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FeaturesNewsUN-Sri LankaThe government under siege in Geneva and elsewhere, but no end in sight to people’s misery

The government under siege in Geneva and elsewhere, but no end in sight to people’s misery


Rajan Philips
The Sri Lankan government’s annual showdown with the UNHCR is underway in Geneva. After running around in circuses last year, the Rajapaksa government is taking a low-key approach this time hoping for anything less than the worst. The government representatives seem resigned to the fact that an updated resolution will be passed and will only try to soften the wording as far as possible.
The government knows that it can live with even the worst and that the worst will not be much. The draft US resolution that has been in circulation and would likely be adopted is not punitive in intent and is procedural in scope. The trouble for the government is that it is getting locked into a procedure from which there is no easy way out; even though it is not going to be fatal, the UNHCR is becoming an irremovable yoke on the government.

It is not just the UNHCR that is troubling the government. The International Crisis Group is calling for international action to stem what it calls Sri Lanka’s “Authoritarian Turn” after the war. The ICJ report highlights the collapse of the rule of law and the proliferation of official killings, kidnappings and disappearances. The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales has published a report on the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, prepared by Geoffrey Robertson QC, a leading Australian legal luminary. The report exonerates Sri Lanka’s legal Chief Justice and indicts the Sri Lankan government. It also calls upon the British government to deny British travel visas to the 117 government parliamentarians who blindly signed the impeachment motion and the seven ministers who presided over the “Star Chamber” trial of the Chief Justice, to freeze any bank account they might have in Britain, and not allow the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to be hosted by the Sri Lankan government later this year.

While precipitous international action against the Sri Lankan government is not likely or possible, there is also no question that government is increasingly coming under a global siege. When the foreign focus was on war crimes, the Sri Lankan government dismissed it as the work of Western busybodies acting in connivance with the far flung rumps and remnants of the LTTE. It has used external detraction to consolidate its political base among the Sinhalese.

But the government cannot similarly dismiss the concerns of western governments and international agencies about the impeachment of the Chief Justice and the harassment of political opponents and human rights violations, none of which have anything to do with the LTTE, or the war. The fact of the matter is that the Rajapaksa government’s postwar record on human rights, media freedom and interference with the judiciary is getting to be worse than the record of all four previous Presidents taken together.

The government won the war not in spite of the West but with help of the West and more so from India. There was expectation of a political settlement after the war, but not only has the government reneged on that expectation, it has also turned despotic. It is the government’s reneging that has led to the insistence on war crimes investigation. Equally, it is the government’s postwar despotism that is sharpening international oversight of the goings on in Sri Lanka.

The Rajapaksa government could have easily avoided being under siege if it had set about implementing the LLRC recommendations honestly and sincerely from the outset. And there would be no calls to stop the Commonwealth summit being held in Sri Lanka if the President and his parliament had stopped the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake when it became clear that the impeachment process had no credibility both within and outside Sri Lanka.

But the government’s real undoing will not start in human rights territory but on the economic terrain. The cause for its undoing will not be international action but domestic revolt against economic hardships. The government could get away with its assaults on democracy and human rights violations if it were able to manage the economy well, create sustainable employment for the people and keep the cost of living within means of the average family. But the government is proving to be incapable of doing anything right.

Good jobs are scarce and the cost of living is increasing inexorably. Land is being confiscated and instances of mismanagement, waste and corruption are manifesting daily. The state management of petroleum involves more fraud than the supply of quality fuel at justifiable prices. The pricing in the energy sector is tantamount to pick pocketing the consumer to pay for the combined waste in the Electricity Board and the Petroleum Corporation. The creation of 1,800 trainee positions in the Bank of Ceylon and their award to political nominees by the President at Temple Trees is not the sign of an economy that is in good shape but the symptom of one that has gone into decay without ever taking off. It also shows how what was once the flagship of Ceylonese banking is now being poked around by the political masters. And it further shows how the country’s public administration has been taken over by the President and all his Ministers.

SWRD, JRJ and Mahinda Rajapak

In last week’s Sunday Island, after taking us through Sir John Kotelawala’s hilariously frank revelations in a 4-part article, Mr. Neville Jayaweera concluded with the proposition that of all the heads of state and heads of government Sri Lanka has had, “it has fallen on only three”, viz. SWRD Bandaranaike, JR Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapaksa, to “decisively and irreversibly (to) change the course of Sri Lanka’s history.” SWRD Bandaranaike, who might be called the expedient Premier, is credited with changing “irreversibly Sri Lanka’s political, social and cultural landscape.” JR Jayewardene, the first Executive President and is also somewhat of a political recluse, changed the country’s economic landscape and its constitutional framework. As for Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ended the thirty year old “internal uprising” and with it the quest for a separate state, the clock of history is still ticking and Mr. Jayaweera raises the possibility that it could be Rajapaksa’s lot “to weld Sri Lanka into a single nation,” a task which neither of his path-breaking predecessors was able to accomplish.

While crediting them with changing the course of Sri Lanka’s history, Mr. Jayaweera leaves the question, whether the change was “for good or for evil”, open. I would suggest that the changes entailed both good and evil, and how much of each would depend on the eye of the beholder. Along with good and evil, there were also unintended consequences as well as uncontrollable consequences. The seeds of the failure to “weld Sri Lanka into a single nation” were also embedded in the changes to the course of history. And the task of forging a future nation will invariably involve undoing some key consequences of the earlier changes.

More importantly, in a sweeping historical comparison of Bandaranaike, Jayewardene and Rajapaksa we must not overlook the many sea changes that have taken place over the last years – in politics, society, the state apparatus, as well as Sri Lanka’s relationship with the rest of the world. Whereas a straight-forward Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact might have worked in 1957, and a constitutional bill such as the Thirteenth Amendment could have been enough in 1988, what will it take now to forge a nation is becoming a difficult question to answer. And the difficulty is not so much in formulating a solution as in finding the willingness to work any of the many solutions that have been proposed even while the country was limping through the war.

Apart from the differing circumstances, there is also the question of character that political leaders bring to bear in facing historic challenges. In the case of SWRD Bandaranaike and JR Jayewardene, while they did damage to the political unity of the island for electoral gains, they were aware of the damage, were conscious of the need to repair that damage, and had an understanding of how the repair could be done. None of these remedying characteristics or attributes can be found in the present crop of leadership.

Neville Jayaweera is well aware of the country’s leadership void and the difference between “any third rate politician (who) can crush a rebellion” and the statesman who will need “more than military might and political cunning to produce … a new nation.” Mahinda Rajapaksa is still not that postwar statesman but he could become one, according to Mr. Jayeweera, by submitting to “a radical transformation of consciousness, values and outlook,” a transformation that “only the spirit of God can produce.” It is a moot point if the President would have had a transformational calling during his pilgrimage to the shrines in India. And there is no evidence of any transformational change in the President and his government that is emanating from the Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva.

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