By Harim Peiris –
President Mahinda Rajapakse used his speech to the ruling UPFA’s May Day rally to announce a partial revocation of the massive electricity price hike that was announced a couple of weeks earlier. The details of the presidential largess and indeed the revised tariff structure itself will only be clear once consumers receive their April electricity bills in May.
It was however a reasonably satisfying political week or two for the government.
CHOGAM confirmed while USAID announces budget cuts to Sri Lanka
They secured an important victory, when India decided that having CHOGM in Colombo was something they would through their weight behind and the Canadian efforts to revisit the issue of the CHOGAM venue was unsuccessful at the recently concluded CMAG meeting in London. One up for the rather embattled Foreign Minister, the good Professor GL Peiris, often the butt end of harsh criticism for the increasing international opprobrium that Sri Lanka faces for a worsening human rights track record and the absence of a credible post war reconciliation process, baring a high visibility, slow paced and non consultative and non inclusive public works program in the former conflict areas of the North.
The quid pro quo of course, was that President Rajapakse and the regime solemnly promised and undertook to conduct the Northern Provincial Council elections in September this year. This undertaking was not only given again to India and the Commonwealth Secretariat but also to the Japanese in return for the State visit invitation to Japan, just when the UNHRC was progressing, the NPC being the major concession that Mr.Akashi believes he wrested from the regime.
On reflection though, President Rajapakse has been extremely astute in promoting his own vision of barely conceding anything to the ethnic minorities and promoting anything that seems even remotely like a political solution to minority alienation from the Sri Lankan State. By holding out on the Northern Provincial Council elections, a measure which many Tamil politicians had rejected as inadequate, he now gets away with holding the NPC election, a basic constitutional requirement and a promise in the Chinthanya (Way Forward 2010) as a major concession.
However on a negative note though, Buckingham Palace was quick to announce that her Majesty the Queen, would not for the first time in over two decades attend the CHOGM, but would be represented by the Prince of Wales, the only down grading of Royal participation that was possible. The signal was unmistakable. Further the US State Department also recently announced a 20% reduction in USAID funding to Sri Lanka for the next fiscal year, while also a USAID project with the Justice Ministry came a cropper when the US Embassy refused to have Mohan Peiris, whose appointment by the Executive through military muscle in violation of Supreme Court and Appeal Court judgments. While the dollar amounts of such grants are small, the signals these send to investors and the business community are much greater than the dollar value of the grants.
Rajapakse regime not immune to domestic pressure
The government’s partial reversal of the electricity tariff hike, at least to the low end / lowest income consumers was a clear indication that for all its belligerent rhetoric, the regime does remain responsive to public pressure and the public mood, but this only from its core constituency of the majority Sinhala public. Media reports indicated that the national intelligence agencies, who keep a finger on the pulse of popular opinion in the country, had advised the regime of growing unhappiness and the resonance of the public to opposition criticism of it governance, especially based on the electricity tariff hike. Having very unhappy ethnic or religious minorities, whether Muslims or Tamils, does not seem to bother the regime, which in a hardnosed attitude of real politick rightly realizes that it does not draw much support from those quarters. The medium term economic picture is not all rosy for the government. Economic growth forecasts are down, while fiscal slippage creates a widening deficit situation.
The Azath Sally drama
Meanwhile the regime using its politicized law enforcement agencies invoked the prevention of terrorism powers to take into custody Muslim leader and former deputy mayor of Colombo Azath Salley, who had recently become a fierce critic of the Regime in general and the President in particular. Mr.Salley had been public that he intended to bring a private plaint and file action against an extremist Buddhist organization for its rhetoric which he believed was in gross disrespect and blasphemous of the Holy Koran, disrespect to any religion being a violation of Sri Lanka’s penal code.
It is a peculiar feature of the PTA, that opposing and criticizing the government is a crime, an almost essential feature of an even a badly functioning democracy. The PTA bequeathed to the country by the JR Jayewardene regime. Mr.Salley was detained under a detention order, while a public statement or interview of his was being investigated. He was subsequently released when it was easily established that the said statements had been denied and corrected by him. One wonders why if a violation of law was suspected, why the CID could not convince any Colombo District magistrate of this fact, to remand him in civil custody and also why investigating a public statement requires custodial detention at all. Mr.Salley is hardly a flight risk from justice. Further the charge was inciting communal disharmony. One might advise the CID to watch Youtube, the last time anyone checked the images, it was not of Muslim’s attacking anyone in Sri Lanka, but rather they, their mosques, their businesses and their women in religious attire who were being attacked. Generally by groups who at best certainly do not seem to have any state constraints on their violence or hate peddling, happily published by elements in the mainstream media, happy to fan the flames of communal hate, thinly disguised as religious fervor. One can be ardently pro your own belief and faith, while providing the space for others to have their own, the absolute essence of a pluralistic and tolerant society. When that very pluralism and tolerance is in itself attacked publicly and not refuted, the very foundation of our society, diverse from pre-colonial times is not only challenged but under serious threat.
Harim Peiris‘s writings may be accessed online http://harimpeiris.com