of democracy, and popular tourist attractions. At the same time, the country has been marred by political violence since its independence, and the current government’s stand on human rights and governance has come under the close watch of the United Nations yet again.
Our key takeaways
Sri Lanka’s foreign relations
Sri Lanka is not balancing its foreign relations well – it is getting closer to China, which has caused tensions with its “Big Brother”, India. Also, Sri Lanka’s government thought they could push their way through in the Human Rights Council by relying on China and Russia; however, the International Community called them out, saying that “your Human Rights situation is atrocious”.
China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has a huge resonance in Asia and is impacting Sri Lanka as well. Social Media is overflowing with jokes and memes (Sri Lanka is becoming a Chinese colony, etc.), which makes Sinophobia a growing concern.
Easter Sunday Attacks in 2019
The atrocious attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019 were in a sense a turning point, in that they enabled current government to come into power. In another sense, it needs to be said that the anti-Muslim violence has been there historically in Sri Lanka.
Government in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a very powerful president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who can override parliament – for 5 months during the pandemic Sri Lanka had no parliament (the excuse being the ongoing pandemic). The entire Rajapaksa family is in control, all four brothers are in key positions within the government. It is not a rule-based order but rather a relationship-based order. The government has been very strategic with the military. There is an unprecedented number of military officials in the Sri Lankan government, who are very close to the president (who also has a military background).
By tapping into existing culture of Sri Lanka (feudal, patriarchal), the government has positioned itself as made up of people who give a voice to rural population. The government is also using media/social media very effectively. Nonetheless, people in Sri Lanka are becoming very vocal about local representatives from the government, and young people are challenging the current regime (also on Social Media). While there is some self-censorship, some people are very outspoken.
Military in Sri Lanka
According to polls, the most trusted institution in Sri Lanka is the military. Regarding rampant corruption and other failings in the government, people have little trust in other institutions. The pandemic is also testing the military – it is becoming increasingly clear that the military style leadership is not doing well addressing pandemic.
Facing third wave in Sri Lanka, things are not looking good. There are no clear indicators in terms of numbers, one has to rely on what’s publicly put out, but “do we genuinely know the situation we are in?” Many sources of income, such as tourism, have dried up as a result of the pandemic.
Fishing conflicts between Sri Lanka and India
The fishing conflicts between Sri Lanka and India are still on-going. Recently the government gave Indian fishermen permits to fish in Sri Lankan waters which created an uproar, not least because of the usage of illegal and unsustainable methods of fishing and drug-trafficking into Sri Lankas through those routes. Sri Lankan fishermen in the north are fearing their livelihood, and are severely impacted not only from India, but also from other parts of Sri Lanka as well. Altogether this is a complicated topic, in which the military is involved as well, and will not be resolved anytime soon.
Culinary excursion to Sri Lanka
Watalappam (dessert made by Muslim community in Sri Lanka)
Bhavani Fonseka is a Senior Researcher and Attorney at Law with the Centre for Policy Alternatives, with a focus on research, national and international advocacy and public interest litigation. Her work has revolved around assisting victims and affected populations across Sri Lanka, legal and policy reforms and public interest litigation (PIL). She is the editor of the book Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka: Moving Beyond Promises. She is presently on the editorial board of the International Journal on Transitional Justice and a visiting lecturer at University of Colombo. She was an adviser to the Consultation Taskforce appointed by the Government of Sri Lanka in 2016 and a member of the drafting committee to formulate the National Human Rights Action Plan for Sri Lanka for the period 2017-2021. She has a LLB (Hons.) (Bristol), LLM (Denver) and MPA (Harvard). She was awarded The Young Outstanding Persons award for human rights in 2007 by the Junior Chamber International and HSBC Bank. She was also a Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Asia21 Fellow and an Eisenhower Fellow.
Ambika Satkunanathan is a human rights advocate based in Sri Lanka. Her work has focused on research, advocacy and assisting communities, particularly in the North and East, access remedies for rights violations. She is currently an Open Society Fellow (2020-2021). From October 2015 to March 2020, she was a Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, where she led the first ever national study of prisons. Prior to that, for eight years, she functioned as the Legal Consultant to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Her research and advocacy have focused on transitional justice, custodial violence, penal reform, militarization, gender and Tamil nationalism. Her publications include contributions to the Oxford Handbook of Gender & Conflict, the Routledge Handbook on Human Rights in South Asia, and Contemporary South Asia. She is Chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, an indigenous Sri Lankan grant-making organisation and Vice Chairperson of Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific, a regional feminist grant making organisation. She is a member of the Expert Panel of the Trial Watch Project of the Clooney Foundation and a member of the Network of Experts of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. Ambika holds a Master of Laws (Human Rights) degree from the University of Nottingham, where she was a Chevening Scholar, and has earned bachelor’s degrees (LL.B / B.A) from Monash University, Australia.