By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“I am the last and only dictator in Europe” –Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus[i]
The day the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights arrived inSri Lanka, the President of Sri Lanka flew to Belarus.
Belarus has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. In 2010 he won his 4th presidential election by bagging 79.65% of the vote (two of the rival contenders were badly beaten-up by the police[ii]). His long reign was enabled by a referendum in 2004 which removed presidential term-limits. Mr Lukashenko, known by the sobriquet Bat’ka (father), is given to theatrical – and rather juvenile – displays of machismo; when President Putin displayed a giant pike he ‘caught’ as a demonstration of his prowess, Mr. Lukashenko responded by parading a much larger catfish[iii]. The Belarus leader is an expert in holding stage-managed elections (at the last parliamentary election, the opposition parties failed to win a single seat). He jailed a one-time presidential rival[iv] and has taken giant strides to muzzle the media, including the internet.
He is also reportedly grooming his youngest son to succeed him[v].
President Lukashenko is a man from whom the Rajapaksas can draw inspiration and obtain advice in furthering their own dynastic project.
Seen in this context, President Rajapaksa’s desire to seek solace in President Lukashenko’s congenial company, when ‘Common Enemy’ Navaneethan Pillai is visiting Sri Lanka, is entirely comprehensible. And while sojourning in ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’[vi] President Rajapaksa took a swipe at the UNHRC. According to a report in the Daily News, appropriately titled, ‘UNHRC Anti-Lankan Cat’s Paw’, “President Mahinda Rajapaksa condemned the practice of certain countries using the UN Human Rights Council against countries such as Sri Lanka and Belarus…. He also briefed the Belarus president on the current visit of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights to Sri Lanka”.[vii]
A relatively recent phenomenon in the international arena is the increasing cooperation among leaders of non-democracies and dying democracies against any attempt to constrain their absolute right to rule or to critique/condemn their rights-records. Despite their very real differences, the member-regimes of this de facto bloc have a glaringly common denominator; they share an acute antipathy towards democracy and a belief that their anti-democratic deeds should be beyond scrutiny and above criticism, nationally and internationally. These regimes use the historically progressive slogan of national sovereignty to create an enabling environment for their despotic practices. The unexceptionable argument that countries must have the freedom to choose their own destines is used to excuse and explain a gamut of despotic practices by the rulers. According to this distorted logic, national sovereignty is the freedom of the ruler to rule as he/she wishes, with total impunity.
This despotic utopia is called Eastphalia and is being marketed as an anti-imperialist and progressive alternative to the ‘pro-Western’ Westphalia[viii].
The Westphalian system was a necessary and a progressive development in its time, almost four centuries ago, in a Europe struggling to shake off the twin-yokes of the Papal and Imperial domination. One of its key premises was the acceptance of a ruler’s right to determine the religion of his state (a right which had belonged to the Pope or the Emperor previously) and, by extension, the religion of his subjects.
In today’s world, an Eastphalia fashioned on the same model will be retrogressive rather than progressive because it will serve as a cover for absolutist rulers. The slogan of national sovereignty will be used to justify the ‘sovereign right’ of the ruler to disregard national and international laws. The resultant anti-democratic system will consist of super-powerful rulers and citizens disempowered and degraded into subject-hood.
Many advocates of the Eastphalian dystopia regard China as the ‘leader’ of such a future dispensation and propose a Beijing Consensus as a progressive/anti-imperialist alternative to the existing Washington Consensus.
The Washington Consensus is neither progressive nor democratic. But a Beijing Consensus would be infinitely worse because it will combine anti-democracy with economic neo-liberalism. It will thus rival the Washington Consensus in oppressing and subjugating ordinary people. A regional order based on such a ‘consensus’ would be a far more unfree, iniquitous and degrading one than the existing one.
For the despots of today, the greatest enemy is not the IMF or the World Bank. Most of these rulers have economic regimens dominated by military outlays and gigantic ‘prestigious projects’. The Bretonwood Twins traditionally had no problem with either kind of expenditure. It’s expenditure on education, health and social welfare plus direct taxation the IFIs cannot abide. Therefore rulers such as the Rajapaksas find themselves in near-perfect accord with global economic managers.
Has the IMF been critical of the Airport in the Jungle or imposed the privatisation of Mihin Lanka as a loan-conditionality?
The IFIs do not care overmuch about how many civilians you shoot, including ones who were just asking for uncontaminated water; so long as you get you tax-and-spending priorities in line.
Navaneethan Pillai has expressed concern about civilian deaths, in the North and in the South. That is why the fake apostles of national sovereignty detest organisations such as the UNHRC with a venom totally absent in their reaction to the far more intrusive IFIs.
…And Taking Sly Digs at Navi Pillai, in Colombo
Had November come before September, the Rajapaksas could have adopted a far more obstructionist attitude vis-à-vis Navaneethan Pillai. But the outcome in Geneva, in September, might have an impact on the Commonwealth, in November. And making a success of the Commonwealth Summit is of the highest priority to the Rajapaksas. They seem to think that being the ‘head honchos’ of the Commonwealth will make them welcome guests not just in Beijing or Minsk but also in London and Washington.
Though the Siblings are permitting a relatively non-restrictive visit by Ms Pillai, they are doing so with a very bad grace. This is evident from the comments made by supposedly ‘über-diplomatic’ Basil Rajapaksa. In fact, Minister Rajapaksa sounded almost as vilely objectionable as Mervyn Silva in his August 27th remarks on Ms. Pillai: “Now the ladies (nonala) come to see how things are. There were no ladies at that time; they did not even come during that time. They came and went in secret. Now the lady goes to North; meets everyone. Even when robbers come to their houses, some of our people say ‘we will tell Madam Pillai’ (Pillai Nonata kiyanawa)“.[ix]
The Rajapaksa ire is entirely in character. Even with the success of the Commonwealth at stake, they seem unable to modify their behaviour, except marginally. There are certain similarities between the attack on the Mandana Ismail Abeywickrama and the partial obstruction of the Colombo Telegraph. Both are proxy-attacks, giving the regime a degree of deniability. The attack on Mandana Ismail Abeywickrama can be dismissed as an ordinary robbery, even though the conduct of the armed gang was far from ordinary; the obstruction on the CT can be explained as a decision by individual service providers.
Once the Commonwealth Summit is successfully concluded and Mahinda Rajapaksa is enormously emboldened by the – erroneous – belief that he is the Head of the Commonwealth, the Siblings will revert to being themselves, with predictably devastating effects.
[iii] It is possible that both pike and catfish were plants like Mr. Putin’s archeological discovery:”Vladimir Putin‘s apparently remarkable discovery of two ancient Greek urns on the floor of theBlack Sea during a scuba-diving expedition was staged, the Russian prime minister’s chief spokesman has admitted. In an unusually candid glimpse into the cultivation of Putin’s macho image, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said archaeologists had planted the amphorae in shallow water for the politician to find” – The Guardian – 6.10.2011.
[vi] British historian Andrew Wilson calledBelarus the ‘last dictatorship inEurope’
[viii] The term Westphalia is not an indication of some Western bias; it is the name of a region inGermany; the treaty ending the 30 Years War was signed in two Westphalian cities, Münster and Osnabrück