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How much damage will sanctions do to Russia? | Russia-Ukraine war

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Over the past week, Western countries have ramped up sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. The measures are the toughest since those imposed on Iran in 2010 and North Korea in 2013.

Russia is the largest economy and the largest country globally, by population, against which such strong sanctions have ever been implemented. Western leaders know that they will not immediately stop the war, but hope that they would inflict enough damage on the Russian economy to help de-escalate the conflict.

So how tough are the sanctions? They are much tougher than those previously imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, but I would not call them “nuclear”. That is, they could damage the Russian economy but not obliterate it, given some major loopholes purposefully left by the sanction architects.

What follows is my insight into how the current package of sanctions will and will not hurt the Russian economy and why.

Sanctions on the Central Bank

Undoubtedly, the most powerful blow to the Russian financial system is the imposition of sanctions on the Central Bank of Russia (CBR), which plays a crucial role in the domestic foreign exchange market.

The CBR has enormous foreign exchange reserves amounting to $640bn and it traditionally regulates the level of the rouble exchange rate.

The freezing of the CBR’s assets and accounts in the G7 countries means that it is left with gold reserves worth $127bn held in Russia and renminbi reserves worth $70bn. Both are useless from the point of view of maintaining stability in the domestic foreign exchange market.

From February 24 to March 2 the CBR loaned 4.4 trillion roubles (3.4 percent of GDP) to banks as part of its efforts to maintain stability in the financial system.

The sanctions against the CBR affected the domestic foreign exchange market immediately after they were announced on Sunday. By the end of that day, the selling rate of dollars in exchange offices of banks had risen by at least 45 percent compared with Friday. In the next days, the gap between selling and buying rates in the banks’ offices was between 20 and 50 percent.

Starting from Sunday night, the CBR and the government issued several new regulations imposing currency control. Exporters now have to sell 80 percent of foreign exchange earnings for roubles. Foreigners cannot sell Russian stocks and bonds and transfer coupons and dividends to their accounts, while residents and non-residents from 43 countries (that imposed sanctions on Russia) cannot transfer funds to their accounts with banks outside Russia.

A side-effect of the sanctions on the CBR is the freezing of assets belonging to the Ministry of Finance, current accounts and funds of the National Welfare Fund. But it does not seem that this will have any effect on the current economic situation.

On the one hand, at the current level of oil prices, Russia’s budget is in surplus, and the Ministry of Finance does not need to use reserves. On the other hand, when the Ministry of Finance sells its foreign currency reserves, the buyer is the CBR; the Ministry of Finance does not need to go to the market for this.

Consequently, even if the accounts of the CBR are frozen, the Ministry of Finance will be able to receive roubles from it, if at some point it wants to sell some of its currency reserves.

However, the devaluation of the rouble will certainly affect consumer inflation, which may grow by an additional 4-5 percent for a 40-50 percent increase in the value of the dollar. By the end of February, consumer price inflation in Russia exceeded 9 percent, with food inflation exceeding 12.5 percent.

Devaluation of the rouble, potential problems with imports, and general political uncertainty may undermine a business’s desire to take risks and result in lower growth in agriculture, lower supply, and even higher food inflation. In addition, disruptions in the payment system may lead to disruptions in the supply of imported goods to Russia, further accelerating inflation by reducing supply.

SWIFT and foreign payments

The EU and the US have put on their sanctions list a number of Russian banks and major companies. This will result in Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, which holds 33 percent of the banking system’s assets, being unable to make its payments and those of its customers denominated in dollars. Its correspondent accounts with US banks will be blocked and the bank had to pull out of the European market. Four other banks, VTB, Otkritie, Novikombank, and Sovcombank will face the same fate.

In addition, the US blocked 13 major Russian companies and banks from accessing its capital markets and banned US investors from buying new issues of Russian government bonds in their initial public offerings and on the secondary market. The G7 countries also decided to disconnect several Russian banks from the SWIFT system. Disconnecting banks from the SWIFT system does not limit their ability to make foreign exchange payments. It only slows down payments and makes them more expensive.

So what does this mean for the Russian economy? The Russian financial system is highly integrated into the global system. Russia is one of the largest raw materials suppliers to the world market. At the same time, the Russian economy is a significant importer of consumer goods, technology and investment equipment. That is why international payments are critical.

Disconnecting the largest banks from making customer payments will disrupt the flow of goods, accumulate a consumer market deficit and accelerate inflation. Some companies whose business is in importing goods to Russia or selling imported goods in Russia may go bankrupt. The average Russian citizen will pay the price for this, as real household incomes shrink. As usual, inflation will hit harder the poor.

However, it is important to point out that Western countries have not limited payments related to Russian energy resources, which constitute 50 percent of Russian exports. In this way, Europe guarantees that energy prices will not skyrocket and damage its own economy.

For Russia, this means that it will be able to offset the negative impact of financial sanctions with a solid current account balance due to proceeds from raw materials exports, which are not threatened. Furthermore, the scale of application of sanctions by the EU is significantly less than that of the US, which leaves the possibility of virtually unlimited payments in euros. This means, for example, that while the dollar accounts of a sanctioned Russian bank will be blocked, its euro accounts will be operational.

Foreign debt

Another significant aspect of the Western sanctions is the ban on the access of Russian banks and companies to Western capital markets. As a result, there will be a substantial outflow of foreign investors from Russia; predictions by various experts range from $30bn to $50bn of investments lost in a year.

The ban will also affect banks’ ability to repay foreign debt. If the official statistics are to be believed, Russia’s foreign debt is not too large. As of October 1, it was $478bn or 27 percent of GDP. However, from the point of view of its impact on the economy, it is not so much the amount of debt that matters, but the schedule for its repayment and the share of short-term debt.

In the next 12 months, Russian banks and companies will have to repay more than $100bn. This is a hefty schedule, and many Russian borrowers counted on refinancing old debts. Now, this opportunity will be closed for many of them.

This means that the Russian economy will have to channel substantial financial resources to repay foreign debt. The only way to do this is to use domestic savings, undermining already weak economic growth. It is too early to assess how much the Russian economy will slow down, but it is clear that the recent IMF projection of 2.8 percent growth is unrealistic.

Can Russia rely on China to provide financial resources to help prop its economy? The Russian leadership had such hopes in 2014-2016 when it was hit by Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea. But despite numerous requests for loans from the Russian side, Beijing gave only a minimal amount of assistance and tied it to Chinese companies being allowed to access Russian production and exports. There is no reason why China’s position would change today.

Technology and aviation industry

Sanctions are also restricting Western exports of technology, equipment, and components to Russia, which could affect Russian imports of machinery, equipment, and technological goods.

These sanctions will seriously impact the technological level of the Russian economy. Russia has traditionally been an importer of advanced technology, used in all kinds of technologically complex products, from vacuum cleaners to nuclear-powered icebreaker ships. Many military products will be impossible to produce in Russia if sanctions remain in place.

The severity of these sanctions is amplified by the boycott of Russia by global companies that do not want to take political risks. BP and Shell are withdrawing from oil and gas projects in Russia. Car companies, such as Ford, Volvo, Jaguar, Hyundai, BMW and Toyota, have announced they will stop production or stop supplying cars to Russia.

Shipping companies have stopped shipping containers to and from Russia. Banks have stopped lending to traders to buy Russian oil and insurance companies are sharply increasing their rates for transporting it by sea.

For one sector of the Russian economy, aviation, the export sanctions will have a catastrophic impact. The EU sanctions have affected the supply of aircraft and components and the provision of aircraft maintenance services.

European-made aircraft (Airbus) make up about 40 percent of the fleets of Russian airlines and they carry 41 percent of their passengers. The two largest companies, Aeroflot and S7 operate respectively 117 and 66 Airbus aircraft, which means they will be significantly hit by the sanctions.

Russia produces its narrow-body Superjet, which will not be able to replace Airbus because it is produced in small numbers and its capacity does not exceed 98 passengers, and its maximum flight range is 4,500km. This means it cannot be used for longer flights with a larger passenger load.

A critical restriction that will substantially impact the current situation, but which is likely to be short-lived, is the closure by EU countries of their airspace to Russian aircraft, including business aviation. Flights to Europe are essential for Russian airlines because they are more profitable; they actively use transit flights from Asian countries to European countries. This restriction will affect the most affluent Russians who fly to Europe for business or leisure. Russian authorities have imposed similar bans on European airlines, which means a real Iron Curtain 2.0 for Russian citizens.

There are also more symbolic sanctions, including those targeting specific individuals with visa bans and asset freezes, severing business ties, cancelling sports competitions and cultural events, restricting the reach of Russian state media, etc. They may not affect the economy of the country, but will increase the feeling of international isolation that the country will suffer as a result of the war.

The Russian economy is going down the ice chute, and no one knows today when this downward spiral will end. It is safe to say that the economy will slow down sharply and the standard of living will fall, but it is premature to give any quantitative estimates today.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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UN experts condemn Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing, demand probe | Israel-Palestine conflict News

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A panel of United Nations human rights experts have condemned the killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh and said it may constitute a war crime.

In a news release published on Friday, the UN’s Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) called for a thorough and independent investigation into her death.

“Authorities have an obligation not to harm journalists and to protect them from harm under international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” the experts said according to the statement. “The killing of Abu Akleh, who was clearly performing her duties as a journalist, may constitute a war crime.”

Abu Akleh, a veteran reporter with Al Jazeera, was killed on Wednesday while covering an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. She was wearing a helmet and a vest that clearly identified her as a journalist.

Abu Akleh's coffin being carried
Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran reporter with Al Jazeera, was killed on Wednesday while covering an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin [Abbas Momani/Pool via Reuters]

“We demand a prompt, independent, impartial, effective, thorough and transparent investigation into the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh,” according to the statement.

“The killing of Abu Akleh is another serious attack on media freedom and freedom of expression, amid the escalation of violence in the occupied West Bank.”

Thousands of people jammed the streets in her hometown of Jerusalem Friday for her funeral and burial. Israeli police kicked and beat mourners with batons as they carried her body from the hospital in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, nearly causing the pallbearers to drop the coffin.

Israeli forces also attacked the hearse as it carried her body, to snatch Palestinian flags from it.

“Al Jazeera Media Network denounces this violence in the strongest terms, and holds the Israeli government fully responsible for the safety and security of all the mourners and the family of our colleague Shireen,” the broadcaster said in a statement Friday.

Abu Akleh was buried next to her parents at the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery.

INTERACTIVE Journalists killed by Israeli forces
[Al Jazeera]

The UN experts said Abu Akleh’s killing came as violence has been on the increase in the occupied West Bank and Gaza in recent years. Last year, according to the statement, marked the highest number of Palestinian deaths resulting from confrontations with Israelis since 2014. It also came amid a high rate of attacks against Palestinian journalists.

At least Palestinian journalists have been killed since 2000, and hundreds more have been injured.

“The role of journalists, especially in a context of heightened tension and marked by continuous abuses, like the occupied Palestinian territory, is critical,” the experts said.

“Lack of accountability gives carte blanche to continue the litany of extrajudicial executions. The safety of journalists is essential in guaranteeing the freedom of expression and media freedom.”

large crowd during funeral
Al Jazeera has accused Israeli of deliberately killing Shireen Abu Akleh [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

The Israeli military said its initial investigation into Abu Akleh’s death showed that a heavy firefight was under way in Jenin approximately 200 metres (about 220 yards) from where she was killed, but that it was unable to determine whether she was shot by Israeli forces or Palestinian fighters.

In a statement issued Friday, the military said Palestinian gunmen recklessly fired hundreds of rounds at an Israeli military vehicle, some in the direction of where Abu Akleh was standing. It said Israeli forces returned fire, and that without doing ballistic analysis, it cannot determine who was responsible for her death.

Reporters who were with Abu Akleh, including one who was shot and wounded, said there were no clashes or fighters in the immediate area when she was killed.

Al Jazeera has accused Israel of “blatant murder” and have called for an independent investigation into her death.

Rights groups have said that Israel rarely follows through on investigations into the killing of Palestinians by its security forces and hands down lenient punishments on the rare occasions when it does.

Abu Akleh, 51, had joined Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language service in 1997 and rose to prominence covering the second Intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s.



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How US blacklisting of IRGC is stalling Iran nuclear deal revival | Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps News

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Washington, DC – After weeks of optimism around the prospect of restoring the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year, the fate of the agreement appears to be in limbo again with no further talks on the calendar and Washington’s attention focused on Ukraine.

The push to revive the deal seems to have stalled over the US designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “foreign terrorist organization”, with American officials reluctant to meet Tehran’s demand to remove the group from the blacklist to seal the deal.

The 2015 nuclear pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions against its economy.

Former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran. In turn, the Iranian government started escalating its nuclear programme well beyond the limits set by the JCPOA.

President Joe Biden and his top aides say they are committed to reviving the deal through mutual compliance but have warned that the clock is ticking. Here, Al Jazeera looks at where things stand – and what US analysts say is halting a return to the agreement.

What is the IRGC?

The IRGC was established as a branch of the Iranian military by the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after the 1979 revolution.

It was meant to be an ideologically driven force, loyal to the revolution and the new form of government that it produced after the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Soon after its founding, the IRGC played a major role in the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.

Now the force operates as part of the military, with conscripts joining its rank to fulfil the country’s mandatory military service requirements. But the organisation maintains its own interests and projects inside and outside of Iran – answering ultimately to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC’s Quds Force, which is responsible for the group’s foreign operations, has been vital to Iran’s regional policies, including its support for various paramilitary groups across the Middle East.

“The IRGC really goes to the heart of the Islamic Republic as a political system,” said Sina Toossi, an Iranian-American political analyst. “It was designed at its inception to be separate from the Iranian army, and a military force that is tasked with preserving the Islamic Republic as its core priority.”

Why did the US blacklist the force?

The Trump administration added the IRGC to the US Department of State’s list of “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTO) as part of its post-nuclear deal, “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

“This is the first time that the United States has designated a part of another government as an FTO,” then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at that time.

“We’re doing [this] because the Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government. This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.”

Antony Blinken
‘As a practical matter, the designation does not really gain you much,’ Antony Blinken says of IRGC blacklisting [File: Bonnie Cash/Pool via Reuters]

What did the FTO designation do?

Not much, analysts and officials said. With the IRGC leadership under a host of other “terrorism” and human rights-related sanctions, the FTO designation did not fundamentally change the way the Revolutionary Guard operates.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers last month that blacklisting the IRGC had a minimal impact on the organisation. “As a practical matter, the designation does not really gain you much because there are myriad other sanctions on the IRGC,” Blinken said.

He explained that the “terrorism” label imposes a travel ban on Guard members, many of whom were conscripted into the organisation without having a say as part of their military service, but said “the people who are the real bad guys have no intention of travelling here, anyway.”

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, said the designation is “superfluous and symbolic”.

“The IRGC is under all kinds of other sanctions, and nobody is going to be doing business with them,” Slavin told Al Jazeera.

Then, why is Iran insisting on de-listing the IRGC?

Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, another think-tank in the US capital, detailed several elements that make the “terrorist” label a critical issue for the IRGC itself:

  • Prestige: “They don’t want to be called terrorists. Internationally, it’s not a good thing to have hanging around their necks.”
  • Iranian politics: “It could also undermine them within the Iranian cutthroat politics. You could see a situation where other factions within the regime will go after IRGC – ‘You are the ones that result in us being isolated’.”
  • Fear of assassinations: “They believe that it gives the United States a green light or blank cheque to assassinate anybody in the IRGC senior command; if they’re on the terrorism list, then there might be more assassinations in the way the US carried out against [Quds Force commander] Qassem Soleimani back in 2020.”
  • Economic interests: “There are literally hundreds of companies in Iran that have ties to the IRGC. So getting off the terrorism list will help just a little bit in terms of their business operations and ability to make money.”

For her part, Slavin said de-listing the IRGC is also crucial for Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, who she says has not been able to secure any major achievements since coming into office last year.

“It’s internal politics I think more than it is external. Raisi is not popular … So they’d like to be able to say, ‘Look, we got this out of the Americans’,” she said.

What is stopping Biden from de-listing the group?

In practice, nothing. Just as Pompeo designated the IRGC under Trump, Biden can ask Blinken to undo the move. And there is a recent precedent for that; early into the Biden administration, the US reversed a Trump-era decision to add Yemen’s Houthi rebels to the FTO list.

But the issue is “politically sensitive” for Biden, Slavin said.

The US president is already facing mounting pressure from legislators and others against returning to the nuclear deal, and a concession on the IRGC will certainly turn up the heat from hawks in Congress, including some Democrats. The Quds Force and its allies are accused of targeting American troops in Iraq and other parts of the region.

Last week, the US Senate in a 62-33 vote passed a non-binding amendment opposing the de-listing of the IRGC; sixteen lawmakers from Biden’s Democratic Party joined Republicans in passing the measure.

Still, Slavin said any political damage that reviving the 2015 deal could create for Biden would not be serious. “I don’t think Biden is really engaged by this in the same way certainly that [Barack] Obama was. And if it’s got any potential political downside, I think he’s just going turn away from it,” she told Al Jazeera.

Vantaka also said Biden could go through with the deal and “own it”, despite fears of being perceived as weak on Iran, because foreign policy is not a top priority for voters, who will head to the polls in November for important mid-term elections.

What has the US said so far?

Despite the IRGC impasse, Biden’s top aides continue to say they are still committed to restoring the JCPOA based on mutual compliance. And while US officials have been reluctant to divulge details of the indirect talks with Iran in Vienna, Blinken has suggested that the Guard’s “terror” designation falls outside the purview of the nuclear deal and therefore requires separate concessions from Iran.

“Irrespective of the nuclear negotiation – just with regard to the FTO – it would require Iran to take certain actions and to sustain them,” he told lawmakers last week, without specifying the exact steps.

So for now, it appears that Washington is refusing to de-list the IRGC strictly to secure a deal. The JCPOA only addresses Iran’s nuclear programme and US-led nuclear-related sanctions.

But some proponents of diplomacy say the blacklisting of the IRGC was part of Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” and was aimed to achieve what it is doing now – making a return to the JCPOA more difficult.

“If the US really wants to turn the page with Iran and pursue sustained engagement and get away from these policies of maximum pressure, then this designation is going to be a major issue because for the Iranians, it goes to the core legitimacy of their system,” said Toossi, the analyst.

What’s next?

With the nuclear talks on ice, European intermediaries have been trying to resolve the issue with EU coordinator Enrique Mora visiting Washington and Tehran recently.

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani also met with Raisi and Khamenei in Tehran this week in a visit that partly aimed to help resolve the standoff.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Friday Iran’s response to Mora’s push to revive the deal was “good enough”, adding that “these things cannot be resolved overnight”. But a State Department spokesperson told the AFP news agency the same day that a return to the agreement “remains far from certain”.

Washington has been warning for months that there will come a point when the deal’s non-proliferation benefits become moot because Tehran is gaining irreversible nuclear knowledge. We are not there yet, the Department of State recently said.

Both Vantaka and Toossi suggested one possible solution to the impasse: Keeping the Quds Force on the FTO list while removing the broader “terrorist” label on the IRGC.

The Department of the Treasury named the Quds Force as a “specially designated global terrorist” in 2007, so keeping it on the Department of State’s FTO would not be a major change from the pre-Trump status quo, Toossi said.

Slavin said another way to tackle the IRGC situation is through further negotiations after reviving the deal.

“The Iranians can agree and the Americans can agree that they will discuss this issue in follow-on talks, which is what the US has always wanted, frankly,” she said. “And these follow-on talks can deal with whatever anybody wants them to deal with, including additional sanctions relief for Iran.”



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The ‘new’ PM will not be a panacea to Sri Lanka’s problems | Opinions

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This week saw the most serious unrest in Sri Lanka since the aftermath of the Easter Bombing in 2019. A month-long protest in Colombo, calling on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, was attacked by pro-government mobs.

Protesters retaliated swiftly, chasing down those who took part in the attacks, with videos and photos of stripped and beaten Rajapaksa supporters circulating on social media. Eight people died in the ensuing violence across the Sinhala-majority south of the island, with more than 100 properties torched, mostly those linked to the president’s party.

The president’s brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned in the aftermath, fleeing to a navy camp, a notorious torture site, in the Tamil-majority northeast.

He has now been replaced by another old face – the United National Party’s (UNP) Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has occupied the premiership on no fewer than five previous occasions but has never seen out a full term. Wickremesinghe himself has been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption and scuttling opportunities for addressing the decades-old ethnic conflict during his prior stints.

The Rajapaksas’s stunning fall from grace was precipitated by an economic crisis, caused by decades of fiscal mismanagement and exacerbated by their populist policies.

Not even two years ago, Sri Lanka’s most prominent family swept parliamentary elections in a landslide victory, winning a two-thirds majority. The Rajapaksas ruled the roost. President Gotabaya, who also won with a significant majority in 2019, strengthened his powers and consolidated the family’s position in state structures and the economy of the country, amid celebrations by the Sinhala population. His brother, and former president, Mahinda won the premiership, and several other members of the family took control of key ministries. The UNP was reduced to one seat. The Rajapaksa victory was almost absolute, with the vast majority of the Sinhala vote going to their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, which ran on a populist and racist platform, promising prosperity, splendour and the preservation of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy on the island.

After their election victories in 2019 and 2020, the Rajapaksas wasted no time in strengthening their grip on the state and imposing measures that disadvantaged Tamils and Muslims. From increasing militarisation of Tamil areas, harassment of Tamil journalists and NGOs, to issues such as the forcible cremation of Muslim COVID victims, the Rajapaksa government seemed to be intent on showing non-Sinhala communities that they were second-class citizens.

The protests in the Sinhala-majority South, however, did not erupt because of the longstanding human rights concerns and accountability demands, but the economic hardships that the government’s economic policies brought upon them.

The Rajapaksas promised “vistas of splendour” and instead brought poverty and destitution. This resulted in an unprecedented backlash against the government. The continuing protection and promotion of the Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony that has underpinned Sri Lanka’s economic policies since independence, means that successive governments have made fiscal policy decisions that are motivated by the desire to maintain the Sinhala-Buddhist ethnocracy, rather than what is in the best interest of the country’s economy and prosperity of all its citizens.

After the assault on protesters and the ensuing backlash, the state deployed tactics that are tried and tested among the Tamil population in the northeast, including emergency regulations granting the military and police extraordinary powers. Military vehicles can be seen patrolling Colombo, amid empty streets due to an on-and-off island-wide curfew, with soldiers at checkpoints stopping vehicles.

Tensions remain, with the military and police warning they will shoot violent protesters on sight. Criticism of the government’s response came swiftly – the US State Department expressed concern about the deployment of the military and condemned the violence against protesters.

Amnesty International demanded the immediate rescinding of emergency regulations. Protesters dug in, defying the curfew and rebuilding the encampments that were destroyed by the pro-government goons. Sinhala civil society and opposition parties condemned the government’s actions and reaffirmed their solidarity with the protesters.

The Rajapaksas managed to push even those on the fence to the side of the protesters. They hold the unique record of being the most universally despised government in Sri Lanka’s history: despised by Tamils because of the genocidal attacks during the war and continuing oppression; despised by Muslims for enacting discriminatory policies and engineering ethnic riots against them; and now, despised by the Sinhalese for bringing economic disaster upon them.

The appointment of Wickremesinghe as prime minister is widely seen as a move to allow President Gotabaya to continue in his position in the hope that the protests will eventually dissolve. But this is unlikely to appease the activists, who are standing firm on their demand for the president’s resignation.

For Tamils, Wickremesinghe is a familiar foe, and indeed the main Tamil nationalist parties have slammed his return. The former current prime minister has rejected accountability for war crimes and even claimed that he “saved Mahinda Rajapaksa from the electric chair” and protected state officials from being dragged in front of the International Criminal Court.

He supports the foremost place that Buddhism occupies in the Sri Lankan constitution and is on the record rejecting federalism as a solution to the ethnic conflict – all key grievances of the Tamil people. When it comes to addressing the root causes of the ethnic conflict and the ongoing demands of Tamils for a political settlement, Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas are not that different.

The limited inclusion of Tamil political rights, demilitarisation of the Tamil-majority northeast and accountability for war crimes in the protest demands has played a part in the relatively lukewarm participation of Tamils.

As the population in the south of the country sees a new face of the Sri Lankan state, many Tamils are somewhat bemused by the Sinhalese community’s shock that the all-Sinhala military is pointing its guns at its own. Tamil member of Parliament Gajen Ponnambalam, in a prescient speech in Sri Lanka’s parliament in 2020, predicted that the state would turn on the Sinhala population, too. However, the state’s use of force against these largely Sinhala protesters is restrained compared to what Tamils have faced in the northeast. The military is ubiquitous in the northeast, enmeshed in the day-to-day life of the Tamil people. The troops, more than 300,000 of them, are spread across seven regional commands, of which five have bases in the Tamil-majority northeast – less than a third of the island. Loathed by Tamils due to decades of violence meted out against them, the military has become a permanent and sinister presence in the northeast since the end of the war.

On May 18, Tamils will observe Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day. Traditionally this day is marked with gatherings across the northeast. Last year, ten Tamils were arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act for holding remembrance events, with many more reporting intimidation and harassment by security forces. A memorial to the Tamils who had died was destroyed. This year, police are already exploiting the emergency regulations passed to respond to the anti-Gota protests, to intimidate Tamils in Mullaithivu, which has not seen any unrest related to the anti-Gota protests. The police threaten Tamil civilians saying they have orders to shoot those gathered illegally. As preparations for commemorations of the Tamil war dead are underway across the northeast, stakes are high and it will be an early test of Wickremesinghe’s premiership.

The reaction to the anti-Gota protests on May 18, usually marked by “victory” celebrations in the Sinhala south, will also be a crucial indicator of how receptive the protesters are to the concerns raised by Tamils, particularly if as expected the military continues to harass and intimidate those commemorating the day. With an old prime minister occupying the post for the sixth time, what was obvious to Tamils should be obvious to the rest of the population – without a fundamental restructuring of the state that addresses the root causes of the ethnic conflict, and justice and accountability for the mass atrocities that occurred during the war, Sri Lanka is doomed to repeat its past, and stability and prosperity for all its citizens will remain elusive.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.





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