By Kusal Perera –
“Sri Lanka has a strong government and a fragile Opposition”, said Leader of the House, minister of Irrigation Nimal Siripala Silva, addressing the Commonwealth Business Forum on 13 November at Cinnamon Grand. He was for once, saying a truth. What is very naked in Sri Lankan mainstream politics is the fragility of the total Opposition in the Sinhala South. Neither the main Opposition UNP, nor the JVP now in the opposition has been able to hold the Rajapaksa government under check. Rajapaksa seems too tall for the opposition.
The conflict in the UNP too makes Rajapaksa strong and unbeatable. The utterly racist rebels in UNP who quarrel with no answers in how to challenge this R regime, helps the government to ridicule the UNP leadership that does not know what conflict management and resolving a conflict is. In short, neither the rebelling few nor the leading heads in the UNP have common sense to understand, conflicts in a political party are in-house businesses and not public fun. They simply do not know, letting out their grievances in public provides no answers. One of the feuding sides has to win the support of their rank and file with a clear programme that could challenge this regime to force the other to fall in line. To win the support of the rank and file is to democratise party structures and that remains one of the core issues in the UNP. It is a wholly undemocratic party, despite the holly scriptures on rights and accountability read out for media consumption.
This opposition impotence has left the CHOGM now (writing this on 15 November) in full gear with an a la carte offer by the Rajapaksas, almost going waste. There’s fun with government sponsorship. There’s fake variety in all side shows. There’s plenty of contradictions to dig out from the main show at Nelum Pokuna. There’s more to tweet about Rajapaksa talking health and education and Abott lecturing on engagement with Sri Lanka. Of course there are serious and scary stuff building up for the future too. Yet there is no real, active opposition to any, except in Jaffna where the people are on the streets in Nallur protesting and the Magistrate refusing the police to grant a legal ban on protests.
What is now unfolding in Colombo is a CHOGM that wasn’t addressed by the political opposition from at least April this year, only taken to task by the Tamil Diaspora that was shot down as “LTTE rump”. This past few days it was foreign media led by the Channel 4 news team and a small group of local rights activists who took upon them the responsibility to highlight rights violations under this Rajapaksa regime. In the absence of a strong opposition questioning the role of the Rajapaksa government in relation to Commonwealth core values, the hard line defence establishment that plays politics stopped Tamil citizens who were to come to Colombo to raise their concerns over disappeared family members. All buses commuting these innocent civilians to Colombo were stopped in Vavuniya and Madu. The day before, all flights to Jaffna and back were grounded till the end of CHOGM. The train that Channel 4 team including Callum Macrae took to go North was stopped at Anuradhapura using mobs organised by provincial politicos with no police and military that went to Rathupaswela this day going to Anuradhapura. The country, President Rajapaksa said he united by defeating the separatist Tigers, was left bifurcated.
This fact of the law enforcement going dumb before government organised protests is further evidenced in how the police accommodated the BBS protests in front of the UNP headquarters and went to Courts to have a stay order against the human rights exhibition that was organised by the rights group as the “Samagi Balavegaya” event. The heavy crackdown on its participants and arrests of a Tamil youth at the venue with claims he is suspected of LTTE links goes to prove the regime is too bold for CHOGM to restrain.
The fact is, all such open aberrations of the Commonwealth core values by this Rajapaksa regime right in front of Heads of Governments arriving in Colombo for their summit, does not simply reduce them to a dumb lot in governance. They do know, this lot of people from about 47 countries who come for CHOGM will not be taking any of these issues as serious violations of Commonwealth core values, once they leave Colombo at the end of the CHOGM. Even Cameron will not be of much use thereafter to bend this regime. Of all the countries that attend the CHOGM, how many could talk of human rights violations and accountability ? How many actually honour the Harare Declaration ? Most African countries that include countries like Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Malawi and even Asian countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh will not touch that subject of human rights violations and accountability. In fact Pakistani PM Nawaz Shariff said Rajapaksa would be a cohesive leader for the Commonwealth, even before he left Pakistan to attend CHOGM in Colombo.
The regime also knows there is no pragmatic opposition that could take them up with the people here in the South, now and post CHOGM. So far, all what the UNP had said and done was mere lamenting and was pushed under attack to say they would not attend the CHOGM inaugural ceremony and sessions. What matters most is not if they attend it or not. But how they challenge all these open violations of rights at least within the majority South.
The bottom line is, neither of the two feuding factions in the UNP had any idea how they could use CHOGM to their political advantage. They also have no alternative democratic programme to this Rajapaksa regime to win the people. Their noise over James Packer and his Casino is only about tax concessions and its legality. They don’t in fact talk about a much larger investment by John Keels Holdings in Glennie Street, Slave Island on an identical project that also includes gaming centres. The hard fact is, except for how the economy should be managed with less corruption and fraud, the UNP is no alternative to this model of economic development that the Rajapaksas are fixing up with massive hotels, shopping malls, pools, night entertainment and gambling for the “growing middle class in China and other Asian centres” as Packer said, Sri Lanka should exploit.
The UNP is unable to challenge this economic model and therefore can not raise violation of rights that come behind and along with it. This model of economic life brings about a flyblown culture that can not go hand in glove with law and order in a decent society. This economic model generates employment that will not want rule of law and the culture they grow with cannot live within decent discipline. Therefore law enforcement is not expected to be independent and fair. In fact justice and fair play within this economic life become expensive commodities that demand a heavy price to be available. Within this model of economic life the Rajapaksas are moving with, justice and law enforcement is meant for profit and poverty is the right of the people to live with.
Sri Lanka in the absence of an alternate political opposition would see the conclusion of CHOGM on 16 November with a grand dinner hosted on November 17 Sunday at Waters Edge by the new Chair of the Commonwealth of Nations in office. The international media hype against a very repressive Rajapaksa regime that tolerates no dissent would continue for a few more days before the fire dies down, while the local media exaggerates the aura of the new Commonwealth chair, greeted with festivities and fanfare that would give the Rajapaksa image another lease of life as a true Sinhala leader. Once again, this time as a democratic open force, it would be the North that would continue to challenge this regime. A challenge the regime would post CHOGM handle high handedly and brutally saying the LTTE rump is active. For the Sinhala South it would be a presidential election early 2014, thanks to CHOGM that crowns the Rajapaksa image.
All the rhetoric at the CHOGM will not be able to hold Rajapaksas from going their way. Most failed and failing States are often taken care of by China. As with SL, India will piggy back arguing it can not leave Rajapaksas to China alone. Economic bankruptcy would thus be for the people while the regime would ride on the two competing nations. The UNP would still remain without any alternative and feuding amongst them. This no doubt would remain a Sinhala Buddhist country for the poor rural South and an amazingly rich destination for a Mecca nightlife. So let’s forget CHOGM.