By Ameer Ali –
When the demon goes out, within the angel’s light will come in
The darkness of night is the close companion of dictators. ~ (Hafez, Divan) (Quoted in Kim Ghattas, Black Wave, London, 2020, p.31)
Within a period of just over one year the Rajapaksa regime, headed by two septuagenarian siblings with different professional traits – one, a military man, and the other, a crass politician, but both beholden to a Sinhala Buddhist supremacist ideology that is shredding Sri Lankan society into pieces, has driven the country into a cauldron of crises, from public health and economy to ecology and human rights and to cultural confrontations and social tensions. Of the two, it was the elder and patriarch of the clan, Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) who, with understandable reluctance nominated the junior, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa (NGR) as candidate for the presidency in 2019 and made him win the contest, without realizing the danger that sooner or later NGR would sideline Prime Minister MR and take control of the entire government. MR’s recent statement that he likes to work and serve the people without publicity is a tacit admission of this bitter truth by a man who loved pomp and pageant when he was the president.
Of all the crises the regime is facing today, it is human rights that is going to be the dominant item for discussion when Sri Lankan delegates go to Geneva in March. (Whether the regime is prepared to send a delegation is yet to be decided). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Veronica Michelle Bachelet with her report, “Open Wounds and Mounting Dangers: Accountability for Grave Abuses in Sri Lanka”, has made it a certainty that that the matter would be included in the agenda. Will the war of words in this august assembly leave the regime unscathed or bury it in an avalanche of condemnation and reprisals depends on who its friends in Geneva are going to be and what secret deals would be made with them.
To start with, it was the gross neglect of the regime itself not to act on the findings of its own locally appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) of 2020, that made UNHCR to reopen the wounds and add an international dimension to the urgency of demanding accountability to crimes and abuses committed, with recommendations for selective punitive measures by the international community.
It would be a tragedy to dismiss this report as another instance of unwarranted interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country, and accuse UNHCR as the handmaiden of Western powers. Rajapaksa regime’s inability to comprehend the very seriousness of the report’s allegations and thinking that its friends in Geneva would support the government by rejecting those allegations would cost the nation dearly in years if not months to come, and will also negatively impact on the rest of the crises facing the nation. The regime has hopelessly misunderstood how the world system works. There are certain crimes that are so grave they endanger universal human values, and if local jurisdictions fail to investigate them and mete out justice, then, they could be investigated and judged by international courts of justice. Local regimes defending their actions or inactions in terms of national sovereignty are pointless.
The Sri Lankan regime is on a disgraceful campaign through characters like Mohan Pieris, a former Chief Justice and NGR’s UN envoy in New York, to tarnish the image of UNHCR and its chief as engaging in an “exercise” of regime change and speaking on behalf of “vanquished terrorists”. Thank God, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was quick to rebut Pieris’ bizarre allegations. Bachelet’s career credentials and her commitment to champion the cause of human rights are impeccable and she is not the puppet of any Western power. Being a Chilean by birth and having witnessed the tortured death of her own father by the dictatorial Pinochet regime, she campaigned for justice to her people and captured the country’s presidency twice under the socialist banner. She is holding her present UN position since 2018 and her views are universally respected.
She is calling for “accountability and reconciliation”, two fundamental requirements to promote peace and allow to justice to prevail, which in turn are prerequisites for economic growth and development. The report is also warning about the dangers of a growing environment in which democratic norms are rapidly eroding and the country is steadily moving towards a militaristic rule, imitating Myanmar with formal modifications. NGR’s appointment of the latest Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate whether those implicated by his previous Political Victimization Commission be stripped of their civic rights is clearly a measure to neutralize any potential and existing opposition and clear the path towards Myanmar.
Unlike Myanmar where the military walked in to take over government immediately after an election, Sri Lankan military is already in action under the command of an elected president, and it would be a coup in substance if not in form when the current urban discontent against the regime were to turn national as economic difficulties mount.
The latest volte-face on allowing Indian-Japanese participation to develop the East Container Terminal is symptomatic of the crisis the regime is facing. It has given in to the demands of local Trade Unions and hardline Buddhist supremacists who, perhaps with a Chinese push, are dead against India’s participation. As a compromise, the cabinet has approved allowing India and Japan to develop the West Container Terminal. Will that be a solution acceptable to the protestors and will India quietly swallow its pride and go along with it, are still unclear. Besides, how can one party unilaterally abrogate a deal which involved two others? The government is caught between the hammer and anvil. Similarly, international pressure to give up forced cremation of Muslim Covid-dead, and local hard liners’ intransigence in not yielding to that pressure will also seriously test the regime’s mettle in Geneva.
Above all is the sickness of an economy melting under the heat of Corona. The diagnosis of this sickness has been done by several experts and needs no repetition here. However, without structural changes to a truncated capitalist neoliberal model there is no permanent cure for the sickness. Patch work remedies will only worsen the crisis. Structural changes are not possible without the united support of the people and that unity has been shattered by NGR’s supremacist regime. It appears that the regime has been pushed into a corner, and there is no alternative but to proceed with its militarization strategy and opt for a modified Myanmar model. The shadows of Myanmar coup is falling in Sri Lanka under a kinglike president who pretends to do no wrong. Will Geneva put a halt to this and save Sri Lanka from turning into a military dictatorship?