In retrospect, it appears that the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) Summit hosted by the Sri Lankan government at huge economic cost represented nothing but a slanging match between unruly schoolboys boasting an unfortunate penchant for alpha male posturing.
Engaging in farcical drama
The stand-off between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and visiting UK Premier David Cameron with a clearly nonplussed Commonwealth head Kamalesh Sharma caught in-between, much like a rabbit frozen in the hunter’s crosshairs, dominated international media. One had little sympathy for Sharma whose blustering on Commonwealth values became the butt of blistering jokes in the local Sinhalese media. But there were unsettling realities underlying the comedic posturing.
At one level, one may look askance at this curt brushing aside of protocol by the UK Premier leading to manifest indignation of some Sri Lankans post-CHOGM. Yet President Rajapaksa’s belligerence in response, apart from not befitting his role as host Head of State, played beautifully into the world’s general perception of a rumbustious regime thumbing its nose at the Rule of Law. This, one must admit, is not so far from the truth.
And the touch of the farcical in this drama was unmistakable; the worldwide televised shot of the President announcing that people in glass houses should not throw stones and then looking grimly forbidding was a forcible reminder of none other than Charlie Chaplin’s inimitable portrayal of ‘The Great Dictator.’
Dangerous overtones to the hostility
The fact of the matter is that, as much as this government may pat itself on the back for having managed to host this entirely unnecessary show, CHOGM 2013 did not reflect well on Sri Lanka, attracting almost universal negative coverage outside the country.
Some would say that the hostility displayed by the British Premier was due to pro-LTTE diaspora pressure in his country. As we have already seen, interventions by overseas politicians can certainly be propelled by this vote bank.
But what took place during the CHOGM Summit went far beyond that. It would be dangerously deceptive to think otherwise. The British Premier’s virtual flinging down the gauntlet indicated very well that the considerable reserves of sympathy once felt by foreign governments towards Sri Lanka for having to deal with the LTTE are now effectively spent. This brings with it certain consequential results that are undeniably unpleasant to Sri Lanka.
And it serves little to point to examples where Western governments have propped up authoritarian regimes when this has been for their own convenience. As history shows us only too well, these are luxuries that only few nations can claim to benefit. As far as this country is concerned, it is this Presidency which has catapulted us into the eye of the storm, none other.
The responsibility of the Rajapaksa Presidency
Post-war, Sri Lanka has not been brought democratically back on track. Instead, Presidential power has been entrenched through the discarding of the 17th Amendment and the abolition of Presidential time limits, personal wealth of its leaders through corrupt government taken to dizzier heights than ever before and the judiciary humiliated beyond redemption.
The government has used the military to strong arm already vulnerable and dispossessed Tamil people, Muslims who protest against attacks on their religion and Sinhalese villagers deprived of basic rights to water and land. It refused to deal with allegations of human rights violations during the last stages of the conflict by ludicrously denying that there were any civilian casualties at all and then, backtracked on this claim. Indeed, its conduct post-war has been fundamentally devoid of ordinary common sense.
Even at a late stage, the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) offered a way out of the mess. Indeed one would have thought that the composition of the LLRC would have placed it at a higher level than other commissions of this nature. Chaired by the late Mr CR de Silva, a former Attorney General who distinguished himself in recent months by refusing to accept the post of Chief Justice following the disgraceful impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, the LLRC’s unexpectedly strong focus on the Rule of Law came as a disconcerting surprise to its creators.
So we had familiar procrastinating tactics. First, the LLRC was attacked on the basis that it had overstepped its mandate. Later, when this excuse could not hold, point-men were instructed to put laws and mechanisms in place that would superficially indicate adherence to the LLRC’s recommendations but not change actual policy or practice. As is evident now, the LLRC has been ultimately relegated to just another commission out of the plethora of such useless commissions.
What did CHOGM bring us?
So what did CHOGM bring us apart from an unnecessary international focus? Weeks after, massive hikes on basic food items were announced through gazette notifications in direct consequence of extravagant government expenditure. The opposition United National Party could only uselessly bleat in response that the late President JR Jayawardene had turned down the hosting of CHOGM during his time due to the exorbitant costs that this would involve.
Meanwhile, we were treated to the happy spectacle of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga firmly declaring that ‘there were no allegations of human rights abuses’ when her government was in office (Daily Mirror, November 19th 2013).
This is, of course, quite incorrect. Under Kumaratunga’s term, killings continued in the Northern peninsula, the media was hounded physically as well as through criminal defamation indictments. Her appointment of Sarath Silva as Chief Justice brought the Supreme Court under the unforgiving glare of international scrutiny for the first time in the judicial history of this country.
True enough, Kumaratunga cited the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy case (1998) as evidence of her government’s determination in enforcing accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations. She must justly be given credit for this. This is but a single case however. What, one may ask, happened to other similar cases of rape and murder of innocent Tamil civilians during that period?
A question of systematic state impunity
To adequately face whatever trials and tribulations are in store for Sri Lanka during the coming year, it is necessary therefore that oppositional forces as well as the government are put on inquiry. Sri Lanka’s problems stem from systematic state impunity which historically, has victimized the Sinhalese as well as, in greater measure, the Tamils and Muslims. Impunity has been entrenched by successive governments, each worse than their far from angelic predecessors.
Non-state militant actors such as the (Tamil) LTTE and the (Sinhalese) JVP have played their own part in this degeneration of democratic systems. Rigorous understanding of complex and multiple histories which go beyond superficial cries for war crime inquiries or mere regime change is needed. Discussions within the country and outside should reflect this.
If the Rajapaksa Presidency had embarked on a different approach post-war in prioritizing reconciliation between communities through thoughtfully structured constitutional reforms and enlightened practice, Sri Lanka would have proudly hosted CHOGM without reservations. Instead mediocrities in the state media abused dissenters in an extraordinarily vulgar manner. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights was labeled a Tamil Tigress. Government critics were barracked even in the corridors of the United Nations.
An earlier image of Sri Lankans as a courteous and civil people, notwithstanding decades of conflict orchestrated by opportunistic politicians, was thrown to the winds. As a senior Australian law professor remarked to me recently, ‘I was taught by eminent Sri Lankans who were known for their erudition. It is unfortunate to see what Sri Lanka has been reduced to now.’
The time for ‘patriotic’ rhetoric is past
Regardless, we hear hysterical calls for ‘patriots’ to collectively group against the common enemy of the West in facing the looming dangers of the 2014 United Nations focus on Sri Lanka. This is more of the same foolishness that has resulted in this predicament being created in the first place.
Certainly ‘patriots’ must come together, though the definition of who is ‘patriotic’ may be contested. But they must do so to bring about a common consensus that pressurizes the government to effect democratic reform, reverse its distastefully authoritarian drive and bring independent stability to institutions of the Sri Lankan State such as the judiciary, the public service and the police.
Without that, what we have is just rhetoric. And the time for ‘patriotic’ rhetoric has long lapsed.